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  • A Lawsuit Over Wartime 'Burn Pits'

    Josh Eller, a military contractor stationed in Iraq in 2006, was driving through Balad Air Base when he spotted the wild dog. He wasn't sure what was in its mouth—but when Eller saw two bones, he knew he was looking at a human arm. The dog had pulled the limb from an open-air "burn pit" on the base used to incinerate waste. Eller says it's "one of the worst things I have seen."Since hearing Eller's story, lawyer Elizabeth Burke has signed on 190 additional clients with complaints about burn pits at 18 military sites in Iraq and Afghanistan. By now, she says, all pits should have been replaced by pollution-controlled incinerators. She's filed suits in 17 states against KBR, the company contracted to provide waste-disposal services at these bases, accusing it of negligence and harm. Burke was shocked to learn what her clients saw incinerated: Humvees, batteries, unexploded ordnance, gas cans, mattresses, rocket pods, and plastic and medical waste (including body parts, which may...
  • Healthy Competition Advances the Field of Biology

    About 10 years ago, biology entered betting season. An upstart scientist named J. Craig Venter jolted the genetics establishment by launching his own gene-sequencing outfit, funded by commercial investment, and setting off toward biology's holy grail—the human genome—on his own. It was Venter versus the old guard—old because of where they got their money (governments and trusts) and the sequencing technique they wanted to hold onto. Venter won that race, and not because he got there first. By combining the freedom of academic inquiry and commercial capital, he came up with a new way of doing science so effective that it forced the old institutions to either ramp up or play second fiddle.With Venter's momentum, biology has continued to surge into new territory, but now he's not alone in pushing the pace. In fact, with his staff of hundreds at the J. Craig Venter Institute, he is looking dangerously like the establishment he raced past almost a decade ago. Another maverick in the...
  • A Doctor's Vision of the Future of Medicine

    It's June 2018. Sally picks up a handheld device and holds it to her finger. With a tiny pinprick, it draws off a fraction of a droplet of blood, makes 2,000 different measurements and sends the data wirelessly to a distant computer for analysis. A few minutes later, Sally gets the results via e-mail, and a copy goes to her physician. All of Sally's organs are fine, and her physician advises her to do another home medical checkup in six months.This is what the not-so-distant future of medicine will look like. Over the next two decades, medicine will change from its current reactive mode, in which doctors wait for people to get sick, to a mode that is far more preventive and rational. I like to call it P4 medicine—predictive, personalized, preventive and participatory. What's driving this change are powerful new measurement technologies and the so-called systems approach to medicine. Whereas medical researchers in the past studied disease by analyzing the effects of one gene at a...
  • Biologists Struggle to Make Sense of Genomics

    Ten years ago, the human genome was medicine's holy grail. Playing the part of King Arthur's knights were rival teams of biologists racing to sequence all the genetic instructions required to make a human being. And just as the actual Holy Grail was believed to have miraculous healing powers, some promised that the genome would change medicine forever. Biotech companies raced to cash in—Human Genome Sciences, for instance, filed patents on 100,000 genes and, in 1999, saw its stock quadruple. But genomic science didn't deliver fast breakthroughs. Today Human Genome's stock price is down below $3, and its vast patent portfolio looks like overkill, considering that a human has only about 20,000 genes altogether.Scientists have made plenty of progress over the past decade in generating genomic data. The Human Genome Project, after employing hundreds of scientists for many years at a total cost of $3 billion, produced in 2000 an error-riddled collage of several people's DNA. Since then,...
  • Epigenetics: It's All in the Packaging

    Roll over, Mendel. Watson and Crick? They are so your old man's version of DNA. And that big multibillion-dollar hullabaloo called the Human Genome Project? To some scientists, it's beginning to look like an expensive genetic floor pad for a much more intricate—and dynamic—tapestry of life that lies on top of it.There's a revolution sweeping biology today—begrudged by a few, but accepted by more and more biologists—that is changing scientific thinking about the way genes work, the way diseases arise and the way some of the most dreadful among them, including cancer, might be diagnosed and treated. This revolution is called epigenetics, and it is not only beginning to explain some of the biological mysteries that deepened with the Human Genome Project. Because of a series of accidental events, it is already prolonging the lives of human patients with deadly diseases.Over the past several years, and largely without much public notice, physicians have reported success using epigenetic...
  • Eric Kandel: A Biology of Mind

    Understanding the biology of mental illness would be a paradigm shift in our thinking about mind. It would not only inform us about some of the most devastating diseases of humankind but, because these are diseases of thought and feeling, it would also tell us more about who we are and how we function. I naively thought we were on the verge of such a paradigm change in 1983, when James Gusella and Nancy Wexler were tracking down the gene that causes Huntington's disease. I expected that within 10 years we would have found the major genes that contribute to schizophrenia, depression, and autism. Since then, there has been a lot of enthusiasm about genes and mental illness and some false starts, but surprisingly little progress.In the past few years, however, certain advances in genetics have given us new reasons for optimism. Now that we can look at the whole human genome, there is a logic to it that we could not appreciate when looking at genes in isolation. As a result, there is...
  • A High-Tech Route Back to Traditional Farming

    A funny thing happened on the way to the next green revolution. The world's biggest biotech corporations have deployed the latest in genetic science to pump up yield, ward off crop disease, make food more nutritious and fundamentally reengineer what we plant and eat, and no one is complaining. Environmental groups are not shouting about the perils of "Frankenfoods." There's no rabid French cheese maker with a bad mustache leading foodies on a rampage through high-tech farms. Prince Charles is quiet. Has the war over the world's dinner table finally ended?Not quite. Europe, much of Asia and parts of Africa fiercely resist filling the larder with genetically modified groceries, and many in agribusiness despair that they always will. So instead, they're trying to woo them with distinctly non-GM varieties. Crop scientists, seed companies and clever farmers are using the most advanced tools of science to reinvent native breeding—the age-old technique of selecting the best crops and then...
  • How Science Will Enhance Your Brain

    Medicine may allow us to challenge our genetic inheritance and repair insults to the brain, whether as Alzheimer's sufferers or moody, forgetful people and hazy thinkers.
  • Life Without Summer Camp

    The economic downturn could be the best thing that ever happened to kids. The return of free play.
  • Lack of Biodiversity May Make Us Sicker

    The most important question not raised during the swine-flu panic could have been asked by a 6-year-old: where do viruses come from? The answer, it turns out, is simple, and scary: viruses come from a giant wellspring of diseases—also known as the environment—that grown-ups should be very careful not to disturb. Pathogens—viruses, bacteria and a wide variety of other parasites—appear in nature as unpredictable, minimalist terrors equipped with little genetic material of their own but the ability to make things up as they go. A bird-flu virus can rest coolly in pigs, then flare up in humans, scrambling genes from all three species in ways impossible to fully anticipate with vaccines. The SARS virus bided its time among palm civets (a kind of mongoose) and horseshoe bats before killing humans in 2002. And possibly the most diminutive of all, the retrovirus HIV emerged from the blood of wild monkeys to become the most efficient destroyer of the human immune system. With strong enough...
  • Jeff Rubin on The Coming Energy Crisis

    Canadian economist Jeff Rubin has a somewhat oracular reputation. Since 2000, he has predicted a massive oil-price spike, and he was among the first in 2007 to prophesy that oil would soar over $100 per barrel (a few months later, he said $150 a barrel and was basically proved right again). Now, even though oil has dropped considerably from its peak, Rubin warns that it's bound to skyrocket once more and cause another, even greater economic crisis. In his new book, Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller, he lays out how this energy crunch will occur—and why it will spell the end of globalization.The scenario goes something like this: the ongoing depletion of the world's oil resources, coupled with soaring demand from emerging economies like India and China, will send the price of crude through the roof, Rubin says. This will seriously escalate transportation costs, which in turn will cripple international trade, reverse commercial interdependence and disable the global...
  • Consumerism: It's An Evolutionary Urge

    Marketers understand that humans, like other animals, have evolved finely tuned mechanisms for competing for status—and that our choice of a consumer brand is less about the material item itself and more about advertising our wealth, beauty and power to (hopefully jealous) onlookers. But in his new book, Spent, evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller argues that our species is also driven to show off such characteristics as agreeableness (see Whole Foods and Fair Trade coffee) and conscientiousness (see a well-maintained lawn). While Miller thinks it's improbable that humans will ever give up "their runaway quest for self-display," he notes that our instincts to show off, say, kindness and intelligence can privilege different forms of consumption. For example, we're already seeing a shift away from items that scream "I can afford to waste outlandish amounts of resources!" (big yachts, caviar-and-champagne blowouts) to items that trumpet "I'm ecoconscious!" (electric cars, organic...
  • Why Health Advice on 'Oprah' Could Make You Sick

    Wish Away Cancer! Get A Lunchtime Face-Lift! Eradicate Autism! Turn Back The Clock! Thin Your Thighs! Cure Menopause! Harness Positive Energy! Erase Wrinkles! Banish Obesity! Live Your Best Life Ever!
  • Superconductors are Key to Efficient Power Lines

    Remember the Woodstock of physics? Probably not. Back in the spring of 1987, though, headlines were trumpeting it as the most exciting scientific meeting in history. Three thousand physicists crammed into a ballroom at the New York Hilton to talk about superconductivity—the transmission of electricity with literally zero resistance. The technology was suddenly within reach of being economical. So it appeared, anyway, and that could mean anything from superfast computers to tiny, powerful electric motors to power lines that could carry current with no loss of energy.In the more than two decades since, superconductors haven't grabbed many headlines. That's partly because the new materials discovered in the late '80s proved to be a lot harder to work with than anyone expected, and partly because their energy-saving wizardry wasn't in high demand during most of the 1990s. But nowadays, using less energy is a key strategy in the fight against climate change—and a lot of the technical...
  • Why We Cling to Outdated Medical Myths

    Whether it's thinking that vitamin C can cure a cold, or that you must drink eight glasses of water a day, people cling to outdated medical lore long after it's been shown to be wrong. Here's why.
  • Draper Case: What Makes a Parent Negligent?

    After courts questioned the way they cared for their sick kids, two mothers in different states ran away with their children. Why 'neglect' is such a complicated concept, and why loving a child isn't always enough.
  • Ray Kurzweil Wants to Be a Robot

    Ray Kurzweil's wildest dream is to be turned into a cyborg—a flesh-and-blood human enhanced with tiny embedded computers, a man-machine hybrid with billions of microscopic nanobots coursing through his bloodstream. And there's a moment, halfway through a conversation in his office in Wellesley, Mass., when I start to think that Kurzweil's transformation has already begun. It's the way he talks—in a flat, robotic monotone. Maybe it's just because he's been giving the same spiel, over and over, for years now. He does 70 speeches annually at $30,000 a pop, and draws crowds of adoring fans who worship him as a kind of prophet. Kurzweil is a legend in the world of computer geeks, an inventor, author and computer scientist who bills himself as a futurist. The ideas he's espousing are as radical as anything you've ever heard. But the strangest thing about Ray Kurzweil is that when you sit down for a one-on-one chat with him, he's absolutely boring.
  • Birds Got Rhythm

    It's bird week at Lab Notes, what with yesterday's blue tits and now this:...
  • Why I Froze My Eggs

    I had just turned 35 when I started thinking about freezing my eggs. I'd always thought I'd have a husband and a kid or two by 35—that's the ominous year when doctors start stamping women's medical charts with the words "advanced maternal age" if they are pregnant, and some warn that fertility starts to drop off a cliff if they are not. But instead I was single, with an adventurous career, and concerned about my eggs. So in 2005, when I heard about a free seminar offered by a company called Extend Fertility, I thought this was exactly what I needed: a way to safeguard my eggs so I can relax until I meet Mr. Right. Extend had just begun marketing egg freezing as the newest choice among women's options: preserve your fertility and wait to have a child.Egg freezing is more technically known as oocyte cryopreservation, a technology by which a woman's eggs are surgically removed from her ovaries and frozen until she is ready to use them. It's still considered an experimental technology...
  • Young Doctor Wants to Reinvent Health Care

    A young pediatrician turned entrepreneur says he's got a plan to save America's failing primary-care system. But critics say putting medicine online is only part of the solution.
  • Is 'Lost' Finally Coming to Hulu?

    The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the long-rumored deal between online movie-and-TV viewing site Hulu -- the joint venture between Fox and NBC that shows both networks' shows, as well as their movies -- and ABC parent Disney is finally closing.  The two companies are expected to announce the terms of their new partnership as early as this week -- meaning ABC shows and Disney movies could grace Hulu very soon.  Read all about it here.