More Iowa bonuses

I’ve mentioned previously that not only do I live in Iowa, I live waaaay out in rural Iowa–gravel road, mile-away neighbors, the whole shebang. I realize that’s the worst nightmare of many people–living in the boonies in a “red state,” but it definitely has its perks at times. This morning, my husband called me on his drive to work and said I might want to pack up the kids and drive around the block. Turns out about 16 bald eagles were in a field down the road, apparently feasting on something dead. The good news: I have a Canon camera with a crazy telephoto lens for moments just like this. The bad news: the battery was, of course, dead, and I didn’t have a spare on hand. (D’oh!) So had to use the digital camera instead. You have to use your imagination a bit, but those little white dots are their heads (note that some of them are all brown–juvenile bald eagles don’t have white heads). There were about 5 on the ground at that point, and ~10 or so more in the tree to the right.

We live a few miles from a lake, and ~10 miles from each of 2 decent-sized rivers, so we see bald eagles pretty regularly in the area. (Not quite as often as those who live in Iowa towns along the Mississippi, but often enough). Last year we frequently had them in our backyard:

It’s a great place to live if you like birds of prey. We have a raptor center nearby where they care for injured birds, and hawks are everywhere. Last summer when we were out on the lake, we watched an osprey catch fish. It was certainly doing a better job than my husband was.

Blogs of the Union

As mentioned over on Gene Expression, Radio Open Source has called for Blogs of the Union (BOTU), in preparation for tonight’s State of the Union address. I thought about it quite a bit last night, but couldn’t get anything down without being too depressed (and depressing). So instead, I’ll just cite a story in today’s Des Moines Register that shows how Iowans view the state of the union.

A 61 percent majority of Iowans think the nation has gotten off on the wrong track, according to The Des Moines Register’s latest Iowa Poll. Nearly as large a segment of the state’s adults –59 percent — disapprove of the Republican president’s job performance on the day of his State of the Union address.

Bush also receives thumbs-down from a majority of Iowans on his handling of Iraq, immigration and other key issues. And a controversial domestic eavesdropping program sanctioned by the president has more critics than supporters in the state.


The proportion of Iowans who applaud Bush’s overall job performance has plummeted from a peak of 84 percent in the fall of 2001, following the terrorist attacks on American soil, to 37 percent in the latest Iowa Poll. While that figure is down just a point from early December, it’s the lowest approval mark of his presidency in the poll.

Quick! Save your kids from the liberal homosexual communists!

Oh man, Answers in Genesis shills to the most amusing people. I subscribe to their newsletter–partly to keep tabs on what they’re up to, partly for the entertainment value. They must sell their mailing list, because yesterday in the mail I received the most amusing brochure. It proclaims, “Students are risk! Adults at risk!”, asking “What’s influencing you and your family? Discover how to reject the influence of secular thinking for Biblical truth.” Meanwhile, it asks, “Can you, your student, or grandchild refute the humanist worldview of Professor Smith [heh] and our culture?”

Of course, they’re selling something. In this case, it’s a “worldview weekend” conference that’s taking place in Cedar Rapids, IA. According to the brochure, this is a “power-packed weekend featuring some of the most gifted biblical teachers and communicators of our time.”

Who, they claim, should attend, and why is it important? “Professor Smith and our culture are attacking essential Christian truths. Worldview Weekend is for anyone who wants to be equipped with the knowledge and power to stand strong, refute secular lies and proclaim truth.”

Here’s the best part: one of the people they have presenting to “refute” these “secular lies” is none other than David Barton. Yep, Barton of the made-up quotes. (If you don’t accept an atheist site for a reference, check out Barton’s own spin and excuses here.) Must be nice to have a gig like that–no need to bother with real scholarship.

Other speakers I don’t recognize; they have a full list of speakers and bios here (if only Kirk Cameron was going to be there…that might tempt me to go). Reading many of those bios, it feels like I’m living in some kind of alternative reality. Like one where biology, sociology, and history quailfy as “theologies. Or somethin’.

The final strange thing is that they stole the presidential seal for their conference.


Small change–>big difference

Okay, not to overwhelm with Streptococcus biology, but I mentioned this new paper in the comments to this post, and had to share a bit of the results, because 1) it’s just cool, and 2) it directly stems from some of the research I did for my dissertation. (Always a bonus when someone else can actually *use* stuff you slaved over).

A bit of background: I noted that Streptococcus pyogenes is a tough pathogen to study. Strains of the bacterium may vary in the presence or expression of virulence genes, and even when one insight into the regulation of these genes is uncovered in one strain, another strain may be regulated completely differently. Therefore, it’s often difficult to extrapolate results obtained from working on one strain out to the species as a whole. (For example, a locus we found to control expression of the M protein at a transcriptional level was found by others to work at the post-transcriptional level in an isolate of a different serotype.)

However, one phenomenon has been routinely noted. I mentioned here that the M protein of Streptococcus pyogenes is a determinant of serotype. This is a surface-expressed protein, but isolates can vary widely in the amount of M protein present on the bacterial surface. Isolates that express little M protein are therefore difficult to serotype–not enough M protein on the surface to react with the anti-M antibodies. It was discovered early on that one way isolates could be made to express more M protein was to passage them through a mouse: inject them into the animal, and recover them from the blood or organs. (They also could be passaged in vitro through human blood, but this typically did not work as well). It wasn’t known exactly why this worked, however.

Fast-forward about 70 years. Work done in my PI’s lab further investigated the phenomenon mentioned above. Mice were inoculated either intraperitoneally (IP–injected into the stomach area) or via a mouse skin air sac (MSAS). In the latter, 100 microliters of a bacterial solution was injected just under the skin, along with 900 microliters of air. This created almost a little balloon on the side of the mouse; the bacteria were injected just under the top layer of skin, but still had to cross additional layers of tissue in order to obtain access to the bloodstream and other organs. For some reason, this latter method of injection led to a huge increase in M protein expression after just a single mouse passage, whereas it took about 14 passages IP (and about 9 through human blood) to obtain the same level of expression.
Continue reading “Small change–>big difference”

Luskin still doesn’t get it

I wrote up a critique of an article DI mouthpiece Casey Luskin wrote regarding avian influenza back in October. I don’t know whether Luskin ever read my post; at the time, trackbacks to the DI site weren’t working. But I’d guess I’m not the only one who pointed out the abundant mistakes in his article, which advanced the thesis that avian influenza wasn’t a good example of evolution. He has since written a response to critics here (warning: .pdf file), correcting one of his errors in the original article (and making a confusing mess out of things).

Luskin’s original thesis was that H5N1 wasn’t a good example of evolution because, he claimed, it was simply a reassortant virus: an avian-human hybrid. Therefore, the “evolution” was not any “new information,” but simply a move of information that already existed. Only, of course, the H5N1 strain circulating *isn’t* a reassortant virus: it’s a pure avian virus. You might think that this tidbit of information would shoot down Luskin’s whole thesis, but no, he struggles on.
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Catching up…

I meant to get online yesterday, but hubby had to work all day so it was just me and the kiddos–so we just played all day and I didn’t bother to get to a computer. Anyhoo, I’ve missed a few things. I know this was linked on a few other of my virtual neighbor’s websites, but in case you didn’t see it, DarkSyde over at DailyKos has an interview with Welsey Elsberry of the NCSE (and a founder of Panda’s Thumb). Like Ken Miller, Wesley is a Christian and a staunch defender of keeping nonsense like Intelligent Design out of our classrooms.

Second, the Challenger disaster. Seed asked for some recollections of it, but since I’ve not logged in since then, I’m too late. You can read their article here. Personally, I was 9 years old. While we’d discussed the mission at school, we weren’t watching it live that day. In fact, nothing was said about the disaster that day at school–I’m not sure if they didn’t know, or if they just didn’t know how to tell us. When I got home after school, I remember piling into the car to go somewhere–maybe grocery shopping, or to get haircuts or something–so the first footage I saw of it wasn’t until that evening. Though I was upset, I don’t remember crying–I think, like many people, I was just shocked and numb over the incident.

Finally, for those of you out there who may have your own science blogs, I also received the survey John Lynch discusses here (and the aforementioned Wesley Elsberry blogs about here). If you received one, check out their comments before sending your answer back.

For the Iowa folks…

Just a reminder about this upcoming event at Iowa State University:

Why Intelligent Design Is Not Science

Robert M. Hazen is the Clarence Robinson Professor of Earth Science at George Mason University, and a scientist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Geophysical Laboratory. He received his M.S. in geology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his Ph.D. in Earth Sciences from Harvard University. Dr. Hazen is the author of over 240 articles and 16 books, including the most recent Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life’s Origin; Why Aren’t Black Holes Black? and the best-selling Science Matters: Achieving Scientific Literacy, which he co-authored with James Trefil. Dr. Hazen has recorded the acclaimed lecture series, The Joy of Science, with the Teaching Company (, which provides a fresh and definitive overview of all the physical and biological sciences.

Thursday, 02 Feb 2006 at 8:00 pm
Sun Room, Memorial Union

The event is scheduled to be covered by C-span.

Additionally, for those of you in the Iowa City area, I’ll point you toward a resource I just discovered: Iowa City’s Cafe Scientifique. The next meeting is February 9th at 5PM:

Prof. Jeffrey Murray
Professor of Pediatrics, Pediatric Dentistry, and Biological Sciences
“The Human Genome”
Time: Thursday, 9 February 2006 5:00-6:00 PM
Cottage Bakery and Cafe, 14 S. Linn St.
Iowa City, IA 52240

(For those of you unfamiliar with this, PZ’s talked about here, for instance, on his old blog). They don’t have anything listed after February, so maybe I’ll see if we at Iowa Citizens for Science can collaborate in some way.

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Why has rheumatic fever declined in the U.S.?

Speaking of chronic diseases caused by microbial agents, one of the earliest characterized of these is the group A streptococcus (Streptococcus pyogenes). In addition to causing acute diseases such as strep throat and scarlet fever, a wide range of post-infectious sequelae (complications that appear following resolution of infection) have been attributed to S. pyogenes. It can cause glomerulonephritis, a kidney disease. It’s long been known infection with the organism can lead to a condition called Sydenham’s chorea, a neurologic disease characterized by jerky movements. Infection with S. pyogenes has also been linked to a number of related syndromes, including Tourette’s syndrome and tic disorders. Most notably, S. pyogenes causes rheumatic fever, a disease that affects multiple organ systems. Rheumatic fever can lead to damage of the heart valves, resulting in a condition known as rheumatic heart disease. It is thought that this is due to cross-reaction of antibodies against the bacteria: they also react with heart tissue. The recognition that the bacteria causes these diseases is a reason it is recommended that streptococcal infections be rapidly treated with antibiotics, as this significantly decreases the incidence of RF.

The epidemiology of S. pyogenes infections in the 20th century has been interesting. At the beginning of the 20th century, scarlet fever was still a scourge, with mortality rates as high as 30% in some outbreaks. This started to decline in the early quarter of the century, and is currently considered a mild consequence of S. pyogenes infection. Rheumatic fever also caused significant morbidity and mortality until the 1950s, when it began to decrease (largely due to an increased use of antibiotics to treat strep throat infections). In the 1970s, the incidence of rheumatic fever in the United States further declined, followed by a resurgence in some areas during the 1980s. At the same time, the incidence of severe invasive disease due to S. pyogenes (including streptococcal toxic shock-like syndrome [STSS] and necrotizing fasciitis, the “flesh-eating disease”) also increased. How much of this was due to changes in the pathogen, versus changes in the environment or the host, has been the subject of much study.
Continue reading “Why has rheumatic fever declined in the U.S.?”