Since I have been really terrible at updating the blog (but pretty good at keeping up with the facebook blog posts) I've added the widget below so that facebook cross posts to the blog.
You shouldn't need to join facebook but can just click on the links in the widget to access the articles. If you have any problems or comments please mail me at arandjel 'AT' eva.mpg.de.
Monday, September 26, 2011
Genetic parasites invaded the mammalian genome more than 100 million years ago and dramatically changed the way mammals reproduce -- transforming the uterus in the ancestors of humans and other mammals from the production of eggs to a nurturing home for developing young, a new Yale University study has found.
The findings published online Sept. 25 in the journal Nature Genetics describe in unprecedented detail the molecular changes that allowed mammals to carry their developing young within the safety of the womb rather than laying them in nests or carrying them around in pouches.
"In the last two decades there have been dramatic changes in our understanding of how evolution works," said Gunter Wagner, the Alison Richard Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) and senior author of the paper. "We used to believe that changes only took place through small mutations in our DNA that accumulated over time. But in this case we found a huge cut-and-paste operation that altered wide areas of the genome to create large-scale morphological change."
The Yale team studying the evolutionary history of pregnancy looked at cells found in the uterus associated with placental development. They compared the genetic make-up of these cells in opossums — marsupials that give birth two weeks after conception — to armadillos and humans, distantly related mammals with highly developed placentas that nurture developing fetuses for nine months.
They found more than 1500 genes that were expressed in the uterus solely in the placental mammals. Intriguingly, note the researchers, the expression of these genes in the uterus is coordinated by transposons — essentially selfish pieces of genetic material that replicate within the host genome and used to be called junk DNA.
"Transposons grow like parasites that have invaded the body, multiplying and taking up space in the genome," said Vincent J. Lynch, research scientist in EEB and lead author of the paper.
But they also activate or repress genes related to pregnancy, he said.
"These transposons are not genes that underwent small changes over long periods of time and eventually grew into their new role during pregnancy," Lynch said. "They are more like prefabricated regulatory units that install themselves into a host genome, which then recycles them to carry out entirely new functions like facilitating maternal-fetal communication" Lynch said.
Saturday, September 24, 2011
by ROBERT KRULWICH
I love illusions, where your brain makes weird things happen. Those of you who come here often have seen some doozies, but this one ... oooh, this is one of the strangest.
The question is: Which is more powerful, your eyes or your ears? Watch this clip and experience "The McGurk Effect." Your ears will feel ashamed.
The McGurk Effect is named for a psychologist from Scotland, Harry McGurk, working with John MacDonald. The experiment shows that while our senses seem separate — you wouldn't think what you see should affect what you hear — it turns out, that's totally wrong. If our eyes see one thing and our ears hear a different thing, when sight and sound grapple in our brains, the eyes win. Eyes tell ears what to hear. Or so it seems.
Not only that, even if your brain knows this is an illusion, you still can't hear the truth unless you close your eyes. The illusion is that powerful.
Why Does This Happen?
Does sight always beat sound? Professor Lawrence Rosenblum in the video seems to suggest that experimental results may vary depending on which sense is "more salient." I'm not sure what that means. Nosing around, I found some experiments where you see lips saying "gah" while the sound is saying "bah" and my brain chooses neither of them, and settles for a middle-of-the-road "dah." But nowhere could I find an explanation for why my ears keep surrendering to my eyes.
Does anybody know?
Travis Petersen (tpetersen) wrote:
A cognitive psychology take on the way illusions work is that all of one's perceptual representations are formed as a result of the brain sub-consciously applying biasing principles, which are developed through environmental conditioning, to basic stimuli, in order to render a representation of one's environment. When something that is foreign to one's environment is causing such stimulus, the biasing principles can be erroneously applied, resulting in an erroneous perceptual representation--an illusion. With that said, I believe that what he means by saying that vision is "more salient" is that it is the perceptual system that is providing greater amounts of more important information about one's environment than hearing, when both senses are being employed. Thus, the biasing principles that develop the perceptual representation favor the perceptual system that it "deems" (I use quotation marks because this is a passive process) the more important one, because the phenomenon at hand is one that is uncommon in one's environment. I think this take on illusions provides a pretty decent understanding of why this happens. A much more exhaustive account of it is available in Tyler Burge's book, Origins of Objectivity.
Fri Sep 23 2011 22:44:35 GMT+0200 (W. Europe Daylight Time)
Studies show that sketching and doodling improve our comprehension -- and our creative thinking. So why do we still feel embarrassed when we're caught doodling in a meeting? Sunni Brown says: Doodlers, unite! She makes the case for unlocking your brain via pad and pen.
by BARBARA J KING
Autumn begins tomorrow. Suffused already with a seasonal nostalgia, I'm replaying scenes of summer in my head. Among them is sitting in a dark theatre, watching apes clamber across San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge.
In the movie Rise of the Planet of the Apes, alpha-male chimpanzee Caesar leads a band of apes against humans in a bid to escape the grip of their tyranny.
Before he is a battle-hardened rebel leader, however, we get to see Caesar as he grows up, transforming from playful primate child in a human household to confused adolescent to powerful adult.
"Careful, human no like smart ape," he's told by the orangutan Maurice. Nevertheless, Caesar learns human speech, and has the temerity to use it.
Two aspects of the film caught my attention. Marvelously, no living primates were forced to work on the set; CGI apes were used instead. What made ROTPOTA work as a film is our collective willingness — at least while watching it — to embrace anthropomorphism.
Defined as the attribution of human qualities or abilities to non-human animals, anthropomorphism is familiar to most anyone who lives with animals. Let's say I'm in a room with two of my cats. One jumps in my lap, and purrs as I stroke and whisper endearments to her. The other glares at me, and acts aloof for the next hour. "He's jealous!" I may think to myself. Or, after a tough day at work, you slump on the couch. Your dog nuzzles your hand and looks into your eyes. "He understands," you may conclude.
But is it valid to label animals' emotions and actions in this way?
It's one thing for Hollywood to dazzle audiences with anthropomorphic screen apes, but when we apply human terms to real-life animals do we wrongly superimpose our experiences onto theirs?
Real, breathing apes offer a good starting place for thinking about anthropomorphism. (Cats, dogs, and other creatures matter too; I'll expand my scope at a later date.) I often recount the following event noted by the biologists Christophe Boesch and Hedwige Boesch-Achermann. It stars the chimpanzee Brutus at Tai National Park in the Cote d'Ivoire, West Africa.
A young female chimpanzee, Tina, was killed by a leopard. Her body lay in the forest. Twelve of Tina's companions sat silently around her body, sometimes touching it gently. Brutus, the community's alpha male, sat with Tina for nearly five hours. When youngsters approached, he shooed them away, with a single exception — Tina's younger brother Tarzan, who came near, pulled on his big sister's hand many times, and gazed at her body.
We know, thanks to decades of field research uncovering aspects of chimpanzees' minds and emotions, that careful anthropomorphism is appropriate here. Working in context, it makes good scientific sense to conclude that Tarzan felt grief for his sister, that Brutus was able to recognize Tarzan's bond of affection with Tina and that Brutus chose to act upon that knowledge by compassionately allowing Tarzan to do what other youngsters could not.
A skeptic would balk. Maybe Tarzan was only curious about why his sister's body lay so still. Perhaps Brutus had noticed some kind of connection between the brother and sister, but had no deep motives for what he did.
Science needs skeptics in order to stay true to its self-correcting nature. I can't emphasize enough, though, the relevant weight of cumulative knowledge about chimpanzees. A new source to consider is Andrew Westoll's The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary. Westoll tells the stories of 13 chimpanzees, once trapped in biomedical testing facilities and now living in a Canadian sanctuary run by Gloria Grow.
One chimpanzee's tale seared itself into my mind. Westoll writes about Tom:
"For more than thirty years, he was repeatedly infected with increasingly virulent strains of HIV, went through numerous hepatitis-B studies, and survived at least sixty-three liver, bone marrow, and lymph-node biopsies. Tom has gone through more surgeries than anyone else at Fauna — by Gloria's estimate, he was knocked unconscious at least 369 times."Upon arrival at the sanctuary, Tom readily complied with verbal instructions that enabled staff to care properly for his foot injury. When offered a tray of antibiotic cream and other supplies, Tom even treated his own wound. Later, Westoll recounts:
"The chimpanzee Regis sustained a bad bite wound. At first, Grow treated him, but when Regis's strength returned, that option was no longer safe. She then left for Tom all the medical materials on a trolley; Tom cleaned and treated Regis's wound for a week."With the skeptic's help, we might dismiss Tom's behavior toward Regis as a product of curiosity or boredom, or as a conditioned response to human praise. Yet is it so hard to believe that Tom, who himself had suffered badly, might clean Regis's wound because he realized Regis's discomfort and wanted to help?
Wide discussion of Westoll's book could sustain the summer's ape buzz well into autumn. Along the way, we might ask this question: Does a reluctance to assign human depth to chimpanzees' thoughts and feelings make it easier to tolerate what's done inside biomedical labs in this country to chimpanzees like Tom?
by ADAM FRANK
The AP is reporting results from a group of Italian researchers using equipment from the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) that claims they've measured particles traveling at a speed greater than the speed of light.
The experiment is called OPERA (Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus), and lies 1,400 metres underground in the Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy. It is designed to study a beam of neutrinos coming from CERN, Europe's premier high-energy physics laboratory located 730 kilometres away near Geneva, Switzerland. Neutrinos are fundamental particles that are electrically neutral, rarely interact with other matter, and have a vanishingly small mass. But they are all around us — the Sun produces so many neutrinos as a by-product of nuclear reactions that many billions pass through your eye every second.
The 1,800-tonne OPERA detector is a complex array of electronics and photographic emulsion plates, but the new result is simple — the neutrinos are arriving 60 nanoseconds faster than the speed of light allows. "We are shocked," says Antonio Ereditato, a physicist at the University of Bern in Switzerland and OPERA's spokesman.
If this result were true (it has not been published, and thus not peer-reviewed, yet) then the structure of the world might be very different from what we believe. Einstein's theory of relativity is built on the idea that there is an absolute cosmic speed limit — that light is the thing traveling at this speed is beside the point. Among other things, the existence of that speed limit sets the structure of causality in the Universe.
In other words, that effects follow causes and not the other way around, which is, in general, a good thing. The universe would be a whole lot harder to understand without this link between cause and effect. Think of it as being shot before the trigger is pulled. It's more nuanced than what I am describing here (of course) but breaking light-speed means breaking relativity and casuality as we know it flows from relativity.
So if these results are correct then we might have to go back and start rebuilding pretty much all of modern foundational physics. Are they correct? This kind of thing has been claimed before. My colleague Steve Manly who works with neutrino beams in experiments like the ones described by the AP story puts it this way, "I'm not planning to eliminate the relativity portion of my general physics course anytime soon."
Based on past experience, these results are probably wrong but it sure would be a wild ride if they prove correct.
Before Marie Curie, these women dedicated their lives to science and made significant advances
By Sarah Zielinski
from the simthsonian.com
When it comes to the topic of women in science, Marie Curie usually dominates the conversation. After all, she discovered two elements, was the first women to win a Nobel Prize, in 1903, and was the first person to win a second Nobel, in 1911. But Curie was not the first female scientist. Many other brilliant, dedicated and determined women have pursued science over the years.
Emilie du Chatelet (1706 – 1749)
Gabrielle-Emilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, the daughter of the French court’s chief of protocol, married the marquis du Chatelet in 1725. She lived the life of a courtier and bore three children. But at age 27, she began studying mathematics seriously and then branched into physics. This interest intensified as she began an affair with the philosopher Voltaire, who also had a love of science. Their scientific collaborations—they outfitted a laboratory at du Chatelet’s home, Chateau de Cirey, and, in a bit of a competition, each entered an essay into a contest on the nature of fire (neither won)—outlasted their romance. Du Chatelet’s most lasting contribution to science was her French translation of Isaac Newton’s Principia, which is still in use today. At age 43, she fell in love with a young military officer and became pregnant; she died following complications during the birth of their child.
Caroline Herschel (1750 – 1848)
Herschel was little more than the household drudge for her parents in Hanover, Germany (she would later describe herself as the “Cinderella of the family”), when her older brother, William, brought her to England in 1772 to run his household in Bath. After she mastered the art of singing—to accompany William, who was the organist for the Octagon Chapel—her brother switched careers and went into astronomy. Caroline followed. In addition to assisting her brother in his observations and in the building of telescopes, Caroline became a brilliant astronomer in her own right, discovering new nebulae and star clusters. She was the first woman to discover a comet (she discovered eight in total) and the first to have her work published by the Royal Society. She was also the first British woman to get paid for her scientific work, when William, who had been named the king’s personal astronomer after his discovery of Uranus in 1781, persuaded his patron to reward his assistant with an annual salary. After William’s death in 1822, Caroline retired to Hanover. There she continued her astronomical work, compiling a catalogue of nebulae—the Herschels’ work had increased the number of known star clusters from 100 to 2,500. She died in 1848 at age 97 after receiving many honors in her field, including a gold medal from the Royal Astronomical Society.
Mary Anning (1799 – 1847)
In 1811, Mary Anning’s brother spotted what he thought was a crocodile skeleton in a seaside cliff near the family’s Lyme Regis, England, home. He charged his 11-year-old sister with its recovery, and she eventually dug out a skull and 60 vertebrae, selling them to a private collector for £23. This find was no croc, though, and was eventually named Ichthyosaurus, the “fish-lizard.” Thus began Anning’s long career as a fossil hunter. In addition to ichthyosaurs, she found long-necked plesiosaurs, a pterodactyl and hundreds, possibly thousands, of other fossils that helped scientists to draw a picture of the marine world 200 million to 140 million years ago during the Jurassic. She had little formal education and so taught herself anatomy, geology, paleontology and scientific illustration. Scientists of the time traveled from as far away as New York City to Lyme Regis to consult and hunt for fossils with Anning.
Mary Somerville (1780 – 1872)
Intrigued by the x’s and y’s in the answer to a math question in a ladies’ fashion magazine, 14-year-old Mary Fairfax of Scotland delved into the study of algebra and mathematics, defying her father’s injunction against such pursuits. Her studies were sidetracked by a marriage, in 1804, to a Russian Navy captain, but after his death she returned to Edinburgh and became involved in intellectual circles, associating with people such as the writer Sir Walter Scott and the scientist John Playfair, and resumed her studies in math and science. Her next husband, William Somerville, whom she wed in 1812, supported these efforts, and after they moved to London, Mary became host to her own intellectual circle, which included the astronomer John Herschel and the inventor Charles Babbage. She began experimenting on magnetism and produced a series of writings on astronomy, chemistry, physics and mathematics. She translated astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace’s The Mechanism of the Heavens into English, and although she was unsatisfied with the result, it was used as a textbook for much of the next century. Somerville was one of the first two women, along with Caroline Herschel, to be named honorary members of the Royal Astronomical Society.
Maria Mitchell (1818 – 1889)
Young Maria Mitchell learned to observe the stars from her father, who used stellar observations to check the accuracy of chronometers for Nantucket, Massachusetts, whalers and taught his children to use a sextant and reflecting telescope. When Mitchell was 12, she helped her father record the time of an eclipse. And at 17, she had already begun her own school for girls, teaching them science and math. But Mitchell rocketed to the forefront of American astronomy in 1847 when she spotted a blurry streak—a comet—through her telescope. She was honored around the world, earning a medal from the king of Denmark, and became the first woman to be elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1857 Mitchell traveled to Europe, where she visited observatories and met with intellectuals, including Mary Somerville. Mitchell would write: “I could not help but admire [her] as a woman. The ascent of the steep and rugged path of science has not unfitted her for the drawing room circle; the hours of devotion to close study have not been incompatible with the duties of wife and mother.” Mitchell became the first female astronomy professor in the United States, when she was hired by Vassar College in 1865. There she continued her observations, particularly those of the Sun, traveling up to 2,000 miles to witness an eclipse.
Lise Meitner (1878 – 1968)
When Lise Meitner finished school at age 14, she was barred from higher education, as were all girls in Austria. But, inspired by the discoveries of William Röntgen and Henri Becquerel, she was determined to study radioactivity. When she turned 21, women were finally allowed into Austrian universities. Two years of tutoring preceded her enrollment at the University of Vienna; there she excelled in math and physics and earned her doctorate in 1906. She wrote to Marie Curie, but there was no room for her in the Paris lab and so Meitner made her way to Berlin. There she collaborated with Otto Hahn on the study of radioactive elements, but as an Austrian Jewish woman (all three qualities were strikes against her), she was excluded from the main labs and lectures and allowed to work only in the basement. In 1912, the pair moved to a new university and Meitner had better lab facilities. Though their partnership was split up physically when she was forced to flee Nazi Germany in 1938, they continued to collaborate. Meitner continued her work in Sweden and after Hahn discovered that uranium atoms were split when bombarded with neutrons, she calculated the energy released in the reaction and named the phenomenon “nuclear fission.” The discovery—which eventually led to the atomic bomb (“You must not blame scientists for the use to which war technicians have put our discoveries,” Meitner would say in 1945)—won Hahn the Nobel Prize in 1944. Meitner, overlooked by the Nobel committee, refused to return to Germany after the war and continued her atomic research in Stockholm into her 80s.
Irène Curie-Joliot (1897 – 1956)
The elder daughter of Pierre and Marie Curie, Irène followed her parents’ footsteps into the lab. The thesis for her 1925 doctor of science was on the alpha rays of polonium, one of the two elements her mother discovered. The next year, she married Frédéric Joliot, one of her mother’s assistants at the Radium Institute in Paris. Irène and Frédéric continued their collaboration inside the laboratory, pursuing research on the structure of the atom. In 1934, they discovered artificial radioactivity by bombarding aluminum, boron and magnesium with alpha particles to produce isotopes of nitrogen, phosphorus, silicon and aluminum. They received the Nobel Prize in chemistry the next year, making Marie and Irène the first parent-child couple to have independently won Nobels. All those years working with radioactivity took a toll, however, and Irène died of leukemia in 1956.
Barbara McClintock (1902 – 1992)
While studying botany at Cornell University in the 1920s, Barbara McClintock got her first taste of genetics and was hooked. As she earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees and moved into postdoctoral work, she pioneered the study of genetics of maize (corn) cells. She pursued her research at universities in California, Missouri and Germany before finding a permanent home at Cold Spring Harbor in New York. It was there that, after observing the patterns of coloration of maize kernels over generations of plants, she determined that genes could move within and between chromosomes. The finding didn’t fit in with conventional thinking on genetics, however, and was largely ignored; McClintock began studying the origins of maize in South America. But after improved molecular techniques that became available in the 1970s and early 1980s confirmed her theory and these “jumping genes” were found in microorganisms, insects and even humans, McClintock was awarded a Lasker Prize in 1981 and Nobel Prize in 1983.
Dorothy Hodgkin (1910 – 1994)
Dorothy Crowfoot (Hodgkin, after her 1937 marriage) was born in Cairo, Egypt, to a pair of British archaeologists. She was sent home to England for school, where she was one of only two girls who were allowed to study chemistry with the boys. At 18, she enrolled in one of Oxford’s women’s colleges and studied chemistry and then moved to Cambridge to study X-ray crystallography, a type of imaging that uses X-rays to determine a molecule’s three-dimensional structure. She returned to Oxford in 1934, where she would spend most of her working life, teaching chemistry and using X-ray crystallography to study interesting biological molecules. She spent years perfecting the technique, for which she was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1964, and determined the structures of penicillin, vitamin B12 and insulin. In 2010, 16 years after her death, the British Royal Mail celebrated the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society by issuing stamps with the likenesses of 10 of the society’s most illustrious members, including Isaac Newton and Benjamin Franklin; Hodgkin was the only woman in the group.
Rosalind Franklin (1920 – 1958)
James Watson and Francis Crick get credit for determining the structure of DNA, but their discovery relied on the work of Rosalind Franklin. As a teenager in the 1930s, Franklin attended one of the few girls’ schools in London that taught physics and chemistry, but when she told her father that she wanted to be a scientist, he rejected the idea. He eventually relented and she enrolled at Cambridge University, receiving a doctorate in physical chemistry. She learned techniques for X-ray crystallography while in Paris, returning to England in 1951 to work in the laboratory of John Randall at King’s College, London. There she made X-ray images of DNA. She had nearly figured out the molecule’s structure when Maurice Wilkins, another researcher in Randall’s lab who was also studying DNA, showed one of Franklin’s X-ray images to James Watson. Watson quickly figured out the structure was a double helix and, with Francis Crick, published the finding in the journal Nature. Watson, Crick and Wilkins won a Nobel Prize in 1962 for their discovery. Franklin, however, had died of ovarian cancer in 1958.
thanks to geraldine f and deb m for the link!
Fischer J, Semple S, Fickenscher G, Jürgens R, Kruse E, et al. (2011) Do Women's Voices Provide Cues of the Likelihood of Ovulation? The Importance of Sampling Regime. PLoS ONE 6(9): e24490. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0024490
The human voice provides a rich source of information about individual attributes such as body size, developmental stability and emotional state. Moreover, there is evidence that female voice characteristics change across the menstrual cycle. A previous study reported that women speak with higher fundamental frequency (F0) in the high-fertility compared to the low-fertility phase. To gain further insights into the mechanisms underlying this variation in perceived attractiveness and the relationship between vocal quality and the timing of ovulation, we combined hormone measurements and acoustic analyses, to characterize voice changes on a day-to-day basis throughout the menstrual cycle. Voice characteristics were measured from free speech as well as sustained vowels. In addition, we asked men to rate vocal attractiveness from selected samples. The free speech samples revealed marginally significant variation in F0 with an increase prior to and a distinct drop during ovulation. Overall variation throughout the cycle, however, precluded unequivocal identification of the period with the highest conception risk. The analysis of vowel samples revealed a significant increase in degree of unvoiceness and noise-to-harmonic ratio during menstruation, possibly related to an increase in tissue water content. Neither estrogen nor progestogen levels predicted the observed changes in acoustic characteristics. The perceptual experiments revealed a preference by males for voice samples recorded during the pre-ovulatory period compared to other periods in the cycle. While overall we confirm earlier findings in that women speak with a higher and more variable fundamental frequency just prior to ovulation, the present study highlights the importance of taking the full range of variation into account before drawing conclusions about the value of these cues for the detection of ovulation.
Wednesday, September 21, 2011
Biodegradable PeePoo bags have begun to be distributed through Nairobi. PeePoople is behind the idea, believing that the product can be used to alleviate the spread of feces contamination. Instead of flinging “flying toilets”–excrement-filled plastic bags–into the streets where the bacteria spreads and come into contact with humans, people in the shantytown Silanga can now use PeePoo, which neutralizes bacteria and is turned into fertilizer. Its silly name probably helps with outreach.
more here: http://www.peepoople.com/
The Australian Museum's Search and Discover desk, which offers a free service to identify species, has received numerous reports of encounters with talkative birds in the wild from mystified citizens who thought they were hearing voices.
Martyn Robinson, a naturalist who works at the desk, explains that occasionally a pet cockatoo escapes or is let loose, and "if it manages to survive long enough to join a wild flock, [other birds] will learn from it."
Birds mimic each other
As well as learning from humans directly, "the birds will mimic each other," says Jaynia Sladek, from the Museum's ornithology department. "There's no reason why, if one comes into the flock with words, [then] another member of the flock wouldn't pick it up as well."
'Hello cockie' is the most common phrase, though there have been a few cases of foul-mouthed feathered friends using expletives which we can't repeat here.
The evolution of language could well be passed on through the generations, says Martyn. "If the parents are talkers and they produce chicks, their chicks are likely to pick up some of that," he says. This phenomenon is not unique; some lyrebirds in southern Australia still reproduce the sounds of axes and old shutter-box cameras their ancestors once learnt.
Birds of a feather chat together
In rural areas talking parrots will probably begin to lose their language abilities, says Martyn, with some words "likely to just disintegrate a bit and become part of that particular flock's repertoire."
However, in Australia's big cities like Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, cockatoos will probably maintain and improve their vocabulary due to regular contact with humans. "That's certainly the case in the Botanic Gardens [in Sydney]," says Martyn. "If you say 'hello' or 'hello cockie' to the cockatoos, and if they're interested in you and not just picking around for food, you may well trigger a response."
When scientists struggle with a problem for over a decade, few of them think, “I know! I’ll ask computer gamers to help.” That, however, is exactly what Firas Khatib from the University of Washington did. The result: he and his legion of gaming co-authors have cracked a longstanding problem in AIDS research that scientists have puzzled over for years. It took them three weeks.
Khatib’s recruits played Foldit, a programme that reframes fiendish scientific challenges as a competitive multiplayer computer game. It taps into the collective problem-solving skills of tens of thousands of people, most of whom have little or no background in science.
The goal of the game is to work out the three-dimensional structures of different proteins. Proteins are feats of biological origami; they consist of long chains of amino acids that fold into very specific and complicated shapes. These shapes can reveal how proteins work, but solving them is fiendishly challenging. To do it, scientists typically need to grow crystals of purified protein before bouncing X-rays off them.
Foldit takes a different approach, using the collective efforts of causal gamers to do the hard work. And its best players can outperform software designed to do the same job. Best of all, you don’t need a PhD to play Foldit. Barely an eighth of the players work in science, and two-thirds of the top scorers have no biochemistry experience beyond high school. The controls are intuitive; tutorial levels introduce the game’s mechanics; colourful visuals provide hints; and the interface is explained in simple language. While protein scientists concern themselves with “rotating alpha-helices” and “fixing degrees of freedom”, Foldit players simply ‘tweak’, ‘freeze’, ‘wiggle’ and ‘shake’ their on-screen shapes.
Foldit’s success relies on the fact that it doesn’t shallowly flirt with interactivity – it’s a true game. Its creator Seth Cooper designed it to “attract the widest possible audience… and encourage prolonged engagement”. It’s competitive: players are scored based on the stability of the structures they end up with and a leader board shows how they rank against other gamers. There’s also a social side: gamers can chat on online forums, work in groups to solve puzzles and share solutions on a wiki. And just like real game development, everything was tuned according to feedback from the players. Tools were added and refined, the difficulty of the tutorials was tweaked to stop frustrated beginners from leaving, and puzzles were matched to the skills of the players.
There’s the thrill of contributing to genuine scientific research, but that motivates less than half of the community. The rest do it for the achievement, the social aspects and largely, because the game was fun and immersive.
Foldit’s origins lie within Rosetta, a piece of software designed to solve protein structures by simulating and testing thousands of different folds. Rosetta is an example of ‘ distributed computing’, where volunteers run the program on their home computers when they don’t need it. They effectively donate their computing power to speed up the laborious task of solving protein structures. But the volunteers wanted to use their biological computers – their brains – as well as their man-made ones. They suggested an interactive version of the programme and in May 2008, they got their wish with Foldit.
Last year, Cooper showed that Foldit’s gamers were better than the Rosetta programme at solving many protein structures. They used a wide range of strategies, they could pick the best places to begin, and they were better at long-term planning. Human intuition trumped mechanical number-crunching.
This year, Khatib wanted to see if the Foldit community could solve fresh problems. He entered the players into a twice-yearly contest called CASP (Critical Assessment of Techniques for Protein Structure Prediction), where structural biologists from all over the world compete to predict the structures of proteins that have almost been solved. They get the best predictions from Rosetta to begin with. Then, they’re on their own.
Khatib’s gamers, bearing names such as Foldit Contenders Group and Foldit Void Crushers Group, had varying degrees of success in the contest. In many of the categories, they did reasonably well but they couldn’t match the best groups. They weren’t as good at using the structures of similar proteins to tweak the ones they were working on. They could also head down dead ends if they started at the wrong place. In one case, their strategy of refining their starting structures to the best possible degree led to one of the “most spectacular successes” in the contest. But mostly, they focused too heavily on tweaking already imperfect solutions that other teams achieved better results by making large-scale changes.
Learning from that lesson, Khatib stepped in himself. He agitated the initial protein structures in many random ways, to create a wide variety of terrible answers that the gamers could then refine. In their attempts, they came up with the best-ranked answer to the most difficult challenge in the competition.
It was a success, and more would follow. After the competition, the players solved an even more important problem. They discovered the structure of a protein belonging to the Mason-Pfizer monkey virus (M-PMV), a close relative of HIV that causes AIDS in monkeys.
These viruses create many of their proteins in one big block. They need to be cut apart, and the viruses use a scissor enzyme –a protease – to do that. Many scientists are trying to find drugs that disable the proteases. If they don’t work, the virus is hobbled – it’s like a mechanic that cannot remove any of her tools from their box.
To disable M-PMV’s protease, we need to know exactly what it looks like. Like real scissors, the proteases come in two halves that need to lock together in order to work. If we knew where the halves joined together, we could create drugs that prevent them from uniting. But until now, scientists have only been able to discern the structure of the two halves together. They have spent more than ten years trying to solve structure of a single isolated half, without any success.
The Foldit players had no such problems. They came up with several answers, one of which was almost close to perfect. In a few days, Khatib had refined their solution to deduce the protein’s final structure, and he has already spotted features that could make attractive targets for new drugs.
“This is the first instance that we are aware of in which online gamers solved a longstanding scientific problem,” writes Khatib. “These results indicate the potential for integrating video games into the real-world scientific process: the ingenuity of game players is a formidable force that, if properly directed, can be used to solve a wide range of scientific problems.”
Update: Stephen Curry, who works on protein structures, had this to say about the paper: “Credit where it’s due: this is certainly an innovative approach to the problem of determining crystal structures of proteins. And I do like the idea of ‘citizen science’. Although it’s probably questionable how much science the gamers are understanding, the involvement in this sort of research, even if it is just at the level of playing a game, is undoubtedly a good thing.”
Curry also points out that a structure for this protein was published in 2003 using a different method called nuclear magnetic resonance. Khatib says that this is “quite inaccurate” and that people have struggled to use it to progress any further, but Curry says that they don’t say much about the differences between the old and new structures.
Likewise, Khatib doesn’t mention how closely related the M-PMV protease and the HIV ones are. “This information is crucial for deciding whether a structure of M-PMV protease is going to be any use as a template for the design of novel classes of drug targeted to HIV protease. If I had reviewed this paper, I would have asked for that information to be included because it is needed to make sense of observed differences in structure,” he says.
Reference: Khatib, DiMaio, Foldit Contenders Group, Foldit Void Crushers Group, Cooper, Kazmierczyk, Gilski, Krzywda, Zabranska, Pichova, Thompson, Popović, Jaskolski & Baker. 2011. Crystal structure of a monomeric retroviral protease solved by protein folding game players. Nature Structural and Molecular Biology http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nsmb.2119
Sunday, September 18, 2011
and in case you have never seen the rules of the internet - here they are:
Today, brings news that thumbnail-sized feathers found preserved in amber are telling scientists some new things about these glorious creatures. First, it opens a window — as old as 85 million years — into the evolution of their feathers and secondly it gives scientists a better idea of what they looked like.
The Atlantic's Hans Villarica says that in a new report out in the current issue of Science, researchers say the feathers found in a Late Cretaceous site in Canada show feathers "from early-stage, single filament protofeathers to much more complex structures associated with modern diving birds."
That's interesting, but the part of the find that captures our imagination is this:
After analyzing the preserved pigment cells, the authors add that these feathered creatures may have also had a range of transparent, mottled, and diffused colors, similar to birds today.
So what does that mean?
The New York Times spoke to Mark A. Norell, a dinosaur paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, who said evidence is mounting that dinosaurs had feathers throughout their evolution — from 250 million years ago to 65 million years ago. Now, "we are filling in the color."
So, the Times asked him, why is still common perception that dinos are drab?
...Dr. Norell said it probably arose from their association with crocodiles, their closest living reptilian relatives.
But he said that was fast changing, citing several colorful examples from recent research. In China, Confuciusornis and a few non-avian dinosaurs appeared to have had ruddy feathers; Sinosauropteryx, a reddish banded tail; and Anchiornis probably resembled a woodpecker, with a black body, banded wings and reddish head comb.
Wednesday, September 14, 2011
Tuesday, September 13, 2011
OHSU researchers eye newer, safer birth control method
PORTLAND, Ore. — Oregon Health & Science University researchers have uncovered a new contraceptive that is more focused, safer and, therefore, available for use among a larger population of women. The research took place at OHSU's Oregon National Primate Research Center. It is published online in the journal Endocrinology.
Today's birth control methods are several decades old. The Food and Drug Administration for example, approved "The pill," in 1961. It prevents contraception by boosting hormone levels through the use of synthetic hormones. These higher hormone levels interrupt the normal menstrual cycle. In short, the synthetic hormones inhibit the release of the hormones responsible for triggering ovulation.
"While the method works, it has its downsides," explains ONPRC scientist Jon Hennebold, Ph.D. "The biggest concern is that by boosting hormone levels, this contraceptive method affects systems throughout a woman's body. Therefore, there are some risks associated with current contraceptive methods, primarily cardiovascular disease."
An additional downside is that hormonal treatments like the pill require the user to conform to a daily medication schedule. Because of this requirement, the pill is only about 80 to 90 percent effective.
In comparison, the contraceptive OHSU researchers are developing is not hormonal and more focused on mechanisms that directly result in the release of an egg. This new approach targets the key enzymes responsible for the release of an egg. Hennebold and his colleagues were able to determine exactly which enzymes to focus on by studying rhesus macaque monkeys that have a very similar reproductive system to humans.
This research in monkeys has demonstrated that targeting these enzymes can prevent the release of an egg from the ovary. The next step for Hennebold and colleagues is to determine the delivery method of such a drug and the timetable for medication.
"Our hope is that the next generation of birth control is more targeted and has a higher effectiveness level," added Hennebold. "Much more work is necessary to further our proposed solution, but we believe that better, safer contraceptive methods are possible."
Monday, September 12, 2011
Scientists have identified a single gene that allows a caterpillar-brainwashing virus to do its dirty work, a new study says.
The virus forces the "zombie" caterpillars to climb trees, where the invader eventually liquifies its hosts' bodies into a dripping goo.
"When gypsy moth caterpillars are healthy and happy, they go up into the trees at night to feed on leaves, and then climb back down in the morning to hide [in bark crevices or soil] from predators during the day," said study co-author Kelli Hoover, an entomologist at Penn State University.
But caterpillars infected with a baculovirus—a type of virus that infects invertebrates—are driven to the treetops and reprogrammed to stay there until they meet a doom worthy of a horror film.
"When they are infected, as they get sicker they stay up in the trees and die up there," Hoover explained.
The virus "ends up using just about all of the caterpillar to make more virus, and there are other genes in the virus that then make the caterpillar melt. So it becomes a pool of millions of virus particles that end up dropping onto the foliage below where it can infect other moths that eat those leaves."
Viruses Are Master Manipulators
Though such zombie-making viruses were previously known, their genetics have been a mystery.
So Hoover and colleagues infected gypsy moth caterpillars with half a dozen different types of baculovirus and placed the bugs in tall bottles with food on the bottom. Viruses that the scientists had determined carried a specific gene, called egt, drove caterpillars to climb to the top of the container and stay there to die.
Researchers then removed egt from some viruses, reinfected the caterpillars, and found that the zombie behavior stopped. When the team inserted the gene into a virus that previously lacked it, the zombie behavior returned.
"Somehow or other, using this gene, the virus is able to manipulate the behavior of the caterpillar to go to the right location in the tree to enhance transmission to new hosts. It's really amazing," Hoover said.
The gene may work by deactivating its hosts' molting hormone, according to the study, published tomorrow in the journal Science.
"That would be an advantage to the virus because it keeps the insect in a feeding state, so that they get bigger and bigger and make more and more virus."
Viruses and Moths-Natural Enemies
There are many different types of baculovirus, Hoover said, and almost all caterpillar species are infected by one or more of them.
But the virus, which is naturally occurring, doesn't greatly impact gypsy moths as a species, Hoover said. Gypsy moth populations are prone to cycles of boom and bust, so when caterpillar numbers are in check, the virus remains so as well.
When gypsy moth invasions grow, the virus may go into outbreak mode-serving as a natural control mechanism for caterpillar infestations.
"This virus probably came to North America when the caterpillars did," Hooever explained. "It's just a natural enemy of the gypsy moth."
Sunday, September 11, 2011
Thursday, September 8, 2011
From PhysOrg (thanks to gerladine F for the link!)
The versatile hand of Australopithecus sediba makes a better candidate for an early tool-making hominin than the hand of Homo habilis.
Hand bones from a single individual with a clear taxonomic affiliation are scarce in the hominin fossil record, which has hampered understanding of the evolution of manipulative abilities in hominins. An international team of researchers including Tracy Kivell of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany has now published a study that describes the earliest, most complete fossil hominin hand post-dating the appearance of stone tools in the archaeological record, the hand of a 1.98-million-year-old Australopithecus sediba from Malapa, South Africa. The researchers found that Au. sediba used its hand for arboreal locomotion but was also capable of human-like precision grips, a prerequisite for tool-making. Furthermore, the Au. sediba hand makes a better candidate for an early tool-making hominin hand than the Homo habilis hand, and may well have been a predecessor from which the later Homo hand evolved.
The extraordinary manipulative skills of the human hand are viewed as a hallmark of humanity. Over the course of human evolution, the hand was freed from the constraints of locomotion and has evolved primarily for manipulation, including tool-use and eventually tool-production. Understanding this functional evolution has been hindered by the rarity of relatively complete hand skeletons that can be reliably assigned to a given taxon based on a clear association with craniodental fossils.
Tracy Kivell of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany and colleagues from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, Duke University in Durham, USA and the University of Zurich in Zurich, Switzerland, now describe the earliest, most complete fossil hominin hand post-dating the appearance of stone tools in the archaeological record around 2.6 million years ago. The fossil remains of an adult female Au. sediba from Malapa, South Africa, include an almost complete right hand in association with the right forelimb bones, in addition to several bones from the left hand. "Almost all other fossil hominin hand bones prior to Neandertals are isolated bones that are not anatomically associated (i.e., do not belong to the same individual) and are not clearly attributed to a specific hominin species", says Kivell: "The Australopithecus sediba hand thus allows us for the first time prior to Neandertals to evaluate the functional morphology of the hand overall, rather than just from isolated bones."
The researchers reconstructed the Au. sediba hand, then compared it with other hominin fossils and investigated the presence of several features that have been associated with human-like precision grip and the ability to make stone tools. They found that Au. sediba has many of these features, including a relatively long thumb compared to the fingers – longer than even that of modern humans – that would facilitate thumb-to-finger precision grips. Importantly, Au. sediba has more features related to tool-making than the 1.75-million-year-old "OH 7 hand" that was used to originally define the "handy man" species, Homo habilis. However, Au. sediba also retains morphology that suggests the hand was still capable of powerful flexion needed for climbing in trees.
"Taken together, we conclude that mosaic morphology of Au. sediba had a hand still used for arboreal locomotion but was also capable of human-like precision grips", says Kivell and adds: "In comparison with the hand of Homo habilis, Au. sediba makes a better candidate for an early tool-making hominin hand and the condition from which the later Homo hand evolved."
More information: Tracy L. Kivell, Job M. Kibii, Steven E. Churchill, Peter Schmid, Lee R. Berger, Australopithecus sediba hand demonstrates mosaic evolution of locomotor and manipulative abilities, Science, 09 September 2011
Tuesday, September 6, 2011
by ROBERT KRULWICH
We all tell stories. That's how we share. That's how we remember. Storytelling is what humans do. It's part of our nature — but natures, I've noticed, differ. I am not a scientist. I don't have a mind for what they do, which is to stick, doggedly, to hard facts, keeping emotion out of the room. It's a discipline for them, a way of being, that makes them, well, scientists.
For example, I'm thinking about the great American physicist, Richard Feynman, sitting in New Mexico, at the bed of his dying wife. He'd been called, and told that she had only hours to live; he'd hitchhiked from Los Alamos, where he was working on the top secret atomic bomb project. It was 1945.
He walks to her bedside, kisses her; she is breathing shallow breaths. We are still at war and six weeks later, America will explode its first atomic bomb. He stands there, sits there, watches her, kisses her, and very quietly, the Hodgkin's disease that had attacked her young body takes her. She was in her 20s, he was 27. They'd been married only two years. The nurse records the time of death: 9:21 p.m. He is empty with loss. What few things she had, he packs up; he arranges for a cremation, walks back into her room and sees that the clock had strangely stopped ticking. The hands are frozen at 9:21, the very moment of her death.
I know how this story would feel to me. It would be as though the universe had somehow noticed what had happened, that some invisible hand slipped into my world and pointed, as if to say, "We know. This is part of the plan."
So many of us, I think, would have this sense. Lawrence Krauss, in his new biography of Feynman, Quantum Man, says, "We seem to be hard-wired to find that what happens to each of us naturally appears to take on a special significance and meaning, even if it's an accident." But Feynman, he says, was unable to think that way. He couldn't and he wouldn't.
Explaining That Clock
What he did was, he remembered that the clock had been fragile. He had been asked to fuss with it; he'd fixed it several times. In his memoirs (that is, in his version of this story), he says the nurse must have picked up the clock to determine the time of death, unsettled the workings inside, and the clock stopped. No miracle. Just an ordinary, accidental jostle. Here he is, describing a moment of enormous significance, and he won't allow a Signifier.
I couldn't do that. I would want to, almost need to, imagine a higher audience for a moment like that.
And maybe that's a difference between scientists and those of us who make our living in the storytelling game. Scientists thrill at the testimony of hard facts. We (or should I say "I") want to add a dash of warm color to the cold blacks and whites. I don't want to make things up, exactly. I just want to imagine that the things that happen to me just might have — and deserve — the attention of the universe.
A Different Kind Of Vanity
Great scientists have a different kind of vanity. They seem to think that the thing to celebrate is the power of reason; to notice, to test, to discover nature's secrets hiding in plain sight, with the best tools we have: logic and observation. For them, the most beautiful thing is our mind.
So, one last story. This one, also recounted by Larry Krauss, comes from the famous British physicist Ernest Rutherford, who told it to a great Danish physicist, Niels Bohr. It's about a person who goes into a pet shop to buy a parrot.
He is shown a very colorful bird and told that it speaks 10 different words and its price is $500.
Then he is shown a more colorful bird, with a vocabulary of 100 words, with a price of $5,000.
He then sees a scruffy beast in the corner and asks how much that bird is. He is told $100,000.
"Why?" he asks. "That bird is not very beautiful at all. How many words, then, does it speak?" None, he is told. Flabbergasted, he says to the clerk, "This bird here is beautiful, and speaks 10 words and is $500. That bird over there speaks 100 words and is $5,000. How can that scruffy little bird over there, who doesn't speak a single word, be worth $100,000?"
The clerk smiles and says, "That bird thinks."
Lawrence Krauss' new biography is called Quantum Man; Richard Feynman's Life in Science (W.W. Norton, 2011). It emphasizes the intellectual side of Feynman's accomplishments. The illustrations come from Ottavani and Myricks's new graphic account of Feynman's life, called simply Feynman (First Second, 2011). If you want to read Feynman in the original, his popular autobiography is Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman (W.W. Norton, 1985) — a book which has attracted decades of happy readers, including these two guys, Ron and Frank, who dished about Feynman's book in the front seat of their car. Theirs is one of the most unusual YouTube book reviews I've ever seen — but maybe I haven't gotten around enough. The classic Feynman biography comes from James Gleick. It's called Genius (1992, Pantheon).
Monday, September 5, 2011
Saturday, September 3, 2011
A scientific basis for vampires - Study Finds That Injecting Old Mice With Young Mouse Blood Has a Rejuvenating Effect
Researchers at Stanford University just published a study in Nature that may give new hope to those looking to stop the effects of aging on the brain. The study found that when blood from a young mouse was injected into an older mouse, that older mouse enjoyed what could almost be termed a "rejuvenation effect": it began producing more neurons, firing more activity across synapses, and even suffered less inflammation.
Interestingly, performing the reverse, in which a young mouse was injected with blood (or, more accurately, plasma, which is the parts of blood without blood cells), resulted in young mice with distinctly elderly attributes--increased inflammation, a reduction in the production of new neurons, that kind of thing. The researchers used plasma because blood cells are actually too large to travel through the blood-brain barrier into the brain. But certain chemokines, small proteins secreted by cells, are indeed small enough to pass through, and the team actually isolated several that could be causing this effect.
It's a pretty fascinating study, as nobody had ever really believed that the degeneration of the brain with age could have been due to blood from elsewhere in the body, rather than merely a natural slowdown in the production of new neurons. The lack of new neurons can cause things like forgetfulness, specifically in spatial memory--forgetting where your car is parked, that kind of thing--so the ability to halt or reverse that process could mean amazing things for older people.
It may not make you live longer, but it's still a pretty amazing discovery.
Is there any hope for the hung over?
by Joan Acocella
A hangover peaks when alcohol that has been poured into the body is finally eliminated from it—that is, when the blood-alcohol level returns to zero. The toxin is now gone, but the damage it has done is not. By fairly common consent, a hangover will involve some combination of headache, upset stomach, thirst, food aversion, nausea, diarrhea, tremulousness, fatigue, and a general feeling of wretchedness. Scientists haven’t yet found all the reasons for this network of woes, but they have proposed various causes. One is withdrawal, which would bring on the tremors and also sweating. A second factor may be dehydration. Alcohol interferes with the secretion of the hormone that inhibits urination. Hence the heavy traffic to the rest rooms at bars and parties. The resulting dehydration seems to trigger the thirst and lethargy. While that is going on, the alcohol may also be inducing hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), which converts into light-headedness and muscle weakness, the feeling that one’s bones have turned to jello. Meanwhile, the body, to break down the alcohol, is releasing chemicals that may be more toxic than alcohol itself; these would result in nausea and other symptoms. Finally, the alcohol has produced inflammation, which in turn causes the white blood cells to flood the bloodstream with molecules called cytokines. Apparently, cytokines are the source of the aches and pains and lethargy that, when our bodies are attacked by a flu virus—and likewise, perhaps, by alcohol—encourage us to stay in bed rather than go to work, thereby freeing up the body’s energy for use by the white cells in combatting the invader. In a series of experiments, mice that were given a cytokine inducer underwent dramatic changes. Adult males wouldn’t socialize with young males new to their cage. Mothers displayed “impaired nest-building.” Many people will know how these mice felt.
But hangover symptoms are not just physical; they are cognitive as well. People with hangovers show delayed reaction times and difficulties with attention, concentration, and visual-spatial perception. A group of airplane pilots given simulated flight tests after a night’s drinking put in substandard performances. Similarly, automobile drivers, the morning after, get low marks on simulated road tests. Needless to say, this is a hazard, and not just for those at the wheel. There are laws against drunk driving, but not against driving with a hangover.
Hangovers also have an emotional component. Kingsley Amis, who was, in his own words, one of the foremost drunks of his time, and who wrote three books on drinking, described this phenomenon as “the metaphysical hangover”: “When that ineffable compound of depression, sadness (these two are not the same), anxiety, self-hatred, sense of failure and fear for the future begins to steal over you, start telling yourself that what you have is a hangover. . . . You have not suffered a minor brain lesion, you are not all that bad at your job, your family and friends are not leagued in a conspiracy of barely maintained silence about what a shit you are, you have not come at last to see life as it really is.” Some people are unable to convince themselves of this. Amis described the opening of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” with the hero discovering that he has been changed into a bug, as the best literary representation of a hangover.
The severity of a hangover depends, of course, on how much you drank the night before, but that is not the only determinant. What, besides alcohol, did you consume at that party? If you took other drugs as well, your hangover may be worse. And what kind of alcohol did you drink? In general, darker drinks, such as red wine and whiskey, have higher levels of congeners—impurities produced by the fermentation process, or added to enhance flavor—than do light-colored drinks such as white wine, gin, and vodka. The greater the congener content, the uglier the morning. Then there are your own characteristics—for example, your drinking pattern. Unjustly, habitually heavy drinkers seem to have milder hangovers. Your sex is also important. A woman who matches drinks with a man is going to get drunk faster than he, partly because she has less body water than he does, and less of the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase, which breaks down alcohol. Apparently, your genes also have a vote, as does your gene pool. Almost forty per cent of East Asians have a variant, less efficient form of aldehyde dehydrogenase, another enzyme necessary for alcohol processing. Therefore, they start showing signs of trouble after just a few sips—they flush dramatically—and they get drunk fast. This is an inconvenience for some Japanese and Korean businessmen. They feel that they should drink with their Western colleagues. Then they crash to the floor and have to make awkward phone calls in the morning.
Hangovers are probably as old as alcohol use, which dates back to the Stone Age. Some anthropologists have proposed that alcohol production may have predated agriculture; in any case, it no doubt stimulated that development, because in many parts of the world the cereal harvest was largely given over to beer-making. Other prehistorians have speculated that alcohol intoxication may have been one of the baffling phenomena, like storms, dreams, and death, that propelled early societies toward organized religion. The ancient Egyptians, who, we are told, made seventeen varieties of beer, believed that their god Osiris invented this agreeable beverage. They buried their dead with supplies of beer for use in the afterlife.
Alcohol was also one of our ancestors’ foremost medicines. Berton Roueché, in a 1960 article on alcohol for The New Yorker, quoted a prominent fifteenth-century German physician, Hieronymus Brunschwig, on the range of physical ills curable by brandy: head sores, pallor, baldness, deafness, lethargy, toothache, mouth cankers, bad breath, swollen breasts, short-windedness, indigestion, flatulence, jaundice, dropsy, gout, bladder infections, kidney stones, fever, dog bites, and infestation with lice or fleas. Additionally, in many times and places, alcohol was one of the few safe things to drink. Water contamination is a very old problem.
Some words for hangover, like ours, refer prosaically to the cause: the Egyptians say they are “still drunk,” the Japanese “two days drunk,” the Chinese “drunk overnight.” The Swedes get “smacked from behind.” But it is in languages that describe the effects rather than the cause that we begin to see real poetic power. Salvadorans wake up “made of rubber,” the French with a “wooden mouth” or a “hair ache.” The Germans and the Dutch say they have a “tomcat,” presumably wailing. The Poles, reportedly, experience a “howling of kittens.” My favorites are the Danes, who get “carpenters in the forehead.” In keeping with the saying about the Eskimos’ nine words for snow, the Ukrainians have several words for hangover. And, in keeping with the Jews-don’t-drink rule, Hebrew didn’t even have one word until recently. Then the experts at the Academy of the Hebrew Language, in Tel Aviv, decided that such a term was needed, so they made one up: hamarmoret, derived from the word for fermentation. (Hamarmoret echoes a usage of Jeremiah’s, in Lamentations 1:20, which the King James Bible translates as “My bowels are troubled.”) There is a biochemical basis for Jewish abstinence. Many Jews—fifty per cent, in one estimate—carry a variant gene for alcohol dehydrogenase. Therefore, they, like the East Asians, have a low tolerance for alcohol.
As for hangover remedies, they are legion. There are certain unifying themes, however. When you ask people, worldwide, how to deal with a hangover, their first answer is usually the hair of the dog. The old faithful in this category is the Bloody Mary, but books on curing hangovers—I have read three, and that does not exhaust the list—describe more elaborate potions, often said to have been invented in places like Cap d’Antibes by bartenders with names like Jean-Marc. An English manual, Andrew Irving’s “How to Cure a Hangover” (2004), devotes almost a hundred pages to hair-of-the-dog recipes, including the Suffering Bastard (gin, brandy, lime juice, bitters, and ginger ale); the Corpse Reviver (Pernod, champagne, and lemon juice); and the Thomas Abercrombie (two Alka-Seltzers dropped into a double shot of tequila). Kingsley Amis suggests taking Underberg bitters, a highly alcoholic digestive: “The resulting mild convulsions and cries of shock are well worth witnessing. But thereafter a comforting glow supervenes.” Many people, however, simply drink some more of what they had the night before. My Ukrainian informant described his morning-after protocol for a vodka hangover as follows: “two shots of vodka, then a cigarette, then another shot of vodka.” A Japanese source suggested wearing a sake-soaked surgical mask.
Application of the hair of the dog may sound like nothing more than a way of getting yourself drunk enough so that you don’t notice you have a hangover, but, according to Wayne Jones, of the Swedish National Laboratory of Forensic Medicine, the biochemistry is probably more complicated than that. Jones’s theory is that the liver, in processing alcohol, first addresses itself to ethanol, which is the alcohol proper, and then moves on to methanol, a secondary ingredient of many wines and spirits. Because methanol breaks down into formic acid, which is highly toxic, it is during this second stage that the hangover is most crushing. If at that point you pour in more alcohol, the body will switch back to ethanol processing. This will not eliminate the hangover—the methanol (indeed, more of it now) is still waiting for you round the bend—but it delays the worst symptoms. It may also mitigate them somewhat. On the other hand, you are drunk again, which may create difficulty about going to work.
As for the non-alcoholic means of combatting hangover, these fall into three categories: before or while drinking, before bed, and the next morning. Many people advise you to eat a heavy meal, with lots of protein and fats, before or while drinking. If you can’t do that, at least drink a glass of milk. In Africa, the same purpose is served by eating peanut butter. The other most frequent before-and-during recommendation is water, lots of it. Proponents of this strategy tell you to ask for a glass of water with every drink you order, and then make yourself chug-a-lug the water before addressing the drink.
A recently favored antidote, both in Asia and in the West, is sports drinks, taken either the morning after or, more commonly, at the party itself. A fast-moving bar drink these days is Red Bull, an energy drink, mixed with vodka or with the herbal liqueur Jägermeister. (The latter cocktail is a Jag-bomb.) Some people say that the Red Bull holds the hangover at bay, but apparently its primary effect is to blunt the depressive force of alcohol—no surprise, since an eight-ounce serving of Red Bull contains more caffeine than two cans of Coke. According to fans, you can rock all night. According to Maria Lucia Souza-Formigoni, a psychobiology researcher at the Federal University of São Paolo, that’s true, and dangerous. After a few drinks with Red Bull, you’re drunk but you don’t know it, and therefore you may engage in high-risk behaviors—driving, going home with a questionable companion—rather than passing out quietly in your chair. Red Bull’s manufacturers have criticized the methodology of Souza-Formigoni’s study and have pointed out that they never condoned mixing their product with alcohol.
When you get home, is there anything you can do before going to bed? Those still able to consider such a question are advised, again, to consume buckets of water, and also to take some Vitamin C. Koreans drink a bowl of water with honey, presumably to head off the hypoglycemia. Among the young, one damage-control measure is the ancient Roman method, induced vomiting. Nic van Oudtshoorn’s “The Hangover Handbook” (1997) thoughtfully provides a recipe for an emetic: mix mustard powder with water. If you have “bed spins,” sleep with one foot on the floor.
Now to the sorrows of the morning. The list-topping recommendation, apart from another go at the water cure, is the greasy-meal cure. (An American philosophy professor: “Have breakfast at Denny’s.” An English teen-ager: “Eat two McDonald’s hamburgers. They have a secret ingredient for hangovers.”) Spicy foods, especially Mexican, are popular, along with eggs, as in the Denny’s breakfast. Another egg-based cure is the prairie oyster, which involves vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, and a raw egg yolk to be consumed whole. Sugar, some say, should be reapplied. A reporter at the Times: “Drink a six-pack of Coke.” Others suggest fruit juice. In Scotland, there is a soft drink called Irn-Bru, described to me by a local as tasting like melted plastic. Irn-Bru is advertised to the Scots as “Your Other National Drink.” Also widely employed are milk-based drinks. Teen-agers recommend milkshakes and smoothies. My contact in Calcutta said buttermilk. “You can also pour it over your head,” he added. “Very soothing.”
Elsewhere on the international front, many people in Asia and the Near East take strong tea. The Italians and the French prefer strong coffee. (Italian informant: add lemon. French informant: add salt. Alcohol researchers: stay away from coffee—it’s a diuretic and will make you more dehydrated.) Germans eat pickled herring; the Japanese turn to pickled plums; the Vietnamese drink a wax-gourd juice. Moroccans say to chew cumin seeds; Andeans, coca leaves. Russians swear by pickle brine. An ex-Soviet ballet dancer told me, “Pickle juice or a shot of vodka or pickle juice with a shot of vodka.”
Many folk cures for hangovers are soups: menudo in Mexico, mondongo in Puerto Rico, işkembe çorbasi in Turkey, patsa in Greece, khashi in Georgia. The fact that all of the above involve tripe may mean something. Hungarians favor a concoction of cabbage and smoked meats, sometimes forthrightly called “hangover soup.” The Russians’ morning-after soup, solyanka, is, of course, made with pickle juice. The Japanese have traditionally relied on miso soup, though a while ago there was a fashion for a vegetable soup invented and marketed by one Kazu Tateishi, who claimed that it cured cancer as well as hangovers.
I read this list of food cures to Manuela Neuman, a Canadian researcher on alcohol-induced liver damage, and she laughed at only one, the six-pack of Coke. Many of the cures probably work, she said, on the same distraction principle as the hair of the dog: “Take the spicy foods, for example. They divert the body’s attention away from coping with the alcohol to coping with the spices, which are also a toxin. So you have new problems—with your stomach, with your esophagus, with your respiration—rather than the problem with the headache, or that you are going to the washroom every five minutes.” The high-fat and high-protein meals operate in the same way, she said. The body turns to the food and forgets about the alcohol for the time being, thus delaying the hangover and possibly alleviating it. As for the differences among the many food recommendations, Neuman said that any country’s hangover cure, like the rest of its cultural practices, is an adaptation to the environment. Chilies are readily available in Mexico, peanut butter in Africa. People use what they have. Neuman also pointed out that local cures will reflect the properties of local brews. If Russians favor pickle juice, they are probably right to, because their drink is vodka: “Vodka is a very pure alcohol. It doesn’t have the congeners that you find, for example, in whiskey in North America. The congeners are also toxic, independent of alcohol, and will have their own effects. With vodka you are just going to have pure-alcohol effects, and one of the most important of those is dehydration. The Russians drink a lot of water with their vodka, and that combats the dehydration. The pickle brine will have the same effect. It’s salty, so they’ll drink more water, and that’s what they need.”
Many hangover cures—the soups, the greasy breakfast—are comfort foods, and that, apart from any sworn-by ingredients, may be their chief therapeutic property, but some other remedies sound as though they were devised by the witches in “Macbeth.” Kingsley Amis recommended a mixture of Bovril and vodka. There is also a burnt-toast cure. Such items suggest that what some hungover people are seeking is not so much relief as atonement. The same can be said of certain non-food recommendations, such as exercise. One source says that you should do a forty-minute workout, another that you should run six miles—activities that may have little attraction for the hung over. Additional procedures said to be effective are an intravenous saline drip and kidney dialysis, which, apart from their lack of appeal, are not readily available.
There are other non-ingested remedies. Amazon will sell you a refrigeratable eye mask, an aromatherapy inhaler, and a vinyl statue of St. Vivian, said to be the patron saint of the hung over. She comes with a stand and a special prayer.
The most widely used over-the-counter remedy is no doubt aspirin. Advil, or ibuprofen, and Alka-Seltzer—there is a special formula for hangovers, Alka-Seltzer Wake-Up Call—are probably close runners-up. (Tylenol, or acetaminophen, should not be used, because alcohol increases its toxicity to the liver.) Also commonly recommended are Vitamin C and B-complex vitamins. But those are almost home remedies. In recent years, pharmaceutical companies have come up with more specialized formulas: Chaser, NoHang, BoozEase, PartySmart, Sob’r-K HangoverStopper, Hangover Prevention Formula, and so on. In some of these, such as Sob’r-K and Chaser, the primary ingredient is carbon, which, according to the manufacturers, soaks up toxins. Others are herbal compounds, featuring such ingredients as ginseng, milk thistle, borage, and extracts of prickly pear, artichoke, and guava leaf. These and other O.T.C. remedies aim to boost biochemicals that help the body deal with toxins. A few remedies have scientific backing. Manuela Neuman, in lab tests, found that milk-thistle extract, which is an ingredient in NoHang and Hangover Helper, does protect cells from damage by alcohol. A research team headed by Jeffrey Wiese, of Tulane University, tested prickly-pear extract, the key ingredient in Hangover Prevention Formula, on human subjects and found significant improvement with the nausea, dry mouth, and food aversion but not with other, more common symptoms, such as headache.
Five years ago, there was a flurry in the press over a new O.T.C. remedy called RU-21 (i.e., Are you twenty-one?). According to the reports, this wonder drug was the product of twenty-five years of painstaking research by the Russian Academy of Sciences, which developed it for K.G.B. agents who wanted to stay sober while getting their contacts drunk and prying information out of them. During the Cold War, we were told, the formula was a state secret, but in 1999 it was declassified. Now it was ours! “here’s one communist plot americans can really get behind,” the headline in the Washington Post said. “bottoms up to our buddies in russia,” the Cleveland Plain Dealer said. The literature on RU-21 was mysterious, however. If the formula was developed to keep your head clear, how come so many reports said that it didn’t suppress the effects of alcohol? Clearly, it couldn’t work both ways. When I put this question to Emil Chiaberi, a co-founder of RU-21’s manufacturer, Spirit Sciences, in California, he answered, “No, no, no. It is true that succinic acid”—a key ingredient of RU-21—“was tested at the Russian Academy of Sciences, including secret laboratories that worked for the K.G.B. But it didn’t do what they wanted. It didn’t keep people sober, and so it never made it with the K.G.B. men. Actually, it does improve your condition a little. In Russia, I’ve seen people falling under the table plenty of times—they drink differently over there—and if they took a few of these pills they were able to get up and walk around, and maybe have a couple more drinks. But no, what those scientists discovered, really by accident, was a way to prevent hangover.” (Like many other O.T.C. remedies, RU-21 is best taken before or while drinking, not the next morning.) Asians love the product, Chiaberi says. “It flies off the shelves there.” In the United States, it is big with the Hollywood set: “For every film festival—Sundance, the Toronto Film Festival—we get calls asking us to send them RU-21 for parties. So it has that glamour thing.”
Most cures for hangover—indeed, most statements about hangover—have not been tested. Jeffrey Wiese and his colleagues, in a 2000 article in Annals of Internal Medicine, reported that in the preceding thirty-five years more than forty-seven hundred articles on alcohol intoxication had been published, but that only a hundred and eight of these dealt with hangover. There may be more information on hangover cures in college newspapers—a rich source—than in the scientific literature. And the research that has been published is often weak. A team of scientists attempting to review the literature on hangover cures were able to assemble only fifteen articles, and then they had to throw out all but eight on methodological grounds. There have been more studies in recent years, but historically this is not a subject that has captured scientists’ hearts.
Which is curious, because anyone who discovered a widely effective hangover cure would make a great deal of money. Doing the research is hard, though. Lab tests with cell samples are relatively simple to conduct, as are tests with animals, some of which have been done. In one experiment, with a number of rats suffering from artificially induced hangovers, ninety per cent of the animals died, but in a group that was first given Vitamins B and C, together with cysteine, an amino acid contained in some O.T.C. remedies, there were no deaths. (Somehow this is not reassuring.) The acid test, however, is in clinical trials, with human beings, and these are complicated. Basically, what you have to do is give a group of people a lot to drink, apply the remedy in question, and then, the next morning, score them on a number of measures in comparison with people who consumed the same amount of alcohol without the remedy. But there are many factors that you have to control for: the sex of the subjects; their general health; their family history; their past experience with alcohol; the type of alcohol you give them; the amount of food and water they consume before, during, and after; and the circumstances under which they drink, among other variables. (Wiese and his colleagues, in their prickly-pear experiment, provided music so that the subjects could dance, as at a party.) Ideally, there should also be a large sample—many subjects.
All that costs money, and researchers do not pay out of pocket. They depend on funding institutions—typically, universities, government agencies, and foundations. With all those bodies, a grant has to be O.K.’d by an ethics committee, and such committees’ ethics may stop short of getting people drunk. For one thing, they are afraid that the subjects will hurt themselves. (All the studies I read specified that the subjects were sent home by taxi or limousine after their contribution to science.) Furthermore, many people believe that alcohol abusers should suffer the next morning—that this is a useful deterrent. Robert Lindsey, the president of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, told me that he wasn’t sure about that. His objection to hangover-cure research was simply that it was a misuse of resources: “Fifteen million people in this country are alcohol-dependent. That’s a staggering number! They need help: not with hangovers but with the cause of hangovers—alcohol addiction.” Robert Swift, an alcohol researcher who teaches at Brown University, counters that if scientists, through research, could provide the public with better information on the cognitive impairments involved in hangover, we might be able to prevent accidents. He compares the situation to the campaigns against distributing condoms, on the ground that this would increase promiscuity. In fact, the research has shown that free condoms did not have that effect. What they did was cut down on unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted disease.
Manufacturers of O.T.C. remedies are sensitive to the argument that they are enablers, and their literature often warns against heavy drinking. The message may be unashamedly mixed, however. The makers of NoHang, on their Web page, say what your mother would: “It is recommended that you drink moderately and responsibly.” At the same time, they tell you that with NoHang “you can drink the night away.” They list the different packages in which their product can be bought: the Bender (twelve tablets), the Party Animal (twenty-four), the It’s Noon Somewhere (forty-eight). Among the testimonials they publish is one by “Chad S,” from Chicago: “After getting torn up all day on Saturday, I woke up Sunday morning completely hangover-free. I must have had like twenty drinks.” Researchers address the moral issue less hypocritically. Wiese and his colleagues describe the damage done by hangovers—according to their figures, the cost to the U.S. economy, in absenteeism and poor job performance, is a hundred and forty-eight billion dollars a year (other estimates are far lower, but still substantial)—and they mention the tests with the airplane pilots, guaranteed to scare anyone. They also say that there is no experimental evidence indicating that hangover relief encourages further drinking. (Nor, they might have added, have there been any firm findings on this matter.) Manuela Neuman, more philosophically, says that some people, now and then, are going to drink too much, no matter what you tell them, and that we should try to relieve the suffering caused thereby. Such reasoning seems to have cut no ice with funding institutions. Of the meagre research I have read in support of various cures, all was paid for, at least in part, by pharmaceutical companies.
A truly successful hangover cure is probably going to be slow in coming. In the meantime, however, it is not easy to sympathize with the alcohol disciplinarians, so numerous, for example, in the United States. They seem to lack a sense of humor and, above all, the tragic sense of life. They appear not to know that many people have a lot that they’d like to forget. In the words of the English aphorist William Bolitho, “The shortest way out of Manchester is . . . a bottle of Gordon’s gin,” and if that relief is temporary the reformers would be hard put to offer a more lasting solution. Also questionable is the moral emphasis of the temperance folk, their belief that drinking is a lapse, a sin, as if getting to work on time, or living a hundred years, were the crown of life. They forget alcohol’s relationship to camaraderie, sharing, toasts. Those, too, are moral matters. Even hangovers are related to social comforts. Alcohol investigators describe the bad things that people do on the morning after. According to Genevieve Ames and her research team at the Prevention Research Center, in Berkeley, hungover assembly-line workers are more likely to be criticized by their supervisors, to have disagreements with their co-workers, and to feel lousy. Apart from telling us what we already know, such findings are incomplete, because they do not talk about the jokes around the water cooler—the fellowship, the badge of honor. Yes, there are safer ways of gaining honor, but how available are they to most people?
Outside the United States, there is less finger-wagging. British writers, if they recommend a cure, will occasionally say that it makes you feel good enough to go out and have another drink. They are also more likely to tell you about the health benefits of moderate drinking—how it lowers one’s risk of heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and so on. English fiction tends to portray drinking as a matter of getting through the day, often quite acceptably. In P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster series, a hangover is the occasion of a happy event, Bertie’s hiring of Jeeves. Bertie, after “a late evening,” is lying on the couch in agony when Jeeves rings his doorbell. “ ‘I was sent by the agency, sir,’ he said. ‘I was given to understand that you required a valet.’ ” Bertie says he would have preferred a mortician. Jeeves takes one look at Bertie, brushes past him, and vanishes into the kitchen, from which he emerges a moment later with a glass on a tray. It contains a prairie oyster. Bertie continues, “I would have clutched at anything that looked like a life-line that morning. I swallowed the stuff. For a moment I felt as if somebody . . . was strolling down my throat with a lighted torch, and then everything seemed suddenly to get all right. The sun shone in through the window; birds twittered in the tree-tops; and, generally speaking, hope dawned once more. ‘You’re engaged,’ I said.” Here the hangover is a comedy, or at least a fact of life. So it has been, probably, since the Stone Age, and so it is likely to be for a while yet. ♦