Stephen Hawking has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a disease that destroys motor neurons. So far, progress in understanding this disease has been relatively slow, mainly because it has been difficult to obtain a decent supply of living motor neurons affected by the condition. New research done by John Dimos and Kit Rodolfa from the Harvard Stem Cell Institute has created in the laboratory a plentiful supply of cells that have the same genetic makeup as a patient with a particular disease.
A paper published online in the journal,Science, describes how they created the first stem cell lines from the skin of an elderly sick person, then coaxed these cells to become nerve cells genetically matched to those that had gone bad in a patient's spinal cord. By comparing diseased cells to normal cells in a Petri dish, scientists hope to better understand what causes disease and test new drugs.
This research builds upon the research we posted Jan. 18 titled Human embryo cloned from skin.
Courtesy CDC/Jim Gathany
Did you know back in February scientist and medical professionals selected the influenza virus strains for the upcoming flu season? Now that it is July the pharmaceutical companies are well into manufacturing, purification and testing the vaccine. Meanwhile, it is winter and flu season in the southern hemisphere and the virus is busy mutating. The big question on everyone’s mind is will it mutate so much that the northern hemisphere vaccine will be ineffective?
I agree with Dr. Steven Salzberg remarks in his recent Nature commentary…
"The current system, in which most of the world’s vaccine supply is grown in chicken eggs, is an antiquated, inefficient method requiring six months or more to ramp up production, which in turn means that the vaccine strains must be chosen far in advance of each flu season. More crucially it sometimes prevents the use of the optimal strain, as it did in 2007."
Influenza (the flu) is a serious disease
Each year in the United States, on average:
Some vaccine problems in the past
In recent years the match between the vaccine viruses and those identified during the flu season has usually been good. In 16 of the last 20 U.S. influenza seasons, including the 2007-08 season, the viruses in the influenza vaccine have been well matched to the predominant circulating viruses. Since 1988, there has only been one season (1997-98) when there was very low cross-reaction between the viruses in the vaccine and the predominate circulating virus and three seasons (1992-93, 2003-04, and 2007-08) when there was low cross-reaction (CDC). So after last year’s miscalculation the committee picked three new strains for the vaccine this year. One is a current southern hemisphere vaccine virus which they expect will still be present next year. In addition, they predict a second new Type A strain, known as H1N1/Brisbane/59, to also hit, along with a newer Type B/Florida strain.
Dr. Salzberg feels last year’s miscalculation was a failure…
"The harm was thus twofold; people fell ill and their trust in the vaccine system was undermined. This failure could have been predicted, if not prevented, through a more open system of vaccine design, a stronger culture of sharing in the influenza research community and a serious commitment to new technologies for production. The habits of the vaccine community must change for the sake of public health."
He goes on to suggest…
"The process of choosing flu-vaccine strains needs to be much more open. Other scientists, such as those in evolutionary biology with expertise in sequence analysis, could meaningfully contribute to the selection. At present, external scientists cannot review the data that went into the decision, nor can they suggest other types of data that might improve it."
Even with all of these miscalculations, I still feel getting the vaccine is worth the risk. But that doesn’t mean the process shouldn’t be improved. So once again I will be vaccinated and I will make sure my family is too—but what can we do as citizens to improve this process? What will you do?
Courtesy J.Vinther/YaleResearchers at Yale University are reporting the discovery of pigmentation within the fossilize feather from a bird or dinosaur. Using a powerful electron microscope, paleobiologist Jakob Vinther and his team claim that particles seen in the 100-million-year-old fossil appear to be similar to those seen in the feathers of living birds. This could mean that color - a characteristic long-thought lost in the fossil record - could someday be determined from the remains of pigment.
Vinther’s colleagues included Yale paleontologist Derek E. G. Briggs and Yale ornithologist Richard O. Prum. The results of their study will appear in an upcoming issue of Biology Letters. The research shows that dark stripes in the Cretaceous-aged feather display many similarities to the make-up of black melanin particles found in modern bird feathers. Melanin compounds determine color in plants and animals, a trait useful for such things as camouflage, species identification, and courtship display. In humans, melanin colors our skin and also protects us from overexposure to sunlight.
For a long time, the dark granules seen in fossilized feathers were thought to be the carbon remains of bacteria that had worked at decomposing the organism prior to fossilization. But advances in electron microscope technology have given scientists a closer - and clearer – picture of the feather’s structure, and instead show them to be fossilized melanosomes containing melanin pigment.
"Feather melanin is responsible for rusty-red to jet-black colors and a regular ordering of melanin even produces glossy iridescence,” Vinther said. “Understanding these organic remains in fossil feathers also demonstrates that melanin can resist decay for millions of years."
Under the scope, the lighter bands of the fossilized feather showed only the rock matrix, while the darker bands displayed traces of residue closely resembling the organic compounds found in the feathers of modern birds.
“You wouldn’t expect bacteria to be aligned according to the orientation of the feathers,” said Vinther.
Another bird fossil showed similar organic traces in the feathers surrounding its skull. The 55-million-year-old fossil from Denmark also preserved an organic imprint of the eye that showed structures similar to the melanosomes found in eyes of modern birds.
Nanostructure studies could one day provide paleontologists with evidence of colors other than just black and gray tones, and not just in fossil feathers. Vinther figures other organic remains such as fur from prehistoric mammals or fossil skin impressions from dinosaurs could prove to be the remains of the melanin.
Courtesy FasterDixOkay. Now I know what you’re thinking: “Every scene in Willow is frightening. Each scene is, in fact, somehow the most frightening scene. Will all of that become real too?”
Don’t worry, my doves, don’t worry.
You won’t be pursued through the forest by horrible pig dogs.
You won’t be puked on by a magic baby.
Your ethnicity won’t be slandered by drunks and soldiers.
You will not be captured and molested by hideous little rat men.
Monkeylike trolls will not chase you through derelict castles.
You won’t have to watch one of those awful trolls turn inside out and morph into a dragon. And you will not have to fight that dragon.
A shirtless Val Kilmer will not threaten you.
There will not be epic battles, nor attempted baby sacrifices.
You will not be stabbed by a man with a skull mask and an unspeakable caveman face.
A metal brazier will not chase you around a lightning-lit tower.
No wands will be brandished at you.
The town loudmouth will not belittle you in front of your family.
So, all in all, there’s relatively little to be concerned about. That said, there is one more most frightening scene to consider.
Do you remember when the army of Madmartigan and Airk Thaughbaer first laid siege to the fortress of Nockmark? Before Willow was able to fully control the powers of Cherlindrea’s wand and return Fin Raziel to her human, albeit greatly aged, form? You’ll recall that as soon as Airk, Madmartigan and Sorsha confront Bavmorda at the gates of Nockmark, the evil enchantress turns the whole of the attacking army into pigs. Once they were pigs things don’t seem so bad, but the process of turning into pigs was horrible to watch. There were hoof-hands everywhere, and emerging piggy snouts, and tusks, and oinking, and everybody looked really sweaty. It was very frightening to see, and it’s happening in our own plane of existence: human-pig hybrids have been given the go-ahead in England.
Careful examination of the story clearly indicates that half human, half pig creatures like those in Willow are neither the intent here, nor are they actually possible from these experiments. But I tend to believe what I imagine is the case more than what I’m old is the case.
If you do want to waste your time with what you’re told, however, listen up:
The aim of this research is in no way to create a weird pig man. Or a weird man pig. The goal is actually to put human DNA from skin cells into a pig egg that has had its chromosomes removed, and then let it develop into an embryo. In fact, the scientists involved are attempting to create an embryo with no animal DNA left in it at all (kind of ironic, I suppose).
There’s more to it, of course, but the idea is this: the human DNA put into the eggs will be DNA taken from people with a genetic heart disease. As the scientists observe the transformation from egg to embryo, they hope to better understand the molecular mechanics of the disease. That information could then be used to create better treatments for people living with related heart conditions. None of the “hybrids” will develop past the very first stages of being an embryo (basically a featureless sphere of cells).
Or, if you’re into letting your gut and imagination do your critical thinking for you…prepare yourself for Island of Doctor Moreau Earth.
Courtesy DistortedSmileThe more I learn about meditation, the more intrigued I am by it. I mean, meditation has it all: it can allow you to freeze yourself in a block of ice, walk across a bed of hot coals, and look like you’re asleep without actually being asleep (this is all according to what I learned from television, anyway).
Now there’s a new item, to add to the list of meditation-induced superhuman qualities: a huge, swollen brain. Isn’t that what you’ve always wanted? A rippling, throbbing, , Humungus, brain? Now’s your chance.
Researchers at Harvard have shown that regular meditation thickens your cortex. Generally the cortex thins as we age, but this area of gray matter, or, as some scientists call it, “thought goo,” seems to get thicker with age, at least in folks who meditate.
The study took a group of 20 experienced meditators, and compared their brain scans with those of 15 nonmeditators. During the brain scanning, meditators meditated, and nonmeditators “thought about whatever they wanted” (so, like, cigarettes, animals in clothing, detergent commercials, and clouds shaped like stuff. You know: stuff we normals enjoy).
All participants were adults, and came from a range of professions (except for 4 of the meditators, who actually were teachers of meditation or yoga).
The scans indicated that people who meditated an average of 40 minutes a day had gray matter of increased thickness, compared to the nonmeditators. What’s more, people who had been in the habit of meditating for a longer period of time had “the greatest changes in brain structure,” suggesting that meditation was the cause for the increase in gray matter, and not that people with thick gray matter are more inclined to meditate.
The increase in thickness, it should be said, only amounts to 4 to 8 thousandths of an inch—sadly not enough to make your brain bulletproof. The difference was consistent, however between people who meditated and those who did not, and further studies are planned to examine how this change might affect the health of a meditator.
Because meditation seems to counteract thinning of the brain over time, there’s some thought that the practice could slow—or reverse—the aging of the brain.
Monks and yogis, a researcher points out, suffer from the same ailments as they age as the rest of us, but they claim an increased capacity for attention and memory.
It’s still a toss up, as far as I’m concerned. Sure, monks may enjoy a lucid old-age, but that means they sacrificed tons of time meditating in their youth, when they could have been taking hard drugs and listening to rock and roll. I suppose it just depends on where your priorities are.
For decades, scientists have been growing microbes in their labs and watching them evolve new traits. Most of the changes tend to be simple things, like an increase in size or growth rate.
But Dr. Richard Lenski of Michigan State University (just 2 miles from my house!) recently witnessed a major evolutionary leap--as it was happening. Twenty years ago, he took a colony of E. coli, a common bacteria, and split it into 12 identical populations. He’s been watching ever since to see if the strains evolve in different directions.
A few years ago, one of them did. One of his study strains suddenly evolved the ability to eat citrate, a molecule found in citrus fruits. No other E. coli in the world can do this, not even the other strains in Dr. Lenski’s lab. Even given several extra years and thousands of extra generations, the other strains are still citrate-averse. What’s more, the bacteria evolved this mutation entirely on their own, without any prodding or genetic manipulation from the researchers.
Lenski had saved frozen reference samples of all of his strains at regular intervals. Going back and growing new cultures from these samples, he again finds that only those from one strain ever evolve the citrate-eating habit – and only those sample less than about 10 years old. Lenski figures that some mutation happened around that time in one strain – and one strain only – that would later lead to citrate eating. He and his lab are now working on figuring out exactly what that mutation is.
Courtesy Matt & Helen HammA new study out of Ohio State University has shown that pigs raised outdoors, antibiotic-free, on “animal friendly” farms are more likely to be infected with parasites and bacteria than animals from conventional farms. That’s sort of a surprise—that pigs without antibiotics would have more…biotics
Two of the infections found in the pigs have been seen around Science Buzz recently: toxoplasma gondii, the cat poop parasite, and salmonella, that troublesome bacteria that’s been getting in our tomatoes.
Also found in the antibiotic-free pigs was the parasite Trichinella spiralis, a round worm that can cause very serious illness in humans. Only two of the six hundred or so pigs tested were found to be hosts to trichinella, but this is still a surprising figure for an organism that has been nearly eradicated on conventional farms (veterinarians usually expect perhaps one pig in fourteen thousand to contain trichinella).
So that’s kind of yucky.
But consider this: even pigs treated with antibiotics were not free of salmonella and toxoplasma. 54% of untreated pigs had salmonella in their bodies, but so did 39% of treated pigs, and while about 7% of untreated pigs carried toxoplasma bacteria, over 1% of the treated pigs did too. Also, if you’re into the cruelty-free part of natural farming (not me—I’m all about cruelty to animals) it should be noted that the piggies aren’t actually sick, they’re simply carriers of these organisms.
The scientists behind the study are careful to point out that they aren’t recommending one form of pork production over the other—each has its benefits as well as its downsides. While pigs raised antibiotic-free are more likely to have higher rates of common bacteria of food safety concern, treated pigs can “create a favorable environment for strains of the bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics.” So that’s no good.
The thing is, you shouldn’t really be worried about any of these pathogens, assuming that you handle and cook your pork properly, and don’t go around licking pigs and things.
But far be it from me to judge that sort of thing.
Courtesy GiselaGiardino²³Nanomaterials show promise for curing diseases. But, how can we assess the risk of these nanomaterials causing problems within the human organism. Studies in animals are expensive and time consuming. Also, different cell types can respond differently to the same nanomaterial.
Stanley Shaw and researchers from the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT recently tested 50 different nanoparticles--mainly particles used for medical imaging, including mostly iron-based particles, as well as several types of quantum dots. The particles also had various chemical coatings.
The researchers tested each of the nanoparticles in four different types of cells--immune cells from mice, two types of human blood-vessel cells, and human liver cells--and at four different dosages. To create the different combinations, a robotic system similar to that used for drug screening placed the nanoparticles inside tiny wells on a plate containing hundreds of separate wells. Each well contained one cell type. The screening system then detected changes in the cells' metabolism in response to the nanomaterial. Computer software analyzed the data, looking for relationships between the different particles. Technology Review
The new screening tool, described in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could help narrow the list of nanomaterials that need to undergo animal testing.
Courtesy monkeyc.netA man’s best friend could become a permanent best friend under a proposal being floated by a California company. BioArts International is offering to clone the dogs of the five highest bidders, guaranteeing that they’ll always have some version of their favorite pet throughout their life.
But before you get too excited, it won’t be cheap. Opening bid prices are $100,000. And the chief cloner is scientist from South Korea who was discredited by having faked research in an earlier cloning project. The research team has already made three cloned dogs from the DNA of dog from BioArts’ CEO. The original dog, Missy, died in 2002.
There are plenty of issues to chew on this ethical bone. The fervent anti-cloners fear that this could be the first step in human cloning. If people are willing to pony up the dough to duplicate a favorite pet, wouldn’t that stoke the fires for creating a duplicate of a favorite baby or child?
On the flip side, pro-cloners say why not continue to give people the joy and pleasures they receive from a favorite pet even after its lifetime ends.
The BioArts CEO vouches for the effectiveness of dog cloning. Missy’s clones exhibit much of the same behavioral characteristics he saw in Missy. You've got some time to round up the cash if you want to do this to your dog. The auction begins on June 18. More details are hear at the BioArts website.
So what do you think? Is this a good idea? Would you like to clone your dog? Is so, how much would you be willing to pay? Share your thoughts here with other Buzz readers.
Courtesy GiantGinkoOkay…I don’t want to alarm anyone, but I think it’s important that you’re all made aware of this threat before it’s too late. I mean, like, we didn’t used to be afraid of that little ball of goo until it became the blob, and now we’re in deep, deep fudge. That kind of thing.
Okay, so…ugh, why do I have to do this? Just prepare yourself, get a fresh pair of pants ready, and please, please don’t panic. Not yet. That could be dangerous.
There is…somewhere, like, out there…a bacteria that is literally a million times bigger than other bacteria. Do you understand what this means? Do you understand what “literally” means? It doesn’t mean, “I’m literally going to starve to death if I don’t get that pizza!” It means for real. For really real. And do you know what “a million” means? Of course you do. It’s like, if you had to fight another guy and his ninety nine friends, and then had to fight nine hundred and ninety nine more groups just like his, and then fight just as many people nine more times—you’d be fighting a million guys. Could you win a fight like that? No, try again, you couldn’t. So what chance do we stand against this gargantuan bacteria? You know that bacteria have no emotions, right? They’ll eat you and your new puppy, and then eat, like, a pumpkin, and they wouldn’t feel any worse about you and your lousy puppy than they would about the dumb pumpkin.
Oh, this is the worst.
Okay, okay, I was the one who said we shouldn’t panic. So let’s look at this beast rationally—maybe we can find a weakness.
What do we know? Well, the monstrosity in question, of the epulopiscium genus, is a million times the size of an E. coli bacterium. A million times bigger. That means that epulopiscium is, let’s see…about the size of a grain of salt. If you, for instance, were for some reason one-hundredth the size of a grain of salt, epulopiscium would be a hundred times bigger than you. A hundred times bigger than you! What else? Well, it seems that the bacteria only live in the stomachs of surgeonfish, in the area of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. That’s where they live for now—the surgeonfish lives in a symbiotic relationship with epulopiscium, so there’s no reason to assume that it will keep its horrible buddy under wraps.
How can we fight this thing? Guns? What good would bullets do against something like this? Nuclear weapons? Only as a last resort. But what if… What if we could turn epulopiscium’s own size against it, like we did with King Kong when we shot him off that building?
Let’s see…Normally bacteria have to be itty-bitty because they haven’t got the specialized organelles to move nutrients around, and their DNA—of which there are only a hundred or so copies—isn’t bound in nuclei; basically their Schmidt is all over the place, so they have to be tiny to keep things working. It seems, however, that the epulopiscium is unique in that it has thousands of copies of its genome incorporated into its cell membrane. That way, if anything remarkable happens in the cell, DNA will be right there to react quickly, locally producing RNA or whatever proteins are necessary for the situation.
So that means we need to destroy its fancy DNA, and then its own bulk will bring the epulopiscium down! And what can damage DNA? Electromagnetic radiation! We need to start dumping radioactive waste into the waters of the Great Barrier Reef immediately! Stat! Ionize their fancy little DNA!
Get to it, Buzzketeers. This will be a modern-day David and Goliath story.