Zombie Genes Thursday Open Comments

When do we actually die?

Doctors in a Canadian intensive care unit have stumbled on a very strange case – when life support was turned off for four terminal patients, one of them showed persistent brain activity even after they were declared clinically dead.

For more than 10 minutes after doctors confirmed death through a range of observations, including the absence of a pulse and unreactive pupils, the patient appeared to experience the same kind of brain waves (delta wave bursts) we get during deep sleep. And it’s an entirely different phenomenon to the sudden ‘death wave’ that’s been observed in rats following decapitation.

Then there the cases of genes that actually FIRE UP after death!

Led by microbiologist Peter Noble, a team from the University of Washington has been investigating the gene activity in deceased mice and zebrafish, prompted by previous research that identified a handful of genes in human cadavers that were active more than 12 hours after death.

The researchers ended up identifying more than 1,000 genes that were still functioning even days after death, but it wasn’t like they were taking a bit longer to sputter out than the rest of the body – they actually increased their activity.

In mice, 515 genes were seen kicking into gear, and were functioning at full capacity up to 24 hours after death. In the zebrafish, 548 genes retained their function for four whole days after the animals had died before showing any signs of winding down.

Some of these zombie genes are developmental, some of them not so beneficial:

What’s maybe even stranger than that is the fact that these ‘postmortem’ genes weren’t just any genes, they were the kind of genes that ramp up during emergencies.

As Mitch Leslie reports for Science Magazine, we’re talking about tasks like stimulating inflammation, firing up the immune system, and counteracting stress. Some of the genes they identified usually switch on to help form an embryo, and then are never heard of again… except after death, apparently.

“What’s jaw-dropping is that developmental genes are turned on after death,” Noble told Leslie.

It’s not all beneficial genes, though, the team also found that certain genes that promote cancer growth also sparked after death in these animals, prompting the researchers to suggest that in a newly deceased corpse, the body reverts to the cellular conditions of a rapidly developing embryo.

“While transplantation is a life-saving therapy… it also puts recipients at an increased risk for developing cancer, in part because of medications…,” says Eric A. Engels of the US National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Cancer Institute.
The crazy amounts of immune-suppressing drugs transplant recipients have to take to make sure their body doesn’t reject the organ could partly explain the heightened risk of cancer, but active postmortem genes in the organ could also be at play, Noble told Science Magazine.

Interesting. When we die, it seems our body tries to revive itself up to days later, and in the process turns on developmental genes AND cancerous genes as well. That makes sense – they are both involved in rapid reproduction and growth of cells. The impact this could have on transplant patients is profound – treating them for cancer as part of their rejection therapy.

Maybe this is why zombies look the way they do.

Puts “born again Christian” in a whole new light, too.

Friday Open Comments

I just finished reading the first book of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series – Foundation. In it, a man who specializes in the field of psycohistory – the prediction of human behavior en masse over long periods of time, not the study of any of a select group of Comfy Couch denizens – sets up conditions to shorten a Dark Age in human history to only a thousand years or so. Hari Seldon is his name, and manipulating all of mankind is his game. Sort of.

It’s late, so I couldn’t do much research on the topic of predicting human behavior. (I predict that I shall be going to bed very, very soon, however.) But I did find one interesting article from the UK Guardian on predicting human behavior and the risks thereof:

First, it’s use as a marketing tool is intriguing. Can a company predict when you’ll be ready to buy their product? Why yes, they want to try, anyway:

By classifying types of people and their behaviours on this basis, shops try to increase their profits by automatically targeting those of us in their databases that seem most likely to buy certain items. Insurance companies use similar methods to reduce fraud by investigating the claims of those whom the software decides are most likely to be lying.

And then the government wants to use it to analyze people. Gadzooks, just think what will happen – just look at the marvelous mess we have for our other major government programs!

“But the government is adopting such techniques for more serious matters. Software at the Department of Work and Pensions, for instance, is beginning to try to detect fraudsters by analysing the voices of people who ring its call centres…”

And they want to use it in their medical program as well:

The idea is to predict life outcomes and trigger early human interventions before things go wrong…even before birth. In this scheme, the unborn child of a pregnant mother might be categorised as at high risk of future criminality based on factors…The mother is then visited regularly at home by a nurse and helped with parenting.

And how about preventing crime?

In the criminal justice system too, risk prediction instruments assess the probability of adults and young people re-offending, along with a battery of other actuarial tests for predicting future sexual and violent crime. Such techniques…play a central role in evaluations to determine whether a person should be committed indefinitely as a dangerous person with severe personality disorder or whether these people, once committed, are ready for release.

That smacks a little of the movie, Minority Report.

Each day, we see the science fiction “future” written years ago coming to life before our eyes. We are talking about travel to Mars, mining asteroids, and living under the sea. We have handheld devices which allow us to communicate all over the world, and those same devices retrieve data for us on verbal request. We have vehicles which fly through the air and under the ocean. There is atomic power and bionic limbs. Doctors are working on implants which restore eyesight to the blind. We replace various organs as an accepted matter of course. Computers play chess, and human made satellites graze the edges of our solar system, heading out into the cold, endless, interstellar space. How far behind are we?

With such once-upon-a-time futuristic endeavors becoming so commonplace, could predicting human behavior become a fact? How will that affect our society? Will there be riots and resistance, or will the upcoming generations accept it as part of their sophisticated lives? What power will it give government? What kind of underground will it foster? How will it affect religion, and the use thereof? Politics? International relations?

Truly troubling: How much of this is already happening?

And will our lives become boring? What effect will being predictable have on our psyche? And can the powers-that-be take that into account as well – making us doubly predictable?

Deep thoughts for the last day of the week.

Monday “Power Up” Open Comments

I remember a conversation I had some time ago with Aggie Beau and Lovely Daughter. Aggie Beau uses his smart phone constantly. I asked how often he charges it up, and he said at least four times a day. what if he’s not conveniently around an outlet? His phone could run out of charge! OH, Say it isn’t so! (dramatic back of hand on forehead pose) Technology strikes again – with a solution.

Carroll, a physicist and head of Wake Forest University’s Center for Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials, was discussing this problem last year with his 10-year-old daughter, Lauren, when she came up with a suggestion: What if Carroll could design something that harnessed the heat from someone’s hand, or from the phone itself, to give a cell-phone battery more power? Carroll agreed that would be pretty cool.

Last month, Carroll’s lab unveiled a fabric that does just that. Called Power Felt, it generates electricity from heat. Wrap your cell phone in Power Felt, and it feeds off your body heat to recharge while it’s in your pocket.

The uses could be legion:

Carroll is a lifelong Southerner, and he’s acutely aware of how powerful summer heat can be. He says Power Felt installed just under the roof of a house could be used to power household appliances. Lay it on the floor of a car and it could use the heat generated from sitting in a midday parking lot to run air conditioning and the radio. In an electric or a hybrid car, the Power Felt might even boost mileage.

Of course, it’s nanotubes again.

The challenge for his team, says Carroll, was to create something that was electrically conductive – the way metal is – and thermally insulating – the way cloth can be. The solution was to imprint carbon nanotubes onto a woven mat of plastic fibers.

Since it takes relatively few carbon nanotubes to give the fabric thermoelectric properties, the cost is reasonable. Carroll estimates that, at a large scale, Power Felt could be fabricated for as little as a dollar for a swatch big enough to cover a cell phone.

Needless to say, the Pentagon, along with a slew of investors, are interested in his invention.

I hope he makes a buttload of money off of it. Good for him. But he needs to share it with his daughter, since she was his inspiration. And I’ll bet she brought him grilled cheese sammiches while he was working, too.

Thursday Worse than Politics Open Comments

I was waiting for this, but it sends chills up and down my spine.

…we could lose a century of progress and find ourselves dying in the millions from tuberculosis, just like our 19th-century ancestors.

I was exposed to TB as a child, and had to have lung x-rays every year until I went to college. It was active for a short time, and I have some lesions that show up on x-rays, but my body managed to fight it off before I even knew I was sick. Maybe I’ll be one of the lucky ones; I might have some immunity.

According to the original report, published Dec. 21 in Clinical Infectious Diseases, a hospital in Mumbai, India had identified 12 TB patients whose disease resisted all antibiotics. Nothing worked with them. All the patients appeared to have strains of TB known as multi-drug resistant (MDR-TB) and extremely drug resistant (XDR-TB).

Ever since the advent of sulfa drugs and penicillin, we have been locked in an arms race with bacteria. Antibiotics originally had wonderfully lethal effects on many infections. But in some cases a few bacteria had genetic resistance to a given drug, or the treatment wasn’t long or intense enough. Either way, the survivors learned to best such drugs. We came up with new drugs, and again they worked — until a few bacteria survived and multiplied.

What have we wrought? We now have a society of people whose immunity has not been tested, especially against a strain of superbugs. I remember when Handsome Son had a string of ear infections. We went from antibiotic to antibiotic, ending up with one that cost $3.10 per teaspoon. I swore that if he knocked it on the floor, he was going to lick it up from wherever it landed. Fortunately, he was a calm child, and we never had to test my determination in the matter. It was alarming that the regular antibiotics had already become so ineffective in such a short period of time. I was diligent in giving him all of his medications, never shorting the dosages.

Will we end up like the aliens in “War of the Worlds,” who were killed not by the humans they hunted, but by the smallest residents of the planet they wanted to dominate. What will be ironic is that we will have created our own demise.

So the prospect of untreatable TB is a disturbing one. WHO notes that in the Americas, only 2.1 persons per 100,000 die of TB. With a totally drug-resistant strain, that rate could easily exceed Africa’s current rate of 50 deaths per 100,000.

I have hopes that our collective intellect will find a way of protecting humanity from succumbing to ourselves.

Wednesday Solar Flare Open Comments

Well, the solar flare has erupted, and we are both cursed and blessed by the event:

Airlines have rerouted flights, NASA had some safety calculations to do, and satellite owners/operators chewed a few nails. But it’s scenes like this that make me wish I had a ticket to the northern climes.

Here’s a video of a similar event, from space.

I tried to include video from the International Space Station, but for some reason it wouldn’t let me embed the code or even copy the link. So you’ll have to search for it on your own. The astronaut narrating their feed had some interesting information regarding the colors and structure of the aurora, but that’s life, I suppose.

Enjoy the video.

Friday “Discover Yourself” Open Comments

I came across this interesting website. I like to read almost everything science, and especially items about the human body. My favorite column in Discover magazine is “Vital Signs,” which is kind of like “House” but without the misogyny or ill-tempered curmudgeon.

As far as what’s on the site, I had no idea I generated four cups of nose milk a day. And now I know why men are so protective of their manly stuff. And while some liberals may have very little common sense, they are blessed with more than five of them. Most interesting to me was the knowledge that I breathe one nostril at a time – you’d think I would know that, eh?

Go. Discover. Enjoy yourselves.

Friday Big-A$$ Explosion Open Comments

About 3.8 billion years ago, things in the constellation Draco (the Dragon) got a little bit interesting.

Although research is ongoing, astronomers say that the unusual explosion likely arose when a star wandered too close to its galaxy’s central black hole. Intense tidal forces probably tore the star apart, and the infalling gas continues to stream toward the black hole.

According to this model, the spinning black hole formed an outflowing jet, which is blasting powerful X-rays and gamma rays in our direction, researchers said.

The astronomers believe that the X-rays we are seeing “may be coming from matter moving near the speed of light in a particle jet that forms as the star’s gas falls toward the black hole.” Apparently, we are watching this astronomical event head on.

For those of you unfamiliar with intergalactic distance, 3.8 billion light-years is 22,338,776,418,097,710,000,000 miles. More or less.