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Are There Really Virgin Births?

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Christmas is upon us. While our minds may be focused on finishing up our shopping, the reason for this season (as my good Catholic aunts will remind me) is the birth of Jesus.

The fact that Jesus' mother Mary conceived him while remaining a virgin has long been part of Christian faith. No natural father. No sex. No sperm. Chalk it up as a miracle. Some people don't have "miracle" in their vocabulary, though, so we have to ask: "Are virgin births possible?"

You bet they are! There's actually a lot more "“ or less, really "“ to the birds and the bees than our parents told us.

Hot, Steamy Asexual Reproduction

Reproduction usually follows the same basic blueprint: Boy meets girl; sperm meets egg; congratulations, you have a baby.

Sometimes, though, there's no boy and there's no sperm. There's just a girl, an egg and eventually a baby. This virgin birth is called parthenogenesis (from Greek, meaning "virgin creation"), and it happens when an embryo develops by itself without fertilization of an ovum (egg cell).

The resulting baby is called a parthenogen, and because it results from the inheritance of only a single sex chromosome from the mother, it will always be female in animals where two like chromosomes determine the female sex (the XY sex-determination system), and always male in animals where two like chromosomes make for a male (the ZW sex-determination system, where WZ is female, ZZ is male and WW is inviable).

Scientists have found a number of animals that can reproduce this way, and have also figured out how to induce other animals to perform the trick. Some researchers have even tried to make it happen in humans.

Some Examples:

honeybee.jpgIn insects, parthenogenesis is common among honeybees. In a hive of domesticated honeybees, the queen bee is the only fertile female, but the female worker bees, through parthenogenesis, produce male drones to mate with the queen. Additionally, some parasitic bacteria can induce parthenogenesis in insects.
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Marmorkrebs, a type of crayfish discovered only a decade ago, produce parthenogens that are genetically identical to their mother.
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Fifteen species of whiptail lizard found in the American Southwest reproduce exclusively by parthenogenesis (populations are all female), but still exhibit mating behavior (including one female mounting another that is about to lay eggs) because the sexual behavioral stimulates maximum reproductive success.
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The Komodo dragon, the sex of which is determined by the WZ system, has been observed to switch to sexual reproduction after parthenogenetic reproduction. Scientists think this helps the lizard colonize islands.
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Several cases of parthenogenesis have been documented in sharks. In each case, pups were born in aquarium tanks that contained only female sharks. The parthenogenetic reproductions concern shark experts and conservationists because, while the population increases, genetic diversity decreases. Additionally, sharks have an XY sex-determination system, so female populations can only produce more females.
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While there are no known cases of parthenogenesis occurring naturally in mammals in the wild, scientists have successfully induced it in rabbits, mice and monkeys. The resulting embryos ran into problems, however, because of biological phenomenon in mammals (and some flowering plants) known as genomic imprinting. During the formation of sperm and egg cells, certain genes necessary for embryo development are shut down by chemical marks, or imprints. Some of these imprints are in sperm, others are in the egg. All the key genes are there only when a sperm and an egg meet, so without paternally imprinted genes, a mammalian embryo created by parthenogenesis develops abnormally.

Virgin Birth in Humans?

Because of the problems stemming from genomic imprinting, research into human parthenogenesis isn't focused on reproductive therapy, but the production of embryonic stem cells for medical treatment. Last year, Dr. Elena Revazova and her research team at International Stem Cell Corporation produced the first intentional human stem cells from unfertilized human eggs through parthenogenesis. Intentional is the key word there, because before ISC's achievement, Hwang Woo-Suk, who famously fabricated the results of his attempt to extract stem cells from cloned human embryos, unknowingly produced the first human embryos from parthenogenesis.

Stem cells are one thing, but a bouncing baby is another. Could a human naturally be produced by virgin birth? In theory, yes, if a number of biochemical events occur by chance or genetic defect in close succession and the egg doesn't complete meiosis (when an egg does this, it loses half of its genetic material to make room for the paternal DNA in the sperm. But without the sperm, each half of the divided egg would come up short on genetic material). The chances of all that happening are almost zero. But even if nature found a way, we run into genomic imprinting again, so we wouldn't wind up with a viable embryo.

There is one documented case of a natural half-parthenogenetic birth. In 1995, Nature Genetics reported a child that had some cells (about 50%) that consisted of genetic material only from his mother and some that were normal and consisted of a DNA from both parents. Doctors who studied the child theorized that one of the mother's eggs that had been fertilized by the father fused with an unfertilized egg that was dividing parthogenetically.

Might Jesus been a biological one-in-a-billion like that kid? Not according to Christian belief, which holds that the virgin birth of Jesus was not parthenogenesis, but strictly miraculous and not explainable by science as a natural process.

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.

1. ON SCIENCE

"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.

2. ON NASA FUNDING

"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles

3. ON GOD AND HURRICANES

"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole

4. ON THE BENEFITS OF TECHNOLOGY INVENTED FOR USE IN SPACE

"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles

5. ON THE DEMOTION OF PLUTO FROM PLANET STATUS 

PBS

"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

6. ON JAMES CAMERON'S TITANIC

"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole

7. ON DEATH BY ASTEROID

"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles

8. ON THE MOTIVATIONS BEHIND AMERICA'S MOONSHOT

"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

9. ON INTELLIGENT LIFE (OR THE LACK THEREOF)

Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."

10. PRACTICAL ADVICE IN THE EVENT OF ALIEN CONTACT 

A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios
"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole
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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.

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