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I gotta do my homework!

americangut

It’s the sixth and final week of my online microbiology course – finals due Sunday – and I ain’t done nuffink. It would be just like me to fail at the last hurdle, so I best get a move on.

This last material should be pretty easy, though — it’s all about the American Gut Project, a combination of crowd-funding and citizen science. Basically, you give them money, you give them a (ahem) sample, you get a detailed report of their findings, your data gets added to the giant rolling pool of gut data.

Four years, over 10K guts analyzed, $1.5M raised.

I suppose the cynical take is that you get played for a mug coming and going, but I love this idea and projects like it, I do. It’s like the people who told me “ZOMG 23-and-me is selling your genetic data to big pharma!” and I’m like “Whoa! That. Is. AWESOME!

Anyway, their website is above. Their Fundrazr is here. Yes, there’s a British version. No, I haven’t signed up yet. No, you don’t have to touch the poop (you get a perfectly good swab sample from toilet paper). Yes, you can have your cat’s gut analyzed (good luck getting him to use toilet paper).

The idea is probably a lot more exciting after six weeks of studying gut microbes, but I’m pretty jazzed. I’m saving my pennies.

Good weekend, y’all!

addendum: I’m adding this to the main post so you don’t miss it. First, if you haven’t played with today’s Google Doodle, do. (hee hee! Googledoodledo!). I never heard of Oskar Fischinger before, but that music thingie is fun to play with. No direct link, alas, so it probably will be gone after today. ALSO, starting Monday at 11 PT, they’re doing the longest ever MST3K marathon on Twitch. Yes, classic episodes. Thirty eight of ’em. (Has anyone seen the new one? Is it as rubbish as it looks?).

June 23, 2017 — 7:11 pm
Comments: 23

More guts.

mama

In the thread below, Feymangroupie asks “Wait, if everyone has pretty much the same baseline gut bacteria…” I’m’a stop you right there, FMG. Because everyone doesn’t have the same baseline gut bacteria, apparently, AT ALL. According to the intro video to this course, you likely only share 10% of your gut microbiome with the person sitting next to you. I have to assume “sitting next to you” includes people who live with you and share a large part of your diet.

It’s not just antibiotics that mess with your get critters, it’s everything you put in your mouth – every aspirin and ice cream and habanero pepper. But also, I assume, your own genetics, the microbes in your environment, the ambient temperature. I think. I guess. I’m only at Week 2.

The diagram above is from a very interesting video about childbirth. Turns out, there’s a good reason for those hours of labor: once the amniotic sac breaks, contractions swish babies around in mama’s vaginal biome until they get a proper dose. In European women, this includes a heaping helping of Lactobacillus which, among other things, helps baby digest milk.

Babies born by C-section don’t get this; their initial gut microbes appear to be derived (unhelpfully) from mama’s skin. They think (it’s still early days) that may account for some of the health problems C-section babies have for the first few years. They’re doing a huge study of this in Puerto Rico, where cesarean births outnumber natural births “for cultural reasons” (they didn’t go into it, but we can imagine what those are).

Uncle B sent me this timely link from the Daily Mail: a common diabetes drug apparently works not by affecting you, but by affecting your gut microbes.

He also sent me this link to OH MY GOD ADORABLE ERMINE IN A LOG!!!

And no. Nobody had Roger Moore in the DeadPool. He was 89?? Really???

May 23, 2017 — 8:44 pm
Comments: 18

Oh. That explains it.

ecoli

Have you ever wondered why gut bacteria is such a hot topic at the moment? I know I have!

Wellll…in olden times, you studied bacteria by making a culture. You’d sterilize a needle, drag it across a toilet seat, wobble it across a petri dish full of nutrient agar or some shit, and a week later you’d have — several streaks of fuzz!

Then you could take a sample of that fuzz, put it under a pretty high-powered microscope, and you’d see — something that looked like a corkscrew, something that looked like a hotdog or something that looked like a basketball. Because that’s it; that’s all the different shapes that microbes come in.

And that’s about all you could do. You could try feeding some to a mouse, but that’s not very sporting.

A majority of important microbes — particularly gut microbes — won’t grow in a culture at all. We’ve been studying the ones that will. Turns out, e.coli isn’t a very numerous or important gut bacterium at all, it just LOVES to grow in a petri dish. Huh.

Easy DNA analysis is what changed all that. They can grind up poop samples and get a pretty good idea of what your intestinal rainforest consists of. Even better, they can look at the genes and tell what some of them do.

They can even culture more of the buggers, now that they can isolate strands and work out what they live on. Turns out, gut bacteria are madly picky eaters — which is why certain meals affect your guts fast and hard.

Week Two of my microbiome studies continues apace.

May 22, 2017 — 9:47 pm
Comments: 15

There are two kinds of websites in this world

uranus

There are sites that will describe this as “Aurora Caught by Hubble Space Telescope” and there are sites that will say “Something Weird is Spotted Coming Out of Uranus.”

This blog, for example, would never be caught making cheap double entendres about Uranus. This blog is alllllll about the dick jokes.

It is an aurora, like the ones we get (Jupiter and Saturn, too) and the brightest we’ve ever seen on Uranus, apparently. Uranus is hard to study because it’s a completely featureless frozen blue gas ball.

They used an ultraviolet doohickey built into Hubble to find this aurora — and interestingly proved that it moves with the rotation of the planet. They also managed to rediscovered the magnetic poles which have been missing pretty much ever since Voyager found them because, again, featureless blue gas ball.

Also, note rings.

Oh, hey, did you see the moon last night? Holy cow, was it huge! The news said it was going to be pink, but it was gold here. On the horizon, anyhow.

April 12, 2017 — 8:16 pm
Comments: 19

We will not forget you, Space Bat

spacebat

Eight years ago today, at a launch of the space shuttle Discovery, a little brown bat flew onto the shuttle’s fuel tank during countdown and hung on for all he was worth. Experts who analyzed the footage afterwards (bat experts, natch) think he had a broken wing and dislocated shoulder or wrist.

Wrist. On a bat. Flying mammals are confusing.

They thought surely he would drop off, but he didn’t. Periodically, he shifted position, but hung on for as long as the shuttle was in sight. He died quickly in the cold and airless upper atmosphere. Or incinerated. Probably. But what a sendoff!

Space Bat, you will live forever in our hearts.

March 15, 2017 — 9:48 pm
Comments: 14

Brit found dead at Spanish airport had ‘slice of ham on each buttock and his genitals in tuna can’

leeuwenhoek

Yes, it’s a real headline. No, I have no idea. Nobody has.

Now that I have your attention, I’d like to talk about something else. Today’s Google doodle celebrates the 384th birthday of Anton von Leeuwenhoek. Unlike most Google doodles that promote obscure scientists I never heard of, von Leeuwenhoek is an obscure scientist who is a great hero of mine.

Because microscopes. Von Leeuwenhoek was the first great miscroscopist and one of the greatest ever amateur scientists (I used to be big time into microscopy. And amateurishness). He was a Dutchman who owned a draper’s shop and later worked a series of civil service jobs. Microscopes were a hobby.

But he made fantastic microscopes that no-one of his era could match. Hundreds of them using a process he refused to divulge. Everyone else was grinding and polishing bits of glass for hours and assumed he did, too. In fact (I’ve forgotten where I read this, I’ve read so much about him over the years) he dripped molten glass into water, which formed optically perfect spheres with no mechanical finishing at all. Genius.

He was the first human being to see lots of neat things: protozoa. Bacteria. Tooth plaque. Sperm. Yeah, he got those last two samples exactly the way you think he did.

In 1926, a man named Paul de Kruif (an American of Dutch ancestry) wrote a book called the Microbe Hunters that has never since gone out of print. It takes microbiology from von Leeuwenhoek to Paul Ehrlich. It was a breathlessly enthusiastic not at all nuanced ‘Hooray for Science!’ book of the kind that inspired thousands of young scientists, and that educators can’t abide these days.

I loved it. Buy it for a kid.

Shame about that poor bastard in the Spanish airport, though, huh?

sock it to me

October 24, 2016 — 7:02 pm
Comments: 19

Happy Equinox! It just gets darker and colder from here!

equinox

There. I’m out of my nightly lavender-and-eucalyptus soak and feeling somewhat less like The Dearly Departed.

Classic FM played three interesting songs while I was in the bath. In 1875, a St Petersburg music magazine commissioned Tchaikovsky to write twelve little piano pieces, one for each month of the year, then published one each month to their readership.

That’s right. Tchaikovsky was once a magazine giveaway, like spoons or model train bits or Franklin Collectibles.

Nothing new under the sun. Except the part about Tchaikovsky.

sock it to me

September 22, 2016 — 9:43 pm
Comments: 5

Okay, hear me out…

circle

Tonight we went to a talk on crop circles. I wasn’t all that hot to go — not really my thing — but we promised friends.

Hoo boy, was it interesting. I wasn’t convinced by any particular theory (he wasn’t pushing any particular theory). He showed us dozens of photographs (out of, apparently, ten thousand known circles) and several things are factually indisputable:

■ There are still hundreds of them appearing every year, mostly across Europe.

■ The most complex ones are made stunningly fast, sometimes right by a busy road, without anyone being spotted nearby.

■ And holy shit have they gotten elaborate! Seriously, look at this Google Image search.

Some are definitely man-made, but the ones that people have taken credit for making are, in a word, pretty lame. They take a long time to make, are pretty simple and look kind of wonky. None of the perfect circles and long, straight lines.

Nobody has stepped forward to claim any of the really amazing ones, and nobody who makes them can figure out how the amazing ones were done. They are HUGE and complex and precise and amazing. The one in the picture at the top has a sort of wheaten basket weave, for example.

Now, when you get to the one that show a giant dot-matrix portrait of a typical X-Files gray holding a disk with legible digital message in ASCII English, you feel sure somebody’s pulling your leg. But that’s just it — how the fuck are they doing it?

sock it to me

May 12, 2016 — 10:09 pm
Comments: 22

Weasels versus Science!

science

I hope you read that in a 1950’s B-movie narrator voice, kthx. Weasels won, obviously.

A small animal has brought down the Large Hadron Collider; the perp has been positively identified as a weasel. I’m not sure how. Burnt weasel, probably.

CERN shut the big beast down due to “technical issues in the last 24 hours, including a power cut (likely due to the passage of a small wild animal on a 66 kV/18kV electrical transformer.)”

“Passage” I assume in the sense of “passed away.” Pining for the fjords. Joining the choir eternal. An ex-weasel.

Still good going. Particularly when you remember what they call weasels over here are what you call least weasels over there. The itty-bitty dudes. (Link sent to me by multiple people — interestingly, from a different newspaper source each time — and I enjoyed it more each and every time).

Now, my imaginary internet friends, I have given you short shrift this week, on account of I am taking next week off and I brought a metric crap-ton of work home to prepare. The old hands among you will recall that I have a birfday in early May. I shall post sweet nothings for the week, I think.

Have a good Weasel’s birthday week, everyone!


sock it to me

April 29, 2016 — 8:07 pm
Comments: 14

Words.

weaselbrain

Okay, so scientists took seven people and hooked them up to a brainal probe while they listened to a radio program (The Moth, in case you’re wondering). Then they mapped the “50,000 to 80,000 pea-sized spots all over the cerebral cortex” that lit up for each word the subjects heard.

I had no idea words were processed all over the brain…did you? Surely, speech itself is more localized, or people who’ve suffered a stroke would lose vocabulary words, not speech generally.

Secondly, the words mapped to similar locations for all seven people. On the top right side of the brain live all the words for family members. On the left, just over the ear, are words for crime and justice. Words with multiple meanings light up multiple places.

There’s an interactive map, but I couldn’t get it to work. I’ve got a lot of applications open, the website made my hard disk graunch and chunder to little effect, so I think it’s an intensive app.

Now, it was just seven people, they were all English speakers of a certain level of accomplishment, and this is the first study of its kind, so…all very preliminary. But very interesting, nonetheless.

I’ll tell you this right now: the part of my brain that processes names is as smooth as a baby’s butt.

Thanks to commenter Can’t Hark My Cry for the link.


sock it to me

April 28, 2016 — 9:26 pm
Comments: 12