Debunking myths on genetics and DNA

Friday, November 21, 2014

Influences from Michael Ende, German painters, and invisible dragons: Stefan Bolz reveals the inspiration behind his children's books



Today's guest author is quite special, as he was born and raised in Germany, and it wasn't until he came to the US that somebody told him he should really be writing. And I'm glad he followed the advice! Stefan Bolz is the author of The Fourth Sage and The Three Feathers, and yes, he writes in English, which is a huge relief, isn't it? ;-)

Please join me in welcoming Stefan to the blog!

EEG: You were born and raised in Germany: what brought you to the US and where you already reading books in English as a child or did you start when you moved to the US? And in particular, when did you start writing in English?

SB: I came to the States for the first time in 1996 for a three-month retreat in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. Most of what I knew about the U.S. was through movies and TV shows like Knight Rider (haha, I know) and The Cosby Show. I remember watching Twin Peaks in English with German subtitles a few years before I got here. The first time I set foot into a diner - it was the famous Roscoe Diner on route 17 about two hours north west of New York City - I thought, wow, this is just like on Twin Peaks. And the apple pie was just as delicious as Special Agent Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks had promised. I met my now ex-wife during this retreat and moved here permanently in January of 1997. As you might now, there is something utterly liberating in condensing your life to two suitcases and a bicycle, even if you do it only once.

I never read anything in English besides textbooks for English class in school. Not sure when you started taking English in Italy but we have English as a main subject beginning with fifth grade. Also, about 98 percent of our music is exactly the same as in the U.S., so we all grew up on Blondie, AC/DC, and Rapper's Delight. That makes it a bit easier to learn the language as you basically listen to it all day. I knew every word of the lyrics to Meat Loaf's Bat out of Hell when I was fifteen. And then, of course, you have those instances when you hear something in a song that is so completely different from what it actually says. Journey's "walking down the boulevard" becomes "hold on to the boulevard" which changes the whole thing into a very different experience, like being drunk in Vegas.

I started writing in English when I went to college here in the U.S. in 1998. One of my early writing teachers encouraged me to write. I was very surprised, as nobody had ever told me that in Germany. I love to read German literature and we went through all the classics in school - Schiller, Goethe, Hesse, and so on. I remember my dad reading to me at night from those tiny books that were available back then. I think Reader's Digest had published them. They weren't larger than two by three inches and the font was miniscule. But it had all the major classic poems in them. I think even though you can't take the language with you to another country, you can take the sense of rhythm, the imagery, and the feel for what sounds good and what doesn't, and that stays with you. At least it stayed with me.

I began to write more frequently around 1999. My first project started as a novel but turned very quickly into a screenplay because all I saw where camera angles. I love to read and have read a lot during my teens and twenties but my true passion is movies. I wrote four screenplays (one of them almost got optioned), then a good amount of poetry, essays, and shorts before I began and finished my first novel.

EEG: You have several books out now. Tell us a little bit about them.

SB: The Three Feathers, my first one, is a fable for adults and children. In it, Joshua, a young rooster, wakes up one morning with the realization that there must be more to life than the coop and, more importantly, that there must be more to himself than what he thinks he is. One day, he musters all his courage and flies out of the pen - and into an adventure that will change his life and the lives of everyone he meets. One reviewer said it was "Lord of the Rings with critters." I'm very honored! :-) I loved every minute of the writing process and very often felt like a kid in a candy store as I discovered where the story was going. I realized at one point that all of my subsequent books - the ones that are out already and the ones I have yet to write - all have but one goal: to bring the reader to The Three Feathers.

In the midst of writing that one, I began to think that this was not only an adventure story but also a spiritual journey. As I have been on a spiritual path for at least half my life, I thought it might be helpful for some readers to find out about the symbolism in the story and how they translate to our own quest for meaning in this world. I called the book The Dawning of the True Self, just because I believe that every spiritual journey, independent of its specific language and path, has as its goal to help us find who and what we are in truth. To give you an example, in The Three Feathers, Joshua and his companions enter a world called Hollow's Gate in which the laws of nature as they know them, are suspended. Time flows differently there, your friends become your foes, and danger lurks at every turn. I always felt that Hollow's Gate in The Three Feathers was not unlike our unconscious mind which we inadvertently come in contact with, once we are on a spiritual quest of some sorts. The Dawning of the True Self is a very personal book and I don't really push it very much because of that. Read at your own risk :-).

When I had finished writing The Three Feathers, I had a few more lines in my head but didn't know what to do with them. Eventually I wrote them down. That was basically what you can now find in the first paragraph of The Fourth Sage, a YA sci/fi fantasy thriller where a fifteen-year-old girl fights a ruthless corporation in a dystopian world. I loved writing this book even though there was not a single writing day where I wasn't overcome with doubt about my ability to go through with it. I'm sure you don't know at all what I'm talking about ;-)

The other book that is out already is a paranormal / dark fantasy novella called Dark World. This one is about an angel, hell bent (pardon the pun) on revenge after humans kill her daughter. It's about the notion that love can be covered over by all kinds of dark emotions and that if we give into hatred and rage, we forget the love that is underneath. The angel forgets her daughter's name in the process of taking revenge and because of that, she can't remember where she came from and who she is. I adapted Dark World from a screenplay I had written about ten years ago. It's dark and bloody and beautiful because it describes what happens if an otherwise pure being slips toward the darkness and how she can possibly be brought back before the world as we know it, ends with her.

In stark contrast to that one is Georgia and the Dragon, a children's book that is about to be published (December 2014). I had a real estate client who has a daughter named Georgia. My client posted a quote from her daughter on Facebook and I thought this might be the beginning of a really sweet story. The quote goes something like this: "Whenever I'm supposed to be napping, what I'm really doing is listening to my Dragon tell me about the time he learned how to fly." Georgia, in the story, is six years old and she and her invisible friend, Dragon (a dragon the size of a Labrador retriever), have many adventures together.

EEG: Oh, that is sweet indeed! Can't wait to read it! Since you are from Germany and you write YA, I have to ask you about one of my all time favorite children author: Michael Ende. Having read The Fourth Sage, I confess that I did find some of Ende's influences in the story, whether it was intentional or not on your part. Have you read Ende's books as a child?

SB: Guilty as charged. I LOVED Never Ending Story as a child. I remember the feeling of wanting to stay in the book rather than coming back out to reality. I think it would be a really cool exercise for us writers to go back into the stories we have written and see what the influences had been and where it all came from. I know that several items from Michael Ende's books made it into my stories. Most of it was unconscious though. For example, in The Three Feathers, there is a huge turtle. I'm pretty sure this came out of Never Ending Story. But then there is a scene in The Three Feathers where the companions are attacked by Hyenas. I had no clue how they had gotten into the story until this summer on a trip to Germany, when my sister handed me a book we had read as children. There was a drawing of a rooster attacking a hyena. That was amazing. I didn't even remember that book. But my subconscious evidently did. Ende wrote another very influential book, called Momo. In Momo, there are those gray men who live on borrowed time from regular people and Momo, a young child, has to get the time back from them.

Speaking about influences, you might know Hans-Werner Sahm. He is a German painter of surrealism. In most of his paintings, the natural laws as we know them, are suspended. They have always touched that part of me that longed to not be bound by the laws of nature. I remember as a child dreaming about swimming under water while being able to breathe, or fly. When I took writing classes, I had learned that story can be driven either by character or by plot. I think we should add location to that list. Sahm's paintings inspired me to let my mind go further and break the barriers of the plot/character principle. If you look at some of his scenes, you can get a sense of limitlessness and that, beyond what we think is real, there is another place we might want to explore. The Three Feathers is very heavily driven by those locations and the magic in the story comes, in part, from that.

EEG: Momo is my favorite of Ende's books! As a child, I wanted to be Momo. :-)

What are you currently working on?

SB: I'm working on a few secret projects right now. They are very exciting but I can't talk about them quite yet. Besides those, I have two projects going on. One is the sequel to The Fourth Sage, called The Fourth Sage - Revelations. After that, there is another one planned, called The Fourth Sage - Battle for Earth. You can guess what this one is about :-). Behind that in the line-up is a story called The Second Searcher which is actually the prequel to The Three Feathers. When it's all said and done (and written), I will hopefully have five books that are all part of the Circularity Saga, an interconnected series of books that span over a few thousands of years.

The other story I'm working on is called A Path Across Time. That one is based on the first screenplay I had written way back when. It's a love story. This, together with The Fourth Sage - Revelations - will come out next year. As you have read Fourth Sage, I should probably tell you one or two things from the book, right? When I was in my teens and early twenties and up until this day, I loved movies and stories where the main character had to learn his or her special skill. Luke Skywalker went through Jedi Training, Spiderman learned how to shoot spider webs and climb up buildings, the Karate Kid learned Kung Fu, and G.I. Jane became a Navy Seal. The Fourth Sage - Revelations is basically just that. Before the backdrop of an impending and massive Alien invasion on earth, Aries, Max, C.J.k and the others have to develop their latent skills to get ready for the battle for earth. I am SO excited about that book, especially because of all the locations, like Mongolia, the Arctic Circle, Malmoe in Sweden, a small island outside of Japan, the Max Planck Institute for Advance Physics in Germany, and so on. It'll be AWESOME! At least for me :-)

I'm very honored to also have given the opportunity to write the foreword to The Alien Chronicles, the next Anthology in The Future Chronicles. Produced by Samuel Peralta, it will come out in December. Last but not least, Georgia and the Dragon, the children's book I mentioned above, is coming out December 1st as paperback and for the kindle. I look forward to that one. It's a chapter book of bed-time stories about a six-year-old girl and her invisible friend, a dragon. I had lots of fun writing it.


EEG: I often joke that being bilingual, in my case, doesn't mean that I'm fluent in two languages, rather, that I can no longer speak either language perfectly. On the other hand, there's an enrichment that comes from not only being bilingual but being bicultural. In your case, how has this bilingual/bicultural growth enriched your stories?

SB: Basically, me being bilingual gives my editor a good time. I'm here to entertain, so why not him? Whether I go out on a limp instead of limb, drop the whale vs the veil, or write other hysterical nonsense that just basically sounds right to me and nobody else, I like to inundate my editor with challenging material. I really don't know why he agreed to work with me. David Antrobus, you're the best, my man!

I remember my sister-in-law who helped me with The Three Feathers, wrote numerous small notes trying to make me understand, for example, that water, not air, gushes and many other small errors that would have been really funny if left in the book. But I think I can draw a lot from my life in Germany and include that in my stories. I never went to college over there but learned my trade in a printing press manufacturing company. A kind of foreboding, perhaps? :-) I learned everything from electrical stuff to welding, pneumatic, any kind of metal work like forging, etc, wood working, and turnery. Not only is that such a helpful education to have for real life, it also helped me quite a bit with my writing. In The Fourth Sage, for example, Aries works in Electrical in the high rise she lives in. I know how her feet feel in her steel reinforced boots, how the weight of the tool belt is distributed, what metal dust or a solder iron smells like, etc. That makes for a rich writing - and hopefully reading - experience. On the other hand, I'm missing a lot of vocabulary that others have. I am in awe, by the way, of your writing, Elena. I have started Gene Card and I love how you use words. I could never do that, I think. Really cool. So, my one regret is that I wish I'd have a few thousand more words at my disposal without looking them up in the thesaurus each time.

EEG: Hahaha, how funny, I do stuff like that with idioms all the time! Though my favorite stories are about my kids translating literally from English to Italian. I'm saving the best ones to embarrass them on their wedding day. :-)

Anything else you would like to add?

SB: Please check out my YouTube channel. I am in the process of putting ALL my books on YouTube, read by yours truly. So, if you can stand my voice, The Three Feathers is already there in its entirety. Fourth Sage is getting there and Georgia and the Dragon will be part of a 'read aloud' series so kids can just listen to me rather than their parents while playing, etc.

EEG: I've heard your voice on Hank's podcast and it's a beautiful voice! Your German accent is really slight and unless one knows you're German, it is easily missed. Unlike, er, yours sincerely ... 

Thanks so much for chatting with us, Stefan!

To learn more about Stefan and his books, check out his author page on Amazon, or visit him on his blog/website and on his Facebook page.



Thursday, November 20, 2014

Celebrate Imagination: win free books and take advantage of a unique promotion

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What is Celebrate Imagination? It's a new event including a party and epic book sale for Science Fiction and Fantasy lovers. On November 20th, 26 authors will be hosting a facebook event to kick off the holiday season. We'll be giving away ebooks, paperbacks, audiobooks and other goodies. One lucky winner will receive a Kindle Paperwhite chock full of science fiction and fantasy novels. We'll also be doing our favorite thing, talking to readers!

In addition to giveaways, we will have dozens of books listed at huge discounts and for free. They run the gamut including paranormal, space opera, fantasy, post-apocalyptic, dystopian, cyberpunk, and techno thrillers. For a sneak peek at our entire catalog, the sales we'll be offering and to grab a few free reads to tide you over until then, visit Celebrate Imagination.

Tell your friends, come to the party, win great stuff. Most of all, it’s a celebration of the science fiction and fantasy stories we all love. We’ll have reviewers, bloggers, podcasters, readers, and authors all mingling and getting our geek on.


Join us on facebook here to get all the latest goodies, find out when your favorite authors will be hanging out, and meet other Science Fiction and Fantasy fans! Don't forget to enter to win the Kindle Paperwhite stocked with great novels, the entry form is below and will be active November 20-22!


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Monday, November 17, 2014

"I love stories of redemption": author Hank Garner talks about his path to writing and publishing


I met today's guest author, Hank Garner, through his Author Stories Podcasts: every week Hank interviews a new author in a very casual, yet informative way. Through the podcasts I've gotten to know the many different approaches to writing and publishing, and I've discovered new books I otherwise wouldn't have known of. Including Hank's own Bloom, a story where "Love, loss, friendship, and betrayal play out against the backdrop of the deep South." Hank is a great guy to talk to, and I had the pleasure and honor to be one of his guests: you can find the podcasts here. We chatted about plotting, characters, and the many joys and woes of publishing.

Welcome to Chimeras, Hank!

EEG: You've always been writing but it isn't until a few years ago that you started "to write down the stories that I have carried around in my head for years" (quoting from your bio). What was the spark that started this?

HG: My dream was always to be a writer. Since I was a small boy I would make up stories, and growing up in the rural South, I learned quickly to entertain myself.

As an adult, I have pursued writing, but in different ways. I wrote a column for my local newspaper, blogged, and published in various other short forms, so I have been writing for years, just not fiction writing. Writing fiction was always something that seemed far off in the distance, but I always knew that one day I would sit down and start writing down my stories.

In the summer of 2013 my wife and I started talking about this story that I had an idea for. For a lot of different reasons, I felt like I was ready to tell this story. The time just seemed right. I wrote out the first couple of pages of what would become Bloom. I got a feeling for the main characters and walked around with them in my head for a while and last November I signed up for NaNoWriMo and wrote over 50000 words of that book. Over the next few months I revised, cut and added to it and then published it in March of this year.

EEG: If you were to find a common thread across your books and stories, what would it be?

HG: I love stories of redemption. I believe in the innate goodness of people. Sometimes we don't live up to our potential as humans, but I think there is always hope. If I were to nail down a common thread in my writing, it would have to be hope and redemption. I don't want to become so cynical that I don't believe that people can be better than they are.

EEG: You have a large family (congratulations!): how does this inspire your stories?

HG: My family are my alpha and beta readers. I run everything past them. My wife Dawn is my first line. She is the one I bounce ideas off of, and one of her best traits is that she is brutally honest. Always. She is not afraid to tell me if an idea is terrible, or if the idea is good, but needs something more.

I also read everything I write out loud to my children. They range in age from 19 to 10, so they provide feedback from their varied perspectives. I get many ideas from them. If you pay attention around children you can learn a lot. Children have the ability to see the wonder and magic in the world that most of us adults have lost.

EEG: They certainly do! In fact I finally decided to start a YA story and I'm trying to get my kids involved. And I know they can be brutally honest (that's the best part about getting the family involved), too, so it'll be interesting to see how that goes. ;-)

Can you tell us a bit about your job as an IT tech: has this inspired any of your stories?

HG: I have worked in the IT industry my entire adult life. I have also worked in radio and television production, which I think has helped my story telling. As far as it inspiring my stories, I am not sure. My stories are surprisingly low tech for a person that has been programming computers since I was ten years old. My stories are all based in a small fictional Mississippi town called Weston. Weston is a typical small southern town, but for reasons that will become clearer in later books, strange things happen. Fantasy meets small town life is how I would describe it.

EEG: Tell us about you current writing project.

HG: My current project is called Mulligan. Mulligan is nearly finished and will be out in the next few weeks. It is the story of a man that finds himself in a time that is not his own, and with no memory of his former life. The book combines time travel, psychic powers with very real human struggles like pride and arrogance, racism, greed and selfishness. Mulligan is a tale of time travel and second chances.

EEG: Sounds intriguing, can't wait to read it! Thanks so much Hank for talking with us today!

Don't forget to check out Hank's Author Stories Podcasts, you'll find many authors you already know and new ones you'll want to go check out their books and discover their work. To find out more about Hank's books visit his website and Amazon author page.



Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Chimeras audio book is almost here! And here's how I'm celebrating....



Thanks to the awesome team of Nick and Gabriel Grant at Rook Productions, and the talented D. Joseph Fenaughty who did a fantastic job narrating Track's first adventure, the audio book of Chimeras is about to hit the virtual book shelves. I am SO excited!

You can preview the book here:



Unfortunately I don't have a link to share yet because we just uploaded it and now we are waiting for the ACX to do what they call their "pre-flight quality controls." We were told it takes 2-3 weeks. I'll definitely post as soon as the link goes live.

In the meantime, let's kick off this launch with some celebrations.

Sign up to my newsletter for a chance to win a signed paperback copy of Chimeras: that's right, anyone subscribed to my newsletter is automatically entered in this giveaway. So, if you haven't signed up yet, click here. :-)  I will draw one winner on November 30.  The winner will be contacted via email and will agree to provide a mailing address for the paper copy. 


You haven't read the Kindle edition of Chimeras? You've read Chimeras but still need to download your copy of the sequel Mosaics? Are you looking for a gift for the Kindle addict in your family? For this coming week only, Chimeras is on sale at $0.99 (regular $2.99) and Mosaics is at $1.99 (regular $4.99).




A Readers Favorite Book Award Winner and a New Mexico-Arizona Book Award Finalist, Chimeras is the first in the Track Presius mystery series, a detective thriller where crimes revolve around medical research.


Get Chimeras at the sale price of $0.99 only.
Get Mosaics at the sale price of $1.99 only.
Buy the audio book (link to come).

CHIMERAS (a Track Presius Mystery)
Haunted by the girl he couldn't save in his youth, and the murder he committed to avenge her, Detective Track Presius has a unique gift: the vision and sense of smell of a predator. When a series of apparently unrelated murders reel him into the depths of genetic research, Track feels more than a call to duty. Children are dying -- children who, like himself, could have been healthy, and yet something, at some point, went terribly wrong. For Track, saving the innocent becomes a quest for redemption. The only way he can come to terms with his dark past is to understand his true nature.


Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Wizard of Ends, a new fantasy series from author Vanessa Finaughty


My guest today is fantasy author Vanessa Finaughty, whose books come alive with magical new beings, intense characters and high adventure. Vanessa grew up in Cape Town, and still lives there with her husband of fifteen years, her baby daughter and plenty of furry, four-legged ‘children’. Her passion for the written word started her career as an editor and copywriter, and she part-ran a writers’ critique group for close on seven years. She’s been writing ever since she learnt how, has always been an avid reader, and currently lives on coffee and cigarettes. Her interests include reading, photography, the supernatural, life’s mysteries and martial arts, of which she has five years’ experience.

EEG: Welcome to Chimeras, Vanessa! Tell us a bit about yourself and your background as a writer.

VF: As soon as I learnt how to read, I wanted to write. I think it was somewhere between ten to fifteen years ago that I finally put pen to paper, so to speak, and started writing my first book. The first few books I started were eventually left to gather dust (I don't remember getting more than a few pages into each) - it seemed so daunting to write a whole novel! Eventually, I decided to 'just write the story' and if it turned out to be a novel, great, but, if not, I would be happy with having written a short story (this is how most of my short story collections came about). Today, I don't really know why I found it so daunting a thought - it seems easy now, but that's probably because doing anything regularly for years makes that thing easy after a while. I've never studied writing or publishing - at least, not formally. When I started out - and even sometimes now - I Google anything I'm unsure of or haven't had experience with yet. So far, so good!

EEG: What's the premise of your Wizard of Ends and how did you get the idea for this series?

VF: The plot in Wizard of Ends, Book 1 revolves around the sorceress Assassa trying to claim rulership over the Kingdom of Ends. When the king refuses to give in to her intimidation, she conjures magical creatures of darkness to hunt the queen and kill her. The wizard, Lashlor Leaflin, is unwittingly caught up in the conflict and subsequently offers to help protect the queen. Overall, the series deals with Lashlor's unwillingness to use magic - at almost any cost.

Lashlor's character popped into my head one day - a wizard who refuses to use magic to the point where most people think he isn't really a wizard - and I started writing. The story pretty much wrote itself from the start, so I'm not sure I could say it was my idea - more like Lashlor's idea.

EEG: Do you listen to music while you write?

VF: I prefer silence when writing. Sadly, our neighbourhood (and home!) is a noisy one, so I do listen to music quite often, because music is less distracting than yakking dogs and other 'nuisance noises'.

EEG: What are you currently working on?

VF: I'm quite far (almost a third of the way) into writing Wizard of Ends, Book 3: Mountains of Eclador, and plan to finish writing that before I continue with the next book in my other series, Legends of Origin.

EEG: I can't wait to read it! Best of luck with your books and thanks so much for stopping by the blog today.

To find out more about Vanessa and her books you can visit her website, blog, her Facebook fan page . You can also follow her on Twitter and Goodreads. The first book in the Wizard of Ends series can be downloaded for free from the following sites:

Smashwords
iBooks
Barnes & Noble
Amazon



Sunday, November 9, 2014

From old ship artifacts to Amish science fiction: Chris Pourteau talks about his journey as a writer


One of the best things of being an indie author is to meet other indie authors. If you've followed my interviews for the past few months you've seen that I've met a lot of great authors who write in different genres, styles, formats, but they all have one thing in common: they are passionate and enthusiastic about what they do.

One such author is Chris Pourteau, who, as he introduces himself in his bio,
has made a living at one time or another as a teacher, a lab technician helping to recover one of Christopher Columbus’s ships, and a technical writer and editor. Shadows Burned In is his first foray into the world of long fiction.
I met Chris over a long chat about viruses (look out for his forthcoming book The Serenity Strain!), but I was so intrigued by the Columbus's ship story that I knew I had to find out more. So I'm thrilled to have Chris as my guest on the blog today!

EEG: Welcome, Chris! Tell us a bit more about your "past life" as a lab technician in particular: what kind of lab where you working at and did this inspire any of your stories?

CP: When I was a junior-senior in college, I worked part-time as a student lab technician. This would’ve been 1989–1990. Texas A&M University is home to the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (or INA). Our job at the lab was to recover artifacts from the Molasses Reef Wreck in the Turks and Caicos Islands. It was actually one of Christopher Columbus's ships from one of his voyages to the new world. Not one of the famous ones though! By the time I came on board the project, all the concretions (underwater rock formations with artifacts inside) had been brought to A&M for recovery. I became really good friends with my fellow student techs, and most of them I’m still close friends with today. It was a GREAT experience! The “lab” was actually an old fire station located on a repurposed air base near A&M. It was hot in the summer but a great job for a student, especially one who loves history like I do.

My job was to use an air drill to chip away the concretion without harming the artifacts inside. We’d place a concretion on a big sheet of Mylar, outline it, then use orthographic projection to show were artifacts were located in the concretion as we chipped away at it. That way you got a permanent map of how the artifacts had been arranged inside the concretion after you’ve broken it apart and fished the artifacts out. Most of the iron artifacts were gray jelly by the time we got to them, but because the rock had formed around them, they left impressions. Even though the artifact might be jelly, if you cut carefully enough, you could preserve a block of concretion that you could then use to cast a replica of the artifact that had been inside it.

I must’ve gotten the ship’s toolbox because I worked for a year on one concretion that was almost nothing but fasteners! (We’d call them nails now.) I used to joke that I was recovering where the toolbox fell over. ;-) My best day on the job—particularly after finding all those nails!—was when I chipped away some rock and found something shiny, like gold! Turned out to be a brass shoe buckle, but it still had the fleur-de-lis in the corners. And, brass or not, it was head-and-shoulders above finding another fastener!

The sexiest items recovered from the shipwreck were bombards, cannons, and shot. And a HUGE anchor. Once recovered and after treating them for oxidation and rust, the artifacts were boiled in long wax vats to seal the air pockets and preserve them against any further corrosion. I believe they’re now on display in the Turks and Caicos Islands in a museum. (You have to say those last three words in Harrison Ford’s voice from Last Crusade to get the full effect.)

© www.shipsofdiscovery.org

In the above picture you can see the actual artifacts, including that anchor!

EEG: How cool! You make my job look so boring. :-) 

I really enjoyed your interview with Hank Garner (Hank is a fellow author who started a series of podcast interviews, I'll be talking about that more in another post), and my favorite part is when you talk about how cooperative, friendly and mutually helpful you've found the community of indie authors to be. I couldn't agree more. Can you summarize here, too, what you love about indie publishing that traditional publishing would never give you?

CP: I guess I had my first experience with traditional publishing when I was 19. I got my first agent then—and while that sounds like I’m trying to impress someone, trust me, I’m not!—and two more after that (so that tells you how those business relationships went). Despite three agents between about 1985 and 1992 or so, I had no success finding a home for my fiction. My experience was that the industry didn’t really care about authors, it cared about making money—which I get from a business standpoint. But authors were/are the grist for that mill. For example—and I don’t know if it’s still this way, though I suspect it is—in the Writer’s Market and its spin-off, the Guide to Editors and Literary Agents, writers are advised NOT to submit to multiple agents simultaneously. It’s considered gauche. What’s really happening is that agents don’t want to waste their time reading a pitch someone else might’ve bought a few days earlier. OK, I get that; who wants to waste their time? But agents can take months to respond. So, Traditional Publishing Industry, you mean you expect me to send one letter out at a time, wait months for a likely rejection (if it comes at all), then send another single letter out to another individual agent? Playing the odds of “rejections before acceptance,” I’d die of old age before I ever got an agent! (For the record, I blanketed submissions. Get over it, agents. My time’s valuable, too.)

By contrast, since getting involved with independent publishing, I’ve found a supportive community of fellow authors and readers who value quality in what they write and read. I admit, at first, I was very reluctant to read self-published authors, much less become one. I’m old enough to know the stigma of vanity press (where you pay a publisher to print your stuff; it’s not called “vanity” press for nothing). The stigma comes from the assumption that, if you have to pay someone to publish your writing, it must not be very good. In a lot of cases, that’s certainly true. In my mind, I considered “independent publishing” as simply a digital version of “vanity press,” even if I wasn’t paying someone (and I was publishing it myself). I know better now! Still, anyone can publish anything they want these days, and a lot of it is what you’d expect: well intentioned but, frankly, not that great.

I decided to take a chance on some independent authors because their book blurbs looked interesting (and at 99 cents or $1.99, they were a cheap chance to take). Specifically, these were Roberto Calas, Edward W. Robertson, Manel Loureiro, and Nick Cole. I was astonished! These guys can write! And they’re independently (i.e., self) published? They taught me that you don’t have to be published by a publishing house to be a good writer. And when I reached out to say hi, they emailed me back. Wow! That’s about as different a model from the detached, “don’t call us, we’ll call you” experience I’d had with traditional publishing as you can get, isn’t it?

Since then, I’ve gotten to know a LOT of my fellow authors—Michael Bunker, Jennifer Ellis, Hank Garner, Sam Peralta, and others—and all have helped me along over the last year as I’ve tried to learn the indie publishing ropes. As have you, Elena! I hardly knew you a week (and that only on Facebook) before you agreed to help me refine my idea for a virus gone wild in The Serenity Strain. It’s that kind of selfless “what can I do to help?” attitude that is such a contrast to my experience with traditional publishing. I feel like I’m a part of a vital community of comrades who get almost as excited when a buddy-writer finds success as when they find success for themselves. It’s AWESOME! It’s the way a community should be, writing-focused or otherwise.

EEG: I was actually very flattered that you shared your ideas with me. I can't wait to read the book! And I couldn't agree more with you on everything you said. Two agents "only" here and a TON of supposed advice and revision requests from not only agents but also a bunch of acquiring editors. I used to think they knew better because they were experts. I used to think they would ask for revisions because they wanted to make my story better and stronger. Until I realized exactly what you just said: "the industry didn’t really care about authors, it cared about making money." Let me switch that to present tense, because that ain't changed a bit. 

Ok, let's switch topic before I start ranting again. What inspired you to write Shadows Burned In? Was it one idea, image, or ... ?

CP: I actually starting SBI around 2000 or so. I was in my mid-30s, and my wife at the time and I were considering adoption. (We didn’t have any children.) It was also around this time that my father died, so a lot of the mid-life crisis stuff hit me: mortality issues, concerns over whether I could be a good parent if we adopted, etc. So, essentially, SBI is me working a lot of that stuff out. It was a very cathartic novel to write! I based a lot of it on my experience growing up in a small Texas town of about 3,000 people (the same kind of town the novel is set in).

SBI is a GREAT example of the traditional vs. independent publishing issue and why independent publishing is so important as an option for writers these days. When I first finished it, I shopped it back to one of my agents. Remember, this was 2000 so “vanity press” was still the only other option then. (Picture me with my nose turned up!) Well, the agent didn’t give me the time of day (and she used to work for me!), so I shelved it. I always regretted that though, because I felt like the novel had something to say—even if it was only to me and about mid-life angstiness. So in the summer of 2013, I dug it out, cleaned it up, and went the independent publishing route. Here’s exactly what I told myself: “You can sit around feeling sorry for yourself and blaming ‘lazy agents’ and ‘publishers with no taste,’ or you can put it out there and let the market decide.” So that’s what I did.

To date, the book hasn’t been a HUGE success, but it’s gotten quite a few positive reviews. From what some readers have said, it’s touched a chord with them, too. And that’s what writers are trying to do, right? I think, over time, it’ll get some legs under it. We’ll see.

EEG: I love the premise of you next book, The Serenity Strain. Can you tell us a bit more about it and when will it be available for purchase?

CP: My novel is actually part of a larger effort called Apocalypse Weird. So, let me talk a little about that bigger picture first and where Serenity fits into that. Then I’ll talk about my premise.

So, you’ve heard of binge-watching TV shows, right? Netflix drops a season of a TV show all at once on its Streaming service, and folks wrap up in the covers and watch an entire season of 10 or 15 episodes over a weekend.

That’s kind of the premise behind Apocalypse Weird. There are about a dozen of us, including names you’ve probably heard of—like Nick Cole, Steven Savile, and Michael Bunker, just to name a few—all writing stories around different (but simultaneous) apocalyptic events occurring in different dimensions of what we’re calling the multiverse. Eventually the plotlines come together in a meta-narrative. I don’t really want to say too much more than that, but the larger story spans all the novels. In a way, we’re mimicking the Netflix model—and publishing all the novels, essentially at once, in early 2015. Have you ever finished a novel and wanted to go on immediately to the next one in the series, only to have to wait on the author to write it? Well, with this first batch of AW novels, we’re getting rid of the wait. Collaborating toward a common goal with such a talented team of writers—while doing my own thing in my own novel at the same time—is very cool and a lot of fun!

So, The Serenity Strain is a contemporary story set primarily in Houston, Texas, and the surrounding area. Basically, natural catastrophes combine with a scientific experiment to produce an apocalypse that feeds into the larger story I mentioned. The experiment involves a virus that, once introduced into a host, replaces certain genes in the medial pre-frontal cortex. In 2010, scientists discovered that this is where impulse control happens. And how well that center regulates impulses can affect addictions, criminal behavior, even ADHD. But what about individuals—like hardened criminals—who have MAJOR impulse-control issues? Could the therapy mollify them, maybe even turn them into productive members of society? In TSS, a scientist uses hardened criminals for his Phase 1 clinical trials, and the trials seem to go great—at first. What ends up happening in the end is that not only does the gene therapy not work. The body actually reacts negatively to the therapy, the net result of which is to increase impulsivity in the subject to the point where they become amoral, striving to satiate whatever appetites they have at the moment, regardless of the costs to their fellow human beings. So, it’s not zombies, like in The Walking Dead, but you know how zombies are simply driven by an insatiable hunger for flesh? My test subjects are like that—they’re driven to satisfy their appetites for food, sex, whatever they hunger for at the moment—only they can think. They’re human beings with no Superego, to use a Freudian term, to hold their Id in check. Fun ensues!

EEG: Any other new projects you’d like to mention?

CP: Actually, later this month, I have a short story coming out as part of an anthology, Tales from Pennsylvania. I was also co-editor on the collection. It’s set in the amazing world of Michael Bunker’s Pennsylvania. The 10-cent description of the world is that, about a hundred years from now, a despotic government, called the Transport Authority, basically regulates how and where people move. A young Amishman named Jedidiah Troyer becomes the hero of the novel as part of a resistance movement fighting Transport. Bunker invented his own sub-genre with Pennsylvania: Amish Sci-Fi! Once you get past the apparent incongruity of the term, it’s actually a GREAT idea.

Anyway, Bunker, I, and nine other writers—including Nick Cole and Edward W. Robertson—have contributed stories to the collection. It explores all new aspects of Bunker’s world, some I don’t think he’d even thought of. I know I’m biased, but as the first editor on the piece (David Gatewood worked with me as co-editor), I know these stories from the inside-out. They’re excellent! Strong characterization and great storytelling is how I’d summarize them. My own story, “Gelassenheit,” looks at how an Amish family deals with unreasonable demands by Transport. And one of the characters in that story inspired me to write new tales set in that world which follow the adventures of a company of rebel commandos in their fight against Transport. Those stories are Gettysburg, which reimagines the historic battle as a conflict in Bunker’s future world, and Susquehanna, the sequel. I’m planning a third tale to be published in January.

Anyway, short-form fiction is back in fashion, and Tales is a great example of how impactful and fun they can be to read. And quick!

EEG: Best of luck with it! Anthologies are also a great way to get to know new indie authors. 

Thanks so much for being with us today Chris!

Shadows Burned In is on sale at $0.99 this week only, and it's a great read, just like all other books by Chris. To find out more about Chris and his books check out his website and blog or feel free to drop him a line at c.pourteau.author(at)gmail.com

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Sunday Snippet: The Elm Tree




From The Elm Tree, my contribution to the anthology The Telepath Chronicles:
Gentle, Celine thought, cracking open the ribcage—yet the procedure was far from gentle. She was breaching a sacred place, tackling the thin line between life and death, a temple that should never see the light. She forced her hands inside, her fingers prodding the softness of the tissues. 
Careful, now. This heart is young, with so many beats yet to deliver.

Come back to me, Celine pleaded, delicately compressing the heart between the flats of her fingers. Press, release, press, release, she thought, as if rehearsing a memorized prayer.

Lulled by the litany, she closed her eyes and gave in to the rhythm—press, release, press, release—until a grainy fog blanketed her eyes and the smell of burning candles filled her nostrils. 
The above is my Sunday snippet submission for the Weekend writer Warriors (you can find the Snippet Sunday group on Facebook, too). Make sure you check out all Weekend writer Warriors participants, it's a fun way to find forthcoming books -- all genres welcome, there's something for everyone's tastes.

The Elm Tree is the story of a doctor who performs a thoracotomy in a desperate attempt to save her young patient's life. I had no idea doctors could do this--crack open the rib cage and literally massage the heart to make start beat again--until I came across the true story of an ER doctor who, in a last, desperate attempt to save his patient’s life, opened the patient’s chest to manually “restart” the heart. What happened next left him completely baffled: every time the doctor compressed the heart and made it beat, the patient’s eye sprang open and stared at the ceiling. As soon as the doctor stopped, the patient closed his eyes. Imagine what this doctor must have felt, holding a dying heart in his hands, knowing that the minute he let go, the life of his patient would be lost forever.

The Elm Tree was inspired by this story and it's one of 14 science fiction stories dealing with different aspects of telepathy. Some are set in today's world, some in a future Earth, some in outer space. Each one is beautiful and enchanting in its own way. I feel honored to have my story featured with so many other talented authors.

Are we really evolving into super-humans?

© EEG

I came across an article on the Popular Science website, which, turns out, is the excerpt of a new book on evolution by Science Guy Bill Nye. From the reviews I gather that Bill Nye is an excellent writer and, being also an entertainer, he knows how to not only expose well but also infuse some good humor to what he says. That's all fantastic. But while the article starts off with some rigor, his conclusion had me roll my eyes. Because, even though he does include some speculations that he himself labels the "science fiction future of human evolution" (which of course I agree is always fun to do), by the end of the article he's doing science fiction without calling it science fiction. So I'd like to take the chance to discuss what I did not like of the excerpt from his book.

Nye starts off asks the following question:
Is there a Homo superius just around the next corner, waiting to take our place?
This is the part of the excerpt that I contest:
We cannot step away from evolution. Our genomes are always collecting mutations, and we are always making mate selections. Are humans preferentially mating with other humans who are tall? Blonde or not blonde? Are smart people actually producing significantly smarter offspring, who end up making more money and ever so slowly outcompeting other families? [. . .] I'm looking out for big changes that come from good old-fashioned Darwinian natural selection. What trait would give a future human baby such an edge that she or he will grow up to produce some amazing new kid that can do something that stands out and will attract a similarly worthy partner with whom to mate? 
I understand Nye wants to make an impact on people who love science and in particular those who don't have a technical background to understand the nuisances of a scientific theory but still appreciate the importance of scientific rigor. The purpose of his book is to make people think, "This is cool. I totally get evolution." At the same time, I do believe that anyone attempting to popularize such a debated topic should go the extra length to make sure everything he/she says is rigorous, because if it isn't, it becomes easy target for those people who, instead, want to contradict it.

My points in particular are:

1) In his book he gives examples to illustrate evolution in action that are beautiful and clear and make valid points on how evolution works. But those changes have taken tens, sometimes hundred thousands of years to take place. Yes, you can draw the same examples from viruses and bacteria, but again those organisms evolve on a much faster clock than we do. So, you can't just blatantly extrapolate those examples and speculate, based on those, what will happen in the next few decades or centuries to the human species. There aren't "big changes that come from good old-fashioned Darwinian natural selection" on the time scale he's looking at. Nothing really changes on a scale of 100 years -- that's roughly only 4 generations. On the other hand, there are other things that are changing scarily fast and will hugely impact our lives in the next 100 years: climate, for example. Food and water are likely to get scarcer. And given how fast those are changing compared to how evolution works, the sad reality is that there is no adaptation that can save us this time. If the climate were changing on a scale of tens of thousands of years we could predict a new adaptation to the rising temperatures. But on this scale? Our only hope is technology and our own good will to fix things we've badly broken.

2) Intelligence. First of all, intelligence doesn't make us any more resistant to any pathogens and in particular not to the antibiotic resistant ones. The last Ebola strain that jumped from bats to humans did not ask the target person his or her IQ before infecting them. Intelligence might prompt you to vaccinate yourself and your kids, but so long as the vast majority of the people still believe in vaccines we have herd immunity protecting even the non-vaccinated people. On the other hand, there are many social constraints that put a cap on how "intelligent" the human species can be. Social events are valued more than isolated hours of working/studying/researching, and if you look back at the lives of people who've made a difference in science, literature or medicine (just to name a few), you'll see a common pattern: they were pretty unsociable. They chose their one passion over spending time with family and friends. Those are isolated cases because again, as a species, we have social constraints that only a few outliers escape.

3) "We are always making mate selections," says Bill Nye.
No, we aren't. Single individuals make mating choices under geographical and socio-economic constraints. We, as a species, make no choice. Even though cultural and socio-economic constraints are pretty stable, interbreeding has always happened and it's not going to stop now that geographical mobility has greatly increased compared to 200 years ago. When you look at the individual level you see choices. When you zoom out and look at the species level it's all random. And of course mutations appear randomly, but those who do reach fixation through this process they do so because of random drift, not because of mating choices, especially in today's globalized world.

Rather than mating choices, we need to look at geography, as Coop et al. have done in a paper in PLoS Genetics:
It seems likely that selection in humans is generally not divergent enough to generate large frequency differences at individual loci between population pairs that are either recently separated, or regularly exchange migrants. Furthermore, populations may be too mobile, or their identities too fluid, to experience very localized pressures consistently over the several thousand years that may be required for large allele frequency changes [3].
Does that mean that selection is no longer happening?

Selection and adaptation are of course still happening, but under very particular conditions. Nye does mention a few in his article: the Spanish Flu and the Black Death. Those events inferred a selective sweep on the human genome. But you can't just mention those and forget what happens in between those selective sweeps because that actually covers the majority of our evolutionary history. Most of the mutations found in our DNA have reached fixation through random drift, yet you never hear people say that. So many evolution "experts" out there go on and on on how every single gene in our DNA has been selected and perfected through evolution. This argument, not only is simply not true, but it makes evolution an easy target for the creationists because they (rightfully) say it's wrong. Random mutations, just because they are random, can be either favorable or not depending on the environmental conditions.

The mutation that causes a disease called sickle cell anemia is an interesting example: people are affected only when they carry the mutation on both gene copies. Heterozygous people, who carry the mutation only on one gene copy, are healthy. Since the disease significantly reduces the life span of affected people, under normal conditions, you would expect a deleterious mutation like that to gradually disappear from the population. So why is it still quite prevalent, especially in sub-Saharan Africa?

A study (you can read the whole post here) compared two African populations and saw that the population where the mutation was more prevalent had a lower incidence of malaria. It's only a hypothesis, but this could possibly mean that, under particular circumstances (i.e. endemic malaria), the mutation actually confers an advantage on healthy people who carry it on one gene only -- a phenomenon called heterozygote advantage. Now, this is selection in action. However, notice that the study was conducted on isolated African populations. In fact, the smaller the population, the faster selection acts. Unfortunately, in today's world there are only few pockets left of isolated human populations.

Another study I discussed a few months ago was able to find the effect of selective sweeps caused by historically documented epidemics in the genomes of the Rroma people. This population was ideal for this kind of analysis because over the centuries they remained ethnically homogeneous and only rarely intermingled outside of their group. In fact, one can retrace the migration of ancient populations looking at the people's genome, a concept pioneered by the great population geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli Sforza.

We can definitely retrace the past, but the question is: can we really predict the future?

What would really help the debate is to hear the voices of real scientists, but real scientists get all technical and frankly what Bill Nye is saying when he envisions a super-intelligent human walking on Mars is far more appealing to the collective imagination than the concept of a handful of random mutations accumulating in our DNA. And as a science fiction writer, I get that because I do love to push the imagination. But then let's not call it science, let's call it what it really is: science fiction.

I'm writing all this not to criticize Bill Nye who's a science enthusiast working on spreading the beauty of science. And I do reckon that he has to do put a bit of this stuff in his book or else no publishing house would accept it. But they wouldn't accept it because us, the scientists, are once again failing to communicate not just the real science but the enthusiasm for (and the value of) scientific thinking.

Thoughts?

[1] Salih NA, Hussain AA, Almugtaba IA, Elzein AM, Elhassan IM, Khalil EA, Ishag HB, Mohammed HS, Kwiatkowski D, & Ibrahim ME (2010). Loss of balancing selection in the betaS globin locus. BMC medical genetics, 11 PMID: 20128890

[2] Hafid Laayounia,1, Marije Oostingb,c,1, Pierre Luisia, Mihai Ioanab,d, Santos Alonsoe, Isis RicaƱo-Poncef, Gosia Trynkaf,2, Alexandra Zhernakovaf, Theo S. Plantingab, Shih-Chin Chengb, Jos W. M. van der Meerb, Radu Poppg, Ajit Soodh, B. K. Thelmai, Cisca (2014). Convergent evolution in European and Rroma populations reveals pressure exerted by plague on Toll-like receptors PNAS DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1317723111

[3] Coop G, Pickrell JK, Novembre J, Kudaravalli S, Li J, Absher D, Myers RM, Cavalli-Sforza LL, Feldman MW, & Pritchard JK (2009). The role of geography in human adaptation. PLoS genetics, 5 (6) PMID: 19503611

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Telepath Chronicles launch party and the Winner Takes All mega-giveaway



Today's the Telepath Chronicles anthology launch day, a collection of 14 science fiction stories written by some pretty cool authors like Samuel Peralta, Susan Kaye Quinn, Autumn Kalquist, Endi Webb, Therin Knite, Vincent Trigili, and many others that I have yet to interview here on the blog.

We are celebrating with some pretty awesome giveaways:

1) Scroll to the bottom to enter to win all 28 ebooks! There's a little of everything, for a total of over $85 worth of ebooks. Winner takes all!

And ...
It's your lucky day, with this many giveaways, you're bound to win something! ;-) And aren't these book covers simply fantastic?

summoned_cover_final_bigger the forever girl sunbolt magicless misfortune the polaris uprising the zodiac collectr prophecy girl no good deed his source hidden gene cards fearless and feminine famine echoes fairy texas robot awareness sac sex ray specs copper ravens carnies redcap baba ali a home for jesse radiant shadows killing jena crane tort wally

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Insecure Writer's Support Group: what's the right price for your book?


This is a monthly event started by the awesome Alex J. Cavanaugh and organized by the Insecure Writer's Support Group. Click here to find out more about the group and sign up for the next event.

My insecurity this month: what is the right price for my books?

Here's the thing: every time I run a 99 cent promotion I sell a ton of books. Both Mosaics and Gene Cards landed on a bunch of hot new releases thanks to those promotions. And then the promotion ends and sales drop. So, what's an author to do?

Incidentally (or maybe not), Amazon started a new program called KDP Pricing Support, which is still in beta, but basically takes in your book data (sales, length of the book, etc.), and tells you what the right price for your book should be. It's an interesting tool because it lets you input the hypothetical price for your book and, based on the data from similar books, it tells you how your sales and profits would change accordingly. Obviously, if you lower the price, the sales increase but the profits decrease. On the other hand, when you raise the price you see a higher profit but less sales.

One thing is for sure: if you want a ton of sales go for the lowest price. However. There's always a catch. For me, the catch is this: how many of those copies sold at 99 cents are actually read? That's a very important question to ask because if all those books end up buried in a Kindle and get never opened, all I've gained is a momentary spike in your Amazon ranking, a spike that is bound to disappear just as quickly as it appeared.

What you really want, as an author, is to engage your readers. Readers who love your book and write a review and recommend the book to their friends are priceless. Who's more likely to write a review, the impulsive buyer who forgets about your book the minute he/she sees another sale, or the reader who looks at the book description and opens a couple of reviews before clicking "Buy Now"?

There's a second consideration I make when deciding the price for my books, and it's not based on page number, like the Amazon tool does. It's based on the amount of work I put into each project. It takes me one year to produce a finished book, and that's not just because I'm a slow writer. I'm a compulsive researcher: I research everything for my story, from characters to technology, from police procedural to locations. I spend just as much time researching as I do writing. It takes time, effort, and resources to do that.

But, none of this is written in stone and I keep debating whether or not I've set the right prices, which is why this month I decided to discuss this topic as my featured insecurity. :-)

Besides, I'm not giving up 99 cent promotions. I'm still planning on having plenty of those as they help me spread the word about my books. But I think that the final price of novel-length books should be higher than $0.99. What do you think? What do you take into account when deciding the right price for your book?

BTW, if you don't want to miss my next book promotion, make sure you sign up for my newsletter. Plus, you get a free story when you sign up. :-)  (sorry, had to end with a devious plug)

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The heritability of fears

Cyborg © EEG
As many of you know, one of my favorite topics here on the blog is epigenetic inheritance, i.e. the mechanisms that regulate changes in gene expression that can be passed from one generation to the next. Epigenetics has revolutionized the way we look at genetic inheritance: Darwin had taught us that the only way the environment can shape the genome of a species is through natural selection. While this is certainly still true, today we also know that:

1) Most of the mutations we see in a population have reached fixation through random drift -- the constant reshuffling from one generation to the next -- not selection.

2) The environment can induce changes in one generation that may indeed be passed on to the next generation not through actual changes in the DNA but, rather, in the way the DNA is "packaged" inside the cell nucleus (for a great explanation on how this work, see my colleague Karissa Sanbomatsu's TED talk).

 In a Nature Neuroscience paper [1], authors Dias and Ressler explored the following premise in a mouse model:
"An important, but often ignored, factor that influences adult nervous systems is exposure of parents to salient environmental stimuli before the conception of their offspring. Such information transfer would be an efficient way for parents to ‘inform’ their offspring about the importance of specific environmental features that they are likely to encounter in their future environments. However, this would necessitate the transgenerational inheritance of environmental information via the germ line by offspring not even conceived at the time."
The researchers used olfactory fear as the stimulus mostly because it's one of the best understood mechanisms, both at the neurological and the molecular biology levels. Of course, a caveat would be that humans, besides being very different from mouse models, they've evolutionarily replaced olfactory stimuli with visual ones.

The researchers used odor-naive male mice and targeted an odorant receptor (M71) whose expression in the olfactory sensory neurons has been shown to be activated by acetophenone. It is important to note that the experiment did not induce any change in the actual DNA of the mice. What they did, instead, was use acetophenone to activate the receptor so it would be expressed inside these special neurons.

As I explained in older posts, DNA is wrapped around "spools" called histones. Cells produce proteins and activate receptors depending on what genes are on the outer surface of the "histone yarn", while hidden parts of the DNA remain unexpressed (as if that gene didn't exist). A molecule like acetophenone can induce changes inside olfactory sensory neurons that cause the histones to move and expose the gene that encodes the M71 odorant receptor. Once this happens, the receptor is "activated."

 Since the mice are initially odor naive, their M71 receptor is inactivated (the gene is not expressed) prior to the exposure to acetophenone. After the receptor activation, these male mice were mated with odor naive females. So, genetically speaking, the offsprings had no reason to have the M71 receptor activated, since neither parent had it activated at birth. Yet the offsprings of the mice stimulated with acetophenone, despite not being previously exposed to any of the odors with which they were tested, were able to detect acetophenone at lower concentrations than the offsprings of mice stimulated with another molecule (propanole).

Not all offsprings were behaviorally tested. Some of the offsprings were kept naive to any exposure so that their neuroanatomy could be tested separately without risking the results to be affected by the behavioral tests. When they looked at the offsprings of the acetophenone exposed mice, the researchers found an increase in the M71 glomerular area together with a significant increase in the numbers of M71-activated olfactory sensory neurons in the main olfactory epithelium.

So, how these epigenetic changes get inherited? To address the question, Dias and Ressler examined the sperm of the acetophenone exposed mice. This part of the paper gets a little technical, but the interesting idea is that they did find molecular changes in the sperm DNA around the Olfr151 gene, which encodes the M71 receptor. They found that the 3' end of Olfr151 was significantly less methylated in the acetophenone induce mice. At the same time, they
"did not observe any histone-mediated epigenetic signatures around the M71 locus when chromatin was immunoprecipitated with antibodies that recognize histone modifications that either permit or repress to transcription."
The authors conclude:
"In summary, we have begun to explore an under-appreciated influence on adult behavior—ancestral experience before conception. From a translational perspective, our results allow us to appreciate how the experiences of a parent, before even conceiving offspring, markedly influence both structure and function in the nervous system of subsequent generations. Such a phenomenon may contribute to the etiology and potential intergenerational transmission of risk for neuropsychiatric disorders, such as phobias, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder."

[1] Dias, B., & Ressler, K. (2013). Parental olfactory experience influences behavior and neural structure in subsequent generations Nature Neuroscience, 17 (1), 89-96 DOI: 10.1038/nn.3594

ResearchBlogging.org


Sunday, October 26, 2014

Ebola could mutate as rapidly as the flu


© Science Magazine

The largest genomic data collected on the Ebola virus to date has been recently published in Science [1], giving unique insights on the origin and spread of the greatest Ebola outbreak so far.

The Ebola virus was first discovered in 1976, when it caused 318 cases: until now, it was the largest outbreak.
"The current outbreak started in February 2014 in Guinea, West Africa, and spread into Liberia in March, Sierra Leone in May, and Nigeria in late July. It is the largest known EVD outbreak and is expanding exponentially [1]."
In a recent Science paper [1], researchers sequenced 99 Ebola genomes from 78 patients from Sierra Leone. By analyzing the genetic make-up of the viral population, scientists can retrace the spread of the outbreak. It's a bit like looking at the DNA of a large group of people to find out who's related to whom. In the case of Ebola, we want to know if there was only one "parent", so to speak, or if there were several animal-to-human reinsertions.

According to the paper, the event that brought the virus to Sierra Leone at the end of May was the burial of a healer from Guinea who had treated Ebola patients. Local practices at funerals include touching and kissing the corpse, and given that Ebola can survive in a dead host for up to three days, you can see how a single funeral can infect dozens of people, especially when the dead is a popular healer as in this particular case. Thirteen cases were traced back to this funeral, two of which stemmed the outbreak in Sierra Leone.

The researchers analyzed the viral genomes using phylogenetic trees, a technique that enabled them to retrace the history of the virus.
"Phylogenetic comparison to all 20 genomes from earlier outbreaks suggests that the 2014 West African virus likely spread from central Africa within the past decade [1]."
They were able to see that the "ancestor" originated from a single transmission event back in February. This finding contradicts previous hypothesis that the unprecedented spread of the outbreak was due to multiple transmission events from animal to humans. Contrary to this hypothesis, after that first transmission, in which the virus jumped from animals to human back in February, Ebola has been spreading among people alone.
"Genetic similarity across the sequenced 2014 samples suggests a single transmission from the natural reservoir, followed by human-to-human transmission during the outbreak. Molecular dating places the common ancestor of all sequenced Guinea and Sierra Leone lineages around late February 2014, 3 months after the earliest suspected cases in Guinea; this coalescence would be unlikely had there been multiple transmissions from the natural reservoir [1]."
But the most interesting point (to me at least) that the paper addresses is the virus's mutation rate. Since viruses replicate quite rapidly, it's important to know how high is the chance that at every replication cycle, errors (i.e. mutations) are introduced. Rapidly mutating viruses have a greater chance to escape the immune system (see HIV, for example) and are also much harder to target with a vaccine. The Science paper claims that
"The observed substitution rate is roughly twice as high within the 2014 outbreak as between outbreaks [1]."
In fact, they estimate the mutation rate to be roughly the same as that of the seasonal flu, which, if confirmed, would greatly hamper the creation of a vaccine.

Unfortunately the odds are still against poor countries. I attended a talk this week where the speaker reported that while the mortality rate in the affected African countries is at 95%, in the Western world it drops down to 75-80%. This is due to prompt intervention, the use of serum from people who survived the infection (and hence developed good antibodies against the virus), and the use of IVs. Unfortunately, people living in the affected countries tend to be skeptical of westerners and, just like it happened with HIV, beliefs that Ebola is yet another virus introduced by Westerners to hurt the locals are rampant.

When I finished reading the Science paper, I was saddened to find this final paragraph:
"In memoriam: Tragically, five co-authors, who contributed greatly to public health and re- search efforts in Sierra Leone, contracted EVD and lost their battle with the disease before this manuscript could be published: Mohamed Fullah, Mbalu Fonnie, Alex Moigboi, Alice Kovoma, and S. Humarr Khan. We wish to honor their memory."

[1] Gire SK, Goba A, Andersen KG, Sealfon RS, Park DJ, Kanneh L, Jalloh S, Momoh M, Fullah M, Dudas G, Wohl S, Moses LM, Yozwiak NL, Winnicki S, Matranga CB, Malboeuf CM, Qu J, Gladden AD, Schaffner SF, Yang X, Jiang PP, Nekoui M, Colubri A, Coomber MR, Fonnie M, Moigboi A, Gbakie M, Kamara FK, Tucker V, Konuwa E, Saffa S, Sellu J, Jalloh AA, Kovoma A, Koninga J, Mustapha I, Kargbo K, Foday M, Yillah M, Kanneh F, Robert W, Massally JL, Chapman SB, Bochicchio J, Murphy C, Nusbaum C, Young S, Birren BW, Grant DS, Scheiffelin JS, Lander ES, Happi C, Gevao SM, Gnirke A, Rambaut A, Garry RF, Khan SH, & Sabeti PC (2014). Genomic surveillance elucidates Ebola virus origin and transmission during the 2014 outbreak. Science (New York, N.Y.), 345 (6202), 1369-72 PMID: 25214632

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