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Science Roundup: Jan. 31, 2006

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“Prion disease found lurking in deer muscle,”…it’s lurking, well I guess I had better worry

The infectious prions that cause Chronic Wasting Disease, an infection similar to BSE that afflicts North American deer and elk have been found in the parts of the animals that people eat. No one knows if CWD can jump to humans, but if it does hunters in affected areas might be at risk.

CWD was first diagnosed as a spongiform encephalopathy in captive deer and elk in Colorado in the 1970s, and in wild deer and elk in the region in the 1980s. But in the 1990s it spread widely within the elk farming industry, jumped to wild deer, and now affects two provinces of Canada and 13 US states.


The team replaced the gene for the normal mouse version of the prion protein with the normal gene from deer, so the mice made the normal, healthy deer protein. They then injected the mouse brains with tissue from infected deer. Twelve to 18 months later, the mice developed encephalopathy.

Tissues from both the infected deers’ brains and thigh muscle caused disease. Muscle took slightly longer to cause disease than brain tissue, showing it had slightly less prion.

“We don’t know that it is transmitted in the wild by animals eating muscle from infected animals,” cautions Telling. “We now have to see where else the prion might be,” including saliva and even excrement, using more transgenic mice.


“If I were a hunter I would be cautious about eating deer in areas affected,” says Telling. But he notes that not much testing of wildlife has been done, and it is not clear how prevalent the infection is.

That is scary. So what you are saying is that if I genetically modify myself so that I express a deer protein, and then inject deer muscle into my brain I could die. I better change my lifestyle.

Your chances of getting mad cow disease are literally a bagillion to one. You have a better chance of being mauled to death by a rabid mime that dying of mad cow disease much less mad deer disease. So I am going to be honest, if I were a hunter I would pay no attention to this article whatsoever.

Sequence This

Why the rush all of a sudden to sequence everything?

Here is an article about them sequencing the ocean, and another about them sequencing dirt.

What’s next? “We have now completely sequenced all the life that can be found in a bowl of Cocoa Puffs…”

Brain Scans Busy Detecting Lies, Being Exaggerated

Both labs use brain-scanning technology called functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. It’s a standard tool for studying the brain, but research into using it to detect lies is still in early stages. Nobody really knows yet whether it will prove more accurate than polygraphs, which measure things like blood pressure and breathing rate to look for emotional signals of lying.

But advocates for fMRI say it has the potential to be more accurate, because it zeros in on the source of lying, the brain, rather than using indirect measures. So it may someday provide lawyers with something polygraphs can’t: legal evidence of truth-telling that’s widely admissible in court. (Courts generally regard polygraph results as unreliable, and either prohibit such evidence or allow it only if both sides in a case agree to let it in.)

Laken said he’s aiming to offer the fMRI service for use in situations like libel, slander and fraud where it’s one person’s word against another, and perhaps in employee screening by government agencies. Attorneys suggest it would be more useful in civil than most criminal cases, he said.

Using fMRI to detect lying exploits the observation that lying causes more activity in your prefrontal cortex than telling the truth.

I will tell you that I don’t think this is going to work for two reasons, one of which the researcher discusses at the end of the article.

1) You have to stay very, very still for fMRI to work and you have to participate in the questioning. Someone determined to confound the machine could just refuse to answer or jiggle a bunch and your answer is shot.

2) This equipment cannot detect the accuracy of individuals who are in delusional states. Put simply, the technology relies on the person telling a bald-faced lie — something they know is false. If someone believes that they are telling the truth, then their brain will not contradict them. So all the nutjobs are sort of out.

Risky Business, Checking Polar Bears for Contamination

Carried to the Arctic via wind and ocean currents, the toxic chemicals used in flame retardants may be threatening polar bears, one of the planet’s most contaminated organisms, according to Canada’s National Water Institute. These toxic chemicals, known as polybrominated diphenyls, accumulate in the fatty tissue of animals and become more concentrated in the top predators of food chains as bigger animals eat smaller contaminated ones. Scientists are unsure of exactly what effects these flame retardant compounds have in polar bears.

Similar industrial chemicals have been shown to weaken immune systems, alter bone structure, disrupt sex hormones, and possibly cause hermaphroditism in bears. Some scientists also believe that many cubs are contaminated by their mothers’ milk and die. Bears in Canada’s western Hudson Bay, the most well-researched population, declined from 1,100 in 1995 to fewer than 950 in 2004. Only 20,000 to 25,000 of these creatures remain throughout the world.

I do not dispute the reality of these findings. I have one very important question, however. How on Earth did they check? Is there some grad student somewhere who has to tranq the polar bears and then run up to take fat samples before they wake up?

Also, hemaphroditic polar bears…that is just so very wrong…

Salt Love May Be Hard Wired, Next Up: Journal Articles on Cereal Preferences

The newest of these studies finds that among normal-weight newborns, the smaller a baby is at birth, the more likely it is that he or she will show an early and strong preference for salty fare. As have other studies, the new research hints that some sort of biological programming can occur in the womb that may foster a preference for salty foods later in life.

‘The [newest] findings should be viewed as preliminary and hypothesis-generating,’ note Leslie J. Stein and her coauthors at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. However, Stein adds, the data fit with results of past studies of salt intake by animals and small groups of people. The idea of people being preprogrammed to crave salt is worth pursuing in follow-up studies, she argues.

The Monell center is a nonprofit research institution focusing on the biological mechanisms underlying taste, smell, and irritation from chemicals.

‘It’s pretty amazing—almost staggering—that in this day and age, we still don’t understand much about how people detect salty tastes and the factors influencing how much we like salt,’ says Stein. Many people overuse this condiment, a contributor to high blood pressure, and thus a major risk factor for heart disease. Better understanding of salt’s siren song might suggest ways people can resist it, adds Stein.

I’m sorry but it is pretty amazing in this day in age that we haven’t cured malaria. It is not, on the other hand, amazing that we haven’t investigated the subtle details of why some of us prefer chips as opposed to chocolate. It is not even SURPRISING that we haven’t. Who does this woman work for — a front for the Salt Council of America?

Sorry, Ladies

The contraceptive pill does not cause women to put on weight, say researchers who have surveyed data from more than 40 studies.

‘The word on the street is that if you take the pill, you’re gonna get fat,’ says reproductive health expert David Grimes of Family Health International in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. ‘This attitude is rampant around the world.’

But these fears are unfounded, Grimes and his colleagues argue. They compiled the results of 44 studies carried out over the past few years that examined the effects of contraceptive pills and patches. As they report in The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews1, they found no evidence that beginning to use the pill leads to any jump in weight gain.

Sorry, ladies. That excuse kind of got thrown out the window. I guess it really was all the beer.

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