Archive for December, 2008

Amateur Geneticists Biohack From Home

By Nina Bai | December 31, 2008 7:48 pm

biohackerThe latest in DIY involves playing around with DNA.  Toying with circuit boards and Python algorithms in basements and garages is so passé. The new crop of amateur tinkerers—self-pronounced “biohackers”—are cooking up genetics experiments and trying to reprogram life itself.  Could the biotech equivalent of Apple or Google, both of which were born in garages, emerge from someone’s home-made lab?

Meredith L. Patterson of San Francisco, who is a computer programmer by day, has set up a make-shift bio lab in her dining room.  She’s trying to create a genetically modified yogurt bacteria that will glow green to signal melamine contamination. She constructed a gel electrophoresis chamber for $25 and purchased some green fluorescent jellyfish protein from a bio supply company for less than $100. Step-by-step instructions for genetic transformation experiments were only a Google search away.  With the relative simplicity and low-cost of basic DNA experiments, it may not be long before kids start asking for electrophoresis kits instead of microscopes.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology Attacks!

Dr. 90210 Powers SUV with Liposuctioned Fat

By Nina Bai | December 30, 2008 9:34 am

lipofatA Beverly Hills liposurgeon has been accused of using his patients’ liposuctioned fat to fuel his and his girlfriend’s SUVs. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this story is that no one came up with the lipo-fat-as-fuel idea before.

Give Dr. Alan Bittner this: He was never secretive about what happened to the leftover liposuction fat from his practice, Beverly Hills Liposculpture.  According to, he even ran a Web site dedicated to human fat fuel.  On the now defunct, Bittner wrote, “The vast majority of my patients request that I use their fat for fuel—and I have more fat than I can use… Not only do they get to lose their love handles or chubby belly but they get to take part in saving the Earth.”

Experts say animal fat is just as good as vegetable fat and a gallon of either will get you about the same mileage as a gallon of regular diesel.  The only caveat is that animal fat requires an additional processing step to remove free fatty acids.  Due to a recent surge in soybean oil prices, biodiesel manufacturers say that over half of this year’s biodiesel came from animal sources, such as pig lard.  Other new sources of biofuel include turkey feathers (see the DISCOVER story Anything Into Oil), coffee grounds, pond scum, and rainforest fungus.

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MORE ABOUT: biofuel, fat, liposuction

To Maintain Clean Nests, Social Insects Hold in Poop for a Very Long Time

By Nina Bai | December 29, 2008 3:22 pm

antGood public sanitation is a mark of advanced civilizations. Humans have dealt with the “bathroom problem” mainly by burying, flushing, or otherwise sequestering our waste products in some far off, out-of-sight, out-of-mind location. In this way, we’re similar to mole rats that build specialized “latrine chambers” in their underground habitats. A new paper in Animal Behavior examines alternative ways to handle the sanitation issue, developed by some of the world’s most sophisticated societies: eusocial insects like ants, bees, and wasps. One strategy involves something known as the “blind gut.”

Colonies of eusocial insects can contain millions of individuals. Because dropping feces at will would cause a serious toxic hazard, many species have developed a way of holding it in for a really long time. The youngsters, or larva, of the order hymenoptera, have a “blind gut,” meaning one that does not connect the mouth with the anus. Essentially, this means their waste products are trapped inside their bodies for weeks to months, or the entire duration of the larval stage. Only when they pupate (when the larva changes into the adult form), does their waste get expelled in one big, stinky pellet known as the meconium. In the honeybee, the meconium is expelled during its first flight out of the nest. (Imagine human teenagers holding it all in until right before they leave home for college…) After the meconium is quickly disposed of, the adult insects develop a normal continuous gut.

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Weekly Science Blog Roundup: Foot-In-Brain Disease Edition

By Nina Bai | December 19, 2008 5:16 pm

Yee-haw! It’s the blog roundup.

• Try wrapping your mind around this: Doctors find a tiny foot, thigh, and hand growing in a baby’s brain. Could be a teratoma or a shrunken identical twin.

• Someone skilled with a crochet hook should add a “foot-in-brain” to the The Museum of Scientifically Accurate Fabric Brain Art.

Taking technology to the grave: “It’s comforting to the family to think mom’s playing her iPod or dad’s still got the cell phone that was attached to his ear all the time,” says a funeral planner of the new burial trend.

• When the sun goes down, “sexsomnia” turns a gentle husband into Mr. Hyde.

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MORE ABOUT: babies, iPods, sex

Rudolphette? Santa Employs Female Reindeer, Say Wildlife Experts

By Nina Bai | December 19, 2008 1:07 pm

reindeerEver wonder why one of Santa’s all-male reindeer team was named Vixen? Well, here’s a real gender-bender: Deer experts studying depictions of Santa’s reindeer (alas, photographic evidence is rare) say Rudolph and all the rest actually appear to be females.

What’s more, female reindeer are likely to be pregnant during the winter months. So, has Santa been roof-hopping and gift-hauling on the backs of pregnant female reindeer or these years? The evidence is in the antlers.

Reindeer, or caribou, are the only deer in which both sexes grow antlers, which are shed and regrown every year. Bucks usually shed their antlers by December, having given them plenty of use battling other bucks during the mating season in summer and fall. Immature males and non-expecting females lose their antlers in early spring. Pregnant females keep their antlers as a means of defense ’til late spring, when their calves are born. This means that when Christmas Eve rolls around, the only fully-grown reindeer that still have antlers are female.

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MORE ABOUT: antlers, caribou, reindeer

What’s in a Name? Real Diseases Suffer from Silly Name Syndrome

By Nina Bai | December 18, 2008 3:35 pm

legThe superabundance of online medical information and direct-to-consumer drug ads on TV can be enough to stir the hypochondriac in all of us. But some legitimate (despite their skeptics) conditions, and the people who suffer from them, just can’t seem to get any respect. Looking at this list, we think part of the problem might be the you-can’t-be-serious quality of some of the names. Here‘s a few examples of “illnesses” that could really benefit from a name change:

Restless Leg Syndrome
“The first time I saw a TV commercial about Restless Legs Syndrome, I was pretty sure it was a spoof. I figured I had stumbled across a prime-time Saturday Night Live special and was seeing a well-done fake ad,” wrote Stephen Dubner on the Freakonomics Blog. RLS sufferers report tingling, burning, or numbing sensations in their legs that create an overwhelming need to move them. Trying to relax or keep the legs still only makes the symptoms worse. Though the cause of the RLS is unknown, experts estimate as many as 12 million Americans may have the condition.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
Do the long winter months make you just sad? Or SAD? Sufferers can experience debilitating hopelessness and depression along with sleep and appetite changes that may be linked to lack of sunlight. Happily, many cases can be alleviated by light therapy (the glow of your computer screen doesn’t count). The National Mental Health Association estimates that half a million Americans suffer from SAD—though the ailment is especially hard to take seriously since nearly everyone not living on the equator can experience some version of the winter blues.

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MORE ABOUT: diseases, drugs, names

Is Bleaching Next? Whales Look at Teeth When Picking Mates

By Boonsri Dickinson | December 17, 2008 6:50 pm

beaked whaleHumans aren’t the only species that use pearly whites to judge the fitness of a mate: Apparently teeth are also important to a certain species of whales. The beaked whales have earned the reputation as the most bizarre whales in the ocean, spending the majority of their lives foraging for food and living in seclusion. For years, scientists have wondered why these strange whales have tusks, especially since it hinders their bite.

It turns out these seeming-unnecessary teeth are important for mating—a discovery that marks the first time scientists have found a secondary sexual characteristic (like antlers) that shaped evolution in a marine mammal.

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MORE ABOUT: mating, sex, whales

"Death Map" Plots Where Nature Is Most Likely to Kill You

By Nina Bai | December 17, 2008 1:46 pm

lightningIf you’re not feeling lucky, don’t venture into Wyoming, Utah, or Colorado. These states have some of the highest mortality rates caused by natural disasters, according to a new “death map” that plots where Mother Nature takes her heaviest tolls.

From 1970 to 2004, natural disasters killed some 20,000 people in the U.S. Surprisingly, the deadliest events aren’t the ones that make the headlines. More people died from heat/drought (19.6 percent), sizzling summers (18.8 percent), and freezing winters (18.1 percent) than earthquakes, wildfire, and hurricanes combined (less than 5 percent). And who would’ve thought that lightning accounted for 11.3 percent of deaths from natural hazards? The strikes were especially concentrated in the New England and southeastern states.

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Worst Science Article of the Week: We Can See Your Dreams!

By Boonsri Dickinson | December 16, 2008 5:34 pm

mind-read.jpgA group of Japanese researchers are claiming that their “mind-reading” machine can read people’s dreams. While it sounds like a novel idea, this is certainly not the first claim from scientists that they can depict what a person sees based on their brain activity—nor the last.

Brain imaging has been around for ages. Typically, when fMRI machines are used to read people’s brain activity, the different states are classified into categories and then used to predict a person’s “perceptual state.” So what these ATR Computational Neuroscience researchers are saying they can do is actually reconstruct what a person is seeing. But can they really?

In the study, published in Neuron, the researchers flashed 400 images in front of subjects for 12 seconds each. An fMRI machine was used to collect brain activity data, which was then analyzed on a computer to determine patterns linked to how the brain reacted when it saw the images.

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MORE ABOUT: brain, dreams, fMRI

Would You Give Up Sex for Internet Access?

By Adam Hadhazy | December 16, 2008 2:55 pm

382305921_784cec12b5_o.jpgApparently it’s a pretty close call, according to a recent survey.

Over 2,000 respondents were asked if they would forgo intercourse for two weeks, or surrender Internet privileges for the same amount of time. About half of the women in the survey chose chastity so long as they had the succor of the World Wide Web. This percentage remained consistent across all age ranges, from 18 to 44 years old.

The men surveyed craved action in the bedroom a bit more than World of Warcraft and other online. . . pursuits, though just barely: About four out of 10 males aged 18 to 34 opted for the Internet over sex during the hypothetical two-week time frame.

Other findings of the survey, conducted by the market research firm Harris Interactive and sponsored by (no surprise) the mega tech-vending Intel Corporation, purport to show why for some, the pleasures of the Web beat the pleasures of the bed. Read More

MORE ABOUT: internet, sex, technology

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