Science Sunday: Worms, Work and the Great Plains

A weekly look at weird, wacky and wonderous science news.Longer life for worms

Cellular defects in tiny worms used in scientific research may point the way toward new therapies for some diseases like Huntington’s, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, according to University of Colorado-Boulder researchers.

CU Institute for Behavior Genetics’ Shane Rea is the lead author on a study that found that the microscopic worm C. elegans, a genetically engineered lab subject, was living longer, despite cellular defects. The results may shed light on how the human body ages, and how to limit or reverse genetic mutations that cause inherited diseases.

“We appear to have found a window where life is able to preserve itself even better than when operating in the absence of any cellular defects,” said Rea. “It’s a metabolic state where cells are probably getting close to the best they can be for long life and good health.”

The research indicates that the worms receive signals from the nuclei when they sense DNA problems. Previously researchers believed that the signals came from the mitochondrial power sources, which were damaged. This allows the cells to shut down their replication, allowing time to fix the problems.

In the future, Rea and his collaborators hope to build on these findings with biochemistry and genetics to discover what controls this pro-longevity mode and how humans can reduce oxidative stress that causes cellular damage. “Life extension in humans is around the corner. There is no doubt about it,” Rea said.

The research paper was published in the journal PLoS Biology.

Protestant work ethic

Protestant countries have higher rates of employment that those countries where other religions dominate, according to a University of Bath researcher.

Economist Horst Feldmann says that:

“the USA, the UK and Nordic countries such as Denmark, Sweden and Norway, have employment rates that are approximately six percentage points higher than countries where other religions are practiced by the largest proportion of the population.”

Feldmann does not conclude that God is watching over those countries more generously, however. He says that the most likely reason for the impact of Protestantism on employment is the legacy of the commitment to work cultivated through the early Protestant church.

Women’s employment rates are 11 percent higher in Protestant countries than in others, he says.

“Countries dominated by other religions, such as Catholicism, Islam and Buddhism, are likely to have developed a national culture that does not put a high value on hard and diligent work and often is hostile toward paid employment of women.

“These ideas were first put forward by the sociologist Max Weber a hundred years ago, to explain the role Protestantism played in the rise of modern capitalism.

“The new empirical research findings suggest that there may be more to Weber’s argument today than is commonly realized.”

Feldmann’s work was published in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology.

Great Plains will stay great … pretty good, anyway

People who see the Great Plains as a failing agricultural region are ignoring the century-long adaptation of agriculture there to changing environmental conditions, according to research from Colorado State’s Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory.

CSU’s William Parton and colleagues found that the threats to “society, economy and environment” on the Great Plains are counterbalanced by “surprising stability” and at least short- and medium-term sustainability.

A number of analysts, most notably Frank and Deborah Popper in the late 1980s, have argued that the Great Plains are losing population and economic viability, and that the society and economy can’t be sustained over the long term. They found that hundreds of counties in the Great Plains have population densities of less than six persons per square mile, the figure that historian Frederick Jackson Turner famously used to declare that the American frontier was closed.

But the regional population appears to have stabilized, although it’s aging, the report says. And while the short-term indicators appear stable, for the long-term questions remain about water use, rising energy costs and the ability to sustain environmental integrity.

The Great Plains have gone through two well-publicized periods of environmental and economic stress, the Dust Bowl period of the 1930s and the 1970s.

The authors said, however:

“What is striking to us,however,is that despite the risks,there have been few abrupt changes of direction, and the two points of punctuation that are best known (the drought and depression of the 1930s and the increase in prices in the 1970s) had consequences that, although lasting,were eventually incorporated into a relatively smooth line of change. The persistence of extensive cropping, and the 100 percent to 300 percent increase in crop production since 1940 for the major crops, falsifies the direst predictions of the catastrophists.”

The eastern half of Colorado is within the Great Plains, and contains the areas only substantial metropolitan areas,, along the Front Range.

The CSU work was published in the October 2007 issue of the journal Bioscience.

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