Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Another big hurdle.

Two research groups form human embryonic human stem cells from somatic tissues.

The actual data can be found here and here.

Woooo boy. This is potentially a big jackpot for science, as it would have a twofold effect. One, the techniques described are fairly simple where any cell lab with tissue culture facilities could likely generate these lines. Two, it would probably get the religiously outraged off the backs of scientists as well. I say probably because it's unclear whether a embryonic-like stem cell line still qualifies as life in need of protection, considering the bizarre demarcations they currently use are rather arbitrary.

A couple observations.

First, both techniques use an ecotropic retrovirus, which is probably completely out of the question for therapeutic use. There's nothing to inactivate this in the system described. Perhaps more of a concern is the cocktail of genes used, where both labs use a pair of oncogenes, or cancer-promoters. Naturally these kind of genes encourage the kind of proliferation you see in stem cells, but it clearly could pose a more immediate danger in the body.

More importantly, while these findings are very exciting, it remains to be seen how viable they are in the pursuit of stem cell therapies, which is the endgame scenario for this research. Until the process is entirely vetted it should not be hailed as some singular panacea to the controversial debate, and is likely to generate new problems that were out of reach previously.

Friday, November 09, 2007

When one of my cultures die, I die a little inside, too.

Scientists construct a stem cell scaffold from seaweed products.

Now, as compared to yesterday's antics, this kind of technology is taking a credible step towards legitimate therapeutic applications. Stem cells in culture are notoriously picky; they typically like to be fed only from one side, need to have their media changed routinely and need to be grown on special membrane substrates. Ostensibly, this presents a problem in the body, where such furnishings are unlikely to be found. An inert scaffold presents its own problems - what happens when you need to take the construction equipment out after everything has grown over?

Ashton, created the device from a material known as alginate. Alginate is a complex carbohydrate found naturally in brown seaweed. When mixed with calcium, alginate gels into a rigid, three-dimensional mesh.

This is a real clever synergy of biochemistry, materials science and engineering. I'd call it the great grandson of the modern disposable diaper, another life saving invention.

Thursday, November 08, 2007


Hey, Ladies.

Are you worried your monthly miracle is going down the drain? Literally? C'elle to the resuce! For a mere $1500 a year this company will take your glorious discharge and all its potential stem cells and keep it nice and safe in the event you might want it back, to, uh....well really, there's nothing you can do with it right now.

Honestly, this venture is long on optimism and short on evidence. Their product is hope, not an actual scientific technique.

But let's not be too hasty, as Dave Foley from the Kids in the Hall once said...

Cause after all, what is it? a cluster of blood vessels, awaiting a fertilized egg. Providing a safe warm place for that egg to grow. And if a life does not occur, the whole thing is flushed away, and the cycle begins again. Now is that anything to be ashamed of or disgusted by? No, this is the nesting stuff of humanity!

That's why the woman I shall love will be able to menstruate as fully and freely as she desires. Even if her monthly flow should build in intensity to a raging rust colored torrent! An unbridled river of life giving blood flowing from between her legs! An awesome cataract plunging off the edge of our couch. I wouldn't be fazed! No, no, even if coureur de bois would come up stream, battling the rapids, and singing a 'jaunty song'! I would take no offense, rather I would ford across that mighty womanly river, and fetch herbal tea and Pamprin. And then I would mop her brow and admire her fecundity. For I...Have A Good Attitude....Towards MENSTRUATION!

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Taste the Brainbow

Stem cells may secret brain repair substance. What happens when you take a deficient rodent brain and inject it with stem cells? Brain rescue, at least in Alzheimer's-like mice models. This is a more elaborate variation on seminal work from last year.

Rather, the group speculates that the transplanted cells secreted protective neurotrophins, proteins that promote cell survival by keeping neurons from inducing apoptosis (programmed cell death).

What's interesting here is how malleable the system is. The brain is no different than the muscle or the skin in that it can respond to simple biochemical stimuli. Hook and levers, people, hooks and levers.

LaFerla's team genetically engineered mice to lose cells in their hippocampus, a region in the forebrain important for short-term memory formation. These mice were about twice as likely than unaltered rodents to fail a test of their ability to discern whether an object in a cage had been moved since their previous visit.

It would be interesting to see what kind of effect this model would have on the amygdala, the repository of emotional responses and almost always the first target of dementia diseases like Alzheimer's. However, I suppose it is difficult to tell if a mouse if more or less sad than the day before, and they aren't too forthright with that information.

The next step is to isolate this neurotrophin and throw it into a series of in vitro models, see what kinds of things pop up. A little combinatorial chemistry could begin to define what molecular appendage is the business end.

The chances of succumbing to a dementia like Alzheimer's has risen from about 1 in 6 to over 1 in 5 with our slowly creeping increase in life expectancy. With a tsunami of Baby Boomers turning 60, a sense of urgency is likely going to flock towards work of this nature very soon.

Monday, October 22, 2007

You bet Shiraz

Perhaps we overhyped reseveratrol.

Not that it's going to stop me from a leisurely glass of wine with dinner or my philosophical ruminations, but the article makes a good point: the mouse model can only carry us so far before we really can't corroborate effects on to us.

Reveratrol has been hailed for all sorts of indications, from cancer to diabetes to just plain old being plain old. All that said, there's just not a whole lot of evidence to warrant the RESVERATROL labels wine makers are rushing to slap on their finest Pinot.

I've seen in even around my research campus. Mention resveratrol at a research luncheon and you'll be hard-pressed to find a biologist who hasn't at least toyed with the idea of tossing it into their model-of-choice. There's plenty of money out there from the industry and they seem almost giddy to give it away in the hopes of proving out the miracle molecule.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

I thinked of science after I readed this piece.

People in the future will talk like morons.

Well, not quite. Despite all the valuable lessons the seminal film Idiocracy taught us, the new batch of articles in Nature looking at the evolution of language suggests a phasing out of irregular verbs that don't get used too often.

There's actually some powerful mathematics being leveled behind this research despite the deceptive fluffy feel to the findings, if you care to root around behind the curtain.

The term meme is about as old as I, but this feels like the kind of work that was just waiting to have a word so someone would have paid it attention. Er, payed attention?

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Show me your best side.

New evidence explains Saturn moon's black and white nature.

Basically it's a freeze-thaw action:
The new observations add support to a two-part explanation for Iapetus' appearance. First, as Iapetus treks around Saturn, its leading edge scoops up a thin coating of dark material, which amplifies sunlight absorption.

Sounds like my truck's windshield in winter. That kind of ramscoop effect can really impact your visibility. Given all the icy bits flying around Saturn, it's probably a constant feature.

Iapetus was one of those throwaway Titans, but I always loved that name. So vowelly.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Indecision clouds my vision

Certain genes might lead to suicidal tendencies. Insert rock lyric here.

This is a nice story to point to because it illustrates the active scientific process. An early finding seems to be on stable ground, so the next step is to see if that finding can be supported or corroborated by expanded testing in multiple platforms. This is both the beauty and strength of the discipline.

For this study, Laje and colleagues analyzed DNA samples from 1,915 participants, looking for associations between reports of suicidal ideation at 768 sites in 68 genes.

Statistically, I like the methodology. It's remarkable to note this kind of study probably could not have taken place five years ago, at least in this capacity, the technology is so new.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Listen up, maggots.

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In the realm of totally awesome science, I skipped across this story on my morning drive, and indeed, doctors are now using maggots as part of diabetes treatment. I am beside myself with joy.

While the actual mechanism as to how the beastly little critters work is somewhat nebulous, the basic conceit is thus: Maggots are applied, caged in a series of bandages on the dying tissue, typically on the foot in a diabetic case, and there they chew up or debride the necrotic tissue while leaving the living tissue room to grow, stimulus to do and with little to no incident of infection.

Monday, September 24, 2007

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There have been a number of research papers touting a connection between certain women's attraction to male sweat, but there appears to be better genetic validation over this phenomenon. As it turns out, there just might be some women out there who find the musky rancor from overclocking men to smell like a breezy spring day. There's a joke in there somewhere, but I'll let you go fish out your favorite instead.


Sunday, September 09, 2007

That's amoray

Moray eel stirs up truly Gigerlicious ideas with second set of jaws.

One of those amazing biological wonders that has gone unchecked, it's now known that moray eels have a second set of functioning jaws deep in their throats that snap forward to drag prey further down its gullet.

I love science.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

No longer a cancer/youth tradeoff

This paper recently rolled off the presses touting p53 - that notable universal tumor suppressor gene that must be neutralized for cancer to proceed - actually has not only its usual cancer-resistance abilities, but potentially have youth-preserving ability when paired with a stabilizing protein, Arf.

This is pretty much counterintuitive to conventional wisdom; It's generally been accepted that getting old is a controlled mechanism to fight off the perpetual tumor generation going on in all of our bodies (you and I are likely killing a dozen or so tumor sites every day). In essence, you trade off maintaining your youthful looks and facility in order to live a long time. Not so, says this new paper!

Now, the sample sizes of some of the groups, especially in the somewhat dubious biomarker and biochemical studies seem quite small, and the fact they had to stoop to using a p value of 0.1 makes me veeeery leery. Still, I know keeping a dumb mouse alive for two years is no small feat, and direct comparisons are probably the only way to go here, so the t test suffers from the unpaired choices. Perhaps more worrying is their handwaving to dismiss the effect of the Ink genes, also known to have cancer-resistance properties. They seem to pull a 'Look over there!' moment towards the end of the paper.

All that said, there's some reasonable physiological evidence to make a story here, just probably not enough to topple the current hypothesis.

Finally, while this gene model keeps the mice youthful, still crossing that tightrope as if they were a spring whelp, it did not increase their life span. But ah, to die young after living a full life - doesn't seem so bad, eh?

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Fat of the Land

Angier weighs in on fat's defense.

This is an excellent example of a mechanism that got me interested in physiology in the first place. Fat should not be reviled, it is the amazing energy warehouse of the body, able to store more reserves that would otherwise tear our vital organs apart in a metabolic storm of fury.

Indeed, evolutionary biologists have proposed that our relative plumpness compared with our closest nonhuman kin, the chimpanzee, may help explain our relative braininess. Even a lean male athlete with a body fat content of 8 percent to 10 percent of total body mass (half the fat found on the average nonobese, non-Olympic American man) is still a few percentage points more marbled than a wild male chimpanzee, and scientists have suggested that our distinctive adipose stores help ensure that our big brains will be fed even when our cupboards go bare.

Too true. The brain is essentially a Ziploc bag full of fat and water, the additional white fatty matter affords male brains their excellent coordination. Fatheadedness is perhaps not such a terrible insult.

Fat also seems to know when it is getting out of hand, and it may resist new personal growth. Dr. Spiegelman and others have shown that with the onset of obesity — defined as 25 or more pounds above one’s ideal weight — the fat tissue starts releasing potent inflammatory hormones. That response is complex and harmful in the long run. But in the short term, said Dr. Spiegelman, “inflammation clearly has an anti-obesity effect, and it may be the body’s attempt to restrain further accumulation of adipose tissue.” The fat sizes up the risks and benefits, and it takes its fat chance.

Huh! If that's the case, it makes you wonder what effect the prolific amount of anti-inflammatory products we have on the market puts upon those bodies attempting to reign in their fattening bodies. Could aspirin be helping you put on the pounds?

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Squid Invasion Followup

Dispatches from the cephalapod wars.

I'm far too amused that one of the squid experts is named Dr. Zeidberg.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Breaking our arbitrary laws.

Mule gives birth, biologists neenered and hounded.

I myself got stuck somewhere between the nutshell and the voluminous truth about how an alleged sterile mule might give birth, but suffice it to say, the genetic code of organisms is more plastic than our narrow familiarity with the animal wing of life may suggest. Bacteria, fungi and plants routinely run afoul of convention genetic understanding, so when an animal like a mule, which is already crossing over steep species barriers gives birth, it really shouldn't be too terribly surprising.

Still, maybe the gal just found a clever loophole out of being a pack animal.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Invasion has begun

Giant squid launch shock and awe campaign.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is like heaven on earth, I can see why they'd attack there first.

That is all.

Back from the Infarct Grave

Protein patch shown to regenerate heart tissue.

With heart disease still reigning supreme as the top killer of Americans, this kind of research ought to pick up some steam if it shows to carry its therapeutic effects from the rodent to man.

Heart attacks basically cause veins of tissue to die in the heart, and the healing process produces less useful scar tissue. If this protein patch can address that kind of problem, it's a big win for the home team. If it can go on to reverse problems for adults and help children with congenital issues, whoa boy.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Redefining snuggly

Angier has a new take on lab's best friend.

I've always had a soft spot for rats, which is why I raised many as pets during my college years. The heaps of rat anecdotes I possess are legion, but the most amusing could possibly be when Goya, my favored albino, had a staring match with my wife. Unfortunately, she didn't care for the fact the little furball knew how to get out of her cage.

Rats have personalities, and they can be glum or cheerful depending on their upbringing and circumstances. One study showed that rats accustomed to good times tend to be optimists, while those reared in unstable conditions become pessimists. Both rats will learn to associate one sound with a good event — a gift of food — and another sound with no food, but when exposed to an ambiguous sound, the optimist will run over expecting to be fed and the pessimist will grumble and skulk away, expecting nothing.

Too true. A rattle of potato chips was enough to drive my broods into quivering frenzy.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Alzheimer Executioner

New reports are giving more information in the molecular cascade that leads to beta-amyloid plaques, and now certain genes have been identified as being predisposed to that condition.

The team said that the cell death caused by a brain injury such as a stroke or head injury enhances formation of brain-clogging amyloid plaques by means of a molecular chain reaction

In a series of experiments, they showed that "executioner" enzymes that kill brain cells during stroke or head trauma also interfere with the normal disposal of an enzyme that helps generate the plaques that are a hallmark of the illness.

This interference increases the level of the enzyme BACE in brain cells, they found.

BACE snips apart a brain protein called amyloid precursor protein to form a shorter protein called A beta peptide. It is this A beta peptide that is the building block for the amyloid plaques that clog up the brains of Alzheimer's patients.

Essentially, you've got an inhibitor of an inhibitor system going on, which forunately is easy to detect empirically, but more challenging to address therapeutically.

And it's important to get on this trail now, as the future looks to balloon Alzheimer's diagnoses. It appears, however, that the industry is going to capitalize on this to everyone's benefit. Pure science only goes so far, right?

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Pissed Off Genius

Being angry helps in decision making.

These kind of experiments I find a bit cagey with the use of college students. Throw in a few dock workers, teenagers and DMV employees and lets see what shakes out. Still, I like some of the theory:

Once again, they found that the angry subjects were better able to discriminate between strong and weak arguments than the ones who were not angry—suggesting that anger can transform even those people who are, by disposition, not very analytical into more careful thinkers.

Does being angry boil away the superfluous and leave the critical? This is begging for follow up studies.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Ripsaw Robots #5

Ripsaw Robots will be a new feature that focuses on robotics in a very broad scope. From the useless to the revolutionary to the just plain giant and fantasy, Lish will bring you all the robot fix he can find.

Of course, I'm a bit distracted these days by my favorite fantasy robots as the merch/media juggernaut has begun to pick up speed. The NBA playoffs are now peppered with spots of comparing Lebron's dunking to Starscream's acrobatics and Tony Parker's teardrop shot to Bonecrusher's hatred of mass transit. I'm already on the prowl for a Softimus Prime for my son's clutching hands.

I bet many of you ask on a nigh-daily basis, "Why haven't I participated in a massive she-serpent fire spectacular today?" The lotus girls of the Serpent Mother offer probably one of the most awesome displays of snakes in years. Yes, years.

I for one have always been ready to welcome our robot overlords, but I was not expecting the revolution to begin with Danish lawnbots mowing down a man.

Still, most robots would rather be lovers than fighters, yes? I still can't stop laughing at this clip.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Promiscuous Teleology and all the fixins

Why some adults resist science and biased kids.

A great article over at Edge.com gives some insight to why so many American adults resist scientific facts.

There are two common assumptions about the nature of this resistance. First, it is often assumed to be a particularly American problem, explained in terms of the strong religious beliefs of many American citizens and the anti-science leanings of the dominant political party. Second, the problem is often characterized as the result of insufficient exposure to the relevant scientific facts, and hence is best addressed with improved science education.

We believe that these assumptions, while not completely false, reflect a misunderstanding of the nature of this phenomenon. While cultural factors are plainly relevant, American adults' resistance to scientific ideas reflects universal facts about what children know and how children learn. If this is right, then resistance to science cannot be simply addressed through more education; something different is needed.

I hear those two explanation all the time from exasperated rational pals of mine; a retrograde 'Merican attitude inserted into an atrocious science education program MUST be the culprit to all these psychic friends networks and fossil hoax theorists. But you scratch that thought enough and it becomes apparent that such an answer is rather unsatisfying. Looking back at kids and suggesting we're predisposed for this kind of thinking gives better perspective.

Our intuitive psychology also contributes to resistance to science. One significant bias is that children naturally see the world in terms of design and purpose. For instance, four year-olds insist that everything has a purpose, including lions ("to go in the zoo") and clouds ("for raining"), a propensity that Deborah Kelemen has dubbed "promiscuous teleology." Additionally, when asked about the origin of animals and people, children spontaneously tend to provide and to prefer creationist explanations.

The panacea for this is of course, the scientific experiment. When one has a real world observation, those long stretch connections are easily shattered.

I love the conclusions, however.

In sum, the developmental data suggest that resistance to science will arise in children when scientific claims clash with early emerging, intuitive expectations. This resistance will persist through adulthood if the scientific claims are contested within a society, and will be especially strong if there is a non-scientific alternative that is rooted in common sense and championed by people who are taken as reliable and trustworthy. This is the current situation in the United States with regard to the central tenets of neuroscience and of evolutionary biology. These clash with intuitive beliefs about the immaterial nature of the soul and the purposeful design of humans and other animals — and, in the United States, these intuitive beliefs are particularly likely to be endorsed and transmitted by trusted religious and political authorities. Hence these are among the domains where Americans' resistance to science is the strongest.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Not enough Crisco

An unpleasant new study suggests sunblock just isn't enough to prevent skin cancer. This likely comes as a shock to you, as most folks polled aren't that worried about sun damage.

Sunscreen itself works because it contains chemical groups known as carbonyls. These bonds have the ability to absorb damaging ultraviolet rays and release that energy as lower wavelength emissions in the form of heat or other radiation. Contrast that to heavy clothing which also absorbs the radiation but also reflects a portion, thus providing a more robust shielding from the rays.

Ninety percent of all skin cancers are directly a result of sun damage.

Paul Verhoeven, in his seminal work, Robocop, laced the film with a couple of very notable faux commercials, satirizing a dehumanizing capitalistic system with his dystopic vision. Unfortunately for us, it might be more factual than we hoped.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Still the #1 threat to America

Bear kills Moose in Alaska Driveway.

She tore apart the chest cavity, ripped out the heart and ate it," Gary said. "It was like she knew that's what kept it alive.

Oh my Science, Colbert was right.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

When they say they have large shoes to fill

Indian men generally too small for condoms.

“As per international standards, most condoms are 150 mm to 180 mm in length and 44 to 56 mm in width. But data collected in Mumbai till 2001 showed that 60% of the participants measured 126 to 156 mm in length and 30% between 100 and 125 mm,’’ said a city researcher, pointing out that there was a difference of at least 5 cm in length.

No wonder they feel so threatened by Richard Gere.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

That extra Earth environmentalists are always hoping for.

Earth-like planet found a mere 20 light years away.

One of those things that we have always predicted in our models finally materializes in objective reality. Still, a 13 day year sounds pretty wild. I'd be 858 years old by now, and would likely still vote for Kodos.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

There's a reason I get mired in Wikipedia so often

Human brain hardwired for distraction.

They say the average American filters 3000 advertisements a day. I have trouble remembering how I was going to construct this sentence a few seconds back. I'm pretty sure I would have failed in an illiterate society.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Tentacles on Ice

Fishermen net ultra-rare Colossal Squid. I recall as a youth that while occasional parts of these beasts washed up on shore or were found in the bellies of Sperm Whales, no person had ever seen one live. Over the years we've gotten the occasional peak, but this really takes the cake as a thousand pound squid was caught by chance.

At the time it was caught, O'Shea said it would make calamari rings the size of tractor tyres if cut up — but they would taste like ammonia.

Once again science shows not all dreams can come true.

Image credit: Ministry of Fisheries, New Zealand

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Science has a big appetite

A great article over at the NY Times about the biological basis for morality. It would seem much like our use of tools, sophisticated language and sociable nature, our primate cousins show the building blocks of what humans carried forth into a set of moral ideas.

Religion can be seen as another special ingredient of human societies, though one that emerged thousands of years after morality, in Dr. de Waal’s view. There are clear precursors of morality in nonhuman primates, but no precursors of religion. So it seems reasonable to assume that as humans evolved away from chimps, morality emerged first, followed by religion. “I look at religions as recent additions,” he said. “Their function may have to do with social life, and enforcement of rules and giving a narrative to them, which is what religions really do.”

It's a central tenet of conventional wisdom that religion is the source of our moral code. It is the same wisdom people draw upon when they want to put a Ten Commandments shrine on State property or keep two men from kissing. What happens when science suggests that morality came before religion?

The idea that biology would continue to demand more and more territory from philosophy as it has been doing to religion for so many centuries is bound to be controversial. Clearly, the philosophers have a stake in this, but I do agree with one of their assessments:

and that is that biological analyses cannot cross the gap between “is” and “ought,” between the description of some behavior and the issue of why it is right or wrong. “You can identify some value we hold, and tell an evolutionary story about why we hold it, but there is always that radically different question of whether we ought to hold it,” said Sharon Street, a moral philosopher at New York University. “That’s not to discount the importance of what biologists are doing, but it does show why centuries of moral philosophy are incredibly relevant, too.”

You win this round, philosphers.

Slashing the NIH budget

In late January this report ran announcing the Bush administration's intentions to cut the NIH budget by one percent, making 2008 the fifth year the NIH budget has languished in mediocrity and failed to keep up with the rate of biomedical inflation. While fears and smoke boasted the slash could go as high as ten percent, indeed, the jury is out: Once again the NIH budget will receive a meager 0.8% increase in funding, falling ever further behind the cutting edge of research, at a time when critical discoveries are likely to be had.

Scientists must now spend more and more time writing grants, competing for less and less money. What used to be a mad rush two times a year now seems like a perpetual Sisyphean task, grinding research to a halt without some sort of guarantee of success. That's not what academic research is supposed to be about. By no means am I advocating that academia does not bear a responsibility to give back to the community that is funding their work, but if we are to be scientists, that is, to practice Science, we can't be asked to tell the people our pre-experiment intelligence is a slam dunk.

The science community has responded with a comprehensive presentation of why this funding is so critical.

But there's also a broader question with respect to America's identity. Are we ready to abandon our status as champions of innovation and research? This kind of retrograde action speaks more to the landscape of the current political culture, but it does bear mentioning here, if only in passing.

Or let's think like an economist. What's a more sound strategy for the long term? Do we cut funding to research by the brightest minds of our generation to save on the budget now, or do we accept the inherent risk associated with science and gamble that our discoveries and breakthroughs will translate into not only a better life, but a fatter treasury? What if we could cut the cost of medicine in the States in half with new technology and research? Would that be of interest to anyone? What if we could cure Alzheimer's? Obliterate cancer? Don't these goals deserve at least the dignity of keeping up with nominal rising costs?

Ah well, at least the power of prayer is free.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Do you fear what I fear?

The brain gets scared by seeing other brains get scared. A pretty useful evolutionary adaptation, this one is pretty easy to see, a 'no-brainer', if I might use the term in an absurd manner.

“You learn by observing other people’s emotional expressions, and what we are showing is that that can be as effective as having those direct experiences yourself,” Olsson said. “That’s probably one of the reasons why a lot people are having phobias of certain kinds of stimuli, such as snakes and spiders.”

This study, like many before it, points towards a part of the brain called the amygdala, two little lumps of flesh that are the major players that manage your tears, angers and fears. Squirt, squirt.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Viva la Inner Ear Evolution

Fossil gives insight to evolution of ear.

I love the name of the creature, by the way. Yanoconodon - that just rolls off the tongue. I have a love of words that cram tons of syllables into a word by alternating vowels and consonants....like consonants or manufacturer. I'll have to figure out how to work 'Yanoconodon' into as many conversations as possible.

Oh right, the science. This adds another great piece to vertebrate evolution, showing how a very intricate and complex structure could arise from precursor forms to give mammals their exceptional terrestrial hearing. Expect creationist retaliation within the week.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Unsurprisingly, brain plaque leads to brain decay.

I have excessively robust salivary glands in my lower jaw, which leads to a buildup of tartar behind my lower incisors. Despite all my dental machinations, I end up having two valleys of fossilized plaque scraped out every six months. Unlike tooth plaque, however, brain plaque is neither as innocuous nor so easily removed.

A recent study showed that common inhaled anesthetics can speed up the formation of brain plaques, which are webs of fibrous proteins associated with conditions like Alzheimer's Disease and dementia. The protein, amyloid beta, is also a notorious troublemaker elsewhere in the body, originally described in the study of diabetes. The study showed that inhaling gas such as halothane or isoflurane can indeed increase the presence of brain plaques, which are known to be directly correlated with an increase in Alzheimer's symptoms. Interesting stuff.

These data come on the heels of another interesting story about Alzheimer's, rather that the amyloid beta proteins might have prion-like behavior.

Scientists have been able to induce brain disease in mice by injecting extracts of the brains of people who died of Alzheimer's disease, a finding that suggests that Alzheimer's has some characteristics of prion brain disorders such as mad cow disease and chronic wasting disease.

The scientist's reaction seems almost perverse taken out of context:

"It's fabulous work," said Sam Gandy, an Alzheimer's researcher and director of the Farber Institute for Neurosciences at Thomas Jefferson University. "This is the first time a brain of a human with Alzheimer's has been used to provoke pathology in another being."

You can almost see him steepling his fingers and laughing maniacally, no? Did you ever imagine your brain as a disease vector?

It's not all gloom and doom, however, there are strides being made towards actual therapeutics.

Alzheimer's is a condition that strikes fear into most people the way a heart attack or even cancer can't. Alzheimer's breaks down the frontal cortex of the brain, starting with destroying short term memory, then later it breaks down the longer term memory and can spiral towards a complete collapse of being able to perform the most simple of tasks, right down to feeding one's self. It feels like an unraveling of one's humanity thread by thread. I think that drawn-out reduction to non-existence is a pretty paralyzing thought.

Still, one must keep an open mind on the subject of losing one's mind. I know that while the self-destruction of the body is agonizing for family members, it likely is fairly painless for the person. By the time the disease claims the life, the person is in essence, oblivious of one's own passing. There are worse deaths out there.

In any event, I wouldn't put off any necessary surgery based on these findings. Just make sure you do your crossword puzzle while you're on the treadmill, and I'm pretty sure it all comes out even, right?

Saturday, March 17, 2007

All things Patricky

Even on St. Patrick's Day, we here at the Ripsaw find you the best green boards to cut up for science digest.

The NY Times ran an article last week suggesting the various sects on the British Isles have a lot more in common than anyone wants to believe:

In all, about three-quarters of the ancestors of today’s British and Irish populations arrived between 15,000 and 7,500 years ago, when rising sea levels split Britain and Ireland from the Continent and from each other, Dr. Oppenheimer calculates in a new book, “The Origins of the British: A Genetic Detective Story” (Carroll & Graf, 2006).

As I've said before, Science tells us the truth, not what we want to be true! This particular scientist claims both Irish and English roots, so apparently it's not much of a distinction!

Everyone's familiar with the holiday's iconic plant, the Shamrock or Oxalis acetosella as we say in the scientific world. It's commonly mistaken for a clover, but did you know that the Shamrock is so different it's in a completely different taxonomic family? Talk about mistaken identity! A shamrock's three (or mutant four!) petals actually fold up at night or in harsh weather so as to conserve water from a reaction called transpiration. Also, they make a great prop for talking about your shape-shifting god.

Enjoy your beer! For those of you who thought serving beer in opaque kegs or colored glass was a pure aesthetic choice, think again! This is actually a protective measure, because indeed, beer can skunk when struck by light. This particular source cites UV light as the culprit, but I have read conflicting reports where longer wavelength blue light is the sulfur compound-forming culprit. In either event, treat your beer like it was a cool person. Make sure it has some shades on.

At the Ripsaw we don't put a lot of stock in luck, aside from it being a clever sorting of past events into artificial constructs, but hey, that's a human behavior. Want to avoid such luck-poor conditions? Avoid seeing red, says one study. Green? Now there's a color you can hitch your wagon to.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Ripsaw Robots #4

Ripsaw Robots will be a new feature that focuses on robotics in a very broad scope. From the useless to the revolutionary to the just plain giant and fantasy, Lish will bring you all the robot fix he can find.

Good pal Obsequiosity brings us news of this boss motorized chair. For some reason, it seems it should come with some Ninja Turtles.

And once you've got your sitting all robotocized, it's time for a frosty libation! z4nd4r shows us how to automate your beer acquisition in several thousand difficult steps! Trust me, as someone who programs robots on a fairly regular basis, lining up the various axes and executing the proper delivery was not a simple task, but it seems the precision is superb.

We here at the Ripsaw loved the Six Million Dollar Man, so when the Segway Guy, Dean Kamen, lets us get a little closer to such an awesome reality of functional bionic limbs, we can't but help feel it's a personal fantasy. Seriously, the two things I really want to be able to do is check the internet from inside my brain and be able to drill a ball to home plate from center field in about half a second. Can we get to work on those? They're speaking my language.

Got a pigeon problem? You need robotic falcons.

Got a runny nose? Robots got that covered, too.

Still, this week we can't beat this zinger coming out of Japan. The children of the future will be raised by robot dinosaurs, will only communicate with their parents via blogs, and their best friends will be people they've seen on YouTube. If we let that happen, have the terrorists truly won?

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Arachnidus Interruptus

I'm all about ensuring your mate isn't cheating on you, but some species to ridiculous ends.

When a male wasp spider discovers a potential partner, he turns her on by shaking her web. The female thereupon supports herself on her long legs on the web so that the male, who is much smaller, can then creep under her body. The rest works hydraulically: the tip of a transformed leg filled with sperm is inserted into the female’s sexual orifice — like a ski boot in its binding.

How erotic. These kind of modified special appendages speak to the plasticity of multicellular organisms. There's a dirty joke in there somewhere, but I'm sure you're clever enough to supply your own setup and punchline.

I like the diametric conclusions drawn, most of which makes sense.

On the one hand detaching part of the genital organ could help the male to escape from the female’s murderous attack. On the other hand it might be a mechanism ensuring that paternity is maintained, preventing or impeding further copulation by the female.

Enjoy the hard source for those interested in further detail. Of course, any time you can work the term 'genital damage' into your title, you know you're gonna get some press! Here you are!


High resolution photographs of insects massacred by windshields. Marvelous how the exoskeleton body plan really magnifies the modular design, no? Of course, we humans are just as modular, if not more so given new research suggesting how pliable and adaptive every one of our cells are. Still, you'd think these glorious deaths would be a bit more....juicy.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Fish Mining

See here a new US effort to open Federal Waters for aquaculture. This is being received with a lot of apprehension. There's the depletion aspect as well as the fact a lot of our terrestrial pollutants end up right in that area. 'Mining' a resource usually refers to the idea of exploiting all there is to take and then moving on as quickly as possible, which certainly should be a concern with this news with respect to the environment rather than the product itself as is the case in wild caught stocks. Here we're talking about positional resources such as nutrients in the water (which likely come from land), space and impact to top tier predators. It's a lot to consider, but does merit at least a hard look when looking ahead to a more sound environmental approach. Dealing with a trade deficit also is a two-way street; we might import a lot of fish, but we export any potential environmental damage to other nations as well.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Is Folkpsychology like Countrypsychology?

A fantastic article in the NYT magazine from this weekend on the study of belief. There's all the bluster that Richard Dawkins and his ilk are pushing, sort of a dismissal of religion as 'misfiring', which is an awfully loaded word for a scientist to be throwing around. Beyond that is a layer of amazing cognitive biological studies that Scott Atran terms 'folkpsychology':

Folkpsychology, as Atran and his colleagues see it, is essential to getting along in the contemporary world, just as it has been since prehistoric times. It allows us to anticipate the actions of others and to lead others to believe what we want them to believe; it is at the heart of everything from marriage to office politics to poker. People without this trait, like those with severe autism, are impaired, unable to imagine themselves in other people’s heads.

A profound suggestion! Is being predisposed to belief in the supernatural a default mode for our brains? Do biological spandrels (like blood being red, a feature with a evolution-neutral value) serve as grist for such a system?

For those of us that hold rationalism in higher esteem than spiritualism, it's somewhat unpleasant to think of ourselves as recovering alcoholics - we need to be on constant guard of our reasonable sobriety lest we relapse into the allure of magical thinking and emotional comfort. Still, to me this is no different than any other high moral code we abide by or emotion we keep under check as to what is necessary or proper. Why should belief be any different than the willpower one needs to keep to a diet or maintain a budget?

We try to make sense of other people partly by imagining what it is like to be them, an adaptive trait that allowed our ancestors to outwit potential enemies. But when we think about being dead, we run into a cognitive wall. How can we possibly think about not thinking? “Try to fill your consciousness with the representation of no-consciousness, and you will see the impossibility of it,” the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno wrote in “Tragic Sense of Life.” “The effort to comprehend it causes the most tormenting dizziness. We cannot conceive of ourselves as not existing.”

I can't say I've ever heard death put so nicely before.

The article is a bit lengthy but well worth the read if this kind of stuff tingles your belief-default brain. Atran's most recent book, In Gods We Trust, is worth the additional effort.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Wait until they get a load of my Scienceball...

From today's NY Times, the story of the gyroball has crossed from the sports page to the science page. Parum-pum.

A quick recap of events. This past off season there was a major pursuit of a hot new pitching star from Japan by the name of Daisuke Matsuzaka, who ultimately went to the Boston Red Sox, who showered him with a cement truck full of money. Of the scrubble to percolate around his arrival was his ability to throw the gyroball, an alleged new kind of pitch that has been thrown in Japan for the last ten years or so.

Last week sports writer Jeff Passan wrote about his encounter with the creator of the gyroball, Kazushi Tezuka, and was...not so convinced. After being told he threw a perfect gyroball without much awareness, he seems to suggest the pitch's real strength is in its mystique, not any (no pun intended) revolutionary innovation.

There's also the suggestion it breaks down a pitcher's arm less, though I imagine the jury's out on that for a while. Maybe Joel Zumaya could continue to play Guitar Hero if he only threw gyroballs instead of flamethower heaters...

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Warming the Rubicon

Global Warming is not a new topic by any stretch of the imagination, but the events of the past 12 months probably give it a new resurgence. Last year Al Gore's seminal work An Inconvenient Truth brought the story back to the forefront with huge cinematic presence. The iconic image of a swirling hurricane storm system rising from an industrial smokestack dredged up sickening memories of the 2005 monster hurricane season. Late January brought ten corporations including big boys like Alcoa, BP America, Caterpillar, DuPont, General Electric, Lehman Brothers and four energy conglomerates to Washington to voice their collective concern. This was promptly followed by a host of top lawmakers, news of G8 members making it a top priority and the real touchstone, President Bush jumping on the global warming issue, this coming from a man who six years ago, through his press secretary said a 'Big No' to the need to change our lifestyles given our consumption needs outstripping every other nation many times over.

But the particle boards of politics are not the boards we saw at the Ripsaw. No, let us only concern ourselves with the science, the data at hand.

Perhaps the biggest problem is the name itself. It's easy to grasp the phrase Global Warming, experience a lack of such relative warmness and dismiss the entire exercise. Let me assure you, here in the gelid depths of Michigan, a little warming would be appreciated here in the thick of February.

Of course, when scientists speak of Global Warming, they don't mean the fun digits the weather man puts on your screen every morning, but rather, the consistent increase in temperature of the world's oceans, our most reliable global thermometer. The data are irrefutable: the oceans have been warming up for most of the past century and show no sign of breaking trends from our production of carbon dioxide.

We here in the States enjoy a second buffer, that is to say our geography. Living in one of the most fertile and buffered lands means our food production rarely suffers, especially coupled with our strong economic ability to purchase surplus from anywhere in the world and seize entire tributaries of product.

If the world were to begin developing conspicuous lesions that would capture the imagination of the press, it would happen in a delicate environment already dangerously balanced; say Australia. A little precipitation redistribution, a bit of advanced deforestation and soil erosion, and we could see famine and civil war collapse into any society within decades. Of course, I'm speaking hypothetically - Australia may have a lot of environmental damage but they're not collapsing. However, this kind of tragedy is already being played out right now in Haiti, in Somalia, in Nepal and in Afghanistan. Why we choose to ignore the very real impact the environmental damage we've done that's causing the severe political turmoil in these areas is likely a product of our lack of understanding of the data. Perhaps that will change soon.

The data is difficult to understand, to devise a plan from it even harder. However, Science is a cumulative effort, a dynamic knowledge body that we constantly modify and shape as new data streams in to shore up certain ideas and demolish others. Nothing is sacred - there is no room for nostalgia or tradition in science, only truth. In that spirit, the data is marching in a specific direction, and it appears for the first time that a true sea change (no pun intended) is occurring with the world at large. Indeed, global warming may be the first thing that unites all peoples together. After all, we haven't quite perfected lunar living, we're all stuck with each other until such an auspicious occasion.

If you're in search of further hard information, enjoy these links.
A fluorescent light bulb here, an efficiency toilet there, a whole mountain of knowledge everywhere, and we all might just have a nice place to live for a lot longer.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Ripsaw Robots #3

Ripsaw Robots will be a new feature that focuses on robotics in a very broad scope. From the useless to the revolutionary to the just plain giant and fantasy, Lish will bring you all the robot fix he can find.

The question I get more often than anything else is "Lish, all these robots are great, but what about my personal needs?" Look no further, because now you can build your own robot slave for just a few dollars. Based on that delicious Roomba techology, you can order parts for your customized mechanical creation right from the convenience of your non-roboticized home.

Often we ask what is so cool about robots, in their silly quest to discover if they have soul. It appears that question is answered. Now that is smooth.

Of course, robots only like to play jazz when they aren't mercilessly disassembling lobsters. "Continuous Flow Stunner" sounds like a wrestler's or Dragonball Z finishing move. On the other hand, 'CrustaStun' has its own creepy appeal.

But if you can't beat them, pretend to be like them, as the adage should say. A NASA historian suggests we will eventually be a cybernetic race. I always loved the Borg when I was growing up; I found the idea of amplifying one's body with technological distinctiveness not a way to lose one's humanity but possibly the only way of reaching forward and claiming it. To be human is to aspire what's in the mind and make it reality, yes?

But at the end of the day, we still have the big questions to answer. Fortunately, it seems we can fix it with robots who drive the Ford Taurus, which should be around at least for a few years. Serve the public trust, protect the innocent, uphold the law or Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.

Friday, February 09, 2007

It's all relative

A review of the American Museum of Natural History in New York is covering their new Human Origins exhibit. I particularly like the idea of bringing together the fossil and molecular evidence, because doing so is both powerful and essential to really get a clear understanding of both history and mechanism of the process.

I think a trip to NYC is warranted.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007


Following up the recent articles about its role in smoking, the insula is making news again, this time with some interesting commentary.

All mammals have insulas that read their body condition, Dr. Craig said. Information about the status of the body’s tissues and organs is carried from the receptors along distinct spinal pathways, into the brain stem and up to the posterior insula in the higher brain or cortex.

As such, all mammals have emotions, defined as sensations that provoke motivations. If an animal is hot, it seeks shade. If hungry, it looks for food. If hurt, it licks the wound.

Certainly my dogs show a wide variety of emotions, but there's clear limits to more complex emotion behaviors like empathy, revenge or sacrifice. Sounds like there's a wealth of research around that little fatty dingle of brainmeat.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

(Secret) Viral Agents

In the last two days I've had two people independently ask me about the catching of colds in the Winter months. The Northern part of the States has taken a chill pounding over the past week, and you can expect a rise in sore throats and Kleenex sales.

The battle with the rhinovirus - the virus responsible for most colds - is one of an exponential arms race. With each new defense the body can throw down, the virus adapts, and the process begins anew ad infinitum. A major hurdle we're still dealing with as a species can be attributed to our upright posture
a severe weakness the virus and other bugs have been exploiting ever since we pushed off our knuckles and primarily moved around on two legs. But that's another story..

A virus is little more than a genetic bomb; most of it's components have evolved specifically to disrupt a human host's immune defenses with the core package a bit of RNA and replication protein to borgify and convert a cell into a virus factory.

The human host is no slouch and takes a layered approach to its considerable defense scheme. There are the anatomic barriers. The skin - a thick morass of cornified cells that appear like a gravelly, barren landscape on the microscopic level, sebum secreted from hair follicles give the skin an acidic, unwelcome feeling. The mucous membranes trap and hold invaders so ciliated hairs can ferry them up towards the mouth or nose for expectorations, as well as providing a home for local bacterial flora that soak up as much attachment space as possible in a competitive binding scenario. Should pathogens get all the way down to the gullet, that's usually a danger as well, as the low pH of the stomach will wilt all but the hardiest pathogens.

But should the virus be crafty enough or lucky enough to find a system compromised and get into the body, the host is not without further tricks. Upon detection by fingerprint-like molecules called antigens, the body can recruit dozens of different specialized cells to fight infection. Dendritic cells and other local watchdogs release signaling molecules called cytokines once they detect these antigens. First responder neutrophils arrive and wage a scorched earth warfare, triggering the inflammation response. Inflammation was originally described as having four qualities: rubor, tumor, calor and dolor. That is to say in modern terms, redness, swelling, heat and pain. All the lovely symptoms you'd associate with an upper respiratory infection, or any healing wound. The cytokine storm unleashed by the neutrophils can bring in a host of warriors depending on what the situation calls for. Massive, multi-nuclear macrophages to engulf and destroy necrotic tissues. Cytolytic killer cells designed to identify virally-infected host cells and punch holes in them with an immunologic cannon, faceted B-cells that churn out antibodies to bind up and help perturb and isolate antigens and eosinophils, the firemen of the body who come in to draw down the inflammatory inferno and bring things back towards normal operations.

Of course, these things don't happen instantly, as much as we'd like them to. It normally takes 3-4 days for a first response and 7-10 days for a human immune system to bring its full arsenal to bear and clear out an invading pathogen. The system is, much like the rest of our operations, susceptible to poor maintenance of the body as a whole. Fatigue, dehydration, poor diets, a lack of exercise - or lingering outside without a hat on in subzero temperatures like Mom warned out about - all such things can leave the body ripe for viral colonization.

A couple extra hand washings and a hat go a long way. Stay healthy this season!

Fantastic Voyage

Delicious Cellular Animations!

I always wondered if Coolio was an Asimov fan.

Hat tip to Retrospectacle.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Firefly Science - Luciferase and high throughput screening

Ah, fireflies - or 'Thunderbugs', as I idiomatically referred to them as a child. They are a staple of Summertime nostalgia, and a gateway insect for children to be drawn into the wonderful world of life science. A creature that can eat and create its own light source is something so alien and wonderful to us we are still exploring the science behind it. That said, Luciferase, the principle enzyme responsible for that soft yellow-green glow is a workhorse chemical tool in the high volume screening of compound libraries.

In screening, we often are looking for the activation of genes; that is to say whether the DNA is being transcribed into proteins, where those proteins then go out and perform the various functions of the cell ranging from the germane like cytoskeleton structure to the complex such as the release of a hormone or neurotransmitter. Every time a transcription event occurs, and we can exploit that mechanism for discovery research.

Originally, doing this required the use of radioactive tags - we could label a carbon in a designated molecule that could then be detected as a flash of light. Of course, radioactive work, despite its reliable and reproducible advantages, is not the prime choice of most research labs today.

A gene of interest can be appended downstream with the luciferase DNA and a gene promoter. Doing so allows us to infer that when our gene of interest is activated, our luciferase gene will be activated as well, and the cell will begin to produce luciferase in a ratiometric quantity, dependent on the strength of the promoter.

Now we can assess the amount of our gene of interest by lysing the cell, and adding the substrate luciferin. When this happens, the above reaction can take place, and a product of that reaction is light, which can be detected in the lab by a camera or photomultiplier tube (PMT). The more luciferase present, the more light the lysate will give off to be detected, and from that differential, we can begin to compare different treatments and draw conclusions from those results.

New sources of luciferase are being developed all the time. There's the firefly but there's a lot of different creatures out there with their own ways of giving off light. Mushrooms, sea-pansies and good ol' jellyfish that give us the standby Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) With a series of enzymes that give off light at different wavelengths, one can create a very involved screen with multiple targets.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Ripsaw Robots #2

Ripsaw Robots will be a new feature that focuses on robotics in a very broad scope. From the useless to the revolutionary to the just plain giant and fantasy, Lish will bring you all the robot fix he can find.

Alright, I spent far too much time in my chilly, chilly garage keeping my vehicles functioning in the stone cold of Winter. Perhaps I'll find some help amongst my mechanical friends!

The big news I've been scouting this week has to revolve around the developments in the flying car industry. It essentially functions like a helicopter without all the limitations of external rotor blades. Where's your flying car, you ask? Apparently it's just around the corner.

After the embarrassment of the last mission, folks at NASA are taking extra precautions with the landing site choice for the next robot to land on Mars. While robots might not count for life on Mars, it still makes an awesome movie premise.

Perhaps in the future we'll have robots park our cars in the big cities. Such technology already is getting marginal use in space-limited places like Japan. Such garages could easily maximize our ability to cram more and more people into our cities.

Got a robot you want to show off? Maybe you should send it over to the greater Frisco area for the Maker Faire. Perhaps you might get a chance to see these guys and their Star Wars inspired AT-ST lookalike. Let's hope there's no paleolithic society of advanced rodent men. They tend to shun such bold innovations.

But really, as cool as robots are, making them behave like insects is a lot harder than it sounds.

Now if we could only get a robot to change car batteries. Doing so in subzero temperatures is definitely the work for those of the cybernetic persuasion.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Science and Politics (or Sex)

With the significant changes to the political landscape this month, it's now finally possible to see what is in store for science in general with the Democrats at the rudder.

As noted here, the Science and Technology committee was heading in a very different direction under the previous Republican oversight. Some of the claims the Executive administration used distorted the scientific findings in some rather grievous manners, most notably the suppression of contradictory data, a fundamental transgression of what science holds dear, a dogged and unbiased search for natural truths.

Gah, that's too depressing. Here, have some much more fun eye candy about the invisible world of spider sex. Don't say I never did anything for you.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Sperm Followup

The NYT has a neat interview with a sperm scientist.

From the article:

Q. What are some of the underappreciated attributes of sperm?

A. I’m fascinated by how determined they are. Sperm — each one seems an individual in the way they move. When they change from one motion to another, it’s fascinating.

Moreover, they have the ability to do much more than most other human cells: they crawl long distances in a short period of time, they can sense their surroundings. In fact, they have molecules that are much the same as olfactory receptors in our noses.

As you watch them under a microscope, you get the sense that they are going somewhere, or at least “think” they are. They surround an egg and vigorously try to fuse with it. They don’t give up until they run out of energy.

This is true. Sperm might not be more than a human cell converted into a living micro-rocket with a genetic payload, but they require a ton of specialized abilities in order to complete their biological imperative. They must be mobile, be able to detect a very small target in a huge environment, be able to deliver the package to a receptive ova and be a champion survivor in a very hostile theater of operations. Not bad for one of the smallest cells in the body, eh?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

I'm easy like a Sunday Morning

When I was younger my brother had a Faith No More B-sides album that we played a lot. It only contained four songs, but between a cover of The Commodores 'Easy' and the disturbingly quirky 'Das Schutzenfest', it got a lot of play time between the two of us.

I was immediately reminded of such a great disc when I read about a glorious rhino birth.

Artificial insemination is nothing new, but the fact that the Father's name was Easy Boy was all too coincidental.

In much more disturbing sperm news, there this bit about a couple who have won the right in court to use their dead son's sperm to sire a grandchild in the name of continuing their genetic legacy. I mean, I know grandparents tend to get fixated on the prosperity of their kids' kids, but this is ridiculous.

And every once and a while, someone doesn't even bother with sperm and goes the virgin route.

Speaking of virgins, apparently Mary has shown up as a popsicle.

Same Science-Time, Same Science-Channel

I'll be accepting the Science Challenge from the folks over at Just Science, which should send stunning shockwaves through the readership. I'll be attempting to bring some focused relevance to some of the work I'm currently involved in, but I also thought I'd solicit ideas from you, gentle reader. I'd be interested in fielding any general question about the Life Sciences or specific questions in the fields of chemical biology, molecular biology or developmental biology. If such a question tickles your fancy, email me at science.ripsaw@gmail.com

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Double your pleasure: Two-headed Reptile found.

Scientists find two-headed fossil.

While a reptile, Hyphalosaurus was not a dinosaur. Instead, it belonged to a diverse group of primitive aquatic and semi-aquatic creatures called choristoderes. Some choristoderes looked like lizards or crocodiles, while others resembled miniature versions of plesiosaurs, ancient marine reptiles with barrel-shaped bodies, short tails, paddle-like limbs and, in some cases, long serpentine necks — somewhat like the mythical Loch Ness monster.

I swear, I totally made this thing up when I was eight years old.

Being a sea creature, these fossils have been found all over the place. Two-headedness, as the article shows, usually results from early injury to the developing embryo. A German embryologist named William Roux first showed this in 1888 by stabbing a 2-cell stage frog embryo with a hot needle, effectively destroying that totipotent cell. The resulting embryos mostly just died. Other experiments with defects introduced in later divisions showed marvelous effort to field a functioning animal, but resulted in some disturbingly crippled creatures somewhere between functional and lethal. A successive series of defect, recombination and isolation experiments after Roux's work laid the bedrock for what is modern developmental biology.

Keep in mind, most of these ideas and experiments were done without the re-discovery of Mendel's groundbreaking work, and Darwin's grasp of cellular mechanics in Origin of Species was nowhere near even this sophistication. This is causal science at its best.

Being a reptile, the poor guy (guys?) probably had a heck of a time deciding which way to go.

Image credit: Jianjun Li And Eric Buffetaut

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Ripsaw Robots #1

Ripsaw Robots will be a new feature that focuses on robotics in a very broad scope. From the useless to the revolutionary to the just plain giant and fantasy, Lish will bring you all the robot fix he can find.

The last couple days has been abuzz with China's new test of an anti-satellite weapon, which threatens to turn our atmosphere from a realm of commerce and research into an active new frontline of diplomacy and militarization. That being the case, news on NASA's new THEMIS project, set to launch next month was largely buried. The five mini-satellite's mission is to probe the elusive magenetosphere and the geomagnetic substorms that bolster the Northern Lights, a system that is poorly understood at the present date. Hopefully the Chinese don't get too triggerhappy with their new toys.

Speaking of toys, have a look at this thing, called an unicycle tank. First described in a 1933 Popular Science magazine, the monowheel device originally was designed for military use, but modern tinkerers have hit upon some more appealing uses. The monowheel rides with what appears to be simple ease, but I doubt folks are going to be trading in their Harleys anytime soon, it just doesn't have the majesty and menace of a motorcycle.

Finally, Disney has up and done it, adding robotic elements to their classic Disney heads. The end result in the context of song and stage is astonishingly realistic, you might catch yourself thinking you're watching some animation.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Trojans of Science

Condoms themselves appear to have quite a rich and awesome history.

But here at the Ripsaw we're always cutting towards the future, and even in the realm of prophylactics, there's new science to be found.

First off is this 'molecular condom' research coming out of Utah. It's a rather clever piece of biomedical engineering, using hydrogel polymers that can switch from liquid (for application) to a solid (for while being unused in the vagina) and back to a liquid (when in contact with semen). Hydrogel polymers can absorb an amazing amount of proteins and liposomes. We use similar material in our lab to stamp glass slides with lipid bilayers, which in execution isn't too far off from how an ejaculation might ink this stamp.

South of the border, they seem to have hit upon a similar idea using algae as a starting substrate.

Could be creepier, I suppose. The alternative is perhaps a later model of the Sperm Cube.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Robot Parade: Robots obey what the children say

Control robots with your mind.

I'm not sure I need to say anything else. That's awesome.

Runner-up - From Omni Brain: The Robot Fish.

Tangled Bank #71

The newest edition of the blog carnival, Tangled Bank is up. Head on over to The Voltage Gate for a delightful dose of science, history and hilariously out of fashion powdered wigs.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Stem Cells, Shmem Shmells.

Thought I'd toss a few thoughts up here regarding the latest news on stem cells, as there's been a bunch.

I'm sure most have seen the big splash in the Washington Post about amniotic stem cells. This is because adult stem cells are fairly limited in what they offer for research and embryonic stem cells have all sorts of political issues surrounding their fair use in science. Prior to that report came this one from South Korea where there is work on producing cloned embryonic stem cells. The moral outrage on this procedure has yet to be accurately gauged, but I suspect it won't pass the litmus test, the C-word tends to upset people for somewhat curious reasons.

Of course, there appear to be tremendous results just around the corner. Parkinson's is one of those home run targets that will likely get a lot of attention in the mainstream press. President Bush has only vetoed one bill in his time in office, and of course, that was stem cell funding from last year. Congress is going to take another run at this legislation, but don't expect any surprises, it will likely meet a similar fate.

What this all means is the science is making big strides both in the forward and lateral motion. Amniotic stem cells are a big deal, but it does not eliminate any need for embryonic stem cells for research. If anything, it intesifies the need for them in the short term. Science, as always, is a cumulative, endless task. Waiting excitedly for the end would be a lot like waiting for Godot.

Thursday, January 04, 2007


Check it: Scientists use nanoparticles to combat tumors.

This truly is akin to aiming a ray gun at a patients and torching the tumors with these mightily manufactured particles. There appear to be a number of folks in the patent race, so this therapeutic may come to life sooner rather than later. Fingers crossed! Particles too!

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Tripoli Six Update

As mentioned in this space earlier, the ongoing trial in Libya of five Bulgarian nurses and one Palestinian doctor has worsened. Death sentences were handed out late last year, some excerpts of the best editorial available can be found here.

This kind of gross distortion of those who would practice medicine shows how very far science and democracy have to go in parts of the world.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Getting the pure stuff

Happy New Year!

Enjoy a quick and fun article on the science of saffron. A most expensive spice, despite how much you pay for cardamom at the supermarket. Apparently one can cut one's stash with turmeric, most likely to turn a little extra profit. If you have some coffee filters and bleach, though, you can out these charlatans!

On a quick aside, I rarely see such wonderfully water soluble molecules in my line of work. Most prosecuted small molecules these days are terribly hydrophobic.