Flu Season Has Exposed Life-Threatening Flaws in Medical Supply Chains

By Morten Wendelbo and Christine Crudo Blackburn | January 19, 2018 10:18 am


Flu season in the U.S. typically peaks in February, but this year’s outbreak is already one of the worst on record. As of Jan. 6, 20 children have died from the flu, and overall mortality caused by the flu is already double that of last year’s.

One reason the flu is so severe this season is that the dominant strain is H3N2, which has an impressive ability to mutate and is particularly aggressive against Americans over 50. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: medical technology

What Happened the Last Time Antarctica Melted?

By Eric Betz | January 18, 2018 2:34 pm

The JOIDES team snapped this image on their transit through the ice near Antarctica. (Credit: JOIDES Resolution/Twitter)

Earlier this week, an international team of geologists and climate scientists parked their ship off the coast of West Antarctica and started drilling. Their mission: To find out why glaciers here melted millions of years ago and what that can tell us about what’s happening today.

Over the next couple months, their ship, the International Ocean Discovery Program’s JOIDES Resolution, will drill at least five core samples reaching thousands of feet below the Ross Sea. These cores will let scientists read layers in the rock record like pages of a book, unraveling climate and ice conditions stretching back tens of millions of years. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: climate change

Cringeworthy Dental Procedures of Ancient Times

By Lauren Sigfusson | January 16, 2018 5:12 pm
After thousands of years of crude dental practices, the art of tooth extraction had reached this level of sophistication by the early 1800s.

After thousands of years of crude dental practices, the art of tooth extraction had reached this level of sophistication by the early 1800s. (Credit: News Dog Media)

Most people don’t enjoy going to the dentist. There’s just something off-putting about having your mouth wide open while someone’s scratching and scraping your precious chompers. But at least dentists can give you Novocain to make your mouth go numb for the more intense procedures.

You were born in the best of times, because for the majority of the human timeline, our ancestors didn’t have it so easy.

Cavities really started wreaking havoc when humans started farming about 12,000 years ago—possibly even as far as 23,000 years in what is modern-day Israel. Carbohydrates, from our more grain-heavy diet, break down into sugar and feed cavity-causing bacteria that eat away at healthy teeth. Scientists have even unearthed remains that show dental work that predates the agricultural revolution, proving that people have been trying to deal with dental pain for too damn long. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Living World

Pulsars Could Guide Autonomous Spacecraft of the Future

By Amber Jorgenson | January 16, 2018 10:45 am

A pulsar (pink, center) at the center of the galaxy Messier 82. (Credit: NASA)

Although it’s possible for space missions to communicate data with Earth, the process is anything but fast. Voyager 1, for example, takes about 19 hours to send a signal back to Earth, and that lag only increases as the spacecraft gets further away.  For truly long-term, deep space missions, the significant amount of time it takes to send a signal isn’t going to cut it. The spacecraft will need to adjust its own trajectory without relying on ground navigation. That’s where pulsars come in.

Last week, a group of NASA engineers showed that fully autonomous space navigation is possible through the use of X-rays, a discovery that could overhaul our approach to deep space travel. The X-ray guidance system was successfully tested during the Station Explorer for X-ray Timing and Navigation Technology (SEXTANT) experiment. Using  pulsars timed down to the millisecond, the test craft relied on X-rays to pinpoint the location of a space object moving at thousands of miles per hour. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: space exploration

Baby Fat Is Far More Than Cute

By Morgan K. Hoke | January 12, 2018 1:53 pm

(Credit: Shutterstock)

“Aw, you still have your baby fat!” This refrain plagued me throughout my childhood. No matter what I did, I couldn’t shake my “baby fat.” I was not a particularly overweight child. I just seemed to maintain the round cheeks and pudgy tummy that most of my friends shed early on. “Oh, sweetheart, don’t worry,” my mother would say, “it will keep you warm. Just a little added insulation.” She wasn’t even half right.

In the years since, I’ve become an anthropologist who studies nutrition, human growth, and development. And, as it turns out, I wasn’t the only one who carried a few extra pounds. Humans are the fattest species on record at birth. A baby human is born with about 15 percent body fat—a higher percentage than any other species in the world. Only a small number of other mammals make it into the double digits at birth: about 11 percent for guinea pigs and around 10 percent for harp seals, for example. Even our nearest primate relatives are not born as fat as we are. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts

Horses and Humans, Bonded Through Botulism

By Claire Panosian Dunavan, UCLA School of Medicine | January 11, 2018 1:18 pm


Last month, a 1,400-pound horse named John competed with speed and style at the World Series of Team Roping in Las Vegas.

Fourteen months earlier, John couldn’t even stand without the help of six handlers and a sling.

After qualifying for a 2016 competition, John was found down at his owner’s ranch near Sacramento, felled by botulism. Despite receiving an antidote, he battled paralysis for 26 days. For most of his stay in an intensive care unit, he lay on the floor of his stall. He eventually lost 250 pounds, but he never stopped breathing.

“He definitely has attitude,” says John’s owner and lifelong horseman, Doug Parker. “When I first bought him in 2014, I remember calling my wife and saying, ‘This horse has all the tools, but he’s still a little green.’ As it turned out he was a handful! Much more of a project than I realized.”

That attitude probably helped John to survive.

A long-feared disease of humans, food-borne botulism also sickens birds, chickens and four-footed mammals, but this deadly toxin has also forged a unique bond between horses and humans. Not only do horses model the disease’s worst paralytic features, healthy, hyper-immunized steeds provide a life-saving antitoxin that’s used to treat humans. And in recent years, the development of better diagnostic lab tests for horses has paralleled the adoption of better diagnostics for humans and potentially poisoned foods.

Since 1910, when a German researcher named Leuchs made the first equine-sourced antiserum, horses repeatedly immunized with C. botulinum toxin have helped save human lives. In 2013, the US Food and Drug Administration approved the first equine antitoxin targeting all botulism subtypes. This new heptavalent treatment for humans, which is currently stockpiled by the U.S. government, was hailed as a valuable addition to the nation’s “emergency medicine cabinet” not just for unlucky eaters but possible victims of a future bioterrorist attack. It’s all thanks to our equine companions.

A Potent Killer

Seven botulinum toxins, designated A through G, are currently known to block the release of acetylcholine, an essential neural junction transmitter. The toxins are produced when Clostridium botulinum spores, widely dispersed in nature, encounter perfect conditions for germination: the absence of oxygen, a non-acidic pH, just the right amount of moisture and a warmish temperature (the optimum varies by subtype). Most horses suffer type A or B botulism, which typically occurs after they ingest spoiled or moldy feed. But enormous bales of hay can also spell disaster.

Consider a large outbreak of botulism in Oregon, summarized in a 2010 article in the Journal of Veterinary Diagnostic Investigation. The herd ate from bales of damp, matted bluegrass strewn along a creek bank during an unusually hot February. “After the first horse showed signs of botulism, 20 horses (including the sentinel case) died within three days, and four more horses died over the next six days,” the authors grimly recounted.

Given the warming trends throughout much of the world, I put two and two together.

“Could climate change increase the risk of botulism in horses?” I asked first-author Dr. Amy Johnson, a large-animal internist, neurologist and botulism specialist at the University of Pennsylvania, where she also works in a botulism lab testing animal samples from all over the country.

“I can’t say, ‘No,’” she replied, “but other factors include the economy and the availability of farmland.”


Parker and John competing in October. (Credit: Courtesy UC Davis)

Because huge, round bales of hay are cheap to produce they became increasingly popular following the 2009 economic crash, Johnson went on to explain. Shrinking acreage has compounded the problem by decreasing local production of hay baled as traditional squares.

In John’s case, however, warm, matted hay was not the culprit fueling the crisis, according to his owner. Parker is far more suspicious of a grain-plus-molasses “treat” fed to his 11-year old American quarter horse gelding. That same mix scooped from the bottom of a lidded can repeatedly re-filled with 50-pound bags of grain was also fed to two other horses from Parker’s herd who suffered botulism a few weeks before John went down.

The first victim—a “tough little horse,” in Parker’s words—survived for less than 24 hours before succumbing to her disease; the second horse was hospitalized for only three days, then returned home. In each case, the afflicted animals were given roughly a liter of antitoxin-containing plasma (which can arrest but does not reverse botulism) as soon as they reached the University of California, Davis veterinary hospital.

“Before last year, I never heard of botulism in horses,” Parker said. “Now I’m thinking a lot more horses have it than are ever reported or even seen by vets.” Parker also knows that, unlike UC Davis, many veterinarians do not keep antitoxin on hand, further delaying treatment and worsening outcomes.

In addition to the speedy administration of neutralizing antibodies, what determines an individual horse’s survival remains a topic of ongoing interest and concern among vets and owners alike. In Johnson’s mind, there’s no doubt that psychological factors contribute.

“It’s very scary for a horse not to be able to get up. Some wear themselves out just trying,” she says.

“John was obviously as amazing athlete with real spirit and grit,” echoed Dr. Gary Magdesian, a UC Davis equine specialist who has personally cared for 15 to 20 horses with botulism over the last two decades.

Spirit aside, no adult horse with full-blown respiratory failure has yet been reported to beat botulism. Unlike in humans, in full-size equines, mechanical ventilation is simply too laborious, costly, and fraught with complications. On the other hand, what can make all the difference is a quick diagnosis along with the prompt infusion of antitoxin (the best commercial preparation currently available for horses covers types A through C) plus experienced supportive care.

Back to Roping

Once John was back on his feet, Parker gave him a couple of months to recover, then took him to Arizona for a roping tryout. “It felt like he was ready, but he wasn’t.” At that point, the rancher removed John’s shoes and put him out to pasture to gain more weight. “I’m not going to bring him back until he has two big old rump-cheeks,” he told himself.

The decision clearly paid off. Although Parker didn’t win prize money in Las Vegas, it wasn’t because of John. “I missed three steers I should have roped and broke a barrier,” he shrugged. “John was in as good a shape as ever.”

The final question—whether rates of equine botulism are currently climbing—is impossible to answer. Unlike their riders, there is still no mandatory reporting of horses with botulism.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts

Crying Elephants, Giggling Rats and Other Surprisingly Sentient Animals

By Emily Birch, Nottingham Trent University | January 11, 2018 10:08 am

Motherly love. (Credit: Shutterstock)

Years ago, we believed that we weren’t animals and that animals were here solely for our use. Indeed, a cow was just a walking burger, a Sunday roast, keeping itself fresh and tasty ready for when we were hungry.

Luckily, for their sake, things have progressed significantly from then and now we recognize that animals (including our “superior” human selves in that category) can experience emotions from more simple ones such as happiness and sadness to more complex ones such as empathy, jealousy and grief. Animal sentience is defined as the ability to feel, perceive and experience subjectively. In other words, it’s about emotions and feelings and in some respects, having an awareness that “you are you”. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts

Why Do We Even Wear Pants?

By Sarah Scoles | January 9, 2018 12:40 pm

(Credit: Seinfeld/YouTube screengrab)

From far above, the area around Yanghai cemetery looks like a collection of ground-dwelling wasp dens, drilled into a gravelly desert. It gets hot in this region of remote western China — up to nearly 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and dry. That’s a hard-knock climate, but it’s perfect for preserving ancient artifacts. And if you zoom in on the region, and dig in, as archaeologists have, you’ll find tombs with well-kept secrets. Inside two of them, scientists found not just human remains but the remains of what covered those humans.

I’m talking about clothes, and not just any clothes: pants. These are the oldest pants (discovered) on Earth — more distressed than any jeans Gap can offer — dating back some 3,000 years. They’re tailored wool, and constructed from sewn-together pieces of uncut fabric. If Project Runway had magically predated television by about 2,930 years, the designer of these leg covers would have had a shot at the win. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: archaeology

Blockchain Technologies Could Help You Profit from Green Energy

By Srinivasan Keshav, University of Waterloo | January 8, 2018 1:04 pm
File 20180105 26154 1my86si.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

Blockchain technologies could help homeowners sell their green electricity to their neighbors. (Credit: Shutterstock)

Imagine buying a solar panel from a hardware store, mounting it on your roof, then selling the green electricity you produce at a price you set.

Is this even possible? Some companies certainly think so. These startups are harnessing the power of blockchains to democratize green power.

Before you can understand how blockchains are part of the solution, you first need to know a few things about the green electricity market. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology, Top Posts

This Is Your Brain on Mixed Martial Arts

By Mark Barna | December 28, 2017 12:38 pm

(Credit: Shutterstock)

Michael Bisping has fought professionally in mixed martial arts since 2004. Last year, the journeyman won his first title. He knocked out Luke Rockhold in the first round to win the middleweight belt in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC, the most popular of several MMA organizations.

On Nov. 4 of this year, at age 38, Bisping defended his title for a second time. His opponent was the Canadian Georges St. Pierre, a former UFC champ. The fight, held in New York’s Madison Square Garden, was close until the third round, when a series of blows knocked Bisping to the canvas. Pierre pounced on the fallen fighter and applied a rear-naked choke, cutting off oxygen to Bisping’s brain. His body went limp. Read More


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