Step away from the salad bar!

So no one gets hurt!

Why salad is so overrated

Tamar is an interesting writer (her blog, the rest of her writing at the Post). She often takes a controversial subject in the world of food and does in-depth analysis on it (sort of like how the Do The Math blog does for alternative energy). In this article she looks at the value of salad, specifically the cost/benefit when including the farm and transportation costs. I knew things were bad, but didn’t realize how bad they were. She puts a comparison thus:

A head of iceberg lettuce has the same water content as a bottle of Evian (1-liter size: 96 percent water, 4 percent bottle) and is only marginally more nutritious [lettuce is 95 to 97 percent water].

This is an interesting image from the article:

Picture of salads, without the salad
Minus their greens, left to right: the Caesar Salad With Chicken from the Cheesecake Factory; the Quesadilla Explosion Salad from Chili’s Grill & Bar; the Waldorf Salad from California Pizza Kitchen. (T.J. Kirkpatrick/For The Washington Post)

Elevator to spaaayyyycccceeee!

Space elevator could take astronauts into the stratosphere
Canadian firm granted patents for elevator designed to reach 20km above Earth

Their space elevator idea has some promise, but I expect it is still $100’s of millions, if not billions, to build it. Finding someone willing to put that much green into something with only a 30% savings in fuel is likely to be challenging. It will be a serious engineering challenge as well.

My idea is to launch from a tube in the ocean (see here from back when I laughably thought I could interest others in my efforts) with an assist via microwave powered air breathing ‘rocket’ until the atmosphere runs out, then, in the case of fragile payloads (e.g., humans) a small rocket to get the rest of the way to the orbital space station. Non-fragile, non-perishable payloads can be sent much faster, thus should be able to get into orbit directly, then can use slow but efficient means to reach the station via ion drives. Yes, I have spent a lot of time thinking about this, 40+ years…

Burning to live longer

Study: Can Spicy Food Actually Increase Life Span?

Would you eat chili peppers 2-4 times a week to live 10-14% longer?

I love the taste going in, but can’t stand the burn going out. Even with bidets, all I get is very temporary relief as the cool water flows, as soon as I turn the water off the burn is at least as bad as before. I like horseradish (wasabi) because it only burns going in.

I only half jokingly like to say: what is the point of living forever if your life sucks?

The paper.

Designer Virus’

Ancient Viruses as Gene Therapy Vectors
Researchers deploy ancestors of today’s adeno-associated viruses to deliver gene therapies without immune system interference.

The interesting thing to me is that the _exact same_ techniques can be used to produce a variant for a lethal virus, yet there have been no calls to bury this research.

A hammer can be a tool for building a house, or a weapon for bashing someone’s brains out, but it is still just a lump of metal at the end of a shaft. One interesting thing about this tool is while it is trivial for a non-carpenter to grab up a hammer and kill someone with it, in order to use the techniques mentioned in the article to develop a lethal virus you actually have to be smarter than the people who developed the original tool. That day will come, of course, but it does mean that it isn’t likely to be a tool for terrorists, at least not ones with poor resources. No doubt a bent billionaire could hire the right people to develop such a weapon, but how realistic is that?

Anyway, we are slowly creeping towards a high quality medical system that can fix all sorts of chronic problems. In a generation or two hence these problems will be relegated to the medical history books.

Can’t happen soon enough for me!

Life companions: you and your microbiome

The Sum of Our Parts
Putting the microbiome front and center in health care, in preventive strategies, and in health-risk assessments could stem the epidemic of noncommunicable diseases.

This is a really interesting article that sums up the evolving state-of-the-art regarding the health impacts of our microbiome. I knew that things were rapidly evolving but hadn’t realized that this research had gone from fringe to mainstream. I have discussed the microbiome a number of times and see it as a critical missing element in our health care regime.

Below are a couple of quotes as teasers to try and get you to read the full article. Your continuing health depends on this, though you probably don’t know it, and the health of your children even more so.

Germ-free (gnotobiotic) mice provide a sobering model for what happens to a developing human immune system in the absence of microbiome-based training. When microbiota are absent, normal postnatal immune maturation is blocked, and tissue homeostasis is never fully established. Lymphoid deficiencies occur in both the body’s mucous membranes and its systemic tissues, such as the lymph nodes and spleen. Germ-free mice also develop imbalances among specialized immune cell populations that result in improper immune responses when challenged with injury or a pathogen. Depending on the nature of the challenge, defective host immune responses may include increased susceptibility to certain infections, reduced vaccine responses, and/or inflammation-induced tissue pathologies, such as asthma or colitis.

Given the undeniable importance of commensal microbes in both training our immune systems and serving as a barrier between ourselves and the outside world, one of us (R.D.) has posited that a complete microbiome, seeded at birth, is absolutely critical for a healthful life, an idea called “the completed self hypothesis.” Single-celled organisms from all three domains of life—eukaryotes, archaea, and bacteria—join our mammalian cells to create a superorganism. Inadequate or inappropriate seeding of the microbiome is in many ways the equivalent of being born with a serious birth defect, resulting in inappropriately matured physiological systems. In the absence of effective microbiome-based training, the immune system does not learn what is safe outside of the body, resulting in haphazard, inappropriate reactions to innocuous environmental factors—allergens such as pollen, mold, cat dander, and peanuts. It also fails to properly recognize and ignore internal targets, resulting in autoimmune and inflammatory responses that are misdirected, ineffective, and sometimes never-ending. Such reactions can eventually compromise the function of our own tissues and organs.

There is a sidebar at the end that talks about direct manipulation of the microbiome, but we are still in our infancy in that regard. Right now it is tedious and time consuming to get details on exactly what is growing in/on us, when that process has finally become quick and economical we will surely make great strides in determining what is an optimal microbiome.

Poopy plants

With Sonar-Reflecting Leaves, Plant Lures Bats to Poo in it

This is a cool case of evolution. The plants have evolved to basically be flashing lights to bats and their echolocation which lead to selection for larger, dryer traps, which fed back on itself for years until you have the perfect sized traps for the bats. The plant’s reward for all this ‘effort’? Getting shit on! As gross as that is for us, it provides exactly the sort of nutrients the plant needs to thrive in its environment.

Picture of bat flying up to trap

Take THAT, Creationists: proof of human evolution

Adapting to Arsenic
Andean communities may have evolved the ability to metabolize arsenic, a trait that could be the first documented example of a toxic substance acting as an agent of natural selection in humans.

Really interesting article showing the power of evolution is with us even today, though as a biochemist in the laboratory I have seen proof of evolution many times in the past. Earlier I have blogged about arsenic and some research that initially was dramatically interesting, but then proved to be poor lab technique (lay people might be disappointingly shocked to learn how often that happens and this is far from the only case that made it through peer review and into publication). It is feasible this research won’t stand up to scrutiny, but such is the nature of science. It is an interesting topic, I have to imagine someone will want to try and reproduce the results.

Someone gave the moon a swirly!

Mysterious Lunar Swirls on the Moon May be Caused by Crashing Comets

This is the first I have heard of this, but it seems it is an old ‘problem’. I guess the idea is since the comet has a huge ball of gas surrounding it that is moving at the same speed as the nucleus, when that cloud hammers into the moon (at the same speed as the nucleus, or 20-40,000 mph) it kicks up all sorts of dust the results of which can be seen from space as the color of the underlying dust is different.

Moon swirly

Sailing stones, Mark II

Mystery Behind the ‘Sailing’ Stones of Death Valley Unveiled

I mention sailing stones before and my theory at the time was water, pushed by winds, would move the stones. It seems the new research supports that idea but also suggests that algae/bacteria may lubricate the way a bit.

Image of sailing stones

Chimp Chefs

The naked chef? Chimpanzees can ‘cook’ and prefer cooked food – study
Findings suggest chimpanzees have the intellectual abilities required for cooking, which could have an impact on our view of human evolution

Really interesting as cooking food (on purpose) is highly likely to be one of the very early steps that put our ancestors on the path to becoming human (others being speech and farming). The theory goes that if chimps have a natural tendency to so something then our ancient ancestors likely had the same tendency as well (impossible to confirm or refute lacking a time machine).