Chewing on dietary politics

Two of Cornell’s leading nutrition experts appeared in Washington, D.C., March 18 to discuss an extensive proposed rewrite of the federal government’s official Dietary Guidelines for Americans

They appeared in the nation’s capital as part of Inside Cornell, a series of public policy roundtables. The pair spoke before an audience consisting largely of journalists who closely follow these issues. National Public Radio correspondent Allison Aubrey moderated the panel.

Tom Brenna said the most fundamental change proposed for the new dietary guidelines, which are updated every five years, “is a focus on overall healthy eating patterns, rather than individual foods…”

Brenna also lauded what he called an emerging emphasis on “nutrition above the neck,” a reference to the role diet plays in neurocognitive health. His Cornell lab, for example, conducts extensive research on nutrients including omega-3 fatty acids, which are proving to be effective in treating depression.

David Just focuses on how consumers make their decisions about what foods to purchase and eat.

He said the government’s new nutritional guidance “will probably generate no response at all at the consumer level, at least initially. The primary effect will come from the millions of meals directly influenced by the government, including public school lunches, hospital food and military meals.”

Over time, however, as the new advice takes hold, it will start to be felt as “consumers make their shopping lists or decide which groceries to display prominently in their kitchens, as opposed to buried in cabinets.”

Just also stressed the positive role the food industry can play by adjusting how it markets and advertises its products. Touting the good taste and benefits of healthier foods on packaging, he noted, is far more effective than any government warning about the risks of a poor diet.

They also discussed the never-publicized lobbying over dietary guideline recommendations. The meat industry – of course – wants to water down recommendations that Americans eat less red meat, less processed meat. The last thing they want is linking an animal-based diet to environmental problems like greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution.

Sugar giants don’t want nutrition labels to include added sugar. There’s a surprise!

Once Congress gets quickly past the parts about science, no doubt they will return to rules and regulations directly proportional to the influence of lobbyist/industry dollar$.

BTW, that 2nd link up top is a fine article on the details of new recommendations.

Will we find life — “not as we know it” — on Saturn’s moon Titan


Click to enlargeAzotosome, the theorized cell membrane on Titan

Liquid water is a requirement for life on Earth. But in other, much colder worlds, life might exist beyond the bounds of water-based chemistry.

Taking a simultaneously imaginative and rigidly scientific view, Cornell chemical engineers and astronomers offer a template for life that could thrive in a harsh, cold world – specifically Titan, the giant moon of Saturn. A planetary body awash with seas not of water, but of liquid methane, Titan could harbor methane-based, oxygen-free cells that metabolize, reproduce and do everything life on Earth does.

Their theorized cell membrane, composed of small organic nitrogen compounds and capable of functioning in liquid methane temperatures of 292 degrees below zero, is published in Science Advances…The work is led by chemical molecular dynamics expert Paulette Clancy…with first author James Stevenson, a graduate student in chemical engineering. The paper’s co-author is Jonathan Lunine…the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Astronomy…

On Earth, life is based on the phospholipid bilayer membrane, the strong, permeable, water-based vesicle that houses the organic matter of every cell. A vesicle made from such a membrane is called a liposome. Thus, many astronomers seek extraterrestrial life in what’s called the circumstellar habitable zone, the narrow band around the sun in which liquid water can exist. But what if cells weren’t based on water, but on methane, which has a much lower freezing point?

The engineers named their theorized cell membrane an “azotosome,” “azote” being the French word for nitrogen. “Liposome” comes from the Greek “lipos” and “soma” to mean “lipid body;” by analogy, “azotosome” means “nitrogen body.”

The azotosome is made from nitrogen, carbon and hydrogen molecules known to exist in the cryogenic seas of Titan, but shows the same stability and flexibility that Earth’s analogous liposome does. This came as a surprise to chemists like Clancy and Stevenson, who had never thought about the mechanics of cell stability before; they usually study semiconductors, not cells.

The engineers employed a molecular dynamics method that screened for candidate compounds from methane for self-assembly into membrane-like structures. The most promising compound they found is an acrylonitrile azotosome, which showed good stability, a strong barrier to decomposition, and a flexibility similar to that of phospholipid membranes on Earth. Acrylonitrile – a colorless, poisonous, liquid organic compound used in the manufacture of acrylic fibers, resins and thermoplastics – is present in Titan’s atmosphere.

Excited by the initial proof of concept, Clancy said the next step is to try and demonstrate how these cells would behave in the methane environment – what might be the analogue to reproduction and metabolism in oxygen-free, methane-based cells.

In part, Stevenson said he was inspired by science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, who wrote about the concept of non-water-based life in his 1962 essay, “Not as We Know It.” I think we can conclude as Asimov would – intelligence formed of life “not as we know it” – but with science grounded in material reality, will develop an understanding of science identical in premises as any of our own species’ physical scientists. Leading or trailing one another the results must be the same since material reality remains the same.

Perceptions can vary widely. An intelligent lifeform evolved through differing chemistry wouldn’t be likely to have the same senses or senses arrayed in the same hierarchy. The possibilities are intriguing.

Truly, a worthwhile adventure. I wish them well.

NYC subway cultures drug resistant bacteria, DNA from Anthrax, Plague


Click to enlargeHeatmap of the Pseudomonas genus

The study, published in Cell Systems, demonstrates that it is possible and useful to develop a “pathogen map” — dubbed a “PathoMap” — of a city, with the heavily traveled subway a proxy for New York’s population. It is a baseline assessment, and repeated sampling could be used for long-term, accurate disease surveillance, bioterrorism threat mitigation, and large scale health management for New York, says the study’s senior investigator, Dr. Christopher E. Mason…

The PathoMap findings are generally reassuring, indicating no need to avoid the subway system or use protective gloves, Dr. Mason says. The majority of the 637 known bacterial, viral, fungal and animal species he and his co-authors detected were non-pathogenic and represent normal bacteria present on human skin and human body. Culture experiments revealed that all subway sites tested possess live bacteria.

Strikingly, about half of the sequences of DNA they collected could not be identified — they did not match any organism known to the National Center for Biotechnology Information or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These represent organisms that New Yorkers touch every day, but were uncharacterized and undiscovered until this study. The findings underscore the vast potential for scientific exploration that is still largely untapped and yet right under scientists’ fingertips.

WTF? They’re under everyone’s fingertips.

“Our data show evidence that most bacteria in these densely populated, highly trafficked transit areas are neutral to human health, and much of it is commonly found on the skin or in the gastrointestinal tract,” Dr. Mason says. “These bacteria may even be helpful, since they can out-compete any dangerous bacteria.”

But the researchers also say that 12 percent of the bacteria species they sampled showed some association with disease. For example, live, antibiotic-resistant bacteria were present in 27 percent of the samples they collected. And they detected two samples with DNA fragments of Bacillus anthracis (anthrax), and three samples with a plasmid associated with Yersinia pestis (Bubonic plague) — both at very low levels. Notably, the presence of these DNA fragments do not indicate that they are alive, and culture experiments showed no evidence of them being alive.

RTFA to see why the researcher say we shouldn’t worry. Certainly, the diversity of microorganisms is a positive activator for our immune systems.

Interesting how they went about the research – and what this presents as a baseline for future evaluations. And an added plus is the unique – and still closed – station shuttered since Superstorm Sandy. Marine species still alive and stable in what should be an abnormal environment for them.

Thanks, Helen

Daylight is best medicine for nurses

In a forthcoming Cornell study…Rana Zadeh, assistant professor of design and environmental analysis, discovered nurses who had access to natural light enjoyed significantly lower blood pressure, communicated more often with their colleagues, laughed more and served their patients in better moods than nurses who settled for large doses of artificial light.

Letting natural light into the nurses’ workstations offered improved alertness and mood restoration effects. “The increase in positive sociability, as measured by the occurrence of frequent laughter, was … significant,” noted Zadeh in the paper.

Nurses work long shifts, during non-standardized hours. They work on demanding and sensitive tasks and their alertness is connected to both staff and patient safety. Past evidence indicates natural light and views have restorative effects on people both physiologically and psychologically. Maximizing access to natural daylight and providing quality lighting design in nursing areas may be an opportunity to improve safety though environmental design and enable staff to manage sleepiness, work in a better mood and stay alert, according to Zadeh…

Access to natural daylight, and a nice view to outside, should be provided for clinical workspace design, said Zadeh. In situations where natural light is not possible, she suggests optimizing electric lighting in terms of spectrum, intensity and variability to support circadian rhythms and work performance.

Yes, I know most folks would consider this an automatic goal. Tell that to some of the Scrooges who manage hospitals and clinics as if they paid for each lightbulb and window from their own pocket.

Wastewater from Big Oil triggers surge in small earthquakes

Massive injections of wastewater from the oil and gas industry are likely to have triggered a sharp rise in earthquakes in the state of Oklahoma.

Researchers say there has been a forty-fold increase in the rate of quakes in the US state between 2008-13.

The scientists found that the disposal of water in four high-volume wells could be responsible for a swarm of tremors up to 35km away.

Their research has been published in the journal, Science…

There has been increasing evidence of links between the process of oil and gas extraction and earthquakes in states like Arkansas, Texas, Ohio and Oklahoma in recent years…

The US Geological Survey (USGS) has also reported on the question of seismicity induced by wastewater disposal.

This new research goes further, linking a large swarm of Oklahoma tremors with a number of specific water wells, distantly located.

More than 2,500 earthquakes greater than magnitude 3.0 have occurred around the small town of Jones since 2008. This represents about 20% of the total in the central and western US in this period.

Researchers have now linked this increase to a near doubling in the volumes of wastewater disposed of in the central Oklahoma region between 2004 and 2008.

Water is never far away in the energy extraction process. It is used not just for hydraulic fracturing, but also to squeeze more oil out of conventional wells…

According to Dr Bill Ellsworth from the USGS, the high price of oil has driven this water-based approach. But the law says that drinking water has to be protected from the salty flow.

“As part of the business model, you have to be able to dispose of these very large volumes of saline water. You can’t treat it; you can’t put it into the rivers. So, you have to inject it underground…”

Most studies like this always characterize quakes around 3.0 magnitude as small. There is the possibility that all these little quakes are what folks are forced to put up with – until the Big One.

Thanks, Mike

Experiment attaches proteins to white blood cells which latch onto metastasizing cancer cells – which then kill themselves!


Elizabeth Wayne, Michael Mitchell, Michael King

By attaching a cancer-killer protein to white blood cells, Cornell biomedical engineers have demonstrated the annihilation of metastasizing cancer cells traveling throughout the bloodstream…

“These circulating cancer cells are doomed,” said Michael King, Cornell professor of biomedical engineering and the study’s senior author. “About 90 percent of cancer deaths are related to metastases, but now we’ve found a way to dispatch an army of killer white blood cells that cause apoptosis – the cancer cell’s own death – obliterating them from the bloodstream. When surrounded by these guys, it becomes nearly impossible for the cancer cell to escape.”

Metastasis is the spread of a cancer cells to other parts of the body. Surgery and radiation are effective at treating primary tumors, but difficulty in detecting metastatic cancer cells has made treatment of the spreading cancer problematic…

King and his colleagues injected human blood samples, and later mice, with two proteins: E-selectin (an adhesive) and TRAIL (Tumor Necrosis Factor Related Apoptosis-Inducing Ligand). The TRAIL protein joined together with the E-selectin protein stick to leukocytes – white blood cells – ubiquitous in the bloodstream. When a cancer cell comes into contact with TRAIL, which becomes unavoidable in the chaotic blood flow, the cancer cell essentially kills itself…

In the laboratory, King and his colleagues tested this concept’s efficacy. When treating cancer cells with the proteins in saline, they found a 60 percent success rate in killing the cancer cells. In normal laboratory conditions, the saline lacks white blood cells to serve as a carrier for the adhesive and killer proteins. Once the proteins were added to flowing blood, which models forces, mixing and other human-body conditions, however, the success rate in killing the cancer cells jumped to nearly 100 percent.

Only a start; but – hey – what a helluva start.

Questions of agriculture and climate change meet at Cornell

For farmers, a warming climate challenges fundamental decisions they have always made based on the certainty of the weather – such as when to plant various crops, which varieties to choose or what investments in cooling or irrigation infrastructure would make the most economic sense. They will soon have a resource to help them navigate the changes: the Cornell Institute for Climate Change and Agriculture. Allison Morrill Chatrchyan becomes its first director Sept. 1.

“The institute grew out of a very real need to help farmers adapt to the marked changes in our climate that are already underway,” said Mike Hoffmann, director of the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station. “Many current agricultural practices are based on long-standing assumptions about temperature and the length of the growing season that are no longer true.”

The institute will act as a clearinghouse for research, climate monitoring, decision‐support tools and applications at the intersection of climate and agriculture. An early step will be developing a website for disseminating and gathering information on farm-level impacts and trends, losses and gains resulting from warming and extreme weather…

Two key functions of the institute will be to foster development of decision-making tools to help farmers know when to invest in changes based on science and sound economics, and to establish collaborations to address issues related to climate change and agriculture…

“Cornell has depth and breadth across a multitude of disciplines involved in climate change and agriculture, including crop and soil science, pest management, earth and atmospheric sciences, plant breeding and genetics, and the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future,” said Kathryn Boor…Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “Strategic decisions backed by sound science will pay off in the long term for New York farmers.”

Or they could rely on Know-Nothings in Congress for a bailout at taxpayers’ expense after years of ignoring science and putting their trust in 19th Century nutballs.

Given the choice, I’d rather see farmers working with scientists, agronomists and economists who are truly on their side – and offering science-based support.

Glowing polymer detects explosives


William Dichtel and Deepti Gopalakrishnan

Detecting bombs in places such as airports could be getting easier, thanks to a new fluorescing polymer. While you might expect the material to glow in the presence of explosives, they actually cause it to stop glowing.

The polymer was developed at Cornell University by chemist William Dichtel and his graduate student, Deepti Gopalakrishnan.

Ordinarily, its random cross-linked structure lets it absorb light, transport the energy through itself, and ultimately release that energy back out as light. Should the energy meet up with even a single molecule of explosive as it moves through the polymer, however, it will be released as heat instead of light. This causes the polymer to promptly cease fluorescing.

It is now hoped that the polymer could be incorporated into low-cost hand-held sensors, which could be used with or instead of bomb-sniffing dogs.

This is definitely better than using X-Rays to peer beneath my underwear.

New DNA test can beef up dairy and meat quality

A genomics technique developed at Cornell to improve corn can now be used to improve the quality of milk and meat…

A team led by Ikhide Imumorin, Cornell assistant professor of animal science, is the first to apply a new, inexpensive yet powerful genomics technique to cattle called genotyping-by-sequencing (GBS). The protocol contains only four basic steps from DNA to data, and Imumorin’s work demonstrated it generates enough markers to put cattle genomics on the fast track.

“Breeders are interested in cattle with traits such as high meat or milk quality, disease resistance and heat tolerance, but identifying the best animals means sorting through thousands of unique gene variants in the genome,” said Imumorin. “Until recently, the cost of genomics techniques has set too high a bar for breeders, and many cattle species, particularly those outside the United States and Europe found in Africa and Asia, were excluded from the genomics revolution.”

Using samples from 47 cattle from six breeds from the United States and Nigeria, Imumorin’s team used GBS to identify more than 50,000 genetic markers for genetic profiling…The team’s analysis showed the markers were preferentially located in or near the gene-rich regions in the arms of the chromosome, making them well sited for tagging genes in genetic studies. The researchers also demonstrated that the markers accurately detect the relationships among the breeds.

“GBS democratizes genetic profiling, and our work shows its usefulness in livestock,” said Imumorin. “While a genetic profile could run $70 to $150 per individual using commercially available methods, GBS brings the cost down to around $40 a sample or less. It’s a very exciting time.”

Imumorin predicts that GBS will be deployed by breeders and geneticists scanning herds for superior breeding stock. He cited the example of how selection of bulls for use in breeding programs will be streamlined through GBS-driven genome analysis around the world without the steep cost of commercial SNP chips, the standard tool based on gene variants discovered in European cattle breeds and made into off-the-shelf genotyping chips.

“For example, a bull can have genes for superior milk production, but the only way to test that is to evaluate milk production in his daughters,” said Imumorin. “A bull will be at least five years old before two generations of his offspring can be evaluated, and that’s a long time for breeders to take care of a bull that may not make the final cut. These techniques hasten the day when a bull’s value can be assessed using genetics on its day of birth more cheaply than we can do now.”

Bravo. Cost-savings and accelerated genetic development are always welcome in cattle-breeding.

Potatoes may help feed Ethiopia in era of climate change


Semagn-Asredie Kolech, left-center, with a group of Ethiopian farmers

With unpredictable annual rainfall and drought once every five years, climate change presents challenges to feeding Ethiopia. Adapting to a warming world, the potato is becoming a more important crop there – with the potential to feed much of Africa…

Ethiopia sits on the brink of thriving financial and gross domestic product forecasts, as its government formally merges green economics with climate-change resilient policies. But the country’s agricultural economy suffers from poor cultivation practices and frequent drought. However, new efforts – including Semagn-Asredie Kolech’s research – are beginning to fortify the country’s agricultural resilience, reducing the threat of starvation and bringing on the rising possibility of exporting potatoes to other African countries.

Annually, Ethiopian farmers plant potatoes in the spring and late summer. Yet, they still search for optimum planting dates and vie for vibrant drought-tolerant varieties if planted in the short-rain season, and sidestepping late blight, if planted in the longer rainy season.

At an Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future forum in March, Kolech presented preliminary research gathered last summer. He surveyed Ethiopian farmers in potato-growing regions to understand their varietal inventory and crop practices. Farmers tried new varieties, but they often reverted back to using their traditional cultivars…

Kolech said that he found that the usage drop-off is due mostly to poor storage quality. New varieties have good attributes, such as high yield and late blight resistance, but in northwestern Ethiopia where more than 40 percent of potatoes are grown, the potato color and taste changes in storage earlier than the local varieties…

In 1970 Ethiopian farmers planted less than 30,000 hectares of potatoes. Today, more than 160,000 hectares are planted. With a population of 93 million and a land size almost double that of Texas, Ethiopia can accommodate growing 3 million hectares of potatoes, Kolech says.

The environmental and economic prospects for Ethiopia are so intriguing, this June five Cornell faculty members…will travel with Kolech to Ethiopia to meet with potential government and nongovernmental collaborators. Their travel will be funded by Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and a collaborative CARE-Cornell Impact through Innovation Fund.

Bravo! The sort of activist education and research that helps define a leading university.