Archive | August, 2013

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“Bird Brain” Not an Insult, Chimps Freed

Posted on 23 August 2013 by Jerry

Calling someone “bird brained” used to be an insult but that is changing. Although their observed physical reactions are the same, new brain PET scans of birds demonstrate crows react differently when viewing various threats.  In an experiment birds were injected with a die that left traces of brain usage, they were shown various threats, anesthetized and given PET scans to see which areas of their brain had been activated.  When watching a researcher wearing a mask sitting with a dead crow in his lap they activated their hippocampus and cerebellum, the learning and memory areas of their brains.  This was different from their reaction to seeing a hawk, a traditional threat.

Researchers believe the differences came from the bird’s intent.  John Marzluff, a wildlife biologist at the University of Washington in an article appearing in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B when discussing the masked person with a crow in his lap said, “The crow wasn’t just responding to a danger when he was watching you.  He was learning the features of your masked face.  That’s why we think his hippocampus was activated.”  This and other characteristics of sentience have prompted behavioral researchers to call crows, belonging to the Corvid family, “feathered apes”.

As reported in a July 2013 issue of PLOS ONE, a team led by Alice Auersperg at the University of Vienna demonstrated that captive cockatoos were capable of sequential step-wise problem solving.  In an experiment, when confronted with a series of five locks that had to be unlocked to allow a bird to get to a visible treat, all ten birds figured out the solution to this sequential problem and successfully adjusted their behavior when the locks were sequenced in a different order or removed entirely.

Other research showed that New Caledonian crows share the same capabilities as ravens, African gray parrots and keas (a New Zealand parrot), all of which can all solve the problem of getting a treat hanging out of reach from a perch using the same stepwise method.  The article previously mentioned in the Proceeding of the Royal Society B described the experiment and said “They pull up the string with their beak, then step on the segment with their feet, freeing their beak to pull up more of the string, and so on, until they reach the treat.”

This article also references a 2004 report where an international team of neurobiologists and ornithologists stated “the brains of birds have structure, including an advanced forebrain, that are analogous to those of mammals.”  Once again the research is expanding the scope of animals and birds that have sophisticated problem-solving intellect.  We have been slow to learn the lesson that we are not the only animals that can think the way we do or feel the complex emotions we feel.

There is an exceptional article that appeared in the July 2013 issue of Scientific American entitled When Animals Mourn that describes research indicating that we share our mourning the death of one of our kind with dolphins, elephants, giraffes, gorillas, cats and mallard ducks.   This speaks to the widespread nature of love and mourning in the animal kingdom.

Turning to the role of chimpanzees, the closest human relatives with which we share 98% of our DNA, it was predicted in an earlier posting on this blog (see NIH Moves Chimps From Chumps to Champs in December of 2011) that is was clear the National Institute of Health (NIH) would progressively end the use of chimpanzees in NIH funded research laboratories in the U.S.  The NIH has now announced the agency will retire the majority of its 360 chimps used for medical research.  In addition, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed making all chimpanzees, wild and domesticated, subject to the terms of the Endangered Species Act.

This means almost a complete end to what has been one of our most abusive behaviors.  Many people have come to decry the pain and suffering we have inflicted on these sensitive animals.  Research methods and alternatives now exist to make use of chimpanzees in medical experiments completely unnecessary and a thing of the past.  This represents meaningful progress for the human species.

Use the following links to obtain more information and/or see source documents:

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Siegfried Hecker Acts on Semipalatinsk-21

Posted on 19 August 2013 by Jerry

Without major headlines, a few significant scientists of three nations lobbied their governments and secured permission to spend seventeen years closing and cleaning up one of the world’s major nuclear weapons test sites.  They ended up removing enough highly radioactive plutonium that if extracted by terrorists, could have allowed the construction of dozens of nuclear weapons.

Bypassing long drawn out formal negotiations between the countries, scientists worked from the bottom up lobbying largely mid level officials in the United States, Russia and Kazakhstan.  They wanted the three nations to allow the trading and yet retention of national secrets so all three countries could understand the magnitude of the work that was required.  In an effort to protect national secrets the project was never reported to the International Atomic Energy Agency.  Although independent of the United Nations, the IAEA reports to the U.N. General Assembly and Security Council.

A report prepared by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, identified Siegfried S. Hecker, a retired director of Los Alamos, as the instigator and leader of the effort.  In 1995 after the dismantling of the Soviet Union, Hecker and a small group from Los Alamos were told during a visit to Kazakhstan that there were probably significant deposits of plutonium buried at the unguarded site of over 456 Soviet nuclear explosive tests.  They were also told of numerous tunnels containing nuclear materials dug into Degelen Mountain at the Semipalatinsk-21 test site that covers an area nearly the size of Belgium.

The report entitled “Plutonium Mountain – Inside the 17 year mission to secure a dangerous legacy of Soviet nuclear testing” makes for good reading (see link below). Amongst other things, it follows the actions of Kairat Kadyrzhanov, a metallurgist who once worked at the site who warned scavengers about the nuclear material and radioactivity.  Undeterred the scavengers grew their operations to include heavy mining equipment and placed armed guards around their scavenging areas to protect their sites.  Later when analyzing these efforts scientists discovered the scavengers had come within yards of deposits of fissile materials.

Over the 17 years from 1996 to 2012, over $150 million was spent to retrieve material and fill tunnels and bore holes with a special concrete that reduced the security threat posed by the facility.  American aerial drones provided surveillance of the site for much of that period.   In October 2012 a group of scientists and engineers from the U.S., Russia and Kazakhstan unveiled a simple monument whose inscription in three languages read “1996-2012. The world has become safer”.

This story reinforces the conclusion that determined individuals can accomplish major objectives if they set their minds to it.  This cooperative effort illustrates that government officials at any level can decide to make a difference by championing worthy efforts.  The field does not matter.  Whether it is a ban on genetically modified foods, an end to the use of primates for drug research or the end of a planned new pipeline to deliver more polluting oil to the market and environment, individual actions can make a difference.  We just have to decide.

For a high level description of past efforts to safeguard nuclear weapons see this blog’s March 30, 2012 posting of  “U.S. Secures, Reduces and Manages World Nuclear Materials”. Use the following links to obtain more information or see source documents for this article: (Scroll down to the bottom of the page and select “A PDF of the full report is available here.  Click the report title to obtain the PDF)

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Chimeras for Transplant Organs and Third Parent Immunity

Posted on 13 August 2013 by Jerry

How you feel about something may be a function of how broadly you generalize or how narrowly you define it.  We have two scientific situations that specifically sound positive and yet generally may set disturbing precedents.  Each of us should decide how general we think we should be, what are the downsides and who determines outcomes.

In Japan there is a partial governmental ban on experiments that create chimeras, or mix human cells with cells of other animals to create cross species hybrids.  Creation of chimeras is permitted in vitro, a test tube or petri dish involving just cells, for up to fourteen days after which the resulting cells are destroyed.  No experiments are permitted in vivo, or with a whole living organism.

It is just such a whole living organism experiment that has been proposed by Dr. Hiromitsu Nakauchi, a stem cell biologist at the University of Tokyo.  He believes he can grow human organs in a pig fetus by implanting human pluripotent stem cells into a genetically engineered pig fetus that lacks a specific organ.

An article appearing in the June 28, 2013 issue of Science magazine states “Mouse experiments have shown that pluripotent cells can fill the developmental niche opened by the absence of an organ.”  Dr. Nakauchi believes he can eliminate the fear of organ rejection by using the recipient’s own pluripotent cells to be grown in the pig.  After the piglet is born, when the organ is the right size, it would be harvested and transplanted into the human being.

While having received a Japanese government ethics panel endorsement, Dr. Nakauchi will probably wait no longer.  He has just been awarded a $6.2 million grant from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine and is in discussions to open a new lab at Stanford University.  The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine was formed when voters in the state approved a 2004 ballot proposition providing $3 billion of taxpayer funding for stem cell experimentation.

A different proposal has been approved for trial in the United Kingdom.  It involves a strategy for avoiding a baby inheriting mitochondrial disease from the genes of its biological mother.  The strategy is to merge the nucleus of an egg from the affected mother with the egg of another woman who has no genetic anomaly and then have the merged egg fertilized by the sperm of a man.  This would produce a baby that genetically has three parents but does not develop mitochondrial disease.

The worldwide controversy surrounding this experimental procedure is that it would allow the baby to pass on its altered genetic code to its eventual offspring.  This means the change created by the merged eggs constitutes genetic germline modification.

Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley, California, in a July 17, 2013 issue of Nature magazine states “Were the United Kingdom to grant a regulatory (permanent) go-ahead, it would unilaterally cross a legal and ethical line on this issue that has been observed by the entire international community.  This consensus holds that genetic-engineering tools may be applied, with appropriate care and safeguards, to treat an individual’s medical condition, but should not be used to modify gametes or early embryos and so manipulate the characteristics of future children.”

In both of these cases the specifics, especially given the targeted outcomes, clearly offer benefit, if successful, for thousands of people.  Issues arise however, when what happens in the experiments is generalized to permit a host of other experiments with far less compelling outcomes or even risks of serious harm.

These experiments should cause each of us to personally consider what kind of genetic engineering should be allowed.  A series of questions come to mind.  For instance, should the applied science of genetic engineering continue to be largely unregulated?  Should exceptions be made and by whom?  Whom should we appoint to sit in judgment and make decisions for us?  How will those we appoint represent us faithfully and how will they know what we collectively think?  These scientific issues may have a profound effect on our collective future.  They deserve our personal attention.

Use the following links to obtain additional information or see original source documents:

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Climate Change in the Record Books, Forests and on the Ice

Posted on 09 August 2013 by Jerry

The effects of climate change are increasing as new worldwide records are set, feedback impacts begin to show, and further results are studied.  While heat records were broken in the U.S. it was difficult to know worldwide effects because of slower data gathering and reporting.

Results are in however and more nations reported new record temperatures in the decade of the 2000s than in any decade since data reporting began in 1850.  According to the World Meteorological Organization, temperatures in the last decade were the highest ever recorded on land and in the sea in both hemispheres.

Scientists are monitoring the pace of climate change.  They are alarmed that three feedback mechanisms appear to be increasing the speed of resulting warming in the present and may even accelerate it in the future.   Their first concern is that melting ice that adds colder fresh water into the northern seas may slow ocean currents that carry heat to the rest of the world.  This slowing of warm ocean currents will change temperatures worldwide often leaving warm water in colder climates.

As an example, a change such as this could cause Greenland to go from moderately cool to warm relatively fast.  Ice cores from the area show that previous shifts occurred very fast, in as little time as a decade.  The feedback concern is that as temperatures warm in Greenland, more ice melts putting more cold water into the ocean slowing currents and increasing temperatures which cause more ice to melt and so on.

A second feedback mechanism involves methane trapped in frozen permafrost around the world.  Recent studies show there is much more of this methane that extends deeper in the soil than previously assumed.  The carbon stores in tundra are now thought to represent double the methane presently in the atmosphere.

The feedback concern identified in a November 2012 article in Scientific American is that warmer temperatures accelerate thawing which allows microbes to begin to consume the organic carbon material turning it into COthat will go into the atmosphere as methane.  This would increase the warming of the atmosphere triggering more thawing of tundra and in turn encouraging microbes etc.

Beyond the methane contained in tundra, there are also large stores of methane hydrate, a mixture of ice and methane molecules, on the sea floor.  Countries seeking to find energy sources for their further development are unfortunately attempting to develop ways to extract this methane for energy use that will also increase its burning and release into the atmosphere. Japan recently reported the successful extraction of natural gas from an off shore methane hydrate deposit.

Unbridled corporate development is what has led to a worldwide expansion of fracking in search of trapped oil and gasses. This expansion of worldwide methane related energy sources is in direct conflict with rising concerns for climate change.  Some would suggest that anticipated climate change controls on further exploitation of coal, oil and gas are what have created the intensity of rapid search and development within the energy industries.

The third and most alarming feedback issue for climate scientists is the loss of planetary ice.  The present rate of loss of ice was not predicted by many of today’s climate models.  This loss, as reported on this blog and elsewhere, is proceeding at a faster rate than anticipated.   Professor Euan Nisbet of the Royal Holloway at the University of London has labeled this the biggest failure of contemporary data modeling.

He comments on the feedback mechanism of the rapid melting of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean, land ice in Greenland and in Antarctica.  He explains that this reduces the reflection of heat back into the atmosphere, increases surface temperatures, further melting more ice, etc. etc.   Nisbet states “feedback just follows feedback, follows feedback.”

These feedback cycles all create great risk that the speed of global warming will be faster than the best scientific models predict.  Scientists know greater delay in an environment of accelerating change is a prescription for an uncontrollable outcome.  The fear is our reaction will come so late that the rate of climate change will exceed our ability to affect it.

Other than the great droughts, rains, and floods which millions of people are experiencing there are a number of more localized effects of climate change that are beginning to show up.  These often make planning for the future difficult and may slow the rate of growth in certain cities.  An example is what is happening in Great Britain.

In rivers, higher highs and lower lows with less time between each is becoming commonplace.  Statistics for 2012 show that Britain saw flooding in one of every five days and drought in one of every four days.  The Tyne, Ouse and Tone rivers experienced their lowest and highest levels within a four-month period of time.  These new highs and lows have not been seen since recordkeeping began in the 1800s.

In Canada and the western United States warmer temperatures have created an onslaught of mountain pine beetles.  The greater warmth has extended their breeding period and total range such that hundreds of thousand of hectares of trees have been killed.  Of concern to scientists is that the trees represented a large carbon sink absorbing a large quantity of CO2 and they have now become carbon sources as the dead trees decompose.

Warming in Siberia is altering the occurrence of various tree types.  Forests of larches that can survive in colder weather are beginning to be replaced by spruce and fir.  The threat is that larches drop all of their thin leaves in the winter allowing sunlight to reach the underlying snow and be reflected back into the space.  Spruce and fir trees keep their needles and absorb and retain the sun’s heat before it can reach the snow.

Hank Shugart, an ecologist at the University of Virginia estimates the feedback from this worldwide change in vegetation alone could give the planet a 1.5 degree centigrade hike.  His conclusion is “We’re playing with a loaded gun here.”

Finally, there may be significant effects on human behavior as a result of warming temperatures.  A new report published in the Science and reported on by BBC News, indicates a strong link between changes in climate and a rise in assaults, rapes and murders.  A link has also been established for group behavior showing a connection between altering climate and group conflicts and wars.

An assessment of more than 60 studies looking at data from around the world showed a correlation between changes in climate and incidents of violence.  For example, domestic violence in India increased during the recent droughts and there were big increases in assaults, rapes and murders during periods of unusual heat in the United States.  Also, rising temperatures correlated with larger human conflicts such as ethnic clashes in Europe and civil wars in Africa.

The data the researchers looked at led them to conclude that by the year 2050 warmer temperatures and extreme rainfall would increase world rates of violence.  Their forecast is for a 16% increase in interpersonal violence and a 50% increase in group conflicts in some regions by 2050.  Considerable detail about the study methodologies was provided.

This research uses words and phrases such as a “substantial” correlation that is disputed by some other scientists.  Dr. Halvard Buhaug of the Peace Research Institute Oslo, Norway, believes many of the conflicts cited could be linked to factors of high infant mortality, population density and nearness of international borders.

Dr. Buhaug states “I disagree with the sweeping conclusion (the authors) draw and believe that their strong statement about a general causal link between climate and conflict is unwarranted by the empirical analysis that they provide.”  Further he observes, “I was surprised to see not a single reference to a real-world conflict that plausibly would not have occurred in the absence of observed climatic extremes.  If the authors wish to claim a strong causal link, providing some form of case validation is critical.”

The reality is climate change is accelerating, energy companies are rushing to find new deposits before controls and we must demand action now from our politicians all over the world.  We must embrace renewable energy sources, put controls on the greed of energy businesses and win our race to slow global warming

I would endorse the purchase of the August 8, 2013 issue of Science magazine.  It has a very detailed special section on climate change that is over 50 pages long and contains 10 separate scientific submissions.  It is highly interesting.

Use the following links to obtain more information and/or see source documents: (use the link in the second paragraph of the press release to access the report or its summary).


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