Saturday, June 06, 2009

The Day Today


The latest b3ta challenge.

(Eds: That's enough stuff about Shatner for a month or two.)

Thursday, June 04, 2009

The Day Today

After a spending a couple of hours working on the proofs of the US edition of The Quiet War, I ambled out into the sunshine to exercise my democratic rights in the European Parliament election. And a couple of hours later, I'll be off to catch the train to Cheltenham, where I'm taking part in the science festival (tickets are still available for the talk, I'm told, and I'll be signing in the book tent afterwards - if you're in the area, why not drop by?).

I'll be talking about the future of animal testing, and while researching that came across this neat bit of work: refabbing a virus so that it infects and destroys cancerous liver cells, but is recognised and destroyed by any healthy cells it infects. Talk about your smart bullet. It works by adding to the virus binding sites for a particular form of microRNA: in normal liver cells the microRNA binds to those sites and deactivates the virus - much like the antibodies that nearly did for the hemonauts' submarine - and Raquel Welch - in Fantastic Voyage, that early essay in medical nanotechnology. But - this is the neat trick - cancerous liver cells don't produce the microRNA so the virus isn't disabled and can multiply freely inside them, and ultimately kill them.

MicroRNAs are turning out to be crucial in controlling the internal metabolic climates of cells by regulating gene activation and activity of messenger RNA, the go-between molecular vital for the translation of code in the gene into protein. They were first identified in the early 1990s, but not named until the turn of the century, and their function and variety, and their role in the feedback loops that control gene transcription and cell function, is only beginning to be explored. I've just finished proofing the new paperback edition of Fairyland, which features psychotropic viruses that target specific neurons. It doesn't take much imagination to work up all kinds of psychotropic viral functions involving microRNAs. A virus that attacks neurons in which activity of a specific microRNA is suppressed to allow transcription of proteins involved with formation of short-term (or long-term) memory, for instance: temporary amnesia caught like the common cold . . .

Currently reading (when not reading proofs of my own stuff) Antony Beevor's D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, and A.S. Byatt's The Children's Hour. Currently listening to: The Felice Brothers' Yonder Is The Clock, and the Dangermouse/Sparklehorse/David Lynch collaboration, Dark Night Of The Soul.

Titan's Indian Summer

Summer on Titan lasts more than seven years. The Cassini probe has been monitoring changes in the atmosphere of Saturn's largest moon for three and a half years, and now, with equinox approaching, the seasons are about to turn in the southern hemisphere. But images from Cassini's last flyby of Saturn's largest moon show that clouds of liquid methane formed by convection driven by the heat of the sun (just as rain clouds are formed on Earth) are dispersing more slowly than expected and autumn may prove to be warmer and wetter than climate models predicted. Those models are based on very partial and incomplete data, of course, but isn't it amazing that we have learned so much about this strange smog-shrouded moon so quickly? Before Cassini's arrival we didn't even know whether the surface of Titan was solid, or covered from pole to pole in oceans of liquid methane and ethane. Now, we're receiving regular updates on changes in its weather.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Mapped Out

A new favourite in the category of 'shops I can't afford to go in'. Check out the 'celestial charts' section - such as this beauty.
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