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eNews For The Week Of October 20, 2014

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Articles And Commentary

Bacteria Were Made “Very Good” Too

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Germs. They’re on everything. Doorknobs. Faucet handles. The insides of hamster cages for children at McDonald’s. Municipalities chlorinate their water supplies, and dairy farmers pasteurize the milk from cows. Teachers regularly use Clorox wipes and supply their students with Purell in an effort to slaughter unwanted microbes. Killers like cholera, typhoid and tuberculosis are no longer major problems in Western cities. Yet, in our obsession with making ourselves germ-free, we’ve forgotten that the vast majority of bacteria in the world are beneficial. They’re not just good, they’re vital, and when we kill them off in our crusade against the harmful varieties, we leave ourselves open to different kinds of problems.

Bacteria are not evil. In fact, bacteria provide a host of useful services from digesting our waste to producing vitamins. Bacteria were created to fulfill specific functions, and life on Earth depends on them. Consider the following relatively short list:

Intestinal Bacteria

Scientists have identified about 400 different species of bacteria living in our stomach and intestines. If we lived on a deserted island sans pasteurization, toxic chemicals, chlorine or antibiotics, we might have trillions of these little guys in our guts, doing the things they do best. Bacteria like bifidobacteria, lactobacilli, and Escherichia coli break down foods that we can’t and provide necessary vitamins for us as a result. What’s more, their presence in our digestive system hold down the growth of dangerous pathogens — the microbes that can cause us harm.

Wait. Escherichia coli? We all thought E. coli was a monster out to cause internal hemorrhaging and death.

A few harmful E. coli strains get all the attention, but E. coli is a common member of our intestinal flora and provides us with Vitamin K and B-complex vitamins. The harmful E. coli varieties were produced when viruses inserted their DNA into the E. coli genetic codes, making those particular bacterial strains dangerous for human consumption. E. coli isn’t naturally our enemy; some of its species members just turned on us.

Anti-Cancer Protection

Bacteria like Clostridium acetobutylicum naturally produce sodium butyrate, which has anti-cancer characteristics:

It lowers an enzyme called Cox–2, which has been found to cause pre-cancerous inflammation.

Cancer cells reproduce rapidly because the gene that would force them to self-destruct has been “turned off.” The sodium butyrate turns that gene back on, and the cancer cells die.

Certain Lactobacillus casei strains improve the activity of Natural killer (NK) cells, helping the body’s natural ability to fight off cancer. NK cells in the immune system go around like Sheriff Matt Dillon, taking out cells that are cancerous or infected with viruses.

Streptococcus thermophiles has been credited with diminishing the small-bowel damage done to rats who have undergone chemotherapy. It also possesses anti-cancer and anti-tumor benefits and is a natural antibiotic.

Streptomyces parvulus naturally fights the spread of malignant tumors by producing the compound borrelidin. Borrelidin inhibits angiogenesis — the growth of new blood vessels from existing blood vessels. Angiogenesis is important for healing wounds, but it is also a key part of a tumor’s going malignant.

Nutrient Cycles in Nature

One of the most important things that bacteria and other microorganisms do is recycle important elements. Different types of creatures need different forms of carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen. Bacteria are instrumental in the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle, and photosynthesis and the release of oxygen into the air.

In the carbon cycle, photosynthetic bacteria “fix” CO2. That is, they take it out of the atmosphere and use it to build themselves. While feeding other creatures up the food chain, cyanobacteria (and planktonic algae) also do the majority of the work of photosynthesis on Earth, taking in CO2 and releasing O2 into the air. Cyanobacteria and algae are responsible for at least 50% of the O2 production on the earth.

Other bacteria break down our garbage. Whether in sewage treatment or compost or landfills or in the decomposition of dead things in the woods, bacteria do the vital job of breaking things back down to their component parts and releasing CO2 back into the air.

Azotobacter, Beijerinckia, and Clostridium bacteria fix nitrogen from the air, taking N2 straight from the atmosphere, where it is abundant, and converting it to the form of NH3 (ammonia) which animals and plants can use. Rhizobium bacteria help plants absorb nitrogen from the soil. Nitrosomonas converts NH3 to nitrites, and Nitrobacter converts nitrites to nitrates for use by plants. Still other bacteria turn nitrites into N2O, returning N2 to the atmosphere.

The cyanobacterium, Synechococcus, is an all-around useful organism responsible for about 25 percent of primary production in marine environments. It is good at nitrogen fixation and oxygenic photosynthesis and is therefore involved in all three — the carbon, nitrogen and oxygen cycles.

And The List Goes On

A host of bacteria are known to improve the immune system and reduce allergies, fight irritable bowel syndrome, digest cellulose in the guts of grazing animals, and keep ponds clean.

Despite all our science, we continue to experience a large number of illnesses; allergies are more common today than ever. Perhaps our problem is not that our antibiotics are too weak. God knew what He was doing when He created bacteria in the first place. They too were a part of His “very good” creation (Genesis 1:31). The answer to our illnesses may not be more Purell. Instead, maybe we just need to encourage our kids to go play in the dirt.

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Thorium: One Nuclear Alternative

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The quest for renewable energy has caused wind farms with their multitude of turbines to poke up across America like porcupine quills. Solar plants abound in Germany and the rest of the world is watching. One problem with solar and wind, however, is that they offer little consistency. The sun goes down. The wind stops blowing. The technology is improving and the costs are dropping, but wind and solar still do not produce enough efficient, consistent energy to begin to replace coal-fired or nuclear power plants.

Light-water nuclear reactors do operate cleanly and inexpensively, producing plenty of energy without also belching much-maligned CO2 emissions. Still, people get put off by the occasional meltdown that spews radiation into the air and water. Conventional nuclear power is also wasteful. The uranium-dioxide fuel rods must be changed out after only 0.5% of the uranium is used, forcing the disposal of highly radioactive material that will take multiple thousands of years to “cool.” The plutonium generated by light-water reactors also runs the risk of being swiped by disreputable groups for use in bombs destined for places like New York and Tel Aviv.

Thorium has become an attractive potential alternative to conventional nuclear fuel. It isn’t naturally radioactive and its power-plants would not be prone to meltdown. Nearly the entire fuel rod can be used in energy production without the serious national security and nuclear waste issues of using conventional uranium fuel. Plus, thorium is more abundant than uranium, and there are large thorium deposits in Georgia and Idaho.

India also has large thorium deposits on its soil and has been investing in thorium energy research. India depends predominantly on coal for providing electricity to its citizens, but in September 218 coal mining licenses were temporarily revoked, declared illegal by the Indian Supreme Court because they were issued by a corrupt process. India has a high-energy demand with its billion-plus population, and newly-elected Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government wants to put more eggs into the nuclear power basket. The plan is to increase the number of nuclear power plants in India from 20 to 250 over the next 35 years.

India has to import its uranium, though, and it’s been tough enough to obtain the uranium it needs for the 20 plants it currently has, let alone 250 in the future. India can mine its own thorium, however, offering the country a potentially inexpensive, clean, efficient and safe way to bring power to its people for generations to come.

Former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Hans Blix, has been a proponent of thorium energy research, promoting it as a safer nuclear alternative that doesn’t produce much radioactive waste or materials that can be used in bombs. He spoke at the Thorium Energy Conference in Geneva, Switzerland last November, where 32 countries were represented. Notable attendees also included CERN Director General Mr. Rolf-Dieter Heuer and Nobel Prize Laureate Carlo Rubbia.

Various groups are already on the job. Virginia-based nuclear technology company Lightbridge has been developing thorium-uranium oxide pelletized fuel rods that can be used in existing nuclear LWRs.

An international project, initiated by the US Department of Energy, led by Georgia Institute of Technology and Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), as part of the RCUK Energy Programme, a team at the University of Cambridge, is doing research they believe will make the promise of thorium energy a reality within the next decade. Generally, thorium reactors are expected to use Molten Salt Reactor (MSR) technology, with molten salt at their core. This project would develop thorium light water reactors that are much safer than conventional nuclear LWRs, giving the design its name, Integral Inherently Safe Light Water Reactor (I2S-LWR).

The Cold War

It was the Cold War that made uranium rather than thorium or other fuels the current power plant element of choice. Back in the 1950s, producing plutonium as a bi-product sounded like a good idea. Admiral Hyman Rickover wanted the U.S.S. Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear submarine, to get into the water as soon as possible, and the uranium LWR was the most convenient choice at the time. The Nautilus was launched in 1954, and the world followed down the uranium path.

It didn’t have to be thus; other fuel sources could have been used. A successful liquid-fluoride thorium reactor was developed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee between 1959 and 1973, until the Nixon Administration shut it down because the reactor didn’t produce plutonium. These days, plutonium is a huge risk factor as a material desired by terrorist groups.

Thorium as a Fuel

Thorium is abundant on the planet and contains vast amounts of energy. It’s as common as coal with exponentially greater energy potential—and without the pollution coal causes. It requires a kick-start because it won’t start reacting on its own, and stockpiles of existing waste can be used to do the kick-starting. Once it gets going, thorium decays through several steps into uranium–233, an excellent fuel source, without requiring the removal of partially used fuel rods.

The use of thorium as a liquid fuel avoids a number of the major problems that cause light-water nuclear reactors to be as dangerous as they are. Rather than the high-pressure toxic water that cools LWRs, thorium reactors are cooled with liquid fluoride salt under normal atmospheric pressure. The reactor isn’t at risk for meltdown because its normal state-of-being is molten salt at its core. If that salt leaked out, it would simply solidify. A thorium reactor would produce a minute fraction of the waste that uranium-fueled LWR reactors produce, and the waste breaks down in terms of hundreds of years rather than tens of thousands. There is some argument about whether the uranium–233 can be stolen for use in weapons, but proponents argue it would be highly difficult to do so.

Various forms of sticky tape promise to keep thorium reactors on the back burner in the United States, where conventional nuclear and the oil industry can put up a deep-pocketed fight. Outside the U.S., a variety of countries are already pursuing the thorium dream.

We have plenty of options for producing energy that doesn’t depend on finite oil resources in hostile foreign lands. We have options that don’t demand we pollute our watersheds or litter our horizons with windmills that depend on the inconsistent wind. The question is whether we’ll pursue the courses that will produce the most benefit, or whether we’ll get hung up in the bad politics of pushing solar panels on locations where the sun is absent half the year.


Building Powerful Robots with God’s Materials

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In an old joke, a scientist claims that he can do anything that God can do. When God says, “All right, you go ahead and make a man,” the scientist responds, “Okay! I will!” The scientist starts to reach down to grab a handful of earth, but God stops him. “Nuh-uh,” God says. “Go get your own dirt.”

We still cannot build humans, from dirt or otherwise, and even C3PO is years away. Yet, robotics engineers have been able to construct machines that can do some amazing and useful things, bringing us ever closer to the droids we may or may not be looking for.

It Takes a Licking…

The Swiss have built a flying robot that has been designed to hit the wall. At least, it has been built durable enough to bang into things without “crunch” crashing lifelessly to the ground. Instead, it uses the bump to reorient itself and keep zooming through the air. If it does get knocked down, it can get up again.

Even the most sensitive robots sometimes crash in cluttered areas, and when they do, the collision puts them out of commission. This robot — dubbed “AirBurr” — could be used by search and rescue to maneuver through obstacle-filled environments without expensive and complicated sensors. It keeps things simple.

AirBurr can enter areas that might be dangerous or impossible for humans to go after a disaster. Nuclear radiation, noxious gasses, flooded and clogged emergency areas don’t faze these flying gadgets, which can smack into rubble, crash into the ground, then get back up and continue on their mission.

“We believe that this new paradigm will bring flying robots out of the laboratory and allow them to tackle unstructured, cluttered environments,” Swiss researchers said in a 2012 paper for the International Conference on Complex Medical Engineering.

Besides built-in durability, the trick for these hoverbots is a clearly specified center of gravity. If the robot crashes, carbon fiber legs push out and scramble it into an upright position. Once it is sitting in the proper orientation, it can lift back off straight up into the air.

Mechanical Maids

Robots today can do some of the things hoped for in the movies, but rarely look impressive. They don’t generally talk or tell jokes, but they can clean the floor. Somewhat expensive, but self-motivated short, round robotic housemaids can now be purchased online. The Roomba770 or the Robomaid Australia vacuum robots can get the dust mice out of the corners while their owners take an afternoon nap. Floor-washing robots or gutter-cleaning robots can be purchased online, and they don’t ever get bored or start complaining they need more pay.

Robots are used for a wide variety of tasks these days beyond merely automating manufacturing. They run drill rigs or drive trucks. They can collect aerial data of agricultural lands and provide targeted insecticide or weed control spray. They run the Port of Brisbane with high efficiency. (No smoke breaks.) They aren’t necessarily safe to have operating around humans, since they do not recognize human presence and are not geared to avoid harm. They are kept separate from people and are monitored remotely. Yet, Panasonic has prototype robots that can do the dishes or wash hair, potentially to work as caretakers to the old or infirm.

“Ten years ago, robots were knocking on our doorstep. Now they have invaded,” says Professor Mary-Anne Williams, a robotics innovator at the University of Technology, Sydney. “The new vision, the next generation, is for people working side by side with robots,” Williams says. The PR2 that Williams’ team has designed can tell if it has accidentally run into a person and will back up. It can give hugs and high-fives.

These robots may not be droids just yet; they don’t feel fear or think for themselves, but some may be able to make decisions about what to tell Master Luke. The sophistication is growing.

Feelin’ Fishel

Some robots can be programmed to be sensitive fellows. Doctoral student Jeremy Fishel and Biomedical Engineering Professor Gerald Loeb from the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering have been working on a robotic finger that can feel temperature and movement and even discriminate between textures. In the drive to provide better artificial hands, USC’s BioTac finger has even been given a finger-like construction with its own fingerprints.

The finger detects movement and can discern the differences between 117 materials by way of the micro vibrations created when it travels over a surface. A hydrophone in the water layer under the “skin” of the finger picks up the vibrations and can use the surface friction to correctly distinguish between textures 95 percent of the time. The sensors are even now being sold to those who manufacture industrial robots and prosthetic limbs.

In all the brilliance of humanity, after years of research and development, we have been able to produce machines with certain human-like qualities. They can do the work they are programmed to do. They can calculate and do light-speed computations. They can “think” and “feel” and even do the dishes. Yet, they still do not come close to the magnificence of the human mind and body. They cannot produce living, thinking autonomous children that grow up and make decisions on their own, decisions that may run contrary to the principles their parents taught them. They cannot dream and love, weep and rejoice. Even with the sharing of information and the combined genius of a world of innovators, the careful, purposeful design of robots cannot match the majesty of excellence in the human mind and body.

And we’ve never even had to get our own dirt.

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The views and opinions expressed in these articles, enews and linked websites are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views held by Koinonia House. Koinonia House is providing this information as a resource to individuals who are interested in current news and events that may have an impact on Christian Life and Biblical trends. Koinonia House is not responsible for any information contained in these articles that may be inaccurate, or does not present an unbiased or complete perspective. Koinonia House disavows any obligation to correct or update the information contained in these articles.

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