New Year, New Earth? The Environment in 2019

2019, “new year, new me,” as they say. Many people have new goals; maybe they’ll read more, go to the gym more, or try to improve relationships. Whatever your New Year’s resolution, one goal everyone should have is to think about and care more for the environment. The environment sustains us, as it provides us with food, materials for shelter, and ultimately, life. It has been about a month into the 2019 and a lot of wildlife in the United States and around the world has been negatively affected.

The Government Shutdown Affected More than Federal Employees

Due to the government shutdown, federal employees at went unpaid. At national parks, fewer employees went to work, resulting in fewer people available to efficiently take care of the parks. Previous administrations closed the parks during government shutdowns, however the Trump Administration allowed understaffed parks to remain open. At several parks, lack of staff led to damaged parks and eventually park closure. Visitors broke park rules, such as allowing their pets in the parks and off of leashes, and campgrounds were overflowing with trash. AP News reported damage to normally restricted areas, illegal driving off of marked trails, an increase of trash, and maybe most disappointingly, a rise in human bodily waste. Human presence in restricted areas interfered with daily activities surrounding protected species, and plants that take decades to centuries to grow were destroyed, meaning it could take decades to centuries for parks to recover, even though it took a few seconds to destroy.

Rollback of Environmental Regulations

Under the Obama administration, many environmental regulations were put in place to protect the environment from human damage. However, the Trump administration has rolled back many of those regulations, claiming these regulations harm local businesses or don’t help reduce natural disasters like forest fires. National Geographic has kept a running list since March 2017 on environmental regulations, decisions, and news during the Trump administration. Rollback of coal regulations have been primarily covered by media outlets due the harsh environmental and health impacts of coal mining and the decreasing use of coal. In February 2017, Congress and Trump revoked the “Stream Protection Rule,” which provided restrictions to dumping mining waste into nearby water. Not only do organisms live in those waters, but humans use freshwater as drinking water. With an increasing global population and limited amounts of freshwater, water conservation is crucial.

Ferruginous Pygmy Owls are at most 6 inches in height.

Lastly, the border wall that is constantly a point of contention for Trump and Congress would be a danger to animals, scientists say. The wall wouldn’t prevent people from crossing the border, but it would prevent hundreds of species from accessing resources for survival, leading to species endangerment. Pygmy owls live in the U.S. – Mexico region, but fly close to the ground to hunt. With a wall, they wouldn’t be able to fly over to search for food or shelter. Javelinas, a pig like mammal, also roam the areas searching for food. By separating species from their habitats, we are active in their disappearance.

Species lost in 2018, and those on track to become extinct

We have already lost many species in the past few decades and we are on track to lose many, many more. Species doesn’t just include animals, but plants and insects as well. It’s easy to think of a species’ extinction as contained (where the extinction of one animal doesn’t have any impact), but extinction has a much larger impact by disrupting the food chain and affecting the viability of other species. Habitats and ecosystems have evolved to include all of the organisms within them, and when this balance is disrupted, it can lead to extreme environmental damage and catastrophic chains of events. This can be thought of as an extinction cascade, and can result from climate change, habitat and species destruction by humans, and introduction of invasive species. These combined factors have led scientists to suggest that we are currently experiencing the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history, as defined by “when the Earth loses more than three-quarters of its species in a geologically short [time] interval.”

It is only a matter of time until the Northern Rhino is only seen in history books.
  • The Northern White Rhino will become extinct in 2019. Its horn, thought to have medicinal properties, has been the target of extreme poaching, even when protected by armed guards. In 2018, the population of the Northern white rhino was reduced to just three rhinos, two females and one male. However, the male died in 2018, ensuring the extinction of the species.
  • Fewer than 30 Vaquita Porpoises remain in the wild because humans have been harvesting their bladders for unique foods.
  • Many species of insects have been rapidly declining in numbers (Monarch butterfly is a well known example). This is exceedingly important with regards to ecosystems and food chains, since insects feed many animals, help with decomposition, and maintain the habitats in which they live. See a video here on why insects are so important to us. (A prime example of extinction cascade)
  • There are two types of extinction: Extinct from the wild, where no animal remains in the wild, they can only be found in captivity, and extinct, where the animal cannot be found anywhere in the world. The U.S. just lost its last wild Caribou, meaning the Caribou is extinct from the wild in the U.S.
  • If you don’t care about animal extinction, then let me tell you that coffee plants are threatened with extinction. Have I gotten your attention now?

On a positive note…

While this article may seem disheartening, and as heartbreaking as it is to lose species we grew up with (such as rhinos), we are also making a lot of progress with keeping the environment healthy. In October of 2018, Trump signed a bill to help clean plastic out of the Earth’s oceans. It doesn’t make up for other environmental regulation rollbacks, but it is a large step forward, since plastics in the ocean has detrimental effects on sea life.

Green (or renewable) energy, which is energy that comes from natural resources and can be replenished in a human’s lifetime, such as sunlight, wind, and water, is becoming more and more commonly used around the world. Not only are these forms of energy good for the environment, but they are projected to become inexpensive compared to coal and gas, making them cost effective as well. Countries are already sustaining themselves on green energy, and aim to reach 100% green energy use by a certain point in the future. For example, for 300 days in 2018, Costa Rica generated 100% of their energy from renewable resources!

Tigers are the only large cats that swim!

Many organisms, such as the Tardigrade, have evolved to withstand extreme environments and circumstances. So it is possible that there are a plethora of organisms on our Earth we have yet to discover that could withstand critical environmental change. Science has also advanced enough that, while we may not be able to directly prevent extinction, we can slow it down, or help preserve some characteristics of dying species. For example, Northern and Southern white rhinos are more closely related than previously thought, and we might be able to create a new hybrid species through IVF. Through conservation, Nepal has doubled their wild tiger population! Baraboo, Wisconsin is home to the International Crane Foundation which aims to educate the public about all 15 species of Cranes and how they are trying to save the species. Lastly, on February 12th, 2019, the U.S. Senate voted to protect more than 100 million acres of wilderness across the United States, a bill that has been in the works for four years!

How can you help?

One thing we can do to help our environment is education and outreach. Reduce the amount of waste thrown away, reuse containers and bags, and go to a local county website to look at recycling options. Orange County of NC has a great page on what you can recycle and where to recycle. Reducing our waste and the amount of non-biodegradable objects that go into the environment will help keep species safe.

A damaged earth can survive without us, but we cannot survive without a healthy earth.

Peer edited by Emma Hinkle and Connor LaMontagne.

Follow us on social media and never miss an article:

Where Motivation Hides
Image courtesy of

Recently, I couldn’t find my keys. They weren’t where I usually keep them. Turns out, I was so distracted when I came home that I left them dangling in the lock.

Other days, I’m looking for my phone. Where could I have put it? Oh yeah, there it is, on top of my refrigerator where I left it while I was cooking.

Sometimes though, I’m looking for motivation. Unfortunately, I can’t find that in a lock or on top of the refrigerator. But where can you find motivation? As elusive as motivation can seem, psychologists and neuroscientists have identified strategies and parts of your brain that contribute to feeling motivated.

According to psychologists, there are three main factors that contribute to motivation: autonomy, value, and competence. For many of us, feeling like you have to do something kills any motivation to complete that task. However, shifting your mindset from “have to” to “choose to” can energize you and remind you of the benefits of completing that task.

Similarly, aligning a task with your values can give you a sense of autonomy and increase your investment in it. Even still, it can be difficult to even start something if you feel like you do not have the skills to do it. In this case, remembering that “practice makes perfect” can help you see how important putting in the effort will help you improve for the future.

Neuroscientists are also investigating a growing link between dopamine and motivation. While dopamine is commonly associated with pleasure, movement, and focus, research in rats and humans suggests it also contributes to motivation.

Researchers at the University of Connecticut  found that rats with low dopamine levels were more likely to choose a nearby pile of food rather than an equally close pile with twice as much food that required jumping over a small fence. The scientists concluded that lower dopamine levels in rats is connected to lower motivation.
High levels of dopamine associated with motivation were found in parts of the frontal lobe (right), while high levels of dopamine in the anterior insula (blue) did not contribute to motivation. Image courtesy of Shappelle/Wikipedia

Using brain mapping, scientists at Vanderbilt University saw that self-described “go-getters” had high levels of dopamine in  parts of the brain associated with reward and motivation, the striatum and ventromedial prefontal cortext. However, “slackers” displayed high levels of dopamine in the anterior insula, which is important for emotion and risk perception.

These studies highlight how not just dopamine levels, but also where in the brain the dopamine is, can influence your feelings of motivation. So next time you’re looking for motivation, focus on your sense of autonomy, values, and competence or even try some natural ways to boost your dopamine levels. Just getting started can go a long way.

Peer edited by David Abraham.

Follow us on social media and never miss an article:

PhDepression: Practical Ways to Start New Habits

The new year is a new horizon full of possibilities and potential. While the clean slate can seem daunting to some, to others it represents an opportunity to commit themselves to something new. Although these New Year’s resolutions are good, they are often not very sustainable (we all know you can’t completely cut pizza out of your diet!). Instead of setting yourself up for failure with goals that you have probably already forgotten, it may be better to instead focus on beginning new habits. With all of the uncertain twists and turns of graduate school, one of the most important habits to establish is a plan to evaluate your mental health.

Recently, Nature Biotechnology published an article that shocked academia. Nature Biotechnology reported that almost 40% of all graduate students, not just graduate students in the sciences, had symptoms of depression and anxiety. When you think about the many pressures of graduate school (funding, interaction with bosses, long hours) it’s not a huge surprise that students suffer from anxiety and depression.What is surprising is how little is being done about the high levels of anxiety and depression in graduate students.

UNC’s own graduate student, Susanna Harris, created the Instagram page PhDepression to not only draw attention to the lack of support for those in graduate school dealing with mental health crises, but to also provide a safe space for those people who are dealing with mental health issues. I sat down with her to have a conversation about some practical ways to start new habits and take care of your mental health. The first step to begin a mental health journey is recognizing that a problem exists and then making the decision to address the problem. From here you can choose to find resources to help and work to change thought patterns. Finally, most of the work comes from actively maintaining those behaviors.

Perform a mental health evaluation: Once you recognize that a problem exists Susanna recommends determining where you are in your mental health journey. This may sound daunting, but it just involves taking online surveys that ask questions like “How often are you sleeping through the night? and “How often do you feel anxious?”. It can be a productive way to stop and think if you are stressed or depressed and some potential reasons why. Once you know some of your stress triggers, you can think about how to avoid those triggers or how to deal with them in a way that is less mentally jarring.

Find an accountability partner: If you decide to address a mental health issue in your life, find an accountability partner to open up to. Often, people are not quick to share if they’re anxious or depressed because they fear judgment or do not realize they need help. One of the hallmarks of both anxiety and depression is isolation. While isolation may feel good in the moment, it can lead to negative self-talk, an inability to determine what is true and an overall feeling of helplessness. It is very important to have a person or group of people to whom you can talk and from whom you can seek support. These people can also encourage you and walk alongside you. PhDepression has a Facebook support group called GRAD that you can get involved with to talk with others who are struggling and find encouragement. As always, it is important to find someone who understands your struggles but can also help you make positive steps forward.

Develop some tools to combat anxiety/depression: Gathering a list of resources is extremely helpful to begin managing your mental health and one of the first resources you need to prioritize is time! If you are not prioritizing time for yourself to decompress, then you will not be an effective grad student/friend/spouse/etc because burn-out is lurking behind the next corner. It’s easy to put yourself on the backburner, especially during graduate school when it seems like there’s so many other important things that clamor for your attention. Doing something you love will help you switch off your science brain so that you can be aware and excited to get back to science. It is not selfish to take the time to refill your ‘you’ tank. Calling activities self-care makes them easy to put off. Instead, think of your hobbies/activities as necessary life tools that you need to prioritize and set aside time for. Your friends/family/significant others will thank you for it and you will be a more well-balanced graduate student.

Write a letter to your future self: One way to work to change your thought patterns is to write a letter to your future stressed self speaking the truth that your balanced, relaxed self knows. Doubt and negative self-talk happen during those times of stress, uncertainty and pressure. Reading a letter and getting a reality check from your past self can be the kind of support you need to get back up on your feet and try again.  

Making a plan for your mental health can seem daunting but can produce lasting results in your life by helping you manage your anxiety/depression. The plan is a great place to start but ultimately you have to actively maintain the new behaviors you’re learning and persevere through the hard times. PhDepression has great resources and encouragement on their Instagram page to help you as you begin your journey!

Peer edited by Kaylee Helfrich.

Follow us on social media and never miss an article:

Detoxing Demystified

“Detoxing” is all the rage right now—whether it’s foregoing solid foods in favor of juices during a liquid cleanse, suffering through a colon cleanse in the form of a colonic irrigation, fasting or restricting diet, or a combination of these—many naturopathic-based schools of thought agree that our bodies benefit immensely from such practices. However, these approaches lack adequate scientific evidence to support their purported health benefits and are even considered dangerous practices. So are they legit or just another quick-fix marketing ploy?

First of all, what exactly is a “detox”?

A “detox” or “cleanse” refers to practices, often specific diets or regimens, aimed at removing toxins from the body or assisting with weight loss. However, the term “detox” means something entirely different when examined through a physiological perspective. We are naturally equipped with a finely tuned set of tools that are specifically designed to break down and remove unwanted compounds from our bodies.  

So what exactly is a toxin?

A toxin is an agent produced by living organisms that produces an adverse effect, such as snake venom, secretions by poisonous frogs, the microbe that causes botulism, etc. The term toxin is often misused in mainstream media to represent any substance or agent that produces an adverse effect. This is in fact the definition of a toxicant, also referred to as a toxic agent or substance. Although there is disagreement on whether the term “toxicant” specifically describes man-made toxic agents or if it encompasses all toxic agents (both anthropogenic and naturally occurring), for our purposes we will define toxicant as the latter.

Ok, so HOW do we “detox”?

When we ingest a toxicant—for example, a shot of tequila—our body responds by converting the ethanol from the tequila shot into a compound which is easily eliminated from the body via urine. The enzyme responsible for this is aptly named alcohol dehydrogenase, and it is just one example of a suite of enzymes that our bodies naturally produce to aid in the process of altering chemicals into forms that are more easily excreted from our bodies through urine, feces, or sweat. Most of the “detox” action (the technical terms being metabolism or biotransformation) takes place in the liver, although there are other tissues in our bodies that can do this as well—such as skin, lung epithelium, and the gastrointestinal tract!.

Unfortunately, a liquid diet or a liquid power-washing of your colon will not increase the effectiveness of your body’s enzymes that transform potentially harmful chemicals into compounds that can easily leave the body.

Wait, what about antioxidants?

Ah yes, antioxidants. Many “cleanses” and “detox” diets, juices, and supplements boast their high levels of antioxidants, suggesting that ingesting high concentrations of these concoctions will give you the superpower to undo last night’s tequila shot(s). There are two main types of antioxidants: enzymatic and non-enzymatic.

Categorization and examples of antioxidants

Similar to the previously mentioned alcohol elimination enzymes, enzymatic antioxidants are already expressed in our cells and can’t be found in a juice. The natural balance of chemical reactions in the body is aided by the actions of enzymatic antioxidants and their biological foils, prooxidants. Prooxidants can be generally defined as any compound that induces oxidative stress in cells, but primarily exist in the body in the form of free radicals, which are highly unstable and reactive compounds. Prooxidants may sound scary but are actually produced during normal and essential cellular functions, and antioxidants help keep them in check by neutralizing their unstable tendencies. Think of a see-saw with prooxidants on one end and antioxidants on the other—a healthy system is one where there is a little bit off ebb and flow but a general balance between the two sides. In addition to enzymatic antioxidants, our bodies also require non-enzymatic antioxidants, which include a diverse array of molecules including melatonin, vitamin E, and vitamin C, among others. Many non-enzymatic antioxidants can be found in fruits and veggies, and yes, green smoothies!

Redox homeostasis: maintaining balance between prooxidants and antioxidants

Of course, there are times when the balance, or homeostasis, between pro- and antioxidants is disrupted. This disrupted state of homeostasis is referred to as oxidative stress, and it too is a natural part of being alive. Oxidative stress becomes a concern when the body’s capacity for dealing with oxidative stress is pushed beyond normal limits, and the excess of oxidative stress has been linked with a cornucopia of adverse health outcomes. Excessive oxidative stress can occur due to exogenous triggers including exposure to environmental toxicants, UV or ionizing radiation, and certain pharmaceuticals, as well as endogenous processes such as inflammation and immune responses.

So “detox” drinks really do work?

Meh. Not really. Think of a sponge—you can fill it with water until it is completely saturated, but no matter how much more water you pour on it, the sponge simply cannot absorb any more. This is similar to how our bodies deal with nutrients and antioxidants—once you reach that point of saturation, your body simply won’t get any “extra”. If you eat a healthy and balanced diet, chances are that you already receive all the nutrients and antioxidants you need and more!

Is there anything I can do to protect my body from all the bad toxicants out there?

Yes—don’t eat rat poison or live inside a fume hood. If you can check those off the list and still wish there was more you could do to help your body with its natural detox system, you can:

·         Exercise

·         Sleep more

·         Stay well hydrated

·         Move throughout the day

·         Eat a well-balanced diet rich in plants

In general, leading a healthy and balanced lifestyle is one of the best ways to ensure your body’s innate ability to deal with toxic insults is operating at full capacity.

Peer edited by Jessica Griswold.

Follow us on social media and never miss an article:

Less stomach flu? Yes, please!

(Caution: do not read just before lunch!) We all know the feeling… queasiness, belly in knots, guts on fire and no end in sight. Now I want you to imagine the worst possible place to get the runs or yak up your breakfast. Maybe you’re thinking about your car’s leather seats, a sporting competition you’d rather forget, or that time you were supposed to meet a hot date. How about on a shuttle in outer space? Worse yet, what if your illness far from home was accompanied by a realization that your (rather limited) food supply was to blame?

In the late 1950s and 1960s, the Pillsbury company teamed up with NASA and the US Army Laboratories to develop a method for ensuring astronauts could avoid such a predicament. The Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) approach revolves around preventing hazards at critical steps during food production, rather than simply testing the finished product. Since then, the US Food and Drug Administration has adopted the same concept for keeping our meat, fish, poultry, milk, juice, and food-service establishments shipshape. Thank you, Mr. Doughboy!

Unfortunately, if you’ve had a glass of tap water today, it likely did not have the same preventive checks in place. To keep disease at bay, drinking water typically receives some type of filtration and disinfection. Required compliance monitoring tells us retroactively whether finished water was safe according to measurable indicators (e.g., common fecal bacteria); however, frequency of monitoring varies widely, and people might have already been exposed by the time results become available. Further, while disinfectant usually does a great job of killing bacteria, most stomach flu cases are caused by viruses that resist disinfection and are harder to measure. Chemical testing similarly looks at historically relevant indicators, but may miss hundreds of newly created chemicals, such as pharmaceuticals, personal care products, or pesticides. Thus, backward-looking monitoring can both overestimate safety and come too late to prevent illness, much of which goes unreported.  

High-profile events in Flint, Michigan, Charleston, West Virginia, and Wilmington, North Carolina have raised awareness that water suppliers are facing increasing vulnerability due to land development around water sources, aging water treatment and distribution infrastructure, and the plethora of new chemicals entering water bodies. Globally, the World Health Organization has recommended a holistic risk management program called Water Safety Planning for all drinking water suppliers since 2004, with examples in more than 90 countries as of 2017. Like HACCP for food systems, they work by instituting proactive checks on the most critical risks between the water source and your tap.

Recent research investigating best-case scenarios (urban utilities in high-income countries) demonstrates the potential for this approach to benefit public health, water quality, regulatory compliance, and operational performance. Cost-benefit ratios remain under investigation. Importantly, reductions in the incidence of stomach flu can lead to reduced healthcare costs and increased worker productivity, with the long-term expectation of healthier, thriving, and more equitable communities. According to a 2010 United Nations resolution and the 2016-2030 Sustainable Development Goals, all of us deserve safe drinking water. Perhaps it’s time we follow in the footsteps of those who first walked on the moon?

Peer edited by: Daniel Conroy

Follow us on social media and never miss an article:

Do Blood Sugar Levels Affect the Development of Sleeping Sickness?

You have probably never met anyone suffering from sleeping sickness, a potentially fatal condition. This is because the disease, also called African Trypanosomiasis, is only present in certain regions of sub-Saharan Africa. While the number of human cases has dropped to less than 3,000 in 2015, Trypanosoma parasites can also cause disease in cattle, greatly affecting economic development in these rural areas.

Sleeping sickness is transmitted by tsetse flies that carry the parasite Trypanosoma brucei. A recent study published by scientists from Clemson University aimed to better understand the switch between different life stages of T. brucei. While inside the fly, the parasite grows rapidly. Following a fly bite, many T. brucei cells are transferred to the bloodstream of a mammalian host. There, the parasite remains ‘dormant’ and no longer replicates. The research group, led by Dr. James C. Morris, was interested in characterizing the mechanisms T. brucei uses to decide when to grow and when to remain dormant.

Life cycle of T. brucei

Because the parasite lives in two very distinct hosts, flies and mammals, it must be able to adapt and use cues from its environment to ensure proper development and survival. Trypanosomes use the sugar glucose as a critical source of carbon – one of the building blocks for biological molecules. While the levels of glucose are quite high in the blood of mammals, they decrease rapidly after a blood meal by the tsetse fly. This prompted the Dr. Morris’ lab to investigate glucose as a possible signal that controls the switch between the form of T. brucei in flies (dividing) and mammals (non-dividing).

Structure of glucose

Interestingly, Dr. Morris and his group found that if they grew T. brucei in laboratory media without any glucose, the parasite was able to survive, but it changed into a form adapted for survival in the fly. When this fly-adapted form was injected into mammals (mice), it was rapidly cleared by the immune system. This suggested that to avoid immune clearance, the parasite must sense its environment, including glucose levels, and change into a form infectious to mammals prior to or during transmission. Therefore, this sugar-induced switch could potentially be exploited for development of new therapeutics, which would mimic glucose depletion and should lead to improved clearance of the parasite by the immune system.

It is currently unclear how the parasite senses changes in sugar levels. There are several possibilities, including a glucose-responsive receptor on the cell surface and the involvement of glucose metabolism. The authors found that a glucose-resembling molecule, which could not be metabolized by the parasite, elicited similar results to glucose itself. This suggests involvement of a glucose-responsive receptor. Nevertheless, further study is needed to establish the precise mechanism.

While sleeping sickness is fatal if left untreated, the last major epidemic ended in the late 1990s. Moreover, the World Health Organization aims to eliminate sleeping sickness as a public health threat by 2020. However, this study will not only inform the development of vaccines or treatments for humans, but also of protective agents for cattle still often affected by African Trypanosomiasis.

Peer edited by Joanna Warren and Jack Sundberg.

Follow us on social media and never miss an article:

Science Fail Monday: How a dead salmon taught us about statistics

Any scientist knows the importance of a good negative control. A negative control in an experiment is a group of samples or subjects in which no response is expected to an experimental treatment. The experimental group can then be compared to the control group. Such negative controls are gold standards in science and are supposed to provide confidence in experimental results. However, occasionally, a negative control gives unexpected and hilarious results worth of an Ig-Nobel Prize, the highest honor for scientists who publish the silliest research. Such was the case in an experiment involving fMRI, human emotions, and an Atlantic salmon.

An example of an fMRI scan in a human. The red spots have higher brain activity when subjects are performing a memory task.

fMRI stands for functional magnetic resonance imaging. If you’ve ever had a knee injury or a concussion, you have likely experienced a normal MRI scan, which uses radio waves and a magnet to take a structural picture of the organ of interest. The “functional” in fMRI means that researchers can use MRI images to measure brain activity and take a snapshot of changes over time. When a strong magnet is turned on over the brain, the hydrogen atoms in all of the water molecules in the blood point in the same direction, like a compass needle next to a refrigerator magnet. When the magnet is turned off, the hydrogen atoms relax back to their original positions, which releases a signal. This signal changes based on how much oxygen is in the blood, so the end result is a picture of the brain with information about which regions have more oxygenated blood. Regions needing more oxygen are generally assumed to be more active. Researchers can even have study participants perform a task during an fMRI scan, such as viewing particular images or listening to music, and use the fMRI data to determine which areas of the brain are active during the task. These types of studies can tell us a lot about which brain regions are involved in everything from social situations to processing fear.

In the Ig-Nobel Prize-worthy experiment, researchers wanted to use fMRI to determine which parts of the brain were active in response to seeing human faces displaying different emotions. However, they needed a negative control for their human subjects just to make sure that any brain activity they saw in response to the faces wasn’t just due to chance. The ideal candidate for such a negative control? A four-pound Atlantic salmon, purchased by one of the researchers at the local fish market.

The authors of the IgNobel prize study used an Atlantic salmon like this one as their negative control.

The researchers put the dead salmon in their fMRI scanner and, for the sake of science, asked it what emotions it thought the humans were displaying in pictures flashed up on the screen in the scanner. The authors do not comment on the salmon’s responses, but it can be assumed that the salmon was not a model experimental participant and did not comply with the study directions. Expecting to see nothing, the authors analyzed the fMRI signal in the salmon’s brain before and after the salmon “saw” the photos of the faces. Imagine the shock in the room when a few spots in the salmon’s itty-bitty brain lit up like a Christmas tree, suggesting that it was thinking about the faces it saw. Duh duh duuuuuhh….zombie salmon?

Obviously, the salmon was not alive, nor was it thinking about the emotional state of humans. Luckily for the field of fMRI, instead of publishing a paper telling everyone they should use dead salmon to study human response to the emotions of others, the authors of this study delved deeper into why they were seeing “brain activity” in this very dead fish. In their original data, the researchers failed to correct for multiple comparisons: basically, because you are comparing so many brain regions to so many other brain regions, you’re much more likely to find a spot with significant activity in fMRI purely by chance (for more info on multiple comparisons, click here). The authors applied the appropriate statistical corrections to their data, and voila, no more zombie salmon. And then, because scientists have a funny sense of humor, they wrote up and published these results as a lesson to all on the importance of having a good statistician.

Peer edited by Claire Gyorke.

Follow us on social media and never miss an article:

Forest Fire Flames and Smoke: Double the Trouble

As of Friday November 16, 2018, California was home to the three most polluted cities in the world. These three cities – San Francisco, Stockton, and Sacramento – topped the world’s chart of polluted cities as a result of the infiltrating smoke produced from the nearby, devastating Camp Fire. To date, the Camp Fire is the deadliest fire in California history and has burned over 170,000 acres of land, roughly the size of New York City. Over its rampage it has destroyed immense areas of California’s wildlife and burned down over 17,000 man-made structures. Unfortunately, the Camp Fire’s destruction isn’t limited to the destruction inflicted by its flames. This mass burning of a variety of natural and man-made sources has resulted in smoke containing a myriad of small particles that can be hazardous when inhaled. Thus, the smoke produced from the Camp Fire, which is spreading over 150 miles away from the fire and polluting the air of California, is a matter of great health importance.

Rim Fire Yosemite National Forest 2013

The link between adverse health effects due to smoke produced from forest fires and those due to emissions produced from other sources such as diesel engines and industrial factories has long been established. Specifically, exposure to these air pollutants is linked with the onset of respiratory effects such as bronchitis, increased asthma attacks, elevated blood pressure, atherosclerosis, and, for more susceptible individuals, heart attack or stroke.

Alveolar sac lined with capillary bed. Anatomical view of Air Blood Barrier (ABB).

These adverse health effects are largely driven from the small, ~1µm – 10µm in diameter, solid and liquid particles (PM) contained in smoke or emitted from a specific source. Due to these particle’s small size, they are able to travel throughout the lung after inhalation and negatively affect both the conducting and gas exchange regions of the lung. Once the particles have “landed” in a region of the lung, they can persist for days and begin to elicit a pro-inflammatory and oxidative stress response which can exacerbate asthma symptoms and damage integral components of the lung, leading to various respiratory effects.How these particles cause adverse cardiovascular effects is an active area of research. There are three proposed mechanisms: 1) particles smaller than 2.5µm in diameter travel through the lung, pass the alveolar blood barrier (ABB), and enter the bloodstream leading to direct vascular damage, 2) particles that reach the ABB, but do not pass, can induce oxidative stress in the underlying vasculature indirectly, and 3) particles can interfere with the autonomic and central nervous system leading to irregular signaling and irregular heart rate.

Overall, while some of the mechanisms leading to the variety of adverse health effects induced by PM exposure are still unknown, it is clear that PM exposure can be detrimental. When forest fires are near it is extremely important to listen to the local official’s recommendations for staying safe – even if the flames are 100+ miles away! Thus, as the incidence of forest fires continues to rise, likely due to factors such as climate change, we need to be mindful of both the destruction the flames create and the hazardous air the fires can produce.

Peer Edited by Rita Meganck and Jacob Pawlik.

Follow us on social media and never miss an article:

It helps to be flexible: disordered proteins in biological stress response

Imagine you are working on a project with a large group of people, all with different personalities and responsibilities. Your group was just informed that something important to the progress of the project went terribly wrong. Some people in the group start to panic, which causes other people to panic. There is no defined leader for this group project but you tend to take the lead during stressful times, so you quickly step up to the plate. You know that to get this project back on track, you first need to calm everyone down so that they can refocus on the tasks at hand.

Now try to imagine that instead of people, you and your group are large molecules composed of long chains of amino acids, a.k.a. proteins, and the group project is maintaining the life of your cell.

Much like a dollar bill must undergo many intricate folds to become an origami elephant, chains of amino acids must go through several steps to form a well-folded protein. Top image created by Chris Pielak

Proteins make up many important biological structures (such as hair, nails, and connective tissues) and carry out most chemical reactions in cells (such as converting food into energy or light into sight). For a long time it was thought  that proteins only function once they have “folded” into a highly-ordered shape, similar to how a flat sheet of paper folds into a smile-inducing origami elephant. The unique shape of a protein is dictated by chemical interactions between the amino acids that make up the protein as well as interactions between the protein and water. When drastic changes take place in the environment of the protein (i.e. during cellular stresses such as extreme heat, dehydration, or acidification), these important interactions are disrupted, which can cause proteins that are usually well-folded to temporarily unfold and become inactive. If such a protein remains unfolded for too long, temporary inactivity can become permanent as the protein becomes tangled up with other unfolded proteins in a process known as irreversible aggregation. Under extremely stressful conditions, a significant portion of the proteins in a cell can unfold and irreversibly aggregate, ultimately leading to cell death. So let’s keep all our proteins nicely folded, shall we?

Not so fast! In the past twenty years, the idea that a protein must be folded to function has been challenged by an up-and-coming group of proteins known as intrinsically disordered proteins (IDPs). As the name suggests, IDPs are defined by a distinct lack of a stable, well-folded structure, much like a single strand of spaghetti in a pot of water.

This cat knows spaghetti makes you feel better when you’re stressed out.

Interestingly, organisms across all domains of life have been shown to use IDPs to deal with environmental stresses. Many of these stress-response IDPs are “conditionally disordered”, meaning they can transition into or out of a more ordered state in response to an environmental cue. Given that IDPs are used to being in an unfolded-like state, it kind of makes sense that they can “survive” many of the environmental stresses that typically well-folded proteins can’t. But besides persisting through stressful times, how do IDPs help cells survive extreme environmental stresses? One emerging hypothesis is that stress-response IDPs work by morphing into a shape that can stick to partially unfolded proteins before irreversible aggregation can occur, thus making it possible for stress-sensitive proteins to refold after the stress goes away. In support of this idea, recent studies showed that the bacterial acid-sensing protein HdeA becomes disordered in acidic conditions, and it is in this disordered state that it can stick to partially unfolded proteins and prevent aggregation. Similar modes of action have been proposed for IDPs involved in heat- and dehydration-response as well.

So, just like you in the hypothetical scenario described at the beginning of this post, some IDPs keep the group project (the life of the cell) on track by pulling aside the easily stressed out group members (highly-ordered, stress-sensitive proteins) and calming them down a bit so that once the stress has subsided, everyone in the group can refold and get back to work.

Peer edited by Giehae Choi.

Follow us on social media and never miss an article:

A Southwest Turn

Hurricanes are well-known for how unpredictable their paths can be. As wild as they can get, we can usually count on two things for storms that live primarily in the ocean in the Northern hemisphere: their general hook shape, and sharp bends.


2018 Atlantic Hurricane Season

As has been frequently reported in the news, Florence took a particularly strange turn when it headed southwest. To see how that came about, we can look at the Cauchy momentum equation, one of the Navier Stokes equations that are central to fluid dynamics:

The Cauchy momentum equation

The equation itself can take on several forms, depending on the usefulness for the particular application. For our purposes, however, the above is sufficient since we have the relevant terms. In determining the path for Florence, two out of three of the terms on the right side of the equal sign are important.

The first is the Coriolis force, usually lumped in with other forces. This is the force most famous for causing the spiral pattern of the storms, but, at the largest scale, is also why we have the trade winds and westerlies. This gives us the hook.

The second term is the change in pressure over space. The negative sign simply means that air and liquid prefer to move from areas of high pressure to areas of low pressure. If the pressure is high enough, as it was over New England and the Maritimes during Florence’s landfall, the path can acquire a sharp bend.

Put these two competing terms together, and we get Florence’s odd path.

map source:

Pressure field during Florence’s landfall.

Peer edited by Gabby Budziewski.

Follow us on social media and never miss an article: