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Estimating pi with candy and a drawing

This is the perfect way to celebrate Pi Day, even without any pie

Nick Young

Physics

Michigan State University

Like many quantities in science, we can never determine the value of π exactly, but we can approximate it. You can even estimate π yourself with candy and a piece of paper.

Start by drawing a square. Let’s make it 8.5 inches long on each side so it fills up the width of a standard sheet of office paper. Now, draw a circle with a diameter of 8.5 inches within that square. 

Now we need something to drop onto the drawing, like grains of rice or M&Ms. Begin by covering the square and circle with the objects and then count the number that are within the circle and the total number of objects. From this information, we can estimate the value of π. We can calculate the area of a circle with π r2, where r is the radius (the distance from the center of the circle to the outside). Based on how we drew the circle and square, the square will have a side length of 2r, so the area will be (2r)2 or 4r2

Back to the M&Ms: to guess how many of the dropped candies will land inside the circle, we can calculate the ratio of the circle’s area to the square’s area: (π r2)/4r2 = π/4. When I tried this with 100 M&Ms, I found that 78 of them were inside the circle and 22 of them were outside the circle but inside the square. This means 78% of the total M&Ms landed in the circle. From our ratio calculations, we estimated that π/4 candies would land within the circle. Now, we can compare the fraction of the M&Ms that landed in the circle to the theoretical number to estimate π. Doing so, we find π/4 = 0.78 so π is about 3.12. The actual value of π is 3.14159265…. so our result isn’t a bad approximation. If we wanted to get a better estimate, we could use a lot more M&Ms and a much bigger drawing.

Of course, counting all the M&Ms takes a long time, so using more than a few hundred M&Ms isn’t practical. Instead of actually dropping M&Ms onto a square and circle, we could write a computer program to simulate dropping thousands or even millions of candies onto a circle and square and counting them up. The computer can “drop” and count a million M&Ms in a matter of seconds. When I tried this, I found that 785,389 of the 1 million simulated M&Ms landed within the circle, leading to an estimated value of 3.141556, which is even closer to the true value of pi than our estimate using only 100 M&Ms. 

This is only one of many ways to approximate π. Nevertheless, this is a simple way to estimate π with just regular household materials.

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

Microbiology

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

Microbiology

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

Entomology

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

Ecology

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

Bioengineering

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

Biogeochemistry

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. 

The unknowns of US immigration policy are increasing anxiety among first-generation Latinx teens

More studies on the long-term health consequences of these policies on immigrant families are urgently needed

Alejandra Canales

Neuroscience and Biochemistry

University of Wisconsin - Madison

Despite the fast-moving news cycle nowadays, shifting immigration policies and policy guidelines make headlines every week. At the end of one dizzying week that included a serious discussion on the decriminalization of border crossings and a Supreme Court ruling against adding a citizenship question on the 2020 U.S. Census, the Supreme Court announced it would hear the Trump administration’s appeal to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) next fall, just in time to issue their ruling the summer before the election. And that was just one week in June.

Dreamers have faced uncertainty about their immigration status since September 2017 when the Trump administration moved to terminate the program and the federal courts took up several lawsuits challenging these actions. Now, new research shows that immigration policy concerns are taking mental tolls on first-generation Latinx (Latino/Latina) adolescents. 

Using data from a long-term study of primarily Mexican families living in California’s Salinas Valley region, researchers surveyed 397 sixteen-year-olds with at least one immigrant parent. In the year following the 2016 presidential election, nearly half of the teens reported that they worried about how immigration policies could affect themselves and their families. Compared to before the 2016 election, the teens who worried more about immigration policy also reported an increase in symptoms of anxiety. Particularly among teenage boys, higher anxiety was correlated with poor sleep quality. 

As we debate changes to U.S. immigration policy, many immigrant families are having difficult conversations about planning for the worst-case scenario. This research shows that the uncertainty regarding immigration status has effects on mental health in children as well as adults. More studies need to be done to address the long-term health consequences of these policies on immigrant families, both directly and indirectly through their access to healthcare services. 

Fighting cancer with exploding antibody-filled bacteria

A new study finds that these juiced-up microbes can shrink tumors in mice

Nicholas McCarty

Bioengineering

California Institute of Technology

Researchers at Columbia University have engineered bacteria to dive into tumors and explode, releasing a tiny antibody. The study, published in Nature Medicine, is part of a larger trend in synthetic biology, a field of research that aims to genetically modify living organisms for human benefit.

In the study, E. coli, a microbe that normally resides in the human gut, was engineered to create and release the therapeutic nanobody inside of tumors. The team tested their “cancer-killing” microbe in mice with B-cell lymphoma and observed that tumors injected with the engineered microbes rapidly shrank. 

But this isn't the coolest part of the study.

The  mice had tumors in both of their legs, but when just one of their legs was injected with the programmed bacteria, both tumors began to shrink. This observation supports an old idea in cancer biology called the abscopal effect. The hypothesis underlying this effect posits that that untreated tumors will shrink when a different tumor is treated due to peripheral actions by the immune system. 

While these engineered microbes will not be used in hospitals any time soon, this study offers an intriguing glimpse into the amazing, ongoing interactions between the immune system, bacteria, and metastatic cancer. 

Silver-haired bats wake up, re-heat their bodies, and flee when attacked

They can warm themselves up faster than any other mammal, increasing the odds that they escape incoming predators

Kristina Muise

Animal Physiology

University of Winnipeg

Imagine waking up in a panic from a deep sleep in response to a predator in the area. Now imagine doing that but having to rewarm your body temperature back to a normal level in order to flee or fight off the predator. This is exactly what silver-haired bats (Lasionycteris noctivagans) do, and surprisingly they are able to do it the quickest out of any mammal measured to date. 

To figure this out, I and other researchers at the University of Winnipeg measured body temperature changes in response to an acute stress in three different situations. The first was during the night as the bats were out searching for food, the second was under normal resting conditions during the day, and the third was during the day when the bats were cold (torpid). In all cases, we measured body temperatures immediately, then measured them again after five minutes of handling. The handling induced the same stress response the bats would have when accosted by a predator.

Surprisingly, we found that bats feeding in the night decrease their body temperature in response to handling, potentially to avoid overheating. Bats resting during the day increased body temperatures moderately, as expected. Very surprisingly, however, body temperatures increased extremely quickly when they were cold. This quick response in body temperature change may reflect this species' ability to deal with predators and people.

Your salad might bring an unwanted guest to the dinner table

A new study finds that bagged and canned produce can occasionally (but rarely) come with a side of frog, lizard, bird, or rodent

Cassie Freund

Ecology

Wake Forest University

As I was perusing Twitter the other day, a story from Vice titled, "Your Bagged Salad is Full of Frogs," caught my eye. The piece opens with the tale of a California woman who found a little frog in her salad bowl. She (understandably) freaked out, but in a heartwarming twist, she and her husband cleaned the little guy off and built him a terrarium so he can live out his days with them in their home. They dubbed the frog "Lucky."

This story is just one in a newly published dataset of the prevalence of vertebrates in produce sold in the U.S. between 2003-2018. The research, led by Daniel Hughes of the University of Illinois and published this month in Science of the Total Environment, is unique in that it uses online media reports of cases like Lucky's to explore how human-wildlife conflict in our agricultural systems can impact food safety. 

Unpleasant as it sounds, bagged salads can include surprise guests like frogs, rodents, and snakes. Check your food before you eat it!

U.S. Department of Agriculture / Flickr

Agricultural fields may appear monotonous from our point of view, but they're still habitat for wild animals like frogs, lizards, and rodents. Harvesting is now mostly automated, which is highly efficient but also means that there is no human being watching out for small animals that might be scooped up in the process. Rarely, these animals can make it into our food. To figure out just how common this is, Hughes searched the web and logged all stories he found with keywords like "frog," "mouse," "snake," "fish," bird" combined with produce items like "salad," "lettuce," "mixed greens," and "vegetable."

The search turned up 40 cases of animals or animal parts in produce products between 2003-2018. These included 21 amphibians (frogs and toads), nine reptiles (lizards and snakes), seven mammals (mostly rodents, with one bat) and three birds. Nearly 75% of these were in conventional produce, as opposed to organic, which was the opposite of what Hughes expected, and the majority of cases were found in bagged produce.

This is gross and shocking, but it's important to keep these 40 cases in perspective: Americans eat 11 pounds of green/red leaf and Romaine lettuce per person per year, and so a very, very small percentage of bagged salads come complete with an animal surprise. Even so, it is a good idea to thoroughly check produce for unwanted hangers-on before you eat it. Who knows - you might even end up with a new pet!

An influx of smelly seaweed is deadly for marine animals in the Caribbean

The explosion of Sargassum is bad for coastal ecosystems and tourism

Lowell Iporac

Marine Biology and Marine Ecology

Florida International University

The next time you vacation to a Caribbean beach like Cancún, you might be greeted with a smell of rotten eggs! Since 2011, blooms of a brown seaweed called Sargassum have been piling and decomposing on the Caribbean beaches where they make landfall. Decomposing algae remove oxygen from the water, killing marine life and affecting the businesses that depend on those beaches.

But how much marine death has been caused by the massive influxes of Sargassum? A team of researchers in the Yucatán region of México recently published an article in the Marine Pollution Bulletin that quantifies the mortality of marine life from 2018’s Sargassum bloom season. They counted the number of marine animals that had washed up on the east coast of the Yucatán, which includes popular tourist spots Puerto Morelos and Cancún. They also collected water samples to assess the water quality in the affected areas. 

The dead animals they found comprised 78 species. Over half were fish (59%), followed by crustaceans (28%) many of which came from shallow coral reef habitats close to the seaweed-strewn beaches. They also found that water quality was poor, with low-oxygen conditions and increased ammonium and hydrogen sulfide in the water. Conditions like that combined with the high amount of toxins have made a perfect storm of massive mortality from a decomposing seaweed. 

Managing the Sargassum in those coastal areas will be of utmost importance, as these heavy influxes of Sargassum will affect the local coastal environment and the economies that depend on those areas. 

Measuring the health of huge ecosystems is possible with the help of tiny ants

A new study on ant communities in restored ecosystems underscores the importance of keeping forests and grasslands intact

Eva Colberg

Conservation ecology, Botany, and Myrmecology

University of Missouri - St. Louis

Measuring the health of an entire ecosystem is a huge task. Often scientists look at one group of animals or plants as a metric of how well an ecosystem is working, and one good proxy is ant communities. The diversity of ant species in an area can indicate how suitable an ecosystem is for these tiny workers - who perform important ecological roles, from dispersing seeds to breaking down wood and returning the nutrients to the soil - as well as how amenable that place is for as their larger mammalian, reptilian, and plant counterparts.

Aside from performing so many ecological roles, ants are also relatively easy to survey (see the video below for an example of how researchers study ants) making them an ideal proxy for the success of ecological restoration like reforestation. Compared to natural regeneration, or leaving an area to recover from some disturbance on its own, active restoration requires some investment of time, money, and resources. Active restoration can be worth the extra input if it accelerates or increases the recovery of disturbed places, so measuring its effects on the ant community under different conditions can help us better repair the damage we (or natural forces like hurricanes and fires) have caused to ecosystems.

In March of this year, researchers at the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, published a paper that looked at previous studies done on ant communities in restoration projects around the world. They evaluated the differences in the number of ant species and functional groups (groups of ant species that have similar characteristics) between restored areas and similar undisturbed areas. Measuring both the number of species and number of functional groups present in an area is important because when multiple species perform the same ecological roles, an ecosystem is more resilient to environmental change. Selected studies included temperate and tropical ecosystems, former mines and pastures, and different restoration ages, allowing the researchers to gauge recovery speed and test for effects of land use history and ecosystem type on the ant communities. 

Overall, ant communities in restored ecosystems appear to regain functional richness more quickly than species richness, implying low resilience in these areas. This does not mean that restoration is ineffective, but rather underscores the fragility of recovering ecosystems and the importance of preventing disturbance when possible. Restoration ecologists and practitioners might also improve restoration success by facilitating the recovery of species diversity. 

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