The Science of Pokémon Go

Pokémon Go has taken the world by storm! Within days of its release, it surpassed the dating app Tinder and even Twitter with number of users per day. People are getting out, exploring their neighborhoods, exercising, and meeting others. Groups like ASAP Science are urging you to look at the “real life Pokémon” (aka, wildlife) as you’re running around. In general, we’re all having a ton of fun reliving our days as young Pokémon Trainers, when we were squinting at our gameboy screens in low light.
Whilst playing Pokémon Go, Brad (from Science of Star Wars) came up with some more questions about science that stemmed from his experiences with the Pokémon universe. Kelsey sat down (and did a little research) to try to answer them.

1. Pokéballs convert living matter into energy, then into data, which can be stored and retrieved from a computer. Are there experiments going on in matter-to-energy conversion? Or vice versa? How possible is it?

If you think about it, we convert living matter into energy every time we eat fruits or veggies, but I don’t think this was quite the direction you were thinking of with this question. I don’t know of any research aimed at building a Willy Wonka style way to break living matter down to data, though I would definitely invest in some Pokéballs if someone can figure out how to make them work!

lab rat

Just a lab rat getting ready to do some experiments!

However, going the opposite direction, our DNA stores an immense amount of data, everything that makes us, us. You can think of DNA as the encrypted code that is transcribed into RNA so that it can be read and translated into protein. This DNA code is used to power our cells and store our genetic information on to our offspring. It isn’t as fast as a Pokéball, but nature’s had this DNA Data Storage thing all figured out for a while. Researchers have just recently figured out how to store non-genomic data on what they call a DNA Drive.  So far, scientists have successfully stored pictures, entire books, and even an OK Go Music Video in DNA! Scientists predict that data stored on DNA drives stabilized in glass could still be accessible after thousands to millions of years.

2. What kind of digital storage size are we looking at to store the data of a living being?

In a single cell, assuming that each DNA base is two bits (thus four bases are eight bits), one person determined the total about of DNA data in one cell is about 1.5 GB. The average human body has about 37.2 trillion human cells, so this puts the final amount of data in a human body at about 55.8 trillion GB! All of your cells, with the exception of sperm and eggs, have the same DNA composition. DNA from a single cell can be used to pass this data on. This is how we got Dolly the Sheep, essentially our first cut-and-paste clone.

3. Bulbasaur: the best starter. “It bears the seed of a plant on its back from birth. The seed slowly develops. Researchers are unsure whether to classify Bulbasaur as a plant or animal.”–The Pokédex. Do we have any animals like this in our world?

I have things to say about Bulbasaur being “the best starter” (because Charmander), but


Biotechie searching for Pokemon around school

that’s not going to help this discussion. In my opinion, the seed/plant on the its back has a mutualistic symbiotic relationship with bulbasaur and is completely independent from it. This means that the plant confers some benefit to the Bulbasaur, and the Bulbasaur helps the plant out, too. I would assume Bulbasaur itself is probably some sort of lizard or amphibian, so a plant that could help it absorb water would obviously be beneficial. Symbiotic relationships are everywhere, also including relationships where one participant is harmed (parasitic) and those where only one participant benefits, but the other is not harmed (commensal). An example in nature that reminds me of Bulbasaur are algae that live INSIDE the cells of the spotted salamander. During embryonic development, the algae provide oxygen to the embryos, and the egg is a safe, high-nitrogen environment that helps the algae to grow. Without the algae, the salamander embryos become deformed. Scientists aren’t positive how this symbiotic relationship works in the adult, yet, but they think the algae help the salamander take up nutrients.


Your own body has such relationships, too. Without the bacteria in your gut, there are many foods you would be unable to process and vitamins that would not be modified into the right forms for you to absorb. We can also have parasites like head lice or tapeworms. One well-known mutualistic symbiotic relationship in nature is the clownfish and the sea anemone. The clownfish is given shelter, while the anemone gets nutrients from the clownfish feces. Root nodules found on many plants, such as soybeans, are often filled with symbiotic fungi that help put nitrogen into a form the plant can use.

4. I know that Evolution works differently in the Pokémon world. And by differently, I mean completely wrong. Anything science would like to say about Pokémon evolution?

Pokémon is really great at getting kids interested in how changes occur, but true evolution takes thousands of years to occur for organisms like us. Evolution also occurs through the development of small changes over time that confer a benefit to the organism. You do not see sudden, complete changes with evolution. To equate what Pokémon do to what we see in nature, most Pokémon seem to undergo metamorphosis rather than evolution. Butterflies are one example of this. They begin life as a caterpillar, and later encase themselves into a chrysalis where their entire form “melts” and reorganizes into a butterfly. For those counting, that is THREE metamorphoses, similar to the in-game evolution in Pokémon from Caterpie to Metapod to Butterfree.

5. Has there been any research done into the seemingly universal, compulsory human desire to “catch ’em all,” whether that be Pokémon or baseball cards or Beanie Babies? Why do I need to have a complete set of something?

There are lots of different ways to think about this. Some psychologists say that we collect things because we learn early on to take comfort from material things. I think that collecting things may be a remnant of a hard-wired need to survive. In caveman days, we would have needed to collect as many resources as possible at all times in order to survive. Food and shelter could be scarce. Nowadays, those of us in the developed world no longer need to hunt. However, our minds still need to work on something, so instead of collecting food to keep us alive, we’re chasing digital Pokémon all over the city!

6. Pokémon Go is bringing people together in unique ways, both online and in person, connecting complete strangers through their common love of Pokémon. What differences are there between our social interactions in person vs those online. What’s different in our brains if I’m talking to a friend on Facebook about Pokémon Go vs. if I’m swapping curveball strategies with a stranger I met on the street?

Actual social interactions are always going to be better for us than digital ones. As social animals, we respond really well to facial expressions and touching, things you cannot get digitally. If someone is discussing where to find a Meowth with you and wrinkles their nose at the locale you want to search in, you’re going to understand much more quickly that they really don’t want to go than you would via text message. By the same token, a touch on your arm will help you pay attention and will help you feel more comfortable. These types of interactions give extra feedback, largely inaccessible through digital media, to a conversation. This is probably why text or IM conversations are often emotionally misinterpreted. People playing Pokémon Go are claiming that they feel happier and less anxious. Whether this is solely due to the mental benefits of getting out and exercising or in addition to the social benefits of playing Pokémon Go with others is yet to be determined. Regardless, we think it is pretty awesome!

7. How much Pokémon Go do I have to play to get my daily exercise? *note, I’m never gonna do any non-Pokémon related exercise*

You realize you’re talking to someone who does research related to obesity, right? The Mayo Clinic recommends at least 30 minutes of solid physical activity per day. For most people, this is the equivalent of walking briskly for 1.5 miles or so without stopping. In reality, you should be walking a  much larger total distance in a day while you’re at work or school. I average about 6-8 miles per day including a short runl. Apps like the FitBit tell you to aim for 10,000 steps per day, which equates to about 4-5 miles for an average-height person. About 4 miles per day is a good starting goal, be that while catching Pokémon or going for a (still enjoyable) non-Pokémon excursion. The most important part about getting exercise is that you also include some aerobic exercise to help keep your heart healthy. I have been chasing down Pokémon while I train for a 5K. I run my intervals app in the background, and I cover much more ground more quickly, finding more Pokémon and Pokéstops! I highly recommend it!





Cool Stuff Last Week: New Planets, Global Warming, and Blind Mice

A planet with three suns

Astronomers have found a planet with more suns than Tatooine – three, to be exact. The planet is a gas giant, like Jupiter, and it takes about 550 Earth years to orbit the largest of the three suns. The other two suns whirl around each other as they, too, circle the largest sun. You can see a video portrayal of the peculiar orbit here. The system is notable partly because the presence of multiple stars within a solar system can destabilize any orbiting planets, making such a system relatively unlikely to be spotted. Scientists aren’t quite sure how the planet came to have three suns, or even what might happen next – chances are the system won’t last long (in astronomical terms).

Global warming is changing how clouds span the Earth

Climate change affects our whole planet, from the ice caps to the tropics. Not even clouds escape unscathed. Now, in a paper published in Nature, scientists have shown definitively that cloud distribution across the Earth has shifted over the last 30 years.

Clouds can have two opposite effects on global temperatures. Dense clouds reflect solar radiation back toward space, but they can also trap thermal heat, which is why cloudy nights are often warmer than clear ones. In addition to affecting temperatures, clouds also respond to changes caused by global warming. The methods we use to track the weather are constantly improving, meaning that the satellites measuring cloud cover and the way we interpret those measurements have changed every few years since the 1980s. For scientists studying long-term changes, this means that the data can be tricky to interpret.

Using several sets of satellite records and a meticulous method for correcting errors in these methods, scientists have now been able to show that clouds are moving toward the poles, and also that they are getting taller on average. They concluded that these changes are both manmade and natural in origin. Part of the reason for the change is the heating of the trophospere – the layer of atmosphere closest to the earth – due to an increase in greenhouse gases. The other reason for the change is due to cooling of the stratosphere – the layer of atmosphere just above the trophosphere – after two volcanoes erupted in 1982 and 1991.

Although predictive models about cloud patterns disagree on many things, the majority agree with these findings. As clouds move away from tropical regions toward the poles, they are less able to reflect radiation away from the earth. Additionally, the taller and thicker the clouds get, the better they are at trapping heat within the earth. Both of these things result in higher overall overall temperatures. The scientists who conducted the study predict that the trend will continue, mainly spurred on by increasing greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.

The three blind mice can see again!

Well, sort of. In a landmark study published in Nature Neuroscience, scientists were able to partially restore vision to a group of blind mice. The mice have a condition similar to glaucoma, which is one of the leading causes of blindness in humans. These mice (and humans with glaucoma) have damage to their retinal ganglion cells (RGCs), which relay visual information to the brain. Unlike many other cell types, such as skin cells or blood cells, RGCs do not typically repair themselves if they are damaged. Any damage to RGCs, as in glaucoma, usually results in permanent vision damage.

RGCs do not normally grow back if they’re damaged, but if there were some way to make them grow back, perhaps there would be a way to restore vision to the blind. In this study, researchers used two methods to try to get RGCs to regrow. One way was to activate something known as the mTOR pathway. The mTOR pathway is a series of genes and proteins that are very important in physical development. As the visual system develops in embryos and very young children, this pathway is very active. In adulthood, the pathway is turned off. The researchers thought that turning this pathway back on might help RGCs be able to regrow, and indeed, this treatment did cause damaged RGCs to grow back to a short extent.

The second method the researchers used was to expose the mice with damaged vision to high-contrast images each day. The reasoning here is that, while the system for relaying messages to the brain is broken, the system for receiving messages from the outside world is still working just fine. These mice, too, experienced some degree of RGC regrowth.

The real success was had by combining the two treatments. Using both mTOR activation and high-contrast images allowed RGCs to grow substantially and reconnect with the brain. Even the greatest success in science is met with challenges, however. Though the mice were able to regrow the damaged cells, they did not perform well on detailed vision tests. In humans, this might translate to a formerly blind glaucoma patient being able to walk around an unfamiliar room without bumping into anything, but it wouldn’t allow them to read or drive. The technology is not ready to be tested on humans, but the team is working in the meantime to get even greater improvements to vision in their mice.

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.

The supplement industry celebrates its independence from science


We spend the 4th of July exercising and celebrating our inalienable rights: Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. In the latter, many of us reach for a supplement – a vitamin, a weight loss pill, an herb – something to help author our healthy lifestyles. Mass builders claim to Improve Muscle Stamina & Strength*,  and herbal teas Support Natural Resistance*. These sound like amazing products, but there’s a little declaration of independence in that asterisk.

* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Like a lazy John Hancock, the supplement industry declares its independence from regulation, and effectively, science.

 A dietary supplement is any ingested product intended to add nutritional value for the consumer, and can include vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids, or metabolites. Roughly 50% of Americans consume them every year, contributing to a 20 billion dollar per year industry. Yes, supplements are as American as baseball and apple pie. And like apple pie, supplements are considered food under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, or DSHEA. This legislation essentially removed FDA oversight on efficacy and content. What does this mean? Well, while a “drug” must be both safe and effective, a “supplement” only has to be safe, and the lax regulations mean that companies basically police themselves.

That law may seem innocuous enough, but it carves out a lucrative niche where supplements can be marketed like drugs without having to stand up to scientific inquiry. This practice is exemplified in the so-called structure/function claims that relate a product to a function of the body. Supplement labels are littered with such claims: fish oil for healthy skin, Echinacea for immune defense, creatine to boost metabolism and burn fat. The veracity of these statements are inconsequential as long as they’re qualified with that asterisk above. In the end, we’re watching a follow-the-ball trick where marketing and sales revolve around effectiveness – the one thing that the industry isn’t required to show!

        This sleight of hand is by design as the effectiveness of many supplements is uncertain except in cases of nutrient deficiencies. The problem for the industry is that as long as you’re eating a variety of foods, nutrient deficiencies are rare, rendering supplements mostly useless. What if you want to use a supplement for something other than a deficiency? You’re going to have to put in a lot of time. This infographic is a good starting point. Here, data analysts ranked popular supplements by evidence of their effectiveness, and included links to the corresponding studies. This is by no means a scientific analysis, as any expert might rank the evidence for each supplement differently. There’s also a wealth of accurate information from the NIH. Be careful; it’s easy to get caught up in the hype! Overselling the effectiveness of weight loss supplements is exactly what led to Dr. Oz testifying in front of a congressional hearing.



Let’s say now that you’ve done your work. You found a supplement that you feel reasonably delivers on its promise. Time to go to your store and reap the benefits, right? Not exactly. Remember how I mentioned that supplement companies are left to police themselves? Take a look at what one Canadian study found amongst North American herbal supplements.


In other words, what you’re purchasing is likely to contain foreign additives or none of the desired product at all! Compounding this revelation are the numerous food allergies that could cause fatal reactions to mislabeled supplements. Even multivitamins can be suspect, as a ConsumerLab report indicated that up to a third of them are mislabeled. While we do not know how widespread this deception is, the lack of industry oversight means that consumers have virtually no way of finding out.

All of this obfuscation undermines the few instances where we can really benefit from supplements. In special cases of pregnancy, age, and absorption deficiencies, a simple multivitamin can help you lead a healthier life. Unfortunately, we’re forced to deal with an industry that owes the consumer very little in terms of transparency, efficacy, and safety. It is a cautionary tale of independence from regulation. I propose that as we continue to take supplements in the pursuit of happiness, let’s fight for the inalienable principles of science: controlled study, objectivity, and reproducibility.

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.

Biotechie’s Bucket Biology on the Cheap: Fireworks in a Beaker

July 4th was Independence Day here in the United States, a day full of celebration and fireworks. Why not have fireworks year-round and without the chance of getting burnt?  Today we’re making fireworks in a beaker (or whatever clear vessel you have)!

Materials Needed:

Small bowl

Tall, clear beaker or glass filled 2/3 full with warm water

Water-soluble food coloring drops

Vegetable Oil

Toothpicks or other stirring utensil


  1.     Fill the bowl with 2-3 cm of oil. In the pictures, we show a beaker, but a bowl works much better. We noticed the smaller surface area of the beaker made steps 2 and 3 much harder, and the results were not as pretty!
  2.     Drop food coloring onto the oil, being careful not to let the drops mix or clump together. We recommend using liquid food coloring in a dropper. If you are using gel food coloring, it is very important to dilute it 1:10 in water before adding it to the bowl.
  3.     Using a toothpick or fork, stir the oil/food coloring briefly. This is very important as it makes the drops smaller and makes sure that the dye is completely surrounded by oil, not quite forming an emulsion.

    Kelsey is stirring the food dye droplets in the oil to distribute them and break them into smaller droplets.

    Kelsey is stirring the food dye droplets in the oil to distribute them and break them into smaller droplets.

  4.     Gently pour the oil into the beaker of warm water.
    1 Oil Pouring

    Pour the oil+food coloring droplets over the top of the water. You can see the small droplets distributed in the oil. These droplets slowly sink, breaking into the water.


  5.     Watch and enjoy your “fireworks!”
2 Small Dye Droplets

The smaller droplets slowly sink, eventually “popping” into the water. The dye spreads out as the two substances mix together.

3 Large Dye Droplets

Larger dye droplets make a larger “firework.” However, they make the water turn colors more quickly, making the other droplets less obvious.

How does this work?

The oil is a non-polar, hydrophobic (water-hating) substance. The food dye is polar and hydrophobic (water-loving). When you drip it into the oil, it doesn’t truly mix, even when you stir it with the toothpick.

Remember, like mixes with like, or polar substances mix with polar substances. Since oil is nonpolar, it does not mix with the polar water. Once you pour the oil mixture into the water, the oil/food coloring emulsion floats to the top because oil is less dense than water, and will not mix. However, the dye, which is in aqueous (water-based) solution, will slowly sink through the oil as it is more dense. When the dye reaches the bottom, it will eventually break the surface tension, escaping from the oil. When this happens, the dye will disperse throughout the water, traveling outward to areas where dye is less concentrated to try to equalize the concentrations in the water.

Isn’t science beautiful?IMG_8619

Here are some modifications you can make to build hypothesis-driven experiments:

  1.     Try the experiment with varying water temperatures., Ffor example, try ice water (with the ice removed), room temperature water, orand hot water. Does the temperature of the water change the fireworks effect? Why do you think this is?
  2.     Add one part dish soap for every two parts of oil you use in this experiment. Try mixing the soap into the water, into the oil, or into both the oil and water. What happens? What properties does soap have that allows this to happen? (Hint: Look back to the Science ACEs Dye Races Lab!)
  3.     Mix the food coloring into things other than oil, then pour over warm water as you did in this experiment. Interesting things to try: Soap (not diluted), whole milk, or corn syrup. What happened?
  4.     Make the students build their own lab by asking them to find things they think are polar, nonpolar, high density, or low density.

What would you like to learn next, Science ACEs?

biotechieBiotechie is a third-year graduate student studying 
metabolism and cell biology. She is also the social 
media manager for Twitter @ScienceACEs and Her career goals include academic 
research as well as science education and advocacy. 
When she is not in the lab, she can be found reading, 
exploring the city, or baking awesome snacks for her fellow Science ACEs. 
Follow Biotechie on twitter @biotech_babe.