Meditation and Neuroscience

 

From Obama’s BRAIN Initiative to John Oliver’s social outrage, public interest in how the physical mind contributes to behavior and personality is at a high point. With this fresh understanding of our brains comes a desire to personally manipulate our neurology to address common mental health issues like anxiety or depression, as well as a desire to enhance focus and cognitive ability. While some proposed practices are high-tech, the decidedly low-tech practice of meditation is generating a lot of buzz. In particular, a subset of the practice, called mindfulness meditation, has recently been a focus of investigation in the field of neuroscience.

Mindfulness meditation, or Vipassana, is a specific school of meditation originating from Buddhist traditions. As opposed to mantra-oriented transcendental meditation, mindfulness meditation is focused on awareness of the present moment. A major goal of the practice is to promote recognition of the mind-body connection, allowing the practitioner to recognize thoughts from a distance and preventing them from simply acting on impulse.

Brain1

livememe.com

The claims made by proponents of mindfulness meditation are extensive, but there is scientific support for many of the benefits. A meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine found that meditation can help treat mild anxiety and depression, as well as be an effective tool to manage stress. Mindfulness meditation has also been successfully used in chronic pain management. In light of the ongoing opioid abuse epidemic in the United States, alternative strategies to manage pain without the side effects of narcotic drugs may become more appealing to doctors.

However, like most trendy panaceas that come along, meditation should not be blindly embraced. This year, the British Journal of Psychiatry published a randomized controlled trial showing that patients with depression in remission who switched to mindfulness meditation from their previous medication were more likely to relapse into mental illness. Meditation may also negatively affect some individuals, rather than improving their quality of life. While meditation has been widely popularized as a mental health cure-all, it’s worth noting that, for some, it is a potentially dangerous replacement for conventional treatment.

This disconnect between the observed positive effects of mindfulness practice and the negative experiences that have been reported after intensive meditation is highlighted by how little we know about the neurological changes that occur with meditative practice. Use of the latest technology in the scientific investigation of meditation has only just begun, but there have been observable physical changes associated with mindfulness meditation, including increased thickness of the cerebral cortex, a brain region associated with attention and sensory processing,  and an enlarged hippocampus, a region involved in regulating emotional response. Meditation may also help slow the loss of gray matter in the brain that occurs naturally as we age.

Brain 2

An FMRI image of the human brain illustrates the technologies now available to study the effects of meditation.
Fair Use, Wikipedia

However, major changes in brain structure and size won’t necessarily be able to address why mindfulness meditation can help in the treatment of mental disorders and pain, or why different people may have extremely different responses to meditation. We are only just beginning to understand the finer details in neuroscience, including how neurotransmitters and neural circuitry contribute to overall brain function. As new tools and information become available, a more detailed picture is emerging of how meditation alters neurology, resulting in changes in perception and behavior. For example, meditation was recently shown to increase connectivity of specific neural networks while decreasing the connectivity of others, indicating that there is considerable nuance to the effects of meditation on the brain. Personally, I’m hoping that both public interest and research funding hold out long enough for satisfying explanations to be found.

Charlene
Charlene is a PhD student in Molecular and Human Genetics, currently studying DNA repair using yeast as a model organism. She plans on pursuing a career in science communications.
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Some Like it Raw

sick

Gizmodo.com

     West Virginia lawmakers recently loosened restrictions on the consumption of raw milk, and downed a celebratory swig of the beverage. In a turn of events virtually everyone could have predicted, the lawmakers immediately fell ill. The question whether this sickness was indeed caused by raw milk is inconsequential to my concern over the lifted ban. I view these actions as indicative of a concerning cultural shift where consumers seek out and idolize “natural” foods. I’m not concerned whether people can or should be able to make these choices. Let’s leave the debate over consumer rights versus government oversight for the moment. Instead, let’s focus on the science of pasteurization and how raw milk is the latest product at the center of this “natural” movement.

     The term natural, when used as an adjective, means existing in or caused by nature; not made or caused by humankind. By this definition, psychedelic mushrooms and panda farts are natural, while jet engines and laptops are unnatural. This is rather salient, but exemplifies that not everything natural or unnatural is intrinsically “good” or “bad” by name alone. Discernment requires thought and evaluation of evidence. Consider that raw milk is natural and the pasteurization process designed to protect consumers is unnatural. What are the risks and benefits for each choice?

     Pasteurization is named after Louis Pasteur, a 19th century scientist and proponent of the germ theory of disease: the idea that microbes can infect humans and cause illness. Raw milk may contain many dangerous bacteria, and therefore we heat the milk to kill those pricks.

pasteurization

explainthatstuff.com

     Most milk that you buy today is flash pasteurized, meaning it was heated to 72 degrees Celsius (161 degrees Fahrenheit) for 15 seconds. It’s important to note that pasteurization is not sterilization – it still leaves many commensal (associated with the cow) bacteria alive, which ultimately sour your milk after 2-3 weeks of refrigeration. Pasteurization poses no risk to consumers, who receive the benefits of not dying from the all-too-natural Listeria and Salmonella. The clear and immediate health benefits of pasteurization are why the U.S. has employed it for nearly 100 years.

     Raw milk rids us of the terrible bureaucracy of pasteurization, and gives us the straight teat-to-mouth experience, as if you were laying under the cow as its udders were massaged.

suckling

loveofrealfood.com

     Before you become skeptical of my obvious cynicism, I’d like to point out that I’ve had raw cow and goat’s milk as a child and thought it was pretty tasty. However, I will reiterate that this not about personal choice, but rather scientific principles. Raw milk makes no attempt to kill dangerous bacteria, and likewise increases the risk of foodborne illness wherever it graces the shelves.

     So why do people pine for the raw stuff? In part, it’s because they want what’s “natural”. Proponents claim that raw milk is more nutritious and healthy because pasteurization kills commensal bacteria, and inactivates beneficial proteins and enzymes. This might give you pause for thought if it were actually true. To date, there is no strong evidence to indicate that pasteurized milk is any less nutritious than raw milk. But don’t take my word, or the FDA’s. We can logically think this one through.

        While flash pasteurization undoubtedly kills many bacteria, it still leaves many commensal bacteria alive. If the milk was sterilized, meaning that all the bacteria were killed, it wouldn’t turn sour so quickly in your fridge. Instead, it would last up to 9 months! Similarly, this is how we know that all proteins and enzymes are not inactivated during pasteurization – bacteria need them to live! Furthermore, even if they were beneficial, do you really expect a lot of cow enzymes to survive your digestive system? Of course not! Your body will inactivate them itself, and process them along with all the other food you’re eating.

        If this was a post about consumer rights, I’d be with the raw milk crowd. I believe that people should be free to make as many dangerous, life-ruining choices as they can (hey there, alcohol and tobacco!). However, I break from this crowd with regards to the delusional thinking that “natural” is intrinsically better by virtue of being healthier. Raw milk is natural, and so are the bacterial infections that disproportionately affect children when they consume raw milk. Pasteurization is the appropriate unnatural response. In other words, don’t drink raw milk because you think it’s healthier; drink raw milk because you’re a rebellious libertarian who won’t let the government tell you what you can and can’t drink!

Ferrell

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AUSTEN (PRESIDENT)
austen_avatarAUSTEN IS A 5TH YEAR GRADUATE STUDENT AND PRESIDENT OF SCIENCE ACES. HIS DREAM IS TO GO FISHING EVERY DAY ONCE HE’S FINISHED WITH THIS BACTERIAL PATHOGENESIS THING. YOU CAN FOLLOW HIM ON TWITTER @AUSTENLEET.

 

The History and Ethics of Cloning

What is Cloning?

In biology, cloning is the process of producing an organism with identical genetics to an existing organism.

Why is it important?

In a scientific experiment it is critical to keep as many components exactly the same so that the observed effect can be clearly linked to the one thing that has been altered. For example, to study new cancer drugs you typically take cancer cells, grow them in a lab and treat them with a drug. If the cells die, the new cancer drug is effective. If I used different types of cancers and the drug didn’t kill all of them I might conclude that the drug was NOT an effective cancer drug. Because I didn’t keep the types of cancers the same I might miss the fact that the drug I was testing may infact be extremely effective against a specific cancer. For this reason scientists use bacteria or mice that are identical to ensure that our experimental conclusions are not obscured in differences between the the individual organisms.

Development of the Cloning Process 

1885- Artificial Embryo Twinning
Organism cloned: Sea urchin 
Primary Scientist: Hans Adolf Edward Dreisch
How they did it: Dreisch showed that by merely shaking two-celled sea urchin embryos, it was possible to separate the cells. Once separated, each cell grew into a complete sea urchin.
What they learned: The sea urchin is a simple organism regularly used to study development. This experiment showed that each cell in the early embryo has its own complete set of genes and can grow into a full organism.

1_urchin

1902- Artificial Embryo Twinning Confirmed in Vertebrates
Organism Cloned: Salamander 
Primary Scientist: Hans Spemann
How they did it: Vertebrate embryo cells stick to each other better than the sea urchin embryos. Spemann used a strand of baby hair to separate the embryo into two single cells. Each cell grew into an adult salamander. Interestingly, only salamanders split at an early stage were able to develop into adult salamanders.
What they learned: This experiment showed that embryos from a more-complex animal can also be “twinned” to form multiple identical organisms.

2_salamander

1928- The Cell Nucleus Controls Embryonic Development
Organism Cloned: Salamander 
Primary Scientist: Hans Spemann
How they did it: Spemann, again using a strand of baby hair, temporarily squeezed a fertilized salamander egg to push the nucleus to one side of the cytoplasm. The egg divided into cells—but only on the side with the nucleus. After four cell divisions, which made 16 cells, Spemann loosened the noose, letting the nucleus from one of the cells slide back into the non-dividing side of the egg. He used the noose to separate this “new” cell from the rest of the embryo. The single cell grew into a new salamander embryo, as did the remaining cells that were separated.
What they learned: Essentially the first instance of nuclear transfer, this experiment showed that the nucleus from an early embryonic cell directs the complete growth of a salamander, effectively substituting for the nucleus in a fertilized egg.

3_salamander

1952- The First Successful Nuclear Transfer
Organism Cloned: Frog 
Primary Scientists: Robert Briggs and Thomas King
How they did it: Briggs and King transferred the nucleus from an early tadpole embryo into an enucleated frog egg (a frog egg from which the nucleus had been removed). The resulting cell developed into a tadpole.
What they learned: Few tadpole clones that did survive grew abnormally when cloned with donor nuclei from more advanced embryos. Most importantly, this experiment showed that nuclear transfer was a viable cloning technique. It also reinforced two earlier observations. First, the nucleus directs cell growth and, ultimately, an organism’s development. Second, embryonic cells early in development are better for cloning than cells at later stages.

4_frog

1958- Nuclear Transfer from a Differentiated Cell
Organism Cloned: Frog 
Primary Scientist: John Gurdon
How they did it: Gurdon transplanted the nucleus of a tadpole intestinal cell into an enucleated frog egg and fertilized it. It developed into an average frog.
What they learned: Nuclei from any cell of a fully developed animal could be used for cloning.
Ethical Concerns: Could humans clone themselves?

5_frog

1975- First Mammalian Embryo Created by Nuclear Transfer
Organism Cloned:  Rabbit
Primary Scientist: J. Derek Bromhall
How they did it: Mammalian egg cells are much smaller than those of frogs or salamanders, so they are harder to manipulate. Using a glass pipette as a tiny straw, Bromhall transferred the nucleus from a rabbit embryo cell into an enucleated rabbit egg cell. He considered the procedure a success when a morula, or advanced embryo, developed after a couple of days.
What they learned: This experiment showed that mammalian embryos could be created by nuclear transfer. To show that the embryos could continue developing, Bromhall would have had to place them into a mother rabbit’s womb. He never did this experiment.
Ethical Concerns: Were scientists closer to cloning humans?
6_rabbit
1984- First Mammal Created by Nuclear Transfer
Organism Cloned:  Sheep
Primary Scientist: Steen Willadsen
How they did it: Dr. Willadsen used a chemical process to separated one cell from an 8-cell lamb embryo. Then he used a small electrical shock to fuse it to an enucleated egg cell. The embryos were implanted and normal lambs were born.
What they learned: This experiment showed that information in the nucleus of each of the 8 cells in an early mammalian embryo was capable of bringing about a whole organism.
Ethical Concerns: By this time, human in vitro fertilization techniques had been developed, and they had been used successfully to help couples have babies. If the nucleus of one cell could be transferred into an egg and the egg could develop into a normal adult human could parents now try and clone themselves? A second concern was that farmers could use this technology to clone livestock. Would the animals be healthy? Would the meat be safe? Would the animals be able to reproduce?
7_sheep1996- Nuclear Transfer from Laboratory Cells
Organism Cloned:  Sheep
Primary Scientists: Ian Wilmut and Keith Campbell
How they did it: Wilmut and Campbell transferred a nuclei from cells that had been isolated from an adult sheep then multiplied in a petri dish in the lab, into enucleated sheep egg cells. The egg was then implanted and a normal lamb developed.
What they learned: All previous cloning experiments used donor nuclei from cells in early embryos. In this experiment, Wilmut and Campbell demonstrated that nuclei from cells of an adult organisms could be used.
Ethical Concerns: By this time scientists had already learned how to alter genes in cultured cells, this experiment showed that it might be possible to use such modified cells to create transgenic animals. Should there be regulations on what scientists could alter? Again, if farmers could use this technology to clone livestock would the meat be safe?

9_sheep

1996- First Mammal Created by Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer: Dolly
Organism Cloned:  Sheep
Primary Scientists: Ian Wilmut and Keith Campbell
How they did it: They transferred the nucleus from an adult sheep’s udder cell into an enucleated egg, implanted the early embryos. From 277 cell fusions, 29 early embryos developed and were implanted into 13 surrogate mothers. But only one pregnancy went to full term. That sheep was named Dolly after Dolly Parton. Dolly exhibited early health issues and died young.
What they learned: Every cell’s nucleus contains a complete set of genetic information. However during development different genes are turned off in different cells which causes some cells to be bone cells and some to be brain cells. When an adult cell’s nucleus is used as a donor, its genetic information must be reset to an embryonic state. Often the resetting process is incomplete, and the embryos fail to develop.
Ethical Concerns: This demonstrated that adult individuals could be cloned but also demonstrated that the resulting newborn would likely face health concerns and possibly a shortened lifespan. The publicity that this experiment garnered brought the cloning controversies into the public eye and mainstream media.

10_dolly

1997- First Primate Created by Embryonic Cell Nuclear Transfer
Organism Cloned:  Rhesus Monkey
Primary Scientists: Li Meng, John Ely, Richard Stouffer, and Don Wolf
How they did it: They fused early-stage embryonic cells with enucleated monkey egg cells using a small electrical shock. The resulting embryos were then implanted into surrogate mothers. Out of 29 cloned embryos, two monkeys were born.
What they learned: This experiment showed that primates, humans’ closest relatives, can be cloned.
Ethical Concerns: Primates are good models for studying human beings.  The concern was this would lead directly to human cloning trials.

11_monkey

1997- Nuclear Transfer from Genetically Engineered Laboratory Cells
Organism Cloned:  Sheep
Primary Scientists: Angelika Schnieke, Keith Campbell, Ian Wilmut
How they did it: This experiment was an exciting combination of findings from earlier work. Campbell and Wilmut had already created a clone using the nucleus of a cultured cell. This time, the researchers introduced the human Factor IX (“factor nine”) gene into the genome of sheep skin cells grown in a laboratory dish. Factor IX codes for a protein that helps blood clot, and it’s used to treat hemophilia, a genetic disorder where blood doesn’t form proper clots.To create the transgenic sheep, the scientists performed nuclear transfer using donor DNA from the cultured transgenic cells. The result was Polly, a sheep that produced Factor IX protein in her milk.
What they learned: This experiment showed that sheep could be engineered to make therapeutic and other useful proteins in their milk, highlighting the potential medical and commercial uses for cloning.
Ethical Concerns: Would such medicine be safe?
12_tgsheep.jpg
2001- Endangered Animals cloned by Somatic Cell Transfer
Organisms Cloned:  Gaur and Mouflon 
Primary Scientists: Many
How they did it: They isolated the nucleus from an adult Gaur and Mouflon cell and transferred them to the enucleated egg cell from a domestic cattle and sheep, respectively.  What they learned: Due to their limited success they determined that this was not a feasible way to repopulate endangered animals.
Ethical Concerns: How much would it alter the species if the animals were generated using a different organism as the egg and surrogate source?

14_cowgoat

2007- Primate Embryonic Stem Cells Created by Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer
Organism Cloned:  Rhesus Monkey
Primary Scientist: Shoukhrat Mitalipov
How they did it: Mitalipov took a cell from an adult monkey and fused it with an enucleated human? Monkey? egg cell. The embryo was allowed to develop for a time, then its cells were grown in a culture dish. These cells, because they can differentiate to form any cell type, are called embryonic stem cells.
What they learned: Nuclear transfer in a primate, which researchers had tried for years without success, was possible.
Ethical Concerns: Because of the  genetic similarities between humans and the rhesus monkey, the embryonic stem cells generated by this procedure are a more accurate model to study human development while minimizing the ethical concerns that would arise from generating human embryonic stem cells

15_monkey

2013- Human Embryonic Stem Cells Created by Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer
Organism Cloned:  Human
Primary Scientist: Shoukhrat Mitalipov
How they did it: Mitalipov took a skin cell from the patient and fused it with a donated egg cell. Key to the success of the experiment were modifications to the culture liquid in which the procedure was done and to the series of electrical pulses used to stimulate the egg to begin dividing.
What they learned: Human cloning is possible. Currently scientists and physicians have proposed using this method to cultivate stem cells that could be use for treatments like wound healing. Because the cells originally came from the patient they would have the same DNA as the patient. This would eliminate the risk of rejection.
Ethical Concerns: We now know humans could be cloned. Each of those eggs has the potential to be a full human being. We learned from Dolly the Sheep that a mammalian clone brought about using DNA from a developed individual will likely have health issues and a reduced life span. There is also the issue that since these embryos originate in the lab scientists have the capabilities to alter the genes.

16_human

 

2016- British Scientists given governmental approval to genetically alter human embryos
Organism Cloned: Human
Primary Scientist: Kathy Niakan
Ethical concerns: Across the globe scientists have been hesitant to attempt human cloning. Niakan has been restricted to working with embryos up to the 250 cell stage (the first 7 days of development). She has also been restricted to using already stored embryos that are left after patients complete in vitro fertilization. This british group is not the first, in fact, in April of 2015, scientists in China became the first in the world to edit a gene that causes a blood disorder. Meanwhile the U.S. National Institutes of Health released a statement saying it would not fund gene editing technologies in human embryos. There is great hope that this type of research could shed light on human development and miscarriage. There are mixed feelings about what this research could mean if scientists are allowed to implant edited embryos and allow them to fully develop. It is possible that this research could be used to screen for and cure embryos with genetic disorders. It is also possible that this technology could be used to alter other, non disease-associated, genes. It is this possibility that is at the center of most of the current ethical debates.

 

Christina
Morra_ACEs_AvatarChristina is a Ph.D. candidate studying the interactions between gut bacteria and the human intestine. She is pursuing a career teaching undergraduates.

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Your brain on a petri dish: how cerebral organoids are changing neuroscience

As an animal researcher, part of my job is to think about the limitations and ethical practices surrounding animal models. Like most animal researchers, I use mice to approximate human diseases. A lot of times we can get pretty close, but animal models, aside from the ethical concerns they raise, can never perfectly recapitulate human disease. Neuroscience applications are perhaps the most difficult to model – after all, our brains are what make us human. It’s very hard to create suitable animal models for depression or anxiety, and those are some of the easier mental disorders to study. Forget about being able to adequately study poorly understood disorders like autism or schizophrenia.

That’s why cerebral organoids – brains in a petri dish, for the uninitiated – are so exciting. The organoids, which consist of several layers of human neurons organized into roughly spherical shapes, were first developed by Drs. Madeline Lancaster and Jurgen Knoblich in 2013. These are not true brains – to my knowledge no one has yet attempted such a Frankensteinian endeavor – but tiny orbs of tissue that start out as humble stem cells and self-organize into something remarkably akin to human brain structures.

nature12517-f1

A stained section of a cerebral organoid. Stains for neural progenitors and neurons show defined regions that mimic those in developing human brains. Photo credit: Madeline Lancaster, Nature 2013.

Since their inception, cerebral organoids have already helped researchers make strides in our understanding of brain development. A scientist by the name of Flora Vaccarino used these cerebral organoids to study the developmental differences between a small cohort of autistic males and their neurotypical family members. The study found that organoids derived from autistic subjects displayed faster growth of inhibitory neurons* than the family member controls did. This finding is consistent with previous studies that identify abnormal levels of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA* in autistic subjects, as well as the increased head and brain size often characteristic of autism. (*For a quick neuroscience primer, scroll to the end of the article!)

Ultimately, Vaccarino’s group discovered that overexpression of a gene called FOXG1 was largely responsible for the difference. Although further studies will be needed to apply these results broadly, the study was important not only for what it discovered but for how the discovery was made – these miniature brains are powerful tools for studying brain development. They provide a living, growing system that can be readily manipulated to solve pressing problems. Just last week it was reported that Zika virus dramatically slows neural growth in cerebral organoids, supporting the hypothesis that Zika causes microcephaly in developing babies.

Human-Mini-Brains

Those floating chunks are cerebral organoids, tiny models of developing human brains. Researchers use a spinning bioreactor to keep the organoids alive.

These tiny brains in petri dishes hold a lot of promise for society. They could help us answer a lot of big questions: who we are, what makes us human, why some people’s brains work differently from others’. Although it’s a relatively new technology, researchers are beginning to use cerebral organoids to study autism, Alzheimer’s, Down syndrome, schizophrenia, and a range of other disorders. My personal hope is that the insights from this research will lead to better ways of communicating with and helping people who think differently and sometimes have trouble fitting into “neurotypical” society. My other personal hope is that organoids (cerebral and otherwise) will help us move away from animal research by providing a more accurate model to work with. The National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement, and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) agrees, awarding a 3Rs prize to Dr. Lancaster for her development of cerebral organoids.

Thanks for reading! Please ask questions, tell me about your own research and experiences, and deliver any snide remarks in the comments section below.

______________________

*In case you’re not up to date on your neuroscience, a handy primer:

  • The brain is composed of neurons, which communicate with each other via electrical signals.
  • Molecules called neurotransmitters help regulate whether or not neurons produce an electrical signal.
  • Inhibitory neurotransmitters, like GABA, make an electrical signal less likely. The neurons that produce and excrete GABA are called inhibitory neurons.
  • Excitatory neurotransmitters make an electrical signal more likely. The neurons that produce and excrete excitatory neurotransmitters are called excitatory neurons.

Excitation and inhibition in the brain are equally important, and everyone has both excitatory and inhibitory neurons. Your excitatory neurons are important because they relay information. For instance, if someone calls your name, your excitatory neurons respond to that stimulus and tell you you’re being called. The inhibitory neurons are there to make sure your brain stops responding to that stimulus, saving you from endlessly hearing your name being called.

That’s a very simple example, and excitatory and inhibitory neurons have myriad and complex functions, which is why we can’t reduce Dr. Vaccarino’s findings to mere “brain chemistry” (after all, the brain is not a stew). It’s unclear why autistic brains appear to have excess inhibitory neurons or what this implies. This doesn’t even mean that autistic brains are “less excited” – high GABA levels can also be a means of balancing out high levels of excitatory signals. This finding is one of many pieces to the puzzle that we will put together as we strive to understand autism.

For a more in-depth lesson on neural signaling, head over to this Wikiversity lesson. Also check out the other lessons in the course if you have a general interest in neuroscience. 

 

Jessica (Editor)
10891702_10152475816767115_155735200795992761_nJess is a fourth year biology PhD student who studies the liver and its regenerative capabilities. In her admittedly limited free time, she enjoys traveling, writing, and being outdoors.

How to be a good scientist, as demonstrated by the Mythbusters

Many people think that scientific research happens exclusively in expensive labs with complicated equipment. There’s a perception that the average person can’t do or understand the research or its findings. The truth is, it doesn’t take years of school or a fancy degree to do science. One of the best examples of how to be a good scientist comes from people who aren’t technically scientists: Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage, AKA, the Mythbusters.

The core of science is that ideas are tested by controlled experiments, then the results of those experiments are used to form new ideas. Anyone can do this.The Mythbusters have made a successful TV show by applying this principle (and blowing stuff up). In addition to using the scientific method, here are some qualities that the Mythbusters and scientists share:

  1. Use new information to form more educated opinions. The Mythbusters take common myths and ask if they are true. Scientists begin with previously published information and observations and ask a question to expand on that foundation. While they have a hypothesis, no one truly knows what will happen until someone performs the experiment. What the Mythbusters do so well is that they evaluate the findings of their experiment; and if they contradict the Mythbusters’ original hypothesis, they change their minds.

A great example of this in the history of science was in 1801, Jean Baptiste Lamarck published his Theory of Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics, suggesting that animals (and other organisms) adapt to their environment. The animals that adapt the best can then pass along the traits they acquired to their offspring. This theory was widely accepted for 60 years until Charles Darwin published his Theory of Natural Selection, which states that animals who happen to be best suited for their environment survive long enough to pass along their traits. Since there is more evidence for Darwin’s theory, the scientific community has accepted Natural Selection.

  1. Consult experts. With nearly every myth, the Mythbusters consult with an expert in the field to find out more about the facts surrounding the myth. The expert will often make suggestions on how to design an experiment to prove or disprove the myth. With all of the information available today, it’s impossible for one scientist to be an expert in everything. In 2013 alone, there were over 800,000 scientific papers published in PubMed, the database for biomedical research articles. One thing common to almost all of these papers is that multiple scientists contribute to them. The first author, the scientist primarily responsible for the work in the article, consults experts to help them with their studies. Those experts will often be included as additional authors for the article. Just like the Mythbusters and scientists, the everyday person cannot know everything. We all should have experts in our life that we are able to take advice from and reevaluate our opinions based on the facts they present.  
  1. Listen to criticism. The final step in the scientific method is to communicate our findings. Scientists publish papers, present at conferences, and discuss their findings in press releases and with the media. The mythbusters provide a concise summary of their findings in a TV show aired to nearly 2 million viewers. The communication is critical, in part because it allows for criticism of the work. No one can perfectly consider every angle of a question. The Mythbusters  devote entire episodes where they take criticism from fans and revisit old myths to address those criticisms. When scientists make discoveries and publish their findings, their papers have to go through a peer review process, during which other scientists evaluate the methods and results and offer criticism. The scientist who wrote the paper then has to address  those criticisms before their study is published. Similarly, when scientists apply for research grants, a study panel evaluates the grant proposal and gives criticism on the proposal whether or not the grant was funded. These peer review processes are in place to make science better by making scientists accountable for their ideas in a way that allows them to improve on their research.

In 14 years on the air, the Mythbusters have tested 1,015 myths. Of those myths, 548 were busted, 216 were plausible, and 251 confirmed. They have truly illustrated the art of science and added so much to how we view the world. I tip my lab goggles to these wonderful scientists.

 
Check out the Mythbusters series finale tonight on the Discovery channel.


Ben 
benBen is a fifth year PhD student in Virology and Microbiology. He plans on pursuing a career in Public Health after finishing his degree.

Biotechie’s Bucket Biology on the Cheap: Tye-Dye Races!

Introduction: This is a fun and simple investigation into solubility and polarity that can be done at home or in a classroom.  We’ve also included two explanations for how this works (for younger and older students) and modifications for more advanced students to use the scientific method.

Materials:

  • Rectangular kitchen container (like Tupperware)
  • 2% Milk
  • Food Coloring (water-based, not gel-based)
  • Soap
  • Eye droppers or Q-tips

Procedure:

  1. Pour a thin layer of milk in a rectangular container.
  2. Add a few drops of food coloring about 2 inches from the container’s edge.
  3. Pick up soap with the eye-dropper.
  4. Add a drop of soap  in the milk about 2 cm behind the food coloring, and watch the food coloring move away from the soap.

Why does this work?

Milk contains fat and water.  The food coloring is mostly made of water.  Because fat and water are very different from each other, they don’t mix well; therefore, the food coloring will not move through the milk by itself.  Soap is a special type of chemical (called amphipathic) that can mix with both fat and water.  When the soap is added to the milk, the soap surrounds the fat and hides it from the water and the food coloring.  Then, the food coloring easily mixes with the water.

For more advanced students, the concepts of hydrophobic and hydrophilic molecules can be introduced.  The fat in milk is hydrophobic (water fearing) and the water is hydrophilic (water loving).  Generally, hydrophobic and hydrophilic molecules do not mix well, but the milk contains other molecules (sugars and proteins) that allow the milk fat to mix with the water. This is an emulsion.  Soap is amphipathic; it has both a hydrophobic part and a hydrophilic part.  The hydrophobic part of the soap will mix with the milk fat, and the hydrophilic part of the soap will mix with water.  In effect, the soap surrounds and hides the milk fat from the watery parts of the milk.  With the fat surrounded by soap, the food coloring, which is also hydrophilic, is able to mix with the milk.

This activity can be modified to test different questions. Have students build hypotheses based on the questions you ask them For example:

  1. Will the type of milk affects the results?
    1. Whole milk has more fat than 2% milk and would require more soap to mix the food coloring with the milk.
    2. Fat-free or skim milk has little fat and would easily mix with the food coloring.
  2. Will different soaps, detergents, or cleaners do a better job at mixing the milk and food coloring?
    1. Dawn dish soap works well, but other soaps may work better or worse depending on what ingredients they include.
  3. Can other liquids besides soaps help the food coloring mix with the milk?
    1. Oil is hydrophobic and would probably make it more difficult to mix the food coloring and the milk.
    2. Lemon juice is acidic and might cause the milk fat to curdle. 

 

ScienceAces1Biotechie (Social Media Manager): Biotechie is the Science ACEs social   media manager (@scienceaces and facebook.com/scienceaces). She is a      rising  3rd year PhD student researching cell function,cholesterol and obesity. You can follow her personal twitter @biotech_babe.

American Science is in Trouble and Millennials Can Save it, but Will They?

Millennial, a distinction I proudly claim for myself, generally refers to a person born between 1980 and 2000.  This polarizing generation has received their fair share of hate from multiple sources. However, we are young and starting to take over the bulk of the U.S workforce. Thus, whether or not you like us, the immediate future of the country is in our hands.

Luckily, this may be exactly what science needs: new ideas and a fresh perspective. Decades of poor communication between the scientific community and the public has led to distrust and frustration for both parties (for more on these topics check out Unscientific America). The figure to the left, adapted from data from a Pew Research Center studyshows an alarming difference in opinion between the public and scientists on important domestic issues. For example, 35% of U.S. adults remain unconvinced of evolution despite a near 100% consensus among scientists. Furthermore, only half of U.S adults agree withscientists on the cause of climate change, one of the world’s greatest threats.image_blog_!

But, how can millennials change this information gap? Well, despite the adversity, scientists in all fields have stayed busy churning out meaningful and useful data that have led to staggering advancements in medicine, technology, and our understanding of everything around us. Thus, millennials  have grown up in a time  of rapidly expanding scientific discovery, which might explain our heavy use of technology. A 2010 Pew Research Center study concluded that, not only do millennials use newer technologies more than other generations, but millennials consider “technology use” a defining characteristic more than any other generation.

Importantly, millennial’s positive attitudes towards science are not entirely defined by iPhone usage. In fact, millennials #@!%ing love science. Promoted as “the lighter side of science”, I Fucking Love Science (IFLScience) is an internet sensation that shares amusing science facts, news, and discoveries, and social media users flock to it! The IFLScience Facebook page and Twitter account has 21 million likes and 165 thousand followers, respectively, and the franchise has since spawned its own website. Elise Andrew, the founder of IFLScience and a millennial herself, described the simple recipe for her success in an interview with Mashable. “I’m just a curator. I’m just telling people things I think are cool,” Andrew explains. This is not the only example of millennials thinking science things are cool. After all, we are the generation that grew up watching Bill Nye the Science Guy and have since moved on toThe Big Bang Theory.

While it’s clear millennials are more partial to science, it’s not certain whether they will actually save it. Why does science need saving? One of biggest issues scientists face today is the quickly diminishing pool of research funding. This is especially true for young scientists starting their careers. It’s no secret that the country is facing economic struggles with a rising debt-to-GDP ratio, but few realize the direct effect this has on research science. Currently, greater than 80% of project grants do not receive funding from the federal government. Lack of funding limits job opportunities and stunts the advancement of science. Thus, federal support is vital for the scientific discoveries that Americans depend on to improve our lives.

image_blog_2Unfortunately, political involvement is a severe deficiency among millennials. Voter turnout is significantly lower compared to other generations and millennials are generally uninterested in politics. This is a problem! Millennial’s beliefs and priorities are clearly different from older generations, but by remaining silent at the polls, millennials allow others to decide who runs the country, and become complicit partners in the downfall of American science.

Can millennials save science in the U.S.? Absolutely! We have the enthusiasm and sheer numbers to make a difference. Will millennials save science? That remains to be seen. The interest level is there, but the country needs active political participation to make significant changes to ensure the preservation and advancement of science. I’ll end with a quote from the always poignant Dr. Seuss. “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

Anthony Barrasso
AnthonyBarrasso_AvatarAnthony is a 3rd year graduate student studying retinal development. His career interests include cancer research, education and politics. Outside of lab, he likes playing with dog and eating delicious food. Follow him on twitter @barrasso67.