mTOR inhibitors appear to boost the immune system of older adults

A recent clinical trial found that mTOR inhibitors–two experimental anti-aging drugs–both reduced the number of respiratory infections and boosted “people’s responses to the flu vaccine.”

The trial involved 264 volunteers aged 65 and over.  Some of the volunteers received low doses of both drugs–which appeared to be the most effective treatment.  All participants were monitored subsequently for one year.

mTOR inhibitors “appear to broadly rejuvenate immune function in healthy elderly people.”  Other tests with these drugs in mice have shown that they can “extend lifespan and revitalize the immune system and organs which deteriorate in old age.”

As people grow older, their immune systems weaken.  Infections happen more frequently, and vaccines don’t work as well.  If drugs–like mTOR inhibitors–can boost the immune systems of older people, ” they could help to protect the whole population from infections.”

More research is needed; however, “this study raises the real possibility that most middle-aged adults could benefit from short-term treatments with mTOR inhibitors.”

Read the article (Layal Liverpool, The Guardian, July 11, 2018).

Nighttime temperatures are warming faster

More impact from climate change–at one point this month (July 2018), “more than 100 million people” in the United States were under heat warnings or advisories.  While high daytime temperatures and humidity were most noticeable, it was the nighttime temperatures that were having the greatest impact.

“Nationwide, summer nights have warmed at nearly twice the rate of days”; overnight low temperatures have increased an average of 1.4 degrees F since 1895; daytime temperatures have increased an average of 0.7 degrees per century.  And, nighttime temperatures have warmed faster than days in the winter, spring, and fall as well.

This pattern is expected to continue …

While the change in temperatures may seem small, the consequences are very large.

Most years, heat waves kill more people in the U.S. than any other natural disaster including floods and hurricanes.  “The combination of high daytime and high nighttime temperatures can be really lethal because the body doesn’t have a chance to cool down during the nighttime hours.”  And, “the risks are higher in places where temperatures have historically been cooler.”  Older people, the sick, young children, outdoor workers, and the homeless are particularly at risk.  In cities, where the heat island effect exacerbates high temperatures, it is often the poor and /or minority residents who are more likely to live in the hotter areas.

Yes, air conditioning can help.  But, air conditioners work by sending hot air outside–where it can add to the heat island effect in urban areas.  Plus, air conditioning is a major player in climate change globally, and increased air conditioner use during heat waves is a factor in power failures.

This is another impact of climate change that is real and is happening today–read the article, see the graphs (Kendra Pierre-Louis and Nadja Popovich, New York Times, July 11, 2018).

A pet medicine may protect humans against disease

Diseases like the Zika virus and malaria are spread by mosquitoes and fleas; it’s a problem worldwide especially in the developing world but also in wealthier countries as well.  To prevent the spread of Zika, malaria, and other diseases, insecticides and bed nets are currently often used.  “Vaccines are also under development … but few are approved for use.”

A recent study suggests another possible treatment–isoxazolines.  These drugs are currently approved for use in dogs to protect against fleas and ticks.

The study suggests that a single dose of 260 to 410 mg in humans could help protect against mosquito and sand fly bites for 50 to 90 days.

Isoxazolines are seen more as a rapid response option in areas where diseases like Zika and malaria are widespread.  Researchers estimate that giving doses of these drugs to a third of the people living in outbreak areas could prevent up to 97% of Zika infections and 70+% of new cases of malaria.

More research is needed to “prove the safety and effectiveness” of these drugs in humans.  The current use of isoxazolines in dogs, however, could shorten the drug development process.

Read the article (Alexandra Sifferlin, Time, July 2, 2018).


Discovering new genes behind human intelligence and mental health

Recent studies using “a new statistical method called MAGMA” to analyze the health and genetic records of over 6 million people have identified over 1,000 new genes linked to human intelligence and over 500 new genes “associated with neurotic traits.”

The analysis suggests that higher intelligence is linked with a longer life span and less chance of suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, ADHD, or schizophrenia.  In contrast, genes linked to intelligence are also “correlated with a higher risk for autism.”

These studies provide “hard evidence of the many genes and pathways” that are involved in human intelligence and mental health.  For instance, another indication is that people who suffer from excessive anxiety inherit different genes than people who are depressed.

While it has long been known that humans can “inherit intelligence and some personality disorders from their parents,” these studies provide confirmation.  However, environmental factors like education and stress also play a significant role.

The results of these studies can potentially point the way toward “new ways to improve education, or therapies to treat neurotic behavior.”

Read the article (Ann Gibbons, Science, June 25, 2018).

Bees survive better in cities compared to open agricultural land

Bumblebees are vital pollinators for flowers and crops.  But, bee populations have been declining world-wide due to “pesticides, disease, and habitat loss.”

A recent study sought to track and explain anecdotal evidence that more bees are being found in urban areas.

In the study, more than 100 bee colonies were planted in 38 different locations [in England] ranging “from London’s city center to surrounding villages, suburbs, and farms.”

Bee colonies “placed in agricultural fields produced fewer reproductive offspring and fewer workers, and their queens died sooner.”  These colonies broke down faster and had “fewer nutrient resources.”  In comparison, colonies in suburbs and colonies in the center of the City did much better.

Why?  The monoculture of today’s corporate agriculture generally produces fewer and less diverse “floral resources” and a greater level of pesticides than suburbs and cities.  While the city is not at all ideal for bees, bees appear to be able to successfully exploit the city environment to their advantage for survival.

While this news is somewhat positive, the greater challenge is to make modern agriculture more friendly to bees–a vital part of human food production.  “It’s really starting to become quite clear that agricultural areas are generally quite bad for wildlife.”

Read the article (JoAnna Klein, New York Times, June 27, 2018).

Looking to the past for an alternative to cement

“More than 20 billion tons of concrete is produced around the world every year”–to fuel the building boom in cities as more and more people globally move to urban areas.

But, all that concrete has a large environmental cost.  “Cement, the main ingredient in concrete, creates 5% of global carbon emissions.”

Concrete is “sand and gravel held together with cement.”  The Romans “used a mixture of volcanic ash and lime to make concrete.”  And, Roman concrete structures have stood for thousands of years.

Now, engineers working in the United States have created a new material that could replace cement in the production of concrete.  They have used fly ash (“fine particles formed when coal is burned in power plants”); fly ash is similar to volcanic ash.  Using statistical analysis, the engineers determined the best ratio for combining fly ash with other ingredients and the optimum  type of fly ash to use.

Tests are showing that concrete made from this fly ash binder is “just as strong as conventional cement-based concrete after seven days.”

More testing awaits, but the new material and its “reduced CO2 footprint” may provide a low-cost, more environmentally-friendly binder for future building.  Plus, the use of fly ash reduces waste from coal-fired power plants.

Read the article (Prachi Patel, Quartz, June 26, 2018).

Solar windows and the future of building

“Houses and office buildings account for 75% of electricity use in the United States, and 40% of its energy use overall.”  And, all the windows in these buildings can be a problem–letting in heat or cold while leaking cooling or heating energy.

But, several research teams are working on ways to solve this problem.

Newer solar window technologies “absorb almost exclusively invisible ultraviolet (UV) or infrared light.”  That leaves the glass clear–a major step forward–while blocking the UV and infrared radiation that normally leaks through it.

By cutting heat gain while generating some power, these solar windows can reduce energy use while also supplying some of the building’s energy needs–plus, they are a step up aesthetically from older solar windows that are more opaque and can have a reddish or brownish tint.

Along these lines, research teams are working on various related technologies; from “developing a UV-absorbing perovskite solar window that can produce enough energy to power on-demand darkening glass that halts intense light in the heat of the day”–reducing the need for air conditioning.  To using “luminescent solar concentrators” or “quantum dots” in windows to absorb UV and infrared light, convert it into light that regular solar cells can capture, and shunt that light sideways to solar cells in the window frame.  With this technology, solar windows could be relatively inexpensive.

Challenges remain–testing window durability and dealing with the small amount of toxic material used in many solar window technologies.  But, down the road, “it’s a safe bet to expect that future buildings won’t draw all their power from the grid.  They will generate it, too.”

Read the article (Robert F. Service, Science, June 28, 2018).

The impact of sea level rise on Florida–and the world

Read these two excerpts (here and here) from a new book by Elizabeth Rush which details the effects of sea level rise on the south coast of Florida, USA.  “Sunny day flooding”–where coasts flood even without rain and storms due to rising seas and high tides is increasingly frequent today.  This is not a theory or a prediction; it is happening today “from Portland, Maine to Key West.”  High tides top seawalls and bubble up through storm sewers.  Local governments try to protect pricey real estate investments but often leave “low to middle-income neighborhoods where the majority of residents are people of color” to fend for themselves.

Most of the excess heat being driven by climate change is stored in the oceans.  That heat is causing sea level rise–by expanding ocean waters and, more importantly, causing increasingly rapid melting of ice at the Poles.  Estimates of sea level rise range from 2 to 6.5 feet by 2100; others predict more–“when sea levels have risen in the past, they have usually not done so gradually, but rather in rapid surges.”

Over about 130 years, the population along the south coast of Florida has grown from a few thousand to more than 6 million; the sea will continue to rise; what will all those people do?  Research suggests that approximately 13 million Americans may have to move due to sea level rise by the end of the century and economic losses and impacts will be huge.

But, Florida is just an example; this is happening today all over the world.

Facial recognition and privacy

Biometric systems, especially facial recognition scans, are being introduced at major U.S. airports–a response to a U.S. Congressional mandate “for recording the entry and exit of non-U.S. citizens at all air, sea, and land ports of entry.”

Facial-recognition systems have “improved significantly in recent years.”  Governments and law enforcement agencies are now using them.  Does use of facial recognition “violate [U.S.] Constitutional protections against unreasonable searches”?  In addition, research with facial recognition has shown it to be “less accurate with older photos and with images of women, African Americans, and children.”  Mistakes and deliberate abuse can happen.

Also, while Congress mandated the use of biometrics for non-U.S. citizens traveling into and out of the country, the faces of U.S. citizens are also being scanned at airports.  Both Congress and, more recently, President Trump have never authorized “the collection of facial scans from U.S. citizens at the border routinely and without suspicion.”

What happens to this scan data after it is collected at the airports?  The U.S. Department of Homeland Security says it is deleted … but, we don’t know.

Facial recognition is being promoted by airlines like JetBlue and Delta as a way to “speed up the boarding process.”  However, if you are a U.S. citizen, this may not be an option you want to choose.

Read the article (Mike Orcutt, MIT Technology Review, July 13, 2017).

Methane leaks undermine the benefits of using natural gas

Oil producer burning off natural gas Natural gas has long been “promoted as a clean alternative to other fossil fuels.”  It’s main ingredient is methane.  Compared to other greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, methane does not stay in the atmosphere as long but, while it’s there, “its warming effect is much stronger.” A new independent study shows that methane “has been leaking from oil and gas facilities [in the United States] at far higher rates than governmental regulators claim.” These leaks “have nearly doubled the climate impact of natural gas, causing warming on par with carbon dioxide-emitting coal plants for 2 decades.” The benefits of burning natural gas instead of coal “are being undermined by the leaks.”  Natural gas emits less CO2 than coal when burned.  The U.S. EPA is “understating industry methane leaks by approximately 60%.” According to the study, “in 2015 methane leaks represented 2.3% of total gas production nationwide”; in comparison, the U.S. EPA estimated 1.4%.  While the percentages and the difference between them seems small, what they represent–the actual amount of methane leaked–is very large.  Earlier studies also showed that leaks of methane at both production and distribution sites are underestimated. The more leakage, the smaller the environmental benefit of using natural gas. Read the article (Warren Cornwall, Science, June 21, 2018).  

Now that China will no longer take it, the U.S. and other countries will have to deal with their own plastic waste

Recycling plastic is a challenge.  Over the past few decades, plastic “recycling” has in fact consisted–about half the time–of sending that plastic to China (often through Hong Kong).  China and Hong Kong “have imported 72% of all plastic waste.”

But, this route is now at an end.  As of January 2018, China has banned the import of “nonindustrial plastic waste.”  As a result, according to a recent study, “that will leave the world–mostly high-income countries–with an additional 111 million metric tons of plastic to deal with by 2030.”  And, these countries, especially the United States, United Kingdom, Mexico, Japan, and Germany “have no good way to handle it.”

As an example, in 2016 “the U.S. exported 56% of its plastic waste to China, an additional 32% went to Hong Kong” (and most of that then went to China).  The rest (12%) went to Mexico, Canada, and India.  And, much of that plastic waste ultimately also went to China.

With a permanent ban now in place, plastic recyclers in other countries like the U.S. are seeing “a globally cascading effect.”  Outside of China, “little infrastructure exists … to manage the rejected waste.”  Plastic is piling up.

Previous studies have indicated “that only 9% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled”, the majority goes into the landfill or is thrown away into the oceans and on land.  In 2015, people threw out about 74% of all the plastic that was produced.  Changes are needed–in recycling programs, in how plastics are made, in how humans behave …

Read the article (Zoe Schlanger, Quartz, June 20, 2018).


Using the Allam Cycle to generate electricity and capture CO2

As of May 30, 2018, a supercritical carbon dioxide demonstration power plant began operation in Texas, USA.  Operated by NET Power, LLC, the technology is powered by natural gas and generates electricity using CO2 itself to run the turbine.  The technology–called the “Allam Cycle”–may eliminate “virtually all emissions from natural gas power generation without requiring expensive … carbon capture equipment.”

Traditional natural gas power plants burn gas using air and use water to crank the turbine.  A by-product of the process is CO2 which often is released into the atmosphere or is attempted to be captured using expensive equipment.

The Allam Cycle replaces the water with supercritical carbon dioxide which operates as both a liquid and a gas.   Oxygen, CO2, and natural gas are fed into a combustor; the gas ignites; the by-products “are hot water and a lot of supercritical CO2 which acts as an efficient working fluid for driving the adjacent turbine.”  Using CO2 to run the turbine improves efficiency, avoids energy losses, and eliminates parts of the process needed by steam-electric power plants.

The end result could be the production of “low-cost electricity from natural gas while generating near-zero atmospheric emissions, including full CO2 capture.”

The plant fired on May 30 is a demonstration facility.  If successful, NET Power predicts the building and deployment of commercial-scale power plants starting as soon as 2021.

“If it plays out as advertised, it could be an actual game changer.”

Read the articles–here and here (James Temple, MIT Technology Review, August 30, 2017 and NET Power, PR Newswire, May 30, 2018).