Welcome to The Deep science and technology column where we cover topics from the deep sea to deep space and beyond.
We truly live in a miraculous age so I thought a little trip through the technology files might be in order. There’ve been many articles about how the Internet is changing the face of scientific research because it makes sharing ideas and processes so much easier. But there are other technologies that are also having an impact on basic research as outlined in this first tale of science.
SMILE FOR THE CAMERA
When I was doing research for my master’s degree, I remember spending most of a short trip through Hawaii in the university library madly copying resources that weren’t available here on Guam. It took a chunk out of my limited budget and there were things that I wanted to buy in Hawaii that I had to forego because they would have put me over my weight limit. Paper is heavy, you know.
I did my research a little too early, it seems because Christopher Gennari, an Assistant Professor of History at Camden County College in Blackwood, New Jersey devised a marvelous scheme to avoid my dilemma. Read on.
Mr. Gennari was doing research on Swedish military history and the reign of the Swedish king Charles X who lived in the seventeenth century. He decided to visit the Riksarkivet in Stockholm, Sweden.
"As a US university student I was constrained by factors of time, space, income and, unexpectedly, source material," Gennari says, "I only had the income and free time to support living in Sweden for about a month. Travel space restrictions on transatlantic flights limited my ability to perform massive photocopying; the sheer bulk weight (not to mention cost) of hundreds of photocopied pages made for a daunting endeavor." (Hmmm. Sounds familiar!) With this in mind, he planned to make very specific use of the Riksarkivet materials, reading only highly relevant letters and documents in the archives.
Unfortunately, Mr. Gennari ran into an unexpected obstacle. The manuscripts were incredibly difficult to read. "The 17th century handwriting was difficult to read, it was narrow, close together, and in many cases nearly the entire page is filled with script making it difficult to know where a sentence finished or began." The curators in Stockholm offered Gennari a magnifying glass and a handwriting decoder photocopy and wished him luck.
"Suddenly, in leafing through a series of folios," he says, "I realized why very few Swedes and not a single English language historian had done large scale, archival level work on the reign of Charles X."
He couldn’t easily read the documents for the key words he was searching for, he only had a month in the country and he could see his research plans crumbling before his eyes. And photocopying the vast numbers of documents was out of the question both because of the cost and the weight. But Mr. Gennari had brought one personal piece of equipment with him that turned out to be the key to the whole affair. He had his digital camera.
An off-hand remark to one of the staff at the Riksarkivet revealed that they not only allowed non-flash photography of their collections, but they even had a camera stand setup for the occasional photographing of maps and images that could not be photocopied.
So, Mr. Gennari set about photographing 2,500 documents, producing some 25,000 images in total, which would have been the equivalent of $15,000 worth of photocopying. If he’d used a film camera, almost 700 rolls of film (about $4,000) would have been required with the attendant costs of converting those to photo CDs adding $30,000 to the total costs.
However, with the images safely stored on a handful of recordable DVDs Gennari was able to import the whole collection into Google’s free Picasa image library software for cataloguing and study on his return to the US.
"Digital photography and computer technology allowed me to capture, transport, and manipulate a previously inconceivable amount of document at a tremendous cost saving," he says, "Additionally, my need for frequent return trips and long, expensive, stays in a foreign country to continue my research has been eliminated. I have a lifetime worth of research documents at my fingers whenever I wish to conduct the research; 24 hours a day, 365 days a year."
"Digital photography allows for the collection of large amounts of archival documents in a short period of time," explains Mr. Gennari. But the intrepid researcher does have one very important piece of advice for all those who would follow in his footsteps: Take several sets of spare rechargeable batteries for your camera!
There’s no question, that the digital revolution is changing the language. Twitter used to be something birds did, Spam was something we all eat, and google referred exclusively to eyes (as in googly-eyes)! And the term ‘cement overcoat’ had a very specific meaning that conjures up visions of swarthy men dressed in fedoras, pinstriped suits and machine guns. Now thanks to researchers in England ‘cement overcoat’ may develop quite a different meaning.
NOT ‘SWIMMING WITH THE FISHES’
Engineers at the University of Leeds are working on a new type of body armor made from cement. The new vests combine super-strong cement with recycled carbon fiber to make a material tough enough to withstand most bullets.
The chief researcher says that using cement instead of aluminum will significantly reduce the costs of body armor production. At least for people like security guards, reporters and aid workers who are worried about the odd pot shot being taken at them.
He says that much of the body armor sold today is over-engineered for the threats faced by the people who wear it. The cement-based armor would not only create a whole new market but it would also reduce the demand for the high-end armor so that people like soldiers, who really need it, can get it.
Currently available advanced body armor is made from alumina plates – the raw material used to make aluminum – which is heated to 1600 degrees Celsius for up to two weeks in a process called ‘sintering’ in order to make them ultra hard.
Soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan have faced shortages of enhanced combat body armor (ECBA) as production has struggled to keep up with soaring global demand.
Cement vests are just one of a range of novel uses for the 2000 year old material that the researchers are investigating in a three year project called ‘Cementing the Future’. Other ideas include cement based pump-less fridges, a new type of catalytic converter, and improved bone replacements.
Dr Philip Purnell with recycled carbon fibre. (Credit: Image courtesy of University of Leeds)
Does give a whole new meaning to ‘cement overcoat’, doesn’t it?
There’s also news about the other material mentioned in the last item. It’s no secret that I’m a Trekkie who’s been out of the closet for a long time. Although this particular form of entertainment may have passed you by, there’s no question that Star Trek, both the TV series in its multiple manifestations and the movies have had a great impact on the general public.
Star Trek has also had a great impact on science. It seems that if you grow up believing that something is possible, in later life, you work to make it possible. Dr. McCoy’s medical tricorder already has working prototypes and though we’re
still a long way from the transporter and warp drive, the science of Star Trek is a very real and viable thing.
One of the iconic materials casually mentioned by Mr. Scott in the movie Star Trek IV was ‘transparent aluminum’. He was quite surprised that it hadn’t been invented yet. Well, perhaps at the time the movie was released it hadn’t been, but read on.
ONE STEP CLOSER
Scientists at the University of Oxford in England have created a transparent form of aluminum by bombarding the metal with the world’s most powerful soft X-ray laser. ‘Transparent aluminum’ previously only existed in science fiction but the real material is an exotic new state of matter with implications for planetary science and nuclear fusion.
New states of matter don’t come along every day. Traditionally there are four: the three you’re familiar with; solid, liquid and gas and plasma, the most abundant state of matter in the universe because that’s what stars are made from.
The Oxford researchers report that a short pulse from the x-ray laser removed a core electron from every aluminum atom in a sample without disrupting the metal’s crystalline structure. This turned the aluminum nearly invisible to extreme ultraviolet radiation.
”What we have created is a completely new state of matter nobody has seen before,’ said Professor Justin Wark of Oxford University’s Department of Physics, one of the authors of the paper. ‘Transparent aluminum is just the start. The physical properties of the matter we are creating are relevant to the conditions inside large planets, and we also hope that by studying it we can gain a greater understanding of what is going on during the creation of ‘miniature stars’ created by high-power laser implosions, which may one day allow the power of nuclear fusion to be harnessed here on Earth.’
The discovery was made possible with the development of the FLASH laser in Hamburg, Germany. The FLASH laser produces a stream of radiation that’s ten billion times more powerful than any other laser. It produces extremely brief pulses of soft X-ray light, each of which is more powerful than the output of a power plant that provides electricity to a whole city. Although the transparency lasted for an extremely brief time, it demonstrates that exotic states of matter can be created using very high power X-ray sources.
Experimental set-up at the FLASH laser used to discover the new state of matter. (Credit: Image courtesy of University of Oxford)
We certainly do live in an amazing age!
Greetings and welcome to another romp through the annals of science. This week, we’re visiting the medical file and learning more about the stuff that makes us sick. And our first question is, How long has it been since you went to the dentist? As it turns out, not only is it good for your teeth, it’s also good for your heart.
TAKING A BITE OUT OF HEART DISEASE
Scientists have known for quite a while, that a protein associated with inflammation (called CRP) is elevated in people who are at risk for heart disease. But where’s the inflammation coming from? A new research study by Italian and British scientists shows that those sore and painful infected gums may be one place. According to the study, proper dental hygiene should reduce the risk of arteriosclerosis, stroke and heart disease independently of other measures, such as managing cholesterol. The researchers say that something as simple as taking good care of your teeth and gums can greatly reduce your risk of developing several serious diseases.
To reach this conclusion, the scientists examined the carotid arteries of 35 otherwise healthy people (median age 46) with mild to moderate periodontal disease before and after having their periodontal disease treated. One year after treatment, the scientists observed a reduction in oral bacteria, immune inflammation and the thickening of the blood vessels associated with arteriosclerosis.
Because of our vast love of sweets here in America (more on that later), many of us have gum disease. It turns out that the health of our blood vessels could be hanging by the proverbial thread: dental floss.
Have you flossed lately? Researchers have also recently come up with new ways to deal with those pesky disease-causing bacteria. Read on!
POKING HOLES IN THE PROBLEM
We are at constant war with the disease bacteria and though they have no brains to think with; their sheer numbers often overwhelm us. They have other weapons too. For instance, to protect themselves from human defenses, disease-causing bacteria have evolved a cell wall made from a nearly impenetrable tangle of tightly woven strands that has made it difficult for scientists to see what goes on inside these potentially deadly organisms. But that era is now over. Rockefeller University researchers have now figured out how to drill holes through the Kevlar-like hide of gram-positive bacteria without obliterating them, and in doing so, they’ve made it possible to study, from the inside out, most of the known bacteria on the planet.
The work, led by Vincent A. Fischetti, head of the Laboratory of Bacterial Pathogenesis and Immunology, provides, for the first time ever, a look inside the rapidly multiplying and highly contagious Streptococcus pyogenes, the culprit behind a myriad of diseases, including strep throat and rheumatic fever. At a time when organisms are increasingly acquiring “superbug” powers, Fischetti has used the technique to look specifically at a well-known enzyme called sortase A and its distribution inside the cell. Common to all gram-positive bacteria, the enzyme functions by allowing these bacteria to anchor to your cell walls and breach their defenses.
If you can keep the bacteria from attaching to cell walls, they can’t cause infections. So if the researchers can figure out how sortase A works inside the cell, the more ways they can keep the bacteria from attaching. Although the researchers worked with S. pyogenes, the approach could work on any gram-positive bacteria such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, which is increasingly becoming resistant to even our strongest antibiotics.
The technique relies on enzymes produced by viruses, called bacteriophages, which attack only bacteria. Unlike antibiotics, which take time to take effect, phage enzymes strike with blitzkrieg speed, preventing bacteria from mustering a defense. Normally, these enzymes destroy their target, leaving nothing but cellular debris behind. That’s because the pressure inside a bacterium is like a champagne bottle: Once it’s opened, it explodes.
Dr. Fischetti figured out how to poke holes in S. pyogenes while keeping the bacteria intact. These holes provide an entryway for chemicals that fluoresce when they attach to molecules inside the altered bacteria, allowing scientists to visualize, from the inside out, what makes these single-celled powerhouses infectious.
In the past, if scientists wanted to study what goes on inside bacteria, they were largely limited to working with nonpathogenic types whose cell walls could be punctured with established methods. The new technique, however, allows them to directly study pathogenic bacteria and ask specific questions about them.
The research is ongoing and the scientists on the project have already discovered that sortase A is involved not only in the structures of the cell wall, but also in the division process in the bacteria.
Since strep bacteria divide every 20 or 30 minutes under optimal conditions knowing how to stop or slow down the division could be very important. And scientists now have a new awl in their toolbag, to punch some very important holes!
Seeing through walls. An experiment shows that when dividing strep bacteria are stripped of their surface proteins (left), they begin to grow back in just minutes. One surface protein, protein M (green), anchors to the spot where sortase A (red) assembles. Before the bacteria finish dividing (right), sortase A has already begun to migrate to the new site of division. (Credit: Image courtesy of Rockefeller University)
If you’re an avid reader of this column (and I know you all are!) you already know that I have issues with MRSA, the superbug mentioned in the last item. And I know all about the division rate because a MRSA infected bite on my side came within millimeters of punching a hole through my plural lining and into my lungs and it happened in less than 48 hours. So, the next article is of personal interest to me!
SHEDDING SOME LIGHT ON THE SUBJECT
Scientists from the New York Institute of Technology have recently demonstrated that two common strains of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, (commonly known as MRSA), were virtually eradicated in the laboratory by exposing them to a wavelength of blue light, in a process called photo-irradiation.
Antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections represent an important and increasing public health threat. Penicillin is completely ineffective on 95% of the various strains of Staphylococcus while approximately 40%-50% of S. aureus strains have developed resistance to newer antibiotics like methicillin as well.
The NYIT researchers had previously shown that when you exposed lab-cultured MRSA to blue light with a wavelength of 405-nm, the bugs died. The problem is that 405-nm blue light is in the ultraviolet range. Now they’ve used blue light with a wave length of 470-nm and have discovered that that kills MRSA as well.
The two MRSA populations studied (the US-300 strain of CA-MRSA and the IS-853 strain of HA-MRSA) represent prominent community-acquired and hospital-acquired strains, respectively. The authors reported that the higher the dose of 470-nm blue light, the more bacteria were killed. High-dose photo-irradiation was able to destroy 90.4% of the US-300 colonies and the IS-853 colonies.
Since MRSA lives on surfaces, a blue light bath should kill large numbers of the little buggers. The effectiveness of the blue light treatment al
so suggests that it could be effective on people as well, particularly in skin infections of the disease.
Perhaps someday soon, every hospital room, examination room, operating room and treatment room will be equipped with blue lights. They could be left on overnight if their light was annoying to people and they could work at destroying MRSA, using mechanisms that wouldn’t lead to further antibiotic resistance. Gives a whole new meaning to “Blue Light Special”, doesn’t it?
And for our last little item, we come to something I’ve long suspected. You just have to look at all the sodas, King Car tea and beer that are everywhere on this island; and then look at island waistlines.
THE SODA CAN AS SMOKING GUN
According to scientists at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, when it comes to weight loss, what you drink may be more important than what you eat. Researchers examined the relationship between beverage consumption among adults and weight change and found that weight loss was positively associated with a reduction in liquid calorie consumption and liquid calorie intake had a stronger impact on weight than solid calorie intake.
The researchers discovered that a reduction on calorie intake for both liquids and solids caused weight loss initially but at the six-month follow-up, only reduction in the liquid calories made any difference. Of the seven types of beverages examined, sugar-sweetened beverages were the only beverages significantly associated with weight change.”
Researchers conducted the study using 810 adults aged 25-79 years old. They measured their height and weight at 6, 12 and 18 month intervals. Their dietary intake was measured by calling the participants periodically and asking them about their caloric intake during the previous 24 hours.
Researchers divided beverages into several categories based on their calorie content and nutritional composition. There was sugar-sweetened beverages (regular soft drinks, fruit drinks, fruit punch, or high-calorie beverages sweetened with sugar), diet drinks (diet soda and other “diet” drinks sweetened with artificial sweeteners), milk (whole milk, 2 percent reduced-fat milk, 1 percent low-fat milk, and skim milk), 100 percent juice (100 percent fruit and vegetable juice), coffee and tea with sugar, coffee and tea without sugar and alcoholic beverages. They discovered that sugar-sweetened beverages were the leading source of liquid calories. (Hmm . . . no surprises there!)
Liquid calorie consumption has increased in parallel with the obesity epidemic. Earlier studies by Bloomberg School researchers project that 75 percent of U.S. adults could be overweight or obese by 2015 and have linked the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages to the obesity epidemic . Obesity affects two-thirds of adults and increases the risk for adverse health conditions such as type 2 diabetes. The researchers recommend limited liquid calorie intake among adults and to reduce sugar-sweetened beverage consumption as a means to accomplish weight loss or avoid excess weight gain.
So . . . are you sitting there reading this with that coke can in your hand or that big bottle of King Car? Do you realize that the King Car bottle contains over a QUARTER CUP of sugar? Do you still wonder why you can’t lose weight?
And if you decided that you really couldn’t stand diet soft drinks back in the day, I suggest you give them a try again. Most diet soft drinks are sweetened with protein sweeteners and guess what? Protein denatures at high temperatures and if you let those soft drink pallets sit out on the dock; they get hot. The protein denatures and the drinks taste AWFUL!
Although there’s been no publicity, the shippers did finally figure this out and as near as I can tell, most of the diet drinks now arrive on Guam with their sweeteners intact. So give the diet drinks another try. You might be surprised. And you’ll probably lose some weight as well!
When it comes to weight loss, what you drink is more important than what you eat!