Cuttlefish Shakespeare Fanboi Squee!!!!

So today is, as far as you know, William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday (no one knows for sure, but it’s as good a day as any, and better than most, to pretend that it is). Which is cool. The odds are very much against anyone knowing I ever existed nearly 4 centuries from now (and if you exclude whatever future version of ancestry.com is in use then, the odds are even lower), but Shakespeare will be known for pretty much as long as people are known. If the last copy of any human book that ever exists is a version of one of Shakespeare’s plays, it would not surprise me (yes, assuming that I still exist to be surprised by the heat death of the universe), and if it is something else instead, more’s the pity. [Read more...]

There Will Be Light

One of the great things about today’s technological infrastructure (well, until the whole thing collapses and we revert to banging rocks together) is that you can have your favorite local radio station somewhere on the opposite side of the planet. Which is the case for me. Which means I get to hear stuff that will likely never make it to American radio (which still exists) or my students’ mp3 players or phones (my other source of new music recommendations).

I liked this one enough to buy it, to support the band. I recommend listening late at night, in some deserted parking lot or seldom-travelled back road. Extra points if you have someone there to dance with.

“The Squid’s Embrace…”

Down in the depths
Of the salty Atlantic
A seaglider measured the signs of the sea–
Monotonous work,
And it isn’t romantic,
At least, I’d be bored if the glider were me

Up to the surface
And down to the bottom
Again and again, that was all that it did
No chance for a hickey,
Yet, somehow, it’s got ‘em!
A gift from the hug of an amorous squid

Of all of the stories
That science discovers
The saddest of tales that I’ve ever heard (yet!)
Is the tragic ordeal
Of the two star-crossed lovers
The Romeo Squid and his fair Juliet.

Over at Deep Sea News, evidence of the tragic end to a classic Romeo & Juliet story (with very very cool pics!). They came from different backgrounds: she was a scientific instrument measuring the temperature and salinity of the ocean depths, and he was a squid. But their love was as true as it was brief–they shared an embrace, he shed tears (which she collected and measured), and they parted forever. Still more moving than that silly scene in Titanic.

How do I know it was love, rather than a battle (as DSN suggest is a possibility) or ecoterrorism (as PZ’s post might suggest to a conspiracy theorist)? Simple–how else would you explain this? (that link is “The Anachronism”, a beautiful short film that is well worth your watching, but you should know it is 15 minutes long. When you have that amount of time available, watch–you will be very glad you did!)

Extra points for anyone who knows the context of the title without looking it up!

Don’t Panic!

… but it has been thirty years since the original Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy game was released. I remember playing it.

A 30th anniversary online version of the game is now available over at the BBC:

A word of warning

This game will kill you frequently. It’s a bit mean like that.

But don’t panic; you can “save” before trying something that ends up killing you.

Thirty years! I swear it was sometime last week… Oh, well–time is an illusion. Lunchtime, doubly so.

Godless Gold Is Worth More, Apparently

A couple found a stash of coins
In cans half lost to rust
Gold coins, so old some even lack
The phrase “In God We Trust”

There’s one coin, termed “miraculous”,
Uncirculated, gold
That doesn’t say “In God We Trust”
Like others just as old

That year the motto first appeared—
This coin slipped in before;
Because this coin is godless, it
Is worth a great deal more!

The godless may be rarer
(By a lot, we’re often told)
But we, without “In God We Trust”
Are truly good as gold.

That cache of gold found by a couple walking their dog in the San Francisco area contains a “miraculous” coin.

An 1866 $20 coin printed without the “In God We Trust” motto — the 1866-S No Motto Double Eagle — is the highest quality of its kind, said David Hall, cofounder of Professional Coin Grading Services in Irvine, who recently authenticated the coins.
When the motto was added to the coin in 1866, some coins were still minted in San Francisco without the phrase, he said.

The lack of that motto, and the fact that the finders did not try to clean the coin, mean that this uncirculated bit of metal will likely go for a million dollars at auction. Trying to clean it would have ruined it, and the missing motto means it is quite a bit rarer than other 1866 $20 gold coins.

I’d belabor the obvious and say “there’s a metaphor here”, but Robert Burns already did. In this case, it’s not trust in a god that imbues worth; worth can be found in the godly and ungodly alike, as can lack of worth. Or as Burns put it, “the rank is but the guinea’s stamp–the man’s the gold, for a’ that.”

A Tasty And Nutritious Sausage, Low Fat and Low Sodium, With Only A *Hint* Of Baby Poop

The latest health craze? Here’s the scoop:
It’s sausage made with baby poop.
Or (as the press release explains)
With cultured pro-biotic strains
So you can populate your gut
With flora from a baby’s butt
The best advice these authors give?
For better health… eat shit and live!

This is actually a pretty cool paper, despite the sensationalist headlines (including my own). In the search for probiotic foods, various different fermented foods like yoghurts and cheeses have been tried, but this study looks at another sort–dry-cured and fermented sausages.

An appropriate probiotic, then, has to survive two different environments, then–the fermenting and curing sausage, and the human gut. I suppose there are a couple of ways, broadly speaking, to look for potential bacteria: you could look through all the bacteria that naturally appear in sausages, and see which ones do well in the gut, or start out with bacteria that do well in the gut, and see which ones are potential sausage-fermenters. The latter is what the news-making researcher did, testing 6 strains and finding one that survived a particular type of sausage-making well enough to have active strains in sufficient numbers to inoculate a human gut.

The methodology is straightforward, with (to me) a fascinating glimpse into an unknown world of meat science. It’s a nice, useful finding, but likely wouldn’t have made the news, were it not for the last sentence of the introduction, which everyone (yes, including me) have latched onto.

The aim of the present work was to assess the suitability of three potential probiotic lactobacilli strains (L. casei/paracasei CTC1677, L. casei/paracasei CTC 1678 and L rhamnosus CTC 1679), previously isolated from infants’ faeces and three commercial probiotic strains (Lactobacillus plantarum 299v, L. Rhamnosus GG and L. casei Shirota) as starter cultures during the manufacture of low-acid fermented sausages (fuets) with reduced fat and NA+ content and their effect on the sensory properties of the final product.

“Isolated from infants’ faeces”. (For the record, it was one of the baby-poop strains that made the best sausage, in terms of both flavor and availability of probiotics.)

The WA Today article (second link above) asked a local researcher about the source of the bacteria:

It was important to take the bacteria from infant poo rather than adult poo, Curtin University’s Dr Hani Al-Salami said.
“Babies at that young age, the gut content is quite mild and nice compared with an older person,” he said.
“The reason is, as we grow, we do eat a lot of things and not everything we eat is the best in terms of quality.”

Despite the futility of disagreeing with a Dr. Al-Salami on a matter of sausages, I am gonna have to disagree. And suggest something that could make the right investor an awful lot of money. (I will, of course, require a finder’s fee–but this idea is worth it.) So you see, I am watching the Olympic Games, and I know that I will never have the physique of any of the athletes there… but recent popular news stories (take them with a grain of salt–you know how far afield they can be from the studies they allege to report on) tell us that the difference between the person with six-pack abs and the person with half-keg abs is partially determined by gut flora. Fecal transplants are being explored as a means of reprogramming a body, of jumpstarting the path to health.

So here’s my idea… boutique gut flora. (link from a year ago, in case there is a struggle over who had the idea first.) You can have the gut flora of an Olympian, or an actor, or scientist, or poet (well, hypothetically). The sausage scientists are far more concerned with health and safety, and as such are missing out on profit. “Eat Shit And Live!” It practically sells itself!

We know it can be done–scientists have made cheese from the bacteria harvested from particular individuals (you might not want to click). But frankly, I doubt there is much market for food made from Michael Pollan’s belly button bacteria. But sausage that will give you Michael Phelps’s gut flora?

Ok, I think I just went a step too far. I may never eat again.

(Cuttlecap tip to Kylie!)

Chronic Pain? Take A Peruvian Green Velvet Tarantula And Call Me In The Morning

A lab in New Haven
Held biotech mavens
Who looked at the functions of nerves
Along came a spider
With venom inside her
So they looked at purpose it serves

See, nature is cunning
And spiders are stunning—
No, really; their bites stun their prey
So maybe a toxin
Some synapse, just locks in
And shuts down the nerve in this way

They’ve explored bites and stings
Of such poisonous things
But they wished they could search even more
The answer’s appearing
Cos, now, toxineering
Yields larger amounts to explore

Now, one such advance
From a kind of tarant-
ula (called the Peruvian Green),
The authors explain
Could relieve chronic pain:
Toxineering pays off, we have seen

But the true coolest thing
(and this makes my heart sing)
Is that, someday, I’m likely to hear
From my neighbor (say, Bob)
When I ask him his job,
He replies “I’m a nerve toxineer”.

Via the NY Times, some really cool science.

Venoms contain many active toxins, not all of them suitable for use in humans. And once a potentially effective toxin is identified, researchers must run further tests to determine which neural pathways it might affect.

But now researchers at Yale University say they have sped up the process by using DNA cloning technology to build large libraries of spider venoms. This makes it easier to test the impact of a broad range of toxins on a particular neural pathway. They refer to the process as toxineering.

Three cool things stand out to me:

Third coolest: Sure, we’ve seen it before, but the whole idea of using naturally occurring venoms as a laboratory for medicine is just plain cool. The paper the Times refers to reviews quite a few examples, only some of which I was familiar with–cone snail toxins, for instance, along with scorpion venom and literally hundreds of different sorts of spider venoms. Evolution did the tinkering to invent the stuff, and all we need to do is discover it before we render it extinct (we are our own worst enemies, sometimes). In this case, a promising treatment for chronic pain and inflammation was found in the venom of Peruvian Green Velvet Tarantula. Yeah, I know–and this is only the third coolest thing.

Second coolest: But you see, naturally occurring venoms are messy–there may be a great many different toxic peptides in one spider’s venom, in varying amounts, and it might be very difficult to see the effects of a low-concentration peptide when it is masked by a much more abundant one. The new research clones individual toxins, such that mixtures of equal molarity can be tested. The specific peptide here was found by systematically exploring a toxin library of around 100 cloned toxic peptides. The procedure can be scaled, too–it doesn’t depend on farming a whole bunch of spiders. So, yeah, there are people who can casually drop into conversation the fact that they happen to have a library of spider toxins that they can mix to order. I expect this from Bond villains, or from Sherlock Holmes, but not in real life. Very cool. But only second coolest.

Coolest: They call the process “Toxineering”. Which, to me, juxtaposes thoughts of SPECTRE and the Mickey Mouse Club. “Toxineer roll call!” I picture lab headgear with, instead of Mousketeer ears, oversized tarantula eyes. Annette Funicello with extra legs. Theme parks located in hollowed out volcanoes. Souvenir lab coats.

But I am easily amused.