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  • Adventures at the Ends of Chromosomes: Elizabeth Blackburn to Speak at STARMUS 2016

    At first glance, I thought Dr. Blackburn’s research was a bit esoteric. Telomerase? Telomere? What are these things and why should I care? Then I began digging into these terms and her work. I now care, perhaps you should too!

    Telomerase is an enzyme that elongates telomeres. Telomeres are repetitive sequences at the end of a chromosome that keep the ends from deteriorating. It’s not good for your chromosomes to unravel at the ends. If the ends are damaged, the chromosome can’t replicate properly. Your cells are going to die, and so will you. 

    Dr. Blackburn and Carol Greider discovered telomerase in 1984. How do you find something like that? They used  substances labeled with radioactivity to permeate the cells they were studying. The radioactive substances distributed themselves such that they were able to see patterns of telomerase activity—the telomerase enzyme reaction. Not to worry about the radioactive substances, you need to be careful with them, but they aren’t going to kill you unless you ingest them. The radioactivity creates an image on an emulsion that is similar to a photograph, but it is called an autoradiograph. It’s a technique used a lot in biological research. (Image under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license, by Bengt Oberger.)

    As cool as this research seems, I was struggling to find how this particular discovery might impact my life. Then I found a paper with Dr. Blackburn as fifth author: Can meditation slow rate of cellular aging? Cognitive stress, mindfulness, and telomeres. That got my attention! If mindfulness meditation can slow my cells from aging, sign me up!

    Perhaps this excerpt will entice you to read the entire article:

    We review data linking telomere length to cognitive stress and stress arousal and present new data linking cognitive appraisal to telomere length. Given the pattern of associations revealed so far, we propose that some forms of meditation may have salutary effects on telomere length by reducing cognitive stress and stress arousal and increasing positive states of mind and hormonal factors that may promote telomere maintenance.“

    Dr. Blackburn is a great champion of science. In 2002 she was a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics. However, because she opposed the Bush Administration, she was taken off the council n 2004. 

    "There is a growing sense that scientific research—which, after all, is defined by the quest for truth—is being manipulated for political ends” ~ Elizabeth Blackburn

  • Solar Disinfection: Does it Work?

    Fill a clear plastic bottle with contaminated water. Leave it in sunlight for six hours. Then you have clean water! Or do you?

    Solar Water Disinfection (SODIS) is widely promoted as one way to lower the incidence of diarrheal disease in developing countries that have limited access to clean water. The UV-A radiation of the sun and increase in the water temperature are supposed to inactivate microorganisms.

    Recent studies report that SODIS isn't as effective as claimed. SODIS is not reducing diarrhea as it should if the water is disinfected. It could be that people are disinfecting only some of their water. Or it could be that SODIS just isn't that effective.

    Imagine if before you could use any water, that you needed to fill a bottle and leave it in the sun for six hours? What happens when it is cloudy? Not so good for people who live in places like Seattle.

    Read the SODIS pamphlet to find out more.

  • Observing Earth

    The Center of Tropical Forest Science has a program called "Earth Observatory." Scientists observe changes in the tree populations of three continents to get a better understand of climate change and forest ecosystems. Barro Colorado Nature Monument is one of the sites that participate in Earth Observatory. The nature monument is in the center of Panama (in the canal). It includes one large island (Barro Colorado) and five peninsulas. The island is home to five species of monkeys and lots of insects and birds. You have to love ants if visit them because there are 225 species of them. This is the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute on Barro Colorado Island, Panama


    The boasts as being "one of the most studied places on Earth and has become a prototype for measuring diversity of plant and animal life around the world." I'll be in Panama soon and hope to tour the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute's facilities on Barro Colorado island. Stay tuned for stories and photos!

  • Cholera outbreaks depend on river flow, say scientists

    This article is frome SciDev Net:

    "The severity of cholera outbreaks can be linked to the rate at which rivers flow, scientists have found.

    Cholera, caused by the aquatic bug Vibrio cholerae, spreads through contaminated food and water.

    It has re-emerged as a major killer in recent decades, with the number of cases up ten per cent between 2007 and 2008, at 200,000, and the number of deaths up by more than a quarter at 5,000.

    The team, from Tufts University, United States, analysed Bangladesh's two seasonal cholera outbreaks — one around March and a second in September–October — using cholera data from the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research (ICDDR,B) between 1980 and 2000, and water records from the country's hydrology department.

    They found a link between the severity of the two outbreaks and the volume of water flowing in the deltas of Bangladesh's three major rivers: the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna.

    The March outbreak coincides with low water levels in the rivers. The lower the water level, the more seawater seeps in from the Bay of Bengal, carrying the microscopic plants and animals that harbour Vibrio cholerae, spreading infection, they suggest.

    Severe October outbreaks are linked to high flood years, when faecal contamination in the rivers enters drinking-water sources.

    The team says its findings can be used to develop an early warning system for cholera.

    Shafiqul Islam, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the university and lead author, says it is unlikely that cholera will ever be eradicated because the germs thrive in sea water — where they cannot be controlled — and newer types continually emerge.

    "We need a cholera warning system to control outbreaks and minimise their impact by prior planning and implementing effective interventions," he told SciDev.Net.

    Environmental indicators provide advanced warning and can be applied to any region, he says.

    Recent research by the ICDDR,B has also linked cholera outbreaks in Bangladesh to hours of sunshine and temperature in spring and autumn.

    Increases in sea surface temperature and river height also influence outbreaks in Vietnam, says Mohammad Yunus, senior scientist at the ICDDR,B's public health sciences division.

    Yunus points out such insights will be meaningful only if scientists monitoring environmental indicators inform public health scientists dealing with outbreaks on the ground.

    Some cholera outbreaks have more to do with public health infrastructure breakdown, he adds — as in Zimbabwe, where the ICDDR,B scientists are helping build local capacity in clinical examination and detection.

    Even in coastal countries such as Nigeria, where outbreaks can be linked with climate and water variables, collecting environmental data well in advance will be a challenge, he says.

    The research was published last month (October) in Geophysical Research Letters."

  • Barro Colorado: From Hill Top to Island to Research Institute

    How does a hill become an island? Before 1911, the Chagres River cut through the Panama rainforest. After the excavation of the canal, the Chagres river basin was flooded to create Lake Gatun. By 1914 the lake had flooded the old railway and several small towns on the hill whose top is now Barro Colorado. In 1923 the Barro Colorado island was declared a biological reserver. In 1946 the Smithsonian Institute took over the island for research. As of today, more then 10,000 research papers have been published as the result of research undertaken by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute


    Last month I spent a day on the island along with 9 other people and a guide. As we walked through the thick vegetation, we came across markers, net baskets, and an assorted of strange looking contraptions each of which was set up to collect some sort of data for a research project. I even saw a tiny poison dart frog.


    The jungle was pulsating with life -- birds, insects, and howler monkeys created a din even though we rarely saw them. The plants were growing all over each other. Vines looked like snakes. Trees with buttress roots towered over the forest. Lots of miniature fungus and frogs on the forest floor. We found bats sleeping on the bark of trees. We came across one of the rarest mammals of all on the island—the primate Scientificus Researheraceros!



  • Why Does Japan Insist on Slaughtering Whales?

    I saw many whales during my recent trip to Antarctica. They are awesome creatures—mammals in fact, and smart ones. Although whales were hunted almost to extinction by the USA, England, and many, many other countries in the 19th and early 20th century, all countries except Japan, Norway, and Iceland have ceased commercial whaling activities.

    The 1991 Environmental Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty protects whales from being killed in the Southern Ocean of Antarctica. Japan, however, illegally whales in those waters under the ruse of doing "scientific research," which is allowed under a loop hole in the treaty. Apparently if you paint "Research" on your ship, you can kill Minke whales. The Japanese have killed over 6,800 under this ruse. After the "research" is over, the Japanese can sell and eat the meat commercially.

    Japan has not produced any scientific data on these 6,800 whales that were murdered in the Southern Ocean sanctuary over the past 18 years. Let's be truthful here—the Japanese like to eat whale meat and they will do anything—illegal or not—to continue this practice.

    Sea Shepherd is the only organization taking any direct action against Japanese whaling ships. Their actions result in saving whales by caused the ships to turn back before reaching their killing quota. Watch the video, donate money, and do whatever you can to get Japan to stop whaling in the Southern Ocean sanctuary.

    Australia is close to the whaling activity but surprisingly they are not taking action. What about Greenpeace? They are a protest group, not a direct action group. They can protest all they want, but the whalers just go on killing in front of them.

    This is serious stuff. Just this week one of Sea Shepherd's ships was rammed and sunk by a Japanese whaler ship when it was just sitting in the water. Fortunately, there was another ship in the area to rescue the crew, because the Japanese whaling ship would not respond to the distress call.

  • Is it wrong to swim with dolphins?

    I think so. The only reason they are putting up with humans is because they are captive! More and more studies show that although you might enjoy the experience, the dolphin is stressed out.

    Read this in-depth article from the BBC News for details.

    "Swimming with dolphins may be sold as a life-affirming experience, but research shows that it can be traumatic for the sea mammals themselves. So is it time to stop?

    It regularly features as one of those transformative experiences to notch up on the "things to do before you die" bedpost - swim with dolphins and discover the very essence of life."

    Go to BBC to read the rest of the article.

  • Open Sourcing Genetic Research

    SciDev.net —Science and Development Network—is a non-commercial e-zine that publishes news, views, and information about science, technology, and the developing world. That's correct—no advertisements whatsoever. AND high-quality content. I read it regularly and use it to research many of my blog topics.

    SciDev.net is funded by charitable organizations whose purpose is to help the developing world. But now, SciDev is looking for contributions from individuals. Take a look at this story and the rest of this issue. If you like what you read, consider becoming a subscriber. Then, consider donating to them

    From SciDev.net . . .

    Open source TB megaproject yields first fruits

    [NEW DELHI] A unique effort by scientists to pull together scattered genetic information about the tuberculosis (TB) bug, with the goal of developing new remedies, has identified its first candidate molecule.

    The Open Source Drug Discovery (OSDD) programme aroused huge interest when it was mooted by Samir Brahmachari, director-general of India's Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), in 2007, because it offered a new route to finding drugs for diseases in the developing world traditionally neglected by drug companies (see 'Open source' urged for TB drug design effort).

    Continue to the entire article...