Here’s How Your Thanksgiving Is Genetically Altered

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As you stock up for an epic Thanksgiving feast, goodies with genetic alterations may not be at the top of your shopping list.

Instead, you may buy organic carrots, or a turkey certified by the Non-GMO Project, because you believe these items are inherently healthier or safer to eat.

All the same, pretty much everything on your plate has been genetically altered at some point, despite the labels.

“It’s up to us as parents or humans to seek out correct information,” Alison Van Eenennaam, a UC Davis professor who studies animal genomics and biotechnology, told BuzzFeed News. “And that’s why my kids are vaccinated, we drink pasteurized milk, and we happily eat GMOs.”

All kinds of techniques have been used over the centuries to tinker with the DNA of fruits, vegetables, and animals to make them prettier, tastier, easier to grow, and otherwise better in a cornucopia of ways. Some changes have been intentional, others accidental. Genetically modified organisms, or “GMOs,” foods likewise improved with genetic engineering, are just the latest chapter in this long history.

But no technique, including genetic engineering, makes a piece of food fundamentally unsafe and unhealthy (or safe and healthy), said Van Eenennaam. It depends on how it’s used.

“I’m having a big Thanksgiving meal and I’m having my best friends over and my kids and my husband and I’m feeding this food to them,” she said, adding that those risks are minimal at best. “I love them as much as you love yours. I would never expose my family to anything I thought was dangerous.”

Just as a reality check, here are some of the genetic backstories of your favorite Thanksgiving dishes.

Shironosov / Getty Images

1. Crossbreeding

Few of the plants or animals we eat today resemble their wild ancestors. That’s because over the centuries, farmers selectively bred certain plants or animals to produce offspring with traits, like thicker meat or sweeter flavors or brighter colors. Virtually everything at the grocery store has gone through this process, Van Eenennaam says.

• Americans’ bottomless craving for white meat has led to the factory-farmed turkey industry. Over the last three decades, production in the US has doubled to almost 300 million birds, all bred to grow very large, very quickly.

Turkeys were first domesticated more than 1,500 years ago in Mexico. Unlike their sleek, agile, wild ancestors, commercially raised turkeys have trouble flying and running, and can’t reproduce naturally. Bon appétit.

Nbiebach / Getty Images

Corn descended from a form of a grass called teosinte, which is native to Central America. Between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago, farmers there began domesticating what became maize by noticing that some plants were tastier and bigger than others. They saved those kernels, and replanted them in the next harvest. Our modern-day corn-on-the-cob is much bigger, as a result, and has many more rows of kernels.

• Selective breeding is also a big reason why the Red Delicious apples in your pie are so red, sweet, and mushy. The onions in the stuffing have likewise changed a lot since farmers started cultivating them more than 5,000 years ago. The list goes on and on.

Antonprado / Getty Images

2. Mutation breeding

Mutation breeding consists of exposing seeds to chemicals or radiation, which randomly scrambles the genes inside them and, hopefully, yields desirable traits. Developed after World War II, the technique is unpredictable — but it’s also widely used. More than 3,000 crop varieties have been created this way, according to an international database.

• Mutant wheat is used for bread and pasta. For example, durum wheat loaded with extra protein makes spaghetti strands stronger and more elastic.

• Some popular varieties of grapefruits — the Star Ruby and Rio Red — are mutants created in a lab by Texas scientists who wanted the reddest grapefruits possible.

Simonbradfield / Getty Images

3. Gene engineering

This is the technology behind GMOs. Broadly, genetic engineering involves precisely transferring certain genes from either the same species or other species altogether to get a desired trait.

• More than 90 percent of the corn grown in the United States is genetically modified, but most of it ends up in ethanol, animal feed, or processed food rather than sold as corn on the cob. In 2011, however, Monsanto began growing sweet corn engineered with a protein that helps the crop fight off pests. It’s meant to be eaten directly and sold in grocery stores.

• There are small amounts of squash engineered to fend off viruses, available in a handful of varieties: yellow crookneck, straightneck, and zucchini.

Tomassereda / Getty Images

• Your mashed potatoes may be engineered to resist bruising, and to produce less of a potentially cancer-causing chemical when baked, fried, or roasted. The Innate potatoes were invented by the J.R. Simplot Company, and the first generation started hitting shelves more than a year ago. A spokesperson told the Associated Press in October that 40 million pounds had been sold in 35 states.

• Sometimes genetic engineering is a work of nature, not man, as in the case of sweet potatoes. Scientists reported last year that in nearly 300 sweet potato varieties grown all over the world, they’d found bacteria genes that may have made the vegetable more palatable. The DNA appears to have made its way into plant cells at least 8,000 years ago in a feat of natural genetic engineering.

Innershadows / Getty Images

The FDA requires that food derived from genetically engineered plants meets the same food safety requirements as food from traditionally bred plants (which, as a reminder, can include crops produced through mutation breeding and crossbreeding).

The bottom line, according to Van Eenennaam: Don’t be afraid of cooking up a storm.

“What I would be more worried about is undercooking my turkey,” she said, “because then I could actually be exposed to salmonella — that actually could kill people.”

LINK: Seed Money

LINK: Say Hello To The Apple That Never Browns

LINK: Europe Is Rethinking The Meaning Of A GMO

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Scientists Just Proved That “Patient Zero” Did Not Bring HIV To The US

NIH / Via nlm.nih.gov

Researchers have definitively traced how HIV first spread to the US, thanks to an impressive genetic analysis of thousands of blood samples collected in San Francisco and New York in the late 1970s.

The study, published on Wednesday in Nature, focused in particular on decoding the viral strains carried by eight people who were infected with HIV. Because the virus mutates rapidly from one person to the next, it’s possible for scientists to compare genetic markers in each strain to track the history of how it spread.

These eight new genetic sequences, along with a ninth from sub-Saharan Africa that had been done years earlier, are the oldest full copies of the HIV genome.

“Looking at these archival samples allowed us to step back in time,” Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona and lead author of the study, told BuzzFeed News.

Worobey’s analysis shows that after emerging in sub-Saharan Africa in the early 1900s, HIV hit the Caribbean by 1967, and made its way to New York City around 1971. Within about five years, it then spread to San Francisco.

Exactly how the virus traveled from the Caribbean to the US remains unclear.

“There’s many plausible routes that the virus could have taken,” Worobey said. “It could be a person of any nationality moving from one region to the next. It could have been a contaminated blood product, since until the mid-1970s a lot of commercial blood products were imported to the US from Haiti. We simply don’t know.”

The paper is a technical feat, but also has a powerful human side: It definitively clears the name of “Patient Zero,” a gay French-Canadian flight attendant named Gaëtan Dugas who for decades has been accused of bringing the virus to North America.

Dugas was hired by Air Canada in 1974, and his job took him to dozens of cities across North America. In 1980, he was diagnosed with skin cancer, just a year before the Centers for Disease Control flagged a mysterious cluster of infectious diseases in five young and previously healthy gay men in Los Angeles.

By 1982, the CDC had identified the mysterious illness as AIDS. Although tens of thousands had been infected by that time, scientists struggled to figure out what was spreading and how it was being spread. The CDC’s study of the initial cluster study grew to include 40 cases in several cities, displayed in CDC papers published in 1984 as a ball-and-stick diagram showing how they were connected by sexual encounters.

NIH / Via nlm.nih.gov

Dugas, known simply as Patient “O” (for “Outside of California”) in the CDC papers, was near the center of the cluster. A mistake in CDC communications, however, labeled him as Patient “0.”

Dugas died that same year, but the mistake would plague his name posthumously. In 1987, Randy Shilts published the widely read And the Band Played On, the first popular history of the AIDS epidemic. In it, Shilts named Dugas and delved deep into his life, portraying him as “Patient Zero,” a sexually promiscuous flight attendant who knowingly spread the virus.

The book spurred many sensational takes about the highly feared and poorly understood epidemic. The New York Post ran a front page headline that read, “THE MAN WHO GAVE US AIDS,” claiming that Dugas had triggered a “gay cancer” epidemic in the US. The National Review nicknamed Dugas “the Columbus of AIDS.” People magazine declared Dugas one of “The 25 Most Intriguing People of ’87,” writing that his “fierce sexual drive gave impetus to an epidemic that claimed his life and thousands more.”

AIDS activists as well as scientists at the CDC tried to make the public aware that the label was untrue.

“We spent a lot of time denying that and refuting that, but some people kept on believing it,” said Jim Curran, an epidemiology professor at Emory University who led the CDC task force on AIDS in 1981. Although “Patient 0” had become the agency’s shorthand for Dugas after the mistake was popularized, he said, they never claimed he was the first case in the US.

While scientists struggled to work out the mechanics of the virus, the accidental phrase “Patient Zero” — never before used to describe the first case of any epidemic — took hold in the public’s imagination.

“There was so much anxiety and fear about HIV and origins of HIV that it led to blame — blame along people’s beliefs, blame along people’s prejudices,” Richard Elion, an HIV researcher at George Washington University, told BuzzFeed News. “People want to believe that bad things in the world happen because of bad people. But biology doesn’t work that way.”

Worobey’s new study goes a long way toward dispelling the myth of Patient Zero. In addition to the eight genomes that showed the virus’s movement from the Caribbean to the US, the researchers sequenced Dugas’s viral genome and showed that it was typical of other US strains at the time. In other words, the virus he carried had no markers distinguishing it as an earlier strain.

“People want to believe that bad things in the world happen because of bad people. But biology doesn’t work that way.”

For the activists and scientists who have been trying to clear Patient Zero’s name for decades, the fact that the myth persisted for so long should serve as a warning.

“Patient Zero sort of served as a gay boogie man,” Mark Harrington, executive director of the Treatment Action Group and a longtime activist, told BuzzFeed News. “We still see that — certain people are still portrayed as predators for transmitting AIDS to partners. We need to do a better job of distinguishing diseases from villains.”

There may be scientific value in figuring out the “Patient Zero” of any disease, such as understanding what enables viruses to spread or what gives certain people the ability to fight infections. But Worobey hopes his study will help prevent future cases of finger-pointing.

“I think for any infectious disease — whether it’s Zika or Ebola or SARS or flu or HIV — there is value in trying to understand what it takes to make a successful outbreak,” he said. But, he added, “the idea of blaming people for a pathogen that infected thousands of people before anyone knew about it is absurd.”

LINK: After 30 Years, Why Don’t We Have An HIV Vaccine?

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These Parents Don’t Want To Know What’s In Their Baby’s DNA

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Parents are far less interested in decoding their newborn’s DNA than scientists had thought, according to a new study.

Every year, 4 million newborns in the US already get their blood tested for a few dozen genetic glitches that cause rare diseases. Newer tests — known as whole-genome or whole-exome sequencing — can give much more information about hundreds or even thousands of genes.

These sequencing tests are dropping in price, but still expensive at about $1,000 per person. Few healthy babies have been sequenced to date. But as recently as 2013, it seemed that demand for these tests was sky-high: According to a survey of 514 parents in Boston, more than 80% said they were “extremely,” “very,” or “somewhat” interested.

But two years later, when those same parents were asked to actually enroll in a genetic-sequencing program, just 7% signed up. That's according to the new, unpublished study, dubbed “BabySeq,” presented on Wednesday at the American Society of Human Genetics meeting in Vancouver, Canada.

The huge drop-off rate is likely due to families’ lack of interest and concerns about finding out unpleasant information. These aren’t irrational fears. For example, one of the babies enrolled in the study tested positive for a mutation in the BRCA2 gene that’s linked to increased breast and ovarian cancer risk. The mutation had been passed down from the baby’s mother, who was then told the unexpected news about not only her new child’s risk, but her own.

Although the study is still in progress, its early results suggest that it may be a long time before newborn sequencing becomes routine — and it won’t happen without families having to confront tough choices.

Robert Green

Wikimedia / Via commons.wikimedia.org

Robert Green, a geneticist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and one of the BabySeq study’s leaders, believes that genomics will eventually be integrated into every aspect of health care. But not just yet. “At this moment in time, should we be using sequencing with newborns? I really don’t know,” Green told BuzzFeed News.

Green’s team invited the families of 345 babies in the intensive care unit and 2,062 healthy newborns to join the sequencing project. The vast majority didn’t take the next step of seeing a genetic counselor, with half citing logistical hurdles. These sleep-deprived, harried parents were probably (and understandably) reluctant to make follow-up visits to the hospital, Green said.

But dozens of parents also dropped out after meeting with the genetic counselor. About 26% of this group cited confidentiality and privacy concerns, 26% worried about unfavorable or uncertain results, and 17% feared insurance discrimination. Even among the babies in intensive care — whose parents, you might assume, would be more motivated to understand genetic risks — enrollment rate was just 7%, the same as it was in the group of healthy babies.

“I was surprised about that,” Green said. It could be that parents were too stressed about their sick newborns to join a research project that may not have direct relevance to them, he said. “If they’re emotionally distraught, if they’re somewhat overwhelmed at having to come to the hospital, all these things I think impact them.”

Because this type of project hadn’t been done before, Green said his group felt compelled to tell parents about every potential harm, even at the risk of exaggerating some of them. So he wasn’t completely surprised by the low enrollment rates.

Photodisc / Getty Images

About 50 families so far have received the results of their baby’s genetic sequencing. (The study covered the costs; it’s debatable whether people would be willing or able to pay for such a test in real life.) Dangerous or “likely” dangerous mutations linked to heart diseases showed up in three babies, and to a vitamin deficiency in another baby. Still, these genetic variants are not guarantees of disease, especially since they showed up in healthy, symptom-free infants.

Laura Hercher, a genetic counselor who teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and was not involved with the BabySeq study, told BuzzFeed News that she was shocked at the number of people who enrolled. “These are tiny numbers,” she said.

The results imply that parents are changing their minds after reading the details of “informed consent” documents, which are required in human research studies and spell out the possible consequences and benefits of participating.

“It suggests they’re really finding the informed consent information to be things they hadn’t thought about beforehand, and so that stresses the value of informed consent,” Hercher said.

“Had we not told the mother, we would have been sitting on a finding she was not even aware of — of her own risk of breast and ovarian cancer.”

Some of the test results have already inspired preventative measures. The baby with the vitamin deficiency-linked mutations, for example, is now taking a dietary supplement as a precaution, Green said. And the baby with the BRCA2 mutation led the researchers to rethink part of their study. Originally they had planned to only reveal variants linked with childhood diseases. This did not include BRCA2, since breast and ovarian cancer occur in adulthood.

But because this information meant the mother was also in danger — a “rare” yet not unprecedented finding — they decided to disclose it, Green said.

“Had we not told the mother, we would have been sitting on a finding she was not even aware of — of her own risk of breast and ovarian cancer,” Green said. The mother was “grateful” to be told, he said, and the researchers are now adjusting the rules of the study to allow for similar situations in the future.

The project raises another ethical dilemma about gene sequencing: Should a parent’s desire to find out their child’s DNA override their child’s freedom to do so on their own?

That’s a question families, bioethicists, and scientists will debate for years to come, said Misha Angrist, a Duke University associate professor who specializes in science policy and was not involved with the BabySeq study.

“People will say, ‘Well, you know when my daughter turns 18, she can decide for herself whether she wants to know that,’” he said. But others will say this is just like getting medical information from an ultrasound. “I think it really comes down to your view of parenting.”

LINK: Pregnant Women Are Finding Out They Have Cancer From A Genetic Test Of Their Babies

LINK: This Woman Says Her 2-Year-Old Died Because Of A False DNA Test

LINK: No One Should Edit The Genes Of Embryos To Make Babies, NIH Chief Says

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17 Mind-Bending Pictures Of Life Through A Microscope

The world is much bigger than you might think.

For over 70 years, photographer and zoology graduate Spike Walker has been fascinated with the worlds too small to see with the naked eye.

As a 12-year-old in 1945, Spike pursued his love of both science and photography by purchasing his first microscope. Sixteen years later, in 1961, he was awarded the Royal Society Award for Scientific Research for his extensive work on work of living freshwater protozoa and algae. This year, the Royal Photographic Society has presented Walker with the Scientific Imaging Award, an accolade given to an “individual for a body of scientific imaging which promotes public knowledge and understanding.”

The origins of every person on Earth, caught in a single picture.

The origins of every person on Earth, caught in a single picture.

A living human egg with several sperm trying to fertilize it.

RPS via Rex Images

The psychedelic crystalized forms of vitamin C.

The psychedelic crystalized forms of vitamin C.

Vitamin C crystals in a water solution.

RPS via Rex Images


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Inside The White Vote: Ethnic Germans And Italians Love Trump, Poll Finds

Trump supporters at a March rally in St. Louis, Missouri.

Michael B. Thomas / AFP / Getty Images

Race and ethnicity have been a constant backdrop to the 2016 presidential election, thanks to Donald Trump’s provocative comments on immigrants, black communities, and an American-born judge he called “Mexican.”

Yet in all the slicing and dicing of voting intentions by key demographic groups, the “white vote” has largely been considered as a single ethnic block — until now.

A new poll run for BuzzFeed News, which delves into white voters’ self-reported ancestry, reveals surprising diversity in their political outlook. White voters who identify most strongly with their German or Italian heritage strongly support Trump, whereas those who self-identify as Irish, English, or Scottish are more evenly split between Trump and Hillary Clinton.

Between September 22 and October 2 (notably, before the bombshell video of Trump making lewd comments about women), as part of its regular online political poll, the survey firm Morning Consult asked more than 5,000 registered voters to check which of the most common ancestry categories recorded by the Census Bureau applied to them, and also to pick the one ancestry they identified with most.

As in previous polls, voters were starkly divided along broad racial, ethnic, and gender lines.

Black means any voter who identified as African American; Latino means voters who identified as Hispanic; white refers to non-Hispanic whites. The poll included 4,441 white voters, 441 Latino voters, and 460 black voters; there were 2,468 men and 2,897 women. Don’t know/no opinion not shown.

Peter Aldhous for BuzzFeed News

But the differences across the most commonly reported white European ancestries were also striking, especially when voters were asked to choose the one heritage they identified with most.

The poll included 429 white voters who identified most strongly with German ancestry, 533 English, 344 Irish, 211 Italian, and 911 American. Margins of error run from +/- 3.25 percentage points for American to +/- 6.75 percentage points for Italian.

Peter Aldhous for BuzzFeed News

“The survey suggests that white Americans are not a monolithic group,” Kyle Dropp, Morning Consult’s co-founder and chief research officer, told BuzzFeed News.

See here for details on the poll analysis.

Many white Americans simply described their ancestry as “American.” Historically, that has been a label favored by people of Scotch-Irish descent who settled in Appalachia — although it was probably used more widely in our poll.

German is the most common European heritage in the United States, claimed by some 45 million people in 2015, or more than 14% of the U.S. population, according to the Census Bureau. Irish, at more than 10%, and English, at about 7.5%, are the next most common. (These categories overlap because many people identify with more than one ancestry).

Those ancestries also led the way in our poll, although Morning Consult recorded more people who identified as English and American than expected from the Census Bureau numbers. That could reflect differences in sampling, the way in which the ancestry question was asked, or the fact that our poll only included registered voters.

So why do ethnic Germans and Italians like Trump and the GOP?

Italian Americans seem to have been among the first aboard the “Trump train” of disaffected white voters that swept him to victory in the Republican primaries.

“Italian heritage was a significant predictor of Trump support,” Patrick Ruffini, a Republican digital strategist and founder of the media firm Engage in Alexandria, Virginia, told BuzzFeed News.

In the primaries, Trump dominated in the Northeast, Appalachia and the South, performing particularly well among a demographic once called “Reagan Democrats.” In the Northeast, many of these voters were Italian Americans.

In favoring Trump, voters with German ancestry are siding with one of their own: Trump’s grandfather, Friedrich Trump, then a 16-year-old barber, sailed in 1885 from Bremen, Germany, to make a new life in New York.

But that seems unlikely to explain their preference for the Republican candidate.

“I'm pretty sure these voters do not see Trump as a friendly co-ethnic,” James Gimpel, a political scientist at the University of Maryland who has studied the persistent influence of European ancestry on voting habits in New England, told BuzzFeed News.

Indeed, when asked about their preferences in a congressional race with a generic Republican and Democrat, voters who identified as most German were more likely than others to prefer the GOP.

Voters were asked if they would support a Republican or Democrat, if a congressional election were held in their district today. Groups and margins of error as above.

Peter Aldhous for BuzzFeed News

White voters generally had negative views of President Barack Obama’s record, but ethnic Germans were the most disapproving.

Voters were asked if they approved or disapproved of the job Barack Obama is doing as President. Groups and margins of error as above.

Peter Aldhous for BuzzFeed News

“People’s inherited party preferences are very stable, which is what your poll probably shows,” Gimpel said. He pointed out that concentrations of ethnic Germans in midwestern cities including St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis, and in parts of rural Texas, have long leaned Republican.

Indeed, much of the variation in political views across the country can be explained by looking at the immigrants who settled there, David Shor of Civis Analytics, a data science firm in Chicago and Washington DC, spun out of the 2012 Obama campaign, told BuzzFeed News. Scandinavian immigrants shaped the liberal politics of parts of Minnesota, he said, while Dutch Protestants made parts of Iowa deeply conservative.

The German immigrants who came to the United States in the 1800s were a large and diverse group, including Protestants and Catholics, socialists and conservatives. “For a long time, Germans were seen as a swing demographic,” Shor said.

More recently, they have tended to lean Republican, according to Ruffini.

If ethnic Germans are motivated more by traditional conservative values than specific support for Trump, then the recently publicized tape of the candidate making lewd comments about women may change the picture. (A poll conducted on Saturday for Politico, however, revealed little change in voting intentions among GOP supporters.)

In our poll, ethnic Germans were a little older and more likely to be Protestant than the typical white voter, which could partly explain why they skewed GOP.

Still, Peter Skerry, a political scientist at Boston College who studies race, immigration, and ethnic politics, wondered if the tense racial backdrop to the 2016 election cycle has exaggerated splits among white voters along old ethnic lines.

Ethnic Germans, who were forced to downplay their heritage in two world wars, may be particularly suspicious of more recent immigrants, Skerry speculated: “If immigration is one of the key topics in the campaign, what’s the largest immigrant group in America, and the one that was most suppressed? It’s Germans.”

LINK: The Inconvenient Truths Of Polling That Every Voter Should Know

LINK: The Election Probably Won’t Be Won By Hidden Trump Supporters

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American Girl: How Young Is Too Young To Be Trans?

In October 2015, Nicole buckled in to her mom’s Prius, along with her older brother, mom, dad, and a bag full of her favorite dolls, for a three-hour drive to see a doctor about her new life.

Over the past 18 months, the 9-year-old had grown out her black curly hair from a crew cut to a flouncy bob just below her ears. She had traded in pants and overalls for pink and purple dresses covered in rhinestones. And she had changed her name, ditching the common boys name that now made her cringe to hear.

It had been a challenging time for Nicole’s parents, Kim and Andrew, whose conservative Christian circle of friends in Texas rejected the entire family after seeing the changes in this kid. Nicole was happier than she’d ever been, but the trip ahead still made her anxious. So, trying to calm her nerves, Kim switched on her daughter’s favorite book on tape, Hank the Cowdog, and stopped to get her kolaches, the Czech pastries that Central Texas is known for. Then she gave her an early birthday present: Next year, when she turned 10, they would get her a prized American Girl doll, just as they had for her older sister a decade earlier.

Puberty was just around the corner, and nobody knew exactly what it would bring for this sweet, lanky, and rapidly growing child who loved to sing. Which is why they were driving to Dallas, to a new clinic called Genecis, one of at least 16 centers in the US where psychologists, endocrinologists, and social workers help young kids who don’t fit in the tidy boxes of “boy” and “girl.”

Puberty was just around the corner, and nobody knew exactly what it would bring.

No clinics like Genecis existed in 2007, when 6-year-old Jazz Jennings became the youngest trans person to ever be interviewed on TV. Back then, Barbara Walters asked her what she would call herself. (“A girl,” she responded.) Back then, psychiatry’s official diagnosis for children like Jazz was “gender identity disorder.” Back then, though transgender teens and adults could see doctors for hormone treatments, the predominant way of treating small kids who were unhappy in the gender they were assigned at birth was to steer them toward accepting it.

Now, Jazz is just one of many trans kids visible in popular culture. This week, 8-year-old trans actor Jackson Millarker played a trans character on Modern Family, reportedly a first for network television. Before that was the TLC documentary Transgender Kids Camp, and the How to Be a Girl podcast. These kids' official diagnostic label has also changed, from “gender identity disorder” to the less stigmatizing — though still controversial — “gender dysphoria.”

Despite this broader understanding and acceptance, transgender teens — estimated to make up roughly 1.5% of all teenagers — are two to three times more likely than their peers to attempt suicide or experience serious depression.

The doctors who work at new “gender-affirming” clinics like Genecis say the best way to prevent these dire outcomes is to let young kids live out their gender identities however they wish — whether that’s as a boy, as a girl, or somewhere in between. They say that because gender identity is largely hardwired in the brain, kids as young as 3 can begin to articulate it, and that these kids end up happier, less anxious, and better adjusted socially the earlier we allow them to express the gender they feel themselves to be. For the small subset of kids who show a strong and consistent belief that they are a different gender, that means letting them “socially transition” to life as a full-time boy or girl.

But some doctors — as well as an unexpected mix of liberal academics, scientists, and religious conservatives — argue that we have no way of knowing with certainty which prepubescent kids who behave outside of gender norms will come to identify as trans, and which ones will not. Some worry that this approach could steer kids who are just going through a phase into a transgender “track” long before the kids know whether those feelings will really stick. Others say it reinforces outdated stereotypes — giving worried parents the false assurance that their girly boy is actually just a girl who was born in the wrong body. Conservative critics peg the increase in trans kids today to a dangerous new fad in parenting.

The most extreme members of each group have likened the other’s approach — whether pushing kids to identify as transgender or pushing them to repress their true gender identities — to “child abuse.” Unfortunately, there isn’t much hard data to help settle the debate: No study has looked at what happens later in life to kids who are allowed to socially transition before puberty.

Which leaves families like Nicole’s at a crossroads. While scientists carry out studies that will take many more years, a growing number of parents have to make decisions about their kids right now. Do they let their kids transition without knowing, for sure, that they’ll grow up to feel the same?

Nicole with her sister and her mom.

Ilana Panich-Linsman for BuzzFeed News

Nicole was born in 2006 in Austin. (“Nicole,” used in this story to protect her privacy, is her middle name.) Her biological mother had been a drug user, and her father was unknown. Child Protective Services took custody of the baby straight from the hospital.

Six months later, in a conservative suburb 20 miles away, Kim and Andrew were looking to adopt. They had used fertility drugs to conceive their oldest daughter, 12-year-old Olivia, and had later adopted a 6-year-old boy, WB. Kim had quit her job as a nurse to homeschool them and now wanted “just one more.”

Nicole had been placed with an adoptive Mexican family, but they sent her back after finding out that, although she was half Mexican, she was also half black. So the adoption agency asked Kim and Andrew if they could foster Nicole for the weekend before she was placed elsewhere.

“I said, ‘Yes, I’ll take the baby, but not for the weekend. If you want me to keep the baby, I want to keep the baby,’” Kim told me over root beers and Little Caesars pizza when I visited their home in July. “We knew who we were supposed to have.”

From the moment Nicole could move around on her own, she preferred girly things. “I hate to gender stuff, but we’d offer her trucks, superheroes,” Kim said. “She always wanted Barbies, pink things, sparkles.”

It’s OK, they thought — their new son didn’t need to like trucks any more than their daughter, who was bookish and always lost in her fantasy novels, needed to like makeup and high heels. Kim, who proudly does all the family’s sewing, cooking, and cleaning, disavows some gender norms herself: She lives in her cutoffs and Birkenstocks, and occasionally pulls out the combat boots left over from her military days.

Pediatricians told Kim and Andrew that Nicole’s interest in girl toys was just a phase and nothing to worry about. But some of their church friends and parents in their Christian homeschooling group were less sanguine, suggesting that the toddler should be steered toward more “appropriate” activities. They tried. “We were like, ‘Well, we know God gave you those parts for a reason. He’s got big things in store for you,’” Kim recalled.

For Nicole’s third, fourth, and fifth birthdays, her parents bought any boyish toys they could find — trains, cars, a Batman costume. But the cars were used to play house, with car moms and car dads, and Batman’s cape turned into a long-haired wig.

Ilana Panich-Linsman for BuzzFeed News

Although Kim and Andrew didn’t know it at the time, a similar debate was playing out among prestigious medical experts. In 2008, two of them spoke on NPR’s All Things Considered, in a 23-minute exchange that’s often cited by gender experts today. The segment focused on two young kids, raised as boys, who had for some time expressed strong preferences for stereotypically feminine toys and clothing, and had recently started acting out at home and school. From there, their paths diverged.

One mom took her child, 5-year-old Bradley, to see Kenneth Zucker, a psychologist who had founded one of the first gender identity clinics catering to adolescents, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. Zucker was an early adopter of the so-called Dutch model, which recommends giving teenagers with gender dysphoria drugs to block puberty. These medications are reversible, so they essentially buy time: The adolescent can decide to stop taking them and go through puberty as the gender they were assigned at birth; or, after a couple of years, they can choose to continue their medical transition by starting estrogen or testosterone.

Although he was one of the most prolific scientists studying gender, Zucker had recently come under fire for his approach to younger kids, which steered them away from a new gender identity and instead attempted to make them feel comfortable in the genders they were assigned at birth. Some of his critics likened his methods to “conversion therapy,” the infamously discredited attempts to undo homosexuality.

Bradley’s mom told NPR that Zucker recommended he play more with boys rather than the mostly girl friends he had at the time. Zucker said they should try to swap his rainbow unicorns and Polly Pockets for more boyish toys, and discourage him from drawing princesses and fairies, or from playing girl characters during make-believe.

Two thousand miles away, in San Francisco, 5-year-old Jonah saw gender specialist Diane Ehrensaft, then a psychologist in Oakland who was touting a new and drastically different approach. Ehrensaft insisted that the label of “gender identity disorder” — or any therapy to treat it — was inappropriate for Jonah. Instead, she said, Jonah was acting out because of years of frustration over not being able to present as a girl. Ehrensaft recommended a full social transition, and Jonah started kindergarten as a girl named Jona.

In separate interviews with NPR reporter Alix Spiegel, Zucker and Ehrensaft openly denounced the other’s approach. Ehrensaft saw gender identity as strongly innate and believed that kids as young as 2 or 3 could begin to express it. “I think that our gender identity is not defined by what’s between our legs but by what’s between our ears — that it’s somewhere in the brain,” she said. “It’s pretty much hardwired.”

Zucker argued that this view was “astonishingly naive and simplistic” — a new form of gender essentialism disguised as progressivism. He instead saw a child’s gender identity as malleable, shaped largely by the family environment.

The crux of the argument came down to what happens to these kids when they grow up. In the interview, Zucker cited one of his studies of 25 kids raised as girls but then diagnosed with gender identity disorder, which found that only 3, or about 12%, kept the diagnosis into adulthood, whereas the rest “desisted.” What’s more, Zucker found that 6 of the 25 grew up to be bisexual or homosexual. Several other studies of “behaviorally feminine” boys had gotten similar results. If these kids had followed Ehrensaft’s methods, Zucker said, they could have been wrongly sent down a track of hormone therapies and surgeries.

The crux of the argument came down to what happens to these kids when they grow up.

At the time of the interview, most doctors in the US agreed with Zucker. But in the eight years since, a huge shift has happened, says Ehrensaft, who now runs a gender-affirming clinic at the University of California, San Francisco. “You ask me now, and I say ours is absolutely the ascendant and increasingly predominant model for treating gender-nonconforming children, accepted throughout the world.”

(Zucker declined multiple requests for interviews from BuzzFeed News, instead sending five of his published papers on gender dysphoria in kids.)

Ehrensaft rejects the high desistance rates reported by Zucker and other researchers, cited repeatedly in arguments against social transitioning in kids. The biggest flaw in these studies, she says, was how they decided which kids to recruit. The children chosen showed a wide spectrum of gender-nonconforming behaviors that may have made parents uncomfortable at the time, but aren’t reliable markers of kids with lasting gender dysphoria. Those kids, Ehrensaft says, have the “insistent, consistent, and persistent” belief that they are another gender. What’s more, some of the studies assumed that teens who didn’t come back for follow-ups had desisted.

Since 2011, Ehrensaft’s clinic has seen about 100 children under 12. The kids are encouraged to choose from a huge array of gender labels, such as “gender hybrid,” “gender fluid,” “gender smoothie,” “gender Tesla,” and “gender Tootsie Roll pop.” Yet another category, “transgender” children, identify with the gender opposite what is marked on their birth certificates. Ehrensaft acknowledges that creating more labels might seem counterintuitive, but argues that they’re useful in making all kids — transgender or anything else — feel comfortable with the diversity of unique gender experiences out there. “Our clinical observation to date is that this is a very well-working model,” Ehrensaft said.

But she’s the first to admit that the approach hasn’t been tested in the long term. No study has yet looked at whether young kids who socially transition continue to thrive as transgender adults.

For the two kids in the radio segment, Zucker’s and Ehrensaft’s predictions seemed to play out as they each expected. Today, Bradley is a teenage boy who identifies as gay. (According to a recent interview with his mother, she said she appreciated Zucker’s “protective” approach.)

Jona, too, is doing well, according to Ehrensaft. “The most I can tell you about Jona without violating confidentiality is that she is doing beautifully eight years later.”

Ilana Panich-Linsman for BuzzFeed News

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Deep-Sea Mission Off Hawaii Reveals Mysterious, Alien-Like Creatures

“What we know about the ocean is less than the surface of the moon,” said one scientist involved in the expedition off Hawaii’s Big Island.

Federal researchers just returned from a deep-sea expedition near Hawaii’s Big Island to identify why the waters surrounding the archipelago are so abundant in biodiversity, while nearby areas are like sea deserts.

Federal researchers just returned from a deep-sea expedition near Hawaii’s Big Island to identify why the waters surrounding the archipelago are so abundant in biodiversity, while nearby areas are like sea deserts.

A glass squid that was found off the coast of Hawaii's Big Island.

Noaa / AP

Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told the Associated Press researchers took samples from depths of 1,500 to 2,000 feet using trawling nets.

Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told the Associated Press researchers took samples from depths of 1,500 to 2,000 feet using trawling nets.

Noaa / AP

Jack Kittinger, the senior director of the Hawaii program at Conservation International, said some areas in the ocean have more marine diversity than others and they want to better understand what combination of currents, temperature, and topography contribute to this.

Jack Kittinger, the senior director of the Hawaii program at Conservation International, said some areas in the ocean have more marine diversity than others and they want to better understand what combination of currents, temperature, and topography contribute to this.

Swallower fish that were found off the coast of Hawaii's Big Island.

Jessica Chen / AP

Researchers believe part of the reason that the area is so rich with life is that the seafloor dramatically rises as it reaches the surface, bringing with it unique nutrients. They hope to use their findings to pinpoint management and policy needs.

Researchers believe part of the reason that the area is so rich with life is that the seafloor dramatically rises as it reaches the surface, bringing with it unique nutrients. They hope to use their findings to pinpoint management and policy needs.

A spookfish that was found off the coast of Hawaii's Big Island.

Jessica Chen / AP


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Neil DeGrasse Tyson Says Science Doesn’t Have A Special Issue With Sexual Harassment

Kate Bubacz / BuzzFeed News

Neil deGrasse Tyson said Wednesday that recent revelations of sexual harassment in science are not unique to that field, and may not stem from underrepresentation of women.

In an interview with BuzzFeed News science editor Virginia Hughes as part of the Breakfast with BuzzFeed series, the astrophysicist also declared that his field is “the most open” about sexual harassment.

Referencing the case of Geoff Marcy — one of the world’s most prominent astronomers who last year was found to have violated sexual harassment policies as a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and for many years before — deGrasse Tyson said the issue was not a new one for physicists or society at large.

“If you went to anyone — the women — in the field, at conferences, everyone’s got a story,” he said. “I think if you part the curtains in any of the fields, you’ll find it.

“So the issue is not sexual harassment in science,” he continued. “The issue is sexual harassment in the workplace, which includes scientific workplaces. So I don’t see that there’s some special kind of solution to that problem needed to be invoked in a scientific community.”

He also said there is not necessarily a correlation between the frequency of sexual harassment incidents among women in science and their underrepresentation in their field.

“I bet you go to professions that might even be 50-50, it’s not going to be absent of sexual harassment,” he said.

While he has not personally experienced sexual harassment in his workplace, deGrasse Tyson said, “I know people, and I know their conduct, in public and in private, enough to guess that the percentage of women in a field is not gonna necessarily change the likelihood of sexual harassment.”

He mentioned, however, that the prevalence of sexual mistreatment among women in the science community could contribute to their reluctance to enter it in the first place.

“In the physical sciences, women are underrepresented relative to the population. Does this hostile harassment environment keep women away?”

Watch deGrasse Tyson's full interview here.

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This Woman Is Suing A Catholic Hospital For Refusing To Remove Her Dislodged IUD

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed two lawsuits against the Catholic Mercy Hospital and Medical Center in Chicago for refusing a bleeding woman critical medical care to remove her birth control device.

The case is only the latest in a series of suits by the ACLU against Catholic hospital networks, which often deny reproductive care based on a set of religious rules that all of their doctors are required to follow.

The rules, called the Ethical and Religious Directives, are set by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. In addition to banning abortions under most circumstances, even when the mother’s life is in danger, the ERDs prohibit doctors from offering or discussing birth control options, certain prenatal tests, or sterilizations.

“We’re really concerned that the Directives are substituting the views of religious leaders for the needs of patients,” Jenna Prochaska, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Illinois, told BuzzFeed News.

Mercy Hospital did not respond to requests for comment from BuzzFeed News.

The woman at the center of the new suits, 28-year old Melanie Jones, had fallen down on a wet bathroom floor, causing her copper intrauterine device (IUD) to get dislodged from her uterus. When she got to Mercy, she was in severe pain and bleeding heavily. According to the complaints, the doctor who saw her confirmed that the IUD was partially expelled and needed to be removed.

On June 30 the ACLU filed two suits, one with the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Civil Rights, and another with the Illinois Department of Human Rights. According to the complaints, the doctor refused to remove the device because Mercy’s “Catholic initiative” prevented her from providing any care relating to the contraceptive device.

Because the copper IUD is non-hormonal — and therefore is only used for pregnancy prevention and doesn’t have secondary uses like easing cramping or heavy periods — the doctor said her “hands were tied,” the suit states. Jones was turned away and told to find a different hospital that offered secular care.

“I walked away from the doctor’s office feeling shocked and stigmatized,” Jones said in a statement released by the ACLU. “Hospitals and doctors’ offices should be places for healing and not judgment.”

Jones then contacted her insurance provider, Blue Cross Blue Shield, which began the process of switching her to another provider. It took two weeks before she had the IUD removed. Her new doctor told her that she may have suffered cervical or uterine lacerations and possibly an infection, so did not immediately replace the device.

The policies at Catholic hospitals affect many people. One in six hospital beds in the US is part of a Catholic institution. In Illinois, that number is closer to one in three.

“Depending on where you’re at in the state, there could be women who are geographically prevented from seeing secular providers, or can only see Catholic health care providers because of their insurance providers,” Prochaska said.

Catholic hospitals have been expanding since the 1990s, but have picked up significantly in the last 10 years as more small clinics merge with large Catholic networks.

“The Affordable Care Act has really brought in this new dimension where there’s a lot of incentive to collaborate,” said Lori Freedman, an assistant professor of medical sociology at the University of California San Francisco who studies religious restrictions on reproductive care. “While they were already growing and merging and attaching the Directives to new hospitals, now we’re seeing them attaching the Directives to clinics and other smaller institutions.”

As part of her research, Freedman has anonymously interviewed dozens of doctors who work within Catholic hospitals to understand how they balance providing quality medical care while also operating under the ERDs.

Some doctors, she found, see the ERDs as just another kind of red tape. “But some of the doctors saw the Directives as very offensive and very upsetting. The feeling of having your hands tied was very common,” she said.

But in Jones’s case, she added, the ERDs may not have actually tied the doctor’s hands, as there is no explicit rule against removing a birth control device. So the doctor’s decision may have come from a general fear around ERDs, she said, rather than an edict from the bishops.

“There’s so many points in which the Directives have to be interpreted in practice,” she said. “I haven’t heard a story like this before.”

In the last four years, the ACLU has filed at least nine lawsuits against Catholic hospital networks for denying women reproductive care.

In 2011, a pregnant woman named Tamesha Means had her water break at 18 weeks. After she was rushed to her local Catholic hospital in Michigan, doctors refused to complete the standard procedure in such cases, which would have included terminating the pregnancy to protect the mother’s life. Instead, they sent her home with painkillers. The next day, Means miscarried.

The ACLU tried to sue the US Conference of Catholic Bishops on Means’s behalf, but the suit was dismissed this June because the judge claimed he could not rule on church doctrine. He suggested that Means file an ordinary malpractice claim. (The decision is currently under appeal.)

In Jones’s case, like several others the ACLU has filed in the last few years, the organization has avoided the bishops and taken a different legal strategy: arguing that these hospitals are discriminating against female patients based on their sex.

“Because Melanie is a woman who is trying to prevent pregnancy, she was told they would not care for her,” Prochaska said. “They could have provided the care, but they refused to for that reason — and they told her it was for that reason.”

LINK: Catholic Hospitals Sued For Refusing Emergency Care To Pregnant Women

LINK: Pregnant Woman Sues Catholic Hospital For Not Letting Her Get Tubes Tied

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We Saw The Corpse Flower In Bloom And It Was Disgustingly Beautiful

It brought tears to our eyes — literally.

After nearly 80 years, the famous corpse flower has finally bloomed this week at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx.

After nearly 80 years, the famous corpse flower has finally bloomed this week at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx.

Taylor Miller / BuzzFeed

According to the NYBG, the rare plant, Amorphophallus titanum (also known as titan-arum), hasn’t bloomed since 1939.

According to the NYBG, the rare plant, Amorphophallus titanum (also known as titan-arum), hasn't bloomed since 1939.

Side note: Amorphophallus titanum literally translates to “giant weird-shaped dick.” ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Taylor Miller / BuzzFeed

Taylor Miller / BuzzFeed

The flower gets its name from the odor it releases when bloomed, often compared to the smell of rotting flesh.

The flower gets its name from the odor it releases when bloomed, often compared to the smell of rotting flesh.

Taylor Miller / BuzzFeed


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