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Heart Healthy Fats Also Brain Healthy May 21, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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If living longer isn’t enough to get you to put down the steak and start with the olive oil then how about becoming smarter?

The research team analyzed data from the Women’s Health Study — originally a cohort of nearly 40,000 women, 45 years and older. The researchers focused on data from a subset of 6,000 women, all over the age of 65. The women participated in three cognitive function tests, which were spaced out every two years for an average testing span of four years. These women filled out very detailed food frequency surveys at the start of the Women’s Health Study, prior to the cognitive testing.

“When looking at changes in cognitive function, what we found is that the total amount of fat intake did not really matter, but the type of fat did,” explained Olivia Okereke, MD, MS, BWH Department of Psychiatry.

Women who consumed the highest amounts of saturated fat, which can come from animal fats such as red meat and butter, compared to those who consumed the lowest amounts, had worse overall cognition and memory over the four years of testing. Women who ate the most of the monounsaturated fats, which can be found in olive oil, had better patterns of cognitive scores over time.

You are what you eat.  What are you made of?

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First Gene Therapy To Extend Life In Adult Organisms May 15, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Longevity.
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Pretty cool news out of Spain today where researchers have announced that for the first time they have successfully extended the life span of adult mice using gene therapy.

Mice treated at the age of one lived longer by 24% on average, and those treated at the age of two, by 13%. The therapy, furthermore, produced an appreciable improvement in the animals’ health, delaying the onset of age-­‐related diseases — like osteoporosis and insulin resistance — and achieving improved readings on aging indicators like neuromuscular coordination.

The gene therapy consisted of treating the animals with a DNA-­modified virus, the viral genes having been replaced by those of the telomerase enzyme, with a key role in aging. Telomerase repairs the extreme ends or tips of chromosomes, known as telomeres, and in doing so slows the cell’s and therefore the body’s biological clock. When the animal is infected, the virus acts as a vehicle depositing the telomerase gene in the cells.

There are a few interesting elements of this study.  First is the obvious excitement (to those of us already alive) of an anti-aging therapy being successfully implemented on adult organisms.  As mentioned elsewhere in the article gene therapy in the past has only been successfully applied to embyonic stages, something which is great news for all our future children but not so encouraging for those who already live with the specter of aging, decrepitude and death.  Second is the interesting fact that the benefits of the treatment seem to be age dependent since older mice did not derive as high a benefit as mice which were treated at a younger age.  This is could possibly mean that the age-related damage accumulated by older mice was to great to be overcome by the treatment or, more likely, that there are other metabolic pathways that play a role in the aging process and which may even become more important as an organisms ages.

What’s most interesting to me though, and the big worry I had about this study until the article allayed my fears, is what the researchers didn’t find: cancer.  The dirty little secret of longer or longer lasting telomeres is that they can be both a curse and a blessing.  While they are indeed correlated with increased longevity and lower rates of age related decline they are also known to be associated with cancerous growths and tumors (considering that cancer is literally out of control cell growth this isn’t that surprising).   People with naturally longer telomeres seem to retain more youthful cells (and therefore a more youthful appearance)  but are also at an increased risk of melanoma.  A telomere treatment that can extend human life span and reduce age-related morbidity without increasing cancer risk would be a holy grail for anti-aging research.

Artificial DNA Created April 20, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Beyond Earth, Genetics.
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In what appears to be a first scientists have created the first synthetic genetic material that can store information and evolve in a similar way to DNA.

Researchers at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, in Cambridge, developed chemical procedures to turn DNA and RNA, the molecular blueprints for all known life, into six alternative genetic polymers called XNAs.

The process swaps the deoxyribose and ribose (the “d” and “r” in DNA and RNA) for other molecules. It was found the XNAs could form a double helix with DNA and were more stable than natural genetic material.

Cool news by anyone’s standard.

I will however take issue with one things stated by the authors.

“There is nothing Goldilocks about DNA and RNA,” Holliger told Science. “There is no overwhelming functional imperative for genetic systems or biology to be based on these two nucleic acids.”

That is overstepping bounds to me.   While this has certainly proved the possibility of other molecules forming the basis of genetic material it says nothing about the probability of said molecules actually forming on their own.  As of right now the only truly concrete thing we can say is that despite a very long time to try out different options the only type of genetic material to evolve are DNA and RNA.  Their prevalence, and the lack of any competitors, are the only evidence we have for how successful different types of genetic material are.  DNA may no longer be the only possible configuration but it still may be the most likely one and therefore the most likely basis for life on other worlds.    Far more work needs to be done in order to knock DNA off it’s pedestal.

New Solar System With More Planets Than Sol April 9, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Beyond Earth.
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I always like hearing news like this.

An astronomer at the University of Hertfordshire has discovered the presence of multiple new planets surrounding the star HD 10180 — enough to give it the crown as the only solar system discovered to date with more planets than ours.

In total, researchers have found nine planets, one more than our Solar System’s eight. None of the planets in the 127 light-year away solar system appear to be capable of sustaining life — most are so close to the sun that their scorched surfaces can’t even sustain solid metals.

A little more than a decade ago I was having a “friendly discussion” with a particularly devout Christian high school classmate of mine.  We were debating evolution and I was making the argument that given the sheer vastness of the universe their must be other forms of life out there.  His retort was “Then where are all the alien planets?”  How much can change in a decade. Unfortunately while new planets seem to be popping up every week life remains stubbornly elusive.

Incidentally, you may now begin the countdown to the inevitable whining chorus of “But what about Pluto!?!”

1000 Genomes To Be Sequenced By End Of Year April 4, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Genetics.
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Ambitious?  Yes.  Plausible?  Absolutely.

The 1000 Genomes Project, as its name suggests, is a joint public-private effort to sequence 1000 genomes. Begun in 2008, the Project’s main goal is to create an “extensive catalog of human genetic variation that will support future medical research studies.” The 1000 Genomes Consortium is headed by the NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute which in turn is collaborating with research groups in the US, UK, China and Germany.

That might not sound like much. Thanks in large part to companies like Silicon Valley start up Complete Genomics perhaps as many as 30,000 complete genomes around the world have already been sequenced. But what is unique about the 1000 Genomes Project is that their genomes will be made available to the public for free, and stored in a place where the world can access the data easily and interact with it.

I’ve been critical in the past of Kurzweil applying his law of accelerating returns to non-computer science fields but when he sticks to what he knows he’s usually pretty accurate and genome sequencing is probably the best current example of that.  Prices have been plummeting and power has been increasing pretty much just as he predicted and the explosion of companies like 23&Me is testament to that.  I look forward to hearing about this project in the future.

Billions Of Life Bearing Planets? March 30, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Beyond Earth.
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Could the universe be saturated with life?  Is our galaxy filled with literally billions of worlds harboring that most precious of gifts, that strange and wonderful collection of matter and processes we call life?  According to a new study by astronomers that may very well be the case.

A new result from ESO’s HARPS planet finder shows that rocky planets not much bigger than Earth are very common in the habitable zones around faint red stars. The international team estimates that there are tens of billions of such planets in the Milky Way galaxy alone, and probably about one hundred in the Sun’s immediate neighbourhood. This is the first direct measurement of the frequency of super-Earths around red dwarfs, which account for 80% of the stars in the Milky Way.

“Our new observations with HARPS mean that about 40% of all red dwarf stars have a super-Earth orbiting in the habitable zone where liquid water can exist on the surface of the planet,” says Xavier Bonfils (IPAG, Observatoire des Sciences de l’Univers de Grenoble, France), the leader of the team. “Because red dwarfs are so common — there are about 160 billion of them in the Milky Way — this leads us to the astonishing result that there are tens of billions of these planets in our galaxy alone.”

While this doesn’t prove anything conclusively it’s still very interesting for a few reasons.  One, the novel approach of looking in a historically undervalued area (Red dwarf stars).  Considering the sheer number of them that we apparently knew were out there it’s somewhat surprising it took someone this long to actually estimate the number of planets around them.  Second is how conditions around Red Dwarfs differ from those we are used to around stars like are own.  According to the researchers in addition to the obvious difference of being smaller and dimmer (thus allowing the Goldilocks zone to be closer to the planet) Red Dwarfs appear to lack large Jupiter sized worlds and are subject to stellar eruptions.  Jupiter worlds may be important for protecting smaller rocky planets from life-destroying comets and meteors while solar flares are known to release potentially deadly radiation.  Both of these factors could make the researcher’s estimates of life too generous.

But whatever.  Putting practical considerations aside if true this is amazing news.  The idea of a universe filled with life, variegated in all the forms evolution can dream up but connected by virtue of our shared status as reflections of Life itself, is the kind of idea that got me into the sciences in the first place.  The kind of idea that fills me with a wonder and amazement at the unfathomable beauty of the cosmos.  Sorry for waxing poetic there for a moment.  I hope you’ll forgive a young man his optimism and bright-eyed enthusiasm.

P.S. Nobody mention the Fermi Paradox.  I’m in too good a mood to worry about the Fermi Paradox.

Stephen Colbert Loves NASA February 12, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Beyond Earth.
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I love Stephen Colbert and now I love him even more.

Increasing Intelligence Makes You More Open To New Experiences January 25, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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Interesting news from the world of psychology.  Researchers measuring the effects of cognitive training on seniors found that not only did their mental abilities improve, their personalities also changed.

A program designed to boost cognition in older adults also increased their openness to new experiences, researchers report, demonstrating for the first time that a non-drug intervention in older adults can change a personality trait once thought to be fixed throughout the lifespan.

Personality psychologists describe openness as one of five major personality traits. Studies suggest that the other four traits (agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and extraversion) operate independently of a person’s cognitive abilities. But openness — being flexible and creative, embracing new ideas and taking on challenging intellectual or cultural pursuits — does appear to be correlated with cognitive abilities.

Unexpected to say the least.  Reading this I can’t help but remember the much publicized study which claimed to show liberals are on average more intelligent than conservatives (before anyone jumps down my throat I am well aware that study had serious problems.)  Other studies which have measured personality traits between political affiliations have noted that self-described liberals tend to be more open to new experiences.  I doesn’t take a rocket scientist to put two and two together there.

Regardless, the idea that increasing intelligence results in greater openness, and one wonders what other personality changes, has obvious implications to transhumanism.  Will a population of smarter humans also be a more tolerant population?  As we get smarter will we get more moral?

Exercise Provides Benefits By Cleaning Up Metabolic Junk January 22, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Longevity.
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Longevity research is a personal interest of mine (I use the word interest in the intellectual sense, rather than to imply I work on longevity).  As such I am always happy to see advances make their way into the news.  While the philosophical debates over whether extending human lifespan is desirable will continue regardless of what advances are made on the engineering front the best thing advocates can do to sway public opinion in our favor is to show first and foremost that it is feasible.

Exercise has long been known to promote health and longevity but up until fairly recently we haven’t had a very good idea why it does.  Oh sure, we’ve known that it reduces rates of chronic diseases like heart disease, stroke and diabetes and that people who exercise are more likely to live longer, healthier lives but the actual mechanisms still to a large degree elude us.  That seems to be changing though and a group of scientists at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute have taken another step forward.

What they’ve found is that exercise triggers a recycling system within our cells, a process known as autophagy:

Autophagy is like a “cellular garbage disposal,” says Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator Beth Levine, a physician at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas who has been studying the process for more than a decade. The process works like this: First, a double membrane forms around the unwanted cargo inside the cell, enveloping it. This membrane then fuses with an organelle called a lysosome, which contains enzymes that rush in and break down the contents. The bits and pieces created by this process get recycled, providing raw materials for new structures or a burst of energy.

Autophagy keeps cells healthy by “getting rid of all of the obsolete and abnormal structures,” Levine explains. It also helps cells survive lean times. By cannibalizing unwanted proteins and other junk, the cells can get nutrients.

In the study mice which had been engineered to not increase autophagy rates due to exercise or starvation.  When compared to normal mice they exhibited lower physical performance and none of the accrued benefits of exercise.

The buildup of cellular junk is one of the mechanisms for aging outlined by Aubrey de Grey in his SENS approach so if nothing else it’s nice to see some vindication for him.  Similar research on fasting and drugs like rapamycin have also shown the importance autophagy plays in keeping our cells, and by extension the rest of us, healthy.  One study even showed that increased autophagy actually increases total life span compared to normal, though the effect is currently fairly small.  The holy grail of course would be a drug or treatment that mimics and improves upon the the effects exercise has on this process, something like the above mentioned rapamycin may be the starting point for.

Scientists Confirm (Again) That The Earth Is Warming October 22, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology.
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Well hello there boys and girls.  Looks like I’ve been away for quite a while.  A combination of classes and preparing to defend my thesis has for the most part occupied all of my time.  That being said, if anything can kick me out of my funk and get me back on here it’s news like this.

Global warming is real, according to a major study released Oct. 20. Despite issues raised by climate change skeptics, the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature study finds reliable evidence of a rise in the average world land temperature of approximately 1°C since the mid-1950s.

On the basis of its analysis, according to Berkeley Earth’s founder and scientific director, Professor Richard A. Muller, the group concluded that earlier studies based on more limited data by teams in the United States and Britain had accurately estimated the extent of land surface warming.

“Our biggest surprise was that the new results agreed so closely with the warming values published previously by other teams in the U.S. and the U.K.,” Muller said. “This confirms that these studies were done carefully and that potential biases identified by climate change skeptics did not seriously affect their conclusions.”

Now at first glance this isn’t really big news.  Yes it is yet another study that that anthropogenic climate change is happening and yes it confirms that the previous studies that deniers (I refuse to sully the noble word skeptic by applying it to them) have attacked ad nauseum.  No, what’s really interesting is where and who this study coming from.

Robert Muller, the lead scientist on the team, is a well known denier who has not only attacked the quality of previous studies but also the character of the scientist performing them.  To have someone like that come out and essentially say “My bad” is a big thing.

But the best part is who was funding the study.  Are you ready for this?  THE KOCH BROTHERS!  That is right.  Part of the funding for this research came directly from the billionaire Koch brothers, infamous for their support of the tea party movement and for deniers of climate change.  Bet that’s the last time we’ll see them hiring independent scientists to confirm their baseless conspiracy theories.