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Lab Notes

Short stories and links shared by the scientists in our community

Glaciers in the Himalayas have been melting for decades. Due to man-made climate change,  many small glaciers in and around the mountain range have already disappeared completely. A new report shows that in the last 20 years, melting has picked up speed. 

Researchers compared photographs of the Himalayas taken in the 21st century to those taken in the latter part of the 20th. Some of those older photos were only recently declassified US spy satellite pictures. Using that comparison, scientists at Columbia University and the University of Utah saw that glaciers in the region have been losing a vertical foot and a half of ice every year, twice as fast as the already rapid pace they were melting at previously. 

Since the Himalayas are such a large area, there are multiple contributing factors. One was less precipitation, which means less ice on the ground. But a big factor was the increasing consumption of fossil fuels in Asia, sending soot into the sky, where it falls to the ground and absorbs sunlight, warming the ground. Joshua Maurer, lead author on the study, said: “It looks just like what we would expect if warming were the dominant driver of ice loss." 

Maddie Bender

Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Yale University

Two weeks ago, entomologist Terry McGlynn wrote a blog post about a species of ant he named after conducting field research in the  summer of 2000. These ants are common in Central America, and behaved in an unusual way, moving back and forth among different nests in their territory but only occupying one at a time. Based on this trait, nineteen years ago McGlynn proposed to the official board of insect names that the species be commonly called “gypsy ants,” using an ethnic slur for the Roma people. 

The ant in question, Aphaenogaster araneoides, still has the same name, but McGlynn wrote that he is trying to change that. He put out an open call for names to send to the common names committee, and the internet did not disappoint: wanderlust ants, ranger ants, ambu-lants, and itiner-ants were all suggested. Paleoecologist Jacquelyn Gill suggested that McGlynn find out what local indigenous people call the ant. The final choice hasn't been made, so stay tuned for the decision. I myself am cheering for itiner-ant!

The renaming of Aphaenogaster araneoides won’t affect much — the species isn’t often studied, and there is no sign that of the far more popular gypsy moth’s name changing anytime soon — but it’s a good reminder to scientists to think of the consequences of their research outside the lab or field site.  

What happens when you bring a chicken to the Andes?

Evolution can take many different courses when adapting to the same environment

Jaime Chambers

Anthropology

Washington State University

What happens when you bring a chicken to the Andes? Five hundred years later, its descendants might just be suited to mountain climbing. 

High-altitude ecosystems offer a natural lab for seeing convergent evolution do its dance: the mountains are a shared low-oxygen setting that affects every species living there. In the Andean Altiplani, the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, and the Ethiopian Highlands, this applies to wildlife, humans, and domestic animals alike. Faced with the same physiological problem, natural selection offers up different solutions. 

According to a recent review, researchers have mapped out many roads that all lead to the same high-altitude adaptation destination. Most of the humans and domesticated animals studied had physiological adaptations to deal with hypoxia (lack of oxygen). But different genetic pathways have been modified to achieve this result, and functions such as development, chemical response, and stress have also undergone selection. Concentration of hemoglobin, the transporter of oxygen in the blood, illustrates this: people living in the Andes show elevated levels in general, while Tibetan humans and Tibetan mastiffs do not show increased  hemoglobin levels until they are over 4000 m. 

A map of all the evolutionary connections shows 15 different gene variants that assist in high-altitude living. The gene EPAS1 is shared between geographically separated populations, such as Tibetan cashmere goats and feral Andean horses. In some cases, it has been inherited through interspecies breeding:  Denisovans to Tibetan humans, Tibetan wolves to Tibetan mastiffs.  

Domesticated animals offer snapshots of selection in motion. Chickens introduced to the Andes less than 500 years ago already show signs of adaptation, via stronger bonding of oxygen to their hemoglobin carriers. High-altitude Ethiopian cattle thrive with  oxygen saturation levels of 68%, while lowland breeds die from anything below 80%. This synthesis of the research highlights that natural selection does not always shape the same solution for a single problem, and highlights the diversity of adaptations to high altitude environments across the animal kingdom. 

It's time to cancel the "manel"

All-male panels don't just lack diversity: they're actively counter-productive to diversifying STEM communities

Olivia Box

Natural Resources and Forest Ecology

University of Vermont

This past Wednesday, Francis S. Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), announced that he will no longer participate in "manels," or speaking panels with only male participants. 

Dr. Collins also issued a challenge the rest of his field to do the same, writing "the diversity of bright and talented minds engaged in biomedical research has come a long way – and our public engagements need to catch up." This high-profile announcement brings issues of inclusion to center stage, ideally making these “manels” a thing of the past.

Dr. Collins' decision is supported by recent research measuring women’s success rates in the sciences. A September 2018 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research suggested that women in PhD programs are more likely to finish their degree when they have female peers.

While he focused on his own field of biomedical research, this public action has been a call to scientists everywhere. In a story on the announcement by the New York Times, other scientists applauded Dr. Collins and vowed to do the same. And Dr. Jeremy Farrar, director of global health nonprofit The Wellcome Trust, tweeted that his organization plans to follow Dr. Collin’s pledge as well.

Groups like 500 Women Scientists have been working for years to create more inclusive and supportive environments that empower women in STEM. Started by four female scientists, they provide various resources, including a guide to organizing inclusive science meetings, to help anyone make their own community or institution more inclusive.

As a woman in a male-dominated field (forest ecology), I felt validated seeing this announcement covered extensively after it was made. I hope to see more organizations follow suit, use this pledge as a template, and more publicly support the work and accomplishments of under-represented minorities in their fields.

Kelsey Lloyd

Neuroscience and Nutrition

University of Cincinnati

We know that obesity is bad for the brain. Obese people tend to have inflammation in their brains, which can lead to decreased cognitive function and increased risk of developing disorders such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. What we don’t yet know is the exact mechanism of how obesity causes these cognitive impairments. 

We do know bits and pieces, like that obesity causes the loss of synapses, which are the connections between brain cells. Synapse loss is a normal developmental process and when a synapse is no longer needed it is destroyed up by microglia, the immune cells of the brain. Obesity is also known to increase the activity of microglia. This leads to the question, which way does this relationship go? Does obesity increase the rate of synapse loss, causing microglia to increase their activity to keep up, or does obesity put microglia into overdrive and cause them to destroy needed synapses?

To answer this question, researchers from Princeton University compared the mental functioning of obese and lean mice. As expected based on the previous research I outlined above, obese mice had impaired learning and memory compared to lean mice, as well as fewer synapses and more microglia. When the researchers then reduced the number or activity of microglia, they prevented both the learning deficits and the synapse loss in obese mice. Reducing the activity of microglia caused no changes in the lean mice (probably because their microglia weren’t very active to begin with). These results suggest that overactive microglia destroying needed synapses was the cause of the obesity related learning impairments. 

This study provides the first experimental evidence that microglia are not just bystanders, but play an active role in obesity-related cognitive impairment. This suggests that someday, we could use drugs that target microglia in order to treat cognitive impairment in obese human patients.  

Fecal transplants are all the rage these days. The FDA just announced that two patients who received a fecal transplant from the same donor got sick, and one died. They contracted antibiotic resistant E. coli from their donation. Both were immunocompromised (they had no functional immune system) before their received the transplant. The transplant hadn't been tested for this type of bacteria beforehand. 

Alyssa Shepard

Cancer Biology

The Scripps Research Institute

We might be one step closer to a real-life Spider-Man (or woman)!  Researchers at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, have  successfully sequenced two genes involved in making "spider glue" – the sticky silk-like substance that coats spider webs and holds prey hostage. These genes, called AgSp1 and AgSp2, were identified through a combination of RNA and genomic DNA sequencing, providing an excellent example of how advancements in biotechnology can assist in the discovery of potential new biomaterials. 

Although AgSp1 and AgSp2 are only two of a variety of silk genes that spiders can produce, these two genes alone are enough to begin working on glues directly derived from spider biology. The successful sequencing of this natural product has no doubt  pushed us closer to the next big advance in biomaterials. I expect “Spider Glue” – inspired by the real thing – to soon be on sale at a  retailer near you! One disclaimer: it probably won't be strong enough to catch any criminals.

Madison Hansen

Computational Biology

American Museum of Natural History

Millions of people all over the world are searching for their romantic partners online, using dating apps. To find a match, dating apps use algorithms to fish through hundreds of profiles so you don’t have to. But, like all algorithms, they aren’t perfect. Here to expose the pitfalls of online dating is MonsterMatch.

In MonsterMatch, you design a monster and their dating profile. Then the simulated dating app experience begins, in which you can swipe left or right and “message” with other monsters. Just like real dating apps, MonsterMatch uses an algorithm called collaborative filtering to decide which profiles to show. Collaborative filtering works by taking your data - a left or right swipe - and matching it to data from previous users. The app will  then show you another profile that was popular with people whose swipes agreed with yours. 

The problem with collaborative filtering is that it is heavily influenced by the first users. In the game MonsterMatch, this algorithm assumes that you like and dislike the same monsters as some of the early players. The monsters it shows you will start to be very similar to each other - a selection from the most popular monsters chosen by previous players.

In dating apps, the algorithm assumes you like and dislike the same people as previous users. Your first swipes can effectively pigeonhole you into a clique of users. If the clique says “No, we don’t like this profile,” then you will never be shown that profile. The clique filters which profiles you see, and therefore which people you date. This seems rather restrictive, given that dating is a tricky science

So the next time you open that dating app, consider how collaborative filtering influences whose profiles you view. To maximize your dating app success, notice when the profiles you are being shown lack variety - the collaborative filtering algorithm may have pigeonholed you. Try to reintroduce variety into your online dating search by experimenting with other available app features.  

You can play MonsterMatch here. In just a few minutes of swiping, you will discover the patterns, biases, and pitfalls of collaborative filtering for yourself.  

Olivia Box

Natural Resources and Forest Ecology

University of Vermont

I’m conducting fieldwork in a state park when a perfume-like smell fills the air. I instantly recognize the soft white petals, reminiscent of the roses that belong on prom corsages. As much as I shouldn’t, I find myself enamored with Rosa multiflora, a plant that goes by the common name of multiflora rose. 

Despite its charm – or rather, because of it – this rose is a highly invasive plant. As a forest ecologist studying forests post-disturbance, I often shake my head when I see invasive plants planted in garden beds or used in wreaths. But in the field, it can be hard to not love a rose amidst the tangles of poison ivy.

lionfish tinted purple

Lionfish are another highly invasive species

David Clode / Unsplash

The stark presence of the rose in the forest reminds me why this process happens, and the dangers associated with invasive plants particularly for forest health. In our global society, plants are  constantly being traveling around the world through trade and as  stowaways on shipping pallets, boats, and even on hiking boots.

In a forest, native plants are subjected to increased competition from invasive plants that often results in diminished biodiversity and forest cover. Invasives are a huge economic burden to homeowners and the subject of many state and government programs. Climate change is also predicted to increase the range and threat of many invasive species.

Many state parks and conservation groups host removal days or invasive initiatives and there are sources online to determine what species threaten your neighborhood. Learning what belongs – and what doesn’t—in your backyard is the first step to protecting forested ecosystems.
 

Katherine Basil

Neuroscience

Maastricht University

In a paper published in the journal Neuron this month, neuroethicists outline four ways that neurotechnology companies marketing wearable brain devices to consumers claim that their products positively enhance users' cognitive abilities and overall individual well-being. 

Despite these promising claims, to date there has been very little research into the effectiveness, benefit, and safety of similar direct-to-consumer brain devices. This is particularly concerning since individuals might resort to these wearable neurotechnologies instead of seeking necessary medical care. This is even more problematic in the case of children, where we are not able to predict the effects of those devices on their brain development. What can be done?

The authors suggest that these companies should highlight the negative side-effects of the marketed brain devices in a more ethical and sensitive way. One way to achieve this could be through the addition of a warning label communicating the potential side-effects as well as the fact that there could be other unforeseen negative health consequences to the purchaser. And when it comes to data privacy? We should definitely start asking those questions. 

Coleman Harris

Biostatistics

Vanderbilt University

Carbon capture is often suggested as a necessary solution to prevent  impending climate disasters. But, what exactly is carbon capture, and how does it work?

Carbon capture is a distinct part of a larger process known as carbon capture and storage. This process includes literally capturing the carbon dioxide as it is created in power plants or other industrial activities. Then it is transported by pipeline or ship for storage underground in places like former oil fields. 

Nature's carbon capture and storage method

 Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash 

The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions notes that the carbon capture and storage process is a practical and productive method of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, achieving 14 percent of the world's emission reduction targets by 2050. Captured carbon can even be used in fuel manufacturing and oil recovery, making these industries a bit cleaner. 

In our current timeline, where the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has already released a special report on Global Warming of 1.5º C, I would argue that carbon capture solutions are a necessary solution to driving down rising global emissions that threaten daily life.

Axios has just published an immensely helpful illustration of the ways carbon can be captured, from trees and soil to highly-touted technological solutions. Check it out while enjoying a cold beer brewed with recaptured carbon!

Alana Wilcox

Conservation Biology

University of Guelph

Every year monarch butterflies in southern Canada and the north-central United States travel over 4,000 kilometers (2,485 miles) southward. Triggered by cool weather and the slow death of their host plant, milkweed, monarchs make their long journeys to the oyamel fir forest in Mexico. However, this stunning migration is at risk. The population of monarchs in California alone has declined by 86% between 2017 and 2018. 

Monarch butterflies face a wide range of threats including bad weather, climate change, and exposure to chemicals and contaminants, as well as the dual dangers of predation and pathogens. Deforestation in Mexico where the butterflies overwinter and the loss of breeding habitat and milkweed on the northern breeding range also pose significant risk at different stages in the monarch life cycle. Despite mounds of research in each of these areas, it turns out that we still don’t fully understand the contribution of each to monarch declines.

To answer this question, my colleagues and I examined 115 peer-reviewed papers, classifying them by the type of risk and whether  the potential threat currently had a positive or negative effect on  monarch butterflies. Using papers with multi-year datasets or results from predictive models, we also assessed whether each threat is thought to pose a continued risk to the population (as opposed to a one-time problem). We found that poor environmental conditions and loss of habitat in Mexico and on the northern breeding grounds are the most severe threats to monarch butterflies.  With this in mind, researchers can design studies and conservation interventions that that directly address these threats to reduce the decline of this charismatic species.  

Sarah Laframboise

Biochemistry

University of Ottawa

All Caster Semenya wanted was to “run free” in the body she was born with. As a two-time Olympic Champion, she is a dominant force in the international athletics scene, specifically in the 800m race. Last month, the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled in favor of a movement put forward by the International Association of Athletics Foundation (IAAF). This movement banned Semenya, and others with natural conditions, such as the hyperandrogegism Semenya has, which lead to high levels of testosterone. If they wanted to continue to compete in international competition, then she would have to take testosterone-suppressive drugs to lower her natural levels of testosterone to level deemed “normal” for female athletes. 

A second appeal to the Swiss Supreme Court has finally lifted this ban after what seems like a nightmare year for Semenya and other afflicted athletes. Although this is a temporary action, the lift will remain in place until Semenya’s case can be fully evaluated by the Supreme Court. This could take a year or more to evaluated and gives these athletes a second chance to race! 

This is certainly a step in the right direction. However, Semenya’s fight is not over. She will have to defend her case once again and be subjected to intensive questioning and demanding court appearances. The implications of this ruling impact our cultural understanding of gender, sex, and sport. It is crucial that we understand these concepts and fight for true equality. Most importantly, Semenya is back in competition in the body she was born to run in.  

Alana Wilcox

Conservation Biology

University of Guelph

After spending the first few years of life in fresh water, young  Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) undergo a complex series of physiological changes that allows them to better withstand the high concentration of salts as they migrate to seawater. Young salmon tolerate the salts in the environment through the development of cells, called ionocytes, that secrete sodium and chloride and a specialized enzyme that acts as a pump to transport these electrolytes.

Landlocked salmon, on the other hand, remain in freshwater and it is unknown if, over time, this has resulted in physiological differences compared to salmon that migrate between freshwater and seawater over their lifecycle (anadromous). So, Dr. Stephen McCormick of the US Geological Survey led a team to investigate if there was a difference in expression of the enzymes responsible for salt transport, as well as the underlying hormonal regulation, between the two types of fish.

McCormick and his team brought salmon into the laboratory to monitor their responses to controlled changes in the environment. They found that levels of an enzyme that allows the fish to live in salty environments and the hormones responsible for regulating seawater acclimation, like cortisol and growth hormone, were higher in anadromous salmon than landlocked fish. These findings shed light on the complex physiological changes that occur during sea-going salmon development as well as how these salmon populations have evolved over the last 14,000 years. 

Okay "all the way across the sky" really means they got 5.2 million kilometers away at their closest. But still, double asteroids!!! Look at 'em. The International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN) and the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope (VLT, actual name) spotted Asteroid 1999 KW4 in late May. Here's a NASA .gif of the asteroid, which has two parts (making it a "binary" asteroid). Alpha is the bigger one, the "primary" body, and Beta, the smaller one, is the secondary body but is also sometimes adorably called a "moonlet."

(NASA/JPL)

Although 1999 KW4 isn't a threat, since the closest it came to Earth is 15 times further away than the Moon is, it's being treated as a kind of rehearsal for observing other potentially dangerous objects. 1999 KW4 is also reminiscent of Didymos, another binary asteroid (its moonlet is called Didymoon). NASA will be attempting to deflect Didymoon in 2022, to see if changing an asteroid's course is possible. I'm already working on my screenplay.

Jaime Chambers

Anthropology

Washington State University

Where ever humans have gone, so have dogs – a mutualistic relationship that has left co-evolutionary traces in their brains, behavior, and bodies. However, despite dogs’ ubiquity in human societies, keeping dogs is not a universal trait among individuals. Is the predilection for canine company purely an acquired taste, or might dog-keeping also be written in the genes? 

According to a recent study, maybe there's something in your chromosomes. Genes wield significant influence over whether someone is a “dog person,” with over half of variation in dog ownership explainable by heredity (which means the other half of explaining why someone does or does not have dogs is explained by something else). 

The authors relied on powerful data sets to analyze dog ownership in 35,035 twin pairs:  the Swedish Twin Registry (the largest twin cohort database in the world) and dog registration records from the Swedish Board of Agriculture and Swedish Kennel club (estimated to account for 83% of the country’s dogs, due to national laws requiring their registration).

This study is the first to suggest that dog ownership has a notable genetic component, heritable by 57% for females and 51% for males. Identical twins were found to be more likely to own dogs than non-identical twins – offering evidence that genetic factors play a role in that choice, since identical twins share their entire genome and non-identical twins share only half. 

To be clear, this is pure correlation. No responsible “dog owning” gene has been isolated, but these findings tap into the biggest questions surrounding domestication: not just how, but why, did it happen? A genetic component offers new pathways for probing these layers. 

Jenna Sternberg

Neuroscience

Sea wasp, marine stinger, common kingslayer. The nicknames for the various species of box jellyfish's stem from this animal's reputation as one of the most dangerous creatures in the sea. These jellies, which are in the class Cubozoa, cause agonizing pain when they eject their venom and can even kill humans.

sign about jellyfish stings

A group of Australian researchers from the University of Sydney, led by Dr. Man Tat-Lau recently identified a potential antidote to box jellyfish stings. They used genetic editing tool CRISPR to knock out over 19,000 genes one by one in human  cells. Box jellyfish venom normally kills cells, so the researchers wanted to see whether any of these modified cells could survive after exposure. Two genes required for the venom to inflict such intense pain jumped out at them.

One of these genes directs production of cholesterol. The researchers performed experiments to tell whether drugs that reduce cholesterol signaling could serve as an antidote to venom poisoning. Treatment led to less cell death in human cells, and mice showed reduced symptoms of pain.

With this antidote, victims of a box jellyfish sting may one day only need to apply a drug to treat their pain. Understanding how the venom acts on cells will also provide a starting point for studying pain pathways and using venom components to develop new medicines. 

Brittney Borowiec

Comparative Physiology

McMaster University

The Dallol geothermal area (14°14′21″N; 40°17′55″E) in Ethiopia is hell on Earth. The boiling water of the hot spring is three times saltier than the ocean, contaminated with heavy metals, and has a pH of zero. It’s ten times more acidic than battery acid.

And yet, something lives here according to a new study in Scientific Reports.

Curious about the limits of life on Earth, a team of researchers put some salt-encrusted rocks around the hot springs through a filter and tried to extract some DNA. They got a hit - the DNA was very similar to a group of organisms called Nanohaloarchaea, some of which live in high salt environments. 

What did these mysterious Nanohaloarchaea look like? The team put their samples under some very powerful microscopes to find out. 

Pill-shaped micro-organisms within a network of thin, needle-like crystals

Pill-shaped micro-organisms within a network of thin, needle-like crystals. Notice how the crystals have grown around and encapsulated the microorganisms.

Gomez et al. in Scientific Reports

Now that we know that they’re here, I can’t wait for someone to figure out exactly how these ultra-small microorganisms survive, and what they mean for the ecology and geochemical cycling of these hot springs.

The authors suggest this has implications for finding life on Mars. It doesn’t seem so far-fetched. 

Alison Koontz

Neurobiology

Caltech

With current extinction rates 1000 times higher than natural background extinction rates, our planet is heading towards a biodiversity crisis similar to that which occurred after the disappearance of the dinosaurs and over 75 percent of the known species on the entire planet. The only way for animal populations to survive this death sentence is to be best suited for their environment in a way that ensures not only their survival, but the preferential survival of their offspring as well. Biologists refer to this as "fitness."

A new study from the University of Southampton challenges what we think of when we hear fitness. The researchers predicted that  over the the next century, the body masses of animals will decrease as natural selection favors smaller birds and mammals. This specifically applies to animals that can live in multiple habitats and are extremely fertile, like rabbits and songbirds. In fact, the overall body mass of animals is predicted to decrease by 25 percent before 2219. This is bad news for large animals and species that occupy very specific niches, which includes keystone species such as sea otters and wolves. These are called keystone species because they play a critical role in shaping and maintaining their ecosystems. 

Birds and other fast-reproducing organisms are predicted to shrink over the next 100 years

Laura Wolf / Flickr

Unsurprisingly, the cause of this downsizing is humankind - specifically our continuous impact on our planet through climate change, habitat destruction, and hunting and farming. However, there is a point of hope. If conservation actions can be taken to protect those keystone species that we know are threatened, we can perhaps reverse the short-term death sentence and prolong these important ecosystems. 

This is not a new message. However, the range of threats that species face - and the myriad forms they take - make swift action an urgent necessity.

Thinking about releasing thousands of balloons for your local Indy 500? That's littering

The balloons are supposed to be biodegradable but they're really not

Jenny Howard

Ecology

Wake Forest University

What counts as littering? Some signs of littering might be obvious, like the 20,000 pounds of trash collected on Virginia Beach after the Memorial Day weekend. But strictly speaking, the definition depends on the country and state. In some states in the USA, the weight or type of litter determines the severity of the crime. Penalties for littering can also depend on state, ranging from $20 in Colorado to $30,000 in Maryland. Indiana, USA defines littering as the intentional placement or leaving of “refuse on property of another person.” You are caught flicking your cigarette from a moving vehicle? Littering. You dump a bag of trash on the neighbor’s lawn? Littering. And in Indiana, you can be charged a fine up to $1,000 that qualifies as a Class A infraction. 

What about releasing thousands of balloons, like at the Indy 500 in Indianapolis, Indiana on May 26, 2019?

Balloons seem festive and innocent enough, especially when used for birthdays, graduations, and general well-wishing. But released into the air, balloons pop in the thinning atmosphere and fall back to earth. That’s when balloons turn into their evil counterpart. Balloons strings entangle animals and they mistake them for food, trying to swallow them and then becoming a choking hazard. In a recent study, researchers reviewed how plastic pollution contributed to >1700 seabird deaths and found that balloons pose the highest risk to seabirds of all ingested debris. Sea turtles, too, are particularly threatened by balloon littering because the soft plastic resembles a food item, jellyfish. 

The balloons released at the Indy 500, “reported as 100% biodegradable”, are not*, in fact, biodegradable. Although more brittle, many balloons were still intact after a test of 11 months in the natural environment. If a balloon pops and falls on property in Indiana, by the state law, that should qualify as littering. But for a larger corporation littering with thousands of latex balloons, the fine should be higher. We can do better for the environment and a higher fine for littering might be the economical motivation to rethink next year’s Indy 500 balloon release. 


(*Disclosure: The Indianapolis Star reporter, Emily Hopkins, who did this experiment is engaged to Massive founder Allan Lasser)

Amy R Nippert

Neuroscience

University of Minnesota

The Atlantic magazine recently published another article about the replication crisis, focusing on why disproven research is still studied. The fields of science are littered with what Steven Poole refers to as "intellectual zombies," disproven ideas that refuse to die. 

An illuminating example are 18 candidate genes that are ostensibly linked to depression, which upon a second, more thorough look may have nothing to do with depression at all. These genes have been heavily researched, all based on foundation of research that turned out to be nothing more than sand. 

Graduate students are uniquely harmed by these unreplicatable experiments. While there are real fiscal and societal costs, there are also unseen personal costs. The “waste of 1000 studies” is a waste of many more years that graduate students spent trying to make these experiments work. 

We have five or so years to learn and work on a project. And critically, we often have five years to publish said project. If you’re starting a project on a foundation that doesn’t exist, you’re set up for failure. And in cases like the one the article discusses, where the evidence seems strong, that failure feels so personal. The logical assumption is that it’s your fault, as the lowly graduate student. 

It can get worse when the thing you’re seeking to build off and replicate is from past research in your own lab. Poor mentorship might mean you’re not just unable to fight the zombie but are also forced to reanimate it. 

It doesn’t help that research is a job that relies on zeal and curiosity, which are often fragile things. Intellectual zombies might not eat your brain but they eat away at your faith in the system.

Allan Lasser

Co-founder and CTO, Massive Science

Just discovered this really cool free application called Downlink that updates your desktop wallpaper with realtime imagery from a number of different geostationary satellites.

I just set my computer to the “Continental US” feed and now I’m able to see where I am (Indianapolis) from space in near-realtime. The future is cool!

The only downside to Downlink is that it appears to be Mac-only at the moment.

Sidenote: this reminded me of one of my favorite projects ever, Glittering.Blue by Charlie Lloyd. It’s not live, but it is still wonderful. 

Darcy Shapiro

Evolutionary Anthropology

Rutgers University

Just in time for summer, a group of researchers published a preprint earlier this week showing that ancient Egyptians had domesticated sweet, red-fleshed watermelon by at least 3,560 years ago. 

The team compared genomic data extracted from a leaf found in a mummy's sarcophagus to the DNA of all of the extant members of the genus Citrullus to get a more detailed picture about the watermelon's wild origin, which is surprisingly contentious. They also wondered whether the fruit was red-fleshed and sweet (which wild relatives of the watermelon are not).

They found that the DNA from the watermelon leaf from the sarcophagus had unique mutations in common with modern cultivars that are sweet and red-fleshed, and that the closest wild relative of these tasty varieties is a white-fleshed, non-bitter melon from southern Sudan. 

And these findings fit with the archaeological record. There are even wall paintings depicting ancient Egyptians eating fruits that look very much like modern watermelons!  

Ariani Wartenberg

Ecology

UC Berkeley

Many of us regularly consume chocolate, but may forget about the plant it comes from, Theobroma cacao, or cocoa. Cocoa can be grown in monocultures, which produce higher yields but are also more vulnerable to pest invasions and climate change. Alternatively, agroforests combine cocoa and shade trees; they may have lower initial cocoa yields but sustain higher levels of biodiversity and promote long-term ecosystem health and resilience. 

When it comes to sustainability, smallholder cocoa cultivators in marginalized tropical regions are the ones making key land management decisions. Yet when deciding between cultivation options, cocoa farmers face frustrating trade-offs: should they prioritize short-term yield or long-term risk management and ecosystem health? 

To study these factors, I traveled to Sulawesi, Indonesia, where some farmers address trade-off conundrums through a flexible approach, planting shade trees only in some parts of their cocoa fields. Their methods inspired a study which measured the influence of individual shade trees in cocoa farms. Individual shade trees improved soils in cocoa farms without necessarily decreasing cocoa yields. Our finding underscores the value of flexible cultivation approaches and could help cocoa farmers who want to transition towards more sustainable systems.

Dara Bree

Neuroscience

Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

Imagine living your whole life without ever experiencing pain. Imagine having a permanently cheerful disposition, and no anxiety and fear. This is life for a 66 year old Scottish woman.

The woman carries a previously unknown genetic mutation that gives her consistently high levels of endocannabinoids, which are a kind of neurotransmitter similar to THC, one of the psychoactive compounds in marijuana. 

The endocannabinoid system is involved in a whole host of bodily processes including pain, mood, and memory. The persistently elevated levels of endocannabinoids in this woman’s blood lead her to feel no pain and to have a consistently bright and positive outlook on life. When originally discovered, anandamide, the particular endocannabinoid this woman carries extras of, was named after the Sanskrit word for bliss.  Her lack of pain phenotype is so strong that she can eat Scotch Bonnet chili peppers and only reports a “pleasant glow in her mouth” and enjoys the feeling of pulling stinging nettles from the ground with her bare hands during gardening. Throughout her life has undergone numerous painful operations without ever needing pain relievers. 

Although the ability to feel pain is crucial to protect us from harm, reports like these are of great value as they offer new targets for development of pain relievers. Targets such as the endocannabinoid  system are particularly desirable as they have the potential to treat not only pain but also mood disorders such as anxiety which is often present in many chronic pain conditions.