Four years into a 90-day mission…

The Mars Rovers are failing. They are slowing down and breaking down with age. It’s sad because they have continued to work and send us new information long after their original missions span. This is where we get real value for our research money, not in sending humans to low earth orbit.

Bob Park’s What’s New for Fri. Nov. 16, 2007

Bob Park’s weekly compendium of science news mentions Anthony Flew’s supposed “pre-deathbed conversion,” the cloning of monkeys from skin cells, an objective measure for pain, the DISCOVR atmospheric research satellite, complete and paid for but languishing in a warehouse thanks to the Bush administration.

Tasmanian Devil needs our help

Tasmanian Devil Facial DiseasePZ Myers at Pharyngula has a detailed article about Tasmanian devil facial tumor disease.

If evolution has taught us anything, it’s that if there’s a niche, something wiill fill it, no matter how grisly or yucky from a human standpoint. (I remember learning that many people have almost-microscopic parasites living around the roots of our eyelashes. Squatters! How dare they?)

Others have blogged about the non-fatal Canine Transmissible Venereal Cancer. It was mentioned by Azra Raza at Three Quarks Daily and Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science) and before us all, Carl Zimmer at The Loom. It was written up in Cell* as the oldest known living cancer. Cell Press online also mentions that Tamanian Devil tumour might be another transmissible cancer. [I know that this comment will be delayed because of all the links, but I want to give everyone credit.]

tasmanian devilTo save the Tasmanian Devil, increasing the genetic diversity sounds like a good idea, but expensive and time-consuming. It will take time to identify candidate animals and arrange matings or investigate artificial insemination for TDs.

In the meantime, it might help to identify any areas of the Tasmanian Devil range that are not yet effective; and sling up a few fences to isolate them as much as possible from infected or partly infected areas. Fences are expensive, too, but people who know what they’re saving (a tourist draw, for one thing) might be willing to spend the money. Roads are a gap in the fence unless the public agrees to some kind of double-fence “airlock” system or bridges that are only down when there is traffic. And then hikers and hunters will cut holes in the fences unless there are gated stiles. But I think we’d be talking perhaps three fence lines in the whole island. Maybe one if there’s a heavily infected area that could be isolated to slow things down and give the other plans a chance.

I’m just brainstorming here; it’s probably not practical. But perhaps we could put our collective mind to imagining solutions and then seeing if any of them can be made practical.

*Reference: Murgia et al.: “Clonal Origin and Evolution of a Transmissible Cancer.” Publishing in Cell 126, 477-487, August 11, 2006. DOI 10.1016/j.cell.2006.05.051)

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