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G U O R UT U
t never ceases to amaze me how quickly life changes. Until recently I worked as a part-time lecturer, teaching/entertaining 16-19 year-olds. Merely being in their presence brought home how much has changed – even in my short life. (30 is still young, right?) These young adults couldn’t remember 9/11, had never lived without compact discs, and didn’t know how to work a video recorder. (Wait, isn’t that everyone..?) But the generation that has never experienced waiting for a bus without playing Angry Birds are far worse off – or so argues columnist Leila Wildsmith in this issue. As time moves on, so do medical and technological advancements. There’s often too much to take in. So this issue’s news roundup summarises some of the important events you may have missed. Our diverse team of crowdsourced writers also address a range of issues that affect our lives today. They take us from killer infections to probiotic yoghurts; they address myths of old (‘Why we don’t howl at the moon’);
and ponder how to shape your future (‘Steps of Change’). This issue is the first to be released with the backing of the Wellcome Trust. It is also an important milestone for us as it is the first issue to be released on a mobile application – something you have been asking for since our launch 18 months ago. Guru is by you and for you. We exist to offer engaging, insightful articles about the world around us. ‘Science’ can be a dirty word, but we don’t like to shirk away from giving the facts. If you like what we’re about and want to get involved there’s no shortage of opportunities: join the reader’s panel for a chance to win some awesome prizes; post your ‘Ask a Guru’ questions via Facebook and Twitter every Friday, or simply drop us a line to share your thoughts. Enjoy the issue and have a cracking Christmas!
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CONTENTS #GURU OPINIONS
WHEN I WAS YOUR AGE… 50% of adults get extremely anxious if they leave home without their smartphone. Guru columnist Leila Wildsmith argues that, as well as irritating adults, mobile phones could be ruining childhood. Smartphones are an incredible advancement and a necessary evil, but did the ‘golden days’ vanish when the kids got Nokia 6310s?
#IN THE NEWS
THE TOP 10 CHRISTMAS GIFTS I CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT There’s still time to put in your requests for Christmas gifts. Guru Natasha Agabalyan lists ten of the best presents you could hope for this Yuletide. We also review Manor Bindery’s unique vintage book Kindle cases and an interactive iPad app for the kids.
THE NEWS YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED
VOLCANIC ASH AND A PANINI
From politics to zoology, our writers give the lowdown on events from the last two months that might have passed you by.
It’s hard to eat a sandwich through a face mask. Living near a volcano carries risks other than lava flows and earthquakes. A bigger problem – one that comes along with most eruptions – is ash. Aside from stopping airliners, volcanic ash presents a host of health risks and public health challenges. Jackie Ratner finds out what it’s like to live in the shadow of a volcano.
Every Friday we offer you the opportunity to post to Facebook, tweet or email the Guru team with your questions. They can be about health, physics, biology, astronomy, psychology… almost anything goes! Here’s a selection of some of the best.
OPERATION DOORSTEP In the early 1950s, at the dawn of the Cold War, the US Atomic Energy Commission began a program of nuclear tests at the Nevada Test Site. One of the tests, however, was perhaps most notable for its unusual attempt to show American citizens what might happen if a bomb landed in their neighbourhood, as James Lloyd discovers...
TWISTED GENES How far would you go to be the best at your discipline? Disgraced Lance Armstrong took huge risks and has brought professional cycling into disrepute. But going beyond the world of drug doping, Abigail James discovers how a genetic treatment originally intended for use on the very ill is being used to enhance sports performance of the already very fit. Welcome to the world of gene doping.
SAVING OUR BACON
WHY YOU DON’T HOWL AT THE MOON As we mourned the passing of Neil Armstrong, the first human to set foot on the moon, our thoughts turned to the skies. This lunar world had captivated human minds long before man took his first small step and it continues to captivate some minds today – if in a somewhat peculiar fashion, as Sceptic Guru Daryl Ilbury discovers.
The ready availability of safe medicines is something we take for granted. Making sure this happens is not always plain sailing, however. In 2007, hundreds of people died when one drug supplier took deadly shortcuts in an attempt to increase profits. John Ankers explains how it went so tragically wrong.
ONE LESS PILL TO POP
STEPS OF CHANGE Barack Obama believes we’re the change and that we need to stand up for change, believe in change, and, of course, vote for change. As it turns out, change happens quite slowly, as explains Carys Cragg, Vancouver-based Life Coach Counsellor. Failing to understand the process of change may mean you are forever stuck in the same old habits.
DRUGS, SEX AND ROCK AND ROLL What makes a toe-tapping good tune? One project, ‘Darwin Tunes’, set out to discover the answer. By asking members of the public to rate different beeps and blips, they came up with some interesting creations. The project is still going, and any music fan can take part. Kyle Pastor dons his headphones and listens in.
DON’T LET THE BAT BUGS BITE Forget horror films with blood-thirsty vampires, the threat to humanity from bats is rapidly moving from the realms of fiction to reality. Like many mammals, bats are able to pass new infections to humans. Contributor James Crewdson takes up the story and finds out if the furry flutterers might lead to the next global pandemic.
AN INTERVIEW WITH THE GHOST BOY At the age of twelve, Martin Pistorius, a young South African-born boy, fell mysteriously ill. Within 18 months he was completely mute and wheelchairbound, unable to communicate and ‘locked’ into his ailing body. It’s a fate worse than death – but now 32 year old Martin has been able to tell his story, thanks to advancements in technology. We meet Martin to find out more about his book Ghost Boy and how he has reclaimed his life.
With the cold winter months come the inevitable bouts of flu-ridden sick days. And so many of us reach for the vitamin and health supplements. But new findings show that dosing ourselves up with vitamin D might be no more likely to prevent colds than dried frog skin potions or rubbing garlic on your feet. Kat Lougheed investigates.
IN SICKNESS AND IN HEALTH Anyone who works with food knows to wash their hands first. We know that ‘germs’ are bad for us – or are they? Molecular Guru Jon Crowe argues that we should stop being obsessed with cleanliness and embrace microbes as man’s best friend. Get the balance wrong and it could mean resorting to the most revolting hospital treatment ever created.
When I was Your Age…
(Texting) Flickr • mariahagglof, (3210) Wikimedia • Discostu
RIGHT: A Nokia 3210.
I got my first mobile phone – a Nokia 3210 – when I was 15. I used it to text friends, call home if I missed the school bus, and to play Snake (a ridiculously simple yet satisfying game which involved moving a digital snake around the screen to eat apples). These days, it is rare to come across a High School pupil – even an eleven year old – who doesn’t have a pocket bulging with a mobile phone. Similarly, my first encounter with Facebook was as a 21 year-old undergraduate during my final year at University. The site started to pop up in conversations; intrigued, I signed up. However, I only really used it to share photos or to stay in touch with people from whom I was separated by distance; I logged in on my laptop about twice a week, but never spent very long on the website. Things have changed since I was ‘young’. With so many children now using phones on a daily basis and accessing the internet through an unfiltered
and unmonitored medium, we must ask: are mobiles encouraging (and perhaps even forcing) children to grow up too soon? Research undertaken by the National Literacy Trust shows that 95% of British 11-16 year olds own their own mobile phone. Incredibly, 61% of 7-11 year olds do as well. [You can read the full report – ‘Children and Young People’s Reading Today’ by Christina Clark – here]. What’s even more astonishing is the number of undertwos I know who are able to enter the four-digit passcode for their parent’s smartphone, navigate their way to a game and start playing – all without ever having been explicitly taught by their parents. Is this a sign of our addiction to technology, or is it an example of how significant modelling behaviour is to our children? These days, phones are
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used less for actually making phone calls (in fact, some smartphones can be pretty terrible at doing so) and more for texting, instant messaging and accessing the internet – specifically social media sites. The majority of teenage phone use is taken up by social networking – updating Facebook or Twitter statuses – which is made all the easier by apps, which provide a fast way to sign in, update statuses and post photos. Moreover, this activity is undertaken several times throughout the day as teenagers respond to their friends’ comments and statuses. Rather than talking face-to-face with others, children – and teenagers in particular – are increasingly using social networking sites as their primary way of communicating. In addition, the easy accessibility of these sites means that anyone can create their own identity. Stereotypical teenage ‘Who-Am-I?’ angst questions can now be ‘commented on’ and ‘liked’ by hundreds of other people – both friends and, depending on security settings, complete strangers. Perhaps the prolific nature of social media encourages a form of escapism and promotes a fluid identity which
can be altered to suit different people or circumstances, rather than encouraging teenagers to wrestle with issues of identity and discover who they really are. Instead of establishing a unified sense of self, teenagers become more distanced from reality as they project edited versions of themselves into cyberspace. Bryony Gordon recently wrote in The Telegraph: ‘In the past decade, the landscape of adolescence has changed so drastically as to be unrecognisable […] they can travel into online worlds and ‘social’ networks without their parents even realising they have done so. Whereas the tortured teenager of yesteryear could only hide their feelings in locked diaries or share them in muffled phone calls on landlines to which the whole household would be privy, adolescents with their own mobile phones and laptops live unguarded and unbothered by parents whom they can all too easily outsmart technologically’ [read her full article here]. Teenagers have always undergone a period of self-examination and questioning, so perhaps the bigger issue with smartphone use (and unrestricted internet access) is that this selfexamination is beginning at an earlier age – and so too are the ‘teenage’ issues of self-awareness, sexual awareness and becoming body-conscious. Even bullying is becoming an increasing problem for younger children through the anonymity and audacity afforded by unregulated cyberspace. The escapism and privacy afforded by a personal phone means that a child’s struggle with these issues often goes completely unnoticed by parents from whom this virtual
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(Cartoon) Flickr • TheAlieness GiselaGiardino²³
(Zuckerburg) Flickr • deneyterrio, (Smartphone) Flickr • Johan Larsson
RIGHT: Mark Zuckerburg is one of the five co-founders of Facebook, and the chairman and chief executive of Facebook, Inc.
world is hidden. Whilst parents are being offered increasing opportunities to filter and manage what their children can access, I wonder how many are aware of – or have access to – the parental lock settings on their children’s phones. Or how many of them are really aware of what their children are posting on social media sites. [Ofcom’s advice for Parental Lock Settings on mobile phones can be found here]. Currently, the age restriction for Facebook is set at 13, but some parents have admitted to helping their children create an account at a younger age. Moreover, its creator, Mark Zuckerburg, wants to do away with age restrictions altogether: ‘My philosophy is that for education you need to start at a really, really young age. Because of the restrictions, we haven’t even begun this learning process. If they’re lifted then we’d start to learn what works. We’d take a lot of precautions to make sure that they [younger kids] are safe.’ Zuckerburg’s reasons for removing the age restriction to educate children about online safety might sound honourable, but I can’t help wondering if it won’t simply open up the dangerous issues of grooming, ‘sexting’ and pornography to ever younger children, forcing them to ‘grow up’ too soon. In addition to the dangers and concerns about online safety that this (relatively) new technology brings, children become aware from a much earlier age of the need to ‘fit in’: they must have the ‘right phone’ and the newest technology.
No longer just a way of communicating with other people, smartphones have become a way of communicating to other people who we are. They have become today’s status symbol. Allowing children to have their own mobile phones was intended to increase their safety: concerned parents could contact, and be contacted by, their children readily. Perversely, however, this move has exposed children to more dangerous threats. Rather than protecting our children, the provision of smartphones, with their ‘all you can eat’ data packages, has led to us increasing their vulnerability. Of course, cell phones are an accepted and established aspect of everyday life for most teenagers and I am not suggesting that they be banned or removed. However, a greater awareness of the messages that children are embracing from owning the newest technology and having an attractive online identity is needed. As adults, it is our responsibility to ensure that we really are helping children to grow up and mature. By giving the next generation an immensely powerful tool and not teaching them how to use it sensibly and safely, I fear that it is already too late for many.
Leila Wildsmith is an English teacher in a secondary school and, in her spare time, loves writing and reading a wide variety of different books. She occasionally blogs about writing at www.writingonthewall0612.blogspot.co.uk and intensely dislikes misplaced apostrophe’s.
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THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT IVY
John Ankers Links:
Journal of Nanobiotechnology
BEES BITE BACK
Tis the season to be jolly: A time when geese are getting fat and red-nosed reindeers are given their first big break. At Christmas, your halls may be decked with holly but it’s ivy that grows over everything else. But have you ever wondered how ivy is able to climb up walls? English ivy (species name Hedera Helix) makes its own glue-like substance out of natural nanoparticles. The roots of each plant produce millions of tiny, sticky spheres - each 100,000 times smaller than a holly berry. This remarkable feat helps the ivy to bend and twist around trees, chimneys
and probably even parked-up sleighs given the chance. New research (published in the Journal of Nanobiotechnology) has found a way to turn ivy plants into natural factories for these adhesive particles which also have another hidden talent: they also absorb ultraviolet light. In a few years’ time you might be using an ivy-based glue to stick stamps on your Christmas cards and – if you live in the southern hemisphere – wear an ivy-based sunscreen whilst you eat your turkey.
The mystery of vanishing bee populations is slowly being solved. Recent research shows that bumblebees exposed to common pesticides suffer worse knock-on effects than anyone had suspected. The research looked at two chemicals and found that colonies exposed to one of them produced fewer adult workers from larvae and fewer foraging bees returned safely home. Exposure to the other caused a higher death rate among workers – while colonies exposed to both were more likely to completely fail. These results add evidence to the theory that chemicals might be playing a part in the mysterious ‘colony collapse disorder’ that
has been devastating bumblebee numbers. Such losses could have major consequences: because bees are important for pollinating plants, ecosystems would suffer and crops could fail without them. There is concern too about honeybees, which are also important for their honey (obviously). This research doesn’t necessarily apply to them as they are biologically different to bumblebees, but an investigation earlier this year showed how honeybees are under attack from Varroa mites, which introduce a virus into their bloodstream that drastically shortens their lives. However…
Biologists recently discovered that honeybees have a line of defence against such intrusions that nobody knew about until now. They can bite pests too small to sting (such as the Varroa mite and wax moth larvae), injecting a substance known as 2-heptanone with their mandibles.
This substance paralyses the invaders for up to nine minutes while they are ejected from the hive. While 2-heptanone was previously thought to act as a chemical alarm pheromone to warn other bees, this discovery shows it has the potential to be used as a low-toxicity local anaesthetic.
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(Ivy) Flickr • ivy&freckles
ECOLOGY AND ZOOLOGY
PSYCHOLOGY AND NEUROSCIENCE WHAT MAKES YOUR BABY LAUGH?
Psychologists at Birkbeck Babylab (the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, Birkbeck, University of London, UK) are investigating what makes babies laugh. Since you can’t laugh unless you get the joke, the hope is that, by studying what babies of different ages laugh at, we will learn about how their understanding develops with age. Parents of children under
two and a half are invited to either take a survey, file a field report, or submit videos of their laughing babies. The research may eventually provide insights into how brain development differs in conditions such as autism, and may potentially even lead to better treatments. You can take the survey here.
HEALTH AND MEDICINE THE HAPPINESS APP
ANYONE FOR A BACTERIA COCKTAIL?
(Baby) Flickr • David Salafia, (Mood Mate) iTunes • Jack Rostron
A mental health study recently launched by psychologists at the University of Reading, UK, is recruiting participants using an iPhone app. Nearly half of all illness in the UK in people under 65 is mental illness, affecting one in six people. The Mood Mate app tells users where their nearest ‘talking’ psychological treatment (e.g. cognitive behavioural therapy) can be found, and al-
lows one group to monitor their mood and anxiety levels over time. The idea is to find out whether people with mental health problems who have been able to track their mood are more likely to access the currently underused free help. It’s the first time a randomised controlled trial has been run using an iPhone app. You can take part and download it for free here.
Microbiologists at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Hinxton, UK, have identified a cocktail of gut bacteria that cures mice of a contagious bacterial infection, which causes diarrhoea. The infection, which also affects humans, is caused by Clostridium difficile. It is difficult to treat and kills 14,000 people a year in the US alone. Antibiotics work temporarily, but because the bacterium produces spores that are difficult to kill, many people relapse. The strong antibiotics used to treat these infections also kill other gut bacteria that normally suppress C. difficile, allowing the germ to take hold again. One answer, known as ‘faecal therapy’, involves treating people with faecal matter from a healthy person, which is inserted into
their stomach through a tube. Aside from being decidedly unappealing, this technique is also controversial because of the danger of introducing other dangerous pathogens along with the useful bacteria. The scientists at the Sanger Institute isolated 18 bacteria from mouse faeces that had been used to cure mice of C. difficile infections. They then tried various combinations of these bacteria on other infected mice. One mixture of six bacteria, including three that had never been discovered before, successfully cured the mice. Researchers are now working to find the bacterial cocktail that will cure humans so we can avoid all that faecal business in future.
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SPACE AND ASTRONOMY MOON ORIGIN MYSTERY SOLVED?
SEND A SCREAM INTO SPACE
Ever since the Apollo missions first brought moon rocks back to Earth over 30 years ago, scientists have been trying to solve a mystery about how the moon was formed. The rocks had a slight shortage of easily evaporated elements, known as volatiles – something that could be explained if the moon was formed by a massive planetary collision, which caused their evaporation. If this socalled ‘Giant Impact’ had actually happened, however, scientists should also have seen something called isotopic fractionation, but they didn’t – until now.
Isotopes are varieties of chemical elements that have slightly different masses. The kind of collision proposed by the Giant Impact Theory should have led to the vaporisation of more light isotopes than heavy ones, leaving an excess of the heavier isotopes. And planetary scientists now claim to have found excesses of heavier zinc isotopes in lunar rock samples from four Apollo missions and one lunar meteorite – providing compelling evidence that the moon condensed out of a cloud of vaporised rock caused by a planet the size of Mars crashing into the young Earth.
Students from the Cambridge University Space Flight group have been inviting the public to submit screams on video for them to load on a smartphone that will be launched into space on a satellite this month (Dec). The idea is to test whether it’s true that “in space, no one can hear you scream”. The screams will be played at top volume as the phone attempts to record them in low Earth orbit. The satellite is the brainchild of the UK company Surrey Satellite Technology, whose
Surrey Training Research and Nanosatellite Demonstration (STRaND) team ran a Facebook competition to find apps worthy of a trip into space. They plan to test the ability of an Android smartphone to control STRaND-1, the ‘World’s first Smartphone Nanosatellite’. Other apps on board will show satellite telemetry on the phone’s display and use pictures taken with the phone’s camera, together with tech on board STRaND-1, to pinpoint the satellite’s position.
POLITICS SCIENTIFIC COMMUNITY CONDEMNS ITALIAN SEISMOLOGISTS’ JAILING
The international scientific community has come to the defence of the six Italian seismologists and a government official who have been sentenced to six years in prison for failing to properly prepare the population for the fatal L’Aquila earthquake in 2009. The Abruzzo region of central Italy, where L’Aquila resides, has a well-known tendency for dangerous earthquakes. In the first months of 2009 the city was subjected to a series of small yet perceptible tremors with the authorities fearing these shocks were preceding an imminent and more serious earthquake. An advisory body of scientists was brought in to assess and advise the populace on
the situation. A meeting between the group and local government officials was then convened in which, according to the minutes, it was concluded that ‘It is unlikely that an earthquake… could occur in the short term, but the possibility cannot be totally excluded.’ But in the early hours of April 6th, a 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck, killing more than 300 people, injuring 1500 others, and causing $16bn worth of damage to the region. Indicted for multiple manslaughter and given a punishment of six years – two more than the prosecutors were asking for – the seven men have been accused of providing ‘incomplete, imprecise, and contradictory information’ and of failing ‘to alert the
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population of L’Aquila of an impending earthquake’. The men sentenced were among some of Italy’s most respected and internationally-renowned seismologists and geologists. One of the men, Enzo Boschi, was chief of the National Institute of Geophysics when the quake hit. He reacted to the ruling by saying “I am dejected, desperate… I thought I would have been acquitted. I still don’t understand what I was convicted of.” Scientists from around the globe have condemned the hearing, describing it as
Doctor John Ankers is a researcher at the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Integrative Biology. He’s normally found in a dark room looking at the inner workings of cancer cells.
‘a witch hunt’ and reiterating scientific consensus that accurate earthquake forecasting is extremely unlikely. The Geological Society of America echoed this sentiment in a statement on their website saying ‘short-term earthquake prediction of the type evidently sought by L’Aquila is currently impossible… processes deliver contradictory messages, and measurements of earthquake phenomena can be inaccurate.’ Luciano Maiani, the head of Italy’s Serious Risks Commission, has quit his job in protest against the verdict. In a statement posted to the organisation’s
Toby Brown describes himself as an aspiring writer and purveyor of science and is currently studying for a Masters in Astrophysics at Liverpool University.
website, the former Director General of CERN, his deputy and other senior officials said “The situation created by yesterday’s sentence… is incompatible with running the commission’s work in a calm and efficient manner and with its role of giving high level advice to the organs of the state.” He later went on to say “These are professionals who spoke in good faith and were by no means motivated by personal interests. They had always said that it is not possible to predict an earthquake.”
Simon Makin is an ex-post-doc researcher in auditory perception turned journalist.
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life, health, nutrition, psychology or science? If there’s something you’ve always wanted to know, or even just something you were pondering whilst taking a shower – let #AskAGuru be the place to go!
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wall or tweet it to @GuruMag with the hashtag
See the full list on the website. Here’s a selection of some recent questions:
Are yawns contagious? Asked by @MrsV via Twitter Yawns are definitely contagious among humans, and may also be contagious among other apes, some monkeys, and dogs. Contagious yawning appears to be governed by areas of the brain associated with recognition of emotion on faces, inhibition, and gesture recognition. Yawns are more contagious for individuals who have more empathy, and between
individuals who have closer social bonds. Together, these findings suggest that yawning may have some adaptive social function, such as synchronizing group vigilance or mood. Answer continues…click here.
Answered by Evolutionary Anthropologist Benjamin Chabot-Hanowell (aka ‘Brash Equilibrium’)
Why don’t most animals’ hair grow so long that it needs cutting, as human hair does? Asked by Nicky Sewell via Facebook Any kind of hair can only grow for a finite amount of time; when that length of time is up, the hair is shed, and a new hair grows in its place. Because a particular hair can only grow for a certain length of time, there’s a limit to how long it can grow. (If a hair grows at a rate of 1 cm a month, but can only grow for 12 months, then the maximum length that hair can
reach is 12 cm.) This maximum hair length – which is determined by how long the hair can grow for – is called its terminal length. The reason most animals don’t need to have their hair cut is because their hair has a shorter terminal length than human hair: it is shed before it gets long enough to need cutting. For example, we have a pet cat whose
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(Yawn) Flickr • Shermeee
To ask a question, simply post it on our Facebook
ASK A GURU hair has a terminal length of 4 or 5 cm; her hair only grows to around that length before it’s shed (mostly onto our clothes, it seems). By contrast, a human hair can carry on growing for much longer – well beyond shoulder length, in many cases. But every hair will have its limit. Some people have hair that extends right down their backs, yet others will struggle to grow hair that falls much below their shoulders – even if they never have their hair cut. And it’s all because of differences in terminal length.
Even hairs on different parts of the body can have different terminal lengths. I have hair on my arms, but I never need to get it cut (and it’s never got to a length at which I can start plaiting it to while away the hours) yet I do get the hair on my head cut: the hairs on my head and arms have different terminal lengths, and so can reach different maximum lengths.
Answered by Jon Crowe (‘Molecular Guru’)
Why does a sudden laugh while trying to drink cause you to ‘snarf’? Asked by Rob Owen via Facebook Timing a joke at the exact moment a friend takes a sip from a glass is something of an art form. Should the punch line be timed just right, the breath which follows their laughter (or groan) might coincide with an attempted gulp, with explosive consequences. The tube to their stomach (the oesophagus) opens at the same time as the windpipe to the lungs, causing some of the liquid/food/custard to slip down the wrong way – this is known as pulmonary aspiration. An involuntary reflex propels the foreign material out of the wind pipe and out through the nearest hole –
normally the mouth – but often, although far more difficult to predict, through the nose. Anyone who might find this sort of thing funny should beware – they are in danger of secondary ‘snarfing’ and should put their drinks down before laughing. You can read more about pulmonary aspiration here.
Answered by Dr John Ankers. John is a researcher at the University of Liverpool Institute of Integrative Biology.
My wife wants to know why she always needs a poo after running?
(Cow) Flickr • foxypar4, (Snarf) Flickr • eschipul
Asked by John-Morse Brown via Twitter Ahhhh there is so much to say about this. But I’ll keep it brief. I’ve talked to many runners who have discussed this with me. Most people say it happens after a very hard run or a race. It often happens when the conditions are warm. What’s more, for a number of people it can be downright…. explosive. So what is happening? Is the run causing an intense urge to defecate? Here is what I know about the situation. When you are at rest – say in the hours before your run – your body thinks everything is OK. What is known as the parasympathetic nervous system regulates this biological calmness. Blood is pumping to all the appropriate
parts of your body: brain, heart, muscles, skin, and intestines. And everywhere I haven’t mentioned. When you start to jog, your body now thinks that it is under stress – possibly under attack. And so your sympathetic nervous system ramps up. Your heart rate goes up and blood flow to areas that don’t need blood right then is reduced whilst blood flow to the areas that do is increased. Your heart, lungs and the active muscles preferentially get a lot of the blood and your intestines get less. After all, it is more important that your muscles are working at peak capacity than your intestines when you are under attack or fighting off enemies.
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ASK A GURU So how does this process get started? If you start off your run by jogging gently then there is a gradual release of the transmitter norepinephrine (UK: noradrenaline) from the endings of the body’s sympathetic nerves . This gradually affects your tissues and slowly ramps up the sympathetic response. This process is sometimes colloquially referred to the ‘fight or flight’ response. I don’t like that name because it can be initiated for lots of reasons other than fighting or fleeing. If you experience a sudden shock – like someone jumping out from behind a door with a hockey mask on, or an unexpected loud noise – then there will be a large dumping of the hormone epinephrine (UK: adrenaline) from your adrenal gland directly into your blood stream. This will bring on a much more rapid sympathetic response. That is why running really hard will tend to exacerbate this process compared to gentle running.
So, you are exercising and epinephrine/adrenaline is pumping around your body; at the same time, the normal movements of your intestines and the blood flow to them are both reduced, and then you come to the end of the run. Now your parasympathetic system kicks in to calm everything down and return you to a nice relaxed state. Blood flow returns to your intestines, which have been chilling out for the duration of your run. This is when you are likely to experience a “mass movement” in your bowels. Usually it takes a few minutes to notice. Maybe 30 minutes for some people. But the urge to find a nice quiet toilet can be intense and in stark contrast to how you felt not long ago while running. So make sure the toilet roll is full before you head out for a fast jog.
Answered by Matt Linsdell (‘Fitness Guru’). Matt is a qualified personal trainer and owns a small exercise facility in Ottawa, Ontario where the emphasis is on teaching the biology behind the exercise.
Why is oligodendroglioma (a type of brain cancer) an incurable disease which kills the ‘host’ in about 20 years since the inception, no matter what action is taken, or is it a statistical assumption …? Asked by Eugene Pirko via Facebook way from how a tumour cell grows to its underlying genes. Unfortunately, such research takes time. But each new case, each person, that contributes to statistics like the one mentioned gives doctors a little more insight: recent experiments on samples of oligodendroglioma have identified altered genes which may guide therapeutic design in the future (reference for more information here).
Answered by Dr John Ankers
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(Ladies Sign) Flickr • dev null, (Clocks) Flickr • Alan Cleaver
As with all statistics, the average (or mean) number should be treated carefully. When used in a medical context, the mean may not give the full picture – a single person who dies from a disease after 2 years can still contribute to an average life-expectancy of 20 years, as will a patient who survives it for 30. In the case of brain cancers like oligodendroglioma, as with all cancers that develop in delicate or vital parts of the body, the “actions” that can be taken may be limited. The range of chemical (chemo) therapies available usually depends on the specific types of cell that have become cancerous; surgical options will depend on how advanced the cancer is, i.e. how out of control these cells have now become. Future, decisive cancer therapies are likely to be based on knowledge of the specific root causes – right the
OPERATION DOORSTEP HOW TO NUKE A FAMILY OF MANNEQUINS
JAMES LLOYD • PHYSICS GURU
For me, there’s something profoundly creepy about mannequins. It might be those soulless, I’m-going-to-kill-you-in-your-sleep eyes. Or those smiling, impossibly unwrinkled faces. Or it might just be a side effect of my early childhood visit to a wax museum on the Isle of Wight, which still haunts me this very day. (It was like someone had purposefully set out to create the weirdest museum on Earth, complete with a terrifying Chamber of Horrors, several inexplicably naked female figures, and a truly nightmarish taxidermy collection of winged monkeys, two-headed lambs, and cats dressed as Victorians – I kid you not.) But I digress. Mannequins. What could be worse than a mannequin? Well, a whole community of them for starters. And on 17 March 1953, several families of these glassy-eyed dummies gathered together deep within the Nevada desert for a rather unusual occasion. They were about to experience the full force of a nuclear attack. This strange mannequin community was the brainchild of the US Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA). Nearby was a 15-kiloton nuclear weapon (‘Annie’) that was about to be detonated – the latest in a series of tests carried out by the US Atomic Energy Commission. The location – the Nevada Test Site – had been used for nuclear testing many times before, but this test was different. ‘Operation Doorstep’ was its official name, and it was designed to show what would happen if a nuclear bomb hit a typical American suburb. About 1km from the explosion, the FCDA built a simple wooden-frame house with two storeys and a basement, kitting it out with government surplus furniture. An identical house
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All Photos in article are courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office
In the early 1950s, at the dawn of the Cold War, the US Atomic Energy Commission began a program of nuclear tests at the Nevada Test Site. There was a lingering fear of nuclear attacks and the US was keen to show it was at the forefront of nuclear weapons technology. One of the tests, however, was perhaps most notable for its unusual attempt to show American citizens what might happen if a bomb landed in their neighbourhood, as James Lloyd discovers...
OPERATION DOORSTEP TOP RIGHT: Mannequins safe in a basement shelter. BELOW: Viewers observe the explosion. BOTTOM RIGHT: Wreckage of house closest to ground zero.
was built further away, at a distance of nearly 2.5km from ground zero. Mannequins were then placed in the rooms and basements of both houses. Several bomb shelters were also scattered around the site, as well as vehicles of various shapes and sizes.
Annie hits home More than 600 people watched the test, which exploded with around the same energy as the bomb that had been dropped on Hiroshima 8 years earlier. Unsurprisingly, the house nearest the explosion collapsed in dramatic fashion: the ground floor was completely demolished, the first floor collapsed, and the roof was ripped off. The house further away, on the other hand, stood firm, though its doors, windows and interior were badly damaged. The best protection was provided by the bomb shelters dotted around the test site, which sustained hardly any damage – even when located just a few hundred metres from the blast. And the mannequins? They had mixed fortunes. Those in the top two floors of the house closest to the explosion were buried under debris and didn’t stand much of a chance. The mannequins in the more distant house suffered a weaker shock, though many of
them were injured by debris. “Heads of the mannequins were generally pockmarked and clothing was cut by flying glass,” notes an FCDA booklet published after the test. “Some … had evidence of more serious injury, such as holes the size of a quarter [roughly the size of a 10 pence piece].” The mannequins in the basements of the two houses fared better, coming through the blast unmoved and unharmed. Judging from the photos of the test and the FCDA’s subsequent report, Operation Doorstep was a pretty vivid demonstration of the devastating power of nuclear weapons. However, whether blowing up a dummy village can tell us much about the real-life effects of a nuclear bomb is somewhat debatable. Even if they survived the initial blast, someone this close to ground zero would likely be affected by radiation sickness, either from the initial radiation or from the radioactive material that drifted to the ground after the explosion (the nuclear fallout). Luckily for mannequins, though, they don’t need to worry about the longterm effects of radiation, so they’d probably last longer than us during a nuclear holocaust. Maybe that’s what they’re all smiling about…
James Lloyd studied physics at university and recently finished a climate science PhD. He’s now swapped semiconductors for semicolons, writing about science and blogging at The Soft Anonymous. James enjoys music making, hill walking and trying to find the perfect flapjack. Find him on Twitter @jbb_lloyd.
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WHY YOU DON’T HOWL AT THE MOON
DARYL ILBURY • SCEPTIC GURU
(Moon texture) Wikimedia • Gregory H. Revera, (Branches) Flickr • Gigi Elmes, (Wolf) Flickr • Suzie T, (Water texture) Flickr • marco_ask Previous Page: (Moon texture) Wikimedia • Gregory H. Revera
WHY YOU DON’T HOWL AT THE MOON In August, our thoughts turned to the skies as we mourned the passing of Neil Armstrong, the first human to set foot on the moon. This lunar world had captivated human minds long before man took his first small step there in 1969. And it continues to captivate some minds today – if in a somewhat peculiar fashion, as Sceptic Guru Daryl Ilbury discovers. One of the most fascinating people I ever met when I started in radio was the station’s late night presenter. He was something of a wistful, so-called New Age character. When I first met him his head was buried in his hands as he bemoaned the fact that it was a full moon that night. “What difference does that make?” I asked him. He gave me a tired smile and shook his head, “’Cos it brings out the crazies.” I remember thinking, “Hey, it’s the 1980s! Do people still believe that rubbish?” [I may have used another word.] It seems they did – and still do. And not just in a silly, breathless Twilight-Saga-kiss-thewerewolf-and-he-turns-into-a-strappingyoung-hunk kind of way. But rather in a
furiously nodding, yesthere’s-definitelysomething-in-it kind of way. So I’d be failing in my duty as Sceptic Guru if I didn’t strap on my goggles, grab my trusty torch of science, and shine it at the moon.
Full moon madness First of all, we must dust off all the ancient folklore around the moon and its supposed effect on human behaviour. Given its prominence in the night-time sky, it’s no surprise that since recorded history, across diverse cultures, the moon has played an important role in shaping everything from superstition to religious belief to science. Of all the phases, a full moon – when the moon is on the opposite side of the Earth from the Sun and appears at its brightest – is the one that sparks the most excited old wives’ tales; the most common of these being that a full moon induces madness. It is from this belief that we have the term ‘lunacy’. This belief remains popular today, even in the face of modern science. And I have to admit that the logic behind it is…well…quite logical. It goes a little like this: the position and phases of the moon influence the tides of the seas, which are large masses of water. The brain is 80% water, ergo the moon must affect human behaviour in some way. Now, to say that the moon influences the tides is a little simplistic. The reality is that the tidal activity of the Earth’s oceans is the result of a complicated interplay between the Earth’s rotation, the positions of both the Sun and the Moon, and bathymetry – the depth and structure of the ocean floors. However, for the sake of the argument…yes, the moon does provide a gravitational tug on the Earth’s oceans and seas – in fact, it pulls on the solid ground as well – but only the water in the oceans and seas move in response to the gravitational pull because it is unbounded. And here is the critical difference between the
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WHY YOU DON’T HOWL AT THE MOON
ABOVE: The phases of the moon’s cycle as seen from the northern hemisphere.
BELOW: A boat at low tide, with a clear high tide mark on the cliff face.
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FIRST Q UA R T E R
WA X I N G GIBBOUS
watery depths of the oceans and the water found our brain: the water in the human brain is bound by the body, and so isn’t affected by the gravitational pull of the moon.
”It’s in the newspaper so it must be true…” So if the moon can’t physically affect the human body, what about all the evidence in the popular media about increases in criminal activity, emergency room admissions, domestic abuse, and even casino payouts during a full moon? Well, first of all, the term ‘popular media’ gives us a hefty clue. It wouldn’t be ‘popular’ if it didn’t pander to fashionable sentiment. It’s why most newspapers don’t have a science section but still publish horoscopes (a bone of contention for all science journalists). Secondly, any supposed ‘evidence’ is purely anecdotal. Furthermore, it is influenced by what psychologists call confirmation bias and communal reinforcement. Confirmation bias is the tendency to select information as evidence to support a preconception. It’s why supporters of an opposing football team always seem hairier and more ugly than you – based on your selection in the crowd of an individual
WA N I N G GIBBOUS
LAST Q UA R T E R
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that seems to embody that trait. If you find that the opinion is shared by your fellow supporters, you may find your own opinion being reinforced – despite it not being based on any empirical evidence whatsoever. This is understandable. After all, you’re part of community…and, well, you can see where this is going... In brief: if brought up with a belief – rooted in folklore and perpetuated by the popular media – that there may be a link between the moon and madness, people focus on events that support that belief, egged on by similar sentiment within their communities. So police report higher incidences of crime during full moon; emergency room staff report higher admissions during the same period; and so on. This is then picked up by the popular media, who report it – and so the cycle continues.
Shedding light on the dark side of the moon And what does scientific research say on all this ‘evidence’? Numerous independent studies and meta-analysis studies of claims and reports have come to the same clear conclusion: there is no evidence of any causal link whatsoever between the phases of the moon and human behaviour. But the blinding realities of science don’t seem to stop those who continue to dabble in the dark recesses of pseudoscience – just as there are still those who invoke physics in the support of their belief in tales of full moons and ghosts and demons. You might find them lurking in places like the Spiritual Research Foundation. Go and have look. But don’t forget your flashlight.
Daryl Ilbury is a former multi award-winning broadcaster, now a science journalist and op-ed columnist based in South Africa. He has a Masters degree in Science Journalism from City University, London. You can see an archive of his work on his website www.darylilbury.com or follow him on Twitter at @darylilbury.
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(Cliff) Flickr • RAYANDBEE, (Moon texture) Wikimedia • Gregory H. Revera
TOP TEN CHRISTMAS GIFTS I CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT NATASHA AGABALYAN
3D printer (£12,500) What better way to start this list than with something completely out of my price range... The new fad of the future world seems to be 3D printing – which does exactly what it says on the tin: the machine prints in 3D but lays down successive layers of material to create a 3D object rather than printing ink on paper. The materials it uses can vary from liquid resins to titanium alloys and I’m sure many more will soon be used. To a geek like me, this definitely brings to mind the replicator – capable of creating objects and food (and cocktails!) on demand! One 3D printer with inbuilt Eggnog for me, please!
The Humble Velocipede Christmas is all about toys (clearly) and – for me at least – toys don’t get better than this. It’s called a velocipede – which actually means “a human-powered land vehicle with one or more wheels”. I love the design of this desktop bamboo walking machine – it’s somehow complex and simple at the same time! The project was initially funded by Kickstarter, which I think is great – and production is about to start. I absolutely NEED one!
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TOP TEN CHRISTMAS GIFTS I CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT
Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed (£12) For me, this book is the perfect halfway point between art and science: beautifully crafted tattoos, a lovely coffee table book, and also a great conversation starter! I love it when scientists get all crafty and this book shows the lengths some will go to in order to showcase their scientific dedication! Available from Amazon.
Klein bottle ($35 to $18,000) This is definitely one for my dad! In maths, a Klein Bottle is a bottle with no boundary and in which there is no notion of right or left: perfect to puzzle even the greatest maths whiz! Acme sells a huge range of them to suit all (wallet) shapes and sizes.
Handpresso (£79) A recent infographic showed that research scientists are the people that drink the most coffee. This is definitely true for me! This nifty gadget makes it possible for me to fuel my addiction ANYWHERE! The Handpresso is a portable espresso maker: all you need is some hot water and you can pump the unit like a bicycle pump for an immediate caffeine injection! The machine pressure reaches 16 bars (which is pretty respectable) and the company have linked with many coffee brands to create ready-made pods for your (and my) pleasure. Available to purchase online.
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TOP TEN CHRISTMAS GIFTS I CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT
Ecosphere ($79 to $489) Tired of your Tamagotchi? Rubbish at feeding your goldfish? You definitely need an EcoSphere. A totally self-sustaining ecosystem, you never have to feed the life within. It contains a mix of micro-organisms, small shrimp, algae and bacteria in filtered sea water. The average life span is two years – yet all you have to do in all that time is put it near a source of light. What’s more, it looks absolutely beautiful! It was developed by scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who were looking into self-contained communities for space explorers. Now that’s exciting stuff to have on my desk!
Classic sci-fi box set DVDs (£29.95/$48) No December is complete without a cosy night in by the fire sipping a glass of Mulled Cider (don’t forget last year’s recipe!) and watching a great movie. By now I’ve already watched The Muppet Christmas Carol so much I might end up single on New Year’s Eve, so I’m definitely up for some geek action. This classic Sci-Fi set is brilliant – and these old movies are suitable for the whole family, making them perfect for Yuletide gatherings. Available from Amazon.
Leighton Danny nail varnish (£11/$18) I know this one might seem a little girly (and I suppose it is) but it does have some science relevance: it is the only nail varnish I have found that can withstand life in the lab! As a scientist, my hands and nails get pretty harsh treatment on a day-to-day basis: gloves, constant washing, using alcohols to clean things.... The Leighton Denny brand seems to be the only one that is up to the challenge without chipping on the first day! It’s also available in loads of amazing colours...
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TOP TEN CHRISTMAS GIFTS I CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT
Merino wool jumper (£49/$78) Having taken up running, I’ve been looking into better and more ecofriendly sportswear. And that’s when I stumbled upon the amazing find that is merino wool. ‘Why so amazing?’ I hear you cry. Well... Merino sheep grow some of the softest wool out there, as the tissue fibres are fine and small. It can regulate body temperature by drawing sweat away from skin (a process called wicking). It’s also slightly water repellent yet retains warmth when wet. Its natural antibacterial properties mean you don’t need to wash it so often – which is great for the environment. It’s also sustainable and biodegradable. It has great warmth-to-weight ratio thanks to its small fibres, which can trap air air to keep in body heat. A brand called Howies make a selection for men and women, amongst a great range of organic clothing. I want mine in every colour!
KleverCases (£24.99/$40) Made by the Manor Bindery, KleverCases are where the old and new worlds of book-reading collide. Want the convenience of an e-reader with the look of a well-worn classic text? Well look no further! Available for a range of e-readers and tablets. Read Guru’s review on the next page!
Product images reproduced with kind permission of respective brands.
Natasha Agabalyan is on her way to becoming a Doctor of Cell Biology in Brighton, UK. In between drinking far too much coffee and blogging at The Science Informant, she has a love of finding out interesting tit-bits from all aspects of life. You can follow her on twitter at @SciencInformant.
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KLEVERCASE Producer: Manor Bindery Ltd Sometimes Price: from £24.99 ($40)
the little details make all the difference. Anyone who has bought an Apple product will know the delight of sliding open the beautifully simple packaging. This experience was mirrored when we received review samples of the KleverCase: sleekly gift-wrapped cases with a handwritten compliments card and a note of who’d made it. Produced by the familyrun Manor Bindery, KleverCases are a new line of fauxbookcover Kindle case, handcrafted using traditional book-binding techniques. Designed to house a Kindle e-reader – and giving the outward appearance of being a book – the cases are a refreshing departure from the ‘filofax’ look of most Kindle holders. The idea of a Kindle masquerading as a hardback book will sound tacky to some. But the KleverCase man-
ages to stay on the right side of the fine line between being novel and corny: it is slim, lightweight and robust and carries an air of real sophistication. Digital vs. paper-book reading can split the crowd (as we discovered in a recent Facebook poll) but these cases might be enough to win over the image-conscious technophobe who dreads looking like a trendy urbanite. KleverCases come in a range of book styles, from a timeworn Alice in Wonderland to a sophisticated Man with the Golden Gun. There is also a bespoke design service for personalised covers. We love them and think they make a brilliant Christmas gift. Anyone interested in a vintage Guru cover..? KleverCases can be bought online here or you can see the full range at http://www.klevercase.co.uk/
SOMETHING FOR THE KIDS?
CLARA BUTTON AND THE MAGICAL HAT DAY - iPad app Author: Amy de la Haye Developer: MAPP Editions Ltd Beautiful, tactile, and Price: £3.99 (iTunes) engaging. These are Rating:
one’s impressions of this wonderful interactive children’s ‘book’ from the V&A museum. The story of Clara Button is a wonderful new generation of interactive ‘texts’ available on tablet devices. The story features a little girl by the name of Clara who travels with her family to the V&A museum, following an incident involving a very special hat. The story follows the family on their adventure through the museum and introduces some of the exhibits on display, as Clara and her brother interact with them. It is a charming narrative and one that is beautifully presented through high quality 2D animations, illustrations and impeccable voice acting from the narrators. The world conjoured up through this medium has an almost magical atmosphere, perfect for young children and even adults who are big kids at heart – myself included. The application itself is incredibly responsive to touch, providing a tactile and fun experience for younger children who are more interested
in poking and prodding than reading text. Throughout the many scenes in the book there are objects and scenery that can be interacted with; this adds an element of exploration as the user is greeted with a variety of charming animations upon touching certain objects and people. This is a fantastic addition for children that like to explore with different senses. Overall, Clara Button is wonderful application and a must-have for any parent wishing to engage their children in a multi-sensory learning experience. Clara Button keeps things fun and interesting and even provides information about the real life counterparts of the exhibits featured in the story – a great addition for someone who has never visited the museum before. I highly recommend this wonderful application, hopefully amongst the first in a new wave of interactive children’s books for the digital age. One can only wonder in what exciting direction this new medium will move next. Pros: High level of interactivity. A multi-sensory learning experience. High quality production value. Suitable for all ages (pre-school and over). Great level of touch screen interactivity able to capture the attention and tactile explorations of all ages. Cons: More educational content could have been included for children seeking deeper explorations of the subject matter.
Christopher Phillips is a science communication consultant, leading planetarium producer and educator specializing in astronomy and space science. He engages with global audiences including children of all ages and nationalities.
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VOLCANIC ASH AND A PANINI GASPING FOR AIR AFTER AN ERUPTION
JACKIE RATNER • GUEST CONTRIBUTOR
VOLCANIC ASH AND A PANINI
They talk about the everyday things – families, jokes, and current affairs. Particularly common in conversation this day is talk about the nearby volcano: everyone is wondering when it is going to quietly close its mouth and stop spewing this thick ash into the air. The ash particles, ranging in size from microscopic up to just below 2 mm, are everywhere. They just hang in the air, not always being heavy enough to settle down until days, weeks, or even months have passed. In the daytime, the suspended particles blot out the sun. At night, the ash mixes with dew to form a thin veil of cement, hardening into a crust as the water evaporates. One man tells me a humorous story about how he had to crack apart the crusty fur on his bewildered dog after it had slept outside. But even as the workers laugh, they still know
that the ash is accumulating thickly enough to collapse roofs. Not all volcanoes erupt in rivers of red-hot lava. Very often lava is the least concerning aspect of an eruption: it moves relatively slowly, is predictable in its actions, and doesn’t get very far before cooling off and solidifying into igneous rock. A bigger problem – one that comes along with most eruptions – are the pieces of lava that have already cooled and hardened just below the surface of the volcano. Gas bubbles build up beneath the hardened lava, eventually pressurizing it enough to blow it to pieces as the volcano erupts. Large pieces fall out near the vent from whence they came, but the small pieces, otherwise known as ash, ascend into the atmosphere and linger, where they can then travel astonishing distances. Like a swarm of silent bees, ash clouds wreak havoc in the air, and cause a sting when they eventually land.
Lungs of Glass Ash causes structural damage to buildings, especially when mixed with water, as the slurry is heavy and can’t be easily washed away. The Eyjafjallajökull eruption of 2010 has made many people aware of the destruction that ash can cause to jet engines (and, subsequently, holiday plans). A machine arguably more important than planes is also susceptible to the sting of ash – and that’s the human body (and any other breathing animal).
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(Lava) Flickr • Hello, I am Bruce
You can’t eat a Panini sandwich through a filter mask, so the construction worker removes his from his face and places it beside him. All over the unfinished high-rise, the workers are putting down their tools and taking a seat, settling in for a lunch hour of banter, crisps, and Coca-Cola. Even though it’s midday, the sky is a murky grey-brown and the sun is not visible anywhere in the sky.
VOLCANIC ASH AND A PANINI
(Ash plume) Flickr • Hello, NASA Goddard Photo and Video
ABOVE: The ash cloud from the Eyjafjallajökull eruption of 2010.
The reason ash is so destructive to our delicate tissues is because of its structure. When lava meets air and cools off very rapidly, it forms volcanic glass. The chemical composition of this glass can vary. It may be black, white, or grey in colour and isn’t clear like the glass in windows – but it is every bit as sharp and brittle. These piercing particles of glass are so tiny that they can easily – and unknowingly – be inhaled. What happens next depends on the size of the ash particle, its composition, and the state of the person who inhales it. Someone with preexisting respiratory issues, like asthma, may be at increased risk from the ash, although a perfectly healthy person’s body is in no way immune, and can still struggle with the consequences of breathing shards of glass. Large particles (although still microscopic at a tiny 15 micrometers), get stuck in the nasal and tracheal passages, causing problems like rhinitis or laryngitis. Smaller fragments, in the order of 10 micrometers (1/100th of a millimeter), can get into the lungs and make it harder to breathe, ultimately causing bronchitis-like afflictions. Ash smaller than this (smaller than 4 micrometers) can float unimpeded into the depths of the lung, resulting in serious problems like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or silicosis (miner’s lung), which increases the risk of lung cancer.
The best way to keep a respiratory tract spick and span in the vicinity of an erupting volcano is to wear a particle-filtering mask that covers the nose and mouth. These masks are graded to catch particles of various sizes, and the finer filters are able to catch even the smallest ash particles. Our knowledge of the effects of volcanic ash is still relatively limited. But with each eruption, this knowledge grows. Protective equipment is often prohibitively expensive in the developing world, but thanks to the work of organisations like Medecins Sans Frontieres, those living in a volcano’s shadow are becoming better equipped to prepare for the worst. And as time passes, and masks and protective equipment costs continue to fall, local emergency teams will be better equipped to cope. Hope grows, but like a lava flow, progress is slow – albeit steady.
Sources • •
NHS. “Volcanic ash health advice” (2010) Singer, Stacey. “Why you don’t want to breathe volcanic ash” The Palm Beach Post, (2010) USGS. “Ash” C.J. Horwell and P.J. Baxter, “The Respiratory Health Hazards of Volcanic Ash: a Review for Volcanic Risk Mitigation,” Bulletin of Volcanology 69, no. 1 (2006): 1–24. Elena N Naumova et al., “Emergency Room Visits for Respiratory Conditions in Children Increased After Guagua Pichincha Volcanic Eruptions in April 2000 in Quito, Ecuador Observational Study: Time Series Analysis,” Environmental Health 6, no. 1 (2007): 21. G.A. Tobin and L.M. Whiteford, “Chronic Hazards: Health Impacts Associated with on-Going Ash Falls Around Mt. Tungurahua in Ecuador,” Papers of the Applied Geography Conferences 27 (March 24, 2004): 84–93.
Jackie Ratner is a native New Yorker with a penchant for pretty shoes and Googling into the wee hours of the morning. She’s also reading for a DPhil in volcanic hazards at Oxford, aiming to turn scientific research into real disaster contingency plans. She’s not on Twitter, but say hi if you see her in the street!
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TWISTED GENES THE FUTURE OF DOPING IN SPORTS
ABIGAIL JAMES • GUEST CONTRIBUTOR
(Band) Flickr • Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com Previous Page: (DNA) Flickr • MJ/TR (Â´ï½¥Ï‰ï½¥)
How far would you go to be the best at your discipline? Work out until you drop? Pop the next faddish ‘get fit’ pill? Suffer detrimental effects to your health, suffer guilt, and face potential disqualification through steroid use? Would you even consider changing the very stuff that makes you – you, by going so far as to change your DNA? Abigail James discovers how a genetic treatment originally intended for use on the very ill is being used – in an altogether disconcerting and potentially dangerous way – to enhance sports performance of the already very fit. Welcome to the world of gene doping. ‘Gene doping’ is the name given to the performance-enhancing technique through which athletes genetically modify their bodies. It has been dubbed the ‘evil twin’ of gene therapy – the successful treatment originally developed to treat the seriously ill. Gene doping triggers the body to naturally produce useful proteins and bulk up muscle. And guess what? It is almost undetectable – making it an athletic doper’s dream. Both the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) have expressed concerns about this dubious practice, suspecting it may have been used in professional competitions as early as the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. So where has gene doping come from? Science has unveiled around 30,000 human genes – and faulty versions of these have been linked to particular diseases and disorders. People with cystic fibrosis, for example, have difficulty breathing because they carry a faulty gene that results in thick sticky mucus being produced in their lungs. Gene therapy seeks to replace the faulty genes in affected cells with a healthy copy so that the lungs function normally. This treat-
ment is still in its infancy, posing concerns for the unregulated sporting spin-off. If we’re still learning about the carefully-controlled, scientific application of gene therapy – and modifying our practices accordingly – what might happen if it is used in an uncontrolled way? So, imagine this: it’s 2016 and the Rio Olympic Games are under way. The biceps of weightlifters and the thighs of cyclists are bigger than ever, records are broken daily – and previously inconspicuous nations climb the medals table. As the world hotly anticipates the men’s 100m final and wonders whether Usain Bolt can score an Olympic hat-trick, there’s a collective intake of breath. Who’s this? A man plucked seemingly from obscurity becomes an instant household name as he speeds past Bolt. “Impossible,” the watching millions murmur. Illicit drug use is suspected by most – but our new ‘superhuman’ is stripped of his title on different grounds: “the nontherapeutic use of cells, genes, or genetic elements having the capacity to enhance performance”. So exactly what might have been on offer to this immoral competitor in the shop of genetic modifications?
Option 1: Increased muscle bulk Maybe he would have put the IGF-1 gene into his shopping basket. This gene could be inserted directly into the cells that make up muscle fibres, making them produce more Growth Hormone – and so giving our athlete thick muscle fibres and greater muscle bulk. If he then followed a regime of training that focused on building strength he could experience greater muscle growth – allowing the unnatural breaking of sprinting world records.
Option 2: Growing new blood vessels The development of a gene therapy that stimulates the growth of new blood vessels could lead to athletes whose heart tissue, muscles and other parts of the body received an abnormally rich supply of oxygen and other nutrients. This
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TWISTED GENES extra nutritional boost would delay the athletes’ exhaustion, keeping them ahead of the competition.
painful accumulation of lactic acid in the muscles (that anyone who’s undertaken vigorous exercise will have experienced) could help athletes achieve a top performance for longer.
Option 3: Increased endurance Eero Mäntyranta, skier and double Olympic gold medallist, blew the opposition away in the 1964 Games. It was later found that he had a naturally-occurring genetic mutation that gave him double the number of red blood cells of the average person. As a result, his lungs were able to supply more oxygen to his tissues – a dream come true for any endurance sportsperson. Athletes may soon seek to mimic Mäntyranta’s natural medal-winning mutation by giving their cells an extra copy of the gene that instructs the body to manufacture new red blood cells. This treatment would see a tremendous benefit to sufferers of anaemia and AIDS – but would also get extra oxygen to athletes’ tissues, giving them greater endurance. Disgraced Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong allegedly injected the drug EPO (erythropoietin) to achieve very similar effects. Had he modified his genes, it is unlikely he ever would have been rumbled by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.
Option 4: Feeling no pain A British cyclist infamously said “if it takes ten to kill you, take nine and win”. Ironically, he cycled through the pain barrier while doped up on amphetamines, at which point his body shut down. He died on the climb up Mont Ventoux during the Tour de France. But what if ‘naturally’ prescribed pain relief had been available to him? What if his cells could contain genes producing pain-relieving substances, such as endorphins and enkephalins? Relief from the
It all sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? In fact, I imagine you’re wondering where to sign up. But there’s a catch: the health risks are colossal. The IGF-1 gene could also stimulate the development of cancerous tumours. Gene doping that increased the number of red blood cells would make the blood thicker, making it more and more difficult for the heart to pump blood around the body – triggering strokes and heart attacks. What’s more, gene doping carries the risk of contracting a nasty virus: viruses are used to get the new genes into your cells. Needless to say, legitimate providers of gene therapy will ensure the illness-inducing parts are wholly removed – but can we expect the same from uncontrolled, renegade laboratories who offer crude treatments that haven’t undergone proper testing? If you’re bold enough to put your body in the hands of these crooks at least your crime is likely to go undetected. Unlike drugs, which can easily be detected in the body, it will be virtually impossible to distinguish between substances that are produced by normal cells, and those produced by genetically modified ones. But sports cheats shouldn’t sleep too easily: WADA is currently developing a test to detect illegitimate gene doping. Athletes of Rio 2016 have been warned: you might be caught out. In many ways, it is sad that tests for both drug and gene doping must exist. Where is the consideration for fair play – the respect for rules and the spirit of sportsmanship? Many will recall how frequently the catchphrase ‘inspire a generation’ was heard during London 2012; what a poor example these gene doping athletes would be setting to the young admirers who have idolised them. Don’t make them have to think again before putting that poster up. Do it nature’s way. After all, no one wants a gene cheat in their midst.
Abigail James is a Biosciences undergraduate living in Canterbury. She is 5’1”, the President of her university’s Science Society, loves axolotls, weedy seadragons, chai tea and a good book. She blogs at aflyinmyprimordialsoup.wordpress.com and tweets @_abigailjames.
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Uninspiring a generation
SAVING OUR BACON PROTECTING THE PURITY OF LIFE-SAVING DRUGS
JOHN ANKERS • GUEST CONTRIBUTOR
SAVING OUR BACON The ready availability of safe medicines is something many of us take for granted. However, making sure this happens is not always plain sailing. In 2007, hundreds of people died when one drug supplier took deadly shortcuts in an attempt to increase profits. John Ankers explains how it went so tragically wrong. Imagine you’ve just come round after an operation. Nothing too serious – let’s say you’ve had your appendix out. The nurse tells you it went without a hitch; you might be a little sore for a while – but that’s to be expected, isn’t it? The relief floods in, suddenly followed by the nasty sensation of a dry mouth. You’re about to ask for a glass of water when you hesitate – something’s wrong. A sick feeling rises from your stomach and the hairs on the backs of your arms begin to bristle. In June 2008, an international team of scientists solved the mystery of hundreds of unexplained allergic reactions around the world: an unnatural chemical had been mixed into a life-saving drug to make it stretch further. Had it been cocaine, it might be said it had been ‘cut’. Instead, the drug, Heparin, was described as having been ‘adulterated’: it had been deliberately contaminated. The chances are that at some point in your life you’ll be heparinised. Heparin prevents the formation of clots and, for over 60 years, Heparin has been widely used after surgery, blood transfusions and during dialysis, safeguarding millions against the formation of blood clots (a condition called ‘thrombosis’) – saving countless lives.
Yet heparin has an intriguing source. “Heparin is extracted from mucosal membranes found in the intestines of pigs,” explains Dave Fernig, professor of Biological Chemistry at The University of Liverpool. “The world’s supply comes from its 1.4 billion pigs. Between 700 and 800 million are from China, with the rest found in Europe and the USA. By volume, porcine Heparin is the largest pharmaceutical in the world. It’s a monopoly drug - nothing else does what it does, and that makes it big business.”
“The world’s supply of Heparin comes from its 1.4 billion pigs.”
In 2007, hundreds of patients heparinised in Europe and the USA were poisoned. Some were drenched in sweat; others developed gangrene in their limbs or suffered anaphylactic shock. Routine surgical procedures that usually happened safely – thanks to Heparin – started to go wrong; one man lost his wife before Christmas and his son in the New Year. By June 2008, there had been 246 deaths in the USA alone. In the summer of 2008, Dr Marco Guerrini and an international team of 22 scientists identified
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Poisoning Patients for Profits
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SAVING OUR BACON the contaminant as Over-Sulfated Chondroitin Sulphate (OSCS), a synthetic chemical which can be mistaken for Heparin when the purity of the drug is tested. OSCS costs $20/£15 per kilo compared to $2000/£1500 for pure Heparin. The tainted Heparin had been sourced from China and to the scientists and authorities the implication was clear: Heparin had been mixed with OSCS deliberately to boost profits. Dr Guerrini concluded his paper in Nature Biotechnology by saying: “the ramifications of these findings extend beyond scientific considerations and include clinical and health policy issues”. By the time the deadly side-effects caused by the injection of OSCS into the bloodstream had been established, an estimated 1-3 tonnes had been introduced into the Heparin supply chain.
International Outrage The intervening years have seen a huge reaction to the Heparin scandal, with health authorities internationally taking increased measures to monitor the cleanliness and purity of medicine supply chains. The USA destroyed their contaminated batches of Heparin and switched to domestic sources. In other countries, including the UK, low levels of OSCS
were detected in certain batches of Heparin, but weren’t considered dangerous enough for the batches to be recalled – simply because the consequences of running out of Heparin completely were worse. “Recently, screening methods capable of dealing with the OSCS threat have been developed,” Dr Ed Yates, a biophysicist at The University of Liverpool, explains. “But there is still a danger of Heparin being adulterated with more ‘covert’ contaminants.” The risk of new contamination isn’t helped by the fact that even current screening methods are prohibitively expensive for some regulating bodies. All is not lost however: Yates was coauthor of a paper published in the journal PLoSOne last year in which a new solution was proposed. “Heparin is actually a mixture of chemicals,” he said. “Natural variation between different sources of raw Heparin makes certain contaminants difficult to spot. There is no ‘gold-standard’ Heparin; it can vary between species, geographical regions and even from pig to pig.” His new method uses a technique called ultraviolet spectroscopy to measure the different chemicals in a Heparin sample.
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SAVING OUR BACON distributed the contaminated Heparin, faces over 50 lawsuits, many from bereaved families. Obesity and diabetes increase the risk of blood clots, and as more of us develop these conditions, the worldwide need for porcine Heparin will increase too. The increased demand will likely make it ultimately more profitable to breed pigs for pharmaceuticals than for food. The race to ensure we have safe Heparin for the future is in the interests of patients, policy makers, regulators, and drugs companies alike. But, as the 2008 scandal proves, this four-way balance is all too easily tipped.
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It works by the way certain light frequencies are absorbed by the different chemicals. These readings, like finger prints, can then be matched to a central database, weeding out unknown contaminants along the way. The equipment is cheap enough to sit in any hospital and could be applied to safeguard many drugs in addition to Heparin. Yet whilst scientists and researchers have been quick to react to the Heparin scandal, government policy has lagged behind. Dr Yates is currently trying to gain approval from pharmaceutical regulators worried about dwindling supply flows, whilst Baxter pharmaceuticals, the US company who
Guerrini, M. et al. (2008). Oversulfated chondroitin sulfate is a contaminant in heparin associated with adverse clinical events. Nat Biotechnol 26, 669-675, doi:nbt1407 [pii] 10.1038/nbt1407. Kishimoto, T. K. et al. (2008). Contaminated heparin associated with adverse clinical events and activation of the contact system. N Engl J Med 358, 2457-2467, doi:NEJMoa0803200 [pii] 10.1056/NEJMoa0803200.
Lima, M. A. et al. (2011). A new approach for heparin standardization: combination of scanning UV spectroscopy, nuclear magnetic resonance and principal component analysis. PLoS One 6, e15970, doi:10.1371/journal. pone.0015970. Rudd, T. R. et al. (2011). Construction and use of a library of bona fide heparins employing 1H NMR and multivariate analysis. Analyst 136, 13801389, doi:10.1039/c0an00834f.
Doctor John Ankers is a researcher at the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Integrative Biology. He’s normally found in a dark room looking at the inner workings of cancer cells. Or sleeping. He won the BSCB Science Writing Prize in 2011 and currently writes freelance for the MRC’s Biomedical Picture of the Day. He blogs at toomanylivewires and you can follow him on Twitter @JohnnyAnkers.
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STEPS OF CHANGE HOW HABITS ARE BROKEN – FOR GOOD
CARYS CRAGG • GUEST CONTRIBUTOR
STEPS OF CHANGE
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Change means action. It is all about actively pursuing something that is not present in our life, and pursuing it with complete engagement and quick movement forward. Or at least this is what our fast-paced society would like us to think. Even Barack Obama believes we’re the change and that we need to stand up for change, believe in change, and, of course, vote for change. But, as it turns out, change happens quite slowly, often in small, incremental steps. No one notices (or at least many people overlook) many of these changes – much to the dismay of its participants. But when we overlook the hidden parts of the change process – those that are not obvious and active – we fail to understand the entire scientific process of how we can change.
Conversationally, it seems as though most people hold one of two worldviews – that people change or that people do not change. I’ve never found this to be a useful conversation to have. Those people who feel they’re in a perpetual mode of change (i.e. lifelong learners) typically believe that people do change; those people who feel they haven’t changed their entire lives (i.e. introverts vs. extroverts) typically feel the opposite. So do people really change? Of course
they do, it just never seems to be along a convenient timeline. Working in the change business, counselling young people, I hear parents and teachers complain about young people needing to change: learn this, don’t learn that, speed up, slow down, do this, stop doing that, be this, don’t be that, and… well, you get the picture. When we only count change as a single behaviour – increased performance, decreased problematic behaviour – we discount a great deal. No, change is much more complex and it’s worth pondering. Does anyone ever take the time to think how people change, when they do change? There are a few theories out there from various fields of study (education, business, psychology, etc.). However, none is more influential and widespread than the behavioural sciences theory devised by James Prochaska, Professor of Psychology at the University of Rhode Island. Prochaska introduced the Stages of Change theory through his seminal and long-standing research. Those active in the behavioural sciences have been particularly keen to pick up his theory and apply it to a host of relevant behavioural treatments. In particular, it has been applied to many familiar popular culture ‘improve yourself’ programs – just look at any weight loss and smoking cessation course, and any substance
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misuse counselling interventions. Most will incorporate pieces, if not all, of this theory. The theory sets out a number of stages, which go like this: 1. Pre-contemplation – where you have no idea a new behaviour is needed in your life. You’re blissfully unaware of the consequences to your life. Building awareness is needed in this stage, not a plan for change. 2. Contemplation – where awareness is slowly building, and you’re becoming more insightful as to the changes that need to be made, as well as learning the risks and benefits the current behaviour has in your life. Here it’s helpful to do a cost-benefit analysis (i.e. listing pros and cons) and explore other preferred behaviours that could replace the unwanted habit. 3. Preparation – where possible plans are explored and reflected upon – ones that will fit in your life (not someone else’s). Some would say that preparation is the key to success. 4. Action – where a plan has been created and is now acted upon. A network of support people may be needed. Plans are attempted, and tailored again and again to meet your needs for the particular situation you’re in. Changing the environment based on the new needs of the new behaviour is necessary, as are incorporating meaningful rewards for your actions. 5. Maintenance – where you maintain the
changes you’ve made over a long period of time. Here it’s helpful to explore what this new behaviour means to your developing identity and on-going meaning in your life. Further additions to the theory include a ‘relapse’ stage, recognising that the process of failing is an integral part of the process of change. Or, in other words, in order to take two steps forward, we often take a step back. Somewhat ironically – but yet intuitively – people spend an incredible amount of time in stages 1, 2 and 5 and go through the stages in circular movements, each time with new knowledge and skills. In early weight loss attempts, people often learn that they need to change who they’re spending time with, as their existing friends and family commonly support their current (ill) health practices; subsequent attempts at weight loss will then incorporate this knowledge into a revised plan. So even if you’re trying to quit smoking for the tenth time, times 1-9 will have taught you something about yourself and what you need. In the end, you’ll be in a better place because of it! Don’t give yourself a hard time! If you’re interested in progressing through this process of change, you may be interested in applying some of these ideas into your life. It’s best to work out which stage you could be in with respect to a particular behaviour you think may need changing. Trying to apply a strategy that involves action is not going to work well (if at all) if you’re still ‘contemplating’. You’ve got to figure out where you are in the process and decide which intervention will fit best accordingly. Last but certainly not least, it’s always best to look at the positive. Change your mindset from weight loss to healthy lifestyle gain! Change your mindset from needing to run a marathon next month (when you haven’t run in a few years) to going for a brisk walk everyday! Change your mindset from solving all of the world’s problems to making steps towards a better world! Then build upon the small and incremental change. In doing so, you’ll be shocked at how far you can go.
Carys Cragg, MA, RCC, is a Life Coach Counsellor with Tangerine Ideas, based in Vancouver, BC, helping people lead satisfying, productive, and engaging lives.
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STEPS OF CHANGE
DRUGS, SEX AND ROCK AND ROLL THE EVOLUTION OF MUSIC
KYLE PASTOR • GUEST CONTRIBUTOR
When you tune the radio to your favorite station and listen to the abundance of music emanating from it, you can be affected in so many ways. It can pump you up before a workout, let you relax after a hard day of work – and may even set the mood for us to further ‘evolve the species’ (wink, wink!). Appreciation of music seems to be in our human nature. Music itself – its style, tempo and melody – also seems to be changing and evolving. But why? Making music out of noise One very clever experiment is trying to answer how music evolves – and is something we can all participate in. A project called DarwinTunes seeks to understand how our preferences have shaped the music we listen to today. When we hear a song we automatically judge it according to our taste. If we enjoy a certain song we keep listening; if we hate it we can turn it off. Over time ‘good’ music evolves. It is similar to Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’, and it is this idea that lies behind DarwinTunes.
In their freely-available paper Evolution of music by public choice, researchers at Michigan State University explain the experiment. Firstly, computer-generated random sounds and noises that last eight seconds are played, with each eight-second segment forming a ‘loop’. Ordinary punters like you and me can then judge each loop based on our own tastes, rating them on a scale of “I can’t stand it” to “I love it”. After some time, some loops emerge as being clearly more popular than others. At this point, the researchers take the top 50% of them and let them ‘get funky’ (my words, not theirs). They let these loops ‘reproduce’ by mixing two ‘parent’ loops whilst adding in some randomness – to simulate mutation (see infographic 1). But what of the other 50%? Sadly, as evolution dictates, the unloved bottom 50% of the loops are sent to the digital soundscape in the sky (i.e. they’re killed off). Incredibly, after a few thousand generations, what started out as nothing more than random noise starts to take on chord structure and rhythm – all driven purely by listener-selected evolution!
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DRUGS, SEX AND ROCK AND ROLL
DRUGS, SEX AND ROCK AND ROLL First Generation Loops
Most Popular Loops Selected
Second Generation Loops Characteristics of the loops are mixed when they ‘reproduce’ and mutations are introduced (green notes)
Darwin in a nutshell The organic world – animals, plants, viruses – is the product of Darwinian evolution by natural selection. Natural selection expresses the idea that organisms (more accurately their genes) vary and that variability has consequences for how likely that organism is to reproduce. Some variants are bad and go extinct; others are good and do exceptionally well. This process, repeated for two billion years, has given us the splendours of life on earth.
This experiment is very clean and clever, but can we actually say anything concrete about the outcome? We have to remember that music is extremely complex: its beauty is influenced by culture, society and personal preference. It’s nearly impossible to get a handle on all of these things – and the researchers were humble enough to note this. Yet they weren’t about to be deterred. They are currently looking into similar experiments that are more focused on the evolution of beats as opposed to musical tones, and you can help – just by listening to musical sounds! (Click here to try it out.) If you do take part, you can tell your friends you helped to guide the digital love-making of two funky musical mates.
(Busker) Flickr • GollyGforce
Survival of the funkiest This is already an amazing result – but, like all good scientists, the researchers weren’t about to stop there. Instead, they wanted to gain a deeper understanding of how the process of evolution is taking place. Right away they noticed that the quality of music produced stopped improving after about 500-600 generations. This basically means that the evolution process was matching up nicely with what people love until, for some reason, all the little musical babies started to look the same.
Kyle Pastor, 24, Canadian (Eh!), is pursuing his MSc in theoretical polymer physics at McMaster University. When not spending most of his time programming the statistics of spaghetti, he enjoys finding interesting or offbeat science articles. He is a self-described “theoretical philanthropist” – in that if he had money, he might donate it. Open the door into his brain on twitter @KAPastor.
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DON’T LET THE BAT BUGS BITE FORGET VAMPIRES – THIS IS FAR MORE FRIGHTENING
JAMES CREWDSON • GUEST CONTRIBUTOR
DON’T LET THE BAT BUGS BITE
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When you think of bats, you may think of horror films with bloodthirsty vampires or dark caves with menacing shadows hanging from the ceiling. But the threat to humanity from bats is rapidly moving from the realms of fiction into reality thanks to their ability to spread infections. Guest contributor James Crewdson takes up the story and explains why it just might be right to be fearful of the furry flutterers... Humans have been inflicted by infectious diseases since the dawn of their existence. These infections almost always emerge from animals – usually other primates, birds and livestock. HIV-1 (the main virus that causes AIDS), for example, is believed to have spread from chimpanzees. However, several diseases have recently emerged that have originated from bats. While you may not be consider yourself very batty, both bats and humans are warm-blooded mammals and so their inner workings are rather similar. These similarities mean that viruses and bacteria can make the jump from infected bats to humans more easily than they could if non-mammals were involved. As a breeding ground for human-infecting germs, bats have several other things in their favour: there are lots of different types (20% of all mammals are bats) and they are widespread (bats are found worldwide, with the exception of Antarctica, the Arctic and a couple of small islands). With all of these bats, the diseases they carry can be present at high levels in almost any location on the planet. Bats are also social creatures. Whilst this might not mean they have hundreds of followers on Twitter or several hundred Facebook friends, they do live in huge colonies. This ‘up close and personal’ lifestyle means that high levels of infectious bacteria and viruses can build up. Lastly, bats are very active: they can migrate hundreds of kilometres to winter hibernation dens – and they’re not fazed by things like rivers, which could be a barrier to other creatures. All of these factors mean that bats can effortlessly carry the risk of disease over a large area – with a high potential for transmission to humans.
For most of history, bats have played only a small role in helping new diseases to emerge in humans. Only in the last 30 years has their influence started to be felt more keenly – mainly because of how we now choose to live. In the last 100 years, the global human population has exploded. We’ve sought out new places to call home, leading to our encroachment into rainforest areas – a common habitat for bat species. This has resulted in increased contact between humans and previously unencountered bats species. This close-living with nature has provided the perfect conditions for diseases to make the jump from bats to humans. To understand how serious a future bat-plague might be, we need to heed the lessons from some of humankind’s most deadly threats: Ebola and SARS…
The bat plague is close at hand So is it possible to predict the future course of infectious disease? We can start by taking a close look at the three existing diseases that have come from bats: Ebola, SARS and Nipah Virus. Ebola is one of the most frightening and devastating diseases to originate from bats. 68% of those infected with the virus die, and thousands have already died since its emergence in 1976. The fear of Ebola in places like Uganda, where Ebola is prevalent, has become so great that people have fled from hospitals on hearing that Ebola patients have been admitted. The advice in these countries is to avoid bats and other primates – but this is difficult, considering human and animal populations are forced to come together in search of food and water during droughts. The emergence of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) triggered worldwide panic. Like Ebola, it was caused by a virus whose natural host is the horseshoe bat. Wild-caught bats were brought into markets, where they spread the virus to other livestock (particularly
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DON’T LET THE BAT BUGS BITE
Swine flu’s bigger brother
virus, it could lead to the mixing together of the viruses’ genetic material. This could quite feasibly result in a new H17 virus that could infect humans – mirroring the way that the recent swine flu virus arose through mixing of avian, human and swine influenza viruses – with potentially far deadlier effects. In fact, the emergence of a new virus from bats could be more likely than swine flu. Influenza viruses usually come from birds, which are more different to humans – at the level of their biochemistry – than bats are. Influenza binds to a molecule called sialic acid when it infects a cell – and there are slightly different versions of sialic acid in different creatures. Humans have a version called α2-6 sialic acid while birds have a version called α2-3 sialic acid. These important differences mean that avian viruses have to significantly mutate to be able to bind to the human version – and to become able to infect humans. Unfortunately for us, though, bat influenza viruses can already bind to our version of sialic acid. They don’t need to mutate in the same way as avian viruses, meaning they face one less barrier in being able to successfully jump into humans. So, if avian viruses can jump to humans, bat ones can do so more easily.
So what are the biggest risks for the future? One is the possibility of a bat influenza virus becoming infectious to humans. Many of us have heard of the H1N1 influenza virus (better known as swine flu), which crossed from pigs to humans. Recently, a strain of influenza called H17 influenza was discovered in bats to which humans would have no immunity if it crossed between species in a similar way to H1N1. If a pig being farmed in the rainforest were to contract both a human and a bat influenza
So is a future marked by ever-increasing battles with bat-like viruses a certainty? Well, every day more rainforest is cleared for farming and habitation, forcing humans and bats ever-closer together. And the effects of climate change will continue to increase the scarcity of foodstuffs, exacerbating the situation still further. The worlds of bats and humans will collide more and more, creating more opportunities for bat diseases to jump to humans. And current bat diseases show no signs of going away, with the death toll from diseases like Ebola already in the thousands. Bats could determine the future of disease – but, unlike horror films, we’re going to need more than a crucifix and some garlic to stop them.
Act now – before it’s too late
James Crewdson is a medicine undergraduate at Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge and is also a member of the Zoology department at the same university. He has a keen interest in all biological sciences and in the happenings of Manchester City Football Club, the current and future champions of English football. You can follow him on Twitter at @JamesCrewdson1.
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(Bat and Pig) Wikimedia • Sandstein
civet cats) and ultimately humans. The Nipah viruses are less well known, but it’s a serious bug: so deadly is Nipah virus that the U.S. lists it among potential bioterrorism agents. It also had its origins in fruit bats. However, the Nipah viruses can’t be directly transmitted from bats to humans. In 1998, Malaysian pig farmers died due to a virus that had infected pigs and had subsequently evolved the ability to infect humans. The pig farms had been built in rainforests to provide food for nearby populations. This change in human behaviour brought bats, pigs and people into unusually close contact, enabling the virus to jump between species in a way that previously would have been impossible. Even a blind bat could see the dangers that many of the today’s farming practices have, yet rainforest swine rearing is still widely prevalent – and halting the spread of disease is proving near impossible. Policies need to be introduced to either stop or reduce the impact of these practices, but the relatively low profile of bats in disease means that governments are unlikely to put protective measures in place – and even if they did it would be almost impossible to enforce them.
THE GHOST BOY FINDING JOY IN A LIFE ‘LOCKED IN’ Pistorius. In 2012, there was no avoiding that name. The South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius dominated the headlines with his performance in both the Olympics and Paralympics. His feat was a remarkable achievement for people with ‘disabilities’ and he had the world watching. But a year previously, another Pistorius – in fact, a distant cousin of Oscar – was garnering media attention of his own for his courage, but within the literary rather than sporting world. Martin Pistorius’ Ghost Boy was released in 2011 to rave reviews from critics. The book tells the tale of a young South African-born boy who, at the age of twelve, fell mysteriously ill. First, he lost his voice. Then he stopped eating. Within 18 months he was completely mute and wheelchair-bound, unable to communicate or interact with those around him and seemingly a shell of his former self. Unbeknown to those around him, he was ‘locked’ into his ailing body, unable to tell a soul. Told from the point of view of the young man, the book recounts, in extensive fashion, what it felt like to spend years trapped in un-stimulating day centres and respite care homes. He was acutely aware of what was happening but unable to communicate with others – until a young aromatherapist spotted a glimmer of life in the young man’s eyes. A journey began which, eventually, saw him escaping his ‘prison’ of a body to finally be able to converse and interact with those around him, and to begin the first stages of leading a normal life. It’s an incredible story and one which, as you turn the pages, leaves you truly inspired. The most remarkable part is that it’s all true. The
moving story all happened to a young Martin Pistorius who, twenty years on, now uses his book to share being brought ‘back to life’. Martin, now 32, has since emigrated to the UK, where he lives with his wife Joanna and works as a freelance web designer. Thanks to advancements in technology over the past decade, Martin now enjoys a great degree of autonomy and independence in his life, the likes of which was impossible just fifteen short years ago during the midst of his mystery illness. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Martin about his remarkable journey – and his hopes for the future. Read on for our Guru Magazine exclusive interview with the former ‘Ghost Boy’:
How did the publication of your life story come about? For many years, people had often said that I should write a book about my life, and it was something I had spent a long time thinking about too. It was one of those things where you say “I’ll do it one day”, but there never really seemed to be a right time to write a book, for a number of reasons. Then, in 2010, an opportunity presented itself; I thought about it and decided now is as good a time as any, and so the writing began. The book took approximately a year to write.
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BELOW: Martin and his wife, Joanna.
GURU MEETS THE GHOST BOY they have no movement – unlike those who have spinal injuries. My condition was similar in the sense that I was entombed within my body, and completely unable to communicate. But, I still had some limited movement, although I couldn’t necessarily control it. I also later became aware that there was a significant discrepancy between the movement I thought I was making and the movements that I was actually making. Even now I can feel I’m nodding my head to indicate yes/no, and my wife will say to me she can’t see if I’m saying yes or no. So I then need to make what feels like a grossly exaggerated movement. The other major difference was my condition developed over time whereas locked-in syndrome usually occurs instantly as a result of a stroke or brain injury.
Was it difficult for you to re-live some aspects of your past for the purposes of the book? It was very difficult to think back and relive the past, and there were many times I got very emotional. But at the same time I found it therapeutic. In fact, I actually wrote a lot more than what eventually made it into the book, simply because I wanted to tell my story. It was quite challenging to know which aspects to focus on, and how much detail to include. But I feel in the end that the right balance was achieved.
Although your neurological condition is unknown, it has been compared to ‘locked in’ syndrome. Can you explain the similarities and differences between the two? Locked-in syndrome seems to have been in the news quite a bit of late. Typically, locked-in syndrome can be defined as being when a person is paralyzed from about the eyes down – this includes not being able to speak. So, essentially, the person is entombed within their body. I’m not a medical expert - however, most people that I’m aware of still have feeling even though
One of the hardest parts of the book, from a reader’s perspective, is the section where you talk about the time that you spent in care homes - specifically, some of the carers having little comprehension of the level of awareness that you had of your surroundings. How did you cope having the same activities every day and not being able to communicate your frustrations? I essentially coped by retreating into my mind and my imagination. In my mind I could have conversations with people, and imagine all sorts of adventures and activities. I also found listening to the radio a great comfort – it relieved some of the monotony to some degree. However, the radio wasn’t always on and that made the days seem even longer. I would watch things, like the sun track across the room, or insects moving around. It still wasn’t easy, to put it mildly.
Technology has had a huge part to play in your personal journey. Can you explain to our readers what AAC is, and how it aided you? Augmentative and alternative communication (or AAC for short) is where supports are provided to help someone who has some speech to communicate more effectively, or it provides an alternative means to communicate. I guess you could think of it like this: a walking stick
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GURU MEETS THE GHOST BOY Life is not without challenges; AAC is wonderful but [aided] communication is never as fast as normal speech. People don’t always understand that you can’t speak or understand when you do use alternative means to communicate. The thing about communication is that it’s one of those things nobody really thinks about until it’s gone; it’s only then that you begin to realise what an enormous impact it has.
You’ve now moved to the UK. What are the main differences to life in South Africa? And what do you miss most? I think the major difference is that I am able to be far more independent here: most places are wheelchair accessible, and I can get around on my own using public transport – which wasn’t really possible when I lived in SA. I also find people’s attitude more open when it comes to people with a disability. People in general treat and interact with you like they would any other person. The things I miss most are the people: family and friends. Yes, you can keep in touch by e-mail and Skype but you can’t just go visit someone who is in hospital, for example. Plus of course I really miss my dog, Kojak!
augments someone’s ability to walk, whereas a wheelchair provides an alternative to walking. For me, because I have no speech, I use alternative means to communicate. Some of these are high-tech devices – for example, I have software (The Grid) which has a computerised voice that I can ‘speak’ with, a keyboard device with a small LCD display and, most recently, an iPad. I also use low/no-tech means too. For example, I point to letters on a piece of laminated paper with the alphabet on to spell out what I’d like to say. AAC has literately changed my life and has largely facilitated the creation of a life worth living. Often when I give talks I quote Daniel Webster (a US senator in the 1800s) who said: “if all my possessions were taken from me, with one exception, I would choose to keep the power of communication, for by it I would soon regain all the rest.” This has absolutely been the case with me.
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BELOW: A young Martin and his family FAR BELOW: Kojak the dog.
GURU MEETS THE GHOST BOY Tell us about where you are now in your life - what are you doing, and what level of independence and mobility do you now have. Currently my wife and I live in a ground-floor flat, but our big dream is one day to buy a bungalow. At present, I’m in my final year of study towards a BSc degree in computer science at the University of Hertfordshire. I also work as a freelance web designer/developer. I’m very independent these days and travel around on my own in my wheelchair. I have also started learning to drive in the hope that one day we can get an adapted car. I still need help with things – but don’t we all!
Very true! One final question - did you watch the Paralympics? If so, do you feel that these Games – and the ‘Superhumans’ campaign surrounding them – played a role in changing perceptions of disabled people? Your book shows that anything can be achieved through determination. Yes I did watch the Paralympic games, and I got to attend a couple of events. The atmosphere
was amazing. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see Oscar run. But I got to see some of the Team GB stars in action – which was incredible! I think that a legacy of the Games is that the infrastructure and environment around the Games venues have become more accessible and wheelchair friendly. I also feel that the Paralympics have made people more aware of people with disabilities and what they are capable of. Ghost Boy will stay with you long after you turn the final page – but perhaps not in the way that you would expect. Yes it’s emotional. It’s sad. And parts of it are downright harrowing. But, thanks to the author’s instantly likable personality, it’s also … surprisingly funny. When I finished reading Ghost Boy, it left me with one feeling that I wasn’t expecting at the outset: hope. Pistorius’ struggle, almost quite literally to come ‘back from the dead’, is proof that anything in life is possible – all it takes is courage, perseverance, ambition, faith, and the support of those around you. Ghost Boy is available to buy now from Amazon, and other retailers. Signed copies can also be purchased direct from the author at martinpistorius.com.
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ONE LESS PILL TO POP SUNSHINE VITAMIN NO MATCH FOR THE COMMON COLD
KAT LOUGHEED • GUEST CONTRIBUTOR
BELOW: The body can synthesize vitamin D from cholesterol with adequate sunlight.
Christmas produce has appeared in the shops and daylight has deserted us. With the cold winter months come the inevitable bouts of the sniffles and flu-ridden sick days. And so we reach for the vitamin and health supplements. But according to a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, dosing ourselves up with vitamin D might be no more likely to prevent colds than dried frog skin potions or rubbing garlic on your feet.
Vitamin D has been touted for some time as a weapon in our eternal battle against the common cold. Naturally produced in our bodies with the help of sunlight or taken in from certain foods, it is vital for our immune systems to function as they should. During the dark wintery months, we make less vitamin D. So it would make sense that extra vitamin D during cold and flu season could help us fight off infections. However, David Murdoch of the University of Otago, Christchurch, and colleagues believe that this widely held belief is mistaken. He claims that previous research suggesting a link between vitamin D levels and respiratory infections weren’t well done and so cannot be relied upon. So they did some new research of their own.
Busting the vitamin myths In this new study, 161 healthy volunteers were given monthly doses of vitamin D and their bouts of upper respiratory tract infections and sick days were compared with 161 volunteers who received a placebo (a dummy vitamin pill). After 18 months, Murdoch’s team found that the rates of illness were almost identical*. The recommended daily allowance of vitamin D is 600 IU (‘International Units’) per day. However, the study participants were given a ‘megadose’ – five times this dose – meaning that their blood levels of vitamin D that were more than twice that of the control group. The authors concluded that, in this study, even ‘megadoses’ of vitamin D had no effect on the prevention of colds or their severity. However, not everyone is convinced. Many scientists haven’t completely given up on vitamin D, and some believe taking extra vitamin D may still have a role to play in preventing infections – but only in individuals who are already deficient. A previous investigation in Mongolian schoolchildren, a population known to be at risk of vitamin D deficiency, showed a 50% reduction in infections after vitamin D tablets. Advocates of supplements point out recent increases in vitamin D deficiency rates, and express particular concern for today’s video-gaming youngsters, who shun oily fish and playing outdoors. A balanced diet containing oily fish and fortified spreads combined with regular exposure to sunlight is usually adequate protection against deficiency for most people†.
*The vitamin D patients suffered a total of 593 viral infections over 18 months, while the control group reported 611 cases of illness – a non-statistically significant difference. †
Recent statistics show that approximately 40% of Americans may be vitamin D deficient. Young children and pregnant women have an increased need for vitamin D. Check your country’s government health advice to find out whether you should take vitamin D tablets. PA G E 5 3 • D E C E M B E R / J A N U A R Y 2 0 1 2 • I S S U E 9 • G U R U
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ONE LESS PILL TO POP
ONE LESS PILL TO POP Beat the cold – the old-fashioned way The results of this study could mean that we’ll all have to stick to prevention methods that really work – like regularly washing our hands to avoid germs. But if you would like to waste your money and time on other unproven remedies, how about trying some of these traditional ‘cures’ for the common cold: Rub garlic on your feet – garlic is pretty good for you but only if you eat it, not if you wear it. Wrap a sweaty sock around your neck – colds are spread when we have direct contact with viruses, so perhaps the sock would keep other people far enough away to prevent infection. Don’t go out with wet hair – it’s an old-wives tale that getting chilly causes colds; in reality you need to come into contact with a cold virus to be infected.
Turnip juice – Persians used to believe turnips could cure the common cold. Yuk. Why can’t delicious foodstuffs be good for us?
Murdoch et al. Effect of Vitamin D3 Supplementation on Upper Respiratory Tract Infections in Healthy Adults. Journal of the American Medical Association. 2012;308(13):1333-1339 Camargo et al. Randomized trial of vitamin D supplementation and risk of acute respiratory infection in Mongolia. Pediatrics. 2012;130(3):e561e567
Kathryn Lougheed is a research scientist at Imperial College London, working on the lung disease tuberculosis. She has an unhealthy interest in bacteria, blogging about research of the single-celled variety at germzoo.blogspot.com in addition to running a popular science website for kids at ilovebacteria.com, answering such important questions as ‘Why do papercuts hurt so much?’ ADVERTISMENT
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IN SICKNESS AND IN HEALTH WHY GERMS CAN BE A MAN’S BEST FRIEND
JON CROWE • MOLECULAR GURU
IN SICKNESS AND IN HEALTH
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Say ‘germs’ and you probably think ‘infection’ – and a mass of unwelcome microbes. But that’s not always the case: microbes are essential for our health and well-being, as Molecular Guru Jon Crowe discovers. Rather than being obsessed with their eradication, we should treat them as part of the family… When I’m busy preparing the evening meal, I know hygiene is important: I try to keep work surfaces clean and I cook food thoroughly. So it may be horrifying to realise that, when we’re sitting down to savour my latest lovinglyprepared gastronomic delight, it’s descending into a place jam-packed with microbes: our gut. Every healthy person has a staggering 1.5 kg of microbes in our intestines, representing more than 1000 different kinds of microbe. Helpful rather than harmful, these residents help us to get energy out of food: they can digest some nutrients in ways our bodies can’t, freeing up energy that would otherwise be lost to us. Beyond their food-processing powers, our gut microbes also play a more general role in keeping us fit and healthy. We don’t yet know how they protect us in this way; we just know that, when things go awry and our gut microbe community is disrupted, we’re more at risk of diseases such as obesity and asthma. There’s a clear link – but we’ve not yet figured out the reason behind it.
When clean becomes too clean Experiments investigating mice reared in an entirely sterile environment from birth – living in germ-free chambers, eating germ-free food, and interacting only with other germ-free mice – have shown just how important bacteria are to good health: the intestines of these mice had no bacteria at all. They were thinner and sickly, they were unable to process food properly, and were unable to grow normally.
Care for your bugs: are the yoghurts worth it? The underlying message in all of this? We need to take care of our body’s resident bugs. If we don’t look out for them – treat them as one of the family, if you like – we risk harming our health. Our gut germs’ chosen dwelling means our food keeps them well fed – but there are other things we can do. First, we’d be doing the microbes a favour by avoiding antibiotics unless absolutely necessary. Antibiotics, by their nature, are designed to kill bacteria. The problem is that many antibiotics are ‘broad spectrum’: they’ll kill pretty much any bacterium, whether ‘good’ or ‘bad’. They’re like weedkiller, which can kill indiscriminately, wiping out almost as many of our prized plants as the pesky weeds we could
do without. So, we could do ourselves a favour by only taking ‘narrow spectrum’ antibiotics that home in on the ‘bad’ bacteria (the ones causing infections), leaving the good bugs to work their magic undisturbed. Your doctor will be able to advise you on the best antibiotics to take when unwell. There’s also the option of giving our bodies a helping hand when it comes to cultivating a colony of gut-dwelling do-gooders. We have seen TV adverts for probiotic yoghurts, which proudly announce that they’re chockfull of good bacteria. And, for once, it’s not all
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IN SICKNESS AND IN HEALTH of less-than-appetising foods: raw chicory root, raw garlic and raw leek, amongst others.
Probably the most revolting hospital treatment ever invented
It’s an embarrassing problem. Especially in elevators. Most people produce 1-3 pints of gas a day, and pass gas about 14 times a day. These smelly gases are produced by our gut bacteria and include nitrogen, hydrogen, carbon dioxide, methane, and oxygen. Methane gives the gas its flammable quality and the skatole, indole, and sulfur-containing vapours give it the odour. Undigested food give the gut bacteria more to feed on, which increases gas production. Highfibre foods such as oat bran, beans, peas, and fruits are the usual culprits.
marketing spin. If your gut microbe population has taken a hit (because you’ve been on a course of antibiotics that have caused a state of Armageddon deep within, perhaps), the consumption of probiotics can be a useful remedy. It’s akin to scattering new grass seeds over a patch of bare lawn – a way of introducing a fresh community of gut-friendly bacteria where they’re needed most. However, if you’re healthy, these pricey yoghurts aren’t likely to help hugely. So, in most cases, you’re unlikely to feel more vibrant and energetic – regardless of what the adverts might suggest. There’s also the option of taking ‘prebiotics’. Different to probiotics, they work like lawn fertilizer: actively promoting the growth of beneficial bugs. They can be found in a variety
If your gut microbe community has been wiped out completely, all the ‘fertiliser’ in the world may not be enough. More drastic action may be required – in the form of shipping in an entirely new, ready-made community. It’s a wonderful sounding theory, until you realise how it’s achieved: We’re all familiar with the concept of organ transplants – the removal of an organ from a donor, and its transfer into a new recipient. Bacteriotherapy works in a similar way. But it’s not possible to ‘lift’ gut microbes direct from the donor in quite the same way as an organ transplant. The source is something that’s exiting the body naturally, carrying many of those gut microbes with it. Yes, we’re talking faeces. In short, the transplant relies on the insertion of a donor’s faeces into the stomach of the recipient. Nice. As mentioned in this issue’s News Roundup, such faecal transplants have also been found to ward off harmful bacteria, which might otherwise have overwhelmed their host. So, next time you’re feeling under the weather, think twice before pleading with your doctor for a course of antibiotics. Used judiciously, of course, they’ll do you the power of good; used less wisely, and the community of microbes that call your gut home could find themselves in peril. And that just doesn’t seem fair, given all the good they’re doing for you. Just go easy on the beans.
Find out more: •
http://www.nature.com/nature/ supplements/insights/gut_microbes/ index.html
A textbook editor based in Oxford, UK, Jon Crowe publishes other peoples’ writing by day but expresses his own fascination for science when the day is done. A biochemistry graduate and lapsed musician, he’s currently testing the hypothesis ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ by trying to learn the bass guitar. You can find him on Twitter @crowe_jon.
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Published on Dec 3, 2012
Published on Dec 3, 2012
It's time to think outside the box. Guru Magazine offers a unique insight into the world around us. Fusing issues of everyday relevance with...