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.
Young children these days are exposed to more screen time than any generation previously. Not only are they exposed to traditional media technology such as the television, but access to newer technologies such as hand-held tablet devices means that screen time has become an integral part of growing up in today’s society.
In April of this year, a World Health Organization report recommended that children between the ages of 3-4 years old should have no more than 1 hour of sedentary screen time per day. Now, emerging evidence is suggesting that excessive screen time can have detrimental neurological effects on young children. A recent study published in JAMA Pediatrics utilized an MRI technique called diffusion tensor imaging alongside a survey to assess a child’s screen time.
The study authors found that in healthy children between the ages of 3-5, children who had greater than one hour of screen time per day had decreased integrity of their white matter in tracts that support language, literacy and executive functioning. These trends persisted even after controlling for child age and household income. This suggests that early screen use may impair early brain function and development, and supports the recommendations made by the World Health Organization earlier this year.
The phenomenon of menopause has long confounded biologists. From a strictly evolutionary perspective, the life goal of any living thing is to survive long enough to reproduce and pass on its genes to a new generation. So understanding why some animals, including humans, live long beyond they are able to reproduce has been puzzling.
One hypothesis for why menopause has persisted is called the "grandmother effect." Female animals (and humans) who live long enough to see their children have children are thought to earn additional evolutionary currency by helping their grandchildren, who carry 25% of grandma's genes, survive — a concept called inclusive fitness. There is some evidence that the grandmother effect is a factor in why humans are so long-lived, but we are still learning whether this is true for other animals.
Now, a new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences establishes strong evidence for the grandmother effect in orcas, colloquially known as killer whales. Orcas live in female-led, or matrilineal, societies and travel in tightly-knit family groups. Using a 30-year dataset comprised of photographs of two groups of killer whales and long-term observations of their behavior, they found that the support of grandmothers substantially increased survival of their grand-offspring. Given average values of salmon abundance (a key food source for these two groups of orcas), young whales who lost their maternal grandmother within the past two years were 4.5 times more likely to die than a young whale with a living maternal grandmother. This is because grandmothers help provide safety and food to the young whales, and teach them how to make their way in the world.
This study, combined with previous findings about the reproductive costs incurred by both mother and grandmother whales when they are both raising children at the same time (an effect that this study was able to replicate), tells us a great deal about the evolutionary rationale for menopause. Grandmotherly support is key for long-lived organisms, like us and our whale cousins, to raise our young, and this effect is so powerful that it may have enabled us to live into our nineties and beyond. So next time you see her, give your grandma (or someone else's!) an extra big hug.
In an era where Internet-connected devices can measure your pulse, the ability of these smartphone devices to identify cardiac diseases is still unknown — and presents an untapped potential. More than half a million people in the United States are unaware they suffer from cardiac disorders, such as . This condition, in which the heart beats irregularly, increases the risk of suffering a stroke by five times, and could even lead to heart failure. But can an app in your smartwatch detect it?
Researchers set out to investigate if a notification algorithm in an Apple Watch application was capable of identifying atrial fibrillation. In the , participants used a smartwatch app to monitor for irregular pulses during an average of 117 days. In the study, participants that received an irregular pulse notification from the app — which may be possible atrial fibrillation — were asked to start a e-health consult through the app and received, via the mail, an electrocardiogram-patch to wear at home for up to a week to confirm the disorder.
Atrial fibrillation was confirmed in 34% of the participants who received irregular pulse notifications by the app and completed the electrocardiograms. Overall, the chance of getting an irregular pulse notification while suffering from this cardiac disease at the same time was 84%.
Even though detection technologies are rapidly advancing, additional studies are still necessary to further develop notification algorithms in smartwatches as reliable tools for disease diagnosis. People who experience , such as racing heartbeats, shortness of breath, or chest pain, should still pay a visit to the doctor.
Many of us biologists conduct fieldwork in diverse places, from Alaska to the tropics, from aiming to understand how microbes are responding to climate change in the boreal soils to learning about life history strategies and co-evolutionary arms races of bats, their ectoparasitic flies, and the ectoparasitic fungi living on those flies.
The days before fieldwork tend to be hectic: make a checklist to make sure you have everything you need, think about a plan B (and a plan C, just in case), anticipate drawbacks and plan on how to address them, and the list goes on and on. The day comes. You make it to your field site, you collect the samples you want, obtain the data you need, everything works out just like planned, and you make it back to the lab — safe, on time, and without going over your planned budget. This is how it should be, but it never really goes like that.
Fieldwork is one of the most exciting experiences about doing research. It is also, in many cases, high-risk. During fieldwork, many things can go wrong, and most of those things cannot be helped. We cannot control the appearances of massive puddles in the middle of the road, critically damaging our transportation vehicles. We cannot control the thunderstorm that makes our study organisms disappear when we finally arrive at a remote field site after hours of climbing a mud-covered mountain.
Sadly, this is not always the case for threats to our integrity as human beings, and we, as a scientific community, have done far too little to address this problem. People from underrepresented groups in the sciences such as people of color, women, and those who identify as LGBTQIA+ or gender nonconforming often are at higher risk of suffering abuse during fieldwork. This comes in the form of sexual harassment, sexual abuse, discrimination, and intimidation. Scientists who have experienced abuse often fear talking about it because they are traumatized and because they fear retaliation and backlash, especially if the perpetrators of abuse are colleagues or superiors — advisers and people at higher career stage.
In Spring 2018, we carried out an anonymous survey to collect testimonies of what scientists, specifically from the LGBTQIA+ community, experience during fieldwork. The idea for such a survey sprouted from concerns that sexual orientation or gender identity may play an unwanted or unwarranted role in people’s professional career. Especially during fieldwork, when Diversity and Inclusion Offices from our university campuses are far away, LGBTQIA+ researchers are exposed to people who may not agree with their sexual orientation or who do not understand why “he” may want to be addressed as “they.”
Responses revealed experiences ranging from discrimination to situations that made researchers decide to no longer perform fieldwork outside of safe places. This adds a whole new level to fieldwork stress, namely having to evaluate sites for their tolerance towards LGBTQIA+. In one story from fieldwork, men voiced discomfort because an openly gay man would share a room with them while, simultaneously, women felt uncomfortable due to the possibility of having to share a room with someone from the opposite sex. Another survey respondent described that they were fearful to carry out fieldwork in places that are recognized for their homophobic culture. These experiences leave people feeling isolated and rejected.
We present a few strategies that we can instill in STEM fields to avoid cases like these:
1) INFORM PEOPLE ABOUT LGBTQIA+. Erase any misinformation that may exist. For example, a gay man is not a threat to the sexuality of cisgender males. Institutions can facilitate trainings on diversity and inclusiveness and provide information on the LGBTQIA+ community to eliminate negative stereotypes.
2) HAVE SUFFICIENT FUNDING AVAILABLE FOR FIELDWORK. Although sometimes it's unavoidable to share rooms due to limited budget or space, if there is the possibility to do so, provide individual lodging for people traveling to fieldwork or conferences. Especially for those who ask for it.
3) DEVELOP AN EMERGENCY PROTOCOL. As a lab, department, or institution, develop a protocol that scientists can follow as a response to experiencing a threat to their integrity. Protocols like this should be part of a broader departmental or university-wide mission statement about equity in field work. The bar has been set high by this example of a mission statement written by University of California Irvine professor Kathleen Treseder.
4) AVOID INTOLERANT AREAS. It is important to note that this does not only apply to countries like Niger and Tunisia where discriminatory laws expose LGBTQIA+ individuals to the risk of death penalty. It also applies close to home, in the USA, where there is an ongoing debate about public restrooms and which one transgender people and people who identify as gender-nonconforming should use.
5) IMPLEMENT A ZERO-TOLERANCE POLICY. Inform everyone in your lab, department and institution that there is a zero-tolerance policy regarding abuse. A code of conduct with expected versus unaccepted behavior and practices should always be made available through trainings and in field stations.
Cystic fibrosis (CF) is a chronic condition which primarily affects the lungs and digestive system. A new study published in PNAS presents a new diagnostic method — the test takes just two minutes, is minimally invasive, requires no sample processing, and is highly accurate.
Every individual has two copies of the CFTR gene. In order to present with CF, both copies of the CFTR gene will contain mutations, resulting in a non-functional protein. Dysfunctional CFTR leads to a mucus build-up, resulting in persistent lung infections and other organ complications.
While there is currently no cure for CF, an early diagnosis means that therapies, like antibiotics to prevent lung infections and mucus-thinning drugs, can be started earlier, improving an individual's quality of life and increasing life expectancy. Currently, a sweat chloride test is the gold standard for CF diagnosis; this test measures the amount of chloride (a component of salt) that is present in sweat.
First described in 1959, in this test, a colorless chemical and a small pulse of electrical simulation is applied to a small area of skin, over a five minute period, to prompt sweating. This sweat is then collected using filter paper or gauze for about half an hour, before being sent off to a laboratory for chloride analysis. This entire test can take up to three hours to complete. This test is also prone to technical errors, and requires a high degree of skill, especially when it comes to testing newborn children.
In this new study, researchers have developed a two minute test to diagnose CF. It involves gently swiping a standard microscope slide across an individual’s forehead to collect sweat products, instead of stimulating sweat. This five second scrape needs no additional sample processing — mass spectrometry can be directly applied to the microscope slide to analyze the sweat components, taking a total of two minutes to collect and test samples. Coupled with a machine learning algorithm, the researchers were able to correctly identify CF cases 98% of the time (with a 2% margin of error).
While this is simply a proof-of-concept, the study offers the potential of earlier, and less invasive, CF diagnosis. Will it replace the the sweat chloride test and become the gold standard for CF diagnosis? Only time — and additional testing — will tell.
Making measurements is at the heart of doing science. Whether scientists are peeking at the inside of a cell or looking for habitable planets orbiting distant stars, all scientists would kill for a more sensitive detection device. In fact, scientists already spend a ton of energy trying to improve detection devices by eliminating noise or any unwanted signals which drown out the thing they are trying to measure.
But even if they could make the best detector possible by eliminating all sources of noise, scientists still wouldn't be able to get around a fundamental limit: the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. A consequence of quantum mechanics, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle states that if we measure one aspect of a system very precisely, for example, an object's position, then we lose information about a different aspect of the system, e.g., how fast the object is moving.
While this is a rule of quantum mechanics that can't be broken, quantum mechanics also provides a means of bending the rule. For example, if we really care about the position of an object, but not so much about the way it's moving, then we can put the object in a quantum state where the uncertainty of the position is reduced at the expense of greater uncertainty in the motion.
Let’s apply this concept to a pendulum: if we want to know how fast it is swinging back and forth, we could make a “quantum” pendulum that has lower uncertainty in its frequency of oscillation, or the swinging motion. As a consequence, though we would lose information about its energy, or the height of each swing.
This is what we explored in our Naturestudy earlier this year. A single ion, or charged atom, confined by electric fields, behaves just like this pendulum: it oscillates back and forth. By increasing the uncertainty in the ion’s energy, we were able to reduce the uncertainty in our measurement of its oscillation, thereby bending the rules of the pesky Heisenberg uncertainty principle in our favor.
Many things in our world behave just like this pendulum, and the demonstration of using quantum mechanics to enhance our measurement precision is an important step that many other fields can benefit from.
Findings from a recent study published in Nature reveal an unlikely physiological connection between the nervous system activity and longevity. Pattern shifts in the brain’s excitation levels have long been linked to specific neurological conditions such as epilepsy and dementia. Now, Bruce Yanker and his team describe for the first time these new implications of overactive brain signaling.
On a biochemical level, brain activity — which encompasses anything from thoughts, feelings or motor coordination — sets off a cascade of molecular pathways in neurons.
Could REST levels, therefore, be a diagnostic marker of brain activity levels and consequently life span?
To test this hypothesis, the Yanker laboratory performed a comprehensive study using a variety of experimental models, including worms, genetically-modified mice and even brain tissue samples from individuals with lifespans of over a hundred years.
In these models, evidence supporting REST’s involvement in both neural excitation and biochemical pathways was found to be correlated with aging. REST was found to be a pivotal inhibitor of genes that stimulate effective communication between neurons.
Fascinatingly, REST was also strongly correlated with longevity, with centenarians found to have almost double the amounts of REST in the nuclei of their neurons as compared with those who only lived to their 70s.
Given this evidence, could our REST levels indicate how long we will live? Perhaps besides the molecular action of REST, could relaxation techniques such as meditation activate molecular processes that slow aging?
For now, the verdict is still unknown, but the authors suggest that REST may be a favorable therapeutic target for neurological conditions that are associated with overactive neural circuits, such as bipolar disorder.
There are two launches to the International Space Station (ISS) this week. Today, SpaceX's Dragon is launching to the ISS, carrying a bunch of different supplies, mostly resources for experiments ongoing at the ISS. Watch the launch here:
Among the resources being launched is the Hyperspectral Imager Suite (HISUI), a Japanese-designed instrument for imaging Earth from space. Look at it:
This launch is uncrewed, which is a shame 'cause check out SpaceX's wild, futuristic suit:
On Friday, an uncrewed Russian Soyuz Progress 74 craft launches with more supplies.
New research, out in Nature Communications, shows that working with a prestigious scientist can give junior researchers a competitive advantage throughout their careers.
By examining the publication data from over 20,000 scientists in the fields of cell biology, chemistry, physics, and neuroscience, this study found that early co-authorship predicts a higher probability of repeatedly coauthoring work with top-cited scientists. This then leads to a higher likelihood of becoming a top scientist twenty years later. Here, the researchers defined a "top" scientist as an individual belonging to the top 5% of cited authors in their discipline for that same year.
In addition, junior researchers affiliated with less prestigious institutions reap the most benefits from co-authorship with a top scientist.
The authors admit that they can’t completely control for whether these students who co-author with top scientists are likely to excel in their career regardless. It may just be that top scientists attract top students, the authors say. Additionally, as the researchers only studied scientists who began their careers between 1980 and 1998, it could be that science today is more meritocratic.
Furthermore, although working with a top scientist was a strong predictor, their early career citations, productivity, and institutional prestige were still very important.
However, the research may indicate that prestige bias from working with top scientists is unfairly and systematically benefiting some students over others, leading to inequality in career outcomes which does not reflect scientific ability.
On Twitter, Giacomo Livan, one of the study's co-authors, says that “coauthorship with a top scientist truly has potential career-altering consequences.”
Argh - so many assumptions in this paper. A “top” researcher is a well-cited researcher. A “prestigious institution” is an institution highly ranked in bibliometrics-only rankings. “Career success” is being highly cited. C’mon people. https://t.co/ZqfLci3BVx
If you ever thought about going back in time and cracking open a cold one with the Egyptians, you might be surprised to find that ancient Egyptians drank a similar brewski to the ones on tap today.
The fermented drink featured prominently in Egyptian culture, a gift from the gods that graced pharaohs’ tombs and became the staple, everyday drink for men, women and children. To further probe the ancient Egyptian beer recipe, researchers recently took a physical sample from the vats of Egypt’s oldest brewery establishment (with a production volume reaching 650 bottles per vat!) and analyzed the chemical components of the preserved sludge.
The researchers found that more than a quarter of the total sample consisted of phosphoric acid. Phosphoric acid is commonly used today as a drink preservative and flavor enhancer, originating from hops in modern-day beer. Interesting, the previously oldest-known usage of phosphoric acid in alcoholic fermentation was in Crete, dating to approx. 1700 BCE. These Egyptian samples pre-date those by about 2000 years (~3600 BCE).
Further analysis identified other volatile organic acids and esters found in modern-day beer (caprylic acid, capric acid, laurate, and geranyl acetone to name a few) and bourbon whiskey (γ-nonalactone, which creates a coconut-like smell). Amino acids additionally accounted for 27.4% of the sample, with proline consisting of the majority (25.3%) of the amino acids. Proline is enriched in fruits, and previous evidence showed the addition of dates and grapes in ancient Egyptian beer residues, though botanical analysis has not confirmed this.
Though we know a lot about ancient Egypt, this is the first time scientists have shown that ancient Egyptians (perhaps) purposefully added barley, because its fermentation and subsequent phosphoric acid release preserved the all-important beverage and prevented rapid spoilage.
By this time of year, you probably think you’ve seen all of the pumpkin things that could ever exist: pumpkin pie, pumpkin candles – there’s even pumpkin spice spam. But you might not have seen a pumpkin toadlet (Brachycephalus ephippium). These weird and wonderful amphibians are native to eastern Brazil and are small enough to fit on a penny.
This year, scientists discovered that the toadlets (like some chameleons) have bones that glow! Although fluorescent bones are not unique to these toadlets, thin, light-colored skin combined with bones that are “exceptionally fluorescent” compared to closely related species means that the glow can be seen in living animals.
Conquistadors brought new human diseases like smallpox and cholera when they invaded North and South America. They also brought infections to local agriculture.
Bacterial wilt is a disease that can infect Curcurbita plants, like pumpkins, squash, and gourds. It also infects plants in the genus Cucumis, things like cucumber and muskmelon. Caused by the bacteria Erwinia tracheiphila, infected plants wilt, turn yellow and brown around the edges, and die off. The disease progresses down the vine until an entire crop could be lost. It is only transmitted from bites of the leaf beetle (the bacteria survives winter by living in the beetles' guts). Economic losses from bacterial wilt numbers in the millions of dollars.
E. tracheiphila is an unusual bacteria: its range is today limited to the Midwestern and eastern portions of North America, even though susceptible plants are distributed all over the world. When they analyzed the genetic diversity of the Erwinia bacteria, in search of an explanation for this unusually limited range, scientists last year found something unusual.
They found that Erwinia can be assigned to three related groups, but that overall there wasn't much genetic diversity in the bacteria, and genetic traits that are usually rare were overrepresented. These are two clues that the bacteria went through a "bottleneck," where a large percentage of the population died off, with the survivors eventually rebounding. They also found that cucumbers, a plant native to Europe, Asia, and Australia but absent from North America until the 1500s, could be infected by all three Erwinia groups, but pumpkins and squashes couldn't.
The scientists infer that the newly introduced cucumbers, brought by conquistadors in the 1500s, acted as a reservoir for Erwinia. Moving from Europe bottlenecked Erwinia, but it grew and diversified into infecting local plants native to the Americas. It had safe harbor in cucumbers until it developed the ability to spread elsewhere. In the same way that colonizers brought human diseases like smallpox and measles, they brought bacterial wilt to the crops.
So, if your squash is sick this Thanksgiving, you'll know who to blame.
In neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimers and Parkinson’s, accumulation of aberrant proteins leads to the death of neurons. This same disease process can also be observed in muscles, leading to the break down of muscle cells. One such class of degenerative diseases that affect the muscles are called myofibrillar myopathies (MFMs).
A new study by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis and University College London has looked at aggregates of proteins in muscle cells to understand how a protein called desmin is involved in muscle degeneration. Based on a host of genetic and structural clues, they suspected that desmin could assemble in muscles in a similar way to how other protein aggregates form in the brain. They ultimately found that desmin aggregates can destroy muscle cells.
To do this, they first used an algorithm to help them predict forms of desmin they could use to study protein aggregation. Next, in order to look for and measure these aggregations, they used various types of spectroscopy and microscopy. They observed not only desmin aggregates but also the presence of prominent fibrils, or long, thin protein fibers. They were also interested in exactly how desmin aggregated: for example, did a few proteins clump together and then recruit others to join them, or does the aggregate form all at once? Finally, they tested whether the desmin fibrils that they had observed were toxic to skeletal muscle cells. When the desmin aggregates were added, they saw that the muscle fibers collapsed.
This research may help us understand how to more effectively treat MFMs. From a therapeutic standpoint, having a clear picture how these aggregates come together can lead to development of inhibitor drugs. Although MFMs are rare, they can be extraordinarily painful and be life threatening, so advances in treatment of these diseases would substantially help many people.
It's easy to give thoughtless gifts. This year, give thoughtful gifts: science gifts! They're experimentally validated as wonderful*. This is Massive's 2019 holiday science shopping guide, with cool stuff from all around the science web, for Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Christmas, and beyond.
Oh wow, so weird to see us at the top here. The coolest thing on this list is definitely the Women of Science Tarot deck we made. The deck features is itself a work of art, with beautiful original work from Matteo Farinella. Instead of the traditional face cards of many tarot decks, instead there are portraits of important women in science's history, including Mae Jemison, Rachel Carson, Marie Curie, Ada Lovelace, and more. If the the $75 price tag is too steep, there are also postcard packs with art from the deck and posters!
The geniuses at Genius Games make science-themed board games and card games. In Virulence, take on the role of a virus and replicate. Build atoms in Subatomic. Or, become the world's first programmers in Lovelace & Babbage. Massive has partnered with Genius Games to offer a 20% off coupon, just use the code MassiveScience20!
The undisputed champion of science art, pins, jewelry, and more. Our favorites include the neuroscience section, with brain pins and neuron necklaces, the virus t-shirt, and the nameplate necklaces, with options like "Scientist", "Doctor", and "Programmer."
If you're looking for an enamel pin to signal your allegiance to a particular scientific field, then this Etsy shop is for you! Packed with notebooks, postcards, stickers and an even a pocket mirror, the Science On A Postcard shop hosts some of our favourite pins, including ones that say science communicator, future scientistand that climate change is real.
You've undoubtedly seen their comics all over the great wide web, but Awkward Yeti's store is packed with goodies. There's tabletop games for the gamer who loves organs, some of the best stuffed organs (okay, the only stuffed organs) we've seen, like a uterus and an irritable bowel, and prints from the comic.
You don't have to be a marine scientist to love their products. Waterlust carries leggings (with pockets!), rashguards and swim tops, board shorts, and more for people who love being in the water. Their products are great on land too — the fabric is soft and stretchy, and the leggings and shorts have a wide waistband that makes them incredibly comfortable for lounging around the house or going to the gym. Each pattern is dedicated to a specific marine conservation cause (my favorite is the Floridian Aquifer collection). Their products are partially made from recycled plastic bottles and the gear is shipped in eco-friendly packaging, making Waterlust a great choice for the outdoor enthusiasts in your life!
This science crochet shop is run by a PhD student at the University of Toronto, so you know the plushies are accurate. Oh and they're lovely too. Take the crocheted neuron necklace, or our personal favorite, the Islets of Langerhans crochet pattern.
Skype a Scientist is one of the best science outreach organizations we know of and they have the merch to match. If you love snakes and also Greek myths, consider this Medusa-as-a-scientist t-shirt. Or rather, if you're more of an astrobiology person, maybe the hardy tardigrade is more your speed.
Perhaps something a bit more...meditative? Slow Dance is a frame that produces slow-motion, real-time movement. The creators say it helps lower stress and is quite good for meditation (we weren't just being cute).
When you read a story about scientists finding the "gene for" something, what you probably read about was a genome-wide association study or GWAS (pronounced "gee-was," but in my mind pronounced as one syllable, "gwas," or better, "gwaaaaaas", like spaaaaace). Gene sequencing is getting cheaper all the time and genetics is a vast and barely explored science. So, if you have an idea for something humans do and you want to know if there are genes "for" that behavior, you could do a GWAS. If, say, you wanted to know if there was a gene that explained why someone likes ranch dressing, you could gather a bunch of ranch-lovers, ranch-haters, and, I don't know, some ranch-agnostics as a control, and see if the ranch lovers had a gene that was more common than in any other groups. Maybe that's the gene for loving ranch. That would be a bad GWAS.
Here's a continuously updated list of bad GWAS studies. There are only five on here at first because I'm made of flesh and have a limited capacity for understanding things. Feel free to email more to me at your leisure:
A GWAS for same-sex sexual behavior
What purpose does this work have? I'm not sure, which is wild because the scientists spent a lot of time justifying their work. Sexual preferences isn't a pathology so...why does this exist? Does anyone go looking for genetic explanations for heterosexuality?
A GWAS for musical rhythm
If someone isn't good at dancing, maybe there's a genetic explanation for that. Or maybe they could just practice dancing.
A GWAS for being smart
Sorry it's actually not for being smart, which is a nebulous concept. It's for "educational achievement," a super rock solid measurement of...something. Probably being well-fed, wealthy, and white?
A GWAS for getting a lot of sleep and having a high IQ
If you see "IQ" anywhere you can just stop reading (not now, please keeping reading this). Having a high IQ doesn't mean anything. The findings from this study is that people who do have high IQs have flexible sleeping schedules. I don't know what that's supposed to mean to me.
A GWAS for being hot
I don't know.
Updated: November 21st, 2019
A GWAS for being rich
Have rich people evolved to be rich? I've heard of inherited wealth but this is ridiculous!
Scientists have long known that physical interactions between different types of immune cells are essential for proper functioning of the immune system. Yet for years, doublets — or pairs of cells — were often discarded in some types of experiments because scientists thought they were simply a failure of the processes and machines used to separate different cell types in the lab. A new study has countered this longstanding assumption, showing that cell doublets are probably not just a result of faulty lab equipment and instead are a naturally-occurring component of the immune system.
Bjoern Peters’ group at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology in California uses a technique called flow cytometry to study immune cells. Immune cells fight off infections and come in more than a dozen varieties. Studying all of them together would be difficult, so the researchers separate them based on certain tags the cells carry, like sorting mail. Flow cytometry allows scientists to feed in a hodgepodge of cells and come away with neat little groups sorted by their tags.
The sorted cells are usually pretty happy by themselves and don’t stick to other cells in the group. Every once in a while, though, pairs of cells called doublets turn up. For years, doublets were discarded as artifacts of the flow cytometry process.
Peters’ lab, however, became interested in these doublets that were observed in flow cytometry experiments when they identified a strange group of immune cells. Although at first the strange cells appeared to be just T-cells, they were actually doublets formed by two types of immune cells called T-cells and monocytes. After some more careful separation and analysis, the group found that levels of these doublets were associated with infections like tuberculosis and dengue. Doublets could also be affected by recent vaccinations.
The researchers now plan to see if more doublets like these exist and use them to further study how immune cells work.
University of Manitoba Bannatyne
and National Microbiology Laboratory
CRISPR-Cas9 has received global attention for its potential to eliminate genetic disorders, infectious diseases, and many other ailments that plague humans (pun intended). But in the realm of science, when something seems too good to be true, there are often important caveats. The current standing of gene editing technologies leaves many scientists wondering if we know enough about the genome and consequences of “genetic tampering” to do it in the name of betterment of mankind.
While the ability to edit and change the human genome is appealing to virtually every branch of medicine, serious ethical, social, and policy concerns surrounding CRISPR and other gene editing technologies must be grappled with alongside their scientific promise.
I need a new phone. Like many of us with older model iPhones, my battery life is just a few hours and I've stopped updating the operating system to extend the phone's life. But I'm having a tough time pulling the trigger. It's not the cost (although that is hefty, especially on a grad student salary). It's not the hassle either. It's the environment.
Making smartphones, laptops, and other tech takes a lot of resources. This is partly due to the carbon emissions from the manufacturing process, but the biggest toll comes from the mining of the rare earth metals that make your phone work. If you're reading this on your phone right now, you're holding about 0.034 grams of gold, 0.34 grams of silver, and smaller amounts of palladium, platinum, yttrium, terbium, and gadolinium — among others. These are tiny amounts, but consider the demand for smartphones around the world.
Now take these environmental risks, and combine them with the fact that the average lifespan of a smartphone is just two years, the length of your contract with your cell phone company. After that, if you're lucky, you get a "free" upgrade. Awesome, right? Sure, if you ignore the fact that the environmental impact of a new phone is about the same as using your old one for a decade.
It's nearly impossible to live in the 21st century without contributing to environmental destruction and climate change. I am guilty as well — I eat meat and occasionally fly. But that doesn't mean that we should stop trying to do better by our planet, or ignore the consequences of our actions. This Christmas, I urge you to think carefully about that smartphone purchase, not matter what the Black Friday ads are telling you.
We love how Genius Games combines fun, accessible games with fundamental scientific ideas and concepts. We're really excited to be able to be able to giveaway some of their games—but make sure to check out their entire collection, featuring games inspired by biology, chemistry, and history.
Researchers are always working on developing technologies to reduce carbon emissions to deal with the climate crisis. Recently, algae bioreactor technology has been highlighted as a way to convert carbon emissions from industries into biofuel and other useful by-products. But cost-effective methods for doing just this are needed to speed up the rate at which these new technologies are adopted.
Now, researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's (PNNL) Marine Sciences Laboratory in Sequim, Washington, aim to lower the cost of producing algae-based biofuels to $3/gasoline-gallon equivalent by 2030 by cultivating highly productive strains of algae. The PNNL's work on algal biofuels is funded and directed by the U.S. Department on Energy as part of the Algal DISCOVR project.
The algae technology eliminates challenges associated with existing carbon capture methods. Algae in the bioreactor use minimal resources: they depend solely on carbon emissions produced by industry and light to produce biofuel. Algae is thought to be 10-100 times more productive as compared to the non-food crops, such as switchgrass, used in current biofuel production. This means algae is capable taking up more carbon dioxide and producing more biofuel per acre, than these alternatives. Since they lack the tough fibrous structures of switchgrass and other plants, algae are also easier and cheaper to process. Other benefits of using algae for biofuel are that they don't take up agricultural land and don't require much water input.
Ideally, algal bioreactors could be installed in factories to capture the carbon dioxide as it is emitted. The company Hypergiant has already developed this type of reactor, which uses artificial intelligence to continually monitor and adjust airflow, the amount of light and carbon dioxide, temperature, and other parameters to maintain the optimal conditions for algae growth. There is hope for our future to be green, yet.
A recent study from researchers at Johns Hopkins University and Dartmouth College has identified a new marker for autism that could facilitate earlier diagnosis. The marker is a difference in the autistic brain’s capacity for binocular rivalry, which describes the visual cortex’s ability to process one image at a time when presented with multiple images at once. The brain's inability to ignore one of several competing stimuli is tied to the hypersensitivity to sensory input that is characteristic of autism.
Study participants were shown checkerboard patterns of different colors in their right and left eyes, and their visual processing of the images was measured through an electrode that picks up on brain signals. Autistic participants were much less able to toggle their focus between the two images, compared to neurotypical participants. Amazingly, the researchers found that the rate of binocular rivalry they measured was predictive of the severity of one’s symptoms, and using the data they could diagnose autism in study participants with 87% accuracy. A clear benefit of this study is that this marker is non-verbal, which means it can be used to evaluate young children who have not started talking yet as well as non-verbal adults.
While this work provides insight into the underlying neurological root of autism and establishes a new diagnostic tool, it’s important to remember that autism is not a problem to be solved. While the differences in the autistic brain may lead to social challenges, they also impart unique intellectual abilities.
In a recent Nature paper, a team of paleoanthropologists announced the discovery of a new fossil ape from Germany, which they named Danuvius guggenmosi. Dating to 11.62 million years ago, this little (17-31 kg) ape seems to have had an previously unknown way of moving through the trees.
One of the biggest open questions in paleoanthropology is how our ancestors evolved to walk upright. Our mode of locomotion, called obligate bipedalism, is unique among primates and our closest living relatives, the great apes, have very different ways of getting around.
So how did our last common ancestor with the great apes move? Were they upright, like us, or were they more reliant on using their arms, like the great apes?
The researchers who studied Danuvius suggested that it combined upright walking in the trees (aided by a grasping big toe) with the kinds of forelimb movements used by the great apes. They called this new kind of locomotor behavior "extended limb clambering" and wrote that it might be a potential candidate for the way the last common ancestor of humans and the great apes moved.
They haven't yet analyzed how this new ape might fit into the family tree, but its fossils are still helping to shed light on a complicated time in our evolutionary past.
Have you ever wondered why we call floor plans and other diagrams “blueprints”? The term “blueprint” originates from the cyanotype printing process, which yields prints in vivid cyan-blue colors and was widely used to replicate complex technical drawings in the 19th and 20th centuries. While cyanotype printing could have been made obsolete by the invention of copy machines, artists today continue to use this process to create startling cyan images. For example, photographer Takeshi Moro exclusively used cyanotype to produce pieces for his 2013 exhibition “Wannsee in Berliner Blau.” The crude quality of the images was meant to transport the patrons to the time of the 1942 Wannsee Nazi Conference, and their blue hues were intended to invoke the sorrow of this era of history.
I helped Takeshi to develop images for the exhibition by making the cyanotype solution in the lab. I combined two chemicals, ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide, at a fixed ratio. Takeshi then applied the solution to the photographic prints and exposed them to light (the duration of this exposure period and the intensity of the light will affect the contrast of the image). Together, the light and the citrate cause the iron atoms in the ferric ammonium citrate to lose an electron, making them more unstable and reactive toward the ferricyanide. This reaction yields a dye known as Prussian blue that saturates the print and produces a cyan-toned image.
Given that “photography” is now as simple as aiming your iPhone 11’s multiple cameras at an object and pressing a button, it’s refreshing to know that photographers continue to use cyanotype printing as a strategic artistic choice to elicit a specific emotional response from the viewer. And while it may have been inconvenient for Takeshi to enlist a chemist to assist in producing pieces for his exhibition, we agreed that the experience was very valuable because we both came to learn about and appreciate the other’s area of expertise. Cyanotype creates stunning images and opportunities for collaboration between artists and scientists—there’s no need to be blue!
Alcohols are heavily used in organic chemistry because they are cheap and widely available. However, they are also quite stable and react slowly. Before their use, alcohols require a pre-activation step, and one of the most common ways to do it is the Mitsunobu reaction.
This reaction involves the use of the chemical diethyl azodicarboxylate, which is known as DEAD in the chemistry community for its high toxicity. DEAD is used in a stoichiometric amount (i.e. a one-to-one ratio) with respect to the alcohol in this reaction. This means that if we want to modify 1,000 units of alcohol, we need 1,000 units of DEAD, which will consequently produce 1,000 units of chemical waste. This major drawback prevents the implementation of the Mitsunobu reaction on a larger industrial scale, especially in uses such as the production of drug candidates.
Recently, researchers at the University of Nottingham have managed to design and optimize a new way of carrying out the Mitsunobu reaction through the use of an organocatalyst. Here, an organocatalyst refers to an organic compound which can speed up a chemical reaction, but isn't consumed by the reaction. Specifically, the researchers designed a phosphine oxide compound to optimize the Mitsunobu reaction.
The way this newly optimized reaction works is the following: the alcohol is bound to the organocatalyst, which leads to the formation of "activated" alcohol. Once the alcohol is activated, it reacts much more quickly with a nucleophile (i.e. a chemical species which donates electrons), leading to the formation of the desired product and returns the organocatalyst to its original state. In this state, the organocatalyst can bind to a new unit of alcohol and repeats the reaction. This cycle keeps on repeating until all the alcohol units undergo activation and are used up.
Replacing DEAD with an organocatalyst not only has the advantages of removing a highly toxic and dangerous chemical compound, but also forms water as the only side-product. This newly optimized reaction was used to produce thiocarlide, a drug used to treat tuberculosis, which highlights the potential of this newly optimized reaction and its promising application on an industrial scale.
Earlier this week, no rain fell anywhere in Australia for a full day. This was the first time in recorded history that no location on the continent received a drop of rain — and as a result, the wildfire situation, already dire, is growing still more severe.
While the IPCC has stated that we have 12 years to reduce carbon emissions substantially enough to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, in some ways the crisis is already here. In Australia, the dryness and hot air combined have raised fire warnings to "catastrophic". As of November 11th, there were over 80 fires raging across Australian states, and the number has climbed since then. A state of emergency has been declared in New South Wales, Australia's most populated state. As of now, at least four people have died and countless property damage has occurred, with the fire season projected to become even worse as the Australian summer arrives.