Size Doesn't Matter

Bacteria and viruses generally bring unpleasant thoughts to mind: having the flu, maybe, or food poisoning. However, these little guys have a positive place in our lives, like the microbes in our gut that keep us healthy. Amazingly, they may also hold the key to the future of cancer therapy. While scientists generally study human diseases in mice, rats, or even monkeys, nature’s tiniest beings have special properties we can learn from and harness for cancer treatment. Let’s go on a journey through three such examples – showing that when it comes to biological capability, size doesn’t matter.

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Ebola is a bad candidate for a global pandemic, and here's why

The ongoing outbreak of Ebola is a potentially global catastrophe, currently affecting multiple countries in West Africa. Concerns over the epidemic have been exacerbated by the emergence of travel-associated cases of the disease — a patient was diagnosed in the United States, and subsequently a healthcare worker who provided care to this patient also tested positive for Ebola. The United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO), and other national and international health agencies are all on high alert, and news organizations encourage the general public to exist in a state of fear over the potential of a global Ebola pandemic. But just how much of this concern is justified?

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Opening the Pandoravirus Box: what do very large viruses tell us about viral origins?

Just what is a virus, and where did they come from? Considering that the field of virology dates back to the mid 1800s, it may come as a surprise that these questions are still controversial, and yet, they are. Recently, a team of French scientists discovered viruses of a size and complexity never seen before, and this discovery has been highly disruptive to the controversy.

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What's the Dish on Global Warming?

We’ve all heard about the disappearing polar ice caps, rising sea levels, and emerging crazy weather patterns around us. But discovering these environmental changes didn’t happen overnight – lots of careful research goes into the field of climate science, and there’s more work being done every day to explore details about phenomena triggered by global warming. July has been particularly abuzz with articles in this field; below, I’ve summarized a few of the papers and news items from the summer.

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Great Mass Extinctions

Despite the five — or arguably six — mass extinction events that have occurred on our planet, most of us are only familiar with the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. In this series, I investigate the causes and effects of the other great mass extinctions, and then examine recent literature to determine whether, indeed, we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction. This is the first part in a five-part series.

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Ebola in the United States: How scared should you be?

The short answer is, probably not very. The fact of the matter is, in order to contract ebola, you have to have been in close contact with an infected individual or the corpse of an individual killed by the disease. Although the disease is highly lethal, with mortality rates close to 90% for the most virulent strains, it is actually fairly difficult to acquire, and the virus does not spread well.

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In Health Care, One Size Does Not Fit All

The transition from one-size-fits-all medicine to personalized medicine will take time, but the seeds of change have already been planted. Using oncology as a launching pad, it will soon be a reality that biomarker analysis will differentiate patients and guide prevention and treatment in a clinically meaningful way. By embracing that change, it may be possible to improve patient care while bringing down long term health care costs – a win-win for a society in the midst of a chronic debate over health care reform.

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Biology in Architecture

The trappings of ongoing and impending climate change, however – increasing temperatures, rising sea levels, and more frequent extreme weather events – render our current infrastructure paradigm both structurally and energetically unsustainable. Fortunately, there is a solution, and it’s a fun one: to more smartly incorporate biology into architectural design.

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Potentially Pandemic Pathogen Research: Legitimate Threat or a State of Fear?

With exploding human populations and a globalized economy, the threat of pandemic disease and fear surrounding such pandemics is a pandemic in itself. Human beings have never been so connected, and it has never been easier for an emerging infectious disease to spread across borders and across oceans. Frightening diseases such as high pathogenicity avian influenza and ebola appear regularly in the news and threaten to cause high mortality in the countries where they emerge as well as abroad. How do we as a society deal with the threat of these dangerous, potentially pandemic pathogens? The answer to that question is more controversial than you might think.

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