Archive for February 9, 2008

Ducks in the Kitchen Update

muscovy-ducklings.jpgI took the two abandoned ducklings out of their cardboard box and carried them out to the barnyard this afternoon.  I had noticed that a young duck had hatched out a nest and had 5 ducklings that she was hovering over last night, so I figured maybe I could release my two in the vicinity of the momma duck and she’d be so happy with the emotions of new motherhood, she would never even notice the additions.    

Once outside, I heard the anguished peeping of a lost duckling.  After searching a bit, I located a tiny yet vocal gray ball of fluff hiding under a truck.  Where were her brothers and sisters?  A hawk’s creeee overhead answered that question.  I put the two ducklings down, and the lost duckling happily joined them. 

Eventually momma duck came back from her swim looking for her babies.  She looked the newbies over carefully and nibbled at them gently, but seemed to accept them.  Then some of her duck friends came walking by, and she completely forgot about the ducklings and the responsibilities of motherhood to follow them. 

The horse ambled over to check out what I was doing and to closely inspect as to whether or not I might be concealing any carrots on my person, and the ol’ dog rubbed his head against my legs.  The hawk creeeed again, this time from a nearby tree where he was undoubtedly keeping a close eye on the ducklings.  The cats looked at the ducklings speculatively. 

I contemplated those three tiny puffs of down whistling happily at each other.   Normal, civilized people do not have poultry in their houses, particularly when they are ill with a respiratory virus, and particularly if they have been blogging about the dangers of H5N1.  A normal person would have left the ducklings to the mercy of the elements and nature which, as we all know, is unmerciful and unforgiving.

What the hell.  I now have THREE ducklings in my house. 

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Oil Around the World

The February issue of Geotimes has an interesting assortment of oil discoveries and their attendant problems around the world.  I recommend that you read it.


Norway’s economy depends on the sea. Many tons of cod, herring, mackerel and other fish hauled in from Norwegian waters land on dinner plates around the world each year, making Norway the world’s second-largest fish exporter. Fifty years ago, no one would have predicted that another offshore resource — hydrocarbons — would one day supersede fish as Norway’s most valuable asset.

“The chances of finding coal, oil or sulfur on the continental shelf off the Norwegian coast can be discounted,” an official from the Norwegian Geological Survey wrote in a letter to the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1958. The following year, however, a large gas field was discovered in the North Sea off the coast of the Netherlands, prompting speculation that similar deposits might lie a bit farther north. Exploration in Norwegian waters began in the early 1960s. By 1966, oil was discovered in the country’s first offshore well, and oil production began five years later in Norway’s first major oil field, Ekofisk. As of 2005, Norway was the world’s third-largest natural gas exporter and fifth-largest oil exporter. In 2006, these exports brought the country $94 billion — 15 times more than the value of fish exports, according to the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate (NPD).

After more than 35 years of oil and gas production on the Norwegian continental shelf, NPD estimates 65 percent of the region’s resources have yet to be tapped and a quarter have yet to be discovered. Current production and exploration activities are concentrated in the North Sea and Norwegian Sea. But oil and gas fields in these areas are maturing and production is beginning to decline. This has led companies to set their sights on Norway’s Arctic territory. “We expect one-third of future petroleum potential to be within the Barents Sea,” says geologist Bente Nyland, NPD’s director general. Compared to the heavily explored North Sea and Norwegian Sea, the Barents Sea is “virgin area,” and the last place left to find a major oil or gas discovery in Norway, she says.

Read the rest of the article on Norway.  Other countries featured include India, Libya, the South China sea, and Iraq.

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Contra Rebel to Auto Mechanic in Florida

At the end of Nicaragua’s civil war, Juan Gregorio Rodriguez traded his life as a Contra rebel for that of auto mechanic in Florida. He kept in touch with other rebels and supported their political efforts, but mostly from afar.That changed in 2006, when the Contras’ nemesis, Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, was elected president, 16 years after his Soviet-backed government lost power in a vote that ended the guerrilla conflict in which some 30,000 people died.

His return to power has galvanized dozens of former Contras in the United States to plunge back into the politics of their Central American homeland, lobbying for support from the U.S. Congress and joining anti-Ortega movements with former colleagues in Nicaragua. Some even warn darkly that armed resistance is again a possibility.

What really disturbs these former Contras is Ortega’s plan to revive Sandinista neighborhood watch committees, which became his eyes and ears during his first presidency. Rodriguez and some other ex-Contras also feel betrayed by compromises made by their former comrades in arms since the war. Some have even joined the Sandinistas: Ortega’s vice president, Jaime Morales, is a former Contra spokesman.

“Many of our former leaders sold out to the Sandinistas. The leaders in the field were left to help the families of those who fought in the resistance,” said the wiry Rodriguez, who lives in Miami and was once known as Comandante Camilo. Now they wonder how “we’ve lost to the same enemy we fought,” he said.

Today’s Contras are a shadow of the movement the CIA built around a core of former soldiers who had served the dictatorship toppled by the Sandinistas in 1979. With U.S. arms and funds smuggled into Nicaragua from clandestine bases in neighboring Honduras, it grew into one of Central America’s largest guerrilla armies.

But continued support despite a congressional ban damaged the Reagan administration’s reputation, and the Contras disbanded before the 1990 election led to three consecutive anti-Sandinista governments.

Some entered politics. Some continued to fight as irregulars, demanding benefits for ex-fighters or as bandits. Many struggled for jobs in a Nicaraguan economy devastated by years of war and muddled Sandinista policies. And a few left for the United States, even as other refugees were returned home.

The newly energized Contras in Florida say their opposition will be peaceful, but some suggest they could rearm if Ortega attempts to reinstate socialist policies.

“We are trying to focus on civic efforts, to build political leaders,” said Salvador Marin, a surgeon who treated Contra rebels in the mountains during the 1980s. “When we started, we had pistols and hunting rifles and no experience. Through the years, we gained that experience and still have it … A true war would depend on how extreme are the conditions imposed by Ortega.”

But Nicaragua’s army chief, Gen. Omar Halleslevens, says he sees no sign of Contras rearming there.

Source:  Miami Herald

I’m going to go out on a limb here and predict he’s probably not a Hillary voter.

 I have to agree with Comandante Camilo that restarting the neighborhood spy program is not a good sign.

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Update: 5th Body Found at Sugar Plant Explosion

PORT WENTWORTH, GA (AP) — Crews on Saturday found another body in the remnants of the sugar refinery plant devastated by an explosion and fire, raising the death toll to five and leaving
three others still missing, officials said.

The body was found near the silos used to store sugar after crews shored up the plant’s wobbly remnants, Fire Chief Greg Long said. Three workers and a supervisor were believed to be missing, but it was not clear whether the body was that of a worker or the supervisor.

“We operate on the policy that everyone is alive until we get to them,” he said.

The search was expected to be suspended for the night, and resume again Sunday.

Fire Chief Greg Long says crews had reduced the flames to small hotspots at the Imperial Sugar Company refinery.

He says search teams that had backed out overnight because of structural concerns from the blast resumed looking for the last of
the missing in the morning.

Crews brought in heavy equipment to remove debris as investigators continued assessing what sparked the blast that ignited a storage silo.

Imperial President and CEO John Sheptor says sugar dust in a silo where refined sugar was stored before being packaged likely
ignited like gunpowder. Sugar dust can become combustible if it’s too dry and builds up a static electric charge.

Sheptor was at the plant when it exploded.

“It was a loud noise. There was a very quick response to move everyone out of the building as quick as possible.”

The result was as devastating as a bomb. Floors inside the plant collapsed, flames spread throughout the refinery, metal girders buckled into twisted heaps and shredded sheet metal littered the wreckage.

More than 30 employees were rushed to hospitals as ambulances lined up a dozen at a time outside the refinery’s sole entrance road.

Source:  First Coast News

This is the second major explosion from an industrial accident in the area in two months.  By all accounts, the emergency response people did an outstanding job in both states. 

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1,500 Years of Global Cooling?

The Arctic is melting, right? There is simply no questioning this pillar of the greenhouse scare, and images of ice melting, polar bears struggling, and indigenous people crying the blues are all part of any self-respecting presentation of global warming. Imagine a study published in a major journal showing that a location in the Arctic has “a trend of -0.3°C over the last 1,500 years.” Of course, you would never have learned of such a result had you not discovered World Climate Report.

The article is forthcoming in Climate Dynamics, and the work was conducted by Håkan Grudd of Stockholm University’s Department of Physical Geography and Quaternary Geology, and despite the results, the research was not funded by industry. The focus here is the Torneträsk area in northern Sweden near 68.5°N (within the Arctic Circle) where Scots pines have been growing for millennia. Grudd not only sampled living trees, but he also collected subfossil samples found as dead wood on dry ground and from submerged logs retrieved from small mountain lakes. Many other studies have shown that the pines are sensitive to summer temperatures, so in theory, the tree samples should allow a very long term and relatively accurate reconstruction of past thermal conditions.

Read the rest at World Climate Report.

Seems that the medieval warm period was warmer than we thought. THAT may put a crimp into the carbon indulgence sales business.

For the record, I live in Florida and have lived in Arizona’s Sonoran desert in the summer without A/C. I LOVE warm weather and am hoping that the climate will warm enough so that I can visit North and South Dakota and maybe even venture up into Canada.

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Joe Bastardi Predicts Shift Towards Colder Weather

He doesn’t base it on questionable models, either, but actual data from the past. Believe him or not, your prerogative, but he DID get the shift from El Nino to La Nina and the colder than normal winter right while the global warmenists….didn’t.

Read it for yourself.

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1,000-year-old Peruvian Mummy Lice makes the news.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Lice from 1,000-year-old mummies in Peru may unravel important clues about a different sort of passage: the migration patterns of America’s earliest humans, a new University of Florida study suggests.

“It’s kind of quirky that a parasite we love to hate can actually inform us how we traveled around the globe,” said David Reed, an assistant curator of mammals at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus and one of the study’s authors.

DNA sequencing found the strain of lice to be genetically the same as the form of body lice that spawns several deadly diseases, including typhus, which was blamed for the loss of Napoleon’s grand army and millions of other soldiers, he said.

The discovery of these parasites on 11th-century Peruvian mummies proves they were infesting the native Americans nearly 500 years before Europeans arrived, Reed said. His findings are published this week in an online edition of the Journal of Infectious Diseases.

“This definitely goes against the grain of conventional thought that all diseases were transmitted from the Old World to the New World at the time of Columbus,” he said.

It came as a surprise to Reed and his research team that the type of lice on the mummies was of the same genetic type as those found as far away as the highlands of Papua, New Guinea, instead of the form of head lice that is widespread in the Western Hemisphere, Reed said. This latter version, the bane of many school children, accounts for more than half the cases of lice that appear in the United States, Canada and Central America, he said.

“Given its abundance in the Americas on living humans, we thought for sure that this form of lice was the one that was here all along and had been established in the New World with the first peoples,” he said.

“We hope to be able to understand human migration patterns by investigating their parasites since people have carried these parasites with them as they moved around the globe,” he said. “Called a parascript, it’s a whole other transcript of our evolutionary history that can either add to what we know or in some cases inform us about things we didn’t know.”

Looking at evidence from parasites’ perspectives, for example, may yield valuable clues about when the first Americans arrived on the continent and which route they took, Reed said. Building upon this DNA sequencing work, scientists may be able to link the 1,000-year-old lice found in the Western Hemisphere with those in Siberia or Mongolia, confirming existing theories that America’s earliest residents originated there, he said.

Had these immigrants traveled by land masses, there was a very small window of time, about 13,000 years ago, when the glaciers retreated enough to allow passage through the Bering Strait on the way to South America, Reed said. Another proposed theory is a seafaring route, but this would have required sophisticated oceangoing vessels for which no evidence from the time exists, he said.

Being able to chart these early migration patterns would give insight into how these early immigrants lived, Reed said. “If you’re skirting the edge of glaciers, it’s obviously a very cold time period and humans would have needed certain creature comforts just to stay alive, such as tight clothing to maintain warmth,” he said.

Today, the people who don’t have the opportunity to change their clothes are the ones at risk for epidemic typhus, which along with the lesser-known diseases of relapsing fever and trench fever are carried by body lice, Reed said. These pests lay their eggs in clothing fibers and washing the clothes is all it takes to get rid of them, he said.

“The disease pops up primarily in refugees who have been displaced from their homeland with the clothes on their backs and nothing else,” he said. “They’re living in crowded conditions where hygiene is poor.”

Reed said he hopes the team’s lice research might someday increase human understanding of typhus by pinpointing where the disease originated.

Studying parasites to learn about their hosts’ history has been around for only about 20 years, Reed said. “By looking at things like tapeworms, pinworms, lice or bedbugs that humans have carried around for at least tens of thousands of years, and in some cases millions of years,” he said, “we can learn much more about human evolutionary history.”

Source: University of Florida News

They’re gene sequencing 1,000-year-old lice. This ability did not even exist when I was in high school (or college). I’m sure that many people are quite blase about it (oh, yeah, whatever, head lice, ick!) but the feat is just amazing.

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The “true cost” of biofuels.

ARLINGTON, VA — February 7, 2007 — A new study by The Nature Conservancy and the University of Minnesota finds that converting land for biofuel crops results in major carbon emissions, actually worsening the problem of climate change instead of mitigating it.

The first-of-its-kind study will be published in Science later this month and was posted online today.

“This research examines the conversion of land for biofuels and asks the question ‘Is it worth it?’ Does the carbon you lose by converting forests, grasslands, and peatlands outweigh the carbon you ‘save’ by using biofuels instead of fossil fuels? And surprisingly, the answer is no,” said lead author Joe Fargione, a scientist for The Nature Conservancy. “These natural areas store a lot of carbon, so converting them to croplands results in tons of carbon emitted into the atmosphere.”

Fargione continued, “We analyzed all the benefits of using biofuels as alternatives to oil, but we found that the benefits fall far short of the carbon losses. It’s what we call ‘the carbon debt.’ If you’re trying to mitigate climate change, it simply does not make sense to convert land for biofuels production.”

According to research, the conversion of peatlands for palm oil plantations in Indonesia resulted in the greatest carbon losses, or ‘debt,’ followed by the production of soy in the Amazon.

“All the biofuels we use now cause habitat destruction, either directly or indirectly,” Fargione noted. “Global agriculture is already producing food for 6 billion people. Producing food-based biofuel, too, will require that still more land be converted to agriculture.”

These findings coincide with observations that increased demand for ethanol corn crops in the U.S. is likely contributing to conversion of the Brazilian Amazon and Cerrado (tropical savanna). American farmers traditionally rotated corn crops with soybeans, but now, they are planting corn every year to meet the ethanol demand. Instead, Brazilian farmers are planting more of the world’s soybeans – and they’re deforesting the Amazon to do it.

Fargione and co-authors Jason Hill, David Tilman, Stephen Polasky, and Peter Hawthorne from the University of Minnesota also found significant carbon debt in the conversion of grasslands in the U.S. and rainforests in Indonesia.

“In finding solutions to climate change, we must ensure that the cure is not worse than the disease,” noted Jimmie Powell, who leads the energy team at The Nature Conservancy. “We cannot afford to ignore the consequences of converting land for biofuels. Doing so means we might unintentionally promote fuel alternatives that are worse than fossil fuels they are designed to replace. These findings should be incorporated into carbon emissions policy going forward.”

Researchers did note that some biofuels do not contribute to climate change because they do not require the conversion of native habitat. These include waste from agriculture and forest lands and native grasses and woody biomass grown on marginal lands unsuitable for crop production. The researchers urge that all fuels be fully evaluated for their impacts on climate change, including impacts on habitat conversion.

“We will need to implement many approaches simultaneously to solve climate change – there is no silver bullet. But there are many silver BBs,” said Fargione. “Some biofuels may be one silver BB, but only if produced without requiring additional land to be converted from native habitats to agriculture.”

Source: The Nature Conservancy

Oddly enough (or perhaps not), the only people that this seems to come as a surprise to are the people that want “something” done immediately to combat “global warming” (now reframed as “climate change”). I’m going to postulate that said people are nice urbanites or suburbanites that are completely clueless about farming and ranching. Out of curiosity, did anybody check to see what the carbon loss was for converting Florida wetlands to housing developments for Yankees and Canadians that prefer warmth to ice, or turning prime farmland into a shopping center?

We are not searching for alternative fuels to combat “climate change” (which is an unwinnable war against ma nature who has always changed the climate and will continue to do so) but for energy independence and lower-priced fuels. Will corn and soybeans solve our problems? Not at this time. How about forage (cellulosic ethanol)? Again, there will be a trade off with higher food prices (meat) when forage crops are diverted into making fuel. Nuclear plants and electrical generation have their own problems that need solving; i.e., nuclear waste. However, were I residing in a country with an economy based on petroleum export, I’d be getting very nervous at the sheer amount of research and brainpower devoted to finding a replacement for oil.

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Melanoma Breakthrough?

One might call it a tale of two melanocytes. Given the same genetic mutation, why does one melanocyte shut down growth and become a relatively benign mole, while another rages out of control and develops into deadly melanoma”

In trying to tease out the answer to this simple question, Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) researchers have uncovered a protein that stops the growth of melanoma, a cancer that develops from pigment-producing cells in the skin called melanocytes. HHMI investigator Michael Green and colleagues at the University of Massachusetts Medical School reported their identification of the genetic underpinnings of a new way to thwart one of the deadliest forms of cancer in the February 8, 2008, issue of the journal Cell.

Green and his colleagues began by designing experiments that would help them determine what separates melanomas from ordinary moles at the genetic level. Moles, also known as nevi, and melanoma often result from the same genetic mutation, and the biological pathway that differentiates the two had been a mystery. The new study uncovers a relatively unknown protein that regulates the melanocyte’s “decision” to ward off cancer by either entering a programmed hibernation or committing suicide.

According to the American Cancer Society, 60,000 people in the United States developed melanoma in 2007, and more than 8,000 died of the disease. Melanoma is caused by the uncontrolled proliferation of melanocytes, whose pigment, melanin, protects the skin against the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Nevi, which are benign, are also caused by abnormal growth and differentiation of melanocytes.

While nevi are, by definition, non-cancerous, more than half the time the same mutation is at fault in melanoma and nevi: a single amino acid change in a protein called BRAF. BRAF is part of a signaling system that is important for cell growth and proliferation. The BRAF mutation found in nevi and melanoma increases the activity of the BRAF protein, prompting cells to multiply abnormally. In some melanocytes with this mutation, the proliferation cannot be stopped, and cancer develops.

But sometimes when the mutated BRAF gene is expressed in melanocytes, those cells go into a state of permanent hibernation via a process known as senescence. These cells form nevi, not melanoma. This, according to Green, indicates that the genetic checks and balances within those cells are working correctly. “The cell has sensed this oncogenic influence—activated BRAF—and that induces an anti-cancer mechanism to throw the cell into this frozen state,” he said. Green added that sometimes cells simply commit suicide instead of senescing.

Cancer results when something blocks this failsafe mechanism, said Green. “While this phenomenon was known, the components and the pathways involved were not,” he said.

Green, his postdoctoral fellow Narendra Wajapeyee, and their colleagues did a genome-wide search for the proteins involved. They used engineered retroviruses to insert short bits of RNA to selectively turn off individual genes in a series of melanocytes. Some of the cells progressed to cancer, while others did not. After testing thousands of genes, they found 17 that were required for activated BRAF to induce either senescence or suicide. Together, Green said, the proteins made by these genes make up the body’s melanoma defense pathway.

Green’s group found that three of those proteins are required for both the senescence and programmed cell death pathways. The identity of one of those proteins, insulin-like growth factor binding protein 7 (IGFBP7), surprised the researchers. Not much was known about IGFBP7, except that it was secreted, said Green. A secreted protein does not stay inside the cell that produces it, but instead is released from the cell and moves through the blood to other cells. Green said that a secreted protein’s role in the pathway caught them off guard, because “we would have thought this process would be purely intracellular.”

Green and his colleagues focused their attention on IGFBP7 because its presence suggested something intriguing: If one otherwise healthy melanocyte begins expressing BRAF, the IGFBP7 it produces can enter cells around it, prompting lots of melanocytes to “switch off,” rather than risking a tumor.

In the experiments reported in Cell, the researchers exposed human melanoma cells in culture to recombinant IGFBP7. The protein had the same genetic code as the human version, but was produced using genetically modified insect cells. The melanoma cells that were treated with IGFBP7 committed suicide– just as though their anti-cancer mechanism was working correctly.

The researchers also injected the protein into the bloodstream of mice on to which human melanoma tumors had been grafted. IGFBP7 entered the tumor cells and stopped their growth in the mice. “Melanoma cells [caused by BRAF mutations] shut off expression of this key regulator,” said Green. “Because of that, the cells escape from senescence and form a tumor.”

According to Green, the research also answers another controversy in the field: Are nevi dead-ends or are they precursors to melanoma” “If you go in and see a dermatologist, if they see a mole, they will generally… cut it off,” he said. “They don’t want to take the chance that it could be a precursor.”

However, Green thinks his results point in the other direction. Because IGFBP7 is a secreted protein, even if one activated BRAF-containing — but otherwise healthy — cell in the nevi stopped producing IGFBP7 and threatened to form a tumor, the IGFBP7 being secreted from the cells around it would kill it. “It’s an extremely powerful anti-cancer mechanism,” said Green.

The team’s findings are important not only from a research standpoint, but also for future clinical treatments, Green noted. Melanoma can be surgically removed if caught early, but in advanced cases there is really no treatment for it. Green said IGFBP7’s ability to target melanoma tumors throughout the body may make it a powerful tool for cancer therapy. “We’re really very excited about the prospects of trying to advance this as a melanoma treatment,” he said.

Source: Howard Hughes Medical Institute

I’ve always been interested in what turns a mole into a melanoma, considering that I come from a freckly, moley family. Seems that those moles, rather than being a melanoma precursor, could actually be protective. Who knew?

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