Archive for January 26th, 2013


And darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

—Genesis 1:2-3

So. Seems it was pretty smart, for that Yahweh guy, to kick things off, with light.

Because Science Men, rooting around in the brainpan, have determined that when things go wrong in there, they can sometimes be made right, with light.

By blending gene therapy, neural engineering let there beand fiber optics, experimenters at more than 800 laboratories world-wide are making neurons into switches they can directly control by beaming a selected wavelength of laser light to a targeted cell in a living brain.

So far the light is only shining on animals. This is some of what it does:

Light on: Mice freeze in fear. Light off: They scamper freely. Researchers at Stanford University and MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory had activated light-sensitive neurons in the brain’s hippocampus involved in the memory of fright.

Light on: Addicted mice lose their taste for cocaine. Light off: They avidly seek the drug. Researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston and the University of Iowa had targeted neurons in a part of the cortex—the brain’s outer layer associated with seeking a reward.

Light on: Epileptic seizures stop. Light off: The spasms resume. Researchers at Stanford and at the Pierre and Marie Curie University in France had targeted neurons in the mouse brain’s cortex and thalamus known to be overactive during seizures

Light on: Depressed mice become more socially active and more eager for sugar. Light off: Listlessness and indifference to sweets return. Scientists at Stanford and MIT had targeted the dopamine neurons, which make a chemical thought to elevate mood in a reward circuit located in the midbrain.

Appropriately, this Wonderment began with our great good friends, pond scum.

For generations, microbiologists had known that single-celled bacteria, fungi and algae survive thanks to proteins that respond to visible light. When illuminated, these “opsin” proteins change the flow of electrically charged ions within the out of the deepscell, to help the cell turn light into energy or as a sensory cue. In 2002, German researchers isolated one from green algae—a class of proteins called channelrhodopsins—that responded only to blue light

Taking advantage of that find, Dr. Deisseroth and Dr. [Edward] Boyden [of MIT] attached the gene to a virus that targets brain cells. Then they wanted to see if that altered virus would insert the light-sensitive protein into a neuron, so that the brain cell would become responsive to light. “We gave it a try in neurons and it worked the first time,” said Dr. Boyden. “It is important to be lucky.”

Yes. It is.

So, someday, soon, it can all be made better. Just switch on the light.


Keep Those Doodies Rollin’

Once upon a time, humans who arrogantly assumed themselves more “advanced,” thought the ancients were all wet, with such wisdom nuggets as “as above, so below.”

Not so much anymore. Not when Science Men are discovering stuff like how dung beetles, when pushing their balls of doody around, are guided by the Milky Way.

When dung beetles roll their tiny balls of poop across the under the milky way tonightsands of South Africa on a moonless night, they look to the glow of our Milky Way galaxy as a navigational aid, researchers report.

“Even on clear, moonless nights, many dung beetles still manage to orientate along straight paths,” Marie Dacke, a biologist at Sweden’s Lund University said in a news release. “This led us to suspect that the beetles exploit the starry sky for orientation—a feat that had, to our knowledge, never before been demonstrated in an insect.”

The Science Men devised an Experiment, in order to confirm the relationship between the pint-sized poop-pushers, and the stars.

First, they built a 10-foot-wide circular arena in a South African game reserve and watched what troops of nocturnal dung beetles did on moonlit nights, moonless nights and cloudy nights. They fitted the bugs with little cardboard caps to block their view of the sky. They even fitted some of the bugs with transparent plastic caps, just to make sure that any differences they saw were due to the sky blockage rather than the presence of the caps.

Then the scientists took their dung-beetle arena into the Johannesburg Planetarium and ran the same experiment, to eliminate the possibility that the beetles were using terrestrial landmarks to plot their course in the dark. The planetarium was programmed to show the night sky with the Milky Way, or the Milky Way without the brightest stars in the sky, or the brightest stars without the Milky Way, or just the diffuse glow of the Milky Way with no stars at all.

The bottom line was clear: Those bugs could keep track of how the fuzzy streak of the Milky Way was oriented in the sky, to let's fight over shitmake sure they rolled their balls of dung in a suitably straight line.

The Milky Way is Important to the dung beetles, because “without the proper orientation, the beetles might circle back to the dung pile, where they’d have to face all the other beetles trying to steal away their tiny balls of poop.” As Science Man Marcus Byrne of the University of Witwatersrand explained:  “The dung beetles don’t care which direction they’re going in; they just need to get away from the bun fight at the poo pile.”

This may explain why humans too veer off in so many different directions. Because humans are also too often about stealing each other’s shit. And so they “don’t care which direction they’re going in; they just need to get away from the bun fight at the poo pile.”


Sometimes tough choices have to be made.

Take the folks there at Rakwena Crocodile Farm in South Africa. With heavy rains Thursday forcing the Limpopo River over its banks, the farm people, “fearing that the raging floodwaters would crush the walls of their house,” elected to open gates that would hiallow their charges to escape from confinement and then wander across the land.

Their charges being, well, some 15,000 crocodiles.

“There used to be only a few crocodiles in the Limpopo River,” said Zane Langman, whose father-in-law is—or was—the chief Rakwena croc farmer. “Now there are a lot.”

The New York Times reports that “efforts to reach the farm and the local police directly were unsuccessful, with no one answering the phones.”

Gee. Like that is a surprise. With 15,000 loosed crocodiles padding about, there are probably no longer a lot of intact humans in the vicinity. And crocodiles do not use the phone.

According to the BBC, neither the police nor the armed forces are engaged in attempting to recapture the beasts. Their excuse: no one has asked them to. A uniformed spokesbeing, one Hangwani Mulaudzi, stated “an official request would have to be made by the farm to involve the armed forces, which has not happened.”

Of course, if there are no longer any functional homo sapiens on the farm, such a request cannot be made.

Meanwhile, “villagers have been warned not to try and capture a crocodile on their own,” Mulaudzi said.

Seems sound advice.

Nevertheless, it is civilian volunteers who are participating in the roundup.

During the floods Mr. Langman set out in a boat to rescue his neighbors. “You want to get them, but you wonder the whole time if you’ll make it there,” he said[.] “When we reached them, the crocodiles were swimming around them. Praise the Lord, they were all alive.”

Crocodile-roping is reportedly most successful at night. According to the apparently insane Langman:

“At night time we have more success and we can see their red eyes—it’s much easier to see them. They are reasonably active so you have to jump on them and catch them[.]”

One might reasonably ask: why in the world would anybody “farm” 15,000 crocodiles?

Seems this pursuit is quite common along the river: “the land along the Limpopo is home to dozens of game reserves and crocodile farms, some housing tens of thousands of reptiles.”

The Rakwena reptiles “are mostly bred for their skin, which is exported to Europe and parts of Asia to make shoes, jackets and handbags.”

Rakwena “is also a tourist attraction, with visitors able to go on guided crocodile tours.”

Now, no guides are needed. Even if they were available. For the crocodiles are everywhere. And anybody who wants to go see them, is welcome to do so.

Meanwhile, apparently some of the freed animals are taking up rugby.

South Africa’s Beeld newspaper quoted Mr Langman as saying that some of the crocodiles had been recaptured on a school rugby pitch in Muskina, a town on the border with Zimbabwe about 120km from the farm.

So: 120 kilometers. Or 75 miles. They move fast, these people. All 15,000 of them.

Rugby-playing crocodiles. Coming soon. To SportsCenter. Watch for it.

When I Worked

January 2013
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