Thursday, February 23, 2006

Xtreme Worms

One of things I love talking about in biology are some of the extreme places where life can be found. For instance we know that certain single celled organisms in the Kingdom Archaea, live in environments that are either too hot, too cold or too salty or just about too extreme for any other living organisms. In fact, I like to call them the Xtreme sports specialists of biology. But other types of organisms give them a run for their money and have been broadening our understanding of where life, even complex life might be able to survive. The picture is of a Methane ice worm from

An article from Yahoo discusses a kind of worm, closely related to earthworms that thrive in glacial ice and in fact seem able to carry out their entire life in and on ice. Given that these worms are "cold blooded" and quite tiny as well, that is quite a feat. In fact these worms apparently die at temperatures above 40 degrees F. How they survive the cold is not entirely clear.

One possibility is that they have enzymes that work best at low temperatures, perhaps modified circulatory fluid. One intriguing report has looked at a wide range of these cold thriving organisms or psychrophiles found in four kingdoms of life and found that at least part of the secret to how they thrive in the cold involves increasing the concentration of AMP, ADP and ATP, energetically important compounds. By keeping the concentration of these important compounds high, the organisms appear to compensate for reduced enzyme activity since higher concentrations of reactants increases the rate of chemical reactions.

It turns out that when you search for "ice worm", a second kind of ice worm will come up. This second one lives also at cold temps but rather than glaciers this worm live around deposits of methane hydrate. These worms are also annelids as are the glacier ice worms but they belong to a different group of annelids called Polychetes. More about these worms and other pictures:

Links\s and references:

Glacier ice worms:

Napolitano, Michael F and Daniel H, Shain (2004) Four Kingdoms on glacier ice:convergent energetic processes boost energy levels as temperatures fall. Proc R Soc. Lond. B(Suppl) 271:S273-S276.

Life in Extreme Environments ( has a good review of extremophiles-organisms that thrive in extreme environments.

Life at High Temperatures ( focuses on thermophiles(heat loving organisms) found in Yellowstone National Park. One caution many of what the author, Thomas Brock, refers to as bacteria are really in the Kingdom Archaea.

Introduction to the Archaea: Life's Extremists (

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Faith Based Science?

A commentary in the New York Times reminds us about the damage that George Bush and other creationists are doing to science in this country. Seems that NASA has been spinning science to make it theologically palatable....Or should that be theological pablum for Bush's conservative religious base. Seems that a political appointee was upset at the mention of the so called big bang theory telling a web designer that:

"... the Big Bang was "not proven fact; it is opinion," and thus the word "theory" should be used with every mention of Big Bang."

Aside from the obvious failure to understand what a theory is in science-much more than an opinion- the appointee is clearly mixing his religion with science. The latest flap involves attempts to censor comments related to how the universe might end:

"An e-mail message from Erica Hupp at NASA headquarters to the authors of the original release at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said, "NASA is not in the habit of frightening the public with doom and gloom scenarios."

Of course the issue is not so much how the universe might end...that is just an excuse. After all the Bible has plenty to say about the end of time in a theological sense and it is down right scary. The real issue is that end of the universe is a long ways off...maybe a zillion years in the future. If the universe is expected to have a long life into the future then clearly the universe could be as empirical science claims 13 or 14 billion years old. This is what is really frightening to Biblical literalists- to be reminded that the Bible is a science text book.

I can only wonder what the next assault on science will be: gutting the NSF? Giving grants for creationist research into the Grand canyon? Or maybe research to prove that human life begins at conception, or that there is life after death.

Of course here in Kansas the Board of Education has already shown the way by redefining science to include supernatural causes. So lets not only put the proper spin on our warming climate, and evolving(no wait adapting) viruses: let's put the cabash once and for all on all this disturbing cosmology!

George Deutsch, the appointee I mentioned, got canned, but I think that is only because he got caught. Of course that is only my opinion, not a theory.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Civil disobedience or something else?

There is no trend here that I have two posts in a row dealing with pregnancy but the Lawrence Journal World today reported the latest on a growing trend- pharmacists and other medical workers refusing to treat or give substandard care to patients who are asking for treatments or medication that the patient requested. Commonly as in this case a pharmacist refuses to dispense emergency contraception because he or she is morally opposed to it.

Now I am all for people living their lives according to moral principles but it seems that there is another principle that this has to balanced against, namely the rights of patients to medical treatment that is in their own interest. Medical professionals do have an obligation here to be non judgmental. After all the patient is living his or her life based on some set of values, so unless the patient is doing something medically risky to the patient, the medical professional should fulfill the request.

The pharmacist's actions are not, as some might claim, a form of civil disobedience. Civil disobedience involves believing so strongly that a government action is wrong that you put yourself at risk to disobey a government action and you willingly take the consequences. By the way, back in the 1960's some antiwar protesters who allegedly practiced civil disobedience didn't want to face the consequences either and I thought that was wrong as well.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Pregnancy tests and frogs...

Now this is so bizarre at first glance it has to be true. According to an article from Reuters, a chytrid fungus that is currently devastating frog populations around the world may be linked a formerly common test for pregnancy. Urine from the a woman was injected into female African clawed frogs and if the woman was pregnant the frogs would be stimulated to ovulate by the hormones in the woman's blood.

The tie in to the fungus? It turns out that the African clawed frog is a vector for the fungus, not harmed by it but able to carry it to other frogs when the African clawed frogs were inadvertently or intentionally released in areas in which they are not native. The fungus is believed to be be a major factor in the decline of at least some frog populations.

The African Clawed Frog is a common aquarium animal and in certain parts of the world is an invasive pest in it's own right. See for instance

The African Clawed frog or Xenopus is a common experimental animal. In fact, as an historical aside, a gene from Xenopus was the first animal gene cloned and inserted into the genome of another organism back in 1973 (

Image from

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Second Life

In my limited spare time I have started playing Second Life(SL. This is one of those massively multiple user universes in which you can create and interact with other people. I think these sorts of systems have a lot of potential for education as well as recreation. Indeed I belong to a second life group that is exploring these possibilities. The hardware and software both at the server end and the user end are not yet up to that task.

Second life has a nice scripting language that can be used to make sophisticated objects and simulations and it is lots of fun to build, and create your own avatars-alternate personas.

The first picture shows, Simeon Gateaux, my avatar in SL. He is pretty conventional.

But you can really modify just about all aspects of your avatar. For instance, I created a female avatar. Notice she is dressed in a traditional Japanese Kimono. I had just finished reading Memoirs of a Geisha, which by the way is a wonderful book (forget the movie) and the Kimono I bought from a clothing designer in SL.

I like the way you can do most anything in SL and some times some really amusing things happen such as one of my neighbors foam machine went crazy and covered my Heliport with blue foam.

I got a really neat Oriental type image that I hope to use as a basis for a real life(RL) painting:

The blue bubbly material is the foam and I am hovering above the ground inspecting the foam. The heliport itself actually is to the left just outside the frame. I was most interested in getting that sort of ethereal looking foam. SL has weather, and you might be able to make out a bit of late afternoon fog.

For more about second life go to

There is also a Second Life Wiki: http://

A basic SL membership is currently free, but if you want to do anything serious you need to buy land and there are a number of pricing tiers or levels. SL has its own currency the Linden which is convertible to dollars and players can buy and sell objects in game. Some players actually make their real life living out of what they do in the SL economy. Needless to say I am not one of them.

Oh if you join Second Life, tell them Simeon Gateaux sent you (I get a bonus) and look for me online in one guise or the other.

Beer and Present Danger

From Heather Havrilesky via the LA times comes this way of making it through the President's State of the Union Address using a little drinking game:

In part the game goes like this:

"The game is simple enough for even your average registered voter to understand. Basically, every time Bush says "terror," "terrorism," "terrorist," "war on terror" or "Terror Dome," you drink.Also drink when the president winks, nods and points at someone in the audience in rapid succession; drink each time he refers to 9/11 or uses the word "nuke-u-lar," and drink something bitter when he says that "the state of our union is strong." Whenever there's a close-up of a sour-faced Democrat, drink. If it's Hilary Clinton, Ted Kennedy or Harry Reid, drink twice."

Well I think you get the idea. Personally I did not not watch the speech figuring I could catch the wrap up on Yahoo today. Besides drinking only encourages stupification, a fancy way of saying drunkenness, not the mental state we want to encourage given the state of our country.