Money Making Moves in Climate Change, Space and Health – Our Science Round-Up

By Marian Shivji

Image Credit: Richard Ling/FLICKR

Australian Government Commits $500 Million To Save The Great Barrier Reef

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has pledged A$500 million (US$379 million) to help protect the Great Barrier Reef from the mounting effects of climate change. The funds will be put towards restoring water quality, tackling the opportunistic uprising of the crown of thorns starfish, and breeding heat-resistant coral to help repopulate the damaged reef system.

The globally important reef covers an area of 134,360 square miles and studies have shown that the area generates an incredible $6.4 billion for the Australian economy per annum: providing close to 69,000 full-time jobs. Despite the clear environmental and economic contribution of the reef, this injection of funds comes at a time when the government has been under heavy criticism for not only failing to address against climate change – which is estimated to have killed up to 30 percent of the coral in the last few years alone – but actively contributing to its decline by supporting the highly controversial Adani coal mine. Coupled with this, Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions have soared over the past year, hitting the highest on record. The current regime was even accused of lobbying the United Nations to prevent the globally important reef from being listed as a heritage site “in danger”.  While welcome by those actively protecting the reef, the pledged money will simply be directed to farmers when the biggest threat to the reef is rising water temperatures. If seriously committed to protecting the Great Barrier Reef, the Australian government will need to take concrete action to tackle the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, plastic pollution, and agricultural runoff.  

Vaping May Be Less Damaging Than Smoking… When it Comes to Your Gut Bacteria

The bacterial cells in our body outnumber our own human cells and have been found to greatly affect an individual’s health on many counts. Recent studies have linked our gut microbiome – the collections of microorganisms within our digestive systems – to everything from our weight and food cravings to our mood and sleeping behavior, all the way to the way we think. The make-up of our gut bacteria could also be responsible for conditions such as depression and autoimmune diseases such as lupus. New research published in the journal PeerJ analysed the composition of the gut microbiomes of tobacco smokers, e-cigarette smokers, and non-smokers in fecal, mouth, and saliva samples using targeted gene sampling. The results yield some good news for vapers.

The study found the most prominent differences between the three groups in the fecal samples and, therefore, the gut. Vapers exhibit a similar mix of “flourishing” gut bacteria as non-smokers. In contrast, ‘traditional smokers’ show significant negative changes to their gut flora, displaying higher levels of Prevotella bacteria – which has been linked to colon cancer and colitis – and lower levels of Bacteroides bacteria – a probiotic that lowers a person’s risk of obesity and their chances of developing Crohn’s disease.

While there has been a huge surge in e-cigarette use over the past five years or so, the health effects are only just starting to be explored. More investigation is needed to find that vaping is less damaging than smoking, much beyond this small study of just 30 participants. For now, vaping does seem to be a positive tool to help individuals quit smoking completely whilst not destroying their gut microbiomes.

NASA Funnels Funds into a Telescope That Self-Assembles in Space

Image Credit: Vadim Sadoski/Shutterstock

Building and launching a telescope into space is not without its risks. Every component must be tested before assembly, following which, the whole telescope is repeatedly tested before being strapped to a rocket full of liquid explosive and shot into space. The apparent opportunities for failure in this process led Dmitry Savransky of Cornell University to ask, ‘is it possible to build a space telescope that can see farther, and better, using only inexpensive small components that self-assemble in orbit?’

The resulting proposal of a self-assembling telescope has been moved to Phase I of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. The program calls for pitches of somewhat crazy-sounding ideas, backed up with a few initial calculations. Having been successful in this initial stage, the innovative telescope has become a 9-month project which includes stressing the idea with questions on feasibility. If these feasibility studies are successful, the project will move into Phase II.

The idea is to send small, inexpensive components as extra payloads of already scheduled launches over a period of months or even years. These will then navigate to where the telescope is supposed to be built and assemble into the preprogramed design. The components will navigate using solar sails that will then become the sun-shield of the new instrument. The proposed telescope will end up being more than 30 meters (98 feet) wide, bigger than any observatory currently placed in space. Whilst still in the preliminary stages of design, the telescope could completely revolutionise the way we capture images in space.

There May Soon Be a Vaccine Against Bath Salts Addiction

Vaccinating against drug addiction is a devilishly elegant answer to something as stigmatized as drug abuse and, even worse, relapse. The solution could train the immune system to attack molecules of the drug if it ends up in the body, defeating any chance of getting high. While the concept has been previously proposed for drugs like opioids and alcohol, the latest venture is a vaccine against bath salts. Not to be confused with your Epsom salts – which do not come fashioned with mind-altering ingredients – bath salts are a type of designer drug that generally contain a compound called a cathinone, an addictive stimulant similar to amphetamines. The drug is cheap and extremely powerful, often sought by people who usually use cocaine or meth but want a stronger high.

In the study, the researchers tested a vaccine to combat two types of bath salts — MDPV and alpha-PVP — in mice. The results demonstrated that the vaccine boosted the mice’s immune response so that the mice got much less high off the drug, felt the effects for less time, and the immune response worked for months after vaccination. Despite these positive results, there are innumerable reasons that no true drug vaccines are currently on the market. These researchers got past one of the biggest scientific elements that usually thwart these kinds of treatments: getting the immune system to respond to the right molecule. This was successful in mice, however. Several drugs and treatments, including a similar vaccine for opioids, that are efficacious in animals don’t hold the same effectiveness in humans. In addition, addiction is a complex disorder that has more than just a physical element. So while the new bath salts addiction vaccine has had success in the initial steps along the road towards becoming an FDA-approved treatment, there is still the possibility that it will join the others that have stumbled along the way.

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