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Inbreeding, Invading & Pacemaking || Labrat’s Digest

Aaaaannd I’m baaacck with The Labrat’s Digest! Happy new year to all, and it’s time to see what’s in store for science in 2019. This week, we’re taking a trip back in time to the Tudor years, checking out some of the critters in our homes, and finally, can scientists create a pacemaker for the brain?

Keeping it in the Family

It’s a poorly kept secret that many of the European royal dynasties believed in keeping their power concentrated within the bloodline. And a big part of “keeping it all in the family” has always included members of these ruling houses marrying and having offspring with their distant or close cousins, aunts, sometimes even their siblings! This way, they could make sure that the bloodline was kept “pure” and fit for ruling the kingdom.

This practice isn’t ancient history either. Queen Elizabeth II of England married her third cousin, Prince Phillip, and they’re still married to this day!

It’s also a poorly kept secret that inbreeding can be dangerous for the child;
you see high rates of miscarriages, stillbirths, deaths, or genetic deficiencies that manifest as physical deformities or mental disabilities. One particular deformity that was common among royals was known as the “Habsburg jaw“.

The Habsburgs were a powerful Austrian family that ruled over various parts of Europe during the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. They were also notorious for their incestuous relationships: nine out of eleven royal marriages during their reign were between family members. The Habsburgs did this in a desperate bid to maintain power, but it backfired in a very unpleasant way.

The “Habsburg Jaw”, which is a condition correctly known as “mandibular prognathism,” is characterized by a long chin, jutting lower jaw and an abnormally large tongue. Sometimes, it can affect one’s ability to speak properly and make it difficult to fully close one’s mouth.

Take a look at these portraits of the Habsburgs, and this defining feature will quickly become obvious:

The Hapsburgs didn’t feel the need to stop marrying their family members, so their medical issues only proceeded to get worse.

Charles II was the last Habsburg ruler of Spain; his father, Philip IV, married his own sister’s daughter. Charles was nicknamed El Hechizado (Spanish for “the hexed one”), as his lower jaw was so pronounced that he struggled to speak, eat solid food, and his oversized tongue caused him to drool.

On top of this, he was short, lame, impotent and mildly retarded, and the icing on the cake: Charles II was sterile. Unable to produce any more heirs, the Habsburg’s rule finally came to an end in 1700, when Charles died a few days before his 39th birthday.

But why does inbreeding cause these sorts of deformities? Well, let’s learn about a phenomenon is known as genetic variation, which is crucial for the survival of any species.

When a sperm cell and an egg cell combine, they each come with their own set of 23 chromosomes which contain genes which code for different characteristics. The alleles of the genes randomly assemble so you inherit a mix of characteristics from your mother and your father. Because of this, if you have a defective gene from one parent, it’s likely that a working gene from your other parent will cancel this defect out.

But when your parents are related, chances are they’re carrying around similar copies of the genes that they would have inherited from their parents. So, if you inherit a defective gene from your mother, and your father is related to her….CHANCES AAARRRE you’re getting two copies of this defective gene.

So when the genetic variation is decreased, the chances of inheriting defective genes are increased. This is why inbreeding leads to so many different types of deformities. Sometimes, “keeping it in the family” isn’t always the best idea.

Rare bacteria popping up in your home?

Among the many different types of bacteria, extremophiles are definitely the daredevils. As their name suggests, these bacteria thrive in extreme environments: inside of volcanoes, hot springs glaciers, the Dead Sea…

So what are these bacteria doing in our homes?

A recent study showed that some extremophile species of bacteria are popping up inside of water heaters in the Unites States and Puerto Rico. One such species is Thermus scotoductuswhich is usually found in hot springs such as those in the Yellowstone National park.

The same microbes from these hot springs ending up in your home?

The temperature and organic environment inside the water heaters make them an ideal home for these types of bacteria, so it’s no surprise that these critters have taken up residence there.

But the real question, which still remains unanswered, is how did these rare bacteria get there in the first place?

A pacemaker for the brain?

Just like we’ve seen pacemakers work to keep the heart going, could we also see the same kind of technology to keep the brain working?

Scientists have developed a new neurostimulator which can listen to and stimulate electric current in the brain at the same time. This has potential for treating neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s and epilepsy.

The device is known as the WAND (wireless artifact-free neuromodulation device). It monitors the brain’s electrical activity, then gives off an electrical stimulation if it detects something’s going wrong.

The WAND is very effective at preventing tremors or seizures in patients with neurological conditions. It learns to recognize the signs of tremor or seizure, then adjusts its stimulation to prevent the unwanted activity.

The device is wireless, autonomous and closed-loop (can stimulate and record simultaneously), so it’s everything you’d need to respond and adjust to seizures happening in real time. Additionally, when compared to other closed-loop systems which can record electrical activity from 8 points in the brain, WAND can record from over 128 points in the brain!

As science goes, WAND is not quite ready to be the solution to all our problems yet. Work is still being done to enable the device to figure out the best way to stimulate a patient for the best outcome.

Best Podcasts This Week

Is there anything you’d like to see in the digest next week? Leave a comment in the box below!

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Glow-In-The-Dark Mushrooms + Weird Looking Mouse Sperm? || Labrat’s Digest

Guess what time it is! Yes yes I know you’re excited. It’s another Labrat’s Digest, a periodic recap of some of the coolest (and weirdest) science news from around the world. This week we’ll be having some fun with glow-in-the-dark mushrooms, weird looking mouse sperm, and asking how smart are parrots, really? Time to jump in!

Forget Magic Mushrooms! These are fluorescent mushrooms.

Did you know that there are over 100 species of mushrooms that give off light? For a long time, scientists have been trying to figure out what exactly has been making these mushrooms glow. Well, now there’s a new study out that seems to have the answer, and finds out even more. 

In case you don’t know, mushrooms are actually the fruiting bodies of some species of fungi (singular fungus). This means that the typical toadstool shaped mushrooms that we see actually contain the sexually reproductive cells (spores) of these types of fungi. 

Just like fireflies that light up at night, some mushroom species also light up in the same way. In the daytime, they’ll look like perfectly boring old fungus, but when the sun goes down, these babies come out to play!

No, this picture isn’t edited. These are real life glow in the dark mushrooms. 

Bioluminescence (the fancy scientific word for glow-in-the-dark) occurs in different species of animals, plants and fungi; for example there are some types of fish and worms that display this same glow-at-night ability.  The glow is caused by the activity of an enzyme known as luciferase which oxidizes a fluorescent compound known as luciferin to give off light. 

(Fun fact: the name luciferin is derived from the Latin word lucifer, which means “light-bringer”, just as the Lucifer a.k.a. the Devil in Christianity is presumed to be a fallen angel who was previously the light-bringer)

Bioluminescence often occurs in nature, for example, here at the Glistening Waters lagoon in Falmouth, Jamaica, which lights up and glows in the dark.

Even though we knew that luciferase was responsible for bioluminescence, scientists never really had a clear understanding of how it worked, and what the purpose of the phenomenon really was. Until now…

A giant study, consisting of researchers from twelve different institutions and led by led by Ilia Yampolsky have been able to figure out how the mushroom Neonothopanus nambi glows.

Neonothopanus nambi is a poisonous, bioluminescent mushroom. These researchers were able to identify the key genes responsible for the its bioluminescence, and also figure out what enzymes were responsible to creating luciferin, which is needed by the luciferase to create the glow-in-the-dark effect.  They also compared mushrooms that glow with those that don’t, and they realized that over a hundred million years ago, a gene duplication happened that set the stage for the evolution of bioluminescence as we know it today.

But this team didn’t just stop there. The researchers also went on to engineer another organism, a type of yeast known as Pichia pastoris. By inserting the gene that codes for luciferase into the yeast, they were able to produce glow-in-the-dark colonies of yeast cells! 

Even though this may seem like more fun than function, this type of technology actually has many real-life uses. In the medical sector, for starters, there is the possibility that infected/defective tissues can be engineered to light up for easier detection. Or if you want to think REALLY Sci-Fi, maybe one day we’ll be able to replace street lights with glow-in-the-dark plants or animals. Either way, this is some pretty cool stuff. 

What The Shape Of Mouse Sperm Can Tell Us (and why?)?

So here’s a weird one…

Sometimes scientists have trouble telling organisms apart. For example, mice. Often, one species looks like another one, and the only way to tell them apart is by analysing the DNA, which can be a lengthy and expensive undertaking. 

UNTIL NOW! In a recent study, researchers have figured out that different species of mice have different shaped sperm cells, and this is a much easier way to distinguish between species. 

For this experiment, scientists trapped 58 different species of mice and removed and pickled (yes PICKLED) their testicles in formalin. This way, they were able to analyse individual sperm cells and figure out the shape and size of cells from the different species. 

Traditional shape of sperm cells

We all know the traditional shape of the sperm cell: little tadpole looking critters with large heads and long tails. But in this research, the team discovered quite a few variations of sperm cells; some had hooked heads, “like the top of a soft-serve ice cream cone”,  while some were smooth and rounded. They also noticed differences in the midsection of the sperm cells and how much power they had to swim, or in the length of their tails. 

Ok but why…?

As mentioned earlier, this can be an easier way to differentiate between species of mice that may look identical. Another thing that the researchers expected was that similar-looking mice would have similar-looking sperm cells. But wrong! According to the team lead Rossi de la Sancha:

You’d expect the sperm of closely related species to be really similar to each other, but they discriminate really nicely. Sometimes the sperm from distantly related species looked more alike than the sperm from close relatives.

Some of the different shapes of mouse sperm cells

Even though it’s pretty weird, this study has two useful implications. First, because some species of mice serve as host for diseases, being able to tell these species apart can help in preventing the spread of these diseases. Secondly, with the world in its sixth mass extinction, many species are being lost completely. Being able to tell species apart is an important step for scientists who are working to protect endangered species. Again, in the words of de la Sancha:

We’re losing species faster than we can identify new ones. This study could make us better able to understand bigger patterns of biodiversity. Using sperm to tell rodents apart is adding one more tool to the toolbox.

Still weird, yea I know.

Best Podcasts This Week

Want to know more about this week’s topics? Leave a comment below. And don’t forget to share with your friends!

Gene-Edited Babies?! What the FOETUS IS GOING ON? || Labrat’s Digest

Welcome back!!! I haven’t quit yet 🙂 It’s time for another installment of the Labrat’s Digest, a periodic recap of some of the coolest (and weirdest) science news from around the world. This week we’ll be focusing on one of the most controversial bits of science news that’s been dominating the science news: the creation of CRISPR-Edited babies. So let’s dive in! 

But first….

Before you begin, you should know that I talk a lot about a technique called CRISPR in this post. If you want to learn some more about CRISPR and how it works, check out my previous posts on CRISPR and the patent debate associated with it. This will be especially helpful if you’re new to this blog, or you just have no idea what CRISPR is…

So what’s all this hulabaloo about gene edited babies now?

The place is Hong Kong. The time? Just about a week ago.

Scientists from around the world were gathered at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong. This is an annual conference for researchers to gather and discuss the progress being made in human germline editing, and some of the ethical considerations associated with editing the human genome

Enter He Jiankui, a  genome-editing researcher at the Southern University of Science and Technology in China’s Guangdong province. He was one of the attendees at the conference, and he had a startling announcement to make:

He Jiankui claims to have helped create the world’s first genome-edited babies — twin girls, who were born this month.

Yes, you read that right. The world’s first gene-edited HUMAN BABIES are here. Ladies and gentlemen (and Orphan Black fans…hey!), we have entered the reality of science fiction. 

He’s experiment aimed to equip the babies with HIV immunity. He used the CRISPR technique to edit embryos to disable the genetic pathway that HIV uses to infect cells, then he impregnated a woman with these embryos. The pregnancy resulted in the birth of twin girls, Lulu and Nana. He goes on to talk about how successful it’s all been in this handy dandy YouTube video: 

Now this all sounds too good to be true. Amazing even. Revolutionary science, a cure for HIV? The scientific community should be celebrating!

Wellllll…..not so much. 

Immediately after He’s announcement, alarm bells began to sound throughout the scientific community. In fact, this one experiment has create ripple waves of confusion, anger and outright disgust among scientists worldwide. BUT WHY IS EVERYONE SO MAD?

1. No Peer-Reviewed Study

For starters, other than his dramatic announcement and neat little video, there is no scientific evidence to support the claims that He is making. He has published no research (if you’ve been paying attention to these posts, you know how important that is), his university has distanced himself from the “study”, and no one has examined the babies to know if He is even telling the truth. 

A number of scientists have analysed the data He did provide, i.e. the genetic sequences in question, and they’ve all agreed that it seems like some genetic editing DID take place. But without being able to independently analyse the babies’ DNA, we can’t confirm the science for sure. 

2. But if it IS true, it’s pretty unethical…

The reason that the scientific community is in uproar is because genome editing experiments like this are still in their infancy. Science is not yet at the place where we can be actively experimenting on changing the human genome, because even the slightest error can have devastating and fatal consequences which can be passed down for generations.  (Seriously, if you’ve never watched Orphan Black, now is the time! If you do, remember how all the clones ended up with an error that gave them an incurable degenerative disease and a shorter life span??? Yep, same idea. )

Additionally, He claimed to create a mutation on the CCR5 gene by deleting a 32-DNA-letter long sequence known as delta-32. This deletion is SUPPOSED to inactivate the CCR5 gene and disable the HIV infection pathway. 

However, other scientists who have looked at the data have realized that the CCR5 deletions that He claimed to introduce into the babies’ cells by CRISPR gene editing are not identical to the delta-32 mutation seen in nature. 

In other words, He Jiankui created a mutation that has never been seen before in nature, and he’s done this on actual living human beings.  

This is not how science is done. Techniques like this have to be repeatedly tested in vitro (in a test tube or in non-viable embryos) before someone should even think about trying it on humans. Genome editing techniques are so prone to error, and it literally only takes the smallest tiniest mistake to cause a fatal mutation. AND, because edits to the genome end up being passed on to children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren…and so on. Before you know it, we could have a whole new genetic disorder affecting half the world. 

Unethical science experiments have had devastating consequences throughout history. Remember the Stanford prison experiment?

3. This whole thing was pretty unneccessary.

The truth is, ethical considerations aside, this new development in HIV research wasn’t exactly….needed. While HIV immunity would be a great thing to have, according to genome-editing scientist Fyodor Urnov, at the Altius Institute for Biomedical Sciences in Seattle:

“There are many safe and effective ways to use genetics to protect people from HIV that do not involve editing an embryo’s genes. There is, at present, no unmet medical need that embryo editing addresses.”

Yep, so it’s kind of a big waste of time. The risk far outweighs the reward here, and there are many other GENETIC conditions (HIV isn’t one by the way) such as cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anaemia, Down’s syndrome, for which this type of research would make a lot more sense. 

Even worse, He’s logic doesn’t even seem to make sense! In the words of Paula Cannon, who studies HIV at the University of Southern California:

“Some strains of HIV do not even use this protein to enter cells, they use another protein called CXCR4. Even people who are naturally CCR5-negative are not completely resistant to HIV because they could be infected by a CXCR4 strain.”

In other words, the science just doesn’t add up. 

So when will we know what’s really going on?

I hate to keep referencing Orphan Black (not really) but it’s a great example to explain this point. In the show, it wasn’t until the clones were in their 20s and 30s that they began to show symptoms of a genetic disorder. And this is pretty much how this type of science goes. 

Seriously, go watch Orphan Black guys. It’s a great depiction of what might happen in the future if this kind of human germline editing is allowed to continue unchecked. And it’s also a pretty cool show. 

It’s going to take years and years and years of research and observation to see what effects, if any, the gene-editing has on the twins. And who knows? In that time, Lulu and Nana might have babies of their own, and pass along a devastating genetic defect to one of their kids.

I don’t mean to sound alarmist, but I TOLD YOU SO. I’ve been speaking about the need for regulating CRISPR research for yeaaars. And here we are, with a shining example of what can happen when we let the wheels of science run wild without any ethical considerations. 

Another hurdle in determining what’s really happening is that, for their own good, the real identities of Lulu, Nana and their parents must be kept confidential. So it’s pretty hard to evaluate the progress of the children if no one (except He of course) even knows who they are! But making their identities public comes with its own set of ethical concerns. One workaround that has been proposed is that He supplies anonymous samples from the babies to independent researchers for them to do their own analysis. No one knows yet what the solution (if any) is going to be. 

What happens to He now?

He Jiankui at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing

Well since his dramatic announcement, things haven’t been going too great for He. Right after he made the announcement, China’s science ministry ordered He to stop doing any science whatsoever. Lock up shop, and stop the work. In the meantime, an investigation has been launched by the government of Guangdong, and He’s university basically wants nothing to do with him or the research. 

This, along with the fact that He kept his work a secret until unveiling a (clearly premeditated) extravagant PR release for his work, has him on the bad side of pretty much everyone in science. 

We probably won’t have any more information until the investigation is complete, but in the meantime, the scientific community has plenty to think about.

What does this mean for the future of human genetic editing? How do we prevent this from happening again? Is it already happening – are scientists elsewhere experimenting with gene editing in humans? Where do we draw the line between ethics and scientific development? What regulations should be put in place to govern this type of science? Do we even need regulations?

All in all, this is sure to a be a hot-topic in science for a long time to come. 

Best Podcasts This Week

Have a question about this week’s topic? Leave a comment in the box below! 

New Mars Landing, Can Paralyzed Patients Use a Tablet Now? + more || Labrat’s Digest

Welcome back!!! It’s time for another installment of the Labrat’s Digest, a periodic recap of some of the coolest (and weirdest) science news from around the world. This week we’ll be looking at topics such as the Mars Landing, some pretty interesting microscopic creatures, as well as a brand new brain-computer interface that might be revolutionary new development in medicine. So let’s get right to it.  

New Robot Arrives on Mars

For all the space aficionados out there, this one is for you.  At precisely 19:53 GMT on Tuesday, the In-Sight Probe, a brand new NASA robot, touched down on the surface of the red planet after a movie-worthy seven minute descent.  Check out the exciting NASA celebration below:

While the In-sight Probe is not the first robot to make it to Mars, it will be the first to explore the interior of the planet. Scientists already have a pretty good idea what the surface of Mars is like, but the probe will explore the depth of the planet, from core to crust. The only other planet that has been studies in this way is earth, so this is a pretty big deal for space exploration. The In-Sight has already sent back its first images of Mars, and at the moment, is sitting on Elysium Planitia, a flat plain close to the planet’s equator.

The probe will focus on three major experiments during its time on the red planet:

First, a group of Franco-British seismometers will be lifted on to the surface to listen for “Marsquakes”. These vibrations will reveal where the rock layers are and what they are made of.  Secondly, a German-led “mole” system will burrow up to 5m into the ground to take the planet’s temperature to give a sense of how active Mars still is. And finally, the third experiment will use radio transmissions to very precisely determine how the planet is wobbling on its axis.

According to deputy project scientist Suzanne Smrekar:

“If you take a raw egg and a cooked egg and you spin them, they wobble differently because of the distribution of liquid in the interior. And today we really don’t know if the core of Mars is liquid or solid, and how big that core is. InSight will give us this information.”

Here’s a brief history of Mars exploration over time.

Climate Change Microbes?

Yes so I’m back with my favourite topic, climate change. Married to my other favourite topic, microbiology. *big broad smile*

In a new study, scientists have discovered almost two dozen new microbes! More importantly, it seems that most of these new little critters use hydrocarbons such as methane and butane as energy sources.

(Ugh, why is she telling me this?) Wellll…methane and butane are greenhouse gases. So if there are new microorganisms that USE these harmful greenhouse gases for their normal respiratory functions, then these same microbes might be able limit the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Even more than that, they might one day be useful for cleaning up oil spills!

A type of Methane-Eating Bacteria Under the Microscope. 

Deep inside the extremely hot, underwater sediments of the Guaymas Basin in the Gulf of California, scientists have discovered a number of pollutant-eating bacteria that are so unheard of, they represent a whole new branch on the tree of life

While this is just the first step in the development of this type of science, the discovery of these new microbes highlights the potential that undiscovered species might have on the environment.  

New Hope For the Paralyzed?

Another cool thing in science this week actually reminds me of a House episode from many years back (Remember the one where the guy in a coma could use his mind to answer yes or no on a computer?)

Another new study allowed three patients who were completely paralyzed to use a tablet to shop online and chat with their families and friends JUST BY THINKING ABOUT CLICKING THE MOUSE. 

Yep, this isn’t science fiction. The patients in the study simply THOUGHT about moving the mouse, and the brain-computer interface they were hooked up to was able to interpret their thoughts and translate it into action. 

The tool is called a BrainGate brain-computer interface (BCI) and it allows  people with paralysis to directly operate an off-the-shelf tablet device just by thinking about making cursor movements and clicks.

Two of the study participants using the BCI to chat with each other online using an everyday tablet. 

The patients were able to navigate through commonly used tablet programs, including email, chat, music-streaming and video-sharing apps. They could browse the web, check the weather and even shop online. Even cooler than that, one participant, who is a musician, played a snippet of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” on a digital piano interface!

As cool as this study is, it’s important to remember that this is still in the very early stages. (If you learned anything from my last post, you’ll know that three participants is an incredibly small number to report success). Nonetheless, every scientific discovery usually starts with a groundbreaking study like this, and hopefully scientists will continue to work on this type of technology and give hope to paralyzed patients across the world. 

Best Podcasts This Week

Heard any exciting science news this week? Leave a comment in the box below! Don’t forget to like & share! 

It’s goodbye to the kilogram! And is there a new HIV miracle drug? + more || Labrat’s Digest

Welcome to the first installation of the Labrat’s Digest, a weekly (*fingers crossed*) recap of some of the coolest (and weirdest) science news from around the world. This week features updates to some of the most important scientific standards ever, a climate change mitigation option, and is there an HIV cure out there?

Scientific Standards Out The Window?

Many of us in the scientific community were fascinated when we heard news that a vote was passed to overhaul the International Historic System of Units.

For those lucky enough to have never had to derive a formula in physics class, here’s a quick lesson. All you need to know is that there are seven “base” or SI units, from which calculations for everything else are derived.

These seven units are:

  • metre for length
  • kilogram for mass
  • second for time
  • ampere for electric current
  • kelvin for temperature
  • candela for luminous intensity
  • mole for amount of substance

Now, this new vote changes the definition of four of these units: the kilogram, the ampere, the kelvin, and the mole. This means all calculations including units derived from these four units will also be affected. What are some of these? Temperature, acceleration, even gravity could be different!

Ok, ok, maybe not. Let’s dial back the dramatics for a minute. Of course, you might be wondering :


Why did over 60 countries one day decide to get up and change all these standard units that we’ve been using for centuries?

Valid question. The truth is, the vote will make the standard units more reliable than their previous definitions. Let’s take the kilogram for example. We all know what a kilogram is, and what happens when you put 1kg of bananas or apples on the scale? But who decided what a kilogram was in the first place?

Usually, the mathematicians of the time assigned measurements to the base units based on physical objects. So the standard definition of the kilogram was based on the weight of a very specific platinum cylinder, known as the 
International Prototype of the Kilogram (IPK) stored in a very secure vault at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM)  in France.

Seriously, I’m not joking. The kilogram, that we use now to do EVERYTHING, is pretty much the weight of some arbitrary piece of metal selected by a group of old white men (sorry…the General Conference on Weights and Measures) 130 years ago.

The platinum kilogram, protected by multiple layers to reduce loss of mass from exposure.

If this platinum cylinder were to one day disappear or be destroyed, there would no longer be any weight to verify what a kilogram is. Not to mention no one knows how much mass the cylinder (like any other object on earth) would lose over time. So now the new General Conference wants to create a more scientific definition for these highly important base units. 

This new vote will define the weight of the kilogram based on the mathematically proven Planck constant, a fundamental constant of quantum physics. Meanwhile the ampere will be defined by the elementary electrical charge (e), the kelvin will be defined by the Boltzmann constant (k) and the mole will be defined by the Avogadro constant (NA).

The actual values for the new units shouldn’t change much, but now they’ll be much more stable and reliable, and “ensure that the set of SI base units will continue to be both stable and useful.” So no worries. It’s all in the name of scientific improvement. 

Fighting Climate Change…With Our Soil?

Yea, I know you’re tired of hearing about climate change. (Too bad, I don’t care.) By now we all know how bad global warming is. Read this if you’re living under a rock or “don’t believe in climate change”.

Anyway, since global warming is caused by a build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, then wouldn’t it be great if we found a way to remove it from the air?

Cue Carbon Sequestration!

Basically, carbon sequestration is the process by which carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere and absorbed by something else. All the better if that “something else” is able to use carbon to do its own business. Increasingly, it’s being looked at as an alternate way to reduce greenhouse gases and reduce the effects of climate change. 

In this opinion piece by Ronald Amundson and Léopold Biardeau, which was published last week, the writers outline the potential of using soil to sequester carbon.

Soil is a great option for carbon sequestration because organic carbon in soil is already part of the natural carbon cycle, and the world’s soils hold around twice the amount of carbon that is found in the atmosphere and in vegetation. Organic material is manufactured by plants using carbon dioxide from the air and water.

It’s a pretty great article, and they do a far better job of analysis than I will even attempt to do, but in short, the article looks at the factor that would influence the ability to employ soil carbon sequestration as a major climate change mitigation tool. As the article quotes:


As we outline below, cultural, economic, and physical barriers mean that soils face dim prospects as major carbon sinks…Undoubtedly, social and political differences between nations will mean that potential barriers may indeed be different elsewhere. However, this only further underscores the complexities impeding the implementation of soil carbon sequestration on a global scale.


Opinion: Soil carbon sequestration is an elusive climate mitigation tool,  (Ronald Amundson, Léopold Biardeau, 2018)

Is Gammora the HIV wonder drug?

So about a week ago someone sent me this tweet and asked me to fact-check it:

The scientist in me was immediately skeptical. (And here comes a short lesson in how to figure out how reliable scientific info is)

First of all, the tweet didn’t cite any journal, paper, or even article about this information. This was an immediate red flag. Every “outstanding leap for medicine” should be published and peer-reviewed for it to even have potential for real-world use.

Secondly, the hair on the back of my neck went up at “first human clinical trial” (Only the first? Ok, but is that enough to truly evaluate this drug?),

also at “99%” (Almost nothing in science is really 99%)

and “within 4 weeks of treatment” (How long was this study done for? Have long term effects been evaluated?).

This entire thing felt like a 3-course meal of click-bait. 

From this tweet alone, I had already made up my mind that even if this drug is really “an outstanding leap for medicine”, it is frankly a little premature to make such a declaration. Anyway, as requested, I decided not to be swayed by the accompanying threads of how this was an example of drug companies keeping cures from black people, and did what I was asked. I fact checked it. 

Lol well the first thing that popped up on my Google search was this article, entitled “Gammora does not cure HIV“. Not a promising start, and to make it worse, I could find no peer-reviewed (or even preliminary) journal articles about the study. (WHICH IS THE ONLY THING THAT MATTERS). Hmm…maybe the drug companies really are hiding stuff from us…

I did manage to find this announcement about the study’s results, which does appear pretty promising. The study was divided into two phases:

  • Phase 1: Nine HIV-infected patients in Uganda were randomly administered varying doses of Gammora for up to 4-5 weeks. Most patients showed a significant reduction of the viral load of up to 90% from the baseline during the first four weeks.
  • Phase 2: Two weeks after Phase 1, patients were given Gammora with additional retroviral treatment combined for another 4-5 weeks. The results found that combined-treated patients demonstrated sustained viral suppression and showed up to 99% reduction in viral load from baseline within four weeks.

So, FACT CHECK:

  1. Gammora does not eliminate 99% of the virus. Gammora alone reduces the viral load by 90%, while Gammora plus another anti-retroviral reduces load up to 99%. Still pretty impressive, but the tweet’s numbers were off.
  2. This study was only conducted on nine patients. Don’t get me wrong, the results look pretty good. But even at the most basic level, nine patients is nowhere near close to an accurate representation of the population. 
  3. The study is still in its very early stages. The announcement mentions that the company will start Phase 2b in the coming months, involving around 50 patients that are given Gammora over two to three months. A 6-week study isn’t even close to enough time to evaluate long-term effects or side effects of the drug. 

Even the company themselves, Zion Medical, aren’t calling it an “outstanding leap of medicine”. Instead they said:


These first clinical results were beyond our expectations and promise hope in finding a cure for a disease that’s been discovered over 35 years. Given the limited nature of this study, we are excited to prove the efficiency of our drug in Phase 2b with a greater number of participants over a longer period of time.”

So yea sorry. Sometimes we just need to read for ourselves. I also did find quite a few other articles about the claims, which were…skeptical, to put it mildly. 

HIV cure smacks of “quackery”Reports of Imminent HIV Cure, Once Again, Are False

Still, Gammora does show promising results so far, and hopefully the researchers will continue to work on it until it becomes a viable cure for the disease. 

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