Lab Notes

Short stories and links shared by the scientists in our community

LEGO bricks can take hundreds of years to degrade

Just because they're not single-use doesn't mean that they're great for the environment

Christina Marvin

Pharmaceutical Chemistry

University of Wisconsin - Madison

More people are avoiding single-use plastics. One of the main concerns is that once thrown away, plastic remains on the planet in landfills for hundreds of years — taking up space and creating pollution. It’s fairly easy to avoid things like plastic bags, but what about larger plastics that we consider “reusable”? One recent article in the journal Environmental Pollution uses common LEGO bricks to illustrate the concerning environmental effect of larger “reusable” plastic products. 

Researchers at the University of Plymouth in the UK used LEGO bricks that had been collected by beach cleanup volunteers in Cornwall, England. 

A colorful pile of LEGO bricks

Photo by Rick Mason on Unsplash

They wanted to use these bricks to determine durable plastic persistence in the oceans. They could easily distinguish LEGO bricks by their shape and precisely date them by using X-ray fluorescence to determine their composition. In this case, the recovered bricks contained brightly colored yellow and red cadmium-based pigments. This chemical fingerprint told them that the bricks had to be manufactured in the late 1970s, during the short time frame in which manufacturers included these highly toxic pigments in toys. 

To establish their comparison, the researchers matched the recovered bricks with bricks of similar chemical compositions in collections of unopened bricks from the same time period. The mass loss between the weathered and unweathered bricks suggested that LEGO bricks should persist in a marine environment for 100-1300 years. 

tops of many plastic water bottles

 Photo by Jonathan Chng on Unsplash

Compared to LEGO bricks, single-use plastics like disposable water bottles degrade in a relatively short amount of time, tens to hundreds of years. However, as the world moves away from single use plastics, we are becoming increasingly dependent on thick and durable plastics to make components for things like electronics. And we are also becoming increasingly more likely to throw these things away, creating not just more pollution, but longer lasting pollution. Current materials research on developing material that is durable yet also degradable is a huge step to reducing pollution, while still providing us with products we need in a modern world. 

Finally, proof that honeybees are bullies

New research finds that honeybees might push smaller bees off the nectar motherlode

Joan Meiners

Ecology and Environmental Data Journalism

Honeybees may be in decline globally, but in a field of flowers they still reign supreme over smaller, wild, native bee species. Due to our agricultural system’s reliance on transporting honeybee hives from other states to pollinate crops, honeybees often dominate the nectar and pollen scene in agricultural fields. But to date, researchers have had a hard time quantifying competition between honeybees and wild species because it is hard to pinpoint whether honeybees actually deprive native bees of any foraging opportunities.

A new study published in the journal Acta Oecologia looked at whether wild, native bees were relegated to different times of the day or parts of a flower in the presence of honeybees. The researchers, from two collaborating laboratories in France, collected bees they found visiting cornflowers throughout July and August, when the plant is in bloom.

Cornflowers are special because they have what are called extrafloral nectaries – meaning that parts of the plant other than the flower carry nectar. In the case of the cornflower, these plants excrete small droplets of nectar just below the flowerhead. For bees, it’s a nice extrafloral snack. But the droplets don’t offer as much nectar as the flower itself and this snack spot doesn’t have any pollen – which bees need to feed to their growing larvae.

bee cornflower

A bully devouring someone else's lunch


Sure enough, the scientists found that 82.5% of the cornflowers visitors were honeybees, regardless of the time of day. But the breakdown of visitors at different locations on the flower revealed something interesting. Most of the smaller bees that did brave the cornflower foraging scene were found lapping up nectar from those extrafloral nectaries below the flowerhead. 

Therefore, while both types of bees were technically found visiting cornflowers, paying attention to where on the flower these visits took place suggests that, compared to smaller bees, honeybees are monopolizing access to the nectar motherlode and the pollen stash.

Cleaner fish learn how to steal a little mucus snack by watching adults

Fish preferred to cheat a bit when given the choice

Marie Claire Chelini

Evolutionary Biology

Duke University

How do we learn when to cooperate, and when to cheat? It likely depends in part on the social interactions we observe growing up. Turns out that the same is true for cleaner fish (Labroides dimidiatus), according to a recent study.

Cleaner fish, also known as bluestreak cleaner wrasse, feed on ectoparasites found on other fishes — their “clients.” What cleaner fish really like to eat, however, is the protective mucus that covers their clients’ bodies. While eating ectoparasites is great for client fishes, cheating by eating mucus is bad. Client fishes will punish cheaters by fleeing, or by chasing the cheaters around.

colorful fish

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

What’s the best option, to cheat and eat a brief but delicious snack (and risk being chased around), or to cooperate and eat a larger, peaceful, but not as tasty meal? A group of researchers led by Noa Truskanov, from the University of Neuchâtel, set out to understand how juvenile cleaner fish learn to answer that question.

In a series of experiments recently published in Nature Communications, Truskanov and her collaborators allowed juvenile cleaner fish to observe adults interacting with model clients. They then placed these juveniles in the same situations they had just observed, and tested if they copied the adult fish, learned from the adult fish, or behaved independently of what they had just seen.

Their results show that juvenile fish are actively learning to cooperate by observing the interactions of adult fish with their clients. Juvenile fish are more cooperative when client fishes are intolerant of cheating. When given the choice, however, they prefer clients who allow them to cheat a little. Juvenile fish also didn’t just imitate random adult preferences, showing that there are not copying, but rather learning.

Although both social learning and cooperation are widespread in nature, examples of animals that learn socially how to cooperate are extremely scarce. This leads us, humans, to erroneously assume that we are the only ones who learn to cooperate by observing others. Cleaner fish are putting us right back in our place: they can do it, too.

Squid bamboozle predators with elaborate ink-based dancing and weaving

They also deploy multiple moves and tactics to avoid being eaten

Dori Grijseels


University of Sussex

When a Japanese pygmy squid gets attacked, it will use its ink as a decoy so that the predator attacks the ink instead. It's not just a visual decoy — ink will also throw the predator of the squid's scent, literally. However, distracting a predator is not as easy as just releasing a single cloud of ink. In a recent video article, researchers showed that the Japanese pygmy squid use elaborate methods to mislead their predators.

Black ink in clear water

Photo by Vincent Botta on Unsplash

When the squid are followed by a predator or, in this case, a scuba diver pretending to be a predator, they will often first change their color to be pale, which is less obvious in the water. They then swim away in a straight line, releasing little puffs of ink behind them. After releasing a few puffs, they will do one of two things: either they suddenly stop, or they suddenly change direction. 

If they suddenly stop in what's called an S-stop, they will often also darken their color, so that they seem like one of the ink clouds, and the predator is unable to find them. If they change direction, called a C-change, they will remain pale, thus being as inconspicuous as possible. In both cases, the goal is for the predator to be distracted by the ink clouds and attack the decoys instead. The researchers showed that if the squid released more ink clouds during their escape, predators were more likely to attack those instead of the squid. 

The question remains whether all squid have similar behaviors, or whether each species has evolved its own behavior to avoid predation. This might have to do with the specific species predating on the squid and their surroundings. In any case, judging from the study’s videos, it looks like its methods work pretty well for the Japanese Pygmy squid.

No more coronavirus takes

Please I'm begging you

Dan Samorodnitsky

Senior Editor

There is only one story now and I know it by heart. Everybody is telling one variation on it or another. Some of them are the political takes:

A screenshot of the New Republic's front page, with a bunch of coronavirus stories and opinions, on April 3rd, 2020.

Some of them are economic, cultural, economic again, and political again, like at the New York Times:

A collection of New York Times opinion articles about the coronavirus.

Literally as many stories as I could fit into a screenshot

(this isn't even to mention the genre of celebrities announcing their diagnoses like the birth of a royal child:)

At the absolute bottom of the pile, way down in the dirt, is Peggy Noonan's paean to the quintessentially New York experience of death and ruin:

The first paragraph of Peggy Noonan's April 2nd, 2020 op-ed for the Wall Street Journal

NEW YORK *cough cough* NEW YORK

Wall Street Journal

Baby no one does a crisis like New York.

Many of these are from writers and publications I like and admire (not Peggy Noonan). But still! I'm begging! You! No more! Have mercy on me! No more coronavirus takes!

It's a gold rush out there for coronavirus stories, since it's basically all anyone wants to read right now. And yes, writing this is like sending a cease-and-desist letter to a tornado. But please let me vent this gas. 

No more takes. Got coronavirus news? Great, I want to read it. Got coronavirus science? Even better. Got a coronavirus take? Unless you're an epidemiologist or you work on the frontline, I don't care. You don't know anything. No one does. 

I encourage you all to write those stories you've been sitting on for ages. Now's the time. Hell pitch me your story. But if I read the word "coronavirus" one more time I might literally explode, right here in my kitchen, in my pajamas, the way I've always wanted to die. 

Scientists name new species after its belly full of plastic

Plastic pollution reaches new depths – and new guts

Matthew Vandermeulen


University at Buffalo

The deepest location on Earth sits below 6.8 miles of the western Pacific Ocean, deep enough to hold Mount Everest and prevent it from reaching the ocean’s surface. It is part of a 2,550 km (1580 miles) long trench, known as the Mariana Trench. At those depths it may seem a sanctuary from our plastic pollution. Unfortunately, that is wrong.

In November 2014, a group of scientists discovered a new species of crustacean within the Mariana Trench (pictured above). Crustaceans are a large class of organisms with an exoskeleton that includes lobsters, shrimp, crabs, and krill. Upon examining the organism’s body, scientists found a microplastic fiber in its gut. They named it Eurythenes plasticus to draw attention to the current plastic pollution crisis

Microplastics are small pieces of plastic pollution in the environment that are less than  the width of a pencil. Scientists have found them in every corner of the globe – even in the atmosphere and in arctic ice. Organisms like E. plasticus that feed on scraps are highly susceptible to ingesting microplastics from dead organisms and sediment. We’re not immune either. Alarmingly, microplastics can even work their way up the food chain and eventually reach us.

Mariana Trench

Mariana Trench, the deepest point on Earth


This study adds to a growing body of research finding wildlife to be ingesting microplastics, including birds, whales, fish, and sharks. It is tragic that organisms in such remote places can be affected by humans before we have the chance to encounter them. Hopefully all these cases remind us to be more conscientious when considering the use of non-reusable plastics. 

Scientists use the humble slime mold to map the universe's cosmic web

This mysterious Earth-dwelling organism can tell us a lot about the structure of outer space

Christina Marvin

Pharmaceutical Chemistry

University of Wisconsin - Madison

What do a single-celled slime mold and outer space have in common? Enough, it turns out, that researchers were able to use the behavior of the slime mold Physarum polycephalum to develop an algorithm to map the previously elusive cosmic web structure of the universe. 

It started when scientists at the University of California at Santa Cruz were searching for a way to visualize the cosmic web. Composed of dark matter and laced together with thin gas, the cosmic web provides structure to the universe. Oskar Elek, a computational media scientist on the team was inspired by the work of Sage Jenson, a Berlin-based media artist who creates art by using algorithms to mimic biological properties, such as the growth of slime mold. 

a branching purple and yellow intertwined pattern

The slime mold, Physarum polycephalum, uses a complex web of filaments to find food. The scientists couldn’t help but notice similarities between the mold’s food-seeking web and the theorized cosmic web that connects the galaxies. Published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, the group developed a three-dimensional computer model of the buildup of slime mold to estimate the locations of many of the cosmic web’s filaments.

By using data previously acquired by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and the Hubble Spectroscopic Legacy Archive, the researchers created a new view of the galaxy. 

First, they applied the “slime mold algorithm” to data containing the locations of 37,000 galaxies at distances as far as 300 million light-years and came away with a three-dimensial map of the underlying cosmic web structure. They also used data from quasars, massive objects billions of light-years away that emit huge amounts of light energy, to visualize the extremely thin hydrogen gas signatures on the web that had been previously undetected. With the large scale structure in hand, the group hopes that they can now map specific trajectories that galaxies take as they move through the universe. 

Remember this story the next time your microbiologist friend says they don’t have anything in common with your particle physics friend. The most impressive advances in science are often those made by scientists who work together and build connections between fields.

How do predators learn to avoid the colors and patterns of poisonous prey?

Using video games, scientists show it has to do with the environment and network of prey available

Natalia Gutierrez-Pinto

Evolutionary Biology

University of Nebraska – Lincoln

We have all heard about the extraordinary animals that use chemical defenses to avoid predation, and how their usually bright colorations warns predators about their unpleasant flavors (a skill called aposematism). But, how do predators learn to avoid eating prey with these defenses?

Previous studies suggest that how quickly a predator learns about color patterns depends on the complexity of the prey community – that is, the number of different  patterns and the abundance of toxic prey. But testing this hypothesis using natural populations can be incredibly challenging.

A group of researchers came up with a clever solution: they used a videogame played by humans! In this videogame (you can play it here), they tested two different prey communities based on real aposematic butterflies from the tropics. One was a simple community with four color patterns and a high probability (50%) of encountering toxic butterflies, affecting the player’s score; the other, a complex community with ten color patterns and a reduced probability (20%) of finding a toxic butterfly.

The data collected shows that predators – humans in this case – are much better learners when only four color patterns were present. But this doesn’t mean that we can’t learn to avoid toxic patterns in a complex community: humans learned better when the toxic patterns were more similar to each other, and more different from the non-toxic patterns. 

This fun experiment confirmed that the protection given by aposematism increases when the community has fewer color patterns, more toxic animals, or when the color patterns are more different between toxic and non-toxic animals. The authors think that these results are representative of what other predators, such as birds and other mammals, may experience in nature.

Experiments like this one help scientists closely examine animal behaviors that depend on multiple factors that are difficult to manipulate in natural settings. But at the same time it gives us perspective, reminding us of how much human behaviors were shaped by our evolution before civilization happened.

Stuck at home? College chemistry lessons are on TikTok, with Katy Perry accompaniment

One professor hopes that having General Chemistry students make their own TikToks teaches a broad audience about science

Karen Kwon


Timothy Su, an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at the University of California, Riverside, had been enjoying watching science videos on TikTok, a relatively new social media platform that is popular among Gen Z. That is when he got the idea to incorporate the new teen obsession into his classroom. He told his General Chemistry class, sized about 300 students, that he would give them extra credit if they created videos explaining general chemistry concepts using TikTok. About 65% of his students participated, far beyond Su’s expectation.

Su said that UC Riverside students come from various backgrounds. “I was hoping that the enthusiasm for science would go viral [in students’ communities],” Su said to me in an interview. Even though he was not expecting the videos themselves to go viral, to his and students’ surprise, some of the videos did very well in terms of popularity; as of this writing, the most liked video made by his students gained upwards of 49,000 likes on the platform.

Su is hoping to expand this practice to the other courses he will teach. “18-year-olds are brilliant in ways that I'm not,” Su said. “How people engage with learning is changing rapidly, so it’s good to be open-minded and communicate with students in their terms.”

Below are three of the most popular videos that Su’s students made. You can find more of these videos here.

Protecting forest cover could reduce flood risks

A study highlights the importance of forests to mitigate the effects of natural hazards on mountain infrastructure

Fabiola De Marchi


University of Padua

In many mountainous regions, such as the European Alps and the Rocky Mountains, natural hazards threaten infrastructure such as roads, buildings, and railways. These natural hazards have globally increased by almost 70% in the last 30 years because of climate change. Triggered by harsh rainfall and storms, these hazardous events include rockfalls, landslides, floods, and debris flows, or a large mass of loose material moving down a slope. 

However, it is well established that forests protect mountainous regions from natural hazards. Tree roots can decrease the availability of loose material by stabilizing the soil in steep terrain. In addition, forest canopies catch and collect rainfall, reducing surface water runoff. Getting rid of that forest canopy, either by human timber harvesting or natural causes like bark beetles, also reduces the protective function of forests. 

Recently, Austrian researchers performed a large-scale study based on a large Landsat satellite image database, documenting 3768 torrential hazards that occurred in the Eastern Alps during a period of 31 years. They confirmed that an increase in forest cover decreased the probability of torrential hazards, like floods. It also turns out that regularly reducing forest canopy, such as small-scale logging interventions to regenerate forests, is actually more detrimental for natural hazards than singular, occasional disturbance events. 

Unmanaged forests – where human intervention is absent or minimized – may better help protect human infrastructure against natural hazards than managed forests. And that could be important to know in a future where we want mountain regions to become more resilient to increasing heavy rainfall events and canopy reduction predicted under climate change.

Oil spills melt the superpowers of the double-crested cormorant

Birds have to work harder to stay warm after being repeatedly exposed to spilled oil, study finds

Joan Meiners

Ecology and Environmental Data Journalism

Bird feathers are a superpower. Small, downy feathers keep birds, and sometimes you, warm during winter. Contour feathers help birds blend in with their surroundings. And interlocking, aerodynamic pennaceous feathers are what allow birds to soar atop air currents and stay dry when diving for fish. But if feathers have a Kryptonite, it turns out to be oil. Oil breaks feathers’ waterproof layer and can leave birds suddenly out in the cold.

This is the mechanism behind new research on the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which in April 2010 leaked 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico after a drilling rig exploded offshore. With the ten-year anniversary of this disaster just around the corner, findings about its various and immense impacts on wildlife are still trickling in.

double-crested cormorant

Double doubled-crested cormorant


The scientists, from several different wildlife research centers and universities, used a “Niche Mapper” model to estimate how much harder the double-crested cormorant, a fish-eating species, would have to work throughout its range to maintain its body temperature after being “oiled” to varying degrees. In the model, birds were either unoiled, or covered in oil once, three times, or six times. Using existing calculations of this species’ energetic expenditure at different times of day and ambient temperatures, the researchers showed that the most heavily oiled birds had to spend, on average, an additional 1.5 hours foraging each day just to make up for lost heat.

In addition to exhausting birds with an extra 1.5-hour foraging shift each day, the model suggests that repeat exposure to oil may threaten cormorants’ success at mating and breeding, or to store enough fat before migrating between winter and summer ranges. These are just a few examples of sublethal effects animals endure from oil exposure, many of which have yet to be evaluated for the dozens of species affected by the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Just how hot was this winter?

Really hot. And that doesn't bode well for the rest of the year.

Olivia Box

Natural Resources and Forest Ecology

University of Vermont

In the United States, this January and February were some of the hottest months on record. January was the warmest on record, the 44th consecutive January with temperatures above records from the 20th century. Temperatures were 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above normal in the northern hemisphere, and 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit warmer in the southern hemisphere. In the United States, several states experienced below average snowfall and precipitation. February continued the trend – measuring an average of 2.4 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than usual, making this one of the warmest winters ever. 

This news rides on other drastic climate news from around the world, including 65-degrees in Antarctica and wildfires in Australia

Perhaps most notably, this warm winter was not preceded by a strong El Niño event. El Niño, an ocean-atmosphere climate event resulting in ocean warming, has often been tied to warmer Januarys such as in 2016. The four warmest winters have occurred since 2016. 

NOAA scientists predict this record-breaking winter could precede a record-breaking year. The southwest is expected to be dry and experience drought, and Alaska is also predicted to have a warm year. In some areas, springs could be wetter and summer temperatures could arrive earlier. 

Scientists have repeatedly warned about climate tipping points, events that lead to severe consequences, arguing society needs to take directed action to avoid future catastrophe. Warm winters have already led to cascading effects, such as wildfires in Australia and record temperatures in the Arctic. It’s no longer enough to meet expectations. As the report warns, “international action — not just words — must reflect this.” 

Stressed out crabs don't camouflage very well

The noise from passing ships stresses out crabs and makes them easy prey

Marie Claire Chelini

Evolutionary Biology

Duke University

Man-made noise negatively impacts a multitude of animals, including birds, whales, and, as it turns out, crabs.

Shore crabs, or Carcinus maenas, can change the color of their shells to better match their surroundings, camouflaging efficiently against rocky shores. In a new study published in Current Biology, Emily Carter and her team at the University of Exeter show that juvenile shore crab exposed to ship noises don’t camouflage very well.

In this study, crabs were brought to the lab and exposed to three treatments: a neutral control of natural underwater sounds, ship noises, and a loud control consisting of natural noises with the same amplitude as the ship noises. All crabs were dark brown when they first arrived. After eight weeks, both control groups were much lighter in color, matching their background in the lab. The ship noise group, however, remained markedly brown.

shh quiet girl

Shhhh quiet


The researchers then tested if these poorly camouflaged crabs were at least good at running away from predators. Another surprise: when faced with a simulated bird flying overhead, crabs exposed to ship noises were slower to retreat, and sometimes didn’t even flee at all.

Carter and her collaborators suggest that the stress of being exposed to ship noises hinders the crabs’ ability to change color, as well as their anti-predator fleeing behavior. If crabs exposed to ship noises do indeed become easy prey, crab populations may have a grim future ahead.

Most studies on the impacts of man-made noise focus on species that communicate through sound. What shore crabs are telling us is that the consequences of man-made noise can be much broader than a drowned dialogue.

Sanguine glimpses of positive environmental change on pandemic-Twitter

Homebound humans allow Mother Nature to stretch her legs, but that doesn't mean our current situation is a good thing

Brittney Borowiec

Comparative Physiology

Wilfrid Laurier University

Amidst the daily COVID-19 news and press conferences, travel restrictions and hospital case reports, there are some silver linings making the rounds on Twitter. 

Nature seems much better off with humans stuck at home. 

To be clear, a pandemic is not the solution to climate change. Locking ourselves away for the foreseeable future does not even remotely resemble a solution, and we have the technology and knowledge to address our environmental issues without widespread human suffering. 

But COVID-19 does afford us a peek into what happens when humans take their foot off the gas — literally and figuratively.

Once the crisis gets under control and the dust settles, we should reflect on what it means for our relationship with other Earthlings (and our fight against climate change) when a week of staying a home has such a big impact. 

If we just gave nature a little bit more of a chance — work remotely a little more, run errands more efficiently, make some other small changes in behavior — we could do a lot of good. 

An important subtlety here is that humans are not intrinsically bad for the planet. But many of the things we do carelessly, like burning huge amounts of fossil fuels to commute, producing plastics and other materials that will never break down, and importing food from the other side of the world because it isn't in season, take their toll. 

Maybe we should re-evaluate the systems we rely on in our global society, and how we can adapt them. 

How a Scientific Reserve Corps could help us in a pandemic

Training scientists and students before a pandemic hits would keep us prepared for the worst

Amy Nippert


University of Minnesota

Scientists everywhere want to help. We are helping, as much as we can. We’re donating lab supplies, skyping about our science with children stuck at home from school, and helping inform the public. Medical and education students are volunteering to care for the children of medical personnel. 

But for many of us, we still want to do more. As research labs close, there’s an enormous potential workforce with the skills needed to run diagnostic tests, though many lack formal certification. Some opportunities are appearing, including a call for volunteers at University of Washington and the University of California at Berkley, and increased hiring by private companies. Michael F Wells, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard, is creating a database of scientists who want to help. While that’s a step in the right direction, it can take quite a while for new volunteers to get up to speed. For example, a call-out from the Innovative Genomics Center at UC Berkeley cites a two to three week training period — precious time in a pandemic. In a pandemic, weeks matter. 

This likely won’t be the last epidemic or pandemic. It may be worth investing in a system of training for these situations. While a Medical Reserve Corps does exist, the corps focuses on the medical and public health aspects of potential emergencies, without a specific role for scientists.

Scientists and students could be valuable help on the front lines. An organized, nationwide “Scientific Reserve Corps” could help. Scientists and students could complete training (and mandatory refreshers) on how to perform a variety of common tests, many of which could be similar to tests from their own research. They could train in collecting samples with proper PPE, analyzing data and data-sharing. For this to work, a Scientific Reserve Corps could encourage governments to plan for specific needs — coordinating types of test kits, extraction kits, and software — so that people could train before pandemic hits. 

With financial aid or compensation, this reserve system could also help students, who often struggle to make ends meet, The motto of the army reserve is “twice the citizen.” Perhaps it’s time for twice the scientist. 

Could chronic joint pain improve with changes in sex hormone levels?

Long-term contraceptives could be used to treat people with Ehlers-Danos syndromes

María Elisa Terrón


Baylor College of Medicine

Ehlers-Danlos syndromes (EDS) are a group of rare hereditary chronic diseases which cause collagen deficiency in the body leading to weakness of connective tissues that support the joints, organs, bones, and skin. People with EDS experience a wide range of symptoms and other conditions including chronic pain, bleeding disorders, migraines, and high-risk pregnancies. Recent research suggests that early gynecological care and elective hormonal treatment for people with EDS might help improve their quality of life. 

Previous research had shown that people with EDS report worsening of chronic pain and ligament weakness at particular times: during puberty, after giving birth, and prior to menstruation. That link suggests a possible association between EDS symptoms and hormonal levels. For instance, the levels of the hormone progesterone increase during the luteal phase, which begins after ovulation and ends at menstruation. Existing hormonal contraceptives are already known to regulate progesterone levels, so scientists have considered using these drugs to help young people with EDS. Unfortunately, these medications may clash with other conditions associated with EDS, potentially leading to decreased bone mineral density and increased blood clot formation.

In the more recent study from the University of California San Francisco-Fresno and Baylor College of Medicine, researchers evaluated the menstrual information, gynecological complaints and prescribed interventions from medical records spanning 10 years for 26 patients aged 12 to 16. Their findings suggest that the long-term reversible contraceptives such as intrauterine devices (IUDs) could be an option for patients with EDS. But other options less invasive than IUDs may also work. The authors note that referring more children and teenagers with EDS to gynecological care could make a big difference in giving them better treatment.

We need further research on EDS because of how detrimental the disease can be. Due to the associated complications of EDS, it is important to consider what types of contraceptives to use. Collecting information on treatments brings promise to the possibility of controlled studies testing different hormonal treatments to manage EDS symptoms. 

Keep coronavirus from spreading in Hawai'i. Cancel your vacation

It would be selfish to imperil Hawai'i's health with a cheap flight

Shalila de Bourmont

UC San Francisco

Scrolling through Instagram past the warnings to stay home due to COVID-19, you see it. 

A $49 flight deal to Hawai'i. “Your office at the beach!" The ad paints a serene image of waves crashing while you answer emails and sip Mai Tais. What this ad doesn’t show are the estimated 227 licensed acute critical care beds available in the entire state (as of 2018), with some islands having only 9 and Hawai'i island, the second largest island in terms of population, having only 24 beds. With a population of 1.4 million residents, these 230 ICU beds will go quickly and those in more remote islands will be left without care should COVID-19 spread. Add to this the fact that 140 acute care beds were reported as unstaffed in 2018, and this paints an even more dire picture of how strained Hawai'i’s healthcare system will be should the pandemic take hold in the state. In times of panic and pandemics, tourist destinations and tropical paradises are hit hardest. They will hesitate to close ports and airports as tourism is the primary source of income and livelihood. That is why you must be the one to say no to traveling to Hawai'i. You are directly responsible for the safety of the state.  

We talk constantly now of staying indoors to protect our most vulnerable; those immunocompromised or above the age of 60. But just as there are vulnerable individuals, there are vulnerable states and this must rise to our common conscience. Hawai'i is one of them. Compare Hawai'i’s 227 acute critical care beds  with California’s 7,274. In concrete terms this means that there are 1.81 acute critical care beds per 10,000 people in California compared to 1.6 in Hawai'i. While the numbers seem small, the impact on Hawai'i’s death toll will not be. Hawai'i is 24% short of the minimum number of physicians required to adequately care for the population. On some islands, such as Hawai'i Island, they are short 44%.  Add to this that 25% of the doctors in Hawai'i are over the age of 65, putting them at particularly high risk of serious complications from COVID-19. In addition to an incredibly precarious health infrastructure, Hawai'i is 2,467 miles from the nearest land mass, lending it even greater vulnerability should more advanced care be needed for those that fall ill or should food and supplies run out. 

As of Saturday March 21, of the 37 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Hawai'i, only 2 were not attributed to recent travel. It is only a matter of time before a tourist is responsible for the community transmission of a deadly virus that cripples the health of the people of Hawai'i. And if this is not enough to convince you to postpone your vacation, just think how much better a future vacation to Hawai'i will be if the state isn’t ravaged by COVID-19. 

(Ed: Governor David Ige has imposed a mandatory 14-day quarantine for anyone returning to or visiting Hawai'i.)

Researchers study the economics of mangroves by looking at nighttime satellite photos

Coastlines with wide bands of mangroves are relatively well-protected from economic downturn after hurricanes

Ashley Marranzino

Marine Biology

University of Rhode Island

 Mangroves are pretty incredible. They are the only type of trees capable of living in saltwater and perform a ton of beneficial services for the environment and humans like providing critical habitat to important fish species and reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Now, thanks to new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, we can add “protecting coastal economies” to the list. 

Coastal mangrove forests serve as a barrier between oceans and human settlements on land. In the midst of tropical storms, mangroves buffer shorelines from damage by reducing wave action and storm surges. As the strength and frequency of hurricanes increases as a result of climate change, scientists and economists have been wondering just how much economic value these barrier forests provide as they protect us from storms. 

To find out, researchers studied how coastal areas in Central America fared during hurricanes from 2000 – 2013. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to get a full picture of the economic impacts of storms so researchers relied on an interesting indicator of economic activity: the appearance and amount of lights visible in an area in satellite imagery at night. More lights in an area equates to more infrastructure and activity, which tends to correlate to higher income and economic activity. By comparing the images of lights in an area before and after storms, scientists were able to judge just how much damage the area had sustained and how long the area was likely facing an economic downturn post-hurricane. 

In areas with relatively narrow bands of mangrove forests (less than 1 km wide), there was around a 24% decrease in lighting at night after a category 3 hurricane. But areas that had larger bands of mangroves buffering them from storms were unaffected! 

Unfortunately, mangroves risk deforestation from threats like human development, pollution, and overharvesting. While scientists have been trumpeting the phenomenal benefits we receive from having healthy and intact mangrove ecosystems for a while, it is still shocking to see how this service impacts the bottom line for so many coastal communities. When you see the numbers, you really can’t deny how important it is for us to focus on conserving these important habitats.   

How to stay calm during a pandemic

We all have very valid reasons to be anxious right now. Here's how to keep your anxiety in check

Cassie Freund


Wake Forest University

We are currently living in a situation of extreme uncertainty, and if you are like me, you may have noticed yourself feeling extra anxious lately. Maybe you feel a constant ache it in your shoulders and neck. Maybe you are compulsively checking your phone, unable to tear your eyes away from Twitter and Facebook, or maybe you're extra irritable. According to medical professionals, these are very normal responses to the coronavirus pandemic.

Luckily there are lots of things you can do on your own to help ease the stress. Here are a few that work for me personally (note: I am not a medical professional). Not all of these will work for everyone, so don't beat yourself up if you try something to lessen your anxiety and it doesn't do much. Each of us is unique in our experiences and reactions to stressors!

Create something: Make something with your hands. You can cook or bake, put together a puzzle, color or draw, work in your garden or yard (if you have one), or even clean out your car. Whatever you choose, try to really focus on what you are doing instead of letting your mind wander. Don't worry about making something perfect — just enjoy the process!

Go outside or get moving inside: Unless you are currently under lockdown, and assuming you stay at least 6 feet from others, it is safe to go outside. Exercise can help you redirect nervous energy. It also gets your feel-good neurotransmitters flowing. By the way, dancing in your living room counts as exercise!

Step away from your phone: Put the phone down. Leave it in another room while go about your other activities. It will feel weird, but I promise you that logging off Twitter and other social media for half an hour will not harm you. To be clear, your phone isn't the root cause of your anxiety, but a constant barrage of COVID-19 related news isn't helpful, either. 

Give yourself a break: If you are really feeling anxious and it is keeping you from your daily activities, try just letting yourself be. A lot of times the pressure we put on ourselves to stay productive, keep working, clean the house, and so on keeps us paralyzed. Banish the word "should" from your vocabulary for now, and just do the best you can. Sometimes just giving yourself permission to slack off is enough to get your motivation and focus back. 

Try mindfulness: Mindfulness seems like the hip, hot thing to do lately, but there's a reason for that — it works. There are tons of online resources and apps for learning mindfulness. I am most familiar with Headspace, and the thing I like most about it is that students (including grad students!) can get access to the full app for $10/year (usually $70). There is a lot of material in the app, and in my opinion it's worth it. 

If full-on mindfulness isn't for you, but you need a way to stay calm when it feels like the world is falling apart around you, the 54321 method of grounding yourself is a good place to start. Take a deep breath, then look around you for five things that stick out to you in the moment, and say them out loud. Then repeat that with four things you can feel, three sounds you hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. Then take another deep breath. 

We're all in this together. While you may have to stay physically distant from people right now, don't forget to connect socially in any way you can. And if you are feeling totally overwhelmed or depressed, please reach out to a mental health professional.

What happens when a scientist investigates results that are "too beautiful to be true"?

Inside Tsuyoshi Miyakawa's attempts to improve reproducibility in science

Dori Grijseels


University of Sussex

Some fields of science are currently experiencing a reproducibility crisis. This means that a large number of scientific studies, that have been peer reviewed and published, cannot be repeated with the same results. One of the causes for this is scientific misconduct. This may include p-hacking, the practice of adding in data until the results are significant, selective reporting, where only the desired results are shared, or outright falsification of data.

The Editor-In-Chief of the journal Molecular Brain, Tsuyoshi Miyakawa, recently wrote an editorial in which he examined the manuscripts he had handled over the last two years. As an editor, his job is to judge whether a manuscript is good enough to send to reviewers. In some cases he might decide to ask the authors to provide the raw data before sending it out for review, especially if the results look ‘too beautiful to be true.’ 

Over the two years of manuscripts he analyzed, Miyakawa sent out requests for the raw data 41 times. He only received data in 20 cases. In 19 out of those 20 cases, the data was either incomplete, or did not match with the results in the manuscript. The reason why in so many cases the raw data was not available or incomplete is not clear, but it might suggest that this data never existed in the first place.

Miyakawa calls for increased availability of raw data. His journal, Molecular Brain, now requires the raw data for every manuscript submitted to be made publicly available. This makes it easier to determine whether results are genuine, and it will increase transparency. Although the reproducibility crisis is complicated and will not be solved completely with just this requirement, it is definitely a step in the right direction.

What does social distancing really mean?

Everyone needs to be socially distancing themselves right now. Here's what you should know to protect yourself and others

Bhavya Singh


McMaster University

After the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that the coronavirus outbreak is officially a pandemic, countries around the world have responded accordingly. Universities in Canada and the US are closing, non-essential conferences and sports leagues are being canceled, and people are being advised to halt all travel plans. Anyone can get infected, and the only way to slow down the outbreak is to reduce the number of people getting infected.

Amidst this fear, the most widespread advice for anyone experiencing symptoms is to socially distance themselves. But what, exactly, does that mean? How is this different from self-isolation? What if you live with family? What if only one person in a family of four is experiencing symptoms? Why is this even important?

How do I know if I need to socially distance myself? How is that different from self-isolation and strict isolation?

Everyone should be socially distancing themselves! Essentially, that means deliberately distancing yourself from other individuals to reduce COVID-19 transmission rates.

On the other hand, self-isolation or self-quarantine is when you have been in contact with someone who was diagnosed with the coronavirus, or someone who was exhibiting symptoms. Self-isolation also applies for people who are asymptomatic, but have secondary medical issues (diabetes, heart condition) that may make a coronavirus infection more dangerous for them.

Lastly, isolation is when you have been diagnosed with COVID-19, or if you are exhibiting any flu-like symptoms. At this point, you will receive instructions for isolation from your medical provider.

What does social distancing entail?

If possible, do not leave the house. Try to stay at least six feet away from other people, and avoid coming in direct contact with them. Social distancing can also be done by avoiding crowds and mass gatherings, canceling upcoming events, working from home, moving classes online, and communicating electronically instead of personally visiting people.

What if I live with other people? 

Even if no one in the household is exhibiting symptoms, it is best to keep distance for at least two weeks, which would be the virus’s incubation period.  On the other hand, if you need to self-isolate, try to sleep in separate rooms, and keep 6 feet away from each other. Frequently wash your hands, and frequently keep your surrounding areas clean. If possible, avoid touching your face, especially after being in contact with shared possessions or furniture. Wash all plates and utensils thoroughly with warm soap and water, or use a dishwasher with a drying cycle. 

How can I help vulnerable people?

If there are vulnerable and at-risk individuals in your neighborhood, consider getting groceries and other essentials for them, and leave the items at their doorstep. Frequently call or check up on your friends and family, since social distancing can be quite lonely.

Why is social distancing important for everyone, including young and asymptomatic people?

According to data from South Korean authorities, translated by Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, young people between the ages of 20 and 29 are carrying 30% of the disease in South Korea, with the majority being asymptomatic, meaning they are not experiencing symptoms. This means that while you may feel fine, if you are sick you can still infect a large number of people by just being out and about!  

Why is social distancing important? 

By now you have probably seen a version of the graph that explains why we need to "flatten the curve." Through social distancing and pro-active measures, we can not only delay the "peak" of the outbreak, easing demand for hospital and emergency services, but can also reduce how bad the outbreak could be.

Do you still have questions about social distancing, isolation, or anything else about the coronavirus pandemic? 

👇Ask our community of scientists now! 👇

Good news for people with tattoos: your skin still works

Research shows that tattooed skin functions just as well as non-tattooed skin

Stephanie Zimmer

Cell Biology

Emory University

Do you have a tattoo and ever wonder if your tattooed skin is any different from your non-tattooed skin? Are you just now reading this wondering if this is something you should be wondering about?

Skin is your body’s first defense against pathogens and works best when it is intact. Tattoos break that defense by using tiny needles to deposit granules of permanent ink directly into the skin. Tattooed skin heals over time, but researchers in Denmark and the Netherlands wondered if the function of tattooed skin would be permanently altered compared to non-tattooed skin. 

They tested this possibility on 26 tattooed individuals of varying ages and varying tattoo ages (meaning, the number of years it had been since their tattoo(s) were done). By measuring a number of different skin parameters, such as pH and conduction, the researchers were able to understand skin barrier function in the tattooed and non-tattooed areas of each person. They found no differences between tattooed and non-tattooed skin for each measurement except capacitance, is a measure of skin hydration that was increased in tattooed skin. That higher capacitance suggests that tattooed skin is more hydrated in deeper layers than non-tattooed skin. The researchers aren’t sure why tattooed skin would have higher capacitance, but they suggested that a larger study could get to the bottom of this question. 

In the meantime, they did conclude that the skin barrier gets fully restored after a tattoo. So if you have a tattoo, you can rest assured that it looks great and has no impact on your skin’s function.

This fish parasite can power itself without oxygen

Meet Henneguya salminicola, a tiny animal that has upended our understanding of animal biology

Imagine this: you're sitting outside your high school biology class cramming for an exam. The topic is aerobic respiration. "The process of using oxygen to create energy that powers the living cell," you mutter to yourself. Aerobic respiration takes place in the mitochondria, and it is why animals — including us — need oxygen. Whether we breathe it in, extract it from water through gills, or absorb it through the skin, we all need it.

Or so we thought. But brand new research has upended that assumption. Scientists recently discovered a parasite that lacks mitochondria and so cannot use oxygen to power their cells.

Let me introduce you to Henneguya salminicolaH. salminicola is a member of the phylum Cnidaria. You might be familiar with a few other Cnidarians, such as sea jellies and corals. However, H. salminicola belongs to a group of parasitic animals called Myxozoa. Their hosts include salmonid fishes, such as salmon, trout, and other freshwater fish.

When the researchers examined the parasite's genome, they didn't find any evidence of mitochondria. And when they looked at its cells under a microscope, they found cristae, a structure that resembles the inner folds of mitochondria, but doesn't perform the same way. This suggests that the lack of a mitochondrial genome in H. salminicola is not a very old trait. Instead, they speculate that the loss of mitochondrial DNA may be a recent event in this organism's evolutionary history. 

Although this discovery upends what we knew about animal biology, it also makes sense. Salmon muscles are low-oxygen environments, and so over time H. salmonicola apparently lost its ability to power itself with oxygen. But what makes this discovery so cool is the proof of a possibility. Multicellular life can exist without oxygen. Where else on Earth and in space could they be thriving? 

Science games and challenges to pass the time while you are stuck at home

Here are some ways to kill boredom – and contribute to scientific research – while you're doing your part to flatten the curve

Cassie Freund


Wake Forest University

If you are newly stuck at home with science-minded kids, or are just looking to add another website to your internet routine in this time of social distancing, here's a list of educational and productive science games that might come in handy. If you have a favorite that doesn't show up here, send me a link on Twitter and I will add it.

FoldIt: We wrote a great article outlining one of the major scientific discoveries made with this protein-folding game a few months ago. Try it yourself – there are even coronavirus puzzles that you can do, if you want to take out your stress on (a virtual copy of) the virus itself.

Zooniverse: This site has an enormous range of projects you can contribute to. You can do everything from helping scientists classify bird breeding behavior on NestCams, to identifying wildlife from camera trap photos as part of Snapshot Ruaha, to locating black holes on Radio Galaxy Zoo. There is truly something for everyone!

March Mammal Madness: The basketball version of March Madness has been canceled, but this animal-themed competition is still going. Although several battles have already been fought, it's not too late to fill out a bracket (assistant editor Max Levy is cheering for the Australian feral camel to win it all!). You can catch up on the competition and get some great science content ⁠— complete with references to peer-reviewed research ⁠— on the competition's Twitter feed

Kerbal Space Program: This is co-founder Allan Lasser's pick. In this fictional game you are the leader of a space program for an alien race called the Kerbals, and you get to construct spacecraft, perform space experiments, and even make budgeting decisions for your organization (because funding science is important). This game would be great for kids who want to learn physics and astronomy alongside some real-life space scientists.

Eyewire: In this game, your goal is to map neurons in the brain. You are presented with a cross-section of a real brain map, and your job is to trace a neuron through that cross-section. Consortium member Dori Grijseels, who sent me this suggestion, calls it "weirdly addictive!" If you're interested in the science behind the game, here's a TED talk by the game's director. 

Ocean acidification will eat away at the shells of abalone and other economically important shellfish species

Scientists uncover yet another negative impact of climate change on the world's oceans

Meghan Zulian

Oceanography and Marine Science

University of California, Davis

As carbon dioxide emissions dissolve into the oceans, seawater carbonate (CO3) concentrations decrease. In the future, low CO3 concentrations will threaten the survival of ecologically and economically important shellfish, as they struggle to find enough carbonate to build their calcium carbonate (CaCO3) shells. With these concerns in mind, a study published in December of 2019 in the journal Marine Biology looked at how juvenile abalone (Haliotis tuberculata), a type of sea snail, are affected by low carbonate seawater. 

To examine how low seawater carbonate affects abalone physiology, researchers cultured six-month-old juvenile abalones for three months in seawater with various levels of CO3, representing current and predicted near-future conditions. They measured and compared survival and growth of the abalone, as well as the micro-structure, thickness, and strength of their shells, across a range of CO3 concentrations. 

After three months of exposure, they found that the lowest seawater CO3 treatment significantly reduced the length, weight, and strength of the abalone shells. Through scanning electron microscopy, they also observed that low CO3 resulted in more porous shells with modified textures. 

These findings confirm that low CO3 levels in seawater make it more difficult for H. tuberculata to build their shells, resulting in slower growth and increased shell corrosion. Abalone and other shellfish are hugely economically and ecologically important, and this study reveals yet another projected negative effect of climate change on the world's oceans.