Why monogamy?

 

Conflicting studies rekindle monogamy debate

NATURE | NEWS  http://www.nature.com/news/conflicting-studies-rekindle-monogamy-debate-1.13462

Two simulations reach opposing conclusions about why monogamy evolved in primates.   Josh Howgego   

Not all mammals form strong family bonds, but some do — including mountain Gorillas (Gorilla beringei) — and biologists have different, competing theories to explain why.  ANDY ROUSE/NATUREPL.COM

For decades scientists have debated the evolutionary explanation for why some species practise social monogamy, or ‘pair-living’ exclusively with one mate. Two studies published this week have begun the arguments afresh.

There are two broad theories about what drives monogamy. Some researchers hold that in certain species, females were dispersed so widely that it would have been difficult for males to monopolize an area large enough for them to have multiple partners. Others think that monogamy evolved as males stuck around their mates to protect their offspring, in particular from being killed by rivals.

Christopher Opie, an anthropologist at University College London, and his colleagues have now traced potential drivers of monogamy in 230 primate species, back to a 75-million-year-old common ancestor. The researchers compiled information about how each species behaves, such as the range of females’ territories and whether the males care for their young and guard their mates, then they ran computer simulations of the evolutionary process.

“We’re effectively re-running history millions of times to see how all these behaviours would have had to have evolved in order for us to get to where we are now,” says Opie.

The researchers found that mating relationships co-evolved with several behaviours. “When the mating system changed, the behaviour changed,” says Opie. But of all the behaviours, infanticide by rival males was the only one to consistently precede a shift to monogamous mating, they report today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences1. The fear of infanticide alone can be postulated as a cause of monogamy in primates, Opie says; the other behaviours are consequences.

Yet the waters will be muddied by a report published today in Science2. This study considered the wider origins of monogamy in mammals. Whereas almost one-third of primate species are monogamous, fewer than one-tenth of mammals are.

Tim Clutton-Brock and Dieter Lukas, both zoologists at the University of Cambridge, UK, used a previously published detailed evolutionary tree of 2,288 species of mammal3. They found that all but one of the evolutionary transitions to monogamous partnerships arose from scenarios in which females were solitary. Unable to mate with more than one female, males were probably guarding their mates as a way of maximizing their number of offspring, and any increase in paternal care was a “consequence, not a cause”, says Lukas.

Lukas and Clutton-Brock also ran the analysis on primates only, but unlike Opie and his colleagues, they found no association with infanticide. Clutton-Brock says that the discrepancy could be a result of different ways of categorizing the behaviours. “We clearly must get together with Opie to sort this out,” he says.

Opie calls the Cambridge study “interesting and ambitious” and says that his results for primates must be a peculiar subset. He says that his ultimate interest is in probing the origins of human monogamy. “It’s hard work in my experience, so why would so many primates do it?” he asks.

“We’re very cautious about extending our conclusions to humans,” says Clutton-Brock. “Humans are so very unusual because they have culture — and that changes things.

Whereas Opie’s work indicates that the need for long periods of paternal care gave rise to monogamy, Lukas and Clutton-Brock see that need as just a lucky by-product of evolutionary chance.

“Both papers have been carefully researched and will be discussed for some time to come,” says Phyllis Lee, a behavioural ecologist at the University of Stirling,

References

  1. Opie, C., Atkinson, Q. D., Dunbar, R. I. M. & Shultz, S. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USAhttp://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1307903110 (2013).
  2. Lukas, D. & Clutton-Brock, T. H. Science 341, 526–530.
  3. , S. A., Bininda-Emonds, O. R. P. & Purvis, A. Ecol. Lett. 12, 538–549 (2009).

Wait a minute . . . electric cars?

 

Electric cars have obvious advantages, but this comprehensive article shows they are not less detrimental to the environment than conventional cars.

Unclean at Any Speed

Electric cars don’t solve the automobile’s environmental problems

By Ozzie Zehner  Posted 

http://spectrum.ieee.org/energy/renewables/unclean-at-any-speed
____________________________________________________________________

EXCERPT:     Finally, most electric-car assessments analyze only the charging of the car. This is an important factor indeed. But a more rigorous analysis would consider the environmental impacts over the vehicle’s entire life cycle, from its construction through its operation and on to its eventual retirement at the junkyard.

One study attempted to paint a complete picture. Published by the National Academies in 2010 and overseen by two dozen of the United States’ leading scientists, it is perhaps the most comprehensive account of electric-car effects to date. Its findings are sobering.

whats in your EV? illustration 
Illustration: Bryan Christie Design
What’s in your EV? Don’t just think about the missing tailpipe. Manufacturing the specialized components that go into electric cars, such as the Nissan Leaf, has significant environmental costs.

It’s worth noting that this investigation was commissioned by the U.S. Congress and therefore funded entirely with public, not corporate, money. As with many earlier studies, it found that operating an electric car was less damaging than refueling a gasoline-powered one. It isn’t that simple, however, according to Maureen Cropper, the report committee’s vice chair and a professor of economics at the University of Maryland. “Whether we are talking about a conventional gasoline-powered automobile, an electric vehicle, or a hybrid, most of the damages are actually coming from stages other than just the driving of the vehicle,” she points out.

_______________________________________________________________

About the Author

The author of the book Green Illusions, Ozzie Zehner was working for GM when it “killed” its EV1 electric car. A plug-in advocate at the time, he later realized that electrifying cars just trades one set of environmental problems for another. Zehner is now a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley.

 

Crystal Experts Talk

 

Marvelous radio show:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p01cdg7j/The_Forum_Shining_a_Light_on_Crystals/

Bridget Kendall discusses the incredibly varied uses and meanings of crystals with cave scientist Penny Boston, who studies ancient life forms trapped inside the earth’s largest crystals; biophysicist Elspeth Garman who can spend years growing one perfect protein crystal in her lab; and artist Roger Hiorns who encrusted an entire apartment with bright blue crystals.

Giant Crystals

 

Mexico’s Cave of Crystals stunned geologists when it was first discovered in 2000.

The underground chamber contains some of the largest natural crystals ever found – some of the selenite structures have grown to more than 10m long.

VIDEO:  http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8466588.stm

North Pole melts, forms lake at top of the world

 

Santa flooded out? Researchers release shocking new images of a lake that has formed at the once-frozen North Pole.

By  Bryan Nelson  Thu, Jul 25 2013 at 8:34 PM

Photo: North Pole Environmental Observatory

Photos and tim- lapse video at:  http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/climate-weather/stories/north-pole-melts-forms-lake-at-top-of-the-world

If this image (above) doesn’t scare you about the effects of global warming, you must have icewater in your veins. Yes, that’s the North Pole. It’s now a lake.
The photo is part of a time lapse recently released by the North Pole Environmental Observatory, a research group funded by the National Science Foundation that has been monitoring the state of Arctic sea ice since 2000. The shallow lake began forming on July 13 after an especially warm month, which saw temperatures rise 1-3 degrees Celsius over the average, reports The Atlantic:   http://www.theatlanticwire.com/global/2013/07/north-pole-has-melted-lake/67577/
The North Pole has not completely melted away; there is still a layer of ice between the lake and the Arctic Ocean underneath. But that layer is thinning, and the newly formed lake is continuing to deepen. It’s a dramatic reminder that climate change is real and that the Arctic is being radically transformed. In fact, the lake — we might as well call it Lake North Pole — is now an annual occurrence. A pool of meltwater has formed at the North Pole every year now since 2002. The mythical home of Santa Claus has been officially flooded out.
Arctic ice has been retreating dramatically in recent years, opening up the fabled Northwest Passage, which can now be successfully navigated in the summer months. While that marks a boon for shipping traffic and oil and gas exploration, it’s bad news for the environment. Animals that rely on sea ice, such as the polar bear, are left with a shrinking habitat. The ice cap is also important for the regulation of the global climate. It influences ocean currents, insulates the air, and acts as a giant reflector for sunlight that hits the Earth. As the cap melts, global warming is projected to accelerate.
You can view the full time lapse taken by the research team at the North Pole, which shows the formation of the lake:  http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/climate-weather/stories/north-pole-melts-forms-lake-at-top-of-the-world

People and Leopards

For People and Leopards Outside Mumbai, it’s Largely Live and Let Live

BY LAKSHMI NARAYAN ⋅ JULY 24, 2013 ⋅ NPR  The World

slide shows at http://www.theworld.org/2013/07/for-people-and-leopards-outside-mumbai-its-largely-live-and-let-live/

 A recent study of an agricultural area outside of Mumbai found the highest concentration ever of large carnivores living alongside people. The relationship can be tense and occasionally deadly, but a leopard researcher has found that the two species have largely adapted to sharing the landscape.


When I told people in Belha village in western India that I was doing a story on leopards, they brought me to an unpainted gray house, next to dense sugarcane fields. My guide pointed me to one of the two children playing outside, a four-year old girl.  “Here she is,” the guide says. “It caught her. It was holding her with its teeth here in the neck.”

The little girl was shy and just gave her name: Samruddhi Ramdas Matale One evening last fall, Samruddhi was playing in her backyard when a leopard emerged from a cane field, grabbed her from behind and dragged her away. Her father heard her screams and chased the cat with his sickle. “The leopard abandoned her as soon as her father showed up,” says Samruddhi’s mother, Vaishali. “Blood started pouring out of her neck, and it was dripping when we carried her to the hospital.” It took seven days of intensive care, but the girl survived. Four fingernail-sized scars in her neck and head are the only reminders of that awful night.

Those and the cat itself, which is still at large. “Its not just one,” says Vaishali Matale. “There are a few of them roaming around in this area. When my child was attacked, others saw an animal on the other side of the village. And there are cubs too.”

In fact, the area is home to a thriving leopard population. They live in and around the sugarcane plantations that dominate the landscape here, taking cover in the dense cane thickets alongside farms and villages. And not only leopards, says Vidya Athreya, one of India’s best-known leopard ecologists, but also wolves, jackals and hyenas.

A few years ago, Athreya and her team installed 40 movement-triggered cameras around this part of Maharashtra state, east of Mumbai. They were surprised by what they saw in the pictures: leopards were hanging out in people’s backyards pretty much every day.

The results were published earlier this year in the journal PLoS One. The study shows a density of large adult carnivores that it says was “never before reported in a human dominated landscape.”

But just as surprising, Athreya says, is that attacks like the one on the little girl are very rare. “These animals can live, even among high density of humans without attacking humans the way we expect them to attack,” she says. Athreya says the leopards and other carnivores have adapted to living alongside people, subsisting mostly on stray dogs and cats, and the occasional goat or calf.

And it’s a two-way street, she says – people also seem to have adapted to living with leopards. “Yes they’re scared of it,” Athreya says. “Yes they have losses. But it seems to be, they also accept it as part of their landscape.”

 That’s very different from many other parts of the world, where people often kill carnivores that so much as threaten their livestock, let alone humans. For instance, in Africa, entire prides of lions are sometimes poisoned just to protect goats and cows. And Ranchers in the US shoot wolves that attack their cattle or sheep. Athreya says the difference in India may partly come down to the Hindu principles of tolerance and non-violence. “A lot of our traditional scriptures and the way of living life, also tells you to live and let live,’’ she says.

But “to live and let live” with carnivores here doesn’t mean being care-free. It means understanding the leopard’s behavior. Belha village cane farmer Bhaskar Nivrutti Auti says the most important thing is to be cautious all the time, and not venture out alone after dark.

“The leopard spends most of the day sitting inside the sugarcane,” Auti says. “And at night it goes out. It is usually near people’s houses, and also comes near the cattle and goat sheds.”

When leopards do attack, there is a lot of anger, protests, and demands for immediate action, which often comes down to capturing the culprit and releasing it in a less populated area.

Still, there are some animals that require a permanent solution. At a plant nursery surrounded by agricultural fields, there’s a distinct odor of a cat, and a low, menacing growl, coming from a female leopard sitting in a small green cage. As the ecologist Vidya Athreya approaches, the animal leaps toward her, slamming against the bars with a ferocious roar. It’s shockingly loud and fierce. Athreya tries to calm the animal with a soft “shh-shh-shh.” This leopard is thought to have attacked and killed a three-year old girl as she slept with her family in a nearby field. The animal was trapped the next day, and Athreya says there was human DNA in her scat. “She is very likely to be the killer,” Athreya says, “and in that case you can’t leave her again. Where will you leave her?”

Suspected man-eaters can be shot if they’re on the loose, but more often they’re trapped. And under India’s strong wildlife laws, once they’re in captivity, they can’t be killed. Instead, this leopard will most likely spend the rest of its life in a cage.

 

How Diving Mammals Stay Underwater for So Long

Photo: Sea lions swimming in clear water

 

Diving mammals, such as the Galapagos sea lion, evolved adaptations allowing them to stay underwater for prolonged periods of time.

Jane J. Lee  National Geographic  June 14, 2013

Imagine holding your breath while chasing down a giant squid (Architeuthis dux)—multi-tentacled monsters wielding suckers lined with tiny teeth—in freezing cold water, all in the dark. That would take a lot out of anybody, yet sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) do this day in and day out.

The ability to dive underwater for extended periods is a specialized feat marine and aquatic mammals have evolved over millions of years. Diving mammals will slow their heart rate, stop their breathing, and shunt blood flow from their extremities to the brain, heart, and muscles when starting a dive. (Related: “Can Diving Mammals Avoid the Bends?”)

But champion divers, such as elephant seals, can hold their breath for about two hours. “It was known that they rely on internal oxygen stores when they’re down there,” said Michael Berenbrink, a zoologist at the University of Liverpool, England, who specializes in how animals function.

But there was something else going on in the bodies of these animals that researchers were missing, until now.  So what’s new? A study published June 13 in the journal Science reports that diving mammals—including whales, seals, otters, and even beavers and muskrats—have positively charged oxygen-binding proteins, called myoglobin, in their muscles.

This positive characteristic allows the animals to pack much more myoglobin into their bodies than other mammals, such as humans—and enables diving mammals to keep a larger store of oxygen on which to draw while underwater.

Why is it important? Packing too many proteins together can be problematic, explained Berenbrink, a study co-author, because they clump when they get too close to each other.

“This [can cause] serious diseases,” he added. In humans, ailments like diabetes and Alzheimer’s can result.

But myoglobin is ten times more concentrated in the muscles of diving mammals than it is in human muscles, Berenbrink said.

Since like charges repel each other—think of trying to push together the sides of two magnets with the same charge—having positively charged myoglobin keeps the proteins from sticking to each other.

What does this mean? Berenbrink and colleagues found this positive charge in the myoglobin of all the diving mammals they examined, although some had larger positive charges than others.

This study provides a nice example of convergent evolution—where different lineages living in similar environments evolve the same answer to a common problem, wrote Randall Davis, a biologist who studies the physiology and behavior of marine birds and mammals at Texas A&M University in Galveston, in an email.

“[And it] sheds light on the origins of myoglobin and its role in extending breath-hold duration in aquatic mammals,” said Davis, who was not involved in the study.

“It will raise some controversy, but at the same time I think it’s going to stimulate more research, which I couldn’t be more pleased about,” said Jerry Kooyman, an animal physiologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego who was not involved in the study.

Kooyman cautions that some of what’s known about aspects of diving behavior, such as dive duration, is based on small sample sizes. So researchers must be careful when trying to draw connections between diving ability and how much myoglobin a species can claim.

What’s next? Berenbrink hopes to look at the myoglobin in humans from societies with a history of diving behavior to see if they show similar changes in their oxygen-binding protein.

“There are ethnic groups around the world who have relied on diving to get food. Some of these humans can stay underwater for a very long time,” he said.

 

 

Dog and Cop Story

 

 

German shepherd Maggie is one of the main characters in Robert Crais’ new police story SuspectShe’s been shot  serving as a Marine working dog in Afghanistan (her handler killed),  passed to the Los Angeles police for retraining, and assigned to Scott, new in the K9 unit after getting shot (his partner killed).  Guilty for failing to save his partner in the shootout, Scott involves himself in the investigation of the incident and encounters unexpected, dangerous opposition.  Lots about dog-training,  the  dog/handler relationship in this suspenseful novel.     rjn

WE GOT FRACKED !

 

Use of natural gas for transportation instead of gasoline and diesel fuel is great to reduce air pollution, but it seems there is a high environmental cost in producing it, while corporations and individual landowners are making a lot of money.  

The Illinois legislature has passed and the governor has signed a law that permits and  regulates hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to obtain natural gas from rock layers very deep in the earth. 

Fracking is a fairly new process of drilling to reach an area where gas is present, then making a high-pressure injection of water, chemicals, and sand to break up rock and release gas.  Wells may be drilled hundreds to thousands of feet below the land surface and lateral sections may extend 1000 to 6000 feet away from the well.  Fracking uses a lot of water which returns as highly toxic waste water. There is concern that fracking causes water pollution, earthquakes, and other environment problems.  Studies of these problems are are underway

Our state representative with others pushed earlier for a moratorium in Illinois which they could not pass.  She voted against the present law; our state senator voted for it.  Here is Representative Robyn Gabel’s answer to my question “What are the major faults in the law?”:

1. Local control – local governmental bodies should be able to have a surtax on oil and gas products and require stronger setbacks for residences, schools, streams, river, lakes etc.The industry should be required to pay prevailing rates for water used in the fracking process and the local areas should be able to set limits on water use during times of drought.
2.  The disposal of fracking waste should require  stricter guidelines similar to toxic and radioactive waste. In the bill, venting of methane is allowed which is 100 times more potent in its effect on the environment than carbon dioxide. This should not be allowed.
3. In general, the bill needs to have stronger setback requirements. A safe minimum distance is considered 3,300 feet from lakes, streams, residences, churches, schools. The bill only requires 500 to 300 ft.setbacks.
Rep. Gabel said that  the Illinois Department of Health should have been represented on the task force that developed the bill and that public hearings should have been held..

More on fracking and our environment:

http://www.nrdc.org/energy/gasdrilling/

http://www.theoec.org/Fracking?gclid=CNStqIWwubgCFSVgMgod7SoAvQ

Technical developments have resulted in a massive expansion of fracking,  greatly increasing the availability of gas from an underground supply that seems almost limitless..

Natural gas costs about 3/4  the price of gasoline for the same amount of energy.

Chicago has some natural gas taxis.  Cities such as Los Angeles, New York City,  Fort Worth, Dallas, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. have natural gas transit bus fleets. Many companies have fleets of natural gas trucks and cars.  The busses serving students on the Penn State campus run on natural gas

Radio discussion of eco-friendly cabs in Chicago, sound:  http://www.wbez.org/programs/morning-shift-tony-sarabia

Maryland and New York have put a moratorium on fracking pending the completion of research.  Vermont has placed an outright ban on fracking. though there seems to be no gas there.

Wikipedia has a thorough article on hydraulic fracturing:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydraulic_fracturing_in_the_United_States

Sand  The best sand for fracking is clean, white silica sand–almost pure quartz in round grains.  There are five silica sand mines in Illinois, four of them in LaSalle County, southwest of Chicago.   Three new mines have been proposed and permitted by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, one adjacent to Starved Rock State Park. Trouble is the sand dust causes cancer, just one of the problems for people living near the mines.  Some people have hired Erin Brockovich’s consulting firm  (remember the movie with Julia Roberts?) to help them against the mining companies.

More about the sand:

WBEZ-FM show on sand for fracking–text, video, sound:  http://www.wbez.org/news/behind-fracking-boom-sand-mining-rush-108078           MORE:  http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/energy/2013/07/130703-wisconsin-fracking-sand-rush/

 

rjn

Smart Knife Helps Cut Cancer

 

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC  7.17.13– ONLY HUMAN

http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2013/07/17/smart-knife-helps-surgeons-cut-cancer/

Science Translational Medicine/AAAS
SCIENCE TRANSLATIONAL MEDICINE/AAAS
 3 hours ago

Smart Knife Helps Surgeons Cut Cancer   Virginia Hughes

Cancer is one slippery SOB. It can appear mysteriously, then hang out, thrive, and grow for ages without being spotted. When it is detected, cancer is often unpredictable: It can be fatal, it can be harmless. When under attack, it doesn’t easily fall. Radiation, chemotherapy, and other drugs might curb its spread or substantially shrink it, but they rarely wipe it out. Even under the swift and steady surgeon’s knife, bits of cancer manage to escape.

Take breast cancer. Nearly 700,000 women are diagnosed with it every year in the United States and Europe. About half undergo breast conserving surgery, in which surgeons attempt to excise the tumor while preserving as much healthy tissue as possible. The procedure is tougher than it sounds. Surgeons rely on images of the tumor to guide their cuts, but often have trouble determining its precise borders while the patient is on the table. If they’re not sure whether a piece of tissue is cancerous, they can snip it out and send it to a nearby laboratory for analysis. Then they wait, anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour, all while the patient is still under anesthesia, to get the results. It’s no wonder that even the best surgeons can miss part of the tumor; an estimated 20 percent of women who go through the surgery end up repeating it.

Those numbers may improve thanks to a new surgical tool called the iKnife (i for intelligent). As described in today’s issue of Science Translational Medicine, the tool does sophisticated chemical fingerprinting to help surgeons identify — in real time, right there in the operating room — whether tissue is cancerous or healthy.

“With our technology, identification takes a second — actually, 0.7 seconds,” says Zoltán Takáts, an analytical chemist at Imperial College London who invented the new tool. “One can sample thousands of points during a surgical intervention and it still wouldn’t increase the length of the surgery.”

The iKnife in action. Image courtesy of Science Translational Medicine/AAAS.

The iKnife in action. Image courtesy of Science Translational Medicine/AAAS.

Takáts’s story begins more than a decade ago, when as a postdoctoral fellow at Purdue University he came up with an important innovation in mass spectrometry. Mass spec, as it’s often called, is a common method for determining the chemical make-up of a substance. Mass spec can measure traces of illicit drugs in an athlete’s blood, for example, or the type of pesticide residue covering an apple, or the amount of caffeine in a cup of coffee. Before going through mass spec, samples have to be converted from atoms or molecules into ions — a process that used to require vacuum chambers and tedious preparations. But in 2004, Takáts’s team published in Science a way to ionize samples by simply putting them under a gas jet.

Takáts was immediately interested in applying the new technique to the identification of biological tissues during surgery. The method turned out not to work for this purpose, but while he was figuring that out, he generated a lot of excitement from the surgical community. “They were chasing us,” he says, laughing. “They were saying, ‘OK, we understand that you can’t use this method, but can’t you come up with something else which would work?’”

The idea for the iKnife came from the realization that there’s no need to create a tool that ionizes tissue — surgeons already have one that’s used all the time. Its technical name is an “electrosurgical device”; a more descriptive one is “flesh vaporizer”. Since 1925, doctors have been using these small electric wands for cauterizing wounds and performing dissections. “Pretty much in every surgical theater all over the planet you can find it being used on an everyday basis,” Takáts says.

The worst part about these devices is the smoke they produce. “This is really a smoke of burnt flesh. It’s as nasty as it sounds,” Takáts says. But that smelly smoke contains ionized tissue that’s perfect for mass spec analysis.

Over the past several years, Takáts and his colleagues have conducted aseries of rodent experiments testing the new tool, which is essentially an electrosurgical wand hooked up to a rolling mass spec machine (see top photo). They found that smoke produced from burning one type of tissue has a different mass-spec signature than does smoke coming from another kind of tissue. More importantly, they found that cancerous tissue leaves a different chemical trace than healthy tissue does.

That makes sense. Most of the chemicals sensed with this method are phospholipids, fat molecules that line the membrane of each cell. Cancer cells are constantly dividing into new cells, which means they’re constantly synthesizing phospholipids. “So the membrane lipid composition of tumor cells will be quite different from healthy cells. This is what allows us to differentiate them,” Takáts says.

In the new study, the researchers apply the technology to human tissues for the first time. They first created a database of chemical signatures gleaned from doing mass spec on thousands of stored tumor samples. The researchers then put all of that data through a complicated statistical analysis to find patterns that reliably distinguished one tissue type from another. Finally, they tested whether those algorithms could correctly identify cancerous tissue as it was being removed, right in the operating room. It worked: The iKnife was used in 91 surgeries, and in every single one, the tissue identification it made in the operating room matched the one made by traditional laboratory methods after the surgery.

The paper is “a tour de force,” says Nick Winograd, a professor of chemistry at Penn State who was not involved in the research. Winograd is an expert in using mass spec to identify biological samples.

Over the years there have been many attempts to get this technology into a clinical setting, Winograd notes. “But so far there hasn’t really been anything that you can really raise your flag about.” Part of the problem, he says, is that these chemical signatures are only subtly different from one another. They’re all made of the same molecules, just in slightly different combinations. “So you really have to be clever in your data analysis if you’re going to find [patterns] that differ in a systematic way from tissue type to tissue type,” he says.

The iKnife is just one example of a bigger trend of metabolic profiling in medical science. Just as geneticists have done oodles of association studies pairing specific genetic variants to this or that disease, researchers hope to find links between chemical signatures and disease. Proponents say that metabolic studies will give even more information than their genomic counterparts, because they are influenced by both genetic and environmental factors. The foods, medications, and chemical exposures we take in every day don’t change our DNA code, but they do leave a chemical imprint in our tissues. “Understanding that interface of genes and environment is absolutely critical for the future,” says Jeremy Nicholson, a chemist who leads the department of surgery and cancer at Imperial, where the iKnife work took place.

Just last month, Imperial launched a multi-million dollar “Phenome Centre” aimed at conducting chemical studies at many levels — on the scale of the individual patient, like the iKnife work, but also at a population scale, comparing chemicals from the blood, urine, and even microbial communities of groups of people over time.

The Centre has 19 high-tech spectroscopy machines, giving it the capacity to perform more than a million discrete assays a year, Nicholson says. The machines are hand-me-downs from the 2012 Olympic Games, held in London. The U.K. spent around $30 million for equipment to screen the thousands of Olympians for illicit drug use, Nicholson says. “They only found 12 people who were cheating.”