Grant Jacobs

Dr Grant Jacobs is a computational biologist, a biologist who uses computers (algorithms, statistics, etc.) to explore biological systems, and who develops computer algorithms and tools for biologists to explore data from genes, genomes and proteins. He contracts to research groups and biotech companies through his Dunedin-based consultancy, BioinfoTools. He has an established interest in science communications and is open to science communication work as well as computational biology. Grant is on Twitter, @BioinfoTools.

Regulating GMOs: time to move forward - Code for life

Nov 23, 2017

It’s time to move regulation of genetic modification forward. The current set-up is temporary and unsound. We use a risk-based approach for almost everything because that’s what makes sense. But New Zealand takes an arbitrary approach to genetic modification. So we ‘ban’ a technique that evidence shows there is no special risk in using. That poor logic plays to a vocal minority, rather than the science or public views of biotechnology. It also puts other country’s regulatory issues ahead of opportunities for NZ. Furthermore, real risk management isn’t just regulations. It’s good farm management practices and education. Central to this article is a list of bullet points about regulation of genetic modification. Each is short, but I hope they will help move the discussion forward. Since I started this Bob Brockie has written an opinion piece, Every obstacle put in the … Read More

Public opinion of gene editing and enhancement - Code for life

Nov 21, 2017

What if we could fix a kid’s genetic disease, cure them for their lifetime? What if we make that for all of their children, forever? Or enhance humans to be genetically better? What’s your opinion of gene editing and enhancement? A survey asked what people thought. Participants gave a green light for adult gene therapy. They were cautious about embryo gene therapy, and disfavoured gene editing for enhancements. Do my readers feel the same way? What do you think legislation say? Surveys and demographics can help develop policy by learning what people think. It can help prevent the views of vocal minorities being over-represented.* Important, too, is the advice of experts. Policy by popularity alone isn’t necessarily ‘right’ or best for people. (Never mind policy by loudest voice!) Towards the end of this article I look at some … Read More

Natural Health Products bill gets quietly dropped - Code for life

Nov 16, 2017

Today Newsroom reported that the Natural Health Products bill has been quietly dropped. Fellow Sciblogger Mark Hanna offered thoughts on this in an interview. There is a need to address an unregulated market that has problems. In an earlier piece, I offered some thoughts on the draft bill. I felt quite a bit could be added. Claims about products matter, and how products are presented matter, too. I can’t also help thinking of the sheer amount of work that has been done. It’s 7 years since I first wrote on the call for submissions. In the article Health Products NZ corporate affairs director Alison Quesnel says her organisation has working on it for 16 years. I’d like to learn what the detailed reasons for dropping this were, and how it happened. Is there a wider picture? Perhaps some other … Read More

Offering sympathies for disabilities - Code for life

Nov 12, 2017

Short version: don’t. Be a wee bit careful about empathy, too. Why to not offer sympathies for disabilities is worth knowing. It’ll help you be kind to others in many situations, and to write or talk about disabilities and difficulties better. There’s a connection with science and science communication, too. A mantra about kindness that circulates in science communication and science circles, goes to the effect “Everyone here is smart, so distinguish yourself by being kind.” This is part of that, too, I guess. In a recent article I used my hearing loss as an example of an effect of a vaccine-preventable illness, and to illustrate that affects from illnesses can be life-long. One commenter* opened their response by expressing their ‘sorrow’ at my hearing loss. For me this offering sympathy was merely a familiar irritation, but, really, don’t be … Read More

Vote for your favourite book - Code for life

Nov 10, 2017

The GoodReads Choice Awards is the only major book award decided by readers – you! Even if you’re not sure about voting, the mid rounds of competitions offer great reading lists to explore. Get to it! Don’t take too long – the semi-final round ends in three days. (There is a final round from November 14th until November 27th.) As I write nearly two million votes have been cast. There are lots of categories, but I’m guessing my readers will favour Science and Technology, along with perhaps Non-Fiction, History and Biography, and Science Fiction. (I suspect far too many of us are science fiction fans!) Several of the books in the Science and Technology semi-final round are already on my to-read list – A Crack in Creation, Pandora’s Lab, and Inferior. I’ll be needing to check out the others. Read More

Vaccine battles - Code for life

Nov 08, 2017

Two articles from Stuff have sparked a long-drawn out battle over vaccines. The Facebook pages have drawn an huge number of comments, many posting ill-formed opinions. Yeah, it’s happening again. The Stuff articles themselves are mostly fine. The vaccine battles in the comments… not. Yesterday was the 150th birthday of Nobel laureate Marie Curie.* She once wrote, “Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” I have huge sympathy for people being confused or misled, but I can’t say how much I wish people would first try understand rather than repeat false claims or launch insults at people. It’s a trait common with people opposing all sorts of things, GMOs, water fluoridation, and so on. We could spent literally weeks … Read More

Cat zero and reading for those who like science in fiction to be real - Code for life

Nov 07, 2017

A quick introduction to Cat Zero and lablit. Some of us like the science in our fiction to be real. Don’t get me wrong. I can take a premise to buy into a story, even real doozies (well, up to a point…!)[1] But once I’ve done the deal with the author to buy into their plot, I prefer the science to be real. There’s a genre of fiction dedicated to real science in fiction – lablit. It’s another slice of science communication too, showing readers scientists (and their work) as they are, not the classic lab coat stereotype, or evil geniuses eager to claim world domination. A new addition to their collection is Cat Zero, by Jennifer Rohn. It’s her third novel, along with Experimental Heart and The Honest Look. I haven’t read the book, or … Read More

Good news on vaccines: polio and measles - Code for life

Oct 29, 2017

We all need a little good news from time to time. Vaccines have been a remarkably successful medical invention. Over the past year, just 12 cases of polio have been seen worldwide. Truly amazing. Also reported is that measles has fallen below 100,000 cases worldwide for the first time. A few weeks ago New Zealand was formally named as free from measles arising from within the country. In 1998 there were 350,000 cases of polio from over 125 countries. For some patients the paralysis spreads to the muscles helping them to breathe, killing them (about 2-10% of cases). Polio most often affects kids younger than five years old, but there is post-polio syndrome where people can experience symptoms 15-40 years later. Getting polio down to a dozen cases in just two countries looks damn good, but to … Read More

When to kick out a professor - Code for life

Oct 27, 2017

(Or a taught course, or department.) Reading about the latest retraction of a Shaw and Tomljenovic research paper on aluminium (with two ‘i’s!) and vaccines, I was reminded of topics I’ve ruminated on in the past: when to investigate a professor, and when do they no longer justify their position? What criteria might we use? What are the hallmarks of good academic work? And why won’t universities act? I’m not going to (re-)deconstruct the retraction of the research: there’s plenty of that already out there, including by people who’ve been covering this group’s work over the years. The latest media report reveals a series of ridiculous excuses; more on this, and an entertaining diversion in Footnote 1. What will it take for universities to develop simple criteria that can be used to throw out rotten eggs? They … Read More

Autism is mostly genetic again - Code for life

Oct 24, 2017

Ever since Rain Man, autism has been a condition du-jour for those touting (fake) ’wellness’ remedies, opposing vaccines, and general head-nodding concern. Some claim autism is caused by any number of things, offering just many remedies offered to “treat” it. Recent research reminds us that autism is mostly genetic. People with autism, or autism spectrum disorder, have difficulty in social communication and interaction. One autistic computer programmer wrote to me that he preferred to interact by email, rather than meet with me in person. It can also feature repetitive behaviours such as stacking the cans in the feature image for this article, ordering toys in rows, and strong interests on particular narrow topics. Hollywood movies like Rain Man and TV dramas are more inclined to idolise ‘autistic savants’. Curiously Kim Peek, the real-life inspiration for the Rain Man character played … Read More