Thursday, October 30, 2008


As the more observant would have noticed already, the month formerly known as 'November' is rapidly approaching.

Starting in Australia, and New Zealand, there's now a fairly large international group of people who call this month 'Movember', and refuse to shave the bit of their face below the nose, and above the mouth for the 30 days. The movement has now spread to Canada, the US, the UK, Spain and Ireland, hopefully there'll be moustaches cropping up all over the globe.

There is a reason for all this... down under November was already 'Men's health awareness month'. Without detracting from the importance of breast cancer, women's reproductive health and wellbeing, and all the other various facets of women's health which were all too painfully ignored until recent decades, it's also worth noting that men suffer from some pretty nasty medical conditions themselves, and often need their own brand of gender-specific care. In addition to breast cancer (which is often forgotten about in men), men also get prostate cancer at an alarming rate (every year 4,300 Canadian men die of prostate cancer), testicular cancer, erectile disfunction and depression.

To quote from the movember website:
"However we look at it, men are far less healthy than women. The average life expectancy for men is five years less than women (presently 77 compared to 82).

Of the 15 leading causes of death among Canadians, men lead women in 14 of the causes. Men are 30% more likely to get cancer, than women, and 55% more likely to die from it. Men's suicide rate is four times higher than that of women. "

Specific to younger men is the problem of testicular cancer (the most common cancer among young men), depression (more women report being depressed yet more men kill themselves), and road accidents (accidents are the second biggest killer of young men).

Men also have this nasty habit of not getting medical conditions looked at, prefering instead to just tough it out. It's just not viewed as 'manly' to go and see the doctor about erectile dysfunction and prostate concerns. This'll only change after a considerable amount of public education... and movember is an important part of this. During movember, people can donate money to encourage a moustache, and this money will all go to various men's health organisations.

I, for one, will be sporting a moustache for the month - there's considerable excitement in the lab I'm in to see what style I'll run with (at the moment I'm leaning toward the 'gripper', but might just sport the classic 70's mo). I'd urge some other people to register on the site, and try to raise some money for men's health.


Halloween special: scary medical instruments

The British Columbia Medical museum has an online gallery with some pictures of old medical instruments. They have 2600 items from the past 150 years. Let play a game: try to figure out what is the use of the instrument:






  1. Perforator: Holme's perforator with side grip was used for gynecology. Used as last resort for obstructed labor.
  2. Double-Clawed toothkey: dentistry.
  3. Adenotome: otolaryngology. For the excision of the adenoids.
  4. 'Smith's' type haemorrhoid clamp: proctology.
  5. 'Devilbiss' skull cutter with spring: orthopaedics.


Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Bayblab podcast: Episode21

The latest Bayblab podcast is up (mp3 file here, rss feed here). For those of you who have never experienced the bayblab podcast it's one part science, one part dick and fart jokes and one part beer. It's not meant as a replacement for the nature podcast or science podcast but it will cover science news that other podcast do not and it doesn't take itself seriously. It's about making you think and making you laugh just like the IgNobel which we cover in this show along with: selecting for hotness in chilis, why is melamine toxic, political genes, and rubbing one out in the name of science.


Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Migrating Salmon Video

Ran into this video made of individual Chinook and Steelhead Salmon smolt migration in British Columbia. These individuals are tagged before they are released as stocked salmon in the Snake and Thompson Rivers. Their movements are monitored by an impressive system called the POST array. I don't really know much about the details, however, the punch line is there is an impressive monitoring system in place for these salmon and it makes a great video. Also if you are more interested here is the paper where they have some interesting survival data like survival /100km migrated and on places with and without hydroelectric dams.


Friday, October 24, 2008

Turning Oil Into Neuroscience

This report just in - neuroscientist and Ottawa native Bruce McNaughton was lured back across the border from Arizona to the academic powerhouse that is the University of Lethbridge. The bait? A cool $20 mill from the province of Alberta - the Polaris award. A lot of people are saying "HOLY SHITBALLS!!!!! THAT'S A LOT OF $$$$$$$!!!" And right they are. That's almost as many hits as we get by the minute here at the BayBlab (although we certainly aren't getting paid any coin for it). But let's not get too worked up about the whole thing. After all, the guy had a paper in SCIENCE (tm) just last year. He's a SCIENCE (tm) SuperStar! SuperStars are SuperStars and so we shouldn't be surprised to see that it takes SuperStar cash to reel them in. This deal seems pretty reasonable to me when you line it up with some other Alberta blockbusters:

Bruce McNaughton (Neuroscientist): $20,000,000 over 20 years.
Jarome Iginla (Hockey Player): $21,000,000 over 3 years.
Stephen Harper (Politician): $840,000 over 3 years.
Boone Pickens (Oil Tycoon): $1,000,000,000 + per year.

So be warned world - Alberta oil is waving a big fat wad of cash and they're coming after your scientists! And by the looks of it, some of them might even be crazy enough to go live there...


Cancer Carnival Call for Submissions

The 15th edition of the Cancer Research Blog Carnival is coming up, but we've only had a trickle of submissions. It's not too late! Either start typing or dig up your best cancer blogging from the past month and submit it here. The carnival will appear Friday, Nov. 7.

As always, we're looking for future hosts so drop us a line if you're interested and head to the carnival homepage for submission and hosting guidelines and past editions.


Thursday, October 23, 2008

Urban dictionary for science?

Nature this week has a news feature concerning the erosion of the definitions of certain terms. It is a pet peeve of mine to hear epigenetic (it has to be heritable!) and de-differentiation (hint: if you're talking mammalian cell, you're probably wrong) misused. And I find stem cell is being used so loosely that it has sort of lost its meaning as we've discussed before.

The article tackles (excerpts to follow):

-paradigm shift:
"Unless a Nobel prize is in the offing, it might be wise for scientists to adopt the caution of contemporary historians of science and think twice before using a phrase with a complex meaning and a whiff of self promotion."

"The NIH is careful to define the epigenetics it is paying for as including both heritable and non-heritable changes in gene activity, something that Ptashne describes as "a complete joke".) Bird says he remains in favour of a relaxed usage. "Epigenetics is a useful word if you don't know what's going on — if you do, you use something else," he says."

"Even within the precise world of binary code and bit strings, there was computational complexity, which describes how much memory and processing is required to carry out a calculation; algorithmic complexity, which is related to how much a digital description of something can be compressed; and any number of combinations and variations. "So my bottom line is, add an adjective to 'complexity'," Crutchfield says."

"Race was long used to imply a shared, distinct ancestry [...] But in other contexts researchers are abandoning the term in favour of other ways to group humans, by 'population,' genetic ancestry' or 'geographic ancestry'"

-tipping point
"The term was originally coined in 1958 by sociologist Morton Grodzins in the context of studies on the racial makeup of US neighbourhoods. He found that when the migration of African-Americans into traditionally white neighbourhoods had reached a certain level, whites began to move out."

""There is no convincing theoretical argument or model that at some point the planet as a whole will snap into a second state of system," says Timothy Lenton, an Earth scientist at the University of East Anglia, UK."

-stem cell
"Alleged 'stem cells' can fail to meet the definition on many counts. Stem cells should persist long term, yet many 'stem cells' exist only in the fetus. Multipotency — the ability to generate multiple cell types — is a criterion for a haematopoietic, or blood-forming, stem cell, but spermatagonial stem cells only produce sperm. Stem cells specific to tissue such as cartilage, the kidney and the cornea have been reported, with varying degrees of acceptance. The quest for a 'stemness signature', a collection of markers common to all stem cells, has been met with frustration."

"Most statisticians resign themselves to abuse of the term's strict definition. But more grievous trespasses abound. "Statistical significance is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for proving a scientific result," says Stephen Ziliak, an economist at Roosevelt University in Chicago, Illinois, and co-author of The Cult of Statistical Significance. P-values are often used to emphasize the certainty of data, but they are only a passive read-out of a statistical test and do not take into account how well an experiment was designed."

"Many definitions of consciousness include the ability to sort through the relentless onslaught of incoming data to create and respond to an internal model of the external world. And some believe that simply gathering data about neurons and behaviours will not be enough."


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Is that a phantom in your pocket, or are you happy to see me?

Phantom limb syndrome is a well documented and apparantly quite common phenomenon among amputees. It's the sensation that a missing limb is still there, and even responding to stimuli. But the upper and lower extremities (i.e. legs and arms) aren't the only body parts surgically removed. What happens, for example, when a man has his penis removed as part of a sex-change operation? Wonder no more:
[R]eports on the phantom penis and its treatment are very rare. We experienced a patient who underwent sex reassignment surgery in whom the sensation of a phantom erectile penis persisted.
The case study, publised in Acta Medica Okayama this past year, is freely available here (and complete with pictures) and describes the case of a 52-year old man who had male-to-female transgender surgery. Phantom erections are quite common after penis amputation either from sex reassignment or trauma (such as being assaulted by Lorena Bobbitt) but usually stop after a couple of weeks. This man's persisted for over 6 months before he returned to the operating room to have it fixed. The surgeons removed some of the underlying erectile tissue shortly after which the invisible hard-on disappeared. Neurotopia has a more detailed discussion of this case, and the underlying neurology of phantom limbs in general.


10 Reasons to Grow a Beard

I've written about beards before, and I have an obvious bias, but this made me laugh. Put down your razor and check out The Bureau for Bigger, Better Beards.


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Recall: Melamine Nipple Spread

On our upcoming podcast we discuss the melamine tainted milk scandal and some of the affected products. The average Bayblab reader probably hasn't been affected, until now: The recalls continue, and just this past weekend The Guardian reported that thousands of novelty chocolate products were being pulled from shelves of sex shops because they contained up to 100 times the allowable limit.
"The Food Standards Agency issued an alert over chocolate willy spread, a related nipple spread and a novelty pen set, which contains a chocolate-flavoured body pen, all of which were imported from a Chinese manufacturer called Le Bang.

Food safety experts detected levels of melamine were up to 100 times greater than limits set by the European commission."
I guess I'll be sticking with butterscotch.


Abiogenesis in a flask

I'm a bit late on this one but the Miller-Urey experiment has produced some more data. This is the classic experiment, conducted in 1953, where possible conditions of the early earth were simulated in a flask. This flask was then subjected to arcs of electricity (to simulate lightening) and allowed to fester. After 1 week (he let it rest on Sunday) 10-15% of the carbon in the system was present in organic molecules, most notably 11 amino acids. Now in 2008, some of the original samples from this and similar experiments have been reanalyzed using modern, more sensitive equipment. Turns out another similar experiment resulted in the production of 22 amino acids. This again validates the strong possibility of the presence of the building blocks of life, as we know it, on many earth-like planets.
Also if your interested check out this fun/funny Miller-Urey Experiment simulator. Note: it's pretty easy to make it blow up.


Fish odour syndrome

I found this story on the interwebs about a woman who smelled like rotten fish, and was finally diagnosed at age 41 with a condition known as Trimethylaminuria. From the article:

"Trimethylaminuria is a genetic mutation that causes the body to produce too much trimethylamine, a compound found in fish. Particular foods, medication and hormones can exacerbate the condition."

This unusual condition is caused by a mutation in the FMO3 gene, and leads to an accumulation of trimethylamine because it cannot be converted to trimethylamine N-oxide. trimethylamine is a pungent compound found abundantly in fish.

However there exist milder variant polymorphisms, and even "normal" woman can be subject to the fish smell during menstruation and have transient trimethylaminuria because of a decrease in FMO3 activity (perhaps an evolutionary deterrent for mating?):

"In comparison, three healthy control subjects that harbored heterozygous polymorphisms for [Glu158Lys; Glu308Gly] FMO3 or homozygous for wild FMO3 showed normal (> 90%) metabolic capacity, however, on days around menstruation the FMO3 metabolic capacity was decreased to ~60-70%. CONCLUSION: Together, these results indicate that abnormal FMO3 capacity is caused by menstruation particularly in the presence, in homozygous form, of mild genetic variants such as [Glu158Lys; Glu308Gly] that cause a reduced FMO3 function"

Like a few other syndromes (such as maple syrup urine), trimethylamineuria can be diagnosed a a simple whiff of body odours, but it may be confused with halitosis. Thankfully this group from Philadelphia produced a better diagnostic protocol to distinguish the two:

"Because of our basic research into the nature of human body odors, our lab has received referrals of people with idiopathic malodor production, from either the oral cavity or body. We developed a protocol to help differentiate individuals with chronic halitosis from those with the genetic, odor-producing metabolic disorder trimethylaminuria (TMAU)."


Saturday, October 18, 2008

A skeptic's song


Thursday, October 16, 2008

Top5 therapeutic uses of coke

Coca Cola was invented in the 19th century as a patented medicine in the drug store of John Pemberton. It was initially known as coca wine, and contained cocaine extracts as one of its active ingredients. It was supposed to cure morphine addiction, dyspepsia, neurasthenia, headache, and impotence. Since 1904 coca-cola has been using dry coca leaves (1oo tons) which are imported from South America under a special permit and processed to extract to cocaine, which is resold for medical purposes while "spent" leaves are used for flavoring. While it is now cocaine-free (other than trace amounts) and primarily enjoyed as a caffeinated soft drink, it still does have some medical uses:

  1. Coca Cola can be used on a wasp sting (but not bee) in an emergency. The phosphoric acid can help inactivate the alkaline wasp venom. The same is true for jelly-fish stings in case you don't have any vinegar handy.
  2. While not strictly medical, coca cola can be used to fade hair dyes and clean stains including blood. However Mythbusters showed that it wasn't a particularly good cleaning agent, and does not dissolve rust or teeth/T-bones for that matter...
  3. Rehydration for infants suffering from diarrhea. While any sweet water will do, it is often the only "clean" liquid available in less fortunate parts of the world...
  4. Dissolving phytobezoar. These are undigested clumps of plants that can accumulate and block the stomach. Think of it as a human "hairball" (pictured above) and check out the awesomely disgusting examples here.
  5. As a contraceptive. However this was disproved by the winners of this year's IgNobel.
Finally, Coke given to rats in an Italian study published in the annals of N-Y academy of science, shows that chronic usage isn't so therapeutic:

"The results indicate: (a) an increase in body weight in all treated animals; (b) a statistically significant increase of the incidence in females, both breeders and offspring, bearing malignant mammary tumors; (c) a statistically significant increase in the incidence of exocrine ademonas of the pancreas in both male and female breeders and offspring; and (d) an increased incidence, albeit not statistically significant, of pancreatic islet cell carcinomas in females, a malignant tumor which occurs very rarely in our historical controls."

However since the control was drinking water I'm not sure what you can conclude from this study other than it's probably not a good idea to substitute all drinking water to a sweet liquid.


Tuesday, October 14, 2008

IA updates

Y'all better check out for your tech news. Some interesting stuff about how Google Chrome is evil and a Astrobiology Rap.


The Genetics of Voting

This past weekend was Canadian Thanksgiving and with my family all together and elections on both side of the border, the conversation naturally turned to politics. One person almost proudly claimed that they had never voted (and not for lack of opportunity). It's not uncommon to see families with similar political views, but what about similar political participation? Again, I wouldn't be surprised if there were familial trends in voter engagement but my first inclination would be to chalk it up to nurture over nature. According to Wikipedia parental turnout is a strong predictor of youth turnout, and recently published twin studies of voting trends in Los Angeles showed that while the choice of a particular candidate don't appear to be heritable, "genes account for a significant proportion of the variation in voter turnout." A follow-up paper published in the Journal of Politics attempts to identify genes involved, though they stress that they work shows association, but nothing about causality. From the abstract:
Using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, we show that a polymorphism of the MAOA gene significantly increases the likelihood of voting. We also find evidence of a gene-environment interaction between religious attendance and a polymorphism of the 5HTT gene that significantly increases voter turnout.
Both of those genes are involved in serotonin pathways. I haven't looked at the paper in detail, so I don't know if their methods are valid (they use a mixed-effects logistic regression model) or their conclusions are sound - or how reliable the Journal of Politics is as a source of genetic knowledge so take it with a grain of salt until you check it out for yourself.


Perform your Civic Duty

It's election day today in Canada but I'm not going to use this space to try to sell a particular party, just emphasize the importance of exercising your democratic right to vote.

First, take a look at some numbers [source]: In the past 4 general federal elections (1997-2006), the average voter turn-out was 63.4%. That means in the past decade, an average of 36.6% of registered voters stayed home. In the last federal election (January 2006), the Conservative Party formed a minority government with 36.3% of the vote - this is actually only 23.3% of registered voters. Who says your vote can't make a difference?

Many people, unfortunately, feel that way and our first-past-the-post system doesn't do much to discourage vote swapping, strategic voting and feelings of disenfranchisment. The Elections Canada website has a page explaining the importance of voting. It highlights the importance of democracy and the legitimacy of governments. Others will argue that if you don't vote you don't have a right to complain about the government. There are also more tangible reasons to vote. Political parties and individual candidates receive money depending on the vote. Any party that receives 2% or more of the national vote gets about $1.75 per vote from the federal government - this was a major breakthrough for the Green party last year. On top of that, candidates who earn more than 10% of the vote in their riding have 60% of their campaign expenses reimbursed. So even if your preferred candidate doesn't win, your vote is like a political donation for to help your candidate or party win a future campaign.

Another thing that tends to get forgotten is that the election doesn't just decide who will become prime minister - unless you live in particular ridings, you won't even see a leader's name on the ballot - but also for who is going to represent your local interests at the federal level. Harper, Dion et al. may have many people apathetic about federal politics, so you can instead focus on who will fight harder for money to come to your area for public transit or building projects, etc. (or who will fight against them if that happens to be your fancy).

Or, if you really feel like your vote doesn't count, opt for a party that will move on electoral reform. But a guaranteed way to ensure your vote doesn't count is to choose not to cast it.


Friday, October 10, 2008

Harper government want to dismantle federal laboratories

I found this story in this really informative Canadian science policy blog. Apparently the treasury board was commissioned to report on the feasibility and the roadmap to dismantle government labs such as Agriculture Canada and the Geoscience laboratory here in Ottawa to either privatize it or transfer it to academia:

"From August to December 2007, the panel scoured the world for models of government S&T commercialization via “major programs of privatization of both regulatory and non-regulatory laboratories and/or through creation of new government agencies that have special authority to pursue private-sector-like activities.” The range of initial transfer arrangements envisaged for Canada spans private-sector involvement to outright divestiture. But the end product is clear: the “partnerships” are to be “the initial arrangement in an evolving relationship” intended to move government science facilities from “a joint sponsorship arrangement involving government to one in which the federal government is no longer involved in ownership, governance or management."


Canadian scientists protest political interference

The Canadian Scientist against the politicization of science sent an open letter to all the major party leader ahead of the election calling for an end to government interference in science. The letter is signed by 85 scientists, including a few from the University of Ottawa:

"Re: The Politicization of Science in Canada
Dear Sirs and Madam:
We are a group of concerned scientists writing to call for the end to the
politicization of science and related due processes in Canada. Below we highlight
some recent examples of the mistreatment of science in Canada:
• The closing of the Office of the National Science Advisor 1
• The misrepresentation of climate change science 1, 2
• The muzzling of Environment Canada scientists 3 4
• The cuts to and reorganizing of the Canadian Wildlife Service 5
• The political appointments to the board of Assisted Human
Reproduction Canada 6
• The halting of the Prison Tattoo Pilot Study and the suppression of the
results of this study 7
• The firing of the Head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission 8
• The suppression and misrepresentation of research related to
Vancouver’s Supervised Injection Site 9-11
The above represent blatant examples of instances when:
• Systems developed to provide non-partisan scientific advice were
undermined, interfered with, or dismantled for political reasons;
• Science was interrupted, suppressed and distorted for political reasons;
• Scientific uncertainty was manufactured in instances where none existed;
• Reputable scientists were attacked because the results of their work were
unpopular or inconsistent with the views of political parties;
While science is not the only factor to be considered in political decision-making,
ignoring and subverting science and scientific processes is unacceptable. In light
of these concerns, we are calling on all political leaders to articulate how they will
work to improve Canada’s track record with respect to the treatment of science
and related due processes.
Yours truly,
Canadian Scientists Against the Politicization of Science"


Science video of the day

The most powerful and beautiful thing I have seen in science happened during my honors project. I had created transgenic zebrafish embryos expressing either GFP or a mutant DNA-methyltransferase fused to GFP (thank you nobel laureates). I then placed the embryos in a groove of agar and followed their development under the GFP scope taking pictures at regular intervals for about 36h. I guess we didn't have time lapse in those days. The great thing about zebrafish is that development is really fast, and the embryo is clear so you can see right through it. At 48h you pretty much have a fully-formed fish. I still remember vividly seeing the cell movements, the formation of the three germ layers, but most impressive I remember seing the heart starting to beat. I fell in love with development. This paper in science brings you this remarkable process in a convenient 1min video. It was done thanks to advances in imaging technology by fully digitizing images from scammed light sheet microscopy and tracking every nucleus of the embryo...


Thursday, October 09, 2008

Places not to stick your head

After the initial hullaballoo with the Large Hadron Collider going online, it quickly - in a move that wasn't reported with nearly the enthusiasm - was taken offline for repairs before it even had a chance to destroy the world in a black hole.

While the team is tinkering around inside the LHC, it gives us an opportunity to follow up on AC's recent "what would happen if..." post. In this case, what would happen if you were hit by the beam of a particle accelerator?

Believe it or not, it's happened before. Thirty years ago, Anatoli Bugorski was working on the Soviet U-70 synchotron repairing malfunctioning equipment. He stuck his head into the area where the beam was running, but apparantly the safety mechanisms were not. He saw a flash of light "brighter than a thousand suns" but the initial encounter with the beam was otherwise painless. WIRED magazine has more on the outcome:
The left side of his face swollen beyond recognition, Bugorski was taken to a clinic in Moscow so that doctors could observe his death over the following two to three weeks.

Over the next few days, skin on the back of his head and on his face just next to his left nostril peeled away to reveal the path the beam had burned through the skin, the skull, and the brain tissue. The inside of his head continued to burn away: all the nerves on the left were gone in two years, paralyzing that side of his face. Still, not only did Bugorski not die, but he remained a normally functioning human being, capable even of continuing in science. For the first dozen years, the only real evidence that something had gone neurologically awry were occasional petit mal seizures; over the last few years Bugorski has also had six grand mals. The dividing line of his life goes down the middle of his face: the right side has aged, while the left froze 19 years ago. When he concentrates, he wrinkles only half his forehead.
According to his wikipdia entry, Bugorski lost the hearing of his left ear and the fatigue of mental work increased, but despite the accident he was still able to finish his Ph.D. Still, I hope the scientists at the LHC really have it turned off before stepping in there.


Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Strategic voting and the environment

I can't say I'm a fan of strategic voting, the spirit of it defeats the purpose of voting in a democracy. And I want to make sure we continue having a multi-party system, even if it means voting for a party that is not going to realistically take power in a particular election. However many people embrace strategic voting as a means to achieve certain political ends. One of those is ensuring we elect an environmentally-friendly party. So if this is your intention might as well do it in a calculated manner using the "vote for environment" website. Plug-in your postal code and it will tell you who to vote for. And if the seat is not hotly contested it will even let you choose.


GFP wins Nobel Prize for Chemistry

This year's Nobel Prize for Chemistry has been awarded "for the discovery and development of the green fluorescent protein, GFP". This is a protein every biochemist is familiar with. The award was shared between Osamu Shimomura who first isolated GFP, Martin Chalfie who pioneered its use as a visible genetic tag and Roger Y. Tsien who built our understanding of how it fluoresces and expanded the colour options. The image shown is taken from the Tsien lab website and shows an agar plate with bacteria expressing different fluorescent proteins. From the Nobel foundation press release:
This year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry rewards the initial discovery of GFP and a series of important developments which have led to its use as a tagging tool in bioscience. By using DNA technology, researchers can now connect GFP to other interesting, but otherwise invisible, proteins. This glowing marker allows them to watch the movements, positions and interactions of the tagged proteins.
The next time you use it to track viral infection, protein expression or cell motility you have these guys to thank.


Tree EKGs

Ran into an MIT link about getting small amounts of electricity from trees and using this electricity to power monitors. It looks as if the article is based upon just a tiny mention of potential applications by the authors of a PLoS ONE paper on the method of getting electricity from trees. The idea is to have monitors powered by the trees distributed throughout a forest to detect forest fires and monitor the environment. Could you hook these up in series and generate a usable amount of electricity from a wild forest, thus placing a value on a standing forest?


Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Are you good at tennis and video games?

According to this paper in the journal of sexual medicine, premature ejaculators have lower levels of serotonin in the parts of the brain that control ejaculation. In fact this serotonin difference can even be seen in a rat model of premature ejaculation:

"When large populations of male rats are tested on sexual activity during four successive tests, over time individual rats display a very stable sexual behavior that is either slow, normal or fast as characterized by the number of ejaculations performed. These sexual endophenotypes are postulated as rat counterparts of premature (fast rats) or retarded ejaculation (slow rats)."

Since this is clearly not psychological, and conserved in other species, it makes me wonder if in fact evolution hasn't positively selected it. I could see it being a survival advantage in an illicit encounter, since it leaves more time for flight. All this to introduce the best quote of the week:

She said men with primary premature ejaculation tended to be fast reactors generally.

"These men have very quick reflexes. They may be excellent at playing tennis or computer games, for example."


What happens if you swallow molten metals?

In case you ever wondered about that, the journal of clinical pathology investigates death by swallowing molten gold and if it results in bursting of the internal organs. For this purpose they poured molten lead into a bovine larynx and watched what happened:

"Based on these findings, we suggest that the development of steam with increasing pressure might result in both heat induced and mechanical damage to distal organs, possibly leading to over inflation and rupture of these organs. Direct thermal injury to the lungs may lead to instantaneous death, as a result of acute pulmonary dysfunction and shock, as shown by Brinkmann and Puschel.4 Even if this is not the case, the development of a “cast” (once the metal congeals again) would completely block the airways, thus suffocating the victim.

In conclusion, we have shown that in the execution method of pouring hot liquefied metals into the throat of a victim, death is probably mediated by the development of steam and consequent thermal injury to the airways."


Monday, October 06, 2008

Melamine, or WTF China?

Melamine is a chemical that most people across the globe have heard about by now, thanks to the Chinese tainted milk scandal. Melamine-laced milk has found its way into a variety of different products from infant formula to coffee products to chocolate and other confectionery (a list of affected products in Canada can be found here). The tainted milk has been linked to tens of thousands of sick and several dead children.

What is Melamine?
Melamine is used in a variety of manufacturing processes. It is used in glue, ink and plastic colorants and it can be polymerized into a lightweight, fire-retardant resin that is used in making housewares, countertops and dry-erase boards. How does it find its way into food products? The tests used to measure protein in food actually use nitrogen content as a proxy for protein content. Because melamine is nitrogen rich (see picture), it can fool these tests giving a higher readout. This means unscrupulous companies can dilute their product (milk, for example), spike it with melamine, and tests will show that it's still protein-rich, saving money on production costs and stretching supply (a little milk ends up going a long way). The only problem is the milk is watered down. And toxic.

Or is it? Melamine itself has a low toxicity. In rats the LD50 is over 3g/kg (acute dose) and they can consume lower doses long term with no adverse effects (63mg/kg/day for 13 weeks up to 417 mg/kg/day for 14 days) [source] Of course rats aren't humans, but low toxicity doesn't explain why so many children - over 50000 at last count - have fallen ill with the milk scandal. While malnourishment due to consuming nutrient-poor milk and formula is likely a factor, most of the victims suffered from kidney problems which is likely due to the contaminant itself rather than poor quality food. When combined with its sister compound, cyanuric acid, they form an insoluble salt which can from crystals in the kidney and lead to the kind of renal problems seen in the tainted milk scandal.
Cyanuric Acid
Cyanuric acid is a chemical used to stabilize chlorine in outdoor pools and as a precursor to chlorine compounds used to disinfect water. It can also be found as a non-protein nitrogen source in animal feed and, similar to melamine, used to fake out protein assays. Cyanuric acid can be synthesized by hydrolysis of melamine and is also a known metabolite (in bacteria). Like melamine, cyanuric acid has low toxicity on its own - people swallow pool water all the time - but the two in combination can have serious effects.

Cyanuric acid and melamine readily form hydrogen bonds, making an insoluble crystal lattice. In fact, the analytical test for cyanuric acid is precipitation with melamine. When this reaction occurs in the body, can lead to kidney stones and renal damage. Of course, the people thinning their milk with melamine had no idea that it would have such broad, devastating effects other than cheap, low-quality milk, right?

Wrong. The Chinese food industry had a massive clue that adding melamine to food products could be disastrous a year ago when people's pets started dying and the huge pet food recall that followed. As now, melamine was the culprit. It was being added to pet food to improve results on protein assays. But that giant heads up that cheating quality assurance with melamine might not be safe wasn't enough to discourage its use in milk products. It wasn't even enough to make the Chinese government keep a closer eye on food manufacturers. Sanlu and other companies involved in the scandal were enjoying inspection-free status.

This is another in a line of recent Chinese manufacturing issues (eg. the pet food recall, tainted toothpaste, lead toy recall). Cheap products are nice, but clearly there are larger costs to be paid. Poisoning children? WTF, China


Friday, October 03, 2008

2008 IgNobels

My favorite time of the year, the IgNobel ceremony! You may be able to watch tomorow's (1PM) lectures in a video feed here. Here are the winners:

"NUTRITION PRIZE. Massimiliano Zampini of the University of Trento, Italy and Charles Spence of Oxford University, UK, for electronically modifying the sound of a potato chip to make the person chewing the chip believe it to be crisper and fresher than it really is.

REFERENCE: "The Role of Auditory Cues in Modulating the Perceived Crispness and Staleness of Potato Chips," Massimiliano Zampini and Charles Spence, Journal of Sensory Studies, vol. 19, October 2004, pp. 347-63.

PEACE PRIZE. The Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology (ECNH) and the citizens of Switzerland for adopting the legal principle that plants have dignity.
REFERENCE: "The Dignity of Living Beings With Regard to Plants. Moral Consideration of Plants for Their Own Sake"

ARCHAEOLOGY PRIZE. Astolfo G. Mello Araujo and José Carlos Marcelino of Universidade de São Paulo, Brazil, for measuring how the course of history, or at least the contents of an archaeological dig site, can be scrambled by the actions of a live armadillo.
REFERENCE: "The Role of Armadillos in the Movement of Archaeological Materials: An Experimental Approach," Astolfo G. Mello Araujo and José Carlos Marcelino, Geoarchaeology, vol. 18, no. 4, April 2003, pp. 433-60.

BIOLOGY PRIZE. Marie-Christine Cadiergues, Christel Joubert,, and Michel Franc of Ecole Nationale Veterinaire de Toulouse, France for discovering that the fleas that live on a dog can jump higher than the fleas that live on a cat.
REFERENCE: "A Comparison of Jump Performances of the Dog Flea, Ctenocephalides canis (Curtis, 1826) and the Cat Flea, Ctenocephalides felis felis (Bouche, 1835)," M.C. Cadiergues, C. Joubert, and M. Franc, Veterinary Parasitology, vol. 92, no. 3, October 1, 2000, pp. 239-41.

MEDICINE PRIZE. Dan Ariely of Duke University, USA, for demonstrating that high-priced fake medicine is more effective than low-priced fake medicine.
REFERENCE: "Commercial Features of Placebo and Therapeutic Efficacy," Rebecca L. Waber; Baba Shiv; Ziv Carmon; Dan Ariely, Journal of the American Medical Association, March 5, 2008; 299: 1016-1017.

COGNITIVE SCIENCE PRIZE. Toshiyuki Nakagaki of Hokkaido University, Japan, Hiroyasu Yamada of Nagoya, Japan, Ryo Kobayashi of Hiroshima University, Atsushi Tero of Presto JST, Akio Ishiguro of Tohoku University, and Ágotá Tóth of the University of Szeged, Hungary, for discovering that slime molds can solve puzzles.
REFERENCE: "Intelligence: Maze-Solving by an Amoeboid Organism," Toshiyuki Nakagaki, Hiroyasu Yamada, and Ágota Tóth, Nature, vol. 407, September 2000, p. 470.

ECONOMICS PRIZE. Geoffrey Miller, Joshua Tybur and Brent Jordan of the University of New Mexico, USA, for discovering that a professional lap dancer's ovulatory cycle affects her tip earnings.
REFERENCE: "Ovulatory Cycle Effects on Tip Earnings by Lap Dancers: Economic Evidence for Human Estrus?" Geoffrey Miller, Joshua M. Tybur, Brent D. Jordan, Evolution and Human Behavior, vol. 28, 2007, pp. 375-81.

PHYSICS PRIZE. Dorian Raymer of the Ocean Observatories Initiative at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, USA, and Douglas Smith of the University of California, San Diego, USA, for proving mathematically that heaps of string or hair or almost anything else will inevitably tangle themselves up in knots.
REFERENCE: "Spontaneous Knotting of an Agitated String," Dorian M. Raymer and Douglas E. Smith, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 104, no. 42, October 16, 2007, pp. 16432-7.

CHEMISTRY PRIZE. Sharee A. Umpierre of the University of Puerto Rico, Joseph A. Hill of The Fertility Centers of New England (USA), Deborah J. Anderson of Boston University School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School (USA), for discovering that Coca-Cola is an effective spermicide, and to Chuang-Ye Hong of Taipei Medical University (Taiwan), C.C. Shieh, P. Wu, and B.N. Chiang (all of Taiwan) for discovering that it is not.
REFERENCE: "Effect of 'Coke' on Sperm Motility," Sharee A. Umpierre, Joseph A. Hill, and Deborah J. Anderson, New England Journal of Medicine, 1985, vol. 313, no. 21, p. 1351.
REFERENCE: "The Spermicidal Potency of Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola," C.Y. Hong, C.C. Shieh, P. Wu, and B.N. Chiang, Human Toxicology, vol. 6, no. 5, September 1987, pp. 395-6.

LITERATURE PRIZE. David Sims of Cass Business School. London, UK, for his lovingly written study "You Bastard: A Narrative Exploration of the Experience of Indignation within Organizations."
REFERENCE: "You Bastard: A Narrative Exploration of the Experience of Indignation within Organizations," David Sims, Organization Studies, vol. 26, no. 11, 2005, pp. 1625-40."


Cancer Carnival #14 is live!

The 14th edition of the Cancer Research Blog Carnival is up at ScienceBase. It's jam-packed with all the sciencey goodness you've come to expect. Go check it out then head over the the carnival homepage to read past editions and sign up to host!


Thursday, October 02, 2008

Chili, capsaicin and cancer

Speaking of the infamous journal "Medical Hypotheses", a paper published in 2002 tried to make a link between spicy food and stomach cancer:

"The 'hot' sensation produced by exposure to pepper is apparently due to two natural carcinogens: capsaicin in chili type peppers and safrole in black/white pepper. There are four cookeries in the United States that are noted for their high pepper content: Mexican-American, Cajun, white Creole, and black Creole. Each is largely confined to a single ethnic-cultural group which is concentrated in some counties. By use of county population and mortality data, significantly higher rates for stomach and liver cancer were found in counties inhabited by these four ethnic-cultural groups than in matched control counties."

Could it be true: chilies are carcinogenic? Might as well go to the source to find out, the country where chilies originated: Mexico. A Mexican study looking at associations between gastric cancers, chili consumption and H pylori infection found no independent association between the chilies and the Hp but a weak association with gastric cancer in heavy chili eaters (OR = 1.71; 95% CI = 0.76-3.88, p=0.026).

However there is mounting evidence that chilies may do more good than harm. Spices in general seem to make good candidates according to this recent review:

"the potential of turmeric (curcumin), red chilli (capsaicin), cloves (eugenol), ginger (zerumbone), fennel (anethole), kokum (gambogic acid), fenugreek (diosgenin), and black cumin (thymoquinone) in cancer prevention has been established."

You don't have to look very hard to find that in fact capsaicin has potential to inhibit the proliferation of cells in endometriosis , inhibit the growth of androgen-independent p53 mutated prostate cells, kill melanoma cells etc... The mechanism seem to included apoptosis, autophagy and ROS generation.

All this to say, you can eat your chilies without worrying too much about cancer, the harm done is mostly temporary and the jury is still out for the longer term...


Wednesday, October 01, 2008

How to beat off a cold

Summer is over, which means that cold and flu season is approaching with its stuffy sinuses and nasal congestion. But before you grab your Sudafed, or other pharmaceutical intervention, the journal Medical Hypotheses - always a gold-mine for unconventional ideas - has an article about an all-natural, drug-free way to relieve your symptoms: ejaculation.
As it is seen, ejaculation can be used as a potential treatment of nasal congestion because its emission phase provides a sympathetic stimulation and subsequent vasoconstriction and nasal decongestion. Also, the refractory period serves as a sympathetic reservoir and maintains the decongestive state for a considerable while. [...] According to the current idea, sexual intercourse or masturbation is proposed in the cases of nasal congestion in mature men. It can be done time-to-time to alleviate the congestion and the patient can adjust the number of intercourses or masturbations depending on the severity of the symptoms.
Keep it in mind next time someone with a head cold asks you for a tissue.


Carbon Capture in Canada

From the province that brought you the dirtiest fuel ever, oil from the tar sands, comes a University of Calgary made solution. They have made a carbon capture device that sounds pretty good from what I've read (and hardly understand). Apparently 1 square meter of scrubber removes the equivalent of carbon dioxide produced by one person.
If you want to check the specs of this beast be sure to check out the discovery website as they have an interactive website containing some details on various aspects of the "Tower".
I am really glad to see Alberta investing in some of these technologies, hopefully with the idea that they can develop some in house solutions to some big problems that they are a major part of.