Sizzling Papers of the Week – Nov 29

 

The Scizzle Team

 

Choices, Choices…

The decisions we make are influenced not only by the objective pros and cons of each option, but also by subjective evaluations that lead us to prefer one choice over another.  Research published Monday suggested that the home of such subjective preferences in the brain may be the lateral habenula, a region previous thought to be more generally involved in aversion.  Interfering with the lateral habenula’s functioning left rats unable to use subjective preferences, such as favoring large rewards that require more work or small, more easily obtained rewards – to guide their choices, instead reverting to choosing at random.

What’s better for me? Fundamental role for lateral habenula in promoting subjective decision biases , Stopper, Colin M and Floresco, Stan B., Nature Neuroscience, advance online publication November 24 2013

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Cholesterol and Breast Cancer Tag Team

High cholesterol and breast cancer are both leading health threats – and now investigators have discovered how the two can work together.  A metabolite of cholesterol, 27HC, increases certain forms of tumor growth and metastasis, an effect that depends on conversion by the cytochrome oxidase CYP27A1.  It turns out that CYP27A1 levels correlate to tumor grade, and inhibiting CYP27A1 reduces the influence of high cholesterol on breast cancer.

27-Hydroxycholesterol Links Hypercholesterolemia and Breast Cancer Pathophysiology, Nelson, Erik R., et a.l, Science, November 29 2013

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It’s All in Your Gut (but we’re not talking bacteria this time)

Love can we blind but your visceral isn’t! A 4-year study found that the visceral attitudes, that are not necessary all sweet, can predict if the couple is indeed the “happily ever after” kind of marriage or not. So before you decide to get married – check you gut feeling.

Though They May Be Unaware, Newlyweds Implicitly Know Whether Their Marriage Will Be Satisfying. McNulty JK et al., Science. 2013.

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Don’t Worry, Be Happy

Psychoneuroimmu…what? psychoneuroimmunology (PNI). This week Nature took a closer look at the field of PNI which aims to understnad how the nervous and the immune systems interact with each other, or in other words – how one’s mental state can affect the whole body and his/ her health. See how one biologist is trying to tackle this question by sound science.

Immunology: The Pursuit of Happiness. Marchant J. Nature. 2013.

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A New Approach to Publishing Science Research

 

Thalyana Smith-Vikos

By perusing a recent article published in the online journal eLife, I noticed a few aspects of the article that I definitely wasn’t expecting when scrolling to the bottom of the page. The decision letter, sent to the authors when their article was accepted for publication, is included, along with the names of the peer reviewers and their comments. Additionally, the authors’ response to the reviewers’ comments is also included.

eLife explains that the authors and reviewers have given their approval to include this information, and that only the major concerns identified in the reviewers’ comments are shown. Still, I was surprised to see that this information  was accessible! I then discovered that other journals, including EMBO Journal from Nature Publishing Group, also follow this format of transparency, in which all of the letters between authors and editors, including reviewers’ comments, are listed on the journal’s website for each accepted article. I’m not sure how often people carefully look through these letters or are just happy reading the paper, but the principle still stands that this information is now made public.

I immediately began to ponder why eLife and other journals have decided to include this information with published articles. As someone who has both received and written decision letters and peer review comments, I can attest that this is a very sensitive process that most scientists like to keep private. Every scientist knows that even if a paper is accepted for publication, there may still be some aspects that need to be ironed out, but for a non-scientist reading the decision letter online, this may generate confusion: they may think, why was this paper accepted if there were still issues with it?

However, displaying this information can provide more credibility to the peer review process in general: scientists and non-scientists alike can see that this paper was rigorously reviewed by experts in the field, and a lot of time and effort went into improving the manuscript based on these comments. With the rise of “predatory” journals that lack a real peer review process, we can clearly observe that eLife and other journals maintain the high standards of peer review. Sometimes it is easy to guess how long the peer review process took for any paper in any journal, because each journal will report the dates the article was received and accepted after review; however, eLife has taken it a step further and displayed the entire review process for us to assess. This extra information allows for the reader to develop a much more informed opinion of the article; readers now have the entire “backstory” of an article at their fingertips, and witnessing how the article has been revised prior to publication provides a deeper understanding of and greater appreciation for the final product.

Additionally, I was surprised that the reviewers’ names and comments were revealed. Anonymity of reviewers helps to keep the publication process more objective from the authors’ point of view. Sometimes authors may try to guess who the reviewers are, as the authors themselves can suggest or exclude potential reviewers, but that final anonymity also acknowledges that the reviewers’ comments must be respected without any personal bias. This also allows the reviewers to feel more comfortable with writing their analysis of the paper. On the other hand, as this new method  of peer review gains more visibility, I think scientists could also be accepting of this lack of transparency. If the status quo is not to give comments anonymously, then authors, reviewers and editors can be equally prepared to handle this scenario. By  revealing reviewers’ names, this provides assurance to the authors and to readers that the journal has indeed found experts who are appropriate reviewers for the manuscript.

I should also mention that F1000Research, the new open-access journal from Faculty of 1000, has developed a somewhat related publication process. F1000Reserach is truly the first “open science publisher”: after an article is submitted, it is almost immediately published online (with all of the raw data included) after a quick in-house check for any major concerns. Then, the post-publication peer review ensues, in which F1000 users can post comments on the paper using a forum-type discussion model. This certainly instills the principle that science is a community, and that any scientist’s work should be assessed by this community in order to draw the best conclusions from the data. Additionally, F1000 Research nominates experts in the field to be peer reviewers (whose names and affiliations are disclosed), as well.

Articles which are then revised based on peer review comments will be announced on the F1000 Research site, and only these revised papers will be indexed on PubMed and other databases. In addition to “revised”, articles can also receive the tag of “update”, if, for example, there is an update to a software release or other type of technology the paper describes. Articles can also be labeled as “follow up”, which are cited separately and provide new information to a review or opinion piece.  All in all, the F1000Research models allows work to be published much more quickly, and it increases the community of reviewers. As science is fast-moving, new updates and insights to previously published work can be quickly added to keep up with the pace.

 

What do you think? Do you think it’s beneficial to have all the review information disclosed?

Follow Thalyana on Twitter @ThalyanaScience

Why Going Home for Thanksgiving Feels so Good

 

 

Celine Cammarata

Ahh family – sure, they can drive you crazy sometimes, but once you’re all sitting around an amazing turkey spread it’s hard to deny the joy and comfort that  loved ones bring to our lives.  And as scientists, we at Scizzle wanted to know why – what’s the biology underlying that great feeling of being surrounded by people you care about?  Watch our first Scizzling Video to find out!

 

Happy Thanksgiving!

To Smoke or Not to Smoke?

 

Neeley Remmers

As I mentioned in my previous post, November is cancer awareness month and in honor of this I promised to highlight different cancers each week throughout November. This week, I have decided to put the spotlight on lung cancer as this particular form has now affected my family twice. Six years ago, my grandfather, who had been a smoker for the majority of his life, died from Stage IIA lung cancer. To refresh your memory, cancers are diagnosed in stages ranging from Stage I to Stage IV based on the size of the primary tumor and degree of metastasis throughout the body. However, non-small cell lung cancer stages are a little different due to its slow-growing nature (see American Cancer Society’s webpage for more in-depth description). My grandfather had a baseball-sized primary tumor in one of his lungs, but we thought he was fortunate because they were able to completely remove the tumor and there were no detectable metastases. However, the tumor came back and he passed away 10 months after diagnosis. More recently, I have an aunt that was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer (we are still awaiting the official diagnosis) where they were able to remove the metastatic tumor from her brain, but her primary tumor in her lungs has been deemed inoperable. Unlike my grandfather, she was never a smoker and has been relatively healthy her entire life. I’m sharing these personal instances with you because they highlight a common myth associated with lung cancer; many believe that only smokers are susceptible to getting lung cancer and are perplexed when an otherwise healthy, non-smoker is diagnosed with lung-cancer.

The reality is smoking is not the only cause for lung cancer. Repeated exposure to second-hand smoke is another big risk factor along with repeated exposure to such environmental toxins such as diesel car exhaust, radon, asbestos, etc. Basically, if you work or live in an environment where you breathe-in pollutants that your lungs are unable to remove naturally, your risk for developing lung cancer increases. There are two types of lung cancer that arise – small cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer. The difference between these two types is based on the size of the cancer cell and their morphology or how they appear under a microscope. Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) affects 7 of 8 patients as compared to small cell lung cancer, which affects 1 of 8 patients. NSCLC grows at a slower rate than small cell lung cancer and has a different metastatic profile in that it doesn’t spread as rapidly or broadly through the body (information taken from the NCI website). According to the American Cancer Society Facts and Figures, lung cancer is the #1 cause of cancer-related deaths in both men and women, and as you might expect the chances of survival drastically decrease as the disease progresses to metastatic disease.

Two exciting studies were published in 2012 in the New England Journal of Medicine showing how an anti-PD-L1 antibody is an effective immunotherapy strategy to treat both early-stage and advanced stage NSCLC along with other such cancers as melanoma and renal cancer (Brahmer JR et al 2012 N Engl J Med  and Topalian SL et al 2012 N Engl J Med). What makes these studies so exciting is that not only was the antibody able to effectively treat NSCLC regardless of stage, but it also worked in a number of cancer types and it was the first immunotherapeutic agent able to successfully treat NSCLC, which classically had been resistant to immunotherapy. The antibody works by binding to immune-checkpoint protein, PD-L1 (programmed death ligand 1), expressed on the surface of cancer cells thereby preventing it from binding to its receptor on T cells. The PD-1/PD-L1 pathway has been shown to negatively regulate T cell immunity by decreasing the amount of IL-2 secretion and inhibiting T cell proliferation (Carter L et al. 2002 Eur J Immuno). In cancer-bearing mice, blockade of this pathway resulted in increased anti-tumor immunity by increasing the amount of anti-tumorigenic cytokines that were secreted such as IFN-γ and IL-2 thereby reducing tumor burden (Blank C et al 2005 Cancer Res). Essentially, by blocking this pathway we are able to eliminate one method of immune evasion utilized by NSCLC. Clinical trials for this drug are currently ongoing and more information can be found on both the NCI and ACS websites.

Until the development of the PD-L1 antibody, one of the primary methods of treating NSCLC was using targeted drug therapies. There are multiple subtypes of NSCLC such as adenocarcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma that have different molecular signatures and thus respond differently to treatment. Due to this feature, predictive biomarker assays have been developed and are readily used in clinics to determine which patients exhibit mutations in either the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) or anaplastic lymphoma kinase (ALK), which are involved in two major tumor-promoting signaling pathways, and the results of these tests help direct clinicians in determining the best treatment strategy. Additional tests are being developed to determine mutations in other predictive biomarkers such as BRAF, ROS1, MET and PIK3CA all of which are involved in major tumor-promoting signaling pathways and efforts are being made to synthesize agents that directly target these proteins. For information on the current status of targeted drug therapy in NSCLC, Savas P et al. recently published a comprehensive review in Journal of Thoracic Disease last month titled “Targeted therapy in lung cancer: IPASS and beyond, keeping abreast of the explosion of targeted therapies for lung cancer.

Obesity: Prevention is the Cure

 

Kelly Jamieson Thomas

 

Over the past thirty years, we have witnessed an astronomical increase in worldwide obesity, which has reached epidemic proportions. Worldwide, more than 1.1 billion adults are overweight, of those 312 million are obese, with the remaining on the path to becoming obese. In the US, obesity rates rose from 14.5% to 30.9%, more than doubling, between 1971 and 2000. Currently, in the US, more than 37% of adults, about 78 million, and 17% of youths are obese. If the obesity rate continues to grow at current rates, healthcare costs attributable to obesity, which were $147 billion in 2008, are predicted to increase to $957 billion dollars by 2030, a startling 18% of total US health expenses.

 

As the leading cause of preventable death, obesity, characterized by a Body Mass Index (BMI) greater than 30, poses an enormous burden in healthcare costs and a significant risk for decreased life expectancy, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, osteoarthritis and some cancers. We need to take responsibility for our long-term health by developing public strategies to combat weight gain. How can we accomplish this goal? By making small and consistent changes that include increasing physical activity and modifying our food choices.

 

Energy in, Energy Out

One contributing factor to the rise in obesity has been a substantial decrease in daily physical activity. This has led to changes in energy balance tipping the scale in favor of a gradual weight gain of 1.1-2.2 lb per year. In “The Importance of Energy Balance”, the authors explain how the delicate seesaw of energy balance has been disturbed by our decrease in physical activity, resulting in a state where any excess food consumption results in weight gain. To prevent weight gain, and ultimately obesity, energy in (food) must balance energy out (exercise).

 

Several studies that show that increasing our physical activity, combined with controlling our food choices, is the best way to combat obesity. In a 20-year long study, men with high levels of physical activity gained 5.7 lb less than those with low physical activity and women who exercised more in this study gained 13.4 lb fewer than those who didn’t. BMI, which is used to measure obesity, was also inversely associated with physical activity in 5 different long-term studies. Another study showed that either walking or high-intensity exercise one time per week led to a decrease in body weight of 1.76 lb for men and 1.39 lb for women over a two year period.

 

Unfortunately, most weight loss programs solely focus on restricting diet, not increasing exercise and curbing food intake. Studies have shown that calorie-restricting diets lead to 33-66% of dieters regaining more weight than they lost on the diet. Long-term, this does not help fight obesity. Weight gain prevention is key. Making small changes in our diet and exercise now, as little as 100 kcal/day, prevents weight gain and obesity over time. In the morning, go for a run or power walk outside. After work or on the weekends, meet with friends for a game of Frisbee. If it’s too cold outside, follow an exercise program on TV.

 

How to fight obesity: Community-based prevention

The most effective way to prevent obesity is to do so as a community, with partnership programs that provide education on how to exercise and eat properly and community aid in following prevention guidelines. While public strategies focused on obesity prevention have had varying degrees of success, one strategy, EPODE (Ensemble, Prévenons l’Obésité des Enfants), has been developed around a successful prevention program tested in France, the FLVS study, which decreased childhood obesity 9% in 4 years. EPODE, according to a recent article in US Endocrinology, aims to reduce childhood obesity by encouraging and monitoring healthy eating and exercise both at school and at home, as intervention solely targeting schools was unsuccessful. The EPODE model stresses the critical role of awareness, willingness, and involvement of initiatives that combine efforts from NGOs, private partners, and government to fight obesity. As of 2012, 17 countries have implemented EPODE-inspired programs, including VIASANO in Belgium, JOGG in the Netherlands, and OPAL in South Australia. Implementation of such programs requires comprehensive community effort, but the long-term results may significantly alleviate our obesity problem.

 

Prevention is the Cure

There are no safe and efficient drugs to cure the obesity epidemic, but we can prevent it by making small and consistent changes in our lives, starting at a young age. It is time to take responsibility for our long-term health and prevent obesity by exercising daily and eating healthier. In doing so, we not only prevent obesity, one of the largest public health problems we face as a population, but also lower our risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, osteoarthritis, decreased longevity and cancer.

All We Really Need is Girls

 

Celine Cammarata

The days, young women outnumber young men at the college level fairly consistently, and female doctors, lawyers, and the like are becoming normal.  But women are still vastly underrepresented in some fields of science, especially engineering.  STEM outreach often focuses on the classroom, but the startup GoldieBlox is taking a different approach – toys.

The things we play with as children can have an important effect on the skills we learn and how we see ourselves.  By giving girls family and appearance centered toys such as dolls and make up, while reserving hand on building toys for boys, we’re both reducing girls’ chances to learn about the basics of mechanics and construction, as well as subtly (or not so subtly) hinting that building things is not appropriate for them.  GoldieBlox seeks to change that by producing exciting, engineering-focused toys for girls – and now, a virally successful music video encouraging girls to explore engineering.  The video featured a trio of young girls who abandon princess wear commercials in favor of building an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine, set a fantastic remix of the Beastie Boys sing “Girls,” is simply a must-see.

So if you are looking for the perfect gift for a girl in your family – ditch the Barbie, recent Disney princess or the new “kitchen” set and encourage your favorite girl to be inquisitive, confident and inventive. And yes, she can do it while wearing all pink….

 

Sizzling Papers of the Week – Nov 22

 

The Scizzle Team

Guys, Stop Fighting Over Me!

Male-male aggression is part of sexual selection in many species, and is affected by environment, experience, and the animal’s state – but how?  Researchers found that while male fruit flies will usually be at each others’ throats when an eligible [fly] bachelorette is around, this fighting is reduced in males who’ve had prior exposure to the ladies.  Turns out the male flies can sense females via a special pheromone-sensing  ion channel, triggering activity in a pathway mediated by the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA which quells male aggression.  Thus, this new found circuit represents a key means for experience to modulate aggression.

 

Female contact modulates male aggression via sexually dimorphic gABAergic circuit in Drosophila, Yuan Q. et al., Nature Neuroscience, November 17, 2013

Create a feed for gABAergic circuit to keep up with all the fighting.

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Another Reason to Love Germs

You know how when you tell distant family members you’re a scientist, there’s always someone who asks whether you’re curing cancer?  Well it turns out the millions of microbiota living in your gut can answer that question with a resounding “yes.”  These little guys can have a big effect on inflammation, which in turn plays an important role in cancer.  Investigators found that when mice lack a robust host of microorganisms, they responded less well to cancer therapies.  Way to go bacteria!

 

Commensal Bacteria Control Cancer Response to Therapy by Modulating the Tumor Microenvironment, Iida, N. et al., Science, November 21 2013

Create a feed for bacteria, microenviroment and cancer. 

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If Only We Could Remember What This Paper Was About…

With the medical use of marijuana on the rise, it’s more important than even to understand the mechanisms of unwanted side effects.  Researchers made important strides in clarifying how marijuana effects memory when they discovered that ∆9-THC, the active component in the plant, induces the activity of the enzyme COX-2 via CB1 receptors.  Blocking COX-2 reduces the negative impacts of ∆9-THC on memory, while permitting the medicinal effects such as reducing neurodegeneration in Alzheimer’s disease.

 

9-THC-Caused Synaptic and Memory Impairments Are Mediated through COX-2 Signalling, Chen, R. et al., Cell, November 17 2013.

Fascinated by marijuana? Create a feed for marijuana, COX-2 and memory.

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Taking a Closer Look at Chromosomes

We know that mitotic chromosomes are critical to cell division, but there remains a lot of doubt about precisely how these structures organize.  Now investigators have used chromosome conformation capture methods to shed more light on the issue.  They demonstrated that the way nonsynchronous cell were believed to organize is actually only true in interphase, while a more homogenous, consistent organization occurs during metaphase.  Simulations went on to show that classical models don’t correctly explain the organization of chromosomes during mitosis.

 

Organization of the Mitotic Chromosome, Naumova, N., et al., Science, November 21 2013

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Are You Cold?

Apparently, the mandated temperatures in which lab mice are kept are too cold for them and suppress their anti-tumor immune response. A new study published in PNAS shows that when mice were kept in thermoneutral temperatures, there were fewer immunosuppressive cells with significantly enhanced CD8+ T cell-dependent control of tumor growth. This study highlights the importance of the environmental temperature conditions and show how it may lead to a misunderstanding of anti-tumor immune response and its effect when studying potential anti-cancer therapies.

Baseline tumor growth and immune control in laboratory mice are significantly influenced by subthermoneutral housing temperature. Kokolus KM et al., PNAS, November 2013.

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Coming Soon to a Journal Near You

 

Celine Cammarata

What if publishing papers took minutes rather than months and allowed for instant feedback from other scientists?  Such is the promise of preprints, scientific manuscripts posted on the web before being accepted by traditional journals.

In some areas of research, preprints are nothing new; the preprint hosting website arXiv, run out of Cornell University, has been around for years and is popular with physicist.  But investigators in the life science have been slower to adopt the practice.  arXiv has only one life sciences category, quantitative biology, and no apparent intention to add more.

Enter bioRxiv, a new site from Cold Spring Harbor.  As the name implies, bioRxiv caters to biology crowd, accepting manuscripts in fields ranging from bioinformatics to zoology.  Like arXiv before it, bioRxiv accepts manuscripts provided they have not already been published elsewhere, and allows moderated comments on uploaded documents.  Still in its infancy, the site is already home to 28 papers, though as of yet none have been commented on.

For preprints to become mainstream might take some cultural shifts.  Some life scientists are concerned that preprinting manuscripts will open them to getting scooped or make it more difficult to establish who was the first to make a discovery.  Furthermore, many leading journals still frown on preprints and may refuse to publish manuscripts that have already been posted online.

But these things are changing.  More and more journals and publishers are accepting preprinted papers – Elsevier, for instance, states that “Unlike some publishers, we do not consider that a preprint of an article… prior to its submission to Elsevier for consideration amounts to prior publication” – and other concerns may be starting to fade.  As new generations of biologists join the ranks, perhaps preprints will become the new normal.

For more on preprints and their increasing popularity in the life sciences, check out this recent Nature piece.  And stay tuned for next week’s scizzling post on eLife!

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Let’s turn up the heat and turn STEM into STEAM

Thalyana Smith-Vikos 

 

I recently had the pleasure of watching an amazing performance of the Pilobolus acrobatic modern dance troupe, and something in the program caught my eye: it said that the dancers had worked with MIT scientists to develop new dance routines! This was quite evident in the “Automaton” performance, in which the dancers were all arranged into different acrobatic positions and moved in unison to create the effect that they were all parts of a robot. It was really quite astonishing: at first, I was just watching the dancers on stage, but then suddenly it really looked like there was a robot moving across the floor. With many kids in the audience, there was definitely a lot of oohing and aahing at this moment.

Another example where it was evident that the dancers had worked with scientists was in the “Sextet” performance, in which the performers placed pieces of rope on the stage and then moved the rope (like doing double dutch) in sync with the music to mimic sound waves. As additional beats were added to the music, more dancers appeared with rope to start copying those specific sound waves, and suddenly there was an entire orchestra on the stage! The dancers moved with such grace and poise while still perfectly depicting sound waves with the rope; it reminded me of ribbon dancing at the Olympics. There were more oohs and aahs during this performance, and I thought to myself, “That’s not just the art of music, kids, that’s the art of science.”

Since its founding in 1971, Pilobolus has been devoted to establishing educational programs to encourage kids to develop an interest in dance, and hopefully they throw in some of what they learned from the MIT scientists, too. Using their platform, I think there are many more programs like this that could help encourage the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) Educational Initiative, an addendum to the STEM Initiative.

The City University of New York (CUNY) has a Science & the Arts program funded in part by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Examples of recent performances include AstroDance, a multimedia dance performance illustrating the discovery of gravity waves at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), and DNA Story, a play that tells the story of how Watson, Crick, Franklin and Wilkins discovered the structure of DNA in the 1950s. While the NSF remains concerned about how to fund the “broader impacts” of science research, I think this is actually a great way for the NSF to promote science education, by funding groups that present the beauty of scientific discovery in an entertaining and approachable manner.

Here’s another example that the NSF could support: the Cambridge, MA game company Harmonix creates technology for the Xbox game “Dance Central,” which allows players to learn dance routines step by step without a controller. Students could be invited to spend the day in the music lab learning how to translate the K-pop hit “Gangnam Style” into an interactive game. Who doesn’t love “Gangnam Style”? And who doesn’t love video games? This would go over in a heartbeat.

And then there’s the initiative to have students rap about scientific principles, which has garnered a lot of support and been quite successful in getting students interested in science. The program was started when Christopher Emdin, a Columbia University professor, and GZA, a member of the Wu-Tang Clan, met with Neil deGrasse Tyson, an outgoing physicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium, at a radio show. Starting in New York City public schools, they launched a pilot project to bring hip-hop and rap into science classrooms. There’s a lot that can be learned from the success of Emdin and GZA’s program that could be implemented in schools across the country, namely teaching science using something that students already enjoy and can relate to. In fact, in a manner that deGrasse Tyson has termed “dropping science,” GZA will be rapping about the Big Bang in his upcoming album “Dark Matter;” hopefully his younger fans will take to the album and be inspired.

There’s really no limit as to how STEAM education can be accomplished, whether it be acting, dancing or rapping. Many scientists themselves have an artistic inclination, which could lead to initiatives where scientists visit classrooms and teach the artistic side of science. Take the winners of the annual “Dance Your PhD” contest (which Pilobolus dancers help judge): these are scientists who are conducting their thesis research in the lab and have found a way to illustrate their research using interpretive dance.

If you would rather scientists sing instead of dance in the classroom, I’m sure Indre Viskontas, a cognitive neuroscientist, professional soprano opera singer and TV host, could help with that. She has found a way to combine both scientific and artistic passions and studies the psychology of music, specifically how musicians can best use their practice time, and how they can find a way to connect with the audience. Viskontas is the perfect example of a scientist who has interests outside of science and can incorporate these interests into her research. Moreover, her artistic pursuits enhance her success as a scientist and vice-versa.

Overpowering all of these excellent STEAM initiatives, however, is the idea that while students may better appreciate science by using art in the classroom, this still does not mean they will want to become scientists when they grow up. Adding on to this is the misconception in the media that scientists are nerds, or that scientists plan to destroy the world in every Marvel or DC comic on the big screen. Have no fear, The Science & Entertainment Exchange is here! The Exchange is a program of the National Academy of Sciences that connects entertainment executives with scientists and engineers to develop accurate and engaging scientific concepts for TV shows and movies. The Exchange has consulted on over 500 projects, and while it still bothers me that they haven’t completely solved the misrepresentation of how scientists are portrayed, along with the scientific ideas that are being discussed in TV and film, imagine how worse “The Avengers” could have been without having an Exchange consult?

Bringing this back to STEAM education, wouldn’t it be great if The Exchange established an internship program? In this way, students with the Hollywood bug could rub shoulders with entertainment executives, while also learning that they could have super cool jobs as scientists who consult for these executives. Maybe being a scientist is not so nerdy, after all.

Don't Touch That! You'll Get Germs

 

Robert Thorn

Everybody can relate to a parent saying “Don’t touch that, you’ll get germs.” For most of our lives we have been told to avoid ‘germs’, an ambiguous mix of all things that might get you sick. The truth is that not all germs are created equal. Scientists have been trying to decode the human “microbiome,” or the bacteria that live within our digestive system, to determine how these bacteria come to inhabit our digestive tract and how they relate to human health and disease. Good bacteria in the intestines can help us digest food and keep out bad bacteria, but bad bacteria in the intestine can have harmful effects such as obesity, allergies, and short-term sicknesses like food poisoning.

A recent paper in Nature suggests a method by which bacteria can initially colonize our digestive system. It is well known that newborns have a weaker immune response to infection but this has generally been attributed to an immature immune system. These researchers suggest a different reason, that newborns have a system to actively suppress the immune system. They have found an enrichment of CD71 positive immune cells in newborn mice compared to adults. In addition they have shown that these CD71 positive immune cells secrete factors that repress immune function, even in mature adult immune cells. Newborn mice that were depleted of these CD71 cells could fight infection better than those that still had an enrichment of the CD71 positive cells. The obvious question is why? The researches went on to answer this question by looking at the effects of bacteria in the intestine and the amount of CD71 cells. They showed that there was a positive correlation between the amount of CD71 cells and the amount of bacteria in the intestine. This means that evolution has made it so that newborns are more susceptible to possibly harmful infections in an attempt to protect the potentially helpful bacteria that colonize the intestines.

In contrast to the shutting down of the immune system by gut bacteria, a new study published in eLife has suggested a role for certain kinds of gut bacteria in rheumatoid arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder, meaning it is one in which the immune system attacks the body. In this case, joints are being attacked, and the resulting inflammation causes the arthritis. Based on a screen done of human fecal samples (which shows a representation of gut bacteria) of people with and without rheumatoid arthritis, the researchers correlated a single strain of bacteria, P. copri, to patients newly diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Since rheumatoid arthritis is a multifaceted disease, it is possible that the P. copri bacteria either thrives in an environment that also causes rheumatoid arthritis or that P. copri pushes an already compromised over the edge and is an early factor in rheumatoid arthritis. The researchers also showed that mice infected with P. copri had an increased occurrence of colitis, which is inflammation of the colon. This could show a link between P. copri and general inflammation in the host, strengthening the correlation between P. copri and rheumatoid arthritis.

Whether we are talking about good gut bacteria or bad gut bacteria, new areas of medicine are focused on how to maintain a healthy microbiome. Generally, good bacteria can be maintained by proper diet but upsetting the balance with a bad diet, or by taking too many antibiotics, can give opportunistic bad bacteria a chance to over-colonize the digestive system. In many cases of intestinal disease that result from microbiome imbalance, fecal transplants have been used to treat patients. Fecal transplants involve the use of a fecal sample from an individual with a healthy mix of bacteria and transplanting it into a sick person, generally by enema. This allows a healthy mix of bacteria to recolonize the sick person’s gut. This may seem like a barbaric or gross treatment, but it has been shown to be effective in treating cases of inflammatory intestinal disease. As research on gut microbiomes progresses, we may discover more sophisticated ways to treat these diseases, but currently fecal transplant can be the best option.

As our understanding of the microbiome increases, we may discover a more complicated relationship between human health and gut bacteria. Finding more links will help advance medicine by taking advantage of this relationship to more easily detect and cure diseases.