Category Archives: Commentary

Glowing Clams algae fuel sunshine

Mysterious Glowing Clams Could Help Save the Planet

Biophysicist Alison Sweeney is fascinated by the giant clams she encountered in the Western Pacific islands of Ngermind Bay. Sweeney has taken to photographing the clams as part of her research on the effect of climate change on the world’s oceans. The huge clams have an iridescent glow and are cartoonish in size due to photosynthetic algae that are dispersed throughout their flesh. Sweeney and other researchers suspect that the clam’s growth patterns under these very unique warm conditions may offer insight into alternative low-carbon fuels for the future.

Key Takeaways:

  • These giant clams reach their large proportions thanks to an exceptional ability to grow their own photosynthetic algae in vertical farms spread throughout their flesh
  • The microalgae, called zooxanthellae, keep their clams fat and happy with the sugars they need to survive. In exchange, their hosts provide a safe home and a daily dose of sunlight.
  • Listening to nature is at the heart of a growing confluence of biology and materials science.

“As we slice through blue-green water beside the mushroom-shaped islands, we see fruit bats sleeping upside down in the trees above us, and extensive corals below. Some of the corals are bleached from the conditions in Ngermid Bay, where naturally high temperatures and acidity mirror the expected effects of climate change on the global oceans.”

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Van Allen Belt

James Van Allen

James Van Allen, American physicist, famous for the discovery of the Van Allen radiation belts. James Van Allen was born in Iowa in 1914, and earned a PhD in nuclear physics in 1939. During World War II, Van Allen worked at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory. After the war, Van Allen pioneered the use of high-altitude rockets to study cosmic rays. Later he was in charge of designing and constructing the scientific instrumentation on the US’s first satellite, Explorer 1, which detected the Van Allen radiation belts. Van Allen retired in 1985, and died in 2006.

Key Takeaways:

  • James Van Allen earned his PhD in nuclear physics from the University of Iowa in 1939.
  • In 1942 He became a member of the Applied Physics Lab at John Hopkins University, which had only recently gotten underway.
  • While there, he developed proximity fuses for weapons and was sent to by the U.S. Navy to the Pacific to test them.

“Born on 7 September 1914 on a small farm near Mount Pleasant, Iowa, James Van Allen was a space scientist and pioneer in magnetospheric physics, best known for his discovery of Earth’s Van Allen radiation belts.”

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‘Predatory Bacteria’ Might Be Enlisted In Defense Against Antibiotic Resistance

DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is funding research to use germ-eating microbes to attack other microbes resistant to antibiotic treatment. The best-studied microbe is bacterium called Bdellovibrio, which attacks microbes six times its own size, and has been useful in attacking 145 out of 168 human pathogens tested. Other germ-eating bacteria include Myxococcus and Vampirococcus. These microbes normally live in the human body but at low levels. Researchers do not believe germ-eating microbes will ever replace antibiotics, because humans can develop an immune response to the microbes, preventing them from being used more than once.

Key Takeaways:

  • A bacterium known as Bdellovibrio was able to prey upon 145 of the 168 human pathogens that it was tested on.
  • Scientists were unable to get pathogens to develop a resistance to the Bdellovibrio bacterium, which is a problem with antibiotic use.
  • Although this could be a useful treatment for an infection that is not responding to antibiotics, it will never replace antibiotics

“Lab studies that his agency has funded show that the predatory bacteria will attack all sorts of nasties, including bacterial lung infections, the plague and deadly germs that have developed resistance to antibiotics.”

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A cure for cancer: how to kill a killer

The Nobel prize in medicine was awarded for two breakthrough scientific discoveries heralded as having “revolutionised cancer treatment”, and “fundamentally changed the way we view how cancer can be managed”. Scientific study suggests that as many as 40% of people will have some sort of cancer in their lifetime.  The earliest and most ongoing treatment has been surgery, a useful but also limited option. There has also been chemotherapy and radiation, potent allies in the fight against cancer, but not without inherent risks. Most lately there has been a trend to use drugs that seek to ruin the cancer cells ability to gather crucial nourishment. Finally, there may be a new player in the game, one that even has oncologists testing out the word “cure:. Jim Allison, who works at an immunology lab at the University of Berkeley, found a T-cell protein that when effectively blocked with the right antibody allowed the T-cells to attack the cancer. The outlook is hopeful, although much more work and research needs to be done.

Key Takeaways:

  • Scientific study suggests that 40% of people will have some sort of cancer in their lifetime.
  • Immunotherapy is new frontier in treating a disease but has been limited to four basic treatment modalities so far.
  • Traditionally, there’s been surgery, chemotherapy and radiation and drugs to starve off the nutrient supply of cancer cells.

“Revolutionary work on the body’s immune system and a host of new drug trials mean that beating cancer may be achievable”

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Restless Leg Syndrome

Restless Legs Syndrome: Causes, Factors and Treatments

Restless legs syndrome (RLS), aka Willis-Ekbom disease, affects a decent chunk of the population. No matter how hard you try to ignore it, that urge to constantly move or stretch your legs just won’t let up. Estimates vary greatly, but it places 5.7 to 12.3% of the population affected by RLS.

Key Takeaways:

  • Tossing and turning in bed, restless, unable to sleep, a condition called restless leg syndrome (RLS), affects about 40 million Americans.
  • Although dopamine treatment has short-term benefits, in the long-term, it augments restless leg syndrome.
  • Other forms of treatment such as alpha-2-delta calcium ligands and opioids are also not ideal at the moment.

“Magnesium, which most of us are seriously lacking, interacts with calcium in the body to help regulate the nerves and muscles. When serum magnesium levels are low, nerve cells become overactive and can get a bit trigger happy in sending messages to our muscles.”

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Dog Malaria

The Science of the Sniff: Why Dogs Are Great Disease Detectors

Dogs possess a sense of smell many times more sensitive than even the most advanced man-made instrument. Just how powerful is a pupper schnoz? Powerful enough to detect substances at concentrations of one part per trillion—a single drop of liquid in 20 Olympic-size swimming pools. With training, dogs can sniff out bombs and drugs, pursue suspects, and find dead bodies. And more and more, they’re being used experimentally to detect human disease—cancer, diabetes, tuberculosis, and now, malaria—from smell alone.

Key Takeaways:

  • One day biodetection dogs could be deployed at airports, ports of entry, or other border crossings, to prevent asymptomatic carriers of the parasite that causes malaria from transferring it.
  • Through a series of experiments, his research group showed that indeed, people infected with the parasite put out a unique aroma that attracted the mosquitos
  • Could be especially useful during the dry months, when there are few mosquitoes and very little transmission of the disease, but the parasite is holed up in human hosts who don’t show any symptoms.

“Dogs have something called neophilia, which means they are attracted to new and interesting odors”

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