How Oxygen Shaped Life on Planet Earth

By Shlomo Maital    

Earth – 4 billion years ago — not the “blue marble” yet!

    To shape life on Earth, as we know it today, a great many imporbable things had to happen, and coincide. One of them was – the creation of oxygen.  How did that happen?  A new article in Nature Ecology and Evolution, by Weizmann Intitute Professor Dan Tawfik and student Jagoda Yablonski, suggests how this happened.  The article is summarized by the excellent Haaretz science writer Asaf Ronal:

  In the first half of her life so far, our bluish planet looked completely different. The sky and sea were filled with ammonia and iron sulfur compounds, and painted in a murky heat (and the smell was accordingly). 2.4 billion years ago, the Earth underwent a geochemical image revolution: the atmosphere filled with oxygen, the reddish-brown compounds oxidized and sank to the bottom and the sky and oceans became clearer and got the blue color we know.

    This event is called the “Great Oxidation.” The radical change in the Earth’s environment is considered one of the key events in the evolution of life on the planet because without oxygen-filled air, the complex animals that rely on breathing air for energy production could not have evolved. The explanation for the sharp rise in oxygen concentration lies in the development of the ability of organisms to do oxidative photosynthesis – to produce energy from sunlight in a process that produces oxygen.

But how did this happens?

     However, the question of when this ability for oxidative photosynthesis appeared in Earth’s history, and the exact process that led to the environmental upheaval, has remained scientifically controversial. Now, a new study uses the tools of evolutionary and genetic research to date the emergence of oxidative photosynthesis to a period of about 3.1 billion years ago. The study was published yesterday (Thursday) in the scientific journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, and points to the possibility that those organisms with the new capacity created and expanded pockets of oxygen-rich environment 700 million years later, until the amount of oxygen reached the critical mass required to fundamentally change the chemical environment of the entire planet’s surface.

    Recently, NASA landed the Perseverence explorer on Mars.  One goal is to search for life there.  But some scientists think there may be life elsewhere in the cosmos – on Titan, the moon of Saturn.  It is the only moon known to have a dense atmosphere…and deep lakes.  But the lakes are not water – they are liquid methane and ethane, and Titan is incredibly cold, so the ice that does exist is frozen solid.

   If life on Earth evolved on the basis of oxygen – could there be life on Titan, on the basis of methane?  Why not?   Why could not cells adapt to using methane, rather than oxygen?

    One day, we will know.

Do Vaccinated People Spread COVID-19? Answers from Israel  (No!)

By Shlomo Maital   

  Fully half of Israel’s population have been given at least one jb, and 35% of the population  have received the second dose of already.   Most have received the jab through their HMO – there are four large ones, with the largest one being Clalit.

   The widespread vaccination numbers plus the HMO’s advanced IT system enables empirical studies of the vaccine – not just its effectiveness but whether those vaccinated can spread the illness

    Here are the results:

   “After nearly two months, Israeli data is beginning to confirm what Pfizer already knew: their coronavirus vaccine stops symptomatic and severe COVID-19. So, why are Israelis still wearing masks for anything but Purim? Health experts are still unsure whether the vaccines prevent asymptomatic cases – contracting the virus but having no symptoms. If those people who get vaccinated can still contract coronavirus and transmit it to others, then it will be difficult to stop the spread of COVID-19.

If people silently become infected with coronavirus, they could pass it on, potentially sickening people who are not immune.

A model developed by the researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in January showed that people with no symptoms transmit more than half of all cases of the novel coronavirus.

But there is growing evidence that people who get vaccinated do not spread the virus very much, if at all.

  Despite this, we are not yet out of the woods.  Caution is needed:

  “Everyone still needs to be cautious,” said Prof. Gili Regev-Yochay, director of the Infectious Disease Epidemiology Unit at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer. “Things are more complicated now because people think they are vaccinated and everything is good, so it’s harder to get them to keep on their masks. But it is necessary because we do know that some people will get infected and be asymptomatic. And those people may be able to spread the disease.

“The problem is that if not everyone is vaccinated or there are people who are immunosuppressed, even if they are vaccinated the vaccine is less effective, they may get the disease,” she continued

Vaccine Effectiveness:  1.2 Million People Can’t Be Wrong –

Evidence from Israel’s Largest HMO

By Shlomo Maital   

Prof. Ran Balicer, Clalit HMO

    The largest study to date of vaccine effectiveness, in the field, will be shortly published in the New England Journal of Medicine, based on data from Israel’s largest HMO, Clalit – 1.2 million people!  The lead author is Prof. Ran Balicer, who heads innovation at Clalit and is a highly creative doctor.

     Here are the main results,  reported by Times of Israel:   

    A massive study by Israel’s largest health provider indicates that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is 94 percent effective in preventing symptomatic COVID-19, and 92% effective in averting serious cases of the disease.    The survey by the Clalit Health Services HMO compared 600,000 fully vaccinated individuals — 170,000 over 60 and 430,000 between the ages of 16 and 59 — with 600,000 unprotected Israelis. Believed to represent the largest such study in the world to date, it found the vaccine to be highly protective from both symptomatic infections and serious symptoms, shoring up previous studies on the shots.   “The previous studies dealt with infections, but not with symptoms and therefore can’t be compared to Pfizer’s clinical research,” said Dr. Ran Balicer, an epidemiologist who directs health policy planning at Clalit, in an interview with Channel 12. “Now, for the first time, we are comparing the vaccinated group with a control group with similar characteristics to see if the vaccine works ‘by the book.’”   After accounting for factors such as age, “we can state clearly: The vaccine prevents serious illness also among those 70 and older, for whom there wasn’t enough data in Pfizer’s study,” said Balicer, who analyzed the data along with several Israeli researchers and a team from Harvard University.  

  The team, including Harvard University researchers, who did the research used sophisticated statistical techniques, including “twinning” —   matching people similar in age, gender and other characteristics,  one with the vaccine and one without.    

    Israel has four main large HMO’s.  Each has a sophisticated IT database.  This has made it possible to vaccinate very large numbers of Israelis, based on priorities, in an orderly manner and to track the results – and share them with Pfizer, which was a condition for Pfizer supplying large numbers of doses. 

     The existence of medical database records is a key advantage of a health system based on HMO’s and publicly provided healthcare.  Such databases exist in the US, but are fragmented and are zealously protected, ostensibly for ‘privacy’ but also in large part for commercial reasons (the data are highly valuable). 

Pandemic: Beginning of the End?

By Shlomo Maital    

Average New Cases Per Day, Global  (NYT Feb 25)

  Today’s New York Times (international edition) brings a hopeful graph.  Globally, new cases of COVID-19 are declining.

  It is as if the virus has run out of steam – gotten tired of causing death, sickness and mischief.  Not clear why the decline!   It’s not vaccination – the rates are not high enough to do this.  Many places, e.g. the European Union, are very slow to vaccinate.  And there are mutant variant – UK, South Africa, Brazil, and now Uganda —  that are more virulent.

     The global peak seems to have been on Jan 11.  And it seems to have been a peak that occurred pretty much at the same time everywhere  !   Why?  Does the virus have some sort of WiFi?  Very strange!

    But – we’ll take it.  This could be the beginning of the end of the pandemic – but far from the end.  We still do not know with great certainty, whether those who have been vaccinated can still spread the virus (they may be immune, the virus can’t make them ill, but still have virus in their noses, and hence spreadable).  This is because the three-stage clinical trials of all the vaccines focused solely on whether the vaccine prevented people from getting ill – not from having the virus in their bodies.  (That would have taken far far longer, and time was of the essence). 

      So let’s keep masking (we’re getting used to it, right?   When you go out, you kind of grab that mask automatically).  Keep distancing.   And hope that crucial curve keeps going down.

      Thanks, New York Times.  Finally, some good news.

The Human Genome Project After 20 Years: Model for COVID-19 Vaccine?

By Shlomo Maital   

                              Prof. Shirley Tighlman

    Twenty years ago, the human genome project was completed.  The complete human genome was sequenced, and then published openly in both Nature and Science journals.

     The project has changed healthcare and much more.  Speaking about the project on Ira Flatow’s Science Friday podcast, Prof. Shirley Tighlman, former President of Princeton University and a key scientist in the Genome project, noted that one result was ‘humility’ – we learned that the human genome was roughly as full and complex as that of a nematode or a flatworm.  (Humans have 22,000 protein-coding genes, roughly, and C-elegans worms have about 20,700). 

     The human genome project is still the world’s largest collaborative biological project. Planning started after the idea was picked up in 1984 by the US government, the project formally launched in 1990, and was declared complete on April 14, 2003

      A key role was played by Craig Venter.    In 2000, Venter and Francis Collins of the National Institutes of Health and U.S. Public Genome Project jointly made the announcement of the mapping of the human genome, a full three years ahead of the expected end of the Public Genome Program.  Venter’s startup Celera (Latin for speed or acceleration) found a fast way to sequence genomes – and saved many years and a lot of money.

     Today, a person’s genome can be sequenced  in a matter of hours,  and the cost (done by private gene-sequencing firms) is less than $1,000.  

      I regret that the COVID-19 vaccine project was not similarly organized, as a joint public collaborative project – with the results openly published and made available to all.  You could argue that the competition between Moderna and Pfizer and J&J and Astra-Zeneca, and maybe a hundred other labs, was productive.  But imagine if all this brainpower had collaborated?   And openly published the ‘recipe’, like the recipe for sourdough bread!   And then organized all the vaccine plants in the world to make the vaccines – and provide them to the world’s population.

Do NOT Write It Down!

By Shlomo Maital  

Don’t Write It Down!

   This is advice I got from travel author Bill Bryson, an American, who wrote the best-selling travelogue book about England,  Notes from a Small Island (1973).  Bryson, a native of DeS Moines, Iowa, lived in England for 22 years, and just before he left, to return to the US, he travelled up and down England,  mostly by bus, train and foot, and wrote about his experiences.  His book has now sold more than 3 million copies and is regaded as the best book ever written about England.   

    Now,  I take pride in having written 1,777 blogs, and in the principle “write it down!”    I do this, when I get an idea for a blog – and rush, dash, race, speed, stumble, sprint…to write it down – before it disappears into cyberspace or into this jumble of chaos and disorganization called my brain – 86 billion brain cells, and I’m so grateful and appreciative for every one of them.

     However, on a BBC program, Book Club, which solicited questions to Bryson from readers,  he was asked about how he wrote – did he write down experiences as he had them, or did he write them up later?

     “I found that I was spending all my time writing notes,”  he answered. “So I stopped.  And only went back weeks later to write up my notes.  That way, I found that I remember only the really important things”. 

        I think he is right.  Let your brain process things.  It will brilliantly separate the wheat from the chaff,  like old-time farmers tossing the wheat grains into the air and letting the wind blow away the chaff, leaving only the kernels that you want.  I feel the same about phone cameras – except, here, Bryson has more advice.  Take photos.  Not notes. Photos.  He later reviewed the photos,  and recalled the most important impressions.

        Everybody has their own style.  But each of our styles should be reviewed, contemplated and examined, from time to time. I am doing this actively.

         Write it down?   Maybe not.  Or maybe so.  What is your own style? 

         Whatever works.

At Last – A Drug to Fight COVID-19!

By Shlomo Maital    

Prof. Nadir Arber

    In the end, when we defeat COVID-19,  it will be through three qualities: aspiration (driving motivation to defeat it),  inspiration (brilliant out-of-the-box creative thinking) and perspiration (hard slogging 24/7 work to implement the idea).

     And here is the latest hopeful example, from the daily Jerusalem Post:   Use existing drugs that mitigate cytokine storms…..

Twenty-nine out of 30 moderate-to-severe COVID-19 patients who were administered a treatment developed by Tel Aviv’s Sourasky Medical Center (Ichilov Hospital) as part of a Phase I trial recovered from the disease and were released within three to five days, the hospital said Friday.  The 30th patient also recovered but it took longer.  The patients were given Prof. Nadir Arber’s EXO-CD24 COVID-19 treatment, which is based on CD24-enriched exosomes and is meant to fight the cytokine storm that is associated with many of the world’s COVID-19 deaths.  A cytokine storm is when the immune system essentially goes into overdrive and begins attacking healthy cells. Exosomes are responsible for cell-to-cell communication. In this case, they deliver the CD24 protein to the lungs, which helps calm down the immune system.   “This protein is located on the surface of cells and has a well-known and important role in regulating the immune system,” explained Dr. Shiran Shapira, who works in Arber’s lab.

So – people die from COVID-19,  in large part because the virus causes the immune system to over-react, creating a ‘storm’ that damages the lungs, and in the end may kill.   The idea of Prof. Arber?   Treat the storm, using existing drugs that had the similar function.  It sounds obvious, but it is not.   COVID-19, after all, is a lot different from cancer. But maybe there are similarities.

 Here is another piece from the article:

“Arber has been researching exosomes for the better part of two decades. He said it took about six months from the time the idea of using this treatment in the battle against COVID-19 was raised until it was first tested in humans. The treatment is inhaled once a day for a few minutes at a time for five days. It directly targets the lungs, the site of the storm, as opposed to other treatments that could be given systemically and hence cause severe side effects, Arber explained.  The majority of the patients who received EXO-CD24 showed significant improvement within two days.   The hospital has appealed to the Health Ministry to move forward with further clinical trials. Once approved, the treatment can be tried on additional patients.  “This is an innovative treatment that can be produced quickly and efficiently at a low cost,” Arber explained. “Even if the vaccines do what they are supposed to, and even if no new mutations are produced, then still, in one way or another, coronavirus will remain with us.”

How We Deal with COVID-19:  Which Are You?

By Shlomo Maital   

13 types

  How have YOU reacted to COVID-19? 

  A colleague has informed of about new research by Mimi E. Lam (University of Bergen) just published in Humanities and Social Sciences Communications.  She identifies and explores the impacts of  COVID-19 behavioral identities that are emerging.

“These emergent COVID-19 behavioural identities are being hijacked by existing social and political identities to politicize the pandemic and heighten racism, discrimination, and conflict,” says Lam. She continues: “the COVID-19 pandemic reminds us that we are not immune to each other. To unite in our fight against the pandemic, it is important to recognize the basic dignity of all and value the human diversity currently dividing us.”

So – here are the 13 behavioral identities.  How have YOU responded to the crisis?  Of course, we are all combinations, or hybrids, of all 13.  But, which behavior MOST describes you?  Are you OK with this?  Would you like to, perhaps, embrace a little more  one of the others?    Are you a supporter?   At least, some of the time?

•           Deniers: who downplay the viral threat, promoting business as usual

•           Spreaders: who want it to spread, herd immunity to develop, and normality to return

•           Harmers: who try to harm others by, for example, spitting or coughing at them

•           Realists: who recognize the reality of the potential harm and adjust their behaviors

•           Worriers: who stay informed and safe to manage their uncertainty and fear

•           Contemplators: who isolate and re?ect on life and the world 

•           Hoarders: who panic-buy and hoard products to quell their insecurity

•           Invincibles:  often youth, who believe themselves to be immune

•           Rebels: who de?antly ?out social rules restricting their individual freedoms

•           Blamers: who vent their fears and frustrations onto others

•           Exploiters: who exploit the situation for power, pro?t or brutality

•           Innovators: who design or repurpose resources to fight the pandemic

•           Supporters: who show their solidarity in support of others

Dogs & People:  Are Dogs Our ‘Kids’?

By Shlomo Maital   

Pixie

   Many many people are exceedingly fond of their pet dogs;  we are, too, very fond of Pixie, our 9-year-old mixed-breed Yorkie.  Now comes research from Austria and Israel, about the depth of our attachment.

    Turns out —  dogs have mirror neurons.  But — what are they?

A mirror neuron is a neuron (in the brain)  that fires both when an animal or a person acts and when the animal or person  observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting. Such neurons have been directly observed in human and primate species, and birds. 

Mirror neurons are the key to empathy:  Understanding, sensing, feeling what others feel, with accuracy.  They are the key to human relationships. And, it emerges, to human-dog  or human-pet relations (even, human-python??).

 Research described in today’s daily Haaretz by Haifa University Prof. Anna Zamansky, together with colleagues at U. of Vienna and U. of Vienna Medical School, verifies that dogs’ mirror neutrons in their brains ‘fire’ when they are attached to their owners.   Dogs’ affection, that you can read in their eyes,  is reciprocated among their owners’ mirror neutrons…and the bond becomes incredibly deep. U. of Vienna is one of the few places where researchers have found how to use fMRI functional MRI brain imaging to study dogs’ brains.

  Ever looked into your dog’s eyes?  Can you read the love and affection that resides there?  And it is unconditional —  even among dogs owned by owners who are often not very considerate, who even forget food and water.  The researchers find that in some ways, the mirror-neuron process between dog and human is not unlike that between parents and their children. And I believe this is true.

  Probably, dogs became domesticated, in part because of those mirror neutrons.  Other research shows that early humans, tens of thousands of years ago, may have shared scraps of food with wolves… and the wolves kind of hung around, became domesticated and ..the rest is history.  Alaskan huskies look very much like wolves.  Yorkies don’t – but our little Yorkie still has wolf genes – she will take her biscuit treat, and race off to a corner, to protect it and consume it safely,  she will do many clockwise and counter-clockwise circles before settling down to sleep in her bed (or, I admit, on ours), and she fiercely protects her owners and their house, barking when there are intruders, including ones we ourselves do not hear. 

   Thank goodness for mirror neurons in animals.  It may help us humans to be more considerate of other living creatures on our planet.  And thank goodness Champ and Major, the Bidens’ German shepherds, have brought dogs back into the dogless White House.  How in the world can you trust a President, who does not have a dog?

Vaccinated?  Immune but Maybe a Spreader

By Shlomo Maital

  My wife and I got the second dose of Pfizer vaccine last Monday.  It went smoothly – a drive-in site at a football stadium, ten stations, no queues, big freezers set up nearby, with workers shuttling vials to the stations.    Computer links recording everything, and all this done by an HMO, one of four that Israelis belong to.   Every Israeli gets healthcare via an HMO; basic care is inexpensive.   

     I have been wondering —  after being vaccinated, can I still spread COVID-19?  I found a partial answer in today’s daily Haaretz.  Here is what it says:

       “Over 12,400 Israeli residents have tested positive for COVID-19 after being vaccinated, among them 69 people who had already gotten the second dose, ..the Health Ministry reported.”

    “…5,348 people were found infected up to a week after getting the vaccine, of the 100,000 people who were vaccinated and then tested a week later – an infection rate of 5.4 per cent of those vaccinated at the time.” 

     I note that in a deal made between Pfizer and Israel,  extra doses were shipped to Israel in return for the data on the vaccine’s track record.  Some think this violates  privacy – but it does not, since no names are attached, only aggregate data that can help Pfizer perhaps adjust the vaccine in future, to deal with mutations.

     How can we interpret the data?

      I think it means this —   the mRNA vaccine inoculates against the spike protein, that helps the virus invade our cells and make us ill.  It does NOT destroy the virus itself.  The virus an still be present in our nostrils…and hence we test positive.  But the virus is unable to make us ill, owing to the immunity given by the vaccine. So if we cough, we can spread the vaccine to others… but without getting ill ourselves. 

    This means everyone vaccinated must continue to wear masks….and socially distance.  At least for a while.   And further data are awaited….

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital

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