August 17, 2010

Batman without the Bat.

The Comic, and entertainment industry on the whole, has never been particularly creative when it comes to naming their creations. Super-man, Spider-man, Bat-man, the list goes on. In the wake of recent news however, Mr. Wayne may need to rethink his moniker.

Recent studies show that the most common bat in America, M. lucifugus, better known as the little brown bat, is getting closer and closer to total extinction, being struck by White-Nose Syndrome, which was discovered in 2006. WNS is quickly decimating the bat's and at this time scientists barely understand how it works, let alone the cause of the ailment.Some researchers believe in it caused by a foreign mold that has entered the caves, but that doesn't fully explain the disease present. What is known however is that bats are dying in the millions, and quickly. Researchers have even been quoted saying that this is possibly the worst threat to bats within the span of human existence.

Many algorthms made to predict the decline have shown that these creatures could go extinct in a matter of decades. If WNS does not get them, their small resulting population would make them suseptible to other problems: predation, a colder winter, or just bad luck.

Apart from the implications that will occur for Gotham's Dark Knight, the decline (and possible exintiction) of bat populations in Eastern America lead to several bad consequences. Firstly, cavern ecosystems (which in each cave is unique) would be decimated, as bat's provide much needed nutrition from the outside world. More pragmatically, bats are one of the most pervasive insect killers out there, more effective than most insectosides. Death of bats leads to fewer crops, and in turn, raised food prices...

The disease affects many different types of bat, including those which were already perilously close to extinction, such as the Indiana bat. It's a race against the clock to find a cause, and potential cure, for natures little bug zappers.

This like so many other things affecting the world is a dire threat; if not for a sustainable ecosystem, then purely for the caped crusader.
Thanks for reading

August 11, 2010

The Next Potential Pandemic of Paranoia

Alliteration, good stuff.

Globalization is a marvelous thing. We can literally circumnavigate the world in perhaps a day, we can talk to people around the world in an instant. Information, technology, ideas, culture, all of these things can be exchanged and and truly makes humanity seem closer to 'the human race' as opposed to 'white, black, chinese, indian, etc... The unfortunate side effect of this

So you will recall my article about swine flu. Based on its genetic structure and other factors, it was unlikely to have been a serious threat save to people with compromised immune systems. It simply did not have the genetic pedigree to be a 'killer'. That in combination with a quick government response and a general paranoia about getting sick effectively cut off the disease before it could take hold and further mutate into something more deadly. This is all a moot point of course as most experts agree that we as humanity are severely overdue for a massive pandemic that would kill many people...

In case you guys thought swine flu was gone by the way, cases have popped up in India. Witha death toll reaching as high as 29. Much like many other kinds of diseases, once it comes to light it is still with us forever more. Even the Bubonic plague, otherwise known as the Black Death, which killed off a solid third of the world's population, still exists today in isolated pockets, particularly in the American Southwest.

Speaking of forgotten pandemics. Does anyone remember bird flu? Those few months were whenever we saw a dead bird we skirted away...and when chicken breasts suddenly became much cheaper? That strain is still around traveling between birds. Scientists are trying to track it and its evolution, though how well that will work is still open for debate. Just to be sure, and of course increase paranoia, scientists have created a new strain of Bird flu thats much more virulent in humans (however they did it in such a way as would be doable, viable, even probable in non-lab conditions). These viruses are changing and evolving rapidly, such that neither our immune system, nor our use of antibiotics, can keep up with them. Pleasant dreams

I meanwhile will be eating peanuts at the bar, and trying to breath in coughs, as well as shaking hands with people and generally trying to be a social entity. Since with most illnesses you have to have direct exposure.

It will be FOR SCIENCE after all.

In other news, there's officially a minifridge that gets close to absolute zero....where was this when I needed a cold beer right away?

August 10, 2010

Tetris with Proteins

Life is messy.

An Example of Entropy
Very rarely in nature is there a straight line, or a single element. Life is messy, things mix, combine, bend and knot. The universe favors lower energy states, higher order systems require energy to be put in for them to work. As a result thingsare seldom ever neat and tidy. This is true of society, my bedroom, and of much smaller scale things, including DNA, RNA and proteins.

DNA, made famous for it's double helix formation, has even greater structure, going into tertiary and even quarternary structural units. The same is true of RNA and perhaps more importantly, proteins. Why is a protein important over DNA and RNA for it's form? DNA and RNA are, ultimately, blueprints for the body. Their structure is a result of what is easiest and lowest energy formation (caused because of negative charges, hydrophobicity etc...).

Proteins however can derive their function solely based on their shape, forming enzymes or otherwise. If a protein has an incorrect structure it will not react properly, and other biologic functions would not work, making the processes essential to life nealy impossible. As such outside of indentifying the constituent parts of the protein, another important aspect is determining it's structure. This is typically done using a Rosetta program via computer to determine the best possible arrangement of amino acids. The Rosetta program does well, except it does get stuck, as in getting to a lower energy state, sometimes you must cross through a higher energy one, causing the program to stop

So why am I going over protein structure and entropy? Much like the jellyfish article, I found another that was weird enough to catch my attention.

Protein folding is now a MMO game.

The use of the sorting algorthm is still invaluable, as the proteins can be several thousand amino acids long. However reaching the ending point of the program, researchers decided to make a game out of it, giving the virtual proteins to an online community to solve, getting points for making the protein have a lower and lower energy required. While algorthms and computer programs are extremely useful in science, human beings are definitely still needed... so screw you H.A.L.

The same tactic has begun to be used by astonomers and in other fields

I'm hoping in the future a biochem degree will boil down to a giant video game.

August 3, 2010

Regeneration of organs, limbs, not solely fiction now

Science has made many strides in the field of medicine, but now it is delving into what we had once though to be science fiction and only for Canadian born super-heroes.

In general cell generation is limited. Cells take time to divide, and cannot be reprogrammed to form other biological machinery. The skin cells cannot regrow bone, kidney cells cannot regrow a lung, and so on. The ability to regrow a limb in the multicelluar animal kingdom is limited to certain types of lizards, (and only their tale) as well as worms. Once a cell is programmed to preform a certain function (which is decided fairly early on in life) it thus far can't be reprogrammed to form new tissue.

That's starting to change....

The first instance I'll talk about is about joint replacement. Today's titanium joints work fairly well, but need to be replaced after about 10 years. Replacing them, however, is a challenge for both the patient and the surgeon and often involves weeks of rehabilitation. A team from Columbia University has proposed a way to deal with this problem: inserting a chemical-infused scaffold generates new tissue by attracting stem cells. The scaffolding, meant to resemble a joint, was infused with growth horomone to encourage cell generation in several rabbits. Thanks to the added growth factor protein, the rabbit's own stem cells naturally migrated into the scaffold and regenerated both the cartilage and the bone beneath it. The surgery to replace the joint is similar to now, except there would be no need to go back into the patient, as the joint would be natural. This is a good proof of concept in order for future regeneration of boneloss. However young rabbits are already well known for their ability to heal, and what rabbits that received the scaffold without the chemical only healed somewhat. Growth horomone while natural can lead to complications in older patients, so it would need to be monitored...

Regardless however, it is a solid proof of concept that this indeed can work and that a patient's own body can heal itself, given the right tools. This would be a marked improvement over prostetics and synthetic limb growth both of which hold the possibility of the patient's body rejecting the new limb.

Every adult creature still has stem cells, but they grow in limited numbers and are typically found in the bone marrow and therefore later in the blood, younger creatures tend to have more of them, as their bodies are still growing. Unlike other cells they may differentiate and change their function (lung cell, heart cell etc...). Stem cell research has had some bad press due to it's use of fetal stem cells, but there is a greater use of adult stem cells, which poses less ethical quandries. Stem cell research opens up alot of possibilities for future medical advances.

Meanwhile over at Yale great strides are being made in the field of organ growth. In a way similar to the one above, a scaffolding of a lung was used and then was implanted with stem cells, which then regrew the lung. It was not perfect however, as the newly formed lung did seem prone to blood clots. The organ was not reconstructed from the mouse's own tissue as well so it was prone to being rejected as a foreign substance by the body as well. It was reported that great stem cell research would be necessary before this would be applicable for use on a human.

There's alot of promising technology in the offing... it still needs work however

My love of science fiction is quickly being overshadowed by the fact that the world is BECOMING science fiction.

Anti-matter found within Earth

A particle detector located about a mile beneath the Gran Sasso mountain in Italy has detected something extraordinarily interesting.

The presence of antimatter within the earth.

Researchers in Italy found the presence of geonutrinos, the antimatter equivalent of neutrinos (lightweight neutrally charged particles that are created in the sun, and when cosmic rays strike an atom). Antimatter is in essence the polar opposite of matter, for example, where a normal electron has a negative charged for instance, an antimatter electron has a positive charge. Antimatter is formed whenever high energy collisions take place, and upon colliding with matter, will annihilate releasing detectable levels of gamma radiation

Neutrino's, having next to no mass, are incredibly hard to detect by normal means...which is why the detector is a mile underground, away from all other solar radiation. The detector is a massive nylon sphere containing 1,000 tons of hydrocarbon fluid. Around the sphere is a huge array of ultra-sensitive photodetectors that can hopefully spot the neutrinos passing through. And all of that is encased in a stainless steel sphere that in turn is suspended in 2,400 tons of purified water inside yet another steel sphere 59 feet in diameter.

The device was originally built to detect neutrinos from solar radiation, but it was quickly determined that it could also be used to find their anti matter cousins, geoneutrinos.

Geoneutrinos are thought to be the result of radioactive decay of uranium, thorium and potassium inside the Earth's crust (its outermost layer) and mantle (the layer below that, extending to 1,800 miles, or 2,900 km, beneath the surface). Radioactivity falling squarely under the 'high energy collisions' mentioned above.

Apart from discovering the inner workings of the earth, there is a more practical aspect to this discovery. Measuring geonutrinos scientists can learn more about how decaying elements add heat into the Earth's core. Whether radioactive decay dominates the heating in this layer, or merely adds to the heat from other sources, is still an open question. As a result of it's ability to detect heat spikes within the Earth's Core however, this could potentially make for a method of early detection for earthquakes and volcanoes

In spite of my wishes however there is neither enough of the stuff to either make for an energy source, nor for a bomb (ala Angels and Demons), what a pity.

Apologies for the lack of posting, illness got the better of me. Expect more articles soon

Thanks for reading,