In praise of the naked mole rat

Scientists have sequenced the genome of a strange little creature, the naked mole rat.  Why?  Because it never gets cancer, lives an unbelievably long life without mental decline, and has many other amazing powers that may hold clues for human health.

Mole rats are hairless, buck-toothed rodents four inches long that live in underground colonies in arid sections of Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea. Their social structure is the mammalian equivalent of an ant colony. There’s a queen who takes two or three male consorts and is the only female to reproduce. She lords over the rest of the realm — which can be as large as 200 animals — so that the other females cease ovulating and the males give up.

Mole rats can survive in environments low in oxygen (as little as 8 percent as opposed to 21 percent in the atmosphere) and laden with ammonia and carbon dioxide. Unlike other mammals (but like reptiles), they have a hard time regulating their body temperature. They have to move toward the warmer upper reaches of the burrow or huddle with their brethren when they get cold.

But their most unusual features are extreme longevity and apparently complete resistance to developing cancer.

Naked mole rats can live more than 25 years; mice live about four. Buffenstein said she has never found a malignant tumor in a mole rat in her 30-year-old colony, which has 2,000 animals. In a recent experiment, a group of mole rats had patches of skin painted with a chemical carcinogen at a dose 1,000 times stronger than what causes skin cancer in mice. None developed tumors.

A study published in 2009 found that naked mole rats had a molecular anticancer mechanism not present in mice or people. But a first look at the species’ full complement of 22,561 genes shows that’s just the beginning.

There are changes in genes involved in maintaining telomeres, the “tails” of chromosomes that determine how long a cell lives. There are changes in genes involved in marking damaged proteins for destruction. There’s an increase in “chaperone” genes that keep proteins folded into their right shapes. There are genes that appear to let the animals maintain stem cells in their tissues longer than other rodents.

The study looked at 54 human brain genes that become less or more active as a person ages. In the mole rat, 30 of those genes remain stable throughout life, and two others change their activity in a direction opposite to what occurs in human brains.

Mole rats have 96 gene families unique to the species. Interestingly, they and humans also share 178 gene families that neither mice nor other rats have.

via Naked mole rat genome may point way to long, healthy life – The Washington Post.

 

 

Breaking the speed limit

Scientists have found neutrinos that seem to be traveling faster than the speed of light, which, according to the laws of physics since Einstein, is supposed to be impossible:

Puzzling results from Cern, home of the LHC, have confounded physicists – because it appears subatomic particles have exceeded the speed of light.

Neutrinos sent through the ground from Cern toward the Gran Sasso laboratory 732km away seemed to show up a tiny fraction of a second early.

The result – which threatens to upend a century of physics – will be put online for scrutiny by other scientists.

In the meantime, the group says it is being very cautious about its claims.

“We tried to find all possible explanations for this,” said report author Antonio Ereditato of the Opera collaboration.

“We wanted to find a mistake – trivial mistakes, more complicated mistakes, or nasty effects – and we didn’t,” he told BBC News.

“When you don’t find anything, then you say ‘Well, now I’m forced to go out and ask the community to scrutinise this.’”

The speed of light is the Universe’s ultimate speed limit, and much of modern physics – as laid out in part by Albert Einstein in his special theory of relativity – depends on the idea that nothing can exceed it.

Thousands of experiments have been undertaken to measure it ever more precisely, and no result has ever spotted a particle breaking the limit.

But Dr Ereditato and his colleagues have been carrying out an experiment for the last three years that seems to suggest neutrinos have done just that.

Neutrinos come in a number of types, and have recently been seen to switch spontaneously from one type to another.

The team prepares a beam of just one type, muon neutrinos, sending them from Cern to an underground laboratory at Gran Sasso in Italy to see how many show up as a different type, tau neutrinos.

In the course of doing the experiments, the researchers noticed that the particles showed up a few billionths of a second sooner than light would over the same distance.

The team measured the travel times of neutrino bunches some 15,000 times, and have reached a level of statistical significance that in scientific circles would count as a formal discovery.

But the group understands that what are known as “systematic errors” could easily make an erroneous result look like a breaking of the ultimate speed limit, and that has motivated them to publish their measurements.

“My dream would be that another, independent experiment finds the same thing – then I would be relieved,” Dr Ereditato said.

But for now, he explained, “we are not claiming things, we want just to be helped by the community in understanding our crazy result – because it is crazy”.

“And of course the consequences can be very serious.”

via BBC News – Speed-of-light experiments give baffling result at Cern.

I know exactly what our readers Webmonk and tODD will say:  The journalists have it all wrong and this is not that big a deal.  Surely a mistake, something that has another explanation.  (I know:  Maybe the neutrinos have just jumped into the future.)  Fine, fine.  I hope they will give us their explanation.  I hope they and other of you science types will allow for a mental experiment and instruct us about what difference this would make if it were, in fact, true that some things can go faster than light.

Christianity & Science

In an article on “Why the Arabic World Turned Away from Science,” Hillel Ofek describes and helps account for the great contributions of early Islamic scientists and mathematicians, but he then chronicles how ever-more-absolutist brands of Islam came to shut them down.  Ofek says that civilizations often abandon scientific inquiry–citing China and India–and that the West is the notable exception.  For this he gives Christianity lots of credit:

As a way of articulating questions that lie deeper than the Ash’arism-Mu’tazilism debate, it is helpful to briefly compare Islam with Christianity. Christianity acknowledges a private-public distinction and (theoretically, at least) allows adherents the liberty to decide much about their social and political lives. Islam, on the other hand, denies any private-public distinction and includes laws regulating the most minute details of private life. Put another way, Islam does not acknowledge any difference between religious and political ends: it is a religion that specifies political rules for the community.

Such differences between the two faiths can be traced to the differences between their prophets. While Christ was an outsider of the state who ruled no one, and while Christianity did not become a state religion until centuries after Christ’s birth, Mohammed was not only a prophet but also a chief magistrate, a political leader who conquered and governed a religious community he founded. Because Islam was born outside of the Roman Empire, it was never subordinate to politics. As Bernard Lewis puts it, Mohammed was his own Constantine. This means that, for Islam, religion and politics were interdependent from the beginning; Islam needs a state to enforce its laws, and the state needs a basis in Islam to be legitimate. To what extent, then, do Islam’s political proclivities make free inquiry — which is inherently subversive to established rules and customs — possible at a deep and enduring institutional level?

Some clues can be found by comparing institutions in the medieval period. Far from accepting anything close to the occasionalism and legal positivism of the Sunnis, European scholars argued explicitly that when the Bible contradicts the natural world, the holy book should not be taken literally. Influential philosophers like Augustine held that knowledge and reason precede Christianity; he approached the subject of scientific inquiry with cautious encouragement, exhorting Christians to use the classical sciences as a handmaiden of Christian thought. Galileo’s house arrest notwithstanding, his famous remark that “the intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes” underscores the durability of the scientific spirit among pious Western societies. Indeed, as David C. Lindberg argues in an essay collected in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (2009), “No institution or cultural force of the patristic period offered more encouragement for the investigation of nature than did the Christian church.” And, as Baylor University sociologist Rodney Stark notes in his book For the Glory of God (2003), many of the greatest scientists of the scientific revolution were also Christian priests or ministers.

The Church’s acceptance and even encouragement of philosophy and science was evident from the High Middle Ages to modern times. As the late Ernest L. Fortin of Boston College noted in an essay collected in Classical Christianity and the Political Order (1996), unlike al-Farabi and his successors, “Aquinas was rarely forced to contend with an anti-philosophic bias on the part of the ecclesiastical authorities. As a Christian, he could simply assume philosophy without becoming publicly involved in any argument for or against it.” And when someone like Galileo got in trouble, his work moved forward and his inquiry was carried on by others; in other words, institutional dedication to scientific inquiry was too entrenched in Europe for any authority to control. After about the middle of the thirteenth century in the Latin West, we know of no instance of persecution of anyone who advocated philosophy as an aid in interpreting revelation. In this period, “attacks on reason would have been regarded as bizarre and unacceptable,” explains historian Edward Grant in Science and Religion, 400 b.c. to a.d. 1550.

via The New Atlantis » Why the Arabic World Turned Away from Science.

Augustine indeed, on the basis of the classical science of his day, said there was no need to take the creation account in Genesis literally in every detail, while still affirming the truth of what it means.  Arguably, the worldviews of Christianity and those early scientists were in harmony–indeed, the former made possible the latter–whereas  they started to clash after the Enlightenment and 19th century materialism.  Still. . . .

HT:  Joe Carter

The diamond planet

The universe is just full of wonders, and here is another one:

Astronomers have spotted an exotic planet that seems to be made of diamond racing around a tiny star in our galactic backyard.

The new planet is far denser than any other known so far and consists largely of carbon. Because it is so dense, scientists calculate the carbon must be crystalline, so a large part of this strange world will effectively be diamond.

“The evolutionary history and amazing density of the planet all suggest it is comprised of carbon — i.e. a massive diamond orbiting a neutron star every two hours in an orbit so tight it would fit inside our own Sun,” said Matthew Bailes of Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne.

Lying 4,000 light years away, or around an eighth of the way toward the center of the Milky Way from the Earth, the planet is probably the remnant of a once-massive star that has lost its outer layers to the so-called pulsar star it orbits.

via Astronomers discover planet made of diamond | Reuters.

Human experimentation

Around the time Nazi doctor Josef Mengele was conducting his brutal medical experiments on human beings, some American scientists were doing pretty much the same thing:

U.S. government researchers who purposely infected unwitting subjects with sexually transmitted diseases in Guatemala in the 1940s had obtained consent a few years earlier before conducting similar experiments in Indiana, investigators reported Monday. . . .

At least 5,500 prisoners, mental patients, soldiers and children were drafted into the experiments, including at least 1,300 who were exposed to the sexually transmitted diseases syphilis, gonorrhea and chancroid, the commission reported. At least 83 subjects died, although the commission could not determine how many of the deaths were directly caused by the experiments, they said. . . .

In one case described during Monday’s two-hour hearing, a woman who was infected with syphilis was clearly dying from the disease. Instead of treating her, the researchers poured gonorrhea-infected pus into her eyes and other orifices and infected her again with syphilis. She died six months later.

The ultimate goal of the Guatemalan research was to determine whether taking penicillin after sex would protect against syphilis, gonorrhea and chancroid. The question was a medical priority at the time, especially in the military. The Guatemalan experiments, carried out between 1946 and 1948, aimed to find a reliable way of infecting subjects for future studies.

The research included infecting prisoners by bringing them prostitutes who were either already carrying the diseases or were purposely infected by the researchers. Doctors also poured bacteria onto wounds they had opened with needles on prisoners’ penises, faces and arms. In some cases, infectious material was injected into their spines, the commission reported.

The researchers conducted similar experiments on soldiers in an army barracks and on men and women in the National Mental Health Hospital. The researchers took blood samples from children at the National Orphanage, although they did not purposely infect them.

In the studies conducted in Indiana, researchers exposed 241 inmates in Terre Haute to gonorrhea in 1943 and 1944. But there, the researchers explained the experiments in advance in detail and experimented only on the prisoners who volunteered. In contrast, many of the same researchers who began experimenting on Guatemalans a few years later actively hid what they were doing and never tried to obtain permission, the commission found. . . .

Susan M. Reverby, a historian at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, discovered the Guatemalan experiments while doing research for a book on the infamous Tuskegee studies in Alabama. Reverby found papers from John C. Cutler, a doctor with the federal government’s Public Health Service. Cutler had participated in the Tuskegee experiment, in which hundreds of African American men with late-stage syphilis were left untreated to study the disease between 1932 and 1972. Cutler died in 2003.

via U.S. scientists knew 1940s Guatemalan STD studies were unethical, panel finds – The Washington Post.

How did the animals know?

Shortly before the earthquake hit Washington, D.C., the animals in the National Zoo started freaking out.   So did lots of people’s housepets, with sleepy cats suddenly jumping up and heading for the hills just prior to the quake.  Scientists can’t figure out how they knew:

Orangutans, gorillas, flamingos and red-ruffed lemurs acted strangely before humans detected the historic magnitude-5.8 earthquake. Now the question hovering over the zoo is: What did the animals know, and when did they know it?

Therein lies a scientific mystery, one in which hard facts and solid observations are entangled with lore and legend. There has been talk over the years about mysterious electromagnetic fields generated by rupturing faults. There has been speculation about sounds inaudible to humans, and subtle tilting in rock formations, and the release of vapors that people can’t smell.But there also may be less to the mystery than meets the eye, with Tuesday’s zoo weirdness merely serving as a reminder that many wild animals are paying close attention to nature while humans are doing whatever it is that humans do.

The zoo documented a broad range of animal behavior before, during and after the tremor that began in central Virginia and shook much of the eastern United States. For example, a gorilla, Mandara, shrieked and grabbed her baby, Kibibi, racing to the top of a climbing structure just seconds before the ground began to shake dramatically. Two other apes — an orangutan, Kyle, and a gorilla, Kojo — already had dropped their food and skedaddled to higher turf.

The 64 flamingos seemed to sense the tumult a number of seconds in advance as well, clustering together in a nervous huddle before the quake hit. One of the zoo’s elephants made a low-pitched noise as if to communicate with two other elephants.

And red-ruffed lemurs emitted an alarm cry a full 15 minutes before the temblor, the zoo said.

During the quake, the zoo grounds were filled with howls and cries. The snakes, normally inert in the middle of the day, writhed and slithered. Beavers stood on their hind legs and then jumped into a pond. Murphy the Komodo dragon ran for cover. Lions resting outside suddenly stood up and stared at their building as the walls shook.

Damai, a Sumatran tiger, leaped as if startled but quickly settled down. Some animals remained agitated for the rest of the day, wouldn’t eat and didn’t go to sleep on their usual schedule. . . .

The belief that strange animal behavior is a precursor to earthquakes goes back to antiquity. A recent scientific study suggested that toads fled to higher ground days before the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila, Italy. In the most famous case of modern times, snakes and frogs emerged from their holes in 1975 in the dead of winter several weeks before a magnitude-7.3 earthquake in Haicheng, China (the odd animal behavior helped persuade officials to evacuate the city just before the tremor).

via Zoo mystery: How did apes and birds know quake was coming? – The Washington Post.

One explanation has to do with the so-called p-wave, a faint foreshock that precedes the big s-wave in an earthquake.  This is imperceptible to human beings, but maybe animals can pick it up.  The p-wave hit 15 seconds before the big 5.8-on-the-Richter-scale shock.  That would explain some of the animal behavior.  But some of the zoo animals started panicking a full 15 minutes before the quake.


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