Babies, Breast Milk, and Bifidobacteria

•July 12, 2011 • 1 Comment

Earlier this year, a London ice cream parlor debuted an attention-grabbing new flavor that made headlines around the world and sold out within days.  The flavor, Baby Gaga, was infused with Madagascan vanilla and lemon zest and served in a martini glass chilled with liquid nitrogen. But at over $22 a serving, customers weren’t coming for its gourmet spices or upscale presentation; they were coming for its star ingredient, its claim to fame: human breast milk.

Just a week after giving birth, women who exclusively breastfeed produce, on average, more than 500 milliliters of milk per day.  In parlor measurements, that’s about a pint of liquid.  At 6 weeks, this amount has typically increased by about 50%; in some highly productive women, it can even double.  For women with an abundant supply, excess milk can be drawn out with an electric pump and stored for future consumption (by baby, or in London, by high-paying ice cream connoisseurs.)

In an interview with the Daily Mail, the London parlor’s proprietor played up the novelty of his new flavor, but his description of its taste (‘creamy and rich’) was comfortably familiar.  Flavor-wise, how does milk from humans compare to milk from cows? Can you even taste a difference?  I don’t live in London, but I do have an ice cream maker.  It’s in my freezer, right next to 2 liters of frozen breast milk.

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Summer Reading

•July 1, 2011 • Leave a Comment

15 years ago, General Motors debuted the first fully electric vehicle for lease in the United States.  The EV1 was silent, fast, and as aerodynamic as an F-16 fighter jet; but most importantly, it could run between 70 and 150 miles on a single charge. (Toyota’s Prius Plug-in Hybrid, for comparison, has an all-electric range of 13 miles.)  Between 1996 and 1999, more than 1000 EV1s were manufactured.  800 were leased out in Arizona and California, and, according to the brand manager at GM, inspired “maniacal loyalty” in their drivers.

Four years later, despite pleas from drivers, and a waiting list of interested customers, GM declared the electric-car program a money loser, and ordered the car’s destruction.  Existing EV1s were taken from their drivers, transported to the desert (in some cases, under police protection), and crushed. (Today, a few can be found in museums, but they’ve been disabled so as to never drive again.)

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(Originally posted June 20, 2011)

Nature after Nurture

•June 26, 2011 • Leave a Comment


Last year, while doing our taxes, my husband and I were surprised to discover that we weren’t as poor as we thought we were.  As lowly graduate students making a combined income of about $50,000 per year, I had assumed we were on the penny-pinching side of the national pay scale.  But when I compared our income to the median income in the country, I found that we were sitting comfortably in the center.  We had made it; we were officially smack-dab in the middle class.  I thought it would feel different.

In the United States, nearly 25% of the population makes less than $25,000 per year.  At this bottom level, a few households squeak by the poverty threshold, but just barely: in 2010 it’s estimated at just $22,314 for a family of four.

This year, 16 million children will be born into poverty (1 out of every 5 children born in the US).  The lives of these children often follow a common stagnant storyline: poor nutrition, delayed mental and emotional development, academic deterioration, criminal activity, and frequently, early parenthood. As young parents, they are more likely to be unwed, more likely to drop out of high school, and more likely to stay impoverished.  The cycle is vicious, and unrelenting.  But is it possible to escape?   How early is the influence of our environment engraved into the patterns of our development?

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(Originally published January 24, 2011)

Dinner Table Science: My 3 Favorite Findings of 2010

•January 11, 2011 • 2 Comments


Last year, at Christmas dinner with my husband’s family, I was stumped by a seemingly simple question: “What was the biggest scientific discovery of 2009?” “That’s a great question,” I remember thinking, as the papers and news I’d read over the past year churned through my mind, struggling to bubble up to consciousness.

For a biology graduate student, it should have been easy; I should have been able to come up with something (anything!) that was a notable scientific achievement, yet also engaging enough to be of interest to my in-laws.

I fumbled for a long minute, and exchanged a blank glance with my husband (who was also a grad student) – he too was at a loss. (After all, not all research comes with the headline-grabbing, NASA-approved stamp of extra-terrestrial life.*) One of us eventually bumbled towards an answer (I think it was the Mars rover’s discovery of water), but I vowed to be better prepared in 2010.

So today, I present you with three science-y things from 2010 that you can talk about around the dinner table. Some were striking enough for me to remember on my own, others were featured in ScienceNOW’s excellent compilation of the most popular stories of the year, or Nature magazine’s top science articles of 2010. All have two things in common: 1. They make great conversation starters. 2. You don’t have to be a scientist to understand them.

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The Mind’s Decline: How Honeybees Can Help Humans Understand Aging

•October 28, 2010 • 1 Comment

The average lifespan for a man in the US is 76 years. Women tend to live about 5 years longer. Good nutrition, advanced medicine, and end-of-life care can extend our bodies’ reach into old age, but like many mammals with long life expectancies, our brains don’t always make the journey with us. In humans and captive mammals (which generally live longer than animals in the wild) the aging brain is remarkably similar, yet frustratingly mysterious.

Two things stand out:

1. Aging can impair several cognitive functions at once (memory, learning, and reaction time, to name a few).

2. Aging affects everyone differently (a group of 80 year old women can have a wide range of mental defects, and some may have none at all).

What determines whether we retain our brainpower or gradually submit to the ravages of age? Can we learn anything from other organisms, or are our brains too complicated to compare to our insect and animal counterparts?

Though invertebrates (like fruit flies and mosquitoes) have long been used to study human physiology, complex cognitive questions have generally been considered beyond their mental capabilities.

But our brains may be less complicated than we think.  Last week PLoS ONE reported a study that found surprising similarities between the brains of old honeybees and the brains of elderly humans.

Do honeybees have the mental skills to qualify as models for human aging? Dr. Amdam’s lab thinks so.  Honeybees are the intellectual heavyweights of the insect world: they’re navigational experts, can calculate distance from a hive (and convey the info to their hive mates), and can recognize complex visual patterns (like different human faces).

As with humans, these skills tended to fade with age. Dr. Amdam’s lab found that older honeybees had trouble forming new memories, and extinguishing (or forgetting) old ones. The ability to forget old memories is a critical part of normal human behavior; it’s the reason many elderly people can’t remember where their new home is, but have no trouble finding their old one.

Researchers changed hive locations to test the ability of the old bees to forget their previous homes

So, from honeybee to human, are we all marching towards an inevitable decline? Not necessarily. Like humans, elderly honeybees fit into a broad spectrum of mental abilities. The researchers even found some old bees that “performed excellently.”

Now the question is: how do we make it into that population?


PLoS ONE article:

Premature Book Review: Origins

•October 19, 2010 • 3 Comments

I’m 131 pages into Origins, but was hooked after the first chapter.  Annie Murphy Paul has written a book that every woman (expectant or not), father-to-be, scientist, science buff, and lover of babies will want to read.  (As a female scientist who adores babies, you can see why it appealed to me.)  Paul compiles and distills much of what is known about the environment’s effect on the embryo and relates it to her own experience navigating the murky, ever-changing waters of prenatal care.  We follow her, month by month, as she explores the science behind each stage of fetal development.

At the beginning of the book, Paul has just discovered she’s pregnant with her second child; she’s 7 weeks along and only beginning to remember (and worry about) the transformation her life is about to undergo.  No drinking, no smoking, no hot baths. (I hadn’t heard of this restriction before, but prolonged exposure to high temperatures early in pregnancy can cause birth defects.)  Even the grocery store is fraught with potential hazards.  At times, the litany of purported pitfalls makes one marvel that so many babies are born healthy.  But Paul’s focus is not so much the dangers a pregnant woman should avoid, but the positive impact a new mother can have on her unborn baby’s life.

She cites one study that investigated the baby-protecting effects of feeding pregnant mice cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower).  The researchers were testing the idea that eating certain foods during pregnancy could defend offspring from diseases.  They were surprised to find that pups of veggie-eating mouse mothers avoided cancer, even late into life.

Paul delves into the research behind many popular pregnancy truisms, and debunks the ones not rooted in science.  (A couple of glasses of wine per week, for example, are not associated with fetal alcohol syndrome, and cocaine may actually be less harmful than cigarettes). Paul acknowledges that many maternal choices are based in fear, not facts, and promotes the idea that expectant mothers who understand the environment’s in utero impact will be better equipped to make decisions that benefit their children.

Though heavily peppered with experimental data, Origins is approachable, sincere, and endlessly fascinating. Even readers with only a casual interest in human development will appreciate the link between the lives we lead now and the forces that shaped our physical and mental development in the first 9 months of life.  I can’t wait to finish.

The Best Defense May be a Good Onion

•July 23, 2010 • 3 Comments

There’s supposed to be a worldwide shortage of onions this year, but I don’t think anyone told my garden. This spring, onions were one of the only plants to survive in my slug-besieged community plot at the Experimental College. We had luck with garlic, chives, and arugula too, but our red onions were the standout. Originally, we put them in as a pest deterrent; now, they line the perimeter of each bed like a green picket fence.

An easy-to-thwart fence, it would seem. Leafless kale, skeletal collards, mowed-down brussels sprouts: within days newly planted greens were devoured. The interiors of our beds looked like the “before” picture in a pesticide commercial. One day, my husband picked slugs off seedlings for half an hour—he lost count after 70.  We eventually erected fully enclosed bed-coverings out of wood and mosquito netting, but our onions survived the gastrapodian onslaught cage-free. They thrived, along with every other pungent smelling, peppery tasting plant in the garden.

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