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.
Greetings everyone and welcome to the last column of the year. I thought today we’d take a little trip through the animal file and see what we can find about the critters that share our world with us.
One critter I can definitely do without is the mosquito. Besides the fact that the mosquito is annoying and painful, it’s also a notorious spreader of disease. Quite frankly, I personally think we’d be better off without them. Here’s a sad little tale of economics and pests.
TAKING OUT THE STING
After searching for more than 50 years, scientists finally have discovered a number of new mosquito repellents that beat DEET, the gold standard for warding off the pesky insects. They sound like a dream come true. They repel mosquitoes for up to three times longer than DEET, the active ingredient in many of today’s insect repellents. They don’t have the unpleasant odor of DEET. And they don’t cause DEET’s sticky-skin sensation. But there’s a mosquito in the ointment: The odds appear to be stacked against any of the new repellents ever finding a place on store shelves.
Ulrich Bernier, Ph.D., the lead researcher for the repellent study, said that costly, time-consuming pre-market testing and approval is a hurdle that will delay the availability of the repellents, which were discovered last year.
Making the repellents commercially available takes significant investment in both money and time. The cost may be several hundred thousand dollars. Once it’s determined that the repellent works then there’s also a toxicological hazard evaluation involving numerous toxicological tests."
If the repellents continue to work well when tested in the laboratory on human skin, and if they pass the battery of toxicological tests, they still face a series of tests to prove their effectiveness against mosquitoes.
Bernier and his team discovered the repellents with what they say is the first successful application of a computer model using the molecular structures of more than 30,000 chemical compounds tested as repellents over the last 60 years. Using 11 known compounds, they synthesized 23 new ones. Of those, 10 gave about 40 days protection, compared to 17.5 days for DEET, when a soaked cloth was worn by a human volunteer. When applied to the skin, however, DEET lasts about five hours.
Bernier routinely participates in repellency studies, which involve about 500 mosquitoes trying to land on his arm and bite through a repellent-soaked cloth. If the mosquitoes don’t land, the researchers know the repellent is working. If they walk around on the cloth-covered-arm, they’re on the verge of being repelled. If they bite…then it’s on to the next repellent.
To search for the best repellents, the team devised software that recognized structural features of a chemical that would make it effective in keeping the bugs away. They trained it by feeding it the molecular structures of 150 known repellents. Based on this information, the program learned to identify the chemical traits of a good repellent without the chemists even having to know what those traits were. For example, the team checked out 2,000 variants of a compound found in black pepper that repels insects.
I hope that they get some funding to market these new repellants soon. I’d sure buy them!
Mosquitoes stay away from repellent-soaked cloth on the arm of researcher Ulrich Bernier. (Credit: Greg Allen, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service)
And now we move on to a tale of another of the least-loved animals on the planet.
YOU THINK WE’VE GOT PROBLEMS??
I’m having a little mini-invasion at my house. I’m surrounded by forest and a large family of brown tree snakes seems to have decided to call my house and my dog food theirs. We whip them around a mop handle and dump them in the freezer. No more blood, no more machete nicks on my stuff. It’s a humane way to die, not that I really care because brown tree snakes are aggressive and I’ve been bitten several times.
Brown tree snakes can get quite large, but they don’t hold a candle to the subjects of this story. The southern United States is being invaded by some of the biggest snakes on the planet.
A new report by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) tells all about the risks of nine non-native snake species including boa constrictors, anacondas and pythons. Two of the species have been documented as reproducing in the wild in South Florida where the Burmese python population is already reported to be in the tens of thousands.
Although the giant snakes don’t pose a great threat to humans, adults of the largest pythons have been known to attack and kill people in their native habitats. The snake most often associated with attacks on humans is the reticulated python, a native of Southeast Asia.
Although many of the giant snakes snake species may be confined to the deep South, others like Burmese pythons, northern and southern African pythons, boa constrictors and yellow anacondas put larger portions of the U.S. mainland at risk.
The USGS scientists who authored the report point out that native U.S. birds, mammals, and reptiles have never had to deal with huge predatory snakes before. Individuals of the largest three species reach lengths of more than 20 feet and upwards of 200 pounds. The reticulated python is the world’s longest snake, and the green anaconda is the heaviest snake. Both species have been found in the wild in South Florida, although breeding populations are not yet confirmed for either.
Breeding populations have been confirmed in South Florida for Burmese pythons and the boa constrictor, and there is strong evidence that the northern African python may have a breeding population in the wild as well.
Unfortunately these snakes mature early, produce large numbers of offspring, travel long distances, and have broad diets that allow them to eat most native birds and mammals. In addition, most of these snakes can inhabit a variety of habitats and are quite tolerant of urban or suburban areas. Boa constrictors and northern African pythons, for example, already live wild in the Miami metropolitan area.
The report notes that there are no controls adequate for eradicating an established population of giant snakes once they have spread over a large area. Making the task of eradication more difficult is that in the wild these snakes are extremely difficult to find since their camouflaged coloration enables them to blend in well with their surroundings.
Dr. Gordon Rodda, a herpetologist who lived on Guam, mentions us in the report. “We have a cautionary tale with the American island of Guam and the brown tree snake,” he says. “Within 40 years of its arrival, this invasive snake has decimated the island’s native wildlife: 10 of Guam’s 12 native forest birds, one of its two bat species, and about half of its native lizards are gone. The python introduction to Florida is so recent that the tally of ecological damage cannot yet be made.”
USGS researchers used the best available science to predict areas of the country most at risk of invasion by these giant snakes. Based on climate alone, many of the species would be limited to the warmest areas of the United States, including parts of Florida, extreme south Texas, Hawai
i, and America’s tropical islands, such as Puerto Rico, Guam, and other Pacific islands. For a few species, however, larger areas of the continental United States appear to exhibit suitable climatic conditions. For example, much of the southern U.S. climatic conditions are similar to those experienced by the Burmese python in its native range.
The Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service will use the report to help them figure out what to do about the problem and how to prevent further colonization.
Researchers implant a radio transmitter in a 16-foot, 155-pound female Burmese python at the South Florida Research Center, Everglades National Park. Radio-tracking builds understanding of where pythons spend their time and therefore where they can be controlled in practice. Photo courtesy of Lori Oberhofer, National Park Service. (Credit: U.S. Geological Survey)
I once had a very good friend in Pete, the reticulated python. Despite her name, she was a female and she was a mascot for one of the units at U-tapao Air Base in Thailand. She had been captured on the flightline about five years before I got there and at that time, she was three feet long and weighed 30 pounds.
To keep Pete fed, the Thais who ran the café where she was housed ran a lottery. They put a chicken in the cage with Pete once a week and for a quarter, you could put in your guess of the day and time that Pete ate the chicken. The person who came the closest got the money, less the amount to buy the next week’s chicken.
Reticulated pythons don’t eat that often in the wild and when I left Thailand, Pete was 33 feet long and weighed 300 pounds. Most times, when I came to call, she would rear up her head until it was on the level of mine and we would chat. I never decided if she was just curious about the white lady, or viewed me as lunch. She was an impressive animal, but not one I’d want to meet in my back yard!
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!)
Welcome to The Deep science and technology column where we cover topics from the deep sea to deep space and beyond.
Greetings everyone. Well, I’m back!! My cast came off last week (for those of you who missed it, I broke my arm in October) and I am now typing CAPITAL LETTERS! The DEEP staff was kind enough to allow me this break, which was a big help since I could only type with my left hand. My arm and hand still aren’t quite back to normal, but I’m making great progress.
As you can imagine, several science stories caught my interest during the break and I’ll be sharing them with you in the coming weeks. As I review the files, I have discovered that the largest one (no surprise here!) is the space stories, so off we go on some outer space adventures!
IT CAME FROM THE SKY
We’ll start with a visitor from outer space. One of the largest meteor impacts of the last several hundred years happened over Siberia in 1908. It’s called the Tunguska Event and it flattened 830 square miles of forest and killed several thousand reindeer. If it happened over the east coasts of North America or Asia today, hundreds of millions of people would die.
New research by scientists at Cornell University concludes that the Tunguska explosion was almost certainly caused by a comet impact and they have reached their conclusions by studying the exhaust plume of the space shuttle. The research connects the two events by what followed each about a day later: brilliant, night-visible clouds, or noctilucent clouds.
Noctilucent clouds are the Earth’s highest clouds. They form over the polar regions during the summer months at an altitude of about 50 miles where the temperature is around minus 180 degrees F., They’re made of ice particles and only form at very high altitudes and in extremely cold temperatures.
Following the 1908 Tunguska explosion, the night skies shone brightly for several days across Europe, particularly Great Britain — more than 3,000 miles away. Most researchers think this massive glow was from noctilucent clouds.
They think the massive amount of water vapor spewed into the atmosphere by the comet’s icy nucleus was caught in swirling eddies produced by the explosion and carried thousands of miles away with tremendous energy by a process called two-dimensional turbulence, which explains why the noctilucent clouds formed a day later many thousands of miles away.
The space shuttle exhaust plume, the researchers say, resembled the comet’s action. A single space shuttle flight injects 300 tons of water vapor into the Earth’s thermosphere, and the water particles have been found to travel to the Arctic and Antarctic regions, where they form the clouds after settling into the mesosphere.
The researchers saw the noctilucent cloud phenomenon days after the space shuttle Endeavour (STS-118) launched on Aug. 8, 2007. Similar cloud formations had been observed following launches in 1997 and 2003.
The scientists became intrigued by the historical eyewitness accounts of the aftermath, and concluded that the bright skies must have been the result of noctilucent clouds. The comet would have started to break up at about the same altitude as the release of the exhaust plume from the space shuttle following launch. In both cases, water vapor was injected into the atmosphere.
The scientists have attempted to answer how this water vapor traveled so far without scattering and diffusing, as conventional physics would predict. Their computer models of a similar event shows that the water vapor is caught up in counter-rotating eddies that have extreme energy. Once the water vapor was trapped in these whirling maelstroms, it traveled very quickly – over 200 mph.
So, typhoon-strength winds from a comet impact. Doesn’t surprise me in the least. Will it happen again? Well, there hasn’t been much in the popular press, but there have been somewhere between five and ten reports of massive fireballs in the sky in the last few months. The locations range from Indonesia to Canada to the San Francisco Bay area. I personally wonder just what it is we’re hitting!
In 1927 Professor Leonid Kulik took the first photographs of the massive destruction of the taiga forest after the Tunguska catastrophe. (Credit: Professor Leonid Kulik)
And speaking of things that go past in the night!
TRIPLE YOUR FUN
The Goldstone Tracking Radar system keeps tabs on all sorts of things from the robot satellites we’ve sent out into the solar system to visitors who are just passing through. They took some pictures of a near-Earth asteroid called 1994 CC when it whizzed through our area on 10 June this year.
Now ‘our area’ can be a considerable distance when you’re talking solar system scale and 1994 CC missed us by a million and a half miles.
Before this approach we didn’t know much about 1994 CC. Like most of the asteroids, it’s blacker than charcoal and it’s always night in outer space. But when the astronomers examined the recent radar pictures of 1994 CC they discovered it’s a triple system.
The main body is about 2,300 feet in diameter or about half a mile across. The pictures also show that it has two smaller moonlets that orbit it. The small satellites are roughly 200 feet in diameter. Follow-up observations by the big radar dish at Arecibo also detected all three objects.
The next close Earth flyby for asteroid 1994 CC will be in 2074 when the space rock trio will fly past Earth at a distance of 1.6 million miles. Of the hundreds of near-Earth asteroids observed by radar, only about 1 percent are triple systems.
Radar imaging at NASA’s Goldstone Solar System Radar on June 12 and 14, 2009, revealed that near-Earth asteroid 1994 CC is a triple system. Image Credit: (Credit: NASA/JPL/GSSR)
I mentioned earlier that a large comet or meteor impact would have devastating effects on Earth’s weather, and now we’re off to observe the worst weather you can possibly imagine. Don’t like lightening? Don’t plan on visiting the rings anytime soon!
THE BIGGEST THUNDERBUMPERS
The big planets are noted for big storms. Jupiter has hosted a swirling storm called the Great Red Spot for at least 300 years. No, it’s not a typhoon, it’s a swirling area of high pressure and not low. It is big though; three Earths could be dropped in side by side.
Jupiter also has big lightning storms as well but apparently nothing like those that occur on Saturn. The Cassini spacecraft, which is in orbit around Saturn, has reported that a thunderstorm that erupted on Saturn in January has become the solar system’s longest continuously observed lightning storm.
The monster storm broke out in "Storm Alley," a region 35 degrees south of Saturn’s equator. The storm isn’t
as big as the Great Red Spot but it is nearly 2,000 miles across.
The powerful event was spotted by the US space probe Cassini, using an instrument that can detect radio waves emitted by lightning discharge. Strangely enough, this means that Cassini didn’t see the lightning at first; it heard the static produced by the lightning in its radio detectors.
The Cassini scientists aren’t sure what it is about this particular latitude that produces the bumper crop of storms. There’s a possibility that it’s one of the few places in Saturn’s atmosphere that allows large-scale vertical convection of water clouds, which is necessary for thunderstorms to develop.
But the storms (like ours) may be seasonal. In 1980 and 1981, the Voyager spacecraft flew by Saturn and observed lightning storms near the equator. It could be that the mega-storms will now shift back to equatorial latitudes as Saturn continues its orbit around the Sun. A Saturnian year is 30 Earth years long.
The previous record-breaker for a solar system thunderstorm was an event that lasted seven and a half months, running from November 2007 to July 2008, also spotted by Cassini.
This one has been going on for almost a year now and shows no sign of stopping anytime soon. A year-long thunder storm. My dog would be dead of fright. And we thought we had bad weather sometimes!
And now for a little speculative science.
LIFE AS WE DON’T KNOW IT
One of the things I tell the kids who visit the Planetarium is that there are so many stars out there that no matter what they imagine the aliens to be like, there have probably been aliens like that in the past, will be aliens like that in the future or are aliens like that right now.
The aliens aren’t here however, and will probably never be here because space is so big and so empty that it is virtually impossible to travel to other stars and planets in a human lifetime.
I also tell the kids something very important. Whatever those aliens are like, they are NOT humans dressed up in alien suits. Scientists are beginning to realize that we’ve probably been very parochial in our attitudes toward ‘life’. For all we know, the aliens could be here right now, we just may not recognize them as being alive.
Scientists at a new interdisciplinary research institute in Austria are working to uncover how life might evolve with “exotic” biochemistry and solvents, such as sulfuric acid instead of water.
Traditionally, scientists felt that life could only occur on a planet that circled another star in what we call the ‘habitable zone’; the region around a star in which Earth-like planets with carbon dioxide, water vapor and nitrogen atmospheres could maintain liquid water on their surfaces. We’ve only looked for extraterrestrial life that had metabolisms resembling our own, where water is used as a solvent and the building blocks of life, amino acids, are based on carbon and oxygen. We are slowly beginning to realize that ‘our’ conditions may not be the only conditions under which life could evolve. We can’t rule out that life forms have evolved somewhere that neither rely on water nor on a carbon and oxygen based metabolism.”
One requirement for a life-supporting solvent is that it remains liquid over a large temperature range. Water is liquid between 0°C and 100°C, but other solvents exist which are liquid over more than 200 °C. Such a solvent would allow an ocean on a planet closer to the central star. The reverse scenario is also possible – a liquid ocean of ammonia could exist much further from a star. Furthermore, sulfuric acid is found in the cloud layers of Venus and lakes of methane/ethane cover parts of the surface of the Saturnian satellite, Titan.
The newly established research group at the University of Vienna will investigate the properties of a range of solvents other than water, including their abundance in space, their thermal and biochemical characteristics as well as their ability to support the origin and evolution of life supporting metabolisms.
As I tell my Astronomy students, “Everything you’ve learned in this University is confined to the planet Earth. I’m going to teach you about everything else!” Space IS the final frontier!
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.”
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.