Site update

Since I have been really terrible at updating the blog (but pretty good at keeping up with the facebook blog posts) I've added the widget below so that facebook cross posts to the blog.

You shouldn't need to join facebook but can just click on the links in the widget to access the articles. If you have any problems or comments please mail me at arandjel 'AT'

Friday, December 31, 2010

How to start a successful NGO

Its New Year's day! So here is a hopeful and positive first post to set the tone for 2011 :) - MA
From matador network via Sean Whyte's facebook page
How to Start a Successful NGO in 10 Steps
by Ryan-Libre

Ryan Libre explains how to start a successful NGO with style and zen.

Editor’s Note: In response to the overwhelming number of comments, author Ryan Libre has asked us to post this update on April 4, 2010:
“It is amazing to see how many people have seen and commented on this article. It is well beyond my exceptions.

Most all of the 200+ commenters seemed to have overlooked steps 1-6 and went to funding as the beginning point for starting an NGO.

This approach will not be successful, in the short term or long term.

First, you need to do something, anything, yourself with what is locally available (step 1). It will give you experience,
credibility, and maybe even publicity. Start small and do what you can for a few months with what you have.

After this experience your goals and how to reach them will be more clear (step 3) and you can make an action plan (step 4) and a website or free blog (step 5) showing what you have done and a clear plan for what you intend to do.

Then when you leave a comment or send a mail about your NGO include the link. Without these fundamental steps it is unlikely anyone will seriously consider funding your NGO.

Best wishes to all your future NGO’s Ryan Libre
I’ve worked with NGOs for most of my life, and even helped start a few. Now, I’m venturing out to start my own NGO Documentary Arts, Asia.

The following steps will help get your own NGO up and running:

Step 1: Test the waters.

Many new activists are ready to commit their lives to “the cause.” Some are even willing to die for it. Most of these enthusiastic newbies are nowhere to be found a few months later.

There’s no need to turn down the volume of your enthusiasm, but before starting your own NGO, consider joining one that does similar work for a while.

If starting your own NGO really is right for you, the experience of working for an established NGO will only strengthen your resolve and direct your passion.

Maybe you’ll find that NGOs are not your life calling after all. Better to learn that early on, before making a big commitment.

Step 2: Start on the right foot.

“The leader’s main job is to make themselves obsolete.” –Lao Tsu

Becoming obsolete should be the fundamental goal of all NGOs. You must constantly strive to work yourself out of a job.

Becoming obsolete works on two levels. In terms of your personal involvement, you should build the NGO to the point where it can function independently of your leadership. The long term goal of your NGO should be to solve a problem and thereby become unnecessary.

Put Lao Tsu’s advice into practice and you’ll be able to help more people in more profound ways, and enjoy every minute of the experience. If you try to maintain control, dependencies will develop, and once dependencies start they are hard to stop.

Dependency can leave NGO volunteers feeling trapped and sometimes even leave negative impacts on the people you are trying so hard to help.

Step 3: Clarify your goals.
Set clear and achievable goals for yourself and the NGO.

“Ending world hunger” is a great goal and looks good on your NGO’s t-shirt, but it’s not a problem you can seriously hope to solve.

Finding a niche is good place to start. Positive change usually comes from picking something small, doing it well and following through. A good example of this attitude in action is the Starfish NGO of Cambodia.

Step 4: Make an action plan.
A plan of action is your chance to make an NGO effective, address any potential negative impacts and make sure your NGO will attract donors and volunteers.

Make sure you are able to follow through with what you start. Think hard about your action plan. Hard work is important, but hard work without a good plan is a waste of time and money.

Step 5: Make a website.

It’s never too early to make a website for your NGO. A good website helps you to spread the word, attract volunteers, secure funding and establish a professional appearance. An interactive website can also minimize your need for meetings and micro managing.

Attention spans on the web are very short. Be clear and concise.

Be sure to make an online profile for your NGO at Matador, where you can tap into a network of thousands of potential donors and volunteers.

Some hosting companies give free hosting to NGO sites. Ask around.

Step 6: Get in the know.

Local knowledge is indispensable to every NGO. Even if you grew up in the city where you want to start an NGO, you still need to research and make contacts. Making solid local contacts and understanding the locals’ worldview is especially important if you want to work in a foreign culture.

Good use of local knowledge can really make an NGO effective. Without local knowledge, you may do more harm than good.

Step 7: Assess your NGO’s financial needs.

Money, when it does come, usually requires great amounts of paperwork and sometimes has strings attached. The quality of the work an NGO does and the amount of its funding are often inversely related. That is to say, the NGOs with less money do better work per hour and dollar spent. The crucial point is to to minimize your NGO’s need for money.

That said, money can be really helpful sometimes. Here’s how to get it. Filing for 501c (official non profit) status is a pain and involves costly lawyer fees. No need to waste your efforts there.

Get an established NGO to accept you under its umbrella. Tax deductible donations and grants will go to them, care of your NGO. Setting up this arrangement could be as easy as a 30 minute talk with your local peace center.

Now you are ready to ask for money from businesses, grant foundations, and governments. A paypal donate button is a quick and easy way to accept donations from visitors to your website.

Step 8: Network, network, network.

Make friends with people and organizations doing similar work so that you can learn from their successes and mistakes. Networking also helps you to know when to team up and when to divide your efforts for maximum effectiveness. The links below are good places to start networking:
Step 9: Find balance.
Be realistic about how much time you want to give to your NGO. Taking on projects beyond your comfortable limits won’t yield much benefit in the long run.

You are worth more to your NGO as a part time activist for 5-20 years than letting your passionate burn out in two years. Finding balance between work and personal life is key to success.

Step 10: Re-evaluate everything.
Take a step back and look at what you have done and where it is all headed. Take joy in what you have accomplished, but also make sure your NGO is not becoming self aggrandizing.

How much time, effort and money are being spent on the NGO itself? This is the biggest problem facing all organizations, non-governmental or otherwise.

Your own awareness is the best tool to avoid over-emphasizing the NGO to the detriment of the cause, but don’t hesitate to ask someone from outside of your NGO for an evaluation.

With constant awareness, you can keep your focus and resources flowing to your original goals.

Any volunteer experience can be rewarding. Starting your own NGO can make you feel totally fulfilled.

You will learn and grow as an individual and receive a profound sense of satisfaction not easily found in modern life.

I hope my insights, experiences and mistakes were of benefit.
(to contact Ryan go to:

Happy New Year's!

Happy New Years everyone! Thanks for all of your support and comments this year and I wish you all, all the best in 2011! -MA

DRD4 (aka the slut gene): its still cool, even if its "just" the candor gene ;)

Ongoing debate, new aspect of the DRD4 gene to pick on...its a good op-ed piece with an op that I generally agree with, BUT I also think so much of how we are does have a genetic basis. Some genetic predisposition to acting a certian way that leads to a cascade of behaviours that aren't under direct genetic control. So even if this gene is not driving sexual behaviour, clearly it indirectly drives people to take risks, and that's still really cool. Thanks to Vanessa VD for the link- MA

From the daily beast via 3 quarks daily
Does the Slut Gene Exist?

Probably not—a single gene can't make you have one-night stands. Casey Schwartz on the modern-day phrenologists who say particular genes can make us violent, religious, or a Democrat.

Maybe there’s a gene for the belief that genes can explain everything.

If so, I’m missing it.

In the last seven days, we’ve been hearing a lot about the DRD4 gene, dubbed by the media as the “slut gene,” that supposedly explains why certain people are likely to have lots of sex, especially of the adulterous variety.

In a study published last week in the journal PLoS One, a group of researchers, led by Justin Garcia at Binghamton University in New York, took 181 undergraduate-aged subjects, asked them about their sex lives, and ran a DNA test to see which version of the DRD4 gene they had: the 7R+ or the 7R- kind. The DRD4 gene has made headlines before. In fact, it’s a goldmine of scandalous behaviors, linked to everything from alcoholism to impulsive financial decisions. It influences how our brains respond to dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter unleashed by new and rewarding experiences.

So the Binghamton group had good reason to think that they’d find something if they looked at its role in sexual behavior. And they did find something. But first, here’s what they didn’t find:

They didn’t find that those with one version of the gene had more sex than those with the other. And they didn’t find that the people with the so-called slut gene had more sexual partners, or that they're more likely to cheat.

What they found is that the group who had the 7R+ version was more likely to have had, at one point or another, “a one-night stand,” and that if someone with a 7R+ did cheat in a relationship, they were likely to have done so with more people than their 7R- counterparts.

The study leaves several questions unanswered. Was this 7R+ group really more likely to have had a one-night stand, or just more likely to report it? Did they actually cheat with more partners, or were they simply more willing to reveal the full extent of their adultery? You could just as easily interpret the study’s results this way and declare DRD4 the “candor gene.”

The DRD4 study isn’t an isolated case of shaky genetic science. In fact, it joins a cadre of questionable scientific assertions that link single genes to much broader patterns of behavior.

The last decade has witnessed an explosion in genetics studies, and with it, a proliferation of sensational study results that run the gamut from disingenuous pop-science to borderline science fiction. In the past 10 years, we’ve heard about the God gene that allegedly explains religiosity; the warrior gene that supposedly makes those who have it more aggressive when provoked; and the liberalism gene, a single gene that, we’re told, predisposes a person toward joining a particular political party.

This cluster of discoveries smack of modern-day phrenology, the early 19th-century practice of groping someone’s skull in order to determine how well-developed were their various traits and capacities, whether a tendency toward violence, or a sense of satire. Today, phrenology is a dirty word. Yet with these studies granting such consequence to a single gene—a microscopic strip in our heads whose sole purpose in life is to manufacture one dinky little speck of protein—we’re still expected to accept the idea that one blip of the brain can fully explain who we are and why we behave the way we do.


(from my 2006 trip to the Masai Mara)


"Last real preserve of nature, of our collective humanity" says award winning foreign correspondent Richard Engel in a two part segment done by NBC NIGHTLY NEWS. Below are the links to both shows:



More press is good news! Let us be hopeful for 2011 and for the Serengeti. -MA

Thursday, December 30, 2010

World Science Festival 2009: Bobby McFerrin Demonstrates the Power of the Pentatonic Scale

From youtube:
Bobby McFerrin demonstrates the power of the pentatonic scale, using audience participation, at the event "Notes & Neurons: In Search of the Common Chorus", from the 2009 World Science Festival, June 12, 2009.

For related content, please view the full "Notes & Neurons: In Search of the Common Chorus" program at their website:

From notes & neurons:

Is our response to music hard-wired or culturally determined? Is the reaction to rhythm and melody universal or influenced by environment? Join host John Schaefer, Jamshed Barucha, scientist Daniel Levitin, Professor Lawrence Parsons and musical artist Bobby McFerrin for live performances and cross cultural demonstrations to illustrate music’s note-worthy interaction with the brain and our emotions.

Why even skeptics should tackle climate change

From CNN via Greenpeace
Why even skeptics should tackle climate change
By KUMI NAIDOO - Executive Director of Greenpeace International

Story Highlights:
  • Kumi Naidoo said Amsterdam snow delightful, but he feared it would fuel global warming denial
  • He says NASA analysis named 2010 the warmest year on record
  • Naidoo: Even those who doubt climate change can take actions that benefit them and the planet
  • For skeptics, case must be made in terms of better health, water, energy independence
Amsterdam (CNN) -- I recently returned to Amsterdam from the latest round of U.N. climate talks in Cancun, Mexico, and found this city of canals covered in snow. It was a beautiful sight. Yet rather than filling me with joy, it caused me concern.

Over the past few years, climate-change skeptics have repeatedly used cold snaps as proof that our planet is not heating up.

This argument ignores NASA's recent analysis of 2010 as the warmest year on record and the World Meteorological Organization's pronouncement of the first decade of this century as the hottest since records began.

Global warming does not simply mean that temperatures are always climbing. What it does mean is that although our planet is steadily heating up, a delicate set of climatic imbalances creates an increase in extreme weather events.

These may include both dramatic heat spells and powerful snowstorms, such as those that have blanketed parts of Europe not used to seeing such weather -- as well as the more southerly reaches of the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S.

Most scientists tell us that we must dramatically curb greenhouse gas emissions if we are to avert catastrophic climate change. To do this, it will be necessary to mobilize people around the globe who are not yet concerned about the issue.

But if the scientific evidence can be buried, in the eyes of some, by a single heavy snowfall, then we must have new strategies that generate interest in this complex issue and sustain public and political support for action.

Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Joel Pett may have hit upon something with a cartoon he drew for last year's climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark. It shows a scientist addressing a large audience at a climate summit. A spectator at the left side of the panel asks his neighbor: "What if it's a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?" The answer emerges on the right side of the panel where the following list appears on a chalkboard: energy independence, preserve rainforest, sustainability, green jobs, livable cities, renewables, clean water and air, healthy children, etc., etc.

There is indeed something for almost everyone in climate protection.

A small nonprofit group called the Climate and Energy Project ran with this idea in 2007. It sponsored a yearlong competition between six towns in Kansas with the goal of getting them to lower carbon emissions. They did this by reducing their energy consumption and accepting renewable sources of energy.

A study had shown that a majority of residents in that region believed either that climate change was a hoax or that recent dramatic weather events were simply the result of natural climate cycles. Organizers decided to highlight the more immediate benefits of cutting carbon emissions, including energy independence, development of the local economy and financial savings. The New York Times reported in October that the project's strategy seems to have worked.

In a year, the article read, "energy use in the towns declined as much as 5 percent relative to other areas -- a giant step in the world of energy conservation, where a program that yields a 1.5 percent decline is considered successful."

Most of the world's major religions also offer reasons to engage in climate protection. Because taking care of the poor and needy (often disproportionately affected by climate-related disasters) and protecting God's planet are tenets of most of the world's major faith-based organizations, environmental protection is commonly becoming part of what they preach.

Some Muslim and Hindu groups, for example, are working on special product labeling that would inform consumers about environmental impacts of the items being purchased.

Similarly, around the globe, diverse organizations -- including trade unions, churches, non-governmental organizations and governments -- are coming together to find solutions to climate change.

In 2010, the fossil fuel industry offered, albeit by accident, one of the greatest motivations to take action on global warming. BP's Deepwater Horizon oil spill resulted in the death of 11 rig workers; local economies suffered deeply, and wildlife in the region could take decades to recover.

The continued disintegration of public trust in government and business policy and procedures surrounding the disaster will, justifiably, have repercussions for a long time to come.

Speaking with a Dutch friend, I commented that the snow -- which has caused great travel difficulties around Europe -- was at least a wonderful thing for children, who are out in force making snowmen. "Yes," he replied, but when I was growing up, winters were so cold the canals would freeze over every year, and we could skate on them. Last year was the first time this happened again in over a decade.

The world is no longer as we knew it. It is not possible to backtrack on climate change. It is, however, still within our power to help preserve our planet for future generations.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kumi Naidoo.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Stem cell transplants in dogs proving successful!

From the Toronto Star
Stem cells therapy has Lexi wagging again

Lexi’s feeling sexy again.

That’s not to say that the middle-aged Newfoundland dog, who had an injection of stem cells in October, has any sort of amorous intentions.

Lexi is spayed, after all. And stem cells, while sometimes found to have mysterious, unplanned benefits, do not restore procreative proclivities.

Rather, it’s obvious that the 7-year-old dog with the glossy ebony fur is feeling good as her big, black nose snuffles energetically in bushes and she gambols on the green in a park near the Mississauga veterinary clinic where her owner works.

In October, Lexi became the first dog to undergo a stem-cell injection done totally in Canada. Fat cells were removed from Lexi’s shoulder under general anesthesia, and the stem cells isolated and activated in an on-site MediVet lab that uses patented technology. The stem cells were then injected into Lexi’s back right leg, where pain from bilateral hip dysplasia and degenerative joint disease had taken a toll.

The procedure was performed in mid-October at Malton Veterinary Services on Derry Rd. E., where Lexi’s owner, Nicole Pike, works as a receptionist. The normal $1,800 fee was waived.

A few short months later, there’s no sign of a limp and no obvious hesitation in Lexi’s back right leg. Before the operation, the 115-pound dog had also shown lesser symptoms of the same degenerative joint disease in her back left leg, and those have totally disappeared, Pike says.

She’s delighted with the change in Lexi. “It’s like she’s drunk from the fountain of youth. Before (the procedure) she didn’t run very frequently. I used to walk her the same distance as now and by the end of the walk, she was incapable or unwilling, because of the discomfort, to keep up with me.

“Now she is forging ahead of me, as opposed to lagging behind,’’ says Pike. “She’s not showing symptoms of fatigue and she’s not showing symptoms of pain during those walks. It’s fantastic.

“She’s back to playing with her ball and blanket — she grabs her blanket and tears around the house, which is good to see. She’s got a real zest for life.”

Pike still notices some symptoms in Lexi’s leg, but overall, the dog has vastly improved and is likely to get better still. “Sixty to 90 days is when Dr. (Erik) Sjonnesen says you see optimal results (from stem cell injections),” Pike says.

The procedure has also brought unexpected benefits. The inflammatory bowel disease Lexi suffered from seems to have disappeared. She had been on medication for the condition, which is marked by episodes of diarrhea and vomiting, but doing the procedure safely meant having to stop the meds for a while before and after the operation.

“Since the procedure she hasn’t been on any medication and there haven’t been any flare-ups,” says Pike, who believes the stem cells have “had something to do with changing something in her stomach that leads to this.”

There’s no way to prove a connection, says Sjonnesen, but “it certainly got my attention. I have heard of things like that happening.”

In another case at his clinic, a dog who got stem cell therapy for his knee had an auto-immune problem in his eye clear up after it was done, with no other treatment. “That’s another exciting little tidbit,” says Sjonnesen. That dog is also recovering well but hasn’t passed the 30-day mark for a full review.

To date, Sjonnesen has given in-clinic stem cell therapy to eight dogs, all of them still too recently for a full assessment.

But the veterinarian is very pleased with the progress of Lexi, whose breed’s life expectancy averages between 10 and 12 years.

“She has a good range of motion now. . . she used to have some pain when you extended her right hip — she resented it, she’d cry out,” says Sjonnesen. “But now, she is perfectly calm when I do that; there’s no reaction.”

It’s not known for certain how long the benefits of the therapy will last. But Pike said she’d be willing to have the treatment done again if Lexi needed it because the results have been so positive.

Sjonnesen said the therapy could also be good for horses with osteoarthritis, as well as cats, but hasn’t had any requests yet.

Blackawton bees paper reminds me why I became a scientist

Deep thanks to Tracy K who posted this on facebook and gave me the perfect introduction to my thesis and reminded me why it is I do science. -MA

P. S. Blackawton PS, Airzee S, Allen A, Baker S, Berrow A, Blair C, Churchill M, Coles J, Cummin RF-J, Fraquelli L, Hackford C, Hinton Mellor A, Hutchcroft M, Ireland B, Jewsbury D, Littlejohns A, Littlejohns GM, Lotto M, McKeown J, O'Toole A, Richards H, Robbins-Davey L, Roblyn S, Rodwell-Lynn H, Schenck D, Springer J, Wishy A, Rodwell-Lynn T, Strudwick D, Lotto RB (2010) Blackawton bees. Biology Letters doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2010.1056


Real science has the potential to not only amaze, but also transform the way one thinks of the world and oneself. This is because the process of science is little different from the deeply resonant, natural processes of play. Play enables humans (and other mammals) to discover (and create) relationships and patterns. When one adds rules to play, a game is created. This is science: the process of playing with rules that enables one to reveal previously unseen patterns of relationships that extend our collective understanding of nature and human nature. When thought of in this way, science education becomes a more enlightened and intuitive process of asking questions and devising games to address those questions. But, because the outcome of all game-playing is unpredictable, supporting this ‘messyness’, which is the engine of science, is critical to good science education (and indeed creative education generally). Indeed, we have learned that doing ‘real’ science in public spaces can stimulate tremendous interest in children and adults in understanding the processes by which we make sense of the world. The present study (on the vision of bumble-bees) goes even further, since it was not only performed outside my laboratory (in a Norman church in the southwest of England), but the ‘games’ were themselves devised in collaboration with 25 8- to 10-year-old children. They asked the questions, hypothesized the answers, designed the games (in other words, the experiments) to test these hypotheses and analysed the data. They also drew the figures (in coloured pencil) and wrote the paper. Their headteacher (Dave Strudwick) and I devised the educational programme (we call ‘i,scientist’), and I trained the bees and transcribed the childrens' words into text (which was done with smaller groups of children at the school's local village pub). So what follows is a novel study (scientifically and conceptually) in ‘kids speak’ without references to past literature, which is a challenge. Although the historical context of any study is of course important, including references in this instance would be disingenuous for two reasons. First, given the way scientific data are naturally reported, the relevant information is simply inaccessible to the literate ability of 8- to 10-year-old children, and second, the true motivation for any scientific study (at least one of integrity) is one's own curiousity, which for the children was not inspired by the scientific literature, but their own observations of the world. This lack of historical, scientific context does not diminish the resulting data, scientific methodology or merit of the discovery for the scientific and ‘non-scientific’ audience. On the contrary, it reveals science in its truest (most naive) form, and in this way makes explicit the commonality between science, art and indeed all creative activities.

Principal finding
‘We discovered that bumble-bees can use a combination of colour and spatial relationships in deciding which colour of flower to forage from. We also discovered that science is cool and fun because you get to do stuff that no one has ever done before. (Children from Blackawton)’.

Some of the nuggets from the actual paper:
From the intro:
"People think that humans are the smartest of animals, and most people do not think about other animals as being smart, or at least think that they are not as smart as humans. Knowing that other animals are as smart as us means we can appreciate them more, which could also help us to help them. "
From the methods:
"The bees had black and yellow stripes with white bottoms."
For so much more check out the Lotto Lab website

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Did you know: In art, monkeys symbolize prostitutes!

From tywkiwdbi

In George Seurat’s 'Un dimanche après-midi à l'Île de la Grande Jatte - 1884' (A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte - 1884), the woman in the foreground has a monkey at her feet and the monkey symbolically represents that the woman may be a prostitute:
Furthermore, the inclusion of symbols, most obviously a monkey on a leash and a woman fishing, is indicative of the painting’s satirical nature. In nineteenth century slang, ‘singesse’ (female monkey in French) meant prostitute. The wordplay of ‘pêche’ (fishing) and ‘péché’ (sin) was a pun often made in French cartoons with reference to prostitution. Such symbols speak to the ability of “the proletarian woman [to] become superficially bourgeois through prostitution.” Through this subtle imagery, Seurat adds another dimension to the comparison of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, noting the superficiality and immorality within high class society.
For more examples go here:

That was SO 2010: Sequencing ancient humans and neanderthals, a year in review

An artist's Impression of "Inuk," a 4,000-year-old human whose remains were found in Greenland.
Scientists have sequenced most of his DNA using tufts of his hair found in the 1980s.

From the
2010: A Good Year For Neanderthals (And DNA)

This year was a good year for Neanderthals. Yes, they did go extinct about 30,000 years ago, but scientists now say their genes live on — in us.

Scientists also found a 40,000-year-old finger in a Siberian cave that apparently belonged to an unknown human-like creature. And hair from the corpse of a 4,000-year-old hunter revealed his blood type and a predisposition for baldness.

What made these discoveries possible was DNA, which is becoming biological science's window into the past.

Take the Neanderthals, for example. They were the closest cousins on our family tree until they died out about 30,000 years ago. But were they kissing cousins? Did they exchange genes with us? Scientists wondered.

This year a team of scientists brought together by the Max Planck Institute in Germany actually decoded the billions of DNA segments extracted from Neanderthal bones. It was the culmination of years of research into retrieving intact, ancient DNA from the bones of humans and their ancestors.

A Bit Of Neanderthal In Us All

And what they found was as worthy of a supermarket tabloid as a scientific journal. The Neanderthal genetic code was closer to Europeans and Asians than Africans. If we had never mated with them, their genes should have been equally different from all humans.

"We estimate that about one to four percent of the genetic ancestry of non-Africans is from Neanderthals," says David Reich, a geneticist from Harvard University and a member of the research team.

Apparently, though, having some Neanderthal in us isn't a handicap.

And the DNA revealed not just similarities but also genetic differences between Neanderthals and us, especially things that may explain how we adapted and survived better than they did.

Ed Green from the University of California at Santa Cruz explained to NPR's Science Friday program, "We're using these data now to find some important episode of adaptation in our human ancestors not that long ago even since we split from Neanderthals."

DNA: 'A Direct Look Into The Past'
DNA technology has given scientists a telephoto lens to look even further into the past. Consider the 40,000-year-old pinky finger found in a Siberian cave.

No one could make heads or tails of it until this year, when geneticists at the Max Planck Institute parsed out some of its DNA. Its owner was neither a modern human, nor a Neanderthal. It did, however, share a common ancestor with us, probably in Africa. Moreover, its DNA shows marked similarities with modern people from Melanesia.

"This was a third population living at the same times," says geneticist Reich. "We don't know what tools they made. What we now know is that we get to know them from their DNA."

And if scientists get DNA that's more recent, it can tell even more.

For example, scientists this year got DNA in hair from the remains of a 4,000-year-old hunter found in Greenland. At the University of Copenhagen, biologist Eske Willerslev teased out remarkable details.

"We can show that he was genetically adapted to cold temperatures," says Willerslev. "We can also show with a very high probability that he had a tendency to baldness, he had this blood type, you know, he had this skin color, et cetera."

He had type A-positive blood, to be exact; thick hair; brown eyes; and of the two types of earwax that humans inherit, he had the dry kind.

Scientists called the hunter Inuk. Willerslev says he's now going to use the same technique on some 8,000 year old mummies from South America.

"I think ancient DNA becomes very powerful" now, says Willerslev, "because it gives you a direct look into the past."

'More Surprises Around The Corner'
Ancient DNA does have its limits. Heat, microbes and water destroy it. So the raw material — bones, teeth and hair — are best preserved in very cold climates.

But geneticist Terry Brown of the University of Manchester in England says that still leaves a lot of fossilized territory to explore. He says the more DNA scientists get, the more complex the human story will become.

"I suspect that there are going to be more surprises around the corner," says Brown. "If there are other bones we can get DNA from, then I think it's possible we might find a greater variation amongst our earlier ancestors than we previously realized."

And perhaps more clues to those things that gave us the human edge.

Ngogo blog alert: las aventuras de don ernesto

"Don Ernesto" is a research assistant at the Ngogo chimpanzee field site in Kibale National Park, Uganda. He has a very fun blog full of gorgeous photos and funny anecdotes from his time in and around Ngogo. Thanks to Carol RL for the link! - MA

las aventuras de don ernesto blog

Monday, December 27, 2010

Role Model Alert: Jean Pigozzi

M. Pigozzi is not a scientist or a conservationist, but he is the very definition of bon vivant and I want to be just like him. He holds the world's largest collection of African art and he set up a research station and laboratory in Panama called the "Liquid Jungle Lab" in collaboration with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute,(STRI) Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) the Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid and the Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente., so he isn't toally off topic. Below is a great interview with him from charlie rose. - MA

"Part 21st Century renaissance man, part contemporary cave man"

You know what they say: the bigger your amygdala the more friends you have.

Thanks to Alex P for the link!

from the Associated Press via Yahoo
Study ties brain structure size to socializing
Do you spend time with a lot of friends? That might mean a particular part of your brain is larger than usual.

It's the amygdala, which lies deep inside. Brain scans of 58 volunteers in a preliminary study indicated that the bigger the amygdala, the more friends and family the volunteers reported seeing regularly.

That makes sense because the amygdala is at the center of a brain network that's important for socializing, says Lisa Feldman Barrett, an author of the work published online Sunday by the journal Nature Neuroscience.

For example, the network helps us recognize whether somebody is a stranger or an acquaintance, and a friend or a foe, said Barrett, of Northeastern University in Boston.

But does having a bigger amygdala lead to more friends, or does socializing with a lot of friends create a bigger amygdala? The study can't sort that out. But Barrett said it might be a bit of both.

She said her study now must be replicated by further research.

The work, supported by the federal government, was aimed at uncovering basic knowledge rather than producing any immediate practical payoff, she said. But it might someday lead to ways to help people maintain active social lives, she said.

People have one amygdala in the left half of the brain and another in the right half. The findings of the new study held true for each one.

Arthur Toga, a brain-mapping expert at the University of California, Los Angeles, who didn't participate in the study, called the work well done and the statistical results strong. The idea of linking a brain structure to human behavior is "interesting and important," he said.

Amygdala research made headlines earlier this month when researchers reported on a woman without a working amygdala. The woman felt no fear in threatening situations.

Bickart KC, Wright CI, Dautoff RJ, Dickerson BC, Barrett LF (2010) Amygdala volume and social network size in humans. Nature Neuroscience doi:10.1038/nn.2724

We found that amygdala volume correlates with the size and complexity of social networks in adult humans. An exploratory analysis of subcortical structures did not find strong evidence for similar relationships with any other structure, but there were associations between social network variables and cortical thickness in three cortical areas, two of them with amygdala connectivity. These findings indicate that the amygdala is important in social behavior.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

I AM movie trailer: religion, evolution, what's it about?

Found this trailer today, for the movie "I AM" - not sure exactly what its angle is, could be religious or maybe nicely rooted in evolutionary theory, but seems like it will generate a dialogue at least, which is rarely a bad thing. - MA


In the 1990s Tom Shadyac was one of the most successful directors in Hollywood. From Ace Venture: Pet Detective, to The Nutty Professor and Liar, Liar, he was making the kind of huge hit comedies studios dream of. Then Shadyac was in a bad bicycle accident that changed everything. His physical injuries healed but the experience changed his outlook on life. He sold his mansion, moved into a trailer, gave away his money and possessions and began thinking about a movie that would explore how we, as humans, can change the way we live and make the world better. That documentary, I Am, will be out in February. Check out the inspirational trailer and read the plot synopsis after the break.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Hope: Stem cell transplant appears to have cured one man from AIDS

Thanks to Sergio R for the link!
From the Huffington Post
Stem Cell Transplant Cures HIV In 'Berlin Patient'

On the heels of World AIDS Day comes a stunning medical breakthrough: Doctors believe an HIV-positive man who underwent a stem cell transplant has been cured as a result of the procedure.

Timothy Ray Brown, also known as the "Berlin Patient," received the transplant in 2007 as part of a lengthy treatment course for leukemia. His doctors recently published a report in the journal Blood affirming that the results of extensive testing "strongly suggest that cure of HIV infection has been achieved."

Brown's case paves a path for constructing a permanent cure for HIV through genetically-engineered stem cells.

Last week, Time named another AIDS-related discovery to its list of the Top 10 Medical Breakthroughs of 2010. Recent studies show that healthy individuals who take antiretrovirals, medicine commonly prescribed for treating HIV, can reduce their risk of contracting the disease by up to 73 percent.

While these developments by no means prove a cure for the virus has been found, they can certainly provide hope for the more than 33 million people living with HIV worldwide. Alongside such findings, global efforts to combat the epidemic have accelerated as of late, with new initiatives emerging in the Philippines and South Africa this week.

Allers K, Hütter G, Hofmann J, Loddenkemper C, Rieger C, Thiel E, Schneider1 T (2010) Evidence for the cure of HIV infection by CCR5▲32/▲32 stem cell transplantation. Blood DOI 10.1182/blood-2010-09-309591


HIV entry into CD4+ cells requires interaction with a cellular receptor, generally either CCR5 or CXCR4. We have previously reported the case of an HIV-infected patient in whom viral replication remained absent despite discontinuation of antiretroviral therapy after transplantation with CCR5{Delta}32/{Delta}32 stem cells. However, it was expected that the long-lived viral reservoir would lead to HIV rebound and disease progression during the process of immune reconstitution. In the present study, we demonstrate successful reconstitution of CD4+ T cells at the systemic level as well as in the gut mucosal immune system following CCR5{Delta}32/{Delta}32 stem cell transplantation, while the patient remains without any sign of HIV infection. This was observed although recovered CD4+ T cells contain a high proportion of activated memory CD4+ T cells, i.e. the preferential targets of HIV, and are susceptible to productive infection with CXCR4-tropic HIV. Furthermore, during the process of immune reconstitution, we found evidence for the replacement of long-lived host tissue cells with donor-derived cells indicating that the size of the viral reservoir has been reduced over time. In conclusion, our results strongly suggest that cure of HIV has been achieved in this patient.

2010 - Year in Review by Google

I have fallen behind in posts but lots has been happening, hopefully I can catch up in the next days :) To start off, here is essentially an ad for Google and all its derivatives, but its a nice end of year wrap up nonetheless. -MA

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Love in DRC ♥

I know this is a touch off topic, but this video from the NYTimes about primatologist Laura Darby Brown and her partner Adam Singh is just so sweet and also has some nice footage from Northern DRC and highlights the plight of the orphaned chimpanzees around Bili/Aketi. Congratulations to the newlyweds & thanks to Cleve H for the link!-MA

Monday, December 6, 2010

More Panda news: teaching pandas how to be whilst dressed as pandas

When I posted the other panda article this morning: Pandas: possibly the most complex breeding system ever - tricking moms into caring for twins kickstarts reintro program I did not expect Richard M. to post this album of how Chinese conservationists are teaching young pandas to survive in the wild...Who am I to judge, drastic times call for drastic measures and conservation needs thinking outside of the box. At the very least, its great for a Monday smile - MA

For more pictures go to the

Google lends its massive computing cloud in fight against deforestation

"In part, we made that decision to help remove one of the main obstacles to REDD, namely, the lack of unrestricted capacity to baseline, measure and monitor deforestation and forest degradation.""

Democratic Republic of the Congo Forest Cover Loss, 2000 to 2010. Over 8,000 Landsat images were processed to make this product

The images of our planet from space contain a wealth of information, ready to be extracted and applied to many societal challenges," wrote Moore in a post on the official Google blog. "Analysis can transform these images from a mere set of pixels into useful information—such as the locations and extent of global forests, detecting how our forests are changing over time, directing resources for disaster response or water resource mapping."

"The challenge has been to cope with the massive scale of satellite imagery archives, and the computational resources required for their analysis. As a result, many of these images have never been seen, much less analyzed. Now, scientists will be able to build applications to mine this treasure trove of data on Google Earth Engine."

Presenting at a side event at UN climate talks in Cancun, Mexico, Google said highlighted several advantages of Earth Engine, including 25 years of Landsat satellite imagery, tools to remove cloud and haze from pictures, and opportunities for collaboration across a common platform.

Harnessing Google's computing cloud also greatly accelerates data processing. For example, researchers used Earth Engine to create a detailed forest cover and water map of Mexico in less than a day, a feat that would have taken three years using a single computer. Google plans to donate 10 million CPU-hours a year over the next two years on the Google Earth Engine platform.

So far, Earth Engine is being primarily used to support development of systems to monitor, report and verify (MRV) efforts to stop deforestation, which globally accounts for 12-18 percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions. Google and its partners believe Earth Engine will improve transparency around land use and help developing countries capitalize on the proposed reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD) program, which could generate billions in funds for conservation and sustainable use of tropical forests.

"If we can’t observe, measure and monitor the global environment across different spatial and temporal scales; we will not be able to wisely manage our way out of the global environmental predicament that we’ve created for ourselves and many other expressions of life in this planet," said Luis Solozano of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, which helped support the initiative. "We have given first priority to enhance the ability to monitor the extent and change of tropical forest. In part, we made that decision to help remove one of the main obstacles to REDD, namely, the lack of unrestricted capacity to baseline, measure and monitor deforestation and forest degradation."

Carlos Souza, a senior researcher at Imazon, one of the organizations that piloted-tested Earth Engine, told the new platform will greatly expand the areas monitored in Brazil.

"Now we can monitor all of Brazil's territory, not just what is happening in the Amazon," he said. "We still need a lot of work to calibrate but all the data is there and it is very fast."

"Brazil needs to better monitor biomes outside the Amazon rainforest."

Google's Moore (no relation to the Moore Foundation) said Earth Engine offers opportunities in areas beyond forests.

"We hope that Google Earth Engine will be an important tool to help institutions around the world manage forests more wisely," wrote Moore. "As we fully develop the platform, we hope more scientists will use new Earth Engine API to integrate their applications online—for deforestation, disease mitigation, disaster response, water resource mapping and other beneficial uses."

Click here to go to Google Earth Engine

Clearly the most concise manuscript - yet containing sufficient detail to replicate Dr. Upper's failure

via Neatoroma

Pandas: possibly the most complex breeding system ever - tricking moms into caring for twins kickstarts reintro program

Click on the BBC link or the to see some good footage from the program "Panda Makers"

From the
Giant panda breeding breakthrough in China
A critical breakthrough has been made in efforts to save the giant panda, one that could kick-start attempts to reintroduce the animals to the wild.

Conservationists say they have perfected the difficult task of reproducing pandas, having reached their target of successfully raising 300 of the bears in captivity. The breakthrough, mainly by scientists at the Chengdu Panda Breeding Research Centre, China, should lead to the first panda being reintroduced into the wild within 15 years. The revelation comes after documentary makers were given unprecedented access to the research centre to film captive breeding activity over two years.

Just a few thousand wild pandas survive at best, and the species is classified as being Endangered. In a bid to protect the animal, scientists have attempted to breed captive pandas since the first such cub was born in 1963. But many obstacles stood in the way of achieving a stable captive panda population.

The first was the very short window of opportunity provided in the panda's natural reproductive cycle. Female pandas are only on heat for 72 hours a year, and can only actually become pregnant during a 12 to 24 hour window during this time. In order to correctly interpret the bears' breeding potential, caring for captive female pandas required close observation including daily urine samples to monitor hormone levels. Understanding the giant panda's natural patterns of reproduction was only the start of the challenge.

'Turned off'
Despite conservationists' best efforts to encourage mating, pandas were seemingly "turned off" by captivity. In Chengdu, the world's most successful panda breeding centre, researchers attempted to entice male pandas with the scent of suitable females on bamboo poles, mimicking wild scent-marking behaviour. Rare interactions between aroused pairs often ended in disappointment, however.

Male pandas have proportionately short penises meaning pairs must adopt a very exact position in order to mate. During their observations, researchers found that pandas demonstrated poor knowledge of this position. Researchers then employed methods ranging from sex education videos to viagra in order to stimulate natural behaviour. Most techniques failed, and many encounters between pandas turned aggressive and violent.

Scientists therefore had to rely upon artificial insemination, but their efforts were again subject to the pandas' peculiar reproductive cycle. Panda pregnancies can last anything from 11 weeks to 11 months and can remain undetected until shortly before birth. So researchers had to pay close attention to pandas following insemination procedures, ready to perform a crucial intervention whenever cubs were born.

Crucial intervention
The boon in panda numbers at the Chengdu centre has largely been attributed to the innovative "twin swapping" technique. More than half of pandas give birth to two cubs at a time but only care for one. It is assumed that as pandas cannot store fat, they lack the milk or energy to care for more than one cub at a time. Whenever a cub was abandoned after birth, keepers at the Chengdu centre swiftly moved it to an incubator. Panda mothers were tricked into caring for twins as staff stealthily rotated them between their mother and the incubators.

The survival rate of cubs rose to 98% through this combination of maternal care and artificial support. By the end of last year, the Chengdu Panda Breeding Research Centre alone had raised 168 cubs since its inception in 1987.

Hopes of reintroduction
Conservationists now believe captive numbers are strong enough to seriously consider wild reintroduction programmes. Using the profits made from loaning their pandas to zoos worldwide, pioneers have purchased precious panda habitat in the Sichuan mountains, southwestern China. With the goal of 300 captive pandas achieved, construction has started on the country's first dedicated panda reintroduction facility.

Panda Makers is broadcast on BBC TWO at 2000 GMT, Tuesday December 7th.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

NASA Life Discovery: New Bacteria Makes DNA With Arsenic

Mono Lake, California
by Richard A. Lovett
from National Geographic News

No, today's NASA announcement is not about proof of life on another world. A recent release hinting at "an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life" had bloggers abuzz the past few days with speculation that the space agency had discovered extraterrestrial life.The truth, however, is that scientists have found life on Earth that's perhaps the most "alien" organism yet seen.

A new species of bacteria found in California's Mono Lake is the first known life-form that uses arsenic to make its DNA and proteins, scientists announced today.

Dubbed the GFAJ-1 strain, the bacteria can substitute arsenic for phosphorus, one of the six main "building blocks" for most known life. The other key ingredients for life are carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and sulfur. Arsenic is toxic to most known organisms, in part because it can mimic the chemical properties of phosphorus, allowing the poison to disrupt cellular activity.

The newfound bacteria, described online this week in the journal Science, not only tolerates high concentrations of arsenic, it actually incorporates the chemical into its cells, the study authors found."It's gone into all the vital bits and pieces," said study co-author Paul Davies, director of the BEYOND Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University in Tempe.

While for now Earth is the only place we know that life exists, the discovery does hold implications for the search for life elsewhere in the universe, since it shows that organisms can exist in chemical environments biologists once wouldn't have imagined.

Did Life Arise Twice on Earth?
Astrobiologists found the arsenic-based bacteria while looking for a possible "second genesis" of life on Earth. The scientists were hoping to find evidence of a "shadow biosphere," sometimes called Life 2.0. Such a discovery would prove that, before life as we know it came to dominate the globe, the world had actually seen a separate, independent origin of life. "If life happened twice on one planet, it is sure to have happened on other planets around the universe," Davies said.Last year study leader Felisa Wolfe-Simon of NASA's Astrobiology Institute published a paper suggesting that one possible version of Life 2.0 would be a creature that chemically substitutes arsenic for phosphorus.

So Wolfe-Simon and colleagues took samples of bacteria from California's Mono Lake, a briny, arsenic-rich lake in a volcanic valley southeast of Yosemite National Park. The scientists cultured Mono Lake bacteria in Petri dishes, gradually increasing the amount of arsenic while reducing phosphorus. Chemical analyses with radioactive tracers showed that the GFAJ-1 strain bacteria was in fact using arsenic in its metabolism."Most [organisms] die, but these live on," study co-author Davies said. Despite their oddity, however, the bacteria are genetically too similar to ordinary life to truly be descendents of a second genesis."This is not Life 2.0," Davies said.

Bacteria a Truly Extreme Life-Form
Still, the GFAJ-1 strain might be called the most unusual of the extremophiles, bacteria that thrive under exceptionally harsh conditions, such as high heat, high salt, and low oxygen. Prior discoveries of such bacteria involved organisms that were otherwise "very ordinary," Chris McKay, an astrobiologist at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, said in an email."The only thing 'extreme' about them was where they lived. Biochemically they were pretty normal," said McKay, who wasn't a member of the study team. The arsenic-based bacteria is "a very important find," McKay said. "It's the first example of what we can really call an extreme life-form in an extreme environment."

Felisa Wolfe-Simon F, Blum JS, Kulp TR, Gordon GW, Hoeft SE, Pett-Ridge J, Stolz JF, Webb SM, Weber PK, Davies PCW, Anbarl AD, Oremland RS (2010) A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorus. Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1197258

Life is mostly composed of the elements carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur, and phosphorus. Although these six elements make up nucleic acids, proteins, and lipids and thus the bulk of living matter, it is theoretically possible that some other elements in the periodic table could serve the same functions. Here, we describe a bacterium, strain GFAJ-1 of the Halomonadaceae, isolated from Mono Lake, California, which substitutes arsenic for phosphorus to sustain its growth. Our data show evidence for arsenate in macromolecules that normally contain phosphate, most notably nucleic acids and proteins. Exchange of one of the major bioelements may have profound evolutionary and geochemical significance.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Electrovaginogram - happy holidays lover ;)

Thanks to Vaness vanD for the link! Have you guys read the book Bonk by Mary Roach? It is one of the BEST books I have ever had the pleasure of reading and i am 99% sure in it she interviews the scientists in Cairo that did this work (but I have lended out my copy of Bonk, so I can't double check this...)-MA

From discovery blogs

NCBI ROFL: This holiday season, show your loved ones you care: send an electrovaginogram.

The electrovaginogram: study of the vaginal electric activity and its role in the sexual act and disorders.

OBJECTIVES: We investigated the hypothesis that the vagina generates electric waves which effect vaginal contraction during penile thrusting.

METHODS: In 24 healthy female volunteers, the electric waves of the vagina were recorded by two electrodes applied to its wall. The vaginal pressure was registered by a manometric tube. The electric waves and vaginal pressure were recorded at rest and on vaginal distension by condom in increments of 10 ml of carbon dioxide. The test was repeated after vaginal anesthetization proximally and distally to the electrodes.

RESULTS: Slow waves (SWs) were recorded from the two electrodes with regular rhythm and similar frequency, amplitude and conduction velocity. They were randomly followed or superimposed by action potentials (APs). Vaginal pressure increase was coupled with APs. Large-volume condom distension significantly increased the electric waves’ variables and pressure. Upon vaginal anesthetization, the electric waves were recorded proximal but not distal to the anesthetized area.

CONCLUSIONS: Electric waves could be recorded from the vagina. They spread caudad. A pacemaker was postulated to exist at the upper vagina evoking these waves. The electric waves seem to be responsible for the vaginal contractile activity. Large-volume vaginal distension effected an increase in the vaginal electric waves and pressure which probably denotes increased vaginal muscle contraction. It appears that penile thrusting during coitus stimulates the vaginal pacemaker which effects an increase in vaginal electric activity and muscle contractility and thus leading to an increase in sexual arousal. The vaginal pacemaker seems to represent the G spot, which is claimed to be a small area of erotic sensitivity in the vagina. The electrovaginogram may act as a diagnostic tool in the investigation of sexual disorders.”

Shafik A, El Sibai O, Shafik AA, Ahmed I, Mostafa RM (2004) The electrovaginogram: study of the vaginal electric activity and its role in the sexual act and disorders. Arch Gynecol Obstet. 269(4):282-6.

Top 10 videos of 2010

End of the year, so everyone is releasing their top 10 lists. National Geographic put out a list of the 10 best nature videos of 2010 as measured by the number of watches each one got on their site. I've embedded my fave below (does it remind anyone else of the movie Blade?), but GO HERE to see the full list (and higher quality videos). - MA

#3: Vampire "Squid" Turns "Inside Out" - The vampire squid can turn itself "inside out" to avoid predators—as seen in a video released this year to emphasize the need to protect deep-sea species from the effects of human activities.
(original link)

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Monitoring the Health of Endangered, Wild Chimpanzees

Siv Aina, Nadin, me and Simone in Tai in 2006

Congratulations Siv Aina!!!
from Science Daily

Siv Aina Jensen Leendertz has studied wild chimpanzees living in the tropical rain forest in Ivory Coast at close quarters for a year, and her doctoral thesis describes the health monitoring of this endangered species. Her thesis focuses on the risk of retroviral infection in these chimpanzees due to their hunting of monkeys.

Infectious diseases represent a growing threat to wild chimpanzees and other endangered species of apes. There is therefore a great need to monitor the health of these animals and to map sources of infection in their habitat.

Siv Aina Jensen Leendertz' research has shown a high incidence of the retroviruses simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), simian T-cell leukemia virus (STLV- type1) and simian foamy virus (SFV) in red colubus monkeys, which are the main prey of chimpanzees. Furthermore, she shows that the chimpanzees become infected with SFV due to their habit of hunting these monkeys.

However, infection by SIV was not detected in the chimpanzees, even though they are highly exposed to this virus. This apparent resistance poses interesting questions about the host-parasite relationship between SIV in red colobus monkeys and wild chimpanzees in their natural habitat. Retroviral infections in primates are precursors of, for instance, the human immunodeficiency virus HIV and Leendertz' doctoral research can therefore contribute towards research into retroviral infections in humans.

The thesis also describes general principles for health monitoring. The health of wild chimpanzees often has to be monitored from a distance and samples for analysis consist for the most part of faeces and urine. Leendertz has therefore developed and refined methods that are particularly apt for this kind of fieldwork.

Her research has been carried out in collaboration with The Robert Koch Institute in Berlin, The Taï Chimpanzee Project at the Department of Primatology at The Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig and The Epidemiology and Biostatistics Centre at The Norwegian School of Veterinary Science.

Siv Aina J. Leendertz presented her doctoral thesis on 29th October 2010 at The Norwegian School of Veterinary Science (NVH). The thesis is entitled: "Investigation of wild chimpanzee health and risk of retroviral infection through hunting of red colobus monkeys."

Telomeres: Fountain of youth proven in mammals

One of the best talks/debates I ever went to was at U of Toronto BACK in the day (like 2002 maybe?!?!) which asked, what is the default state for cells: death or life? That is, could cells persist forever if death pathways are blocked or can cells simply not handle excessive replication events and just get worn out?
This new research definitely makes it seem like cells are programmed for life, which is great news for those of us who plan on staying beautiful forever ;) -MA

from Via Geekologie

(I am stealing the intro from Geekologie because it is beyond brilliant):
In a recent act of actually doing something useful instead of trying to kill us all with robots/determine which animal has the biggest balls, scientists have taken a step towards the proverbial fountain of youth.
Harvard scientists at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute say they have for the first time partially reversed age-related degeneration in mice, resulting in new growth of the brain and testes, improved fertility, and the return of a lost cognitive function.

In a report posted online by the journal Nature in advance of print publication, researchers led by Ronald A. DePinho, a Harvard Medical School (HMS) professor of genetics, said they achieved the milestone in aging science by engineering mice with a controllable telomerase gene. The telomerase enzyme maintains the protective caps called telomeres that shield the ends of chromosomes.

As humans age, low levels of telomerase are associated with progressive erosion of telomeres, which may then contribute to tissue degeneration and functional decline in the elderly. By creating mice with a telomerase switch, the researchers were able to generate prematurely aged mice. The switch allowed the scientists to find out whether reactivating telomerase in the animals would restore telomeres and mitigate the signs and symptoms of aging. The work showed a dramatic reversal of many aspects of aging, including reversal of brain disease and infertility.

While human applications remain in the future, the strategy might one day be used to treat conditions such as rare genetic premature aging syndromes in which shortened telomeres play an important role, said DePinho, senior author of the report and the director of Dana-Farber’s Belfer Institute for Applied Cancer Science. “Whether this would impact on normal aging is a more difficult question,” he added. “But it is notable that telomere loss is associated with age-associated disorders and thus restoration of telomeres could alleviate such decline.” The first author is Mariela Jaskelioff, a research fellow in medicine in DePinho’s laboratory.

Importantly, the animals showed no signs of developing cancer. This remains a concern because cancer cells turn on telomerase to make themselves virtually immortal. DePinho said the risk can be minimized by switching on telomerase only for a matter of days or weeks — which may be brief enough to avoid fueling hidden cancers or cause new ones to develop. Still, he observed, it is an important issue for further study.

In addition, DePinho said these results may provide new avenues for regenerative medicine, because they suggest that quiescent adult stem cells in severely aged tissues remain viable and can be reactivated to repair tissue damage.

“If you can remove the underlying damage and stresses that drive the aging process and cause stem cells to go into growth arrest, you may be able to recruit them back into a regenerative response to rejuvenate tissues and maintain health in the aged,” he said. Those stresses include the shortening of telomeres over time that causes cells and tissues to fail.

Loss of telomeres sends a cascade of signals that cause cells to stop dividing or self-destruct, stem cells to go into retirement, organs to atrophy, and brain cells to die. Generally, the shortening of telomeres in normal tissues shows a steady decline, except in the case of cancer, where they are maintained.

The experiments used mice that had been engineered to develop severe DNA and tissue damage as a result of abnormal, premature aging. These animals had short, dysfunctional telomeres and suffered a variety of age-related afflictions that progressed in successive generations of mice. Among the conditions were testes reduced in size and depleted of sperm, atrophied spleens, damage to the intestines, and shrinkage of the brain along with an inability to grow new brain cells.

“We wanted to know: If you could flip the telomerase switch on and restore telomeres in animals with entrenched age-related disease, what would happen?” explained DePinho. “Would it slow down aging, stabilize it, or even reverse it?”

Rather than supply the rodents with supplemental telomerase, the scientists devised a way to switch on the animals’ own dormant telomerase gene, known as TERT. They engineered the endogenous TERT gene to encode a fusion protein of TERT and the estrogen receptor. This fusion protein would only become activated with a special form of estrogen. With this setup, scientists could give the mice an estrogen-like drug at any time to stimulate the TERT-estrogen receptor fusion protein and make it active to maintain telomeres.

Against this backdrop, the researchers administered the estrogen drug to some of the mice via a time-release pellet inserted under the skin. Other animals, the controls, were given a pellet containing no active drug.

After four weeks, the scientists observed remarkable signs of rejuvenation in the treated mice. Overall, the mice exhibited increased levels of telomerase and lengthened telomeres, biological changes indicative of cells returning to a growth state with reversal of tissue degeneration, and increase in size of the spleen, testes, and brain. “It was akin to a Ponce de León effect,” noted DePinho, referring to the Spanish explorer who sought the mythical Fountain of Youth.

“When we flipped the telomerase switch on and looked a month later, the brains had largely returned to normal,” said DePinho. More newborn nerve cells were observed, and the fatty myelin sheaths around nerve cells — which had become thinned in the aged animals — increased in diameter. In addition, the increase in telomerase revitalized slumbering brain stem cells so they could produce new neurons.

To show that all this new activity actually caused functional improvements, the scientists tested the mice’s ability to avoid a certain area where they detected unpleasant odors that they associated with danger, such as scents of predators or rotten food. They had lost that survival skill as their olfactory nerve cells atrophied, but after the telomerase boost, those nerves regenerated and the mice regained their crucial sense of smell.

“One of the most amazing changes was in the animals’ testes, which were essentially barren as aging caused the death and elimination of sperm cells,” recounted DePinho. “When we restored telomerase, the testes produced new sperm cells, and the animals’ fecundity was improved — their mates gave birth to larger litters.”

The telomerase boost also lengthened the rodents’ life spans compared to their untreated counterparts — but they did not live longer than normal mice, said the researchers.

The authors concluded, “This unprecedented reversal of age-related decline in the central nervous system and other organs vital to adult mammalian health justifies exploration of telomere rejuvenation strategies for age-associated diseases.”

Jaskelioff M, Muller FL, Paik J-H, Thomas E, Jiang S, Adams AC, Sahin E, Kost-Alimova M, Protopopov A, Cadiñanos J, Horner JW, Maratos-Flier E, DePinhoron RA (2010) Telomerase reactivation reverses tissue degeneration in aged telomerase-deficient mice. Nature doi:10.1038/nature09603

An ageing world population has fuelled interest in regenerative remedies that may stem declining organ function and maintain fitness. Unanswered is whether elimination of intrinsic instigators driving age-associated degeneration can reverse, as opposed to simply arrest, various afflictions of the aged. Such instigators include progressively damaged genomes. Telomerase-deficient mice have served as a model system to study the adverse cellular and organismal consequences of wide-spread endogenous DNA damage signalling activation in vivo1. Telomere loss and uncapping provokes progressive tissue atrophy, stem cell depletion, organ system failure and impaired tissue injury responses1. Here, we sought to determine whether entrenched multi-system degeneration in adult mice with severe telomere dysfunction can be halted or possibly reversed by reactivation of endogenous telomerase activity. To this end, we engineered a knock-in allele encoding a 4-hydroxytamoxifen (4-OHT)-inducible telomerase reverse transcriptase-oestrogen receptor (TERT-ER) under transcriptional control of the endogenous TERT promoter. Homozygous TERT-ER mice have short dysfunctional telomeres and sustain increased DNA damage signalling and classical degenerative phenotypes upon successive generational matings and advancing age. Telomerase reactivation in such late generation TERT-ER mice extends telomeres, reduces DNA damage signalling and associated cellular checkpoint responses, allows resumption of proliferation in quiescent cultures, and eliminates degenerative phenotypes across multiple organs including testes, spleens and intestines. Notably, somatic telomerase reactivation reversed neurodegeneration with restoration of proliferating Sox2+ neural progenitors, Dcx+ newborn neurons, and Olig2+ oligodendrocyte populations. Consistent with the integral role of subventricular zone neural progenitors in generation and maintenance of olfactory bulb interneurons2, this wave of telomerase-dependent neurogenesis resulted in alleviation of hyposmia and recovery of innate olfactory avoidance responses. Accumulating evidence implicating telomere damage as a driver of age-associated organ decline and disease risk1, 3 and the marked reversal of systemic degenerative phenotypes in adult mice observed here support the development of regenerative strategies designed to restore telomere integrity.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Recycling: Toshiba to Extract Rare Earth Metals From Uranium Waste

...or will they?

Toshiba to Extract Rare Earth Metals From Uranium Waste
from Autotech daily
(thanks to Z for the link!)

(For a little background on rare earth minerals check out: Pay dirt: Why rare earth metals matter to tech)

Toshiba Corp. is developing a low-cost method to recover rare earth minerals and other metals from liquid waste generated by uranium processing, The Nikkei reports. It says Toshiba aims to commercialize the technology in about two years. The Japanese newspaper says Toshiba will conduct trials of the new process with partner Kazatomprom, Kazakhstan’s state-run nuclear company. Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corp. is providing part of the project’s financing. Toshiba will use electrolysis to extract dysprosium and neodymium, which are used in high-strength magnets for electric motors in hybrid vehicles, and rhenium, which is used in jet engines, The Nikkei says. The process reduces waste and costs about one-fifth as much as mining rare earth.

Automakers and other manufacturers have been looking for new sources of rare earth metals after China restricted exports of the material earlier this year. China has 37% of the world’s rare earth reserves. But it has supplied more than 95% of the
material in recent years as other countries shied away from the toxic nature of such mines.

Earlier this month, Toshiba signed a memorandum of understanding with Mongolia to explore the potential for mining uranium and rare earth minerals there.

Impact of seismic oil exploration on chimps, gorillas, elephants and other primates (Loango, Gabon)

The previous post on the oil exploration in the Virungas made me realize I never posted about Luisa Rabanal's (and colleagues) amazing paper on the impact of oil exploration in Loango National Park -MA

The impact of seismic oil exploration on rainforest wildlife
From Conservation

A new study looks at the impact of seismic oil exploration on wildlife in Gabon's Loango National Park. Luisa Rabanal and fellow researchers found evidence that the loud noises generated by oil exploration activities can cause elephants to move large distances to escape the disturbance. The study findings also indicate that seismic activities can cause smaller scale disturbances for gorillas.

In threatened species like African forest elephants that have few offspring and mature slowly, disturbances that cause large scale shifts in spatial distribution may negatively affect the health of populations. According to the authors, this is the first study they know of to quantitatively assess the impact of noise from seismic activities on rainforest mammals.

Oil development activities in rainforests have raised a number of deep concerns about social and ecological impacts. During seismic oil exploration, dynamiting and other human activities can generate extremely loud noises - up to 210 decibels next to the explosion site or 10,000 times louder than a jet aircraft flying by at 300 m altitude.

The researchers surveyed elephants, gorillas, chimpanzees, duikers, and monkeys in Loango National Park over a 6-week period of dynamiting in 2007. They used modeling to detect impacts to wildlife distribution at large, intermediate, and small scales.

The researchers hypothesized that large wildlife like elephants, gorillas, and chimpanzees with expansive home ranges would experience large-scale disturbance. They also hypothesized that smaller wildlife like monkeys with limited ability to disperse large distances would experience small scale disturbance - i.e. dynamiting would just cause them to move short distances during the period of the activity.

While the study found large-scale impacts in elephants, they only found medium and small-scale effects in gorillas. The weaker than expected impacts on species distribution may have been due to the fact that the oil exploration activities were actually much less invasive then they could have been.

Environmental organizations commissioned by the Gabon government audited the activities to enforce certain agreed upon best practices to minimize disturbance to wildlife - for example, no chainsaws were permitted and dynamite had to be placed at least 6 meters deep. So seismic activities in other cases without rigorous environmental standards might cause much worse impacts.

The researchers also warn that seismic activity may cause other negative impacts to species unrelated to habitat use. They write,

"Our results may also suggest that the apes were even more disturbed by the explosions if they were unable to move larger distances and hence we stress the need for other methods of examining the seismic impact such as hormone and physiological measures. This also applies to certain species whose movements are restricted by their ranging patterns (e.g. duikers) where stronger responses may be exhibited through physiological mechanisms such as increased stress levels and/or reduced reproductive output"
Rabanal L, Kuehl H, Mundry R, Robbins M, Boesch C (2010) Oil prospecting and its impact on large rainforest mammals in Loango National Park, Gabon Biological Conservation 143(4): 1017-1024 DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2010.01.017

Resource extraction is increasingly affecting protected areas worldwide. However, aside from studies on logging, limited information is available about the effect this has on wildlife, which may be of great consequence, especially when endangered species could be affected. Specifically, the effect of intense human-induced noise during oil exploration on wildlife is poorly understood. We explore the effect of seismic oil exploration on large mammal distribution in an 80 km2 area of Loango National Park, Gabon. Following the ecological theory of habitat disturbance, we predicted that changes in habitat use in response to noise disturbance would scale with the body/home range size of each species examined. Our study was conducted over six months before, during and after low-impact seismic operations. We recorded counts along transects of indirect signs of elephants (Loxondota africana cyclotis), chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes troglodytes), gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla), duikers (Cephalophus spp.), and the vocalizations of five monkey species (Cercocebus torquatus, Cercopithecus cephus, C. nictitans, C. pogonias and Lophocebus albigena) and modeled seismic impact over different spatial scales (small, intermediate and large). We found that elephants avoided seismic activity on all three spatial scales, apes avoided on the intermediate and small scales, and there was no effect for duikers and monkeys. We conclude that low-impact seismic operations can cause considerable temporary habitat loss for species with large ranges and suggest that the impact on those endangered species can be minimized by adequately spacing seismic lines and activity in space and time to enable species to move away from the progressive noise disruption.