Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Combatting Distracted Driving

Sprint will launch a combination app-and-service later this year designed to combat distracted driving. Called Drive First, the new service will lock the phone’s screen, block text alerts, and redirect incoming calls to voice mail whenever the vehicle is moving. Sprint’s Drive First will allow up to three key phone contacts and three apps, which parents will be able to configure via a Web portal. The Sprint service will cost about $2 a month for each Android phone.

T-mobile announced in January that it will launch a similar service, called DriveSmart. The T-mobile app will block all incoming calls and texts for about $5 a month for all phones on an account.

Both of these services will have their limitations – they won’t be able to distinguish whether the user is a driver or a passenger, for example. Ultimately it will still be up to the phone user to act responsibly. Nevertheless, it’s good to see the phone companies taking distracted driving seriously.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Pandemic Preparedness

The nations of the world are not well prepared for a truly serious pandemic, according to a draft report by a committee of independent experts who studied the World Health Organization (WHO)’s response to the swine flu pandemic of 2009. Fortunately, swine flu turned out to be rather mild, but we may not be so lucky the next time around.

The report found that the production of vaccine took too long to have been of much help if the outbreak had turned out to be really severe. Not surprisingly, rich countries tended to get the vaccine first. Later, when it became apparent that rich countries had stockpiled more vaccine than they would need, millions of doses were donated to poor countries, but they went unused because of liability concerns by vaccine-makers. Some countries panicked, closing their borders to travel or needlessly restricting trade in certain items (such as pork). And the World Health Organization produced too many documents and not enough clear communication and guidance, according to the report.

The report will be discussed at a meeting of the committee this week.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Living with Invasive Species

What should be done when non-native species introduced into an ecosystem begin to outcompete native species? Should such invasive species, as they are called, be eradicated before they do serious damage to an ecosystem and lead to a loss of biodiversity? The traditional answer is yes, according to many conservationists. But the sad fact is that that most invasive species eradication efforts haven’t been very effective.

More recently, some conservationists are beginning to rethink the problem of invasive species. Perhaps invasive species should be viewed as a more normal part of the constant change that has been shaping our world since life began. Containment rather than eradication seems to be the new buzzword. Ecologists who study the effect of invasive species on ecosystems say that over time, native species begin to compete more effectively against invasive species. It may take decades or even centuries, but eventually a new ecosystem balance is likely to be achieved, with or without human intervention.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Simeons Therapy Diet Fad

The New York Times published an article this week on the latest diet fad; a daily food intake of just 500 calories a day combined with daily injections of human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG). It’s known as the Simeons therapy, and it’s been around since 1964.

Frankly, the New York Times article stirs up an old “controversy” that shouldn’t still exist. Anyone who can stick to a 500 calorie-per-day diet will lose weight. Weight loss accomplished on the Simeons therapy diet has nothing to do with the added hCG, according to a well-documented review written in 1995.

The FDA has warned that non-injectable “homeopathic” forms of hCG available over the counter cannot be labelled as having have weight-loss properties. But there’s a long-standing tradition of allowing physicians to decide what is best for each patient (in consultation with the patient, of course). Therefore, physicians can legally prescribe injectable hCG as part of a diet plan if they wish, whether or not it works. And of course, they are free to charge whatever they like for the consultation/evaluation prior to writing the prescription.

Acquaint yourself with the facts, and then don’t waste your money on this diet.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Redefining Evolutionary Relationships

The evolutionary tree of life may undergo a makeover in the next decade or so.

In the past, the primary sources of information about the evolutionary relationships between organisms came from the fossil record or from comparative anatomy, physiology, or biochemistry. But now a new scientific field called phylogenomics (the study of the evolutionary history of organisms based on genetics) has emerged, thanks to the increased availability and cheap cost of sequencing DNA.

How does comparative DNA sequence data tell us anything? By tracing specific differences in the nucleotide sequences of the genes of closely related species, phylogeneticists can tell just how closely related two species are and when they most likely split from a common ancestor. That’s because when a mutation (a change in nucleotide sequence) occurs by random chance in a common ancestor, that mutation should still be present in all subsequent descendants of that ancestor. So when exactly the same mutation appears in the same gene in two species, the mutation most likely occurred before the two species split from a common ancestor – i.e. the two species are related to each other by a common ancestor.

The DNA sequences of a wide variety of species are now known, and more are being determined every day. We can expect challenges to the current tree of life (also called the phylogenetic tree) as the data are analyzed and debated.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Sixth Mass Extinction

Over about 3.5 billion years, evolution (descent of species over time, with genetic modification) has produced the astonishing variety and number of life forms found on Earth today. Punctuating this natural evolutionary process of speciation have been five mass extinctions – periods characterized by the rapid (compared to evolutionary processes) loss of over 75% of all species. Past causes of mass extinctions include major changes in ocean and atmospheric chemistry, changes in climate, periods of volcanic activity, and an impact with an asteroid.

According to a recent review article in Nature, we may be about to enter a sixth mass extinction, meaning that over the next 300 to several thousand years we can expect that over 75% of all current species will become extinct. Somewhat disturbing is the suggested cause – humans. Won’t THAT be an interesting and contentious debate over the next 300 years or so!

This is a well-referenced review in a high-quality journal. It’s worth reading if you’re interested in this subject. The notion that the next mass extinction may be caused by humans is only a small part of it.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Repairing Damaged Heart Muscle

After a heart attack, the best one can generally hope for is that the area of damage becomes scar tissue that is sufficiently strong to withstand the high blood pressures generated in the heart. That’s because in adult mammals, cardiac muscle does not rebuild or repair itself after an injury. And yet, adult frogs, newts, and some fish still do have the ability to rebuild functional heart tissue after injury – what’s the difference?

One hypothesis is that the general ability of heart muscle to regenerate in essentially all embryos is switched off shortly after birth in higher mammals. In support of this hypothesis, researchers have now shown that mouse hearts do undergo structural and functional regeneration, but only if the damage occurs within the first week after birth. These findings raise the possibility that if we could understand the process of heart muscle regeneration in a newborn mouse, we might be able to induce the process again in adult mammals if necessary. Ultimately this could lead to new approaches for the treatment of victims of heart attacks.