Across the Bench with Elizabeth Fernandez

Across the Bench with Elizabeth Fernandez

After a long day at work, you just want to unwind with some entertainment on your commute back home. What if you could learn about some fun scientific topics, say trash-eating robots or cannibalistic galaxies, through an engaging conversation? Hold on, we are not asking you to converse with your fellow commuters (god forbid!). You could just tune in to Elizabeth's podcasts to hear her interview experts on a wide range of topics that explore the role of science in our lives.

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I Get By With A Little Help From My Friends

Vegetables lend our body a helping hand. Image Credit: Public domain

Vegetables lend our body a helping hand. Image Credit: Public domain

Everyone has their “sick food,” that staple cure-all of childhood, one whose guarded family recipe has been passed through the generations. But in order to extract all the helpful nutrients from these typically veggie-laden foods, our digestive system needs a helping hand. Our gastrointestinal tracts not only digest and absorb nutrients from the food we eat, but also play host to millions of benign microorganisms, collectively known as the “gut microbiome.” They feed as we eat, and in turn assist in digestion and release molecules that affect our bodies. Such secretions, including different types of fatty acids, have been found to specifically impact the immune system. So it’s no wonder that scientists have probed into how these fatty acids affect human health and disease.

 

Cells in the immune system can take on many different functions, two of which are “inflammatory” and “suppressive.” Inflammatory cells promote the attack of foreign, or perceived foreign, invaders, while suppressive ones keep the body’s defenses at bay. Maintaining a balance between these two is critical, and disequilibrium can lead to disease. In the case of multiple sclerosis (MS), the scales are tipped in favor of an inflammatory immune response. This leads to an “overactive” immune system that attacks the patient’s own nervous system. Since the fatty acids released by our microbiome affect our immune system, and an immune imbalance is thought to contribute to the development of MS, Dr. Aiden Haghikia and his team wondered if our gut residents’ secretions could impact MS directly [1].

 

To test their hypothesis, the researchers first looked at naive T cells, cells from the immune system that have yet to decide their function. They treated the cells with two different types of fatty acids: short chain and long chain. While naive T cells exposed to short chain fatty acids became suppressive, those given long chain fatty acids were more inflammatory. Dr. Haghikia and his colleagues then asked if they could apply these findings to a disease model in mice. Would treatment with short chain fatty acids be both preventative and therapeutic, fixing the imbalanced immune system by promoting suppressive T cells? As it turns out, these secretions do have a beneficial effect, but only before disease onset. Mice that had been fed short chain fatty acids prior to MS induction had generally less trouble walking and had more balanced immune systems than untreated mice – that is, they had more suppressive immune cells. However, when mice started receiving short chain fatty acids after their MS became apparent, they saw none of these benefits.

 

We are only just discovering the effects of short chain fatty acids on the immune system. Here, researchers were able to show that, in the context of MS, these molecules may have preemptive beneficial effects. If you recall, fatty acids can be secreted by our little friends in the gut. And what type of diet results in our gut microbiome producing short chain fatty acids? A vegetable-heavy one.

 

 

 

Megan G. Massa (@MegMassa)

Guest Contributor, Signal to Noise

First year PhD student, UCLA Neuroscience Interdepartmental Program with a focus in neuroendocrinology

 

References:                   

[1] Haghikia, A. et al. Dietary Fatty Acids Directly Impact Central Nervous System Autoimmunity via the Small Intestine. Immunity 43, 817–829 (2015).

Constellations: A Play of Multiple Universes and Infinite Possibilities

Constellations: A Play of Multiple Universes and Infinite Possibilities

Imagine you met a girl at a barbeque who asked you to lick your elbow. Would you try it? Would you make an excuse to get away? What if you did both at precisely the same time?

Using ideas from quantum physics and cosmology, the play Constellations addresses the universal question, what if? What would our lives be like if we had made a different choice? If we said the same words slightly differently? This is the story of a cosmologist named Marianne (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Roland, a bee keeper (Allen Leech) and every decision they ever and never made.

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Parasitism in the Alien Movies

Parasitism in the Alien Movies

What makes the Alien franchise so impactful is how utterly terrifying the titular Aliens are.  These creatures are so grotesque and foreign to audiences, particularly in their reproductive strategy, that fans are simultaneously horrified and fascinated by what is on screen.  Perhaps unknown to many viewers, the lifecycle of Xenomorph XX121 from the films is not so unlike that of many common parasites found on our planet. The rest of this essay will compare the biology of the Xenomorphs to parasitoid wasps and nematomorph worms from Earth to illustrate how close to reality the biology of these aliens is and to discuss this exceptional instance of science inspiring artists.

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The Standard Model High School

From supernovas to rain, humans to amoebas, all matter can be broken down into three key particles: electrons, protons, and neutrons. But over the years, scientists discovered even more particles, and that neutrons and protons could be broken down into even smaller parts, called elementary particles. Physicists created a theory called the Standard Model to interpret how elementary particles comprise the universe. The model is often depicted as a gigantic equation or as a periodic table of particles as a way to describe complex particle interactions. Strangely enough, some of these interactions are reminiscent of a time in our lives that we’re all too familiar with – high school.

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Biases in Science News: Tracking Down the Source of Exaggerations

Image Credit: Public domain

Image Credit: Public domain

How often have you seen a news headline about a study on the benefits of red wine or dark chocolate only to hear later about a new study that contradicts the first one? While many science stories have strong data and evidence to back their claims, other news headlines come from the type of data that can’t provide a definitive proof of cause-and-effect. [1]. A recent study [2] looked at how journalists write science stories and how these stories can end up as misleading headline science.

The authors determined how statements made in press releases influenced the presence of exaggerations in news stories. An example would be saying that “eating dark chocolate causes fewer heart attacks” instead of indicating that there was a correlation between a group that ate more dark chocolate and the number of heart attacks occurring in that group. This study would only demonstrate a correlation between heart attacks and eating dark chocolate and does not prove that eating dark chocolate was the cause for fewer heart attacks. Researchers looked through 534 press releases prepared by research journals and the corresponding 582 news articles, then identified any statements or advice not included in the manuscript.

Results show that 25% of the press releases included more explicit advice compared to the original paper. 20% of the press releases also misinterpreted a correlation study as a study that presented a cause-and-effect relationship. The results also demonstrated that journalists would not tend to include over-exaggerations if the exaggerations were not part of the original press release.

This paper shows how exaggerations in press releases can create misleading headlines in science news stories. Since journalists may not have the expertise or time to fact-check statements from a press release, any information included in a press release should be precise, and any claims made should not be exaggerated from the original study. Headline news is crucial for communicating science, but if the stories are inaccurate or over-exaggerated, it can erode people’s trust in the scientific method.   

- Erica K. Brockmeier
Toxicology post-doc / Aspiring science writer
@EKBrockmeier

 

References:
[1] Aschwanden, C. Science Isn’t Broken. Five Thirty Eight Science and Health (2015, Aug 19). Accessed on 2017, Feb 24. https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/science-isnt-broken

[2] Sumner, P. et al. Exaggerations and Caveats in Press Releases and Health-Related Science News. PLoS ONE 11(12), e0168217. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0168217 (2016).

A New Age for Birth Control: Reversible Male Contraceptives on the Horizon

A New Age for Birth Control: Reversible Male Contraceptives on the Horizon

In November of 2016, you may have seen a version of a headline like this: “Male birth control study nixed after men can’t handle side effects women face daily”. Steeped in some truth (a study was indeed cancelled after men experienced harsh side effects similar to what many women experience) and masked by outrage (from readers and authors who didn’t know that the severity of side effects far exceeded those felt by women), the news clearly struck a chord with many people who wish for the burden of birth control to be shared by men and women.

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Why Communicating Science Matters: How the Scirens are Shaping Perspectives

In 2014, Taryn O’Neill, Tamara Krinsky, and Gia Mora formed the Scirens, the screen sirens for science. Their mission is to inspire science literacy in the general public through entertainment fueled by science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) storylines and featuring, as they put it, “diverse, multi-dimensional female characters." The Signal to Noise Magazine had the opportunity to sit down with the Scirens and discuss their mission to encourage science literacy and create science-infused entertainment.

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Sandwiches and Surface Markers: How to Analyze Flow Cytometry Data

Sandwiches and Surface Markers: How to Analyze Flow Cytometry Data

Every cell in an organism has unique functions which require specific proteins. For example, cells in eyes need proteins that can detect light, and immune cells use a variety of different proteins to detect and kill invading pathogens. To categorize each type of cell from a big group (say, from a blood sample, which contains many different cells), we can classify them based on their proteins. Now imagine you want to look at many different proteins on a lot of individual cells, and you want to do it fast. How can a scientist analyze almost twenty proteins on each cell, from millions of single cells, in less than an hour? This isn’t the imaginary dream of a tired graduate student, or a magical machine available only to the richest labs­—this is flow cytometry. 

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Stem Cell Dentistry: Revolutionizing Visits to the Dreaded Dentist’s Chair

Stem Cell Dentistry: Revolutionizing Visits to the Dreaded Dentist’s Chair

Can you imagine a trip to the dentist to treat a cavity that didn’t involve a filling, a root canal or dentures? What if there was a way that we could encourage your teeth to repair themselves? ‘Stem cell dentistry’ could revolutionize your future trips to the dreaded dentist’s chair after recent scientific breakthroughs – regenerative stem cell fillings and growing new teeth from scratch using stem cells!

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Across the Bench with Erica Brockmeier

You use chemicals every day like soaps, lotions, and toothpaste. Once those chemicals wash down the drain, are they safe for the next animal (like a fish) that might come into contact with them? Erica Brockmeier studies how animals respond when they are exposed to toxic chemicals. The goal of her project is to develop a system to more efficiently determine what type of chemicals that animals (including humans!) are exposed to.

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Across the Bench with Virginia Schutte

When I first heard the term “science mediator,” I envisioned some intense and serious discussion about science policy issues, not an afternoon art session and morning cup of tea. But Virginia Schutte’s role is just that: as a mediator, she works with scientists to help bring their ideas to life and also works with the public to help them engage with scientists about their work and what it means for them.

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Sick in Space: Stress Compromises Astronauts’ Immune Systems

Two days before the launch of a routine space shuttle mission, a 47-year-old healthy astronaut submitted a saliva sample and ended up testing positive for the varicella zoster virus — the virus responsible for chickenpox and shingles. This was, to say the least, unexpected. Following chickenpox infection, the varicella zoster virus remains dormant in our nervous system and often doesn’t reactivate in healthy people under 60. So why would it reappear in a 47-year-old who is among the healthiest, most physically fit individuals of our workforce? Furthermore, why would it emerge before launch, before any potential dangers of space even presented themselves?

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The Usual Suspects: Pathogens That Cause Infectious Disease

We are constantly faced with news reports about infectious disease, but the sensationalism surrounding these diseases often drowns out important information. This article is the first of a three-part series exploring the basics of infectious disease, the factors contributing to disease incidences, and the steps scientists are taking to understand the origins of emerging infectious diseases.

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Disembodied Voices: Haunting Hallucinations and Their Origins

Do people actually hear voices, or are the sounds just figments of their imagination? Those who truly hear disembodied voices are likely experiencing a particular type of hallucination. Historically, hallucinations have been a powerful tool in storytelling, popping up in everything from the Euripides’ Greek tragedies to Shakespeare’s plays and more modern-day stories of demonic possession [12]. Sometimes these voices appear to have good intentions, like those which inspired Joan of Arc, while others seem to taunt or even torture, like those which ‘possess’ their victims, forcing them to do unthinkable things [3]. Hallucinations have captivated us for centuries, but the neurobiological basis for these phenomena is not well understood.

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