By Mark M. Green (sciencefromaway.com)
There are scientific journals and there are scientific journals. The latter are really only two, Science and Nature that are widely read; publishing in such a journal gives the scientist enormous prestige among his or her fellows, which can translate to coveted benefits. This happened to me once in my forty-nine years as a research professor when I published a review of my work in Science on how a helix can choose to be left- or right-handed. My phone began to ring with potential offers to move to another position alerting senior colleagues in my current job to do something to make it difficult for me to leave New York City. I published the review in 1995 and by early in 1996 I was in contract on a place in the West Village, a deal I was made aware of by insider real estate knowledge allowing me to afford to live in an area I normally could not afford. The insider knowledge was simply that the building came with a rent controlled tenant occupying an entire floor for $200 so that no one would buy it. She was a lovely person who remained in the building for many years with my gratitude for her presence, which allowed us to afford the property.
What kinds of things are published in such so-called high-end journals? I thought you might be interested and so I picked up a recent issue of Science and decided to translate, as well as I am able, the essence of a few of the subjects addressed. Here they are.
The cover of the May 20 issue shows, what looks like to me, a view from above of a fictional city of the future with the title: “Special Issue—Urban Planet.” However, I am wrong. Inside the cover the photograph is identified as that of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Further into the issue, the authors of the editorial, a man from University College London and a woman from the University of Cape Town point out that almost 4 billion people now live in cities with an expected 70 million people expected to move to cities by the end of 2016 with already almost 900 million living in what could be called slums. Later in the issue scientists offer their suggestions to deal with this phenomenon. I’ll get to that next month.
The magazine then has a NEWS section with what the editors consider interesting science published and/or reported elsewhere but worthy of mention in their magazine. An observatory in Cape Grim in Tasmania, Australia reports a milestone in atmospheric CO2, 400 parts per million (ppm), which is within striking distance of 450 ppm, understood to cause a 2 degree C rise in global temperatures. Get ready for more extreme weather, they say.
Large numbers of bacteria, the microbiome, live on and within us and play important roles. (http://blogs.poly.edu/markgreen/2015/08/18/science-from-away-the-forgotten-organ/). Now President Obama announced that 121 million dollars will be added to private sources contributing 400 million dollars, to be distributed to study the microbiome in all earth’s environments. Bacteria are important.
Research on genetic information from male horse fossils dug up in what is now Kazakhstan demonstrate that although horses are estimated to have been domesticated as long as 6000 years ago, that interbreeding between domesticated and wild horses was still going on 2300 years ago. Imagine that interesting situation.
In a report from a conference on genetics at Cold Spring Harbor, we learn that studies of gene changes in large numbers of people reveal how quickly the human population can change. It used to be thought that evolutionary changes take thousands or even millions of years but now it is seen that these changes can occur in decades and less as seen in the genes associated with smoking, milk drinking, height and even eye and hair color. As we live for a longer time we may be seeing new generations change within our lifetime.
Macrolides, drugs including the antibiotic erythromycin, are composed of large rings of atoms that interfere with the lifespan of bacteria, but are increasingly encountering resistant bacteria (http://blogs.poly.edu/markgreen/2014/12/14/science-from-away-%E2%80%93-we-may-be-losing-the-war-against-disease-causing-bacteria/). Chemists fight this by trying to tinker with bonds on the periphery of the ring, a very difficult strategy. Now in a piece with the term in the title, “Divide-and-conquer…” we learn that chemists at Harvard University are working with a new approach in which the rings are broken into large pieces, which can easily be altered and then put back together to the larger rings. Hundreds of new antibiotics can be created this way, some already showing potent antibiotic activity; and a company, Macrolide Pharmaceuticals, has been set up to take advantage of this discovery. The paper reporting the work appeared in Nature.