Epstein-Barr Virus and MS, Agrivoltaics, Ag School Influence, Social Cues From Saliva. Jan 21, 2022, Part 1
January 21, 2022
Scientists Are Working On A Universal COVID Vaccine
As the Omicron wave of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spike around the U.S., there are scientists working not on variant-specific boosters, but on a vaccine that might cover every possible strain, past and future.
Called universal vaccines, they require a fundamentally different approach from a shot that would target Delta, Omicron, or any other variant. Instead, a universal vaccine would need to train the body to respond to something every variant has in common—or to fill in the blanks of any possible mutations.
Vox senior science reporter Umair Irfan reports on the difficult path and ongoing work toward such a vaccine, and why the immune system’s T cells and B cells, more than neutralizing antibodies, will dictate our long-term future with the virus.
Plus how an undersea eruption near Tonga was one of the most documented volcanic explosions in history, new research assesses the vast toll of global antibiotic resistance, and more stories from the week.
New Research Links Epstein-Barr Virus to Multiple Sclerosis
A group of scientists at Harvard University says they have made a major breakthrough in understanding multiple sclerosis. For years, they have been testing out a hypothesis that the Epstein-Barr virus causes multiple sclerosis, a chronic and incurable disease of the nervous system. (Epstein-Barr is the contagious virus responsible for mononucleosis.)
Researchers analyzed a dataset of 10 million active-duty military members. They found that service members who contracted the Epstein-Barr virus were 32 times more likely to later be diagnosed with MS. The research was published in the journal Science.
Ira is joined by Dr. Alberto Ascherio, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in Boston, Massachusetts, to discuss his team’s research and its broader implications.
Saliva Sharing Might Help Kids Identify Their Closest Relationships
How do little kids understand who has a close relationship with them? One of the clues they use to figure it out is by noticing who they’re swapping saliva with. The closest bonds are with the people who are giving them kisses, sharing their forks, and wiping their drool. Those are the findings of a recent study published in the journal Science.
Ira is joined by Ashley Thomas, the study’s lead author and a post doctoral fellow in the brain and cognitive sciences department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Big Agriculture Schools Face Increasing Donor Conflicts Of Interest
A major donor to the University of Illinois wondered what the heck was up. Robb Fraley, a top Monsanto executive at the time, emailed the dean of the agriculture college in 2018 complaining about a professor saying publicly that one of his company’s flagship products was causing widespread damage to crops. Monsanto was also a major donor. Fraley accused the professor of being “biased” and “prone to exaggeration.”
U of I officials had spent years courting Fraley, and they had listened to him before when he’d complained about a lack of progress on an endowed chair he’d funded. But the 2018 episode highlights potentially thorny situations for public universities, which have cultivated powerful agricultural corporations as donors while public funding has stagnated. Dicamba posed a particularly critical issue to Fraley. After all, he was as responsible as anyone for leading modern agriculture into using lab-designed seeds that could withstand spraying from weedkillers. That Monsanto-branded Roundup Ready pairing of biotechnology with glyphosate herbicide revolutionized grain farming around the world.
When glyphosate lost its punch — after weeds grew resistant to Roundup — Monsanto shifted to teaming different genetically modified seeds with the dicamba herbicide. But farmers who’d not adopted the new genetically engineered seeds started complaining about “dicamba drift” and of seeing their crops perish from the effects of the herbicide migrating to their fields. So when U of I weed scientist Aaron Hager spoke about a controversy as big as any in commercial agriculture in ways that didn’t sit well with Fraley, the university benefactor let the school know about his displeasure.
Growing Plants—And Providing Solar Energy
Food is one of our most basic needs. As the population of the world grows, we’re going to need to grow more of it within the same amount of space. The United Nations estimates the world’s population will grow by 2 billion people between now and 2050.
Access to fresh food is already a problem in many countries, and will likely get worse with more mouths to feed. This is where the concept of agrivoltaics could create a massive change. This farming setup mixes water, energy, and plant growth all in one space. Solar panels collect energy from the sun’s rays; underneath those panels is where the plants grow. The setup takes less water than the traditional way of farming, all-in-all creating a more sustainable way to grow food and create energy.
Joining Ira to talk about the promise of agrivoltaics is Dr. Chad Higgins, associate professor of biological and ecological engineering at Oregon State University, in Corvallis, Oregon.
January 21, 2022
Identifying Animals Through Airborne DNA
In recent years, the technique of eDNA—environmental DNA, or samples taken from the environment, as opposed to from a specific animal—has changed ecology research. Scientists have learned how to obtain eDNA from water samples, soil, and even the intestinal tract of other animals. Writing recently in the journal Current Biology, two different groups report that air samples collected with filters in a zoo can provide enough DNA to paint a partial picture of the species living in and around the zoo.
After taking over 72 samples from 20 sites around a zoo in the UK, Dr. Elizabeth Clare and colleagues brought their trove back to the lab, and were able to identify 25 different species living in and around the zoo. Some were expected zoo inhabitants, and others were surprises—including DNA from a species of endangered European hedgehog. At the same time, a separate group of researchers performed a similar analysis on a Danish zoo, and achieved similar results.
Dr. Clare joins Ira Flatow to talk about the research, and what the technique of eDNA might be able to bring to the world of conservation ecology.
These Beetles Go Boing
There are plenty of insect species that jump—leafhoppers, crickets, fleas, and more. Some use powerful legs to take to the air. Others, like the click beetle, rely on a latching mechanism built into their bodies to build up energy, then release it suddenly. But writing in the journal PLOS One this week, researchers report that they’ve spotted a species of lined flat bark beetle (Laemophloeus biguttatus) that uses a different method to jump—the beetle larvae dig into a surface with tiny claws, flex, and build up energy, before releasing it and flinging itself into the air in a tiny ring.
“It was really exciting to know that we had seen something possibly for the first time and definitely reported for the first time,” said Matt Bertone, an entomologist at NC State University and one of the authors of the report. The jumps themselves aren’t very impressive—only a few body lengths—but the discovery of a new mechanism that doesn’t rely on a specialized body part is intriguing. The authors aren’t quite sure why the larvae, which live under tree bark, have evolved the jumping behavior, but hypothesize that it may be to rapidly move when their bark habitat is disturbed.
Bertone joins Ira to talk about the unique form of locomotion, and where the researchers might look next for the behavior.
This is Your Brain on Wordle
Five letters, six tries to guess a word. That’s the simple conceit behind Wordle, the new puzzle game that’s sweeping the internet. More than 2.5 million people play this word game, its creator told NPR. The word changes each day and is the same for everyone who plays. Each letter guessed right brings the player one step closer to solving the puzzle. It’s free and simple, and according to many players, completely addictive.
But why is such a simple game so compelling? And how does it compare to viral games of the past, like Pokemon Go or Words with Friends?
Ira is joined by Dr. Matthew Baldwin, assistant professor in social psychology at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida, to unlock the reasons why Wordle both satisfies the brain and brings us closer to our peers.
Pigeons Are More Than Pests
Pigeons lead much-maligned lives in our cities. They eat what’s edible from our trash, and live much of their lives at street level. So it’s no surprise, perhaps, that the name ‘rats with wings’ has reached the level of a cultural meme.
But author Rosemary Mosco wants you to think again. Instead of seeing vermin, you might consider the pigeon much like a stray dog or cat. In her recent book, A Pocket Guide to Pigeon-Watching, Mosco details the history of pigeon domestication—as much as it can be known—including millennia of humans raising pigeons to eat, as well as cherishing them for their nutrient-rich poop. More recently, people painstakingly bred fancy varieties like the frillback and the fantail. And yes, your local city pigeon is descended from those beloved birds.
Producer Christie Taylor talks to Mosco about the underappreciated history of pigeons. Plus, fun facts about their feral, city-dwelling kin, from the self-congratulatory wing-claps to the secret lives of baby pigeons.
January 14, 2022
A Debate Over How The Universe Began
Even though it’s commonly accepted today, the Big Bang theory was not always the universally accepted scientific explanation for how our universe began. In fact, the term ‘Big Bang’ was coined by a prominent physicist in 1948 to mock the idea.
In the middle of the 20th century, researchers in the field of cosmology had two warring theories. The one we would come to call the Big Bang suggested the universe expanded rapidly from a primordial, hot, and ultra-dense cosmos. Conversely, the so-called ‘Steady State’ theory held that the universe, at any given point in time, looked roughly the same.
The story of how the Big Bang became the accepted theory of physics is also a story of two men. One, Fred Hoyle, was a steady state supporter who thought the universe would last forever. Meanwhile, George Gamow, the major public advocate of the Big Bang, begged to differ. They debated in the pages of Scientific American and in competing popular books, as both dedicated scientists and earnest popularizers of their field.
And while Gamow ended up winning the debate, for the most part, the two men managed to come together in one way: They accidentally explained the origins of every element of matter by being part right, and part wrong. The truth, it turned out, would lie in the middle.
Ira talks to physicist and science historian Paul Halpern about this story, detailed in his book, Flashes of Creation: George Gamow, Fred Hoyle, and the Great Big Bang Debate.
The World According To Sound: Listening To Black Holes Collide
In this piece, you can actually listen to gravitational waves, the ripples in spacetime made by the tremendous mass of colliding black holes. It is possible to hear them, because their wavelengths have been shifted all the way into the human range of hearing by MIT professor Scott Hughes.
Drawn together by their immense gravity, nearby black holes will swirl faster and faster until they are finally absorbed completely into one another. When the pitch rises, it means the force of gravity is increasing as the black holes collide.
Not all black holes come together at the same rate or release the same amount of gravitational waves, so each combining pair has its own particular sonic signature. Some black holes collide quickly. Others slowly merge. Some produce relatively high pitches, because of the intensity of the gravitational waves, while others have a low bass rumbling. Some even make the sound of a wobbling top as the two black holes swirl around each other, before eventually meeting and becoming totally absorbed into one another.
Is There A Method To Plant Mutation?
Mutation is one of the cornerstones of evolutionary biology. When an organism’s DNA mutates thanks to damage or copying error, that organism passes the mutation on to its offspring. Those offspring then become either more or less equipped to survive and reproduce. And at least until recently, researchers have assumed that those mutations were random—equally likely to happen along any particular snippet of a piece of DNA.
Now, scientists are questioning whether that’s actually true—or if mutation is more likely to occur in some parts of the genome than others. New research published in the journal Nature this week looks at just that question, in a common weed called Arabidopsis thaliana. After following 24 generations of plants for several years and then sequencing the offspring, the team found that some genes are far less likely to mutate than others. And those genes are some of the most essential to the function of DNA itself, where a mutation could be fatal. Conversely, the genes most likely to mutate were those associated with the plant’s ability to respond to its environment—potentially a handy trick for a highly adaptable weed.
Lead author Grey Monroe talks to Ira about his group’s findings, why this skew in mutation likelihood may benefit plants like Arabidopsis, and why it may be time to think differently about evolution.
January 14, 2022
A Replacement Heart, From A Pig
This week, doctors reported that they had successfully transplanted a heart taken from a pig into a human being, a type of procedure known as xenotransplantation. The pig had been genetically modified to lack a certain protein thought to be responsible for organ rejection in previous transplant attempts.
The patient, a 57 year-old man, will be monitored for any sign of rejection or infection with a porcine virus—but doctors are hopeful that the work will lead to further transplants and a new source of replacement organs for people.
Science journalist Roxxane Kamsi joins Ira to talk about that and other stories from the week in science, including research into how antivirals work in people infected with HIV, the role of clothes dryers on microplastics pollution, a push to make the U.S. electric grid greener, and more.
Omicron Sparks Surge In Pediatric Hospitalizations
Omicron’s rapid spread has many parents and caregivers of young children on edge. The most recent CDC data shows 5.3 cases per 100,000 children under four are hospitalized with COVID-19 in the United States, the highest number since the pandemic started. And kids under five still aren’t eligible to be vaccinated.
When word went out that we were going to answer questions about COVID and kids, we were flooded with questions from our listeners.
To help answer some of those questions, and better understand how to keep our kids safe, Ira spoke with Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, pediatrician, and professor of global health and infectious diseases at Stanford University, and Dr. Rick Malley, infectious diseases specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital and professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.
Ivermectin’s False Reputation Exemplifies How Misinformation Spread
Not a single scientific or health authority in the U.S. recommends the use of the anti-parasitic drug ivermectin to treat or prevent COVID-19. Still, some Americans see the unproven drug as a way out of the pandemic.
Ivermectin is mostly used in large animals and is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for treating human conditions, including head lice and stomach worms. But across the country, demand for the drug has surged in recent months — leading to a spike in hospitalizations for human exposures to ivermectin.
The drug is among the latest politically divisive public health issues unfolding across the country. The situation has fast-tracked conversations about the risks and benefits of publicizing research findings that have not yet been vetted by the scientific community. That’s because much of the misinformation on ivermectin draws on insufficient data — some coming from low-quality studies, including ones that were retracted after further examination revealed problems and even potential fraud.
A Massive New Find Of Icefish Found Near Antarctic
The frigid waters near Antarctica are home to an unusual family of fishes collectively known as the icefish. They have translucent blood, white hearts, and have adapted to live without red blood cells or hemoglobin, relying instead on copper compounds that function better at low temperatures. Now, researchers mapping the floor of the Weddell Sea report in the journal Current Biology that they have spotted a massive colony of the unusual sea creatures—containing over 60 million icefish nests.
“A few dozen nests have been observed elsewhere in the Antarctic, but this find is orders of magnitude larger,” said Autun Purser, of the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, Germany. Purser and his colleagues were mapping the seafloor of the Filchner ice shelf region, in an area of thermal upwelling, where there are slightly warmer temperatures. They found masses of icefish nests clumped close together as far as the eye can see, somewhat like a land-based colony of nesting penguins.
Purser joins Ira to talk about the discovery, and what’s known about the ultra-cold ecosystems of Antarctic seas.
January 7, 2022
Omicron Variant Drives Winter COVID Surge
The United States set a global record this week, recording roughly one million new coronavirus tests in a single day. The current surge in cases is mostly driven by Omicron. The highly contagious variant accounted for about 95% of new cases last week.
And, to top it all off, tests are in short supply, the CDC changed its quarantine guidelines, and some schools have returned to remote learning.
Virologist Angela Rasmussen joins Ira to help make sense of the latest deluge of Omicron news. Rasmussen is a research scientist at VIDO-InterVac, the University of Saskatchewan’s vaccine research institute in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
Is Omicron A Less Severe Variant Of COVID-19?
Over the past few weeks, a common refrain has popped up in reports about the Omicron variant of COVID-19: The variant seems to be “less severe” than earlier forms of the virus. But as hospitals fill up with coronavirus patients and infections skyrocket, there’s some context needed to understand what the full impact of a less-severe variant might be.
An important recent discovery sheds light on the severity of the variant, finding that at least in hamsters, Omicron spares the lungs in a way earlier variants have not. This infection appears to be predominantly in the upper respiratory system, largely in the mouth, throat, and windpipe. But even though a fewer percentage of cases may experience severe disease than with earlier variants, the sheer volume may still threaten hospital capacities.
Joining Ira to talk about the severity of the Omicron variant in the body is Dr. Michael Diamond, virologist, and immunologist at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Also joining the conversation to talk about Omicron’s toll on the healthcare system is Dr. Saskia Popescu, infectious disease epidemiologist and infection prevention expert at the University of Arizona College of Public Health in Phoenix, Arizona.
How Christmas Bird Counts Help Shape Science
This winter marks the 122nd annual Christmas Bird Count, a project of the National Audubon Society, which is self-described as the longest-running community science project in the country. What started as a few dozen volunteers in 1900 has grown to tens of thousands of birders, spreading out in 15-mile circles across the country to count every bird insight on one midwinter day. From this record, scientists can draw insights about everything from the abundance of species to how species’ ranges are shifting from year-to-year and decade-to-decade.
Ira talks to Audubon’s bird count director Geoff LeBaron, and director of quantitative science Nicole Michel about the value of the annual community science project and some of their more joyful winter sightings. Plus, how the data provide clues to which birds are most likely to adapt as human habitat disruption and climate change continue.