From the “cool things to do with glowing animals” department:

What do light-emitting squid have to do with your gut?  Unless you lunched on some really exotic calamari, I’m talking about symbiotic animal-bacteria relationships.

Researchers at UW-Madison are taking advantage of the symbiotic relationship between the Hawaiian bobtail squid and a luminescent bacteria, Vibrio fischeri, as a model for beneficial microbe-host interactions like those that help us digest our food and regulate our immune systems.  Humans host thousands of bacterial species, the vast majority of which are innocuous or even beneficial.  Only a handful pose a threat.  So what sets a platonic relationship apart from a pathogenic one?

A new paper out this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests the answer lies not with the bacteria, but with the host itself.  Researchers identify a slew of microbe-induced genetic changes in the tiny squid, including a set of evolutionarily conserved genes that may hold the secrets to developing a mutually beneficial relationship.

The results – including the involvement of several genes typically associated with responses to bacterial infection – suggest we may need to rethink our understanding of the main purpose of the immune system, according to the lead scientist.  Perhaps the common signaling pathways we think of as “anti-pathogen” pathways actually evolved as symbiosis pathways.

Take a moment to appreciate your resident microbe community, and read the full story.


Any Faculty Bloggers About?

From Karl Bates at Duke:

This post from Duke blogger Tom Burroughs bears repeating – how can we get faculty to share what they’re thinking in blogs? If they’re spending two hours a day on email (not unusual), what would an occasional blog posting add to that, really?


Double thanks to a couple of comrades.

The incomparable and insomniatic Bora recently interviewed Karl Bates from Duke about his nifty new Webzine.

Karl was kind enough to mention this blog.

There’s a really cool video on Bora’s site now of a giant windmill exploding.

~ Clinton

Shrewed survivor

From Vanderbilt’s Exploration online mag comes this dispatch (excerpts below) about the pound-for-pound audaciousness of the water shrew. The zine includes great high-speed video of the creature’s hunting prowess.
The scientist, Ken Catania, is a former MacArthur Fellow … and slightly resembles a woodland creature himself. Exploration previously reported on his groundbreaking work (ahem) with the starnosed mole.

The research reveals that the small animal possesses remarkably sophisticated methods for detecting prey that allow it to catch small fish and aquatic insects as readily in the dark as in daylight.

It is a skill set that the water shrew really needs. About half the size of a mouse, water shrews have such a high metabolism that they must eat more than their weight daily and can starve to death in half a day if they can’t find anything to eat. As a result, water shrews are formidable predators ounce for ounce.

“Water shrews do much of their hunting at night, so I began wondering how they can identify their prey in nearly total darkness,” says Ken Catania, the associate professor of biological sciences at Vanderbilt who headed the study.

Catania teamed up with James Hare and Kevin Campbell at the University of Manitoba and used a high-speed infrared video camera to answer this question. The results of their study are reported in a paper titled “Water shrews detect movement, shape, and smell to find prey underwater” published Jan. 9 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Our research confirms that shrews in general, and water shrews in particular, are marvels of adaptation, with specializations and behaviors that put many other mammals to shame,” says Catania.
Its hunting methods are pretty amazing, and all without a 12-pack of cheap beer.




Dem Candidate Proxies Talk Science at AAAS

It was just a plain flier, 8-1/2 by 11, taped to a few walls and easels here and there in the Hynes Convention Center during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston. Be there: 3:15 p.m. Saturday. Hear what the Clinton and Obama campaigns are going to do about science and technology. The room was packed. Apparently the whole thing was whipped together in a day or two.

None of the Republican campaigns could send a representative, apparently. They said they were too busy; more likely they knew how few sympathetic minds there would be in an audience of academics.

The Obama side was presented by thirty-something Alec Ross, who said he left three pre-schoolers at home to participate. He’s a pale, unassuming guy, a little long-haired. You’d spot him for a liberal do-gooder from the get-go. Ross is a co-founder and Executive Vice President of a venture philanthropy outfit called One Economy Corp., which brings computers and broadband to low-income people. He said he met Obama as a state senator in Illinois a couple of years ago, well away from the TV cameras, and came away impressed by his “keen understanding of the role of technology in kids’ futures.” One Economy was bringing the Internets to some kids on the south side of Chicago at the time.

Ross was sincere, if a bit vague. I wanted to like the guy, I really did, but Hillary’s man had PowerPoint. Who can compete with that?!

Her guy was Thomas Kalil, 40-something, a bit fleshy, red in the face, aggressively short salt-n-pepper hair. I couldn’t see, but I’ll bet the cuff of his pants was just an inch too high. Washington all the way. He’s currently the Special Assistant to the Chancellor for Science and Technology at the University of California at Berkeley, which is just the sort of gig one gets after eight years in technology policy in the Bill Clinton White House and a start in the business as a semiconductor industry lobbyist.

The good news? We win either way. Both candidates are promising to “double” American investment in R&D through NIH, NSF, DOE, DOD, NIST: Clinton in 10 years; Obama in 5. “He’s going to be elected president, not emperor,” Ross said.

(Get specific, if you want; I don’t have the patience: Clinton’s slides were derived from this. Obama’s stuff is spread across several areas – get the whole book here. Most of it came from the technology chapter. Obama’s principal thing sounded like communications infrastructure … but maybe because that’s Ross’ thing?

Both would push for fully electronic medical records — with appropriate safety measures in place, of course. (Me? If it’s privacy you’re worried about, I’ll take an encrypted national database over $6/hour Blue Cross file clerks shuffling carbon paper any day.)

Clinton’s best turn of phrase: “America is still an innovation superpower.” She’d set up an Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) for Energy. She’d spend on research to advance global health and homeland security. Oh, and she’s going to ask Hollywood to do for bench science what it did for blood spatters and semen swabs via “CSI.” At least that idea won’t cost billions we don’t have.

Obama would name a Chief Technology Officer for the country who would standardize and streamline federal IT infrastructure, and make everything more interoperable and transparent in the bargain. He’d put $150B over ten years into alternative energy, transportation, a digital electricity grid(?). He’d double federal funding for clean energy, using existing federal labs and land-grant schools (Go Spartans!). Without giving away too much of the plot, Ross said it’s a “bold and fully developed agenda,” nine pages in all.

First question from the floor (of more than a hundred submitted): Get specific!

Clinton: We are more specific.

Obama: Check out our web site, dude. For example, Obama would go after the $12B “universal service fund” which the telcos have apparently been using to build cell fone towers and lay copper wire — all for better voice service. Instead, Obama would redirect it to broadband. “We really get in the weeds on policy,” Ross said, which may have been his team’s best turn of phrase.

Clinton’s guy points out it’s easy to offer a hundred billion here and there, but we’ve got some real money issues in this country. Her solution would be to impose carbon caps and trading to raise revenue. Obama’s solution to the cash problem is to stop the war in Iraq – a rare applause line.

Contrast with McCain? He sucks, no argument.

Nuclear power? Clinton says we’ve got unanswered questions in waste, safety, proliferation and cost. Work those out and we’ll talk. Obama says, check out the site, but we’re about the same.

NASA? Man on Mars, probably not. Clinton wants to restore Earth science, remote sensing stuff, which Bush let slide because it was revealing too much ugly truthiness.

What’s the new Sputnik?
Twenty carbon-neutral terawatts by 2030, says Kalil. And lower the average age of first RO-1 funding, (currently edging toward 42).

Ross says invest and encourage women, minorities and immigrants. Obama is a “citizen of the world” and sees great strategic advantage in retaining the immigrants our universities and graduate programs are already attracting.

There was a little more, but really, they don’t sound all that different. It’s hard to judge through proxies like this, because we may have been hearing a reflection of the spokespeople, not the candidates. Voiced by Tom Kalil, Clinton’s proposals sounded specific, task-oriented, rooted in battle-hardened Washington reality. From Ross, Obama’s plans were loftier, more aspirational.

Tell you what: Help us get them to the podium for a real Science Debate on April 18.

From the don’t-jump-to-conclussions department

A study from the UMich Health System (go here for the release) makes an important distinction when deciding who to target, market-wise, for the HPV vaccine: women who might need the vaccine most are those who are not already sexually active.

Seems obvious, right?

But often the risk factors turn around sexual history, and catches women who have already had sex.

According to the study’s author, Amanda Dempsey:

Selectively vaccinating women based on risk factors alone would mean that more than 2 million women, ages 18 to 26, who had the potential to derive the most benefit from HPV vaccination because they weren’t already infected, would miss out on getting the vaccine.

 The UMich press page also includes groovy video and audio interviews.


It’s the science policy, stupid

Well, well.

The presidential campaigns might finally get around to talking about science. And, maybe, just maybe, they won’t limit the discussion to stem cells.

The NYTimes’ Andrew Revkin reported yesterday   that a group called Sciencedebate 2008 , comprised of some very smart people, including science bloggers Sheril Kirshenbaum and Chris Mooney, has scheduled a science debate and invited the presidential candidates.

Gee, do you think the wanna-be leaders of the free world might recognize that science is important?

Hmmmm. Let’s see. They all talk about healthcare reform. That involves, uh, health care, which usually includes medicine, and sometimes biomedical science.

How about the environment? Despite the fact that environment stories often turn into stories about Hollywood personalities, I’m pretty sure science is part of understanding why the Arctic ice cap is melting, which just might carry over to this energy, global warming stuff.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the perpetual war on terrorism, are top priorities. But what about the technological gadgetry that enables us to wage war and defend our military? An engineer or two might have been involved in creating drone aircraft or satellite imaging. Oh, and there’s the whole battlefield medicine and psychiatry angle, but that’s stretching it a bit.

There’s been a big fuss recently about how far behind the rest of the world the U.S. (No. 17) lags in Internet broadband speed. Korea is killing us. Canada — Canada! — is more advanced. But the Internet isn’t an important part of commerce or national security or anything like that.

And then there’s the workforce. All those people depending on medical care, manufacturing, energy … that’s inconsequential. Never mind that some of those sectors might actually improve our quality of life, much less keep us alive.

The candidates have science policies. Obama, Hillary and McCain list science topics on their “issues” pages. They all talk about healthcare reform, which is about the same for all of them. Obama’s is the only one that addresses technology. Hillary lists an “innovation agenda,” whatever that is. McCain adds the environment. Read them and draw your own conclusions.

Also check out the NSF’s wish list.

And let’s hope that science and technology come out of the shadows and take a prominent role in national initiatives.