Working to End HIV

Could HIV soon follow in the footsteps of smallpox and polio?  On The Pump Handle, Sara Gorman says that recent research has “allowed political figures such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to proclaim that the phenomenon of a generation without HIV/AIDS is within reach.”  But no vaccine has proven effective at curtailing HIV infection, and a new prophylactic called Truvada could select for drug-resistant versions of the virus.  On ERV, Abbie Smith explains that researchers have traced the origin of HIV to a single population of chimpanzees in West-Central Africa, thanks to “3108 samples of monkey poop.”  Chimps elsewhere carry similar loads of immunodeficiency virus, but their variants are not fit to infect humans.  Until we can stop HIV, can we slow it down without further enhancing its fitness?

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Is Non-Organic a No-Brainer?

A Stanford University analysis of over 200 nutritional studies found little evidence that organic food is better for you than conventional food. But health is affected by more than vitamins and minerals; for example by the chemical chlorpyrifos, which was banned for indoor use but continues to be sprinkled on our food crops. In California’s Salinas Valley, which grows greens for the entire nation, children exposed to chlorpyrifos and other pesticides are, well, stupider. As Elizabeth Grossman writes on The Pump Handle, “the higher the exposure, the lower the IQ score.” Researchers observing effects within the brain noticed “thinning in some areas and abnormal enlargement in others.” But there are bigger issues than brain damage surrounding organic food and well-being. On Casaubon’s Book, Sharon Astyk writes “what we really need is an agriculture that isn’t saturated in fossil fuels. […] Small scale, sustainable, mostly organic may be the only way we can avoid starving the world.”

Tomorrow’s Tide

On a pilgrimage to Glacier National Park, Ethan Siegel notes “the hike to Grinnell Glacier is nearly a mile longer than it was when the trail was first constructed.” Worldwide, nearly 90% of glaciers are shrinking, and “glacial melt is contributing noticeably to the overall sea level of our planet.” The park itself will be glacier-free within twenty years—but don’t everyone hop on a plane at once. Meanwhile, ice is also melting at astounding rates in the Arctic. On A Few Things Ill Considered, Coby Beck says that last month’s extent was “640,000 square kilometers below the previous record set in 2007.”

All Arms on Deck

On The Pump Handle, Anthony Robbins discusses his tenure at NIOSH, the World Health Organization’s drive to vaccinate people around the world, and the fallout of the CIA’s decision to use a vaccination program as a subterfuge for spying operations in Pakistan.  Robbins writes, “WHO had hoped to complete global polio elimination by 2005, but local armed conflicts and rejection by religious fundamentalists slowed polio campaigns in Nigeria and in Pakistan.”  Now, the CIA’s actions have likely exacerbated distrust of vaccines, which festers abroad as well as at home.  Robbins writes that no vaccine is fully effective, but herd immunity can protect weak responders.  Yet when some people refuse vaccines, herd immunity starts to fall apart.  Robbins concludes, “This is why vaccination is a community decision based on weighing costs and benefits, not an individual decision.”  Meanwhile, Orac deconstructs the fall and rise of pertussis infections in America.

Animal Bodies Rearranged

On Pharyngula, PZ Myers considers a computer model which posits that bones are simply exoskeletons turned inside-out. Myers writes “We know from the homology of the patterning molecules involved that vertebrates and invertebrates are upside-down relative to each other, so at some point an ancestor flipped.” Such major differences in body plan arise during embryonic development, driven by highly evolved genetic instruction. But the growth of internal and external skeletons depends on distinct biological mechanisms, leading PZ to call the dataless computer model “abiological and ahistorical bollocks.” PZ proves his point with the turtle, a vertebrate that also has an insect-like shell. He explains, “The ribs and vertebrae are ‘endoskeletal’, formed by chondrogenesis and ossification, while the scutes or plates of the shell are dermal bone,” and where they meet “represents the fusion of two kinds of bone.” But how did the turtle’s shoulder blades get inside its rib cage? Allow PZ to explain…