Friday, February 6, 2009

Review: science taps suspended animation

Emanating from the mud pots of Yellowstone, Lechuguilla Cave near Carlsbad Cavern, and your local hot springs, hydrogen sulfide, infamous for its rotten egg stench, may one day save your life.

At the latest Science on Tap, Dana L. Miller, Ph.D, shared what she and other researchers under the direction of Mark Roth are up to over at Roth Labs and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

They've been blowing hydrogen sulfide at fruit flies, water bears (the Northwest's cute moss-loving rotifers), and mice, and here's what they've found: suspended animation.

Hydrogen sulfide puts the critters into a hibernation-like state (metabolism slows, body temperature drops to room temperature). Even after hours in suspended animation, when the sulfide is replaced with a waft of oxygen, the creatures revive (without any heroic efforts on the part of the researchers) and go on about their business.

Lest you envision astronauts in stinky hydrotanks traveling to distant planets in suspended animation only to be devoured by aliens upon arrival, researchers don't know how long a creature can remain inert. They've topped the mice out at six hours, so far. And space travel isn't really what the scientists at Fred Hutch have in mind.

They do imagine that inducing suspended animation like states could be used to reduce the trauma of surgery and heart attacks (myocardial infarction for fans of House), and in triage on the battlefield (point of fact: the Department of Defense is funding this research).

The advantage to "metabolic flexibility" (in this case: the ability to slow down so we can use less oxygen when less oxygen is available) is that hibernating animals don't get sick. And they don't react to trauma. Sometimes our bodies' natural response to injury (say an elective surgery) only makes things worse.

Hydrogen sulfide could slow this response or "stave off the dying and allow medical intervention," as Miller says. It could even be administered before a surgery and shorten the recovery time. Maybe.

Don't forget though, hydrogen sulfide, like oxygen, is toxic. There's still a lot we don't know about these gases effects on and use in our bodies, Miller says.

But it's this not knowing, the discovery, that makes Science on Tap fun — oh, and the brew. Labs don't always yield expected results, questions don't always have pat answers, wacky sounding ideas might lead to real world applications — and beer, foamy.

Serious about hydrogen sulfide? Head to the actual research. Don't dally at this fannish review with its Guinness drenched knowledge. Read how worms on the gas had an unexpected response: They lived longer.

The next Science on Tap, Making the Internet Green: How to Build Sustainable Data Centers, will be 7 p.m., Feb. 23 in Ravenna at Third Place Pub. KCTS9 and Pacific Science Center co-sponsored the talk on suspended animation.

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