Bdellovibrio, the cannibalistic drug coming to humanity’s rescue | Ars Technica

Bdellovibrio, the cannibalistic drug coming to humanity’s rescue | Ars Technica

Bdellovibrio isn’t your average kind of bacteria.

“It has a psychological problem,” jokes Robert Mitchell, a microbiologist and an associate professor at the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology in South Korea. “It thinks it’s a virus.”

Though it may have an identity crisis, Bdellovibrio has managed to spread to a wide range of environments, including soil, bodies of water, animals, plants, and humans. And its unique set of oddities has made it rather appealing to researchers, many of whom have realized its potential utility—biomedically, industrially, even environmentally.

Scientists are exploring all sorts of ways to use these Bdellovibrio, largely inspired by its rather strange life cycle. Typically, bacteria work pretty simply. Once they get to an environment with useful nutrients, they spend some time preparing for growth and then they reproduce. Their reproduction is rapid and usually accomplished via binary fission: they split themselves, forming two identical clones.

But Bdellovibrio is parasitic; it reproduces by attacking other bacteria. “It can only finish its life cycle by preying on other bacteria,” says Daniel Kadouri, an associate professor in the Center for Oral Infectious Diseases at Rutgers University. First, the bacterium attaches to the outside of a bacterial cell and drills a hole through the outer membrane. It then enters the cell and begins dissolving and consuming the host cell’s proteins and nucleic acids. “It sits between the inner and outer membranes and starts secreting enzymes that will basically break down the prey from the inside,” Kadouri told Ars. Finally, after feeding on its prey, dividing, and producing multiple progeny, the bacteria burst out of the host cell, tearing it apart in the process.

And Bdellovibrio is very efficient in all this. According to Kadouri, “From one Bdellovibrio bacterium coming in, you can get several coming out.”

So what exactly does science want with a bacteria that eats other bacteria better than any other? Plenty.

Accidental answer

The strange Bdellovibrio and its predatory ways were discovered by accident. In 1962, researchers Heinz Stolp and Heinz Petzold made two mistakes. First, while filtering soil for viruses, the two ran out of the right sized filters. They used a different kind that had much larger pores, and this let some Bdellovibrio through.

Once Stolp and Petzold had filtered their soil samples, they tested the filtered part for viruses by culturing it in a petri dish filled with bacteria. If after 24 hours no sign of viral infection had appeared, the protocol was to trash the samples. And after they used the larger filter, the soil sample showed no viral growth after a day—yet for some reason, they didn’t throw it out. Three days later, they tested it again and found something that was acting a lot like a virus would. That something was Bdellovibrio. Stolp and Petzold only found it because the larger pore filters allowed Bdellovibrio to get through.

Since then, researchers have learned a lot about the organism’s lifestyle, recognizing that it could prove useful in a number of ways.

One big way Bdellovibrio could help us out is in the fight against multidrug-resistant bacteria. Increasing numbers of bacterial strains are becoming difficult to fight with traditional drugs. With few options left in our toolbox, researchers are looking at non-traditional ways to combat them. And because Bdellovibrio feeds on other bacteria, it makes an appealing alternative to antibiotics.

When discussing the development of drug-resistant bacteria, Kadouri told Ars, “They were always there, but we always had good drugs to treat them with. The bacteria didn’t learn a new trick. They mutate and evolve. That’s what they do.” The problem today is that we put the bacteria in a position that forced them to mutate very rapidly. “What we’re doing is we’re submerging the environment with so many antibiotics, we’re speeding up the process of natural selection,” says Kadouri. And our overuse of antibiotics isn’t limited to hospitals and hand sanitizer. As Kadouri points out, 80 percent of our antibiotics are used in agriculture.

Not only are we pushing these bacteria toward drug resistance, we’re not producing new antibiotics to fight them rapidly enough. “When pharmaceutical companies develop a drug for a chronic disease, people are going to be taking that drug for 40 or 50 years. Whereas with antibiotics, you’ll be taking them for five days and then within two years, the bacteria will become resistant,” says Kadouri. “So where’s the return in investment? It’s kind of the perfect storm.”

But using Bdellovibrio in conjunction with or instead of antibiotics seems to be a viable option. Scientists have tested it against two classes of bacteria (gram-negative and gram-positive) to see how well it fares against them.

Research has shown that many types of gram-negative bacteria fall as prey to Bdellovibrio, which is a gram-negative bacterium itself. But prior to 2013, it wasn’t known how well the bacteria preyed on multidrug-resistant strains of gram-negative bacteria. Kadouri and his team selected 14 different multidrug-resistant strains, using those typically found in a clinical setting. They then tested how well Bdellovibrio brought down the viability of the bacterial strains.

Two different Bdellovibrio strains turned out to be highly effective at reducing the viability of the 14 tested strains, regardless of their resistance to antibiotics. But the fact that we had to do this work at all highlighted what we don’t know—why does Bdellovibrio prey on some bacteria and not others? “To this day, not much is known about the biology of these organisms,” says Mitchell. “We don’t know how they recognize their prey.”

Biofilm bully

Thus far, research has proven that Bdellovibrio can prey on gram-negative bacteria, but it can’t target gram-positive strains. This is another thing we can’t really explain yet. But as Mitchell has shown, that doesn’t mean it’s ineffective against gram-positive infections. Bdellovibrio can do useful work by targeting their neighborhood.

Many microorganisms, like bacteria, tend to stick to each other and to a surface, forming what’s known as a biofilm. “A biofilm is a community of bacteria,” says Mitchell. “They attach to surfaces by secreting proteins, DNA, and extracellular polysaccharides [complex sugars], and they form this network, like a mesh, which helps them to stably adhere to a surface.” Mitchell says that an example he uses with his students is the film you can scratch off of your teeth. That’s a biofilm formed by bacteria from the food we eat. And though Bdellovibrio won’t feed on or kill gram-positive bacteria, it can break up biofilms they live in.

Bacteria that form biofilms are generally more resistant to antibiotics than those that don’t. And one place where these biofilms are a big problem is in hospitals, which have lots of surfaces that can play host to biofilms. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about one in 25 patients contracts an infection while in the hospital, an event the CDC refers to as healthcare-associated infections.

Staphylococcus aureus is a multidrug-resistant, gram-positive bacteria that causes some of the most problematic healthcare-associated infections. Not only does it form biofilms on the skin and the nose, it can form them on non-biological surfaces like medical equipment and implants.

“As much as 30 percent of the population has Staphylococcus aureus inside their nose, but it doesn’t cause problems for many people,” says Mitchell. “But it does become a problem specifically in the hospital where you have patients who are immuno compromised. Or their immune system is already being battered by other infections or diseases and suddenly they’re being exposed to this multidrug-resistant organism where it can now cause problems.”

Although Bdellovibrio can’t prey on Staphylococcus aureus (it’s gram-positive), it does produce a huge amount of proteases, enzymes that can break down the secretions that attach the biofilm bacteria to surrounding surfaces and to each other.

Mitchell and his fellow researchers looked at how the bacteria’s enzymes, including proteases, affected Staphylococcus biofilm formation. They found that, though Bdellovibrio didn’t halt Staphylococcus aureus growth, it did prevent biofilm formation. It also broke up already formed biofilms and, importantly, reduced the bacteria’s ability to invade human cells. Mitchell told Ars, “It had this unexpected effect in that it chewed up the surface proteins of the pathogen, reducing its ability to invade human cells.”

Kadouri sees a future for fighting bacteria that’s much different from our current practices. “Physicians don’t like to mix therapeutics, and pharmaceutical companies hate it because then they need to do efficacy and toxicity experiments for each one of the elements. But we’re going to be in a position that we’ll have to start mixing.” As an example, Kadouri suggests that we could use predatory bacteria like Bdellovibrio to knock out the biofilm first and then come at the problem bacteria with the antibiotics. He points out that doing this would put less selective pressure on the bacteria and could slow down their evolution, keeping the bacteria from developing resistances too quickly.

“Do we need to reduce the invading bacterial population by 100 percent or can we reduce it by some and let the immune system take over?” Mitchell wonders. Whatever the approach becomes, it’s clear that sometime soon our strategies will have to take a necessary shift.

A parasitic punch to the gut

While multidrug-resistant bacteria and biofilm formation are rightly at the forefront of our concern, Bdellovibrio is also being used in a number of other ways. When it comes to health, researchers are also investigating ways to use Bdellovibrio internally, like in the gut.

The gut contains a ton of bacteria, and the gut microbiota makeup has recently been connected to depression, autism, and even multiple sclerosis. In a 2013 PLOS ONE study, researchers in Italy found a correlation between the presence of Bdellovibrio in the gut and gastrointestinal disease. While healthy individuals all had Bdellovibrio living in their intestines, its abundance was significantly reduced in patients with Crohn’s disease or Celiac disease. The authors hypothesized that predatory bacteria like Bdellovibrio may serve as population balancers, keeping unhealthy bacteria in the gut in check. If so, it could be a treatment option for Crohn’s or Celiac patients.

A paper published this past March explored a similar idea: that the loss of diversity within the gut microbiota may have severe effects on our health. The authors looked at the idea of rebiosis, or the restoration of microbial diversity, using, among other things, Bdellovibrio. But as Alexis Mosca, an author of the paper and a physician at the Robert Debré University Hospital in Paris, France, notes, there’s still a lot we don’t know, both about gut microbiota and predatory bacteria like Bdellovibrio. “We don’t know the role Bdellovibrio plays in the gut, and we don’t know its function in shaping the gut microbiota,” Mosca told Ars.

Mosca also points out that the bacteria only exist in very small numbers in this environment. But he hypothesizes that it’s still possible Bdellovibrio and other predatory bacteria might play a part in managing the diversity of gut microbiota.

Of course, any talk of using Bdellovibrio to combat bacteria inside of someone has to include a discussion of any potential negative effects Bdellovibrio may have in our bodies. Says Kadouri, “If the technology isn’t safe, we’re dead in the water.”

In that vein, Kadouri’s lab looked at how the bacteria affected immune responses in mice both when administered intranasally or directly into the bloodstream. They found that in both cases the immune response was low—some inflammation, some increases in cytokines—but minor changes that lasted less than 24 hours. And the bacteria itself worked its way out of the mice quickly. In fact, over the course of four years of research, “we never lost an animal to predatory bacteria,” says Kadouri.

Since we know Bdellovibrio does a good job at battling certain bacteria in vitro, we now need to test how well Bdellovibrio battles bacteria in vivo. “The next step would be to see if we can use it to clear an infection,” Kadouri told Ars, hinting at upcoming work.

From health to harvests

Even as researchers are trying to get a more complete picture of Bdellovibrio’s use for health, others are finding its utility extends further. For example, it may be possible to use Bdellovibrio to harvest bioproducts from other bacteria.

Some bacteria store energy through the production of polymers called polyhydroxyalkanoates, or PHAs. As it turns out, PHAs are really good alternatives to petroleum-based plastics. They’ve been used to make everything from paint binders and adhesives to food coatings and medical sutures. The problem is that harvesting PHAs from the bacteria that produce them is pretty costly and can damage the PHAs.

But biology may provide us with ways of gently liberating these polymers. Some teams have used proteins from viruses that are responsible for breaking down cell membranes during infections. This releases PHAs from bacteria, but it isn’t applicable to a broad range of bacteria.

However, a study published this April in Scientific Reports found that Bdellovibrio could be used to accomplish the same thing. The researchers mutated Bdellovibrio to keep it from digesting the PHAs itself. “It likes to eat the polymer,” says Auxiliadora Prieto, a researcher at the Centro de Investigaciones Biológicas-CSIC in Spain and an author of the study. When these mutants were used to infect PHA-producing bacteria, the researchers were able to harvest over 80 percent of the polymers quickly and efficiently.

The next steps for Prieto’s lab are to improve the process of growing enough Bdellovibrio and to make it more aggressive toward the PHA-producing bacteria. The harvesting process also needs to be tested at an industrial scale. To do this, Prieto says, “We need a company to invest money into developing the process. Industry needs to be brave and try to implement biological methods into their processes.”

A final example of the breadth of Bdellovibrio’s use comes from a May Scientific Reports study. In it, the researchers describe using Bdellovibrio to sort of clear out bacterial cells but leave their shells (membranes and cell walls) intact. The researchers intend to construct synthetic cells with the leftovers.

Typically, Bdellovibrio destroy the bacterial cells they prey on. “Normal Bdellovibrio are efficient and ferocious predators that consume almost all of their prey,” said Carey Lambert, a research associate at the University of Nottingham in the UK and an author of the study. But with a couple of gene deletions, Lambert and the research team were able to keep Bdellovibrio from destroying its preys’ cell walls. Instead, what was left behind were “ghost” cells that still had cell walls, membranes, and structure.

These “ghost” cells could be used to create synthetic cells with any number of properties. “If you can design a basic ‘minimal’ cell, then you can add various functions to it,” says Lambert, “such as efficient factories for enzyme production or biochemical cleaning, such as oil eating for clearing oil spills.”

These findings are surely just the beginning for such an interesting bacteria and a rather young field of research. “I think that the… research field in predatory bacteria is very small,” says Mitchell. “I hope more people will jump in and help push it forward.”

And as far as the biomedical aspects go, additional research will have to be followed up with clinical trials. It’s a process that will take time, so utilizing Bdellovibrio at its fullest potential is likely quite a ways away. Considering this odd little bacteria has only been on the radar for 50-odd years, who knows what other uses we’ll find by then.

The Persistent Problem of Trying to Rig Elections with Dead People | Atlas Obscura

The Persistent Problem of Trying to Rig Elections with Dead People | Atlas Obscura

Over the weekend, Trump advisor Rudy Giuliani made headlines after resuscitating an old political stereotype. “Dead people generally vote for Democrats rather than Republicans,” he told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday in response to a question about election fraud, bringing to mind hordes of zombie voters lurching to the polls and checking boxes for Hillary Clinton.

It’s an old story, a Chicago legend, a very rare occurrence and perhaps the most seasonally appropriate way to rig an election—bringing dead voters to the polls. Just a few months ago, a local CBS affiliate in California found examples of voters who had cast ballots in multiple elections despite being dead for years.

But how old is this fear, exactly? And is there actually anything to worry about?

Political parties have been at each other’s throats about election rigging since way back, before the modern-day Republican Party even existed. In the early 19th century, just a few short decades after the country had agreed on a Constitution, charges of election fraud were already flying between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans.

After the Civil War, though, it took on a new life. The Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, protected the right of citizens to vote, and the first Enforcement Act, passed that year, enumerated all the types of voter fraud that would be punished. Dead voters were enough of a concern that Congress addressed the problem specifically. According to the act, it was a crime to “knowingly personate and vote, or attempt to vote in the name of any other person, whether living, dead, or fictitious.”

Although the Fifteenth Amendment was meant to enfranchise black voters, the Democratic Party quickly found ways to twist the law against them. After Republican Rutherford B. Hayes defeated Democrat Samuel J. Tildon by one electoral vote in 1876, Democrats cried foul. They accused their opponents of all kinds of trickery across the Southern states—in one representative example, the Democrats accused the Republicans of opening a poll in a Democrat-heavy district of Louisiana “at three o’clock in the morning at the sugar-house… three and a half miles from the public road,” compromising the integrity of ballot boxes by failing to provide sealing-wax, letting convicts vote—and letting dead people vote.

One specific accusation was that a Republican supervisor in Louisiana “furnished colored men new certificates under the numbers of deceased white and colored men.” There is also mention of “a large number of colored women, armed with cane-knive[s],” appearing outside a poll, and of white voter repression. (Nothing came of these accusations but bad blood: Hayes kept the White House, but Democrats called him “His Fraudulency” throughout his one-term tenure.)

But even in the 19th century, when electoral fraud (rather than voter suppression) was a real issue, dead voters were just a fraction of the fake voters who cast ballots. In 1890, in Jersey City, N.J., investigators uncovered a substantial electoral fraud, which included voters submitting ballots for “their friends and neighbors, both dead and alive,” the Chicago Daily Tribune reported. The headline: VOTED FROM THEIR GRAVES. “A widespread resurrection had prevailed in the Third Precinct,” the paper said.

In a later tallying, dead voters were only a small part of the problem. The fraudulent votes included 10 people. But that was just a small fraction of the fake votes in this district, according to the Tribune:

“…five of the voters were from house numbers that do not exist, twenty-six ballots were counted for voters living on vacant lots, sixty-six were cast on the names of men who had moved away six months before election from the places of residence given them on the poll list, fifty-three men never lived in the houses in which the poll-book represents them as living at the time of the election, five names were voted on twice…and twelve votes were down as residing in factories and railroad yards.”

Also, a three-year-old voted.

But even then, these votes were dwarfed by “tissue ballots”—sometimes also called joker ballots or kiss ballots. These ballots were essentially sneaky duplicates. A voter would deposit what looked one ballot but what was in fact many thinner ballots stuck together. After the polls closed, conspirators would shake the ballot boxes, and the votes would multiply as they came loose. It was “perhaps one of the most widespread and ingenious methods of fraud,” writes historian Robert M. Goldman in A Free Ballot and a Fair Count, popular as a strategy for padding the Democratic vote across the South.

Dead voters remain a strange, spectral threat. They returned to haunt American elections in the 1960s, when Earl Mazo, a political reporter and Nixon biographer, became convinced John F. Kennedy had stolen the election from Richard Nixon. In Chicago, he found a “cemetery where the names on the tombstones were registered and voted,” he said later.

In this century, newspapers regularly publish reports of dead people lingering on voter rolls. But the vast majority of these dead voters don’t bother coming the polls; their names are on the list only because the lists aren’t often cleaned up. As the Brennan Center for Justice has documented, when these cases are investigated, there’s no fraud found: if a dead person has voted, it’s usually a clerical error—or a case where the person cast an early ballot before they died. (And in those cases, the votes don’t count.)

In South Carolina, for instance, in 2012, the Attorney General announced that he’d found more than 900 dead voters who cast ballots in previous elections. But as the Washington Post later reported, those votes did not swing any elections. First of all, they were spread out over 74 elections over seven years. Second of all, they weren’t some coordinated fraud effort but “the result of clerical errors or mistaken identities,” the Post wrote.

There are just easier ways to win than to raise voters from the dead.

London Is Still Paying Rent to the Queen on a Property Leased in 1211 | Atlas Obscura

London Is Still Paying Rent to the Queen on a Property Leased in 1211 | Atlas Obscura

Earlier this October, at a ceremony at the Royal Courts of Justice, London paid its rent to the Queen. The ceremony proceeded much as it had for the past eight centuries. The city handed over a knife, an axe, six oversized horseshoes, and 61 nails to Barbara Janet Fontaine, the Queen’s Remembrancer, the oldest judicial position in England. The job was created in the 12th century to keep track of all that was owed to the crown.

In this case, the Remembrancer has presided over the rent owed on two pieces of property for a very long time—since 1235 in one case, and at least 1211 in the other. Every year, in this Ceremony of Quit Rents, the crown extracts its price from the city for a forge and a piece of moorland.

No one knows exactly where these two pieces of land are located anymore, but for hundreds of years the city has been paying rent on them. The rate, however, has not changed—the same objects have been presented for hundreds of years.

The Ceremony of Quit Rents is not well-publicized or much talked about: news services have covered it occasionally over the years, but the only official references I could find to this year’s ceremonies were a notice about a city-sponsored essay contest where the prize includes the privilege of attending the ceremony and an off-hand reference by the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales.

But each fall, usually in October, the city and the crown perform the same exchange, for no particular reason other than that they always have.

The older rent is paid on a piece of land that’s supposed to be in the county of Shropshire, far from London. Known as “the Moors,” its exact location was lost long ago (although UPI reported in 1980 that London’s then-mayor Peter Gadsden picked a piece of land in the area and declared it the Moors in question).

The rent on the Moors is a billhook—a knife-like tool used in agriculture—and an axe. The billhook is supposed to be dull: one early instruction said it should “bend in green cheese,” Copley News Service reported in 1972. About three centuries after this rent was first recorded, though, the standard had changed: the billhook should be in such a condition that it could strike a one-year-old hazel stick and make “little or no mark.”

The axe, on the other hand, is supposed to be sharp. The current version of the ceremony tests both: First, the city representative uses the billhook to hack away at a pile of sticks. After that tool is proved ineffective, the axe gets its turn—and swipes cleanly through the same wood. “Good service,” the Remembrancer says.

The second rent is for a piece of land closer to home. In the neighborhood of what’s now the Royal Courts of Justice, back in the 13th century, the king held a tournament during which the knights needed help repairing their armor; the man who stepped up to do the work was then given a lease on the land to create a forge. (In a different version of the story, his job was to reshoe the horses of the Templar Knights. It’s possible both stories are true, since with the Temple Church just down the street, those knights would have been the farrier’s most obvious customers.)

The forge is long gone, but the rent remains the same—six horseshoes and 61 nails. The horseshoes, which are themselves centuries old, are giant. When presented with the horseshoes and nails, the Remembrancer says, “Good number.”

These two “quit rents” are not the only ones owed to the crown. London also owes a yearly token rent of 11 pounds on the “town of Southwark,” now a high-end area where Shakespeare’s Globe and the Tate Modern are located. Outside of London, landowners are on the hook for a variety of quit rents: a bucket of snow on demand, three red roses, a small French flag, a salmon spear. Some rents only kick in only if the king or queen visits: the renter must provide the crown with a bed of straw, in one agreement, and in another, the renter must offer a single white rose.

One landholder keeps his place only on the condition that, if the monarch shows up, he must “ride his horse into the sea, until the water reached the saddle girths, to meet his sovereign,” the Southam News Service reported. Another has to fight anyone the king wants him to. Possibly the best quit-rent ever conceived is this one: “three glasses of port on New Year’s Eve for the ghost of the King’s grandmother.”

For the most part, quit rents are relics of medieval agreements, but there was at least one quit rent agreement that was forged in the past century, in Lake Havasu City, Arizona. It started when the city imported a bridge from London—one which had spanned the Thames river and was auctioned off in the late 1960s. Robert McCulloch, Lake Havasu City’s founder, bought the bridge, and by the early ’70s, the bridge had been reinstalled in Arizona.

As a gift to London, during the dedication ceremony, McCulloch offered an acre of Arizona land, reports the Havasu News, and years later, when the city wanted to use that land for a visitor’s center, London agreed to lease it back to Lake Havasu. They settled on a token quit rent: a Kachina doll, a carved Hopi figure representing an immortal being.

[Lake Havasu City thought they were buying the Tower Bridge when they bid on it.]

SHA3-256 is quantum-proof, should last BEELLIONS of years, say boffins • The Register

SHA3-256 is quantum-proof, should last BEELLIONS of years, say boffins • The Register

While it’s reasonable to assume that a world with real quantum computers will ruin traditional asymmetric encryption, perhaps surprisingly hash functions might survive.

That’s the conclusion of a group of boffins led by Matthew Amy of Canada’s University of Waterloo, in a paper at the International Association of Cryptologic Research.

The researchers – which included contributions from the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research – looked at attacks on SHA-2 and SHA-3 using Grover’s algorithm (a quantum algorithm to search “black boxes” – Wikipedia).

They reckon both SHA-256 and SHA3-256 need around 2166 “logical qubit cycles” to crack.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, the paper says the problem isn’t in the quantum computers, but the classical processors needed to manage them.

The paper notes: “The main difficulty is that the coherence time of physical qubits is finite. Noise in the physical system will eventually corrupt the state of any long computation.”

“Preserving the state of a logical qubit is an active process that requires periodic evaluation of an error detection and correction routine.”

If the quantum correction is handled by ASICs running at a few million hashes per second (and if Vulture South’s spreadsheet is right), Grover’s algorithm would need about 1032 years to crack SHA-256 or SHA3-256.

That’s considerably longer than the mere 14 billion years the universe has existed, although less than the estimated 10100 years until the heat death of the universe. Even if you didn’t care about the circuit footprint and used a billion-hash-per-second Bitcoin-mining ASIC, the calculation still seems to be in the order of 1029 years.

Everyday Einstein : Why Do Smells Trigger Memories? :: Quick and Dirty Tips ™

Everyday Einstein : Why Do Smells Trigger Memories? :: Quick and Dirty Tips ™

Whenever I smell the pages of a brand new book, I am reminded of all the late night reading I did as a kid. I can even feel the soft fabric on the arms of my favorite reading chair and sense the quiet of a house where everyone else is asleep. The stresses of the day start to give way a bit to feelings of calm and focus. We have an armchair in my daughter’s room very similar to my childhood reading chair, but sitting in it doesn’t quite conjure up those memories as effectively as that new book smell.

And I am not alone! Anecdotally, many of us have had experiences where a certain smell—perhaps chlorine, fresh baked cookies, or the salty beach air—floods our brain with memories of a distinct event or location that we associate clearly with certain emotions.

There have also been scientific studies using a variety of approaches to back up this anecdotal evidence. One of the first was a study led by Dr. Rachel Herz at Brown University in 2004. Herz and her collaborators found that a group of five women showed more brain activity when smelling a perfume with which they associated a positive memory than when smelling a control perfume they had never before smelled. The brain activity associated with the memorable perfume was also greater than that produced by the visual cue of seeing the bottle of perfume.

More recently, in another study in 2013, the researchers again found greater brain activity associated with olfactory stimuli (like the smell of a rose) than with visual stimuli (like the sight of a rose). Clinical case studies have also linked smells to strong negative emotions, a connection which can play a significant role in contributing to posttraumatic stress disorder.

So why is this? The majority of us clearly rely more on a sense of sight than our sense of smell day to day, so what is it about our sense of smell that works to better trigger our memory and our emotions? The link may simply be due to the architectural layout of our brain.

How does our sense of smell work?

The process through which molecules in the air are converted by our brain into what we interpret as smells and the mechanisms our brain uses to categorize and interpret those odors is, as you have probably guessed, a complicated one. In fact, the process is so complicated that the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded in 2004 to the researchers Richard Axel and Linda Buck for their work in decoding it.

When we come into contact with an odor, or molecules from volatile substances drifting through the air, the neurons that make up your olfactory receptor cells send a signal to a part of your brain called the olfactory bulb. Axel and Buck found roughly 1,000 genes played a role in coding for different types of olfactory receptors, each of which focus on a small subset of odors. Thus each receptor is not responsible for understanding all possible smells. Those signals are then passed to what are called microregions within the olfactory bulb where again, different microregions specialize in different odors. The olfactory bulb is then responsible for interpreting those signals into what we perceive as smells.

Your olfactory bulb runs from your nose to the base of your brain and has direct connections to your amygdala (the area of the brain responsible for processing emotion) and to your hippocampus (an area linked to memory and cognition). Neuroscientists have suggested that this close physical connection between the regions of the brain linked to memory, emotion, and our sense of smell may explain why our brain learns to associate smells with certain emotional memories.

So many of these odor-driven memories may further be childhood memories because those years are when we experience most smells for the first time. There is not yet research to suggest that we can tap into the link between scents and memory to help us cram for tests or remember where we put our car keys as adults.

Smell may trigger memories better than sight

Additionally, the areas of the brain responsible for collecting auditory and tactile signals (i.e. our senses of sound and touch) do not have the same direct connection. This may further explain why smells tend to trigger stronger emotional memories than our other senses.

Although smell-o-vision, an experience where movie theaters piped in smells coordinated with whatever was on the screen, hasn’t really been used since the 1950s (except for some special showings of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), scents are commonly used in advertising. Real estate agents may bring freshly baked pies to their open houses to fill potential clients with memories of family togetherness and feelings of comfort.

Our brain is clearly an extremely complicated organ, and the multitude of factors influencing our memories can be very difficult to disentangle. For example, do those with a better sense of smell have better memories? We will have to wait for more research to find out.

[John Water’s movie Polyester released in 1981 used scratch off cards to provide the scents. This is a German version of the card.


Non-cable Internet providers offer faster speeds to the wealthy | Ars Technica

Non-cable Internet providers offer faster speeds to the wealthy | Ars Technica

When non-cable Internet providers—outlets like AT&T or Verizon—choose which communities to offer the fastest connections, they don’t juice up their networks so everyone in their service area has the option of buying quicker speeds. Instead, they tend to favor the wealthy over the poor, according to an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity.

The Center’s data analysis found that the largest non-cable Internet providers collectively offer faster speeds to about 40 percent of the population they serve nationwide in wealthy areas compared with just 22 percent of the population in poor areas. That leaves tens of millions of Americans with the choice of either purchasing an expensive connection from the only provider in their area—typically a cable company—or just doing the best they can with slower speeds. Middle-income areas don’t fare much better, with a bit more than 27 percent of the population having access to a DSL provider’s fastest speeds. The Center reached its conclusions by merging the latest Federal Communications Commission (FCC) data with income information from the US Census Bureau.

The FCC, which regulates the industry, defines broadband as a download speed of at least 25 megabits per second. Those speeds are mostly only available through wired connections to the home. It’s the speed that the agency believes is needed to support multiple devices on a single connection, stream uninterrupted movies and educational videos, upload photos, and allow for future applications such as in-home health services and networked homes.

The non-cable Internet providers—the four largest are AT&T Inc, Verizon Communications Inc, CenturyLink Inc, and Frontier Communications Corp—hook up customers over telephone wires that are Digital Subscriber Lines (DSL), or they use hybrid networks that include some fiber connections near (and sometimes directly to) homes. The Center included all types of connection in its analysis. These companies account for nearly 40 percent of the 92 million Internet connections nationwide.

Cable companies, such as Comcast Corp and Charter Communications Inc, operate under a different set of conditions. These providers offer the same fast speeds to almost every community they serve, in part because of franchise agreements with local governments. But a previous Center investigation and other reports have shown that cable firms sometimes avoid lower-income or hard-to-reach areas based on how franchise agreements are written. Poor areas not served by the cable companies are not included in the Center’s analysis, which results in what seems like an equitable distribution of speeds across income levels.

In addition, Internet speeds sent over coaxial cable used by the cable firms don’t degrade over long distances as they do over copper telephone lines. That means that in order to keep speeds from slowing, DSL carriers must make costly investments in equipment, including fiber cable in some places.

It would seem DSL providers’ coverage decisions are simply smart business. After all, the companies and economists say, providers must invest millions of dollars in equipment to boost speeds over relatively short distances in their service areas. The best way to get a substantive return on investment is to provide the service in wealthier areas. Besides, fewer lower-income households purchase a home Internet connection than do their higher-income neighbors.

But broadband advocates, economists—those in the United States, Europe, and the White House—as well as the FCC argue that a fast Internet connection is now so crucial to managing daily life and seizing opportunities for advancement that it’s an economic necessity for households and communities. And they further argue that having a choice between two providers is essential to keeping prices down.

“Society said it did not matter if you could pay for electricity; we wanted everyone to have it. Society said we would not limit dial tone to those who could pay the most, we gave it to all,” said telecommunications lawyer Gerard Lederer of Best Best & Krieger LLC in Washington, DC, in an e-mail. “Broadband is quickly becoming that utility, and if applications only work at high speeds, then the universal availability of that speed must be the goal, otherwise you are providing everyone with water, just some of the water is not drinkable.”

Where the high speeds are

High-speed connections will only become more important for Americans. As families simultaneously use more than one connected device at home, tools like health-care apps become more prevalent, and cars and household appliances become networked, broadband demand is forecast to more than double in just the next four years. The increased Internet traffic will require ever faster speeds to allow applications to work.

That’s why the FCC voted last year to increase the definition of broadband from a download speed of 4 Mbps and 1 Mbps upload to 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up. The Center’s analysis looked at the availability of just download speeds, using the FCC’s 25 Mbps definition for broadband.

But the opportunity to purchase the higher speeds or choose between two high-speed providers is unequal, determined in large part by a family’s earnings, the Center’s analysis shows. Without exception, the nation’s four largest non-cable Internet providers offer their highest speeds to more wealthy communities than lower-income ones.

An earlier Center investigation found that people living in the poorest areas nationwide—where median household incomes are less than $34,800—are five times more likely not to have access to broadband than households in the wealthiest areas—where the median income is more than $80,700. Many times, the Center found, high-speed Internet service stops at the edge of low-income communities.

In this analysis, the Center drilled down into the data to learn how providers manage speeds within their service areas and which carriers offer service equally across income. The findings: DSL providers in particular favor the wealthy over lower-income communities in providing their fastest speeds.

Frontier Communications, the nation’s fourth-largest DSL Internet provider, favors its wealthy communities more than most. The Norwalk, Connecticut-based firm offers high-speed broadband to 38 percent of the population in the wealthiest communities—those with median household incomes of more than $80,700—according to the Center’s analysis. But Frontier only offers its fastest speeds to 11 percent of the people living in areas where the median household income is less than $34,800.

AT&T, the nation’s largest DSL provider, offers speeds at 25 Mbps and higher to about the same proportion of wealthy, middle, and low-income areas. But those speeds are available to just a little more than 5 percent of the population in its national service area, about 6.6 million people out of a total of 123 million people AT&T’s service area covers, according to the Center’s analysis. The vast majority of the population in the communities AT&T serves, 72 percent, have access to sub-broadband speeds, between 10 and 24 Mbps. Who has access to those speeds varies greatly by income. More than 82 percent of the people living in the wealthiest areas can buy those speeds, while 66 percent of the people in the poorest communities can, the Center’s investigation found.

Low-income regions are not the only ones that have less chance to buy fast download speeds. Some DSL providers ignore middle-income areas at nearly the same rates. Verizon provides broadband speeds to 64 percent of the population in wealthy communities where it has service, but only to 49 percent of the population in the middle-income areas, those with a household median income between $46,900 and $60,200.

AT&T, Verizon, and Frontier did not reply to requests for comment.

CenturyLink’s track record is similar. The Monroe, Louisiana-based company, which has almost 6 million subscribers nationwide, offers broadband to 72 percent of people living in wealthy areas in which it operates compared with 57 percent of the population in middle-income communities—just 3.5 percentage points more than in the company’s poorest areas.

CenturyLink denies the unequal access is purposeful.

“CenturyLink does not engage in discriminatory practices in broadband deployment,” a CenturyLink spokeswoman said in an e-mail. “We focus our network investments in a fiscally responsible manner by investing in areas that allow us to take advantage of current assets, such as existing conduit and fiber routes, while reaching the largest number of potential customers.”

But that is exactly the problem, said Hannah Sassaman, policy director at the Media Mobilizing Project, a community organizer and support group for low-income families in Philadelphia.

“It’s fine for an incumbent to say they want to leverage their existing assets, but we have to remember that many of these incumbents have been cherry picking what communities they serve for decades,” Sassaman said. “Of course companies that want to build where they already have conduit and fiber will be doing so in neighborhoods that already have high-speed access and competition.”

And that means in more wealthy neighborhoods, Sassaman said.

The FCC believes its Lifeline program, which provides low-cost Internet access to qualifying households, will lead to faster Internet speeds for lower-income families. But FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn acknowledges that more needs to be done.

“There are certainly challenges in bringing communications services to those who can least afford it,” Clyburn said in an e-mail. “Regardless, those who are less affluent should not be relegated to receiving second-class broadband.”


To analyze Internet speeds that non-cable providers offer in their service areas, the Center for Public Integrity combined these data sets:
• The Federal Communication Commission’s Form 477 Broadband Deployment Data, as of Dec. 31, 2015, the latest available;

• 2010 U.S. Census population data at the census block level, which is the most recent publicly available;

• 2010-2014 American Community Survey income and demographic data at the census block group level;

The Center analyzed all Internet service offered by the nation’s four-largest non-cable providers: AT&T Inc, Verizon Communications Inc, CenturyLink Inc and Frontier Communications Corp. The Center considered all types of connections offered by these providers, including fiber cable. As a point of comparison, the Center also analyzed all Internet service offered by the four largest cable providers: Comcast Corp, Charter Communications, Time Warner Inc, and Cox Enterprises Inc.

The Center used the FCC’s definition of broadband, a download speed of 25 megabits per second and higher, to determine if broadband was offered by consumer providers in each census block group. The Center did not include upload speeds in its analysis.

Income for census block groups were divided into quintiles based on median household income and the number of households in each census block group.

The five census block group quintiles are:

1) Below $34,783
2) From $34,783 to $46,875
3) From $46,876 to $60,223
4) From $60,224 to $80,694
5) Greater than $80,694

The Center’s analysis represents 99.5 percent of the population as measured by the Census Bureau in 2010. It includes 96.9 percent of all census blocks from 2010 and 99.1 percent of census block groups in the 2014 American Community Survey. The Center did not include census block groups with no reported median income.

Maths becomes biology’s magic number – BBC News

Maths becomes biology’s magic number – BBC News

“If you want a career in medicine these days you’re better off studying mathematics or computing than biology.”

This pithy aside was delivered by Sir Rory Collins, the head of clinical trials at Oxford University, in the middle of a discussion about the pros and cons of statins.

It is a nice one-liner, but I didn’t think much more about it until a few days later, when I found myself sitting in a press conference to mark the launch of a new initiative on cancer.

Rubbing shoulders on the panel with the director of the Institute of Cancer Research, Professor Paul Workman, was a scientist I didn’t recognise, but it soon became clear this was exactly what Sir Rory had had in mind.

Dr Andrea Sottoriva is an astrophysicist. He has spent much of his career searching for Neutrinos – the elusive sub-atomic particles created by the fusion of elements in stars like our sun – at the bottom of the ocean, and analysing the results of atom smashing experiments with the Large Hadron Collider at Cern in Geneva.

“My background is in computer science, particularly as it applies to particle physics,” he told me when we met at the ICR’s laboratories in Sutton.

New era

So why cancer? The answer can be summed up in two words: big data. What Dr Sottoriva brings to the fight against cancer is the expertise in mathematical modelling needed to mine the vast treasure trove of data the information revolution has brought to medicine.

“The exciting thing is that we can apply all the new analytical techniques we’ve developed in physics to biology,” he says.

“So we have all these new quantitative technologies that allow us to process an enormous amount of data, and all of a sudden we can start to apply that to implement the paradigm of physics in biology.”

Of course, applying maths to solve biological problems is not entirely new. But it is only now, according to Sir Rory Collins, that the big data revolution is transforming medical science and ushering in a new era of bioinformatics.

“The big data era we’re in provides extraordinary opportunities to understand the determinants of a range of different health conditions,” says Sir Rory.

“The availability of data is unsurpassed, the ways of manipulating that data are also unsurpassed and so are the opportunities to work out what’s going on and how to avoid disease.”

‘Datageddon’ warning

But there’s a problem. The vast data sets that give bioinformatics its power are also its Achilles heel.

The Professor of Science and Society at Arizona State University, Daniel Sarewitz, warns of “datageddon” – over-enthusiastic researchers risking being set adrift on a sea of irrelevant information.

“If mouse models are like looking for your keys under the streetlamp, big data is like looking for your keys all over the world just because you can,” says Professor Sarewitz.

The epidemiologist Professor Liam Smeeth agrees. If researchers aren’t very disciplined about what they’re looking for, he argues, they can quickly disappear down rabbit holes and blind alleys.

“The analogy is like someone firing an arrow at a wall,” he says. “They fire at a big blank wall and then go up and draw a target around the arrow and say we’ve hit bullseye.

“What you need is to be doing is precise science and to be firing at a pre-specified target.”

The answer, according to Dr Sottoriva, may be to approach big data like a grandmaster approaches chess.

To use mathematical modelling to understand and decode the rules of the game cancer is playing.

“What grandmasters do is to predict the moves of the opponent,” he says. “If we can decode the complexity and make predictions about what cancer will do three, four moves ahead, then we can develop really effective treatments based on a solid mathematical framework.”

Famed Chinese Terracotta Warriors could have been made with the help of the Greeks, archaeologists reveal 

Famed Chinese Terracotta Warriors could have been made with the help of the Greeks, archaeologists reveal

Western explorers settled in China more than 1,500 years earlier than experts had believed, new research has revealed, after archaeologists found the famous Terracotta Warriors could have been made with the help of the Greeks.

The 8,000 statues, which guard the mausoleum of the First Emperor, are likely to have been made under the guidance of a European sculptor who worked with locals at the site and took influence from Ancient Greece.

An extensive study of sites in Xinjiang Province, China, have revealed European-specific mitochondrial DNA, suggesting Westerners travelled, settled and died there before and during the time of the First Emperor: 1,500 years earlier than currently accepted.

The discoveries have been hailed as “more important than anything in the last 40 years” surpassing even the discovery of the Terracotta Army itself in significance. They are thought to be the first documented contact between Western and Chinese civilizations ever recorded.

They came about during excavations across the site by Mausoleum archaeologists, which have now been documented for television by the National Geographic Channel and BBC.

Key findings include evidence that treasures in the tomb of the First Emperor were created with the help of the West, with inspiration from the statues of Ancient Greece.

The tomb complex itself was found to be “much bigger than first thought” – at 38 square miles, 200 times bigger than Egypt’s Valley of the Kings – with two roads out of it identified with drone technology.

Experts are particularly excited by the discovery of DNA suggesting Westerners lived in the area during the time of Qin Shi Huang, from 259 to 210 BC.

Dr Li Xiuzhen, Senior Archaeologist at the Emperor Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum, said: “We now have evidence that close contact existed between the First Emperor’s China and the West before the formal opening of the Silk Road. This is far earlier than we formerly thought.”

Evidence of that contact, experts believe, can be found in the style of the Terracotta Warriors, with “no tradition of building life-sized human statues” identified in China before then.

Prof Lukas Nickel, chair of Asian Art History at the University of Vienna, believes the tomb of the First Emperor was influenced by the arrival of Greek statues in Central Asia in the century following Alexander the Great.

“I imagine that a Greek sculptor may have been at the site to train the locals,” he said.

Dr Xiuzhen added: “We now think the Terracotta Army, the Acrobats and the bronze sculptures found on site have been inspired by ancient Greek sculptures and art”.

Prof Zhang Weixing, lead archaeologist at the tomb site, said: “The archaeological work undertaken here recently is more important than anything in the last 40 years.

“By systematically examining the First Emperor’s main tomb and subsidiary burials we have discovered something more important even than the Terracotta Army.”

Other findings from the site include the mutilated bones of young women, believed to be high ranking concubines, burie with precious jewellery made from pearls and gold.

The skull of a young man, believed to be Prince Fu Su, the First Emperor’s eldest son, was also found with a crossbow bolt embedded in it.

The full findings will be broadcast on the National Geographic Channel in the US, and one BBC Two this Sunday.

Rachel Morgan, commissioning editor for the BBC, said: “It is thrilling to think that these discoveries, using cutting technologies and the forensic techniques of the 21st century, have the potential to alter what we know about the origin and formation of one of the world’s most powerful countries today and the relationships forged between ancient civilizations.”

Dan Snow, who presents the show, said: “It is extraordinary to think that history as we know it is changeable.”

The Greatest Tomb on Earth, a one-hour special hosted by Dan Snow, Dr Alice Roberts and Dr Albert Lin will air on BBC Two on Sunday, October 16 at 8pm.

Within months, Google to divide its index, giving mobile users better & fresher content

Within months, Google to divide its index, giving mobile users better & fresher content

Google is going to create a separate mobile index within months, one that will be the main or “primary” index that the search engine uses to respond to queries. A separate desktop index will be maintained, one that will not be as up-to-date as the mobile index.

The news came today during a keynote address from Gary Illyes, a webmaster trends analyst with Google, at Pubcon. Illyes didn’t give a timeline in his talk, but in a follow-up with Search Engine Land, he confirmed that it would happen within “months.”

Google first announced that it was experimenting with the idea of a mobile index last year at SMX East. Since that time, Google’s clearly decided that a mobile index makes sense and is moving ahead with the idea.

It’s unclear exactly how the mobile index will work. For example, since the mobile index is the “primary” index, will it really not be used for any desktop queries? Will it only contain “mobile-friendly” content? How out-of-date will the desktop index be? Desktop usage is now a minority of Google queries but still generates substantial usage.

The most substantial change will likely be that by having a mobile index, Google can run its ranking algorithm in a different fashion across “pure” mobile content rather than the current system that extracts data from desktop content to determine mobile rankings.

We did ask Google for more details, but all it would confirm is the general timing of the change. Stay tuned for more in a few months, it seems.

Florida Is About to Vote On Who Controls Its Solar Power | Motherboard

Florida Is About to Vote On Who Controls Its Solar Power | Motherboard

The Sunshine State seems like the perfect place for solar power. But a state amendment could restrict residents’ access to solar power if passed this November.

The first amendment on the state ballot would establish a consumers’ rights to own or lease solar panels on their property to generate electricity for their own use. This sounds like a good thing on the surface, but green energy advocates have largely opposed this amendment. They say some of the language actually restricts consumers’ ability to use solar panels, and allows power companies to charge solar customers fees to subsidize the rest of the power grid for non-solar users.

The ballot amendment comes as states are grappling with how to regulate solar energy. Some states, like California, are pushing for large-scale integration of solar electricity as a way to fight climate change. Others are worried about what solar power means for their traditional fossil fuel-driven electricity industries.

Pro-amendment groups in Florida argue the change would guarantee consumers’ right to own solar panels—though it’s already protected via state statute—by putting it into the state constitution. It’s worth noting that the pro-amendment group, Consumers for Smart Solar, is largely funded by utility companies with major consumer bases in Florida, such as Duke Energy, Florida Power & Light Company and others, the Energy and Policy Institute revealed last fall. Their campaign, “Yes on 1 For the Sun,” is also backed by groups with financial interests in the power sector, such as Gulf Power, ExxonMobile and the Koch brothers.

Meanwhile, opponents say the language of the amendment would prohibit consumers from using third-party solar panels, which make up a majority of the market nationwide. That, they argue, would allow utility companies to control all leasing of solar panels in the state. Opponents worry this could allow utility companies to charge fees on solar power and could refuse to buy back power from solar customers who produce more electricity than they use—which goes against current law. This could also slow down growth in the solar sector.

Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente warned the amendment was “a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” in a court dissent following a ruling related to the amendment.

“Masquerading as a pro-solar energy initiative, this proposed constitutional amendment, supported by some of Florida’s major investor-owned electric utility companies, actually seeks to constitutionalize the status quo.”