23andMe and Grams

Last year for my grandmother’s 97th birthday, I got her a 23andMe genetic testing kit. Granted it may have been an unusual gift, but I thought it would provide some interesting information about our ancestry, a subject close to my grandma’s heart, as well as some insight into her health and maybe even my own. When I gave her the kit, my Grams (as well as most of my family) was a bit confused by what it was. I learned that she wasn’t even sure what DNA was, let alone what I would want with it. Grams was a bit hesitant to give a spit sample, but agreed to it, as long as she could do it in private without people watching her. With the sample collected I sent it off to the lab, where it was processed as below, and then waited for the results.

Once the results were in, the fun part began and I was able to start exploring. The first results I looked at dealt with her health (this service has since been discontinued due to a ruling by the FDA, more on that here, and here).

Grams' health risks of note.

Grams’ health risks of note.

Thankfully there weren’t too many surprises or causes for worry in the results, although slightly higher odds of macular degeneration and Alzheimers are worth taking note of. In addition to the health risks, there was also a results section on how Grams would be expected to react to certain drugs. Again not too many surprises, for most drugs she would have a normal response, however the results reveal that she is likely a fast metabolizer of proton pump inhibitors and caffeine, and that she has increased odds of responding to beta interferon therapy. The test also reported on any inherited conditions that my grandmother might have, and fortunately of all the conditions scanned (e.g., phenylketonuria, usher syndrome, Tay-sachs disease, and maple syrup urine disease) she does not carry the required genetic variant. The only variant that was present was for hemochromatosis, but the results suggested that Grams is not at risk of having higher levels of iron in the body, but may pass on the mutation to her children. This was the first result that I read that hit a bit close to home, whenever I donate blood, I always have very high iron levels, and now I believe I have a bit of an understanding as to where some of that comes from, thanks Grams!

Some of Grams' predicted traits.

Some of Grams’ predicted traits.

The health results also includes a section on certain inherited traits that you might expect to have. Some of the surprising results were that my Grams’ would be expected to have the muscle performance of a sprinter, which is something quite fun to imagine.  23andMe also has some fun with the results, and they are able to turn your DNA into a musical melody. The melody is created by using 4 musical elements, key, rhythm, pitch, and timbre. The key of the melody is determined by the maternal haplogroup, rhythm is derived by eye color and height, pitch by ear wax type and photic sneeze response, while timbre is chosen by the user. You can listen to the sound of my Grams’ DNA here.

The kit also provides some interesting information about my Grams’ ancestry and possible relatives. So far, 23andMe has found 995 DNA Relatives (17 of whom are 2nd-3rd Cousins, 573 are 4th cousins, and 405 are 5th cousins or distant relatives). We have always known she is Scottish and the results confirm her Northern European ancestry.

Percent of my Grams' DNA that comes from Northern Europe, (FYI her maiden name is McPhee)

Percent of my Grams’ DNA that comes from Northern Europe, (FYI her maiden name is McPhee)

While the Northern European bit was as expected, the percent Neanderthal came as a bit of a surprise. Turns out 3% of my Grams’ DNA is from Neanderthals, which is pretty high, and pretty cool!

My Grams' DNA is 3% Neanderthal

My Grams’ DNA is 3% Neanderthal

This weekend my Grams turns 98, when she was born DNA research was in its infancy and it would still be another 40 years before the structure of DNA would be uncovered. I think it is amazing that she has lived through so much. She is a wonderful mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and all around amazing person. Happy Birthday Grams!

Me and my Grams

Me and my Grams

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Noble Gases for Non-Noble Pursuits

Depending on who you ask, the noble gases (Helium, Neon, Argon, Krypton, Xenon, Radon, and the seldom seen Ununoctium, aka the inert gases, aka group 18 elements), are pretty boring. The noble gases have been described as being aristocratic, detached and aloof, never bothering to interact with the common elements, and in a very cool collection of anthropomorphized elements by Kaycie D, the most exciting thing that can be said for the noble gases is that “Krypton is commonly known for its role in Superman comics“. They have the maximum number of valence electrons in their outer shell, making them quite stable and unreactive. And while they conduct electricity and can fluoresce which is kind of exciting, they are odorless and colorless, which is kind of boring. However there are some people who find the noble gases to be quite interesting, namely, the Russians.

Cool anthropomorphized depiction of Xenon, with a somewhat uninspired description, which could stand to be updated with performance enhancer.

Cool anthropomorphized depiction of Xenon, with a somewhat uninspired description, which could stand to be updated to “performance enhancing gas favored by elite athletes”.

In Russia, the biological activity of Xenon (which is much greater than its chemical activity) lends itself to its use as an anesthetic. Xenon can also protect body tissues from the effects of low temperatures, lack of oxygen and even physical trauma. Low temperatures, lack of oxygen, and physical trauma are all things that can be associated with the Winter Olympics, and now so too can xenon. The head of Russia’s Federal Biomedical Agency, Vladimir Uiba, proclaimed in a recent statement that there is nothing wrong with Russian athletes inhaling xenon to improve performance. In addition to the other properties of xenon, it also increases levels of erythropoietin (EPO), which is a hormone that encourages the formation of red blood cells. Artificially raising the levels of EPO is illegal under the rules of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) just ask Lance, but there are other “natural” ways of boosting the hormone, which are permissible under WADA, including training at altitudes and sleeping in a low oxygen tent, like the one enjoyed by Michael Phelps. Because inhalation of xenon is not on WADA’s radar (at least not yet) it has been given the blessing by Russian sporting federation, which has produced a manual and set of guidelines on the proper administration of the gas. According to The Economist the manual advises using xenon before competitions to correct listlessness and sleep disruption, and afterwards to improve physical recovery. The recommended dose is a 50:50 mixture of xenon and oxygen, inhaled for a few minutes, ideally before going to bed. The gas’s action continues for 48-72 hours, so repeating every few days is a good idea. And for last-minute jitters, a quick hit an hour before the starting gun can help.

While there seems to be a strong case that xenon was used by the Russia Olympic team, medal count aside, it is unknown whether any other nations were using this not-illegal practice. It has been suggested that the use of xenon is something of an open secret in the sporting world, which might further suggest that more countries are tapping into this performance enhancer, but not the Brits anyway. So the question I am left with is, given the use of xenon is not that different from the use of an oxygen tent, is it OK to use Xe? To me something about the use of xenon just doesn’t smell right, which given its odorless nature, is saying a lot.

If all this talk of doping and Olympics has gotten you worked up, it might be best to sit back and listen to this catchy song by Duplex, titled 7 Noble Gases.

Round Up Ready: Jolene Edition

This post is going to be a bit different from the usual fare, but hopefully enjoyable none the less. I am not sure what it is but the Dolly Parton and the song Jolene have seemingly been popping up a lot lately. Last week I was watching the PBS American Masters special Johnny Carson: King of Late Night, and it featured a clip of that famous interview with Dolly Parton. Earlier this week at trivia one of the questions was about the name of the first cloned sheep, the name of course was Dolly, as a tribute to Dolly Parton (note: if you are looking for the connection, the clone was derived from a mammary cell). Then today on CBC Radio 2 Drive with Rich Terfry, he had a segment called Junk in the Trunk where he looked back at the history of Dolly Parton and her split from Porter Wagoner and how that led to the amazing songs Jolene and I Will Always Love You. That same story has also been brilliantly told by Drunk History, as seen in the clip below (thanks for the tip Paddy!)

The song Jolene is quite beautiful, and NPR recently did a story on the song. The song is fairly simple, it only has 200 words, and a lot of those are repeated. But as Dolly herself notes in that NPR piece it is the very simplicity, along with the song’s haunting melody, that makes the character of “Jolene” and indeed the song itself, so memorable. Perhaps a true measure of how great a song really is, is to look at how other musicians respond to it. Jolene is quite loved by many musicians, and has been covered and interpreted many times over, including but not limited to Alison Krauss, Olivia Newton-John, Miley Cyrus, Mindy Smith, The Cast of Glee,  The Sisters of Mercy, and my personal favorite The White Stripes who, as you can see below, have made the song a staple in their sets.

While all of those covers are pretty great, they just can’t live up to the original, even when that original is slowed down by 25%

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Wolf Up

Wolves are awesome animals. They can been seen on our clothes, our money, and throughout our popular culture.They can come in many colors like red, white, grey, and maybe green. Red wolves (Canis rufus) are critically endangered with about 100 currently living in the wild, the wild being the Albemarle Peninsula of North Carolina, which is the only place where Red wolves exist, and sadly their future doesn’t look that great. White wolves (Canis lupus arctos) are a actually a subspecies of the grey wolf (Canis lupus), and are remarkable creatures. To celebrate the coolness of the wolf, here are a sampling of wolf related links and goodness.

Wolf Conservation and Ecology

Many species of wolves are threatened, but in some areas they are making a comeback, and they are thriving in some unexpected areas, like Chernobyl.

One of the most famous places for wolves is Yellowstone National Park, and one wolf, named 832F, was very famous, unfortunately she was shot and killed by a hunter in 2012.

832F was one of many wolves that had been outfitted with a GPS tracking collar that allowed scientists and the public to track wolf packs, which is pretty cool.

The wolves of Yellowstone were re-introduced in 1995, and the amazing impact that their re-introduction had on the ecosystem is wonderfully described in this video.

Part of the reason wolves get hunted is for conservation and intensive management efforts, and this article does a great job of describing the role wolves play in ecology, and why we sometimes hate and fear the wolf.

This article discuses wolf ecology on Isle Royale, where things are a bit more tricky because of the dynamics of island life. The three conservation options discussed are to conserve Isle Royale’s wolf population by taking new wolves to the island to mitigate inbreeding, an action known as genetic rescue; to reintroduce wolves to the island, if and when they go extinct; or to do nothing, essentially the conservation equivalent of Star Trek’s Prime Directive. The debate is ongoing, but things are not looking good for these wolves.

Preserving wolves takes on a whole new meaning in a series of wolf videos over at The Brain Scoop, made by the Chief Curiosity Correspondent at The Field Museum in Chicago, Emily Graslie. The videos, which are not for the faint of heart or squeamish, show Emily Getting a Wolf, Skinning a Wolf, Gutting a Wolf, Wolf Head CSI Fun Time, and examining the stomach contents of the wolf. Below is the skinning the wolf episode, it is pretty amazing, educational, and little bit gross.

Wolves and Dogs

An interesting evolutionary question, is what separates wolves from dogs? There is a lot of literature looking into this, but here are just a couple of neat articles that look at behavioural differences (Why Wolves are Forever Wild, but Dogs Can be Tamed, and The Difference Between Pet Dogs and Tame Wolves) and the role diet played in the evolution of wolves and dogs (Dogs Adapted to Agriculture, and Research Looks at Starchy Diet’s Role in Dog’s Evolution).

Wolf Howl

Wolves learning to howl. Photo by Debbie DiCarlo

Wolves learning to howl. Photo by Debbie DiCarlo

The howl of the wolf is unmistakable and can be equal parts terrifying and awe-inspiring. Interestingly, wolves use their howl for more than just terrifying us, but also to communicate to friends.

The howl of a wolf is so unique that technology is now allowing experts to identify individual wolves just by their call. You can become one of those experts by taking part in Algonquin Parks Public Wolf Howl, now in its 50th year.

Fun with Wolves

Wolves are all over television, between True Blood, Teen WolfBitten, Doctor Who, Being Human (UK and US), wolves, or rather werewolves, are very hot right now.

For a more education take of wolves, check out the documentary In the Valley of the Wolves.

Or for a more fictional take watch, The Grey, White Fang, or Save the Date*.

Close up of the wolf section of the Taxonomy of Band Names graphic from CBC Music

Close up of the wolf section of the Taxonomy of Band Names graphic from CBC Music

The reason I list Save the Date as a wolf movie, is because the band featured in the movie is called Wolf Bird, and one of the characters has a past time of following wolf-named bands, some of which are listed in this excellent graphic (section of which is seen on the left) by CBC music of the Taxonomy of a Band Name.

Speaking of music, here is a Wolf related playlist, and a playlist of bands that played the excellent Wolfe Island Music Festival in 2013.

If wolf reading is more your speed, Jack London’sWhite Fang is available as a free eBook.

And if the internet is more your thing, wolves are found all around the net, including the Courage Wolf and Insanity Wolf memes, and Buzzfeed has a list of the 17 Least Majestic Wolves (#1 is also used in this image, fully capitalizing on the YoungMe/NowMe trend).

Courage and Insanity Wolf

Courage and Insanity Wolf

Hopefully those links help to show just how cool wolves are, and if they didn’t I offer this picture without comment to convince you. 

Wolf Up

Wolf Up

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Round Up Ready: Asparagus Edition

With June coming to an end, we are approaching the sad end of asparagus season here in Ontario. I had my first Asparagus of the season back in April while in San Francisco, it was fresh from the farmers market, and perfectly grilled on the BBQ. Grilled is without a doubt one of the best ways to eat asparagus, and below is a round up of some of the other great ways we’ve enjoyed asparagus this season.

1. Straight up raw

Fresh bunch of asparagus

2. Pickled, is an excellent way to ensure you enjoy Ontario asparagus year round, a great recipe can be found here, but definitely play around with it to suit your tastes. The batch pictured below had garlic, mustard seeds, pepper corns, red pepper flakes, fresh dill, and a lemon slice. Spicy pickled asparagus make great garnishes for Caesars.

Pickled asparagus

3. Pan-fried with a poached egg, pretty self explanatory, fresh pepper and Bacon Salt really helped to compensate for the slightly over cooked egg.

Pan fried with a poached egg

4. Asparagus risotto, a slight modification of this recipe, instead of chicken stock, we used vegetable with a couple of stalks of asparagus pureed into the stock.

Asparagus risotto

5. Asparagus antipasto, this jar of Barrie’s Farm Asparagus Smokey Antipasto was bought in Grand Bend at Foodies, and was a great side for a raclette brunch.


6. Potato salad, we modified this recipe, opting not to roast the potatoes as our apartment was already roasting

Potato and asparagus salad

7. Pasta primavera, this was just a quick pre-frisbee meal with sauteed vegetables tossed in with pasta

Asparagus with pasta

8. Asparagus Tart, we have previously tried this recipe with tomatoes, and it held up nicely with asparagus.

Asparagus tart

9. Bacon wrapped asparagus, like most foods, asparagus can be a great vehicle for bacon

Asparagus wrapped in bacon

Hope you have enjoyed these tips, happy eating.

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Round-Up Ready: Cicada Edition

In a neat coincidence, my Grandma and I were both 12 years old the first time the 17-year periodical cicadas, Magicicada Brood II,  emerged. For her they have since returned 5 times (she is 97!), for me, only once. Below is a quick round up of cicada related links.

Related articles

______ is Dirtier than a Toilet Seat

Over the weekend we had the first BBQ of the season at our house, it was a simple meal of kebabs and potatoes, and it was delicious. After dinner I was reading through my pulse feed and came across a story titled Your Grill Is Dirtier Than a Toilet Seat! Groan. The article noted that the average barbecue grill contains 1.7 million microbes per square centimeter, or 124% more than a toilet seat, wow! Or is it, wow?

The bank notes have more germs than the toilet seat.

Bank notes have more germs than toilet seats, but what about toilet seats covered in bank notes?!

We tend to assume that the toilet seat is one of the grossest places in the house, but the toilet isn’t the largest target for bacteria in your home. The average toilet seat has about 8 bacteria per square centimeter, in fact in terms of micro-organisms, it is one of the cleanest things in the house. Part of the reason the toilet seat tends to be the cleanest is because we fear the dirtiness of the toilet seat so much that we regularly clean it. That same fear is also why there are so many attention grabbing, fear mongering, articles that are titled “(blank) is dirtier than a toilet seat!

Below is a list of some items that are dirtier than toilet seats.

The takeaway lesson from these articles is that microbes are everywhere, most of them are good, and if you are really worried about germs, then treat every surface as if it is a toilet seat and things will be really clean!

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