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Golden Scholars: UC Berkeley gets all up into reproductive health and finds some historic plutonium

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Berkeley research has some advice if you're trying not to have a baby. And if you're trying to have a baby! They also stumbled upon some historic plutonium from Glenn Seaborg and the Manhattan Project, but that's no biggie.

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A sliver of plutonium created through the Manhattan Project by Berkeley legend and Nobel Laureate Glenn Seaborg.

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Let's talk about sex (and) babies

(That jokes kills when it's sung. Trust me!)

Sex. People seem to enjoy it! And enjoy having it even if they aren't ready for the immense responsibilities of raising a baby and teaching him or her ethics and morals and how not to become a serial killer and that seems absolutely terrifying and like something you'll never be ready to do ever. Thus, we invented birth control. That's like the fork that lets you have your cake and eat it too, right? Assuming it doesn't give you HIV, of course, but it's not always safe to make those assumptions!

Lauren Ralph's Ph.D disseration involved a set of studies on nearly 40,000 sub-Saharan women that found the use of the hormonal contraceptive Depo-Provera increased one's risk of HIV infection.

Approximately 144 million women worldwide use hormonal contraception, and of those about 41 million women use injectable forms of birth control instead of the pill.

The study found that women who used depot medroxyprogesterone acetate had a moderate, 40 percent increased risk of acquiring HIV compared with women using non-hormonal methods and those not practicing birth control. The increased risk was slightly lower, 31 percent, among the studies done in women in the general population.

It remains unclear why the increased risk was seen among those using Depo-Provera but not the other forms of hormonal contraception, the authors said. One possibility may be that birth control with higher levels of progestin, the synthetic form of the natural hormone progesterone, changed the vaginal lining or altered local immunity, increasing the risk for HIV infection, though the researchers emphasized that this study did not examine the physiological effects of the different contraceptive methods and more research on potential underlying biologic mechanisms is needed.

Ralph does not believe this is cause to immediately cease the use of Depo-Provera just yet, at least not until a reliable supply of another contraceptive is made available. I'd also caution that these studies involved a very specific set of female subjects; the results should not be taken and applied to women from other regions, of other backgrounds, or living different lifestyles. This is also purely a preliminary study that has found a correlation between two trends. It has not shown a definitive and causative relationship.

Now, what about women who have decided they're somehow ready to not bring a sociopath into the world, but are worried about just that possibility? Well, research led by a collaboration of UC Berkeley professors (Daniela Kaufer, George Bentley, and Lance Kriegsfeld) says that kind of stress will actually have a detrimental effect on your ability to have a baby. Huh... imagine that?

This preliminary study in rats showed that chronic stress causes the activation of the hormone gonadotropin inhibitory hormone (GnIH) that induces infertility. Though the decrease in fertility is only temporary, it can last "long after the stress has ended." The research is still in its early stages, but they found stressed-out ratsboth male and femaleexhibited increased levels of this hormone. Furthermore, a group of stressed rats demonstrated a pregnancy rate of only 20% (compared to 80% in a normal population).

Stress is thought to be a major contributor to today's high levels of infertility: Approximately three-quarters of healthy couples under 30 have trouble conceiving within three months of first trying, while 15 percent are unable to conceive after a year.

"What's absolutely amazing is that one single gene controls this complex reproductive system, and that you can elegantly knock this gene down and change the reproductive outcome completely," said Daniela Kaufer, an associate professor of integrative biology.

The good news is that we could theoretically cut down on stress-induced infertility by knocking out the gene that encodes GnIH.

[Grad student Anna] Geraghty then used a virus developed in Kriegsfeld's laboratory to insert ... an RNA blocker of the [GnIH] gene [into the brain], which knocked down levels of the peptide hormone by about 75 percent during the period of chronic stress. She turned the gene back on after the stress ended in case it also plays a role during pregnancy.

"The [knockout therapy] during the period of chronic stress restored all subsequent reproductive behavior to normal: Mating behavior, pregnancy rate and the amount of embryo resorption were all back to normal," Geraghty said.

Beyond helping humans, these researchers also believe this science can be applied to animals in captivity, which can struggle to breed. Because you damned caged zoo animals are going to have babies that we can put on display, whether you like it or not...

You say "nuclear;" I say "nuclear"

(That joke kills in person. Trust me!)

Despite its reputation as a hippie school, UC Berkeley is inextricably tied to the Manhattan Project and the development of the most destructive weapons used in human history. This week, a tiny piece of that history re-emerged. A microscopic sliver of plutonium was analyzed and identified as a fragment from the Manhattan Project's discovery of the element, led by Berkeley legend, king of the periodic table, and Nobel laureate Glenn Seaborg.

The University of Chicago gave him the original 2.77-microgram plutonium sample to keep, encased in a transparent plastic box. ("The amount of radioactivity in this sample is incredibly low and is not a health hazard to anybody," [Professor Eric] Norman says.) Seaborg then gave it to the Lawrence Hall of Science at U.C. Berkeley, which displayed it in a glass case starting in 1979, alongside a simple placard describing its origins.

Nuclear engineering professor Eric Norman worked to identify this 2.7-microgram sample; one inch of hair weighs about fifty times as much as this tiny speck of historic plutonium.

The sample disappeared in 2007, when it was removed from the Lawrence Hall of Science "to make room for more interactive exhibits." Interactivity is cool and all, but why would you remove something to historic!?

At last, I have a story that will satiate all of you history-and-chemistry double majors.

The sliver's story starts in 1941, when the world's warring powers were racing to develop an atomic bomb, focusing largely on nuclear fission of uranium. At Berkeley that year, Seaborg, along with Arthur Wahl and Joseph Kennedy, synthesized an entirely new element: plutonium. Although they only produced vanishingly small traces of it by bombarding uranium 238 with deuteronsparticles made of one proton and one neutronthey quickly determined it had explosive potential as nuclear bomb material.

...

That sample and the methods that produced it would, over the next three years, help advance plutonium science far enough to make the Fat Man bomb, [which dropped in Nagasaki].

One year after its illogical removal and placement in storage, health physicist Phil Broughton stumbled upon the sample; however, it was so plainly and unofficially labelled that no one was sure of its origins. Norman and his team of researchers answered the call and began to analyze this plutonium.

[Norman's team] carefully searched for the "fingerprints" of plutonium decaying to uranium-gamma rays emitted by atomic nuclei and x-rays emitted by electrons-using a germanium ionization detector.

The Berkeley team's measurements showed the sample is definitely high-purity plutonium. They also detected other clues pointing to its Manhattan Project origin. Seaborg's approach had only produced plutonium 239, which decays very slowly back to uranium 238. Later production of plutonium, done by bombarding uranium with neutrons in nuclear reactors, sometimes also produces plutonium 241, which decays more rapidly to the element americium. There is no sign of americium in the Berkeley sliver.

The Scientific American article ends with a nice piece of fluff: "[O]nly rarely has something so slight had repercussions reverberating so far into the future." That's certainly true in terms of war, deaths, and human history; one Berkeley professor is taking it one step further, believing that it also has ramifications on the planet's history.

A group of international scientistsincluding UC Berkeley integrative biology professor Anthony Barnoskyare championing the stance that nuclear testing in the 1940s should mark a new geological age, which they're calling the Anthropocene.

Scientists divide Earth history into epochs, periods and other time units bounded by geological or biological signals, such as those left in the rock record by the mass extinctions that ended the Cretaceous and Permian eras, and the end of the last ice age that kicked off the current Holocene epoch.

"Defining the Anthropocene as a new geological epoch would imply that humans are a geological force every bit as powerful as the ‘natural' ones that caused such things as the onset of ice ages and major extinction events in Earth's past," said paleontologist Anthony Barnosky, one of the co-authors on the paper and a UC Berkeley professor of integrative biology.

When you read that line about man being as impactful as nature, you thought about global warming, didn't you? It's okay to admit it and it gives me a great exit by bringing things full circle back to Berkeley's hippie roots.

The team argued that a logical and tractable start-point for the Anthropocene would be the date of the first atomic bomb detonation in New Mexico, Barnosky said, in part because it can be measured easily as a result of the worldwide spread of artificial radioactivity from nuclear bomb tests, and in part because it roughly coincides with the global proliferation of major human-caused influences that leave permanent evidence in the geological record. Since 1945, there has been a "Great Acceleration" of population, carbon emissions, species invasions and extinctions, earth moving, and production of concrete, plastics and metals, as pointed out by another new paper in the journal The Anthropocene Review.