2008 July 31 Thursday
Human Neurons Made From Skin Cell Of ALS Patient

Using viruses to introduce genes that are known to control pluripotency (i.e. embryonic state) of cells some Harvard researchers managed to take skin cells from a women suffering from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS - Lou Gehrig's disease) and make them into first stem cells and then neurons.

Cambridge, MA, July 31, 2008 - Less than 27 months after announcing that he had institutional permission to attempt the creation of patient and disease-specific stem cell lines, Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI) Principal Faculty member Kevin Eggan today proclaimed the effort a success - though politically imposed restrictions and scientific advances prompted him to use a different technique than originally planned.

The breakthrough by Eggan and colleagues at Harvard and Columbia University marks the first time scientists are known to have produced human stem cell lines coaxed from the cells of adult patients suffering from a genetically-based disease. The affected patients had Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

The ability to induce pluripotency on demand is impressive. The research into what causes cells to be embryonic stem cells and to be other kinds of stem cells is beginning to bear fruit. As scientists learn more about the internal genetic state of cells they will find easier and safer ways to control cell state and to produce therapies for almost all diseases.

The initial intent is to use these cells to study ALS. The longer term intent is to create neural stem cells that could be used to repair brains that are decaying due to ALS.

The work, published in today's on-line edition of the journal Science, provides "proof of concept" for the belief of scientists and fervent hope of patients that in the not-too-distant future it may be possible to treat patients suffering from chronic diseases with stem cell-based treatments created from their own adult cells. However, Eggan believes that the first therapeutic use of these newly derived stem cells will in fact be to use them to study the root cause of this disease and to screen for drugs that may provide benefit in patients.

This method does not currently produce cells that are safe to use in therapy. The viruses are a rather blunt instrument for introducing genes into cells and the cells run the risk of becoming cancerous. We need improved ways to do gene therapy and to regulate the epigenetic state of cells. That will all come with time. But the faster it comes the more likely you won't die from some disease before rejuvenation therapies become available.

The cells will be studied to understand what goes wrong in ALS neurons that cause them to die.

"This is a seminal discovery," said Valerie Estess, director of research for Project A.L.S. "The ability to derive ALS motor neurons through a simple skin biopsy opens the doors to improved drug discovery. For the first time, researchers will be able to look at ALS cells under a microscope and see why they die. If we can figure out how a person's motor neurons die, we will figure out how to save motor neurons."

By Randall Parker 2008 July 31 11:35 PM  Brain Stem Cells
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Poaching Driving Down African Elephant Populations

Lax enforcement of anti-poaching laws has allowed a resurgence of the poachers.

African elephants are being slaughtered for their ivory at a pace unseen since an international ban on the ivory trade took effect in 1989. But the public outcry that resulted in that ban is absent today, and a University of Washington conservation biologist contends it is because the public seems to be unaware of the giant mammals' plight.

The elephant death rate from poaching throughout Africa is about 8 percent a year based on recent studies, which is actually higher than the 7.4 percent annual death rate that led to the international ivory trade ban nearly 20 years ago, said Samuel Wasser, a UW biology professor.

But the poaching death rate in the late 1980s was based on a population that numbered more than 1 million. Today the total African elephant population is less than 470,000.

"If the trend continues, there won't be any elephants except in fenced areas with a lot of enforcement to protect them," said Wasser.

Poaching got cut down in the last 1980s and could be again.

In 1989, most international ivory trade was banned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (http://www.cites.org/), which regulates trade in threatened and endangered species. The restrictions banned ivory trade except for ivory from elephants that nations legally culled from their herds or those that died naturally.

At the time the treaty was enacted, poachers were killing an average of 70,000 elephants a year. The ban instigated much stronger enforcement efforts, nearly halting poaching almost immediately. However, that sense of success resulted in waning enforcement. Western aid was withdrawn four years after the ban was enacted and poaching gradually increased to the current alarming rates, Wasser said.

"The situation is worse than ever before and the public is unaware," he said, "It's very serious because elephants are an incredibly important species. They keep habitats open so other species that depend on such ecosystems can use them. Without elephants, there will be major habitat changes, with negative effects on the many species that depend on the lost habitat.

Continued rapid human population growth also poses a big threat to elephants and other wild animals of Africa. We need international agencies to make a serious effort to cut down the fertility rate in Africa. Too many people means more poverty, disease, and habitat loss.

By Randall Parker 2008 July 31 11:22 PM  Trends Extinction
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Scientists Put Exercise In A Pill

To supplement these drugs we are going to need pills that plant memories of a cross-country hike or perhaps memories of a river rafting trip. Two compounds make mice boost their treadmill performance. While GW1516 enhances the effects of exercise AICAR eliminates the need. Time to tune in, turn on, and drop exercise pills.

Howard Hughes Medical Institute researchers have identified two drugs that mimic many of the physiological effects of exercise. The drugs increase the ability of cells to burn fat and are the first compounds that have been shown to enhance exercise endurance.

Both drugs can be given orally and work by genetically reprogramming muscle fibers so they use energy better and can contract repeatedly without fatigue. In laboratory experiments, mice taking the drugs ran faster and longer than normal mice on treadmill tests. Animals that were given AICAR, one of the two drugs, ran 44 percent longer than untreated animals. The second compound, GW1516, had a more dramatic impact on endurance, but only when combined with exercise.

Ronald M. Evans, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator who led the study, said drugs that mimic exercise could offer potent protection against obesity and related metabolic disorders. They could also help counter the effects of devastating muscle-wasting diseases like muscular dystrophy. Evans and his colleagues, who are at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, published their findings on July 31, 2008, in an advance online publication in the journal Cell.

Concerned about the potential for abuse of the two performance-enhancing drugs, Evans has also developed a test to detect the substances in the blood and urine of athletes who may be looking for way to gain an edge on the competition.

Exercise will still be needed for the development of better coordination. But cardiovascular conditioning and muscle build-up really shouldn't take so much time out of our busy lives. Besides, why use real exercise when drugs can do a better job of making your body fit?

After four weeks of treatment with AICAR, Evans and his colleagues once again challenged sedentary mice to run on the treadmill. They found that mice that had received AICAR were able to run 44 percent longer than untreated mice. "This is a drug that is like pharmacological exercise," Evans says. "After four weeks of receiving the drug, the mice were behaving as if they'd been exercised." In fact, he says, those that got the drug actually ran longer and further than animals that received exercise training.

Read the full article if you are curious about the mechanisms of action of these drugs.

By Randall Parker 2008 July 31 10:46 PM  Aging Exercise Studies
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MIT Advance In Electric Power Storage

MIT researchers have developed a better catalyst for using electricity to split water into oxygen and hydrogen. Later the hydrogen can be burned to produce heat and electricity.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- In a revolutionary leap that could transform solar power from a marginal, boutique alternative into a mainstream energy source, MIT researchers have overcome a major barrier to large-scale solar power: storing energy for use when the sun doesn't shine.

I think the rhetoric here is a little overblown. More obstacles remain. We still need better ways to store hydrogen. Granted, it is easier to store hydrogen in a stationary tank than in a tank in a car since the stationary tank is less constrained by weight or size or need to handle jolts and vibration. So I would like to hear more about the economics of stationary hydrogen storage. Plus, we need cheap and reliable fuel cells for burning the hydrogen to make electricity in the night.

Until now, solar power has been a daytime-only energy source, because storing extra solar energy for later use is prohibitively expensive and grossly inefficient. With today's announcement, MIT researchers have hit upon a simple, inexpensive, highly efficient process for storing solar energy.

Requiring nothing but abundant, non-toxic natural materials, this discovery could unlock the most potent, carbon-free energy source of all: the sun. "This is the nirvana of what we've been talking about for years," said MIT's Daniel Nocera, the Henry Dreyfus Professor of Energy at MIT and senior author of a paper describing the work in the July 31 issue of Science. "Solar power has always been a limited, far-off solution. Now we can seriously think about solar power as unlimited and soon."

Inspired by the photosynthesis performed by plants, Nocera and Matthew Kanan, a postdoctoral fellow in Nocera's lab, have developed an unprecedented process that will allow the sun's energy to be used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen gases. Later, the oxygen and hydrogen may be recombined inside a fuel cell, creating carbon-free electricity to power your house or your electric car, day or night.

But what efficiency can we expect? 50% efficiency doubles the cost. 25% efficiency quadruples the cost. The ultimate efficiency of this process is not mentioned in the articles I can find about this research. Efficiency losses in generation of hydrogen, storage, and in the burning of hydrogen to make electricity all boost the cost of the ultimately desired night time electric power.

The key component in Nocera and Kanan's new process is a new catalyst that produces oxygen gas from water; another catalyst produces valuable hydrogen gas. The new catalyst consists of cobalt metal, phosphate and an electrode, placed in water. When electricity — whether from a photovoltaic cell, a wind turbine or any other source — runs through the electrode, the cobalt and phosphate form a thin film on the electrode, and oxygen gas is produced.

Combined with another catalyst, such as platinum, that can produce hydrogen gas from water, the system can duplicate the water splitting reaction that occurs during photosynthesis.

Current costs of photovoltaics mean there's not enough photovoltaic generation capacity to make storage worthwhile. So we also need much cheaper photovoltaics. But that looks like it is in the pipeline if the claims of First Solar about their photovoltaics production costs are correct.

This does not provide an immediate solution. But the remaining engineering work all looks very solvable.

There's also still much engineering work to be done before Nocera's catalyst is incorporated into commercial devices. It will, for example, be necessary to improve the rate at which his catalyst produces oxygen. Nocera and others are confident that the engineering can be done quickly because the catalyst is easy to make, allowing a lot of researchers to start working with it without delay. "The beauty of this system is, it's so simple that many people can immediately jump on it and make it better," says Thomas Moore, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Arizona State University.

Thanks to Jill and Brock for the heads up.

By Randall Parker 2008 July 31 10:24 PM  Energy Solar
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2008 July 30 Wednesday
New Method Lowers Energy Cost Of Lithium Battery Manufacture

Materials science prof Arumugam Manthiram at the University of Texas at Austin might have made a big contribution toward our move toward electrically powered vehicles. A new way to make lithium iron phosphate batteries cuts costs by lowering the temperature needed to make them.

But it has proved difficult and expensive to manufacture lithium iron phosphate batteries, which cuts into potential cost savings over more conventional lithium-ion batteries. Typically, the materials are made in a process that takes hours and requires temperatures as high as 700 °C.

Hours at high temperatures suggest a large energy cost for lithium battery manufacture and a big energy debt that each electric car would start out with.

Manthiram's method involves mixing commercially available chemicals--lithium hydroxide, iron acetate, and phosphoric acid--in a solvent, and then subjecting this mixture to microwaves for five minutes, which heats the chemicals to about 300 °C. The process forms rod-shaped particles of lithium iron phosphate. The highest-performing particles are about 100 nanometers long and 25 nanometers wide. The small size is needed to allow lithium ions to move quickly in and out of the particles during charging and discharging of the battery.

What I'd like to know: How much energy does it take for A123Systems and other lithium battery makers to manufacture their batteries? The answer to that question would give us an idea of how many miles a hybrid, pluggable hybrid, or pure electric car would have to be driven before it would save more energy than it took to manufacture it originally.

By Randall Parker 2008 July 30 11:59 PM  Energy Batteries
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Carbon Dioxide Increases Ocean Acidity

The CO2 that dissolves into the ocean continues to worry me more than global warming.

By absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and from the human use of fossil fuels, the world's seas function as a giant buffer for the Earth's life support system. The chemical balance of the sea has long been regarded as immovable. Today, researchers know that the pH of the sea's surface water has gone down by 0.1, or 25 percent, just since the beginning of industrialisation just over a century ago. Jon Havenhand and Michael Thorndyke, researchers at the University of Gothenburg, along with colleagues in Australia, have studied how this acidification process affects marine animal life.

As part of the study, which is one of the world's first on this subject, they have allowed sea urchins of the species Heliocidaris erythrogramma to fertilise themselves in water where the pH has been lowered from its normal 8.1 to a pH value of 7.7. This means an environment three times as acidic, and corresponds to the change expected by the year 2100. The results are alarming.

Like most invertebrates, the sea urchin multiplies by releasing its eggs to be fertilised in the open water. However, in a more acidic marine environment, the sea urchin's ability to multiply goes down by 25 percent, as its sperm swim more slowly and move less effectively. If fertilisation is successful, their larval development is disturbed to the extent where only 75 percent of the eggs develop into healthy larvae.

In a nutshell: We have lots of ways available to cool the planet with cheap affordable climate engineering. So global warming seems reversible if it becomes a problem. But how to deacidify the ocean if high atmospheric CO2 causes lots of CO2 to dissolve into the ocean? I ask again: does anyone have an idea for a cheap way to reverse CO2-caused acidification of oceans?

We might get lucky with cheap photovoltaics that could cause the demand for coal to plummet in 10 years. Add in the coming decline off the world oil production plateau and CO2 emissions might be on the decline in 10-15 years. Then again, maybe high rates of coal burning will extend until nanobots make construction of wind farms and solar concentrator farms really really cheap. But it would be good to have a way to reverse ocean acidification.

By Randall Parker 2008 July 30 11:41 PM  Pollution Trends
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2008 July 29 Tuesday
$10 Microscope On A Chip

Smaller and cheaper is the future of biotechnology.

PASADENA, Calif.--Researchers at the California Institute of Technology have turned science fiction into reality with their development of a super-compact high-resolution microscope, small enough to fit on a finger tip. This "microscopic microscope" operates without lenses but has the magnifying power of a top-quality optical microscope, can be used in the field to analyze blood samples for malaria or check water supplies for giardia and other pathogens, and can be mass-produced for around $10.

"The whole thing is truly compact--it could be put in a cell phone--and it can use just sunlight for illumination, which makes it very appealing for Third-World applications," says Changhuei Yang, assistant professor of electrical engineering and bioengineering at Caltech, who developed the device, dubbed an optofluidic microscope, along with his colleagues at Caltech.

The new instrument combines traditional computer-chip technology with microfluidics--the channeling of fluid flow at incredibly small scales. An entire optofluidic microscope chip is about the size of a quarter, although the part of the device that images objects is only the size of Washington's nose on that quarter.

We will someday have cheap automated medical instrumentation installed in our bathroom sinks, toilets, and bed stands, watches, glasses, and other things in our environment so that we get constantly, rapidly, but unobtrusively tested far more extensively than a hospital can today. Our home computers will let us know when we have a medical problem that needs attention.

By Randall Parker 2008 July 29 11:54 PM  Biotech Assay Tools
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Oxytocin Enhances Your Ability To Remember Happy Smiling Faces

Smile and the whole world smiles with you - especially if they are on oxytocin.

Philadelphia, PA, July 28, 2008 – Oxytocin was originally studied as the "milk let-down factor," i.e., a hormone that was necessary for breast-feeding. However, there is increasing evidence that this hormone also plays an important role in social bonding and maternal behaviors. A new study scheduled for publication in the August 1st issue of Biological Psychiatry now shows that one way oxytocin promotes social affiliation in humans is by enhancing the encoding of positive social memories.

Adam J. Guastella, Ph.D. and his colleagues sought to evaluate the effects of oxytocin on the encoding and recognition of faces in humans. They recruited healthy male volunteers and in a double-blind, randomized design, administered either oxytocin or a placebo. They then presented a series of happy, angry and neutral human faces to the volunteers on a computer screen. Participants returned the following day where they were presented with a collection of faces and asked to distinguish the new faces from ones that they saw on the prior day. The results revealed that those who received oxytocin were more likely to remember the happy faces they had seen previously, more so than the angry and neutral faces.

Dr. Guastella notes that the "findings are exciting because they show for the first time that oxytocin facilitates the encoding of positive social information over social information that is either neutral or negative." John H. Krystal, M.D., Editor of Biological Psychiatry and affiliated with both Yale University School of Medicine and the VA Connecticut Healthcare System, comments on the findings: "The findings from Guastella and colleagues provide new evidence about a chemical system in the body that may help us to connect socially to other people. One could imagine that our ability to recall a particularly happy face at the end of a day full of social contacts could reflect an action of oxytocin."

Social isolation can be a feature of several psychiatric disorders. The success of oxytocin in enhancing positive social memories raises the possibility that oxytocin, or drugs that might act like oxytocin in the brain, could be used to help people who are socially isolated and have difficulty making social connections. Future research will be needed to test this hypothesis.

Some people think they are in rational control. Their emotions are happy to fool them. Our emotions are an invisible puppeteer.

By Randall Parker 2008 July 29 11:48 PM  Brain Memory
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Brain Aging Impairs Sleep Memory Consolidation

Here's yet another example of why the aging process should be stopped and reversed by advances in biotechnology. Memory replay by the hippocampus for memory consolidation while sleeping is impaired in old rats.

Aging impairs the consolidation of memories during sleep, a process important in converting new memories into long-term ones, according to new animal research in the July 30 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience. The findings shed light on normal memory mechanisms and how they are disrupted by aging.

During sleep, the hippocampus, a brain region important in learning and memory, repeatedly "replays" brain activity from recent awake experiences. This replay process is believed to be important for memory consolidation. In the new study, Carol Barnes, PhD, and colleagues at the University of Arizona found reduced replay activity during sleep in old compared to young rats, and rats with the least replay activity performed the worst in tests of spatial memory.

Barnes and colleagues recorded hippocampal activity in 11 young and 11 old rats as they navigated several mazes for food rewards. Later, when the animals were asleep, the researchers recorded their hippocampal activity again. In the young animals, the sequence of neural activity recorded while the animals navigated the mazes was repeated when they slept. However, in most of the old animals, the sequence of neural activity recorded during sleep did not reflect the sequence of brain activity recorded in the maze.

"These findings suggest that some of the memory impairment experienced during aging could involve a reduction in the automatic process of experience replay," said Michael Hasselmo, DPhil, at Boston University, an expert unaffiliated with the study.

Animals with more faithful sleep replay also performed better on memory tests. The researchers tested the same 22 rats on a spatial learning and memory task. Consistent with previous research, the young rats recalled the solution to the spatial task faster and more accurately than the old rats. In the old group, the researchers found that the top performers in the spatial memory task were also the ones that showed the best sleep replay. Irrespective of the animal's age, the researchers found that animals who more faithfully replayed the sequence of neural activity recorded in the maze while asleep also performed better on the spatial memory task.

Brain rejuvenation could reverse this trend of diminished ability to form memories as we age. Some day treatments for brain rejuvenation will become available. We would benefit from making that day come sooner.

By Randall Parker 2008 July 29 11:39 PM  Brain Aging
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US Vehicle Miles Traveled Down 3.7% In May 2008

US Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) declined 3.7% in May 2008 as compared to May 2007.

Secretary Peters said that Americans drove 9.6 billion fewer vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) in May 2008 than in May 2007, according to the Federal Highway Administration data. This is the largest drop in VMT for any May, which typically reflects increased traffic due to Memorial Day vacations and the beginning of summer, and is the third-largest monthly drop in the 66 years such data have been recorded. Three of the largest single-month declines - each topping 9 billion miles - have occurred since December.

VMT on all public roads for May 2008 fell 3.7 percent as compared with May 2007 travel, the Secretary added, marking a decline of 29.8 billion miles traveled in the first five months of 2008 than the same period a year earlier. This continues a seven-month trend that amounts to 40.5 billion fewer miles traveled between November 2007 and May 2008 than the same period a year before, she said.

The drop was steepest in the North Central region at -4.5% and least in the West at -2.3%. That decline takes Americans back almost to May 2003 for total VMT. Given that the US population has grown about 5% in that time the vehicle miles traveled per person have probably dropped 5% from the amount Americans drove in 2003. That probably puts us back to around the year 2000 in miles driven per person.

As people find ways to restructure their lives to reduce the need for vehicle travel expect to see more reductions in VMT in coming months. A rise in gasoline prices takes time for its many effects to fully work their way through the economy.

US fuel consumption decline frees up oil for use in the parts of the world where oil consumption is still rapidly rising. This New York Times article provides an interesting tour of the countries of the world with big fuel subsidies and rapidly rising oil demand.

From Mexico to India to China, governments fearful of inflation and street protests are heavily subsidizing energy prices, particularly for diesel fuel. But the subsidies — estimated at $40 billion this year in China alone — are also removing much of the incentive to conserve fuel.

The oil company BP, known for thorough statistical analysis of energy markets, estimates that countries with subsidies accounted for 96 percent of the world’s increase in oil use last year — growth that has helped drive prices to record levels.

The big question: when will the subsidizing governments find they can not afford to subsidize any longer? When will the full weight of oil market prices reach Chinese, Indonesians, Indians, Saudis, Venezuelans, and others who pay below market prices for gasoline, diesel fuel, kerosene, and other oil products?

China accounts for almost half of rising oil demand.

China alone accounts for about 40 percent of the world's recent increase in demand for oil, burning through twice as much now as it did a decade ago. Fifteen years ago, there were almost no private cars in the country. By the end of last year, the number had reached 15.2 million.

SUV sales are booming in China.

But in China, the number of SUVs sold rose 43 percent in May compared with the previous year, and full-size sedans were up 15 percent.

I see the subsidies in these other countries as doing us a favor. They are forcing us to begin moving away from oil before world oil production starts declining. We need that kick in the pants to get us going to make the adjustments and investments we need to do to start our move beyond the oil era.

By Randall Parker 2008 July 29 12:00 AM  Energy Transportation
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2008 July 27 Sunday
Aptera Typ-1 Electric Car Nears Production

The Toyota Prius is about to become the also-ran in ultimate environmental car chic. Aptera has raised enough money to begin production of their highly efficient 3-wheeled 2-seater cross between a car and a motorcycle.

CARLSBAD, Calif., Jul 24, 2008 (BUSINESS WIRE) -- Aptera Motors announced today that the company has raised more than $24 million at the close of its Series C round of venture funding. The new funds will be used to start initial production of its Aptera Typ-1, a radically different vehicle designed to marry advanced aerodynamics with light-weight composite technology creating an incredibly powerful, yet extremely safe vehicle that is a joy to drive. Additionally, the company plans to use the newly raised funds for a new manufacturing facility located in Vista, Calif., just a short distance from the company's present headquarters in Carlsbad.

Initially they will start selling only in California.

The Aptera Typ-1 will be the most efficient passenger vehicle in the world. The first production models are planned to be available in December 2008 with the production rate increasing throughout 2009. With a coefficient of drag literally one-third of a subcompact car and less than half the weight, the all-electric version will get up to 120 miles per charge, while the hybrid version, which will follow in about 12 months, will achieve close to 300 MPG. With these results, Aptera Motors aims to change the way the world thinks about personal transportation. Interest is already high as Aptera has received over 3,300 deposits from California-only buyers eager to be among the first to drive this new vehicle. With its commitment to efficiency and safety, Aptera Motors is positioned to be a leader in the new era of efficient vehicle design and production. California residents can reserve a vehicle now by placing a fully refundable $500 deposit at www.aptera.com.

Such a high fuel efficiency far surpasses that of motorcycles and even scooters. Will it turn out to be safer than a motorcycle too?

As oil production starts declining we are going to have a lot of options for ways to keep industrial societies functioning. Need to commute distances too long for a pluggable hybrid Chevy Volt? Drive an Aptera. Price will range from $27k to $30k.

How much will the Aptera cost?

The approximate price for the all electric version is $27,000 and the plug-in hybrid $30,000. These prices are subject to change any time before we begin production.

Why are you selling the Aptera only in California?

There are many reasons, including our dedication to seamless customer service. We will not have maintenance centers set up in other states until the expansion of our distribution as well state regulatory issues worked out. We are working hard to make the Aptera available to everyone, but in order for that to happen we need to solve any future contingencies on a regional level.

When are you starting production?

Our goal is to begin production of the all-electric in late 2008 and the hybrid in late 2009.

Aptera says this thing is registered as a motorcycle. Check out the details. But in California they say that a 3 wheeled vehicle does not require a motorcycle license. Plus, since it is enclosed it does not require a helmet. So it is legally classified as a motorcycle. But for practical purposes you can treat it like a car.

By Randall Parker 2008 July 27 11:14 PM  Energy Transportation
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2008 July 26 Saturday
Message Texting Addicts Breaking Bones

Crackberry addicts are walking into cars, telephone poles, and everything else in their way as they type away walking.

But most of the time the victims are the texters, who wind up with bumps and bruises. Northwestern Memorial Hospital's emergency room has been ground zero in Chicago for texting goofs. Located downtown near shopper-clogged Michigan Avenue, the emergency room is also close to the exceptionally busy lakefront path, where pedestrians and joggers share a lane with bikers.

James Adams, Northwestern's chairman of emergency medicine, says he has treated patients involved in texting incidents nearly every day this summer. He says fallen texters are more prone to facial injuries: They tend to hold their devices close to their faces, so their hands are less likely to break their fall. "By the time their hands hit, their face immediately hits and they smash to the ground," Dr. Adams says. The common outcomes are scraped chins, noses and foreheads, along with broken glasses.

We are not in the environments where we evolved to be adaptive. So we get addicted to drugs, alcohol, video games, Blackberries, and other new things in our environments that we are not genetically designed to handle.

The texters would be less dangerous to themselves and others if they didn't have to look down to see the screen. What is needed: Head Up Display Glasses tied to a cell phone. Then one could look ahead and see the text mixed in with sidewalk or whatever else is in front of you.

But how to type when walking? Avoid the need to type with voice recognition software. Except, people can hear you then. How to maintain the privacy that typing provides? The in-brain implant cell phone that "The Phone Company" tried to convince The President's Analyst (1967 with James Coburn) to tell the US President to allow transplanted into everyone's brain.

Another alternative: develop a drug that breaks down the text messaging addiction.

By Randall Parker 2008 July 26 12:26 AM  Comm Tech Society
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2008 July 25 Friday
DNA Sequencing Technology Continues Rapid Advance

Technological progress in DNA sequencing continues to amaze. But political obstacles to widespread gene testing threaten to prevent full use of these advances. First off, Alexis Madrigal surveys the rapid progress in DNA sequencing technology.

A prominent genetics institute recently sequenced its trillionth base pair of DNA, highlighting just how fast genome sequencing technology has improved this century.

Every two minutes, the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute sequences as many base pairs as all researchers worldwide did from 1982 to 1987, the first five years of international genome-sequencing efforts.

That speed is thanks to the technology underlying genomics research, which has been improving exponentially every couple of years, similar to the way computer tech improves under Moore's Law.

The DNA sequencing technologies under development promise to bring more huge strides in speed and cost reduction of DNA sequencing in the next decade.

What's clear is that the DNA sequencing technology pipeline is deep and ready to deliver innovation and reduced cost for years to come. Within the next decade, nanopores, tiny holes about 1.2 nanometers across, combined with new microscopy techniques, could even allow scientists to "read" individual DNA bases as easily as we read the letters A, C, T, G.

DNA sequencing company Pacific Biosciences just got an infusion of $100 million from Intel and other investors. Their technology might make 15 minute human DNA sequencing possible by 2013. We are that close to an enormous explosion in available DNA sequencing data.

The Menlo Park, California-based company believes SMRT will lead to a transformation in the field of DNA sequencing that will facilitate sequencing of individual genomes as part of routine medical care. Pacific Bioscience has estimated its next-generation sequencer will be available as early as 2010 and has anticipated that by 2013, its technology will be able to sequence a genome in 15 minutes.

The Pacific Biosciences technology watches individual DNA polymerase enzymes holding onto nucleotides. We are talking way small scale.

But in order to be able to detect fluorescence from just a single nucleotide without interference from others that also float around in the system, the observation volume must be made much smaller.

Enter zero-mode waveguides, or ZMWs, which are tiny wells with metal sides and a glass bottom that are made by punching holes tens of nanometers wide in a 100-nanometer aluminum film that is deposited on glass. When a laser is shone at the wells from below, it cannot penetrate them because its wavelength is bigger than the hole. The effect is similar to how microwaves cannot exit the perforated screen of a microwave oven door.

However, some attenuated light forms an evanescent field just inside the well near its bottom, creating a tiny illuminated detection volume of 20 zeptoliters, small enough to observe a single molecule of DNA polymerase holding on to a nucleotide, but no surrounding fluorescent molecules.

So you'll be able to afford to get your DNA sequenced within 5 years. Now our problem is to figure out what all the genetic differences mean. We need to collect detailed medical histories and other information about a large number of volunteers (preferably millions) so that we can compare that data along with DNA sequencing data to discover which genetic differences cause functional differences.

Update: Looking forward to getting your DNA sequenced? The states of California and New York require a doctor's permission for you to get genetic testing and sequencing done. How dare they!

You may think you own your blood and saliva and that you're free to take some of it and send it to a lab for whatever type of analysis you want.

The state of California disagrees.

If you're a California resident, the state department of health has forbidden companies that do direct-to-consumer genetic analysis from selling their services to you -- unless a doctor has given you permission to learn about your own DNA.

You aren't allowed to get information about yourself without a doctor's supervision? We are considered incapable of interpreting the results. I say that is besides the point. We aren't always capable of making other decisions that we make either. What damage is the state trying to prevent in making this rule?

The state of California is trying to get web-based gene testing services to stop serving Californians.

California becomes the second big state to crack down on companies that offer gene tests to consumers via the Web. This week, the state health department sent cease-and-desist letters to 13 such firms, ordering them to immediately stop offering genetic tests to state residents.

Could other bloggers please take up this issue and write posts complaining about this regulatory action?

By Randall Parker 2008 July 25 11:57 PM  Biotech Advance Rates
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$1 Billion Per Year Could Stop Tenth Of Deforestation

$1 billion per year could prevent one tenth of tropical deforestation.

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Wealthy nations willing to collectively spend about $1 billion annually could prevent the emission of roughly half a billion metric tons of carbon dioxide per year for the next 25 years, new research suggests.

It would take about that much money to put an end to a tenth of the tropical deforestation in the world, one of the top contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, researchers estimate.

Reduced carbon emissions aside, the reduction in habitat destruction would be great. Why not advocate this measure just to cut down on habitat loss? Whatever happened to the environmental movement that used to place so much emphasis on ecosystem preservation? Nowadays carbon dioxide emissions get all the attention. This does not seem sensible to me. If CO2 had no effects on temperatures the destruction of rain forests would still be wiping out species.

Though I wonder if this program would really have its desired effect. Or would the preservation of some rain forests just increase the rush to destroy the unprotected rain forests? My guess is these researchers aren't aiming high enough.

This sounds roughly analogous to existing practice of paying farmers not to till land that is considered valuable habitat.

If adopted, this type of program could have potential to reduce global carbon emissions by between 2 and 10 percent.

The calculation is one of several estimates described by a team of scientists and economists this week in the online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The calculations, based on three different forestry and land-use models, provide the best estimates so far of how much it would cost developed nations to participate in a program called “avoided deforestation” to reduce worldwide carbon emissions.

One fifth of CO2 emissions come from tropical deforestation.

Under such a program, wealthy nations would help achieve reduced emissions globally by paying landowners in developing nations not to cut down wide swaths of forested land to make way for agricultural uses. Tropical deforestation, the cutting and burning of trees to convert land to grow crops and raise livestock, accounts for about a fifth of all human-caused carbon emissions in the world.

When forests get destroyed to make room for palm oil plantations for biomass energy the result is loss of species diversity.

Rising demand for palm oil will decimate biodiversity unless producers and politicians can work together to preserve as much remaining natural forest as possible, ecologists have warned. A new study of the potential ecological impact of various management strategies published in the British Ecological Society's Journal of Applied Ecology found that very little can be done to make palm oil plantations more hospitable for local birds and butterflies. The findings have major implications for the booming market in biofuels and its impact on biodiversity.

Dr Lian Pin Koh of ETH Zürich looked at the number of birds and butterflies in 15 palm oil plantations in East Sabah, Malaysia, on the island of Borneo. He found that palm oil plantations supported between one and 13 butterfly species, and between seven and 14 species of bird. Previous research by other ecologists found at least 85 butterfly and 103 bird species in neighbouring undisturbed rain forest.

Management techniques – such as encouraging epiphytes, beneficial plants or weed cover in palm oil plantations – increased species richness by only 0.4 species for butterflies and 2.2 species for birds. Preserving remaining natural forests – for example by creating forest buffer zones between plantations – made a little more impact, increasing species richness by 3.7 in the case of butterflies and 2.5 for birds.

Previously untouched regions are going to get ripped apart in the quest for "clean" biodiesel from palm oil.

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- The global resource boom is threatening one of the world's last tropical-forest frontiers: the Merauke region of Indonesia's remote Papua province.

Indonesian companies are lining up to develop pulp-and-paper mills in Merauke; investors from South Korea want to expand palm-oil plantations; and Indonesian officials have tried to persuade International Paper Co to invest in the region.

The demand for wood and palm oil might drive orangutans into extinction. The demand for supposedly carbon-neutral energy sources (except that wiping out forests releases large amounts of CO2) is contributing to the extinction of orangutans.

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) — Orangutan numbers have declined sharply on the only two islands where they still live in the wild and they could become the first great ape species to go extinct if urgent action isn't taken, a new study says.

The declines in Indonesia and Malaysia since 2004 are mostly because of illegal logging and the expansion of palm oil plantations, Serge Wich, a scientist at the Great Ape Trust in Iowa, said on Saturday.

This problem is going to get worse as more people in China, India, and southeast Asia start working in industrial jobs and their growing buying power lets them buy furniture, housing, and energy. The higher oil prices will boost European demand for biomass energy. Down will go the forests.

Update: In addition to rain forests, wetlands are getting destroyed too.

Covering just 6% of Earth's land surface, wetlands (including marshes, peat bogs, swamps, river deltas, mangroves, tundra, lagoons and river floodplains) store 10-20% of its terrestrial carbon. Wetlands slow the decay of organic material trapped and locked away over the ages in low oxygen conditions.

These waterlogged (either seasonally or year-round) areas contain an estimated 771 gigatonnes (771 billion tonnes) of greenhouse gases – both CO2 and more potent methane – an amount in CO2 equivalent comparable to the carbon content of today's atmosphere.

...

Some 60% of wetlands worldwide – and up to 90% in Europe – have been destroyed in the past 100 years, principally due to drainage for agriculture but also through pollution, dams, canals, groundwater pumping, urban development and peat extraction.

Notwithstanding recent efforts in such countries as Australia and the U.S. (which has lost 50 million of an estimated 90 million hectares of wetlands 500 years ago) to protect wetlands and reverse past damage, at a world scale they continue to shrink.

"Wetlands act as sponges and their role as sources, reservoirs and regulators of water is largely underappreciated by many farmers and others who rely on steady water supplies," says Prof. Junk. "They also cleanse water of organic pollutants, prevent downstream flood inundations, protect riverbanks and seashores from erosion, recycle nutrients and capture sediment."

Population growth, industrialization, and depletion of available fossil fuels all create pressures that result in more destruction of rain forests and wetlands. So the problem is going to get worse.

Click thru on that link and read lots of facts about the value of wetlands.

By Randall Parker 2008 July 25 01:28 PM  Trends Habitat Loss
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2008 July 23 Wednesday
Myopathy From Statins Due To Rare Gene

Statin drugs (e.g. Lipitor, Crestor, Pravachol) are widely used to lower cholesterol but occasionally cause worrisome side effects including muscle pain and weakness. A discovery shows that a genetic test could reveal high risk people who can avoid muscle problems by refraining from statin drug use.

The researchers, funded by the British Heart Foundation (BHF), found a variation in the DNA code of a gene called SLC01B1 was responsible for 60% of the myopathy cases in people taking high dose statin therapy.

SLC01B1 regulates the uptake of statins into the liver, and the genetic variant seems to affect its function, causing higher levels of the statin to be present in the blood.

Only about one in 10,000 patients taking a standard dose of statins develops myopathy, and the risk remains very low even if they carry the rogue gene.

This one genetic variant does not explain all cases of muscle problems in response to statin drug use.

Many drugs have failed in advanced stage clinical trials because they caused dangerous and even deadly side effects in small but significant portions of drug trial participants. The continued decline in the costs of genetic testing will allow many of those side effects to be traced back to genetic variants found in some but not all people. So drugs which would otherwise fail clinical trials will instead emerge with restrictions on the genetic profiles of potential users.

The ability to identify who will have dangerous side effects from drug use will enable more drugs to reach the market. Also, research on genetic profiles and drug efficacy will also reveal genetic profiles that work better or worse with particular drugs. The matching of genetic profiles to drug choices will some day become commonplace.

By Randall Parker 2008 July 23 11:06 PM  Biomedical Genetic Profile
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Old Hearts Helped By Exercise

Your heart's ability to burn more glucose can be built up by exercise even in your 60s and early 70s.

Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but endurance exercise seems to make it younger. According to a study conducted at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, older people who did endurance exercise training for about a year ended up with metabolically much younger hearts. The researchers also showed that by one metabolic measure, women benefited more than men from the training.

"We know that the heart deteriorates as people get older, and that's largely because they don't stay as active as they used to," says first author Pablo F. Soto, M.D., instructor in medicine in the Cardiovascular Division. "Past research has suggested that exercise can reverse some effects of aging, and we wanted to see what effect it would have specifically on the heart."

The researchers measured heart metabolism in sedentary older people both at rest and during administration of dobutamine, a drug that makes the heart race as if a person were exercising vigorously. At the start of the study, they found that in response to the increased energy demands produced by dobutamine, the hearts of the study subjects didn't increase their uptake of energy in the form of glucose (blood sugar).

But after endurance exercise training — which involved walking, running or cycling exercises three to five days a week for about an hour per session — the participants' hearts doubled their glucose uptake during high-energy demand, just as younger hearts do.

You might find exercise annoying. But it is good for your heart.

The participants were six men and six women, ages 60 to 75, who were not obese but who had been living an inactive lifestyle. They were put on an eleven-month program of endurance exercise under the careful guidance of a trainer.

For the first three months, they were required to exercise to about 65 percent of their maximum capacity. After that, the program was stepped up so participants reached about 75 percent of maximum. Soto says the volunteers enjoyed the experience and told him they felt in the best shape they had been in years.

I'm still hoping for exercise in a pill. The pill should make your body change in all the beneficial ways that exercise causes physical changes.

By Randall Parker 2008 July 23 10:40 PM  Aging Cardiovascular Studies
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Energy Prices Drive Up Crop Planting Costs

Rising energy costs drive up food prices in two ways. First off, higher fossil fuels prices raise fertilizer costs, chemical costs, and tractor operation costs. Plus, higher gasoline costs raise the prices people will pay for ethanol from corn. The rising production costs of corn and soybeans put a high and rising floor on food prices even before biomass energy is considered.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Soaring energy prices will yield sharp increases for corn and soybean production next year, cutting into farmers’ profits and stretching already high food costs, according to a new University of Illinois study.

Costs to get crops in the ground will jump by about a third in 2009, fueled by fertilizer prices expected to surge 82 percent for corn and 117 percent for soybeans, said Gary Schnitkey, an agricultural economist who conducts the annual survey of input costs.

Fertilizer – the biggest non-land expense for corn and soybean farmers – is tethered to the same cost spiral that has driven steep gasoline and heating price increases over the last few years, said Schnitkey, a professor of agriculture and consumer economics.

“Roughly 80 percent of the cost of producing nitrogen fertilizer is natural gas, so as natural gas costs have gone up so have the costs of those inputs,” he said. “Phosphorus and potassium are mined, and as energy costs increase, mining costs increase.”

What I want to know: At what price of natural gas will wind electricity become a cheaper source of energy to make nitrogen fertilizer? That price will put a ceiling on fertilizer costs. When solar photovoltaics and solar concentrators for electric generation fall below the costs of wind turbines (and that seems inevitable) the ceiling for fertilizer prices will go even lower. But how expensive will food get before natural gas-based fertilizer reaches a price where electrically driven nitrogen reduction becomes competitive? Seems an important question for those who plan on eating in the future.

The break-even price for corn will rise to almost $4 per bushel.

The study projects non-land production costs for corn will total $529 an acre next year, up 36 percent from 2008 and nearly 85 percent higher than the average of $286 per acre from 2003 to 2007. At $321 an acre, soybean input costs are projected to rise 34 percent from 2008 and more than 78 percent from the 2003-2007 average of $180 an acre.

Schnitkey says the per-acre costs are based on high-producing farmland in Central Illinois, but corn and soybean farmers across the country will see similar increases.

Assuming cash-rent fees of $200 an acre, the study projects a break-even price of $3.82 a bushel for corn in Central Illinois, based on an average yield of 191 bushels an acre. Soybeans would break even at $9.65 a bushel, based on yields of 54 bushels per acre.

As recently as 2004 farmer production cost for corn was $2.46 per bushel and the production cost for soybeans was $6.49 per bushel. That soy break-even price of almost $10 contrasts with November 2001 when soy sold for just $4.33 per bushel. Production costs are now more than double that price. Back in 2003 corn was around $2.10 to $2.35 per bushel. Corn production costs are almost double that price.

By Randall Parker 2008 July 23 10:36 PM  Energy Biomass
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2008 July 22 Tuesday
Lasers Boost Facial Collagen Production

Carbon dioxide lasers cause damage that boost collagen production to lessen wrinkles.

Carbon dioxide laser resurfacing appears to be an effective long-term treatment for facial wrinkles, according to a report in the July/August issue of Archives of Facial Plastic Surgery, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

The carbon dioxide laser vaporizes water molecules inside and outside of cells, causing thermal damage to the surrounding tissue, the authors write as background information in the article. In response to this insult, the skin produces more of the protein collagen, which fills in wrinkles. "In addition to structural changes, the healing process frequently leads to pigmentary [coloring] changes," the authors write. "These changes in skin pigmentation may be desirable, such as when patients wish to remove solar evidence of aging; however, changes in pigmentation after treatment can often be a troubling adverse effect."

In 15 to 20 years we are going to look back on the plastic surgery of today and marvel at how primitive it was. Okay, get this. You want more collagen because your collagen production has declined with age and your face looks older. So what do you do? Shoot lasers at your face to cause damage so that the facial cells produce lots of collagen in response to the chemical signals produced by the damage. You have to damage yourself to make yourself look younger. Seems pretty primitive to me.

Most of the side effects of the laser treatment go away within a couple of years.

P. Daniel Ward, M.D., M.S., and Shan R. Baker, M.D., of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, assessed 47 patients (42 women and five men, average age 52) who underwent carbon dioxide laser resurfacing on their entire face between 1996 and 2004.

Twenty-one patients (45 percent) had no complications following the procedure; of those who did, 14 (30 percent) had milia (small, white cysts) or acne; eight (17 percent) had hyperpigmentation (darkening of the skin); six (13 percent) had hypopigmentation (lightening of the skin); one (2 percent) developed an infection; and one (2 percent) developed sagging of the eyelids.

After an average of 2.3 years of follow-up, most of these complications had resolved. Patients' scores on a scale measuring facial wrinkles improved 45 percent, and were consistent over all areas of the face. "With the exception of one case of hyperpigmentation, which resolved within two years of treatment, hypopigmentation was the only long-term adverse effect," the authors write. "This complication was present in six patients (13 percent). The patients who developed hypopigmentation were more likely to have a greater response to treatment."

We need hormone, drug, gene therapy, or cell therapy treatment that will boost collagen production. Stem or gene therapy look most promising in the long run because they will reverse some of the aging and provide more youthful cells that can produce more collagen.

By Randall Parker 2008 July 22 11:36 PM  Biotech Skin Improvement
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2008 July 21 Monday
Car Trips Replaced By Online Shopping

Among the many ways people are adjusting to higher fuel costs: more online shopping.

“With gas being such an issue, we know that mall traffic is down more than off-mall traffic,” said Mike Boylson, chief marketing officer for J. C. Penney, which had an 8.7 percent increase in Internet sales in the first quarter of this year.

That is in contrast to a 7.4 percent decrease in sales at stores open at least a year, known as same-store sales and a measure of retail health. “We see more people turning to online because it’s much more efficient in terms of time and money,” Mr. Boylson said.

...

Victoria’s Secret, too, has had an online sales increase. Its catalog and Internet sales were up 11 percent in the first quarter of this year while same-store sales declined 8 percent, according to Maggie Taylor, vice president, senior credit officer at Moody’s Investors Service.

Gap had an 11 percent decline in same-store sales in the first quarter, but a 21 percent increase in online sales.

People go on some errands to places that require their physical presence such as a dentist's office. Those sorts of trips are harder to avoid. But grocery store trips are especially interesting when it comes to energy savings because those trips are just to retrieve bags of goods and everyone needs to retrieve those bags of goods from a fairly small number of grocery stores. Each person drives to the store to buy food and then drives back. Well, I see my nearby neighbors at the local grocery store. We are all going to the same place and starting at nearby places. I happen to walk. But inside of the local store I have met multiple neighbors who all drove. That's a lot of duplication. Add in the labor of a delivery person and one vehicle trip could carry pre-ordered groceries to many homes. But the labor costs and the loss of ability to choose exactly what you want by sight still make that a rarely used option.

Even if the price of gasoline quadruples people will have many ways to keep going to grocery stores. They can just shift to smaller cars, make fewer trips to buy more at once, and maybe share rides with neighbors. But in theory neighborhood delivery could make a come-back. After all, only a few decades ago milk delivery trucks were commonplace. Why not grocery delivery trucks?

Oil exporters and the rising Asian wealthy do not need to adjust and so they are splurging on private jets.

Even as high oil prices crimp airline orders for big passenger planes, business-jet sales are booming. Deliveries are expected to top 1,200 this year, the third consecutive record year for the industry, and most analysts predict the numbers will keep rising at least until 2010.

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Who is buying all those planes, which start at around $3 million and can run well over $40 million? Many customers come from the growing ranks of the ultra-rich in Asia, the Middle East, and Russia.

This trend won't continue even 10 years. In the early years of the post-peak oil period revenues from oil sales will rise even as production and exports decline. Rising prices will cancel out the effects of fewer barrels sold. But once the decline gets further along revenues from oil sales will plummet and so will the money available for oil sheikhs to cruise around in private jets. Still, the private jet market will boom for longer than the commercial jet market before following the commercial jet market downward.

By Randall Parker 2008 July 21 10:27 PM  Energy Lifestyle
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2008 July 20 Sunday
High HDL Cholesterol Linked To Slower Brain Aging

Boost your HDL cholesterol to slow the decay of your brain. See below where I tell you what to do about it.

Low levels of high-density lipoproteins (HDL) — the "good" cholesterol — in middle age may increase the risk of memory loss and lead to dementia later in life, researchers reported in Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology: Journal of the American Heart Association.

Observing 3,673 participants (26.8 percent women) from the Whitehall II study, researchers found that falling levels of HDL cholesterol were predictors of declining memory by age 60. Whitehall II, which began in 1985, is long-term health examination of more than 10,000 British civil servants working in London.

"Memory problems are key in the diagnosis of dementia," said Archana Singh-Manoux, Ph.D., lead author of the study and Senior Research Fellow with the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research (INSERM, France) and the University College London in England. "We found that a low level of HDL may be a risk factor for memory loss in late midlife. This suggests that low HDL cholesterol might also be a risk factor for dementia."

Memory loss in your 50s and 60s is something to avoid.

Their main findings are:

  • At age 55, participants with low HDL cholesterol showed a 27 percent increased risk of memory loss when compared to those with high HDL.
  • At age 60, participants with low HDL had a 53 percent increased risk of memory loss compared to the high HDL group.
  • During the five years between phases 5 and 7, study members with decreasing HDL had a 61 percent increased risk of decline in their ability to remember words versus those with high HDL.
  • Men and women did not differ significantly in the link between lipids and memory loss, so researchers combined data from both sexes for analysis.
  • Total cholesterol and triglycerides did not show a link with memory decline.
  • Using statin drugs to raise HDL and/or lower low-density lipoprotein (LDL or "bad" cholesterol) showed no association with memory loss.

HDL cholesterol, which at high levels decreases the risk of heart attacks, serves several vital biological functions. It helps clear excess cholesterol from the blood; assists nerve-cell synapses to mature; and helps control the formation of beta-amyloid, the major component of the protein plaques found in the brains of Alzheimer's patients. Dementia most often occurs in people 65 years or older, the fastest growing age group in the industrialized world.

Brain aging is a huge cost on society and to us individually. Imagine that we did not cognitively decay at all in our 50s and 60s and even into our 70s. We'd stay more productive at work and therefore our economic output would be much higher and we'd earn more in the latter years of our working careers. We could work longer and work would be easier. We'd live better and we'd get more enjoyment out of life. We also would not become a huge burden on others.

Okay, so what to do about this information? In 2005 some Johns Hopkins cardiology experts reviewed the literature on what raises HDL cholesterol and here are their recommendations. Almost all these factors are already known as heart healthy lifestyle and diet practices.

To raise HDL cholesterol levels, the researchers recommend a regular exercise program of brisk aerobic exercise for 30 minutes, several times per week, if not every day.

Quitting smoking, they point out, provides an average increase in HDL levels of 4 milligrams per deciliter. Aids such as drug therapy, nicotine replacement products and counseling can help patients quit.

Weight control is also highlighted as critical to raising HDL levels, with the researchers noting that every kilogram of weight lost raises a patient's HDL levels by an average 0.35 milligrams per deciliter. A reasonable weight loss goal, they suggest, for overweight or obese patients is 1 pound, or 0.45 kilograms, per week, with a target body mass index of less than 25.

Mild to moderate consumption of alcohol, no more than one to two drinks per day, they say, has been shown beneficial in raising HDL levels by an average of 4 milligrams per deciliter, irrespective of type of alcohol consumed. But the researchers caution that the potential risks here may outweigh the benefits in people with liver or addiction problems.

For dietary control, the researchers recommend a diet low in saturated fat and rich in the polyunsaturated fatty acids found in foods such as oils (olive, canola, soy and flaxseed), nuts (almonds, peanuts, walnuts and pecans), and cold-water fish (salmon and mackerel), and shellfish. Consumption of carbohydrates, they say, should be restricted because high glycemic products, such as processed cereals and breads, are associated with lower HDL levels.

In the report, the researchers cite niacin, also called nicotinic acid or vitamin B3, as the most effective medication for raising HDL cholesterol, leading to increases of 20 percent to 35 percent. Fibrate therapy is also effective, they say, producing an average increase of 10 percent to 25 percent. Statins are the least effective of the three drug classes, used primarily to reduce LDL cholesterol, raising HDL levels by 2 percent to 15 percent. When used in combination, low-dose statins and high-dose niacin have been shown to produce benefits of 21 percent to 26 percent.

In April 2008 a group of researchers at Yonsei University in Seoul South Korea found that daily kale juice boosts HDL 27%.

OBJECTIVE: To evaluate the effect of 3-month kale (Brassica oleracea acephala) juice supplementation on coronary artery disease risk factors among hypercholesterolemic men. METHODS: Thirty-two men with hypercholesterolemia (> 200 mg/dL) were recruited after annual health examinations among the faculty and staff at university. The subjects consumed 150 mL of kale juice per day for a 12-week intervention period. Dietary and anthropometric assessments were performed and blood samples were collected to evaluate biochemical profiles before and after supplementation. RESULTS: Serum concentrations of HDL-cholesterol, and HDL- to LDL-cholesterol ratio were significantly increased by 27% (P<0.0001) and 52% (P<0.0001), respectively.

I've read claims that a half onion per day might boost HDL. But I couldn't find good confirmation of this. Does anyone know about other foods with potent HDL-raising effects?

Fiber supplements raise HDL.

WASHINGTON, D.C., April 30 – Fiber supplements lower "bad" low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and increase "good" high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol in people with type 2 diabetes, according to a study presented at the American Heart Association's Sixth Annual Conference on Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology.

Pistachios probably help raise HDL too.

By Randall Parker 2008 July 20 07:23 PM  Aging Diet Brain Studies
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US First Half 2008 Oil Demand Down 3 Percent

Higher oil prices destroy demand and cause demand and supply to equal.

WASHINGTON – U.S. oil demand was significantly down for the first six months of 2008, API said today in its Monthly Statistical Report. While U.S. refiners churned out record and near-record amounts of oil products, imports – especially product imports -- fell substantially.

Deliveries of all oil products – a measure of demand – fell 3.0 percent compared with the same first-half-year period in 2007, with gasoline deliveries slipping 1.7 percent. For the preceding three years, oil demand had essentially held steady.

API statistics manager Ron Planting said, “At 20.08 million barrels per day, total demand was the lowest in five years. And the decline in gasoline demand was the first significant one recorded in 17 years. Higher pump prices and a slowing economy were undoubtedly factors.”

At 2.0 percent, the second-quarter decline in demand for gasoline was even greater than for the first six months. However, the 1.8 percent decline for all products for the last three months, compared with the same period a year ago, was less in part because of a 2.1 percent increase in demand for distillates, which includes diesel fuels and home heating oil.

That demand destruction is causing a decline in oil prices of late. But eventually rising Asian demand will replace US demand and oil prices will start going back up again. How high will oil prices have to go to cause Asian oil consumption to stop growing? We are going to find out.

US oil imports have declined all the way back to 2003 levels. Some day US imports will reverse back to 2000, 1990, 1980, and earlier. We are in an energy consumption time machine traveling back into history.

Overall U.S. oil imports, including crude oil and oil products, sank to their lowest first-half level since 2003, at less than 13 million barrels per day.

Overall U.S. oil imports, including crude oil and oil products, sank to their lowest first-half level since 2003, at less than 13 million barrels per day.

Check out this series of anecdotal responses to higher gasoline prices to see how Americans from different walks of life are adjusting to higher fuel prices. As time goes on the cumulative effects of many individual decisions will grow much larger. People will buy smaller hybrids, move closer to work, choose jobs closer to home, take home online courses, walk, bicycle, car pool, take buses, and adjust in large numbers of other ways.

Some argue that since Americans use so much oil per person they are least able to adjust to the coming decline in world oil production. But I would argue that the opposite is the case. People who use a lot of energy in optional ways (e.g. to push a lot of SUV weight around) can downshift to more efficient choices. By contrast, those who are already relatively energy frugal have fewer cards left to play.

Just how long we stay on the bumpy world oil production plateau will do the most to determine how much disruption we will encounter as a result of the coming oil production decline. The longer we stay on the plateau the more alternative energy technology will get developed and the more capital accumulation will happen that adapts us to the era of oil decline. Rising oil prices during the production plateau send powerful signals to markets to develop alternatives. Enough oil still gets produced on the plateau that capital markets function well and research and development teams can work on new tech.

Other important unknowns include the rates at which production will decline in old oil fields. Also, at each price point how will Asian economies respond? They have faster economic growth rates and therefore faster energy demand growth. To get their demand growth rate to zero will require larger price increases than will be the case for the US economy. US demand destruction is putting a ceiling on oil prices now. But a lot of the US demand destruction basically frees up oil for consumption in Asia. US demand destruction has to happen faster than Asian growth in order for oil prices to level out and decline.

By Randall Parker 2008 July 20 03:35 PM  Energy Fossil Fuels
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2008 July 19 Saturday
Underwater Volcanic Eruption Caused Mass Extinction?

One thing strikes me about the world's history of huge volcanic eruptions: Another one is probably inevitable. 93 million years ago a volcanic eruption might have caused a worldwide massive depletion of oceanic oxygen. All those fish that get oxygen from water would have died in massive numbers.

University of Alberta scientists contend they have the answer to mass extinction of animals and plants 93 million years ago. The answer, research has uncovered, has been found at the bottom of the sea floor where lava fountains erupted, altering the chemistry of the sea and possibly of the atmosphere.

Earth and Atmospheric Science researchers Steven Turgeon and Robert Creaser found specific isotope levels of the element osmium, an indicator of volcanism in seawater, in black shale—rocks containing high amounts of organic matter—drilled off the coast of South America and in the mountains of central Italy.

According to their research, the eruptions preceded the mass extinction by a geological blink of the eye. The event occurred within 23 thousand years and the underwater volcanic eruption had two consequences: first, nutrients were released, which allowed mass feeding and growth of plants and animals. When these organisms died, their decomposition and fall towards the sea floor caused further oxygen depletion, thereby compounding the effects of the volcanic eruption and release of clouds of carbon dioxide in to the oceans and atmosphere. The result was a global oceanic anoxic event, where the ocean is completely depleted of oxygen, Anoxic events—while extremely rare—occur in periods of very warm climate, which means that this research could not only help prove a mass-extinction theory, but also help scientists studying the effects of global warming.

If we manage to develop rejuvenation therapies and also to avoid extinction at the hands of robots and nano-goo then many of us will live to see massive volcanic eruptions. I'm thinking that perpetually youthful people who have thousands of years to prepare will want to build underground bunkers for the day when some big volcano on the scale of the Toba eruption (called VEI-8 events) finally goes off.

We won't get wiped out by an asteroid unless one comes in the next few decades. At some point in this century we should possess the technologies needed to detect and deflect any big asteroid. But volcanoes are much tougher. Will we ever possess technology needed to scale down the size of volcanic eruptions? Will we at least gain the capability to predict them in advance?

By Randall Parker 2008 July 19 12:32 AM  Dangers Natural Geological
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2008 July 17 Thursday
Gene Determines Benefit Of Eating Broccoli

Why does broccoli reduce the risk of prostate cancer and other disease? Does it deliver that risk reduction for everyone? Sulforaphane found in broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables causes a greater change in gene expression for those with a particular version of the gene GSTM1.

Epidemiological studies suggest that people who consume more than one portion of cruciferous vegetables per week are at lower risk of both the incidence of prostate cancer and of developing aggressive prostate cancer but there is little understanding of the underlying mechanisms. In this study, we quantify and interpret changes in global gene expression patterns in the human prostate gland before, during and after a 12 month broccoli-rich diet.

Methods and Findings

Volunteers were randomly assigned to either a broccoli-rich or a pea-rich diet. After six months there were no differences in gene expression between glutathione S-transferase mu 1 (GSTM1) positive and null individuals on the pea-rich diet but significant differences between GSTM1 genotypes on the broccoli-rich diet, associated with transforming growth factor beta 1 (TGFβ1) and epidermal growth factor (EGF) signalling pathways. Comparison of biopsies obtained pre and post intervention revealed more changes in gene expression occurred in individuals on a broccoli-rich diet than in those on a pea-rich diet. While there were changes in androgen signalling, regardless of diet, men on the broccoli diet had additional changes to mRNA processing, and TGFβ1, EGF and insulin signalling. We also provide evidence that sulforaphane (the isothiocyanate derived from 4-methylsuphinylbutyl glucosinolate that accumulates in broccoli) chemically interacts with TGFβ1, EGF and insulin peptides to form thioureas, and enhances TGFβ1/Smad-mediated transcription.

Conclusions

These findings suggest that consuming broccoli interacts with GSTM1 genotype to result in complex changes to signalling pathways associated with inflammation and carcinogenesis in the prostate. We propose that these changes may be mediated through the chemical interaction of isothiocyanates with signalling peptides in the plasma. This study provides, for the first time, experimental evidence obtained in humans to support observational studies that diets rich in cruciferous vegetables may reduce the risk of prostate cancer and other chronic disease.

If you have the right version of GSTM1 there is good news and there is bad news. The good news is that you can reduce your risk of prostate cancer and other diseases by eating broccoli. The bad news is that you really ought to be eating broccoli.

What would be a useful next step: determine how much consumption of cabbage (or other cruciferous vegetable less undesirable than broccoli) will cause as big a gene expression change as consuming broccoli.

This result illustrates the potential for nutritional genomics to guide personal dietary choices. People swear by different diets as delivering great benefits for them. Well, we are going to discover in the next several years to what extent there is no one ideal diet. Different people will end up having different ideal diets. Cheap DNA testing is going to allow us to find out individually what our best diet would be. There'll be upsides and downsides to knowing this. On one hand, you'll be able to avoid eating some types of food that you do not like that provide benefits for others but not for you. On the other hand, you'll discover that some foods you really do not like are great for you and some foods you do like are bad for you.

By Randall Parker 2008 July 17 10:52 PM  Nutrition Genomics
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2008 July 16 Wednesday
Low Fat Diets Worst For Weight Control

Diets with more fats and protein seem take off more fat than diets low in fat.

NEW YORK, July 14, 2008 – A two-year study led by researchers from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) reveals that low-carbohydrate and Mediterranean diets may be just as safe and effective in achieving weight loss as the standard, medically prescribed low-fat diet, according to a new study published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine.

The study was conducted by BGU and the Nuclear Research Center in Dimona, Israel, in collaboration with Harvard University, The University of Leipzig, Germany and the University of Western Ontario, Canada.

In the two-year study, 322 moderately obese people were intensively monitored and were randomly assigned one of three diets: a low-fat, calorie-restricted diet; a Mediterranean calorie-restricted diet with the highest level of dietary fiber and monounsaturated/saturated fat; or a low-carbohydrate diet with the least amount of carbohydrates, highest fat, protein, and dietary cholesterol. The low-carb dieters had no caloric intake restrictions.

Although participants actually decreased their total daily calories consumed by a similar amount, net weight loss from the low-fat diet after two years was only 6.5 lbs. (2.9 kg) compared to 10 lbs. (4.4 kg) on the Mediterranean diet, and 10.3 lbs. (4.7 kg) on the low-carbohydrate diet. "These weight reduction rates are comparable to results from physician-prescribed weight loss medications," explains Dr. Iris Shai, the lead researcher.

The Mediterranean diet has more fiber and probably a lower glycemic index than a typical low fat diet that does not take into consideration the types of carbos. When glucose enters the blood it causes insulin release to transport it out of the blood and into cells. How the body responds to that insulin and sugar probably helps to increase weight and push one's blood lipid profile in an unhealthy direction. Cutting carbohydrates does the most to improve blood lipids.

The low-fat diet reduced the total cholesterol to HDL ratio by only 12 percent, while the low-carbohydrate diet improved the same ratio by 20 percent. Lipids improved the most in the low-carbohydrate, with a 20% increase in the HDL ("good") cholesterol and, 14% decrease in triglycerides. In all three diets, inflammatory and liver function biomarkers was equally improved. However, among diabetic participants, the standard low-fat diet actually increased the fasting glucose levels by 12mg/dL, while the Mediterranean diet induced a decrease in fasting glucose levels by 33mg/dL.

Shift toward eating more monounsaturated fats (olive oil) and fish along with veggies and nuts. Cut back on the grains - especially the higher glycemic index refined grains. Check out this online searchable database on glycemic index of hundreds of foods.

One of the steps I've taken in the direction of a higher protein diet is to cook 20 lb turkeys and eat turkey every day. It is lower in fat than most red meats and lasts at least a couple of weeks afterward in a fridge kept just at the freezing point.

Update: Some are suspicious of this study because of where the funding came from.

The study was funded by a foundation established by Robert Atkins, of Atkins Diet fame. Though the Atkins Diet has a popular reputation as a meat-heavy, bacon-lover’s dream, those in the study who were assigned to the low-carb plan were counseled to favor vegetarian sources of fat and protein.

I think the study should be considered on its merits.

Dean Ornish says these results contradict the results of research he has done.

My colleagues and I at the nonprofit Preventive Medicine Research Institute and the University of California, San Francisco, have studied for more than three decades the effects of diets much lower in fat (10 percent) than the one used in NEJM study as well as lower in refined carbohydrates and higher in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and soy products.

We reported in a randomized, controlled clinical trial published in the Journal of the American Medical Association a 24-pound weight loss after one year and 13-pound average weight loss after five years in a group of men and women, much more than the 9.7 to 10.3 pounds lost in the new NEJM study.  These findings were replicated in larger demonstration projects as well.

Ornish makes the important point that some evidence links higher fat diets to prostate cancer. But at least one study found saturated fat was the source of risk for progression of prostate cancer. Ornish might be painting with too broad a brush and the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats might provide net benefits. One study found that polyunsaturated fats are not associated with increased risk of advanced prostate cancer.

While the Atkins Foundation funded this study and the low-carb were counseled to eat a lot of protein the participants were encouraged to eat plant protein rather than animal protein. Well, it is hard to eat a lot of plant protein.

But according to the report in The New England Journal of Medicine, the low-carb dieters in the study “were counseled to choose vegetarian sources of fat and protein.'’ Although saturated fat was not specifically restricted, the dieters were told that “moderation” was recommended.

So the dieters in this study ate less saturated fats and probably less protein than full-on Atkins dieters.

We know some foods are good. Eat lots of vegetables. That's the hardest advice of all for most to follow. Eat whole fruits. When you eat meat choose leaner meats. Eat fish. Eat beans and lower glycemic index rices rather than breads.

By Randall Parker 2008 July 16 10:13 PM  Aging Diet Weight Studies
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2008 July 15 Tuesday
How Flirtation Affects Steady Relationships

Some social science research provides evidence for expected truths. Other times it comes up with unintuitive results. Here's a piece of research that does both at the same time. If a good-looking guy has just flirted with your girlfriend she is more likely to forgive you for a bad thing you did?

Temptation may be everywhere, but it's how the different sexes react to flirtation that determines the effect it will have on their relationships. In a new study, psychologists determined men tend to look at their partners in a more negative light after meeting a single, attractive woman. On the other hand, women are likelier to work to strengthen their current relationships after meeting an available, attractive man.

I can understand the evolutionary origin of the male reaction. When he thinks he's got other options he's more likely to be less tolerant of perceived short-comings of his mate. But the female reaction is more puzzling. Anyone got a good evolutionary explanation for the origin of this behavior?

Men may not see their flirtations with an attractive woman as threatening to the relationship while women do, according to findings from a study in the July issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association. Researchers found that women protect their relationship more when an attractive man enters the picture but men look more negatively at their partner after they've met an available, attractive woman. Men can learn to resist temptation when trained to think that flirting with an attractive woman could destroy their relationship, said lead author John E. Lydon, PhD, of McGill University in Montreal.

Researchers conducted seven laboratory experiments using 724 heterosexual men and women to see how college-aged men and women in serious relationships react when another attractive person enters the mix.

Maybe the woman is more afraid of getting dumped by her guy if she flirts and therefore she tries harder to strengthen the relationship to compensate for the potential damage done?

In one study, 71 unsuspecting male participants were individually introduced to an attractive woman. Roughly half the men met a "single" woman who flirted with them. The other half met an "unavailable" woman, who simply ignored them.

Immediately after this interaction, the men filled out a questionnaire in which they were asked how they would react if their "romantic partner" had done something that irritated them, such as lying about the reason for canceling a date or revealing an embarrassing tidbit about them. Men who met the attractive "available" woman were 12 percent less likely to forgive their significant others. In contrast, 58 women were put in a similar situation. These women, who met an "available" good-looking man, were 17.5 percent more likely to forgive their partners' bad behavior.

Do these results make sense to you?

By Randall Parker 2008 July 15 11:03 PM  Brain Sexuality
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Frozen Embryos Produce Healthy Babies

Over 1200 children born in Denmark from frozen embryos experienced longer pregnancies, higher birth weights, and no obvious signs of more congenital malformations.

Barcelona, Spain: Children born after a frozen, thawed embryo has been replaced in the womb have higher birth weight than those born where fresh embryos were used, Danish scientists reported to the 24th annual conference of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology today (Tuesday 8 July). The mothers had longer pregnancies, and the children did not show an increased risk of congenital malformations, said Dr. Anja Pinborg, from the Copenhagen University Hospital Rigshospitalet, Copenhagen, Denmark.

One possible explanation: freezing of the embryos somehow changes the epigenetic state of the embryos in a way that stimulates growth. I think that explanation unlikely though. The fact that the pregnancies from frozen embryos lasted longer explains at least part of the higher birth weights. But why the longer pregnancies?

The scientists studied all the 1267 children born in Denmark between 1995 and 2006 after frozen embryo replacement (FER). The children were divided into three groups; those born after cryo-preserved IVF (878), those born after cryo-preserved ICSI (310), and 79 where the method of creation of the embryos was unknown. During the same period 17857 children were born after IVF/ICSI treatment using fresh embryos, and these children were used as controls. Data on the children's outcomes, including congenital malformations, were obtained from Danish national registries.

The fact that freezing reduces the need for women to undergo additional hormonal therapies to produce more eggs suggests some other explanations. First off, a woman who receives a thawed embryo is further past the time when her body received the egg release stimulating hormones. That might make a difference in her metabolism where her body starts out the pregnancy in a less stressed out state. Maybe that allows the pregnancy to go longer.

Freezing embryos allows couples to have several cycles of IVF/ICSI from the same egg collection. The embryos are subsequently thawed and replaced three to five days after ovulation in exactly the same way as fresh embryos are used. The technique helps to reduce the number of times ovaries are stimulated and eggs collected.

The fact that the ovaries get stimulated in later attempts with the no-freeze approach might mean that the eggs from the later cycles are more tired. The eggs from the first cycle might be healthier. Again, I'm speculating.

The scientists found similar rates of multiple pregnancies in the FER groups (ICSI 11.7% and IVF 14.2%), but in the fresh embryo groups the rates were considerably higher (ICSI 24.8% and IVF 27.3%). Maternal age was significantly higher in the FER group. Pregnancy duration was significantly longer for these mothers, and birth weight was also higher – about 200 grams – in the FER group. The proportion of low birth weight FER children significantly lower, as was the percentage of pre-term births.

The frozen embryo replacement (FER) group had fewer neonatal ICU admissions.

"Additionally there were significantly fewer children admitted to a neonatal intensive care unit in the FER group," said Dr. Pinborg, "although, when limited to single births, this difference disappeared. Most encouragingly, we found no increased risk of congenital malformations in the FER group; the rate in this group was 7.1% compared to 8.8% where fresh embryos had been used."

When cheap DNA testing technologies can tell us many things about the genetic characteristics of each embryo the motivation for using frozen embryos will go down. Most prospective parents will compare the genetic profiles of a dozen embryos and decide they want one or two of them way more than the rest of them. They might still freeze the embryos not implanted on the first attempt. But if the first embryo implantation attempt does not lead to a pregnancy they'll be motivated to try to create some new embryos in hopes of getting genetic profiles more to their liking.

Frozen eggs strike me as more interesting than frozen embryos. If frozen eggs can be stored for long periods without complications their storage could become popular. A woman in late her teens will be able to freeze young eggs years before she meets Mr. Right. Then in her 30s those frozen eggs will serve as an insurance policy in case the eggs remaining in her ovaries get too old.

Frozen eggs might create a much bigger impact on future human evolution than frozen embryos because the ability to freeze eggs could create a much bigger egg donor market. Egg customers will no longer be limited to only those eggs from women willing to sell at a given moment. Similarly, sellers will be able to bank some eggs and wait for customers to come along who are willing to meet their price. A seller could bank some eggs into a repository freezer when it is convenient. A college student woman won't need to turn down a prospective customer just because it is mid-terms or finals time. Harvest the eggs after finals and they'll be available for sale for months and years to come.

As DNA testing results become more powerful egg donors with sought after genetic profiles will find that banking lots of frozen eggs very profitable. I expect top egg donor prices to rise from the current tens of thousands of dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Women with the right looks, intelligence, personality, and low health risks will be able to sell egg for much more when their genetic profiles show they offer much higher odds for giving prospects parents what they want in their children.

By Randall Parker 2008 July 15 10:27 PM  Biotech Reproduction
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2008 July 14 Monday
Report Sees Big Losses In Forest Land

Add billions more people to the planet. Plus, let economic growth increase the buying power of those already here. What you get? Massive forest destruction.

LONDON (14 July 2008) -- Escalating global demand for fuel, food and wood fibre will destroy the world's forests, if efforts to address climate change and poverty fail to empower the billion-plus forest-dependent poor, according to two reports released today by the U.S.-based Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), an international coalition comprising the world's foremost organisations on forest governance and conservation.

The studies were delivered today at an event in the House of Commons hosted by Martin Horwood, MP for Cheltenham. Sponsored by RRI and the UK-based Forest Peoples Programme, speakers included Gareth Thomas, the UK Minister for Trade and Development; authors of the two reports; as well as advocates for forest communities in Africa and Asia.

According to the findings released today in RRI's comprehensive study, Seeing People through the Trees: Scaling Up Efforts to Advance Rights and Address Poverty, Conflict and Climate Change, the world will need a minimum of 515 million more hectares by 2030, in order to grow food, bioenergy, and wood products. This is almost twice the amount of land that will be available, equal to a land mass 12 times the size of Germany.

At the same time, a second RRI study, From Exclusion to Ownership? Challenges and Opportunities in Advancing Forest Tenure Reform, finds that developing country governments still claim an overwhelming majority of forests and have made limited progress in recognizing local land rights, leaving open the potential for great violence, as some of the world's poorest peoples struggle to hold on to their only asset—millions of hectares of the world's most valuable and vulnerable forestlands.

The studies also report a sharp increase in government allocations of forests to industrial plantations, and suggest that the booming growth in demand for food and fuel is rapidly eating up vast forestlands in the Amazon and Southeast Asia.

They foresee big increases in the amount of land under cultivation. More land for humans means less land for wild critters. How about humans make fewer babies and leave more room for the critters?

  • In Brazil, 28 Mha are currently under cultivation for soy and sugarcane. By 2020, soy and sugarcane plantations are expected to cover 88 to 128 Mha of Brazilian land.
  • In Indonesia, 6.5 Mha of land are dedicated to oil palm plantations. By 2025, oil palm plantations are projected to require 16.5 to 26 Mha of land.
  • In China, biofuel cultivation alone is expected to require an additional 13.3 Mha of land by 2020.

Peak Oil is going to make this problem worse as the demand for biomass energy soars. Also, high fertilizer costs will limit yield per area of land and therefore lead to more land getting put under cultivation.

By Randall Parker 2008 July 14 10:33 PM  Trends Habitat Loss
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2008 July 13 Sunday
Children Show Empathy On Brain Scans

University of Chicago researchers find that while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans children 7 to 12 show similar patterns of brain activity to adults when watching animated videos of people experiencing pain.

The programming for empathy is something that is "hard-wired" into the brains of normal children, and not entirely the product of parental guidance or other nurturing, said Decety. Understanding the brain's role in responding to pain can help researchers understand how brain impairments influence anti-social behavior, such as bullying, he explained.

For their research, the team showed 17 typically developed children, ages seven to 12, animated photos of people experiencing pain, either received accidentally or inflicted intentionally. The group included nine girls and eight boys.

While undergoing fMRI scans, children where shown animations using three photographs of two people whose right hands or right feet only were visible.

The photographs showed people in pain accidently caused, such as when a heavy bowl was dropped on their hands, and situations in which the people were hurt, such as when a person stepped intentionally on someone's foot. They were also shown pictures without pain and animations in which people helped someone alleviate pain.

The scans showed that the parts of the brain activated when adults see pain were also triggered in children.

"Consistent with previous functional MRI studies of pain empathy with adults, the perception of other people in pain in children was associated with increased hemodymamic activity in the neural circuits involved in the processing of first-hand experience of pain, including the insula, somatosensory cortex, anterior midcigulate cortex, periaqueductal gray and supplementary motor area," Decety wrote.

However, when the children saw animations of someone intentionally hurt, the regions of the brain engaged in social interaction and moral reasoning (the temporo-parietal junction, the paracigulate, orital medial frontal cortices and amygdala) also were activated.

Suppose this sort of scanning was carried out with a much larger group of children. Would some small fraction of them show deficiencies in their reaction to seeing others suffer pain?

What I'd like to see: Do brain scans on a few hundred children to measure their empathy and other forms of reaction and then follow the children as they grow up and enter adulthood. Can future psychopaths or criminals be identified via brain scans?

By Randall Parker 2008 July 13 10:49 PM  Brain Ethics Law
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Electric Trucks Cheaper In Port Of Los Angeles

The ports around LA have been under regulatory pressure to pollute less. They use a lot of older diesel tractor trucks that are especially polluting because those trucks aren't considered reliable enough for long range driving but are still reliable enough for shorter trips within the ports and to nearby warehouses. Well, custom electric trucks built for the Port of Los Angeles cut pollution and lower fuel costs at the same time.

The electric truck, which takes about three hours to charge, has a range of about 30 miles while pulling a 60,000-pound cargo container, and about 60 miles empty. Although that distance may not sound useful, much of freight hauling within the port complex is from terminals to nearby train yards.

It costs about 20 cents a mile to operate, or about four to nine times less than a diesel truck, depending on fluctuating fuel costs and operating conditions.

I do not find these results surprising. Electric vehicles lack range. But in applications where only short range is needed but where the vehicles are used heavily the cost per mile for the electric power is less than that of liquid hydrocarbons by a pretty substantial multiple.

What I wonder: How long does it take to run down the batteries on these trucks? The frequency and length of time needed to recharge reduces the number of hours per day available to operate the trucks.

I expect we will see the vehicle fuel market fragment with many more vehicles powered by batteries and natural gas than is currently the case. Fuel costs rise as we go from electricity to natural gas to diesel to gasoline. That slope is getting steeper from electricity to the other power sources. But the cost advantage of diesel over gasoline has shrunk some and it is not clear to me whether it will shrink further. You can track the trends in diesel versus gasoline prices here.

Of course, fuel cost is not the only cost in vehicle operation. Battery costs are still a big obstacle in the way of wider spread use of pure electric and pluggable hybrid electric vehicles. How fast battery costs fall will determine in very large part how easily we can adjust to the coming decline in world oil production. Battery technology is more important than wind or solar or nuclear technologies. Though the combination of wind, solar, and nuclear technologies matter more than battery technology.

By Randall Parker 2008 July 13 12:44 PM  Energy Electric Cars
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2008 July 12 Saturday
Saudi Arabia Will Not Achieve Oil Production Goal

Will Saudi Arabia manage to raise their production to 12.5 million barrels per day? BusinessWeek has a reliable source that says the Saudis can not ramp up their production nearly as much as they claim they will.

But the detailed document, obtained from a person with access to Saudi oil officials, suggests that Saudi Aramco will be limited to sustained production of just 12 million barrels a day in 2010, and will be able to maintain that volume only for short, temporary periods such as emergencies. Then it will scale back to a sustainable production level of about 10.4 million barrels a day, according to the data. BusinessWeek obtained a field-by-field breakdown of estimated Saudi oil production from 2009 through 2013. It was provided by an oil industry executive who said he had confirmed it with a ranking Saudi energy official who has access to the field data. The executive, who has proven reliable over several years of reporting interaction, provided the data on condition of anonymity to protect his access to the kingdom and the identity of the inside contact who confirmed the information.

Among those who dismiss Peak Oil fears oil reserves in Saudi Arabia were supposed to provide so much increased production that world oil consumption could continue to rise along with economic growth and increasing demand. But the great Saudi hope is a dud.

Meanwhile some other major oil producers are in decline.

Mexico's average crude exports plummeted 17.3% to 1.46 million barrels a day during the first five months of the year compared to the year-ago period, contributing to record oil prices.

In spite of record high oil prices and a big push to drill in the United States oil production in the US declined in May and June of 2008. The surge in oil prices over the last few years caused a temporary halt and small reversal of the long term declining trend of oil extraction in the US. Is that long term trend now going to resume?

My advice: make lifestyle and career adjustments to reduce your dependence on oil before rising oil prices force you to make changes. It is easier to make changes from a position of relative strength than from a position of relative weakness. If you are going to move then consider moving closer to work. When buying a car go for more fuel efficiency. For some types of occupations telecommuting might be a possibility. Organize a car pool or ride a bicycle or take a bus..

By Randall Parker 2008 July 12 11:18 PM  Energy Fossil Fuels
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2008 July 10 Thursday
Genes Control Embryonic Stem Cell State

The identification of genes that keep embryonic stem cells in the embryonic state will help in the development of ways to make stem cells become more or less embryonic.

Scientists have identified about two dozen genes that control embryonic stem cell fate. The genes may either prod or restrain stem cells from drifting into a kind of limbo, they suspect. The limbo lies between the embryonic stage and fully differentiated, or specialized, cells, such as bone, muscle or fat.

By knowing the genes and proteins that control a cell's progress toward the differentiated form, researchers may be able to accelerate the process – a potential boon for the use of stem cells in therapy or the study of some degenerative diseases, the scientists say.

Their finding comes from the first large-scale search for genes crucial to embryonic stem cells. The research was carried out by a team at the University of California, San Francisco and is reported in a paper in the July 11, 2008 issue of "Cell."

This understanding will lead scientists to eventually be able to turn adult cells into embryonic stem cells. This will also lead to techniques to instruct embryonic stem cells to become more differentiated (specialized). So if kidney tissue is needed it will become possible to instruct the stem cells to become kidney cells. Ditto other cell types as needed.

By Randall Parker 2008 July 10 11:17 PM  Biotech Stem Cells
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Adult Stem Cells Treat Muscular Dystrophy In Mice

Mice see themselves as more important than humans because we always develop cures for mice first.

By injecting purified stem cells isolated from adult skeletal muscle, researchers have shown they can restore healthy muscle and improve muscle function in mice with a form of muscular dystrophy. Those muscle-building stem cells were derived from a larger pool of so-called satellite cells that normally associate with mature muscle fibers and play a role in muscle growth and repair.

In addition to their contributions to mature muscle, the injected cells also replenished the pool of regenerative cells normally found in muscle. Those stem cells allowed the treated muscle to undergo subsequent rounds of injury repair, they found.

"Our work shows proof-of-concept that purified muscle stem cells can be used in therapy," said Amy Wagers of Harvard University, noting that in some cases the stem cells replaced more than 90 percent of the muscle fibers. Such an advance would require isolation of stem cells equivalent to those in the mouse from human muscle, something Wagers said her team is now working on.

Suppose this team manages to isolate muscle stem cells from human muscles and manages to get to replicate outside of the body. Add in a gene therapy to fix a mutation that causes muscular dystropy and it should be possible to inject these stem cells back into muscles and cause a gradual improvement in symptoms.

What I'd really like to see: Apply this approach to old folks who have old shriveled muscles. Imagine the development of a technique to separate the stem cells that have the most DNA damage from those stem cells that are still in good shape. Then grow up the stem cells that are still fairly young and inject them back into a person. The result might be a partial rejuvenation of aged muscles.

By Randall Parker 2008 July 10 11:14 PM  Biotech Stem Cells
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2008 July 09 Wednesday
Nanoparticle Smart Bombs Against Metastatic Cancer

Nanoparticles with affinity for tumor blood vessels deliver much more focused and less toxic doses of cancer chemotherapy.

A new treatment strategy using molecular “smart bombs” to target metastasis with anti-cancer drugs leads to good results using significantly lower doses of toxic chemotherapy, with less collateral damage to surrounding tissue, according to a collaborative team of researchers at the University of California, San Diego.  By designing a “nanoparticle” drug delivery system, the UC San Diego team, led by Moores UCSD Cancer Center Director of Translational Research David Cheresh, Ph.D., has identified a way to target chemotherapy to achieve a profound impact on metastasis in pancreatic and kidney cancer in mice.

In a study to be published online the week of July 7 in advance of publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Cheresh, professor and vice chair of pathology, and members of his team report that the nanoparticle carrying a payload of chemotherapy homes in on a protein marker called integrin ανβ3 – found on the surface of certain tumor blood vessels where it is associated with development of new blood vessels and malignant tumor growth.

The team found that the nanoparticle/drug combination didn't have much impact on primary tumors, but stopped pancreatic and kidney cancers from metastasizing throughout the bodies of mice. They showed that a greatly reduced dosage of chemotherapy can achieve the desired effect because the drug selectively targets the specific blood vessels that feed the cancerous lesion and kills the lesion without destroying surrounding tissue.  The destruction of healthy tissue is a side-effect when chemotherapy is administered systemically, flooding the body with cancer-killing toxins.

“We were able to establish the desired anti-cancer effect while delivering the drug at levels 15 times below what is needed when the drug is used systemically,” said Cheresh.  “Even more interesting is that the metastatic lesions were more sensitive to this therapy than the primary tumor.”

The problem with cancer cells is that they look too much like regular cells. We need much fancier nanoparticles that can enter cells and do complex checks to determine which cells are cancer cells. When a positive match is made for a cancer cell only then should chemotherapy molecules be released into a cell. I expect we'll get to that level of sophistication in the 2010s .

By Randall Parker 2008 July 09 11:26 PM  Biotech Cancer
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Electric Price Growth Rate Rises In US

While electricity is much less sensitive than gasoline to rises in oil prices the inflationary environment for energy extends to electric power as well.

Prices.  Within the past few weeks, a number of utilities have requested permission from State regulators to raise electricity rates in response to rapidly increasing delivered fuel costs for power generation.  It is likely that most other utilities will soon need to pass through these increased costs to retail customers as well.  As a result, the forecast for growth in electricity prices is significantly higher than it was in last month’s OutlookAverage U.S. residential electricity prices are expected to increase by 5.2 percent in 2008 and by 9.8 percent in 2009 (U.S. Residential Electricity Prices).

In spite of this projected rise in prices for electricity we are in a long term trend of shifting more and more applications to run off of electric power. For example, in many parts of the United States electric power is now cheaper than heating oil for heating a house or other building. Also, the auto industry sees rechargeable electric cars as a way to escape from higher gasoline and diesel costs.

Wind turbines, concentrated solar power, and solar photovoltaics all place ceilings on electricity prices. So higher priced natural gas and coal can not cause even a doubling of US electric prices before massive substitution with wind and solar sources of electricity would take place.

By Randall Parker 2008 July 09 11:22 PM  Energy Electric Generators
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Diet Matters For Brain Performance

A review of recent research work on the brain and nutrition finds food choices impact how well your brain functions.

In addition to helping protect us from heart disease and cancer, a balanced diet and regular exercise can also protect the brain and ward off mental disorders.
 
"Food is like a pharmaceutical compound that affects the brain," said Fernando Gómez-Pinilla, a UCLA professor of neurosurgery and physiological science who has spent years studying the effects of food, exercise and sleep on the brain. "Diet, exercise and sleep have the potential to alter our brain health and mental function. This raises the exciting possibility that changes in diet are a viable strategy for enhancing cognitive abilities, protecting the brain from damage and counteracting the effects of aging."
 
Gómez-Pinilla analyzed more than 160 studies about food's affect on the brain; the results of his analysis appear in the July issue of the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience and are available online at www.nature.com/nrn/journal/v9/n7/abs/nrn2421.html.
 
Omega-3 fatty acids — found in salmon, walnuts and kiwi fruit — provide many benefits, including improving learning and memory and helping to fight against such mental disorders as depression and mood disorders, schizophrenia, and dementia, said Gómez-Pinilla, a member of UCLA's Brain Research Institute and Brain Injury Research Center.

Click through and read more details. It is all pretty predictable. Fish, vegetables, and other foods generally regarded as health are good for your brain. Junk food reduces brain performance.

In contrast to the healthy effects of diets that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, diets high in trans fats and saturated fats adversely affect cognition, studies indicate.

Junk food and fast food negatively affect the brain's synapses, said Gómez-Pinilla, who eats fast food less often since conducting this research. Brain synapses and several molecules related to learning and memory are adversely affected by unhealthy diets, he said.

Emerging research indicates that the effects of diet on the brain, combined with the effects of exercise and a good night's sleep, can strengthen synapses and provide other cognitive benefits, he added.

If you can't bring yourself to change your diet in order to reduce your cancer or heart risk 20, 30, 40 years from now how about improving your diet in order to boost your brain performance now?

By Randall Parker 2008 July 09 10:58 PM  Brain Nutrition
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2008 July 08 Tuesday
Potassium Cuts Heart Risks

A diet high in vegetables will raise your potassium intake and cut your risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke. It'll probably reduce your risk of dementia too.

Nashville, Tenn. – July 7, 2008 – A new article indicates that an increased intake in minerals such as potassium, and possibly magnesium and calcium by dietary means may reduce the risk of high blood pressure and decrease blood pressure in people with hypertension. A high intake of these minerals in the diet may also reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke. These findings are published in a supplement appearing with the July issue of The Journal of Clinical Hypertension.

Potassium, specifically, has been hypothesized as one reason for the low cardiovascular disease rates in vegetarians, as well as in populations consuming primitive diets (generous in potassium and low in sodium). In isolated societies consuming diets high in fruits and vegetables, hypertension affects only 1 percent of the population, whereas in industrialized countries which consume diets high in processed foods and large amounts of dietary sodium, 1 in 3 persons have hypertension. Americans consume double the sodium and about half of the potassium that is recommended by current guidelines.

According to the paper, if Americans were able to increase their potassium intake, the number of adults with known hypertension with blood pressure levels higher than 140/90 mm Hg might decrease by more than 10 percent and increase life expectancy. Similar studies show that diets high in magnesium (at least 500 to 1,000 mg/d) and calcium (more than 800 mg/d) may also be associated with both a decrease in blood pressure and risk of developing hypertension. Data regarding these minerals, however, are not definitive.

"If we were to achieve the correct potassium/sodium ratio through dietary means, there would be less hypertension and cardiovascular disease in the population as a whole," says Mark C. Houston, M.D., author of the study.

Lots of different lines of research keep converging on more vegetables, more fruits, more nuts, more fish, and more beans and legumes. Displace red meat and grains with these foods and you'll live longer and feel better.

Have a look: Dietary sources of potassium.

By Randall Parker 2008 July 08 10:46 PM  Aging Diet Heart Studies
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T. Boone Pickens: Wind For Electricity And Natural Gas For Cars

Texas oil billionaire T. Boone Pickens proposes to use wind power to replace natural gas for electric generation and then use the natural gas to replace oil in cars.

A 2005 Stanford University study found that there is enough wind power worldwide to satisfy global demand 7 times over — even if only 20% of wind power could be captured.

Building wind facilities in the corridor that stretches from the Texas panhandle to North Dakota could produce 20% of the electricity for the United States at a cost of $1 trillion. It would take another $200 billion to build the capacity to transmit that energy to cities and towns.

That's a lot of money, but it's a one-time cost. And compared to the $700 billion we spend on foreign oil every year, it's a bargain.

Natural gas vehicles are less convenient (shorter range and less trunk space) than regular cars. But the fuel costs are substantially lower. You could implement part of Boone's plan by getting a natural gas powered car.

Boone is already putting his money ($2 billion through Mesa Power with a potential total cost of $12 billion by 2014) where his mouth is with a gigantic wind farm project in Texas. However, the US government is also contributing through a tax credit per kwh produced.

When a large wind power facility was built outside of town, Sweetwater experienced a revival. New economic opportunity brought the town back to life and the population has grown back up to 12,000.

In the Texas panhandle, just north of Sweetwater, is the town of Pampa, where T. Boone Pickens' Mesa Power is currently building the largest wind farm in the world.

At 4,000 megawatts — the equivalent combined output of four large coal-fire plants — the production of the completed Pampa facility will double the wind energy output of the United States.

If all of the natural gas used in electric generation was shifted to powering cars US oil imports would drop by more than a third. This would reduce the huge US trade deficit and partially shield the US economy from rising oil costs.

We currently use natural gas to produce 22% of our electricity. Harnessing the power of wind to generate electricity will give us the flexibility to shift natural gas away from electricity generation and put it to use as a transportation fuel — reducing our dependence on foreign oil by more than one-third.

How much sense this makes depends on where you think oil prices and oil supplies are going. I think we are within a few years of world Peak Oil. So I see a lot of merit to Boone's proposal.

On the Wall Street Journal's Environmental Capital blog Keith Johnson points to a claim that the lack of sufficient quantities of long distance electric power transmission lines serve as the biggest obstacle to much larger growth of wind power farms.

The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources tackled the transmission problem—that is, how to get electricity from the remote places it’s usually generated to the built-up places it’s used. The U.S. Department of Energy last month said lack of transmission is the biggest obstacle to making wind power a major source of electricity in the U.S.

The transmission lines are needed for two reasons. First off, each area has uneven amounts of wind. Distant areas tend not to have slow wind periods at the same time. So long distance transmission lines with sufficiently fancy switching mechanisms could keep the power flowing from wherever it is blowing hardest to the areas where the wind is weak. Plus, the US southeast as generally weak winds - except offshore where deep water wind tower costs mean much higher wind electric costs. So the US southeast would need lots of transmission lines flowing in from the plains states which have the most wind in the lower 48 states.

In the comments of Johnson's post Michael Goggin of the American Wind Energy Association says that the current regulatory structure serves as a disincentive against the construction of sufficient transmission lines.

Rather, the problem is getting the correct policies in place so that these benefits are properly internalized by the firm making the transmission investment decision. The benefits of transmission investment tend to accrue to consumers spread over large multi-state regions, but currently these out-of-state benefits are largely ignored because most transmission planning and cost allocation decisions are made at the state level. Once the federal and state governments are able to work together to implement regional transmission planning and cost allocation policies that fully account for the societal benefits of new transmission, investors will happily step up to pay for the new lines.

I suspect that Boone's biggest motivation in setting up an organization to promote his proposal is to work for policy changes in the US Congress that will change the regulatory environment to one where the capital markets will supply the large sums of money needed to build up electric transmission infrastructure that will enable huge growth of wind power.

A couple of weeks ago I was digging up information about natural gas vehicles for a high mileage friend. Looking at a map of Compressed Natural Gas refueling station prices in the United States (scroll around in it) I was amazed that the price in Utah is about a third to a quarter of the cost in California. Oklahoma also has very low natural gas prices. If you live in Utah or Oklahoma and have long commutes then take a hard look at natural gas vehicles. Honda sells the Civic CNG. But I've come across claims of several month long waiting lists. Another alternative: CNG Conversion is available for the 2008 Ford Focus and several other models.

Boone's plan isn't going to work unless a lot of people decide on their own that a natural gas vehicle makes economic sense. When I look at the CNG price map and see how cheap CNG is in Utah and Oklahoma I think that CNG vehicles ought to take off in these states in order for CNG to have a chance at the national level. Maybe we've just needed the really high cost of gasoline to make CNG viable. Time will tell.

Update: I question the extent to which wind power can displace natural gas electric power. First off, natural gas gets used a lot for peaking power. Natural gas turbines can get spun up pretty quickly to respond to spikes in electric demand. Well, wind power certainly can't do that. Second, all those existing natural gas power plant operators are going to argue that Congress (i.e. taxpayers) should not subsidize construction of a big electric transmission line system or the installation of natural gas refilling stations. Still, if the Pickens Plan just shines more light on CNG vehicles it will probably give a big boost to CNG vehicle sales - especially in parts of the United States (and southern Canada) where natural gas is cheap.

Update II: I think the move toward CNG cars should come before a big build-up of electric transmission lines. Natural gas is already substantially cheaper than gasoline for powering cars. If this is going to work it ought to be possible to ramp up CNG cars now given some incentives for the shift.

Update III: Pickens wants some government incentives for the move to CNG cars. He argues the needed incentives are small compared to some of the incentives going into other forms of energy.

Washington, Pickens adds, can encourage the move to natural-gas-powered vehicles by providing modest economic incentives for fuel retailers to invest in CNG pumps at their stations, for automakers to build CNG-powered cars and for individuals to convert their existing vehicles to CNG use. And it should continue to provide tax incentives for another 10 years to encourage wind energy's rapid development as part of an overall plan to wean the nation from foreign oil, he says.

"It certainly would be cheaper than what they're doing already for nuclear," Pickens adds. But he's also in favor of developing more nuclear energy, and every form of alternative energy to reduce oil imports. "Try everything. Do everything. Nuclear. Biomass. Coal. Solar. You name it. I support them all," he says. "But there's only one energy source that can dramatically reduce the amount of oil we have to import each year, and that's (natural) gas."

A large electric transmission system combined with dynamic pricing would allow wind to provide a much larger portion of all electric power. This would come at the expense of both natural gas and coal electric. But then more natural gas and coal would be available for transportation. Plus, more coal would be available for export to help pay for the import of oil.

By Randall Parker 2008 July 08 08:22 PM  Energy Wind
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2008 July 07 Monday
High Heating Oil Prices Signal Need For Migration

The poorer folks in New Hampshire are worrying over how they'll keep warm in the next winter. Modest proposal: move to dwellings which cost less to heat.

With the average price of heating oil at $4.53 a gallon, and the average use in New Hampshire about 800 gallons of oil each winter, a pre-buy contract can cost as much as $4,000.

The price of heating oil could hit $5 or more this winter. Poor folks in cold states won't be able to afford it. Agencies that provide tax-funded heating oil aid will get far more applications while at the same time existing claimants will want more money to pay for the higher prices. Some people are going to get really cold.

State officials don't know how much money they will receive for fuel assistance next year, but Lovett said the office is working with the governor and the state's congressional delegation to secure more money than last year. She said the program will definitely need it just to provide a benefit with the same buying power, but she couldn't say how much more her office might need.

Scothorne hopes legislators in Washington will allocate enough to make a difference, she said. If not, the outcome could be devastating. If you think prices are going up then start making the moves you would make once prices hit $5, $6 per gallon.

"I'm concerned about people dying," she said. "I'm concerned about them turning down the heat so low that things are going to freeze. I'm afraid they're going to light candles. I'm afraid that they're going to use inappropriately vented space heaters, propane. Those are my fears because they're just not going to have the money. Even with assistance, they're not going to have the money."

What the politicians and government workers are not mentioning: Some people are going to have to move. The sooner the better. The situation for them is already untenable. Some could move to apartment buildings where each apartment shares lots of common walls with other apartments and therefore is much cheaper to heat. Others are going to have to move to more moderate climates.

The heating aid agencies ought to start evaluating poor people to decide who should be offered help to move. Retreat from big old houses into apartments. Or convert the big old houses into apartment buildings so that more people share the heating bill. Four times as many occupants is like cutting the price of oil to $1.25 a gallon.

Some people are switching to alternatives. In Massachusetts wood pellet sales have already surged this summer in preparation for the winter.

In the past, summer sales of alternative heat sources tended to be slow. But this year is different, said dealers interviewed for this article

"We've seen a significant increase in sales of pellets this year — more than a 100 percent sales increase from this time last year," said Bart Raser, owner of Carr Hardware & Supply, based in Pittsfield.

Today, there are over 80 pellet mills across North America that produce in excess of 1.1 million tons of fuel per year, according to a Pellet Fuels Institute study. The same study showed that from 1998 to 2004, the U.S. pellet appliance shipments increased by 33,000 units.

The Governor of Maine wants to encourage the shift toward wood heating. That's an improvement over trying to help people stick with oil.

AUGUSTA (July 2, 2008): Facing a winter where home heating oil likely will be $4.50 or more a gallon, a task force created by the governor believes the public is ready to start making the switch back to the state’s most plentiful homegrown resource – wood.

The goal is to convert 10 percent of home oil-based heating systems to wood in five years, using pellet or wood chip technology, according to a draft report released by Gov. John Baldacci’s Wood-to-Energy Task Force.

The Governor might come out with a bond proposal to finance wood furnaces for schools. I wonder how the economics of that move compares with ground sink heat pumps.

Wood prices are up and wood stoves are backordered like Priuses.

Semi-seasoned wood now sells for $328 a cord, up from about $220 last summer.

While Yankee Fireplace & Grill City in Middleton would normally sell plenty of grills around the Fourth of July, customers are instead getting ready for winter.

Wood "pellet stoves are pretty much bonkers right now," said C.T. Watt, a Yankee Fireplace site surveyor. "A lot of manufacturers are telling people if they order now, they may not get them until February."

If you are faced with a big heating bill first make sure you've plugged up all the leaks.

One place homeowners can get a bang for their buck is by looking in the attic, said Randy Bridges, who manages Penquis' weatherization program for qualified low-income households. Before people lay down lots of insulation, they should locate and seal up leaks in the roof, joints, chimney and walls.

''A lot of homeowners right now are just blowing in insulation and they are making our job more difficult because they are covering up the air leaks,'' said Bridges.

Get ahead of the problem. Do not simply react to what's happening once the price pain forces your hand. The people who wait can't find wood stoves or hybrid cars or other in-demand items.

By Randall Parker 2008 July 07 09:54 PM  Energy Policy
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2008 July 06 Sunday
Immune System Rejuvenation Needed For TB Treatment

Aged immune systems hobble the ability of old people to fight off tuberculosis (TB). These aged immune systems also explain higher rates of death of old people from the flu and other infectious diseases.

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Manipulating the immune system in elderly people appears to be the most likely way to help older patients wage an effective battle against tuberculosis, a new study suggests.

Mathematical modeling of how mice respond to TB infection suggests that potential therapy options for elderly TB patients could either increase their white blood cell count or enhance infected cells’ interaction with their immune system.

This report illustrates how scientists trying to treat specific diseases end up running into the need to rejuvenate parts of the body. In this case what is needed is immune system rejuvenation.

Simulations of TB infection in an old mouse showed that increasing the number of infection-fighting white blood cells, called CD4 T cells, could be particularly effective at bolstering the mouse’s immune response, which naturally slows with aging. Older humans have similar delays in their immune response, meaning that they have a much more difficult time controlling TB than do younger people with an active infection.

The math modeling also suggested that making changes to macrophages, cells that essentially eat infecting bacteria, could enhance those cells’ interactions with other warriors in the immune system, reducing the concentration of bacteria in the lungs associated with TB infection.

As we age senescent immune cells end up displacing active immune cells and we need techniques for killing off the senescent cells. Imagine a machine that is analogous to a kidney dialysis machine that is specialized at separating senescent T cells from blood. If these old cells could simply be removed from the body the remaining T cells that retain the ability to divide could fill in the space made available by the removal of the senescent immune cells. Or perhaps a gene therapy could instruct senescent cells to commit cell suicide (apoptosis).

A rejuvenated immune system might itself kill off other senescent cell types. So methods to rejuvenate the immune system will provide many rejuvenation benefits. Plus, r, a younger immune system would probably reduce the incidence of cancer.

By Randall Parker 2008 July 06 10:19 PM  Aging Immune System
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More Anxious Monkeys Have More Amygdala Activity

Rhesus monkeys that are more prone to anxiety have more activity in the amygdala part of the brain even when in a secure situation.

We all know people who are tense and nervous and can't relax. They may have been wired differently since childhood.

So if you are like the character "Tweak" in South Park you probably didn't get that way by drinking coffee. You just feel more stress and feel more nervous all the time. Blame it on your amygdala.

New research done by the HealthEmotions Research Institute and Department of Psychiatry at the School of Medicine and Public Health (SMPH) indicates that the brains of those suffering from anxiety and severe shyness in social situations consistently respond more strongly to stress and show signs of being anxious even in situations that others find safe.

Ned Kalin, chair of the UW-Madison Department of Psychiatry and director of the HealthEmotions Research Institute, in collaboration with graduate student Andrew Fox and others, has published a new study on anxious brains on the Public Library of Science (PLoS One) Web site today (July 2).

The study looked at brain activity, anxious behavior and stress hormones in adolescent rhesus monkeys, which have long been used as a model to understand anxious temperament in human children. Anxious temperament is important because it is an early predictor of the later risk to develop anxiety, depression and drug abuse related to self-medicating. The researchers found that those individuals with the most anxious temperaments showed higher activity in the amygdala, a part of the brain that regulates emotion and triggers reactions to anxiety, such as the fight or flight response. These anxious monkeys had more metabolic activity in the amygdala in both secure and threatening situations.

Suppose kids with anxious temperaments can be identified when they are 5 years old. Should anti-anxiety drugs be developed that are safe for long term use by children? Look at Ritalin use for hyperactive kids. Hyperactivity was probably adaptive in our nomadic past and therefore genes that cause it were selected for. Similarly, greater tendency to anxiety might have had adaptive value even as recently as a hundred years ago. But now in a modern context a greater tendency toward anxiety is maladaptive. Should children be given drugs that adapt them to modern industrial society?

By Randall Parker 2008 July 06 08:59 PM  Brain Stress
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2008 July 05 Saturday
IEA Sees More Rapid Decline In Existing Oil Fields

The latest International Energy Agency Medium-Term Oil Market Report (MTOMR) has an important change from previous reports: The IEA has increased their projected rate of production decline from existing oil fields.

Supply growth deriving from a concentration of new project start-ups during 2008-2010, allied to weaker economic growth, sees potential spare capacity rise in excess of 4 mb/d. However, this expansion slows from 2011 onwards when global demand growth recovers, leading to a narrowing of spare capacity to minimal levels by 2013. Since the 2007 MTOMR, significant downward revisions have been made to both non-OPEC supplies and OPEC capacity forecasts. “Our findings highlight again the need for sustained, and indeed, increased investment both upstream and downstream -- to assure that the market is adequately supplied,” stated Mr. Tanaka.

Contrast that 3.5 mb/d needed increase from new projects with the Saudi promise to increase production by a half million barrels per day.

Keith Johnson of the Wall Street Journal asks where are those millions of replacement barrels of new supply going to come from?

So where’s that fresh supply going to come from? As the IEA noted, Saudi Arabia is the only country with a glimmer of spare production capacity—and the jury is still out on that. Increased domestic drilling, the U.S. energy agency already said, would be but a hiccup in the global market. Non-OPEC countries, from Norway to Mexico, are expected to chip in just 1.2 million barrels per day of new crude by 2013, IEA head of market analysis Lawrence Eagle said—or less than half the global shortfall.

We face a future with less oil. Therefore we need to change our lifestyles and change our industrial processes and infrastructure to use less oil. Are you preparing for this future? If so, how?

BTW, if you have been wondering why diesel costs more than gasoline in the United States when for years the opposite was the case: The US exports diesel to Europe and also to Latin America and the Far East (China). Europe's tax and regulatory regime favors diesel. So Europe has more gasoline but less diesel than customers demand. At the same time, Latin America and China are using more diesel to generate electricity (not the cheapest way to generate electricity btw). Will this trend continue? China's demand for diesel electricity seems short-lived. But what about Latin America?

Update: Also see Khebab's Oil Megaproject Update (July 2008).

By Randall Parker 2008 July 05 01:59 PM  Energy Fossil Fuels
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Resveratrol Delays Old Age Decay In Mice

Resveratrol, a compound found in red wine, reduces decay in middle aged (1 year old) mice and, depending on the diet, extends life expectancy.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., July 3, 2008 -- Sirtris, a GlaxoSmithKline company focused on discovering and developing small molecule drugs to treat diseases of aging such as Type 2 Diabetes, is included among a research team that reported in today's online edition of Cell Metabolism that mice treated at middle-age to the end-of-life with resveratrol showed an overall health improvement, including improved bone health, a reduction in cataracts and cardiovascular dysfunction, and improved balance and motor coordination.

Resveratrol probably works by mimicking the effects of calorie restriction. The big advantage of resveratrol is that most people can't stand to live in constant hunger. Taking a pill is a whole lot easier.

"In this study, we wanted to determine whether or not resveratrol, which imparts many of the same health benefits as caloric restriction in mice, does so by inducing a physiology similar to dietary restriction," says study co-author David Sinclair, Ph.D., a Sirtris co-founder and Harvard Medical School Associate Professor of Pathology. "The data show that resveratrol does induce many similar pathways," says Sinclair, who is co-chair of Sirtris' Scientific Advisory Board. The study was co-led by Rafael de Cabo, Ph.D. at the National Institute on Aging and David Sinclair.

The research team began testing of mice at one year, the mouse equivalent of middle-age, as that is when a small molecule drug mimicking dietary restriction might be given to humans.

Rather than restricting calories by feeding the mice less per day the researchers restrictd calories with every-other-day feeding (EOD). Anyone know why?

The mice were placed on different diets: a standard diet (SD); every-other-day feeding (EOD); and a high-calorie diet (HC). Mice in each dietary regime were divided into treated and untreated subgroups, with some not receiving resveratrol and others receiving different dosage levels of resveratrol.

Surprisingly, resveratrol extends life of those on the calorie restriction diet. I say "surprisingly" because calorie restriction is already causing most of the changes that resveratrol causes. But note that mice on the middle range calorie diet did not live longer as a result of resveratrol treatment.

The study showed that resveratrol induces gene expression patterns in multiple tissues that parallel those induced by dietary restriction, a diet known to slow aging and extend lifespan in rodents and dogs. The study also found a significant increase in lifespan in both the resveratrol treated group on a high-calorie diet and the resveratrol treated group on a calorie restriction diet, but the treatments did not extend lifespan of mice on a standard diet when started at one year of age. This study was funded by the National Institute on Aging.

Maybe on the EOD mice the resveratrol worked by mimicking the effects of calorie restriction on the feeding days?

Resveratrol altered mitochondrial gene expression. I like the idea of delaying osteoporosis, cataracts, and decline in motor coordination.

Specifically, researchers found that resveratrol decreased functional decline often seen in the frail and elderly, such as osteoporosis, cataracts, and motor coordination. For example, in general, femurs from the resveratrol-treated mice trended toward better bone properties, suggested that resveratrol could reduce age-induced bone loss in normal mice. Cataract formation was also lessened by resveratrol in a dose-dependent manner. The mice on a SD treated with resveratrol also showed a significant improvement in balance and motor coordination. The resveratrol treated mice also had improved markers for cardiovascular health. Their arteries were more youthful, and they had reduced aortic stiffness. They also had fewer free radicals and DNA damage.

Even better, I like the idea of reversing the aging process so that we never get osteoporosis, cataracts, cancer, heart disease, decline in motor coordination, shriveling of muscles, graying of all hair, hearing problems, loss of teeth, knee pain, wrist pain, and a great many other things that make aging very undesirable.

My reaction to this study is mild disappointment. Resveratrol did not work nearly as well as calorie restriction in extending life. You still need to starve yourself to assure a longer life.

Resveratrol did not have a significant effect on lifespan in animals fed standard chow, suggesting that the intervention did not affect all aspects of the basic aging process. Mice on a high-calorie diet without resveratrol lived the shortest length of time and mice on an every-other-day regimen lived the longest, regardless of resveratrol treatment. However, for mice on a high-calorie diet, mean and maximum lifespan increased for mice on resveratrol when compared with the control mice. Researchers found that resveratrol's effects on longevity could be completely uncoupled from changes in body weight, meaning that mice on a high-calorie diet with resveratrol did not necessarily lose weight but did experience a longer (and healthier) life than mice on the same high-calorie diet not taking resveratrol. They speculate that improved cardiovascular health and reduced fatty changes in the liver may have contributed to the increased lifespan of resveratrol-treated mice.

I'm still not taking resveratrol yet. But this result makes me lean a little closer toward taking it.

By Randall Parker 2008 July 05 09:47 AM  Aging Diet Resveratrol
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2008 July 03 Thursday
GM Volt Battery Tech Lagging

Jonathan Rauch has written an article for The Atlantic about the development of GM's Chevy Volt pluggable hybrid entitled Electro-Shock Therapy. In the article he talks to GM electrical engineer Lance Turner who claimed in December 2007 that the battery picture looked great for the Chevy Volt.

During this visit, I found the technical center brimming with optimism, and the battery lab was no exception. One of two suppliers, a company called Compact Power (a subsidiary of a big South Korean chemical and advanced-materials company, LG Chem), had delivered two copies of its version of the battery, and on the bench they were testing brilliantly. “They may not look beautiful,” Turner said—the battery was a six-foot-long T-shaped object from which wires, clamps, and circuit boards protruded—“but as far as the data goes, they’re the best I’ve worked with.” Heat is a problem with lithium-ion batteries, but this one was staying cool even when run hard—and the cooling system had yet to be attached.

Moreover, improvements were being incorporated as fast as they could be conceived; the battery would be on its second generation in January, its third in June. “It’s incredible,” Turner said. “The design they’ve come up with for thermal changed 10 times before they delivered the first battery.” And all of this was before the arrival of a competing battery that might be as good or even better, designed jointly by the Massachusetts-based company A123 Systems and the German company Continental A.G. “We’re inventing and creating on the critical path,” Turner said. He was using the industry jargon for the countdown to production, when time is money and delays can cost millions. “I’ve got guys trying to release things before they’re actually invented.”

On the bright side the article reports that GM has lifted the bureaucratic process off of the Volt development team and they make much more rapid progress than the average GM car development team.

But by February 2008 the batteries looked like a big problem. By late March the chief engineer for the Volt still says the battery looks like the pacing engineering problem.

In late March, at the New York auto show, I checked back in with Andrew Farah, the Volt’s chief engineer, and asked for an update. “Still just as bad as before,” he said. When I mentioned that another executive had said the underbody was a well-proven design that didn’t need much testing, he shot me a look of disbelief. “There’s a big gaping hole down the center of this car where the battery goes.”

Is this delay a matter of months or years? Even if GM achieves their stated schedule only 70,000 Chevy Volts will be on the road by the end of 2012. That's not enough to make a substantial dent in the problem of declining oil availability.

Some people are optimistic about our ability to shift smoothly from gasoline to electric power for transportation. I'm not so optimistic. I expect we will be able to do so eventually. But I am reminded of the sinking Titanic. Other ships did come to help rescue survivers eventually. When there's a big time gap between when you need something and when you actually get it then you are going to suffer some pain.

Update: On May 14 GM Vice Chairman struck what sounds like a more optimistic note on the battery.

Lutz confirmed that in GM's dynamometer tests last week of the Volt's lithium-ion batteries, engineers raised ambient temperatures and shut off the cooling system. The result was what GM had hoped: The battery showed only a slight rise in temperature and the heat was consistent across all of the battery cells with no pockets of intense heat.

Challenges Other Than the Battery Remain

"I can almost say the battery is the least of our problems," Lutz told AutoObserver.

Without knowing how big the other problems are it is hard to interpret this.

On June 5, 2008 he admits the battery testers still do not know about the longevity of the batteries. So GM really does not know if they've got a battery solution.

Our battery teams in Warren and in Germany are working hard in our battery labs to determine that these batteries will work for the life of the vehicle. Still, the conditions in a real-world environment – where the battery is exposed to shaking, moisture and rapidly changing temperature conditions – are much more extreme than the controlled settings of the lab.

But I think it’s important to point out that in the six months since we’ve received the battery pack, we’ve tested it in the lab, then on the dynamometer, and now on the track.

In engineering you often do not know for weeks and months whether you've solved some problem. Testing takes a long time. That might be where GM is now. But they might even still be at the stage where they have known problems without potential solutions in testing. I would want to hear a fresh opinion of the battery test engineers to know where things really stand.

By Randall Parker 2008 July 03 03:13 PM  Energy Electric Cars
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Microchip Detects Cancer And Cancer Cell Mutations

A chip can measure tumor cell blood concentrations and detect drug resistance mutations for circulating cancer cells.

Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) investigators have shown that an MGH-developed, microchip-based device that detects and analyzes tumor cells in the bloodstream can be used to determine the genetic signature of lung tumors, allowing identification of those appropriate for targeted treatment and monitoring genetic changes that occur during therapy. A pilot study of the device called the CTC-chip will appear in the July 24 New England Journal of Medicine and is receiving early online release.

“The CTC-chip opens up a whole new field of studying tumors in real time,” says Daniel Haber, MD, PhD, director of the MGH Cancer Center and the study’s senior author. “When the device is ready for larger clinical trials, it should give us new options for measuring treatment response, defining prognostic and predictive measures, and studying the biology of blood-borne metastasis, which is the primary method by which cancer spreads and becomes lethal.”

One can imagine a day when these sensors become cheap enough for routine blood testing for early diagnosis of cancer. Further out, implantable sensors could constantly watch for cancer cells and report to your cell phone when cancer is detected. "This text message is to inform you that you have very early stage liver cancer and should seek immediate treatment for a 99.99% chance of a cure."

Chips are the future of biotechnology. Smaller and more complex and powerful devices will slay many diseases.

The chip's ability to detect which drug resistance mutations each patient has can be used to guide choice of therapy.

Circulating tumor cells (CTCs) were identified in all cancer patients. Also, the chip identified which patients had genetic mutations in their tumors that made them resistant to certain forms of anti-cancer therapy.

The CTC-chip was used to analyze blood samples from 27 patients – 23 who had EGFR mutations and 4 who did not – and CTCs were identified in samples from all patients. Genetic analysis of CTCs from mutation-positive tumors detected those mutations 92 percent of the time. In addition to the primary mutation that leads to initial tumor development and TKI sensitivity, the CTC-chip also detected a secondary mutation associated with treatment resistance in some participants, including those whose tumors originally responded to treatment but later resumed growing.

The chip detected changes in concentrations of tumor cells. The chip will be able to detect a surge in cancer growth faster than X rays and with less harm and cost.

These visits were not timed for the purpose of the study, but Dr. Haber's group noted that in one case circulating tumor cell numbers dropped 50% within a week of staring therapy and continued to decline for three months.

Clinical progression was associated with an increase in the number of circulating tumor cells.

The researchers also reported "close concordance" between radiographic assessment of tumor volume and changes in the number of circulating tumor cells in patients followed throughout their course of therapy.

What I wonder: Will we ever get treated by something like a kidney dialysis machine but where the machine removes circulating cancer cells. One can imagine that upon diagnosis a patient could get hospitalized, hooked to a cancer cell catching machine, and then scheduled for surgery. During surgery the machine could continue to catch cancer cells that spill out into the blood as the surgeons cut into the tumor. Then the patient could remain on the machine for a few days after the surgery with the machine reporting the number of cancer cells getting caught per hour. If the count does not go down to 0 then the surgeons need to go looking for another pocket of cancer that they missed.

By Randall Parker 2008 July 03 10:33 AM  Biotech Cancer
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2008 July 01 Tuesday
Canadian Satellite To Search For Asteroids

Asteroids are like cancer. Early detection is the key to effective treatment. An asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs. A big enough asteroid could wipe out humanity if we do not find it years before it strikes Earth. Therefore a cheap Canadian space telescope satellite designed to search for asteroids is a really good idea.

Canada is building the world’s first space telescope designed to detect and track asteroids as well as satellites. Called NEOSSat (Near Earth Object Surveillance Satellite), this spacecraft will provide a significant improvement in surveillance of asteroids that pose a collision hazard with Earth and innovative technologies for tracking satellites in orbit high above our planet. Weighing in at a mere 65-kilograms, this dual-use $12-million mission builds upon Canada’s expertise in compact “microsatellite” design. NEOSSat will be the size of a large suitcase, and is cost-effective because of its small size and ability to “piggyback” on the launch of other spacecraft. The mission is funded by Defence Research Development Canada(DRDC) and the Canadian Space Agency(CSA). Together CSA and DRDC formed a Joint Project Office to manage the NEOSSat design, construction and launch phases. NEOSSat is expected to be launched into space in 2010. The two projects that will use NEOSSat are HEOSS (High Earth Orbit Space Surveillance) and the NESS (Near Earth Space Surveillance) asteroid search program.

But if the Canadians find an asteroid is going to wipe us out will they burrow under ground and not tell anyone else? More room for them, eh?

Although NEOSSat’s 15-centimetre telescope is smaller than most amateur astronomers’, its location approximately 700 kilometres above Earth’s atmosphere will give it a huge advantage in searching the blackness of space for faint signs of moving asteroids. Twisting and turning hundreds of times each day, orbiting from pole to pole every 50 minutes, and generating power from the Sun, NEOSSat will send dozens of images to the ground each time it passes over Canada. Due to the ultra-low sky background provided by the vacuum of space, NEOSSat will be able to detect asteroids delivering as few as 50 photons of light in a 100-second exposure.

We really ought to put up some more powerful satellites and find all the asteroids at a much faster rate. Why not remove this risk from our lives?

By Randall Parker 2008 July 01 04:52 PM  Dangers Asteroids
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