Thursday, December 29, 2011


Sunflower.  Source.


I have learned that a typical week for me involves at least one instance of surprise interest in a topic I had previously found mundane.  A week or so ago, this proved to be the sunflower.  I have not heavily researched this topic, but I stumbled across a few tidbits of information I hope we shall all find interesting.

One surprise to me was that the native sunflower of North America is a perennial species [comes up year after year], unlike the farmed varieties which may behave more like an annual [dies outright every winter].  As a result, considerable interest has been generated recently in producing a hybrid of the high-yield annuals with the perennial behaviour of the native varieties.  Since sunflower oil may be used as both a food product and a source for biodiesel, it would be wonderful to have a perennial oil crop.  Eliminating the fuel/energy requirements for planting such crops every year makes for a more sustainable future, and makes the farming process more efficient overall.  While I would prefer to see switchgrass used for fuel, I can certainly appreciate having a perennial food crop.

Graphical representation of sunflower floret placement.  Source.
While I have little to no understanding of the mathematical significance of such a thing, the way in which the florets/seeds of the sunflower arrange themselves is a form of the Fibonacci spiral and the periodic angle of placement is related to the golden ratio.  I have no idea why, but Wikipedia states that it is 55/144 of a circular angle, where 55 and 144 are Fibonacci numbers.  Huzzah, I suppose.  Regardless what it means, it certainly looks to be a very efficient spatial arrangement (no doubt perfected with a genetic algorithm), and is rather hypnotic.  I suppose that is just a fancy way of saying "Ain't it purdy?", but I stand by the statement nonetheless.

In what I thought was a startling application, sunflowers also have a documented propensity for scrubbing heavy metals from the soil.  Lead, arsenic, uranium and radioactive species caesium-137 and strontium-90 will collect in the seeds of the sunflower plant.  Scrubbing would likely be particularly easy with the planting of perennial sunflowers.  One would simply need to cut the seeds from the stem to isolate heavy metals from the soil.  In fact,  sunflower planting initiatives have been put in place in both Chernobyl and Fukushima to scrub the radioactive isotopes from the soil in the wake of nuclear material release.

So there you have a few quick, interesting facts about sunflowers.  My understanding (and thus, this post), is not at all well developed, but I invite you to read more on the topic yourself.  Surprisingly interesting for what seems to be a generic flower.


Saturday, December 3, 2011

Cancer, and related progress.

Cisplatin, a drug used to treat cancer.

Whilst my education concerns the physical sciences and not those of life, over the past few years I have been trying to follow developments in cancer research.  I am certain that most of my readers have seen the devastating effects of the disease.  It is as if the entire life of a friend or loved one drains from them before your eyes.  My reading on the subject is not exactly academic, and my understanding may be rather simplistic, but I would like to write what I know.  There is good news and bad news, so we will go over the bad news first.  As always, I invite feedback if I have made a mistake or had some oversight.

The bad news is that cancer is not a simple disease to fight, from a medical perspective.  As it turns out, "cancer" is sort of a blanket term referring to a mutation which causes uncontrolled replication of cells.  The problem is that cancer will attack various parts of the body at entirely different rates.  The other issue is the rate at which cancer spreads to different parts of the body, particularly the lymph nodes.  While my understanding of this is woefully limited, it would seem that the lymphoid system is a network that traverses the human body.  The nodes of the system are an excellent target from a cancer's point of view, as it allows for easy transport of cancerous cells to the rest of the body.  As a result, once a cancer reaches the lymphoid system, it is exceedingly hard to fight, and even harder to defeat.

To distill this information, to fight cancer medically is to fight many different diseases.  Many researchers do not believe there will ever be a definitive cure for cancer because it is such a varied disease.  Now, to understand the difficulty in curing the disease, I will recall an anecdote from my second year biochemistry course. Dr. Mezl told us that killing a virus/disease is simple.  If presented with a beaker full of harmful cells, one can douse it with corrosive chemicals and the problem will be solved.  The challenge of medicine is to selectively kill the offending cells while leaving the host unscathed.  The development of one silver bullet for such a varied disease is certainly a daunting task.

Recently, there have been some glimmers of hope.  Three patients with leukemia were given an experimental treatment in which their white blood cells were treated to make them aggressive hunters of cancerous cells.  Two patients were cured outright with the third having a 70% reduction in symptoms. The best part of the treatment is that the aggressive white cells remain in the body in case the cancer returns.  You, my non-spambot reader, may wonder how the white cells became hunter killers.  The researchers needed to insert genes which would make the white cells as aggressive as possible, and what do we know of which is notorious for such characteristics?  In what appears to me as a bizarre twist, the answer is HIV.  A virus known for ravaging the immune system can be utilized to hunt and kill a form of cancer.  Unfortunately for now, the treatment remains prohibitively expensive since the patient's own white cells must be treated, but it is a glimmer of hope.

In a separate, equally fascinating development, hot peppers may offer a general treatment for cancer.  My monocled, regular readers will recall capsaicin is the active ingredient in spicy food, so we know that the human body is capable of tolerating the chemical.  Now, the tests performed seem to be mainly in laboratory conditions, so we must be cautious of the results.  However, capsaicin appears to selectively attack the mitochondria of cancerous cells over healthy cells.  Therefore, at least in theory, it appears to fit the ideal characteristics of a cancer treatment.  Since the treatment does not appear to have been performed in actual humans, it may not work in the real world.  However, I am certain that lessons can be learned from this observation which could potentially lead to an outright cure.  It has also been noted that cancer rates are lower in countries where the diet is spicier (Southeast Asia, Central America), though I wonder if the life expectancy of said areas would affect the absolute rates.

So, the news is bleak at times, but there is also hope.  Finding a cure for cancer will not be an easy task for the researchers and doctors of the world, but things worth doing are rarely easy.  I am certain that humanity won't back down from the challenge, and that a cure will be found.  It will take time, dedication and co-ordinated effort, but it will be found.

1) A paper dealing with capsaicin and cancerous cell death can be found here, though searching academic databases for "capsaicin" and "cancer" certainly return a lot of results.
2) If anyone with a background in life sciences notices mistakes, please let me know so that I may change this post for the better.