Making Unique Observations in a Very Cluttered World

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Florida battles giant stucco-eating Snails - can grow as big as a Rat -

Florida battles giant stucco-eating Snails - can grow as big as a Rat - 

South Florida is fighting a growing infestation of one of the world’s most destructive invasive species: the giant African land snail, which can grow as big as a rat and gnaw through stucco and plaster.
More than 1,000 of the molluscs are being caught each week in the Miami-Dade area and 117,000 in total since the first snail was spotted by a homeowner in September 2011, said Denise Feiber, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Residents will soon likely begin encountering them more often, crunching them underfoot as the snails emerge from underground hibernation at the start of the state’s rainy season in just seven weeks, Feiber said.
The snails attack “over 500 known species of plants ... pretty much anything that’s in their path and green,” Feiber said.
In some Caribbean countries, such as Barbados, which are overrun with the creatures, the snails’ shells blow out tires on the highway and turn into hurling projectiles from lawn mower blades, while their slime and excrement coat walls and pavement.
“It becomes a slick mess,” Feiber said.
A typical snail can produce about 1,200 eggs a year and the creatures are a particular pest in homes because of their fondness for stucco, devoured for the calcium content they need for their shells.
The snails also carry a parasitic rat lungworm that can cause illness in humans, including a form of meningitis, Feiber said, although no such cases have yet been identified in the United States.
The snails’ saga is something of a sequel to the Florida horror show of exotic species invasions, including the well-known infestation of giant Burmese pythons, which became established in the Everglades in 2000. There is a long list of destructive non-native species that thrive in the state’s moist, subtropical climate.
Experts gathered last week in Gainesville, Fla., for a Giant African Land Snail Science Symposium to seek the best ways to eradicate the molluscs, including use of a stronger bait approved recently by Washington.
Feiber said investigators were trying to trace the snail infestation source. One possibility being examined is a Miami Santeria group, a religion with West African and Caribbean roots, which was found in 2010 to be using the large snails in its rituals, she said. But many exotic species come into the United States unintentionally in freight or tourists’ baggage.
“If you got a ham sandwich in Jamaica or the Dominican Republic, or an orange, and you didn’t eat it all and you bring it back into the States and then you discard it, at some point, things can emerge from those products,” Feiber said.
Authorities are expanding a series of announcements on buses, billboards and in movie theatres urging the public to be on the lookout.
The last known Florida invasion of the giant molluscs occurred in 1966, when a boy returning to Miami from a vacation in Hawaii brought back three of them, possibly in his jacket pockets. His grandmother eventually released the snails into her garden, where the population grew in seven years to 17,000 snails. The state spent $1 million and 10 years eradicating them.
Feiber said many people unfamiliar with the danger viewed the snails as cute pets.
“They’re huge, they move around, they look like they’re looking at you ... communicating with you, and people enjoy them for that,” Feiber said. “But they don’t realize the devastation they can create if they are released into the environment where they don’t have any natural enemies and they thrive.”

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Kidney grown in lab successfully transplanted into animal - a major step towards personalised transplant organs -

Kidney grown in lab successfully transplanted into animal - a major step towards personalised transplant organs - 

Scientists have grown a kidney in a laboratory and shown that it works when implanted into a living animal. The work is an important step towards the longer-term goal of growing personalised replacement organs that could be transplanted into people with kidney failure.

More than 51,000 people are treated every year in the UK for end-stage kidney failure and 90% of those are on the waiting list for organs are waiting for kidneys. A shortage of organs means that every year fewer than 3,000 transplants are carried out, however, while more than 3,000 people die waiting for a transplant.

There is no cure for kidney failure. The only available treatments – dialysis or receiving a transplant – just buy a patient more time but come with considerable limitations on quality of life. A patient on dialysis is advised to drink less than a litre of fluid per day, for example. And kidney transplants only last between 10 to 15 years on average, in addition to any complications caused by immune rejection.

Finding a new source of replacement organs that could be grown using the patient's own cells and that could last a lifetime would, therefore, be a big leap forward.

In the latest work, Harald Ott of Massachusetts General hospital led a team of scientists who grew a kidney by using an experimental technique that has previously been used to create working hearts, lungs and livers.

Ott first took a rat kidney and stripped out its functional cells using a solution of detergent. That left behind a white cellular matrix, the collagen scaffold that gives the organ its three-dimensional structure.

His team then introduced kidney and blood vessel cells from newborn rats onto the scaffold and cultured the growing organs for 12 days, until the cells had grown to cover the scaffold. The team then implanted the organ into a living rat, where it successfully filtered the animal's blood and produced urine. The work is published on Sunday in Nature Medicine.

The work builds on methods pioneered by the American bioengineer Doris Taylor, who first used it in 2008 to grow whole, beating hearts. She described the collagen structure left behind after the bleach had done its work as being like the "gristle" in a steak.

According to Ott, further refinement of the technique would be needed, but it could lead to bioengineered kidneys one day replacing diseased or damaged kidneys in the same way that donor kidneys via transplant do now. Ideally, the engineered kidneys would be grown from a patient's own cells, thereby removing the need for the patient to take immunosuppressant drugs for the rest of their lives.

Elaine Davies, head of research operations at Kidney Research UK, called Ott's work "fascinating science", which would provide hope for kidney patients and those at risk of kidney disease.

But she cautioned that patients should not expect imminent human trials. "This whole regenerative medicine approach is still really in its infancy in terms of kidney disease," she said.

"Predominantly, it's just the fact that the kidney is a much more complex organ in terms of being able to replicate its anatomy and physiology when you compare it to other organs like skin or heart. It has many different types of cells within it and it has a very complex structure in terms of the different functions it performs.

"There's hope with a caution. I'm not saying we won't get there but it could be in [many] decades' time."

According to Davies, not enough patients are diagnosed early in primary care, which would allow preventive measures such as lifestyle changes to delay or avoid kidney failure. "It's a growing health burden."

"We're predicting that there are 3 million people at risk of kidney disease in the UK," she added.


Study Finds New Way to Clear Cholesterol from Blood -

Study Finds New Way to Clear Cholesterol from Blood - 

Sources of cholesterol (University of California, San Francisco)
Scientists led by Prof David Ginsburg of the University of Michigan’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute inhibited the action of a gene responsible for transporting a protein that interferes with the ability of the liver to remove cholesterol from the blood in mice. Trapping the destructive protein where it couldn’t harm receptors responsible for removing cholesterol preserved the liver cells’ capacity to clear plasma cholesterol from the blood, but did not appear to otherwise affect the health of the mice.

In the research, scientists found that mice with an inactive SEC24A gene could develop normally. However, their plasma cholesterol levels were reduced by 45 percent because vesicles from liver cells were not able to recruit and transport a critical regulator of blood cholesterol levels called proprotein convertase subtilisin/kexin type 9 (PCSK9).

PCSK9 is a secretory protein that destroys the liver cells’ receptors of low-density lipoprotein (LDL, the so-called ‘bad cholesterol), and prevents the cells from removing the LDL.

“Inhibiting SEC24A or PCSK9 may be an alternative to statins, and could work together with statins to produce even greater effects,” said first study author Dr Xiao-Wei Chen from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. “Also, they might be effective on patients who are resistant to or intolerant of statins.”

Initial studies of anti-PCSK9 therapies in humans have shown that eliminating PCSK9 can lower cholesterol dramatically and work with statins like Lipitor to lower it even further. The new study points to a new area for study: rather than inhibiting PCSK9 itself, perhaps future therapies could block the transport mechanism that allows the destructive protein to reach the LDL receptors.

The study explains the mechanism by which cells transport PCSK9. Vesicles transport proteins in the cell – Prof Ginsburg’s team focused on a specialized type of vesicle packaged by the Coat Protein Complex II, which regulates the metabolism of cholesterol, among many other things. These vesicles selectively transport cargo proteins including PCSK9.

Without those LDL receptors (LDLR), liver cells are not able to remove LDLs from the bloodstream, so protecting the LDLR from PCSK9 would allow the receptors to continue to remove cholesterol.

“Without SEC24A, much of the PCSK9 couldn’t make its way out of the cells to destroy the LDLR, which then clears cholesterol from the blood,” Dr Chen said.

The part of the vesicle that selects which proteins to transport is SEC24. By blocking SEC24A gene, the researchers disabled the vesicle’s selection of PCSK9. The destructive protein remained trapped within the cells, leaving the LDLR intact and enabling the liver to clear the body of cholesterol that otherwise could accumulate in arteries.

“We have no reason at this point to expect that this strategy will be any better than anti-PCSK9 therapy for treating high cholesterol, but it would be another alternative approach, and it’s hard to predict which drugs will work the best and be the safest until we actually try them out in people,” Prof Ginsburg said.

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Interest on Student Loans to Give US Government $34 Billion a Year in Revenue -

Interest on Student Loans to Give US Government $34 Billion a Year in Revenue - 

Even as the economy struggles to recover from the bursting of the sub-prime mortgage debt bubble in 2008 a new debt crisis over student loans looms on the horizon, and this time the federal government is actually profiting off of debtors. If a coming interest rate increase is not averted by Congress, millions of student borrowers could be thrown into default, with devastating consequences not only for themselves but for the economy as a whole.

At present, student loan debt stands at $1.1 trillion, more than all other consumer debt except for home mortgages. Some experts, including those at the Treasury Department’s Office of Financial Research, warn that student debt is a potential threat to financial stability that could depress demand for home mortgages and reduce consumption.

Meanwhile, the federal Department of Education is making big money from student loan payments. Its direct loan program yielded a $27.5 billion profit on loans made in 2011, $24 billion on loans made in 2012, and is expected to earn $33.5 billion on loans made in 2013. All told, over the last five years the government has earned $101.8 billion in profit from student borrowers, thanks to differences between the government’s low borrowing costs and students’ fixed interest rates.

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Poison Apples: “Organic” Fruit can be Tainted by Antibiotics until Fall 2014 -

Poison Apples: “Organic” Fruit can be Tainted by Antibiotics until Fall 2014 - 

There’s a dirty little secret in some organic fruit orchards.

That juicy apple or pear that you just paid triple the price for may have been sprayed with antibiotics.

Yep – that’s right.  The USDA has approved “new options for organic producers and processors.”  

Last August, the USDA quietly released this ruling:

The National Organic Program published a final rule today that addresses the use of three substances in organic agriculture with specific limitations that would support production and processing of organic products.
Effective August 3, the allowance for the use of tetracycline in organic apple and pear production will be extended until Oct. 21, 2014, providing two years for the development of alternatives for fire blight control. Additionally, producers will have the option of using formic acid as a means of controlling varroa and tracheal mites in organic honey bee operations, while processors will have the option of using attapulgite, a nonsynthetic processing aid, for purification of plant and animal oils.
So those outrageously expensive organic products may have been treated with tetracycline, formic acid, and attapulgite, none of which really sound that organic to me.  (Formic acid and attapulgite will be discussed in upcoming articles).

The tetracycline came into use as a disease called “fire blight” has swept through the nation’s orchards. It has been allowed to be used in  orchards bearing organic certifications since 2002.  I thought that avoiding conventionally farmed meats would be enough to protect us from random doses of antibiotics, never considering that the fruit I purchased would have been treated with them.  In a world that is hurtling towards an antibiotic apocalypse, this is an outrage.  Lizzie Bennett wrote:

The message the article contains is blunt, unequivocal and terrifying. Professor Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer for England said:

It is clear we might never see global warming. The apocalyptic scenario is that when I need a new hip in 20 years I’ll die from a routine infection because we’ve run out of antibiotics”

20 years. Two decades. Our lifetime.
The World Health Organisation has also issue a warning saying that the world is moving towards a ‘post antibiotic era’ unless urgent action is taken.

According to the Organic Consumers Association, the practice of spraying fruit with antibiotics is a real concern.  ”Use of antibiotics on fruit trees may not play as important a role in antibiotic resistance as the rampant use of non-therapeutic antibiotics in livestock, but it does have an impact on the pool of antibiotic-resistant bacteria – something organic agriculture should not be a part of…Every time you eat an organic apple or pear, you risk exposing your gut flora to measureable levels of streptomycin and tetracycline. This increases your chances of developing resistance to these important antibiotics, both of which are essential to treating human disease.”

Tetracycline is the weapon of choice against fire blight, a serious disease that can wipe out entire orchards in one season. It has proven effective in treating the trees.  However, according to a report by the Cornucopia Institute, “Medical experts testified that environmental contamination, by using air blast sprayers to apply the same antibiotics as humans depend on, over wide acreage, is a significant danger in developing antibiotic resistant bacteria.”

According to Wikipedia, “ Tetracycline is a broad-spectrum polyketide antibiotic produced by the Streptomyces genus of Actinobacteria, indicated for use against many bacterial infections.”  WebMD discusses some of the problematic side effects of tetracycline:

Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, mouth sores, black hairy tongue, sore throat, dizziness, headache, or rectal discomfort may occur. If any of these effects persist or worsen, notify your doctor or pharmacist promptly.
Tell your doctor immediately if any of these unlikely but serious side effects occur:sunburn (sun sensitivity), nail discoloration, muscle pain, difficult or painful swallowing, change in the amount of urine, brown/gray tooth discoloration, numbness/tingling of the hands/feet, unusual fatigue, new signs of infection (e.g., persistent sore throat, fever, chills).
Tell your doctor immediately if any of these rare but very serious side effects occur: hearing changes (e.g., ringing in the ears, decreased hearing), persistent or severe headache, vision changes (e.g., blurred vision), easy bruising/bleeding, severe stomach/abdominal pain, yellowing eyes/skin, dark urine.

This medication may rarely cause a severe intestinal condition (Clostridium difficile-associated diarrhea) due to a resistant bacteria. This condition may occur during treatment or weeks to months after treatment has stopped.. Do not use anti-diarrhea products or narcotic pain medications if you have the following symptoms because these products may make them worse. Tell your doctor immediately if you develop: persistent diarrhea, abdominal or stomach pain/cramping, blood/mucus in your stool..

Use of this medication for prolonged or repeated periods may result in oral thrush or a new yeast infection (oral or vaginal fungal infection). Contact your doctor if you notice white patches in your mouth, a change in vaginal discharge or other new symptoms.

A very serious allergic reaction to this drug is unlikely, but seek immediate medical attention if it occurs. Symptoms of a serious allergic reaction may include: rash, skin lesions/sores, itching/swelling (especially of the face/tongue/throat), severe dizziness, trouble breathing, new or worsening swelling/pain in the joints, chest pain, fast/irregular heartbeat.

This is not a complete list of possible side effects. If you notice other effects not listed above, contact your doctor or pharmacist.

As someone who grows food for my own family, I certainly can’t argue with the fact that a farmer would not want to lose an entire orchard.  In the same situation, I would probably treat my fruit trees, albeit grudgingly.  BUT I WOULD NOT CALL THE HARVEST “ORGANIC” and therein lies my issue with the treatment of organic fruit.

So how is it that these fruits still bear an organic label?  The USDA explains it:

While organic principles require the use of biological, physical or mechanical methods or natural controls to prevent or control crop pests, weeds, and diseases, the organic regulations permit use of carefully evaluated inputs when natural methods are insufficient to address critical issues of production.
Not only do we have to worry about our own antibiotic resistance when consuming fruit, the blights themselves are becoming resistant to the antibiotics.  Initially they were treated with a different antibiotic, streptomycin.  Fire blight is now resistant to that drug and that’s why farmers are using tetracycline.  Clearly there’s a pattern developing, and they will have to step up to an even stronger antibiotic in the future.  “To the degree that fire blight is becoming resistant to these antibiotics, it’s their own race to the bottom,” says Consumers Union’s Urvashi Rangan, director of consumer safety and sustainability.

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