Posts about Science

We are Not Us Without The Microbes Within Us

I Contain Multitudes is a wonderful book by Ed Young on the microbes within us.

Time and again, bacteria and other microbes have allowed animals to transcend their basic animalness and wheedle their way into ecological nooks and crannies that would be otherwise inaccessible; to settle into lifestyles that would be otherwise intolerable; to eat what they could not otherwise stomach; to succeed against their fundamental nature. And the most extreme examples of this mutual assured success can be found in the deep oceans, where some microbes supplement their hosts to such a degree that the animals can eat the most impoverished diets of all – nothing.

This is another book exploring the wonders of biology and the complexity of the interaction between animals and microbes.

For hundreds of years, doctors have used dioxin to treat people whose hearts are failing. The drug – a modified version of a chemical from foxglove plants – makes the heart beat more strongly, slowly, and regularly. Or, at least, that’s what it usually does. In one patient out of every ten, digoxin doesnt’ work. Its downfall is a gut bacterium called Eggerthella lenta, which converts the drug to an inactive and medically useless form. Only some strains of E. lenta do this.

The complex interactions within us are constantly at work helping us and occasionally causing problems. This obviously creates enormous challenges in health care and research on human health. See related posts: Introduction to Fractional Factorial Designed Experiments, “Grapefruit Juice Bugs” – A New Term for a Surprisingly Common Type of Surprising Bugs and 200,000 People Die Every Year in Europe from Adverse Drug Effects – How Can We Improve?.

Every person aerosolized around 37 million bacteria per hour. This means that our microbiome isn’t confined to our bodies. It perpetually reaches out into our environment.

Avoiding bacteria is not feasible. Our bodies have evolved with this constant interaction with bacteria for millions of years. When we are healthy bacteria have footholds that make it difficult for other bacteria to gain a foothold (as does our immune system fighting off those bacteria it doesn’t recognize or that it recognized as something to fight).

A few pages later he discusses the problem of hospital rooms that were constantly cleaned to kill bacteria and largely sealed to reduce airflow. What happened is those bacteria the sick people had in them were the bacteria that were flourishing (the number of other bacteria to compete for space was small). Opening the windows to welcome the outside air resulted in better results.

Outdoors, the air was full of harmless microbes from plants and soils. Indoors, it contained a disproportionate number of potential pathogens, which are normally rare or absent in the outside world

Human health is a fascinating topic. It is true antibiotics have provided us great tools in the service of human health. But we have resorted to that “hammer” far too often. And the consequences of doing so is not understood. We need those scientists exploring the complex interactions we contain to continue there great work.

Related: People are Superorganisms With Microbiomes of Thousands of Species (2013)Bacteria are Always Living in Our Bodies (2014)Gut Bacteria Explored as Medical Treatment – even for Cancer

Solar Storm Could Do $2 Trillion in Damage

I read an interesting article from NASA recently, Near Miss: The Solar Superstorm of July 2012

According to a study by the National Academy of Sciences, the total economic impact could exceed $2 trillion or 20 times greater than the costs of a Hurricane Katrina. Multi-ton transformers damaged by such a storm might take years to repair.

By extrapolating the frequency of ordinary storms to the extreme, he calculated the odds that a Carrington-class storm would hit Earth in the next ten years.

The answer: 12%.

Our high technology is far more at risk than most people appreciate. I don’t understand why the odds are so high (given that the last such event was in 1859 but I would guess there are sensible reasons for them to calculate such high odds. Others (in a quick web search) offer lower odds, but still 7 or 8% of such an event in the next 10 years.

The 2012 event would have done a great deal of damage. Luckily it was directed away from the sun in a direction away from where the earth was at the time. NASA has satellites arrayed around the sun (even where the earth isn’t) and one of those was able to capture data on the event.

There is also disagreement about how much damage such a solar storm would cause on earth. The main direct damage is expected to be done to the power system (of the USA and the rest of the world).

Related: Solar Storm (2006)photo of Solar Eruption (2006)Solar Flares May Threaten GPS (2007)Magnetic Portals Connect Sun and Earth (2008)

NASA explored this idea in a webcast:

Continue reading

The Amazing Reality of Genes and The History of Scientific Inquiry

cover of The Gene

The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee is a wonderful book. He does a great job of explaining the history of scientists learning about genes as well as providing understandable explanations for the current scientific understanding of genes and how they impact our lives.

As I have mentioned before, I find biology fascinating even though I found biology classes utterly boring and painful. I wish everyone could learn about biology with the insight people like Siddhartha Mukherjee provide. I realize not everyone is going to find the history and understanding of genes to be fascinating but for those who might this book is a great read. And don’t rule the idea out just because you found biology classes painful.

Life may be chemistry, but it’s a special circumstance of chemistry. Organisms exist not because of reactions that are possible, but because of reactions that are barely possible. Too much reactivity and we would spontaneously combust. Too little, and we would turn cold and die. Proteins enable these barely possible reactions, allowing us to live on the edges of chemical entropy – skating perilously, but never falling in.
– page 134

Whether it is the physics of our solar system or our biology there is a precarious band that allowed beings such as ourselves to evolve.

most genes, as Richard Dawkins describes them, are not “blueprints” but “recipes.” They do not specify parts, but processes; they are formulas, not forms. If you change a blueprint, the final product is change in a perfectly predictable manner: eliminate a widget specified in the plan, and you get a machine with a missing widget. But alteration of a recipe or formula doesn’t not change the product in a predictable manner: if you quadruple the amount of butter in a cake, the eventual effect is more complicated than just a quadruply buttered cake (try it; the whole thing collapses in an oily mess).
– page 454

The is a powerful idea. And when combined with turning genes on and off it is understandable how complex determining genetic impacts on biology and disease are. A few diseases or results (e.g. blue eyes) are nearly as simple as 1 or a few genes being altered in a specific way but most are not nearly so easy. And it isn’t like even that is so easy but with the amazing efforts scientists have made and the advanced tools those scientists created it can now seem simple to identify some such diseases.

The genetic code is universal. A gene from a blue whale can be inserted into a microscopic bacterium and it will be deciphered accurately and with near perfect fidelity. A corollary: there is nothing particularly special about human genes.
– page 480

This is something I have known and understood but it is still amazing. Genes and proteins and how they act to create the incredible diversity of life is something that is awe inspiring.

This book is a wonderful adventure for those interested in life and scientific inquiry.

Related: Epigenetics, Scientific Inquiry and UncertaintyHuman Gene Origins: 37% Bacterial, 35% Animal, 28% EukaryoticUnexpected Risks Found In Editing Genes To Prevent Inherited DisordersEpigenetic Effects on DNA from Living Conditions in Childhood Persist Well Into Middle AgeWhy Don’t All Ant Species Replace Queens in the Colony, Since Some Do

Unexpected Risks Found In Editing Genes To Prevent Inherited Disorders

Mitochondrial replacement seeks to remove genes known to cause genetic defects from embryos in order to allow for a baby to avoid inheriting the defect.

Mitochondrial Replacement Techniques: Ethical, Social, and Policy Considerations from the USA National Academy of Sciences

Accordingly, the committee recommends that any initial MRT clinical investigations focus on minimizing the future child’s exposure to risk while ascertaining the safety and efficacy of the techniques. The recommended restrictions and conditions for initial clinical investigations include

  • limiting clinical investigations to women who are otherwise at risk of transmitting a serious mtDNA disease, where the mutation’s pathogenicity is undisputed, and the clinical presentation of the disease is predicted to be severe, as characterized by early mortality or substantial impairment of basic function; and
  • transferring only male embryos for gestation to avoid introducing heritable genetic modification during initial clinical investigations.

Following successful initial investigations of MRT in males, the committee recommends that FDA could consider extending MRT research to include the transfer of female embryos if clear evidence of safety and efficacy from male cohorts, using identical MRT procedures, were available, regardless of how long it took to collect this evidence; preclinical research in animals had shown evidence of intergenerational safety and efficacy; and FDA’s decisions were consistent with the outcomes of public and scientific deliberations to establish a shared framework concerning the acceptability of and moral limits on heritable genetic modification.

The research in this area is interesting and our ability to help achieve healthy lives continues to grow. The path to a bright future though is not without risk. It requires careful action to pursue breakthrough improvements while minimizing the risks we take to achieve better lives for us all.

Unexpected Risks Found In Editing Genes To Prevent Inherited Disorders

Earlier this month, a study published in Nature by Shoukhrat Mitalipov, head of the Center for Embryonic Cell and Gene Therapy at the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, suggested that in roughly 15 percent of cases, the mitochondrial replacement could fail and allow fatal defects to return, or even increase a child’s vulnerability to new ailments.

The findings confirmed the suspicions of many researchers, and the conclusions drawn by Mitalipov and his team were unequivocal: The potential for conflicts between transplanted and original mitochondrial genomes is real, and more sophisticated matching of donor and recipient eggs — pairing mothers whose mitochondria share genetic similarities, for example — is needed to avoid potential tragedies.

“This study shows the potential as well as the risks of gene therapy in the germline,” Mitalipov says. This is especially true of mitochondria, because its genomes are so different than the genomes in the nucleus of cells. Slight variations between mitochondrial genomes, he adds, “turn out to matter a great deal.”

Related: Gene Duplication and EvolutionThe Challenge of Protecting Us from Evolving Bacterial ThreatsOne Species’ Genome Discovered Inside Another’s (2007)Looking Inside Living Cells

PISA Science Education Results Show Singapore, Japan and Estonia Leading

The most comprehensive comparison of student achievement in math and science around the globe is completed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The 2015 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) focuses on science understanding of 15 year olds (the 2012 report focused on math).

2015 results for the science portion (rank – country – mean score)(I am not listing all countries):

  • 1 – Singapore – 556
  • 2 – Japan – 538
  • 3 – Estonia – 534
  • 4 – Taiwan – 532
  • 5 – Finland – 531
  • 6 – Canada – 528
  • 7 – Vietnam – 525
  • 8 – China – 520*
  • 9 – Korea – 516
  • 13 – Germany – 509
  • 13 – UK – 509
  • 23 – USA – 496
  • 26 – Sweden – 493 (this is also the OECD average)
  • 56 – Mexico – 416
  • 61 – Brazil – 401

* I am merging several distinct Chinese locations reported in the official report.

The 2015 PISA include 72 participating countries and economies. From the PISA report:

On average across OECD countries, 25% of boys and 24% of girls reported that they expect to work in a science-related occupation. But boys and girls tend to think of working in different fields of science: girls envisage themselves as health professionals more than boys do; and in almost all countries, boys see themselves as becoming information and communications technologies (ICT) professionals, scientists or engineers more than girls do.

Related: 2009 results of science education student achievement around the globe2012 results for the science portion (math was the focus in 2012)The Economic Consequences of Investing in Science EducationCountry H-index Ranking for Science Publications

The Challenge of Protecting Us from Evolving Bacterial Threats

I have long been concerned about the practices we continue to use increasing the risks of “superbugs.” I have written about this many times, including: The Overuse of Antibiotics Carries Large Long Term Risks (2005)Are you ready for a world without antibiotics? (2010), Antibiotics Breed Superbugs Faster Than Expected (2010), Entirely New Antibiotic (platensimycin) Developed (2006), Our Poor Antibiotic Practices Have Sped the Evolution of Resistance to Our Last-Resort Antibiotic (2015).

I do also believe the wonderful breakthroughs we make when we invest in science and engineering have made our lives much better and have the potential to continue to do so in many ways, including in dealing with the risks of superbugs. But this is something that requires great effort by many smart people and a great deal of money. It will only happen if we put in the effort.

Winning war against ‘superbugs’

hey won this particular battle, or at least gained some critical intelligence, not by designing a new antibiotic, but by interfering with the metabolism of the bacterial “bugs” — E. coli in this case — and rendering them weaker in the face of existing antibiotics

ROS, or “reactive oxygen species,” include molecules like superoxide and hydrogen peroxide that are natural byproducts of normal metabolic activity. Bacteria usually cope just fine with them, but too many can cause serious damage or even kill the cell. In fact, Collins’ team revealed a few years ago the true antibiotic modus operandi: they kill bacteria in part by ramping up ROS production.

We need to continue to pursue many paths to protecting us from rapidly evolving bacterial risks. Many promising research results will fail to produce usable solutions. We need to try many promising ideas to find useful tools and strategies to protect human health.

How Eratosthenes Estimated the Circumference of the Earth Over 2,000 Years Ago

In this video Carl Sagan explains how Greek astronomer Eratosthenes, in 200 BC, was able to deduce and calculate the earth was a sphere about 40,000 km in circumference.

It is wonderful to see how a bit of thought and curiosity have lead mankind to learn so much.

Related: How do Plants Grow Into the Sunlight?Why is it Colder at Higher Elevations?Great Webcast Explaining the Digestive SystemBiology: How Wounds to Our Skin Heal

Promoting Open Science

As I have written many times in the past we need to take back science from the closed-science journals. Historically journals were useful (before the internet). With the advent of the internet (and its spread) instead of maintaining the mission they started with the journals sought to maximize their profit and their own pay and jobs at the expense of sharing scientific knowledge with the world.

Elsevier — my part in its downfall by Timothy Gowers provides another good look at what can be done to promote science, math and engineering by addressing the damage to that goal being done by closed science publishers.

Recently he announced the launch of Discrete Analysis, a new journal that publishes to arXiv.

Disrupting the subscription journals’ business model for the necessary large-scale transformation to open access from the Max Planck Digital Library provides some good ideas for how to promote science in spite of the closed science journals fighting that goal.

There needs to be a shared understanding that the money currently locked in the journal subscription system must be withdrawn and re-purposed for open access publishing services. The current library acquisition budgets are the ultimate reservoir for enabling the transformation without financial or other risks.

Related: The Architecture of Access to Scientific KnowledgeWhy Copyright Extension is a Very Bad IdeaPublishers Continue to Fight Open Access to Science (2007)Harvard Steps Up Defense Against Abusive Journal Publishers (2012)

Healthy Living Greatly Reduces Likelihood of Dying from Cancer

Lifestyle choices can greatly reduce the incidence and death rates from cancer. 4 factors can reduce the incidence of cancer by up to 40% and death rate by 50%: don’t smoke, don’t drink alcohol in excess, maintain a BMI between 18.5 and 27.5, and exercising at a moderate intensity for at least 150 minutes or at a vigorous intensity for at least 75 minutes every week.

Preventable Incidence and Mortality of Carcinoma Associated With Lifestyle Factors Among White Adults in the United States

A substantial cancer burden may be prevented through lifestyle modification. Primary prevention should remain a priority for cancer control.

Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States, with 1.6 million new cancer cases and 0.6 million cancer deaths projected to occur in 2016.1 The cancer mortality rate, age-standardized to the 2000 US standard population, decreased from 199 to 163 per 100 000 between 1969 and 2013.2 However, this decline (17.9%) has been modest compared with the dramatic decrease in heart disease mortality (67.5%) during the same period, highlighting the need for further efforts in cancer prevention and treatment.

The study reviewed previous studies and the makeup of the previous studies and available statistics. As they state in the paper: “Because our cohorts’ participants were predominantly whites, to avoid any influence of different racial distributions on the comparison with the general population, we only included whites in the analysis.” They also excluded about 10% of cancers that are believed to have strong environmental factors.

Table Showing a Comparison of Lifestyle Factors in the Low- and High-Risk Groups

In the 2 cohort studies of US white individuals, we found that overall, 20% to 40% of carcinoma cases and about half of carcinoma deaths can be potentially prevented through lifestyle modification. Not surprisingly, these figures increased to 40% to 70% when assessed with regard to the broader US population of whites, which has a much worse lifestyle pattern than our cohorts.

Notably, approximately 80% to 90% of lung cancer deaths could be avoided if Americans adopted the lifestyle of the low-risk group, mainly by quitting smoking. For other cancers, from 10% to 70% of deaths could be prevented. These results provide strong support for the importance of environmental factors in cancer risk and reinforce the enormous potential of primary prevention for cancer control.

Related: A Healthy Lifestyle is More About Health Care than the Sickness Management That We Call Health Care IsBetter Health Through: Exercise, Not Smoking, Low Weight, Healthy Diet and Low Alcohol Intake (2013)Exercise Is Really Really Good for YouPhysical Activity for Adults: Inactivity Leads to 5.3 Million Early Deaths a Year (2012)

International Science Research Scholar Grants

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Wellcome Trust, and Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation have announced the International Research Scholars Program which aims to support up to 50 outstanding early career scientists worldwide. The program’s aim is to help develop scientific talent worldwide.

The new international competition is seeking top early career researchers from a wide variety of biomedical research fields. Applicants must have started their first independent research position on or after April 1, 2009. Awardees will be invited to participate in research meetings with scientists supported by the funders. These meetings facilitate the exchange of ideas, stimulate new research, and provide an opportunity for collaborative endeavors within the international scientific community.

  • Awardees will receive a total of $650,000 over five years.
  • Applications are due June 30, 2016.
  • Awardees will be notified in April 2017.

HHMI and its partners have committed a total of $37.4 million for the International Research Scholars Program and will award each scientist who is selected a total of $650,000 over five years. The competition is open to scientists who have trained in the U.S. or United Kingdom for at least one year. Additionally, eligible scientists must have run their own labs for less than seven years, and work in one of the eligible countries.

Nieng Yan

Although Nieng Yan had several grants when she started her lab at Tsinghua University in 2007, she barely had enough money to pay her eight lab members. “In China, there is a limit on the percentage of a grant that you can use to pay people — your graduate students, your postdocs, your technicians, your assistants — to a decent level,” she explains. After struggling to balance her budget for several years, Yan’s scientific achievements and potential landed her an international grant from HHMI in 2012. “The amount of money provided by Hughes is relatively small compared to other programs, but it has the advantage that you can freely decide what to do with it,” says Yan. In fact, HHMI’s science officers encouraged Yan to use her five-year International Early Career Award (IECS) to cover the cost of paying her lab team, explaining that the money could be used in any way that assisted her research. Today, Yan has 15 people working in her lab helping to elucidate the structures of proteins that move molecules in and out of cells. The protein channels and transporters they study are mutated in a number of diseases — including diabetes and cancer — and understanding how they work could help in the development of drugs that block their ill effects. For example, the team recently solved the structure of GLUT1 – a glucose transporter that is often overexpressed in malignant tumor cells. Their data may provide clues for how to inhibit the transporter and perhaps even reveal a way to use it to deliver chemotherapeutic drugs. Photo Credit: Kevin Wolf (AP)

Countries that are not eligible for this competition include the G7 countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, United Kingdom and United States), as well as countries identified by the U.S. Department of Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) as being subject to comprehensive country or territory-wide sanctions or where current OFAC regulations prohibit U.S. persons or entities from engaging in the funding arrangements contemplated by this grant program. For this program, such sanctioned countries or territories currently include Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Syria, and the Crimea region of Ukraine.

Related: Directory of Science and Engineering Scholarships and FellowshipsFunding Sources for Independent Postdoctoral Research Projects in BiologyScientific Research Spending Cuts in the USA and Increases Overseas are Tempting Scientists to Leave the USA (2013)HHMI Expands Support of Postdoctoral Scientists (2009)Science, Engineering and Math Fellowships

Gut Bacteria Explored as Medical Treatment – even for Cancer

The interaction between gut bacteria and human health continues to be a fertile area of medical research. It appears to be in the very early days of such research. Of course, as I have said before, headline making news often doesn’t result in medical breakthrough, and even when it does a decade isn’t a long wait for it to happen.

How Gut Bacteria Are Shaking Up Cancer Research

In November, University of Chicago researchers wrote that giving mice Bifidobacterium, which normally resides in the gastrointestinal tract, was as effective as an immunotherapy in controlling the growth of skin cancer. Combining the two practically eliminated tumor growth. In the second study, scientists in France found that some bacterial species activated a response to immunotherapy, which didn’t occur without the microbes.

The complex interactions involved in human health is another area that has huge room for research going forward.

Related: Some Bacteria Might Fight Cancer (2008)Cancer Vaccines (2011)Using Diatom Algae to Deliver Chemotherapy Drugs Directly to Cancer Cells (2015)Webcast of a T-cell Killing a Cancerous Cell (2012)

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