Stories tagged Human Organism

Jan
12
2011

You know what I think makes humans unique? Our ability to solve problems. Ingenuity. Our can-do attitude. Throughout history, if we found a problem, we sought a solution. Too cold at night? Fire. Killing a mammoth with your hands too deadly? A team of spearman. Flash forward thousands of years and our problems became more sophisticated. Horse and buggy too slow? Automobiles. Candlelight not bright enough? Light bulbs. Washing laundry and dishes too tedious? Washing machines and dishwashers. Typewriters cramping your style? Computers. Computers cramping your style? Android phones. (Have you caught my drift? Good.) Now, some of our solutions are becoming new problems. Cars and electricity emit pollutants and greenhouse gases. Washing machines and dishwashers are using too much water. Computers and cell phones require the mining and eventual disposal of toxic metals. Once again, it’s time for some good ol’ human problem solving.

A Literal Eco-Footprint: Somehow, I don't think this is exactly what Sarah Hobbes and team had in mind.
A Literal Eco-Footprint: Somehow, I don't think this is exactly what Sarah Hobbes and team had in mind.Courtesy urje's photostream (Flickr)

Sarah Hobbes and her collaborators identified a problem: we aren’t doing enough to reduce our household ecologic footprints, especially regarding carbon. Now, they’re working on a solution by researching what influences families to change their living habits and minimize their footprint. This past Sunday’s edition of the Star Tribune covered Sarah’s research story (the Buzz’s own Liza was even quoted!). Sarah Hobbes is an ecologist at the University of Minnesota and a resident fellow at the Institute on the Environment. Her research project doesn’t take place in a lab, but rather in peoples’ home – including the St. Paul house Sarah shares with her husband (also a University of Minnesota ecologist) and two children. The research team uses a 23-page survey to understand what kind of ecological footprint Ramsey and Anoka county homes are leaving. (Btw, kudos to those of you who already completed the lengthy survey! Science really appreciates people like you.)

Some of the initial results aren’t surprising: While most of us really do care about the environment,

“For most families, cost and convenience are more important than concern about the environment. People in the suburbs tend to use more fertilizer than those in the urban core. People with bigger houses and bigger families had a bigger carbon footprint, as did people who drove farther to work.” (Star Tribune article)

But what’s most interesting is that competition really gets us going. That is, respondents were motivated to reduce their ecological footprint after they compared their own rank to their neighbors’. Larry Baker, a project collaborator, stated,

“We expect that attitudes will drive 10 or 20 percent of the carbon emissions… If we could reduce energy use by 20 percent, that would be a huge benefit.” (Start Tribune article)

No kidding! That would be fantastic!! The full survey report hasn’t been published yet, but I’m sure looking forward to the recommended solution.

Want to know your ecological footprint? Try out this online Ecological Footprint Quiz.

Jan
07
2011

It's a big drawer: But I'm a grown man. This could be close...
It's a big drawer: But I'm a grown man. This could be close...Courtesy JGordon
The human body is more or less the density of water: 1000 kg per cubic meter. (I tend to sink, so I'm probably a little denser, but I think we're close enough here.)

I weigh about 150 pounds, or 68 kg (2.2 pounds per kilogram).
1000kg / 1m^3 = 68kg / ?m^3
? = .068
So the volume of my body is about 0.068 cubic meters.

Each cubic meter equals about 35.3146667 cubic feet.
.068 x 35.315 = 2.401
So the volume of my body is about 2.401 cubic feet

My file drawer is 1 foot wide by 9 inches high (or .75 feet) by 2 feet and 2 inches deep (or 2.167 feet)
1 x .75 x 2.167 = 1.62525
So the volume of my desk drawer is 1.62525 cubic feet

1.62525 < 2.401
So the answer is NO. If you were to blend me up in a giant food processor, and then pour me into my file drawer, I would literally be overflowing.

That's sort of a relief.

Then again, it depends on how much denser I am than water. Maybe I would fit.

Jan
07
2011

Back in 1998, a British doctor named Andrew Wakefield did a study on twelve children, and wrote a paper claiming that a link existed between childhood vaccinations and autism.

Naturally, this freaked out a lot of parents, and lots of folks stopped having their kids vaccinated. Consequently, infection rates of diseases that are totally preventable with vaccines—like measles and whooping cough—went up.

Then, other scientists were unable to reproduce Wakefield's experiment, which kind of made it seem like it was wasn't accurate to begin with. Wakefield couldn't even reproduce his experiment. Nonetheless, lots of people stuck to the idea that autism is caused by vaccines, or by ingredients in vaccines. When these ingredients were removed because of the concern, people picked other ingredients to blame. Still scientists could find no link between any of the components of vaccines and autism.

Meanwhile, most of the other scientists involved with Wakefield's research removed their names from the published results. And then The Lancet, the respected medical journal that originally published Wakefield's research, actually retracted the study, because it was so inaccurate. And then Wakefield had his medical license, because his poor research was so irresponsible. Still Wakefield and his supporters insisted that the link existed, and that he was the target of a global conspiracy.

Now, there's another nail in a coffin that just won't stay shut: a journalist (who has signed a statement saying that he has no financial interest in the debate) has found that Wakefield's original research on the twelve children was fraudulent. Wakefield misrepresented the medical histories of his subjects to make it appear that they had developed autism after receiving the vaccine for mumps, measles and rubella, when, in fact, some of the subjects had shown signs of autism before receiving the vaccine, and some had not developed autism at all.

During all this, Wakefield accepted $674,000 from lawyers preparing a lawsuit against vaccine manufacturers. Eh... whoops.

The new information suggests that not only was Wakefield's research inaccurate, he deliberately falsified it.

It's an interesting story, but as Dr. Max Wiznitzer points out in the article linked to above, the medical and scientific communities already knew Wakefield was a fraud, and Wakefield's followers aren't likely to change their positions now, so it's a little bit of a moot point.

Wakefield himself says that the truth is in his book, which he wants you to buy.

Nov
24
2010

Gaze into the crystal ball to see what your future holds...: That's right, it holds a whole bunch of JGordon. Deal with it.
Gaze into the crystal ball to see what your future holds...: That's right, it holds a whole bunch of JGordon. Deal with it.Courtesy mararie
So…

So, Buzzketeers, you’ve been keeping something from me.

I thought we had something. I thought that we had a solid relationship built on trust, like… like a really nice but not fancy bungalow built on bedrock that doesn’t lie to you, or withhold information. Yeah, sure, I sometimes mislead you, or pass on scientifically suspect material, but that’s different. That’s for my own entertainment.

And don’t act like you don’t know what I’m going to say. That’s the whole thing, isn’t it?

Yeah, I heard. I heard that y’all can predict the future. And you didn’t tell me. Me, JGordon.

When were you going to mention that the secret’s out, and that a Cornell University scientist had demonstrated a small but statistically significant propensity for people (you) to predict the future? Were you going to wait until after the holidays, so as not to spoil the “surprise” of my gifts to you? Whatever. I got you all cashmere scarves. I thought you’d really like them. Surprise.

I hear that you were shown a list of words, and were able to recall mostly words from the list that would later be randomly selected by a computer. That’s super neat. Thanks for telling me about it.

I hear, too, that you were able to correctly able to predict 53 percent of the time when a curtained computer screen would have a sexy image on it. Cool. Maybe if you spent less time looking at sexy pictures, our relationship wouldn’t be going the way it clearly is.

3% above a 50-50 chance may not seem like much, but we both know it’s significant. Nearly as significant as the fact that you never mentioned it to me.

Do you know how that feels? I’ll show you how it feels:

1: Tomorrow, most of you American Buzzketeers will eat turkey.

2: Tomorrow, one of you will be eaten by a turkey, or turkeys.

3: Prince Philip will say something of questionable taste at his grandson’s wedding, probably to a woman or a foreign dignitary.

4. Your dad has a secret family in another state.

How do you like them apples? It’s not very fun, is it?

In any case, while the study stood up to the careful peer review of The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, it’s probably all statistical wheeling and dealing, and I’d like to think that we can get over this.

I trust you’d tell me if you knew we wouldn’t.

Nov
05
2010

Aiding and abetting science: Prison inmates have been enlisted to help forest ecologist Nalini Nadkarni in her research.
Aiding and abetting science: Prison inmates have been enlisted to help forest ecologist Nalini Nadkarni in her research.Courtesy Nalini Nadkarni
Since 2004, scientist Nalini Nadkarni has enlisted prisoners to aid in her scientific research.

Don’t worry, it’s not cruel and usual punishment. The inmates aren’t being used as guinea pigs to test new drugs or try out some new method of electroshock therapy. Instead, the incarcerated offenders are part of Nadkarni’s research team. Nadkarni holds a PhD in Forest Ecology and is on the faculty at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has funded some of her inmate-aided research.

For one of Dr. Nadkarni'sDr. Nalini Nadkarni
Dr. Nalini NadkarniCourtesy Nalini Nadkarni
research projects, offenders at the Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen, Washington, helped plant seeds of rare prairie plants then recorded data during the plants growth stages. The prisoners actually enjoyed helping out with the research. Not only did it give them a sense of doing something worthwhile, it connects them to something that’s sorely lacking in the old Graybar Hotel: nature.

For another project called Moss-in-Prisons (no Thor, your hero Randy has been picked up by the Tennessee Titans), Nadkarni recruited inmates at the Cedar Creek Corrections Center in Littlerock, Washington, to help discover improved ways of cultivating slow-growing mosses.

"I need help from people who have long periods of time available to observe and measure the growing mosses; access to extensive space to lay out flats of plants; and fresh minds to put forward innovative solutions," Nadkarni said.

If successful, the research could help replace ecologically important mosses that have been stripped from old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest, a sometimes illegal tactic that seems to be a favorite among some horticulturists.

In many cases, helping with the research isn’t just a way for inmates to pass time behind the brick walls and barbed wire of their confinement. It’s also a way to inspire them. One former inmate, who had worked with Nadkarni, enrolled in a Ph.D. program in microbiology after his release from Cedar Creek, and went on to give a presentation of the research he had done there at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America.

Apparently, Dr. Nadkarni is on to something, and its importance is not lost on those still behind bars.

"It teaches me something," said one prisoner involved with Nadkarni’s prairie plant study. "It makes me work with people and it's just a new skill that I've learned."

Both science and prisoners benefit from this natural symbiosis taking place in such an unnatural setting. And other prisons have expressed interest in getting their inmates involved in Nadkarni’s research programs,

"Everyone can be a scientist,” Nadkarni says. “Everyone can relate to nature, everyone can contribute to the scientific enterprise, even those who are shut away from nature.”

SOURCES
NSF story and video
NSF press release

Nov
04
2010

Disease Detectives
Disease DetectivesCourtesy Disease Detectives
Earlier this year I got the chance to work as the crew of high school staff in the Kitty Andersen Youth Science Center (http://www.smm.org/kaysc/) at the museum to create a series of web-based videos about infectious diseases for the Disease Detectives exhibit. We worked from January through August learning video production skills, learning about different infectious disease topics, talking to experts and folks on the museum floor. We're just getting the videos online now, and all of our videos will be on the exhibit website soon (www.diseasedetectives.org) but I wanted to share them here as well.

For this video, titled "Got Beef? The Story Behind Antibiotics and Livestock" the crew to a slaughter house on in South St. Paul, the Minnesota Department of Health, U of M St. Paul (at 7AM to see the cows grazing), Mississippi Market Co-op, and did hours of research, prep, and post production.
Got Beef? The Story Behind Antibiotics and Livestock from Disease Detectives on Vimeo.

You can check out the video here.

Oct
03
2010

Human embryonic stem cell differentiation: A: Cell colonies that are not yet differentiated. B: Nerve cell
Human embryonic stem cell differentiation: A: Cell colonies that are not yet differentiated. B: Nerve cellCourtesy Nissim Benvenisty

Another step toward living forever

Stem cells have the potential to become almost any type of body part. I believe they will soon be used to rejuvenate, repair, or rebuild body parts. Look at our past Science Buzz posts about stem cells. Bad knees or hips? Inject some stem cells to rebuild the cartilage. Stem cells also can repair cut spinal cords, damaged eyes, diseased brains, or help a diabetic's pancreas make insulin.

A new, better way to make stem cells

Up until now, the stem cells created by reprogramming adult skin cells still had bits and pieces remaining that were not safe enough for human applications.
"Now stem cell researcher Derrick Rossi of Harvard Medical School in Boston and his colleagues have developed a way to reprogram cells using synthetic RNA molecules." (Science Magazine) The technique is also twice as fast and 100% more efficient. The team calls its cells RiPS cells, for RNA induced Pluripotent Cells.

Learn more about RNA induced Pluripotent Cells

The new technique, is published online in the journal, Cell Stem Cell.

Oct
03
2010

Open fire cooking
Open fire cookingCourtesy Tallia Miller

Smoke in my eyes (and lungs)

Cooking food on an open fire may sound romantic but in reality breathing smoke and scrounging for fire wood make it not so pleasant. It is estimated that the smoke from cooking fires leads to nearly 2 million premature deaths each year.
A Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves has formed to

"save lives, improve livelihoods, empower women, and combat climate change by creating a thriving global market for clean and efficient household cooking solutions."

100 million new stoves by 2020

A better burning stove should not be rocket science but several factors should help the Alliance meet their goal of 100 million households converting to clean cookstoves and fuels by 2020.

  • Recent advances in clean cookstove design, testing, and monitoring
  • Compelling new research on the health and environmental benefits of clean cookstov
  • Recent commercial success and development of a number of business models in the field
  • The advent of national cookstove programs in India, Mexico, Peru and elsewhere
  • The increasing need for effective near- and long-term action to address climate change at the local and regional level; and
  • The potential for carbon finance to fund stove initiatives at greater scale

Learn more

BBC video
Clean Cookstoves/media

Sep
22
2010

Salmonella invades human cells: Color-enhanced scanning electron micrograph showing Salmonella typhimurium (red) invading cultured human cells.
Salmonella invades human cells: Color-enhanced scanning electron micrograph showing Salmonella typhimurium (red) invading cultured human cells.Courtesy Rocky Mountain Laboratories,NIAID,NIH
More than half a billion eggs were recalled after Salmonella sickened over 1600 people (according to the Center for Disease Control, or CDC in September.) That’s a lot of eggs, and a lot of sick people.

What is this nasty bacteria that makes us wonder whether we should let our kids eat raw chocolate chip cookie dough, even as we sneak several spoonfuls when they’re not looking?

Salmonella enterocolitis is one of the most common types of food poisoning and is caused by the bacteria Salmonella Enteriditis. You can get a Salmonella infection by swallowing food or water that is contaminated with the salmonella bacteria. Often, the culprit is surface contamination from raw chicken and raw or undercooked eggs. In most people, it causes diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramping, but young children and those with weakened immune systems are at greater risk of dehydration and more serious infections.

Why don’t they just wash the eggs better? Salmonella bacteria live in the intestinal tracts of animals and birds and can infect the ovaries of healthy-looking chickens. This allows bacteria to infect the eggs even before the shell is formed and voila- you have a pathogen that can’t be washed off of the egg because it’s inside. Salmonella bacteria are often found in the “white” of an egg, although they can migrate to the yolk as the raw egg sits in your refrigerator. Organic and free range chickens have less disease than factory-”farm” raised chickens, partly because of healthier diets and less crowding. Cooking eggs until the yolk is solid kills Salmonella bacteria.

How can you make your cookie dough and eat it too? Buy pasteurized eggs (you can find them at most grocery stores) that have been heat-treated to kill bacteria, but are still essentially raw for all cooking and baking purposes.

Also, remember to wash cutting boards you’ve cut meat on with soap and water before cutting anything else on them, or just have separate cutting boards for meat. Don’t forget to wash your hands after handling raw eggs! Pet food and reptiles can also harbor salmonella bacteria, so have your kids wash their hand after handling either!

Bacteria are everywhere. Some keep you healthy and some make you sick, but making good decisions in the kitchen can keep you and your family from being affected by food-born illness!

(This blog post was originally posted on the Kitchen Pantry Scientist blog.)

Sep
20
2010

A stretched metaphor: Original image altered, of course.
A stretched metaphor: Original image altered, of course.Courtesy Lucas Vieira Moreina
Five months after the deadly accident that spilled five million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the Macondo well of the Deepwater oil spill has been declared “dead.”

It’s like when that rabid dog got into your house, and, after a tense struggle, your dad finally pinned its neck under his foot, and, with an Arnold-esque quip like “Bad dog,” sent a 9 mm bullet into the still-thrashing animal’s brain. And then one more, for good measure.

It’s like that, except your house would have to be like a large, deep body of water. And the rabid dog would also have been uncontrollably vomiting flammable poison everywhere. And your dad wouldn’t really have shot it so much as drilled a couple of holes beneath its head, and then pumped it full of cement. And it was your dad’s fault that it started puking like crazy in the first place, because he was really excited to sell more rabid dog vomit to you. (Because who doesn’t love that stuff?)

In any case, the dog/well has been put down with extreme prejudice. Cement has been injected into the oil well through the intersecting relief wells, and the hardened cap has been pressure tested. The well seems to present “no continuing threat to the Gulf of Mexico.”

That’s a good thing, obviously, but unfortunately it’s not the end of this human and environmental tragedy. Before the leaking well was finally capped, about 210 million gallons of oil leaked into the Gulf, some of it floating into slicks on the surface, some of it lurking in thick plumes deep in the Gulf. How the unrecovered oil will affect the Gulf’s ecosystems and its human population remains to be seen, and determining the extent of BP’s financial responsibility to the region’s inhabitants will likely be a lengthy and difficult process.

Still, though: Bad dog. Blam. That’s something, right?