Sunday, August 17, 2008

The joy of simply faffing around

Tom Hodgkinson

A woman relaxes with her eyes closed

Take some time out - it's not hurting anyone. Photograph: Getty

A new report says that we waste three hours a day faffing around, doing nothing in particular, pootling, dawdling, pottering, hanging about. The survey was carried out by the Learning and Skills Council, who, not surprisingly, argued we should instead use those three hours to Learn some Skills.

I beg to differ. Faffing is good. It is an important part of life. Faffing is when we disconnect from the matrix and idle for a while, like a car. Our body and spirit know deep down that human beings were not made for constant toil so subconsciously creates space through the mechanism of faffing.

Faffing of course does not fit the programme. We are supposed to be busy, productive citizens. Take the new BlackBerry ads. An unsmiling Teutonic model, a supreme non-faffer, boasts about the number of things he or she manages to get done in a day, thanks to their BlackBerry. Clearly these sorts of ideals are designed to make us faffers feel bad. Well, don't.

Embrace the faff. Stare out of the window. Bend paperclips. Stand in the middle of the room trying to remember what you came downstairs for. Pace. Drum your fingertips. Move papers around. Hum. Look at the garden. Go to the shed with the intention of tidying up and instead fall asleep. Make mental notes. Read every single word of the newspaper - even the job ads - before getting down to work. Lose yourself in erotic reveries. Pat your pockets. Resolve to be more organised in future. Be useless.

Faffing is completely harmless, whereas its opposite - dynamic, purposeful activity - is often very harmful. Faffers do not tend to kill people or make them work 12-hour days or sell them shoddy merchandise or lend them vast sums of money that they cannot pay back. In 1966, John Lennon memorably asked people to leave him alone because after all, he was only sleeping, and I urge the busybodies to do the same: after all, I'm only faffing.

· Tom Hodgkinson is the editor of the Idler

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20 Diseases And Conditions Directly Attributed To Being Overweight

weight scale picture for weight controlCarrying around excess weight to the point of being obese is becoming an epidemic in North America. While one of the initial concerns with obesity is usually all about how you look and how you feel about yourself as a person, the longer the problem exists for you the more medical problems are going to arise, some of which can be fatal.

Obesity is a growing concern especially because overweight rates have doubled among children and tripled among adolescents. This increases the number of years that they are exposing themselves to dangerous health risks associated with obesity. While it is difficult to truly predict the future impact of obesity, there is strong scientific agreement that obesity significantly increases the risk of serious chronic diseases and contributes to overall mortality.

Here are 20 diseases or conditions that can be attributed to obesity:

  1. Diabetes which is a disorder where the pancreas is not producing enough or sometimes not any insulin. Diabetes can lead to a whole host of other medical issues and obesity is one of the main causes due to the body having excess glucose due to overeating.
  2. Cancer has many different forms and types and many of them could be prevented with more attention to eating healthy and avoiding obesity.
  3. Congestive Heart Failure is a condition in which the heart can’t pump enough blood to the body’s other organs.
  4. Enlarged Heart is another heart condition where the muscle of the heart become larger due to being overworked which naturally happens if you are overweight.
  5. Pulmonary Embolism is a sometimes fatal blockage of an artery. Being overweight causes most people to reduce activity and after time lack of activity can result in an embolism.
  6. Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome is when cysts develop in your ovaries. These can burst causing even further problems.
  7. Gastro esophageal Reflux Disease means that stomach acid and juices flow from the stomach back up into the esophagus. It is common in overweight people.
  8. Fatty Liver Disease is a reversible condition where large pockets of fat accumulate in liver cells. Fatty liver can be considered a single disease that occurs worldwide in those with excessive alcohol intake and those who are obese.
  9. Hernia is caused when the hole in the diaphragm weakens and enlarges.
  10. Erectile Dysfunction is the inability to develop or maintain an erection which can be caused by a medical problem due to obesity or a psychological effect.
  11. Urinary Incontinence is the inability to control ones urine and is frequently associated with obesity, weak bladder and pelvic floor muscles
  12. Chronic Renal Failure meaning the kidneys fail to work is a much greater risk to those that are overweight or obese.
  13. Lymph edema is a condition that occurs from a damaged or dysfunctional lymphatic system sometimes caused by people suffering from obesity actually crushing the lymphatics.
  14. Cellulitis is clinically a spreading infection involving both the dermis and subcutaneous tissues due poor lymph flow caused by obesity.
  15. Stroke is a lack of blood supply as the body has to work harder when you are obese.
  16. Pickwickian Syndrome is mainly characterized by sleep apnea due to obesity placing an excessive load on the pulmonary system.
  17. Depression is a condition where a person feels extremely sad all the time. Even to the point of being suicidal. This can be greatly enhanced for someone that has a weight problem.
  18. Osteoarthritis is a clinical syndrome in which low-grade inflammation results in pain in the joints, caused by abnormal wearing of the cartilage oftentimes due to obesity.
  19. Gout occurs when uric acid accumulates in the blood. Nerve endings then become irritated causing extreme pain made worse by carrying extra weight.
  20. Gallbladder Disease commonly affects overweight people as a result of high blood cholesterol levels and causes gall stones.

According to the U.S. Surgeon General report, obesity is responsible for 300,000 deaths every year in the U.S. The National Center for Health statistics estimates that sixty three percent of Americans are overweight with a Body Mass Index (BMI) in excess of 25.0. What people don’t know is that many cases of obesity are related to some kind of food intolerance. Eighty to ninety percent of north americans have some sort of food allergy or intolerance. Eating these foods can result in many symptoms, one of which being weight gain. Many of the foods that people react to are not the junk food you might be thinking of but actually healthy foods that we may be eating because we are on a diet !

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Religion out of medicine, a new message for Ontario doctors

Charles Lewis, National Post

Ontario physicians could be stripped of their right to exercise religious or moral conscience if a new set of guidelines is accepted by their regulating body next month, critics say.

Doctors across Canada are now allowed to opt out of such things as prescribing birth control or morning-after pills or doing abortions when it goes against their conscience. Physicians are also allowed to refuse to do referrals in such cases.

But a new draft proposal from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario could change that for doctors in the province.

"I'm really concerned with the new principle that the college is promulgating and that is that doctors do not have the right to be guided in the conduct of the practice by their conscience," said Joseph Ben-Ami, president of the Centre for Policy Studies, an Ottawa-based think tank. "That's a sweeping broad principle to establish -- and once you've established it the field is wide open for further changes."

For example, he said a doctor might refuse to help a same-sex couple to use reproductive technology to have a child.

"There are a lot of doctors who feel uncomfortable with this and think it's detrimental to the child's welfare down the road. The way were reading this draft document is a doctor could be hit with a misconduct" if the new rules are adopted.

Some of the provisions included in the draft document are:

• [A] physician's responsibility is to place the needs of the patient first, [so] there will be times when it may be necessary for physicians to set aside their personal beliefs in order to ensure that patients or potential patients are provided with the medical services the require."

• "Physicians should be aware that decisions to restrict medical services offered ... or to end physician-patient relationships that are based on moral or religious belief may contravene the Code and/or constitute professional misconduct."

• "Tell patients about their right to see another physician with whom they can discuss their situation and ensure they have sufficient information to exercise that right. If patients or potential patients cannot readily make their own arrangements to see another doctor, physicians must ensure arrangements are made, without delay, for another doctor to take over the case."

Rene Leiva, a Catholic family doctor in Ottawa, and a former board member of the Canadian Physicians for Life, said if the new rules were adopted it would make it nearly impossible for him to operate in the province.

"This would put a burden on physicians like myself to conform to a view that basically puts my conscience under somebody's else's power," said Dr. Leiva. "And the key aspect is moral integrity and the right of physicians to act in a way that does not harm the patient.

Jill Hefley, a spokeswoman for the college, said the reason for the draft was because of changes being made to the Ontario human rights system that could see doctors facing more complaints from patients who feel they are being discriminated against.

She said the draft document was a way of alerting doctors that they could be facing more legal issues from the human rights system.

But Mr. Ben-Ami said that explanation makes no sense.

"If this was just a matter of cautioning members of the college that there may be some problems in exercising their conscience that would be fair," he said. "They seem to go from that into a discussion about professional misconduct and then setting out guidelines about what is misconduct and that becomes very problematic to us because I don't think you can make a sweeping declaration that a doctor or any professional has to ignore matters of conscience in the conduct of their affairs. I don't think this has been thought through."

The Ontario Medical Association, the professional group that represents doctors, would not comment but said they are sending a submission to the college next week.

It is believed that Ontario would be the only province to change its conscience guidelines if the new rules are adopted.

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England, Wales Government Councils Propose Taking Obese Children From Parents

A government association representing more than 400 councils in England and Wales said parents of dangerously obese children are at risk of losing them.

The Local Government Association warned that the worst cases of obesity will be increasingly seen as evidence of "parental neglect," and that social workers will have to step in to offer advice to protect the child's welfare.

In the most extreme cases, children could be taken away from parents.

The stark message came as town hall bosses revealed the impact of fat Britain:

— Councils are fitting super-size cremation furnaces to cope with fat corpses

— Ambulances have fitted extra-wide stretchers and winches for obese patients

— Schools are buying bigger seats for classrooms

About 1 in 4 people in England is obese and considered so overweight that it threatens the person's health.

LGA public health spokesman David Rogers said some councils are already taking actions "where parents are putting children's health in real danger.

"Councils would step in to deal with an under-nourished and neglected child so should a case with a morbidly obese child be different?" he continued. "There needs to be a national debate about the extent to which it is acceptable for local authorities to take action in cases where the welfare of children is in real jeopardy."

Sixteen percent of American children are overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Efforts have been made in the U.S. to reduce children's access to fast food, soda and snacks, especially in public schools. Fitness guru Richard Simmons recently called on Congress to expand gym class offerings in schools. And the city of Los Angeles last month put a moratorium on new fast food restaurants in South Los Angeles, where childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportions.

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Research Proves Beer Goggle Effect is Real

According to a new study, drinking alcohol changes our perceptions and makes people appear more attractive.

Researchers in England had 84 randomly selected heterosexual college students drink a mystery beverage that either contained enough alcohol to make them tipsy or no alcohol at all. They then had the students look at pictures of faces, and found that those who had consumed the alcohol rated the faces as being more attractive than those in the control group.

Surprisingly, the beer goggle effect wasn't just limited to the opposite sex. The students who imbibed also rated the faces from their own sex more attractive.

Now that that's been settled, it's time for science to tackle the "beer before liquor never been sicker" mantra, and the mystery of the guy who always disappears when it's his turn to buy a round.

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Space Probe Pinpoints Origin of Vapor Jets on Saturn Moon


Exquisite close-ups of fissures on a tiny ice-ball moon of Saturn will provide the latest clues in solving how a 310-mile-wide ice ball could possibly be shooting geysers of vapor and icy particles.

Since the discovery of the jets in 2006, the moon, Enceladus, has jumped near the top of the list of potential places for life in the solar system. A warm spot near Enceladus’ south pole powers the jets and may also melt below-surface ice into liquid water, a necessity for living organisms.

On Monday, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft made its latest flyby of Enceladus (pronounced en-SELL-ah-dus), passing 30 miles above the surface at a speed of 64,000 miles per hour.

The new images, at seven meters per pixel, offer a resolution 10 times as great as earlier views. Scientists can now see the V-shaped walls of the fractures that are nearly 1,000 feet deep.

“This is the mother lode for us,” Carolyn Porco, leader of Cassini’s imaging team, said in a news release. “A place that may ultimately reveal just exactly what kind of environment — habitable or not — we have within this tortured little moon.”

The observations should help scientists understand how geological processes can persist on such a small body, which is being heated by tidal distortions induced by Saturn.

A series of long “tiger stripes” scar Enceladus’ solar polar region, and earlier observations had allowed the Cassini scientists to triangulate the origin of the jets within the tiger stripes and show that the warm spots also coincide with the tiger stripes. In its last flyby in March, Cassini flew through the plume and detected organic molecules, the carbon-based molecules that could provide the building blocks for life. Cassini also detected water vapor, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. The composition was surprisingly similar to that of a comet, scientists said.

In the fall, Cassini is to make an even closer near-miss of Enceladus, passing through the geyser within 15 miles of the moon’s surface.

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Roman sarcophagi discovered in Newcastle, 1,800 years after they were sealed

By Daily Mail Reporter

Archaeologists found the remains of a middle-aged adult who lived during the end of Britain's Roman occupation when they opened a 1,700-year-old sarcophagus yesterday.

The discovery of the sandstone coffin - and another believed to be from the same family - in central Newcastle was one of the most important finds in the area for a century.

The coffins were buried side by side and were thought to hold powerful residents of the adjacent walled fort of Pons Aelius, close to where the city's railway station now stands.


Archaeologists from Durham University clean a Roman Stone Sarcophagi which was uncovered at a dig on the site of former office buildings

The lid of one sarcophagus will be lifted by Durham University experts tomorrow morning to discover what it holds inside.

The other sarcophagus has already been opened and removed from the site for safekeeping.

This was found to contain the poorly-preserved skeleton of a child, aged around six years old, which was submerged in water and sludge.

The head of the child appeared to have been removed and placed elsewhere in the coffin, which was an unusual but not unknown practice in Roman times.

It is possible the burial included the remains of an older person in the same coffin.

The tombs, the most archaeologically significant find at the dig, were discovered by a team from Durham University.

In 1903, two sarcophagi were found at the former Turnbull Warehouse site, in Newcastle upon Tyne, which is now home to a block of luxury flats.

The Durham University team was hired by a development company which aims to build a modern office block on the site once its archaeological riches have been preserved for future generations.

The archaeologists lift the lid of the sarcophagus. The area it was found in has been populated since the Stone Age

Other discoveries at the site, on Forth Street, include cremation urns, providing evidence of other Roman burials on site; a cobbled Roman road which experts believe may have been part of the old main road from the South of England to the North; a Roman well and a Medieval well; the remains of the foundations of Roman shops and workers' homes, along with the remains of flint tools from Stone Age hunter-gatherers.

The site has been home to numerous developments since the Middle Stone Age.

It was most recently home to warehouses and offices of the British Electrical and Manufacturing Company and still hosts a disused 19th century Presbyterian Church, which is a listed building.

Richard Annis, from Durham University, said: 'These sarcophagi would have been a prominent feature of the landscape, as they were carefully placed to be viewed, being close to the road and, at the time, raised above the ground.

'They would certainly have had to belong to a wealthy family of a high status in the community, perhaps at Fort Commander level or at senior level in the Roman army.

'Very few people could have afforded to bury their child in such a grand fashion.'

The sarcophagi, about 70cm wide and 180cm long, have walls around 10cm thick and weigh up to half a tonne each.

They are both carved out of a single piece of sandstone. Each lid was fixed in place with iron pegs sealed with molten lead.

After analysis by the Durham University team, all of the finds from the site will eventually go to the new Great North Museum in Newcastle, where the sarcophagi will be preserved for the public to see.

In Roman times, it was unlawful to bury bodies inside settlements. Cemeteries were laid out at the roadside, near the gates of forts and towns.

Mr Annis added: 'It is very likely that a burial ceremony would have been held at the tombs, perhaps attended by many people.

'We know that some families hired professional mourners, who would weep and wail and add to the atmosphere of the burial.'

David Heslop, Tyne and Wear County Archaeologist, added: 'For the first time, we are starting to understand the layout of the civilian settlement that provided services to the garrison of the fort, and we can catch a glimpse of the Roman way of life, and death, on the northern frontier of the Empire.'

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Do subatomic particles have free will?

By Julie Rehmeyer

If we have free will, so do subatomic particles, mathematicians claim to prove.

“If the atoms never swerve so as to originate some new movement that will snap the bonds of fate, the everlasting sequence of cause and effect—what is the source of the free will possessed by living things throughout the earth?”—Titus Lucretius Carus, Roman philosopher and poet, 99–55 BC.

Human free will might seem like the squishiest of philosophical subjects, way beyond the realm of mathematical demonstration. But two highly regarded Princeton mathematicians, John Conway and Simon Kochen, claim to have proven that if humans have even the tiniest amount of free will, then atoms themselves must also behave unpredictably.

The finding won’t give many physicists a moment’s worry, because traditional interpretations of quantum mechanics embrace unpredictability already. The best anyone can hope to do, quantum theory says, is predict the probability that a particle will behave in a certain way.

But physicists all the way back to Einstein have been unhappy with this idea. Einstein famously grumped, “God does not play dice.” And indeed, ever since the birth of quantum mechanics, some physicists have offered alternate interpretations of its equations that aim to get rid of this indeterminism. The most famous alternative is attributed to the physicist David Bohm, who argued in the 1950s that the behavior of subatomic particles is entirely determined by “hidden variables” that cannot be observed.

Conway and Kochen say this search is hopeless, and they claim to have proven that indeterminacy is inherent in the world itself, rather than just in quantum theory. And to Bohmians and other like-minded physicists, the pair says: Give up determinism, or give up free will. Even the tiniest bit of free will.

Their argument starts with a proof Kochen created with Ernst Specker 40 years ago. Subatomic particles have a property called “spin,” which occurs around any axis. Experiments have shown that a type of subatomic particle called a “spin 1 particle” has a peculiar property: Choose three perpendicular axes, and prod the spin 1 particle to determine whether its spin around each of those axes is 0. Precisely one of those axes will have spin 0 and the other two will have non-zero spin. Conway and Kochen call this the 1-0-1 rule.

Spin is one of those properties physicists can’t predict in advance, before prodding. Still, one might imagine that the particle’s spin around any axis was set before anyone ever came along to prod it. That’s certainly what we ordinarily assume in life. We don’t imagine, say, that a fence turned white just because we looked at it — we figure it was white all along.

But Kochen and Specker showed that this assumption — that the fence was white all along — can’t hold in the bizarre world of subatomic particles. They used a pure mathematical argument to show that there is no way the particle can choose spins around every imaginable axis in a way that is consistent with the 1-0-1 rule. Indeed, there is a set of just 33 axes that are enough to force the particle into a paradox. It could choose spins around the first 32 axes that conform with the rule, but for the last, neither 0 nor non-zero would do. Choosing zero spin would create a set of three perpendicular axes with two zeroes, and choosing non-zero spin would create a different set of three perpendicular axes with three non-zeroes, breaking the 1-0-1 rule either way.

This means that the particle cannot have a definite spin in every direction before it’s measured, Kochen and Specker concluded. If it did, physicists would be able to occasionally observe it breaking the 1-0-1 rule, which never happens. Instead, it must “decide” which spin to have on the fly.

Conway compares the situation to the game “Twenty Questions.” If you play the game fairly, you decide upfront on a single object and honestly answer each of the questions, hoping your opponent won’t deduce what you chose. But a clever player could also cheat, changing the object partway through. In that case, his answers aren’t determined in advance. The particle, Kochen and Specker showed, is like a cheating player. They found it out by showing that no single object satisfies all the “questions” (or all 33 axes) at once.

But there’s another possible interpretation. Perhaps the particle’s spin is completely determined — but depends on something else about the state of the universe. That would be like a player in “Twenty Questions” who has decided his object is a donkey whenever his opponent starts a question with “Is,” and that his object a horse otherwise (or using any other arbitrary but consistent rule). For example, if his opponent asked, “Is it something with big ears?” he would say “yes,” but if his opponent asked, “Does it have big ears?” he’d say “no.” In that case, his answers are predetermined even though he has no single object in mind.

Conway and Kochen say that they have now proven that particles’ responses can’t be pre-determined, even within this possible interpretation. “We can really prove that there’s no algorithm, no way that the particle can give an answer that is unique and can be specified ahead of time,” Conway says. “I’m still amazed that we can actually manage to prove that.”

They concocted a thought experiment for their proof. It is possible to entangle two spin 1 particles so that their spins are identical along every possible axis and will remain so, even if they are separated very far apart. Entangle two particles this way, and then send a physicist named Alice with one of them to Mars and leave the other with a physicist named Bob on Earth. That will prevent information from passing between the physicists or the particles, according to relativity theory. Alice and Bob each prod their particles along some axis, which they freely choose. If Alice and Bob happen to choose the same axis, they’ll get the same answer.

Now, imagine that the particles are like the “20 questions” player whose object is sometimes a donkey and sometimes a horse, with a fixed rule deciding when to answer with which animal. Whatever the rule is, it applies to each of the entangled particles and will cause them to have the same spins. It’s as if the “20 questions” player has been cloned, and both players are forced to give answers for the same animal.

But Conway and Kochen have shown this scenario is impossible for particles that are incommunicado. They invoked the old Kochen-Specker paradox to show that if the spin 1 particle’s behavior is pre-determined so that it isn’t allowed to “change its animal,” it won’t be able to give answers that are consistent with the 1-0-1 rule. So if Alice and Bob are lucky in how they choose their axes, they should be able to force the particles either to disagree or to violate the 1-0-1 rule — contrary to experimental evidence.

Kochen and Conway say the best way out of this paradox is to accept that the particle’s spin doesn’t exist until it’s measured. But there’s one way to escape their noose: Suppose for a moment that Alice and Bob’s choice of axis to measure is not a free choice. Then Nature could be conspiring to prevent them from choosing the axes that will reveal the violation of the rule. Kochen and Conway can’t rule that possibility out entirely, but Kochen says, “A man on the street would say, ‘Don’t be ridiculous.’ A natural feeling is, of course, that what we do, we do of our own free will. Not completely, but certainly to the point of knowing we can choose what button to push in an experiment.”

Ideally, a mathematical proof settles all uncertainty, but Kochen and Conway haven’t yet managed to convince many of the physicists they are addressing. “I’m not convinced,” says Sheldon Goldstein of Rutgers University, a Bohmian. He believes the argument implies nothing new, and he’s content with the notion that free will exists only effectively (not theoretically). He and his collaborators have spent many hours discussing these issues with the pair of mathematicians since Kochen and Conway first posted their result four years ago. Their new version, posted on July 21, attempts to strengthen the result in light of criticisms. Still, mutual understanding has not yet come about. “It’s kind of depressing when people can’t communicate with each other,” Goldstein says. “We know that’s true in politics, but you’d think that wouldn’t be going on here.”

But Gerard ’t Hooft of the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1999, says the pair’s conclusions are legitimate — but he chooses determinism over free will. “As a determined determinist I would say that yes, you bet, an experimenter's choice what to measure was fixed from the dawn of time, and so were the properties of the thing he decided to call a photon,” ’t Hooft says. “If you believe in determinism, you have to believe it all the way. No escape possible. Conway and Kochen have shown here in a beautiful way that a half-hearted belief in pseudo-determinism is impossible to sustain.”

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Potatoes May Hold Key To Alzheimer's Treatment

Necrotic ringspots on a potato tuber (cultivar Nicola) due to Potato virus Y infection. (Credit: Karine CHARLET-RAMAGE & Camille KERLAN Laurent GLAIS & Camille KERLAN INRA-ENSA, Rennes, France)

A virus that commonly infects potatoes bears a striking resemblance to one of the key proteins implicated in Alzheimer's disease (AD), and researchers have used that to develop antibodies that may slow or prevent the onset of AD.

Studies in mice have demonstrated that vaccinations with the amyloid beta protein (believed to be a major AD contributor) to produce A antibodies can slow disease progression and improve cognitive function, possibly by promoting the destruction of amyloid plaques. Some early human trials have likewise been promising, but had to be halted due to the risk of autoimmune encephalitis.

One way to make Alzheimer's vaccinations safer would be to use a closely-related, but not human, protein as the vaccine, much like cowpox virus is used for smallpox immunizations.

In the August 15 Journal of Biological Chemistry, Robert Friedland and colleagues used this concept on an amyloid-like protein found in potato virus (PVY). They injected PVY into mice followed by monthly boosters for four months. The researchers found that the mice produced strong levels of antibodies that could attach to amyloid beta protein both in both solution and in tissue samples of Alzheimer's patients. And although the levels were lower, mice also developed A antibodies if given injections of PVY-infected potato leaf as opposed to purified PVY.

Friedland and colleagues note that potato virus is a fairly common infection that poses no risk to humans (many people have probably eaten PVY infected potatoes). While tests of PVY antibodies will ultimately determine how useful they can be, they may be a promising lead to treating this debilitating disease.

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Engineers build mini drug-producing biofactories in yeast

Researchers at the California Institute of Technology have developed a novel way to churn out large quantities of drugs, including antiplaque toothpaste additives, antibiotics, nicotine, and even morphine, using mini biofactories--in yeast.

A paper describing the research, now available online, will be featured as the cover article of the September issue of Nature Chemical Biology.

Christina D. Smolke, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at Caltech, along with graduate student Kristy Hawkins, genetically modified common baker's yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) so that it contained the genes for several plant enzymes. The enzymes allow the yeast to produce a chemical called reticuline, which is a precursor for many different classes of benzylisoquinoline alkaloid (BIA) molecules. The BIA molecules are a large group of chemically intricate compounds, such as morphine, nicotine, and codeine, which are naturally produced by plants.

BIA molecules exhibit a wide variety of pharmacological activities, including antispasmodic effects, pain relief, and hair growth acceleration. Other BIAs have shown anticancer, antioxidant, antimalarial, and anti-HIV potential.

"There are estimated to be thousands of members in the BIA family, and having a source for obtaining large quantities of specific BIA molecules is critical to gaining access to the diverse functional activities provided by these molecules," says Smolke, whose lab focuses on using biology as a technology for the synthesis of new chemicals, materials, and products. However, the natural plant sources of BIAs accumulate only a small number of the molecules, usually "end products" like morphine and codeine that, while valuable, can't be turned into other compounds, thus limiting the availability of useful new products.

To their reticuline-producing yeast, Smolke and Hawkins added the genes for other enzymes, from both plants and humans, which allowed the yeast to efficiently generate large quantities of the precursors for sanguinarine, a toothpaste additive with antiplaque properties; berberine, an antibiotic; and morphine.

The researchers are now in the process of engineering their yeast so that they will turn these precursor molecules into the final, pharmacologically useful molecules. "But even the intermediate molecules that we are producing can exhibit important and valuable activities, and a related area of research will be to examine more closely the pharmacological activities of these metabolites and derivatives now that pure sources can be obtained," says Smolke, who estimates that her system could be used for the large-scale manufacture of BIA compounds in one to three years.

Smolke and Hawkins also plan to extend their research to the production of BIAs that don't normally exist in nature.

"If one thinks of these molecules as encoding functions that are of interest to us, the ability to produce nonnatural alkaloids will provide access to more diverse functions and activities. By expanding to nonnatural alkaloids, we can search for molecules that provide enhanced activities, new activities, and not be limited by the activities that have been selected for in nature," says Smolke.

"Our work has the potential to result in new therapeutic drugs for a broad range of diseases. This work also provides an exciting example of the increased complexity with which we are engineering biological systems to address global societal challenges," she says.

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Vestas to Test World’s Longest Turbine Blades

Written by Jaymi Heimbuch

I am all for creative thinking, but this may be the oddest concept I've yet seen to treat one of the symptoms of global warming.

Going far beyond just tracking melting patterns, German researchers want to actually stop, or at least slow down the melting of glaciers in the Swiss Alps, and they plan to do so by setting up a large screen that would trap cold air over the ice. The experimental screen is nearly 50 feet long by 10 feet high, and was set up in the middle of the Rhone glacier in Switzerland’s Valais region. Twenty-seven German university students took part in the screen raising, all excited about the potential because the concept was successful in a lab experiment. The results will be studied next Thursday.

Ooooh kay. This may be one of those science-for-the-environment-gone-off-track moments. I have a very hard time imagining that this idea will go very far in keeping glaciers from melting, but at least their trying. Filed under “Weird.”

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Genetically-Engineered Trees Can Dissolve Themselves into Fuel

Worried about all the energy that's required to break poplar trees down into usable fuel? Never fear: We'll just stick some fungus genes into that poplar so that the tree can rapidly ferment itself as soon as it's chopped down. A self-fermenting tree can practically turn itself into fuel. That's exactly the kind of gene-hacking being proposed by geneticists at the Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute in California. Eddy Rubin, director of the Institute, has just published a paper in Nature about how trees can be genetically-engineered to be biofuel-ready.

Says Rubin:

With the data that we are generating from plant genomes we can home in on relevant agronomic traits such as rapid growth, drought resistance, and pest tolerance, as well as those that define the basic building blocks of the plants cell wall—cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin. Biofuels researchers are able to take this information and design strategies to optimize the plants themselves as biofuels feedstocks—altering, for example, branching habit, stem thickness, and cell wall chemistry resulting in plants that are less rigid and more easily broken down

Rubin recommends the Clostridia species of fungus could be spliced into trees to make them self-fermenting. In the past, he has suggested splicing termite gut genes into trees so that they would essentially digest themselves and make biofuel processing easier.

I can't wait for a self-digesting apple so that I don't have to squash the things up to make my applesauce. I wouldn't mind eating a little bit of termite genome for that.

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$800 Million Prize for Alternative Energy to Power Africa’s Villages

U.S. Wind Power Could Hit 150 Gigawatts by 2020

Written by Hank Green

A while back we reported (with some skepticism) a report coming out of China that said they would be producing over 100 gigawatts of wind by 2020, a 1,500% increase.

Little did I know that the United States was, at the same time, on track to actually beat that! A report from Emerging Energy Research, a cleantech consulting firm, points out that the U.S. is now the world's fastest growing market for wind power. Last year 5 gigawatts of wind power were installed, and 2008 will break the record again with 8 new gigawatts under construction. The U.S. will shortly be the world's largest producer of wind energy, surpassing Germany's 22 gigawatts.

If the rate of growth continues, and ideal wind energy areas are exploited, the report says we could hit 150 gigawatts of wind power by 2020! For those of you wondering how much power that is...the average coal plant produces about 800 megawatts of power. So this is enough to displace about 180 coal plants. That's a sizeable hunk of America's power generation!

Of course, a few obstacles could stand in the way. First, if the investment tax credit isn't renewed, the economics of wind power will change significantly. Second, right now there simply aren't enough manufacturing plants building wind turbines. GE already has already sold about $12 B of turbines that they have not yet produced. And in some areas the permitting process is greatly slowing the rate at which the plants come online.

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