A new picture of climate change at the poles, 12 photons at a time.

A new picture of climate change at the poles, 12 photons at a time.

I’ve been following NASA’s ICESat-2 mission with great interest.  Why?  Maybe because I like words that start with three capital letters.  Maybe because it’s going to make the best, most precise measurements of how the Earth’s ice sheets are changing, that anyone has ever made.  Maybe for no reason at all.

ICESat-2 launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base a couple of weeks ago, into a near-polar orbit that will fly almost, but not quite, over the North and South poles every 90 minutes for the next 3-7 years.  It’s carrying one instrument, which is a laser altimeter—a powerful laser that sends out ultra-short pulses of light, then measures how long they take to bounce off the Earth and come back.  Using some mind-boggling optics, ICESat-2 will be able to measure the height of the Earth’s surface using only 12 photons out of the trillions it sends out from each pulse.  This sounds crazy, but because it does this ten thousand times every second, it will be able to put together very accurate measurements of the height of the surface.  On a clear day, ICESat-2’s measurements will be precise to something like the width of a cucumber (that’s a 40-meter long cucumber, because it needs to combine lots of measurements to be that precise.  If you find one of those, send us a picture). The plan for the mission is to have ICESat-2 make these measurements on the same paths across the ice sheets over and over again, so that when glaciers get thinner or thicker, ICESat-2 will measure those changes.

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Stem Cells – Fact and Fiction

Stem Cells – Fact and Fiction

By Alexis Wormington

Stem cell research has been a hot topic for years, and is a hugely promising field in medical research. But what exactly are stem cells, and why do we care so much about them?

Put simply, stem cells are the cellular equivalent of a college freshman – they haven’t quite decided what they want to be when they grow up. While this uncertainty may be distressing for the average adolescent, in the case of stem cells, the lack of a niche functional role is actually a good thing. During development, our body forms hundreds of different cell types that come together to produce our essential organ systems, and many of these cell types are highly specialized (such as neurons). This process is called cell differentiation, and for the most part, it’s irreversible – meaning that once a cell develops into a specific cell type, it stays that cell type for good. For example, a blood cell cannot become a neuron, and vice versa. Though this differentiation process is incredibly important for proper development and body function, in can be a bit of a problem for those tissues that don’t naturally regenerate. This is where stem cells come in.


Specialization Capacity Biological Location


Any cell Embryonic tissue


Almost any cell Embryonic tissue
Multipotent Cell types within the same family

Adult body tissues

Oligopotent A limited number of related cell types

Adult body tissues

Unipotent One cell type, but can self-renew

Adult body tissues

Stem cells are defined by their potency, or their degree of specialization. The more potent a stem cell is, the more cell types it can turn into. The most potent stem cells are those found in embryonic tissue – these cells are totipotent and can differentiate into any type of cell. Theoretically, totipotent stem cells can build a complete, viable organism. More commonly; however, embryonic stem cells are pluripotent (can become almost type of cell), and these stem cells are the ones used most commonly for research.

With the table above in mind, one can see that stem cells are not only found in embryonic tissue. Though totipotent and pluripotent cells are essential for fetal development, stem cells of lesser potency are maintained and utilized by our bodies throughout our adult lives. Unlike nerve and muscle cells, stem cells can replicate themselves, and are thus used to regenerate body cells as they die or become damaged (depending on the tissue). For example, since the skin acts as the primary barrier between us and the external en

vironment, our skin cells are constantly regenerating – which would not be possible without the army of adult stem cells that hang out in the epidermis. The same principle applies to muscle and liver tissues, which also require a high degree of regeneration.

A diagram of stem cells, relating the hierarchy of stem cell differentiation from totipotent embryonic stem cells to fully differentiated cells
Figure 1: General differentiation process of totipotent stem cells in humans. (From: http://www.cell-transfection.com/home-2/stable-cell-lines/stem-cells/)

Scientists can do a lot with stem cells. The best thing about these cells is that they are easily modified and manipulated. This has applications for genetic research, as stem cells readily undergo genetic modification, which allows geneticists to learn more about gene function as well as discover new genes. Observing stem cell differentiation has also provided researchers with important insights into mammalian development, something that provides us with valuable information about the formation of developmental diseases. Lastly, a major area of interest within the field of stem cell research is the optimization of stem cell therapy, or the use of induced or cultured stem cells to treat a disease or condition, such as sickle-cell anemia (see Figure 2). A bone marrow transplant, used to treat diseases like leukemia and aplastic anemia, is an example of stem cell therapy.

Diagram of process of treating mouse with stem cell therapy to treat sickle cell anemia
Figure 2: A schematic showing the treatment of sickle-cell anemia in a mouse model using induced pluripotent stem cells. (From: http://wi.mit.edu/news/archive/2007/reprogrammed-adult-cells-treat-sickle-cell-anemia-mice)

Within the context of groundbreaking medical research, stem cells are a resource of potentially endless possibilities. Possibly the most engaging prospect is using stem cells to grow new organs, as many fatal or life-altering diseases are caused by the degeneration of essential tissues or cells. Currently, patients in need of an organ transplant have a lot of hoops to jump through: 1) they must qualify for a transplant; 2) wait on a list with other transplant patients to receive a compatible organ (which can take several years); and 3) take immunosuppressive drugs for the rest of their lives to prevent organ rejection, which can occur no matter how compatible the organ is. With stem cells, researchers can theoretically grow new organs from a patient’s own cells, so that the replacement organ would not only be genetically identical, but would also be available to the patient much more quickly. However, a functional organ requires a lot more than a few pluripotent stem cells; scientists haven’t figured out how to effectively grow organs yet, but they’re getting close.

Though stem cells present a promising prospect for the treatment of some diseases and conditions, these cells are not magic and can’t cure everything. Several types of stem cell “therapies” are not FDA approved and are still undergoing clinical trials – this is an extremely important fact to remember, as numerous unregulated stem cell clinics touting unproven stem cell treatments have emerged around the globe. These clinics can be very dangerous: just ask the three women who went blind after receiving an unproven stem cell therapy to treat their macular degeneration. Additionally, a recent study found that cardiac stem cell therapy actually worsened heart disease in mice, suggesting that, as far as using stem cells to treat heart problems, more research is required. One paper, published in Operative Techniques in Orthopaedics in 2016, sums up the state of stem cell research perfectly: Although the science of stem cells may seem fairly straightforward in homogenous extraction of autologous stem cells and reinjection or implantation into the specific injury site, controlling the fate and function of stem cells remains immensely challenging. With that in mind, it may be best to think twice before paying thousands of dollars out-of-pocket for an unproven stem cell therapy.

There’s no denying that stem cell research is exciting, and as researchers work to understand how these cells divide and differentiate, we’ll know more about the extent of their applications in the fields of medicine, genetics, and biology. Though it’s hard not to get caught up in the hype, try to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism regarding stem cells, and keep an eye on the field as it develops and advances.

Why did it take so long to ban Infowars from social media?

Why did it take so long to ban Infowars from social media?

If you read the news regularly, you’ve probably heard that Alex Jones and his company, Infowars have recently been banished from social media – specifically Facebook, Youtube, Spotify, Vimeo, and others. Pretty much everyone other than Twitter (which gave him a timeout) has pulled the controversial conspiracy theorist from their platforms. The reason for this was ostensibly his repeated violation of policies against hate speech and inciting violence – activities that Jones and Infowars have gleefully been engaged in for years.

But while hate speech and incitement of violence are undoubtedly awful, it seems like social media platforms are overlooking – or perhaps just ok with – the batshit insane list of anti-science conspiracy theories Jones and Infowars have been promoting for years. So while the rational world celebrates the small victory of removing a voice of hate from the social media (if only for now), let’s also reflect on the impact Jones and Infowars has had on the propagation of science-related misinformation over the years.

Jones has frequently suggested that fluoridation of water is a government plot to poison us and control our minds – a ridiculous and all too common conspiracy theory. He also supports the disproven theory that vaccines cause autism, and advocates against life-saving vaccinations. From there it only gets weirder. Jones has suggested repeatedly that the US government has machines that can create tornadoes, and bombs that can turn people gay. According to Jones, the government is also trying to poison us using chemtrails, a theory so insane it seems to require a break from reality. Together with “Big Pharma,” the government has also turned frogs gay and created HIV, according to Jones. And if Jones is to be believed, Bill Gates, whose foundation has spent almost 70 million dollars to develop cures for neglected tropic diseases, is running a eugenics effort.

It may surprise you to know that Jones probably makes most of his money selling dubious health supplements. He spends a considerable amount of his air time on Infowars giving health advice and promoting his dietary supplements. He claims to have pills that will boost your “vitality,” just like an old-timey snake oil salesman. Naturally, Infowars sells a fluoride-free toothpaste for those who don’t want their mind controlled by the government. My favorite Infowars supplement, however, is the Survival Shield. Third parties have tested it, and it contains only iodine, an important element you can literally get by putting salt on your fries. Yet Inforwars describes it like it’s the most advanced supplement ever invented:

“Derived from ancient sea salts found more than 7,000 feet below the Earth’s surface, the evolution of Survival Shield is here and much stronger than our original formula.* Every drop contains 650 micrograms to keep you in prime form. 

Feel the relief and strength of the next step in proprietary nascent iodine, developed using our Thermodynamic Pressure Sensitive High Energy Sound Pulse Nano-Emulsion Technology that allows for a highly unique and powerful nascent iodine that is both concentrated, and free of unwanted additives and genetically modified ingredients to make sure that your organic nascent iodine supplements are the best for your body.  During our quality control phase, we screen for any harmful additives – even up to radiation.”

I have so many questions!!!! How did Jones GET 7,000 feet below the Earth’s surface? Does he own a Dr. Evil-style giant drill? Is he the first person to ever use the words “nascent” and “iodine” consecutively, and why? How could you “add” radiation to something? How do you genetically modify iodine? Then there’s the term “Thermodynamic Pressure Sensitive High Energy Sound Pulse Nano-Emulsion Technology” – a masterclass in pseudoscience technobabble – it sounds cool, while actually meaning nothing. Jones might be the greatest snake oil salesman ever.

Can this get 7,000 feet into the earth?

Jones and Infowars even went so far as to make up a nonexistent fungal epidemic – one they conveniently have the cure for! Two bottles of the stuff will cost you about $100.

It’s easy for rational people to make fun of this kind of tomfoolery, but we need to remember that Infowars has been around since 1999. They are still on the radio today, and their website is active. While I’d like to think we live in a world in which the majority of people who hear his crazy claims think of them as entertainment only, I don’t think we can be naive enough to believe this. Millions of people visit the Infowars site every year, and they sell a lot of useless supplements.

Infowars was rightly pulled off of the air for hate speech against victims of unspeakable tragedies. This is a victory for everyone concerned about the impact of “fake news” on our society. However, we have a long way to go in this regard. Sites like this still makes millions of dollars promoting anti-science theories that can be easily disproved, and by selling supplements that provide no health benefits at all. We can’t ban sites from social media just for lying to make a buck – but we can educate our friends and family and spread the word of science. Maybe someday, Jones will run out of people to take advantage of.

The Science Behind Tattooing

Once the social symbol of sailors and jail-hardened individuals, tattoos have surged in popularity among the global youth, with around 40% of adults between the ages of 18 and 29 sporting some ink. Tattoo artists spend years training and a lifetime honing their craft, often specializing in one of many forms of skin-based expression ranging anywhere from portraits to calligraphy to watercolor. Whether you’re a fan of the “I-Love-Mom” classics or elaborate Monet-esque mosaics, the practice of tattooing seems almost magical in nature – and like many other tattoo-lovers out there, you’ve probably found yourself wondering: how in the world do tattoos even work?

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The Ethically Hazy, Scientifically Controversial Potential of Head Transplantation Surgery

The Ethically Hazy, Scientifically Controversial Potential of Head Transplantation Surgery

In a somewhat creepy presentation, Italian neuro-surgeon, Dr Sergio Canavero announced at a TED event in 2015 that he would soon successfully transplant a live human head onto a donor body. While watching the video, I noticed that TED flagged the talk as not conforming to their guidelines and they note that his talk is speculative and ethically questionable. Canavero described how he partnered with Dr Xiaoping Ren of China and Canavero told the South China Morning Post in November of 2017 that, “Western bioethicists needed to stop patronizing the world. Chinese President Xi Jinping wants to restore China to greatness.” Contrarily, in another article published days later, a senior health official in China asserts that this procedure is not legal, will not happen and is a publicity stunt. However, Canavero and Ren have found a Guinea pig (pardon the term) in Valery Spiridonov, who suffers from Werdnig-Hoffman disease, also called Spinal Muscle Atrophy Disorder, is a autosomal recessive neuro-muscular disease that usually results in paralysis. Spiridonov, 31, is wheelchair-bound and reports a very low life quality. He has agreed to the head transplant surgery, no matter the outcome.

Image from:http://www.businessinsider.com/head-transplant-surgeon-frankenstein-2017-7

Why are Head Transplants So Darned Hard?

Head transplantation has been considered impossible for many reasons. The first reason is that severing the spinal cord, and then repairing it almost never works. Past attempts with animals typically ended with a paralyzed monkey, mouse or dog. Dr. Canavero argued that he could minimize damage to the cord by using a super-sharp diamond blade to cut the cord. He also claims that he can reconnect the severed cord using a chemical called polyethylene glycol (PEG) and electrical stimulation. Canavero claims that PEG accelerates spinal regeneration and is calling it a “fusogen.” Canavero has insisted that this technique has worked on animals, but there has yet to be any accepted evidence of his claims in peer-reviewed literature.

Image from: https://www.canihelpyouonline.com/the-worlds-first-successful-head-transplant-surgery/

Keeping the brain alive long enough to connect it to the new body (read: blood source) is also very difficult. The brain will degrade beyond repair in minutes without a blood source. Canavero claims to use a combination of cryogenics and silicone tubing to solve this problem. Again, this is a claim for which little evidence has been presented.

After a transplant surgery, the patient’s immune system will often reject and attack implanted foreign tissue, which is the third major problem for a head transplantation: How does the surgeon keep the donor body’s immune system from rejecting the new head? Transplant patients struggle with this problem even with the most common kinds of transplant surgeries but Canavera says that he has conquered this problem in the same way we battle immune rejection in heart or kidney transplant patients – with a cocktail of immune suppressant drugs.

Is it Ethical to Cut Off a Person’s Head and Sew it on to Another Person’s Body?

Image from: https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/qkv5m3/reasons-to-take-a-human-head-transplant-seriously-these-mice

In the industry of scientific research, the scientific method is the primary way in which research moves from hypothesis to accepted theory. In a situation like Canavero’s research, a responsible researcher would start with a moderately large sample size of small rodents, such as mice. Canavero says he has performed the surgery on mice. It is uncertain whether or not the surgeries were successful, or how one might even define success in this case. He would perform the experimental procedure, document it in a legitimate scientific publication and subject it to peer review. examine the article and determine if the research is acceptable. Once peer review was established, Canavero might move on to larger animals, probably dogs (yes, I know it’s awful, but that’s another article) and repeat the process. After that work had been accepted, he might move on to non-human primates (monkeys). After monkeys, a responsible researcher might then move on to a human cadaver.

When a researcher is writing these articles, they should include excruciatingly detailed descriptions of their methods along with well-documented explanations of the results. Canavero and his colleagues have not done this. The articles he has published mention methods minimally, if at all. He does assert that the work was “successful,” without much of an explanation of what “successful” means in objective terms. Neurologists around the world have expressed a variety of sentiments about his research, from mere skepticism to stern disapproval. There is no legitimate ethics board that would approve this procedure, considering the lack of evidence and the ethical considerations. Dr James Fildes, NHS principal research scientist at the University Hospital of South Manchester’s Transplant Centre, said: “Unless Canavero or Ren provide real evidence that they can perform a head, or more appropriately, a whole-body transplant on a large animal that recovers sufficient function to improve quality of life, this entire project is morally wrong.”

So, Just What are (some of) Those Ethical Quandaries?

Consideration 1 – Dr Canavero has announced in several venues that his plan is to use head transplantation to help those who can pay for it to achieve immortality. He sees a world in which rich people can buy a new, younger, healthier body, thus live forever. The two procedures central to the research are the GEMINI Spinal Cord Fusion protocol and HEAVEN (Head Anastomosis Venture Project). This is an ethical argument that could fill books. Is immortality ethical, or even sustainable? Is it fair that this would be an option for only the very wealthy? It sort of reminds me of Elysium.

Image from: https://www.healththoroughfare.com/science/the-first-head-transplant-in-the-world-might-be-more-than-90-successful/7432
Dr. Canavero and a head. I couldn’t say what he is doing with it.

Consideration 2 – In order to do a head transplant, a corpse with an appropriate body needs to be available. According to Organdonor.gov, 20 people die every day waiting for an organ to become available. At a time when wait list for donated organs are months or even years long, how will we handle the supply/demand problem for whole bodies? Is it realistic to donate an entire body for an iffy procedure when those organs can save as many as 8 people on organ donor waiting lists? If were talking about future immortality and wealthy people can live forever, who donates their body? The poor? Prisoners? Clones? It would take another book to even touch on the cloning ethics problems.

Consideration 3 – What kind of hellish scenario would it be for a live human if the head is rejected by the immune system? Currently, the most commonly transplanted organ is the kidney, though we can transplant hearts, lungs, faces, hands, arteries, penises, uteruses, and many other organs with a high likelihood of success. Tissues without a vascular system, such as tendons, cornea, or skin have a much smaller risk of rejection, according to the US Center for Disease Control (CDC). Despite the low likelihood of rejection, it still happens. A head transplant is vastly more complex than any kind of transplant we do currently. Transplantation of organs are typically followed by years of anti-rejection drugs designed to suppress the immune system. This raises the risk of the patient catching an infection that they can’t fight off. The CDC also reports that there is a risk of the transplanted organ having an undetected infection, such as HIV/AIDS, or Hepatitis.

Imge from: https://www.express.co.uk/news/science/933920/Head-transplant-sergio-canavero-Valery-Spiridonov-Werdnig-Hoffmann-disease
Is this a successful head transplant? These two don’t look so good.

Consideration 4 – Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics at New York University’s Langone Medical Center. “biochemical differences between the head and the donor body, the person would probably never be able to regain normal consciousness.  “It’s not like putting a light bulb into a new socket,” Caplan said. “If you move the head and the brain, you are putting it into a new chemical environment with new neurological input. I think it would drive the person crazy before they died.” It makes you wonder, how will all of those other person’s hormones and other chemicals change the new brain?

Consideration 5 – To whom will the new combination-body belong? Does the recovering patient become the head or the body? There will be 2 different sets of DNA at play, one from the head, and one from the body. What about identity? While the newly recovering patient has one person’s head, they have another person’s finger prints. What happens to the body’s property, debt, spouse, children? What about the heads personal and legal belongings and family?

This may seem obvious if you think the center of our consciousness is in our brain, but research shows that may not be the case. Much of our behavior and feelings are influenced by our hormones, gut microbiome, and other factors. The enteric nervous system, located in the lining of the gastrointestinal system, is the largest nerve bundle second to the brain, and for this reason the ENS is sometimes called the “second brain.” 95% of our serotonin is found in the ENS. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps reduce depression and anxiety, referred to commonly as a happiness chemical. We don’t know enough about how consciousness, personality, and our feelings really work. We don’t know enough about the ENS or the human microbiome yet to determine where the seat of consciousness is located.

Image from: http://reillytop10.com/previous-lists/2016-list/head-transplants/

What Do You Think?

In a situation like Spiridonov’s, suffering from Spinal Atrophy Disease, I can see why he might risk death or worse for a chance for a better life. Canavero’s arrogant, self-assured attitude and flashy, circus-like handling of his work would seem to convince a vulnerable person that this procedure was indeed not only possible but inevitable. On the other hand, if a head transplant is possible it represents hope to people with conditions that limit their quality of life. Is it ethical to deny them the procedure because of its Frankenstein-esque qualities?  After all, any new surgery might have seemed pretty morbid and risky at one time. Let us know what you think in the comments!

Chemophobia and the myth of buzz-word marketing

Chemophobia and the myth of buzz-word marketing

If given the chance, which of these two bottles of water would you choose?

If you chose the one labeled “natural”, you’re not alone. Labeling a product as “natural”, “organic” or even “alternative” has become code for “healthy” or at least healthier compared to other, non-natural products. But is this really true, or is it just a way to sell products?

We have covered the term “organic” before. Organic has a very specific meaning in terms of food, legally speaking. However, despite what many people may think, organic food is not healthier than non-organic food, it is not pesticide free, nor is it better for the environment. The power of the label “organic” has been recognized to the point that the USDA felt it necessary to define exactly what it means, thereby preventing everyone from using the term and rendering it meaningless. This hasn’t stopped the misconception that organic equals healthy, however, and numerous companies use this to their advantage in their advertising.

Another successful marketing buzzword is “natural”. The USDA defines “natural” food as food that does not contain artificial ingredients. However, they are pretty lenient with what constitutes an artificial ingredient. Things like antibiotics and growth hormones are allowed, as is some degree of processing. While some may think, based on the labeling above, that the “natural” spring water is healthier than the regular water, the truth is that there is absolutely no difference between these products. Water is water, and all water contains electrolytes. It is certainly possible to synthesize water, but no one would ever do this at a commercial scale – it would be prohibitively expensive. The water in both bottles came from the ground, and while there may be slight differences in their mineral content, they are both equally “natural” and healthy. Some companies have taken things a step further and marketed “raw water”, which is completely untreated or processed. While this may sound to some to be a “healthier” option, it actually much worse for you, because while it is nutritionally the same (water is water), it carries a risk of disease carrying micro-organisms that the filtered or processed waters above do not.

How is a “herbal” iron supplement better than a regular iron supplement? It costs much more, includes thousands of unknown chemicals from the herbs they use, and requires a higher dose. So… it’s actually much worse.

The success of “organic” or “natural” products stems from chemphobia, or the fear of chemicals. Just the word “chemical” has a negative connotation for many – something that is synthetic, un-natural, or even dangerous. Advertisers use this to their advantage. In addition to natural and organic, they use words such as “gluten-free”, “GMO-free”, “alternative” or “homeopathic” to suggest their products are somehow healthier then “regular” products.

We have highlighted a couple of these misleading add campaigns in the past. PUR water filters ran a series of ads playing on people’s fear of lead in their water, arguing that their product made water “safer” by lowering lead levels below those considered safe by federal regulations. This was a particularly cynical ad to run during the Flint water crisis, in which thousands of people were exposed to high lead levels in their drinking water due to a combination of government corruption seemingly willful ignorance.

Stonyfield yogurt ran a series of ads using kids to sell their organic yogurt by calling GMO foods “monstrous” and using the “fish-tomato” as an example when it has nothing at all to do with GMO food safety or their product. The Stonyfield products are verified GMO-free, but they are only labeled as “organic”, and not “100% organic”, which means that up to 5% of the ingredients in their products can be non-organic, something that Stonyfield doesn’t feel it necessary to address in their ad campaign.

This salt is labeled as GMO-free. There is no such thing as GMO-salt. Salt is not (nor does it come from) an organism.

The non-GMO project verification is touted by Stonyfield and others as proof that their products are somehow healthier than others, but consumers need to be aware that this is not necessarily the case. Some companies selling products for which there is literally no possibility of using GMO ingredients, such as bottled water or coffee, have paid to have the non-GMO certification label added to their products. Since GMO water, tomatoes, and coffee do not exist (nor do GMO blueberries, apples, or oranges), the only reason to pay to add such a label to your product is marketing. These companies are trying to win customers by making their products seem healthier or safer when they are not.  There is no data suggesting that non-GMO foods are any healthier or safer than GMO foods.

This water is advertised as organic and non-GMO, neither of which apply to water. This is just a marketing strategy to make consumer think it is “healthy” or “safe”.

The gluten free label is one of the most abused, since the absence of gluten from the diet is not inherently healthy (unless you have celiac’s disease), and some products labeled as “gluten free”, like water – would never, under any circumstances have gluten in them. The term is used so often because people respond to it, equating gluten free with a healthy choice, even when it is not.

Let’s be clear – just like “organic”, “GMO-free”, and “gluten-free” products, “natural”, “alternative” and “homeopathic” products offer no health advantage over other similar products labeled otherwise. Just like water is water, a chemical is a chemical whether it comes from “natural” or an unnamed commercial sources. They are chemicals either way – everything you eat is a chemical, and you are made of chemicals. Advertisers are taking advantage of consumers by using these labels, and the confusion they create by suggesting over and over again in their ads that “natural” is healthier makes it very difficult for science-advocacy groups and blogs (like UYBFS) to counter popular opinion.

This company is advertising their coffee as verified GMO-free. There is no such thing as GMO coffee, so by definition all coffee is non-GMO.

The most dangerous manifestation of chemphobia is the distrust of modern medicine. The reasoning often given for belief in so-called “alternative” or “homeopathic” remedies is that they are natural, and that modern medicine, with it’s use of chemicals is somehow “bad”. This could not be farther from the truth. Without exception, alternative medicine does not work. That’s because once it has been shown to work, it’s no longer considered “alternative” – it’s mainstream medicine. There is a certain irony in the chemphobic belief that an unproven alternative therapy is “good” because it’s natural, while as soon as the same therapy been shown to work in controlled trials and it looses the “alternative” label, it would be treated with skepticism because it is “man-made medicine”.

Does ingesting made-made extracts from plants count as “natural”? We aren’t sure, but we are sure this “alternative” energy booster doesn’t work.

The fear of chemicals and the trust of products advertised as “natural” is a product of chemphobia and poor science education. While a consumer’s tendency to buy “natural” or “organic” foods will likely only negatively impact their wallet, people can and do die because of trust in natural alternative or homeopathy therapies. This is chemophobia taken to it’s extreme. As far as “natural” things go, just remember: there’s nothing more “natural” for humans than being infected by an intestinal parasite or eaten by wolves. Natural isn’t always good.

So the next time to instinctively reach for the “natural” product – consider why you are making this choice. While it is reasonable to buy these products if you like the brand, or the taste, it is a mistake to think products labeled this way will necessarily be healthier for you. A chemical is a chemical, regardless of where is can from, and chemicals are nothing to be afraid of.









Why Does My Urine Smell When I Eat Asparagus?

Why Does My Urine Smell When I Eat Asparagus?

Welcome to Ask a Scientist, where we answer questions from our readers on a wide range of scientific topics. Got a scientific question? Drop us a line

Q: Why does my pee smell when I eat asparagus? – D.T., Rutland, VT

A: OK, maybe this isn’t an important scientific question, but it’s kinda of interesting. So here’s the science behind asparagus pee.

People have known for a long time that asparagus causes the urine of many (but not all) people to smell pungent. Benjamin Franklin famously wrote about it, stating that,” a few stems of asparagus shall give our urine a disagreeable odor.” Asparagus pee stinks, but asparagus itself doesn’t have a similar smell, even when cooked, which suggests that the chemical responsible for the smell is a metabolite – something made in our bodies out of something in the asparagus. This is definitely true, asparagus contains a chemical boringly-named “asparagusic acid.” Asparagusic acid contains sulfur, which is a stinky element, and is responsible for the rotten egg smell (among others). Once most people eat asparagus, they metabolize aspargusic acid to several small volatile chemicals, one of which, methanethiol, is believed to be the major source of the smell. Methanethiol, being a volatile chemical, has a low boiling point and therefore is freely released as a gas into the air, hence the strong smell even several feet away from your toilet. This metabolism occurs rapidly – you can generally detect the smell about 30 minutes after eating asparagus. Besides methanethiol, there are several other stinky sulfur-containing metabolites found at lower levels, including dimethyl disulfide, dimethyl sulfone, and 2,4-dithiapentane.

The metabolism of asparagusic acid

For many years it was believed that a large percent of the population did not metabolize aspargusic acid to methanethiol (and the other sulfur compounds) and hence did not experience the strong smell. It turns out this was only partially true. There are definitely many people who don’t produce the smell at all, likely due to currently-unidentified differences in their metabolism. However, there are also a significant number of people who simply cannot smell the metabolites of asparagusic acid even when they are present. This was traced to a single mutation in a gene involved in olfactory function, identified by the genetic testing company 23andMe. This breakthrough was confirmed in a 2011 study that involved asking people to smell not only their own urine, but that of other people who had eaten asparagus. Science isn’t always sexy, folks.

The exact percent of people that don’t experience the smell, either because they don’t metabolize asparagusic acid or are incapable of smelling the metabolites is a bit unclear at this time. In the 2011 study, only 8% of subjects failed to produce the odor, while only 6% failed to detect it. Other older studies have reported much higher numbers of people who don’t experience the smell – up to 50% in one study. Based on the results across populations with different ethnicities, it seems likely that there is quite a bit of variation depending on your genetic background (in particular, people from China or Israel almost all experienced the smell, while people from England or the United States were less likely to notice it. The higher rate of people who don’t get the smell in these populations is likely due to a combination of the single gene variation (for smell) and the unidentified genetic factors affecting the metabolism of asparagusic acid.

Now, if you or someone you know doesn’t experience the smell, you can easily find out if you have the genetic variation. The simplest (and cheapest) way would be to find a friend who does experience the smell and ask to smell their urine. If you still smell nothing, it’s because you are incapable to experiencing the smell. If, however, you do smell the metabolites, then your metabolism is responsible. For those unwilling to smell someone else’s urine, you could just get the DNA test through 23andMe. The variation is on chromosome 1 and is officially termed “rs4481887.” The variation appears to be autosomal recessive, which means you need two copies of the variant gene in order to lose the ability to smell these chemicals. This means that if both you and your spouse are “non-smellers”, then your children will be too. If only one of you is, then your children have a 50/50 chance if your spouse is a carrier, and zero chance if they are not. Again, you’d have to get the genetic test in order to determine if you or your spouse is a carrier. That is, if knowing the chances of your children enduring the stench of asparagus metabolites for their entire lives is something that is important to you. Which would be kinda weird.

I Ate a Bug, and I Liked It

I Ate a Bug, and I Liked It

What would it take for you to eat bugs? I mean, besides the “worm” at the bottom of a tequila bottle. (Your motivation is apparent in that case). Would you do it if it were healthier for you than our typical western diet? Would you do it if it might help to save the world? I decided to explore those questions after watching a video featuring Nicole Kidman munching down a bunch of bugs and calling them delicious.

Nicole Kidman eating bugs for Vanity Faire

We already eat bugs

In fact, over 2 billion people eat bugs on purpose, though not typically in western culture. There are even cookbooks dedicated to gourmet insect cooking (here is one, if you are curious). But, most folks in the US eat bugs in our “normal” food unwittingly. Cochineal bugs, a kind of insect related to cicadas and aphids, are commonly used to make a red food dye called “carnelian.” If you have a strong stomach, take a look at the United States Food and Drug Administration’s The Food Defect Levels Handbook and you can see just how many bug bits are allowed in foods commonly produced and consumed in the United States.Continue reading…