2008 April 30 Wednesday
Fast Cloning For Monoclonal Antibody Production

Vaccination is slow compared to a rapid biotech process to harness your immune cells to produce antibodies.

Vaccines push the immune system to create defenses against illness, but they take time to work. A new process developed by scientists at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation (OMRF) and Emory University stands to revolutionize the process.

In an advance online publication in Nature, the researchers describe a method that can identify and clone human antibodies specifically tailored to fight infections. The new technology holds the potential to quickly and effectively create new treatments for influenza and a variety of other communicable diseases.

These press releases do not go into much detail about exactly what these researchers did. But they must have a way to rapidly identify and separate out immune cells that are especially reactive to an infectious agent.

Imagine massive production of antibodies within a few weeks of the start of a deadly influenza pandemic.

"This method could find broad application towards almost any infectious disease," says Rafi Ahmed, PhD, director of the Emory Vaccine Center and a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar.

As a first example, doctors could quickly generate human antibodies against a pandemic flu strain as a stop-gap therapy or to protect people from infection. In this study, the antibodies were not tested on influenza virus strains with pandemic potential, such as the H5N1 strain although such studies are underway.

Ahmed and postdoctoral fellow Jens Wrammert, PhD, from the Emory Vaccine Center and Emory University School of Medicine, collaborated with Don Capra, PhD, and Patrick Wilson, PhD, immunology researchers at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation.

"With just a few tablespoons of blood, we can now rapidly generate human antibodies that can be used for immunization, diagnosis and treatment of newly emerging strains of influenza," Wilson says. "In the face of a disease outbreak, the ability to quickly produce infection-fighting human monoclonal antibodies would be invaluable."

They clone the genes involved in making the desired antibodies.

The methods previously used to make human monoclonal antibodies can be relatively laborious, Ahmed says. They involve sifting through human B cells and looking for those that make the right antibodies, or vaccinating mice and "humanizing" the mouse antibody genes by altering them so that they resemble human antibodies.

To make human antibodies against influenza, the Emory and University of Oklahoma researchers isolated antibody-secreting cells (plasma cells) from volunteers' blood a week after vaccination and cloned the antibody genes from these antibody-secreting cells.

With an otherwise well functioning immune system the monoclonal antibodies would be useful for treating life threatening diseases. But for an aged immune system how much benefit would the antibodies provide?

By Randall Parker 2008 April 30 08:59 PM  Biotech Immunology
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2008 April 29 Tuesday
Method To Mature Eggs Outside Of Ovary

Evelyn Telfer of the University of Edinburgh and colleagues have developed a method to mature eggs outside of the ovary. This method avoids the need to expose a woman's body to powerful ovary-stimulating hormones.

Telfer said the new technique had several advantages over standard practices. It took just 10 days for an egg to mature using the new method, while it might take several months for an egg to mature inside the ovary, and one piece of tissue can provide many dozen eggs, rather than the 10 or so harvested during IVF. In addition, the technique would avoid the need for a woman to take hormone injections, which are needed in standard IVF to stimulate her ovaries to over-produce eggs.

The ability to grow large numbers of eggs creates the possibility of a much bigger benefit: The ability to do embryo selection over a much larger set of embryos. When DNA testing becomes cheap and revealing the ability to select among dozens of embryos for implantation will spark a huge acceleration in the rate of evolution of humanity (or of various post-humanities that will emerge). In 30 years (assuming the robots don't take over) the average baby getting born among the middle and upper classes of the more developed countries will be smarter, healthier, and better looking due to widely practiced embryo selection guided by DNA testing results.

The ability to freeze ovarian tissue and grown later in the lab will allow women to postpone motherhood.

The scientists from Edinburgh University have shown that immature eggs can be frozen, grown and matured in the lab.

The process could lead to women having pieces of ovary containing the immature eggs removed and stored. Much later on, they could be thawed, fertilised and finally implanted into the womb.

Telfer thinks this method is still 5 to 10 years away from being usable in humans.

I can see this method increasing the supply of donor eggs. More women will be willing to sell their eggs when they can do it without undergoing treatment with risky ovary stimulation drugs. The ability to freeze the ovarian tissue will allow buyers to choose among a larger set of women who had their ovarian tissue frozen over many years.

The use of this method might be short-lived as techniques to turn adult skin tissue into eggs will eventually eliminate the need to start with ovarian tissue in the first place.

By Randall Parker 2008 April 29 10:35 PM  Biotech Reproduction
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In Vivo Fertilization Enhancement Device Cuts Costs

Reproductive biotech company of BioXcell of Beverly Massachusetts has developed a method to enhance fertilization using a device placed inside a woman to hold both eggs and sperm.

The Invocell device is a sealed capsule that allows fertilisation to take place inside the body, in the vaginal cavity. A woman would first be given mild drugs to stimulate her ovaries, and then eggs would be removed from them while she is under sedation. Up to seven eggs are then put into the Invocell capsule, along with washed sperm. The capsule is then placed inside the vagina. After three days the patient would return for a second appointment, in which the capsule is removed and any fertilised embryos are examined for quality. The best one or two would then be transferred to the womb.

This approach cuts costs by avoiding the need for a lab where eggs get artificially inseminated and embryos grow. The woman's body serves in place of the lab but with the capsule to bring an assortment of eggs together with the sperm. The device keeps the eggs together where they can be easily found once fertilized.

By Randall Parker 2008 April 29 10:07 PM  Biotech Reproduction
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2008 April 28 Monday
Mainstream Takes Oil Supply Problem More Seriously

A little over a week ago Jad Mouawad of the New York Times wrote a piece on rising demand for oil and worries about supplies. His piece, while drawing attention to the problem, didn't go too far off the reservation of conventional thinking. He was pretty tentative about Peak Oil. Now he's back 9 days later and Mouawad seems to be leaning closer toward acknowledging we have a big long term problem with oil supplies.

As oil prices soared to record levels in recent years, basic economics suggested that consumption would fall and supplies would rise as producers drilled for more oil.

But as prices flirt with $120 a barrel, many energy experts are becoming worried that neither seems to be happening. Higher prices have done little to suppress global demand or attract new production, and the resulting mismatch has sent oil prices ever higher.

Prices have doubled and doubled again. Yet production has been pretty flat for the last few years.

“What is disturbing here is that things seem to get worse, not better,” said David Greely, an analyst at Goldman Sachs. “These high prices are not attracting meaningful new supplies.”

Mouawad even quotes Jeffrey Rubin of CIBC World Markets who I've recently posted about for Rubin's prediction of $225/barrel oil by 2012. Rubin effectively interprets the writings of Peak Oil theorists into language that the financial community understands.

Mouawad takes note of Mexico's plunging oil production.

Mexico, the second-biggest exporter to the United States, seems increasingly helpless to find new supplies to offset the collapse of its largest oil field, Cantarell. A combination of falling production and rising domestic consumption could wipe out Mexico’s exports within five years.

Mexico's rapid decline from its oil production peak deserves mention in the New York Times. But Mouawad could have been even more dramatic: Mexico's oil production is tanking while strong internal demand growth is causing net exports to drop even faster.

Mexico's gasoline imports rose to 360,700 b/d in March, the highest level since November 2007. This coincided with a 7.8% decline in the country's oil production in this year's first quarter to 2.91 million b/d, largely due to declining output from traditional oil fields.

Mexico fits a larger pattern. Rapid domestic oil consumption growth in big oil producing countries cuts down oil available for export. The New York Times has noticed the oil export problem as well. Some analysts call this the Export Land Model. At that link petroleum geologist Jeffrey Brown speculates that most of the remaining recoverable oil will not get exported. This collapse in available exportable oil could make the 2010s the most tumultuous decade since World War II.

By Randall Parker 2008 April 28 10:09 PM  Energy Fossil Fuels
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A123Systems Pluggable Hybrid Conversion Kit For Prius

Worried about the coming energy crunch as world oil production starts declining? Here's one way to adapt to it: Spend $10,000 to upgrade a Prius to run 35-40 miles on a battery from A123 Systems.

Beginning this week, a company in the Boston area will be taking orders for what it says is the first mass-produced aftermarket conversion kit. The company, A123 Systems, is starting out with the Toyota Prius, with what it calls a range extender module. The module fits in the well normally occupied by the spare tire, with a charging port installed on the back bumper.

The A123 conversion will allow a Prius driver to substitute electricity, at about 3 cents a mile, for gasoline at three or four times that price.

In the United States electricity sells for an average of 10.64 cents/kwh (see the link for state level electricity costs). So a recharge would cost you about 55 cents (depending on the extent of heat losses). At 40 mpg and $4/gallon the Prius will cost you 10 cents a mile on gasoline.

The Hymotion conversion kit includes a 5000 watt-hours battery (as compared to the 300 watt-hours of the original Prius battery) that replaces the spare tire in a Prius. A123Systems is one of 2 front-runners to supply batteries for GM's forthcoming pluggable hybrid Chevy Volt which is also expected to do about 40 miles on battery.

Before you rush out to upgrade your Prius keep in mind that when using the standard electric motors in a Prius the top speed is either 35 mph or 42 mph (and can someone find an authoritative source on this?). I can't find anything on the A123 Systems web site for the Hymotion conversion kit that suggests they raise the speed limit with their conversion kit. So if you do a highway commute you probably aren't going to be able to cruise on only electric power. The coming pluggable hybrids such as the Chevy Volt probably won't suffer this limitation.

That 5000 watt-hour (or 5 kilowatt-hour) battery could push a pure electric big SUV about 10 miles. Getting that battery to push a Prius 4 times that far seems a bit of a stretch. Anyone have a good engineering reason to think under electric power a Prius would only use 125 watt-hours per mile? That seems low to me.

One of these conversion kits might make sense for a Prius used to travel many miles each day city driving. But the Prius's already high fuel efficiency makes it hard to earn back the cost of the upgrade. The battery takes 4 hours to charge up. If you travel 40 city miles to work every day (doing 40 mpg with gasoline power pre-conversion) and if you can charge up your car while in the office then you'll save 2 gallons a day. Well, that doesn't describe a whole lot of people. But if you could save 2 gallons a day then when gasoline goes to $5.50 per gallon you could save $10 per day (assuming $1 for the electricity to charge up twice a day) or $2500 per year.

Now, put the price of gasoline up to $11 per gallon and the pay-back period cuts in half. But if you wait to upgrade to a pluggable hybrid you'll get one once gasoline prices are much higher and battery prices much lower. Plus, cars designed from the start as pluggables will be cheaper and offer better performance than after-market upgrades. In other words, the economics of pluggables are going to improve a great deal in a few years time.

By Randall Parker 2008 April 28 07:33 PM  Energy Electric Cars
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2008 April 27 Sunday
Regulatory Obstacles In Way Of Waste Heat For Electric Power

Why don't more plants and foundries convert their waste heat into electricity? Lisa Margonelli argues that the regulatory environment for electric power usage is a major impediment toward reuse of waste heat.

Much more problematic are the regu­lations surrounding utilities. Several waves of deregulation have resulted in a hodgepodge of rules without providing full competition among power generators. Though it’s cheaper and cleaner to produce power at Casten’s proj­ects than to build new coal-fired capacity, many industrial plants cannot themselves use all the electricity they could produce: they can’t profit from aggressive energy recycling unless they can sell the electricity to other consumers. Yet by­zan­tine regulations make that difficult, stifling many independent energy recyclers. Some of these competitive disadvantages have been addressed in the latest energy bill, but many remain.

Ultimately, making better use of energy will require revamping our operation of the electrical grid itself, an undertaking considerably more complicated than, say, creating a carbon tax. For the better part of a century, we’ve gotten electricity from large, central generators, which waste nearly 70 percent of the energy they burn. They face little competition and are allowed to simply pass energy costs on to their customers. Distributing generators across the grid would reduce waste, improve reliability, and provide at least some competition.

Small quibble: Those large central electric generators can achieve efficiencies far above 30%. A combined cycle plant that only generates electricity can achieve 60% efficiency. However, that is not a reason to waste heat generated in industrial processes. So her main point remains.

Also, regards the point about competition: In some (though not all) US states the various electric power generator plants compete with each other. The companies that operate the power plants compete to sell electric power to the companies which deliver it to residential and business customers. Since this migration to a more competitive environment of electric suppliers is incomplete more regulatory changes could increase the amount of competition and allow more sources of electricity onto the grid.

An increased use of waste heat for electric power generation would reduce pollution from burning fossil fuels, cut electric power costs, and lower costs in industries that currently waste a lot of heat.

Margonelli also argues tax policy discourages energy efficiency (PDF format).

Promoting efficiency, however, has been an underutilized policy option. In fact, many current government policies do not reward conservation or, worse, encourage waste. The Internal Revenue Service, for example, creates a perverse incentive to waste energy by allowing commercial landlords to write off their energy costs every year. At the same time, it requires building costs to be depreciated on a 30-year schedule, effectively devaluing investments in energy efficiency. Removing such perverse incentives would help encourage greater efficiency but alone would not be enough to spur the efficiency gains we need.

30 years might be too long a write-off period, especially since many pieces of equipment do not last 30 years. But instant total deduction of energy saving investments seems too short a period of time.

We need greater energy efficiency. The costs of new coal and nuclear power plants have soared and natural gas which is widely used for electric power generation has gone up in price as well. So new conventional power plant capacity isn't going to come cheap. We would benefit from greater use of waste heat for electric power generation since it would reduce the demand for expensive new electric power plants and keep electric rates down on our monthly bills.

By Randall Parker 2008 April 27 07:48 PM  Energy Policy
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Sulfates For Climate Engineering Would Destroy Ozone?

One of the many methods for cooling the planet would cause an undesirable destruction of ozone over Antarctica. So then which other methods of planet cooling would avoid this problem?

BOULDER--A much-discussed idea to offset global warming by injecting sulfate particles into the stratosphere would have a drastic impact on Earth's protective ozone layer, new research concludes. The study, led by Simone Tilmes of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), warns that such an approach might delay the recovery of the Antarctic ozone hole by decades and cause significant ozone loss over the Arctic.

The study will be published Thursday in Science Express. It was funded by the National Science Foundation, which is NCAR's principal sponsor, as well as by NASA and European funding agencies.

"Our research indicates that trying to artificially cool off the planet could have perilous side effects," Tilmes says. "While climate change is a major threat, more research is required before society attempts global geoengineering solutions."

In recent years, climate scientists have studied "geoengineering" proposals to cool the planet and mitigate the most severe impacts of global warming. Such plans could be in addition to efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. One of the most-discussed ideas, analyzed by Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen and other researchers, would be to regularly inject large amounts of Sun-blocking sulfate particles into the stratosphere. The goal would be to cool Earth's surface, much as sulfur particles from major volcanic eruptions in the past have resulted in reduced surface temperatures.

Why aren't governments regulating the emissions of volcanoes? Shouldn't volcanoes have to apply for a permit to do a very polluting eruption? I'm just asking.

Simone Tilmes and co-workers already knew about the problem caused by sulfates from volcanoes. So they had reason to try to model the effects when sulfates would be released intentionally by humans.

To determine the relationship between sulfates and ozone loss, the authors used a combination of measurements and computer simulations. They then estimated future ozone loss by looking at two geoengineering schemes--one that would use volcanic-sized sulfates and a second that would use much smaller injections.

The study found that injections of small particles, over the next 20 years, could reduce the ozone layer by 100 to 230 Dobson Units. This would represent a significant loss of ozone because the average thickness of the ozone layer in the Northern Hemisphere is 300 to 450 Dobson Units. (A Dobson Unit is equivalent to the number of ozone molecules that would create a layer 0.01 millimeters thick under conditions at Earth's surface).

With large particles, the Arctic loss would range from 70 to 150 Dobson Units. In each case, the larger figure is correlated with colder winters.

But if rising CO2 emissions are going to bring on a global warming disaster then a partial loss of ozone might be a price worth paying to prevent it. However, note that these researchers studied the effects of sulfates which are already thought to destroy ozone when released by volcanoes. We have other choices. Gregory Benford proposes the use of silicon dioxide as the preferred cooling agent. Will Benford's proposal run into the same problem? Does silicon dioxide interact with ozone? It is a really cheap way to do a world wide cooling.

Another method of cooling the planet uses enhanced dimethyl sulfide (DMS) production from marine phytoplankton. Salt the oceans with iron and let nature produce the cooling agent. This happens naturally all the time. Will it damage ozone?

By Randall Parker 2008 April 27 01:20 PM  Climate Engineering
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2008 April 26 Saturday
Gregory Clark Says Fossil Fuels Substitutes Affordable

UC Davis economics historian Gregory Clark, whose name you might recognize as author of the book A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World, argues substitutes for fossil fuels are not so expensive that shifting to them will throw us back to a more primitive era of living standards.

Many people think mistakenly that modern prosperity was founded on this fossil energy revolution, and that when the oil and coal is gone, it is back to the Stone Age. If we had no fossil energy, then we would be forced to rely on an essentially unlimited amount of solar power, available at five times current energy costs. With energy five times as expensive as at present we would take a substantial hit to incomes. Our living standard would decline by about 11 percent. But we would still be fantastically rich compared to the pre-industrial world.

That may seem like a lot of economic hurt, but put it in context. Our income would still be above the current living standards in Canada, Sweden or England. Oh, the suffering humanity! At current rates of economic growth we would gain back the income losses from having to convert to solar power in less than six years. And then onward on our march to ever greater prosperity.

Clark paints too simple a picture by simply claiming that solar power costs 4 times more than current energy costs. Comparing energy sources by dollars (or Euros, Yen, or Pounds if you prefer) per million BTU (or currency per unit of energy) provides a useful method to look across energy sources. But such a comparison draws attention to the fact that there must be important other characteristics (e.g. portability, ease of storage, ease of burning, energy density) of each energy source that cause markets to price these forms of energy so differently. For example, heating oil costs over twice as much per million BTU as natural gas. These two forms of fossil fuel have very different market valuations.

Based on prices in the cash market, gas is valued at $11.27 per million Btu compared with $14.66 per million Btu for fuel oil, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Heating oil at $23.88 per million Btu equivalent is more than double the price of gas.

Also, electricity contains about 3413 BTU per kwh. Well, 293 kwh equals 1 million BTU. Let us compare electricity to natural gas and heating oil in cost. This table of electricity costs on average per American state (one of my favorite web pages btw) shows Connecticut at 18.67 cents/kwh, Wyoming at 7.73 cents/kwh, Idaho at 6.35 cents/kwh, and Hawaii at 24.13 cents/kwh with the US average at 10.64 cents/kwh. Well, that ranges from $18.61 per million BTU in Idaho (so using straight electric heating in Idaho is cheaper than heating oil!) to $70.70 per million BTU in Hawaii (wow). People are willing to pay a big premium for energy in the form of electricity - at least for some uses.

All these numbers show that people are willing to pay higher prices for some forms of energy over other forms because of characteristics of those forms of energy. People are willing to pay more for liquid fuels rather than natural gas for transportation for example. Also, electricity costs more and people are willing to pay more for it because it can do things (e.g. power electronic devices) that oil can't directly power. Yet electricity is still quite unattractive for powering cars. If electricity was free the cost of batteries for a pure electric powered car would still put its cost of operation above a level most people would be willing to pay. For GM's forthcoming pluggable hybrid electric powered Chevy Volt the initial price will be $48000 or less if GM decides to sell it for a loss. Even switching to a new small car costs money since your used bigger car loses value more rapidly as gasoline prices rise and the new car costs money you wouldn't otherwise have spent.

The costs of substitutes will fall with time as advances in technologies enable easier substitution. Also, the costs of solar, wind, and other non-fossil fuels energy sources will drop. But we have limited ability to forecast the timing of those price drops. Right now the capital costs of equipment to allow us to use the substitutes (e.g. pluggable hybrids and electrification of railroads) are substantial and in many cases those capital costs add up to a higher price than the costs of the substitute energy sources as measured in price per million BTU. Additional costs include the premature obsolescence of existing capital plant and consumer products that rely in fossil fuels to operate.

If you want to get a sense of whether particular substitutes are already cost effective look at countries which have much higher energy costs than the United States. On that score what is notable about Europe is just how hybrids and electric cars get sold there in spite of gasoline prices about double the prices in the United States.

On the bright side, for some purposes you have plenty of cheap ways to reduce your fossil fuels usage right now. Depending on where you live and where you go you can ride a bicycle, electric bicycle, scooter, or a bus. You can replace incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents. You can choose jobs closer to home and the next time you move you can choose a residence closer to your job and closer to stores. Insulation and sealants can reduce your heating and air conditioning bills.

The most clever product I've come across lately for cutting electric power usage is the American Power Conversion (APC) Power-Saving SurgeArrest power strip which detects when your PC turns off and then takes power away from peripherals whose use is tied to use of the PC. Basically, the parasitic power usage of peripherals is avoided by doing an automated switching off the power strip when the PC goes to sleep or gets turned off.

By Randall Parker 2008 April 26 05:23 PM  Energy Conservation
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2008 April 24 Thursday
$225 Per Barrel Oil Seen By 2012

Jeff Rubin of investment and merchant bank CIBC World Markets says a continuing world oil production plateau combined with growth in demand will double the price of oil in the next 4 years. Ouch.

Increasingly tight oil supplies will continue to push the price of oil higher with the cost of crude hitting US$150 a barrel by 2010 and soaring to US$225 a barrel by 2012, forecasts a new energy report from CIBC World Markets.

This will result in skyrocketing consumer gas prices in the U.S. with the national average price easily topping $4.00 this summer, reaching $5.50 in the summer of 2010 and hitting close to $7.00 by 2012.

Mexico has joined the list of states with declining oil production and Russia may soon. I think Rubin might be optimistic to see a world oil production plateau lasting all the way to 2012.

Rubin claims that the International Energy Agency has been overstating the production of oil because they've counted natural gas liquids that are not useful for all the purposes (e.g. making gasoline) that regular oil gets used for.

The report finds that current oil production estimates produced by the International Energy Agency (IEA) overstate supply by about nine per cent since it counts natural gas liquids in its numbers. The report notes that natural gas liquids, while valuable hydrocarbons, are not a viable substitute for oil and cannot be economically used as a feedstock for gasoline, diesel or jet fuel.

"While natural gas liquids only account for 10 per cent of total supply, they account for virtually all of the increase in petroleum liquids production since 2005," says Jeff Rubin, Chief Strategist and Chief Economist at CIBC World Markets. "Stripping out natural gas liquids, oil production has not grown for over two years, which certainly goes a long way to explaining why oil prices have doubled over that period.

Oil consumption in the developed nations will decline due to increased competition coming from developing nations. A smaller fraction of the limited supplies will flow to the US, European countries, and other OECD members.

The report also notes that while production increases are at a virtual standstill, global demand continues to grow. While higher prices and a weak economy have seen demand drop in the U.S. - as it has in other OECD nations - this has been more than offset by demand growth outside the OECD.

"Car purchases in Russia, for example, are exploding as U.S. sales stagnate," says Mr. Rubin. "While in India the advent of the TATA, a car that will sell for as little as US$2,500, will allow millions of households in the developing world to own automobiles when they otherwise could not. Millions of new households will suddenly have straws to start sucking at the world's rapidly shrinking oil reserves."

I agree with Rubin's analysis unfortunately. Also, I do not see development of substitutes happening fast enough. So the 2010s look to be a period of declining living standards in Western countries. We'll eventually turn the corner as new energy and materials technologies mature. But the transition period will impose hardships on many. My advice: Buy a hybrid or diesel or very small gasoline car or a combination thereof. Also, choose jobs and residence addresses to minimize the need to travel. Also, try walking and bicycling. Most of all, mentally prepare yourself for the need to restructure your life as oil prices keep going up.

US oil consumption probably has already peaked. More new cars in other countries mean fewer miles traveled in the United States.

"In order to accommodate more drivers on the road in Russia, China and India, there must be fewer drivers in the U.S. and the rest of the OECD. And so there will be. U.S. oil consumption is likely to fall by over two million barrels a day over the next five years as retail gasoline prices rise from their current US$3.60 a gallon mark to almost US$7 a gallon.

Here is the full report (PDF).

By Randall Parker 2008 April 24 11:04 PM  Energy Fossil Fuels
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What Are You Thinking About The Future?

Someone just mentioned in a previous post thread that I do not do miscellaneous thread posts. Well, here's one. What's on your mind?

My own miscellaneous thoughts:

Walking to work (as I've been doing for the last few days partly to think about energy costs and future changes caused by them) is less stressful than driving. I wonder if a lot of people get stressed out by their commutes without realizing it.

When will the FLDS and other polygamous sects start using sexual selection technology to make more female than male babies? Seems like such an obvious thing to do and the tech exists for doing sex selection pre-conception (i.e. no selective abortion necessary). Too expensive for them? Or are they ignorant of the tech? Or do they consider it somehow offensive? Or do church leaders like using the shortage of women caused by polygamy to make the males compete for favor from church leaders?

How much will rising commodities costs accelerate the development of nanomaterials? Will materials science advances reverse the construction cost rise for power plants?

Will the cost of polysilicon drop substantially in the next 5 years and make photovoltaics much cheaper? I've read an article recently whose writer expects a big drop in polysilicon prices. Likely? Is polysilicon manufacture energy intensive?

The world has too many people.

How can Colonel Tigh be a fracking Cylon? He's too old and has too long a history as a human. The development of human looking Cylons occurred after (or am I wrong?) the previous war with the Cyclons. Tigh and Adama fought the Cylons in that battle. Was Cylon Tigh switched with human Tigh more recently? Also, when they arrive at Earth will they arrive in our future?

By Randall Parker 2008 April 24 07:26 PM  Miscellaneous Coverage
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2008 April 23 Wednesday
Teen Brains Get Restructured During Development

Teens can be so messed up because their brains are getting restructured.

Philadelphia, March 28, 2008 – Many parents are convinced that the brains of their teenage offspring are different than those of children and adults. New data confirms that this is the case. An article by Jay N. Giedd, MD, of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), published in the April 2008 issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health describes how brain changes in the adolescent brain impact cognition, emotion and behavior.

Dr. Giedd reviews the results from the NIMH Longitudinal Brain Imaging Project. This study and others indicate that gray matter increases in volume until approximately the early teens and then decreases until old age. Pinning down these differences in a rigorous way had been elusive until MRI was developed, offering the capacity to provide extremely accurate quantifications of brain anatomy and physiology without the use of ionizing radiation.

Our brains go through big changes during adolescence. The brain gets a lot of executive function enhancements.

The NIMH Longitudinal Brain Imaging Project began in 1989. Participants visit the NIMH at approximately two-year intervals for brain imaging, neuropsychological and behavioral assessment and collection of DNA. As of September 2007, approximately 5000 scans from 2000 subjects have been acquired. Of these, 387 subjects, aged 3 to 27 years, have remained free of any psychopathology and serve as the models for typical brain development.

Three themes have emerged from this and other studies in this new era of adolescent neuroscience. The first is functional and structural increases in connectivity and integrative processing as distributed brain modules become more and more integrated. Using a literary metaphor, maturation would not be the addition of new letters but rather of combining earlier formed letters into words, and then words into sentences and then sentences into paragraphs.

The second is a general pattern of childhood peaks of gray matter (frontal lobe, parietal lobe, temporal lobe and occipital lobe) followed by adolescent declines. As parts of the brain are overdeveloped and then discarded, the structure of the brain becomes more refined.

The third theme is a changing balance between limbic/subcortical and frontal lobe functions that extends well into young adulthood as different cognitive and emotional systems mature at different rates. The cognitive and behavioral changes taking place during adolescence may be understood from the perspective of increased “executive” functioning, a term encompassing a broad array of abilities, including attention, response inhibition, regulation of emotion, organization and long-range planning.

What would be helpful: ways to identify when a kid's brain development has entered a stage which makes them more dangerous to self or other due. Detect a deficiency of functions that make them better able to understand themselves and others and more able to restraint their actions.

I can imagine some day drivers license requirements will include brain scans to show that one is not obviously prone to rash and dangerous actions. Also, I can imagine the development of drugs that will speed a teenager more quickly through stages since moms would just as soon have kids with more mature personalities once the kids hit adolescence.

By Randall Parker 2008 April 23 10:50 PM  Brain Development
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Growing Brains More Easily Addicted To Cocaine?

The greater youthful capacity to learn might make youths more prone to cocaine addiction?

WASHINGTON — New drug research suggests that teens may get addicted and relapse more easily than adults because developing brains are more powerfully motivated by drug-related cues. This conclusion has been reached by researchers who found that adolescent rats given cocaine – a powerfully addicting stimulant – were more likely than adults to prefer the place where they got it. That learned association endured: Even after experimenters extinguished the drug-linked preference, a small reinstating dose of cocaine appeared to rekindle that preference – but only in the adolescent rats.

The research, performed at McLean Hospital, Harvard Medical School’s largest psychiatric facility, was reported in the April issue of Behavioral Neuroscience, published by the American Psychological Association.

Evidence that younger brains get stuck on drug-related stimuli reinforces real-world data. Epidemiological studies confirm that of people in various age groups who experiment with drugs, teens are by far the most likely to become addicted. Thus, the new findings may be useful in developing new treatments for youthful addiction.

Future treatments that rejuvenate the brain might make people more prone to drug addiction.

Picture a recreational drug that temporarily suppresses your ability to learn as a way to protect against the risk of learning to like the drug. Could this approach reduce the risk of drug addiction?

By Randall Parker 2008 April 23 10:35 PM  Brain Addiction
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2008 April 21 Monday
High Crop Prices Undermine Opposition To Plant Genetic Engineering

I see a genetically engineered future down home on the farm. Opposition to genetic manipulation of crops is so passe.

In Japan and South Korea, some manufacturers for the first time have begun buying genetically engineered corn for use in soft drinks, snacks and other foods. Until now, to avoid consumer backlash, the companies have paid extra to buy conventionally grown corn. But with prices having tripled in two years, it has become too expensive to be so finicky.

“We cannot afford it,” said a corn buyer at Kato Kagaku, a Japanese maker of corn starch and corn syrup.

In the United States, wheat growers and marketers, once hesitant about adopting biotechnology because they feared losing export sales, are now warming to it as a way to bolster supplies. Genetically modified crops contain genes from other organisms to make the plants resistance to insects, herbicides or disease. Opponents continue to worry that such crops have not been studied enough and that they might pose risks to health and the environment.

It is worth noting that genetic engineering has been embraced much more rapidly for corn than for wheat. The reason: corn is mostly fed to animals whereas wheat is mostly fed to humans. Opposition to genetically engineered crops is stronger for those crops which humans eat directly.

This opposition to genetically engineered wheat has helped prevent wheat yields from growing as rapidly as corn yields (sorry, no cite. this is from memory). But necessity is the mother of invention. Rising hunger and budgets already made very tight by high oil prices are going to overwhelm much of the opposition to biotechnological means for raising crop yields. Even the Europeans are feeling the pressures to embrace genetic modification as a way to boost yields and lower costs.

Even in Europe, where opposition to what the Europeans call Frankenfoods has been fiercest, some prominent government officials and business executives are calling for faster approvals of imports of genetically modified crops. They are responding in part to complaints from livestock producers, who say they might suffer a critical shortage of feed if imports are not accelerated.

The rising East Asian countries such as China aren't going to worry about genetic engineering of crops. They are just going to do it. Europe is affluent enough to create a zone where crop genetic engineering is much less used. But the rest of the world is moving on. Governments want to ensure their own survival. Governments in less developed countries aren't going to fall as a result of rioting against genetically engineered crops. But the riots against high food prices could get out of hand and bring down governments.

In Cameroon, 24 people have been killed in food riots since February, while in Haiti, protesters chanting, "We're hungry" forced the prime minister to resign this month.

In the past month, there have been food riots in Egypt, Cote d'Ivoire, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Madagascar.

Unfortunately, opposition to genetically engineered wheat has reduced the amount of genetic research into methods of boosting wheat production. So we are going to see some lean years before the new incentives for genetic engineering finally start to translate into lower cost wheat.

A Haitian lady who earns $3 per day cares squat about supposed dangers from genetic engineering of crops.

"Everything has changed," said the 30-year-old Joseph, stabbing at a half-frozen chunk of poultry with a screwdriver. "My kids are like toothpicks. Before, if you had $1.25, you could buy vegetables, some rice, charcoal and a little cooking oil. Right now, a little can of rice alone costs 65 cents, and it's not good rice. Oil is 25 cents. Charcoal is 25 cents. With $1.25, you can't even make a plate of rice for one child."

People who spend over half their income on food can't afford a doubling of prices. They can't maintain their calorie intake.

“Food price inflation hits the poor hardest, as the share of food in their total expenditures is much higher than that of wealthier populations,” said Henri Josserand of the Global Information and Early Warning system of the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).

Citing FAO’s new Crop Prospects and Food Situation report, he noted that “food represents about 10 to 20 per cent of consumer spending in industrialized nations, but as much as 60 to 80 per cent in developing countries, many of which are net-food-importers.”

The report states that the rise of 56 per cent in 2007-2008 comes after the already harsh increase of 37 per cent in 2006-2007 that had been squeezing lowest-income households hard.

These people need genetically engineered foods. People who spend over half their incomes on food ought to be given free birth control too. Our interests are harmed (and habitats are destroyed and species driven to extinction) by billions more of very poor people.

By Randall Parker 2008 April 21 05:56 PM  Trends Agriculture
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2008 April 20 Sunday
Time To Think About Petroleum Oil Substitutes

With oil hitting $117 per barrel major media organizations are paying more attention to the future availability of oil. On the one hand, a New York Times discusses worries about future energy availability. On the other hand, the analysis still lends considerable credence to the idea that large increases in oil production are possible.

Today’s tensions are only likely to get worse in coming years. Consider a few numbers: The planet’s population is expected to grow by 50 percent to nine billion by sometime in the middle of the century. The number of cars and trucks is projected to double in 30 years— to more than two billion — as developing nations rapidly modernize. And twice as many passenger jetliners, more than 36,000, will in all likelihood be crisscrossing the skies in 20 years.

In all likelihood? How does that work? If the oil can't be found (and I do not believe it can) how can the number of passenger jetliners double?

CEOs of some major international oil companies (e.g. de Margerie of Total and Mulvey of ConocoPhillips) do not expect oil to go above 100 million barrels a day (we are at 85 million now). Russia looks like it has peaked. Mexico has peaked. Yet the International Energy Agency talks about a 35% increase in production.

All of that will require a lot more oil — enough that global oil consumption will jump by some 35 percent by the year 2030, according to the International Energy Agency, a leading global energy forecaster for the United States and other developed nations. For producers it will mean somehow finding and pumping an additional 11 billion barrels of oil every year.

Where is this going to come from? OPEC nations either lack the ability or the will to increase production. Even if they lack (we should be so lucky) the will why should they change their minds? The higher the price of oil goes the less they have to pump to make the same amount of money.

There's the highly dubious use of "proven reserves" to refer to reserves that OPEC countries claim to have against all evidence and logic. Unless OPEC countries want to provide enough evidence to the rest of the world for their claimed oil reserves why should the New York Times or the International Energy Agency take OPEC claims seriously?

The 13 members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries account for three-quarters of the world’s proven oil reserves.

OPEC countries inflated their reserves back in the 1980s in order to justify to each other their production quotas. They've kept their unrealistic reserve numbers ever since.

It is time to move beyond a discussion of why oil prices have gone so high and focus on the prospects for substitutes. In particular, a realistic discussion of the future liquid fuels ought to center around the costs of substitute liquid fuels such as algae biodiesel, cellulosic ethanol, and coal-to-liquid. We will be able to reduce the relative portion of transportation powered by liquid fuels by use of more electricity and batteries in transportation. But for at least a portion of our transport needs (e.g. airplanes, longer distance vehicles) we will continue to need liquid fuels.

If algae biodiesel can't be made to work then coal-to-liquid will take off in a big way. Maybe jatropha or cellulosic technology using trees or switch grass might work. But I fear the ecological footprint from planting and harvesting the huge areas such crops would need. Near as I can tell so far algae biodiesel has the potential to produce the most liquid fuel per area of land. So I'd like to understand better what problems must be solved for algae biodiesel to work and at what price points it could work.

A company called PetroSun that does conventional oil field development and also algae biodiesel development believes their approach using native algae (as compared to genetically engineered or otherwise specially bred) with natural sunlight can make algae biodiesel workable.

Ethanol (corn) and biodiesel (soybeans) are what we currently have available as alternative fuels. We accept that. However, at productivity levels ranging from 40 to 300 gallons per acre per year from these crops, why would algae not be acceptable even at a lower case production rate of 2,000 gallons per acre per year? Perhaps because the algae-to-biofuels community is mainly focused on super strains cultivated in photo bioreactors? So far, the economics prohibit this segment of the industry from moving forward today and is the primary reason behind the statements that algae-to-biofuels are perhaps five years away. It will probably require $250 per barrel of crude oil or more for these systems to be economically feasible. In time, the price of a barrel of crude oil will support the technology of the photo bioreactors, but why wait?

PetroSun's farming system will utilize native microalgae strains, so as to not disrupt local ecosystems. As stated previously, we will also use either saltwater, brackish or wastewater in our pond system, thereby limiting the impact on the fresh water supply. Our background in the oil and gas industry is the basis from which we developed our harvesting and extraction technology. Despite our stated lower case rate of production per acre being far less than the annual 20,000 gallon theoretical limit of algal oil potential, we are satisfied that we can compete with crude oil pricing and maintain a competitive pricing structure over other vegetable oil feedstocks. We intend to improve on these production rates as we move forward during the maturation of the commercial production of algae-to-biofuels.

Will we need to use closed systems to keep out contaminating organisms? The coverings up the costs. But genetically engineered algae might some day provide advantages that make the closed systems financially worthwhile. PetroSun's management think they can create a workable system sooner using existing algae and lower cost growing ponds.

How much land to produce biodiesel to substitute for all oil used in transportation in the United States?One US government report from 1996 says 15,000 square miles would be required.

NREL itself said in its 1996 report that an area around the size of the U.S. state of Maryland -- approximately 15,000 square miles (3.8 million hectares) -- would be enough to cultivate enough algae to serve the entire transportation needs of the U.S.

That would represent around 140 billion gallons (530 billion liters) of biodiesel it said, working out at around 140,000 liters per h/y. Achieving production levels of such a scale in theory is one thing however; being able to do it in reality is another.

In 1996, the DoE estimated that it would cost twice as much to produce algae-sourced biodiesel than it would gasoline.

Today, the University of New Hampshire's (UNH) Biodiesel Group estimates it could cost as much as $308 billion to build enough farms across the U.S. to meet these production levels and another $47 billion to run them.

Physicist Michael Briggs of the UNH Biodiesel Group says that 15,000 square miles if used for algae biodiesel is pretty small compared to what we now use for agriculture.

To put that in perspective, consider that the Sonora desert in the southwestern US comprises 120,000 square miles. Enough biodiesel to replace all petroleum transportation fuels could be grown in 15,000 square miles, or roughly 12.5 percent of the area of the Sonora desert (note for clarification - I am not advocating putting 15,000 square miles of algae ponds in the Sonora desert. This hypothetical example is used strictly for the purpose of showing the scale of land required). That 15,000 square miles works out to roughly 9.5 million acres - far less than the 450 million acres currently used for crop farming in the US, and the over 500 million acres used as grazing land for farm animals.

Even if the amount of land needed turns out 3 times greater it is still small compared to current agricultural land uses.

Further, these yield estimates are based on what is theoretically achievable - roughly 15,000 gallons per acre-year. It's important to point out that the DOE's ASP that projected that such yields are possible, was never able to come close to achieving such yields. Their focus on open ponds was a primary factor in this, and the research groups that have picked up where the DOE left off are making substantial gains in the yields compared to the old DOE work - but we still have a ways to go. But, consider that even if we are only able to sustain an average yield of 5,000 gallons per acre-year in algae systems spread across the US, the amount of land required would still only be 28.5 million acres - a mere fraction still of the total farmland area in the US.

Needing 3 times as much land would triple costs. But what would those costs be?

The problem of energy prices looks set to get much worse before it starts to get better. China will eventually become the biggest consumer of energy with the US becoming a distant second. The Chinese are getting excited about larger cars. China could surpass the United States in number of cars sold per year by 2015 (though with smaller numbers than currently projected since declining oil production will cut into usage). If we do not come up with workable substitutes for fossil fuels then Asian economic growth, world population growth, and dwindling fossil fuels promise to make for a grim future. Vigorous attempts to slow population growth would really help too.

By Randall Parker 2008 April 20 09:17 PM  Energy Fossil Fuels
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$100 Human Genome Sequencing Within Sight?

Long time readers know that I expect much more rapid advances in biotechnology because biological research is coming to resemble the computer industry with miniature lab devices designed for low cost mass manufacture and automated use. The devices operate on biological systems at the scale of individual cells and molecules. Here's another example of how much this trend cuts costs and speeds progress. Microfluidic devices will enable personal complete DNA sequencing for only $100.

It currently costs roughly $60,000 to sequence a human genome, and a handful of research groups are hoping to achieve a $1,000 genome within the next three years. But two companies, Complete Genomics and BioNanomatrix, are collaborating to create a novel approach that would sequence your genome for less than the price of a nice pair of jeans--and the technology could read the complete genome in a single workday. "It would have been absolutely impossible to think about this project 10 years ago," says Radoje Drmanac, chief scientific officer at Complete Genomics, which is based in Mountain View, CA.

Such a low cost will of course be achieved using nanofluidic devices. Basically, something like computer chips but designed to manipulate individual molecules of DNA.

Each DNA molecule will be threaded into a nanofluidics device, made by Philadelphia-based BioNanomatrix, lined with rows of tiny channels. The narrow width of the channels--about 100 nanometers--forces the normally tangled DNA to unwind, lining up like a train in a long tunnel and giving researchers a clear view of the molecule.

Cheap DNA sequencing will revolutionize the way many people mate. People will surreptitiously check the DNA sequences of prospective mating partners. "Does she have the genes I want to give to my children? If not, I'll make up some excuse about how we have different goals in life and just move on." Or "Does he have the genetic right stuff? If not, I'll tell him he's not spiritual enough for me and say I have to end it". Just how will people lie in order to avoid telling someone they are too genetically inferior for baby making?

Then there's the markets for donor sperm and eggs. With the ability to select among large numbers of egg donors and a far larger number of sperm donors the use of DNA testing will enable buyers to get much closer to their ideal genetic profile. Expect the resulting kids to be smarter, healthier, with different personalities (how exactly?) and far better looking. People who use donor sperm and egg will produce smarter and more successful kids than the average people who choose mates who will help them raise their genetically own kids.

How much and how soon will microfluidic devices speed up the development of stem cell therapies? Genetic selection of sperm, eggs, and fertilized embryos will certainly speed up human evolution. But stem cell therapies will let us rev up and rejuvenate our existing old natural design bodies.

By Randall Parker 2008 April 20 10:31 AM  Biotech Advance Rates
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Vitamin D Cuts Breast Cancer Risk?

If you aren't getting enough vitamin D you might be increasing your cancer risk.

A connection between vitamin D level and the risk of developing breast cancer has been implicated for a long time, but its clinical relevance had not yet been proven. Sascha Abbas and colleagues from the working group headed by Dr. Jenny Chang-Claude at the German Cancer Research Center (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, DKFZ), collaborating with researchers of the University Hospitals in Hamburg-Eppendorf, have now obtained clear results: While previous studies had concentrated chiefly on nutritional vitamin D, the researchers have now investigated the complete vitamin D status. To this end, they studied 25-hydroxyvitamin D (25(OH)D) as a marker for both endogenous vitamin D and vitamin D from food intake.

The result of the study involving 1,394 breast cancer patients and an equal number of healthy women after menopause was surprisingly clear: Women with a very low blood level of 25(OH)D have a considerably increased breast cancer risk. The effect was found to be strongest in women who were not taking hormones for relief of menopausal symptoms. However, the authors note that, in this retrospective study, diagnosis-related factors such as chemotherapy or lack of sunlight after prolonged hospital stays might have contributed to low vitamin levels of breast cancer patients.

A prospective study that tracks the blood vitamin D level of lots of women for years would be more definitive. But such studies are much more expensive. Another way to get at the question: a study that checks vitamin D levels at the time of mammograms for women with suspicious lumps. The blood samples could be held and not tested for vitamin D until mammogram results are known. That would reduce the number of vitamin D tests done on women without breast cancer.

By Randall Parker 2008 April 20 10:15 AM  Aging Diet Cancer Studies
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2008 April 17 Thursday
Attempts To Repair Soldiers Will Bring Rejuvenation Therapies

War, as tragic as it is, creates demands for regenerative therapies and the money to fund the research. A big push to develop regenerative therapies will incidentally help speed the development of rejuvenation therapies.

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – A consortium spearheaded by the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center has been awarded $42.5 million over five years to co-lead one of two academic groups that will form the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine (AFIRM).

Anthony Atala at Wake Forest already leads a big effort in tissue engineering to develop replacement organs. His team and collaborators at other universities will work on regenerative medicine techniques. These techniques used on young maimed soldiers will also some day work on old age-ravaged bodies.

The consortiums, working with the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research, will use the science of regenerative medicine to develop new treatments for wounded soldiers.

The Wake Forest-led collaboration will be headed by Anthony Atala, M.D., director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, and Alan J. Russell, Ph.D., director of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh. A second consortium will be managed by Rutgers and the Cleveland Clinic.

AFIRM will be dedicated to repairing battlefield injuries through the use of regenerative medicine, science that takes advantage of the body’s natural healing powers to restore or replace damaged tissue and organs. Therapies developed by AFIRM will also benefit people in the civilian population with burns or severe trauma.

"For the first time in the history of regenerative medicine, we have the opportunity to work at a national level to bring transformational technologies to wounded soldiers, and to do so in partnership with the armed services," said Atala. "This field of science has the potential to significantly impact our ability to successfully treat major trauma."

The Wake Forest-University of Pittsburgh team has committed to develop clinical therapies over the next five years that will focus on the following five areas:

  • Burn repair
  • Wound healing without scarring
  • Craniofacial reconstruction
  • Limb reconstruction, regeneration or transplantation
  • Compartment syndrome, a condition related to inflammation after surgery or injury that can lead to increased pressure, impaired blood flow, nerve damage and muscle death.

AFIRM will have multiple groups working in each area. For example, in the area of burns, researchers will pursue treatments including engineered skin products, bio-printing of skin in the field and repairs using stem cells derived from amniotic fluid.

Engineered skin products will also some day replace aged skin. Tissue engineering to grow replacement bone will also work for aged joints and bones.

Even if research specifically aimed at rejuvenation and life extension was banned all the efforts to develop regenerative therapies for younger maimed and scarred bodies would provide the tools needed to do rejuvenation anyway. The difference between regeneration and rejuvenation is slight.

By Randall Parker 2008 April 17 11:14 PM  Biotech Therapies
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2008 April 16 Wednesday
Brain Scans Show Reactions To Fairness And Unfairness

In experiments similar to studies on altruistic punishment, people will sacrifice their economic interests in order to express their contempt at unfairness.

UCLA psychologist Golnaz Tabibnia, and colleagues Ajay Satpute and Matthew Lieberman, used a psychological test called the “ultimatum game" to explore fairness and self-interest in the laboratory. In this particular version of the test, Person A has a pot of money, say $23, which they can divide in any way they want with Person B. All Person B can do is look at the offer and accept or reject it; there is no negotiation. If Person B rejects the offer, neither of them gets any money.

Whatever Person A offers to Person B is an unearned windfall, even if it’s a miserly $5 out of $23, so a strict utilitarian would take the money and run. But that’s not exactly what happens in the laboratory. The UCLA scientists ran the experiment so sometimes $5 was stingy and other times fair, say $5 out of a total stake of $10. The idea was to make sure the subjects were responding to the fairness of the offer, not to the amount of the windfall. When they did this, and asked the subjects to rate themselves on scales of happiness and contempt, they had some interesting findings: Even when they stood to gain exactly the same dollar amount of free money, the subjects were much happier with the fair offers and much more disdainful of deals that were lopsided and self-centered.

The psychologists wanted to know if there is something inherently rewarding about being treated decently. So, they scanned several parts of the participants’ brains while they were in the act of weighing both fair and miserly offers. Consistent with previous results, the researchers found that a region previously associated with negative emotions such as moral disgust (the anterior insula) was activated during unfair treatment. However, interestingly, they also found that regions associated with reward (including the ventral striatum) were activated during fair treatment even though there was no additional money to be gained.

So people get a high off of being treated fairly. Keep that in mind when deciding how to treat others.

When you are disgusted your anterior insula buzzes.

The psychologists wanted to know if there is something inherently rewarding about being treated decently. So, they scanned several parts of the participants’ brains while they were in the act of weighing both fair and miserly offers. Consistent with previous results, the researchers found that a region previously associated with negative emotions such as moral disgust (the anterior insula) was activated during unfair treatment. However, interestingly, they also found that regions associated with reward (including the ventral striatum) were activated during fair treatment even though there was no additional money to be gained.

Your emotions rule your rational mind.

As reported in the April issue of the journal Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, the brain finds self-serving behavior emotionally unpleasant, but a different bundle of neurons also finds genuine fairness uplifting. What’s more, these emotional firings occur in brain structures that are fast and automatic, so it appears that the emotional brain is overruling the more deliberate, rational mind. Faced with a conflict, the brain’s default position is to demand a fair deal.

But if you can manage to suppress feelings of pride and contempt you can make a rational calculation of what is in your best interest.

Furthermore, when the scientists scanned the brains of those who were “swallowing their pride” for the sake of cash, the brain showed a distinctive pattern of neuronal activity. It appears that the unconscious mind can temporarily damp down the brain’s contempt response, in effect allowing the rational, utilitarian brain to rule, at least momentarily.

I bet that there's genetic variability in the extent to which people feel contempt or let their rational mind rule.

By Randall Parker 2008 April 16 11:06 PM  Brain Economics
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Belly Fat Secretes Hormone That Makes Us Even Fatter

Belly fat begets belly fat.

The extra fat we carry around our middle could be making us hungrier, so we eat more, which in turn leads to even more belly fat. Dr. Yaiping Yang and his colleagues at the Lawson Health Research Institute affiliated with The University of Western Ontario found abdominal fat tissue can reproduce a hormone that stimulates fat cell production. The researchers hope this discovery will change in the way we think about and treat abdominal obesity.

So then does liposuction done to the belly reduce the amount of future weight gain? After all, belly liposuction removes fat cells that secrete Neuropeptide Y.

Yang identified that the hormone Neuropeptide Y (NPY) is reproduced by abdominal fat tissue. Previously, it was believed to only be produced by the brain. Yang believes this novel finding may lead to new therapeutic targets for combating obesity. Their findings were reported in a recent issue of The FASEB Journal.

The traditional view is that one of the main reasons why overweight people eat more food is because their brains produce the hormone NPY in excessive amounts. NPY is the most potent appetite stimulating hormone known, sending signals to the individual that they are constantly hungry. However, Yang, a Professor in the Departments of Obstetrics & Gynaecology and Physiology & Pharmacology at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry at The University of Western Ontario, has provided evidence that in obese rat models NPY is also produced locally by abdominal fat.

A fat cell cannot replicate itself. But the researchers found NPY increases fat cell number by stimulating the replication of fat cell precursor cells, which then change into fat cells.

Yang says “this may lead to a vicious cycle where NPY produced in the brain causes you to eat more and therefore gain more fat around your middle, and then that fat produces more NPY hormone which leads to even more fat cells.”

If you can't lose weight blame it on NPY.

By Randall Parker 2008 April 16 10:41 PM  Brain Appetite
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No Life Extension From Vitamin Supplements?

Life extension can't be found in most vitamin pills. But note they do not mention vitamin D.

Many people take antioxidants in the belief that they will prolong their life expectancy. However, data from 67 randomised trials that involved just under a quarter of a million people failed to support this idea, a Cochrane Systematic Review has discovered.

“We could find no evidence to support taking antioxidant supplements to reduce the risk of dying earlier in healthy people or patients with various diseases,” says Goran Bjelakovic, visiting researcher, who performed the systematic review at the Copenhagen Trial Unit at the Copenhagen University Hospital in Denmark.

The idea that antioxidants can extend life comes from human and animal laboratory research and has been boosted by some observational clinical studies. But other studies have indicated neutral or even harmful effects.

Cochrane reviews are based on peer reviewed published protocols that aim to identify randomised, published and unpublished, trials. Following Cochrane methodology, relevant data are extracted and pooled together from the identified trials, which are also assessed and subdivided into unbiased and biased in terms of methodology of their conductance, so that unbiased assessments of intervention effects can be conducted.

“The findings of our review show that if anything, people in trial groups given the antioxidants beta-carotene, vitamin A, and vitamin E showed increased rates of mortality. There was no indication that vitamin C and selenium may have positive or negative effects. So regarding these antioxidants we need more data from randomised trials,” says Bjelakovic. “The bottom line is that current evidence does not support the use of antioxidant supplements in the general healthy population or in patients with certain diseases.”

Nutrition still matters. Lots of types of food can cause harm. Charbroiled beef and foods with high glycemic index can cut your life expectancy while vegetables, fruits, and beans can keep you healthy longer. Try to eat good food while we wait for the biotechnological revolution to deliver real rejuvenating therapies. Within a couple of decades I expect life extension will come from stem cell therapies and gene therapies. We should try harder to make that real effective rejuvenation therapies come sooner.

By Randall Parker 2008 April 16 10:20 PM  Aging Diet Studies
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2008 April 15 Tuesday
Big California Earthquake Within 30 Years

The next big earthquake in California might not come until after the singularity or the robot take-over. So we might not still be around to deal with it.

The odds of avoiding a major quake in the next 30 years are about the same as flipping a coin and having it come up heads six times straight: almost nil, according to a new study.

The study, released April 14 in simultaneous news conferences at USC and in the San Francisco Bay area, finds a greater than 99 percent chance that a quake as big or bigger than the 1994 Northridge will hit somewhere in California by 2037.

But it could happen a lot sooner, according to the study. The chance of a big quake within five years is 50-50. The 10-year probability is about 75 percent.

Odds of a 7.5 quake are almost 50:50.

The 30-year probability of an even more damaging, magnitude 7.5 quake – nearly 30 times stronger than Northridge – is almost 50 percent, USC University Professor Thomas Jordan said at the news conference.

Last night Santa Barbara was rattled by a 3.2 earthquake. It was just strong enough to make one wonder if a much bigger one was about to start. Luckily it was weak enough that internet access kept working. After a really big quake it might make sense to move out of state until communications and electric power get restored.

I am more worried about Peak Oil than I am about the next big earthquake. Declining oil production will cost us far more than an 8.0 earthquake even if that earthquake hits a major city.

By Randall Parker 2008 April 15 11:02 PM  Dangers Natural Geological
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Anyone Happy About High Oil Prices?

With oil prices up over 80% since April 2007 you might think leaders of governments committed to CO2 emissions reductions would be happy that prices are restraining CO2 emissions growth. But if you thought that you would be wrong. The British Prime Minister wants OPEC to hike oil output (and does he seriously think OPEC can do this?).

Prime Minister Gordon Brown on Tuesday called on the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries to boost production to counter rapidly rising oil prices, adding his voice to similar requests from the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush.

"We are not producing enough oil ... and we can take collective action to persuade OPEC and others to get the oil price down," Brown said in an interview on Sky Television.

Does this sound like a guy deeply fearful of anthropogenic global warming? I think not. When you hear other politicians calling on Saudi Arabia and other oil exporters to scale up production you'll know they too are less worried about CO2 emissions and more worried about economic growth and living standards in the short term.

People who are sincerely worried about global warming as a massive threat to humanity right now ought to be thinking one of two thoughts about high and rising oil prices:

  • Oh happy days, the world is running out of horrible polluting oil. Declining oil reserves are doing what 100 conferences of diplomats negotiating climate change treaties can never hope to accomplish.
  • Oh happy days, luckily the oil exporters see more money to be made by restraining production rather than let the gluttonous oil consumers burn much more every year.

Yet as I listen and read I do not hear anyone singing "Oh happy days". Why is that? Or are you singing secretly "Oh happy days" in the anonymity of your daily shower? Anyone want to fess up to happiness about the rising prices of gasoline, diesel fuel, and heating oil?

In after market trading on Tuesday oil hit a new high of $114.08 per barrel. My own reaction was "Oh I hope I do not find myself homeless when oil production starts declining 4+% per year".

If we are lucky the price of oil will hit $130 by the end of the year but world oil production won't start declining this year or even next year. Why lucky? Higher prices without an absolute decline in oil production will wake up more people in time to do more preparations for when world oil production starts declining at 4% or more per year.

By Randall Parker 2008 April 15 10:43 PM  Climate Policy
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2008 April 14 Monday
People Make Decisions Seconds Before They Know

You often make up your mind and then wait to find out what you decided.

Already several seconds before we consciously make a decision its outcome can be predicted from unconscious activity in the brain. This is shown in a study by scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, in collaboration with the Charité University Hospital and the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin. The researchers from the group of Professor John-Dylan Haynes used a brain scanner to investigate what happens in the human brain just before a decision is made. "Many processes in the brain occur automatically and without involvement of our consciousness. This prevents our mind from being overloaded by simple routine tasks. But when it comes to decisions we tend to assume they are made by our conscious mind. This is questioned by our current findings." (Nature Neuroscience, April 13th 2008)

Do we just have the illusion of free will? Probably. Does our mind full the conscious part of the brain into believing it is in charge when it is not?

Imagine a computer that monitors your brain, detects a choice you want to make, and carries out your will before you consciously know what you decided.

In the study, participants could freely decide if they wanted to press a button with their left or right hand. They were free to make this decision whenever they wanted, but had to remember at which time they felt they had made up their mind. The aim of the experiment was to find out what happens in the brain in the period just before the person felt the decision was made. The researchers found that it was possible to predict from brain signals which option participants would take already seven seconds before they consciously made their decision. Normally researchers look at what happens when the decision is made, but not at what happens several seconds before. The fact that decisions can be predicted so long before they are made is a astonishing finding.

The ability to detect decision in advance would give fighter pilots a big advantage. Ditto for car drivers who need to avoid an accident.

Thanks to Jill (whoever she is) for the heads up.

By Randall Parker 2008 April 14 10:43 PM  Brain Performance
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Biomass Energy Versus Food Crops

Some (though not all) political leaders in Europe acknowledge that biomass energy means that cars will eat human food.

European lawmakers seem anxious to brake the biofuel bandwagon. On Thursday, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called on G-8 countries "urgently to examine the impact on food prices of different kinds and production methods of biofuels, and ensure that their use is responsible and sustainable." France's agriculture minister has promised to unveil proposals at next week's European Union agriculture council that will ensure "absolute priority must be given to agricultural production for food" over biofuels. Germany's environment minister Sigmar Gabriel said this month that he was considering canceling laws requiring a minimum of 10% of petrol be plant-sourced by next year, and 17% by 2020.

Just because some European politicians have finally decided to ride the clue train on biomass energy and food does not mean we should expect to see a decrease in demand for crops to create liquid transportation fuels. Oh no. As food prices rise the pressure to reduce biomass energy subsidies might lead to some subsidies cuts. But rising energy prices will make crops more useful as energy sources even at higher price points for the crops.

I expect the biomass energy problem to get worse due to advances in technology that lower the costs of converting food crops to energy. Even the development of technology to exploit non-food crop biomass energy sources such as switch grass will increase the demand for crop land to grow biomass for energy and therefore will cause a shift of crop land away from food and toward energy.

The demand for biomass energy is just one of the causes of very high grain prices. Industrialization raises living standards and the more affluent people want more meat which takes more grain to grow.

First, there's the march of the meat-eating Chinese - the growing number of people in emerging economies who are, for the first time, rich enough to start eating like Westerners. Since it takes about 700 calories' worth of animal feed to produce a 100-calorie piece of beef, this change in diet increases the overall demand for grains.

Second, there's the price of oil. Modern farming is highly energy-intensive: a lot of BTUs go into producing fertilizer, running tractors and transporting farm products to consumers.

Population growth is another cause of rising food prices. Over population is the energy and food problem we most ought to do something about.

If you haven't been following agricultural commodity prices the rates of price increases have been very fast.

In fact, in just the past year a number of commodities crucial to food manufacturers have soared to record-breaking prices, with wheat up 107 percent, soybeans 65 percent and corn 61 percent.

This past year's price increases come on the heels of substantial price increases in the previous few years. Corn at $6 a bushel and wheat at $12 a bushel are shocking after corn sold for $1.76 per bushel in 2001.

The impact of rising food prices is felt most in the poorest countries because the poorest spend over half their income for food.

The effect is far more pronounced in developing countries, where 50-60 per cent of income goes on food, compared with 10-20 per cent in the developed world.

Several Asian countries have imposed controls on rice exports. Its price jumped 40 per cent in three days recently, when India and Vietnam banned exports, an FAO official said.

Asian countries which ban crop exports will improve food availability within their borders. But most of the shifts of crops into biomass energy are going to occur in countries which have large food surpluses such as the United States and Brazil. The Brazilians are going to ramp up a big biomass energy industry as long as it is profitable. That leaves less and higher priced crops available for export to countries where people are hungry. High energy prices cause reductions in exported crops.

Brazilian Agriculture Minister Reinhold Stephanes attempts to deny the obvious by claiming that biofuels do not compete with food crops.

In Brazil, ``biofuels do not compete with food crops,'' Stephanes said today in a Bloomberg Television interview. ``That isn't the case in other parts of the world.''

Assorted countries are restricting wheat exports too.

Thailand, the world's largest rice exporter, is reportedly flirting with the idea of doing the same, even as its farmers toil to plant a third crop of rice this year, one more than usual. Wheat, too, has seen the scythe of political maneuvering: Last week, Russia extended for 60 days a ban on wheat exports. China and Argentina have adopted restrictions; in Pakistan, where farmers have just begun to harvest the annual wheat crop, officials yesterday said the country most likely will fall millions of acres below the expected goal, prompting the government to dispatch soldiers to guard grain elevators.

I think this presages what is going to happen with oil exports. As oil production starts declining over the entire world many countries that now export oil will cut back on exports in order to satisfy domestic demand. Therefore oil importing countries will be hit harder than you might expect just from looking at total oil production numbers.

The poorest people (who parenthetically need to have a lot fewer babies) are also experiencing a much higher inflation rate than people who shop in grocery stores is developed industrial countries. The people who shop in stores are paying prices that include a lot of processing costs. So when the price of a bushel of corn doubles and doubles again the price of Corn Chex might go up by tens of a percent at most. But for poor Third World town dwellers who buy raw corn kernels or wheat kernels the increase in price they see is more like the bushel price increase. Ditto if they buy raw wheat kernels or rice kernels.

Food prices have started increasing quite dramatically.

At $1.32, the average price of a loaf of bread has increased 32 percent since January 2005. In the last year alone, the average price of carton of eggs has increased almost 50 percent.

Even though corn has soared to around $6 per bushel versus $2 per bushel just a few years ago.

The market is expecting a bullish crop report. Farmers are expected to plant 7 million or 8 million acres less corn because of high fertilizer costs. Soybean makes its own nitrogen and doesn't require fertilizer. If the report confirms this number, well use more corn than we produce next crop year. And as a result, new all-time high prices will be justified.

High fertilizer prices could potentially reduce fertilizer use and therefore reduce yield per acre. More land will get put into production though. So expect a reduction in wildlife habitats.

By Randall Parker 2008 April 14 12:09 AM  Energy Biomass
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2008 April 12 Saturday
Scientists Personally Use Cognitive Enhancer Drugs

The science journal Nature asked its readers to take an online survey of cognitive enhancing drug use. 1400 responded and 20% reported using drugs for brain enhancement with methylphenidate (Ritalin) the most popular followed by modafinil (Provigil to reduce sleepiness).

For those who choose to use, methylphenidate was the most popular: 62% of users reported taking it. 44% reported taking modafinil, and 15% said they had taken beta blockers such as propanolol, revealing an overlap between drugs. 80 respondents specified other drugs that they were taking. The most common of these was adderall, an amphetamine similar to methylphenidate. But there were also reports of centrophenoxine, piractem, dexedrine and various alternative medicines such as ginkgo and omega-3 fatty acids.

The most popular reason for taking the drugs was to improve concentration. Improving focus for a specific task (admittedly difficult to distinguish from concentration) ranked a close second and counteracting jet lag ranked fourth, behind 'other' which received a few interesting reasons, such as “party”, “house cleaning” and “to actually see if there was any validity to the afore-mentioned article”.

The propranolol (sold as Inderal) is a beta blocker which suppresses flight-or-flight stress reactions. Some musicians use beta blockers for performances. Though their primary use is to lower high blood pressure. It is also used in lower doses against anxiety.

The willingness of scientific researchers to use currently available drugs as cognitive enhancers suggests that these drugs might really work to improve mental performance. It also shows that these people who do competitive intellectually difficult work look for ways to get an edge.

Ritalin for faster computer chip design, less buggy software development, and more optimized mechanical designs? Ritalin for brainstorming marketing strategies? Anyone tried it for intellectual work?

By Randall Parker 2008 April 12 11:05 PM  Brain Enhancement
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2008 April 10 Thursday
Exercise Delays Old Age Fatigue

Exercise to prevent yourself from decaying into incapacitating fatigue.

Maintaining aerobic fitness through middle age and beyond can delay biological ageing by up to 12 years and prolong independence during old age, concludes an analysis published ahead of print in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Aerobic exercise, such as jogging, improves the body’s oxygen consumption and its use in generating energy (metabolism).

But maximal aerobic power starts to fall steadily from middle age, decreasing by around 5 ml/[kg.min] every decade.

When it falls below aound18 ml in men and 15 ml in women, it becomes difficult to do very much at all without severe fatigue.

In a typical sedentary man, the maximal aerobic power will have fallen to around 25 mil/[kg.min] by the age of 60, almost half of what it was at the age of 20.

But the evidence shows that regular aerobic exercise can slow or reverse the inexorable decline, even in later life.

Research shows that relatively high intensity aerobic exercise over a relatively long period boosted maximal aerobic power by 25%, equivalent to a gain of 6 ml/ [kg.min], or 10 to 12 biological years.

By Randall Parker 2008 April 10 11:06 PM  Aging Exercise Studies
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Omega 3 Fatty Acids Boost Fetal Brain Development?

The omega 3 fatty acid is suspected of boosting infant brain development.

Quebec City, April 9, 2008—A study supervised by Université Laval researchers Gina Muckle and Éric Dewailly reveals that omega-3 intake during the last months of pregnancy boosts an infant’s sensory, cognitive, and motor development. The details of this finding are published in a recent edition of the Journal of Pediatrics.

To come to this conclusion, researchers first measured docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) concentration—a type of omega-3 fatty acid involved in the development of neurons and retinas—in the umbilical cord blood of 109 infants. “DHA concentration in the umbilical cord is a good indicator of intra-uterine exposure to omega-3s during the last trimester of pregnancy, a crucial period for the development of retinal photoreceptors and neurons,” explains Dr. Dewailly.

Tests conducted on these infants at 6 and 11 months revealed that their visual acuity as well as their cognitive and motor development were closely linked to DHA concentration in the umbilical cord blood at the time of their birth. However, there was very little relation between test results and DHA concentration in a mother’s milk among infants who were breast-fed. “These results highlight the crucial importance of prenatal exposure to omega-3s in a child’s development,” points out Dr. Muckle.

This is not the first study to make that claim. But a lot of factors influence intellectual development including genetics. It is hard to prove the influence of this one factor. Still, given DHA's role in nerve cell membranes this claim seems highly plausible.

By Randall Parker 2008 April 10 11:01 PM  Brain Development
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Nanomaterials Repair Spinal Cords In Mice

Self assembling nanofibers injected into spinal cords guide nerve fibers to grow over breaks in spinal cords and restore movement.

An engineered material that can be injected into damaged spinal cords could help prevent scars and encourage damaged nerve fibers to grow. The liquid material, developed by Northwestern University materials science professor Samuel Stupp, contains molecules that self-assemble into nanofibers, which act as a scaffold on which nerve fibers grow.

Stupp and his colleagues described in a recent paper in the Journal of Neuroscience that treatment with the material restores function to the hind legs of paralyzed mice. Previously, researchers have restored function in the paralyzed hind legs of mice, but those experiments involved surgically implanting various types of material, while the new substance can simply be injected into the animals. The nanofibers break down into nutrients in three to eight weeks, says Stupp.

I hope researchers are able to pretty quickly try this treatment in other animals and that human trials aren't too far off.

Most of us are going to live to see the day when people with severed spinal cords regain the ability to feel and walk again.

Update: Some types of nerves naturally follow blood vessels when growing.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins have discovered that blood vessels in the head can guide growing facial nerve cells with blood pressure controlling proteins. The findings, which suggest that blood vessels throughout the body might have the same power of persuasion over many nerves, are published this week in Nature.

“We’re excited to have stumbled across another family of proteins that can tell a growing nerve which way to grow,” says David Ginty, Ph.D., a professor of neuroscience at Hopkins and investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. “But the really interesting thing is that the nerves appear to use blood vessels as guideposts to direct their growth in one of several possible directions.”

The research team studied in mice a group of about 15,000 nerve cells known as the superior cervical ganglia, or SCG, which extend projections that innervate various structures in the head including the eyes, mouth and salivary glands. The SCG sits in a Y-like branching point of the blood vessel in the neck that supplies the head with blood, the carotid artery. In the developing embryo, nerve projections grow out of the SCG and grow along one of the two branches of the carotid artery; the nerves that grow along the internal carotid innervate the eyes and mouth among other head structures, and those that grow along the external carotid innervate the salivary glands.

These researchers are trying to figure out why the nerves follow the blood vessels. That knowledge will be useful in figuring out how to guide nerve growth for therapeutic reasons.

By Randall Parker 2008 April 10 10:54 PM  Biotech Tissue Engineering
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Regional Nuclear Conflict Would Change Global Climate

A thermonuclear war would ruin your whole day and several years after that. "Heck, I reckon you wouldn't even be human beins if you didn't have some pretty strong personal feelings about nuclear combat."

"Our research supports that there would be worldwide destruction," said Michael Mills, co-author of the study and a research scientist at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "It demonstrates that a small-scale regional conflict is capable of triggering larger ozone losses globally than the ones that were previously predicted for a full-scale nuclear war."

Combined with the climatic impact of a regional nuclear war -- which could reduce crop yields and starve hundreds of millions -- Mills' modeling shows that the entire globe would feel the repercussions of a hundred nuclear detonations, a small fraction of just the U.S. stockpile.

Will we ever witness a nuclear war? If we do then start thinking about your food supply.

By Randall Parker 2008 April 10 10:43 PM  Dangers Nuclear Warfare
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2008 April 09 Wednesday
Eggs Raise Heart Failure Risks

But if you do not have diabetes the risk from eggs only shows up if you eat 7+ eggs per week.

Middle-aged men who ate seven or more eggs a week had a higher risk of earlier death, U.S. researchers reported on Wednesday.

Men with diabetes who ate any eggs at all raised their risk of death during a 20-year period studied, according to the study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

People with diabetes are already under greater oxidative stress. A diabetic is already in a metabolic danger zone. I expect that some other subsets of populations who have less healthy metabolisms for other reasons (e.g. smokers) are also at greater risk from eating eggs.

Here is the research paper.

My advice: The calorie budget you consume when eating eggs would be better spent by eating nuts (e.g. pistachios for heart health) and beans. Also, some montmorency tart cherries might lower cholesterol, triglycerides, and inflammation markers.

By Randall Parker 2008 April 09 09:33 PM  Aging Cardiovascular Studies
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2008 April 08 Tuesday
First Single Strand DNA Sequencing Demonstrated

Up until now DNA sequencing has been done using many copies of each section of DNA. The older style sequencing machines do not have the sensitivity needed to measure the results from reading a single DNA strand. So many strands are used to boost the signal that comes from reading DNA letters. This use of many strands requires bigger and more expensive instruments with more reagents. Now Helicos Biosciences has demonstrated the sequencing of a genome using single DNA strand sequencing.

The latest revolution in the rapidly moving field of genome sequencing is upon us--single-molecule sequencing. Last week, Helicos Biosciences, a genomics company based in Cambridge, MA, published the first scientific paper to describe the sequencing of a whole genome using this approach. Experts say single-molecule sequencing, which reads the sequence of a single fragment of DNA, will ultimately simplify and speed the sequencing process, which could in turn enable the advance of personalized medicine. "The bottom line is, if at the end of day if you can just put a single strand of DNA onto a platform and sequence it directly, it's a huge advantage," says Elaine R. Mardis, co-director of the genome center at Washington University in St. Louis.

This is another step on the road to $1000 genome sequencing. Their machine is too expensive and this is not yet a step forward in cost. But if they can find ways to cut big costs out of their design it might turn into a useful way to lower the cost of DNA sequencing. Lots of other companies are chasing this same goal and costs are already falling quite rapidly without using single strand reading. But the development of cheaper ways to build small scale sequencers seems inevitable.

Thanks for the heads up Brock who draws attention to the fact that Helicos already has an even cheaper design than what they used in this paper.

By Randall Parker 2008 April 08 11:21 PM  Biotech Assay Tools
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Blood Vessel Disease Causes Third Of Dementia

Here's yet another reminder that aging isn't just about creaky bones, gray hair, and wrinkled skin. Brain damage caused by lots of small strokes might account for a third of all old age dementia. Dementia isn't dignified and it doesn't make you wise.

Alzheimer's disease may be what most people fear as they grow older, but autopsy data from a long-range study of 3,400 men and women in the Seattle region found that the brains of a third of those who had become demented before death showed evidence of small vessel damage: the type of small, cumulative injury that can come from hypertension or diabetes.

Dr. Thomas Montine, University of Washington, presented the study results at Experimental Biology 2008 in San Diego on April 6. His presentation was part of the scientific program of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB).

In the autopsied brains of people who had experienced cognitive decline and dementia, 45 percent of the risk for dementia was associated with pathologic changes of Alzheimer's disease. Another 10 percent of dementia risk was associated with Lewy bodies, neocortical structural changes that indicate a degenerative brain disease known as Lewy Body Dementia, believed by some clinicians to be a variant of Alzheimer's and/or Parkinson's disease. But a third of the risk for dementia (33 percent) was associated with damage to the brain from small vessel disease.

Dr. Montine and his colleagues believe that, and are now studying in more detail, this small vessel damage is the cumulative effect of multiple small strokes caused by hypertension and diabetes, strokes so small that the person experiences no sensation or problems until the cumulative effect reaches a tipping point. This may be good news, says Dr. Montine. At a time when prevention and treatment for Alzheimer's remain investigational, methods for preventing complications of hypertension and diabetes are currently available.

My guess is that the estimate of a third of all dementia as caused by blood vessel problems might be an underestimate. Other brain aging diseases might develop in part due to poor circulation reducing nutrition to brain cells.

On the bright side, stem cell therapies that repair blood vessels will some day slow brain aging by avoiding accumulation of stroke damage. Better blood vessels will keep the brain better fed and undamaged by blood vessel ruptures.

By Randall Parker 2008 April 08 11:06 PM  Brain Aging
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CalTech Prof Sees 10 Years Till Competitive Solar Energy

Cheap solar photovoltaics are not just around the corner.

NEW ORLEANS, April 7, 2008 — Despite oil prices that hover around $100 a barrel, it may take at least 10 or more years of intensive research and development to reduce the cost of solar energy to levels competitive with petroleum, according to an authority on the topic.

“Solar can potentially provide all the electricity and fuel we need to power the planet,” Harry Gray, Ph.D., scheduled to speak here today at the 235th national meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS). His presentation, “Powering the Planet with Solar Energy,” is part of a special symposium arranged by Bruce Bursten, Ph.D., president of the ACS, the world’s largest scientific society celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Beckman Scholars Program.

Gray sees a big benefit from using sunlight to split water for hydrogen as a fuel.

“The Holy Grail of solar research is to use sunlight efficiently and directly to “split” water into its elemental constituents – hydrogen and oxygen – and then use the hydrogen as a clean fuel,” Gray said.

Gray is the Arnold O. Beckman Professor of Chemistry and Founding Director of the Beckman Institute at the California Institute of Technology. He is the principal investigator in an NSF funded Phase I Chemical Bonding Center (CBC) – a Caltech/MIT collaboration – and a principal investigator at the Caltech Center for Sustainable Energy Research (CCSER).

Gray sees solar as costing about 35 to 50 cents per kwh and competitive solar at least 10 years away.

The single biggest challenge, Gray said, is reducing costs so that a large-scale shift away from coal, natural gas and other non-renewable sources of electricity makes economic sense. Gray estimated the average cost of photovoltaic energy at 35 to 50 cents per kilowatt-hour. By comparison, other sources are considerably less expensive, with coal and natural gas hovering around 5-6 cents per kilowatt-hour.

Because of its other advantages – being clean and renewable, for instance – solar energy need not match the cost of conventional energy sources, Gray indicated. The breakthrough for solar energy probably will come when scientists reduce the costs of photovoltaic energy to about 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, he added. “Once it reaches that level, large numbers of consumers will start to buy in, driving the per-kilowatt price down even further. I believe we are at least ten years away from photovoltaics being competitive with more traditional forms of energy.”

Solar energy won't become cost competitive everywhere at the same time. In areas with higher electricity costs and greater amounts of sunlight (e.g. southern California) solar becomes cost competitive sooner at a much higher price for the solar panels than it does in, say, British Columbia or Sweden.

Can an expert predict reliably that solar won't become cost competitive for 10 years? Or can lots of start-ups with lots of venture capital surprise the academics?

In recent years prices for solar panels haven't dropped at all. Growing demand, driven by tax credits and other government interventions, has kept prices up even as production capacity has soared. In spite of its northern geographic location and relatively low light levels government incentives have turned Germany into the biggest source of demand for photovoltaics. When government-caused demand growth flattens out will solar photovoltaics prices plummet?

By Randall Parker 2008 April 08 10:57 PM  Energy Solar
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2008 April 07 Monday
GM Volt Cost Estimate Up

We really aren't ready for Peak Oil and we aren't going to be ready in a few years. GM's pluggable electric hybrid Chevy Volt was originally projected to cost $30,000. GM's latest estimate for the Volt's cost? $48,000.

Figuring out how to make wipers, a stereo and other accessories that don't kill the Volt's range has proven a tough nut to crack, and it's one reason the Volt's price seems to be rising. The Volt came with a $30,000 price tag when GM unveiled it at the North American International Auto Show last year. At this year's show, Lutz told us it could hit $40,000. Now he's saying it could hit $48,000 and it could be years before GM sees a profit from it.

GM wants the Volt to go 40 miles on electric power before switching over to gasoline. The 40 miles is enough to let most people drive to work and back. Then to avoid gasoline usage you'd have to plug the car in every day. Easy to do if you park in your own garage. Not so easy if you don't.

GM will probably start out selling the Volt at a loss. Though if oil production starts declining by 2010 then the demand for electrically powered cars might allow GM to sell the Volt at a much higher price.

"When GM brings out that electric car, they're going to be taking a huge loss on that for a number of years," UAW President Ron Gettelfinger said in a speech to a business group.

Battery cost is a big problem.

The Volt's 300-pound battery pack will be among its most-expensive components. Menahem Anderman, a battery analyst based in Oregon House, Calif., has estimated each such lithium-ion pack may cost about $10,000.

GM is attempting to show the batteries will last 10 years.

"Production timing of the Volt is directly related to our ability to predict how this battery will perform over the life of the vehicle," said Frank Weber, Chevrolet Volt and E-Flex systems global vehicle chief engineer. "The challenge is predicting 10 years of battery life with just two years of testing time."

At 10 years life expectancy the cost per year for the batteries works out to over $1000 once interest on the money is considered. But maybe the batteries will last longer.

By Randall Parker 2008 April 07 10:36 PM  Energy Electric Cars
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2008 April 06 Sunday
Brain Willpower Depleted By Use

The more you exercise your willpower in one area the less willpower you have left for other purposes.

The brain’s store of willpower is depleted when people control their thoughts, feelings or impulses, or when they modify their behavior in pursuit of goals. Psychologist Roy Baumeister and others have found that people who successfully accomplish one task requiring self-control are less persistent on a second, seemingly unrelated task.

In one pioneering study, some people were asked to eat radishes while others received freshly baked chocolate chip cookies before trying to solve an impossible puzzle. The radish-eaters abandoned the puzzle in eight minutes on average, working less than half as long as people who got cookies or those who were excused from eating radishes. Similarly, people who were asked to circle every “e” on a page of text then showed less persistence in watching a video of an unchanging table and wall.

The article reports you can keep up your willpower by keeping up your blood sugar. Also, exercising your willpower appears to make it stronger.

These claims seem consistent with my own daily experience. I have to let some things slide in order to get through dealing with people and chores in other areas.

The writers of this New York Times article, Sandra Aamodt, editor of Nature Neuroscience, and Sam Wang, a prof of biology and neuroscience at Princeton, have a new book that sounds interesting: “Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys but Never Forget How to Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life.”.

The research literature on brain metabolism and willpower is fascinating. For example, people who try to suppress facial expressions while watching a movie have lower blood sugar as a result. That lower blood sugar means less glucose available for the brain to do additional cognitive processing.

Self-control literally requires energy. Subjects asked to suppress facial reactions (e.g. smiles) when watching a movie have lower blood glucose levels, suggesting higher energy consumption. Control subjects (free to react how they want) had the same blood glucose levels before and after the movie, and performed better than control subjects on a Stroop Task. Restoring glucose levels with a sugar-sweetened lemonade (instead of artificially-sweetened beverages, without glucose) also increases performance. Self-control failures happen more often in situation where blood glucose levels is low. In a literature review, Gailliot et al show that lack of cognitive, behavioral and emotional control is systematically associated with hypoglycemia or hypoglycemic individuals. Thought suppression, emotional inhibition, attention control, and refraining from criminal behavior are impaired in individual with low-level blood glucose (Gailliot & Baumeister, 2007).

Matthew T. Gailliot and Roy F. Baumeister of Florida State University wrote a pretty good review of the relationship between glucose and willpower in 2007: The Physiology of Willpower: Linking Blood Glucose to Self-Control (PDF format).

Attention control is a pervasive and basic form of self-control. Executive control can dictate and choose what information is noticed and processed by the mind, as opposed to letting salience and the environment dictate. In a review of the literature on self-regulation, Baumeister et al. (1994) observed that attention appears to be the front line of control for many problem behaviors, and loss of attention control is a precursor to self-control failure in many different domains. Controlling attention requires self-control because attention automatically orients toward various stimuli in the environment (e.g., Shiffrin & Schneider, 1977). It takes self-control to override these automatic responses so as instead to remain focused on any single task or stimulus (Muraven & Baumeister, 2000). Consistent with the idea that attention control depletes the same energy needed for self-control, research has shown that people are less able to exert self-control after having controlled their attention and that they are less able to control their attention after having exerted self-control (e.g., Vohs et al., 2005; Gailliot & Baumeister, in press; Gailliot et al., 2006; Vohs & Faber, 2004).

One study found evidence consistent with the idea that attention control requires a relatively large amount of glucose (Gailliot, Baumeister, et al., 2007). Participants watched a 6-min video that required them either to control their attention by ignoring certain stimuli appearing on the screen or to watch the video as they would normally, thus not trying to control their attention. Among participants who had controlled their attention, glucose dropped after having watched the video. Among participants who watched without controlling attention, glucose levels did not change. The implication is that controlling attention resulted in the consumption of relatively large amounts of glucose. To be sure, it is more difficult to watch the video while controlling attention than while watching it without such effort, and participants’ ratings of task difficulty confirmed that difference. Self-control requires effort, and that makes it difficult. From this and similar studies, it is not easy to infer whether the differences are due to self-control per se or to the general difficulty of performing the task.

They report that diabetics and those with hypoglycemia have poorer attention control.

If you want to maintain good attention control and willpower then eat your breakfast. Also, eat low glycemic index food.

By Randall Parker 2008 April 06 09:10 PM  Brain Limits
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Rush To Build Private Spaceships

When owning a Gulfstream 5 becomes passe the need arises to develop private spacecraft.

The mini-ship, built by Mojave-based Xcor Aerospace and designed to fly to the edge of space, is expected to be ready for test flights by 2010, around the time Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic hopes to send its much larger spaceship on its maiden voyage.

More than half a dozen other companies -- most, unlike Xcor, bankrolled by wealthy businessmen, including Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com and Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal -- are building rockets and spacecraft that they hope will capture the imagination of space travelers.

Looks like wealthy people in Silicon Valley have decided to compete with each other for status by starting space launch companies. Is NASA becoming irrelevant for near Earth orbit launches?

Here's an animation of the Xcor aircraft from YouTube.

Jeff Bezos of Amazon is funding Blue Origin. Elon Musk is funding Space X. Other companies attempting to build spacecraft include Space Adventures. Most (all?) of these companies appear to be aiming at suborbital space tourism as a first step. The step from suborbital to orbital flight isn't easy because reentry involves high temperature deceleration.

While the suborbital tourism project will provide a way for millionaires to buy a thrill I question whether it will play a significant role in a human migration into space. This method of getting into space does not avoid the high energy costs or high risks of space launch as a way to achieve orbit. To cut the energy costs and risks we might need a carbon nanotube space elevator.

By Randall Parker 2008 April 06 04:35 PM  Airplanes and Spacecraft
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2008 April 05 Saturday
Teeth Dentin Restoration Coming In A Few Years

Tooth repair with the natural materials of the teeth will allow rebuilding teeth damaged by decay.

"What we're hoping to have happen is to catch [decaying teeth] early and remineralize them," said Sally Marshall, a professor at the University of California at San Francisco. Marshall gave a talk last week at the spring meeting of the Materials Research Society on rebuilding the inner portions of teeth.

While regrowing your uncle's toothless grin from scratch is still a decade away, the ability to use some of the body's own building materials for oral repair would be a boon to dentists, who have been fixing cavities with metal fillings since the 1840s.

Marshall thinks she's just a few years away from knowing how to restore dentin. Give the ability to restore dentin and enamel conventional fillings will become obsolete.

Some skeptics of the prospects for radical life extension see body rejuvenation as a very distant prospect. Yet a method to restore dentin and enamel is a form of rejuvenation. Granted this rejuvenation is only done to teeth. But teeth are a part of the body. So rejuvenation therapy to one part of the body is just a few years away.

By Randall Parker 2008 April 05 10:39 PM  Biotech Teeth And Gums
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Floating Platforms Could Cut Cost Of Offshore Wind Power

Some sources put the cost of offshore wind power at twice the cost of onshore installations. Yet the British government has announced plans to do big offshore wind farm builds. Companies in the Netherlands, Norway, and other countries might slash the cost of offshore wind by using floating platforms.

Offshore wind-farm developers would love to build in deep water more than 32 kilometers from shore, where stronger and steadier winds prevail and complaints about marred scenery are less likely. But building foundations to support wind turbines in water deeper than 20 meters is prohibitively expensive. Now, technology developers are stepping up work in floating turbines to make such farms feasible.

Noise and high spinning speeds have 2 blade turbines undesirable on land. 3 blade turbines get used on land instead. But offshore the trade-offs change and the advantages of 2 blades include lower costs due to a lighter structure.

Faster rotation also means less torque, meaning that the entire structure can be built lighter. (See "Wind Power for Pennies.") The rotor, gearbox, and generator of Blue H's 2.5-megawatt turbine will weigh 97 tons--53 tons lighter than the lightest machine of the same power output on the market. "This is a big advantage," says Jakubowski. "For us, weight on top is something we have to push up." The turbine and platform are correspondingly cheaper to build, he says. The net result, says Jakubowski, should be a highly competitive energy source. He estimates that Blue H's wind farms will deliver wind energy for seven to eight cents per kilowatt-hour, roughly matching the current cost of natural gas-fired generation and conventional onshore wind energy.

Natural gas prices will go up as natural gas fields get depleted. So wind could become preferred with natural gas relegated to back-up when the wind doesn't blow.

By Randall Parker 2008 April 05 10:21 PM  Energy Wind
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2008 April 03 Thursday
Holodeck Simulations To Get Realistic In A Few Years?

We aren't talking about simulated humans as artificial intelligences yet. But a guy at Brookhaven thinks at least for real time rendering of objects with realistic lighting we might be a few years away.

Are supercomputers on the verge of creating Matrix-style simulated realities? Michael McGuigan at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, thinks so. He says that virtual worlds realistic enough to be mistaken for the real thing are just a few years away.

A petaflop bopper might be able to render realistic simulations of light in a virtual world.

Although Blue Gene/L can model the path of light in a virtual world both rapidly and realistically, the speed with which it renders high-resolution images still falls short of that required to pass the Graphics Turing Test.

But supercomputers capable of passing the test may be just years away, thinks McGuigan. "You never know for sure until you can actually do it," he says. "But a back-of-the-envelope calculation would suggest it should be possible in the next few years, once supercomputers enter the petaflop range – that's 1000 teraflops."

Expect some people to become addicted to time spent in simulated environments. Throw in some AIs to interact with and the simulated worlds will become enjoyable to a lot more people.

By Randall Parker 2008 April 03 10:45 PM  AI Simulations
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2008 April 02 Wednesday
Autistic Kids Lower Parental Income

Here's another example of how better medical treatments could save time, boost incomes, boost economic output, and raise quality of life. The costs of raising kids with developmental defects is very high and if we could only avoid these defects in babies we would gain a great benefit.

New research suggests that the average household with children with autism not only spends thousands of dollars toward educational, behavioral and health care expenses each year, but also suffers from a lesser-known cost that hits them up front – a sizeable chunk of missed household income, perhaps as much as $6,200 annually.

The study, published in April’s edition of Pediatrics, paints a more detailed financial picture of how expensive life can become for parents of children with an autism spectrum disorder.

“To our knowledge, this is the first U.S. study that examines this front half of the ‘money in, money out’ equation,” said economist Guillermo Montes, Ph.D., the study’s lead author and a senior researcher at the Children’s Institute, a not-for-profit organization affiliated with the University of Rochester, where he also serves as a faculty member in the division of General Pediatrics. “To collect data on expenses is fairly straightforward– it’s a survey report. But projecting earning potential and then stacking that against actual income requires complex statistical modeling.”

The study is based on data from the National Household Education Survey on After School Programs and Activities in 2005, a telephone questionnaire that drew on parents of more than 11,000 children, kindergarten-age through eighth grade. Parents reported if their child had an autism spectrum disorder, or ASD (that is, if he or she had ever been diagnosed with autism or a pervasive developmental disorder), their total household income and their highest level of education. Several other demographic details were collected, including the parent’s age, type of family (two parent or otherwise) and whether they lived in an urban or rural locale.

The economic benefits of medical research are very high and I think medical research is underappreciated for its benefits. Costs of health problems of mind and body show up in lots more ways than just high medical bills or inability of a sick person to go to work. Families pay big tolls when a child has major disabilities.

By Randall Parker 2008 April 02 10:16 PM  Policy Medical
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No Health Benefit Seen From Extra Water Consumption

I'm glad to see some medical experts have taken the time to write up a review of the lack of evidence for the claims that many glasses of water per day help you stay healthy. The idea that high water consumption delivers a health benefit is just a legend.

Washington, DC (Friday, March 28, 2008) — A recent look at what is known about the health effects of drinking water reveals that most supposed benefits are not backed by solid evidence. The findings indicate that most people do not need to worry about drinking their recommended 8 glasses of 8 ounces (“8x8”) of water per day. The editorial is published in the June 2008 issue of the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology (JASN).

While it is clear that humans cannot survive for longer than several days without water, very little research has assessed how average individuals’ health is affected by drinking extra fluids. Experts have claimed that ingesting water is helpful for everything from clearing toxins and keeping organs healthy to warding off weight gain and improving skin tone.

To investigate the true benefits of drinking water, Dan Negoianu, MD, and Stanley Goldfarb, MD, of the Renal, Electrolyte, and Hypertension Division at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, PA, reviewed the published clinical studies on the topic. They found solid evidence that individuals in hot, dry climates, as well as athletes, have an increased need for water. In addition, people with certain diseases benefit from increased fluid intake. But no such data exist for average, healthy individuals. In addition, no single study indicates that people need to drink the recommended “8x8” amount of water each day. Indeed, it is unclear where this recommendation came from.

This scan of the literature included a look at studies related to the notion that increased water intake improves kidney function and helps to clear toxins. A variety of studies reveal that drinking water does have an impact on clearance of various substances by the kidney, including sodium and urea. However, these studies do not indicate any sort of clinical benefit that might result.

I've tried telling co-workers that their water habits were just the stuff of urban legends. But they were thoroughly wedded to their legends and kept on drinking. So just where did this urban legend originate? Maybe in some diet (wash that fat away) for losing weight? Or as part of some 1960s or 1970s fad about body detoxing?

By Randall Parker 2008 April 02 10:11 PM  Aging Diet Studies
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2008 April 01 Tuesday
Human-Animal Hybrid Embryos Created In Britain

How long till wolf-boy gets created?

Scientists at Newcastle University have created part-human, part-animal hybrid embryos for the first time in the UK, the BBC can reveal.

The embryos survived for up to three days and are part of medical research into a range of illnesses.

Are you upset by this?

It is only a matter of time before humans with some animal DNA get created. One of the biggest challenges of the 21st century is going to be the question of what attributes are necessary for an intelligence to be a rights-possessing being.

By Randall Parker 2008 April 01 10:30 PM  Bioethics Humanity Definition
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