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The Problem of Herbicide Resistance

Farmers who are growing herbicide resistant crops such as corn or soy may start to identify with Audrey Jr. in Little Shop of Horrors. In that film, later made into a Broadway musical, a dorky florist’s assistant cultivates a plant he names Audrey Jr. after the co-worker he pines for. This is no ordinary plant, this one craves blood to grow and its constant cry to “feed me” wreaks havoc with human lives. While there are no plants that suck blood, although ones like the Venus fly trap do dine on insects, there are ones which at least figuratively suck farmers’ blood. We are talking about weeds that can no longer be killed by herbicides. Weeds along with insects are farmers’ great enemies. They compete with crops for nutrients in the soil, reducing crop yields. Various herbicides are available to kill weeds but the problem is that they damage crops as well. That’s why farmers welcomed the introduction in the 1990s of soybeans and corn that were genetically engineered to resist the herbicide glyphosate. Fields could be sprayed to wipe out weeds without harming crops. Yields and profits increased. But in the long run, you can’t beat biology. It was no secret from the beginning that eventually weeds would develop resistance to glyphosate.

This is what farmers are now seeing. The lifeblood sucking weed that corn, cotton and soy growers are worried about is called palmer amaranth. It has already devastated cotton fields in the south and is moving into corn and soy fields in the Midwest, probably introduced by manure from cows fed cottonseed contaminated with palmer seeds. Short of pulling out weeds by hand, which is possible but very labour intensive, farmers will have to look for new technologies. On the horizon are crops that have been genetically engineered to resist 2,4-D and glufosinate, two very effective herbicides that traditionally cannot be sprayed on growing crops because they will kill them just like they kill weeds. But 2,4-D will kill weeds that are resistant to glyphosate and will not harm the crops that have been engineered to resist the chemical. Of course this isn’t a long term solution because the weeds will eventually develop a resistance to 2,4-D as well. And 2,4-D doesn’t have quite as good a safety profile as glyphosate. Weeds that cannot be destroyed by herbicides are a farmer’s bane, and eventually, like Audrey Jr. they come out on top.


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Fenugreek and Sotalone

fenugreek and sotaloneIf you have eaten curry, you have probably tasted fenugreek. The seeds of this plant as well as its fresh leaves are commonly used as ingredients in curries. They are added for taste but they also impart a smell that is due to sotalone, a compound that at low concentrations has a distinct maple syrup-like odour. Since sotalone passes through the body unchanged, it can impart a scent both to the urine and sweat. The compound is actually used as one of the flavor components in artificial maple syrup and can be isolated from fenugreek seeds. Facilities that process the seeds often smell strongly of maple syrup and the scent can be carried quite some ways by the wind. Back in 2005 Manhattanites began to complain of a strong maple syrup odour and rumours circulated about it being some sort of chemical warfare. It took a while but eventually the smell was traced to a company in New Jersey that was processing fenugreek seeds. That rumor even made it on to an episode of 30 Rock, the popular sit com.

It is not only curry eaters who can smell of maple syrup. It can be an issue for lactating mothers who take fenugreek supplements to increase milk production. While there is much anecdotal evidence that this works, the few studies that have been carried out have shown mixed results. There is always a question of just how much to take, which is tough to answer because herbal supplements are difficult to standardize and often there is a mismatch between what is indicated on the label and what is actually in the product.

Herbal remedies are drugs and like any drug can have side effects. As a food fenugreek rarely causes problems but as a supplement it can result in loose stools and intestinal discomfort. Allergy to fenugreek is possible especially in people who have allergies to peanuts and chickpeas which are in the same botanical family. Since fenugreek can lower blood glucose, it can in some cases cause hypoglycemia. This is of special concern in diabetics because fenugreek may enhance the effect of antidiabetic drugs. On the other hand, because it can lower blood glucose, fenugreek may be of some benefit to diabetics, but again there is the problem of knowing how much to take because of lack of standardization.

Since fenugreek can cause uterine contractions, it should not be taken during pregnancy.When taken for lactation, the advice that is often offered is to slowly increase the dosage until the sweat or urine begins to smell like maple syrup. Breast fed babies may also smell of maple syrup if the mom has been ingesting fenugreek and that can lead to false diagnosis of “maple syrup urine disease.” This is a serious genetic disorder characterized by a deficiency in enzymes that metabolize the common amino acids valine, leucine and isoleucine. A buildup of these amino acids and their breakdown products can lead to severe neurological damage and eventually death. One of these breakdown products is sotalone, the odour of which was usually a clue to the diagnosis of maple syrup odour disease. Today, should the condition be suspected based on a baby’s failure to thrive, testing of the blood amino acids can detect the condition even before any scent appears. Serious consequences can then be avoided by adhering to a diet that is based on a special formula free of the problematic amino acids.

Some women take “Blessed Thistle” along with fenugreek because this herb also has a reputation as a lactating agent. In this case there is insufficient evidence for efficacy or about the safety of taking this herb during pregnancy or while breast feeding. Blessed thistle is not the same as “milk thistle” which in spite of its name has nothing to do with encouraging milk production. The plant derives its name from the characteristic white streaks on its leaves. An extract of milk thistle, often called “silymarin” is composed of several compounds that have a protective effect on the liver. Some strudies have shown a benefit in cirrhosis as well as fatty liver disease. One study even claimed effective treatment of poisoning caused by Amanita phalloides, one of the most deadly mushrooms known. It contains compounds that attack the liver.

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GelotophobiaGelotophobia can best be defined as the “potentially debilitating fear of being laughed at.” A person suffering from gelotophobia may hear a stranger’s laugh and believe it is aimed at him or her. In extreme cases the response may be palpitations, breaking out in a sweat, or even violence. Some school shootings have apparently been triggered by classmates having made fun of the shooter. Gelotophobes have a fear of being ridiculed and unfortunately often cannot distinguish playful teasing from ridicule. Psychologist Willibald Ruch of the University of Zurich has attempted to put gelotophobia on a scientific footing by surveying over 23,000 people in 73 countries. He found that the condition affects anywhere from two to thirty percent of the population. The highest incidence was in Asia where “saving face” is particularly important.

And how does one find gelotophobes? Ruch did it by devising a questionnaire that gauged agreement with statements such as “I avoid displaying myself in public because I fear that people could become aware of my insecurity and could make fun of me,” or “while dancing I feel uneasy because I am convinced that those watching me assess me as being ridiculous.” I can add a few personal observations here. When I teach organic chemistry I sometimes ask students to come and solve a problem on the blackboard. Usually there is a shortage of volunteers. But then if I say, “don’t worry, nobody is going to laugh at you,” the hands start to go up. Interestingly, if instead I say “why not try it, the worst thing that can happen is that we will laugh at you,” some hands begin to wave wildly. These are the “gelotophiles,” or people who enjoy being laughed at. Maybe they could give some pointers to the gelotophobes.


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The Lorne Trottier 2014 Public Science Symposium

SymposiumAre We Alone?

How did life originate and are we alone? Perhaps the two most intriguing questions that have puzzled mankind since the dawn of civilization. Countless science fiction stories and movies speak to our infatuation with the possibility of intelligent alien life but so far such accounts remain firmly in the realm of science fiction. But for how long? Famed science popularizer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan expressed his wonderment at the vastness of space and time with his conclusion that “the total number of stars in the Universe is larger than all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the planet Earth.” Since those stars likely have planets orbiting them, it stands to reason that some of them would have conditions conducive to life. Even if intelligent life occurs on only a minute proportion of these planets, there could be numerous civilizations in our own Milky Way galaxy alone. So far we have discovered no evidence of their existence. It isn’t for lack of trying.

Investigators of unidentified flying objects (UFOs) have found no sign of aliens despite thoroughly scrutinizing numerous sightings. The Center for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has been scanning the heavens with its alien-hunting radio telescopes since the 1980s without any success. On the other hand, since the 1990s a number of “exoplanets,” that is planets around other stars, have been detected by space telescopes. At least one, Kepler-186f, has caused a great deal of excitement because of its presence in the “Goldilocks zone,” a habitable orbit that is “not too hot and not too cold” for the presence of liquid water. That planet is practically in our back yard, being only 490 light years away, but that still makes it far enough to make visiting it out of the question. However, taking the next step into space to look for signs of life is a possibility. That would be a trip to Mars. Our astronauts will not be encountering any Martians, but unmanned exploration has already suggested that the “red planet” may at one time have fostered some sort of microbial life. Star Trek may have been science fiction, but real science stands ready to take up the challenge to “explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations and to boldly go where no man has gone before.” Our expert speakers will fascinate us with research that is simply out of this world.

Speaker Biographies:

Dr. Joe Nickell

Well into his fourth decade as an investigator of historical, paranormal, and forensic mysteries, myths and hoaxes, Dr. Joe Nickell has been called “the modern Sherlock Holmes” and the “real-life Scully” (from the X-Files), believing that mysteries should actually be investigated with a view towards solving them.

Nickell is the world’s only full-time professional paranormal investigator, travelling around the world investigating strange mysteries at the very fringes of science which he then recounts in the “Investigative Files” for the science magazine, Skeptical Inquirer. Nickell’s work as a former stage magician, private investigator, and academic has helped him succeed in this role.

Nickell has exposed many forgeries, including the notorious “Jack the Ripper Diary,” and has authenticated many treasures. He also has many books on the subject, including Pen, Ink, and Evidence and Detecting Forgery.

Dr. Jim Bell

Jim Bell is a Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Astronomy at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and a Distinguished Visiting Scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Jim is an active planetary scientist and has been heavily involved in many NASA robotic space exploration missions, including the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR), Mars Pathfinder, Comet Nucleus Tour, Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, Mars Odyssey Orbiter, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, and the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover mission. Jim is the lead scientist in charge of the Panoramic camera (Pancam) color, stereoscopic imaging system on the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, and is the Deputy P.I. of the Mastcam camera system on the Curiosity rover.

Jim is also an extremely active and prolific public communicator of science and space exploration, and is President of The Planetary Society. He is a frequent contributor to popular astronomy and science magazines like Sky & Telescope, Astronomy, and Scientific American, and to radio shows and internet blogs about astronomy and space. He has appeared on television on the NBC “Today” show, on CNN’s “This American Morning,” on the PBS “Newshour,” and on the Discovery, National Geographic, Wall St. Journal, and History Channels. He has also written many photography-oriented books that showcase some of the most spectacular images acquired during the space program.

Dr. Sara Seager

Professor Sara Seager is a planetary scientist and astrophysicist. She has been a pioneer in the vast and unknown world of exoplanets, planets that orbit stars other than the sun. Her ground-breaking research ranges from the detection of exoplanet atmospheres to innovative theories about life on other worlds to development of novel space mission concepts. Now, dubbed an “astronomical Indiana Jones”, she on a quest after the field’s holy grail, the discovery of a true Earth twin. Dr. Seager earned her PhD from Harvard University and is now the Class of 1941 Profesor of Planetary Science and Professor of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Professor Seager is a 2013 MacArthur Fellow and was named in Time Magazine’s 25 Most Influential in Space in 2012.

Dr. Jill Tarter

Jill Tarter holds the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI Research at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California and serves as a member of the Board of Trustees for that institution. Tarter received her Bachelor of Engineering Physics Degree with Distinction from Cornell University and her Master’s Degree and a Ph.D. in Astronomy from the University of California, Berkeley. She has spent the majority of her professional career attempting to answer the old human question “Are we alone?” by searching for evidence of technological civilizations beyond Earth. She served as Project Scientist for NASA’s SETI program, the High Resolution Microwave Survey and has conducted numerous observational programs at radio observatories worldwide. She is a Fellow of the AAAS, the California Academy of Sciences, and the Explorers Club, she was named one of the Time 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2004, and one of the Time 25 in Space in 2012, received a TED prize in 2009, public service awards from NASA, multiple awards for communicating science to the public, and has been honored as a woman in technology. Since the termination of funding for NASA’s SETI program in 1993, she has served in a leadership role to design and build the Allen Telescope Array and to secure private funding to continue the exploratory science of SETI. Many people are now familiar with her work as portrayed by Jodie Foster in the movie Contact.


Dr. Joe Schwarcz, Moderator
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New use for soap?

soapOn my radio show today the story of putting a bar of soap under the sheet to cure leg cramps came up again. When science leaves a void, as it does with the treatment of leg cramps, unconventional therapies rush in to fill it. Just take a bar of soap, some say it has to be Ivory, place it on the mattress under the sheet and ..pleasant dreams! There are testimonials galore from people who say they thought it was a ridiculous notion, but they decided to try it anyway out of desperation, and it worked! Anecdotes are scientifically meaningless, and the plural of anecdote is not data. Scientific validity can only be ascertained by randomized, controlled double blind trials. None such have been carried out on the soap question. Why not? Because such trials are difficult and expensive to carry out, and to justify mounting one, there has to be some plausibility of a meaningful outcome.

Aside from far-fetched ideas about subliminal scents, there is no conceivable way that a bar of soap under the sheets can have an effect on leg cramps. It is possible that some people who have struggled long and hard with such cramps want so much to believe that something will help, that they will respond to the presence of the soap. That’s what we call the placebo effect. Of course if the sufferer feels better, it doesn’t much matter why. I suppose there is no harm in telling a sufferer that “some people believe the soap helps” and suggest they give it a shot. That little white lie doesn’t break the number one rule of medicine: “first of all, do no harm.” It is hard to imagine how a bar of soap might do harm, although I suppose there is a chance it can drop to the floor due to the motion generated by a leg cramp attack and cause someone to slip on it.

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Instant Noodles

instant noodlesAt the turn of the millennium a Japanese poll asked about the best Japanese invention of the previous century. Instant noodles was the answer. Japan as well as China have a long history of eating noodles, mostly wheat although rice noodles are also popular. In 1958 along came Momofuko Ando with an idea. If noodles were hot air dried or quickly fried after they were steamed, they would last a long time and could be readily cooked by dumping into boiling water. The instant noodles could be mixed with various flavor additives to yield a quick soup. Ramen noodles, using the Japanese term, are high in salt and some can contain a significant amount of fat. But the noodles are not “deadly.”

Why should that idea even come up? Because of headlines floating around the web about “what happens in your stomach when you consume packaged Ramen noodles with a deadly preservative.” This bit of nonsense refers to a video that has been making the rounds about an experiment carried out by gastroenterologist Dr. Braden Kuo at the Massachusetts General Hospital. Dr. Kuo had a subject swallow a “pill camera” capable of transmitting images from inside the gut. He found that processed noodles churned around in the stomach longer than fresh noodles before breaking down. This doesn’t have much significance since nutrient absorption takes place in the small intestine after food has been broken down in the stomach, but how long that breakdown takes is not important. Why the processed noodles take longer to disintegrate in the stomach can have many reasons. The moisture and fat content of the noodles can be quite different, the gluten content which depends on the kind of flour used and the amount of kneading makes a difference, as does the shape of the noodles. But one thing that will not have an effect is the trace amount of a preservative known as tertiary butyl hydroquinone or TBHQ that may be present in some instant noodles.

Yet this is the ingredient that generated the nonsensical information that is being spread around the web. The claim is that it is the preservative that prevents the noodles from being broken down and the failure of the noodles to be broken down as quickly as fresh noodles represents some kind of danger to health. Both of these claims are absurd. The preservative, which in fact is not commonly used in noodles, prevents fat from going rancid, which is a process that can indeed produce toxins. The amount of TBHQ used is trivial, 0.02% by weight of the fat content of the food. That translates to a few milligrams, a tiny fraction of the amount that can cause any harm in an animal.

Of course the scary emails do not take amounts into account. Rather they blather on about nausea, diarrhea and ringing in the ears which may happen at huge doses of TBHQ that cannot be attained from food. And most assuredly, TBHQ has nothing to do with the rate at which noodles decompose in the stomach. This is not an argument for eating processed Ramen noodles, which are not great, particularly because of the salt content. But it is a plea for rational thinking, and the investigation of claims made by Internet bloggers who do not know what they are talking about. Dr. Kuo himself was not troubled by his findings and says that he eats processed noodles himself.

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Gluten-free diets and the mythologies surrounding them

gluten freeThis week’s column is guaranteed to generate controversy. There will be all sorts of anecdotes from people who say they have lost weight, gained energy and just feel better after eliminating wheat. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear claims that Lou Gehrig’s ALS was caused by eating Wheaties. And I’m sure I will be urged to just try a wheat-free diet instead of looking at the scientific literature.

Gluten-free diets and the mythologies surrounding them

You will never see Novak Djokovic’s picture on a box of Wheaties. Djokovic is a super tennis player and is easily in the same league as the athletes who have adorned the Wheaties box since 1934 when Lou Gehrig first urged us to try the Breakfast of Champions: “There’s nothing better than a big bowl of Wheaties with plenty of milk or cream and sugar.” Djokovic would disagree. No Wheaties for this champion. Diagnosed as “gluten intolerant” by his nutritionist, Djokovic has given up all foods that contain gluten, the mixture of proteins found mostly in wheat, barley and rye.

He claims that he feels “fresher, sharper and more energetic.” So how exactly was Djokovic diagnosed, given that there is no known test for gluten intolerance, aside from the variety known as celiac disease, which Djokovic does not have?

Djokovic’s “nutritionist” asked him to stretch out his right arm while placing his left hand on his stomach. He then pushed down on the tennis champion’s right arm and told him to resist the pressure, which he was able to do. Next, Djokovic was asked to hold a slice of bread against his stomach with his left hand while the nutritionist again tried to push down on his outstretched right arm. This time, he was able to push it down easily. The demonstration, Djokovic was told, showed that he was sensitive to gluten, which is why he had suffered so many mid-match collapses in his career.

Such a test, often referred to as “applied kinesiology,” is often used by “alternative” practitioners to diagnose allergies and nutritional deficiencies, as well as to promote the sale of “energizing” bracelets.

It has zero scientific validity, but that doesn’t mean that Djokovic doesn’t suffer from non-celiac gluten sensitivity. The correlation with the test may be accidental, but the condition may be real. Djokovic is convinced that avoiding gluten is a factor in his improved play and is not bashful about recommending that everyone give “gluten-free” a shot. And he is not alone. Others who sing the praises of a gluten-free lifestyle include such icons of science such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, Russell Crowe and Bill Clinton.

And then there is Dr. William Davis whose book Wheat Belly paints a picture of modern wheat as a satanic grain responsible for diabetes, high cholesterol, osteoporosis, cataracts, wrinkles, rashes, neuropathies, vitiligo, hair loss and schizophrenia — along with “man breasts,” “bagel butt” and of course, “wheat belly.”

If you are scientifically minded, it is worthwhile to read this book, just to see how masterfully Davis blends cherry-picked data, inflammatory hyperbole, misused science, irrelevant references and opinion masquerading as fact into a recipe for a cure-all.

Some of the “science” is just absurd. He talks about how wheat DNA has been mutated by exposure to sodium azide, and then points out that “the poison control people will tell you that if someone accidentally ingests sodium azide, you shouldn’t try to resuscitate the person because you could die, too, giving CPR.” The fact that sodium azide is a toxic chemical has nothing to do with its use in inducing mutations in genes. There is no azide in the product and inducing mutations to achieve beneficial traits is a standard technique used by agronomists.

Davis’s argument for wheat-causing osteoporosis is equally bizarre. He describes how wheat can give rise to sulphuric acid when it is metabolized. This is indeed correct. One of the amino acids in wheat protein, cysteine, does end up releasing some sulphuric acid in the body. And the body does use phosphates from bone to neutralize excess acid. The amount of acid released into the bloodstream from wheat is trivial; yet Davis calls it an “overwhelmingly potent acid” that rapidly overcomes the neutralizing effects of alkaline bases.” Poppycock. (Appropriately, that term originates from the Dutch term for “soft dung”.)

That, though, isn’t the worst of it. Davis panics readers with totally irrelevant statements about sulphuric acid causing burns if spilled on the skin. Get it in your eyes and you will go blind. True, but what does that have to do with traces formed in the blood from cysteine? Sulphuric acid in acid rain erodes monuments, kills trees and plants, Davis informs us. Yes it does. But linking this to eating wheat is an example of mental erosion. Davis also claims that proteins in wheat break down to peptides that have opiate-like activity and lead to wheat addiction. If that were true, we had better avoid spinach, soybeans, meat, dairy and rice, because these also contain the same protein fragments.

Davis also claims substantial weight loss by avoiding wheat. “If three people lost eight pounds, big deal,” he says. “But we’re seeing hundreds of thousands of people losing 30, 80, 150 pounds.” Really? Where is this documented? It isn’t surprising, though, that some people do lose weight on the “Wheat Belly” diet, given that cutting out wheat products results in a reduced caloric intake.

While wheat is not the great devil responsible for the plethora of ailments claimed by Davis, it is not completely innocent either.

“Non-celiac gluten sensitivity,” in which various symptoms resolve when gluten is eliminated from the diet, in spite of negative blood tests and negative biopsies for celiac disease, may affect as much as five to 10 per cent of the population.

Most of the evidence, though, is anecdotal; and similar improvements in health are described by people who avoid artificial sweeteners, shun MSG, eat only raw foods, engage in auto-urine therapy or walk barefoot to soak up the earth’s energy.

There is also accumulating evidence that improvements in health by avoiding gluten have nothing to do with gluten but rather with “fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols” dubbed FODMAPs. These wheat components are poorly absorbed, and travel through to the colon where they provide a scrumptious meal for the bacteria that live there.

The problem is that these bacteria produce copious amounts of gas that distend the gut and cause pain as they dine on the FODMAPs. Unfortunately, other foods, including many fruits and vegetables, also contain these troublesome sugars, so a low-FODMAP diet is difficult to follow.

In the meantime, Novak Djokovic is winning titles and is winning other athletes over with his gluten-free diet.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to see how he would perform if somebody managed to sneak some gluten into his food?

I also wonder how Lou Gehrig would have done had he traded in his Wheaties for Rice Chex or Cornflakes.

I suspect just as well.

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You Asked: Are pasteurized cheeses safe to consume?

pasteurized cheeseWhile selling raw milk in Canada is illegal, the sale of cheese made from unpasteurized milk is allowed as long as the cheese has been aged at 2 degrees C or above for at least 60 days. Studies have shown that if this procedure is followed, the added salt and acids produced by the added bacterial cultures prevent harmful listeria, salmonella and E. coli bacteria from growing. The risk that remains is very small but not zero. It is the soft and semi-soft cheeses that have a better chance of retaining problematic bacteria and this is where the issue gets more complicated because these cheeses reach their peak ripening point at 20-30 days. Quebec, contrary to the rest of Canada and most U.S. states, now allows soft cheeses like Brie and Camembert made from unpasteurized milk to be sold without the 60 day requirement, citing the European example where these cheeses have always been made from raw milk with no problem.

Still, to be on the safe side, it would be prudent to avoid raw milk cheeses during pregnancy, infancy or by people with compromised immune systems. But identification of cheeses made from unpasteurized milk is difficult since labeling is not required. Many artisan cheeses will voluntarily reveal that they are made from raw milk, hoping to capture the attention of foodies who believe that the taste is superior. Whether that is true is arguable. It is interesting that people who clamor for the labeling of any food that may somehow be linked to genetic modification are silent about asking for the labeling of raw milk cheeses.

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