Toss your anti-bacterial soap!





According to the FDA antibacterial soap isn’t much more effective than ordinary soap and water and contains triclosan, an ingredient that could be dangerous for a number of reasons.

Perhaps the word “antibacterial” needs to be eliminated from our vocabulary. Bacteria are like humans. There are good guys and bad guys. We wouldn’t want an anti-humanial product. This article is about a break-through in synthesizing one of the good-guy bacteria.

PKU Test


There is a rare condition called PKU. Parents know these letters as every baby born in a U.S. hospital is tested for it. They are pricked in the heel to draw blood. There is no cure, but there is a treatment and needs to begin before the babies suffer brain damage.

Phenylalanine, an enzyme contained in proteins will form a toxin in our blood. Most of us contain microbes that break down this toxin, but some babies are born without these microbes. This needs to be detected soon so the baby’s diet avoids protein from meat, cheese, and most milk. The special diet must continue life-long and be supplemented.

By manipulating DNA, researchers are working on synthetically creating these microbes that, once ingested, will treat PKU.

The first test was carried out in the summer of 2018 by Synlogic. Oddly the article doesn’t yet claim success, but suggests the bacterial concoction may become the first synthetic biology-based medical treatment to gain approval by the Food and Drug Administration. This new area of research called synthetic biology up until now has focused on industrial uses. Industry has harnessed bacteria for manufacturing as humans once harnessed horses  to perform useful functions.

While PKU is rare, if synthesized bacteria can allow PKU victims to lead less restricted lives, it will be a huge milestone. Who knows what possibilities might exist to improve human health with  the help of our tiny little good guys.





Stressed Americans Need More Labor Days Defined by Leisure



Americans work longer hours and more days than most industrialized countries. Below is an excerpt from an online article.





American Average Work Hours:

  • At least 134 countries have laws setting the maximum length of the workweek; the U.S. does not.
  • In the U.S., 85.8 percent of males and 66.5 percent of females work more than 40 hours per week.
  • According to the ILO, “Americans work 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours per year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers.”
  • Using data by the U.S. BLS, the average productivity per American worker has increased 400% since 1950. One way to look at that is that it should only take one-quarter the work hours, or 11 hours per week, to afford the same standard of living as a worker in 1950 (or our standard of living should be 4 times higher). Is that the case? Obviously not. Someone is profiting, it’s just not the average American worker. (Eloise’s comment: I’m old enough to remember that upon the threshold of efficient technology, more leisure time for all was predicted. Lift a glass to toast! Instead the efficiency was scooped up into profit cones while Americans worked longer than ever.)
  • Zero industrialized nations are without a mandatory option for new parents to take parental leave. That is, except for the United States.

Today I read this from a reputable economist, “In 1980, CEOs made 27 times the amount of their  workers’ median salary. Now it’s 270 times the amount.” When workers can’t survive on their salaries, they are forced to take on second jobs.

The amount of work is taking its toll on American families. Parents need time to parent, maintain their homes, manage their household budget, socialize, and relax. I left out one important thing. Americans don’t have time to watch their backs as to what is going on with their political representatives and legislation especially when inundated with sound-bite lies.

There is a decline in union membership, which is correlated with income inequality. See the video chart. While unions ushered in the 40-hour work week, it was for hourly workers. Many fast food chains found a work-around. “Promote” workers to managers and pay them a fixed salary. Then it is the job of managers to arrive early to set things up and close down after hours with non-commensurate salaries. Further, it has become corporate think that with technology, employees should be available 24/7 via email or texting.

The failure of our government to set fair labor standards for salaries and working conditions is largely due to the influence of big money. The average worker can’t afford a lobbyist, and our legislators are beholden to big money whose lobbyists subtly bribe government workers with hints of well-paying jobs post government service. Big money supports “right to work (cheap)” laws, opposes minimum wage, parental leave, and the list goes one. No wonder American workers are stressed.








Can you infect someone with your genes?


Bacteria-Esherichia; Thanks Wikimedia Commons

I just read about  the likely best-known biologist no one has ever heard of outside of the scientific community. When before Darwin it was naturally believed that all of an organism’s DNA came from its parents, Woese discovered in the late 20th century that genes can flow between species . It’s called HGT, horizontal gene transfer.

Further, Woese’s work was back in the last century, but I find his discovery mind-blowing. According to the NY Times article, The Scientist who Scrambled the Tree of Life, we are not who we thought we were, but composite creatures. Parts of who we are have come sideways into our own lineage — the primate lineage.

Scientists like the metaphors that HGT is the genetic equivalent of a blood transfusion or an infection that transforms identity: infective heredity.

A first recognition of the possibility relates to a harmless strain of bacteria transforming into one that causes pneumonia. It was later discovered this kind of transformation is not exclusive to bacteria. Progress in DNA research, in particular study of ribosomes, which turn genes into living bodies much like a 3-D printer, allowed scientists to compare DNA sequences of one species with another.

Species were found with DNA that could not have come from the parent species. Beyond bacteria, HGT was discovered to operate in the insect world. Later E coli infected a brewer’s yeast—a fungus for Pete’s sake— with its bacterial type genes. A particular sea urchin, and tiny animals called rotifer show signs of being “infected” by alien DNA.

HGT occurs by three primary means: conjugation, transformation, and transduction. Conjugation can be thought of as “bacterial sex.” Transformation is uptake of stranded DNA, left floating after the rupture of a living cell, Transduction is a drag-and-drop trick by viruses, picking up bits of DNA from cells they infect, then releasing them into other cells.

Beyond the realm of insects and rotifers, evidence of HGT has been found in mammals — an opossum from South America, a tenrec from Madagascar, a frog from West Africa, all carrying long sections of similar DNA that seem derived from “infective heredity.”

Even the human genome has been laterally invaded. Its sequencing has revealed that 8 percent of our human genome consists of retroviral DNA inserted sideways into our lineage. I’ve written a blog on how a fetus can “infect” its pregnant mother with retroviruses. That’s not sideways so much as backward inheritance. I’ve also read that more than one kind of DNA can inhabit a single body. Maybe HGT is an explanation.

Life is strange!



Do We Have an Adaptation Gene?

Thanks Wikimedia Commons

Not only humans, but examples of many living things adapt to environmental change. A species of white birds habitually perched on white poles, fairly hidden from larger predator birds. As the poles weathered to gray, the birds feathers were not far behind in darkening, and when the poles were repainted, within a generation, the feathers lightened. Too little time to have happened by random mutations.

A tsunami once dumped salt-water fish into an inland lake along with salt water, which salinity was diluted by the fresh water. Further, rain and fresh-water streams fed the latke, but the fish soon adapted to become a new fresh-water species.

Bajau  island people include divers that can deep-sea dive up to 70 meters for over ten minutes.

I find these examples fascinating, but even more fascinating is how a new mother’s ears become immediately sensitized to her baby’s cry. Recently, I dealt with two pest problems and had a similar instant sensitization. The sound of raccoons in the attic had me noticing every thump in or outside our house. Many of the sounds had been going on for years. After successful professional treatment of our house for Yosemite Valley bed bugs, my spine straightens at stray pieces of dark lint.

Weeks after the Loma Prieta earthquake, a slight variation between adjacent sidewalk squares or someone gently using an eraser at a table at which I sat would be enough to jolt me alert.

What is it about brains that causes these adaptations? Formally, adaptation, studied for over a century, is defined as change in a species that makes it ideal for its environment. Neuroscience has verified that the part of the brain of a new mother that controls readiness and planning is activated by a baby’s cry. They’ve identified the chemical involved. But what triggers it all? Whatever it is, it is critical for survival.

My guess, and it’s only a guess, is that it’s related to a relatively new subfield of genetics called epigenetics. Who we are not only depends on our genes, but which ones are active. Think of them as light bulbs with some on and some off. Perhaps environmental events themselves activate different genes creating a newly sensitized self.

Life is truly remarkable!


Are Malthus’s Dire Predictions About Human Civilization Coming True?


Will this become the human condition?

I don’t know if the 18th century Malthus is still mentioned in schools as someone who theorized that an increased food supply encouraged population growth and predicted the forces behind population increase were larger than those behind increases in food production. Of course, the conclusion is that humans are unsustainable on Earth.

Humans, indeed, are the ultimate consumers of Earth’s resources. We not only consume food—overfishing our oceans—we consume clean water, clean air, and energy.

Consider the Ogallala aquifer in the Midwest. If spread across the U.S. the aquifer would cover all 50 states with 1.5 feet of water

  • If drained, it would take more than 6,000 years to refill naturally
  • More than 90 percent of the water pumped is used to irrigate crops
  • $20 billion a year in food and fiber depend on the aquifer

Yet, one Kansas study estimates the aquifer will run dry in 50 years.

Fossil fuel supplies are limited, and their production consumes clean air and  water.

In short we are consuming Earth’s resources, and population growth contributes to the depletion.

It is not only about survival, it is about life as we know it. Imagine life without furnaces, air conditioning, convenient transportation,  and all of our de-vices for communication and entertainment.

My point is not to spread doom and gloom, but to increase our supply of awareness. I believe that proper long-term planning and science can not only help us survive, but maintain and even improve our health and lifestyle. It is science that has created fruits and vegetables with longer shelf lives and more essential nutrients, is experimenting with creating meat in laboratories, and more.

Further, it is science, which can save our future as it has in the past, but today the challenge is greater because we consume more and more different kinds of resources.  I am delighted to see compostable plastic-like bags, advances in medical science, discovery of caterpillars who will eat plastic bags that make their way into our oceans , efforts to get carbon out of the air, electric cars, renewable energy such as solar, wind, tidal, geothermal, hydro-electricity, and two-year olds if suitably harnessed.Often the first of new inventions is not the best, but gets better.

One of my concerns is an anti-scientific attitude in this country, and I don’t know its basis. Is it because scientists are warning us and we don’t like the message so we want to strangle the messenger? Is it because we only care about the here and now? Or because we only care about our own welfare?

Believe it or not:  a NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) administrator testified before Congress re the need for continued adequate funding. When she mentioned the importance of weather forecasting, like a child thinking eggs don’t come from chickens but from grocery stores, one unnamed congress creature said, “Oh, if I want to know what the weather will be, I turn on TV.”

We can’t afford as a society to be ignorant of what faces us. Individual human beings need more than ever to be educated  not only to be employed  but  contribute to the preservation of our common wealth and how to make it work for us for the common good.

End of sermon.




The Charm of Physicists Can Be Delightfully Funny



Physicists seem to me always in pursuit of new postulated particles. They whimsically label properties of the subatomic particles called quarks as up, down,  bottom, top, charm and strange.

As a mathematician, I find it delightful that new particles have been predicted because their existence would mean the mathematics (Group Theory)  behind their behavior more symmetric and beautiful. It is that inherent belief in the beauty of nature that led them to their hypotheses, which included the properties of the postulated particles. It’s as if biologists predicted a new animal, which was raccoon-sized and loved strawberries. One need only take a raccoon trap and bait with strawberries. The physicists were able to build their trap and discover new particles.

Recently a single new high-energy neutrino called a ghost neutrino crashed into an atom in the Antarctica. It was detected by a cosmic team of 1,000 researchers. It is deemed to have originated from a black hole in a galaxy billions of light years away and thereby is a messenger from outer space. Heidi Schellman, a particle physicist at Oregon State University said “Scientists will be able to use these messengers to answer questions about distant cataclysms, test theories about the composition of the universe, and refine their understanding of the fundamental rules of physics.”

I am reminded of a memo from the Physics Department on a new element called administratium. Here’s its puckish description. I don’t know whom to credit for the original. I found it again on Google, but I can’t tell who deserves credit for delighting me.



Investigators at a major research institution have discovered the heaviest element known to science. This startling new discovery has been tentatively named Administratium (Ad). This new element has no protons or electrons, thus having an atomic number of 0.

It does, however, have 1 neutron, 125 assistant neutrons, 75 vice neutrons, and 111 assistant vice neutrons, giving it an atomic mass of 312. These 312 particles are held together by a force called morons, which are surrounded by vast quantities of lepton-like particles called peons. Since it has no electrons, Administratium is inert. However, it can be detected as it impedes every reaction with which it comes into contact.

According to the discoverers, a minute amount of Administratium causes one reaction to take over four days to complete when it would normally take less than a second. Administratium has a normal half-life of approximately three years; it does not decay but instead undergoes a reorganization in which a portion of the assistant neutrons, vice neutrons, and assistant vice neutrons exchange places.

In fact an Administratium sample’s mass will actually increase over time, since with each reorganization some of the morons inevitably become neutrons, forming new isotopes. This characteristic of moron promotion leads some scientists to speculate that Administratium is formed whenever morons reach a certain quantity in concentration. This hypothetical quantity is referred to as the “critical morass.”

This is a better representatiion of the minds of physicists than those on the Big Bang Theory.


A Tribute to Koko and Animal Intelligence

I wonder how well she plays.

I had the privilege of hearing Koko’s surrogate mother speak at San Jose State University at an Expanding Your Horizons day for girls to learn about women in science. I’ll never forget the fact that once when Koko was upset with her trainer, Koko constructed a two-word sentence consisting of the sign for Penny and the sign for excrement.

Koko knew abstract words like bad and sad as well as signs for concrete objects. She asked for a kitten for her birthday, showing disappointment at a stuffed animal. She understands gifts are wrapped in colorful paper. When she received a real kitten, she named it Ball when it curled up in her lap. There is a video of Koko interestingly tucking a baby bottle under her armpit, making me wonder if the bottle was to feed Ball’s kittens. When Ball passed away, Koko signed the words: bad and sad.

Unfortunately, Penny’s claims about Koko were disputed as exaggerated and that Koko was merely mimicking her researcher. I infer that part of the disbelief is the refusal to recognize the high level of animal intelligence. We humans see ourselves as  unique in the world of the living. Indeed we are, but while we may be at the top of the intelligence spectrum, it is just that, namely a spectrum. I find it preposterous that we don’t recognize the uncanny ability of animals to avoid traps, to solve puzzles to get at food, to express shame at the words “bad dog,” to hide after doing something destructive, to mourn loss, and the list goes on. Every animal is unique, including we humans.

With Koko’s recent passing I plan to dig up the August 3rd, 2016 special on Koko on PBS as soon as we get the last clever raccoon out of our attic.I am NOT joking.

The sources to learn more about Koko are many. Here are just a few.

The kitten loving gorilla passes away.
Koko’s legacy
Inside Koko’s World