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TWiP 57 letters

Anne writes:

I found TWIP just a week ago and feel I've found a home. I'm a pharmacist, usually on the night shift, and stay excited all night listening to you. Parasites have always been my hobby. In fact, I recently divorced one. His life cycle is unique. I get oddly thrilled when dispensing anti-parasitic drugs. Thought I was odd. Thanks for normalizing me. Annie

Renato writes:

Hello dear TWIP hosts!

Just in case you are not already exposed to this, I send you the web address for a recently launched worm-watching game:


It consists of video feeds of C. Elegans, which are being recorded automatically by tracking microscopes. As far as I understand it, the researchers want to measure the efficacy of the serotonin-regulated musculature of egg-laying for each worm, so recording when the eggs are layed is a vital piece of information.

This game is from the same guys that spawned Galaxy Zoo, where you classify galaxies, and Planet Four, where you classify terrain formations in Mars. Actually they have several interesting "scientific games", so I'd like to pick their project menu for this week:


Also, there is something I'd like to ask Dixon. In TWIP 56 you and Vincent had a brief discussion about the name TWIP, why it uses the word "Parasitism" instead of "Parasitology". It has occurred to me sometimes that the "P" in a "TWIP" show name could also mean "Pathology". Whenever I think that, I wonder if all parasitism is a pathology - not necessarily a human pathology, but some living being's pathology. I then usually imagine that Dixon could argue that not all parasites cause harm to their hosts, and therefore parasitism is not completely within the scope of pathology. Is that the case?

Thank you and all your guests for the shows!


Oops, terribly sorry for misspelling your name, Dickson!

(I guess I always think of the Dixon from the "Mason & Dixon" line when I hear your name. By the way, the book by that name by Thomas Pynchon is an awesome read (well, all Pynchon books great, but M&D is arguably the best one so far)).

Chris writes:

On your last TWiP someone mentioned the Pandemic Board Game. I stumbled upon a YouTube video of it being played and explained by Wil Wheaton (the actor who started out as a teenager on Star Trek, and now shows up on various television programs):

Apparently the person who starts is someone who had recently been sick, or had the worst disease. It turned out three of the players had caught H1N1 in 2009 at a gaming type convention in Seattle (link so you can understand what they mean by "Pax": http://prime.paxsite.com/ ), but one of them had suffered worse a few years before with a sequences of strep infections.

Enjoy. Just like I enjoyed learning about parasites in fish due to transporting them elsewhere.


(And I really hope that my two college age kids going to that same gaming convention don't get some kind of infection!)

Garren writes:

Hi all

I have a short bit of trivia to add to TWIP #56. You briefly discussed the topic of fish spawning and the salinity or not of the water in which the fish spawn. The question of a salty river was oh so very briefly brought up and dismissed. Well there does in fact exist a salt water river. I have been there and it is on the Island of Okinawa. The river is spring fed and the spring is so close to the ocean that the ocean water actually infiltrates the spring and it flows its extremely short length back to the ocean. It is something like 1-2km long. I have a picture burred around here somewhere but I know not where at the moment.


Robin writes:


Joe writes:

Vince and Dickson,

Here is a follow up on your biofuels question. To make fuels from crops succeed we need a biotech breakthrough that I really thought someone would have done already. Basically we need a bug that eats cellulose and converts it back to sugar so you can ferment it. Personally, I think there is a Nobel Prize in it for the group that creates an e. coli strain that converts cellulose to sugars. Once you have that, then you can feed the farm animals the corn and run your tractor on the corn stalks! Or you could use hay or grass clips or wood chips or waste paper, whatever is available cheaply. Until we get that bug, ethanol from corn will just be a niche technology.

People will keep pushing to use corn crops or other high sugar crops to make fuel, but the economics are not good and the lost opportunity costs are too high. Look how the modest current efforts in the USA have pushed up food prices and still required government subsidies to be competitive. No doubt there is a listener out there with lots of arguments for how great ethanol from corn is but I don't see anything like the margin needed to make it a viable market changing crude oil substitute.

I will show my age and tell you that as a senior chemical engineering design project in 1980 at Purdue, we looked at how to convert crop waste materials (like corn stalks) into fuel and it wasn't pretty. The only real way to break down the cellulose was to grind it up and treat it with hot fuming sulfuric acid in big reactors. Fuming sulfuric is 98% concentrated acid that is saturated with sulfur trioxide gas, brute force chemistry for sure! As I remember, you could get pretty good conversion of the cellulose, but the ugly part was separating the good stuff from all the waste acid and the non reactive lignin. Once you got all the acid out of the good stuff, then you still had to ferment the sugars. It is not surprising that you don't see anybody running this process to make fuel! We need a biotech solution to break down the cellulose without all the mess. I think folks were looking at the microbes in termites' stomachs as a place to start., but I have not heard of any progress on this in several years.

I will add that biofuels are not the only option for our fuel supply. For the past 100 years, we have had repeated dramatic reports that we are about to run out of oil and yet it never seems to happen! I remember a particularly detailed one in Scientific American about 10-15 years ago with beautiful graphs and everything. Each time the trumpets of doom sound, some smart engineer or geologist comes up with a new way to extract more oil. I don't see any reason why this trend will suddenly stop this time, we still have lots of tar sands, deep oil, and shale oil that have not been touched. Please note that I am not expressing a political view on the social correctness of these options just the technical aspects. Even more impressive are the reported quantities of frozen methane hydrate clathrates on the ocean floor that would likely be fairly easy to extract. Some estimates are that there is more than 10 times the amount of energy stored there than in all the oil we have ever used. Obviously none of these fossil fuels address the CO2 generation concerns that many people have.

Wind, solar, hydro and even nuclear power all have their places and I hope their niches keep growing as the technology improves, but nothing comes close to competing with chemical energy as a cheap, portable, high density source of energy. One just needs to look at biology to see the truth of this; plants fix the suns energy into chemical forms that then cascade through the food chain ever evolving into more complex forms. How cool is that!

Thanks for helping me stretch my brain each week! Thus ends "This Week in Chemical Engineering"!

Warmest Regards,


Daniel writes:

Dear The Good Doctors!, I hope you are well!

I became fascinated with parasites at Uni when I was studying Freshwater and Marine Biology and took zoology and again relating to shifting global distributions of aquatic infectious organisms by climate change. I loved every aspect of parasitim but they were such small parts of my course I didn't think I could go into parasitology. I left college and went into aquaculture, listening to you all the while, which nudged me into returning to study. I'll be starting a masters in molecular parasitology at Glasgow Uni next year. I'm certain I wouldn't be, if not for you two and TWIP! I cannot express my gratitude in words for your effort and work making TWIP!

I love TWIP (et al.), I've been following it for years. However, I'm currently working at a remote pearl oyster farm in Australia (Beagle Bay, WA). As the podcast is over 50mb, my iPhone won't download it without a wifi connection. There is no wifi...

Is there anyway you can reduce the podcast file size? Without reducing the length of the show, of course!
File compression or something?

It's been months since I've had a TWIV fix and I'm starting to get the shakes!

Worm regards,


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