Stories tagged Human Organism

Sep
18
2010

Dyson hand dryer
Dyson hand dryerCourtesy Mr T in DC

How you dry your hands matters

Dyson, who makes a new type of "airblade" hand dryer, funded research which showed regular hot-air hand dryers could make your hands "germier".

When volunteers kept their hands still, the dryers reduced skin bacteria numbers by around 37 per cent compared to just after washing. But the count rose by 18 per cent when volunteers rubbed their hands under one of the machines. Paper towels proved the most efficient, halving the bacterial count even though volunteers rubbed their hands. That's because the towels actually scrape off the bacteria. Journal of Applied Microbiology

This mesage brought to you by ...

Reading this research paper made me think it was a commercial message written by the Dyson advertising department.

Sep
16
2010

An Atlantic salmon: slightly GMOed (by me).
An Atlantic salmon: slightly GMOed (by me).Courtesy Hans-Petter Fjeld
Buckle up, Buzzketeers, because school is in session.

Did I just mix metaphors? No! You wear seatbelts in my school, because they help prevent you from exploding.

But you will probably explode anyway, because you are going to get taught. By JGordon. About the future.

Here’s your background reading: a GMO is a genetically modified organism—a living thing whose genetic material has been altered through genetic engineering. Humans have been genetically modifying plants and animals for thousands of years (by selectively breeding them for desired characteristics), but it’s only been in the last few decades that we’ve gotten really fancy and fast about it.

While in the past, or what I like to call “the boring old days,” it took generations to breed crops that produced high yields, grew faster, or needed less water, we can now do that sort of thing in an afternoon. (Well, not really an afternoon, but these aren’t the boring old days, so we should feel free to use hyperbolic language.) We can insert genes from one plant into another, bestowing resistance to pests or poisons, or increasing the nutrition of a food crop.

Pretty cool, right? Maybe. GMOs tend to make people uncomfortable. Emotionally. They get freaked out at the thought of eating something that they imagine was created like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Most people prefer to eat stuff that was created the old fashion way: through SEX.

Once they’re in your tummy, GMOs are probably pretty much the same as any other food, really. However, there may be other reasons to approach them cautiously. Most organisms make a place for themselves in their environment, and their environment makes a place around them, and things tend to work pretty well together. But GMOs are brand new organisms, and it can be very difficult to tell how they’ll fit into the rest of the natural world. Will they out-compete “natural” organisms, and cause them to go extinct? Will they interbreed with them, and introduce new weaknesses to previously strong species? The repercussions of such events could be… well, very bad.

On the other hand, GMOs could provide food—better, more nutritious, easier to grow food—for people and places that really need it. And with global population expected to increase by a few billion people before it stabilizes, we’re going to need a lot of food.

Just like everything else, this stuff is complicated. Really complicated. But the issue isn’t waiting for us to get comfortable with it before it pushes ahead. Hence, our main event: GMO salmon.

You might not have devoted much mental space as of yet to mutant ninja salmon, but you will. See, transgenic salmon (i.e., salmon with genes from other animals) may be the first GMO animal on your dinner plate. Or whatever plate you use for whenever you eat salmon. If you even use a plate, you animal.

What’s the point of the GMO salmon? In the right conditions, they grow much faster than their normal counterparts, and they require about 10% less food to reach the same weight as normal salmon. The company responsible for them, AquaBounty, has been working on the project for more than 20 years. Inserted into a commonly farmed species, the Atlantic salmon, the final, successful combination of genes comes from Chinook salmon (a closely related, but much larger species) and the ocean pout (a slightly eel-like fish that can tolerate very cold water). While Atlantic salmon typically only grow during the summer, the new variation produces growth hormones year round, so they can grow to marketable size in about 60% of the time it would normally take, assuming they’re kept in water that’s at the right temperature, and given plenty of food year round.

While some people object to GMO foods on the grounds that the long-term effects from eating them are unknown, probably the more salient argument is the effect they might have on the natural world. A larger, faster growing species could put tremendous pressure on already stressed, wild Atlantic salmon. AquaBounty counters that in normal ocean temperatures, the GMO salmon would grow no faster than wild salmon. Also, all of the GMO salmon are female, and 95 to 99% of them are sterile (they can’t reproduce). And none of that should matter, because the salmon will be raised in tanks, away from the ocean.

Even if they are successfully isolated from wild salmon, opponents point out, that doesn’t mean they are isolated from the environment. See, salmon eat other fish, and it takes about 2 pounds of other fish to make one pound of salmon (according to this article on the GMO salmon). Large amounts of the kinds of fish people don’t eat are caught and processed to feed farm-raised salmon. If cheaper, fast-growing salmon cause the demand for salmon to rise, more food stock fish will have to be caught to supply the farms, putting pressure on these other species.

A salmon farm: Nets keep the salmon in and the predators out, but disease, parasites, and pollution move through freely. But salmon farms reduce stress on wild salmon populations. It's complicated...
A salmon farm: Nets keep the salmon in and the predators out, but disease, parasites, and pollution move through freely. But salmon farms reduce stress on wild salmon populations. It's complicated...Courtesy Dark jedi requiem
Then again, if the GMO salmon can be raised successfully and profitably in inland tanks, it could remove other negative environmental impacts. Aquaculture fish farms are typically in larger bodies of water, with the fish contained inside a ring of nets. The high concentration of fish in one area leads to more diseases and parasites, which can spread to nearby wild fish. Salmon farms also produce lots of waste, and it’s all concentrated in one spot. Supposedly, a farm of 200,000 salmon produces more fecal waste than a city of 60,000 people. (That’s what they say—it sounds like a load of crap to me, though.)

It’s a tricky subject, and anyone who says otherwise is being tricky (ironically). Nonetheless, it seems likely that the Food and Drug Administration will soon declare this particular GMO as officially safe to eat, and GMO salmon fillets could make their way to the supermarket in the next couple years. Even if the FDA didn’t approve the fish, however, that would only mean that it couldn’t be sold in the US—the operation could continue to produce fish for international markets.

GMO salmon are just the tip of the GMO animal iceberg (if you’ll forgive the iceberg analogy—I don’t mean to imply that they are going to sink us.) The next GMO in line for FDA approval, probably, is the so-called “enviropig,” a GMO pig with a greater capability to digest phosphorus. This should reduce feed costs, and significantly lower the phosphorus content of the manure produced by the pigs. That’s important because phosphorus from manure often leaches into bodies of water, fertilizing microorganisms, which, in turn, reproduce in massive numbers and suffocate other aquatic life.

As the human population grows and needs more food, genetically engineered plants and animals are going to become increasingly common. They might make the process of feeding and clothing ourselves easier and more sustainable. Or they might royally screw things up. Or both. So start thinking about these things, and start thinking about them carefully.

Er… so what do you think about GMOs? Are they a good idea? Are they a good idea for certain applications? Are they a bad idea? Why? Scroll down to the comments section, and let’s have it!

Sep
10
2010

Dear Tooth Fairy: You can't handle the tooth! (At least not if a new research idea becomes popular)
Dear Tooth Fairy: You can't handle the tooth! (At least not if a new research idea becomes popular)Courtesy Rev Dan Catt
A new study just published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry says our third molars - aka wisdom teeth - could serve as an excellent source for stem cells. Rather than yanking them out and discarding them (often under our pillows), the molars could be kept as a repository of stem cells for our own use in regenerative medicine. The Japanese study, which was led by Yasuaki Oda, states cloned cells derived from wisdom teeth closely resemble embryonic stem cells.

It sounds like wise use of what's otherwise considered medical waste, but don't be surprised if the Tooth Fairies' Union says it bites.

Jul
15
2010

“…Welcome back, class. Please hand in your essays on the scientific fundamentals of phosphorus-driven eutrophication in the Gulf of Mexico, and note that our exam covering chapter eight, the Biogeochemistry of Acid Mine Drainage, will take place next Tuesday. Today we will be covering fluid bed catalytic oxidation, hazardous waste landfill leachates, and NIMBY. But, first, let’s take attendance: Bueller?... Bueller?... Bueller??”

Say what? “Nimby?” Girl, puh-lease! He just made that up… didn’t he??

It wasn’t long into my undergraduate stint as an Environmental Science major that I came across the word, “nimby.” Actually, it’s not a word at all. It’s an acronym, N.I.M.B.Y., standing for “Not In My BackYard,” that captures an important public attitude that affects environmental policymaking.

NIMBY explains many people’s attitude towards environmental policies, capturing sentiments like,

“That’s such a cool and important idea! As long as it’s not actually happening in my community, that is.”

“Whatever. I don’t care so long as I don’t have to see it everyday.”

NIMBY: Yuck.  Who wants to look out their bedroom window and see a mountain of trash?  Not these guys.
NIMBY: Yuck. Who wants to look out their bedroom window and see a mountain of trash? Not these guys.Courtesy The Voice of Eye

Think About It

Do you like having your trash removed from your home? Most everyone does. But, would you like having a landfill in your backyard? Almost nobody does. This is the classic example of NIMBY. Nearly everyone likes having their trash collected from their property and transported out of sight and smell, yet someone, somewhere has to live beside a mountain of trash. As long as we’re not the ones living across the street from the landfill, most of us are satisfied with this method of garbage disposal. The same idea goes for wastewater treatment facilities as well.

Another classic example is nuclear power. Some people support nuclear power as an inexpensive and “clean” alternative to fossil fuels like oil and natural gas. However, the construction, maintenance, and decommissioning of a nuclear power plant poses risks and creates radioactive waste. Whether or not you think the risks and waste production are acceptable consequences depends largely on your proximity to the plant and/or ultimate disposal site for the nuclear waste.

A recent example of NIMBY is occurring in California this summer as covered in Green, a New York Times blog. In a valley near Santa Clara, Martifer Renewables canceled their plan to build a hybrid solar power plant. Set on 640 acres of agricultural land, the plant was supposed to produce electricity by solar power during the day and biomass burning by night. How sweet is that?? A 24-hour source of renewable energy! The California utility PG&E thought it was a great idea too and signed a 20-year power purchase agreement for 106.8 megawatts, which became part of their energy portfolio. PG&E must obtain 20% of its electricity from renewable resources by December of this year and another 13% (for 33% total) by 2020, as mandated by California state energy goals. Now that the project is canceled, PG&E will have to look elsewhere for sources of renewable electricity or risk missing their mandated targets.

Regarding the canceled project, Martifer executive, Miguel Lobo, wrote in a June 17th letter that,

“We were not able at this time to resolve some of our issues regarding project economics and biomass supply amongst other things.”

What Lobo was likely referring to are the complaints of local residents and regulators who contested several aspects of the project. Chief amongst the complaints was the around-the-clock operation made possible by burning biomass. What exactly were they so excited about? Noise, waste, and air pollution – all realities of energy production, yet things we’d rather not experience ourselves. In short, NIMBY.

Alright, so what?

Now that I’ve opened your eyes to the existence of NIMBY, you might be wondering how it influences environmental policymaking. The easiest answer is that environmental policymakers seek to find a balance between the conflicting desires for new technology like this power plant and local opposition and the NIMBY attitude. Often both sides make compromises and projects move forward on a slightly different path than previously proposed. However, as in the California case of Martifer Renewables, occasionally a project is completely scrapped. Other times, the project proceeds as originally planned. Which of the outcomes occurs depends largely on the organization and influence of the local opposition. In turn, this often raises issues of environmental or eco-justice.

Clearly our modern society cannot exist without landfills or wastewater treatment facilities as smelly and unsightly as they may be. Whether or not nuclear or other renewable energy power plants are equally necessary today is debatable, but it’s not hard to imagine a future in which they will be. If no one agreed to have these facilities in their community, life as we know it would be very different. This begs the question: how do you think policymakers should balance the needs of society at large against the NIMBY attitude of locals?

Jul
12
2010

The Top Hat at work: As you can see, the device is currently unable to capture all of the oil.
The Top Hat at work: As you can see, the device is currently unable to capture all of the oil.Courtesy Library of Congress
BP: Do you know... is that oil well thing still leaking?
Someone else: Hmm. Probably? I haven't heard much about it lately. Let me check.
BP: Sweet. Thanks a mil.
Someone else: Yeah, it's totally leaking still.
BP: Oh, nuts. Ok... like, is it leaking a lot?
Someone else: Yeah.
BP: But didn't we do something about that? Like, we... dressed it up or something?
Someone else: The "Top Hat." You put a cap on it. But the cap is only capturing about 25,000 barrels a day.
BP: "Only" 25,000? Sounds like someone has unreasonably high standards...
Someone else: Could be. But the well is probably leaking about 60,000 barrels a day. Maybe more.
BP: Hmm... Well, we ought to do something about that. What about... what about...
Someone else: Yes?!
BP: What about some sort of cap to suck off the leaking oil. A big metal cap. Like... a giant top hat. Have we tried that?
Someone else: Yes, you've tried it a couple times.
BP: All right then! Operation Top Hat is go!

Bless their little hearts, BP is at it again. While national news overage of the Gulf oil leak seems to have slowed to a somewhat less frantic pace, the oil itself continues to flow. BP had placed a cap over the severed end of the drill riser, but, so far, was capturing only 25,000 barrels (about a million gallons) of oil a day. That number is nothing to sneeze at, of course, but official estimates place the daily flow of oil at about 60,000 barrels, possibly more.

Taking advantage of calmer seas this weekend, BP has been fitting a new cap on the leaking well. While they're reluctant to make any promises, BP claims that the new cap could potentially capture the entire flow of leaking oil. Also, the new cap has a device that could measure the overall flow rate, and it should be able to more easily disconnect and reconnect with the leak. Why would we ever want to disconnect the cap if it's capturing all the oil? Hurricane season is starting, disconnecting the cap in a bad storm could help prevent more damage to well and the oil-recovery equipment.

We'll see, eh?

Meanwhile, the first relief well is slightly ahead of schedule, and it could intersect with the blown well by the end of the month, at which point BP could begin to pump mud and cement into the well to shut it down entirely.

Jul
11
2010

Root canals are a pain

Endodontic therapy
Endodontic therapyCourtesy Jellocube27
A new gel could soon eliminate painful root canals. Actually, root canals are the hollow spaces inside teeth where nerves, blood vessels, and pulp fibroblast cells. When these tissues become infected a procedure called endodontic therapy completely removes these tissues, then decontaminates and fills the canal leaving a dead tooth.

Alternative keeps the tooth alive

"A team of French researchers has been working on a new approach that uses nanostructured and functionalized multilayered films to help regenerate teeth and fill in cavities" MedGadget

The scientists showed in laboratory tests alpha-MSH combined with a widely-used polymer produced a material that fights inflammation in dental pulp fibroblasts. American Chemical Society

It works in mice

"So far, the French scientists applied either a film or gel, both of which contained MSH, to cavity-filled mice teeth. After about one month, the cavities had disappeared", (said Benkirane-Jessel via msnbc).

Read the research

The research is described in ACS Nano; Nanostructured Assemblies for Dental Application

Jul
10
2010

Bloodshed happens

Bags of blood
Bags of bloodCourtesy spike55151

A lot of blood is shed every day. Many lives are being saved when that shed blood is replaced. Donated blood is only good for a few weeks. Also there is the worry about contamination (HIV, Aids, etc.). What the world needs is a way to manufacture and deliver blood as needed.

Wanted-fresh blood on tap

Our Defense Department's research division (DARPA) wants a a self-contained system that could turn out 100 units of universal blood a week for eight weeks. The system needs to withstand war front conditions and be not much bigger than a refrigerator.

$2 million awarded

That task and $1.95 million was assigned to Arteriocyte less than two years ago. (see Popular Mechanics, Dec 2008 - Bringing Stem Cells to War: Meet the Blood Pharmers). The technology, called Nanex, uses a nanofiber-based structure that mimics bone marrow in which blood cells multiply, according to the company. (cnet News)

FDA approval sought

This week an initial shipment of their pharmed blood product was sent to the Food and Drug Administration for an independent evaluation. If approved, their cost of $5000 per unit of manufactured blood will need to be reduced.

Still, given the price tag of transporting and storing donated blood, Darpa’s betting that a unit of pharmed blood will make financial sense once it costs less than $1,000. Wired

Jul
10
2010

Transplants without anti-rejection drugs

Pig parts progress
Pig parts progressCourtesy be_khe
A person with diabetes cannot make insulin so insulin needs to be injected at the proper time and amount. Transplanting insulin producing cells called islets may solve the need for insulin injections. Transplanting human islet cells requires an appropriate donor and a lifetime of anti-rejection drugs. Not good.

Pigs to the rescue

Before 1980 insulin from pigs allowed people with diabetes to survive. Pig heart valves transplants also worked out in humans.
Scientists recently injected embryonic pig pancreatic cells into rats which grew to became the pancreas, which houses the islet cells that produce insulin. Eight weeks later islet cells from adult pigs were transplanted into that pancreatic tissue and were not rejected

The new research -- the first long-term, successful cross-species transplant of pig islets without immune suppression -- raises the prospect that it may one day be possible to cure diabetes in humans using a similar strategy. Science Dailey

Success in rats - next try non-human primates

Marc Hammerman and his colleagues at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis are now beginning experimentation using the same methods on non-human primates.

Learn more

The American journal of Pathology (click to see the research abstract).
Cure for Diabetes approaches reality Discovery News

Jul
05
2010

Future friend robot: If roboticists have their way, in the future something like this could be your best friend.
Future friend robot: If roboticists have their way, in the future something like this could be your best friend.Courtesy Roberto Rizzato ►pix jockey◄ Facebook resident (with adaptation by author)
Remember HAL 9000, the super-computer in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey ? Remember how creeped-out you felt listening to his soothing, matter-of-fact voice during his conversations with his astronaut masters - especially when his circuitry started to go haywire? In the end, it turned out, HAL wasn't much of a friend. Well, you may get the same creepy feeling watching this fascinating conversation between Vermont humanoid Bina48 and New York Time's reporter Amy Harmon.

Created by Hanson Robotics, Bina48 is a “friend robot”, a potential cyborg companion to help us humans while away the lonely hours of existence. Actually, she's a mass of wires and motors encased in a bust of "frubber", which, according to Bina48 herself, could stand for face rubber, or flesh rubber, or maybe fancy rubber. The flexible material and robotic inner workings allow it to mimic visual cues of human emotions, like smiles, frowns, and confused or amazed looks. In the Times article, its maker claims robots like Bina48 can “can make for genuine emotional companions”.

Bina48's programmers loaded her memory with tons of information and experiences derived from the real live Bina Rothblatt, a co-founder (along with her spouse Martine) of the Terasem Movement Foundation, an organization who's flagship project Lifenaut.com is defined as an “immortality social networking Web site” that helps subscribers achieve a measure of immortality through science and nanotechnology. I think how it works is you submit Body File data (DNA), and Mind File data (digital memories and memorabilia) to the site and create a sort of cyber-you that will live forever on the Internet. Hopefully, not in some horrible, banking site. Your DNA is preserved for future possibilities of creating a new analog “you”. I admit the notion piques my interest, and I think there could be a good chance you’ll be seeing a MDR59 or a JGordon27 in the next couple years, but that’s fodder for a future post.

But back to our main topic...

Bina48 lives (or rather, is housed) at the Terasem Movement Foundation office, in Bristol, Vermont. The thing is not perfect by any means, and if you watch the video, you have to admit a conversation with Bina48 is kind of a strange experience. It stammers, hesitates, and clams up when confused, and at times seems to show no interest at all, and rarely makes eye contact with the reporter. But once in a while it answers questions coherently and intelligently (in a way it reminded me of conversations I’ve had with someone stricken with Asperger syndrome). Sometimes, despite her apparent inability to always stay “engage” in the conversation, Bina48 does show hints of a sense of humor (e.g. plans to over the world), and an occasional aching to become a real (or better) person. There’s something quite human about that. So I think the idea of“friend robots” show lots of promise of becoming something pretty cool when all the glitches and bugs are finally eliminated. But without any foibles, could they actually be considered human?

SOURCE
NY Time article by Amy Harmon

Jun
30
2010

The machine can actually see through purple rectangles: I put those there for your own safety.
The machine can actually see through purple rectangles: I put those there for your own safety.Courtesy TSA
That headline would likely have been true for most of us anyway, but the new security measures at some airports practically guarantee it.

Y’all remember the new airport scanners that would allow airport security staff to see through our clothes and hair… to the pale, doughy bodies beneath? Organs that we had worked so hard to conceal from the world would be on display for everyone to see. (Not “everyone,” exactly. More like a single security agent.)

We were assured, though, that despite the unveiling of our hidden third, fourth, and fifth nipples, the process was perfectly safe, and would save us from the pat-downs that could subject our vestigial tails and webbed armpits to crude manhandling.

However, it seems that some doctors aren’t so sure that the process is as safe as has been claimed.

The machines work by bathing your body in high frequency radio waves, which penetrate your clothes, but not your body. Depending on your outlook, y’all might be thinking, “Oh, radio waves. Like… for the radio. A little AM/FM never hurt no one.” And, not counting your grammar, you’d be correct. But another equally correct person might think, “Oh, radio waves. Like… in my microwave. If I lived in a microwave oven, I’d probably die.”

These waves shouldn’t do anything to you. Mostly they’re happy just bouncing around, maybe heating things up a little, maybe carrying some talk radio, maybe doing both. The more dangerous electromagnetic radiation (remember, radio waves are a type of electromagnetic radiation) are further up the scale—gamma rays and x-rays are higher energy and have a shorter wavelength, and they can pass through you just fine, and mess things up on their way through.

However, some scientists think that these radio waves are concentrated on and in the skin, especially where clothes do not protect it. (I’m not certain why this is. Maybe because it can penetrate a little bit, so instead of totally bouncing off the body, or being distributed throughout the tissue, it’s all ending up in the skin? I wouldn’t write that on a test, though.) The upshot is that, according to some doctors at least, the dose of radiation received from these machines could be as much as 20 times higher than the official estimates.

What’s more, some research has shown that this type of radiation may, in fact, be harmful. The reason things like x-rays are potentially dangerous is that they have enough energy that they can sort of knock apart some of the molecules in your body. That’s not a big deal, unless one of the molecules that gets changed is in your DNA. When DNA is altered or damaged, there’s a chance that it could start producing cancer cells. That kind of radiation is said to be “ionizing.” The radiation used by the scanners is supposed to be non-ionizing, but, nonetheless, there are models showing how they could “rip apart DNA.” The effect hasn’t been demonstrated experimentally, but, if it’s true, it might mean that the scanners could contribute to skin cancer risk.

There are a lot of “may”s and “potentially”s in the story, so it’s probably not something to lose a lot of sleep over. (Despite the guarantee I put in the first sentence of this post.) Unless you do lots of traveling through airports that use these devices (which, I should stress, are not the same as the metal detectors we all walk through at the airport), your greater concern should probably be imaging technology that makes you look like a surprised, naked ghost.