Your Intestines Can Taste Sugar: And a New Diabetes Drug Targets Those Sweet Receptors

(From Scientific American Magazine)

Three years ago researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia made a shocking discovery: our guts can taste sugar. Just like the tongue, the intestines and pancreas have sweetness receptors that can sense glucose and fructose.

With that knowledge, scientists at Elcelyx Therapeutics, a pharmaceutical company in San Diego, developed a drug that targets the taste receptors. The drug, now in phase II clinical trials, is a modified version of metformin, the most commonly prescribed drug for treating type 2 diabetes. Usually metformin dissolves in the stomach and travels through the blood to the liver, which then talks with the pancreas. NewMet, on the other hand, is designed to dissolve only when it reaches the pH found in the gut. On release, the drug fills up the sweet receptors there, which send signals to the pancreas to produce insulin, a hormone that regulates blood glucose levels. “We’re modulating a natural signal,” says Alain Baron, president and CEO of Elcelyx.

Because of its direct route, NewMet is just as effective as metformin with half the typical dose, according to phase I results. The new pathway also reduces the amount of the drug that enters the bloodstream by 70 percent. That reduction is important because metformin can build up in the body with long-term use, and as a result, patients with kidney disease, up to 40 percent of people with type 2 diabetes, cannot take it. Their kidney is not able to filter the drug out of the blood, which can be deadly.

Baron thinks that other drugs could be modified to target the gut. A spin-off of Elcelyx is now working on a weight-loss drug, which would target the lower intestine and amplify the signals of fullness.

The Garbage Eaters

(From Newsweek, April 9, 2014 print edition)

On the surface of the most desolate parts of the world’s oceans, billions of tiny pieces of plastic swirl and churn. They are festering pockets of pollution, but the ocean is a resilient beast. And even in these incredibly remote areas, where nothing much ever happens, this human garbage has begun to attract communities of life. Recent research suggests the ocean’s plastic patches are instigating a new evolutionary pathway for microbes and creating a food chain out of thin air—and water.


You’ve probably heard about the ocean’s garbage patches—large areas of water where waste plastic collects. It’s a phenomenon that didn’t exist until the 1970s, when Styrofoam started showing up en masse. A slew of other plastic items followed, so much so that in 2012, scientists announced that the amount of plastic in the ocean had grown 100 times over four decades. The United Nations Environment Program has estimated that you can now find about 46,000 pieces of plastic in every square mile of sea. There are 18 million tons of plastic in the Pacific Ocean alone, and the biggest island of trash is roughly the size of Texas.

A lot of that garbage came from ships that dumped their waste whenever they were too far from port. In the mid-1970s, though, the International Maritime Organization banned dumping and attempted to minimize the pollution caused by oceangoing vehicles. Today, plastic garbage mostly comes from rivers. Left on beaches or swept up in the wind, plastic makes its way downstream and gets caught in levies where rain washes it into the ocean.

Dense plastics found in bottles, like polyethylene terephthalate, commonly known as polyester, sink to the ocean floor after weather and oxidation from the sun tear them apart. Scientists have very little knowledge of what happens to these bits of plastic once they descend. They estimate that, for all the plastic they’re able to see on top of the ocean, there is 10 times more at the bottom.

The rest of that plastic gets trapped in one of the ocean’s five gyres—a worldwide network of surface currents created by the Earth’s wind patterns and the spinning of the planet. Plastic caught in the gyres gets tossed around, broken down into small pieces and then sucked into a vortex at the center of each current. According to Tracy Mincer, a geochemist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who studies the properties of the garbage patch, it takes about six weeks for a plastic bottle or piece of Styrofoam to make its way from the East Coast of the U.S. to the center of a gyre.

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How Sperm Fit Big Things In Small Places

(From, LadyBits blog)

The human body is really great at packing huge things into tiny spaces. Your small intestine, for example, is twenty feet long and squeezed expertly into your gut. Your brain has something like eighty-six billion neurons (depending on which scientist you ask) jammed into 3.3 pounds of tissue. But those packing jobs are nothing compared to your DNA. The human genome is more than three million base pairs. If you stretched it out into a thread it would be, very roughly, six feet long and squished into the nucleus of every one of your cells. That’s quite a feat in itself. But the task becomes even more miraculous when you think about squeezing half of that information into a sperm, which is smaller than your average cell. (An egg cell, for example, is about six times the size of a sperm cell.) Now, a team of scientists at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory think they’ve finally figured out how the male body manages to get it done. They recently published their work in Nature Communications.

The discovery happened completely by accident. Researcher Alea Mills was studying a specific protein, called Chd5. It was discovered in 2007, and since then, research has shown that it’s excellent at suppressing cancer tumors. So, in order to better understand why that’s the case, her team decided to genetically engineer a bunch of mice without the protein—hoping to eventually see if these mice lost the ability to fight off cancer. During preparation for the experiment, her grad student Wangzhi Li began attempting to breed the Chd5-less mice so they could have enough of the rodents to conduct their research.

But once the initial mice were created, Li had a really hard time mating them. Without the protein, they were practically infertile. What the heck was going on, they wondered? Had they inadvertently stumbled across a previously unknown job this protein did? Did it somehow play a role in fertility?

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Predicting Wildfires Could Save Lives. So Why Are We So Bad At It?

(Column: Popular Science Magazine)

Last year in Arizona, 19 firefighters got trapped in an unpredictably fast wildfire. All of them died. It was the highest firefighter death toll for a single fire since 1933. The same year, Sierra Nevada saw its largest fire ever, which ravaged 402 square miles, and Colorado suffered its most destructive wildfire in state history—nearly 500 homes were destroyed.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, some 140 wildfires struck the western U.S. states in the 1980s, while about 250 raged between 2000 and 2012. In those states, fire season has also grown, extending from five months in the 1970s to seven or more months today (California’s drought has been so bad this year, some experts say its fire season never actually ended).

Why are there more fires in more places? The simple answer is us. First, until the 1980s, we didn’t know that fire can be good for ecosystems, so firefighters operated under a policy of fire suppression. By preventing fires, though, they let underbrush build up in forests, fueling bigger fires later on. Then, there’s climate change: The planet’s increasing average temperatures are responsible for drier, longer, and significantly more extreme fire seasons than ever before. Finally, our cities are spreading, pushing their edges (and suburbs) into fire-prone areas.

If we are to deal with these changes and avoid tragedy, experts first need to fully understand wildfires—events we actually know little about. Starting this year, a team of engineers, including our own National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the U.S. Forest Service, has been carrying out controlled burns and using the data to build computer models that could improve fire predictions. NIST engineers are also testing new building materials for roof tiles and house frames that can withstand wildfire conditions and make for safer homes.

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What the Heck is Inflation Theory?

(From The Mythbuster’s

If you were conscious on Monday you probably heard there was big news out of the physics community. So big, in fact, that there’s already talk of Nobel prizes and jokes about Einstein patting himself on the back for being proven right…again. Let’s be honest though, big physics news is always kind of hard to understand. There’s always GeV’s and B-modes and jargon and, well, math. So, in the event that you’d actually like to understand what the heck everybody is talking about right now I called up my favorite theoretical physicist, CalTech’s Sean Carroll, to help explain the theory of inflation for those of us that don’t do physics. Here it is, in the simplest possible terms.


The universe is the same everywhere we look. No matter where we point our telescopes out into the 14 billion light years of space in all directions, we see the same density of stuff. Same amount of matter and number of galaxies. Same gravitational field. The universe is even basically the same temperature everywhere.

It’s awfully smooth, flat, and uniform — and there’s gotta be a reason why. Inflation theory explains. Simply put, the theory is that in the very first fraction of a second after the big bang happened, the universe expanded into existence. In other words, everything, everywhere existed all at once and it happened faster than the speed of light.

That’s it. Pretty simple, right? Well, it sounds simple. Until you try to prove that it’s true. Since we can’t go back in time to watch the creation of the universe (whomp whomp), the best way to know that theory is right is to look for leftovers of its aftermath. So scientists have been trying to spot evidence that the rapid inflation of the universe messed with gravity.

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How Scientists Prevent Dead Whales From Exploding

(From The Mythbuster’s

Exploding whales are all the Internet rage at the moment — there’s a beached blue whale at risk of doing so in a small Canadian town right now. And as much fun as it may be to watch giant, rotting corpses spew guts all over innocent bystanders, that’s not realistically how a dead whale usually goes out. Scientists in every ocean-facing state in the US very closely monitor all mammals that wash up on our nation’s beaches. Every time a whale hits sand, stranding teams with specialized educations and government permits head to the scene and, if the whale is dead, take quick action to necropsy it.


There are two important facts about beached whales that have been left out of most of the stories you’ve read. First: You can vent a whale before it gets severely bloated, which scientists do all the time. Second: A whale is not going to explode unless you poke it.

To get a better understanding of what really happens when a dead whale ends up on a beach I called up Ari Friedlaender, an assistant professor at the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University. He spent six years coordinating North Carolina’s Marine Mammal Stranding Program. During that time Friedlaender necropsied about 500 marine mammals, roughly 60 of which were whales. He says the majority of the time, scientists take a whale apart before it has a chance to become too bloated. It’s important to necropsy a mammal within two hours of washing up on shore — that’s when the organs are most intact and useful for science. After 24 hours of sitting, the carcasses have decomposed too much to be useful for research. At that point scientists will come in, measure and deflate the body, cut it up, and bury it so that people can get back to enjoying their beach. Of all the whales he’s necropsied, only about 12 were so far gone that they couldn’t be used for scientific purposes.

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Tested Explains: Earth’s Magnetic Field Wonkyness

The Earth’s magnetic field is acting pretty wonky right now. That may be an indicator of big changes to come. Or it could just be business as usual. The truth is that the most consistent thing about our magnetic field is that it’s inconsistent over short periods of time (like the human lifespan). But when scientists look at it across millennia, they recognize that its behavior is actually fairly easy to predict if they can just get an accurate measurement. So what, exactly, is going on with the modern magnetic field? I asked Scott Bogue, a geologist at Occidental College in Los Angeles, and one of the leading experts on Earth’s geomagnetism. Turns out, was a bit of a controversial question.

First, some background. If you know about the science, it makes sense that our field isn’t the most stable force on the planet. After all, it’s created by conditions in the most volatile place on Earth. The planet’s core is a spinning, stirring, moving glob of really excellent electricity-conducting liquid metal (iron-nickel alloy, to be exact). All the extreme heat energy down there, and the energy created by gravity, gets converted into the movement of the fluid. And energy from that fluid momentum gets converted into electromagnetic energy, which emanates from the core as our magnetic field.

The field surrounds the Earth and extends out into space (far enough that it encompasses all our orbiting satellites, but not so far that it reaches the moon). Its most important role is that it blocks particles that shoot down to earth from the sun (solar wind) and faraway stars (cosmic rays) by pushing them away from the Earth’s center and directing them towards the poles. That’s why the Northern and Southern Lights, created when incoming particles from the sun interact with Earth’s atmosphere, aren’t visible to most of the planet’s population. If we didn’t have the magnetic field, we’d see lights all over the Earth.

We won’t have the field forever. As the core cools and eventually stops spinning, the field will go away. Mars, for example, has a solid, cold core and no field (all of our outer planets — Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune — still have fields). Scientists aren’t sure what, exactly, will happen to Earth when our field finally goes away. They think all that solar wind and cosmic rays bombarding us might create a bunch of small holes in our ozone layer at low latitudes. At the very least, we’d probably get a lot more skin cancer.

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Meet Ruddy Mell, Fire Starter (for Science)

(From the Awesome Jobs series at

If you want to understand how fire works, then you have to burn stuff. That’s where Ruddy Mell comes in. He’s a research combustion engineer and physicist at the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Wildland Fire Sciences Lab. Mell’s job is to work with teams of fire experts to create controlled burns, collect all the data they can, and then build physics-based models that can predict what could happen when seriously dangerous fires burn out of control. Mell talked with us about why our current wildfire models are so insufficient and how they go about trying to control the world’s most unpredictable element out in the field.

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Volcano Alert

(From WIRED Magazine, December 2013)

With more than 30 active volcanoes, Iceland is one of the most tectonically active spots on Earth, and each eruption has the potential to send all of Europe into an economic tailspin. (Remember how ­Eyjafjallajökull shut down air traffic over the continent in 2010?) So a coalition of 100 European and US scientists calling itself Future­Volc has been working to get ahead of the problem. With Freysteinn Sigmundsson, a geophysicist at the University of Iceland, they’ve been covering the country with monitoring devices in an effort to use the data to scout signs of an impending eruption. Here’s a look at the new system.

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Betting Big on Precision Ag

(From Modern Farmer, March 2014)

Seed planting is a bit of a crapshoot. For centuries farmers have been relying on the smallest tidbits of information about the makeup of their soil – trusting one field is a better producer than another, but not understanding necessarily why. It has worked for generations. But it hasn’t been an ideal situation for optimizing every inch of a field.

That’s going to change, as John Deere and Monsanto square off for an Apple vs. Google-style battle. The result? Farm gear so high-tech a farmer from the 1920s would barely recognize it.

It’s hard to believe, but seed planting has remained much the same for the last century. To understand their fields and where to plant, farmers have relied on historical documentation. From the 1940s up until the 1970s, universities and the USDA sent members of their agronomy departments (sometimes students) out to local farms. These farm scientists would walk through the fields with an aluminum tube that had a sharp point on one end. Picking about fifteen key places in each field (depending on its size), the agronomist would push the tube into the soil and collect a sample. Back at the lab, the samples would be analyzed and the field would then be mapped, on paper, detailing the chemistry of each field.

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How NASA Is Trying to Help California Survive Its Water Crisis

(From Popular Mechanics, February 2014)

California is in the middle of one of the worst droughts in recorded history. Things have gotten so serious that this Thursday the state legislature attempted to ease the pain by passing a $687 million relief plan for drought-stricken communities. Even NASA has stepped in to lend its space- and sky-based science, hoping to assist the state’s Department of Water Reclamation with deciding where to dole out its water reserves and identify the areas in most need of aid. 

Jeanine Jones, interstate water resources manager at California’s DWR, says that for water managers who operate the state’s dams and aqueducts, understanding the extent of the current drought is very important. “We make lots of different kinds of decisions about how to operate facilities, to supply water, to minimize flood risk, and to do long-term water planning for the entire state,” she says. 

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Women Are Taking Back Beer

(From LadyBits on Medium, February 2014)

Men and beer have gone together for ages. Beer is crafted by men in factories owned by men, sold to men, and consumed by men.

But women love beer, too. They make up one-quarter of U.S. beer consumption by volume, according to the Beverage Media Group. And the number of women who love beer is slowly growing. The craft brewing industry has allowed them to find new brands and flavors. According to a consumer survey called the Alcoholic Beverage DemandTracker, the percent of women who name beer as their favorite beverage grew from 26 percent in 2012 to 28 percent in 2013. That stat may seem low, but it’s kind of remarkable considering that beer is only ever marketed to men.

And women love brewing too. For a long time, the only way they’ve been able to show it is through small-batch home brewing in their kitchens. Women who have wanted to turn their craft into a career say they’ve had their male counterparts literally laugh in their faces. In the last ten years or so, however, a few female pioneers have pushed their way onto brewery floors to prove that making beer is anything but men’s work.

The movement of women into the industry has happened incredibly slowly. A male-dominated industry is generally considered to be one that has 25 percent or fewer women. While other men-centric businesses have started accepting women over the years (even mining, for example, was 13 percent women in the U.S. in 2011), the brewing industry doesn’t even bother to track how many women it employs. The generally accepted estimate is that less than 1 percent of all brewers in the U.S. are female. Whitney Burnside, who became the first female head brewer at Pelican Brewery in Oregon in January, says that when it came to her entering the industry, “there was a lot of resistance. I felt like I had to work extra hard to show them that I could do it. I never felt like it was acceptable. Now, even being the head brewer here, I still get the looks and the weird responses.”

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Photographing All of the World’s Reefs

(From, February 2014)

How do you understand global change of a system that’s underwater and impossible to photograph from above? Build a giant submersible camera system controlled by expert dive photographers, of course.

The world’s reef systems are deteriorating. Corals are going away at a rate of about 1 - 2 percent every year. Some areas are harder hit than others. In the last 27 years, the Great Barrier Reef has lost 53 percent of its corals and the Caribbean has lost 80 percent. That’s a big deal because reef systems are basically cities for fish. One quarter of all the ocean’s life makes their home there. If the ocean’s corals disappear then much of the life in the ocean disappears too. For humans, that means we can no longer depend on reef systems for food, protection from weather, tourism, and medicine.

So, we know reefs are important. And we know they’re deteriorating. What we don’t have is a visual understanding of how these reef systems are changing and any capability to compare changes to themselves or each other over time. To change that, professional underwater photographers have gotten together with ocean scientists to create the Global Reef Record — a world-wide Google Maps-like photographic index of all of the coral systems in the entire world.

“We’re creating a global baseline,” says Richard Vevers, executive director of the survey. “We’ve been travelling around the world using a standard protocol for collection imagery, which allows us to do a global comparison.”

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Why You Shouldn’t Worry About NuvaRing

(From LadyBits on Medium, January 2014)

We need to talk about birth control. Specifically, we need to talk about what is and isn’t dangerous about it, as there’s a lot of misinformation going around lately thanks to a scathing takedown of NuvaRing in Vanity Fair (Danger in the Ring by Marie Brenner, January 2014). If you haven’t read it, the story was a heartbreaking tale of two women who died from blood clots after using the birth control device. The story wasn’t, however, a calm and considered look at the accurate science of birth control (which is why I’m not going to link to it here).

To get a better idea of whether or not the story was realistic, or unnecessarily fear-mongering, I spent almost two hours talking with Trent MacKay and Diana Blithe, respectively the Chief and Program Director of the National Institute of Health’s Contraceptive Discovery and Development Branch. Here’s what I learned: A basic understanding of how birth control works will quickly dispel any fears you might have about using NuvaRing — or any method of birth control for that matter. So. Let’s all take a deep, calming breath and talk about how uteruses work.

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Favorite Science Facts Learned in 2013

(From, 12/26/2013)

Our science correspondent Erin recalls the favorite things she learned in her research from this past year!

Scientists Find Cosmic Neutrinos in Antarctica

There are so many cool things about this story. First, there’s the awesome fact that one of science’s biggest discoveries happened 1.5 miles below the icy surface of a frozen Antarctica glacier. Then there’s the fact that scientists detected a form of subatomic particle that passes right through solid matter. Actually, they didn’t just detect one, they detected 28 of them. It’s unprecedented. If you’re not familiar with a neutrino, they are subatomic particles released by fusion reactions happening in the sun (and other nuclear reactions around the universe). Trillions of them pass through us every second, but they never physically interact with matter, so it’s nearly impossible to know they even exist. Physicists at the IceCube observatory in Antarctica detected them by burying 5,000 sensors deep down in a glacier and looking for flashes of light released by debris that the neutrinos create. Now that science has been able to detect them, scientists say they are able to see the universe in a whole new way. In other words: we have just witnessed the birth of a new field of space science. How cool is that?!

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