Ciliates can eat viruses

Researchers at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln have discovered a “species of Halteria – microscopic ciliates that populate freshwater worldwide – can eat huge numbers of infectious chloroviruses that share their aquatic habitat”.

When I read something like this, my imagination invariably goes to thoughts of apocalypse. I think of genetically modified ciliates in a vaccine. Once in your system they start to feed on your body, consuming you from the inside, creating a biological grey goo that sweeps over the Earth, eating everything in its path.

What if engineered ciliates make it possible to convert food into energy, lots and lots of energy, causing all kinds of uncontrolled mutations in mammals? A planet of dinosaur size animals and humans roaming the planet.

Would living forever allow interstellar travel? Vast ships sent deep into space. People able to live long enough to travel beyond our solar system, find life on other planets.

What if ciliates lead to the cure for ageing? Generations living for two or three hundred, a thousand, years. What happens to people who no longer fear death? Will it bring cults of people who want to commit suicide to escape the purgatory to living too long?

The science is interesting. The possibilities endless.


Will geoengineering scorch the sky?

I came across this MIT Technology Review article by James Temple outlining plans by controversial start-up Make Sunsets, and it’s a little terrifying.

The company wants to disperse huge quantities of sulphur and particles into the atmosphere, mimicking a massive volcanic eruption, that’s supposed to reflect sunlight back into space, hopefully easing global warming. This kind of geoengineering is controversial, and Make Sunsets’ approach, to me at least, sounds way too casual. It’s almost as if no one has told them, they just haven’t bothered to find out, when you release toxic chemicals like sulphur into the atmosphere, they fall back to earth as acid rain.

Acid rain was the hot environmental topic of the seventies and eighties. The heavy industries of Britain and Northern Europe released tonnes of pollutants into the atmosphere, that fell as sulphur dioxide spiked rain across southern Scandinavia, causing all kinds of environmental damage, from deforestation to water pollution.

As neoliberalism stripped heavy industry out of Britain, turning the country into a service economy, acid rain became less of an issue, and receded from public view. But a couple of years ago Paul Brown in The Guardian, reported that one “previously underestimated cause of acid rain is nitrogen oxides, produced partly by farming and motor vehicles”. To counteract nitric acid in rainfall, Norway is forced to pour tonnes of lime into their waterways.

On a more hyperbolic tangent, deliberately releasing sulphur into the atmosphere sounds too much like the plot of a dystopian science fiction film. It makes me think of the “desert of the real” speech by Morpheus in The Matrix (1999). Humans, faced with an existential threat from machines, try to starve them of solar energy, by deliberately scorching the sky.

Machines may not be plotting our enslavement, not yet, but we are facing an existential threat from a man-made, machine-enhanced, climate catastrophe. What’s being proposed by Make Sunsets falls squarely into “desert of the real” territory. Morpheus’ speech is a warning about the unforeseen consequences of desperate actions. It’s telling us not to do anything that will have long reaching, unforeseen consequences. Like scorching the skies with sulphur.

Oblivon, used to get through an “ordeal”

The Science Museum Group describes “Oblivon” as a “sedative to calm anxiety and fear”.

It was launched in 1953 by British Schering Ltd.”. Time described it as “taking the terror out of visits to the dentist”. The label advises adults to take “two capsules about 15 minutes before an ordeal”. The name “Oblivon” was a play on the word oblivion, “a state of complete forgetfulness” but “did not relieve pain”. In the UK it was only available “on prescription and was completely withdrawn in 1967”.

Wuhan virus – a reason to adopt a plant based diet

The following explainer of the Wuhan virus reads like the opening of an apocalyptic television show. Think Survivors (1975-1977) or The Walking Dead (2010-). It could also be the opening of any one of a hundred films. Stories like Fukkatsu no hi (1980) or Carriers (2009) or Contagion (2011). A virus, from who knows where, jumps the species barrier, infecting humans, then spreads through the population on the interconnected nature of our social, economic, and travel systems.

The outbreak has been linked to Wuhan’s Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market where they sell a bewildering assortment of meats.

I don’t eat meat so the variety of death on offer seems a little unnecessary to me. Humans don’t need to eat meat. We can get all of our nutritional requirements from plants. There’s plenty of evidence to prove this. Just watch The Game Changers (2018). Elite athletes who switched to a plant based diet achieve the best results of their lives.

I realise asking the people of Wuhan, or anywhere else, to stop eating the animals listed, could be seen as an act of cultural imperialism. But then I came across a post showing a dead bat infusing in a soup. That’s not the worst of it. It also contained the warning that bats are a reservoir of up to sixty different viruses.

It seems to me beyond hubris to think we can do this kind of thing without consequence. You only have to look at the HIV pandemic to see what can happen. According to Wikipedia HIV is “believed to have originated in non-human primates in West-central Africa, and are believed to have transferred to humans (a process known as zoonosis) in the early 20th century.”

The Wuhan virus is just the latest in a long line of threats that could do serious damage to us all. It’s bad enough bringing farmed meat into the food chain. Adding wild animals and their diseases is asking for trouble.

Removing meat from your diet benefits your health, and the health of the planet. It also reduces the possibility of some unknown virus or disease jumping the species barrier, and infecting humans.

It’s one less thing to kill us all.

Lab-grown mini brains

The Conversation UK

I am both fascinated and horrified by this story from Guillaume Thierry in The Conversation. It definitely falls into the category of, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

And transplanting lab grown brains into animals is disgusting. It’s one thing to conduct experiments on tissue, it’s another to put that tissue into another living thing. That is both unethical and cruel.

I realise no amount of legislation or control will stop some motivated party exploring the many potentials of the technology. Perhaps they should also consider the possibility that lab grown brains might play a part in the Singularity.

For those who don’t know the Singularity is the point at which “technological growth becomes uncontrollable and irreversible, resulting in unfathomable changes to human civilization.”

The unfathomable changes could bring some kind of utopia. They could also bring judgment day, and Terminators dispatched to destroy us.

It’s sobering to think science fact is accelerating past science fiction.

Spiders can fly hundreds of miles using electricity

This is an intriguing piece of science, from Ed Yong in The Atlantic, that started the what-ifs in my head going.

The Atlantic

I don’t think it’s enough to be a film, unless it’s some kind of superhero movie. It makes me think Magneto-Spider-Man. What if Magneto was female and has an affair with Spider-Man, and they had a child. It could be the child’s genesis story.

If expanded out I can imagine a world populated by warring clans of superheroes, the magnetics and the spiders. A spider finds love in the arms of a magnetic, Capulet versus Montague style.

Alternatively it would make a great piece on a science programme or one of those Be Amazed style videos.

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