Science, technology, environment and health news and discussion with host Ira Flatow.
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June 2, 2023
In 2005, gardeners Craig LeHouiller and Patrina Nuske-Small created the Dwarf Tomato Project. They wanted to preserve the flavor and beauty of heirloom tomatoes, without taking up too much space. They started crossbreeding heirloom tomatoes with smaller dwarf tomato plants.
To do so, they enlisted volunteers from all over the world. Over 1,000 people have participated so far. You can even buy the seeds and plant them in your own garden!
Ira talks with the project’s co-founder, gardener and author, Craig LeHoullier, based in Hendersonville, North Carolina.
Southwestern states have been aware for decades that their use of Colorado River water is not sustainable. Forty million people depend on the watershed across seven states, several tribes, and northern Mexico. After intense pressure from the federal government, Arizona, California, and Nevada presented a plan last month to cut water use in these states.
While the proposal isn’t final, it’s an important step in a long stalemate among southwestern states hesitant to use less water. The three states propose cutting 3 million acre-feet in water use through 2026—about ten percent of their total water allocation. The federal government plans to spend $1.2 billion to pay water users for the cuts.
Joining Ira to break down what this plan means for southwest states is Dr. Sharon Megdal, director of the University of Arizona’s Water Resources Research Center in Tucson, and Luke Runyon, managing editor and reporter for KUNC, in Grand Junction, Colorado.
One of the most iconic symbols of the American Southwest is the saguaro cactus—the big, towering cactus with branching arms.
Saguaro are the most studied variety of cactus, yet there’s still much we don’t know about them.
Once a decade, researchers from the University of Arizona survey plots of roughly 4,500 saguaro to assess the health of the species. This past year there was a record low number of new cacti growing—the fewest since they started decadal surveys in 1964.
What’s driving this decline? Ira talks about the state of saguaro cacti with Peter Breslin, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Arizona’s Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill, based in Tucson, Arizona.
Many Americans might be surprised just how expansive and diverse the Sonoran Desert actually is. The 100,000 square-mile desert stretches across the border between the U.S. and Mexico, with the northernmost regions in southern California and Arizona making up just one third of the desert. The sweeping terrain is home to thousands of plant and animal species and contains every existing biome in the world—from timber tundras to rolling grasslands to arid desert basins.
The majority of the Sonoran is within the Baja California peninsula and the Mexican state of Sonora, which includes the Gulf of California. The gulf alone is teeming with life—famed ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau once called the desert, “the world’s aquarium.”
Ira talks about the rich biodiversity of the Sonoran Desert and the importance of scientific collaboration across the border with Ben Wilder, director and co-founder of Next Generation Sonoran Desert Researchers, and Michelle María Early Capistrán, a conservation fellow at Stanford University and board member of the Next Generation of Sonoran Desert Researchers.
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Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.
Did you know that land and ocean ecosystems absorb about half of the carbon dioxide we emit each year? But what if the earth had the capacity to absorb even more? With the help of some furry, scaly, and leathery critters, maybe it can.
A recent study in the journal Nature Climate Change claims that by restoring the populations of just a handful of animals—like gray wolves, bison, and sea otters for example—the Earth could capture around 6.41 more gigatons of CO2 each year. This idea of restoring wildlife is called rewilding.
Ira talks with the co-author of this study, Dr. Trisha Atwood, an associate professor at Utah State University, based in Logan, UT. They chat about what critters make the rewilding list, and how they fit into the carbon cycle.
Spring is in the air, and for many people that means allergy season is rearing its ugly head. If it feels like your allergies have recently gotten worse, there’s now data to back that up.
New research shows that since 1990, pollen season in North America has grown by 20 days and gotten 20% more intense, with the greatest increases in Texas and the Midwest. This is because climate change is triggering plants’ internal timing to produce pollen earlier and earlier. It’s a problem that’s expected to get worse.
SciFri producer Kathleen Davis speaks with William Anderegg, assistant professor at the University of Utah’s School of Biological Sciences about pollen counts, and pollen as a respiratory irritant.
Dr. Rachel Lupien, a paleoclimatologist at Aarhus University, makes it a point to be honest about the challenges she runs into at work. She hopes that other scientists can learn from them. So last year, when a paper she wrote was rejected from journals five times, she tweeted about the experience.
While the responses ranged from supportive replies to harsh emails, Rachel says that it feels good to talk about professional headaches with peers who understand. Digital producer Emma Gometz interviews Rachel about why it’s important to be honest about setbacks as a scientist, and how transparency helps all professional scientists do better work.
Read more personal stories from scientists, including Rachel’s experience working as a paleoclimatologist across the world, and building mentorship networks of her own, on SciFri’s six-week automated email newsletter, “Sincerely, Science.”
To learn more about Sincerely Science and read Rachel's paper, visit sciencefriday.com.
May 26, 2023
This Thursday, the Supreme Court restricted the scope of the Clean Water Act pertaining to wetlands, in a 5-4 vote. This could affect the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to protect certain kinds of wetlands, which help reduce the impacts of flooding by absorbing water, and also act as natural filters that make drinking water cleaner. Justice Brett Kavanaugh joined the court’s three liberal members in the dissent, writing that the decision will have, “significant repercussions for water quality and flood control throughout the United States.”
Plus, earlier this month, three orcas attacked a boat, leading to its sinking. This is the third time an incident like this has happened in the past three years, accompanied by a large rise of orcas attacking boats near the Strait of Gibraltar. Scientists are unsure of the cause. One theory is that these attacks could be a fad, led by juvenile orcas in the area, a documented behavior in this subpopulation of the dolphin family. They could also be a response to a potential bad encounter between boats and orcas in the area.
Science Friday’s Charles Bergquist talks with Sophie Bushwick, technology editor for Scientific American, about these and other stories from this week in science news, including a preview of a hot El Niño summer, an amateur astronomer who discovered a new supernova, and alleviating waste problems by using recycled diapers in concrete.
Do you remember the story of Balto? In 1925, the town of Nome, Alaska, was facing a diphtheria outbreak. Balto was a sled dog and a very good boy who helped deliver life-saving medicine to the people in the town. Balto’s twisty tale has been told many times, including in a 1990s animated movie in which Kevin Bacon voiced the iconic dog.
But last month, scientists uncovered a new side of Balto. They sequenced his genes and discovered the sled dog wasn’t exactly who they expected. The study published in the journal Science, was part of a project called Zoonomia, which aims to better understand the evolution of mammals, including our own genome, by looking at the genes of other animals—from narwhals to aardvarks.
Guest host Flora Lichtman talks with Dr. Elinor Karlsson, associate professor in Bioinformatics and Integrative Biology at the UMass Chan Medical School and director of Vertebrate Genomics at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard; Dr. Katie Moon, post-doctoral researcher who led Balto’s study; and Dr. Beth Shapiro, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz, who coauthored the new study on Balto and another paper which identified animals that are most likely to face extinction.
Telomeres are repeating short sequences of genetic code (in humans, TTAGGG) located on the ends of chromosomes. They act as a buffer during the cell replication process. Loops at the end of the telomere prevent chromosomes from getting inadvertently stuck together by DNA repair enzymes. Over the lifetime of the cell, the telomeres become shorter and shorter with each cell division. When they become too short, the cell dies. Telomere sequences weren’t thought to do much else—sort of like the plastic tip at the end of a shoelace.
Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers now argue that telomeres may actually encode for two short proteins. Normally, those proteins aren’t released into the cell. However, if the telomere is damaged—or as it gets shorter during repeated cell replication cycles—those signaling proteins may be able to leak out into the cell and affect other processes, perhaps altering nucleic acid metabolism and protein synthesis, or triggering cellular inflammation.
Jack Griffith, one of the authors of the report and the Kenan Distinguished Professor of microbiology and immunology at the UNC School of Medicine, joins SciFri’s Charles Bergquist to talk about the idea and what other secrets may lie inside the telomere.
Robert Pendarvis gave his heart to Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum. Literally.
He has a rare condition called acromegaly, where his body makes too much growth hormone, which causes bones, cartilage and organs to keep growing. The condition affected his heart, so much so that a heart valve leaked. He had a heart transplant in 2020.
Pendarvis thought his original heart could tell an important story, and teach others about this rare condition, which is why he was determined to put it on display at the Mütter Museum.
The Mütter Museum is a Philadelphia institution, a medical museum that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to its rooms filled with anatomical specimens, models, and old medical instruments. The place is not for the squeamish. Display cases show skulls, abnormal skeletons, and a jar containing the bodies of stillborn conjoined twins.
Pendarvis thought it would be the perfect home for his heart — and more.
To read the rest, visit sciencefriday.com
Every so often, there’s a claim that the ivory-billed woodpecker is back from the dead. Pixelated videos go viral, blurry photos make the front page, and birders flock to the woods to get a glimpse of the ghost bird.
Last week, a controversial paper claimed there’s reason to believe that the lost bird lives. The authors say they have evidence, including video footage, that the bird still flies. The paper is ruffling feathers among the birding and research community.
This debate has been going on for decades, but the American Birding Association categorizes the bird as “probably or actually extinct,” and its last verified sighting was in 1944.
So is it any different this time? And what do we make of the claims that keep cropping up?
Guest host Flora Lichtman talks all things ivory-billed with Michael Retter, editor of the magazines North American Birds and Special Issues of Birding, from the American Birding Association.
When you stub your toe, that pain is registered by the peripheral nervous system. It shoots off signals that travel up your spinal cord and to your brain, where the signals tell you, “Hey, your toe hurts. Take care of it.” But chronic pain—defined as lasting three months or more—is processed differently, and your nerves are constantly firing pain signals to your brain.
Chronic pain is complex, and a lot of its basics are still unknown. But a new study from this week discovered another piece of the pain puzzle: the brain signals that cause chronic pain and the region they are processed in. Researchers hope that this is the first step in developing a brain stimulation therapy that can intercept those chronic pain signals and bring relief to patients.
Guest host and SciFri director Charles Bergquist talks with lead author Dr. Prasad Shirvalkar, neurologist and associate professor at the University of California San Francisco, about this new paper.
There are a select few humans that can’t feel any pain. Really.
One of those people is Jo Cameron, who didn’t experience any pain during childbirth or need any painkillers after a hip replacement. She’s also never been anxious or afraid.
Researchers have been studying Jo Cameron and her brain in an effort to better understand her sensory experience. This week, researchers published a new study that looks at the genes and mutations responsible for Jo’s pain free existence. They hope to use what they learn to come up with better pain management treatments for the rest of us.
Guest host and Science Friday Senior Producer Charles Berquist talks with Andrei Okorokov, associate professor at the Wolfson Institute for Biomedical Research at the University of College London, about this fascinating new research.
When astronomers Michelle Thaller and Andrew Booth met, it was love at first sight. The couple married in 1994, becoming a power couple in the world of space and physics research. In 2019, the couple received shocking news: Booth was diagnosed with cancer in the brain. He passed away within a year of his diagnosis.
The death of a partner is one of the most devastating things a person can go through. Thaller felt unmoored, and like Earth was not her planet anymore. To help her move forward, Thaller turned to the universe for solace.
Thaller speaks with guest host Flora Lichtman about how the mysteries of the universe have made processing grief a little easier, and taking space and time with a grain of salt.
May 19, 2023
With some poisons, there’s an antidote — something you can take to block the effects of the poison, or to help remove it from your body. But when the harmful chemical is a radioactive element, options are limited. Iodine pills can be used to help block radioactive iodine I131 from being absorbed by the thyroid, but there aren’t many other drugs that can help deal with contamination with other radioactive substances. One of the two existing medications can only be delivered via IV in a clinic.
This week, the NIH announced the start of an early clinical trial for an oral drug delivered as a tablet that could potentially be used to bind and remove radioactive elements including plutonium, uranium and neptunium from the body. Rachel Feltman, editor at large at Popular Science, joins Ira to talk about that trial and other stories from the week in science, including an experimental universal flu vaccine, research into the amount of trace DNA humans shed every day, and an update on the planet Saturn’s moon count.
Weight loss is big business. Americans spend roughly $60 billion each year trying to lose weight, forking over cash for supplements, diet plans, and gym memberships. Yet somewhere between 90 to 95% of diets fail.
Much of what we think we know about the relationship between weight and health is based on a series of assumptions that don’t always match up with the latest science.
Science Friday producer, Shoshannah Buxbaum talks with Aubrey Gordon, co-host of the podcast Maintenance Phase and author of the recent book “You Just Need To Lose Weight” and 19 Other Myths About Fat People, about the history of the Body Mass Index or BMI. She discusses why the word “obesity” is tangled up in stereotypes about fat people, the flaws in commonly cited mortality statistics, and how anti-fat bias translates into worse healthcare for fat people.
Read an excerpt of “You Just Need To Lose Weight” and 19 Other Myths About Fat People here.
Laura Young was at a breaking point when she submitted a post titled “Request: Make 500-1,000 crows leave my street alone” to the subreddit r/lifeprotips in January. “I think you can tell that I was feeling very frustrated and running out of options and I clearly needed help,” she said.
Starting last October, Laura’s neighborhood in Baltimore was the site of a massive crow roost. And unlike past years’ roosts, which usually only last a few weeks with a few dozen crows, this one showed no signs of leaving. “The numbers that they’ve attracted ever since then are unbelievable,” she said. “I mean, we’re at the point where it is frightening to walk out at night.”
According to Laura, hundreds of them filled the trees in the park outside her apartment. “And they’re all screaming,” she said. “It is loud enough to wake you up indoors with all the windows closed. I don’t think anyone on my block has slept past 6:00am in three months.”
There was the noise, and then there was the poop: coating the streets, the buildings, and the cars. “It is just disgusting. I’ve never spent so much money on car washes in my entire life,” she laughed.
To read the rest, visit sciencefriday.com.
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