Category: Science

NASA, SDO: Year 5

February 11, 2015 marks five years in space for NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, which provides incredibly detailed images of the whole sun 24 hours a day. Capturing an image more than once per second, SDO has provided an unprecedentedly clear picture of how massive explosions on the sun grow and erupt ever since its launch on Feb. 11, 2010. The imagery is also captivating, allowing one to watch the constant ballet of solar material through the sun’s atmosphere, the corona.

Turn up the sound. Set resolution as high as you can. A stunning video.

First IVF births using new screening tool for genetic disease

The first three babies screened at the embryonic stage with karyomapping, a novel screening tool for genetic disease, have been born…

For couples who are at risk of passing on genetic disease to their offspring, the technology helps determine which embryos are disease-free and viable for implantation following in vitro fertilization (IVF), according to the firm, New Jersey-based Reprogenetics.

Although preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) has been available for decades, karyomapping takes advantage of advances in genetic sequencing that have reduced the price, time, and complexity of the process. Thus, the main benefit of karyomapping is the diminished amount of time it takes for couples to get results and get pregnant, company officials said…

“This is considered the ‘inevitable evolution’ of genetic studies for our field,” Robert Greene, MD, a reproductive endocrinologist in Syracuse, N.Y., told MedPage Today. “The race … has been in making the technique practical. It will only be adopted clinically if it meets those practical considerations. Otherwise, most centers will stick with the current technique until the price comes down…”

As with other forms of PGD, karyomapping can test for genetic diseases such as Down syndrome, cystic fibrosis, and fragile X syndrome. Konstantinidis said the tool can detect 60 genetic disorders and has been performed on more than 1,000 embryos to date.

Another simple scientific tool enabling easier, broader choices to folks getting ready to have children. Hopefully, a decision involving some forethought.

Hopefully, a process liable to lass and less interference from politicians governed by pandering to superstition and ignorance.

Smoking is bigger cause of mortality than previously accepted

Deaths due to smoking increased by 17% with the inclusion of multiple diseases that do not have established relationships with cigarette smoking, data from five large cohort studies showed.

The analysis of almost 1 million adults showed that smoking increased the risk of dying of one of the diseases by 30% (breast cancer) to 500% (intestinal ischemia) as compared with nonsmokers. Researchers found that 17% of excess deaths attributable to smoking resulted from the additional smoking-associated diseases…

The newly associated diseases included cancers, infections, pulmonary diseases, and cardiovascular diseases…”These associations should be investigated further and, when appropriate, taken into account when the mortality burden of smoking is investigated,” Brian Carter’s group concluded.

What’s unique about this study is the data,” the American Lung Association’s Norman Edelman told MedPage Today. “They have large populations and very large numbers, which provide the statistical power to identify small, but statistically significant effects that couldn’t be seen in smaller studies. Most of these [diseases] have been suspected, and now we know that there are many other things related to smoking other than the dozen or so that have already been proven.”

“When you run the numbers and add up all the deaths attributable to smoking, you come up with an astonishing increase,” he added.

RTFA for methodology, analysis and a caution or two.

Boy, am I glad I quit smoking 57 years ago. :)

From the Borowitz Report: Zombie Jonas Salk rises from his grave to hunt idjits

The reanimated corpse of Dr. Jonas Salk, the medical researcher who developed the first polio vaccine, rose from the grave Friday morning on what authorities believe is a mission to hunt down idiots.

The zombie version of Salk, wearing a tattered white lab coat and looking “incredibly angry” according to one eyewitness, was seen advancing on the U.S. Capitol building at approximately 11 A.M.

While Senator Rand Paul, of Kentucky, hid in the Senate cloakroom, armed security forces repelled the zombie virologist, who, seemingly unharmed, moved on in search of new prey.

According to law enforcement, the reanimated Salk then stole a car and headed off in the direction of Trenton, New Jersey.

“We have reason to believe he’s coming for Governor Christie,” said a staff member from Chris Christie’s office. “Fortunately, the Governor is never here.”

With both Disneyland and Marin County on high alert, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security warned that, as long as the rampaging vaccine pioneer was at large, law enforcement would be stretched thin.

“Unfortunately, we do not possess the resources to protect every idiot in this country,” the spokesman said.

Gotta love satire from Andy Borowitz. He spends a delightful amount of time separating the two questions often examined in this blog – and many others. Does our nation lead the world in ignorant people – or stupid people?

Reprogramming plants for drought tolerance


Transgenic Arabidopsis on the right survived drought vs non-transgenic on the left

Crops and other plants are constantly faced with adverse environmental conditions, such as rising temperatures (2014 was the warmest year on record) and lessening fresh water supplies, which lower yield and cost farmers billions of dollars annually.

Drought is a major environmental stress factor affecting plant growth and development. When plants encounter drought, they naturally produce abscisic acid (ABA), a stress hormone that inhibits plant growth and reduces water consumption. Specifically, the hormone turns on a receptor (special protein) in plants when it binds to the receptor like a hand fitting into a glove, resulting in beneficial changes — such as the closing of guard cells on leaves, called stomata, to reduce water loss — that help the plants survive.

While it is true that crops could be sprayed with ABA to assist their survival during drought, ABA is costly to make, rapidly inactivated inside plant cells and light-sensitive, and has therefore failed to find much direct use in agriculture. Several research groups are working to develop synthetic ABA mimics to modulate drought tolerance, but once discovered these mimics are expected to face lengthy and costly development processes.

The agrochemical mandipropamid, however, is already widely used in agricultural production to control late blight of fruit and vegetable crops. Could drought-threatened crops be engineered to respond to mandipropamid as if it were ABA, and thus enhance their survival during drought?

Yes, according to a team of scientists, led by Sean Cutler at the University of California, Riverside.

The researchers worked with Arabidopsis, a model plant used widely in plant biology labs, and the tomato plant. In the lab, they used synthetic biological methods to develop a new version of these plants’ abscisic acid receptors, engineered to be activated by mandipropamid instead of ABA. The researchers showed that when the reprogrammed plants were sprayed with mandipropamid, the plants effectively survived drought conditions by turning on the abscisic acid pathway, which closed the stomata on their leaves to prevent water loss.

The finding illustrates the power of synthetic biological approaches for manipulating crops and opens new doors for crop improvement that could benefit a growing world population.

One of the growing areas of research wherein scientists work to adapt plants to conditions not otherwise considered arable or useful for cropping. Drought-tolerance is only one of the areas. There are folks working to encourage food crops in both high-salt and high-alkaline environments.

Farmers have historically followed the roads that lead to simplest and easiest profits – once agriculture evolved beyond sustenance family farming. That generally put the focus on the most arable land, good water access, etc.. Opening up new lands, new climates, broader soil chemistry and temperature permits growing food for more.

Hopefully, common sense prevails over religion, culture and dirt-poor economics while family size continues to diminish – along with demand.

Stoned drivers safer for everyone than DWI

NHTSA

A new study from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration finds that drivers who use marijuana are at a significantly lower risk for a crash than drivers who use alcohol. And after adjusting for age, gender, race and alcohol use, drivers who tested positive for marijuana were no more likely to crash than who had not used any drugs or alcohol prior to driving.

So much for coppers and politicians who were certain easing laws on ganja were going to kill us all.

The chart above tells the story. For marijuana, and for a number of other legal and illegal drugs including antidepressants, painkillers, stimulants and the like, there is no statistically significant change in the risk of a crash associated with using that drug prior to driving. But overall alcohol use, measured at a blood alcohol concentration threshold of 0.05 or above, increases your odds of a wreck nearly seven-fold.

The study’s findings underscore an important point: that the measurable presence of THC (marijuana’s primary active ingredient) in a person’s system doesn’t correlate with impairment in the same way that blood alcohol concentration does. The NHTSA doesn’t mince words: “At the current time, specific drug concentration levels cannot be reliably equated with a specific degree of driver impairment…”

What we do need, however, are better roadside mechanisms for detecting marijuana-related impairment. Several companies are developing pot breathalyzers for this purpose.

We also need a lot more research into the effects of marijuana use on driving ability, particularly to get a better sense of how pot’s effect on driving diminishes in the hours after using. But this kind of research remains incredibly difficult to do, primarily because the federal government still classifies weed as a Schedule 1 substance, as dangerous as heroin.

Reinforcing for the umpteenth time that our government really doesn’t give a crap about accuracy, evidence-based conclusions or the truth about much that’s important.

Think about that while everyone from Congressional hacks to the White House to assorted media sycophants, right-wing and barely-left-wing do their level best to encourage our participation in jolly wars in Ukraine, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Venezuela, Cuba, etc..

And, yes, let’s keep on picking up the tab for 750+ military bases around the world. Hey, we’re the richest country in the world, right? We can afford it.

Lots of ordinary citizens know the War on Terror, the War on Drugs – are just as [un]necessary as ever.

Hubble captures Jovian triple-moon conjunction


Click to enlarge

Firing off a string of snapshots like a sports photographer at a NASCAR race, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope captured a rare look at three of Jupiter’s largest moons parading across the banded face of the gas-giant planet: Europa, Callisto, and Io.

These so-called Galilean satellites (named after the 17th century scientist Galileo Galilei, who discovered them with a telescope) complete orbits around Jupiter ranging from 2 days to 17 days in duration. They can commonly be seen transiting the face of Jupiter and casting shadows onto its cloud tops. However, seeing three moons transiting the face of Jupiter at the same time is rare, occurring only once or twice a decade…

Missing from the sequence is the moon Ganymede, which was outside Hubble’s field of view and too far from Jupiter in angular separation to be considered part of the conjunction.

Way cool.

NYC subway cultures drug resistant bacteria, DNA from Anthrax, Plague


Click to enlargeHeatmap of the Pseudomonas genus

The study, published in Cell Systems, demonstrates that it is possible and useful to develop a “pathogen map” — dubbed a “PathoMap” — of a city, with the heavily traveled subway a proxy for New York’s population. It is a baseline assessment, and repeated sampling could be used for long-term, accurate disease surveillance, bioterrorism threat mitigation, and large scale health management for New York, says the study’s senior investigator, Dr. Christopher E. Mason…

The PathoMap findings are generally reassuring, indicating no need to avoid the subway system or use protective gloves, Dr. Mason says. The majority of the 637 known bacterial, viral, fungal and animal species he and his co-authors detected were non-pathogenic and represent normal bacteria present on human skin and human body. Culture experiments revealed that all subway sites tested possess live bacteria.

Strikingly, about half of the sequences of DNA they collected could not be identified — they did not match any organism known to the National Center for Biotechnology Information or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These represent organisms that New Yorkers touch every day, but were uncharacterized and undiscovered until this study. The findings underscore the vast potential for scientific exploration that is still largely untapped and yet right under scientists’ fingertips.

WTF? They’re under everyone’s fingertips.

“Our data show evidence that most bacteria in these densely populated, highly trafficked transit areas are neutral to human health, and much of it is commonly found on the skin or in the gastrointestinal tract,” Dr. Mason says. “These bacteria may even be helpful, since they can out-compete any dangerous bacteria.”

But the researchers also say that 12 percent of the bacteria species they sampled showed some association with disease. For example, live, antibiotic-resistant bacteria were present in 27 percent of the samples they collected. And they detected two samples with DNA fragments of Bacillus anthracis (anthrax), and three samples with a plasmid associated with Yersinia pestis (Bubonic plague) — both at very low levels. Notably, the presence of these DNA fragments do not indicate that they are alive, and culture experiments showed no evidence of them being alive.

RTFA to see why the researcher say we shouldn’t worry. Certainly, the diversity of microorganisms is a positive activator for our immune systems.

Interesting how they went about the research – and what this presents as a baseline for future evaluations. And an added plus is the unique – and still closed – station shuttered since Superstorm Sandy. Marine species still alive and stable in what should be an abnormal environment for them.

Thanks, Helen

Children of the Night — from Reuters Wider Image

Seris Bros
Click to enlarge

Twenty-one-year-old French twins Vincent and Thomas Seris lead an ordinary life no different to others their age – as long as it takes place after sunset.

During the day, the men only venture out in attire resembling astronauts to protect themselves from the sun and its ultraviolet (UV) rays, or risk developing fatal types of cancer.

Colloquially referred to as the “Children of the Night” — or Les Enfants de la Lune in French — the Seris twins are among 70 to 80 people in France who suffer from Xeroderma Pigmentosum (XP), a rare genetic disorder.

The two men have been testing out a new protective mask which is transparent and ventilated and developed by several hospitals in the country.

There are up to 10,000 XP sufferers in the world, according to the French association “Les Enfants de la Lune.”

Surviving in circumstances comfortable in comparison to poorer folks in a poorer country, you still can’t count the Seris brothers as lucky – being able to live a long and fulfilling life. Still, they are treated by most ignorant strangers as if they were lepers passing through a market in the 18th Century.

RTFA. A worthwhile read. The Wider Image is one of the best things about Reuters.

Brits allow three genetic parents

After spending several years interviewing scientists and holding public forums to debate ethics and air concerns, the U.K.’s lower house of Parliament this week voted to allow babies to be born with three genetic parents.

While some call it a perversion, the procedure has nothing at all to do with kinky sex. Rather, it’s a highly advanced single-cell micro-surgery, replete with cutting-edge lasers and imaging software and, yes, even a joystick, whereby a small number of skilled geneticists is able to remove the nucleus of a donor woman’s egg (the part that plays host to some 25,000 genes) from its surrounding cytoplasm (in which reside 37 genes) and insert the intended mother’s nucleus in its place…

The purpose of the procedure, also called mitochondrial gene replacement therapy, is not to tweak the physical characteristics or personality traits of a child – those reside in the nucleus, which still belongs wholly to the intended mother. Rather, it is to swap out that mother’s faulty mitochondrial DNA – those pesky 37 genes that power every cell in our bodies save red blood cells – with a healthy donor’s.

Because when mitochondrial DNA fail to provide energy to our cells, dozens and possibly hundreds of diseases can result, causing a wide range of problems that include extreme fatigue, dementia, stunted growth, deafness, blindness, multi-organ failure, and even death…

This kind of genetic mixing crosses the so-called germ line – the series of cells through which genes pass down through future generations – which is outlawed in dozens of countries, including the UK, hence the need for Parliament to make an exception. And while it’s not yet illegal in the US, the FDA has hesitated for several years to approve the first clinical trials here. “Maybe the FDA will wait for the results if they don’t want to conduct clinical trials here,” Mitalipov said.

That sounds about right for the United States. I’ve lived through a lifetime of governments whose only concept of adventure involves military hardware and killing furriners. Add into the equation Congress which has become fearful unto death of the religious right – and you know in advance what chance enabling legislation might have.

Shades of the American Family Whatever! The United States began a backwards trudge to the 19th Century when Ronald Reagan removed solar panels from the roof of the White House. The few years of progress we found during a fraction of Obama’s first term will probably be revoked if both conservative and nutball Republicans acquire the White House in addition to Congress. Should more than 35% of eligible voters crawl out from wherever they hide – and Hillary is elected along with a supportive Congress – we might get another year or two of change before political cowardice resumes its traditional place in a collapsing imperial nation.

We’ll continue our journey on the way to becoming 1950 England.