Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Chronic Allergies

by Joseph Chang (Class of '06)

Currently, over 50 million Americans suffer from allergic diseases. In fact, 54.6 percent of US citizens test positive to one or more allergens, such as dust mites, rye, ragweed, and cockroach, according to a recent national survey. Allergies are already the sixth largest source of chronic disease for Americans and cost the US health care system about $18 billion annually. In addition, the rate of increase of allergy sufferers is about 5 percent per year; specifically, the number of Americans who suffer from asthma has increased over 100% from 20 years ago to about 20 million, today.

Allergies occur when the body’s immune system reacts to the presence of an innocuous substance, such as pollen or dander, as if it were a dangerous pathogen, such as a virus or bacterium. The development of an allergy begins when the body is exposed to a protein in a harmless molecule and recognizes it as a possible danger. On the first exposure, the body produces specific antibodies called immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies which recognize the protein. These IgE antibodies then attach to mast cells, which are responsible for creating various chemicals, such as histamine, prostaglandins and leukotrienes, which jolt the body into anti-pathogen maneuvers, including inflammation and mucus production. The first time the body is exposed to these allergens, there will likely be no symptoms; however, the second time the body comes in contact with the allergens, the IgE molecules recognize the offending proteins and trigger the release of the mast cells’ chemicals and cause the typical stuffed nose and headache allergy-symptoms.

One of the major causes of allergies, as with many other ailments, is based on genetics. Studies show that children with one asthmatic parent have greater chances have having asthma than children with no asthmatic parents. Children with two asthmatic parents have even greater chances of having asthma. In addition, pairs of identical twins, who share the same DNA, have asthma more frequently than pairs of fraternal twins, who do not share the same exact DNA. However, genetics alone does not explain the dramatic increase in allergy rates over the past few decades.

A second cause of allergies is the diet. The reduced fresh fruit and vegetable intake and the corresponding low level of antioxidants and minerals in the American diet both increase the risk of getting allergies. In addition, antibiotic use may be helping the rise of allergies by killing of certain bacteria in the intestine which suppress allergy.

Additionally, the environment plays an enormous role in whether or not Americans develop allergies. Environmental pollution, especially airborne pollution, is often cited as sources of allergies. One example of the pollution on allergies is a study which showed that children who live near major highways and are exposed to diesel fumes exhibit increased sensitivity to allergens that they already react to. Another environmental factor that is being considered as a source of allergies is excessive cleanliness. Essentially, this idea of excessive cleanliness causing allergies, called the hygiene hypothesis, states that immune systems must be exposed to certain levels of pathogens when they are young. If developing immune systems do not come in contact with enough pathogens they will be unable to distinguish between harmless substances and true dangers to the body.


“Allergy Statistics.” National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. http://www.niaid.nih.gov/factsheets/allergystat.htm. May 30, 2006.

Newman, Judith. “Misery for All Seasons; Allergies: A Modern Epidemic.” National Geographic. May 2006.

The Disappearing Act: Florida’s Coral Reeves affected by Warming Waters

by Michael Grossi (Class of '06)

It is real folks. Global Warming is here to stay. Many people think that Global Warming is characterized by shrinking ice caps, smog, and warmer temperatures. This may all be true, but one of the most unnoticed conditions caused by Global Warming is the destruction of the world’s coral reeves. This problem is hitting close to home as well. Florida is known as a great tourist destination. It has pristine waters and beautiful sea life to explore. However, because of Global Warming, Florida’s Coral Reeves are on the brink of nonexistence. Scientists are frantically trying to import polyps of coral into areas where much of the coral has died.

Recently two different species of coral were added to the endangered species list: staghorn and Elkhorn. “The species have declined 97 percent since the late 70's”

Scientists believe that one of the main culprits in the murder of the coral is from coral bleaching. Coral bleaching is when the coral shed their colors, turn white and then die. Coral bleaching is directly tied to rising water temperatures which is a symptom of Global Warming. The episodes of Coral bleaching have been occurring with greater frequency over the past few years. While the ocean’s temperature has only gone up a degree or two over the past few years, it is still enough to have a catastrophic affect on the fragile ecosystems the coral reside in.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said that “climate change, whether due to natural variability or human activity is central to several of the threats impacting coral reef ecosystems” (www.msnbc.msn.com/id/12631773/). Scientists have linked the rise in water temperature to the rise in greenhouse gas emissions. Global Warming is one of the main forces in the destruction of some of the most beautiful creatures on the planet. “Requiring greenhouse gas emitting industries to consider how their activities are impacting our most productive marine ecosystems is not only scientifically sound, but also eminently sensible,” Plater added. “The destruction and loss of these coral species would result in the loss of billions of dollars to our economy, the loss of an unknown number of medicines, and decimate local biodiversity. It’s just common sense to consider these impacts before it is too late” (www.msnbc.msn.com/id/12631773).

Despite the negative affect that the rising water temperatures have on coral in some places, other places seem to be flourishing. Not all the news is bad. There are fresh stands of elkhorn and staghorn off Broward County, Fla., in waters where such coral would have never been seen two decades ago. Therefore, one can say that in one area there can be death, in another, new ecosystems can be born.

People have to realize the affect that Global Warming has on our planet. Not only does it make the air we breathe unclean, it kills valuable parts of the world. We have neglected this problem for long enough and now it is coming back to bit us big time. With the water temperatures rising, all of the coral is being killed. Global warming isn’t only killing beautiful creatures to observe, but a valuable part of our life as a whole. The coral provides us with medicine, and it keeps the balance in the ocean. Due to Global Warming we are going to lose these ecosystems, and there is no telling how that will affect us in the long run.



Monday, May 29, 2006

The Possibility of Time Travel

by Sam Wass(Class of '06)

Time travel is the main theme in works of literature, H.G Wells The Time Machine and works of film, such as the “Back to the Future” series. But is time travel, the concept of physically moving backwards and forwards through time, actually possible? Some prevailing theories used to describe how the universe works, most notably Einstein’s special theory of relativity, do not forbid time travel. Einstein’s theory declares that relative to a stationary observer, time seems to pass more slowly for a faster moving body. For example, if a person were to observe a clock moving close to the speed of light, the movement of the hands on the clock would be so slow the observer would think that the clock was not working at all. Thus time is a totally relative concept, there is no possibility of their being a clock at the center of the universe by which everyone could set their watches. For an alien traveling at the speed of life, our lives on earth could be blink of an eye. Einstein’s theory could allow time travel because unlike Newton’s mechanics which treat gravity as a force, the general theory of relativity defines gravity as the movement of matter along the shortest space in a curved spacetime. Spacetime as a four dimensional model which combines three dimensional space with one dimensional time, a concept first designed by Hermann Minkowski.

Others believe that time travel could possible through manipulating worm holes, hypothetical topological features in spacetime which are possible through solutions in general relativity equations that are solved with substances of negative energy. A worm hole serves as a link between two distant points in spacetime. Hypothetically, with some exotic future technology one end of the worm hole would be accelerated to the speed of light and then brought back to its original location. Due to time dilation, the phenomenon where the observed time rate is different for two unique reference frames, the accelerated end would have experienced less time relative to the stationary end. This would mean that an object that enters the stationary end would come out in the past relative to the time it entered. A significant limitation to this concept is that one can only travel as far back in time as the initial creation for the technology and thus the technology itself cannot move backwards through time.

Many people believe that direct travel into the past is impossible because of the paradoxes that arise. For example imagine if a person were to travel back in time and kill his grandfather. This would mean that he would have never been conceived and thus would not have been able to travel back in time in the first place. Or consider a person who travels back in time a kills Adolf Hitler, thus preventing World War Two from occurring. This person would have gone back in time with the intent of killing Hitler, but if he were to kill Hitler then he would not be able to have the intention of killing Hitler in the first place.

It is very fascinating to ponder what humans will learn on the nature of time travel in the next century to come. In 1895 Lord Kelvin state, “heavier than air flying machines are impossible”, but we now have technology to travel out of the earth’s atmosphere. Hopefully one day all of our questions about the way the world works will be answered.


Saturday, May 27, 2006

Setback in Rediscovery of Ivory-Billed Woodpecker

by Brian Lipson (Class of '06)

Last year, the hype began when Cornell researchers claimed to have found evidence of the thought to be extinct ivory-billed woodpecker. The main piece of evidence was video footage that captured a grainy, out of focus clip of a woodpecker with very hard to distinguish features. The footage has caused much debate and skepticism. Research teams have taken both sides, some saying that it is conclusive evidence of an ivory-billed and some saying it is just the similar looking pileated woodpecker that is common to the area where the footage was taken. Notable publications include the Cornell team’s original article about their findings in the journal Science and famous birder David Sibley’s refuting of their claim in the same journal several months later. Further evidence includes sound tapes of supposed ivory-billed calls and pecking noises. Those too have been debated widely, also never really being established as solid proof.

While the discussion goes on, research teams have continued to search the Big Woods area of Arkansas where the bird controversy originally started. Many methods using high-tech equipment are being used to try to capture some kind of evidence to prove the existence of the ivory-billed woodpecker. Infrared cameras and sound recorders are hidden all over the forests in eastern Arkansas to try to collect as much data as possible.

Recently, the Cornell team spent two seasons trying to confirm a sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker. In this second year of searching for the bird, the team did not find any new evidence of the woodpecker, a slight setback that is disappointing for the team. But they aren’t giving up, and as Ron Rohrbaugh, the leader of the Cornell team’s most recent search, puts it, “Just because we've put two field seasons in doesn't necessarily mean that the bird is not there or that we should have found it by now.”

To this point, the public has been almost completely denied access to the area around where scientists think there is a chance there might be an ivory-billed woodpecker. However, after this most recent search, the public is expected to be able to return. In fact, despite the concern that the public’s return would push out any ivory-billed woodpecker that might still be there, the Cornell team is thinking of having next year’s search consist of volunteers.

One last issue that bothers scientists the most is the funding behind conservation efforts for the woodpecker. The best evidence for the existence of the bird is a fuzzy, low quality video, and yet there has been five million dollars in aid for the conservation of the bird. However, the funding was not an increase in conservation money, it was money taken away from other conservation projects elsewhere in the country. The most frustrating part for the scientists whose projects have lost funding in favor of the woodpecker is that they have their near extinct animals in captivity or unmistakable evidence of their existence.

http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F60D17F7395A0C7A8DDDAC0894DE404482 (as of may 26th)

Identification Among Dolphins: They're Smarter Than the Average Mammal

by Elizabeth Bauman (Class of '06)

Scientists have recently found that dolphins communicate using names. Through the dolphin’s whistle and the dolphin’s voice, dolphins can identify each other and interact verbally. This new discovery makes bottlenosed dolphins, like the one who starred in the famous movie “Flipper,” the only known, non-human animal besides the spectacled parrotlets that have the ability to address one another by an individualized name.

The research was led by Vincent Janik of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and it tested the differences in response of the dolphins between a dolphin’s whistle and a dolphin’s “voice.” The scientists recorded the dolphin’s whistles, stripped them of the intonation and sound that would identity the dolphin’s “voice,” and replayed the whistle through an underwater speaker to observe the responses of the dolphins. The scientists found that close relatives of the dolphin would react strongly to the whistle, while many unrelated dolphins would also react to the whistle, indicating that the dolphin’s whistle, regardless of its voice, does provide a means of identification for the dolphin.

The researchers found that dolphins develop their signature whistle as infants and use their personal whistle throughout their lifetimes. Other dolphins repeat the specific whistle back, which shows that they are calling the dolphin by its individual name. In addition, since each dolphin’s blowhole creates a unique and distinct sound, dolphins are able to recognize each other’s voices. Voices are distorted by water pressure, however, so personal whistles are another conclusive means of identification.

Dr. Janik reported from his research, "Bottlenose dolphins are the only animals other than humans to have been shown to transmit identity information independent of the caller's voice."

The interest in dolphin voice recognition began in the 1960’s when researchers noticed a specific set of whistles among captured dolphins. The theory of communication among dolphins was controversial for years and was only recently tested and proven correct. While it is clear that dolphins communicate through personal voice and identifying whistles, scientists are unsure if communication between dolphins can be considered language.

"Language by the standard definition must have syntax-or structuring of words- and reference," said Dr. Laela Sayigh, an investigator at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the co-leader of the study. "Dolphins do have the ability to use artificial signals to refer to objects, but it is unclear at present if their vocalizations involve syntax."

Scientists are also unclear if dolphins have different accents and dialects in different regions of the world, which could be identified through different patterns and frequencies of the whistles.

"Dolphins in Australia do seem to produce more simple whistles, while Florida dolphin whistles appear to be more modulated," Sayigh said. "Right now, we don’t know why that happens."

The research on communication between animals is continuous and productive. The recent evidence about dolphin voice and name recognition sheds new light on animal interactions. Dolphins’ brains have evolved to an almost human level of intelligence.


Friday, May 26, 2006

Allergies: How They Work and Why We Suffer

by (Class of '06)
By Hannah

Do you struggle with allergies? Are you allergic to certain foods? Or do you get congested, have itchy throats, or sneeze simply from walking outside? Why do we get allergies, and what makes us suffer?

Allergies are triggered because of a hypersensitive immune system. In a hypersensitive immune system, harmless substances are mistaken to be dangerous and are then attacked.

Lymphocytes which are white blood cells are present in the immune system. Two types of lymphocytes exist throughout the body; B-cells and T-cells. A lymphocyte’s job is to protect the body from foreign substances like bacteria and viruses. However, in a hypersensitive immune system, Lymphocytes can not always distinguish whether something is a threat and make mistakes, causing an allergic response.

Lymphocytes identify surface markers on molecules to determine if they are foreign to the body. When a lymphocyte cannot identify a substance, the B-cell (lymphocyte) which is capable of producing antibodies, travels to the lymph node where it transforms into a cell and produce IgE antibodies which fight the threat. The IgE antibodies fight foreign bodies and ultimately cause allergies and allergic reaction like hives, itching, runny nose, sneezing that many people suffer from.

When the B-cell mistakes a foreign substance as dangerous the B-cell, as explained earlier, produces IgE antibodies which fight the intruder. The IgE antibodies attach themselves to white blood cells that contain histamine. Histamine is a substance that helps fight infections in the body. The process of attachment is called Sensitizing Exposure, and the process takes about ten days to complete. Once the process is complete however, the next time the lymphocytes recognize the intruder a process known as the allergic cascade occurs.

In the allergic cascade, the IgE antibodies (lymphocytes that are there to protect the body from foreign substances) that are bound to the white blood cells containing histamine recognize the surface markers on the foreign body. The antibodies then attach themselves to the surface marker of the allergen (foreign substance detected by the lymphocytes). The attachment between the antibodies and the surface marker of the allergen alerts a group of proteins known as the complement complex. A primary protein attaches to the site and starts a sequence of protein attachment. The intruding cell is defeated once the sequence and chain of proteins is finished.

Destroying the intruding cell however, also destructs the white blood cells containing Histamine that were attached to the intruding cell.

When the white blood cells are destroyed, the histamine that the cells carry is released into the body’s tissues and blood. When the histamine is released, the surface blood vessels become dilated, resulting in lowered blood pressure. The dilation enables fluid to fill the gaps, causing the allergy symptoms that we all know and love.

Other, more serious allergic reactions like anaphylactic shock, which depending on the situation and reaction, can result in troubled breathing, swelling, organ damage, and blocked airways, is caused by a systematic reactions. In systematic reactions, the release of histamine causes capillaries all over the body to dilate, instead of in just one area of the body.

It is amazing what goes on in our bodies. It is at least comforting to know that our allergies are the result of an immune system overly eager to keep us safe.



Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Gore's Return to the Headlines

New Blockbuster Movie Focuses on Global Warming
by Robbie Havdala (Class of '06)

Remember Al Gore? He's about to hit the headlines...again. And it's not even for a run at a presidential election. It's for a movie.

Starring in his own film, the documentary An Inconvenient Truth zooms in on Gore's emphasis on global warming in his unsuccessful '00 campsign. The film itself has already received awards from the Sundance Film Festival. It depicts Gore in a new light: a humorous yet concerned man. Ever since his failed campaign, Gore has put his time and energy in a last ditch attempt to save the planet from what he views as "no longer a political issue." His devotion to fighting global warming flourishes in the film famous before it even hits theaters on Wednesday.

Throughout the movie, Gore cites evidence many people would have difficulty rebuking. His main point is that global warming has become a problem of humanity, not of politicians. No longer is it a future threat: it is imminent. One example he brings up: in the past 20 years, global temperatures have been readily increasing. The hottest year? 2005. Another point he makes is Mount Kilomanjaro. Long ago it used to be covered in snow and ice. Within the decade, no snow will be left.

Nor is this simply a problem of natural beauty, notes Gore. He points out the havoc that Hurricane Katrina caused, which may have been helped by warmer ocean waters. Then, Gore claims, consider if glaciers continue to melt at the current rate, coastlines across the earth will be underwater. Manhattan will be submerged. Florida will be half underwater. Recall the number of flood refugees caused by Katrina: now multiply that number by 1000.

While the intent of the movie is to inform, it almost seems to act as a horror film. Yet, the horror of the film is reality. Though only time will tell whether it succeeds at the box office, it will certainly open some people's eyes to the imminent threat that the world seems to keep ignoring.

References (all as of 5/23/06):