My sample kit from uBiome stared at me from the kitchen table. Inside its sleek black cover, latched with Velcro, a single high-tech Q-tip awaited. On some morning of my choosing, I was to dab that Q-tip on a piece of used toilet paper, seal it up, and send tiny particles of my excrement back to the uBiome headquarters in downtown San Francisco. There, researchers would parse it and let me know what organisms squirmed around my intestines.
uBiome, a biotech startup, exists to help people explore their microbiomes — the population of tiny organisms that live inside you, outnumbering your own cells 10(ish) to 1(ish). I wanted to know how my own microbiome compared to other people like me: youngish people who run a lot who are generally healthy but sometimes eat large cheeseburgers.
But like other genetic test providers, including 23andMe and Ancestry.com, the company has a second and less visible objective. Users participate out of curiosity, health concerns — or, in the case of the still-nascent science of the microbiome, sheer novelty. But their data is the ultimate prize, which those companies, with participant permission, can study, share, and sell.
The animal kingdom is full of color. Animals use it for camouflage, to advertise themselves and even as various forms of protection. But we haven’t been paying as much attention to what colors now-extinct mammals might have had – until now.
By matching samples of organic material to their chemical make up we’ve been able to determine the color of extinct bats and our novel research, published in PNAS, has the potential to work out colors in lots of other organisms. Read More
When you drop a piece of food on the floor, is it really OK to eat if you pick up within five seconds? This urban food myth contends that if food spends just a few seconds on the floor, dirt and germs won’t have much of a chance to contaminate it. Research in my lab has focused on how food and food contact surfaces become contaminated, and we’ve done some work on this particular piece of wisdom.
While the “five-second rule” might not seem like the most pressing issue for food scientists to get to the bottom of, it’s still worth investigating food myths like this one because they shape our beliefs about when food is safe to eat.
So is five seconds on the floor the critical threshold that separates an edible morsel from a case of food poisoning? It’s a bit a more complicated than that. It depends on just how much bacteria can make it from floor to food in a few seconds and just how dirty the floor is.
One evening last month, library technician Chris Weiss could be seen prowling the streets of Petersburg, Alaska, in her batmobile. She didn’t attract any special attention; the light blue Subaru blended right in. But the sensitive microphone on the roof and the bright yellow box inside the car gave her the power to hear sounds outside of human hearing – bat calls.
Weiss is part of a network of citizen scientists tallying the bats of southeastern Alaska through an Alaska Fish and Game Department project. The research is showing what a healthy bat population in the region looks like – important data on its own, but vital information if disease ultimately strikes Alaska’s bats as it has bats in the contiguous U.S.
The existence of parallel universes may seem like something cooked up by science fiction writers, with little relevance to modern theoretical physics. But the idea that we live in a “multiverse” made up of an infinite number of parallel universes has long been considered a scientific possibility – although it is still a matter of vigorous debate among physicists. The race is now on to find a way to test the theory, including searching the sky for signs of collisions with other universes.
It is important to keep in mind that the multiverse view is not actually a theory, it is rather a consequence of our current understanding of theoretical physics. This distinction is crucial. We have not waved our hands and said: “Let there be a multiverse.” Instead the idea that the universe is perhaps one of infinitely many is derived from current theories like quantum mechanics and string theory.
Imagine seeing the lights of cities spreading around the Nile Delta and then in less than an hour gazing down on Mount Everest. The astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) are among the lucky few who will have this humbling, once-in-a-lifetime experience of seeing the beauty of Earth from space.
The ISS doesn’t just offer spectacular and countless views of the natural and man-made landscapes of our planet. It also immerses its residents into the Earth’s space environment and reveals how dynamic its atmosphere is, from its lower layers to its protective magnetic shield, constantly swept by the solar wind.
The best views are seen from the Cupola, an observation deck module attached to the ISS in 2010 and comprising seven windows. So, what are the amazing sights that you can see from the space station?
Three weeks and three days before Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans 10 years ago, a paper of mine appeared in the scientific journal Nature showing that North Atlantic hurricane power was strongly correlated with the temperature of the tropical Atlantic during hurricane season, and that both had been increasing rapidly over the previous 30 years or so. It attributed these increases to a combination of natural climate oscillations and to global warming.
Had Katrina not occurred, this paper and another by an independent team would merely have contributed to the slowly accumulating literature on the relationship between climate and hurricanes.
Instead, the two papers inspired a media firestorm, polarizing popular opinion and, to some extent, scientists themselves, on whether global warming was in some way responsible for Katrina. While the firestorm was mostly destructive, benefiting only the media, it had a silver lining in inspiring a much more concerted effort by atmospheric and climate scientists to understand how hurricanes influence and are influenced by climate.
We have learned much in the intervening years.
Imagine yourself as a graphic designer for New Age musician Enya, tasked with creating her next album cover. Which two or three colors from the grid below do you think would “go best” with her music?
Would they be the same ones you’d pick for an album cover or music video for the heavy metal band Metallica? Probably not.
For years, my collaborators and I have been studying music-to-color associations. From our results, it’s clear that emotion plays a crucial role in how we interpret and respond to any number of external stimuli, including colors and songs.
“Cannabis is like a medicine cabinet,” says Roger Pertwee, who was instrumental in some of the early cannabis trials for multiple sclerosis. “It has a lot of compounds in it that are novel and unique to cannabis. We have discovered 104 so far, but there are others. There are many potential uses that we have to investigate.”
Pertwee is Professor of Neuropharmacology at the University of Aberdeen and also GW’s Director of Pharmacology (some of his research at the university is funded by the company). His work, alongside that of other researchers including Raphael Mechoulam and Vincenzo Di Marzo, is instrumental in our understanding of the endocannabinoid system, a network of lipids and receptors involved in a wide array of bodily processes, including appetite, memory, pain and mood.
We have two types of cannabinoid receptor: CB1, which is mostly found in the brain and spinal cord, and CB2, which is found mainly on cells in the immune system. These receptors are activated by cannabinoids made by the body (endocannabinoids) as well as synthetic cannabinoids and those present in plants.
Where should medical research focus its efforts exploring medical cannabis? Many prominent researchers, including Pertwee, believe that the individual components of cannabis are more effective than using the whole plant. Focusing on components would also obviate the need for a patient to smoke.
Areas of interest to researchers across the world include the possible therapeutic use of THC (the main psychoactive component of cannabis), CBD and other cannabinoids to treat autoimmune diseases, diabetes, cancer, inflammation, seizures and even psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia.
There’s an idea circulating that humans are the only animal to experience sexual pleasure; that we approach sex in a way that is distinct from others. As with many questions about sex, this exposes some interesting facts about the way we discuss the subject.
On one level, the question of whether humans and nonhumans experience sex in the same way is fairly simply dismissed: how would we know? We cannot know how a nonhuman experiences anything – they can’t be asked. Sex as an experiential phenomenon for nonhumans is, quite simply, inaccessible. Science is obliged to propose questions that are answerable, and “how does a leopard slug experience sex?” is, at time of writing, about as unanswerable as they get.
Having said that, we can make educated guesses about whether sex is pleasurable for other species. Sex would be a very strange thing to seek if it didn’t bring some form of pleasure. It increases risk of disease, it wastes energy, it can seriously increase the likelihood of something bigger coming along and eating you (seriously, check out leopard-slug reproduction, below).