weird science
June 24, 2019

Bacteria might just be the key to making us all healthier.

A new study published in the journal Nature Medicine on Monday offers new evidence that there are certain types of microbes present in the digestive tracts of athletes that help their bodies' endurance during exercise. Scientists took a look at a bacteria that is especially common in runners' bodies after a marathon, called Veillonella, NPR explained.

They then introduced that bacteria into mice, and found that those mice performed 13 percent better on an exercise wheel than mice who didn't get the boost. That's a huge effect — strong evidence that Veillonella is actually the cause of better athletic performance, not just its byproduct. This type of microbe actually feeds on lactate, a chemical that builds up in sore muscles and fatigued bodies.

While 13 percent might be a big change in mice, though, it's not confirmed that this bacteria would have the same effect on humans. It's highly unlikely that you could just take a Veillonella supplement to get a boost in your athletic performance, because "it's harder to replicate an effect" in the human body than in mice, said Morgan Langille, a microbiome researcher not involved in the research. But it's still "a really impressive study" that helps us understand more about the tiny ecosystems inside our bodies.

Further research will be necessary before a supplement could be tested on humans, but at least there's hope that someday, exercise won't need to be so much of a slog. Read more at NPR. Shivani Ishwar

June 3, 2019

Could octopuses become a new version of lab rats?

Scientists are investigating the possibility of using the "strange, almost alien" creatures as a way to study organisms with complex bodily functions and large brains, NPR reports. While much of scientific testing takes place on well-researched organisms like mice and fruit flies, the world of cephalopods (including octopuses, squids, and cuttlefish) could open up avenues of research into "the diversity of biology's solutions to problems," said Josh Rosenthal, a scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts.

The researchers at the MBL have thousands of specimens of various cephalopods, aiming to broaden our knowledge of their life cycles, genetics, and biological processes. This knowledge will serve as a baseline as the researchers continue to perform various experiments on the marine animals, so they can eventually be as well-known to us as laboratory mice.

The MBL is devoted to being on the front lines of cephalopod research, which means they're in "uncharted territory," NPR explained. But though they're invested in the science, they are serious about the ethics of their experiments, too. While the U.S. has no federal regulations on experimenting with nonvertebrates, the MBL takes ethics seriously, said Rosenthal. They hope to create a "one-of-a-kind policy for cephalopod research" that will ensure the wellbeing of the 3,000-odd creatures under their care.

Read more about the MBL's mission at NPR. Shivani Ishwar

November 26, 2018

Late Sunday, Chinese researcher He Jiankui announced that he had helped create the world's first genetically edited babies, twin girls born earlier in November. If verified, this would be a big and controversial leap in science. He said he used a new gene-editing tool called CRISPR-cas9 to remove a gene called CCR5 from embryos fertilized in a lab, in an attempt to make the genetically modified children immune to HIV, the AIDS virus. Most bioethicists and experts in the gene-editing field condemned the work as premature and morally indefensible.

Gene editing has only recently been used in adults to treat fatal disease, but "editing sperm, eggs, or embryos is different — the changes can be inherited," The Associated Press reports. "In the U.S., it's not allowed except for lab research. China outlaws human cloning but not specifically gene editing." The modifications He attempted to make weren't aimed at preventing the children from being born with HIV via their HIV-positive fathers, since "there are simple ways to keep them from infecting offspring that do not involve altering genes," AP notes. "Instead, the appeal was to offer couples affected by HIV a chance to have a child that might be protected from a similar fate," and that's how He pitched the experiment to participants.

The Chinese researcher He had some assistance from a U.S. colleague, Rice University physics and bioengineering professor Michael Deem. "Both men are physics experts with no experience running human clinical trials," AP notes. One of the twins had both CCR5 gene removed and the other only one, He said, citing preliminary tests, but several scientists who reviewed what research He released told AP those tests are insufficient to show the editing worked as intended or to rule out harm to the girls. The parents, identified as Grace and Mark, did not want to be identified or interviewed, He said. Peter Weber

May 13, 2016

If we believe another person has similar DNA to our own, we're more likely to treat them kindly. If we're told they're genetic strangers, we're more likely behave aggressively.

So finds new research from a team led by Harvard psychologist Sasha Kimel, who conducted a series of four experiments which indicated that "learning about the genetic difference between oneself and an ethnic outgroup may contribute to the promotion of violence, whereas learning about the similarities may be a vital step toward fostering peace in some context."

The researchers focused on Americans of Jewish or Arabic ancestry, presenting the study participants with articles claiming the two groups were either very genetically similar or quite different. (In reality, geneticists differ on this question, and there are multiple ways to measure such a difference or lack thereof.) In subsequent tests, participants displayed more hostility toward the other ethnic group if they had been exposed to the article emphasizing genetic dissimilarity.

For a final experiment, the researchers conducted interviews with Jews on a commuter train in Israel, again using the conflicting articles. While those who read that Jews and Arabs are genetic neighbors did not display different attitudes about the Israel-Palestine conflict compared to the control group, those who read the "genetic strangers" story were significantly more negative in their policy preferences and predictions of peace. Bonnie Kristian

January 25, 2015

Scientists say that by releasing millions of genetically modified male mosquitoes into the Florida Keys, they could slow down the spread of dengue and chikungunya, but area residents aren't very enthusiastic about the plan.

The male mosquitoes have been engineered by the British biotech firm Oxitec to produce offspring that quickly die off; if the female mating partners only produce these doomed larvae, there will be fewer mosquitos and fewer cases of the painful virusus they carry. "This is essentially using a mosquito as a drug to cure disease," Michael Doyle, executive director of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, told The Associated Press.

Mosquito controllers say they are running out of ways to kill the Aedes aegypti, which has evolved to resist several insecticides. Since the Keys haven't had a dengue outbreak in years or a chikungunya case ever, however, residents aren't quick to welcome the genetically modified mosquitoes. "If I knew that this was a real risk and lives could be saved, that would make sense," Key Haven resident Marilyn Smith told AP. "But there are no problems...why are we being used as the experiment, the guinea pigs, just to see what happens?" So far, more than 130,000 people have signed a Change.org petition against the release of the mosquitoes. Catherine Garcia

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