It was around the year 1590 when mankind figured out how to use optical lenses to bring into sight things smaller than the natural eye can observe. With the invention of the microscope, a new and unexplored world was discovered. It will likely be of great surprise to the reader that scientists of the time did not believe that within this new microscopic realm lay the source of sickness and disease. Most would still hold on to a belief of what was known as Miasma theory, which dates back to the Roman Empire. This theory states that the source of disease was contaminated air through decomposing organic materials. It wouldn’t be until the 1850’s that a man by the name of Louis Pasteur, from whom we get “pasteurization”, would promote Germ Theory into the spotlight of the sciences.
Pasteur, considered by many as the father of microbiology, would go on to assist fellow biologist Charles Chameberland in the invention of the aptly named Pasteur Chamberland filter — a porcelain filter with a pore size between 100 and 1000 nanometers. This was small enough to filter out the microscopic bacteria and cells known at that time from a liquid suspension, leaving behind a supply of uncontaminated water. But like so many other early scientific instrumentation inventions it would lead to the discovery of something unexpected. In this case, a world far smaller than 100 nanometers… and add yet another dimension to the ever-shrinking world of the microscopic.
The analysis is simple enough for the general reader, while nonetheless explaining some highly complex concepts at the cutting edge of biology. From codon substitutions for efficiency and the Ψ-base substitution to avoid the vaccine being destroyed by the immune system, to the complex initialisation string required at the start of the RNA sequence, [Bert] clearly explains the clever coding hacks that made the vaccine possible. Particularly interesting to note is the Prolase substitution, a technique developed in 2017. This allows the production of coronavirus spike proteins in isolation of the whole virus, in order to safely prime the immune system.
Hackaday editors Elliot Williams and Mike Szczys stomp through a forest full of highly evolved hardware hacks. This week seems particularly plump with audio-related projects, like the thwack-tackular soldenoid typewriter simulator. But it’s the tape-loop scratcher that steals our hearts; an instrument that’s kind of two-turntables-and-a-microphone meets melloman. We hear the clicks of 10-bit numbers falling into place in a delightful adder, and follow it up with the beeps and sweeps of a smartphone-based metal detector.
Nowadays, we still rely on medical records to tell when our last vaccinations were. For social workers in developing countries, it’s an incredibly difficult task especially if there isn’t a good standard in place for tracking vaccinations already.
A team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology may be providing a solution – they’ve developed a safe ink to be embedded into the skin alongside the vaccine, only visible under a special light provided by a smartphone camera app. It’s an inconspicuous way to document the patient’s vaccination history directly into their skin and low-risk enough to massively simplify the process of maintaining medical records for vaccines.
In the early 1950s, the only thing scarier than the threat of nuclear war was the annual return of polio — an easily-spread, incurable disease that causes nerve damage, paralysis, and sometimes death. At the first sign of an outbreak, public hot spots like theaters and swimming pools would close up immediately.
One of the worst polio epidemics in the United States struck in 1952, a few years into the postwar baby boom. Polio is more likely to infect children than adults, so the race to create a vaccine reached a fever pitch.
Most researchers were looking into live-virus vaccines, which had worked nicely for smallpox and rabies and become the standard approach. But Jonas Salk, a medical researcher and budding virologist, was keen on the idea of safer, killed-virus vaccines. He believed the same principle would work for polio, and he was right. Within a few years of developing his vaccine, the number of polio cases in the United States dropped from ~29,000 in 1955 to less than 6,000 in 1957. By 1979, polio had been eradicated in the US.
Jonas Salk is one of science’s folk heroes. The polio vaccine was actually his sophomore effort — he and Thomas Francis developed the first influenza vaccine in the 1940s. And he didn’t stop with polio, either. Toward the end of his life, Salk was working on an AIDS vaccine.
Oddly, there’s been a few recent outbreaks of measles. It struck me how when I was a kid, a few hundred kids getting measles wouldn’t have been news at all. However, even a handful makes the news now, since in 2000 the Center for Disease Control declared measles eradicated in the United States.
So how can an eradicated disease come back? How did we eradicate it to start with? The answers tell a pretty interesting tale of science applying to everyday life.
Being a cop’s kid leaves you with a lot of vivid memories. My dad was a Connecticut State Trooper for over twenty years, and because of the small size of the state, he was essentially on duty at all times. His cruiser was very much the family vehicle, and like all police vehicles, it was loaded with the tools of the trade. Chief among them was the VHF two-way radio, which I’d listen to during long car rides, hearing troopers dispatched to this accident or calling in that traffic stop.
One very common call was the blood relay — Greenwich Hospital might have had an urgent need for Type B+ blood, but the nearest supply was perhaps at Yale-New Haven Hospital. The State Police would be called, a trooper would pick up the blood in a cooler, drive like hell down I-95, and hand deliver the blood to waiting OR personnel. On a good day, a sufficiently motivated and skilled trooper could cover that 45-mile stretch in about half an hour. On a bad day, the trooper might end up in an accident and in need of blood himself.