Stories tagged Interdependence of Life

Jun
18
2009

A medical miracle in the making?
A medical miracle in the making?Courtesy nbonzey
If you're one of those people who is easily grossed out, you might want to stop reading this post. Because what I'm about to tell you might make your stomach turn.

In an effort to help heal human wounds, medical researchers have been studying creepy, crawly, flesh-eating maggots. THE SAME wiggly critters that appear in your garbage can, on road kill, and any place where they can find dead meat or rotten food. In case you don't know the maggot life story, eventually these larvae grow-up to become flies, at which point they continue to hang out with garbage. It's not a pretty life, but they don't complain much.

So...what do maggots have to do with medicine?

Well, people have known for a long time that deep or difficult wounds (ulcers, burns, deep lacerations) heal much faster if you enlist maggots for a little help. In fact, hospitals even breed fly larvae (maggots!) so they can apply "maggot therapy" to wounds that would otherwise heal poorly. As gross as it sounds, this technique actually works well. The maggots eat the decaying tissue, preventing bacterial growth and helping to keep the wound "clean" so it can heal better.

Until recently, researchers were not exactly sure how these maggots did their miracle work on wounds, or how they could make maggot therapy more accessible. What they've discovered is that an enzyme produced by the maggots can itself help to remove decaying tissue. You can read more about it here.

This means that new bandages infused with maggot juice, or maggot ointment, might not be far from drugstore shelves. The enzyme appears to help heal wounds large and small, and with very few side effects. I wonder if upset stomach is one of them?

What do you think - would you buy a maggot-based product to help heal cuts and scrapes?

Jun
10
2009

"Blerg," says the whale
"Blerg," says the whaleCourtesy Michael CATANZARITI
A Caribbean whale of an as of yet undetermined species did its best to humanely end the ridiculous lives of two British millionaires, but the attempt was ultimately unsuccessful.

By either striking the 47-foot yacht, or shrewdly allowing the yacht to strike it, the whale placed a small hole in the $245,000 boat, which began to slowly fill with the warm, salty water surrounding the British Virgin Islands.

After feeble attempts at stuffing pillows into the hole, the couple retreated to the lifeboat to preserve their ludicrous existence. One of the humans did, however, briefly return to the damaged and sinking vessel for a change of clothes, not wanting to be seen in her “sailing boots and shorts” when rescued. No doubt overcome with depression by this final site, the whale made no further attempts to separate the sailors from their lives.

An equally ridiculous pair of yacht owners rescued the shipwrecked couple some hours later. The whale has not been reached for comment. (It’s probably dead anyway.)

Jun
05
2009

Whatever.
Whatever.Courtesy Kabies
Today’s extravaganza, dear Buzzketeers, is a journey of self-discovery.

Don’t worry. There are quizzes involved.

So how about it kids? What makes you hurl?

What gets your motor running, and then makes it blurt chunky oil everywhere?

What’s your poison? Are you a bread ‘n butter, rats and roaches gal? Ketchup and icecream? Centipedes running though the kitchen? What about the thought of spiders, under your sheets at night, exploring you, perhaps finding their way to the warm cavern of your open mouth…

Or are you repulsed by dark glimpses of the other side (of being alive). The swollen and splitting stomach of a road killed dear? Maggots on the trash? A misplaced kneecap? …Brains?

What about the constant hacking, mucus-laden noises of your classmate? A prolonged embrace from an aunt who smells so strongly of… something? The firm, dry handshake of a Canadian?

(I don’t mean to offend Canadians here. I only used them as an example because they are so universally well liked that no one would assume I was being serious. Please, substitute whichever group of people you personally revile.)

Yes, today is the day of disgust. It smells like bile and puss, it sounds like nails on a chalkboard, it feels like the movement of tiny, alien legs on your skin, and it looks like Kuato from Total Recall. And it’s pretty interesting.

Basic elements of disgust are pretty easy to understand. In general, we’re pretty grossed out by the sorts of things that, should they find their way into our bodies somehow, could make us ill. Rotten food, some insects, etc. But then we’re also sometimes disgusted by groups of people or behaviors that pose no threat of contaminating us in any way. And, as this very useful page points out, disgust even plays a significant role in many of our religions, in how they regulate behaviors and bodily processes.

Really, that last link is the true extravaganza today. Check it out. Or don’t check it out, and go straight to this page to take a quiz on what sort of disgust you specialize in, and how it compares to others who have taken the quiz. Nowhere in the quiz, thank Blob, is the phase “It’s scary accurate!!!” written. It’s a little more scientific than that, but still interesting. What you end up with is a scale that shows how disgust plays not only into your actual health, but also into your morals (or… how morals play into your disgust?) The results are broken into “Core disgust,” which covers the sort of things we find gross because the could porentially make us sick (the rotten meat and bugs thing), “Animal-reminder disgust,” which comes from “death, corpses, and violations of the external boundaries of the body,” and is all about reminding us of our own mortality (they make us think about how we can and will die), and, finally, “Contamination disgust,” which is about whole-body contamination (as opposed to just the mouth), and covers our disgust for “dirty or sleazy people.”

I’d invite y’all to share your results with the Buzz community, and to let us know if the ratings make sense for you, but if you’re feeling private, take a gander at JGordon’s scores:

For “Core Disgust” I scored a .9. The average for the other 37,100 people tested was 1.9. This makes sense. I did, after all, eat a peanut I found in my sock this morning. But I would never eat that peanut a second time.

For “Animal-reminder Disgust” I got a 1.6, the same as the average score. In general, I consider myself to be slightly below average, but this also makes sense. I do fear death. Or, at least, I fear the dead. Zombies, I mean. This may have skewed the results some, but I suspect it’s in the correct neighborhood.

And for “Contamination Disgust” I scored a mere .2, next to the average of 1.1. Again, it makes sense. Being very sleazy myself (I moisturize with my own spit), I can’t afford to look down on other sleazebags, or else I’d be even lonelier. (Hey, don’t worry, I’ve got my Beanie Babies to keep me company. They’re all stuffed with the appropriate animal feces, by the way.)

While you’re stewing on all that, check this out: pretty soon we may be able to go out and get maggot juice to rub into our many open sores. Rad, huh? Science Buzz regulars will know that we’re all about maggots here. It’s mostly Liza, I suppose, but there’s not one of us that didn’t push a fist into the pig and enjoy it at least a little bit. (Some part of this is not true.)

Anyway, maggot juice. Maggots’ abilities to help a would stay clean and heal is well documented, but now there are some scientists who are convinced that they’ve figured out exactly why maggots are so beneficial to healing tissue. They have isolated an enzyme in the goo that gooey little maggots secret, which seems to remove decaying tissue from a wound, thereby preventing bacteria from building up at the site. If the enzyme could be reproduced, or just milked from maggots or something, we could remove the maggots from maggoty therapy. How about that? So now you just have to decide which disgusts you the least: maggot milk, maggots, or your own tissue rotting on your body.

Ding! Extravaganza over!

(Good looking out, Gene and Liza, for the links.)

Apr
22
2009

We check for trees, da?
We check for trees, da?Courtesy Bethany L King
I know all y'all have been keeping your eyes on Science Buzz for updates in the case of the Russian dude with the tree "growing" in his lung. It's an international news event, after all, and we all like to keep up on this stuff.

Well we've got an update! (And update that appeared in the news last week, but still...)

Some South African medical professionals are calling shenanigans on the whole situation; they say it has to be a hoax.

They agree with the Russian doctors' claims that a 5 cm tree would be too big to inhale all the way into the lungs (it would be coughed out, or get caught on something long before it got so deep), but they don't think that it could have grown there either.

As several of the Science Buzz Lung Tree Task Force have likewise noticed, the South Africans find the green color of the needles a little suspicious. Usually plants growing in the dark (and the lungs are pretty dark inside) tend to be a little pale. Not so with this tree.

Also, the doctors point out that there is no precedence in medical literature for plants growing in people—it's just not the right environment.

The doctors also thought that the the tree looked "folded in to the lung tissue." Had it grown there, it should have looked more interwoven with the flesh.

Finally, they believe that the X-ray image of the man's lungs and the tree/tissue that was eventually taken out do not match. Something about how the tree showed up too much or not enough on the X-ray. (The translation from South African English to American English, perhaps, is the source of my confusion here.)

So the plot thickens. Are Russian surgeons contradicting biological laws to get attention, or are the the South Africans jealous because they've never found a tree inside someone's lung? Either way, we citizens of the Nation of Buzzahkstan are the winners.

Keep your eyes peeled for further developments. (Not literally.)

Apr
19
2009

Colony collapse
Colony collapseCourtesy Kevin Cole

SMM volunteer and bee enthusiast receives grant

Marjorie Bolz Allen was a lifelong museum volunteer at the Science Museum of Minnesota. In her memory a Marjorie Bolz Allen Grant is awarded to a SMM volunteer to develop an activity that will directly enhance our museum visitors' experience about a science, technology, engineering or mathematical (STEM) discipline. I hope the following links will help my fellow volunteer (A.Z.) in developing her activity about bees.

News about bee colony collapse disorder

  1. The Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research Extension Consortium (MAAREC) has links to press releases, research updates, and articles about CCD.
  2. The University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) also has a web page with links to related sites and articles about colony collapse disorder.
  3. An April 16 Ars Technica article titled "A cure for colony collapse" claims that "new research has proposed both a concrete cause for bee colony collapse disorder, as well as a cure". The abstract of the source paper titled, "Honeybee colony collapse due to Nosema ceranae in professional apiaries"

Previous Science Buzz posts about bees

Joe did a Buzz burst April 8 titled More on the vanishing bees and linked to a great article in Scientific American titled Solving the Mystery of the Vanishing Bees"
Click this link for all Science Buzz posts about bees.

Apr
10
2009

Oh no! Here they come to poke out your eyes!
Oh no! Here they come to poke out your eyes!Courtesy Colin Kloecker
You know what's kind of scary? Riding a bike through the parking lot of a big box store like Target. Until recently I only had to worry about being hit by cars or shopping carts, maybe falling into a gigantic pothole. Lately, however, I've had another threat to deal with every time I go to the strip mall near my house. I'm talking, of course, about the parking lot seagulls.

We've all seen them hanging around. From a distance they even look kind of pretty, swooping and flying and flocking just like other birds. But when you get up close you realize that all these birds do is make creepy noises, eat garbage and poop on everything. If they see you approaching they will swarm and attack, poking out your eyes and then stealing your wallet.*

My point is: be careful! These are not lost birds that are innocently trying to find their way to the sea. These are hungry, blood-thirsty, opportunistic consumers that have found their niche in the American landscape. Did you know that seagulls will eat almost anything, and that they spend most of their time looking for and consuming food? Just like my older brother, who survives solely on cheeseburgers and mountain dew, seagulls like the ones pictured here have no need for lakes and oceans. They can find everything they need at Wal-mart.

Which is why I agree with the wildlife biologist interviewed in this article, we should stop calling them seagulls. They are just plain old gulls, exactly the kind of bird you get when you pave over everything and produce lots of garbage. I actually think that 'Wal-gulls" might be a more appropriate name, and that Wal-gulls should be our new national symbol. I don't hate them, but I do find their behavior very familiar.

*This statement not supported by scientific research, just a bad dream I had one time

Mar
25
2009

I can has babiez?: Um, no. Sorry.
I can has babiez?: Um, no. Sorry.Courtesy roo72
Chinese officials have come up with another plan to combat their “desert rat plague,” one so crazy it just might work: gerbil abortion snacks.

As far as I can tell, gerbils (or “desert rats,” I guess) are native to China’s deserts and dry grasslands. However, the gerbils have gotten out of control, and are destroying too much of the grass, possibly accelerating desertification in a country that’s already one third desert.

According to Wikipedia, China already came up with a plan so crazy it just might work: in 2003, the government began releasing eagles into the desert to control the Gerbil population. Apparently, despite being so crazy it just might work, it didn’t work, and they have moved on to gerbil abortion pills.

The pills are small, resemble bran feed, and will be scattered around the gerbils’ burrows. They should prevent gerbils from becoming pregnant, and cause abortions in already-pregnant females. According to official press release, the pills should have “little effect on other animals.” Shucks, this plan is just so crazy it might work.

I don’t know too much about the situation, but scattering birth control pills across a fragile ecosystem seems… It seems like something that wouldn’t surprise me if it had plenty of unforeseen repercussions. Also, considering how the gerbils are a native species, it makes me wonder what happened that they have become a danger to their ecosystem. My guess is that there are too few predators. (Which, I suppose, the eagle infusion of 2003 was meant to address.) One wonders how the remaining gerbil predators will be affected by eating rodents stuffed with birth control pills…

Mar
24
2009

A Komodo dragon gnaws on a water buffalo: The buffalo may or may not have been on a quest.
A Komodo dragon gnaws on a water buffalo: The buffalo may or may not have been on a quest.Courtesy Mats Stafseng Einarsen
In a classic case of life-imitates-art, a man on a quest was attacked by dragons early this week.

Although… appreciation of the above statement depends on your ability to accept “Harry Potter” as art, and your willingness to interpret a fatal animal attack as anything other than a tragedy.

Neither point is a problem for me.

Indonesian adventurer/fisherman Muhamad Anwar was questing on a forbidden isle at the time of the attack. Anwar’s quest mostly involved searching around for sugar-apples, but still, the whole thing is very Goblet of Fire, I’d say. So let’s say he was looking for dragon eggs, instead of sugar-apples.

Questing for dragon eggs on a forbidden island probably always involves some hazards, but this particular forbidden island happens to be forbidden because it’s part of Indonesia’s Komodo National Park. That means that it has actual dragons. Oooh.

Whether or not Anwar found any dragon eggs was not made clear in the article, but he certainly found some dragons. Or they found him. Anwar was severely mauled by a group of Komodo dragons, and bled to death as a group of fishermen took him to a clinic on a nearby island.

Komodo dragons are the heaviest lizards in the world (an easy 150 pounds in the wild, with captive individuals growing even larger), and they’re carnivorous, which makes them pretty frightening and fascinating right off the bat. There are a few additional characteristics of Komodo dragons, however, that should be taken into consideration when questing in dragon country.

1) Komodo dragons have poor hearing. So, when on an egg quest, be sure to sneak quietly. Note from the author to the author: John, This doesn't make any sense.
2) Komodo dragons do, however, have an exceptional sense of smell. Or, if not smell exactly, chemical analysis. Komodo dragons sample the air with their long forked tongues, and use a Jacobson’s organ like snakes. So be sure to sneak quietly and odorlessly.
3) Komodo dragons have huge teeth and bloody spit. Komodo dragon teeth can grow up to an inch long, but gum tissue covers most of each teeth. That means that when the dragons do much chewing… things get bloody. The bloody saliva, however, makes a nice environment for item number 4.
4) Komodo dragon bites are way toxic. Many monitors (the larger group of lizards that Komodo dragons belong to) have slightly venomous bites, which cause swelling, shooting pain, and disruption of blood clotting. The main danger from the bites, though, is the massive colony of toxic bacteria each Komodo dragon keeps in its mouth. Dozens of species of bacteria have been isolated in dragon mouths, and if an animal isn’t killed by a Komodo dragon’s initial attack, it will generally die within a week anyway, thanks to massive bacterial infection. So be sure to pack your protection from poison potions (or just a ton of powerful antibiotics).
5) Komodo dragons are capable of parthenogenesis. Think, “Jurassic Park,” and you’ve got it. In the absence of male individuals, a female Komodo dragon can still produce offspring. Where the sex of humans is determined by the pairing of X and Y chromosomes (you get one from each parent, if you’re XX, you’re a girl, if XY, you’re a boy), Komodo dragon sex is determined by “ZW” chromosomes. ZZ individuals are male, and ZWs are female. A mother dragon can give one Z chromosome to an egg, and the egg will duplicate that chromosome to become a ZZ individual, a male. If the mother passes on a single W chromosome, the egg may still duplicate it, but WW individuals aren’t viable, and never develop to hatching. So even if a forbidden island was cleared of male dragons, it still may not be safe for questing in the following generations.

All things considered, it’s probably best to avoid Komodo dragons entirely on quests. Unless you’re questing to the zoo.

Mar
20
2009

Another giant worm: This is as friendly as they get.
Another giant worm: This is as friendly as they get.Courtesy Santheo
OMG! Friday already? Where did the week go? You know how it is: it’s Sunday, and you’re testing items in your refrigerator for freshness… and the next thing you know, it’s Friday, and you’re lying on the floor in front of the fridge! It makes one wonder if he should seriously reevaluate his life.

What’s worse (worst!) is that I almost missed a Friday Extravaganza. Think about the repercussions—I could be rereading my own posts some time in the future, and I would wonder why I skipped an extravaganza. Did I just get bored with them? Was something wrong at the time? A personal crisis? I wouldn’t know what happened! I don’t want that. So an extravaganza…

It works out pretty well actually, because the first think I thought when I lifted my head off the floor and looked into the open refrigerator was, “worms.” And this week just happened to be a slightly wormy week in the news. A slightly giant-wormy week.

Check it out, y’all: Giant sand worms!

Apparently, back in olden times (the Permian period, before the dinosaurs), there used to be 3-foot-long, six-inch wide worms! The reason we don’t have cool giant worm skeletons in our museums, of course, is that worms don’t have skeletons. And all that soft, wormy tissue doesn’t fossilize very well at all. (That’s why it’s such a big deal when we find ”mummified” dinosaurs too—soft tissue almost always rots before it can fossilize.) Short of the rare cases where soft tissue does fossilize, there are other ways to find evidence of soft, extinct animals. In this case, paleontologists found the worm’s fossilized burrow. How about that?

The articles I found didn’t provide a lot of details about the worm, except that it was big, lived underground (and underground worm?!? What?!) in part of what is now England, and it’s a completely new species. Giant arthropods (like huge millipedes) had been known to live millions of years ago, but nothing like this huge worm.

Three-foot worms… yuckers. Good thing we don’t have anything like that around today, am I right?

Wrong!! Wrong wrong wrong! This is an EXTRAVAGANZA, y’all, and would never stop with just one worm during an extravaganza! So put this in your brain and shake it: There are giant worms alive today, and they’re way, way worse than you think!

Look.

See, I would have gone on living without knowing about the giant worms among us, if I hadn’t seen this little article about how a creature wreaking havoc on a British aquarium. (It’s a Friday Giant British Worm Extravaganza, I guess.) Something was chewing apart the coral in the aquarium, and devouring its fish. The aquarium staffers tried to trap the culprit, and to fish it out with bait. The traps, however, were torn apart overnight, and the baited fishing line was bitten through. In the end, they resorted to dismantling the artificial reef. Underneath all the rocks, they found a four-foot-long reef worm!

Whoa! Four feet? That beats the prehistoric worm even!

But, come on now… we humans are prone to exaggeration. The worm couldn’t be that impressive right?

No. Wrong.

I couldn’t find anything about “giant sea worms,” but searching for “reef worm” brought up the term “bristle worm.” And “bristle worm” makes sense, because the article described the worm as having bizarre-looking jaws, and thousands of bristles, each of which are able to inflict a sting that results in “permanent numbness.”

Then I found this page, which informed me that bristle worms are complex creatures, with “two to four pairs of eyes, sensory organs, a mouth, and a brain.” (I’ll let you know right now—I don’t approve of worms having brains.) And, yes, they have bristles, which can inflict extremely painful stings. The article doesn’t say anything about the bristles being poisonous, but posits that the painful sting could be caused by calcium carbonate or silica from the bristles. This page confirmed that the worms can hitch rides on rocks into aquariums, where they grown quickly, and can become a nuisance (to say the least, I guess).

Wikipedia was the next step, of course. Wikipedia teaches us that the worms will wait buried in sand or gravel until prey swims along. The worm will then attack with such speed that the prey is sometimes sliced in half by its claws/jaws. And while an average size for the worm is about 3 feet, they have been known to grow up to nine-feet-long!

What? What kind of world is this?

Also… this particular type of bristle worm is referred to as a “Bobbit worm.” What’s that all about? I’ll tell you: according to this site, at least, Bobbit worms are so nicknamed for the fact that, after mating, female worms will often “attacks the male’s penis and feeds it to her young.” That’s right, you remember now: Bobbit.

(It occurs to me that the timing in this anecdote is a little off—exactly how would you feed the penis to your young immediately after mating? But whatever.)

Oh, man. Worm extravaganza.

See? See the Bobbit worm?

Sure, it’s fish now. Next time it could be (will be) you. Happy weekend.

Mar
20
2009

Phylogeographer Robert Wallace has Bird Flu on the brain. Like many scientific researchers, when birds and people in Asia started dying from the virus he became concerned about the possibility of a flu pandemic. Biologists know that if the bird flu virus mutates in such a way that it can pass easily between humans, millions of people worldwide could die from the disease. What no one knows for sure is when and where this mutation will take place.

With the help of his colleagues Wallace is studying the factors that contribute to outbreaks of virulent bird flu. They do this by using DNA from different strains of the virus to understand how it has changed and spread over time and distance, an area of research known as Phylogeography. Their hope is that by understanding how and where the virus mutates they can help predict, and maybe even prevent, some of the factors that could contribute to a pandemic strain of this disease. You can read an article about their recent study here.

So far Wallace and his colleagues have been able to piece together the road trip that Bird Flu has taken, and what they've found might make those of us who love chicken nuggets (and sandwiches, and lunch meats) a little uncomfortable. While you can't catch Bird Flu from eating chicken nuggets, it appears that industrial poultry production might be the perfect incubator for virulent strains of this disease. Wallace fears that if large poultry producers don't change their practices, they could eventually produce more than cheap chicken - they could breed a pandemic strain of bird flu.

But how does this work? Well, like lots of things, it's complicated. Generally speaking: because big poultry producers keep large numbers of genetically similar birds in one area, and because the immune systems of these birds are weakened by being crammed into cages and fed a poor diet, and also because new generations of birds are grown-up and shipped out quickly to make room for others, bird flu viruses can easily mutate and spread through the population. In some countries industrial production is happening in close proximity to wild populations of birds or to free-grazing domestic flocks - making it easy for these virulent strains to hitch a ride.

When you add all of this up, it starts to look as though there is a real connection between how we produce the food we eat and the diseases that threaten our health and well being. The question that comes next is how much are we willing to risk for a cheap chicken sandwich?