Sweet Potatoes, Genes, and Long Life

One woman decided to take a road trip after learning she had a terminal illness. Another switched careers. Both choices make sense, given the circumstances.

This year’s World Food Prize goes to a team who developed a new sweet potato, scientists found a virus with spider genes, and there’s a lively difference of opinion regarding human life span.

We’ve learned a lot since my youth, and there’s a great deal left to learn.

  1. World Food Prize: Sweet (Potato)
  2. A Virus With Spider Genes
  3. Mutations, Deadly and Otherwise
  4. Human Life Spans
  5. “The Best of the Best”


I’ll mostly be talking about genetics, food, and folks with long lives.

But since one of the ‘genetic news’ items reminded me of it, I figure this is a good place to talk about evolution, too.

Also Genesis, the Sumerian King List, and scientific journals.

Like I said last month, I’m quite sure Adam and Eve aren’t German. The month before that, I talked about reading the Bible and using our brains: which we’re supposed to do. (September 23, 2016; August 28, 2016)

I take the Bible, Sacred Scripture, very seriously; and believe that it is true. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 101133)

I also realize that the Bible wasn’t written by Americans.

The authors used “…modes of feeling, speaking and narrating then current….” (Catechism, 108114)

Expecting to find the sort of data we see in today’s vital records or scientific journals in the Bible isn’t, I think, reasonable. At all.

That’s why I do not assume that Adam’s and Methuselah’s ages, mentioned in Genesis 5:5 and 5:27, are useful data points in scientific studies of human lifespans.

My guess is that the enormous numbers may reflect their importance — sort of like improbably-long reigns in the Sumerian King List, and that’s another topic.

Creation In Progress

I believe that God is creating a good and ordered physical world: one that is changing, in a state of journeying toward an ultimate perfection. (Catechism, 282308)

This isn’t a new idea. From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible shows a world which has been changing and has not yet reached its goal.

We’re learning that the age of this universe doesn’t line up with a 17th century British Calvinist’s timetable, not even close; and its scale is — cosmic.

This doesn’t bother me a bit.

I see scientific discoveries as invitations “to greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator.” (Catechism, 283)

Honest research cannot interfere with an informed faith, since “…the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God….”(Catechism, 159)

We have a thirst for truth and for God. Made “in the image of God,” we can observe the world’s order and beauty — studying how things work, and learning a bit more about God. (Genesis 1:26, 2:7; Catechism, 27, 3135, 282289, 355361)

Or we can do our best to ignore this astounding universe. That seems silly, at best.

1. World Food Prize: Sweet (Potato)

(From S.Quinn/CIP, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“The orange-fleshed sweet potato provide a valuable source of calories and nutrients for millions of people”
(BBC News))

Sweet potato Vitamin A research wins World Food Prize
Mark Kinver, BBC News (October 13, 2016)

Four scientists have been awarded the 2016 World Food Prize for enriching sweet potatoes, which resulted in health benefits for millions of people.

“They won the prize for the single most successful example of biofortification, resulting in Vitamin A-boosted crops.

“Since 1986, the World Food Prize aims to recognise efforts to increase the quality and quantity of available food.

“The researchers received their US $250,000 (£203,000) prize at a ceremony in Iowa, US, on Thursday….”

The ‘sweet potato’ laureates went to CIGAR International Potato Center’s Maria Andrade, Robert Mwanga and Jan Low.

The fourth World Food Prize winner was Howard Bouis, recognizing his quarter-century of work, making sure biofortification became an international plant breeding strategy.

Helping folks who are hungry seems like a good idea. (Matthew 25:35; Catechism, 1039, 2447)

But it’ll take more than one variety of improved sweet potato to end hunger. The annual Global Hunger Index report has discussed several issues that tend to make getting enough of the right sort of food difficult: like rising and volatile food prices; and armed conflict.

A few years back there was the usual kvetching — about the new seed, or the outfit developing it, maybe both.1

New ideas can be scary, and I’ve talked about that before. Often. (October 16, 2016; August 28, 2016; August 21, 2016)

10 Millennia of ‘Artificial’ Organisms

I’m not particularly overwhelmed with angst at the thought of an ‘unnatural’ sweet potato.

I’ve eaten unmodified food — wild raspberries, my father’s name for a berry growing in Minnesota — but my diet is almost entirely from “artificial” plants and animals. So is yours, unless you rely on hunting and gathering for food.

We’ve applied our knowledge of inherited traits for upwards of 10 millennia.2 I’ve talked about dogs, wolves, and Laban’s sheep, before, too. (July 22, 2016)

2. A Virus With Spider Genes

(From Science Photo Library, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“The WO virus appears to have pinched poison genes from black widow spiders”
(BBC News))

Virus stole poison genes from black widow spider
Paul Rincon, BBC News (October 12, 2016)

In a very unusual case of genetic theft, a virus has been caught with a gene that codes for the poison of black widow spiders.

“The chunks of arachnid DNA were probably stolen by the virus to help it punch through animal cells.

“But its target is not the animal itself – the ‘WO’ virus only infects bacteria living within insects and spiders.

“It was a surprise because bacterial viruses were generally thought to steal DNA only from bacteria….”

It’s a nitpicking detail, but I think “stole poison genes” and “gene theft” implies a sort of intentionality that’s impossible for a virus.

More to the point, WO bacteriophage’s taking genetic code from the Wolbachia bacteria’s host spider may help show how horizontal gene transfer works between domains.

A bacteriaphage is a virus that infects bacteria, Wolbarchia is a bacteria that makes spiders sick, and don’t bother trying to remember all those terms. Or check out a resource link list I put near the end of this post.3

This particular example of horizontal gene transfer lets the virus make latrotoxin, a neurotoxin that may help the virus pass through bacterial cell walls.

What we’ve been learning about horizontal gene transfer makes reconstructing evolution by studying genetic code more complicated.

I strongly suspect it will also help us understand how life has been developing over the last four billion years, give or take.

3. Mutations, Deadly and Otherwise

(From Darren Hopes, via Nature, used w/o permission.)

A radical revision of human genetics
Erika Check Hayden, Nature (October 12, 2016)

“Lurking in the genes of the average person are about 54 mutations that look as if they should sicken or even kill their bearer. But they don’t. Sonia Vallabh hoped that D178N was one such mutation.

“In 2010, Vallabh had watched her mother die from a mysterious illness called fatal familial insomnia, in which misfolded prion proteins cluster together and destroy the brain. The following year, Sonia was tested and found that she had a copy of the prion-protein gene, PRNP, with the same genetic glitch — D178N — that had probably caused her mother’s illness….

“…The fast pace of genomic research since the start of the twenty-first century has packed the literature with thousands of gene mutations associated with disease and disability. Many such associations are solid, but scores of mutations once suggested to be dangerous or even lethal are turning out to be innocuous. These sheep in wolves’ clothing are being unmasked thanks to one of the largest genetics studies ever conducted: the Exome Aggregation Consortium, or ExAC….”

Sonia Vallabh was 26 when she learned that she carried a glitchy PRNP gene. She and her husband, Eric Minikel, switched their careers from law and transportation consulting to studying biology as graduate students.

One of their top priorities was learning how the D178N mutation related to fatal familial insomnia.

Meanwhile, Daniel MacArthur got ExAC started. We didn’t have a standardized database of human genome sequences from folks with — and without — genetic disorders. Not one large enough for his research, anyway.

Around the same time, Mark DePristo’s GATK (Genome Analysis Toolkit) team at the Broad Institute had new software designed in part to help analyze data on the scale MacArthur’s research needed.4

“A New Way of Working”

“… By looking more closely at the frequency of mutations in different populations, researchers can gain insight into what many genes do and how their protein products function.

“ExAC has turned human genetics upside down, says geneticist David Goldstein of Columbia University in New York City. Instead of starting with a disease or trait and working backwards to find its genetic underpinnings, researchers can start with mutations that look like they should have an interesting effect and investigate what might be happening in the people who harbour them. ‘This really is a new way of working,’ he says….”
(Erika Check Hayden, Nature)

If this was a feel-good movie, the folks at ExAC might have teamed up with Massachusetts General Hospital and Mayo Clinic, discovered a sure-fire cure to fatal familial insomnia, and everyone lives happily ever after.

This is the real world, so Vallabh and her husband learned that there’s a very close link between D178N and various diseases.

“…’All along the way was gradual confirmation of what we were assuming anyway,’ Minikel says. ‘There wasn’t any moment where we said, “Ah, this is the worst news.” We’d already gotten the worst news.’…”
(Erika Check Hayden, Nature)

The somewhat-good news is that Vallabh is now 32, two decades younger than her mother was when she died. Her story might still have a Hollywood ending.

In her position, I would appreciate knowing that I’m facing an earlier-than-average death — and might keep helping others learn how it might be avoided, even if I thought I’d die before a cure was ready.

I hope I’d have the good sense to do so, anyway.

As of two years ago, ExAC had exomes from 60,706 individuals. They’re from various ethnic groups, and met requirements for health and consent.

The ethnic angle is important. Humanity’s family tree is a whole lot bigger than the European/Euro-American branch that my recent ancestors are on.

This sort of research is already saving lives:

Ethics, Genetic Tests, and Autism Spectrum Disorders

The “ethical questions” are legitimate.

I think genetic testing is a good idea, and that some folks will find ways for misusing it.

The benefits, I think, are obvious.

A delivery-room DNA profile, like today’s heel prick test for potentially-serious diseases, could help parents deal with their children’s genetic glitches.

On the down side, decision-makers might get the bright idea that some of us are genetically doomed to become criminals.

It’s not an entirely unrealistic concern. There may, or may not, be a connection between autism spectrum disorders and criminal behavior — and autism spectrum disorders may, or may not, be caused at least in part by genetic glitches.5

I’ve got a personal stake in this, since I’ve been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder: among other things. I won’t rant about being misunderstood, though. That seems a bit counter-productive.

I think we’ll need social and legal controls over how we use the information, and who gets to know which parts.

I’m confident that those controls will cause at least some problems of their own. Like I keep saying, this isn’t a perfect world. But I think making it better is an option, and that’s a yet another topic.

4. Human Life Spans

(From Alamy, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(Jeanne Calment: born February 21, 1875; died August 4, 1997; met Vincent van Gogh; and has the longest confirmed life. So far.)

Limit to human life may be 115 (ish)
James Gallagher, BBC News (October 5, 2016)

Human life spans may be limited to a maximum of about 115 years, claim US scientists.

“Their conclusions, published in the journal Nature, were made by analysing decades of data on human longevity.

“They said a rare few may live longer, but the odds were so poor you’d have to scour 10,000 planet Earths to find just one 125-year-old.

“But while some scientists have praised the study, others have labelled it a dismal travesty….”

I won’t call the conclusions a “dismal travesty,” but I don’t have James Vaupel’s expertise.

I think he’s got a point, though.

The study looked at data from the Human Mortality Database; and information about folks in France, Japan, the United Kingdom, and America, who lived more than a hundred years.

A quick look at their study, and the Database, told me that their study covers a very small sample.6

The Human Mortality Database includes data from 38 countries: most of it from the later parts of the 20th century.

The United States data includes exposure-to-risk and death rate data from 1833 to 1984.

The other information from my country runs from 1933 to 2014. That’s a span of 181 years: very roughly 48% longer than more than the longest verified human lifespan.


The Database is an impressive research tool, but it’s a small sample of humanity.

I like comparisons, so let’s look at Drosophila melanogaster — fruit flies, those little critters scientists use when they’re studying genetics and other ‘generational’ facets of life.

These fruit flies live about 30 days at 29 °C, 84 °F. An Oxford Journals paper from 2004 talked about a variety with average lifespans of 60 to 80 days for males.

Let’s say the longest fruit fly life is 90 days, and the longest human life is 122 years. Adding 48% to 90 gives me 133.2 days as the fruit fly equivalent of (122 x 1.48) 181 human years. That’s something like four and a half months.

Studying a selection of fruit flies for four and a half months could tell us something about fruit flies. But it might not show everything about them.

Getting back to James Vaupel’s somewhat incandescent reaction to that research, and why I think we’ve got more to learn – – –

James Vaupel’s Opinion and ‘Immortal’ Chicken Cells

(From ONS, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)

“…He described the study as a dismal travesty and said scientists had in the past claimed the limit was 65, 85 and 105 only to be proven wrong over and over again.

“He said: ‘In this sorry saga, those convinced that there are looming limits did not apply demography and statistics to test hypotheses about lifespan limits—instead they exploited rhetoric, deficient methods and pretty graphics to attempt to prove their gut feelings.

” ‘[This study] adds nothing to scientific knowledge about how long we will live.’…”
(James Gallagher, BBC News)

I should have said why James Vaupel’s opinion matters. He’s founding director of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research; and a scientist who’s been studying aging and biodemography.

He’s also pretty sure that we can increase human longevity, which may help explain why he said what he did.

Longevity isn’t necessarily the same as life expectancy. It can mean ‘how long someone could live,’ where life expectancy means ‘how long someone is likely to live.’

James Vaupel is right, about life expectancy going up over the last several generations; for the most part, anyway.

We’ve been learning a lot about health and aging, much of it in my lifetime. We’re even starting to understand why some organisms, like hydras, don’t age. Not the way we do.7

I haven’t heard of the ‘immortal chicken heart’ for quite a while, probably because scientists found problems with Alexis Carrel’s research about a half-century back.

It didn’t help, I think, that he promoted eugenics before Germany’s government tried purging Europe’s gene pool. He died before standing trial for collaboration with the Nazis.

What I think is intriguing is that he kept a culture of cells from a young chicken’s heart alive from 1912 until his death in 1944.

The last of Carrel’s tissue cultures was discarded in 1946, still alive, two years after his death.8

5. “The Best of the Best”

(From Ramie Liddle, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Life on the open road”
(BBC News))

Dying woman picks road trip over chemotherapy
BBC News (October 3, 2016)

When 90-year-old Norma Bauerschmidt was diagnosed with terminal cancer, her immediate instinct was to refuse treatment and instead find a more positive way to spend her final days.

“So she embarked on the road trip of lifetime and unwittingly became an internet hit along the way, when the Facebook page about her travels started attracting more than 440,000 followers.

“Mrs Bauerschmidt, from Michigan, spent just over a year on the road with her son Tim and his wife, Ramie Liddle, in their motor home, before her death last week….”

My hat’s off Norma Bauerschmidt — and the Liddels — for making good use of her last year-plus-a-few-days.

As I’ve said before, taking reasonably good care of our health is a good idea. (Catechism, 22882290)

But extreme medical procedures aren’t required. Not if expected results are “disproportionate to the expected outcome.” (Catechism, 2278)

Something I verified a few years back, as my father was dying, is when and how painkillers are okay. When my clock starts running out, common-sense pain management is okay: even if it’ll probably shorten my life a bit. (Catechsim, 2279)

Norma Bauerschmidt stayed in one place for a day, or a month, depending on how she and her family felt.

They covered quite a bit of the country, from Washington — the state — to Yellowstone National Park and the Massachusetts coast.

I like the way her daughter-in-law summed it up: “In the last year, we have seen the best of the best of the people in this country.” (BBC News)

More of what I think about using our brains:

1 ‘Artificial’ organisms aren’t new, but some of our tech is:

2 10 millennia of agriculture:

3 Gene transfer, and more stuff you probably don’t need to know:

4 Genetic research, old and new:

5 A reasonably calm look at autism spectrum disorders and crime:

6 It’s a start:

7 Studying life and death:

8 Alexis Carrel, chickens, and the “immortal” chicken cells:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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10 Responses to Sweet Potatoes, Genes, and Long Life

  1. Naomi Gill says:

    Stutter: “I believe that that God is creating”

    Another stutter: “and met met requirements for health and consent.”

    The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

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  7. Relax! – Immortality already is not a problem at all – I got the only way on Earth for everybody to stay absolutely healthy all the time and by that to become Immortal – By doing my deadly weapon (just an exercise for a minute a day) to fight, destroy and prevent any diseases, known on the planet – Any Infections (HIV/AIDS, HPV, any Hepatitis, Allergies, Smallpox, Colds, Flues, Malaria, Ebola, etc. – any viruses are killed the moment they touch us), any Cancers, Diabetes, Polio, TB, Chronic, Autoimmune, Genetic, Heart, Brain, Radiation and any other diseases – I will describe my WVCD (The Weapon of Virus and Cancer Destruction) to everyone, who sends me a check for one million bucks – Doing my discovery for just a minute a day, everybody will stay absolutely healthy all the time, living their Endless Lives, for Infinite Health = Immortality – NASA and Elon Musk can rest assured – Their astronauts, intended to be launched into the outer space, will be radiation-proof and Immortal – Like the Gods who created us.

Thanks for taking time to comment!