Malaria and the Inner Armies

On ERV, Abbie Smith writes “Malaria kills 1.24 million people a year. Mostly babies under 5 years old.” Malaria, although carried by mosquitoes, is caused by a single-celled protist which infects the liver and goes on to parasitize red blood cells. Now, a little genetic engineering could put a stop to this scourge. Smith says “Mosquitoes have a symbiotic relationship with their bacteria the same way we do—they need their ‘good’ bacteria to get all the nutrients they need to survive.” By tweaking the protein output of one such bacteria, scientists have made mosquito guts inhospitable to malaria. The test result? An 84% decrease in the number of mosquitoes carrying malaria, and a 98% reduction in malarial replication among carriers. Of course, mosquitoes aren’t the only animals that support friendly bacteria—and researchers at the Weizmann Institute are discovering that our friendly bacteria support a number of viruses. They identified hundreds of different bacteriophages “thanks to the fact that bacteria keep ‘files’ within their genome of every virus that has ever tried to attack them.” Some of these phages may confer benefits to our internal ecosystem. And humanity has 80% of them in common.

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Higgs Completes Standard Model

At scales where nothing can see, the best science is done by colliding particles at near lightspeed and picking up as many “pieces” as possible. We know of six quarks (which combine to make baryons, protons, and neutrons), six leptons (which include electrons and neutrinos), and four gauge bosons (which carry or exchange the fundamental forces of the universe). Not to mention antimatter and color charge, the last piece of the Standard Model puzzle is the Higgs boson. On Dynamics of Cats, Steinn Sigurðsson calls the Higgs “quintessentially a scalar field – there is no charge, colour, flavour or any other internal quantum number stuck on it.” Greg Laden describes it as a “wobbly gobbly everywherish gooblygop,” bits of which we are trying tear from space-time. Ethan Siegel says “the Higgs field gives mass to all the particles that couple to the Higgs field, including the Higgs boson itself!” The new particle was measured at around 126 GeV to statistical satisfaction—although it never lasted long enough to get a good look at. It’s a major discovery—but Steinn Sigurðsson says “there has to be something more to it – and if all the remaining action is up at the Planck scale, we are stuck.” The Standard Model is not a theory of everything—but it’s a theory of a lot, and it’s finally complete.

Healthcare Survives Supreme Court

Chief Justice John Roberts proved himself an independent thinker last month, siding against his fellow conservatives (and Republican appointees) in upholding the Affordable Care Act of 2010. Roberts agreed that Congress could not force a citizen to buy insurance, but allowed the individual mandate to survive as a tax. In the meantime, the ruling placed limits on federal power to expand Medicaid, leaving 16 million people in the lurch. Liz Borkowski says “the Supreme Court’s decision clouds what should have been a clear distribution of the most beneficial impacts to the most needy.” Kim Krisberg heard the news at a meeting of the American Public Health Association, where Georges Benjamin said it “marks tremendous progress towards reshaping our health system into one that saves the lives of at least 44,000 people who die annually simply because they do not have health insurance.” On Denialism Blog, Mark Hoofnagle compares insurance systems around the world, and looks forward to more economical healthcare. He writes, “We can do it expensively, wastefully, and emergently in the ER, or we can do it like thoughtful, decent citizens who care about each other’s welfare.”

Out of Reach Real Estate

The Milky Way panorama by European Southern Observatory

Steinn Sigurðsson recently spent a weekend considering exoplanets and extraterrestrials at the Second SETI Conference in California.  He writes, “It is important to remember that while science and discovery is important, it is not the ontological basis for space exploration. Space is, ultimately, about existential motivations.”  In other words, we wouldn’t mind finding a friend, or a new Earth to colonize when this one gets fried by the sun.  As Kepler continues to increase the number of known planets in the galaxy, it may only be a matter of time.  And exoplanetary science is in its infancy.

On Starts With a Bang, Ethan Siegel writes “the Universe is an extremely diverse place, where every combination of planets and solar systems we can think of very likely exist.” The star system Kepler-36, for example, features two planets in such close orbits that every 97 days, one rises like a massive moon in the sky of the other. But that’s still not near enough for Ethan, who wants to escape Earth’s gravity well without rocket fuel. He could float over to Neptune if it were 1,000 miles away—but the Earth would also be torn apart.  That’s called a minor detail.