31 August 2006

Cancer, Hair, Germs, and Steel

First, steel. This story reports on a recently finished bridge that used a new, better form of steel. The copper alloy steel was developed at Northwestern University. The steel has a strength of 70,000 pounds per square inch (psi) compared with 50,000 psi in commonly used structural steel. It is also easy to weld, and tests have shown it has high-impact toughness at low temperatures. In addition, the high copper content gives the alloy much better resistance to atmospheric corrosion than other high-performance steels. Source. I cannot help but wonder why it took 9 years before this better steel was used in large structures when it seems to have so many advantages.

Next, hair. Scientists in the UK have discovered how to command skin cells to become hair follicles. "Which cells are transformed into hair follicles is determined by three proteins that are produced by our genes.

"Our research has identified how one of these proteins working outside of the cell interacts at a molecular level to determine an individual's hair pattern as the embryonic skin spatially organises itself."
The only treatments likely to earn more money for their developers than the cure for baldness, might be the cures for obesity, a true aphrodisiac, and a true life extension drug.

Third, cancer. Researchers at UCR have added to the knowledge of normal prevention of cancer transformation in cells. Liu published her research findings in a featured article titled Mechanistic insights into maintenance of high p53 acetylation by PTEN, in the Aug. 18 issue of Molecular Cell. Co-authors include UCR colleagues Andrew G. Li, Landon G. Piluso Xin Cai and Gang Wei; with William R. Sellers in the Department of Medical Oncology, Dana Ferber Cancer Institute of Harvard University in Boston.

They found that when a cell’s DNA becomes damaged, PTEN forms a complex with another protein, p300, which in effect, switches on p53, a very important tumor suppressor.

“I would like to continue to expand our understanding of how p53 is activated in conjunction with PTEN and under what circumstances it functions to protect the cell,” Liu said.

Finally, germs. Bacterial resistance occurs due to routine mutations in microbes, and is a major cause of morbidity and mortality. Scientists at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital have made a finding that may give drug developers a new advantage in the fight against the gram positive pathogens such as strep and staph. Rock's team showed that gram-positive pathogens first use PlsX to synthesize a compound called fatty acyl-phosphate, then use PlsY to transfer the fatty acid to G3P. These steps initiate membrane phospholipid formation required for cell growth.

"Our discovery of PlsX and PlsY not only solved a troublesome mystery," Rock said. "It's also important because identifying the essential components required for disease-causing bacteria to grow and multiply is a key part of developing new strategies for controlling infections."

Many microbiologists believe that the mutating ability of microbes is so great as to make it unlikely that science will ever develop antibiotics that microbes are unable to resist, eventually. Personally, I believe that evolution only has a limited set of tools for each class of organism. It is up to science to learn what these tools are, then to devise treatments that are not susceptible to those tools. Doing that will require persistence, heightened perception, and invention on the part of scientists.

: For an example of a novel attempt to bypass bacterial resistance, read this newsrelease.

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30 August 2006

Interesting Briefs

Most of you have heard of the Solar Tower to be built in Australia to tap the sun's energy in rising warm air. But have you heard of the Downdraft Energy Tower concept--the mirror image of the solar tower? The downdraft energy tower uses energy from falling cool air to drive turbine generators. Hat tip to Peswiki.

Scientists at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaigne have identified a small molecule that triggers procaspase-3 to become caspase-3, to trigger cell apoptosis. The compound is tagged PAC-1, and if introduced into cancer cells containing procaspase-3 in sufficient quantities, can cause the cancer cell to commit suicide. The scientists screened 20,000 different compounds to find one with the potency of PAC-1.

Researchers at SUNY Downstate Medical Center and MIT have found a protein kinase (m zeta) that establishes synaptic memory (LTP) in brain neurons. Interfering with the molecule, PKM zeta, can actually erase memories that have already been formed. Further research into PKM zeta could lead to better treatments for Alzheimer's, PTSD, phantom limb pain, neurogenic pain, and other neurologic conditions. Hat tip: What's Next in Scitech.

A new paper suggests that boys learn better from male teachers than female teachers. This is bad news for boys, since 80% of public school teachers in the US are female. This may be the reason why more and more boys are dropping out of school, surrendering the college campuses to their girl classmates. Christina Hoff Sommers may have been onto something big after all.

Technology Review presents a short interview with energy storage scientist Yet-Ming Chiang, presenting some general areas of development in new battery storage technology. Energy storage is the main bottleneck to larger scale use of renewable technologies, as well as an important requirement in the quest to improve reliabiity, efficiency, and functionality of the electrical energy grid.
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27 August 2006

Seascape One--Floating City, Home on the Sea

Seasteads are floating cities--meant as both permanent residencies and vacation destinations. David Grassi has gone beyond the preliminary planning stage to the more detailed planning phase. His Seascape One seastead venture is actively seeking investors to make the dream into a reality. Here is more:
Unlike a cruise ship, Seascape One will serve as both a destination and its own port of call. Seascape One will never dock, tooling around the Mediterranean Sea 365 days out of the year under the power of its own massive sail and cruising past the many cultural hotspots that dot this historic part of the world. At a total height of 3,000 feet, Seascape One will be the tallest habitable structure in the world, dwarfing even the Taipei 101 tower in Taiwan.

Another thing that sets Seascape One apart from its nearest cousin, the cruise ship, is that, while vacationers will be welcome aboard for shorter-term stays, this unique, car-free and totally green floating environment will serve as a year-round home for many of its passengers.

....Wind turbines, hydro turbines and millions of square feet of solar cells will provide electrical energy for guests and businesses, onboard desalination stations will provide fresh water, and recycled wastewater will be used to irrigate landscaped areas and hydroponic crops for food production. Grassi expects that the fully sustainable environment he envisions will serve as a model for future generations of developers.

Over the course of the last three years, Grassi has collaborated with a team of architects, designers and animators to flesh out his idea. Last year, with a proposal and pages of artist renderings to show to potential investors, Grassi began the arduous process of trying to raise money to pay for the project’s final design. The design process, he estimates, will cost between $3 million and $5 million, and take two or three years to complete.

Construction will then take another three to four years to complete, according to Grassi, and will cost several billion dollars. He proposes that a host country, probably Third World, provide seaside land on which to build a dry dock, where the floating island would be constructed. The dry dock could then be used to build more of these structures.
Much more at source.

Seasteads can be built as a form of arcology, or as a loose conglomerate of individual floating structures. Given the relentlessly destructive nature of the sea toward manmade structures, seasteads will have to be one of the most carefully planned and constructed classes of structures ever built.

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26 August 2006

Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming: Contra Consensus?

Russian scientists are refusing to acquiesce to the global warming consenus. A report from the Russian Academy of Science Astronomical Observatory discusses the natural heating and cooling cycles of earth's climate secondary to solar activity, and predicts a coming period of global cooling.

Global cooling could develop on Earth in 50 years and have serious consequences before it is replaced by a period of warming in the early 22nd century, a Russian Academy of Sciences’ astronomical observatory’s report says, the RIA Novosti news agency reported Friday.

Environmentalists and scientists warn not about the dangers of global warming provoked by man’s detrimental effect on the planet’s climate, but global cooling. Though never widely supported, it is a theory postulating an overwhelming cooling of the Earth which could involve glaciation.

“On the basis of our [solar emission] research, we developed a scenario of a global cooling of the Earth’s climate by the middle of this century and the beginning of a regular 200-year-long cycle of the climate’s global warming at the start of the 22nd century,” said the head of the space research sector.

The "consensus" on catastrophic anthropogenic global warming has always been shaky, although one can be excused for believing otherwise if his main source of climate news is the mainstream media. When the media chooses to report only one side of a debate, members of the lay public can be excused for believing that the debate is over. Fortunately for honest scientific inquiry, that is not the case here. The High Inquisition of Climatology had a good run, but the consequences of having squelched the debate for so long may not be pretty.

Wizbang picked up the story of the Russian predictions, and added news of some glaciers in the Himalayas actually growing, rather than shrinking.


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24 August 2006

Building Into the Third Dimension: Super-towers and Arcologies

Architect Paolo Soleri introduced the concept of the arcology, an entire city contained within a large well-integrated building. Soleri designed arcologies for many types of terrain--even sea-floating arcologies and arcologies in outer space.

Other architects have since taken up the theme of the arcology, or megacity. The Ultima Tower seen above is about 3,000 meters tall, and the Sky City seen below is about 1000 meters tall. A million people could live in the Ultima Tower comfortably. Such mega-cities bring the issues of land use, energy efficiencies, and recycling of wastes and resources to the forefront where they belong.

Integrated megacities make better use of land, minimise inefficiencies from long-distance commuting from the suburbs and outlying rural areas, and force city planners to get down to the fine details of energy and resource planning that has never been approached until now. This is close to the type of meticulous planning that will be required for building settlements on lunar or Martian soil, or for large orbiting settlements.

This website presents a description of the key components of an arcology. Theoretically, an arcology could be located virtually anywhere on Earth or in space. An arcology for purists would contain its own energy supply, water supply, waste treatment, and interior transportation system--along with residences, recreational areas, shops providing necessities and luxuries, restaurants and cafeterias, medical and dental facilities, and places of business and manufacture. Maintenance workers would necessarily be valued members of the community.

Undersea arcologies and outer space arcologies would require special attention to air supply infrastructure. Recycling of air and water would be particularly important in space, and would almost certainly involve intensive use of specially engineered living plants. Protection from high pressure environment (undersea) and low pressure environment (outer space and high atmospheric) would introduce special design considerations, and special training for all residents.

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21 August 2006

Important New Neuro-Research Tool--From the Sea

Experimental research in biology and pharmacology proceeds with the discovery of new research tools. Recently, University of Utah researchers discovered a new tool for research into an important neuroreceptor--the nicotinic Acetylcholine receptor. This receptor plays a critical role in the brain, muscle, and autonomic ganglia. This new tool promises to help find new treatments for neurological and neuromuscular diseases that currently cause large scale misery.

University of Utah researchers isolated an unusual nerve toxin in an ocean-dwelling snail, and say its ability to glom onto the brain's nicotine receptors may be useful for designing new drugs to treat a variety of psychiatric and brain diseases.

"We discovered a new toxin from a venomous cone snail that may enable scientists to more effectively develop medications for a wide range of nervous system disorders including Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, depression, nicotine addiction and perhaps even schizophrenia," says J. Michael McIntosh.

Discovery of the new cone snail toxin will be published Friday, Aug. 25 in The Journal of Biological Chemistry by a team led by McIntosh, a University of Utah research professor of biology, professor and research director of psychiatry, member of the Center for Peptide Neuropharmacology and member of The Brain Institute.

.... McIntosh says the OmIA toxin will be useful in designing new medicines because it fits like a key into certain lock-like "nicotinic acetylcholine receptors" found on nerve cells in the brain and the rest of the nervous system.

"Those are the same types of receptors you activate if you smoke a cigarette," he says, explaining that nicotine in cigarette smoke "binds" to the receptor to trigger the release of a neurotransmitter, which is a chemical that carries a nerve impulse from one nerve cell to another, allowing nerve cells to communicate.

"Nicotine acts on those receptors in our brain, but they are in our brain for better reasons than to enjoy a cigarette," McIntosh says. Different forms or subtypes of nicotinic receptors control the release of different neurotransmitters. "That's important because if you had compounds to facilitate the release of one neurotransmitter and not another neurotransmitter, that opens up medicinal potential," he says.

"For instance, one receptor modifies the release of dopamine. There are inadequate amounts of dopamine in Parkinson's disease," so a medicine designed to fit into a certain subtype of nicotinic receptor would produce more dopamine and thus protect against the development of tremors and other Parkinson's symptoms. Indeed, other studies have found that smoking seems to forestall Parkinson's disease.

A medicine that could block certain nicotinic receptors could be used to help people stop smoking cigarettes, and the same method might work for alcoholism because nicotinic receptors may be involved in alcohol addiction, McIntosh says.

Other nicotinic receptors trigger the release of neurotransmitters involved in memory, so activating the right receptors might lessen Alzheimer's memory loss.

"One reason people smoke is they feel their thinking may be a little better, with increased attention and focus," McIntosh says, noting that pharmaceutical companies "would like to mimic that positive benefit without all the downsides of cigarette smoke."

Other nicotinic receptors influence "the release of serotonin and norepinephrine, two neurotransmitters strongly implicated in mood disorders" such as depression, so a drug to activate those receptors might treat depression, he adds.

Schizophrenics tend to smoke heavily because something in cigarette smoke "seems to help them filter out irrelevant stimuli. They can focus better," McIntosh says. So a drug aimed at certain nicotinic receptors might treat schizophrenia.

....he snails from which the new toxin was obtained were collected by divers in Olivera's native Philippines. Venomous snails use a dart-like tooth to zap fish, snails and other prey, injecting them with an immobilizing toxin. Venom from the collected snails was extracted at a lab in the Philippines, and then sent to Utah.

Once the screening process identified OmIA as promising, McIntosh and colleagues purified the toxin – one of perhaps 200 components in Conus omaria venom. They determined its chemical structure and then synthesized more of the toxin, since they had only a small amount of the natural version.

Next, the synthetic toxin was tested to see how well it acted as a "key" to fit into the "locks" represented both by binding proteins (from freshwater snails and a sea slug) and by actual nicotinic receptors, which came from rat cells but were grown in frog eggs. That allowed the researcher to grow various subtypes of the nicotinic receptors and see how well the toxin fit them.

Taylor and Han provided pictures of the physical structures of the binding protein "locks" and toxin "key," and then "used computer simulation to dock the two structures together," says McIntosh. "That generates a picture of the binding site – the points of contact between the toxin and the binding protein."

The site is the place a new drug would be designed to fit.

"The whole idea is to make the model of the nicotinic receptor so predictive that you can then really speed up the development of drugs," McIntosh says. "If you have an accurate model of the receptor, you can plug in a model of your drugs and do a lot of 'virtual screening.' Rather than synthesizing a million compounds and having all but one be duds, you can synthesize a few thousand compounds based on the model and come up with a better drug with less time and resources."

It is nice to find new drugs, and new classes of drugs, from nature. Finding a new research tool is even better, since new research tools can lead to new drugs, new classes of drugs, even new approaches to an entire field of study.

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20 August 2006

A Diesel Substitute from Coal--Dimethyl Ether vs. Peak Oil

Peak oil disciples want to make you afraid of the future. They say that the world will run out of oil, unprepared, and suffer fatal shocks to the world economic system. Hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of people, will die--by starvation, disease, and war.

Scientists, engineers, and the big investors, are not taking those Cassandra pronouncements seriously. Instead, they are continuing to explore alternatives to oil--as prices rise--while continuing to discover new oil fields.

Coal is plentiful in many parts of the world, and finding ways to substitute refined products of coal for liquid fuels such as gasoline and diesel is important to the industry of many countries. China is developing better ways of producing dimethyl ether--a diesel substitute--from coal.

China is to begin construction of the largest dimethyl ether (DME) project yet with an annual output of 3 million tons. China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) has banned any coal-based DME project with a design capacity lower than one million tons.

The country’s current annual output is 120,000 tons of DME each year, according to the NDRC.

Participants in the project include power giants China National Coal Group Corporation, China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation and the Shanghai-based Shenergy Group.

Located in Ordos in north China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, the project will cost 21 billion yuan (US$2.6 billion), according to a report in Shanghai Securities News.

A pipeline will be built to transfer the DME from Ordos to the port city of Tangshan in north China’s Hebei Province.

Earlier in August, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private sector arm of the World Bank Group, signed a financing package for China’s Xinao Group to support another coal to dimethyl ether (DME) project that will be one of the world’s largest. That project is expected to come online in 2009. (Earlier post.)

DME can serve as a synthetic fuel that is to diesel what LPG is to gasoline. It is gaseous at ambient conditions but can be liquefied at moderate pressure. With a high cetane number, DME has very attractive characteristics as an alternative fuel for diesel engines. DME can be blended with LPG in a 15 to 20% blend without any modifications to equipment or used as a replacement.

The Chinese government is supporting the development of DME as a possible alternative to diesel.


With clever chemical manipulation, coal can be refined to produced many chemicals that will substitute for petroleum products.

Peak oil soldiers complain bitterly whenever someone points to coal substitutes as an argument against peak oil. But that is disingenuous, because the whole point of peak oil in the first place--the only reason at all that anyone would take peak oil seriously--is the predictions of severe economic shocks leading to extreme hardship, from peak oil. The failure of logic is not generally an impediment to strong quasi-religious beliefs, however.

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19 August 2006

Climatology: Little Boys Crying Wolf? A Seasoned Viewpoint . . .

The pronouncements of climate modelers, who don't do experiments, don't make observations, don't even confect theories, but rather [in my opinion] play computer games using huge programs containing dozens of separate components the details of which they may be largely ignorant, don't move me. I am much more impressed by direct evidence: retreating glaciers, longer growing seasons, the migration of species, rising sea level, etc.

I have lived long enough to have seen many doomsday scenarios painted by people who profited by doing so, but which never came to pass. This has made me a skeptic. Perhaps global warming is an example of the old fable about the boy who cried wolf, but this time the doomsayers are, alas, right. Maybe, but I can't help noting that some of the prominent global warmers of today were global coolers of not so long ago. In particular, Steven Schneider, now at Stanford, previously at NCAR, about 30 years ago was sounding the alarm about an imminent ice age. The culprit then was particles belched into the atmosphere by human activities. No matter how the climate changes he can correctly say that he predicted it. No one in the atmospheric science community has been more successful at getting publicity. NCAR used to send my department clippings from newspaper and magazine articles in which NCAR researchers were named. We'd get thick wads of clippings, almost all of which were devoted to Schneider. Perhaps global warming is bad for the rest of us, but for Schneider and others it has been a godsend.

The quote above is from distinguished physicist and meteorologist Craig Boren, as interviewed in USA Today. The interview is well worth reading, for a relatively objective and time-tested viewpoint on how science should be applied to climatology.

Boren brings out some of the complexities involved in the climate issue, which are almost completely ignored by media accounts of the debate. It is difficult for many non-scientists to adopt a scientific, objective viewpoint on such charged issues. It is far easier to become a "true believer" on one side or another. That is the monkey brain taking over.

Fortunately there are scientists who maintain websites, such as Roger Pielke Sr., and people of a statistical bent, such as those at Climate Audit, who look over the shoulders of the work of climatologists, to point out obvious errors and places where their zeal may have led them astray.

Hat tip to the fascinating blog, Climate Science.


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18 August 2006

Improved Oil Exploration Technology for the Coming Oil Glut

Coming oil glut? How can anyone believe that, when all you read these days is "peak oil?" Supply and demand determines whether there is an "oil glut"--like the one in the 1990s that accompanied the great Asian recession. Another large regional or global recession would almost instantly create another oil glut. But I refer to a potential oil glut due to increased supply, not to reduced demand.

Oil exploration technology has been fairly stagnant for several decades now. Large, potentially huge, oil reservoirs are going undiscovered due to the lack of good discovery tools. Here is what Len LeShack, oil exploration maverick, thinks:

"There are still hundreds of reservoirs of conventional oil to be found in Alberta, and thousands to be found in the United States, but they are unlikely to be found with conventional exploration methods," says LeSchack.

The president of the privately owned Hectori Inc. of Calgary observes from his experiences.

"The industry is still basically using exploration techniques I learned at university in the 1950s. We geologists worked a lot on intuition, and then used seismic to back it up. Seismic is fine, but seismic can only find what seismic can find."

LeShack is the coauthor of a book that lays out several revolutionary new oil exploration tools that threaten to hold back peak oil for at least several decades.

MIT mathematicians are developing new algorithms to use for seismic exploration, which promises to give new life to that aging technology. This story is being recycled by tech news websites two months late, which gives you an idea of the laxity involved in reporting new oil technology.

Nanotechnology methods are being utilised to improve the yield at existing pumping sites. Such technology promises to extend the life of current wells for many years.

Here is a story that illustrates the potential of newer electromagnetic imaging for discovering new oil reservoirs quickly.

Oil is not the long term solution for human energy needs. Renewable energy is needed to allow the quality of human life to improve around the globe. But it is obvious that the traumatic shocks predicted by peak oil disciples would do no one any good, and set back the prospects for improved living in the developing world indefinitely. Only people who wish for a massive "die-off" of humans are wishing for huge peak oil shocks.

Realistically, the worldwide oil extraction infrastructure is not prepared to deal with huge new oil sources. Especially in Iran and the arab world, and other nationalised oil industries such as Venezuela, the oil drilling and pumping infrastructure is deteriorating rapidly due to neglect and lack of skilled engineers and technicians. The corrupt leaders of those quasi-dictatorships are neglecting the long term, for political expediencies of today.

In addition, low oil prices now would only set back the development of necessary long-term renewables. Even if huge new oil fields are discovered, which is very possible, their timely exploitation is most doubtful. They will exist in limbo, as a counter-weight to the peak oil limbo.

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11 August 2006

In Dubai, Even the Islands Look Like Palm Trees

Dubai is a city in the UAE, a wealthy nation on the arab peninsula, opposite Iran across the Straits of Hormuz. Only 23% of residents are "emirati", the rest are mostly outside workers from south asia, arab countries, and a small proportion of foreign residents from outside the muslim world.

The Palm Jumeirah, a 12-square-mile island group, is part of what's billed as the largest land-reclamation project in the world, the product of five years of brute hauling of millions of tons of Persian Gulf sand and quarried rock.

On Nov. 30, the palm will open to some 4,000 residents, said Issam Kazim, a spokesman for Dubai's state-owned developer Nakheel.

When fully complete by 2010, the Palm Jumeirah will be an offshore city, with some 60,000 residents and at least 50,000 workers in 32 hotels and dozens of shops and attractions, Nakheel said.

Observers say they are surprised that the fledgling developer has been able to build such a complex project more or less as planned, albeit with several snags that delayed the opening from last year.

"The project has captured people's imagination," said Colin Foreman of the Middle East Economic Digest. "Nothing like it has been done anywhere else in the world."

Nakheel's four island projects, the world's largest land reclamation effort, are reshaping Dubai's stretch of the Gulf coast.

The $14 billion project is a key part of this booming city's ambitions to rival Singapore and Hong Kong as a business hub, and surpass Las Vegas as a leisure capital.

The frenetic pace of development has utterly transformed Dubai from a sleepy trading and pearl-diving village in the 1950s to a flashy metropolis of 1.5 million.

The island's construction has not all been smooth, and most buyers were supposed to get keys to their island homes a year ago.

Some of the new land sank and Nakheel needed an extra year to add more and pack it with vibrating land compactors, Kazim said.

Reports from those who have wandered through the island's giant homes describe them as cheaply finished and set uncomfortably close to one another. Nakheel rejected an Associated Press request to visit the island.

Overburdened roads in Dubai's Jumeirah Beach neighborhood are expected to clog further as people begin moving onto the island, accessible, for now, by a single bridge. Mainlanders have already put up with years of road works and innumerable trucks hauling boulders to the island.

Those moving onto the Palm Jumeirah this year will have to live with construction for another three years, and then an influx of tourists. Most of the owners are foreigners, with Britons making up the largest group, Kazim said.

Many observers believe Dubai's frenetic homebuilding will soon outstrip demand.

"We've still got a shortage of properties in Dubai, but that's likely to become an excess in next six or 12 months," said Steve Brice, an economist with Standard Chartered Bank in Dubai.

Brice said year-old estimates that 50,000 housing units would hit the market in 2006 will be more than doubled. Nakheel, one of three big developers here, has said it will release 60,000 units in the 2nd half of 2006 alone.

Nakheel's two copycat Palms, the Palm Jebel Ali and Palm Deira, have also been delayed by design changes and other factors, Kazim said. A nearly finished fourth Nakheel archipelago, shaped like a map of the world, has attracted few buyers and remains mostly unsold.

Kazim said The World's sales trouble stems from simple economics: Nakheel is selling empty islands for tens of millions of dollars only to builders promising low-density luxury.

Dubai's government expects the Palm Jumeirah to become a signature tourist attraction, bringing in as many as 20,000 daily visitors, Kazim said.

Meanwhile, laborers living in a cruise ship moored offshore are scrambling to finish enormous concrete houses that are crammed together on the palm island's 17 "fronds." The fronds are narrow peninsulas as long as a mile, attached to the island's main trunk. Nakheel will hand keys to owners of 1,350 homes by Nov. 30, Kazim said.

According to informed sources, living is good in Dubai, even for foreign workers. Skilled westerners can expect to be paid significantly more for their skills than at home, often with considerable tax advantages. Businessmen from outside UAE must get an emirati as a partner and nominal owner, as a condition for tapping into the booming economy there.

UAE is attempting to escape the " ideological straightjacket" that makes life in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and other muslim oil states so constricting. As long as the jihadi troublemakers from UAE are concentrating on making trouble elsewhere, life is good inside the emirates. UAE is also trying to move seamlessly from the oil economy to the "post-oil" economy, which is why it welcomes more investment and ideas from overseas than its less enlightened arab brother nations.

Given that arabs are a minority population in the UAE, it is easy to think of UAE and Dubai as "gateways to the world" for the arab people. Lebanon functions as such also, when it is not being embroiled in civil wars, Hizbollah inspired wars of stupidity, or other self-inflicted problems.l


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07 August 2006

Intermittent Blogging

Postings will be fewer and more intermittent for the next several weeks. Feel free to sample the links on the sidebar. If you have not looked at the other Al Fin blogs, follow the link on the right to view my profile. At the bottom of the profile page are links to other Al Fin blogs. Some of the articles on the other blogs are originals, and some have been re-posted (sometimes modified) there from this blog.
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06 August 2006

99% of Earth's Mass is Hotter than Hell--Global Warming from the Inside Out

Yes, you read that correctly, and it has nothing at all to do with climate change or mainstream ideas of global warming. The massive heat is coming from the interior of the earth. To follow up on an earlier Al Fin article on geothermal energy, this report from Engineer Live gives further information:

Roughly 99 per cent of the Earth’s mass is hotter than 1800 E C and, about three miles down, the temperature reaches several hundred degrees. The optimum way of accessing this energy at the moment is Hot Dry Rock (HDR) or Hot Fractured Rock (HFR) technology. These are referred to as Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS) because they go beyond the drilling of a simple well.

The HDR system comprises at least two depth drillings and one subterranean heat exchanger. The heat exchanger consists of natural joints in plutonite rock which are fractured and connected to each other with the help of water pressure, known as hydraulic simulation.

This enables the exploration of the Earth’s interior heat outside known geothermal provinces. In contrast to a geothermal field in a volcanic or tectonic anomaly, an EGS depends on the artificial stimulation of otherwise tight formations by hydraulic fracturing to create an underground heat exchanger. Fluid is then circulated in a closed circuit.

It has been suggested that there could be sufficient energy to produce hundreds of megawatts of electricity per network and, at these depths, the technology enables geothermal power production virtually anywhere in the world. It is predicted that plants could work over a reservoir for 30 years without experiencing a significant drop in temperature. And this would be available 24 hours a day because it does not rely on variables such as tides, waves, wind or sun. But drilling is an expensive business.

....The United States continues to produce more geothermal electricity than any other country, comprising some 32 per cent of the world total. But this is being challenged, particularly in the Philippines and Indonesia. HDR technology is also expected to produce hundreds of megawatts in Australia.

....Increasing the efficiency of power generation is the subject of a Siemens Industrial Solutions and Services Group project, which plans a geothermal power plant based on the Kalina Cycle. This uses a binary working fluid of water and ammonia instead of water alone. In contrast to pure media with a constant boiling point such as water or pentane, this mixture boils across a larger temperature range at a given pressure.
Kalina Cycle power plants use less energy to heat the working fluid, allowing more of the energy to go directly to generating power and improving the cost effectiveness of the power plant.

The steam power plant now used to make electricity was invented 150 years ago by Scottish engineer William Rankine. It uses a heat source-coal, oil, natural gas, geothermal heat-to produce high-pressure steam that drives a turbine. The excess steam is condensed into water, which is then pumped back to a boiler. But, in a Rankine cycle, only about 35 to 40 per cent of the heat energy released ever becomes electricity, which means an excess depletion of heating resources.

Mixing the water with ammonia, which evaporates at lower temperatures, can raise efficiency at the heat stage of the cycle. But ammonia also condenses less readily, forcing engineers to use smaller turbines and lowering efficiency. Kalina’s invention solves that problem, using sophisticated thermodynamics to draw off most of the ammonia before the condensation stage. A Kalina cycle can boost efficiency by as much as 40 per cent.

....Geothermal power generation offers many benefits over other renewable sources of energy. It is constantly available and so is ideal for supplying base load requirements, where reliability of supply is paramount. Wells could be operational for 30 years or more before they cool too far, providing plenty of opportunity for recouping the initial investment.

And the technology of obtaining heat from hot dry rock formations can be applied virtually anywhere in the world. It can also draw on the experience of the oil industry in drilling very deep wells to access energy pools that are well below the earth’s surface.

Finally, even modest wells can produce megawatts of electricity, making the technology a very valuable contributor to society’s needs.
There is much more information about European efforts to exploit geothermal energy at the link above.

Geothermal heat is a massive store of energy, far more than humans can ever use--much like solar energy. Kalina cycle heat engines promise to increase efficiencies of heat energy by as much as 20% or more.

As I suggested here, heat is a fairly good method of storing solar energy. With better efficiencies from heat engines, heat is becoming an even more attractive form of storage.

Geothermal heat is not exactly solar energy, but it is energy from the formation of the solar system. All other "renewable energies" are secondary to solar, and not even close in magnitude. Only geothermal stands alongside solar as a virtually inexhaustible source of renewable energy, on time scales that humans can comprehend.

Hat tip, Keelynet.com.

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04 August 2006

DNA Repair: BRIT1 in Cancer--Built-In Telomerase Inhibitor Blocks Cell Immortalisation

BRIT1 is a gene that functions as a transcriptional inhibitor of hTERT (human telomerase reverse transcriptase), the catalytic subunit of human telomerase. hTERT is the rate limiting determinant of telomerase and cell immortalisation.

This Newswise newsrelease discusses recent developments in uncovering the relationship between BRIT1, hTERT, DNA repair, and cancer onset.

A single gene plays a pivotal role launching two DNA damage detection and repair pathways in the human genome, suggesting that it functions as a previously unidentified tumor suppressor gene, researchers at The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center report in Cancer Cell.

The advance online publication also reports that the gene - called BRIT1 - is under-expressed in human ovarian, breast and prostate cancer cell lines.

Defects in BRIT1 seem to be a key pathological alteration in cancer initiation and progression, the authors note, and further understanding of its function may contribute to novel, therapeutic approaches to cancer.

"Disruption of BRIT1 function abolishes DNA damage responses and leads to genomic instability," said senior author Shiaw-Yih Lin, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Molecular Therapeutics at M. D. Anderson. Genomic instability fuels the initiation, growth and spread of cancer.

A signaling network of molecular checkpoint pathways protects the human genome by detecting DNA damage, initiating repair and halting division of the damaged cell so that it does not replicate.

In a series of laboratory experiments, Lin and colleagues show that BRIT1 activates two of these checkpoint pathways. The ATM pathway springs into action in response to damage caused by ionizing radiation. The ATR pathway responds to DNA damage caused by ultraviolet radiation.

By using small interfering RNA (siRNA) to silence the BRIT1 gene, the scientists shut down both checkpoint pathways in cells exposed to either type of radiation.

Researchers then used siRNA to silence the gene in normal human mammary epithelial cells (HMEC). The result: Inactivation of the gene caused chromosomal aberrations in 21.2 to 25.6 percent of cells. Control group HMEC had no cells with chromosomal aberrations. In cells with the gene silenced that were then exposed to ionizing radiation, 80 percent of cells had chromosomal aberrations.

"We also found that BRIT1 expression is aberrant in several forms of human cancer," Lin said. The team found reduced expression of the gene in 35 of 87 cases of advanced epithelial ovarian cancer. They also found reduced expression in breast and prostate cancer tissue compared with non-cancerous cells.

Genetic analysis of breast cancer specimens revealed a truncated, dysfunctional version of the BRIT1 protein in one sample.

Loss of the DNA damage checkpoint function and the ability to proliferate indefinitely are two cellular changes required for the development of cancer. Lin and colleagues have now tied the gene to both factors. They previously identified BRIT1 as a repressor of hTERT, a protein that when reactivated immortalizes cells, allowing them to multiply indefinitely.

The cell signaling pathways that regulate detection of DNA damage and the subsequent halting of the cell cycle, DNA repair, and possibly trigger apoptosis, is very complex. By using tools such as siRNA to selectively block individual components of this complex network, researchers can get closer to understanding how this intricate cell machinery functions.

The relationship between BRIT1, hTERT, cancer and cell immortalisation, suggests tantalising clues to possible cancer treatments as well as anti-aging therapies. But it is still too early to be certain of the best avenue of approach. This is an intriguing line of research, nevertheless.

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03 August 2006

Brighter Sun Driving Global Warming--Solar Driven Climate Change?

Harvard researchers are rocking the boat of climate science by claiming that changes in the brightness of the sun are driving global warming. Greenhouse gases are only secondary to the process, they say. Climate models are blind to changes in solar radiance, since they typically hold the sun's input constant while varying greenhouse gas levels. A more scientific approach than current GCMs would look at all the possible variables involved before coming to a conclusion, imply the Harvard scientists.

There is a better explanation for global warming than air pollution, two Harvard researchers say: the Sun is increasing in brightness and radiance.

"Changes in the Sun can account for major climate changes on Earth for the past 300 years, including part of the recent surge of global warming," claims Sallie Baliunas, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).

"We're not saying that variations in solar activity account for all of the global rise in temperature that we are experiencing," cautions her CfA colleague, astrophysicist Willie Soon. "But we believe these variations are the major driving force. Heat-trapping gases emitted by smokestacks and vehicles -- the so-called greenhouse effect -- appear to be secondary."

If that conclusion proves true, it promises a huge economic and political impact on the "third rock from the Sun." The Clinton Administration is trying to negotiate an international treaty to gradually reduce greenhouse pollutants without bringing economic havoc to industries that satisfy our enormous appetite for the energy that comes from burning oil, coal, and gas.

Other world leaders and environmentalists are pushing for immediate action, but Baliunas thinks there is time to carefully consider what action to take. "The best models of global warming call for a very slow temperature rise of less than two degrees in the next 100 years," she has told various congressional committees and briefings. "There is time for more research and a measured response because the penalty you pay in increased temperatures from greenhouse warming is small."

Anything that's cost-effective to cut emissions can be done right away, Baliunas says. Dramatic cuts with high economic penalties might be postponed in the expectation that more effective and affordable technologies will become available in the next 25 years or so.

.... Baliunas and Soon base their ideas about the cause of global warming on irrefutable evidence that sunlight is getting stronger. Since the late 1970s, three Sun-watching satellites recorded surprising changes in heat, ultraviolet radiation, and solar wind. The radiation alters the paths of winter storms; solar winds affect cloudiness and rainfall.

The increased activity, everyone agrees, is tied to a cycle that sees the Sun dimming, then brightening, every 11 years or so. From the late 1970s to mid-1980s, activity on Earth's star declined. Since then it has risen, declined, then risen again. The satellites measured an increase in brightness of as much as 0.14 percent on the latest rise.

Two unknowns, however, prevent Sun-watchers from making any useable forecasts about the next five years. No one knows why the Sun cycles like it does, or when it will reach its next maximum. The best guess is the year 2000.

.... The most striking markers of the Sun's waxings and wanings are the coming and going of black spots on its face. Sunspots mark areas where strong magnetic fields exit and enter the surface of the Sun. They are about a thousand degrees cooler than the bright areas that surround them, but are still incandescently hot.

These spots not only follow an 11-year cycle; they also cycle through longer periods of high and low magnetic activity. When the Sun boasts a maximum of spots, cycle after cycle, Earth tends to be warmer than when its face is clear.

During the years from 1640 to 1720, for example, observers counted abnormally few sunspots and Earth's climate entered a period of unusually cold weather. Since the mid-1960s, solar magnetism has been increasing along with global temperatures.

At such maximums, the wind of magnetic fields and charged particles that normally wafts across the 93 million miles from Sun to Earth blows harder. These gusts can trigger colorful displays of auroral lights during long polar nights. The strongest winds may also disrupt long-range radio communications, cause power outages, and disturb the operation of satellites.

Solar winds also produce radioactive carbon atoms in the atmosphere that eventually rain down and become assimilated into tree rings. High solar winds lead to rings with fewer radioactive atoms and vice versa. Changing levels of radiocarbon provide a natural record of magnetic changes on the Sun that can be matched with weather records of coldings and warmings.

"There have been 19 cold periods in the past 10,000 years and a decrease in solar magnetic activity can be linked to 17 of them," Baliunas notes.
Much more at the Source.

For more Al Fin postings on solar climate effects, see here and here.

Climate science is still in its infancy, and subject to making early large scale errors, as juvenile research tries to make its mark. Sadly, many politicians have jumped on the bandwagon before it was ready to be hitched to the team. In an effort to gain publicity and affect public policy, too many politicians are jumping into what should be a scientific debate. This reflects badly on them, and on a "celebrity culture" that values celebrity and notoriety over actual competence and expertise.

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02 August 2006

Aptamers vs. Antibodies--Early Cancer Detection

Aptamers offer the utility for biotechnological and therapeutic applications as they offer molecular recognition properties that rival that of the commonly used biomolecule, antibodies. In addition to their discriminate recognition, aptamers offer advantages over antibodies as they can be engineered completely in a test tube, are readily produced by chemical synthesis, possess desirable storage properties, and elicit little or no immunogenicity in therapeutic applications. Source.

Aptamers are relatively short molecules (15-50 bases) of RNA, DNA or synthetic analogs that are designed to bind tightly and specifically to target molecules such as proteins. Aptamers can display highly specific binding due to the complex three-dimensional conformations short oligonucleotides can adopt. As these conformations are directly dependent upon primary sequence, synthetic or "genetic evolution" selection techniques can theoretically be used to generate aptamers with almost any specific binding characteristic, especially for any protein.

....Aptamers may someday emerge as an alternative or complement to antibodies as research reagents and diagnostic sensors. It is possible that aptamers may be designed to target proteins for capture and measurement assays, as well as, bind to specific regions of proteins as "agonists" or "antagonists" for functional research. The potential diagnostic use of aptamers for in vivo imaging is also under investigation. However, prior to more widespread use, the technology must be developed to more accurately and efficiently bind specific target proteins and regions.

Now researchers at the University of Florida have developed aptamers that can diagnose leukemic cells at an early stage, even distinguish between types of cancerous leukocytes:

“Normally, definitive diagnosis of cancer requires a visual examination of the tumor, which is an invasive and time-consuming process,” explained Weihong Tan, a UF professor of chemistry and lead author of the paper. “Most importantly, this process is not suitable for early detection, when the cancer is at its most treatable.”
Clinicians can sometimes use antibodies, proteins that recognize and fight bodily intruders, to identify different types of cancer. That’s the case, for example, with the prostate-specific antigen test for prostate cancer. Antibodies are preferable to diagnosis by appearance because they are consistent and accurate, but they are only available for a selected few cancers, Li said.

Tan, a member of the UF Shands Cancer Center and the UF Genetics Institute, said that scientists know that cancer tissue has a unique molecular fingerprint that can distinguish it from healthy tissue. But attempts to target cells via these fingerprints have largely proved futile because there are few molecular tools to recognize the fingerprints. The UF team sought to create these tools in the form of aptamers, or short strands of chemically synthesized DNA. These aptamers exploit the differences on the surface of cells to discern cancerous ones. Key to the approach is it does not require prior knowledge of cancer indicators, Tan said.

“Using the cell-based aptamer selection strategy, we can generate aptamers which can specifically recognize any kind of cells without prior knowledge of molecular changes associated with the disease,” he said.

In experiments, the researchers showed they could successfully design sets of aptamers that would recognize leukemia cells that had been mixed in with normal bone marrow cells. The aptamers also successfully distinguished leukemia T-cells from lymphoma B-cells. Both results indicate that the aptamer method could be used to identify many different types of cancer, researchers said.

Clinicians using such molecular probes should be able to “find cancer in a much earlier stage when the tumors are much smaller,” enabling doctors to begin treatment earlier, Li said.

Early diagnosis of cancer cells using aptamers and/or advanced antibodies, can make cancer screening more accurate, and can bring about earlier diagnosis of cancers. Combining earlier diagnosis with safer and more effective non-invasive cancer treatments, will lead to fewer cancer deaths and less traumatic cancer therapies.

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Nuclear Fusion Energy--Too Good to Give Up On

Limitless energy from nuclear fusion? We have all heard the promises. But we continue to wonder when science will deliver on the promise. Some nuclear physicists claim that nuclear fusion energy is not possible. Certainly a lot of money is spent on fusion research with almost no tangible results. Why should society continue to pay for what seems to be a pipe dream?

Earth dwellers can survive very well on a combination of solar energy and geothermal energy for the next several hundreds of millions of years, at least. But humans can not afford to remain confined to earth for that time. Eventually a large space object will collide with earth, making the surface of earth unlivable. Also, a severe ice age is virtually inevitable within the next ten to thirty thousand years, which will make it impossible for all the earth's billions of human surface dwellers to to survive on the surface.

Fusion energy will expedite space travel expeditions to the limits of the solar system and beyond. Fusion energy will facilitate large underground and undersea habitats on earth and other solid planets and moons. Surviving an ice age underground would be much easier with fusion energy, combined with geothermal.

What are the odds for developing fusion energy in the next 20 years? The Wikipedia link above is a good place to look for the general state-of-the-art of nuclear fusion energy, with links to articles about all the major fusion approaches. Fusion.org is another good site for learning about modern fusion research.

What about the fusion "dark horses?" Cold Fusion is still being financed at a low level, though the potential for large scale energy production from cold fusion is less than the possibility that new science might be discovered.

The interesting "dark horse" of fusion currently, is "Focus Fusion." Jim at the Energy Blog wrote a good article about focus fusion last November. Here are some excerpts:

Focus Fusion reactors are small and decentralized, ideally suited for distributed power generation. Focus Fusion reactors can fit into a garage. Lawrenceville Plasma Physics (LPP) Focus Fusion project aims at developing an electric generator with a projected output of about 5 MW, sufficient for a small community. The Focus Fusion process can produce electricity directly without the need to generate steam, use a turbine or use a rotating generator. The reactors are extremely compact and economical, with expected costs of $300,000 apiece. As the fuel is an insignificant cost, electric power production is estimated at about one tenth of a cent per kWh, fifty times cheaper than current costs. Because it can be shut off and turned on so easily, a bank of these could easily accommodate whatever surges and ebbs are faced by the grid on a given day, without wasting unused energy from non-peak times into the environment, which is the case with much of the grid’s energy at present. On-site personnel are not needed on a daily basis, maintenance would be rare. One technician could operate a dozen facilities by themselves.

LPP has taken major steps towards proving these reactors feasible.

* In August, 2001, a small team of physicists led by Eric J. Lerner for the first time demonstrated the achievement of temperatures above one billion degrees in a plasma focus device-- high enough for hydrogen-boron reactions. This breakthrough, reported at an international scientific conference in May, 2002, took place at Texas A and M University and was funded by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
* In March,2003, Lerner presented new theoretical analysis , showing that the magnetic field effect, known for thirty years but little applied in fusion, could greatly reduce the cooling of the plasmas by x-ray radiation, and thus make it far easier to achieve net energy production. The presentation, made in an invited talk at the prestigious 5th Symposium on Current Trends in International Fusion Research in Washington DC, was favorably received by some of the top fusion experts in the world.
* In February, 2004, Lawrenceville Plasma Physics completed a preliminary simulation of plasmoids that burns proton-boron (pB11) fuel. The simulation results confirmed that net energy production is possible with a small focus fusion device.

Process Description

Focus Fusion uses a dense plasma focus (DPF) device to form a plasma of hydrogen-boron gas, as described as follows, taken from the LPP website. The DPF device consists of two cylindrical copper or beryllium electrodes nested inside each other. The outer electrode is generally no more than 6-7 inches in diameter and a foot long. The electrodes are enclosed in a vacuum chamber with a hydrogen-boron gas filling the space between them.

....A pulse of electricity from a capacitor bank is discharged across the electrodes. For a few millionths of a second, an intense current flows from the outer to the inner electrode through the gas. This current starts to heat the gas and creates an intense magnetic field. Guided by its own magnetic field, the current forms itself into a thin sheath of tiny filaments; little whirlwinds of hot, electrically-conducting gas called plasma. The fuel is in the form of decaborane (H14B10), a solid at room temperature which sublimates a gas when heated to moderate temperatures of around 100 C. As in any fusion reaction, when the hydrogen nuclei (protons) and boron-11 nuclei collide at high enough velocities, a nuclear reaction occurs. In this case, three helium nuclei (also called alpha particles) are produced, which stream off in a concentrated beam, confined by powerful magnetic field produced by the plasma itself.

When the focus is used for fusion generation, collisions of the ions with each other in the dense plasmoid cause fusion reactions which add more energy to the plasmoid. This excess energy is expelled, together with the energy that went into forming the plasmoid, in the form of an ion beam. (The energy of the electron beam is dissipated inside the plasmoid to heat it.) This happens even though the plasmoid only lasts 10 ns (billionths of a second) or so, because the very high density in the plasmoid, close to solid density, make collisions very likely and they occur extremely rapidly.

The ion beam of charged particles is directed into a decelerator which acts like a particle accelerator in reverse. Instead of using electricity to accelerate charged particles they decelerate charged particles and generate electricity. Some of this electricity is recycled to power the next fusion pulse while the excess, the net energy, is the electricity produced by the fusion power plant. Some of the x-ray energy produced by the plasmoid can also be directly converted to electricity. The capacitor is pulsed on the order of 1000 times a second to keep the process operating.

The focusfusion.org website reports on an ongoing collaboration between the Chilean Nuclear Energy Commission (CCHEN) and the Lawrenceville Plasma Physics project to test many of the key components of the "focus fusion" approach. The collaboration is to take three years, and should produce some good indications of whether this approach will be fruitful in the long term. Check out the PesWiki entry on Focus Fusion for more information and links.

In mainstream fusion research, the ITER Tokamak experimental facility is being built in France, as a collaboration between the US, Russia, China, India, the EU, and Japan. ITER will cost over US $10 billion over several years, but should achieve higher energies than previous Tokamak facilities. The "spherical tokamak", a smaller, spherical shaped plasma confinement vessel, may prove to be better in the end than the toroid tokamaks. That would be a huge joke on mainstream fusion researchers.

Z-pinch fusion has evolved into a form of inertial confinement fusion, the biggest mainstream competitor to tokamak fusion, and ITER.

A lesser known "also-ran" approach to fusion energy is "migma fusion", a type of colliding particle beam fusion promoted by Bogdan Maglich. The many problems of focusing and confining particle beams has kept migma fusion from making significant progress for the past few decades. In spite of those difficulties, researchers at UC Irvine are working on another version of colliding beam fusion.

There is a tremendous amount of energy stored in the nucleus of atoms. Fusion is the best near-term approach to getting at that stored nuclear energy. In the longer term, more exotic methods of dissecting and re-arranging atoms should yield even greater quantities of energy.

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01 August 2006

Eternal Summer!--PT-141 Makes You: Slender, Tanned, and Horny

Bremelanotide (Palatin Tech Amex PTN) is an agonist for the melanocortin 4 receptor (MC4R) in the brain. As it happens, the MC4R also affects energy balance, thus weight levels. To complete the hat trick for PT-141, as an alpha MSH analog, Bremelanotide (PT-141) also the MC1R which affects pigmentation levels. Put it all together, and you have slender, well-tanned, and very horny people, ready to frolic in the sun, as well as in places where the sun does not shine!

Here is more information with scientific references from The Neurocritic Blog:

Enter PT-141.

Diamond LE, Earle DC, Rosen RC, Willett MS, Molinoff PB. (2004). Double-blind, placebo-controlled evaluation of the safety, pharmacokinetic properties and pharmacodynamic effects of intranasal PT-141, a melanocortin receptor agonist, in healthy males and patients with mild-to-moderate erectile dysfunction. Int J Impot Res. 16:51-9.

Rosen RC, Diamond LE, Earle DC, Shadiack AM, Molinoff PB. (2004). Evaluation of the safety, pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamic effects of subcutaneously administered PT-141, a melanocortin receptor agonist, in healthy male subjects and in patients with an inadequate response to Viagra. Int J Impot Res. 16:135-42.

Diamond LE, Earle DC, Heiman JR, Rosen RC, Perelman MA, Harning R. (2006). An effect on the subjective sexual response in premenopausal women with sexual arousal disorder by bremelanotide (PT-141), a melanocortin receptor agonist. J Sex Med. 3:628-38.

Back in April, there was an article in The Observer Magazine and a post in Pharyngula about this compound. A good place to start if you really want to learn about MC4-R agonists is this article:

Nargund RP, Strack AM, Fong TM. (2006). Melanocortin-4 receptor (MC4R) agonists for the treatment of obesity. J Med Chem. 49:4035-43.

....Funniest lines from the article:

If MC4R agonists induce spontaneous penile erections in men, this would represent a significant impediment to the development of compounds to treat obesity.

The nonselective melanocortin agonists, 1 and 3, have nausea and vomiting as adverse side effects when administered to humans either subcutaneously or intranasally. Attempts to study whether the effects of these two structurally related molecules are mechanism-based have been of limited utility.

Is PT-141 really a miracle drug? That's highly doubtful. But, as PZ Myers said,

Wow. Makes me want to run out and buy stock in Palatin Technologies, the manufacturer.

As this article reports, research on Bremelanotide is progressing quickly. To this point, safety and efficacy studies look good, for the indication of erectile dysfunction. But we all really know that ED is not what PT-141 is all about. PT-141 is about sexual desire and pleasure for both men and women, whenever they want it.

If weight loss and a good tan come along with the heightened libido, who am I to complain?

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More Energy than You Will Ever Need

There are 100 million exojoules (quads) of energy available from geothermal energy in the earth. The total human energy use per year is a mere 400 exojoules per year. At that rate, it would take 250,000 years for humans to use all the energy available from the earth's stored heat.

This Technology Review interview with MIT Chemical Engineer Jefferson Tester sheds a great deal of light on this vastly under-utilised energy technology:

Technology Review: How much geothermal energy could be harvested?

Jefferson Tester: The figure for the whole world is on the order of 100 million exojoules or quads [a quad is one quadrillion BTUs]. This is the part that would be useable. We now use worldwide just over 400 exojoules per year. So you do the math, and you know you've got a very big source of energy.

How much of that massive resource base could we usefully extract? Imagine that only a fraction of a percent comes out. It's still big. A tenth of a percent is 100,000 quads. You have access to a tremendous amount of stored energy. And assessment studies have shown that this is thousands of times in excess of the amount of energy we consume per-year in the country. The trick is to get it out of the ground economically and efficiently and to do it in an environmentally sustainable manner. That's what a lot of the field efforts have focused on.

TR: We do use some geothermal today, don't we?

JT: In some cases nature has provided a means for extracting stored thermal energy. We have many good examples. The Geysers field in California is the largest geothermal field in the world -- it's been in production for over 40 years and produces high-quality steam that can readily be converted into electric power, and it's one of the rarities nature-wise in terms of what we have worldwide. In the mineral vernacular they would be regarded as sort of high-grade gold mines.

....TR: How do you plan to harvest stored heat from more areas?

JT: What we're trying to do is emulate what nature has provided in these high-grade systems. When we go very deep, [rocks] are crystalline. They're very impermeable. They aren't heat exchangers like we really need. We'd like to create porosity and permeability. [The rock] actually is filled with small fractures, so what you're trying to do is find those weak zones and reopen them. We need to engineer good connectivity between an injection set of wells and a production set of wells, and sweep fluid, in this case, water, over that rock surface so that we extract the thermal energy and bring it up another well.

TR: What technology do you need to open up the rock and harvest the heat?

JT: All the technology that goes into drilling and completing oil and gas production systems, [such as] stimulation of wells, hydraulic fracturing, deep-well completion, and multiple horizontal laterals, could in principle be extended to deep heat mining. Hydraulic methods have been the ones that hold the most promise, where you go into the system and you pressurize the rock -- just water pressure. If you go higher than the confinement stress, you will reopen the small fractures. We're just talking about using a few thousand pounds per square inch pressure -- it's surprising how easy this is to do. This is a technique that's used almost every single day to stimulate oil and gas reservoirs.

....TR: You're working on new drilling technology. How does this fit in?

JT: We feel that as part of a long-term view of the possibility of universal heat mining, we should also be thinking about revolutionary methods for cutting through rock and completing wells. Most of the drilling that's done today is made by crushing and grinding our way using very, very hard materials to crush through and grind through minerals in the rock. And it's been very successful. It's evolved tremendously over the past century, and we can do it, certainly, routinely, to 10 kilometers. But it costs a lot. So we're looking for a fundamental way to change the technology that would change the cost-depth relationship, and allow us to drill deeper in a much more cost-effective manner. It would open up the accessibility tremendously.

TR: What are the advantages compared with other renewable sources of energy?

JT: Geothermal has a couple of distinct differences. One, it is very scalable in baseload. Our coal-fired plants produce electricity 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The nuclear power plants are the same way. Geothermal can meet that, without any need for auxiliary storage or a backup system. Solar would require some sort of storage if you wanted to run it when the sun's not out. And wind can't provide it without any backup at 100 percent reliability, because the typical availability factor of a wind system is about 30 percent or so, whereas the typical availability factor of a geothermal system is about 90 percent or better.

....TR: How fast do you think artificial geothermal systems can be developed?

JT: With sufficient financing and a well-characterized field, you can go into existing areas right now and build a plant, getting it operational within a few years. But to get universal heat mining is going to take an investment which won't be quite that quick. It might take 10 or 15 years of investment to get to the point where you have confidence that you can do this in virtually any site that you can go to. Once it gets in place, though, it can be replicated. I think it's very reproducible and expandable. That's the great hope at least.

Between solar power and geothermal power, you would think there would be no need to burn oil, coal, or gas. Unfortunately, it takes time to develop alternative technologies. But knowing they are available, and on a scale that humans will never exhaust, should give forward thinking persons something to work on. Working productively is a good alternative to wetting your pants over ever-present fears of doom.

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