This isn’t something a mother wants to hear: when you gave birth to your child, you laced it with millions of unseen forces that are shaping the way it thinks and behaves. Under their influence, your baby’s nerves will grow and connect in ways that will affect everything from how anxious to how coordinated it is. Thanks to your very first birthday present, your infant’s brain is being shaped by its gut. Or, more accurately, what’s inside its gut.
The bowels of every baby are filled with trillions of bacteria that outnumber the cells of our own body by ten to one. This “microbiome” acts like on of our own organs, harvesting energy from our food and blocking the growth of harmful bacteria. It’s also a gift from our mothers. In the womb, we’re largely sterile. It’s only when we pass through the vagina that we’re seeded with our first set of bacteria. This community of passengers changes as we grow up, shifting in membership as we move from milk to solid food.
But the bacterial passengers of HMS Baby don’t just react as their vehicle develops; they help to steer it too. By studying mice, Rochellys Diaz Heijtz from the Karolinska Institute has found that a mammal’s gut bacteria can affect the way its brain develops as it grows up. They could even influence how it behaves as an adult.
The business of encoding new memories is more like writing a document on a computer than inscribing words onto paper. Until you save the file, there’s a chance that you could lose the information. This vulnerable window can last for a couple of days. Only after that point does the memory become strong and long-lasting. This is called ‘consolidation’.
It’s not a permanent state. Whenever we remember something, the fragile window reopens. Again, it’s more like opening a computer document than getting notes out of a drawer. You could easily add, edit or delete information at a flick of a key. Every time we bring back an old memory, we run the risk of changing it. Again, it takes a while for this window of opportunity to close, for the reactivated memory to strengthen once more. This is called ‘reconsolidation’.
In the last week, two groups of scientists have found two very different ways of boosting both processes, to produce stronger memories.
The world’s worst flesh-eating plant lives in the jungles of Borneo. It’s called elongata and it’s one of several strains of Raffles’ pitcher plant. Like its relatives, it has distinctive pitcher-shaped leaves that can lure insects into a watery grave. But unlike other strains, elongata is strangely incompetent at catching insects. Instead, it lures bats into its pitchers, and lives off their poo.
“Control! Control! You must have control.” – Yoda
Pay attention. Put that down. Stop doing that. Eat that later. Would you, just, behave? These phrases are a familiar part of family life, as parents try to drum a sense of self-control into their children. Right from the start, they are taught to restrain their impulses, focus on their goals, and control their choices. This seems like a wise move, but how could you tell if such instruction actually affects a child’s fate?
Ideally, you would follow a group of children into adulthood, to see how their degree of self-control affects the course of their lives. You’d need to catch up with them at regular intervals to look at their health, mental state, finances and more. You’d need to meticulously plan the study decades before the important results came in, and you’d need to keep in close touch with the volunteers so they stick with the study. In short, you’d need to have set up the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study.
The Dunedin Study was the brainchild of Phil Silva, and its wide-ranging team include Terrie Moffit and Avshalom Caspi, a husband and wife duo who work at Duke University and King’s College London. The study began way back in 1975, with 1037 children who were born in Dunedin, New Zealand between April 1972 and March 1973. The researchers became their occasional companions through most of their lives, up till the age of 32. At 11 separate points, Moffit and Caspi measured the recruits’ health, wealth and more. And amazingly for a study of this sort, 1014 of the children are still alive and involved.
CTVT, or canine transmissible veneral tumour, is a cancer that has evolved into an independent global parasite. Most cancers (including those that affect humans) aren’t contagious. Although some infectious diseases can lead to cancer, you cannot actually catch a tumour from someone who has one. But CTVT is an exception – the cancer cells themselves can spread from dog to dog, through sex or close contact.
A Russian veterinarian called Mstislav Novinsky first discovered the disease in the 1870s, but it took 130 years for others to discover its true nature. In 2006, Robin Weiss and Claudio Murgia from University College London compared CTVT samples from 40 dogs across the world. All of them carried distinctive genetic markers that set them apart from the cells of their host dogs. They all had a common ancestor – an ancient tumour that escaped from its original host and took the world by storm.
Meet the world’s smallest farmer – a “social amoeba” that seeds new land with bacteria, which it then eats. Just as human farmers carry seeds and livestock when they move to new areas, the amoeba can prepare for harsh conditions by bringing a ready food supply with it. It joins ants, termites and humans on the list of creatures that practice agriculture.
In the wake of the ScienceOnline 2011 conference, a familiar spectre has reared its inevitable head – the echo-chamber argument. The central question is this: do science bloggers solely speak to each other and those with a pre-existing interest in science, or are we capable of reaching a broader selection of readers? As Emily Anthes asked, “Who are we really writing for? Is it just for each other? Are the debates we’re having really reaching a wider audience?”
This is a worthwhile question and I’d be disappointed if a gathered group of scientists and journalists – two professions who are paid to be skeptical – didn’t ask it. The concern is also real. With newspaper sales on the decline, people aren’t exposed to science stories nestled among other topics at the turn of the page. It’s hard to achieve the same effect in the heavily tagged and increasingly specialised world of the internet. Surely, it is said, only people already interested in science will only subscribe to a science blog’s RSS feed, or click on the Science section of the Guardian or the New York Times.
This is a fairly limited view of how the modern internet works. The same issue came up when I ran a panel on online journalism at ScienceOnline 2010, and I have been writing the same response ever since. Here’s what I wrote last year:
Towards the end of last year, Carl and I covered a story on the sexual conflicts of ducks, where scientists studied the massive, corkscrew-shaped penises of drakes by getting them to unfurl said mighty organs into a variety of glass tubes. The videos became an internet sensation and the story was linked to from Boing Boing, Metafilter, Reddit, Digg and all manner of forums. Tens of thousands of people watched ducks penetrating flasks, and perhaps a fraction of them even picked up some science while they were at it. As Carl said, “Duck fetishists can learn about sexual selection.”
Of course, sex has always sold, but this case study highlights the ability of the web to find massive audiences, if the right story is presented in the right way. It also shows how science stories can automatically find their way to people who aren’t necessarily interested in science. “Be a virus and infect people’s minds,” urged Carl, and there are many examples of people taking up his advice. Because of his science tattoo series, Carl got to talk about science in an interview with a tattoo magazine. A story I wrote about nanotechnology in 17th century swords turned up in all sorts of places, from Reddit to role-playing forums to online blacksmithing communities. Ars Technica itself uses an interest in technology as a hook to get people from gamers to IT specialists to read science stories.
This culture of sharing is going to be increasingly important, especially as social media becomes increasingly popular. You don’t expect people to come to you. You go to where they are or, better still, you get other people to take you there.
When I link to a post on Facebook or Twitter, it reaches a few thousand people. Some of them will pass the link on to their friends and followers, and it ripples outwards. At every iteration, the stories land in front of more potential eyes, with increasingly diverse interests. The big question is whether these ripples can duplicate or replace the effect of randomly coming across science stories in newspaper pages. I believe they can. The benefits may be relatively limited for the moment but they will grow as the use of social media matures.