Chat with Maryn McKenna about antibiotic resistance today


Maryn McKenna—my favorite “Scary Disease Girl” and author of Superbug—will be taking questions during a live chat today at Scientific American’s Facebook page. The chat starts at 2:00 Eastern and lasts for a half-hour.

The chat is connected to a new article that Maryn wrote for Scientific American, which centers around some disturbing new trends in antibiotic resistance. You may have heard about the recently announced discovery of a pneumonia-causing bacteria, called Klebsiella pneumoniae, that had developed a resistance to a class of antibiotics called carbapenems. This is more than just another bacteria resistant to another antibiotic.

Carbapenems are the antibiotics of last resort. The end of the line before we literally run out of ways to treat bacterial disease. The fact that bacteria are growing resistant even to them would, alone, be concerning. But the type of bacteria involved also matters. A lot. Klebsiella pneumoniae is a gram-negative bacteria.

That designation, which borrows the name of a Danish 19th-century scientist, superficially indicates the response to a stain that illuminates the cell membrane. What it connotes is much more complex. Gram-negative bacteria are promiscuous: they easily exchange bits of DNA, so that a resistance gene that arises in Klebsiella, for example, quickly migrates to E. coli, Acinetobacter and other gram-negative species. (In contrast, resistance genes in gram-positives are more likely to cluster within species.)

Gram-negative germs are also harder to kill with antibiotics because they have a double-layered membrane that even powerful drugs struggle to penetrate and possess certain internal cellular defenses as well. In addition, fewer options exist for treating them. Pharmaceutical firms are making few new antibiotics of any type these days. Against the protean, stubborn gram-negatives, they have no new compounds in the pipeline at all. All told, this unlucky confluence of elements could easily export disaster from medical centers to the wider community.

Scientific American: The Enemy Within

Image: Some rights reserved by INeedCoffee / CoffeeHero

Canada’s New Democratic Party promises national broadband and net neutrality

Canada’s left-leaning New Democratic Party have unveiled their Internet campaign promises for this election; they’re a stark contrast to the Tories, who’ve vowed to re-engineer Canada’s network to make it easier to spy on Canadians without a court order. Instead, the NDP promises to extend broadband (wired and wireless) across the nation, to force the CRTC (the national telcoms regulator) to be more responsive to consumer interests, and to enshrine net neutrality (a term coined by Canadian Tim Wu!) into law.

* We will apply the proceeds from the advanced wireless spectrum auction to ensure all Canadians, no matter where they live, will have quality high-speed broadband internet access;
* We will expect the major internet carriers to contribute financially to this goal;
* We will rescind the 2006 Conservative industry-oriented directive to the CRTC and direct the regulator to stand up for the public interest, not just the major telecommunications companies;
* We will enshrine “net neutrality” in law, end price gouging and “net throttling,” with clear rules for Internet Service Providers (ISPs), enforced by the CRTC;
* We will prohibit all forms of usage-based billing (UBB) by Internet Service Providers (ISPs);
* We will introduce a bill on copyright reform to ensure that Canada complies with its international treaty obligations, while balancing consumers’ and creators’ rights. 

NDP Unveils Its Digital Economy Strategy: Reshaping Internet Access in Canada

(Image: Rainbows, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from jaqian’s photostream)

CWA: Three things I learned from a World Bank transportation expert

CWA is the Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Now in it’s 63rd year, the conference brings together scientists, politicians, activists, journalists, artists, and more for a week of fascinating conversations. It’s free, and open to the public. Think of CWA as the democratic version of TEDtalks. I’m at the conference all this week and will be posting and tweeting about some of the interesting things that I learn.


On Tuesday, I spoke on a panel about sustainable transportation. I’m currently writing a book about the future of energy … but it’s about the future of energy in the United States. So, out of whole panel, I learned the most new information from Arturo Ardila-Gomez, an urban transportation specialist with the World Bank, who focuses on public transportation initiatives in Central and South America. I was able to take some hasty notes from the speakers’ table, and have three particularly fascinating facts from him to share.

• Colombia is one of the first countries in the world to have a mass transit system organized and financed at the national level. Six Colombian cities have met the criteria for development, which is primarily paid for out of the national-level tax pool. These systems primarily focus on bus rapid transit—a system that uses dedicated bus lanes and other efficiency measures to get the benefits of metro train lines and subways, without the higher cost.

• Free public transit doesn’t seem to actually increase ridership, or decrease car use, very much. In fact, the best way to get the most car owners onto mass transit—which, in the case of Colombia, means getting wealthier people onto mass transit—is to promote higher priced, “premium” transit services. The only problem: Those projects can go awry if wealthy college students start using the premium transit. When that happens, car owners started to think, “Oh, this isn’t for me,” and went back to driving.

• Public transportation projects in Central and South America are often severely hampered by what Ardila-Gomez calls “Not On My Road Space”—the four-wheeled answer to NIMBYism. In fact, single-issue political parties, based solely around preventing restricted bus lanes from impinging on car space, have won elections. But there are ways around NOMRS. Remember, NIMBY can be counteracted if all the stakeholders feel like they’re being included in the planning process. Same thing here. In Leon, Mexico, for instance, planners succeeded in designating an entire 6-block stretch of a narrow, historic street bus-rapid-transit only. They did it, Ardila-Gomez says, by consulting extensively with car owners and users, as well as with the people who wanted better bus service.

Image: Highway traffic in Bogotá, Colombia. The empty lanes are designated bus rapid transit routes. Some rights reserved by Edgar Zuniga Jr.

Stingray X-ray


This is an x-ray of a newly discovered species of stingray, native to the Amazon. You can’t tell from this shot of its innards, but the Heliotrygon gomesi actually resembles a “pancake with a nose”—big, round, flat, and beige. Read more about this creature at Our Amazing Planet.

Image: Ken Jones

Submitterated by Ajourneyroundmyskull

Nuclear reactors of the world: vintage wall charts

Image: Wylfa Magnox, Wylfa, Anglesey, UK. Wall chart insert, Nuclear Engineering, 1965

Now seems like a good week to revisit this set of 105 reactor wall charts, uploaded by the University of New Mexico. The dates next to each chart relate to the issue of Nuclear Engineering International magazine in which they first appeared. Ronald Knief, a nuclear engineer from Sandia National Laboratories, assembled the image collection.

More about the images, and links to the complete set, here at Bibliodyssey. Here’s the direct Flickr set link.

(via BB Submitterator, thanks cinemajay)

Strangely hypnotic mashups of ambient and live police radio

Mount_Royal_Montreal_Lookout-sm.jpg BB Submitterator idontlikewords mentioned the websites last week, a soothing mix of police radio chatter and ambient music. Choose from Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, or my personal recommendation, Montréal. French police chat really blends into the music nicely. You may need to adjust the balance of each stream a bit to find the right mix.

Image: Mount Royal Montreal Lookout by Diliff via Wikimedia Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Japan nuclear crisis: “Should I take potassium iodide pills to protect against radiation exposure?”


In the past couple of days, as many of us around the world began thinking seriously about the fallout from the damaged nuclear reactors at Fukushima, Japan, I’ve gotten lots of questions about potassium iodide pills—”Why do people take them?”, “How do they work?”, “Should my family take them?”

I’ve spoken with several health physicists—researchers at American universities and at the Mayo Clinic—and I think that I can now answer these questions well enough to post something to BoingBoing. This is a scary, nerve-wracking topic for a lot of people, so I’m not going to bury the information down in a narrative. We’ll just get right to the point. In fact, I think that I can clear up most of the confusion by answering four questions.

What are potassium iodide pills?

Basically, potassium iodide is just a specific kind of salt. Nothing fancy. The same stuff is often put into table salt as a way to get iodine into the diets of people who don’t eat much naturally iodine-containing food. Iodine, itself, is an element that’s important to the human body. Without it, the thyroid gland can’t make certain hormones. If you don’t eat enough iodine, especially as a kid, you’ll end up with goiters, fatigue, depression—and worse. Thanks to iodized salt (and diverse diets), those of us who live in industrialized nations don’t have to think about whether we’re getting enough iodine. And, thus, we don’t think too much about potassium iodide. Until there’s a risk of radioactive fallout.

How do potassium iodide pills protect against radiation?

Elements come in two forms: Stable and radioactive, the latter of which are prone to breaking apart, shooting out particles that can damage cells and DNA. There’s good ol’ stable iodine—the stuff that keeps our bodies functioning properly. And there’s radioactive iodine—which is dangerous.

Radioactive iodine is dangerous precisely because, within the human body, it does the same thing that stable iodine does. It goes straight to the thyroid gland.

Continue reading “Japan nuclear crisis: “Should I take potassium iodide pills to protect against radiation exposure?””

Japan nuclear crisis: Where are the robots?


Today, Reuters asked the questions we’ve all been thinking. Namely, “This is Japan, right? They’ve got lots of robots, right? So why aren’t there robots helping out at Fukushima?”

The answer they got is somewhat unsatisfying. Mostly, there’s a lot of, “Nope, no robots being used right now. Sorry.” But there are a couple of interesting facts in the article.

• Robots are a part of the wider nuclear industry, capable of doing tasks like detecting radiation, and scaling walls. And robots were used in cleanup at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.

• There are no robots currently working at Fukushima Daiichi. It’s unclear why. Although, there is, apparently, one radiation-detecting robot on site.

• There is one possible reason why robots aren’t being used at Fukushima. It all comes back to power plant design. A South Korean nuclear official told Reuters that robots and power plants have to be designed with each other in mind. Fukushima Daiichi, which dates to the 1970s, may simply not be navigable to newer nuclear helper ‘bots.

Reuters: Japan a robot power everywhere, except at nuclear plant

Via Jer Thorp

Image: Some rights reserved by ChelseaWa

Japan: Third blast at Fukushima nuclear plant, fire at reactor 4, workers leave plant, crisis worsens (UPDATED)


Image (Reuters): Tokyo Electric Power officials hold an illustration of a nuclear plant as they answer reporters’ questions at the disaster center in Fukushima, northern Japan March 15, 2011. A fresh explosion rocked a damaged Japanese nuclear power plant on Tuesday where engineers have been pumping sea water into a reactor to prevent a catastrophic meltdown in the wake of a devastating earthquake and tsunami. Some plant workers were ordered to leave the site, a sign that the situation may be getting more serious at the complex that was damaged by a massive earthquake and tsunami.

A third explosion has struck Japan’s beleaguered Fukushima nuclear power plant in as many days, after Friday’s 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami. This time, the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) says radiation levels reached 8,217 microsieverts per hour near the plant’s front gate, roughly two and a half hours after the blast.

NHK News:

Anyone in this kind of environment would be exposed to more than 3 years’ worth of naturally occurring radiation within a single hour.

At the time of this blog post, Japan’s Prime Minister is expected to address the nation on national TV shortly (NHK live stream here).

[ UPDATE, 710pm PT: Prime Minister Kan is on now, and saying that the possibility of nuclear leaks is increasing [corrected from earlier, erroneous Reuters item]. Residents within 20 km of the site are asked to evacuate ASAP; those between 20 km and 30 km are requested to stay inside. The blast damaged an essential steel containment structure, and larger leaks of radioactive material are now believed to be immiment.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano followed the Prime Minister, and said a fourth reactor at the damaged nuclear plant is now on fire, with even more radiation released. Reactor No. 4 was not in operation at the time of the earthquake. The reactor contains spent fuel, not fuel rods. As was the case with the explosions at the No. 1 and No. 3 reactors, a Hydrogen explosion seems to have taken place with No. 4. Some foreign objects fell into reactor No. 4, which caused problems.

We’re seeing radioactive substances being released, says Edano, and reactor No. 4 is now exposed. The blast at No. 2 reactor came 30 minutes after the incident at No. 4. A hole has been observed in the No. 2 reactor; there is a high possibility of container vessel damage for this reactor.

The monitoring levels they are dealing with are now in millisieverts, not microsieverts as previously discussed. The radiation levels being released now can impact human health, Edano says, but the danger should decrease with distance from the site. 800 plant workers were evacuated at Fukushima Plant 1. Fifty workers are still working on emergency cooling efforts. Water injection operations are continuing at reactors No. 1, 2, and 3 at Fukushima Plant 1. These operations are going smoothly, Edano says, and they beleive the cooling process is effective, but the problem is how to maintain the cooling. “At the site right now, workers are trying to take corrective action to put out the fire. We will continue injecting seawater.”

Edano urged the public to stay calm, and go about their daily lives. He was asked whether there is a possibility of radiation danger spreading to Tokyo. He replied that “minimal” amounts of radioactive material could spread to far locations, but the levels should not be harmful to human health. ]

[UPDATE, 8:26PM PT: Kyodo News reports that the fire at Reactor No. 4 has been extinguished.]

[Video Link]

Earlier version of this blog post pre-press conference follows below.

Continue reading “Japan: Third blast at Fukushima nuclear plant, fire at reactor 4, workers leave plant, crisis worsens (UPDATED)”