From Then ’til Then

Pay attention, I'm about to drop  some knowledge on you.
Pay attention, I’m about to drop some knowledge on you.

Sorry that I haven’t posted in a while. The WNC Super Computer took a giant crap two weeks ago and set off a chain of events that made me think I might be better off with a stone tablet. And there were other times that I worried that that solution was too high tech. Sadly, one cannot do proper web design or graphics or write blogs on such crude devices. So I have a new (slightly used) computer adorned with Hello Kitty stickers. Which is fine by me. I wanted a Hello Kitty band aid when I had my surgery 3 weeks ago. Instead I was given a flesh colored one, said color only applying to about 9% of the human race as far as I can tell, and sent merrily on my way. The good news is that after a decade of excruciating pain I can now amble about with the best of you and do so pain free. Sans Hello Kitty band aid, but I can live with that. During my down time I used my phone for research. I learned a lot doing that. For example, I can only have sixteen tabs open at one time. I also learned that I hate texting with a passion.

But above and beyond that I learned some stuff that I’m going to share with you here today. I’ll start with a simple one. According to Aamna Mohdin you and spiders, yes, you, have something very important in common. Your insulin and spider’s venom are pretty much the same thing.

Spider and centipede venom contain a terrifying cocktail of chemicals that are used to devour prey and defend themselves from predators. Some, like the funnel-web spider’s venom, are able to instantly paralyze its victims. Now, a new study has revealed the origin of their venom, and oddly enough, not only did this powerful weapon evolve from insulin-like hormones, but this evolution occurred in arachnids as well as centipedes.

Researchers first looked for similarities between the proteins in the venom and other molecules in hormones. After analyzing these protein sequences, researchers were unable to find any genetic similarities, but did discover that they had similar molecular shapes.

“If you take the sequence of the spider toxin and you do a BLAST search, the hormone is so different now that you don’t pull it out,” said study senior author Glenn King, from University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience, in a statement. “But when we did a structural search and it pulled up the hormone, that’s what really surprised us—the sequence didn’t tell us where the toxins evolved from, but the structure did pretty clearly.”

The venoms evolved from a hormone that once helped regulate sugar, similar to what insulin does for humans. Venoms aren’t all bad as they can provide researchers with the opportunity to study different chemicals, and these natural resources can be broken down. By getting a clearer picture of the origin and structure of these venoms, researchers hope to develop new pharmaceuticals and bioinsecticides by altering their chemical structure. Some of these products include analgesics and blood pressure drugs.

Other products, that use actual venom, include blood thinners that are far more reactive and controllable. While still in the early test stages these drugs could save the lives of millions of stroke victims.

Oh well, as long as we’re injecting you with lethal compounds, let’s have some fun and inject you with cancer.

As Gwennaëlle Monnot points out, it’s for your own good.

(B)acteria are not the only micro-organism we can use against cancer. Some viruses have oncolytic properties (where it specifically infects and kills cancer cells), and additionally they can be easily made from scratch in the laboratory, thus allowing for easy genetic modification.

Viruses are a highly evolved type of infectious agent. When they enter a cell, they inject their genetic information into it – or in the case of the herpes virus, blasting in its DNA. The cell then uses that genetic information like its own, and produces the viral proteins it encodes for. This leads to the cell unknowingly making more and more viral particles, until it bursts. The newly made viruses can then go and infect a neighbouring cell.

Fortunately, our cells have evolved to “sense” viral entry into their cytoplasm and to react by either blocking their production of proteins, or committing suicide. This is a tightly regulated function called “programmed cell death”, which prevents the further spread of the virus.

The interesting thing when it comes to cancer is that the malignant cells have lost, through many genetic mutations, the ability to protect themselves against viruses, as well as to undergo programmed cell death. Their inability to die when they should is actually at the core of their malignancy. So using viruses can be a way to specifically target tumour cells, while healthy cells remain unharmed.

In the recent phase III clinical trial, talimogene laherparepvec (T-VEC) was used, which is a genetically modified herpes simplex virus (HSV). Normal HSV is highly evolved and has learned to hide from our cells’ viral sensors. But this therapeutic HSV has been genetically dulled to be efficiently controlled by healthy cells, but still able to infect tumour cells. Its ability to replicate, however, is not compromised – which means that a small dose of virus can keep infecting new targets until all tumours cells are gone. Moreover, it induces the expression of GM-CSF in the tumour cells, which is a factor that recruits immune cells to the tumour site. The effect of T-VEC is hence double: directly destroying the tumour cells, as well as attracting immune cells on site to finish up the job.

In comparison to the previous examples, this treatment was generally safer, with no treatment-related death, and few patients discontinuing therapy because of discomfort (4%). Moreover, the efficacy was unprecedented for this kind of therapy, as 16.3% of patients achieved remission for at least six months, compared to 2.1% receiving the control treatment. Interestingly, the benefits were even increased in the patients who had a milder severity of melanoma, as well as in the patients for whom it was the first line of treatment.

These data demonstrate the potential of microbial infection to enhance the immunotherapy of cancer, and pave the way for the development of new therapies in the field of oncology.

Any medical researcher will tell you that any time you can get the body to heal itself the better off you are. I have written before how there are now several lines of research following that train of thought. Some are further along than others but all look promising on their own and may, when used in conjunction, actually provide a cure.

What about in non-medical news? Anything cool happening there? Why yes, there is, if by “cool” you mean that you think watching animals starting to evolve in new and strange ways that could spell our extinction is cool.

Then, yeah. I’ve got some hellaciously cool shit for you.

Robert Evans & Fernando Ramirez happily inform us that suicidal squirrels are gleefully dismantling the U.S. power grid.

There is an army trying to take down the world’s power grid, right now, as we speak. They are dedicated, they are numerous, and they are willing to die. They’re also very small and furry.

They are squirrels.

They run up power lines, chew anything that looks like it carries more than 1,000 volts of electricity, and die. Other times, they acrobatically stretch to grab both the power line and the transformer to try their hand at being a conduit for high-voltage electricity flow, and die. It’s like there’s a specific bloodline of squirrels whose only purpose in the universe is to knock out the power while you’re right in the middle of a Supernatural marathon.

It isn’t a small problem, either. Squirrels cause thousands of blackouts every year. A company in Nebraska found that squirrels cause more power outages per year than lightning. In Austin, where squirrels cause 300 power outages a year, Austin Energy is spending more than $100,000 annually to install technology to protect their grid from squirrels (“technology” here meaning “giant hunks of squirrel-deflecting metal”), which seems like an unnecessary amount of money until you consider that the squirrels caused an estimated $2 million worth of damage to their grid in a single year. There have been terrorist cells that were less effective in disrupting government infrastructure.

It’s an adorable jihad against your ability to use Spotify.

When you multiply those amounts by the number of grid stations scattered across the country you end up looking at hundreds of millions of dollars in damage every year. So when your libertarian friend says “we don’t need no infrastructure” just have him/her grab their Hello Kitty assault rifle, park their happy ass down by the nearest power lines, and keep America safe.

One cute squirrel at a time.

I’m sure that will go well.

In other related news, while some were out denying evolution, monkeys started to evolve and develop the ability to use complex tools.

I mentioned this on my last radio show and received the following email from a nice man named Jason in Aurora.

What the actual fuck was that? You can’t just say fucking chimps are learning to use tools. I saw Planet of the Apes you asshole, I know what that means.”

He’s right. Further elucidation is in order and Josh L. Davis is here to provide it.

In the region where the researchers were studying the chimps, local people harvest the palm wine by making wedge-shaped cuts into the tree’s trunk, allowing the sugary sap that seeps out to gather in large containers. The villagers then collect the fermented sweet liquid in the mornings and evenings, as the alcohol concentration rises too high if left any longer.

This gives the cheeky chimps plenty of time during the day to raid the bar. Despite being watched round the clock, the researchers found that the apes were exclusive day drinkers, sleeping off the buzz at night. Although we don’t know whether they experience the same savage hangovers as humans, it seems they may experience restlessness at night like us. The main boozer of the group, for example, is reported to have acted agitated whilst trying to catch some Z’s and would take an extra hour to settle down after the sun had set.

The team, a collaboration of researchers from different institutions, looked over observations of the community of chimps from the past 20 years. They found evidence of 51 wine-drinking events within the group of 26 apes. Whilst they can’t be certain that the chimps actually got drunk, they consumed enough alcohol to equate to around 8.5 UK units—equivalent to around 1 bottle of wine—and showed signs of drunken behavior.

They use leaves as scoops and sponges to get the hootch and use rude levers to keep the tree open so they can keep the alcohol flowing.

Chimps already create spears and clubs which they use for hunting. As one scientist noted, all they need to do is harness fire to take the next evolutionary leap.

We’ll get back to that in a moment.

Let’s now move on to a larger animal that seems to have developed a new form of refrigeration. Thanks to global warming, yes, it is so a thing, polar bears have fewer and fewer seals to hunt. So they’ve started killing dolphins that get caught up in the warmer currents and end up out of their comfort zone.

Since the bears literally have no idea where their next meal is coming from they’ve started to store food. Juts like you do after a visit to CostCo.

Janet Fang has the story.

In Raudfjorden on April 23, 2014, during an annual bear capture-recapture expedition, Norwegian Polar Institute’s Jon Aars and colleagues encountered a male polar bear with the carcass of a mostly intact white-beaked dolphin (Lagenorhynchus albirostris) on the sea ice about 5 meters from shore. It was only missing some of the fat layer on its dorsal side. Another dolphin – rather the spine, ribcage, and skull of a dolphin – was on land 50 meters south. Tracks in the snow indicated that the same polar bear fed on both.

About a meter away from the intact dolphin was a small hole covered with ice slush (pictured above). It appeared to be a breathing hole kept open by dolphins trapped in the ice. After all, the surrounding sea ice is 20 centimeters thick, and this was the only spot on the fjord without solid ice. White-beaked dolphins are frequent visitors to Norwegian High Arctic waters in the summer, but they don’t usually go so far north in early spring. That winter, however, the area was ice-free, and they were swimming in open ocean until strong northerly winds packed drift ice into the fjords from April 17 to 18, trapping the dolphins. They were likely killed when they surfaced for air.

No meat had been taken from the more-or-less intact dolphin yet, and when the team chanced upon him, the bear was in the process of covering it with snow. This probably keeps foxes, gulls, and other scavengers away, though caching is a rare behavior in polar bears. They typically digest the fat that they consume from carcasses within a day, so the time that they’d need to keep competitors away is brief.

“We think he caught the second dolphin because he could, and then had extra food later,” Aars tells New Scientist. The bear was temporarily immobilized, and based on his teeth, he’s 16 to 20 years old. And while his ribs were clearly showing, he did have a rather full belly.

The concept of storing food is one of the core foundations of developing a civilization. And since bears are, by nature, nasty killers, that might be worth paying attention to.

David Tormsen is doing just that. He took a look at ten post-human entities that could end our reign.

Cancer cure or no. I’ll share one of them here and strongly suggest that you click on his link to read the rest. It’s well researched and entirely fascinating.

Uplifted Animals
The idea of raising animal species to human intelligence is an old one that dates back to H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr Moreau. Cordwainer Smith imagined uplifted animals as an oppressed underclass fighting for their rights, while David Brin’s Uplift series presented a universe where almost all intelligent creatures owed their sapiency to patron species, with humanity exploring the universe with intelligent apes and dolphins at its side.

Some theorists, such as George Dvorsky, argue that we have a moral imperative to raise other species to our level of intelligence once we possess the technological means to do so. Dvorsky points to modern efforts to have great apes be granted the legal right of “personhood,” and he asserts that the natural next step would be to give non-human animals the cognitive faculties for self-determination and participation in a society of sentient creatures. The human monopoly on sentient thought gives us an unfair and unjust advantage over our animal neighbors, and if the means exist to allow non-humans like apes, dolphins, and elephants to achieve the cognitive means of political participation, it is our moral duty to extend it to them.

Others disagree. Alex Knapp believes that the costs in terms of animal life would be too high to justify it. In order to uplift a species, it would be necessary to make changes to the DNA on an embryonic level, leading to inevitable failed attempts before we got it right. Then there is the question of how to ensure that a successfully uplifted embryo would be gestated. Such experimentation would be morally wrong, with the potential for intelligent animals suffering physical abnormalities and early death due to human meddling. Even if successful, human beings would have no way to cope with the social and emotional needs a sapient chimpanzee, bonobo, or parrot would have. In other words, uplifted animals could be left emotionally traumatized due to ham-handed attempts by humans to raise them.

Some also worry that problematic aspects of certain species’ natures, such as chimpanzees’ violence and dolphins’ inclination for rape, would carry on into their intelligent forms. Some argue that intelligent self-awareness is an ecological niche that can only sustainably hold a single species, explaining why the Neanderthals and our other human cousins were wiped out and assimilated. Creating intelligent animals could create evolutionary competition for humanity by potentially traumatized creatures with mental processes and value systems that we may not even be able to comprehend.

As David noted, while cute as all get out, dolphins are big into rape. Also, let’s say that we did imbue them with total sentience, how would such creatures view the world around them. They would have none of the cultural step stones that we had. Moreover, in their point of view, we could easily be seen to be a threat and something that needs to be eliminated. Keep in mind that those cute as all get out fish can kill sharks three times their size.

And let’s not forget our simian cousins. As David correctly noted they can be just as violent as us. They have already developed the rudimentary tools required for killing; both food and each other. They have found out how to cultivate booze and their social structure is decidedly different from ours as it relies on polyamory.

What happens when they become aware and truly see us for the first time?

Or, better yet, just in case you don’t have enough nightmares already, what if it already has?

Bryan Nelson says that quantum physicists have come up with an interesting idea.

Every comic book fan knows about the theory of the multi-verse. The idea that there exists numerous, possibly infinite, versions of you. The nice thing is that science says that we can’t get from one to another.

Now science says, “not so fast there buckaroo.”

“The idea of parallel universes in quantum mechanics has been around since 1957,” explained Howard Wiseman, a physicist at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, and one of the physicists to come up with MIW. “In the well-known ‘Many-Worlds Interpretation’, each universe branches into a bunch of new universes every time a quantum measurement is made. All possibilities are therefore realised – in some universes the dinosaur-killing asteroid missed Earth. In others, Australia was colonised by the Portuguese.”

“But critics question the reality of these other universes, since they do not influence our universe at all,” he added. “On this score, our “Many Interacting Worlds” approach is completely different, as its name implies.”

Wiseman and colleagues have proposed that there exists “a universal force of repulsion between ‘nearby’ (i.e. similar) worlds, which tends to make them more dissimilar.” Quantum effects can be explained by factoring in this force, they propose.

Whether or not the math holds true will be the ultimate test for this theory. Does it or does it not properly predict quantum effects mathematically? But the theory is certain to provide plenty of fodder for the imagination.

For instance, when asked about whether their theory might entail the possibility that humans could someday interact with other worlds, Wiseman said: “It’s not part of our theory. But the idea of [human] interactions with other universes is no longer pure fantasy.”

What might your life look like if you made different choices? Maybe one day you’ll be able to look into one of these alternative worlds and find out.

And if there’s another you it could just as well be the pet of a simian who has a jihadist squirrel as a partner.

Sweet dreams.

Evolution from Alex Glawion on Vimeo.

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