2013 July 31 Wednesday
Earth Misses Carrington Event Solar Coronal Mass Ejection

Update: spacewealther.com says this report in the Washington Examiner is nonsense. So just fantasize that civilization almost got trashed 2 weeks ago. Or, better yet, fantasize that the grid is going to get fried in a few years time and you are in a race to prepare your family to survive the disaster. Do you live in an area of probable power system collapse?

Feeling pretty lucky: A coronal mass ejection (big solar flare) from the sun narrowly missed frying our electric grids a couple of weeks ago.

"There had been a near miss about two weeks ago, a Carrington-class coronal mass ejection crossed the orbit of the Earth and basically just missed us," said Peter Vincent Pry, who served on the Congressional EMP Threat Commission from 2001-2008.

If you like to always look on the bright side then a Carrington event would give you the opportunity to test your survival skills against both nature and the rest of humanity. Suppose you confront the collapse of the electric grid. If you keep yourself alive for months as civilization collapses the number of fellow humans you will need to defend yourself from will go down pretty steeply. If you survive until the grid is brought back up you will find a much larger selection of housing - unless massive fires break out and burn out suburbs and cities. In the latter case you'll be able to avail yourself of cheap land.

If you feel addicted to computer then a grid collapse would free you from the worldwide web. As the National Geographic put it: Solar Flare Would Rupture Earth's "Cyber Cocoon".

In event of an extended period without electricity most cities would become uninhabitable. Most water systems would stop pumping water. Many millions would die from thirst, disease, hunger, weather exposure, and violence.

I have to admit I have not made adequate preparations for a fried power grid.

Where to start: First assure you won't die of thirst or contaminated water. A water filtration system will let you live longer than a substantial fraction of the population. Though you will only retain possession of it if you can hide your excellent way to filter water from your neighborhood.

By Randall Parker 2013 July 31 08:20 PM 
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2013 July 30 Tuesday
Only Genetic Engineering Can Save Orange Trees

The C. liberibacter asiaticus causes the citrus greening that is wrecking orange crops worldwide. Looks like only genetic engineering can save the crop. Would you rather eat genetically engineered oranges or no oranges?

I am reminded of the prospects for the return of the American chestnut as a result of genetic engineering against a blight fungus.

As the world becomes more interconnected local diseases with the ability to do severe damage to a species go global. This is the problem faced by orange trees.

So thumbs up or down on genetically engineered orange trees? Ditto for chestnut.

I say bring it on.

By Randall Parker 2013 July 30 09:49 PM 
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2013 July 27 Saturday
High CO2 Reduces Tree Water Loss

Many climate scientists expect a hotter world will be drier in many regions. Tough on plant growth. However, higher atmospheric carbon dioxide reduces the need for trees to open pores to absorb carbon dioxide. This reduces water loss from leaves.

DURHAM, NH, July 10, 2013 - A study by scientists with the U.S. Forest Service, Harvard University and partners suggests that trees are responding to higher atmospheric carbon dioxide levels by becoming more efficient at using water.

Whether this will be a benefit to you personally probably depends on where you live. Trees that release less water into the atmosphere will reduce precipitation downwind.

How efficient trees are in using water has implications for ecosystem function, services and feedbacks to the climate system. These include enhanced timber yields and improved water availability, which could partially offset the effects of future droughts. However, reduced evapotranspiration, or the combination of evaporation and plant transpiration from the land to the atmosphere, resulting from higher water-use efficiency could lead to higher air temperatures, decreased humidity, and decreased recycling of continental precipitation. This could cause increased continental freshwater runoff, along with drought in parts of the world that rely on water transpired in other regions.

Some types of plants can grow more rapidly in high CO2, especially since the high CO2 reduces water loss. But if global warming causes massive droughts then at least in the drought areas the high CO2 won't help any. However, it has been argued that forests are expanding into the Israeli Negev desert as a result of higher CO2. So in some areas higher CO2 will increase biomass density.

If the world really heats up (and I have no crystal ball on climate) then keep in mind that some regions will be winners while others will be losers. Some areas will become too hot to live in during summer. Others will become too dry.

If the costs of energy fall then drought could largely be mitigated in industrialized countries. What we could do: build massive desalinization plants on the coasts and pump the water inland. Imagine thorium nuclear reactors on the Washington state and Oregon coasts pumping desal water inland over the Rockies to Montana and the Dakotas. Hotter and drier plains states could grow crops using desal water flowing into Montana. Part of the water would evaporate but come down as rain.

Since I do not expect humanity to do much intentionally to cut CO2 emissions we are going to find out what higher CO2 emissions will do to global climate

By Randall Parker 2013 July 27 08:57 PM 
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Jame Hansen: Nuclear Energy Essential For Climate

Fearless climate scientist James Hansen doubles down on for unpopular positions. Hansen makes the argument that renewable energy sources are not sufficient to allow us to get off of burning fossil fuels. Would you prefer to take offense with Hansen's position in global warming or Hansen's position on nuclear power? Or are you an outlier who agrees with him on both topics?

Hansen likes fast reactors that burn more of the fuel and produce less waste. But waste disposal isn't the main problem with nuclear power. Lower cost coal and natural gas power are why we see few nukes getting built in the United States. In Europe the competing sources cost more. European coal mines are less extensive and more depleted and Europe has much higher natural gas prices. Renewables cost more in Europe too. Since europe is further north solar power costs more, Europe has far less hydro wind power per person due in part to geography and population density. Yet even in Europe nuclear has cost problems as well as more popular opposition.

In the United States nuclear power is going nowhere until shale natural gas becomes more expensive. Maybe the shale natural gas boom won't last long and coal will start regaining electric power generation market share. Short of that, only a much cheaper nuclear reactor design could enable a nuclear power come back.

The thing about agreeing or disagreeing with Hansen: It does not matter. Humanity will continue to burn large quantities of fossil fuels until either the fossil fuels become too expensive to extract or competing energy sources become much cheaper.

What I'd like to know: the costs of oil, natural gas, coal, solar, nuclear, and wind 20 years from now. My guess is that all fossil fuels will cost more (especially oil) while solar, wind, and nuclear power decline in price (with solar declining the most in percentage terms). But I'm less clear on how much their costs will go up and down.

By Randall Parker 2013 July 27 11:06 AM 
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2013 July 25 Thursday
Rapamycin Does Not Slow Aging In Mice

Rapamycin, a drug that has been found to increase max life expectancy in mice, has drawn interest from researchers in hopes that the drug slows the aging process. But some German researchers find that rapamycin works by suppressing tumors.

Bonn, Germany, July 25, 2013 – The drug rapamycin is known to increase lifespan in mice. Whether rapamycin slows down aging, however, remains unclear. A team of researchers from the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE) and the Helmholtz Zentrum München has now found that rapamycin extends lifespan - but its impact on aging itself is limited. The life-extending effect seems to be related to rapamycin’s suppression of tumors, which represent the main causes of death in these mouse strains. The findings are reported in the current issue of the “Journal of Clinical Investigation” (published online on July 25, 2013).

Of course tumor suppression is a good thing. But a general slowing of the aging process would have greater utility for extending human life expectancy. An even better method to deal with aging: repair and replace aged tissue.

The rapamycin discovery in 2009 seemed like a big deal at the time.

. In 2009, US scientists discovered another effect: Mice treated with rapamycin lived longer than their untreated counterparts. “Rapamycin was the first drug shown to extend maximal lifespan in a mammalian species. This study has created quite a stir,” says Ehninger.

Rapamycin's seems to change metrics of aging traits via mechanisms that do not involve a slowing of the aging process.

Together with scientists from the Helmholtz Zentrum München and other colleagues, Ehninger’s group investigated if rapamycin influences aging in mice. The results are sobering: “Our results indicate that rapamycin extends lifespan, but it has only limited effects on the aging process itself,” is Ehninger’s summary of the findings. “Most aging traits were not affected by rapamycin treatment. Although we did observe positive effects on some aging traits, such as memory impairments and reduced red blood cell counts, our studies showed that similar drug effects are also seen in young mice, indicating that rapamycin did not influence these measures by slowing aging, but rather via other, aging-independent, mechanisms.”

Cancer is my biggest death fear. But you might be surprised to learn (as I was just now when I did the calculation) that out of the 2,468,435 people who died in the United States in 2010 only 23.2% died from cancer.

  • Heart disease: 597,689
  • Cancer: 574,743
  • Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 138,080
  • Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 129,476
  • Accidents (unintentional injuries): 120,859
  • Alzheimer's disease: 83,494
  • Diabetes: 69,071
  • Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 50,476
  • Influenza and Pneumonia: 50,097
  • Intentional self-harm (suicide): 38,364

Note the third place position for respiratory diseases as well as the ninth place position for flue and pneumonia. Infections kill people whose immune systems have gotten too old and feeble.

An aged immune system also probably boosts the risk of cancer by because old immune cells are less able to attack and kill aged abnormal cells that are at increased risk of going cancerous. Methods to rejuvenate the immune system would cut both cancer and infectious disease deaths.

By Randall Parker 2013 July 25 10:00 PM 
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2013 July 22 Monday
Resveratrol Blocks Beneficial Effects Of Exercise?

Taking resveratrol? Might want to rethink that.

In contrast to earlier studies in animals in which resveratrol improved the cardiovascular benefits of exercise, this study in humans has provided surprising and strong evidence that in older men, resveratrol has the opposite effect.

What is emerging is a new view that antioxidants are not a fix for everything, and that some degree of oxidant stress may be necessary for the body to work correctly. This pivotal study suggests that reactive oxygen species, generally thought of as causing aging and disease, may be a necessary signal that causes healthy adaptations in response to stresses like exercise. So too much of a good thing (like antioxidants in the diet) may actually be detrimental to our health.

Denham Harman, who first formulated the free radical theory of aging in about 1954 (and who is, btw, still alive today at age 97), stated in an interview I read years ago that you can take too much antioxidants. He pointed out that the body uses free radicals for signaling and found out experimenting on himself that too much antioxidants made him sluggish.

Antioxidants prevent the reactive oxygen species generated by intense exercise from signaling the body. The reactive oxygen species might cause muscle growth or vascular growth. Take them away and you don't get the benefits of exercise.

Lasse Gliemann, a PhD student who worked on the study at The University of Copenhagen, explains how they conducted the research, and the results they found: "We studied 27 healthy, physically inactive men around 65 years old for 8 weeks. During the 8 weeks all of the men performed high-intensity exercise training and half of the group received 250 mg of resveratrol daily, whereas the other group received a placebo pill (a pill containing no active ingredient). The study design was double-blinded, thus neither the subjects nor the investigators knew which participant that received either resveratrol or placebo.

"We found that exercise training was highly effective in improving cardiovascular health parameters, but resveratrol supplementation attenuated the positive effects of training on several parameters including blood pressure, plasma lipid concentrations and maximal oxygen uptake."

Cautionary tale.

Will we ever find a way to slow down aging with a pill? Maybe. But by then we'll be much older. What we really need: rejuvenation therapies to turn the clock back. Out with the bad cells in with the good cells. And out with the intracellular and extracellular trash too.

By Randall Parker 2013 July 22 11:00 PM 
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2013 July 20 Saturday
Brain DNA Methylation Increases Approaching Adulthood

DNA methylation (attachment of methyl groups into the DNA backbone) is a means of gene regulation widely used in genomes of humans and other species. DNA methylation becomes more extensive in prefrontal cortex brain neurons as adolescent humans approach adulthood.

Researchers have discovered that people's frontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for the conduct and the acquisition of new information) experiences a significant change from birth to the end of adolescence. The epigenome is transformed.

The study analyzes the epigenome of newborns, teenagers aged 16, and adults aged 25 and 50 in the United States and in Catalonia (Spain).

Epigenome is the set of chemical signals responsible for turning on or off genes in our DNA. The discovery published in Science shows that one of these epigenetic signals, methylation of genetic material, is progressively increased until the end of adolescence and entry into adulthood.

This reminds me of the potential to rejuvenate minds and decisions we will face when offered the ability to pour youthful neural stem cells into our brains. Stem cell researchers will some day develop the ability to create youthful neural stem cells and deliver them into our brains. But what methylation patterns to set in these stem cells? Suppose it is possible to make the stem cells more or less methylated. Set their genetic regulatory state to be more like, say, a 12 year old, a 15 year old, or an 18 year old or even a 25 year old? What level of development to choose?

A brain flooded with, say, neural stem cells typical of a 12 year old might start making neurons to configure that brain to be more like a 12 or 13 year old.The brain might become a mix of, say, 40 year old and 12 year old. Or 60 year old and 12 year old. Much hilarity might ensue.

But the ability to replay adolescent neuron growth in adults might enable a human brain to be retrained to be less anti-social A key juvenile brain development period provides mice with key social behavior capabilities. So use neural stem cells to make dangerous criminals less dangerous?

A study by Yale Department of Psychiatry researchers found that mice with blocked neuron growth during their juvenile period exhibited altered social behavior later in life, unable to interact with other adults or to care for baby mice. Experts interviewed said that the findings, published Oct. 5 in The Journal of Neuroscience, may have potential applications in understanding schizophrenia and autism as well as the social deficits of children who undergo chemotherapy.

I expect we will arrive at a future where it becomes possible to choose DNA methylation patterns for neural stem cells that will cause changes in personality and behavior in humans. Will governments exercise sovereign power to alter personalities? Yes, of course. Will populaces vote in to power governments that do this? I expect some will. Also, individuals will their own personalities altered and their intellectual abilities enhanced with stem cell therapies and gene therapies.

By Randall Parker 2013 July 20 11:28 AM 
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2013 July 16 Tuesday
Spatial Reasoning Test At Age 13 Predicts STEM Success

The headline: Early spatial reasoning predicts later creativity and innovation, especially in STEM fields.

The study, conducted by psychology researcher David Lubinski and colleagues at Vanderbilt University, provides evidence that early spatial ability — the skill required to mentally manipulate 2D and 3D objects — predicts the development of new knowledge, and especially innovation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) domains, above and beyond more traditional measures of mathematical and verbal ability.

"We live in the age of human capital," says Lubinski. "Creativity is the currency of the modern era, especially in STEM disciplines. Having a better understanding of the human attributes that facilitate innovation has clear practical implications for education, training, business, and talent development."

And yet, despite longstanding speculation that spatial ability may play an important role in supporting creative thinking and innovation, there are very few systems in place to track skill in spatial reasoning:

Lots of precocious youth are missed.

"Current procedures for identifying intellectually precocious youth currently miss about half of the top 1% in spatial ability," Lubinski explains.

What I suspect is really the case: current screening methods overweight verbal and underweight spatial reasoning. If SATs are the main tool for identifying exceptionally bright 13 year olds then I can see how many of them get missed. The SAT is too weighted toward measuring knowledge accumulation rather than pure intellectual ability. It is also too weighted toward verbal. A spatial reasoning test is much more g loaded (i.e. more purely measuring innate brain ability). But why not just administer full IQ tests? They are even more g loaded.

Using data from a study that began in the late 1970s, Lubinski and colleagues followed up with 563 students who had scored exceptionally well — in the top 0.5% — on the SATs at age 13. The researchers also examined data on the participants' spatial ability at age 13, as measured by the Differential Aptitude Test.

I would be curious to know whether there are any outliers where scores underpredicted patents filed and research publications written. A kid sick or lacking sleep on a day when a cognitive test is given a test will under-perform on the test. How big a problem is that?

Confirming previous research, the data revealed that participants' mathematical and verbal reasoning scores on the SAT at age 13 predicted their scholarly publications and patents 30 years later.

But spatial ability at 13 yielded additional predictive power, suggesting that early spatial ability contributes in a unique way to later creative and scholarly outcomes, especially in STEM domains.

Importantly, these results confirm longstanding speculation in the psychological sciences that spatial ability offers something important to the understanding of creativity that traditional measures of cognitive abilities used in educational and occupational selection don't capture.

What would help: online tests that parents can give their children to check their intellectual abilities.

Online tests of a different kind could also greatly accelerate learning because frequent tests improve memory retrieval. The research on testing as a way to speed learning goes against the intuition that most people have that they should study the source material over and over again. Instead, they should study it once and then get tested and corrected on it over and over again.

By Randall Parker 2013 July 16 09:23 PM 
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If progress was inevitable...

...the space aliens would be here already.

My thought for the day on the Drake Equation.

Update: The comment is about my view of the inevitable workings of natural selection. I suspect the success of a sentient species combined with selective pressures for reproductive success leads to population explosion and a very violent reentry into the Malthusian Trap. That violent reentry might wipe out any intelligent species.

By Randall Parker 2013 July 16 08:24 PM 
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2013 July 15 Monday
Unmanned Sailboats And Robotic Shipping

Check out this Wired article Unmanned Sailboats Test the Waters of Vehicle Autonomy about college students competing to develop autonomous sailboats. Cool stuff. Sounds like fun. Sounds far easier than self-drivable cars that have to deal with a far more complex land environment.

The bit about the far more complex land environment triggers some thoughts. First, it makes sense that airplanes had auto-pilots decades before self-driving cars. 30,000 feet in the air presents a far less complex environment of obstacles to avoid than ground level. But oceans also present far fewer obstacles. Granted, oceans pound ships with intense forces in storms. But huge ships aren't going to suffer much damage from such storms. So then why aren't totally unmanned auto-piloted ships commonplace?

Here's the key question: Is it possible to design and build a huge cargo ship that can operate on automated systems for days while traveling across an ocean? Anyone worked as a merchant ship crew member? Do their diesel engines require a lot of active human involvement?

The European Commission would like to develop an autonomous ship.

To support this outcome, the European Commission called for and accepted a proposal for a new research project on “The Autonomous Ship" to investigate the feasibility of this idea. The selected project was called MUNIN where the name has two meanings: First it is the abbreviation for Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks, pointing to the project's inherent idea of developing technology for an unmanned autonomous vessel.

Autonomous ships could always revert to remote control.

If situations develop where the autonomy constraints are violated, the ship will activate a remote controlled mode or in the worst case a “fail to safe” state.

We are going to see many more autonomous systems replacing humans in a large variety of jobs. Which job do you see signs of getting automated out of existence? I am expecting fast food joint cash register workers to lose their job to self-serve ordering stations where you slide a card to pay. Ditto for most other cashier jobs, especially where you pay first and then get your order.

By Randall Parker 2013 July 15 10:31 PM 
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2013 July 14 Sunday
American Chestnut Trees Poised For Return

Starting in 1900 a blight fungus spread through all American Chestnut forests, wiping out almost all American chestnuts by 1940. A New York Times article reports on two groups that have developed American chestnut strains that have resistance to the blight. One strain was made by crossing with a Chinese chestnut and another was made by genetic engineering.

I am especially hoping the genetically engineered strain succeeds because it has the smallest genetic difference with regular American chestnut. But likely either would be a boon.

Over 100 years ago chestnut represented about 25% of the trees in the American east. A revival of American chestnut would be a boon fora number of wild animal populations that can live off the seed crop.

Most trees produce a seed crop every three to four years through a process called masting, but the American chestnut produces a crop every year, which makes them a very important and consistent food for wildlife. The chestnut's plentiful seeds can also provide nutrition for animals. According to McCarthy, the trees were once the premiere food source of all major vertebrates in Appalachian Ohio forests. The blight, along with subsequent over hunting and the loss of habitat, caused deer, turkey and squirrel populations to plummet in Ohio forests by the 1930s.

The backcrossing method of breeding with Chinese trees is being done in a way that gets a lot of the diversity in existing American chestnuts. That makes them more resistant to other threats and gives them genetic features that adapt them to local conditions.

By Randall Parker 2013 July 14 08:40 PM 
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Nutrient Starvation Protein Could Be Cancer Cell Target

Life is like a big game of Russian Roulette where our DNA gets mutated every day and the right combination of mutations could drive a cell to start dividing like mad. Months later a doctor delivers bad news about your scheduled check-out from the Life Hotel. You never know when cancer might strike. The revolver is spinning and the trigger is being pulled every second. So that's why I take an especially large interest in cancer research. Some British researchers think maybe they've found an Achilles Heel in cancer cells: the protein eEF2K.

Chris Proud, Professor of Cellular Regulation in Biological Sciences at the University of Southampton says: "Cancer cells grow and divide much more rapidly than normal cells, meaning they have a much higher demand for and are often starved of, nutrients and oxygen. We have discovered that a cellular component, eEF2K, plays a critical role in allowing cancer cells to survive nutrient starvation, whilst normal, healthy cells do not usually require eEF2K in order to survive. Therefore, by blocking the function of eEF2K, we should be able to kill cancer cells, without harming normal, healthy cells in the process."

Almost all cells in the human body contain the same basic components, meaning that to attack one of them in a cancer cell, that component will also be affected in normal cells. This study has identified a specific protein that is not necessary in normal cells but seems to be important to the survival of cancerous cells. A treatment that could block this protein could represent a significant breakthrough in the future of cancer treatment.

Most cancers aren't going to get entirely wiped out by a single weakness or vulnerability. But if we can build up enough different ways to selectively strike at cancer cells then a cure would be possible. But when will that happen? Before or after the Russian Roulette spin hits for each of us?

By Randall Parker 2013 July 14 07:28 PM 
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2013 July 13 Saturday
Heavy Smokers, Drinkers Brain Age 36% Faster

The combination of smoking and heavy drinking takes its toll in the form of 36% faster brain aging.

Smoking and heavier alcohol consumption often co-occur, and their combined effect on cognition may be larger than the sum of their individual effects. The research team assessed 6,473 adults (4,635 men and 1,838 women) aged between 45 and 69 years old over a 10-year period. The adults were part of the Whitehall II cohort study of British civil servants.

All the participants were asked about their cigarette and alcohol consumption, and their cognitive function (including verbal and mathematical reasoning, short-term verbal memory and verbal fluency) was then assessed three times over 10 years.

The research team found that in current smokers who were also heavy drinkers, cognitive decline was 36% faster than in non-smoking moderate drinkers. This was equivalent to an age effect of 12 years – an additional two years over the 10-year follow up period. Among smokers, cognitive decline was found to be faster as the number of alcohol units consumed increased.

Until we get rejuvenation therapies it is all downhill. But you can at least make the slope not so steep if you do not poison yourself daily.

On the bright side, the smoking increases the chance your whole body will die before your brain does.

By Randall Parker 2013 July 13 07:10 PM 
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2013 July 11 Thursday
Vitamin D Deficiency Accelerates Bone Aging

Get some sunshine or vitamin D caps.

“The assumption has been that the main problem with vitamin D deficiency is reduced mineralization for the creation of new bone mass, but we’ve shown that low levels of vitamin D also induces premature aging of existing bone,” says Robert Ritchie, who led the U.S. portion of this collaboration. Ritchie holds joint appointments with Berkeley Lab’s Materials Sciences Division and the University of California (UC) Berkeley’s Materials Science and Engineering Department.

It would be prudent to get your blood vitamin D level checked.

From their study, Busse, Ritchie and their co-authors say that vitamin-D levels should be checked and kept on well-balanced levels to maintain the structural integrity of bones and avoid mineralization defects and aging issues that can lead to a risk of fractures.

By Randall Parker 2013 July 11 11:11 PM 
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2013 July 10 Wednesday
Omega 3 Fatty Acids Boost Prostate Cancer Risk

While a diet high in omega 3 fatty acids probably delivers some health benefits omega 3s also boost prostate cancer risk.

SEATTLE – A second large, prospective study by scientists at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center has confirmed the link between high blood concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids and an increased risk of prostate cancer.

Published July 11 in the online edition of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, the latest findings indicate that high concentrations of EPA, DPA and DHA – the three anti-inflammatory and metabolically related fatty acids derived from fatty fish and fish-oil supplements – are associated with a 71 percent increased risk of high-grade prostate cancer. The study also found a 44 percent increase in the risk of low-grade prostate cancer and an overall 43 percent increase in risk for all prostate cancers.

The increase in risk for high-grade prostate cancer is important because those tumors are more likely to be fatal.

The findings confirm a 2011 study published by the same Fred Hutch scientific team that reported a similar link between high blood concentrations of DHA and a more than doubling of the risk for developing high-grade prostate cancer. The latest study also confirms results from a large European study.

Bummer.

The scientists can only speculate about causal mechanism.

One potentially harmful effect of omega-3 fatty acids is their conversion into compounds that can cause damage to cells and DNA, and their role in immunosuppression. Whether these effects impact cancer risk is not known.

Would immunosuppression boost risk of other cancers as well? Or is prostate cancer better suppressed by the immune system than other types of cancer?

We need cures for cancer. Every day our cells get mutated and every day any one of us could get a mutation that kicks off cancer progression.

By Randall Parker 2013 July 10 10:15 PM 
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2013 July 06 Saturday
Peak Copper Pushed Further Out

Which minerals and forms of energy will limit economic growth and when will each do so? Oil prices are now high enough to retard economic growth. Will oil become a bigger limit in the future? When will other energy sources (notably electricity in batteries) become major substitutes for oil? Do we only need to worry about oil in the next 30 years? Some Australian academics think copper won't run out in 30 years.

New research shows that existing copper resources can sustain increasing world-wide demand for at least a century, meaning social and environmental concerns could be the most important restrictions on future copper production.

Researchers from Monash University have conducted the most systematic and robust compilation and analysis of worldwide copper resources to date. Contrary to predictions estimating that supplies of this important metal would run out in around 30 years, the research has found there are plenty of resources within the reach of current technologies.

Ore grade is the biggest factor in determining the cost of copper extraction because more energy must be expended to concentrate copper from lower grade ores. Therefore in the long run the cost of energy will play a very big part in determining whether low grade ores can be mined. Really cheap fusion energy would make very low grade ores useful for many kinds of minerals.

The database, published in two peer-reviewed papers, was compiled by Dr Gavin Mudd and Zhehan Weng from Environmental Engineering and Dr Simon Jowitt from the School of Geosciences. It is based on mineral resource estimates from mining companies and includes information vital for carbon and energy-use modelling, such as the ore grade of the deposits.

Environmental concerns are playing an increasing role in limiting copper extraction.

Despite examples like the Ok Tedi mine in Papua New Guinea, where mining has continued despite widespread environmental degradation that has affected thousands of residents, non-economic factors have constrained some mining operations and the researchers believe this will become increasingly important in the near future. An example is the Pebble copper-gold project in Alaska, which after more than a decade still doesn't have the necessary approvals due to the environmental and cultural concerns of nearby residents.

A nation with higher living standards will set the bar higher for mines.

By Randall Parker 2013 July 06 08:18 AM 
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2013 July 04 Thursday
Weight Gain From Less Sleep Due To More Time To Eat?

Go to bed early to reduce your opportunity to eat.

DARIEN, IL – A new study suggests that healthy adults with late bedtimes and chronic sleep restriction may be more susceptible to weight gain due to the increased consumption of calories during late-night hours.

In the largest, most diverse healthy sample studied to date under controlled laboratory conditions, results show that sleep-restricted subjects who spent only four hours in bed from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. for five consecutive nights gained more weight than control subjects who were in bed for 10 hours each night from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m. The study found an overall increase in caloric intake during sleep restriction, which was due to an increase in the number of meals consumed during the late-night period of additional wakefulness. Furthermore, the proportion of calories consumed from fat was higher during late-night hours than at other times of day.

Other researchers look for complex mechanisms involving hunger hormones boosted by lack of sleep. But these researchers have come up with a far simpler mechanism.

Have a hard time falling asleep? Cut your exposure to artificial light in the evenings. You can use UV-filtering glasses.

By Randall Parker 2013 July 04 09:56 PM 
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Photoacoustic Microscope Can Detect Blood Cell Diseases

20 years from now I expect visits to doctors' offices to be much rarer, at least for diagnosis. Hopefully visits will be more frequent in order to get stem cell therapies that slow and reverse aging. But automated small cheap and widely available diagnostic devices will enable much diagnosis to take place in web servers automatically fed all test results. The testing will be done in drug stores, storefronts for blood sampling taking, and with devices embedded in the home. As an example of a step in that direction a photoacoustic microscope which measures sounds created by laser light hitting red blood cells can diagnose some blood diseases.

Using a special photoacoustic microscope that detects sound, the investigators were able to differentiate healthy red blood cells from irregularly shaped red blood cells with high confidence, using a sample size of just 21 cells. Because each measurement takes only fractions of a second, the method could eventually be incorporated into an automated device for rapid characterization of red blood cells from a single drop of blood obtained in the clinic.

A single drop of blood is so easy to get that there'll be no need for a trip to a clinic. Diabetics take a drop of blood every day.

Lasers cause sound waves to emanate from red blood cells. Who knew?

New research reveals that when red blood cells are hit with laser light, they produce high frequency sound waves that contain a great deal of information. Similar to the way one can hear the voices of different people and identify who they are, investigators reporting in the July 2 issue of Biophysical Journal, published by Cell Press, could analyze the sound waves produced by red blood cells and recognize their shape and size. The information may aid in the development of simple tests for blood-related diseases.

"We plan to make specialized devices that will allow the detection of individual red blood cells and analyze the photoacoustic signals they produce to rapidly diagnose red blood cell pathologies," says senior author Dr. Michael Kolios, of Ryerson University, Toronto.

Deviations from the regular biconcave shape of a red blood cell are a significant indicator of blood-related diseases, whether they result from genetic abnormalities, from infectious agents, or simply from a chemical imbalance. For example, malaria patients' red blood cells are irregularly swollen, while those of patients with sickle cell anemia take on a rigid, sickle shape.

Throw in some microfluidic devices and other instrumentation built into your bedroom and bathroom and every night you will be able to get yourself checked for many diseases.

By Randall Parker 2013 July 04 08:49 PM 
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2013 July 01 Monday
Implications For Sequencing 700,000 Year Old Horse DNA

The successful sequencing of DNA from a 700,000 year old fossil dug up in Canada's Yukon Territory has some geneticists claiming they can go all the way back 1 million years and reconstruct ancient DNA. How cool is that?

What's key here: frozen places that have been frozen for a very long time are big refrigerators that preserve DNA. A dig into the frozen soil of Alaska, Yukon, Northwest Territory, Greenland, or northern Siberia is a trip back into genetic time. Any species which went extinct in the last million years in far northern zones can probably be brought back to life in the 2020s or 2030s.

If any of the animals that went extinct at the end of the last ice age exist frozen in permafrost then we have some interesting prospects we could resurrect:

This includes animals such as the mammoth and mastodon, the American lion, saber-toothed cats such as Smilodon and Homotherium, giant sloths, giant birds such as the Moa, gorilla-sized lemurs such as Archaeoindris, an 8 foot long tortoise called Meiolania, the large and aggressive wild ancestor of cattle the aurochs, the 30 foot long Stellar’s Sea Cow, the giant short-faced bear...

Out of the extensive list of mammals that went extinct near the time humans showed up in North America surely more viable DNA samples will be found in Canadian and Alaskan permafrost.

What I'd like to know: did any interesting animals go extinct in North America during the middle Pleistocene (781 to 126 thousand years ago)? This latest success with horse DNA points to the possibility of bringing back species from that period.

Update: Fossils frozen in Siberia are potentially far more interesting than fossils frozen in Alaska or Canada. Why? Non-human Hominins from the Homo genus (e.g. neanderthals) ranged across Asia and Europe, but not the Americas. Humans came much later to North America as the first Hominids. We might be able to find enough good DNA samples of pre-human hominins. Imagine bringing back to life non-human hominin species. We could find out their instincts, intellectual abilities, and language abilities.

By Randall Parker 2013 July 01 10:58 PM 
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