Snippets from Science

• An international team of 70 scientists from 26 institutions worked at “breakneck” speed to determine the genetic characteristics of the H1N1 (swine flu) virus. The genetic material of the virus contains two genes from birds, three from pigs, and a human gene transmitted to us from birds in 1968, which makes it a “hybrid” virus. The H1N1 virus is not closely related to other flu viruses, and it can spread between pigs, between humans, and between pigs and humans. Unfortunately, our immune systems don’t recognize the virus. However, thanks to the quick work of scientists working together, there is reason to believe that a vaccine can be developed. (Science Magazine, on line, May 22, 2009)

• Viruses generally reproduce in cells of a specific animal or plant species. But an ever-present concern in science is when a virus “jumps species.” For example, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) was apparently transmitted from monkeys to hunters who handled “bush meat” while preparing it for human consumption in Africa. With more frequent contact between wild animals and people, there will be more cases of wild animal viruses infecting humans. Recently, a new and aggressive virus, apparently carried by infected rodents, infected five people in South Africa. Four of the five died. The virus, called the “Lujo” virus, is a hemorrhagic fever virus, which causes bleeding from the gums and body orfices as organ systems fail (the Ebola virus is another kind of hemorrhagic virus). The problem when a new, exotic virus jumps to humans is that, since our immune systems have never been exposed to the virus, they fail to produce antibodies to destroy the invader viruses, which reproduce in an unimpaired manner. (PLoS Pathogens, on line; other sources)

• A company in Holland produces a widely used chemical called succinic acid from crude oil or natural gas. The company recently discovered that the acid can be made from biologically derived starch, a renewable resource. The process is claimed to require 40 percent less energy and to release less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It’s this kind of innovation that is giving momentum to the “green revolution.” (The Economist, June 6-12, 2009)

• Past studies provided evidence that taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen (e.g., Advil) and naproxen (Aleve), helped protect the brain against Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). In a recent 12-year study of 2,736 people with an average age of 74, no protection was found among chronic users of these drugs. In fact, those taking heavy doses of the drugs had a 66 percent greater chance of developing AD and other dementias than those who did not use the drugs, or used them infrequently. It was noted that past studies involved younger participants, and that an age factor may play a role in providing protection. (U. of Washington Group Health, April 2009; Brain in the News, May 2009)

• Longest insect? Stick insects, up to 21 inches long. Smallest insect? Costa Rican “Fairy Fly,” actually a tiny wasp, is from 0.5 to 1 mm long. One was reported to be 0.2 mm, or 0.008 inches, long. Heaviest insect? The Goliath Beetle (Goliathus goliath) can reach 100 grams, which is almost 1/4 of a pound. Step on one and you throw away your shoe.