If You Were a Human-Animal Hybrid, What Would You Want to Be?

James Patterson’s Maximum Ride series about a flock of flying kids is, for me at least, some of the most interesting reading a bird man (aka aviator, pilot) is likely to find in an airport bookstore. What a fun way to spend a cross-country flight!

Even though Patterson’s series is written for adolescents, it fulfills in me an inner need to fly.  What could be better than flying with your own magnificent wings? At the same time, it poses ethical questions about science and genetic experimentation. The flying kids despise their evil scientist creators, but the ability to fly sure gets them out of some tough scrapes, just in the nick of time of course. Up and away! (If you’ve read the books, you know what I mean.)

Now comes news that animal-human embryos have been created in secret, apparently for several years. (See the link, below). While the cries from ethicists and the public are a rising crescendo, and probably overstated once you understand all the facts, the hybridization concept raises an interesting personal question. If I was a hybrid, what would I want to be?

Without a doubt, being a human with wings, with the ability of flight, would be my number one choice. Of course, that does bring some hazards; collisions with aircraft being foremost. I don’t think being ingested by the engine of a passenger jet would be a fun way to go. Or being sucked into the updrafts of a potent thunderstorm and spit out, frozen, unable to fly, at the top of the storm 43,000 feet up. That would be a long fall for a bird-human ice-cube.

And of course you have the ever aggressive hunters and cryptozoologists anxious to get a piece, or more, of you. But if you’ve read any of the Maximum Ride series, you’re familiar with those human threats. It’s always the humans who seem to be the meanest and most determined.

Moving from the avian world to the aquatic, there are lots of options. But I think foremost would be my choice to be a top predator. After all, big fish eat little fish, so who wants to be a little fish?

Dolphins rank right up there in predatory prowess, although they’re not a fish, but a mammal. And they’re cute and smart. No one wants to be even part of a dumb, ugly animal.

For land animals, polar bears are undoubtedly the coolest predator, in an emotional temper sort of way. They don’t seem to fear anything, certainly not humans, who they consider dinner. But they never get to migrate to the tropics for vacation, so I consider that to be a real negative for any potential hybridization. And besides, their favorite food, seals, are cute, especially the baby ones. What humans, even part humans, would want to eat cute food?

Of course, I suppose if you’re hungry enough …

I think it is easier to think of being all animal than to think of being an animal with human traits like intelligence, speech, artistic and scientific creativity. Nevertheless, Planet of the Apes provided one well-known artistic example of that possibility. Another is a muscular, arguably intelligent walking frog, as seen here, borrowed from a now-obscure internet site (meaning I can’t find where it came from*). You’ll read more about such creatures in Children of the Middle Waters, when that book becomes available.

One unfortunate consequence of being an animal is that most animals are short-lived. There are exceptions of course, like the tortoise, but the 100-year or so life span of a tortoise must seem to drag on forever for them.

Certainly a long life span offers some advantages, like the odd mixture of mirth and despair we get from watching our fellow humans repeat the same mistakes over and over. For me, I think the blessed part of it is watching the generations of our offspring growing up and generating offspring of their own.

The more I think about the choices for being part animal, the more I think about what it is to be human; all human. As I ponder that thought, I keep returning to the simple fact that, to me at least, being human means we are able to love our spouses and children and parents with a pure unadulterated, non-judgmental,  joy; sort of like a dog welcoming its master home.

Well, actually, maybe we’re not so different from some animals after all!

In case you missed it, the news of the human-animal hybridization efforts was cited at the following link, and elsewhere


*My apologies if you created the walking frog drawing. Send me your information and I’ll give you proper credit. Same thing for the other graphics which I believe to be in the public domain.

Why Deep Saturation Diving Is Like Going to the Moon, and Beyond

This week, as the Space Shuttle is making its last circuits around our planet, I lament what has happened to our space program. Yet, I am reminded of another exploration program that has, like the shuttle and the moon programs, reached incredible milestones only to retreat to a less exotic but still impressive status. That other program is experimental, deep saturation diving.

I have been privileged to conduct human physiological research on several deep saturation dives, one being a record-breaking U.S. Navy dive at the Navy Experimental Diving Unit (NEDU) in 1977 to a pressure equivalent to that found at 1500 feet sea water (fsw), or 460 msw*, and on a 450 msw (1470 fsw) dive at the GUSI diving facility at the GKSS Institute in Geesthacht, Germany in 1990. For perspective, the safe SCUBA diving depth is considered to be 130 fsw, although technical and cave divers often descend deeper, to 300 fsw or so.

NEDU, Panama City, FL

Dives in hyperbaric chambers like at GUSI and NEDU are simulated; the divers don’t actually go anywhere. But the effects of the high pressure on the divers’ bodies are just as they would be in the ocean. Of course, even in simulated dives, divers wear Underwater Breathing Apparatus, and descend into water contained within the hyperbaric complex.

In 1979, NEDU again set the U.S. Navy record for deep diving to 1800 fsw (551 msw). At Duke University in 1981, the U.S. record for pressure exposure was set by three saturation divers inside an eight-foot diameter sphere. The internal pressure was 2250 fsw (686 msw). One of those divers went on to become the senior medical officer at NEDU, none the worse for his high pressure exposure.

The French company Comex, of Marseille used an experimental gas mixture of hydrogen-helium-oxygen to reach 675 msw, before being forced back to 650 msw due to physical and physiological problems with the divers. However, like teams attempting the summit of Mount Everest, one diver from the dive team was pressed to a world record of 701 msw (2290 fsw), just squeaking past the U.S. record.

There is a poorly understood physiological barrier called the High Pressure Nervous Syndrome (HPNS) that limits our penetration to ever deeper depths. In spite of the use of increasingly exotic gas mixtures, helium-oxygen in the U.S. Navy, helium-nitrogen-oxygen at Duke University, and hydrogen-helium-oxygen at Comex, all attempts to dive deeper have, to date, been rebuffed.

Just as I had thought as a young man that trips to the moon would be common-place by now, I had also assumed diving to 3000 feet would be routine. But it is not.

In my early research days I was interested in the effects on organisms of very high pressure, 5000 psi, which is equivalent to a depth of over 11,000 feet (3430 meters). We now know those effects can be profound, altering the very structure of cell membranes. Reversing those effects while maintaining high pressure, at great depth, is a daunting scientific task. We don’t yet know how to do it.

What we do know is that reaching 1500 feet can be done without too much difficulty. In the 1980s it became almost routine to dive to 1000 feet at both the Naval Medical Research Institute (Bethesda) and NEDU. Deep saturation diving is a thriving business in the oil fields of the Gulf of Mexico and the North Sea.

Click for a larger image.

But as for the similarity between deep saturation diving and NASA’s moon missions, in the Apollo program it took slightly over three days to get to the moon, and almost an equal time to return. But as the above dive profile shows, it took sixteen days to reach the maximum depth of 1500 fsw, and seventeen days to safely return. Over that period of time astronauts would have whizzed past the moon and been well on their way to Mars. Unlike spacecraft and astronauts, divers must slow their descent to avoid HPNS, and must slow their return to the surface to avoid debilitating and painful decompression sickness. Diving without submarines or armored suits is very much a demanding, physical stress.

Politically, exceeding our current depth limits of approximately 2000 feet is akin to returning to the moon, and going beyond. We could do it, but at what cost? Should we? Will it ever be a national priority?

Maybe not for the United States, but I have a suspicion that other countries, perhaps not as heavily committed to space as we, will find the allure of beating current diving records irresistible. If there are medical or pharmacological interventions developed for getting divers safely and productively down to 3000 feet, then that would be a scientific achievement comparable to sending men to Mars.

*[The feet to meters conversion is slightly different from the feet of sea water to meters of sea water conversion. The latter represents pressure, not depth, and therefore includes a correction factor for the density of sea water.]

Outsmarted by an Octopus

Jim Duran and I started a night dive in about sixty to seventy feet of water several miles off the beaches of Panama City, FL. I was wearing double 80 tanks, held a collecting bag and lights, and fully intended to capture an octopus, alive.

At the time I was working in an invertebrate physiology laboratory at Florida State University, under the mentorship of Dr. Michael Greenberg. I had been impressed by the reputed high intelligence of the octopus, and was also interested in the effects of high pressure. The Navy base at Panama City had a new high pressure chamber, capable of simulating deep-sea pressures. Since I was in training in the combined Navy and NOAA program called the Scientist in the Sea, it seemed logical to me to catch an octopus, and study it to see if it would be a suitable candidate for testing in the Navy’s  giant hyperbaric chamber.

It sounded like a reasonable plan to me, and Jim Duran was willing to follow along as my assistant critter catcher. And to begin with, the plan worked. We spied our quarry only a few minutes into the dive. The gray-brown octopus was crawling over the sandy bottom, and initially seemed unaware of our intentions. But as the two of us closed in on him, specimen bag flapping in our self-generated current, he sprang off the bottom and squirted away.

But we were strong swimmers, and our quarry was in the open, maybe eight feet off the bottom. He had nowhere to hide – silly thing. Keeping our lights on him, and stroking like mad, I began gaining on him, at which time he let loose with his ink. I was prepared for that, and continuing to kick I soon caught up with him and got my hands on him, trying to stuff him into my bag. But he would have none of that.

Off we went again. What we didn’t realize was that the clever invertebrate was constantly turning to our right. We of course were too intent on capturing him to notice his strategy. And besides, invertebrates were incapable of strategic planning – or so we thought.

Apparently the octopus was determined not to be touched again, or else we were tiring, for we never quite caught up with him. So close, and yet so far away.

And then a curious thing happened. He collapsed his tentacles upon themselves, streamlining his body shape, and shot like a rocket from our depth to the sandy bottom. Once on firm ground again, he spread his tentacles as wide as he could, and his entire body turned white. I froze in shock.

In another instant, before I could recover my senses, he collapsed his body down to the width of an apple and slithered into his hole in the sea floor.

He was gone.

It didn’t take long for us to realize that the chase had started near his home, and he had led us at a furious pace in a large circle, which ended precisely where it had begun. He had maneuvered us to within striking distance of safety.

Humbled, and now growing low on air, and embarrassingly empty-handed, we headed back to the off-shore platform where our dive had begun.

It had seemed like such a good idea. Who knew that two graduate students would be outsmarted by an invertebrate.

Below is a link to a video showing an octopus’ ability to disguise itself, and some of the defensive behavior we witnessed.

[youtube id=”PmDTtkZlMwM” w=”500″ h=”400″]

You’re Not a Mad Dog – So You Must Be an Englishman

Having made several transits from the South to the North, and back again, I’ve become fascinated with the response of people when taken out of their natural element. For instance, my nativity and early childhood were spent in the American South, Arkansas and Texas. When my Dad’s work forced a move to Kansas City, I found that I could no longer do certain things — like talk.

Snowy school bus stop. Photo credit: Cathy Griffin.

It didn’t happen all the time, of course, just when I had to make that icy, snowy walk to my bus stop several blocks from home.  Somehow, the muscles controlling my lips and cheeks got so cold they didn’t move correctly. I felt like one of those Southern green anoles (aka, chameleons) that become so cold they can’t move — until the sun warms them, making their stiff bodies supple again. If I could force words to form at all, they were abnormal, as if I had ice cubes in my mouth. And for a Southern boy, that’s basically how it felt.

My fellow bus stop mates had no problem at all. Why was I different? I now realize that it was because of heritage (Southern) or early childhood environment (Southern). We’re just different, somehow. I have no scientific explanation for it.

Apparently, I eventually grew out of my dysphasia since my travels as an adult to the Arctic and Antarctic did not leave me speechless.

Now that the Florida summer heat is upon us, I realize that Northerners are not only immune to biting cold, or so it seems, but some of them enjoy running during the hottest time of the day.

For you non-Southerners, let me explain why Southerners talk slowly. For those like me who grew up without air conditioning; without air-conditioned cars to drive from our air-conditioned homes to our air-conditioned workplaces, the South could be a torturous place in the summertime, especially in the afternoons. No one thought of doing much of anything physical at a time when the sun was trying to parch the life out of our bodies. When your heart and brain are trying to equilibrate with the temperature of the Sahara desert, talking fast just doesn’t seem worth the energy. 

The other day I drove up beside a friend who had been running at midafternoon, the hottest time of the day, in 95° F heat, with 95% humidity. Borrowing a line from Noel Coward, I said, “I know you’re not a mad dog, so you must be an Englishman.”

I was close. He’s the son of a Norwegian, from an even higher latitude, where they have northern lights.

From the looks of him, he really didn’t seem to be enjoying himself, and he later admitted he’d lost 12 pounds water weight during that run.

Let that fact sink in a bit… 12 pounds of water lost. 

Running in Hades heat

Of course my friend is from the far north, both from recent and olden heritage, for no born and raised Southerner would consider such hellish activity. We were trained at an early age that such unnatural activity would lead to heat stroke. And indeed, I know of cases where it did; so this is not urban legend, or a wives tale. People die in this heat.

But oddly, some people from the Northland seem to be immune.

I do not understand it.

I realize the sample I see may be, as we scientists say, biased. I see the atheletes who are able to lose enough water to keep their bodies at a safe temperature, and I don’t see those who get nauseated at the mere thought of running in the heat. But it’s curious to me that one of my neighbors, a retired elderly man who looks like he should be having a heart attack, thinks nothing of mowing his yard during the hottest time of the day! Oh, did I mention he’s from a far Northern state?

Maybe it’s the northern lights. I’m suspicious that the beauty of northern lights masks the more sinister irradiation of the brain by cosmic particles that destroy some people’s ability to simply rest, drink, read, and contemplate during the heat of the day.

It’s my opinion that God made evenings cool, and mornings even cooler, so that people in hot climates can get some useful work done. It is not a gift to be ignored.

Liquid Breathing – It’s Not As Easy as It Looks

Who can forget James Cameron’s movie The Abyss!

If I need to remind you, Cameron is the creator of Avatar.

The Abyss was an imaginative movie of the 1980s, where the plot concerned commercial divers who had been hired by the Navy to assist with the salvage of a nuclear submarine. It involved very deep diving, and special technology that actually has some basis in fact.

By far the most memorable part of the movie involves a diving helmet filled with a liquid that the diver, with some trepidation, breathed.

Below is a clip from the movie that demonstrated, quite dramatically, and with a live animal, the concept of liquid breathing.

It’s not a trick – it really works, on small rodents.

In the 1960s and 70s the Office of Navy Research funded basic research at Duke University on liquid breathing, with Dr. Johannes A. Kylstra as the lead scientist on the project. After proving the technique worked on rodents and dogs, it progressed to the point of having a commercial diver, Frank Falejczyk, become the first person to breathe oxygenated liquid.

First, Frank inhaled well-oxygenated saline on an operating table. Unfortunately, extraction of the liquid from his lung did not work as planned. He developed pneumonia as a result of the exposure. But eventually, the researchers found that oxygenated perfluorocarbons could be tolerated by the lung, and could, at least in animals, allow the extraction of dissolved oxygen for a period of time without ill effects.

Eventually, Falejczyk made a presentation on his trials to an audience that happened to include James Cameron.  Apparently, Cameron was impressed.

So, can man breathe liquid and not drown? At least one retired physician says yes. Arnold Lande, a retired American heart and lung surgeon, has patented a scuba suit that would, he suggests, allow a human to breathe oxygenated liquid.


Now, making such a device work is in fact a tall order. Although Kylstra’s animal experiments showed that rodents and even dogs could be ventilated for up to an hour, the limiting factor seemed to be the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the body. The perfluorocarbons gave up their stored oxygen readily, but did not adequately eliminate carbon dioxide.

That is a major problem.

In the 1980s an Israeli colleague and I conducted biomedical research on potential Navy applications of high frequency ventilation (HFV), an unusual method of mechanical ventilation that now has many clinical applications. It soon occurred to me that appropriate frequencies applied to the mouth or chest wall could greatly accelerate the diffusion of carbon dioxide in liquid, just as it did in air. However, I never proposed studying liquid ventilation, and if I had, the proposal would likely have been rejected almost immediately on the basis of Frank Falejczyk’s bad outcome.

Dr. Lande has proposed solving the carbon dioxide retention problem by tieing artificial gills straight into the human circulatory system. There are obvious safety concerns with such a plan, but if those concerns could be engineered out, there is still the problem of creating working gills with enough throughput to eliminate CO2 from a working diver.

I once witnessed a demonstration of an artificial gill, conducted in front of several well-educated Navy diving physicians and scientists. After descending about three feet down into a pool, the “inventor” lay motionless for 30 seconds, then bounded up out of the water, breathlessly saying, “Basically, it works.”

His panted words were not convincing.

Based on fairly recent history, and the fact that for deep diving, not one lung but both lungs would have to be completely filled with perfluorocarbon or similar liquid, it seems that a practical and safe liquid breathing system will be a huge engineering challenge. I can envision ways that it could be done, but at what cost, and for what purpose?

I am mindful, being an aviator, that such questions were not allowed to stymie Wilbur and Orville Wright. However, these days, human experimentation involving the complete filling of human lungs would face a formidable hurdle, called the Human Use Committee.  In the U.S. at least, a repeat of Kylstra’s experiments is very unlikely to be approved by Research Ethics committees.

But could it happen in other countries with lessor human research safeguards?

Time will tell.

The Puerto Rico Trench and Denizens of the Deep

(Public domain - from U.S. Geological Survey)
Puerto Rico Trench. (Click once or twice for full image) U.S. Geological Survey

The Puerto Rico Trench is the deepest part of the Atlantic Ocean, and is only surpassed in its depth by the Marianas Trench in the Pacific Ocean. It is 500 miles long, and at its deepest plummets 28,232 feet down.

After receiving my doctorate with a special interest in deep-sea physiology, I was invited on board the oceanographic Research Vessel (RV) Gilliss for an expedition to the Puerto Rico Trench. I was accompanied on that research cruise by Dr. Robert Y. George, a deep-sea biological oceanographer from Florida State University.

I had been studying the effect of very high pressure on invertebrate hearts. As luck would have it, the largest population of deep-sea creatures indigenous to the deepest places in the ocean are invertebrates (animals lacking  vertebrae, backbones.) But on the way down to the deepest reaches of the trench, you encounter some very strange creatures indeed, such as the Humpback Angler Fish.

Click for a larger image







These bizarre and frightening looking fish inhabit the abyssal pelagic zone (or the Abyss) between 13,000 and 20,000 feet. But below the water containing these abyssal fish lies the zone of the deep trenches, the hadalpelagic zone between 20,000 and 36,000 feet, the deepest point in any ocean.

“Denizens of the Deep” are known in merfolk tradition as the beasts that swallow up the sun at the end of the day, which is somewhat ironic since sunlight never reaches down to the abyssal and hadal zones. Whatever light is there, is produced by bioluminescence. Down there, light means either a meal, or a trap. And since meals are uncommon in the sparsely populated ocean depths, predators seem designed to ensure they miss no opportunities to feed. Their jaws, fangs, and other anatomical structures seem especially designed to snag a hapless passer-by, and provide no chance of escape for those caught.  Fortunately for us, animals adapted to the high pressure, low oxygen environment of the deep ocean cannot survive in shallow waters.

But imagine for a moment that something perturbed that natural order. Time has separated us from man-eating dinosaurs, but the only thing separating us from deep-sea monsters, ferocious predators that make piranhas look playful, is something as simple as pressure and oxygen.  Could things change?

Well, not to scare you, but until 1983 or so, the Puerto Rico Trench was a huge pharmaceutical dumping ground. Massive quantities of steroids and antibiotics, and chemicals capable of causing genetic mutations, came to rest on the sea floor, or were dispersed in the waters above and around the trench.

Read more about that here: http://deepseanews.com/2008/04/dumping-pharmaceutical-waste-in-the-deep-sea/

You don’t need to take just one person’s word for it. Professor R.Y. George himself commented on the issue in his resumé.

July 5 – July 30, 1977. Revisited Puerto Rico Trench (now Pharmaceutical Dump Site) aboard R/V GILLISS of the University of Miami to study Barophylic (pressure-loving)bacteria (Dr. Jody Demming’s Ph. D. work from Dr. Rita Colwell’s Lab. in the University of Maryland), and to study meiofauna, macrofauna and megafauna (in collaboration with Dr. Robert Higgins of the Smithsonian Institution).

Frankly, if I was visiting Puerto Rico, and signed up for a deep-sea fishing trip, I’d ask the boat captain just how deep we’d be fishing. I really wouldn’t want to bring up a Humpback Angler Fish large enough to eat the boat. After all, Angler Fish are fishermen too.

For a NOAA sponsored animated tour of the Trench, play the following high resolution video.

[youtube id=”v1OnsuyFdaM” w=”700″ h=”600″]


Those Doctors Are Trying to Kill Me!

Be careful what you say before going under anesthesia.

I had reached the age when my internist required me to get a colonoscopy, and I was not looking forward to it. I got gowned up in one of ridiculous back open gowns, for obvious reasons, but had a darkly funny thought when the nurse attached an I.D. bracelet to my wrist. I joked to the nurse, and to my wife, about the bracelet saying DNR, “Do Not Resuscitate.” Haha. See how I make joke when I nervous?

I know, I should have known better than to joke about a DNR, because it is after all a serious, and usually anguish-filled end-of-life decision someone has to make, at some point. It really wasn’t suitable for a joke, But hey, I can kid about my own mortality any time I want. Right?

Well, the joke was on me, because my timing for the joke was really bad. A couple of minutes later I was given an intravenous cocktail of Versed, propofol, and fentanyl. I was out.

In medical parlance, that form of anesthesia is called a MAC – Monitored Anesthesia Care. Which, for me, meant I didn’t care, or know anything at all, for a few minutes.

But when I woke up, things had changed. While I was unconscious, having my body invaded, someone had placed a DNR band on my wrist. And I was not happy about that, not at all. Who gave them permission?

I voiced my complaint to the nurse and my wife who were helping me get off the gurney and walk me to the car. But they didn’t seem to care! They wouldn’t even look at that blasted wrist band. Why was my wife so uncaring about my obvious distress?

At one point as my wife was driving me home, she started laughing at me. Of all the nerve! All I did was try to tell her about the DNR wrist bracelet. And she thought it was funny!

But I still remember my comeback to her. “Laugh jackass, laugh!”

Boy, I sure had her number! That shut her up; until she started tucking me in bed for a nap.

But I didn’t want to sleep. I was mad as Hades! Did you know, someone had put a DNR bracelet on me while I was unconscious?

And then something clicked in her, born of years of raising toddlers and preschoolers. As I was trying to climb out of the bed she held my shoulders down, put her face right in front of mine, and said forcefully,

“No. It does not say that! Now go to sleep.”

She later said I got a very hurt look on my face. And then I laid back, and was out, again.

When I woke up, all was right with the world.

But while I was sleeping that darned DNR wrist band had been cut off my wrist and the evidence destroyed. My wife still claims no knowledge of it.

If I may opine about what happened to me: I believe this is an example of idea fixation brought on by anesthetic agents. It was as if, on induction, a particular mental state was captured, which was in fact a mixture of dark humor regarding my bracelet, which obviously was not a DNR bracelet, and some anxiety over the procedure. Perhaps those anesthetic agents caused the emotional content to morph into something of its own creation, some paranoid delusion which was not abolished until the last vestiges of the drug were eliminated.

If you look up the term “idea fixation” you’ll see, oddly enough, repeated mention of nitrogen narcosis, a diving induced mental state of which I am all too aware. From a scientific perspective, there are qualitative parallels between the narcosis of nitrogen and the narcosis of certain anesthetic agents.  But I don’t know how many events such as the one I experienced have been recorded in the medical literature. If you know, please share with me.

In the meantime, I plan to maintain a tight grip on even the most humorous impulses I might have before undergoing anymore medical procedures requiring sedation. The next time, my wife may not be so understanding.

McMurdo Station, Antarctica: A Research Town

A photo of Jello Wrestling among fully clothed adults was published today as an indictment of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and its off-duty recreation program for McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Since I’ve spent a little time at McMurdo Station, I’d like to come to the defense of the NSF – by doing nothing more than describing what life in Antarctica is like.

I am not, and have never been an employee of the National Science Foundation, and have never held an NSF grant. I’ve never participated in a Jello wrestling match, although it looks like fun.  So, I am unbiased about this news event. However, I am informed about the rigors of daily life at McMurdo Station.

The following link is to a Washington Times article reporting on a supposed tally of $3 billion of financial excesses within the NSF. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2011/may/26/tax-dollars-shrimp-treadmills-jell-o-wrestling/

What is most concerning to me, is that the Coburn report focuses on a non-science activity, designed to relieve interminable boredom in a minimalistic environment. I think that, if pressed, the report’s author would have to admit the photo has nothing whatsoever to do with waste in science funding. How much can Jello bought in bulk for the McMurdo cafeteria cost?

Click for a larger image.

As the Google image above shows, men and women who support the McMurdo and South Pole Station are isolated by vast distances from “civilization”. The closest cities with air transportation to the U.S. bases are either in Christchurch, New Zealand, or in Chile. During the winter, with 24 hours of darkness and generally horrible weather, it is virtually impossible for anyone to leave the bases. There are no flights into or out of the continent. So if anyone developes a medical problem or injury too great for the local medical support staff to handle, they are simply out of luck.

During the winter months, the size of support and scientific staff are greatly reduced, so those sharing the bleak winter together get to know each other, well. The contract staff during both winter and summer is composed largely of young, college-age men or women who are healthy, energetic, and are signing on for adventure.

But think about it. With 24 hours of darkness during the winter, the opportunities for recreation are minimal. It typically isn’t safe, or even possible, to go for walks or runs outdoors. A trip away from base, or even close by, could prove fatal if the weather were to change suddenly, which it often does. There are no soccer fields, no ball parks. And even worse, for those of you forever connected to the Internet,  there is barely enough bandwidth down there to support email on a bank of shared computers. Want to send a photo of yourself home to the folks? Forget about it. At least that’s how it was when I was there a couple of years ago.

View from Hut Point, McMurdo. Click for a larger image.

Life in Antarctica, at its best, is a spartan existence in a harsh, unforgiving environment. So how do these young men and women entertain themselves?

The fact of life is that off-duty entertainment, anywhere in the world, can lead to pregnancy, which in Antarctica can easily become a medical emergency.  And medical emergencies can lead to drama very quickly since flights out of McMurdo are nonexistent in the winter and difficult to arrange, and very expensive, even during the summer. So group entertainment that keeps these young healthy adults occupied is a wonderful idea.

I admit I do not know all the facts behind the firing of the Jello Wrestling organizer, reported in various news accounts.  But I have to wonder: why would off-duty entertainment be a reason to very publicly condemn the organization that funds and staffs the McMurdo Station, and funds a large proportion of science research in the U.S.? 

McMurdo Station seen from the Ross Ice Shelf

As a scientist I do not understand the denigration of the noble discipline that helped our country attain greatness, defend itself, and lead our way into the future. If science is to be attacked in public, I would ask that those attacking it be held accountable for the damage they do to science institutions, and to the minds of young men and women on the verge of becoming scientists. As a country we decry our failing leadership in science and engineering, and complain of the poor quality of education in the math and science disciplines, and yet we allow, and even fund,  studies that criticise  programs that have long been working safely and productively in the harshest environment on Earth.

The U.S. Antarctic Program is a success story, in spite of what headlines of the day might suggest.

Why I Worry about Zombie Ants and Mind-Controlling Fungus

I will never look at a mushroom the same way again.

The April National Geographic has a new piece about Zombie ants, ants whose minds are controlled by a fungus which kills the ants in a bizarre way, at a location most suitable for the fungus.



I once wrote a Master’s Thesis at Georgia Tech on yeast, arguably the most primitive fungus, the type of fungus that can drive women wild with infections, and drive all of us to distraction through its ability to ferment grains and juices to make alcohol. It all depends on the particular species of yeast, of course. It depends on genetics.

I, and most any school kid, can vouch for the fact that fungus, in general, is not known for its high IQ. Of course, it has no brain per se, and apparently no neural circuitry at all. So I find it amazing that a fungus can do what our best scientific teams are incapable of doing – controlling minds.

Photo credit David Hughes

Admittedly, ants are not all that smart by human standards, but they are geniuses at being ants. They do have a brain, and typically their goal is to feed and protect their colony using well scripted behaviors. However, walking off into the jungle undergrowth and starting a new fungus colony in an ideal location, for fungus, is not part of their neural programming. And yet, the lowly fungus, against all odds, manages to rewrite the ant’s neural code to serve the fungi’s own reproductive purposes.

Fungus can infect the human brain, and even kill. It is a big killer in immunocompromised, AIDS infected humans, and it kills by causing a potentially fatal meningitis.  Perhaps it feeds off the brain, but human pathogenic fungi do not CONTROL the human brain.

At least one naturalist described the Zombie ants as chimeras – part ant, part fungus. The way I interpret that statement, what the fungus lacks in terms of neural circuitry, visual and olfactory organs, and legs, it acquires by merging with the brain of the ant. So while we routinely manipulate lower life forms like cattle and oxen to do our bidding, it seems like quite a different thing when a lower life form controls a life form vastly more complex.

But what is especially scary is that the difference between fungi that infect the human brain causing coincidental death, and fungi that control the ant brain causing a well manipulated death, is a matter of genetics. And what is one of the hottest scientific fields for now and the forseeable future? Genetic manipulation.

Actually, it’s not the ants I worry about, nor the fungus. What I worry about is what scientists like myself might do with the knowledge that fungi can control brains, even if they are simple ones. The concept of directed mind control by the use of genetically enhanced fungal vectors is simply too Orwellian for me.

Those Curious Manganese Nodules: from Intelligence History to Science Mystery

Shortly before Howard Hughes’ massive ship, the Glomar Explorer, conducted a secret mission to recover a sunken Soviet submarine in the Pacific, under the guise of collecting manganese nodules, a much smaller Research Vessel was collecting the real thing, on the Blake Plateau about 150 miles southeast of the Georgia-Florida Coast .

Duke University's R. V. Eastward

In 1970 I was the only biologist on board the Duke University’s Research Vessel, the R.V. Eastward. Also present were geologists from the Lamont Geological Observatory, and a geologist, Dr. J. Helmut Reuter, from Georgia Tech where I was in graduate school.

There is a wealth of information on the association between bacteria and ferromanganese nodules, with some scientists convinced that bacteria precipitate manganese out of solution in seawater, thus leading to nodule creation. Arguably, the best reference on this subject is the book Geomicrobiology by H.L. Ehrlich and D.K. Newman (5th ed. 2009)


Nodules fresh off the dredge
Shipboard laboratory with decontaminated nodules

My mentors at Georgia Tech and I knew bacteria would be found coating the outside of the nodules, but we wanted to know if viable bacteria remained inside the nodules once surface contamination had been removed. My mission onboard the R.V. Eastward was to setup a small bacteriological laboratory and then search for that evidence.

Ultimately, our search was not successful. No viable bacteria were cultured.

But that is the nature of science — you don’t know until you try.

Success or not, how do scientists celebrate the end of a cruise to the Blake Plateau? Well in Nassau celebration involves fine German Beer and even finer Cuban Matasulem Rum. Yes, at the time Matasulem Rum still bearing its Cuban label could be found in the Bahamas.

Factoid for the day: Since Helmut Reuter was a geologist, he taught me that the sand around Nassau, unbelievably soft on your feet, was called oolitic sand.

Bahamas Oolitic Sand, photo credit Mark A. Wilson

 Forty years later what do we know about these curious nodules? For one thing, they are extremely slow growing, growing about a centimeter over several million years. That means the nodules in my possession are on the order of 12 million years old.

Secondly, although scientists are stimulated by the competition to discover the one correct theory among numerous hypotheses for the origin of something mysterious, such as manganese nodules, in this a case it looks like virtually everyone was correct. Nodules seem to form from precipitation of metals from seawater, especially from volcanic thermal vents, the decomposition of basalt by seawater and the precipitation of metal hydroxides through the activity of various manganese fixing bacteria. For any given nodule field, these chemical and biological processes may have been working simultaneously, or sequentially.  For any one nodule, it is presently impossible to tell which processes affected its formation.

Nodules on the Blake Plateau. Photo credit, Lamont Geological Observatory.

We should realize as we hold a 12 million year old rock in our hand, that it is far too much to expect to know details of its history over eons of time.

Manganese nodule like one in the author's collection. Photo credit, Walter Kolle.