03/11/2016

Uterus Transplant, Missing Lizard Link, and a Sea Level Solution

12:11 minutes

Lizards preserved in mid-Cretaceous Burmese amber. Credit: Daza et al., 2016
Lizards preserved in mid-Cretaceous Burmese amber. Credit: Daza et al., 2016

This week, the first uterus transplant performed in the United States failed after it was implanted in a woman two weeks ago. The Verge’s Arielle Duhaime-Ross discusses what this means for the other women enrolled in the experimental study. Duhaime-Ross also discusses a 99-million-year-old baby chameleon preserved in amber. Could it be a missing lizard link?

Plus, climate scientist Anders Levermann describes an outside-the-box approach to coping with rising sea levels: What if we pumped the extra water to the middle of Antarctica and froze it there?

Segment Guests

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

Arielle Duhaime-Ross is science reporter for The Verge in New York, New York.

Anders Levermann

Anders Levermann is a climate scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and a professor at the Physics Institute of Potsdam University in Potsdam, Germany.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, it’s going to be all about cheese, including the inventor JL Kraft and his revolutionary product, processed cheese. We’ll tell you how to make it and we’ll tell you just what is in cheese food.

But first, for you Jurassic Park fans, you remember the scene where the scientists learn how InGen was able to create their dinosaurs?

MR. DNA: This fossilized tree sap, which we call amber, waited for millions of years with the mosquito inside, until Jurassic Park scientists came along. Using sophisticated techniques, they extract the preserved blood from the mosquito and bingo, dino DNA!

IRA FLATOW: [INAUDIBLE] in a study out in Science Advances, researchers didn’t find dino DNA, but they did find a 99-million-year-old lizard preserved in amber. Arielle Duhaime-Ross is here to tell us that story and other selected short subjects in science. She’s a science reporter at The Verge here in New York.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Hi.

IRA FLATOW: Good to see you again.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Good to see you.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Would it be a way to find it in the amber there?

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: So they found a chameleon, and like you said, it’s 99 million years old. That means that it is the oldest preserved chameleon, or chameleon ancestor, ever found. What’s really important about this is that when scientists find these kinds of preserved animals they are able to trace the evolution of these animals through time and figure out which traits arrived first. And in this case, the scientists realized that this chameleon did not have fused toes, the kinds of fused toes that modern chameleons use to climb trees. It did have signs that it has a projectile tongue, which means that the projectile tongue that chameleons have today may have evolved a lot earlier than scientists previously thought.

These chameleons– well, there’s one chameleon, a baby chameleon, and then a bunch of other lizards that were preserved in amber– they were found in a mine decades ago and kept by a private collector, who eventually handed it over to some scientists. So it’s interesting that we’re finding this out now, even though these objects were found a really long time ago.

IRA FLATOW: Stuff comes out of your collections, and then you look at it, and then you see–

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Right. And then it changes the history of chameleon evolution.

IRA FLATOW: A few weeks ago, there was a new species of ancient flower found in amber, right?

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: I saw that. The piece of amber was really, really beautiful.

IRA FLATOW: Now what is amber? People, they buy it. They’re not quite sure what it is, but it’s something really cool.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Right. Amber is fossilized tree resin. When certain types of trees, when they’re damaged or diseased, they will release some resin to cover the wounds that they have. And sometimes animals get trapped in that, and whether it’s a lizard or an insect.

And over time, millions and millions of years, when that resin is submerged in sediment, it will turn into copal, which then millions of years later turns into amber. The process by which this happens is not very well understood. There are temperature conditions and pressure conditions that are very, very specific, and not every tree releases resin that will turn into amber. But every once in a while, we get lucky, and we get something like a 99-million-year-old baby chameleon.

IRA FLATOW: That’s great. Let’s talk about another topic that was in the news this week. And this was kind of interesting because it was here, it was there. The first uterus transplant was announced as a success and then a failure all within the same week.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Yeah. Well, I think it was about two weeks ago scientists at the Cleveland Clinic announced that they had done the first US uterus transplant. There have been other uterus transplants in Sweden. I believe nine women have had the procedure done.

But this was the first time this happened in the US. And unfortunately, this 26-year-old woman who had the transplant and who was born without a uterus, it failed. She had a complication and they had to remove the uterus on Tuesday. It’s an interesting procedure because it’s still definitely investigational, so things like this will happen. The uterus is supposed to come from a deceased donor, and it’s supposed to help these women then carry a child to term themselves, which they aren’t normally able to do.

So it’s unfortunate that this happened. There are still nine other women who are supposed to have this procedure done. The trial is supposed to go ahead, according to Cleveland Clinic. It’s unclear what will happen to these nine candidates now, if they will all go ahead with the operation now that the first one has failed.

IRA FLATOW: From what I understand, it’s true that you’re only borrowing the uterus? You give the uterus back?

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: (LAUGHING) To the researchers, not the corpse. Yeah. It is a temporary procedure. The idea is that you do the transplant. These women will have the uterus for a few years so they can have some children, carry some children to term.

And then researchers will remove the uterus, because the uterus is not an organ that is necessary for life, so– and unfortunately, when you have a transplant, you need to take a lot of anti-rejection drugs. So the idea is that taking it out will allow these women to go back to their regular lives where they don’t have to take these drugs every day and you don’t have to worry.

IRA FLATOW: Next story about how humans might have eaten before the idea of cooking.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Yeah. For a long time, scientists have thought that cooking may have been something that really started around 500,000 years ago, may have been what allowed humans to eat diverse foods and then become really, really brainy and intelligent. But a study out this week in Nature that was described by Carl Zimmer in the New York Times suggested that eating meat and the invention of stone-cutting tools may have allowed humans to get the nutrients and the free time that they needed to gain the brain power that we have today.

It’s interesting, because what I like the most about this study is the way that it was conducted. The researchers separated study participants into different groups and gave them raw goat meat to eat, as well as some vegetables like yams and beets. And depending on which group you ended up in, you either had a slab of raw goat meat to chew on or you had goat meat that had been cut up in little pieces. And because eating raw goat meat could give you food poisoning, the study participants then had to chew– to spit it out.

And the researchers were able to measure the pieces and figure out how long it would take for humans to eat it. And they found out that it takes about 30 chews to eat small pieces of raw goat meat. But if you have a big slab, then humans aren’t able to swallow it. It just doesn’t work out. But the idea is that stone tools and being able to cut those up, a lot earlier– two to three million years ago– may have started the process of us becoming more intelligent a lot faster. And that really changes the timeline for us.

Not everybody agrees with the study. The guy who first came up with the cooking theory doesn’t agree with it. But we will have to have more studies on that.

IRA FLATOW: More goat meat on the way. Thank you, Arielle. Arielle Duhaime-Ross is a science reporter at The Verge here in New York. Thanks again. Always good to see you.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Yeah, thank you.

IRA FLATOW: And now it’s time to play Good Thing, Bad Thing.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Because every story has a flip side. And our story today talks about global temperatures. We keep hearing about global temperatures continuing to rise. It’s a matter of concern, and of– because with the rising temperatures come rising sea levels. And while coastal communities are starting to think about how to fend off higher oceans with levees and pumps and raise foundations, others are considering even larger scale, very large-scale approaches to coping with sea level rise.

And writing this week in the journal Earth System Dynamics, researchers from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, they looked at the possibility of pumping all that excess seawater, pumping it into the interior of Antarctica where it would freeze, right? You’d lower the level of the ocean by pumping out the ocean into Antarctica, locking it up in the ice. What could be bad about that? Well, here to talk about the good and bad of that is one of the authors of that paper, Anders Levermann.

He’s a climate scientist at the Potsdam Institute and professor of physics at the Institute of Potsdam University. He’s also a lead author of the “Sea Level Change” chapter of the most recent IPCC report, so he has thought about this a lot. Welcome to Science Friday.

ANDERS LEVERMANN: Hello. Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. This idea sounds sort of fantastic. Is it a really– a serious thought? Well, some call it crazy, and I can’t blame them.

IRA FLATOW: I didn’t say that word.

ANDERS LEVERMANN: No, you didn’t. You didn’t. I’m just saying. No, it is strange. It’s a strange idea.

We don’t want to mess up Antarctica. It’s the only place on the planet where humans can only go for doing research and not for tourism or to explore it. So you don’t really want to mess it up.

But if you think about this idea, it becomes less insane the more you think about it, in a way, because there’s no real ecosystem on Antarctica. There’s a tremendous ecosystem around Antarctica, but not really in the interior. And it’s very, very cold, so any water that you would put there would immediately freeze, and you would protect coastal cities and coasts all over the place on the entire globe.

IRA FLATOW: And so what’s bad about this idea? Well, there are a lot of bad things about it. First, you would actually mess a little bit with the ecosystem around Antarctica, and– and the technology doesn’t exist yet to really pump this amount of water at this– at these temperatures, which are very, very cold in Antarctica. But what’s the biggest problem is that the Antarctic ice sheet is indeed two kilometers high. And you have to– you would have to translate this into miles, because I’m from Europe, and I just don’t understand the system [INAUDIBLE].

IRA FLATOW: It’s a couple of miles. We’ll call it a couple miles.

ANDERS LEVERMANN: A couple of miles. Exactly. And if you just want to elevate this amount of water, to reduce the sea level globally onto Antarctica, that would take about 7% of the global energy production, of the global energy consumption that we have at the moment.

And that’s just to eliminate the sea level rise that we are currently observing. In the future, we expect even higher sea level rise or even faster sea level rise, and there you would need even more energy. And that makes it problematic.

IRA FLATOW: Would this be a permanent solution, or is it a temporary fix?

ANDERS LEVERMANN: No, it wouldn’t be a permanent solution. But it would be, in a sense, because it’s– you can store the ice there for 1,000 years if you put it in high enough inland. It’s not permanent, but 1,000 years is a far– is far into the future.

IRA FLATOW: But do we have any idea what pumping all this brine, all the seawater up into Antarctica, might do locally?

ANDERS LEVERMANN: Yeah. There’s more problems with this. As you note, Antarctica is snow, right? It’s ice made of snow which is fresh water.

It doesn’t have any salt in it, but the ocean water obviously has a lot of salt. So you would put a layer of salty water onto Antarctica. And at the moment, we don’t know what this will do with the dynamic of the ice motion.

So we have to say this is actually a very problematic idea. And we initially thought we’d have to try it, because it’s not just rich countries that are going to be affected by sea level rise. It’s also poor countries. And then you have regions on the planet which might not be economically important but you want to keep anyway, like the mangrove forests in Florida or the Florida Keys, for example. And you would protect all of these at the same time.

IRA FLATOW: All right. Anders, thank you very much. Gives us something to think about. Thanks for coming in and joining us.

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