Friday, December 20, 2013

Chemistry of Beer: Carbon Dioxide vs Nitrogen

There's a lot of interesting science behind beer and brewing.  I'm not just saying that because I happen to like beer;  it's actually true.  Besides the interesting biology, chemistry, and physics behind the creation of beer, there is also an emerging field of research studying various health benefits of certain chemicals found in beer.

Throughout history, beer was often considered more than a nutritional or recreational beverage.  It was also considered a medicine that was, for example, used as a mouthwash and applied to wounds as a disinfectant.  The ancient Egyptians held beer in such high regard that they believed it was a gift from their god Osiris.  In fact, some breweries were able to stay in business during the US Prohibition era by producing "near beers," or very low alcohol beers, as well as a small amount of real beer that was available with a doctor's prescription.  Even as late as the 1930s, a daily glass of beer was thought by some doctors to be nutritious, particularly  for pregnant or nursing women.  

We now know that over-consumption of alcoholic beverages, including beer, can be very detrimental to health, and doctors also now discourage alcohol consumption during pregnancy.   However, many studies have supported the idea that there are some potential health benefits of some of the compounds found in beer, particularly compounds called polyphenols.  This remains an active area of research as people try to discover new chemical compounds to treat diseases like cancer and heart disease.    

I thought it would be entertaining to create another post on the science of beer.  In the previous beer post, we talked about the biology of beer and the role that microorganisms play in fermenting as well as spoiling beer.  Today, I wanted to put up a post about another interesting scientific aspect of beer: the gas dissolved inside of it.  It might sound like a kind of boring topic at first, but it's actually very important to the flavor of beer, and the topic will allow us to examine a little bit about how your body detects chemicals and how you perceive flavors in foods and beverages.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Dare Devil Scientists in Balloons

NPR Science Friday: Early Balloonists Took Science 'Up, Up and Away'

This is a very cool Science Friday segment that I wanted to share.  I heard this a couple of weeks back while I was driving one afternoon, and I thought it was very entertaining.  It's an interview with Richard Holmes, who wrote the book Falling Upwards, which is about some of the first people to explore the skies in hydrogen balloons.  Holmes also wrote a great book called The Age of Wonder, which I highly recommend.   I haven't read Falling Upwards, but based on the interview and an online excerpt, it sounds like it might be a good read.  It certainly harkens back to a time when science was done a lot more Indiana Jones-style and involved a lot more risk to life and limb.  These guys had no idea what was going to happen when they went into the sky.  Would there be oxygen?  Would they freeze or get struck by lightening?  They didn't know, but went anyway.  That took some serious guts or craziness or both. 

If you know someone with an interest in science and history, The Age of Wonder or Falling Upwards might be a good gift this holiday season.               

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

JFK's Scientific Legacy, Part III: Increased Appreciation for Science and Education in the US

I wanted to put up one final post about JFK and his relationship to science.  I mainly want to share some of his own words from one of the last speeches that he gave as well as the final speech that he never got to give.  These words express some very wise and very eloquently stated views on the role of science, education, and reason in domestic affairs and foreign policy.

In today's society, we often see people make the mistake of confusing a belief or an opinion with a fact.  Kennedy recognized that logic, reason, and science need to play a key role in society and the decisions it makes.  As I've said before on this blog, it is very important that all members of society have educated opinions about important issues.  Uneducated opinions, though, can be quite dangerous to progress.  

Monday, November 25, 2013

JFK's Scientific Legacy, Part II: Environmentalism

Rachel Carson, 1944
In the previous post about John F. Kennedy's impact on science, we discussed the consequences of Kennedy's push for space exploration and the goal he set of landing a man on the moon.  Another area of science where Kennedy has left a lasting impression is environmentalism and environmental science.  Kennedy helped to raise public awareness of environmental issues as well as the impact of chemicals like pesticides on the environment.  This story involves his interactions with a famous scientist, environmentalist, and science writer, Rachel Carson, who was perhaps the most important environmentalist of the 20th century.

Rachel Carson was originally a marine biologist, but she is most famous as a science writer who wrote excessive pesticide use and its consequences.  Her most important book, Silent Spring, was published in 1962 and is credited with starting the modern environmentalist movement.

One of the major pesticides discussed in the book was DDT, which stands for dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane.  DDT had been used to control insects since 1939 and helped prevent the spread of malaria in World War II.  The swiss scientist who discovered its insecticide uses, Paul Hermann Muller, was awarded the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine in 1948.  However, the effects of DDT on the environment and on other organisms were never fully studied even though its wide-spread use was adopted.  DDT use was poorly regulated after the war, and it was often used excessively in commercial agriculture in the 1940s and 50s.

In Silent Spring, Carson wrote about evidence that suggested DDT could cause cancer and was thus a threat to other organisms besides insects, including humans.  DDT is particularly dangerous to birds because it can cause metabolic changes resulting in laying of eggs with very thin shells.  These eggs are then often crushed by the weight of the bird sitting on them to warm them.  The title of Carson's book, Silent Spring, was meant to suggest a spring season without the singing of birds, what she envisioned if indiscriminate pesticide use continued.          

The public outcry that resulted from Silent Spring eventually led to the banning of DDT use in the US for agricultural use in the early 1972.  This is thought to be a defining moment of modern environmentalism.  The banning of DDT is probably a major factor in preventing the extinction of both the bald eagle and the peregrine falcon.

While Rachel Carson's book jump-started environmentalism, her cause benefited greatly from the help of the Kennedy White House and JFK himself.  Read on to find out more.

Friday, November 22, 2013

JFK's Scientific Legacy, Part I: The Space Program

November 22, 1963 is a day that will live forever in the minds of many Americans.  Much like my own generation will always equate the date of September 11th with the terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon in 2001, those of the Baby Boomer generation will always think of November 22nd as the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

Despite any personal flaws that he may have had, JFK was a man who inspired a lot of people.  He was well-known as a champion of civil rights and social justice.  He was also a champion of science.

Let's talk about one area of science and technology where JFK had a tremendous impact: the US space program and moon landing.  In 1961, JFK set the goal for the US to land a man on the moon and bring him back by the end of the decade.  It sounded crazy at the time.  In hindsight, today it seems even crazier that it was actually accomplished.  So crazy that some people believe it didn't really happen.  In reality, though, it really did happen.

When Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon in 1969, he represented a monumental achievement in the history of humanity.   The landscape of science and technology was forever changed by the massive effort that went into NASA's Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs leading up to the moon landings.

On the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination, I wanted to revisit his impact on the space program and some contributions to science and technology that resulted from it.  Read on after the jump.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria

Methicillin-resistant Staph. aureus, also known as MRSA
Following up on the previous post on antibiotic resistance as well as the one on phage therapy as a potential strategy to overcome antibiotic resistance, I want to point out that there's a great episode of PBS Frontline about the rise of drug-resistant bacteria that you can watch over at their website.

I highly recommend watching it if you're interested in antibiotic resistance and the "rise of the superbugs."  Even if you aren't that particularly interested in the topic, it is still worth watching just to be better informed about what is going be a major public health issue that we as a society have to face in the coming years.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Biological Rhythms and Biorhythms: Science vs Pseudoscience

"Biorhythm" cycles
We all have good days and bad days.  Sometimes it's random chance, sometimes it's our own fault, and sometimes somebody else is to blame. Throughout history, people have tried to explain or predict good and bad days through various methods.  People have used astrology, tarot cards and tea leaves to try to tell fortunes or predict events. 

Another way, called biorhythms, was popular in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.  The biorhythms idea says that various aspects and events (births, deaths, etc.) in a person's life follow cycles based on mathematical equations.  While there's no scientific evidence that biorhythms can predict anything any better than flipping a coin, many people believed in it and some still do believe in it.

The theory of biorhythms is an example of pseudoscience.  Pseudoscience literally means "false science," and that's an apt description.   Pseudoscience is often characterized by exaggerated claims, like being able to predict the timing of events far in the future.  Pseudoscience also contains a small grain of real science to try to make it look legitimate.  The biorhythms idea takes advantage of the fact that there are real biological cycles.    

Looking at the idea of biorhythms can teach us quite a bit about how to distinguish science from pseudoscience, which is very important in our society today where anyone can get on the internet and try to sell any crazy idea they want to.  Let's talk about the theory of biorhythms, real biological cycles, and some ways to tell pseudoscience vs. science after the jump.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Where Does the Money for Research Come From?

I feel like the average citizen doesn't get to hear much about how the whole research "enterprise" works.  That's part of why I started this blog.  People need to be informed about how research impacts them and what the costs and benefits of certain types of research are so that they can make better judgements about funding, including how their tax dollars are spent.  I'm obviously somewhat biased, because I work in research and think that we need to increase federal research and development (R&D) funding, but I think my beliefs are based on logic and reason.   

You'll sometimes hear scientists or engineers in the news talking about increasing research funding from the federal government, but I don't think the average person has a clear idea of how much money we're talking about, where the money come from, and where it goes.  That's what I want to talk about today.  People need to know what the facts are so that they can make informed judgements.  At the end of the day, people can have whatever opinions they want to have, but only the informed or educated opinions are really valid.  An uneducated or misinformed opinion can be far worse than no opinion at all.

Let's go through a little bit of data and see what we can learn.  We have quite a few graphs to look at, but sometimes pictures can tell a story better than words.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Follow-Up on Hershey and Chase

I wanted to post a link to a cool scientific paper that I saw when I was doing research for the previous post on Martha Chase.  It is called "A Single-Molecule Hershey-Chase Experiment" by Van Valen, et al., and was published in the journal Current Biology.  It is available to read here for free. 

These researchers took phages with DNA that was labeled with a fluorescent cyanine dye.  Using a fluorescence microscope, they monitored the time it takes for the bacteriophages to inject the DNA into E. coli bacteria cells (approximately 5-10 seconds).  Figure 1 of the paper shows their experimental scheme while Figure 2 shows an actual experiment.  It is definitely worth checking out if you are interested in bacteriophages or the Hershey-Chase experiment.    

Monday, October 28, 2013

Gender Bias in Science, Part IV: Martha Chase

Martha Chase in 1953
Many readers who have taken a high school- or college-level biology class in the past 50 years have likely heard of the "Hershey-Chase" experiment, performed in 1952.  Sometimes its called "Hershey & Chase" or even sometimes just "the blender experiment."  You might not remember it, but you probably learned about it at one time or another if you took some kind of biology course.  It's that important and that famous.   

The subject of today's post is the Dr. Martha Chase of "Hershey-Chase" fame.  Her name will be forever associated with what is considered to be the definitive experiment showing that DNA, not protein, is the inheritable genetic material.  Let's rephrase that, because it is an important discovery that we take for granted today: Hershey and Chase showed that genes are made of DNA, not protein.  As you can imagine, that was a big deal.  Before that, many scientists thought that DNA was frankly not very important and pretty uninteresting.  Many thought that genes were instead made out of protein.  Hershey and Chase forever changed that with a simple series of experiments.    

We'll get into the historical background of the experiments in a moment.  If you've read some of the previous posts in this series, you can probably guess that the reason we're talking about Chase is that, despite this impressive experiment that bears her name, Martha Chase watched Alfred Hershey receive a Nobel Prize in 1969 for the discovery, while she sat on the sidelines.

Was this an example of gender bias, or simply a case of giving credit to the more deserving half of the pair?  Let's talk about the facts of the case.  We'll go through the Hershey-Chase experiment and the somewhat tragic life of a legendary geneticist after the jump.        

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Rising Levels of Marijuana Poisonings in Pets

"Did someone say 'cookies?'"
Following up on a previous post on this blog about foods that can be poisonous to pets, I saw an article today from Huffington Post that notes that marijuana poisonings in pets are on the rise, partly due to the increased use of medical marijuana.  Medical marijuana that is put into baked goods or other snacks is an easy way for dogs or cats to quickly ingest a high and potentially toxic dose of the drug.  Dogs don't know the difference between cookies and "special" cookies; it is all the same delicious temptation to them.  Studies have already shown a correlation between increases in the numbers of medical marijuana licenses in certain states and the numbers of marijuana poisonings seen at local vet clinics. 

Let's talk a bit about what marijuana does in the body as well a why medical marijuana is a particular danger to pets.  The goal of this post is not to advocate or criticize medical marijuana (we're not getting into politics), but to just discuss some of the facts and science behind it.     

Monday, October 7, 2013

Gender Bias in Science, Part III: Chien-Shiung Wu

Marie Curie in 1911
Marge:   Sweetie, you could go to McGill, the Harvard of Canada
Lisa:   Anything that's the "something" of the "something" isn't really the "anything" of "anything."
--The Simpsons, "MoneyBart," 2010

The opening quote isn't meant to make fun of McGill (it's a very fine school), but rather to illustrate the point that calling something the "something of the something" can be seen as either a complement or an insult, depending on how you look at it.  For example, people often refer to McGill as the "Harvard of Canada" or refer to Duke as the "Harvard of the South."  Oftentimes the use of those phrases has complementary intentions, but when viewed from another angle, comparing the quality of these two institutions to Harvard (as a sort of "gold standard" for institutions) diminishes their individuality, individual strengths, and identities.  

Curie and Henri Poincare in 1911
This also happens a lot with famous women in science in history.  Lise Meitner was referred to by Einstein as the "German Madame Curie."  The woman scientist of today's post, Chien-Shiung Wu, was often referred to as the "Chinese Madame Curie" or simply as "Madame Wu."  These titles have been bestowed upon these women with good intentions; Madame Curie was obviously brilliant, and being compared with her is a complement for anyone, but it diminishes the individual discoveries and legacy of Meitner and Wu to refer to them in relation to Curie (as some sort of "gold standard" of a woman in science).  They were not "ethnic" copies of Madame Curie.  They were individuals who made brilliant scientific contributions in their own rights, yet unlike Curie, they didn't get the Nobel Prize they each deserved.

This is Part III of an ongoing series detailing some of the past and present issues faced by women in science, with a discussion of famous woman scientists who were denied science's highest prize, the Nobel Prize.  Part I focused on the nuclear physicist Lise Meitner, while Part II discussed the astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell.

Let's now talk another physicist, Chien-Shiung Wu, who has also been referred to as the "First Lady of Physics."

Friday, September 27, 2013

Phage Therapy: An Old Idea Re-Emerging

Electron micrograph of phages attacking a bacterial cell
Bacteriophages, sometimes just called phages, are naturally-occurring viruses that can target and kill bacteria.  That's right, bacteria can get infected with viruses, too.

Phages were discovered in the early 20th century, and people immediately began to think that maybe they could use phages to treat bacterial infections.  However, this idea was more-or-less abandoned in the US and most of Europe after Alexander Flemming discovered penicillin in 1928 and the use of antibiotics grew more widespread.

At the the time, antibiotics were hailed as miracle drugs, which they were, and the thought of antibiotic resistance was not on any one's radar.  Phage research in the US continued and was critical to the development of many molecular biology techniques used today, but it mainly focused on intense research on a few strains of phage (including a famous one called lambda phage) that infect the bacteria E. coli.    

However, research into the use of bacteriophages to treat infections, often called "phage therapy," continued for many years in some countries, including the former Soviet Union and France.  Research into phage therapy continues in those countries today, and sometimes phages are even used to treat infections in people, but not yet in the US.

Because antibiotic resistance is becoming an increasingly dangerous global health threat (as we discussed previously), the "old" idea of phage therapy is making a comeback in the US.  Some people see phage therapy as an potential alternative to antibiotics that may "save" us in the era of antibiotic-resistant superbugs.  As some scientists and doctors are (quite alarmingly) saying that we are approaching the "post-antibiotic age," you might begin to hear more about bacteriophages or phage therapy.   Let's talk a little bit about the past, present, and future of phage therapy as well as some of its known pros and cons.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Hanging On By a Delicate Thread....

This is a random, short post about how fragile life on earth actually is.  Sounds pretty optimistic, huh?

Sometimes nature reminds us that we're not as tough as we think we are.  We think we're pretty invincible with technology and our guns, armies, and nuclear weapons.  We drill oil wells and mine coal and other minerals to grab up all we can of the earth's resources to make us more powerful.  We create biological and chemical weapons that have devastating potential.  Sometimes, as a result, we think the only thing that can destroy humanity is itself.  For the most part, our technology and what we can do with it is pretty amazing.  The human race, despite all of its flaws, has achieved some remarkable things.  We put people on the moon!  Even today that still sounds kind of crazy.

However, in the grand scale of the universe, we're still just a tiny speck.  Here's a story to remind you that, despite our best efforts, our very existence depends in part on luck.....

Read on after the jump.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Antibiotic Resistance: CDC Threat Report

Pseudomonas bacteria
A big story on the news right now is the recent report by the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that calculated the number of deaths each year caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria. They estimate that at least 23,000 people die each year Americans die each year directly as a consequence of infection with antibiotic resistant bacteria. They warn that the potential rise of more and more antibiotic-resistant "super bugs" could result in a potential public health emergency.

You can read more about the CDC report at the New York Times or Washington Post, or you can access the full CDC report here (but be warned, it's pretty long), but I wanted to write just a little bit about antibiotic resistance and these so-called "super bugs." You may have heard of such bacteria as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), multi-drug resistant Pseudomonas, vancomycin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (VRSA), or vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus (VRE).  These resistant bacteria are becoming more common in human infections, and doctors epidemiologists are worried that as bacteria develop more and more resistance to commonly used antibiotics, we may run out of effective drugs to treat bacterial infections. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Gender Bias in Science, Part II: Jocelyn Bell Burnell

This is the second of a series of posts examining gender bias in science, with a focus on historical examples of women who made important scientific contributions to key discoveries, but who unfortunately found the credit for these discoveries was given to their male peers.  We are focusing on women who were denied science's highest and most famous honor, the Nobel Prize.  In a previous post, we talked about general issues related to women in science and we looked at the example of Lise Meitner, the woman who co-discovered nuclear fission but saw both the credit and a Nobel Prize for the discovery go to her male colleague, Otto Hahn.

Today, we'll discuss some of the flaws associated with the award structure of the Noble Prize and also focus on a more recent important woman scientist, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, an astrophysicist who discovered a type of star called a pulsar.  While she didn't get the Nobel Prize she deserved, she nonetheless has had an impressive career and has been an important advocate for women in science.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Gender Bias in Science, Part I: Lise Meitner

Marie Curie (1903)
Some people would like to believe that, in the "enlightened" 21st century that we live in, sexism is all but a thing of the past. Sadly, while things have improved greatly over the years in many countries around the world, sexism and gender bias are still major problems in our society.  You don't have to look very far to see that.

Science and medicine are both fields that have a long history of sexism and gender bias.  Some of the most important scientific discoveries were made by women who fought hard to gain a place in male-dominated fields, only to later see the credit for these discoveries go largely to their male collegues or supervisors. 

Sure, there were certainly many important women scientists who were well-recognized for their accomplishments, including the great Marie Curie, who won two Nobel Prizes (one in physics and one chemistry, the only person to win in two different categories) for her discovery of radium and studies on radioactivity, and Barbara McClintock, who won a 1983 Nobel Prize for her work on genetic inheritance.  Unfortunately, though, there were many brilliant women scientists who were overlooked, ignored, or otherwise taken advantage of.  

Let's disuss a little bit about gender bias in science and few of the women pioneers who helped to change the way we look at the world but who ended up getting far less credit and fame than their really deserved.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

US Falling Behind in Agricultural Research

Scientific researchers in the US are faced with economy-driven and sequester-driven cuts to budgets that are already tight due to funding levels that have not kept pace with inflation over the last 4 years. However, other countries around the world are increasing their spending on both basic and applied research, hoping that it will create technological advancement and economic growth. Because of this, the US is losing its position at the forefront of research and development. If things don't change, the US may be creeping toward the end of its reign as the world leader in science and technology.

One area where this is visibly starting is in the field of farming and agriculture, much of which is funded by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The US is not keeping pace with other countries in funding and supporting agricultural research, which could hurt our farming and food production abilities in the long run. This might be a bit shocking to those who think the US will always be the land of "amber waves of grain," but this is an important point to consider when thinking about public policy and economic growth. Let's briefly discuss this issue after the jump.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Deadly Brain-Eating Amoeba

Naegleria fowleri in human cerebrospinal fluid (image from CDC)
In addition to the green glowing bunnies that we discussed in the previous blog post, there has also been a lot of talk in the news recently about primary amoebic meningoencephalitis, or PAM.  This is a very rare but very fatal disease that you don't often hear about.  However, two recent cases have caused the discussion of this disease to re-emerge in the media (read more here): One case concerns a 12-old-girl in Arkansas (read more here) and the other concerns a 7th grade boy from Florida (read more here, here, or here).  They contracted this disease by getting water up their noses that was contaminated with an amoeba called Naegleria fowleri.  This little ameoba can infect through your nose and eat its way to your brain, nearly always causing death within days in a nightmare scenario straight out of a science fiction story.   

Let's talk a little about this rare but terribly dangerous infection after the jump.... 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Glowing Bunnies in the News: Why Make a Transgenic Rabbit?

As I've been reading a few of the articles that have reported on the recently produced "glow in the dark" rabbits (If you haven't heard or read about this, you can catch up here, here, here, or here), I've noticed that some of the comments are pretty harsh. A lot of people seem to think this is just some kind of a weird science experiment conducted by a bunch of "mad scientists." This couldn't be further from the truth.

Scientists from Hawaii and Turkey collaborated to develop the technology to take rabbit embryos and transfer a gene from jelly fish into them. This gene makes a protein called green fluorescent protein, or GFP, which glows when it absorbs a certain wavelength of light. The embryos were put back into their mother, and the animals that this gene was sucessfully added to now glows because their cells produce this fluorescent protein. On the surface, it is kind of a cool experiment from a "weird science" standpoint, but the anger comes from the perceived cost of such a "useless experiment." People seem to be wondering why these scientists (or whoever was funding them) didn't spend this money, time, and effort on something more useful. Well, the perception of high cost of these studies is almost certainly correct. The perception that this is useless is just wrong. Let's talk a little bit about why we might need these glowing bunnies after the jump.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Sugars, Sugar Alcohols, and Sweet Taste

Long before we could simply buy foods from a grocery store, our ability to detect the presence of sugars in foods was critical to our survival as a species.  We as humans have evolved to recognize sugary foods as tasting "good," because they are nutrient dense (high in calories) and "good" for us to eat, though today that's not entirely true.   Rather, sugary foods used to be good for us to eat long ago when we were hunting and gathering in the wild.  Back then, we needed the extra calories to survive.  Today, however, many of the foods that we eat are very nutrient dense and have many calories in the form of fat, protein, or sugar.  Sugar is far more prevalent now that we know how to refine and process it on an industrial scale.  Most of us don't really need to gather fruits to get sugar in our diet.  We can just buy a Snickers bar off the shelf at any convenience store. 

This abundance of sugar has made life easier and tastier, but it has also come at a cost.  Increased sugar consumption contributes to the world-wide epidemics of obesity and diabetes.  As a result, there has been a lot of research effort into the development of artificial sweeteners and other products than can cut calories from food.  Sugar substitutes have the potential to positively impact world-wide health and save billions of dollars of healthcare costs per year.  Obesity leads to cardiovascular and liver diseases as well as type 2 diabetes mellitus. 

There are also less altruistic but equally valid reasons for developing artificial sweeteners.  Another major goal is to cut costs in food and beverage manufacturing.  Consider a product like soda, where the major components are water and sugar, often in the form of high fructose corn syrup.  An alternative to sugar that tastes the same but costs less to produce could save companies millions or billions of dollars per year.

When most people think of artificial sweeteners, we first think of diet soda, which is sweetened by artificial chemicals such as apartame, acesulfame potassium (acesulfame K), and/or sucralose.  Many of the products that we consume also contain artificial sweeteners known as sugar alcohols, though they don't get a lot of attention and many people have probably never heard of them.  Let's explore a bit about sweet taste, sugars, and sugar alcohols after the jump....

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Science Behind Everyday Foods that Could Poison Pets

Most pet owners have been told that feeding human food to pets is usually not a good idea, partly because the nutritional requirements for pets and people are different. Reputable dog and cat foods are designed to provide the proper nutrition that pets require. Most vets recommend that other food items like table scraps or treats should make up no more than 10% of your dog's or cat's daily food intake.

However, feeding certain human foods to pets can also be very dangerous. This is because there are many everyday foods and drugs that are very safe for us but are not safe for animals like dogs or cats. Most people know that chocolate is really bad for dogs and cats, but there are actually many more common foods that you may not know of that are also bad for your pets, especially if eaten in large amounts. When I first got a dog almost 2 years ago, I was confused by what "people foods" were really toxic to her.n For instance, someone would tell me that onions or garlic are toxic to dogs, but often they could not really explain why or where they learned this from. They also could not explain why garlic, despite being labeled as "toxic" for dogs, is often on the list of ingredients for dog treats and dog foods.

It was confusing, so I started reading about what is really known about toxicity of foods for pets.  I put this blog post together to create a list that may be useful and may help explain some of the science and reasoning behind why certain foods are "bad" for pets.
Read more about common foods that are safe for you but could be toxic or poisonous to your pets after the jump....

Monday, July 1, 2013

Mad Science of Menthol

Menthol, billed as a "Cough Suppressant/Oral Anesthetic"
Because I've been battling a cold the past few days, complete with a sore throat and cough, I've been sucking on quite a few cherry menthol cough drops.  They particularly helped me get through a 6 hour drive without coughing my germs all over the car.  This had me thinking a bit about menthol.  Menthol is in a lot of products, including pain-relief gels, toothpastes and mouthwashes, cold medications like Vick's Vaporub, cigarettes, foods like candy and chewing gum, and my favorite cherry menthol cough drops.  For mild over-the-counter relief from a sore throat or other cold symptoms, menthol is hard to beat.

But what is menthol?  Why does it make your throat feel cool?  How does it work?  Let's take a quick look at an ancient medicine that we have only recently begun to understand.  Read on....

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Krogh Principle in Action: Naked Mole Rats and Cancer

A naked mole rat
We have a lot to learn about the world around us.  The number of organisms living on earth is vast, as is the potential for us to learn about ourselves by studying their biology and physiology.

Physiology is the study of the function of living organisms.  Comparative physiology is a branch of physiology that examines differences between various organisms to better understand human physiology and diseases.  The philosophy of comparative physiology is often credited to August Krogh, a Danish scientist and Nobel Prize winner (Physiology or Medicine category; 1920).  However, this philosophy doesn't just apply to physiology.  It applies to all aspects of biology.  In this blog post, we'll discuss how a group of researchers compared cells derived from humans, mice, and naked mole rats to come up with a novel pathway for targeting cancer.  Read more after the jump....    

Friday, June 14, 2013

Scientific Exploits of Ben Franklin Part 3: Heat and Evaporative Cooling

Benjamin Franklin, ca 1783
One snowy but sunny morning in 1760, Ben Franklin carried out an experiment.  He took pieces of cloth of various colors, cut them to the same size, and laid the squares of fabric onto a layer of snow.  Then he waited.  When he came back, he noted that the darker pieces of fabric had sunk farther down into the snow, as more snow below them had melted.  Franklin discovered an important phenomenon that we take for granted today, namely that darker colors absorb more heat.  He took this simple observation further by proposing an important application for his discovery: wear lighter color clothing on sunny or hot days to stay cooler.  That seems like common sense knowledge to us today, but it wasn't back then.  The idea of color absorbing heat wasn't understood or ingrained in the habits of people in the 1700s.   
Franklin was very interested in the science of heat and cooling during his lifetime, and as a consequence he made several important observations about phenomena that we often take for granted today.  Read more after the jump....

Monday, June 3, 2013

Lightening Bugs and Their Light.

Here come real stars to fill the upper skies,
And here on earth come emulating flies
That though they never equal stars in size
(And they were never really stars at heart),
Achieve at times a very star-like start.
Only, of course, they can't sustain the part.
-Robert Frost,  Fireflies in the Garden

As June begins and we dive head-first into summer, many people will be seeing a familiar nighttime site outside, the glowing of fireflies, also called "lightening bugs."  Lightening bugs are fascinating little creatures because of their seemingly magical ability to light up through a process called "bioluminescence" (bio means "life," while luminescence is the production of light).  Bioluminescence isn't something that we see often on land.  Most bioluminescent organisms live in the ocean, and their relative uniqueness on land makes them a beloved insect, particularly by children.  Fireflies are amazing, but as you can guess, there's no magic to what they do.  It's all science.  Read more about it after the jump...

Writing and Your Brain.

Regardless of what you do in life, being able to present your ideas clearly and concisely is important for success.  In science, new ideas are often presented in articles that are published in scientific journals, and good writing helps to get those ideas across clearly and understandably.  For new scientific discoveries to take root, people need to be able to understand what research was done, what the results were, and what those results mean.  While other animals communicate in various ways, writing is a distinctly human process.  Writing is not a skill that we should take for granted, and it can have many benefits that we should not overlook.  Let's chat for a minute about writing after the jump.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Crisis of Research Funding in the US

There's a crisis going on today in US research labs.  Brilliant researchers are trying hard to stay afloat with research budget cuts and stiff competition for grants.  This post is mainly aimed for US-based readers, but US-based research, particularly biomedical health-related research, impacts the entire world.  It's good for everybody when we push the boundaries of human knowledge through research, but unfortunately it is getting harder and harder to do that.  I want to talk a little bit about what's going on.  If you are interested, read more after the jump....

Monday, May 27, 2013

Scientific Exploits of Ben Franklin Part 2: Franklin Fights Smallpox

"Dr." Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)
In our first blog post about Benjamin Franklin, I mentioned that Ben was, in many ways, ahead of his time.  Another good example of this was his recognition that scientific observation has an important place in medicine and his work to use science and statistics to improve medicine.  While he was called "Dr. Franklin," this title came from honorary doctorates given to him in 1759 by the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and 1762 by Oxford University in England.  These were in recognition of his contributions to physics and electricity.  Ben didn't have the university education that most of his contemporary scientists had.  He also had no formal training in medicine at all.  Nonetheless, beyond his contributions to theoretical science, he also designed medical equipment and devices, treated patients and made clinical observations, and helped to found The Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia in 1752.  Ben also played an important role in the field of public health, most notably by acting as one of the major proponents for smallpox vaccination in the New World.      More after the jump....

Friday, May 17, 2013

Biology of Beer

There's an ancient battle raging everyday in breweries around the world.  The battle is to protect your beer from dastardly bacteria that want to invade and spoil it.  We're not fighting alone, though.  The yeast that ferment the beer do a lot of the antibacterial work themselves.  They make beer into a pretty inhospitable environment for bacterial growth, with a low pH and lots of alcohol, but bacteria are tough little buggers.  Let's take a little journey through some of the science of beer.  This post is a salute to the complex microbiology of beer and beer brewing as well as the men and women who developed and continue to develop modern brewing.  Open a cold one and read more after the jump....