2011 September 30 Friday
Gold Nanowires For Heart Patch Muscle Cells

Tissue engineering to fix hearts with muscle cell patches (which is already going into clinical trials) might be improved with gold nanowires to better coordinate the muscle cells that come in a patch.

A team of physicians, engineers and materials scientists at Children's Hospital Boston and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have used nanotechnology and tiny gold wires to engineer cardiac patches, with cells all beating in time, that could someday help heart attack patients.

As reported online by Nature Nanotechnology on September 25, the addition of gold wires to the engineered heart tissue make it electrically conductive, potentially improving on existing cardiac patches. Such patches are starting to go into clinical trials for heart patients.

"If you don't have the gold nanowires, and you stimulate the cardiac patch with an electrode, the cells will beat only right where you're stimulating," says senior investigator Daniel Kohane, MD, PhD, of the Laboratory for Biomaterials and Drug Delivery at Children's Hospital Boston. "With the nanowires, you see a lot of cells contracting together, even when the stimulation is far away. That shows the tissue is conducting."

Tissue engineering is on the verge of becoming a huge field. The revenues from early entrant products will fund growth in development for new types of patches and eventually whole organs. 20 years from now the idea of having to live with a tennis elbow or a bad anterior cruciate ligament or a damaged part of your heart will seem so historical.

Patches of muscle cells grown with nanowires will probably be better organized as a result.

After incubation, the patches studded with the gold nanowires were thicker and their heart muscle cells better organized.

These scientists are now going to move on to implanting patches in animal models. Then come humans.

In the longer term gold nanowires might only get used when growing the tissue patches. For implantation the nanowires might be a transitional technology until it becomes possible to guide nerve cells into growing new connections to hook directly into implanted heart patch tissue.

By Randall Parker 2011 September 30 08:43 PM  Biotech Tissue Engineering
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2011 September 29 Thursday
Sodium Manganese Battery To Cut Grid Storage Costs

If this works as well as claimed the cost of grid storage will go down.

A new battery developed by Aquion Energy in Pittsburgh uses simple chemistry—a water-based electrolyte and abundant materials such as sodium and manganese—and is expected to cost $300 for a kilowatt-hour of storage capacity, less than a third of what it would cost to use lithium-ion batteries. Third-party tests have shown that Aquion's battery can last for over 5,000 charge-discharge cycles and has an efficiency of over 85 percent

Click thru to read the details.

Electric power storage is most needed for intermittent sources such as solar and wind. But it can also help in areas which do not have enough long range power lines to provide power during peak demand periods. During off-peak electric power can be brought in to store in local batteries for use during peak.

The article mentions this type of battery chemistry is heavy. That is fine for stationary storage sites. But the weight probably rules them out for electric cars.

By Randall Parker 2011 September 29 06:27 AM  Energy Batteries
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2011 September 28 Wednesday
SoCal Bass Stocks Collapsing

Too much fishing off the coast of southern California.

The two most important recreational fisheries off Southern California have collapsed, according to a new study led by a researcher from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.

Scripps postdoctoral researcher Brad Erisman and his colleagues examined the health of regional populations of barred sand bass and kelp bass-staple catches of Southern California's recreational fishing fleet-by combining information from fishing records and other data on regional fish populations. Stocks of both species have collapsed due to a combination of overfishing of their breeding areas and changes in oceanographic conditions, the researchers found.

As they describe in the most recent edition of the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, the researchers say the total amount, or biomass, of each bass species decreased 90 percent since 1980. Yet fisheries catch rates have remained stable for a number of years, even as overall population sizes dropped drastically. This is due, the authors say, to a phenomenon known as "hyperstability" in which fishing targets spawning areas at which large numbers of fish congregate, leading to a misleading high catch rate and masking a decline in the overall population.

This reminds me of what a Florida fisherman was just telling me: Off of the west coast of Florida the allowed catches and fishing seasons have been cut back drastically over the last several years. Fisheries have shrunk so far that regulators have cut back on allowed fishing. This has cut into demand for pleasure boats used for fishing.

The world's fisheries are being overfished and the world's population is still growing. Fisheries depletion will get much worse.

Deep sea fisheries which have long living and slow growing fish are also being harvested in an unsustainable fashion.

A team of leading marine scientists from around the world is recommending an end to most commercial fishing in the deep sea, the Earth's largest ecosystem. Instead, they recommend fishing in more productive waters nearer to consumers.

In a comprehensive analysis published online this week in the journal Marine Policy, marine ecologists, fisheries biologists, economists, mathematicians and international policy experts show that, with rare exceptions, deep-sea fisheries are unsustainable. The "Sustainability of deep-sea fisheries" study, funded mainly by the Lenfest Ocean Program, comes just before the UN decides whether to continue allowing deep-sea fishing in international waters, which the UN calls "high seas."

Life is mostly sparse in the oceans' cold depths, far from the sunlight that fuels photosynthesis. Food is scarce and life processes happen at a slower pace than near the sea surface. Some deep-sea fishes live more than a century; some deep-sea corals can live more than 4,000 years. When bottom trawlers rip life from the depths, animals adapted to life in deep-sea time can't repopulate on human time scales. Powerful fishing technologies are overwhelming them.

Planet Earth has become a big tragedy of the commons.

By Randall Parker 2011 September 28 10:21 PM  Trends Resource Depletion
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2011 September 26 Monday
Lithium Silicon Batteries 8 Times More Energy Dense

What we need to make electric cars viable for the mass market.

Lithium-ion batteries are everywhere, in smart phones, laptops, an array of other consumer electronics, and the newest electric cars. Good as they are, they could be much better, especially when it comes to lowering the cost and extending the range of electric cars. To do that, batteries need to store a lot more energy.

The anode is a critical component for storing energy in lithium-ion batteries. A team of scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) has designed a new kind of anode that can absorb eight times the lithium of current designs, and has maintained its greatly increased energy capacity after over a year of testing and many hundreds of charge-discharge cycles.

I might have to become optimistic about the future of electric cars and our ability to cope with Peak Oil.

The trick was to find a way to enable the lithium anodes to expand and contract without

“High-capacity lithium-ion anode materials have always confronted the challenge of volume change – swelling – when electrodes absorb lithium,” says Gao Liu of Berkeley Lab’s Environmental Energy Technologies Division (EETD), a member of the BATT program (Batteries for Advanced Transportation Technologies) managed by the Lab and supported by DOE’s Office of Vehicle Technologies.

Says Liu, “Most of today’s lithium-ion batteries have anodes made of graphite, which is electrically conducting and expands only modestly when housing the ions between its graphene layers. Silicon can store 10 times more – it has by far the highest capacity among lithium-ion storage materials – but it swells to more than three times its volume when fully charged.”

The swelling breaks electrical contact. The solution was to find a liquid polymer with the right qualities to maintain contact. These researchers found one. Click thru and read the details if you are interested.

Long lasting very high density batteries would be a game changer. Electric cars could have more range than today's gasoline cars. Electric cars would have far fewer moving parts and much longer time between failures too.

Another story on this research finds only a 30% improvement on existing lithium batteries. Still a substantial improvement. But not revolutionary.

By Randall Parker 2011 September 26 10:19 PM  Energy Batteries
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Rapid Ramp In Full Genome Sequening: 30,000 In 2011

The rate of full genome sequencing has risen by about 1000 in a couple of years. That's because costs have dropped by orders of magnitude. The rapid cost drop looks set to continue.

This year, the world's DNA-sequencing machines are expected to churn out 30,000 entire human genomes, according to estimates in Nature magazine. That is up from 2,700 last year and a few dozen in 2009. Recall that merely a decade ago, before the completion of the Human Genome Project, the number was zero.

The vast majority of us will be able to afford to get our full genomes sequenced in a few years. Costs are now below $10,000 per genome and in larger quantities below $5,000.

What's needed to most rapidly make all this data useful? Massive comparisons between DNA sequences and details of individual health history, behavior, achievements, and physical attributes. What's needed to gather all this data? Web sites run by companies that provide DNA sequencing services while also doing polls and tests (e.g. personality tests, coordination tests, even scans of pictures uploaded by customers) of their customers to collect all the needed information to compare. Then the companies can use the DNA sequencing data of all their customers to compare and come to useful conclusions for their subscribers.

If regulators (that's you, FDA) would just stay out of the way then crowd sourcing the needed data could be done very rapidly by the private sector. This could cut years off of making discoveries about genetic variants via the traditional academic approach of getting grants and trying to recruit volunteers.

By Randall Parker 2011 September 26 05:51 AM  Policy Medical
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2011 September 23 Friday
Retroransposons Suppress Aging Adult Stem Cells

Retroransposons, located areas of the genome that have not been thought to have any functional purpose, get transcribed (read from DNA into RNA) in aging stem cells. The resulting RNA fragments mess up the aging stem cells and make them less able to divide and do repair to the body. Some Buck Institute and Georgia Tech researchers have demonstrated accumulated DNA damage with age allows the retrotransposons to interfere with stem cell function.

"We demonstrated that we were able to reverse the process of aging for human adult stem cells by intervening with the activity of non-protein coding RNAs originated from genomic regions once dismissed as non-functional 'genomic junk'," said Victoria Lunyak, associate professor at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging.

Adult stem cells are not held back by shortening telomeres.

The team began by hypothesizing that DNA damage in the genome of adult stem cells would look very different from age-related damage occurring in regular body cells. They thought so because body cells are known to experience a shortening of the caps found at the ends of chromosomes, known as telomeres. But adult stem cells are known to maintain their telomeres. Much of the damage in aging is widely thought to be a result of losing telomeres. So there must be different mechanisms at play that are key to explaining how aging occurs in these adult stem cells, they thought.

The researchers looked at DNA damage at cells that had divided many times.

Researchers used adult stem cells from humans and combined experimental techniques with computational approaches to study the changes in the genome associated with aging. They compared freshly isolated human adult stem cells from young individuals, which can self-renew, to cells from the same individuals that were subjected to prolonged passaging in culture. This accelerated model of adult stem cell aging exhausts the regenerative capacity of the adult stem cells. Researchers looked at the changes in genomic sites that accumulate DNA damage in both groups.

They suppressed the toxic transcripts from retrotransposons and got cells more able to grow. But can this ever work in situ, i.e. in the body? I suspect the damaged cells just need to be replaced.

"We found the majority of DNA damage and associated chromatin changes that occurred with adult stem cell aging were due to parts of the genome known as retrotransposons," said King Jordan, associate professor in the School of Biology at Georgia Tech.

"Retroransposons were previously thought to be non-functional and were even labeled as 'junk DNA', but accumulating evidence indicates these elements play an important role in genome regulation," he added.

While the young adult stem cells were able to suppress transcriptional activity of these genomic elements and deal with the damage to the DNA, older adult stem cells were not able to scavenge this transcription. New discovery suggests that this event is deleterious for the regenerative ability of stem cells and triggers a process known as cellular senescence.

"By suppressing the accumulation of toxic transcripts from retrotransposons, we were able to reverse the process of human adult stem cell aging in culture," said Lunyak.

"Furthermore, by rewinding the cellular clock in this way, we were not only able to rejuvenate 'aged' human stem cells, but to our surprise we were able to reset them to an earlier developmental stage, by up-regulating the "pluripotency factors" – the proteins that are critically involved in the self-renewal of undifferentiated embryonic stem cells." she said.

So this, in a nutshell, is a major reason we grow old.

By Randall Parker 2011 September 23 05:43 AM  Aging Mechanisms
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2011 September 22 Thursday
Getting Primed To Salivate For Money Or Sports Cars

If primed to activate their desires or their feeling of powerlessness people salivate for their desires.

"In multiple languages, the terms hunger and salivation are used metaphorically to describe desire for non-food items," writes author David Gal (Northwestern University). "But will people actually salivate when they desire material things?"

People can be made to salivate for money.

The answer, Gal found, is yes. In one study, for example, Gal examined whether people salivated in response to money. "Merely being exposed to the concept of money has been shown to have dramatic effects on behavior, and it has even been argued that money can be conceptualized as a drug in that it imitates the action of biological incentives in driving behavior," Gal writes. In the experiment, the author measured salivation by having participants put cotton dental rolls in their mouths while they gazed at pictures of money. He later weighed the rolls to measure the amount of saliva.

Before they viewed money, however, Gal primed the participants to feel powerful or to feel that they lacked power. "The main result of the experiment was that participants salivated to money (relative to baseline), but only when they were in a low-power state," Gal writes. "This suggests that people salivate to non-food items when those are items are desired to fulfill a highly active goal."

Men desirous of women will salivate for sports cars.

Next, Gal wondered whether men would salivate to high-end sports cars. Instead of looking at their perceived power, he induced some of the men to have a "mating goal," because prior research has shown that men who want to impress women purchase conspicuous luxury goods. Gal showed the men photos of attractive women and asked them to choose one they would like to date. Gal asked the other group of men to ponder a visit to the barber. The men with the active mating goal salivated more at images of high-end sports cars than the men who had been prompted to imagine getting a haircut.

But are there people with a hair cut fetish that will get excited by the thought of a hair cut? More generally, the measurement of salivation could be used to map out a person's strongest desires and level of self-perceived status.

What I wonder: Do billionaires want money so badly that they still salivate at the thought of money? Or are they beyond salivating for money? Would a rich person's propensity salivate for money predict their extent of future money accumulation?

By Randall Parker 2011 September 22 06:16 AM  Brain Desire
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2011 September 20 Tuesday
Exercise Increases Mitochondria In Brain Cells

At least in mice exercise increases the number of energy-generating mitochondria in brain cells.

Bethesda, Md. (Sept. 16, 2011)—Researchers have long known that regular exercise increases the number of organelles called mitochondria in muscle cells. Since mitochondria are responsible for generating energy, this numerical boost is thought to underlie many of the positive physical effects of exercise, such as increased strength or endurance. Exercise also has a number of positive mental effects, such as relieving depression and improving memory. However, the mechanism behind these mental effects has been unclear. In a new study in mice, researchers at the University of South Carolina have discovered that regular exercise also increases mitochondrial numbers in brain cells, a potential cause for exercise’s beneficial mental effects.

What I would like to know: Would a before-and-after exercise regimen test of willpower (see Roy Baumeister and John Tierney's excellent book Willpower for a survey of the current state of scientific research on the subject) show that exercise increases one's ability to sustain resistance to temptation and sustain other acts of will? Also, does exercise increase one's ability to sustain concentration on complex tasks?

By Randall Parker 2011 September 20 06:17 AM  Brain Performance
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2011 September 19 Monday
Yawning For Brain Temperature Regulation?

People yawn less when the outdoor temperature exceeds body temperature.

A study led by Andrew Gallup, a postdoctoral research associate in Princeton University's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, is the first involving humans to show that yawning frequency varies with the season and that people are less likely to yawn when the heat outdoors exceeds body temperature. Gallup and his co-author Omar Eldakar, a postdoctoral fellow in the University of Arizona's Center for Insect Science, report this month in the journal Frontiers in Evolutionary Neuroscience that this seasonal disparity indicates that yawning could serve as a method for regulating brain temperature.

Years ago I read the speculation that yawning's purpose was to show one's teeth to scare away predators. That didn't seem plausible. This theory seems more plausible. Though why would yawning happen more when tired?

The body can't do yawn air heat exchange to cool the brain if the air temperature is too high.

Gallup and Eldakar documented the yawning frequency of 160 people in the winter and summer in Tucson, Ariz., with 80 people for each season. They found that participants were more likely to yawn in the winter, as opposed to the summer when ambient temperatures were equal to or exceeding body temperature. The researchers concluded that warmer temperatures provide no relief for overheated brains, which, according to the thermoregulatory theory of yawning, stay cool via a heat exchange with the air drawn in during a yawn.

Does the brain get hotter when it is fatigued? I am currently reading Roy Baumeister and John Tierney's excellent book Willpower and wonder whether conditions that deplete willpower also heat up the brain.

By Randall Parker 2011 September 19 10:46 PM  Brain Innate
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2011 September 18 Sunday
Sharp Photovoltaic System Price Decline 2010-2011

Cheaper solar power installs for home or office.

Berkeley, CA — The installed cost of solar photovoltaic (PV) power systems in the United States fell substantially in 2010 and into the first half of 2011, according to the latest edition of an annual PV cost tracking report released by the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab).

The average installed cost of residential and commercial PV systems completed in 2010 fell by roughly 17 percent from the year before, and by an additional 11 percent within the first six months of 2011. These recent installed cost reductions are attributable, in part, to dramatic reductions in the price of PV modules. Galen Barbose of Berkeley Lab’s Environmental Energy Technologies Division and co-author of the report explains: “Wholesale PV module prices have fallen precipitously since about 2008, and those upstream cost reductions have made their way through to consumers.”

This does not mean that manufacturing costs are falling as fast as prices. For several years in the run up to the 2008 financial crisis demand for solar power was growing so fast due to government incentives (especially in Germany) that declines in production costs did not translate into declines in market prices. The recession caused a drop in demand while capacity was still growing. So prices are catching up with previous production cost declines. Companies are feeling more pricing pressures and a shake-out is going on with weaker players failing or merging.

If you are going to build a home you can get PV installed more cheaply if you design for it and do it during your construction process.

The report also found that residential PV systems installed on new homes had significantly lower average installed costs than those installed as retrofits to existing homes.

The full report (PDF) has some interesting details.

Average installed costs vary widely across states; among ≤10 kW systems completed in 2010, average costs range from a low of $6.3/W in New Hampshire to a high of $8.4/W in Utah. The country’s largest state PV markets, California and New Jersey, were near the center of this range, suggesting that, in addition to absolute market size, other state and local factors (e.g., permitting requirements, labor rates, the extent of third party ownership, and sales tax exemptions) also strongly influence installed costs.

Utility-scale solar projects are much cheaper. So people installing solar on their roofs are actually driving up average costs of solar installs.

Since wholesale module costs are now a small fraction of total installed costs it seems like the big cost reductions needed to make solar competitive mostly fall in other areas such as inverters, mounting brackets, permits, labor, and installation.

The recent decline in installed costs is, in large part, attributable to falling wholesale module prices, which fell by $0.9/W from 2008 to 2009, by $0.5/W from 2009 to 2010, and which have fallen further still in 2011 (based on Navigant Consulting’s Global Power Module Price Index).

The savings when installs are done as part of new home construction are sizable.

The new construction market offers cost advantages for small residential PV systems. Among 2-3 kW residential systems (the size range typical for residential new construction) installed in 2010 and funded through California’s incentive programs, new construction systems cost $0.7/W less, on average, than comparably sized residential retrofit systems (or $1.5/W less if comparing only rack-mounted systems).

With non-module costs now several times larger than module costs I am left wondering about the prospects for the decline of non-module costs. Will PV total installation costs decline much more slowly than we've seen in the last few years? What is needed to lower the non-module costs? Installer robots? Roof tile as PV? Inverters integrated into the modules? Anyone have insights into where the next big round of cost cutting will come from and when it will happen?

By Randall Parker 2011 September 18 06:01 PM  Energy Solar
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2011 September 17 Saturday
Families That Sequence Together Get Better Results

Want more accurate DNA sequence results? Get your whole family sequenced at once. The family that sequences together stays healthy together? An article in MIT's Technology Review reports on a family that got their 4 genomes sequenced to learn more about their DNA.

In November 2009, the West family embarked on an unusual family project. Parents John and Judy and teenagers Anne and Paul each had their genomes sequenced, and enlisted a team of scientists at Stanford University to interpret the meaning of the combined 24 billion letters of DNA in those genomes.

Since the technology used to do DNA sequencing makes errors the errors are easier to detect if different copies of the same chromosome carried by siblings and parents get sequenced and compared.

By comparing intergenerational genomes, scientists can identify likely errors by looking for spots where the child's genome differs from the parents'. Last year, Leroy Hood and collaborators sequenced a family of four in an attempt to identify the genetic variations underlying a rare condition called Miller syndrome, inherited by the two children. They estimated that errors are 1,000 times more prevalent than true mutations.

Your cost per genome is going to be below $10000 and falling. In 2012 expect to pay below $5k per genome. Want to start at a lower cost? For a couple hundred dollars per person you can get about a million genetic variants tested and get interpretation reports for a year. I'm about ready to finally take the plunge on the DNA testing option.

By Randall Parker 2011 September 17 11:15 AM  Biotech Assay Services
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2011 September 16 Friday
Rapid EV Battery Cost Declines Not Realistic?

The great hope for electric vehicles (EVs) is for a rapid decline in the costs of batteries. An article in the Pro section of the Wall Street Journal reports on skepticism from the US National Academies of Science and Toyota that a rapid battery cost decline is possible. Recommend you read in full if you are seriously interested in the debate about the prospects for EV battery costs.

The Academies and Toyota Motor Corp. have publicly said they don't think the Department of Energy goals are achievable and that cost reductions are likely to be far lower. It likely will be 20 years before costs fall 50%—not the three or so years the DOE projects for an even greater reduction—according to an Academies council studying battery costs. The council was made up of nearly a dozen researchers in the battery field.

Even in lithium batteries other minerals make up a substantial portion of total costs. So just cheaper manufacturing will only go so far. On the other hand, costs of copper or cobalt or other minerals are kind of like once-in-a-lifetime costs for car buyers because at the end of a battery's useful life it can be recycled to extract out the most valuable minerals. So the trade-in value of an old battery will partially offset the cost of a replacement battery.

While Johnson Controls claims they can cut battery costs by 50% in the next 5 years they probably aren't the low cost leader. So 50% off their current (unrevealed) costs might be much less than 50% off the cheapest current producer. It is noteworthy that GM has given electric vehicle battery production contracts to two companies, neither of which is Johnson Controls.

If the National Academies council is correct then this does not bode well for our ability to adjust to Peak Oil. The Nissan Leaf's battery costs $15,600 according the article. The range varies greatly. In the US EPA range test it went 73 miles with very hot and cold weather cutting into range. Turn off the AC or heater, keep your speed down and 100 miles or higher range become achievable, at least in moderate temperatures. At the latter link note that Ford will include active heating and cooling of their Focus EV battery to enable it to maintain a higher range in winter and summer. So 100 miles range in a compact EV might be possible with a battery that is in the $15k price range.

Suppose 100 miles from a $15k battery becomes possible in the next couple of years. Well, one way to get to work when oil hits $200 per barrel would be to trade off range to save money. Only buy enough battery for 50 miles range or even 20 mile range if your commute is short. Then recharge daily. Such lower EVs would be useful only for local errands and commuting. But they'd keep people going to work even with $8 gasoline.

Perhaps bigger batteries could be rented only for longer trips. Downsizing even further would allow for longer range and/or lower costs. Even smaller commuter cars or electric scooters would be a better fit for many.

Smaller batteries in PHEVs (pluggable hybrid electric vehicles such as the Chevy Volt) are another option. A 20 mile electric battery range in a PHEV could be supplemented with added gasoline range in the rarer situations where people with relatively short commutes need to go farther.

Also see Gail Tverberg's coverage of the same story. I'm not as pessimistic as Gail because I think we've got other options for keeping ourselves mobile such as even smaller commuter EVs with more limited range, electric scooters, electric bikes, and other cheaper options. Note that the evidence from Europe for the potential of mass transit suggests mass transit is going to remain a minor contributor for human transit.

By Randall Parker 2011 September 16 09:26 AM  Energy Batteries
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2011 September 15 Thursday
Consumers Want Genetic Boosts Of Food Antioxidants?

While genetic modification of crops elicits considerable opposition in Europe the opposition is much less in the United States. An Iowa State economist says in a survey he did consumers indicate they would pay more for crops genetic engineered to contain more antioxidants.

AMES, Iowa - Consumers are eager to get their hands on, and teeth into, foods that are genetically modified to increase health benefits - and even pay more for the opportunity.

A study by Iowa State University researcher Wallace Huffman shows that when consumers are presented with produce enhanced with consumer traits through intragenic means, they will pay significantly more than for plain produce.

By "intragenic" they mean genes that are transferred within species. Most of these sorts of transfers could be done with conventional breeding programs, albeit with much longer time spans than the amount of time it takes to do genetic manipulations in a lab. Our major food crops are products of conventional breeding that concentrated combinations of genetic variants that already existed more rarely in wild plants. So the intragenic genetic modifications probably won't create crop strains any more radical than the foods we already eat.

People are willing to pay more for food that has more antioxidants in them.

"What we found was when genes for enhancing the amount of antioxidants and vitamin C in fresh produce were transferred by intragenic methods, consumers are willing to pay 25 percent more than for the plain product (with no enhancements). That is a sizable increase," said Huffman, distinguished professor of economics.

We already eat apple sauce fortified with vitamin C, milk fortified with vitamin D, and grains fortified with a variety of vitamins. Genetic engineering will shift food fortification into the genes. This has already been done with golden rice which has genes added to make it produce beta carotene which is a precursor which the body converts to vitamin A. The goal with golden rice is to reduce blindness in poor countries caused by vitamin A deficiency.

My main concern with genetic engineering for food fortification involves the choice of nutritional targets. Which vitamins should be boosted? I expect little benefit from fortification for most antioxidant vitamins. But prospects look better for benefit from the non-vitamin antioxidants (update: more accurately, some compounds that up-regulate detoxifying enzymes and repair enzymes). My suggestion: Measure antioxidant levels of wild berries and other wild crops. Then genetically engineer production crops to have the same levels. So, for example, farmed blueberries would contain the same levels of polyphenols as wild type.

Also, I would want genetically enhanced fortified strains to be so labeled.

By Randall Parker 2011 September 15 11:41 AM  Nutrition Antioxidant Sources
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UCLA Climate Forecast Accuracy To 16 Months

A near doubling of the length of time large scale climate can be predicted.

Is it possible to make valid climate predictions that go beyond weeks, months, even a year? UCLA atmospheric scientists report they have now made long-term climate forecasts that are among the best ever — predicting climate up to 16 months in advance, nearly twice the length of time previously achieved by climate scientists.

The granularity still falls far short of predicting temperatures of specific cities on specific days or when it will rain. But on a larger scale the predictions work. This has utility. Just known whether, say, summer will be more or less rainy could help guide crop choices.

Forecasts of climate are much more general than short-term weather forecasts; they do not predict precise temperatures in specific cities, but they still may have major implications for agriculture, industry and the economy, said Michael Ghil, a distinguished professor of climate dynamics in the UCLA Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences and senior author of the research.

The study is currently available online in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and will be published in an upcoming print edition of the journal.

"Certain climate features might be predictable, although not in such detail as the temperature and whether it will rain in Los Angeles on such a day two years from now," said Ghil, who is also a member of UCLA's Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics. "These are averages over larger areas and longer time spans."

Climate prediction over a few year time span can help guide water usage policy. Start stashing away more water in underground reservoirs before a drought even starts. Choose low water crops on low rain years - or do not even plant at all. Store more food before a drought.

What are the limits to prediction? How many things can't be known in advance due to, for example, chaotic events in the sun?

By Randall Parker 2011 September 15 07:52 AM  Climate Trends
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2011 September 13 Tuesday
Recently Sick React More To Sick Faces

People who have recently been ill react most strongly to disfigured faces.

Now a study in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal published by the Association for Psychological Science, offers intriguing new evidence of the connection moving in the other direction: from physiological to psychological immune reactions. "When people have been recently sick, and therefore recently activated their physiological immune systems, they are more likely to pay attention to and display avoidance of disfigured faces"—which they read, like a rash or a sneeze, as a sign of contagion, says University of Kentucky psychologist Saul Miller. Miller conducted the study with Jon K. Maner of Florida State University.

I am fascinated by the myriad factors below our conscious awareness which alter how the mind functions. If this result is correct then a recent bout of sickness will cause a mind to look more intently at faces that show signs of disease. So how else does, say, a cold or flu or bacterial infection alter how we perceive the world around us even once the immune system has beaten back the invading pathogens?

To put it another way: Just how many ways does human DNA program the development of the mind to alter cognition in response to illness, diet, and sensory inputs?

Two experiments showed that the recently ill more vigilantly pay attention to and avoid others who might make them sick. In the first, faces, some disfigured and some normal, were displayed on a screen. When they disappeared, either a circle or square appeared, and the person had to press a key, as quickly as possible, indicating which shape they saw. When the face appeared in a different portion of the screen, the participant had to shift her attention to it. A longer lag in switching meant more attention was paid to the face. After 80 trials, participants answered a questionnaire about whether they had been ill—"feeling a little under the weather," "had a cold or flu recently," for instance—and if so, when, from today to a year or more ago. Other questions measured feelings of vulnerability to disease and germs. The results: Independent of their conscious worries, those who had more recently been ill paid more attention to the disfigured faces than to the normal faces. Those who hadn't been ill showed no difference in reaction time.

In the second experiment participants had to push a joystick—a tested indication of avoidance—in response to a disfigured face and pull (showing approach) for normal face. Everyone was quicker to push away the disfigured one or pull the normal one. But those who'd been sick were even quicker than normal in avoiding the "sick" face, and the sicker they'd been, the faster they pushed. The not-ill people showed no difference.

A much larger scale study that compared people who had similar levels of illness might turn up super responders (react most severely to sick-looking faces) and very weak responders. Such a study could be used to look for genetic variants that influence our subconscious response to sick people.

By Randall Parker 2011 September 13 10:28 PM  Brain Innate
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Lithium Titanium Battery Offers Fast Charge

Electric vehicles need better (cheaper, higher energy density, faster charging) batteries to take off. A lithium titanium dioxide design might solve at least the charge time problem. 50% charged in 6 minutes and expected to be long-lasting.

OAK RIDGE, Tenn., Sept. 8, 2011 -- Batteries could get a boost from an Oak Ridge National Laboratory discovery that increases power, energy density and safety while dramatically reducing charge time.

A team led by Hansan Liu, Gilbert Brown and Parans Paranthaman of the Department of Energy lab's Chemical Sciences Division found that titanium dioxide creates a highly desirable material that increases surface area and features a fast charge-discharge capability for lithium ion batteries. Compared to conventional technologies, the differences in charge time and capacity are striking.

"We can charge our battery to 50 percent of full capacity in six minutes while the traditional graphite-based lithium ion battery would be just 10 percent charged at the same current," Liu said.

Compared to commercial lithium titanate material, the ORNL compound also boasts a higher capacity – 256 vs. 165 milliampere hour per gram – and a sloping discharge voltage that is good for controlling state of charge. This characteristic combined with the fact oxide materials are extremely safe and long-lasting alternatives to commercial graphite make it well-suited for hybrid electric vehicles and other high-power applications.

Fast charging would make trips in electric cars more practical.

It has a complex production process and it is not clear whether it will turn out to be scalable.

By Randall Parker 2011 September 13 07:38 AM  Energy Batteries
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2011 September 11 Sunday
Higher Fetal Androgens Alter Female Brain Development

The rare genetic condition congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) boosts androgen hormone exposure in the womb. Women with CAH have stronger interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers than women who have normal hormone levels. CAH does not appear to influence male career interests.

Teacher, pilot, nurse or engineer? Sex hormones strongly influence people's interests, which affect the kinds of occupations they choose, according to psychologists.

"Our results provide strong support for hormonal influences on interest in occupations characterized by working with things versus people," said Adriene M. Beltz, graduate student in psychology, working with Sheri A. Berenbaum, professor of psychology and pediatrics, Penn State.

Berenbaum and her team looked at people's interest in occupations that exhibit sex differences in the general population and are relevant to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers. The researchers studied teenagers and young adults with congenital adrenal hyperplasia -- a genetic condition -- and their siblings who do not have CAH.

This shouldn't be too surprising. Sex hormones alter brain development. But it reminds me of an interesting question: When the capability to intentionally alter fetal hormonal environment becomes pretty refined and powerful what will people do with this capability?

There's a legal angle to this: Suppose prospective parents 10 or 20 years from now decide to alter the womb environment in a female pregnancy in order to temporarily induce the conditions that CAH causes. Suppose they'll be able to do this without a doctor's help. Will prosecutors try to bring charges against them? If so, for what?

Imagine instead that prospective parents decide to reduce the level of hormones for a male fetus in order to create a feminized son. Again, legal grounds for charges to be brought? Should it be illegal to substantially alter the degree of masculine or feminine qualities developed in a fetus?

Do you believe parents should be free to create combinations of cognitive attributes that are currently quite rare? Is that cruelty to their future child and future adult? Consider that some combinations of attributes would be very hard to live with. Someone so altered might not be able to, for example, find someone to form a romance with who would have compatible desires.

By Randall Parker 2011 September 11 09:42 PM  Brain Sex Differences
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2011 September 10 Saturday
Low Lon Protease Lets Cells Accumulate Damage

If you've got cells low on Lon they will accumulate garbage proteins that cause trouble.

When the body fights oxidative damage, it calls up a reservist enzyme that protects cells – but only if those cells are relatively young, a study has found.

Biologists at USC discovered major declines in the availability of an enzyme, known as the Lon protease, as human cells grow older.

A protease is an enzyme that breaks down peptides (pieces of protein). So this enzyme does not neutralize free radicals. It breaks down proteins damaged by chemicals that rampage thru the cell doing damage. Without enough Lon (and other proteases as well) damaged pieces will accumulate in a cell. This has a number of undesirable consequences such as taking up space that would get used by functional proteins. Also, the damaged proteins will in some cases do wrong things such as generate reactive species that do even more damage. Aging is a vicious cycle where damage causes even more damage.

Would a drug be capable of boosting Lon activity? Is that even the right response to the problem found by these researchers?

The finding may help explain why humans lose energy with age and could point medicine toward new diets or pharmaceuticals to slow the aging process.

The researchers showed that when oxidative agents attack the power centers of young cells, the cells respond by calling up reinforcements of the enzyme, which breaks up and removes damaged proteins.

As the cells age, they lose the ability to mobilize large numbers of Lon, the researchers reported in The Journals of Gerontology.

A cell that does not have enough Lon protease has likely accumulated a lot of damage. The low Lon protease might even be the result of damage to mitochondria where the cell loses the ability to generate enough energy. It would not surprise me if the cell basically turns off optional systems like Lon when energy levels drop too lo. So just trying to boost Lon might not work.

If boosting Lon is either not practical or useful then what? I see two options: Fix the root cause of low Lon. If the root cause is damaged mitochondrial DNA then send in gene therapy to fix the mitochondria. Another option: Try to kill cells that do not make enough Lon. Then neighboring cells or stem cells could divide to replace them. That's an approach that would need selective control so that you don't die due to an organ suddenly failing due to excessive cell loss. Also, cell therapies would be needed to replace cells in organs that have limited repair capability (e.g. the heart).

By Randall Parker 2011 September 10 08:59 AM  Aging Mechanisms
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2011 September 07 Wednesday
Spinning White Dwarf Stars Future Supernovas

Thousands of spinning stellar time bombs could be scattered all over the Milky Way Galaxy.

In the Hollywood blockbuster "Speed," a bomb on a bus is rigged to blow up if the bus slows down below 50 miles per hour. The premise - slow down and you explode - makes for a great action movie plot, and also happens to have a cosmic equivalent.

New research shows that some old stars might be held up by their rapid spins, and when they slow down, they explode as supernovae. Thousands of these "time bombs" could be scattered throughout our Galaxy.

"We haven't found one of these 'time bomb' stars yet in the Milky Way, but this research suggests that we've been looking for the wrong signs. Our work points to a new way of searching for supernova precursors," said astrophysicist Rosanne Di Stefano of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).

We need to identify all the spinning white dwarfs in our neighborhood and try to calculate when each will explode and potentially damage our ozone layer.

The specific type of stellar explosion Di Stefano and her colleagues studied is called a Type Ia supernova. It occurs when an old, compact star known as a white dwarf destabilizes.

Back in 1998 some astrophysicists claimed a supernova would have to be within within 10 parsecs (30 light years) of Earth to cause us a problem and no star that close to Earth poses will go supernova in the next several million years. But if the original report above is correct in arguing that past methods of searching for supernova precursors aren't good enough then perhaps some nearby supernova precursors haven't been identified.

The 10 parsec minimum distance for a supernova threat might be overly optimistic too. In 2006 supernova SN 2006gy exploded with a light intensity 100 greater than the typical supernova and such a supernova could cause us problems at a greater distance.

Suppose astrophysicists some day discover a supernova precursor nearby due to explode in some decades or a couple of centuries from now. Could we prepare any space-based protection against the ozone loss? Or would we want to make UV shields closer to ground or move more of our civilization underground in preparation?

By Randall Parker 2011 September 07 09:41 PM  Dangers Natural General
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2011 September 06 Tuesday
Support Genetic Engineering To Create Flying Pigs

Many wondrous things have been proclaimed as possible only "when pigs fly". Okay, if all manner of invention and human achievement will only become possible once pigs fly then shouldn't we make all haste to create genetically engineered flying pigs? This one bold stroke will usher in a new era of innovation.

By Randall Parker 2011 September 06 09:49 PM  Ideas
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Fat Stem Cells Key To Reversing Hair Loss?

If you are losing your hair then maybe your scalp is just not fat enough.

Yale researchers have discovered the source of signals that trigger hair growth, an insight that may lead to new treatments for baldness.

The researchers identified stem cells within the skin's fatty layer and showed that molecular signals from these cells were necessary to spur hair growth in mice, according to research published in the Sept. 2 issue of the journal Cell.

"If we can get these fat cells in the skin to talk to the dormant stem cells at the base of hair follicles, we might be able to get hair to grow again," said Valerie Horsley, assistant professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology and senior author of the paper.

Injections of adipocyte precursor cells caused mice to grow hair.

The team tested an injection of the precursor cells on mice who were unable to produce these fat cells. Before the injection, the follicles of the mice were unable to produce both hair and the fat tissue.

But two weeks after injection, the study found that hair follicles had begun to grow.

Imagine methods to isolate adipocyte precursor cells and grow large numbers for injection. Would they bring back lost hair? Or would chemical signals in their environment prevent them from forming a supporting fat layer for hair follicles? Millions of men would be willing guinea pigs in experiments to find out.

By Randall Parker 2011 September 06 09:46 PM  Biotech Skin Improvement
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2011 September 05 Monday
We Are Biased Toward Choosing Middle Items In Lists

Don't trust your feelings of preferring one thing over another. If you can manipulate the order of items you can see if your desired choices really represent what you want. We are drawn to liking what is at the center of the stage.

In their article 'Preferring the One in the Middle: Further Evidence for the Centre-stage Effect', researchers Paul Rodway, Astrid Schepman and Jordana Lambert of the University of Chester, UK analyze three separate but related experiments in which they tested the association between the location of an item in a series and how often that item is selected as preferable over other choices. The results indicate a clear tendency toward favoring items located in the middle of a row – regardless of whether it runs horizontally or vertically.

The researchers did a few experiments with the order of different sorts of items (e.g. socks and pictures). Order of pictures clearly influenced what people liked the most. But their least preferred picture choice did not appear to be influenced by order.

In the first experiment 100 participants evaluated 17 rows of pictures. Half the survey-takers were asked to choose which of the five pictures in each row they "most prefer" with the other half choosing the one they "least prefer." A significant trend toward the item in the middle was identified when participants were asked to declare a positive preference. However, location did not appear to influence selection when choosing the least preferred pictures.

Of course, there's a flip side to this: If you want people to choose a specific item put it in the middle.

Our brains are incredibly flawed instruments. We've got try to compensate for staging effects, decision fatigue, and other mental handicaps that we are often not consciously aware of.

By Randall Parker 2011 September 05 06:45 PM  Brain Performance
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2011 September 04 Sunday
Batteries And Hydrogen Fuel Cells For Canal Boat Power

A British canal boat has been retrofitted to run off a combination of hydrogen fuel cell and lead acid batteries.

One of the most efficient means of transporting freight is by ship. However, many of the ships sailing today are powered by ageing diesel motors fitted with neither exhaust cleaning equipment nor or modern control systems. Three years ago the University of Birmingham initiated an ambitious trial, converting an old canal barge to use hydrogen fuel. The old diesel motor, drive system and fuel tank were removed and replaced with a high efficiency electric motor, a battery pack for short-term energy supply and a fuel cell with a hydrogen storage system to charge the batteries. In September 2007 the converted boat, the "Ross Barlow", was launched on its maiden voyage on Britain's 3500 km long canal system. Last year the barge made its longest voyage to date, of four days duration and 105 km length, negotiating no less than 58 locks.

No mention of prices for all the replacement drive train parts. Likely the total cost is higher than the costs of diesel engine and diesel fuel. But we can expect declining costs due to advances in battery and hydrogen storage technologies. I'd bet on battery cost reductions before hydrogen storage cost reductions just because of the huge existing volumes in battery markets for phones, tablets, and laptop PCs. Plus, the market for HEV, PHEV, EV cars is growing.

This report puts long term shipping costs in a different light. It would be more practical for canal and river transportation to switch to battery electric and/or hydrogen power than for ocean-going transport to do the same. Canal boats and river boats can stop at many places along the way for recharge using electric power from existing electric power generator plants. Booms along a river or canal could be built fairly cheaply to swing out electric lines to plug into boats or ships to recharge. Ocean-going vessels do not have that option. Though in theory floating electric generator plants (wind, nuclear, or solar) could recharge ships at stations in the middle of the ocean.

The hydrogen storage contained enough hydrogen to generate about 50 kwh of electric power - which is enough to drive a compact electric car about 200 miles (assuming 0.25 kwh/mile). The boat also contained enough lead acid batteries for 47 kwh electric power..

The capacity of the fuel cell was, however insufficient to power the boat directly, so the "Ross Barlow" was also fitted with a 47 kWh buffer battery. Lead acid batteries were used for this purpose since they are low maintenance, low-priced and easy to charge. The weight of the battery pack is of no consequence when used in an inland waterways vessel.

The hydrogen supply for the fuel cell was provided by hydride storage system developed by Empa and partly financed by the Swiss Federal Office of Energy (SFOE). This device can store hydrogen with an energy content of 50 kWh, which is equivalent to 20 pressurized gas cylinders each of 10 Liter capacity.

Sounds like the hydride storage system will last for over 1200 refueling cycles.

The reliability and operational lifetime of the metal hydride storage system was tested in the laboratory during its development. In practical terms this means that when used to power the "Ross Barlow", if the ship is assumed to travel 650 km per year through the British canal system, it would need refueling once a month with hydrogen. In this case the hydrogen storage system would have an operating lifetime in excess of 100 years, and would therefore comfortably outlast the useful lifetime of the barge itself.

Do not be misled by the expected 100 years lifetime. If this hydrogen storage system was used for ships that ply big rivers (e.g. ships that travel up and down the Mississippi River) it would be reasonable to expect refuelings on a rate approaching a daily basis. Given that, if the metal hydride storage wears out how much money is saved by recycling it to create new storage containers?

Lead acid battery life would be a concern if used for shipping. One source claims 550 discharge cycles for marine batteries if discharged 50% each time. But if discharged 80% the number of discharge cycles drops in half. Note that even longer lasting lead acid batteries exist which have pure lead plates. Don't know how many discharge cycles they can handle.

As the price of oil goes up and the prices of assorted substitutes go down the ease of our migration away from oil will be determined the price points where each substitute become cheaper than oil for each use.

By Randall Parker 2011 September 04 09:42 PM  Energy Transportation
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2011 September 03 Saturday
Exercise Tells Stem Cells To Become Bone, Not Fat

Tell all your mouse friends. Yet another reason for mice to get on that treadmill and run like mad.

HAMILTON Sept. 1, 2011 – McMaster researchers have found one more reason to exercise: working out triggers influential stem cells to become bone instead of fat, improving overall health by boosting the body's capacity to make blood.

The body's mesenchymal stem cells are most likely to become fat or bone, depending on which path they follow.

Using treadmill-conditioned mice, a team led by the Department of Kinesiology's Gianni Parise has shown that aerobic exercise triggers those cells to become bone more often than fat.

The exercising mice ran less than an hour, three times a week, enough time to have a significant impact on their blood production, says Parise, an associate professor.

Does this result apply to humans? Probably. So the next time a dog tries to get you to go running take his advice. He's obviously up on the scientific research on exercise.

By Randall Parker 2011 September 03 07:12 PM  Aging Exercise Studies
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2011 September 02 Friday
Soot Seen As 2nd Biggest Human-Caused Atmospheric Warmer

At least in terms of deltas from the pre-industrial era soot pollution is now seen as having a bigger warming effect than methane.

DENVER, Aug. 31, 2011 — A new study of dust-like particles of soot in the air — now emerging as the second most important — but previously overlooked — factor in global warming provides fresh evidence that reducing soot emissions from diesel engines and other sources could slow melting of sea ice in the Arctic faster and more economically than any other quick fix, a scientist reported here today.

In a presentation at the 242nd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), Mark Z. Jacobson, Ph.D., cited concerns that continued melting of sea ice above the Arctic Circle will be a tipping point for the Earth's climate, a point of no return. That's because the ice, which reflects sunlight and heat back into space, would give way to darker water that absorbs heat and exacerbates warming. And there is no known way to make the sea refreeze in the short term.

Soot landing on ice lowers its albedo. In other words, soot, being dark, absorbs light that ice would otherwise reflect. Making ice darker causes more sunlight to be absorbed, heating and melting the ice.

What is good about this result: Soot is bad for our health. We should want to cut its emissions anyway. The global warming debate isn't even something you need to care about to want to cut soot pollution from diesel trucks, coal-burning electric generator plants, and other sources.

Jacobson's calculations indicate that controlling soot could reduce warming above parts of the Arctic Circle by almost 3 degrees Fahrenheit within 15 years. That would virtually erase all of the warming that has occurred in the Arctic during the last 100 years.

"No other measure could have such an immediate effect," said Jacobson, who is with Stanford University. "Soot emissions are second only to carbon dioxide (CO2) in promoting global warming, but its effects have been underestimated in previous climate models. Consequently, soot's effect on climate change has not been adequately addressed in national and international global warming legislation. Soot emissions account for about 17 percent of global warming, more than greenhouse gases like methane. Soot's contribution, however, could be reduced by 90 percent in 5-10 years with aggressive national and international policies."

Keeping the Arctic (and Antarctic) cold is more important than keeping temperatures down in lower latitudes. Keep the ice as ice and we can keep our coastlines from submerging.

By Randall Parker 2011 September 02 10:37 AM  Climate Pollution
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