Archive for the ‘Ponce de León’ Category

ftn of youth

Jackie Snow
for National Geographic
Published July 23, 2013

Five hundred years ago in June, the Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon started his journey back to Puerto Rico from Florida after becoming the first European to land on mainland America. After exploring the east coast of Florida, he circled the peninsula and explored the west coast, including modern-day Charlotte Harbor, most likely the location he chose for his second voyage.

According to legend, the explorer set out in search of the fountain of youth, a fabled stream that would extend the life of anyone lucky enough to drink from it.

Thanks to the myth of Ponce de Leon’s trip, Florida—known for its large population of retirees—is now awash in “fountains of youth.” Dozens of bodies of water claim the title of the one legendary fountain, from mineral springs to deep-water wells, not to mention water from a variety of sources that is piped into various built structures.

Only one, however, is known to be radioactive. And, oddly, it might be actually extending life.

In Punta Gorda, a town on Charlotte Harbor, a blocky, green-tiled fountain abuts an empty lot near the harbor. A spigot juts out near the top to release water from the artesian well below. Each of the four sides features a picture of a ship, a tribute to Ponce de Leon.

On the side facing away from the street, a public health notice warns that the water “exceeds the maximum contaminant level for radioactivity.”

The water from the well is also heavy in sulfates, which give it a distinctive smell of rotten eggs. This hasn’t stopped the locals from drinking from it regularly.

“I drank out of that well every day,” said Gussie Baker, a resident of Punta Gorda for all of her 78 years.

Baker used to live down the road from the Hotel Punta Gorda, whose guests would frolic in a pool filled with water from the same aquifer. Baker learned to swim in the pool and passed the fountain on her way to school.

“I love artesian water,” she said. Baker doesn’t live as close to the fountain anymore, but says she would drink it if she were nearby.

Punta Gordians proudly declared the existence of a rejuvenative fountain as far back as 1894. In 1926, they mounted a collection drive to pay for the stout little structure that stands to this day. At the height of its popularity, in the mid-20th century, the handle on the tap had to be replaced every six months.

The environmental movement threatened to put a stop to the locals’ enthusiasm for the fountain. In 1974, Congress passed the Clean Water Act, requiring the Environmental Protection Agency to determine safe levels of a variety of contaminants, including radium. All public water sources were to be tested.

Punta Gorda’s water clocked in at 9.2 picoCuries of radium-226 isotope per liter when it was tested in 1983. This exceeded the recommended radium limit, set at 5 picoCuries per liter.

As a result, in 1986, the city council mulled plugging the well, moving the fountain, and hooking it up to city water. But locals fought back.

“They’ve tried several times over the years to close it down, to seal it up, to move it or hook it to the city water, and the public has always defeated that,” said Wilson Harper, a 71-year-old former water utilities supervisor better known as “Water Bill.”

“The last 15 years it’s been as quiet as a church mouse,” he said.

Lindsay Harrington has worked across the street from the fountain in a real estate office and watched the comings and goings since 1997.

Visitors “usually come with lots of plastic bottles, or big plastic jugs that hold maybe five or ten gallons,” he said.

“We did have an occasion where a gentleman would wash his car there, and I always thought maybe he was hoping it would lengthen the use he would get out of it,” he said. “It was his own automobile fountain of youth.”

Radium shows up in 3 to 4 percent of water around the country, according to a recent study by the United States Geological Survey. Many areas have no radium in their local water. Radium mostly turned up in places that had certain rock formations with particular water chemistry that created the perfect radium sink. Florida made up the third most likely area in which to find radium-laced water.

Zoltan Szabo, a co-author of the study who has worked at the United States Geological Survey for 28 years, explained that Florida’s water is frequently encased in limestone, which doesn’t absorb or store radium. “It’s like a bad paper towel,” Szabo said of the common Floridian rocks.

Artesian water supplies are especially low in oxygen, which also helps draw radium out of the water. Szabo hasn’t looked at the Punta Gorda water supply in particular but says the levels of radium at which the fountain tested are not especially dangerous.

The EPA’s recommended levels are very conservative, Szabo said, and are based on drinking a liter a day for 70 years. Even if that was the amount and length of time someone drank the water, the chance of getting cancer is still low, Szabo said, in the range of 1 in 20,000.

“You’re taking a quantifiable risk,” he said. “If you’re smoking a cigarette, you’re taking a quantifiable risk. Probably more than drinking that water.”

But radium isn’t the only thing that turns up in the water. In fact, a much more humdrum ingredient might hold the secret of its appeal. The water from the aquifer is high in magnesium, the second most common mineral in the body after calcium.

More than 80 percent of Americans are deficient in magnesium, which helps the body regulate heart muscles and control high blood pressure. The World Health Organization recommends that drinking water contain at least 25 milligrams of magnesium per liter, and a U.S. Academy of Science study from 1977 found that 150,000 deaths a year in the United States could be prevented with additional magnesium in water.

According to Carolyn Dean, author of The Magnesium Miracle, the fountain’s 46 ppm of magnesium puts it on par with other mineral waters like San Pellegrino.

The compound magnesium sulfate also makes an appearance in the water. It’s better known as Epsom salt, which has been used in baths to ease aches and pains for years.

Magnesium is regularly removed from many bottled waters by a process known as reverse osmosis. And the fluoride added to many public water supplies counteracts magnesium, too.

Magnesium is especially good for older people: Magnesium deficiency increases with age as the body stops being as efficient in absorption, and many drugs senior citizens take interfere with the body’s ability to digest magnesium.

“Water Bill” Harper has noticed that the fountain is especially popular among Punta Gorda’s older folk.

“One of the problems with city water is we have to maintain a chloride disinfection. It makes everything taste funny,” he said. “The people have learned they can go down and take that water, which is not chlorinated, and let it sit in the refrigerator.

“It’s tasty; it has no reaction with any of their medication. Also, [magnesium sulfate] keeps you regular.”

To Harper’s knowledge, the fountain’s water has not been tested for at least 25 years—although the EPA recommends biannual testing.

When this reporter sent the water off recently to be tested, it got a reading of 14.4 picoCuries per liter, plus or minus 6.4. This is, according to Szabo, within the range of what showed up in the previous test. According to the EPA website, zero is the goal for radium levels.

Between this warning and the ubiquity of bottled water, the fountain is much less popular today. Harrington says days will go by without him seeing anyone at the fountain. But there are still some dedicated drinkers.

Margaret Baumherdt has been drinking from the fountain since 1967, years before any warning went up. Baumherdt, who is now 88, moved to the area when she was in her early 40s and remembers having to wait in line to drink the water.

She gets her daughter to drive her to the fountain from her home in nearby Port Charlotte, the town across the harbor, and fills up as many as 40 gallon jugs at a time. She drinks the water exclusively and even uses it to cook meals like spaghetti. Tap water’s chlorine content doesn’t sit well with her. The fountain water, however, is just right.

“I love the taste,” she said.

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/07/130719-florida-fountain-of-youth-radioactive-magnesium-health/

palm

For centuries, humans have been exploring, researching, and, in some cases, discovering how to stave off life-threatening diseases, increase life spans, and obtain immortality. Biologists, doctors, spiritual gurus, and even explorers have pursued these quests — one of the most well-known examples being the legendary search by Ponce de León for the “Fountain of Youth.” Yet the key to longevity may not lie in a miraculous essence of water, but rather in the structure and function of cells within a plant — and not a special, mysterious, rare plant, but one that we may think of as being quite commonplace, even ordinary: the palm.

As an honors botany student at the University of Leeds, P. Barry Tomlinson wrote a prize-winning essay during his final year titled, “The Span of Life.” Fifty years later, Tomlinson (now a Distinguished Professor at The Kampong Garden of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, Miami, FL) teamed up with graduate student Brett Huggett (Harvard University, MA) to write a review paper exploring the idea that palms may be the longest-lived tree, and whether this might be due to genetic underpinnings. Having retained his essay in his personal files, Tomlinson found that it provided an excellent literature background for working on the question of cell longevity in relation to palms. Together, Tomlinson and Huggett published their review in the December issue of the American Journal of Botany.

A component of an organism’s life span that biologists have been particularly interested in is whether longevity is genetically determined and adaptive. For botanists, discovering genetic links to increasing crop production and the reproductive lifespan of plants, especially long-lived ones such as trees, would be invaluable.

In their paper, Tomlinson and Huggett emphasize that in many respects, an organisms’ life span, or longevity, is determined by the period of time in which its cells remain functionally metabolically active. In this respect, plants and animals differ drastically, and it has to do with how they are organized — plants are able to continually develop new organs and tissues, whereas animals have a fixed body plan and are not able to regenerate senescing organs. Thus, plants can potentially live longer than animals.

“The difference in potential cell longevity in plants versus animals is a significant point,” states Tomlinson. “It is important to recognize that plants, which are so often neglected in modern biological research, can be informative of basic cell biological features in a way that impacts human concern at a fundamental level.”

The authors focused their review on palm trees because palms have living cells that may be sustained throughout an individual palm’s lifetime, and thus, they argue, may have some of the longest living cells in an organism. As a comparison, in most long-lived trees, or lignophytes, the main part, or trunk, of the tree is almost entirely composed of dead, woody, xylem tissues, and in a sense is essentially a supportive skeleton of the tree with only an inner ring of actively dividing cells. For example, the skeleton of Pinus longaeva may be up to 3000 years old, but the active living tissues can only live less than a century.

In contrast, the trunks of palms consist of cells that individually live for a long time, indeed for the entire life of an individual.

Which brings up the question of just how long can a palm tree live? The authors point out that palm age is difficult to determine, primarily because palms do not have secondary growth and therefore do not put down annual or seasonal growth rings that can easily be measured. However, age can be quite accurately assessed based on rate of leaf production and/or visible scars on the trunk from fallen leaves. Accordingly, the authors found that several species of palm have been estimated to live as long as 100 and even up to 740 years. The important connection here is that while the “skeleton” of the palm may not be as old as a pine, the individual cells in its trunk lived, or were metabolically active, as long as, or longer than those of the pine’s.

Most plants, in addition to increasing in height as they age, also increase in girth, putting down secondary vascular tissue in layers both on the inner and outer sides of the cambium as they grow. However, palms do not have secondary growth, and there is no addition of secondary vascular tissue. Instead, stem tissues are laid down in a series of interconnected vascular bundles — thus, not only is the base of the palm the oldest and the top the youngest, but these tissues from old to young, from base to top, must also remain active in order to provide support and transport water and nutrients throughout the tree.

Indeed, the authors illustrate this by reviewing evidence of sustained primary growth in two types of palms, the coconut and the sago palm. These species represent the spectrum in tissue organization from one where cells are relatively uniform and provide both hydraulic and mechanical functions (the coconut) to one where these functions are sharply divided with the inner cells functioning mainly for transporting water and nutrients and the outer ones for mechanical support (the sago palm). This represents a progression in specialization of the vascular tissues.

Moreover, there is evidence of continued metabolic activity in several types of tissues present in the stems of palms, including vascular tissue, fibers, ground tissue, and starch storage. Since the vascular tissues in palms are nonrenewable, they must function indefinitely, and Tomlinson and Huggett point out that sieve tubes and their companion cells are remarkable examples of cell longevity as they maintain a long-distance transport function without replacement throughout the life of the stem, which could be for centuries.

Despite several unique characteristics of palms, including the ability to sustain metabolically active cells in the absence of secondary tissues, seemingly indefinitely, unlike conventional trees, in which metabolically active cells are relatively short-lived, the authors do not conclude that the extended life span of palms is genetically determined.

“We are not saying that palms have the secret of eternal youth, and indeed claim no special chemical features which allows cells in certain organisms to retain fully differentiated cells with an indefinite lifespan,” states Tomlinson. “Rather, we emphasize the distinctive developmental features of palm stems compared with those in conventional trees.”

Tomlinson indicates that this reflects the neglect of the teaching of palm structure in modern biology courses. “This paper raises incompletely understood aspects of the structure and development of palms, emphasizing great diversity in these features,” he concludes. “This approach needs elaborating in much greater detail, difficult though the subject is in terms of conventional approaches to plant anatomy.”

Journal Reference:

1.P. B. Tomlinson, B. A. Huggett. Cell longevity and sustained primary growth in palm stems. American Journal of Botany, 2012; 99 (12): 1891 DOI: 10.3732/ajb.1200089

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/12/121219092842.htm