“Complexity that works is built up out of modules that work perfectly, layered one over the other.”
– Kevin Kelly
Living creatures are almost incomprehensibly complex. Take the human body, which is made up of trillions of cells creating thousands of different parts. Our mass of interconnected systems, and indeed the complex biological systems of many members of the animal kingdom, have slowly built up over the course of millions of years as life forms have grown in complexity and adapted to become more specialized. One of the reasons that these forms of life have been able to become so elaborate is that their cells are capable of determining their location and orientation within the body. This ability for cells to know where they are in the body leads to an evolutionary advantage: it allows for the creation of elaborate, non-symmetrical systems.
While the details of living organisms have changed massively in the past half-billion years, one thing common to most of them hasn’t changed very much at all: the genetics that control the process of orienting cells in consistent directions within the body. In March 2016, Scientific American ran an article discussing how scientists are experimenting to determine how these genes work. These “polarity genes” originally evolved five hundred million years ago and haven’t changed much in the interim. They cause certain proteins in cells to work a lot like magnets. Within each cell, these proteins push each other apart to opposite ends of the cell. Between the cells, the same proteins that repel each other within a cell experience an attraction, pulling the opposite protein from adjacent cells towards them. The ultimate effect of this is that, locally, the cells become oriented with all the proteins of one type lined up on one side of the cell, and all proteins of the other type lined up on the opposite side. This effectively creates a sort of compass for the cells and allows the establishment of a common directionality. Read More
One of the classic images of pediatric medicine in the United States is the image of a physician giving a vaccination shot. Like many other classic images of twentieth-century life in the US, this one is unsurprisingly immortalized in a Norman Rockwell painting. However, over the last few decades, it has become much more difficult for small practices to provide the vaccination services that they have historically been relied upon to give.
The cost to administer vaccines has risen sharply over that time period. In 1986, the cost of the five vaccines recommended for all children from birth to age 18 was $215. In 2014, the cost of those same five vaccines (adjusted for inflation) was $937: more than a four-fold increase! In addition, eight new recommended vaccinations were added in the intervening 28 years, requiring an additional $1,255 of medicine to fully vaccinate a child. Given this large increase in costs, maximizing the effectiveness of each batch of vaccines by minimizing the waste is very valuable, especially to small family-practice doctors and pediatricians. Storing vaccines properly is critical to making sure that the maximum amount of vaccine can be delivered effectively. Read More
For thousands of years, humans have struggled against infectious diseases transmitted by mosquitos. Records describing the symptoms of malaria can be traced back to 2700 B.C. in China. Other mosquito-borne diseases, such as yellow fever, dengue, and West Nile virus are a perennial threat to the health and safety of people all over the world.
One mosquito-borne illness that has rapidly gained notoriety recently is the Zika virus. This disease was first documented in monkeys in Uganda in 1947, and then in humans in 1952. However, recent large outbreaks of the disease in French Polynesia (in 2013) and Brazil (in 2015) have drastically heightened public awareness of the virus. In January, the CDC issued a level 2 alert for travel to Mexico, Central America, South America and the Caribbean due to Zika virus outbreaks, warning travelers to “practice enhanced precautions” and take steps to protect themselves from mosquito bites. Read More
Last week, the New York Times reported that two-thirds of the world is facing severe water shortages at least once a year. A large chunk of the affected population is in India and China, but areas of the United States like Texas, Florida, and California are included in the impact area. California, specifically, has experienced a well-publicized drought for the last several years.
California has been under drought conditions since 2011. Their water infrastructure relies heavily on snowpack. During the winter months, snow accumulates in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and when that snow melts in the dry summer months the melt-water fills their reservoirs. However, snowpack has been severely reduced recently, with March 2015 totals measuring only 19% of average. The paucity of water in the reservoirs has led to increased reliance on groundwater, which has stressed the aquifers’ supply, reducing the overall water supply even further. Read More
Artificial cooling is not a particularly new technology. The practice of using ice-storehouses and iceboxes to preserve food dates back to the early 19th century. Harvesting ice in areas like New England for shipment to places like the American south and the Caribbean islands was big business for much of the 19th century. However, the technology used to keep things cool has changed greatly over the last hundred years. The main advancement was the development of vapor-compression cycle refrigeration systems in the early 1900’s. This advancement in refrigeration and cooling had a huge impact on life in the 20th century and beyond. Refrigeration changed the way we eat, where we live, and the way our cities are built. Read More