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Corante Blogs examine, through the eyes of leading observers, analysts, thinkers, and doers, critical themes and memes in technology, business, law, science, and culture.

The Press Will Be Outsourced Before Stopped

Vin Crosbie, on the challenges, financial and otherwise, that newspaper publishers are facing: "The real problem, Mr. Newspaperman, isn't that your content isn't online or isn't online with multimedia. It's your content. Specifically, it's what you report, which stories you publish, and how you publish them to people, who, by the way, have very different individual interests. The problem is the content you're giving them, stupid; not the platform its on."
by Vin Crosbie in Rebuilding Media

Travels In Numerica Deserta

There's a problem in the drug industry that people have recognized for some years, but we're not that much closer to dealing with it than we were then. We keep coming up with these technologies and techniques which seem as if they might be able to help us with some of our nastiest problems - I'm talking about genomics in all its guises, and metabolic profiling, and naturally the various high-throughput screening platforms, and others. But whether these are helping or not (and opinions sure do vary), one thing that they all have in common is that they generate enormous heaps of data.
by Derek Lowe in In the Pipeline

Disrobing the Emperor: The online “user experience” isn't much of one

Now that the Web labor market is saturated and Web design a static profession, it's not surprising that 'user experience' designers and researchers who've spent their careers online are looking for new worlds to conquer. Some are returning to the “old media” as directors and producers. More are now doing offline consulting (service experience design, social policy design, exhibition design, and so on) under the 'user experience' aegis. They argue that the lessons they've learned on the Web can be applied to phenomena in the physical and social worlds. But there are enormous differences...
by Bob Jacobson in Total Experience

Second Life: What are the real numbers?

Clay Shirky, in deconstructing Second Life hype: "Second Life is heading towards two million users. Except it isn’t, really... I suspect Second Life is largely a 'Try Me' virus, where reports of a strange and wonderful new thing draw the masses to log in and try it, but whose ability to retain anything but a fraction of those users is limited. The pattern of a Try Me virus is a rapid spread of first time users, most of whom drop out quickly, with most of the dropouts becoming immune to later use."
by Clay Shirky in Many-to-Many

The democratisation of everything

Over the last few years we've seen old barriers to creativity coming down, one after the other. New technologies and services makes it trivial to publish text, whether by blog or by print-on-demand. Digital photography has democratised a previously expensive hobby. And we're seeing the barriers to movie-making crumble, with affordable high-quality cameras and video hosting provided by YouTube or Google Video and their ilk... Music making has long been easy for anyone to engage in, but technology has made high-quality recording possible without specialised equipment, and the internet has revolutionised distribution, drastically disintermediating the music industry... What's left? Software maybe? Or maybe not."
by Suw Charman in Strange Attractor

RNA Interference: Film at Eleven

Derek Lowe on the news that the Nobel Prize for medicine has gone to Craig Mello and Andrew Fire for their breakthrough work: "RNA interference is probably going to have a long climb before it starts curing many diseases, because many of those problems are even tougher than usual in its case. That doesn't take away from the discovery, though, any more than the complications of off-target effects take away from it when you talk about RNAi's research uses in cell culture. The fact that RNA interference is trickier than it first looked, in vivo or in vitro, is only to be expected. What breakthrough isn't?"
by Derek Lowe in In the Pipeline

PVP and the Honorable Enemy

Andrew Phelps: "Recently my WoW guild has been having a bit of a debate on the merits of Player-vs.-Player (PvP) within Azeroth. My personal opinion on this is that PvP has its merits, and can be incredible fun, but the system within WoW is horridly, horribly broken. It takes into account the concept of the battle, but battle without consequence, without emotive context, and most importantly, without honor..."

From later in the piece: "When I talk about this with people (thus far anyway) I typically get one of two responses, either 'yeah, right on!' or 'hey, it’s war, and war isn’t honorable – grow the hell up'. There is a lot to be said for that argument – but the problem is that war in the real historical world has very different constraints that are utterly absent from fantasized worlds..."
by Andrew Phelps in Got Game

Rats Rule, Right?

Derek Lowe: "So, you're developing a drug candidate. You've settled on what looks like a good compound - it has the activity you want in your mouse model of the disease, it's not too hard to make, and it's not toxic. Everything looks fine. Except. . .one slight problem. Although the compound has good blood levels in the mouse and in the dog, in rats it's terrible. For some reason, it just doesn't get up there. Probably some foul metabolic pathway peculiar to rats (whose innards are adapted, after all, for dealing with every kind of garbage that comes along). So, is this a problem?.."
by Derek Lowe in In the Pipeline

Really BAD customer experience at Albertsons Market

Bob Jacobson, on shopping at his local Albertsons supermarket where he had "one of the worst customer experiences" of his life: "Say what you will about the Safeway chain or the Birkenstock billionaires who charge through the roof for Whole Foods' organic fare, they know how to create shopping environments that create a more pleasurable experience, at its best (as at Whole Foods) quite enjoyable. Even the warehouses like Costco and its smaller counterpart, Smart & Final, do just fine: they have no pretentions, but neither do they dump virtual garbage on the consumer merely to create another trivial revenue stream, all for the sake of promotions in the marketing department..."
by Strange Attractor in Total Experience

The Guardian's "Comment is Free"

Kevin Anderson: "First off, I want to say that I really admire the ambition of the Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free. It is one of the boldest statements made by any media company that participation needs to be central to a radical revamp of traditional content strategies... It is, therfore, not hugely surprising to find that Comment is Free is having a few teething troubles..."
by Kevin Anderson in strange
In the Pipeline: Don't miss Derek Lowe's excellent commentary on drug discovery and the pharma industry in general at In the Pipeline

The Loom

« And Now A Word From the Astronomers... | Main | A Dog and the Mind of Newton »

August 08, 2005

Sickness All Around

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Posted by Carl Zimmer

I've got two stories in tomorrow's New York Times about getting sick.

One is about malaria. I've always been fascinated by how parasites can manipulate their hosts for their own ends, and much of my book Parasite Rex is dedicated to explaining how this creepy remote control works. I've come across many new examples from time to time. Now a new study shows that the parasite that causes malaria can alter us humans to turn us into good mosquito bait. As with most stories about life, this one is ultimately about evolution—in this case, how parasites repeatedly have evolved ways to boost their own reproductive success by manipulating hosts like us.

I've never gotten malaria (knock on wood), but I have just experienced the subject of my second piece: appendicitis. Three weeks ago I got appendicitis, and if I lived 150 years ago my appendix would have probably ruptured and I'd have died. Fortunately, I got to the hospital without a hitch and had a straightforward operation to get the appendix out. Once the anesthesia cleared from my head, I began mulling how odd it was that I was born with an organ so exquisitely suited to failure and so useless to me. The manipulations of the malaria parasite are remarkable adaptations, but the appendix is, to a great extent, an maladaptation.

In the article, I offer some of the ideas scientists have had about how we all ended up with an appendix, but there was one interesting take on the appendix that I didn't have room to include in my story. Evolutionary biologists Randolph Nesse and George Williams wrote an article a few years back in Scientific American, in which they argued that all things being equal, natural selection should favor mutations that made the appendix dwindle away to nothing. So why isn't it gone? Perhaps if the appendix got even smaller than it is now, it would become even more prone to appendicitis and cause more deaths. Natural selection, in other words, has reached a dead end.

It's an interesting idea, but it would take a study of thousands of people—measuring their appendix and seeing who does or doesn't get appendicitis—to test it. Perhaps some philanthropist will get appendicitis some day and decide to drop a few million bucks to figure out how exactly we all got stuck with this peculiar little time bomb.

Comments (22) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: The Parasite Files


1. Michael Hopkins on August 8, 2005 11:41 PM writes...

Since the creationist response will be predictable:

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2. John on August 9, 2005 12:00 AM writes...

I can't find some my other comments of last days. Did you try to remove them like mosquito and appendix?. People are terrorized by different ones, also from differnt kind of languages of mistakes. Do yo like only you kind of mistakes and lamguage?

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3. darwinfinch on August 9, 2005 01:10 AM writes...


No offense, but is English your 2nd language? If not, you need to take more time in writing comments. You sound, well,.. sorry, but kind of nutty in the two above.

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4. Marco Ferrari on August 9, 2005 01:56 AM writes...

As far as I can tell, John is italian, and a nutty one too. He's frequently around NG and blog all over the places here. Don't try to understand him, we (italians) can't.


P. S. And yes, english is my nth language, if you ask...

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5. cats on August 9, 2005 03:10 AM writes...

ah, could anyone tell me what John was talking about? I'm wondering whether John really knows what "appendix" is...

and...Carl, take care of yourself.

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6. Peter Ellis on August 9, 2005 03:22 AM writes...

The appendix has a significant amount of lymphatic tissue in it, so it may have some immune function as well as being a vestige of the caecum.

I'd be interested to see if there's been any work to see whether appendectomised patients are slightly more susceptible to gut illnesses. It may not be evolutionarily relevant now, but historically an extra 1% protection against typhoid or cholera might make all the difference.

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7. Carl Zimmer on August 9, 2005 07:27 AM writes...

In response to Peter--actually, those of us without an appendix are slightly less likely to suffer colitis, an immune disorder of the bowels. No other affect has been documented.

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8. kstrna on August 9, 2005 07:50 AM writes...

Is the average size of the appendix changing (or any other differences in the appendix) between those who can take advantage of modern medicine and those who can not? Realize the time frame is not that large just curious if anyone is looking into that.

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9. Stuart on August 9, 2005 08:11 AM writes...

The NYT seems have made a mistake with the photograph used to illustrate your mosquito piece. That's a wasp, not a mosquito.

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10. Marco Ferrari on August 9, 2005 10:14 AM writes...

I was thinking that maybe the appendix is just too small (in evolution term, not fisically) to be "perceived" by natural selection. It is flying under to radar, so to speak, and so it cannot be selected against. Maybe it is a kind of neutral organ, without any pros and cons on individual fitness. The explanation of Williams and Nesse appears to me just a little too panselectionist. Why not look at appendix as a kind of invisible spandrel?


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11. linguist on August 9, 2005 10:50 AM writes...

I'm not buying the argument that evolution has reached a dead end here. It seems quite reasonable to me that certain people WOULD have a mutation that leaves them appendix-less. The question is, with modern medicine such as you just experienced, is the lack of an appendix any longer an advantageous mutation? Seems to me that either the presence or lack of one has become irrelevant, or that its presence confers some advantage at least some of the time, as a couple of people noted above.

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12. Dan Hook on August 9, 2005 11:39 AM writes...

Looks like the caption for the picture in the malaria article got messed up. The caption says that it is a picture of a mosquito, when it is actually a picture of a wasp.

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13. Hoopman on August 9, 2005 12:00 PM writes...

I think Marco may be closest to the truth on this appendix question. Look, evolution simply is survivable genes being passed on. Some add to survivablity at a given place in space and time. Obviously then, these genes are held by those most likely to bring forth the next generation. Some genes have little or no effect on survivability. If those genes are carried by "survivors" (those who pass on their genes) then those genes will continue to be passed on even though they are, basically, neither negative or positive. While it is true that the appendix does, on the surface, seem to be a negative in terms of survivabiltiy, it is not so much so that it would necessarily evolve out of existance. For instance, how many people do you know who had to have an emergency appendectomy to save their lives? (Not to belittle YOUR experience, Carl, but I don't know anyone)! Not saying their aren't plenty of you out there, just saying that it isn't something that MOST people suffer through during their life span. And even for those who DO, how many of them successfully passed on their own genes prior to appendicitis? Probably most. I certainly haven't heard of many children suffering from it. It's easy to see how we would not have evolved away from it. Just like our male nipples. Useless, but no harm, so they stay. Now if my nipples start blowing up, I'm going to be pissed, but I HAVE already passed on my genes so I'm guessing there will be a lot of male nipples in future generations even if mine explode.

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14. JK on August 9, 2005 06:28 PM writes...

"It's an interesting idea, but it would take a study of thousands of people—measuring their appendix and seeing who does or doesn't get appendicitis—to test it."

Is there a reason why you couldn't measure the size of appendices that are cut out versus size in people dying of unrelated causes? Presumably this would be considerably cheaper. Is there some reason why any such methodology is inherently flawed or the statistics can't be made to work?

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15. Nick (Matzke) on August 10, 2005 01:41 AM writes...

Carl, in your appendix article you wrote,

"The appendix does not seem to be involved in digesting food, but it may help the gut to fight disease. The appendix is packed with immune-cell-producing tissues."

How do we know that this isn't mere some kind of preemptive step the body takes to reduce the chance of *appendicitis*? Perhaps there is some fundamental developmental pathway that prevents the easy removal of the appendix, so the next best thing evolution could do was pack it with immune cells, in order to minimize the damage.

In support:

Quoth the FAQ, "Deadly infection of the appendix at a young age is common, and the lifetime risk of acute appendicitis is 7%."

So lots of immune cells might be particularly important at a young age.

I was surprised that Rebecca Fisher didn't talk about the caecum in other nonprimate placentals and marsupials. A well-developed caecum is evidently a fundamental trait basal to any primate derivatives:

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16. Nick (Matzke) on August 10, 2005 01:46 AM writes...

PS: I got malaria when I was 7 years old, when my family was on sabbatical in Zambia. I was a good little boy and took the awful-tasting chloroquine every week, but I *still* got it because the malaria was resistant. Friggin' evolution. Fortunately, back in the 1980's, the cure of "lots more chloroquine" still worked.

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17. Clare on August 10, 2005 02:50 AM writes...

I am an anthropologist and mother of a 12 year old son who suffered a ruptured appendix several weeks ago (and is happily fine now). I am intrigued by the remark that appeared in parentheses in the article -- about supposed cross-cultural differences in the incidence of appendicitis. I read this on several websites at the time of my son's illness, and it was repeated -- unprompted, I might add -- by the surgeon, but I've found it hard to track the relevant research down. I would imagine it would be very tricky to get good cross-cultural data on something like this; how precisely -- if at all --are deaths following abdominal distress recorded in more remote areas of the world, for example? But solid research in this direction would, I feel, be a source of answers on the broader evolutionary questions about the appendix in humans.

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18. Dave S. on August 10, 2005 02:27 PM writes...

Rates of appendix rupture as a function of race and ethnicity in the U.S. show that minorities are ca. 30% more likely to exhibit rupture, due not to biological factors but to differences in the timeliness of obtaining healthcare.

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19. Dave S. on August 10, 2005 02:28 PM writes...

Link for above study -

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20. Alizeéfan on August 10, 2005 04:35 PM writes...

People in hunter-gatherer societies and Central Africa don't get appendicitis. It's a somewhat new problem. Something has changed in our environment. For all I know it's western diets that cause appendicitis.

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21. Burt Humburg on August 10, 2005 06:28 PM writes...

Jeez, I wondered why you weren't posting much. Get well soon, Mr. Zimmer. Hope you're back on your feet (keyboard!) in no time!


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22. Richard G. Buchanan on August 15, 2005 05:02 PM writes...

About 50 years ago when surgeons used a major incision to access the abdominal cavity, when they got ready to close, the looked to see if the patient had an appendix. If one was there, it was taken out.

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