Diet Soda: Providing Insight into a Rare Metabolic Disorder

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Diet Coke is advertised as a sugar free alternative to regular Coke Cola, using aspartame as a sweeteners

Have you ever read the Nutrition Facts on a diet soda or sugar-free gum? If so, you might have noticed a bolded sentence that reads: PHENYLKETONURICS: CONTAINS PHENYLALANINE. In the U.S., this sentence is present on every commercially available medicine, food, or beverage that contains the artificial sweetener aspartame. Often, this warning goes unnoticed, partly because it is nestled quietly at the foot of the list of ingredients and partly because it only applies to 1 in every 10,000 individuals in the United States. Nevertheless, this subtle message is essential for this subset of consumers.

 

Typical nutrition facts label for a product that contains phenylanaline

Phenylketonuria  (Phe·nyl·ke·ton·uria)

Those people are “Phenylketonurics,” or people with a rare metabolic disorder called Phenylketonuria (PKU). PKU is a genetic disorder that results in the inability to convert the amino acid phenylalanine (Phe) into the amino acid tyrosine (Tyr), both essential amino acids that are found in most protein. Phe’s most important biological function is its role as a precursor to Tyr, which is involved in many processes such as the synthesis of neurotransmitters. Without the ability to convert Phe to Tyr, there is less Tyr available for the synthesis of dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine (all important neurotransmitters) and Phe can accumulate in the brain, resulting in local metabolic dysfunction. PKU can result in severe developmental complications and mental retardation if left untreated. Fortunately, PKU can be successfully managed by abiding by a strict low-protein diet, avoiding foods that contain sources of phenylalanine such as meats, fish, dairy, and nuts.

Now, you might ask, “How does PKU have anything to do with the Nutrition Facts on my Diet Coke?” Good question. The answer lies in the chemical structure of the aforementioned artificial sweetener, aspartame.

Image Credit: Blaide Woodburn

Aspartame, an artifical sweetener in Diet Colas, is broken down into phenylalanine, methanol, and aspartate

Aspartame, sold under the brand name NutraSweet, is a dipeptide that contains the amino acids aspartic acid and phenylalanine. Aspartame is rapidly hydrolyzed (i.e. split in two by water) into its respective amino acids in the small intestine, serving as a source of aspartic acid and phenylalanine. Thus, it is important to communicate the presence of aspartame in all artificially sweetened products, especially since the products that usually contain aspartame (soft drinks, candies, etc.) are not typical sources of phenylalanine.

Yet, nutrition labels aren’t just important for Phenylketonurics. With the increased incidence of heart disease, it’s more important now than ever to understand the nutritional value of the foods you’re eating. But, do not fear! Stay up to date on some of my upcoming articles for The Pipettepen and Nutrition at UNC and Translational Science where I’ll outline the basics for healthy eating and overall wellness!

Peer edited by Amanda Tapia.

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Can We Make Tastier Tomatoes?

They can be eaten raw, made into countless stews and sauces, and add a tasty addition to nearly any dish. Tomatoes are practically indispensable in any modern kitchen and are one the highest monetary valued fruits. However, they were not always the big and meaty fruit we know today.

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Tomatoes were not always the big and meaty fruit we know today.

Throughout history, humans have domesticated and improved plants, selectively breeding them till they bear little resemblance to their wild counterparts. Wild tomatoes are thought to have arisen from the Andean region of South America and were small, resembling cherry tomatoes. In fact, cherry tomatoes are thought to be the ancestor of the larger varieties. Conquistadors then brought tomatoes from South America to Europe in the sixteenth century, and the continued migration and selective breeding has massively changed tomato genetics. Some of these changes are responsible for tomatoes that are ~100 times larger than their ancestors, while others have produced the unique pink coloration of tomatoes popular in China and Japan. However, much less is known on how the tomato metabolome, or its collection of small molecules (metabolites) such as amino acids, vitamins, and sugars, has changed throughout domestication and later improvement of the fruit.

The metabolites in tomatoes not only affect their development but also play key roles in human health and are responsible for their nutrition and taste. Today, the breeding of tomatoes has largely focused on increasing shelf life, yield, and disease resistance. Yet these changes may sometimes have negative impacts on the quality of tomatoes. Understanding how the metabolites in modern tomatoes has changed through selective breeding will help us to understand how best to breed and design tomatoes in the future to maximize their nutrition and taste. In a recent study, Guangtao Zhu et al. identified the metabolites in a variety of tomato samples spanning the domestication and improvement stages in the species. Interestingly, the greatest amount of change in metabolites happened not during domestication but during the later improvement stage.

A notable change during the development of the modern tomato is the selection against steroidal glycoalkaloid (SGA), responsible for the bitter taste in early tomatoes and common in the nightshade family of plants to which it belongs. Presumably, humans selected this without any knowledge of SGAs, instead breeding tomatoes that were less bitter than others. In addition to SGAs, other metabolites in modern tomatoes are very different from their ancestors. The authors also explored why the pink tomatoes popular in Asian countries are considered so much more flavorful from their red counterparts. The peel of red tomatoes contain a compound called naringenin chalcone that gives a yellow-hue to the peels, and the absence of this compound in pink tomatoes results in their pink coloring. Yet, why pink tomatoes are considered more delicious is unknown. This paper identified many metabolites that are different between red and pink tomatoes. This finding will lay the foundation for further studies to determine which of these metabolites give pink tomatoes their unique, sweet taste and that may be incorporated into red tomatoes to make them more flavorful.

One question in the design of modern tomatoes is whether we can design equally large tomatoes that are both more flavorful and nutritious. This paper suggests that through metabolomic changes in the tomato we can. The authors propose that the changes in metabolites were likely not due directly to the genes responsible for fruit weight that produced larger tomatoes, but rather genes that were “linked” to these fruit weight genes. Essentially these genes hitched a ride with the fruit weight genes to be passed on unintentionally. Nowadays, we have the capabilities of making more precise changes in DNA and ensuring that only the genes of interest are changed and not related genes or “linked” genes. Using these modern genetic approaches, such as Crispr-Cas, we can now increase the nutritional value and improve taste in tomatoes while avoiding the “linked” genes that likely brought about some negative changes in the modern tomato. So yes, we may be eating bigger, tastier, and healthier tomatoes in the future!

Peer edited by Laetitia Meyrueix.

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Cinnamon, Bam!

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:001-Cinnamon.jpg Photo Credit: https://www.kjokkenutstyr.net/

Many of us associate the holiday seasons with the smells of cinnamon.

Well the holiday season is upon us. Our calendars and days are now filled with shopping, travel, and social gatherings with friends, family, and loved ones. As the temperature outside turns cold, we turn to many of our favorite treats to fill our bellies and help keep us warm. Our mouths water as we think about all of the delectable items that line our kitchens and tables. I can picture it now… a warm fire keeping the room nice and toasty, glass of wine in hand, friends and relatives conversing and catching up and of course, avoiding awkward conversations with Uncle Gary. All while hovering around various piles of unknown cheeses, meats, and delicious stacks of sweets. And If you’re lucky, you may even find a warm, sticky stack of homemade cinnamon buns. As it turns out, these may be just the thing to reach for to help burn off some of that unwanted extra “padding” that comes with all of those holiday favorites.

What’s that you say? Cinnamon buns burn fat? Well before you go eating the whole tray, it’s not really the cinnamon buns themselves that may help burn fat, but the cinnamon for which they are named. It tastes great, you can use it in all sorts of dishes, and it accelerates fat loss. I’m a fan of all of those things. Now, you probably find yourself asking, where can I learn more about this awesome spice? Well, look no further my friend, I am about to lay enough cinnamon-spiced knowledge on you to guarantee that you can bore your friends and family to tears with your cinnamon information stream at your holiday gathering. You’ll be less popular than Uncle Gary.

Cinnamon contains a compound known as cinnamaldehyde. Cinnamaldehyde is a naturally occurring chemical found in the bark of cinnamon trees that gives cinnamon both its characteristic flavor and odor. A recent study shows that cinnamaldehyde can even help burn fat by increasing metabolism and your body’s ability to breakdown fat! I know, it’s pretty magical. Now before you go running around stabbing cinnamon trees with a spout, there’s a few things you should know. Primarily that you have to fly to Sri Lanka, which is expensive but totally worth it since it’s a beautiful tropical island in the Indian Ocean. And you can even stay at a place called Cinnamon Bey, which looks like this picture I found of it on the interweb. Pretty sweet, huh? (See what I did there!)

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Sri Lanka is located off the southeast coast of India.

Anyway, the purest source of cinnamon-derived cinnamaldehyde is the Ceylon Cinnamon tree (say that several times fast while jamming a sticky bun in your face!). Also known as, the “True” Cinnamon tree, which is named after the historical moniker of its native country, Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon). The country still produces and exports up to 90% of the world’s true cinnamon. The other 10% comes from Seychelle and Madagascar, which are equally far and equally awesome as travel destinations. However, there are six species of cinnamon sold commercially around the world. So If you prefer the regular stuff found cheaply at most grocery stores, then you will have to head to China or Southeast Asia for the most common variant, cassia, which is considered to be less, um, “Top-Shelf”.

The cassia variant is cultivated on a larger scale and is coarser than ceylon cinnamon. It also has a higher oil content and contains more cinnamaldehyde, which gives it a harsher, stronger, spicier flavor than Ceylon cinnamon. Huh? Wait, you thought more cinnamaldehyde might equal more fat loss? You are correct my friend, but before you book that ticket to Guangdong and attempt the cinnamon challenge for the thirtieth time, you should know that the Cassia variety also contains coumarin, which is not found in the Ceylon variety. Coumarin is a naturally occurring blood thinner that can cause damage to the liver in high doses. So, take your pick, though if you really want that good, pure cinnamaldehyde, the “True” kind, then you better hustle it to Sri Lanka.

However, getting there is only part of the story. Isolating cinnamaldehyde from the bark of the Cinnamon tree is a slightly tricky process that involves some rather unsavory chemicals, the potential of explosions, and a few fancy science machines (namely a mass spectrometer) for pulling the oil out of the bark, to leave you with that tasty, cinnamoney goodness. What? You thought you could just grab a tree and squeeze really hard? No, no, no. That might work for your lemongrasses, aloes and coconuts, but not cinnamon.

Actually, I’m guessing from your weird tree-squeezing thoughts that you take Cinnamon for granted. I mean…your cinnamon disrespect is understandable, since you can buy it pretty much everywhere and it’s almost as prolific as pumpkin spice, but this wasn’t always the case. In fact, until recently true cinnamon was extremely rare, since there were no planes or cars…or Amazon, well the internet really…and it only came from one relatively small island in the Indian Ocean. As such, until the 1500’s cinnamon was highly valued and was given to kings and as tribute to gods. Eventually, during the colonial period, the East India Company (the original Amazon) began distributing the spice to the rest of the world and cultivating it on a large scale.

So, cinnamon has been around forever, you say, since remote antiquity and what-not. Great. But what about this cinnamon burns fat thing? First off, settle down. We have arrived, so here’s the details. A recent study from Jun Wu at the University of Michigan Life Sciences Institute showed that cinnamaldehyde increases thermogenesis, which is the process the body uses to create heat. Thermogenesis can burn a lot of calories and accelerate metabolism, and that results in the breakdown of fat. In addition, cinnamaldehyde can decrease and stabilize fasting blood sugar. What’s even more interesting is that chronic treatment with cinnamaldehyde can reprogram your body’s metabolism, which may serve as protection from diet induced obesity.

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Cinnamon is used in a variety of holiday treats including cinnamon rolls and apple pies.

So, cinnamon can burn fat and protect you from gaining it back! Now that is a magical spice. Well, there you go. I’m pretty sure that should be just enough information to cause awkward emotional discomfort to those within ear shot at your holiday festivities. Your shining personality may keep you from being the next Uncle Gary, but at least your cinnamon tales will have him running for the eggnog, which contains cinnamon. Bam! Take that Uncle Gary. No one cares about the length of your ear hair!

And while you’re enjoying your holidays, eating those cinnamon packed delicacies, remember the reason for the season! Be good to each other and have some fun, safe, and cinnamon filled holidays! Cheers!

 

Peer edited by David Abraham.

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Understanding the 2017 Climate Science Special Report

Earlier this year, the U.S. government released the Climate Science Special Report.  This document describes the state of the Earth’s climate, specifically focusing on the U.S.  If you are someone who is interested in environmental science or policy, you may have thought about reading it.  But where to start? The report contains fifteen chapters and four additional appendices, so reading it may seem daunting.  We published this summary of the report to provide a brief introduction to climate change, and to provide a starting point for anyone who wants to learn more.  

https://www.nps.gov/articles/glaciersandclimatechange.htm

Retreating of Lyell Glacier (Yosemite National Park) in 1883 and 2015. Park scientists study glaciers to understand the effects of climate change in parks serviced by the National Parks Service. 1883 Photo: USGS Photo/Israel Russell 2015 Photo: NPS Photo/Keenan Takahashi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is Climate Change?      

“Climate change” is a phrase that has become ubiquitous throughout many aspects of American and global society, but what exactly is climate change?

Like weather, climate takes into account temperature, precipitation, humidity, and wind patterns.  However, while weather refers to the status of these factors on any given day, climate describes the average weather for a location over a long period of time.  We can consider a climate for a specific place (for example, the Caribbean Islands have a warm, humid climate), or we can consider all of Earth’s climate systems together, which is known as the global climate.

Depending on where you live, you may have seen how weather can change from day to day.  It may be sunny one day, but cool and rainy the next.  Climate change differs from changes in weather because it describes long-term changes in average weather. For example, a place with a changing climate may be traditionally warm and sunny, but over many years, become cooler and wetter.  While weather may fluctuate from day to day, climate change is due to gradual changes that occur over long periods of time.  Climate is viewed through an historical lense, comparing changes over many years. Though we may not notice the climate changing on a daily basis, it can have drastic effects on our everyday lives.  It can impact food production, world health, and prevalence of natural disasters.

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Summary of the potential physical, ecological, social and large-scale impacts of climate change. The plot shows the impacts of climate change versus changes in global mean temperature (above the 1980-1999 level). The arrows show that impacts tend to become more pronounced for higher magnitudes of warming. Dashed arrows indicate less certainty in the projected impact and solid arrows indicate  a high level of certainty.

What Causes Climate Change? 

The major factor determining the Earth’s climate is radiative balance.  Radiation is energy transmitted into and out of the Earth’s atmosphere, surface, and oceans.  Incoming radiation most often comes from light and heat energy from the Sun.  Earth can lose energy in several ways.  It can reflect a portion of the Sun’s radiation back into space.  It can also absorb the Sun’s energy, causing the planet to heat up and reflect low-energy infrared radiation back into the atmosphere.  The amount of incoming and outgoing radiation determines the characteristics of climate, such as temperature, humidity, wind, and precipitation.  When the balance of incoming and outgoing radiation changes, the climate also changes.

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Scientists agree that it’s extremely likely that human activity (via greenhouse gas emissions) is the dominant cause of the increase in global temperature since the mid-20th century.

There are some natural factors that can influence climate.  The main ones are volcanic eruptions and the El Niño Effect.  Volcanic eruptions emit clouds of particles that block the Sun’s radiation from reaching the Earth, changing the planet’s radiative balance and causing the planet to cool. The El Niño Effect is a natural increase in ocean temperature in the Pacific Ocean that leads to other meteorological effects.  The increase in ocean temperature off the coast of South America leads to higher rates of evaporation, which can cause wind patterns to shift, influencing weather patterns worldwide. Together, these factors influence climate, so when they differ from the norm, they can contribute to climate change.

It is true that climate change can occur naturally and it is expected to happen slowly over long periods of time.  In some cases, the climate can change for a few months or years (such as in the case of a volcanic eruption), but the effects of these events are not long-lasting.  However, since the Industrial Era, the factor contributing most to climate change has been an anthropogenic driver, meaning one that is being caused by human activity. The primary cause of climate change since the Industrial Era has been the presence of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.  The main greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O).  These gases are problematic because they remain in the Earth’s atmosphere for a long time after they are released.  They trap much of Earth’s outgoing radiation, leading to an imbalance of incoming and outgoing radiation energy.  Because the Earth’s atmosphere is holding on to all that energy while still receiving irradiation from the Sun, the planet heats up.  This is called the greenhouse effect, because it is similar to what happens in a greenhouse—the Sun’s energy can get in, but the heat cannot get out.  The greenhouse effect has intensified due to the greenhouse gases that are released during our modern industrial processes.  This has caused the Earth’s climate to begin to change.

 

Who contributed to the Climate Science Special Report?

The report was written by members of the American scientific community, including (but not limited to) the National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the US Army Corps of Engineers, and multiple universities and national labs.  They analyzed data from articles in peer reviewed scientific journals—that is, other scientists read these articles before they were even published to check for questionable experiments, data, or conclusions—as well as government reports and statistics and other scientific assessments.  The authors provided links to each source in citation sections at the end of each chapter. They combined everything they learned into this one comprehensive document, the Climate Science Special Report.

What can we learn from this report?      

First of all, the report reveals that the Earth is getting warmer.  The average global surface temperature has increased about 1.8°F (1.0°C) since 1901.  This may seem like a small change, but this increase in temperature is enough to affect the global climate.  Sea levels have risen about eight inches since 1900, which has led to increased flooding in coastal cities.  Weather patterns have changed, with increased rainfall and heatwaves.  While the increased rainfall has been observed primarily in the Northeastern U.S., the western part of the U.S. has experienced an increase in forest fires, such as those that have devastated California this year.  Such changes in weather patterns can be dangerous for those who live in those areas.  They can even damage infrastructure and affect agriculture, which impacts public health and food production.  These changes mainly result from greenhouse gases, namely CO2, that humans have emitted into the atmosphere.

Where can I go to read the report myself?  

You can find a link to the main page of the report here.  There is also an Executive Summary, which was written for non-scientists.   While the rest of the report contains some technical language, it is generally accessible, and contains visuals to help readers understand the data.  If you are interested in gaining a better understanding of Earth’s climate and how it’s changing, we encourage you to take a look at the Climate Science Special Report to learn more.  

 

Peer edited by Amanda Tapia and Joanna Warren.

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Looking for a New Year’s Resolution? Shrink Your Plastic Footprint!

Plastics are nearly unavoidable. From the plastic bottle of water you grab walking into a meeting to the money in your wallet, plastics are ubiquitous. However, evidence is accumulating that heavy plastic use takes a hefty toll on the environment, especially the world’s oceans, which are the repository of nearly 4.8-12.7 million tons of plastic each year (about five bags of plastic for every foot of coastline in the world). Much of this marine plastic comes from litter that washes down storm drains into the oceans, but it can also be blown from landfills to end up in the ocean. Marine wildlife including fish, birds, seals, turtles and whales consume startling amounts of plastics, not only because these plastics look like dinner but because they often smell like it too. Dangers of plastics to marine animals include entanglement and intestinal perforation or blockage which can cause nutrient starvation—marine animals starving on a stomach stuffed with plastic. Researchers estimate that 90% of sea birds and half of all sea turtles have consumed plastics.

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Millions of tons of plastic waste winds up in the ocean each year.

More recently, the alarm has been raised about microplastics, small plastics and plastic fibers less than 5 mm in size. Microplastics can come from the degradation of larger plastics and from washing clothing containing synthetic fibers. Microplastics act like magnets for chemicals the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calls “Persistent Bioaccumulative and Toxic Substances” (PBTs). PBTs build up in the bodies of marine organisms and can harm us when we consume seafood. Though other potential dangers of microplastics to the environment are not clear yet, it has been shown that the decomposition of plastics can release toxic chemicals including bisphenol A (BPA),  a chemical which disrupts hormone balances and may be linked to human health concerns including diabetes, behavioral disorders like ADHD, and cancer. Researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia have shown that some of the same adverse health effects occur in fish exposed to BPA, indicating a risk to marine food chains and ecosystems.  It is clear that we do not yet know the full impact of plastics in our oceans—but that the dumping of plastic waste into marine ecosystems is not without consequences.

Although some solutions to the plastic crisis have been floated (excuse the pun) including giant plastic-collecting booms which collect large plastic debris in the ocean and plastic-munching bacteria, these approaches are only beginning to be implemented and have limitations. This is where we come in — preventing more plastics from getting into the ocean is an important first step. Simply recycling our plastics may not be enough: one professor of economics cites plastics as one of the least valuable recyclable items due to the high energy and resource costs of processing them. As a result, it is imperative to focus on reducing, rather than recycling plastics.

Here are 100 ways to reduce your plastic use, ranging from reusable coffee cups to making your own deodorant to avoid the use of plastic packaging—an idea that doesn’t stink. Another way to track your plastic use is to accept the Plastic-Free Challenge—a social media challenge that lets you share your commitment to reducing your plastic footprint with all your followers. A good way to get started is to keep track of how much plastic you use and strive to reduce this amount every week. If you want to think bigger than your own plastic footprint, you can call your representatives about measures like plastic bag bans in your city and about funding research for equipping water treatment facilities to deal with microplastic-contaminated effluent. This year, I’ll be making it my New Year’s resolution to reduce my plastic consumption: a small change in habits that can add up. Let’s face it, I was never going to make it to the gym, anyway.

Peer edited by Erica Wood.

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Artificial Intelligence: Should We Trust It?

If you’ve been following the news lately, you’ve probably read about the boom in Artificial Intelligence (AI). Some of the advances have elicited responses ranging from amazement to fear. So why has so much attention been diverted to AI recently? Advances in this technology over the past decade have surprised even experts in the field, and it has been spurred in part by cheaper and faster computing power as well as greater availability of large datasets. AI isn’t some futuristic technology that threatens to change our lives in the distant future, it has already changed our lives in many ways since its inception 60 years ago. Contrary to what many fear, however, it has not yet reached the point of surpassing human capabilities.

Definition and Scope of AI

The portrayal of problematic AI is pervasive in the film industry and can often be misleading. For a technology so widely discussed in popular culture, there’s no consensus on what it actually is. Stanford University’s 100-year study of AI defines it as “activity devoted to making machines intelligent, and intelligence is that quality that enables an entity to function appropriately and with foresight in its environment.” This definition may explain why my calculator isn’t intelligent, but what about my iPhone? It seems the key is that AI achieves specific goals through methods parallel to human intelligence. Most progress in AI today is within specific subfields like machine learning and deep neural networks, which has enabled the next generation of speech-recognition on the Amazon Alexa or the facial-recognition on the new iPhone X. Future uses of AI include autonomous self-driving cars, diagnostic healthcare and several other applications that we don’t yet have the foresight to predict. According to experts, AI doesn’t have the capabilities that match human intelligence but it does have the ability to process massive amounts of data and learn from it in ways humans can’t. With increasingly available big data and cheap computing power, it won’t take long for us to train computers to make extremely accurate weather predictions, find new drug targets, or mine complex biological datasets in a fraction of the time that humans can. AI is being tested on games like Go, Jeopardy and Dota 2 as a low-risk way to improve its algorithm and to demonstrate the human-like abilities of this technology.

Benefits and Drawbacks

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Artificial Intelligence is exceeding our expectations but are we ready for the changes it brings?

In 2015, Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and several other scientists and intellectuals signed  an open letter on artificial intelligence, specifically calling for more research on the potential impacts of AI on society. While they discuss several potential benefits of AI, scientists are also wary of the pitfalls and the possibility of losing control of autonomous AI. They believe that the rapid development of AI could threaten to shift society in ways similar to the industrial revolution or the creation of the atomic bomb; inventions that forever changed the social and economic landscape of the world. Another concern is the displacement of humans by robots in many fields. What kinds of jobs will become obsolete? This process of new technology getting rid of certain jobs is nothing new, but it could happen at a higher frequency. Therefore, more research is required to understand how the integration of new AI would affect certain industries.

Should we trust it?

There is no turning back from the future of AI. However, we as a society can engage on how we want to live amidst this increasingly powerful technology. During the past few decades, with the rise of social media, smartphones and cybersecurity issues, technological advancements have already forced us to think about the intersection of humanity and technology. Many scientists and intellectuals warn that AI is more advanced than anything we’ve ever dealt with. Therefore, healthy skepticism is warranted, but not so much that it hinders progress and inspires fear. The US is currently at the forefront of AI research, with China and Russia close behind. The technology is undergoing rapid progress so tighter regulation may slow research down. The existing technological hurdles gives society time to determine what roles we want AI to play in our lives. Some believe that this technology is merely an extension of human values and that our intentions will determine what our future with AI looks like. While this might be slightly naive, I believe that with the proper regulation set in place, we can make a better world more integrated with advanced technology.

Organizations Involved in A.I. Research and Outreach

  • Future of Life: A volunteer-run organization aimed at mitigating the existential risks to humanity from advanced AI.
  • OpenAI: An organization founded by Elon Musk to discover a path towards safe AI
  • Intelligence & Autonomy: A research organization funded by the Ethics and Governance of Artificial Intelligence Fund to “provide nuanced understanding of emerging technologies and to inform the design, evaluation, and regulation of AI-driven systems.”
  • Machine Intelligence Research Institute (MIRI): Aims to make intelligent systems behave in a manner that aligns with human intentions.
  • Future of Humanity Institute (FHI): A multidisciplinary research institute that publishes on AI governance, safety and other issues like biotechnology to shed light on humanity’s long-term future.
  • Stanford’s One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence (AI100):  To anticipate the effects of AI through a century-long chain of standing committees, study panels and growing digital archive.
  • National Science and Technology Council (NSTC): An executive branch advisory council released two documents highlighting comprehensive research and development plans for AI during the Obama administration (briefs for the Strategic plan and Preparation here). However, since this office has not been staffed under the new administration, it is unclear what steps will be taken by the government.

Peer edited by Gowri Natarajan.

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The Science Behind Why You Love or Hate Scary Movies

In anticipation of Halloween, October is a month full of spooky festivities including scary movies. Gathering a group of friends to watch a horror movie is a fun holiday activity, but finding a movie that appeals to a broad range of people can be challenging.  After I watched The Taking of Deborah Logan with some friends, we were evenly split on the number of people who found the movie enjoyable or traumatizing. This made me wonder: why do some people love to be scared, while others hate it?

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Carefully edited movies can elicit similar patterns of brain activity among viewers.

Fortunately, scientists have investigated how watching movies affects our brains. There is even a name for this branch of studies: neurocinema. In these studies, viewers watch movies while being monitored by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Unlike traditional MRI, which generates anatomical images, fMRI measures activity by detecting changes in blood flow. Scientists can use fMRI to study brain activity changes in response to watching a movie because blood flow increases when neurons are activated. In a study by Hasson et al. the authors demonstrated that, compared to unstructured recordings, carefully edited movies can elicit similar patterns of brain activity and eye movement among a variety of viewers. However, horror movies are often carefully planned to shock and terrify so there must be more to people’s preferences than brain activity patterns.

There are multiple theories about why some people enjoy being scared more than others. Some theories suggest the individual differences may be attributed to brain chemistry. For example, fear-seekers may be more sensitive to the rewarding effects of dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in the flight-or-fight response. A similar, sensation-seeking theory suggests that scary movie enthusiasts enjoy the feelings of heightened stimulation.

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Scary movie scenes, common in Halloween movies, can help sensation-seekers compensate for hypoactivation during lower intensity stimulation.

To test the sensation-seeking theory, in a study performed by Straube et al., people answered a questionnaire to determine their level of sensation-seeking and then watched scary and neutral scenes from horror movies while being monitored by fMRI. Interestingly, sensation-seekers, or people with high sensation-seeking scores, had lower brain activation while watching neutral scenes. However, sensation seekers had higher brain activity while watching scary scenes than non-sensation seekers. This suggests that sensation-seekers might experience hypoactivation during lower intensity stimulation, such as neutral movie scenes and compensate by seeking more intense stimulation with scary scenes.

So, if you find yourself cringing in horror at the movie selections this Halloween, blame your brain. The good news is there are plenty of light-hearted Halloween options. I personally recommend Young Frankenstein.

Peer edited by Breanna Turman.

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Like It or Not, Your Internet Trail is Inevitable

I love online shopping. On the Internet I can ponder over one pair of shoes a thousand times without any store clerk getting impatient. For that my mom isn’t quite comfortable with. She warns me about hackers stealing my identity from giving out my name, phone number, or home address. I always laugh at her paranoid personality and then brush it off. But honestly – she’s more correct than I’d like to admit.

Nowadays every step we take online is carefully monitored, traced and stored. All of this data is highly valued for advertisers to target potential customers, turning us into products. While separate parts of this data – gender, age, your likes and status updates, connections and club members – are worthless, once they are assembled and interpreted, the marketers can successfully paint a precise picture of you. With more than 2 billion monthly active users, a third of the world’s population, Facebook actively collaborates with affiliate data broker to create more efficient advertising channels. Last year, the Washington Post published on different 98 targeting options Facebook pulls from other companies to pinpoint the users’ identity. These numerous digital predictions which we give away on daily basis can not only be used to sell things, but even more importantly, to potentially sell a candidate. In case you’re wondering how to stop them from targeting you and to escape from the so-called “useful and relevant” advertisements, see what Facebook knows about you. Twitter is watching as well. Here’s to shut off Amazon figuring you out. Google, too, is built on serving advertisements.

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What does the Internet know about you? All the information you consume online is tracked cross sites.

The Chrome extension Data Selfie is created to dive deeper into how your Facebook activity is measured and interpreted. Based on the contents you looked at, clicked (through likes and links) and the time engagement in posts, the app categorizes you into personality profile groups using the machine learning algorithm Apply Magic Sauce developed by University of Cambridge. In terms of my Big 5 personality traits, I’m more conservative and competitive, and I’m more easily stressed than relaxed. It also classifies my Jungian personality type to ISTPs, Introverted Sensing Thinking Perceiving, who are suited to the field of engineering. It’s likely anyone who knows me would agree, to some extent. Given that these tools only scratch the surface of social network’s data curation, it’s disquieting to comprehend just how much information they have.

Even if you don’t have a social media profile, it doesn’t mean you are not out there. Simply log onto the Internet, you start leaving a larger digital footprint more than you think. Simulating what a website picks up, often times without ostensible consent, Webcay displays a cascade of data reported by your browser. Concerning the sensitive information browsers can monitor, Cooper Quintin, a security researcher for the Electronic Frontier Foundation told to The New York Times, “More than just being creepy, it’s a huge violation of privacy.”

We are being watched more than ever before, thanks to the relentless development of digital technology. While it’s possible to opt-out personalized advertising, changing data settings won’t remove you from advertisers’ audiences, as Twitter qualified. And even if you can trail data through apps and tools, you can’t reclaim all of your information because that’s something you agree to when you sign up for the services. What you can do is always be Internet aware as you fill out your personal details, interact with your News Feed, and browse the web.

Peer edited by Gabrielle Budziszewski.

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Burn Baby Burn! For the Longleaf Pines

The recent forest fires have been wreaking havoc across California since early October. In fact, destructive wildfires are a frequent occurrence in the dry, western state. Such fires are generally bad news as they cause destruction of property and affect air quality. However, are they always bad? Interestingly, the answer is no.

Wildfires can be an intricate part of a forest’s natural cycle, and may even help its survival. One such example lies in front of our eyes in the state of North Carolina, where the longleaf pine finds its home.

Longleaf pine forests across the Southeastern United States are one of the most diverse environmental systems in North America. At one point in time, they covered about ninety million acres of land which, unfortunately, has decreased to only about three million acres. Human development and exclusion of fires by human effort are largely responsible for this decline. Longleaf pines are adapted to fire cycles; preventing fires actually hurts the health of the forest. Native Americans realized this correlation and rarely intervened whenever lightning induced fires, which were common events in the Sandhills region, a major home of the longleaf pines located in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.When the early European settlers came over, they realized the potential of pine resin in shipbuilding. Very soon, North Carolina’s pine forests became a supply line of naval stores for the UK’s Royal Navy. These early settlers however still continued to burn fires like the natives and thereby contributed to the health of the ecosystem. It was only with growth in plantation forestry came an urge to desperately eliminate fires.

Photo taken by Manisit Das

Longleaf pines, in their sparkling green glory. Weymouth Woods, Southern Pines, NC

The Sandhills region is home to about a thousand different plant species, the dominant species being the longleaf pines. With their long needles, the pines produce a bright, shiny green canopy growing atop massively tall trunks.Additionally, the forests support a wide variety of animals amounting to 160 different species of birds, including the endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers, a large number of salamanders, toads, frogs, the hognose snakes, and fox squirrels, and many other species.  In the twentieth century, firefighting prevented the regeneration of longleaf pines, providing non-fire resistant species a competitive edge. That, coupled with increasing human settlement, reduced longleaf pine forest covers. In 1963, the remnants of the natural home of the longleaf pines were brought under the state parks system when Weymouth Woods was established. Since then, simulated prescribed fires are used systematically as a conservation tool to restore and maintain the longleaf pines.

An unexpected player in the conservation effort is the US military. The military base Fort Bragg, bordering the towns of Fayetteville and Southern Pines in North Carolina, is home to some of the world’s largest biodiversity reserves. The army recognizes that maintenance of the natural environment is crucial. The live ammunition exercises conducted by the military in this base already help protect many of the plant species, some of which are exclusive to Fort Bragg. If these rare plants are not preserved, most of the world’s populations of these species will be lost. Understanding the need of the hour, the military installation is taking one further step: in collaboration with the North Carolina Botanical Garden, they have launched an effort to reintroduce some of the plant species at risk into the Sandhills ecosystem.

Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve, a North Carolina State Park in the Moore County around Fort Bragg, offers a great snapshot of the magnificent pine forests that once covered the southeastern United States. During my visit, I was surprised by the wide variety of wildlife I encountered within a short period along the sandy trails. This included a large number of dragonflies, skinks, a moccasin, and not to mention the diversity of plants that coexist in the Sandhills pine forests. If you are intrigued by the unique nature and ecology of the longleaf pines, their role in North Carolina’s history, or simply take pride in being a ‘Tar Heel’, I definitely recommend visiting this place. You will not be disappointed in this treasure trove of nature.

Peer edited by Caitlyn Molloy.

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Nanotechnology in Your Sunscreen: Doing More Harm than Good?

While soaking in the sunshine may feel good, and you may have heard about solar ultraviolet (UV) radiation harm, you may not be aware of what’s in your sunscreen. Lee Hong explored the benefits of sunscreen in his post on The Pipettepen, and today, we dive deeper into a smaller world – the nanotechnology in our sunscreen.

The two minerals available to sunscreen in form of nanosized particles (NPs) are zinc oxide (ZnO) and titanium dioxide (TiO2). They are less than 1/1000th the size of a human hair. Bulkier minerals in traditional sunscreen reflect visible light, making it opaque and cakey on your skin. NPs on the other side, scatter light instead of reflecting it, resulting in a disappearing and lighter feeling sunscreen.

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Traditional sunscreens block out UV rays but many with ghostly white color. Nanotechnology make them disappear on your face!

While the resulting nanoproduct can be a big help, people have raised concerns over the safety of NPs-based cosmetic sunscreens. With their smaller size, NPs could in theory be absorbed into the skin at a higher level than their bulkier counterparts. The real question to ask is if these tiny particles are more harmful if absorbed, than good in protecting us from UV rays.

Studies are divided about whether NPs can pass through the skin. A few reassuring words from Paul Wright, a toxicology researcher at RMIT University, “There’s a negligible penetration of sunscreen particles,” as he told The Guardian, “They don’t get past the outermost dead layer of human skin cells.” In 2017, the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) published its review that NPs absorption is unlikely, based on both via in-vitro (i.e. studies using isolated skin cells) and in-vivo (i.e. studies on live skin tissue) studies. It appears that we are in a safe zone!

Other scientists have tested on the toxicity of these tiny metal oxides when exposed to UV light, simulating the real-life scenario for use of sunscreens. Their results indicated that the metal oxides may generate reactive free-radical species, leading to cancer due to DNA damage. However, this alarming impact on human health depends on whether NPs in sunscreen are absorbed into our skin. Providing some comfort, research associate Simon James at the Australian Synchrotron told to The Guardian that “Our study demonstrates that the human immune system has the right equipment to remove any nanoparticles that somehow make it through the skin, assuming some do at all.” Their work showed that human natural defenses can gather and destroy ZnO nanoparticles. Moreover, sunscreen manufacturers utilize surface coatings to improve transparent effect and as a result, the coated components can essentially reduce toxicity from lessen reactivity to UV lights.

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It’s not a bad idea shielding your skin from burning sun with an umbrella’s shade whenever you are up for outdoor activities.

With the increased popularity of the nanotech-based products, another concern is noxious effects caused by inhalation of NPs. The Environmental Working Group (EWG), based out of Washington, D. C., announced a warning to refrain from spray sunscreen and loose powder cosmetics containing ZnO or TiO2 particles. The lungs have difficulty removing small particles and thus end up with organ damage possibly in the same way that air pollution is linked to lung cancer.

Evidence suggests there is more harm from skipping the sunscreen than exposing your skin to nanoparticles, but, if you’re not comfortable with these tiny oxides, UV protection umbrellas are another option!

Peer edited by Bailey DeBarmore.

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