Small Wonders: January 2, 2013

I thought I’d kick off the new year with a new installment of Small Wonders. In this edition: “olfactory white,” the end of mine-hunting dolphins, and what science owes the Twinkie.

* Crafty spiders build decoy spiders to fool predators.

* A Mars rover made of gingerbread.

* A brilliant Twitter bot mimics Tourettes–and seems strangely intelligent.

* The strange science of “olfactory white.”

* How guns became gadgets (“Guns, unlike almost every other technology, are unique in that the more they improve, the less safe they become.”)

* The NIH lab chimps retire, decamp for a sanctuary.

* Relatedly, the U.S. Navy’s mine-hunting dolphins are also set to retire.

* The story behind the greatest hoodie ever made.

* “How to print an organ on your inkjet.”

* Paging Dr. Doolittle: animal communication and language.

* We’ve left a shameful amount of trash on the Moon.

* The best charts of 2012.

Twinkies have played a starring role in many classroom science experiments.

* A chilling verdict for a French psychiatrist.

* The trouble with genopolitics.

* One health writer posts his annual round-up of “PR crap” he’s received in the past year.

* The world of toothbrush innovation: 138 (!) patents related to toothbrushes were issued this year.

* An island in Japan is overrun with cats.

* “We are all mosaics.”


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Is Something Fishy In the White House?

See updates below.

Jon Entine, the executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, has an incredible story in Slate that explores whether political considerations have trumped science in the case of AquAdvantage salmon, an Atlantic salmon genetically engineered to reach its adult size twice as fast as unmodified salmon.

AquaBounty, the Massachusetts firm trying to bring the fish to market, applied for FDA approval in 1995; twelve seventeen [[apologies for the silly math error!]] years later, it’s still awaiting a verdict. Entine suggests that the hold-up isn’t with the FDA itself, but with the White House. As he writes:

The Genetic Literacy Project (GLP), which I direct, has learned that in April, the FDA completed its draft environmental assessment (EA), the final step in its scientific evaluation. The agency confirmed that the salmon is safe to eat and poses no serious environmental hazards. The approval document had made its way through every appropriate agency in an interagency review process coordinated by the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which oversees the president’s science policies and is empowered to enforce integrity guidelines.

But within days of the expected public release of the EA this spring, the application was frozen. The delay, sources within the government say, came after meetings with the White House, which was debating the political implications of approving the GM salmon, a move likely to infuriate a portion of its base.

Everyone who believes in sound science should be troubled by this. As Entine outlines, the FDA’s own experts, as well as many independent scientists, agree that the salmon pose virtually no risk to either humans or the environment.

If the FDA doesn’t ultimately approve the salmon–or doesn’t do so before AquaBounty runs out of funds–it will put a serious chill on biotechnological innovation in this country. In fact, in doing research for my forthcoming book on animal biotechnology, I talked to researchers like James Murray, of the University of California-Davis, who is moving his transgenic animal operation to Brazil, a country that’s been more willing to embrace GMOs. (Murray has engineered transgenic goats whose milk contains elevated levels of lysozyme, an anti-bacterial compound. He hopes that this super-charged milk could be used to prevent and treat diarrheal disease, which claims the lives of more than 2 million children every year.)

Entine also spoke with Murray, who expressed his frustration with the situation in the U.S.:

“When you don’t have a regulatory pathway forward and the government doesn’t support research in this area, what company will invest in this field?” he asked. “None. The AquaBounty situation is just confirmation of a hopelessly politicized process.”

The future of animal genetics is so dire, universities are killing off courses. “My program started off doing genetic engineering,” said Alison Van Eenennaam, a University of California–Davis animal scientist who co-authored a scathing article for Nature Biotechnology on the broken approval process. “I couldn’t get any government funding for my work in this area, so I shut the program down. Why would I train graduate students for jobs that won’t exist?”

If AquaBounty can’t make it through the regulatory and political quagmire, despite doing everything right, future entrepreneurs and scientists won’t even bother to try. And we could find ourselves losing out as other nations reap the economic, environmental, and health benefits that GMOs can bring. As Murray told me when I visited him in Davis, California last year, “We’re producing useful animals and sending them offshore.”

Hop on over to Slate to read the full story and check out the Genetic Literacy Project for more information.

UPDATE (December 21, 12:30 p.m.): Jon Entine tells me that today, two days after his Slate story appeared, the FDA released its Environmental Assessment, which includes the agency’s conclusion that “approval of the AquAdvantage Salmon … will not jeopardize the continued existence of United States populations of threatened or endangered Atlantic salmon, or result in the destruction or adverse modification of their critical habitat…” You can read the full assessment on the agency’s website.

UPDATE 2 (December 21, 3:30 p.m.): Entine now has a new update at Slate about the latest turn of events, as well as a piece over at Forbes about the White House’s reversal.  


Category: Animals, Biotechnology, Food, Genetic Modification | Comments Off on Is Something Fishy In the White House?

Go Deep: Vocal Pitch and Electability

Back in August 2011, I did an interview with Eliza Gray, a reporter for The New Republic, who’d just written a terrific feature on being transgendered in America. The part of the story that caught my eye, in particular, was a section on speech therapy; men transitioning into women, it turns out, often seek the help of a speech therapist to learn how to speak in a more feminine way. This involves learning to speak in a higher pitch, as well as making other changes to the intonation and resonance of their voices.

As I spoke with Eliza, though, a question occurred to me: Would there be a market for this kind of speech therapy even for people who weren’t transitioning between genders? I imagined that, in some fields at least, it could be a liability to be a business professional with a voice that sounds too “feminine.” So I asked Eliza about this. Here’s that portion of the interview:

EA: Could you see people who are not transitioning going through similar speech therapy? I’m imagining, say, a woman in the corporate world who thinks that perhaps making her speech less “feminine” will help her advance.

EG: I know, in the context of the transgender world, some male-to-female transgender people have complained that in corporate settings, they tend to want their voices to go lower. They find themselves counteracting their therapy a little bit to keep their voices low and more gender neutral. A lot of people like the idea of having a more feminized voice, but then when it comes to the working world, they find that people don’t respond to them as well if their voice is too high.

This exchange came rushing back to me this week when I saw a new study, published in this month’s issue of PLoS One, that sheds new light on how the pitch of our voices can affect the way we are perceived. 
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Category: Men, Psychology, Women | 2 Comments

A Whole Lotta Snake

I just came across a great AP story about a strange little government agency known as the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. The agency, the AP writes, “collects taxes on booze and smokes and tells the companies that produce them how to do business — from approving beer can labels to deciding how much air a gin bottle can contain between lid and liquor.”

It also does a lot of product testing. It has a machine that sucks on cigarettes, looking for counterfeits, and determines which strange, imported liquors are safe for Americans to drink.

My regular readers will know that I’ve developed something of a mini-beat covering stories that involve the unlikely intersection of reptiles and alcohol. So I just wanted to pass along my favorite section of the story, which fits right into this small obsession of mine:

… Dr. Abdul Mabud found himself overseeing 26 chemists at a lab in Beltsville, Md., that tests hundreds of bottles, cigarettes and perfumes every year.

One afternoon, Mabud holds aloft a jar of pure, clear alcohol containing a coiled king cobra, its hood flared and forked tongue extended. Surrounding it are smaller green snakes that appear to be biting each other’s tails.

The snake liquor was submitted for consideration as an import from east Asia, where snakes are believed to increase virility.

“With that much snake in there, it’s probably not a beverage,” Mabud says, explaining why the shelves of America’s liquor stores and supermarkets are free of giant, gin-soaked snakes.

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Attack of the clone cliches!

A story in the New York Post on Sunday warned New Yorkers about a new threat menacing our city: a pair of cloned collie mixes.

To quote from the story:

Beware the canine clones!

An Upper West Side man loved his pet, Astro, so much, he made a hat out of the pooch’s fur — and cloned him into two more dogs.

Now he defiantly lets his copycat collies run around Central Park without a leash — and neighbors say dogs are terrorizing the Upper West Side.

“This is a tragedy waiting to happen,” said one man who claims the dogs charged at his puppy and bit his hand. “The city knows about this problem and does nothing. The law has no teeth, so to speak.”

I hate stories like this. They are sensationalist and alarmist, feeding every negative stereotype and apocalyptic fear that people have about cloning and other animal biotechnologies. I’m no fan of vicious, unleashed dogs. But that’s true whether or not the dogs are clones. I don’t want aggressive shelter dogs or AKC-registered purebreds roaming around my neighborhood, either.

Of course, the story is a lot less exciting if you leave cloning out of it–in fact, I wonder whether the Post would have done the story at all if the dogs, which the paper repeatedly refers to merely as “the clones,” weren’t the products of a controversial biotechnological procedure.

And yes, I know this is just a silly little Post story, and I probably shouldn’t waste too much breath criticizing it. It’s just that I get so frustrated whenever I read stories like this. Pet cloning raises real issues, and there are important discussions worth having about the practice, but this kind of sensationalism just makes those kinds of conversations harder.

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The Thanksgiving Genome

Happy Thanksgiving, dear readers!

In honor of the holiday, I’m posting a link to an old piece of mine–a slideshow about the genomes of many of the ingredients that make up a traditional Thanksgiving meal. As I wrote in the introduction to the slideshow, which appeared in Discover in 2010:

This year when we sit down to our Thanksgiving feasts, we can do more than just salivate. As we enjoy our turkey, we can appreciate not just its juicy flesh and crisp skin, but marvel at its remarkable genome, with its 80 chromosomes (humans have 46) and strange, disease-causing mutations. A draft of the genetic sequence of this holiday bird was released in September, and it’s not alone: Many other foods that will grace our harvest tables have also had their ingredients sequenced. Here, a guide to the DNA of your Turkey Day dinner.

You can check the full slideshow out here.

Hope you all have a wonderful holiday!

Image:  U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/Wikimedia Commons

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Small Wonders: November 19, 2012

In this edition: the extreme female brain, virtual reality for amputees, and neon honey.

Businessweek wins the post-Sandy, magazine-cover sweepstakes.

Could oysters protect us from the next Sandy?

* Eating disorders: an outgrowth of the “extreme female brain“?

* How to use social attraction to rebuild seabird populations.

* Drug-sniffing dogs make mistakes, too.

* Amputees use virtual reality to adjust to their new prostheses.

* What Komen gets wrong about breast cancer.

* More on contagious yawning in dogs.

* Researchers need to stop keeping their lab animals in the basement.

* A brainy cockatoo invents his own tool.

* Improving math education by boosting students’ self-concept.

* Researchers have now peered inside Temple Grandin’s brain.

* Wild parrots name their chicks.

* Bees in France are making strange, brightly colored honey.

* The Congressional Committee on Science, Space, and Technology gives science a bad name.

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Book News!

As most of you know by now, I’ve been working on a book about biotechnology and animals for the last three years. It’s been a long, rewarding journey–and one that sometimes seemed like it would never end. But last week, something happened that made the fact that I will soon be publishing a book seem altogether real: I got the galleys in the mail.

Here’s a closer look at the cover, which I happen to love:

The official publication date is March 12, 2013, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a few relevant details:

1. The book is already available for pre-order through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s, and IndieBound.

2. My wonderful publicist at FSG is hard at work setting up a variety of book talks and readings for me–in cities all over the U.S. If you’d like to stay up to date on these events and other general news about the book and its release, you can subscribe to my email list here. (I promise not to share your e-mail with anyone and to use the email list very sparingly.)

Thanks to all of you for your support and interest over the past few years. I can’t wait to finally share the finished book with you.

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On Autism, Gut Microbes, and Contradictory Research Findings

I just wrote a story for the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative about a new study of the intestinal bacteria of autistic children. A team of Australian researchers studied more than 50 children with autism and discovered no significant differences between their gut microbes and the bacteria present in the digestive systems of their typically developing siblings.

The study contradicts some earlier research that has found that autistic children have microbiomes that differ from those of other kids. For instance, one study concluded that autistic children have elevated levels of Clostridia bacteria, and another detected Sutterella bacteria in the guts of children with autism but not in typically developing controls. The new Australian study, however, found no differences whatsoever in the microbes present in fecal samples from children with autism and those of control children. In my story, I explore some possible reasons why this one new study may not match earlier ones, but in the course of doing my research and reporting, I began thinking about the larger issue of why we see so many contradictory research findings, across many different fields.

So let’s look more closely at this particular issue. The autism-gut microbe connection has been particularly hard to unravel, and there have been a number of contradictory studies. The research question seems like it should be straightforward: Do the guts of autistic children have different kinds or concentrations of microbes than the bodies of typically developing children? Scientists should be able to answer the question by taking a few simple steps: Collect bacterial samples from the guts of children with autism and children without, determine the type and number of bacteria present in each sample, and compare.
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Category: Psychology, Research Blogging | 7 Comments

Let Us Now Praise Talking Elephants

Another week, another talking animal. Just last week I wrote about NOC, the beluga whale that had learned to mimic the sound of human voices. Now we get a report of an Asian elephant who has learned the same trick.

The elephant, Koshik, has figured out how to imitate the language of his Korean trainers and can pronounce five different Korean words: annyong (hello), choah (good), aniya (no), nuo (lie down), and anja (sit down).

The researchers write:

Koshik’s precise imitation of the acoustic characteristics of his trainers is remarkable, given that the long vocal tract of an elephant would naturally produce much lower formant frequencies. Koshik creates these accurate imitations of human formant frequencies by placing his trunk tip into his mouth …  at the onset of phonation… During phonation, he raises the lower jaw while keeping the trunk inside the mouth, thus modulating the shape of his vocal tract.

The scientists also probe the origins of Koshik’s vocal learning, pointing out that for seven years, Koshik lived a solitary life; between the ages of 5 and 12, he was the only elephant living at the zoo. They speculate:

[T]he determining factors for speech imitation in Koshik may be social deprivation from conspecifics during an important period of bonding and development when humans were the only social contact available … The social circumstances under which Koshik’s speech imitations developed suggest that one function of vocal learning might be to cement social bonds and, in unusual cases, social bonds across species.

Watch a video of Koshik “speaking” with his trainer.


ResearchBlogging.orgStoeger et al., An Asian Elephant Imitates Human Speech, Current Biology (2012),

Category: Animals | 2 Comments