What’s one foot across and sits behind two inches of skin, four inches of fat and 10 inches of muscle? That’s right: an elephant’s testicle. Which means veterinarian Mark Stetter’s newest invention—a four-foot-long fiber-optic laparoscope attached to a video monitor—has to be a heavy-duty piece of equipment to sterilize a randy bull pachyderm. Stetter, the head doc at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida, created the device to help control elephants in African wildlife parks, where the jumbos have been breeding too quickly and eating up more than their share of the surrounding habitat. The snipping began last summer when Stetter and his team field-tested the device on four unsuspecting bulls at the Welgevonden Private Game Reserve in South Africa. After a pachyderm was sedated with a dart from a helicopter, the team used a crane truck to pull the sleeping beast upright. Four-inch incisions were made, and the laparoscope was inserted into the abdomen near the reproductive organs (an elephant’s testicles are on the inside, like ovaries). When he located the centimeter-thick vas deferens—the tube that carries semen from the testicles to the penis—Stetter inserted a long pair of scissors through the scope and cut out a two- or three-inch section. So far, the method seems to be working. The first four test subjects survived the ordeal with no complications (except the possibility of bruised pride). If things go the way Stetter plans, elephants throughout southern Africa will soon be crossing their legs in fear: He has begun training other field vets to perform the procedure, and hopes to have multinational trials up and running soon.
Their work is noninvasive—for the apes, that is . . . "Have I been pissed on? Yes," says anthropologist Cheryl Knott of Harvard University. Knott is a pioneer of "noninvasive monitoring of steroids through urine sampling." Translation: Look out below! For the past 11 years, Knott and her colleagues have trekked into Gunung Palung National Park in Borneo, Indonesia, in search of the endangered primates. Once a subject is spotted, they deploy plastic sheets like a firemen's rescue trampoline and wait for the tree-swinging apes to go see a man about a mule. For more pee-catching precision, they attach bags to poles and follow beneath the animals. "It's kind of gross when you get hit, but this is the best way to figure out what's going on in their bodies," Knott says.
“I see about 15 butts a day, and a third of them have warts,” says nurse practitioner Naomi Jay of the University of California at San Francisco. Jay and infectious-disease doc Joel Palefsky were the first to run extensive clinical studies on the sexually transmitted diseases that afflict the anus. “He’s the tushie king, and I’m the tushie queen,” Jay boasts. Each of us has about a 10 percent lifetime risk of contracting anal warts, the worst variety of which—enemy number one storming the battlements of Jay’s royal domain—is human papillomavirus. This same STD that can cause cervical cancer in women also causes anal cancer in both genders. And the only way to detect this rare but deadly disease is to ask a highly trained nurse like Jay to scrutinize your derrière. “A giant anal wart can be a couple inches large and blocking the anal opening,” Jay says with her customary vigor. The bright side? “In 13 years I’ve only been pooped on twice, and that’s not bad.”
It's a job that separates the boys from the men, OK, OK, their real job title is usually something like "cryobiologist" or "laboratory technician," but at sperm banks around the country, they are known as semen washers. "Every time I interview someone I make sure I ask them, 'Do you know you'll be working with semen?' " says Diana Schillinger, the Los Angeles lab manager at the country's largest sperm bank, California Cryobank. Let's start at the beginning. Laboriously prescreened "donors" emerge from a so-called collection room that is stocked with girlie mags and triple-X DVDs. They hand over their deposit, get their $75, and leave. The semen washers take the seminal goo and place a sample under the microscope for a sperm count. Next comes the washing. The techs spin the sample in a centrifuge to separate the "plasma" from the motile cells. Then they add a preservative, and it's off to the freezer, where it can stay for 20 years. Or not. Thanks to semen washers (and in vitro fertilization), more than 250,000 babies have been delivered in the U.S. since 1995.
"The hardest part is explaining it to friends," Schillinger says. "But we do have stories." Like what? "Like the donor who was in the room for the longest time. We had a big discussion about who was going to check on him. Turns out he thought he had to fill up the entire specimen cup."
WHALE FECES RESEARCHER
They scoop up whale dung, then dig through it for clues
“Brown stain ahoy!” is not the cry most mariners long to hear, but for Rosalind Rolland, a senior researcher at the New England Aquarium in Boston, it’s a siren song. Rolland, along with a few lucky research assistants, combs Nova Scotia’s Bay of Fundy looking for endangered North Atlantic right whales. Actually, she’s not really looking for the whales—just their poo. “It surprised even me how much you can learn about a whale through its feces.”
Rolland pioneered whale-feces research in 1999. By 2003, she was frustrated by the small number of samples her poo patrol was collecting by blindly chasing whales on the open ocean. So she began taking along sniffer dogs that can detect whale droppings from as far as a mile away. When they bark, she points her research vessel in the direction of the brown gold, and as the boat approaches the feces—the excrement usually stays afloat for an hour after the deed is done and can be bright orange and oily depending on the type of plankton the whale feeds on—Rolland and her crew begin scooping up as much matter as they can using custom-designed nets. Samples are then placed in plastic jars and packed in ice (the largest chunks are just over a pound) to be shared with other researchers across North America. “We’ve literally been in fields of right-whale poop,” she marvels.
In the past few years, other whale researchers have adopted Rolland’s methods. Nick Gales of the Australia Antarctic Division now plies the Southern Ocean looking for endangered blue-whale dung, a pursuit that in 2003 led him to a scientific first. While tailing a minke whale, Gale’s team photographed what is believed to be the first bout of whale flatulence caught on film—a large, disconcertingly pretty bubble trailing behind the whale like an enormous jellyfish. “We stayed away from the bow after taking the picture,” Gales recalls. “It does stink.”
If you’re interested in researching vaginal infections, you can do scrapes or urine tests, or you can draw samples with a pipette. Or you can collect your specimens from tampons. As Australian microbiologist Suzanne Garland and her team at the Royal Women’s Hospital in Victoria discovered, tampons are best for epidemiological studies of sexually transmitted diseases in large populations, because women are more likely to cooperate with a test that is familar and self-inserted rather than one that must be administered by a doctor.
Normally, researchers would use a centrifuge to extract fluids to be tested. But this is the one way in which the tampon is not an optimal specimen-collecting tool, because its true purpose is to hold liquid in. “Optimal recovery,” Garland says, “requires manual squeezing.”
“The worst was at a factory pig farm,” says Steven M. Barsky, the author of Diving in High-Risk Environments, the industry bible for hazardous-materials divers. “A guy had driven his truck into the waste lagoon and drowned. Not only was it full of urine and liquid pig feces, the farmer had dumped all the needles used to inject the pigs with antibiotics and hormones in there.” Someone had to recover the body, and the task fell to commercial hazmat divers.
Outfitted with fully encapsulating drysuits, these Jacques Cousteaus of the sewers swim into clouds of waste, inside nuclear reactors and through toxic spills on America’s coasts and inland waterways. When the Environmental Protection Agency identifies pollutants, it contracts with a hazmat team to clean things up. That means using giant vacuums to suck up a polluted lakebed, hoisting leaking barrels to the surface, or diving into the heart of an oil spill or into a sewer to fix a clog. It’s dangerous work—one breach in the drysuit, and a whole stew of bacteria and toxins can fill ’er up. Jesse Hutton, of Ballard Salvage and Diving in Seattle, has seen his share of close calls. “I’ve been on jobs where suits have been breached by rough steel or something sharp,” he says, pointing out that divers must keep their shots up to date.
The smell is just the start of the nastiness. Almost 1.5 billion tons of manure are produced annually by animals in this country—90 percent of it from cattle. That's the same weight as 14,432 Nimitz-class aircraft carriers. You get the point: It's a load of crap. And it's loaded with nasty contaminants like campylobacter (the number-one cause of acute gastroenteritis in the U.S.), salmonella (the number-two cause) and E.coli 0157:H7, which can cause kidney failure in children and painful, bloody diarrhea in everybody else.
Farmers fertilize their fields with manure, but if the excrement is rife with E.coli, then so will be the vegetables. Luckily for us, researchers at the University of Georgia's Center for Food Safety are knee-deep in figuring out how to eliminate these bacteria from our animals, their poop and our food. But to develop techniques to neutralize the nasty critters, they must go to the source.
"We have to wade through a lot of poop," concedes Michael Doyle, the center's director. "If you want to get the manure, you've got to grab it. Even when you wear gloves, the fecal smell tends to get embedded in your skin." Hog poop smells the worst, Doyle says, but it's chicken poop's chokingly high ammonia content that brings tears to researchers' eyes.
FLATUS ODOR JUDGE
Odor judges are common in the research labs of mouthwash companies, where the halitosis-inflicted blow great gusts of breath in their faces to test product efficacy. But Minneapolis gastroenterologist Michael Levitt recently took the job to another level—or, rather, to the other end. Levitt paid two brave souls to indulge repeatedly in the odors of other people's farts. (Levitt refuses to divulge the remuneration, but it would seem safe to characterize it thusly: Not enough.) Sixteen healthy subjects volunteered to eat pinto beans and insert small plastic collection tubes into their anuses (worst-job runners-up, to be sure). After each "episode of flatulence," Levitt syringed the gas into a discrete container, rigorously maintaining fart integrity. The odor judges then sat down with at least 100 samples, opened the caps one at a time, and inhaled robustly. As their faces writhed in agony, they rated just how noxious the smell was. The samples were also chemically analyzed, and—eureka!—Levitt determined definitively the most malodorous component of the human flatus: hydrogen sulfide.
DYSENTERY STOOL-SAMPLE ANALYZER
In the early '80s, Virginia Tech profs Tracy Wilkins and David Lyerly studied the diarrhea-causing microbe Clostridium difficile in sample after sample after sample of loose stool from the disease's victims. They became such crack dysentery docs that they launched a company, Techlab, dedicated to making stool-analysis kits. Today, Techlab employs 40 people, 19 of whom spend their working hours opening sloppy stool canisters and analyzing their contents in order to test the effectiveness of the company's kits. You'd have to have a pretty good sense of humor, right? Well, fortunately, they do. The Techlab Web site sells T-shirts with cartoons on the front (two flies hover over two blobs of dung; one says to the other, "Pardon me, is this stool taken?") and the company motto on the back: "Techlab: #1 in the #2 Business!"
Researchers who want animal sperm —to study fertility or for artificial insemination—have a suite of attractive options: They can ram an electric probe up an animal's rectum, shove an artificial vagina onto the animal's penis, or simply do it the old-fashioned way—manual stimulation. The first option, electroejaculation, uses a priapic rectal probe to send electricity pulsing through the animal's nether regions. "All the normal excitatory signals that stimulate ejaculation, like touch, sight, sound and smell, can be replaced with the current from the probe," says Trish Berger, professor of animal science at the University of California, Davis. "It's fascinating. Of course, this is a woman talking." Electroejaculation generally requires anesthetizing the animal and is typically used on zoo dwellers. The other two methods—the artificial vagina, or AV, and the good old hand—require that animals be trained to the procedure.
The AV—a large latex tube coated with warm lubricant —is used primarily to get sperm from dairy bulls (considered the most ornery and dangerous of bovines). The bull gets randy with a steer; when he mounts the steer with his forelegs, a brave technician, AV in hand, insinuates himself between the two aroused beasts and deftly redirects the bull penis into the mock genitalia, which he must then hold tight while the bull orgasms. (Talk about bull riding!) Three additional technicians attempt to ensure this (fool)hardy soul's safety by anchoring themselves to restraining ropes attached to a ring in the bull's nose. Alas, this isn't always absolutely effective: Everyone who's wielded an AV has had at least one close call, and more than a few have been sent to the hospital. The much safer "digital pressure" is used mostly with pigs, who are trained from an early age to mount a small bench while the researcher reaches around with a gloved hand and provides appropriate pleasure—er, pressure.
Studying worm parasites isn’t nearly as bad as playing host to them. But here’s an essential distinction: The medicos who go into this line—God bless ’em—do it by choice. Supported by the World Health Organization and various international charities, they travel to the tropics to eradicate diseases that afflict millions of people. Yet although we’re regularly treated to tales of Ebola warriors, we rarely hear about the tribulations of the worm docs.
For instance . . . Ascaris lumbricoides eggs hatch in the small intestine, then migrate to the lungs; they’re coughed into the mouth and swallowed back to the gut, where each worm will grow as long as 16 inches and where each female will lay billions of eggs to be defecated forth so that a new cycle of life can begin. (The adults can exit this way too, in a large bolus that resembles a tangle of spaghetti.) The Wuchereria bancrofti worm sometimes settles in the scrotum, where it blocks the flow of lymph. This can result in elephantiasis, a wretched condition that features scrotal swelling to jack-o’-lantern proportions and an infection that reeks of death. Moving right along . . . the female Dracunculus medinensis migrates from the gut to a point just under the skin of, say, a leg, where she then commences growth to a length of as great as three feet, and where, ultimately, she lays her eggs.
When the thousands of babies make their joyous arrival, they blister the skin and pop through, leaving Mom behind. The traditional way to get rid of her is to wrap her head around a stick and twist very slowly—one turn of the stick per day—for weeks or months, depending on how long she is. (This treatment is so old that it inspired the ancient snake-and-pole aesculapius symbol of medicine.)
Natural history museums display clean white skeletons or neatly stuffed animals, but what their field biologists drag in are carcasses flush with rotting flesh. Each museum's taxidermist has his own favorite technique for tidying things up. University of California, Berkeley, zoologist Robert Jones swears by his strain of flesh-eating buffalo-hide beetles and has no problem reaching his bare hand into a drawer to pull out a rancid shrew skeleton swarming with thousands of these quarter-inch bugs. Jeppe Møhl at the University of Copenhagen Zoological Museum deposits sperm whales and dolphins into vast empty tanks and lets nature take its course. And then there's the boiling method, useful for chemically preserved samples that bugs won't touch—an approach favored by archaeologist Sandra Olsen, who has done her own skeleton work. She recalls a particularly vivid experience boiling down hyena paws: "It felt like inhaling the gases would literally kill us." Nah. It merely gave her a lung infection
thanks to weird science who sent me this story