It's not rocket science…

Greener Solar Cells are a Stepping Stone for Renewable Energy

Greener solar cells are now possible thanks to research done by Ayomi Perera, a doctoral student in chemistry, who graduated from Kansas State University.  While other researchers focus on the efficiency of solar cells, Perera’s research is making technology greener by improving dye-sensitized cells.  Perera combines less toxic dye with a bacteria in order to create cells that are more sustainable to living organisms and the environment.

Perera starts by using a special species of the bacteria Mycobacterium smegmatis, that can be found in cornflakes and in the soil.  It produces the protein MspA, which can be applied to various applications after it has been purified.  Once purified, the protein is combined with a dye that is less toxic than traditional dyes.  The mixture is then applied to individual solar cells and tested.

The technology is the first of its type, even though the process doesn’t improve the efficiency of the solar cells.  ”This type of research where you have a biodegradable or environmentally friendly component inside a solar cell has not been done before, and the research is still in its early stages right now,” Perera said. “But we have noticed that it’s working and that means that the protein is not decomposed in the light and electric generating conditions. Because of that we believe that we’ve actually made the first protein-incorporated solar cell.”  As oil fields run dry, these new cells are a sustainable alternative for the future.…

A video about Perera’s research is available at

Second-hand toxins, an experiment on the common sole

The early stages of life are often considered the most critical, in some species of fish, this fight for life starts before they are even born. It is well documented that early life stage fish are more sensitive to toxins than their full-grown counterparts,[1] as well as the early life stages of oviparous fish species who have multiple times the normal level of exposure to pollutants accumulated by the mother fish, transferred to the egg together through lipids and proteins nourishing the unborn eggs.[2]

For this study, researchers measured the water and tissue concentrations of

lipophilic persistent organic pollutants (POPs), pollutants transferred from mother to egg, durring the development of embryos into juvenile fish.  The model organism was aquacultured common sole (Solea solea). Under conditions with mixed pollutant levels, the experiment revealed that maternally transferred highly POPs are barely excreted and reach peak concentrations at the end of the yolk-sac stage, the critical moment when the larvae has to switch to external feeding. Further study may reveal in combination with the further concentration in the developing larvae similar to seen in this study could result in extreme body burdens during critical stages of larval development, with serious consequences for larval survival, even when eggs and larvae can develop in pristine areas, with minimal pollutants absorbed post hatch.




[1] Hutchinson TH, Solbe J, Kloepper-Sams PJ. 1988. Analysis of the ECETOC aquatic toxicity

(EAT) database—III—Comparative toxicity of chemical substances to different life stages

of aquatic organisms. Chemosphere 36:129–142


[2] Russell RW, Gobas F, Haffner GD. 1999. Maternal transfer and in ovo exposure of

organochlorines in oviparous organisms: A model and field verification.  Environ Sci

Technol 33:416–420.

Wildlife flourishing after experiencing devastating nuclear accidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima

April 26, 1986 was a fateful day in Ukraine as the nuclear power plant, Chernobyl, discharged an enormous amount of radioactive materials into the atmosphere. This catastrophe, which is considered one of the worst nuclear power plant accidents in history, contaminated a large amount of land stretching over Belarus, Ukraine, Russia and other parts of Europe. The health implications of the Chernobyl accident were immense, as well the detrimental influence it had on the many ecosystems of the area. At the time of the accident, scientists questioned the environment’s ability to rebuild itself. However, according to research done by Professor Jim Smith of the University of Portsmouth, and other researchers from the University of the West of England, wildlife, in particular bird species, is thriving in areas where radiation struck the hardest.

The research is published in the Royal Society journal Biological Letters. It is likely that this research which is specific to the Chernobyl accident will apply to the Fukushima accident in Japan that occurred in 2011. It is important to note that this research will help identify the “biological effects of radiation” on the environment.

Although there has been a great deal of speculation about the harmful radiation effects that a nuclear accident, like Chernobyl, has on ecology, Professor Smith does not seem extremely startled by the findings. For instance, there has been many findings about some of the damage done at the radiation site, however, crucial details on the damage has not been presented. Smith comments on this by saying, “wildlife populations in the exclusion zone around Chernobyl have recovered and are actually doing well and even better than before because the human population has been removed.” Smith notes that one of the important reasons why wildlife is thriving in those areas is because of the absence of people and their abusive behaviors on the environment.

More specifically, this research shows that the obvious destruction in bird species is not caused solely by radiation exposure, but also by “habitat, diet or ecosystem structure.” Today, radiation levels are greatly lowered. Researchers note that damage of some species today is no different than the damage found in those same species during the time directly following the Chernobyl accident. It is hopeful after examining this research that wildlife of that area will be able to restore the biodiversity that was once so prevalent. The removal of humans in the area is greatly responsible for much of the reconstruction of the wildlife that appears today.


J.T. Smith, N. J. Willey, J. T. Hancock. Low dose ionizing radiation produces too few reactive oxygen species to directly affect antioxidant concentrations in cells. Biology Letters, 2012; DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2012.0150

University of Portsmouth (2012, April 11). Wildlife thriving after nuclear disaster? Radiation from Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear accidents not as harmful to wildlife as feared. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 17, 2012, from­ /releases/2012/04/120411084107.htm

Helping Red Blood Cells Breathe Easier

New gene therapy technique which has the possibility of treating two common red blood cell disorders that affect millions of people world wide

A team of researchers from the Weill Cornell Medical College has designed a gene therapy that has the ability to treat both ß-thalassemia disease and sickle cell anemia, two of the most common genetic red blood cell disorders.  The technology available to them has also given them the ability to predict how the treatment will affect these diseased individuals.  This new approach to treating these red blood cells disorders has the potential to cure many patients even before they are affected with the disease.

ß-thalassemia is an inherited disease that neglects the production of the hemoglobin protein that carries oxygen throughout the body.  The new gene therapy technique developed ensures that the gene that is delivered is an active and working protein.  In order to achieve the transfer, the researchers generated lentiviral-mediated transfers of the human ß-globin gene to the bone marrow stem cells of the infected patients and then delivered back via a bone marrow transplant.  The stem cells would then produce healthy ß-globin protein and hemoglobin.

The insulator that they simulated produced two goals including the protection of the delivery of a normal ß-globin as well as increasing the efficiency at which the ß-globin gene is transcribed during the process of making red blood cells.  The vector that the research team created had different rates of efficiency based on the mutations in each patient.  Therefore, this provided the information for the team to predict which individuals would be the best candidates for these trails.

Among the 19 different samples they tested they found that on average the new cells produced 55% of the adult hemoglobin seen in unaffected individuals.

“This study represents a fresh departure from previously published work in the field of gene therapy,” Dr. Rivella says.  These results that the research team found will make an impact on the furthering of gene regulation and the transfer of genes for other gene therapy experiments.

access original journal here

Spelunking to the Source of the Superbug

Lechuguilla Cave located in New Mexico has been reported as a site of anti-biotic resistant bacteria.  This cave is one of the most isolated caves in the world, and the finding of these mutated bacteria could mean big things for the fight against the “superbug”.

Researchers from McMaster and the University of Akron have recently discovered the foreign strains of bacteria within the Lechuguilla Cave.  These bacteria do not cause human disease; however, when exposed to antibiotics that physicians use to treat the common bacteria in hospitals, the new cave bacteria were still resistant.

So what does this all mean?

Gerry Wright, the director of Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research explained to  Science Daily. “Our study shows that antibiotic resistance is hard-wired into bacteria. It could be billions of years old, but we have only been trying to understand it for the last 70 years. This has important clinical implications. It suggests that there are far more antibiotics in the environment that could be found and used to treat currently untreatable infections.”

Certain strains of Staphylococcus are known as “superbugs”, a multi-drug resistant bacteria that physicians have trouble treating in hospitals.  How these superbugs are becoming resistant to so many different types of antibiotics has been a topic of microbiology research for about the past 70 years.  A large problem with these bugs is that when it comes to treating them, the physicians have to resort to removing the infected tissue. As most would assume, this is not the ideal way to treat these pesky infections.

Lechuguilla Cave was the perfect environment for researchers to have exposure to bacteria that have not been exposed to the antibiotics that flow freely throughout or environment.  The cave is a concealed place, so although the bacteria do not cause harm to humans, they are still changing and becoming resistant to the antibiotics that are used in treatments.

Wright told Science Daily “The actual source of much of this resistance is harmless bacteria that live in the environment.”

Finding these bacteria within this cave give researchers a new light on why and how these bacteria are becoming resistant to antibiotics and that there may be more antibiotics that nature is providing us that we have not honed into yet.




Kirandeep Bhullar, Nicholas Waglechner, Andrew Pawlowski, Kalinka Koteva, Eric D. Banks, Michael D. Johnston, Hazel A. Barton, Gerard D. Wright. Antibiotic Resistance Is Prevalent in an Isolated Cave Microbiome. PLoS ONE, 2012; 7 (4): e34953 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0034953

McMaster University. “Key to new antibiotics could be deep within isolated cave.” ScienceDaily, 11 Apr. 2012. Web. 12 Apr. 2012.

Raised-Fields Back from the Dead?

With Shrinking Forests and Expanding Savannas, Amazonia’s Future May Benefit from Past Lessons

Prehistoric Amazonian farmers suppressed rather than encouraged grassland fires, according to a report in Monday’s PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences). Researchers claim that applying the indigenous farming techniques offers a route to sustainably develop the region while simultaneously reducing carbon emissions.

From 800 to 500 years ago, farmers on the French Guiana coast of South America 

Map from Iriarte et al. 2012

mounded muck from the seasonally flooded savannas to form raised-fields. This farming strategy “could have supported large and concentrated populations,” according to the study. Suppressing fires from breaking out prevented wasting valuable soil chemicals. While the fields are still visible today, they were abandoned roughly at 1500 AD with the arrival of Europeans.

Europeans’ arrival in 1500 meant big changes for lowland South America, which includes both expansive rainforests and grasslands. The “Columbian Exchange” of crops, animals, and people between New World and Old also included infectious diseases which tragically lowered indigenous populations by as much as 95%. When the farmers died, the raised-fields they tended – which require enormous maintenance and care – fell out of use with the new, European-style farmers.

The scientists, from institutions like the University of Exeter and the Natural History Museum of Utah, used a core drilled from a coastal swamp next raised-fields and archaeological sites to reconstruct the environment from the last 2,150 years. By analyzing pollen, charcoal, and phytoliths (silica from plant structures that can identify specific plants) in the core, they noticed three distinct periods in land use.

The first phase, from approximately 2,150 years ago to 1200 AD, features pollen and phytoliths from a classic savanna environment. There is little charcoal from burning. In the next phase, from ~1200 AD to 1500 AD, new savanna plants arrive along with evidence of maize cultivation. This is when raised-field building was occurring, as also observed in the archaeological record. At 1500 AD, however, raised-field construction stops and the swamp core shows steadily increasing amounts of charcoal.

This research is particularly relevant to debates about deforestation, which, as it progresses, leaves behind new (but steadily degraded) savanna environments in its path. The charcoal produced from slash and burn agriculture – the cause of much of Amazonian deforestation because it is practiced on a massive scale – and the charcoal from burning savannas leads to increased carbon emissions. Couple this feedback loop of more carbon emitted (by burning) and less taken in (by trees) with grassland being used for methane-producing cattle, and you have a pretty short shrift for future inhabitants of the planet and lowland South America.

Adapted from Iriarte et al. (2012), the top half of the image shows the study area after it was burned. Below, different grass species occupy the original raised-fields (in light green).


That serves to explain why media coverage of the article and its authors themselves emphasize the potential these farming techniques offer to the savannas’ sustainable development. The University of Exeter’s press release quotes lead author Dr. José Iriarte (a respectable Amazonian archaeologist, by the way) on the possibilities:

             “This ancient, time-tested, fire-free land use could pave the way for the modern     implementation of raised-field agriculture in rural areas of Amazonia. Intensive raised-field agriculture can become an alternative to burning down tropical forests for slash and burn agriculture by reclaiming otherwise abandoned and new savannah ecosystems created by deforestation. It has the capability of helping curb carbon emissions and at the same time provide food security for the more vulnerable and poorest rural populations.”

As Dr. Iriarte explains, there’s a lot to conditionally hope for from this research. However, the economic and political realities of deforestation and land-use in Brazil and Amazonia should temper that optimism.

Bolivians have tried raised-field before. Clark Erickson (another respectable South American archaeologist) and numerous NGOs encouraged indigenous farming communities to reconstruct the fields in the late 1980s, but despite initial success, most of those farmers went back to the plow by the mid-90s. Why? Raised-fields, as the article and news release frequently mention, are honestly and truly labor-intensive. What’s more, raised-fields are not productive enough to justify that intensity. The article cites experiments that claim raised-fields can yield between 2 and 5.8 tons/hectare of maize (that’s corn, folks, and the data was collected archaeologically). Compare that with the average US yield of 8.93 tons/hectare and Brazil’s of 3.38, according to 2004/5 estimates from the USDA. From an economic perspective, subsistence farmers will find the initial construction and continuous maintenance of their raised-fields an unwieldy substitute for the slash and burn they practice right now.

Most agriculture in Brazilian savannas (natural or recently deforested) is practice by large agribusinesses that produce soybeans or farm cattle. Fortunately for sustainable development, these companies have the necessary equipment to efficiently create raised-fields on a large scale. But, their ease of harvest (imagine a combine harvesting crops in a field of speed bumps) and usefulness in cattle ranching (in a semi-submerged field) make them a prospect that Brazilian businesses will likely pass by.

Still, for all the hype, the prospect of a productive, sustainable, and low-carbon producing Amazon is a worthy goal worth pursuing for any sustainability entrepreneurs in Brazil and researchers there and elsewhere. In addition, it’s a great example of how archaeology can be made relevant in issues of great relevance to people other than archaeologists – and 800 year old farmers.

The Rise of Integrative Medicine

The holistic health movement began in the 1970’s as a result of the of “getting back to nature” movement that was emerging at this time. This movement directly overlaps with the “New Age movement”. (New Age movement is not actually a religion but more a collection of Eastern influenced metaphysical thoughts and ideals. New Age is often defined as the “feel-good” movement with a creed of universal tolerance). With the New Age movement there was an increased emphasize on inner tranquility, harmony, and wellness. The New Age movement was catalysis for the “awakening” for the holistic health movement because doctors and scientists alike were now interested in understanding the psychological side of healing. The New Age movement incorporates the practice of channeling positive energy to certain areas of your body that may be affected by illness as a healing method. It also incorporates the use of guided visualization that my help an individual suffering from a state of depression because they can visualize a positive experience that they had within their life time and channel this energy to start to feeling better.  The idea of the holistic health movement is to explore the human potential of self healing and to observe how alternative forms of medicine like martial arts, yoga, meditation and psychosomatic medicine (outside influences) that contribute to an individual’s health.  The idea of holistic medicine is to decrease the stress levels, to bring someone to a greater awareness of how natural therapies can influence their overall health. In holistic health there is a belief that within our body there in a certain flow of energy and through the use of holistic health an individual can increase consciousness and awareness of one’s state of heath. There is also a belief that the individual is responsible for their overall health and welfare. Today, holistic health has taken on a new name, “integrative medicine” or “complementary and alternative medicine.” Today it has become a major area of interest for research, scientists and doctors in an attempt to harness and tap into understanding the vastness of human’s “psychological power,” the idea that our mind has the ability to cure individuals from disease and illness. As Andrew Weil M.D. from Harvard Medical School states, “Most physicians focus on the physical bodies while they ignore their patient’s mental and spiritual status.”  Weil also states that, “Alternative medicine systems offer worthwhile techniques, such as the spiritual manipulation performed by chiropractors.”

Video from interview with Andrew Weil on Integrative Medicine:

New Strategy could put scientists on top of their cancer treatment game

Pharmaceutical company Verastem seems to be forging its own path in the field of cancer research.  Though young, this company’s approach to tackling cancerous tumors in their lab located in Cambridge, Massachusetts seem to be gaining attention. Verastem hopes to conquer cancerous tumors by going after cancer stem cells (CSCs).   This rare, but sturdy, population of cancer cells has been thought to be the culprit behind patient’s relapses in cancer after a successful bout of chemotherapy and/or radiation. These CSCs are also thought to be responsible for driving cancer to metastasize.

Daniel Hayes, of University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center, is the clinical director of the breast oncology program.  He believes that knocking out the cells with stem cell like characteristics is the only way to successfully treat cancer patients.  He laments that without such treatment approaches, “we likely can’t cure the patient.”

Taking Verastem’s lead, many emerging drug makers are currently perusing ways to halt CSCs from causing harm, and attempting to force these cells to differentiate into specified cell types.  This is an important hurdle to overcome for drug makers.  It is hypothesized that part of the reason why cancers can relapse, is because stem cells are not susceptible to standard cancer treatment.  However, if it were possible to force stem cells to differentiate, and transform into “run of the mill” tumor cells, they would then be susceptible to treatment, and give new hope that cancer patients could be treated more successfully.

Verastem company cofounder Robert Weinberg says that he is excited such research “has the prospect of direct therapeutic utility.” I am sure many people feel the same way.  Over the years is seems as though cancer has become a more and more prominent part of everyday life.  I would say it would be difficult to find a single person who’s life hasn’t been affected by cancer in some way, shape, or form.  Hopefully, with the promise of Verastem’s treatment methods, the future can look a bit brighter for those suffering from cancer.


For more information, continue reading here

Reoccurring Breast Cancer Caught Early on by Blood Tests

There is a new blood test that is able to detect reoccurring breast cancer an entire year earlier than the current blood tests. The reporter on this new blood test, Daniel Raftery, Ph.D., mentions that within ten years, the 2.5 million breast cancer survivors in the United States experience a 1-in-5 chance that cancer might reappear.  Raftery explains how a group of nine biomarkers have been identified with signals of recurrence of breast cancer.  Raftery also goes on to say how

Our markers detect twice as many recurrences as the CA marker does at the same specificity. They also detect cancer recurrence earlier, about 11-12 months sooner than existing tests. They accomplish this with blood samples, rather than biopsies, with less discomfort to patients.”

In order to discover the markers, Raftery and his colleagues at Purdue University and Matrix-Bio Inc., a company Raftery has founded, studied several hundreds of “metabolites” in the blood tests of the breast cancer survivors.  These metabolites are “small molecules, biological byproducts formed as body’s cells go about the business in life.”   Furthermore, within their research, they are studying how metabolites relate to one’s health, more particularly, possible diseases.  A lot of connections have been made between the metabolites and diseases.  With this, several of Raftery’s biomarkers were seen to be involved with cancer.  Within the process, Raftery describes how the biomarkers are going to be used with the results from CA 27.29 blood tests.  This combination is used in order to find any lingering or returning cancerous tumors.  Raftery is crossing his fingers in hopes of having the test for availability later this year.  And in order to end on an even greater note, researchers are currently conducting another study with the blood tests in order to eventually spot an early existence of breast cancer, not just its return.


Thomas Jefferson University (2012, April 3). Eliminating the ‘good cholesterol’ receptor may fight breast cancer. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 10, 2012, from…


A tiny sparrow sings over the sounds of San Francisco

A new study by George Mason University’s David Luther shows that a species of sparrow changes its song to be heard in noisy San Francisco.

With the addition of more cars and modern machinery in urban environments, the amount of sound in cities has drastically increased since 1969. When Luther learned how the overall sound of the city had increased, he wondered how birds in the area could be heard over the increasing noises of the city. To try and find an answer to this question, Luther compared songs of the White crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) over time in San Francisco’s Presidio district. Sound data clearly shows that the city sound in that district have been increasing over time so it was a great area to track any song changes.

White Crowned Sparrow

Luther’s data showed that the birds have in fact changed thier song many times since 1969, pehaps searching for a tune that could best be heard.

“It’s the really low hum where almost all of this human-made noise is — in this very low bandwidth. The birds can often sing at the top end of that low bandwidth,” says Luther, whistling a lively bird tune, “and if there’s no traffic around, that’s just fine. But if they’re singing and there’s this,” he says, making a low humming noise, “the lowest portion of that song gets lost, and the birds can’t hear it.”

Luther explains how the constant noise in the city makes it so the original song of the sparrows could not be heard by others. Since male sparrows use this song to attract mates, its a big problem if no one can hear them. The sparrows have adapted their song in this area specifically to be heard over the city noise. Birds in different areas have been know to adapt different dialects of song. Researchers are calling the song of the sparrows in the Presidio district, the San Francisco Dialect.

Sparrows and many other birds also use songs to defend their territories. They sing to warn other male birds “this is my area, keep out”. After establishing that the sparrows songs were changing over time, Luther wondered if the birds would instinctually recognize the old songs and respond.

The researchers played song recordings on an IPod speaker in the Presidio district to observe the response of male birds to songs from different years. There was virtually no response to the old songs, but the new songs provoked an aggressive response from the male sparrows. This indicates that the old songs are not remembered and corroborates other findings that songs are mostly learned behaviors.

Even though their old song has been lost, the White crowned sparrow is a great example of the capability of birds to adapt to new environments.