Monday, July 28, 2008

One of my favorite places

I am sitting in a lodge on the side of a mountain in Grand Lake, Colorado and I must confess that this is one of my favorite places in the world. Partly for the scenery, but mostly for the community, solitude, and environmental ethic of this little corner of heaven. Shadowcliff lodge was founded several decades ago on the premise that a mountain resort could be built on sustainability principles. Since that time, they have endeavored to buy locally (as much as possible), recycle everything possible, use limited electricity (purchased from renewable sources), and limit the amount of water used. They have been very successful and this place has become a summer-time haven for like-minded people who enjoy the mountains.

So, I will be here for the next few days. Internet access is somewhat limited, but there is plenty to do. Adam, you would love it here.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Over the reaction

Whew - The FDA announced today that all tomatoes are safe to eat! Yeah! We can all go back to enjoying one of the most healthy and widely distributed foods on the planet. Careful now - the FDA did not announce that the Salmonella outbreak was over - or that the source was discovered - just that tomatoes are OK.

In all 1220 people got sick and 224 were hospitalized - there were no reported deaths.

In some ways we are a safety obsessed society. We throw up our arms about food safety when 1200 people get sick from eating fresh veggies (or fruits) and complain that the FDA is not doing enough to ensure the safety of our food supply!!! If it were ever discovered where the contamination took place, you can be sure that the unfortunate farmer, harvester, wholesaler, distributor, handler, and retailer would be promptly sued by a bevy of lawyers all claiming that if we do not "punish" the "wrongdoer" these incidents will continue. (Reality check here - salmonella is a naturally occurring organism. There is no way to keep it completely out of the food supply.)

Let's examine the science just a bit closer - Salmonella is a bacterium that is found in many places in the environment. It is extremely common in reptiles (think pet turtles and lizards) and in poultry. In fact - it is probably normal for them to carry salmonella; just like we carry the much maligned E. coli. There are several strains of salmonella, but most cause a mild to severe diarrhea-like illness. If you are a generally healthy person, chances are that you will not even know you have been infected. Most people who ingest Salmonella have a case of the runs that lasts a few days - then their immune systems reject the organisms and they return to healthy life. Only the very young, very old, and the immunocompromised actually get sick enough to go to the doctor - even then, very few get antibiotics! Salmonella infections generally resolve on their own, without drugs.

So why all the fuss?

My take - I think we are a culture obsessed with placing blame on things that are out of our control so we do not have to take responsibility for the things we can control. If we divert enough attention to peripheral and relatively minor issues like salmonella, then we can ignore the real killers of our time. Salmonella is an easy whipping boy (bug) it takes little political will to be against it - everybody's against it.

I often wonder, if tobacco came up before the FDA would they approve it for use in humans? No - obviously not. And yet it is unquestionably a drug, and under their purview. Should the FDA monitor portion size at fast food restaurants? Is there any reason that the average person should ingest 2000+ calories at a single meal? (I realize there are a few exceptions, people doing hard physical labor and the people only eating one meal a day.) Should there be weekly limits on the amount of alcohol that a person can purchase? Stricter laws against being drunk? We certainly know that tobacco, excess food and alcohol can kill people more quickly that poor little salmonella - but we do little to stop them beyond public service announcements.

What if the FDA announced that they were going to stop monitoring food safety and just encourage consumers to carefully wash and cook their food before eating it? While you would probably see a slight increase in infections, it would still be a more effective approach (in terms of illness and death) than PSAs on overeating, tobacco, and alcohol.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Female sperm?

A report out today from the Butantan institute in Brazil has reported the development of sperm cells from stem cells extracted from the teeth of male donors. The results will be presented officially tomorrow at the European Society of Human reproduction and Embryology meeting in Barcelona, Spain. In this study the researchers isolated stem cells from the extracted teeth of donors and transplanted them into the testes of mice. In this environment the stem cells began developing into human sperm cells.

While these results are preliminary - and not without scientific controversy - they do raise an intriguing possibility. In addition to allowing infertile men to father children, this technique might allow women to "father" children who are genetically their offspring. For example, lesbian couples might be able to donate egg and stem cells (from a tooth or some other source) and parent children that are genetically related to both of them (not just one). The children generated from this union would legally be the responsibility of both women, not just the biological mother (as is the case now). Another possibility might be for a single woman to be both father and mother to her offspring. The child would not be a clone of the parent, there is a significant amount of genetic rearrangement that occurs during sperm development, but they would be more closely related to mom/dad than "normal".

This research may seem a little bit far fetched, but it does represent yet another of the moral/ethical quandaries we have entered (will enter) during the age of freedom of reproductive choice. Hair color, IQ, and freedom from disease aside, the church will need to be ready to respond to this kind of reproductive choice. Would the church raise any ethical issues if a woman decided to be both father and mother? Falling back on the quadrilateral do scripture, tradition, reason, or experience have anything to offer us when investigating this kind of reproductive freedom? Are the questions raised substantially different from the current practices of in vitro fertilization?

Sorry guys - no word yet on generating eggs from your stem cells - at present, they are just far too complex.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Cost of biking in terms of milk

I was recently challenged to figure out the "mileage" a friend of mine gets on his bicycle as a function of gallons of milk ingested. More succinctly, how many miles does he get per gallon of milk when riding his bike. Of course this depends on the type of fuel (Whole milk, 2%, or skim), the speed at which you are riding, body weight, percent body fat, basal metabolic rate, etc. For the purpose of these calculations we will assume a normal adult male of about 160 lbs. Of course we are also assuming that you ingest nothing but milk...

To wit - you can expect the following mileage:

Pretty efficient really - or is it? Just how much energy does it take to get a gallon of milk from the cow to you? How much energy does it take to grow the cow?

For now, let's assume that the cost of milk is roughly equal to the cost of regular gasoline and look at a direct cost analysis/mileage. Both my Prius and my scooter beat the milk as fuel alternative for my bike. (I drink only skim milk). Whole milk is the best fuel - and riding slow gives me a bigger bang for my buck - but the three hour commute each way would make getting my job done a difficult trick. For now I will stick with my motorized vehicles for commuting and my bike for shorter trips, and for fun.

117 deaths from West Nile Virus

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) just announced that there were 117 deaths in the United States from the mosquito borne virus known as West Nile Virus. Out of an estimated 175,000 who were infected by this virus, 35,000 came down with West Nile fever, 1,227 developed West Nile encephalitis, 63 were paralyzed, and 117 died. The disease incidence was highest in the states where the Rocky Mountains begin - Colorado, Wyoming, and Idaho. While this is an epidemic which bears watching, let's make a few observations.

1. The emergence of this virus in the US population is fairly early and we have not developed strong "herd" immunity as yet. While there is an animal reservoir for West Nile strong immunity in the human population can result in a decreasing rate of infection over time.

2. Vaccines for West Nile are being developed.

3. Bad as this virus is, it is not a huge public health threat - yet.

4. We can avoid being infected by avoiding the mosquitos that carry the disease.

Finally, let's compare West Nile to another mosquito borne illness - Malaria. Each year the plasmodia species which cause Malaria infect an estimated 500 million people - approximately 2 million die of the infection each year, most of them children.

Conducting research is important to limit the spread of both of these diseases, but I would argue for a proportionate response. As Christians it is our moral responsibility to carefully argue for more research funding to be directed toward diseases like Malaria. Not only because they affect more people, but because the people affected are precisely the ones Jesus said we should help - the poor, the sick, and the oppressed. I am not saying we should fund one type of research exclusively, we should simply work to ensure that our national and investment priorities are informed by the correct rationale.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Ribbon of light

OK, it's not biology - so I am out of my element a bit - but this is really cool. Check out the image to the right.

This is a ribbon of light that is expanding its way through the universe at the rate of about 10 million kilometers per hour. The astronomers who snapped this amazing pic believe that this is the shock-wave of a star that went through supernova about 8000 years ago. While that is extremely cool, look closely at the image. All of those points of light are not stars. A few of them are stars, but most are actually GALAXIES!!! Collections of thousands of stars. The milky way is the galaxy we live in.

When I think of the universe in these terms, I am always astounded that we exist at all. Who is man that you are mindful of him? Of course, it also reminds me of Carl Sagan's prediction that life is out there somewhere else as well. I wonder... It seems to me that God is far too creative to have stopped with just one earth - but who knows.