mithriltabby: Rotating images of gonzo scientific activities (Science!)
( Apr. 6th, 2011 10:41 am)
Today’s SF Chronicle has a story on the food safety implications of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi dump of radioactive water (article embargoed until Friday for non-subscribers):
“The radioactivity would go up the food chain and accumulate in the top-level predators,” said Dale Sweetnam, a senior marine biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game. “We don’t eat marine mammals, so there wouldn’t be a potential for human contact. Probably the top-level predator that we would eat would be the tunas, which migrate across the Pacific.”
If enough radiation starts showing up in bluefin tuna that the market for them goes away until enough half-lives have passed that they’re safe to eat again, that might actually save the species (which is currently being overfished). Chernobyl’s Exclusion Zone grew back so much that it’s now a wildlife sanctuary.
[livejournal.com profile] obsessivewoman is on antibiotics to kill off her sinus infection, so I figured I should check up on the state of the art of probiotics so she could reload her gut bacteria from a known good state. In the days of yore, I would’ve just picked up some yoghurt with a live Lactobacillus acidophilus culture, but there are half a dozen brands of probiotics in the dairy aisle at Safeway: Bifidobacteriumanimalis.com notes that a lawsuit has been filed against Danone for misleading claims, but that there is no further data. Food-info offers advice on selecting probiotics. Probiotics: Hope or Hype? summarizes findings from a review published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association early last year, and provides a chart (PDF) of those found to have beneficial effect.
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The recent FDA approval of cloned meat has been in the news lately. I reached for the bag of rock salt I keep handy for anything that originates from a government and claims to possess scientific rigor and took a look at their risk assessment.

In principle, there’s nothing wrong with cloned meat— a true clone would be identical to its original and pose identical risks. The problem is that cloning is error-prone, and there’s still a lot we don’t know about cellular biology. Even if they’re getting all the chromosomes duplicated properly, what about DNA methylation and microRNA? The FDA release has a Risk Assessment section that does discuss the risks of epigenetic changes, which mentions methylation but not microRNA; their conclusion is that “Progeny of animal clones, on the other hand, are not anticipated to pose food safety concerns, as natural mating resulting from the production of new gametes by the clones is expected to reset even those residual epigenetic reprogramming errors that could persist in healthy, reproducing clones. Thus any anomalies present in clones are not expected to be transmitted to their progeny.”

So what I see here is a lot of informed expectation and a few animal trials that have promising initial results. Since we’re still learning about these subtleties of genetics, I’d rather hold off on cloned meat for a few years while it gets further scrutiny. Once we have the science down, I will be delighted to enjoy tasty, tasty filet mignon that was created on a tissue printer from cell lines cloned from a cow you can feed in a petting zoo, along with fresh sourdough made from grain grown in a vertical farm. I’d rather have cloned meat labeled as such; as The Economist suggests, if it’s that good, being cloned should be a badge of quality.

In the Frasassi cave system in Italy, scientists have found biofilms full of sulfur-consuming bacteria that eat hydrogen sulfide and excrete sulfuric acid. These can then erode the limestone walls of caves. If you’re the sort of game master who likes to brush up on geology before sending a scenario into a cave system, this could be a useful source of inspiration. (If elves can culture trees into cities, shouldn’t dark elves be able to herd biofilms to sculpt their caves?)
It’s now possible to induce a suntan without ultraviolet light; it’s working in mice already, and is likely to be applicable to humans. While it might be useful as a way to stave off skin cancer, I also wonder about other possibilities. Anyone remember the series of Bloom County strips where Oliver Wendell Jones invented a device that could turn anybody temporarily black? Just think of the fun you could have messing with others’ perceptions of race!
Just caught up on The Economist’s latest Technology Quarterly, and found an interesting story: NTT have a “RedTacton” technology that induces tiny fluctuations in the body’s natural electric field. They claim they can get 10 megabits per second, which is as good as most home Ethernets today.

This could be handy: just wave your hand over a sensor and the server in your pocket acts as keyring and unlocks a door for you. That’s even better than the skin-based data transmission, which is much slower and less hygienic when used by crowds. (I’m expecting telecommuting to take off in a big way when the next pandemic hits.)

It’ll also be good for “personal area networking” (or “personal aura networking”, as I’m sure this will be dubbed). Right now, if you want to have all your devices talk to each other, you’re pretty much stuck with Bluetooth, which means interference with everyone else’s favorite use of unlicensed 2.4GHz spectrum: Wi-Fi, cordless phones, you name it. This will be more difficult to eavesdrop on (like with the BlueSniper), and less likely to suffer interference. It also means that devices will be able to specialize: you can wear something that’s just storage and a little data display on your wrist, and your headphones can talk to it for playing music, your phone can talk to it for getting addresses, and your headphones can talk to the phone when you talk. (But expect a very rocky start as the protocols all get shaken out.)

Other things to expect: high-tech pickpockets will specialize in getting close enough to people to try and hack any devices in their body network, or subtle devices will be planted at chokepoints to do the same to passersby. Demonstrations of ad-hoc packet switched networks across tightly packed crowds on dance floors will get about as much media attention and last about as long as flash mobs did.

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