18 March 2013

Aurochs Burgers, Mastadon Steaks, and Carolina Parakeet Hats

Neanderthals - Artist's rendition of Earth approximately 60,000 years ago
The Paleo Diet
With the recent news of the teasingly near-resurrection of gastric-brooding frogs (Rheobatrachus spp.) almost 30 years after humans helped to make them extinct, the internets are abuzz with what species we can do a mulligan on.  It can be hard to resist thinking about finally repairing some of the ultimate ecological wrongs people have done, or even resurrecting a few things that would just be cool to see (one day you all shall bow before my unholy army of terror birds).

But of course as a vegan I have to poop on everyone's parade.  Plus I'm just a negative Nancy.

Let's start with a little thought experiment.  We resurrect woolly mammoths.  This is not too far off from now, as we have literal tons of frozen specimens, and as noted above the technology is moving fast.  Plus they only died out around 2000 BCE.  So we have a herd of shaggy Mammuthi in our lab enclosure.  People ooh and aah and visit from far and wide.  The next step, especially in the United States where people grab for the pitchforks and torches whenever science happens, is to outlaw the from being allowed outside.  In fact, they might already be banned in California.

But not every jurisdiction would be so strict.  In between the red-state paranoia about man-animal hybrids and the blue-state paranoia about frankenfish are more libertarian areas.  Someone in Wyoming perhaps makes a wild animal park for them.  Someone else decides to set up a ranch for them.  Shocker, people have been eating mammoths for the millennia since extinction, so why stop when fresh ones are available.  After all, between reality TV and foodies, it's going to be on plates somewhere.  Plus animal welfare regulations will have much further to go on a species that we basically own ('we created you, and we can destroy you').  Perhaps when cosmopolitan restaurant wants free-range mammoths will we start thinking about returning them to the wild.  We can't even stop eating extant lions (Panthera leo), let alone resurrected marsupial lions (Thylacoleo carnifex).  So your ecological paradise of mastadons and sabre-tooth tigers reclaiming a post-singularity landscape is not going to happen.  We overused most of these extinct animals for food and fashion already.  Once we can no longer cause permanent extinction, we could no longer overexploit them.  So while we'll have tons of laws preventing woolly mammoths from roaming the tundra or interbreeding with humans, we won't have anything to stop mammoth battery cages, gestation crates, downers, or any other horrors inflicted on a species that god and science say we own to all the way down to its genes.

18 December 2012

Nonvegan Fossils

Petrified Forest National Park fossil Cynepteris lasiophora, fern
Plant-based fossil of Cynepteris lasiophora
I believed I heard all of those thought-experiment vegan questions.  You know the ones, often asked by nonvegans and start "what if...."  But after about eighteen years of vegan life I heard a new one.  Are fossils vegan?

Well duh, of course fossils are vegan.  Now excuse me while I hot my head against the desk.

Unless time travel were involved.  Can't have the folks of Terra Nova making you fossils.

However, there are some realistic caveats.  Not all fossils are actually fossils in the way most people think.  Some are fakes.  Typically this is not an issue with the sedimentary rock ones, but with amber and ivory.  There is a whole industry in making amber-like jewelry and bric-à-brac by tossing insects into pine sap.  So it is important to know what you are buying.

There's a similar situation with ivory, which many nonvegans have ethical issues about as well.  Mammoth ivory is legal, most elephant ivory is not.  Less scrupulous vendors will mislabel the illegal elephant tusks as coming from extinct mammoths.  If you must buy ivory, do your homework.  But really, you don't have to buy ivory.  To me this treads into territory with fur coats and the like, where the appearance of a poor ethical choice can make it not worth the bother.  Plus many think the legal ivory trade fuels illegal poaching.

And to leave you on a head-hitting-desk note, what if the mammoth ivory is from a resurrected mammoth?

02 July 2012

Yummy Vegan GMO Tomatoes

Happy Tomato
Like many other rationally-minded vegans, I approve of GMOs.  After all, I have personally genetically engineered bacteria, so I have a broader understanding than many J. Q. Publics out there.  I understand that traditional breeding practices are genetic manipulation, just primitive, imprecise, and unpredictable.  This is often hard to explain to people, especially when they are defensive and reactionary.

However a recent news story came to my attention that highlighted how GMOs can be a good thing, and in a way that any random dude can understand.  To summarize, traditional genetic manipulation has given us crappy supermarket tomatoes which pale to fresh summer tomatoes from the garden.  Personally I'm not a tomato lover, unless it's made into marinara or ketchup, but I know I am in a minority on that.

You may say that the problem with tomatoes these days is an issue of goals and not methods.  Tomato breeders have wanted fruit that is primarily durable and disease resistant, and taste is a low priority.  If breeders focused on taste we'd be OK.  However, some of the genes for desired traits, such as uniform ripening, are the same genes that cause poor flavor.  It's almost impossible to breed your way out of that situation.  With engineering many, many versions of the gene quickly can be tried until one allows for both flavor and uniform ripening.  To do that with traditional breeding you'd have to sift through mutations of all of the ~35,000 genes in the tomato's genome.

This brings to the next point, which is if we can identify the desired genes for disease resistance, color, flavor, and all that, we can easily engineer it all into one tomato.  We could have that perfect yummy tomato within years.  However, if we have to breed it 'by hand' it will take decades or longer.  Sure, nothing will replace picking a tomato from the plant in your windowbox at the peak of ripeness on a summer day, but when you're desperate for a splash of red on your sandwich in November, shouldn't that tomato be good-tasting too?

24 May 2012

Animal-free Antibodies

I just found this unpublished post in my list.  I wrote it three years ago, but I hope it tides you over for my next post.
Antibody IgG2
Structure of an IgG2 antibody
Working in biology, especially biochemistry, one invariably has to run Western blots and/or immunoprecipitation. If these pan out, you might do an ELISA (or Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay if you never wrote it out). What all these depend on are antibodies. Something that still takes injecting a rabbit (or goat, or mouse) with something acting as the antigen, bleeding the rabbit a few times, and then eventually killing it. Not a very happy method for our mammalian buddies.

And it's often not a very effective method. You have to have many different rabbits to get one somewhat decent antibody. And even if you do eventually end up with a monoclonal antibody, it still isn't that reliable, as the existence of a antibody validation site like AntibodypediA shows.

Work is being undertaken to change both the unreliability and the animal welfare impact of antibodies. An article I read recently shows that while this research is still in early stages, it is getting results. The researchers vary a protein sequence using a computer database, and then select for binding efficiency with a column. The proteins are presented on a phage, which being a biological system can add to genetic variation on its own and thus improve selection.

It also reminded me of work being done with antivenoms (or antivenins depending on which flavor of English you speak). Currently antivenoms are obtained by raising poisonous animals, be they snakes, anthropods, or whatever. A dangerous occupation, as I saw first (severely scarred) hand on a recent trip to the สถานเสาวภา Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute snake farm. The venom is diluted and injected into large animals. In Thailand they mentioned using elephants, but outside of the tropics horses are often used, and more recently, sheep. The antivenom is basically an antibody to the venom.

Besides the above-mentioned issues with antibodies in general, antivenoms also have the trouble of causing immune responses in the afflicted individuals: Both to the antivenoms and to unrelated serum proteins in the antivenom dose.

The positive aspect of antivenoms-as-antibodies is that they generally do not change over time, as selective pressure is very low. That means that once one has a good antivenom, it will work for a long time before having to be re-engineered. Once you have a good binding site, you can make a synthetic antibody containing just the ends of the short and long chains, and replace the rest if the antivenom with something that doesn't produce anaphylaxis.

The Importance of Being Tyrosine: Lessons in Molecular Recognition from Minimalist Synthetic Binding Proteins. ACS Chem. Biol., 2009, 4 (5), pp 325–334; Publication Date (Web): March 19, 2009

02 April 2012

Vegan Kids and Omnivorous Kids

All Aboard!
I am the kind of vegan who does not like to stick out and be outspoken, but blend in and win people over with a softer approach.  I don't get offended if someone eats meat in front of me, unless they are making a big deal out of it.  I don't push my views on others, and wait for other people to initiate discussions.  I kind of like it when people come up to me and say they had no idea I was vegan. 

However, like every parent keeps telling me, everything changes when you have wee ones to raise.  I was not raised vegan, but turned when I went to college and had control over my diet.  I like when people can make their own choices:  I think people make stronger commitments when they see the merits in a change and do so willingly.  But with children, there is a lag time between when they can shovel food in their mouths on their own and when they can make an informed choice on what to eat.

As I mentioned, I have no personal experience with vegan kids.  I have been restlessly ruminating over how to handle my kid wanting to eat something that isn't vegan when he's too young to really get the concepts.  There's only so long that an authoritarian because-I-say-so will work without justification.  After all, why does Gwenessa get to eat the cheesy bacon and I don't?

I figured it out when watching Dinosaur Train.  This is a great science show, and despite the animation being less than what I expect from Henson, I can manage to sit through it pretty easily.  It doesn't drive me mental like Ni Hao Kai-Lan.  Though it is intended for an older audience than my little one.  But it has a paleontologist in every episode, so how can I not like?

Anyway, the characters on Dinosaur Train often "compare features" and also note what a newly introduced mesozoic creature eats.  The main characters are not vegetarian, but as the Humane Hominid at the Paleoveganology blog notes, some are happy herbivores.  No one tries to push their diet on another.  They just note and accept it.  It's a good model for children to understand different diets in a nonjudgmental way.  A quick search shows I am not the first to think of this approach, and that it works in vivo

Note that this is a good approach for teaching omnivores about vegans as well.  I imagine using the dinosaur analogy to explain to my kids' friends at some point as well, as long as the show it still on for the next few years (which I imagine it will be).

Though when my toddler starts asking about who Buddy's real father is, I know it's time to "Get outside, get into nature and make your own discoveries!"

21 February 2012

Vegan Black Scientist History Month

February is Black History month, and what better way to celebrate than to shoehorn my blog in there somehow.  While I was not able to find many Black vegan scientists (the best I did with my half-assed web searching was Nduka Okoh, so let me know of others), here are a couple of African-American scientists who made life better for vegans.
Percy Lavon Julian
Percy Julian was an American biochemist who synthesized drugs from plants such as our old friend, Glycine max. Julian capitalized on soybean's flexibility and push the boundaries of it as a chemical factory.  He also opened the first factory for isolated soy protein (though for industrial and not food use).  This is all despite losing jobs because they thought he was white.  Though the job was in a sundown town, so Julian dodged a bullet there, metaphorically and likely literally.

George Washington Carver-crop
George W. Carver
No discussion of African-American History Month is complete without mentioning George Washington Carver.  I know, we all love peanuts and peanut butter and are glad for a man born into slavery elevating this humble African staple, but have you actually looked at his recipes?  Most are easily veganizable, and many others such as peanut sausage (number 42 of 105), are already vegan.  So a good source of ideas for February potlucks.  Carver also applied his steampunk molecular gastronimic wizardry to cow peas (Vigna unguiculata, as in #36 cow pea loaf No. 2), tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum, #30 fried green), and sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas, sweet potato biscuits).  Now I want to have a George Washington Carver potluck.

I'm sure this is just dipping a toe into the pool here.  Let me know who I missed.

16 February 2012

Vegan Stem Cells and Neurons

Induction of iPS cells
The generation of induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells
Just a quick post today:  You can now make/use vegan neurons and stem cells from skin cells.  Well, the process is vegan, atleast.  This was not the work (as far as I can tell) by an elite cabal of underground vegan scientists, but just researchers trying to make cells that meet standards for safe use in humans.  This doesn't mean that it's free of all those mysterious unnamed 'toxins' from animal flesh as much as free from allergens and crude variable (and unpredictable) animal extracts. 

06 February 2012

A Scientist up in Arm(chair)s

A pig in a poke for only $42!
I have a confession.  I am not a professional scientist at the moment.  I am, as they say, between jobs.  But all the world's a lab and all the people are scientists, or so it says in my Shakespeare fan fiction.  We all do experiments in our lives, some with more rigor than others, and part of my regimen to keep my mind sharp is to maintain this blog.

However, one major problem with a move from a lab stool to an armchair is journal access.  Perennially a problem, even for scientists at major universities, it is exceedingly so once one looses affiliation.  I feel it is one of the biggest problems with the field today.

For those lay-folk who are not familiar, journal access is online access to articles in scientific journals.  Besides a few scattered open-source titles, the majority of publications are behind huge paywalls. As in, you have to pay US $35.00 or so to see one article, if you're not fortunate enough to have access through your university's or institution's subscription.

Typically the most one can get for free is the abstract, which is like the movie description on your DVR, and about as useful.  Also, each article is only published in a single journal, so even if you have some journal access there are usually articles out there you can't access.  Just like all those movies you want to stream but you can't.

Also the obvious refuges one would think would have access have poor to no access:  Public libraries have superficial access if any, and alumni have little or no access (or atleast my Ivy League diploma doesn't get me anywhere).

And before you ask why I don't bother my old coworkers, it's because they're either too busy working 14 hour days, or they will run into the same nonsense as I do.

So this is a problem, but is it really that big of a deal?  I think so, because we need the public to know what we do.  We must have our results and methods be transparent and accessible to all.  We can complain all we want about how a newspaper article exaggerated, misrepresented, or otherwise misinformed the public.  Yet if the public has no other source of information and cannot go to the source, should we be surprised?  This is but an extension of the ivory tower, and although it may not be entirely to blame for distrust and ignorance of evolution or global climate change, it certainly cannot be helping.

30 October 2011

Don't Call it Milk if it's Soy?

Vegan Chocolate Chip Cookie and Soymilk
Some Kind of Milk is in There
When one has a minority viewpoint, or is otherwise a rare fish in the mainstream, one will often hear certain musings again and again.  Sometimes these thoughts have been simmering for years in the mind of the average-joe-fish, and now she or he finally has a chance to ask.  Other times it is a maudlin attempt at original wit, often heard many times by the recipient.

For vegans, one of these topics concerns nomenclature.   Often arising as said vegan invites an omnivore to a veg-friendly restaurant.

"Why does it say 'chicken' if it is made from soybeans?"

"Why do they call it a burger if it doesn't taste like a burger?"

"Where are the udders on a soy bean?"

And so forth.  As I possess tendencies towards lingustic descriptivism, I have shrugged off these neologisms and borrowed words as natural expansion and adaptation of definitions.  Typically, I reply to questions like the above by stating the similarities in use and preparation of the vegan and meat versions.  For burgers, you take a patty of something and put it on a bun with ketchup, onions, and what-have-you.  If you're at the grill and I hand you a veggie burger and call it a veggie burger, you will have some idea what to do with it.  If I call it a grain and vegetable patty, you will have no clue.  And as far as taste, I'm sure the fast food burgers taste like garbage compared to fancier kinds, yet no one thinks the fast food kind shouldn't be allowed to be called a burger.

Flag of Hamburg
Plus a 'burger' or even the longer 'hamburger' does not specifically relate to meat, but to a town in Germany.  So it's truly not a very restrictive term.  Using 'milk' for soy goes back as far as the liquid in Japan (though in it's native china it was called more of a drink/beverage), and atleast 100 years in the west.  In the middle ages in Europe, almond milk was much easier obtain and store than bovine milk, and they had no qualms about calling it milk nor turning it into a butter (or "botere") substitute.  Though I guess the animal butter was actually the substitute.

Chicken in the woods
Chicken in the Woods?
Omnivores should look at those four fingers pointing back at them as they blame veg*ns.  I doubt whoever came up with hen-of-the-woods (Grifola frondosa), chicken-of-the-woods (Laetiporus spp.), and fried-chicken-of-the-woods (Lyophyllum decastes) was vegetarian or anything like that.  Especially since none of them taste or look like chicken.  The first two I know from personal experience, and the last I rely on others.  Also why I call Grifola frondosa, maitake (舞茸) and Laetiporus, sulphur shelf (in addition to being too confusing).

Lord Howe Island stick insect Dryococelus australis 10June2011 PalmNursery
Dryococelus australis
I know the folks who came up with "walking sausage" for the world's rarest insect, Dryococelus australis, were not vegan as the dinner plate contributed to their decline.  However that's an animal named for an animal...ish.

Birgus latro (Bora-Bora)
Birgus latro
Yet if naming plant- or fungus-based things after animals is bad, shouldn't naming animals after plants/fungi be just as bad?  I mean, a lemon shark (Negaprion brevirostris) is no lemon (Citrus × limon), and the coconut crab (Birgus latro) doesn't taste like coconut.

Alligator 1
The Chicken Lizard
Although animals are named for plants that they eat or look like, I cannot find an example of an animal named for a plant it tastes like.  Though if you ask me, fish taste a lot like the seaweed they eat (protists and not plants, I know, but that designation may change).  Though I think if animals were named for what they tasted like, many animals would be called 'chicken.'

If I were to pick something to complain about in naming of things, I would want some accountability for evolutionary precedence.  For example, the tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier) evolved 50 mya, and the eponymous tiger (Panthera tigris) appeared only 3.2 mya.  Clearly the latecomer should be named after the original.  Perhaps 'land tiger shark?'

Guinea pig-Meerschweinchen
A Cutie Cuy
I think people who name things should take more than five seconds to come up with a name, and people also should not become so uptight about what words they use.  Yet perhaps both groups should think a little more.  Sure, a name like 'Guinea pig' for Cavia porcellus makes little sense on any level, but few will know what you mean when you use 'cuy' or 'cavy' until a critical mass is built.  Like many things, a little patience and intelligence goes a long way.

01 October 2011

A Partial List of Edible Carnivorous Plants and Fungi

*UPDATE* Added Laccaria bicolor thanks to Puget Sound Mycological Society.

Recently I realized my earlier post on edible carnivorous fungi and plants needs some further bulking up.  Combined with the removal of the appropriate categories on Wikipedia, I figured I'd revisit, expound, and preserve the information here.  The lists are by no means complete, so feel free to let me know what else is out there.

Also I'm including some vegan recipes.  Well, vegan if you ignore what the plant ate.  Some vegans think it's ok to eat them as it's 'natural.'  Some think it's ok as they do not see a transitive property apply.  Some eat them out of ignorance.  Some do not eat them.  There is no vegan rulebook.

Note that the definitions of 'edible' and 'carnivorous' are somewhat vague in some cases.  'Edible' could range from something that will not kill you if you eat it, to something palatable, to something commercially farmed for food.  The applicable aphorism is that all plants and fungi are edible, sometimes more than once.  In all cases it is anthropocentric, meaning edible to humans.  Palatability has a wide range as well, but usually there is a balance to be found.  Personally, as a fan of foraging, I don't think something has to be currently cultivated to count as edible, but it should be palatable.  The cultivation angle is further fuzzy for these plants, as many are cultivated as ornamental plants and not for food.  I also do not think that preparative steps that make a toxic plant edible (such as with cassava or acorns) should remove it from this list.  Note that I am not including herbal medicines or any of that hooey.  If it's good enough to truly heal, it's a medicine and not food.

'Carnivorous' typically fall short of Audrey II, but can range from active trapping of animals to a more passive external digestion.  The prey animals range from vertebrates like mice and frogs to microscopic worms like nematodes.  A few of the plants generally accepted as full carnivores do not have proteolytic enzymes, but let bacteria do that work for them.  Others produce digestive enzymes but are considered merely protocarnivorous.  Some plants have trapping mechanisms solely for defense but not to gain nutrients. To be considered a full carnivore, they need some kind of trap, and they need to absorb nutrients.  In any event, there's probably something here that fits your specific definitions, and I'll try to specify where each plant or fungus is.

First, a partial list edible carnivorous plants:
  • Capsella bursa-pastoris - seedCapsella bursa-pastoris (shepherd's purse) -- I've eaten this wild from my yard and cultivated in frozen bao.  Though it is at best protocarnivorous, seeming more to defend it's seeds with sticky mucilage and digestive enzymes than to feed itself.  You can try it in an early spring salad or in a mung bean porridge.
  • Dipsacus japonicus (Japanese teasel, Chinese teasel) and Dipsacus mitis (no common name) -- The teasel family are alleged protocarnivores.  Leaves of D. mitis can be cooked and eaten.  The same applies for D. japonicus, but only when nothing else is available to eat.
  • Round leaved Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia)Drosera capensis (Cape sundew), Drosera rotundifolia (common sundew, round-leaved sundew), and Drosera spatulata (spoon-leaved sundew) -- These three insectivorous species are used to make the German libation Sonnentau LikörD. rotundifolia is used in Italy in the traditional recipe for rosolio.  They are all full carnivores, and D. capensis even moves to surround prey in stickiness.
  • Drosera auriculata flower budsDrosera peltata subsp. auriculata (Climbing sundew) --This and the tubers of other sundews of Australia can be eaten and are foraged by the Aborigines.  According to the Chinese government, D. peltata is "slightly toxic."
  • B.C. and beyond 119Geranium viscosissimum (sticky purple geranium) -- The foraged leaves and flowers of this protocarnivore are used as a garnish or in salad.
  • 豬籠草 - 2008-12-24 10h57m56s IMG_3499Nepenthes mirabilis (common swamp pitcher-plant) and likely other Nepenthes species --  The pitcher plants trap insects, mice, frogs, et cetera in the pitchers and digest them.  In Malaysia the pitchers are cleaned and stuffed with sticky rice and coconut milk to make 猪笼草饭Nepenthes are sold in public markets there for apparent culinary purposes.
  • loveinamist5200Passiflora foetida (wild maracuja, santo papa, marya-marya) -- Another protocarnivore with stickiness and enzymes.  Eat raw like any other passion fruit species, or make into jam or jelly.
  • Pinguicula vulgaris 190507Pinguicula vulgaris (common butterwort) -- As you may expect from the common name, this has a dairy connection.   The leaves are not ingested directly, but cow's milk is poured over the leaves to curdle it to make tjukkmjølk.  This is just begging for someone to make a soy/almond/coconut version!  Though the name is allegedly a PGI and cannot be used if it's made out of Roros, Norway, so you'll have to think up a generic name for the vegan version.  Maybe leave out a K or something.  Once you do that you can use one of these easily veganizable recipes.  A similar product from Sweden called tätmjölk/filtäte/täte/långmjölk is prepared similarly and also fermented.  You can try veganizing Linnaeus' original recipe.
  • Plumbago auriculataPlumbago auriculata (blue plumbago, Cape plumbago, Cape leadwort) --Another protocarnivorous genus, but only this species is edible as far as I found.  Try a plumbago and beetroot salad or vegetarianize/degelatinize this recipe for plumbago fruit jelly.
  • Proboscidea louisianica3Proboscidea spp. (devil's claws, unicorn plants) -- a protocarnivorous (or perhaps merely murderous) genus of multiple (half-dozen or so) edible species.  Mostly foraged.  Some basic recipes and other culinary uses.
  • artist interpretation
    Stylidium vitiense (a kind of triggerplant) -- The fruit is edible.  All plants in this genus are either a full carnivore or a protocarnivore, depending on your point of view.  And speaking of views, I could not find a single image of this plant.  If you find one, let me know.
  • Utricularia vulgaris 002Utricularia vulgaris (common bladderwort) -- an aquatic carnivorous plant, so you can check off three boxes with this guy.  The leaves and root are eaten.  The juice can be drunk, but I wonder if that means the digestive fluid in the bladders or what.

Now a partial list of edible carnivorous fungi:
  • Coprinus comatusCoprinus comatus (shaggy mane, shaggy inky cap, lawyer's wig) -- A nematophagous fungus that traps, poisons, and kills its prey.  It is cultivated in China and foraged in the West.  Try it in a shaggy mane berbere or casserole.
  • Hohenbuehelia petaloides 60070Hohenbuehelia petaloides (no common name) -- Another musher that gets all BTK on the nematodes.  Not a choice edible (described as mealy), and may be hyperallergenic, but you can eat it if you want to.  Do you want to?  If so, tell me some recipes.
  • Laccaria bicolorLaccaria bicolor (deceiver, xocoyule) -- Unlike the other fungi here, the awesomely named deceiver mushroom kills insects like springtails.  They are a traditional food of the Nahua (Aztec) people of Mexico.
  • Tree Fungus - Oyster Mushrooms / Pleurotus Ostreatus on Dead Standing TreePleurotus spp. (oyster mushrooms, abalone mushrooms, tree mushrooms) -- I hate when one organism is named for another, but I imagine at least the mushroom was named after the mollusc chronologically as well.  Anyway, all Pleuroti are nematophagous, having little loops that slowly tighten around the wee worms.  Most of the 31 or so species are edible, and many are cultivated.  I personally have eaten, bought, foraged, and grown a number of species.  Try oysters Newburgh.
  • Stropharia rugosoannulata (wine cap stropharia, garden giant, burgundy mushroom, king stropharia, Godzilla mushroom) --  Like the others, this big guy takes out nematodes. If it doesn't grow near you, you can plant it, and it will give help your other plants like maize and Super Marios as well as giving your yard that Alice-in-Wonderland look. Eat them spiced, in wine, or both, as you'll probably have plenty.
 Now the Tungsten Chef Challenge (so called as tungsten is etymologically a carnivorous 'wolf spittle' and 'the devourer of tin'):  Make a dish using as many of these edible carnivores as possible.  I want recipes people!

12 September 2011

A Plant-Based Diet?

Tree of Life
Like any specialized topic, veganism has it's own jargon.  A tern I see gaining traction is 'plant-based,' as in a 'plant-based diet.'  Beyond being incorrect on a biological ground, I dislike how the phrase oversimplifies the concept to a binary model of us-versus-them.

Plants and and animals, or more properly Plantae and Animalia, are just two kingdoms of life.  If you were born in a previous millennium like I was, you may vaguely remember learning these as the only two.   If you paid attention past grammar school, you may remember another kingdom, Protista, which popped in to account for all those wee things that weren't quite plant nor animal.  Later others like Fungi and Monera were popularized, the latter broken up again into Archaea and Bacteria. Like many areas in phylogeny, changes are still occurring due to advancements in genetics, but most biology textbooks currently have six kingdoms:  Bacteria, Archaea, Protista, Plantae, Fungi, and Animalia.

To take it even further back, things used to be classified as animal, vegetable, or mineral, and still are if you play twenty questions.   Even if a person eschews any synthetic additives from their diet, they still need sodium chloride and other inorganic minerals that do not derive from living organisms.

I know people who eat portabella burgers (fungi) with a sprinkle of salt (mineral), a side of non-dairy yogurt (bacteria), and seaweed salad (protista) can still keep a plant-based diet.  The main basis is still plants.  And actually that sounds like a good option for dinner.  However, a flexitarian also has a plant-based diet, despite eating some animal flesh.

Because most vegans and the like want to differentiate themselves from omnivores, a term like plant-exclusive would be better, if they ate exclusively plants and not other organisms.  I know many folks hate defining themselves in terms of a negative, preferring "I eat plants" to "I don't eat animals," but we're going to have to suck it up here.  Something like an animal-abstaining diet and not plant-protist-fungi-bacteria-and-mineral-based diet.

However, only a vegan diet and it's subgenres (raw vegan, fruitarian) abstain from animal products.  So why not say vegan?  If one wants to include vegetarians and vegans in one term, that term is vegetarian.  If one wants to include flexitarians, macrobiotic folks, and anyone who isn't a meat-and-potatoes omnivore, then a new term is required.  Maybe nomnivore?  Herbivore?  Animal-minimizing diet?  What do you think?

02 September 2011

Cruelty-Free Meat or Cheat?

Estasi di S Teresa - Ecstasy of S Teresa
After my last post got scooped, besides thanking my stars that I have civil readers, I decided to raise the bar with another facet of the story.  I must caution, things are about to get all Buddhist up in here.

Ok, assuming you eat meat, would it make a difference if the animal did not suffer?  The market for free-range meat products, often at a premium, indicates that many people think so.  How about if the animal is from a factory farm, yet led a pain-free existence?  Sounds like a contradiction, but it does not have to be.  That is, if the animal was incapable of feeling pain. 

According to an op-ed by a philosophy-neuroscience-psychology PhD student at Washington University in St. Louis, eliminating the sensation of pain is the least we can do for those we sacrifice for the dinner plate.  I do not agree.  I think the least we could do is to go vegan, but hey that's me.

The author notes several ways to eliminate pain (yet not my idea), the first is "by damaging a laboratory rat’s anterior cingulate cortex, or by injecting the rat with morphine, [this will] block its affective perception of pain."  Some may think it trite, but when making an ethical choice about another, it helps to compare the choice to one involving oneself or one's own kind.  If the answers are different, one should explore why.  In this case, would it be ethical for me to beat up a person high on morphine or with a damaged anterior cingulate cortex?  Even if in the latter case they were more likely to be Republican?  I'd say no.  Plus we all know Kick Ass is a good guy.

Later in the article is mentioned the research of Min Zhou at University of Toronto and that of  Zhou-Feng Chen also at WUSTL.  Neither of which illustrate more than a step towards a freedom from pain, as they mention the animal feeling pain but not reacting the same.  I don't see how anyone would find this as an improvement, except for factory farmers who want docile and more manageable animals.  I suppose the pain could be registering but not feel bad, but that doesn't seem much better.

I think we need to analyze the aspects of pain and suffering.  Pain stems from some kind of damage to an organism.  The damage triggers signals which send a message to the brain that damage has occurred.  Often receipt of the message causes additional 'damage.'  I'll go through this backwards, from the recipient to the source.

To use an analogy, someone steals money from your bank account, the bank sends you an email, you read it, then you feel bad.  Ideally, we should eliminate all the aspects at the source:  No theft.  If the money is stolen, damage is still done whether the theft is noticed or not.

Let's say an animal is changed so they, like a Terminator, receive the pain message and sense it but do not 'feel' it.  The damage is done, and the money is gone.  They may act less emotionally, and perhaps do not suffer, but I don't think the argument could be made that it is cruelty free.

If you simply must steal the money (which you do not), is stopping the message from being sent or received better? Is no news good news?  The damage is still done, and perhaps it's worse to act like nothing happened.  Pain has a purpose.  If your wing is hurt, and you feel the pain, you can try to favor the other side and protect the sensitive area so it can heal.  If you didn't know you had an injury, and kept bumping it, it would get worse and fester.  Your quality of life would lessen, perhaps severely.

I remember a heated debate within my college's animal rights group about direct action and violence.  Some thought that destroying inanimate objects like a lab, was non-violent if no animals were harmed.  Others thought blowing something up was inherently violent.  I suppose a similar argument could be made concerning unfelt or pain-free harm done to an animal.

Also, one should consider the issue of consent.  If a being is suffering, and one can eliminate the suffering, typically that does not require consent unless the subject is a Christian Scientist.  If however, the situation involves alleviating pain that one is causing and will continue to cause intentionally, I would think this would need some kind of agreement.  Would you want any of these permanent changes made to you so not feel/sense pain/suffering?

31 August 2011

Vat Meat

Manufacturing Meat
I've been postponing a post on vat meat.  Seems like every month or so I see something on making meat in a lab.  These blurbs overflow with 'meat apologism' to sate bacon-loving hipsters and others who have guilt but just can't quit meat.  I know many people miss meat to an amazing degree, but I've never really felt that.  Maybe I miss convenience, but that's minor.  So I have been thinking of a succinct reply to the issue of vat meat or in-vitro meat other than rolling my eyes.  I don't think I've succeeded, so feel free to roll your eyes instead.

Here are the main issues concerned:

Food Security:  This all depends on cost.  Many of the above-linked articles mention this feed-the-world aspect, as do many pronouncements regarding new foodstuffs.  I'll believe it when I see it.

Health:  I see a marginal improvement here over factory farmed meat.  I'm confident the level of cholesterol and fat can be modified to some extent.  Yet I doubt the vat meat will catch up with an animal-free diet.

Sustainability:  Will the resources going in to this be much more than what we get out?  I think it can be more efficient to grow only a blob of muscle and not the bones, skin, hair, brain, and so on.  However, it all depends on what and how much is fed to the vat meat to make it grow.

Woo:  Woo is that irrationality that is always in play with such visceral and emotional choices.  People really like the whole charade that is natural food.  Some would rather smoke natural cigarettes than eat something sciency, even if the former is much more likely to kill them.  The only way I see around this is to suppress labeling so a consumer does not know if the meat they bought came from a factory farm or not.  This has certainly worked in the past, so it should work here as well.

Taste:  It bugs me that this is a main issue.  I don't think anyone likes the flavor meat with no additions or adulterations.  Most omnivores char it, season it, and put it with other ingredients, burying the flavor of the meat.  Then at the next meal, they eat something different.  But that's beside the point.  Theoretically the meat from the lab will taste the same as meat from the factory farm, though no one has tasted the progress so far.  So take that entire lack of empirical evidence how you will.

Cost:  That's the big issue.  I don't hear much about companies doing this, only labs.  This hints that the potential profits are low, if not negative.  However, labs may be dabbling in this area as the technology is closely related to growing human organs in vitro and engineering meat (mostly muscle) should be easier than engineering a heart.  But I'm not sure doing this in a lab/factory will be more cost efficient than a factory farm.  Sure, they could engineer Kobe beef or some high-end stuff, but I'm not sure the people who like organic beef from cows massaged by hand will go for something from a factory.

Animal Cruelty: This is perhaps the biggest issue.  There isn't much of a point otherwise, unless cost is less than rice and beans.  After all, PETA's even offering one million dollars for the first to make in-vitro chicken within a year (guess they have a big barbeque next June).  But as I mentioned previously, unless they dramatically change the technology, they will grow the cell cultures for the in-vitro meat in a bath of fetal bovine serum (FBS), fetal horse serum (FHS), or some other liquefied aborted animal.  They do this because science does not know all the little chemicals that a cell or an organ needs to grow, so they just dump a soup on there that has more than enough.  There exist some alternatives, but I'm not sure if these researchers are using any of them.  Besides, is growing cells from an unborn calf cheaper and easier than growing the calf into a cow?

So when will this happen?  According to many of the articles, it's always five years away, which means never.  Though I think it actually will happen, just because the power of bacon and guilt is so strong.  However, once it happens in a research lab, I don't see it going too far beyond a novelty.

Would any of you, vegan or otherwise, eat such a thing as test tube meat?  What about test tube dairy?  Test tube honey?  Test tube long pig?

29 August 2011

A Minor Perk of A Post-Animal-Testing World

Bowser Eats Broccoli
I am a fan of molecular gastronomy, where cooks use scientific understanding and new technology to make better and more novel food.  In a moment of half-baked entrepreneurial spirit, I wondered if the techniques for drug discovery could be applied to developing new flavorings.  So in the same way that the side chain on the penicillin molecule is varied to create benzylpenicillin and phenoxymethylpenicillin, I wondered if one could take vanillin and modify it.  I know there already exists ethylvanillin, but what about butylvanillin, pentylvanillin, or putting something crazier on there?  I think the market for novel capsaicinoids would be immense, especially if one could boost the heat.

Those of you more into the wilds more than the lab, could use a chemical prospecting approach.  There are more than 1,740,330 species of plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, and archaea, and humanity has yet to taste them all.  Especially archaea, which to my knowledge none are eaten by humans intentionally.  Some of the inedible/poisonous ones could still have interesting flavor compounds developed through evolutionary processes.

But I bumped into a hurdle that would be pretty big even without involving my ethics.  Before putting a new chemical in food, it needs safety testing just like a drug would.  I know many labs dread the whole FDA approval process, and that's for life-saving drugs and not frivolities like funny flavors.  Personally, I do not think all those animal lives are worth it.

The science of toxicology is still very young, as evidenced by the century-old animal testing methods still in practice.  But as I have brought to your attention on a few occasions, science is slowly progressing to cheaper, more accurate, and less cruel models of testing.  As with other technological advancements like the Internet and plastics, many other advancements follow as a result.  I think that with the advancement of animal-free tox testing one of the results will be more food options.  Perhaps some new kind of algae, chytrid, or other wee thing we can grow in bulk.

In the long meantime before that day, we'll have to settle for self-testing with 'universal' edibilty tests or by desperation at times of famine. Of course, those of you that forage know that the number of edible plants, protists, and fungi far exceeds what is at the mega-mart.  So you really have no excuse for not trying something new, and living part of the dream today.

18 July 2011

3D Herpes Test Saves Animal Lives

Herpes Simplex
No, not a test to see if you have 3D herpes, or any other kind, but a test to study herpes simplex virus in vivo.  By the way, thanks to your mom for sending this in.  Apparently she's an expert on herpes.

Anyway, Dr. Anke Burger-Kentischer of the Institut für Grenzflächenverfahrenstechnik at Stuttgart, along with her team and the cell systems department recently developed a three-dimensional infection model for the herpes virus.  Because herpes flares up with cold sores on the lip and then hides in a lysogenic phase in the nerve cells, it is difficult to study.  This new model makes it easier to detect if the virus is really gone or just dormant.  Like similar news previously reported here, this approach replaces animal testing with a more useful and less cruel alternative.

Dr. Burger-Kentischer believes that the model can be adapted to study another member of alphaherpesvirinae, the varicella zoster virus, which causes shingles and chicken pox.  Of course, you all received your vaccination for that, right?  I know the vaccine has gelatin in it and is created using chicken embryos, but besides saving human lives, vaccination removes the need for animal testing and research using animal products.  If you want to make a change, go to the crux of the issue and press for vegan vaccines.  In the meantime, circle circle dot dot...

06 June 2011

You Probably are a Cannibal.

I'm Not Supposed to Eat My Hair
Well, cannibalish.  Like the vegetarian of cannibals, as opposed to the vegan of cannibals you thought you were.  Unless you ate anyone I do not know about, and you and your Donner party are on your own.

Anyway, I was perusing the Vegetarian Journal's Guide to Food Ingredients, trying to update my knowledge of ingredients.  I was clicking around when I saw that a some amino acids such as L-cysteine, tryptophan, leucine, isoleucine, and valine may be derived from duck feathers, hog hair, or human hair.  Most of those amino acids primarily are used in nutritional supplements as far as comestibles, but the first, L-cysteine, is frequently found in bread products.  So next time you have a veggie burger and there is hair in your bun, it may be intentional.

Personally, I do not mind the human hair part, but 80% of it comes from duck feathers, although few manufacturers use vegan alternatives.  I imagine that the same issue is a concern in laboratories with amino acids there.  I sent a few emails out asking laboratory suppliers this.  I'll let you know what comes back.

15 May 2011

Coumarin: Another Misadventure of Animal Testing

Not long ago, I was at a colleague's home, and she produced a bottle of spirit with buffalo grass in it.  I had never heard of this organism, and found out that Hierochloe odorata is one of many plants used to impart a sweet grassy aroma to food and drink.

The compound responsible for this flavor is coumarin.  You may have culinary knowledge of it by using woodruff (Galium odoratum) or tonka bean (Dipteryx odorata).  The latter gives the compound its name through the original Tupi word kumarú.  Tonka bean extracts and coumarin additives in food are also explicitly banned in food in the United States as of 1954.  It also faces similar reprobations in Deutschland.

Alert readers and those past their first cup of coffee may notice a loophole:  One can add woodruff or one of the many other plants containing coumarin to food legally.  In fact, woodruff is explicitly legal in alcoholic beverages.

So why all the hubbub?  Why make it illegal to any degree?  Well, rats that injest coumarin break it down into coumarin 3,4-epoxide, which kills the liver.  Coumarin and it's derivatives are used as a rodenticide for this reason.  However, rats and humans are different, and humans metabolize coumarin to 7-hydroxycoumarin, which is markedly less toxic.

Coumarin is also in sweet clover, and if silage is made of it for livestock, some species of fungi will transform the coumarin to dicoumarol and cause the hemorrhagic Sweet Clover Disease.  But again, humans are not cattle and also do not eat fermented clover. 

Coumarin is also the precursor to the anticoagulant warfarin, which like many medicines can be toxic if misused.  However, warfarin is synthesized from dicoumarol, and not coumarin directly, and coumarin does not have the anticoagulating effect that warfarin does.

I did a small amount of searching and could not find any incidents of coumarin poisoning in humans that was from coumarin itself and not due to a coumarin derivative.  I welcome anyone to show me otherwise.

The bit that really shows how coumarin is not as scary as people think, which those who already clicked on some of the above links may have gleaned, is that most of us have already consumed substantial amounts of coumarin, especially in the form of cinnamon.  Cassia cinnamon (Cinnamomum aromaticum), which is what is most common in supermarkets, has 2,100-4,400 PPM of coumarin.  Although woodruff has about thrice as much and the tonka bean has about tenfold as much, cinnamon is still in the ballpark and not quite as much the pariah.  Other commonly-consumed sources are coumarin include jujube (Ziziphus zizyphus), lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), peppermint (Mentha x piperita), celery (Apium graveolens), carrot (Daucus carota), and many more legal plants without scary warnings

So the general public is clearly capable of consuming coumarin safely.  We should not continue to ban coumarin based on old and misleading animal testing data and guilt by association.  Think this is silly and needs to be changed?  Contact the FDA and tell them how you feel.  You may also want to ask them about safrole and thujone.

Important:  Consume tonka bean, woodruff, and other plants with coumarin at your own risk.  Read up on it further and make your own decision.  I don't want to tell you what you can and cannot eat any more than I think a government should.  Also, make sure you know the law in your area and make your own decisions.

Also, there is clearly a dearth of vegan recipes online for tonka. If you do decide to break the law try some, let me know what you come up with.  Looks fairly easy to get tonka online, so have fun, don't die, and don't get me in trouble.

04 May 2011

Meat Glue Used for Evil

I don't hide the fact that I'm a fan of molecular gastronomy.  I like experimentation, that's why I'm all sciency.  Plus I like food, hence the vegany.  So when a friend showed me this article on The Dangers of Meat Glue and Processed Meat, I was pretty intrigued.

I've seen chefs make meat noodles and all sorts of strange things with transglutaminase (b.k.a. meat glue, though it really should be called protein glue), and I even had an idea to make reverse pasta where I make pasta out of tomatoes (and no flour) and then make a sauce from polenta or farina.  It basically cross-links glutamine-containing protein strands to make one big protein blob.

The above article and video show that some companies and restaurants are using transglutaminase in disreputable ways.  Or atleast alludes to it.  I agree that selling chicken nuggets as prime cuts of meat is shady and possibly already illegal.  However, I think the health risks may be overblown.

First, unlike with transfats there is no health risk from simply eating these 'glued' proteins.  Humans have enzymes to break down these crosslinks, which occur naturally in many proteins we eat.

Although I do agree that the risks of contamination are multiplied, this risk is background to most meat eaters.  Eating fishballs at an Asian restaurant, which is made with transglutaminase, does not show any large risk of disease.  A more apt analogy for Western diets is ground beef, which is made form unglued bits of countless animals.  We know it's made from low-quality meat, and it has shown a higher risk for contamination, but most people eat it anyways. 

The real contamination risk is the meat itself, and the sum total of shady practices of which using meat glue to sell remnants is such a tiny fraction of the horrible and unhealthy things that happen.  It's like shunning the late Osama bin Laden (or أسامة بن لادن) for picking his nose.  Plus they have vegan fishballs that taste great to me.

One last note for vegan molecular gastronomers (and protein biochemists) who may have missed it in the viddie:  Transglutaminase can come from bacterial sources, but can also be derived from swine and bovine blood as a slaughterhouse byproduct.  So check with your manufacturer.  Let me know if you hear anything about brands/products that are vegan and I'll post them.

23 April 2011

Today, in False Dichotomy

I was driving the automobile yesterday, when I saw a distasteful (in my opinion) billboard.

I mean look at that!  A vermin escaped from a mad scientist's lab versus the cute white girl that cable news networks go nuts for when one is missing or down a well.  The social construction on this thing is crazy.  They even split up the word "RATHER" into "RAT" and "HER."

I have a few disparate responses.  First, it should be obvious to anyone who does not immediately believe every ad they see that real life isn't that black and white.  Much animal testing is avoidable, unnecessary, or pointless.  Much of it has nothing to do with life or death situations.  Much of it is like testing pomegranate juice to the point of brain damage to test any health benefits to humans.  I'd like to see that billboard.  Much of it has to be redone on humans anyway, or else if we tested chocolate on dogs or strychnine on hamsters we'd be in for surprises.

Plus, and I hate to invoke Godwin's Law so soon, just because research saves lives doesn't make it right.  If you click on those links you will be thinking of an even more absurd and grim iteration of the billboard above.  I could also go one step more and combine pointless experiments with those conducted on low-status humans and mention the Tuskegee syphilis experiments (and the associated ones in Guatemala).

Besides weeding out all those pointless or avoidable tests, many animal testing can be further minimized by testing on cell cultures, tissues, and the like first.  This won't catch every pitfall, but it will catch some.  It's also cheaper, and that's why more and more companies are using these tests and developing more.

Essentially, I'd like to see more resources put to developing tests to avoid animal testing.  Besides saving animals both human and non, it will mean I won't have to see this billboard.

So who would I rather see live?  Both the cute fuzzy and the brat, and while I'm making demands let's make her vegan.  :þ

21 March 2011

Radiation Irritation

With the drama unfolding at Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant (or 福島第一原子力発電所), the fear of radioactivity has ratcheted up many notches.  I think this fear is largely irrational, and thus a phobia, and furthermore in need of rational information.

I have worked with radiation in the past, mainly 35S-labeled methionine, which has a fairly short halflife of about 3 months.  But I know my way around a geiger, have used dosimeter badges, and been responsible for radioactive waste.  I used it in the lab for pulse-chase and other radiolabelling experiments. The whole experience has so far made me much less concerned about radiation.  My exposure to all the safety procedures and day-to-day grind showed me that although there is risk, it is managed risk.

However, most people do not have such a positive exposure (get it?).  Radiation causes mutant spiders and cancer, and is dangerous.  This is all true, but the risk is overblown.  We can't even get Kick-Ass to be a reality, let alone Spider Man.

As usual, datanerd and comic stripper Randall Munroe has put together a well-sourced chart detailing the risks.  I like seeing how the levels from a mammogram are right between three-mile island and Fukushima I.  And how coal plants are worse than nuclear plants.  Plus seeing how your significant other may be trying to kill you with ionizing radiation from their body is nice.  Another fun tool from the EPA tells you your yearly dose in mrem.  All you people scared about fallout reaching the U.S. better move out of your brick houses.  Unless they're fallout shelters.

Ok, you may say this is all fan and dandy like sour candy, but you are a worrywart and just have to do something other than getting a new watch and throwing out your smoke detector.  You don't care for the charts, you just know that it's in the food supply and you want no part of it.  Well, then stop drinking milk.  Especially if you're young.  It happened before, so why not save the cows and yourself from being hurt and opt out?

And screw potassium iodide.  Unless you are at Fukushima I working on the reactor, it does nothing good for you, and may harm you.  If you want something shown to help eliminate radioactive material from the body, and has no bad effects (and in fact tastes great and is very healthy), eat some seafood.  Not sea meat, sea vegetables.  Sea meat does nothing for you.  I'm a fan of dulse flakes on mac and chreese.