Caffeine and Miscarriage Risk

I love my caffeine. So much so that I got a tattoo of the molecule on my arm. That said, people need to be aware of the potential risks.

A new study conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) suggests couples who consume more than two caffeinated beverages daily in the weeks leading up to conception may have an increased risk of miscarriage. The research, conducted with authors at the Ohio State University, similarly found women who drank more than two daily caffeinated beverages during the first seven weeks of pregnancy saw an increased miscarriage risk. Previous studies have drawn similar links, but researchers hadn’t been able to single out caffeine as a particular culprit.

So while the benefit of caffeine is really great, it’s not all fun and games. Exercise caution – moderate your intake, and consider doing without during the pregnancy.

Puppy Poop for Goodness!

Seems science has a lot going on in the world of poop right now. The latest news is a bit on curing puppy diarrhea with fecal transplants. Veterinarians looking to prevent diarrhea in kennel puppies may have a new option:

A veterinarian in Palmetto, Florida this week revealed a technique that uses poop transfers to successfully treat service puppies in-training that suffer from recurrent diarrhea, a common problem for dogs kept in kennels. The method reportedly cured 87 percent of dogs in the first round and 93 percent of those needing a second treatment.

That’s some pretty good numbers for preventing potential problems for pups.

Lobsters Don’t Live Forever

So there’s a meme going around (at least, I’m seeing it on Facebook and Instagram) that suggests jellyfish and lobsters are basically immortal. lobster photoWell, Smithsonian Magazine is here to teach us that no, lobsters are not immortal.

The viral scientific tidbit can be traced back to a brief 2007 news story that reports that lobsters don’t show typical signs of a phenomenon known as senescence. In plain terms, the report says that lobsters don’t age the way other living creatures do—they don’t lower their reproductive ability, slow their metabolism or decrease in strength. This led to extrapolations that lobsters, if left undisturbed, can’t die.

So it’s a fun story to read, but it’s sadly false. And it makes me hungry.

Photo by stu_spivack

Jellyfish Poop!

Videos of pooping comb jellyfish stun evolutionary biologists:

No buts about it, the butthole is one of the finest innovations in the past 
540 million years of animal evolution. The first animals that arose seem to have literally had potty mouths: Their modern-day descendants, such as sea sponges, sea anemones, and jellyfish, all lack an anus and must eat and excrete through the same hole. Once an independent exit evolved, however, animals diversified into the majority of species alive today, ranging from earthworms
 to humans.

I don’t want to spoil the punchline, but comb jellyfish aren’t such potty mouths – this suggests that either scientists have been wrong about jellyfish digestion, or later animals lost the trait after splitting from an ancestor which had an anus. Either way, this opens up more research areas for scientists and may further define our understanding of evolution.

Prairie Dog Serial Killers

Aw, those sweet little prairie dogs. prairie dogs photoAlways a hit at the zoo. Adored by many because they are just so dang cute! Turns out there’s a wicked side to them, however, as some prairie dogs are just serial killers of squirrels in cute little packages.

The rabbit-sized herbivore’s relations with the ground squirrels that forage alongside it often explode into murderous attacks – with some prairie dogs biting squirrels to death on a regular basis.

This is thought to be the first time that one mammalian herbivore has been seen routinely killing members of another herbivore species.

As to why, well, it seems there is some benefit to the family of the serial killers over the families of non-serial killer prairie dogs. That is to say, the serial killers had more offspring than non-serial killers, and the serial killers had survival rates nearly three times their less maniacal brethren.

Photo by Gary Yankech

Women in Science – Dr. Maud L. Menten

To start my Women in Science series, I’ll present information on a scientist with whom I share a birthday – Dr. Maud L. Menten, Biochemist from Canada. Born in Port Lambton, Ontario in 1879, Dr. Menten graduated from the University of Toronto in 1913 (some sources say 1911). 330px-Michaelis_Menten_S_P_E_ES.svgLater in 1913, she was an author for the article “Die Kinetik der Invertinwirkung” which introduced the Michaelis-Menten equation, used to relate the reaction rate of an enzyme to the concentration of a substrate.

The reaction rate increases with increasing substrate concentration [S], asymptotically approaching its maximum rate V_\max, attained when all enzyme is bound to substrate. It also follows that V_\max = k_\mathrm{cat} [E]_0, where [E]_0 is the initial enzyme concentration. k_\mathrm{cat}, the turnover number, is the maximum number of substrate molecules converted to product per enzyme molecule per second.

Her contributions to science continued long after the Michaelis-Menten equation. She made additional discoveries/co-discoveries relating to hemoglobin, blood sugar, and kidney functions. Because women were not generally able to work in the medical field in Canada at the time, she ended up working mainly in the US with some time spent in Europe, as well.

Dr. Menten continues to be honored today by the Dr. Maud L. Menten Memorial Lecture Series.

The Dr. Maud L. Menten Memorial Lecture Series is held annually by the Department of Biochemistry. Two mini-symposia and at least eight lectures will be held each year. The speakers are expected to be active, high-profile scientists and are nominated by the Department of Biochemistry research community. Invitations are sent after selection of the speakers by the Dr. Maud L. Menten Memorial Lecture Series Committee.

Double Mastectomy Rates on the Rise, but Survival Rates Steady

A study covering 20 years of treatment for breast cancer in California shows a significant rise in rates of double mastectomies, but no significant change in survival rates as a result.

The researchers looked at the medical records of 189,734 California women who were diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer in one breast from 1998 to 2011.

During that time, the overall number of women who chose to have double mastectomy increased from 2% in 1998 to 12.3% in 2011. This increase was even larger in women younger than 40:

. . . (survival rates given) . . .

The small difference in survival rates between the women who had lumpectomy plus radiation and the women who had double mastectomy wasn’t statistically significant, which means it could have happened by chance and wasn’t because of the difference in treatment.

On Getting More Women in to Science

No, alas, I don’t have the magical solution to the question here – Why are there still so few women in science? physics conference photoJust sharing this New York Times article that goes into some depth on a look at this question. When you start with this:

“Last summer, researchers at Yale published a study proving that physicists, chemists and biologists are likely to view a young male scientist more favorably than a woman with the same qualifications. Presented with identical summaries of the accomplishments of two imaginary applicants, professors at six major research institutions were significantly more willing to offer the man a job.”

you know you’ve got quite a bit of ground to cover. Or at least, that’s how I viewed the article, and why I read the complete story. Written by a woman who started out studying physics, the article paints a picture of an institution that might not be putting enough effort into encouraging women, no matter how capable, to pursue their interests.

Mostly, though, I didn’t go on in physics because not a single professor — not even the adviser who supervised my senior thesis — encouraged me to go to graduate school. Certain this meant I wasn’t talented enough to succeed in physics, I left the rough draft of my senior thesis outside my adviser’s door and slunk away in shame.

Notice in the above image, there is only one woman in the picture – Marie Curie. Things have certainly improved since 1927, but we as a nation still have far fewer women contributing to the sciences than one might expect. So what is behind this? Is it just a lack of encouragement? Well, no, but that certainly plays into the problem. There’s also the issue of women leaving the workforce when they have children, but even that doesn’t make up the full problem. One additional factor is that women typically get lower salaries, fewer research dollars, less lab space, and poorer equipment.

But broader studies show that the perception of discrimination is often accompanied by a very real difference in the allotment of resources. In February 2012, the American Institute of Physics published a survey of 15,000 male and female physicists across 130 countries. In almost all cultures, the female scientists received less financing, lab space, office support and grants for equipment and travel, even after the researchers controlled for differences other than sex.

And then, let us look at the protrayal of women in science:

Although two of the scientists on the show are women, one, Bernadette, speaks in a voice so shrill it could shatter a test tube. When she was working her way toward a Ph.D. in microbiology, rather than working in a lab, as any real doctoral student would do, she waitressed with Penny. Mayim Bialik, the actress who plays Amy, a neurobiologist who becomes semiromantically involved with the childlike but brilliant physicist Sheldon, really does have a Ph.D. in neuroscience and is in no way the hideously dumpy woman she is presented as on the show.

No, there is not a solution in the article, although the story is well worth reading. And as I already noted, I don’t know the answer. But it is a fascinating question, and one that has led me to look into the issue of women in science more. Watch Little Bits of Science in the near future for articles about famous and not-so-famous female scientists and more discussion on this topic.

Photo by iharsten

Weekends on the Couch Add to Weight

In news that shouldn’t surprise anyone, scientists find that sitting around doing nothing on the weekends contributes to fat buildup in the body. What might be surprising to some is that this sedentary time is apparently worse for the body than a normal 9-5 weekday desk job.

Exercise scientists reported that even a 20-minute reduction in sedentary time on Saturdays and Sundays added up to a loss of more than 2 pounds and 1.6 percent of body fat after a year. But the same association was not seen with sedentary time during the weekdays.

So do your body a favor and spend at least some of your weekend time getting out of the house and doing something active, whether it’s a full workout at the gym, a long walk with your dog, or pretty much anything that raises your heart rate.