February 7, 2009

Scientists rejoice! Obama, the first nerd president


“We will restore science to its rightful place…”

After eight years of science as a second-class citizen in the United States under the Bush administration, President Barack Obama’s words inspire hope.

Included in Obama’s nearly $900 billion economic stimulus plan is $10 billion for scientific research and instrumentation and $6 billion to modernize academic laboratories.

So far Obama has kept his word, appointing top scientists to his cabinet including John Holdren as the presidential science advisor. Holdren is known for his work on global environmental change and policies on renewable energy.

He’s even appointed a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Steven Chu, as energy secretary.

In addition to these appointments, Obama has promised to lift the ban on federal funds for stem cell research put in place by the Bush administration. The executive order to lift the ban is expected any day.

Stem cell research is a controversial topic. Embryonic stem cells require a fertilized egg, and in the view of some, the creation of life.

But many scientists see stem cell research as a way to excel medical science into the future. Stem cells have the ability to develop into all types of cells.

They could be used to regenerate organs and tissues, as well as cure certain types of cancer and neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease.

It’s clear Obama is attempting to follow through on his promise to bring America into the 21st century.

Many scientists saw the Bush administration as backwards in terms of recognizing valid scientific data in policy-making.

Proponents of human-induced climate change have criticized Bush and his government for actively denying and suppressing scientific evidence towards a warming Earth.

In 2006, James Hansen, a NASA scientist and one of the leading climate change scientists in the world, spoke to numerous media outlets, including an appearance on the television program 60 Minutes, about how the government was manipulating scientific documents. On the program, Hansen talked about how the White House edited scientific documents to diminish the data supporting global warming.

Hansen also said he was restricted from freely speaking with the media about climate change.
Canada, too, has a dark past when it comes to catastrophe resulting from dismissal of scientific evidence.

The East Coast cod fishery was shut down two decades ago because the government refused to acknowledge decades of population data showing the impending crash of the cod population.

When the government finally acknowledged what was happening, it was too late. Twenty years later, the East Coast fishery is still in ruin.

During the Bush administration, Canada was a haven for scientists who wanted to pursue their interests in a country that embraced science.

Now that trend may reverse itself.

The 2009 Canada federal budget released last week may have some scientists heading south.
Genome Canada, one of the largest science research funding agencies in the country, was left completely out of the budget.

The President of Genome Canada, Martin Godbout, told the Globe and Mail he was confused as to why his company was left out of the budget for the first time in nine years.
Instead, the 2009 budget focused on science infrastructure, promising $2 billion for funding the repair and maintenance of academic institutions.

Although buildings are important, they’re really no use without scientists in them with enough funding to continue their work.

In a country that needs doctors and scientists, it doesn’t make sense to refuse funds to projects which may be the only chance of keeping them in Canada. Preventing further “brain drain” from the country is more important.

If scientists can’t get the funding they need to continue their research, they’ll have no choice but to go somewhere else.

If the Harper government believes ignoring the importance of scientific research is any way to run a country, it might want to think twice about the consequences.

Cassie Williams is the Halifax Commoner’s weekly science columnist.

Making food safer through technology


January 30, 2009

Escherichia coli, Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes, melamine contamination – it seems like every other week we have something else to fear about our food.

In 2008 the bacterial infection listeriosis caused the deaths of 20 Canadians and made over 50 others sick. In that same year melamine-contaminated milk in China made nearly 300,000 people sick and killed at least six infants.

The latest bacterial outbreak of salmonella-contaminated peanuts in the United States has made over 500 people sick and claimed the lives of seven people. Mass recalls of products containing the contaminated peanuts have been initiated on both sides of the border.

So, is it possible to provide a safe food supply? More rigorous cleaning regimes and higher inspection standards for food-processing plants will go a long way, but it’s possible these measures will still not be good enough.

Here are a few other suggestions on how to make our food supply safer.

GERM-KILLING NANO-PAINT: Titanium dioxide is an anti-microbial metal found in household items such as toothpaste, sunscreen and paint, and even makes skim milk more palatable. When engineered on the nano-scale, titanium dioxide displays some unique properties when exposed to ultraviolet light. The UV light causes an oxidation reaction which not only kills bacteria on the nano-paint’s surface but also removes impurities and toxic compounds in the air.

On surfaces, the compound disinfects twice as effectively as chlorine and 1.5 times as effectively as ozone. Just pick up a gallon of nano-paint, apply to a surface, open the curtains and voila, it cleans the air in your house and any surfaces coated in the compound.

Generally the coatings last anywhere from three to 10 years, depending on where they are used. In Japan, handrails are coated in the stuff to keep the surface sanitized and free from grime buildup from cars and industry.

This coating has useful prospects for food processing plants, where hard-to-reach areas in machinery can be cleaned by simply running a UV light over them. UV light can penetrate deep into the machinery where liquid cleansers may not.

Even Time magazine has jumped on board, rating a cement containing photo-catalyzing titanium dioxide one of its top 50 inventions of 2008.

The cement accelerates the rate at which smog is broken down, reducing smog in the air. It also keeps buildings made of the stuff cleaner, making them more resistant to grime build-up.

LISTERIA-EATING MICRO-ORGANISMS: Bacteriophages are the most abundant micro-organisms on Earth. They are harmless to humans, animals and plants but deadly to bacteria.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved Listex-P100 bacteriophage is a picky eater and only has a taste for the deadly listeriosis bacteria. The bacteriophage is used in the U.S. as an additive to certain foods susceptible to listeriosis, such as cheese. Since the phage only devours listeriosis, it doesn’t interrupt the other beneficial bacteria used in the process.

URBAN GARDENS: Another option is to grow some of your own fruits and vegetables. All you need is a small raised plot or even a couple of window boxes.

There’s no mystery about what is sprayed on the food you grow yourself and you can ensure that the water irrigating your crops is clean and free of contamination.

BUY LOCAL: Buying products from small, local farms reduces the risk of mass contamination by bacteria or chemicals. Buying from local sources also makes tracking any potential contamination easier.

Short of growing all our food in a lab, there is really no way to guarantee our food supply is 1oo-per-cent safe.

But thorough cleaning of fruits and vegetables, cooking meat to the proper temperature and knowing where food comes from will help ensure we don’t get sick.

Cassie Williams is the Halifax Commoner's weekly science columnist.

Is there life on Mars?



January 23, 2009

This week NASA announced it has found evidence of methane gas plumes spewing from Mars.

I know I’ve lost many of you already, but wait … what if I told you the methane may be belching out from tiny micro-organisms. That’s right — life on Mars.

This was the information printed this week by media organizations around the world, but there’s only one tiny problem — it’s not true.

It seems as though some people are cherry-picking information out of the original NASA press release and an article published this week in the journal Science.

Truth is, scientists aren’t really sure what they’ve found.

Yes, simple organisms such as bacteria produce methane. They are found in places as mundane as our digestive system, where they produce some unpleasant-smelling gases as a by-product of digestion.

They are also found in places on Earth that are as foreign as the red planet itself — hot, underwater deep-sea vents unknown to science until just a few decades ago.

But methane is also produced by various other processes, such as the oxidation of iron (rust) and as a by-product of volcanic activity.

I’m not saying there isn’t reason to get excited.

Life or no life, it’s still an amazing discovery. Either geologically or biologically, Mars is alive.

And there exists the potential for life.

The team that found the methane gas has been studying Mars’ atmosphere for years.

Using NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii, the team observed distinct patterns of light absorption of the various components in Mars’ atmosphere.

NASA scientists have suspected methane gas on Mars but this was the first time they were able to confirm their suspicions.

One reason this discovery has scientists all a twitter is these same processes occur deep within our own planet.

Ancient micro-organisms that produce methane were one of the earliest forms of life here. It’s reasonable to consider that any potential life on Mars may have similar
origins.

Future missions to Mars will be able to determine the exact origin of the gas, since biologically-produced methane has slightly different properties than geologically-produced methane.

Methane has a relatively simple structure — four hydrogen atoms, centered around one carbon atom.

Hydrogen has a few different forms or isotopes. If the methane plumes on Mars are biologically produced, it is likely that the hydrogen will be lighter than it’s more obese cousin, the deuterium isotope.

Methane is a greenhouse gas, which means the build-up of this gas allows more heat from a planet to be reflected back to the surface.

This makes the planet warmer, similar to how scientists believe life started on our own planet.

The presence of methane and the confirmation of ice on Mars from the Phoenix mission last year is cause for excitement.

Last May, scientists around the world were on the edge of their seats, anxiously awaiting confirmation the Phoenix Mars Lander had successfully descended to the surface of Mars after a nine-month journey through space.

Only six of the last 12 missions have successfully made it to the red planet.

The Phoenix mission proved something long suspected by scientists – there was water, albeit frozen, just below the surface of Mars. Although the presence of water is not proof Mars once supported life, as far as we know, life can’t exist without it.

The great David Bowie once asked the musical question, is there life on Mars?

The answer? Possibly, but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.

Cassie Williams is The Halifax Commoner’s science columnist.

'Miracle berry' makes tastebuds take a wild trip

January 16, 2009

Imagine biting into a lemon, and instead of tasting sour, it tastes like lemonade. How about drinking vinegar that tastes like apple juice?

It’s all possible thanks to a small, red, olive-sized berry from West Africa known as the miracle fruit (Synsepalum dulcificum). The desire to try this unusual fruit is spreading across North America and “taste-tripping” parties are growing in popularity across the U.S.

How the berry works is not entirely understood. It’s thought the aptly-named glycoprotein, miraculin, blocks the shape of the sweet receptors on the taste buds. This allows sour and acidic things to bind to these sweet receptors, completely changing the taste.

The effect is, well, miraculous. Pure lemon extract tastes like the sweetest lemonade, sour cream tastes like rich whipped cream and sugar has no taste at all.

Once the berries are picked from the shrub, they begin to rot immediately. Fresh berries can be ordered over the internet from various growers across the U.S., but will probably cost you between two and four dollars per berry.

The freeze-dried tablets are a more economical option. A package of 10 Miracle Berry Tablets is available over the Internet and cost about $20, plus shipping.

Miracle berries are currently not approved by the FDA and Health Canada does not regulate them. Miraculin is regulated as a sweetener in Japan where scientists at the University of Tsukuba have grown modified lettuce containing the protein in order to meet the growing demand.

I decided to hold my own taste-tripping party with two friends, Matt MacLennan and Mick MacDonald.

This was my second miracle berry experience since receiving the freeze-dried tablets as a Christmas gift.

My first experience taste-tripping wasn’t exactly pleasant. The tablet performed as advertised, lemon tasted like sugary lemonade and vodka lost most of its alcohol burn.

When I grabbed and gulped a glass of what I thought was water, I wasn’t prepared for the cider-like flavor and smell of vinegar. It turned out to be white vinegar, extremely sweet-tasting white vinegar which sent me running for the nearest toilet.

To be fair, my vomit was surprisingly sweet and slightly more delicious than expected. This ended my first taste-tripping experience.

The next time around, I was more careful. We started with cottage cheese. The boys both reacted the same way. Mick described it as tasting like “brains, sugared brains.” Matt said they tasted like “cheese curds sprinkled with sugar.”

The unripe kiwi was surprisingly delicious. Matt described it as
tasting “perfectly ripe.”

The biggest crowd pleaser was definitely the sour cream. “That tastes like Cool Whip.” Mick said, “That’s crazy! I would eat that on a pie.” Matt was also delighted by the taste, describing it as “whipped cream.”

The biggest surprise for Mick was vinegar which he said “tastes like strong apple juice. If it didn’t burn so much in my stomach I could drink it just like apple juice.”

The berries made limes taste like sugary-lime penny candies and pickles and pickled beets taste like they were dusted in sugar.

About 20 minutes into the experience, Matt’s taste buds started returning to normal, reducing the effect on the last few items we tried. The effect began to wear off after 45 minutes for Mick and stayed with me for more than an hour, making the Guinness I was sipping taste more like a honey-brown beer.

The berry is old news in Japan, Thailand and its native home West Africa. In Japan, specialty restaurants use the berry to make tart, low-calorie desserts taste rich and sweet, without all the negative side-effects of sugar.

For centuries, people in West Africa have been using the berry to sweeten foods that are sour or unpalatable.

With no additives or documented adverse side effects, this product holds great promise for both dieters and diabetics who crave sweets but don’t want the extra sugar. Cancer patients swear by the berry because it takes away the unpleasant metallic aftertaste reported as a side effect of chemotherapy.

The high cost and relative scarcity of the miracle berry in Canada makes it difficult to enjoy every day. Perhaps one day we’ll be able to enjoy a delicious dessert of miraculin salad.

But, for now, I think I’ll stick to the occasional taste-trip.

Cassie Williams is The Halifax Commoner’s science columnist.