applied science

Composite Creatures

When we look deep into our bodies How much of what we find is Human and how much is . . . something else?

During this COVID-19 crisis a lot of things are posted by many, many people – so much by so many that filtering and actively avoiding too much exposure to this torrent of stuff has become a continuous process for me.

Please don’t get me wrong – I do stay up to date but I do that from reputable news and science sources. Stuff from social media I tend to not pay much attention to. But I do pay some attention and yesterday I was glad that I did.

My friend Richard posted a link to an article on Medium called “Misinformation Goes Viral”. The piece is by Jason Shepherd an Associate Professor of Neurobiology at the University of Utah who specializes in the molecular mechanisms of memory and brain plasticity. He also has his own website ( regarding this work:

The Medium article’s main thrust, and my friend’s reason for citing it, was to have a number of the scarier ‘theories’ floating around the internet addressed by someone who knows viruses and human biology. And that part is interesting but . . . the part that got me excited was the two links (1,2) before that part. The ones that he added to show the reader he’s really a working scientist and not some quack flapping his beak.

Those links introduced me to a concept I hadn’t encountered before (I think) that added a whole new chapter to the book of our biology. An essential one that without which we would not exist.

The experience of reading and listening to what his work has revealed was akin to that I felt when I learned that the engines, the Mitochondria, that power every cell in our bodies aren’t human at all.

Mitochondria are Bacteria that colonized an animal cell very far back in the past. That cell and the bacteria were able to coexist in a mutually beneficial arrangement. The cell gave the bacteria a protected environment with nourishment and ‘house cleaning’ while the bacteria provided material the cell could use for power. And it’s been that way ever since. It’s also a reason why we lack the cellular ability to provide our own power – we don’t need to. Almost every cell in our bodies uses them for power. And the same can be said of almost all animals.

Now I find out that it looks like a similar thing happened with our DNA a long time in the past. Possibly more than once.

At some point in the past evolutionary tree we’re part of a cell was invaded by a virus. The invasion by the mitochondria was different matter: an actual fully developed bacteria lives within the cells of our bodies. An invasion by a virus differs from that because a virus has no cell body of its own so the thing it does is to invade the DNA of the target cell inserting its own DNA in the process.

When a disease causing virus does this it turns the cell into a little virus producing factory. The cell begins to spew many new copies of the virus which then go on to attack other cells in the host.

This invasion I’m talking about gave us a gene called ARC. Many animals have an ARC gene but each one is unique to that animal.

When genes are activated they transcribe into RNA molecules which then produce Proteins. In humans the ARC gene only operates in the cells in the brain where it produces a proteins. These proteins are passed from one neuron to another.

In mice bred to not have the ARC gene test show that they cannot lay down long term memories . . . meaning ARC is essential to the process of memory.

These proteins seemed to be far larger than most proteins and they wanted to know why that was. One way to find out was to image them When Sheperd went to look at these proteins he was struck by their appearance – they looked a lot like Viruses. Specifically HIV viruses.

That’s not a coincidence. The team showed that Arc descends from an ancient group of genes called gypsy retrotransposons, which exist in the genomes of various animals, but can behave like their own independent entities.* They can make new copies of themselves, and paste those duplicates elsewhere in their host genomes. At some point, some of these genes gained the ability to enclose themselves in a shell of proteins and leave their host cells entirely. That was the origin of retroviruses—the virus family that includes HIV.
So, Arc genes are the evolutionary cousins of these viruses, which explains why they produce shells that look so similar. Specifically, Arc is closely related to a viral gene called gag, which retroviruses like HIV use to build the protein shells that enclose their genetic material. Other scientists had noticed this similarity before. In 2006, one team searched for human genes that look like gag, and they included Arc in their list of candidates. They never followed up on that hint, and “as neuroscientists, we never looked at the genomic papers so we didn’t find it until much later,” says Shepherd.

It turns out that ARC can also provide an encapsulating protein shield for the RNA. And the protected RNA package is carried to the target neuron where it alters that neuron’s DNA . . . why and what happens as a result we don’t know yet.

Which brings me around to the reason Shepherd started looking at all this in the first place. If Proteins existence can be measure in hours than how are long term memories formed?

If it were encoded in proteins there would have to be a massive refreshing of proteins on a regular basis like computer DRAM memory requires. That would require a lot of energy expenditure and chemical processing, also meaning possible waste byproducts to be processed. So memory can’t be encoded strictly in proteins. If it’s not proteins then what? Which led to the search and the perplexing partial result of ARC.

So it’s possible that memory is only possible because we were hijacked by a virus a long time ago. And that may not be the only process in our bodies that benefits, or is only possible, courtesy of viruses. Over 100 gag type genes have been found within the human genome . . . we’re just beginning to see that there’s a huge hidden viral iceberg of knowledge within the genome we didn’t even realize was there.

Here’s Jason Shepherd in a TedMed talk.

applied science

Striking Progress In Stroke Research

So they’re taking broken rat brains and inserting human nerve cells . . . what do you think about that?

How about this:

They’re breaking the rat brains on the purpose, giving them strokes, so they can try something out.

What are they trying out?

Is repairing broken brains with new nerve tissue possible?

And this new nerve tissue – it’s not something you can buy or borrow so where does that come from?

It’s actually manufactured from human skin tissue which they have reprogrammed to be nerve cells. Cool, huh?

Did you know they can do that now? I wrote a small piece about that back in 2014.

So are the human nerve cells connecting to cells in the rat brains?

“Six months after the transplantation, we could see how the new cells had repaired the damage that a stroke had caused in the rats’ brains,” says one of the researchers

It gets better. A stroke is an event that causes areas of damaged (dead) cells in the brain. From either too much blood (a bleed from a burst vessel) or not enough blood (a clot blocking blood flow) So there are dead brain cells.

“We have been able to see that the fibres from the transplanted cells have grown to the other side of the brain, the side where we did not transplant any cells, and created connections”

From this article Repairing stroke-damaged rat brains ( in ScienceDaily.

applied science

The closer your mortality gets the more you are willing to compromise

In the past I’ve pointed to society’s reluctance to accept emerging medical technology that might tinker with the stuff that defines our basic biological makeup – our DNA.

Back in the 90’s then-president Clinton put a ban on stem cell research using cell lines derived from human and fetuses. The argument was that it might promote pregnancies for cell production not babies. That their might arise a business that could prey on the financially strapped women in society to give up fetuses much as blood donors sell their blood. Oh, and the whole fetuses are babies played a part as well because it doesn’t matter how arcane and out of date your beliefs might be – you still have a vote. And politicians are very conscious of that.
While the amendment did not specify placentas the controversial nature of the technology brought a lot of things into discussion and many non-technical people don’t recognize the difference, politicians and voters among them. The controversy still exists.

Now we’re fighting COVID-19. Many people are dying. Economies are crumbling. A vaccine is a year or more away by best estimate.

Then there’s this: “Israeli COVID-19 treatment shows 100% survival rate – preliminary data”

100% Survival (in 6 out of 6 test patients)

That’s Great! The USA which now has the worst infection crisis in the world must be really happy, right?

Maybe. We’ll see.

Will it become available in the USA if it actually works?
Will Americans take it if it becomes available?

Why in the world would he ask that question you’re wondering. Of course they will.

Well if they stand by their convictions a whole bunch of the conservative, anti-abortion, religions people will find themselves in a quandary because this treatment is derived from STEM cells taken from placentas.

Will they take it?
If their loved ones have taken sick and this is offered as an option will they reject it based on principles?
Will they take it and then go ahead and still vote for the same short-sighed politicians pandering to their base with lies and fear? (of course you might think I’m talking about the GOP . . . but politicians of all stripes will go there)

Will Trump allow it?
He professes to love Israel but also backs the right-to-life movement back home. He’ll probably say its okay because it was placentas and not fetuses – an argument I expect a lot will use on themselves.

The company, Pluristem, was allowed to try this out because there is a compassionate use out in the healthcare laws in Israel. If the patients are looking like they will die anyway then there is a use case. Here is a link to the PDF of their press release on this.

It’s not a vaccine – it won’t keep you from catching the disease. But if you get sick with it this can keep you from dying. I hope this works out and people can get an effective treatment for when they get the disease. To keep them from dying.

applied science

Aerosolizing Bugs

As you encounter people indoors please think of them as large, ambulatory, infection sprayers.
Because that’s what we all are.

When you Yell or Cough or Sneeze and the crap coming out of your mouth circulates in the air. Every drop holding millions of little bug bombs if you’re sick. Bacteria. Viruses.

The Japanese have done some studying of this and can show you just how many and how far and long these droplets go.

So unless your indoor setting has good ventilation with good air exchange to the outside you’re sitting in a hot box for bug transmission.

How long can you hold your breathe?