Saturday, July 31, 2004

Roundup of Interesting Science News

Lithium may fend off Alzheimer's disease
Published online: 27 July 2004; | doi:10.1038/news040726-4
Helen Pilcher

Manic depression therapy could prevent brain degeneration.

Lithium, a common treatment for manic depression, might also help to stave off Alzheimer's disease. Patients who take the drug to stabilize their mood disorder are less likely to succumb to dementia, a study reveals.

For the last 30 years, lithium has been used to control the mood swings of patients with bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression. But over the last decade, an increased understanding of how the drug works has widened the scope for its use. Researchers now think that the simple salt could slow the progress of degenerative brain disorders, such as Huntington's and Alzheimer's disease.

Paula Nunes and colleagues from the University of São Paulo, Brazil, studied 74 elderly people with bipolar disorder. Four percent of those taking lithium had Alzheimer's disease, compared with 21% of patients who were not taking the drug.

The researchers conclude that lithium therapy may lower the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. They presented their data at the 9th International Conference on Alzheimer's Disease and Related Disorders in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, last week.

"The numbers are small, so it's difficult to draw any firm conclusions," says Alzheimer's researcher Bart De Strooper from the University of Leuven, Belgium. But the results do back up tissue culture and animal studies, which hint that lithium can tackle the two hallmarks of Alzheimer's disease, namely tangles and plaques. [...]

Gene therapy reaches muscles throughout the body and reverses muscular dystrophy in animal model
Jul. 26, 2004
Walter Neary

Researchers have found a delivery method for gene therapy that reaches all the voluntary muscles of a mouse -- including heart, diaphragm and all limbs -- and reverses the process of muscle-wasting found in muscular dystrophy.

"We have a clear 'proof of principle' that it is possible to deliver new genes body-wide to all the striated muscles of an adult animal. Finding a delivery method for the whole body has been a major obstacle limiting the development of gene therapy for the muscular dystrophies. Our new work identifies for the first time a method where a new dystrophin gene can be delivered, using a safe and simple method, to all of the affected muscles of a mouse with muscular dystrophy," said Dr. Jeffrey S. Chamberlain, professor of neurology and director of the Muscular Dystrophy Cooperative Research Center at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. He also has joint appointments in the departments of medicine and biochemistry.

Chamberlain is the senior author of the paper describing the results, which will be published in the August edition of Nature Medicine. The paper describes a type of viral vector, a specific type of an adeno-associated virus (AAV), which is able to 'home-in' on muscle cells and does not trigger an immune system response. The delivery system also includes use of a growth factor, VEGF, that appears to increase penetration into muscles of the gene therapy agent. Chamberlain said the formula was the result of about a year of trying different methods.


Old Age Was Secret of Modern Humans' Success
July 07, 2004
Sarah Graham

Humans began to live long and prosper only about 30,000 years ago, researchers report. Results published online this week by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveal a striking increase in human longevity during the Upper Paleolithic Period when the number of people surviving to old age increased four-fold.Rachel Caspari of the University of Michigan and Sang-Hee Lee of the University of California at Riverside, examined 768 hominid dental samples from a variety of locations and time periods. Included in the selection were fossils from Australopithecus, Homo erectus, and Neandertals from Europe and Western Asia. The researchers analyzed the amount of wear on the molars to determine the age of the individuals and defined as “old” those who reached double the age of reproductive maturation. A comparison of the number of old and young individuals in each time period revealed a dramatic increase in life span that occurred about 30,000 years ago. (The above photograph  shows the skull of an early modern human from the site of Cro-Magnon in France.) “Significant longevity came late in human evolution and its advantages must have compensated somehow for the disabilities and diseases of older age, when gene expressions uncommon in younger adults become more frequent,” the scientists write.

The findings support the so-called grandmother hypothesis, which posits that older women no longer responsible for their own children help support the group by strengthening social bonds and providing greater opportunities to pass on specialized knowledge. "There has been a lot of speculation about what gave modern humans their evolutionary advantage,” Caspari remarks. “This research provides a simple explanation for which there is now concrete evidence: modern humans were older and wiser.”

Commentary:  The first article shows that lithium has a therapeutic effect on brain tissue, in at least one degenerative brain disease.  This is of interest, because it refutes the notion that psychiatric medication "justcovers up the symptoms."  Previous posts at The Corpus Callosum have shown that antidepressants can reverse the shrinkage of the hippocampus in posttramatic stress disorder, and that eltroconvulsive therapy causes the migration of neuronal stem cells in the brain, leading to the creation of new synapes.  Now, we see that lithium also hasa beneficial effect on brain tissue.

The second article shows that gene therapy -- the practice of treating disease by inserting new genetic material into a person -- is feasible, at least for mice.  As the author cautions, it is too early to know if this technique will be safe or effective for humans.  Still, it is extremely encouraging.  And those of you who watched the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon, and perhaps even donated money, can rest assured that it was not a scam.  Those research dollars really do matter.

The third article, about some reasearch done by Ann Arbor's own Dr. Rachel Caspari, provides some information about modern evolutionary theory.  Critics of evolutionary theory have, at times, argued that the theory must be false, because it predicts that humans should die once they get past reproductive age.  Drs. Caspari and Lee show that this is not the case. 

Ashcroft on the Prowl
Artists and Nuns, Look Out!

I ran across an article that makes John Ashcroft look bad. It caught my attention, because it referred to a case I had read about earlier in the journal, Nature. The article I read today was in the Utah Daily Herald -- not exactly a knee-jerk liberal paper. Even so, the paper demonstrates that Mr. Ahcroft is not entirely honest when he reports to Congress. Learn about that, and find out what turns communion wafers blood red, at The Rest of the Story.

Arrrgh! Another Fahrenheit 911 Review

Why write about what now must be the most-reviewed-and-commented-upon film in history?  There is a review in the London Free Press (Not the big London in the UK; the middle-sized one in Ontario) that actually makes sense.

Moore's latest film offering is only one truth

Paul Berton, Editor-In-Chief  
2004-07-31 01:55:23

Fact or fiction? Entertainment or journalism? Documentary or political statement? No, I'm not talking about the news media, but Michael Moore's latest movie, Fahrenheit 9/11.

I saw the film this week, enjoyed it, was shocked, angered, enlightened, impressed, depressed by it, and like most of his movies, slightly annoyed by it, too. [...]

Mr. Berton goes on to be critical of everything: the media, the American president, and Michael Moore.  It is easy to criticize everything; that is not particularly noteworthy, although.  What is worth repeating is Mr. Berton's conclusion:

It's a noble exercise and he's raised questions that should be asked. He's started a useful debate and he's educated some people about a complex issue.  But we shouldn't just accept it as gospel, any more than we should accept anything else from any one journalist or media outlet or filmmaker.

Each of us -- readers, viewers, listeners, journalists and ordinary citizens -- should expose ourselves to as many different sources and opinions as possible, ask some tough questions and do our own investigations. Only then can we form our own opinions and reach our own truths.

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Emergency Contraception Generates Controversy

Last night, on the way home from work, I listened to a segment of All Things Considered, entitled Alabama Nurses Quit Over Morning After Pill. This link should open the audio stream:

The gist of the story is that state-sponsored public health clinics in Alabama have started to offer emergency contraception (EC) to their clients. Some nurses objected, and quit. The state began to offer employees "accommodations," if they object to dispensing EC. The accommodation is either to transfer them to another job, or to allow them to continue the job without being compelled to be involved with EC. In this post, I review the broadcast, make some comments of my own, and review the Blogosphere response to the Alabama situation, and to emergency contraception in general. Read the rest at The Rest of the Story.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Blame Washington if the Power Goes Out

Another item in the Freep today is this article about the blackout last year, and the political stalemate that has led to inaction on Capitol Hill.

Lights on, but next outage is blip away
Little done to prevent repeat of Blackout '03

July 28, 2004

When Americans go home tonight, they will flip a switch and lights will turn on. Their refrigerators will be cold. The phones will ring. Toilets will flush.

But one day almost a year ago, none of those everyday conveniences worked. Some 50 million people -- including 2.3 million in Michigan -- spent Aug. 14 sweating in the dark or pushing their cars to closed gas stations or scrounging for drinking water.

But even during an era marked by terrorist concerns and national security, the nation has done virtually nothing to ensure Blackout 2003 doesn't happen again.

A wave of political outrage, federal investigations, proposed legislation and 46 official recommendations from a U.S.-Canadian task force, have not resulted in any new laws. Most of the task force's recommendations have not been adopted. And as for the political and public outcry, experts say that was gone within a month of the blackout.

The upcoming one-year anniversary of the blackout will be a celebration of apathy. The nation's power grid is caught in political gridlock.

"Most people couldn't tell you what month the blackout happened," said Craig Ruff, president and chief executive officer of Lansing-based Public Sector Consultants. "America has a 24-hour memory. We live in the present tense. The event was widespread and caused a lot of harm, but it was too complex and the public couldn't get it."

Instead of being a national issue, the pressure to prevent blackouts has quietly passed to local utilities and other industry players. Many utilities have purchased new equipment, installed high-tech computer software to monitor the flow of electricity at any given second, but they are the first to admit the improvements are nothing more than Band-Aids on a system that is outdated and overburdened.

Many industry officials say more Americans will have to sweat in the dark before any changes are made to the nation's aging power grid.

"Improving the nation's power grid became a political football between the Democrats and Republicans," said Joe Lucas, a lobbyist for Americans for Balanced Energy Choices, a coal industry supporter. "No one wants to stand up to improve the power grid. No one wants to do it because it isn't easy." [...]

Honestly, I am not satisfied with the explanation.  It would be interesting to know what kind of lobbying went on around this, and how the power structure in Washington created a stalemate.  Clearly, the power companies do not want expensive regulations, and it would be contrary to the spirit of the current administration to impose such regulations. 

According to various estimates (1  2 -- both are small PDF files) the economic cost of the blackout was between 4.5 and 10 billion dollars, from 4PM on August 14th to 4PM on August 17th, 2003.  Note that much of this was due to spoilage of products, and lost output.  Other costs, such as increased costs for fire and police services, get recycled back into the economy.  But lost goods and lost production are simpley lost. 

I have no idea what it would actually cost to prevent another widespread blackout.  But, I do know that almost all of the cost would result in economic activity, such as labor costs and capitol upgrades.  It is pretty obvious which is preferable, from the standpoint of the public good. 

What, then, could account for the inaction?  I have a theory.  Yes, it is an ametuer, armchair-musing-type of theory, but this is a blog, after all.  Electric paower utilities are going to be cautious about major capitol investments, since they now operate in a deregulated market.  The incentive is to keep costs down.  If one company upgrades while others do not, the one that upgrades may have trouble staying competitive.  Thus, any real, major, systematic upgrades would have to be mandated uniformly, to keep a level playing field.  The utilities would have no choice, but to pass the costs on to the consumers.  The increased energy cost would create a temporary dip in the economy.  That would not be acceptable to the current administration in Washington.

Higher energy costs are acceptable in Washington only  if it is the oil companies  that profit.

Convention Coverage:
As Close as Lips and Teeth Convention Coverage:
As Close as Lips and Teeth

There was a media flap about al-Jazeera at the Democratic National Convention. That got me to look at what al-Jazeera reported about the convention, on the English-language version of their website. I then decided to compare the coverage by al-Jazeera to that provided by the American news media. It appears that al-Jazeera emphasizes crticisms of President Bush, while the American media downplay that aspect. Read the rest at The Rest of the Story.

View From China

This is what a Chinese newspaper, Xinhua, reveals about American culture.

Sharon Stone and Halle Berry in Catwoman

Medical Reasoning:
Insight into the Mind of the Physician

The New York Times today has an article about sleep apnea.  It actually is an article written by a journalist, detailing the problem he had with hypersomnia, and his experience getting a clinic polysomnogram (sleep study.) 

Published: July 27, 2004

I haven't slept well for years.  If I set an alarm for 6:30 a.m., my eyes open at 5, and I try to doze to the radio. I drink four cups of coffee a day. I don't think I have ever fallen asleep at the wheel, but I often pull over nodding off.

Cripes, man, if you have to pull over because you are drowsy, you need to see a sleep specialist, like Right Now!

I used to work nights, which first threw my rhythm off. But I liked having days with my daughters and not being a creature of habit, perhaps because my father, who slept nine hours a night, was someone you could set a clock by.

Lately, though, it had gotten ridiculous. So when the new sleep lab at Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn offered to let me bring my pillow over for a test snooze, I jumped. [...]

In the remainder of the article, he discusses the seriousness of the problem of obstructive sleep apnea, and tells what he went through to get the diagnosis.  He promises to tell about the treatment in a future article.  In my opinion, he should have emphasized the dangerousness of driving while drowsy, but then, he's not a public health specialist. 

I've written about sleep disorders here before, at the Corpus Callosum, often to illustrate points about physiology or medical theory.  Use the search function in the sidebar if your are interested.  Today, I'll use the opportunity to show a connection between sleep disorders and post-stroke mortality, and make a point about interpretation of medical literature.  Read the rest at The Rest of the Story.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Dump Cheney...?

A google search on the string (with quotes) "dump Cheney" gives this result:

about 40,400 for "dump Cheney". (0.20 seconds)

I have to admit, even though I am having trouble getting to sleep (see post below), I did not read all forty thousand.  There is a sampling of what I did  read, posted (due to the length) on The Rest of the Story.

Monday, July 26, 2004

I Really, Really, Don't Need This.  Really.

Plane hijacker arrested in central China

ZHENGZHOU, July 26 (Xinhuanet) -- A passenger who threatened to hijack an Air China plane was arrested by Chinese police Monday morning at the airport of Zhengzhou, capital of central China's Henan Province.

The plane landed safely at around 2:35 p.m. at its destination of Changsha, capital of southern Hunan Province, with no casualties.

The hijacker Yang Jinsong, 32, is a librarian at Xiangtan University in Hunan and has a record of mental illness.

According to police investigation, Yang claimed around 10 minutes after take-off that his companions had some sulfuric acid and would throw it on other passengers unless the plane headed for the Republic of Korea.

The CA 1343 flight traveling a domestic route from Beijing to Changsha then made an emergency landing in Zhengzhou at 9:50 a.m.,according to the sources from the General Administration of Civil Aviation.

A small team was formed immediately to handle the case and two plainclothes policemen were sent to negotiate with Yang in the plane, said Liu Guoqing, senior official with the Henan police.

Yang was captured at 10:20 a.m.

The police then examined the plane and other passengers but didn't find any conspirators or sulfuric acid as Yang had claimed.

Further investigation is in progress. Enditem

My son, Kevin, is in China.  He is scheduled to depart Shanghai on 7/28/2004 for Tokyo on All Nippon Airways flight #922. 

Conceding the Moral High Ground

If you have nothing better to do, read a list of randomly-selected articles about the virtues of the Republican Party, at The Rest of the Story.

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Drip Down Economics

Record quarters seen from Big Oil
By Lisa Sanders, CBS.MarketWatch.com
Last Update: 5:46 PM ET July 24, 2004

DALLAS (CBS.MW) -- Oil is selling over $41 a barrel, with profits dripping to the bottom line.

"Chevron is printing money," said Oppenheimer & Co. analyst Fadel Gheit. "They're having Christmas in April, May and June. Gasoline prices are at record levels and they're making obscene profits."

On Friday, analysts expect ChevronTexaco (CVX: news, chart) to report earnings of $2.70 per share, a sharp increase from the $1.61 a share earned in the second quarter of 2003.

The major integrated oil companies report quarterly results in force during the next week, with high commodity prices and refining margins seen as drivers for record profit reporting.

"If they don't, shame on them," said Gheit. "Oil is at record levels, natural gas prices are at historical highs and refining margins are very close to record levels. And the chemicals business is improving because of global economic improvements. So they're firing on all cylinders."

ExxonMobil (XOM: news, chart) , the world's largest oil and gas company, reports its second quarter results Thursday.

"Exxon had record earnings last quarter, and they will beat that," Gheit added. "My bet is that the majority [of the companies] will."

Analysts polled by Thomson First Call expect Exxon, which has about $16 billion in cash, to earn 87 cents a share, on average. A year ago, the company earned 62 cents.

"Although they are still buying back stock, the money is coming in a lot faster than they are able to spend it," Gheit noted. "I still believe [Exxon is] eyeing investments in Russia. With more uncertainty surrounding Iraq, Russia becomes the only game in town." [emphasis mine]

Commentary:  On 5/11/2004 I posted a blurb about the sudden rise in gasoline prices.  I got the following comment:

The oil companies generally don't have the ability to collude--the execs get put in jail if it even looks like they did that. There's a shortage and oil companies always buy at whatever today's market price is and sell based on today's price, because they have to buy at a constant rate.

It's a little early to be getting worked up over these things--we don't know if it's the start of a trend or not.

Saturday, July 24, 2004

Arrrgh! Not Another Internet Quiz!


Ethical Philosophy  Results

1.  Epicureans   (100%)  Click here for info
2.  Spinoza   (100%)  Click here for info
3.  Kant   (90%)  Click here for info
4.  Stoics   (89%)  Click here for info
5.  Aristotle   (86%)  Click here for info
6.  Jeremy Bentham   (82%)  Click here for info
7.  Aquinas   (78%)  Click here for info
8.  John Stuart Mill   (76%)  Click here for info
9.  Jean-Paul Sartre   (73%)  Click here for info
10.  Nietzsche   (70%)  Click here for info
11.  Ayn Rand   (63%)  Click here for info
12.  Prescriptivism   (49%)  Click here for info
13.  David Hume   (48%)  Click here for info
14.  Nel Noddings   (42%)  Click here for info
15.  Thomas Hobbes   (35%)  Click here for info
16.  Ockham   (34%)  Click here for info
17.  St. Augustine   (31%)  Click here for info
18.  Cynics   (24%)  Click here for info
19.  Plato   (21%)  Click here for info

Found on Anthony Cox's  Black Triangle, who, by the way, has signed off for now. 

Personally, I think it is hard to understand how these results came about.  The rankings are supposed to show how closely my personal philosphy matches the teachings of various prominent philosophers.  I disagree with most of Spinoza, an not particularly Epicurean, and think rather highly of Plato. 

Friday, July 23, 2004

What Goes Around Comes Around

Global warming melts Peruvian peaks
Fri 23 July, 2004 13:10

By Monica Vargas

LIMA, Peru (Reuters) - The snow atop Pastoruri, one of the Andes most beautiful peaks and a big draw for mountaineers and skiers, could disappear along with many of Peru's glaciers in the next several years because of global warming, experts say.

At 17,000 feet (5,191 meters) in the northern Andes, the glacier which covers famed Pastoruri has shrunk at a rate of 62 feet (19 meters) every year since 1980. Today it covers a surface area of 0.7 square miles (1.8 square kilometres), about 25 percent less than a quarter of a century ago.


Peru has the most tropical glaciers in Latin America and has already lost 20 percent of the 1,615 miles (2,600 kms) of glaciers running through its central and southern Andes in the past 30 years, according to CONAM.

Climate change, caused by greenhouses gases such as carbon dioxide, is considered one of the biggest longer term threats to mankind and could bring higher sea levels, devastating floods and droughts.

The world has been heating up in the past 50 years and the Earth is at its hottest in 10,000 years, scientists say.

"There are 18 glacial mountains in Peru and they are all experiencing melting," Iturregui said.

President George W. Bush has been roundly, repeatedly, and justifiably criticized  for his handling of climate change issues.  He also is  great believer in justice and personal responsibility.  Thus, the following headline should come as no surprise:

Bush military records found
Saturday 24 July 2004, 2:31 Makka Time, 23:31 GMT

Crucial military records of US President George Bush, earlier reported destroyed by the Pentagon, have resurfaced.

The records relate to Bush's service in the Air National Guard three decades ago and are likely to help in throwing light on the president's whereabouts while he was a pilot during the Vietnam War.

In an election year, Bush is facing strident accusations of having shirked military duty in his younger days.

Defence Finance and Accounting Service spokesman Bryan Hubbard said the microfilm payroll records were found in Peru and blamed a clerical error for the Pentagon's failure to find the records.

"We are talking about a manual process for records that are over 30 years old," Hubbard said.

False alarm

The Pentagon earlier this month said microfilm records of large numbers of service members, including Bush, were buried under the snow on a mountain top in Peru, in 1996 and 1997, in a project to save large, brittle rolls of microfilm.  Last February, the White House released hundreds of pages of Bush's military records. Those records did not provide new evidence to place Bush in Alabama during the latter part of 1972 -- the period Democrats say he was basically absent without leave.

"The risk of fire and the risk of the microfilm drying out caused us to come up with a plan to bury the microfilm atop Pastoruri Mountain."  

A plan to bury the records at Yucca Mountain was derailed when a federal court ruled that they could be hazardous to the public, and a facility had to be found that would keep the records safe for more than 10,000 years.  "The court ruled that innocent civilians should not have to risk being exposed to the records.  The president agreed that the public should be protected at all costs, and that means we must withhold any information that could jeopardize the next election." 

Speaking off the record, a top White House official was quoted as saying: "The safety of the American People is the President's top priority.  If lies, half-truths, and withholding public information are what it takes to protect our citizens from themselves, George W. Bush will do that, and more, without hesitation."

The official, when asked about the exposure of the embarrassing records, stated: "Our scientists assured us that the snow and ice in the Peruvian Mountains would never melt, since Global Warming is known to be a myth perpetuated by liberal proponents of junk science."

In other news today, the Dow Jones Industrial Average  dropped below 10,000  for the first time since May, as investor confidence was rattled by the revelation that Mr. Bush is a liar.  However, the market has been sinking steadily since early July, when a disappointing jobs report from the Labor Department ended hopes for a summer rally and also started giving investors severe doubt about the strength of the economy. Since then, other downbeat economic reports and a series of surprisingly poor second-half earnings outlooks have sent the market lower and lower.  By dropping below 10,000 the Dow reminded long-term investors that they haven't made a dime on the market's 30 most-watched stocks during the past five years. It was in the spring of 1999 that the Dow first broke into five-digit territory and after years of rallies and retreats, that is where it closed today.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Bobby Fischer and Dick Cheney Compared:
Both are Criminals; Only One is a Liar

This guy, James Taranto, is the author of the Best of the Web  page for the Wall Street Journal.  Today he included a blurb:

He Belongs in One, All Right
"Chess Great Fischer Seeks Asylum"--headline, Associated Press, July 21

I find this to be offensive, because it implies a negative value judgment about psychiatric hospitals and patients.  The implication is that because Mr. Fischer allegedly violated US law, he should be in a mental hospital.  No, people who are found guilty of crimes belong in a prison, not a hospital.  Yes, Fischer has said and done some awfully offensive things, and he may have broken the law.  Perhaps he's a bad man.  But don't joke about asylums.

Rant tangent aside, it seems odd that Mr.  Fischer would be of such interest to the US Dept. of Justice that they would extradite him from Japan.  His alleged crime:

Fischer is wanted in the United States for playing a rematch against Soviet world champion Boris Spassky in Yugoslavia in 1992. Yugoslavia was under international sanctions at the time, and U.S. citizens were banned from doing business there.

Fischer won the match and more than $3 million in prize money.

He was caught in Japan, because he was trying to get on a plane to the Philippines, and his passport was not valid.

In the full post at The Rest of the Story, I compare this to another story about another case of an American doing business with a sanctioned country.


Russell Train, former EPA Administrator under Nixon and Ford, spoke out against Bush's treatment of the environment at a press conference in NH.

Democrats are thrilled to have Ron Reagan speaking at their national convention, in part because it indicates a lack of solidarity among the Republican base.  He is speaking out in support of embryonic stem cell research.  However, he is not really an expert on the subject. 

Here, we see some Republicans who are  experts, speaking out against the Bush administration's environmental record:

This Monday, E'04 launched its New Hampshire campaign with a press conference in Concord, NH on Monday, July 19.   Featured speakers were former EPA Administrator under Nixon and Ford, Russell Train, along with state legislator Jim Pilliod and former NH Senator (and chair of the Senate Environmental Committee) Rick Russman, both Republicans, all of whom admonished the Bush administration's unprecedented anti-environmental agenda that goes against decades of bipartisan support for our nation's backbone environmental protections.  "It's almost as if the motto of the administration in power today in Washington is not environmental protection, but polluter protection," Train said. "I find this deeply disturbing."  The press conference garnered wide media attention, with coverage in print, radio, television and online media outlets including CNN.com, Fox News Online, ABC Online, the Boston Globe, New Hampshire National Public Radio and other local radio stations, as well as the state's largest TV station, WMUR.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

As I Was Saying...

Apropos of my two recent posts on unexpected findings in physiology, here is a piece lifted from the æthetically-brilliant Canadian blog, wood s lot:

Is there an Artificial God?
Douglas Adams

    ...my argument is that as we become more and more scientifically literate, it's worth remembering that the fictions with which we previously populated our world may have some function that it's worth trying to understand and preserve the essential components of, rather than throwing out the baby with the bath water; because even though we may not accept the reasons given for them being here in the first place, it may well be that there are good practical reasons for them, or something like them, to be there. I suspect that as we move further and further into the field of digital or artificial life we will find more and more unexpected properties begin to emerge out of what we see happening and that this is a precise parallel to the entities we create around ourselves to inform and shape our lives and enable us to work and live together. Therefore, I would argue that though there isn't an actual god there is an artificial god and we should probably bear that in mind. That is my debating point and you are now free to start hurling the chairs around!... (more)

    via Castrovalva

Thinking Outside the Box, part II

This one will be short.  Yesterday, I told the story of parallel fiber - Purkinje cell synapses, those little points in the cerebellum that are involved in fear memory.  This is contrary to the popular, oversimplified, view of the cerebellum as a part of the brain that is responsible for balance and coordination.  Today, I discuss briefly another unexpected finding in physiology, one that is completely counterintuitive. 

The acronym TSH  stands for Thyroid Stimulating Hormone.  This is a hormone secreted by the anterior part of the pituitary gland.  The classical understanding  of TSH is that it acts on the thyroid gland, causing it to secrete more thyroid hormone.  In yesterday's post, I said that everything in the body serves more than one function. 

This is old news by now, but it illustrates my point so well that I will mention it today.  In the October 17, 2003, issue of Cell,  there is an article about TSH:

TSH Is a Negative Regulator of Skeletal Remodeling
Etsuko Abe 1,2, Russell C. Marians 1, Wanqin Yu 1,2, Xue-Bin Wu 1,2, Takao Ando 1, Yanan Li 3, Jameel Iqbal 1,2, Leslie Eldeiry 1,2, Gopalan Rajendren 1,2, Harry C. Blair 3,4, Terry F. Davies 1, and Mone Zaidi *1,2

1Mount Sinai Bone Program, Department of Medicine, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York, NY 10029 USA
2Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Bronx, NY 10463 USA
3Department of Pathology, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA 15213 USA
4Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Pittsburgh, PA 15213 USA

The established function of thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) is to promote thyroid follicle development and hormone secretion. The osteoporosis associated with hyperthyroidism is traditionally viewed as a secondary consequence of altered thyroid function. We provide evidence for direct effects of TSH on both components of skeletal remodeling, osteoblastic bone formation, and osteoclastic bone resorption, mediated via the TSH receptor (TSHR) found on osteoblast and osteoclast precursors. Even a 50% reduction in TSHR expression produces profound osteoporosis (bone loss) together with focal osteosclerosis (localized bone formation). TSH inhibits osteoclast formation and survival by attenuating JNK/c-jun and NFκB signaling triggered in response to RANK-L and TNFα. TSH also inhibits osteoblast differentiation and type 1 collagen expression in a Runx-2- and osterix-independent manner by downregulating Wnt (LRP-5) and VEGF (Flk) signaling. These studies define a role for TSH as a single molecular switch in the independent control of both bone formation and resorption.

The neat thing about this finding is that it illustrates another general principle of physiology: most processes are regulated via two opposing forces.  In the case of bone growth, there are cells that build new bone, and cells that break down existing bone.  Both processes are active all the time.  If the buildup goes faster than the breakdown, the bone gets bigger, or more dense.  Low TSH levels result in the formation of both kinds of cell, but the formation of bone-destroying osteoclasts is faster than the formation of osteoblasts.  Therefore,  bone is broken down faster than it is built up.  Science News Online has a nice summary  of what was known about this in the year 2000. 

The finding that TSH regulates bone formation explains something that has long been known, but which previously was not understood.  Patients treated with excessive thyroid hormone are at risk for osteoporosis.  It now appears that the reason for this is that patients given large doses of thyroid hormone produce very little TSH.  It is not the thyroid hormone itself that causes bone loss; it is the suppression of TSH that does it. 

It still is a mystery, why the body would be set up this way. 

One can hope that this finding could lead to new approaches to treating osteoporosis: a common and debilitating condition, especially among elderly women. 

Arrgh...Not Another Internet Quiz

My japanese name is 藤原 Fujiwara (wisteria fields) 雄大 Masahiro (big hero).

Take your real japanese name generator! today!
Created with Rum and Monkey's Name Generator Generator.

Thinking Outside the Box

One of the thinks that makes schools of higher learning fun is when you learn that your much-despised ninth-grade teacher was dead wrong about something.  Not that I recommend going to medical school for that reason.  Too much work, not enough sleep.  But, you take your jollies where you can get them.

For those of you who have not had the pleasure of walking around for six months smelling like formaldehyde -- a rite of passage courtesy of gross anatomy -- I provide a glimpse of one of the other sources of pleasure in higher learning: thinking outside the box.  In primary and secondary education, science is taught as a series of facts.  You memorize the facts, you get a good grade.  Yes, from time to time there is lip service for the goal of teaching students how to think, instead of what to think; but this is falling by the wayside, as the effect of enforced mediocrity (aka No Child Left Behind) is felt -- increasingly -- across our great land.  If students don't get good scores on standardized tests, the school could loose funding.  This, predictably, will lead to a bunch of students who all think alike:   the Emperor's New Clones. 

Rant tangents aside, reveling in the belief that blogging might be able to make up for the deficiencies in our educational system, let's take a look at some of those things that you might have been taught about biology, that are turning out to be wrong. 

Today, I provide an example of a misperception that still is taught in high school biology.  Read the rest at The Rest of the Story.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

More Editorials on Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Previously, I wrote about some of the editorials in the medical journal, The Lancet, pertaining to stem cell research.  Almost simultaneously, the New England Journal of Medicine  also published three editorials on the same subject.  Now I have learned (via Eye of the Storm) that a bill (H.R. 4812) has been introduced in the US House of Representatives that would promote stem cell research. 

Two of the editorials were written by members of the President's Council on Bioethics, Dr. Sandel  and Dr. McHugh; the other was written by Dr. Spar, a professor at the Harvard Business School. 

In this post, I review the three editorials and add a comment or two of my own.  Read the rest at The Rest of the Story

Monday, July 19, 2004

Christian Principles in an Election Year

From the National Council of Churches:

Our Christian faith compels us to address the world through the lens of our
relationship to God and to one another. Public discourse is enhanced as we
engage civic leaders on the values and ethics affirmed by our faith. At the
same time, religious liberty and the integrity of our democracy will be
protected as candidates refrain from using faith-based organizations and
institutions for partisan gain. We offer these ten principles to those
seeking to accept the responsibility that comes with holding public office.

1.    War is contrary to the will of God. While the use of violent force
may, at times, be a necessity of last resort, Christ pronounces his blessing
on the peacemakers. We look for political leaders who will make peace with
justice a top priority and who will actively seek nonviolent solutions to
2.    God calls us to live in communities shaped by peace and cooperation.
We reject policies that abandon large segments of our inner city and rural
populations to hopelessness. We look for political leaders who will re-build
our communities and bring an end to the cycles of violence and killing.
3.    God created us for each other, and thus our security depends on the
well-being of our global neighbors. We look for political leaders for whom a
foreign policy based on cooperation and global justice is an urgent concern.
4.    God calls us to be advocates for those who are most vulnerable in our
society. We look for political leaders who yearn for economic justice and who
will seek to reduce the growing disparity between rich and poor.
5.    Each human being is created in the image of God and is of infinite
worth. We look for political leaders who actively promote racial justice and
equal opportunity for everyone.
6.    The earth belongs to God and is intrinsically good. We look for
political leaders who recognize the earth's goodness, champion environmental
justice, and uphold our responsibility to be stewards of God's creation.
7.    Christians have a biblical mandate to welcome strangers. We look for
political leaders who will pursue fair immigration policies and speak out
against xenophobia.
8.    Those who follow Christ are called to heal the sick. We look for
political leaders who will support adequate, affordable and accessible health
care for all.
9.    Because of the transforming power of God's grace, all humans are
called to be in right relationship with each other. We look for political
leaders who seek a restorative, not retributive, approach to the criminal
justice system and the individuals within it.
10.    Providing enriched learning environments for all of God's children is
a moral imperative. We look for political leaders who will advocate for equal
educational opportunity and abundant funding for children's services.

Finally, our religious tradition admonishes us not to bear false witness
against our neighbor and to love our enemies. We ask that the campaigns of
political candidates and the coverage of the media in this election season be
conducted according to principles of fairness, honesty and integrity.

Sunday, July 18, 2004

Does Your ISP Host a Terrorist Site?

Does Your ISP Host a Terrorist Site?

According to MEMRI  (the Middle East Research Institute), the following ISPs in the USA host sites that promote terrorism:

  • VONOC in Englewood, Colorado, United States, and WeHostWebSites.com in Loveland, Colorado, United States
  • Verio Inc. in Englewood, Colorado, United States
  • Everyone's Internet Inc. in Houston, Texas, United States
  • Hurricane Electric in Freemont, California, United States
  • Powersurge Technologies Inc. in Cedar Falls, Iowa, United States
  • Abovenet Communications in New York, United States
  • About Web Services in Orem, Utah, United States
  • C I Host in Bedford, Texas, United States
  • Alabanza Inc. in Baltimore, Maryland, United States
  • DataPipe in Hoboken, New Jersey, United States
  • ITX Sarl in Hoboken, New Jersey, United States
  • ServePath LLC. in San Francisco, California, United States
  • Affinity Internet Inc. in Ft. Lauderdal, Florida, California, United States
  • Level 3 Communications Inc. in Broomfield, Colorado, United States

For a moment I thought about urging people to stop using these ISPs.  Then I decided that such a move would be contrary to the principle of free speech.  Besides, I cannot confirm that they actually promote terrorism, since I can't read any of them.  Also, if I can find these sites, presumably the CIA and FBI can, too.  In the interest of homeland security, it probably is better to let them operate in the open, rather than to try to shut them down. If a serious terrorist is dumb enough to use an open site, that could be a good thing. 

Saturday, July 17, 2004

Mars probe detects (possible) hint of life

Mars probe detects hint of life
Whiff of ammonia is discovered in atmosphere Microbes thought to replenish
the compound
Jul. 16, 2004. 09:20 AM

LONDON—An instrument orbiting Mars may have detected a whiff of life on the Red Planet.

Data from a spectrometer aboard the European Space Agency's Mars Express probe appears to have recorded radiation indicating pungent ammonia gas in Mars' atmosphere, BBC News Online reports.

Since ammonia can survive for only a few hours in the Martian atmosphere before breaking down, it must be constantly replenished from one of two possible sources: active volcanoes — of which none have been found on Mars — or microbes.

"Ammonia could be the key to finding life on Mars," a NASA scientist told the BBC. "There are no known ways for ammonia to be present in the Martian atmosphere that do not involve life."

Ammonia is a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen atoms. Nitrogen is rare in the Mars environment, and researchers say the presence of ammonia may indicate that Martian microbes may be hoarding it.

Spectral evidence of ammonia was seen by the Planetary Fourier Spectrometer [link added] on Mars Express, which has been in orbit around the Red Planet since December.

Scientists have so far only analyzed a fraction of the spectral data the probe has radioed back to Earth.

Researchers say this is because they are still coming to terms with the complexities of the Planetary Fourier Spectrometer as well as coping with some nagging power problems on Mars Express.

Professor Vittorio Formisano, principal investigator for the instrument, is expected to release details of the new findings at an international conference next week in Paris.

The Planetary Fourier Spectrometer is examining radiation on Mars in regions of the spectrum that include the signatures of water and carbon dioxide as well as a high-resolution mode that can detect ammonia and methane.

So far, it has observed a depletion of carbon dioxide and an enrichment of water vapour over some of the large extinct volcanoes on Mars, researchers say.

It has also found methane, another gas with a possible biological origin.

One possibility the scientists had to rule out was that the ammonia came from the air bags of the failed Beagle 2 mission.

Analysis revealed the ammonia's distribution was not consistent with this explanation.

The twin U.S. rovers that landed on Mars in January will be unable to answer the question of the ammonia's origin, as they are designed for geological work.

But future missions could include sensors to analyze the ammonia to determine if it has a biological or volcanic origin. Lava deposited on the surface, or released underground, could produce the gas.

So far, no active volcanic hotspots have been detected on the planet by the many spacecraft currently in orbit.


Friday, July 16, 2004

Homeland Security, Los Alamos Style

Thu Jul 15, 2004 07:13 PM ET By Adam Tanner
from: Reuters

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The Los Alamos National Laboratory, a key U.S. center for nuclear weapons research, has temporarily ceased all classified work after vital data was reported missing last week from a research area, lab officials said on Thursday.

Such a precaution at Los Alamos, the New Mexico birthplace of the first atomic bomb during World War II, has not occurred in recent memory, lab officials said, highlighting the seriousness of the breach.

The lab said it learned of two missing data storage disks on July 7 during an inventory check. At a news conference, the lab director and other officials declined to detail the nature of the data, citing national security concerns.

"Until such time as we are confident that we are addressing this issue, then all activities with respect to classified materials have been put on hold," said Gerald Parsky, chairman of the Regents of the University of California which manages Los Alamos. "These breaches of national security will not be tolerated."

The case of the missing disks is the latest in a series of security shortcomings at U.S. nuclear weapons labs in recent years. Just last month a set of keys to a sensitive nuclear area at Los Alamos went missing for most of a day.

"This is a big deal, but it is certainly a necessary step," Danielle Brian, director of the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group in Washington D.C., said of the Los Alamos halt of classified work. [...]

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Thursday Breast Blogging
Politicians Make Boobs of Themselves

PZ Myers has a good post about breastfeeding.  In it, he makes some good points.  One of his primary points is that the Bush Administration recently dropped an ad campaign that would have promoted breastfeeding.  Apparently, this decision was made in response to political pressure from the infant formula industry.  What is more shocking is that the American Academy of Pediatrics supported the industrial leaders in this. 

The fact that the Administration has established a pattern of misusing, manipulating, and distorting science is old news.  See the Union of Concerned Scientists' web site  for background on this.  I've looked through their updated report, though, and it appears that they have not yet listed this particular example.  For that reason, I will be submitting this post to them.

Likewise, the allegation that infant formula companies engage in unethical promotion of their products is not news.  See this BMJ article  for more information on that subject.  

In this post, I criticize the Bush Administration for giving in to the interests of the infant formula industry, and failing to live up to their own standards.  I also provide information on the benefits of breastfeeding, and wrap it up with some biblical passages.  Read the rest at The Rest ofthe Story.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

More Than Half of Public Hot Tub Spas Violate Safety Standards

From WebMD:

CDC: Better Safety Needed at Public Hot Tubs`

July 1, 2004 -- More than half of the public hot tub spas in the U.S. may be unsafe, according to a new report from the CDC.

Researchers found 57% of the more than 5,000 public hot tub inspections across the U.S. had one or more safety violations. Spas located at campgrounds and hotels or motels were the biggest offenders.

Eleven percent of the violations were severe enough to result in the immediate closure of the facility, pending correction of the violation(s).

The most common violation was poor water quality.

Researchers say the findings show that more rigorous safety inspections and improved training of spa operators are needed to reduce the threat to public health posed by public hot tubs.

The high temperature of the water in spas depletes the disinfectant and makes them an ideal environment for bacteria, such as Legionella, and other diseases. During 1999-2000, a total of 13 outbreaks of infectious disease, affecting 183 people, were attributed to public and private spa use.

Comment: My ex-father-in-law (father-ex-in-law? father-in-ex-law?) contracted Legionnaire's Disease, traced back to a wooden hot tub.  That was in the early eighties.  He spent over a week in the hospital on intravenous antibiotics.  Fortunately, the causative agent had been identified by the CDC in 1977, after a long and highly-publicized effort by public health officials.  There had been an outbreak of a mysterious type of pneumonia at an American Legion convention in Philadelphia in 1976, with 34 fatalities. 

Legionnaire's Disease is caused by a genus of bacteria named Legionella.  There are different species, some more dangerous than others.  L. pneumophila  is the  species that most commonly causes illness in humans.  Legionella are gram-negative rods that can be detected using a direct fluorescent antibody test.  Symptoms occur within 2-10 days, and include cough, shortness of breath, high fever (up to 105 degrees Fahrenheit), gastrointestinal symptoms, and muscle pain.  The disease is treated with macrolide or fluoroquinolone antibiotics.  The mortality rate is reported variously as 15-25%.  The real mortality rate is unknown, though, because it is thought that many or the milder cases go unreported. 

More information is at the OSHA  site, the Family Practice Notebook, and e-Medicine, among others. 

Be Careful Buying Drugs on the Internet

From Medscape News:

US FDA Finds Fake, Subpotent Drugs Online

WASHINGTON (Reuters) Jul 14 - A Web site advertising "Canadian generic" drugs shipped fake, contaminated or substandard versions of three commonly prescribed medicines, U.S. regulators said on Tuesday.

Food and Drug Administration investigators ordered generic versions of Pfizer Inc.'s impotence pill Viagra and cholesterol-fighter Lipitor, as well as Sanofi-Synthelabo's sleeping pill Ambien.

The Web site "shipped drugs that were the wrong strength, including some that were substantially super-potent and that pose real health risks as a result," Acting Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Lester Crawford said.

Some of the pills were drugs that "contained contaminants" or should not have been given because of potentially dangerous interactions with other medicines, Crawford added.

The FDA did not identify the Web site but said it had been sending "spam" e-mail to consumers touting its products.

Despite frequent government warnings about safety risks, buying cheaper drugs online is a growing trend as drug costs rise and more Americans lose health insurance.

Advocates of drug importation say the FDA is exaggerating risks, particularly for medicines bought in Canada. Congress is considering legislation to set up a legal system for importing prescription drugs from certain countries.

The FDA said its recent purchases showed consumers can be misled "even where a Web site looks legitimate."

Comment: unfortunately, it is all too easy for unscrupulous persons to devise a web site that "looks legitimate."  Most consumers have no way to analyze whatever they receive in the mail to see if it is the correct product with the correct strength and with acceptable purity.  The FDA web site  provides some additional information:

Viagra is sold in the U.S. to treat impotence. The so-called "generic" version of this product also contained too little of the active ingredient, failed the dissolution test, and had an unacceptable level of impurities. Although subpotent "generic" Viagra may not place patients at additional risk, the purchaser informed the firm in its on-line questionnaire that he was taking Erythromycin. Use of Viagra in patients taking Erythromycin is contraindicated. 

Unfortunately, the FDA site does not tell us how many on-line pharmacies they tried, or how many products were tested.  It could be that they ran thousands of tests and found only these three problems. 

One thing that is helpful about the FDA site is that they have a page  that provides advice on using on-line pharmacies.  They also provide a link for reporting suspected illegal sites. 

The Stem Cell Debate

 Personal Account

Paralysis, Roman Reed, and a ban on stem-cell research

Lancet 2004; 364: 219
Don Reed c/o The Lancet diverdonreed@pacbell.net
Don C Reed is a retired schoolteacher and professional scuba diver. The author of five ocean books is currently working on TAKE A STAND: Roman Reed and the Secret Stem Cell Wars. He is the sponsor of the Roman Reed Spinal Cord Injury Research Act.

What is it like, being paralysed? Try this. Using the insides of your wrists, lift a pencil and write your name. Set the pencil down.

Now imagine picking up (still with your wrists) a flexible rubber tube--and inserting that into your urinary tract--every time you need the rest room. Want to schedule a bowel movement? Allow 2 hours.

Before my son Roman Reed was paralysed in a college football accident, on Sept 10, 1994, I never really thought about people in wheelchairs: about the dangers, hassles, and humiliations they face every day.

Roman considers himself fortunate. He can breathe without a machine; he does not live on charity; his girlfriend (now wife) Terri stood by him. Recovering the partial use of his upper arms, "Rome" can transfer himself from bed to wheelchair. He drives an adapted van, holds down a part-time job, continues his education. Defying doctors' expectations, he became a father. In his wheelchair, he coaches Roman Jr's soccer team. He lives life fiercely.

But I am his father, and I see what he goes through...

The latest issue of the medical journal, The Lancet, is devoted to stem cell research.  Access is free for the editorials and for the personal account excerpted above.  You need a paid subscription to view the original research articles, such as Functional antigen-presenting leucocytes derived from human embryonic stem cells in vitro,  but the editorials are more interesting for the nonspecialist. 

In this post, I point out some of the more interesting editorials in The Lancet, and discuss the course of public debate on the subject of embryonic stem cell research.  Read the rest at The Rest of the Story

Monday, July 12, 2004

The Truth About Trial Lawyers

In an effort to show how non-hateful liberals are, I am posting a link to an article that exonerates one of my least-favorite groups:

The Truth About Trial Lawyers, from Unspun

Republicans for Environmental Protection

In the interest of showing how non-hateful liberals can be, I have added a Republican website to my blogroll: REP America,  or Republicans for Environmental Protection.  From their homepage:

Welcome to REP America...
the national grassroots organization of Republicans for Environmental Protection
"the environmental conscience of the GOP" "Conservation is a great moral issue, for it involves the patriotic duty of ensuring the safety and continuance of the nation." --President Theodore Roosevelt

"I do not intend that our natural resources shall be exploited by the few against the interests of the many." --President Theodore Roosevelt

"REP America represents the very best of the Republican Party. It’s pragmatic. It advocates policies that are good in their own right. It represents the mainstream of Republican thought. I encourage all conservation-minded Republicans to join me in supporting the work of REP America." -- Theodore Roosevelt IV, Lifetime Member of REP America

From one of their press releases:

Media Release

REP America Statement on Bush Administration's Management of National Parks

July 1, 2003

Contact: Jim DiPeso, (253) 740-2066

REP America, the national grassroots organization of Republicans for environmental protection, is disappointed with the Bush administration's performance in managing our national parks, the crown jewels of America's natural, cultural, and historic heritage.

We were encouraged two years ago when President Bush promised to restore and renew the parks. However, the administration's actions since then have, with some exceptions, put our national park system at greater risk.

Polluted air endangers Great Smoky Mountains, Sequoia/Kings Canyon, and other parks. Yet the administration has weakened cleanup requirements for old, dirty power plants.

Unmanaged off-road vehicles are tearing up public lands throughout the West. Yet the administration has opened the door to an ORV onslaught in Western national parks through a rule that could validate dubious highway right-of-way claims asserted by state and local governments inside park boundaries.

Noisy snowmobiles are spreading pollution and harming wildlife in Yellowstone National Park, America's oldest. Yet the administration has dismissed the concerns of park scientists and proposed a policy that would increase snowmobile use.

Inadequate funding has led to deterioration of park resources nationwide. Yet the administration has not requested sufficient funding to eliminate the parks maintenance backlog, as promised, or to meet current operating needs.

In a few cases, the Bush administration has done right by the parks. Federal funding will be available for restoring Everglades National Park. A commitment has been made to buy out oil and gas leases at Big Cypress National Preserve. The administration has backed up the Park Service's recommendation to close a damaging road in Canyonlands National Park. A proposal to build huge jetties at Cape Hatteras National Seashore has been shelved.

The Bush administration can improve its park stewardship record, but a significant change in direction is necessary. REP America recommends that the administration support, at a minimum, the following:

  • Legislation requiring all fossil fuel power plants to meet modern pollution control standards by a fixed date without exceptions.
  • Blocking all asserted highway right-of-way claims in all national parks, national monuments, national wildlife refuges, and all wilderness areas and wilderness study areas.
  • Restoring the 2000 rule phasing out snowmobiles from Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and the John D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway.
  • Park budgets that will fully fund operational needs and eliminate the parks maintenance backlog within five years.
  • Full funding of Land and Water Conservation Act purchases, totaling $900 million, half for federal land acquisition.
  • Retaining the President's authority under the Antiquities Act to establish national monuments on public lands.
  • Congressional designation of wilderness areas recommended by the Park Service.
As Republicans, we cherish the national parks heritage that our nation's past leaders, both Republicans and Democrats, established and expanded on our behalf. Our national parks connect Americans with our country's land and history in tangible, irreplaceable ways. We call on the Bush administration to honor our past and take responsibility for our future by becoming better stewards of our heritage today.

Prepared by Jim DiPeso
Policy Director

Evolution Of Biological Homochirality

I don't post much about evolution any more, because PZ Myers at Pharygula  and the whole gang at Panda's Thumb  cover that topic pretty well.  Every once in a while, though, I can't help myself.  Evolution is such an awe-inspiring process, it almost makes me believe in a higher power.  A few years ago, a college student, working on a paper of some sort, walked up to me at the mall with a tape recorder.  He asked me if I believed in a higher power.  I told him that I did, and that I though the higher power was a great, big, incredibly complex mathematical equation.  I figured the guy needed something interesting for his paper.  I always like to help a student when I can.  Maybe he's a blogger now.

Anyway, the inspiration for today's post comes from an article on Science Daily:

How Left-handed Amino Acids Got Ahead: A Demonstration Of The Evolution Of Biological Homochirality In The Lab
Date:  2004-07-09

A chemical reaction that demonstrates how key molecules in the biological world might have come to be predominately left or right handed has been reported by scientists at Imperial College London.

Ever since discovering that the building blocks of the biological world, such as amino acids and sugars, are distinctively left or right handed - possessing a quality known as chirality - scientists have been puzzling to answer how and why.

They believe that at the dawn of biological life there were even numbers of molecules in each form, but through hitherto unknown processes, one particular form came to completely dominate over the others (for example left-handed amino acids and right-handed sugars), a feature known as homochirality.

Now, using simple organic molecules, the Imperial researchers have demonstrated that an amino acid itself can amplify the concentration of one particular chiral form of reaction product. Importantly, the experiment works in similar conditions to those expected around pre-biotic life and displays all the signs to suggest it may be a model for how biological homochirality evolved.

I am not sure what the author means by "pre-biotic life."  Presumably, he or she means "pre-biotic conditions."  Minor quibble: the summary probably was written by a journalist, not a scientist.  The full text of the original article can be found here

The article demonstrates that it is feasible for homochirality to develop in a primordial soup.  The key point in the article is that the chemical reaction that causes proline to catalyze its own formation runs a lot faster when producing the left-handed version of proline.  This effectively debunks the claim commonly seen in anti-evolution or "scientific creationism" arguments, such as this one from Darwinism Refuted:

Let us for an instant suppose that life came about by chance as evolutionists claim it did. In this case, the right- and left-handed amino acids that were generated by chance should be present in roughly equal proportions in nature. Therefore, all living things should have both right- and left-handed amino acids in their constitution, because chemically it is possible for amino acids of both types to combine with each other. However, as we know, in the real world the proteins existing in all living organisms are made up only of left-handed amino acids.

Why would we assume that "the right- and left-handed amino acids that were generated by chance should be present in roughly equal proportions in nature"?  This would be true only if the two products were equally stable and were produced at the same rate, or if one were less stable but were produced at a correspondingly higher rate.  There is no particular reason to assume that either would be the case. 

See this site  for a discussion of this point. 

Remember: observations are gold; hypotheses, silver; and conclusions, bronze.