Tag Archives: NPR

Microbiology Science Quickies: Coral Herpes, Dangerous Grilling, & Bacterial Communications

2 Apr

Ahhhh! So much science and health stuff to share! My poor web browser is drowning again!

You may have heard that the world’s coral reefs are collapsing, and while there are many theories, we have yet to fully explain why. It’s often assumed that climate change and pollution are the main culprits, and there is probably truth to that.
But now scientists are examining another culprit: a virus.
Particularly, a herpes virus.
From microbiologist Rebecca Vega-Thurber: “We were shocked to find that so many coral viruses were in the herpes family. But corals are one of the oldest animal life forms, evolving around 500 million years ago, and herpes is a very old family of viruses that can infect almost every kind of animal. Herpes and corals may have evolved together.”


That being said, I do not recommend you try to pick up chicks by telling them your penis can vanquish marine ecosystems.

As the days get longer and summer approaches, many people are firing up their grills to participate in the American tradition of consuming charred meat. However, grilling is not without it’s health risks. Along with E.coli and carcinogen formation, the traditional wire grill brush may also make you sick, NPR reports. SOme good news though: the use of antioxidant spices may reduce the negative effects of those delicious fatty meats, especially rosemary.  Additionally, proper grilling technique will typically kill the deadly E.coli o157:H7 strain.

Bacteria are pretty interesting critters that can not only talk to each other, they play prisoner’s dilemma to decide their fate.
“When faced with life-or-death situations, bacteria use an extremely sophisticated version of “game theory” to consider their options and decide upon the best course of action.” Of all the microbiology-related articles I’ve read lately, this is one of the most interesting.

According to Yale University, just the mere presence of a person in the room can cause bacterial levels to spike. When a person enters the room, they stir up bacteria. Says the article: “Many previous studies have surveyed the variety of germs present in everyday spaces. But this is the first study that quantifies how much a lone human presence affects the level of indoor biological aerosols.”

In biochemical news, researchers have captured the first images of vitamin B12 in action. In 3D, no less! Scientists from the University of Michigan Health System and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology report they have created the first full 3-D images of B12 and its partner molecules twisting and contorting as part of a crucial reaction called “methyltransfer.” This reaction is vital both human cells and in bacteria that consume carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. Such bacteria live in the guts of humans, cows, and other animals, and aid with digestion.

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German Health Care

31 Mar

Mention European health care to an American, and it probably conjures up a negative stereotype — high taxes, long waiting lines, rationed care.

It’s not that way in Germany. Very little tax money goes into the system. The lion’s share comes, as in America, from premiums paid by workers and employers to insurance companies.

German health benefits are very generous. And there’s usually little or no wait to get elective surgery or diagnostic tests, such as MRIs. It’s one of the world’s best health care systems, visible in little ways that most Germans take for granted.


Checking In With An Old Friend
Juergen in der Schmitten was a medical student when I first met him 17 years ago. Now, he’s a 42-year-old general practitioner in a suburb of Dusseldorf.

On one particular night, Juergen was the doctor on call for the region. Any German who needs after-hours care can call a central number and get connected to a doctor.

Around 11 p.m., a woman with a fever called Juergen. She wanted him to make a house call. They talked for maybe five minutes, in the end agreeing that she would come into his office in the morning.

A situation like this would be unlikely in the United States. Americans might not get through to a doctor at all, let alone have a discussion about whether the physician should make a house call in the middle of the night to treat a case of flu.


The Patients’ Perspective
Sabina and Jan Casagrandes say they’ve had really good care from the German health system. And they’ve used it a lot.

Sabina is American, Jan is German. They live in a fourth-floor walkup with their two little girls in Cologne, an ancient city on the Rhine in western Germany.

“I’ve probably been very expensive for the health insurance system here,” Sabina says. “When I was 33 years old, I had a giant lump on my neck all of a sudden, where your thyroid is. And it was a big tumor.”

It took two operations to remove her cancer. Luckily it was curable with surgery and radiation. Sabina says she had the best care she could imagine.

“Then I came home to my little daughter, who I couldn’t really lift up because of my neck having been cut open,” Sabina says. “So I asked my doctor, ‘What can I do?’ And she said, ‘Well, your health insurance will pay for someone to come help you in the house.'”

Sabina’s health insurer paid a friend to shop, cook and even help care for the baby until Sabina was back on her feet. That’s not unusual in Germany. In fact, under the country’s system for long-term care, family members can choose to be paid for taking care of a frail elder at home if they want to avoid nursing home care.


Coverage For All
The health care system that took such good care of Sabina is not funded by government taxes. But it is compulsory. All German workers pay about 8 percent of their gross income to a nonprofit insurance company called a sickness fund. Their employers pay about the same amount. Workers can choose among 240 sickness funds.

Basing premiums on a percentage-of-salary means that the less people make, the less they have to pay. The more money they make, the more they pay. This principle is at the heart of the system. Germans call it “solidarity.” The idea is that everybody’s in it together, and nobody should be without health insurance.

“If I don’t make a lot of money, I don’t have to pay a lot of money for health insurance,” Sabina says. “But I have the same access to health care that someone who makes more money has.”

But she acknowledges that nearly 8 percent of her salary is a sizable bite.

“Yes, it’s expensive. You know, it’s a big chunk of your monthly income,” Sabina says. “But considering what you can get for it, it’s worth it.”

Actually, it’s about the same proportion of income that American workers pay, on average, if they get their health insurance through their job. The big difference is that U.S. employers pay far more, on average, than German employers do — 18 percent of each employee’s gross income versus around 8 percent in Germany.
More Added Benefits In Germany
Moreover, German health insurance has more generous benefits than U.S. policies cover. There are never any deductibles, for instance, before coverage kicks in. And all Germans get the same coverage.

For instance, the Casagrandes’ insurance covers an expensive medicine Jan needs for a chronic intestinal problem. He says if they moved to America, they might not be able to buy insurance at all because of their pre-existing conditions — a nonproblem in Germany.

“He says for himself — or for us — the health care system in the United States is the major reason why we have never moved there, and never will move there. Because both of us have chronic illnesses that have to have a lot of medical attention, and we would go broke,” Sabina says, translating for Jan.

Jan adds something else. “It’s also the No. 1 reason in the United States that people personally go bankrupt,” Sabina translates, “which would never happen here … never!”


Coverage For The Family
On the other side of Germany, in Berlin, we meet another couple who know both the American and German health systems.

Nicole and Chris Ertl own Tip Toe Shoes, a children’s shoe shop in a well-off area of the German capital. The Ertls sell high-quality European shoes — tiny Italian sandals, French and Danish boots and clogs in wonderful colors.

Chris is from San Diego, Nicole is German. She also works part time as a physician therapist and gets her health care through her job like the great majority of Germans. Like the Casagrandes, she’s happy with her coverage.

“It’s a good deal!” she says. “It’s really good because it’s a package.”

It’s a package many Americans might envy. Nicole pays a premium of $270 a month for insurance that covers her children, too. Nicole pays a single $15 copayment once every three months to see her primary-care doctor — and another $15 a quarter to see each specialist, as often as she wants. She pays no copayments for her children’s care —-and her insurance even covers her daughter’s orthodontia bill.

“They always have good care,” Nicole says, “because for kids, everything is free. The drugs, it’s always free” until they turn 18.

 

Different Rules For The Self-Employed
But even though her insurance covers the kids, it doesn’t cover her husband. Because Chris Ertl is self-employed, he has to buy insurance on his own, from a for-profit insurance company.

About one in 10 Germans buy this so-called “private” coverage. It’s not just for people who are self-employed. Civil servants and anyone who makes more than $72,000 a year can opt out of the main system. It’s a kind of safety valve for people who want more and can pay for it.

But most people don’t opt out. Chris says that’s because there’s a fundamental difference in the way Germans view health care and the government’s role — which, in Germany, means refereeing the system and making sure it’s fair and affordable.

“The general opinion in Germany is always that the government will do it for us, everything will be OK,” Chris says. “In the States, I think you grow up knowing that no one’s going to help you do anything. If you want health care, go get it.”

It’s important to remember that the German government doesn’t provide health care or finance it directly. It does regulate insurance companies closely — the nonprofits in the main system and the for-profits where Chris gets his coverage. So Chris’ insurer can’t raise his rates if he gets sick or jack up his premiums too much as he gets older. The government also requires insurers to keep costs down so things don’t get too expensive.

“Where am I better off medically?” Chris says. “I would probably say Germany.”

In some ways, Chis Ertl’s coverage is better than his wife’s. He gets his choice of top doctors — the chief of medicine, if he wants. If he goes into the hospital, he gets a private room. When he goes to the doctor, he gets a free cup of coffee and goes to the head of the line. All this embarrasses him — and annoys Nicole.

“When he goes to the doctor, he has a lot more service,” she complains.

Germans really hate any hint of unfairness in health care. The fundamental idea is that everybody must be covered and, preferably, everybody should get equal treatment. So the fact that 10 percent or so can buy some perks is an irritant — something Germans complain about but manage to put up with.

But it’s unthinkable that 48 million people wouldn’t have health insurance at all — the situation in America. As an American, Chris thinks that’s shameful. “It’s terrible,” he says. “It’s unbelievable. It shouldn’t happen.”

Germans, he says, would never tolerate that. And their system has been working pretty well for 125 years.

Radio piece produced by Jane Greenhalgh.

Meryl Streep Is A Mimic Octopus

27 Mar

The mimic octopus, Thaumoctopus mimicus, can imitate 15 aquatic animals (that we know of), including sea snakes, lion fish, flatfish, giant crabs, stingrays, and jellyfish. It can even do giant seashells, because why should it limit itself to just animals?
There are mimics that it can do that we haven’t figured out what it’s trying to mimic. Robert Krulwich of NPR wonders if maybe it’s unknown mimics are a product of its imagination.

Octopi are so intelligent, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they possess imagination. I love how Mr. Krulwich describes this creature as the Meryl Streep of the ocean.

I bet if the mimic octopus saw a picture of Meryl, it would instantly try to transform into her.

…Or what if Meryl Streep is a mimic octopus in disguise?!
The hair in this photo does look suspiciously like octopus arms. It would also explain her ability to morph into any role with apparent ease. It would make sense that the greatest living film actress is an octopus.
No human could be that awesome.

I’m on to you, Meryl!

Science Quickies: Mega-Greenhouse, New Cousins, Musical Pi, Super Flu Findings

22 Mar

I’ve been meaning to post these for days now, but life was busy, and I am tired of having dozens of tabs open at once.

NPR talks about a new shift in gender roles as more and more women are out-earning their male counterparts and companions.

A musical interpretation of Pi which is pretty awesome.

An article from late last year detailing how there is evidence of a great lake on Europa, and the possibilities of life there.

Human fossils were found in China that are unlike any others seen. Say hi to a new species, our long lost cousin! The skull was unearthed in 1979, but hasn’t been fully analyzed until now, because sometimes science is annoyingly slow. They have been dubbed the Red Deer Cave People.

You may have heard about the controversy surrounding the debate on whether or not scientists should fully release their findings regarding a mutated “super virus,” created from the bird flu virus. If not, this brief sound bite sums it up nicely.

In environmental and energy news, a vertical greenhouse could make the Swedish city of Linköping self-sufficient. It’s set to open late next year, and hopefully will be a model for other cities.

Doctors Without Borders have released a brief clip explaining how they are tracking sleeping sickness across Africa.

Drunken Fruit Flies

18 Mar

The Internet has been abuzz the past few days with news of fruit flies turning to booze when denied sex. Here’s a delightful piece posted on NPR a few days ago covering the subject. It should be noted that fruit flies are insanely awesome and one of the most commonly used specimens in scientific research, especially genetic research.

When Fruit Flies Strike Out, They Like To Booze It Up


By Scott Hensley of NPR

Have pity on these poor fruit flies.

Researchers made a bunch of male fruit flies into boozehounds by pushing them on females unreceptive to their advances.

After a few days of striking out, the male losers, referred to as the “rejected-isolated” group in a study published online by Science, drowned their sorrows in alcohol.

They preferred food spiked with ethanol to their regular meal, and they were more likely to go for the alcohol than the males who’d had sex.

It’s a sad experiment. And one that many of us have been subjected to in real life.

But this work conducted at the University of California, San Francisco, revealed more than that an age-old melodrama could be played out by fruit flies. The researchers showed that a chemical called neuropeptide F in the flies’ brains played a key role in determining their behavior.

The less neuropeptide F was present in their little fly brains, the more likely they were to seek a drink. Being denied sex lowered neuropeptide F and increased their self-medication.

But there’s a solution, and the researchers write dryly about it:

[T]he effects of sexual deprivation can be reversed by copulation, which is consistent with sexual deprivation being the major contributor to ethanol preference.

So having sex boosted neuropeptide F, decreasing the flies’ interest in alcohol.

Very interesting for flies, you might say. So what?

Well, it turns we humans aren’t sooooo different.

Humans’ brains have got the same sort of chemical, called neuropeptide Y in our case, and it also looks like an important ingredient when it comes to our internal reward systems.

In humans, neuropeptide Y may be important in regulating stress and anxiety. When the chemical is out of whack, it may contribute to addictive behavior.

The experiments in flies show how social experiences may shape chemical dependence through changes in the level of neuropeptides.

Don’t expect a drug or treatment for people based on neuropeptides anytime soon. It’s not easy to get a molecule like that inside someone’s brain, even if the science someday suggests that might be truly helpful.

Still, there have been some early experiments with neuropeptide Y, including one using it in a nasal spray as a potential treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Science Quickies: Wooly Mammoth Clones, Inkjet Cells, Mysterious Dog Illness, Fat Sperm, and Space Vision

16 Mar

Russian and South Korean scientists are competing to see who can clone the first wooly mammoth. I want one. I will name him Charleston, and use his fur to crochet blankets and sweaters for furless kittens.

It’s well known that space travel isn’t very pleasant. After one month in space, astronauts may experience brain and eye damage, causing NASA go assign astronauts “space anticipation glasses.” They are literally sacrificing your eyesight in the name of science.

Bad news for dog owners: 3 major brands of chicken jerky canine treats have been linked to a mysterious illness affecting over 600 dogs so far.

Scientists decided to print live cells using a standard inkjet printer. Because we can.

Recently studies have shown that sea turtle migration patterns are far more amazing than previously thought.

And finally, NPR reports that fatty foods are bad for sperm. All you hopeful fathers, put away the bacon until after conception.

Delicious Heart Health

13 Mar

Health is delicious! NPR interviewed researcher Sheila West, whose Penn State studies have shown that well-spiced food can significantly lower triglycerides. In some cases, triglycerides were decreased by one third. Insulin levels were also lowered by 20%. UCLA cardiologist Dave Ravi says that lowering one’s triglycerides helps lower the risk of metabolic syndrome and heart disease Cinnamon, cloves, turmeric, paprika, rosemary, ginger, oregano, and garlic were all used in the studies.

This has motivated me to invest in a cute spice rack.
And what better spice rack for a science nerd than one made of beakers?


Science has never been so delicious.