26 December 2010

Hydroponics and health

I've had friends of mine try to get me into hydroponics before, but I haven't ever been truly interested until today, when @TheEconomist tweeted links to these videos on "vertical farming," the brainchild of Dickson Despommier, professor of public health in environmental health sciences at Columbia University.

The magazine reports mainly on this urban-type agriculture as a way to bring local, sustainable food to places like New York City, the logistical problems, and what this might mean for battling climate change. There was also mention of how hydroponics allows for introduction of nutrients in the water, reduces need for fertilizing, and how it being a closed system recycles water.

And, the interview (below) with Despommier speaks to how this idea could potentially turn the "parasitism" of cities into productive ecosystems.

These are neat topics, although I still wonder about how realistic it is on a grand scale based on concerns about use of artificial lighting, expense, and so on.

However, from a nutritional standpoint, urban agriculture does lend to great possibilities for producing food that is healthier, cleaner and safer. As I see it, the possibilities for human health is endless.

Urban agriculture allows for much more control over heavy metals with use of refined minerals in the hydroponics fertilizer. Plus, you could standardized to reasonable exactness, the amounts the plants would receive of minerals. Then, with a controlled environment, the potential of having a standardized product comes into the picture too.

This might sound really lame to some people, but it's a nutritionist's dream -- Can you imagine walking into a grocery store and seeing fruits and vegetables with standardized nutrition facts panels complete with quantities of minerals, and possibly vitamins and phytonutrients?

You could also do a much better job controlling and enhancing the flavor of plants, which is highly dependent on what comes through the water. By adding in concentrated extracts, for example, of vanilla or orange, you could give plants certain notes or essences.

Anyway, I might have to head down to Tucson, Arizona, to check out what's currently largest system of hydroponics in the country -- and maybe have a bite of something tasty.

I might also have to order me some kind of home hydroponics system.

23 December 2010

How diet shaped human evolution

Anyone who is keenly interested in having a better understanding of why we eat what we eat as human beings should take an hour or so to watch this introductory talk given by anthropologist Teresa Steele, of UC Davis, given at the California Academy of Sciences on the topic of evolution of the human diet.

I found her talk fascinating, especially because I've been highly interested in how the use of fire and aquatic animals may have played a part in fueling human brain growth, so I ended up taking copious notes. I should note that there isn't anything new presented here, but Steele is excellent at presenting the chronology. If you don't have an hour to watch, then just see my notes below chapter by chapter from "Australopithecus to agriculture."

Human diet is unique among apes

Steele finds that diet is central to her research. "If we want to live, we have to eat," she says. Food is what ultimately supports demographic populations. One thing that is unique about humans in comparison to other apes is a long childhood, a long learning period, that is required for acquiring the knowledge necessary to become successful foragers in a wide environment. After all, humans have exploited almost every nutrient resource in their short time on the Earth.

Another unique thing is how much meat we consume. A large portion of our calories comes from meat. Unlike chimpanzees, who eat the most meat among apes, human eat about 10 times more, Steele said. And we eat animals that are usually larger than us like wildebeasts, reindeer, and mammoths. Steele shows a graph comparing chimp diets to that of tropical hunter gatherers groups, who typically eat little meat. Other hunter-gatherers of the North like the Inuit eat a diet almost entirely of meat. In general, humans specialize in acquiring nutrient-dense foods meats, tubers, and nuts, while chimps select non-nutrient dense like leaves that are more easily collected.

Research themes

When did these differences evolve? Steele presents us with her research themes, which include the following:

  • Meat eating. We are consuming animals that are larger than ourselves like wildebeast, reindeer, horses, and so on. Chimpanzees hunt for colobus monkeys, birds, and small amphibians. So when did meat eating appear and when did the transition occur to eating animals larger than us?
  • Hunting technology. What technology did humans use to acquire large animals? Spears, bows and arrows, projectile technology? These are complex, so they can represent greater cognition. When did they occur?
  • Intensification of resource use, including agriculture. This happened much more recently.
Methods of Study

What methods does Steele use to construct ancient human diets? She says that zooarchaeology and tool analyses gives us a window into ancient demographies. There are stone, bone and antler tools. And, on occasion, organic wood and plant tools are preserved. Also, biological anthropology helps tell us more such as skeletal morphology and bone chemistry.

Lucy's diet

Steele introduces the diet of Lucy's species first, Austrolopithecus afarensis of 3.7-2.8 mya, who ate a flexible diet suitable for a variety of habitats.

The skeletal biomechanics and dental structure suggest they ate mostly soft fruits and occasional hard seeds. However, Steele says we assume that they may have eaten some meat because chimps eat meat, but it's unclear just how much.

She points out that, recently, there was a groundbreaking discovery published in Nature (and reported in Scientific American by the science writer Kate Wong (Twitter: @katewong) ) of cut-marked bones in Dikika, Ethiopia suggesting Lucy's species even used stone tools for eating meat.

"This has opened up a window," Steele says for more research, especially in the possibility of stone tool use for extracting nutrients from carcasses of smaller animals. It's worth noting that no stone artifacts were found associated with the cut-marked bones (paleoanthropologist John Hawks (Twitter: @johnhawks) has written more about this topic on his blog).

Cut-marked bones 2.5 million years ago

Typically, a discussion of human diet begins at about 2.5 mya when there is an abundance of cut-marked bones (such as the jaw of a wildebeest) and percussion marks from marrow extraction. Marrow has been an important human resource for nutrients up until modern times because it's high in fat, high in calories.

There is also evidence of Oldowan artifacts (hominin stone tools) available so we know what they were using to get to the marrow.

Then, at about 1.8 mya there are a lot more assemblages, more stone tools, as found in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, by Mary Leaky. There are also lots of large bodies bovids and carnivores on the landscape. Steele asks, How did these ancient hominids acquire these large carcasses? Is it conceivable that they could've brought down a wildebeast with just tools?

This is where we get into a discussion of scavenging versus hunting, she said. A related discussion is what percentage of the diet was meat-based versus plant-based. Also, were these ancient hominins practicing passive scavenging getting to a carcass to get the last scraps of meat or breaking open bones for marrow. Or was it active scavenging, chasing off carnivores?

These are all active areas of research. For answers, researchers look in locations of lakeside margins. Bovids came to drink, carnivores know this, we look into these locations to try and reconstruct the foraging.

Aquatic animals

Published recently in the springtime, was a paper suggesting that 1.9 mya in East Turkana, there's evidence of Oldowan foraging of carcasses of aquatic animals like crocodiles and turtles. Steele shows a cut marks on a toe bone of a croc, turtle shells and catfish bones.

"For the first time, we see exploitation of aquatic resources highlighting the diversity of diet. Hominins are very opportunistic, exploiting whatever was available," Steele said.

"This also raises a challenge as with cut-marked bones with Dekika, to try to see if there are cut-marks on similar bones," Steele explains. "The small animal component has been overlooked so we may need to look closer."

Steele also discusses another interesting aspect of using aquatic resources (which will interest any nutritionist like myself). The aquatic resources would have been an easier way to access long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, which are also present in organ meats and brain tissues of large animals.

"The long-chain unsaturated fatty acids are needed for brain growth," she explained. "At this time period we do see an expansion of brain sizes, so perhaps there's a relationship here. We need more data, more examples where we see brain expansion with this kind of diet."

Archeulean hunting and scavenging

Moving more recently in time, we see Homo erectus, hominins of larger body size, and who were first to populate Eurasia 1.6 mya to 285 kya. Were they hunting or actively scavenging? This is unclear, but earlier in Archeulan, we see evolution of technology.

Tear-drop shaped hand axes appear and body size changes. The humans are obviously living in social groups. An illustration she uses takes the liberty of showing piles of plant remains used to make wooden spears. The plant use is unknown.

There are a large number of animal bones with few cut marks. So, the question remains, were hominins still minor players as carnivores, simply cutting off limbs and eating elsewhere. The challenge is finding places away from water sites such as in caves.

Also, we start asking questions about use of fire at this time period.

Wood spears

At around 400 kya, Steele shares that there are one or two examples of exceptional preservation of organic materials such as wooden spears (survived in an oxygen-poor environments from marshes of Germany). They are more likely to be thrusting spears. They have been fire-hardened, sharpened, so it indicates use of fire.

Fire is really useful for warmth, protection from predators, for cooking and cooking really changes the nature of food. It helps make inedible foods edible, releases nutrients for our digestive systems. But fire doesn't preserve well.

The earliest known site where fire is documented is in Israel, dated to 780 kya. "We have an indicator of fire use and plant remains. They're preserve better once charred in archaeological sites," Steele says. "We don't find it common until about 300,000 years ago." This is between Oldowan and modern behavior in the Archeulian.


About 200 kya came the Neandertals and they were competent hunters and manufacturers of stone tools. Interestingly, despite these complex behaviors, they did not have as long a childhood. The Neandertals were able to pick up their abilities pretty early in life.

As part of her post-doc in Germany at Max Plank Institute, Steele worked with identifying species in archaeological sites where Neandertals hunted reindeer and bison. She showed antlers, elbows of reindeer fractured for extracting marrow, and examples of bones in discard piles due to little meat.

"We also see very little carnivore involvement and abundant human impacts, unlike the earlier where there was very heavy carnivore involvement meaning humans were hunting," she said. The Neandertals were dominant carnivores by this time.

Now we can ask about hunting strategy. Steele explains she uses a very low tech method: "We have a number of mandibles, so just looking at the eruption of teeth, we can reconstruct ages of animals." Also, reindeer are conveniently sexually dimorphic and because reindeer give birth at a moment in spring (babies are born at once) we can look at eruption of teeth to see if they're hunted. In a specific location, all ages are present, males and females, so it looks like the reindeer herd would have been slowed allowing the humans to hunt more of them.

Bone chemistry

Carbon isotopes tell us about the vegetation in the environment and nitrogen isotopes tell us about the trophic levels. Carnivores have more concentration of nitrogen. Animals that are aquatic even more nitrogen, so we can look at bone chemistry to reconstruct diet. There aren't much indicators of plant remains, but in a Neandertal tooth you see it's heavily etched by roots because of the acid of roots. The bone chemistry data put Neandertals right along the lines of other carnivores. The majority of protein came from meat (although not mentioned in the talk, new findings show they also practiced cannibalism, reported via science writer Carl Zimmer (Twitter: @carlzimmer)).

Hunting technology

How were the Neandertals doing the hunting? It appears they were using thrusting spears. We know this because it's possible to look at stone artifacts to see if they are aerodynamic or more asymetrical and lumpy for a thrusting spear. We can look at the breakage of the tip as well as the butt. In characteristic way we can look at the breakage.

Middle stone age in Africa 285,000

So while Neandertals are doing their thing in Europe, what's going on in Africa? In Africa, we have the middle stone age and humans who were morphologically similar to us. The big discussion in paleoanthropology is, How modern were they? Did they have symbolism? Were they just like us or behave more like Neandertals without as much symbolism?

In the middle stone age we have good evidence of hunting and burning. There was abundant burning. But, within the middle stone age, we see no evidence of consumption of fish. The people seem to be limited in capturing fish and birds, although there were people accessing coastal resources along the southern coast of Africa, eating a number of mollusks. Could mollusks have fueled brain growth and brought with it symbolic behavior? There were also a number of fireplaces. Did fire fuel brain growth (if you ask primatologist Richard Wrangham as I did last February, then the answer is a resounding "yes!")? This is something that requires further research.

Modern humans in Europe

In Europe about 40 to 10 kya, we have Upper Paleolithic with fully modern humans in Europe. They hunted large game similar to Neandertals and with projectile technology unlike Neandertals. People who were just like us in biology and behavior. This is when we see projectiles for the first time. We see the reconstruction of a spear thrower, with an adle addle.

These modern humans then also enjoyed a diverse diet with abundant small game like fish and flying birds. That's quite different than what their Neandertals cousins were doing, and what humans in Africa of the middle-stone age were doing.

We can also see this in the bone chemistry of the Upper Paleolithic humans. There was definitely protein coming in from aquatic sources, per the nitrogen values in the bones. It's also clear from the bone chemistry that modern humans were eating a much more diverse diet.

Plant use

Getting back to plant use, just recently in PNAS, an article was published about use of plants in Paleolithic times. Grindstones and pestles were used to grind starch grains, reeds, cattailes and ferns that have underground storage organs (roots). These grindstones pulverized the roots and perhaps made flour out of them. So, this is it, the diversity of diet that spread from Africa about 50 kya, and support for the hypothesis that humans replaced Neandertals because of flexibility of diet. Is this what allowed humans to be more successful?

Intensification of resource extraction, including agriculture

Bringing us into more recent time period to complete the story, 50kya humans colonized Europe and Asia and Australia. At around 15kya, they colonized the new world. So, by 10kya we have humans everywheere by 10kya other than Pacific islands and Antarctica. Diet tends to evolve and change. Humans don't stay focused on large game, and birds and fish. They intensify. What we see with intensification in the Holocene is the use of technology to extract nutrients from resources.

Steele shows pictures of mussel shells having accumulated over a short period of time. There was a heavier investment in technology. This creates a stable food supply that allows populations to grow. "We can see this in our local California native indians," she said. Just to highlight investment in technology, she shows slides on the natives' use of technology. "These are all the steps to take acorns and make it into something consumable. They're toxic, so you have to dry them, pulverize and leach them. It requires very heavy technological input."

The intensification brings with it the origins of agriculture at 10 kya. At 10kya we see changes in environment tha promote plant resources, a shift in global climate where there's more CO2, a more wet and stable environment, more admittable to plant production. People are becoming more dependent on smaller resources from agriculture. The fish, they help populations to grow and hunter-gatherer populations are more stable. It's clear from her slide that because of agriculture, there's an uptick in human population growth. Then, when industrialized agriculture arrives, there's an inflection point when we see a high rate of population growth. That's where we are today in the evolution of human diets. That's 4 million years (in 40 minutes).

Question 1: Why did humans replaced Neandertals?

The first question posed to Steele after her talk was about her thoughts were about why humans replaced Neandertals. She answered, "Yes, I think ultimately it's due to dietary differences." There's not much differences in species hunted, not so different butchery, but you do see a difference in stone artifacts and projectile points. The modern human tools were more reliable and accurate. They would've been able to obtain a larger number of reindeer, and been more consistent in hunting, along with having a more diverse diet.

The more ultimate explanation, however, was if it was cultural. Did modern humans have a more complex language? Could symbolism have allowed us to communicate in a more effective way, made our hunting more effective, that's where we're going now with the research. Language is fundamental, so if we can track where language evolved, then we'll find more answers?

Question 2: What conclusive evidence is there of cut marks?

The question asked to Steele reverted back 3.2 mya to how solid the evidence was of Australopithecus afarensis making cut marks. Steele answers that the cut marks are just as conclusive as later time periods. "If we are going to accept the later cut marks, then we have to accept the earlier," she said. "For me they're fine in terms of more recent assemblages. The challenge is to find more cut marks to see if it was widespread or a one-time thing. Who made them? Where are the stone tools?" That's the next project.

Question 3: What ratio of fatty acids in diet correspond to brain size?

Lastly, an audience member asked if recent work on long-chain omega-3s on mood disorders supports the theory that omega-3s from aquatic resources fueled brain growth. The quiestoner also mentions work by others on omega-3 to omega-6 ratios, which has changed since huntergatherer times (from 1:1-3 to 1:10 to 1:20). Could this be the reason that brain sizes are getting smaller?

Steele answers that, in general, there's body size reduction and brain size reduction. Hunter-gatherers of the anthropological record were quite robust. Now we see decrease in stature, brain size reducing, body size reducing. The change in body shape may be due to changes in diet. Whether it's omega-3/omega-6? Steele says she couldn't say for sure if that's the case.

(Note: Hat tip to @KeithNorris and @evolvify (see blog post here) for first alerting me to this new video via their tweets).

10 December 2010

Living longer with an ideal BMI

Maintaining a healthy body mass index, or BMI, is one of the most important ways to help you live longer, according to a new study published in the December issue of New England Journal of Medicine.

BMI is not a perfect measure, but it is one of the simplest for estimating body weight. It is calculated by weight in pounds divided by height in inches squared and multiplying the number by 703, or by weight in kilograms divided by height in inches squared. What’s your BMI? Find out using this free calculator provided by the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, of the National Institutes of Health.

The study’s findings support an optimal BMI in the “normal weight” range of 20 to 24.9, which is generally associated with the lowest risk of death from all causes including chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and cancer. The association was strongest among participants who were younger than 50 years old.

A BMI of 25 or more was associated with the highest mortality risks. The higher the BMI, the higher the likelihood of dying from cardiovascular disease.

“The results of our analysis are most relevant to whites living in affluent countries,” write the authors who pooled and analyzed data from 19 prospective studies encompassing 1.4 million white adults ages 19 to 80.

In the United States, among non-Hispanic whites, there was an estimated 11 percent of men and 17 percent of women with a BMI of 35 or higher in 2008.

The authors restricted the study to non-Hispanic whites based on self-reported ethnic group and controlled for pre-existing conditions, alcohol consumption, barbital status, education, and physical activity. They also excluded those with a BMI of less than 15 or higher than 50.

Smokers made up 25 percent of the study participants in the lowest BMI category of 15 to 18.4 and 8 percent of those in the highest BMI category.

Source: Berrington de Gonzalez A, Hartge P, Cerhan JR et al. Body-Mass Index and Mortality among 1.46 Million White Adults. NEJM 2010;363:2211-9.


BMI is easy for anyone to measure, so this study gives us some back-up for using it as a way to speak to clients about real implications of obesity causing a shortened lifespan because of increased risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.

It's important, however, to realize that while BMI may be easy it's possible for someone to be at a "normal weight" and still be "obese" -- dubbed normal weight obesity. This is still hazardous to your health, so you can't completely rely on BMI. Opt instead for body fat percentage measurement.

09 December 2010

Gale Prince: "Food safety is a journey"

Gale Prince
Food safety pioneer Gale Prince, the "Dean of safety recalls," addressed a room full of food scientists at our local Cactus International Food Technologists (Cactus IFT) chapter dinner at the Fiesta Resort conference center in Tempe, Arizona. He spoke about food recall trends, how to enhance food safety progam, and gave us some details on the proposed FDA Food Safety Modernization Act.

He began his talk by introducing us to the growing number of recalls in the United States. "Food safety has become a frequent topic for the media," he said. If you look at a 20-year trend, reccalls at retail have increased exponentially. Gail shared a graph of the trend and also details a few examples he's been involved with over the years.

The USDA has had a number of meat recalls, which Prince shows us picks up during the summer months of May through August. He says it is partly due to people cooking outside (such as at 4th of July) on the grill, who often leave their meat out or undercook their meat.

When you look at all the recalls of FDA, you also see the recalls going up, Prince said. He showed us a graph that showed that there were ove 8,000 just in the last year.

From 2004 to 2009 looking at class of recalls, most were class 1 due to salmonella problems. "Salmonella is a real challenge," Prince said.

There are three instances that accounted for 55 percent of food recalls in 2009.

- peanut paste
- powdered milk
- pistachios

Of all the recalls:

- 10 percent did not have a code - "this is like suicide for a company," Prince said.
- 51 percent involved multiple codes

Major Contributors

The major issues that generated recalls in 2009 were due to microbiological problems, allergens, mislabeling, foreign material (mainly plastic), chemical contamination, and inadequate processing.

Prince gave some advice in each of these areas. He tells the story of how Chinese honey is sometimes tainted with an antibiotic that is not allowed in the United States. The Chinese know that so they send to a different country to be relabeled as coming from that country.

Do recalls always happen late Friday afternoon? He has a theory that this is because manufacturers procrastinate to do it until the end of the week, which is a nightmare for the retailer. In addition, if you are a public company you need to inform the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) befoe you do the product recall, so companies often wait until thd market closes on Friday to do it.

New food vehicles identified in multistate outbreaks since 2006 are surprising like salmonella peanut butter despite lack of moisture, spinach and broccoli, carrot juice, hot peppers, pepper (salmonella can be in pepper for years), raw cookie dough, raw pistachios, and dog food.

What are the major contributing factors of recent recalls? Mostly, it's non-compliance with current Good Manufacturing Practices, failure to maintain food manufacturing facilities and equipment, non-compliant with a company's own Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), and weaknesses in HACCP analysis.

Another factor is management responsibility for food safety for their products, for operations, for supply chain, etc. We're dealing with a global food ingredient procurement complexity these days, Prince said. It is much more difficult to manage.

He told the story of the infant formula recall that ended up leading to stores in cities of China not containing any infant formula, all due to melamine by some greedy businessmen who tainted their products.

When we see recalls of imported items, it is typically due to particular ingredients including milk powder. Food import problems include filth, production under unsanitary conditions, pesticide residues or use of approved pesticides, chemical contamination, or economic adulteration.

"There's a rough guess that 8 percent of food on the market is economically adulterated," he said.

Still, the biggest problem is simply salmonella. He showed us a slide of the variety of import alerts that are related to salmonella.

Recalls are also becoming more massive and expensive over time. The big peanut butter recall was a loss of over a year's worth of peanut butter. Ere is also a large legal impact coming from complaints. For example, the recall of 30,000,000 toys led to a hugely expensive settlement ($50 million).

"For those of you in the room in quality assurance, how would you like a new boss?" Prince asked. In these cases, when the government comes in, the government becomes your boss.

When you consider the economics of food safety, consider the loss of business, cost of loss of brand value, litigation, etc.

So, why the increase in all these cases?

- we concentrated our food production
- increased batch size
- product changes
- changes in food distribution
- consumer has changed
- science has changed (we're looking on ppb, versus ppt and ppm)
- epidemiology (the CDC plots info from food net surveillence trends in different parts of the country about salmonella, listeria, etc)

Salmonella is a serious problem. "When you look at what we've gone through as far as recalls, we're being bombarded from salmonella from everywhere around the world," Prince said.

The salmonella, campylobacter, and listeria outbreaks causes several fatalities when they occur.

The CDC uses the Pulse Net Database to track patterns, as in states, and has put together an outbreak team. In 2004, there was an outbreak in Tennessee that had outbreaks that the CDC tracked. They did a food history and through new technology was able to pin down peanut butter as the culprit of salmonella.

Then, peanut paste came along, which was more extensive because it was all over the country. "If it wasn't for Pulse Net they could've missed it," Prince said.


What about traceability? Methods of traceability need to be improved. What Prince found is that most of the time traceability records were handwritten, which don't lend well to transferring electronically. Even a small accounting program or Excel spreadsheet would improve traceability.

Basically, traceability should include:

- Firm identification
- Product identification
- product coding, time code, etc.

Electronic traceability can have readable bar codes, tracking lot codes, shipping codes, etc.
"A good traceability program protects your business and provides a tool for managing supply chain," Prince said.
How do consumers see food safety? You can see that it's a big issue when you look at headlines of the melamine scandal, peanut butter recall, and so on. The data are clear: It's worth investing into food safety.

Consumers are largely concerned about germs, bacteria, pesticide residues (although not so much in this country), and terrorism. According to a Gallup poll, 29% felt recalls were serious concefn, 55 pecent would switch brands temporarily, 21% said would not purchase from company again. "Tell that to your sales department," Prince said. The changes in food purchasing is clear by sales shown in peanut butter and spinach well after a recall.

Don't forget social media, Prince warned. Monitor it well, because consumers are incredibly vocal, more than ever through these avenues.

Take Aways?

-Comply with GMPs
-Know your products
-Know your supply chain
-Know your process
-Audit your QC records (it's very educational)
-Maintain facility and equipment in sanitary manner
-Develop a food safety culture in your operation

FDA Food Safety Modernization Act

Prince then discussed the proposed FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, which is having troubles in the House currently. What will happen to it, is not known. Funding is an issue, along with other problems. These are the highlights:

-registration of facilities
-performance standards
-hazard analysis
-record access
-product traceability
-lab accreditation
-mandatory recall authority
-accreditation of 3rd party auditors (related to imports)

"If the bill is not passed before Christmas, the bill is dead and will need to be reintroduced in the new congress," he said.
Prince said that complacency is often a problem with food companies when it comes to food safety. "Are you taking things for granted," he said.
He gave these examples of companies, the first that went out of business, who offered up excuses.

- "We have been in business for 67 years and we have never had a problem."
- "We've always done it like that and it has never been a problem."
- "The inspector didn't say anything about that being a problem."

In summary, Prince said that companies must look to food safety as a majof focus of their business, to develop a culture of food safety, and to never become complacent.

"Food safety is a journey," he said.


Amusingly, someone asked Prince what foods he avoids for sure. He said sprouts and raw oysters. He added, "The safest food is a hamburger."

04 December 2010

Aubrey de Grey Response to Rose and Coles

Aubrey de Grey
Next up at H+ @Caltech this afternoon was the famous and fast-talking Aubrey de Grey, who provided a response to previous talks by Michael Rose and Stephen Coles.

This is my take as how I understood the arguments. It was, admittedly, a bit hard to follow.

What we heard from Rose and Coles, explained de Grey, was that we have an exponential rise in deaths and then, we have what de Grey called, a "weird leveling off."

So, he said that as we get older, the data point to the fact that we eventually do reach a plateau in old age when mortality rates decline (passing the "aging phase" into a "biological immortality phase"), an argument of which Coles vehemently disagrees with.

He also said that it would probably not be a plateau like the type that Rose discussed in his talk, and as he showed in fruitflies.

Basically the data are sparse in these older populations, so there's no way we can really know what to expect.

"We definitely need more data," de Grey summarized.

And everyone else appeared to agree with that.

He also re-hashed his SENS approach for ridding the "accumulation of damage" that he says eventually causes the end of an individual's life.

De Grey pointed to the Gompertz Curve to support his arguments and the fact that because there are so few old people, there's too few data to make any kind of sense of whether there's an immortality phase or not.

Previously, about de Grey:
- Anti-Aging with Aubrey de Grey
- How to Prevent an Aging Crisis 

Building Methuselahs

Michael Rose, evolutionary biologist
Michael Rose is an evolutionary biologist, of University of California at Irvine, who knows how to sum up the complexity of aging.

He told us at H+ @ Caltech that aging is just a normal process of natural selection. It's obviously a "big picture" view versus a cellular or molecular view.

But to prove his point, he decided to trick natural selection and produce fruitflies that live five times longer than the average.

The trick? Take the fruitflies that can reproduce in old age, which still have most of their physiological function, and repeat.

Pretty simple. Eventually, you get longer-living fruitflies selected for late-life reproduction. And he shared data on how this all worked.

From the fruitfly data, Rose then explained, we can learn a bit about why humans age in the way they do, with pressures of reproduction playing in as a major factor. Also, we can make use of data on the flies and other animals that suggests that species enter a "biological immortality" phase once reaching an older age.

Then, he gave a two-part strategy into how humans can deter aging using "natural immortality technology." The strategy is easy and can be started tonight, he said.

What is natural for humans?
-It's not industrial lifestyle with cars, Twinkies, TV
-But is it the agricultural lifestyle or the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that is natural for us?

As an experimental evolutionist, Rose has research that shows that populations have adapted well to new environments in just 30 to 60 generations, so Eurasian populations are better adapted to the agricultural lifestyle.
How this happens? History in the environment, smaller effective population sizes, and lots of early accidental mortality leading to earlier plateaus.

So, people of ages under 30, should take an Andrew Weil approach to diet (as opposed to a Paleo diet and lifestyle) with plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and dairy.
However, he adds that as we age, the physiology of people with Eurasian ancestry progressively reverts back to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

"You will lose that adaptation to the novel environment as you age," Rose said.

So, the recipe for natural immortality?

- adopt a hunter-gatherer lifestyle after 40 if Eurasian, earlier if ancestry is less Eurasian

- use best modern medicine
- use autologous tissue repair when it becomes available (5+ years)
- use next-generation pharmaceuticals with less side effects
Interestingly, Aubrey de Grey expressed outrage that his recipe of immortality did not include rejuvenation research. He'll be speaking soon.

UPDATE: I ended up writing a more in-depth take into Michael Rose's talk for KurzweilAI, which can be found here.

Is there a maximum human lifespan?

Stephen Coles
"Death is an imposition on the human race and can no longer be tolerated" - Alan Harrington

With Harrington's quote, Stephen Coles opened his talk on whether or not there is a maximum limit to human lifespan at H+ @ Caltech in Los Angeles.

As a biogerontologist, Coles studies old people, as well as old yeast, microscopic worms, flies and primates. Each of these species have lifespan limits, and, indeed, he answers, there is a maximum number of years that humans live.

However, he adds, the more we understand aging, and the diseases that kill us, it is possible to extend life's max limit.

"All bets are off if we can do something about it," Coles said.

Although, he explains that the entire process of aging is so complex that it is sort of like the blind men touching the elephant because, if your blind, it has a different shape depending on where you're touching.

Putting together the pieces that make up aging is the AMMG, which has met several times in the last couple of decades and has an accumulated "a whole lot of data."

Coles remains optimistic that Calment Limit of 120 will be surpassed, as he shows us data on the increase in the number of centenarians and supercentenarians in the world.

In addition, the average life expectancy has increased over these years. 

Average life expectancies historically:

100 KYA 18
5 KYA (Ancient Egypt) 25
1400 AD (middle ages) 30
... Anyone else know the rest?

Most of us now die in our 70s from cardiovascular disease and cancer.

There's seriously a revolution going on in the understanding of aging, partly because of Stephen Coles's research in supercentenarians, including analysis of there genomes, etc. He's also worked with autopsies of centenarians.

Coles also showed data on autopsies of supercentenarians that revealed that most of them succumb to TTR (transthyretin amyloidosis).

He argues that if real life extension is to come in the future because of new technologies, then "we need a bridge plan."

These bridges are outlined here . 

What is the ideal design of future humans?

Natasha Vita-More
There have been quite a few interesting subjects discussed at H+ @ Caltech today regarding the future of the human experience in light of exponential increases of information, artificial intelligence and medical breakthroughs.

But what's to become of humanity's long tradition of creating art and design that is used to express ourselves, as a way to communicate who we are, that exists as a projection of our own personas?

This afternoon, cultural strategist and designer Natasha Vita-More discussed the question she is contemplating, "Will we wear technological interfaces as a means of expression, or will the technologies wear us?"

In this new age of using digital avatars, or creating virtual personhoods, it is unclear how human-technology interfaces are going to change what we think of when we consider on our own personas.

Vita-More discussed briefly her work in developing a prototype of a future body, a "Primo Post Human," and how we may be able to eventually design our own bodies enhanced with multi-functional technology and built for ultra-longevity. 

"We're redesigning and resculpting our own identities," Vita-More said. Or, in other more techy terms, "the user-agent observer guides the enhanced atrributes of its own system." As wearable methods of technologies emerge and converge, she explained, we're only going to see more merging of techno-personas in the future.

As she explains it, on a slide: "Currently our biology can either enable physical expressions of our personalities, or can turn us into captives through physiological addictions. The fusion of personhood and technology forms a narrative in exploring perceptions of human enhancement in media design and science." 

Plus, with new technologies that will enhance our brains, like mind uploading--looking into the brain and copying it--there's really no telling what our perception of "personhood" will be. Human enhancement will ultimately change the way we think of expression. 

What Vita-More argues is that, as technology progresses, that art and design should continue to play a role, and that we "not to leave the humanity in the human behind."

She showed us some of fantastic visuals of her design work, which you can read about and see here and here. Plus, see Lisa Donchak's (@lisadonchak) summary post of her talk here.

Although I'm not an artist by any stretch, I did find myself thinking about this talk for a while afterward for what it means to humanity. I tried to imagine a future without art and design in it. It would be a sad place indeed.  

Humanity's Future: Information Overload

Robert Tercek
At H+ at Caltech (#hplus) this morning, Robert Tercek gave us an introduction to humanity as we know it and how a sudden increase of information will transform it forever.

"The process of improving human life has always been governed by information," Tercek said. Now we're in this new information transformation age, or what he calls living in the era of B.S., or "before singularity."

Just as electricity, vaccines and plumbing once radically changed health of humans in history, we will eventually gain the knowledge to completely change the way we think about health, as well as radically increase the human lifespan in the future.

It will happen by using anti-aging therapies like those posed by Aubrey de Grey, as well as other scientists, increasing knowledge about the human genome, or in other ways never before thought.

Plus, these huge increases of info are changing life as we know it in other ways; for example, the way we use energy today. "We're going to look back at this period and see it as tremendously inefficient," Tercek said.

Tercek goes on about how information drives the advance of civilization. The first major one was speech, followed by writing, for example.

And he points out pretty amazing facts about how the Internet is wiring the world:

- we have people tweeting and blogging, communicating to the world right now
- 35 hours is being uploaded to YouTube per minute
- Facebook sees 2.5 billion uploads of photos per month
- we'll eventually upload all of humanity's knowledge from universities to the Internet.

"Every 2 days we create as much information as we did up to 2003," Tercek said, which is the most info created in all of human history, a history that has been bound by the limitations of the book for the last 500 years. 

"If you look at the advances of the last 15 years and look at the next 15," Tercek said, this gives us quite a lot of reason to be amazed about what the future will bring. 

Then, Tercek gave several more examples of how past advances in increasing information changed the world like the printing press, and how new technologies using "metadata" like mobile devices are changing the world again. 

Plus, he gives us a picture of the future with automated cars (that you can program to pick you up using your iPad), and mentions also Sixth Sense mobile interfaces (which is what I happen to want for Xmas this year). 

In short, information overload is going to make life pretty cool in the future.