Highlights from the AAAS: Science speed-dating


From robots that study the seas, to the surprising connection between dolphins and diabetes: The American Association for the Advancement of Science conference hasn't even started yet, and I'm already learning about some wonderful things. Technically, AAAS opens Friday morning, but I got to San Diego on Wednesday so I could get in on some laboratory tours at the University of California San Diego, and a few press briefings Thursday.

Eric Vance, another journalist here, compared it to speed-dating—15 minute sprints through what a scientist is working on and why they think it's important. And, by that standard, there were definitely a few researchers I'd have shaved my legs for.

Robots Under the Sea

We know that the oceans are changing along with the climate, and the Argo program is one of the ways scientists collect that data. Made up of more than 3200 unassuming, little Army green floats, the array collects information on ocean temperature and salinity from all around the world and radios it back to researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. In the past year alone, information collected by Argo has found its way into more than 100 scientific papers.

Argo is important because it can measure temperature and salinity at different depths, from lots and lots of places. Over the course of 10 days, the floats sink down 1000 meters, drift for days, then go down even further—another 1000 meters—before returning the surface and sending home the bacon. Each float can take 150 of these profiles over 4-5 years of life.

The downside to Argo is that you can't control where the floats travel—they just drift on the current. Their cousin, an underwater glider called "Spray", takes directions a little better. The neat thing about Spray is that the gliders can travel without a propeller, by simply changing buoyancy—up and down—they slowly move forward. Pitch and roll are adjusted, via remote control, by shifting the position of heavy battery packs inside the glider.

Tracking Tumors

Researchers at Johns Hopkins have come up with a way to tell whether a cancer patient has beaten their disease—and keep track of any recurrence—with just a blood test.

The test works a lot like viral load tests for HIV. Cancer cells carry altered DNA, where large chunks of the sequence have been flip-flopped. It's a kind of alteration that doesn't occur in healthy tissue. The more cancer cells in the body, the more of this altered DNA that can be found in the blood stream, and vice versa.

The catch: This is all very personal. No two individuals have the same alterations, so to find the cancer fingerprint, you first have to sequence each patient's healthy genes, and genes from a biopsy of their tumor. It's an expensive process—about $5000 per patient right now—and it can't be used without an initial cancer diagnosis.

But even with those limitations, there's a lot of potential. The blood tests could help doctors determine whether surgery to remove a tumor was successful—if the patient's blood is free of altered cancer DNA, then the cancer is gone, and they could avoid post-op chemotherapy. The tests could also be used to monitor cancer survivors over long periods of time, and make sure their tumors don't grow back.

Dolphins and Diabetes

Dolphins could serve as an important model for Type 2 diabetes in humans, according to researchers at the National Marine Mammal Foundation. Like humans, dolphins have a brain that is very large for their body size and needs a lot of glucose (fancy word for sugar) to function properly. Since the early 1990s scientists have thought that this need for glucose was key to the evolution of diabetes.

The basic idea works like this: When you eat a high-protein diet, you aren't getting a lot of sugars. Humans had very high-protein diets during the Ice Age, which set the stage for diabetes. A chance mutation might have made some people more resistant to insulin—and thus, more likely to keep the sugars they did get in their bloodstream longer. Given the circumstances, that mutation would have been beneficial. But in a world where carbs are cheap and Twinkies are plentiful, the same mutation works against you—too much sugar builds up and you get diabetes.

Dolphins, meanwhile, also have a high-protein, low-sugar/carb diet. And they've also developed insulin resistance that helps them retain sugars. In fact, when dolphins are fed sugar, they end up with high blood glucose levels that last for hours, the same as diabetic humans. The difference: Dolphins seem to be able to turn their insulin resistance on and off, depending on how much and how often they're able to eat. There have already been some indications that humans have a similar switch. So studying dolphins could help us learn to turn off insulin resistance, and effectively cure Type 2 diabetes.

Coming tomorrow: Coverage from more in-depth lectures on alternative energy, food allergies and more.

Image courtesy Flickr user krister462, via CC