How crickets and fireflies could inspire safer bike sharing programs

Bugs and bikes can both light up the night

Jenna Sternberg


Some animals use swarms to make their presence known. For example, crickets chirp in a chorus and fireflies flash in unison, catching the eye of potential mates. Such synchrony is an effort of individuals working together to create an easily identifiable beacon. Now researchers at the MIT Media Lab are asking: can the coordinated strength of a swarm could be co-opted to make shared roads safer?

The project, called [bike] swarm, uses bikes equipped with radios tuned to a small range of frequencies to communicate with nearby bikes. When bike approach each other, their lights flash in unison, making cyclists easier to identify in the dark. As bike sharing programs continue to expand, cities may be able to make cyclists and drivers safer on the road by taking advantage of this simple and adaptable system inspired by nature.

Opioid use after surgery is higher in the U.S. & Canada compared to Sweden

A new study investigates whether the culture surrounding pain medication prescription habits in different countries could be contributing to opioid misuse

Juliann Tefft

Biomedical Engineering

Boston University

In 2017, more than 130 people died per day in the US from opioid related drug overdoses. This crisis has triggered a call to hold drug companies responsible for putting Americans at risk. In August 2019, a landmark ruling in Oklahoma fined Johnson & Johnson $572 million for their ‘public nuisance’ marketing strategies, and it remains to be seen whether this decision will set a precedent towards more drug companies being held accountable in the future. 

But even if we hold drug companies responsible for the opioid crisis, how will the country move forward from here towards recovery?

To help answer this question, a recent study investigated whether the culture surrounding pain medication prescription habits in different countries could be contributing to opioid misuse. 

People at a pharmacy counter getting medication

Researchers asked the question: after surgery, do the rates of opioid prescriptions dispensed vary between the United States, Canada and Sweden?

Tbel Abuseridze on Unsplash

The researchers compared patients undergoing low-risk surgeries in the US and Canada (the two countries with the highest per capita consumption of opioids) with patients in Sweden, and found that patients in the US (76.2%) and Canada (78.65) were seven times more likely to fill opioid prescriptions after surgery compared to Swedish patients (11.1%). And of these prescriptions, 45% of prescriptions in the US surpassed a threshold equivalent to 200 mg of morphine compared to just 5.4% in Sweden. 

The large dataset allowed researchers to compare demographically similar patients and conclude that systemic factors, such as prescribing habits, public attitudes towards pain medication, and the drug marketing and regulatory processes, were likely impacting US prescription numbers more than individual patient needs. 

These numbers highlight a stark difference in the drug culture of the US compared to Sweden. Although the data in this study cannot represent the number of pills that patients consumed, a 2018 study found that the US patients consume between 5-59% of their prescribed opioids, and an overwhelming 70 percent of people kept these unused pills. With 11.4 million Americans misusing prescription opioids per year, it stands to reason that America’s recovery from the opioid epidemic may require systemically altering how drugs are prescribed. 

Some changes have already begun: in 2016, Massachusetts was the first state to implement a seven-day limit on opioid prescriptions to reduce the amount of unused drugs available in homes, a practice that many US states have implemented since then. Additionally, studies investigating how to manage pain through short-term opioid prescriptions or non-opioid pain medications, like acetaminophen and ibuprofen, will be of great value moving forward. While solving the opioid crisis will take time, quantifying the pain management needs of patients and organizing the vast data sets of prescription information can help us formulate solutions.

The unique chemistry of cats' guts make them the perfect host for Toxoplasma gondii

This information might allow Toxoplasma researchers to switch from lab cats to lab rats

Alyssa Shepard

Cancer Biology

The Scripps Research Institute

Toxoplasma gondii is a common parasite that causes an infection called toxoplasmosis in approximately one-third of humans, so research in this area is important to human health. T. gondii's lifecycle is curiously complex, and it has gained infamy for it's tendency to reproduce in the intestines of cats. The reason for this exceptional specificity has previously been unknown. Now, a study published in PLOS Biology in August has identified the exact molecular components in the feline intestine that create the conditions necessary for the parasite to reproduce. 

The research found that a chemical called linoleic acid is necessary for the sexual lifecycle of T. gondii. An enzyme in the intestines of most mammals called delta-6-desaturase usually helps convert linoleic acid to arachidonic acid. But cats are the only mammal known to lack this enzyme in their guts –  therefore, their guts maintain high enough levels of linoleic acid to allow for the parasite to reach sexual maturation. After the researchers figured this out, they found a way to stop the activity of delta-6-desaturase in mice, which means that in the future they may be able to stop using cats – a point of contention with animal rights activitists – in the lab. Eventually they may even be able to grow T. gondii in cell culture to learn more about this common (and, some say, mind-controlling) parasite. 

How humans have shaped the brains of our furry friends

By breeding dogs for specific behaviors, humans have also altered the physical structure of their brains

Claudia Lopez-Lloreda


University of Pennsylvania

Dog-watching at the park on a Sunday morning makes us appreciate the diversity across different breeds. From tiny Yorkshire Terriers to giant Great Danes, each breed has its own unique characteristics. Although dogs may be bred for specific physical traits like size or coat length, they can also be bred for specific behaviors like hunting or herding. Researchers wanted to know if these behavioral specializations were associated with differences in brain structure. 

Four dogs on a leash in a park. One of the dogs has its mouth open, either yawning or barking.

Photo by Matt Nelson on Unsplash 

A new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience and led by researchers at Harvard University looked at the brains of 62 purebred dogs from 33 different breeds to answer this question. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), they found that there were significant differences in brain anatomy between different breeds. Furthermore, these differences could not be fully explained by variation in brain size or skull shape. 

Researchers looked at brain anatomy in six different networks, each associated with different potential functions like drive and reward or social action and interaction. Fascinatingly, these networks correlated with specialized behaviors seen in different breeds. For example, sight hunting, a behavior for which Greyhounds are bred, was associated with brain areas related to eye movement and spatial navigation. Moreover, they found that  brain variability between breeds had arisen fairly recently (in an evolutionary sense), indicating that selective breeding by humans is most likely responsible for molding the brains of different dog breeds. The authors state that dogs represent a great “natural experiment” that could become a good model to study brain variation and its relationship with function in light of evolutionary pressures. 

The rise of a mysterious lung illness begins to expose the dangers of vaping

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control have reported at least 450 cases in 33 U.S. states, as policy makers call for action

Marnie Willman


University of Manitoba Bannatyne and National Microbiology Laboratory

Walking through a park, across a street, or heading to work, all of us have suddenly caught the scent of fruit, chocolate, peppermint, or some other flavor coming from someone vaping nearby. As vaping has rapidly gained popularity since it’s invention in 2003, little has been said or written about its potentially dangerous health impacts. Many shops and restaurants in the U.S. and Canada have banned vaping on patios, near doors of establishments, and other public areas where smoking cigarettes is not permitted. Now, vapes have made the news in a negative light for the second time.

 As CBC reported on August 23, 2019, an Illinois resident passed away following severe respiratory illness likely brought on by vaping, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Currently, the CDC is investigating at least 450 cases of severe respiratory illness across 33 states, all thought to be related to chronic vape use. The cause is yet unknown, and Canada's chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, reported to the media that the mysterious illness has not yet reached Canada. Tam also cautioned that everyone should be aware that the long-term effects of vaping, given that the number of chemical ingredients in vape oils, are unknown. 

We may not know the exact link between vaping and this lung disease, but we do know some things about the dangers of vaping. Vaping entails inhaling steam and other chemicals, like formaldehyde, into the lungs. Human lungs are coated with mucus inside that protects lung cells by catching particulates before they infiltrate the rest of the body. Exposure to these particles thickens the mucus layer inside the lungs, decreasing the lungs' ability to fight off respiratory infections. Inhaling steam also prevents the lungs from absorbing as much oxygen as they should.  Lower oxygen levels in the body decreases the health and functioning of major organs and muscles. In addition to these, the negative effects of ingredients in vape oil remain unknown and/or unreported.

These health risks of inhaling a foreign substance of any kind into your lungs point to potential dangers of long-term vaping use. While the cause of death and illness in individuals who vape isn't exactly clear yet, one thing is certain: Health officials and policy makers — and even Donald Trump — are beginning to worry about the correlation between the illnesses and increased vape use. We are probably just seeing the beginning of vaping-related diseases and deaths.

Shapeshifting hydrogels with CRISPR inside rearrange on command and interface with our bodies

Programmable CRISPR-responsive smart materials, like DNA hydrogels, are much more likely to become game-changers in our lifetimes

Tara Fernandez

Cell Biology

All eyes are on CRISPR, the gene-editing sensation touted to solve a slew of long-standing medical challenges, such as engineering CRISPR nanoparticles as a potential therapeutic for Alzheimer’s disease or working towards an antidote to box jellyfish stings. Now, a new study explores new territory where CRISPR has the potential to make its mark: smart biomaterials. 

Smart biomaterials are biologically responsive materials engineered to respond to internal and external cues, such as changes in light, temperature, pH or enzyme activity. Now, bioengineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have taken smart biomaterials one step further by harnessing CRISPR’s unique DNA modifying properties to create DNA-hydrogels that change shape on command. These hydrogel polymers have web-like structures that are held together by DNA strands. Together with the programmable enzyme Cas12a, CRISPR precisely targets DNA bridges and cleaves them, triggering a shift in the polymer’s shape or consistency. 

These programmable CRISPR-responsive smart materials can be used to interface with various biological signals or enhance current biomaterial approaches, such as in the fields of tissue engineering and molecular diagnostics. In this particular study, the researchers engineered different DNA-based materials to explore different applications, such as using CRISPR-based DNA hydrogels to release enzymes, nanoparticles and live cells, and even modulating the hydrogel's electrical properties for sensing and diagnostics.

white defibrillator with stand

 CRISPR-controlled hydrogel technology is poised to revolutionize bioelectronics.

 Photo by Allie Smith on Unsplash.

In fact, CRISPR-controlled hydrogel technology is poised to revolutionize bioelectronics — electric circuitry that interfaces with biological systems, which may see medical devices to sense and destroy dangerous pathogens become a reality. 

Transitioning any innovation to a clinical setting involves plenty of time, investment dollars and regulatory red tape. Compared to the safety risks involved in directly treating patients with CRISPR, CRISPR-based DNA hydrogels are much more likely to become game-changers in our lifetimes.

Meet the all-star cast of marine bacteria that can ruin your warm-weather activities

Each member of the Vibrio family is unique, but they're all likely getting more common as the oceans warm

Max Levy

Chemical Engineering

University of Colorado Boulder

It’s official. This summer was one of the hottest on record, and July was the warmest month ever recorded on the planet. The sweltering summer was a boon for bacteria from the Vibrio genus. Several reports of flesh-eating bacteria, Vibrio vulnificus, are dotting America’s coastline with casualties. Sea temperatures are high, rising, and stretching these bugs to new beaches — a new normal in this climate crisis. But if more abundant flesh-eating bacteria weren’t daunting enough, entirely different species of Vibrio infections are also predicted to rise.

So, meet the all-star cast of marine bacteria that can ruin your warm-weather activities and tropical vacations:

Vibrio vulnificus: This “flesh-eating” bad boy causes lethal infections in wounds, as well as shellfish poisoning. Does necrotizing fasciitis sound appetizing?

Vibrio anguillarum: Likely voted “Most Likely to Decimate Shellfish Supplies” in high school (if bacteria went to high school, that is), this bacterium threatens aquaculture of crustaceans and fish.

Vibrio cholerae: Cholera. Yes, that cholera. Millions of people infected annually, lethal in hours if untreated.

Vibrio alginolyticus: This angsty germ seems to thrive on being a nuisance. It produces the famous neurotoxin in pufferfish and also causes swimmer’s ear.

Because each of these Vibrio species (and others) thrive in warm waters, they are all expected to get a boost from climate change.  With all the bacterial diversity in the world, it’s hard to believe that  this little-discussed group could be such a problem. But warming ocean temperatures may well put Vibrio on course to being a household name. 

Happy swimming and seafood-eating! 

Unhatched turtle embryos can shape their own sexual destinies

By moving to cooler areas inside the egg, turtle embryos can influence their own sex, and maybe ward off climate change too

Brittney Borowiec

Comparative Physiology

McMaster University

A turtle develops into a male or female depending on temperature  – females hatch from warm eggs and males hatch out of cool eggs. Turtle nests naturally fluctuate in temperature, and this variation leads to clutches producing a mix of male and female hatchlings. 

But a new study in Current Biology suggests there’s more to it than that: instead, embryos can guide their own sex determination by moving between warmer and cooler parts of the egg.

One end of a turtle egg can be as much as 4.5 °C (40.1 °F) warmer than the other end, meaning that embryos experience very different temperatures depending on where they are in the egg. Intrigued, the researchers then tested whether embryos could sense and respond to these temperature differences. Could unhatched turtles perhaps influence their own development?

To do this, the team treated the eggs with capsazepine, a drug that shuts down key ion channels involved in temperature sensing, and recorded how embryos responded to a heat source on one end of the egg. Drugged embryos didn’t move towards the heat as much as control animals, and were far more likely to develop into males.

Turtle embryos have the raw tools – a big thermal gradient and the ability to sense and respond to warmth – to influence their own development.

Global climate change threatens turtles and other animals that rely on temperate-dependent sex determination by disrupting sex ratios. We’ve already seen examples of this in the wild – a few years ago, scientists were dismayed to find 99% of green sea turtles sampled at key breeding sites in Australia were female, crippling their ability to reproduce. 

Green sea turtle underwater

Global climate change threatens turtle survival by disrupting sex ratios.

Tim Briggs

The razor-thin margins between “all male” and “all female” nests combined with the frantic pace of global warming means that some populations are already on the precipice of ecological disaster. While being able to shimmy a couple of inches in an embryo isn’t going to stop catastrophic changes in sex ratios, it may allow turtles to buffer the short term effects of climate change. 

Ant activity has outsize impacts on soil moisture and plant growth

Consortium member Madison Sankovitz explains her newly published research study

Madison Sankovitz


University of California Riverside

Although ants are well-known as being household pests, most of our terrestrial landscapes would likely be drastically different without them. Ants provide an essential ecosystem service by maintaining soil. They aerate soil by digging tunnels for their nests (which also allows water to reach plant roots), and they mix nutrients through soil. 

Ants’ nest-building and foraging behaviors help soil remain fertile for plants and microorganisms to thrive. In fact, many plants would not even be able to grow where they do if ant nests didn’t exist. In a newly published study, I and two of my colleagues at the University of Boulder - Colorado have shown that factors like proximity to an ant nest and whether the nest is on a slope substantially influence the soil moisture and plants that live in the area. 

We investigated patterns in the soil properties and plant communities surrounding 24 nests of the montane ant, Formica podzolica. After counting plant specimens and studying plants and soil in the lab, we found that soil moisture increases with distance from nests and that plant abundance decreases with distance from nests. We also found that the soil downhill from nests harbors more plants than soil uphill from nests, which we conclude means that nutrients and water from nests flow downhill to fertilize soil. This ant species occupies a huge geographic range from Alaska down to New Mexico, so we think they play a key role in shaping plant communities throughout much of the western U.S. and Canada.

Our study adds to a body of literature about ants as "soil ecosystem engineers." Without ants, subalpine habitats like the one in this study could be extremely different. We and other scientists continue to study how ant activity affects the soil, including the possibility of harnessing their services in both ecosystem restoration and agricultural crop production. 

Scientists tried to make knives out of frozen human poop

They wondered: is it possible to cut animal hides with a human feces blade?

Farah Qaiser

Molecular Genetics

University of Toronto

Have you ever wondered if knives manufactured from frozen human feces could function as well as regular knives? While the thought has never crossed my mind, researchers at Kent State University and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History wondered about this very question, and sought to find the answer.

And yes, there's a good reason why.

In Shadows in the Sun: Travels to Landscapes of Spirit and Desire, Colombian-Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis recounted an ethnographic account (below) of an Inuit man who manufactured a knife, using his own frozen feces, to butcher a dog: 

“There is a well known account of an old Inuit man who refused to move into a settlement. Over the objections of his family, he made plans to stay on the ice. To stop him, they took away all of his tools. So in the midst of a winter gale, he stepped out of their igloo, defecated, and honed the feces into a frozen blade, which he sharpened with a spray of saliva. With the knife he killed a dog. Using its rib cage as a sled and its hide to harness another dog, he disappeared into the darkness.” - Wade Davis

Despite this story being shared across multiple documentaries, books, and academic literature, the credibility of this story remains uncertain. Can such a knife actually cut through hide, muscle and tendons? 

To test this claim, the researchers collected human feces to make such a knife. First, researcher Metin I. Eren went on a diet high in protein and fatty acids — consistent with an Arctic diet — for eight days. This diet included chicken thighs, beef fillets, turkey sausages, and salmon. From day four onward, Eren's fecal material was collected and frozen at -20°C. Frozen fecal samples were then either molded by hand or through ceramic molds to create knives. After burying each knife in -50°C dry ice for a few minutes, researchers attempted to slice through pig hide, muscle and tendons to test knife functionality.

Hand shaped poop knife

An example of a “hand-shaped” knife blade.

Michelle R. Bebber & Metin I. Eren. 

Unsurprisingly, the knives manufactured from frozen human feces could not cut through the pig hide — let alone tendons or muscle. Instead, the edge of the knife would melt upon contact with the hide, and leave behind fecal streaks. Even knives shaped from feces from a typical Western diet failed to cut through pig hide.

A knife made from frozen human feces fails to cut through a pig hide, melting and leaving streaks instead.

A knife made from frozen human feces fails to cut through a pig hide, melting and leaving streaks instead.

Michelle R. Bebber & Metin I. Eren. 

To be clear, tools manufactured from human feces do exist. For example, you can be innovative when it comes to waste management in space missions, and use solid human waste to produce polyhydroxybutyrate and then 3D print items for astronauts

While there are countless tales reporting the innovative and resourceful nature of Indigenous and prehistoric people, this particular claim is unlikely to be true. The researchers do suggest exploring the role of different diets or even licking the frozen fecal knife (as reported in the original tale) to further test this claim, but regardless, they remain confident that they gave their knives the best possible chance to succeed and the knives still couldn’t function. 

So no, knives manufactured from frozen human feces do not work.

Just in case you were planning to try that out one day. 

People across Southeast Asia are breathing in toxic particles because of large fires

New research estimates that carbon particles released from large scale Indonesian fires cause around 36,000 deaths per year

Gabriela Serrato Marks

Marine Geology

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Smoke and ash from a camp fire might smell good, but the fire is actually releasing organic carbon and black carbon particles into the air around you. When fires occur on a larger scale, like they do in Indonesia, these particles can have unintended health impacts. 

Fine particles that are 30 times smaller than a human hair, called PM2.5, can get down deep into people's lungs, and can even enter the bloodstream. Once there, PM2.5 particles irritate the lungs and heart, which can be fatal, especially for young kids or anyone with existing health conditions.

New research estimates that, assuming the current rates of fires, logging, and deforestation continue, exposure to air pollution from Indonesian fires could cause around 36,000 deaths per year. Because the particles are airborne, they aren't constrained to Indonesia — particles from fires across the islands that make up Indonesia impact health in neighboring countries such as Malaysia and Singapore, too. 

Forest fire seen at Bintan Island, Indonesia

A forest fire seen at Bintan Island, Indonesia.

 Photo by Thomas Ehling on Unsplash 

There is some potential good news, though: there are several land management strategies that could reduce deaths from fire emissions, some as much as 60 percent. 

Researchers developed a simulation tool that allows anyone to test out the effects management strategies, like blocking fires over peatland or in industrial logging sites. The tool clearly and quantitatively highlights the value of conservation efforts and reducing fires, showing that these efforts wouldn't just save trees, they could actually save thousands of lives. 

We have many tools in the fight against antibiotic resistance, and we should consider not using them

New studies hold promise for treating tuberculosis — but also suggest that sometimes the best course of action in treating infections is no action

Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Mtb), the bacterium responsible for causing tuberculosis (TB), is a particularly potent pathogen when it comes to antibiotic resistance. Mismanagement of multi-drug resistant strains has resulted in extensively drug resistant TB, which constitutes ~8.5% of multi-drug resistant TB cases. But the drug regimen to treat extensively drug-resistant TB cause substantial side-effects and are very expensive. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently approved new drugs to tackle this form of TB which, as pointed out here, could potentially bridge the gap between patients and affordable therapeutics. 

Although a welcome development, this move took several years to come to fruition and patients can rarely afford to wait this long. A recent study by a group of Harvard Medical school-associated researchers took a new approach to this problem. They used a fast-screening method on a library about 3000 bioactive molecules to test which ones were effective in fighting Mtb. They eventually narrowed the list down to about 40 candidate molecules. The beauty of the method is that it allows molecules to be tested against multiple variations of Mtb, each with slightly different genetic makeups. The 40 candidate molecules they ended up with are much more likely to be effective in a wide variety of patients, who all likely have slightly different variants of the bacteria than those tested in the lab.

We can, of course, try and churn out new drugs to keep pace with  evolution, but the alternate approach of restraint also warrants some consideration. A study published in August found that antibiotic-resistant E. coli grown in antibiotic-free conditions lose their resistance after about 500 generations. Acquiring resistance sometimes comes at the cost of reduced fitness (survival and reproduction) of the pathogen, implying a tug-of-war between these two characteristics.

Such findings come in the wake of calls for heavy restrictions on antibiotic use, which on occasion actually have led to loss of resistance in clinical populations. While completely halting our use of antibiotics is not the most practical course of action, it is definitely one worth thinking about.  

Just like your dog, some wolf puppies can play fetch too

This finding might provide clues into how dogs evolved into such good boys

Maddie Bender

Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Yale University

“Stop trying to make fetch happen” is probably what everyone said to researchers in Stockholm, who recently released a preprint describing a surprising feat: three wolf puppies spontaneously retrieving a thrown ball. Previously, play between species that is based on social-communicative cues — like when a human throws a ball and says “Fetch!” — was thought to be unique to dogs, but the 8-week-old pups, named Sting, Lemmy and Elvis, showed otherwise.

In this study, researchers brought in a “puppy assessor” to measure 13 wolf pups against the metrics used to describe the behaviors of dog puppies. During one of the test situations, the assessor, whom the wolves had never met, threw a tennis ball across a room, called the name of the wolf pup and encouraged it to bring the ball back. Over a course of three trials, Lemmy and Elvis responded to the assessor’s call and retrieved the ball twice, and Sting responded to the call and brought back the ball all three times. The other 10 wolf pups either played with the ball on their own or showed no interest in it.

Dog playing fetch with ball

 Previously, play between species based cues — like when a human throws a ball and says “Fetch!” — was thought to be unique to dogs.

Photo by Tadeusz Lakota on Unsplash

Other than being what I imagine was an incredibly cute situation, this research fills in an important gap in our knowledge about how wolves evolved into dogs. Most scientists support the theory of self-domestication, in which the friendliest members of a species gain an evolutionary advantage (such as greater access to food or protection). Descendants of these super-friendly wolves eventually gained the traits we associate with pooches, like puppy-dog eyes and floppy ears. But for this kind of selection to take place, there would need to be pre-existing variation in wolf populations that made some pups friendlier than others. 

Though all dogs are good boys, Sting, Lemmy and Elvis might be examples of these intrinsically better (wolf) boys. 

While other parts of the world burn, climate change is triggering floods and disease outbreaks in East Africa

At least 62 people have died and 15,000 contracted chikungunya in Sudan and Ethiopia

Max Levy

Chemical Engineering

University of Colorado Boulder

As summer ends, an abnormally intense rainy season has flooded  several East African countries, including Ethiopia and Sudan. The  devastating floods have killed 62 people in Sudan alone. And even after the rains end, health risks persist. Drenched land and ravaged infrastructure summons mosquitoes and disease.

In the aftermath of the flooding, Ethipoian officials have reported over 15,000 cases of chikungunya, a debilitating mosquito-transmitted virus that is similar to dengue fever. The outbreak is being managed by local ministries of health, but there is no vaccine or treatment for chikungunya at this time.  

Experts have made clear the link between climate change and sub-Saharan summer floods. Climate change is bringing more intense El Niño events. In the summer, this causes significantly higher sea temperatures near East Africa, leading to more rain and floods. Practically the same sequence of events — flooding and a chikungunya outbreak — occurred last year in Sudan

It is also worth noting that, with warmer temperatures and more intense hurricanes, the Americas are not immune to this problem. Chikungunya recently became a concern in the U.S., with two locally-acquired cases in Puerto Rico.

Here at Massive, we have reported extensively on the public health threats of climate change. This outbreak is just the latest example of a new normal. 

"You are when you eat" may be just as true as "you are what you eat"

Time-restricted feeding keeps mice healthy, even when their circadian rhythms are disrupted

Anisha Kalidindi

Molecular Biology

Ohio State University

Our bodies contain clocks that regulate everything from our sleep to weight. These clocks consist of a set of genes that underlie the  “timing” of the clock. They also control our metabolism, or the process by which our bodies convert food into energy. Metabolic disorders are serious illnesses that can take many forms. Thus,  understanding how they work and developing interventions are of the utmost importance. 

Lots of metabolic research is done with mice. When mice are provided free access to unhealthy food, they develop metabolic issues. Researchers have observed that these mice also show disrupted cycling of their core clock genes. But when the same mice are given access to the unhealthy food during only a subset of the day, many of the negative metabolic and clock gene consequences are ameliorated. This led to the hypothesis that clock gene cycles could be a primary mediator of a healthy metabolism. This is really important for people who do shift work, or those who are exposed to particularly high light levels at night, both of which disrupt normal human circadian rhythms. The video below explains more background information on this idea.

Researchers at the Salk Institute recently published their investigation of how to prevent obesity in mice with dysfunctional clocks. Mice in their experiment were given an unhealthy diet, with food available either throughout the day or just in a nine-to-ten-hour-long window. The overall caloric intakes of the two groups of mice were kept the same. The researchers then measured several markers of metabolism function. They found that the restricted feeding time kept mice metabolically healthy and lean, even when they lacked a regular circadian rhythm. So, rather than regulating metabolism the clock's main function may be to control the behavioral rhythms of feeding and fasting.

This is exciting in that it lays the foundation for human studies regarding how timed eating can override the consequences of clock disturbances. Regardless, at this point I don’t think it would hurt to put down that midnight scoop of ice cream (or at least have it earlier in the day!)  

Take CRISPR/Cas9 outside, use it like a hand-held search engine for wild genomes

Instead of little robots, using proteins as naturally occurring nanotechnology

It's easy to see CRISPR/Cas9, the revolutionary gene editing tool, as a breakthrough meant only for scientists. It obviously has real world applications, but it'll take time for it to trickle down from academic labs to the world at large. 

But perhaps, quicker now. Two nanotechnology companies, Cardea Bio and Nanosens Innovations, are merging and in the process, announced the production of what they call the "Genome Sensor." Cardea CTO Brett Goldsmith described it as a kind of "tricorder." It's a hand-held device that anyone who needs to detect a specific sequence of DNA can use. Cas9, the protein that is used by synthetic biologists to cut DNA at specific sequences, is fixed to a graphene net. Instead of cutting DNA though, it's instead given a sequence of DNA to search a sample of genomes that washes over the net. Since it's hand-held, it can be done live in the field. Or in a field, as the case may be. Imagine a farmer seeing an infection on their land. Instead of removing the infected crops or spraying non-specific pesticides willy-nilly and hoping for the best, the farmer can load a sample on to their hand-held device and get an ID right then there. From there, a specific action can be taken. Says Goldsmith:

In the palm of a hand, a handheld device the size of a large cell-phone, with a small chip sticking out the bottom.

The Genome Sensor

Cardea Bio

"We all know what nanotechnology is supposed to be. It's supposed to be these little robots running around, self-replicating, doing cool things, controlled by computers and software, and with wireless communication and things like that. You know, we read science fiction books. The reality of what nanotechnology is, and will be, is: we have little robots, they're proteins themselves. They're made by biology, and we can integrate them with electronics, and we can control them with electronics. And so that's what Cas9 is, it's a biological robot that searches through DNA more effectively than we can do with software alone."

Academic scientists in the field were optimistic but not necessarily sold. Plant and synthetic biologist Devang Mehta, who is not affiliated with either Cardea or Nanosens, after reading about the Genome Sensor, said, "I'm not sure how realistic this is in the near future though as it would require...a significant amount of testing against pathogens and related non-pathogenic species to prevent false positive results — something that isn't talked about in this release. In my view, it's a promising invention that isn't quite there yet in terms of field use."  

Start-up releases the world's first GMO probiotic

The company claims the probiotic supplement can cure hangovers, but evidence in humans is lacking

Lauren Sara McKee

Microbiology, Biochemistry, and Agricultural Science

KTH Royal Institute of Technology

August 2019 saw the launch of the world’s first genetically modified probiotic food supplement. The San Francisco-based biotech start-up ZBiotics is selling 15 ml vials of engineered bacteria - a shot of liquid tech designed to prevent hangover. The vials ($36 for a 3 pack) contain cells of Bacillus subtilis engineered to produce an enzyme called acetaldehyde dehydrogenase. Acetaldehyde is an intermediate in alcohol metabolism in humans and it is toxic. There is some debate as to whether acetaldehyde really contributes to hangover headaches, but it does play a big part in the alcohol flushing response (when the face, neck, and chest become warm and red after drinking alcohol)

People clinking tall, foam-covered mugs of beer.

Avoid future hangovers! (Maybe)

Photo by Quentin Dr on Unsplash 

The engineered bacteria are really good at breaking down acetaldehyde in the lab – but there is no published evidence yet that this does any good in humans. So how is ZBiotics able to sell their product already? Marketing the cultures as a food supplement rather than as a drug allowed the company – founded in 2016 – to move very fast and begin commercial sales before proving efficacy in humans. They are conducting safety trials in animals and hope to conduct human trials in the near future. 

The company hopes that they will next be able to develop similar products to help those suffering from lactose intolerance , but this first product is aimed at people who wish to maintain a healthy lifestyle but still over-indulge a little on the weekends. Hangover prevention may seem a frivolous choice for the world’s first GMO probiotic, but it could do a lot of good for the public perception of genetic modification. Keeping the focus on consumer benefit, instead of corporate profit as in many crops engineered to be pest- or herbicide-resistant, may result in people being more willing to engage with GMOs as part of their lifestyle. As co-founder Zack Abbott has said, “Take this product today, and if you feel better tomorrow, then you’ve had a positive experience with genetic engineering.” 

Peer review is a rigorous process, but it should leave trainees feeling valued and not bullied

Consortium member Kelsey Lucas shares her story and highlights why this is so important

Kelsey Lucas

Physiology, Marine Biology, and Ecology

University of Michigan

My ultimate low at as a grad student hit like a ton of bricks.  Already reeling from a poor advising relationship and sexism from being a female student working in fluid dynamics, my second dissertation chapter was rejected from a journal.  But, it wasn’t the rejection itself that stung and in part led me to choose a new field for my postdoc – it was the personal insults flung at me by both reviewer and editor.

Linda Beaumont’s recent call in Nature for anti-bullying policies for reviewers was born out of frustration at a similar student experience.  She suggests stronger codes of conduct, like those we’re seeing for scientific conferences, and to make these codes of conduct more visible, like the prominent placement of  “Ethical Responsibilities for Reviewers” material on the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal website.

As trainees, grad students and early career scientists are just that – trainees.  We’re learning, and the kind of response we need from reviewers and journal editors is one of support.  Constructive criticism, the kind that helps us see where and how we can grow, is invaluable. The belittling of trainees doesn’t help us; it just pushes us out the door.

"The Nemo Effect" doesn't exist: Pixar movies increased clownfish googling, not clownfish purchasing

People were more interested in fish after it came out, but not more likely to set up an exotic aquarium

Dori Grijseels


University of Sussex

You might have heard of the ‘Nemo effect’, which described the increase in sales of clownfish (Amphiprion percula) after the release of the movie ‘Finding Nemo’. Although many news outlets reported on this phenomenon back in 2016, there is actually little evidence that it was real. 

One 2017 study did show that there was no increase in sales of clownfish after the movie came out, but it was based on limited data. That is why a recent follow-up study by zoologists at the University of Oxford, U.K., looked at the impact of the sequel ‘Finding Dory’ not just on the sale of blue tangs (Paracanthurus hepatus) like Dory herself, but also the public’s general interest in the fish. Because blue tangs can't be bred in captivity, the researchers were safe to assume all the extra fish that would be sold would have to be fished out of their natural habitat. Luckily, the researchers found no increase in sales of the fish. This puts the idea of the 'Nemo effect' to rest.

They did find evidence that more people looked up information about blue tangs in the first two months after the movie was released, suggesting that the movie had a positive effect on conservation awareness. Movies containing wildlife do have an effect on society, it just might not have been what we always thought  — and for tropical fish, that's a good thing. 

Four things you need to know about hurricanes, according to Massive

Climate change, mental illness, and disease outbreaks

Brittney Borowiec

Comparative Physiology

McMaster University

Long after the storm surge has receded, the winds have died down, and the clean-up has begun, hurricanes leave a lasting impact on affected communities. We at Massive have put together a curated list of our past stories about these powerful and frightening storms.

  1. Mosquitoes thrive in flooded, stagnant water, and hurricanes can kickstart disease outbreaks.
  2. In places with aging and insufficient infrastructure, water quality literally goes down the toilet after a big storm.
  3. In addition to their human toll and property damage, hurricanes and other natural disasters leave lasting impacts on the mental health of survivors.
  4. And as if a handful hurricanes per year wasn’t bad enough, the ongoing climate crisis is making them (and many other disasters) stronger and more frequent.

Your anonymized data might not be as anonymous as you thought

A new study raises serious ethical and practical questions about data security

Sharon Casey

Clinical Research and Epidemiology

Harvard School of Dental Medicine

What happens to the data you provide when you visit your doctor's office, fill out any kind of health-related form, or participate in a clinical trial? There are many ways that personal data are protected to ensure your privacy. These protections are governed by different levels of regulation, but sometimes become exempt from regulations governing human subject research. 

A recently published study described a statistical model capable of re-identifying individuals from de-identified (anonymized) data, even from a heavily incomplete dataset. The researchers report that “99.98% of Americans would be correctly re-identified in any  dataset using 15 demographic attributes,” with a low average  false-discovery (mis-identification) rate, proving that it is very possible for bad actors to attribute specific data to individuals.

Anonymized data sets are collected, shared and used daily at scale by health care organizations for research purposes. This paper is both shocking and controversial: Was it ethical for the researchers to share this model? Does it make it easier for hackers to get our private health information? One thing is clear: Data security, although an unexciting topic, is a critical area of technology that needs our attention.  

Netflix's new show, Diagnosis, replaces House M.D. with the crowd — and exposes failures in the U.S. healthcare system

The patient in the first episode travels to Italy to get a diagnosis that never even occurred to her local doctors

Max Levy

Chemical Engineering

University of Colorado Boulder

Netflix recently released a medical reality series called Diagnosis.  The show is based on Dr. Lisa Sanders' column in the New York Times, in which she uses the NYT's unparalleled readership and reach to crowdsource diagnoses for patients needing answers.

The first episode follows Angel Parker, a young woman dealing with excruciating pain that keeps her from working and even walking. Her pain is severe and intermittent, and comes with dark “Coca-Cola” colored urine. After years of hospital visits, Parker still had no answers.

Dr. Sanders wrote a description of the case and turned it over to the masses, collecting over 1000 responses from doctors, patients, veterinarians, and hobbyists ⁠— anyone who read the article was free to submit their opinion about what was ailing Parker. Among the possible diagnosis was a disease that stuck out to both women:  carnitine palmitoyltransferase 2 deficiency, or CPT2 deficiency.

CPT2 is a metabolic disorder in which patients can’t break down certain fatty acids, leading to muscle damage. To fuel a typical human day, the body relies on two sources of energy: carbohydrates and fats. Carboydrates are easier to burn, so those usually get used up first. But, what happens when the body needs more energy than expected?

If a person is exercising, or fasting, their cells turn to stored fats for a boost of energy. But in CPT2 deficiency, that system is broken and the body's cells are incapable of transporting fatty acids. Without this source of energy, muscle cells break down. That breakdown overwhelms the kidneys, darkens urine, and triggers  excruciating pain.

This is exactly what Parker had, but she had to travel to Italy to find out. A team of doctors in Turin ran a gamut of metabolic and genetic tests to conclusively diagnose her with CPT2, giving her a satisfying ending to a long and painful medical struggle. And luckily, CPT2 can be fairly easily controlled by reducing fats in the diet. 

But to me, the most striking detail about Diagnosis was not the metabolic disorder, but rather the show's subtext about healthcare in America. Parker suffered for years with no clear diagnosis. Even worse, she apparently had no screens for metabolic disorders at all (CPT2 is rare, but common enough that I originally learned about it from an undergraduate biochemistry class). Worse still, she says that she is deep in debt, being sued by doctors, and considering bankruptcy. 

I’m not a doctor. I’m also not an economist. But when it makes more sense to fly halfway across the globe for a diagnostic test, it shouldn’t take either to see the underlying problem.   

In the future, illnesses might be diagnosed with viral lasers

Scientists have engineered viruses to emit a pulse of light, making them easily traceable

Mackenzie Thornbury

Immunology and Microbiology

University of Montreal

Normally when we think of viruses, we think of how they make us sick and miserable. But what if we could make viruses work for us, instead of against us? That’s exactly what John Hales and his team did at University College London: They took viruses and turned them into lasers.

While this sounds like a sci-fi villain’s dream, it promises to be a force for good. Hales’ group works on bacteriophages, a type of virus that only infects bacteria. They have engineered a specific type of bacteriophage to express a fluorescent dye on their protein coat: in other words, they literally glow, allowing scientists to track them. These phages can be programmed to attach to a broad array of targets such as proteins and DNA. 

The florescent dye is what makes the virus a laser. Once inside the target, the virus can emit a detectable pulse of light, making it really easy to find the protein or DNA region of interest. 

An important application of this technology is in blood and urine  diagnostics. When tested, the viral lasers could clearly detect clinically relevant concentrations of antibodies. This exciting marriage of synthetic biology and physics is still being optimized in the lab, but it may one day replace the current diagnostic tools in clinics and doctors’ offices. 

Open access publishing is gaining steam, and the National Cancer Institute is now on board

NCI joins Science Europe and the University of California system in making bold moves toward open access

Luyi Cheng

Molecular Biology and Structural Biology

Northwestern University

The National Cancer Institute (NCI), part of the prominent National  Institutes of Health (NIH) funding agency, has now joined the movement towards open access publishing.

The open access model for publishing research is a simple idea: anyone should be able to access free peer-reviewed scientific publications, as opposed to research articles being hidden behind a paywall. Many advocates for open access argue that the taxpayers who contribute the tax money that supports the federal grants funding research should have access to the information.  Opponents say that the business model of open access journals isn’t sustainable and can hinder publishing by putting too much financial burden on the researchers doing the science, who have to pay to get their manuscripts published. While the open access movement has gained many supporters, some of the most  prestigious “brand name” journals still place their publications behind an extremely profitable paywall.

But institutions and funding agencies are making changes to their policies that may have the power to tip the scales towards supporting open access publishing. Back in November of 2018, Science Europe launched their Plan S initiative, backed by a coalition of 18 funding bodies, which will require every scientific publication originating from research they’ve funded to be publicly available. Earlier this year, the University of California system, one of the largest public research institutions in the world, broke their agreements for access to paywalled publications with the powerhouse publisher Elsevier.

Now NCI, a $1.8-billion research initiative, has also decided that they will require any research funded by them to be immediately accessible upon publication. Beyond NCI, the NIH (a $5.7 billion institute with substantial funding power) doesn’t require this of any other program, but maybe it’s finally not too crazy or hopeful to expect this in the future. While it’s hard to predict what lasting cultural changes these events might trigger, I believe these bold decisions reflect the fundamental belief that knowledge should be shared openly and transparently for scientific discoveries to achieve their greatest impact. 

Large clinical research study finds that vitamin D does not prevent type 2 diabetes in adults

Participants given vitamin D supplements had similar risk of developing the disease as did participants taking a placebo

Maria del Mar Maldonado

Biochemistry and Cancer Biology

University of Puerto Rico Medical Sciences Campus

More than 84 million Americans are at an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes in adulthood. During recent years, low blood levels of vitamin D have surfaced as a potential risk factor for type 2 diabetes. However, until recently it was unclear whether vitamin D supplementation could help prevent type 2 diabetes. A group of researchers in the United States, working on the D2d (Vitamin D and Type 2 Diabetes) study, just published the results of a randomized placebo-controlled clinical trial that helps answer this question.

As part of the D2d study, researchers tracked 2,423 pre-diabetic patients, who received either 4000 IU (International Units) per day of vitamin D3 or a placebo for approximately 2.5 years. They found that vitamin D3 supplementation at the administered dose did not result in a significantly lower risk of a participant developing diabetes, compared to those participants who took the placebo. 

So while type 2 diabetes actually may not be prevented by vitamin D supplementation, persons at high risk for type 2 diabetes who are overweight or obese can still prevent or slow the progression to diabetes by incorporating lifestyle changes such as weight loss and physical activity. 

Fiona Scott

Chemistry and Chemical Cancer Biology

University of Sussex

All dog owners know how difficult it is to stay upset with their beloved pets, even if Rover is behaving badly. Something about those puppy dog eyes just melt away the anger. Researchers at Duke University have now worked out a potential explanation for why we fall for “those” looks from dogs but less so from wolves, their close relatives.  

The domestication of dogs took place around 33,000 years ago.  The Duke researchers identified a muscle in dogs' facial anatomies that is used to raise the inner eyebrow. Wolves do not have this muscle, which suggests that humans selected for it during domestication.  

When dogs use this facial muscle, it actually makes them appear more relatable and sympathetic to our emotions. This phenomenon where the dogs mimic human behaviors is called “paedomorphism," and it gives animals that have it a selective advantage over their counterparts. This means that, over thousands and thousands of years, we humans preferentially bred dogs that had the muscle, and today all of them do. 

Unlike some forms of artificial selection, like farmers purposely creating varieties of corn that are adapted to very wet or dry soils, humans probably didn't select animals specifically because they had a strong inner eyebrow muscle. But, according to the Duke researchers, this feature triggers a subconscious impulse in us to nurture them, making them cuter and more snuggable in our eyes, which is likely why it exists only in today's dogs and not in wolves. 

More Lab Notes →