California quaking, swearing off showers for science, overselling the microbiome, MERS update, tropical diseases, cats vs. dogs

Uplift and quaking

When will the next big earthquake hit California, something approximating the one south of the San Andreas fault in 1857 (7.9) or San Francisco in 1906 (7.8)? The forecasts say sometime in the next few decades. Michael Lemonick explains at the New Yorker blog Elements why the current California drought may hasten the day.

Lemonick is writing about a Nature paper arguing that the massive drawdown of California’s water to irrigate California’s farmlands may be causing microquakes, and that big earthquakes are often preceded by lots of little ones. Microquakes will not cause a major quake that would not otherwise have happened, Lemonick says.”But it might bring on the Big One a little bit sooner.”

San Francisco, 1906. Credit: Pillsbury Picture Co.

San Francisco, 1906. Credit: Pillsbury Picture Co.

No soap

It’s been a time of what evolutionary microbiologist Jonathan Eisen, blogging at Tree of Life, calls “overselling the microbiome.” The highest profile item was the New York Times piece by the reporter who went a month without showers, shampoo, or deodorant in order to test a new product, a spray containing an ammonia-oxidizing bug, Nitrosomonas eutropha, that was supposed to keep the bad smells away.

It seems to have mostly worked, although she hated her greasy hair, and who can blame her? I wrote about microbiome matters Tuesday at GLP, and most fascinating to me was Julia Scott’s report that her skin improved remarkably–softer, smoother, zits gone, smaller pores. Can’t help wondering if it might be possible to spray the face and get those benefits while still washing the hair, at least occasionally.

Paul Raeburn blogged about Scott’s piece Wednesday at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker and found the idea somewhat icky. He may be right. I have a hunch we’ll find out before long whether microbes can make it as consumer products.



I won’t compare pimples to the horrifying Clostridium difficile, but they can make life pretty ghastly for adolescents. Now that receiving a transplant of another person’s bowel movement–uh, gut microbiome–is an acceptable and reportedly quite effective therapy for the very unpleasant, tough-to-eradicate, and potentially fatal C. diff infection, spraying a bit of bacteria-laden mist on the face a couple of times a day sounds not so bad.

Overselling the microbiome

As I pointed out Tuesday, Eisen has for years been bestowing awards for overselling the microbiome–complaining about hype and misleading news stories. Last week he posted an exceptional rant.

The topic was a paper describing the microbiome of the human placenta. The placenta seems to be populated not by microbes such as you might expect, for example ones similar to those in the vagina or the gut. No, several of the bugs that turned up are also to be found in the mouth. Note, though, that the paper explicitly said the placental organisms were not pathogens.

Nevertheless, nearly all the articles emphasized a point the lead researcher Kjersti Aagaard made in interviews: that the paper showed a connection between gum disease and unhealthy pregnancy, especially premature delivery. Which it did not.

Aagaard also emphasized the importance of dental hygiene. An excellent recommendation for many reasons, not least because replacing lost teeth is a painful surgical procedure, takes a long time, is often not entirely successful, and is stunningly expensive. Whether flossing can prevent premature birth, however, has yet to be demonstrated.

A tweet from science journalist Ed Yong saying “the oral hygiene msg seems hugely premature to me” prompted the Eisen post. Eisen was especially critical of news stories in Science and the New York Times, although several others (and their headlines) took a beating too.

Update on MERS: Never Mind

A couple weeks ago, on May 16, I did a blogging roundup on MERS, the new coronavirus disease centered in the Middle East. At that point there were two MERS cases in the US, both imported by health care providers who had worked in the Middle East.

On May 17, a third case was announced. This one was particularly scary because it looked as if the third patient, who had not traveled, had caught it from one of the others–even though MERS doesn’t seem to be hugely contagious.

Well, good news. The third so-called MERS case was a false alarm. To  date, no one has become infected in the US, the two imported cases have recovered, and there are now no American cases of MERS. Nothing to see here, move along. Details from Karen Kaplan at the LA Times’s blog Science Now.

If you want to catch up on MERS, though, my post here from May 16 has a lot of links. And if you’d like to know more about viruses, Vincent Racaniello has a post of interest at his Virology Blog. His Columbia virology course is going MOOC in August, and videos of each session are already posted on the course site, YouTube, and iTunes University. Seems like a terrific chance for a deep dive into virology for free and on your own schedule.

But we should mind the tropical diseases invading the US

At the Mermaid’s Tale, Anne Buchanan and Dan Parker call attention to a PLOS paper describing the “New American Underbelly of Tropical Diseases” among the Gulf Coast poor. Also chikungunya, a mosquito-borne infection expected to enter the US soon.

Chikungunya, whose main vector is the Aedes aegypti mosquito, is spreading fast in the Caribbean. Credit: Science.

Chikungunya, whose main vector is the Aedes aegypti mosquito, is spreading fast in the Caribbean. Credit: Science.

The post is a screed against neglect of certain diseases–the World Health Organization says there are 17 neglected tropical diseases–because they are diseases of the poor. Big Pharma, Buchanan and Parker say, is unlikely to invest in developing vaccines. Which is probably true. They also complain “the big research dollars go to sequencing viruses and parasites, generally neglecting the social aspects (like poverty) that lead to these conditions.”

I agree in principle that getting rid of disease by getting rid of poverty is a noble goal, but is it a more pragmatic one than genetic investigations of disease organisms? Or, to take a really practical example available right now, distribution of bed nets to keep out vectors? Were it even possible to redirect what’s spent on these things and put the money toward eliminating poverty, how much difference would these relatively small amounts make to the poor? Whereas research on disease organisms themselves is a proven strategy for dealing with disease.

Cat people vs. dog people

It’s irresistible, so I’m concluding with the report claiming that cat people are more intelligent than dog people. I openly acknowledge that this is not an actual paper, one that’s gone through peer review and been published in a respected journal. No, it’s just a poster by Denise Guastello, from Carroll University in Waukesha, Wisconsin, who presented it at the annual Association for Psychological Science meeting just concluded in San Francisco. Between 2:30 and 3:30 last Saturday afternoon. Pacific Daylight Time.

The poster caught the eye of Live Science’s Rachael Rettner, which makes it legitimate fodder here. Rettner reported not only the “more intelligent” datum, but also that “People who said they were dog lovers in the study tended to be more lively — meaning they were more energetic and outgoing — and also tended to follow rules closely. Cat lovers, on the other hand, were more introverted, more open-minded and more sensitive than dog lovers. Cat people also tended to be non-conformists, preferring to be expedient rather than follow the rules.”

Guastello seems to think her findings grow out of the differing sanitation requirements of dogs and cats. “It makes sense that a dog person is going to be more lively, because they’re going to want to be out there, outside, talking to people, bringing their dog,” Guastello said. “Whereas, if you’re more introverted, and sensitive, maybe you’re more at home reading a book, and your cat doesn’t need to go outside for a walk.” Or, I dunno, maybe she’s just talking about exercise.

I expect you’re curious about the study subjects. This was psychology research, so the demographic is easy enough to guess: the psych-obligatory college students. I wonder if they got extra credit.

cats in ur blog

It’s possible Guastello is familiar with a 2010 paper in the journal Anthrozoös reporting on personality differences between cat and dog people. “Results suggest that dog people are higher on Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness, but lower on Neuroticism and Openness than are cat people.” A full-text PDF can be had through a Guardian post on cat people that mentions this paper.

The study was much larger than last Saturday’s, involving more than 4500 people. But, and this is a very big but, a huge but, they volunteered themselves through a web site.

I never get over being flabbergasted at investigators–psychology is rife with them–who seem to be able to get away with flagrant flouting of basic principles of research design.

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