Weekly Science Roundup

It’s been a busy week in the household with a wedding to go to this weekend and stupid adult stuff like cars to take care of and what not. . .what solves the adult woes better than awesome science news?

I’ve been following the Endeavour Space Shuttle’s journey to its final home at a museum in Los Angeles. How would you like to look out of your office and see this flying by?

(Video courtesy of NASA)

Of course, I’m also following Endeavour’s journey with jealousy, as it doesn’t come close to OKC. It did fly over Austin, TX, however. My love of OU sports has further increased my fist-shaking at Austin, home of UT.

I love Phil Plait, aka the Bad Astronomer, not just for his astronomy background and wonderful writing, but for his skeptic take on issues such as global warming, astrology, and homeopathy (more on skeptics in a later post). Here’s his post about the (non) logic of global warming deniers.

A wonderful longitudinal study (25 years!) is giving us hints into the wonders of evolution. This is a great read into what science can show us about how organisms can evolve and adapt to their environment. By the way, if you are a creationist, this may not be your favorite blog. Just a fair warning.

Another burgeoning public health issue: Life expectancy has been shown to be decreasing for less-educated whites. More research needs to be completed in this area before we find out the causes, but the study’s authors have their theories about why this is taking place.

Because it is Friday and pet pictures are required*, here is a picture of our dogs. It is scientifically proven** that these are the cutest dogs in the world:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*I super just made that up

**Not scientifically proven

Breakin’ the Law! Breakin’ the “Space Law!”

The first tracks made by NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover (courtesy of JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona/NASA/AP).

Did you know that the United States is part of an international Outer Space Treaty? Formally (and wordily) called “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies,” the treaty establishes the foundation of Space Law. Basically the idea is that no country can put nuclear weapons into orbit or establish a military base on the moon (Sorry Newt Gingrich!) Also everyone should maintain the integrity and cleanliness of Outer Space, since it is not owned by any one country, and must be preserved for Science.

With that goal in mind, NASA has a Planetary Protection Officer that consults with engineers to ensure that equipment sent from Earth is suitably decontaminated before launch. Capsules that are sent into the void of space have little risk of contaminating another heavenly body, and have more relaxed decon standards. Rovers have much more strict requirements.

Still, each type of machine has a certain allowable amount of organisms that tag along – kind of like the amount of spiders and dog hairs allowed in sausage. Total sterility is impossible, but the engineers try to keep the number of organisms to a minimum. Some parts can be autoclaved – put in a pressure cooker that kill organisms with heat and pressure. More delicate equipment is wiped down with alcohol.

The Mars Curiosity Rover was clean and all set to fly when engineers decided to tweak the packing on the drill bits that the rover will use to drill into the Martian terrain. Concerned that a rocky landing might damage the bit-grabbing mechanism, they pre-loaded one of the bits onto the drill to make sure that it would be ready to go, even if it couldn’t load the bit mechanically. Unfortunately, these engineers failed to tell the Planetary Protection Officer, and the drill was sealed up without being properly cleaned.

Since Curiosity is mainly traveling through dry, rocky areas, there may be little risk of contaminating Mars with our Earth bugs. After analyzing the exposure risk, the Planetary Protection Officer decided that the only real concern would be in Curiosity found water. Since liquid water in required for all Earth life forms, a bacteria that jumped ship in the Martian desert is probably a goner, but one that takes up residence in a pond just might survive.

The odds of Curiosity finding water in the cold, dry Gale Crater where it landed are pretty low. However, can you imagine being the engineer that would have to steer away from the water in the event that you did find it? I don’t know if I would have that kind of self-control.

Perhaps I’m being optimistic, but I would be shocked if organisms from the earth survived on the edges of this drill despite the harsh UV light, the dryness of the environment, the freezing temperatures and lack of air pressure. The bacteria that are tagging along are probably from humans – we are walking bacteria bags, after all – and are happier hanging around a warm, moist body than in the harsh rocky environment of Mars. As long as one of the NASA employees didn’t have a nasty case of Deinococcus radiodurans, I can’t imagine that the rover was contaminated with anything that would set up shop on Mars.

In the event that we did collect bacteria from Mars that we had previously planted there, then wouldn’t we be able to figure that out? Yes, it would be devastating to set up cultures from some precious Mars soil and realize that you had grown E. coli or even a common soil microorganism. But with genetic tests you could determine if the organisms are recently from Earth or if there really are similar microbes growing on Mars.

Of course, it’s never wise to bet against the bacteria. So far we’ve found organisms in almost every place we’ve looked, including ice cores in Antarctica and in boiling geysers. We’ve also found them in the

Atacama desert, which is the most Mars-like environment you can find without leaving earth.  So it’s certainly smart to be as clean as possible. You never know what kind of organisms might survive an interplanetary round-trip.

 

Weekly Science Roundup

Can a poor diet cause Alzheimer’s?

Here’s a great article about the people who actually drive the Mars Curiosity rover. They’re regular people. . .except their job is a lot cooler than yours (IMO, of course).

The uncertainty of uncertainty?

Tired of being near the bottom in almost every single health measurement, the one where Oklahoma City is innovating the struggle against obesity and chronic disease,.

My 5 All-Time Favorite Science Fiction TV Shows

5. Doctor Who

I’m a fairly recent convert to Doctor Who. I started watching in the Christopher Eccleston era. Granted, I did manage to catch a few glimpses late at night on my local PBS station when I was a kid, but I never got into it and thought it was kinda scary. I became a casual viewer from following people such as TV critic Alan Sepinwall, but I became absolutely hooked after watching the episode “Blink”. If you  haven’t seen it, stop reading this and GO NOW. But don’t blink.  Blink and you’re dead.

4. Fringe

Fringe is one of those shows that lost viewers after ramping up the science fiction, but that only made me love it so  much more. It embraced its core audience, took it by the hand, turned up the awesome, and hasn’t looked back. Done in the voice of Stefon from Saturday Night Live: “It has everything. Multiple universes, Walternates, Observers. . .” However, Fringe wouldn’t be what it is without character interaction and wonderful acting, especially by Peter Noble, who plays Walter. I would be remiss if I didn’t say that I thought the last season was a bit of a misstep, but I’m surprised and incredibly happy that Fox gave this wonderful show a final season. I plan to enjoy every minute of it.

3. Futurama

I’ve watched Futurama since it went on the air in 1999. It took a bit of a break in 2003, mainly because it was forced to. Reruns aired on Comedy Central, and then lo and behold, the show is back on again, and I couldn’t be happier. Futurama is one of the shows that can be enjoyed by many groups of people, but is especially dear to me because of all the science it contains. I mean, one recent show had the characters reimagined as animals in nature, complete with tortoises on the Galapagos Islands. And the science was spot-on! I couldn’t ask for anything more. Oh, and of course, ALL GLORY TO THE HYPNOTOAD.

2. Battlestar Galactica (remake)

You know, I was a bit of a TV snob. I couldn’t admit that I liked science fiction as much as I did, and I couldn’t get over the title “Battlestar Galactica”. I knew nothing of the original. But then, for some reason, I gave the mini-series a try. Let’s just say that the scene from Portlandia where the characters start watching Battlestar Galactica and don’t leave their house for a week is exactly right.

I watched the last 3 seasons live, and every week waiting for a new episode was agonizing. This isn’t “just” a sci-fi series. This is one of the best shows EVER on television. Trust me.

1. Lost

This show went off the air after six seasons in 2010. Even writing this now, I’ve never missed a show like I miss Lost. It pains me to write about this show as something that happened in the past.

When Lost first went on the air in 2004, I thought it was great. Not only was there a lot of mystery involved with the characters, but with the island itself (“Where are we?”). A lot of people loved the character development, as did I. But the things that I loved the most were the sci-fi elements. This was the first TV show that I remember with such a robust and rabid fanbase that populated message boards discussing the show. . .it was like nothing I had ever seen. It was a dense show that rewarded its fans, as some of the other shows on this list did as well, by placing multiple “Easter eggs” within the show. Two people could watch the same episode and come away with two completely different thoughts on what the show was about.

Regardless of what you thought about the finale (which I loved, by the way), Lost took you on a journey like no other TV show had before. It will be very hard to replace it as number one on my list, but here’s hoping someone will try.

Honorable Mentions: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sealab 2021, Frisky Dingo, Harvey Birdman, Mystery Science Theater 3000, Quantum Leap, Tales from the Darkside, The Walking Dead

So, that’s my list. Now I get to hear from you. What did I leave off? What did I get right?

Voyager, Truly Going Where No Man(Made Object) Has Been Before **Updated 12-3-12

Where were you on September 5, 1977? I was relaxing at home, enjoying the day, oblivious to the awesomeness that was the launch of the Voyager 1 spacecraft. My space fan-girl-ness had not started yet. . .I was only 6 months old.

Even if I were old enough to remember that day, I don’t know if I would appreciate the Voyager 1 missions as much as I do now. But first, let’s talk about exactly what the Voyager spacecrafts are and their missions.

Image

Both Voyager missions launched around the same time for a planned 2-year mission. According to NASA, their main mission was to conduct close-up studies of Jupiter and Saturn, Saturn’s sings, and the larger moons of both planets.

But the scientists and engineers at NASA built both Voyagers to last 5 years, so after its initial mission was complete, there was a wonderful opportunity for Voyagers to flyby Uranus and Neptune as well, along with their moons. By the time that was complete, Voyager 1 and 2 explored Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and 48 of their moons.

The science gleaned from the Voyager missions was incalculable. But one of the best parts about the Voyagers is that they’re still going more than 30 years later! Think back to technology in the 1970s and how it compares to today. Do you have anything built in the 1970s that still works. . .in space? Probably not.

So not only did these spacecraft give us information about the 4 outer planets (sorry Pluto) that we did not know before, but it is now embarking on a mission where even scientists are unsure of what to expect.

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This is the famous “Pale Blue Dot” picture referenced by Carl Sagan. That’s Earth, taken from Voyager 1 about 3.7 BILLION miles away, to the right side of the screen.

Space is big. Really big. Voyager 1 and 2 are traveling at about 35,000 mph, and they’re just now making it to the edge of our solar system. That may not seem like very far when you’re thinking about the size of the whole Milky Way galaxy, but how awesomely cool is it that two man-made objects are about to escape the solar system? Our solar system. Our home.

So how will we know when Voyager 1 has left the solar system. Unfortunately, there are no road signs to let us know. Voyager 1 has already crossed the heliosheath, which is the point where the sun’s solar wind slows down and interacts with interstellar space. We know this because Voyager 1 contains instruments that measure the speed of the solar wind.

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This is why I’m more excited about the Voyager missions now than I would have been when they were exploring the planets, even though that was supremely cool and awesome and taught us so much. We’re traveling farther than we’ve ever traveled, we won’t know we’re there until we’re already there, and we have no idea what’s ahead of us. I’m continually amazed at humans and what we can do. Science!

Updated 12/3/2012

We’re getting closer!

 

This is your brain. This is your brain on semen.

For any independent, heterosexual woman, this news might be terrifying: semen contains a protein that could potentially be messing with your mind. Well, at least it’s messing with llama minds.

A recent study that was published online in PNAS (which if you sound out the journal name is very appropriate for this subject) found that a protein in llama semen, when injected into the female animal’s bloodstream, causes ovulation with no “physical activity” required. The responsible protein in the semen is one that they’ve known about for decades, called nerve growth factor, or NGF, but no one knew that it had these stimulatory powers. NGF is found in all sorts of animals and functions in the brain to keep neurons alive and kicking.

Researchers think that the NGF protein travels to the llama’s hypothalamus and pituitary gland in the brain and tells it to start pumping out the hormones that cause ovulation.

(Ok, so before I get into the nuts (ha!) and bolts of this post, I just have to point out that Greg Adams and his colleagues at the University of Saskatchewan collected semen using an “artificial llama vagina.” Can you imagine Adam’s grad students explaining that to their grandmothers when asked what they do in the lab? The llamas are lucky compared to the bulls in the experiment, however, whose semen was collected using “electroejaculation.”)

Fortunately for humans, llamas are “induced ovulators” which means that they only drop an egg when they have sex (or when a scientist doses it with semen extract). Humans and many other animals are “spontaneous ovulators” which is a misleading term for females that release eggs on a regular schedule.

While human women do not ovulate on command, it’s still possible that NGF is having an effect on a women’s cycle, and slightly altering the timing of ovulation. The researchers next step is to look at NGF in human couples. They think that the protein may play a role in fertility and want to see if men with low NGF have a hard time impregnating women.

In cows, at least (also spontaneous ovulators), NGF from regular doses of semen causes the female’s reproductive system to pump out higher levels of hormones that help the cow not to miscarry. If the same effect happens in humans, then couples should continue “baby dancing” even after the woman is pregnant.

All of this is still speculation in animals that are not llamas, camels, cows and mice, but NGF is found in the semen of ALL animals that scientists have examined, and in high concentrations. Contrary to “biology according to Todd Akin,” it’s likely that the presence of this protein in semen evolved to improve the odds of insemination.

Finally, the researchers also think that NGF may be one reason why the rhythm method is such an ineffective way of not getting pregnant. If NGF from sperm is altering a women’s cycle then it will be especially hard to track it and limit sex to “non-fertile” times. According to the Planned Parenthood website, one in four couples who practice the rhythm method will get pregnant each year.

 

Drug Resistance

You begin to notice a burning feeling when you go to the bathroom. You think to yourself, “Self, I should go to the doctor and get this checked out.” As someone in the public health field, I commend you for this hypothetical correct decision.

Anyway, you go to the doctor. Your doctor tells you that you’ve contracted gonorrhea, which is a very common STI (also known in my day as an STD, and also known before my day as a venereal disease). “No problem”, self says. “I’ll take some medicine and be good as new.”

But there is a problem, your doctor says. For years, people have taken antibiotics for bacterial infections such as gonorrhea, tuberculosis, and strep throat. Now, your doctor tells you there are no antibiotics left for you to take.

In this day and age, this scenario may sound like science fiction. Being able to take antibiotics for ailments like strep throat and certain STDs has become so common that we don’t think anything of it.

We’ve all heard the phrase, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” Unfortunately the saying holds true for bacteria as well. Since antibiotics have been introduced into western medicine, the bacteria that were exposed to these antibiotics – but survived – grew stronger and are now resistant to that antibiotic. How did we get to this point? Let’s back up a bit and look at some history.

A Little History

Bacteria have been around for waaaay longer than we have. To put it simply, it’s their world and we’ve just living in it. In fact, humans have evolved to incorporate bacteria into our colon, which  help with digestion and our immune system. We NEED bacteria to survive. However, we don’t have to look far into our past, in a time without widespread knowledge and use of antibiotics, to see how deadly bacteria can be to humans.

Yersinia pestis, also known as the plague, has been responsible for many deadly epidemics throughout human history. In fact, Y. pestis was responsible for killing about one-third of the entire European population between 1347 and 1353. Tuberculosis was, and still is, a very common bacterial infection. Known as “consumption”, tuberculosis was one of the leading public health issues of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In fact, in the 19th century, 25% of all deaths were caused by Tuberculosis. It’s still the 8th most common cause of death worldwide.

Penicillin, the Wonder Drug

Picture of Alexander Fleming

This is Alexander Fleming. Do not eat off the floors or tables in his lab.

Alexander Fleming is credited with “discovering” the world’s first antibiotic, penicillin, in 1928. I only say “discovering” in quotation marks because, like lots of great discoveries,  it wasn’t exactly what he had set out to do. Quite by accident, he discovered a mold that, because of his untidy lab, had been left to grow close to some E. coli cultures. He noticed that the moldy fungus had killed the cultures it had invaded. After going through the process of purification, penicillin was available for mass distribution in 1945.

Suddenly, with this new wonder drug, bacterial infections that had plagued us for centuries were becoming a thing of the past. I’m 35 years old as I write this. I do not remember a time without antibiotics. It’s hard for me to imagine coming down with strep throat like I did in 2007 and not being able to take antibiotics for it. Other deadlier bacterial infections like the ones I’ve already mentioned were becoming treatable. A whole new world of medicine opened up, death rates for these infections plummeted, and then everyone lived happily ever after vanquishing the mean bacteria, right? Um, not exactly.

This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

Patricia Waldron, microbiologist and blog co-author, knows a TON more about bacteria than I do. I’m an admirer from afar–they really are quite a hardy and amazing life form. They adapt easily. They reproduce at an amazing rate of speed (especially compared to us humans). Combine that with the fact that many people do not take all of their prescribed antibiotics, and you get:

  • Bacteria that did not die from that antibiotic that you (mostly) took
  • Bacteria that, when they reproduce, adapt to the antibiotic you took and become more resistant to that antibiotic
  • You get a different infection, but the resistant bacteria that are still hanging around share their drug resistance genes with the new infection
  • Bada bing, sciencey wiencey,  antibiotics stop killing bacteria

On a national level, we also have the same process going on inside livestock who are fed huge quantities of antibiotics to prevent infection. Internationally, there are several countries that do no regulate the use of antibiotics. You can buy them over the counter like aspirin, or purchase them in pet stores as “fish antibiotics.”

Ok, so your infection isn’t responding to one antibiotic–just take another one. That’s exactly what we’ve been doing. But there’s another issue.

Drug companies invest a lot of time and money into drugs. They aren’t as interested in developing drugs that will not turn a profit. To be frank, there’s not a lot of money in trying to develop new antibiotics. Therefore:

Increased antibiotic resistance + Finite types of antibiotics = Rise of the drug-resistant lil’ monsters

How Much Time Do I Have – aka, When Do I Run for the Hills?

We’re already seeing drug-resistant gonorrhea and tuberculosis, along with others. For the time being, the medical field has been using powerful combinations of antibiotics. However, until we learn how to use antibiotics properly, we will always be putting ourselves in this situation.

The bottom line is that we will always be in a constant battle with bacteria, forever locked in a mutual dance of friend vs. foe.

Do you know anyone who has been affected by a drug-resistant type of bacteria? Let us know in the comments!