Human microbiome transplant

Responses to Josiah Zayner’s attempt to replace his body’s bacteria are almost as interesting as the experiment itself. It seems like most of the medical community believe professional approval of one’s theory and practice is what determines therapeutic success, and not the actual measurement of physical outcomes.

Anyway, as is usual in gut flora replacement therapy, Mr. Zayner has successfully remediated his long standing intestinal problems. Genetic tests show that he is now host to a new, healthier mix of internal bacteria harvested from a friend’s feces. The rest of his homemade treatment was less successful; he was not able to completely eradicate his skin bacteria, nor was he able to prevent re-infection from his surroundings. The article is sort of simultaneously horrifying and illuminating; scientists who self-experiment are strange birds more often than not.

killing wildlife doesn’t make your food safer

In an ill-considered response to a 2006 e. coli outbreak, for years now food sellers have been pressuring food growers to turn the areas surrounding farms into a blasted, sterile wasteland, devoid of any wildlife.

A recently published paper shows that this practice is not beneficial, and has measurably decreased food safety.

Blasted wasteland surrounding a farm

“There is this misguided idea that agricultural fields should be a sanitized, sterilized environment, like a hospital, but nature doesn’t work that way.” — Daniel Karp, postdoctoral research fellow UC Berkeley Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management.

Well, now, about those hospitals, Dr. Karp…

Drink up, Monsanto.

Robert Chesebrough, the chemist who created Vaseline, was challenged to prove the safety of his product. His response was to eat three tablespoons of it, and he later claimed to eat a teaspoon of it every day as a health tonic. He lived to be 96, and white petroleum jelly is still considered safe and non-toxic.

More recently, Wang Chuan-Fu, the CEO of BYD, publicly drank the electrolyte liquid used in the lithium ion battery produced by his company.

But Monsanto doesn’t even want to label their products, and while their shills might say that it’d be safe to drink a quart of glyophosate pesticide, they certainly won’t do so.

Of course, if he’d drunk it, that wouldn’t have proved it was safe. Thomas Midgley publicly drank tetraethyl lead… and then snuck off to Europe for lead poisoning treatment!

Update: Monsanto tells Xeni Jardin:

Dr. Moore is not a Monsanto lobbyist or employee. Knowledgeable scientists, consumers and our farmer customers may be familiar with and confident in the safety of glyphosate, but their statements don’t make them lobbyists for our company. Dr. Patrick Moore is one of those individuals. He agrees with the science that supports the safety of glyphosate, and is an advocate for technology and innovation. But as I mentioned, he is not and never has been a paid lobbyist for or employee at Monsanto.

Dodder interfaces at the mRNA of the host plant

Dodder, the parasitic strangleweed, was already pretty damn interesting. It can find and choose between host plants by smell for one thing. Now I find out it does bidirectional cross-species mRNA transfers.

Messenger RNA (mRNA) is a short-lived carrier mechanism that copies instructions from an organism’s DNA and takes them to a ribosome where those instructions will be used to create and chain together amino acids. Amino acids are basic building blocks of living organisms, so being able to read and write mRNA means being able to direct what gets built – for instance your body could build muscle cells, or blood cells, and in either case your mRNA would provide the patterns for the chemical factory that we call a ribosome.  Dodder can literally hijack the command and control communications that govern a host plant’s growth.

Image by Phil Gates

The scientists who carried out this study were specifically looking for mRNA. They theorize that other sophisticated chemical communications may be going on as well. But this is pretty impressive by itself!

No “right to water” in Detroit

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes on Monday refused to block the city from shutting off water to delinquent customers for six months, saying there is no right to free water and Detroit can’t afford to lose the revenue.

Ever since a bunch of well-meaning idiots who don’t understand basic math or science (otherwise known as the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) declared that clean drinking water is a fundamental human right, activists have been trying to force people and organizations that provide access to safe drinking water to destroy themselves, apparently in the honest belief that inexhaustible supplies of safe water can be magically delivered to every single human being that might ever exist, free of cost, so it can’t matter if we wreck every existing system that actually provides water to people.

All these people have their hearts in the right place, I’m sure, but they have apparently misplaced their brains. The complex interweaving of ecosystems that makes up the terrestrial environment required to support the human race cannot sustain wholesale reallocation of water based on arbitrary human population densities; if a “right to water” actually existed, we’d eventually have to destroy huge swaths of riparian ecosystems in order to keep human desert-dwellers alive. Not to mention the collapse of every existing water allocation system – since they are all based on the idea that human beings will have to fight, work, or inherit wealth in order to obtain water.

The worst thing that could happen to these people (and everybody else) would be for them to succeed, condemning rich and poor alike to a global environmental catastrophe in the name of watering the poor.

2014 IgNobels awarded

Winners were ceremonially announced last night. I haven’t yet watched the awards video, so I do not know if Miss Sweetie-Poo was called into service.

The Medicine Prize was won by Ian Humphreys, Sonal Saraiya, Walter Belenky and James Dworkin, for developing a means of treating uncontrollable nosebleeds that involves packing the patient’s nose with bacon.

Wood of Life

Wikipedia and Google Translate both say that “Lignum vitae” is Latin for “tree of life”. Though no Latin scholar, I disagree; tree of life would be “Arbor vitae”. Lignum vitae is the lumber of life; lignum being the ancient Roman word for a beam or roof timber.

Confusingly, lignum vitae wood does not come from Thuja occidentalis, the arbor vitae tree. Instead it is harvested from small ironwood trees of the genus Guaiacum, which are native to the Caribbean and the northern coast of South America. Lignum vitae has been an important export crop to Europe since the beginning of the 16th century, so much so that it’s now an endangered species. The trees take three to four hundred years to mature, so it’s not particularly amenable to tree farming, especially given the long-term political instability of the regions where it is found.

Lignum vitae’s claim to lasting fame is a remarkable combination of strength, toughness, and density. The wood is so dense it sinks in water, and it’s so tough that it has been used for submerged bearings in hydro turbines in continuous operation for a hundred years. Yes, I said in continuous use as a bearing supporting a heavily loaded rotating shaft for a hundred years. Bearings made of lignum vitae were used for the rudders of great sailing ships, for the propellor shafts of steamships, for the main bearings of water-powered mills, for nearly anything you can imagine including wheelbarrows and snowblowers. Any place that bronze isn’t tough enough and steel is too likely to corrode, you’ll find a use for lignum vitae, and somebody’s probably used it. There’s just no other material like it – which is why the US Navy still uses it for jackshaft bearings in nuclear submarines, and it’s still used in huge modern hydroelectric plants. It’s been used for pulleys in steel mills, for British police batons, for cannon balls, and for gears in wooden clockworks. Only two woods have ever tested harder – South American Quebracho or “axe breaker” wood (Schinopsis spp.) and Australian Bull-Oak (Allocasuarina luehmannii) – neither of which have the workability or durability of lignum vitae.

DENSITY: 80 lbs./cu.ft.
RADIAL MOVEMENT: less than 1%
JANKA HARDNESS: 4,500 lbf (20,000 N)
DURABILITY: Exceptional resistance to moisture, fungi and rot
DESCRIPTION: Reddish brown when freshly cut, with pale yellow sapwood. As it oxidizes, the color turns to a deep green, often with black details. The grain is highly interlocked, making it difficult to work with edge tools, but it machines well and takes a high polish.

But it’s not just these exceptional engineering properties that make lignum vitae marvelous.

The flowers, resin, bark, and wood chips of Guaiacum trees have dozens of medicinal uses, some traditional and unverified, others well-documented in modern medicine. The resin is used for coughs, arthritis, and is a traditional West Indies pick-me-up and reputed aphrodisiac. The modern expectorant guaifenesin, (which is also used by veterinary surgeons as a horse muscle relaxant) is derived from the wood. Cellini cites it as a treatment for syphilis. Teas made from the bark and flowers have spawned more folk medicine than ginseng, and guac cards are still used for fecal blood testing. As a food additive Guaiacum has the E number of E314 and is classified as an antioxidant (insert eye roll here). Oil of guaiac is used as a soap fragrance. The list of uses just goes on indefinitely!

There are a lot of names for the various species of guaiacum. It’s called “caltrop tree” because of the foot puncturing seeds of some varieties, and the Spaniards called it palo santo or “holy wood”. If you live in an area where it can survive, you’ll find it under various names in garden centers, where its sold for its muscled trunks and pretty blue flowers. Because yes, it’s not just amazingly useful, it’s also attractive – Guaiacum Officinale, the common or true guaiacum, is the Jamaican national flower, and Guaiacum sanctum is the national tree of the Bahamas.

E. O. Wilson on group selection

It’s two years old, but Smithsonian has a nice interview with E.O.Wilson in which he speaks briefly about the group selection heresy. (Out-takes from that interview here).

The way I define it, group selection operates on the fitness, or lack thereof, of the social interactions in the group. In other words, it’s not simply group versus group in that sense but what actions individuals take that affect the group. And that would of course be communication, division of labor and the ability to read others’ intentions, which leads to cooperation.

When it’s an advantage to communicate or cooperate, those genes that promote it are going to be favored in that group if the group is competing with other groups. It gives them superiority over other groups and the selection proceeds at the group level, even as it continues to proceed at the individual level.

I usually give a simplified version of group selection – “the largest group of mutual altruists always wins” – but people generally don’t understand my point. Wilson, unsurprisingly, has a cleaner explanation.

Within groups, selfish individuals win and between groups, altruistic groups beat groups of selfish individuals.

Creeping Charlie is Edible

I have truly ridiculous quantities of lesser celandine (pilewort, Ranunculus ficaria) and ground ivy (creeping charlie, Glechoma hederacea) in the yard… but it turns out both of these are edible! You have to cook pilewort, though, or it’s mildly toxic and tastes bitter.

The only sure-fire way to get rid of pilewort (also called fig buttercup) is to grub up the tuberous roots and completely destroy them, so I was pleased to learn you can boil, roast or hot-pickle the tubers. And apparently right now is the time to harvest them, after the flowers have died and the leaves are yellowing off.

Lesser Celandine Stroganoff
Lesser Celandine and Ground Ivy Stew
Lesser Celandine and Lamb Heart Stew
Ground Ivy Horseradish Mayo (I wonder if you can substitute garlic mustard root for the horseradish? We have plenty of that.)

This area has lots of wild garlic (crow garlic, Allium vineale) too. It’s delicious chopped and mixed with ground bison to make a cheeseburger, and the chopped leaves are like strongly flavored chives.

Ever wonder where all that road salt went?

Stroud Water Research Center has the the skinny.

A couple of years ago a salt truck driver decided it was quittin’ time and dumped the end of his load in a two-foot deep dune across Upper Pike Creek Road, where it impeded traffic more than the snow it was supposed to be melting. After a while I went out and shoveled it up into a couple of garbage-bag-lined steel trash cans, and I’ve been using it ever since to melt ice at the local Unitarian Church (don’t want those elderly church ladies to slip, they are the backbone of the nation!).

I’d be happier if the USA gave up on salting and plowing roads entirely, but perhaps our people don’t have enough common sense and imagination to survive winter in the real world any more. Certainly most Americans I meet can’t realistically conceive of a world without road salt or snowplows… a world that we once took for granted.

Joseph Priestley

Joseph Priestly died 210 years ago today on February 6th, 1804. Mostly remembered today as the discoverer of oxygen, Priestley in his own day was a noted scientist, educator, political theorist, natural philosopher, dissenting clergyman and Christian apologist. Thomas Jefferson, who was active in the same fields, credited his own conversion to Unitarianism to Priestley’s 1782 book “History of the Corruptions of Christianity”.

Priestley’s scientific and philosophical career is replete with triumph and tragedy; brilliant discoveries and a stubborn refusal to give up mistaken ideas. He was derided as “the last defender of phlogiston” and burned out of his Birmingham house for denying “the divine right of kings” in the so-called Priestley Riots. Priestley made his inventions available to the public and received no money for any of them; the local Unitarian Universalist Church district is named in his honor.

and the wires came down

Yesterday a big limb fell and landed on the overhead wiring connecting the barn and house. The elderly ceramic strain relief did not fail or pull out.. instead it ripped the corner board right off the house, shingles a-flying. Pictures soon.

The wire then apparently rebounded like a trampoline and fired the limb back into the air, and it ended up down below the deck where you couldn’t see it from the walkway.

So when I came home the wiring was drooping across the deck and caught in the top of the service berries with naily boards dangling from it, and despite a sprinkling of busted cedar shingling and sycamore twigs, no obvious sign of how this happened. I couldn’t figure it out until I found the limb laying below the deck in a smash of daffodils and daylillies.

The power was still on in the barn and the wires seem reasonably intact – no obvious stretching or insulation damage. I need to bury that thing one of these days.

dumpster orchids

I found five large phalenopsis orchids and some other nice plants in a cardboard recycling bin behind the local Monstromart (Ooh, that’s a great price for twelve pounds of nutmeg!).

Apparently somebody in the garden center thought the recycling bin was a trash can. I got about ten different plants all told, but I had to pass up three arbor vitae trees because I didn’t have the trailer with me.

There were several other people dumpster diving & we exchanged polite greetings.