Wonderful News! A Potential Cure For Diabetes!

A news release from Novocell today
Reports a major step to find a cure
For diabetes. They have found a way,
From embryonic stem cells, to make pure
And uncontaminated strains, in mice,
Of insulin-producing pancreas cells.
For human diabetics, this is nice
Of course, because this news potentially spells
The end to constant testing and injections,
Daily hassles, both the large and small,
Relief from greater risks of bad infections,
And generally a better life for all.
It’s time to end the ethical debate;
There’s too much cost in making people wait.

That’s right–The news outlets are all reporting on Novocell’s new discovery.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Human stem cells transformed into nearly normal insulin-producing cells when implanted into mice, possibly offering a way to treat diabetes long-term, researchers at a U.S. company reported on Wednesday.

The researchers used human embryonic stem cells — the most powerful but the most controversial source of stem cells.

Writing in the journal Nature Biotechnology, the team at San Diego, California-based Novocell Inc said their work showed that human embryonic stem cells might fulfill the promise of treating or perhaps even curing diabetes.

“Our data provide the first compelling evidence that human embryonic stem cells can serve as a renewable source of functional insulin-producing cells for diabetes cell replacement therapies,” said Emmanuel Baetge, chief scientific officer of Novocell.

The actual report is in the journal Nature Biotechnology (abstract here)

Oh… some of you know already… my son has Type 1 Diabetes. So yeah, I’m happy.

(just noticed….I beat the science blogs to this, and I did it in verse!)

Stop The Presses!

Randall tells me, as does “The Loom” over on science blogs, that there is a wonderful article about me in the New York Times! Ok, it’s not about me. It is, however, about some other cuttlefish–some at the Woods Hole lab, some in Australia, but all wonderful cuttlefish, the most remarkable quick-change artists in the world! The Times site also has video of some of the experiments that Dr. Hanlon has been performing with these adorable creatures.

The New York Times, I rather think,
Could hardly be a waste of ink;
It’s good to see a thoughtful story,
Showing us in all our glory!
A walking (swimming) work of art,
The skin we wear is really smart!
Chameleons can only wish
To emulate the cuttlefish;
A master of the craft indeed,
With changing hues at lightning speed,
Resulting in a really slick
Near-magic disappearing trick!
Now Dr. Hanlon can surmise
A simple trick to our disguise:
Instead of thousands, only three
Designs account for what you see,
To help us disappear from view;
The doctor says here’s what we do:
We keep our color uniform,
When solid backgrounds are the norm;
If busy patterns come, we will
Turn mottled—that will fill the bill;
Our outlines disappear from sight
With our disruptive dark and light.
Discovering this rule of threes
Is one of many mysteries;
But many more are still unknown
To those who lack a cuttlebone.


This picture shows the three basic skin patterns: from left, Uniform, Mottled, and Disruptive. 

Picture credit: Roger Hanlon… I grabbed it from The Loom.

Science… through a New-Age filter

PZ Myers writes, in response to a cretinist who cannot wrap his cortex around the fact that we and oranges share a common ancestor, a post reviewing some of the evidence that shows just that. Of course, we do have to go back a bit to get to that common ancestor… 1.6 billion years or so. A 2002 paper by Meyerowitz compares plants to animals in order to find similarities, differences, and what a common ancestor likely looked like.

Of course, I suspect that Myers’ orange-wielding muse will not ever read the post… which is too bad. One wonders what sort of conclusions a sharp thinker like that might draw from actual evidence. Sadly, it is beyond my imagination. So I cheated, and imagined a New-Ager reading it, instead. Sue me.

I took this post and ran it through
A New-Age Verbiage Filter—
Resulting in conclusions which
Are just a bit off-kilter.

It seems you’ve given evidence
For many a woo-woo notion,
And I predict the following
Will soon be set in motion:

If just two billion years ago,
In some primordial goo,
We shared a common ancestor
Then plants have feelings too!

And surely you have proved beyond
A shadow of a doubt
That houseplants are much happier
When folks don’t scream or shout.

Indeed, the information that
This science paper cites
Becomes a legal argument
That plants have civil rights!

The converse, also, must be true
That deep inside, we’re plants,
And we can photosynthesize
In meditative trance!

If just two billion years ago
The plants and we were one
It’s proof that man can live while
Eating only air and sun.

Of course, since none of this is true
No matter our desires—
The scientists are clearly wrong
And all a bunch of liars.

The Evolutionary Biology Valentine’s Day Poem

I suppose it is inevitable, on Valentine’s Day, that we will see scores of stories of “what love is”, citing one branch of science or another, or forgoing the science to bring out the poets. It always bothers me, though, to see some neurotransmitter named as the “cause” of this or that sensation, because it is only a cause in a very narrow proximate fashion. Simply put, neurotransmitter action is not why we feel love, but (at best) how we feel love. We still have to ask “well, why is that particular neurotransmitter released in the presence of my One True Love? What is so special about this person?

In sociobiology,
Why I love you and you love me—
Which anyone can plainly see—
Is mostly in our genes.
No, not the ones you buy in stores,
But what a scientist explores–
I like the way you look in yours,
And you know what that means.

What subtly-coded stimulus
Takes you and me, and makes us “us
And makes us feel ‘twas ever thus?
The list of suspects narrows.
No longer are we all a-shiver
From some Cupid with a quiver
Out of which he might deliver
Fusillades of Eros.

Nor Dopamine, nor Serotonin
Tell us why our hearts are moanin’
Though they serve to help us hone in
On–not why, but how;
The parasympathetic blush,
Adrenaline to bring a rush,
Are how, not why, I’ve got a crush
On you, my darling, now.

But if old Charles Darwin’s right,
The reason that the merest sight
Of you will always give delight
Is…reproductive fitness.
Throughout our species’ family tree,
Producing proper progeny
Is what determined you and me
And Darwin was the witness.

Is thinking that you’re oh so sweet
And how you’ll make my life complete
Some trick to make our gametes meet?
It seems it may be so.
I feel the way I feel today
Because some bit of DNA
Sees your genetics on display
And wants to say “hello.”

But think of this, for what it’s worth:
Millennia before my birth
That DNA had roamed the earth,
In residents thereof;
The neat thing is, it’s really true,
The feeling that I have for you
Although, of course, it feels brand-new
Is truly ageless love.

Valentine’s Day Is Almost Here!

Only a few more days until it will be too late to pretend you did anything other than panic at the last minute and elbow three other people out of the way to get the last remaining Hallmark Valentine–the one with a family-friendly cute double-entendre featuring a cartoon dog and the fingerprints of the thousand previous shoppers who decided against purchasing it.

So as a public service, I am offering a few more Heart-In-A-Jar poems, for those people who are not content to give their hearts away only as a figure of speech. If I had the skill, I would mock up some cards for you to print out, but that is not what this cuttlefish knows how to do with ink. So, the next best thing. I am giving anyone the permission to use these poems as they wish–they can even take credit for them, so long as A) they know they are lying and B) they send me a line or so about how it went. If you actually put in the effort to create an illustrated card, then A) good on you! and B) send me a line or a link or whatever so I can see it too!

The previous three heart-in-a-jar poems (and the original news story that explains them) were posted here. And of course, if your fancy is bred not in the heart but in the head, here is a brain-based love poem you can also use.

So, have fun!

I give you my heart on this Valentine’s Day
In a jar you can keep on your shelf,
With your books and your papers, in cluttered array,
Or a prominent place by itself.
It is really my heart—deep within every cell
Are the strands of my own DNA;
I could have just given you chocolates, but, well,
My message is clearer this way:
I love you much more than a card, or some flowers,
Or trinkets you see in the stores;
So it’s off to the lab for a few hundred hours,
And my heart—if you’ll take it—is yours.

My love for you was different from the start;
A love like this, the world has never seen–
Not only will I offer you my heart,
But also kidneys, pancreas, and spleen.
You need a thyroid gland? Just say the word.
Quite gladly I’d deliver you my liver;
In giving and receiving, I have heard,
It’s always best to choose to be the giver.
I’d surely die for you, but better still,
I’d much prefer to live with you, in love;
To share your world with you would be my will
And not to gaze down on you from above.
I offer you my heart, but be aware:
You’ll have to wait until I grow a spare.

I gave you my heart, as a sign of my love
And I thought that you’d keep it from harm.
But you put it to work, in a flask in your lab
And I find, to my growing alarm,
That you’re growing another, and more after that,
In a regular cardiac farm!
But then, when I saw them, in sterilized jars
Neatly ordered, in columns and rows,
I thought that, perhaps for the first time in history
Anyone looking now knows
And can see, with the placement of every new heart,
How much greater my love for you grows.

I Want To Go To Greece!!

ScienceDaily reports on a new discovery (actually unearthed last summer) that adds detail to the beginnings of Greek culture:

ScienceDaily (Jan. 28, 2008) —The Greek traveler, Pausanias, living in the second century, CE, would probably recognize the spectacular site of the Sanctuary of Zeus at Mt. Lykaion, and particularly the altar of Zeus. At 4,500 feet above sea level, atop the altar provides a breathtaking, panoramic vista of Arcadia.

“On the highest point of the mountain is a mound of earth, forming an altar of Zeus Lykaios, and from it most of the Peloponnesos can be seen,” wrote Pausanias, in his famous, well-respected multi-volume Description of Greece. “Before the altar on the east stand two pillars, on which there were of old gilded eagles. On this altar they sacrifice in secret to Lykaion Zeus. I was reluctant to pry into the details of the sacrifice; let them be as they are and were from the beginning.”

What would surprise Pausanias—as it is surprising archaeologists—is how early that “beginning” actually may be. New pottery evidence from excavations by the Greek-American, interdisciplinary team of the Mt. Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project indicates that the ash altar—a cone of earth located atop the southern peak of Mt Lykaion where dedications were made in antiquity— was in use as early as 5,000 years ago—at least 1,000 years before the early Greeks began to worship the god Zeus.

Now… I am an American. I live in one of the older areas of the country, having moved here from a considerably younger area. Back in my old state, I used to be impressed by 100-yr-old buildings, which were few and far between. Now, just a few miles from me I can see cemetery headstones from the 1600’s, still-functional buildings from the 1700’s, and hundred-year-old houses are fairly common. I am having trouble wrapping my head around the concept of a structure in use 5 thousand years ago. Thousand. And I know that this site, old as it is, represents just under a tenth of the lifespan of our species.

Anyway, back to the report:

“Mt. Lykaion, Arcadia is known from ancient literature as one of the mythological birthplaces of Zeus, the other being on Crete,” noted Dr.Romano. David Gilman Romano is Senior Research Scientist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and a co-director of the Mt. Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project.

“The fact that the ash altar to Zeus includes early material dating back to 3000 BCE suggests that the tradition of devotion to some divinity on that spot is very ancient. The altar is long standing and may in fact pre-date the introduction of Zeus in the Greek world. We don’t yet know how the altar was first used, and whether it was used in connection with natural phenomena such as wind, rain, light or earthquakes, possibly to worship some kind of divinity male or female or a personification representing forces of nature.”

Actually, in a way, I find this report comforting. As much as I am boggled by the time spans involved, I can see that any concerns about mortality (and frankly, I am not that concerned about dying–I just want to focus on getting everything I can out of living first) are not mine alone. Even the gods, it seems, don’t live forever.

In Arcadia, Greece, high atop Mount Lykaion,
The weather is rough, but the view is quite nice;
It’s not a location for children to play on,
But rather, an altar for burnt sacrifice.
Mythologists tell us, before written history
Lykaion was seen as the birthplace of Zeus.
Archaeologists now have uncovered a mystery—
Clues, which have thus far been used to deduce
That a culture was here that predated the Greeks
And which worshipped, not Zeus, but an earlier god.
That god is forgotten, and now only speaks
Through the fragments of artifacts under the sod.
The earliest pieces are pottery shards
That date back to 3000 years BCE.
Which pushes the date back that history regards
As the date the beginning’s beginnings must be.
High atop “Wolf Mountain’s” rocky side
A culture’s history comes into view;
Where one god was born, another died—
Reminding us: gods are mortal too.

(also–New York Times article in today’s paper.)

Anthropocene?

Wow. Just… wow.

I knew that humans had left a large footprint on the planet, but I don’t think I ever really quite grasped the scale. According to the Geological Society of America, in the February issue of GSA Today (pdf), it could be argued that we have entered into a new geologic epoch, the Anthropocene. (I say “it could be argued”, because the scientific community is doing just that.) The actions of humans have had effects on a global scale–erosion due to agriculture and deforestation, changes in sediment dispersal due to both erosion and the damming of most of the significant rivers, increased carbon levels, accelerated extinctions and population declines, ocean chemistry changes, especially impacting coral reefs and plankton exoskeletons…

These changes are big enough and abrupt enough to serve as a geologic marker. A million years from now, future geologists (human or not) will be able to see our footprint. I just hope they aren’t using it as a cautionary tale–“this species, unlike the dinosaurs before them, brought their end on themselves…”

The scale of geologic time is vast
With all of human history a blink—
The march of continents, the ages past
The growth of life, the ice-caps swell and shrink

To mark the boundaries at this scale, we note
Some catastrophic change within the rock—
A comet’s impact kicks up ash, to coat
The planet’s surface, and to mark our clock

We humans, in the past two hundred years,
Have changed the earth is many different ways
With mass extinctions, global warming fears,
Oceans rising, rain forests set ablaze…

We see what comes from human and machine
As Holocene becomes Anthropocene

WILSON!!!!!!

Researchers at the University of Chicago (also reported in the New York Times) have explored the tendency to anthropomorphize–how we, especially when lonely, attribute human characteristics to our pets, to inanimate objects, and even to Our Invisible Friend.

The researchers designed three experiments to test their expectations that lonely people are more likely to make up for their lack of social connection by creating humanlike connections with gadgets or pets, or to increase their belief in the supernatural.

In one experiment, the team found a correlation between how lonely people felt and their tendency to describe a gadget in terms of humanlike mental states.

In another experiment, the team made people feel lonely in the laboratory by asking them to write about a time when they felt lonely or isolated. Under those circumstances, they were more likely to believe in the supernatural, whether it be God, angels or miracles, than when they were not feeling lonely.

“If we made them feel lonely, they were also more likely to describe a pet, even if it wasn’t their own pet, as having humanlike mental states that were related to social connection, like being more thoughtful, considerate and compassionate,” Epley said.

The research further revealed that not just any negative emotional state produces this effect. “It’s something special about loneliness,” Epley said. Fear, for example, doesn’t increase reported belief in God, or how people describe their pets.

If loneliness depresses you,
Researchers say that what you’ll do
If no one’s there with whom to sup,
You’ll be inclined to make one up,
Conversing with a dog or cat,
Or maybe, in the lab, a rat.

When lonely, or in isolation
We use anthropomorphization,
Projecting human mental states
Like wants and needs, or loves and hates
On pets, or cars, or even God
(Explains a lot you might find odd!)

We do this when we feel alone
Or isolated, it is shown,
But not when we’re afraid or mad
And not when we are merely sad–
It’s isolation’s misery
That animates our company.

So Wilson, on the island beach
With human kind so out of reach
Became Chuck Noland’s only friend,
Through thick and thin, till (near) the end.
(In outtakes, we may yet discover,
Wilson also served as lover!)

But why a volleyball? The study
Says the reason for this buddy
Also works to give a god
A greater “humanlike” facade–
So why a ball? The truth, I feel,
Is: Unlike God, the ball was real.

So talking to a volleyball
Is not so crazy after all.

(Oh, and for the record, the application of their study to Wilson is their own idea, not mine.)

Dueling destinies

This past Friday, I found myself listening to NPR’s Talk of the Nation–Science Friday, and I was struck by a throw-away comment by one of the guests. The subject was the Messenger fly-by of the planet Mercury; a caller asked something about the effects of the sun’s expansion on the atmospheres of the planets. The expert noted that, although he was not an expert on stars, he knew that the sun would eventually expand to the point where it would likely engulf the inner planets. Of course, this would happen billions of years from now, so it is nothing to lose sleep over. It’s not as if the world is going to be transformed tonight into a lake of fire.

No, that view was on the other radio station.

I was driving along, with the radio tuned
To the lowermost end of the dial;
Through the static, two stations were both coming in
So I listened to both for a while.
First one, then the other, would drift into range
As the road, through the hills, wound around;
And I gradually noticed, the speakers on both
Were discussing the same common ground.
The topic today was the end of the world,
And both stations had stories to tell;
The first speaker told how the sun would expand
But the second was speaking of Hell.
The first station spoke of the Messenger mission
And NASA’s new triumph in space
With instruments measuring surface and core
And cameras detailing its face.
The craters and faults look a lot like our moon
But the temperature there can melt lead!
As the speaker continued, I found myself shocked
By the very next thing that he said:
He noted “of course, in a few billion years,
We know that the sun will expand,
And the Earth will be hotter than Mercury now—
We’ll be long gone by then, understand.”
Now, I know that our species is really quite young
When compared to the age of the Earth
And the odds of survival are frankly quite small,
So today is of infinite worth.
But to hear this astronomer matter-of-factly
Discuss how our planet would die
Was a sobering thing—even more so because
Of the evidence none could deny.
Now, the funny thing is that the alternate station
Was speaking of fire as well
And the punishment meeting each ignorant sinner
Eternally sentenced to Hell.
The end is not coming in billions of years
But when God calls us back to his side.
It could happen tomorrow, so live your life right
With the Bible alone as your guide.
Today’s not important; the whole of your life
Is just prelude to life after death
In Heaven or Hell, so your choice must be made–
It’s too late once you draw your last breath.
He was blatantly trying to frighten his listeners
But strangely, I wasn’t afraid.
A Bronze-age mythology doesn’t stand up
When there’s evidence there to be weighed.

It’s funny—the world-view that talks about Heaven
And promises souls will survive
Has to stoop to extortion and threats, like I heard
As I motored along on my drive.
The so-called “dispassionate world-view of science”
Has beauty, and greater appeal—
What’s more, in a contrast from mythical Hell
What is studied in science is real.
No threats of damnation, just projects like Messenger
Quietly getting it done—
Enjoy your Earth—only a few billion years
Till the whole thing’s engulfed by the Sun.

Matters Of The Heart (… in a jar)

It’s all over the news–researchers at the University of Minnesota have “created a beating heart in the laboratory“. Basically, they used the protein fiber matrix from one heart, stripped of muscle cells, as a scaffold upon which to grow a new heart, using a solution of cells from another rat. Yeah. I know, all this talk about hearts is so romantic. So, in a bit of a reversal from my previous position, I return to the romantic view of the heart as the foundation of love, with a trio of little verses inspired by the heart in the jar. I can see it now… the picture above, on the front of the Hallmark card, with one of the following verses inside…

I’m new at this game,

And I don’t know your name,

But I love you, whoever you are;

My heart may be true

But it’s also brand new

I grew it myself, in a jar!

I can feel my heart grow,

So I love you, you know, 

And not like a cousin or brother;

I will give you my heart–

Every bit, every part;

If you break it, I’ll grow me another.

My heart is yours; it’s in a jar
That sits upon your shelf;
It’s happy being where you are
And not all by itself.
You asked me for a souvenir
To keep while we’re apart;
I thought a bit, and it was clear—
It had to be my heart.
And now, although my heart may soar,
It is no longer mine;
A message that forevermore
I’ll be your valentine.

A rat cadaver’s donor heart
Is stripped of every cell
The protein fiber matrix left
Looks like a ghostly shell;
This matrix, in a sterile flask,
Is bathed in rat-heart goo
With both adult and baby cells,
And starts to grow anew.
In only days, the growing heart
May beat, or merely twitch,
Then work, at roughly two percent…

Like yours, you heartless bitch.