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January 2013 Archives

 I stumbled across this image of Helicocranchia pfefferri a little while ago - easy to see why this little cephalopod is called the 'piglet squid'!

 Image (c) Cabrillo Marine Aquarium.

The Cabrillo Marine Aquarium's news release tells us that these little animals ("about the size of a small avocado") are a deep-water species with a global distribution. The piglet's 'smile' is actually a row of chromatophores, or pigmented organs, more of which dot the transparent body wall - so transparent, in fact, that you can see some of the animal's internal organs. And each of its eyes has a photophore (a light-producing organ) set beneath it.

For some strange reason I am also reminded of the dumbo octopus (Grimpoteuthis sp.).











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I quite enjoy Facebook - it's an enjoyable way to catch up with what friends & family are up to, & I follow a number of good science pages (which provide some nice topics for blogging, from time to time).

But FB can also cause considerable aggravation, through its habit of running 'targeted' advertising on one's page & now, it seems, 'suggesting' pages. I mean, I'm very sure I never 'liked' this one! Yet it crops up on my feed. Apparently we need to be Earthed ie directly connected with the Earth & its electrical field, in order to avoid the nasty side effects of electromagnetic radiation. It's as simple as walking barefoot on the grass (I always thought it was a simple pleasure to do that; who'da thunk it was healing as well) - but (as I rather expected) you can buy products to help Earth yourself while inside.

The cynic in me wonders how on earth (no pun intended) those believing in this stuff manage to use the internet to access all this information...

Proponents claim that 'Earthing' will 

reduce pain and inflammation, think blood and improve blood pressure and flow, improve sleep, reduce stress, increases energy, relieves muscle tension and headaches, lessons [sic] hormonal and menstrual symptoms, dramatically speed healing, reduce or eliminate jet lag, protect the body against potentially harmful electromagnetic fields (EMF's), accelerates recovery from intense athletic activity.

Won't their 'grounding' block them from the Earth's magnetic field? Not to mention the effects of being bathed in EM rays while walking outside on the grass. Oh, wait...

And then there's the spam ads about 55-year-old women looking 27 by using a couple of simple tricks & leaving 'botox doctors furious' (oh really?). And ads about green coffee bean extract being the latest weight-loss trick (something that Orac has addressed here, noting, for example, that the 'evidence' in support comes from a trial - funded by a company that makes & markets the extract - with just 16 participants & poor statistical treatment of its results).

But the one that spurred me to begin writing this post was an image posted by a FB friend of mine: one which purports to be of a 12-week-old human foetus. (I would have liked to make a comment to the contrary on the page where my friend found it, but couldn't. Funny how some sites block comments.) I suspect I will shortly be 'unfriended', for I added a comment (which was later deleted) to my friend's post to the effect that the picture was definitely not of a 12-week-old foetus. A foetus of that age is about 30mm long (head-to-rump length) & looks like this.

No surprises that the original image is being circulated by groups opposed to abortion, with a caption that begins

This is what we all looked like at 12 weeks in the womb. 

Not sure how telling falsehoods helps strengthen one's argument.

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The Telegraph has a story on the possibility of cloning Neanderthals, with the fetching headline: 'I can create Neanderthal baby, I just need willing woman.' (You can read the NZ version on Stuff.)

My first thought was 'eeewww'. (And, as a friend commented, it's stories like this that get science a bad name.) Once past that rather visceral reaction, various questions popped up: just how feasible is this? Really? Has the researcher given any consideration to the ethical issues such a proposal generates? What about (epi)genetics, ecology & so on? And - for the money - how much of this 'story' accurately reflects what the scientist who was interviewed actually said, & how much of it is.. er... down to a combination of poor translation (the original article was in German-language paper Der Spiegel) and journalistic license?

Let's deal with the last first: it would appear that the Daily Mail is responsible for the form in which this story hit the English-speaking world (oh, why am I not surprised by this?). And indeed, one of the quotes attributed to Harvard geneticist Professor Church strongly suggests the journalist wasn't paying attention:

The professor claims that he could introduce parts of the Neanderthal genome to human stem cells and clone them to create a foetus that could then be implanted in a woman.

'Parts' of the genome would give you a Neanderthal? Implanting a 'foetus'? Hellooooo.

Prof. Church is very firm that he hasn't actively sought out volunteers for any potential, very-much-in-the-future surrogacy program. Rather, he was speaking theoretically of what was possible now that the Neanderthal DNA sequence is known. That's good to hear, but I can't help thinking that a little forethought might have avoided this whole furore. Science & scientists don't need this sort of press. And let's face it, people are more likely to remember the shock! horror! of the original story than they are to recall the subsequent, much less 'exciting' correction.

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I first heard about faecal transplants while listening to one of Mark Crislip's podcasts (based on one of his posts at Science-Based Medicine. I always find his work informative & entertaining, though his sarcasm may not be to everyone's taste). With the title 'The species in the faeces' I knew I was going to hear something to do with, well, poo... (You might not want to read what follows while eating lunch.)

Our bodies are home to an enormous number and variety of bacteria, both outside and within. That includes perhaps tens of thousands of species inhabiting the human gut - and contributing more than 50% (by mass) of the end product of that part of our anatomy. Far from being undesirable fellow-travellers, many of the members of those bacterial communities (for each part of the gut has its own assemblage of species) play important roles in things such as our susceptibility to disease. And throwing them out of balance can affect our health quite markedly - for example, antibiotic treatments can have (as a side effect) quite a negative impact on gut function, and one that can last for considerable periods of time. (Crislip remarks that if we were coprophagic, like rabbits, this would be less of a problem, as the normal gut flora would repopulate quite quickly...)

Anyway, while antibiotics can cause diarrhoea in some patients, another (non-food poisoning) cause is an overgrowth of a bacterium called Clostridium difficile. As an infectious-disease physician, Dr Crislip has a strong interest in any potential means of treating this one, as apparently it's difficult to clear with antibiotics (which of course may well have their own side effects) & has a high relapse rate. In his post, while he was rightly scathing about the various other claims made for faecal transplants, he noted that this particular treatment did have a good 'cure' rate for C.difficile infection. 

And this week, on Facebook one of the science pages I follow linked to a report of the results of a clinical trial of faecal transplants, in which they performed considerably better than the more conventional antibiotic treatments. They might want to look at alternative delivery routes, though; somehow I find the idea of delivery via a nasogastric tube (or more accurately a naso-ileac tube) a little hard to stomach. (Is the use of synthetic poo likely to overcome this aversion? Not sure.)

Quite apart from the ick factor, there issues that warrant further investigation. Each of us has their own particular assemblage of gut bacteria (& viruses, & protozoa), & Crislip notes that you'd probably get optimum results from a faecal transplant if the donor's, er, 'product' was as close as possible in gut flora to the recipient's healthy norm. He cautions that use of random donors could have the potential to generate other upsets as the recipient's immune system reacted to the new lot of bugs.

You can, of course, find all sorts of claims on the internet relating to supposed health benefits of this, that & the other. And so it is for faecal transplants. Faecal transplants as a cure for depression & MS? Frankly, that sounds like a lot of, well, steaming brown stuff.

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 I am a sucker for lovely photos of the unexpected. And here's a real beauty: water droplets caught in the splash :)


Macro-photography images of water in motion, photography by Heinz Maier.
Via Analytical Chemistry Techniques.


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Over lunch, I was catching up with my reading on various blogs and found - via PZ on Pharyngula - this little gem on evolution. The others on offer at the Stated Clearly site look good too; it would be nice to see the authors attract the crowd-sourcing they need to make more of the videos on their extensive list of future projects.


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I'm starting to think about this year's teaching: what I'm planning, what worked last year & what didn't, things that need to be revised. One thing I'll be doing a bit more of is 'flip teaching', something that worked well last semester in helping students learn about & gain an understanding of recombinant DNA technologies. I'd already found that for this particular topic, students seemed to gain far more from tutorial-group discussions rather than the lecture itself, and so tried something  a bit different. The class could view a previous lecture recording, plus look at my updated powerpoint slides, before class, and then in the actual lecture I spent about 5 minutes setting the scene, gave them some 'starters' for discussion (based on things that had come up in those tuts), and 10 minutes for small-group discussion (which was happy, noisy, & extremely animated) while I circulated & answered questions. Then we came up with a list of ideas & topics generated by those groups, & the discussion began. It was interesting & stimulating & fun - well, that was my impression & the class  feedback suggested that the students found it extremely valuable. Which is great as that was my hope & intention in setting things up that way.

Anyway, one of the topics was stem cells (something I blogged about quite a while ago now), & we talked quite a bit around things like ethics, as well as the practicalities. And the potential risks. Reviewing this particular class, I was reminded of a recent Scientific American article about an unexpected and undesirable outcome of a cosmetic use of stem cells. 

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I found the Herald's front page this morning a sad and depressing read. My heart goes out to all those affected in some way by the terrible bush fires ravaging so much of Tasmania, Victoria, & New South Wales.

I also had a certain sense of deja vu as I read of the fires - for I'd read something similar last year, in blog-buddy Gareth's book The Aviator, Book One of the Burning World series. Except that in the book, the scale of events is much greater than is (thankfully) the case at the moment, and Melbourne is destroyed by a fire storm. Gareth's vision of a not-too-distant future in which our global ecosystems have been irreparably affected by anthropogenic greenhouse warming, is both an alarming foretaste of how things could become**, and a rather good read (another blogging friend, Ken Perrott, reviewed the book very favourably when it first came out, & I've been meaning to write my own review for quite a while). The story follows the key character (& narrator - well, one of them), an airship pilot called Lemmy, in his travels around a world in which ecosystems and societies have collapsed, or changed - in many instances, beyond recognition. (There are actually 2 narrators: the second is Jenny, the artificial intelligence who actually runs the airship. Their commentaries alternate, & it's interesting to see the differences in perspective, especially given that the AI is to some degree self-aware.)

As the series title suggests, in this future world it's not only Australia that suffers from fire. Lemmy also witnesses huge fires in the Arctic, where massive methane deposits originally locked under the ocean in the form of methane clathrates have been ignited and the flames burn seemingly endlessly. I've recently read more about these deposits in Bill McGuire's Waking the Giant: we are talking significant carbon stores here, at around 2000 billion tonnes of carbon trapped in the form of clathrates: something that is highly attractive to energy companies & of deep concern to climate scientists.

The first time I read The Aviator, I thought it would be a rather good classroom resource for senior students. And that hasn't changed on a subsequent re-reading. Its engaging focus on a current, extremely relevant topic means that the book could be used in many different areas as the basis of discussion and to provoke further student research: how do individuals, and societies, cope with change? What happens when the technologies we rely on so heavily are no longer available, or are concentrated in the hands of relatively few people? How would a rise in average global temperature affect various ecosystems? Is a future such as the one Gareth describes, something that we can yet avoid?

Highly recommended.


Gareth Renowden (2012) The Aviator (The Burning World). Limestone Hills Ltd.

Bill McGuire (2012) Waking the Giant: how a changing climate triggers earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-959226-5 


** In some ways it reminds me of Richard Cowper's The Twilight of Briareus - though having said that, Cowper's world has been sunk into an ice age, and his story has a strong mystical feel to it. But the themes of societal and ecological break-down, and how people cope with these, are common to both books.





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