Sep
04
2006

The Pandemic: Photo Courtesy of Malingering
The Pandemic: Photo Courtesy of Malingering

No, its not bird flu, but there is a pandemic rapidly spreading through the world and contributing to a variety of diseases.

What is it?

Obesity.

"This insidious, creeping pandemic of obesity is now engulfing the entire world,” Professor Paul Zimmet declared at the opening speech of the International Congress on Obesity. He also said, "it's as big a threat as global warming and bird flu.”

Obesity puts people at a higher risk for getting diabetes, heart problems, high blood pressure, stroke and some forms of cancer.

How bad is this pandemic?

There are about 6.5 billion people in the world. There are one billion overweight people in the world. So that means that 15 percent of the world population is affected by or will potentially be affected by the diseases related to being overweight. That’s a lot. Of the one billion overweight people, about 300 million are diagnosed as obese. But that is still a significant percentage of the world population (about five percent).

Interestingly enough, there are actually more overweight people in the world than undernourished. At least one billion people are overweight, whereas about 600 million people are undernourished.

Those statistics were for the whole world. But in certain countries, particularly Australia, England and the United States, the number of overweight people is much higher. In Australia, 25 percent of children, 50 percent of adult women, and 67 percent of men are overweight. The exact statistics for the U.S. were not given at the Australian International Congress on Obesity, but they were mentioned to be even higher than Australia’s percentages.

Not only is obesity a health problem, but it is an economic problem. Especially in the countries of Australia, England and the U.S., where billions of dollars are spent each year on treating health problems directly connected to being overweight. In fact, in the U.S., the states with the highest obesity levels also have the highest poverty rates.

How can we stop it?

According to the Trust for America's Health advocacy group, at least $5.6 billion could be saved when it comes to treating heart disease if just one-tenth of Americans began a regular walking program.

It seems like it would be pretty easy to stop this pandemic if we quit being so lazy.

Sep
04
2006

Albino or not?: Is this an ablino squirrel or just a white variety of a regular squirrel. Check out the eyes to find out.
Albino or not?: Is this an ablino squirrel or just a white variety of a regular squirrel. Check out the eyes to find out.
Have I been working too hard lately, or was that a white squirrel I just saw?

The past couple weeks I’ve seen more white squirrels than I’ve ever see before and I was all excited that I was finding rare albino versions of the animal. After poking around on the Internet, however, I’ve discovered there’s a lot more to this than meets my eyes.

Thanks to information I found on the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website, just because an animal is white (when it normally isn’t that color) doesn’t mean that it’s an albino. Conversely, an albino animal doesn’t have to be totally white, either.

The answers can all be found in the animal’s genes. Animals that have strong white coloration lack the genetics to produce the pigment melanin.

An albino member of a species inherits genes that interrupt the making of melanin. But other members of the same species may have other factors that block melanin production, making the animal look all white. The key difference can be found in the eyes.

An albino will have pink or light blue eyes, shades that are very uncommon to the animal. A white, non-albino will have eyes that are usual color of its species, usually black. From what I’ve seen lately, the white squirrels I’ve been seeing have black eyes. The estimated rate of albinism in squirrels is estimated at one in 100,000.

Of course, there are some other all white mammals. They’re called leucistic. Polar bears are leucistic year round, while snowshoe hares have a leucistic phase in the white, giving them good cover in the winter snows.

Getting back to the white squirrels, there are a number of towns across North America that celebrate their white furry critter. For instance, in Olney, Illinois, protects and fosters their growth. They’ve had laws on the books to protect the white rodents since 1902 and had a population that grew to 1,000 at one time. Today, there are about 200. Olney, along with towns in North Carolina, California, Texas and Ontario, use the white squirrels as tourist attractions.

The book is still out on if albinism is a detriment to survival. On first thought, being all-white would be a huge disadvantage to being spotted by a predator, you might think. But through more study naturalists have come to believe predators may not recognize a white-version of their prey as food. In studying albino birds, researchers have found that the white-feathered creatures have a hard time finding a mate -- another reason why the albino genes become so rare.

Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin died earlier today after being stung in the heart by a stingray barb.

Sep
04
2006

Two events sponsored by the Bell Museum of Natural History this month should add fuel to the ongoing discussion about global warming.

Filmed in eight countries on four continents, "The Great Warming" documentary features interviews with international experts on the subject of global warming. Narrated by Alanis Morissette and Keanu Reeves, the film shows on Thursday, September 7, at 7 p.m. in the Bell Auditorium. (Price: $7; $5 for students and members of the Bell Museum.)

A café scientifique conversation about the accuracy of global warming predictions will follow on Monday, September 11, at 6 p.m. in the Varsity Theater in Dinkytown, near the University of Minnesota campus. Titled "Global Climate Change: It's Getting Hot in Here!", the discussion's panelists will include Peter Ciborowski from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Fresh Energy's Science Policy Director J. Drake Hamilton, and University of Minnesota Rhetoric professor and environmental historian Daniel Philippon. ($5 suggested donation.)

Two of this summer's most active "Science Buzz" blogs approached this heated topic by asking Have You seen Al Gore's movie, "An Inconvenient Truth"? and examining Global Warming Skepticism.

Sep
03
2006

California's 25/20 vision: photo from Wikimedia
California's 25/20 vision: photo from Wikimedia

A 25 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020

California seeks to again lead the world toward a better future. After last weeks "one million solar roofs" legislation, this week California politicians are working out details that will reduce their green house emissions 25 per cent by the year 2020.

The legislation will require all businesses, from automakers to cement manufacturers, to reduce emissions beginning as early as 2012 to meet the 2020 cap. The state's 11-member Air Resources Board, which is appointed by the governor, will be charged with developing targets for each industry and for seeing that those targets are met. The board now will embark on a years-long process to fully develop regulations. The board could impose fees on some industries to pay for new programs that could do everything from requiring truckers to use biodiesel fuels to forcing farmers to handle animal waste differently.San Francisco Chronicle

California is the world's 12th-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, responsible for 10 percent of the carbon dioxide produced nationally and 2.5 percent globally. Global scientists agree that to prevent catastrophic temperature increases in this century, greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 would have to be 70 to 80 percent lower than 1990 levels.

Cap emissions; buy and sell emissions credits

Last week Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the state's senior Democratic legislator, pledged at the Commonwealth Club to introduce legislation in January that would place mandatory caps on industrial emissions. She also supports a federal cap-and-trade bill, a market-based approach for lowering emissions.(see Buzz Blog post about buying and selling pollution) For example, it would allow farmers and landowners who plant trees or convert crops into bio-fuels to earn emission credits that could be sold to companies that exceed emission limits.

What will it cost and who will pay

Some predict that because "green" energy is more expensive, many companies will move out of California. Others insist that investment capital and "clean-tech" jobs will result, similar to when California led the way with Silicon Valley. California would become more efficient and self reliant. This could give them a head start in a future that will certainly need to do something about global warming and rising energy costs.

Sep
02
2006

Iron pyrite: Photo by Art Oglesby
Iron pyrite: Photo by Art Oglesby

Best mineral ID website

We get a variety of rocks, minerals, and crystals from traders at SMM's Collector's Corner. Sometimes we need reference books or use the internet to identify specimens. Webmineral.com has the most comprehensive mineral image library on the web. Their pictures of over 2,700 different species represents 60% of all known minerals. This mineral database contains 4,442 individual mineral species.
To differentiate minerals, several properties need to be identified.

The section on crystallography has a tool that allows you to see crystals from any angle by using the computer mouse. Another section gives chemical composition, or to see all minerals that contain a certain element. The search tool allows one to enter several properties with the most relevant finds placed first in the results.

Another Collector's Corner

The "Collectors Corner" of the Mineralogical Society of America features an excellent, on-line, mineral identification key by Alan Plante, Donald Peck, & David Von Bargen. Their identification key is also based on simple mineralogical tests such as luster, hardness, color and physical description for the most common minerals an individual is likely to encounter.

With our recent cool snap mosquitoes may not be a problem for much longer. Still, you might be interested to know that it would take about 1,200,000 mosquito bites to totally drain the blood from an adult human.

Sep
01
2006

Farming the Wind: photo by Dirk Ingo Franke.   licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 1.0
Farming the Wind: photo by Dirk Ingo Franke. licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 1.0

Is wind a good cash crop?

At the State Fair I observed as several farmers were researching whether a 1.5 million dollar wind turbine would make them money. The biggest factor was how much wind was available where they lived.The break even point was if they had better than 7.5 mph average wind speeds( see map pdf). Apparently several banks and also John Deere are financing projects if the numbers look good. Power companies will give a 20 year contract to buy electricity. The wind generators usally have a life expectancy of 25 years. Most farmers pay back the loan in ten years, then can reap profits of over $100,000 a year for the next 15 years. Sounds tempting, doesn't it?

An Iowa company hopes to build a $200 million wind farm.

Iowa Winds LLC hopes to build a 200- to 300-megawatt farm covering about 40,000 acres in Franklin County.

Company officials said the farm could be the nation's largest -- depending on the permits and the county's power grid infrastructure. If the county approves the project, construction would start next spring and take about a year, said Franklin County Supervisor Michael Nolte. LiveScience

Texas leads the nation with 2,370 megawatts of wind energy installed and California has 2,323 megawatts (American Wind Association). Iowa is in third place with 836 megawatts. Minnesota is fourth with 794 megawatts. The total United States capacity is about 10,000 megawatts. These numbers and rankings are changing. Wind energy output is growing by about 30 percent a year globally.

Want more? Go to the Minnesota Dept. of Commerce wind energy information web page.

With the federal government refusing to fund research into new embryonic stem cell lines, reports this week of a process that created them without destroying embryos in the process had scientists excited. But critics are claiming that the researchers overstated the implications of their work.

Aug
30
2006

Cocked and ready to go: A trap-jaw ant poised to strike. Photo courtesy Alex Wild at myrmecos.net
Cocked and ready to go: A trap-jaw ant poised to strike. Photo courtesy Alex Wild at myrmecos.net
The title for the world’s fastest jaws has a new champion. And I’m not talking about Robin Williams or any other fast-talking human. The title has been bestowed on the tiny trap-jaw ant, also known as Odontomachus bauri. The former title-holder was the mantis shrimp.

The ant’s mandibles are so fast, they’ve been clocked at 0.13 milliseconds, a mere 2300 times faster than the blink of an eye!

Trap-jaw ant with not-so-swift prey: Photo courtesy Alex Wild at myrmecos.net
Trap-jaw ant with not-so-swift prey: Photo courtesy Alex Wild at myrmecos.net
But that’s not all. The trap-jaw’s super-choppers are in fact so powerful, the very force of them snapping against the ground can propel the insect backwards, and out of danger.

Seeing them do that was "one of the more hilarious moments in our lab," said Sheila Patek, lead researcher and assistant professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley (watch it here ). The study was reported recently in an online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Patek and her team used high-speed video, recording at thousands of frames per second, to study and calculate the speed of the ant’s ultra-swift yap and hasty retreat. Normal video records at 30 frames per second.

Co-author of the study, Andrew Suarez, an ant expert who teaches animal behavior at the University of Illinois at Urban-Champaign, is fascinated that the trap-jaw has co-opted its feeding apparatus for other safety uses.

The 1/3-inch long ants can throw themselves more than 3 inches upward, and 15.6 inches to the side. In human terms, it would be like a five foot six inch person jumping up 44 feet in the air, and sideways 132 feet.

The trap-jaw’s secret lies in powerful muscles that hold the ant’s jaws open and ready to strike at less than a moment’s notice when a latch is triggered. Patek likens it to a crossbow where power is stored in the flexible bow and can be released instantly.

Trap-jaw ants are found in Central and South America. The ants used in the study came from Costa Rica.

FURTHER INFORMATION:

Biology News Net
National Geographic
More about ants
BBC News w/video