To sleep, perchance to dream

Simon's CatAye, there’s the rub. To sleep in, one weekend morning, when there are no pressures for meetings, work, deadlines. To roll away from the soft light that filters through the blinds and enjoy that delicious moment of closing your eyes and drifting back into a dream. Covers pulled up, the street quiet outside the widow, the furnace gently wheezing its warm air into the room; nothing is better in the world.

But of course, there are others with different ideas. The real masters of the house brook no laziness, have no interest in our needs, in how much wine we drank the night before, how late we stayed up reading, how tough and demanding the week was. They have their schedule and we are slaves to it.

Sophie wants to be walked and fed. She nuzzles the covers, pushing at them with her nose, insistent. I reach out a hand, get a half-hearted pat, hoping it will appease her, then pull my arm back in. No, not sufficient. Her nose pokes under the covers, wet and cold on the flesh of my arm.

Abby, the little black cat, who spends the night curled into the crook of my knees, is on a dresser, standing on her back legs, frantically pawing at herself in the mirror. The irksome pat-pat-pat of her tiny pads like an annoying drum solo in the otherwise quiet room.

Diego, the orange tom, managed to walk into the bedroom with a thumping gait when at all other times he is as silent and lithe as a tiger on the hunt. He jumps onto the bed like a sack of cement, and begins howling. He walks on and over sleeping bodies, ignoring our ineffective shrugs to move him off.

Up onto the bedside cabinets he travels, flicking pens, glasses and bookmarks onto the floor with a callous swipe of his large paws. Clink and clatter on the floor as they fall. When that fails to get attention, he returns, hunches over the sleeper, and boldly taps my face with a paw – its claws not quite retracted.

Sensing a change, perhaps in that rhythmic shift in our breathing from sleep to awake, the other two cats come into the bedroom. Tippy chases a toy mouse around, sounding remarkably like a stampeding herd of wildebeest.

Cleo paws at a lower dresser drawer, one she can open if she works at it, and starts dragging socks onto the floor so she can create a nest space to rest in. This attracts the others and there’s a brief scuffle. She and Diego exchange slapping blows of irritation. They sound like prizefighters slapping a speed bag. A few hisses like a steam train starting its journey, then they part to return to their primary goal of getting us up.

Sophie paces restlessly, the click of her toenails as loud as a tapdancer’s cleats. She moves from my side to Susan’s, then back.

A toy finds its way to the top of the stairs, and is launched down them, crashing and banging until it hits the floor below, somehow transformed from a tiny plush mouse into a grandfather clock as it tumbles. A cat races loudly after, in pursuit.

Diego walks across the headboard, balancing on the wood, miaowing loudly like an army drill sergeant waking his troops. Sometimes a foot slips and stumps down heavily on a pillow, beside a weary head. Or on it. Back and forth, back and forth.

[youtube=www.youtube.com/watch?v=w0ffwDYo00Q]

Whatever possessed us to invite so many animals into our home? Slaves to punishment, I suppose.

I open an eye. 6:44. I watch the clock until the little digital readout says 6:45, knowing that any more time in bed is impossible. “Tea?” murmurs a sleepy Susan.

“Yes,” I agree, and throw off the covers and sit up. Sophie dances happily. The cats skitter out of the room and are almost downstairs by the time I’ve got to my feet. Behind me, Susan slips on a bathrobe to joins me in the morning feeding ritual.

Perhaps I can grab a nap – a catnap? – later in the day and enjoy that sweet bliss of sleep for a few more minutes.

 

Or maybe doomsday just postponed…

A story in Science Daily today talks about the effect that antibiotics used in animals has had on humans. Or rather, on antibiotic-resistant bacteria which are dangerous to humans.

The increasing production and use of antibiotics, about half of which is used in animal production, is mirrored by the growing number of antibiotic resistance genes, or ARGs, effectively reducing antibiotics’ ability to fend off diseases — in animals and humans.

Now this is hardly news. Concerns over unchecked use of antibiotics in farm animals have been raised for decades. The antibiotics have been working their way through the system and back into the environment where they came back to haunt us. As noted in this story,

Waters polluted by the ordure of pigs, poultry, or cattle represent a reservoir of antibiotic resistance genes, both known and potentially novel. These resistance genes can be spread among different bacterial species by bacteriophage, bacteria-infecting viruses, according to a paper in the October Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy.
“We found great quantities of bacteriophages carrying different antibiotic resistance genes in waters with fecal pollution from pigs, cattle, and poultry,” says Maite Muniesa of the University of Barcelona, Spain, an author on the study. “We demonstrated that the genes carried by the phages were able to generate resistance to a given antibiotic when introduced into other bacteria in laboratory conditions,” says Muniesa.

The Animal Health Institute assures us antibiotics are necessary to keep us safe:

Because antibiotic resistance is a public health concern, several layers of protection have been put in place to ensure that animal antibiotics do not affect public health.

But our concerns isn’t as great here as it is with one of our primary food suppliers: China. As Science Daily reports:

A study in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that China — the world’s largest producer and consumer of antibiotics — and many other countries don’t monitor the powerful medicine’s usage or impact on the environment.
On Chinese commercial pig farms, researchers found 149 unique ARGs, some at levels 192 to 28,000 times higher than the control samples…

Pretty scary. Environment Canada has commented on how antibiotics and other drugs fed to animals get into the environment:

The primary contaminants associated with manure include nitrate and ammonia, coliform bacteria, phosphorus, endocrine disrupters and other animal pharmaceuticals. Both the land use and waste management practices commonly employed on farms throughout Canada have impaired the quality of water resources on a regional basis (Rudolph et al. 1998). In a recent survey of farm drinking wells in Ontario, approximately one well in three was found to contain at least one contaminant commonly associated with agricultural activities, including nitrate or bacteria…

The risk is that these antibiotic-resistant microbes spread easily and rapidly, sharing their AR genes with other microbes:

Daily exposure to antibiotics, such as those in animal feed, allows microbes carrying ARGs to thrive. In some cases, these antibiotic resistant genes become highly mobile, meaning they can be transferred to other bacteria that can cause illness in humans. This is a big concern because the infections they cause can’t be treated with antibiotics.
ARGs can reach the general population through food crops, drinking water and interactions with farm workers. Because of this undesirable cycle, ARGs pose a potential global risk to human health and should be classified as pollutants, said Tiedje, an MSU AgBioResearch scientist.

The genes concentrate in sewage treatment plants, which become reservoirs of them, says this story:

Water discharged into lakes and rivers from municipal sewage treatment plants may contain significant concentrations of the genes that make bacteria antibiotic-resistant. That’s the conclusion of a new study on a sewage treatment plant on Lake Superior in the Duluth, Minn., harbor that appears in ACS’ journal Environmental Science & Technology.
Timothy M. LaPara and colleagues explain that antibiotic-resistant bacteria — a major problem in medicine today — are abundant in the sewage that enters municipal wastewater treatment plants. Treatment is intended to kill the bacteria, and it removes many of the bacterial genes that cause antibiotic resistance. However, genes or bacteria may be released in effluent from the plant. In an effort to determine the importance of municipal sewage treatment plants as sources of antibiotic resistance genes, the scientists studied releases of those genes at the Duluth facility.

These genes can be transferred to humans and affect our health. A 2010 story in Science Daily noted one growing impact on human health:

Genes that make bacteria resistant to antibiotics can be transferred between humans and other animals, say researchers writing in this month’s issue of the Journal of Medical Microbiology. The findings will help health experts to assess how using antibiotics in food-producing animals can affect the treatment of common human infections.
Scientists from the Carol Yu Centre for Infection at the University of Hong Kong examined Escherichia coli bacteria responsible for causing human urinary tract infections (UTIs) and bacteria in faecal samples from humans and food-producing animals. They found an identical gene for antibiotic resistance was present in all the samples in similar proportions and locations, suggesting that the gene is likely to be transferred between bacteria residing in different hosts.
The gene, called aacC2, encodes resistance to a commonly-used antibiotic gentamicin and was found in approximately 80% of human and animal samples. What is more, this gene was found on sections of DNA that are known to swap between different bacterial populations. Both these factors, combined with the identical gene sequences led the researchers to suggest that aacC2 can transfer between separate populations of bacteria that colonise different species.
E. coli is responsible for 75-95% of human urinary tract infections. Surveys in recent years have shown that antibiotic resistance in this bacterium is increasing, making infections increasingly difficult to treat.

This seems to be a bigger problem for women than for men, according to this 2010 story:

Chicken sold in supermarkets, restaurants and other outlets may place young women at risk of urinary tract infections (UTI), McGill researcher Amee Manges has discovered. Samples taken in the Montreal area between 2005 and 2007, in collaboration with the Public Health Agency of Canada and the University of Guelph, provide strong new evidence that E. coli (Escherichia coli) bacteria originating from these food sources can cause common urinary tract infections.

As Greatist notes in this piece, the use of antibiotics in livestock is increasing rapidly:

…the use of antibiotics in livestock may be expanding at a greater rate than the meat industry itself. While the American Meat Institute reported a 0.2 percent increase in meat and poultry production in 2011 compared to 2010, antibiotic consumption jumped 2 percent over the same time period — suggesting meat production might be relying more heavily on antibiotics. All told, the livestock industry now uses nearly four-fifths of the antibiotics administered in the U.S.

Pew research graphic

The graphic reveals that human antibiotic use has leveled off at below eight billion pounds a year. Meanwhile, meat and poultry farms have been using up record numbers of the stuff each year — reaching a new high of almost 29.9 billion pounds in 2011.

About 80% of all the antibiotics produced in the USA are being fed to animals.
The widespread antibiotic use isn’t just harming us. It’s harming our entire environment. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are showing up in soil, according to this story:

A team of scientists in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands are reporting disturbing evidence that soil microbes have become progressively more resistant to antibiotics over the last 60 years. Surprisingly, this trend continues despite apparent more stringent rules on use of antibiotics in medicine and agriculture, and improved sewage treatment technology that broadly improves water quality in surrounding environments.

There is a lot more to write and research here, but I’ll leave this here for now with this quote from a story in The Guardian last fall:

The overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture and medicine is putting human lives at unnecessary risk and driving up medical costs, according to a group of group of 150 scientists that includes a former head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)… a growing body of research supported the conclusion that overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture is fueling a health crisis. One statement cited a study which estimated that antibiotic-resistant infections cost $20bn annually to hospitals alone.

So doomsday may yet be waiting in the wings… or in the soil, the water, and on our dinner plates.

Super-fast evolution: new species in just 6,000 years

Sea starsAccording to a recent story in Science Daily, new species of sea stars may have arisen in as little a time as 6,000 years.

Researchers studied the diversity in DNA sequences from sea stars of two related species to estimate how long it has been since the two species diverged. Their results showed a range from roughly 6,000 to 22,000 years ago.

That rules out some ways new species could evolve. For example, they clearly did not diverge slowly with genetic changes over a long period of time, but were isolated quickly.

Over the last 11,000 years, the boundary between cold and warm water in the Coral Sea has fluctuated north and south. A small population of the ancestral sea stars, perhaps even one individual, might have colonized a remote area at the southern end of the range then been isolated by one of these changes in ocean currents.

These two species of “cushion stars” – Cryptasperina pentagona and C. hystera – while they look very similar, are very different in many aspects – habitat and sex lives in particular.

Pentagona has male and female individuals that release sperm and eggs into the water where they fertilize, grow into larvae and float around in the plankton for a few months before settling down and developing into adult sea stars.
Hystera are hermaphrodites that brood their young internally and give birth to miniature sea stars ready to grow to adulthood.

Six thousand years is a remarkably short time for a significant evolutionary activity – about the entire length of recorded human history. And about as long as some creationist crackpots think the Earth has been in existence. But it’s not a one-speed-fits-all for evolutionary change. Even the longer 22,000 years is still remarkably short. That’s about when the first Europeans arrived in North America, or the length of the time it takes the remarkable planetoid, 2006 SQ372, to complete its orbit.

Earlier this year, Wired Magazine published a story about research to discover how long it would take for a mouse-sized animal to evolve to an elephant-sized one. And the answer was 24 million years.

That’s how many generations a new study estimates it would take to go from mouse- to elephant-sized while operating on land at the maximum velocity of change. The figure underscores just how special a trait sheer bigness can be.
“Big animals represent the accumulation of evolutionary change, and change takes time,” said evolutionary biologist Alistair Evans of Australia’s Monash University.
Evans and co-authors revisit a fossil record dataset of mammal body size during the last 70 million years, in a study published Jan. 31 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The data was originally used to describe the evolutionary growth spurts experienced by mammals soon after dinosaurs ceased to be Earth’s dominant animals.
The relative sizes of mouse and elephant skulls. To go from mouse-sized to elephant-sized would take at least 24 million generations.
For the previous 140 million years, mammals had been rat-sized or smaller. With dinosaurs significantly reduced, mammals had a chance to fill newly vacant ecological niches, particularly that of the large-bodied plant-eater.

But what about human evolution? We have a pretty good record of our species’ evolution over more than 4 million years, from the apelike Ardipithecus through Australopithecus, Neanderthal, Cro Magnon to us. But we are, like other animals, still evolving. And the rate of evolution may be speeding up.

According to a story in National Geographic,

Explosive population growth is driving human evolution to speed up around the world, according to a new study.
The pace of change accelerated about 40,000 years ago and then picked up even more with the advent of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, the study says.
And while humans are evolving quickly around the world, local cultural and environmental factors are shaping evolution differently on different continents.
“We’re evolving away from each other. We’re getting more and more different,” said Henry Harpending, an anthropologist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City who co-authored the study.
For example, in Europe natural selection has favored genes for pigmentation like light skin, blue eyes, and blond hair. Asians also have genes selected for light skin, but they are different from the European ones.
“Europeans and Asians are both bleached Africans, but the way they got bleached is different in the two areas,” Harpending said.
He and colleagues report the finding this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

And some birds may be evolving faster, too – depending on their colour. According to a story in Science Daily in May,

Researchers have found that bird species with multiple plumage colour forms within in the same population, evolve into new species faster than those with only one colour form, confirming a 60-year-old evolution theory.
The global study used information from birdwatchers and geneticists accumulated over decades and was conducted by University of Melbourne scientists Dr Devi Stuart-Fox and Dr Andrew Hugall (now based at the Melbourne Museum) and is published in the journal Nature.
The link between having more than one colour variation (colour polymorphism) like the iconic red, black or yellow headed Gouldian finches, and the faster evolution of new species was predicted in the 1950s by famous scientists such as Julian Huxley, but this is the first study to confirm the theory.
By confirming a major theory in evolutionary biology, we are able to understand a lot more about the processes that create biodiversity said Dr Devi Stuart-Fox from the University’s Zoology Department.

So much science, so much research that continues to prove Darwin’s original theory, albeit much refined today thanks to our genetic research. You have to wonder, then, why 46% of Americans and 42% of Canadians and many others in the world still believe in the nonsense of creationism nor the pseudoscience of “intelligent” design.

I blame the continued survival of creationism on our failing education system with its lack of emphasis on science and its lack of training in critical thinking; on our society’s growing distrust in and disrespect for intellectuals; and the increasing influence of fundamentalist religion in politics.