Risk, trust, and GMOs: can understanding fears help alleviate them?

By Christie Wilcox | January 30, 2015 2:24 pm
Afraid of GMOs? Perhaps its time to evaluate why.

Afraid of GMOs? Perhaps its time to evaluate why.

It seems like the outcry against a potential trial of genetically modified mosquitoes in the Florida Keys has become a national news topic nearly overnight. Though Oxitec has been considering the plan for years, a recent town hall received attention from the Associated Press, and BOOM — suddenly, it seems like everyone is talking about GM mozzies. As I explained in my last post, the bulk of the conversation is centered around fear of GM technology, though the fears of “mutant DNA” causing human health problems are completely baseless. But the science doesn’t seem to matter: people just don’t trust GMOs, no matter what anyone says about them. Read More

MORE ABOUT: GMO, Risk Assessment

Journalists vector GM fears as FDA considers Oxitec’s Keys mosquito plan

By Christie Wilcox | January 27, 2015 1:10 pm

Aedes aegypti: the invasive mosquito in Florida that carries deadly diseases.
Photo by James Gathany, c/o the CDC

In the past few days, a new “GMO scandal” has hit the headlines. The UK biotech firm Oxitec has proposed the release of special genetically modified mosquitoes in the Florida Keys to help with current mosquito control efforts. Or, according to the media:

Millions of GMO mosquitoes to be released in Florida Keys if Oxitec gets its way

Florida, Meet Genetically Modified Mosquitoes, Which Are Coming Your Way By The Millions

The Washington Post actually called them “genetically modified killer mosquitoes” in their headline, warning that they “may attack Florida Keys”. George Dvorsky for io9 cautions that “Millions Of Mutated Mosquitoes Could Be Unleashed In Florida—On Purpose”. It’s safe to say news of the FDA’s deliberations on whether to allow these “Frankenstein mosquitoes” are causing quite the stir. There’s even a Change.org petition to fight the release, with nearly 140,000 signatures.

While these mosquitoes are genetically modified, they aren’t “cross-bred with the herpes simplex virus and E. coli bacteria” (that would be an interkingdom ménage à trois!)—and no, they cannot be “used to bite people and essentially make them immune to dengue fever and chikungunya” (they aren’t carrying a vaccine!). The mosquitoes that Oxitec have designed are what scientists call “autocidal” or possess a “dominant lethal genetic system“, which is mostly fancy wording for “they die all by themselves”. The males carry inserted DNA which causes the mosquitoes to depend upon a dietary supplement that is easy to provide in the lab, but not available in nature. When the so-called mutants breed with normal females, all of the offspring require the missing dietary supplement because the suicide genes passed on from the males are genetically dominant. Thus, the offspring die before they can become adults. The idea is, if you release enough such males in an area, then the females won’t have a choice but to mate with them. That will mean there will be few to no successful offspring in the next generation, and the population is effectively controlled. Oxitec hopes to release millions of autocidal Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in the Keys because that species is a vector for deadly diseases, and Oxitec is hoping that reducing mosquito populations will protect residents. You would think that would be a good thing—but the headlines and rhetoric of the media suggest otherwise. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, More Science, select, Top Posts

Plants vs Everything

By Christie Wilcox | January 27, 2015 5:48 am

In December, I had the amazing opportunity to spend almost two weeks in the Peruvian Amazon at the Tambopata Research Center to do research for a book I’m writing on venoms.

The Amazon is home to some of the most notorious venomous animals on Earth. There’s the bullet ant: an animal whose venom is so painful, it is said to be like getting shot. Then there are the wandering spiders: large, aggressive arachnids known for their deadly bite. And that’s not even getting into the various snakes with venoms potent enough to kill in less than an hour.

But while I was expecting the cornucopia of venomous animals, I was completely unprepared—and amazed—by the array of defenses employed by the Amazon’s flora. It seemed even the most gentle of plant species was armed with some kind of spine or spike, and if it wasn’t, you could pretty much bet it had enlisted an army of ants instead.

Read More


Science Sushi: 2014 In Review

By Christie Wilcox | December 31, 2014 8:45 pm


It’s that time of the year again where I look back and see what has happened over the past 365 days in the life of this blog. So far in 2014…

…I have posted 33 posts

…that received over four hundred thousand views

…from 218 countries/territories

…with 595 comments

The most popular post of the year was my scathing interrogation of Discovery Channel’s nefarious tactics, with my complete shredding of Sharkageddon not far behind.  Second most popular was my step-by-step analysis of the death of Marius the giraffe. Last year’s posts on how dolphins might not be getting high on tetrodotoxin and my open letter to Discovery Channel for their terrible Megalodon fauxmentary stayed in the top ten this year. Other critiques also did very well, as my comments on George Will and Rosie O’Donnell also landed in the top ten. Other popular posts included 19 things more deadly than sharks at the beach, why the trust hormone increases deceit, and how sea stars see.

It's 'Dr. Wilcox' now!

It’s ‘Dr. Wilcox’ now!

Perhaps the highlight of the blogging year, though, was winning the second place prize in the 3 Quarks Daily Science Prize, The Strange Quark, for my piece and about how allergies may have evolved to save your life. I’ve also been busy outside of the blog—I successfully defended my dissertation this month, exchanging “Ms.” for “Dr.”. The Complete Guide to Science Blogging, which I am co-editing with Bethany Brookshire and Jason Goldman, will hopefully be coming out near the end of 2015, and I’m in the final stages of writing my first non-fiction pop-science book on venoms. I just got back from almost two weeks in the Peruvian Amazon—stay tuned for more stories from that next year.

Overall, it’s been an incredible year, and I look forward to the challenges, surprises, and joys of the year to come. Thank you to all of you who read this blog: let’s keep this bio-nerdy party going all through 2015!


Fireworks image (c) Mark Wooding, from Wikipedia



A Huff to the Pufferfish’s Puff

By Christie Wilcox | December 5, 2014 5:49 pm

6605799dba35561938a0ab69287af9d8This is a guest post by PhD student and science writer Jake Buehler. He blogs over at Sh*t You Didn’t Know About Biology, which is full of his “unrepentantly celebratory insights into life on Earth’s under-appreciated, under-acknowledged, and utterly amazing stories.”  

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, More Science, select, Top Posts

Giving Thanks

By Christie Wilcox | November 27, 2014 6:28 pm


Today is Thanksgiving. While as a holiday it is unique to the US and a few others, in many ways, Thanksgiving is universal. Basically every culture throughout history has had a celebratory feast before the dark of winter sets in. Harkening back to ancient harvest celebrations, Thanksgiving is about expressing thanks for all the good things in our lives. Though it has nearly been commercialized to death with Black Friday sales and overdone parades, underneath all that fluff is a holiday geared towards gratitude, a time to reflect upon one’s life and all of the little things there are to be thankful for. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: More Science, select, Top Posts

Paradise in Trouble

By Christie Wilcox | November 18, 2014 2:06 pm

Two weeks from Friday, I’ll be defending my dissertation. It’s a moment five and a half years in the making, one that I’ve been excited for and nervous about for years. I should be eagerly anticipating the moment I step up to that podium, and even more eagerly anticipating the moment I step down, when if all goes well I’ll transition from PhD Candidate to University of Hawaii Alumnus. Instead, the thought of being an alum of this school leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Right now, the University of Hawaii at Mānoa is in bad shape. Years of budget mismanagement have led to a terrifying crisis, in which the main teaching departments are struggling to afford the instructors and teaching assistants they need to meet the demand of their students. The Vice Chancellor for Administration, Finance & Operations, Kathy Cutshaw, has been giving a “budget roadshow” presentation showing that the university it outspending its tuition revenue by almost $31 million. The Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, Reed Dasenbrock, has pushed the colleges to immediately cut spending to rectify this, though such cuts are deep and harm the quality of education that can be provided to the university’s students. The Chancellor, Robert Bley-Vroman, however, keeps telling the media that the university as a whole is “in the black.” There is no transparency, no explanation for Dasenbrock’s sudden urgency, and no reason why dozens of TAs are fearful of the future—of what is coming next fall even if, as Dasenbrock is now saying, it doesn’t come this spring.

Almost 100 students standing outside of Hawaii Hall, the seat of the Vice Chancellors, to demand reform. Photo by Kurt Stevens.

Almost 100 students standing outside of Hawaii Hall, the seat of the Vice Chancellors, to demand reform. Photo by Kurt Stevens.

UH is not the only university in the country with systemic budget problems. It’s not the only university where graduate students are not unionized, leaving them unprotected. It’s not the only university where politics and greed have trumped the mission of the school to provide a quality education. And it’s not the only university where the graduate students have been compelled to rise up and fight back. But it’s not any university—it’s my university.

Ani DiFranco once sang “We have to be able to criticize what we love, say what we have to say. ‘Cause if you’re not trying to make something better, then as far as I can tell, you are just in the way.” I love the University of Hawaii. I love the lab that has been my home away from home, the colleagues that have become my family, and the school that has allowed me to get to this point in my career. It is because I love UH that I have to tell its story. I have to explain why almost 100 students marched around campus yesterday morning in red, screaming for change. Those students and I have only just begun to fight to save the school they love as dearly as I do. We won’t give up, not until we have a university that we can be proud of. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: More Science, select, Top Posts

Science Triumphs in Oregon and Colorado: GMO Labeling Measures Fail

By Christie Wilcox | November 6, 2014 12:27 am

The midterm elections are over, and a number of significant changes lie ahead. Marijuana has taken several key steps towards legalization, more women than ever are in congress, and the Republican party has taken control of the senate—surely, it will be an interesting couple of years. But one thing hasn’t changed: GMO foods will not carry special labels, as the ballot measures in Colorado and Oregon followed suit with the failed propositions from California in 2012 and Washington in 2013.

GMO labeling initiatives in Oregon and Colorado fail to pass.

GMO labeling initiatives in Oregon and Colorado fail to pass.

Proposition 105 in Colorado failed splendidly, with close to 66% of the populace voting against the measure. Prop 92 in Oregon narrowly failed with less than 51% against. Many are up in arms about the failed measures on twitter, using hashtags like #monsatan and #nogmos. But No votes in both states are far from “losses” —they represent wins for science over the anti-GM initiative that is based solely in fear and propaganda. Read More

The Unexceptional Devil’s Hole Pupfish

By Christie Wilcox | September 30, 2014 3:57 am
The tiny opening to Devil's Hole, Nevada, where the most endangered pupfish in the world is found. Photo by Stan Shebs via Wikipedia.

The tiny opening to Devil’s Hole, Nevada, where the most endangered pupfish in the world is found.
Photo by Stan Shebs via Wikipedia.

The salt-encrusted earth of Death Valley is, quite literally, the hottest place on Earth. It is desolate terrain where even the most rugged life is constantly struggling to survive. Staring out across the dusty landscape, it’s hard to imagine that the entire area sits atop a vast aquifer, with millions of gallons of fresh water hiding below the arid surface. It’s even harder to believe this land was once a lush basin, where spring-fed pools and streams supported an abundance of life. Now, what remains from this fertile time can only be glimpsed where the ground has been torn open by earthquakes—deep, jagged fissures like Devil’s Hole.

The smooth, near-vertical walls of Devil’s Hole are hardly welcoming. Yet year after year, scientists climb the dangerous descent. Their goal? To count the few remaining fish that live on a small shallow shelf in these dark, warm, oxygen-depleted waters. These fish—the Devil’s Hole pupfish—are considered to be some of the most endangered fish in the world. They’re completely cut off from all other pupfish species, having lived in Devil’s Hole for countless generations, unable to reach their nearest cousins. In the spring of 2013, there were only 35 pupfish found during the September count. Only 35 members of this entire species left on Earth. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, More Science, select, Top Posts

3 Quarks Daily Science Prizes have been announced!

By Christie Wilcox | September 22, 2014 11:25 am

3QDscience_strange_quarkThe 3 Quarks Daily Science Prizes have been announced. Top Quark went to the ever-amazing Eric Michael Johnson for his deeply-researched and thought-engaging post on how Promiscuity Is Pragmatic. The second place slot, The Strange Quark, went to… ME!

I’m honored to be chosen for this award, judged by none other than the esteemed Frans B. M. de Waal. Eric and the third-place winner, Carl Zimmer, are both incredibly talented writers, and I’m truly humbled to be in such good company. For the Strange Quark, Frans picked my essay on Margie Profet and the counter-intuitive idea that allergies might actually be a good thing. Here’s what Frans had to say about the piece:

“My second choice is Christie Wilcox’s piece on the toxin hypothesis of allergies. It is well written and the recent mouse work she describes supports the view that allergies reflect a protective mechanism…

In fact, all three essays explore unusual ideas that seem to go against the mainstream, which makes for exciting reading, leaving one to wonder what other established ideas we may have wrong. As such, these authors promote the healthy skepticism that is the bedrock of science, and show that science is always in flux, always keeping us at the edge of our seat. In a society that sometimes turns away from science, or views it as a boring mass of facts, this is a most important message to convey.”

You can find out more about the prizes here. Be sure to read the other two fantastic posts (linked above), and you can read my entire winning post here.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: More Science, select, Top Posts

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