Welcome to The Deep science and technology column where we cover topics from the deep sea to deep space and beyond.
Greetings everyone. Well, we had quite a bit of feedback on last week’s article on snakes. Many people think that the spread of the giant snakes into the southern US will be impossible because of the winter conditions. I certainly hope they’re right!
There were also a few comments about my story about Pete, the reticulated python. Someone pointed out that a three-foot long snake would hardly weigh 30 pounds and I suspect they’re right. I didn’t know Pete back then and I suspect five or ten pounds would be much more realistic.
I never personally weighed Pete either and have no clue if the 300-pound figure in the days when I knew her was actually accurate, but I can tell you from personal observation that the 33-foot length was certainly close to the truth. When she raised her head to my eye level, most of her was still on the ground!
We’ll leave the animals behind this week and concentrate on the planet’s most populous large animal and their woes. [For you sticklers out there, notice that I did NOT say ‘most populous life form’ (bacteria) or ‘most populous animal’ (insects)].
Certainly at the top of human woes is cancer. This dreadful disease, where the body’s own cells go rogue (sorry, Ms Palin) seems to be on the upswing. But there’s hope on the horizon from some unexpected sources.
NEW HOPE FROM JEWELERY?
We’ve known for a long time that heat is an excellent weapon against cancer cells. But it’s hard to cook tumors without cooking the surrounding tissue too.
Now, researchers from MIT are using tiny particles of gold to home in on tumors. Then the gold absorbs energy from near-infrared light and re-emits it as heat. This destroys tumors with minimal side effects. The particles called gold nanorods, can be used to diagnose as well as treat tumors.
Cancer affects about seven million people worldwide, and that number is projected to grow to 15 million by 2020. Most cancer patients are treated with chemotherapy and/or radiation, which are often effective but can have debilitating side effects because it’s difficult to target tumor tissue.
Gold nanoparticles can absorb different frequencies of light, depending on their shape. Rod-shaped particles absorb light at near-infrared frequencies. This light heats the tiny rods but passes harmlessly through human tissue.
In the study, tumors in mice that received an intravenous injection of nanorods plus near-infrared laser treatment disappeared within 15 days. The mice survived for three months (the end of the study) with no evidence of reoccurrence. Mice with tumors who received no treatment or only nanorods or only laser heating didn’t have that kind of survival rate.
Once the nanorods are injected, they disperse uniformly throughout the bloodstream. The research team developed a polymer coating for the particles that allowed them to survive in the bloodstream longer than any other gold nanoparticles (the half-life is greater than 17 hours).
In designing the particles, the researchers took advantage of the fact that blood vessels located near tumors have tiny pores just large enough for the nanorods to enter. Nanorods accumulate in the tumors, and within three days, the liver and spleen clear any that don’t reach the tumor.
During a single exposure to a near-infrared laser, the nanorods heat up to 70 degrees Celsius, hot enough to kill tumor cells. Additionally, heating them to a lower temperature weakens tumor cells enough to enhance the effectiveness of existing chemotherapy treatments, raising the possibility of using the nanorods as a supplement to those treatments.
The nanorods could also be used to kill tumor cells left behind after surgery. The nanorods can be more than 1,000 times more precise than a surgeon’s scalpel, so they could potentially remove residual cells the surgeon can’t get.
The nanorods’ homing abilities also make them a promising tool for diagnosing tumors. After the particles are injected, they can be imaged using a technique known as Raman scattering. Any tissue that lights up, other than the liver or spleen, could harbor an invasive tumor.
Another advantage of the nanorods is that by coating them with different types of light-scattering molecules, they can be designed to simultaneously gather multiple types of information – not only whether there is a tumor, but whether it is at risk of invading other tissues, whether it’s a primary or secondary tumor, or where it originated.
The researchers are looking into commercializing the technology. Before the gold nanorods can be used in humans, they must undergo clinical trials and be approved by the FDA, which will be a multi-year process.
MIT researchers developed these gold nanorods that absorb energy from near-infrared light and emit it as heat, destroying cancer cells. (Credit: Photo / Sangeeta Bhatia Laboratory; MIT)
Some how I’d never considered using gold as a cancer killer. Gold is one of the most inert things we know about and I don’t think I’d worry too much about being injected with gold nanorods if I was staring cancer in the face.
But gold isn’t the only new option. A old drug that I take every day and that many of you take as well, has been found to have some astounding new side effects.
NEW HOPE FROM OLD DRUGS
Researchers at the Harvard Medical School have found a drug that not only reduced tumors, but prolonged remission in mice longer than conventional chemotherapy. It apparently works by targeting cancer stem cells. What is this new miracle drug? Metformin, also known as glucophage.
There is a growing body of evidence in cells, mice and people that metformin may improve breast cancer outcomes in people. In the current study, the diabetes drug seemed to work independently of its ability to improve insulin sensitivity and lower blood sugar and insulin levels, all of which are also associated with better breast cancer outcomes.
The results fit within the cancer stem cell hypothesis, an intensely studied idea that a small subset of cancer cells has a special power to initiate tumors, fuel tumor growth, and promote recurrence of cancer. Cancer stem cells appear to resist conventional chemotherapies, which kill the bulk of the tumor. The cancer stem cell hypothesis says you can’t cure cancer unless you also get rid of the cancer stem cells.
The possible usefulness of metformin against cancer supports an emerging idea that, in the vast and complex alphabet soup of molecular interactions within cells, there are a few biological pathways that may be important in the development of many different diseases.
In mice, pretreatment with metformin prevented the otherwise dramatic ability of human breast cancer stem cells to form tumors. In other mice, where tumors were allowed to take hold for 10 days, the dual therapy also reduced tumor mass more quickly and prevented relapse. In the two months between the end of treatment and the end of the experiment, tumors regrew in the mice treated with chemotherapy alone, but not in mice that had both chemotherapy and metformin. But in an interesting side note, metformin was ineffective in treating tumors when used by itself.
The researchers have applied for a patent for a combined therapy of metformin and a lower dose of chemotherapy, which is being tested in animals. Hopefully, the results will be very good and be in soon.
is rampant here on Guam and one of the unfortunate side effects of diabetes is kidney disease. There’s also some good news in that department.
NEW HOPE FROM GETTING OFF THE COUCH
Getting off the couch could lead to a longer life for kidney disease patients, according to a study that appeared in the Clinical Journal of the American Society Nephrology (CJASN). The findings indicate that, as in the general population, exercise has significant health benefits for individuals with kidney disease.
Many patients with chronic kidney disease die prematurely, but not from effects directly related to kidney problems. Because physical activity has known health benefits, researchers at the University of Utah looked into the effects of exercise on people with chronic kidney disease.
The study included 15,368 adult participants (5.9% of whom had chronic kidney disease [CKD]) in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey III, a survey of the US population. After answering a questionnaire on the frequency and intensity of their leisure time physical activity, participants were divided into inactive, insufficiently active, and active groups. On average, participants were followed for seven to nine years.
The researchers found that 28% of individuals with CKD were inactive, compared with 13.5% of non-CKD individuals. Active and insufficiently active CKD patients were 56% and 42% less likely to die during the study than inactive CKD patients, respectively. Similar survival benefits associated with physical activity were seen in individuals without CKD.
"These data suggest that increased physical activity might have a survival benefit in the CKD population. This is particularly important as most patients with stage III CKD die before they develop end stage renal disease," the authors wrote.
So, it looks like getting off that couch is good for everybody and now that I’ve finished this article, I’m going to do just that. Why don’t you join me?
Welcome to The Deep science and technology column where we cover topics from the deep sea to deep space and beyond.
Well, as I try to clean out the files, there are always lots of articles about the animal that absorbs the most research money; humans. There have been some interesting medical studies in the last few months so I thought I’d share a few.
As you have no doubt noticed, I’m attracted to the bizarre and this first story is certainly that. I’ve noticed that lots of people on Guam have a great fear of the dentist. I’m not sure this will help!
Humans have had cavities for a very long time. Even Lucy the Australopithecine and her friends and neighbors suffered from toothache. Today we know what causes these painful holes in the teeth: a combination of too much sugar (did you ever notice that the metal-mouth little kids always seem to be holding a soft drink or a candy bar?) and bad cleaning practices. But those causes are very subtle and although we’ve forgotten it, most of your ancestors knew exactly what caused cavities. Tooth worms.
The belief in tooth worms was remarkably widespread. Most people believed that the tooth worm bored a hole into the tooth and hid beneath the surface. It caused a toothache by wriggling around, and the pain subsided when the worm was resting. Although no one could tell you exactly what tooth worms looked like, they’ve taken many forms through the years. British folklore said the tooth worm looked like an eel. The Germans believed the maggot-like worm was red, blue and gray in color. The Chinese and Japanese also believed cavities were caused by tooth worms.
Tooth worms weren’t ruled out as the cause of tooth pain until the 18th century. During the Age of Enlightenment, doctors replaced superstition with science, and the Western world gradually realized what really causes cavities. But the change didn’t happen overnight — some cultures believed tooth worms to be the cause of tooth pain well into the 1900s!
Recently scientists at the University of Maryland Dental School have taken some pictures of the inside of a tooth with an electron microscope and discovered, yep you guessed it, something that looks remarkably like . . . worms. The structures are extremely tiny and they aren’t worms, but what they are is still in question.
The pictures showed cylindrical objects extending or ‘growing’ out of the natural pores or tubules in teeth. There are more than 50,000 of these tubules in every square millimeter of a human tooth. They act as channels that run from the nerve up through the tooth and they transmit hot or cold sensitivity to the nerve.
Dentists are puzzled by the worm-like structures. “Most say ‘I have no idea.’ Others say they are made of bacteria, or minerals, or the branches of yeast cells (C. albicans) which have infected the tooth structure, or perhaps they are a cellular process of the dentinal tubules,” says Gary Hack, DDS, associate professor in the Dental School. For the sake of humoring his students, Hack says, tongue-in-cheek, “I call them tooth worms and I’m sticking to it.”
The scientists at Maryland made some observations that raise new questions. For example, they found two of the ‘worms’ in a single tubule, a discovery that says they probably aren’t natural extensions of the tubules.
The tubules ranged from 2.6 to 3.5 micrometers in diameter (a human hair is about 40 micrometers in diameter) and the worm-like structures were smaller than the tubules they were in. Some of the ‘worms’ extended as far as 9 micrometers out of the tubule opening. Some of them looked hollow but several of them appeared to be solid. Other pictures revealed a comparatively thin, hollow structure emerging from a single tubule.
What are they? Nobody knows yet but I agree with Dr. Hack. I’m going to call them tooth worms!
Scanning electron microscope image of worm-like structures ‘growing’ from dental tubules deep inside a molar. (Credit: University of Maryland, Baltimore)
And speaking of sugar, well, we all know what else it leads to besides cavities; it leads to weight gain. But there’s something else in your diet that leads to even more weight gain and that’s the consumption of animal fat. There’s a new study out that will either make you very angry or make you think “Hmmmm, that doesn’t surprise me at all.”
FAT = . . . . . STUPID?????
New research at Oxford University in England shows that rats fed a high-fat diet have a dramatic reduction in their physical endurance and a decline in their cognitive ability after just nine days. The study was funded by the British Heart Foundation and may have implications not only for those eating lots of high-fat foods, but also athletes looking for the optimal diet for training and patients with metabolic disorders.
Rats that were switched from their standard low-fat feed to a high-fat diet showed a surprisingly quick reduction in their physical performance. After just nine days, they could only run 50 percent as far on a treadmill as those that remained on the low-fat feed.
High-fat diets, common here on Guam, are known to be harmful in the long term and lead to problems like obesity, diabetes and heart failure. They are also associated with a decline in cognitive ability over long time spans. But little attention has been paid to the effect of high-fat diets in the short term.
All 42 rats in the study were initially fed a standard feed with a low fat content of 7.5 percent. Their physical endurance was measured by how long they could run on a treadmill and their short-term or ‘working’ memory was measured in a maze task. Half of the rats were then switched to a high-fat diet where 55 percent of the calories came from fat. After four days of getting used to the new diet, the endurance and cognitive performance of the rats on the low- and high-fat diets was compared for another five days.
The standard feed is low in fat and very few humans (except for perhaps, vegetarians) routinely consume only 7.5 percent of their calories from fat. The high-fat diet, where 55 percent of the calories came from fat, sounds high but it’s actually not extraordinarily high by human standards. A junk food diet would come close to that figure.
But here’s the really interesting part. Not only did the ‘fat rats’ have trouble with the treadmill, they also had trouble with the maze. The number of correct decisions before making a mistake dropped from over six to an average of 5 to 5.5.
While this research was done in rats, the Oxford team is now carrying out similar studies in humans, looking at the effect of a short term high-fat diet on exercise and cognitive ability. The results will be important not only in informing athletes of the best diets to help their training routine, but also in developing ideal diets for patients with metabolic disorders such as diabetes, insulin resistance or obesity. People with such conditions can have high levels of fat in the blood and show poor exercise tolerance, some cognitive decline, and can even develop dementia over time.
Does fat equal stupid? I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.
A new study shows that rats, when switched to a high-fat diet from their standard low-fat feed, show a surprisingly quick reduction in their physical performance. (Credit: iStockphoto/Leigh Schindler)
For some of us, that weight gain thing is offset by smoking. Keep reading!
THEY DON’T CALL ‘EM ‘COFFIN NAILS’ FOR NUTHIN’!
It certainly won’t be a best seller, but if people paid as much attention to The Tobacco Atlas as they do to say, Twilight, things here on old planet Earth would be a lot better. Don’t believe me? Don’t stop reading now!
Data found in The Tobacco Atlas, which is published by the American Cancer Society and World Lung Foundation, shows that tobacco use kills some six million people each year- more than a third of them will die from cancer- and drains $500 billion annually from global economies.
According to The Tobacco Atlas, 2.1 million cancer deaths per year will be attributable to tobacco by 2015. By 2030, 83% of these deaths will occur in low and middle-income countries. Unique among all cancer-causing agents, the danger of tobacco is completely preventable if you and your family and neighbors DO NOT SMOKE.
The global economy lost a staggering $500 billion due to tobacco use last year. These economic costs come as a result of lost productivity, misused resources, missed opportunities for taxation, and premature death.
- Because 25 percent of smokers die and many more become ill during their most productive years, income loss devastates families and communities.
- Cigarettes are the world’s most widely smuggled legal consumer product. In 2006, about 600 billion smuggled cigarettes made it to the market, representing an enormous missed tax opportunity for governments, as well as a missed opportunity to prevent many people from starting to smoke and encourage others to quit.
- Tobacco replaces potential food production on almost 4 million hectares of the world’s agricultural land, equal to all of the world’s orange groves or banana plantations.
- In developing countries, smokers spend disproportionate sums of money relative to their incomes that could otherwise be spent on food, healthcare, and other necessities.
Burden Shift to the World’s Poorest Countries
The Tobacco Atlas also showcases a horrible fact. The tobacco industry has shifted its marketing and sales efforts to countries that have less effective public health policies and fewer tobacco controls in place:
- In 2010, 72 percent of those who die from tobacco related illnesses will be in low- and middle-income countries.
- Since 1960 global tobacco production has increased three-fold in low- and middle-resource countries while halving in high-resource countries.
- In Bangladesh alone, if the average household bought food with the money normally spent on tobacco, more than 10 million people would no longer suffer from malnutrition and 350 children under age five could be saved each day.
Look at yourself. Do you smoke? How much do you spend on cigarettes a month? What could you do for your children (besides be around longer) with that money? THINK!! (Unless all those gigantiburgers are keeping you from doing it!)
Well, I realized that the medical file was bulging and since I’ve got several items that have some relevance for us islanders, I figured it was time to dig in the back and pull out some wonderful things!
We certainly do a lot of flying in these islands and I’m sure we all have our little tales of horror about some of our incredibly long flights. It’s hard to top my worst because I was in the air between Tokyo and Chicago when the planes went into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. What happened afterwards was a tale of legendary proportions!
SICK ON A PLANE
I suspect we’ve all been on flights where someone became ill. Our first little item is on in-flight emergencies. Scientists researched the data on the number, type and frequency of medical emergencies on board two airlines.
Michael Sand led a team of researchers from UCLA who analyzed 10,189 different emergencies. He said, “The breakdown of the various medical emergencies encountered in our study showed that fainting was by far the most frequent medical condition, followed by stomach upsets, and heart conditions”.
In all, the authors found 5307 cases of fainting (53.5%), 926 cases of gastrointestinal problems (8.9%) and 509 cases related to a cardiac condition (4.9%). The highly publicized problem of deep vein thrombosis accounted for a very small number of cases, although they do occur most often after a flight, rather than during. The authors said, “Surgical illnesses accounted for a minor percentage of all on-board emergencies. There were 47 cases of thrombosis (0.5%), 27 appendicitis cases (0.25%) and just one case of gastrointestinal bleeding (less than 0.1 %). There were two births and 52 deaths”.
The authors also stated that there are major problems with record keeping about in-flight emergencies. Out of 32 airlines approached to take part, 27 did not have the data available, one had data that was unsuitable and two refused to take part due to company policy. Sand said, “Standardization of in-flight medical emergency reporting is necessary for further larger studies to be conducted, as the current quality of data is poor”.
The limited scope of the data available makes it difficult to make strong recommendations based on the information, but the authors do note that not all of the airlines had defibrillators as part of their medical flight kits. Sand said, “Considering the fact that cardiac conditions were the third most common condition seen in this study, patients with cardiac irregularities may profit from an on-board automatic external defibrillator. The same is true for patients with a suspected myocardial infarction."
Hmmm, I don’t find this particularly reassuring, I’m afraid. With all that money we pay for tickets to be trapped in a tin box for eight to twelve hours, it would be nice to know that our health care was a little higher on the list.
The next news is significantly better. I suspect that many of my readers take the drug called Glucophage, also known by its generic name metformin. Glucophage means “eats sugar” and it’s traditionally given to diabetics and pre-diabetics. It’s cheap and effective and doctors routinely prescribe it for their older patients. I take two metformin tablets every day.
NOT JUST FOR DIABETES ANYMORE
Researchers at McGill University and the University of Pennsylvania have discovered that metformin increases the efficiency of the immune system’s T-cells, which in turn makes cancer and virus-fighting vaccines more effective.
The specialized white blood cells of the human immune system known as "T-cells" remember pathogens they encountered in previous infections or vaccinations. This ‘memory’ enables them to fight subsequent infections much faster and it’s been the subject of intense study for many years, but until now scientists didn’t really understand how it worked.
Researchers have discovered that many of the same genes that are involved in sugar metabolism and diabetes are also involved in cancer progression. Research data also indicate that diabetics are more prone to certain cancers. This study is the first to suggest that targeting the same metabolic pathways that play a role in diabetes can also alter how well the immune system functions.
The scientists discovered that the metabolizing, or burning, of fatty acids by T-cells following the peak of infection is critical to establishing immunological memory. They used metformin, which operates on fatty-acid metabolism, to enhance this process, and their experiments on mice have shown that metformin increases T-cell memory as well as the ensuing protective immunity of an experimental anti-cancer vaccine.
We don’t really tend to link cancer and diabetes but recent advances have uncovered common links between them, in particular how metabolic pathways, the basic chemical reactions in our cells, are controlled in these diseases. The results suggest that common diabetic therapies that alter cellular metabolism may enhance T-cell memory, providing a boost to the immune system. This could lead to novel strategies for vaccine and anti-cancer therapies.
So, keep taking your metformin. It may be better for you than anyone realized! And along the lines of “it may be better for you than anyone realized”, let’s also add vinegar. Yes, vinegar, that lovely cooking condiment and maker of pickles that’s also one of the best cleaners around in our limestone-dominated world here on Guam. Read on!
Researchers in Japan are reporting new evidence that the ordinary vinegar may live up to its age-old reputation in folk medicine as a health promoter. They report new evidence that vinegar can help prevent the accumulation of body fat and weight gain.
Tomoo Kondo and his colleagues note in the new study that vinegar has been used as a folk medicine since ancient times. Modern scientific research suggests that acetic acid, the main component of vinegar, may help control blood pressure, blood sugar levels, and fat accumulation.
Their new study showed that laboratory mice fed a high-fat diet and given acetic acid developed significantly less body fat (up to 10 percent less) than other mice.
The new research suggests acetic acid fights fat by turning on genes that regulate fatty acid metabolism. The genes churn out proteins involved in breaking down fats, thus suppressing body fat accumulation in the body.
Found in many salad dressings, pickles, and other foods, vinegar could help prevent accumulation of body fat and weight gain, scientists report. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
So, we’ve had some feel-good stuff about how taking common things is good for you, now how about some information about how you can be good for other people. We’ve all lost loved ones to diseases that could be cured if only there were enough scientists, enough researchers, enough money to devote to finding those cures. Well, now YOU can be that scientist, that researcher and it won’t cost you a thing.
SETI FOR DISEASES
Several years ago, astronomers developed a program that allowed your home computer to sift through mountains of data gathered by radio telescopes to see if there was any signal that seemed regular and possibly generated by an alien society. Although the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) astronomers haven’t found any alien signals yet, their idea of using home computers to parse data and the number of people who signed up to do it has not been lost on other researchers.
Not using your computer at the mome
nt? You can now donate your computer’s idle time to cutting-edge biomedical research aimed at finding a cure for HIV, Parkinson’s, arthritis, and breast cancer. Through the University of Delaware’s “Docking@Home” project, led by Michela Taufer, more than 6,000 volunteers worldwide are donating their computer’s idle time to perform scientific calculations that will aid in creating new and improved medicines to thwart these major diseases.
Before new drugs can be produced for laboratory testing, researchers must create molecular models and simulate their interactions to reveal possible candidates for effective drugs. This simulation is called “docking”.
Since the combinations of molecules and their binding orientations are nearly infinite, simulating as many combinations as possible requires tremendous computing power. Supercomputers often have long waiting lists or are too expensive to use for extended periods. Thus, medical researchers have turned to citizen volunteers for help. Using their personal computers, the scientists can distribute the hundreds of thousands of computing tasks across a large number of computers.
Volunteering your computer’s idle time to do these calculations takes only a few simple steps highlighted on the project Web page (http://docking.cis.udel.edu/). You install a free, software program called BOINC (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing), and link up to the Docking Server at the University of Delaware to become part of the network. Your computer’s idle cycles are accessed automatically when you’re not using your system.
The BOINC software also is in use for such programs as IBM’s World Community Grid, which focuses on diseases caused by the mis-folding of proteins, and SETI@Home, which is searching for signs of intelligent life outside Earth.
Currently, the 6,000 volunteers worldwide who currently are involved in UD’s Docking@Home project are contributing to the completion of some 30,000 docking tasks per day.
Kevin Kreiser, a third-year graduate student at the University of Delaware is developing software that will allow volunteers to “throw” a molecule right into a protein using a Nintendo Wii. “Other people do yoga with a Wii,” Taufer notes, smiling. “We’re doing science.”
Welcome to The Deep science and technology column where we cover topics from the deep sea to deep space and beyond.
Water. When you live on an island, you’re surrounded by it and you tend to take it for granted. But there have been years when more people drowned than died in car wrecks here on Guam and I have always maintained that all beaches should have signs posted on them that say, “Mama Ocean does not forgive.”
We all must have water, we’re walking bags of the stuff and water has long been THE limiting factor of space exploration. It has for years cost about $10,000 a pound to put anything in low Earth orbit (LEO). You can quickly figure how much it would cost to put you in orbit.
But the figures quoted by the Russians to put tourists into LEO are in the multiple millions. Why? Because you have to eat in space, and most importantly you must drink and water weighs eight pounds a gallon. Every human on Earth consumes roughly five gallons of water every day. No, you don’t drink that much, but you water your lawn, eat meat from animals that drank water, eat fruits and vegetables that had to have water to grow and you go to the bathroom.
Although the bathrooms in space are different, space exploration and most importantly colonization, requires those five gallons of water every single day for every single person on the trip. Let’s see, that’s $80,000 for every gallon of water boosted into space and $400,000 for one day’s water ration for everybody involved. No wonder the Russians want all that money!!
That’s why the new water reclamation system on the International Space Station is so important and why scientists have been SO interested in trying to locate water on the Moon. If you can find water where you’re going, you don’t have to take so much with you.
As I’ve mentioned before, the Moon has a very harsh environment. It gets up to +250 degrees in the daytime and to –250 degrees at night. If you make your colonies underground, the average temperature is zero, which helps things out as far as easily making an Earth-normal environment, but doesn’t help you at all with the water requirements.
Now most people think that the Earth is the only place in the solar system with water, but that’s not true. Water is made from two elements, oxygen and hydrogen. Oxygen is fairly common in the solar system although its state as a free gas is found only on Earth because oxygen combines with almost everything and free oxygen has to be continually generated.
Hydrogen is THE most common element in the universe, not just the solar system. Probably somewhere between 98 and 99 percent of ALL the atoms in the universe are hydrogen which should give you some idea of how rare the rest of the elements truly are.
Water, it turns out is very common in our solar system, but virtually all water exists in the form of ice. And not just ice-as-we-know-it. Water is a very malleable molecule and there are at least 15 forms of solid water; some of them are not ice at all, but what we would call rocks. Earth is one of the few places in the solar system (but not the only one) that has the right temperatures to support lots of liquid water.
The Moon has no atmosphere and that 500-degree temperature range mentioned earlier virtually guarantees that when the Sun shines on the lunar surface, the +250 degree heat boils all the water off into space. The Moon is as dry as . . . well, anywhere where there is NO water. And despite the old ‘dark side of the Moon’ legend, the Sun does shine everywhere on the Moon. Well, almost everywhere.
The Moon rotates virtually straight up and that means that the area around both poles would be strange worlds indeed. The Earth rotates tilted and that means that the north pole gets sunlight half the year and darkness half the year. Ditto the south pole.
If you’re a billiard ball and you spin straight up and down, you’d see the Sun endlessly circle your horizon at each pole; but the Moon is not a billiard ball. It’s a big hunk of rock that’s been battered by other rocks for 4 or 5 billion years. One of the largest craters in the solar system is located at the Moon’s south pole.
Hmmmm . . . . big deep hole . . . that would be a place where literally, the Sun don’t shine. And if the Sun never shines there and that big deep hole happened to be made by a comet (read ‘great big iceberg’) then at the bottom of that hole, there could be . . . . water ice.
And it’s apparently true. Three different spacecraft have independently confirmed the presence of water on the Moon. Not only is there water at the poles, there are hydroxyl ions over the entire surface. Scientist still don’t know how those survive the heat of the Sun, but ice on the Moon means that you don’t have to take all your water with you at $400,000 per human per day. Even recycling can’t keep the cost down that much. Water on the Moon makes lunar colonization possible.
But what about beyond? You have to take your water with you when you go to the Moon, but the trip would last, at most two days. If you want to explore further; say travel to Mars, you’re looking at a six-month journey minimum. Go ahead; figure out how much that costs at $400,000 per human per day. Of course, recycling would be the norm, and we know how to do it, but what happens once you get to Mars and want to settle there?
I’ve always been amused by the frequent stories about how we’ve recently discovered that there’s WATER on Mars. We’ve known there’s water on Mars since at least the mid-1800’s. Mars has ice caps, and the one at the north pole is made mostly of water ice. The one at the south pole is made mostly of frozen carbon dioxide or dry ice which should make you readers with experience with dry ice realize just how cold it is on Mars.
But as near as we could tell, water on Mars was basically confined to the polar regions which severely limits the location of your colony. Mars does spin tilted and has definite seasons. Living near the north pole so you could harvest the water introduces a whole new world of risks.
But we know more about the surface of Mars than we do about the surface of the Earth because we’ve put several increasingly sophisticated satellites in orbit around the Red Planet. (And why do we know more about Mars than Earth? Most of the land on Earth is covered by that liquid water stuff and orbiting satellites can’t see it!)
These satellites have been orbiting Mars for years and comparing current data with the old pictures has revealed some interesting things. In a report in the journal Science, NASA says that its Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has spotted ice in the bottom of five new Martian craters that were made by meteor impacts. And these craters aren’t at the poles; they’re in the middle latitudes. And they’re small and shallow, which means the water isn’t very deep below the surface.
Above: A fresh crater on Mars photographed on Oct. 18, 2008, and again on Jan. 14, 2009, by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE camera. The crater is about 15 feet wide and 4 feet deep.
So far, the MRO camera team has found bright ice exposed at five Martian sites with new craters that one and half to eight feet deep. None of the craters existed in earlier images of the same sites. The bright patches of exposed ice darkened within weeks as the ice vaporized into the thin Martian atmosphere.
Right: The patch of ice exposed at this late-2008 crater was large enough for the orbiter’s spectrometers to take readings and confirm that it is water.
An image taken by the MRO on 10 August 2008, showed a new crater that appeared after an image of the same ground was taken 67 days earlier. The opportunity to study such a fresh impact site prompted a look by the orbiter’s higher resolution camera on 12 September 2009, confirming a cluster of small craters.
The bright material at that site didn’t cover enough area for the MRO’s spectrometer to determine what it was made from. But the team quickly discovered another crater with a much larger area of bright material.
Above: This map shows five locations where fresh impact craters have excavated water ice from just beneath the surface of Mars (sites 1 through 5) and the Viking Lander 2 landing site (VL2), in the context of color coding to indicate estimated depth to ice.
The ice exposed by these fresh impacts suggests that NASA’s Viking Lander 2, digging into mid-latitude Mars in 1976, might have struck ice if it had dug only 4 inches deeper. The Viking 2 mission, which consisted of an orbiter and a lander, was launched in September 1975 and became one of the first two space probes to land successfully on the Martian surface. The Viking 1 and 2 landers also conducted on-the-spot biological tests for life on another planet. The results of some of those tests have never been adequately explained.
What if the Viking 2 arm had dug that extra four inches and revealed unmistakable evidence that there is life on Mars? Would we be there already? Probably. But we’ll get there eventually, and water, water everywhere will certainly help us make the trip!
Everybody loves the cute animals. Just mention the word ‘panda’ or ‘meerkeet’ or ‘kitten/puppy’ and watch everybody go all warm and runny. But say ‘roach’ or ‘rat’ or ‘squid or ‘parasite’ and watch the upper lip curl. But who’s to say which of these animals are more important in the overall scheme of things? Every animal on Earth fills a niche and fulfills a purpose or it wouldn’t be here. So today we’re going to talk about some of those animals that do NOT evoke the “Aw-w-w, how cute!” expression. And you just might learn something!
If I were making a list of the animals on my personal top 10 ‘love to hate’ list, I suspect the cockroach would be right up there at #1. But don’t sell the cockroach short. Recent research has revealed some very interesting (in the Chinese sense of the word) things about this astounding insect.
QUICK! STEP ON IT!
Researchers at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia recently examined cockroaches to see whether they change their breathing patterns in response to changes in carbon dioxide or oxygen concentration, or humidity.
They discovered that changes in carbon dioxide and oxygen concentrations didn’t have a whole lot of effect on a roaches breathing habits but they did find that the widely loathed insects can hold their breath to save water.
They concluded that cockroaches close the spiracles through which they breathe primarily to save water. In dry environments the insects took shorter breaths than in moist conditions. They also discovered that when cockroaches are resting, they periodically stop breathing for as long as 40 minutes, though why they do so has been unclear.
The study deals a blow to the theory that cockroaches hold their breath to survive underground, where CO2 levels can be poisonous. Nor did the study support the idea that cockroaches hold their breath to avoid damage to their body tissue from chemical reactions with oxygen.
The nifty breath-holding adaptation has allowed cockroaches to colonize drier habitats. Cockroaches also have a waxy coating that helps hold in the water. One of the easiest ways to kill cockroaches in drier climates is to spread kitty litter made from diatomaceous Earth in your cabinets. Diatomaceous Earth is made of diatom shells and diatoms make their shells of glass. When a cockroach runs over these tiny pieces of broken glass, it scores the waxy coating on their shell and they dehydrate and die. That doesn’t work here, unfortunately, it’s too wet.
Cockroaches evolved in the humid conditions of a rainforest, but they are definitely adaptable and can cope in a wide range of environmental conditions. Will the sun ever set on the empire of the cockroach? Not any time soon. Cockroaches have been around for 250 MILLION years. They survived the dinosaurs and they will, no doubt, survive us!
So, we’ve established that, although nobody likes them, cockroaches will probably outlive humans as a species. This leads us to the next icky topic of discussion: parasites. If I’m making that list with the cockroach at the top, parasites certainly rank up there in the top ten. Parasites (specifically fleas) are the subject of the world’s shortest poem. And the poem is: “Adam had ‘em!” Parasites have certainly been around for a long time, but what happens when their hosts go extinct?
THE HIDDEN COST OF EXTINCTION
We wring our hands and gnash our teeth over the loss of endangered species like the panda or the polar bear. But what happens to the parasites hosted by endangered species when they go extinct? And although most people would side with the panda over the parasite, which group should we worry about more?
Researchers from North Carolina State University recently published a paper that examines the concept of co-extinction, or the domino effect of extinctions caused by species loss. For example, each fig species tends to be pollinated by a single fig wasp. The loss of the tree should cause the extinction of the wasp and vice versa. Mathematical models suggest that co-extinctions due to the actions of humans are very common, the paper asserts. Yet, surprisingly enough, there have been few reported cases of co-extinction in the scientific literature.
The models suggest thousands of co-extinctions have already occurred and that hundreds of thousands may be on the horizon. But few such events have been observed. The scientists aren’t sure if the co-extinctions are happening and not being tracked, or if parasites are better at switching partners than we give them credit for, or something in between. Maybe some of the ‘specialized relationships’ – like between the figs and fig wasps – aren’t so specialized.
In addition, the researchers say that the models predict that the number of parasite extinctions should be much larger than the number of host extinctions since the diversity of parasitic or affiliated species – which may include things like viruses, bacteria ticks, lice mites and a whole host of internal parasites — is several orders of magnitude greater than that of their hosts.
This numbers game alone presents strong evidence that suggests co-extinctions are more important than the original host extinctions themselves. But the paper also examines other costs of co-extinction – including the losses of biological diversity, unique species traits and what we can learn about evolutionary history.
But that’s not the really scary part. According to the researchers, there’s a distinct possibility that declines in host species could drive parasite species to switch onto alternative hosts, which in turn could escalate the rate of emerging pathogens and parasites both for humans and our domesticated animals and plants. Simply put, when a host becomes rare, its parasites have two choices: jump ship to another host or go extinct. Either situation is a problem.
The researchers noted that the regions where new human diseases like bird flu, are emerging coincide with the regions where the most mammal and bird species are endangered. We’ve talked for a long time about the negative consequences of the endangerment of the species we love but getting stuck with their parasites is a consequence nobody bargained for!
And now we turn our attention to a much more loveable animal than cockroaches and parasites, but you’ll have to admit, that octopi probably still fall in the ‘ugly’ category. And this tale relates the story of how one hapless octopus turned up in the most unlikely of places. As a fossil.
DEM BONES, DEM BONES, DEM DRY BONES
When the story broke several years ago about the ‘hobbits’ found on Flores Island in Indonesia; I was taken by this tale of miniature hominids. But what really fascinated me is that the news feeds kept referring to the ‘hobbit fossils’. I kept wondering what the real story was because fossils simply don’t form in tropical conditions. The constant rainfall keeps the bones from ever acquiring the minerals that turn them into rocks.
And when I finally read the scientific reports I discovered I was right. The Flores skeletons may have been over 80,000 years old, but they were NOT fossils. They were 80,000 year old bones. If you think about it though, fossils are almost always bones. So, what are the odds that you can find a fossil of something that has no bones? Read on.
Even if you’ve never met an octopus in the flesh, the eight arms, suckers, and sack-like body are almost as familiar a body-plan as the four legs, tail and head of cats and dogs. Unlike vertebrates, however, octopi don’t have skeletons. While this allows them to squeeze into impossibly small spaces, it does create problems for scientists interested in evolutionary history. When did octopi acquire their characteristic body-plan, for example? Nobody really knows, because fossil octopi are rarer than, well, pretty much any rare thing you care to mention.
The chances of an oct
opus corpse surviving long enough to be fossilized are so small that prior to this discovery only a single fossil species was known, and from fewer specimens than the eight legs of an octopus.
The body of an octopus is composed almost entirely of muscle and skin, and when an octopus dies, it quickly decays and liquefies into a slimy blob. After just a few days the carcass disappears entirely. The result is that preservation of an octopus as a fossil is about as unlikely as finding a fossil sneeze, and none of the 200-300 species of living octopus has ever been found in fossilized form. Until now, that is.
Paleontologists have just identified three new species of fossil octopus discovered in Cretaceous rocks in Lebanon. The five specimens are 95 million years old but, astonishingly, preserve the octopuses’ eight arms with traces of muscles and those characteristic rows of suckers. Even traces of the ink and internal gills are present in some specimens.
"These are sensational fossils, extraordinarily well preserved," says Dirk Fuchs of the Freie University Berlin, lead author of the report. But what surprised the scientists most was how similar the specimens are to modern octopus: "these things are 95 million years old, yet one of the fossils is almost indistinguishable from living species." This provides important evolutionary information.
The more primitive relatives of octopi had fleshy fins along their bodies. The new fossils are so well preserved that it’s possible to tell they didn’t have these fleshy fins. This pushes back the origins of the modern octopus by tens of millions of years, and while this is scientifically significant, perhaps the most remarkable thing about these fossils is that they exist at all.
Keuppia levante — one of the new species of fossil octopus discovered in Cretaceous rocks in Lebanon. (Credit: Dr. Dirk Fuchs)
Animals. They don’t all have to be loveable to tell us some pretty interesting things about themselves, the Earth and us! Cruise on over to the Deep Website at www.thedeepradioshow.com to learn more about ugly animals and many other topics. Enjoy!
Jim is, above all, a passionate eco-humanitarian who has developed his own science talk-radio show to inform The DEEP’s listeners about such newsy topics as global warming, shark-finning and reef protection as well as to explore earth’s many underwater and space mysteries.
sailing 12,000 miles and visiting five countries Jim is back here, ready to explore the depths of the ocean to the deepest frontier, space MORE>>
Lady Pam Eastlick is an expert in both the stars
and seas as a graduate of the University of Guam Marine
Lab and the Director of the UOG Planetarium.