8 bee experts weigh in on pollinator decline & Cheerios’ bid to save them

Science Says

We’ve been hearing a lot about declining bee populations. As scientists, we’re concerned about our pollinator friends. So we interviewed 8 entomologists, bee-keepers, and other pollinator experts to cut through the buzz about bees.

The Gist

Honeybees are okay, but wild pollinators are at risk. The biggest threat is habitat loss, but climate change, insecticides, and diseases also spell trouble. Certain agricultural practices can help, and we can all do our part by planting flowers instead of keeping grassy lawns and encouraging city planners to do the same. If you got one of those wildflower packages from Cheerios, consider ditching those seeds for native ones instead.

To bee or not to bee

We asked the experts whether or not bees are in trouble. The overwhelming response: WHICH bees?

Honey bees are commercially managed by beekeepers and trucked around to pollinate crops from almonds to zucchinis. The “beepocalypse” first gained attention…

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New Video: “Are GMOs Natural?”

A while back I posted a picture on twitter of a process called the “floral dip” which is science-speak for dipping a whole dang plant in a bath of microbes to make a GMO.

Screen Shot 2017-03-30 at 7.09.03 AM

Someone asked in the comments if there was an explanation of this process anywhere. I couldn’t find one, so I decided to make a video. Two years later, here is the finished product.

In this video, which I produced as a member of the UC Davis science communication and outreach group “Science Says“, I explain what causes those big tumors we sometimes see on tree trunks or plant roots, and how scientists have borrowed techniques from this natural phenomenon to add genes to plants for agriculture and research purposes. It is meant to be an educational video that cuts through the “are GMOs good or bad” debate and simply explains how they’re made. Please watch it and share it widely!

Gluten probably won’t kill you and a gluten-free diet probably won’t either

Gluten-free diets are all the rage. I mean, if your yogurt label says ‘gluten-free’ then gluten must be bad right? But wait, what about those recent headlines claiming there’s arsenic in gluten-free foods? Is it safe to eat literally anything?

If you feel this way trying to navigate nutrition advice, you’re not alone. According to headlines practically anything can either kill you or cure you. This might leave you feeling like science is wishy washy, and maybe you should turn to your pastor or yoga instructor for nutrition advice instead. The truth is, food science is nuanced and headlines are not. In this post, we’ll guide you through the gluten gamut and share some general tips for navigating nutrition science news.

First, unless you’re one of the less than 2% of people with Celiacs disease or a wheat allergy, you probably don’t need to worry about gluten. Gluten is a protein found in wheat that helps to give bread that nice gooey texture. Contrary to some claims that gluten is a byproduct of modern “genetic tinkering”,  we’ve been eating gluten since the dawn of wheat domestication about 10,000 years ago. We’ve only been digesting gluten-related news hysteria for about the last 6 years thanks to a book called “Wheat Belly”.

“Wheat Belly” was written by Dr. William Davis after he noticed that the health and weight of many of his patients improved when they stopped eating wheat. He attributes this difference to gluten and inflammation. In the science world, we call this kind of evidence “anecdotal” because it comes from casual observations not carefully controlled studies.  Scientists have tested Davis’s theory by administering controlled tests where (for example) people with self-reported gluten sensitivities consumed either wheat or whey proteins. So far, the evidence doesn’t match the anecdote.

But reports of celiac disease and other wheat-related allergies ARE on the rise. There are several possible explanations for this. Our attention to the diagnosis of these conditions and the sensitivity of the tests required to confirm them has increased. Additionally allergies and autoimmune diseases like celiac are on the rise in general. We don’t yet know why this is, but one intriguing possibility is the hygiene hypothesis–basically, in our increasingly urbanized and sterile environment, children are exposed to less immune challenges, causing their immune system to mistake friend for foe. There is some evidence to support this hypothesis. For example, children who grow up on dairies or in close contact with pets are less likely to develop asthma and allergies.

That still doesn’t explain why some people feel better when they cut wheat out of their diets. Wheat has changed over the ages with breeding, so it’s possible that modern wheat could cause irritation, but it is difficult to say, because cutting wheat out of your diet means cutting a whole lot of other stuff too. Obviously if you give up beer, pizza, and cookies your health will improve. By eliminating wheat, you’d probably eat less processed foods which tend to be high in sugars, calories, salts, etc.

The promise of a gluten-free diet has lead 1 in 3 Americans to consider the switch, expanding a niche market into an advertiser’s dream. You can now buy gluten-free chicken nuggets, brownies, and even beer. What luck! Now we can go gluten-free and still have all the junk that typically hides in wheat-based processed foods. But headlines are now claiming that these foods may come with a side of heavy metals and arsenic.

In a study published recently by the University of Illinois, scientists found 50% more arsenic and 60% more lead in the urine of people on a self-reported gluten-free diet. Before you set fire to your pantry, food toxicologist Dr. Carl Winter noted that these “estimates are all below levels of concern identified by the US EPA,” but by less of a margin of safety than is typically allowed for compounds such as pesticides which are carefully monitored and highly scrutinized.

To put these amounts into perspective, Arsenic has an LD50 of 15mg/kg. That means if you fed a bunch of 1kg rats 15mg of straight arsenic, half of them would die. But rats are pretty small. It would take 900 mg of Arsenic in one serving to kill a Gwyneth Paltrow-sized rat. That’s about 5000 times more arsenic that you’d find in a typical 1 pound bag of rice. In urine, the limit considered safe for arsenic is 100ug/L which is still way more than the 12ug/L found from those on a Gluten-free diet (for comparison, those who eat gluten still peed 8ug/L of arsenic).

What’s more, the specific source of the arsenic in gluten-free diets is important. Although they didn’t directly test for it, the researchers speculate that these elevated levels of arsenic come from an increased consumption of rice. Many gluten-free products contain rice flour as a substitute for wheat flour, and according to UC Davis rice extension specialist Dr. Bruce Linquist, “arsenic is higher in rice than many other cereal crops due to the anaerobic soil conditions rice is grown under”. Other studies have found arsenic in rice-based gluten-free foods but not in gluten-free foods lacking rice. This doesn’t mean you should throw away all the rice in your cabinet either. As toxicologists like to say, the dose makes the poison. One study indicated that Asian households living in the US are only exposed to about 2.8 ug of arsenic per day from eating rice. There’s more arsenic than that in our tap water.

So what’s the takeaway? Gluten probably won’t kill you and a gluten-free diet probably won’t either. Neither will rice or tap water. On the other hand, too much of absolutely anything can kill you. A small number of celiac patients have faced arsenic poisoning because they were unknowingly eating rice-based products 3 meals a day. For anyone, especially children, the FDA recommends a varied diet to decrease the risk of exposure to arsenic. The same strategy can be applied to many dietary concerns. Variety is good, homogeneity is bad. So although it’s cliche, a good rule of thumb is everything in moderation–even arsenic.

About the Authors

Jenna E Gallegos, Lynn Ly, and Eric Walters are graduate students at the University of California in Davis. This post was written as part of a project called “Science REALLY says” which seeks to ensure scientific data is accurately represented by the media. It originally appeared on the Science Says blog. For more content from the UC Davis science communication group “Science Says“, follow us on twitter @SciSays and like us on facebook.

Acknowledgements

 We thank Dr. Carl Winter (food toxicology extension specialist, UC Davis) and Dr. Bruce Linquist (sustainable management of rice systems extension specialist, UC Davis) for helpful comments.

References

Bulka, C. M., Davis, M. A., Karagas, M. R., Ahsan, H., & Argos, M. (2017). The Unintended Consequences of a Gluten-Free Diet. Epidemiology (Cambridge, Mass.), 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1097/EDE.0000000000000640

Kim, H., Patel, K. G., Orosz, E., Kothari, N., Demyen, M. F., Pyrsopoulos, N., … C, C. (2016). Time Trends in the Prevalence of Celiac Disease and Gluten-Free Diet in the US Population: Results From the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys 2009-2014. JAMA Internal Medicine, 108(5), 818–824. https://doi.org/10.1001/JAMAINTERNMED.2016.5254

Mantha, M., Yeary, E., Trent, J., Creed, P. A., Kubachka, K., Hanley, T., … Creed, J. T. (2016). Estimating Inorganic Arsenic Exposure from U.S. Rice and Total Water Intakes. Environmental Health Perspectives, (August). https://doi.org/10.1289/EHP418

Pietzak, M. (2012). Celiac disease, wheat allergy, and gluten sensitivity: when gluten free is not a fad. JPEN. Journal of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition, 36(1 Suppl), 68S–75S. https://doi.org/10.1177/0148607111426276

Jara, E. a, & Winter, C. K. (2014). Dietary exposure to total and inorganic arsenic in the United States, 2006–2008. International Journal of Food Contamination, 1(1), 3. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40550-014-0003-x

Vierk, K. A., Koehler, K. M., Fein, S. B., & Street, D. A. (2007). Prevalence of self-reported food allergy in American adults and use of food labels. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 119(6), 1504–1510. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaci.2007.03.011

Munera-Picazo, S., Burló, F., & Carbonell-Barrachina, A. A. (2014). Arsenic speciation in rice-based food for adults with celiac disease. Food Additives & Contaminants. Part A, Chemistry, Analysis, Control, Exposure & Risk Assessment, 31(8), 1358–66. https://doi.org/10.1080/19440049.2014.933491

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). 2007. Toxicological Profile for Arsenic. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Services. https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxguides/toxguide-2.pdf

US Food and Drug Administration. (2016) Arsenic in Rice and Rice Products. https://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodborneIllnessContaminants/Metals/ucm319948.htm

Darren Seifer. (2012) Is Gluten-Free Eating a Trend Worth Noting? Report from The NPD Group. https://www.npd.com/perspectives/food-for-thought/gluten-free-2012.html

Science denialism is a bipartisan issue

Scientists are organizing to march on Washington, but why? The short answer is outrage over the minimal role scientific evidence plays in informing policy. A longer answer would also have to account for the fact that voters drive policy and there is a clear disconnect between scientists and the general public.

But perhaps the more interesting question is why NOW? Any scientist who has been deeply engaged in science communication and outreach probably feels like their colleagues are a little late to the party. Science denialism is not new. Legislation that directly conflicts with scientific evidence is certainly not new either. But many scientists now feel that the blatant disregard for evidence, which has ushered in an age of “alternative facts,” has simply gone too far. I agree. In fact I’d sat it’s about time. But it’s important to remember what got us into this position in the first place.

Science denialism is not new

It’s not enough to march on Washington, cause a big stir, and try to get a few current policies changed. If we want to see a real shift in the weight that is given to scientific evidence, we’ve got to reach not only politicians but also their constituents. All of them. That means we can’t just march, we’ve got to communicate. And effective communication requires listening, empathizing, and examining our own biases.

Let’s face it; the vast majority of scientists are liberal. A discussion of why merits a post all its own. But it is a bias scientists should be aware of if the rift between evidence and policy is to be closed effectively. Gaining ground for science in political spheres will require a more scientifically literate public and policy-makers on both sides of the isle.

we’ve got to reach not only politicians

but also their constituents

At a recent science communication conference, I realized this is not the goal of many science communicators. There instead seemed to be a nearly unanimous feeling of, “we need to unite against republicans.” One conference-goer even implied that contacting legislators in his state would be pointless because all of his representatives are democrats. Does science denialism really fall so strictly along party lines? I don’t think so, and I’ll explain why using some of the most contentious issues in science and science policy: evolution, climate change, vaccines, and GMOs.

Evolution

Evolution is likely the first modern issue that divided scientists from the general public. Scientists originally made the fatal mistake of communicating findings supporting evolution to the public in the same way they would try to convince their colleagues. But while scientists are trained to consider data in a vacuum, people naturally contextualize new information using pre-existing beliefs and values.

For scientists who are also believers, religion and science belong in different categories. Science attempts to explain the explainable via carefully controlled studies. Religion fills entirely different roles such as spirituality, morality, community, and a sense of purpose. But science is often taught as if it is a collection of facts instead of a process for understanding the natural world. Had the public come to understand the scientific method first, and learned about what evolution actually means as a process, they might not have perceived evolution as a threat to their religious beliefs.

As it is, denial of evolution, mainly measured through votes on whether or not evolution should be taught in schools, remains associated with the Republican Party. However, there are two issues at play here. Republicans, or at least traditional conservatives before the rise of the Neo-Cons, fundamentally don’t support federal mandates. State or federal legislation dictating what can and cannot be taught in local schools feels a lot to a republican like an infringement on religious freedoms.

Climate Change

Climate change is an unquestionably partisan issue. Republican candidates have questioned the validity of climate change time and time again from whether or not the climate is even changing, to whether or not human activities are responsible. However, when we talk about legislation relating to climate change, there are again two issues at play. Many republicans do not implicitly deny climate change, but oppose regulations related to climate change that decrease our ability to globally compete in fossil fuel production or in industries that contribute to high emissions.

This is again not necessarily a case of science denialism, but more a question of mandates, regulations, and economics. Republicans, whether those who deny climate change or those who don’t, are resistant to federal regulations because they support the idea of a free market and small government. To a republican, the desire to decrease our dependence on foreign oil, decrease burdensome regulation, and create domestic jobs outweighs their concerns for the environment or the sustainability of these practices. While scientists disagree with this logic, that does not automatically make any politician seeking to decrease regulations on emissions a climate change denier.

Vaccines

While a few Republican candidates have said some not-so-well-informed things about vaccines (cough cough president Trump), is this really a partisan issue? Consider whether vaccination rates across the country correlate with voting habits. While there are not clear connections either way, some of the most highly vaccinated states are staunchly republican in their voting records (think Mississippi).

On the other hand, many of the cities and counties with the lowest vaccination rates are known for being more liberal than their neighbors (think Boulder). This cannot be accounted for by a lack of access to health care, as these demographics tend to be primarily white, wealthy, and highly educated. Reasons cited for abstaining from vaccinations primarily revolve around distrust of the medical community or fear that vaccines will cause harm. The places with low vaccination rates that are also Republican tend to have high numbers of Jehovah’s Witnesses who do not vaccinate (and refuse blood transfusions) for religious purposes.

GMOs

This is where the science denying republicans stereotype really falls apart. By far democrats have been more outspoken against agricultural biotechnology. Obama promised before taking office that he would label GMOs despite the fact that mandated food labels are reserved for information conveying health and nutrition, and abundant evidence suggests that GMO foods are as healthy, safe, and nutritious as their conventionally bred counterparts. Bernie Sanders made it one of his major talking points to oppose GMOs as many other democrats and green party representatives have done on state and local levels. Even Hilary Clinton, who has been generally accurate in her stances on GMOs, tweeted her support when legislation designed to circumvent Vermont’s inconsistent disaster of a mandatory GMO-labeling law failed.

The few US counties in which farmers are prohibited from planting GMOs are exceptionally liberal, and I really doubt you’ll find many Whole Foods or Alfalfas with their array of anti-GMO propaganda in the reddest regions of the nation. Why is this? Well for one, most of the legislation discussed regarding GMOs has had to do with mandated labels or banning of production, which are regulations inherently opposed by Republicans. Additionally, regions with a lot of farming tend to be conservative, and farmers themselves are typically Republican. Finally the naturalistic/green movement, which has been used as a weapon to oppose GMOs by many NGO’s and special interest groups, is more closely associated with Democrats. The issue of GMO’s is often overlooked by individuals and organizations devoted to combating misunderstandings in science. Yet it is this issue where the biggest gap in understanding between scientists and the general public exists.

Meanwhile, both parties duly support many science-related issues. The Republican congress has expressed a desire to expand the NIH budget and president Trump has made very clear his commitment to supporting space exploration. Increasing the competitiveness of American students in STEM fields is of value to both parties, and we can all pretty much agree cancer sucks and we should keep churning out research about how to “cure cancer” (queue eye role).

So is science denialism really a Republican problem? Republicans value religion, minimal regulations, and national sovereignty. Democrats value protection for the environment, government oversight of business practices, and funding for large infrastructures. These values affect readiness to accept scientific findings in both groups. As scientists, it is our job to put aside our own political biases, and communicate scientific findings to voters, policy-makers, and stake-holders in a way that is understanding of those value systems not antagonistic. So let’s drop the “republicans are science deniers” mantra and face the music. Science denialism isn’t caused by republican politicians, it’s caused by a lack of effective communication between scientists and the general public. Science denialism is a bipartisan issue. Science communication can be a bipartisan solution.

The bacteria in your gut might be scheduling your daily routine.

Jet lag. Daylight savings woes. Exhaustion and insomnia with a side of appetite change and indigestion. We’ve all experienced the side effects, but why are we so sensitive to changes in our schedules? The answer lies in our genetic makeup and, new research suggests, also in the bacterial passengers that make up over half the cells in the human body.

When we think about bacteria, we tend to focus on the ones that make us sick. We’re just beginning to understand the vast importance of the bacteria living inside of and on top of us, collectively called our microbiome. The composition and activity of our microbiome could impact everything from the evolution of breast milk to acne to obesity to depression. New evidence suggests that studying our gut microbiome could also help to address multimillion-dollar health problems like insomnia and seasonal depression.

According to a recent study at the Weissman Institute of Science in Israel, we rely on bacteria to help establish and maintain rhythmic changes throughout the day that prepare us for different activities like sleep or digestion of a large meal. These cycles, called circadian rhythms control our energy levels, mood, appetite, and more. Circadian rhythms are carefully controlled by changes in the activity of our genes to make sure we don’t crash too early or crave midnight snacks.

You can think of the genetic information in each of your cells as a massive and diverse orchestra where only certain musicians (genes) play at any given time to produce a symphony that fluxes in volume and tempo. The symphony is conducted by a group of circadian genes with clever names like “period,” “chryptochrome,” and “clock.” Circadian genes are found everywhere in nature including plants, animals, and bacteria.

When we travel our clock is reset, and it takes time for our cells to adjust to the new schedule. To find out if our bacterial passengers also feel the effects of a change in time zones, researchers looked to mice. Remarkably, bacteria move around the gut of lab mice in 24-hour cycles. In addition to changing locations, the bacteria also secrete different compounds depending on the time of day. The same patterns were not seen in mutant mice with dysfunctional circadian genes. This suggests that a mouse’s circadian rhythm influences the cyclic patterns of the bacteria in its gut.

If the mouse’s schedule influences the bacteria’s rhythm, could the activity of the bacteria also influence the mouse’s clock? To find out, researchers treated mice with antibiotics to wipe out most of the bacteria in their guts. While the mice behaved similarly, and took their meals at the same time, the activity of many of their clock genes changed. Not surprisingly, most of the pathways affected by these changes were involved in metabolism. That means not only does our circadian rhythm influence the bacteria in our guts, but the bacteria’s circadian rhythm could affect us too.

If the circadian rhythm of our bacterial passengers can affect our body’s normal functions, changes to our microbiome could impact our health even when we’re not traveling. Such changes could have deadly consequences as even the ability of our livers to detoxify substances like acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol, fluctuates throughout the day. The same pattern was not seen in mice with altered circadian rhythms. In both antibiotic-treated mice and mutant mice with dysfunctional circadian genes, liver function was not affected by the time of day. This means that the circadian rhythm of our microbiome could actually alter the function of essential organs.

These findings suggest that the bacteria in your gut act as a type of “circadian organizer” that has coevolved to help us adjust to different needs throughout the day such as mealtime or sleep. We are just beginning to understand the relationships between the circadian rhythms of bacteria and their hosts. When they’re thrown out of sync, indigestion, insomnia, or even impaired liver function could result. Future studies on the biological clock of our microbiome could help us learn to cope with or even prevent circadian rhythm related ailments. Imagine a future where cultured bacteria trained to certain time-zones could treat seasonal depression or help travelers pre-adjust to their destination.

For any scientists in the room, check out this graphical abstract!

Graphical abstract5

“What does science REALLY say about vegetable oils and cancer?”

The Woman’s lifestyle magazine M2Woman recently ran the headline “Science reveals that this commonly used kitchen staple is carcinogenic”****

The accused kitchen staple is vegetable oil: canola, sunflower, and olive specifically. M2Woman claims these common cooking emollients are “proven to be carcinogenic”. But what does the science really say about vegetable oils and cancer?

Following heating, refining, or storage, all oils can break down into different chemical compounds. Some of these compounds are considered carcinogenic, but they are not unique to oils. These compounds can also be produced when vegetables or meats undergo certain processing steps like grilling, smoking, roasting, or frying. Studies showing these compounds to be carcinogenic have mainly focused on the risk of inhaling cooking oil fumes. While this is certainly a risk to industrial kitchen workers, it’s not such a big deal for your nightly meal prep.

The study cited by M2Woman focused on a particular type of oil breakdown product caused by oxidation. Oxidation is a normal process that occurs in the breakdown of all fats. Some oxidation products are even essential to the flavor of our favorite foods. But food goes “rancid” when too much oxidation has occurred.  Vegetable oils, especially extra virgin oils, are actually particularly stable because they contain an abundance of antioxidants. Compounds like vitamin E and carotenoids in vegetables oils help suck up the negative products formed during fatty acid oxidation.

In the study cited, researchers monitored oils for oxidation products over 6 hours at 320 degrees fahrenheit (the high range for deep frying).  They found that all tested oils broke down, but sunflower oils did so more quickly than canola or olive oil. But according to Dr. Selina Wang of the University of California Davis Olive Center, the technique used to measure oxidation products in this study is “not considered to be a standard method for testing oil quality” and “cannot quantify or identify the exact compounds that are potentially toxic”. The main goal of the study was just to detect changes in oils during cooking. They did not actually examine the level at which those changes become hazardous, and not all oxidation products are toxic. Dr. Ameer Taha who studies oxidation of dietary fats says it is “premature to conclude that some ‘unidentified’ oxidation products are carcinogenic.”

So the conclusion printed by M2Woman–“find alternative ways of cooking…If you are in dire need of cooking oil, opt for canola or olive oil and just drop the sunflower oil in the bin”– is a bit overstated. Generally, vegetable oils are a good choice for cooking. Registered Dietitian and Nutritionist Leah McGrath commented “I would not normally recommend frying foods but see nothing wrong with using oils, especially ones with higher amounts of monounsaturated fats like canola and olive to cook, bake and prepare foods . Oils  can contribute not only taste but health benefits. Different oils have different properties like smoke point and taste and may provide different health benefits”. Specific studies examining the oxidized fatty acids in the body in response to diets of different vegetable oils would be necessary to truly assess the relative risks.

****After this was published, M2Woman changed the headline of their article to “Science reveals that this particular vegetable oil is carcinogenic

About the Authors

Jenna E Gallegos and Taylor Reiter are PhD students at the University of California in Davis. This post originally appeared in the blog series “Science REALLY says” which seeks to ensure scientific data is accurately represented by the media. For more content from the UC Davis science communcation group “Science Says“, follow them on twitter @SciSays

Acknowledgements

We thank Dr. Selina Wang (Assistant Adjunct Professor in Food Science and Technology at the University of California in Davis), Dr. Ameer Taha (Assistant Professor in Food Science & Technology at UC Davis), and Leah McGrath, RDN for helpful comments, and Zane Moore for assistance identifying relevant experts in the field of oil chemistry.

References

 Abdel-Shafy, Hussein I., and Mona S.m. Mansour. “A Review on Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons: Source, Environmental Impact, Effect on Human Health and Remediation.” Egyptian Journal of Petroleum 25.1 (2016): 107-23. Web.Chang, Louis W., Lo Wai-Sze, and Lin

Chiang, Tai-An, Pei-Fen Wu, and Ying-Chin Ko. “Identification of Carcinogens in Cooking Oil Fumes.” Environmental Research 81.1 (1999): 18-22. Web.

Kamal-Eldin, Afaf. “Effect of Fatty Acids and Tocopherols on the Oxidative Stability of Vegetable Oils.” European Journal of Lipid Science and Technology 108.12 (2006): 1051-061. Web.

Pinpin. “Trans, Trans-2,4-Decadienal, a Product Found in Cooking Oil Fumes, Induces Cell Proliferation and Cytokine Production Due to Reactive Oxygen Species in Human Bronchial Epithelial Cells.” Toxicology Science 87.2 (2005): 337-343. Web.

Vaskova, Hana, and Buckova, Martina. “Thermal Degradation of Vegetable Oils: Spectroscopic Measurement and Analysis.” Procedia Engineering 100 (2015): 630-635. Web.

“Does intelligence REALLY come from our mothers?”

Excited to be part of a project called “Science REALLY says” which seeks to ensure scientific data is accurately represented by the media. For more content from the UC Davis science communication group “Science Says“, follow @SciSays on twitter, or like @DavisScienceSays on facebook.

Science Says

You’ve probably seen the headlines:

New research confirms that kids get their intelligence from mom -GH Sep 12, 2016

Science says you can thank (or blame) your mum for your intelligence-Yahoo Sep 14, 2016

Children inherit their intelligence from their mother not their father, science says-UK Independent. Oct 7, 2016

But what is this “new research” and what does science really say about the source of our smarts?

It turns out the mother of all these headlines isn’t actually new research at all. These articles refer to a blog post that references studies ranging from 1972 to 2012. We reviewed these studies, contacted the scientists, and dug into the literature on IQ inheritance to figure out what the science really says.

First, intelligence is tough to define. IQ tests clearly don’t reveal a natural ability, because scores improve with practice. And…

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GMO labeling compromise: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Republicans and democrats in the Senate have reached a compromise on federal GMO labeling. The push to “just label it” has drawn on for years, but it’s not that simple. GMOs are tough to even define, and the FDA does not have the jurisdiction to mandate a label that is not relevant to health and safety. Many insist that consumers simply have the “right to know”, but without any grounds for safety concerns, this is a compelled speech argument. Nonetheless, to prevent a patchwork of messy state laws like Vermont’s, a compromise was necessary. Compromise is good, but it can be a little awkward.

The Good

  1. Consumer empowerment. Foods containing GE ingredients will now be identifiable by text on the label or via a QR code or website on the package. Many pro-labeling activists complain about the inconvenience of having to use a smartphone to label check. But if you wanted to know how cosmetics, clothes, electronics, cars, or anything else was made you’d have to go tour a factory. Consumers have never had so much information at their fingertips.
  2. No skull and cross bones. While companies are required to make information about GE ingredients available, there doesn’t have to be a label right on the package. Labels that do not communicate legitimate health and safety concerns can elicit unnecessary alarm or create “health halos” around foods that are otherwise not nutritious.
  3. Potential for more relevant information. Imagine a future where you can scan a QR code and learn where, how, and when a food item was produced. Food journalists have repeatedly shown that puff terms like organic, locally/sustainably grown, and free range are mostly smoke and mirrors. What if we could scan a QR code and learn the farm address, harvest date, and sustainability metrics? Obviously this would require quite the paper trail, but with some of that infrastructure already in place, the path forward is clearer.

The Bad

  1. Arbitrary inclusions/exemptions. Under this bill, meat/dairy from animals fed genetically engineered feed are exempt. This makes sense as there is no measurable difference between animals fed GE and non-GE diets. However, processed foods containing byproducts from GE crops such as canola oil, corn syrup, and beet sugar are not exempt. These ingredients are chemically identical and completely indistinguishable from their non-GE sourced counterparts. This inconsistency has no logical basis.
  2. Pressure to go GMO free. Due to real or presumed consumer opposition, some companies may opt to source non-GE ingredients. Hershey has already promised to do so, and the prospect is alarming. The majority of sugar in the United States comes from domestically grown GE sugar beets, which allow farmers to decrease the volume, number of applications, and toxicity of pesticides they use. Hershey has already asked for tariff lifts on cane sugar imports to meet their demand. This is just one example of the possible economic and environmental costs that could result from a sudden demand for GE free goods.

The Ugly

  1. Would you like a side of bureaucracy with that? Opponents of GMO labeling claim label changes will increase the cost to produce goods translating to pricier groceries. Proponents of labeling insist that companies change labels all the time with no fluctuation in retail price, so the cost is clearly not substantial. Both are correct. Labeling will likely increase cost, but not because of the price for reprinting the label itself. The cost will come in the added layers of bureaucracy required to track ingredients, possibly change ingredient sourcing, or even build separate manufacturing facilities. Not to mention the inevitable legal fees when a mistake is made.
  2. Unequal access to information. Not everybody caries a smart phone or knows how to use a QR code. On a fundamental basis inequality in access to information on the basis of socioeconomic status or tech savvy is not cool. That said, a QR code stating whether a product includes GE ingredients doesn’t actually provide consumers with any necessary information. It says nothing about the safety, nutrition, or environmental sustainability of a food product. At the end of the day, if we really want to know how food is grown and produced, we’ll still have to look to farmers, scientists, and food industry professionals, not labels.

My summer with Monsanto

If you’ve ever talked to anyone passionately opposed to GMOs or modern agriculture, they’ve probably name-dropped Monsanto. A company smaller than Whole Foods would go bankrupt if their payroll included all the members of the USDA, EPA, FDA, AAAS, WHO, European Commission, and many more. Still, scientists echoing the conclusions of these organizations on the safety of certain agricultural practices sometimes get accused of acting as paid “shills”.

As such. I want to be very transparent about my own ties with the agricultural biotech industry. Over the next four and a half months, I will be interning part-time at Monsanto. An internship with a biotech company is both a requirement of the Designated Emphasis in Biotechnology Program at UC Davis and an excellent opportunity for me to explore future career options.

I will be working on Monsanto’s “BioDirect(TM)” project. In a nutshell, the goal is to figure out a way to use molecules of RNA to shut off genes in very specific insect or weed targets resulting in death of the pest. This technology would allow farmers to drastically reduce pesticide use and protect beneficial insects like ladybugs. It’s adaptable, so the recipe can be adjusted if resistance develops. And it’s compatible with no-till practices that protect soils from erosion.

My salary covers three days of work per week on this project exclusively. I spend the remaining two days a week on my dissertation research with the support of funding generously provided by the American Dissertation Fellowship from the American Association of University Women. Any outreach or science communication that I engage in occurs on a voluntary basis on top of my research.

When I asked a trusted faculty member at UC Berkeley if I should take a hiatus from any science outreach while on Monsanto’s payroll, she expressed frustration that I even had to ask this question. After speaking favorably about agricultural technologies on NPR, she got angry emails accusing her of being a “Monsanto shill”. When she asked where this was coming from, one accuser pointed at a $1000 award from the American Society of Plant Biology she received back in 1992. The award was sponsored by Monsanto. The company had no say in who was given the award or what was done with it. They simply provided the donation.

I’ve received two similar awards. One was the Monsanto Endowed Student Fund in Agricultural Biotechnology Award for $3000, granted to me by the Dean’s Office of the College of Biological Sciences at UC Davis in 2015. This award is given out every year and “is available to outstanding UC Davis, College of Biological Sciences, graduate students who are preparing for a career in agricultural biotechnology”. You can read my application for this award here.

I also received the Ginny Patin Memorial Scholarship for $2500 from the California Seed Association in 2016. You can read my application for this award here. In both cases, the funds were deposited into my account directly with no strings attached. These awards are displayed proudly on my CV/Resume as they are a badge of scholastic achievement.

The content of this post and every blog post or tweet I ever compose strictly reflect my own personal views and experiences and not the views of any of my employers past, present, or future, be they academic or corporate in nature.

Okay, so what the heck are “omics”?

In the National Academy of Science’s genetically engineered crop study report released a few days ago, they proposed a new regulatory framework for analyzing the safety of any crop variety that relies on a technology called “omics”? So what in the world is an omic and how is it useful?

There are many different types of “omics”. It all started with GENomics which involves figuring out and comparing the GENES between organisms. This has allowed scientists to identify different genetic “markers” associated with diseases and other traits. However, genomics are only part of the story. Just because a gene is present doesn’t mean it is active.

Active genes are used as a template to TRANSCRIBE molecular messengers called RNA. Analyses of the levels of RNA within an organism in a given tissue or in response to a certain stimulus are known as TRANSCRIPTomics, but it doesn’t stop there.

RNA transcripts serve as instructions that enable cells to build PROTEINS. Proteins are the real workhorses of the cell, and are largely responsible for an organism’s traits. Comparisons of the protein landscape in an organism are accomplished by PROTEomics.

But what about all the other cool stuff floating around in cells? Hormones, pigments, vitamins, ethanol? These molecules are assembled within cells and are called METABOLITES (and plants have way way way more of them than people: nicotine, caffeine, capsaicin…..). And guess what? Where there’s a molecule there’s an “omics”, so now we’ve got METABOLomics.

So omics includes the study of the genes, RNA, proteins, and metabolites in an organism (there are even more, but I won’t go there). Sound complicated? It gets worse. When scientists gather data for omics studies, they get it in pieces.

So you know the human genome project? It’s not like somebody scanned a human blood sample and printed out the entire genome. To put it into perspective, if the human genome was unravelled and blown up to the diameter of a strand of hair, that hair would be 30 miles long and form a wad the size of a volleyball.

The genome had to be sequences piece by piece (not particularly systematically) and then those pieces had to be reassembled. To put it into perspective, Dr. Keith Bradnom uses the following analogy: Take 100 identical jigsaw sets, mix all the pieces together, throw away 10% of the pieces, randomly mix in the contents of an unrelated puzzle, throw away the cover of the box, and assemble!

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Some scientists on twitter even called this analogy an over-simplification! As you can imagine, this takes not only a lot of brain power, but also a lot of computing power. Then once you finally get it assembled….

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So that’s why the National Academy of Sciences said that we need to further develop these technologies. The idea is that we could compare the “omics” between new crop varieties and existing varieties and analyze any significant differences for potential safety concerns. As you can see, this is no small project, and that’s why they call it “big data”.

If you are a non-scientist, I hope you found this explanation helpful. If you are a scientist, particularly a computational scientist, please let me know in the comments if I’ve made any mistakes or am missing important details.