Scientists can be a serious bunch. But they have a sense of humor, too, geeky though it might be. April Fool’s Day provides the perfect opportunity for scientists to display their sense of humor through phony press releases, videos, and websites. Here are a few of my favorite science-related pranks that popped up today, as well as one from the past that I couldn’t pass up.
EPA, Cleveland to Set Cuyahoga River on Fire to Celebrate Clean Water Act: The title says it all. Like any good prank, this article from the Union of Concerned Scientists contains just enough truth to make it believable. The story hearkens back to the infamous 1969 fire on Cleveland’s polluted Cuyahoga River, which sparked widespread public outrage and led to the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972. The article takes advantage of the 40th anniversary of this landmark legislation, as well as current debates over whistleblower protections and scientific integrity at the EPA. The article even includes a link that allegedly leads to a website explaining the EPA’s decision to set the river on fire. You’ll have to read the story and click on the link to find out where it actually goes (don’t worry, it’s G-rated).
Neuroscientists: We Don’t Really Know What We Are Talking About, Either: This article from Scientific American plays on scientists’ reputation for using inscrutable jargon. It contains a supposed confession from a panel of neuroscientists who admit to making up most of what they publish in academic journals, tell reporters, and even say to friends seeking free medical advice. As for those mesmerizing pictures of the brain, one of the fictional scientists has this to say: “Frankly, we were just hoping that the colorful images would keep people’s attention. People like pretty pictures—that is something we’ve shown in our studies. Although I can’t quite remember if that was one of the findings we made up or not…”
Richard Branson Launches Journeys to the Centre of the Earth through Virgin Volcanic: OK, Richard Branson is not a scientist. But kudos to him and his staff at the Virgin Group for coming up with a science-fiction worthy press release, complete with an appropriately fiery website. The website announces the creation of “a revolutionary new vehicle, VVS1, which will be capable of plunging three people into the molten lava core of an active volcano.” According to the press release, Hollywood stars Tom Hanks and Seth Green have already signed up for the first voyage. You can claim your own spot on the “back-up team” by providing a comment about why you have what it takes to venture where no human has gone before. And since the folks at Virgin couldn’t resist a second April Fool’s joke, you can look forward to using the new Branson currency to buy a cold drink once you reach the center of the Earth.
Cats in Space: Internet Video Pokes Feline Fun at Cosmic Photos: This article from Space.com tells the story behind a satirical video posted on YouTube in January. Although the video wasn’t released on April 1st, it plays like an April Fool’s joke. The video was posted by Andy Freeburg, a former media specialist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and mocks conspiracy theorists who claim that NASA substantially alters or even fabricates its images of space. One of Freeberg’s friends plays the fictional Brant Widgen, an “image enhancement engineer” who specializes in erasing cats that have “photo-bombed” stunning cosmic images. Widgen’s improvised lines are priceless: “I think there was a time in my career where I did resent space cats and their tendency to photo-bomb these images, but it’s like getting angry at the sunshine.”
Flying Penguins: This 2008 April Fool’s hoax from the BBC is irresistible. It features Terry Jones, a member of the British comedy team Monty Python, as the almost-giddy narrator. Then, of course, there are the flying penguins. And since it’s a BBC production, there’s even a follow-up video to explain how they made the penguins fly.
Note: This post is the fourth in a series based on the weekly environmental science seminars at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs.
Fire prevention seems to be a straightforward policy goal. Fires cost lives and cause serious economic hardship for families and businesses. However, as with most government regulations, there are tradeoffs when it comes to setting policy for fire prevention.
In the mid-1970s, California released a series of technical bulletins that set strict flammability standards for furniture manufactured or sold in the state. It was too costly for manufacturers to design one set of furniture for California and another set for the rest of the U.S., so the California regulations essentially became the standard for the entire country. Many manufacturers met the California flammability standards through the use of chemicals known as flame retardants.
“Everything has been treated with flame retardants,” says Marta Venier, an Assistant Scientist at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. She notes that not only furniture but also cars, planes, computers, televisions, and phones contain the chemicals.
The widespread use of flame retardants is worrisome because these chemicals are persistent organic pollutants, or POPs. They are “persistent” because they don’t break down easily. Therefore, they can travel long distances and build up in the environment over long periods of time. For example, although flame retardants are primarily released in North American cities, they have been found as far away as Antarctica. They are “organic” because they contain carbon. Due to their structure, they have a tendency to accumulate in living tissue, particularly fat tissue. Finally, they are “pollutants” because they cause negative effects in the environment.
Studies have found that flame retardants cause reproductive, hormonal, and neurological damage in animals. Because flame retardants don’t break down easily, they are passed up the food chain, increasing in concentration as they move up the chain. Animals with large fat reserves are particularly prone to high concentrations of flame retardants since the chemicals accumulate in fat tissue. For example, some of the highest concentrations of flame retardants have been found in whales, fat-heavy animals that live at the top of the marine food chain. This has led some scientists to refer to the phenomenon of “fireproof whales.”
“We don’t want to forget that we are at the top of the food chain,” observes Venier. Concentrations of flame retardants in human blood have been increasing in recent years, with levels in North America exceeding those in Europe. Household pets are also at risk. Venier’s research has found that cats and dogs have higher concentrations of flame retardants than humans, perhaps because of differences in their diets. Different foods have different levels of the chemicals, with fish having the highest levels, followed by meat and then dairy.
“If this saved lives, it would be worth it,” says Venier. However, studies have found little evidence of the purported benefits of flame retardants. For example, a 2000 study in the Journal of Fire Sciences found that although furniture treated with flame retardants took three seconds longer to ignite than non-treated furniture, the benefits of slower ignition were outweighed by increased smoke and soot from the treated furniture once it ignited. Most fire deaths are caused by smoke, so the treated furniture could potentially cost more lives than the untreated furniture even though it is slower to ignite.
In response to health concerns and the ineffectiveness of flame retardants in reducing fire risk, the California and U.S. legislatures have tried to pass new regulations for fire safety. However, the companies that manufacture flame retardants have lobbied vigorously against such legislation, even creating an ad campaign called “Californians for Fire Safety.” The chemical companies insist they can improve fire safety and protect the environment by voluntarily replacing the current flame retardants with alternative chemicals.
“It’s like a whack-a-mole game,” says Venier, referring to the game in which players strike at a mechanical mole only to have another mole pop up in a different place. She notes that the new chemicals often have only minor structural differences from the original chemicals and no evidence of reduced health effects. “Let’s replace a bad chemical with another bad chemical.”
The concept of a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) was introduced in a previous post that analyzed the life cycle of a cell phone. LCA is a tool used to quantify the environmental impacts of a product over its entire life, from mining the materials that make up the product to disposing of the product at a landfill or recycling center.
Andrew Henderson, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, notes that LCA “is a comparative tool.” In other words, LCA allows researchers to compare the results of small changes in the inputs or outputs of a product. For example, if cows eat more alfalfa and less corn, how will this change the environmental impacts of milk production in terms of fertilizer and pesticide use?
Henderson researches the impact of milk production on phosphorous levels in lakes and rivers. Phosphorous is a limiting nutrient in many waterways, which means that low-level organisms, such as algae, run out of phosphorous before they run out of any other nutrients. Excess phosphorous from fertilizer runoff can lead to large algal blooms, which kill fish by reducing oxygen levels in the water. This process of added nutrients, increased algal growth, and decreased oxygen levels is called eutrophication. It is a concern in many lakes and rivers and has resulted in legislation in some states that restricts the use of phosphorous fertilizers on residential lawns.
However, agriculture, including the production of crops to feed dairy cows, remains a large source of phosphorous to waterways. Henderson and his colleagues study the link between milk production and phosphorous runoff in an effort to understand, and ultimately reduce, the environmental impacts of food production in the U.S. An LCA approach helps the researchers break their analysis into a series of manageable components, including feedstock production, cow maintenance, transport and processing of milk, retail milk sales, consumption of milk, and disposal of unused milk. Phosphorous impacts on water quality occur during the first step in this series: feedstock production.
In order to assess the impact of feedstock production on water quality, researchers must first determine the percentage of corn, alfalfa, and other feed distributed to dairy cows. They must also calculate the percentage of each feed type by geographic region because growing conditions vary greatly across the U.S., resulting in different levels of fertilizer use in different regions. Finally, researchers must determine what fraction of phosphorous in the fertilizer is retained by plants and what fraction is washed into waterways.
Each of these calculations requires many assumptions and generalizations. The resulting figures, in terms of phosphorous released to waterways per kilogram of milk produced, have a wide margin of error. However, as Henderson stresses, the results can still be useful for comparative purposes. For example, the researchers can broadly determine whether a feedstock grown in one region of the country results in a smaller or larger release of phosphorous than the same feedstock grown in another part of the country. Similarly, the environmental impacts of different types of feed grown in the same region can be compared.
These tradeoffs lie at the heart of LCA. By revealing the pros and cons of different milk production scenarios, Henderson and his colleagues can offer farmers the tools to make informed decisions about which crops to plant and how much fertilizer to use. Of course, as Henderson notes, environmental impacts are only one aspect of the decision-making process. To offer a full assessment of a product’s impacts, LCA studies must also incorporate social and economic factors. That’s a topic worthy of another blog post–or a PhD dissertation.
Note: This post is the first in a series based on the weekly environmental science seminars at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs.
Genetic adaptation is a painstakingly slow process that is impossible to observe except on geologic time scales, right? That might be what you learned in your middle school science class, but scientists now know that genes are surprisingly changeable.
Researchers have found that Daphnia pulex, a miniature crustacean commonly known as the water flea, is capable of altering its genes in response to environmental stresses and passing those changes on to its offspring, resulting in genetic adaptation in a very short period of time.
Due to daphnia’s remarkable adaptability to environmental conditions, scientists have studied this microcrustacean for centuries, using it as an indicator of the health of lakes and streams. For example, daphnia are capable of increasing hemoglobin production in response to low oxygen levels, a response that turns their tiny transparent bodies red. They can also change their physical form to deter predators.
“They get these big spikes on their heads that say, ‘Don’t eat me!” says Joseph Shaw, a professor and research scientist with Indiana University’s Center for Genomics and Bioinformatics.
Daphnia are also capable of alternating between sexual and asexual reproduction, a trait which gave them their name. According to Greek mythology, the nymph Daphne begged the gods for help when Apollo pursued her. The gods granted her wish, transforming her into a laurel tree, thus preserving her virginity. Most daphnia are female and reproduce asexually. Male daphnia only develop under certain environmental conditions when sexual reproduction becomes preferable for survival.
In 2011, researchers released the results of a project to map daphnia’s genome. They found that daphnia have 31,000 genes, more than any other organism mapped so far. By comparison, the human genome is estimated to contain 23,000 genes. Pretty remarkable for such a tiny creature—the daphnia genome has even inspired a poem about why size matters.
“They have a very compact genome structurally,” says Shaw, explaining how daphnia can physically accommodate so many genes. Essentially, daphnia have much smaller gaps between their genes than other species. The large number of genes is due to daphnia’s very high rate of gene duplication.
Approximately one third of daphnia’s genes are previously undiscovered genes. These daphnia-specific genes are important in explaining daphnia’s adaptability to a wide range of environmental conditions. Daphnia can turn these genes on and off in response to predators, metal contamination, and other stresses.
For example, in a study on the response of daphnia to metal contamination, Shaw and his colleagues discovered that daphnia can vary their production of metallothionein, a protein that renders metals biologically unreactive.
The protein essentially “grabs the metals and won’t let them go,” explains Shaw. As a result, the metals can no longer interfere with the biological functions of the daphnia. The tiny crustaceans become “toxic survivors,” capable of living in water with high levels of metal contamination.
The researchers found that individual daphnia not only protect themselves but also pass on this metal tolerance to their offspring. The researchers made this discovery by collecting samples of daphnia from lakes near Sudbury, Ontario, an area that has been polluted by mining and smelting operations since the mid-1800s. They then compared these daphnia to samples collected in lakes near Dorset, Ontario, an area that is similar in geology to Sudbury but uncontaminated.
The researchers found that daphnia from the contaminated lakes had a greater tolerance for exposure to high levels of cadmium. Furthermore, after 20 generations of reproduction, the offspring of the Sudbury daphnia still had greater tolerance than the offspring of the Dorset daphnia. Thus, the exposure to metal contamination in the lakes resulted in a heritable tolerance to cadmium.
Imagine if your parents were exposed to arsenic and as a result, you (and your children and their children and so on) were born with an ability to drink arsenic-contaminated water without getting sick. That would be incredible in humans, yet it is a trick mastered by the unassuming little daphnia.
The researchers were able to link daphnia’s cadmium tolerance to metallothionein production by observing that the Sudbury daphnia had higher levels of metallothionein production than the Dorset daphnia even without exposure to cadmium. In other words, their genes for metallothionein production were “turned on” to a greater degree at all times. When the daphnia were exposed to cadmium, both sets of daphnia exhibited higher metallothionein levels, but since the Sudbury daphnia were starting from a higher baseline, they exhibited greater overall metallothionein production and therefore greater tolerance to cadmium.
The National Institutes of Health recognize daphnia as a model organism for biomedical research. Daphnia are particularly important in monitoring water quality because of their rapid response to toxins. Potential water contamination can be flagged through changes in the physical appearance or behavior of daphnia. In addition, daphnia have more genes in common with humans than any other invertebrate model organism, making them a useful tool for identifying threats to human health.
Daphnia could be used to test the toxicity of chemical compounds. Shaw notes that there is a large backlog of chemicals with unknown toxicity. Currently, there are between 80,000 and 100,000 known chemical compounds, with 4,000 new compounds developed each year, but many of these compounds remain untested for their impact on human and environmental health. Testing methods that exploit the adaptability of daphnia could prove cheaper and quicker than current testing methods.
Daphnia could even be used to track genetic responses to environmental conditions over time. Shaw and other daphnia researchers are working on a project to extract ice cores and examine historical changes in daphnia gene expression over the past 300 years. Just as climate scientists use ice cores to study past carbon dioxide levels in the Earth’s atmosphere, daphnia researchers hope to use ice cores to study biological changes over time. They could then use the past to forecast the future.
Genome giants. Toxic survivors. Why not add soothsayers to the list?