Genetic Modification: Polarizing the population [infographic]

By Matthew Hardcastle and Poncie Rutsch
BU News Service

With all the angry voices chiming in on genetically modified foods, it can be really hard to figure out where the basic science stands. Lately, the conversation has been getting particularly ugly. People who support genetically modifying their foods (shortened to GMOs for genetically modified organisms) have started to proclaim that without genetic modification, people in the world will always be starving — that is, there is no other way to feed a growing population. Meanwhile, people who reject GMOs start to sound very similar to people suffering from climate denial — limited arguments based on poorly researched science.

We decided to put together a sort of GMO cheat sheet: what you need to know, some basic facts, and a few questions before you lose friends over this polarizing argument. We tried debating, but it felt mean and didn’t represent the amazing level of complexity that surrounds this issue. For this readon, there are occasions when the two paths overlap. In no way is this the end of the argument, but instead of reading another op-ed, why not get to the basics?

Reporting IN FAVOR OF GENETIC MODIFICATION is Matthew Hardcastle. His points follow the blue path.

Reporting LESS FAVORABLY ON GENETIC MODIFICATION is Poncie Rutsch. Her points follow the green path.

GMO-info1GMO-info2GMO-info3GMO-info4

 

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

clickable map of world hunger.

A few more basics on what world hunger is and how it intersects with malnutrition.

Reporter Sharon Schmickle travels to Tanzania to explore GMO resistance through a Pulitzer grant.

Whales Without Uvulas

This guy did not have a uvula. Photo: Fred Benko - National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Central Library via Wikimedia Commons.
This guy did not have a uvula. Photo: Fred Benko – National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Central Library via Wikimedia Commons.

 

by Poncie Rutsch

Dory and Marlin are trapped inside of a whale in the midst of their search for Marlin’s son Nemo. Marlin wants desperately to escape and slams himself into the whale’s baleen. And the whale does spew them out — after a brief Marlin vs Dory struggle…and some excellent footage of the whale’s oral anatomy, complete with a uvula.

There's the uvula! Photo courtesy of the U.S. National Cancer Institute web site via Wikimedia Commons.
There’s the uvula! Photo courtesy of the U.S. National Cancer Institute web site via Wikimedia Commons.

If you don’t know what a uvula is, that last sentence probably looked a bit questionable. A uvula is the chandelier of your mouth. It’s a little bit of flesh that hangs down from the roof of your mouth at the opening where your mouth becomes your throat. Say AH and you’ll see it.

[for quality whale uvula footage, fast forward to about 2:00]

But here’s the thing: whales don’t have uvulas. Only a few animals do. And scientists are still trying to figure out whether humans need uvulas in the first place.

In 1992, researchers searched the mouth cavities in a number of animals to see if there was even a trace of something that could have evolved into a uvula – almost like our tailbone shows we may have once had tails. They looked in dogs and horses and cows and apes and sheep. And this is what they found:

“Of all animals in the study, a small underdeveloped uvula was found only in two baboons. We found that the human uvula consists of an intermix of serous and seromucous glandular masses, muscular tissue, and large excretory canals…. Thus, the uvula is a highly sophisticated structure, capable of producing a large quantity of fluid saliva that can be excreted in a short time.”

The researchers also suggested that the uvula lubricates our vocal cords, and could be necessary to make some sounds that are critical for human language. Another camp of researchers disagrees though. They think that it’s just some vestigial trace of our ancestors (again, like your tailbone), without any essential purpose.

Their camp gets a little support from a type of surgery called uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (try saying that five times fast). The surgery doesn’t necessarily remove the entire uvula, but it removes parts of the soft flesh inside the mouth to reduce snoring and sleep apnea. Even those uvula-less patients appear to be communicating just fine.

Look around. Each of the Muppets has a felted uvula so that when they lean back to belt out songs you see a human-like mouth.  I bet you’ll see uvulas everywhere now…or at least in every animated movie.

So why bother stuffing uvulas into animals? It’s not like the uvula is an essential part of the human body, let alone one that seems quintessentially human. It would be easy to overlook, except it’s always there. It would seem like the animators just don’t know any better, but when was the first time you even noticed you HAD a uvula?

And on that note, it’s time for some obligatory Muppet uvulas.

Mapping Connectivity in Brains with Epilepsy

White matter paths connecting grey matter in the brain, as mapped by a diffusion tensor imaging MRI. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
White matter paths connecting grey matter in the brain, as mapped by a diffusion tensor imaging MRI. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

by Poncie Rutsch
BU News Service

For years, neuroscientists have defined epilepsy as a case when too many nerve cells in the brain fire at once, provoking a seizure. Researchers could differentiate a few types of epilepsy, based on which parts of the brain were over-firing. Now, researchers have determined that it isn’t just a matter of function – the brains of people with epilepsy  structurally differ from those of people without the disorder.

According to lead researcher Steven Stufflebeam, a neuroradiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, the differences between the two brains suggest new ways to diagnose and treat epilepsy moving forward.

Stufflebeam and medical student Matt DeSalvo focused on temporal lobe epilepsy, the most common type of epilepsy among adults. Temporal lobes are part of the cerebral cortex, and aid in visual memories, processing the senses, language, and emotion. During a temporal lobe epileptic seizure, neurons in the brain randomly begin firing too frequently, sending those parts of the cortex go into overdrive.

The researchers compared the brains of people with epilepsy and people without to understand the white matter, the tissues that form connections between grey matter, or the brain cells. They used a type of MRI brain imaging called diffusion tensor imaging. Unlike a typical MRI, which shows some brain tissues or inflammation, this type of imaging induced a magnetic field to show the movement of water molecules through the brain, illuminating the paths molecules use to travel the brain.

The researchers induced sixty different magnetic fields to highlight sixty possible directions in the brain, and then compiled the images in one all-inclusive brain scan.

The researchers found that brains with temporal lobe epilepsy have very different structures from those without epilepsy. Patients with epilepsy have less long-range connectivity, and more short-range connectivity that patients without the disorder. The white matter that the researchers mapped connected parts of the brain located closer together, rather than farther apart.  These short range connections in epileptic brains appeared within the brain structures responsible for wakeful rest such as daydreaming or introspective thought.

The study helps neurology researchers move toward the idea that epilepsy could be an issue in the the brain’s network, not necessarily the result of brain damage. Researchers used to blame temporal lobe epilepsy on injuries to the temporal lobes. But more and more studies like DeSalvo’s are showing that that’s not the case. “Injury can still play a role,” says DeSalvo, “but more and more it’s thought of as a network disease.”

Stufflebeam and his colleagues published their findings this week in Radiology. The study is part of the National Institute of Health’s Human Connectome Project, which seeks to map brain connections.Stufflebeam and his colleagues published their findings this week in Radiology. The study is part of the National Institute of Health’s Human Connectome Project, which seeks to map brain connections.

The findings offer insight into which people might benefit from surgery. “With temporal cases,” said Stufflebeam, “about 90% of those patients will benefit from surgery.” The surgery excises the part of the brain from which the seizures seem to start. “But there’s still 10% that fail,” said Stufflebeam. “They still have seizures and aren’t completely cured.”

Both researchers think this may be due to connectivity within the brain. Surgeons can estimate how much brain to remove to decrease epileptic seizures, but it’s an educated guess. In the future, doctors and patients could use the images from this research to determine whether surgery will be effective.

“We may be able to predict outcomes based on the connectivity we see,” said DeSalvo.

Bobbing for Paganism

Ah the raw thrill of completely soaking one's trunk in pursuit of a crispy apple bobbing in pathogenic brine. Photo courtesy of flickr Creative Commons user Rob Swystun.
Ah the raw thrill of completely soaking one’s trunk in pursuit of a crispy apple bobbing in pathogenic brine. Photo courtesy of flickr Creative Commons user Rob Swystun.

By Poncie Rutsch
BU News Service

I’ve always wanted to bob for apples on Halloween but unfortunately, I grew up in the era of germaphobes. The first time I saw an actual bucket filled with water and apples primed for the bobbing, I was 12. Now people bob for apples on strings. Or in their own private buckets.

But why is it that people decided to stick their heads in a bucket of water in the first place?

Bobbing for apples supposedly dates back to pagan festival of Samhain, the beginning of fall. More recently, bobbing was used for fortune telling on the British Isles in the 19th century. Once a person caught the apple, they would peel it and toss the long peel over their shoulder, where it would supposedly form the letter of their true love’s first name on the floor.

What’s especially interesting is that the apples they would have bobbed for would not have tasted all that sweet. Sweet apples originated in Kazakhstan, but even there they were more likely to be pressed into hard cider than eaten.

The sweet apples we have today are the result of thousands of years of careful domestication. If you grow apples from seed, the results will be small and bitter; palatable, but not the apple of your dreams. The best apples come from grafting different species together.

After years of manipulation, many favorite apple varieties are lacking in genetic diversity. Breeders graft native crabapple species to choice trees to try and raise their diversity — to prevent the spread of disease or pests. They’ve done this so many times that apples in North America are now more closely related to crabapples than to their ancestors in Kazakhstan.

I particularly like that if you slice an apple in half at its equator, the seeds form a pentagram, classically associated with paganism.

So fortune telling, alcohol, paganism…sensing a theme yet?

 

When sliced across the equator, the seeds at the center of an apple forms a pentagram. Photo courtesy of flickr Creative Commons User Denise Cross.
When sliced across the equator, the seeds at the center of an apple forms a pentagram. Photo courtesy of flickr Creative Commons User Denise Cross.

The Rhymbosome

By Poncie Rutsch
BU News Service

This is Tom McFadden (formerly “the Rhymbosome”). He raps about science.

Full disclosure, Tom McFadden was my TA for behavioral biology in college. A friend of mine edited his videos.

McFadden, who claims that he never takes himself seriously as a rapper, strung together wordplay infused lyrics to make science memorable. He proceeded to get a master’s degree in science communications.

Now he teaches 8th grade biology and keeps his eyes peeled for fresh science rappers.

All I can say is, apparently we’ve come a long way since Joyful Protein Synthesis.

One-Way Ticket to Mars

By Poncie Rutsch
BU News Service

It’s official: applications for the esteemed colonial voyage to Mars are now competitive. And your chances of getting picked are worse than your chances at getting into every Ivy League college…and also slightly worse than getting struck by lighting in your lifetime.

That’s right. Last year, Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp announced his plan to set up a colony on Mars by 2023. This year, they’re picking a total of 24 people to spend the next ten years training for said journey.

Four people from those 24 will embark on a seven-month journey in 2022. They’ll arrive at Mars in 2023, land in a small vehicle and leave the brunt of their ship in space (too heavy to land). They’ll live in inflatable dwellings with some air and food supplies sent over in advance.

Lansdorp and company will choose location of the settlement based on how much ice there is in the soil. They’ll melt this ice for water and break it apart via electrolysis for oxygen to breathe.

Of course, the documentation starts once Lansdorp and his team start training these 24 people. Reality TV show, 24/7/365. Of course, it won’t exactly be “live” since the delay between Mars and earth is anywhere from 3 to 22 minutes. Supposedly, this TV publicity will pay for most of the funding.

Regarding that 22-minute delay, that means if any sort of emergency takes place, Houston won’t know there’s a problem for 22 minutes. Sending help (via rocketship, of course) will take six months.

Oh yeah, but once you go, you can’t come back. Also, no skyping or phone calls. Only emails, texts, and the occasional video voicemail. Mind you, the delay would make a live conversation a little ridiculous.

Honestly, I don’t understand how 200,000 people have signed up. It’s one thing to go to space but it’s another to go to space and never return. It’s giving up everyone you’ve ever known. But then again, people hide out in Antarctica all the time, so I’m just the wrong demographic.

Mars One thought about this:

“However, there are individuals for whom traveling to Mars has been a dream for their entire life. They relish the challenge. Not unlike the ancient Chinese, Micronesians, and untold Africans, the Vikings and famed explorers of Old World Europe, who left everything behind to spend the majority of their lives at sea, a one-way mission to Mars is about exploring a new world and the opportunity to conduct the most revolutionary research ever conceived, to build a new home for humans on another planet.”

The deeper question throughout all this though is why do we do it? Do we do it to learn, or are we just doing it because we can?

Space research is important, but in order to research, we don’t necessarily have to go there ourselves. The Mars rovers have shown tremendous success – and we don’t have to feed them on the other side.

Perhaps someday it will be critical to repopulate Mars; when we destroy our own planet, for example. But until then, this seems like a classic case of science because we can…and really expensive science because we can, at that.

Needless to say, I’ll be glued to the live stream.

Mars road map of the future. Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons user Bruce Irving.
Mars road map of the future. Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons user Bruce Irving.

Performer Follows Pianos Around The World

IMAGE: October 4, 2013 CAMBRIDGE -- Fabio Tedde plays a public piano in Harvard Square on Friday afternoon. There are 75 pianos around Boston for Luke Jerram’s “Play Me, I’m Yours” exhibit, which has put temporary street pianos in over thirty cities in the past five years. Tedde, an Italian street performer, follows the piano exhibits and tries to play them all -- this his 37th in Boston and his 433rd worldwide. (Photo by Poncie Rutsch.)

(Click thumbnail to launch slideshow.)

“Who’s Afraid of Peer Review?” Shakes Up Scientific Community

The open access journal has a few obstacles to clear before it can truly compete with more tradition, peer-review journals. Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons User Tinou Bao.
The open access journal has a few obstacles to clear before it can truly compete with more tradition, peer-review journals. Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons User Tinou Bao.

By Poncie Rutsch
BU News Service

As pop culture would tell you, scientists are old white guys with crazy hair. While that perspective is heavily biased (my hair is crazy, but not white), it isn’t totally unfounded.

The people who make science share their knowledge through academic journals, which traditionally take their contents very seriously. The journals accept science by peer review, meaning that the most prestigious, whitest haired, top-of-the-line scientists make sure the contents of the journal are up to snuff. And you can only read the journal if you, as part of the scientific elite, choose to pay for access.

But this model is outdated…or so would say the open access journals, which sprung to popularity about a decade ago. Open access journals claim their goal is to remove legal, financial, and technical barriers between people and their science. The only thing keeping people from reading the contents should be access to the internet itself.

The problem is, open access journals don’t have quite as spiffy a reputation as traditional journals. And this was what inspired the recent efforts of John Bohannon.

John wrote a spoof paper and sent it to hundreds of open access publishers. 157 published it. And then Science published him.

“Any reviewer with more than a high-school knowledge of chemistry and the ability to understand a basic data plot should have spotted the paper’s short-comings immediately,” John writes. “Its experiments are so hopelessly flawed that the results are meaningless.”

John submitted a paper that proclaimed a new wonder drug. He set up the paper with a simple formula: “Molecule X from lichen species Y inhibits the growth of cancer cell Z.” He substituted each variable with molecules, lichens, and cancer cell lines to create hundreds of papers. Each was unique enough to not attract attention, but the structure was similar enough to be used as a constant in John’s investigation. He submitted the paper using false names and institutions that he generated randomly from databases of common African names, words in Swahili, and African capital cities.

He included the same flaws in each paper – data that showed the opposite of his conclusions, an obvious lapse in the methods, and a control group that didn’t receive one of the constant level of radiation as the others.

Over 150 open access journals accepted the fake paper. John writes that over 250 of his papers went through an editing process, but that 60% showed no sign of peer review.

The final verdict is that open access journals have a long way to go. There may in fact be some merits to the peer-review system…even if you have to pay to get in.

You can also see John’s paper at BMJ. But of course, you’ll have to pay to get in.

Also, here’s a history of open access journals, courtesy of the wise people of tumblr:

click to embiggen
click to embiggen

Fish Depth May Affect Mercury Content

A fish auction in Hawaii sells  local a local shallow swimmer called moonfish, or Opah. (Photo: C. Anela Choy).
A fish auction in Hawaii sells local a local shallow swimmer called moonfish, or Opah. (Photo: C. Anela Choy).

By Poncie Rutsch
BU News Service

For years, scientists have noticed that fish swimming the deep seas contain more mercury than their shallow swimming friends. Now, a recent study from the University of Michigan and the University of Hawaii shows why that discrepancy exists.

The researchers collected nine different fish species and measured the mercury accumulated in the fish tissue. The fish they collected ranged from a lanternfish, which swims as deep as five thousand feet below the surface, to flying fish, which leap out of the water and glide through the air.

Researchers used a large net to catch the nine species of fish tested for mercury in the study.  The net weighs 2000 pounds when it's dry, and consists of different bundles that can be selectively opened to catch fish at specific depths. (Photo: Jeff Drazen).
Researchers used a large net to catch the nine species of fish tested for mercury in the study. The net weighs 2000 pounds when it’s dry, and consists of different bundles that can be selectively opened to catch fish at specific depths. (Photo: Jeff Drazen).

The researchers used isotope analysis to determine what kinds of chemical reactions the mercury had undergone. They found that sunlight may help mercury to degrade and published their findings in Nature Geoscience at the end of August.

Fish eat mercury every day when they consume sea plants containing mercury-consuming bacteria. In a pristine environment, their mercury levels remain constant. But because of human activity, fish mercury levels have increased in the past hundred years.

Scientists worried about mercury in fish for decades and have been studying its origins. Mercury in the atmosphere exists in a vaporous, inorganic state that does not cause significant damage to humans. It settles on the sea’s surface, and collects on sea plants. Here tiny microbes digest the mercury and convert it to methylmercury, or organic mercury, which impairs human brain development. The microbes can convert mercury as deep as two thousand feet below the surface. Fish eat the sea plants with methylmercury accruing microbes, and the mercury accumulates in their tissue.

Because the mercury from each source undergoes different chemical reactions, each has a different chemical fingerprint. This makes it fairly easy for scientists to trace mercury in the atmosphere back to its source. The researchers started with the mercury in fish tissue and determined each reaction that had happened to it on its way to the fish.

Although mercury can cause significant damage to developing human brains, lead author Joel Blum said that the increasing mercury doesn’t seem to harm the fish themselves. “Yet,” he said, “if mercury levels double, will there even be fish?”

Previous research linked the mercury in Pacific fish to coal-fired power plants in Asia. According to co-author Brian Popp, mercury levels in Pacific fish are on the rise as Asian manufacturing continues to increase.

“But in the Atlantic,” Popp said, “we see the opposite, probably because of new regulations in North America and Europe.”

The research connects the mercury cycle to the fish we eat. Popp and Blum agree that because even tiny amounts of mercury can cause so much damage, understanding the cycle is vital for choosing which fish to eat and which to avoid.

Dung Beetles: the World’s Best Waste Management

Some species of dung beetle use their hind legs to roll balls of dung back to their homes. Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons user Craig ONeal.
Some species of dung beetle use their hind legs to roll balls of dung back to their homes. Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons user Craig ONeal.

 

By Poncie Rutsch
BU News Service

This just in, along with being some of the weirdest animals in the kingdom, dung beetles might just help reduce methane emissions on farms.

For those unfamiliar with the dung beetle, it is a group of insect species that eat, roll, and burrow in feces. Some species live and raise their children inside of big piles of poop. It sounds gross, except when you consider everywhere else that feces could be if it weren’t for these insects. Digesting the world’s poop by dung beetle doesn’t sound so bad.

Part of moving fecal matter around is that it helps the nutrients inside decompose – and decompose faster than they would without help. Scientists have known this for a while. In the tropics, for example, dung beetles can get rid of a cow pie in as little as 24 hours.

Now, one team of scientists is saying that dung beetles also reduce the amount of methane that dung emits as it decomposes. Generally, as any organic material decomposes, it releases a number of gases, methane included. Methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gases; a pound of methane in the atmosphere could have hundreds of times the impact as a pound of carbon dioxide.

But by aerating organic material, a different decomposition reaction takes place. This is why people who compost their food or yard scraps physically stir or turn their compost. In the presence of oxygen, the material reduces less methane.

Eleanor Slade supposed that dung beetles could be reducing the methane that comes from farms – specifically from livestock farms. She enclosed cow pies (she calls them dung pats, must be a British thing) in small chambers to keep dung beetles in or out. She then collected a small amount of gas from each chamber, and used a chromatograph to see what kinds of gases came off of dung pats as they decomposed.

She and her colleagues found that with dung beetles present, the cow pies released about a third less methane than they would without any insect help.

Unfortunately, cow dung isn’t the only source of greenhouse gases on a farm; nor do all farmers keep cows. Slade suspects that overall, adding dung beetles to a farm would reduce the greenhouse emissions from agriculture by about 3%.

People like to argue about how much agriculture contributes to climate change. Depending on the country, agriculture could make up 20% to over half of a country’s emissions. But here’s the thing – adding dung beetles would be easy. Cutting 3% off of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions would make a huge difference worldwide.

These cows would like some dung beetles, please and thank you. Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons User Emmett Tullos
These cows would like some dung beetles, please and thank you. Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons User Emmett Tullos

There are about seven thousand different species of dung beetle. They exist on every continent except Antarctica, so introducing species to local farms wouldn’t be so hard. If you’re a farmer, all you have to do is call your local dung beetle breeder.

One gross postscript though – if the dung is too runny, the dung beetles won’t burrow in it. And according to Slade, this is a legitimate problem. Cows eating over-fertilized grass tend to produce runny dung…and a lot of farmers over-fertilize.

Looks like we’ll still need an overhaul of the farming system after all.