Heavy Petting: how nerve endings in your skin make petting awesome.

Petting. Your dog loves it. You love it. Which makes you watching your dog love it… a little weird. But the truth is, from humans to cats and dogs and beyond, social mammals adore being gently stroked down their bodies. Whether that body is furry or covered in the finest patina of hair, the results are the same.

California Institute of Technology researchers happened upon the reason for this phenomenon while studying a specific type of neuron commonly found in hairy or furry mammals’ skin. These cells had been discovered in 2007, but their usefulness to their possessors was not yet known.

The solution was to genetically modify mice so that these particular nerve cells would light up when stimulated. The researchers then used a microscope to see which type of stimulus would ring the bell, so to speak:

They tried various types of stimuli to see if they could get the cells to light up. For example, the scientists recorded each time they stroked the hindfoot of the mouse with an artist’s paintbrush. In this way, they could see if the touch was responsible for the nerve signal. Gentle stroking, but not poking or pinching with a tweezer, elicited a response, Anderson and his colleagues report online today in Nature.

Of course however pleasing and even amorous petting can be, science is not often romantic, and neurology even less so. To wit, the solution for determining whether the soft petting actually did feel good was – you guessed it – more genetic modification, rigorous testing and a healthy dose of drug abuse.

The researchers this time modified the mice so that an injection of a chemical would elicit the same response from the nerves as petting. Wow. Give me a shot of that.

So they put the mice in a three-chambered box. In one chamber, they’re shooting up and listening to the Velvet Underground. In the opposite chamber, diddley-shit and Pat Boone.

Guess what? After a few weeks of conditioning, the mice preferred the petting den. Whether this proves that mice prefer petting or have addictive personalities remains an open question in my mind.


Your heart and a worm’s butt: besties?

You know, when you think about it – I mean, really think about it – there is… really nothing obvious about the connection between a worm’s pooper and your ticker. But things are not always as they seem.

In science, they rarely are. For example, having grown up on the notion that bones are made of calcium, we could be forgiven for thinking that this is where calcium’s usefulness in the body ends. That is not the case, however. Calcium is one of the most ubiquitous signaling chemicals in the body, facilitating everything from flexing your muscles to that squirt of endocrine reward you get for having worked out in the first place.

Calcium also governs the proper beating of your heart. Researchers are not yet aware of the mechanism by which calcium regulates how the heart works, but researchers at the U of R may be a step closer to an answer. And they got there by studying the digestive systems of worms.

Because the worm’s digestive system basically works as a series of muscle contractions pushing the food through the system, they wondered what was causing the muscles to move in such an organized wave. They wondered what made the muscles contract so rhythmically:

The team’s analysis revealed that a molecule called a microRNA is required for the entire waste removal process to run smoothly. microRNA-786 is present in the two most posterior intestinal cells of worms and tags these cells as the pacemakers or leaders. These pacemakers dictate when and where the primary calcium spike occurs, activating the movement of waste through the worm’s body. When the team removed microRNA-786 from worms the process went awry; the calcium wave started in the wrong place and the waste cycle was irregular and longer than normal.

So the presence of a single molecule of microRNA in a worm’s butt is what makes him crap real good. It is what creates a chain of command that allows the muscles to work as a team. And some similar type of “teamwork gene” might be present in human hearts as well. Or at least, studying the relationship between microRNA-786 and the pacemaker cells may reveal other clues to the heart’s regulation.

Or maybe they just create the world’s most efficient laxative. I think that avoiding a “waste cycle” that is “irregular and longer than normal” is a goal we all share. Here’s to science!

History Rochester VIDEO

On the Fourth Day of Christmas, a present for Rochester and Mayor Richards

Ever notice that whoever wrote the “12 Days of Christmas” song had a severe bird fetish? At least six of these 12 days of true love gift giving are bird related, and possibly more. History has debated that the fifth day’s gift of “five golden rings” actually referred to ring-necked pheasants, not fancy finger jewelry. So! There we have it. The first seven days of the 12 Days of Christmas are birds, equaling a grand total of 28 birds from your true love.

Um, thanks?

Culturally, we may not typically celebrate 12 days of Christmas anymore, but Rochester is certainly on board with Day 4, albeit perhaps unintentionally. Day 4 is another commonly misinterpreted verse to the 12 Days song, with many singing “four calling birds” when in fact, it is actually “four colly birds.” Okay, well that’s all fine and good, but what the heck is a colly bird? According to our good friends at Wikipedia, colly bird is the old-fashioned term for a black bird. Merry Christmas, Rochester, indeed!

The crows are back in town, and they’re back with a vengeance.  Earlier in the year, the city put forth extensive creative and technological efforts to disperse crows from downtown areas, however, the colder weather has brought them back, much to the city’s chagrin. Earlier this week, wildlife biologists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture began their most recent attempts to chase the overwhelming amount of crows out of Washington Square Park, which, on Sunday’s count, clocked in with over 25,000 crows.

The USDA has been working through the night using non-harmful techniques such as spotlights and pyrotechnics to rid the crows, however, these colly birds aren’t leaving without a fight. Several crows have flown away or moved to other trees while others have barely budged. Back in February, we reported that crows have an uncanny sense of memory – perhaps they’re calling our bluff?

According to USDA wildlife biologist Mark Carrara, these things take time and will decrease gradually, comparing the techniques to pet training, which may not be such a far-fetched comparison. For whatever reason, these crows do seem to believe they’ve found a home in Rochester. Perhaps Rochester should be more selective when choosing its “true love” next year, or at least one that blesses us with better gifts. In the meantime, happy eleven months of the fourth day of Christmas to all, and to all a good night!



Better wine through genomics: Rochester boffins discover wine grape bacteria

As world populations continue to climb and food sources become more and more crucial to protect from all threats, it is good to know that someone’s taking the wine seriously.

Researchers at the Rochester Institute of Technology, in cooperation with an international team of boffins, have isolated the genomic structure of bacteria which are commonly found hosted in Riesling wine grape vines. They have also discovered another bacteria commonly found populating sugarcane crops. The information for these two pests has been submitted to the GenBank: a National Institutes of Health database of genomic structures. From there, other researchers can use the RIT team’s research to further their own studies:

“We assembled millions of short DNA sequences into long sequences and made biological sense out of them,” Gan says. “Having the near complete genetic information from a bacteria will bring us to a new level of research.”

“We can tease out information based on the genome of the organism that live inside the plant,” Hudson adds. “The question is, why are these bacteria living in the plants? Are they destroying the plants or are they providing a benefit? Are they providing nutrients that are helping the plant grow, like plant hormones, phosphorous or nitrogen? Is it a mutualistic relationship where the plant and bacteria are both benefiting?”

One researcher is Professor Andre Hudson, whose work with protein folding structures in algae has been previously reported on by DFE.

The research into these two pests goes well beyond applications to wine or sugar cane. The Methylobacterium and Novosphingobium bacteria studied in grape vines, for example, is a pest that feeds on the xylem inside plants. Xylem is the vascular system of a plant, allowing nutrients and waste to pass through the plant as necessary. Understanding the nature of this bacteria may unlock secrets that help grow a wide variety of other crops more efficiently.


Who doesn’t like eating lobster? Not lobsters, that’s for sure. Lobster cannibalism:

One of my favorite parts about visiting my soon-to-be in laws is the food. Yes, my future mother-in-law is an excellent cook, but the best part is that they live in Maine, and you know what that means: lobsters on the cheap! And really, who can resist a nice lobster dinner? Not many people, and apparently not the lobsters, either.


Cannibal lobsters? Yes, it’s a little weird, a little gross, and completely true. Noah Oppenheim, a graduate student studying at the University of Maine, caught this little gem on film. For those of you who don’t have the stomach to watch your food eating your –  er – food, the video depicts adult lobsters grabbing and scarfing down adolescent lobsters. That’s one way to deal with obnoxious teenage angst!

Although lobsters in captivity have been known to occasionally snap and eat their own kind, scientists in Maine say Oppenheim’s video is the first direct evidence that lobsters practice cannibalism in the wild. It’s not yet determined if this change in appetite is due to warmer water temperatures or a decrease in typical lobster predators, but fear not. Lobsters are not expected to eat themselves into extinction and Maine’s lobster boom will most likely return next summer. And hey, if you’re really lucky, you might even find a smaller lobster inside your lobster – now that’s what I call a 2-for-1 dinner!

By the way, don’t be shy! Check out our other great posts on cannibalism! Get a whole fist full!


Onions are so good for you, they’ll make you cry

Sometimes, there’s nothing better than a good cry. This is especially true when chopping onions, although not for the emotional release. The component in that pungent misty stuff in onions that irritates the heck out of our eyes is scientifically known as lachrymatory factor, appropriately derived from the Latin word lacrima, which means “tear”. Interestingly enough, lachrymatory factor is actually doing us a a few excellent health favors, possibly even protecting us against cancer. Doesn’t seem like such a terrible chore now, does it?

Onions are naturally rich in two health-benefiting compounds: flavonoids and sulfur-containing compounds. Flavonoids are typically found at high concentrations in the skin and outer layers of onions with yellow, brown, red, or purple coloring. These compounds are also potential antioxidants that could protect us against heart disease, cancer, and aging. The sulfur-containing compounds are where onions give us their taste, odor, and – you guessed it – misty tear gas. So what does this mean?

When an onion is cut, sulfur compounds are released into the air. These compounds are broken down into an unstable intermediate and can then either turn into lachrymatory factor or spontaneously turn into thiosulfinate. This thiosulfinate is not only responsible for the onion’s distinct odor and flavor, but also converts into other sulfur-containing compounds with potential health benefits including anti-inflammation, anti-blood clotting, anti-cancer, anti-asthma, and lowering cholesterol levels. Sounds great to me, and I don’t even like onions!

Maybe you do enjoy onions in your favorite Thanksgiving recipes but you don’t particularly enjoy crying – who could blame you? Never fear; scientists have been working on bringing tear-free onions to the general market since 2008. Tear-free onions were originally developed by Crop & Food Research of New Zealand and House Foods Corporation of Japan. These onions look and taste like regular onions but have lowered activity of lachrymatory-factor synthase through genetic modification and thus do not make your eyes water upon chopping or crushing, but still increase the production of beneficial thiosulfinate – which means none of the tears with all of the health benefits!

Unfortunately, commercializing genetically modified foods is no simple task, so it will probably be a few more years before we find tear-free onions in the Wegman’s produce section. However, the largest share of the liquids and therefore, of the phosphates that make us cry are found in the tips of the bulb – the northern and southern hemispheres, you might say. To avoid getting too much juice out into the air and minimize the crying, try not to cut into the poles too much. This is why classical French technique only has you cut into the poles once, as demonstrated here for a tear-free Thanksgiving feast preparation:


In the meantime, keep chopping your onions with the knowledge that through your tears come wonderful health benefits! And hey, while you’re at it, check out our Turkey Day Turkeys playlist and tell us which “turkeys” you think we should add!


Durand, Sodus… China? The world-wide algae problem. reports today that China is experiencing what they believe is the first-ever “brown tide,” or large algae bloom of brown algae. This bloom is threatening fisheries along China’s very long coast. So just in case you thought Sodus’s problem was just a quirk of the current season, you should be aware that in fact the “brown tide” is affecting three separate countries’ shorelines.

To be clear: nothing about the brown tide is similar to the Upstate area’s problems, genetically speaking. Not only are the species of algae different, the “blue-green algae” currently plaguing Sodus Bay’s waters is in fact a bacteria, not an algae. But in every case, additional run-off from fertilizer and other substrates are contributing to the issue:

In the past few decades, China’s rapid pace of population growth and agriculture development has led to more nutrients being discharged into the sea — in the form of sewage, animal manure and fertilizers. That excess has caused massive algal blooms since the 1990s, especially at the Yangtze estuary. Those blooms have had a red or green hue, known as red or green tides, because of the pigments of the algal species responsible.

“The recent brown-tide outbreaks may be the latest manifestation of increasing nutrient loads in China’s coastal waters,” says Gobler.

Not discussed in this article: what role a modest increase in oceanic temperatures might be playing.

Rochester Science

Blue-green algae on Sodus Bay: how an RIT discovery may prevent future blooms

Algae is back in Sodus Bay. Blue-green algae, to be exact. Only, to be exact, blue-green algae isn’t algae at all…

Confused, yet? Blue-green algae is actually an organism known as cyanobacteria. Being bacteria, it is technically an animal rather than a plant. However, cyanobacteria are capable of photosynthesis, much like algae are. Cyanobacteria populates just about every ecosystem on Earth, from deep seas to freshwater to land.

In freshwater bodies, cyanobacteria blooms will cause waters to turn pea green, and in still areas, will rise to the surface as the trademark blue-green scum that gives them their name. The above-linked article includes someone quoted as saying, “I don’t think anybody wanted to go in the water anyway because it was like pea soup.” This would be another symptom, rather than a secondary consideration, of blue-green algae blooms. “Blooms,” by the way, are large infestations of cyanobacteria which are typically caused by the introduction of nitrogen and phosphorus into the water. Officials in Sodus will probably be looking into fertilizer run-off as a culprit, but changes in currents and seasonal variations are probably also a factor.

Research conducted at RIT in partnership with the University of Alberta, Canada, may yield a low-impact solution for such infestations in the future. Professor Andre Hudson and his team has identified a critical juncture in the photosynthesis process in algae, cyanobacteria and other autotrophs that, if properly exploited, could neutralize such infestations without harming other species within the ecosystem. DFE covered this discovery a while back. But new developments have emerged in the discovery of a specific practical solution.

The key to this new solution is lysine, a common protein that is critical to the process of photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the process of converting sunlight to digestible energy, as all plants do. Dr. Hudson discovered a means of blocking the production of lysine, which would disrupt the whole process of photosynthesis and effectively starve the targeted organism.

Dr. Hudson says that the team has discovered and begun to test a couple of different chemicals to see if they will effectively short-circuit the photosynthetic process in this way. Once one working chemical is found – and found to not interfere with other organisms in the same ecosystem – the next step would be to find a business that wants to buy into the new technology. However, testing chemicals for their interaction with other organisms is a long-term process and even if the chemicals they’ve discovered yield a successful solution, that solution may be four to five years in coming.

In the meanwhile, its worth noting that while swimming through cyanobacteria would be an indubitably icky process, the toxicity of cyanobacteria is actually quite rare. Science is still not entirely certain why one bloom is toxic and the majority aren’t, but one theory suggests that different species of cyanobacteria produce different chemicals. Some blooms have been reported to have killed cows, most are completely harmless. Regardless, there is currently no study of the Sodus Bay blue-green algae bloom that says its at all toxic.

Rochester Science

Wine Science: the legacy of Dr. Konstantin Frank and Finger Lakes wines

Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars is celebrating its 50th anniversary on July 1st of this year. Not only is this a landmark milestone for the winery, but also for New York Wines as a whole. It was Dr. Konstantin Frank who perfected the grafting of vinifera grapes onto native rootstock in order for European grapes to be grown in New York State.

Prior to the perfection of these grafting techniques (where the root-stock of native grapes are fused to the vines of traditional European wine grapes), New York wineries primarily used the native grape types in their wines. While many of the wineries still use these native grape types today, they did not have the reputation of their European comrades. By growing grape types which Europeans and other wine regions were familiar with, New York was finally able to compete on a level playing field and build the reputation they have today.

European wine grapes (vinifera) are susceptible to a parasite which is native to the United States called phylloxera. This small green insect devours the leaves and roots and ultimately kills the vines. The native grapes are resistant to the pest and were thus easier to cultivate. The first way to circumvent the phylloxera was to make French/American hybrids. Wines made from these hybrids won awards but these vines were not as popular as the ones made from vinifera, and in the Finger Lakes the need was to also create more winter-hardy roots to tolerate the cold temperatures common in this area.

By perfecting the grafting technique in the 1950s, Dr. Frank was able to improve the quality of the grapes and thus the wine. One of the keys to his success was the hilling of the dirt around the graft to protect the vine where the European grape vine and resistant root-stock came together at the graft. As a result of this technique, it is possible to grow vinifera grape types in the Finger Lakes. One of these types is Riesling, for which the Finger Lakes have developed their reputation for award-winning wines.

Dr. Frank was a scientist and ran his winery almost as an experiment station of his own. He planted every type of grape he could find because he wanted to know what worked and what didn’t. This led to an amazing collection. Dr. Frank even brought the rkatsiteli (ar-kat-si-TEL-lee) grape to New York. The grape is rarely planted anywhere other than Russia.

Even with Dr. Frank’s work, it has been an interesting Spring already, and the weather could make for some challenges in the wine industry. Most of the effect is going to be seen in the orchards, where the fruit yields have already been hit badly. This may not be the greatest year for fruit wines. In the vineyards, however, at most 10% of the grapes are gone. The most important thing is the fruit set. If the buds were not frozen, then there wouldn’t be any damage to the crops. However, if they did freeze we may see uneven ripening and some decreased yields. There’s no way to know for sure at the moment because the vines are still in the budding process. What a year for a 50th anniversary!


You may be wired to be a slacker. But good news: your bladder will wait

News today out of Vanderbilt University is that your lack of motivation may not, contrary to what your father or your high school principal may have told you, have anything to do with your dead ass. In fact, it appears that the difference between the slacker and the go-getter may be wired into your brain.

By using PET scans, the researchers at Vanderbilt discovered that three key areas of the brain responsible for reward and motivation were flooded with the “reward neurotransmitter” dopamine. On the other hand, slackers appeared to have the same flood in completely different areas of the brain. This is a significant find, as the assumption to this point was that a given neurotransmitter would affect the brain in a single given way, which does not appear to be at all like these findings.

And if you’re wondering whether your bladder will wait for you while you’re in the midst of yet another snooze during the day, well. There’s good news for you on that front: researchers Hitoshi Okamura and Osamu Ogawa at Kyoto University in Japan studied the urination patterns in mice and discovered that, beyond simply the ability to “hold it,” there is a circadian rhythm to going wee-wee.

The researchers studied a specific protein called connexin43, which is responsible for making bladder muscles more sensitive to neural signals. The more sensitive those muscles are, the more likely you are to have to pee. And by studying the release of this protein in mice over time, they discovered that mice are more likely to have to drain the lizard at night. Since mice are nocturnal, we can conclude that you’re probably going to be able to hold off on squeezing the weasel (or for you ladies, her-inating) through your most restful times. So sleep easy!


How alcohol slows your reflexes down: the science of DWI

Rochester has seen a rash of DWIs making headlines lately and as a result, it seems like a good time to review the science behind alcohol’s influence on the nervous system. Sure it is well-known that alcohol is a depressant and can be deadly if an intoxicated person gets behind the wheel, but did you know that slower reaction times are the result of an overload of a part of your brain?

“Alcohol slows down the central nervous system,” said Karen Pelc, coordinator of IMPACT, a Substance and Drug Education & Prevention Program at Rochester Institute of Technology. “When individuals drink too much too quickly it can cause the heart, breathing and brain function to stop.”

Interestingly, researchers have found that the brain’s frontal lobes are greatly affected by alcohol intoxication. The primary functions of the frontal lobe include the ability to distinguish and choose between good and bad actions and the ability to recognize impending consequences resulting from those actions. Both of these functions are altered once alcohol reaches the brain because it slows down communication between the neurons sending signals to your body. This fact can explain why many DWI incidents involve drivers unaware that their actions are dangerous and merit consequences.

Furthermore, alcohol increases gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA) activity which controls the time it takes a person to respond to a certain situation. In the case of drunk driving this is a major issue because as GABA activity increases, brain activity slows down. The driver will not be able to make a quick enough decision to avoid an accident, hence why our society is told not to drink and drive.

The way alcohol affects the nervous system is not something you would typically think about while enjoying an alcoholic beverage, but it’s important in understanding why those intoxicated act the way they do. DWIs are not taken lightly in today’s society, so before you decide to drive home after throwing back a few beers, you may want to take a moment to think about the effects those beers will have on the way your body functions.


Is the Internet altering our attention spans? (I’ll keep this short)

Give a chimpanzee a simple tool, such as a hammer, and observe how his brain processes its use. At first, EEG patterns show the chimp is processing the tool as a separate object from his body. But slowly, over time, as he or she becomes more familiar with the tool, scientists have observed that in fact the chimp begins to recognise the tool – on a neurological level – as an extension of his own body.

This is but one illustration in Nicholas Carr’s newest book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, used to demonstrate the way brains change and evolve constantly throughout our lives. The old maxim that we get but one brain and one collection of neurons for our entire lives is laid bare and the wonder of a constantly-changing, constantly-adapting brain is revealed. This is a concept known among the neuroscience community as neuroplasticity, and it’s a concept we will be returning to quite a bit on DragonFlyEye this week.

There is, as the title of this article suggests, a down side to all this constant evolution: as we sharpen our minds for the things we need to be able to do, this sharpening comes at an expense to those processes our brains perceive as having become less important. Mr. Carr suggests that the always-on, always-connected nature of the Internet is creating a species reliant on the Internet for knowledge, rather than on our individual capacity to learn and retain knowledge.

Carr further states that this shifting of processing priority is making us impatient and our attention spans shorter. There is ample evidence that, at the very least, what Carr observes is happening, though whether he’s correctly identified the cause is another matter. For example, those of us old enough to remember not having cell phones are also old enough to appreciate that we no longer rely on our memories to store phone numbers, now that our phones do it for us. And as for retaining knowledge or having the patience to read long works? Well, there’s even an Internet running joke about how we obtain our information, “Here, let me Google that for you.”

The book reads something like a water-colour painting: each chapter is like another stroke of a different primary colour. Starting at another edge of our history, he draws his brush toward his central thesis in ever-deepening colour, with a new observation from our history. I would not have imagined that Plato’s Republic would bear on the modern Internet, yet one of its more important dialogues plays directly into the concept of this knowledge-store transfer away from individuals. In this case, Plato refers to books versus spoken-word recount. This perhaps is a nod to the enduring struggle of man over his inventions, rather than the novel rewiring of the brain Mr. Carr is discussing.

One interesting story concerns the dawn of “artificial intelligence” and our first trip to the Uncanny Valley in the form of a simple program that scientists once enthused would replace psychotherapy. This time, a program which simply takes the user’s input “I feel sad today,” and translates it into “why do you feel sad today?” suddenly has the scientific community in an uproar.

Mr. Carr will be giving the keynote address at Roberts Wesleyan College’s upcoming Biennial Academic Conference. DragonFlyEye.Net has been asked to cover the event, which will include a live-tweeting of his address and extensive coverage on this site of the concepts and meaning of this bold new understanding of neuroscience throughout the week. Keep an eye on the Neurplasticity tag on this site and the #nickcarr hash tag on Twitter for more information!

Buy the book?