Avian genocide in the Mediterranean: a pretty cruel “tradition”

Every year in the spring, a massive genocide breaks out in several Mediterranean countries that claims a few million lives. Avian lives. Jonathan Franzen wrote about this outrage in the New Yorker last week.

If you’re a lover of nature, this article will make your heart ache. If you’re a lover of nature with a special affinity for its avian subjects, this article might be a lot more painful.

I belong to the first category of nature lovers, never having applied myself to learn about creatures that don’t keep their feet on the ground much. I know the difference between a gaudy peacock and a drab peahen. And I could tell you about the size and coloring of our urban co-dwellers like doves, crows, sparrows, etc., even if I couldn’t tell you about their habits. But that’s about it. I wouldn’t know a crested finch if it bit me on the nose or a black-headed bunting if it trilled in my ear.

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HIV/AIDS news: the good, bad, and downright sad

During my six years as an immunology grad student, HIV research papers that had the words ‘T cells,’ ‘antibodies’ and ‘vaccine’ in them always sat on or near the top of my must-read pile. I read those papers with enthusiasm even though, by the time I got to figure 4 or 5 in the ‘results’ section, their gist seemed to carry a whiff of discouragement. When I graduated, my ardor cooled a bit. The jobs that I stumbled into required my antennae to be retuned to catch news from all fields of biomedical research. But I still kept au courant with the topic via review papers and news summaries, if not primary articles.

Then I started to read about HIV researchers saying that maybe it wasn’t realistic to hope for a sterilizing cure – the kind you get when the virus is completely wiped out in each and every infected cell of a person. Researchers had figured out how to treat HIV patients with combinations of anti-HIV drugs so that viral loads were kept low and CD4 T cell counts relatively high. Patients who maintain a certain ratio of CD4 T cells (the immune cells that the virus attacks and kills off) to viral load have been able to live symptom-free longer and with relatively small toxicity-induced organ damage. So maybe, these researchers said, the anti-HIV drug combos, which were getting cheaper and cheaper, were as good as it was ever going to get.

And then in 2007, Merck’s experimental HIV vaccine, which was then the research community’s big hope, flopped in a hugely disappointing trial. After that, I really couldn’t dredge up the enthusiasm to follow the field.

This summer, though, HIV/AIDS news seems to have inexplicably become impossible to ignore. A bunch of “Can-we-cure-AIDS?” type of stories have started to appear in many major science and popular news outlets. (Or maybe this sudden reappearance is not so inexplicable. The 18th International AIDS Conference starts in Vienna today and maybe some scientist somewhere has good news that was selectively leaked and that will soon be known to all. One can hope.)

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“Is it me? Or is it XMRV?” – the Chronic Fatigue blame game continues

Several million perpetually tired people heaved a weary sigh of relief last year when a research group “raised the possibility” that Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a much-debated (and sometimes-mocked) condition, was caused by a retrovirus. Well, okay, the researchers didn’t outright declare that this virus, XMRV, caused CFS. What they coyly said in their paper was, “XMRV may be a contributing factor in the pathogenesis of CFS.”

Not so, said a clutch of papers that appeared within six months of this study. But none of these papers made as much noise as the one published a couple of weeks ago in a journal called Retrovirology by a group from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), a US public health behemoth. Like the batch that came before, this paper also presents data that “do not support an association of XMRV with CFS.” Not only that, the scientists at the CDC as well as a lab in Berlin and one in San Francisco didn’t detect XMRV in any of the samples, suggesting that the negative result isn’t just a reflection of statistical analysis.

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Monkey tricks

Even science writing geeks have to take breaks from science writing, especially when it’s been brain-meltingly hot – that’s my excuse for not posting last week and I’m sticking to it.

Blog posts on research papers will appear later this week, which promises to be another scorcher. In the meantime, I urge you to stay cool by drinking some monkey intelligence Kool-Aid.

When a colleague told me this morning about Japanese monkeys escaping from a lab by using tree branches to catapult themselves up over a high-voltage 17-foot high fence, I was sure he was babbling as a result of sunstroke. But it turns out to be true.

I know from reading Robert Sapolsky’s “A Primate Memoir” that even untrained monkeys have some pretty mad improv. skills, but this was really too good (even though my opinion of the ingenuity of these simian ninjas was brought low when I found out how they were re-captured). Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be any footage of this great monkey escape.

So I urge you instead to check out this fantastic Nat. Geo video of the cutest, most curious chimp, ever, who discovers a camera within his/her habitat. This is wildlife filming at its best.

Curious chimp

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Some media-and-tech flavored bytes from June

  • Hillary Clinton is a big fan of Twitter. But some Republicans on Capitol Hill, not so much. News of this stand-

    Capitol tweeters. Credit: Ed Wexler for USN & WR

    off emerged after a couple of young Twitterati from the State Department made waves with their widely followed tweets during a State visit to Syria. The fuddy-duddies from the GOP don’t think statecraft and diplomacy work well when doled out in 140 character parcels. Well, statecraft and diplomacy don’t seem to have worked much when doled out in 140 page manuscripts either, so it might be time to try something new. Tweet on!

  • Google’s little dust-up with China stirred up much ado about a click this week. China refused to re-license Google if it continued to automatically redirect users to its Hong Kong-based site in order to avoid Chinese censors. Google’s “compromise” to keep its Chinese market share while appearing to not sacrifice its commitment to free speech was to replace the auto redirect with…wait for it…a NON-auto redirect! (Instead of being automatically sent to the censor-free Hong Kong site, users who get on Google in China will now have to click on a link on the search page to get to censor-free surf space.) Is there someplace where I can place a (very large) bet that the People’s Republic is not going to fall for that?

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Stem cell misadventures: shady stories from hot places

A man staggers off a plane on to a hot tarmac. He’s flown thousands of miles in the hope that this visit to a country famous for its beautiful beaches, among other things, will mend his broken heart — medically, not metaphorically. The man isn’t here to loll around the beaches or bars even though he’s come loaded with cash.

Pseudo stem cell "therapies". Credit: MDI Digital, Popular Science magazine

He’s here to fork over the money for the privilege of hopping on to a surgical table in a private clinic. Here, he will open up his veins to a cellular infusion that the clinic’s doctors have touted as a magical cure-all. The rest of the story is in the July issue of Popular Science. Read it – it has a happy ending, so far, allegedly.

There have been lots of such stories sprinkled around in recent years about these so-called “stem cell tourists” who spend small fortunes traveling to Thailand, China, India, Brazil, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, etc., etc., for stem cell “therapies.” The small but very important detail that these stories either don’t mention or significantly downplay is that these procedures and their outcomes haven’t been subjected to any kind of scientific scrutiny or regulatory oversight.

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Need to know: troubled oceans, lurking flu, vuvuzela filters and more


A handful of need-to-knows this week:

  • The oceans are in trouble even without rigs dumping oil into them. Science’s coverage of the issues in its latest issue, is, well, oceanic. The direst of the problems seems to be that the oceans’ pH is dropping. Which means that there’s a massive acidification of the waters going on thanks to all that extra CO2 getting converted in part into hydrogen ions (the ‘H’ in the pH). This is bad news for many, including coral reefs and shell fish (and their consumers too, presumably).
  • The other ocean-related news that might interest you is that there’s a big cocktail party going on down there and that the whales don’t like it. The human race’s maritime activities – ship-clogged lanes and submarine traffic – are flooding the waters with an acoustic racket that’s disrupting whale talk, mermaid song and God knows what else. Scientists are urging the development and deployment of noise-free propeller systems (note: the silent “caterpillar” drive in The Hunt for Red October isn’t real. Yet. But great movie, though).

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