Our (MacPhee and Preston Marx) hypothesis gained some credence from well examined instances of widespread population collapses due to disease in the modern era, such as the rinderpest epizootic in eastern Africa in the 1890s, which attacked most of the region’s native even-toed ungulates and caused appalling mortality. Some species were very seriously affected, with one subspecies of hartebeest disappearing in the early twentieth century in possible correlation with the disease’s outbreak. A more recent example of a disease-induced disaster was the die-off of more than 80 percent of the central Asiatic wild herd of saiga antelope (Saiga tartarica …) in 2015-2016 from hemorrhagic septicemia, or blood poisoning due to bacterial infection. There are still other examples of almost unbelievable mortality in wild animals within breathtakingly short intervals, all of which underlines the fact that there is really nothing in ordinary nature that can bring down the standing crop of a species as quickly as emerging infectious diseases.

Ross D. E. MacPhee, End of the Megafauna: The Fate of the World’s Hugest, Fiercest, and Strangest Animals (2018), pp. 181-182

Number 51

On the centenary of gifted, careful researcher Rosalind Franklin, a reminder of the obstacles she overcame.

[James] Watson and his Cambridge collaborator and eventual fellow Nobel Laureate Francis Crick were not doing laboratory research on the structure of DNA, but they were actively attempting to build a model of it. Franklin’s image provided them with a breakthrough. Franklin was a cautious scientist, believing that modeling should await airtight scientific evidence. But Watson and Crick were less hesitant and became convinced that their double helix model must be correct.

Some links: 86

  • Converting 35% of the acreage of a coffee farm to shade-grown culture can maximize revenue, according to new research by Amanda Rodewald et al. and summarized by Gustave Axelson. Depending on the premium paid for shade-grown coffee, that percentage can go as high as 85%.
  • A smartphone attachment can test for the presence of norovirus in a drinking water sample and produce results in five minutes. The promising prototype comes from the biomedical engineering lab of Jeong-Yeol Yoon. Joe Palca reports.

    In the wake of hurricanes and other storms, flooding can cause sewage systems to overflow, potentially mixing with water intended for drinking. Municipal water system managers would breathe easier if they could be certain they didn’t have to worry at all about norovirus contamination.

  • How to cross a river. The water at Huntley Meadows Park is never this fast or cold.
  • Melissa Errico submits a “self-tape” audition.

Drop by drop

Joe Palca and Susie Neilson report on a phone-sized device that can test for cholera in 30 minutes. It’s the work of Katherine Clayton and colleagues at Purdue University.

Still early days; more field tests are planned.

[Clayton] knows making a cholera test doesn’t put her on a fast track for financial success.

Instead, she says, her background in engineering has made her feel a sense of obligation to help find solutions to global problems: “That’s what I enjoy — knowing what the future could look like.”

New to me

Justin Kaplan explains what additional skills a Doctor of Osteopathy brings to the examining room:

Put simply, “we as DOs were holistic before holistic became cool,” says William Mayo, president of the American Osteopathic Association. DOs are trained to look at the patient’s mind, body and spirit, he says. “You don’t just look at the particular illness, you look at the patient behind the illness and approach it that way.”

My mother used to work in hospital public relations in the 1970s, and the culture in her hospital at the time was to look down on “osteopaths,” as if they weren’t real doctors. She didn’t elaborate. It’s a good thing I haven’t listened to her, because one of the doctors that has treated me recently is a DO.


Cryptococcal meningitis is a debilitating and lethal fungal disease that afflicts persons with compromised immune symptoms. Of the many neglected diseases, tropical and otherwise, it may be the most overlooked.

There is no day named for its awareness, no celebrity ambassador to champion its demise. The World Health Organization (WHO) team tasked with addressing cryptococcal meningitis is a team of one.

That’s also the number of times cryptococcal meningitis is mentioned in the 500-plus pages of the latest UNAIDS report.

Not since 2009 has it been mentioned in The New York Times.

Immuno Mycologics in Norman, Okla. is developing an assay that can detect the disease while it’s still at treatable stages in its progress.

Patrick Adams has the report.

Reversed hockey stick

Worldwide cases of Guinea worm have been reduced by 5 orders of magnitude in the span of 30 years: one human generation. And a lot of the credit goes to The Carter Center, established by former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn.

Perhaps most astonishingly, the disease is facing eradication due to public health education and dirt-cheap technology: water filters. Chew on that, Big Pharma.


Christopher Joyce and Bill McQuay inaugurate the series Close Listening. The editing on the piece is a little Radiolab-ish for my taste, but the sounds of science are ear-opening.

[Trevor] Pinch has made a career of studying how scientists listen. He notes that listening has certain advantages over vision. “The visual field is kind of in front of us — like a kind of screen,” he says, while sound is “all around.”

If seeing is like being in an art gallery, hearing is more like being in a swimming pool — where we’re swimming all the time.

Neglected no more

Jimmy Carter talks to Diane Cole about his and Rosalynn’s work to eradicate Guinea worm disease.

Our main commitment at the Carter Center is to fill vacuums in the world. We don’t duplicate what others are doing. If the World Health Organization or the United Nations or the United States government or [other organizations] are doing work, we don’t get involved. We tackle problems that other people aren’t addressing.


To merely report, or to become personally involved, perhaps putting oneself at deathly risk: a classic conundrum of journalism. Jeffrey Gettleman unpacks his own hard choice.

In so many stories I’ve covered about people in need, I struggle with when to step back, when to help out, how to be a so-called impartial observer, as I’m paid to be, but at the same time remain a decent human being. Here I failed.

Some links: 71

Catching up on a lot of bookmarks, so this will be a bit of a link dump.

  • Reduced-meat or meatless diets (Mediterranean, pescetarian, vegetarian) are both better for your health and more sustainable for the environment, as David Tilman and Michael Clark find in a recent paper, and as Elke Stehfest summarizes.
  • I am loving Nature‘s new sharing tools. Susannah Locke explains the journal’s move toward more open access.
  • Emily Dreyfuss signed up to give Wikipedia six bucks a month.

    …Wikipedia is the best approximation of a complete account of knowledge we’ve ever seen.

    It’s also the most robust. The most easily accessed. And the safest. It exists on servers around the world so, unlike the library at Alexandria, it can’t be burned down.

    You should chip in, too. kottke.org

  • The Biodiversity Heritage Library has opened an online exhibit dedicated to women in science who began working before 1922. Some of my recent subjects are there, including Florence Merriam Bailey and Mabel Osgood Wright.

Truth in advertising

Reporting on the recent FDA food labeling standard for gluten-free foods, Allison Aubrey does a great job of unpacking the various consumer constituencies who care about gluten in their diet. The blog post doesn’t dwell on this point, so listen to the audio from the All Things Considered two-way with Audie Cornish. Aubrey identifies three groups:

  • people who are on the gluten-free bandwagon and will fall off eventually;
  • people who experience gluten sensitivity, who do better avoiding wheat and related grains, but can tolerate a little or a lot;
  • people with true-blue celiac disease.

Aubrey identifies the third group as those for whom gluten is a real problem, not just something to be avoided casually. These are the three million people who, in her deft description for radio, suffer from a “chronic auto-immune disorder that can destroy the lining of the small intestine… even a little gluten can make them sick.”