Mythbusters: The Explosive Exhibition Review

By: Biotechie

Last weekend, I got to explore Mythbusters: The Explosive Exhibition at Johnson Space Center here in Houston. This exhibition is touring the US, and will be here in Houston through September 5. As an avid Mythbuster’s fan since the show’s beginning, naturally I was itching to go visit.

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Mythbusters: The Explosive Exhibition is a collection of props from the show, alongside  interactive experiments and demonstrations that allow you to step into the Mythbusters’ shoes. Initially, I was worried that the science behind some of the phenomena that were explored on the show would be left behind for only the fun explosives that Jamie, Adam, and the other Mythbusters love. I also feared that this would be a museum exhibit rather than something truly interactive.

I was definitely proven wrong! Sure, there was a large museum-like component to the exhibit, but for a Mythbuster’s fan like myself, seeing copies of the blueprints and exploded items from the show were really cool. The biggest winner for me, though, was that the exhibit was designed such that participants are invited to test mini-myths on their own. As you approach the table to look at the blueprints, Jam
ie and Adam are projected on a large TV, telling you about the scientific method and, rather than telling you, “Don’t try this at home,” they invite you to do some Mythbusting of your own.

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Dan, a Citizen Scientist member of ACEs (and Biotechie’s fiance), flips through a collection of blueprints

You can test the myth of whether walking or running in the rain makes you get less wet, or what types of house designs you need to prevent it from blowing away in a storm (see Dan’s house design below). The myths they have chosen for the exhibit are really ways to get you to build hypotheses and ask questions, then immediately put your hypotheses to the test to get a result. Even young kids who have not seen a single show can learn a lot from this interactive exhibit. Most of the stations are fairly simple to grasp and can be repeated over and over again to re-test your hypotheses. When we visited the exhibition, there were several kids under the age of ten actively testing the wind tunnel and a tablecloth station. You know they’re having fun learning when you hear one of them say, “Listen to my hypothesis! I want to test it!” Let’s hope that Netflix brings Mythbusters back to streaming as I have a feeling several of these kids are now Mythbusters fans as well.

The final verdict? I think Mythbusters: The Explosive Exhibition is a great family or school-related excursion. The fact that the exhibition invites you to have some hands-on experience with thmb3e scientific method makes this a win in my book. This is one way to do some citizen science without making a huge mess at home. It could easily be incorporated into a science curriculum for students learning about the scientific method. I highly recommend it, and not just because I’m a Mythbusters lover. Going through the exhibition can help kids and adults alike reignite their interest in science. In addition, at least while this exhibit is here in Houston, you are also exploring Johnson Space Center, where you can learn all about NASA, the Space Program, and the cool science and engineering that go into every mission.

 

ScienceAces1Biotechie is the Science ACEs social media manger (@scienceaces and facebook.com/scienceaces). She is a 4th year PhD student researching cell function, cholesterol, and obesity. You can follow her personal twitter @biotech_babe.

Zika and the Olympics

The Opening Ceremony of the 2016 Summer Olympics will be held today in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Unfortunately, Brazil is currently in the midst of a Zika virus outbreak and the “Zika infection is more dangerous, and Brazil’s outbreak more extensive” than originally thought.1

Although the Zika virus was discovered nearly seventy years ago, the viral strain that recently entered Brazil is new, different, and vastly more dangerous than “old” Zika.2 Lineage tracing and molecular analyses have determined that Brazil’s massive outbreak stems from a single viral introduction likely between May and December 2013.2

The Virus:

Zika is an arbovirus of the Flaviviridae family, which means it is similar to dengue, West Nile and yellow fever viruses.3 As a virus it cannot function outside of a living cell. While there is limited evidence that Zika can infect monkeys and apes, currently, all evidence suggests that the virus is passed from human to human via the Aedes aegypti mosquito. The map above shows where these mosquitos are found which also represents where Zika virus could spread.4

The Disease:

Zika infection is most notorious for the pediatric microcephaly (small head) it causes during fetal development.5 In Rio de Janeiro, a recent study shows that among women with confirmed Zika infections during pregnancy, 29% had fetal abnormalities on ultrasound.6 There’s increasing clinical evidence that Zika infection is also responsible for adult conditions such as Guillain-Barré syndrome7 and acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (brain swelling), which are debilitating and sometimes fatal.8

Zika and the Olympics:

Rio de Janeiro’s suspected Zika cases are the highest of any state in in Brazil (26,000), and its Zika incidence rate is the fourth worst of any state (157 per 100,000).9

An estimated 500,000 foreign tourists are expected to flock into Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the Games, both from the 207 countries participating and others that are not. When these individuals return to their homes both local Aedes mosquitoes and sexual transmission could establish new outbreaks, if the visitors carry the virus with them.10, 11

In addition to that there are concerns for the safety of the athletes participating in the Games. Out of fear of contracting Zika, many of the top ranked male golfers have withdrawn from the Olympic entirely.12 Australia has provided its athletes with antiviral condoms.13 The American National Institutes of Health has recruited athletes into a study looking at the rates and effects of exposure.14

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) writes that the Olympics seek to create “social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles”.  People have questioned if it is socially responsible or ethical to risk spreading Zika? Especially considering that, while the people who fly to Brazil to see the games have chosen to expose themselves the people they return to have not made that choice. There were viable alternatives. Historically, the 1976 Winter Olympics were moved, and the 1994 Winter Olympics broke with the regular schedule.  London, Beijing, Athens and Sydney still possess useable Olympic facilities to take over from Rio.  Since the IOC decided in 2014 that the Olympics could be shared between countries, sporting events could even be split between them making this the first transcontinental, truly Global Olympics.15

Conclusion:

Zika can cause a lifelong devastating brain malformation in a developing fetus and debilitating Guillain-Barré syndrome in adults. The most recent figures show that there are 157 cases per 100,000 people in Rio de Jenairo.9 With at least 500,000 people expected to come for the Olympics that could equate to 785 cases of Zika which could be transmitted to areas that have not been infected.

It has been suggested that since the Olympics will be held during Brazil’s winter, there won’t be any of the Aedes aegypti mosquito to transmit the virus. However, this year cases of dengue virus (a closely related virus transmitted by the same mosquito) have been six-fold higher than a year ago (8,133 cases, compared to 1,285 cases).16, 17 While there is obviously a risk of infecting participants, spectators, and, through them, spreading the virus to other areas of the world, the World Health Organization (WHO) has released a statement that “cancelling or changing the location of the 2016 Olympics will not significantly alter the international spread of Zika virus” as Brazil is only “1 of almost 60 countries and territories which to date report continuing transmission of Zika by mosquitoes” but advises “pregnant women not to travel to areas with ongoing Zika virus transmission, including Rio de Janeiro”.18

Zika research is already on the fast track, and with time, the odds are excellent that scientists can develop, test, and prove an effective Zika vaccine, antiviral drug, insecticide, or genetically-engineered mosquito. Unfortunately, science needs time.

The Olympic village is already filling up with athletes and only time will tell if the games will be affected by this Zika epidemic.

The Science Aces would like to wish all of the athletes, supporters, spectators and citizens of the area a safe and exciting Olympic Games!

References:

[1]Amir Attaran. Off the Podium: Why Public Health Concerns for Global Spread of Zika Virus Means That Rio de Janeiro’s 2016 Olympic Games Must Not Proceed. Harvard Public Health Review. Retrieved June 29, 2016.

[2] Faria NR, do Socorro da Silva Azebedo R, Kraemer MUG, et al. Zika virus in the Americas: Early epidemiological and genetic findings. Science. Published online March 24, 2016.  DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf5036

[3] Hamel R, Dejarnac O, Wichit S, Ekchariyawat P, Neyret A, Luplertlop N, Perera-Lecoin M, Surasombatpattana P, Talignani L, Thomas F, Cao-Lormeau V, Choumet V, Briant L, Desprès P, Amara A, Yssel H, Misséa D. Biology of Zika Virus Infection in Human Skin Cells. Journal of Virology 2015; doi:10.1128/JVI.00354-15

[4] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Zika and Animals. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/zika/transmission/qa-animals.html.

[5] Rasmussen SA, Jamieson DJ, Honein MA, Petersen LR. Zika Virus and Birth Defects — Reviewing the Evidence for Causality. NEJM 2016; DOI: 10.1056/NEJMsr1604338.

[6] Brasil P, Pereira JP Jr, Raja Gabaglia C, et al. Zika virus infection in pregnant women in Rio de Janeiro — preliminary report. NEJM 2016; DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa1602412

[7] Cao-Lormeau V-M, Blake A, Mons S, et al. Guillain-Barré Syndrome outbreak associated with Zika virus infection in French Polynesia: a case-control study. Lancet 2016; 387:1531-39.

[8] Brito Ferreira ML. Neurologic Manifestations of Arboviruses in the Epidemic in Pernambuco, Brazil. Abstract presented at the 68th Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Neurology, April 10, 2016. Available at: https://www.aan.com/PressRoom/home/GetDigitalAsset/12033.

[9] Ministério da Saúde, Secretaria de Vigilância em Saúde. Boletim Epidemiológico 2016;47(18). Available at: http://portalsaude.saude.gov.br/images/pdf/2016/abril/27/2016-014—Dengue-SE13-substitui—-o.pdf

[10] Oster AM, Russel K, Stryker JE, Friedman MS, et al. Update: Interim Guidance for Prevention of Sexual Transmission of Zika Virus — United States, 2016. MMWR 2016;65(12):323-5.

[11] Petersen LR, Jamieson DJ, Powers AM, Honein MA. Zika virus. NEJM 2016;374:1552-63.

[12] Kyle Porter. 2016 Rio Olympics: A list of all the golfers who will not compete this summer. CBSSports. July 11, 2016

[13] Australian Olympic Committee. Australian Team taking Dual Protect™ VivaGel® Condoms to Rio. Available at: http://rio2016.olympics.com.au/news/australian-team-taking-dual-protect-vivagel-condoms-to-rio. May 16, 2016

[14] National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. NIH funds Zika Virus study involving U.S. Olympic Team. Available at: https://www.nichd.nih.gov/news/releases/Pages/070516-zika-olympics.aspx. Published July 5, 2016.

[15] Associated Press. I.O.C. Approves Sweeping Reform Package. New York Times December 8, 2014. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/09/sports/olympics/ioc-approves-tv-channel-and-changes-in-bidding-process.html

[16] Prefeitura da Cidade do Rio de Janeiro, Superintendência de Vigilância em Saúde. Número de Casos de Dengue por mês, 2016.  Available at: http://www.rio.rj.gov.br/dlstatic/10112/6062171/4159109/denguenotificadosexcetodescartadosMes_2016_21_03_2016.htm

[17] Prefeitura da Cidade do Rio de Janeiro, Superintendência de Vigilância em Saúde. Número de Casos de Dengue por mês, 2015.  Available at: http://www.rio.rj.gov.br/dlstatic/10112/5880996/4153672/denguenotificadosexcetodescartadosMes2015_25_01_2016.htm

[18] World Health Organization. WHO public health advice regarding the Olympics and Zika. Available at: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2016/zika-health-advice-olympics/en/. Published May 28, 2016. Retrieved June 29, 2016.

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

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

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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!

 

ScienceAces1KELSEY (BIOTECHIE) IS THE SCIENCEACES SOCIAL MEDIA MANAGER FOR TWITTER@SCIENCEACES AND FACEBOOK.COM/SCIENCEACES. SHE IS CURRENTLY A 4th YEAR PHD STUDENT RESEARCHING CELL FUNCTION, CHOLESTEROL, AND OBESITY. WHEN NOT IN THE LAB, YOU CAN FIND HER BAKING TREATS OR CHASING Pokémon. YOU CAN FOLLOW HER ON  TWITTER @BIOTECH_BABE.

 

BRAD HIGHLAND IS OUR RESIDENT CITIZEN SCIENTIST AND AN ASSISTANT DIRECTOR FOR FEATURE FILMS, COMMERCIALS, TELEVISION, AND INTERNET PRODUCTIONS. YOU CAN FOLLOW HIS MUSINGS ON TWITTER @BRADHIGHLANDER AND READ HIS MOVIE REVIEWS AT THEHIGHLANDERREVIEWS.BLOGSPOT.COM.

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

supplements

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.

dr_oz

 

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.

supplement_chart

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
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

Procedure:

  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.
    IMG_8612

    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 
facebook.com/ScienceACEs. 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.

 

People are Swapping Poop to Improve their Health

Bryan Poo Article

Fair Use, pix.iemoji.com

     Yes, you read that right. For long stretches of human history, we have done what we can to remove ourselves from our waste. In each stool lives many many bacteria that can infect you if they get close to you. The twist is that since the bacteria come from healthy human bodies they are likely to only have minimal effects if reintroduced. In spite of the Doo Doo Taboo, fecal medical transplants are rising as a treatment option for some of the worst bacterial infections. Known perhaps more palatably as bacteriotherapy (and less so as a shit shot), it involves changing the bacterial community in your body to combat disease.

     If you remember our video “Bacterial Friends Within You,” you’ll remember that our bodies are covered and filled with lots and lots of bacteria. Bacteria, like all of us, need some space and some food to survive. If our bodies are filled with good bacteria (like probiotics), bad bacteria (the ones that want to get you sick) have a tough time getting enough space and food. If you do something harmful to your good bacteria, bad bacteria (like Clostridium difficile (C. diff) can get in and set up shop. If left untreated, a C. diff infection can form holes in your intestines leading to frequent bloody diarrhea. C. diff is also difficult to treat because it is resistant to many forms of antibiotic treatments and successful treatments only suppress it for a few days before the bacteria come back. Instead of using antibiotics, fecal transplants use the good bacteria from other people’s bodies to fight the bad bacteria in yours. So far, it seems that the little bacterial warriors kill the C. diff with minimal chance of side effects.

Bryan Poo 2.png

Fair Use, agoramedia.com

Now I know you all want more details on how the procedure is done. First, a donor gives a sample of their poop to a doctor. That doctor (or a lucky technician) will break it up in a blender and add water until it’s about as thin as paint. This is put in an enema bag and stored until the donor is ready to put it in their butt.

Bryan Poo 3.png

Fair Use, funnysigns.net

     Now if you’re just a tad bit unsure about swapping poop, you can cut out the other person. “Autologous Fecal Transplant” is the name for freezing and saving your poop while you are healthy to use for another day when your body’s bacteria get out of whack. If you need to go on antibiotics that kill all your good bacteria, an autologous fecal transplant can give them all back to you. This technique requires you to think ahead and store your feces in a clinic for a rainy day, but it reduces risk of foreign bacteria causing an infection.
     While this procedure is mainly used for treating C. diff, some researchers and doctors are looking into how the bacteria in your intestines and colon can affect other things like obesity and even autism spectrum disorder. Medical trials have been done (outlined here) showing that fecal transplants prove useful in alleviating some of the symptoms of people with diabetes and people with Parkinson’s Disease. It seems that many aspects of our health are tied to the bacteria inside of us. If some condition or disease throws that out of whack, it might be useful to restore the balance.


Bryan Visser
2013-12-04 14.06.58Bryan is a 2nd year graduate student studying DNA replication. He plans 
on making a career for science advocacy working at a museum or in 
Washington, DC. In his free time, Bryan enjoys board games and ballroom 
dancing.

Cool Stuff Last Week: scales and hair are related and paternal weight can affect daughter’s breast health

  1. Feathers, Scales, and Hair are all related

    No wonder dinosaurs learned how to fly! Scales, feathers, and hair are all related! They all come from a common ancestor from 320 million years ago. A group from Geneva
    published a paper in Science Advances, suggesting that the reptilian ancestor was covered with scales that came from placodes. Placodes are areas of thick tissue that happen during embryo development. These areas can result in feathers, hair follicles, skin around the nose, or specific neurons.

    Placodes have been found in mammal and bird embryos but never on reptiles. The group was actually looking for a gene that resulted on hairless bearded dragons and identified a specific gene, EDA. Interestingly, when this gene is modified in humans, hair follicles, sweat glands and teeth don’t develop properly. This gave the group an idea that reptiles do have placodes- which they found in snakes, crocodiles, and lizards!

    This new finding enhances our understanding of evolution,uniting mammals, birds, and reptiles together.

  2. Overweight fathers affect their daughter’s breast tissue development… in mice

    Daughters of overweight fathers have increased mammary tumors and delayed mammary development in mice.
    A study found that male mice that gained weight had a change in the germline causing a genetic change in the paternal sperm.

    This is the first study of its kind since most papers focus on the effect of maternal weight gain on daughters. The study in mice further found that if a father is overweight, the daughter will be overweight at birth and throughout development. The group hopes to continue the study with human daughters and fathers to expand our knowledge. So next time you’re thinking of eating that extra donut, think about your genetic makeup!

Michelle Rubin (Editor-in-Chief)
Photo on 3-31-13 at 9.15 PM #2 Michelle is  a fourth year biomedical PhD student. She is extremely interested in science policy and hope to pursue that after her  studies. Let her know what you think of the blog on twitter! @michellejrubin.

Cool Stuff Last Week: The thantotranscriptome, sticky chameleon spit, and a window into the second brain

1. Your genes keep working even after you die

Logophiles rejoice: you can now add “thantotranscriptome” to your vocabulary. Thantotranscriptome is defined as “genes actively expressed after organismal death.” Yep, there are genes in your body that will specifically activate after your death. All throughout life, our genes are expressed in tightly choreographed patterns. Precise gene expression patterns lay out how a child should develop, look, and grow, even before birth. All the way through adulthood, genes are responsible for our every bodily function. Now, it appears that even when we die and our cells shut down, genes continue to be expressed up to two days later.

In their preprint article (which has been submitted for peer review but has not yet been accepted), the researchers said they expected the death of a complex organism to be somewhat like a car running out of gas. “For a short time,” they remarked, “engine pistons will move up and down and spark plugs will spark – but eventually the car will grind to a halt and die.” However, this is not at all what they found. Instead of genes slowly shutting off, new genes started being turned on, even a day or two after death. “In our car analogy, one would not expect window wipers to suddenly turn on and the horn to honk several days after running out of gas.” Yet apparently they do. Genes involved in transporting molecules around the cell are activated shortly after death. Various cancer-related genes turn on between 1 and 48 hours postmortem. Perhaps most surprisingly, developmental genes that had not been activated since before birth were found to be activated, some even 96 hours after death.

All of these studies were carried out in mice and zebrafish, but the researchers expect the findings to be relevant to humans as well. While they were primarily motivated by curiosity – no one really knows how our bodies shut down after death – this research could be applied to forensic science to help pin down a more accurate time of death, even down to the half-hour.   

2. Chameleon spit is sticky

In a groundbreaking Nature Physics paper published earlier this week, scientists found that chameleon spit is sticky. Okay, but if you thought you already knew this, you’re wrong. Shockingly, until now, no one actually thought to check whether chameleon spit is sticky. Chameleons’ tongues can reach two body lengths away and capture prey up to a third of their own body weight. And they do this so fast that their tongues require built-in catapults because muscle alone physically cannot accelerate that quickly. This speed and power belie an ability to successfully grab on to prey (try shooting your hand out toward a glass as fast as you possibly can and see if you grab it successfully or just knock it off the table).

Scientists have long speculated that roughness, suction, or stickiness may help the chameleon’s tongue grab its lunch and hang on, but someone finally opened up a chameleon’s mouth and discovered, yep, chameleon spit is a whopping 400 times stickier than human saliva. The scientists who conducted the study also found that the adhesive powers of the tongue were given a boost during the retraction phase, meaning that when the chameleon pulls its tongue back, the spit on the end of its tongue is more adhesive than when the prey finally makes it to the chameleon’s mouth. This “sticky spit” mechanism may be used by other animals that use their tongues to grab prey as well, and it could even inspire engineers to develop new kinds of glue!

3. A window into the second brain

If you had to take a wild guess as to how many brain the average person has, you might say one. Or slightly less than one, depending on your level of cynicism. Actually, though, there are so many neurons in your gut that some biologists refer to it as the second brain. These neurons are the reason you get butterflies in your stomach when you see someone cute, or a sinking feeling when you see someone you’d rather avoid. Your gut also produces 90% of your body’s serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood and is often a target for treating depression. In fact, the nerves in the gut probably play a big role in all kinds of disorders, from GI problems to diabetes to mood disorders, but relatively little is known about them.

A team led by Xiling Shen implanted a transparent window into the abdomens of mice and integrated a graphene electrode to measure the electrical signals. The scientists were able to watch and record as neurons in the gut fired away. The setup could be very important for gut biologists in the future, allowing them to manipulate conditions and observe how gut neurons respond.