Justin: Disclaimer! Disclaimer! Disclaimer! In all the world, there is perhaps no greater display of what is possible under the definition of life than that which we can find beneath the surface of the sea. Underneath the waves, there’s an atmosphere so dense with life, blanketed in a nutrient rich environment that openly thrives upon itself.
The oceans are not only alive, they’re abundantly so. Making the air breathing world above look deserted by comparison as though land above the surface air were just so much sun bleached rock and dried sand.
For all the wonder that can come from gazing up at the stars, for all the excitement in the study of varied creatures that crawl upon the surface of the earth, there is even more to see and beneath the frothing wave and choppy sea.
Life in abundance variation across several oceans, enough life forms in fact to populate the solar system a galaxy or perhaps even multiple galaxies complete with diverse ecosystems redundant in survival solutions and resplendent in evolutionary potential, all here quietly brewing in a potent primordial stew below 70% of our planet’s surface.
And while brewing with frothy potential, 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, for species as curious as ours, as interested in life among the stars as we are, we are fortunate to have such an irrefutably fantastic proximity to life in space situated on a perfect platform from which to launch our exploration of this life without ever having to traverse the cold radiation filled expanses between suitable solar systems in search of such a place.
My goodness. And with galactic magnitudes of life forms abounding all around us, while reflecting upon our good fortune, we take a moment now to tune in to what else we are lucky enough to be researching into instead of stuck out searching for, here on This Week In Science, coming up next. This is the one.
Justin: Good morning Twismanians! Good morning, Andy.
Andy: Good morning Justin.
Justin: Andy Felsch joining me down here live in KDVS for another This Week In Science.
Andy: It’s great to be back.
Justin: Yeah. So I forgot, you’ve co-hosted before. And reason I forget of course is because I wasn’t here.
Andy: Yeah. That would be it. Yeah.
Justin: Yeah. And you’re in charge of the public relations and the press releases.
Andy: I work at the UC Davis News Service. There are a bunch of us. We put out news about the campus for people on the campus and around the world. And I particularly try and cover the research, political sciences, physical sciences, and engineering that’s going on here, on this wonderful campus.
Justin: Excellent, excellent. You’re what I would call a source probably then…
Andy: I’m a source. I’m a source.
Justin: …the number of times I’ve probably pulled information that you’ve released into the world and brought it here to the show. But now we’re going direct to the source. That much closer to that.
Andy: Yeah! You can cut out the filter as Sarah Palin says and go straight to the source.
Justin: Oh, but that usually ends badly. No, no, no, it’s a good thing. So what did you bring for us today?
Andy: What did I bring for you today?
Andy: Oh, I got a bunch of stuff here. So first off, I want to talk about the Planck space telescope. So Planck was launched in May. It’s a European space probe. It’s sitting about a million miles from earth now. And it’s taking pictures of the early universe and the cosmic microwave background.
And that has actually been done before. There was a probe called the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe or WMAP.
Justin: I never knew – yeah cool.
Andy: And that took a map of the microwave background of the early universe. And Planck is doing another map of the cosmic microwave background in much finer detail, less noise in the background. They can filter out other sources.
So it should give the cosmologists and the physicists who are interested in how – what happened right after the Big Bang and how the universe came to be the way it is now better data to work from to test their theories, develop new ideas and so on.
Justin: Yeah, and that first look is the first time when we realized that the dispersion around the universe was so uniform.
Andy: Mm hmm. Yeah. Well, they got a lot of data throughout of WMAP that enable people to test their theories and say, you know, the Big Bang – finds good evidence for the Big Bang and for what they call cosmic inflation which is what happened right after the Big Bang where the universe went from being very tiny to being very enormous.
Justin: Where everything to be so uniform, it had to start small in a very similar way.
Andy: Yeah. But then they had to get very, very big very quickly. And then the question is well, why didn’t the universe just turn out just a big cloud of gas? Why did galaxies and stars and so on appear in the universe and start shining?
And that they think that’s because right at the beginning, there is tiny, tiny variations in the radiation at the beginning. And then when the universe got bigger, then tiny differences in gravity allowed gas to kind of coalesce around these wrinkles and form the first stars and galaxies and so on. So that’s why we have the universe we have now, we think.
Andy: And the great thing of being – I mean about cosmology is people could make up theories. But they really need data. So instruments like Planck are giving – going to give cosmologists the data they need to test their theories, develop new theories and get at some of the new physics which they think is kind of lurking in the background of what we know now.
Justin: I like the idea of there being new physics too. Is this something that it’s – physics is one of those things you feel like we’ve built it from the basic. And of learning more and more complexity in adding more nuance to it. But there could be something new lurking that could change…
Andy: Yeah. Well, I think with physics it’s really the case that we kind of came up with approximations that kind of explained how people and things worked. And they worked really well.
And then after every so on, when somebody comes along and says, “Mm hmm, we could do this” and it’s different. So you had Newton explained how – provided a framework of how gravity works and how forces work. And that was very effective for hundreds of years. Newton’s laws work. You know, I can drop stuffs off this desk. It falls to the ground. Newton explains how that happens.
Justin: Mm hmm. And we got to moon with Newton.
Andy: Yeah. Yeah, we got to the moon. But then at 1905 Einstein and Planck come along. And they say they produce quantum physics and relativity. And that completely changes how people think about physics from then on.
And now, we’re kind of knocking around where – well, now we have the standard model of physics which explains all the particles and so on but doesn’t quite explain everything, doesn’t quite match up with relativity. There’s dark matter out there, there’s dark energy. There are things we don’t understand. We have no clue what they are.
So what the physicists need is some new physics that explains the stuff that they kind of observe but they don’t know how it works. So this is a really exciting time to be a physicist.
Andy: And the rest of us to watch as well.
Justin: There’s also another mystery going on. Not out in space, not out in the deep but on the ocean floors, something as afoot, something of a chicken and egg conundrum but has no feathers or feet anywhere involved.
Whales, when they fall to the ocean floor and die, they become a prolonged feast for a great variety of deep ocean life forms. So it’s like an instant boomtown shows up when a dead whale lanced at the bottom of the ocean.
Justin: So there’s this…
Andy: The place is open.
Justin: It is. It’s a frightening discovery by researchers of University of the Gothenburg, Sweden that some of the life around marine, the marine buffet is so specialized that it only feeds on dead whales. That’s how it is evolved.
Andy: Could you see the same thing in Vegas if you go to (Palazzo) so we can eat like (if you could) only feed on the shrimp or something?
Justin: But how did those people evolve to only eat shrimp before there were casinos? Like, so it’s impossible to know when or where a dead whale is going to appear on the ocean floor. That’s the really amazing thing about this which if the ocean surface is any indication, if I’m just taking what I’ve known of the ocean surface, I would also assume that the ocean floor is likely a very large area.
Andy: Probably about as big as the ocean surface minus a few rocks and things.
Justin: Yeah, it’s probably a pretty large area. So even a dead whale ecosystem doesn’t appear – it doesn’t appear often and it doesn’t last forever. So the question becomes, how in the heck does a life form evolve to specialize in such an opportunistic unpredictable universe as a dead whale falling to the bottom of the ocean.
Andy: Well like, I guess one thing, whales have been around for a long time.
Justin: Mm hmm.
Andy: For what? About 100 million years? And there have been large animals swimming around in the ocean for a long time. So it is time for stuff to happen.
Justin: Yeah. Actually, I suppose there was a time when there was even more large creatures in the sea.
Justin: So the chances may have been even better early, early on.
Andy: Yeah, when you think the whale population now is probably a tiny fraction of what it was before human whaling.
Justin: Yeah. And then the sheer size of the whale offers some insight maybe because single whale dying and drifting down to the bottom of the sea floor is approximately the same amount of nutrients that would otherwise sink to the seafloor in that area over a 2000-year period.
Justin: So and I was trying to figure out like how to put this into a term that I can – I’m thinking like one farm. I go out and because we are surrounded by farm here in Davis, you got into one of these farms. And just imagine 2000 years of crops showing up at once. It’s a pretty impressive, you know, addition to the economy there.
So one common skeleton scavenger, most of the stuff is eaten by fish and shark and stuff come and scavenge the meat off it. And what’s left is the skeleton. One of the common skeleton scavengers is the bristle worm which are related to the earthworm but look like a fuzzy caterpillar.
Andy: Is it a bristle as in your hairs or…
Justin: Yeah, exactly.
Andy: Okay, it’s a bristle as in the English city.
Justin: You know, they have them over there too. So the bristle worm species are so specialized in eating dead whales that they would actually have a problem surviving elsewhere. One example is the Osedax which uses a root system that penetrates the whale’s bones when searching for food.
Other species specialize in eating the bacteria that form around the bones of the skeleton. So it’s a lot of – I don’t know, that’s got me puzzled. A dissertation from the Department of Zoology, University of Gothenburg describes no fewer than nine previously unknown species of these bacteria-grazing bristle worms.
Four of the new species were found on whale cadavers placed in depths off the Coast of Sweden.
Andy: They placed the whale cadavers?
Justin: Mm hmm.
Andy: I was going to ask how they started them with that.
Justin: Yeah, because they went to a depth of 125 meters. I guess that’s probably where they could safely get down and research this stuff.
Justin: The other five species that they found were found off the Coast of California.
Andy: Wait a minute, where did they get the dead whales from?
Justin: Oh, they’re everywhere. They jump up on beaches all the time.
Andy: I was going to say, I’d like to see that one go to the animal approval’s committee.
Justin: Well, that’s actual research. You actually — no, you can. I mean the Japanese…
Andy: Do we need the dead whales?
Justin: …the fleets that calls themselves researchers but…
Justin: The family tree of bristle worms was explored using molecular data. The DNA analysis shows that there are several what they’re calling cryptic species meaning – okay so cryptic species meaning that despite looking identical…
Andy: Oh, I see. Yeah, yeah.
Justin: …they differ very much genetically.
Andy: Mm hmm.
Justin: So the analysis shows the adoption on life on whale cadavers has occurred in the species from different evolutionary paths at several points in time. It also shows that some species assumed to inhabit different areas globally. So they’re thinking, you know, the bristle worm off Sweden is the same as the bristle worm off California may actually just be cryptic species that appear the same but are genetically very diverse.
I mean what it has to be is there has to be then these species have to be existing on the ocean floor in a very subdued state where they’re not being able to really perform their full function.
Andy: Mm hmm.
Justin: For incredible periods of time, generations and generations of these worms where they’re just, you know, just getting by waiting for a dead whale to fall. Or they’re somehow parasitic to a whale while it’s alive and then just taking advantage once the whale finally dies. There’s no explanation of how these bristle worms end up in that ecosystem.
Andy: Would they have a planktonic lava or something like that, they would just be floating around?
Justin: And then get picked up, yeah.
Andy: They just hit a whale because if you produce enough, when you produce enough babies and they float around as plankton, you know, one of them, a couple of them have to hit a whale and start feeding and they could breed and make more.
Justin: Yeah, and the whales go through. I mean they filter water quite – the ocean water quite a bit. I mean that’s the largest creature on earth eats the smallest things available in its diet.
Andy: So they’re just stuck in the whale’s teeth or something and it’ll just wait for it to die.
Justin: And just wait for it to die. Or are they doing something that’s switching it, you know, genetically switching where the next generation aware that there’s a dead whale there changes its genetic pattern, epigenetics and therefore can take advantage of it.
Andy: Well, although we wouldn’t notice it, a dead whale in the ocean would be pretty stinky in the ocean. There must be quite an impressive plume of stuff coming off that…
Justin: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.
Andy: …which is probably what draws all the animals to it in the first place.
Justin: But the ocean floor, it’s so big. It’s so hard to find. What else you got?
Andy: What else I got? Oh well, we’ve talked about – we had ecology. Let’s talk about the small bowel.
Justin: Small bowel?
Andy: Small bowels, small intestines. So this is a story about people who have a small bowel transplant. They have to have a piece of gut from small intestines from somebody else and planted in them to cure a serious disease.
Justin: A diverticulitis, I think.
Andy: Yeah, or something like that. I mean they’re basically in real bad shape until they have a transplant. And also after they have the transplant, the surgeon usually leaves a hole where the bowel, the ileum is folded up to the skin so they can continue to observe it for a while and make sure it doesn’t reject – the body doesn’t reject it because then you’re in serious trouble.
So how this came about, it says a surgeon from Georgetown University called Michael Zasloff got talking to a genome scientist Jonathan Eisen from UC Davies at a conference about this. And Zasloff and his colleague Thomas Fishbein were interested in looking at the bacteria in the gut. And Eisen does a sequencing of bacteria in the environment on a large scale. Basically, you’d sequence the heck out of whatever you find and then you can figure out all the bugs that are in there.
So they said “Well, why don’t you try looking at the bacteria that are in our patients through the hole, through the ileostomy?” So that’s what they’ve been doing.
A student called Amber Hartman who’s partly at Johns Hopkins, partly at Davis was doing this study that had about 17 patients who’d had an ileostomy that had this little hole onto the skin where you can look – you can access a bit of the gut. They were able to take samples for and follow the patient for up to two years and then do DNA sequencing and smell the stuff and look at the populations of bacteria that are growing there.
And they found something interesting which is the bacteria that are growing just inside the gut where you have the ileostomy are of groups which can live in the presence of oxygen. And it turns out that that’s unusual because they went back to look at some of the patients. Once the patients had been – had their hole healed up and they went back and they looked by using a colonoscopy to take some bacteria, they found different bacteria which are – which live without oxygen.
So it’s like there are two different ecologies that you can have in this bit of gut where you have a bit of oxygen present because you have a hole and a bit of air getting in. Then you have the kind of bugs growing up that can live with oxygen. Once you close it up, you get a different population growing out which live there.
So it’s like kind of looking at a forest, when you’ve changed it like so by clear cutting it then you look at all (unintelligible) animals that grow up, it’s that kind of ecology study. And you’re looking at a human bowel while you’re doing it.
Justin: So now, are these are opportunistic organisms from the outside that have jumped in because that can’t come up too often in the gut that you have these oxygen…
Andy: Well, they could be there but it could be on the skin around the outside and they just got in. They could have been there but maybe at very, very low numbers and you just didn’t see them before because they were kept down by the others. So I think they weren’t real clear about what that was.
Justin: I wonder if there’s enough oxygen in like gas like if you…
Andy: Well, that’s methane so I don’t think so.
Justin: Right, so then maybe it’s even – maybe that’s like – is it possible that they are switching or like have a backup where they have somewhere in there, an ancestor that has..
Andy: Well, they’re different bacteria. They’re different groups of species. They are what’s called facultative anaerobes which they don’t need oxygen but if it’s around, it’s okay. And then there are strict anaerobes which you show them oxygen, they die.
Andy: So there are both groups in there but one population takes over when there’s more oxygen around and one other.
One thing I might tell you is if you look at these situations that you think you’re looking at the real gut maybe you’re not. You’re looking at something that’s slightly artificial.
Another is that none of these population seemed to be harmful to the patient if they’re both fine. But maybe if you have a sudden change from one together to the other, that might give you some problems.
There’s a lot of interest generally in gut – in bacteria in the guts and the gut immune system and how that affects your health in patients.
So for instance, a few years ago, when they used to do these gut transplants apparently they used to take the donor gut and they used to clean it because of course it’s a piece of gut. It’s full of bacteria. So they would (strictly) sterilize it before they put it into the transplant patient.
Justin: Mm hmm.
Andy: But they found that that they got better results if they left the bugs in…
Andy: …before they – which is kind of counterintuitive especially if you’re a transplant person and you think you’re putting stuff into a patient whose immune system is suppressed.
Justin: The surgeon is constantly sterilizing everything.
Andy: Yeah, fully your surgical instinct is to clean everything as much as you can but it turns out that if you transplant it with the donor bugs intact, then you get a better outcome than if you’d tried to clean it up.
But anyways, it gives us some more insight into – there’s probably more going on in the gut bacteria than we kind of think about. And I know that – I believe that Fishbein and Zasloff are interested in – in Georgetown interest in looking at that and how that affects your health.
Justin: So this – I have a standing order to anybody that knows me and I’ve even offered it to people I’ve met in passing. And I’m now offering this to everybody listening to be aware of this.
Do not pull the plug on me no matter what my condition appears to be from the outside. I could be unconscious, comatose. I can be completely vegetative. Do not pull the plug. I want to continue, I will believe that there’s something going on in me. Or I might be having a dream or probably a nice dream.
Andy: There are probably some worms feeding on your bones.
Justin: There may be but do not pull the plug. I will be very happy as a lifeless immobile corpse.
Andy: Okay, can we tattoo that on your chest like resuscitate under all circumstances.
Justin: Under all circumstances, yeah, keep me on the breathing machine, the blood pumping machine, the whatever machines they’ve got to keep the body alive. I want it.
Scientist have now found something, something that might back up my desire to be – to exist as a vegetable. Not that I’m looking – not that actually that’s a plan.
Andy: You’re (helping) yourself up here.
Justin: Not a goal. No, that’s not a goal of mine. But in the case, despite lacking means of reporting awareness themselves, people in minimally conscious states can learn. And thereby demonstrate at least a partial semblance of consciousness. Their findings are reported currently in the online edition of Nature Neuroscience. And it is the first time that scientists have tested whether patients in vegetative, minimally conscious states can learn.
And they’ve done this by establishing that with the very simple test that it’s actually possible. What they did was sort of a Pavlovian response thing. They would take a little air blower and blast up Jeddah Air at the eye. And at the same time, they would ring a bell or do a tone – something that was announcing that this was coming. And over successive tests of doing this repeatedly, they found that the patient’s eye would blink at the tone without the blast of air.
So this shows – I mean okay, I know it doesn’t look like I’ve done much here. I’ve just blinked. That’s all I’ve done. But trust me, that’s all I wanted to do that day. That was my goal for the day was to blink.
Andy: Well, what’s a minimally conscious, minimally aware state did you call that?
Justin: A minimally conscious and they’re including vegetative state where the patient has no other reactions to sound or to voice or people talking. MRIs in fact will even show that there’s not activity going on.
But, you know, a lot of what MRIs can reveal in the first place is sort of the over the top messages. It’s a lot of like relating to motor function. We see something and it’s like when you see people kiss and you have an emotional response or if you see somebody running, your motor neurons fire. And a lot of that is because you’re not connected to the outside world, a lot of your activity isn’t going on anymore.
So but what that has found is that researchers in fact believe that these patients can learn associations and shows that they can form memories. And that they may benefit from rehabilitation if they are showing response.
Andy: Is that really a memory though or is it just a real condition reflex, you know, Pavlovian…?
Justin: And what’s the difference? What’s the difference between a memory and a reaction, physical reaction to – you know, I mean it’s and it’s one of these things like I’m, you know, if you’re somebody who doesn’t want to be forced – you know, if your final orders are, “Hey, if I get to that point, you know, it’s enough, I’ve…”
Andy: Pull the plug.
Justin: Yeah, I have no problem with you getting your plug pulled. Anybody who wants their plug, I will even do it for you, you know. Give me the standing order to pull the plug, I will be like the first one there. It’s like people will be debating, it’s like in the hallway whether or not they should – I’ll go ahead and pull it for you.
Andy: That’s thick of you, Justin.
Justin: I absolutely will. But for me, the options I’m having that dream on that pirate ship with a – well anyway, I want to stay. So they think that there could even be – it’s a simple tool now they’re going to use to test whether or not there’s some form of consciousness. And it will be, you know, it will be one of these chivoesk controversies at some point down the road when they’re using this to show consciousness and don’t want to follow through with the family’s wishes or something of this nature. It could be very controversial. But it wont be in my case.
Andy: I guess I have to – well, it’s hard to define what consciousness is for one thing. I think most neuroscientists would sort of struggle with that. And when does a bunch of reflexes become consciousness or awareness because, you know, a worm has reflexes.
Justin: Right. And I guess the only level of consciousness, they were really working on is whether something can react to the outside world.
Andy: Mm hmm yeah, which is pretty minimal.
Justin: And that’s a new memory though. That’s a new piece of information gained from the outside. So it shows that there could be more going on, on the inside in a vegetative state than an MRI showing and then anything else is.
Andy: Why maybe?
Andy: There’s also a difficult question about when the – if you’re a kind of reductionist I suppose you think that everything comes from fundamental interactions of molecules and so on.
So when does a simple reflex like that, if you put enough of them together, at some point does something new emerge? And at what point if you put enough of these simple impulses and reflexes together, when does that become a mind or a consciousness or something as smart as a cat or a human, for example?
Justin: Right. But I think if we start…
Andy: Interesting question.
Justin: I think if we start rating life on level of intelligence, we can get into trouble.
Andy: No, I don’t think. That’s not quite what I mean. But I think consciousness comes from somewhere. Awareness and thought comes from somewhere. But presumably, it doesn’t – it builds up from something simpler. It emerges from something simpler.
Justin: And if I get to the point where I have to start over as – and I’m somewhat, what would you call it, I’m not egotistical or I lack in it to the point where if I become – if I get to the point…
Andy: Well, yeah. You just want to sit in the ventilator sucking up electricity…
Justin: If I get to the point where I’m starting over as a twitching eyeball, I’ll work with that. I will work with being a twitchy eyeball.
Andy: We can put you in liquid nitrogen in those tanks, freezing.
Justin: You know, if that’s my last option for existence on the planet, I’ll take it. I’ll go with being a twitchy eyeball and I’ll work with it. Maybe I can be two twitchy eyeballs in a month from now. And maybe I can be a wiggly eyebrow a little bit later. And if that’s all I am, it’s better than the alternative I think.
Andy: I think there was a movie about that, twitchy eyeball floating on a tank.
Justin: It kind of reminds me of like a – what is it – oh, that buried alive story by Edgar Allan Poe where he’s the narcoleptic and he keeps falling asleep at places and waking up, you know, nearly having been buried and eventually I think he ends up in the coffin. I think we got time for one more story before we hit the break.
Andy: Okay, let’s see. What about…
Justin: Oh, have you got the pig story?
Andy: Yeah, it’s to the pigs. The pig is fun. So it’s not kind of basic science story but I think it is a cautionary tale if you like. So this isn’t in your time through the weekend.
Early this year, the Egyptian government ordered all the pigs in Egypt slaughtered to control swine flu. If you were kind, you could say this is a misguided attempt to control swine flu bearing in mind that nobody thought that swine flu was transmitted by pigs and that the pigs posed absolutely no risk to humans of transmission.
And you could consider also that the only people in Egypt to keep pigs are a very small minority of Christians who keep and eat, raise pigs for pork.
Justin: Oh, is it? Now, I think the live pigs were considered a vector. It’s the dead ones. It’s the meat one.
Andy: Well I think, I think live pigs sure you could have get, there are pig flu viruses just as there are bird flu viruses. But the people who get them, if you get a real animal flu like that is you see people heavily exposed. And then it jumps to the one person, makes him sick, someone is very sick but it doesn’t spread from human to human.
So, the human flus that come around every year and the new H1N1 flu which we used to call swine flu early this year, this is a disease you catch from other people. You’re not going to catch it from birds. You’re not going to catch it from pigs. You’re going to catch it from your buddies in the office. You’re going to catch it from your kids in daycare. You know, you catch human flus from other people.
And people knew this back in the spring. But the Egyptian government didn’t take any notice. And they ordered all the pigs killed anyway.
Justin: How do I say this delicately? A country whose national religion forbids the eating of pork…
Andy: I think it’s safe to assume that this was a decision they could take. It wasn’t going to upset a lot of people except those Mormon or Christians who weren’t popular anyway. And maybe they figured it would please a few people who really hate the idea of pigs being in the country, who knows.
But anyway, it turns out these pigs were pretty useful because in Cairo, the garbage collection was done by this Christian minority. They used to come pick up garbage from people’s doors houses, from their doorsteps. And then they would feed their garbage to their pigs and recycle the other stuff. And no pigs, once the government had killed their pigs, the garbage collector people said, “Okay, no more garbage collection.”
Justin: There’s no – we got no – nothing to feed it to.
Andy: In Cairo, all summer.
Andy: So now, the streets of Cairo apparently are piled with rotting trash that nobody can deal with. The fact is there is some kind of government collection but it’s just not effective.
So this is kind of a cautionary tale of ignoring scientific advice that, you know, this killing pigs is a waste of time. It’s a silly thing to do and not taking notice of how the real world works which is the kind of scientific approach of things, I think and of unintended consequences.
So maybe that will prompt the Egyptian government to institute some kind of real garbage collection system. Maybe the garbage collecting sector get to get some of their pigs back and start picking up the garbage again.
But in the meantime, I don’t recommend a vacation in Cairo this fall unless you’re a big fan of garbage.
Justin: All right, so that’s the lesson from that stories. Ignore science at your own peril. You’ll be knee-deep in garbage in no time.
Justin: And you’re listening to this Week in Science. We’re at the break. We’ll see you back here in few more minutes when we’re done being into the break.
Justin: Good morning, Angela!
Angela: Good morning, Justin. Good morning, Andy.
Andy: Good morning, Angela.
Angela: We’re behind citizen scientist.
Justin: Yeah. Where are you calling in from again?
Angela: I’m calling in from Warren, Michigan
Justin: Wow, is it cold there?
Angela: But we like to say Detroit. It’s coming from Detroit.
Justin: Is it cold back East right now? Is it like snowing and stuff?
Angela: It was. It’s kind of muggy and crappy out right now, actually.
Justin: That’s excellent, it’s so hot here, I’m like, I’m ready for the fall.
Angela: I’m feeling it. I know, this is Michigan for you though.
Justin: So welcome to This Week In Science.
Angela: Let’s do this! Let’s do science, I’m so excited.
Justin: What have you brought for us today?
Angela: Today I have brought tool time with Champ Chimp, “The Tool Man” Taylor. I’ve got World Robot Domination takes a backseat, sort of. I’ve got magnetic drugs, I’ve got don’t eat with skinny people, I got what you want.
Justin: Don’t eat with skinny people?
Angela: Don’t eat with skinny people.
Justin: Yeah, I’m actually, I kind of know where that will be going.
Angela: Yeah. You are one of those skinny people.
Justin: I’m one of these skinny people who can like eat absolute junk food in great abundance and I go through a ton of it.
Angela: You would not last at the bottom of the ocean waiting for that weight to come out.
Justin: No, I wouldn’t because I consume much more than my larger…
Justin: Yeah, you know, I’ve got – and I’d eat the stuff that you’re just not supposed to eat like just like two, three hamburgers a day. So, I must have like a giant tapeworm or something. I don’t know what it is.
Angela: I think we know to resuscitate you because with a diet like that, it might be a concern somewhere down the road.
Justin: I’ve got so many preservatives in me that if they bury me, the grass will always be green.
So but what they’re saying is, the story is yeah if you’re eating with people who have like the fast metabolism, you’re going to tend to eat in the amounts and the abundance and the type of food that they can get away with eating even if it doesn’t fit your metabolism. Is that the…?
Angela: Right. Well, what they found is they took 210 college students. And these researchers observed them with one of their research assistants who was naturally a size zero, so naturally adjusted.
But they’ve also observed half the time she was in that, you know, her normal size zero. And the other half, she was in sort of like a fat suit to appear size 16.
Well, what they found is when these students came in for the project, they would always mimic the amount of portion she took. So fat or skinny, they would take what she took portion-wise when they were – I think if they were watching a movie and they were snacking.
But when she was in her normal, you know, just her skinny size, they would eat the same amount as her. But when she was in her obese suit, they would only eat a minimal amount. They would not mimic that but they always mimic the portion.
Andy: So they mimic the portion size when they would change how much they ate.
Justin: That’s kind of twofold. That’s like two experiments in one. One is like the fairness of getting the same portion that somebody else got, you know. They got this much on their plate. I’m going to take that much. But, you know, I don’t really want to eat as much as they do because obviously, you know, that’s too much.
Andy: What if she took a really enormous portion like three triple cheeseburgers and a double fries and…
Angela: Well, based on this study, they would actually take that too. Now, what I think is interesting is, you know, Americans are typically we’re an obese culture. So when we have that desensitized image of obese people, so say what we think to be skinny is actually getting to be clinically obese. So we would mimic that portions and eat that as well therefore gaining in our own size.
Andy: Peer pressure.
Angela: So yay, fat Americans.
Justin: Okay, So I’ve got this – I think my last story there. I’ve read a couple of stories. I have this one story on torture here which is according to – there was a review of neuroscientific research that they did that found that the course of interrogation techniques that were used during the previous administration to extract information on terror suspects…
Andy: Enhanced interrogation, I believe they were calling them.
Justin: Enhanced, basically, torture.
Justin: They were torturing people.
Andy: Just because the inquisition did it.
Justin: Extreme stress, shock, anxiety, it turns out impact memory. Back memory to a point where people will say anything first of all to avoid, you know, being treated that way. And it actually impacts memory to where you may actually be harming those memories you’re trying to recover. You may be actually just drawing facts and figures and names from memory banks of somebody who you’re trying to extract that information from because the – but unfortunately, this story is printed out in such a tiny font that I’m going to get a headache trying to read it.
Andy: Whoever the people who did that, is it an island, I think. I got to…
Andy: Just dropped it on the floor.
Angela: Guantanamo Bay, are you thinking of?
Andy: Well, the people who did this study I think were at Trinity College, Dublin or something like that.
Justin: They had to be – yeah, that’s it.
Andy: But they were just doing a kind of – I don’t think they tortured people. They were just doing a …
Justin: No, they did. No, they’d actually – no, they didn’t. Of course not, no.
Angela: But similar to people on the stand, people in a courtroom will change their story based on – I mean that’s a very – they’re not really getting interrogated or physically harmed. But something as simple as that can change their story then of course…
Andy: Especially when people are being prompted or led along by questions.
Justin: And I may be confusing my research here in this. But one of – this maybe what they did was a sleep deprivation and – what’s the other one when you get to, it’s like a pitch black room and you can’t…
Andy: Oh, sensory deprivation?
Justin: Sensory deprivation, right. And they did this for an extended period of time, like a couple of days, right, and found that people’s cognitive abilities really dropped, memories dropped, ability to remember a story that they were just told was affected. What’s interesting though is it affects men pretty heavily.
We become – men become very, you know, it becomes very hard for us to form a new memory and retell that memory and trust our instincts. It doesn’t affect women so much which is a very bizarre thing that they pulled from that study.
Andy: (Unintelligible) study, aren’t they. (Men I say are useless).
Justin: (Unintelligible) That’s like we’re going to make up a new word. But anyway, that wasn’t even in the story, now, I can’t find the story. Oh here it is.
Angela: You’re not resilient.
Justin: Yeah, we’re not, we’re not as mentally resilient as our female counterparts.
Angela: Right, that’s what I’m saying, it’s the women.
Justin: However, one thing that the other research here at the Stanford University School of medicine may have shown is that we may have helped the immune system of these people we were waterboarding. This is so horrible. I’m trying to find the silver lining there.
Angela: Good luck preaching that one.
Andy: She’s stressed?
Justin: Yeah, stress. They found beneficial effects of the rodents – on mice given these short periods of angst and stress. And they found that these effects can last weeks after the stressful situation has ended. The surprising finding here, because chronic stress has the opposite effect. Really chronic continual stress taxes immune system and increases your susceptibility to disease and according to Dr. Fudar Debar, this is the first evidence that shortlist stress may actually enhance even anti-tumor activity.
So they even help protect us against at least one type of cancer. It’s the skin cancer that they were applying to these mice.
Andy: That’s interesting because I think an immunologist has been around for a while that some kind of stress can send certain hormones spiking in those things.
I had a friend who worked on malaria years ago at London University. And he was working at a field station just outside London. And they were getting these mice for their experiments. They’re getting shipped out from the lab in Central London. They’re arriving in their lab. And they were injected with malaria. And the malaria died. The parasites just died.
And they figured out that if they left the mice for a bit longer to outside the drive on the train, if they just let them sit in the lab for a bit longer and get it climated, then things behave normally. But, if the mice was straight off the train, then the parasites would die right away. So they figured, they could cure malaria if they could get the entire population of Africa on the 5:15 from Paddington twice a day and…
Justin: This is a quote here from Dr. Debar. “This is a promising new way of thinking that calls for more research. We hope that it will eventually lead to applications that will help us care for those who are (unintelligible)”
Andy: (Please give me a pill).
Justin: “I’m maximally harnessing the body’s natural defenses while also using other medical treatments.” So…
Andy: It’s kind of – see, I mean…
Justin: “Mr. Patient, we’re waiting for the test results for your latest biopsy. Yeah. In the meantime, we’d like you to come down to the lobby in your hospital gown and give an impromptu speech on quantum gravity to the hospital staff. You have 20 minutes to prepare.”
Andy: I feel better already.
Andy: Yeah, it does seem like one of those things has been discovered before. Maybe they’ve got a bit nuance on that or something. But maybe they discover this every ten years or so. Like a lot things can get rediscovered every 10 or 15 years.
Justin: Well, I think the new part here was that it had a lasting effect.
Andy: Mm hmm. Mm hmm, you’re right.
Justin: That it was over weeks later. And this was…
Andy: That’s interesting.
Justin: They were doing a – the experiment here was part of – they were applying UV radiation to the rats and giving skin cancer to some. And the ones that had been stressed out for short periods, had much lower rates of getting it. And part of it, they think is because the, yeah, the response is sending out signals to the skin to do repairs in preparation while under stress. That sort of somewhere in the fight or flight instinct that we’re preparing for an injury.
Andy: Well, it’s kind of an impractical because I mean the place that you get – you could be on vacation lying on the beach getting skin cancer from the UV and then you’re relaxing. You don’t want them to come and stress you out while you’re lying on the beach.
Angela: We just need someone to run around and scream “boo!” at all the cancer cells.
Andy: Yeah, cool. You can’t track the effect of UV rays.
Justin: Oh, it’s just fear. But I think, yeah, while you’re out there on the beach, you know, maybe someone comes by and…
Andy: You could be worrying about your job.
Justin: …say, “Oh, I’m sorry. And your hotel reservation yet it’s fallen through for the night and there’s no flights out of town. So you may need to…” What?
Andy: What? You enjoy sleeping on the beach, you can stay here.
Justin: Oh my goodness! And where – you had something also about mice walking again?
Andy: Although chimps and tools as well.
Angela: Chimps and tools, this is a great one.
Justin: And your obligatory shout out.
Angela: Oh, yeah. That’s right, my shout outs to minion (Matthew Heinz) is in the field in Gombe. You’ll notice the similar name, he is my brother, and the one who got me hooked on TWIS.
Angela: Yay! Yay Mathew.
Andy: And Gombe, is Gombe in Tanzania?
Angela: What’s that?
Andy: That’s Gombe in Tanzania?
Andy: Oh, okay. Is that…
Angela: Yes, he’s actually doing field research with chimps…
Andy: With Jane Goodall?
Angela: He is not part of this story.
Andy: Oh, okay.
Angela: But of course his associates, his associate, that sounds gangster. Chimpanzees develop specialized tool kits. So what they did was – and I’m hoping I don’t butcher this – Goualougo Triangle Ape Project in Nouabale-Ndoki. It’s a national park in the Republic of Congo.
So they spent 111 months in this Goualougo Triangle. And they recovered over 1060 tools and 25 video recording – yeah 25 video recordings of chimpanzees and watched them – basically watching how they forage ants.
And they found that an average per site of 3.37 tools was found. So three tools each per site but of these 36% combined – 36% had a combined two types of tools. So they had ant-probing tools and they have nest perforating tools.
Now there are two different kinds of ants. There’s epigaeic and there’s intermediate where these epigaeic ants have larger legs and more painful bites.
Justin: Mm hmm.
Angela: And when you attack them, they attack you back. The intermediate is not so much. So what they found is these chimps actually have these tool kits where they were able to differentiate and even in some cases pre-plan so that they would be able to get, you know, rustle up the ants with the nest perforating tool and then use the ant-dipping tools to get them out. So that way, they’re not having that counterattacks with the epigaeics.
Angela: And I also have…
Justin: You know, the thing about tools and chimps is we’re going to have to stop saying at some point completely that what separates us from the animals is use of tools in any way…
Andy: I think that’s gone a long time ago.
Justin: Now we have to start saying toys. Until they come up with toys, until they’ve…
Justin: Until they’ve got – until they come up with Legos.
Andy: So when you say tools, they basically mean I assume it’s some kind of stick or a leaf or something. And so, they have what, a big stick for poking, breaking into the mound and then some other more specialized stick for getting the ants outwards, right?
Angela: Right. And they actually say that it’s sustainable harvesting too because the techniques – the ants will stay in that location because the chimps won’t ruin their home, they won’t just use their hand and scrape everything open which also would inflict pain on the chimps. But they’re just kind of rustling them out. And so it’s a renewable source of food. They can go back to that same source.
Andy: Oh, clever.
Angela: And they’re also recycling. A chimp has – they practice recycling. They’ve recognized tool forms and reuse tools which were left by other individuals during previous visits. So they’re looking at something and say, “Oh hey, ant probe, perfect. That’s what I need.” Pick it up and go use it.
Justin: Very clever. What else you got? It’s your show. I’ve got nothing left.
Angela: Andy, what do you got?
Andy: I’ve got some bouncing oil drops.
Justin: Bouncing oil?
Andy: Bouncing oil drops. This is kind of a weird story. So Bill Ristenpart who’s a professor here in UC Davis in Food Science and Chemical engineering and recently joined us I think from Harvard.
But – so he’s doing some work with how oils, oil drops move through water, you know, when you have like olive oil and balsamic vinegar or have a lava lamp or similar to that we have – you have droplets moving around in those fluids, it’s kind of very fascinating thing to watch. But also it turns out…
Andy: It also turns out it’s quite an important process because there’s a lot of industrial chemistry where you want to extract or separate oils from water. When you bring up crude oil, it may have salt water in it for example and you want to try and get the oil out or get the water out of the oil or when you’re making bio-fuels or something like that.
Angela: Or clean up crudes for (unintelligible).
Andy: Yeah, it’s an interesting. So, it’s some kind of important to understand how drops of oil in other liquids move and work and coalesce.
So when you watch say a lava lamp, you can see there are blobs moving around and they kind of bump into each other and merge. And if you put an electric field through a mix like that, sometimes that encourages the oil drops to kind of merge and flow one way.
So what Ristenpart found was one day, they were playing around with their apparatus in the lab. And they jacked up the electric field current. And they found there was a kind of explosion went on in the water which they were expecting.
And then they noticed when it calmed down, there were drops of oil which were kind of bouncing off each other when they should have been – if they’re opposite charged, they should have been you would think the opposite charges would attract and then they would merge together.
And instead, they could see on opposite charge drop hitting – say a positive charge drop hitting a negatively charged drop and then kind of bouncing off it which you think shouldn’t happen.
So they’ve been studying this some more. And what they found is that at lower voltages, if I’m getting this right, you would encourage drops to merge. But when you get to a certain point, under the right circumstances, you have say a positively charged drop and a negatively charged drop will come together. And they very briefly form a tiny little bridge between them that’s a bit like an hour glass.
And that will pass some charge from one to the other and then they will fly apart again and break the bridge. So there’s been kind of weird stuff going on in there that nobody really expected before. If you change the conditions, increase the voltage, you can get the behavior to change. And then, the drops, instead of merging, they’ll fly apart.
So that’s quite interesting from the point of view of understanding how oils and water mixtures behave and how you might be able to separate them if you were say trying to separate biodiesel from a liquid or trying to separate crude oil or something.
It also might be interesting for studying weather systems. Do you think about where do you have charged droplets floating around bumping into each other? Well, storm cloud. So there may be things going on in storm clouds that we never really thought about before in a way the droplets move around and so on. So there’s a kind of cute little basic science story.
Angela: Neat. Justin’s awfully quiet today.
Justin: I’m going to just listen. I’m out stories. You guys got this. This is your show now.
Andy: He’s thinking about lava lamps. But I guess the most important thing is can we make a better lava lamp out of it? This was what I want to do.
Justin: I’ve never understood lava lamp fascination, it somehow escape me.
Andy: It’s come and gone.
Angela: I’ve got world domination takes the backseat, sort of.
Justin: Sort of.
Andy: Robot world domination.
Angela: World robot domination. So okay, MRIs, it’s something Justin spoke of earlier. Well, in the case of (patients) who have come into the hospital with dizziness, that was their main symptom. However, they exhibited none of the other typical stroke patient symptom.
In 69 patients, 25 of them – or I’m sorry, in 101 patients, 69 of them were found to actually have a stroke. However, when using the MRI technique, eight of them were falsely negative. So that’s eight people out of 59 who were having a stroke who this MRI it was falsely negative and, you know, stroke kind of brain.
Andy: So they come into a hospital with dizziness and then they’d give them an MRI to say they’re not having a stroke?
Andy: And then some of them, they would get a false negative.
Justin: Yeah, “You’re absolutely healthy. Just get out of here, you’re fine”.
Andy: “You’re fine.”
Justin: And then you drop dead a couple minutes later.
Angela: And then, right, it’s only by a second MRI did they find that they were actually having a stroke which of course is, you know, $1000 later and how many hours and man hours, you know.
But they found that this eye movement, the simple bedside exam of the doctor performing, you know, to the patient, looking for three different things, looking for the inability to keep eyes stable as the head turns rapidly, looking for jerkiness as the patient follows the doctor’s finger, and checking the eye position to make sure one’s not higher that the other — using these instead of the MRIs, 69 out of the 69 were diagnosed as stroke patients.
Justin: Oh, wow. Yeah.
Andy: So a test that takes about five minutes and cost about $2. These out the tests that costs…
Angela: Exactly, and can be performed at the bedside.
Andy: …untold tens of thousands of dollars.
Andy: And we wonder why medical care costs so much.
Justin: And I still wonder why I have to turn and cough because if I had a hernia, I think I would know. I think I could tell my doctor. I don’t think they’re going to discover it by grabbing me, making me cough. No, this is what a physical exam is. And it’s looking for…
Andy: Is that what they’re looking for in one?
Justin: It’s apparently they’re looking to see if you have a hernia which you would think you would know. You would think you would come and be like, “I have a hernia. I don’t need you to grab me there and have me cough and have me be uncomfortable.”
Angela: Grab you there.
Justin: Well, that’s what they do…
Angela: You may need to find a new doctor.
Andy: Well, it’s still cheaper than that…
Justin: No, no, that’s what they do.
Andy: It’s still cheaper than doing MRI.
Justin: And then the thing where they poke you in the belly like, you know, looking for appendicitis, I mean at that some point maybe in doctoring…
Angela: Oh, that was great, I had that. And the thing is, they get different specialists then because each one has to poke you on the same spot. It’s like this is the last one.
Andy: Well, if they get a really appendicitis, I think the classic sign is like a rebound tenderness where they – it’s a classic sign of appendicitis they can look for. So probably if they get a good one, they probably want to show all the students.
Justin: Right, I guess…
Andy: So they could have a go at poking you.
Justin: And the thing is, you know, maybe like if it’s the kind of thing that you want to check for on a daily basis, you know, to see if you have appendicitis, I guess you should do it at home. But the chance that that one time a year, you’re going to go in there and it’s like, “Yeah, you’ve got appendicitis this year.”
Andy: They wouldn’t want to miss it.
Justin: Interesting where they…
Andy: That would be bad.
Justin: Yeah. Okay, well, we’re running to the end of the show here. We’ve got a couple of minutes left. We’ve got room for one more story.
Andy: Could we do – one more story, we could do bugs and boxes.
Justin: Bugs and boxes.
Andy: This is kind of cute. So, biological invasions, really there’s lots of biological invasions. Whether it’s cane toads in Australia or (Colopa) weed off the California Coast or what’s a – (sarsino grass) growing in (unintelligible)…
Justin: Toxoplasma gondii throughout the world.
Andy: Yeah, invasions, creatures that get in to the wrong habitat and then they go crazy and they grow everywhere. So it turns out this…
Angela: It’s really a manner of time before Justin brought up toxoplasma gondii, by the way.
Andy: I think there’s an unhealthy obsession with Justin’s health on this show actually.
Angela: We’re all concerned about that.
Andy: Doing that resuscitate orders, docs with a gondii and appendicitis, hernias.
Justin: No, it’s a do resuscitate order. It’s a continual resuscitation order, it’s the iron lung, it’s the thing that breathes when it pumps my blood…
Andy: Yeah, yeah.
Justin: Whatever it takes…
Andy: There’s going to be an electrical cord going into your grave.
Justin: And you pry life from my cold dead hands. It’s the only way you’re getting it away from me.
Andy: But anyway, biological invasions, it turns out to be real hard to predict how fast creatures that invade new habitats spread. So people who are interested in modeling, how these things go on and trying to work out ways to predict them used math to do this.
And a guy called Alan Hastings, he’s working here in Davis and Brett Melbourne who’s at University of Colorado did an experiment where they used flower beetles, these little beetles which live in a mix or flower and (acorn) thing.
And they had these little boxes with a hole at one end and they kind of arranged them in a kind of – I think like kind of box car so they could go from one box to another through the holes.
So later, they would raise a generation of beetles in the box and they would let them spread to the next box in the line. And see how long it took the beetles to spread through this kind of “habitat” of a series of patches of boxes that they could live in and move along.
And what they found was that it was really variable. Some of the beetles, sometimes they spread quite slowly. Sometimes they went really fast. Sometimes they were somewhere in between.
They found a lot more variation in there than I think anybody who was sort of predicting. There’s a lot more variables that go into making up that pace of spread. So…
Angela: Now, if a beetle died, would they all remove themselves from that box because of that dense (vesicant)?
Andy: I don’t think so. I don’t think flower beetles are that smart. I just kind of wondering what the hell the flower beetles are raising their kids. Are they, “On, children! On, on to the frontier.”
There’s a (unintelligible) so they come with wagons heading out of the boxes and because they would put every time, they would keep refreshing new boxes at the end. So there was an endless frontier for the beetles to move into. It’s like – it’s really kind of inspiring in this little flower beetly way.
Justin: Yeah, yeah. Well, we still have many more boxes to get through…
Andy: We have to get in to our next box.
Justin: …in this world. And unfortunately, we’re at the end of this box because this show has ended.
Justin: Thank you everybody for tuning in.
Angela: This is a great box.
Justin: (Angela Heinz), thank you for joining us. You did a wonderful job minion co-hosting. Andy Felsch, thank you for joining us as well.
Andy: You’re welcome.
Justin: We’re actually overtime. So we’re going to just skiddadle out of here. One thing I do want to point out though is if you’ve learned anything from today’s show remember…
Angela: Oh, it’s all in your head.
Andy: Justin wants to be resuscitated.
Angela: I took it. Thank you.
Justin: Bye Bye.