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....