Endlessly Adaptable Animals

Dr. Dolittle spent a few days at the Experimental Biology meeting of the American Physiological Society, learning incredible facts about animal adaptability. In the Sunday session, researchers showed that metabolic byproducts called ketones can protect against seizures caused by hyperbaric oxygen therapy, while seal pups, who fast for up to three months once weaned, increase their insulin resistance and become effectively diabetic. Monday taught us that insects lack lungs, instead exchanging gas through tiny valves called spiracles along their abdomen, while a Burmese python, after eating a meal up to 25% of its body weight, develops an enlarged heart to facilitate metabolism. From Tuesday Dr. Dolittle reports the pitfalls of doping elephants with LSD, and that specialized mitochondria supercharge hummingbird wings and rattlesnake tails. There are even more findings about low-oxygen, or hypoxic, adaptations, including turtle shells that prevent lactic acid buildup, and one researcher who raised geese so she could train them to fly in a wind tunnel while wearing gas masks.

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Genital Warts Will Be History

On ERV, Abbie Smith reports on the phenomenal success of the HPV vaccine in Australia.  The vaccine, designed to protect against several types of sexually-transmitted papillomavirus, was first administered to Aussie girls in 2007.  Since then, total prevalence of the virus among young women has dropped from 11.5% to less than 1%—and to 0% among girls who actually got the vaccine.  These girls are also protecting their partners and reducing overall circulation of HPV; infections among young men, who were not even vaccinated, dropped from 12.1 to 2.2 percent. Abbie calls this a “blatant, obvious example of herd immunity in action!”  On Aardvarchaeology, Martin Rundkvist recently stood up for science against the false equivalence of “tell both sides” journalism in Sweden, where the HPV vaccine is offered to all twelve year old girls.  Martin acknowledges the vaccine is not 100% effective, and there are very rare cases of adverse side-effects, but the same is true of any vaccine.

New Flu Emerges in China

A new strain of bird flu is circulating in China, and authorities are keeping a close eye on a potentially disastrous scenario.  On Aetiology, Tara C. Smith writes that by now, “the microbe may have already become established in the population, adapting to humans stealthily before we were even aware of it.”  Greg Laden writes, unlike H1N1 in 2009, the new H7N9 doesn’t sicken birds, making it more difficult to identify reservoirs of the virus.  And according to the latest reports, it doesn’t make all people sick either.  Documented infections are widespread in a populous region, and of more than 100 known cases, twenty people have died.  So far there is no reason to panic—but the real threat lies in further mutation of the virus, and the emergence of a killer global flu.

Catching Up on Homepage News

I have been remiss in not posting articles from the homepage here on Page 3.14…so to catch up, here’s four at once.

No Beauty Without Water

On World Water Day, think of the water cycle that defines this planet. On The Pump Handle, Liz Borkowski writes “rivers often flow through multiple countries, and actions by one country or community can affect their neighbors’ ability to meet their water needs. Consuming too much water, or polluting a shared body of water, can make it hard for others to have enough for drinking, hygiene, agriculture, ecosystem health, and other needs.” Rivers and streams, in addition to being valuable resources, are fragile habitats, and vital to all the lands they flow through. Most rivers depend on rainfall for replenishment—and many parts of the world face worsening drought on top of pollution and exploitation of waterways. Global warming is only making things worse. Peter Gleick offers some facts on Significant Figures: “Around 80 percent of all of the freshwater humans use goes to grow food. The rest is split among home, industrial, and commercial uses.” And “The majority of [all] species threatened with extinction are aquatic – threatened by human use and contamination of water.” As many rivers will show you, water is a beautiful thing. It goes around the world, again and again, and if it must pass through our faucets first, let us take good care of it.

Lots of Latitude for Life

Extraterrestrial life looks ever more likely with new findings about planets and solar systems. The brightest stars in the sky are often very large and distant, while nearer stars may be smaller, dimmer, or invisible to the naked eye. On Starts With a Bang, Ethan Siegel writes that the nearest star to us, Proxima Centauri, “a red dwarf star that’s just 12% the mass of the Sun, and only 0.0056% as luminous” was not observed until 1915. And the third-closest star system was discovered in 2013 and announced this week. Ethan continues: “more than 400 years after the invention of the telescope, we still don’t know how many (and what types) of stars there are just in our own backyard in space.” On Dynamics of Cats, Steinn Sigurðsson summarizes other astronomical research, saying “the occurrence rate of Earth size planets in the habitable zones of low mass stars is about 50%” and “if we look at the 10 or so known low mass stars within about 10 light years of the Sun, we expect essentially all of them to have low mass planets, and there should be about 5 roughly Earth size planets within the habitable zone of their parent star.” Even here in our own solar system, the ubiquity of life remains plausible, as NASA announced that the Curiosity rover discovered evidence that Mars was once habitable and chemically conducive to life. On Universe, Claire L. Evans imagines drinking from an ancient Martian river: “Your thirst slaked, you brush the red dust from your knees and stand to see the Earth, a significant blue dot on the horizon.”

Nanopillar Killers

Greg Laden reports that researchers have discovered some insect wings “can physically kill bacteria by poking and shredding them with tiny pointy structures.” The studied clanger cicada (Psaltoda claripennis) exhibits wing surfaces with nanoscopic arrays of needle-like nanopillars sticking out. Errant bacteria come to rest on these wings as if a bed of nails—except, as Greg says, “where the force involved with the bed of nails is gravity, gravity has nothing to do with the bacterium interacting with the nano spikes.” On Life Lines, Dr. Dolittle writes “some scientists see this as an opportunity to create anti-bacterial surfaces in public places simply by coating the surface of objects with nanopillars.” And Greg says “obviously, we want to make all doorknobs and toilet seats out of this stuff.” Good idea, but as with antibiotics, some bacteria are tough enough to survive.

Confronting Keystone XL

ScienceBlogs would like to officially welcome Dr. Peter Gleick, co-founder and president of the Pacific Institute, to the network. On his new blog Significant Figures, Dr. Gleick weighs the pros and cons of Keystone XL, the “proposed large pipeline project to expand the capacity to bring fossil fuels derived from the Athabasca oil sands region in Alberta, Canada south through the United States.” He says it is time to say “no” to such infrastructure, asking “How can we cheer at the profits being made by energy companies in our investment portfolios or institutional endowments when those profits come at the expense of our own and our children’s planetary health?” He also says “the climate will continue to change in an exponentially increasing and worsening way unless we reduce emissions.” We will run out of fossil fuel eventually, but Greg Laden says there is still two or three times as much fossil fuel left underground as we have already extracted and burned. Do we have the willpower to leave it there? Or will we suffer a hotter, uglier, less diverse world with deadlier weather and rising seas?