Transcript: Oct 13, 2009

Justin This show is brought to you by you, the listener, and other people like you who listen. We couldn’t do this show if it wasn’t for you listening because then we’d just be talking to ourselves. So thank you.

Disclaimer! Disclaimer! Disclaimer!

There are, by my own account, only two ways of being in the world: as though it is the first day or as if it is the last. If it is the last day, then what we do now has little consequence for tomorrow never comes. Our debt is reasonable, we can spend well beyond our means; for tomorrow never comes. Our use of natural resources does not need to be sustained beyond today for tomorrow never comes.

The climate of the earth, pfft! If it’s suitable today is all that you’re concerned with; for tomorrow never comes. And there’s little reason to learn that which will only be useful tomorrow for tomorrow never comes. But if you see this day as the first day, that can have unreasonable consequence.

Natural resources are precious commodity to be managed and sustainably watched over, not squandered. And the environment is something worth stewarding. And any knowledge gained is useful. However intangible, its benefit is in the now.

And while being a sustainably squandered commodity – much like the following hour of programming – does not necessarily represent the views or opinions of the University of California at Davis, KDVS or its sponsors; be it the first day or the last, the choice is always yours: to be at the beginning of your life or near the end.

To give you a little perspective today, we’ll let you in on a few things that started many yesterdays ago and will continue to develop over many tomorrows. Here on This Week in Science coming up next.

Good morning, Kirsten!

Kirsten Good morning, Justin!

Justin Wooh!

Kirsten Yeah.

Justin It’s a blustery day in the valley.

Kirsten Oh, wow! It’s everywhere.

Justin Rain pouring, wind howling…

Kirsten Wind, wind…

Justin …trees falling, puddles showing up where puddles never were before.

Kirsten This is quite a storm.

Justin It’s beautiful.

Kirsten It’s gorgeous.

Justin Yeah.

Kirsten It is the earth’s power.

Justin Yeah.

Kirsten I get excited with big storms. I mean, the little tiny storms that come to you and just kind of piddle, piddle, piddle down…

Justin Yeah.

Kirsten …you know, it’s drip, drip, drip, drip, drip. That, you know, that doesn’t excite me. But when it’s a storm…

Justin Yeah.

Kirsten …and you have the wind and everything. It’s just the power of the environment.

Justin Yeah. And again, a great thing of being out like where I’m out in the farm country…

Kirsten The farm country?

Justin There’s no buildings around. So, it’s – you get the full force of the wind howling and rattling windows and shaking the doors and, “Woooo!” it’s awesome.

Kirsten That’s pretty cool.

Justin Which is cool.

Kirsten Yeah, I hear there are going to be hurricane force winds or yeah, hurricane force winds around the bay area today.

Justin Wow.

Kirsten It’s pretty massive. Massive! I love it. But, good morning everyone! Welcome to this windy wonderful weathery world of science. This is This Week in Science. And we’ve got as usual an amazing show ahead of science-y goodness.

I brought stories about juggling for your health…

Justin Wow.

Kirsten Nutritional benefits and things that aren’t necessarily nutritionally beneficial at all. At least we thought were but maybe aren’t. And also – what was the other big story – are you tired? Maybe we found something to blame for your chronic fatigue.

Justin Oh. Oh, really? Could it be the financial crisis?

Kirsten I know. I’m so tired of this economic downturn! No, something else entirely.

Justin Downturn. However, when a looting – a bank robbery is called a downturn. But I’ve got Chinese algebra – or no, not Chinese algebra – I’ve got Chinese dyslexia, I couldn’t even read that. I’ve got new smart gene, hmm!

Kirsten Mm hmm. I like smart genes.

Justin Nobody can hear you screaming in the terrace scale. What the – oh a Kraken and a petaflop? What’s a – I don’t even know. I’ll have to learn with you.

Kirsten A Kraken and a peta – like the Kraken – the Kraken was from that one movie from…

Justin Oh, it’s from a – it’s an ancient lord of the sea – the giant Kraken…

Kirsten The Kraken, I know.

Justin …a squid that drags ships down to Davy Jones’ Locker…

Kirsten Hardy har har har!

Justin …decoded breast and wow, a new perspective in This Week in the End of the World – Climydia crisis.

Kirsten Whoa. Ooh. Exciting. We haven’t had a climydia update in a long time.

Justin Yeah, this is a pretty big one.

Kirsten The big one. Bang! Bang! Bang! So without further ado, let’s move it on up to juggling.

Justin To juggling.

Kirsten Yeah. Throw some lemons, oranges, eggs, cats around…

Justin Huh?

Kirsten Huh? It’s good for you. It’s good for your brain.

Justin Mm hmm.

Kirsten Yes. Some research published in the journal Nature Neuroscience by some Oxfordian scientists – those are scientists who work at Oxford University in the UK, I say that with my American accent – the scientists took two groups of people. There are about 12 people in each group, so 24 people total.

Two groups of people: one group of people, they had juggle everyday for 30 minutes – these people had never juggled before in their lives so they’re all starting out non-jugglers; half of the people, “You’re going to juggle. Practice everyday 30 minutes.” The other half of people, “Don’t do any juggling. Just don’t juggle for six weeks. Whether or not you’ve ever juggled before, don’t juggle.”

At the beginning of the study they measured brain activity and with a method called Diffusion MRI – Magnetic Resonance Imaging – and what it does is it measures the movement of water around the brain. So the more active a certain area of the brain is, the more water is moving around.

Justin Squishier.

Kirsten Squishier, it is. Yeah. Or, the more cellular material is there, the squishier it is. Yes. At the end of the six weeks, they measured the people again, looked at their brain activity using the same diffusion MRI technique. They found a 5% increase in water movement in an area of the brain known as the intraparietal sulcus.

Now what does that mean? Okay, more water movement in this particular region. What that area is responsible for is your ability to link peripheral vision and things moving in your periphery and your ability to move to grab things in your periphery. So it’s kind of this vision motor area of the brain, linking those two things up.

So jugglers, right, there’s the balls that they’re juggling or little bags of sand or beans or whatever it is jugglers do. You’re going to juggle – crinkling paper…

Justin I’m crinkling paper, I’m going to start juggling right now.

Kirsten I knew this was going to happen. I’m going to get one in the eye. I’m convinced. Oh, you can juggle.

Justin Yeah.

Kirsten My gosh.

Justin I have a squishy brain.

Kirsten I never knew you could juggle. That’s exciting. You learn something new every morning. You have a squishy brain. But your brain would get squishier if you juggled everyday and you practiced.

So what the study suggests is that as adults, your practicing of motor skills – doing something everyday and really practicing at something – can have significant measurable effects on the brain. They saw increases in the water movement. So the water movement suggests that there is more cabling that’s going on. So the connectors between neurons, there’s more white matter that’s being built in that area of the brain.

Justin Mm hmm.

Kirsten So over six weeks, there was more – there’s construction going on in the brain related to the physical activity that these people are doing. So they’re thinking maybe this research can be applied to people who have movement disorders or who have diseases like multiple sclerosis where the body attacks the cabling, the axonal material of the body.

And if they can build that back up by doing certain movements, maybe it will keep the ravages of the disease at bay.

Justin That’s pretty cool.

Kirsten It’s really cool.

Justin I love the picture…

Kirsten And even for normal people, if you want to build up your brain, practice something. Not necessarily juggling – practice something.

Justin I love the idea that, yeah, the juggling becomes, you know, it’s like saying…

Kirsten You know how popular juggling is going to be now that this study’s out?

Justin It’s awesome.

Kirsten Everybody’s going to be like, “I’m going to clown school!”

Justin That’s awesome.

Kirsten People are going to be juggling waiting for the bus.

Justin If you want your child to have a squishier brain…

Kirsten Yes, yes I do.

Justin …there’s now a new thing. Because like, okay, infant education is a multi-billion dollar industry right now.

Kirsten Mm hmm.

Justin If you go into any shop that’s got like, regular baby stuff like diaper changer things, you know; different kinds of cribs and plushy toys that are suitable for infants and newborns. You’ll also find a huge selection of these educational, like, videos and stuff. We’re just going to show them colors and things, all those books and those CDs you can play that have these interesting sounds.

Although really – from what I’ve understood, a high contrast picture – something that’s just black and white, something like a checker board – is plenty of stimulation for an infant. And it’s actually – it supposedly does a lot – keeps them interested and get something about contrast more so than just seeing a bunch of colors and such.

Kirsten Yeah.

Justin However, all these puzzles, videos, cribs, mobiles designed to stimulate the minds of the new arrival with promise to future intelligence may be about to be undone – or outdone, I should say, by a single genetic mutation that’s been discovered.

And here’s the question then – if there’s this gene out there that gives you a propensity to learn things quicker…

Kirsten Mm hmm.

Justin …and there was a way to give it to your offspring prenatal, would you do it? I mean, all the money you’re spending on education, all of these focus just getting them ready for the information age, if there was just a gene you could be like, “Doc, give my baby the smart gene.” It’s kind of – it may end being a question in the not too more distant future.

“People with the specific gene mutation seem to be smarter in the sense of being able to adapt to changing situations and continue to make correct decisions quickly,” according to a new Max Planck Institute study.

“People graced with this genotype showed more activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain activity that is probably linked to metabolism of the brain chemical dopamine. Dopamine is related to rewards so perhaps some individuals can make quicker decisions because they have more dopamine in the prefrontal cortex,” as Paul Sanberg, a professor of Neurosurgery and director of University of South Florida Center for Aging and Repair…

Kirsten I want to have my genes tested.

Justin You want to see if you got the smart gene?

Kirsten I don’t think I do.

Justin Oh.

Kirsten I don’t think I do. But I’d like to know…

Justin But then you’d overcome. You’ve done quite well, a PhD without the smart gene.

Kirsten Overcoming adversity.

Justin Yeah, I mean, I could be blessed with the smart gene. I just – I don’t have the -I’ve also got the AFAP gene, I don’t know what that one’s called. That one hasn’t been discovered yet.

Kirsten It hasn’t.

Justin I’m sure it’s in there.

Findings reported this week in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences raise the hope that one day helping people with disorders such as Parkinson’s and actually probably schizophrenia that involve dopamine irregularities.

So they ran this study with a bunch of people. Basically, where’s the – I want to see if I can find the name – the so-called COMT gene is known as Val/Val. And the people who had it won more points in this sort of monetary switching game than those who didn’t. Mm hmm. Interesting.

So yeah, they think that this “for an enzyme that breaks down dopamine and other neurotransmitters making it easier for these folks to get quick reward for the right decision,” they suppose.

Would you do it though?

Kirsten Adjust my children?

Justin Mm hmm.

Kirsten Well I would hope – what I would want to do is test to make sure that I had the gene variants so the probability of my offspring having the same gene variants was very high.

Justin And if you didn’t?

Kirsten And if I didn’t, yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know, it’s…

Justin It’s information age.

Kirsten Yeah. It’s an interesting question. If I knew that there would be no downside…

Justin You don’t know that.

Kirsten If there would be no…

Justin You can’t know.

Kirsten …side effects.

Justin You know there’s an upside.

Kirsten Yeah. But if I knew there were…

Justin You know there’s an up side.

Kirsten …no sound – if there were no side effects…

Justin So there is an upside.

Kirsten Stop it!

Justin I don’t want to hear any negative thought.

Kirsten Stop it.

Justin But there was an upside.

Kirsten If I knew it.

Justin You know there’s an upside.

Kirsten I know there’s an upside.

Justin You don’t know about the downside. Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t. But you know there’s an upside.

Kirsten You do know… I don’t know. It’s a big – that’s a question that is going to come…

Justin Because then what if your kid’s in school…

Kirsten It’s going to become reality.

Justin …and your kid’s the one kid that didn’t get the smart gene added? Oh, wouldn’t that be terrible. You’re the one kid…

Kirsten Maybe I could give them smart gene coco pops. Because you know there’s going to be supplements in the cereal.

Justin Oh my goodness.

Kirsten That’s right. Oh, exciting news in terms of nutrition and who’s eating what in the animal world.

Justin Mm hmm.

Kirsten When you think of a spider…

Justin Who’s eating what?

Kirsten Yeah.

Justin And who’s eating who?

Kirsten Yes. When you think of spiders, what do you think in terms of what spiders eat?

Justin Flies.

Kirsten Flies.

Justin Other insects.

Kirsten Other insects.

Justin Or insects, I should say.

Kirsten Right. Spiders have insect bloodlust, right?

Justin Yes.

Kirsten I want to – they’re like the vampires of the insect world, “I’m going to suck your insides out!”

Scientists recently found vegetarian spiders.

Justin Vegetarian spiders.

Kirsten They eat acacia plants.

Justin Wow.

Kirsten And so it’s this – and it’s a really fascinating study. It was published in Current Biology by these researchers from Villanova and Brandeis universities.

In 2001, a researcher noticed these spiders for the first time in – existing within this well-studied ecosystem of ants and acacia plants. And so every ecology student or anyone who’s taking an ecology class, you will get ant-acacia systems in that class. It’s very well-studied.

The acacia plants have really sweet nectar and they also have these wonderfully yummy plant tips, these little tips to their plants. And they also have these spines on them. And so they give the ants a place to raise their young and be protected inside of the spines of the plant. And also the ants get food from the acacia.

And the ants, therefore they protect the acacia plant. They fight off anything. So if you are going like, “Mmm! Yummy little acacia plant!” The ants come at you and they will attack you and bite you.

Justin Wow.

Kirsten And it’s not very nice.

Justin Well, it is if you’re an acacia plant.

Kirsten It’s great if you’re an acacia plant.

Now these spiders that they found are the thieves. They come in and they’ve got great eyesight. And the researchers actually think that they might have like some kind of an ant smell to them as well. And even the young spiders kind of look like ants.

Justin Mm hmm.

Kirsten And so these spiders come in kind of acting and looking like ants. And they are like, “I’m going to eat some of this acacia plant.” And the ants who do realize that there are these, you know, vegetarian predators are on the hunt for the acacia plant, they’ll try and attack the spiders. But the spiders totally outmaneuver them.

They’re fast. They’ve got great eyesight. And the ants don’t really have great eyesight. They are like trying to tap around with their feelers. The spider is like, “You can’t see me, you can’t get me.” You know, they’re like Mohammad Ali – these spiders, you know.

And so the spiders actually live in the acacia plant. They have areas – there are areas of the acacia plant that the ants don’t really go to all the time and so the spiders build their nests there, that’s where they raise their young. But then they venture out to the yummy part of the acacia plant and go Mohammad Ali on the ants and steal acacia yumminess.

Justin That’s awesome.

Kirsten Isn’t this – it’s just a fun study. And so this is…

Justin And that’s the only vegetarian spider?

Kirsten Out of 40,000 of known spiders, one vegetarian spider.

Justin Wow.

Kirsten Yeah.

Justin Mm hmm.

Kirsten Yeah. It’s very cool. And the species is known as Bagheera kiplingi.

Justin That’s very cool.

Kirsten Very cool. Very cool. It lives throughout Central America and Southern Mexico.

Justin I’m going to get to the – I’m going to get – shoot over to the This Week in the End of the World.

Kirsten Right. Because once you realize there are vegetarian spiders, it’s over.

Justin It’s spreading out.

Kirsten It’s over.

Justin Ah, the good old days, those were the days of yesteryear. Before men were men and women were women and megalodons still roam the Miocene sea…

Kirsten I love megalodon.

Justin Gigantic shark. I had no idea how big this shark was. I went and looked it up. It’s massive.

Kirsten What is massive?

Justin It’s massive…

Kirsten Like a bus massive?

Justin It’s like big as a bus. Like, it makes today’s great white sharks look like minnows to a trout. That’s kind of a – they’re huge.

Kirsten Yeah. They’re scary. Scary.

Justin So, “Fifteen million years ago, carbon dioxide levels on earth were as high as they are today,” according to a new research study by UCLA scientists reported in October 8 in the online edition of the journal Science.

The last time carbon dioxide levels were as high as they are today and were sustained at those levels, global temperatures were five to ten degrees Fahrenheit higher than they are today. And the sea level was approximately 75 to 120 feet higher than it is today.

Kirsten That’s not much.

Justin “There was no permanent ice cap on the Arctic and very little ice on Antarctica and Greenland,” says the paper’s author Aradhna Tripati, UCLA assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Space Sciences.

So this is kind of a – this is a different study because most studies we’ve heard have been from the ice core samples and these other things, you know. Furthest back we’ve been able to say, “This is what the climate was like…”

Kirsten Yeah.

Justin “…it was 800,000 years.”

Kirsten Yeah.

Justin And we’ve been saying this is, you know, the highest carbon we’ve had in 800,000 years.

Kirsten Mm hmm.

Justin And the warmest it’s been in 800,000 years.

Kirsten Yeah.

Justin But that didn’t mean, again, that it was that warm 800,000 years ago. It means that…

Kirsten There’s variation…

Justin …just as far back…

Kirsten …over the time…

Justin …as we can look.

Kirsten …and – yeah.

Justin Oh no, it just means that that’s how far back we can look.

Kirsten Mm hmm.

Justin And so this is the highest carbon but we, you know, not that 800,000 years ago it was the same. But that’s only how far back we could confirm.

Kirsten And that’s really not much…

Justin This new method…

Kirsten …in the scope of things.

Justin No. Not at all. New method that has been used by Tripati, she’s used a method of chemically extracting the information from shells, from old seashells that have been around for that 15 million year period.

Kirsten Mm hmm.

Justin So carbon…

Kirsten Because the seashells, the organisms that are creating the seashells are incorporating the calcium carbonate…

Justin Mm hmm.

Kirsten …into the shells.

Justin Mm hmm.

Kirsten Mm hmm.

Justin Yeah. The right – and she also uses the ratio of chemical element boron to calcium in the shells…

Kirsten Interesting.

Justin …of that ancient single-celled marine algae. Tripati has used – now uses a method to determine the amount of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere as far back as 20 million years.

Kirsten Twenty million.

Justin Mm hmm.

Kirsten Wow! And?

Justin And it’s shocking. Yeah. It finds that – the only time that they’ve tracked where the carbon dioxide levels were similar to the modern level of 387 parts per million was around 15 to 20 million years ago when the planet was dramatically different. Sea level is 75 to 120 feet higher. And temperature’s five to ten degrees warmer.

The variation that has happened over the last 800,000 years has been between 180 and 300 parts per million. It’s just in the recent times that we’ve jumped up to 387 and look like we’re going to be heading higher.

Kirsten Right. Within like the last 100 years.

Justin Right then – yeah.

Kirsten Yeah.

Justin Yeah. The carbon dioxide levels in this time period, the Middle Miocene, were pretty sustained at around 400 parts per million which is almost where we are and definitely where we’re headed.

And it looks like in fact, we are actually – what we’re actually tracking now with some of the predictions is when the oceans stopped grabbing and absorbing and they start re-releasing.

Kirsten Right.

Justin Because this is – no, it’s about 50-year lag between the carbons that are emitted and when it’s fully represented in the atmosphere.

Kirsten Right.

Justin So where we’re at now is – what we have in the atmosphere now is what was put out there 50 years ago.

Kirsten Right. Because the oceans are these wonderful sink. They’re able to absorb like a sponge carbon dioxide.

Justin Right.

Kirsten And there’s a certain point at which they can’t absorb any more and that sponge just starts dripping back out again.

Justin Yeah. In the next hundred year or so, speculation is that we’re heading to the 600 upwards of maybe even the 900 range per parts per billion if no action is taken to reduce current carbon dioxide output. Which, I mean, five, ten million – it’s one of those things where-being the first day of the – if this is the first day or if this is the last day.

Kirsten Mm hmm.

Justin If this is the last day on earth, then fine, “No big deal. It’s going to get warmer in the future when, like, cockroaches roam around.” But no, this is like if you have children and this is the first day, it’s always your first day if you have kids because you just care about them.

Kirsten Do they have – so when it was like 400 parts per billion back, the stuff that Tripati measured…

Justin Mm hmm.

Kirsten Was it super hot as well? Was there, like, did she link a change in temperature to it as well?

Justin Yeah. And it was five to ten degrees warmer.

Kirsten Five to ten degrees warmer, which is a lot. That’s a lot.

Justin That’s a lot globally. Yeah.

Kirsten Because that’s enough, like you said, to raise the oceans.

Justin No permanent ice caps.

Kirsten Yeah.

Justin That’s what that means.

Kirsten Yup.

Justin And huge rise in seawater.

Kirsten Yay!

Justin But now there is an uncertainty…

Kirsten I’m going to go buy a property in like Placerville and get beach front property.

Justin There is a level of uncertainty in the estimates here. Fourteen parts per million. So maybe that it was more like 414 parts per million or…

Kirsten Or 385.

Justin Which we’re already…

Kirsten Which we’re at.

Justin Yeah.

Kirsten Yay! Oh, I love the end of the world. This is my very positive time of the day.

Justin Yeah, so…

Kirsten But the other side…

Justin …hilltops.

Kirsten Yeah. The other side to this is the more data comes out…

Justin Mm hmm.

Kirsten The more – I mean, there’s more and more and evidence that thus suggest that carbon dioxide is linked to temperature. Temperature is going to increase as carbon dioxide increases. We don’t change what we’re emitting. We’re going to significantly change our environment. And there’s almost no question about that at this point.

And we just have to find things to do to keep – you know, what are we going to do? Are we going…

Justin Juggling!

Kirsten Yeah, juggling.

Justin Let’s do lots of juggling.

Kirsten Are we going to stop? We can’t stop it from happening at this point because of the 50-year lag because of the oceans.

Justin Right.

Kirsten We’re not going to stop it from happening.

Justin Right.

Kirsten But what can we do to adapt to the changing environment and to the changing situation? What are we going to do?

Justin It’s not that you and I couldn’t do it. If it was just you and I, Kirsten, we could fix it.

Kirsten We could totally fix it.

Justin We’ll just things around, we’ll ride our bikes and we’d be like, that’s cool.

Kirsten Right.

Justin But there’s all these billions of other people out there. What are we going to do about them? If they don’t behave…

Kirsten To the moon!

Justin …they don’t change – oh, if we could only send them to the moon. Maybe I got to get all positive about space exploration now. Everybody, the moon!

Kirsten I know.

Justin It’s the new Disneyland!

Kirsten It’s the new Disneyland!

Justin Everybody can live there for free.

Kirsten Yay! Or for $60 a person. No.

Justin Yeah, buy your moon ticket now.

Kirsten Yes. There’s some happy news so you know, there’s been bad news recently in that fish are on the decline, fish stocks not being managed very well, we’re going to have a problem with fish as a source of nutrition and food.

But one of the reasons that we eat fish these days is that medical experts have been saying, “Fish is great for your heart. Fish will save you!” And it’s been especially – there has been a lot of evidence suggesting that yeah, for cardiovascular disease. So just the general development of not having a good cardiovascular system that yes, eating fish high in fish oils will help you.

But a recent study out in the European Journal of Heart Failure suggests that eating fish will not keep you from having a heart attack.

Justin Oh.

Kirsten Yeah. So it’s not going to save you from a heart attack and that’s – so you can still eat fish. Fish is still good for you but it’s not going to keep you from having a heart attack.

Justin Well, I don’t know. See, here’s the thing. Here’s what that is though. I mean, it doesn’t mean that fish has a curative effect on the heart.

Kirsten Right. Maybe…

Justin I mean, if you were eating fish as opposed to cheeseburgers…

Kirsten Right.

Justin …right.

Kirsten Yes.

Justin You know, then you’re probably-fish is saving your life in that scenario.

Kirsten Yes.

Justin If it’s keeping you from the, you know, the hefty burgers.

Kirsten Yeah. And it has the fatty acids – Omega 3 fatty acids. It’s got healthy things like Vitamin D which we are sorely lacking in, most of us; selenium, which is a minor nutrient that we do need for brain function.

Justin Yeah, it might not be that important. It might not be.

Kirsten And it’s a good source of protein that’s not as high in the bad fats as red meat, the cholesterol-causing fats as red meat. So yeah, fish is good for you. But based on the data, that’s not associated with the development of heart failure.

So, you know, but it’s just better for you, generally. It’s a generally better diet.

Justin But if you’re eating stuff that wasn’t fish, couldn’t that increase your chance? I mean, that’s the other side here.

Kirsten Yeah, that’s true. It could increase your chances.

And why is glutamate so tasty? Another kind of mouthy study – nutritionally study. Glutamate is a non-essential amino acid that we can – we do get it in a lot of food. Seaweed has a lot of glutamate in it. It gives that taste of umami.

Justin Oh.

Kirsten And it is also a neurotransmitter – an excitatory neurotransmitter in our nervous system. So there’s some link between eating glutamate and potentially affecting your nervous system. But we have the specific taste that we respond to of glutamate.

And they found some receptors that do – you know, on your tongue, the taste receptors – that do respond to glutamate in food. But they respond to lots of other things, too. They’re not specific.

Researchers just found the very first specific glutamate-only taste receptors. So they were hypothesized to exist and now they have been found.

Justin Is that why MSG is so good?

Kirsten Yeah, it tastes good because you have these specialized receptors. And I just wonder, you know, why would we have specialized taste receptors if there wasn’t some adaptive, some evolutionary reason that we would taste need – why do we need to taste it.

Justin Yeah.

Kirsten Why do we taste glutamate?

Justin Mm hmm.

Kirsten Why does – why is it important? Is it important for glutamate to stimulate that taste, that savory flavor?

I don’t know, it’s a really – I don’t know. I would doubt that it was just an evolutionary by-product. Because sometimes things just happen that would be stuck, left from, you know, other evolutionary times. But – I don’t know.

Justin It seems like it was probably – wasn’t very important at some point.

Kirsten Right, wouldn’t have been important. Why?

Justin Because the whole – the body works on – it’s the whole reward system to the brain.

Kirsten Mm hmm.

Justin It’s like you don’t know it’s good so the body and the brain figure out all these ways to tell you or force you into things that are right for you.

Kirsten Yeah, I know. This is good for you!

Justin “You must eat.” “I don’t want to.” “I’ll give you dopamine if you do.” “Oh, that sounds good.”

Kirsten That sounds great! All right, we’re at 9 o’clock. It’s the midpoint of our show.

Justin We will be back with more…

Kirsten We will.

Justin …very shortly.

Kirsten We will. Stay tuned for a few messages. We’ve got some things, important things to tell you and ask you…

Justin And then more science!

Kirsten Yeah. So we’ll be back in just a few minutes. You’re listening to This Week in Science.

Thank you for listening to TWIS. We rely on your support to bring you this show. Please donate to keep the science-y goodness coming. We’ve made it easy for you on the website

With a click of a button, you can donate $2, $5 or even $10 a month. Or you can donate any amount of your choosing as many times as you want. Just go to and donate. TWIS needs your support and we thank you for it.

Justin From a talent so unproven, no agent would touch him, comes a book so confusing, no publishing house would publish it, Ome – the new book by Justin Jackson. That boldly predicts the failure of the Large Hadron Collider and gives you a what-if scenario for parallel worlds.

Kirsten Go to Buy Justin’s book. Buy it!

Justin And we’re back with more of This Week in Science.

Kirsten That’s right, ohh. Science! This is This Week in Science. You are listening to us and we’re going to be talking more about science for the next 24 minutes.

Justin Yes.

Kirsten Maybe 25 if we go over by a minute.

Justin Twenty-five and a half.

Kirsten Twenty-three, two, one, blast off! Have you got any good science stories? I know we told people we’re going to be talking about some interesting ones so that are – let’s do it.

Justin Dyslexia is different in China. Huh? Spelled differently for one thing, as a word character instead of an alphabet. And is pronounced such that it sounds differently, too.

Kirsten Oh dear.

Justin Perhaps, more surprisingly however, it manifests itself in a more complicated manner than its English counterpart. This is according to a new paper published online today in Current Biology.

English speakers who have developmental dyslexia usually don’t have trouble recognizing letters visually – they have trouble just writing them down properly, I think they get them reversed or see them backwards. Like as ‘s’, even if you’re seeing it backwards, it’s still clearly an ‘s’.

Kirsten Right.

Justin Right. And ‘x’ backwards probably looks like an ‘x’.

Kirsten Like an ‘x’.

Justin You know…

Kirsten Not a good example.

Justin Okay. Let me try a different – in ‘A’, if an ‘A’ is backwards, it probably still looks like – I mean, most letters look the same backwards and forward. If it’s close enough then you can figure it out.

Kirsten Right.

Justin But a lower case ‘b’ and ‘d’ might cause you to get confused. But that’s about it. But they sometimes do have a hard time connecting them to the sounds that they make when reading through.

But that really, you know, our language is a sound language. We write out a sort of phonetic type alphabet in a way that you can look at a word that you’ve never seen before and pronounce it. You can figure it out, you can sound it out.

Kirsten Mm hmm.

Justin The problem with it though when you’re learning Chinese is that it’s a character language that is based on memorization.

Kirsten Right.

Justin The character for the word ‘dyslexia’ for instance, would be an entire -the entire word is one character.

Kirsten Right.

Justin And a different word would have a different whole character. So what they’re finding is that they can’t sound – because they can’t sound out the words, it is just a pure memory thing, they’re having also an equally hard time recognizing that image as the word as well as remembering what sound it’s associated to, what it’s supposed – what the word sounds like when they say it.

So it’s kind of like a double whammy because with the…

Kirsten Not only are the characters backwards but…

Justin Yeah. So what they did was they did a visual sort of test using – wherein they also combined functional magnetic resonance imaging, FMRI studies. Twelve Chinese children with dyslexia, the asked them to complete a task that involved visually judging size. And the children had less activation area that the brain isn’t charged with the visual spacing processes, that’s the left intraparietal sulcus.

Kirsten Hey, that’s the same area as the other – intraparietal sulcus, that was the same one that we were talking about with the jugglers.

Justin See, that’s – okay, so we figured out the cure for Chinese dyslexia.

Kirsten Juggling!

Justin Juggling! Get those children juggling now.

Kirsten Oh, wow.

Justin Previous research also said that the group had weak activation areas that process phonological information. But because these two processes – there are oral and the visual – must come together for Chinese literacy, the conclusion here is that the disordered phonological processing may commonly co-exist between normal visual or speech processing with Chinese dyslexia. So they need – yeah, they need to learn how to juggle.

Kirsten Learn how to juggle and cure dyslexia. Oh my goodness. We make some terrible links on this show.

Justin We just cured dyslexia. What are you talking about? We now know what the cure for Chinese dyslexia is. It’s juggling.

Kirsten All right. All right. Researchers are potentially honing in on the cause but – it’s not really a cause, it’s kind of like a link to the cause – of chronic fatigue syndrome, so CFS – chronic fatigue syndrome. People are tired all the time and you have no real explanation for why you get so exhausted.

Justin I had like a whole pot of coffee this morning and, you know, I’m still tired.

Kirsten Yeah. But it goes on and on and on and on. It’s chronic.

Justin Yeah.

Kirsten It’s not just one or two days because you’re up too late over the weekend. It’s on and on and on and on. It makes living really difficult.

But it hasn’t – people really have not been able to find what is the cause of it. And it’s been linked to a lot of other disorders and several viruses. And, you know, so there’s a lot of things going in many different directions but there’s no real cause that’s been found yet.

Researchers publishing – where did they publish it, I don’t know where I put that where they published – Science, published in Science a study looking at people who have chronic fatigue syndrome and people who are healthy.

Sixty-eight of 101 patients, 67% of the patients compared to 3.7% of the healthy controls had DNA from a retrovirus. So 67% compared to 3.7%…

Justin Wow.

Kirsten …had a retrovirus. And this is a great name – xenotropic murine leukemia virus-related virus – it’s a virus-related virus, not really a virus but it’s a virus-related virus. Anyway, but it’s a human gammaretrovirus. It’s a retrovirus. Being a retrovirus, it’s something that gets inserted into the DNA and it’s able to work backwards.

This retrovirus was first discovered a few years ago in 2006 when scientists were looking at causes, viral causes, for prostate cancer. And that’s when this virus was first discovered or pinpointed. And so researchers have been taking a look to see where else this virus might be implicated. And they have actually found it in the peripheral blood mononuclear cells of these patients, so blood cells. They found it.

And this isn’t a cause, it’s a correlation.

Justin It’s very interesting…

Kirsten But it’s a very…

Justin …that there is a correlation with the retrovirus.

Kirsten Right. Really, really interesting. And the fact that these retrovirus has also been implicated in cancer, it’ really – it’s something that makes you start thinking.

However, there do need to be more epidemiological studies to actually determine whether or not this virus causes chronic fatigue syndrome or whether it’s just a secondary symptom. So whether people with…

Justin Or facilitating it.

Kirsten Right. Or whether people with chronic fatigue syndrome are just more likely to become infected.

Justin Mm hmm.

Kirsten So they know this retrovirus is infectious. It infects and that cell-associated and cell-free transmission of the virus are possible. So it infects, it’s linked. It’s in this people with it versus not as many people who don’t have it. Yeah, so there are lots of future studies that need to be done to really pinpoint what’s going on. But this is an interesting new link.

And what some people are saying, they’re out of The Scientist – it’s an online magazine – it’s raising a concern in patients undergoing gene therapy in which murine leukemia virus is often the viral vector delivering the genes. Because it is able to – it’s a retrovirus…

Justin Right. So they can drop it in.

Kirsten …and it’s able to insert. Yeah.

Justin Oh, wow. Mm hmm.

Kirsten So what’s going on – is there a non-infectious MLV? You know, they think they’re using a non-infectious viral vector but…

Justin Oh dear.

Kirsten …could the retrovirus regain its ability to replicate and infect cells and lead to other…

Justin Chronic fatigue.

Kirsten Yeah.

Justin But then in the end…

Kirsten Or cancer or whatever else.

Justin Yeah.

Kirsten That’s a very interesting thought.

Justin Maybe that’s what the planet needs though, it’s chronic fatigue. Slow – everybody slow down. We’re going to work two days this week, maybe three. Consume less resources, we’ll drive less. Let’s spend more time in bed. Maybe that’s the way to solve the…

Kirsten That’s right.

Justin …the global crisis.

Kirsten Sleep more.

Justin Just more sleep. Just stay in bed. Don’t consume today.

At the terascale nobody can hear you scream.

Kirsten Aah!

Justin And yet, you’re still capable of performing a trillion calculation per second. This is the Kraken story. The National Institute of Computer Sciences Cray XT5 supercomputer named Kraken has been upgraded to become to the first academic system to surpass a thousand trillion calculations per second on one or one petaflop.

Oh great. Petaflop. I got to remember petaflop. I got to start talking about things in petaflops.

Kirsten Yeah.

Justin Well actually right now it’s just singular. I only need to know one petaflop. It’s a landmark…

Kirsten Now multiple petaflops?

Justin We’re not in the multiple petaflops yet. Relax, people. We’re only up to one petaflop. This is a project managed by the University of Tennessee National Science Foundation as well. System came on line October 5. Peak performance of 1.03 petaflops – excuse me – it features more than 16,000 six-cored 2.6 gigahertz AMD Istanbul processors with nearly 100,000 compute cores. Whatever that means.

It has an upgrade that you can purchase online, or you can probably get cheaper on eBay, of 129 terabytes of memory – equivalent to more than 13,000 movies on a DVD.

“Why do we need all this computing power,” one might ask. Well, for science of course. We are using this to understand the mechanisms behind the explosion of core collapse supernovae to reveal about the make-up of the universe, how it came about. We’re using – from the physical make-up of the universe to causes of global warming, the roles of proteins in disease.

Kraken’s increased computer tentacles will reach far and wide taking down many alecky theory to play with Davy Jones’ Locker.

It’s pretty remarkable. But I mean, we’re going to keep doing this. Like, we’re going to be talking about the PEDI scale of computing for like a year or two, five years.

Kirsten And then it will get bigger.

Justin Yeah.

Kirsten They’ll go bigger and bigger and bigger.

Justin They’re going to keep counting. I want to get higher – down to – whoever gets to name those bigger – they probably already picked all the big numbers.

Kirsten Yeah.

Justin They probably got somebody who’s working on all of the big memory numbers now.

Kirsten Yeah, I think they’ve got names for the big numbers.

In terms of not just bigger but smaller, researchers are also working on a small, small scale. There’s a group of scientists, engineers at the University of Missouri who have created a nuclear battery that’s the size of a penny.

Justin Huh?

Kirsten Yeah. So the battery utilizes…

Justin Splits atoms?

Kirsten So, yeah. It utilizes – it doesn’t split atoms but it uses the decay of radioactive isotopes.

Justin Mm hmm.

Kirsten And there are many different radioactive isotopes in our world. There’s radiation, radioactivity around us all the time. You just don’t know it.

Justin You don’t see it happening.

Kirsten You don’t see it happening. And it does, yeah, radioactivity – radioactive isotopes are not only kept in big giant nuclear power plants. But there are also, you know, we can harness the power of small amounts of isotopes that are not necessarily damaging to people. And also because the amounts are so small, it wouldn’t be dangerous to use.

But what they’ve done is they’ve scaled down a power source. They were looking to create power sources for nano-sized devices, for the microelectronic mechanical systems. The NEMS and the MEMS – nanoelectronic and microelectronic sized devices. As the devices get smaller, we also need tiny power sources.

They’ve been able to get this using nuclear isotopes and using the radioactive decay. The isotope decays it. It releases a radioactive particle. The particle then goes through a semiconductive substrate which is actually a liquid, in the case of this battery. Normally, we use solid semiconductors. But in this case they’re using liquid semiconductors.

And so the particle goes through the semiconductor and that induces a current. And then the current can then be used to power things.

Justin Oh.

Kirsten Yeah. And they’re not happy with penny-sized. They want smaller. They want smaller, smaller, smaller. It’s interesting. I think it’s a very interesting thing and – I don’t know. It’s cool. We’re going to…

Justin Pretty soon, you’re going to have your phone with a petaflop of data storable in a nuclear powered device.

Kirsten That’s right. A petaflop of data stored in like a nuclear pencil eraser sized battery. Exactly.

Justin And then what will you do?

Kirsten Then what will you do?

Justin I think I will take a nap. This is making me…

Kirsten Yes.

Justin Scientists have, wow, decoded DNA of breast cancer cells.

Kirsten That’s cool.

Justin Yeah. And they have discovered something to their surprise. Gene mutations in tumors shift as the disease spreads. That’s very foreign to previous thinking.

It was believed previously to this that if you’ve taken a biopsy and you get a tumor and you found a portion of the cancer and you analyze it that that’s the cancer – that that’s the cancer that’s spreading. And it’s – you assume the cancer that’s spreading stays that same cancer.

Kirsten Mm hmm.

Justin And all of the treatments from that first biopsy are based on that analysis.

Kirsten On the first analysis. Right.

Justin Right. Not so though because the mutations continue. So you’re looking at in the case of metastic breast cancers that it’s a moving target. The mutations are – it’s continuing to mutate and continuing to change during the course of the disease.

Kirsten Well if you think that – one of the aspects of cancer is the fact that the cells are continually multiplying, reproducing. That means they’re dividing, dividing, dividing, dividing. And normal cells don’t divide as many times so there are less opportunity – fewer opportunities for mutations to take place.

Justin Right.

Kirsten But if you have this constant division, there’s going to be all sorts of opportunities for mistakes.

Justin Yeah. And the one patient they studied here, they found 32 mutations in the tumor that had spread nine years after the original diagnosis. The team looked to see how many of these mutations were in the original breast tumor at the time of diagnosis. They found that 11 of the 22 mutations were in the original tumor, implying that some considerable evolution had taken place. Because then it’s, yeah, only 11 of them were there. Wow.

They also found – moreover, the 11 mutations found in the original primary tumor, only five were present in all of the tumor cells. So even though they found 11 mutations that were in the original tumor, only five were there in each of the cells that they tested so that quite a bit of variation was taking place.

Mm hmm. Wow.

Kirsten And the more they understand about how the variation is occurring, the more they’ll be able to create…

Justin As long as it’s – yeah.

Kirsten …create treatments for the cancer. So you have to be constantly following it to be able to keep up with it.

Justin And what’s also amazing is they got this full DNA report of this cancer tumor within a couple of weeks…

Kirsten Mm hmm.

Justin …for not so much money.

Kirsten Yeah.

Justin So this is where we are now, you know. This is the, you know, Human Genome Project took many, many, many. many years and many, many mezillions of dollars.

Kirsten Yeah.

Justin And here we have couple of researchers in a few weeks at a very small fraction of that cost being able to unlock cancer.

Kirsten Right.

Justin I mean, that’s…

Kirsten It’s big. And that’s happening in this summer. Just last summer there were three…

Justin And they did that on computers without petaflop capability.

Kirsten Right, they did. And imagine petaflop capability – how much faster it could go. There were four researchers involved in sequencing the human genome. It took them I think a month and it cost $50,000.

Justin It’s awesome.

Kirsten Yeah. And there is technology on the horizon. In the next couple of years, we’re going to see the $100 24-hour genome sequencing.

Justin Woohoo!

Kirsten I give it a couple of years.

Justin And so then we can come in here…

Kirsten Maybe five years but two years. I’m guessing it within two.

Justin See, we need one down here. We need a little machine in the corner that can analyze our DNA. So whenever we…

Kirsten Just in the corner.

Justin …get one of these stories about like…

Kirsten Oh, I have that!

Justin …a new smart gene. Let’s go test it. I want to see if I got that on my plate.

Kirsten Is that on my plate? I got it! I got it!

Do your biology clocks go tick tock, tick tock, tick tock?

Justin Brrrnngggg! Do they spring, do they sprung?

Kirsten Do they spring, do they sprung? Well, it seems according to a study by some Michigan mathematicians that the biological clock doesn’t go tick-tock.

Justin Wait, what?

Kirsten So we think of – or we have thought of the biological clock. There’s an area of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus. And it has cells that have been thought to turn on and turn off and turn on and turn off…

Justin Like in a pulse, right? Yeah.

Kirsten …pulsing throughout the day. Maybe being more active during the day when you’re awake and then less active during the night when you’re not.

And what they found, these researchers reanalyzed activation of particular cells from the population of cells that are within the superchiasmatic nucleus. What they discovered is that researchers, historically, they’ve been looking at all of the cells in the suprachiasmatic nucleus together. But that wasn’t right. Because there are some cells that actually do create the clock for our bodies and other cells within the population that have other functions.

Justin Mm hmm.

Kirsten And so what they did is they did the analysis only looking at these particular cells that are known to create the clock. And they found that these cells only become active at two times during the day: once in the evening, they kind of have a flurry of activity; and then once in the morning, they have another flurry of activity.

So it’s kind of – it’s more like an egg timer going off or an alarm clock that’s set to the sun going down or your night time, “Oh, it’s time to be night now.” And then the morning, “Oh, it’s time to be active now.”

So it’s a completely different system. That system works completely differently than what researchers had hypothesized for so long.

Justin So then it’s not the source of our ability to tell the passage of time. I mean, it’s not our sense of how much time has passed in like we have an internal tracking of it, like, in an internal clock that can we be saying…

Kirsten Constantly. Right. That’s constantly pulsing, that’s allowing some kind of tracking. No, there’s something different going on.

Justin Mm hmm.

Kirsten I mean, we definitely do have an ability to track time and to know how much time has passed. I mean, there are many people who – you get rid of your watch. And there are lots of people who, “What time is it?” you ask them and they know almost to the minute exactly what time it is.

Justin Yeah.

Kirsten So there is this internal ability to track time but it’s not necessarily as a result of constant clock – a clock that’s constantly ticking inside of your brain.

Justin Mm hmm.

Kirsten Yeah.

Justin So where is that ticking sound coming from then?

Kirsten That you’re going to have to discover for yourself. I do not know.

I just want to remind everybody, we’re getting to the end of the hour here, I want to let people know about special TWIS Live this Thursday night.

Justin Yes. We’re going to the Cal Academy.

Kirsten We’re going to be at the Cal Academy of Sciences in San Francisco this Thursday, October 15th at 8 PM.

Justin Eight PM? Really?

Kirsten Eight PM.

Justin I thought we were going earlier.

Kirsten You’re like, “What?”

I was trying to get us to go on like seven but…

Justin No, we’re going on primetime.

Kirsten Primetime, 8 o’clock.

Justin Yeah.

Kirsten We’re going to be doing our brand of science, interviewing a few academy scientists about the work they do and learning all about the academy. We’re also going to be talking about some fun science news stories. Doing what we do but live and in person.

Justin Mm hmm.

Kirsten And we’ll be recording it so maybe eventually you might get to hear bits and pieces of it on show if you can’t actually make it to San Francisco.

Justin Yeah.

Kirsten Oh and I’m trying to get a live stream going. We’ll see if we can actually do a live, live, live, live show like we do here.

Justin And if you’re in the San Francisco area, we invite you of course to come out.

Kirsten Come out!

Justin If you’re not, we kind of – probably you should stay home. It’s probably going to be raining and storming.

Kirsten That’s right. Yes. But we’re excited so we hope you will be as well. Cal Academy of Sciences…

Justin Woohoo!

Kirsten …Thursday evening. And next week’s show we’re going to have in addition to more science news, an interview with a neuroscientist, Mark Changizi. He’s going to talk about…

Justin Yay!

Kirsten …everything we thought we knew about how we see and how it’s wrong.

Justin Yeah.

Kirsten He has some great ideas and so we’re going to talk about vision. What is vision?

Justin He also did the other – what was the other thing he was working on? Oh, the cities that look like brains.

Kirsten Yes.

Justin Or the way that cities develop.

Kirsten Was that his?

Justin Yes.

Kirsten Was that his as well?

Justin Yeah.

Kirsten Oh. Oh, we’re excited.

Justin We got a couple.

Kirsten We’re excited to talk with him next week.

Justin A couple of big questions.

Kirsten Yes.

And I want to give shoutouts to everyone who’s written in, suggesting stories or to comment on our comments. All of you who have donated, we couldn’t do it without you. We could not.

Ed Dyer, your stories this week were fabulous. David Eckard – I’m missing some names right now but I’ll get you on the flipside.

Justin On next week’s show we’ll do all these – we’ll do proper shoutouts.

Kirsten Yes.

Justin Oh and if you’ve learned anything…

Kirsten What?

Justin Oh, wait, no.

Kirsten There’s a whole thing. Why are you…

Justin I have no idea. Because I didn’t bring my thing today. My computer is not working. All right. Let me see, I got to read along.

Thank you everyone for listening, hope you’ve enjoyed the show, blah, blah, blah. For the podcast go to our website and hit on Subscribe button or search for us in the – is it the iTunes? Is that where we are?

Kirsten The iTunes. We are in the iTunes.

Justin The iTunes directory.

Kirsten For more information on anything that you’ve heard here today, show notes are going to be available on our website We also want to hear from you so email us at or

Justin Put TWIS somewhere in the subject or it will get spam filtered. We’d love your feedback. If you want to get to us quicker, try us on the Twitter.

Kirsten Yeah.

Justin Jacksonfly or Dr. Kiki with no dot.

Kirsten That’s right, D-R-K-I-K-I. And we will be back here on KDVS next Tuesday at 8:30 AM Pacific Time and hope you’ll join us again for more great science news.

Justin But remember, if you did learn anything from today’s show…

Kirsten It’s all in your head.