September 17, 2012
If, like me, you have dog that can sense when you are feeling particularly indebted, you might want to make sure he or she isn’t in the room when you read this.
Because now their species is becoming a key weapon in fighting human diseases, particularly cancer.
As William Grimes pointed out in The New York Times last week, doctors and veterinarians are working together more than they ever have before, exchanging notes and insights about their research and seemingly dissimilar patients.
One reason is that treatments that work on mice and rats too often are frustratingly ineffective on humans. At the same time, an approach called “one medicine” is beginning to take root, based on the recognition that 60 percent of all diseases move across species, as do the environmental factors that can help cause them.
“Dogs live side-by-side in our environments with us,” notes Elaine Ostrander, genetics researcher for the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health. “They drink the same water, they breathe the same air, they’re exposed to the same pesticides and they often eat some of the same food.”
It’s all about breeding
Last month Ostrander published a study in the New England Journal of Medicine that explained why, when it comes to making connections between genetics and disease, dogs are so special.
It has everything to do with breeding. By selectively mating purebreds to excel at a particular behavior or maintain a specific body shape or hair color, breeders also limited their genetic diversity and made them more susceptible to diseases carried through recessive genes.
But it’s that clustering of genes that’s helping to speed up the process of connecting the dots between a genetic mutation and a particular disease. For instance, several dog breeds are prone to epilepsy, and researchers have been able to identify the genes responsible. The hope is that will help pinpoint what’s happening in humans.
Same thing with cancer, the number one cause of death in dogs. Chromosome changes seen in some canine cancers have been similar to what’s been observed in humans with the same kind of cancer. By focusing on what parts of genes are altered in both species, the number of potential target genes can be reduced to a handful.
Learning from dogs
In one study, Matthew Breen, a researcher at North Carolina State University, tracked 150 dogs with lymphoma. He and his team were able to identify a genetic indicator that predicts how long a dog will respond to chemotherapy, and he believes that that knowledge could help refine treatment for humans with lymphoma.
Says Breen: “Within the canine genome, we’re starting to find the answers we’ve been looking for in our own genome for 50 years.”
In another dog cancer study at the University of Illinois, researchers found that a particular type of virus that doesn’t harm humans or dogs was able to invade dog cancer cells and leave healthy cells alone. The scientists also determined that a version of the virus with a single gene deleted was four times better at killing cancer cells.
It’s only a first step, but it shows promise as a cancer treatment for dogs that could do far less collateral damage than chemotherapy or radiation–and could one day be used to treat humans.
Adds lead researcher Amy MacNeill:
“We wanted to make sure that the dog cells were like the human cells because we want to use these viruses not only to cure dogs of cancer but also to use the dogs as better models for humans with cancer. People are beginning to see the logic of this approach.”
Dogs in diagnosis
Here’s more recent medical research involving connections between dogs and humans:
- Help me help you: Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine are using an experimental treatment on a handful dogs with osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer. If the therapy is successful–it involves introducing bacteria to provoke their immune systems to kill cancer cells- it could be used in trials on humans.
- Magic mushrooms?: In another study at the University of Pennsylvania, scientists found that a mushroom used in Chinese medicine for 2,000 years has been effective in treating dogs with hemangiosarcoma, a particularly nasty blood cancer that attacks the spleen. It too could one day be tested in human clinical trials.
- Going ’round in circles: It sure can look funny, but a recent study in Finland came to the conclusion that a dog chasing his tail is a canine variant of obsessive compulsive disorder in humans.
- I feel your pain. No, really: Several new studies say that dogs’ brains may be hardwired to comfort humans in distress. The majority of dogs in one of the studies tried to calm people with licks and nuzzling when they pretended to cry–even if they weren’t their owners.
- So why does he keep grabbing my hair?: A study of more than 5,000 babies in Australia found that they were less likely to develop an egg allergy if there was a dog in the house.
- And 50 percent of it gets on you: And finally, researchers at Georgia Tech determined that a wet dog can shake off 70 percent of the water on its fur in four seconds. For that alone, dogs deserve props, but the scientists think this uncanny ability could some day lead to self-drying machines on equipment.
Video bonus They help us fight cancer and catch Frisbees?
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July 26, 2012
Over the next few days you’re going to see a lot of the London Eye, the giant slow-spinning Ferris wheel along the Thames River, particularly since during the Olympics it will be portrayed as a massive mood ring, changing color every night to reflect what people have been tweeting about the Games. If tweeters are feeling good about what’s going on, it will glow yellow. If not, it will turn morosely purple.
What you’re less likely to see is the vertical garden covering the corner of the Athenaeum Hotel in Mayfair or the one at the Edgeware Road Underground station or the one climbing 14 stories up the side of an apartment building on Digby Road in Central London.
Which is a shame, because while none of these walls are able to change color to reflect the whims of Twitter Nation, they are choice examples of one of the more pleasing architectural innovations trending in cities around the world.
But they’re much more than urban eye candy. Last week a study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology concluded that green walls planted strategically could help cut pollution in cities by as much as 30 percent, almost 10 times more than previously thought.
The key, say the researchers, is that green walls can filter out pollution not just at street level, as trees can, but much higher up in urban canyons. Their computer models suggested that grasses, ivy and flowers attached to the sides of walls and buildings could be even more effective at cleaning the air than plants in parks or on rooftops.
Some have taken to calling this “vegitecture.” Not so easy on the ears, but the point is to give props to vegetation as a valuable component of architecture. It’s how the firm Capella Garcia Arquitectura describes the vertical garden it built to cover an unsightly wall on a Barcelona apartment building last year. Using steel scaffolding erected next to building, they essentially created a stack of huge planters layered more than 60 feet high. And, thanks to an interior staircase hidden by the plants, a person can enter this hanging garden from the inside and take a break from the city’s whirl on one of the wooden benches.
But for all the talk of urban canyons, you don’t see many vertical gardens on the sides of skyscrapers. Most are still about style more than function, such as the verdant coating around the windows of the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris, or the wild, multi-layered facade of the CaixaForum Museum in Madrid. Both are the creations of Patrick Blanc, a botanist turned landscape architect whose hair matches his walls and who designed the system of metal frame, PVC pipe and nonbiodegradeable felt that makes it possible for plants to take root on vertical surfaces without the need for soil.
Architects in Mexico City, working for a non-profit called VERDMX, have taken a slightly different approach. They’ve erected three towering “eco-structures,” shaped like upside down L’s and U’s and ringed with vegetation. The hope is that they will help clear Mexico City’s notoriously nasty air. But pollution dies hard. Exhaust from cars on nearby streets already is causing some withering on the vines.
Here are more recent examples of cities going natural:
- Yes, we have new bananas: What do you mean, you can’t grow bananas in Paris? Sure, you can’t now, but SOA, a French architectural firm, wants to make it so. They just unveiled plans to build a vertical banana plantation inside an old building on a busy Paris street. The place would be gutted and turned into an urban greenhouse, with trees, under artificial lights, growing inside. There will be a research lab, a restaurant and the obligatory gift shop, but mainly it will be banana trees. And all will be visible from the street through a clear glass wall.
- Trees and supertrees: Probably the most spectacular urban homage to nature is Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay, which opened last month. It has two lakes, two glass conservatories, many gardens and 700,000 plants. But the real showstoppers are the 18 steel supertrees, some more than 150 feet tall. Each is a vertical garden, its “trunk” wrapped in ferns and tropical climbing plants. Many are also solar towers, with photovoltaic cells on their canopies creating the energy that lights them up at night.
- Down on the farm in Motor City: Detroit and Michigan State University announced an agreement last month to develop a major urban agriculture research program that likely would include converting abandoned buildings into multi-tiered farms.
- Waste not, want not: A former pork processing plant in Chicago is being transformed into a combination urban farm, fish hatchery and brewery. Called The Plant, it’s set up so the waste from one part of the operation serves as raw material for another, making it a net-zero energy system.
- Start spreadin’ the moos: Who’d have thunk it? New York has become a leader in the burgeoning world of rooftop farming. And it’s no longer just little community gardens up there. Now two for-profit companies are in the mix, Gotham Greens, which started a farm on a Brooklyn rooftop last year and has three more in the works, and Brooklyn Grange, which has been farming a one-acre roof in Queens and now is also growing squash, tomatoes and scallions atop the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Video bonus: See where it all started in this BBC piece on Patrick Blanc, the green-haired Frenchman who turned vertical gardening into urban architecture.
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July 9, 2012
Remember the moment in The Wizard of Oz when Glinda, the good witch, warns the Wicked Witch of the West that someone might drop a house on her, too. For a fleeting instant, the wicked one is all vulnerability, glancing nervously at the sky for signs of another descending domecile.
That’s the image that popped into my brain this weekend when a guy on the radio mentioned the threat of “severe thunderstorms” later in the day. It probably helped that at that moment I was across the street from a house upon which a huge elm had toppled during the freakish derecho a week earlier. Most of the tree had been hauled away, but its giant tangle of roots remained, still attached to the large chunk of sidewalk it had ripped out of the ground, a jarring reminder of how powerful the winds that night had been.
I pay a lot more attention to weather reports these days, wondering if the next “severe” storm will knock out power for days–again–or worse, bring the big maple out back down on to our roof. My guess is that most people are feeling more wary about the weather, with what used to be seen as extreme now seemingly becoming our new normal.
So, if we should expect longer heat waves and droughts, more intense rainfalls and floods and, to put it bluntly, increasingly violent nature, what innovative thinking might help us cope with what’s coming?
Here comes trouble
For starters, the National Weather Service is rolling out new alerts that will pop up on your smart phone. To make sure you get the message, your phone will vibrate and sound a tone.
You don’t need to sign up for them or download an app. Alerts are sent to cell towers which then automatically broadcast them to any cell phones in the area. Doesn’t matter if you have an out-of-state number, either. If you’re driving through Kansas and there’s a twister coming, you’ll get buzzed.
For now, the weather service will send alerts warning people about tornadoes, flash floods, hurricanes, extreme wind, blizzards and ice storms, tsunamis, and dust storms. They won’t flag us about severe thunderstorms, however, because, they say, they happen so often. (Don’t remind me.)
Everyone’s a weatherman
But what if we could start using our smartphones to crowdsource the weather? That’s what Nokia EVP Michael Halbherr proposed during a recent interview. His thinking is that smartphones could be equipped with sensors that register humidity levels and barometric pressure.
I know, that’s nice, but what are you going to do with knowing the barometric pressure, right? Halbherr’s idea is to turn each phone into a mini weather station.
His take: “If millions of phones were transmitting real-time barometric pressure and air moisture readings, tagged with geo-location data, then the art of weather prediction could become much more a science.”
The tricorder lives?
If you like the idea of knowing as much as possible about your immediate surroundings, there’s an invention in the works that may be the closet thing we’ll have to the old Star Trek tricorder. Called the Sensordrone, it’s a device that attaches to your key chain and it’s loaded with sensors.
Through a Bluetooth connection to your smartphone, it will be able to tell you not just the temperature, the humidity, and the barometric pressure, but also the quality of the air you’re breathing and level of light to which you’re being exposed. And, if you think you may have had too much to drink, it could serve as a pocket breathalyzer.
You can get instant readings, but the data can also be stored on your phone, so you’ll be able to make graphs of your own personal space. If that sounds like we’re entering into Too Much Information territory, well, maybe so. But the Sensordrone, being marketed as the “sixth sense of your smartphone,” is another idea that’s been a winner on Kickstarter. Its inventors had hoped to raise $25,000, but so far, with almost two weeks to go, they’ve roused up almost $120,000 in pledges.
Doing something about the weather
Here’s more on using technology to track Mother Nature:
- Where there’s smoke: High-res optical sensors originally designed in Germany to analyze comet emissions have been adapted to create a device called FireWatch. Already in use in Europe, it can detect a plume of smoke up to 20 miles away, usually within 10 minutes, although it takes slightly longer at night.
- But they will not give interviews: This hurricane season, for the first time, NOAA will use robotic boats to track tropical storms and hurricanes. The drones, a water scooter named Emily and a kind of surfboard called Wave Glider, will be sent out into the middle of the nasty weather where they’ll gather data and take pictures.
- Something in the air: Intel is developing sensors that can be placed on lampposts and traffic lights and will be able to tell your smartphone how polluted the air is at street level.
- Sensor and sensibility: Chemists from the University of California, Berkeley, are installing 40 sensors around the city of Oakland, creating the first network that will provide real-time, neighborhood-by-neighborhood readings of greenhouse gas levels in an urban area.
- Taking the long view: Construction is underway in Florida and Massachusetts on the first two of what will be 20 monitoring stations around the U.S. that will track climate change, the spread of invasive species and other environmental trends over the next 30 years.
- We’ve even got space weather covered: We may soon be able to accurately estimate when radiation from solar storms will hit us. Scientists say neutron sensors at the South Pole will be able to provide the data they need to make solid predictions on the timing and impact of space weather.
Video bonus: I’m betting you’ve probably never seen lightning quite like this. During a thunderstorm last August, it took aim at the CN Tower in Toronto and never let up.
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June 8, 2012
You may soon, if you haven’t already, be making your first visit to the beach since last summer. A lot has happened out in the ocean since then, although most of us probably haven’t been paying much attention. Truth is, the sea doesn’t get a whole lot of press, unless a tsunami or shark attack happens.
But, like I said, a lot of unusual things are going on in the ocean these days. Scientists have been doing some innovative research to a get handle on where all this is headed, but they are truly in uncharted waters. As marine biologist Callum Roberts wrote in Newsweek, “With an ever-accelerating tide of human impact, the oceans have changed more in the last 30 years than in all of human history before. In most places, the seas have lost upwards of 75 percent of their megafauna—large animals such as whales, dolphins, sharks, rays, and turtles—as fishing and hunting spread in waves across the face of the planet.”
Since today is World Oceans Day, here’s a rundown of 10 things we now know about the sea that we didn’t a year ago.
1. The oceans are getting more acidic every day. In fact, according to researchers at Columbia University, acidification is occurring at a rate faster than any time in the last 300 million years, a period that includes four mass extinctions. As the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases, oceans absorb it, and it turns into a carbon acid. And that is putting sea creatures at risk, particularly coral, oysters and salmon.
2. The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” is even greater. The latest on that massive swirl of plastic particles in the North Pacific? It’s way bigger than scientists thought. They’ve known that it’s roughly the size of Texas. But in a new study researchers collected samples from the below the surface, in some cases 100 feet down, and they’ve concluded that the size of the mass may have been underestimated by 2.5 to 27 times. Another study found that small insects known as sea skaters have taken to laying their eggs on the plastic and that that could end up harming crabs that feed on them.
3. Coming soon: Deep sea mining. Advances in robotics, computer mapping and underwater drilling are stirring up interest in mining metals and minerals under the ocean floor. For mining companies, the prospect of finding rich veins of high-quality copper is particularly enticing. Also, later this month three Chinese scientists in a submersible will dive into the Marianas Trench, the deepest place on Earth–which is seen as a prelude to gearing up an underwater mining industry.
4. The Arctic meltdown could make harsh winters more likely. Yes, it’s counter-intuitive, but yet another study, this one by researchers at Cornell, reinforces the theory that warmer water in the Arctic sets off a climatic chain reaction that can result in brutal winters, like last year in Europe, or relentless snowfalls, like those that buried America’s East Coast in February, 2010.
5. Sea life needs to swim farther to survive climate change. After analyzing 50 years of global temperature changes, scientists at the University of Queensland concluded that both the velocity of climate change and the shift in seasonal temperatures will be higher at sea than on land at certain latitudes. And that means that if sea creatures can’t adapt to the rising temperatures, they may have to migrate hundreds of miles if they hope to survive.
6. Looks like tough times ahead for leatherback turtles. They’ve been around for more than 100 million years but some scientists believe leatherback turtles, the largest sea turtles in the world, may not make it through the rest of this century. They’re already threatened by the warmer and drier climate that accompanies El Nino cycles in their nesting grounds in Costa Rica, and scientists are predicting a climate that’s 5 degrees warmer and 25 percent drier on the country’s Pacific coast in coming decades.
7. And not such a happy future for the Great Barrier Reef, either. Industrial development in Australia is a growing threat to the Great Barrier Reef, so much so that it may be designated a world heritage site “in danger” later this year. Australia is experiencing an investment boom from Asia, with over $400 billion worth of projects on the horizon, including coal and natural gas plants and development of new ports.
8. Fukushima radiation is showing up in tuna caught off the California coast. A new study published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says that bluefin tuna caught off America’s West Coast are carrying radiation from the nuclear power plant in Fukushima badly damaged in a tsunami last year. Fortunately, the radiation is not at levels that would be harmful to humans.
9. Melting of ice sheets caused an ancient global flood. Analysis of coral reefs near Tahiti has linked the collapse of massive ice sheets more than 14,000 years ago to a global flood when sea levels around the world rose an average of 46 feet, at a rate 10 times more quickly than they are now. Scientists hope to create a computer model of the mega-flood, which will help them make better predictions of coastal flooding from our modern-day meltdown.
10. And yet, some creatures still find a way to survive. Scientists have known for awhile that microbes have survived for millions of years in the mud of the ocean bottom. But they couldn’t figure out how they stayed alive. Now they know. After probing sediment at the bottom of the Pacific with oxygen sensors, researchers from Denmark found the bacteria are consuming oxygen at extremely slow rates, and that what they’re consuming is organic matter that’s been trapped with them since dinosaurs walked the Earth. Yes, they’ve been chowing on the same meal for millions of years.
Video bonus: It’s hard to find a better ambassador for the sea than Sylvia Earle, who’s been exploring the deep for more than 40 years. Here’s her TED talk from a few years ago, but it’s more relevant than ever. And as a Bonus Bonus, here’s a video slideshow of some of the stranger creatures you’ll ever see, all living under the sea.
March 20, 2012
Every so often, when I’m disappointed that I don’t have superpowers, I’ve found that it helps to watch a nature documentary. Not that it makes me fly or see through walls or fly through walls I’m seeing through, but usually it does let me speed up time or slow down motion and that’s not too shabby.
It happened again the other night when the latest BBC nature mega-series, Frozen Planet began airing on the Discovery Channel. It’s from the same team that brought us Planet Earth, which became the best-selling high-def DVD of all time. This time they’ve focused exclusively on life in Antarctica and the Arctic, and while neither is in my vacation plans, I have a new appreciation for both because I’m seeing them through time-tricked eyes.
This was a reminder of how filmmaking innovations over the past decade or so have dramatically enhanced our ability to perceive the imperceptible of the natural world. Thanks to cutting-edge time lapse filming and high-speed cameras, I was able to watch ice grow and caterpillars freeze and thaw and penguins skim through the surf with a sea lion giving chase. It was the ultimate reality show. It just hadn’t been part of our reality–until technological innovation let us see it.
Consider, for instance, what is probably the most remarkable image of the Frozen Planet series, one that has yet to air on Discovery, but has been on the Web since last fall when the BBC broadcast the program. The subject is brinicles, bizarre stalactites that form when heavy brine from sea ice on the surface freezes on its way down to the bottom. They’re referred to in the show as “icy fingers of death” because anything they touch become encased in ice.
Not surprisingly, no one had ever filmed brinicles in action. But the filmmakers took on the challenge and built, on site, a time lapse camera that was both watertight and able to withstand the ridiculously cold temperatures. Overnight, the camera captured the stunning scene of a brinicle growing downward until it reached the ocean floor where it spread out in an icy line, killing dozens of starfish unable to scramble out of the way.
Another groundbreaking device is the heligimbal, a camera mounted underneath the front of a helicopter and equipped with a gyroscope that keeps it stable during even the bumpiest of rides. Once the BBC crew added a powerful zoom lens, it was able to capture closeups from the air, but from far enough way that the animals weren’t frightened. For Frozen Planet they figured out how to attach it to a boat, allowing them to film polar bears at close range, no matter how rough the seas got.
“There are images in this series that feel like Narnia,” Alastair Fothergill, Frozen Planet’s executive producer, told an interviewer. “In a world where so much cinema is about magical places, it’s amazing that on our planet, in reality there are spectacles that match anything some crazy Hollywood guy can dream up.”
Shots in the dark
Turns out that someone who fits the description of a “crazy Hollywood guy” is doing his own nature film, one that will go where not even Fothergill and his team have dared to travel. This week James Cameron, best known as the director of Titanic and Avatar, hopes to dive solo to the deepest part of the ocean, the Mariana Trench in the South Pacific.
When Cameron drops almost seven miles under the sea in his specially-designed sub, the DeepSea Challenger, he will become only the third person to reach that depth. The other two, Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard and U.S. Navy Lt. Don Walsh, took the plunge more than 50 years ago, but strictly as explorers.
Cameron, naturally, will be making a movie, in partnership with the National Geographic, and so he’ll be taking with him not only customized 3-D, high-definition cameras, but also–because he’ll be filming in total darkness–an eight-foot tall array of LED lights.
Tricks and treats
Here are other examples of how cameras are letting us see the world in a different way:
- Slow down, you’re movin’ too fast: Filmmaker Ann Prum explains how a high-speed camera made it possible to enter the world of hummingbirds for the PBS special, “Hummingbirds: Magic in the Air.”
- Yosemite in motion: Photographers Sheldon Neill and Colin Delehanty spent weeks filming day and night throughout Yosemite National Park. The result is one heaping bowl of eye candy, especially the images of shooting stars in the night sky.
- Camera on board: Critter cams have been around for a while, but they’ve become more and more sophisticated. Watch as a sea lion, with a camera attached, takes on an octopus.
Video bonus: When Piccard and Walsh made their historic dive into the Mariana Trench, they took along a Rolex watch. Rolex was more than happy to make a little movie/ad to commemorate it.