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Autotomous Penes & Endless War

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Message dick overfield
A natural constraint on war mongering & media personalities just might be possible now that the Obama administration has re-instated American tax payer allegiance to science. Stem cell research is just brimming over with exciting possibilities many of which were put on ice by conservative Christian wingnuts with the ear of formerly powerful & now discredited Republican policy makers. These possibilities will no doubt be particularly seductive to this frustrated, politically emasculated group.

Although conservatives believe science is not to be trusted because it gets everything wrong (read too complicated), trying to stay apace with scientists & scientific research is no mean task, but then when were progressive types reluctant to rise to the challenge of daunting tasks?  Witness surviving the Reagan era.

Well, we are back in the game & we have every reason to expect big things from a government willing to do something besides protect the privileges of wealth, corporate profit taking, increasing CEO bonuses & generally attending to the excessive wants of the various lower life forms of American society.

Take what scientists are doing with stem cell research.  Consider some of these possibilities which are now becoming so much more real than a mere handful of months ago when a different crowd controlled our government:

The first cells to arise from a fertilized ovum are described as totipotent ("potent for everything"). Now there's a phrase which surely must carry a notable ring in the ear of flag officers, CIA agents & vice presidents. Blastocyst cells are called embryonic stem cells. They are basically unspecialized & have the ability to divide endlessly & to develop into all of the 220 human cell types. However, a whole functioning human cannot be assembled from this handful of cells. Why? Because they have lost their toti-virility & are described as pluripotent (iPS) or "potent for a lot". This gets close to home because I have always felt a tad pluripotentish. Totipotent?  Well that has always been a bit of a stretch though the generals & various public servants listed above would probably jump on it.

In a study published online in the journal PLoS ONE on March 17, 2009, Gen-Sheng Feng, PhD, states that his research has opened "the door for new experimental reagents that will amplify the self-renewal process." Now we're getting somewhere. This business of self-renewal is interesting.

Unfortunately, adult stem cells age. They have a very high regeneration potential, but, as seems to be the case with almost all the really neat stuff, they have a period of effectiveness. Like the rest of us, they start off gangbusters & then they start to slide downhill. This means, on the down side, we have a window of opportunity with adult stem cells, because they are pretty much exhausted after 130 years or so. Sad, but that's the way it is for now. On the up side, this is still a reasonable time for us to work out some of the grittier problems Homo sapiens cause themselves, each other & the world. Some scientists are saying it might be possible to abstract exhausted stem cells from the body, give them a bit of R & R in an Acapulco type Petri dish, maybe somewhere sunny & warm, & then send them back to work.  We'll see.

The vast possibilities are becoming more & more obvious & more & more exciting.

This brings us to possibly my all time most favorite desert critter. The Grassland Whiptail, Aspidoscelis uniparens. It's a lizard, but what an extraordinary lizard she is. She has gray with cream stripes on her back, a creamy bluish throat, a belly bluer than blue & a tail just as lurid. She eats bugs & catches them by sight, smell or by tasting them with her protrusible, deeply forked tongue. Though she sounds a lot like my banker, she's got it all over that jerk. She has exotic, shockingly modern sexual preferences. In the text books they call it parthenogenetic unisexual pseudocopulation, or uniparens (one parent). Is that cool or what? In language for normals, that means all Whiptails are female. Depending on where they are in the ovarian cycle, she can be a male, or at least play the male role. If the eggs are falling, she's a female. If the eggs are down & forming shells, she's a male. So, when it's time to copulate, two Whiptails do what other lizards do, but there's no penis, no testes. She not only has no penis, she has no penes, because most male lizards have two penes which make them hemipenes. It is thought that one species of Whiptail, the Checkered Whiptail, is only a few hundred years old. In the scheme of things, that makes her a brand spanking new species. Hands down, she is amazing from the tip of her dazzling tail to her shiny black forked tongue.

In the long term, the outlook is not good for the Whiptails & the reason is that only a very, very few invertebrate species have managed to go for very long without the old bump & grind that comes to mind when most of us hear the word "sex".

Nevertheless, she has yet another amazing feature. She can run like the wind. Very few predators can catch her. Even so, if something does manage to catch her, like a Roadrunner, & manages to get her tail in his beak, the tail which in Latin is penis, breaks off. It's called a "sacrificial tail," or the more cumbersome autotomous tail.

Now, it seems to me that this is a wonderland of possibilities for stem cell scientists.

Now I realize all this involves a lot of heavy lifting for conservative white males & it may create a harsh sense of being even more marginalized than they already are in conservative women, but the long term benefits should be obvious, even to them. Unlike the world of conservatives, celebrities & personal trainers, the scientific community has a pervasive aversion to the perfection of mankind by technological means. It smacks of Nazi eugenics freaks & Southern Baptist ministers. Even so, it seems to me we have a compelling opportunity here to solve a lot of problems for a lot of people.

Here's what we do:

In Northern New Mexico at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, there is a superstar supercomputer, called Roadrunner, which has been the fastest on earth for three years running. Roadrunner can do 1.105 petaflops a second. My bloodhound, Peli, can do slightly slower petaflops, but about all they produce are streaks of drool on my walls. Roadrunner is in a class by itself. For the nongeek readers out there, (brace yourself because this number is going to sail right past you), a petaflop is a quadrillion float-point operations per second.

So, do we have one spiffy piece of gear perched in the piney high country of northern New Mexico or what?

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Richard W. Overfield is an artist/writer currently based in New Mexico after living in Vancouver, Canada for 20 years.His paintings are represented in over 300 public & private collections in the U.S., Canada, Switzerland, France, England, Japan & (more...)
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