Sorry, I couldn't resist. This is great...
A potpourri of pieces on science, health, technology and the environment
The immune system of a single humped, dromedary camel is beginning to yield amazing secrets. For example, an increased ability to resist certain types of diseases including diabetes through the consumption of camel milk. As it is possible that the single-humped camels descended from the double-humped camel, scientists have every reason to think that a detailed study of the immune system of the wild Bactrian camel will yield scientific discoveries which will be of benefit to the whole of mankind. For example, how is it that the wild Bactrian camels survived 43 atmospheric nuclear tests and are still breeding naturally without any recognisable deformities? How has the wild Bactrian camel managed to survive on salt water that the domestic Bactrian will not drink?Getting deeper into the science, here is an excerpt from a
Sabah Jassim, who is originally from Nottingham but now works in the UAE, at the Zayed Complex for Herbal Research and Traditional Medicine, is convinced that camels offer new hope for drug companies looking for treatments for hepatitis C and HIV. "There is something really marvelous in their immunoglobulin," he said. His center has carried out an overview of the existing research into the camel's immune system, going back to 1993, and published in the latest issue of the British Institute of Biology journal, Biologist. "The camel is unique, different from any animal in the world," he explained. "The only animal with anything like it is the shark."And later on:
The camel's antibodies find it easier to penetrate enzyme—active sites than human antibodies. This, and the relatively small size and weight of the immunoglobulin molecule, offer enormous potential, as it could be used to tackle diseases such as salmonella, TB, hepatitis C, skin disease and HIV, argued Jassim. Camel immunoglobulin could be used to neutralize a viral enzyme, he suggested. And it appears to be able to fight off various pathogens.But that article was written back in 2001, so the obvious question is, what have these scientists learned since then? Sadly, I can't find a website for Jassim, and a PubMed search suggests he's published no camel-related papers since then. A look on Muyldermans' website reveals that although he is ostensibly still studying camel antibodies, he hasn't published any related studies since 2003, when he published in Nature that a particular camel antibody fragment inhibits the aggregation of a protein variant of human lysozyme that is involved in the production of amyloid fibrils—the signature of diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. The paper says that "the binding of the antibody fragment achieves its effect by restoring the structural cooperativity characteristic of the wild-type protein...Reducing the ability of an amyloidogenic protein to form partly unfolded species can be an effective method of preventing its aggregation, suggesting approaches to the rational design of therapeutic agents directed against protein deposition diseases."
Camel antibodies are also being studied by Serge Muyldermans, Senior Scientist at the Flemish Institute for Biotechnology in Brussels. He explained that, because a camel immunoglobulin molecule is much smaller than that of a human, it is able to penetrate the dense layer of protein coat around a virus or parasite more easily. His department has been developing ways of cloning immunoglobulin fragments from immunized camels to produce high yields of recombinant protein. The camel antibodies, he argued, have several advantages over conventional antibody fragments, and could be used as enzyme inhibitors, for diagnostic purposes, or even in treating tumors. "The idea is to link the camel antibody to enzymes which will bind to the tumor," he concluded.
The fact that camel antibodies are so light, proposed Jassim, makes them ideal for new clinical compounds. The antibodies have a molecular weight of 100 KDa, much lower than human antibodies, at 150 KDa, while the recombinant version weighs just 15 KDa. "I think pharmaceutical companies are not really aware of this," he said. But he thinks that camel antibodies are set to become big business in the future.
Cancer, in other words, re-creates within our own bodies the evolutionary process that enables animals to adapt to their environment. At the level of organisms, natural selection operates when genetic mutations cause some organisms to have more reproductive success than others; the mutations get “selected” in the sense that they persist and become more common in future generations. In cancer, cells play the role of organisms. Cancer- causing changes to DNA cause some cells to reproduce more effectively than ordinary ones. And even within a single tumor, more adapted cells may outcompete less successful ones. “It’s like Darwinian evolution, except that it happens within one organ,” explains Natalia Komarova of the University of California, Irvine.Then he introduces some potential reasons why the genes that predispose us to cancer might be propagating in the gene pool. The fact that cancer is so common—and that our defenses against it fall short—suggests that perhaps there are evolutionary reasons for it, Zimmer says. (He does rightly point out, however, that natural selection doesn't care what happens to us when we're old. It favors only for those genes that affect our ability to reproduce.)
But losing the p16 gene had an upside. When the mice got old, their cells still behaved as if they were young. In one experiment, the scientists studied older mice, some of which had working p16 genes and some of which did not. They destroyed insulin-producing cells in the pancreases of the animals. The normal rodents could no longer produce insulin and developed fatal diabetes. But the ones without the p16 protein developed only mild diabetes and survived. The progenitors of their insulinproducing cells could still multiply quickly, and they repopulated the pancreas with new cells. The scientists found similar results when they examined cells in the blood and brains of the mice: p16 protected them against cancer but also made them old.Could a missing (or non-expressing) tumor expressor gene, though bad for us in the cancer sense, actually have the hidden benefit of slowing down the aging process? Who knows—mice aren't the perfect models for humans, but it's a possibility. But that's just the start. Another gene that is highly associated with cancer—some cancer cells can't live without its expression—produces a protein called fatty acid synthase, which (again, as its name suggests) synthesizes certain fatty acids. The gene, scientists have found, has undergone big changes since humans first evolved from mammalian ancestors, and while no one can be certain yet why, there is some evidence that the protein helped us evolve bigger and better brains. In other words, then, a gene that potentially increases cancer risk could have been what essentially made us human in the first place.
Genes that allow cells to build a better placenta, Crespi and Summers argue, can get hijacked by cancer cells—turned on when they would normally be silent. The ability to stimulate new blood vessel formation and aggressive growth serves a tumor just as it does a placenta. “It’s something naturally liable to be co-opted by cancer cell lineages,” Summers says. “It sets up the opportunity for mutations to create tools for cancer cells to use to take over the body.”
Yet even though activation of these usually quiet genes may make cancers more potent, natural selection may still have favored them because they helped fetuses grow. “You may get selection for a gene variant that helps the fetus get a little more from mom,” Crespi says. “But then, when that kid is 60, it might increase the odds of cancer by a few percent. It’s still going to be selected for because of the strong positive early effects.”Through these examples, Zimmer suggests that looking at cancer through the lens of evolutionary biology may provide some novel insights. As behavioral ecologist Bernard Crespi says in the article, whereas other science tends to focus on the "how" of cancer, evolutionary biology instead investigates the "why." And that question may have some pretty fascinating—not to mention useful!—answers.
But perhaps the most striking difference was in an area in the left prefrontal cortex—the site of activity that marks happiness. While the monks were generating feelings of compassion, activity in the left prefrontal swamped activity in the right prefrontal (associated with negative moods) to a degree never before seen from purely mental activity. By contrast, the undergraduate controls showed no such differences between the left and right prefrontal cortex. This suggests, says Davidson, that the positive state is a skill that can be trained.
For the monks as well as the patients with depression or OCD, the conscious act of thinking about their thoughts in a particular way rearranged the brain. The discovery of neuroplasticity, in particular the power of the mind to change the brain, is still too new for scientists, let alone the rest of us, to grasp its full meaning. But even as it offers new therapies for illnesses of the mind, it promises something more fundamental: a new understanding of what it means to be human.
This I find fascinating. I have never doubted that meditation had positive health effects, but this research implies that meditation—or, more broadly, the practice of particular thought patterns—can rewire the brain.
Begley's article also mentions another interesting finding. Not only does the repeated use of certain muscles—say, by practicing a certain passage on the piano each day—cause the brain to "devote more cortical real estate to it," even just imagining the practicing elicits the effect:
"Mental practice resulted in a similar reorganization" of the brain, Pascual-Leone later wrote. If his results hold for other forms of movement (and there is no reason to think they don't), then mentally practicing a golf swing or a forward pass or a swimming turn could lead to mastery with less physical practice. Even more profound, the discovery showed that mental training had the power to change the physical structure of the brain.Steven Pinker has an interesting article about the nature of consciousness, in which he describes the so-called "Easy Problem," the difference between conscious and unsconscious thoughts, and the "Hard Problem," or why there is first-person, subjective experience—and why it's so difficult to solve this problem. (I recall being in elementary school and asking my parents how I could be sure that the "green" I saw was the same color that my classmates saw when they saw green. This article gets at just that.) There's also an interesting (and mildly amusing) sidebar by Daniel Dennett that begins, "Suppose Steve Pinker contracts a terrible progressive brain disease..."
Each time we retrieve and re-store a memory, it can be subtly altered by all sorts of factors. What goes back into our brains is like the new version of a text document, overwriting the old.And last but certainly not least, there was a very interesting essay by Harvard psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Randy Buckner. When people are not performing specific mental tasks that require them to be "in the moment"—like following instructions, or answering the telephone—what are their brains doing? Traveling through time, apparently, either re-living past events or imagining the future. Gilbert and Buckner offer some potential reasons for this:
Why did evolution design our brains to go wandering in time? Perhaps it's because an experience is a terrible thing to waste. Moving around in the world exposes organisms to danger, so as a rule they should have as few experiences as possible and learn as much from each as they can. Although some of life's lessons are learned in the moment ("Don't touch a hot stove"), others become apparent only after the fact ("Now I see why she was upset. I should have said something about her new dress"). Time travel allows us to pay for an experience once and then have it again and again at no additional charge, learning new lessons with each repetition. When we are busy having experiences—herding children, signing checks, battling traffic--the dark network is silent, but as soon as those experiences are over, the network is awakened, and we begin moving across the landscape of our history to see what we can learn—for free.Certainly some fascinating pieces here—there are more I haven't read yet, too—and most appear to be available for free online, at least for now.
As an activity, as a state of mind, science is fundamentally optimistic. Science figures out how things work and thus can make them work better. Much of the news is either good news or news that can be made good, thanks to ever deepening knowledge and ever more efficient and powerful tools and techniques. Science, on its frontiers, poses more and ever better questions, ever better put.Here's what's interesting. Having read all 160 answers, I noticed that a shocking 21 of the respondents, in describing what they are optimistic about, delineate some very strong caveats. Some go as far as to say that they believe we’re all doomed but that they are "optimistic that they will be wrong" (given that these are some of the world's best thinkers, I don't feel especially comforted). Perhaps considering one side of the coin makes one automatically think about the other; I don’t know. But one thing's for sure: these 21 didn’t seem optimistic about much.
A careful assessment and years of experience that show that the long-term future is most bleak: Entropy will continue to increase, and a heat death (actually a misnomer as it means the degredation of usable energy in a dull cooling worthless background of chaos) is the very likely fate of the world. This is the fate that awaits us, if we manage to work our way past the energy crisis that looms as the Sun runs out of fuel and in its death throws expands as red giant star likely to engulf us after boiling away the seas before it collapses back to a slowly cooling cinder eventually to leave the solar system in cold darkness.A few paragraphs later, it only gets better (worse?):
One cannot live by the Hippocratic dictum "Do no harm". But the best one can hope for is the weak mantra "Do minimal damage". I was often bothered by this inevitable conclusion and tried to see that if one could write a great work of literature, make art, or most optimally a great science discovery could one objectively leave the world better than one found it? Each time I worked out an example, the impact was negligible however great it was found by human culture compared to the damage done by mere existence. The only discovery that would make a difference called for repealing or avoiding the laws of probability or making a whole new universe. Both of these are quite extreme. Perhaps the discovery of extra dimensions would allow some leeway in what otherwise seems an inescapable doom after a long period of unrighteous degradation of the universe. We face a continuous downward spiral of no return. This is not a moral or ethical statement only an engineering evaluation though it is some indication of original sin. So even living one's life as a vegetarian that only eats fruit dropped into one's hand by a willing plant is only going so far as to be very kind and considerate to other beings that are also worsening the universe for the sake of a little more order in their own self.There’s plenty more where that came from. So: is it unrealistic to be optimistic these days? Are we really heading towards an imminent apocalypse (with two books, here and here, supporting this idea)? Or are brilliant intellectuals just more likely to be pessimists? I certainly don't have the answers, but if you're looking for some interesting ones, you can find them on Edge...
- To give creative names to each of the Twin Planemos
- To decide on a better third definition of a planet
- To come up with a catchy theme song and a secret handshake
Sorry, I think I can only help with the third one, guys...
Just to be clear...we can ship your snow 1 of 3 ways. 1) For the shipping stated in the auction we'll put snow in a leakproof container (jar or zip lock bag) and ship it in a box. Yes, it will melt. You'll have to refreeze it and shave it to return it to it's natural state. 2) To keep it frozen we need to use dry ice and a foam cooler and ship it overnight fedx. Probably a gallon zip lock bag of snow. That will be a lot more, but you'll get snow. 3) You can come get it...I particularly love the last option (she also mentions earlier in the post that people who might like to avoid paying shipping charges should feel free to come to her home with a dump truck and shovel). To find people willing to pay you to shovel snow from your driveway? Brilliant.