Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Saturday, January 19, 2019

That Nicotine Buzz

"A kid can inhale it and get a good nicotine buzz."
"Is this a fad or is it the beginning of primary nicotine addiction?"
"We think most users are  using it a few times a month. But there are clearly some who are using it every day."
Dr. Neal Benowitz, San Francisco

"Perhaps it will be a passing fad. We don't know."
"But, when kids come to you and tell you that half the kids are JUULing, it's a valuable piece of information."
"Obviously, there's a certain allure, and that's interesting and worrisome."
Robert Reid, deputy chief, division of prevention and rehabilitation, University of Ottawa Heart Institute
Teens use e-cigarettes for 'dripping,' study says
"To me, these are products that are really appealing to kids. ... Millions of kids are trying these e-cigarette products. Studies show that one in five eighth-graders that currently use tobacco products got there by starting with e-cigarettes."
"So these e-cigarettes are also a gateway for traditional tobacco use for many young kids.There are warnings on the labels of some vape liquids containing nicotine that are pretty clear: 'Nicotine is an addictive chemical; For use by adults 18 and older'." 
Joseph Allen, assistant professor of exposure assessment science, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
"Our main concern is adults having the tools that they need to quit smoking. Young adults, if they are not smokers, they absolutely should not start using a nicotine product."
"Spend some time in a vape shop and see the customers that come in for these wildly named products. They are adults. They are over 25 years old, and they are the same type that watches 'Family Guy' on Sunday nights."
"It's something that is a little lurid, appeals to adults. We're not a country of serious, uptight people that just want straightforward products."
American Vaping Association President Greg Conley
"I definitely think about ... how it affects what I'm putting into my lungs, because I don't really know too much about it. ... I'm not even sure how it turns into vape. ... But I haven't been too concerned about it, obviously, because I'm still using it [since first starting to vape in her teens]."
"It [warning label on her JUUL box, read for the first time] says 'California Proposition 65 warning: This product contains chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer or birth defects, or other reproductive harm.' OK, I never read that before. Doesn't make me feel great, but that's what it says, so, I guess, yeah, that is the only warning. But that's probably the only warning that needs to be on there."
"[Did the warning change her mind about vaping?] No, definitely not."                      Bella Kacoyannakis, 20, East Longmeadow, Massachusetts
Twenty-year-old Bella Kacoyannakis started vaping when she was still in her teens.
Twenty-year-old Bella Kacoyannakis started vaping when she was still in her teens
According to the company that produces the "Apple of vaping" -- the device that has spread through high schools in the U.S. and Canada as well as university dorms -- headquartered in San Francisco, it has one interest only, to improve the lives of smokers, to aid them in their determination to stop smoking cigarettes, nothing more, nothing less. Dr. Benowitz, whose clinic happens to be located several blocks from the JUUL headquarters, notes when he met the company founders three years earlier his message to them was: "You have to make sure this doesn't spread through high schools."

Spread it has; like the proverbial firestorm of popular acclaim for a product whose allures has taken young people always on the lookout for the latest cool attraction, by storm. The past decade has seen a notable decrease of young smokers, a situation that has gone into reverse with the introduction of e-cigarettes and vaping devices causing health authorities to pose hard questions, according to Dr. Benowitz, an expert on nicotine toxicology, speaking at a national conference on smoking cessation held in Ottawa, Ontario.
Students outside West Carleton Secondary School in Ontario hold e-cigarettes. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)
A recent survey of teens and substance abuse throughout the province found ten percent of Ottawa high school students had vaped in 2017, in comparison to six percent who said they had smoked. The recent nature of this phenomenon means that little is as yet understood about whether young users do so socially, or whether as time goes on they will become confirmed cigarette smokers, becoming lifetime users of nicotine. This is an issue identified as worrisome by physician and University of California professor, Dr. Benowitz.

Admittedly, the hit of nicotine delivered through e-cigarettes is acknowledged to be less harmful than that from cigarettes. Public Health England points out that e-cigarettes are 95 percent less harmful than cigarettes, and some British and French jurisdictions have enlisted vape store personnel as advisers for smoke cessation. The danger rests in the smoke, according to research. Sweden, with its high use of snuff-like smokeless tobacco, "snus", lists a low rate of lung cancer.

Concerns remain, however, that devices like JUUL differ from those first-generation e-cigarettes since JUUL uses nicotine salts, diminishing that harsh taste but delivering high nicotine content. Flavours used for vaping products such as mango and creme brulee may appeal to adult smokers but these are flavours that young smokers also respond positively to. And while vaping may be less harmful than smoking, concerns abound about nicotine's effects on the still-developing adolescent brain.

A vape trick video has over eight million views on YouTube. (Posted to youtube by vAustinL)

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Friday, January 18, 2019

Intrusions Into Nature's Habitats

"Farmers will walk along fences and find six to eight dead tortoises in the space of one hundred meters."
"These [electrical] fences have got the capacity to decimate whole [animal species] populations, and they're doing that."
Luke Arnot, veterinary surgeon, South Africa
Elephants electrocuted Botswana
Elephants killed after being electrocuted when they pushed power lines into a pool of water they were drinking from. The blood is from burst blood vessels, a common symptom of electrocution.  Africa Geographic, 2017

"The terrible thing about power lines is that every single one will kill. But people here say they don't care because we need to develop our country." 
"In wildlife areas in Kenya, hyenas and other animals make paths to power lines to get at dead birds."
"This makes it impossible to go underneath power lines to enumerate the number of deaths. But I think this is a growing threat and that it’s enormously underestimated by most wildlife conservationists, wardens and conservancy managers."
Simon Thomsett, ornithologist, trustee, Kenya Bird of Prey Trust
Electrocution is becoming so common that it jeopardises the survival of some species

"Animals have caused outages, disruptions and damage to infrastructure amounting to billions of dollars."
"We estimate that 60 per cent of line faults and interruptions in South Africa are wildlife-related. It’s really important to engineer this problem out."

Constant Hoogstad, senior manager, industry partnerships, Endangered Wildlife Trust, South Africa

Africa is in its development stages, South Africa a country where ranches, farms and national parks are partitioned off, and surrounded by kilometers of electrical fencing to ensure that unwanted animals are kept out, along with human intruders' that livestock is adequately protected from predators, and so it is with wildlife in national parks as well. The fencing that has such a defined purpose also represents a solution to one problem of unwanted intrusion while at the same time  becomes a deadly hazard to any animals which come afoul of its protective presence.
Interventions to reduce collisions with power lines have so far met with little success

To these unwary animals these fences have an incontestable deadly impact. Smaller animals such as birds and reptiles which are meant to be environmentally protected become casualties in huge numbers. Trip wires positioned some 15 centimeters off the ground meant to zap a deterrence to hunting carnivores like lions and bush pigs accustomed to raiding crops are to a large measure to blame for the carnage. The presumption of a deterrent effect does not always result; some creatures after being stunned simply remain where they are.

Tortoises hitting a tripwire withdraw into their shells, failing to leave and taking haven in their instinctive withdrawal where it feels itself immune to danger while pangolins tend to curl over the wire into a defensive posture, and when both of these animals react as they would under any threatening circumstances, they remain shocked and finally their hearts cease beating. A 2008 study undertaken in South Africa revealed 21,000 reptiles are killed annually on contact with electrical fences.

Dr. Arnot, alarmed by these statistics, has attempted to alert authorities as well as farmers who install those fences. Publishing articles in farming and ranching journals detailing commonsense and modest changes that will bypass some of the dangers inherent in the electric fences to devise wildlife-friendly guidelines in installing electrical fences. Principally, to lift the trip wires to a greater height from the ground as well as operating the current at night exclusively since this is when predators tend to stalk their prey. Simple. Effective. Ignored.

Alongside the threats to wildlife of electric fences are power lines strung without a thought to outcome in countries in a hurry to advance their infrastructure and which end up electrocuting animals where collisions with power lines are so fatal for the avian population. Along with the deadly costs in conservation, a notable economic toll is guaranteed. As an example, a vervet monkey caused a nationwide blackout after tripping a transformer in Kenya in 2016. Power was cut to 4.7 million homes and businesses.

Surivival of some species is jeopardized through electrocution and considered a leading threat to Cape vultures in southern Africa, already endangered, along with critically endangered white-backed vultures. An estimated four thousand endangered Saker falcons are electrocuted in Central Asia each year. Over one hundred endangered Asian elephants were killed by electrocution in the state of Odisha, India over a dozen years through contact with power lines.
Even large animals such as elephants are at risk of electrocution (in India)

In various countries leopards, Cape buffalo, white rhinos, Giraffes and African elephants have been electrocuted in numbers. Thirty species and subspecies of primates are affected in Asia, Africa and Latin America by electrocution. According to Lydia Katsis, a recent graduate of Bristol Veterinary School in Britain, "This is a widespread problem, but it’s also under-reported and under-studied, so there could be more species affected."

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Thursday, January 17, 2019

Suicidal Ideation

"Ketamine works differently from other antidepressants. The prevailing theory is that it affects the brain's glutamate system, which scientists now realize may be involved in depression, rather than the better-known serotonin pathway used by drugs like Prozac. Animal research suggests that partly blocking certain glutamate receptors increases brain plasticity -- the ability of the brain to make new neuronal connections -- and corrects some of the abnormalities that result from chronic stress. These effects on the brain, coupled with how quickly ketamine works, have inspired a flurry of research. A number of drugs either derived from ketamine, or based on how scientists think it works, are in development."
"But ketamine has what many view as a major flaw. It can produce dissociative and hallucinatory side effects while it is being administered. Patients can feel as if they have left their bodies or that they are dying."
"Questions also remain about the safety of long-term use. Depressed patients often have to return for 'booster' treatments. The drug is considered safe when given once, but no one is sure how repeated doses may affect the brain. And it can be addictive, too."
Moises Velasquez-Manoff, science writer, California
"It makes sense that it [ketamine as a treatment for depression] move up in the treatment algorithm in E.R.s [emergency rooms] and inpatient units [with some caveats relating to addicts falsely claiming suicidal intentions, to be given ketamine to get high; similar to opioids]."
Dr. Michael Grunebaum, psychiatrist, Columbia University, New York
Party drug ketamine closer to approval for depression

Ketamine's potential as an antidepressant was discovered by researchers at Yale University in the late 1990s. Later, in the mid-2000s, scientists at the United States National Institute of Mental Health confirmed that finding of the efficacy of ketamine in the treatment of depression or suicidal tendencies. Follow-up studies served to confirm the drug can be of immeasurable help in the treatment of people vulnerable to deep depression leading to suicide.

The drug turned out to be an almost perfect candidate to fill a needed treatment gap where conventional drugs and therapies used traditionally failed to help patients; although it may not work for everyone for whom nothing seems to work, its effectiveness is swift, when it does succeed with most who try it. It is a drug already approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, one that treatment physicians are able to prescribe 'off label' which is to say for a use other than the most commonly recognized application for which it originally gained approval.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is now recognized as the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. The prevalence of suicide as an increasingly common cause of death is certainly not confined to the United States; it is a phenomenon that appears to be cropping up elsewhere; in Canada, Europe and other parts of the world, for some inexplicable reason. A growing sense of universal social alienation, a sense of overwhelming isolation, loneliness, social desolation, loss of hope...?

At a time when more people worldwide are being raised out of poverty, where food is more widely available, where opportunities for education are on the rise, and where communication is more accessible and the means of improving one's life growing, it seems peculiar beyond reason that people are becoming more estranged from community life which has always tended to buoy people's spirits; on the other hand, religious conviction which has always been a traditional mainstay in the lives of people and their communities, is waning.

The growing incidence of dark depressing and suicidalthoughts has for some reason not been matched with new discoveries in drug treatments nor workable protocols to help improve peoples' conditions leading to such dissatisfaction with their lives. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors of which Prozac is the most famous have been around for three decades in the treatment of depression and suicidal tendencies.
A rat neuron before, top, and after ketamine treatment. The increased number of orange nodes are restored connections in the rat's brain.
A rat neuron before, top, and after ketamine treatment. The increased number of orange nodes are restored connections in the rat's brain.

Ketamine, used successfully as a safe and reliable anaesthetic seems to fit the bill with trials demonstrating that at low doses it is effective in cutting off suicidal thoughts in the psychically affected. Reaction to its use as a deterrent to suicide and lifting of depression is surprisingly swift, a matter of hours from administration of the drug to perceptible relief. But it is a controversial drug in that a number of small studies show that while holding promise there is the unknown of long-term use.

Placebo-controlled trials are being conducted with hundreds of patients. At the same time, ketamine has gained popularity not in the field of practising medicine, but as a club drug. Ketamine abusers have been known to develop symptoms so severe they include brain damage. The hope is that if proven safe and effective in the administration of small, calibrated doses this drug capable of inducing feelings of euphoria may, in strictly controlled protocols entirely transform how the medical community treats depressed patients with suicidal ideation.

Antidepressents used currently work tediously slowly, from weeks to months to begin demonstrating any positive working symptoms; and sometimes after experimenting with them it is discovered they deliver no benefit to specific patients whatever. Such antidepressents may on occasion even increase some patients' suicidal thoughts. As well, therapeutic protocols take agonizingly long to deliver recognizably useful affects.

The safety of long-term use of ketamine, which acts swiftly and positively for most people, is an unknown, particularly since some patients find they require 'booster' treatments, some as frequently as once-monthly, with a drug though considered safe with its initial application may have a cumulative effect if applied frequently -- quite apart from its addictive qualities. Its success as a treatment has inspired the opening of clinics offering ketamine infusions for depression as an off-label treatment.
a sad woman looking out of a window
Ketamine appears to be a safe and effective drug for use in treating depression -- with some caveats

Some therapists are concerned that ketamine's unknowns should mitigate against its use before all other options have been explored, including electroconvulsive therapy which has advanced in application and efficacy from its initial uses decades ago. Dr. Samuel Wilkinson, a psychiatrist at Yale who studies ketamine is aware of patients' suicidal impulses returning after successful ketamine treatments in a rebound effect.

Like much in life there is at present a trade-off; use of a drug that may at some future date exhibit seriously deleterious side effects opposite a psychological condition leading to the urge to destroy one's life. Other specialists like psychiatrist Dr. Michael Grunebaum at Columbia University whose study of ketamine convinces him that the drug should be moved up to a first-line treatment urges for its immediate use.

A certain amount of confidence rests in the use of ketamine as an anaesthetic safe and reliable enough to be used on children. "We could help so many people", states Dr. Lowan Stewart, an emergency room doctor in New Mexico who feels ketamine should be the drug of choice in emergency rooms where doctors could offer it to suicidal patients.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Chilling Out With the Latest "Cool"

"The bottom line is the JUUL is the best example of a technology that delivers nicotine more efficiently."
"This is a genuine phenomenon. Everyone would like this to be a fad. The concern is that this fad involves a highly addictive drug in the form of nicotine."
"I've been in a corner store at the Slurpee machine with my kids and there's a 10-foot banner overhead [advertising vaping products]. It took 20 or 30 years to get rid of cigarette displays. They reach everyone who goes into the store."
"Flavour is [a] big driver for kids. It's what gets into their mouths. And then nicotine takes over."
David Hammond, professor, School of Public Health and Health Systems, University of Waterloo
The JUUL vaping device is rechargeable, easy to conceal and has a sleek design, all features that appeal to youth.
The JUUL vaping device is rechargeable, easy to conceal and has a sleek design, all features that appeal to youth. Julie Oliver / Postmedia
"[JUUL was founded] with the goal of providing a satisfying alternative for adult smokers", the company states, but of course it's hardly debatable that 'adult smokers' would be drawn to such flavours as 'unicorn horn' and 'cereal milk', putting the lie to the company's feeble declaration of honourable intent. While tobacco smoking among adults is no longer as prevalent as it once was, nicotine-product manufacturers have been diligently exploring methods that would be attractive to a new generation.

Formerly known as Philip Morris Companies Inc., now Altria Group Inc., seeing a new wave of users enthusiastic for nicotine delivered in a modern, neat and streamlined package, have responded somewhat predictably by buying in to this new phenomenon through a 35-percent stake in JUUL Labs late last year, paying out close to $13-billion for the privilege. JUUL is a battery-powered, rechargeable device designed to heat a "Pod" or cartridge of "juice" containing flavouring and nicotine; the resulting vapour is what users inhale.
"I don't know if youth know how much nicotine is in them. They're consuming an entire cartridge in one shot."
"It's an emerging issue. We want to tackle it as soon as possible. We don't want to be dealing with it fifty years down the line."
"For some [users], getting fined will be a deterrent. Others can be convinced of the danger of nicotine because their parents smoke, and they've seen what it did to their parents. And some can be convinced that they're the targets of marketing, and they don't like it."
"Each school has its own culture. In some schools, there is little vaping. In some, it's in the bathrooms. In others, it's under the trees."
"For youth, tech is interesting. They can build their own. There are thousands of different kinds of juices and flavours. You can conceal it if you want [clouds of vapour], or don't conceal it if you don't want to."
Dana Periard, project officer, Ottawa Public Health, tobacco control and prevention
Ads for vaping devices in the window of an Ottawa convenience store.
Ads for vaping devices in an Ottawa convenience store. Julie Oliver / Postmedia

In the city of Ottawa, Canada's capital city, bylaw officers take "enforcement action" when students are found to be illegally using vaping devices on school grounds. A bylaw office can issue a fine of $490 to anyone selling or supplying a vapour product to someone under the age of 19. The Ottawa Catholic School Board has given the authority to its schools to remove doors from school washrooms to more readily enable staff to determine what is happening there; vapour is a dead giveaway. Schools have also been authorized to issue fines of $305 to students caught vaping indoors.

The Smoke-Free Ontario Act, amended in October to include vaping, enables school principals to call in bylaw officers to attend to vaping students. "I am extremely confident that the removal of washroom doors and the issuing of fines will discourage those tempted to vape or smoke indoors", commented the principle of one school in the Catholic School Board. In contrast to that move, the public school board has no plans to remove washroom exterior doors but does provide evidence statements to bylaw officers enforcing no-vaping regulations.

The new fad of school bathroom vaping seems to have occurred as a virtual overnight sensation as the JUUL brand name made its way into the high school lexicon as a tempting foray into disobeying adult authority to the extent that teens now refer to school washrooms as the "JUULroom". The device is attractive to youth challenging authority; its sleek look, ease of use, readily concealed size make it irresistible to slip in "pods" delivering flavoured nicotine salts.

A single pod contains nicotine equivalent to 20 cigarettes. Teens vaping an entire pod at a time become nauseous from overconsumption of nicotine, leading the new lexicon to expand with the inclusion of "nicking out". Professor Hammond has been receiving emails from school principals across the country seeking advice. Close to 21 percent of high school seniors claim to have vaped in the past month in 2018 where in 2017, that number was 11.7 percent.

The U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams in December issued an unusual public health advisory addressing the "epidemic" of e-cigarette use among teens, fuelled by new types of e-cigarettes recently entering the market. He noted that JUUL experienced a 600-percent leap in sales in 2016 and 2017. Health Canada for its part announced a week ago a campaign to warn youth of the risks of vaping.

Recently a province-wide survey of teens and substance abuse revealed that ten percent of Ottawa  high school students in 2017 had vaped. In comparison, six percent of students had smoked. It is Ottawa Public Health's intention to work toward a goal that would see the "de-normalization" of vaping and to that end work with bylaw enforcement along with police and addiction counsellors is proceeding.

Vaping has the potential to assist adults who wish to stop smoking, by weaning them off tobacco, even while it presents as a risk to youth. E-cigarettes and vaping are acknowledged as less harmful than smoking so the potential is there to reduce risk for smokers as long as they commit to transition from cigarettes to e-cigarettes, according to the U.S. Surgeon General. The reality is, however, that a majority of adults who make  use of e-cigarettes do so only to supplement their regular cigarette smoking.

Photographs of JUUL vaping kit Julie Oliver / Postmedia

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Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Red Wolf DNA in Wolf/Coyote Hybrids

"Overall, it's incredibly rare to rediscover animals in a region where they were thought to be extinct and it's even more exciting to show that a piece of an endangered genome has been preserved in the wild."
"I think we were all genuinely surprised that there was any indication of red wolf genes in either of these samples. We get odd samples shipped to us fairly regularly, and most of the time they turn out to be coyotes. … Initially I was extremely skeptical that the analysis would turn up anything interesting, which in the end turned out to be very humbling."
"I think of myself as an expert on these animals, but in reality most of the time I’m just looking at my computer. It’s the people on the ground, who watch these animals regularly, who have made the major discovery."
"Hybridization is relatively common in natural systems and does not always have negative consequences."
Elizabeth Heppenheimer, biologist, Princeton University

"[It's exciting to have found] this unique and fascinating medium-sized wolf. [The survival of the red wolf genes] without much help from us for the last 40 years is wonderful news."
"From a practical conservation biology standpoint, these animals have special DNA and they deserve to be protected."
Ron Sutherland, conservation scientist, Wildlands Network, North Carolina

"We can get excited, but in my mind, we really need to let science do its due diligence to determine what this animal is."
Kim Wheeler, executive director, North Carolina Red Wolf Coalition
Taya Johnston/Getty

Once common across a region extending from Texas to the south, into the Southeast and up to the Northeast, the red wolf, about 80 pounds of weight at maturity, was classified federally in the endangered category in 1967 in the United States. By 1980 the genus was declared extinct in the wild. A remnant population in Texas and Louisiana was gathered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the 1970s which resulted in a successful captive breeding program.

In 1986 the wolves from the breeding program saw themselves integrated with an experimental wild population in North Carolina, a group that has been steadily declining since its peak at an estimated 120 to 130 wolves in 2006. According to a federal report out in April of last year, of that number only 40 remained. Representing part of captive breeding programs, an additional two hundred red wolves live in zoos and wildlife facilities.

Environmental groups argued in a lawsuit that federal authorities embarking on an effort to reduce the territory of the North Carolina wild group were in violation of law, and a federal judge in November agreed, ruling that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife also violated the Endangered Species Act, authorizing private landowners to kill the canine predators, even those who weren't a threat to humans, livestock or pets.

And now researchers have announced the presence of a pack of wild canines near the beaches of the Texas Gulf Coast, carrying a notable presence of red wolf genes, a discovery that elicited great surprise since the animal had been declared close to 40 years ago to be extinct in the wild. Wildlife biologists have been led to develop a new acknowledgement that the red wolf DNA is resilient despite decades of human hunting, loss of habitat and other factors leading them to near-decimation.

A Princeton team involved in the research on the pack discovered in Texas on Galveston Island had their study published in the scientific journal Genes. The Galveston canines' genetic analysis reveals them to be a hybrid of red wolf and coyote. Labelling the animal correctly at this point requires additional testing, pointed out biologist Dr. Heppenheimer of Princeton University, involved in the research.

Similar DNA findings in wild canines in southwestern Louisiana bolsters anticipation of conservationists concerned by the dwindling number of red wolves in North Carolina which had represented the only known pack existing in the wild. According to Dr. Sutherland, the Galveston canines' findings have succeeded in quashing a decades-old impression of red wolves being predators overwhelmed by the superiority of numbers of coyotes. The Galveston group's DNA is not found in captive populations.

To protect them, conservation easements restricting development along portions of the Gulf Coast are to be viewed as an essential first step. According to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the Galveston discovery, while "interesting", will not result in any instant response as "we do not anticipate any regulatory changes or implications in Texas at this time." According to conservationists, policy-makers are required to evince a greater appreciation for hybrid animals.

ron wooten.jpg
The Galveston pack carries red wolf DNA previously thought to be lost forever (Ron Wooten)

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Monday, January 14, 2019

Exotic Subterranean Life On Earth

"Exploring the deep subsurface is akin to exploring the Amazon rainforest. There is life everywhere, and everywhere there's an awe-inspiring abundance of unexpected and unusual organisms."
"Molecular studies raise the likelihood that microbial dark matter is much more diverse than what we currently know it to be, and the deepest branching lineages challenge the three-domain concept introduced by Carl Woese in 1977. Perhaps we are approaching a nexus where the earliest possible branching patterns might be accessible through deep life investigation."
Mitch Sogin, Marine Biological Laboratory Woods Hole, USA

"Ten years ago, we knew far less about the physiologies of the bacteria and microbes that dominate the subsurface biosphere. Today, we know that, in many places, they invest most of their energy to simply maintaining their existence and little into growth, which is a fascinating way to live."
"Today too, we know that subsurface life is common. Ten years ago, we had sampled only a few sites - the kinds of places we'd expect to find life. Now, thanks to ultra-deep sampling, we know we can find them pretty much everywhere, albeit the sampling has obviously reached only an infinitesimally tiny part of the deep biosphere."
Karen Lloyd, University of Tennessee at Knoxville, USA
An unidentified nematode, found in the Kopanang gold mine in South Africa, lives nearly a mile below the surface.
Anunidentified nematode, found in a gold mine in South Africa, lives nearly 1.5 kilometers below the surface. Gaetan Borgonie, Extreme Life Isyensya, Belgium

"Our studies of deep biosphere microbes have produced much new knowledge, but also a realization and far greater appreciation of how much we have yet to learn about subsurface life."
"For example, scientists do not yet know all the ways in which deep subsurface life affects surface life and vice versa. And, for now, we can only marvel at the nature of the metabolisms that allow life to survive under the extremely impoverished and forbidding conditions for life in deep Earth."
Rick Colwell, Oregon State University, USA

"Discoveries regarding the nature and extent of the deep microbial biosphere are among the crowning achievements of the Deep Carbon Observatory. Deep life researchers have opened our eyes to remarkable vistas - emerging views of life that we never knew existed."
Robert Hazen, Senior Staff Scientist, Geophysical Laboratory, Carnegie Institution for Science, and DCO Executive Director
In search of life under the sea floor   EOS
New discoveries of life forms not on Earth but in Earth are being unearthed as it were with surprising conclusions. Biologists decades ago would never have believed that life might exist without sunlight, without oxygen, without moderating temperatures, without protection from the sheer weight of the mass of the Earth. It is known now with a thoroughness perhaps never before imagined that the internal deep subsurface chemistry of this planet supports life such as microbes dwelling deep within the Earth.

Scientists read into their presence a tantalizing hint of comparison with our own common ancestors which were surface dwellers at a time when Earth's early chemistry before abundant oxygen was available billions of years ago were similarly challenged in a deficit of life conditions, in a similarity to the deep subsurface biosphere now known to exist and thrive; leading to the hypothesis that quite possibly life on earth began deep within the Earth, filtering its way to the surface eventually.

The mysterious creatures such as Geogemma barossii which lives deep within our world in water furiously boiling at 120 degrees, an organism that nature adapted to live at extreme heat. This microbe is one of many that thrive in a massive subterranean habitat teeming with life forms. In a ten-year period, science has progressed in its investigation of subterranean life on our planet as investigators seeking to make sense of hidden habitats came together under the auspices of the Deep Carbon Observatory.

Remotely operated underwater vehicles, collection tubes, high-tech drills, DNA technology and computer modelling have all aided researchers as they explore volcanoes, diamond mines, deep-sea hot springs, underwater mud volcanoes and all manner of extreme geological sites underneath oceans and continents; in so doing, turning the world upside-down in terms of the vast proliferation of life forms.
Deep Carbon Observatory

Consider this: an estimated 200 to 600 octillion (octillion: 1 followed by 27 zeroes) microbes live under the world's continents with even greater numbers thriving beneath the floor of the seas -- all of which weigh the equivalent of some 200 million blue whales; a bulk weight scale far greater than the 7.5 billion humans would comprise. The sheer diversity of these subterranean creatures challenges the diversity of surface life even as most underground organisms have yet to be discovered, much less characterized.

Buried beneath deep within sediments or the sulfuric crust in the seafloor, or encased within granite, basalt, sandstone or clay beneath continents, microbial communities vary; some fungi and multicellular organisms resembling insects and worms exist deep underground. Some are scavengers who thrive on photosynthesis leftovers from the surface, buried for up to hundreds of millions of years.

There are microbes that breathe uranium, expelling waste expressed as tiny crystals. If nutrient availability becomes diminished, microbes become dormant, with subsurface microbes reproducing only once every 30 years; in various instances it can take tens to thousands of years to replace an old population with a new one, where the chemistry in the deep subsurface supports life.

Some researchers hypothesize the possibility that what occurs in the subsurface might reflect life elsewhere in the solar system; Mars or Europa: "Could there be a deep biosphere on these other worlds?" muses Robert Hazen, mineralogist at George Mason University in Virginia, and director of the observatory. Until such time as such a possibility is explicated by new discoveries what has been seen to date is "providing us with a vivid new way of thinking about 'what is life'?"

Flatiron Institute

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Sunday, January 13, 2019

No Scruples, Big Price, It's All Yours

"IVF clinics have had pretty free rein, and some would look at their pathway as being a bit free and easy in terms of new developments. [U.S. clinics have] a bit of a reputation of being cowboys."
"They help a lot of people ... and that's largely a good thing. But one might wonder if there is a need for more oversight than we currently have."
National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins
gender selection nyc fertility center
New Hope Fertility Center

Through a process known as preimplantation, genetic diagnosis, or PGD, gender selection has become a possible choice where clinicians remove a single cell or a few cells from an embryo to use DNA probes for the purpose of examining its genetic makeup. PGD typically is used to screen embryos for the presence of inherited diseases, but the procedure can be used as well to identify embryos with desirable characteristics. PGD assists parents-to-be in selecting which embryos to transfer to the womb, which to discard, without altering the embryo.

This new science of expendable embryos failed to impress religious conservatives believing that conception equals new life's beginning. A panel in Britain to study assisted reproduction suggested that a public body be established to oversee human embryo research, regulate fertility clinics and lead debates revolving about new technologies, to which Britain's Parliament concurred, establishing the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority, the first such of its kind -- that other countries eventually emulated.

In the United States, instead of supporting research and government regulation a 1995 provision to an appropriations bill prohibited the expenditure of federal funds for any research involving the creation or destruction of human embryos so lawmakers whose ethics and politics preferred to skirt the issue could vote against public funding for such research at the same time that the private sphere picked up the embryo research ball. While in Britain a practical approach was taken to the inevitable ensuring that government would have the last word in protecting the public interest.

In the U.S. the Food and Drug Administration sent a warning letter in 2017 to Dr. John Zhang who experimented with mitochondria technology whose purpose was to aid older women with degraded eggs. That warning from the FDA chilled any such research for which Britain in the same year formally licensed the process for women with heritable diseases. India last year banned commercial surrogacy and Ireland is preparing to join the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Finland, New Zealand and others to prohibit anonymous sperm donation.

Other countries like China, Canada and Australia ban gender selection other than in rare instances of medical need, a situation where, ten years earlier the U.S. was also seized with the moral aspect of such procedures. Currently as many countries impose boundaries on assisted reproduction, no such hesitation exists in the U.S. fertility industry which remains for the most part unregulated, routinely offering services elsewhere outlawed. Making the U.S. a popular destination for IVF patients from all corners of the world.

Commercial surrogacy, anonymous sperm donation and screening for physical characteristics, along with sex selection are freely available, with the fertility industry in the United States valued at $5.8 billion in 2018. The Chinese researcher who created the world's first gene-edited infants which last month caused a stir worldwide, had his training in the United States. NIH Director Collins was clear in condemning the gene-editing as an "epic scientific misadventure". It seem the Chinese government may agree if for no other reason than embarrassment, since Dr. He has since been placed under investigation.

Fertility specialist Dr. Jeffrey Steinberg in Encino California was accused of practising eugenics, offering parents the choice of gender, eye, skin and hair colour. He added gender screening to his IVF clinic at a time when it simply wasn't done. In the years since, IVF clinics across the U.S. routinely now offer such screening as a standard service. Close to 73 percent of U.S. fertility clinics offer gender selection, according to a survey published in the Journal of Assisted Reproduction and Genetics.

Couples without fertility problems but who choose IVF to enable them to control the outcome of their pregnancies are offered gender selection. Thousands of patients yearly are sent to IVF clinics in the U.S. from Australia where such interventions are illegal. Dr. Steinberg speaks of parents now requesting even greater access to 'designing' outcomes. Eye colour is a popular choice with a 60 percent success rate, where most prospective parents want a blue-eyed or green-eyed baby.

"People call up asking for all kinds of things: vocal ability, athletic ability. Height is a big one. I have a lot of patients who want tall children", he remarked. "If  you do what I do, you can't have a strong ethical opinion [other than when parents ask for] something that is going to be harmful."

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