Can Your Genes Trump Unhealthy Behavior?

Question: How can we promote better collaboration between doctors and scientists?

Paul Nurse: The training and also the way of actually carrying out the profession is quite different between a scientist and a doctor, understandably so. That's not a criticism of either side; it's just how it is. So then we mix two sorts of people like this together, in the same activity, and we expect them to work together, it's like mixing somebody who only speaks English with French and assuming that it is going to work, it won't.

So what do we do about that? First of all recognize the problem and analyze it. And then secondly, we have to deal with it. We have to get the two types of individuals to understand their differences, to see where they are coming from, to realize why they have differing views, and how they can perhaps work best together.

Do you think any of us in the biomedical profession take the slightest bit of notice of trying to do that? It smacks of Sociology and stuff like that. We don't. But this is something where we really need to think in the future.

Have I applied it successfully in my own work? My own work has tended not to involve directly medicine, so I've not being exposed with my own research in that way. But I have seen it many times in my colleagues, and because I've led research institutions, and I've done my best to, at the very least, get mutual respect on both sides of that divide.

I actually think we need a much more professional approach on that problem. I would say it's key for greater success in this area.

Question: How can we improve preventative medicine?

Paul Nurse: Prevention is really important. It's often not given the airtime it should by the scientists themselves because it's quite a difficult subject to study and often requires very long-term trials, sometimes over decades, with large numbers of individuals before you can get good statistical results. It doesn't fit in well with a normal scientific career. If you got a PhD of four years, say, knowing that you're participating in a study that takes 20 years to carry out, it just don't fit. It's quite difficult to do good work in some cases in this area.

It's also a very complicated issue. We all know of individuals who've smoked 40 cigarettes a day, who live till 90. But of course we know that if you do smoke 40 cigarettes a day on average in the population, your life expectancy can be reduced 15 or 20 years (I forget exactly the number). So, it's a hugely negative impact upon your health, even though certain individuals may actually survive that.

Understanding the interaction between the impact of environment with genetics, is really crucial in getting good preventative advice out there. But, this makes these epidemiological studies, that's population-based studies, as their called, even more difficult, because you're not only then trying to simply control for whether an individual is exposed to a particular environmental impact, such as the sun or tobacco or whatever, which is difficult enough in itself, but you're also saying we need to subdivide the population up according to their genetic make up to get good results. And we may not even quite know how to divide them up and which particular variant of genes are important.

These are difficult problems but we are beginning to get into the territory where we can perhaps address them. Maybe that will help us put to rest a lot of the quackery that can go round advice about prevention. I would really like to see that because there is so much nonsense published out there. The media like it because it's relatively easy to understand, and it's a scare story.

If we ask questions like, "Is butter good or bad for you?" I can never remember because what was the last thing I read about it? Usually the reasons that we, as a public, get confused about such matters are that are reported are actually pretty small, and it all depends on the context of the trial, let alone the genetic make up the individuals involved in it. And we get blown around like a weather vane by just the latest report which is often made to be rather sensational.

I see this being rather slowly developed, because the studies have to be so long-term, and we're not yet in a good place for looking at the interactions between genetics and environment well. But I think it's really important because if we can give good advise to individuals about what their lifestyle is, that's going to have the big impact.

Recorded on: May 20, 2009

Prevention is very important, but scientists often don't focus on it because it's quite a difficult subject to study and often requires very long-term trials.

China's "artificial sun" sets new record for fusion power

China has reached a new record for nuclear fusion at 120 million degrees Celsius.

Credit: STR via Getty Images
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

China wants to build a mini-star on Earth and house it in a reactor. Many teams across the globe have this same bold goal --- which would create unlimited clean energy via nuclear fusion.

But according to Chinese state media, New Atlas reports, the team at the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) has set a new world record: temperatures of 120 million degrees Celsius for 101 seconds.

Yeah, that's hot. So what? Nuclear fusion reactions require an insane amount of heat and pressure --- a temperature environment similar to the sun, which is approximately 150 million degrees C.

If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it.

If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it. In nuclear fusion, the extreme heat and pressure create a plasma. Then, within that plasma, two or more hydrogen nuclei crash together, merge into a heavier atom, and release a ton of energy in the process.

Nuclear fusion milestones: The team at EAST built a giant metal torus (similar in shape to a giant donut) with a series of magnetic coils. The coils hold hot plasma where the reactions occur. They've reached many milestones along the way.

According to New Atlas, in 2016, the scientists at EAST could heat hydrogen plasma to roughly 50 million degrees C for 102 seconds. Two years later, they reached 100 million degrees for 10 seconds.

The temperatures are impressive, but the short reaction times, and lack of pressure are another obstacle. Fusion is simple for the sun, because stars are massive and gravity provides even pressure all over the surface. The pressure squeezes hydrogen gas in the sun's core so immensely that several nuclei combine to form one atom, releasing energy.

But on Earth, we have to supply all of the pressure to keep the reaction going, and it has to be perfectly even. It's hard to do this for any length of time, and it uses a ton of energy. So the reactions usually fizzle out in minutes or seconds.

Still, the latest record of 120 million degrees and 101 seconds is one more step toward sustaining longer and hotter reactions.

Why does this matter? No one denies that humankind needs a clean, unlimited source of energy.

We all recognize that oil and gas are limited resources. But even wind and solar power --- renewable energies --- are fundamentally limited. They are dependent upon a breezy day or a cloudless sky, which we can't always count on.

Nuclear fusion is clean, safe, and environmentally sustainable --- its fuel is a nearly limitless resource since it is simply hydrogen (which can be easily made from water).

With each new milestone, we are creeping closer and closer to a breakthrough for unlimited, clean energy.

The science of sex, love, attraction, and obsession

The symbol for love is the heart, but the brain may be more accurate.

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U.S. Navy controls inventions that claim to change "fabric of reality"

Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.

Credit: Getty Images
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There never was a male fertility crisis

A new study suggests that reports of the impending infertility of the human male are greatly exaggerated.

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