Lab Notes

Short stories and links shared by the scientists in our community

Drones are better than tissue samples for measuring humpback whale body conditions

The two metrics perform similarly for much of the year, but aerial images capture changes during the breeding season where tissue samples do not

Fernanda Ruiz Fadel

Animal Behavior and Behavioral Genetics

University of Tübingen

In order for researchers to keep track of animal populations, it is necessary not only to know how many there are but also how healthy they are. This often requires tissue or blood samples, but for large animals such as whales, collecting samples is very difficult and it can interfere with their natural behavior. Humpback whales go through especially extreme body condition changes throughout the year. They migrate from their polar feeding areas to warmer breeding grounds, during which time adults spend months without eating. 

Researchers measure changes in body conditions of migrating whales by checking the lipid content of their blubber layer – a layer of reserve energy that keeps them warm and allows them to go without eating for long periods of time. They can also use drones equipped with small cameras to measure things such as body length and volume from aerial images. However, in order to find out if the different measurement methodologies are reliable, they need to compare them.

So, a group of researchers in the coast of south-west Australia collected drone images and blubber samples from the same individuals of Humpback whales at the beginning and end of the breeding season to find out if the external (body shape) and internal (blubber fat, measured by tissue biopsy) measurements correlate.  

They found that the body volume of the whales decreased through the breeding season. This was expected since the adults are fasting and females are nursing their calves during this time. However, they found no big changes in the fat composition of the blubber layer during the same period. These results differ from other species of whales and it signals that for humpback whales, monitoring their body sizes is a more accurate and less invasive metric than tissue samples for checking if the populations are being able to feed well and reproduce. 

Parasitic wasps murder insects with a smallpox-like virus

...and other words everyone is happy to hear

Marnie Willman


University of Manitoba Bannatyne and National Microbiology Laboratory

In the virus world, smallpox and other poxviruses are horrifying. Despite the fact that smallpox was successfully eradicated in the 1970s, the entire family of poxviruses still strike fear into the heart of scientists.

But if you're a parasitoid wasp, poxviruses are essential. Parasitoid wasps are no stranger to being outcasts. These  wasps make their living by laying their eggs inside other insects so their larvae can slowly eat away the host and release the mature insects fully fed and ready to reproduce. Frightened yet? It gets worse. 

parasitic wasp

Parasitic wasp attacking an aphid

Wikimedia Commons

These wasps carry a type of poxvirus, Diachasmimorpha longicaudata entomopoxvirus (DIEPV) in their venom glands. This virus has evolved with them, and is now built right into their genes, to be passed on to the next generation of parasitoid wasps. But why would this trend of evolution be a good thing for the wasps?

New research sheds some light on why this convergent evolution has occurred from the perspective of the wasps themselves. It turns out that DIEPV is particularly deadly for flies, and other small insects. This means that when the parasitoid wasp lays its eggs inside the unwilling host, the DIEPV virus grows along with the pupa, and kills the host even faster, releasing tissues and destroying organs for pupal digestion faster than the natural process. Thus, parasitoid wasp offspring mature, are released, and reproduce faster with greater success because DIEPV helps them kill the host. After this true-life horror story, the cycle repeats again so that these young wasps can make new wasps of their own. 

So next time you swat a wasp and feel your heart beat a little faster as you avoid being stung, imagine the unfortunate fate you would be facing if you were an insect confronting a parasitoid wasp. Now that is pretty scary. 

Need a memory boost? Try sleep and exercise

But probably not at the exact same time

Hannah Thomasy


University of Washington

The internet is full of advertisements for supplements and brain-training games to help improve your memory, most of which are of questionable efficacy. Now, a new study from researchers at Concordia University in Quebec provides scientific evidence for a way that people can improve memory. Best of all, it’s completely free. Here’s the secret: exercise and then take a nap. 

No, that's not a joke.

Scientists first randomized participants into one of four groups: those who exercised and napped, those who only exercised, those who only napped, and those who didn’t do either. In the morning, participants randomized into one of the two exercise groups did 40 minutes of moderate-intensity cycling. Then in the early afternoon, all of the groups were shown 45 different pictures. Half the participants were then allowed to nap for one hour. In the early evening, all of the participants were shown 90 pictures and asked to identify which ones they had seen earlier than day.

The Sleeping Beauty by Walter Crane (1876)

Via Smithsonian Libraries

On this declarative memory task, neither exercise nor napping alone increased memory performance. However, the group that exercised before learning and napped afterwards had significantly better accuracy on the task compared to groups that only exercised or only napped. This suggests that exercise and sleep act synergistically to improve memory. Future research could examine whether this finding holds true for other types of memory tasks or whether the time of day that people exercise influences the effects of exercise on memory. 

Captive butterflies have duller, shorter wings, and weaker grips than their wild counterparts

Is captive rearing really the answer to monarch butterfly conservation? Maybe not, according to this new research

Monarch butterflies are a key pollinator and complete an arduous migration as part of their life cycle. Conservationists worry about their rapidly declining numbers, as the butterflies battle against climate change and pesticides. To tackle this, people are breeding them in captivity, and releasing them when they are fully grown. 

To the untrained eye, captive butterflies are just as beautiful as wild ones. Scientists know that their migration skills aren’t as fine tuned as their wild counterparts – a process which is essential for the butterflies to successfully lay their eggs. To understand why,  Researchers from the University of Georgia put some captive raised butterflies through their paces, to see if their beauty and brawn's lives up to that of their wild cousins. 

Both captive and wild butterflies performed a grip test. By measuring the force needed for the butterflies to release their grip on a branch, researchers discovered that the captive butterflies strength was not up to wild standard. Captive butterflies also have much paler and shorter wings than wild butterflies.

These three traits are essential for successful migration. Grip strength, in particular, is what the butterflies need to latch onto branches and trees when resting or if winds become too severe.

In captivity, there is no “survival of the fittest.” The butterflies are reared and nurtured, and most of them survive. If these captive butterflies mate with the wild population, their offspring might be at a big disadvantage. Beyond that, the authors of the paper note that their findings explain a trend of decreased migratory success in captive-reared monarch butterflies. 

Viruses may solve the problem of antibiotic resistant bacteria

It has worked in mice and moths, but human trials are just now getting going

Sridevi Ranganathan

Infectious Diseases

University of Maryland

Antibiotics changed the face of medicine since their introduction in the 1940s. Before antibiotics came into widespread use, if a person accidentally scraped their hand and the wound became infected, there would have been a 1 in 10 chance that they would lose the limb. Antibiotics changed that.

However, the overuse and misuse of antibiotics have led to several bacterial pathogens becoming notoriously resistant to them. Therefore, scientists have been looking for alternate ways to treat bacterial infections. One such approach is bacteriophage therapy.

Bacteriophages are viruses that prey on bacteria. They infect their target bacterium, multiply, and break it open, thereby killing it. So, can we send in these sneaky viral hunters to kill bacteria that can't be killed by antibiotics?

Last year, researchers in South Korea showed that a novel bacteriophage they isolated from hospital sewage water (yes, you read that right) was active against 17 out of 40 antibiotic-resistant strains of A. baumannii that they tested. These researchers infected wax moth larvae and mice with antibiotic-resistant A. baumannii followed by treatment with the bacteriophage. The moth larvae and mice that were given the bacteriophage survived much longer than the ones that were infected but not treated. In fact, 100% of the mice infected with A. baumannii and treated with the bacteriophage survived, whereas mice that did not receive bacteriophage treatment died within five days of infection.

Mice and moths, sure. How about humans?

Last month, researchers in Australia enrolled 14 critically ill patients with bacterial sepsis caused by drug-resistant S. aureus bacteria into a safety trial for bacteriophage therapy. These patients were given a cocktail of phages with activity against drug-resistant S. aureus strains, along with the standard regimen of antibiotics to treat the infection. Phage therapy did not cause any adverse reaction in these patients and was associated with a reduction in bacterial burden and less inflammation.

Much needs to be done before bacteriophage therapy can become mainstream in humans. However, this study is an important step forward in understanding if bacteriophage therapy will be our ally in the war against drug-resistant bacteria.

We can measure coronavirus's spread by looking at people's poop

Municipal wastewater treatments plants are actually ideal testing locations

Lauren Sara McKee

Microbiology, Biochemistry, and Biotechnology

KTH Royal Institute of Technology

Many scientists are following the same rules of social isolation as everyone else. University labs around the world have closed, and we are pivoting to working from home, delivering lectures, supervising students online, and putting our research on ice for now.

Other scientists have completely turned their research programs around to start contributing to the fight against COVID-19. This includes heroic efforts to develop new screens for infection, new antibody assays, and rapid new blood tests. A very different kind of project has been started in many cities, including my adopted home of Stockholm, Sweden.

Researchers around the world now believe that, because most infected individuals shed the virus that causes COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) in their feces, it is possible to detect the virus in sewage (wastewater) and thereby track its spread through a city. 

Wastewater treatment plants are the ideal testing site, as they typically serve one municipality where the citizens are also served by the same healthcare centers. The virus can be detected even at low levels, suggesting that wastewater testing could be a powerful surveillance tool to monitor circulation of the virus in a local area, and perhaps give an early warning of a resurgence in cases. 

Projects are ongoing in the Netherlands at the KWR Water Research Institute, in Stockholm at the Science for Life Laboratory and the Royal Institute of Technology, and at institutes in Spain and Turkey, and there is growing global interest in the results.

These efforts will complement the ongoing work to roll out antibody testing that will tell local authorities roughly what proportion of their citizens have been infected without showing symptoms – knowledge that might let some people start returning to work earlier than anticipated.

One person's techno trash is a scientist's research tool

It's hard to study plant roots, but a plastic CD case makes it easier to observe a plant's underground activities

Cassie Freund


Wake Forest University

Plant roots are complex and delicate structures that provide the aboveground stem and leaves with nutrients and water. Studying them can tell us a lot about a plant's survival strategy and its associations with soil fungi and bacteria. There's a lot going on beneath our feet that we just can't see.

And that's part of the problem: roots are very difficult to study because they are hidden below layers of soil. To measure and observe roots, plant biologists must either dig up the plant, an approach aptly referred to as "destructive sampling," or install a see-through chamber called a rhizotron. A rhizotron is kind of like an ant farm: it allows you to observe what is going on in the soil though a clear panel. But rhizotrons can be expensive and, depending on a scientist's research goals, not worth the effort it takes to construct them.

plants growing out of a CD case

CD case rhizotron

Steven Cassidy

Now, a group of biologists from the University of Pittsburgh have developed an inexpensive and simple mini-rhizotron from a now-defunct household object: a plastic CD case. Their method was published in April in Applications in Plant Sciences. The case itself is filled with soil, and the growing plants protrude from the hinge. Because plants can sense and grow in the direction of gravity, storing the CD cases at an angle forces the roots to grow up against the see-through sides of the cases, making them easy to see and measure without disturbing the plant.

This method only works for studying small plants — there is no CD case large enough to grow a tropical tree! But it's a clever method that fills a scientific need, and one that the authors hope will make root research accessible to teachers, ecologists, agricultural scientists, and other researchers no matter what financial resources they have available.

CDC chimes in on disinfecting and reopening during pandemic

Guidance builds on administration's advice to reopen

Max Levy

Science and Health Journalism and Chemical Engineering

This week, the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has released a suite of guidance documents to help US businesses reopen, as encouraged by the Trump administration.

The guidance comes with a “decision tool” for reopening and disinfecting public spaces, businesses, schools, and homes. Towards the start of the guidance, the CDC makes a key point: “The virus that causes COVID-19 can be killed if you use the right products.”

CDC Website

Much of the cleaning and disinfection guidance elaborates on using “right products” safely. The first step, according to the CDC, is routine cleaning with soap and water. It’s worth pointing out that regular soap and water will do just fine – no need for the antibacterial stuff that breeds drug-resistant bacteria and doesn’t help kill viruses, despite what you may have heard

For larger establishments, the CDC also recommends using surface disinfectants approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reduce COVID-19 risks. When those disinfectants are unavailable, according to the CDC, bleach or alcohol will do.

Of course, this information isn’t exactly new – the CDC has been championing soap and water for months. 

What is new is the context: a country scrambling to contain misinformation while juggling tens of thousands of new daily cases with a desire to end its most effective defense. Federal, state, and local governments are moving in different directions and at different speeds. 

All the while, the CDC has been largely absent. With the new guidance, and a 17-page draft document sent to CNN that gives interim reopening direction to establishments like bars and childcare programs, the CDC appears poised for Americans to “return to work.”

CDC guidance

CDC guidance from April 4th


Still, the CDC offers a disclaimer: 

It’s important to continue to follow federal, state, tribal, territorial, and local guidance for reopening America.

And now some stories of scientists getting mansplained to

Being an expert in your field doesn't stop people from telling you what they think

Dan Samorodnitsky

Senior Editor

Many of our readers and friends are scientists and experts in their fields. Would that stop mansplainers from talking down to them? We asked if they had any stories of being mansplained to, and they did not disappoint. Here are a few of our favorites. If you have stories you'd like to contribute, please email me at, or DM me on Twitter (@d_samorodnitsky). Anonymity guaranteed. All the below respondents asked to remain anonymous. These quotes have been lightly edited for clarity.

A wild kilogram expert appears

"Once I was going to a popular radio show to talk about a new science story. Someone came to escort me up to the studio and I apologized that, on our walk, I would have to watch a press conference so I could give an update from it on the air. The guy escorting me then proceeded to explain the topic of the press conference to me — the very topic I was on my way to explain on the radio show." 

(Ed: "What were you going to talk on the radio about?" I asked. 

"The new definition of the kilogram!")

I got it thanks

"I spent a sabbatical semester in Sweden (which I had believed to be the center of gender equality — it's not). Here the general assumption was that I was a young, foreign grad student, not a professor. I could only get things done by convincing a higher-ranking man about what I wanted to have done, and have him state that this was his idea, then it would happen. 

"The worst situation was an IT guy who was trying to explain to me how video conferencing worked. I interrupted him to say that I did research in this area, so yes, I knew. He kept at it, so I pulled up my home page to show him a) This is me b) I am a professor and c) I do research on technology-based distance education. Oh, he said. And then he apologized. But I had to convince every man personally that I knew what I was talking about."

The cannabis avengers

"PhD candidate studying cannabis and psychosis here. I once told a man what I was researching and he proceeded to explain to me how cannabis can cure cancer. Also had plenty of men online explain to me that there are absolutely no negative effects of cannabis and I quote, "you know nothing of science." 

"Who were these people?" Other scientists?" I asked. 

"No. Organized stoners. The cannabis community can be hostile." 

"Okay, can I quote you by name or do you want to remain anonymous? 

"Better stay anonymous, thanks. Don't trust the cannabis avengers not to return."

There's a reason it's not called an Amateurs degree

"The one that pops to mind most quickly is when I started my PhD. I came in with a Masters and one of my new labmates started explaining shit about my study species to me. He had been a PhD student six months longer than me, with no Masters. I was a super expert, and we were in equal footing but he completely disregarded the degree I had earned in that topic that he didn't have."

Do you even know why you hired me

"I’m a chemist and I’ve lost count of times I’ve been mansplained to, but I think my favorite was the manager I had who explained to me what desomorphine was. I did my thesis on desomorphine, krokodil (the street synthesized version), and its derivatives. It was in my interview. I commonly spoke about it. “It’s basically codeine if codeine were crack,” I was told, with utter confidence. 

"In some ways he wasn’t wrong, just drastically oversimplifying in a very patronising way. Codeine is used to make desomorphine in the street synthesis, so that’s not terrible. And desomorphine in street form (krokodil) is terrifically addictive with a very short lifespan — the high doesn’t last long. Cocaine is similar in that respect. The issue is that it’s nothing close in structure to cocaine, and in the job we were doing (LC-MS/MS detection in human bio fluids) it would have been pointless to look for it anywhere near cocaine on the data readouts.  

"So basically, he did the equivalent of telling a marine biologist who wrote a paper on humpback whales, 'A whale is like a really big fish.' Technically not wrong, but very oversimplified, patronizing, and unhelpful."

Tinkering with brain proteins may add insulation back to damaged nerve cells

New research shows we might stop nerve damage from multiple sclerosis

Kara Leasure Shanley

Biomedical Sciences

University of New Mexico

Under a microscope, the brain looks like a cutdown forest of many tree stumps with dark tree rings. The "rings" are myelin, an insulation made of fat that wraps around nerves to help send faster electrical signals.

Unfortunately, myelin is also the target of many diseases like multiple sclerosis (MS), which affects more than 2.2 million people globally. In this disease, the immune system inexplicably attacks the body’s own myelin and the cells that produce it. As the now bare nerves die, cells can no longer reach the injured area to wrap new myelin around the damaged nerves.

Most treatments try to calm the immune response, but the real question is how to insulate the nerves again? In a recent study, scientists found that a pair of proteins ­— OSM and TIMP-1 — produced by brain cells called astrocytes may help.

myelin tree rings

Myelin "tree rings"

ZEISS on Flickr

The authors first fed mice a myelin-damaging chemical and looked for changes in the mice's biological receptors — which are basically docking stations for key proteins. They discovered that animals who were able to grow new myelin had higher amounts of receptors for OSM proteins. When that receptor was genetically removed, mice had less new myelin and less TIMP-1. It turned out that removing TIMP-1 from mice causes very similar brain defects to those missing the OSM receptor.

Though re-insulating nerves isn’t simple, the authors believe manipulation of these two proteins in astrocytes could help people dealing with MS and other diseases. Preventing further damage by the immune system isn’t enough for these people­ — helping them cope with the existing injury is also necessary. Think of it this way: a tornado warning may help some people avoid catastrophe, but what good is that if they can’t rebuild?

Your local lake stores a surprising amount of carbon in its depths

Lakes are shouldering our carbon-excess burden, but that comes at a cost

Rebecca Dzombak


University of Michigan

Keeping track of the myriad sources and sinks of carbon on Earth is essential if we want to predict how our climate will change in the decades to come. Carbon dioxide and methane are potent greenhouse gases. On land, soils store a huge amount of carbon — about twice as much as the atmosphere — but they’re not the only terrestrial carbon sink. 

Lakes cover about 4% of Earth’s non-glaciated land and they are constantly accumulating carbon. They pick up organic matter from soils, provide a home for photosynthesizers like algae and microbes, and they preserve organic matter in their depths. Lakes have the potential to store a huge amount of carbon. But we haven’t known how much lakes in different ecosystems could store or how carbon storage is affected by agriculture — until now.

Trees lake


In a new study, a team of researchers collected carbon burial data from over 500 lakes around the world, in every environment from deserts to tropical forests, and reported how carbon storage has changed since 1900. They found that carbon burial rates have increased in nearly all biomes. Lakes in boreal forests, temperate and tropical forests, and temperate grasslands contributed the most carbon storage. 

So why the increase?

The authors linked increased carbon storage primarily to our changing land use practices. The widespread use of fertilizer adds nitrogen and phosphorus to terrestrial ecosystems, leading to a spike in photosynthesis and carbon burial in lakes. While too many nutrients can be a death sentence for lakes, it looks like — for now — these changes help lakes offset the carbon we’re pumping into the atmosphere.

The brain's imprint on the skull shows what separates humans from other primates

The key appears to be lateralization, meaning the specialization of different sides of the brain for different functions

Hayden Kee

Cognitive Science

Fordham University

What makes us uniquely human? In recent decades, evidence for many supposedly uniquely human traits – such as communicative behavior, tool use, and self-recognition – has been observed in non-human animals. Still, many believe there must be something unique about the human brain.

One proposal is that the human brain is unique in its "lateralization," the asymmetric specialization of functions on one side of the brain or the other. Previous comparisons with chimpanzees have suggested that their brains do not exhibit the same degree of lateralization as the human brain.

But evidence for this view was limited, primate brains being rather hard to come by. To test the hypothesis, researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and the University of Vienna have developed a novel method for modeling the brains of non-human primates such as chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas. 

The researchers turned to skulls. They used endocasts – models of the brain based on the imprints they leave in our skulls – to compare the relative asymmetries in the brains of different primate species. The research revealed that there are similar patterns of asymmetric lateralization in other primate species as well, though less in chimpanzees than in gorillas or orangutans, which are more distantly related to us. 

Interestingly, however, asymmetry varied more among human individuals than among individuals of the other primate species. This is presumed to be the result of the human brain’s great plasticity (the brain’s ability to change) and greater variation in human lifespan development. The human brain, it seems, inherited a lateralized structure common to other primates, which has since further evolved along with specifically human cognition and behavior.

These findings speak to our shared ancestry with other primates and animals. At the same time, they refine our understanding of human evolution. But further questions remain about the cognitive or behavioral functions of lateralization of non-human primates’ brains, and even about the brains of other animals. 

Carpet pythons are the second-biggest predator of wild koalas

New technology for koala tracking led to this discovery, uncovering a previously unknown ecological relationship between the two species

Maria Gatta

Ecology and Conservation Biology

University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

Koalas may be one of Australia’s most charismatic animals, but there’s still a lot we don’t know about them. For example: what animals prey on them, and how often?

Between 2013 and 2017, 503 free-living koalas got fitted with telemetry collars, which allowed scientists to find them in the wild, record their positions, and importantly, detect when they were dead. Over these four years, scientists tracked koalas and recovered those that perished. Or at least they tried to — some were tracked to the inside of carpet pythons! 

Experienced veterinarians examined the retrievable koala bodies and determined causes of death through a necropsy, which is an autopsy for animals. With these results, the realization that carpet pythons do prey on wild koalas, and knowledge about carpet python behavior, the study authors were able to accurately estimate how many koalas died from carpet python predation. And it was more than initially expected.

a black and yellow patterned python

sipa on Pixabay from Needpix

Carpet pythons seem to kill more koalas than they can swallow. In most cases attributed to carpet python mortality (62%), koalas were killed by asphyxiation with evidence of attempted ingestion, but the koala carcass was ultimately abandoned.

This finding enabled scientists to pinpoint the signs of carpet python predation attempts: identification of a bite site, slicked fur from the snake's saliva, and damage to the lungs caused by the pythons wrapping their body around the koala’s body. We now know that carpet pythons are the second biggest predator of wild koalas, behind wild dogs (dingo relatives, not to be confused with the dogs we keep as pets). This is an important finding that will allow wildlife managers to identify safe koala habitat.

On National DNA Day, scientists are trying to take the colonialism out of genetics

Krystal Tsosie is working to decolonize genetic research and better include Indigenous communities

Farah Qaiser

Molecular Genetics

University of Toronto

Scientists are trying to tackle the lack of diversity seen in genomics research, but even ambitious efforts, like the NIH’s All of Us program, often fall short, especially when it comes to the inclusion of Indigenous communities. This is one of the reasons why the Decolonize DNA Day conference is taking place on April 24th, one day before the National DNA Day.

Traditionally, National DNA Day is an annual celebration of the discovery of DNA's double helix structure (1953) and the completion of the Human Genome Project (2003).

“I was having conversations with colleagues on what would it mean to decolonize DNA,” says Krystal Tsosie, an Indigenous (Diné/Navajo) PhD student at Vanderbilt University. “As an Indigenous academic, we always talk about what it means to Indigenize and re-Indigenize different disciplines of academia that have been historically more white-centred or white-dominated... and what it would mean to remove the colonial lens.” 

In collaboration with Latrice Landry and Jerome de Groot, Tsosie co-organized the Decolonize DNA Day Twitter conference to help re-frame narratives around DNA. Each speaker will have an hour to tweet out their "talk" and lead conversations on various topics, including how DNA ancestry testing fuels anti-Indigeneity and how to utilize emerging technologies to decolonize precision medicine. 

“There is a divide between people who are doing the science or the academic work, and the people who we want to inform,” says Tsosie. “Twitter is a great way to bridge that divide.”

The Decolonize DNA Day conference is simply one effort to Indigenize genomics. Tsosie is also a co-founder of the Native BioData Consortium, a non-profit organization consisting of researchers and Indigenous members of tribal communities, focused on increasing the understanding of Native American genomic issues.

“We don’t really see a heavy amount of Indigenous engagement in genetic studies, which then means that as precision medicine advances as a whole […] those innovations are not going to be applied to Indigenous people,” says Tsosie. “How do we get more Indigenous people engaged?”

Some of the answers can be found in a recent Nature Reviews Genetics perspective, penned by Indigenous scientists and communities, including those from the Native BioData Consortium. The piece highlights the actions that genomics researchers can take to address issues of trust, accountability, and equity. Recommended actions include the need for early consultations, developing benefit-sharing agreements, and appropriately crediting community support in any academic publications.

“By switching power dynamics, we’re hoping to get genomic researchers to work with us, instead of against us,” says Tsosie.

Regular soap and water is enough to fend off coronavirus. Don't use antibacterials

Antibacterial soaps are no more effective than regular soaps, and could be doing harm down the line

Ashley Marranzino

Marine Biology

University of Rhode Island

As an evolutionary biologist, I am more worried about our current cleaning habits than I am about COVID-19. Good, sanitary practices are a good thing, but what worries me is how we are dealing with mass sterilization to combat the virus. 

COVID-19 is a virus. Hand washing is preferable to using hand sanitizer because it physically knocks viruses off your skin. It turns out that plain old soap is really effective  against viruses. But many soaps add extra antimicrobial or antibiotic chemicals into their mixture, ostensibly boosting their efficacy. Here’s the problem: those antimicrobial additives only work on bacteria and fungi. They do nothing against viruses

At least those antimicrobial soaps are killing off other germs, right? Yes, but that isn’t necessarily good. We harbor a huge variety of beneficial bacteria on and in our bodies and this microbiome is remarkably important to our health. More importantly, antibacterials are not 100% effective at killing all microbes.

Microbes can (and do) evolve immunity to antibiotics. In a war against disease-causing microbes, antibiotic agents are our best weapon. The more we apply antimicrobial agents, the more defenses microbes develop against them. The bacteria causing both staph infections (MRSA) and tuberculosis (TB) are already known to have multi-drug resistant strains, meaning they are immune to more than one class of antibiotic. These bacteria are evolving faster than we can develop new types of antimicrobials to fight them off. And as we throw antibiotics on surfaces to combat COVID-19, we could be aiding the development of something far scarier: antibiotic-resistant microbes.

So while we deal with the current pandemic, continue to wash your hands, but please be responsible and make sure your cleaning products and soap do not contain antibiotics or antimicrobial additives. Just stick to plain soap and water. 

A real world version of Pokémon Go lets you track orangutans in the jungle

A new augmented reality smartphone game takes you into Borneo's jungles in search of great apes (and more!)

Cassie Freund


Wake Forest University

Move over, Pokémon Go: the search is now on for real wild animals. A new augmented reality smartphone game, called Wildeverse, takes you deep into Bornean jungles in search of signs of orangutans and gibbons. And if you're lucky, you'll even meet the stars of the show on your screen. 

The game — free to download in the Apple and Google Play stores  — opens with you being assigned a mission from Amyra, the Wildeverse project leader. It's "Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?"-esque, which, as a 90's child, I thoroughly appreciated. Amyra sends you to a swamp forest in Borneo to try to track down wild orangutan Fio. The jungle trees, outlined as brilliant blue holograms spring up around you. Your first task is to find evidence of Fio on the ground (hint: 💩).

I haven't found the poop yet, but earlier this week I did chat with Gautam Shah, the founder of Internet of Elephants, the company behind the game. It was a strange twist of fate that Gautam, who I had previously spoken to about how games like his can advance wildlife conservation, partnered with an NGO I used to work with (Borneo Nature Foundation) to bring Fio and his gibbon counterpart Chilli to the smartphone screen. Buka and Aida, the game's other stars, live in the Congo, where Internet of Elephants partnered with the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project.

The game has already been downloaded 10,000 times, with minimal marketing outside of the UK. Gautam told me that the game had gotten good responses and that people like having a tropical jungle appear when they open their phones, "especially the first time they see Fio walk by." The game also has built-in questions to help track how people feel about wildlife, and how those feelings change as they play the game. As a conservation biologist I can tell you that data like that is highly valuable for figuring out what makes people want to protect nature and change their behaviors accordingly, which is one of Gautam's main goals for the game. 

If you are looking for something new to entertain you during social distancing, why not celebrate Earth Day in the Wildeverse? I think I'll join you!

Fruit fly glue is sticky, no matter how you slice it

Adhesives found in nature could have applications for us

Dori Grijseels


University of Sussex

Many different organisms produce adhesives, including barnacles, sea cucumbers, and even some plants. Scientists are interested in these types of glue, as they often inspire applications in humans. In a recently published paper, researchers focused on the glue made by fruit flies. They were interested in testing exactly how adhesive the glue made by these insects was on different surfaces.

Fruit flies, just like butterflies, undergo metamorphosis. They start their life as larvae and go through several molting stages. Eventually they pupate and emerge as adult fruit flies. And just like butterflies, when it’s time for their metamorphosis, they glue their pupae to a surface, so they don't just roll or blow away. 

Photo by Suzanne D. Williams on Unsplash

In this study, researchers took larvae in their final molting stage, just before they would pupate, and put them on a variety of surfaces. They then waited for the larvae to stick their pupae to the surface. When they did, the scientists attached the pupae to pieces of double-sided tape and measured the force they needed to apply in order to pull each pupa away from the surface.

Out of the 11 different types of surfaces the researchers tested, which included different types of glass and resins of various smoothnesses, the pupa could only be easily pulled away from teflon. In all other cases, the researchers needed a similar amount of force, regardless of whether the surface was hydrophobic (water-repellent) or hydrophilic (water-attracted). This led them to conclude that the glue from fruit flies is universally sticky.

Can hormone levels signal for autism in girls?

New study moves against the current of gender bias in autism research

Marnie Willman


University of Manitoba Bannatyne and National Microbiology Laboratory

Since the 1940's, when the word "autism" was introduced in the US, diagnoses and treatments have skyrocketed in prevalence and normalcy. In fact, the United States now estimates 1 in 54 American children have some form of Autism or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Despite the surge, the differences between people diagnosed makes pinpointing a specific cause nearly impossible. 

However, one thing all experts agree on is the fact that autism seems to occur more often in boys than in girls. While many girls with autism may be overlooked due to sex or gender biases, studies have found the prevalence in boys to be four times higher

Studies have looked at sex hormones, male-specific genes, and male vs. female brains to resolve this difference. And some have turned up answers. However, this disparity in research favoring boys neglects the girls with autism, whose struggles and needs are no less important, regardless of the fact that they are fewer in numbers.

A recent study from the University of Bern decided to instead tackle the question of cause with these girls in mind. The study analyzed certain hormones, particularly androgens such as testosterone, and their levels in teenage girls with autism. 

They found that these girls had higher levels of both testosterone and androstenediol. But, they also found that those levels weren’t elevated in their urine. Plus, they had the same or lower levels of enzymes used to process those hormones. 

This seems to implicate the brain’s hormone control center – the hypothalamus – in the cause. Their bodies seemed to be unaware of their elevated androgen levels, since they aren’t getting rid of them in urine or processing them with extra enzymes. 

Finally, this study also suggests that changes in the levels of androgen hormones may be used as a diagnostic marker for autism. Such a diagnostic tool is an important step forward, as autism diagnosis currently based on behavior, movements, and development in early years, all of which differ significantly between children with and without autism. 

Your socially isolated brain craves interaction with other people just as much as it craves a meal when you are hungry

New research highlights the neuroscience of why social distancing is so hard

David Baranger


University of Pittsburgh

Social distancing has emerged as one of the most effective weapons against the spread of COVID-19. Yet social distancing, like any medicine, has side-effects: we’re probably all feeling a little lonelier and more isolated. New research [note: this is a pre-print and has not yet been peer-reviewed] by scientists at MIT and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies sheds light on the effects of mandatory social isolation on brain function.

Humans are a social species, and social interaction is inherently rewarding for us. The parts of our brains that are responsible for motivating us to go out and obtain rewards react to social interaction just like they do to receiving food or money. Interestingly, these parts of our brains react in anticipation of a future reward, and the magnitude of that reaction reflects how much reward we’re expecting. Scientists have found that the strength of your brain's reaction to a reward reflections how much you crave it. But is this also true for social rewards? 

The scientists behind this new research spent over three years working to answer this question in humans. They recruited 40 participants into their study, and each participant was subject to three trials: one control condition, one in which they fasted for 10 hours, and one in which they sat alone in a room with no one to talk to (and no internet or social media) for 10 hours. Participants then had their brains scanned while they completed a task where they were shown images of food and social scenes – the very things they might be craving. This allowed the researchers to compare the effects of severe hunger with the effects of social isolation. 

They found that, just as the brain over-reacted to pictures of food when the participants were hungry, it also over-reacted to pictures of social scenes when they were isolated. The hungrier or lonelier the participant felt, the larger the reaction. The size of the effect of fasting and isolation were also very similar, suggesting that when they were isolated, the participants craved social interaction just as much as they craved food when they were fasting.

This work helps to cement social interaction as an important and primary reward that all people need. Our brains are craving social interaction when we’re isolated, just like they would crave food if we were extremely hungry. What we don’t know, and one important direction for future research, is how much social interaction is sufficient, and how much of this craving social media is able to satisfy.

First patient receives CRISPR treatment for genetic eye disorder

The CRISPR gene therapy for Leber's Congenital Amaurosis is injected directly into the body

Ankita Arora


University of Colorado

Remember the viral 2013 YouTube video featuring Gavin, a four-year old blind child walking independently with a white cane, and the hope that it stood for? Seven years later, there is another beacon of hope for kids like Gavin with Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis (LCA), a genetic eye disorder.

Recently, a patient with LCA at the Casey Eye Institute at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland made history as the first human to receive a new type of CRISPR gene therapy injected directly into their eye. The patient is one of the 18 people enrolled in a milestone clinical trial called BRILLIANCE, which is a collaboration between two giants, Allergan and Editas Medicine. Cynthia Collins, President and CEO of Editas Medicine said in a press release, “This dosing is a truly historic event – for science, medicine, and most importantly for the people living with this eye disease.”

LCA is a group of genetic, degenerative eye disorders caused by mutations in at least 18 different genes. It is the most common cause of inherited childhood blindness, with an occurrence of 2-3 per 100,000 births worldwide. The disease manifests itself in early years with severely affected eye cells and may quickly lead to blindness.

Though exciting, this isn’t the first attempt to cure inherited blindness using gene therapy. In December 2017, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first directly administered standard gene therapy drug, Luxturna. However, this drug targets a different type of eye disorder and works differently than the CRISPR therapy for LCA. 

Though research studies using genome-editing tools as a medicine have been undertaken for a decade, injecting CRISPR–Cas9 directly into the body marks a new dawn. Similar therapies, in the future, will increasingly employ CRISPR since it can be highly specified to cut DNA at certain therapeutic locations. The BRILLIANCE trial stands as a symbol of hope for patients with rare genetic diseases with no current cure available.

Simple science communication helps ease fears and spread good information during the COVID-19 pandemic

Epidemiologists Eleanor Murray and Benjamin Linas have created a set of posters for Boston-area patients, which have since been translated into many languages

Sharon Casey

Clinical Research and Epidemiology

Harvard School of Dental Medicine

People are bombarded with COVID-19 information and data every direction we turn on a daily basis, and often this can be daunting and overwhelming. Dr. Benjamin Linas of the Boston University School of Medicine and Dr. Eleanor Murray of the Boston University School of Public Health recognized this. Using stick figures, doodles and large font with clear instructions that benefit individuals with low literacy and limited English proficiency, Dr. Murray designed a fun and visually appealing poster of COVID-19 tips to help #flattenthecurve.

After sharing this first poster online and with Boston Medical Center patients, the social media community came together not only to help translate the poster into many languages, but to copy and proof-read, as well as distribute the poster widely to different communities.

The value and success of the poster was soon realized, and now is one of a series of posters with information and simple instructions about what people should do if they have been exposed to COVID-19, what to do while waiting for their test results, and what to do if their test is positive. Recently, a poster about what a person should do if they are hospitalized was addition to the collection highlighting how a lack of communication in a hospital setting further adds to a heightened state of stress.

All of these posters can be accessed and shared online. By following the simple instructions described in each poster, or helping to translate or share the posters with your family, friends, and on social media we can all help disseminate the information and play our part to #flattenthecurve.

Vegan gut bacteria swim more than their carnivorous counterparts

Gut bacteria from those on plant-based diets may be better at swimming to nutrients

Jeffrey Letourneau

Molecular Genetics and Microbiology

Duke University

The first decade or so of gut microbiome research was largely defined by "community composition profiling," essentially asking the question, "What types of bacteria are present in this sample?" More recently, there has been a really exciting shift in the field from asking who is there to asking what they are doing.

A recent study explored how diet affect the activity of gut microbes. To do this, the researchers analyzed stool samples from 61 volunteers who had been following either a vegetarian, vegan, or omnivorous diet for at least one year. The researchers tracked the bacterial genes and proteins found in each sample. Tracking certain genes and proteins was important. Scanning the genes asked, "What are these microbes able to do?" Scanning the proteins asked, "What are they actually doing in this moment?"

E. coli with tail-like flagella

E. coli with tail-like flagella


Those on vegetarian and vegan diets tended to have the most genes and proteins related to cell motility — the cell’s capacity to move around. More broadly, the researchers found that dietary fiber intake was correlated with the amount of flagellin, a type of protein used to make the tail-like flagella, an essential bacterial appendage for swimming. The authors speculate that this increased cell motility is a mechanism for bacteria to more easily move around in order to access nutrients. 

Vegetarian and vegan microbiomes also had more genes and proteins related to breaking down carbs and protein, and building up vitamins and amino acids. It makes sense that people eating a greater diversity of plants would have a greater diversity of microbial genes for breaking down different carbohydrate sources.

And that’s not totally surprising. A 2014 study found changes in microbiomes of participants who ate plant-based or animal-based diets for only five days. Still, the present study adds to our understanding of the precise types of changes that can occur from being on a specific diet-long term.

Hungry microbes turn crusty leftovers into wine

Old bread gets second life as microbe soup

Hannah Thomasy


University of Washington

Globally, we produce about 100 million tons of bread every year. But because bread gets stale or moldy fairly quickly, a substantial amount of this bread is wasted. Now, scientists have come up with a use for all this bread that would otherwise be wasted: use it to grow beneficial microbes.

moldy bread

"r u gonna eat that?" - Hungry Microbe

Shutterbug75 from Pixabay  

The food industry depends on many types of beneficial microbes; they’re used in the production of things like bread, beer, wine, cheese, and yogurt. In this study, researchers created a special growing medium that contained 50% “waste bread” (called wasted bread medium). Using this nutrient-rich soup, they were able to grow several types of microbes involved in the production of wine and yogurt. Importantly, they estimated that, at least on a small scale, the wasted bread medium only cost about 30% as much as traditional formulas used to grow these microbes.

If this process can be scaled up, it means that stale bread — which would ordinarily be thrown away — could live a second life as food for microbes that churn out fermented foods (and drinks!) like wine and yogurt. This would help decrease food waste and perhaps even drop the cost of growing these beneficial microbes.

Nirmal Raj

Particle Physics

TRIUMF National Lab

Science is facing a crisis. On the one hand, physicists claim to understand the stuff making up all that's visible in the sky. On the other, astronomers weighing the universe tell us that a staggering 85% of its heft lurks in something dark and unseeable. And nobody knows what this stuff — "dark matter" — is made of. 

Learning the identity of dark matter would be revolutionary, and may supply the key to fundamental mysteries about our universe, such as why it exists. So here's a question to narrow our quest: does it touch us, or pass through us? Many physicists argue the former — and if something can touch us, we can trap and study it.

My collaborators and I think that the perfect trap for dark matter is... pasta. That's the name of giant atomic nuclei shaped like gnocchi, spaghetti, lasagna and bucatini in the bottom-most, densest layer of a neutron star's kilometer-thick crust. 

three types of pasta

Photo by Heather Gill on Unsplash

Neutron stars are the idle relics left behind by once-active stars that had ended their life in a supernova. They span 20 km in size, and are the densest known objects in the universe: a teaspoon of their stuff weighs the same as Lake Michigan. And their material is packed in several onion-like layers. 

We think that dark matter particles would batter ancient, (literally) ice-cold neutron stars and heat them up to (literally) barbecue temperatures, making them visible at next-generation infrared telescopes such as James Webb, the Thirty Meter Telescope, and the Extremely Large Telescope. And we find that pasta is the most likely layer getting battered.

Pasta-aided detection of dark matter would be a triumph of the fields of particle physics, nuclear astrophysics, and astronomy. It looks increasingly like the answers to fundamental puzzles plaguing science would come from such cross-disciplinary interactions.

NASA celebrates 50 years since Apollo 13, their most successful failure

New video visualizes the Moon's surface as the Apollo 13 crew witnessed it

Max Levy

Science and Health Journalism and Chemical Engineering

April 11th marks the 50th anniversary of NASA’s “successful failure,” Apollo 13. This mission was the 13th of 17 US lunar missions planned in a span of 4 years and change. The 17th, in 1972, was the last time a human stomped around on the Moon.

Unlike the successful Apollo 11 — one small step, one giant leap, etc. — Apollo 13 is considered a failure. The mission intended to plop some Americans back on the moon for the 3rd time. The mission was on shaky footing even before they were off the ground. One astronaut inadvertently infected another with rubella. Rather than delay the launch, NASA tagged in a backup astronaut who trained with the crew. 

A NASA mug from my childhood in Florida. For some reason, they didn't have any for my sister, Noemie.

A NASA mug from my childhood in Florida. For some reason, they didn't have any for my sister, Noemie.

Max Levy

Two days after liftoff (and 200,000 miles away from the nearest rocket shop) one of their oxygen tanks exploded. To bring the crew back safely, NASA devised a way to swing the crew’s lunar module around the moon and back to Earth. The saga’s radio feed inspired the legendary “Houston, we have a problem,misquoted by Kevin Bacon in that movie with Chet Hanks’ dad.

To commemorate this occasion, NASA released one of the most remarkable videos I’ve ever seen: a 4K visualization of what the Apollo 13 crew saw as their ship swung around the Moon. The video, produced by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, is based on real data captured by Apollo 13.

Here are some other historic images to celebrating the mission:

4 aborted missions

NASA Flickr

Apollo 13 Lunar service module

Apollo 13 Lunar service module


Moon, as seen by the Apollo 13 crew

Moon, as seen by the Apollo 13 crew

NASA on Flickr

Apollo 13 voyage

Apollo 13 voyage


Apollo 13 crew returns safely and awaits rescue

Apollo 13 crew returns safely and awaits rescue


Apollo 13 Rescue

"Hey do you mind parachuting down again? I got my thumb in the pic"