Sex and Sin and Some Science

Lingerie shoppingPorn star names originally posted in August 2005, this was something of a joke post about how porn star names have become almost the  post-modern equivalent of a person’s astrological star sign, and a whole lot more scientifically valid, if you ask me, with names like Lucky Cocker and Goldie Black common. That’s despite first appearing almost three years ago, this post has had almost 14,000 readers so far in 2008 alone and that figure does not include anyone who read the post on any of the hundreds of sites that syndicate (legit) or scrape (exploitative) Sciencebase content.

Seven deadly sins With this year’s pronouncements from a certain central office in Rome, was it, this post about the so-called seven deadly sins, originally posted in February 2007 has garnered renewed interest from more than 8000 readers in 2008, not counting those who read it purely in the fulltext RSS newsfeed rather than visiting the site. A follow-up post entitled Seven Deadly Sins for Scientists also did very well at the time with a burst of 2000+ readers.

Anandamide cannabinoid This post has had more than 7000 readers this year. I cannot imagine what they’re hoping to find, but given it’s a spoof Beavis and Butthead style script together with a great cartoon about dope, cannabis, weed, skunk, call it what you will, I guess that might have something to do with its popularity.

Viagra sildenafil citrate They do say that almost every pub conversation will eventually boil down to talk of sh*t or sex, well the same goes for blogs, I guess and this post is no exception grabbing the attention of almost 4000 of you so far this year.

Obesity gene A perennial discussion topic on any sci-tech-med-health blog is inevitably going to be the issue of overweight and obesity, especially if scientists have brought up the subject of a genetic excuse, and this post from April 2007, with its Barbie girl photo has caught the eye of about 3500 readers from jan to May 2008

A billion light years from home Finally, another blockbuster this one with 10,000 readers since its ascendance on New Year’s Day 2008 (no, I wasn’t blogging then, it was a post scheduled prior to the break) does rather suggest that Sciencebase readers are not only interested in sex, obesity, pornstar names, sins, and cannabis, but also quite like a bit of astronomy too.

Catching the Travel Bug

Girl SunbathingLong gone are the days of a summer break where the biggest health risks were stepping in donkey droppings on the beach or being sick on a fairground ride. These days, trips abroad provide the traveller with a whole range of diseases, so what’s our defence?

Our first line of defence against many of these diseases is our immune system. Unfortunately the immune system is not perfect and cannot always mount an effective attack against invading viruses, bacteria, and parasites. This is where vaccination often comes into play.

Vaccines were essentially discovered by Edward Jenner in the late 18th century. They are based on the idea that the immune system can be stimulated by components of a pathogen — i.e. the virus or bacterium. Proteins or protein fragments (antigens) produced by pathogens alert white blood cells to their presence, which then engulf the pathogen and destroy it. The cells also start to produce Y-shaped protein molecules (antibodies). The tips of the Y match the antigens produced by invaders like a lock to a key.

The antibodies travel through the blood stream and every time they bump into an antigen that they recognise, they lock on to it. This labels other pathogen particles for attack by yet more white blood cells which see the antibody signal and digest the invaders or infected body cells. The immune system retains the chemical blueprints for making the same antibodies again for the next encounter. This is why if you survive childhood diseases such as chicken pox you are unlikely to catch it again in adulthood, although this example belies the fact that chicken pox apparently lies dormant and can re-emerge later in life as shingles.

Vaccination tricks the immune system into thinking a pathogen is attacking by using dead or a deactivated version of the virus or bacterium. The white blood cells respond, creating antibodies against the antigens but without you having to catch the disease first. The blueprints for the antibodies are stored chemically ready for a real invasion of the disease. You need a different vaccine for each disease you might encounter and if you are travelling in the Tropics or the developing world there are quite a few diseases you need protection against.

Diphtheria

Among the diseases for which a vaccine is available is diphtheria. This highly infectious disease is caused by the bacterium Corynebacterium diphtheriae, which affects the upper respiratory tract. Symptoms include a severe sore throat and fever which is followed by the formation of a lethal sticky coating in the nose and throat. The bacteria also release a toxic molecule into the blood — a chain of 535 amino acids, which penetrates cells and kills them.

In the 19th century, scientists discovered a serum that neutralises the diphtheria toxin. This ‘antitoxin’ is made by extracting antibodies and other molecules from the blood of horses that have been vaccinated against diphtheria. To work, the potion has to be administered as soon as symptoms appear because it cannot undo the damage caused by toxin that has already entered body tissues.

During the past 10 years, researchers have been trying to find drugs that can kill the diphtheria bacterium. Researchers at Brandeis University in the USA discovered the switch that starts production of diphtheria toxin, a protein called DtxR. They have determined the exact atom-by-atom structure of this protein and drug designers are now looking for compounds that can deactivate the switch before the toxin is released and so save the lives of diphtheria victims that would otherwise die.

Hepatitis B

Another serious illness you may encounter when travelling the globe is hepatitis B. It is caused by the hepadnavirus but the source in half of all cases is not known. However, sexual transmission, needle sharing among drug users, tattoos and transmission from mother to unborn child cause the other half of cases. The virus incorporates itself into the DNA of liver cells, leading to chronic liver damage and potentially liver cancer. Fortunately, vaccination before exposure provides lifelong protection.

Researchers have also discovered antiviral drugs to treat hepatitis B. These drugs resemble the nucleotide molecules that act as the natural building blocks of viral DNA (the virus’ genetic code). The fake building blocks have unreactive fluoro groups instead of hydrogen atoms at strategic positions. So, once the virus starts to use these fake molecules the duplication mechanism is jammed because unreactive fluoro groups cannot be removed to attach the next nucleotide in the chain. Viral replication is significantly slowed down, giving the immune system a chance to overwhelm the disease.

Unfortunately, the viral DNA is prone to damage, or mutations, which lead to changes in its genetics. Most mutations stop the virus working but occasionally one will benefit the virus. If, for instance, the mutation changes the virus so that it ignores the fake building block, then the antiviral drug will fail and the virus continues to replicate, passing on the mutant genes (DNA fragments) to its offspring.

Some strains of hepatitis have already evolved resistance to antiviral drugs, so scientists are desperately trying to discover replacements that might work together to defeat viral resistance.

Rabies

If you are bitten by a dog or other mammal — notably a bat — when travelling, the wound itself is the least of your worries. Rabies is yet another viral disease best avoided. Its name derives from the Latin word for madness or rage, and it leads to a fear of water (hyrophobia), foaming at the mouth, a swelling of the victim’s brain, and ultimately death. Louis Pasteur and Emile Roux developed a vaccine in 1885, but it only works if administered before symptoms appear.

In 2006, scientists in Brazil investigated the potential of a group of natural plant compounds, phenolic compounds, as antiviral drugs to treat rabies. They discovered that just three of a whole range of compounds tested had some antiviral activity. The structures of these three compounds — 3,4,5-trimethoxybenzoic acid, 3,4,5-trimethoxyacetophenone, and 3,4,5- trimethoxybenzoic acid ethyl ester — could provide a starting point for designing more effective compounds. There is no way of predicting how long that might take and any potential drug would have to go through safety tests and clinical trials before it could be used in medicine, which might take up to 10 years. In the meantime, vaccination remains the only defence, that and avoiding rabid animals.

Typhoid

The disease that killed Alexander the Great, typhoid fever is alive and well across the globe. The Salmonella typhi bacterium multiplies in the blood and spreads by ingestion of food or water contaminated with infected faeces. The bacterium causes a high fever, headache, aching muscles, and death in severe cases.

Previously, antibiotics, such as ampicillin and chloramphenicol, were the standard treatment and saved many lives. However, like so many other diseases, typhoid has evolved resistance, particularly in India and South East Asia. Vaccination, if you’re travelling in affected areas, is therefore essential.

Tuberculosis

Tuberculosis, or TB, a disease once consigned to the history books is now carried by a third of the world’s population. TB is a bacterial infection and as with viruses the bacterial DNA, its genetic code is susceptible to mutations that can help it evolve resistance to antibiotics. This has already happened in many parts of the developing world and among certain sections of society such as the homeless, drug users, and HIV sufferers.

However, the issue of resistance is more complicated than it at first appears. A study published in March 2007 in the Journal of Infectious Diseases suggests that most cases of drug-resistant TB may be due to new infections rather than acquired resistance to the antibiotics. If this research is confirmed it might help scientists devise a new strategy for stopping the spread of this disease.

Malaria

Malaria kills up to three million people each year. Malaria is caused by the Plasmodium parasite carried by infected mosquitoes. The parasites are carried into a person’s bloodstream by a bite from an infected mosquito, they then multiply in the liver and the blood causing a lethal fever.

There is no vaccine against malaria, but there are drugs that protect you from infection. Plasmodium, like many viruses and bacteria, has also evolved resistance to some of these drugs. However, a novel drug derived from Chinese medicine, known as qinghaosu, works well in treating the disease and so far has staved of resistance.

There is a great deal of research underway to find novel drugs to defeat malaria. Scientists at the Toronto General Research Institute and Ontario Cancer Institute recently, for instance, discovered a synthetic compound that targets and kills malaria parasites, including one drug- resistant strain. In January 2007, researchers at Northwestern University in the US worked out how the parasite tricks red blood cells into engulfing it and so perpetuating its lifecycle. New drugs aimed at blocking this process might beat malaria.

Today, most of the diseases we have discussed are confined to the developing world where they pose an enormous public health problem and one that usually affects privileged Westerners only when they travel to such places. However, if climate change occurs some of these could spread to the developed world. Unless we can halt global warming, the time may come when you could catch some of these diseases just by staying at home. Stepping in donkey droppings will then be the least of your worries.

Where in the world?

A selection of souvenirs you might pick up on your travels

Diphtheria – bacterium: former USSR, South America, Northern Africa
Hepatitis B – virus: Africa, parts of Asia, China
Rabies– virus: global, except Australia, New Zealand, UK, Norway, Sweden, Japan,
Singapore, Guam, Taiwan, Fiji, Hawaii
Malaria– mosquito-borne parasite: Africa, Asia, South America
Tuberculosis– bacterium: global, common in Southern Africa, Asia, South America, former USSR
Typhoid – bacterium: Africa, Asia, South America

You can obtain specific advice on diseases via the WHO and CDC sites. Your doctor or national health organisation may also produce online information. For those in the UK that can be found here.

Make 雷竞技官网 , Boost Brain

Power of musicI’ve played guitar – classical, acoustic, electric – for over three decades, ever since I pilfered my sister’s nylon string at the age of 12, although even before that, I’d had a couple of those mini toy guitars with actual strings at various points in my childhood. Even though I never took a single guitar lesson, I eventually learned to follow music and guitar tablature, but was only really any good at keeping up with a score if I’d already heard someone else play the music, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing…after all.

Meanwhile, I took up singing in a choral group (called bigMouth) and have felt compelled to become ever so slightly more adept at reading music in a slightly more disciplined environment than jamming on guitars with friends. Big Mouth formed in the autumn of 2007 and we meet weekly for singing practice and have now done a few small “local” gigs. We even put together a last-minute audition video tape for the BBC’s Last Choir Standing, but didn’t make it through to the heats, (un)fortunately.

Anyway, that’s probably enough detail. The point I wanted to make is that until I joined Big Mouth and began making music regularly with a group, I’d always felt like I was quite useless at remembering people’s names. Like many people I’d always had to make a real conscious effort to keep new names in mind. However, in the last few months, with no deliberate action on my part, I’ve noticed that I seem to remember stuff like fleeting introductions, the names of people mentioned in conversations, or press releases and other such transient data much better than before.

I’m curious as to whether it’s the ever-so-slightly more formal discipline of group music practice that’s done something to the wiring in my brain or whether it’s simply to do with expanding one’s social group in a sudden burst like this. Ive heard of people claiming increased brain power after taking music lessons, here you can find piano teaching resources. It’s probably a combination of both and my suspicions about the power of music for boosting the brain are bolstered somewhat by a recent TED talk from Tod Machover and Dan Ellsey on the power of music

I also wonder whether there’s some connection with the Earworms concept for language learning, which I reviewed back in 2006.

Heavy Metal and Alzheimer’s

Heavy metal bassMore popular science news with a spectroscopic bent from the desk of 雷竞技官网 , this week: Heavy metal and Alzheimer’s – While the protein-like plaques that form in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease and in other tissues in a wide range of different disorders are well known, what is less well known is that fairly high concentrations of transition metal elements, including copper, iron, and zinc, are also present. Do these metals have a role to play in plaque formation or are they a side-effect. New research using X-ray and NMR spectroscopy could shed light on the issue and perhaps one day lead to new approaches to therapy based on controlling these metals.

Forgetful quanta – Researchers have, for the first time, monitored oscillations in a vanadium-based molecular magnet. These so-called Rabi oscillations are characteristic of the disturbances that have so far prevented scientists developing a viable quantum bit, or qubit, for use in the next generation of probabilistic computers and encryption devices. According to one independent commentator, the research represents the passing of a milestone on the road to quantum computers. Now that scientists understand the cause of this problem they might be able to address it by swapping atoms with spin for isotopes with zero spin and so cut down on the noise.

More spec news from DB and others on spectroscopynow.com

Naturally Fibrous Mimic

One of the important components of the extracellular matrix is collagen, which comprises the major structural protein component of higher organisms. However, it remains a major challenge to emulate the unique structural and biological properties of native collagenous biomaterials in synthetic analogues. Consequently, numerous opportunities exist for synthetic collagens in biomedical applications as extracellular matrix analogues, if the appropriate materials could be constructed that retain and expand upon the desirable properties of native collagen fibrils.

The exploration of chemical and molecular genetic techniques to design and synthesize collagen-mimetic polypeptides and fibers that are competent for self-assembly into structurally defined protein fibrils is an intriguing avenue for exploration. In this context, Shyam Rele and colleagues have been leading the efforts in the de novo design of nanostructured biological materials through self-assembly of peptides and proteins.

Rele, together with Elliot Chaikof and Vince Conticello in the Laboratory of Bio/Molecular Engineering and Advanced Vascular Technologies at Emory University School of Medicine have been successful in designing and synthesizing the first ever Synthetic Collagen Peptide system which is a 36 amino acid long unit which self-assembles into a fibrous structure with well-defined periodicity reminiscent of native collagen observed in the human body.

Specifically, the synthesized peptide protomer which is made up of three heterotrimeric peptide repeat units contains a hydrophobic proline-hydroxyproline-glycine core flanked on both the sides by distinct sets of peptide repeats containing either negatively (Glutamic acid) or positively (Arginine) charged amino acid residues. When positioned appropriately, these charged amino acids bias and adopt the triple helical self-assembly which undergoes fibrillogenesis at physiological temperatures producing D-periodic microfibers driven through electrostatic interactions.

Transmission electron microscopy on annealed samples revealed that fiber growth proceeded within several hours by initial formation of smooth fibrils that were hundreds of nanometers in length and tens of nanometers in diameter. These fibrils displayed tapered tips similar to the tactoidal ends of native collagen fibers from which continued fiber growth is thought to occur. The D-periodicity of the synthetic collagen-mimetic microfibers was approximately 18 nm. Significantly, the collagen mimic shows a high propensity for self-association following a nucleation-growth mechanism even at lower concentrations (<1.0 mg/mL) and neutral pH. This following discovery for making human collagen in the laboratory is pathbreaking in the field of nanotechnology and bio-inspired biomaterials. Several scientists for the past three decades have been trying to synthesize and emulate collagen's remarkable properties and have failed in their attempts to mimic the long, fibrous molecules found in nature. The ability of Rele, Chaikof and Conticello to generate a synthetic collagen in a laboratory (in vitro) on a nanomolecular level for the first time, therefore represents an important milestone in nanotechnology and biomaterial development. Such self-assembling peptides may have broad applications in medicine, neurodegenerative diseases, protein folding catalyst design, bio-nanotechnology, tissue engineering and origins of life research. Furthermore, generation of such nanostructured molecules which mimic native structural proteins will lay the future ground work for unraveling complex phenomena including collagen fiber formation in protein conformational diseases and for the design of new materials with biological, chemical, and mechanical properties that exceed those of currently available synthetic polymers.

The propensity to generate such self-assembling, biologically compatible peptide scaffolds to arrange themselves into fibers, tubules, and a variety of geometrical layers, establishes an important substrates for cell growth, differentiation, and biological function, and will have an important impact in the treatment of cardiovascular, orthopedic, and neurological disease.

Adapted from a write-up supplied by Rele. Further details can be found in JACS, vol 129, 14780-14787.

Recycling Science

Oleg Shpyrko speckleMy Alchemist column on ChemWeb is live once again: This week’s award is for science that sheds light on a range of physical phenomena including liquid-metal surfaces and condensed matter. The recipient of the award, Oleg Shpyrko of the University of California San Diego, will receive the 2008 Rosalind Franklin Young Investigator Award from Argonne National Laboratory. I asked him what the award means to him:

“It is a great honor to have my research recognized in this way but credit should be shared between all of my collaborators, especially the Advanced Photon Source beamline scientists without whom the research simply would not be possible. What makes the APS a truly world-class facility is not just its unique X-ray beam characteristics, but also the outstanding group of scientists working here. The synergy between the users and APS scientists is an absolutely crucial component for the cutting-edge research performed there.”

Meanwhile, in straight chemistry news, nanotubes are feeling the heat of chilies and while analysts are musing on the lack of psychedelics in artists’ tipple absinthe. Also, this week, X-ray studies are helping in the redesign of novel anticancer compounds, while a connection the great British seaside holiday, kelp and iodine as an oxidant is revealed. Finally, plastic lasers could open the door for a new range of spectroscopic and medical diagnostics instrumentation. Get the full alchemical news here.

You may also be interested in science news with a spectroscopic bent where I report on how recycling old computers and electronics can be used to make a new type of feedstock oil for the petrochemical industry.

Recycling of a different kind in which parts from a CD-ROM drive have been scavenged for another purpose could help bring quick and inexpensive DNA diagnostics to the poorer parts of the world. More on that here.

Data Loss Disaster Recovery

Until recently, most IT professionals have viewed disaster recovery as straightforward file recovery. As such, a nightly backup was the prescription. Things have changed. Businesses have to maintain continuous access to applications and data for employees, partners, and customers and website and systems downtime is no longer acceptable. Disaster recovery means maintaining availability without downtime.

Here are a few free magazines and white papers on the subject.

  • The Data Disappearing Act: Mitigating Virtual Data Loss (slideshare.net)
  • Hacker Destroys Avsim.com Along With Its Backups (it.slashdot.org)

Stem Cell Research

Embryonic stem cellsLots of visitors are hitting the Sciencebase site look for information on stem cell research. It is a subject I’ve written about before, both on this site and elsewhere, but I thought it might be useful, given that my alma mater is at the forefront of stem cell research in the UK, to provide a FAQ on the subject of stem cells. Just to be clear, usually when the media uses the phrase stem cells, they really mean human embryonic stem cells, but that occasionally takes print journalists over the wordcount, so it’s commonly abbreviated to stem cells, so for the sake of brevity, I’ll do the same here.

  • What are stem cells?

    Stem cells are primordial cells that can divide without limit and differentiate into the various types of cell used to build our livers, hearts, bones, brains, skin, and other organs, blood cells, nerves etc. More details.

  • Where are stem cells found?

    Pluripotent stem cells, which can form any cell type, can be harvested from human embryos that are just a few days old.

  • What do researchers do with harvested stem cells?

    Harvested pluripotent stem cells can be cultured in the laboratory to create “stem cell lines” for research and development.

  • What can be done with cultured stem cells?

    A cultured stem cell line can multiply indefinitely in the lab, so once produced researchers can use the same line without having to harvest new stem cells.

  • What might stem cells be used for?

    Cultured stem cell lines can be “engineered” to differentiate into specific cell types, which researchers are hoping can be transplanted into a patient to treat a wide range of problems, including cancer, spinal cord injury, stroke, burns, heart disease, diabetes, birth defects and neurodegenerative disorders, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.

  • Have researchers cured diseases with stem cells?

    Not yet, stem cell research is little more than a decade old and is very much in the experimental stages. Legal, funding, and ethical issues in the US, UK and elsewhere have slowed stem cell advances during this time to some degree.

  • Aren’t bone marrow transplants using stem cells?

    The well-known bone marrow transplant uses the blood stem cells found in bone marrow and has been used to treat a range of diseases, such as leukaemia, for four decades.

  • Do embryos have to be used to harvest stem cells?

    Not necessarily, the umbilical cord is being researched as an alternative source of stem cells that would sidestep some of the ethical issues associated with embryonic stem cells. There is also research into using tissue-specific stem cells from adult donors.

    A much more detailed FAQ on stem cell research can be found on the ISSCR site, while the US National Academy of Sciences has lots of info too. Additional resources may be found on the Applied Biosystems site and at the Stem Cell Companies site.

Genetic Manipulation

European corn borer

Are you happy to eat genetically modified foods? What about your friends and colleagues? Do the GM pros outweigh the cons?

I asked a few contacts for some answers by way of building up to a more formal response to those kinds of questions that will be published soon in the International Journal of Biotechnology (IJBT, 2008, 10, 240-259).

Plant geneticist Dennis Lee, Director of Research at mAbGen, in Houston, Texas, suggests that GM crops have several significant advantages. “Total cost per acre can actually be significantly less for GM crops,” he says. This is particularly true for crop species, such as maize, that have been modified to produce natural toxins that fend off insect pests or protect the crop from the herbicides need to keep weed growth at a minimum. However, he points out that, “In practice, this is often not the case – farmers tend to err on the side of caution and continue to use significant amounts of pesticides and herbicides.”

That said, crops can also be modified to grow in substandard conditions, such as strains of tubers grown in Kenya that are capable of surviving both drought conditions and high-salt soils. “Obviously, this is beneficial to yield – you can actually get some food out of places where you previously could not,” adds Lee. In addition, it could be possible to modify some crops to have greater nutritional content, such as the so-called “golden rice” project by Ingo Potrykus then at the Institute of Plant Sciences of the ETH Zurich.

One of the biggest perceived problems regarding GM crops is the possible contamination of other species. What if herbicide-resistant genes could jump into weed species, for instance? Lee points out that this putative problem can be overcome by using terminator technology to jumping genes. “However, in doing so, it creates a different problem,” Lee adds, namely that farmers must buy seed from the agbiotech company each year rather than save seed for planting.” One might say that this is an exploitative industry focused purely on maximizing profits, but at the same time it solves a serious technical problem that has been seen as one of the biggest stumbling blocks to the acceptance of GM crops.

Jeff Chatterton, a Risk and Crisis Communications Consultant at Checkmate Public Affairs, in Ottawa, points out that the pros are well documented: increased yield per acre, ease of use and perhaps, some day, increased ‘consumer level’ benefits such as higher nutritional values. But, echoes others’ comments on the hidden con of farmers the world over potentially being locked into the agbiotech company’s seed and having no recourse to produce their own from one year to the next.

“As traditional family farms are increasingly moving towards “Roundup Ready” corn or soybeans, you’re increasingly seeing a change in the business model of farming,” he says. “Rather than ‘family farms’ using traditional farming practices, agricultural operations are increasingly becoming factory farms.” It might be said that the emergence of factory farms is occurring outside the realm of GM crops, but with pressure being applied to produce more and more crops for non-food purposes, including, biofuels, unique polymers, and other products, the notion of a factory farm that doesn’t even feed us could become an increasing reality.

Lee also mentions an intriguing irony regarding the public perception of risk-benefits concerning GM crops and that is that the toxins produced by modified Bt maize is exactly the same toxin produced by the natural soil microbe Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) itself and this is same Bt toxin that so-called “organic” farmers are usually allowed to use instead of “synthetic” pesticides.

Information Technology and Services Professional Bill Nigh of Bluenog, based in New York, provides perspective as a lay person. “We’ve been engaged in genetic manipulation for a long time now,” he says, “but it was limited by the technology at hand. With recombinant DNA it’s a remarkably more vast field of play and a whole new ball game.” He stresses that his main concern regarding GM crops is that, “We seem to be just smart enough to make drastic breakthroughs and inventions, and are driven by the dynamics of the marketplace and ego to produce a lot of new things quickly. However our systems of governance, oversight and coordination are not mature enough to work through the implications of those new things in a timely fashion, especially the unforeseen synergies the breakthroughs can unleash.”

All that said, an international team has now investigated the various issues and has assessed the public’s Willingness to Accept (WTA) GM foods based on experimental auctions carried out in France, UK, and USA. Lead author of the IJBT paper Wallace Yee now at the University of Liverpool, worked, while at Reading University, with colleagues in various disciplines, from agricultural and food to business and economics in Italy, New Zealand, UK and US to explore perceptions of risk and benefits, moral concerns and attitudes to the environment and technology.

“Trust in information provided by industry proved to be the most important determinant of risk/benefit perceptions,” the researchers conclude, “willingness to accept followed general attitudes to the environment and technology.” They also found that educational level and age could also enhance perceived benefits and lower perceived risks of GM foods. “Our research suggests that trust-building by industry would be the most effective approach to enhancing the acceptance of GM foods,” the team says.

“If the industry could educate people that GM technology does not pose any threat to the environment, but provides benefits to society as a whole and consumers as individuals, the attitudes of the public towards GM in food production would be favourable, and in turn increase their willingness to accept,” they conclude.

Computing professional Paul Boddie of Oslo, Norway, coming at the issue of GM crops from an indirect angle provides an allusion to computer programming that seems quite pertinent and was originally attributed to Brian Kernighan, which Boddie suggests readily transfers to other disciplines including genetic engineering: “Everyone knows that debugging is twice as hard as writing a program in the first place. So if you are as clever as you can be when you write it, how will you ever debug it?”

Yee, W.M., Traill, W.B., Lusk, J.L., Jaeger, S.R., House, L.O., Moore, M., Morrow, J.’., Valli, C. (2008). Determinants of consumers’ willingness to accept GM foods. International Journal of Biotechnology, 10(2/3), 240. DOI: 10.1504/IJBT.2008.018356

Interstellar Molecular Thermometer

Carbon monoxideAstronomers have detected for the first time in the ultraviolet region the spectroscopic signature of the carbon monoxide molecule in a galaxy located almost 11 billion light-years away. This molecule has eluded astronomers for a quarter of a century.

The detection now allows them to obtain the most precise measurement of the cosmic temperature just 1.5 billion years after the Big Bang (give or take 25 years). The team used the UVES spectrograph on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (it does what it says on the tin) to record the signal from a well-hidden galaxy whose light has taken 4 fifths the age of the Universe to reach Earth. Apparently, it was at a rather balmy (compared to today’s temperatures) 9-and-a-bit Kelvin.

More details from the European Southern Observatory site.