It’s no surprise that a chemical as potent as methylmercury harms wildlife when it enters an ecosystem in high concentration. In the case of wetland birds, researchers have found, it can even change sexual orientation, causing males to pair off with other males.
“We knew mercury could depress their testosterone (male sex hormone) levels,” explained Dr Peter Frederick from the University of Florida, who led the study. “But we didn’t expect this.” [BBC News]
Frederick and Nilmini Jayasena examined white ibises from South Florida for their study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. They gathered 160 of the birds and broke them up into four groups that ate food laced with different concentrations of methylmercury. Some ate 0.3 parts per million of mercury, some 0.1, some 0.05, and some none at all.
Birds exposed to any mercury displayed courtship behaviour less often than controls and were also less likely to be approached by females when they did. As the level of mercury exposure increased, so did the degree and persistence of homosexual pairing. Males that engaged in homosexual parings were also less likely to switch partners from year to year, which Frederick says ibises tend to do if they have been unsuccessful in mating during their first breeding season. [Nature]
Geneticists have found a way to alter the sexual preference of lab mice. When they bred mice that had one gene deleted, the females declined male companions and preferred instead to court other females, according to a study published yesterday in BMC Genetics. But whether these results have any implications for humans is still far from clear.
Chankyu Park and his team at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology deleted the female’s fucose mutarotase gene and, as a result, changed the brain’s exposure to enzymes that control brain development.
The gene, fucose mutarotase (FucM), is responsible for the release of an enzyme by the same name, and seems to cause developmental changes in brain regions that control reproductive behaviors. The mice without the enzyme would refuse to let males mount them, and instead tried to copulate with other females. [AOL News]
Blood donation is fraught with arcane restrictions and a mess of complex requirements meant to keep the blood supply as safe as possible (I can’t give, for instance, because I lived in England in the early 1990s. Thanks a lot, mad cow scare.) But one of its most controversial—a lifetime ban on donation by men who’ve had sex with other men—may finally be coming to an end.
Massachusetts lawmakers like Senator John Kerry are pushing an overturn of the ban. The Red Cross, American Medical Association, and American Association of Blood Banks all want the lifetime ban to go away, though the Red Cross supports in its stead a single-year donation ban dating back to the last sexual encounter.
The lifetime ban was enacted in 1983 before AIDS was widely understood and has long infuriated gay rights groups since it applies to all gay men regardless of their HIV status. Heterosexuals who engage in risky behavior, like having sex with prostitutes or HIV-positive partners, are only banned from giving blood for a year [Boston Globe].
The U.S. National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study, a quarter-century look at the welfare of kids born to lesbian couples, has finally come out in the journal Pediatrics this week with the headline-grabbing finding that those children not only do as well as the rest of the population, they might actually fare better. You can download the paper by lead author Nanette Gartrell for free right now, but here are the key parts:
Select population only
Census data says that there are more than 270,000 American kids in same-sex households, with twice that many having a single gay parent. Gartrell’s study follows a particular slice: Lesbian couples who were together before the child’s birth, identified themselves as a lesbian couple, and went through the artificial insemination process. It didn’t include, for instance, women who may have had a child in a previous heterosexual relationship and then entered into a lesbian one later.
Better than the rest?
The study, which began in 1986, ended up following 78 kids from lesbian couples who were recruited for the study in Boston, Washington D.C., and San Francisco.
The mothers were interviewed during pregnancy or the insemination process, and additionally when the children were 2, 5, 10 and 17 years old. Those children are now 18 to 23 years old. They were interviewed four times as they matured and also completed an online questionnaire at age 17, focusing on their psychological adjustment, peer and family relationships and academic progress [CNN].
The children of these lesbian couples were just as well-adjusted as the kids of heterosexual couples to whom the researchers compared them. Indeed, the kids in the study proved superior in some areas, like academics, self-esteem, and behavior, as shown by the standard “Child Behavior Checklists” that were part of the surveys.
Last night, President Obama issued a memo that will change hospital visitation rights around the country. The administration will draft new rules declaring that any hospital participating in the government’s Medicare and Medicaid programs—which is most of them—will no longer be allowed to bar visitors that patients desire to have access to them.
This has been a particular hardship for gay Americans, who have been turned away from visiting sick loved ones because of policies that allow visiting rights solely to spouses or family members. They aren’t the only ones, either, Obama argues. He cited widows or widowers without children, members of religious orders as examples of people who have been unable to choose the people they want to be at their side [Reuters].
The changes won’t take effect right away. The Department of Health and Human Services must draft the new rules, then put them in place and police them. But in addition to expanding visitation rights, the order also requires that documents granting power of attorney and healthcare proxies be honored, regardless of sexual orientation. The language could apply to unmarried heterosexual couples too [Los Angeles Times]. You can read Obama’s memo here.
The President was particularly inspired by the case of a Florida couple, Janice Langbehn and Lisa Pond. When Pond suffered an aneurysm, Langbehn was denied visiting access at the hospital, despite the fact that she carried power-of-attorney and the couple had adopted four children. Pond died before Langbehn was allowed access. On Thursday night, Mr. Obama called her from Air Force One to say that he had been moved by her case. “I was so humbled that he would know Lisa’s name and know our story,” Ms. Langbehn said in a telephone interview. “He apologized for how we were treated. For the last three years, that’s what I’ve been asking the hospital to do” [The New York Times].
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A petition that seeks a posthumous apology from the British government for its treatment of Alan Turing, a key WWII codebreaker and a father of computer science, has garnished more than 5,500 signatures. Among the signatories are the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and the novelist Ian McEwan.
In 1952, Turing was found guilty of gross indecency after admitting to a sexual relationship with a man (homosexuality was illegal at the time). His sentence? Estrogen injections in an experimental chemical castration treatment, along with the removal of his security clearance, thereby costing him his job for the U.K. Government. Two years later, he ended his life with a poison-laced apple–but not before he had made significant contributions to the world of computer science. In 1936 he established the conceptual and philosophical basis for the rise of computers in a seminal paper called On Computable Numbers, while in 1950 he devised a test to measure the intelligence of a machine. Today it is known as the Turing Test [BBC].
Many say that had Turing’s life not ended prematurely, he could have advanced the worlds of computer science and codebreaking even further. “There is no doubt in my mind that if Turing had lived past age 41 his international impact would have been great and that he likely would have received a knighthood while alive” [CNN], wrote computer scientist John Graham-Cumming, who initiated the petition.
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Image: flickr / Wikimedia Commons. A statue of Turing at the University of Manchester.
When a heterosexual Humboldt penguin couple rejected their unhatched egg this spring, zookeepers at Germany’s Bremerhaven Zoo found a happy home for the abandoned egg in the nest of gay penguin pair, Z and Vielpunkt. “Another couple threw the egg out of their batch,” the zoo’s vet said in a statement. “We picked it up and put it in the nest of the gay penguins” [The Advocate]. The couple then incubated the egg for more than a month before hatching a healthy chick that is now about four weeks old.
Z and Vielpunkt have been caring for the chick just as a heterosexual penguin couple would, say animal experts. They’ve been taking care of their chick around the clock; it’s still too young to feed itself, so the dads feed him fish mash [Los Angeles Times]. But the pair is not the first same-sex penguin couple to raise a child: a pair at Central Park Zoo in New York also hatched an egg, but only after they tried to incubate a rock until they were given an abandoned egg. Another male penguin couple were removed from their colony in a Chinese zoo last year when they repeatedly tried to steal eggs from male-and-female pairs. (In a rather ingenious move, they actually replaced the eggs they were stealing with rocks.) [Los Angeles Times]
Gay young adults who were rejected by their families when they came out as teenagers are much more likely to attempt suicide, have unprotected sex, and have problems with drug use and depression, according to a new study. The findings are based on surveys of 224 gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender adults in California who ranged in age from 21 to 25. Gay Latinos were most likely to experience a poor reception from their parents, and had the highest rates of risk factors for HIV and mental health problems, according to the research [Scientific American].
The findings, published in the journal Pediatrics [subscription required], don’t prove that a family’s negative reaction to a child’s sexuality directly causes problems later in life. But it’s clear that “there’s a connection between how families treat gay and lesbian children and their mental and physical health” [HealthDay News] said social worker Caitlin Ryan, the study’s lead author. She found that teenagers who were rejected by their families were eight times as likely to attempt suicide, six times as likely to report serious depression, and three times as likely to have unprotected sex and use drugs.
The debate over the roots of homosexuality is possibly the most contentious manifestation of the “nature versus nurture” argument; gay rights advocates, gay rights opponents, and scientists have all joined the fray, advancing and criticizing different theories. With a new brain imaging study, the “nature” proponents seem to have gained a point in their favor.
Swedish researchers did MRI scans of 50 heterosexual men and women and 40 homosexual men and women and found surprising parallels. The brains of lesbians and straight men were anatomically symmetrical while the brains of gay men and straight women had a larger right brain hemisphere.
The researchers also looked at the amygdala, a part of the brain that’s associated with emotions, and found that straight women and gay men both have more connections between the amygdala and brain regions associated with anxiety and mood disorders. Meanwhile, the amygdala of lesbians and straight men had more connections to the region that controls fight or flight reactions.