October 09, 2007
BehindTheMedspeak: Can the smell of food speed aging?
(In the figure above CR means calorie-restricted)
The smell of food making you get older — that seems kind of random, doesn't it?
Scott Pletcher, an assistant professor at the Huffington Center on Aging and Molecular Genetics at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, has been exploring this possible link in a series of experiments.
The work was described in a paper that appeared in the February 1, 2007 issue of Science magazine; the abstract follows.
- Regulation of Drosophila Life Span by Olfaction and Food-Derived Odors
Smell is an ancient sensory system present in organisms from bacteria to humans. In the nematode Caeonorhabditis elegans, gustatory and olfactory neurons regulate aging and longevity. Using the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, we showed that exposure to nutrient-derived odorants can modulate life span and partially reverse the longevity-extending effects of dietary restriction. Furthermore, mutation of odorant receptor Or83b resulted in severe olfactory defects, altered adult metabolism, enhanced stress resistance, and extended life span. Our findings indicate that olfaction affects adult physiology and aging in Drosophila, possibly through the perceived availability of nutritional resources, and that olfactory regulation of life span is evolutionarily conserved.
How about a translation?
Here's the magazine's Editors' Choice summary of the work.
- Smelling Their Way to an Early Grave
When animals are reared on a near-starvation diet, they live much longer than those that eat freely. Even the fruit fly Drosophila has this reaction to a low-glucose diet and lives considerable longer on a 5% than on a 15% sugar-yeast diet. This effect of dietary restriction is easily reversed when flies consume more food. Libert et al. report a less expected effect: Just the smell of the flies’ food (yeast) can inhibit some of the effects of dietary restriction and shorten the flies’ life span by 6 to 18%. Flies lacking an essential part of their odor receptors, which have greatly impaired senses of smell, live longer than flies with intact odor sensation.
Still too many big words?
I feel your pain.
Try the Science News summary.
- Odor of Food Hastens Dieting Flies' Deaths
If a fruit fly on a near-starvation diet smells food odors, some of the life-stretching effects of the diet disappear.
Rick Weiss, in a February 5, 2007 Washington Post story about the work, wrote, "Because odor has the same effect in worms and flies, it may affect people the same way, Pletcher said. He noted that food smells alone trigger a raft of biochemical and hormonal changes in people that, while not as intense as those that occur when eating, nonetheless appear to be implicated in the aging process.
"Pletcher doubts that people can do much about the life-shortening effects of being well-fed by blocking their sense of smell alone. But exposure to food smells might blunt the life-extending effects of limiting calories, he speculated.
"Further work may reveal the mechanisms that link olfaction and longevity, he said, and point the way to effective anti-aging drugs."
All in all, one more good reason not to live above a great Chinese restaurant.
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'Only grownups take social networking sites seriously'
Alice Mathias, a 2007 graduate of Dartmouth, wrote a superb October 6, 2007 New York Times Op-Ed page essay that explained why those who believe Facebook offers something beyond a place to waste time are deluded.
Long story short: "If you're planning on following the corner of this map that's been digitally doodled by my 659 Facebook friends, you are going to end up in the middle of nowhere."
Here's her piece.
- The Fakebook Generation
The Fakebook Generation
The time-chugging Web site Facebook.com first appeared during my freshman year as the exclusive domain of college students. This spring, Facebook opened its pearly gates, enabling myself and other members of the class of ’07 to graduate from our college networks into those of the real world.
In no time at all, the Web site has convinced its rapidly assembling adult population that it is a forum for genuine personal and professional connections. Its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, has even declared his quest to chart a “social graph” of human relationships the way that cartographers once charted the world.
Just a warning: if you’re planning on following the corner of this map that’s been digitally doodled by my 659 Facebook friends, you are going to end up in the middle of nowhere. All the rhetoric about human connectivity misses the real reason this popular online study buddy has so distracted college students for the past four years.
Facebook did not become popular because it was a functional tool — after all, most college students live in close quarters with the majority of their Facebook friends and have no need for social networking. Instead, we log into the Web site because it’s entertaining to watch a constantly evolving narrative starring the other people in the library.
I’ve always thought of Facebook as online community theater. In costumes we customize in a backstage makeup room — the Edit Profile page, where we can add a few Favorite Books or touch up our About Me section — we deliver our lines on the very public stage of friends’ walls or photo albums. And because every time we join a network, post a link or make another friend it’s immediately made visible to others via the News Feed, every Facebook act is a soliloquy to our anonymous audience.
It’s all comedy: making one another laugh matters more than providing useful updates about ourselves, which is why entirely phony profiles were all the rage before the grown-ups signed in. One friend announced her status as In a Relationship with Chinese Food, whose profile picture was a carry-out box and whose personal information personified the cuisine of China.
We even make a joke out of how we know one another — claiming to have met in “Intro to Super Mario Re-enactments,” which I seriously doubt is a real course at Wesleyan, or to have lived together in a “spay and neuter clinic” instead of the dorm. Still, these humor bits often reveal more about our personalities and interests than any honest answers.
Facebook administrators have since exiled at least the flagrantly fake profiles, the Greta Garbos and the I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butters, in an effort to have the site grow up from a farce into the serious social networking tool promised to its new adult users, who earnestly type in their actual personal information and precisely label everyone they know as former co-workers or current colleagues, family members or former lovers.
But does this more reverent incarnation of Facebook actually enrich adult relationships? What do these constellations of work colleagues and long-lost friends amount to? An online office mixer? A reunion with that one other guy from your high school who has a Facebook profile? Oh! You get to see pictures of your former college sweetheart’s family! (Only depressing possibilities are coming to mind for some reason.)
My generation has long been bizarrely comfortable with being looked at, and as performers on the Facebook stage, we upload pictures of ourselves cooking dinner for our parents or doing keg stands at last night’s party; we are reckless with our personal information. But there is one area of privacy that we won’t surrender: the secrecy of how and whom we search.
A friend of mine was recently in a panic over rumors of a hacker application that would allow Facebook users to see who’s been visiting their profiles. She’d spent the day ogling a love interest’s page and was horrified at the idea that he knew she’d been looking at him. But there’s no way Facebook would allow such a program to exist: the site is popular largely because it enables us to indulge our gazes anonymously. (We might feel invulnerable in the spotlight, but we don’t want to be caught sitting in someone else’s audience.) If our ability to privately search is ever jeopardized, Facebook will turn into a ghost town.
Facebook purports to be a place for human connectivity, but it’s made us more wary of real human confrontation. When I was in college, people always warned against the dangers of “Facebook stalking” at a library computer — the person whose profile you’re perusing might be right behind you. Dwelling online is a cowardly and utterly enjoyable alternative to real interaction.
So even though Facebook offers an elaborate menu of privacy settings, many of my friends admit that the only setting they use is the one that prevents people from seeing that they are Currently Logged In. Perhaps we fear that the Currently Logged In feature advertises to everyone else that we (too!) are Currently Bored, Lustful, Socially Unfulfilled or Generally Avoiding Real Life.
For young people, Facebook is yet another form of escapism; we can turn our lives into stage dramas and relationships into comedy routines. Make believe is not part of the postgraduate Facebook user’s agenda. As more and more older users try to turn Facebook into a legitimate social reference guide, younger people may follow suit and stop treating it as a circus ring. But let’s hope not.
I am reminded of Donald Trump's remark on the occasion of his marriage to Marla Maples, to wit: "I'm inviting 5,000 of my close personal friends."
Donald, you don't have any friends.
As Georgia O'Keefe remarked, "... to have a friend takes time."
Memo to Mark Zuckerberg: Offer Ms. Mathias a job at twice whatever she's currently making — cheap at ten times the price.
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Lego Robot Solves Rubik's Cube
Invented in 2001 by J.P. Brown, whose day job is being a conservator at the Field Museum in Chicago, the robot (above) took six months to build and cost $400.
Long story short, from "Makers: All Kinds of People Making Amazing Things in Garages, Basements, and Backyards," by Bob Parks: "Once you place a messed-up cube in the bot's rubber grippers, its optical sensors signal the color values to the central processor, or RCX, in Lego-speak. Brown programmed algorithms for making the moves in a hacked Lego programming language called NQC or Not Quite C. Grippers twist the cube through each step and solve the puzzle in about ten minutes."
FunFact: Brown has over half a million Lego pieces in the Chicago apartment he shares with his wife and son.
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Cyborg insects of the world
Rick Weiss's story in today's Washington Post features the latest publicly available information about active U.S. efforts to create a fleet of cyborg insects to conduct real time surveillance.
Understand that if this is what's public, the actual state of the art/bleeding edge is at least one — but more likely two or three — orders of magnitude (that's 100-1000 times) more advanced.
The article follows.
- Dragonfly or Insect Spy? Scientists at Work on Robobugs.
Vanessa Alarcon saw them while working at an antiwar rally in Lafayette Square last month.
"I heard someone say, 'Oh my god, look at those,' " the college senior from New York recalled. "I look up and I'm like, 'What the hell is that?' They looked kind of like dragonflies or little helicopters. But I mean, those are not insects."
Out in the crowd, Bernard Crane saw them, too.
"I'd never seen anything like it in my life," the Washington lawyer said. "They were large for dragonflies. I thought, 'Is that mechanical, or is that alive?' "
That is just one of the questions hovering over a handful of similar sightings at political events in Washington and New York. Some suspect the insectlike drones are high-tech surveillance tools, perhaps deployed by the Department of Homeland Security.
Others think they are, well, dragonflies — an ancient order of insects that even biologists concede look about as robotic as a living creature can look.
No agency admits to having deployed insect-size spy drones. But a number of U.S. government and private entities acknowledge they are trying. Some federally funded teams are even growing live insects with computer chips in them, with the goal of mounting spyware on their bodies and controlling their flight muscles remotely.
The robobugs could follow suspects, guide missiles to targets or navigate the crannies of collapsed buildings to find survivors.
The technical challenges of creating robotic insects are daunting, and most experts doubt that fully working models exist yet.
"If you find something, let me know," said Gary Anderson of the Defense Department's Rapid Reaction Technology Office.
But the CIA secretly developed a simple dragonfly snooper [top] as long ago as the 1970s. And given recent advances, even skeptics say there is always a chance that some agency has quietly managed to make something operational.
"America can be pretty sneaky," said Tom Ehrhard, a retired Air Force colonel and expert in unmanned aerial vehicles who is now at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a nonprofit Washington-based research institute.
Robotic fliers have been used by the military since World War II, but in the past decade their numbers and level of sophistication have increased enormously. Defense Department documents describe nearly 100 different models in use today, some as tiny as birds, and some the size of small planes.
All told, the nation's fleet of flying robots logged more than 160,000 flight hours last year — a more than fourfold increase since 2003. A recent report by the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College warned that if traffic rules are not clarified soon, the glut of unmanned vehicles "could render military airspace chaotic and potentially dangerous."
But getting from bird size to bug size is not a simple matter of making everything smaller.
"You can't make a conventional robot of metal and ball bearings and just shrink the design down," said Ronald Fearing, a roboticist at the University of California at Berkeley. For one thing, the rules of aerodynamics change at very tiny scales and require wings that flap in precise ways — a huge engineering challenge.
Only recently have scientists come to understand how insects fly — a biomechanical feat that, despite the evidence before scientists' eyes, was for decades deemed "theoretically impossible." Just last month, researchers at Cornell University published a physics paper clarifying how dragonflies adjust the relative motions of their front and rear wings to save energy while hovering.
That kind of finding is important to roboticists because flapping fliers tend to be energy hogs, and batteries are heavy.
The CIA was among the earliest to tackle the problem. The "insectothopter," developed by the agency's Office of Research and Development 30 years ago, looked just like a dragonfly and contained a tiny gasoline engine to make the four wings flap. It flew but was ultimately declared a failure because it could not handle crosswinds.
Agency spokesman George Little said he could not talk about what the CIA may have done since then. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Department of Homeland Security and the Secret Service also declined to discuss the topic.
Only the FBI offered a declarative denial. "We don't have anything like that," a spokesman said.
The Defense Department is trying, though.
In one approach, researchers funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are inserting computer chips into moth pupae — the intermediate stage between a caterpillar and a flying adult — and hatching them into healthy "cyborg moths."
The Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems project aims to create literal shutterbugs — camera-toting insects whose nerves have grown into their internal silicon chip so that wranglers can control their activities. DARPA researchers are also raising cyborg beetles with power for various instruments to be generated by their muscles.
"You might recall that Gandalf the friendly wizard in the recent classic 'Lord of the Rings' used a moth to call in air support," DARPA program manager Amit Lal said at a symposium in August. Today, he said, "this science fiction vision is within the realm of reality."
A DARPA spokeswoman denied a reporter's request to interview Lal or others on the project.
The cyborg insect project has its share of doubters.
"I'll be seriously dead before that program deploys," said vice admiral Joe Dyer, former commander of the Naval Air Systems Command, now at iRobot in Burlington, Mass., which makes household and military robots.
By contrast, fully mechanical micro-fliers are advancing quickly.
Researchers at the California Institute of Technology have made a "microbat ornithopter" that flies freely and fits in the palm of one's hand. A Vanderbilt University team has made a similar device.
With their sail-like wings, neither of those would be mistaken for insects. In July, however, a Harvard University team got a truly fly-like robot [below]
airborne, its synthetic wings buzzing at 120 beats per second.
"It showed that we can manufacture the articulated, high-speed structures that you need to re-create the complex wing motions that insects produce," said team leader Robert Wood.
The fly's vanishingly thin materials were machined with lasers, then folded into three-dimensional form "like a micro-origami," he said. Alternating electric fields make the wings flap. The whole thing weighs just 65 milligrams, or a little more than the plastic head of a push pin.
Still, it can fly only while attached to a threadlike tether that supplies power, evidence that significant hurdles remain.
In August, at the International Symposium on Flying Insects and Robots, held in Switzerland, Japanese researchers introduced radio-controlled fliers with four-inch wingspans that resemble hawk moths. Those who watch them fly, its creator wrote in the program, "feel something of 'living souls.' "
Others, taking a tip from the CIA, are making fliers that run on chemical fuels instead of batteries. The "entomopter," in early stages of development at the Georgia Institute of Technology and resembling a toy plane more than a bug, converts liquid fuel into a hot gas, which powers four flapping wings and ancillary equipment.
"You can get more energy out of a drop of gasoline than out of a battery the size of a drop of gasoline," said team leader Robert Michelson.
Even if the technical hurdles are overcome, insect-size fliers will always be risky investments.
"They can get eaten by a bird, they can get caught in a spider web," said Fearing of Berkeley. "No matter how smart you are — you can put a Pentium in there — if a bird comes at you at 30 miles per hour there's nothing you can do about it."
Protesters might even nab one with a net — one of many reasons why Ehrhard, the former Air Force colonel, and other experts said they doubted that the hovering bugs spotted in Washington were spies.
So what was seen by Crane, Alarcon and a handful of others at the D.C. march -- and as far back as 2004, during the Republican National Convention in New York, when one observant but perhaps paranoid peace-march participant described on the Web "a jet-black dragonfly hovering about 10 feet off the ground, precisely in the middle of 7th avenue... watching us"?
They probably saw dragonflies, said Jerry Louton, an entomologist at the National Museum of Natural History. Washington is home to some large, spectacularly adorned dragonflies that "can knock your socks off," he said.
At the same time, he added, some details do not make sense. Three people at the D.C. event independently described a row of spheres, the size of small berries, attached along the tails of the big dragonflies — an accoutrement that Louton could not explain. And all reported seeing at least three maneuvering in unison.
"Dragonflies never fly in a pack," he said.
Mara Verheyden-Hilliard of the Partnership for Civil Justice said her group is investigating witness reports and has filed Freedom of Information Act requests with several federal agencies. If such devices are being used to spy on political activists, she said, "it would be a significant violation of people's civil rights."
For many roboticists still struggling to get off the ground, however, that concern — and their technology's potential role — seems superfluous.
"I don't want people to get paranoid, but what can I say?" Fearing said. "Cellphone cameras are already everywhere. It's not that much different."
Here is a link to a collection of four short videos featuring entomopters, demonstrating their non-classified capabilities.
Remember the rule of 100-1000 cited above as you watch.
Here is a link to an accompanying graphic
(above and below are highlights)
demonstrating how DARPA's researchers
"... are attempting to create moth cyborgs
whose nerves are intertwined with silicone chips
so they can be controlled remotely."
Somewhere, John C. Lilly is smiling.