Jellyfish DNA May Help Diagnose Ebola, Other Diseases

What a weird and wonderful world:

Discs of souped-up filter paper could change how we diagnose infections. To demonstrate the power of the approach, which involves embedding DNA from jellyfish and other organisms into paper, its developers have successfully used it to identify two strains of Ebola.dn26451-1_300

Although far from being ready for testing in west Africa, paper discs that detect the virus are being developed for potential use as a cheap, simple method to identify infected people.

The key to the technology is the ability to print sequences of DNA on paper, then freeze-dry and store the discs at room temperature. The DNA is reactivated by adding water. Once active, it enables the paper to change colour if a chosen target – such as a segment of Ebola viral RNA – is present in the water.

The target fragment binds to a gene switch in the DNA, which triggers the production of a colourful substance such as the protein that gives jellyfish a green glow under ultraviolet light, or proteins from bacteria that produce colour changes visible to the naked eye. The colour the paper changes to indicates which of the target pathogens has been detected.

H/T: The Wife

New Techniques Detect Consciousness in Vegetative Patients

People in a “vegetative state” may have far more brain activity than previously thought, LiveScience reports:

…researchers looked at 32 comatose patients and 26 healthy people. Some of the comatose patients were diagnosed as “minimally conscious,” meaning there was some evidence that they may have retained some awareness of their surroundings (for example, the patient could follow simple commands, such as squeezing a finger). But others were diagnosed as “vegetative,” which means they were thought to have lost all conscious awareness, even though they could breathe on their own or open their eyes.

The researchers examined participants’ brain waves using electroencephalography (EEG) and applied mathematical tools to the EEG data to find patterns of communication across brain regions. The researchers then compared these patterns in the comatose patients’ brains with those of healthy people.

As expected, the brain-activity patterns in the comatose patients’ brains differed from those of the healthy participants. Healthy, conscious brains showed “rich and diversely connected networks,” which were lacking in the comatose patients’ brains, the researchers said. [Top 10 Mysteries of the Mind]

However, some comatose patients who were thought to be completely vegetative actually showed some patterns similar to those of healthy people. These were the patients who, despite being diagnosed as vegetative, had been suggested to have some level of awareness in previous brain imaging experiments. For example, although the patients did not perform any physical movements in response to commands, brain imaging showed that when they were told to imagine doing a physical activity, such as playing tennis, the area of the brain responsible for controlling movement, lit up.

Some vegetative patients who show signs of hidden awareness have remarkably well-preserved networks similar to healthy adults,” the researchers wrote.

It’s a little late to help Terri Schiavo and other victims of medical homicide, but any progress is welcome.

More of The Pill’s Glorious Legacy: Widespread Animal Mutation

from the Times of Trenton

‘Intersex’ fish found in Delaware, other rivers a result of hormone-disrupting chemicals

At first glance, most fish caught in the Delaware River look perfectly normal. But scientists who investigated further discovered something very unusual.

A sampling of certain male fish were found to be carrying female eggs.

These “intersex” fish were not only in the Delaware but in two other Pennsylvania river systems, according to a study done by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Scientists believe chemicals seeping into the rivers from various sources are causing this unnatural phenomenon.

From 2007 through 2010, USGS scientists collected samples of intersex fish from the Delaware, Susquehanna and Ohio rivers and their tributaries. This research, which was published last month by USGS fish biologist Vicki Blazer, is getting increasing attention among scientists, environmentalists and politicians.

A scientist from the Pennsylvania DEP catching fish to study in the Buffalo Creek in Juniata County, Pa. Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection

Blazer discovered male smallmouth bass and white sucker fish taking on the female’s role of carrying immature eggs. Sample fish were collected from multiple sites along the rivers, including the Schuylkill River, a tributary of the Delaware 30 miles from Trenton. Nearly all the smallmouth bass and white sucker fish collected from the Schuylkill showed intersex deformities.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, this is the result of endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the water. The fish’s endocrine system, which regulates hormones and reproductive systems, is being thrown off by the estrogen and estrogen-like chemicals being dumped into the water through both agricultural and human waste, such as manure and human waste water, along with synthetic chemicals coming from plastics and pharmaceutical chemicals that act like estrogens, such as the ones found in birth control pills.

Note how the writer buries the lede deep in the story and then forgets it, allowing the New Jersey Sierra Club to lie about the main problem, because that’s what the New Jersey Sierra Club and other so-called environmentalists do. They make it sound like industrial waste is the main source of the chemicals being pumped into the water, while it is largely the result of oral contraceptives, which pass into the water supply through the urine of women who take the pill, and cannot be filtered out by normal water purifying equipment.

So, in addition to reduced libido and increased risk of venous thrombosis, depression, and breast, cervix, and liver cancer, women taking oral contraceptives are also radically altering the environment. But, c’mon, y’know: sex!

If any other chemical was causing widespread and proven mutations in wildlife, the environmentalists would be going ballistic. But from them, not a peep because: seriously, guys: sex! It’s totally worth it! 

We are a sexually insane culture.

By the way, if you have a rudimentary communication skills, a functioning brain, and some simple techniques, you can do the family planning thing without pumping chemicals into your body. Look, we did the oral contraception route before we started taking our faith and my wife’s health more seriously. It’s not just possible to toss your pills, it’s actually wonderful.

Check out Simcha Fisher’s blog this week. She’s giving out a ton of natural family planning goodies for the next 13 days, because Simcha is teh awesomes.

Three-Parent Babies Now Only Two Years Away

Let’s start with the money quote, and then get down to the details:

“Are these techniques safe in humans? We won’t know that until it’s actually done in humans. Until a healthy baby is born we cannot say 100% that these techniques are safe, if you think back to when IVF was a new technology all of these questions were asked before IVF.” Andy Greenfield, chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA)

It takes the breath away, doesn’t it? They are playing with the most powerful force in the universe–the creation of new life–as if they’re diddling around with tinker-toys, fully aware they have no clue what this could do to the human person.

The procedure in question, which combines elements of two embryos, is being pursued for a noble goal: the elimination of mitochondrial disease. The disease causes “muscle weakness, blindness, heart failure and even death,” and is passed along by the mother.

The new technique removes and destroys the nucleus from a donor embryo and transplants the nucleus from the mother’s embryo into the donor embryo.

Of course, this means one embryo is destroyed in the process and something new is created: a human being with the genetic material of three parents.

Setting aside the horror of embryo destruction and bioethical nightmare of a three-parent child, what will introducing multi-DNA people into the human family do to both the people in question and humanity?

They haven’t got a clue. Not one single solitary clue. But they’re doing it anyway, and giving themselves a whole two years of testing (no doubt destroying many embryos in the process) to figure out how to do it.

Right now, they’re working with a procedure that many would see as a potential good: eliminating a terrible disease. That was always going to be the first step. The final, inevitable step should this go forward is designer babies and eugenics.

It’s almost inevitable now. A dark future of DNA tinkering and hybrid humans is a matter of when not if. Humanity had a good run, but we’re impatient with suffering. That was, of course, the lesson of the cross: a lesson too many in the world seem to have forgotten.

It’s not the we should go on blithely accepting suffering and death without applying human genius and imagination to making life better. It’s that there is a bright line separating what can be done from what should be done. We go so far, and no further. And messing about with the very source of human life is on the wrong side of that bright line.

Pat Robertson on Young Earth Creationism

I didn’t bother covering the “Ham on Nye” debate because I thought it was just dumb. A children’s TV show host debating a quack fundie? What next, a debate about Thetans between Dora the Explorer and Tom Cruise?

When I kept seeing “Who will win?!” comments on Twitter, my only thought was: Can’t they both lose?

Young Earth Creationism is science for idiots. Ken Ham’s theories are a joke, and in debating him Bill Nye is just squishing the low-hanging fruit of theism. It’s shooting fish in a barrel. This wasn’t a debate about “creationism.” It was a debate about the intellectual bankruptcy of fundamentalist Christianity.

And you know who agrees we me? Pat Freakin’ Robertson: the man who puts the fun back into fundamentalist extremism:

I’m marking this day down in my calendar because it was the day I agreed with Pat Robertson.

Oh, and Ken? My friend wants to have a word with you:

Turn Your Finger into a Speaker


Disney: finding new ways to creep me out.

Okay, it is pretty cool, if pointless.

Ishin-Den-Shin allows you to record a message into a special microphone, and then transmit that message directly another person just by touching his ear. The effect is as though you’re whispering right in the person’s ear … through your finger.

Here’s how it works:

A Shure 55 microphone is connected to a computer’s sound card. The microphone is recording as soon as a sound that is a higher amplitude than a set threshold is sensed. The computer creates a loop with the recording which is then sent back to an amplification driver. This amplification driver converts the recorded sound signal into a high voltage, low current (300 Vpp, 50 uA) inaudible signal. The output of the amplification hardware is connected to the conductive metallic casing of the microphone via a very thin, almost invisible wire wrapped around the microphone audio cable. When holding the microphone, the visitor comes in contact with the inaudible, high voltage, low power version of the recorded sound. This creates a modulated electrostatic field around the visitors’ skin. When touching another person’s ear, this modulated electrostatic field creates a very small vibration of the ear lobe. As a result, both the finger and the ear together form a speaker which makes the signal audible for the person touched. The inaudible signal can be transmitted from body to body, using any sort of physical contact.

Now get your finger out of my ear.

A Snail With a Translucent Shell

A new species of snail discovered deep in a Croatian cave has a translucent shell:

Zospeum tholussum – belongs to a genus of minute air-breathing land snails that cannot see to find their way around and are considered to be true eutroglobionts that only live in dark, underground caves.

The fragile snail has a beautifully shaped dome-like translucent shell.

Scientists from Goethe University, Frankfurt and the Biospeleological Society in Croatia, found just one living specimen during the expedition, the findings of which were published in the journal Subterranean Biology.

The animal was found at the remarkable depth of 980 metres, in an unnamed chamber full of rocks and sand with a small stream running through it.

In other weird nature news, Blobfish was just voted the ugliest animal.

Head Transplants?


This had been tried on animals since the 1950s, but the problem has always been connecting the spinal chord. I don’t doubt that, at some point in the future, the technology will exist to make this possible, and one scientist thinks he may be getting closer:

Canavero describes in a recent paper a step to connect donor and recipient spinal cords – the one component that was missing from previous procedures because the technology to do so was not yet available.

“Tomorrow is today,” Canavero said in an interview. “What was impossible can happen now.”

But completing a head transplant is incredibly tedious, and the spinal cord fusion hasn’t been tested.

Though the procedure’s name suggests otherwise, the recipient would be receiving a new body, not a new head. Both the body-recipient and the body-donor’s heads are severed before the recipient’s is attached to a new body.

To be transplanted, the head would have to be cooled to between 55 and 59 degrees Fahrenheit. Then, the two heads must be cut at exactly the same time and in the same operating room. Surgeons then have one hour to connect the head to the donor body, which is also cooled and placed under cardiac arrest.

Canavero’s new development to connect the spinal cords is called the GEMINI procedure, during which surgeons cut the cooled spinal cords with extremely sharp blades.

“It is this ‘clean cut’ the key to spinal cord fusion, in that it allows proximally severed axons to be ‘fused’ with their distal counterparts,” Canavero writes in his paper.

Canavero says in his paper that some chemicals – such as polyethylene glycol, or PEG – can then be used to immediately fuse the spinal cords.

“PEG is easy to administer and has a strong safety record in man,” Canavero writes.

Once the spinal cords of the recipient and donor are successfully connected, the body’s heart can be restarted, pumping blood into the brain, and “normal temperatures will be reached within minutes.”

Canavero told U.S. News that should he receive the necessary funding – about $30 million – the surgery would be possible within two years.

Two years seems unlikely, but we have to assume that at some point this will be technically possible. What then does it mean for ontology? Are we just a head, or does our body matter to our being? Not being gnostics, Catholics believe that the body matters: that it is imbued with intrinsic worth of its own. Will a person still be the same person if 90% of his material being once belonged to another?

There’s some deep theology to be done here.

Transhumanism’s “Futurama” Future

Every child who grew up in the 1970s knew for a fact that Walt Disney’s head had been “frozen” to await a future in which science has progressed enough to heal his cancer-ravaged body and restore him to life in order to provide joy for future generation.

None of that was any more true than the flights of fantasy transhumanists continue to sell like techno-new-age hucksters with university posts, but that doesn’t keep them from trying.


Nick Bostrom, professor of philosophy at the Future of Humanity Institute [FHI] and his co researcher Anders Sandberg have agreed to pay an American company to detach and deep freeze their heads in the advent of their deaths.

Colleague Stuart Armstrong is instead opting to have his whole body frozen. Preserving the full body is technically more difficult to achieve and can cost up to £130,000.

Bostrom, Armstrong, Sandberg are lead researchers at the FHI, a part of the prestigious Oxford Martin School where academics complete research into problems affecting the globe, such as a climate change.

 Nick Bostrom is an intellectual moron. He’s mostly notable for pitching the idea that we’re all living in a computer simulation created by our descendants, and even did some math to “prove” its likelihood.

Naturally, this is such a phenomenally dumb idea that its transcendent wrongness loops around the minds of the self-styled brights and appears to meet on the other side at that gossamer dividing line between “dumb” and “brilliant.” You can read the whole fatuous bit of pseudo-intellectual onanism here, but I’ll spare you the boring bits and get to the conclusion:

A technologically mature “posthuman” civilization would have enormous computing power. Based on this empirical fact, the simulation argument shows that at least one of the following propositions is true: (1) The fraction of human-level civilizations that reach a posthuman stage is very close to zero; (2) The fraction of posthuman civilizations that are interested in running ancestor-simulations is very close to zero; (3) The fraction of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is very close to one.

If (1) is true, then we will almost certainly go extinct before reaching posthumanity. If (2) is true, then there must be a strong convergence among the courses of advanced civilizations so that virtually none contains any relatively wealthy individuals who desire to run ancestor-simulations and are free to do so. If (3) is true, then we almost certainly live in a simulation. In the dark forest of our current ignorance, it seems sensible to apportion one’s credence roughly evenly between (1), (2), and (3).

Unless we are now living in a simulation, our descendants will almost certainly never run an ancestor-simulation.

See people: this is why you don’t drink the bong water. So many faulty assumptions, not the least of which being that transhumanism or extinction appear to be our only options. It’s not like selling panicky bullshit about the immanent end of humanity is anything new: this is just The Rapture for atheists. It’s just that most sensible people pass by the guy with the “End is Nigh” sign rather than giving him lucrative speaking gigs.

And it’s profitable, too. He’s now accepting donations!  Hey, it’s worth it!

Whilst the Future of Humanity Institute is currently small, it arguably represents humanity’s best effort to understand its future prospects and the existential challenges confronting our species.

They tell us themselves that “FHI is pioneering research of immense importance” (No it’s not.) and it’s just not right to make them sit around filling out grant applications when you can kick a little something in the kitty. Because dreaming up implausible future scenarios is really expensive for some reason. Pulp science-fiction writers did the same thing for pennies a word, and did it better. Our future will be inspired more by Star Trek and Doctor Who than by anything dribbling out of FHI.

But let’s get back to the heads-in-a-jar for a minute:

Speaking to the Sunday Times, Sandberg said that life with just a head would be limited, but that he hoped by that point the process could involve downloading his personality and memories onto a computer.

Armstrong, whose wife Miriam is heavily pregnant, has chosen the Cryonics Institute and even plans to take out a policy for his unborn child. “It costs me £25 a month in premiums to cover the cost of getting cryo-preserved, and that seems a good bet,” he said. “It’s a lot cheaper than joining a gym, which is most people’s way of trying to prolong life.

“If you picture the world in, say, 200 years, when reanimation is possible, it will probably be a wonderful place. I want to sign up the baby so she has the same chance.”

So much stupidity, and so densely packed! Why, yes, life without a body would be limited, although it doesn’t stop Nixon from becoming president again in a thousand years. I assume the gym line is a joke, but it does say a lot about the mindset that thinks only of extending life using technology, and views the body not as integral, but as merely in the way.

The idea that the world of 200 years hence will “probably be a wonderful place” really gives the game away. Only a thin veneer of philosophical, mathematical, and pseudo-scientific jargon separates them from your garden variety new age nut. Give it a wild-eyed stare and an extra bit of crazy, and it’s Heaven’s Gate. These human popsicles think that, upon death, they are boarding an ark through time on a journey to a future earth where the magical healing power of technology has made everything wonderful and cured humanity of its intrinsically fallen nature. Their bodies are limitations to be shed, not divine creations.

It never seems to occur to them that such a techno-Utopian future would inevitably be fascistic, with the poor and “unworthy” of society excluded or eliminated. In their imagined perfect future, eugenics is baked right in the cake, and grotesque inequality between a cybernetic Ubermensch over a merely-human Untermensch is a given.

The only people opting for this treatment are a wealthy, self-selecting elite of self-styled intellectuals, which means if this did work, our future would be run by atheistic, moneyed techno-fascists. In other words, there’s no good ending to the story. This is the kind of thing Jaron Lanier warns about. It’s the Utopia of the “cybernetic totalists” who see us as meat computers with limitations to be overcome, rather than unique, organic, ensouled creatures in whom embodiment is integral to being.

Transhumanists are the neo-Gnostics, maintaining a dim view of the human body. If they could shed their flesh for a nifty new memory bank or a shiny robotic shell, they’d do it in a heatbeat, and that should frighten any sensible person.

The post-human world they imagine will never come to pass because they’ve planted their flag on the wrong side of the mind-body debate, and all their errors of thought flow from that fundamental mistake. You cannot separate mind from body and maintain human nature, and you cannot postulate a human consciousness that is simply “brain” and no more. They are right to speak of “post-humanity,” because whatever would emerge would be a thing, not a human. Naturally, the soul plays no role at all in their calculations, because they deny its existence.

We’re in a moment that is seeing the ascendancy of the physicists and the neuroscientists in the debate about being.  This moment will pass, and when it does, it will take post-humanism with it. And we’ll be left with just a lot of silly frozen heads in jars that someone, some day, will need to provide with a dignified burial.


H/T Dale Price for the initial story.