Sunday, April 24, 2011

BYBS: Blood Music

One of my favorite books of all time has to be Greg Bear's Blood Music.  It's about a guy who creates computers using cells, observing that cells have all the parts you would need to make a computer: DNA could be used as storage, various organelles could be used as processor parts, etc.  The cells can infect people and, well, that's what the book is about.

This is one of the books that got me interested in biology.  Since the book blends the worlds of biology and my own field of computers, it made for a very interesting read.

The book's premise seems pretty plausible to me.  The thing is that I think cells already do act as computers, it's just that survival is a difficult enough problem that they normally exhibit intelligence in the way that human beings think of it.  Being able to calculate a square root, for example, is not very useful to a paramecium, but being able to tell your flagella to move you towards something you can eat is.

The thing you have to remember is that the paramecium is doing this with only one cell.  There is no huge network of neurons that allow it to think and reason the way we do.  Being able to survive, find food, fend off viruses, etc. is quite a feat for a computer that small, but it just doesn't seem that way because we take such things for granted.

If there's a problem with the book, it's that it seems like there are two big "parts" to it.  One of them is about the nifty idea of making a single celled computer and the other is a notion that there is a limit to the amount of consciousness that can occupy a particular location.  I thought the first part was by far the more interesting, while the second was kind of meh.

Personally, I thought it would have worked better with just the first part as a novella or a short story, but your mileage may vary.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

BYBS: Bacteriophages

The structure of a typical tailed bacteriophage.  Image from Wikipedia.

Bacteriophages, or just phages as their friends call them, are viruses that infect bacteria.  As such, they can be used in place of antibiotics for infections that have become resistant to the antibio.  Due to a fundamental difference in the way that human and bacterial cells work, the viruses do not infect human cells, and in any case our immune systems tend to clear most viruses (friendly or otherwise) from our systems.

Phages are naturally occurring - for example one being used to counter E. Coli was found in a river outside of Washington DC.  This does not guarantee that it is safe, after all nature gave us the Polio and Smallpox viruses, but it does mean that if it is a problem, then at least it's not a new one.

Phages were apparently used before the advent of broad spectrum antibiotics, but were largely abandoned in Western countries because antibiotics were easier to manufacture and use than phages.  Nonetheless, phage therapy continued to be used in Eastern Block countries and could see a comeback if efforts to come up with new drugs for antibiotic resistant bacteria do not come through.

I like the idea of using viruses to combat bacteria since, as the saying goes "the enemy of my enemy is my enemies enemy.", maybe it's "the friend of my enemy is my friend."  No, that's not right either.  Whatever.  This is one of those ideas that promises to solve a problem and demonstrates extreme cleverness on the part of human beans.

You can learn more about phages from the Wikipedia article, or you can take a look at the Intralytix site (the company that is marketing the anti E. Coli phage).

Monday, April 11, 2011

BYBS: Fresh Air at Sea

This past week a ran into a couple of podcasts that were both on NPR's Fresh Air; one was titled "Sex, Drugs and Sea Slime" while the other was called "Moby-Duck".

The NPR story on the wild and slimy life of undersea critters can be found via this link, while the story on Moby-Duck can be found to via this link.

The pictures lead to links where the books can be obtained on Amazon.

The title and subject matter are reasons enough to create a blog entry for the book, but another reason is that she used to be the chief science officer/whatever of the Aquarius underwater habitat.  Aquarius is a habitat that sits off the Florida keys under around 60 feet of water.

Apart from anything else that various free-living underwater critters might be doing down there having what amounts to an underwater base sounds like the coolest job one could ask for.

Now mind you, after 4 weeks of the same knock-knock jokes and losing yet another thumb wrestling match to your fellow diver could begin to get on your nerves, this could explain my interest in the second book: Moby-Duck.

Some people might hear about a bunch of rubber (plastic?) ducks being thrown overboard and conclude that the ducks had done something to merit walking the plank.

Other people might spend a fairly long period of time tracking down where the ducks came from, how they got from the Pacific to the Atlantic ocean and generally make any of my own time-wasting activities seem trivial by comparison.

In addition to shoring up the self-esteem of anyone with a strange obsession, the book also talks about the problems with plastic sea junk that is accumulating in the Earth's various oceans.  This adds an instant air of seriousness that one cannot get from a book that goes into the mechanics of, say, lobster sex.

I haven't read either book --- we'll see if I get around to it, but in the mean time I can relax with the notion that if I met either of these people, I'd no longer be the strangest person in the room.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Microbe Power Grids

I recently found this article from the cool, super cool, way cool geobactor web site.  It details about how microorganisms work together to transmit electricity from the bottom of a pile of mud to the top of the pile.

Yes, mud.

Why are you looking at me that way?

At any rate, I think this is uber-cool because it shows again how those little fellers can surprise us by doing stuff that one would normally associate with bigger critters; but also how microbes could be harnessed to generate power from things like sludge.  Or mud.

There you go again with that look.

Another truly cool article goes on about how two species of microbe can work together to break down ethanol. Yeah, as Dr. Derek Lovely puts it "They're the ultimate drinking buddies, collaborating to consume ethanol."  It has a sort of poetic justice to it: microbes create alcohol, here are a couple of species that collaborate in drinking it.

Silliness aside, being able to make a cheap, efficient fuel cell using ethanol has been a goal of scientists for quite some time.  The idea is that you could make a "battery" for a lap top that could last for 10 hours at full power or perhaps store the power from a solar cell for periods when the sun isn't shining.

And yes, the idea of microbes boozing it up has a certain appeal.