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.

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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