Thursday, April 22, 2010

STEM Sell - 04/21/10

Another Wednesday, another edition of "STEM Sell". We were finally able to break the vicious stranglehold of JMU faculty on the coveted guest position. We interviewed Dr. Rajeev Vaidyanathan (pronounced "Vyed-ye-NA-than"), a researcher at SRI's branch in the Shenandoah Valley, the Center for Advanced Drug REsearch (CADRE). Rajeev is investigating insect-borne viruses, particularly the diseases dengue fever and leishmaniasis. These diseases are not so well-known as many other diseases, but dengue fever, prevalent in many more tropical areas of the world, is starting to make inroads in the southern U.S. Leishmaniasis is being reported in increasing numbers among U.S. soldiers deployed to the Middle East. The biochemical interactions between the virus and insect and human host are exceedingly complex and it's a fascinating challenge to unravel this Gordian Knot.

As usual, Brian and I engaged in witty repartee--at least, that's how I like to remember it--as we reported on some STEM-related tidbits in the news (a recording of the show is available at the STEM Sell website):
  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is on the cusp of a first-ever-in-the-U.S. vaccine for cancer. This vaccine is specifically for prostate cancer. The whole process of performing trial treatments and analyzing the results and performing new trials has lasted many years. The company seeking the FDA's approval started the trials in the early 90's. Therefore, the technology behind it, although sounding rather sophisticated as it involves tailoring the vaccine to individual patients, is actually 15-20 years old and there are more up to date treatments being studied.
  • The eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajoekull (pronounced "Oh-WAH-de-LU-na-yam", say it loudly and quickly for best effect) has precedents in the recent past, according to the historical record. And among those eruptions, there was often a second, larger eruption in the nearby volcano Katla with the most recent pair of eruptions occurring between 1821 and 1823. Naturally, scientists are keeping close tabs on Katla.
  • Researchers at the University of New Mexico have performed painstaking analyses of the genomes of 1983 people taken from all around the world and come to an unexpected obstacle. Assuming the rate of genetic mutation has remained more or less constant, comparing the genomes of the different populations with what is known about human migration patterns over the last 100,000 years, there appeared to be two distinct events of genetic disturbances that required another explanation. The researchers hypothesized that Homo sapiens populations interbred with Homo neanderthalis populations on two different occasions in two different locations to create these changes. The first hypothetical interbreeding took place about 60,000 years ago in the region of the eastern Mediterranean and the second 45,000 years ago in eastern Asia. Bolstering their hypothesis is that the genomes of people from Africa show no such disturbances.
  • Current wisdom among paleontologists is that Homo erectus populations may have existed as recently as 30,000 years ago. However, there is now some controversy over the radioisotope dating of the rock layers on the island of Java in which the H. erectus fossils are found, indicating that they may have been buried about 550,000 years ago. Scientists will undoubtedly be wrangling over these results for the foreseeable future.
  • One of the tools used in the relief efforts following the recent major earthquakes in Haiti, Chile and China are high-altitude overhead flights with high-resolution optical cameras able to identify objects as small as 1 foot across. These cameras survey the affected area and, using computer analysis, are able to distinguish between structures that have collapsed and structures that have not collapsed. These observations allow rescue workers to quickly identify locations where survivors might be trapped.
  • NEPTUNE-Canada is an oceanographic project in which cameras and sensors of all sorts have been placed in different locations in the vicinity of the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate. The cameras and sensors offer free, real-time feeds on the internet for anybody to observe.
  • Physicists working for the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colorado have set a new record for the smallest measurable force, lowering the bar to 174 yN (that prefix "y" is a metric prefix meaning "x 10^-24"). They did this by putting together 60 beryllium-9 ions into a flat plane and shining a laser beam on it and determining where the reflection went. After disturbing the plane of ions ever so slightly, they measured the change in the orientation of the beam's reflection to determine the force. To achieve this, they had to lower the temperature of the ions to an astonishingly low 0.5 mK to minimize thermal disturbances. While there are no applications of this technology on the table, researchers suggest that this technique may some day be used to measure tiny quantum-level fluctuations and maybe even the effects of quantum gravity.
  • Many extrasolar planets in young solar systems exhibit retrograde orbital motion, orbiting their primary star in directions backwards relative to the rotations of both the star itself and the cloud of dust and gas surrounding them. Some other planets have planes of orbital inclination at a relatively large angle of 20 degrees. Gravitational perturbations from a second, large body are naturally assumed to be the culprit. The Kozai Mechanism is one possible explanation of this phenomenon.
  • We here at "STEM Sell" suggest another candidate for the Ig Nobel Prize--researchers at the Zoological Institute and Museum of the University of Hamburg have discovered that males of a particular common species of European orb-web spider can more successfully mate with their own sisters than with unrelated females. Here, "successfully" means "does not get eaten afterwards".

And so we let the tale of arachnid incest bring this week's entry to a close along with our traditional admonition, "You have a brain, don't be afraid to use it."