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The summer slump happens in scientific publishing, too

You might want to wait a couple more weeks before submitting that next manuscript

Maddie Bender

Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Yale University

Is the peer review system broken? Many scientists, reporters, and even editors of peer-reviewed journals have weighed in extensively on this question, so I’ll let their words speak for themselves. I did, however, think of a slight permutation to  the question after seeing a recent Tweet from virologist John Schoggins about his inability to recruit a peer reviewer over the summer.

It made me wonder: Do peer-reviewed journals go through a summer slump just like we do? In other words, does it take longer for a study to be accepted, edited and published when it’s submitted in the summer?

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find a peer-reviewed study on this topic, but I did find several discussions in fora for scientists that supported my hypothesis that summer slump for the peer review process is indeed a real thing. One article proposed that many potential reviewers are on vacation during the summer. Another poster on the topic posited that the delays may actually be caused by journal editors who are away. 

I also discovered a couple of blog posts published by the peer-reviewed journal conglomerates PLOS and Cell Press that explicitly mentioned summer delays. Both journals observed that  submissions tend to be highest in summer months — a trend that Emilie Marcus for Cell Press guessed was a combination of theses defended in the spring, professors with newfound free time, and “inspiration/competitive angst” from the science presented at summer conferences.

All this is to say that you, the scientist, can take back some control of the process of getting a paper published. And if your paper is already stuck in the peer review summer slump, know that you’re not alone! It’ll get better in September after reviewers and editors get back in the swing of things. 

The placental microbiome may not exist, but the scientific method is real

Researchers from Cambridge have found that run-of-the-mill sample contamination likely led to the discovery of a placental microbiome

Lauren Sara McKee

Microbiology, Biochemistry, and Agricultural Science

KTH Royal Institute of Technology

 A recent Massive Science article by Adriana Romero-Olivares  highlighted the fact that many fungal and protist species are missed in microbiome studies, which tend to focus heavily on just bacteria. If this doesn't change, we might miss out on a lot of important discoveries. But now, a new paper in Nature, led by Marcus de Goffau and Gordon Smith of the University of Cambridge, U.K., shows that the opposite is also true: some microbiome studies are finding microbes that aren't actually there at all! 

Ed Yong explained this finding in his excellent piece for The Atlantic. A 2014 study claimed to find a defined microbiome in the human placenta, an environment previously thought to be sterile. This surprised scientists, who had long thought that we are colonized by our microbial friends soon after birth, based on the fact that babies delivered by C-section take a lot longer to develop a stable and healthy microbiome than babies born vaginally. The paper made waves back then because, if the placenta itself were also colonized, this would certainly change our view on when and how the human body becomes host to a complex microbial ecosystem.

But the recent Nature paper by de Goffau and colleagues strongly challenges the published observation of a placental microbiome. They showed that there were reproducible microbial contaminants in the equipment and reagents used in the 2014 study, a nightmare scenario for lab-based scientists. Knowing that this type and scale of microbial contamination is possible in microbiome studies is hugely important, and encourages a healthy level of skepticism among readers of such studies. 

Although the whole thing might seem like an embarrassing oversight to some, rest assured that this is how science should work: we test our colleagues' work and refine our findings based on the data. Mistakes and misinterpretations happen, but we are always in search of the truth.

It may be possible to prevent fetal brain damage after Zika virus infection

A drug used to treat rheumatoid arthritis may also protect developing brains from danger

Kelsey Lloyd

Neuroscience and Nutrition

University of Cincinnati

The last major Zika virus outbreak began in 2015, which was also the year that the country of Brazil identified a link between the virus  and brain damage in developing fetuses. Zika is a mosquito-borne disease that usually causes minor illness in infected patients, but transmission of the virus from an infected mother can cause her growing fetus to be born with an abnormally small head and brain damage, a condition called microcephaly. There is currently no treatment for Zika, nor is there a way to prevent fetal infection.  

Now, a team of researchers from Johns Hopkins University has found that Kineret, an anti-inflammatory drug used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, may protect infected fetuses from brain damage. We previously knew that inflammation in the fetal brain can cause lasting damage, and that Kineret had been found to prevent fetal brain damage after other kinds of infections.  So the researchers infected pregnant mice with the Zika virus, then treated some of them with Kineret. At five days old, the pups of untreated mice had impaired motor and cognitive skills while pups whose mothers had received Kineret showed normal development. Unsurprisingly, the treated pups also had less inflammation in their brains. Kineret also reduced inflammation in and promoted normal developing of the placenta. 

Kineret is a well-characterized drug that appears to be safe to use during pregnancy, which smooths the path toward its potential use in Zika patients. Thanks to the Johns Hopkins researchers and some pregnant mice, we just may be more prepared for the next  outbreak.  

No, Marianne Williamson, antidepressants and antipsychotics are not just "store-bought neurotransmitters"

It is important for patients — and presidential candidates — to accurately understand how psychiatric drugs work

Alice Theibault

Environmental Science and Biotechnology

Rochester Institute of Technology

After Democratic presidential candidate Marianne Williamson’s controversial claims about medicine and healthcare, individuals with chronic illnesses took to Twitter under the hashtag #iNeedMyMedsMarianne to raise awareness of how medication improves their health and quality of life. One meme circulated by some of these Twitter users, many of whom suffer from  psychiatric illnesses, contains the following slogan: “If you can’t make your own neurotransmitters store bought is fine.” The well-intentioned meme was meant to reduce the stigma against psychiatric drugs. However, this assertion is false: these medications are not “store-bought neurotransmitters.”

Neurotransmitters are chemicals that help signals travel between nerve cells, helping to regulate thoughts and emotions. Many mental illnesses occur when levels of neurotransmitters in our brains get out of balance. No current psychiatric drug produces new neurotransmitters, but they can change how much or how little is available at any one time. 

For instance, depressed patients have too little of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) prevent serotonin from being reabsorbed back into the cells, while the older antidepressant drugs, called monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), block the enzyme that helps break down serotonin. 

Some psychiatric illnesses, like schizophrenia, result from too much serotonin and dopamine rather than too little.  Antipsychotics work by blocking the receptors of these chemicals on the nerve cells, preventing the cells from being overloaded.

This misunderstanding of psychiatric drugs as “store-bought neurotransmitters” or otherwise made of the same "stuff"  as neurotransmitters may seem minor, but it isn’t. People who claim to be on the side of science and medicine need to demonstrate that they know what they’re talking about, or they (and the rest of us scientists) won’t be taken seriously. And the reality is that, because the brain is so complex, scientists simply don’t yet know the best way to treat psychiatric illnesses. The drugs available today were discovered through serendipity and don’t work for every person. Unfortunately, no patient can simply buy neurotransmitters off the shelf, the way a diabetic can take insulin. Anyone who uses psychiatric drugs should know what they actually do and why. 

Soon you can feel a little less guilty about enjoying that dill pickle with your meal

Food scientists have designed a better brine, reducing the pickle's environmental impact

Lauren Gandy

Biochemistry, Microbiology, and Chemical Biology

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Did you know that the brine used to make pickles is saltier than seawater? While this gives pickles their delicious taste, it also creates concerns about the water waste – the salt concentration in pickle brine exceeds the EPA’s maximum limit by about four orders of magnitude.

Most commercial vendors recycle their brine to reduce their waste, but this is only a short-term solution. Eventually, the brine loses enough salt in the pickling process to be unusable, but is still salty enough to be bad for the environment. And considering that a  2018 Forbes article reported that an estimated 245 million Americans will be consuming pickles by 2020, the salinity and environmental impact of pickle juice will become a growing concern.

Enter North Carolina State University-affiliated food scientist Erin McMurtrie and her colleagues. Based on a fermentation process proposed by another research team in 2010, they have now used a calcium chloride brine containing acetic acid (the same acid that is in vinegar) to pickle cucumbers. The resulting pickles had firm skin and high rates of sugar conversion to lactic acid, making them flavorful. The firm skin of these pickles was thanks to relatively low abundances of yeasts, molds, and bacteria, microbes which produce cucumber skin-softening enzymes during the traditional fermentation process.  

Using this new brine, commercial retailers can completely eliminate sodium waste and cut the chloride in their fermentation broth by a fifth without sacrificing the flavor or quality of their pickled products. So rest easy, and enjoy a dill pickle – one made in a calcium brine, that is. 

A new discovery about magnetism could lead to faster and more energy efficient computer memory technology

Our understanding of spin-orbit torque has greatly improved, thanks to University of Illinois physicists

Terrence Tai


Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

You might think that magnetism is as simple as a north pole and a south pole attracting each other. Yet this phenomenon, silently omnipresent in our daily life, still isn't completely understood, as evidenced by a new study from physicists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Magnetic fields are created whenever electric charges move, most commonly when electrons spin around themselves. But electrons also orbit around the nucleus of an atom, much like the Earth orbits around the sun. This creates another magnetic field. The combination of the magnetic field from the spin with the magnetic field from the orbiting creates and effect called the spin-orbit  torque. This causes electrons in a current to shear off to opposite sides of a film depending on their spins. Electrons spinning clockwise might move to the top of the sheet, and those spinning anticlockwise to the bottom. 

Scientists previously thought that to create the spin-orbit torque, another metal touching the magnetic film was needed, but this new study suggests otherwise. To show this, the researchers passed a  current from one edge of a magnetic film to the other and measured the spin of the electrons on both sides by shining light onto the film. Since the magnetic surface actually changes the direction of light's vibrations, they could then measure the reflected light to infer the direction of magnetization. It sounds complicated, but the press release for the paper makes it clear that this is "indisputable evidence" in favor of the phenomenon observed, which is called "anomalous spin-orbit torque."

It is exciting that even for something as well-studied as magnetism, we still have discoveries to make. And this research could lead to advances in magnetic-memory technology, which will make computer memory storage faster and more energy-efficient.  

The Endangered Species Act is under attack, just like the plants and animals it aims to protect

The Trump administration's new rules prioritize the economy over America's wildlife

Olivia Box

Natural Resources and Forest Ecology

University of Vermont

Up to one million species are at risk of extinction, including some 40% of invertebrate pollinators, including bees and butterflies. There have been some biodiversity conservation success stories here in the United States, including the healthy return of the iconic bald eagle and the recovery of the American crocodile. Such stories are largely thanks to the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Originally signed in 1973 under President Nixon’s administration, the ESA has been called one of the most successful pieces of environmental legislation ever. 

We’re still in the middle of a major biodiversity crisis, but now the Trump administration wants to take the cynical and counterproductive step of considering economic concerns when categorizing species — even though prioritizing the economy over nature is what jeopardizes many species in this country. The edits to the ESA would allow for removing species from the endangered list, as well as limiting protections for threatened species. This could accelerate habit degradation and the demise of our country's wildlife. 

I’m studying forest ecology and I worry about the future of forestry in this country. The ESA encouraged sustainable forest management, forcing industry, land managers, and conservationists to work together. The logging industry was able to adapt to these changes and continues to be productive while preserving species’  habitat. But now, if economic assessments predict lost revenue from restricted logging in habitats with endangered species, ESA protections might be overlooked.

Changes to the law are set to go into effect in 30 days. If you are worried like I am, consider calling or writing to your senators and representatives! Endangered species are counting on us.

The Art of Neuroscience is beautiful

Scientific American presents ten notable entries from this year's competition

Emily Smith

Nuclear Medicine and Medical Physics

United Lincolnshire Hospitals NHS Trust

The human brain is hugely complex. There is still much that scientists don't understand about this incredible organ — and the things that we do know can often be hard to visualize and communicate. For the last nine years, the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience in Amsterdam has run a competition called the Art of Neuroscience, celebrating artwork that powerfully and beautifully illustrates the intricacies of brain biology. This year's winners include a striking installation representing the  neurological links between depression and loneliness, and veins depicted in ways you've never seen them before. Have a look at 2019's top entries, and be both captivated and educated at the same time. 

You can see images like these year-round by following Art of Neuroscience on Twitter.

A good defense is the best offense in medicine

It may be perceived as "boring" or "routine," but preventative medicine should be a priority in today's health care system

Marnie Willman

Influenza Vaccine Design

University of Manitoba Bannatyne and National Microbiology Laboratory

A largely overlooked area of modern medicine is preventative medicine. In medical schools and rehabilitation fields, we are trained to fix problems, a skill which is hard to apply if the problem is still in the future. However, that is not the way that medicine used to be. Historically, the town doctor took time to know their patients and understand their lifestyle, which was possible because they interacted with their patients more frequently, both personally and professionally, than doctors do today. And while (or, perhaps, because) we see the doctor less than ever before, the collective health of the U.S. population is consistently poor. In fact, every year since 2004, the U.S. has come in last place in terms of life expectancy among the top 11 industrialized countries in the world.

Preventative medicine often results in better personal and financial health for patients. For example, as detailed in the Scientific American article linked above, an otherwise healthy man was repeatedly admitted to the hospital for breathing problems during a scorching Texas summer, spending $60,000 on repeated hospital stays and medical exams. When someone finally stepped back to question why a relatively healthy individual suddenly developed poor lung health and sent a team member to visit the man’s home, they discovered that he lived without an air conditioner, which was damaging his lungs. The fix for this simple problem costed $400. 

Preventative medicine could also help relieve the health and economic challenges that people with obesity-related illnesses face. Routine check-ups with a doctor could catch heart disease or cancer before they become life-threatening. Regular dental cleanings can even be considered preventative medicine! Stopping diseases before they start is the best outcome for patients, and should be the goal of modern medicine.

Want to save the environment? Start small, but don't forget to advocate for big changes too.

Individual actions help us feel empowered while the global community works to reduce carbon emissions and pollution

Bhavya Singh


McMaster University

In the face of constant reports regarding the rapid and rising impacts of pollution and climate change, a call to action can often seem overwhelming. While there is a lot to be said about federal, global, and industry action, the power to incite mass changes isn’t always in our hands. However, there are things that we can do in our everyday lives that can add up.

Swapping a coffee cup with a reusable mug may not seem like a large impact if  you do it once, but what about bringing your own mug every day? If you’re one to drink two to three cups of coffee per day, that’s nearly a thousand coffee cups a year! That will surely cut down on your landfill contributions. According to David McLagan of Ecoffee Cup, "If two million people chose to reuse their cup just once a week, it would save 104 million cups a year." 

Clearly small swaps can add up over time. More importantly, they are stepping stones to larger changes. Setting and meeting achievable green goals can make way for a sustainable lifestyle. If you are understandably overwhelmed and unsure where to start, here are some swaps you can incorporate today:

1. Invest in a reusable coffee mug and water bottle. This can be a real money-saver if you normally drink bottled water.
2. Buy bigger tubs of yogurt and other snacks instead of to-go containers. This requires a few minutes to portion out your food into a reusable snack container, but has the added benefits of saving money and reducing plastic.
3. Carry your own utensils. Having a handy set of travel utensils (and potentially, straws) can reduce plastic waste. Some examples can be found here.
4. Cut down on take-out meals. Those styrofoam containers they are packaged in are bad for the environment and our health, and are hopefully going extinct: Earlier this year, Maine became the first U.S. state to ban styrofoam containers.

While seemingly insignificant in the short term, just a few months of sustainable changes can make an impact. However, research suggests that people often feel satisfied with the small changes they make and forget to support the larger-scale policy and economic solutions that are necessary to save the planet. Congratulations on doing what you have thus far, and at the same time, let's keep our eyes on the prize!

Those indestructible tardigrades probably won't take over the Moon

... but we should take interplanetary contamination seriously

Jennifer Tsang


On April 11 this year, the Israeli spacecraft Beresheet was about to land on the moon when it lost contact with Earth and crashed into the moon. Its precious cargo included a DVD-sized archive of 30 million pages of information… and thousands of tardigrades. Tardigrades, also known as “water bears,” are microscopic organisms that can survive under harsh conditions like radiation, extreme temperatures, and dehydration.

So should we be worried?

Without water, the moon is unlikely to support extraterrestrial life. The tardigrades spilled on the moon were dehydrated, meaning that for them to come back from dormancy, they need water - something they can’t get on the moon. (Another source of contamination: Apollo astronauts left 96 bags of human feces on the moon. It’s debated whether the microbes in there are alive or dead.

But for planets like Mars that has potential for supporting life, contamination is more worrisome. A tardigrade spill on Mars could endanger any possible life. This is why space missions to Mars and other moons, such as Europa, undergo sterilization precautions to reduce the chance of microbes from Earth hitching a ride to another celestial body and vice versa. 

Yet, can we actually safeguard against interplanetary contamination? Meteorites have bombarded planets for billions of years potentially transferring microbes from one planet to another. Some scientists think that interplanetary contamination has already happened. But it doesn’t hurt to be careful just in case. 

Though smelling sweet, linden trees are bad for bumblebees

A new study finds that linden nectar inflicts a one-two punch of toxicity and starvation on bees that depend on it

Prayan Pokharel


University of Giessen

Bumblebees (Bombus spp.) are the chunky black and yellow insects that dwell in our gardens. Their buzzy nature attracts children, home gardeners, naturalists, and scientists to take a closer look. Bumblebees do not produce large amounts of honey like the other types of bees do, but they are excellent pollinators of crops including cucumbers, tomatoes, squash, and a variety of berries. Unfortunately, bumblebees are in decline, and may eventually disappear all together.

Many European and North American cities have planted linden trees (Tilia spp., which can also go by the common name of basswood) in parks and along roads. These trees have lovely flowers and an "intoxicating" fragrance that attracts insects. However, a new study published last month in PLOS ONE suggests that, despite their appealing flowers, linden trees are killing bumblebees. 

I've observed this myself walking around my campus at the Institute for Insect Biotechnology at Justus Liebig University Giessen in Germany. In the last few days I have seen either crawling and dead bumblebees on the ground around the bases of linden trees. Bee mortality has previously been linked with mannose (a type of sugar) toxicity from the nectar. Bees that depend entirely on these trees are also at risk of starvation, because linden flowers bloom relatively late in the season and so nectar is only available at specific times of year.

The PLOS ONE study ties the story together. The researchers found that the mass death of bumblebees is due partly to ineffective metabolism of linden nectar and partly to a toxin in the nectar that impairs the bees' nervous systems. Specifically, in cool morning temperatures, the energy that the bees get from nectar isn't enough for constant flight, so the bees are forced to crawl on the ground and may not be able to regulate their body temperatures. Also, the linden nectar is loaded with toxic chemicals, so bees that continue feeding on it eventually die. 

The linden trees are just a small piece of the larger puzzle of what is causing bumblebee declines all over the world, but may point researchers working on other causes in new directions. Hopefully we can find a way to save the bumblebees, because they are responsible for much of the nutritious food we humans rely on each day.

Is your gut microbiome stealing your drugs?

New research identifies how our gut microbiomes interfere with the medications we take, and offers the possibility of medicine personalized to our gut bacteria.

Lauren Gandy

Biochemistry, Microbiology, and Chemical Biology

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Drugs can be incredibly effective or complete duds in different people: One that works for me may not do anything for you. Researchers at Yale have now pinpointed the genetic and metabolic processes of our gut microbes that cause these differences. 

Gut microbes perform a variety of natural functions in the human body, from digesting the carbohydrates in your lunch to producing essential vitamins. In addition, gut microbes also interact with pharmeceuticals – sometimes irreversibly changing the active component and inhibiting its intended function. 

Evaluating how these microbes modify drugs in vivo during product development is difficult, most notably because we have not identified all the microbes, and consequentially active in our intestinal tracts. Drugs treating everything from cancer to Parkinson’s disease show strong evidence of modification or inactivation from gut microbes, and until recently the "how" and "why" of this process was unclear.

Andrew Goodman’s team at Yale University tackled this problem by developing a “gain-of-function” assay. They introduced genes from one well-known bacterial species into E. coli cells and observed which cells degraded or changed a range of chemical compounds, functions that they were not able to perform before the bacterial gene was introduced. They tested a large variety of genes from our gut bacterial microbiome to see which genes encoded enzymes that affected 271 different drugs. 

This experiment and the data they produced offer exciting potential for drug development and disease treatment. For instance, drug developers could use the data to avoid using chemical compounds that are easily digested by common gut microbes. And doctors may eventually be able to cultivate a patient's microbiome and identify the exact reason why some presciption is not working as expected, and then identify drugs that might work more effectively.  

Warmer, less oxygenated water is a tough environment for fish

Researchers are doing experiments to understand how zebrafish deal with environmental stress

Michael Lim

Animal Physiology and Comparative Physiology

University of Guelph

A warmer world with more extreme weather events is here, and things will almost certainly get worse. Scientists are currently working to understand how animals may respond to these new environmental stressors, and particularly want to understand the effects of combined stressors that will likely co-occur in the real world. 

Two commonly occurring stressors that occur in aquatic environments and are often individually studied are high water temperatures and low water oxygen content (hypoxia). A new study by researchers at Canada's University of Guelph looks at the effects of these two stressors in concert on zebrafish embryos and larvae. Specifically, the researchers wondered whether zebrafish had increased tolerance to hypoxia when exposed to high temperature early in life. This could happen through a phenomenon known as "cross-talk," which occurs at the cellular level.

First, they needed to identify if exposure to just high temperature or just hypoxia would elicit similar responses from zebrafish embryos. They measured the average expression of genes from each stress pathway for each group to determine if there were differences in expression between embryos exposed to high temperatures and those exposed to hypoxic environments. They found that either stressor caused an increase in gene expression in the other stress pathway as well, suggesting that there was cellular cross-talk!

Next, to determine if the gene expression differences caused physiological changes for the fish themselves (not just within their cells), embryos from each treatment group were reared until the larval stage and then exposed to hypoxia. The researchers were looking for differences in larval tolerance to low-oxygen environments between larvae that had experienced the high-temperature environments as embryos and those that had already been exposed to hypoxic environments as embryos. They expected that more tolerant larvae would be able to maintain normal levels of activity (e.g. swimming) and have better survival rates than their counterparts at lower water oxygen levels. But contrary to their expectations, there was no significant increase in either tolerance or survival regardless of what conditions the larvae had been exposed to as embryos.

So although there was cross-talk at the cellular level, this did not translate into higher-level differences in zebrafish stress responses. Still, this research opens interesting avenues for better understanding whether animals will be able to increase their physiological tolerances to the warmer and less oxygenated environments that may develop as the climate changes

An aspirin a day might actually not keep the doctor away

Using aspirin to fight heart disease could, instead, have side effects like major bleeding

Sharon Casey

Clinical Research and Epidemiology

Harvard School of Dental Medicine

For years, people have been following doctor’s orders of taking a daily dose of aspirin for the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease (CVD). However, three randomized controlled trials published last year set out to determine the efficacy of a daily low dose of aspirin for this indication in adults, and they found surprising results. The associated health risks observed with daily aspirin were higher than expected, with few benefits overall. One such risk is major bleeding. Guidelines from the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology were re-evaluated and as of March 2019, they advise against daily aspirin use as a primary prevention of CVD for many adults.

To figure out how many U.S. adults might be affected by the changes, a group from Harvard and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center set out to characterize aspirin use for CVD prevention among this population. Based on data from the 2017 National Health Interview Survey, they project that nearly 30 million U.S. adults 40 years old and older used aspirin to prevent CVD despite having no known heart disease. A large proportion of these were self-medicating, which can be dangerous, even with an over-the-counter drug. While patients who have experienced a previous heart attack may still be advised by their doctors to take some aspirin, those with no history of CVD who do are potentially causing themselves harm. 

[Editor's note: This article does not constitute medical advice. If you have questions about using aspirin or CVD, please speak to a medical professional.]

How do you explain ant-mediated seed dispersal to a 5-year-old?

Read how this scientist explained myrmecochory to a kid, a college student, and a professor.

Eva Colberg

Conservation ecology, Botany, and Myrmecology

University of Missouri - St. Louis

Editor's note: as part of our Massive training, we ask authors to write about one concept for a few different audiences. It's inspired by one of our favorite science storytelling series: Wired's One Concept in 5 Levels of Difficulty video series. Here's one example of the result of this exercise!

Audience: a five year-old

Has your dog ever come home with a seed stuck to its fur, or have you ever thrown out an apple core because you don’t want to eat the seeds? These are both forms of seed dispersal, the movement of seeds to new homes away from their parents. Because seeds can’t walk on their own, sometimes they’re moved by the wind, sometimes by big animals, and sometimes by tiny animals, like ants. Some seeds have a gooey attachment that smells like yummy dead insects to hungry ants. Ants take their new food home to their nest, and the seed goes along for the ride, ending up in a new location where it has a higher chance of surviving and growing into a big plant.

Audience: a college student studying your field

Across the world, different plants have evolved seeds that rely on small but strong ants for movement. The distances ants transport these seeds are often small, under a meter or so, but the benefits can be quite large, as ant nests are often rich in nutrients and safe from predators. However, not all ant species provide obvious benefits to these plants, and some actually exploit the system, eating the juicy bits of the seed without dispersing it, or even worse, eating and killing the entire seed. This variation provides scientists with plenty of questions about seed dispersal, mutualism, and ecology.

Audience: someone with a PhD in your field

Seed dispersal is an important step in most plants’ life cycles, profoundly affecting fitness by determining many of the conditions in which new generations will germinate and grow. Different plants have evolved different strategies for seed dispersal, but one is particularly striking for its specificity of syndrome yet ubiquity across plant families, continents, and habitats. Seeds of around 11,000 species exhibit the same suite of traits that attract ants, which then disperse them with varying degrees of faithfulness. For something so common, we still have much to learn about the different evolutionary pressures that led to such convergent evolution.

When a narwhal mom and a beluga dad love each other very much...

Skull morphology suggested it, and DNA sequencing confirms it: narlugas are real

Mackenzie Thornbury

Immunology and Microbiology

University of Montreal

In 1990 a Danish Biologist noticed an odd narwhal skull in West  Greenland. The man who had hunted the animal described it as a mix between a narwhal and a beluga. These two types of whales were known to have synchronous mating seasons and close evolutionary history, which added up to a plausible story, but the origin of this hybrid creature could not be confirmed with the technology available.

Flash forward almost 30 years later and we finally have the technology to figure out whether narwhal-beluga whale hybrids really exist. Scientists from the Natural History of Denmark used Next Generation Sequencing (NGS), the results of which were recently published in Nature Scientific Reports. NGS allows researchers to sequence genomes in parallel, instead of one base at a time. This comes in handy when you’re working with a 31 million base-pair genome! But the authors didn’t just sequence the potential hybrid's genome, they also sequenced eight belugas and eight narwhals from West Greenland for comparison. 

Collecting DNA from the 30-year-old hybrid skull was a task in and of itself: bone and teeth contain much less DNA then tissues do, and so the researchers had to collect 0.5 g of bone dust for each  sample. Even from that, they were only able to cover 5% of the total  narwhal-beluga genome. Five percent of 31 million is still over 1 million base pairs. When the researchers compared these sequences to the two whale species, they observed similarities to both narwhals and  belugas. They also used NGS to determine which of the whale species - narwhal or beluga - contributed mitocondrial DNA, which is only passed down by mothers. Their final determination was that the hybrid was indeed a narwhal-beluga mix, with a narwhal mother. Some have even dubbed the animal a "narluga."

There are still so many mysteries about the world's biodiversity to be solved, and NGS will be key in unlocking them!

Can we take down the dude wall? Can universities glorify anyone besides white men?

Portrait collections showing only white male scientists send clear signals to anyone who does not fit the mold

Maddie Bender

Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Yale University

Sometimes, barriers to entry in science are invisible, like the lack of confidence felt more routinely by women than men. Other times, it is literally hanging on the walls themselves. The Yale School of Medicine’s flagship building is just one example: of the 55 portraits hanging throughout the building, 52 depict white men and three depict white women. 

The impact of these portraits on Yale medical students is the focus of a new study that appears to be the first of its kind. Researchers (also from Yale) conducted interviews with 15 students, the majority of whom were not white men, and organized their responses thematically.

Multiple students said they felt the portraits reflected institutional values of whiteness, maleness and elitism — values they did not share and, as a result, made them feel alienated. If the portraits could speak, “they might spit at me,” one student said. Others noted the literal whitewashing of history by glorifying the subjects in the portraits without acknowledging in some cases their ties to the slave trade.

These results should not shock anyone, but they do underscore the need for administrators to think critically about visual representation in science. Some hospitals and universities are tackling this issue by commissioning works depicting historic figures who made standout contributions to science despite their non-whiteness or maleness (and they certainly do exist). As Akiko Iwasaki, a Yale professor not involved in the study put it so elegantly on Twitter, “Can we take down the #dudewall?”

What do proteins and enzymes sound like? Now we know.

MIT researchers have created entire soundtracks from amino acid sequences with the help of artificial intelligence

Fiona Scott

Chemistry and Chemical Cancer Biology

University of Sussex

Researchers at MIT have just developed an artificial intelligence method to correlate amino acids found in the functional proteins in our bodies to music. They allocated a tone to each amino acid, and when the sequence of amino acids that makes up any given protein is played back, each is a unique musical composition.

This works so well because proteins are structurally complex, made up of hundreds of amino acid units which fold into distinct motifs and shapes that allow them to do their jobs in our cells. Proteins are typically studied by examining amino acid sequences or with 3-D X-ray crystallography - this new work provides a completely new way to study proteins. 

One challenge the researchers faced is that conventional musical scales have just 12 notes, but there are 20 amino acids that make up proteins in our bodies. They actually used quantum chemical theories to translate the specific vibrational frequencies of the molecules in the amino acids into sounds, then made these audible to human ears. In addition to the protein "orchestra" linked about, you can listen to another amino acid soundtrack in the MIT press release about this publication. 

One very exciting aspect of this method is that it is also possible to do the process in reverse to generate new proteins not found in nature based on small changes made by artificial intelligence to the existing protein soundtracks!

Newly released data shows that 76 billion opiod pills were distributed in just six years

Drug companies have been prioritizing profits over human lives for years

Alice Theibault

Environmental Science and Biotechnology

Rochester Institute of Technology

Opioid use and abuse has been on the rise in the United States since the late 1990’s, when drug companies began to market opioid products, particularly oxycodone, as safe and effective pain-relievers. This marketing scheme led to a dramatic increase in production and distribution of opioids. Deaths from opioids began to increase dramatically after 2000, and many illegal distribution centers sprang up to meet demand for the drugs. Things have gotten so bad that in 2017 the federal government declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency. Things haven't improved much since then.

Recently, the Washington Post and the Charleston Gazette-Mail teamed up to demand the public release of the Automation of  Reports and Consolidated Order System (ARCOS), a database containing information about how the companies produced and distributed opioids. Although only part of the database was released to the public, the information provides a solid overview of the opioid epidemic’s scope and impact. For instance, we now know that a staggering 76 billion pills were distributed around the US between 2006 - 2012. Alarmingly, the information in the database showed that many of the companies manufacturing opioids ignored requirements from the DEA to report suspicious orders, filling them in the hopes of maximizing profits.

What I find particularly striking about this report is the very idea that opioids could be widely used safely. Opioids are, by nature, powerfully addictive drugs, because they stimulate the release  of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Did the drug companies not know that people could get addicted to their products before their abuse became a problem? Or did they simply not care?

Hopefully, now that this information is available, policymakers and physicians can use it in response to the opioid crisis. The evidence implicating the companies will also make it easier for plaintiffs to hold them accountable. Unfortunately, the data comes too late for the many victims of the opioid epidemic, which by now has had devastating social and economic costs for them and their families. 

Cassie Freund


Wake Forest University

Gabriela Serrato Marks

Marine Geology

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

We here at Massive have great taste. Particularly when it comes to science writing. It's our job! These are the stories we've been reading this week that we think you should read too. Imagine this round-up like your favorite cupcake baker taking you around town to all the cupcake shops they love. You all do that too right? 

The obsession with colonizing space from many people (especially the ultra rich) has always been baffling to me. Space is big, and dead. It always struck me as a kind of anti-environmentalism, where we can solve all the problems we've made here on Earth by just packing up and leaving. It isn't happening. -DS

Dying from heatstroke seems like something that can only happen to extreme athletes or particularly unlucky folks. This article (the partner to Outside's piece on what it's like to die of hypothermia) dispels that myth. Human physiology piled onto mildly questionable choices -  that certainly wouldn't be deadly in other circumstances - can easily result in a very dangerous situation for anyone spending time outdoors in the summer sun. Read this article as a reminder to keep yourself and your loved ones safe on your next hike or beach day. - CF

 Algae's kind of gross but harmless as long as you’re not a kid or a dog and don’t swim in it. Also PSA, don’t let your dog eat algae chips: “It’ll get all crunchy like potato chips, and the dogs love to eat that.” - GSM

No explanation necessary. -DS

Caregiving is increasingly falling to young people, especially minority millenials

Employers and government have a responsibility to help ease the burden for those caring for loved ones with dementia

Sophie Okolo

Health Technology

With Alzheimer’s disease expected to impact 16 million individuals in the US by 2050, younger generations will increasingly assume caregiving responsibilities. More than a third of today’s caregivers are employed full-time. As millennials take on more and more informal caregiving responsibilities, public and workplace policies must consider financial assistance or other support (e.g., family leave or allocated time off). 

More than half of millennial caregivers are minorities and are more likely than any other generation to balance caregiving with employment. Latinx millennials work more hours each week, on average, and spend more time providing care than young adults of other backgrounds. This is partly because Latino culture is built around families and they are, therefore, more likely to live in multigenerational households. 

With these challenges come opportunities to promote policies that enable active engagement and quality of life for millennial caregivers who are ethnoculturally diverse. Both the public and private sectors must collaborate to create culturally sensitive resources and implement innovative strategies affecting the millennial caregiving experience. While by no means exhaustive, the list below provides some ideas that could lead to a substantial impact.

Health Effects: Better training for informal caregivers to understand the signs of dementia (and specifically Alzheimer's disease) and the family caregiving experience. This can help identify and tackle stressors to reduce caregiver burnout and depression.

Financial Well-being: Permitting Medicare Advantage plans to offer a respite care benefit as a distinct and optional benefit. Medicare currently covers respite as a part of its hospice benefit, but the beneficiary qualifications are more appropriate for patients who are terminally ill. 

Employee Productivity: Supporting caregivers through flexible work policies, including offering paid or unpaid caregiving leave beyond the requirements of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This is a promising but still emerging trend that has been shown to boost an employer’s competitive advantage in  recruitment and retention. Currently, FMLA covers only 55 to 60% of workers due to limitations on eligibility. For instance, employees must have worked for their current employer for at least 12 months.

As the burden of dementia increases in the US, it may also be worth looking toward Japan - a country where 27% of the population is over 65 years old - for the "dos and don'ts" of how to create effective public policies and social space for those affected and their caregivers. 

New parasitic interaction discovered in Antarctic lakes

We still understand very little about life in Earth's most extreme environments

Nicholas McCarty


California Institute of Technology

When most people think of “parasites”, they imagine malaria, tapeworms, and the mind-controlling Toxoplasma gondii

But researchers from the University of New South Wales in Australia have observed a new parasitic interaction in salty Antarctic lakes. The study has enhanced our understanding of how some organisms acquire nutrients and survive in freezing cold environments.

The researchers collected water from two different lakes in Antarctica and found that it contained a large amount of archaebacteria, which are highly resilient organisms that inhabit some of the world’s most extreme environments. They found especially high numbers of two species called Nanohaloarchaeum  antarcticus and Halorubrum lacusprofundi.

Previously believed to be ‘free-living’ organisms, the  Nanohaloarchaea are actually unable to survive on their own. Instead, they acquire essential nutrients by poking holes in H. lacusprofundi cells, sucking out their cytoplasmic “juices”, and feasting on their gooey insides. Yum!

We still have a lot to learn about how microorganisms survive in extreme environments, as evidenced by this fascinating discovery.

Planting trees is great, but it's not a silver bullet for stopping climate change

Although new research finds that huge areas of the earth could be reforested, this will not let us off the hook for reducing emissions

Xinwen Zhu

Systems Biology

Boston University

As a growing number of world governments declare climate emergencies and cities around the world experience record-smashing deadly heatwaves, more thought is being given to concrete actions that will limit global warming and avert the transformation of our planet into a “hothouse” state. In addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it will likely be necessary to invest in carbon capture – reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by storing the carbon in other forms. Photosynthetic organisms naturally convert atmospheric carbon dioxide into biomass as they grow, so one straightforward strategy is to increase forest cover.

A recent study published in Science analyzed satellite photographs of the Earth and determined that our planet could theoretically support just under a billion new hectares of forest cover without impinging on existing urban and agricultural land, potentially enough to allow us to meet climate goals. However, this estimate assumes current environmental conditions, and the actual potential forest cover could be much lower due to climate change itself. 

While a global reforestation effort would likely require international collaboration, over half of the estimated potential forest is in one of six countries: Russia, the United States, Canada, Australia, Brazil, or China. Tree planting is considered the cheapest and simplest solution to climate change, but it will certainly have to be mixed with emission reduction and other carbon capture strategies to represent a clear path forward.

Meet Eunice Foote, early climate scientist and women's rights leader

Her experiments uncovered the greenhouse effect three years before the man who was widely credited with this discovery

Rebecca Dzombak


University of Michigan

In the spirit of Massive's "Science Heroes" theme, I present Eunice  Newton Foote, an early climate scientist and leader of women's rights. Since July 17 would have been her 200th birthday, here are a few facts about the woman who demonstrated the greenhouse effect and predicted its effect in the geologic past before John Tyndall, who is commonly credited with that accomplishment.

1. Foote was one of the committee members for the Seneca Falls Convention for women's rights, and was one of the signers of the Declaration of Sentiments.

2.  Foote's research on carbon dioxide and water vapor's effects on  temperature were published in 1856, three years prior to Tyndall's work on the greenhouse effect (which did not credit her experiments or publication).

3. Having attended Troy Female Seminary and taken basic science courses at a nearby college, Foote then carried out her  experiments not at a university, but in a lab at her home. 

4. Foote's work was presented at the American Association  for the Advancement of Science by a male colleague, although it's  debated whether this was because women were not permitted to present work, or for other reasons. 

5. Her research was later published under her own name. Foote was an AAAS member, but the organization did not grant women the title of 'Fellow.'

Although little is known about Foote following the Convention, and the 1856 publication appears to be her only paper, she now stands as more than a Foote-note in time. 

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