Mobility has been a major concern in my household for quite
some time. Thanks to her spinal surgeries and her recent fall, my
wife has had to rely on walkers and/or a cane. After prolonged
periods of lying around it’s of utmost importance to work on
restoring mobility and resuming a walking program, which I
hope we can accomplish this week. Mobility is a theme of three
articles I’ve come across recently.
An AP article in the Star-Ledger dealt with the work of
researchers from the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary
Anthropology on a 40,000-year-old tooth found in the only
Neandertal remains ever discovered in Greece. By analyzing the
tooth for the element strontium the team showed that the person
to whom the tooth belonged died at least 12.5 miles from the
place where he or she grew up. Katerina Harvati of the Max
Planck group is quoted to the effect that this is a surprising
finding showing that the Neandertals were a more mobile group
than had been previously thought.
If I recall correctly, we’ve discussed in a past column a similar
study on the famed Ice Man who died a few thousand years ago
and was recently found in a glacier in remarkably well preserved
condition. As teeth grow they incorporate amounts of certain
elements found in the water and surrounding environment.
Strontium is in the same family of elements as calcium and
should be incorporated in bones and teeth. By analyzing the
Neandertal tooth for strontium in the layers of the tooth, and
presumably armed with a knowledge of the variation in strontium
in the region surrounding the site where the tooth was found, the
mobility of the person was traced.
One fellow, Neandertal expert Clive Finlayson, not impressed
with the fuss over a Neandertal traveling 12 miles from a given
site, is quoted as saying, “We’re talking about humans, not
trees.” I must admit that, having walked three or four miles from
my starting point when we went to Marco Island, I would be
amazed if the Neandertals, a hunting bunch, wouldn’t move
around more than that in search of prime hunting areas after
taking out the game from one location.
Can mobility help out with the energy problem? You may have
seen the news article on the work of Max Donelan of the
University of Pittsburgh and colleagues from the University of
Michigan. They have developed a device that generates
electricity from the swing of the knee during walking. Sunday’s
Star-Ledger has a brief article and picture of a walker wearing
the device. The device in the picture rides above the knee and is
attached to a wrap around the knee. The device relies on a
principle similar to the recharging of a hybrid vehicle battery on
braking. As the knee decelerates, the device generates the
electricity. Reportedly, walking for only a minute will generate
enough electricity to power a cell phone for ten minutes.
Does this mean that in the future every cell phone will come with
a cord and plug-in for attaching to this device above the knee?
On a recent outing, I swear half the people walking were talking
on their cell phones. The article didn’t mention a probable cost
of such a device but if it eliminates the need for plugging in to a
charger, it may have a real future.
This week a space shuttle installed a new science lab on the
International Space Station. A big problem for astronauts
spending extended periods of time in the zero gravity of space is
atrophy of muscles. On truly long periods in space this could be
a major mobility problem. It would be a disaster if our Mars
mission ever transpired and the astronauts couldn’t walk when
they got there. An article by Bo Schwerin in the Fall 2007 issue
of the Pitt Magazine concerns another study going on at the
University of Pittsburgh that relates to this mobility problem.
Beth Oczypok is only a sophomore at Pitt but she and her
mentor, Nate Szewczyk (I’ll leave it to the reader to pronounce
these names correctly), are directly involved with thousands of
astronauts who spent six months on the International Space
Station! OK, these were not human astronauts. They were
worms known in the trade as C. elegans, a worm we’ve discussed
a number of times in these columns and certainly one of the most
studied organisms in science. The object of the study was to
study the atrophy of muscles in space and the six months spent
by the worms up there were “the equivalent of 28 generations in
worm years.” Plenty of time for any muscle problems to show
up – and they did.
Fortunately, we humans share many comparable genes with C.
elegans and some of them are related to muscles. Sure enough,
as do he human astronauts, the worms function fine in space.
However, on return to Earth they do have some sort of
movement defect, just as with the human space travelers. The
Pitt article says that the researchers have found a muscle protein
attachment complex that experimentally and after space flightis
decreased in the worms and the decrease results in atrophy. The
hope is that perhaps Beth will find a way to block the decrease in
the protein and that, if so, it will help address the atrophy
problem in humans.
This is certainly quite an impressive accomplishment for a
college sophomore and our Beth has certainly had an unusual
experience with the worms in space. All space travelers deserve
an appropriate greeting upon their return to terra firma.
Accordingly, Beth was on hand in Florida to retrieve the critters
when the shuttle Atlantis landed. The only problem was that due
to weather conditions the shuttle had to land at Edwards Air
Force base in California! It was an overnight flight to California
and the exhausted sophomore had the worms safely tucked away
in the appropriate container a few hours after touchdown.
Well, as I finish this column, snow is falling and a “wintry mix”
is due for tonight. Mobility on icy roads will be a problem in
many spots. Stay upright and/or on target.
Allen F. Bortrum