2006 November 30 Thursday
Androgen Insensitive Prostate Cancer Stopped With SIRT1 Gene

This report appears to point to a potential prostate cancer treatment benefit from resveratrol since the SIRT1 gene they speak of is the one that resveratrol activates.

Cancer scientists at the Kimmel Cancer Center at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia have shown that a gene that is involved in regulating aging also blocks prostate cancer cell growth. The researchers, led by Kimmel Cancer Center director Richard Pestell, M.D., Ph.D., hope the newly found connection will aid in better understanding the development of prostate cancer and lead to new drugs against the disease.

SIRT1 is a member of a family of enzymes called sirtuins that have far-reaching influence in all organisms, including roles in metabolism, gene expression and aging.

SIRT1 is the target of the Sirtris Pharmaceutical efforts to develop a more potent and longer lasting variation on resveratrol. High doses of resveratrol turn on the SIRT1 gene. So one obvious implication of this research is that resveratrol might restore the androgen sensitivity of androgen insensitive prostate cancer by turning on SIRT1 which will somehow change mutated androgen receptors and make them no longer stimulate prostate cancer cell growth. That, in turn, would make that fatal form of prostate cancer back into a form that can be controlled with Lupron and other testosterone suppressor drugs.

“We know that sirtuins play a role in aging, and that the risk for prostate cancer increases with aging, but no one has ever linked the two until now,” says Dr. Pestell, who is also professor and chair of cancer biology at Jefferson Medical College.

“We’ve shown that by making a prostate cancer with cells overexpressing a mutation for the androgen receptor, which is resistant to current forms of therapy, we can almost completely block the growth of these cells with SIRT1,” he says. Dr. Pestell and his team report their findings in November in the journal Molecular and Cellular Biology.

Turning on SIRT1 stopped cancer growth.

According to Dr. Pestell, prostate cancer cells can express a mutation that makes patients resistant to current forms of treatment such as hormonal therapy. Such therapy focuses on inactivating the androgen receptor by giving agents that shut off testosterone production.

In one experiment, the scientists took a series of mutations in androgen receptors from prostate cancer patients who are resistant to hormonal therapy and showed that SIRT1 blocks receptor activity, halting cancer growth. “We systematically tested each androgen receptor mutation,” Dr. Pestell explains. “These mutant receptors are resistant to current therapies and are all blocked by expression of SIRT1,” adding that prostate specific antigen (PSA) levels were used to confirm this. Rising PSA levels are frequently an indication of prostate cancer growth or recurrence, whereas falling levels indicate tumor shrinkage.

This result does not suggest (at least not to me) that resveratrol will reduce the risk of getting prostate cancer in the first place. The SIRT1 gene's protein product probably prevents mutated androgen receptors from stimulating an existing prostate cancer. But usually prostate cancer grows with non-mutated androgen receptors in its early stage. Though I can't rule out the possibility that higher activation of SIRT1 (using resveratrol or Sirtris' SRT501 experimental drug or another drug) might reduce prostate cancer risks.

If resveratrol or Sirtris's SRT501 work to restore androgen sensitivity to prostate cancers they will buy prostate cancer sufferers months or perhaps years of additional life. Still, this is not an ideal solution. The testosterone suppressor drugs that would likely still be necessary probably reduce cognitive function, certainly cause muscle mass loss, and cause other harmful side effects. But if cancer cell growth can be stopped by this method the cells might also become more amenable to other treatments such as vaccines and monoclonal antibodies.

Thanks to Robert Silvetz for the heads up on this report. Also see my previous posts on resveratrol: Resveratrol Increases Energy In Humans, Mice and Wine Compound Resveratrol Protects Mice From Obesity Damage.

By Randall Parker 2006 November 30 09:45 PM  Aging Diet Resveratrol
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2006 November 29 Wednesday
Procyanidins For Heart Health Come From Old Wine Making Methods

Resveratrol occurs in such low concentrations in wines as compared to the doses used in experiments to tweak sirtuin genes that some scientists suspect that other compounds in wines are delivering the heart healthy benefits claimed for wine consumption. British researchers think the've identified which compounds in wines deliver the biggest benefit and which wines have the most of such compounds.

"The endothelial cells which line our arteries are an important site of action for the vascular protective effects of polyphenols," Roger Corder, of Queen Mary's School of Medicine and Dentistry in London, said in a prepared statement. "We purified the most biologically active polyphenols and identified them as procyanidins."

The researchers then tested wines from two regions in southwest France and Sardinia and compared them with wines from other countries. The wines from France and Sardinia had surprisingly high levels of procyanidins, often five to 10 times more than wines produced elsewhere, the researchers found.

Wines high in tannins are the ticket.

The benefit comes from suppressing construction of a peptide that constricts blood vessels.

Procyanidins, however, suppressed the synthesis of a peptide called endothelin-1 that constricts blood vessels.

Tradition!

"The traditional production methods used in Sardinia and southwestern France ensure that the beneficial compounds, procyanidins [tannins], are efficiently extracted," says researcher Roger Corder of Queen Mary's William Harvey Research Institute of the University of London, in a news release.

"This may explain the strong association between consumption of traditional tannic wines with overall well-being, reflected in greater longevity," he says.

Soak the grapes with their seeds longer.

The winemakers of that region tend to use more traditional techniques in which Tannat grapes are soaked with their seeds longer, boosting the procyanidins.

You could also take pills that contain grape seed extract. Maybe swallowing grape seeds while eating seeded grapes is a good idea?

I'm eating dark chocolate and cranberries to get the same compounds. Walnuts, raspberries, blueberries, apples, and dark grape juice are all good source. I would expect that vintners in other regions could adjust their wine preparation techniques to greatly increase the concentrations of the procyanidins as well.

You have options. Choose a way to get more procyanidins.

By Randall Parker 2006 November 29 09:03 PM  Aging Diet Studies
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Plastic Surgery Demand Growth Pulling In Other Physicians

The demand for beauty enhancement treatments is growing so rapidly that doctors from other specialties are switching fields to complete against dermatologists and plastic surgeons. The New York Times reports that dermatologists and plastic surgeons are complaining that doctors from other specialties lack the training needed to properly provide competent service.

Dermatologists and plastic surgeons refer to their new colleagues as “out of scope” or “noncore” physicians, and they strongly object to the intrusion, insisting that cosmetic medicine requires lengthy training.

But the dispute also has all the elements of a turf war, with specialists reluctant to cede ground in a field in which Americans spend an estimated $12 billion a year.

“Dentists are doing Botox, and urologists are doing hair transplants and vein removal,” said Dr. Ellen Gendler, a dermatologist in Manhattan who is a clinical associate professor at New York University School of Medicine. “Everyone wants to be a plasticologist.”

For their part, some doctors from other fields contend that the latest cosmetic procedures, like facial injections and vein removal, are far less complicated and risky than Caesarean sections or appendectomies and that the fundamentals can be learned in continuing-education classes.

Certainly some of these treatments are not hard to deliver and even a nurse could be trained to do them. But I'd be really hesitant to have plastic surgey on my face by someone who until recently was delivering babies or removing appendixes. Buyer beware. Try to meet people who have used a particular doctor for the type of treatment you want. Look up information about malpractice lawsuits. Be careful.

Family docs are switching to beauty therapies and cosmetic treatments.

The American Academy of Family Physicians, a national group that represents 94,000 family practitioners and medical students, has started offering courses for its members on how to use Botox, facial fillers, lasers and chemical peels.

As I've argued previously, the growing popularity of therapies aimed at rolling back the signs of aging and increasing beauty are great market signals that provide great incentives for the development of more effective treatments. I expect the more entrepreneurial market for optional but popular plastic surgery and dermatological treatments will pioneer many stem cells therapies and gene therapies.

By Randall Parker 2006 November 29 08:04 PM  Aging Appearances
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2006 November 28 Tuesday
Pregnant Women Who Smoke Increase Addiction Risk In Offspring

Here's yet another way (other ways including lowered offspring intelligence) that women who smoke cigarettes damage their unborn fetal children. Cigarette smoking causes fetuses to grow up into adults who are more likely to smoke.

The authors base their findings on over 3,000 mothers and their children, who were part of a long term pregnancy study in Brisbane, Australia (MUSP) in 1981.

They assessed the smoking patterns of liveborn children when they reached the age of 21 in relation to the behaviour of their mothers during the pregnancy.

Around a third of the women said that they had smoked during their pregnancy.

The proportion of the children who took up regular smoking was greater among those whose mothers had smoked during the pregnancy than among those whose mothers had not.

Children whose mothers had smoked while pregnant were almost three times as likely to start smoking regularly at or before the age of 14 and around twice as likely to start smoking after this age as those whose mothers were non-smokers.

Smoking patterns among children whose mothers stopped smoking while pregnant, but then resumed the habit, were similar to those whose mothers had never smoked.

Note that the kids born to mothers who temporarily stopped smoking while pregnant did not have a higher risk of developing nicotine addiction later in life.

This reminds me of a 2001 study on the effect of meth on developing brains. Fetuses exposed to meth become more prone to brain damage from using meth when adults.

Exposure before birth to methamphetamine, an increasingly popular "club" drug, renders males, even as adults, much more susceptible to the drug's brain-damaging effects, reveals a study performed in mice by researchers at the University of Chicago.

If males who were prenatally exposed to methamphetamine take the drug themselves as teens or adults, the increased toxicity could hasten the onset of brain disorders such as Parkinson's disease, warn the authors in the August issue of the Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, published electronically on July 13.

"No one who values his or her brain should take this drug," cautions neurotoxicologist Alfred Heller, M.D., Ph.D., professor of neurobiology, pharmacology and physiology at the University of Chicago and director of the study. "If you're male, and if your mother took methamphetamine -- and it's difficult to be certain she didn't -- you should not go near this drug."

My guess is that the biggest cost of addictive drug use comes from the effects on fetuses and babies exposed to the drugs their moms use. Lower IQs, higher irritability, and greater impulsitivty are just some of the ways that fetal drug exposure is causing lifelong costs for exposed offspring and for the rest of us since we have to deal with these damaged people.

Our ancestors did not undergo selective pressures to select for offspring better able to handle addictive drugs. If they had encountered these compounds over tens of thousands of years the compounds would probably not even be addictive. We'd have genetic variations that protect us from opioids, amphetamines, and nicotine.

My guess is that the biggest cost of addictive drugs comes from damage to developing fetuses and babies. Lower IQs, attention deficit disorder, greater impulsivity, and other cognitive changes are among the costs and probably reduce earnings potential as well as increase criminality and other behaviors that harm self and others.

By Randall Parker 2006 November 28 09:29 PM  Brain Addiction
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2006 November 27 Monday
Conventional Wisdom On Good Posture All Wrong

Ever since I was a child I've read in low lighting conditions and continue to do so to this day. Yet as a kid I was repeatedly scolded and told that reading without lots of bright light would damage my eyes. I didn't believe these claims (having discovered that lots of things adults believe are not based on any scientific knowledge). Several years ago I came across an article which quoted a chairman of a medical school ophthalmology department who said that reading with little light will do no harm to your eyes and that claims to the contrary are just a popular myth.

I also sit with a chair tilted back and have also done that for as long as I can remember. I've been waiting for evidence that vindicated me on that choice too. Now researchers in Scotland think they've found evidence that the conventional wisdom on correct sitting posture is bad for your back and you are best off with a higher angle between your thighs and torso.

CHICAGO -- Researchers are using a new form of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to show that sitting in an upright position places unnecessary strain on your back, leading to potentially chronic pain problems if you spend long hours sitting. The study, conducted at Woodend Hospital in Aberdeen, Scotland, was presented today at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).

Normal is bad.

“A 135-degree body-thigh sitting posture was demonstrated to be the best biomechanical sitting position, as opposed to a 90-degree posture, which most people consider normal,” said Waseem Amir Bashir, M.B.Ch.B., F.R.C.R., author and clinical fellow in the Department of Radiology and Diagnostic Imaging at the University of Alberta Hospital, Canada. “Sitting in a sound anatomic position is essential, since the strain put on the spine and its associated ligaments over time can lead to pain, deformity and chronic illness.”

Back pain is the most common cause of work-related disability in the United States, and a leading contributor to job-related absenteeism, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. By identifying bad seating postures and allowing people to take preventative measures to protect the spine, Dr. Bashir and colleagues hope to reduce back strain and subsequent missed work days.

“We were not created to sit down for long hours, but somehow modern life requires the vast majority of the global population to work in a seated position,” Dr. Bashir said. “This made our search for the optimal sitting position all the more important.” The researchers studied 22 healthy volunteers with no history of back pain or surgery. A “positional” MRI machine was used, which allows patients freedom of motion—such as sitting or standing—during imaging. Traditional scanners have required patients to lie flat, which may mask causes of pain that stem from different movements or postures.

The patients assumed three different sitting positions: a slouching position, in which the body is hunched forward (e.g., hunched over a desk or slouched over in front of a video game console); an upright 90-degree sitting position; and a “relaxed” position where the patient reclines backward 135 degrees while the feet remain on the floor. Measurements were taken of spinal angles and spinal disk height and movement across the different positions.

That bolt upright sitting posture shows the most sign of strain on the spine.

Spinal disk movement occurs when weight-bearing strain is placed on the spine, causing the internal disk material to misalign. Disk movement was most pronounced with a 90-degree upright sitting posture. It was least pronounced with the 135-degree posture, indicating that less strain is placed on the spinal disks and associated muscles and tendons in a more relaxed sitting position.

The “slouch” position revealed a reduction in spinal disk height, signifying a high rate of wear and tear on the lowest two spinal levels. Across all measurements, the researchers concluded that the 135-degree position fared the best. As a result, Dr. Bashir and colleagues advise patients to stave off future back problems by correcting their sitting posture and finding a chair that allows them to sit in an optimal position of 135 degrees.

“This may be all that is necessary to prevent back pain, rather than trying to cure pain that has occurred over the long term due to bad postures,” he added. “Employers could also reduce problems by providing their staff with more appropriate seating, thereby saving on the cost of lost work hours.”

What I still want to know: Should one lean back and have just the upper part of the back touch the back of the chair? Or should the whole chair back be tilted at the same angle as the back and touch the back all the way down?

By Randall Parker 2006 November 27 10:49 PM  Health Unconventional Wisdom
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2006 November 26 Sunday
How Marijuana Disrupts Memory Formation In Rats

The reason why your stoner friends can't remember all too well begins to become clear by looking at the effects that marijuana compound tetrahydrocannabinoid (THC) has on the brains of rats.

Neuroscientist David Robbe of Rutgers University and his colleagues tested the impact of THC and a synthetic cannabinoid on rats that had their heads restrained. The drugs affected certain brain waves: the theta (four to 12 hertz) and fast ripple (100 to 200 hertz) waves diminished significantly, whereas the drug had a slightly lesser impact on gamma (30 to 80 hertz) waves. Because theta and gamma oscillations are thought to play a critical role in creating and storing short-term memories--and fast ripple oscillations may allow such short-term memories to be moved into long-term storage--this suppression could mean missing memories for the rats.

The stoners ought to try to remember the details of this research to think about it next time they take a toke.

The THC caused hippocampus nerve signal firings to fall out of sync and to fire less powerfully. The rats had been trained to alternate their routes through a maze and the rats on THC did a far worse job of remembering which route to take next based on which route they took previously.

Normal rats accurately alternate their routes about 90% of the time. But rats given THC, which caused asynchronous nerve firing, chose a random direction on each run, and so chose the correct route 50% of the time.

The disruptive effect of THC wore off within a few hours. Robbe says he hopes to find out whether chronic exposure to the drug causes lasting effects on the hippocampus in rats. Scientists studying people have found that long-term marijuana users gradually become worse at learning and remembering things (see Pot-smoking your way to memory loss).

Neurons that spend a lot of time firing in some different way in response to a drug probably reconfigure somehow in response to the different pattern of firing. Brains strengthen and weaken connections in response to stimuli, whether those stimuli come from the environment or from drugs or an interaction of the two.

What I'd like to know: What does the THC do to change the development of a fetal hippocampus?

By Randall Parker 2006 November 26 02:49 PM  Brain Addiction
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BMW 7 Series Hydrogen Vehicle Reviewed

BMW has developed a prototype 7 series car which runs on either hydrogen or gasoline. Read the linked review from MIT's Technology Review below for the details. The company plans to produce only 100 of these cars and lease them out to selected customers in the United States and Europe for several months at a time in order to get feedback and experience with hydrogen. The engine is a standard internal combustion design rather than a fuel cell because BMW couldn't find a fuel cell that could deliver the power and perform with the reliability needed in a production automobile. BMW's engineers had to compromise on both the gasoline and hydrogen performance of this engine in order to build an engine that'll run on both gasoline and hydrogen. But a couple of other characteristics of the vehicle stood out to me in the reivew. First off, if hydrogen leaks past the pistons into the crankcase it can blow up the engine.

Still, the company has gone further than any other in regulating the combustion of hydrogen. Just three years ago, the engine would run for several minutes and then break down with a big bang, says Melcher. "Boom. We love explosions!" he laughs. It turned out that a little bit of hydrogen was leaking past the pistons, mixing with oil, and exploding. That problem was solved by modifying the piston rings to prevent leakage. Engine control systems also had to be modified to deal with the far faster combustion of hydrogen--it burns 100 times faster than gasoline--and to regulate it in such a way as to keep emissions of combustion byproducts like nitrogen oxides to trace levels.

This isn't a problem on a fairly new engine. But after, say, 100,000 miles the rings and cylinders get worn. Hydrogen (H2) is a much smaller molecule than the hydrocarbons in gasoline. So the wearing on a cylinder and rings will start letting hydrogen through much sooner than they will start letting gasoline through. So I expect a failure mode of exploding engines. Am I wrong to expect this?

But the more fundamental flaw is due to the need to use liquified hydrogen in order to make it sufficiently energy dense. Hydrogen must be kept very cold to stay in a liquid state. This car's hydrogen storage container is extremely well insulated. But a half tank of hydrogen will still heat up fast enough to evaporate away in just 9 days. That just seems unacceptable to me.

As the hydrogen becomes gaseous, pressure rises inside the tank. At a certain point, a pressure-relief valve opens. A little bit of hydrogen gas vents out (about 10 to 12 grams per hour), goes through a catalytic converter to turn it into water, and exits the car through a special pipe in the rear bumper. If you aren't driving the car, it takes only 17 hours before this venting starts. A half-full tank will almost completely "boil off" in nine days.

Granted, once you've lost your hydrogen you can still operate the vehicle with gasoline from the gasoline tank. But the need for a back-up gasoline tank uses up more space, makes the vehicle heavier, and the lost hydrogen costs money.

Hydrogen has 3 big problems as an automotive power source, the first two of which are illustrated in this car:

  • Hydrogen fuel cells are not ready yet. Hydrogen internal combustion engines have downsides as substitutes.
  • Liquid hydrogen storage does not make the grade due to losses from evaporation while sitting and the need to use energy while operating to cool the remaining hydrogen back down again. Solid room temperature hydrogen storage is needed. But the physicists and materials scientists still haven't solved that problem.
  • Hydrogen is currently made using hydrocarbons and the net result is probably less energy efficient than just burning the hydrocarbons directly.

I do not know when the fuel cell and solid hydrogen storage problems will be solved. But my suspicion is that the battery problem for electric cars will be solved first.

Then there is the problem of how to produce hydrogen in ways that do not pollute. First off, if the environmental goal is the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions (a more expensive goal to reach than the reduction of conventional pollutant emissions) then production of hydrogen from hydrocarbon fossil fuels makes it a lot easier to capture the carbon. The hydrogen production is done in large centralized facilities where the weight and durability of carbon capture equipment does not pose the problems that carbon capture would in cars.

Also, hydrogen could be produced from nuclear reactors designed to optimize the production of hydrogen. That might turn out to be the cheapest and environmentally friendliest way to produce hydrogen.

Hydrogen is not the only way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles. Better batteries to enable the electric car is another approach. Also, biomass for liquid fuels is still another and more immediately adoptable approach.

Currently biomass is the big growth area. The high costs of fossil fuels seem likely to continue the shift toward biomass. But the increasing popularity of hybrid cars has increased the incentive for companies to develop better batteries. So I'm expecting battery technology to make some big advances in the next several years. Both biomass and batteries can advance by smaller steps driven by demand for existing products. Hydrogen has to make big strides on a multitude of problems without a current market to help fund its advance. So I'm much less optimistic about hydrogen in the short to medium term.

By Randall Parker 2006 November 26 01:28 PM  Energy Transportation
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Skystream 7 For Home Wind Power

Skystream sells a home wind electric power generator kit that they claim will pay for itself in 12 years or less in California.

Depending on the wind speed average and the amount of energy consumed every month, Skystream typically lowers a household electricity bill by 20% to 90%. It is not uncommon for Skystream owners with total-electric homes to have monthly utility bills of only $8 to $15 for nine months of the year (2005 data). The amount of money a Skystream saves you in the long run will depend upon its installed cost, the amount of electricity you use, the average wind speed at your site, and other factors.

For a typical home in California, where the cost of energy is $0.14/KWh, the Skystream 3.7 will produce 400 KWh per month. This will save a household $672 per year on their utility bill. At this rate, they will pay for their Skystream system in approximately 12 years (after rebates, payback is as low as 7 years. This example assumes: $8,500 installed cost, power in an 8 MPH breeze with full output achieved at 20 mph.

Skystream lists conditions you need to meet for their product to work for you. They say you need at least a half acre of land that is unobstructed. Note that eliminates most suburban and city homes right there. Also, you need zoning permission to put up a tower 42 feet high (12.8 meters). Plus, you need a utility that'll let you sell back excess electricity. All these factors shrink the market. Though I can imagine large commercial buildings putting up a batch of these things on their roofs.

The Skystream 3.7 just won a Popular Science magazine award.

FLAGSTAFF - AZ, November 7, 2006/PRNewswire/ -- Today Southwest Windpower announced its newest product, the Skystream 3.7™, has been awarded a 2006 Best of What’s New Award from Popular Science in the Home category. Each year, Popular Science reviews thousands of new products and innovations and includes the top 100 winners in its annual Best of What’s New issue. To win, a product or technology must represent a significant step forward in its category.

“Best of What’s New is the ultimate Popular Science accolade, representing a year’s worth of work evaluating thousands of projects,” said Mark Jannot, editor of Popular Science. “These awards honor innovations that not only influence the way we live today, but that change the way we think about the future.”

Skystream is a next-generation residential power appliance that hooks up to the home to help reduce or eliminate monthly electricity costs. Skystream is the first compact, user-friendly, all-inclusive wind generator (with controls and inverter built in) designed to provide quiet, clean electricity in very low winds. With Skystream, homeowners and small business owners now have the power to choose their electricity source.

For the sake of argument let us grant them their assertion that in many homes in California the Skystream can pay itself back in 12 years or even 7 years with government rebates. So should people in the rest of the United States (or the world for that matter) rush to buy Skystreams for their homes? That depends on local conditions, and not just wind conditions.

First off, that payback time depends on the ability to sell back excess electricity to your local electric utility when the wind is blowing hard and you are not using much electricity. Now, if you always use lots of electricity that might not matter. But if you live in an area where you can't sell back excess electricity and your energy usage is highly uneven then that'll make the payback time much longer.

Second, electric costs vary considerably around the United States. Electricity costs more in California than in most states. In 2006 (and all these numbers are up sharply from 2005) California's electricity is about 14.52 cents per kilowatt-hour (kwh) and in New England it costs about 16.23 cents per kwh with 16.72 per kwh in New York (wow!) versus a US national average of 10.41. The mountain states pay only 9.01 and Wyoming only 7.68. Other really cheap states (generally heavy users of coal but with hydro power too) include Tennessee and Utah at 7.7, .Missouri at 7.62, Nebraska at 7,48, North Dakota at 7.11, and South Dakota at 7.87. Down at the bottom are coal states Kentucky at 7.08 and West Virginia at 6.25. Idaho appears to have the cheapest electricity in America at 6.23 cents per kwh. Outside of New England and Californa the two other high cost electric states are Alaska at 14.74 and Hawaii at an incredible 23.53.

If you live in one of higher cost states then you should find out if you can sell electricity back to your utility. If you live in Hawaii and get a fair amount of wind then the ability to sell electricity your utility probably doesn't matter. These Skystream gadgets could be just the ticket to lower electric power costs.

Unless you live in a pretty windy place it would be imprudent to install one of these things without first installing some sort of cumulative wind speed measuring device at the same altitude as you'd install this device. Or find some other way to find out what your typical wind speeds work out to.

If you live in a lower cost electricity state then you save less in two ways. First off, when you use less utility power you save less money. Second, if you can even sell electric power back to your utility you earn back less money off your electric bill.

Cheap home wind power will make battery powered cars more desirable. Imagine we get cheap high energy density batteries that'll power a car for a couple hundred miles. That'd make all undependable energy sources (e.g. wind, solar, even hydropower from streams that run only when it rains) more attractive. You come home at night, plug in the car to the wind mill, and it charges only part of the time.

With batteries to charge up you won't care whether the wind blows in the afternoon, evening, or early morning. You won't even care if it blows every day. If your car can go hundreds of miles you don't need for it to get recharged every day. You just need to average enough to keep your car ready to go.

The restrictions on wind tower installation in suburban and urban environments makes photovoltaics a better longer term bet for local generation using renewable energy sources. But photovoltaics still cost much more than wind and utility power. For people living in rural areas home wind power could become pretty popular. It will deliver power even in the short days of winter when photovoltaics will deliver less electricity. Also, it will complement solar even in the summer by delivering some power at night.

By Randall Parker 2006 November 26 10:55 AM  Energy Wind
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2006 November 25 Saturday
US Corporate Support For CO2 Emissions Capture Increasing

Faced with Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress some big companies that extract and use large amounts of fossil fuels are reexamining their opposition to restrictions on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and on other so-called greenhouse gases. Companies would rather start bargaining once they see CO2 emissions regulations as inevitable.

Exxon Mobil Corp., the highest-profile corporate skeptic about global warming, said in September that it was considering ending its funding of a think tank that has sought to cast doubts on climate change. And on Nov. 2, the company announced that it will contribute more than $1.25 million to a European Union study on how to store carbon dioxide in natural gas fields in the Norwegian North Sea, Algeria and Germany.

George W. Bush still has over 2 years left to go in his presidency. So the energy industry does not face an immediate threat of tougher regulations. But they need to think long term because their capital investments have operational lifespans measured in decades.

The US electric power industry has not expanded much since being mostly deregulated. Demand growth has reached a point where the industry can't wait any longer to build new plants. They suddenly find themselves wanting regulatory certainty that was less important when they were only trying to prevent costly regulations on existing plants.

Duke Energy, for example, has not added significant power generation in two decades, and customer demand is rising 1 to 2 percent a year. The company has included a price for the carbon emitted in its cost estimates for a new coal-fired generating plant proposed for Indiana.

"If we had our druthers, we'd already have carbon legislation passed," said John L. Stowell, Duke Energy's vice president for environmental policy. "Our viewpoint is that it's going to happen. There's scientific evidence of climate change. We'd like to know what legislation will be put together so that, when we figure out how to increase our load, we know exactly what to expect."

One reason companies are turning to Congress is to avert the multiplicity of regulations being drafted by various state governments.

Electric power plant operators face a dilemma. Electric power plants last decades. Decisions on their designs made today need to be optimal over the life of the plants. Should they build nuclear? Coal with conventional emissions controls only? Coal with CO2 capture technologies?

If they built new electric generator plants now under current regulations and tougher regulations are enacted 5 or 10 years from now the cost of retroffing those plants to capture CO2 will be far higher later than if they design and build the plants to allow CO2 capture. But if the tough regulations do not come fairly soon then the money spent on the CO2 capturing design will turn out to be a bad investment. They are better off knowing sooner when the regulations will come and what the regulations will be.

Regulatory uncertainties are not their only problem. They have to make guesses about future natural gas prices and also possible breakthroughs in competing technologies such as wind and photovoltaics. Huge capital investments made today in nuclear or coal could turn out bad choices 10 years from now if photovoltaics become dirt cheap.

Tougher regulations on CO2 emissions are pluses for all the non-fossil fuel energy sources. Companies like Duke and Entergy would be a lot more inclined to build nuclear plants if, say, CO2 emissions taxes were going to add 2 cents per kwh of coal generated electricity.

What I'd like to know: What does Duke Energy think its cost is for using today's technology to do full CO2 capture and sequestration for a new coal-fired electric power plant?

What I'd also like to know: Does the cost of full CO2 capture and sequestration make new nuclear power plants a cheaper source of electricity than coal?

As for the environmental effects of CO2 emissions regulations in the United States: China's growth in use of coal is so fast that US efforts to restrict emissions won't matter.

Already, China uses more coal than the United States, the European Union and Japan combined. And it has increased coal consumption 14 percent in each of the past two years in the broadest industrialization ever. Every week to 10 days, another coal-fired power plant opens somewhere in China that is big enough to serve all the households in Dallas or San Diego.

To make matters worse, India is right behind China in stepping up its construction of coal-fired power plants — and has a population expected to outstrip China's by 2030.

The US capacity expansion is down in the noise next to China.

By 2012, the plants in three key countries - China, India, and the United States - are expected to emit as much as an extra 2.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide, according to a Monitor analysis of power-plant construction data. In contrast, Kyoto countries by that year are supposed to have cut their CO2 emissions by some 483 million tons.

...

China is the dominant player. The country is on track to add 562 coal-fired plants - nearly half the world total of plants expected to come online in the next eight years. India could add 213such plants; the US, 72.

To restate an argument that I know long time readers are already bored of by now: We need to accelerate the development of non-fossil fuels energy technologies. If we make those technologies cheap enough they will replace coal and oil without the need for impossible to achieve international treaties. China and India aren't going to go along with the greenie dreams of some affluent Western environmentalists. Poorer people have more immediate worries.

By Randall Parker 2006 November 25 05:25 PM  Energy Policy
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One Third Of MIT Engineers Work On Biology Problems

Here's another example of why I expect we will see great increases in the rate of progress in biotechnology.

One-third of the engineers at MIT now work on biological problems, according to Graham C. Walker, MIT biology professor. Yet it can be challenging for biology and engineering students to understand each other.

The divide, deeper than mere semantics, can touch on basic cultural differences, he says. "Even among top-level scientists, our fundamental ways of conducting inquiry differ, depending on our interests and training."

Teaching introductory biology to MIT undergraduates, Walker experiences the disciplinary disconnect firsthand. "It's a constant challenge," he says, "to find ways to make biology comprehensible and relevant to students who think like engineers."

Professor Walker has a $1 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to figure out better ways to teach biology to engineers. MIT now has a biological engineering degree program. These are signs of the times.

Biology used to advance at a snail's pace because its tools were so primitive. The influx of talent from semiconductor engineering and other engineering disciplines has greatly sped up the rate of progress in the field and promises to speed it up by orders of magnitude in the future. The field of microfluidics chases the idea of highly automated and cheap labs on a chip.

Imagine a chip made using semiconductor processes that has lots of reaction vessels and miniature tubes and valves, all digitally controllable. No more pipettes. No petri dishes. No lab techs making mistakes from the tedium. Software will be able to carry out long experimental sequences. Computer programs with limited domain-specific artificial intelligence will even be able to generate hypotheses and carry out experiments. That's where the world of biology is going.

Pure simulation is also going to play a larger role in biological research. Rather than use real cells and real organisms an increasing fraction of biological research will take place in computer simulations using math and known rules of behavior of biological components and systems. The faster the computers become the more of all biological research will become doable in mathematical models written in software.

By Randall Parker 2006 November 25 01:49 PM  Biotech Advance Rates
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2006 November 24 Friday
Stem Cell Regulatory Circuitry Mapped

Using mouse embryonic stem cells Harvard researchers funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute have created a first draft map of how a set of proteins interact with each other to maintain embryonic stem cell state.

Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) researchers have created a map that charts the largely unexplored protein landscape that regulates a stem cell's ability to differentiate into multiple types of mature cells.

Understanding this protein network in greater detail could give stem cell biologists a new set of tools to coax mature cells to revert to an embryonic state, said the researchers. Reprogramming adult cells in this way could provide an alternative source of stem cells to use in regenerating tissues damaged by disease or trauma, rather than employing embryonic cells, they said.

HHMI investigator Stuart Orkin and his colleagues at Children's Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School published their findings November 8, 2006, in an advanced online publication in the journal Nature.

They've also shown that depletion of concentration of a few of the proteins causes the cells to start showing signs that they are becoming more differentiated (specialized) to become cell types that carry out specific functions.

All these proteins will become targets for drug development to block or enhance their effects in order to shift cells into other states. Scientists will build on this work to create more detailed maps of how these proteins interact to control cell state. Likely still other proteins will be found to also interact with these proteins to control cell state. An increasingly more detailed map of relations between these proteins will provide a guide for where to intervene to control stem cell state. This report is a great foundation for further work along this line.

Orkin hopes the map will help guide the development of improvements in methods to better control reprogramming of cell state.

Orkin said that thus far experiments aiming at reprogramming mature cells into a stem cell-like state have yielded cells that imperfectly resemble embryonic stem cells. “However, with this new understanding of the network of regulatory factors, it might be possible to refine this approach to reprogramming,” he said.

He's being overly modest here. Of course this map will be useful for development of techniques to control cell state.

Note how these researchers think of the proteins in cells as forming complex circuits just as computer chips have complex circuits.

The regulatory network that maintains a stem cell's ability to become many different cell types - a characteristic called pluripotency - also prevents the cell from inappropriately differentiating into a mature cell, while keeping it poised to undergo maturation when required. This precise control relies on intricate circuits of interacting proteins that both regulate one another and govern the activity of genes.

While I sometimes write posts about promising individual stem cell treatments no one announcement of a promising treatment or even a dozen such announcements will amount to much of a breakthrough given our current deficient state of knowledge on how cells work. The real breakthroughs that will provide us with the most power to produce treatments are going to come from the development of knowledge on how cells control their differentiation (i.e. how cells specialize to become heart muscle cells or liver cells or other specialized types). So this announcement is much more important than the average report about stem cell advances.

Once scientists understand the complex circuitry governing cell differentiation the next set of real important breakthroughs (though mostly invisible to the general public) will come. Scientists will seek to intervene in those cellular circuits and to do so they will develop techniques to tweak those circuits in highly precise and controlled ways.

Cells in the embryonic state are several state changes away from any other state such as muscle cell or artery lining cell or liver cell. Once we have detailed knowledge of the circuits that control cell state the need for embryonic stem cells will go way down. It will become possible to start with a cell in any state and tweak it to shift into any other state.

Previous research has shown that the Nanog gene is a key regulator of whether a stem cell acts like an embryonic stem cell. Orkin's team used this previously discovered knowledge about Nanog to use it as a starting point to map the cell differentiation regulatory circuitry.

As the jumping-off point of their mapping effort, Orkin and his colleagues used a protein called Nanog, which other researchers' experiments had indicated was central to regulation of stem cell pluripotency. The researchers first tagged Nanog so that when they removed it from cells, they would simultaneously remove any proteins that were attached to it.

These experiments enabled them to identify numerous proteins that interact with Nanog, including some already known to regulate pluripotency. To confirm that the proteins they had found functioned to maintain stem cell pluripotency, they depleted the levels of several proteins in embryonic cells and observed that the cells then expressed markers of differentiation.

Drugs could emulate the depletion of a protein by blocking its activity. So each of these several proteins are obvious targets for drug development. To change stem cells into specialised cells or vice versa we need drugs that will bind to these regulatory proteins to turn them on or disable them. Scientists will gradually assemble large toolsets of molecules that can bind to regulatory proteins and by using them in different combinations and orders they will be able to change any cell type to any other cell type.

The researchers have created an initial map of how the proteins interact to maintain embryonic stem cell state.

Next, the researchers created a protein interaction map that showed the relationships among the various proteins. The map will provide stem cell biologists with an important guide for future studies, said Orkin. “Even though some of these factors were known to be important in pluripotency, exactly how they work and who they talk to and interact with was completely unknown,” he said.

This research is important for another reason: These scientists did not try to study one or two proteins at a time. If they did we'd have to wait another century before rejuvenation therapies become possible. The development of assay tools which allow measurement of many proteins or many genes at once has allowed scientists to study complex networks of interactions. Since cells contain many kinds of components functioning in complex networks this ability to collect more data about more target cell components at once is essential if we are to have a chance of benefitting from stem cell therapies.

By Randall Parker 2006 November 24 07:38 AM  Biotech Stem Cells
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2006 November 23 Thursday
Many More Human Genetic Differences Than Previously Reported

Early DNA sequencing and testing technology made it easier to find single point mutations where just a single DNA letter is different. Now scientists are employing techniques that allow identification of larger scale differences where big sections of the genome show up as multiple copies and the number of copies varies between people. At least 10% of human genes vary between people in the number of internal sequences or whole genes that are found in each person.

New research shows that at least 10 percent of genes in the human population can vary in the number of copies of DNA sequences they contain—a finding that alters current thinking that the DNA of any two humans is 99.9 percent similar in content and identity.

I never bought into the politically correct claims from figures around the human genome project a few years ago about how genetically similar we all are. Humans have evolved in too many local environments with unique selective pressures for that to be the case. Even this paper does not uncover the full extent of genetic variation in the human species. Expect to see more such reports.

This discovery of the extent of genetic variation, by Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) international research scholar Stephen W. Scherer, and colleagues, is expected to change the way researchers think about genetic diseases and human evolution.

The idea that large copy variations exist is not new news. Reports have been coming out over the last few years suggesting that copy variations play a big role. But this is the first report I'm aware of that tries to more comprehensively measure the extent of human genetic variation due to copy variations. Note again that Scherer's group has not discovered all such genetic variations. Their sample size of only 270 people from 3 races doesn't begin to capture the extent of the variation within each race let alone the variations in Amerinds, Australian Aborigines, and other groups. Plus, their technique for detecting copy variations probably has limitations that caused them to miss some even in the samples they studied.

Discovery of large numbers of functionally significant variations is good news for a number of reasons. The greater number of variations allows even more comparisons of humans to see how variations on each gene affect how human metabolism functions. Also, it provides indication that we need more methods of DNA testing in order to do personal genome testing.

This group found copy variations that affected 10% of all genes. But, again, this represents a lower bound on the total. The variations that are going to be harder to find are the ones that are rarer. Every person alive probably has genetic variations unique to them. We need really cheap personal DNA sequencing and DNA testing to uncover all the variations that exist.

Genes usually occur in two copies, one inherited from each parent. Scherer and colleagues found approximately 2,900 genes—more than 10 percent of the genes in the human genome—with variations in the number of copies of specific DNA segments. These differences in copy number can influence gene activity and ultimately an organism's function.

Scherer's team used DNA samples from 270 people who have given DNA to the International Hap Map project. That project is aimed at identifying single letter genetic variations and how groups of single letter variations tend to occur together. Their goal is not only to map the extent of genetic variation but also to look for ways to predict some variations due to the presence of other variations.

To get a better picture of exactly how important this type of variation is for human evolution and disease, Scherer's team compared DNA from 270 people with Asian, African, or European ancestry that had been compiled in the HapMap collection and previously used to map the single nucleotide changes in the human genome. Scherer's team mapped the number of duplicated or deleted genes, which they call copy number variations (CNVs). They reported their findings in the November 23, 2006, issue of the journal Nature.

Scherer, a geneticist at the Hospital for Sick Children and the University of Toronto, and colleagues searched for CNVs using microarray-based genome scanning techniques capable of finding changes at least 1,000 bases (nucleotides) long. A base, or nucleotide, is the fundamental building block of DNA. They found an average of 70 CNVs averaging 250,000 nucleotides in size in each DNA sample. In all, the group identified 1,447 different CNVs that collectively covered about 12 percent of the human genome and six to 19 percent of any given chromosome—far more widespread than previously thought.

Many genes linked to a variety of diseases have copy number variations (CNVs).

Not only were the changes common, they also were large. "We'd find missing pieces of DNA, some a million or so nucleotides long," Scherer said. "We used to think that if you had big changes like this, then they must be involved in disease. But we are showing that we can all have these changes."

The group found nearly 16 percent of known disease-related genes in the CNVs, including genes involved in rare genetic disorders such as DiGeorge, Angelman, Williams-Beuren, and Prader-Willi syndromes, as well as those linked with schizophrenia, cataracts, spinal muscular atrophy, and atherosclerosis.

In related research published November 23, 2006, in an advance online publication in Nature Genetics, Scherer and colleagues also compared the two human genome maps—one assembled by Celera Genomics, Inc., and one from the public Human Genome Project. They found thousands of differences.

"Other people have [compared the two human genome sequences]," Scherer said, "but they found so many differences that they mostly attributed the results to error. They couldn't believe the alterations they found might be variants between the sources of DNA being analyzed."

A lot of the differences are indeed real, and they raise a red flag, he said.

Doing individual DNA testing on copy variations is probably harder than doing it for single letter differences. But this research paper will probably cause more scientists to work on better and cheaper techniques for measuring copy variations.

Personalized genome sequencing—for individualized diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disease—is not far off, Scherer pointed out. "The idea [behind comparing the human genome sequences] was to come up with a good understanding of what we're going to get when we do [personalized sequencing]," he explained. "This paper helps us think about how complex it will be."

Copy variations can deliver a few benefits. First off, having more copies of a gene can allow it to get expressed more rapidly. There's a limit to how fast a gene can get transcribed (read) to make messenger RNA. If more copies of the gene exist then they can get read in parallel to produce more copies of messenger RNA (mRNA) in a given amount of time. Then the mRNA gets translated into chains of amino acids which form peptides which, in turn, make up proteins or serve other roles.

Copy variations also make it possible for each copy to take get mutated to make custom versions of peptides that can do different things under different circumstances. One copy can serve the old purpose for which the gene exists and another copy can mutate to better serve some new need that has arisen.

By Randall Parker 2006 November 23 08:14 AM  Human Population Genetics
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2006 November 21 Tuesday
Home Combined Heat And Electric Generators Maturing

Mark Clayton of the Christian Science Monitor reports that home micro combined-heat-and-power (micro-CHP) systems are becoming cheap enough that the market for home electric generators that also supply heat is starting to take off.

Since Malin changed his home heating system to micro-CHP in February, 18 other families in the Boston area also have adopted the technology, which squeezes about 90 percent of the useful energy from the fuel. That's triple the efficiency of power delivered over the grid.

Factories and other industrial facilities have used large CHP systems for years. But until the US debut of micro-systems in greater Boston, the units had not been small enough, cheap enough, and quiet enough for American homes. Add to that the public's rising concern about electric-power reliability - seen in a sales boom of backup generators in the past couple of years - and some experts see in micro-CHP a power-to-the-people energy revolution.

"Right now these residential micro-CHP systems are just a blip," says Nicholas Lenssen of Energy Insights, a technology advisory firm in Framingham, Mass. "But it's a ... technology that ... could have a big impact as it's adopted more widely over the next five to 10 years."

Get this: These things pay for themselves by lowering total cost of electricity.

Micro-CHP doesn't come cheap - just with a long-term discount. Basic systems cost from $13,000 to $20,000, installed. Even at the lower range, that's at least $6,000 more than a new high-efficiency hot-air furnace, even after a gas company rebate. Result: The payback period on the initial investment is three to seven years, depending on the cost of electricity, say officials at Climate Energy. The company expects to install about 200 systems next year, mostly in New England.

How fast they pay back probably varies by a lot more than 3 to 7 years. This is so for a few reasons. First off, residential electric costs in the United States vary from 6.23 cents per kilowatt-hour (kwh) in Idaho to 23.53 cents per kwh in Hawaii. Even that table which lists average electric costs per state understates the range of variation since some areas of states have different rates than other areas of the same states. Similarly, per capita electric energy usage by state varies by a factor of 4. Plus, the heat that comes from the gas-fired home electric generators saves much more money in colder states than in warmer states. During warmer periods the heat from the electric generator just becomes waste heat. If you use a lot of electricity, live in a cold state, have natural gas available (not all do) and it is fairly cheap then the economic argument for getting a micro-CHP device is very strong.

Micro-CHP could make home solar power more practical. Micro-CHP could kick in when the sun does not shine. Throw in some micro wind turbines on the roof and then micro-CHP would only need to kick in when the sun does not shine and the wind does not blow.

By Randall Parker 2006 November 21 11:04 PM  Energy Electric Generators
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US General Fertility Rate Rose Slightly In 2005

In my posts Eternal Youth, Overpopulation, And Instincts To Reproduce and Selective Pressure Grows For Belief In God I argued that a continued decline in fertility rates in industrialized countries seems unlikely because selective pressures are increasing the frequency of alleles that favor the desire to have offspring. Not everyone was persuaded by this argument, as the comments on those posts attest. Well, a new study by the CDC reports not only did fertility in the United States not decline in 2005, it actually increased slightly.

The number of births and the general fertility rate (GFR) increased slightly, whereas the crude birth rate remained unchanged from 2004 to 2005. The preliminary estimate of births in 2005, 4,140,419, increased 1 percent from 2004 (Tables 1, 5, 6, and 8) (2). Births rose for Hispanic, American Indian or Alaska Native (AIAN), Asian or Pacific Islander (API), and non-Hispanic black women, but declined slightly for non-Hispanic white women. The crude birth rate in 2005 was 14.0 births per 1,000 total population, unchanged from 2004. The preliminary 2005 GFR (66.7 births per 1,000 women age 15-44 years), however, rose slightly from 2004, to the highest level since 1993 (2). The GFR rose for Hispanic and AIAN women, declined slightly for API women, and was essentially unchanged for non-Hispanic white and non-Hispanic black women.

We are going to witness an increase in fertility as both genes and beliefs that favor fertility get selected for. It is not reasonable to expect the human race will escape selective pressures for higher fertility.

Even the development of biotechnologies for offspring genetic engineering will not stop natural selection from operating on the human genome. Natural selection operates on genetic variations. Whether the genetic variations are generated by chance events that generate mutations or by human minds choosing alleles from a catalog the result will be variations in offspring desire to have children of their own. Therefore selective pressures will still be able to work when we reach the point where people can make choices on which genes to give to their offspring.

It seems reasonable to expect that people who like children the most will be the ones who are most inclined to select genetic variations that cause their offspring to share their ardour for babies and children. Those children will have more children and will be more likely to give their children the same sorts of genetic variations. So how does reproductive biotechnology end natural selection? I do not see it happening unless governments intervene.

By Randall Parker 2006 November 21 09:31 PM  Trends Demographic
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2006 November 20 Monday
Alzheimer's Disease Might Be Triggered By Low Brain Oxygen

A team at University of British Columbia in Canada including Weihong Song has found that oxygen deprivation activated the gene BACE1 which causes beta anyloid production and therefore likely more plaque formation.

Song’s team found that oxygen deprivation triggers a greater activation of the BACE1 gene. More beta-amyloid means more plaques and, in turn, more neuron death. So getting enough oxygen to the brain may help stave off Alzheimer’s in people with known risk factors, says Song.

A diet that reduces your risk of heart disease will probably reduce your risk of Alzheimer's.

BACE1 converts amyloid into beta amyloid.

The link between low oxygen and plaque formation may be a gene called BACE 1, he added. This gene encodes a protein that converts the precursor amyloid molecule to the more dangerous beta-amyloid form. In their studies with mice, Song's group found that lower oxygen levels increased the activity of the gene.

Lower oxygen might also lead to Alzheimers by reducing the amount of energy available to dispose of plaque. Lower oxygen reduces the ability of cells to break down sugar for energy. The energy gets used to run many cellular processes including junk disposal. So oxygen deprivation could also work to cause brain diseases by reducing the ability of cells to take out the trash.

Eat a diet that is good for your heart and circulatory system. You'll also reduce your risk of stroke, dementia, Alzheimer's, and other degenerative diseases as well.

By Randall Parker 2006 November 20 10:24 PM  Brain Alzheimers Disease
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2006 November 19 Sunday
Test Predicts Decline Of Fertility

Sheffield University professor Bill Ledger claims he has developed a test which will predict the decline of a woman's fertility by comparing hormone levels to results from other women.

The first two are Inhibin B and AMH, which decline as the menopause approaches.

The third is a pituitary hormone known as FSH - this tends to increase when the menopause nears.

A combination of the three will indicate the woman's reserve fertility, scientists say.

This is then plotted onto a graph showing the woman's position compared with the average fertility for women of the same age.

The predictive nature of this test means that the woman's ovarian reserve can be predicted for the next two years, says manufacturer Lifestyle Choices which is linked to the University of Sheffield.

The test costs £179 in British pounds or about $339 US.

The test can help to tell women whether it is worth the trouble to try in vitro fertilization (IVF) and other fertility treatments.

Used in advance of IVF, it would give women judged to have a low chance of success time to prepare emotionally for the heartache of failing to conceive.

It could also allow those judged to be the least fertile to decide against having IVF, which costs up to £7,000 a time.

Prof Ledger said: "I don't think you can persuade a woman not to have a go with IVF because they are really desperate and it is a life-changing thing to decide you'll never have children.

"But you can soften the blow if you warn them from the start that the hormone results are dreadful and the chance of getting eggs, let alone embryos and babies is less than say, five per cent."

Women with poor odds can then consider donor eggs or adoption. Egg donation is harder to arrange in jurisdictions where donors can not sell their eggs. But British women who want to buy eggs could probably buy eggs in America. That'd increase the cost due to travel expenses. But some women can afford it.

Beyond age 35 the odds of conception go down rapidly.

Figures from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority show that fertility rates plummet beyond the age of 35, reaching almost zero by 45. Miscarriage also becomes a risk the older women conceive. At 40, the risk is double that at 20 years, with 40% of all pregnancies leading to miscarriages.

Fewer eggs and less chance of a pregnancy going to completion both work against successful pregnancies once a woman reaches her 40s. Though some women age more slowly and still can have successful pregnancies into their 40s.

By Randall Parker 2006 November 19 07:31 PM  Biotech Reproduction
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Resveratrol Increases Energy In Humans, Mice

Resveratrol increases energy production in humans and increases mouse endurance on treadmills.

CAMBRIDGE, MA and Strasbourg, France – November 16th, 2006 – Sirtris Pharmaceuticals and the University Louis Pasteur, Strasbourg announced that in an article published today in Cell, “Resveratrol improves mitochondrial function and protects against metabolic disease by activating SIRT1 and PGC-1α.” Lagouge et al., Cell. 2006; 127: 1–14, SIRT1 was shown for the first time in a human population to accelerate metabolic rate.

In a human population in Finland, SIRT1 was linked to increased energy expenditure as demonstrated by genetic studies of three variants of the SIRT1 gene. The study also showed that treating mice with resveratrol increased mitochondrial biogenesis leading to increased exercise endurance and protection from diet induced obesity. Activation of SIRT1, the best characterized of the recently-discovered family of sirtuin enzymes, was shown to be the mechanism by which these therapeutic benefits occur.

The doses used in mice, 200 mg/kg and 400 mg/kg, is milligrams per day per kilogram of body weight of the mice. Well, scale that to humans and it becomes clear the dose is very high. A 150 lb human is 68 kilograms. That works out to over 27 grams per day.

Mice were dosed with 200 mg/kg or 400 mg/kg of resveratrol daily in either normal chow or high fat chow. The mice on resveratrol lost weight due to decreased fat, and this was attributed to an increase in the number and function of mitochondria. The resveratrol-treated mice also exhibited improved insulin sensitivity and an increased metabolic rate. Notably, mice treated with resveratrol showed a two-times increase in exercise endurance. These effects were shown to be mediated through SIRT1 and PGC-1α.

The scientists who did the work are at prestigious research universities.

The authors of the Cell article include the teams of the principal investigator Johan Auwerx, M.D. Ph.D., Professor at the Medical Faculty in Strasbourg, at IGBMC (Unité mixte de recherche CNRS, Inserm, University Louis Pasteur), France, and of Pere Puigserver, Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore (now at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute/Harvard Medical School in Boston), both members of the Scientific Advisory Board of Sirtris Pharmaceuticals, and Sirtris scientists: Peter Elliott, Ph.D. Senior Vice President and Head of Development, Phil Lambert, Ph.D. Senior Director of Pharmacology, and Jill Milne, Ph.D., Senior Director of Biology.

It would be hard to get regulatory approval for a drug that increased life expectancy because it is a claim that is hard to prove in a clinical trial. But Sitris is chasing a more provable claim: That their modified resveratrol molecule, SRT501, will reduce the symptoms of old age and obesity such as high unhealthy blood lipids and insulin resistance in the form of type II diabetes.

“This work is significant because it shows that a SIRT1 activator can protect against metabolic disease, highlighting the therapeutic potential of sirtuins. Resveratrol a compound found in the skin of red grapes and hence in red wine, could very well explain the French Paradox,” said Johan Auwerx.

Sirtris has initiated a human Phase 1b clinical trial in diabetes with SRT501, a proprietary formulation of resveratrol with improved bioavailability. SRT501 is the first small molecule to enter human clinical trials that is designed to activate SIRT1. Sirtris has applied this scientific discovery to the development of SRT501, which activates SIRT1, for the treatment of diseases of aging such as metabolic and mitochondrial disorders. In addition, Sirtris has a robust pipeline of novel small molecule drug candidates that are potent SIRT1 activators and are chemically distinct from resveratrol.

“This important work highlights the significance of SIRT1 as a therapeutic target for metabolic disease. Based on the continuing scientific evidence, as shown in this most recent Cell article, we are continuing to advance drug candidates to translate the science of sirtuins into new treatments for diseases of aging, such as diabetes,” said Peter Elliott, Ph.D. Senior Vice President and Head of Development at Sirtris Pharmaceuticals.

“These new human data support SIRT1 as a therapeutic target for metabolic disease. Our broad pipeline of sirtuin modulators have potential in a number of diseases of aging,” said Christoph Westphal, M.D., Ph.D., Chief Executive Officer of Sirtris Pharmaceuticals.

Now for the qualifiers and caveats.

Back in March 2005 Sirtris co-founder David Sinclair of Harvard said that most commercial resveratrol preparations have no active resveratrol in them - with activity measured by the ability to activate the SIR2 enzymes.

Resveratrol is not an easy molecule to protect from oxidation. Most commercially available supplements I have tested have no ability to stimulate SIR2 enzymes.

Longevinex sells resveratrol to many researchers. But their commercial resveratrol preparation has only 100 mg of resveratrol per capsule and costs more than $1 per capsule. But the recent study by David Sinclair and Rafael de Cabo showing resveratrol protected mice from the harms of obesity used a dose of resveratrol that would be the equivalent of 1600 mg for a 150 lb human. Whereas the study above on mice used the equivalent of 27 grams (27,000 milligrams) of resveratrol for a 150 lb human.

Bulk sources of resveratrol from knotweed can be found on the internet. But which of those sources is selling real active resveratrol? Your guess is as good as mine.

Then there's the question of whether this stuff is safe. We do not know. Okay? Really, we do not know. We need a big study of large numbers of people taking a gram of resveratrol a day with all sorts of checks done on them to look for bad signs. My guess is we are not going to see such a study on resveratrol because the money is in making a patentable commercial variation of resveratrol into a marketable drug. That'll take 6, 7, 8 years more and hundreds of millions of dollars.

In the comments section of my post on the David Sinclair and Rafael de Cabo study on resveratrol you'll see a reader who claims he's taking over 1 gram of resveratrol a day with very beneficial effects. He thinks he has a good trustworthy source for large doses.

Where do resveratrol and the Sirtris drug SRT501 fit into the larger picture of anti-aging treatments and life extension? If they work then they probably work by slowing down aging the same way that calorie restriction does. The interest in the Sir1 and similar sirtuin genes comes from studies on calorie restriction's effects on gene expression in yeast and rodents. But we do not know for sure that calorie restriction will increase human life expectancies.

Now, if resveratrol and SRT501 do extend life that's a good thing because they'll help keep us alive until rejuvenation therapies such as gene therapies and stem cell therapies become available. That companies are trying to develop drugs that mimic the effects of calorie restriction is a good thing. I wish them luck and watch their progress closely.

But we still need the rejuvenation therapies and we need even greater efforts to develop rejuvenation therapies. For more on that read about Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS). We won't need to slow the rate of aging when we can reverse aging. Though slowing the rate of aging will still let us go longer between rejuvenation therapy episodes.

By Randall Parker 2006 November 19 05:04 PM  Aging Diet Resveratrol
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Asian Egg Donor Shortage In United States

An article in the Washington Post reports claims by fertility clinics and couples looking for donor eggs that Asian egg donors in the United States are hard to find.

But as egg donation has surged over the past two decades, clinics and donor recruiting agencies say the supply of ethnic minority donors, especially Asians, has not kept pace with demand. For reasons probably involving complex cultural attitudes about fertility and basic marketing principles, Asian eggs are hard to find.

This strikes me as a temporary problem. Higher prices will bring forward more donors. Asian ethnics would be smart to advertise in college newspapers at elite colleges to get eggs from smarter students. The costs are higher. But the benefit of having smarter kids on average will pay itself back many times over.

Clinics that are offering only $6000 could always raise their offering prices. Surely some of their customers could afford to pay more. The money is a very small portion of the total costs for raising a kid.

Donors are usually in their fertile 20s. After passing medical and psychological tests, they inject themselves with hormone stimulants for about one month. They are then anesthetized while a physician removes the eggs with a needle. Most clinics in the Washington region pay donors about $6,000.

The Web site of the Washington Fertility Center asks for "urgently needed" Chinese, Ethiopian, Indian, Japanese, Korean, Middle Eastern, Filipino and Vietnamese donors. Recently, its online donor database featured 152 donor profiles. Among the donors were two of Middle Eastern descent and 10 Asians, of whom one was part Indian -- one of the rarest donor ethnicities, doctors say.

Some are afraid to tell their relatives and friends they can't start a pregnancy.

Because infertility is seen as failure in some cultures, and because adoption is uncommon among Asians and Muslims, some observers speculate that despairing infertile couples opt for egg donation without telling anyone -- which also prevents them from asking relatives or friends to be donors. That secrecy makes a donor of the same ethnicity even more crucial, doctors say.

To women of those wanted ethnicities who want to make money selling their eggs: Ask yourself how much money it would take to make it worth going through the time and effort and risks from ovary stimulation drugs such as ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome. My advice: Demand what you think will make it worth the risks and trouble.. If you are provably very smart (e.g. very high IQ, high SAT scores, advanced scientific or medical degrees) then demand tens of thousands of dollars. If you offer to sell your eggs try to get top dollar.

The article reports on the practice of Indian Americans buying eggs in India. This allows selection of donors from the same caste and region.

When genetic testing becomes cheap and detailed in what it reveals I expect to see a large increase in the use of donor eggs. The advantages of donor eggs will become greater once eggs can be chosen to produce healthier, smarter, better looking, and better behaved kids.

By Randall Parker 2006 November 19 12:58 PM  Bioethics Reproduction
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Chevrons Provide Evidence For More Frequent Asteroid Impacts

The New York Times reports on an international collaboration of scientists called the Holocene Impact Working Group which believes asteroids hit the Earth far more often than previously thought and 600 feet high chevrons 3 miles from the ocean in Madagascar are evidence for a massive asteroid 4800 years ago which a caused tsunami wave. (and the article is a good primer on how geologists look at soil samples for evidence of past events)

Scientists in the working group say the evidence for such impacts during the last 10,000 years, known as the Holocene epoch, is strong enough to overturn current estimates of how often the Earth suffers a violent impact on the order of a 10-megaton explosion. Instead of once in 500,000 to one million years, as astronomers now calculate, catastrophic impacts could happen every 1,000 years.

The researchers, who formed the working group after finding one another through an international conference, are based in the United States, Australia, Russia, France and Ireland. They are established experts in geology, geophysics, geomorphology, tsunamis, tree rings, soil science and archaeology, including the structural analysis of myth. Their efforts are just getting under way, but they will present some of their work at the American Geophysical Union meeting in December in San Francisco.

This year the group started using Google Earth, a free source of satellite images, to search around the globe for chevrons, which they interpret as evidence of past giant tsunamis. Scores of such sites have turned up in Australia, Africa, Europe and the United States, including the Hudson River Valley and Long Island.

First of all, isn't it great that Google Earth is speeding research into the asteroid threat? Is it possible for us non-experts to look at Google Earth pages and recognize Chevrons? Can someone collect a set of Google Earth URLs that display chevrons from around the world?

The chevrons these scientists are finding are all pointed at nearby large bodies of water. So all over the world there are signs of past massive waves which have slammed inland at various times in history. But scientists who study near earth asteroids are skeptical because they find too few asteroids to account for the number of chevrons claimed to be from mega-tsunamis due to ocean asteroid hits.

Asteroid detection and deflection research already struck me as woefully underfunded before I read this article. Now the possibility that major asteroids might strike the Earth far more frequently than previously believed makes the urgency of asteroid research even greater.

If someone spots an asteroid tomorrow that is going go hit the Earth 2 days later we'll all spend the following 2 days feeling really really stupid for not doing more to prevent an entirely avoidable threat to our existence. Why not avoid that outcome and find the orbit of every asteroid out there?

By Randall Parker 2006 November 19 09:16 AM  Dangers Natural General
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Plastic Surgery Growing In Popularity Among Men

The guys are going under the knife in order to stave off the appearances of aging.

Although men still comprise only 12% of all cosmetic surgery patients, a growing number are seeking minimally invasive procedures to take the edge off aging. From 2000 to 2005, the number of men seeking these procedures increased 44% to 911,850, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgery.

The two biggest factors driving this trend, say experts, are the advances in products used to minimize wrinkles, and a growing feeling among men that getting cosmetic procedures is acceptable. "Men used to say, 'So what? I'm a guy. Who cares?' " says Dr. Brian Kinney, a Los Angeles-based plastic surgeon. "Now they do care. A lot of guys reach age 35 and want to nip any signs of aging fast. They consider it part of their upkeep."

Are guys doing this more to look young and virile in the workplace or in order to be more appealing to women?

I think having a middle aged or old aged look used to be more of a prerequisite for moving up the corporate ladder in large and slow changing corporations. Now the examples of business success tend to be guys in their 20s and 30s who made it big in venture capital start-ups. Youthfulness is more correlated with the qualities needed to success in business. So I'd expect a middle aged guy who wants to present his ideas to venture capitalists to worry that the VCs want to see someone young and energetic looking. Hence the desire for treatments that help a guy look bright eyed and bushy tailed.

What's the best news in all this? The bigger demand for treatments that simulate youth also means a bigger the demand for products that actually restore youth. All those guys who are buying the nip/tuck treatments are a potential market for stem cell therapies. People making pitches to venture capitalists to fund a start-up to develop stem cell therapies for facial collagen production are going to be able to point at the big bucks guys and gals are willing to spend on plastic surgery.

We are already seeing crude forms of cell therapies now where fat cells are taken from other parts of the body and injected into the face in order to restore shrunken facial appearances. Methods to train cells to grow and to become other cell types will be eagerly embraced by plastic surgeons and plastic surgery patients. Their demand for stem cell therapies will provide revenue flows to fund refinements of the first stem cell therapies that hit the plastic surgery market.

By Randall Parker 2006 November 19 08:04 AM  Aging Appearances
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2006 November 18 Saturday
Ethanol From Wood Chips As Cheap As Corn Ethanol?

MIT's Technology Review reports a company is going to build a demonstration plant for a technology which they claim will produce ethanol from wood chips as cheaply as ethanol from corn.

Experimental methods for converting wood chips and grass into ethanol will soon be tested at production scale. Mascoma Corporation, based in Cambridge, MA, is building demonstration facilities that will have the capacity to produce about one-half to two million gallons of ethanol a year from waste biomass. The startup recently received $30 million in venture-capital money, which is fueling its scale-up plans.

Mascoma is genetically engineering microorganisms to do part of the work to convert wood into simple sugars. They say at the current state of their technology their production cost will be similar to that of corn ethanol. They expect further development of their technology will cut their ethanol production cost in half.

Corn ethanol does not scale. Whereas some experts think wood ethanol could scale all the way to a total replacement for gasoline.

Corn grain, the current source of ethanol in the United States, requires large amounts of land and energy to produce. This, along with the demand for corn as food, limits the total amount of ethanol that can be produced from corn to about 15 billion gallons a year--about three times what is currently produced. If the fuel is to supplant a sizable fraction of the 140 billion gallons of gasoline consumed each year in the United States, ethanol producers will need to turn to biomass such as wood chips and switchgrass. These resources are cheaper and potentially much more abundant, and they can be converted to ethanol much more efficiently than corn can because they require less energy to grow (see "Redesigning Life to Make Ethanol").

Since ethanol has less energy per gallon than gasoline that potential 15 billion gallons of ethanol amounts to only 10 billion gallons of gasoline or one fourteenth of current US gasoline consumption. Since demand is rising it represents an even smaller fraction of future demand and does not address demand for diesel, aircraft fuel, and other uses of fossil fuels.

Biomass from wood and other sources might be able to replace all gasoline in the United States.

Indeed, ethanol from such sources could replace "a very large fraction" of the gasoline currently used for vehicles, says Gregory Stephanopoulos, professor of chemical engineering at MIT. He says some experts estimate that with gains in efficiency and high yields of ethanol, all the gasoline for transportation could be replaced; the most conservative estimates say that about 20 percent could be replaced.

As I read the continuing series of reports on advances in biomass technology I'm starting to get a sense that the people who are fighting to prevent global warming are fighting yesterday's battle. Biomass energy is going to drop so far in price that ethanol will replace most of the current uses of gasoline and diesel fuel. If that happens then environmentalists will need to start worrying about how much of the world's landmass will get shifted into production to produce biomass for energy.

My guess is that wood biomass will be less disruptive for animals and insects. Trees take years to grow. So once planted the area they occupy will provide habitat for species that can migrate in. But I'd like to see analyses on the likely effects of large scale tree biomass energy from people with expertise on habitats. Will even savannahs get planted with trees and will a large number of types of habitats become monocultures that support a smaller range of plants and animals?

Harvard environmental studies professor Michael McElroy argues the United States does not have enough land to scale up ethanol production all that much.

Some 73.4 million acres of land were harvested for corn in the United States in 2004—23 percent of the nation’s total cultivated land area. Anticipating the demand for additional corn for ethanol, the futures market currently projects a 25 percent increase in the price of a bushel of corn for 2007. How will farmers respond to this incentive? There are two possible options. One is to increase the total planted area. The second is to favor corn over alternative crops, such as soybeans. But soybeans are already in short supply globally, and there are plans to use them as a source of biodiesel fuel as well. And if we opt to expand the total cultivated area, we will have to open up much less productive acreage for cultivation, with presumably higher applications of fertilizer and additional reliance on irrigation. Neither option is attractive in terms of either economics or the implications for environmental quality. At a minimum, we should expect higher prices for the production of either ethanol, or food, or both (corn and soybeans are essential components of animal feed in the United States).

I've done rough calculations in previous posts where I figured out how much land mass it would take to grow enough corn to replace all oil and natural gas in used in the United States. The rough estimate was well over a third of the US land mass assuming that production yield on the additional acres would be as high as the 160 bushels typically seen on existing corn acres and under cultivation in the United States. But of course the additional acres would have far lower productivity. Plus, the pesticide run-off, the additional demands for irrigation water, and other problems with scaling up makes corn ethanol completely impractical as a major source of energy.

Some existing ethanol production plants get 2.6 gallons of ethanol per bushel of corn. I've seen claims that some plants get 2.7 gallons of ethanol per bushel and an announcement for a technology that might boost the ratio to 2.8 gallons per bushel. Multiply by two thirds to get the energy equivalent for gallons of gasoline.

Suppose we imagine a future technology that'll extract 3 gallons of ethanol per bushel of corn. That's like 2 gallons of gasoline. Then an acre would produce 2 gallons times 160 bushels or 320 gallons of gasoline equivalent energy. But there's an unresolved controversy as to how much energy input is needed to produce the bushels of corn in the first place. Some fraction of the ethanol output would need to be fed back into agricultural production to make the corn. So the net energy yield per acre of corn is probably far less than the equivalent of 320 gallons of gasoline per acre and might even be less than 100 gallons.

Now consider the 140 or so billion gallons of gasoline that the United States consumes per year. At 100 gallons per acre we are talking 1.4 billion acres to produce enough corn to make enough ethanol to replace gasoline. But the United States contains only 2.3 billion acres and some of that is desert and in Alaska and in areas where there's not enough water for farming. You'll find arguments for scaling up biomass production in sunnier Brazil where farms could operate all year round. But aren't the rain forests in Brazil already getting cut down too fast for other purposes?

Trying thinking about what ethanol means for a place like India which has 10 times the population density of the United States. An industrializing India that joins a worldwide move to biomass energy would put such a large fraction of its land under cultivation that you can just plain forget about the survival of any rare big cat or primate species outside of zoos. Fuggedaboutit. The way FuturePundit sees it biomass energy is a bigger threat to wildlife in the 21st century than is global warming. We ought to be thinking about how to accelerate nuclear power and photovoltaics as ways to save wildlife habitats and slow the rate of extinction of species.

By Randall Parker 2006 November 18 03:38 PM  Energy Biomass
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H5N1 Flu Strains Mutate For Easier Human Spread

Yoshiro Kawaoka and colleagues at University of Wisconsin in Madisonj have found that some strains of H5N1 bird influenza have mutations that increase their ability to bind to human cells.

Two mutations in the viral hemagglutinin surface protein independently enable H5N1 influenza A virus to bind to human receptors, researchers report in Nature this week.

That's not good news. Avian influenza is highly lethal for infected humans.

Two mutations found in human patients increase binding of the virus to human cells.

Whereas viruses from chickens and ducks could only recognize avian receptors, some viruses from human patients could recognize both human and avian cell receptors. "Once we identified the differences between the isolates, we narrowed down the specific changes that make avian H5N1 recognize the 2,6 receptors," Kawaoka explained. The changes were just two mutations, at positions 182 and 192 on the hemagglutinin sequence.

Half the 250 people known to have been infected by H5N1 have died. If the virus mutates into a form that is transmitted easily between humans while still retaining much of its current lethality you would be well advised to buy a lot of supplies and avoid contact with other humans for several months while a vaccine gets developed.

A highly lethal H5N1 would probably become less lethal with time since less sick people will get around more and spread the disease more widely. So you are also better off avoiding the disease in the early months in hopes that if eventually exposed you'll get a less lethal version.

It is also possible that antibodies taken from infected people who recover could be extracted and used as treatment for those who get it later. So, again, don't be the first one on your block to get a pandemic influenza virus.

In a few years the risk from H5N1 or any other influenza strain will go down due to development of faster means to scale up and produce vaccines. Also, better drugs will be found for suppressing the excess inflammation response by which more deadly influenza strains probably kill.

By Randall Parker 2006 November 18 01:05 PM  Dangers Natural Bio
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Skin Tone Can Change Perceived Age Up To 12 Years

Blotches and discolorations can add as much as 10 to 12 years to a woman's perceived age.

Cincinnati, OH (October 24, 2006) -- A new study is revealing that wrinkles aren't the only cue the human eye looks for to evaluate age. Facial skin color distribution, or tone, can add 10-12 years to a woman's perceived age.

The study, published in the latest issue of the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, used three-dimensional imaging and morphing software to remove wrinkles and furrows from pictures of women, leaving skin tone as the only variable. Researchers were then able to determine exactly what impact facial skin tone has on how young, healthy and attractive people perceive the women to be. Faces with more even skin tone were judged to be younger.

"Until now, behavioral scientists have mostly ignored the overall homogeneity and color saturation of a person's skin," says lead researcher Dr. Karl Grammer. "This study points out that wrinkles aren't the only visual cue to a woman's age.

"Skin tone and luminosity may be a major signal to suitors of a woman's attractiveness, as well as of her assumed age," said Grammer, who is founder and scientific director of the Ludwig-Boltzmann-Institute for Urban Ethology at the University of Vienna, Austria.

The researchers used software to take skin of women of different ages and electronically drape on onto a single standardized underlying facial structure. Then they showed these images to hundreds of observers who rated the age of each picture.

The researchers took digital photographs of 169 Caucasian women between the ages of 10 and 70. Then they used specialized morphing software to "drape" each subject's facial skin over a standardized model, in effect, taking 169 different skin tones and applying them to a common canvas.

In the process, other potential age-defining features such as facial furrows, lines and wrinkles were removed, leaving skin tone as the only variable. Then, these models were viewed by 430 observers who were asked to estimate each model's age and gauge her health and attractiveness.

The models who had the most even skin tone received significantly higher ratings for attractiveness and health, and were also judged to be younger in age. The models with uneven, blotchy skin tone were judged to be significantly older.

"Whether a woman is 17 or 70, the contrast of skin tone plays a significant role in the way her age, beauty and health is perceived," says study co-author Dr. Bernhard Fink. "An even skin tone can give visual clues about a person's health and reproductive capability, so it is considered most desirable."

Women (and men for that matter) who go for plastic surgery to lift and tuck ought to look at techniques for making skin color more even. Anyone know of safe home remedies that decrease skin discoloration?

These researchers will next look at the distribution of melanin, hemoglobin, and collagen for effects on skin tone.

Next Phase of Tone Research – Getting Under the Skin As a next step, Drs. Grammer and Fink will partner with scientist and skin imaging expert Dr. Paul Matts, from P&G Beauty (a division of Procter & Gamble that funded the study) to look at the distribution of 3 chromophores – melanin, hemoglobin, and collagen -- in the skin of study subjects and correlate this distribution with perceived attractiveness. A non-invasive imaging technology called SIAscopy--originally developed by UK-based Astron Clinica for early skin cancer detection--will help the scientists study the chromophores. These 3 chromophores directly affect how the human eye perceives qualities such as luminosity in young skin or dullness in aging skin.

Venture capitalists, biotech companies, and beauty products companies would all do well to pay attention to these results. Products that remove damaged clumps of melanin and other accumulations of intracellular and extracellular trash will find a large market.

Accumulation of junk both in and outside of cells is a major cause of aging. The accumulated trash is probably a source of free radicals and also crowds out cellular components that perform basic tasks. The development of full body rejuvenation therapies will be helped by the development of products that remove accumulated trash from the skin. The widespread willingness to spend big dollars to enhance outer appearances will therefore accelerate the development of rejuvenation biotechnologies.

By Randall Parker 2006 November 18 10:45 AM  Aging Appearances
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2006 November 16 Thursday
Dartmouth Scientists Genetically Engineer Muscular Mice

Dartmouth researchers have found yet another way to make mice have big muscles without exercise.

A team of researchers, led by scientists at Dartmouth Medical School and Dartmouth College, have identified and tested a gene that dramatically alters both muscle metabolism and performance. The researchers say that this finding could someday lead to treatment for muscle diseases, including helping the elderly who suffer from muscle deterioration and improving muscle performance in endurance athletes.

The ban on so-called "gene doping" or gene therapy by many athletic associations slows the rate of progress for the development of gene therapies that increase musculature. Eventually the athletic associations are going to split over this issue. New athletic associations will form that allow genetic engineering. Those associations and companies will put on competitions between the genetically enhanced that eclipse the competitions between natural humans.

Want big muscles without all the hard work? Genetic engineering of an enzyme is the ticket.

The researchers report that the enzyme called AMP-activated protein kinase (or AMPK) is directly involved in optimizing muscle activity. The team bred a mouse that genetically expressed AMPK in an activated state. Like a trained athlete, this mouse enjoyed increased capacity to exercise, manifested by its ability to run three times longer than a normal mouse before exhaustion. One particularly striking feature of the finding was the accumulation of muscle glycogen, the stored form of carbohydrates, a condition that many athletes seek by "carbo-loading" before an event or game. The study appears in the Nov. 14 online issue of the American Journal of Physiology: Endocrinology and Metabolism.

"Our genetically altered mouse appears to have already been an exercise program," says Lee Witters, the Eugene W. Leonard 1921 Professor of Medicine and Biochemistry at Dartmouth Medical School and professor of biological sciences at Dartmouth College. "In other words, without a prior exercise regimen, the mouse developed many of the muscle features that would only be observed after a period of exercise training."

Even if you were genetically engineered to grow big muscles naturally there might still be health benefits to exercise such as development of better arteries and veins. But then that just calls out for gene therapy the circulatory system to compensate for the lack of exercise there too.

The ability to stimulate muscle growth would bring great benefits to elderly people with shrivelled muscles. Okay scientists, figure this out before we get much older.

Witters, whose lab led the study, explains that this finding has implication for anyone with a muscle disease and especially for the growing proportion of the population that is aging. Deteriorating muscles often make the elderly much more prone to fall, leading to hip and other fractures. According to Witters, there is tremendous interest in the geriatric field to find ways to improve muscle performance.

Of course athletes will use gene therapy to enhance muscle strength as soon as it becomes possible.

"We now wonder if it's possible to achieve elements of muscular fitness without having to exercise, which in turn, raises many questions about possible modes of exercise performance enhancement, including the development of drugs that could do the same thing as we have done genetically," he says. "This also might raise to some the specter of 'gene doping,' something seriously being talked about in the future of high-performance athletes."

Gene doping will take off long before it becomes safe to use. Old folks will benefit from the willingness of athletes to take risks with new biotechnologies. The athletes will serve as very willing guinea pigs.

By Randall Parker 2006 November 16 05:51 AM  Bodies Perfected Athletics
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2006 November 15 Wednesday
Chocolate For Lower Blood Clot Risk?

I got half way through reading this report about health benefits of dark chocolate and had to go get a couple of pieces of dark chocolate to eat. This happens every time yet another study comes out that documents the health benefits of the flavonoid compounds found in chocolate. Now, that I'm on a chocolate high I'm thrilled to pass along this information. Might chocolate work to lower blood clot and heart attack risk?

"What these chocolate 'offenders' taught us is that the chemical in cocoa beans has a biochemical effect similar to aspirin in reducing platelet clumping, which can be fatal if a clot forms and blocks a blood vessel, causing a heart attack," says Diane Becker, M.P.H., Sc.D., a professor at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Becker cautions that her work is not intended as a prescription to gobble up large amounts of chocolate candy, which often contains diet-busting amounts of sugar, butter and cream. But as little as 2 tablespoons a day of dark chocolate - the purest form of the candy, made from the dried extract of roasted cocoa beans - may be just what the doctor ordered.

Parenthetically, Mars claims they've changed their chocolate processing process to retain more flavonoids than typical chocolate processing techniques retain. So Dove Dark is probably a great way to get the flavonoids.

Regular chocolate eaters have blood that clots more slowly.

In the study, 139 people Becker - whom Becker somewhat tongue in cheek calls "chocolate offenders" - were disqualified from a much larger study looking at the effects of aspirin on blood platelets. The Genetic Study of Aspirin Responsiveness (GeneSTAR) was conducted at Hopkins from June 2004 to November 2005 and enrolled more than 500 men and 700 women participants nationwide.

Shortly before aspirin dosing began for the subjects, they were told to stay on a strict regimen of exercise and to refrain from smoking or using foods and drinks known to affect platelet activity. These included caffeinated drinks, wine, grapefruit juice - and chocolate.

The non-compliers - who admitted to eating chocolate - were a diverse group who got their flavonoid "fix" from a variety of sources, including chocolate bars, cups of hot cocoa, grapes, black or green tea, and strawberries. And while they were excluded from the aspirin study, Becker and her team scoured their blood results for chocolate's effect on blood platelets, which the body recycles on a daily basis.

When platelet samples from both groups were run through a mechanical blood vessel system designed to time how long it takes for the platelets to clump together in a hair-thin plastic tube, the chocolate lovers were found to be less reactive, on average taking 130 seconds to occlude the system. Platelets from those who stayed away from chocolate as instructed clotted faster, at 123 seconds.

In another key test of urine for waste products of platelet activity, primarily urinary thromboxane (11-dehydro-thromboxane B2), scientists found that chocolate eaters showed less activity and waste products on average, at 177 nanograms per millimol of creatinine, versus an average of 287 nanograms per millimol of creatinine in the group that abstained.

Proanthocyanin compounds might be particularly beneficial. Lou Pagnucco has recently pointed me to a USDA document that places cocoa beans as highest in proanthocyanins followed by sorghum bran (PDF format). Have you ever seen sorghum bran for sale? Cinnamon added to apple sauce ups its proanthocyanin content even higher. Berries are good sources. Check out the charts in the document.

The darker and less sweetened the chocolate the more potent it is in health effects. Also, eat more berries and cherries. They are probably the most beneficial fruits.

By Randall Parker 2006 November 15 10:50 PM  Aging Diet Studies
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2006 November 14 Tuesday
Risk Factors For Whether You Will Live 85 Years

Your odds of reaching 85 are 69% if you avoid all the risk factors spelled out below.

Avoiding health risk factors in midlife such as smoking, being overweight, excessive drinking and hypertension is associated with a longer and healthier life in men, according to a study in the November 15 issue of JAMA, a theme issue on men's health.

Bradley J. Willcox, M.D., of the Pacific Health Research Institute and Kuakini Medical Center in Honolulu, presented the findings of the study today at a JAMA media briefing on men's health in New York.

Persons alive at age 85 years or older are the fastest-growing age group in most industrialized countries and are among the largest consumers of health care resources. Identifying strategies for remaining healthy, vigorous, and disability-free at older ages has become a major priority, according to background information in the article. Studies with substantial numbers of long-lived participants and characteristics associated with longer survival are rare but essential to identify risk factors for health and survival at older ages.

Dr. Willcox and colleagues examined potential biological, lifestyle, and sociodemographic risk factors present at middle-age to identify risk factors for healthy survival. The study included 5,820 Japanese-American middle-aged men (average age, 54) in the Kuakini Honolulu Heart Program/Honolulu Asia Aging Study. The participants were free of illness and functional impairments and were followed for up to 40 years (1965-2005) to assess overall and exceptional survival. Exceptional survival was defined as survival to a specified age (75, 80, 85, or 90 years) without incidence of 6 major chronic diseases and without physical and cognitive impairment. The diseases were coronary heart disease, stroke, cancer (excluding nonmelanoma skin cancer), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Parkinson disease, and treated diabetes. Of the 5,820 original participants, 2,451 participants (42 percent) survived to age 85 years and 655 participants (11 percent) met the criteria for exceptional survival to age 85 years.

Here are the core factors you have to work on to increase your odds of reaching 85.

The researchers found that high grip strength and avoidance of overweight, hyperglycemia, hypertension, smoking, and excessive alcohol consumption were associated with both overall and exceptional survival. In addition, high education and avoidance of hypertriglyceridemia (elevated triglyceride level) were associated with exceptional survival, and lack of a marital partner was associated with death before age 85 years.

Get married, stop smoking, build muscle strength, don't drink too much alcohol, eat a diet that keeps your triglycerides down. These are all known risk factors already.

Avoid all the risk factors and your odds of reaching 85 are very high.

Risk factor models based on cumulative risk factors (survival risk score) suggest that the probability of survival to age 85 years is as high as 69 percent with no risk factors and as low as 22 percent with 6 or more risk factors. The probability of exceptional (healthy) survival to age 85 years was 55 percent with no risk factors but decreased to 9 percent with 6 or more risk factors

Rejuvenation therapies are coming. The longer you can keep yourself alive the greater the odds you'll still be around when therapies that reverse aging make it to market.

By Randall Parker 2006 November 14 10:35 PM  Aging Studies
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Amazon Mechanical Turk Future Of Labor Market?

Amazon.com hires people to work over the web to do simple tasks that Amazon's developers can't find a way to totally automate with software.

Some day, your boss could be a faceless Mechanical Turk who doles out tasks over the Internet. For nearly a year, Amazon.com's Mechanical Turk (mturk.com) has paid amounts ranging from one cent to several dollars for tasks that take a few seconds to a few minutes to complete. The jobs include taking surveys, contributing to a restaurant guide, transcribing audio clips, and looking at photos on the Web to identify colors, street addresses, or human faces.

Curtis Taylor has made about $1,400 since last December just "fooling around with" Mechanical Turk while he watched TV at night. The technical instructor, who lives near Louisville, Ky., used the extra income to buy a new computer and wireless headsets for his and his wife's cellphones.

I'm guessing the people who do this usually do not even end up making minimum wage for their time. But since the convenience is so high and people can mix work and leisure time with such a fine level of granularity the appeal is not surprising.

The "Mechanical Turk" refers to an 18th-century hoax involving a mechanical chess-playing automaton. Outfitted with whirling gears and a head topped with a turban, the Turk toured Europe, defeating human opponents. But the impressive-looking robot was a fake: A human chess master was hidden inside.

More than two centuries later, online retailing giant Amazon.com found its AI programs were struggling to solve a number of problems, such as telling whether two similar but slightly different Web pages displaying products were really duplicates. The story of the Turk led the company to a counterintuitive solution: Use humans to work behind the computer screen.

Amazon also allows other companies to use the Mechanical Turk site to hire people for other web tasks.

The Mechanical Turk is another manifestation of the phenomenon where large numbers of people collaborate over the web in their spare time to create and solve problems.

The Mechanical Turk is just one form of what has been called "crowdsourcing," the ability of the Web to harness amateurs to use their spare time to create content or solve problems.

The internet decreases the number of people needed to do some specialized tasks because people who know how to do them can do them for people all over the world. Also, the internet enables the development of much higher levels of specialization in tasks since someone who might rarely get to do a given task in a single city and get paid to do that task many more times when the entire world is the market for that person's skills.

What I'd really like to see: large numbers of people working over the web to do manual labor using telerobotics. All the dangerous occupations such as roofer and lumberjack could be done by robotic machines that are remotely operated.

Telerobotics will decrease workplace injuries and death, reduce the need for commuting, and also speed up construction. Picture a house under construction where people from different time zones successively take over telerobotic machinery in shift changes so that a house gets constructed 24 hours per day and 7 days per week. Absenteeism and local labor shortages would cease to slow down construction projects.

By Randall Parker 2006 November 14 10:10 PM  Trends Work
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CO2 Emissions Rate Of Increase Accelerating

Not only is the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) getting pumped into the atmosphere increasing but the rate at which it is increasing is itself increasing. In the last 5 years the rate of growth in CO2 emissions was 5 times faster than it was in the 1990s.

The global growth in carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels was 4 times greater in the period between 2000 to 2005 than in the preceding 10 years, say scientists gathering in Beijing today for an international conference on global environmental change.

Despite efforts to reduce carbon emissions, the global growth rate in CO2 was 3.2% in the five years to 2005 compared to 0.8% in the period 1990 to 1999, according to data soon to be published by the Global Carbon Project (www.globalcarbonproject.org), a component of the Earth System Science Partnership (www.essp.org).

The industrialization of some high population countries is behind the acceleration in the rate of growth of CO2 emissions. China has now surpassed Japan and is the second largest fossil fuels user and CO2 emitter after the United States

China might surpass the United States as the largest CO2 emitter by 2030.

One likely contributor is China, whose emissions slowed at end of the 1990s before rising again. China is now the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases after the US. On Tuesday, the International Energy Agency released a report predicting that it would become the world’s top emitter by 2030 (see World faces 'dirty, insecure' energy future).

Other growing developing countries, such as India and Brazil, are also fast becoming large emitters.

Rapidly growing less developed countries aren't going to hold back their growth in order to stop the rise in CO2 emissions. Only the development of cheaper cleaner energy technologies can stop the rise of CO2 emissions.

To repeat: CO2 emissions will continue to rise rapidly until cheap technologies are developed that produce energy without emitting CO2.

By Randall Parker 2006 November 14 09:06 PM  Climate Trends
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2006 November 13 Monday
Fish Fat DHA Cuts Alzheimers And Dementia Risks

The presence of higher levels of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in the blood has been found to be associated with reduced Alzheimer's Disease and dementia risks in participants in the Framingham Heart Study.

Individuals who have higher levels of a fatty acid known as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in their blood may have a significantly lower risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, according to a report in the November issue of Archives of Neurology, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

Age, family history and genetic factors have all been found to increase the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, a neurodegenerative disorder that causes 70 percent of cases of dementia in the elderly, according to background information in the article. Recent studies have found that high levels of homocysteine, an amino acid that is derived from proteins in the diet and that can accumulate in the blood and contribute to heart disease, increase the risk for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. In addition, DHA, an omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid found in fish, appears to affect dementia risk and to be important for the proper functioning of the central nervous system.

Anything that so improves the metabolism of the brain that it reduces risk of Alzheimers and dementia probably yields shorter term benefits in terms of enhanced cognitive function. So even if a demented old age seems a distant prospect you might want to get more DHA in your diet or as a supplement just to make your mind work better.

Ernst J. Schaefer, M.D., Jean Mayer U.S. Department of Agriculture Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, Boston, and colleagues studied the association between DHA levels and dementia in the blood of 899 men and women who were part of the population-based Framingham Heart Study. The participants of an average age of 76 years provided blood samples and underwent neuropsychological testing, and were followed for an average of nine years. A subgroup of 488 also filled out a questionnaire assessing their diet, including information about fish consumption. None of the participants had dementia at the beginning of the study; and they were given a mental examination every two years to screen for its development.

Through the nine-year study period, 99 out of 899 participants developed dementia, including 71 with Alzheimer’s disease. After controlling for other known risk factors for dementia, including age and homocysteine levels, and dividing the study population into fourths (quartiles) based on levels of DHA, the researchers found that men and women in the quartile with the highest DHA levels had a 47 percent lower risk of developing dementia and 39 percent lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease than the other three quartiles with lower DHA levels. Among the participants who completed the dietary questionnaire, those in the top quartile of blood DHA levels reported that they ate an average of .18 grams of DHA a day and an average of three fish servings a week. Participants in the other quartiles ate substantially less fish.

DHA levels in the blood vary by the degree to which the liver converts alpha-linolenic acid, an essential fatty acid, to DHA and also by the amount of DHA in the diet. “In our study, the correlation between [blood] DHA content and fish intake was significant, indicating that fish intake is an important source of dietary DHA,” the authors write.

The .18 grams per day is only 180 milligrams per day. I've decided to take a daily DHA/EPA supplement so I don't have to count how many days its been since the last salmon meal.

You can get a lot of alpha linolenic (ALA) acid from walnuts. Though I've found one source that claims the conversion rate of ALA to DHA and EPA is very low. Still, nut consumption is also associated with heart benefits and other health benefits. So occasional walnuts are a good idea anyway.

By Randall Parker 2006 November 13 11:39 PM  Aging Diet Studies
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Ethanol Prices Fall As Glut Expected

Large profit margins are driving a fast build-up of ethanol production capability and prices are falling.

Ethanol prices have already fallen by half since peaking at $4.23 a gallon on the Chicago spot market in June. And for Mid-Missouri, which sells its ethanol on mostly long-term contracts, the price has fallen to $1.60 a gallon, from a peak of $2.68, while corn has recently surged to more than $3 a bushel.

Outside investors are pestering farmers to sell out now so they can take part in the ethanol boom with existing plants — before the ethanol market might turn sour. With dozens of new plants coming online next year, the wait to start construction of a new one is three years, said Ron Fagen, chief executive of Fagen Inc., the country’s biggest builder of ethanol plants.

Production costs are still above current prices. Even if the price of oil continues to drop ethanol has a floor on its demand due to its use as an oxygenator fuel additive to decrease car emissions.

Ethanol plant construction and operation costs will fall as newer cheaper methods of converting biomass to ethanol get developed. So I expect a continued increase in the demand for ethanol.

I continue to think that environmentalists who are excited about ethanol haven't thought it all the way through. India has about ten times the population density of the United States. Imagine India industrializing and going to biomass as a major energy form. The people have already cut far more into the ecosystem just to farm for food and build housing and roads. Industrialization will allow them to grow more per acre. But with such a huge population to get a large amount of energy per person from biomass would require wiping out all natural areas and replacing them with farms.

Rand Corporation analysts say biomass might well supply 25% of conventional energy in the United States by 2025.

WASHINGTON -- A new Rand Corp. study showing the falling costs of ethanol, wind power and other forms of renewable energy predicts such sources could furnish as much as 25% of the U.S.'s conventional energy by 2025 at little or no additional expense.

A second renewable-energy report soon to be released by the National Academy of Sciences suggests wood chips may become a plentiful source of ethanol and electricity for industrial nations because their forested areas are expanding, led by the U.S. and China.

Yes, biomass energy is cheap and going to get cheaper. That's why its production is going to soar.

The Rand analysts think biomass energy is cheaper than regulatory approaches for the reduction of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

Rand researchers modeled more than 1,500 economic scenarios and found that in most cases, increasing the use of renewable fuels -- which don't enlarge the atmosphere's carbon-dioxide buildup -- would be cheaper than federal regulations forcing the reduction of carbon-dioxide emissions, about a third of which come from vehicles.

My environmentalist argument for accelerated research into photovoltaics, batteries, and nuclear power is that we need them in order to prevent most of the planet from getting converted into massive biomass energy farms.

By Randall Parker 2006 November 13 11:15 PM  Energy Biomass
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Meaning Of Climate History For Global Warming Debated

Does the history of temperatures and atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations provide a clear indication of what the effects will be for atmospheric CO2 increases in the 21st century? Not yet.

Some argue that CO2 fluctuations over the Phanerozoic follow climate trends fairly well, supporting a causal relationship between high gas levels and high temperatures. “The geologic record over the past 550 million years indicates a good correlation,” said Robert A. Berner, a Yale geologist and pioneer of paleoclimate analysis. “There are other factors at work here. But in general, global warming is due to CO2. It was in the past and is now.”

Other experts say that is an oversimplification of a complex picture of natural variation. The fluctuations in the gas levels, they say, often fall out of step with the planet’s hot and cold cycles, undermining the claimed supremacy of carbon dioxide.

“It’s too simplistic to say low CO2 was the only cause of the glacial periods” on time scales of millions of years, said Robert Giegengack, a geologist at the University of Pennsylvania who studies past atmospheres. “The record violates that one-to-one correspondence.”

He and other doubters say the planet is clearly warming today, as it has repeatedly done, but insist that no one knows exactly why. Other possible causes, they say, include changes in sea currents, Sun cycles and cosmic rays that bombard the planet.

“More and more data,” Jan Veizer, an expert on Phanerozoic climates at the University of Ottawa, said, “point to the Sun and stars as the dominant driver.”

Paleoclimatology should get larger chunks of research money. We need to find out how much costs we should foist upon ourselves in order to reduce or perhaps even reverse the build up of atmospheric CO2 from fossil fuels burning. I'd hate to slow worldwide economic growth to solve a problem that might turn out to be much smaller than the gloomier forecasts make it out to be. But at the same time, I'd hate to underspend in solving a problem that is going to be far more expensive and disruptive than the optimists expect. Better information leads to better decisions.

We should also put more government research dollars into developing cleaner energy sources. That money will get paid back in the form of cheaper energy, cleaner environment down at ground level where we breathe and eat, and faster economic growth.

One of my disappointments with the pro-Kyoto Accord forces is that they do not push either increased climate history research spending or energy research spending anywhere near as hard as they push restriction of CO2 emissions now. It is like they want to choose the most painful path. But the opponents of the Kyoto Accord aren't, for the most part, trying to accelerate the development of greater knowledge about climate history or pushing for a big scale-up of energy research either. The deniers of the problem want to do nothing. The believers in the problem want to go down a path that is most punishing. How about a more rational middle?

By Randall Parker 2006 November 13 07:22 AM  Climate Trends
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2006 November 12 Sunday
UK National Health Service To Fund Embryo Genetic Testing

For those using in vitro fertilization (IVF or test tube babies) to start pregnancies the UK National Health Service will now offer to test for genetic diseases (pre-implantation genetic diagnosis or PGD) for 200 genetic diseases when the parents are known carriers.

Controversy has erupted over a new technique offered on the NHS which screens embryos for over 200 inherited diseases.

Doctors are heralding the test as 'revolutionary' for the diagnosis of genetic disorders.

But critics warn the ground-breaking technique is another step towards the creation of the 'designer baby'.

They fear extended genetic screening may eventually be used to create babies chosen for physical characteristics, such as blue eyes or blond hair.

What are fears for critics are thrills for many others. Word to the critics: If you manage to prevent the use of IVF and PGD in your own country then your country will slip down the ranks of the average national IQ league table as parents in other countries choose their embryos partially based on the expected intelligence of offspring. Your offspring will also become relatively less attractive than the new generations of countries that allow extensive use of genetic testing to choose embryos. Want to keep up with the Jones and the Kims and the Nguyens?

When genetic testing allows women to look at their own genes many will find they have too many genetic variations which they do not want to pass on to offspring. Some of those women will decide to find another female with more suitable genetic endowment who can be convinced to donate eggs. This will become more common in jurisdictions that allow payment for egg donation.

Computer automation and other advances allow testing for a large number of diseases.

The latest advances in automated computer analysis and genetic probes mean it is now possible to screen for virtually all currently identified genetic disorders. They include Fragile X Syndrome, Cystic Fibrosis, Diamond Blackfan, Krabbe's disease, Sickle Cell, Tay-Sachs disease and Marfan Syndrome.

Every year more genetic disorders will be identified. So far finding locations in genes that cause genetic disorders has been a big research focus. But we'll soon start seeing the discovery of genetic variations for hair color, eye color, various qualities of skin and teeth and nails, height, musculature, breast size, body shape, intelligence, personality tendencies, and other qualities. Once genetic tests for those features become available then I expect most upper class people to start using IVF plus PGD to start pregnancies.

They test the DNA of the prospective parents. If the prospective parents are carriers for potential genetic diseases then they test an embryo before implantation. The screening is expected to pay itself back many times over by avoiding the costs of taking care of many disabled children.

He said: ''I had a phone call from a primary care trust after a couple applied for funding, asking what it was all about. ''When I explained, the manager said, 'So this technique means we spend £20,000 and avoid the possibility of having to spend between £1 and £2 million caring for a disabled child. It's a no-brainer.''' Dr Fishel has to apply for permission from the fertility watchdog, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, in each couple's case to carry out genetic testing.

Think about where this leads to in the future. First off, genetic testing costs will fall so far that most people will get themselves genetically tested. So before even considering the idea of starting a pregnancy many people will know what harmful genetic variations they carry that they might want to avoid passing on to offspring. Since most couples will know about their harmful genetic variations those who have harmful variations will have more incentive to use in vitro fertilization (IVF) combined with genetic testing of embryos to choose which embryos to implant.

Economic class and intelligence levels will influence how this technology gets used. Since creation of each embryo costs money and since genetic testing also costs money those searching for ideal combinations of maternal and paternal genetic contributions will be limited by cost for how many embryos to create and test before choosing the best match. Those with more money will be able to test more embryos to get one that comes closer to their ideal.

I expect smarter people to place more importance on offspring intelligence than dumber people will. I also expect smarter people to be more willing to go the route of using IVF plus PGD to start pregnancies. So the extensive use of IVF and PGD will widen the existing gap between the smarter and dumber segments of societies.

By Randall Parker 2006 November 12 09:11 PM  Biotech Reproduction
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2006 November 11 Saturday
Google Searches Help Doctors Diagnose Cases

Stumped by a difficult patient and don't have a real life Gregory House MD to turn to? Google it!

Searching with Google may help doctors to diagnose difficult cases, finds a study from Australia published on bmj.com today.

Doctors have been estimated to carry two million facts in their heads to help them diagnose illness, but with medical knowledge expanding rapidly, even this may not be enough. Google is the most popular search engine on the world wide web, giving users quick access to more than three billion medical articles.

This is where cyborg technology would come in handy. Think a question. Get a search result projected onto your retinas. Or even state a question out loud. Then have a device interpret your speech into text and send it off to a specialized search engine. Then see results.

Just as Google has build Google News (of which FuturePundit is an incredibly heavy user) to restrict searches to news sites and Google Scholar to restrict searches to scholarly published research papers imagine a Google Medical that only looks at medical sites (and avoids all those places trying to sell you supplements). That would provide even more useful results than plain Google.

Google searches allowed doctors to turn up correct diagnoses in 58% of 26 difficult cases.

So, how good is Google in helping doctors diagnose difficult cases?

Doctors at the Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane identified 26 difficult diagnostic cases published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2005. They included conditions such as Cushing’s syndrome and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

They selected three to five search terms from each case and did a Google search while blind to the correct diagnoses.

They then selected and recorded the three diagnoses that were ranked most prominently and seemed to fit the symptoms and signs, and compared the results with the correct diagnoses as published in the journal.

Google searches found the correct diagnosis in 15 (58%) of cases.

But you need to have a large base of knowledge in your own brain already in order to make sense of the search results.

The authors suggest that Google is likely to be a useful aid for conditions with unique symptoms and signs that can easily be used as search terms.

However, they stress that the efficiency of the search and the usefulness of the retrieved information depend on the searchers’ knowledge base.

Medicine is the area of intellectual I'd most like to see automated. Medical costs go up each year faster than inflation and have become a huge burden for industries, governments, and individuals. The vast majority doctors and nurses employed in medicine are smart minds that only deliver services and do little to develop new goods and services (though obviously some do research). The automation of medicine would free up hundreds of thousands of higher IQ minds to do research and product development.

Artificial intelligence is going to come very incrementally. The popularity of search engines is probably a bigger driver for the development of artificial intelligence than anything else happening right now. Hundreds of millions of people are using search engines looking for answers. The advertising revenue they generate feeds an intense competition between search engine providers to make better algorithms to search through text and tables to look for meaning.

Even the people who do searches to look for the latest in the trailer trash saga of Britney Spears and Kevin Federline are creating demand for products that push the boundaries of artificial intelligence. The people who want to find others who share their own weird quirky sexual desires are going to jump to the search engine that can interpret human writing most accurately. So all the vices, cravings, and desires of humanity are pushing us further toward development of useful artificial intelligence technology. Parenthetically, this also suggests that some of the first AIs will, by design, want to have sex with humans. So Caprica-Six's desire for Gaius Baltar makes sense.

By Randall Parker 2006 November 11 09:41 AM  AI Medicine
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2006 November 09 Thursday
Energy Research Seen Necessary For Emissions Reductions

Fossil fuels burning continues to rise and atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations continue to rise as well. In some areas such as in China the emission of conventional pollutants is also on the rise. This trend can only be stopped by advances in cleaner energy technologies. Andrew Revkin of the New York Times reports that in inflation-adjusted terms government-funded energy research has dropped in the United States and other industrialized countries.

In the United States, annual federal spending for all energy research and development - not just the research aimed at climate-friendly technologies - is less than half what it was a quarter-century ago. It has sunk to $3 billion a year in the current budget from an inflation-adjusted peak of $7.7 billion in 1979, according to several different studies.

That $3 billion a year amounts of about a week and a half of the cost of US military operations in Iraq. With the longer term costs of disability and medical problems of injured soldiers the current budget costs of the war understate the real total costs. Why not spend money on research to make oil obsolete and Middle Eastern politics irrelevant to the United States?

We need advances in nuclear, solar photovoltaics, solar heating, batteries, and energy efficiency boosting technologies such as better insulation materials and more efficient engines. Rather late in his presidency George W. Bush wants to up energy research.

President George W. Bush has sought an increase to $4.2 billion for 2007, but that would still be a small fraction of what most climate and energy experts say would be needed.

Federal spending on medical research, by contrast, has nearly quadrupled, to $28 billion annually, since 1979. Military research has increased 260 percent, and at more than $75 billion a year is 20 times the amount spent on energy research.

Internationally, government energy research trends are little different from those in the United States. Japan is the only economic power that increased research spending in recent decades, with growth focused on efficiency and solar technology, according to the International Energy Agency.

Libertarians argue against government funding of energy research. But energy is an industry where large market failures inflict lots of costs that do not show up in prices. Worse, lots of voters in democracies and leaders of countries in non-democratic countries prefer lower energy prices with large external costs. Even where voters attach some importance to cleaner air their attention is not focused on the issue. Whereas lobbyists and political action committees have the money to spend to influence policy and block and delay attempts to reduce pollution. In this situation I strongly prefer convincing people to support larger amounts of government funding for energy research.

Environmentalists make the huge mistake of just arguing for restrictions on fossil fuel usage. Few populaces are willing to inflict such restrictions on themselves. Some of the Kyoto Accord signers have let their fossil fuels energy usage skyrocket (e.g. Canada) even as their left-leaning politicians criticised the United States for not signing that agreement to reduce fossil fuels emissions.

Environmental campaigners, focused on promptly establishing binding limits on emissions of heat-trapping gases, have tended to play down the need for big investments seeking energy breakthroughs. At the end of "An Inconvenient Truth," former Vice President Al Gore's documentary film on climate change, he concluded: "We already know everything we need to know to effectively address this problem."

My message to the impractical environmentalists: US state governments haven't even been able to raise gasoline taxes so that highway tax revenues keep up with growing populations and more miles driven per year. So states can't keep up with highway construction. If the states can't raise gasoline taxes to fund popular and immediately beneficial highway construction how do you expect to get Americans to inflict higher taxes on gasoline and other fossil fuels in order to derive a potential benefit decades from now? The level of taxes needed to make a significant dent in the growth in US fossil fuels usage would have to be very sizeable. The United States just went through a period where gasoline costs rose by more than a dollar a gallon and the impact on gasoline consumption was pretty small. Americans aren't going to vote for a $4 per gallon gasoline tax.

Worse yet for the environmentalists, most of the growth in fossil fuels usage is now coming from Asia, and China especially. The 1.3 billion Chinese people aren't going to keep their very low living standards in order to avoid using more energy.

A typical new coal-fired power plant, one of the largest sources of emissions, is expected to operate for many decades. About one large coal-burning plant is being commissioned a week, mostly in China.

China's growth in energy demand is going to accelerate. As long as they maintain a 7% or 8% yearly growth rate their absolute growth rate will get larger and larger. The Chinese people are even less inclined than Americans to restrict their energy usage for the benefit of all the people who will be alive 75 or 100 years hence. But all those coal power plant investments the Chinese are making will be with us for a long time to come.

"We've got a $12 trillion capital investment in the world energy economy and a turnover time of 30 to 40 years," said John P. Holdren, a physicist and climate expert at Harvard University and president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "If you want it to look different in 30 or 40 years, you'd better start now."

Experts say acceleration of energy technology advances is the best way to cut back on emissions growth.

Many experts say this means the only way to affordably speed the transition to low-emissions energy is with advances in technologies at all stages of maturity.

I'm not an expert but I've made that argument many times on FuturePundit.

I do not expect the worst case scenarios for global warming to come to fruition because even wiithout higher government funding of energy research we'll eventually reach a tipping point where advances in photovoltaics and batteries technologies make them cost competitive with fossil fuels. Advances made in nanotechnology (made mostly for other purposes) will enable much cheaper methods of photovoltaics fabrication. So solar will begin to displace fossil fuels from the energy marketplace.

But the argument for higher funding of energy research is that it can make cleaner energy sources become cost competitive much sooner. We'd benefit in a number of ways. Most obviously potential threat of global warming could be avoided. But one doesn't have to take the global warming threat seriously in order to find substantial benefits to research into cleaner energy resources. Fossil fuels also pollute the environment with particulates, oxides of sulfur, oxides of nitrogen, mercury, and other toxins. We'd be healthier if we used cleaner energy sources.

Cheaper cleaner energy sources would raise living standards. First off, they'd be cheaper. So we'd pay less for energy. But also, the health benefits of cleaner energy include economic benefits. Lower rates of asthma, lung cancer, and other health problems would reduce medical costs and sick time from work.

Once technological advances are made they start paying back. The sooner the advances get made the sooner the payback starts and the greater the total benefit.

By Randall Parker 2006 November 09 10:16 PM  Energy Policy
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2006 November 08 Wednesday
Stress Increases Risk Of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

If you live a high stress life you are probably setting yourself up to get chronic fatigue syndrome decades later.

Stress can have repercussions later in life in the form of chronic fatigue, according to a new study from Karolinska Institutet. People who considered their lives to be stressful at the start of the 1970s today suffer more often from chronic fatigue than others. The study was carried out with data from the Swedish Twin registry.

Chronic fatigue is a condition characterised by long-lasting and abnormal exhaustion, often accompanied by concentration impairment, mood swings, insomnia and pain in the muscles and joints. Despite extensive research, no root causes have been identified; all that scientists know so far is that it seems to appear across all ages and social classes in many different countries.

A research group from Karolinska Institutet has now been able to show that one of the direct causes of chronic fatigue is stress. Using the results from a health survey conducted amongst almost 20,000 twins from the Swedish Twin registry in 1973 and of a repeat survey of the same population in 1998 (which contained questions about chronic fatigue), the researchers found that the group who claimed to have stressful lives 25 years previously ran a 65 per cent greater chance of developing chronic fatigue than those who did not.

The scientists also noted a correlation between emotional instability and chronic fatigue. By limiting the analysis to identical twins, the researchers were able to dismiss any causal relationship. Instead, the correlation should be interpreted as there being genetic factors that are important for both emotional instability and chronic fatigue. Using the same method, the team has been able to show that stress does actually have a direct impact on the risk of developing chronic fatigue.

Chronic stress also accelerates aging as measured by chromosome telomere length. Telomeres get shorter with age and shorten more rapidly in people who suffer from chronic stress.

Some people feel more alive and productive under pressure. But if you feel chronically under pressure you are setting yourself up to age more rapidly and get debilitating illnesses.

By Randall Parker 2006 November 08 09:44 PM  Aging Studies
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2006 November 07 Tuesday
Gene Therapy Enhances Learning Of Rats Under Stress

A gene therapy that converts glucocorticoid stress hormones into estrogen enhances the cognitive performance of male rats under stress.

Stanford University neuroscientists have designed a gene that enhances memory and learning ability in animals under stress. Writing in the Nov. 8 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, the Stanford team says that the experimental technique might one day lead to new forms of gene therapy that can reduce the severe neurological side effects of steroids, which are prescribed to millions of patients with arthritis, asthma and other illnesses.

"Steroids can mess up the part of the brain involved in judgment and cognition," said neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky, co-author of the study. "In extreme cases it's called steroid dementia. Ideally, if you could deliver this gene safely, it would protect the person from some of these cognitive side effects, while allowing the steroid to do whatever helpful thing it should be doing elsewhere in the body."

The gene therapy combines two receptors into a single gene and a single gene product.

For the experiment, Sapolsky and his team created what geneticists call a chimera--an experimental strand of DNA made with two genes stitched together, in this case a glucocorticoid-receptor gene from a rat combined with an estrogen-receptor gene from a human.

When this new chimeric gene was injected into the hippocampus of a rat, the result was dramatic. The gene produced new protein receptors that quickly converted stress-inducing glucocorticoids into beneficial estrogen signals.

The gene therapy was injected into the hippocampus region of the brain in male rats.

Once injected, individual copies of the virus penetrate the hippocampal neurons, thereby delivering the chimeric gene and activating it in the rat's brain. The new gene then transforms harmful corticoids into helpful estrogens--a process that should hypothetically block the animal's negative behavioral response to stress.

To make sure that natural estrogen wasn't a factor, the experiment was restricted to male rats only. Every rat was trained to find the hidden platform. To raise corticoid levels in the animal's bloodstream, the rats were subjected to a variety of stresses, such as immobilization or cold temperature, then released into the water, where observers counted how quickly and how often they swam to the area above the missing platform.

Stress tests were conducted before the animal received training, immediately after training and 24 hours later. "This taps into three different domains and three different timings--the effects of stress on learning, on storing learned information as memory and on retrieving that memory," Sapolsky explained. The results were clear: When stress was applied 24 hours after training, the rats infected with the chimeric gene swam to the area of the missing platform faster, and spent significantly more time looking for it, than the normal rats did.

"These results are pretty fantastic, " Nicholas said. "They suggest that this gene therapy not only blocks the deleterious effects of glucocorticoids but actually enhances spatial memory and learning through estrogen-controlled events, even in the presence of stress. Seeing this enhancement effect was pretty exciting. It's the best we could have hoped for."

What I wonder: Does the estrogen created from the glucocorticoids increase female behavior in the male rats?

Also, suppose the hippocampus was genetically engineered to simply have fewer glucocorticoid receptors. That might make it less susceptible to damage from stress. But would some advantage be lost?

We need better methods for consciously controlling stress reponses. In modern environments stress responses often serve no useful function. The environmental cues that cause stress responses are often not associated with the kinds of natural dangers that stress responses were designed to handle. So the body's response to stresses has become very maladaptive in industrial societies. We aren't evolved to handle modern society. So our reactions to it have become too often problematic.

We need genetic engineering to adapt our bodies to our technologies and the environments we have created with our technologies.

By Randall Parker 2006 November 07 10:59 PM  Brain Enhancement
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Electric Current Deepens Sleep And Improves Memory

A mild electric current ehanced memory formation by students while they slept.

Jan Born, a neuroscientist at the University of Lübeck in Germany who led the research, said the electrical current, applied via electrodes stuck to the scalp, seemed to enhance a part of the sleep cycle linked to consolidating word memory. Dr Born had 13 medical students learn a list of words and tested how many they remembered after a set time. He had them repeat the exercise after a nap.

The results, published today in Nature, show that without electrical current the volunteers remembered, on average, 37.42 words before sleep and 39.5 words when they woke. It confirmed research that sleep is important for consolidating learned information. After electrical stimulation the number of words volunteers remembered rose to 41.27 after sleep.

Born thinks that the current enhanced activity in the hippocampus which is keep to new memory formation.

The electrical stimulation was applied when the students went into a lighter phase of sleep and pushed them into a deeper state.

The students’ various sleep stages were monitored using an electroencephalogram (EEG) machine. When the students entered a period of light sleep, Born’s team started to apply a gentle current in one-second-long pulses, every second, for about 30 minutes. The EEG readings revealed that this current had put students into a deeper state of sleep.

The electric current was so small the students could not feel it.

What I'd like to do: turn down memory formation after borning days but turn up memory formation on nights after intense learning and complex problem solving.

Also, imagine taking naps throughout the day and evening when you are in an intense learning phase. The naps, enhanced by electric currents to accelerate memory formation, might allow you to learn more information per day by giving the hippocampus newly learned material to process several times a day.

Rejuvenated neural stem cells injected into the brain will probably help memory formation once cell manipulaton biotechnologies become advanced enough to produce such stem cells..

By Randall Parker 2006 November 07 10:16 PM  Brain Enhancement
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Selective Pressure Grows For Belief In God

In the comments section of my previous post Eternal Youth, Overpopulation, And Instincts To Reproduce some readers objected to my argument that natural selection will reverse the continuing decline in fertility seen in many (though not all) countries. My response is simple: I'm not going out on some speculative limb. This is basic Darwinian Evolution 101. Given new selective pressures (in this case industrial society) increasing frequencies of alleles that raise fertility will eventually reverse the decline in baby making. The signs of this selective pressure are not hard to find. Eric Kaufmann has an essay in the November 2006 issue of Prospect Magazine entitled Breeding for God where he argues the fertility advantage of religious believers over non-believers is selecting for more religious populations.

The Mormons, for example, like Stark's early Christians, have maintained a 40 per cent per decade population growth rate for 100 years. They remain 70 per cent of Utah's population in the teeth of substantial non-Mormon immigration, and have even expanded into neighbouring states. In the 1980s, the Mormon fertility rate was around three times that of American Jews. Today the Mormons, once a fringe sect, outnumber Jews among Americans under the age of 45.

Natural selection is selecting for genetic variations that favor religious belief because religious believers are more inclined to put having children above having higher living standards. In the process of selecting for more fertile humans natural selection is also selecting for more religious humans.

The rise of the conservative religious Right in America is due to natural selection. Liberals have fewer babies than conservatives. Some of the difference is genetic. Some is due to values passed along to children.

An important recent article in the American Journal of Sociology by Michael Hout, Andrew Greeley and Melissa Wilde examines trends in American religious denominational growth in the 20th century. The authors find that conservative Protestant denominations increased their share of all white Protestants from one third among those born in 1900 to two thirds for those born in 1975. Three quarters of the growth of white conservative Protestant denominations is demographic, since they have maintained a fertility advantage over more liberal denominations for many decades.

We can not count on a continued decline in fertility in industrialized societies.

The world march toward secularism and lower fertility shows signs of reversing. The proportion of the world's population that is religious is now growing. Fertility will likely follow.

The share of the world's population that is religious is growing, after nearly a century of modest decline. This effect has been produced by the younger generations in the developing world rejecting secularisation, combined with higher religious fertility levels. Throughout the world, the religious tend to have more children, irrespective of age, education or wealth. "Secular" Europe is no exception. In an analysis of European data from ten west European countries in the period 1981-2004 I found that next to age and marital status, a woman's religiosity was the strongest predictor of her number of offspring.

Genetic variations that increase both conservatism and religiosity are being selected for in America.

As Arthur Brooks of Syracuse University recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "if you picked 100 unrelated politically liberal adults at random, you would find that they had, between them, 147 children. If you picked 100 conservatives, you would find 208 kids. That's a 'fertility gap' of 41 per cent. Given that about 80 per cent of people with an identifiable party preference grow up to vote the same way as their parents, this gap translates into lots more little Republicans than little Democrats to vote in future elections."

Secularization of Muslims in Europe is not going to bring Musliim fertility down to white European fertility. Why? The Muslims aren't secularizing. So much for the inevitability of secularization.

Muslim secularisation would certainly alter this picture and forms a cornerstone of the Norris-Inglehart thesis. But a glance at the surveys of ethnic minorities in Europe reveals little evidence of this. In Britain, second-generation Afro-Caribbeans and eastern European Christians tend to be less religious than their parents but more so than the wider population. Yet there is virtually no change at all in the religiosity of Bangladeshi and Pakistani Muslims between the first and second generations. A recent study of Dutch ethnic minorities paints a similar picture of religious retention among Muslim groups.

Supposedly inevitable never-ending trends like secularization and declining fertilty are not forever.

Conservatism might be getting selected for independent of religiosity.The full Arthur Brooks essay points out that even adjusted for religious belief conservatives are more fertile than liberals.

The fertility gap doesn't budge when we correct for factors like age, income, education, sex, race--or even religion. Indeed, if a conservative and a liberal are identical in all these ways, the liberal will still be 19 percentage points more likely to be childless than the conservative.

Breaking fertility rates down by race and state brings out big differences between fertility rates.

The single most useful and understandable birthrate measure is the “total fertility rate.” This estimates, based on recent births, how many children the average woman currently in her childbearing years will have. The National Center for Health Statistics reported that in 2002 the average white woman was giving birth at a pace consistent with having 1.83 babies during her lifetime, or 13 percent below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman. This below-replacement level has not changed dramatically in three decades.

States, however, differ significantly in white fertility. The most fecund whites are in heavily Mormon Utah, which, not coincidentally, was the only state where Bush received over 70 percent. White women average 2.45 babies in Utah compared to merely 1.11 babies in Washington, D.C., where Bush earned but 9 percent. The three New England states where Bush won less than 40 percent—Massachusetts, Vermont, and Rhode Island—are three of the four states with the lowest white birthrates, with little Rhode Island dipping below 1.5 babies per woman.

Average fertility rates of large groups are less important than large differences between fertility rates of smaller groups. Those large differences are a sign that there are factors at work that are cancelling out the trend toward lower fertility. Those groups with higher fertility are going to be much larger portions of future generations. So will their higher rates of fertility. Just as they do their kids will have more kids.

Before anyone argues that religiosity's effect on fertility is due to social environment rather than genetics check out my post Twins Study Finds Adult Religiosity Heritable. Also see my previous post Sydney Brenner: Biological Evolution Is An Obsolete Technology

Offspring genetic engineering to raise IQ could in theory work against religiosity and fertility. IQ and religiosity are highly negatively correlated. On the other hand, religious folks could probably choose genetic variations that increase religiosity to balance the genetic variations they give their offspring to increase intelligence. Also, people could give their offspring genetic variations that boost the odds that the parents will become grandparents. See my post Will Offspring Genetic Engineering Cause Population Explosion?.

I expect natural selection will win and drive human populations up by orders of magnitude unless instincts are reprogrammed with genetic engineering.

By Randall Parker 2006 November 07 04:38 PM  Trends Demographic
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2006 November 05 Sunday
Eternal Youth, Overpopulation, And Instincts To Reproduce

World overpopulation is one of the biggest problems posed by the eventual development of biotechnologies that can reverse aging. People who now die from old age will stay around. Since their entire bodies will be rejuvenated they'll also regain or maintain the ability to reproduce. The death rate will drop to a level caused by accidents, murder, and suicides. At the same time, more people will have babies and they'll be able to have babies for hundreds and perhaps even thousands of years.

What to do about it? I have one thought: Genetically engineer offspring to remove instincts for reproduction. Surely instinctive desires for children exist in our DNA and they'll be discovered within the next couple of decades as DNA testing technologies become cheap and easy. So in theory it should be possible to make sure that at least new generations will not desire to have kids.

The people who are born to lack the instincts to reproduce won't miss these desires. Imagine you lacked the desire to eat some kind of food and found the taste of it disgusting. Would you miss it? I know even women who are totally turned off by the idea of having kids. They do not miss that desire at all.

The vast majority of people who are already alive when we develop rejuvenation technologies pose a much bigger problem. Faced with centuries of life and driven by instincts that make them like babies and children they'll want to have kids. Some will want to have more kids after their own have long grown up and moved away. Many want grandchildren and so will oppose genetic engineering of offspring to remove the reproduction instincts. So it is not clear that my proposal here has a chance. But I figure it is worth some discussion.

One final point: Genetically engineering people to lack the reproduction instinct? Are you mad? Well, I'm already imagining a world where most people (at least in industrialized countries) do not grow old. People will use drugs to enhance their intelligence and control their emotions. They'll genetically engineer their offspring to look and think more to the liking of the parents. These are all things most will embrace voluntarily as soon as it becomes possible to do so. But we are driven by instincts as much as by reason and some of our instincts have become quite problematic for the health of society. In the interest of freedom should we allow people to act on their instincts and drive the human population up into the tens of billions? Sounds like a bad future to me. We should find some way to avoid it.

Update: To the people who argue that fertility rates have already fallen in many countries and who expect that trend to continue I say you underestimate the power of natural selection. The fall in fertility rates is exerting a strong selective pressure for genetic variations that increase fertility. Those people who are having babies are passing along more alleles that favor reproduction in industrial societies than existed in previous generations. New generations of the human race are getting selected to have greater desire to have kids. Whatever genetic qualities which increase desire to have kids are getting selected for. What desires and attributes which distract from having kids are getting selected against.

The human race has to defeat Darwinian natural selection if it is to prevent runaway population growth. The only way to defeat selective pressures for reproduction in an eternally youthful society is to genetically reengineer humanity to reduce reproductive urges. Selective pressures for reproduction could be delayed and reduced in a society ruled by a totalitarian government that forbade reproduction. But such a government would not be stable because a very sizable fraction of the population would feel frustration and anger over restrictions on reproduction and would seek to overthrow the government.

By Randall Parker 2006 November 05 04:37 PM  Bioethics Rejuvenation
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Baby Born From 13 Year Old Frozen Embryo

An embryo frozen for 13 years was used to start a successful pregnancy.

The child could have been born in 1993 but its first experience of the world came 13 years later, or nine months after an embryo was pulled out of the freezer at a Spanish fertility clinic.

The clinic in Barcelona is claiming the world record for having brought about the birth of what could be termed the world's oldest baby. Conceived in a laboratory dish, but not used at the time, the embryo sat at minus 196C in a freezer cabinet awaiting its adoptive parents.

The original parents had donated the fertilised egg to the Instituto Marqués clinic after a sibling was born from a separate embryo successfully implanted in the mother's womb.

The ability to freeze embryos is useful for couples who have had to go the route of in vitro fertilization (IVF, a.k.a. test tube babies). They can store some embryos while trying to start a pregnancy with other embryos. If the pregnancy doesn't suceeed or if they decide they want still more children some embryos can be thawed out to try to start another pregnancy. One result of this practice is the gradual accumulation of thousands or perhaps tens of thousand of embryos in fertility clinics around the world.

Improvements in techniques to freeze embryos combined with the increasing use of IVF will increase the supply of surplus unused frozen embryos. Some Christian groups think those embryos are real human lives with souls and recruit married couples to try to start pregnancies with frozen embryos (a.k.a. embryo adoption) that are sitting in large numbers in freezers in fertility clinics. But advances in freezing technology and the increasing use of IVF both look set to increase the supply of embryos faster than Christians step forward to adopt them.

One trend I expect to emerge at some point: The ability to freeze embryos is going to become an added enticement for couples to start pregnancies with IVF rather than with good old fashioned sex. Why? Left-over embryos, freezable for decades, will serve as a sort of insurance policy should one or more of their kids die from an accident or disease. When the woman is still healthy enough to produce viable eggs couples could decide to do IVF, produce more embryos than they need, start one or more pregnancies, and then store some embryos in case the need arises or in case they just decide to have more kids when the woman reaches her late 30s or 40s.

Embryos are more robust than unfertilized eggs and embryos are easier to freeze and thaw. Alan B Copperman, MD. Director of Reproductive Endocrinology and Vice-Chairman of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Mount Sinai Medical Center, says recent improvements in freezing and thawing techniques has increased success rates in use of frozen eggs.

In the fall of 2004, The American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) issued an opinion on oocyte cryopreservation concluding that the science was "promising" due to the fact that recent laboratory modifications have resulted in improved oocyte survival, fertilization, and pregnancy rates from frozen-thawed oocytes in IVF. The ASRM noted that from the limited research performed to date, there does not appear to be an increase in chromosomal abnormalities, birth defects, or developmental deficits in the children born from cryopreserved oocytes. The ASRM recommends that, pending further research, oocyte cryopreservation should be introduced into clinical practice only on an investigational basis and under the guidance of an Institutional Review Board (IRB). As with any new technology, safety and efficacy must be evaluated and demonstrated through future research.

The problems with egg freezing may eventually be solved by freezing earlier stage germinal vesicle eggs which, among other qualities, have membranes that are more permeable to cryopreservation compounds. But methods to extract eggs that are at that earlier stage might need refinement to get eggs that are relatively less developed.

Advances in egg freezing technology strike me as more interesting and with more implications than advances in embryo freezing technology. Egg freezing has two big potential purposes. First off, women who are looking for Mr. Right can freeze some eggs in case Mr. Right doesn't show up before their fertility declines. Second, egg freezing could become a way to increase the size of the market for donor eggs.

The same Alan B Copperman, MD quoted abave has done a recent survey of a small group of single women who had their eggs frozen. 80% said they would consider using donor sperm if they could never find Mr. Right.

Although the study was small — it involved 20 women — it suggests that the first group to take up the option of egg-freezing are doing so chiefly to take their fertility into their own hands.

“A number of women said they were interested in egg-freezing to take the pressure off the search for relationships,” the researchers said. “Cryo-preservation meant the freedom to wait, and to not settle for a mate because they were in a rush to conceive.”

Women with eggs sitting frozen in a freezer might well become more choosy about men as a result. Take away the sense of a biological ticking clock for reproduction and women may become more reluctant to compromise and less willing to lower their standards in order to find a guy to marry and make babies with.

Technological advances change the trade-offs people face. It changes trade-offs in relationships just much as it does in careers. Advances in assisted reproduction technology (ART) could change human relationships even more dramatically than has the birth control pill and other means of contraception.

In theory the ability to freeze eggs opens up the possibility of a much larger market for donor eggs with greater choices. Currently women looking for donor eggs can only choose among women who they can find to supply fresh eggs. But imagine the world 30 years from now. A woman could choose among eggs that come from eggs frozen over a period of decades and from donors who are no longer young and fertile. Egg donors could produce and store a large number of eggs when they are young and then gradually sell them over a period of decades.

But in many legal jurisidictions around the world a substantial legal obstacle exists for the creation of a donor egg market that spans across generations: Restrictions on the ability to pay for female egg donation services. Some jurisdictions ban the practice entirely. Currently the United States does not allow payment for eggs but only allows payment for the service of creating the eggs.

The United States is one of many countries in which legislation and social norms proscribe the selling of body parts. It is also the world capital of the genetic material market: No other nation trades in DNA so widely and freely. Hopeful mothers and cash-strapped college students have been trading cash for eggs for 20 years, calling the ova a “donation” and the money compensation for time and discomfort, thus avoiding the ban on sales.

How can a woman sell her eggs over a period of decades and claim her sales pay for discomfort she experienced 20 or 30 years ago? Would this claim stand up in court? I have no legal expertise. On the answer to that question hinges the future of a potentially much larger market for donor eggs.

When DNA testing becomes cheap and highly informative (on the outside within 10 years) the value of a small portion of all donor eggs will go up dramatically. Women who can show by genetic testing that they have the genetic sequences that are most in demand (high IQ, desired personality characteristics, good looks, desired hair and eye color, resistance to assorted diseases, etc) will find their eggs suddenly fetch even larger premiums than the current high prices for Ivy League egg donors who want to sell their eggs.

Do you want to sell your eggs? Women who think they might have the right genetic stuff could freeze their eggs now and then offer them for sale 10 or 20 years from now when they can prove with genetic tests that they have the genetic variations that the market most demands. Such women could freeze their eggs now and then if they meet Mr. Right when they turn 40 they can use a few of their eggs then to start a family. Whether or not they meet Mr. Right they can use other eggs from their frozen stash to sell once the market places a high value on their genetic inheritance.

By Randall Parker 2006 November 05 02:50 PM  Biotech Reproduction
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2006 November 03 Friday
Embryo Tests More Than Double IVF Pregnancy Rate

Here's a technological advance sure to appeal to women in their 30s and 40s trying to get pregnant from their own eggs or from donor eggs. A new method of testing the viability of embryos produced via in vitro fertilization (IVF) more than doubles the success rate for attempts to start pregnancies.

Currently, only around 34 per cent of IVF cycles in the US result in pregnancy. By selecting embryos on the basis of their metabolic profile, Seli's team increased the pregnancy rate to more than 80 per cent in a pilot study, presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine in New Orleans, Louisiana, last week.

A company stands ready to offer services using these results.

Molecular Biometrics, a privately held metabolomics company, presented results of two clinical studies investigating the use of metabolomic profiling to assess embryo viability, a key step in the treatment of infertility by in vitro fertilization (IVF), at the American Society of Reproductive Medicine's 62nd Annual Meeting in New Orleans, LA.

In a podium presentation (O-270) titled Non-Invasive Metabolomic Profiling of Human Embryo Culture Media Correlates with Pregnancy Outcome, Principle investigator Emre Seli M.D., Ph.D. (et. al.) of the Metabolomic Study Group in ART at Yale University School of Medicine reported results of a retrospective multi-center study. The study was designed to assess embryo viability using a novel technology developed by Molecular Biometrics based on the metabolomic profiling of Oxidative Stress (OS) biomarkers. The goal of the technology is to identify metabolomic differences in viable verses non-viable embryos so only the highest quality embryos can be selected for transfer in IVF. This non-invasive test analyzes OS biomarkers in normally discarded culture media. The biomarkers are quantified using Molecular Biometrics' proprietary spectroscopic analysis and advanced bioinformatics.

The study group concluded that detectable differences exist in the metabolomic profiles found in culture media obtained from embryos that cause pregnancy compared to those that do not. The reported metabolomic parameters were established using two different forms of spectroscopic analysis, Raman and Near Infrared (NIR) spectroscopy, with media samples obtained from three different IVF programs. The metabolomic method achieved high sensitivity and specificity of > 85%.

What I'd like to know: Did some of the women produce only embryos that were unhealthy as measured by these methods? If you want to sell your eggs the ability to show a high rate of viable embryos in one egg sale would let you demand a higher price with later customers. This could be a boon to the egg donation market.

Each of the two spectroscopy methods was highly accurate by itself.

In the study, embryo culture medium from 163 embryos from assisted reproductive technology (ART) cycles using fresh donor and nondonor oocytes were evaluated. Normally discarded media from individually cultured embryos was collected at the time of embryo transfer on day 3, and analyzed using both Raman, and Near Infrared Spectroscopy. Metabolomic profiles of OS biomarker concentrations showed distinct differences between culture media of embryos that resulted in pregnancy compared to those that did not. Using a genetic algorithm with Raman analysis, novel OS molecular species were identified and statistically correlated with pregnancy outcome. The compiled outcomes resulted in a specificity of 82% and sensitivity of 95%. Likewise, analysis by NIR resulted in a specificity of 83% and sensitivity of 73%.

Expect a bigger market for assisted reproductive technology (ART) as a result of this advance. Initially it will decrease the demand for donor eggs by increasing the success rate of women trying to get pregnant from their own eggs. However, in the longer run this advance should increase the market demand for both assisted reproductive technology (ART) in general and donor eggs in particular. Why? Because it lowers the total cost of IVF. Success will happen in fewer attempts. Each attempt costs additional money, emotional pain, physical stress, and also costs time that ages a woman's body and makes her less capable of starting and maintaining a pregnancy.

Lower costs, higher assurances of success, and quicker results will entice more women to use IVF with their own eggs and, for some women, with donor eggs. Also, some egg donors will even be able to more quickly build up track records for producing eggs which result in higher percentages of viable embryos and successful pregnancies.

This result may not just increase IVF pregnancy success rates. It might even reduce the problem of birth defects. Some of the embryos that show up as problematic in these tests might be able to start pregnancies but eventually result in problems after birth. The ability to screen out marginal embryos might therefore reduce the incidence of birth defects. Biotechnological advances seem set to make reproduction with IVF preferred over natural sexual reproduction.

Could IVF-PGD one day become the preferred method of conception?

"It is technically possible," says Simon Fishel, a member of the team responsible for the birth of the first IVF baby in 1978, who now runs the Care Fertility group of clinics in the UK. There are, of course, huge obstacles, not least of which is the cost. "You have to pay per cycle," points out Fishel. "You can attempt to conceive naturally over 12 cycles in a year and it costs you nothing."

The "PGD" mentioned above, Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis, is the key to why IVF will probably become the preferred way to start pregnancies. Once genetic testing becomes cheap and the meaning of many human genetic variations becomes known IVF with PGD will provide prospective parents with a way to choose genetic variations for their children. That'll provide a way to avoid many genetic defects and to get children who are better looking, smarter, and with more other desired qualities.

Tests that can sort out high quality embryos will lead to the ability to implant only one embryo to start a pregnancy.

Even singleton IVF babies are around twice as likely to be premature or low birthweight. Again, however, multiple embryos could be to blame, because many IVF pregnancies start out as twin pregnancies. When single embryos are transferred, the differences in health vanish (New Scientist, 25 June 2005, p 14). Many countries limit the number of embryos that can be implanted and single embryo transfer could eventually become the norm.

This latest result reduces the costs of assisted reproduction technologies by reducing the number of cycles needed. It also will probably reduce premature births and birth defects. Once coming technologies make it possible to combine that with sophisticated and cheap genetic testing I predict most prospective parents will choose IVF over natural sexual reproduction.

By Randall Parker 2006 November 03 05:23 AM  Biotech Reproduction
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2006 November 02 Thursday
Wine Compound Resveratrol Protects Mice From Obesity Damage

Resveratrol, a compound found in highest concentration in red wine, protected mice from the life shortening effects of a high calorie diet.

How the Study Was Done

This study examined three groups of mice, one on a standard diet (SD), another on a high calorie diet (HC) with 60 percent of calories coming from fat, and a third group of mice on the same high calorie diet but also treated with resveratrol (HCR). At middle age, or roughly 52 weeks of life, the researchers put the mice on the different diets.

Survival Benefit

At 60 weeks of age, the survival rates of HC and HCR fed mice groups began to diverge and remained separated by a three to four month span. At 114 weeks of age, 58 percent of the HC fed mice had died, compared to 42 percent of the HCR and SD groups. Presently, the team has found resveratrol to reduce the risk of death from the HC diet by 31 percent, to a point where it is not significantly increased over the SD group.(Note: Given that mice are still living, final calculations can't be made.) "The median lifespan increase we are seeing is about 15 percent at this point," says Sinclair. "We won't have final lifespan numbers until all of the mice pass away, and this particular strain of mouse generally lives for two-and-a-half-years. So we are around five months from having final numbers, but there is no question that we are seeing increased longevity.

Mice on resveratrol also are more coordinated.

The team also found that the HCR fed mice had a much higher quality of life, outperforming the HC fed mice on motor skill tests. "The mice on resveratrol have not been just living longer," says Sinclair. "They are also living more active, better lives. Their motor skills actually show improvement as they grow older."

The resveratrol fed mice also showed improved motor function with age over its HC fed counterparts. Researchers watched how well the mice did walking on a rotarod, similar to walking on a log in the water, a common measure of balance and motor coordination. At 24 months of age, the HC fed group would fall off the rotarod after 60 seconds, while the HCR group would stay on for nearly 120 seconds. The HCR group steadily improved their motor skills as they aged to the point where they were indistinguishable from the SD fed group.

The experiment they did not do: Feed resveratrol to mice on the standard diet. Why we need that experiment: For those of us who are not overweight would resveratrol increase our life expectancy? Maybe. Maybe not. It might emulate the effects of a calorie restriction diet and boost life expectancy even further.

Be careful about taking resveratrol as a supplement. Some preparations are not stable. Also, if you want to get resveratrol then wine made from muscadine grapes is the ticket.

The amount of resveratrol in food substances varies greatly. Ordinary non-muscadine Red wine contains between 0.2 and 5.8 mg/L [1], depending on the grape variety, whilst white wine has much less - the reason being that red wine is fermented with the skins, allowing the wine to absorb the resveratrol, whereas white wine is fermented after the skin has been removed. Wines produced from muscadine grapes, however, both red and white, contain more than 40 mg/L.

It is not physically possible to get as much resveratrol from drinking red wine as these mice got from their diet.

The mice were fed a hefty dose of resveratrol, 24 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. Red wine has about 1.5 to 3 milligrams of resveratrol per liter, so a 150-pound person would need to drink from 1,500 to 3,000 bottles of red wine a day to get such a dose. Whatever good the resveratrol might do would be negated by the sheer amount of alcohol.

That works out to about 1600 mg of resveratrol for a 150 lb human. Even muscadine grapes would give you about 40 milligrams per liter which is slightly more than a quart. The resveratrol supplements on sale that I've seen range as high as 25 mg resveratrol. But at least one scientific paper questions the stability of commercial resveratrol supplements. Does anyone know of recent research on resveratrol potency in commercial supplements?

Gene array studies would be useful here. Give obese mice various doses of resveratrol and see how high the dose has to be to deliver a big protection as measured by changes in gene expression (e.g. in sirtuins). Then do a clinical trial with humans at various doses and do gene expression tests to look for a human dose response curve.

Update: Experimental drug SRT501 is a more potent form of resveratrol and works works by activating the gene SIRT1 which is suspected of increasing life expectancy in animals on calorie restriction diets.

Sirtris Pharmaceuticals, the leading sirtuin therapeutics company, announced today that SRT501, its initial clinical candidate which is a proprietary formulation of resveratrol with improved bioavailability, has been administered to patients with Type 2 diabetes in a human Phase 1b clinical study. Sirtris is studying SRT501 as a drug candidate for Type 2 diabetes, based in part on the scientific evidence that sirtuin activation, by means of compounds like resveratrol, has been shown to have a positive effect on key clinical measures for diabetes. In an article published today in Nature, “Resveratrol improves health and survival of mice on a high-calorie diet,” resveratrol was shown in mice to promote normal cellular function and extend healthy lifespan, including an increase in insulin sensitivity, a decrease in insulin growth factor-1 levels, and an increase in the number of cellular mitochondria. The authors of the Nature article include principal investigator David Sinclair, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Pathology and Co-Director of the Paul F. Glenn Laboratories for the Biological Mechanisms of Aging at Harvard Medical School and co-founder and Board member of Sirtris, and Olivier Boss, Ph.D., Associate Director of Pharmacology at Sirtris.

“This study indicates that SIRT1 is associated with extension of healthy lifespan in obese mice and if this is translated into humans, it could have an enormous impact on medicine.” said David Sinclair. “I believe that the measures of health improvement in this study, such as increased insulin sensitivity and decreased IGF-1 levels, show the potential for sirtuin activation to treat metabolic diseases, such as diabetes.”

SRT501 is the first small molecule to enter human clinical trials that is designed to target SIRT1, the best characterized of the recently-discovered family of sirtuin enzymes. Activation of SIRT1 is believed to be a key pathway by which resveratrol regulates such processes as glucose and insulin production, fat metabolism, and cell survival. Sirtris has applied this scientific discovery to the development of SRT501, which activates SIRT1, for the treatment of diseases of aging such as metabolic and mitochondrial disorders. In addition, Sirtris has a robust pipeline of small molecule drug candidates that are potent SIRT1 activators and are chemically distinct from resveratrol.

Compounds that slow down the rate of aging will give us more time to wait for actual aging reversal and rejuvenation therapies.

By Randall Parker 2006 November 02 06:41 AM  Aging Diet Resveratrol
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