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Strange Life Forms Found! Autism Accurately Diagnosed! Immortality is Possible! December 4, 2010

Posted by stuffilikenet in Awesome, Science.
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Seriously, this has been one hell of a week for science.  NASA announced Arsenic-based life forms, Harvard scientists practically cured old age in mice and University of Utah scientists (and those pesky Harvardians) have begun trying Diffusion Tensor Imaging (a kind of MRI) to detect autism.

Each one of these amazing stories has a LOT of backstory and a tanker full of caveats, but this is science and not religion so pay attention.

First off, the NASA guys didn’t find these bacteria on Rhea, as some more excitable folk speculated, they found the bacteria in Mono Lake and began to breed them to accept arsenates instead of phosphates. Predictably, they survived it (Mono Lake is pretty full of arsenic).  Unpredictably, they thrived and began using arsenates instead of phosphates for pretty much all of phosphate’s functions.  Still, they bred ’em and they seem to be pretty healthy…I can only see this moving into environment remediation when this has had some further examination.

Next, Harvard guys bred some mice with weak expression of the gene which produces telomerase, which is largely responsible for repairing the ends of DNA.  This helps keep your DNA copies faithful to the original.  It is thought that “old” DNA makes you old by creating lousy proteins.

Anyway, these mice looked old early in life, and had other symptoms of old age, like shrunken brains (and testes).  These scientists then administered a drug which enhanced the production of telomerase and, lo and behold, the mice regained their youthful appearance, large brains and testes…and shiny young coats, too.  That is not to say that this necessarily translates to people, and they have yet to try this on naturally aged mice, but it’s damned interesting.

Still more interesting (although maybe not to anyone without autism in their family), scientists at Harvard have begun using MRI to diagnose autism patients with a 94% positive correlation (actually”94% sensitivity, 90% specificity, and 92% accuracy”, but that never gets reported in the popular press). They studied two groups, 30 males aged 8 to 26 with high-functioning autism and 30 males without autism. All were scanned using MRI in the temporal gyrus and temporal stem areas of the temporal lobe, considered to be the centers responsible for language learning, developing social skills and emotion responses. Among the specific findings in participants with autism, the fibers in the right side of the superior temporal gyrus were more organized than the fibers on the left; the opposite was true in typical people.

These last two items alone make this a very hopeful week for scientists.  Autism is more common than thought in the general population because people differ significantly in the way it’s expressed;  Bubba might not be an asshole, he might be autistic.

And every single person I know is getting older all the time.  How about funding research on something that matters to every single person that is alive today, and ever will be alive?

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