Fruit fly larvae and wasp
What’s the News: Fruit fly larvae have unusually high alcohol tolerance, which scientists used to think was because they happen to feed on yeast in rotting fruit. Turns out they’re in it for the alcohol, too—as medication. According to a new study*, alcohol protects them from the wasp parasites that lay eggs in fruit fly larvae.
If you remember anything from statistics class, it’s probably that correlation ain’t no causation. Just because two numbers happen to go up at the same time doesn’t mean that one is causing the other to rise (or fall, or hold steady, or whatever). If there isn’t a plausible explanation for how the two might be connected, and proof that that explanation is indeed the cause, all you have is a couple of lines on a chart.
So it’s a move in the right direction when people try to suss out connections between two variables they have a hunch are related. But seeking such a connection can lead to some pretty convoluted reasoning. A new paper—unpublished, but released for discussion—claims that the passage of states’ medical marijuana laws cause decreased traffic fatalities, following on the researchers’ intuition that people might smoke pot instead of drinking alcohol if marijuana were more readily obtainable, and that driving while high is less dangerous than driving drunk. Their logic goes like this: if medical marijuana laws make pot more easily available, and people smoke more pot after laws are passed, and they buy less alcohol because of that, then there would be fewer traffic deaths.
Booze inhibits more than just your judgement: it impairs your immune system’s ability to fight off pathogens, according to a study published last week in the journal BMC Immunology. Researchers exposed human monocytes, a type of white blood cell vital for a functioning immune system, to an amount of alcohol equivalent to a blood alcohol concentration of 0.1 (around the legal level in most states). Compared to booze-free cells, monocytes exposed to both short- and long-term levels of alcohol produced significantly less type 1 interferons, chemicals the help recruit immune cells to stage an antiviral response (and also have anti-tumor activity). Excessive drinking has long been thought to interfere with the body’s ability to fight disease, and boozing is an important risk factor for hepatitis C and barrier to treatment in HIV. But not much had been known about the mechanisms behind the effect.
Shrink a grape, and you get a raisin. Shrink the grape genetic tree, and you get a looming disaster for oenophiles. That’s according to scientists who discovered that our cultivated wine grapes are more closely related than previously thought.
Sean Myles, a researcher at Stanford University, created a gene chip for common grape cultivars using genomes from the Department of Agriculture. In his study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, he reveals that 75 percent of our 583 kinds of cultivated grapes are either parents, children, or siblings of each other.
“Previously people thought there were several different families of grape,” Dr. Myles said. “Now we’ve found that all those families are interconnected and in essence there’s just one large family.” [New York Times]
In this grape-world equivalent of the Jerry Springer Show, wines like merlot, pinot noir, and chardonnay are all interrelated in one big incestuous mash-up. And it’s the cultivators who are partly to blame.
The reason is obvious in retrospect. Vines can be propagated by breaking off a shoot and sticking it in the ground, or onto existing rootstock. The method gives uniform crops, and most growers have evidently used it for thousands of years…. The result is that cultivated grapes remain closely related to wild grapes, apart from a few improvements in berry size and sugar content, and a bunch of new colors favored by plant breeders. [New York Times]
Humans were brewing up a crude version of beer about 9,000 years ago, but wine may rival its longevity in inebriating civilization. Scientists report this week the finding evidence of a the oldest known wine-making works in the world, in Armenia. It dates back about 6,000 years, but its sophistication shows that people could have established wineries long before.
[The cave] contained everything necessary to produce wine from grapes, including a grape press, fermentation vats, storage jars, wine-soaked pottery shards and even a cup and drinking bowl. [Los Angeles Times]
Grape residue doesn’t easily preserve, but a touch of good fortune helped the team make this find. The cave’s roof collapsed and sealed its contents in an airtight environment, preserving the wine-making gear for six millennia.
The cave is near Armenia’s border with Iran, and study leader Gregory Areshian and colleagues say the evidence shows organized wine making done the old fashioned way—stomping the grapes with foot power.
If you like caffeine with your booze, you might soon have to revert to chugging coffee alongside your alcoholic drink of choice. The Food and Drug Administration, after drawn-out deliberation, has ruled that caffeine-and-alcohol concoctions like Joose, Core, and Four Loko violate the law, and informed the makers that they have two weeks to respond with their plans to change the products.
A typical alcoholic energy drink is 24 ounces (0.7 liters) and has a 12 percent alcohol content—compared with a 12-ounce (0.35-liter) can of beer, which normally has 4 to 5 percent—plus the caffeine equivalent of five cups of coffee. [Scientific American]
Phusion Projects, the maker of Four Loko says it intends to remove the caffeine, as well as guarana and taurine, to bring the drink into compliance with the FDA. United Brands, which markets Joose, says the same. Despite FDA’s decision, Phusion’s leaders maintain that the alcohol-caffeine combo is not unsafe. (These companies are probably not wild about their products’ common nickname: “blackout in a can” drinks.)
But for some public health experts, there are specific negative consequences for putting alcohol and caffeine together:
Next time you’re at the pub with friends, take it easy on the lightweights—the ones who are getting a little silly after just a couple of drinks. That might be a blessing in disguise, according to a new study, because the 10 to 20 percent of people whose genetics make them especially sensitive to booze might also be at greatly reduced risk to develop alcoholism.
In the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, Kirk Wilhelmsen and colleagues identified a particular gene associated with the easily intoxicated. The gene in question encodes an enzyme called CYP2E1, responsible for metabolizing not just alcohol in the brain, but also other substances like acetaminophen (Tylenol).
How to make natural gas? Flush the toilet, and wait three weeks. At least that’s the plan for homes involved in the Didcot Renewable Gas Project, which will be recycling residents’ waste into renewable natural gas, aka “biogas“.
Gearóid Lane, managing director of communities and new energy at British Gas, said: “This renewable gas project is a real milestone in Britain’s energy history, and will help customers and the environment alike. Renewable gas has the potential to make a significant contribution to meeting the UK’s energy needs. Gas from sewage is just one part of a bigger project, which will see us using brewery and food waste and farm slurry to generate gas to heat homes.” [The Guardian]
The renewable gas won’t smell bad or function any differently than the gas already being provided to customers’ homes. This isn’t the first biogas plant in the U.K. or the world, but it is the first facility whose biogas is made directly from human waste and transferred back to those humans’ homes. Most of the other plants run off of agricultural and food waste.
The plant is just a test project, able to provide gas to about 200 homes. But the British government is hopeful that more such projects will help the country reach its goal of 15 percent renewable energy by 2020. Said Martin Baggs, chief executive of the utility company Thames Water:
“Every sewage works in Britain is a potential source of local renewable gas waiting to be put to use.” [BBC News]
Beer: Some people think it’s proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy. Others value it as a great source of antibiotics—of course, those people lived nearly 1,700 years ago.
For much of the last three decades, anthropologist George Armelagos has been trying to explain how mummies that date from an ancient kingdom in Nubia—the area south of Egypt that’s located in present-day Sudan—got so much of the antibiotic tetracycline in their bones. Since scientists didn’t synthesize antibiotics like that one until the 20th century (and these bones date back to between 350 to 550 A.D.), finding a buildup in ancient bones screams out “contamination.”
Armelagos and his colleagues longed to prove that it wasn’t, and in a study out in American Journal of Physical Anthropology, the team argues that the find is no fluke. Nubians got antibiotics into their systems by drinking beer, and lots of it, and from an early age.
How? Thanks to the help of a kind of bacteria called Streptomyces.
As study after study suggests that wine might have health benefits, beer tends to get the short end of the stick. But food scientist and beer lover Charles Bamforth wasn’t going to take that lying down, saying: “The wine guys have stolen the moral high ground. I resent the stance that people take that wine is better. It’s not” [Discovery News]. To prove it, he studied the silicon content of beers from around the country, and in a study in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, found that beer could be a good source of the substance in your diet.
Bamforth found that the beer’s silicon content ranged from 6.4 milligrams per liter to 56.5 milligrams per liter, with an average of about 30 milligrams. Since two pints of beer are just about equal to one liter, drinking two beers at happy hour could provide 30 milligrams of silicon. And while there is no official recommendation for daily silicon uptake, the researchers say, in the United States, individuals consume between 20 and 50 mg of silicon each day [LiveScience]. Light lagers and non-alcoholic beers not only lack flavor, they showed the lowest silicon content in Bamforth’s study. The ultra-hoppy India pale ales came in first.