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Rapid collapse of Antarctic glaciers could flood coastal cities by the end of this century.

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Eric Holthaus reports in Grit:

In a remote region of Antarctica known as Pine Island Bay, 2,500 miles from the tip of South America, two glaciers hold human civilization hostage.

Stretching across a frozen plain more than 150 miles long, these glaciers, named Pine Island and Thwaites, have marched steadily for millennia toward the Amundsen Sea, part of the vast Southern Ocean. Further inland, the glaciers widen into a two-mile-thick reserve of ice covering an area the size of Texas.

There’s no doubt this ice will melt as the world warms. The vital question is when.

The glaciers of Pine Island Bay are two of the largest and fastest-melting in Antarctica. (A Rolling Stone feature earlier this year dubbed Thwaites “The Doomsday Glacier.”) Together, they act as a plug holding back enough ice to pour 11 feet of sea-level rise into the world’s oceans — an amount that would submerge every coastal city on the planet. For that reason, finding out how fast these glaciers will collapse is one of the most important scientific questions in the world today.

To figure that out, scientists have been looking back to the end of the last ice age, about 11,000 years ago, when global temperatures stood at roughly their current levels. The bad news? There’s growing evidence that the Pine Island Bay glaciers collapsed rapidly back then, flooding the world’s coastlines — partially the result of something called “marine ice-cliff instability.”

The ocean floor gets deeper toward the center of this part of Antarctica, so each new iceberg that breaks away exposes taller and taller cliffs. Ice gets so heavy that these taller cliffs can’t support their own weight. Once they start to crumble, the destruction would be unstoppable.

“Ice is only so strong, so it will collapse if these cliffs reach a certain height,” explains Kristin Poinar, a glaciologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “We need to know how fast it’s going to happen.”

In the past few years, scientists have identified marine ice-cliff instability as a feedback loop that could kickstart the disintegration of the entire West Antarctic ice sheet this century — much more quickly than previously thought.

Minute-by-minute, huge skyscraper-sized shards of ice cliffs would crumble into the sea, as tall as the Statue of Liberty and as deep underwater as the height of the Empire State Building. The result: a global catastrophe the likes of which we’ve never seen.

Ice comes in many forms, with different consequences when it melts. Floating ice, like the kind that covers the Arctic Ocean in wintertime and comprises ice shelves, doesn’t raise sea levels. (Think of a melting ice cube, which won’t cause a drink to spill over.)

Land-based ice, on the other hand, is much more troublesome. When it falls into the ocean, it adds to the overall volume of liquid in the seas. Thus, sea-level rise.

Antarctica is a giant landmass — about half the size of Africa — and the ice that covers it averages more than a mile thick. Before human burning of fossil fuels triggered global warming, the continent’s ice was in relative balance: The snows in the interior of the continent roughly matched the icebergs that broke away from glaciers at its edges.

Now, as carbon dioxide traps more heat in the atmosphere and warms the planet, the scales have tipped.

A wholesale collapse of Pine Island and Thwaites would set off a catastrophe. Giant icebergs would stream away from Antarctica like a parade of frozen soldiers. All over the world, high tides would creep higher, slowly burying every shoreline on the planet, flooding coastal cities and creating hundreds of millions of climate refugees.

All this could play out in a mere 20 to 50 years — much too quickly for humanity to adapt.

“With marine ice cliff instability, sea-level rise for the next century is potentially much larger than we thought it might be five or 10 years ago,” Poinar says.

A lot of this newfound concern is driven by the research of two climatologists: Rob DeConto at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and David Pollard at Penn State University. A study they published last year was the first to incorporate the latest understanding of marine ice-cliff instability into a continent-scale model of Antarctica.

Their results drove estimates for how high the seas could rise this century sharply higher. “Antarctic model raises prospect of unstoppable ice collapse,” read the headline in the scientific journal Nature, a publication not known for hyperbole.

Instead of a three-foot increase in ocean levels by the end of the century, six feet was more likely, according to DeConto and Pollard’s findings. But if carbon emissions continue to track on something resembling a worst-case scenario, the full 11 feet of ice locked in West Antarctica might be freed up, their study showed.

Three feet of sea-level rise would be bad, leading to more frequent flooding of U.S. cities such as New Orleans, Houston, New York, and Miami. Pacific Island nations, like the Marshall Islands, would lose most of their territory. Unfortunately, it now seems like three feet is possible only under the rosiest of scenarios.

At six feet, though, around 12 million people in the United States would be displaced, and the world’s most vulnerable megacities, like Shanghai, Mumbai, and Ho Chi Minh City, could be wiped off the map.

At 11 feet, land currently inhabited by hundreds of millions of people worldwide would wind up underwater. South Florida would be largely uninhabitable; floods on the scale of Hurricane Sandy would strike twice a month in New York and New Jersey, as the tug of the moon alone would be enough to send tidewaters into homes and buildings.

DeConto and Pollard’s breakthrough came from trying to match observations of ancient sea levels at shorelines around the world with current ice sheet behavior.

Around 3 million years ago, when global temperatures were about as warm as they’re expected to be later this century, oceans were dozens of feet higher than today.

Previous models suggested that it would take hundreds or thousands of years for sea-level rise of that magnitude to occur. But once they accounted for marine ice-cliff instability, DeConto and Pollard’s model pointed toward a catastrophe if the world maintains a “business as usual” path — meaning we don’t dramatically reduce carbon emissions.

Rapid cuts in greenhouse gases, however, showed Antarctica remaining almost completely intact for hundreds of years.

Pollard and DeConto are the first to admit that their model is still crude, but its results have pushed the entire scientific community into emergency mode. . .

Continue reading. There’s a lot more.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 November 2017 at 12:08 pm

Controversial sugar industry study on cancer uncovered

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Jacqueline Howard of CNN reports:

An old study is now shedding new light on the sugar industry’s controversial past, and its secrets are being revealed in a new paper.

The 1960s study, which suggests a link between a high-sugar diet and high blood cholesterol levels and cancer in rats, was sponsored by the sugar industry, according to the perspective paper published in the journal PLOS Biology on Tuesday.

Yet the study itself was never published and has been forgotten until now.

“All we know is that the plug got pulled and nothing got published,” said Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco and a co-author of the new paper.

“Whether the investigator didn’t bother to try or whether he tried and failed, we don’t know. Or whether there was some kind of clause in his agreement with the sugar people that precluded him from publishing, we don’t know,” he said.

This enigmatic study seems to provide evidence of the harmful health impacts of eating too much sugar. It also suggests that a group then called the Sugar Research Foundation might have manipulated scientific research in its favor, according to the new paper.

The authors of the new paper previously conducted a separate historical analysis of sugar industry-related documents and studies.

That analysis, published last year in JAMA Internal Medicine, suggested that the Sugar Research Foundation sponsored a research program that successfully cast doubt about the health hazards of a high-sugar diet and rather promoted fat “as the dietary culprit” in health concerns such as heart disease.

“The kind of science manipulation that the tobacco industry engaged in is exactly the same kind of behavior that we’ve documented in these papers from the sugar industry,” said Glantz, who has also studied the tobacco industry.

How a forgotten study gets found

The foundation, now called the Sugar Association, spoke out against that analysis last year and has contested the new PLOS Biology paper, telling CNN that it’s “not actually a study, but a perspective: a collection of speculations and assumptions about events that happened nearly five decades ago, conducted by a group of researchers and funded by individuals and organizations that are known critics of the sugar industry.”

The association also noted that the study described in the new paper ended without publication partly due to being “significantly delayed” and “consequently over budget.”

“We don’t know what would have happened had this study come out differently and showed no effect of sugar,” Glantz said. “I would bet that it would have been published, and they would be thumping the drums about it.”

Cristin Kearns, an assistant professor at the UCSF School of Dentistry and lead author of the paper, said she learned about the long-lost study while collecting and analyzing letters between executives at the Sugar Research Foundation and various scientists from 1959 to 1971.

Then she noticed that the study was mentioned in . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

21 November 2017 at 1:37 pm

Sudden Shift at a Public Health Journal Leaves Scientists Feeling Censored

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Lisa Song reports in ProPublica:

For much of its 22-year existence, few outside the corner of science devoted to toxic chemicals paid much attention to the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health.

But now, a feud has erupted over the small academic publication, as its editorial board — the scientists who advise the journal’s direction and handle article submissions — has accused the journal’s new owner of suppressing a paper and promoting “corporate interests over independent science in the public interest.”

More is at stake than just the journal’s direction.

IJOEH is best known for exposing so-called “product defense science” — industry-linked studies that defend the safety of products made by their funders. At a time when the Trump administration is advancing policiesand nominees sympathetic to the chemical industry, the journal seems to be veering in the same direction.

“There are many scientists who work for corporations who are honest scientists,” said David Michaels, the former head of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration under President Obama. “What we’re concerned about here is the ‘mercenary science’ … that’s published purely to influence regulation or litigation, and doesn’t contribute to public health.”

“I think the IJOEH articles were threatening to that whole industry,” said Michaels, now an environmental and occupational health professor at George Washington University. While Michaels has never served on the journal’s editorial board, he has published an article in the journal and peer-reviewed others.

The journal was one of the relatively few places that provided an outlet for “scientists whose work is independent of the corporations that manufacture chemicals,” he said. “The silencing of that voice would be a real loss to the field.”

Last Thursday, the journal’s 22-member editorial board, along with eight former board members and the journal’s founding editor-in-chief, wrote a letter to the National Library of Medicine requesting disciplinary action against the academic journal’s new publisher, Taylor & Francis Group. In particular, they asked the Library of Medicine to rescind the journal’s listing in the Medline index, which could drastically reduce its scientific influence.

Academic journals are often judged by the reputations of those on their editorial boards, and this list includes a Columbia University dean, the president of the International Commission on Occupational Health and a scientist who helped establish the cancer classification system used by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

UK-based Taylor & Francis, one of the largest publishers of academic journals, acquired IJOEH and 169 other journals in 2015 by purchasing the journal’s original owner and publisher, Maney Publishing. According to the board’s letter, Taylor & Francis has done the following since taking over:

  • Selected a new editor-in-chief, Andrew Maier, without consulting the editorial board. Board members said it’s “highly unlikely” that they would have approved of Maier. Their letter said he had a tendency to reach scientific conclusions “highly sympathetic to parties with an economic interest in favorable outcomes,” which is at odds with the journal’s mission.
  • Withdrew a peer-reviewed article by the journal’s former editor-in-chief David Egilman that criticized Union Carbide Corporation’s efforts to oppose workers’ claims of asbestos exposure. “Suppression of an accepted paper is a direct assault on academic freedom,” the board members wrote to the Library of Medicine.
  • Flagged three additional studies approved for publication under Egilman as “raising potential concerns,” according to a May 8 email the publisher sent to the board.

A Library of Medicine representative said they’re reviewing the board’s appeal.

Officials at Taylor & Francis declined to speak with ProPublica about the accusations in the letter and did not answer most of the questions we submitted in writing, referring us instead to two emails the publisher sent to the board in May.

In one, Ian Bannerman, manager director of Taylor & Francis Journals, insisted the company had no obligation to consult the board in choosing the journal’s new editor. “The responsibility for selecting and appointing an Editor-in-Chief lies with Taylor & Francis as the owner of the journal,” he wrote.

In the other, Bannerman responded to a question from the board about the publisher’s plans for “repositioning” the journal by saying Taylor & Francis would aim to boost its online readership, citation levels and “rapidity of publication.”

“We do not see this as ‘repositioning’ the journal as such,” Bannerman wrote, “but we do see it as a change of tack — putting in place long-term plans and goals for the journal’s future development, enhanced by our expertise in marketing, online publishing, and bibliometric analysis.”

A Struggling Endeavor

Joseph LaDou, the founding editor-in-chief of IJOEH, launched the journal in 1995 after years of struggling to publish his own research. While studying the health hazards of workers making microelectronics for Silicon Valley in the 1980s, he couldn’t find a single U.S. journal to take his paper, he said, and ended up publishing in a Scandinavian public health journal. So when a Philadelphia-based publisher offered him a chance to start a journal for similar types of studies, he jumped on board. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 November 2017 at 1:54 pm

Choosy Eggs May Pick Sperm for Their Genes, Defying Mendel’s Law

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Carrie Arnold writes in Quanta:

In the winner-takes-all game of fertilization, millions of sperm race toward the egg that’s waiting at the finish line. Plenty of sperm don’t even make it off the starting line, thanks to missing or deformed tails and other defects. Still others lack the energy to finish the long journey through the female reproductive tract, or they get snared in sticky fluid meant to impede all but the strongest swimmers. For the subset of a subset of spermatozoa that reach their trophy, the final winner would be determined by one last sprint to the end. The exact identity of the sperm was random, and the egg waited passively until the Michael Phelps of gametes finally arrived. Or so scientists have thought.

Joe Nadeau, principal scientist at the Pacific Northwest Research Institute, is challenging this dogma. Random fertilization should lead to specific ratios of gene combinations in offspring, but Nadeau has found two examples just from his own lab that indicate fertilization can be far from random: Certain pairings of gamete genes are much more likely than others. After ruling out obvious alternative explanations, he could only conclude that fertilization wasn’t random at all.

“It’s the gamete equivalent of choosing a partner,” Nadeau said.

His hypothesis – that the egg could woo sperm with specific genes and vice versa – is part of a growing realization in biology that the egg is not the submissive, docile cell that scientists long thought it was. Instead, researchers now see the egg as an equal and active player in reproduction, adding layers of evolutionary control and selection to one of the most important processes in life.

“Female reproductive anatomy is more cryptic and difficult to study, but there’s a growing recognition of the female role in fertilization,” said Mollie Manier, an evolutionary biologist at George Washington University.

Sexual Selection at the Cellular Level

The idea of sexual selection is as old as Charles Darwin himself. In On the Origin of Species, he wrote of the peacock’s showy tail and the elk’s giant antlers as examples of traits that evolved to help males show off their appeal as mates to females. For the next century, biologists focused on all the aspects of sexual selection that operated in the events leading up to copulation. After mating, the female had made her choice, and the only competition was among the sperm swimming to the egg.

This male-oriented view of female reproductive biology as largely acquiescent was pervasive, argued Emily Martin, an anthropologist at New York University, in a 1991 paper. “The egg is seen as large and passive. It does not move or journey but passively ‘is transported’…along the fallopian tube. In utter contrast, sperm are small, ‘streamlined’ and invariably active,” she wrote.

Beginning in the 1970s, however, the science began to undermine that stereotype. William Eberhard, now a behavioral ecologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, documented all the ways that females can affect which males fertilize their eggs even after mating. It’s a long list, and scientists still can’t say for sure whether they’ve documented everything. The belatedness of these discoveries wasn’t all due to sexism. Two walruses dueling with their tusks is easy to observe; games of hide-and-seek with sperm inside the female reproductive tract are much less so.

“As soon as you have eggs and sperm, you have sexual selection. There are incredible things that eggs and seminal fluid can do,” explained Andrea Pilastro, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Padova in Italy.

In those species in which fertilization happens outside the body, the females often coat their eggs with a thick, protein-rich ovarian fluid. Experiments in 2013 by Matthew Gage of the University of East Anglia in England showed that this fluid contains chemical signals to help attract the correct species of sperm. When they exposed eggs from salmon and trout to mixtures of sperm from both species, the eggs’ own species successfully fertilized 70 percent of the time, significantly more than to be expected by chance.

“The sperm behaved differently in different ovarian fluids. They actually swam straighter in their own fluid,” Gage said.

Internal fertilizers have their own methods of what Eberhard dubbed “cryptic female choice.” Some female reproductive tracts are labyrinthine, complete with false starts and dead ends that can stymie all but the strongest sperm. Some females, including many species of reptiles, fish, birds and amphibians, that copulate with more than one male (which biologists estimate are a vast majority of species) can store sperm for months, even years, altering the storage environment to stack the odds to favor one male over another. Many female birds, including domestic chickens, can eject sperm after mating, which lets them bias fertilization in favor of the best male.

All these strategies, however, provide females with opportunities only to select the sperm of different males. Within an ejaculate, which sperm fertilized the egg still seemed to be left to chance.

In fact, the randomness of fertilization is implicit in the principle of segregation — the first law of genetics going back to Gregor Mendel. Parents carry two copies of each gene, which are divided randomly into gametes that carry only one copy. It’s what gives rise to many of the probabilities students learn in high school biology. If both parents are heterozygotes — meaning they carry two alternate versions of the same gene — then half their offspring would also be heterozygotes. A quarter of the offspring would be homozygotes carrying two copies of one version, and the remaining quarter would be homozygotes with the other version.

“It’s one of the most broadly applicable rules in biology,” Nadeau said.

Yet these probabilities work out only if fertilization is random. If the egg or the sperm can somehow influence the identity of the other gamete involved in fertilization, then those ratios could be very different. This striking difference was what caught Nadeau’s attention back in 2005. When he started looking at the inheritance of two particular genes in mice, the probabilities were all off. In his Seattle lab, he began to wonder: Could Mendel have been wrong?

Mendelian Lawbreakers

Nadeau hadn’t set out to question Mendel. Instead, he wanted to know how interactions between two genes (Apobec1 and Dnd1) affected risks for testicular cancer, one of the most heritable forms of cancer. When Nadeau and his doctoral student Jennifer Zechel bred female mice carrying one normal and one mutant copy of Dnd1 with heterozygote Apobec1 males, everything appeared to follow Mendel’s rules. So far, so good. But when they reversed the breeding (a female Apobec1heterozygote mated with a male Dnd1 heterozygote), things got weird: They found that only 27 percent of the expected offspring carried copies of mutant Apobec1, mutant Dnd1 or both, compared with the 75 percent they expected to see.

As a researcher who had spent several decades studying heredity, Nadeau was aware of myriad factors that could affect Mendel’s ratios. If a fertilized egg ended up with two mutated copies of a recessive gene, the resulting embryo might die early in development. Such embryonic-lethal mutations would alter the ratio of homozygotes to heterozygotes, but it would also reduce the average number of mouse pups in each litter. Yet all of Zechel and Nadeau’s mice had standard litter sizes, and they found no evidence that embryos were dying early after fertilization.

Perhaps, Nadeau reasoned, the problem lay in the sperm, not the egg. He therefore bred male mice with and without the mutation to healthy mutation-free females and found no differences in the males’ fertility — something that would have become obvious if the mutation were affecting sperm formation. Step by step, Nadeau and his team eliminated every possible cause of these wonky ratios of offspring genotypes … except one: that during fertilization, the egg and sperm were genetically biased against the mutant genotype.

Surely, someone else must have already seen this, Nadeau reasoned, so he searched the scientific literature. Although he could find plenty of examples of unexplained offspring ratios, no one had seriously pursued genetically biased fertilization as an answer.

“Everyone just interpreted it as embryonic lethality because we see what we look for and we explain it using what we know,” Nadeau said.

One of those examples Nadeau found was . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 November 2017 at 8:36 pm

Posted in Science

Who first buried the dead?

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Paige Madison, a PhD candidate in the history and philosophy of science at Arizona State University, writes in Aeon:

A mysterious cache of bones, recovered from a deep chamber in a South African cave, is challenging long-held beliefs about how a group of bipedal apes developed into the abstract-thinking creatures that we call ‘human’. The fossils were discovered in 2013 and were quickly recognised as the remains of a new species unlike anything seen before. Named Homo naledi, it has an unexpected mix of modern features and primitive ones, including a fairly small brain. Arguably the most shocking aspect of Homo naledi, though, concerned not the remains themselves but rather their resting place.

The chamber where the bones were found is far from the cave entrance, accessible only through a narrow, difficult passage that is completely shrouded in darkness. Scientists believe the chamber has long been difficult to access, requiring a journey of vertical climbing, crawling and tight squeezing through spaces only 20 cm across. It would be an impossible place to live, and a highly unlikely location for many individuals to have ended up by accident. Those details pushed the research team toward a shocking hypothesis: despite its puny brain, Homo naledi purposefully interred its dead. The cave chamber was a graveyard, they concluded.

For anthropologists, mortuary rituals carry an outsize importance in tracing the emergence of human uniqueness – especially the capacity to think symbolically. Symbolic thought gives us the ability to transcend the present, remember the past, and visualise the future. It allows us to imagine, to create, and to alter our environment in ways that have significant consequences for the planet. Use of language is the quintessential embodiment of such mental abstractions, but studying its history is difficult because language doesn’t fossilise. Burials do.

Burials provide a hard, material record of a behaviour that is deeply spiritual and meaningful. It allows scientists to trace the emergence of beliefs, values and other complex ideas that appear to be uniquely human. Homo sapiens is unquestionably unlike any other species alive today. Pinpointing what separates us from the rest of nature is surprisingly difficult, however.

The paradox is that humans are also unquestionably a part of nature, having evolved alongside with all the rest of life. Anthropologists have narrowed in on one singular human feature in particular: the capacity to think in the abstract. Our ability to imagine and communicate ideas about things that are not immediately in front of us is a complex cognitive process, scientists argue, one that is remarkably different from simple, primitive communication about nearby food or imminent danger.

Humans use symbols to communicate and convey these abstract thoughts and ideas. We imbue non-practical things with meaning. Art and jewellery, for example, communicate concepts about beliefs, values and social status. Mortuary rituals, too, have been put forward as a key example of symbolic thought, with the idea that deliberate treatment of the dead represents a whole web of ideas. Mourning the dead involves remembering the past and imagining a future in which we too will die – abstractions believed to be complex enough to be contemplated only by our species.

The assumption, then, was that death rituals were practised only by modern humans, or perhaps also by their very closest relatives. The possibility that primitive, small-brained Homo naledi could have engaged in the deliberate disposal of dead bodies not only challenges the timeline about when such behaviours appeared; it disrupts the whole conventional thinking about the distinction between modern humans and earlier species and, by extension, the distinction between us and the rest of nature.

For humans, death is an enormously culturally meaningful process. Cultures around the world honour the deceased with rituals and ceremonies that communicate a variety of values and abstract ideas. Since the 19th century, anthropologists have examined these mortuary practices to learn about the religions and beliefs of other cultures. During this time, it never occurred to anyone that other creatures, even other hominins (the primate group encompassing the genus Homo, along with the genus Australopithecus and other close relatives) could have engaged in similar behaviour. Surely, the thinking went, humans alone operate in such an abstract world as to assign deep meaning to death.

Yet this behaviour must have appeared at some point in our evolutionary history. Since mortuary rituals such as song and dance are invisible in the archaeological record, scientists focused on material aspects such as burial to trace the history of the practice. The discoveries soon prompted tough questions about the conventional viewpoint, suggesting that mortuary rituals might not have been uniquely human after all.

The first debate over non-humans burying their dead arose in 1908 with the discovery of a fairly complete Neanderthal skeleton near La Chapelle-aux-Saints in France. After excavating their find, the discoverers argued that the skeleton had clearly been deliberately buried. To them, it looked as though a grave had been dug, the body purposefully laid inside in the foetal position, and safely covered up from the elements. Many contemporary scientists remained dubious of this interpretation or dismissed the evidence outright. Later skeptics suggested that early 20th-century excavation techniques were too sloppy to prove such a sweeping conclusion. Debate over the burial of the La Chappelle Neanderthal continues to this day.

It is fitting that the controversy over mortuary ritual in hominins began with the Neanderthals, now known as the species Homo neanderthalensis. Ever since the first discovery of Neanderthal fossils in 1856 in the Neandertal valley in Germany, the species has occupied an ambiguous relationship to humans. Neanderthals are the closest species to humans, and their location on the spectrum between humans and other animals has constantly been contested.

For the first century after their discovery, they were typically imagined as highly non-human creatures, their primitive aspects emphasised to such an extent that they became known as brutes who couldn’t even stand up straight. More recently, the pendulum has swung the other way, with some scientists arguing that the creatures were so close to humans that a Neanderthal wearing a suit and a hat on a subway would go largely unnoticed. The debate over Neanderthal burials has similarly wavered back and forth. At some times, . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

14 November 2017 at 2:37 pm

Posted in Evolution, Religion, Science

She Took On Colombia’s Soda Industry. Then She Was Silenced.

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Andrew Jacobs and Matt Richtel report in the NY Times:

It began with menacing phone calls, strange malfunctions of the office computers, and men in parked cars photographing the entrance to the small consumer advocacy group’s offices.

Then at dusk one day last December, Dr. Esperanza Cerón, the head of the organization, said she noticed two strange men on motorcycles trailing her Chevy sedan as she headed home from work. She tried to lose them in Bogotá’s rush-hour traffic, but they edged up to her car and pounded on the windows.

“If you don’t keep your mouth shut,” one man shouted, she recalled in a recent interview, “you know what the consequences will be.”

The episode, which Dr. Cerón reported to federal investigators, was reminiscent of the intimidation often used against those who challenged the drug cartels that once dominated Colombia. But the narcotics trade was not the target of Dr. Cerón and her colleagues. Their work had upset a different multibillion-dollar industry: the makers of soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages.

Their organization, Educar Consumidores, was the most visible proponent of a proposed 20 percent tax on sugary drinks that was heading for a vote that month in Colombia’s Legislature. The group had raised money, rallied allies to the cause and produced a provocative television ad that warned consumers how sugar-laden beverages can lead to obesity and diet-related illnesses like diabetes.

The backlash was fierce. A Colombian government agency, responding to a complaint by the nation’s leading soda company that called the ad misleading, ordered it off the air. Then the agency went further: It prohibited Dr. Cerón and her colleagues from publicly discussing the health risks of sugar, under penalty of a $250,000 fine.

The battle over taxing sugar-sweetened beverages is becoming one of the world’s most ferocious policy brawls — a clash of science, politics and money in dozens of countries and cities.

“The industry sees sugary-drink taxes as an existential threat,” said Dr. James Krieger, executive director of Healthy Food America, which tracks beverage tax initiatives. In the United States, the industry has spent at least $107 million at the state and local levels since 2009 to beat back soda taxes and beverage warning labels, a new study found. Compared to the domestic tactics, Dr. Krieger said, overseas, “it’s much dirtier, much more bare-knuckled.”

The harassment of Dr. Cerón and her colleagues was never proven to be carried out by the industry, and federal prosecutors declined to investigate. In response to questions from The New York Times, Coke and Pepsi said they were not involved, and Postobón, the soda company that filed the complaint about the organization’s ad, deferred comment to The National Business Association of Colombia. The association, which represented national and international beverage makers on the soda tax issue, said it had nothing to do with the episodes.

The International Council of Beverages Associations, the parent organization of trade groups around the world fighting the taxes, would not directly answer the question about whether its allies in Colombia were connected to the alleged harassment, but it condemned such actions.

“We reject under any circumstance the improper influence or harassment of any individual or organization for any purpose, at any time, in any way,” Katherine W. Loatman, executive director of the organization, said in a statement.

The experience in Colombia may be the most extreme, but a juggernaut of industry opposition has killed or stalled soda tax proposals around the globe, including in Russia, Germany, Israel and New Zealand.

Nevertheless, the idea is gaining momentum; such levies have been enacted in 30 countries, including India, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Thailand, Britain and Brunei. More than a billion people now live in places where such taxes have driven up the price of sugar-sweetened beverages.

The battles have been particularly intense in emerging markets as the industry seeks to make up for falling soda consumption in wealthier nations. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 November 2017 at 1:15 pm

Seeing the Beautiful Intelligence of Microbes

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John Rennie and Lucy Redding-Ikkanda have a very interesting article in Quanta, from which I quote the text below, but you really should click the link to see the stunning photos and gifs. They write:

Intelligence is not a quality to attribute lightly to microbes. There is no reason to think that bacteria, slime molds and similar single-cell forms of life have awareness, understanding or other capacities implicit in real intellect. But particularly when these cells commune in great numbers, their startling collective talents for solving problemsand controlling their environment emerge. Those behaviors may be genetically encoded into these cells by billions of years of evolution, but in that sense the cells are not so different from robots programmed to respond in sophisticated ways to their environment. If we can speak of artificial intelligence for the latter, perhaps it’s not too outrageous to refer to the underappreciated cellular intelligence of the former.

Under the microscope, the incredible exercise of the cells’ collective intelligence reveals itself with spectacular beauty. Since 1983, Roberto Kolter, a professor of microbiology and immunobiology at Harvard Medical School and co-director of the Microbial Sciences Initiative, has led a laboratory that has studied these phenomena. In more recent years, it has also developed techniques for visualizing them. In the photographic essay book Life at the Edge of Sight: A Photographic Exploration of the Microbial World (Harvard University Press), released in September, Kolter and his co-author, Scott Chimileski, a research fellow and imaging specialist in his lab, offer an appreciation of microorganisms that is both scientific and artistic, and that gives a glimpse of the cellular wonders that are literally underfoot. Imagery from the lab is also on display in the exhibition World in a Drop at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. That display will close in early January but will be followed by a broader exhibition, Microbial Life, scheduled to open in February.

The slime mold Physarum polycephalum sometimes barely qualifies as a microorganism at all: When it oozes across the leaf litter of a forest floor during the active, amoeboid stage of its life cycle, it can look like a puddle of yellowish goo between an inch and a meter across. Yet despite its size, Physarum is a huge single cell, with tens of thousands of nuclei floating in an uninterrupted mass of cytoplasm. In this form, Physarum is a superbly efficient hunter. When sensors on its cell membrane detect good sources of nutrients, contractile networks of proteins (closely related to the ones found in human muscle) start pumping streams of cytoplasm in that direction, advancing the slime mold toward what it needs.

But Physarum is not just reflexively surging toward food. As it moves in one direction, signals transmitted throughout the cell discourage it from pushing counterproductively along less promising routes. Moreover, slime molds have evolved a system for essentially mapping their terrain and memorizing where not to go: As they move, they leave a translucent chemical trail behind that tells them which areas are not worth revisiting. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

14 November 2017 at 12:30 pm

Posted in Evolution, Science

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