How do they do it?: Sense and adaptation in plants

You’ll never teach your house plants to do tricks like your dog. They’ll never answer “what’s wrong?” when looking puny. But you see them close their petals a night. Venus fly traps snap shut on their prey. Studies show they even respond to music! So, what gives?

Although your household fern lacks the animal-like brain we’re used to, that doesn’t mean it’s senseless. In fact, plants are keenly aware of their surroundings. Through proprioception; specific cells, genes and hormones; the familiar circadian rhythm and other specializations, plants can sense and adapt to their environment.

Proprioception: it’s not just for animals!

Just like humans have unconscious body awareness, plants sense themselves and their spatial orientation. Humans have this ability due to muscle spindles in the muscles and tendons, whereas plants use their own distinct cells to trigger gravitropism, or growth in response to gravity. In other words, gravity tells plants where to direct their roots and their shoots.

root rot in cicer arietinum
By Bjornwireen (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL via Wikimedia Commons

According to ScienceDaily, there is controversy over the chemical changes that promote the proper orientation of root growth:

To date, gravity sensing in plants has been explained by the starch-statolith hypothesis. For example, in roots, gravity-sensing cells at the tip of the root contain dense, starch-filled organelles known as amyloplasts. Amyloplasts settle to the bottom of the cells in response to gravity, which then triggers the hormone auxin to move to another, distinct, area of cells and causes them to elongate and bend toward gravity. However, the molecular details of exactly how the physical movement and settling of amyloplasts in one set of cells triggers the accumulation of auxin in another, physically distant, set of cells in a plant remains a mystery.

The most prevalent current hypothesis is that the cytoskeleton, or cellular scaffolding, plays a major role in this gravity-sensing, intercellular communication; the cytoskeleton is made up of filaments, consisting of the proteins actin or tubulin, that allow movement of materials along strands, such as is seen in meiosis or mitosis. However, there is a major controversy in the field regarding the role of actin in gravitropism primarily due to contradictory outcomes in studies where actin was inhibited — the most interesting ones, according to Blancaflor, being those where actin disruption actually led to enhanced gravitropism.

So, how do they do it? One thing is sure: There are specific gravity-sensing cells that tell the plant, ‘Hey! This way is down!’

blue flowerAbout face! The sun’s the other way!

At a young age, we learn that photosynthesis is the method plants use to make their own food. Using sunlight, water and carbon dioxide, plants synthesize glucose, which is the fuel that keeps their chemical processes going.

But what if they’re not getting enough sunlight? They’ll sense it and take action, triggering phototropism.

Defined as the orientation of an organism toward light, phototropism sends chemical signals the stem, telling it to bend. From the tip of the stem, D6PK protein kinase signals the release of the phytohormone auxin. D6PK signals to PINs, or export proteins, which guide auxin from cell to cell, and eventually to its destination. This triggers cells to elongate, causing the plant to bend in the appropriate direction to receive more light.

Growth of plants isn’t only dependent on light and gravity, however.

DYK? Plants sense temperature changes

thermometer sunA 2016 study published in Science showed that phytochrome B, a photoreceptor, responded not only to changes in light but also changes in temperature.

Under varying light and temperature conditions, the scientists grew Arabidopsis seedlings and studied how the differences affected growth. The results showed that even with plenty of light, higher temperatures caused phytochrome B to inactivate, which in turn led to a spurt of growth. Researchers thought the opposite would happen, but instead, the plants reacted as if they needed more sunlight.

Such a surprising outcome supports the hypothesis that phytochrome B is also a temperature sensor.

They can’t ‘talk,’ but plants can communicate!

You’ve smelled the skunk’s defense mechanism. Read of the poison dart frog’s deadly, toxic armor.  Heard monkeys going ape to warn of a predator. But did you know plants warn of danger, too?

Volatile organic compounds are the plant’s communication system. These airborne, odorous chemicals warn neighboring plants about dangers such as plant-eating insects. Other plants sense these chemicals, in turn releasing their own to ward off the incoming threat, whatever it may be. But airborne signals aren’t the only method.

beetle plantA 2009 study from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland showed that plants can send messages through other organisms, such as fungi:

Five weeks earlier, Babikova filled eight 30 cm–diameter pots with soil containing Glomus intraradices, a mycorrhizal fungus that connects the roots of plants with its hyphae, the branching filaments that make up the fungal mycelium. Like a subterranean swap meet, these hyphal networks facilitate the trade of nutrients between fungi and plants. In each pot, Babikova planted five broad bean plants: a “donor” plant surrounded by four “receiver” plants. One of the receivers was allowed to form root and mycorrhizal contact with the donor; another formed mycorrhizal contact only, and two more had neither root nor mycorrhizal contact. Once the mycorrhizal networks were well established, Babikova infested the donor plants with aphids and sealed each plant in a separate plastic bag that allowed for the passage of carbon dioxide, water, and water vapor but blocked larger molecules, such as the VOCs used for airborne communication.

Four days later, Babikova placed individual aphids or parasitoid wasps in spherical choice chambers to see how they reacted to the VOC bouquets collected from receiver plants. Sure enough, only plants that had mycorrhizal connections to the infested plant were repellent to aphids and attractive to wasps, an indication that the plants were in fact using their fungal symbionts to send warnings.

Not only can plants warn of attacks from herbivores and pathogens, but they can also warn of drought and adapt to information received from plants around them.

What else can plants sense?

Check out the video below to find out!

Happy 4th of July! 7 scientific and technological events on this day in history

President Roosevelt sends first worldwide message via cable

On July 4, 1903, FDR sent the first message to ever travel around the globe via the Pacific Cable, wishing "a happy Independence Day to the US, its territories and properties..." It took 9 minutes to reach the entire world.

Mars Pathfinder lands a rover on Mars

On Independence Day in 1997, the Mars Pathfinder spacecraft landed on Mars, bringing with it a base station and the Sojourner rover. Lasting almost three months, Pathfinder transmitted 16,500 pictures and 8.5 million measurements from the surface of Mars.

Vermont hits record high

Back in 1911, the 4th of July saw a new record high in Vernon, Vermont. The temperature hit 105 degrees! 

Maryland sees record rainfall

A downpour on July 4, 1956, caused Unionville, Maryland, to gain a record it keeps today: most rainfall in one minute.
A whopping 1.22 inches fell! 

Explorer 38 (aka RAE 1) is launched

Following its Independence Day launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Explorer 38 went on to measure celestial radio sources. According to NASA, "the RAE-1 spacecraft measured the intensity of celestial radio sources, particularly the sun, as a function of time, direction, and frequency (0.2 to 20 MHz)."

Hotmail email goes live

Now branded as Outlook, the free email service Hotmail (first stylized as HoTMaiL, as in HTML) launched on July 4, 1996.

 NASA collides spacecraft with comet, for science

On July 3, 2005, NASA's Deep Impact spacecraft released an impactor, a self-propelled craft that moves to collide with the comet. The impactor took photos near the comet's surface right before impact with the surface on July 4th. From this experiment, scientists discovered ice, dust, and carbon-containing materials on the surface of Tempel 1, the comet in question.

10 of the coolest species discovered in 2016

From insects to sea critters and reptiles to mammals, humans discover around 18,000 new species each year. Scientists study and classify these organisms, giving them each a scientific name according to their kingdom, phylum, class, order, suborder, family, genus and species (Learn about each of these here).

Biological Classification New Species
Credit: Peter Halasz

New findings can range from merely interesting to potentially life-saving. For instance, in February of this year researchers announced the discovery of a new bacteria that produces a very potent antibiotic against superbugs. Named Streptomyces formicae, the bacteria is found on African ants. In tests so far, it is effective against methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and Vancomycin-Resistant Enterococci (VRE), two bacteria the World Health Organization lists as high priority for research and development due to high rates of antibiotic resistance.

Not all discoveries have such exciting implications, but that doesn’t mean each isn’t fascinating in its own right. For this reason, the International Institute for Species Exploration annually picks out 10 for May list of the most intriguing.

Which made this year’s top 10?

From creepy to possibly tasty, this year’s most interesting cover a variety of plants and animals:

“Sorting Hat” Spider (Eriovixia gryffindori)
sorting hat spider
Credit: Javed Ahmed/Twitter

Located in India, this spider is less than a tenth of an inch long. It gets its name from its shape, which favors the Sorting Hat from the Harry Potter series. It mimics dry foliage to camouflage itself from predators and prey.

Unexpected Katydid (Eulophophyllum kirki)
Eulophophyllum kirki katydid species
Credit: Peter Kirk

This new species of katydid uses its leaf-like shape and beautiful color to blend into the foliage. It is about 1.5 inches long and was found in Danum Valley, East Malaysia.

Omnivorous Root Rat (Gracilimus radix)
Gracukunys radix new rat species
Credit: Kevin Rowe, Museums Victoria

Sulawesi Island in Indonesia is where this new species of rat makes its home. The root rat gets its name because it will sometimes feed on roots, meaning it is not a strict carnivore like its relatives.

414-legged Millipede (Illacme tobini)
illacme tobini new species millipede
Credit: Paul Marek, Virginia Tech

Found in California’s Sequoia National Park’s Lange Cave, this 414-leg is about one inch in length. That may seem like a lot, but another species of millipede can have up to 750. When in danger, it secretes an unknown chemical for protection. Did we mention it has 4 modified legs to knock up the ladies? Yep, these legs transfer sperm.

“Dragon” Ant (Pheidole drogon)

Living in Papua New Guinea, this ant has spines on its back. Although researchers first thought it was purely a defense mechanism, they now believe it might play a role in anchoring muscles for their large heads.

Freshwater Stingray (Potamotrygon rex)
Potamotrygon rex stingray species
Credit: Marcele R. de Carvalho http://biotaxa.org/Zootaxa/article/view/zootaxa.4150.5.2

A new freshwater species found in Brazil, this stingray is only found in the Tocantins River. The specimen pictured is 43 inches long.  Such brightly colored stingrays aren’t usually found in their area of the world.

Swimming Centipede (Scolopendra cataracta)
Scolopendra cataracta swimming centipede new species
Credit: Warut Siriwut/National Geographic

This species of centipede can be found in Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. No other centipede has ever been observed diving and swimming like this one does.

Bush Tomato (Solanum ossicruentum)

The inside of this tomato turns blood red when cut. It is local to Austrailia, but it received its name from 7th-grade students in Pennsylvania.

Endangered Orchid (Telipogon diabolicus)

There’s something devilish about this flower. Found in Colombia, this unique orchid is labeled critically endangered, as its only known location is under threat from road construction.

“Churro” Marine Worm (Xenoturbella churro)

Called the Churro, the worm in this video sure doesn’t look tasty. Local to Mexico, the species is primitive, with a mouth but no anus. It’s about 4 inches long and is believed to feed on mollusks.

What are some more recent species discoveries?

Researchers and regular people are always stumbling upon new species of organisms. The best way to stay informed of future developments is to set up a Google alert. To catch up for now, check out just some of the discoveries revealed in June below!

  • The Smithsoniam reports that a new species of Amazon parrot (Amazona gomezgarzai) has been discovered in the Yucatán.
  • Scientists classified four new species of frog from India.
  • For most people, squirrels are either cute or annoying. If you’re in cute category, check out this new type of flying squirrel.
  • A research team from Qatar University found a new species of crab, Coleusia janani.
  • Reptile lover? Take a look at these three chameleon species from Africa.
  • Did a diver find a new species of stingfish in Indonesia?

 

 

Watch: National Geographic’s ‘From the Ashes’ full documentary

National Geographic released its full coal documentary ‘From the Ashes’ on YouTube. With President Trump pushing to bring coal jobs back, the topic is a hot issue among Americans. But what does it mean for our environment? Is natural gas really a big reason for the reduction in coal mining? What can we do to help those impacted by the our energy industry’s change move away from coal? These are all important issues for which no one has found an answer that resonates.

Description:

From the Ashes captures Americans in communities across the country as they wrestle with the legacy of the coal industry and what its future should be in the current political climate. From Appalachia to the West’s Powder River Basin, the film goes beyond the rhetoric of the “war on coal” to present compelling and often heartbreaking stories about what’s at stake for our economy, health, and climate.

Update:

National Geographic took their YouTube video down (above), but it is still available on their website.

5 must-have gadgets for camping enthusiasts

From around age 11 to 16, I spent almost every other summer weekend camping with my family. Whether it was on the campground or hiking trails in the state park, we spent tons of time around campfires or sleeping in tents. They’re some of my favorite memories, but there are some things I would change.

For instance, I spent a lovely night shivering in a wet tent, blankets and everything damp. I bathed in some stinky, spider-filled bathrooms. Dried my hair with a hand dryer. Drank some nasty instant coffee. Lost flashlights and ran out of lantern batteries. Enjoyed a late-night hike because we got lost on an unfamiliar trail (and the wonderful stepdad refused to turn around).

Plus, we didn’t have smartphones back then, so no matter how bored you got some days, only family was there to entertain you. There was no hand-held GPS, telephone, camera, etc., all-in-one. There were paper maps, and texting was still new. People still used beepers. So if you got lost? Better hope for a crappy signal or just keep walking a trail until you pop out somewhere. When it got dark, you sat around the campfire until bedtime because there was nothing else to do, no iPads, or Kindles, or games to play on your phone.

Kids these days, man. They just don’t know the struggle.

Don’t get me wrong.  Even if I could, I wouldn’t change the way we did things then. I cherish those memories and the time spent together. However, now as an adult with no kids, I will happily take advantage of the advances made since.

So in the spirit of making future camping memories a little more high-tech and pleasant, here are some gadgets I want to try on future trips. They may not fix all of the hiccups along the way, but a little tech sure can’t hurt.

5. Sunjack Camplight

Sunjack Camplight

Battery-powered lights were the thing back when I camped regularly, but not this type. Gone are the days of leaky D-batteries crusting up your lantern. With gadgets like the Sunjack Camplight, you can have USB-powered light at your disposal.

Features:

  • Chain together 3 bulbs with their USB female ports
  • 7-foot long cord with an on/off switch
  • Power with any USB source

Combined with the Sunjack power bank, you can light your campsite for up to 800 hours for one LED light. Heck, grab a power bank for your cell phone while you’re at it, and you’ll never need a flashlight or lantern for camping again.

Buy it: Amazon |

4. Camping Coffee Maker

Okay, so this one isn’t so hot on the technology, but if you’re a coffee-lover like me, it might as well be. For one, drinking instant coffee just isn’t my thing. I’m also not a percolator fan, and there aren’t many rechargeable coffee makers out there. But one thing I do have is a propane-powered camp stove, which provides two good options, both from Coleman.

Coleman Camping Coffee Maker

The cheaper option is the Coleman Camping Coffeemaker, which makes 10 cups. If you already have a propane stove to use, you can simply sit this one on the flame. Once the water starts to boil, your coffee will start a brewin’. In about 10 minutes, you’re ready to enjoy.

Buy it: Amazon | Coleman

Coleman QuikPot Propane Coffeemaker

The next level up is the Coleman QuikPot Propane Coffeemaker. Start your morning off right with 10 cups of coffee using the coffeemaker and a propane tank. The propane hooks right to it, and with the touch of a button, you’ll have a fresh cup of morning bliss in 18 minutes.

Buy it: BassPro | Walmart

3. iNiCE Rechargeable Pocket Hand Warmer + Charger

iNiCE Hand Warmer and Power Bank Camping Tech

Not everyone enjoys camping during warmer months. For those who prefer trips during cool fall nights (like me) or even winter, this multi-tool gadget might be perfect for you. It not only works to heat your chilly fingers but also has a flashlight and serves as a power bank to charge your phone or other gadgets (maybe even your camplight!).

Buy it: Amazon

2. Goal Zero Venture 30 Solar Kit

Goal Zero Venture 30 Solar Kit Camping Hiking

Camping or hiking into the great outdoors, beyond your typical campground? Don’t let your phone, GPS, or other battery-powered gear go dead. This solar kit can store energy and charge your devices. It’s weatherproof, light, and foldable, and you can even hang it off of your backpack to charge while you’re on the go.

Buy it: REI

1.  Goal Zero Yeti 400 Portable Power Station

Goal Zero Yeti 400 Portable Power Station Camping

Forget carrying solar panels, grabbing a bunch or power banks, or, dare I say it, going without electronics. The only portable power station you need is right here, with USB, AC, and 12V outputs. Power up to 7 devices at a time, including phones, laptops, cameras, small appliances, and lights. It charges via AC wall outlet in only 5 hours, and you can even chain it with outer 33Ah lead-acid batteries. Plus, it can serve as backup power for outages in the home, as it’s all electric—no danger of fumes, no need for gas.

Buy it: Amazon | Goal Zero

Kepler finds over 200 new possible planets

Kepler space telescope is not disappointing with its current mission. According to NASA’s latest data release, Kepler found 219 new candidate planets, including 10 that are potentially Earth-sized and within habitable zones. The new data will help scientists design future missions to find Earth-like, potentially life-sustaining planets.

Information on new possible planets was revealed in the final catalog for this specific view of the Cygnus constellation, located in the Milky Way. Based on public data from the NASA Exoplanet Archive, the catalog is the most comprehensive release on exoplanet candidates since Kepler launched in 2014.

What is Kepler?

Kepler is a rather uncomplicated observatory spacecraft used in the Kepler mission. This isn’t a Mars Rover with dozen plus different instruments available to collect data. After all, it’s floating in space, not exploring the surface of a planet. Instead, Kepler uses a photometer to point at a single star field and look for planets near the size of Earth. That’s it.

Now, if you’re imagining the telescope zooming in to take images of possible exoplanets, well, this isn’t like using your iPhone to take pictures of moon in a clear night sky. Kepler relies on the transit method, which means it looks for signs of planets in transit in front of their stars. For instance, it can’t see the planet, but when the planet moves in front of the star, Kepler basically sees the star’s light dim.

This seemingly simple observation allows scientists to figure out the orbital period of the planets orbiting the star. (Don’t think too hard on this one: for example, Earth’s orbital period is 365 days, which is how long it takes the planet to orbit our sun.) They can then deduce the diameter and the temperature using concepts that are way above my space nerd knowledge.

In other words, simple is better in this case because Kepler is focused on finding exoplanets. It leaves the other details to the likes of Hubble, and in the future, James Webb.

Kepler’s full field of view. Courtesy NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech.

How are Kepler’s discoveries important?

One of the lingering questions most human beings have is “Are we alone?” To an individual this may reference the possibility of other intelligent life in the universe, or this may be as simple as wondering if there’s any other life at all in the universe. The discovery of other planets, especially those we understand might have the conditions to support life, is the first step in answering the big question.

What has scientists most excited about Kepler’s findings is that they’ve noticed two distinct populations of planets in our galaxy that differ in features based on their size. Using data from these populations will allow them to understand the “demographics” of our galaxy and figure out how many Earth-like planets may be in it. From that point, they’ll can further narrow the design of future NASA missions to seek other possible life-supporting planets.

How many planets has Kepler found?

Scale is a problem for finding Earth-like planets. These latest discoveries bring the telescope’s total to 4,496 candidate planets. Of these, 2,337 are now verified planets, including 30 Earth-size habitable zone planets. Thirty out of the 2,337 verified is not a lot, only 1.3%.

For this and other reasons, the ability to narrow the focus of NASA missions through Kepler data, even just a tiny bit, is something the mission’s scientists see as vital to the search for another Earth. Plus, with the technologically advanced James Webb telescope set to launch in the near future, Kepler’s laying the groundwork for other, more technical NASA tools to use its data to discover more about the discovered habitable planets.

So, are we close to finding another Earth?

In the big picture? No.

Is it even likely we’ll find an Earth-like planet the supports life in my lifetime, through Kepler or other telescopes? Ehhh…doubtful.

But will I still get excited every time we lay more groundwork for future generations to do so? You bet!

Space is fascinating in a way that’s hard to comprehend as a little microscopic organism in the universe. For me, it will always be captivating, and that’s why I’ll be keeping up with whatever Kepler does next.

Find out more about Kepler, James Webb, and other NASA missions at nasa.gov.

Read NASA’s press release on Kepler’s discoveries.

Check out what makes the upcoming launch of James Webb awesome.

 

Google’s Project Fi: mixed bag, but worth a try

As a long-time Verizon customer, I always loved the great coverage in my area. But when I started working from home in 2015, I realized it was not cost effective when two out of three people on our plan barely used data. For a while I made calls over Skype on WiFi, but that, too, became a problem when I drove long distances or visited family or friends. How do I make calls in the middle of nowhere, no WiFi in range? Borrowing someone’s phone was a pain, and I didn’t want to have to worry about a pre-paid phone. Around that time I came across Google’s Project Fi and thought with a shrug, “Why not?”

What is Project Fi?

Project Fi is a wireless service from Google that is still in beta. If you’re fine with the company still working out some kinks, it’s worth your time to check it out.

There is no annual contract, and the basic cost for 1 line, 1 GB data is cheap. The first line is $20 for “unlimited domestic talk and text, unlimited international texts, Wi-Fi tethering to use your phone as a hotspot, and access cellular coverage in 135+ countries and destinations.” Data is a more expensive $10/GB (but you get credit each month for any you do not use in the month prior), and additional lines are $15. So, for $30/month, users can get 1 line/1GB, and if you use almost none of that data, it’s even cheaper. 

For the three lines on my plan, I pay $80/month to split 3GB data. This was a huge cut from Verizon, to which I paid $80 for two lines with 2GB data.

Project Fi

Many customers who travel out of the country love Fi because they say it’s great in other countries. Note that I haven’t tried this, but it is a common compliment toward the program. Instead of paying high prices for international calls, you can strictly choose to make and receive calls over WiFi or through Google Hangouts, which uses your data and is said to be cheaper than the costs associated with typical carriers. No matter where you are, the data cost never changes from the $10/GB price.

Here’s what Fi is not

Project Fi is not your typical wireless provider. It doesn’t even have its own network, instead opting to piggyback off of 4G-LTE Sprint, T-Mobile, and US Cellular networks, as well as allow calls over WiFi. How it works is simple: your phone will connect to whichever network has the best signal in your location, whether it’s T-Mobile or a WiFi hotspot.

It is not ideal for heavy data users unless you are in an area where you need to take advantage of network hopping. For instance, if you get no coverage from Sprint at home but great at work, and vice-versa with T-Mobile, Fi might be an option so you have cell service where individual networks have spotty coverage.

Fi is also not perfect.

One issue that pops up periodically when making calls over WiFi is an echo. While other networks are said to have good voice calls over WiFi, Google is still working out some kinks.

Sometimes the phone gets stuck with a network, which can be really frustrating when said network has crap signal where you are located. This fix is easy though. There are apps such as Signal Spy that allow you to see what network you’re on and force connect to a different network.

There have been issues with data billing for some users, and you must turn off all automatic downloads and updates so that they occur only over WiFi and you do not get a surprise bill. Also pay attention to any new apps you download and frequently use to be sure they aren’t data hogs. $10 per GB is fine for the first couple, but it gets expensive if you accidentally use a ton of data.

Project Fi also currently only supports a few phones: Nexus 5x, Nexus 6, Nexus 6P and Pixel models. Technically, you can order a data-only SIM and pop it in any smartphone; however, you will only be able to make calls over Google Hangouts, which uses your data.

So what’s the verdict? 

I’ve had Project Fi on three lines for over three months now. I traveled out of town, used calls over WiFi where I didn’t have cell signal and had an overall great experience. 

While in an area that normally has very weak or nonexistent cellular service, I used Google Hangouts to make and receive all calls over the home’s WiFi without an issue.

While traveling the past two weeks on photography assignment, my phone switched flawlessly between networks, giving me signal pretty much everywhere except miles out in the sticks, where I rarely got signal even with my previous Verizon service.

The biggest hurdle we had was getting used to Nexus phones instead of the iPhones we’d used for years. 

Don’t get me wrong. There are some hiccups in the system. Some customers have had issues with transferring numbers, billing, and signal strength. There are the well-known issues with the Nexus 5x boot loop (fingers crossed, we’ve had no issues!), and only one phone is available right now, the Pixel. But I think some of that is to be expected when you’re basically beta testing a new service. It is still called Project Fi, after all. 

Should you try Fi?

In the end, if you

  • could benefit from network hopping because of patchy service in your area,

  • use little data,

  • need a cheap option for phone calls just for when you’re out and about (hello, fellow work-at-homers or stay-at-home parents!), or

  • travel out of country often

Project Fi is an option for you.

Questions about Fi? Hit the comments section! 

Project Fi website (NOTE: This is not a referral link)

Project Fi on Reddit

Study: 38 percent of VA outpatient antibiotics inappropriately prescribed

Expressing alarming concern over increased antibiotic resistance in microorganisms, including deadly bacteria, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recently been vocal about the dangers of antibiotic overprescription in private medical practices, and now a VA Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, has data to support inappropriate prescribing in government-held veteran’s hospitals as well.

Investigators within Providence Veterans Affairs Medical Center conducted an internal study and found that the hospital’s outpatient primary care department had a 38.4 percent rate of prescribing unneeded antibiotics for acute respiratory infections such as bronchitis, pharyngitis, pneumonia, and sinusitis. The findings are not much different from the CDC’s study of non-governmental health settings, which found an approximate rate of one-third, but there are some striking numbers when the data are analyzed.

When comparing prescriptions from teaching clinics and non-teaching clinics, investigators found that inappropriate prescriptions skyrocketed without attending physician oversight. In fact, teaching clinics, which have physician supervision of medical residents, had a 17.6 percent rate of inappropriate prescription, whereas non-teaching clinics had a 44 percent rate. The same difference showed with antibiotic prescriptions in general, with only 37 percent of acute respiratory conditions receiving antibiotic prescriptions in teaching clinics compared to 65.9 percent in non-teaching clinics.

The data, when narrowed down by condition, shows the same trend. Va teaching clinics had a 3.8 percent rate of inappropriate prescribing for patients with pharyngitis compared with 40.3 percent in non-teaching. Sinusitis saw 0 cases of inappropriate prescribing in teaching clinics but a 69.1 percent rate in non-teaching clinics. While both clinic types were spot-on and had no inappropriate cases regarding pneumonia, both had high rates of inappropriate prescriptions for bronchitis, with 32.7 percent of teaching and 71.2 percent of non-teaching clinics providing prescriptions when they were not needed.

It’s possible that patients themselves are part of the problem. Research shows that if patients request antibiotics for an illness, physicians are pressured to prescribe them even when they are not likely needed. The good thing is that physicians aren’t more likely to see an infection as bacterial or viral; the bad news is that they are prescribing antibiotics to patients with high expectations rather than standing their ground.

The CDC and World Health Organization are trying to educate the public on, as well as reaffirm to medical workers, the dangers posed by antibiotic resistance. According to WHO, infections such as gonorrhea, pneumonia, and tuberculosis are becoming harder to treat because organisms are developing and spreading resistance to antibiotics. Antibiotic resistance in certain bacteria are contributing to this problem:

  • Acinetobacter species of bacteria are of great danger in medical settings, causing hospital-acquired pneumonia, infective endocarditis (inflammation of the inner tissues of the heart), meningitis, skin and wound infections, and urinary tract infections. It is now multi-drug resistant.
  • Klebsiella is a bacteria that can cause bloodstream infections, meningitis, pneumonia, and surgical site or wound infections. It is easily spread in healthcare settings and is now multi-drug resistant.
  • E. coli strains can cause the well-associated conditions of bowel upset and foodborne illness, but it also can cause other illnesses, some serious, including gastroenteritis, gram-negative pneumonia, sepsis, and urinary tract infections. It is multi-drug resistant.

Unlike other drugs, new antibiotics aren’t released every time you turn on the television. The last new class of antibiotics to hit consumer markets was discovered in 1984. Yes, Teixobactin, a new antibiotic, was discovered recently, but it’s still years away from availability, and there’s no guarantee it will survive clinical trials. For citizens around the globe, this could become a time-sensitive life-or-death situation, so it’s important we don’t put all our eggs in one basket.

Luckily, countries are looking ahead and taking the threat seriously. In 2016, the United States and Britain teamed up to form CARB-X, a public-private partnership dedicated to funding and promoting biomedical research that leads to antibiotic drug development. With $44 million earmarked for the first year, the governments, along with their academic, industry and other private partners, hope to get more antibiotics into clinical development, and eventually through government approval.

But despite former President Barack Obama’s commitment to the partnership, President Donald Trump’s proposed budget is planning cuts to almost everything, including medical funding. It’s not clear whether he will keep the commitment the United States made to CARB-X.

No matter the government’s decision, both doctors and patients, in the private sector and in government healthcare settings, should take the threat more seriously and carefully consider the need before requesting or prescribing antibiotics.

Elderly driver in Japan? Surrender your license for a funeral discount!

After a recent series of deadly driving accidents in Japan, authorities and private companies are working to urge senior citizens to give up their licenses—and Heiankaku Co., a funeral home chain, is providing a unique incentive.

With 89 funeral homes in Aichi Prefecture, Heiankaku will offer a15 percent discount on funeral services to anyone who brings proof from police that they returned their licenses to authorities, whether they live inside or outside the prefecture. Family and close relatives can also bring proof for their loved ones.

The company is teaming up with a local police station to tackle what is one of the lowest license return rates in the country, sitting at 2.15 percent in 2015. Improving the number is important to both seniors and bystanders, as Aichi has seen the percentage of fatal traffic accidents caused by elderly drivers almost double since 2007, from 7.7 percent to 13.2 percent in 2016.

Discount programs for the newly unlicensed elderly aren’t new to Aichi, or to Japan.

The Sugakiya restaurant chain began giving 15 percent discounts on ramen, rice and salad at its 176 Aichi locations in 2016, and other companies offer savings on taxis and other services.

Osaka Prefecture began providing similar discounts a few years ago for people aged 65 and older who gave up their driver license, including various percentages off barber shops, restaurants, and services with the presentation of a certificate received from the local police station. As a result, the prefecture had the highest license return rate in 2015, at 5.41 percent.

Last year the Japan Times reported that the number of drivers 75 and older had doubled in the past 11 years, growing from 2.36 million in 2005 to 4.77 million in 2016. With the growth in elderly drivers also came a growth in fatalities, increasing from 7.4 percent to 12.8 percent in Japan as a whole. Common accidents among elderly drivers included wrong-way driving and confusing the brake and gas pedals.

Licensing authorities have increased renewal requirements for elderly drivers in recent years by mandating cognitive and memory tests, and the penalties for negligent driving can be assessed on not only elderly citizens but also their families or appointed guardians if they are senile. They also developed a nondriver ID for photo identification, which can also be used for discounts instead of carrying a certificate of license return.

The Japanese government is also eyeballing the use of automotive technology to reduce accidents by the elderly, urging small car makers to develop automatic safety measures such as automatic braking that can be installed on older model vehicles popular with senior citizens.

VIDEO: This plane can fly how close to space?!

NASA’s ER-2 is a flying laboratory that cruises at nearly 70,000 feet over Earth–so high, the pilot can see the curvature of the planet!

While there is a similar high-altitude plane used for military operations (known as the U-2), ER-2’s flights collect scientific data from the Earth. According to NASA, the plane’s purpose is to “collect information about Earth resources, celestial observations, atmospheric chemistry and dynamics, and oceanic processes” as well as assist in “electronic sensor research and development, satellite calibration, and satellite data validation.” 

The ER-2 even flies over hurricanes to help weather forecasters collect data, and its ability to fly in the stratosphere lets it test NASA’s instruments before they’re sent into space.

Pilots have to wear pressurized suits because the plane reaches heights that cause altitude-induced decompression sickness (DCS), similar to that of divers rising too quickly from the depths of the ocean.

Read about a U-2 pilot’s experience with DCS at the Smithsonian’s Air & Space magazine. 

Check out Wired’s experience below as they tag along for a mission. 

 

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