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Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
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Why failing to preserve biodiversity is a profound disrespect

Here are just two of the practical and philosophical crises surrounding biodiversity breakdown.

SUSAN HOCKFIELD: So there's a lot of news now about decreasing biodiversity. Nature has been reinventing itself for, what is it, almost five billion years, and producing all manner of different kinds of animals and plants, viruses, and bacteria. We worry -- I worry -- that we're going to lose basically our bank account. And let me give you an example. Developing better food products is incredibly important. To feed a population of over 9.7 billion, we're going to have to double the productivity of our crops. Now we've done that before through various kinds of technology, better farming machinery, but a lot of the improvements come from tapping into the biodiversity of plants in the wild.

So if we want to develop crops that are drought resistant or pest resistant, we can use our brains to try and figure out which individual genes we could change around. But that's a very hard way to do it. An easier way to do it -- and it's a strategy that farmers have used for thousands of years -- is to find a related crop that has the desired characteristic -- drought resistance or pest resistance -- and crossbreed it with a crop that we like, that makes the kind of corn that's sweet with a lot of kernels on the cob or a tomato that has particularly brilliant flavor and cooks up well, but maybe is quite sensitive to frost. So to breed our perfect tomato plant to a wild plant that has characteristics we might want is one way, a very important way, that we've improved the crops that we grow. So a loss of biodiversity would limit the ways we can use the biodiversity to make our world better.

But I actually have a deeper philosophical worry. We don't know where the biodiversity that we currently have is heading. We don't know what kinds of plants or animals are in process. And it seems to me that it's an enormous disrespect for the great gifts that we have gotten to not try to preserve, as much as we can, the organisms that have struggled their way into existence today.

  • A loss of biodiversity limits the ways we can use biodiversity to make our world better. Hockfield reminds us that biodiversity is a "bank account" of natural assistance.
  • For example, it is key in producing better crops to feed growing populations. How will we double food productivity (which we must do to survive) when we lose the wild plants we crossbreed agricultural crops with?
  • There is much more to lose than this bank account, however. It is a deep philosophical dilemma that humans have and will continue to wipe out organisms that have struggled their way into existence over the course of 5 billion years.

A new hydrogel might be strong enough for knee replacements

Duke University researchers might have solved a half-century old problem.

Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • Duke University researchers created a hydrogel that appears to be as strong and flexible as human cartilage.
  • The blend of three polymers provides enough flexibility and durability to mimic the knee.
  • The next step is to test this hydrogel in sheep; human use can take at least three years.
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Predicting PTSD symptoms becomes possible with a new test

An algorithm may allow doctors to assess PTSD candidates for early intervention after traumatic ER visits.

Image source: camillo jimenez/Unsplash
Technology & Innovation
  • 10-15% of people visiting emergency rooms eventually develop symptoms of long-lasting PTSD.
  • Early treatment is available but there's been no way to tell who needs it.
  • Using clinical data already being collected, machine learning can identify who's at risk.

The psychological scars a traumatic experience can leave behind may have a more profound effect on a person than the original traumatic experience. Long after an acute emergency is resolved, victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continue to suffer its consequences.

In the U.S. some 30 million patients are annually treated in emergency departments (EDs) for a range of traumatic injuries. Add to that urgent admissions to the ED with the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. Health experts predict that some 10 percent to 15 percent of these people will develop long-lasting PTSD within a year of the initial incident. While there are interventions that can help individuals avoid PTSD, there's been no reliable way to identify those most likely to need it.

That may now have changed. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers has developed a method for predicting who is most likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic emergency-room experience. Their study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

70 data points and machine learning

nurse wrapping patient's arm

Image source: Creators Collective/Unsplash

Study lead author Katharina Schultebraucks of Columbia University's Department Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons says:

"For many trauma patients, the ED visit is often their sole contact with the health care system. The time immediately after a traumatic injury is a critical window for identifying people at risk for PTSD and arranging appropriate follow-up treatment. The earlier we can treat those at risk, the better the likely outcomes."

The new PTSD test uses machine learning and 70 clinical data points plus a clinical stress-level assessment to develop a PTSD score for an individual that identifies their risk of acquiring the condition.

Among the 70 data points are stress hormone levels, inflammatory signals, high blood pressure, and an anxiety-level assessment. Says Schultebraucks, "We selected measures that are routinely collected in the ED and logged in the electronic medical record, plus answers to a few short questions about the psychological stress response. The idea was to create a tool that would be universally available and would add little burden to ED personnel."

Researchers used data from adult trauma survivors in Atlanta, Georgia (377 individuals) and New York City (221 individuals) to test their system.

Of this cohort, 90 percent of those predicted to be at high risk developed long-lasting PTSD symptoms within a year of the initial traumatic event — just 5 percent of people who never developed PTSD symptoms had been erroneously identified as being at risk.

On the other side of the coin, 29 percent of individuals were 'false negatives," tagged by the algorithm as not being at risk of PTSD, but then developing symptoms.

Going forward

person leaning their head on another's shoulder

Image source: Külli Kittus/Unsplash

Schultebraucks looks forward to more testing as the researchers continue to refine their algorithm and to instill confidence in the approach among ED clinicians: "Because previous models for predicting PTSD risk have not been validated in independent samples like our model, they haven't been adopted in clinical practice." She expects that, "Testing and validation of our model in larger samples will be necessary for the algorithm to be ready-to-use in the general population."

"Currently only 7% of level-1 trauma centers routinely screen for PTSD," notes Schultebraucks. "We hope that the algorithm will provide ED clinicians with a rapid, automatic readout that they could use for discharge planning and the prevention of PTSD." She envisions the algorithm being implemented in the future as a feature of electronic medical records.

The researchers also plan to test their algorithm at predicting PTSD in people whose traumatic experiences come in the form of health events such as heart attacks and strokes, as opposed to visits to the emergency department.

Hints of the 4th dimension have been detected by physicists

What would it be like to experience the 4th dimension?

Two different experiments show hints of a 4th spatial dimension. Credit: Zilberberg Group / ETH Zürich
Technology & Innovation

Physicists have understood at least theoretically, that there may be higher dimensions, besides our normal three. The first clue came in 1905 when Einstein developed his theory of special relativity. Of course, by dimensions we’re talking about length, width, and height. Generally speaking, when we talk about a fourth dimension, it’s considered space-time. But here, physicists mean a spatial dimension beyond the normal three, not a parallel universe, as such dimensions are mistaken for in popular sci-fi shows.

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How often do vaccine trials hit paydirt?

Vaccines find more success in development than any other kind of drug, but have been relatively neglected in recent decades.

Pedro Vilela/Getty Images
Surprising Science

Vaccines are more likely to get through clinical trials than any other type of drug — but have been given relatively little pharmaceutical industry support during the last two decades, according to a new study by MIT scholars.

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