Photosynthesize This

via JPL
So there is this joke we have, about how being the one government agency that routinely does its job … never mind. At any rate, NASA would have you know:

Data from satellite sensors show that during the Northern Hemisphere’s growing season, the Midwest region of the United States boasts more photosynthetic activity than any other spot on Earth, according to NASA and university scientists.

Healthy plants convert light to energy via photosynthesis, but chlorophyll also emits a fraction of absorbed light as a fluorescent glow that is invisible to the naked eye. The magnitude of the glow is an excellent indicator of the amount of photosynthesis, or gross productivity, of plants in a given region.

Research in 2013, led by Joanna Joiner of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., demonstrated that fluorescence from plants could be teased out from existing data from satellites that were designed and built for other purposes. The new research, led by Luis Guanter of the Freie Universität Berlin, used the data for the first time to estimate photosynthesis from agriculture. Results were published March 25 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

According to co-author Christian Frankenberg of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., “The paper shows that fluorescence is a much better proxy for agricultural productivity than anything we’ve had before. This can go a long way regarding monitoring—and maybe even predicting—regional crop yields.”

Guanter, Joiner and Frankenberg launched their collaboration at a 2012 workshop, hosted by the Keck Institute for Space Studies at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, to explore measurements of photosynthesis from space. The team noticed that on an annual basis, the tropics are the most active in photosynthesis. But during the Northern Hemisphere’s growing season, the U.S. Corn Belt “really stands out,” Frankenberg said. “Areas all over the world are not as productive as this area.”

You are allowed to be impressed. It really is cool, after all.
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Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Satellite Shows High Productivity from U.S. Corn Belt”. March 31, 2014.

(Tip o’the hat to S.L.)

CDC on AMD: “Nothin’ Against Canada”

Meanwhile, in the war against … er .. um … ah … right. Anyway, politics and priorities:

We have the technology  ....Many public health experts see the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the premier disease detection agency not just for the United States but for the entire planet.

Yet when it comes to employing the fastest and most precise method of spotting outbreaks of illness, the CDC is no longer at the cutting edge—and won’t be for years. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Thomas Frieden along with public health and provider groups want to turn that around by investing in a sophisticated technology called “advanced molecular detection” that determines the genetic map of the viruses, bacteria and parasites that cause disease.

The effort began paying off early this year. Appropriators for the first time in several years decided to rewrite Labor-HHS-Education spending provisions. In doing so, they included $30 million for the AMD technology in the omnibus spending measure funding the government through the end of fiscal 2014.

(Reichard)

It almost sounds like a bureaucratic accident; indeed, the task remains for Frieden to convince Congress to maintain funding.

There are, of course, the political questions, from global health perspectives to budgetary questions, to “nightmare” pathogens that, unfortunately are not so unrealistic as the description might lead us to hope. Consider the idea of a contagion that cannot be killed with current technology, and can dance across species. The kind of thing they make bad suspense films about. Except real.

The viruses, bacteria and parasites that cause disease each have their own individual genetic makeups. Advanced molecular detection is used to determine what they are.

It does so by analyzing a small sample of virus or bacteria, for example. It prints out a sequence of the genes in the sample involved. That allows a precise match to a particular medical condition.

Also, the data can be made available within hours to the “bioinformatics” specialists who have the expertise to interpret it. These “rapid gene sequencing” techniques can be applied without the painstaking culturing of samples in labs over a period of days or weeks. It also can quickly determine whether bacteria is drug resistant—speed that could save thousands of lives, officials say.

“Imagine putting together a 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle with the speed you could normally do a 100-piece puzzle—apply that to infectious disease control and that’s AMD at work,” says a CDC fact sheet on the technology. “Now imagine, while disease is spreading and people are dying, trying to put a 10,000 piece puzzle together when key pieces are missing. That’s what many CDC scientists are struggling against today” ….

…. “We’ve been concerned for a number of years that CDC is falling behind,” said Scott Becker, executive director of the Association of Public Health Laboratories. He cited investments 10 to 15 years ago in a technology known as PCR and in the PulseNet food illness surveillance network as ones that kept the agency then at the cutting edge of disease detection, but no longer.

It isn’t so much that the CDC is behind other nations as it is that the technology isn’t being used when dangerous new threats are emerging, said Becker.

“It’s more that the microbes are ahead of us,” agreed Frieden. “The microbes are evolving really quickly.”

But Frieden acknowledged a “painful” story. “During the [2010] cholera outbreak in Haiti we were able to sequence the genome of the cholera bacillus, but we couldn’t interpret it. So we had to send it to Canada to have it interpreted,” he said. “You know, I got nothin’ against Canada, but I never ever want to have to send something elsewhere to have it interpreted. They were ahead of us with bioinformatics.”

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Reichard, John. “CDC Plans to Map DNA of Disease-Causing Viruses”. Roll Call. March 10, 2014.

Ears In the Age of 3-D

Imagine, if you would, please, saying the following to your five year-old twin daughters: “I want to implant your ears on the backs of rats.”

Okay, that’s not nearly so creepy as it sounds. Nancy Shute of NPR explains:

3-D Printed EarTo make the ear, Bonassar and his colleagues scanned the ears of his twin daughters, who were 5 at the time. They used a 3-D printer to build a plastic mold based on the scan. Those printers, similar to a home inkjet, lately have also been adapted to experiment with making chocolate, guns, and even kidneys.

They then injected a soup of collagen, living cartilage cells, and culture medium. The soup congeals “like Jell-O,” Bonassar tells Shots. “All this happens quickly. You inject the mold, and in 15 minutes you have an ear ready to go.”

Well, not exactly. What they have is an ear-shaped chunk of cells that would have to be tucked under the skin on the side of the head by a plastic surgeon before it could become an ear.

To test whether their ear-mold would become living, useful ear cartilage, the researchers implanted samples under the skin on the back of laboratory rats. In three months, cartilage cells took over the collagen, making for a solid-yet-flexible chunk of cartilage that retained its precise shape and size. The results were published online in the journal PLoS One.

The technique could be a breakthrough for microtia and anotia, related birth defects in which the pinna (the part of the ear on the outside of one’s head) is underdeveloped or absent, or even the occasional missing ear resulting from an accident. Microtia occurs in the range of once every eight- to ten-thousand births, and, in truth, I have no idea what the numbers are for accidental or necessary surgical removal of pinnae.

Still, though, as with so many breakthroughs we hear about, application is most likely ten years away at a minimum.

NIH: Shigella Vaccines Start Human Trials

“It seems that Shigella bacteria know our immune system better than we do.”

William Alexander

Shigella sonneiShigellosis is one of those nasty bacterial diseases that follows the cringeworthy fecal-oral routeto infect humans and other primates. Mild cases bring stomachaches; the severe end includes cramping, vomiting, fever, diarrhea, and it generally only gets more disgusting from there. While the disease can occur all over the world—estimates suggest ninety million cases of Shigellosis dysentery each year—the greatest mortality occurs in the third world. Hoping to stem transmission, or, at least, minimize the damage it causes, the World Health Organization has long called for a vaccine to stop Shigella infection.

And, today, scientists are one step closer. The National Institutes of Health announced that two Shigella vaccine have entered early-stage human clinical trials:

Researchers have launched an early-stage human clinical trial of two related candidate vaccines to prevent infection with Shigella, bacteria that are a significant cause of diarrheal illness, particularly among children. The Phase I clinical trial, funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, will evaluate the vaccines for safety and their ability to induce immune responses among 90 healthy adults ages 18 to 45 years. The trial is being conducted at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, one of the eight NIAID-funded Vaccine and Treatment Evaluation Units in the United States ….

…. Led by principal investigator Robert W. Frenck, Jr., M.D., director of clinical medicine at Cincinnati Children’s, the new clinical trial will evaluate two related candidate vaccines, known as WRSs2 and WRSs3, which have been found to be safe and effective when tested in guinea pigs and nonhuman primates. Both target Shigella sonnei, one of the bacteria’s four subtypes and the cause of most shigellosis outbreaks in developed and newly industrialized countries. Though neither candidate vaccine has been tested in humans, a precursor to both, known as WRSs1, was found to be safe and generated an immune response in small human trials in the United States and Israel. This early work was supported by NIAID, the U.S. Department of Defense and the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. All three versions of the vaccine were developed by researchers at the Walter Reed institute.

A study record detail is available via ClinicalTrials.gov.