For years, claims have circulated that red rain which fell in India in 2001, contained cells unlike any found on Earth. Now new evidence that these cells can reproduce is about to set the debate alive

MIT Technology Review, September 1, 2010  –  Panspermia is the idea that life exists throughout the universe in comets, asteroids and interstellar dust clouds and that life of Earth was seeded from one or more of these sources. Panspermia holds that we are all extraterrestrials.

While this is certainly not a mainstream idea in science, a growing body of evidence suggests that it should be carefully studied rather than casually disregarded.

For example, various bugs have been shown to survive for months or even years in the harsh conditions of space. And one of the more interesting but lesser known facts about the Mars meteorite that some scientists believe holds evidence of life on Mars, is that its interior never rose above 50 degrees centigrade, despite being blasted from the Martian surface by an meteor impact and surviving a fiery a descent through Earth’s thick atmosphere.

If there is life up there, this evidence suggests that it could survive the trip to Earth.

All that seems well established. Now for the really controversial stuff.

In 2001, numerous people observed red rain falling over Kerala in the southern tip of India during a two month period. One of them was Godfrey Louis, a physicist at nearby Cochin University of Science and Technology. Intrigued by this phenomena, Louis collected numerous samples of red rain, determined to find out what was causing the contamination, perhaps sand or dust from some distant desert.

Under a microscope, however, he found no evidence of sand or dust. Instead, the rain water was filled with red cells that look remarkably like conventional bugs on Earth. What was strange was that Louis found no evidence of DNA in these cells which would rule out most kinds of known biological cells (red blood cells are one possibility but ought to be destroyed quickly by rain water).

Louis published his results in the peer-reviewed journal Astrophysics and Space in 2006, along with the tentative suggestion that the cells could be extraterrestrial, perhaps from a comet that had disintegrated in the upper atmosphere and then seeded clouds as the cells floated down to Earth. In fact, Louis says there were reports in the region of a sonic boom-type noise at the time, which could have been caused by the disintegration of an object in the upper atmosphere.

Since then, Louis has continued to study the cells with an international team including Chandra Wickramasinghe from the University of Cardiff in the UK and one of the leading proponents of the panspermia theory, which he developed in the latter half of the 20th century with the remarkable physicist Fred Hoyle.

Today Louis, Wickramasinghe and others publish some extraordinary claims about these red cells. They say that the cells clearly reproduce at a temperature of 121 degrees C. “Under these conditions daughter cells appear within the original mother cells and the number of cells in the samples increases with length of exposure to 121 degrees C,” they say. By contrast, the cells are inert at room temperature.

That makes them highly unusual, to say the least. The spores of some extremophiles can survive these kinds of temperatures and then reproduce at lower temperatures but nothing behaves like this at these temperatures, as far as we know.

This is an extraordinary claim that will need to be independently verified before it will be more broadly accepted.

And of course, this behaviour does not suggest an extraterrestrial origin for these cells, by any means.

However, Wickramasinghe and co can’t resist hinting at such an exotic explanation. They’ve examined the way these fluoresce when bombarded with light and say it is remarkably similar to various unexplained emission spectra seen in various parts of the galaxy. One such place is the Red Rectangle, a cloud of dust and gas around a young star in the Monocerous constellation.

It would be fair to say that more evidence will be required before Kerala’s red rain can be satisfactorily explained. In the meantime, it looks a fascinating mystery.

Ref: Growth And Replication Of Red Rain Cells At 121oC And Their Red Fluorescence

Tiny thorns: A hollow polymer microneedles, seen here under a scanning electron microscope, are about 700 nanometers long. Doctors could use the needles to insert quantum dot dyes into the skin for disease diagnostics and therapy.     Credit: Roger Narayan

MIT Technology Review, September 1, 2010, by Prachi Patel  —  Researchers inject quantum dots into the skin using plastic microneedles, potentially providing a way to diagnose and treat diseases.

Using a novel laser-based technique, researchers at North Carolina State University have made arrays of tiny, hollow plastic needles that they used to insert fluorescent quantum-dot dyes into skin. Biomedical engineering professor Roger Narayan, who leads the research, says the microneedles and quantum dots, which have been tested on pigs, could be used to diagnose and treat skin cancer and other chronic diseases.

Researchers have recently developed ways to use quantum dots–nanocrystals of semiconductors such as cadmium selenide and zinc sulfide that glow in different colors–to image tumors and deliver drugs into cells. The dots are much brighter and more stable inside the body than traditional organic dyes. “When combined with microneedles, [quantum dots] can offer a powerful method to probe the skin and other tissues,” says Mark Prausnitz, a chemical and biomolecular engineering professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Prausnitz has made biodegradable polymer microneedles that dissolve into the skin in a few minutes.

Microneedle technology has been under development for 15 years as a painless way to administer drugs and for diabetics to monitor their blood sugar levels. The needles, typically made of silicon or various polymers, are typically several hundred micrometers long and wide–too small to cause pain when injected into the skin. They can be solid, in which case they encapsulate or are coated with drugs, or they can be hollow for injecting a substance into the skin.

Silicon microneedles are typically made with the same lithography techniques used to make computer chips. But the new laser technique makes it easier to control the shape and size of the polymer needles, Narayan says. He adds that the technique is simple, requires just one step, and is suitable for low-cost mass production in a conventional manufacturing environment. “No clean room facilities or other dedicated environments are necessary,” he says.

The researchers make the thorn-shaped needles by shining a femtosecond laser on a light-sensitive liquid resin that polymerizes under the light. The polymer resins, used to make hearing aids and other medical devices, are cheap and widely available.

Narayan and his colleagues are focusing on the medical applications of the microneedles. Together with researchers at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill medical center and Mercer University, they are evaluating the use of the devices in animals. “We’re trying to understand how much time transpires between delivery of dose and observation of physiological response,” Narayan says.

A new technique for studying the relationship between bacteria and protozoans could boost our understanding of how these organisms spread disease

MIT Technology Review, September 1, 2010  —  In 1980, Tim Rowbotham, a microbiologist at the University of Bradford, made an extraordinary discovery about a tiny single-celled protozoa called Acanthamoeba. These organisms are ubiquitous, turning up almost anywhere there is liquid water. Since the 1950s they have been known to cause a number of rare diseases, mainly in humans with impaired immune systems.

What Rowbotham found was that they could be much more dangerous.

It had long been known that protozoa feed on bacteria, gradually munching through great mounds of these bugs. However, Rowbotham discovered that Legionella, the particularly nasty bacteria that causes Legionnaire’s disease, could not only survive being eaten by Acanthamoeba but actually thrived on it. In fact, it turns out that there is some kind of symbiotic relationship between these organisms that even today is not yet fully understood.

Microbiologists are still coming to terms with the implications of this discovery. They have since found that Acanthamoeba can host other nasties too such as H Pylori, the bacteria responsible for stomach ulcers, various strains of the food poisoning bugs Lysteria and E coli, a type of Chlamydiae and MRSA, the superbug currently sweeping through many hospitals.

The fear is that Acanthamoeba harbors these bacterial species, providing a safe haven against attack from antibiotics and contributing to the virulence of these bugs. That could make them an important source of infectious disease that is largely ignored.

So the study of the interaction between Acanthamoeba and the bacteria it supports has become an important area of research. But it is hampered by the difficulty of studying how protozoa interact with bacteria.

Today, Giorgos Tsibidis from the Foundation for Research and Technology in Greece and a couple of mates make a contribution that could help. It takes the form of a computer vision system that can identify individual protozoa, distinguishing them from cysts by virtue of their shape, and follow them as they move. The same system is also able to monitor concentration of bacteria.

They’ve tested the idea by watching the behavior of Acanthamoeba protozoa grazing on a lawn of Salmonella bacteria. The machine is able to follow the Acanthamoeba as they move and to measure the drop in concentration of the Salmonella bacteria is they are eaten.

That’ll save some postdocs a huge amount of time and could dramatically improve our understanding of protozoan-bacterial interactions. it may even help save a few lives if it turns out that Acanthamoeba play a significant role in the transmission of disease.

Ref: Automated Two-Dimensional Acanthamoeba Polyphaga Tracking And Calculation Of Salmonella Typhimurium Distribution In Spatio-Temporal Images

The US comes second in a new quality of life index designed to be mathematically objective

MIT Technology Review, September 1, 2010  —  Here’s a thorny problem: to develop an objective way to rank countries according to the quality of life they offer their citizens.

There are various ways of approaching this problem. For example, the Economist Intelligence Unit compiles its quality of life index using surveys, a useful technique but one that is hard to show is objective. Another widely quoted index, the Life Quality Index is based on life expectancy at birth and the gross domestic product per person but is only able to rank countries by applying a correction factor for each country that some critics say is open to bias.

Is there another way? Andrei Zinovyev at the Institut Curie in Paris and Alexander Gorban at the University of Leicester in the UK think so, using a mathematical technique developed in the mid-90s that can cut through this kind of problem .

They chose several widely-measured and well-studied indices on which to base their index: GDP per capita, life expectancy at birth, infant mortality rate and the incidence of tuberculosis. This data from 2005 is available for 162 countries.

Zinovyev and Gorban then plot this data in four-dimensional space. To create a ranking, the important question is whether there is a linear function that reduces this four-dimensional dataset to a one-dimensional set. Unsurprisingly, the answer turns out to be no. “Any linear mapping will inevitably give strong distortions in one or other region of data space,” they say. That’s what makes this problem tricky.

However, in the mid-90s a group of mathematicians devised a technique for reducing the dimensionality of complex data sets. This technique is essentially equivalent to connecting various data points together with springs and allowing the system to relax; hence it’s name: elastic mapping. The trick is to find an arrangement of springs that “flattens” the data set, or in other words, reduces its dimensionality.

And that’s basically what Zinovyev and Gorban have done, creating what they call the Nonlinear Quality of Life Index in the process.

Here are the top and bottom 5 from 2005:

1. Luxembourg
2. USA
3. Norway
4. Ireland
5. Iceland
158. Zambia
159. Mozambique
160. Zimbabwe
161. Kenya
162. Swaziland

No real surprises there, although there are some interesting features of the list. For example Equatorial Guinea is ranked at 140 although its GDP per capita is more than Saudi Arabia’s ranked at 37. That’s because of Equatorial Guinea’s appalling health statistics: 123 infant mortalities per 10,000 inhabitants, for example, compared to 21 in Saudi Arabia.

For similar reasons, Russia is ranked 71st despite having a GDP per capita that is significantly higher than other countries with a similar ranking.

Every list throws ups anomalies like this. The important point about this one is that it is done objectively and transparently.

That’s important because these kinds of indices are widely used by economists and politicians as a measure of economic and social development and so used to determine spending polices and legislation.

Objectivity is hard to come by when making these kinds of decisions. If the people who matter would agree to use it, this index could help.

Ref: Nonlinear Quality of Life Index

Because of an overwhelming response to an article on the History of Herbs, in which Dr. James Duke’s recipe for Crème d’Mentia is mentioned, we are posting this recipe for our readers.

Dr. James Duke, perhaps America’s foremost ethno botanist, retired in 1995. He worked for the USDA and University of Maryland. A prolific writer he also created a phytochemical and ethno botanical database.

At the end of most days, 81-year-old botanist Jim Duke pours himself a cocktail. Hardly a Scotch on the rocks, this healthy concoction he’s aptly dubbed Creme d’Mentia is a blend of herbs, steeped in diluted vodka, that are thought to boost relaxation, mood, memory, and overall brain health (see recipe below). “It lifts my spirits and lowers my anxiety,” says Duke, who worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 30 years and is the author of The Green Pharmacy book series.

. Recipe: Jim Duke’s Creme D’Mentia

  • Mix 1/2 pint of 80-proof vodka with 1/2 pint water.
  • Add 1/4 fresh lemon, 4 T. rosemary leaves, 6 T. lemon balm leaves, 4 T. peppermint leaves, and 2 T. sage leaves.
  • Add sugar to taste.
  • Steep for 3 days. Enjoy!

Here’s what Jim Duke’s Crème d’Mentia looks like when ready to serve. Jim Duke says it lowers anxiety and lifts his spirits!

Recipe: Jim Duke’s Creme D’Mentia

We have heard that this drink is prettier on the first day. You have to get used to all the floating herbs in the vodka.

You can mix your Crème d’Mentia with seltzer water or tonic water, or straight-up (with or without ice) and you can add a little extra sugar or sugar substitute (to your taste), and extra lemon wedges. The flavor of the fresh herbs stands out, which makes it delicious for some people. If you like this, then “steep” up a batch or two for the future.

After steeping the brew for 3 days, if you don’t want the herbs, simply strain them out, as you pour into a glass. You can also strain the whole pitcher, after steeping for 3 days, and keep in the fridge.

Check with your doctor to make sure you’re not allergic to anything, or unable to ingest this because of a health or medical condition.