Tuesday, January 29, 2008
Two interesting articles out in the PNAS early release feed.
Molecular insights into human daily behavior:
Human beings exhibit wide variation in their timing of daily behavior. We and others have suggested previously that such differences might arise because of alterations in the period length of the endogenous human circadian oscillator. Using dermal fibroblast cells from skin biopsies of 28 subjects of early and late chronotype (11 "larks" and 17 "owls"), we have studied the circadian period lengths of these two groups, as well as their ability to phase-shift and entrain to environmental and chemical signals. We find not only period length differences between the two classes, but also significant changes in the amplitude and phase-shifting properties of the circadian oscillator among individuals with identical "normal" period lengths. Mathematical modeling shows that these alterations could also account for the extreme behavioral phenotypes of these subjects. We conclude that human chronotype may be influenced not only by the period length of the circadian oscillator, but also by cellular components that affect its amplitude and phase. In many instances, these changes can be studied at the molecular level in primary dermal cells.
Weird. ScienceNow notes some implications:
...raises the possibility of an inexpensive and objective test of a person's "owlness" or "larkness." Such a test would be no small matter, given the prevalence of sleep disorders and the fact that many drugs, including cholesterol medications and chemotherapy, work more effectively if administered at certain points in a person's sleep/wake cycle. Pinpointing individual clock cycles could pave the way for personalized sleep and drug therapies, says Achim Kramer, a Free University chronobiologist who helped design the study.
Selectivity of Black Death mortality with respect to preexisting health:
Was the mortality associated with the deadliest known epidemic in human history, the Black Death of 1347-1351, selective with respect to preexisting health conditions ("frailty")? Many researchers have assumed that the Black Death was so virulent, and the European population so immunologically naive, that the epidemic killed indiscriminately, irrespective of age, sex, or frailty. If this were true, Black Death cemeteries would provide unbiased cross-sections of demographic and epidemiological conditions in 14th-century Europe. Using skeletal remains from medieval England and Denmark, new methods of paleodemographic age estimation, and a recent multistate model of selective mortality, we test the assumption that the mid-14th-century Black Death killed indiscriminately. Skeletons from the East Smithfield Black Death cemetery in London are compared with normal, nonepidemic cemetery samples from two medieval Danish towns (Viborg and Odense). The results suggest that the Black Death did not kill indiscriminately-that it was, in fact, selective with respect to frailty, although probably not as strongly selective as normal mortality.
We've all read Farewell to Alms, so we know the argument that quick die offs can be good for standards of living by relieving some of the Malthusian pressure. Though if you ever took a normal medieval history course you'd probably be told about the premium on labor which emerged after the Black Death due to shortages and its affect on the collapse of the old manorial system (I was). But this data is interesting because it confirms that the most economically productive proportion a society where muscle power might was of essence have increased as a proportion of the population after these sorts of epidemics swept through. Perhaps these are the sorts of shocks that social systems need to shift toward another equilibrium? (I know, morbid)