Friday, September 25, 2009

Discovery lede of the week

A Modest Proposal: How to Stop Aging Entirely
By Aubrey de Grey and Michael Rae

Lede: “In my view, we can probably eliminate aging as a cause of death this century—and possibly within just a few decades, soon enough to benefit most people currently alive.”

Originally, the title popped out at me because it began with “A modest proposal.” I had read an essay by Jonathan Swift with this title a few years ago; it was a satire that suggested eating babies to control population and feed the starving masses. But this article, obviously, was not the same thing. The lede grabbed my attention at once because of its insinuation toward the so called fountain of youth. I assumed this article would go on to describe new technologies or medical advances and how they could be used to prolong life even more. However, I was sorely disappointed when I discovered this article had nothing to do with finding any “fountain of youth”; it wasn’t even about any fountain!

The article did NOT live up to my expectations. It began with a rant about people becoming immortal, yet it never gave any kind of scientific information at all. It then proposes several ideas of how wonderful things would be if people just never died. It never mentions anything about all the negative aspects of this feat. What about over-population? We are drastically sliding closer to our carrying capacity each day, and they are proposing that no one should ever die? What is going to happen to the masses of starving people out there now when we add more and more mouths to feed and never take any away? It would be ironic if the authors had mentioned eating the babies, just because they share the title with Swift’s essay. There is no way this is a feasible or sustainable approach. Are we supposed to never have any more children? I bet that will happen.
The article goes on to a rant about cancer. I thought we were talking about never dying? The rapid subject shift was odd and I was just confused as to why there would be so much of a rant about nothing to introduce the idea that we should find the cure to cancer. This is not an article on how to stop aging entirely. It doesn't even determine how to eliminate cancer. This article left me wanting more: more substance, more information, and more logic. This article was a modest proposal, indeed.

The fungus is among us!

The sunshine today afforded me a wonderful opportunity to gallivant and admire the fall foliage, something I have been unable to accomplish between work and rainy days. As I moseyed along, I noticed a strange leaf on the ground, so I was compelled to pick it up and admire it properly. It had the “black spot.” I chuckled to myself for a moment in reverie of a scene from “Pirates of the Caribbean” where Captain Jack Sparrow was marked with the ‘black spot.’ When I came back from the little world I had floated off to, I began to ponder what the little spot was. I had decided it must be some kind of fungus, and proceeded to tote my little leaf along with me for the rest of the day.

Upon returning to my room, curiosity got the best of me as I searched to answer my conundrum. I discovered this black spot of mine is a fungus, as I had suspected, called “tar spot.”

An indication of early stages of tar spot includes the appearance of small yellow spots on leaves. The yellow spots grow in size and intensify in color, black spots finally appearing in the center. The black spots grow and form large dark circles on the leaves.

The fungus gets its name from these black splotches, which resemble drops of black tar. Tar spot, or Rhytisma acerinum, is a fungus that affects maple trees (among others), usually causing early leaf drop. Tar spot is a kind of fungi called an endophyte ("endo-" meaning "within", "-phyte" meaning "plant"). Since the area of the tree affected is the leaves, which are deciduous, tar spot does not cause long-term damage to its hosts.

Moist, cool conditions, around 60 degrees F, compliment the fungus and cause rapid spread of tar spot. Tar spot typically infects trees in the spring, when tiny, needle-like spores are released into the atmosphere, carried by the wind. The spores, landing on vulnerable leaves, infect the tree and begin a new cycle of tar spot.

Since tar spot does not cause long-term damage to trees, many choose not to use fungicide against it. Fungicides are often ineffective, expensive, and are generally harmful to the environment. One environmentally-friendly way to manage the spread of tar spot is to efficiently rake the leaves that have fallen from infected trees, and those of trees in the surrounding area. Mulching the leaves has proven to be effective, but covering and containing the leaves will also help reduce the infected area.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Get out of my garden!

Something’s wrong.

It took a moment to realize what the matter was. Facing the steps I slowly descended loomed the 18-foot evergreen that greeted me each morning. But something was amiss. The needles had turned from their deep emerald hue to a sickly brown that reminded me of mud.

Stepping closer to investigate, I caught my first glimpse of them: they were beetles, chomping down on the once-perfect needles of my evergreen. They desiccated the tree: it was a living skeleton, hanging on by a mere twig.

The Japanese beetle, whose origins lie in Japan, is sometimes called the Japanese rose beetle for its inclination toward roses. It was first sighted in the US in 1916, according to the USDA. The beetle is about the size of a penny, with a copper colored body and metallic green head. It can fly, but clumsily. It usually sits upon a leaf, lazily chewing away at the greenery. The beetle is slow and easy to catch.

The Japanese beetle, or Popillia japonica Newman, has spread as far north as Ontario, and as far south and west as Georgia and Missouri (Popillia meaning scarab beetle, and japonica meaning "of Japan").

This pest devours all kinds of vegetation. They eat the leaves (or needles!), fruits and flowers of a wide variety of trees and plants. In the larval stage, the insect feeds on grassroots, causing obvious damage to lawns.

It flourishes in the US because of a favorable climate and ineffective natural predators. In Japan, the beetle is hardly an issue because of the natural predators that keep its population in check. Some species that attempt to reduce the beetle’s population in the US include starlings, Assassin bugs, and Tiphia wasps.

Because the effect of these predators is futile, several methods to eradicate the pest have been devised, including chemicals, traps, biological controls, and simple hand removal.

Several chemicals are available that would kill off either the adult Japanese beetle (Acephate), or the larvae (Imidacloprid). Though these insecticides produce rapid results, there is the chance the chemicals will be washed away as runoff, contaminating water sources.

Traps have been created for the beetle, with two intersecting panels of plastic, vertically crossing to form the shape of an ‘X’ if viewed from above. Below these pieces is a bag filled with pheromones. Beetles are attracted to the scent and fly into the plastic. Because they are clumsy fliers, they hit the plastic and fall into the trap, unable to escape. Though this is an effective method, it usually attracts more beetles in the area than were originally there, so place the trap far from your vegetables!

According to APHIS, a branch of the USDA, biological controls such as Nematodes, “microscopic parasitic roundworms,” can be used to control the beetle. This method takes longer to produce results, but is effective and environmentally friendly.

Arguably, the most effective tools to do away with the Japanese beetle are a thumb and forefinger. That’s right, go ahead and squish them! The bugs are slow, clumsy, and they don’t scurry away when approached. A homeowner can protect their valued crops with this inexpensive method of pick and squish, or, if looking for a more delicate technique, they can flick the beetle into a bucket filled with soapy water. Cover the bucket once filled with beetles, cover, and dispose of it once the insects have drowned.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Lede of the week

In a Shark’s Tooth, a New Family Tree
By Sean B. Carroll

“'Like a locomotive with a mouth full of butcher knives.'

"That is how a shark expert, Matt Hooper, described Carcharodon megalodon to the police chief in Peter Benchley’s novel “Jaws.” He was referring to the 50-foot-long, 50-ton body and enormous six- to seven-inch-long teeth that made the extinct megalodon shark perhaps the most awesome predator that has ever roamed the seas."

The title of this piece is intriguing already. When it opened with the lede “Like a locomotive with a mouth full of butcher knives,” I had to smile. Not only is the imagery spot on, but I recognized the quote. Because the lede is catchy and a well-known quote from “Jaws,” either a book or a movie everyone has read/watched at some point in their life, it makes the story relatable. I started reading the story through, and it continued with references to “Jaws” to introduce the information it wished to present. The article began telling a story that catches a reader’s attention, keeps their attention while continuing with a familiar story as it gradually introduces what it is they really want to talk about. This was my "lede of the week."

Friday, September 11, 2009

Wrongfully Squished


Everyone has seen a crane fly in their lifetime; they probably just don’t know it. Many people shriek at the sight of them and continue to squish the insects as soon as possible, which, honestly, is exactly how I came to find the specimen in the first place.

I was sitting at my desk, attempting to find the empirical formula of glucose (CH2O, for ye fellow chemists out there), when I heard a not-quite-but-close-to-blood-curdling-scream. Out of curiosity, and, of course, my compelling, sometimes heroic nature that is obligated to save the day, I practically flew through the door of my dorm room into the hall from whence the commotion came. Immediately, I recognized the damsel in distress (because she was the one flailing her arms and still screaming). She appeared to be in the middle of the most epic battle imaginable: she was karate chopping the air, throwing fists at what looked like nothing, and finally stomping around like she was the world record holder for Dance Dance Revolution. As I got closer to disturbance number nine (as I labeled it, according to other similar instances I won’t delve into for the sake of this assignment), I realized that she had “taken care of” the situation. There, crumpled on the tile like a broken slinky, wiry legs sprawling to and fro, was the source of my floor mate’s freight.

Most commonly referred to as a “giant mosquito,” the adult crane fly (Diptera: Tipulidae) looks like just that: a really big mosquito. It has six legs, wings, and a large, elongated body. But the crane fly is not nearly as harmful as people might imagine. Don’t scream and throw pillows at it. Don’t run away, because it won’t suck all your blood like your imagination serves you to believe. The adult crane fly is harmless. Really, it’s the larvae you should worry about. These grubs are nuisances to lawns because they feed on the roots. That’s right; the wee, little grubs are the things to be afraid of. But it’s difficult even to be afraid of them since you never see them. They are buried beneath wet leaves in ditches, or burrowed beneath your lawns. So these little lawn devils really are only a threat to dandelions. So next time you see a really big “mosquito” flying your way, don’t scream and kill it. My request is two-fold: one, it really is unfair to the little bug. It just wants to fly, find a mate, and live out the rest of its life in peace, not pieces. Two, compelling, sometimes heroic people, not unlike myself, really need to do their chemistry homework. Don’t get me wrong, we will always come to the rescue, but these little shenanigans are comparable to pulling the fire alarm over burnt popcorn. So, do us all a favor and let the bug live, step away from the fire alarm, and help me with my chemistry homework! Please?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Outliving your body

Jenna Burleigh
Blog 3

Splits Form Over How to Address Bone Loss
By Katie Murphy

If you think your bones are deteriorating, but not enough to be called osteoporosis, then you probably have a case of osteopenia. In that case, you can start buying a prescription for the miracle drugs that will do very little to correct your deteriorating bones. And now you can do this all online and diagnose yourself because of FRAX, a new tool to help you determine when is a good time to start treating yourself for bone loss. The most wonderful thing is that it’s a machine that doesn’t take all your health information into account, so it could tell you that you have osteopenia, but not how bad the case is. I take that back. The most wonderful thing about it is that the medicine you get out of this ordeal really won’t help you much at all unless you have osteoporosis.

A flawed online tool designed to suck money out of pockets of paranoid patients is precisely what this country needs. We need another thing for people to freak out and worry about. People that get diagnosed and take the medication, which, of course, comes complete with a slew of side-effects, are doing more harm to themselves than good.

Personally, I’ve never liked going to see a doctor, but that is my own personal objection to hearing someone tell me there is something wrong with me. However, I think I would rather talk to a doctor about my problems than a machine. The machine doesn’t know me. And if the problem I have isn’t pressing enough for me to call, make an appointment, sit in the waiting room perusing old copies of Reader’s Digest, and finally go see my doctor and get a diagnosis, then I probably don’t need to know what is wrong. Of course, anyone could look at this argument and tell me that people feel fine one night and are dead by morning. My response to that is I’m fine with dying young and I don’t need to live 100 years to feel like I’ve accomplished something. People in this day and age are living too long, in my opinion. I can’t stand the thought of waking up every morning, my ancient bones aching and crackling with every movement I make along the way to the medicine cabinet, where I slowly make my rounds and swallow buckets of pills to keep my archaic ass alive, not kicking, just alive. It wasn’t long ago that 50 was a ripe old age. With all these modern advances, it seems like we’re doing our best to reproduce our own fountain of youth. We aren’t machines like FRAX; we aren’t made to last forever.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Queen of Hearts

Jenna Burleigh
Blog 2

A New Heart, Tangled in Red Tape
By Tara Parker-Pope

Health care is ridiculous. First, you’re going to need insurance. Even though you get it, they aren’t going to cover your heart transplant because you’re over 20 years old. So now it just comes down to how much money you have in your pocket. Do you have $150,000 lying around? It’s okay if you don’t, because you can use donated money raised by Tony Hawk and a band member of Nine Inch Nails. But that will only cover the cost of being evaluated and put on a waiting list. For the actual operation, you are going to need about $1 million. After raising all that money, you make it on the donor’s list, but the doctor won’t operate on you until you have “a secondary insurance policy.” By the time you get to a hospital that will take care of you, your body is far too weak to handle the surgery.

Eric De La Cruz was 31 when he died. He didn’t have to. He had a disorder called “severe dilated cardiomyopathy,” which makes the heart weak due to enlarged muscles. Mr. De La Cruz needed a heart transplant and he had known that since his early twenties. But the health insurance system has so many loop-holes and rules that he could not get covered by anyone. Had the system not been so complicated and difficult for someone with a pre-existing condition to obtain, he would have been alive today.

Everyone knows that health insurance is a bit ridiculous, but the real story starts with Eric’s sister, Veronica De La Cruz, who began a crusade to save her brother’s life. She waged a two-front battle: she fought to win disability benefits so that her brother would qualify for Medicare, and she sent out daily “tweets” on Twitter to raise awareness and funds for her brother’s operation.

It’s is so inspiring to see a person fight for someone they care about. Many in this day and age have succumbed to things like greed and selfishness. So many, in fact, that there is probably a bit of both of those in all of us. The De La Cruz family went through a tremendous ordeal and a lot of pain, but their story is reaching lawmakers, Ms. De La Cruz is sure of that.

I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose my brother, let alone fight to save his life. Ms. De La Cruz began her crusade and fought until the end. And she is still fighting. She is an inspiration, the epitome of what it really means to be family. Even though she couldn’t save her brother’s life, she honestly loved him with all her heart.