Stories tagged Life Science


I just came across the following article in The Scientist. It made me say, are you serious!?!?!

The Scientist: NewsBlog:
Test a vax, fly to Mexico
Posted by Jef Akst
[Entry posted at 6th January 2010 03:00 PM GMT]

Want to go to Central America for free? All it takes is your participation in a clinical trial for a diarrhea vaccine. A patch worn on the arm can earn you a complimentary trip to one of nine cities in Mexico and Guatemala, courtesy of Intercell AG.

The Austrian drug company is recruiting 1800 volunteers for the phase III clinical trial of a vaccine against enterotoxigenic Escherichia coli -- a major cause of traveler's diarrhea, which affects about 20 million visitors to countries such as Africa, Asia and Latin America, as well as illness in more than 200 million children living in those countries each year. If approved, it would be the first vaccine for traveler's diarrhea available in the US.

A couple years ago, we looked at the question of how researchers and companies decide on compensation for subjects' participation in clinical trials. But the trip offered by the Austrian company seems to be an entirely new recruitment tactic, the BMJ reports.

Intercell joined forces with Inclinix, Inc., a North Carolina-based clinical trial enrollment solutions provider, to devise a strategy including partnerships with major travel and tourism websites, as well as a variety of social networking outlets, including Twitter and YouTube. "Social communication avenues allow Inclinix to reach a unique audience," Diane Montross, director of patient recruitment for Inclinix, told Medical News Today. "We are defining the next patient recruitment landscape."

In addition to the flight to Central America, participants will receive at least six nights of three star accommodations, pre-paid mobile phones, welcome kits with useful travel tools, and $1,500 in cash upon completion of the study. Participants will be given either the active vaccine or a placebo before travel, give blood within 48 hours of arrival, keep a stool diary throughout their trip, and provide additional blood and stool samples if they develop diarrhea.

For more information go to the TREK Research Study site.


After some three and a half billion years of life’s evolution on this planet – and after almost two million years since people recognizable as human first walked its surface – a new human burst upon the scene, apparently unannounced.

It was us.

Until then our ancestors had shared the planet with other human species. But soon there was only us, possessors of something that gave us unprecedented power over our environment and everything else alive. That something was – is – the Human Spark.

What is the nature of human uniqueness? Where did the Human Spark ignite, and when? And perhaps most tantalizingly, why?

In a three-part series to be broadcast on PBS in 2010, Alan Alda takes these questions personally, visiting with dozens of scientists on three continents, and participating directly in many experiments – including the detailed examination of his own brain.

"The Human Spark"

Twin Cities area show dates and times:

  • Wednesday, January 6, 7:00 pm, on 2
  • Thursday, January 7, 1:00 am, on 2
  • Thursday, January 7, 3:00 pm, on LIFE
  • Wednesday, January 13, 7:00 pm, on 2
  • Thursday, January 14, 1:00 am, on 2
  • Thursday, January 14, 3:00 pm, on LIFE
  • Wednesday, January 20, 7:00 pm, on 2
  • Thursday, January 21, 1:00 am, on 2
  • Thursday, January 21, 3:00 pm, on LIFE
  • Sunday, January 24, 1:00 pm, on 2
  • Sunday, January 24, 2:00 pm, on 2
  • Sunday, January 24, 3:00 pm, on 2

"Our Origins: Exploring the Human Spark"

Twin Cities area show dates and times:

  • Sunday, January 24, 4:00 pm, on 2
  • Sunday, January 24, 8:00 pm, on MN
  • Sunday, January 31, 12:00 pm, on LIFE

Pretty bacteria: Do not be fooled by the pastel colors- these things will kill you.
Pretty bacteria: Do not be fooled by the pastel colors- these things will kill you.Courtesy esterase
I bet regular bacteria have posters of their favorite superbug hung on their bedroom walls. I mean superbugs are just so much cooler than regular bacteria; they’re kind of the bad boys of the bacteria world. Regular bacteria do what they are told: they keel over when exposed to disinfectants and antibiotics. But not those rebellious superbugs. Superbugs have some kind of genetic mutation that allows them to survive in hostile, antimicrobial environments. Basic principles of natural selection come into play: the mutant bacterium survives in the presence of the antibiotic/disinfectant and then goes on to produce other bacteria with the same mutation, ultimately creating a new resistant colony. In this scenario, exposure to the antimicrobial agent (the antibiotic or disinfectant) is imperative. However, scientists now think that another scenario exists; one in which exposure is not required. In a recent study, these scientists found that the use of disinfectants in hospitals can lead to bacterial resistance to antibiotics, even if the bacteria haven’t been exposed to the antibiotics.

Researchers from the National University of Ireland added increasing amounts of disinfectant to petri dishes full of Pseudomonas aeruginosa (a bug that causes pneumonia in hospital patients, among other things) and the bug became immune not only to the disinfectant, but also to ciprofloxacin- the antibiotic used to treat the bug. Superbugs are essentially using their exposure to disinfectants as “teachable moments” for resisting antibiotics.

This is significant because now it seems that bacteria have one less hurdle to overcome in their mission to cause serious harm to patients (that’s not really their “mission,” I say that for dramatic effect). If superbugs can resist the disinfectant slathered on the countertops and doorknobs of hospitals, it’s possible that they could go on to infect patients who “for some reason” won’t respond to the antibiotics. Man, regular bacteria must be so jealous.


Better safe than sorry, eh?: Modified from the original for decency's sake.
Better safe than sorry, eh?: Modified from the original for decency's sake.Courtesy BaylorBear78
My psychological jargon might be a little mixed up, but Freud was the one who would deteriorate into fits of frightened giggling at any mention of sex organs, right? If so, this research is totally Freudian.

(I’m pretty sure Freud died of an aneurysm while watching a butcher make sausage links. So yeah, kids, I think you’re safe using this as a resource for your 10th grade psych class.)

Here’s the rub, as it were: duck penises are off the hook! And not just duck penises, duck vaginas too! Despite the questionable wardrobe choices of certain popular cartoon characters, I’ve never seen a duck’s penis. But I suppose that the hunters and duck enthusiasts among you might already know that ducks, unlike most birds, have penises, and that said penises are about 8 inches long and remarkably flexible. The reason we aren’t constantly being assaulted by the sight of duck genitals is that they usually keep the organs tucked inside their bodies. When the need arises, the appendages can be extended, or "everted," in less than a second, an act described (not by me) as “explosive.”

Here’s some footage of it happening. Be warned, though—it’s not for the more sensitive among you.

But, okay, so duck penises are crazy. What about the rest?

Well, ducks have crazy penises because it gives them an advantage in “forced mating.” But if male ducks could evolve a feature that increases their chances of a successful forced mating, mused some researchers at Yale, couldn’t female ducks evolve penis-confounding features that would protect them from unwanted attempts at mating?

Duck penises, it turns out, are somewhat corkscrew-shaped. The researchers tested their ability to evert into a set of glass tubes of varying shapes. They found that eversion was quickly and easily done in straight tubes, and tubes that spiraled counter-clockwise. A tube spiraled clockwise, however, or one with a sharp bend in it, could stop eversion altogether. It turns out that duck vaginas have evolved structures like the second set of glass tubes, with the purpose of thwarting wandering duck penises.

How strange. Apparently it’s one of the rare occasions when the evolutionary consequences of the battle of the sexes are so “dramatic.” Dramatic and bizarre.

Now pick yourself up and continue on with your day. That wasn’t so bad, was it? And now you have something to talk about at your family holiday party!


art in a petri dish
art in a petri dishCourtesy Eshel Ben-Jacob
Take a close look at the image pictured here. Do you think it's the work of an artist, a scientist, or some other living organism?

The answer is: all of the above.

Eshel Ben-Jacob, an Israeli artist who is also a scientific researcher, created the image in collaboration with tens of billions of microorganisms, a colony of bacteria living in a petri dish. Why did he do it?

He was curious about how bacteria cope with stress in their environment, for example when humans try to eliminate them using antibiotics. One way he found to study the coping strategies of these persistent microbes was by creating stressful petri dish environments and studying how the living organisms respond. The results are beautiful and complex patterns like this one, which also tell a story about how living organisms adapt.

Turns out that bacteria actually cooperate to solve challenges, communicating to exchange genetic information that tells them how to survive as a group. It's a kind of underlying social intelligence, one that can make it difficult for us humans to keep up. In the case of the image here, you can see how the colony branches out in search of nutrients. That's just one of the things these researcher were able to learn more about by studying petri dish patterns.

Eshel Ben-Jacob realized that in addition to loads of interesting scientific data, these colonies make thought provoking artworks, reminding us never to underestimate the adaptive powers of living organisms. He added a bit of color to the patterns and has compiled a series of the resulting images in an online gallery. Take a look, and let me know what you see!

Ben-Jacob's work is also part of a fascinating collection cataloged on the website Microbial Art, which features artworks by scientists and artists from around the world who use a wide variety of taxa and techniques. You may not see it hanging in an art museum, but it's one of the most interesting examples of science-art collaborations that I've ever seen.


Yes, it is perched on a trash can: But only because I think that the trash might provide it with the high calorie diet it would need to operate those large flight muscles.
Yes, it is perched on a trash can: But only because I think that the trash might provide it with the high calorie diet it would need to operate those large flight muscles.Courtesy JGordon
Angels and fairies, if they’re the sorts of things that actually exist, says a biologist from University College London, could never actually fly. That is, if we’re to believe that the way they’re portrayed in art is accurate.

Well, duh. Whether or not angels and fairies can actually fly seems to be something of a non-issue, but… of course. We figured this out a long time ago when we looked at pictures of angels and fairies and thought, well, that doesn’t make a ton of sense. But, no, scientist guy has to go rubbing our faces in it right at the holidays, when angels are feeling really pretty and good about themselves. How do you suppose they feel now, Scrooge? And picking on fairies like that is unconscionable; every time you say a fairy can’t fly, a fairy somewhere gets explosive diarrhea. And fairies live in sock drawers, so you’ve probably ruined some kid’s day too.

But professor Roger Wotton doesn’t care. All the sad angels with body-image issues and violently ill fairies in the world couldn’t stop him from pointing out the fundamental flaws in angel and fairy body design.

First of all, the wings are generally too small for fairies’ and angels’ body sizes. Birds and bats weigh very, very little relative to the area of their wings, otherwise they couldn’t take off. Wotton proposes that the mythical creatures might be able to glide a little, but the wings would need to be totally rigid then, and they’re often depicted in art being folded.

For true flight, Wotton says, angels and fairies would need to have the large, complex muscles of birds and flying insects. But they don’t. (Another fairy is losing bowel control right now.)

So, in the spirit of the holidays, I have drawn a more anatomically correct angel/fairy for you all. Note the delicate limbs, deep, muscular chest, and aerodynamic body. Now you can imagine this realistically perching on top of your Christmas tree, or pulling teeth from beneath your pillow.

You’re welcome! Ho ho ho!


You will never have to buy these again
You will never have to buy these againCourtesy very little dave
One hates to be outdone. I mean, all of a sudden I’m given to understand that not only am I the resident poop expert (and how do you think that feels) but that I’ve been shirking my duties in covering the scatological sciences, and that fecal subject matter is slipping right between my fingers! It’s humiliating on several levels.

Thank goodness for the internet, eh? Because look what just fell in my lap: an eleventh-hour entry for most bizarre poop story of the year. A couple of 20-something designers with years of experience in the arts and a couple crazy weeks of education in synthetic biology were the talk of the town at this year’s International Genetically Engineered Machine Jambori. Why? Because of their briefcase full of human feces.

It wasn’t real human feces, of course—they’re artists, not miracle workers. But it represented a coming revolution in pooping. The wax poop models, you see, were all the colors of the rainbow (over a predictably colored base). The team of undergraduates they collaborated with have been working on genetically engineering strains of the E. choli bacteria that will change color in the presence of certain compounds. Currently, the new strain (now called, har har, E. chromi) will turn orange, red, brown, purple or yellow in the presence of arsenic, the exact color depending on the amount of arsenic. (“Brown”?)

Aside from brightening up the gloomy bowel movements of people suffering from arsenic poisoning, the team of scientists and artists has proposed that the technology could be used in the future for diagnosing diseases. Just swallow a little capsule, say, and the bacteria inside could tell you if you have cancer. It would be like reading tea leaves, kind of, but in a bigger cup, and without the leaves. (Imagining finding out from your Technicolor poops that you have cancer.)

Sadly, this application is a long way off. Aside from color-coding the bacteria to different diseases, it would have to be engineered so that our immune systems couldn’t destroy it before it changes color. One wonders, too if creating a strain of E. choli that is invisible to our immune systems might have a new set of issues to overcome.

I hope that they realize the recreational potential of any drugs to come out of the project.


Human medicine extracted from rabbit milk

Drugs from rabbit milk
Drugs from rabbit milkCourtesy Hardyplants
Almost three years ago, I wrote about how farm animals were being modified genetically to produce milk and eggs containing pharmaceuticals.

Pharming rabbits

A Dutch biotech firm, appropriately named Pharming, has been milking rabbits experimentally for years. They recently developed a drug called Rhucin, which they extract from rabbit milk. The rabbits have been outfitted with a human gene that produces a protein called C1 inhibitor in their milk. Rhucin can be used to treat people with hereditary angioedema.

"Human C1 inhibitor can be obtained from donor blood, but our … product can be produced in unlimited quantities from a scalable and stable production system, and there are no safety issues in terms of [blood] viruses National Geographic."

If the drug is approved, Pharming will start milking a herd of about a thousand rabbits. The method is similar to milking cows except that the milk sucking attachments are smaller.

Miniature mouse milking machine

Mice are being milked in Russia for lactoferrin which normally is found in the breast milk of humans. Lactoferrin protects babies from viruses and bacteria while the infants' immune systems are still developing. Milking mice is very difficult, and is only a step toward larger animals such as rabbits, goats, or cows being bioengineered.

The ultimate aim of the Russian team, and of similar research projects in other countries, is to extract lactoferrin from the milk and use the protein to create healthier baby formula. National Geographic


PJ the Cat
It is with bitter disappointment that I share this link: it’s the end of the line for hypoallergenic cats. Remember the promise of the hypoallergenic cat? People who would enjoy sharing their home with a cat but who were previously unable due to allergies (I count myself among this number) were given hope with the $4,000 felines, “guaranteed” to not cause allergic reactions.

No more.

Allerca Lifestyle Pets, the provider, announced on its website recently that due to its recent acquisition that it will no longer produce the hypoallergenic cats (and dogs) to customers.

Further, one wonders if Allerca was actually producing the cats (and dogs) as they promised. According to The Scientist, despite many testimonials they were never able to produce any scientific evidence that their cats were actually hypoallergenic and apparently there are a number of blogs out there decrying Allerca for non-delivery and non-performance. So it may have all been wishful thinking anyway.

My current plan is to find the smallest short hair cat possible – small animal, less spit to be allergic to. That’ll work, right?

What I find of ancillary interest is that internally here at the museum we have been looking at scientific denialism and fraudulent science. If I applied a skeptic’s “filter” to my examination of the claims on the Allerca web site, the heavy dependence on testimonials rather than scientific data, the attacks on groups who are skeptical of their claims, the use of lots of scientific jargon and that fact that they are shutting down even though their product was claimed to be effective makes me lean to an opinion that they may not be able to deliver what they say they can. However, as with anything be your own skeptic. Don’t form an opinion based on what I am saying alone – do some research, and use the evidence you collect – especially the evidence that is supported by scientific research – to make your own conclusions.


Mummy Juanita: This mummy was found on a mountain top in Chile, naturally mummified by the cold, dry conditions.
Mummy Juanita: This mummy was found on a mountain top in Chile, naturally mummified by the cold, dry conditions.Courtesy Wikimedia
Mummification sounds like a lot of work. You have to carefully remove organs, cover and pack the body with salt (natron), dry and wrap each organ, wait 40 days, then do what you can to make the resulting dried-out corpse smell somewhat tolerable…then there’s that whole wrapping process. Whew! There’s got to be an easier way! If only there was a hands-free way to mummify people, like Ron Popeil’s “Set it and forget it” Showtime Rotisserie. Luckily there is! Nature does a wonderful job of mummifying people and animals. Environmental conditions such as extreme cold, salinity (saltiness), acidity, and aridity (dryness) can all result in natural mummification. This is the case with bog bodies. Bog bodies are… well… bodies found in bogs. But not just any bogs, bogs where a combination of acidic water, cold temperatures, and lack of oxygen are enough to preserve the tissue, essentially pickling the body. So this type of mummification occurs in damp/wet conditions, but another way in which nature preserves human and animal tissue is through extreme cold and dry conditions. There are mummies found in Peru and Chile from the Inca period that were preserved this way. Certain young girls from the Inca Empire were sacrificed and placed at the summits of mountains in the Andes. Some archaeologists believe this was part of a ritual honoring Apus, the Inca mountain god. The cold, dry conditions on these summits desiccated the bodies and maintained the hair, blood, and in some cases even the contents of the stomach!

The psalms scroll
The psalms scrollCourtesy wikimedia
Although not really considered “mummies” (because they are not living organisms), objects can be “mummified” or preserved in this manner as well. The case of the Dead Sea Scrolls is an example. The scrolls are made of papyrus as well as animal skins, and were found in caves on the northwest shores of the Dead Sea, near Qumran. The average annual rainfall for this region is about 3 inches (Minnesota averages 26 inches and our driest state, Nevada, averages about 8 inches), and the average summer temperatures range from 90-102°F. These extreme conditions were major factors that contributed to the preservation of the scrolls for 2,000 years! It’s amazing what setting it and forgetting it can do. Not only can it result in the best rotisserie chicken you’ve ever had in your life, but also in preserving history. So the next time you have to make that all too common decision about how to mummify something, just remember there’s the hard way and then there’s nature’s way.