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Gay Sheep

UPDATE: be sure to read emptypockets posts on this at the Next Hurrah.  They are comprehensive and interesting:

I cross posted this over at my site.  I’m sorry if it’s a bit long.

I came across this article while browsing for recent gay news. It’s sarcasm detracts from getting information across, but some of the more interesting paragraphs are:
For the past five years, a team of researchers at Orgeon [sic] State University has been investigating the sexuality of sheep. Early on, they proved what every sheep farmer knows: some 8 per cent of rams are gay. When it comes to sex, these woolly homosexuals shun ewes and engage exclusively in ram-on-ram action. They will swiftly pounce on any ram stuck in a fence – the sheep equivalent of the prison showers. The gay lovin’ on Brokeback Mountain, it turns out, wasn’t confined to Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger.
And it gets more intriguing. When the team studied the brains of these gay sheep, they invariably discovered they have a substantially smaller hypothalamus than their straight male siblings. This is the first hard scientific evidence of biological differences between gay and straight mammals – and they found these brain differences are already in place in the third trimester of pregnancy. Sheep, at least, are born gay or straight.
So what’s Martina’s problem? It begins with the next stage of the research. It turns out this epidemic of gay sheep is a serious problem for the agricultural industry. This 8 per cent of rams are not breeding, and a further 8 per cent seem to be asexual. (Many of these might be lesbians who can’t express their sexuality. Female sheep always express a desire for sex by just standing still. The world’s fields may be littered with millions of lesbian sheep lying still, wondering why their dream-ewe never comes). If 16 per cent of your flock is cruising or day-dreaming, that’s a lot of lost money.
That’s why the experimenters began to try to something new: making the gay sheep straight. They altered the hormonal levels in their brains and monitored their behaviour. And the result? Many of the gay rams decided a bit of ewe wasn’t so bad after all. They began to have heterosexual sex.

The author ends his commentary by stating that he agrees with Martina Navratilova, that there should not be attempts to cure homosexuality. That’s big of him after mixing sophomoric giggling with hack science reporting. There’s no reference to any original papers and it’s only at the very end of the commentary that the name of the study lead is giving. I found a better article at the UK’s Pink News. (If I’m sounding harsh on the first article I quote, I absolutely mean to. It’s a serious and technical topic. Giggling and tee-heeing don’t help when trying to describe five years worth of bio-ethically sensitive experiments in developmental neuroscience.)

From the better article:
Oregon State University is conducting research into the hormonal balance in the brains of rams who are attracted to other rams.
The scientists claim their research is aimed only at reducing or eliminating gay sheep.
About one in ten rams mount other rams instead of ewes. This 10% cost farmers money, and scientists have been experimenting with changing the hormone levels in the brains of these `gay’ animals. So far the tests have been successful, with formerly `gay’ rams mounting ewes.
The biologist leading the experiments, Charles Roselli, said:”In general, sexuality has been under-studied because of political concerns. People don’t want science looking into what determines sexuality.
“It’s a touchy issue. In fact, several studies have shown that people who believe homosexuality is biologically based are less homophobic than people who think that this orientation is acquired.”
Roselli also said that possible applications of his research to humans were not a matter for him.
Udo Schuklenk, Professor of Bioethics at Glasgow Caledonian University, who has written to the researchers pressing them to stop, told The Times: “I don’t believe the motives of the study are homophobic, but their work brings the terrible possibility of exploitation by homophobic societies. Imagine this technology in the hands of Iran, for example.

As for Martina’s “activist” statement, here is part of the letter she sent to the university:
“I respectfully ask that you pull the plug on this appalling and misguided research. “Surely you can find a way to redirect the millions of public tax dollars that are being wasted on these experiments to a more fruitful venture-perhaps by funding a gay and lesbian community centre to foster dialogue and acceptance for people of all sexual preferences?”

That doesn’t sound like a radical activist to me. Radical, anti-science, activists do exist and they are a problem. Researchers who don’t design ethical and efficient experiments also exist. Nature recently ran a section on December 14th, 2006 on the use of animals in science. Science Magazine ran a look at animal use guidance in May, 2006.

Animal use and experimental design is an entirely different topic though. Contrary to the hateful spin from the right (which I’m not about to link to, Google away if you like), Martina didn’t make a radical statement on scientific methodology. Why would a tennis player have something to say about science?

She made a statement about the ethics of the study. That’s why her comments are relevant. As a gay person, my first reaction was a bit of horror to read that scientists may be providing homophobes ammunition and eugenicists technique.

As someone in science, I wanted to know more about the studies performed. I did some searching and found a bunch of articles from Charles Roselli’s group. The work has been done at a respected institution and isn’t the result of one or two sloppily thrown together studies. Roselli’s focus seems to be determining and characterizing the relevant neural tissue signalling pathways involved in intracellular androgen to estrogen conversion. They look at sexual behavior as it relates to these pathways. They also use various treatments and observe changes in sexual behavior.

That last bit is where the “ick factor” comes in and the point where it becomes relevant for non-scientists to comment on and question, not only where the current work is headed, but where it could lead in a larger context.

Most scientists I know are quick to say that their work is free of politics. Science hypothesizes and tests. It doesn’t have an opinion on such things. For a robot conducting ethically sensitive, never to be reported, work in a vacuum such an ideal might be implementable; but people conduct research.

For me, once you’ve acknowledged the truth that outcomes of sensitive work might impact groups of people, staying behind the curtain of an unachievable ideal becomes denial.

One note though, another article I found at the UK’s Pink News claimed that grant applications indicated making conclusions about humans. It doesn’t discuss what part of the research that applies to. I haven’t seen that as I’ve browsed their work. I would guess that parallels between species may have been made or common mammalian features pointed out as they relate to structural findings. That would make sense. A proposal to apply treatments (without a pathology) to humans and observe sexual behavior would be tough to imagine in an NIH grant (again, where’s the therapeutic part of it?). It’s even tougher to imagine getting such a protocol being passed by an institutional review board.

Another good synopsis of the work in question is here. From that link:
OHSU researchers discovered an irregularly shaped, densely packed cluster of nerve cells in the hypothalamus of the sheep brain, which they named the ovine sexually dimorphic nucleus or oSDN because it is a different size in rams than in ewes. The hypothalamus is the part of the brain that controls metabolic activities and reproductive functions.
The oSDN in rams that preferred females was “significantly” larger and contained more neurons than in male-oriented rams and ewes. In addition, the oSDN of the female-oriented rams expressed higher levels of aromatase, a substance that converts testosterone to estradiol so the androgen hormone can facilitate typical male sexual behaviors. Aromatase expression was no different between male-oriented rams and ewes.
The study was the first to demonstrate an association between natural variations in sexual partner preferences and brain structure in nonhuman animals.

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