Biology Science Zoology

Of sex, food and worms: good science, badly reported

It is true: there is a newly-discovered set of neurons found in a type of worm that, when activated, causes the male of the species to forego food in search of sex. That this set of neurons was just discovered actually does matter to the lives of humans. Or at least, it could. But not because it confirms the cliche of men starving for sex:

Researchers may have figured out why men can prioritize sex over food. Well, some men.

It’s a matter of two “mystery” neurons, suggest researchers at University College London.

They found that these extra neurons — which are unique to males — allow them to remember and seek sex even at the expense of food and are also behind some sex-based differences in learning.

So, what happened?

C. elegans is a species of worm about which we know a surprising amount. In biology research, there are some species of plants and animals that, for one reason or another, get more attention than others. Elodia and Drosophila (fruit flies) are very common study species.

C. elegans is popular because it is a simple organism that happens to share a lot of common traits with more advanced forms of life like humans. By studying C. elegans, we can often make intelligent extrapolations about how things work in other species.

In particular, C. elegans has the distinction of being the only species of life for which we have a complete neuronal map. Every neuron, every synapse (connections between neurons), every feature of the neural network of the C. elegans has been long-since mapped and analyzed… at least, so we thought.

Two researchers at the University College of London, wife and husband team Dr. Arantza Barrios and Dr. Richard Poole, research the sexual dimorphism of C. elegans. Sexual dimorphism means that different sexes have different traits (think boobs. I know I do).

In the past, the dimorphism of C. elegans has always been studied in a different portion of the worm, where differences are more obvious: the tail. These researchers discovered one set of sexually-dimorphous neurons in the head of the animals, which they named the Mystery Neurons of the Male (MNM).

What they do turns out not to be much of a mystery at all: they learn to recognize the opposite sex as a priority stimulus. Don’t we all? When the opposite sex is near – which turn out to be hermophrodites, in the C. elegens’ case – the worm with active MNM will ignore other homeostatic functions – like eating – in favour of pursuing sexual reproduction.

So. There you have it: males of the C. elegens species will forego eating in favour of sex. Or at least, they will favour sexual reproduction over other things. Not quite the whiz-bang you were hoping for? Of course not, because non-science – and even some science – news sources want to focus on sex, sex, sex. Yet the reality of what the boffins in London discovered is way more important and honestly cooler.

Why it matters

Worms getting it on don’t seem terribly relevant to humans. And indeed, they are not. What really matters is, again, the fact that simple organisms like the C. elegens can give us clues to our own biology. In this case, science has been looking for the keys to understanding sexual dimorphism in human cognition. We know that some decision making in humans is consistently different from one sex to the other. While much of the scientific community has been certain that such a difference also existed in the brain’s wiring, science has thus far not been able to pin that difference down.

That a simple creature so far removed from us in the evolutionary tree should have such a simple device for continuing the species may indicate that a similar development across species. Or, it may not. It’s just way too early to tell.

The other, perhaps even more significant, discovery that this new development represents is the appearance of glial cells in such a simple organism. Here in Rochester, we know all about glial cells, because that’s what our neuroscientists specialize in.

Glial cells are, effectively, stem cells for the brain. They are part of the glimphatic system, and their job is to grow more neuronal  cells when old ones wear out or are damaged. Remember Nancy Reagan in the 80’s? Insisting that you could not grow brain cells back, so don’t do drugs? Well, the old bat was wrong. Do drugs: your glial cells will make more neurons, no sweat.

It’s is significant that glia create entirely new neuronal cells at different age stages, at least in the case of C. elegans. Rather than simply creating the same type of cell over and over again, it seems like glia (individual glial cells) can alter their behavior throughout the lifetime of an individual. It means glia are a lot more flexible than we knew, which may point the way towards therapies for neurodegenerative disease like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s.

So, maybe not the sexy news you were hoping for. If you’d been planning on filling out your 6pm news cast or your morning radio talk show? Sorry. But understanding the fundaments of human cognition and finding cures for wasting brain disease seems kind of important. But these messages got lost, because pee-pees and hoo-hahs. Maybe, if the media industry at large could stop giggling and take this more seriously, we could appreciate this amazing discovery for what it is.

But for now, dear reader, it’s just you and us.


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.


No condoms in porn and 5 other shitty ideas I shouldn’t have tried IRL

News today that L.A. County, California is set to vote on whether or not to require porn filmed there to be shot using condoms on all the male actors. This follows on the heels of the city of Los Angeles passing a similar measure… but then not actually doing anything about it.

The question in my mind is: why? Why put condoms on porn actors? If the L.A. County hospital system is clogged with porn actors and actresses and rapidly running out of penicillin, well, that’s one thing. We all understand what a burden health care is on local government.

But if the aim is to send a message in pornography that unprotected sex is just verboten, well, isn’t pornography supposed to be fantasy? I am repeatedly informed by my wife that yes, it is. If that’s the case, and I confess that I still have my doubts, I think it is fair to assess what other ill-conceived ideas ought also to be excised from the pornographic repertoire. You know, so that people don’t get the wrong idea. With this in mind, I’d like to suggest a few things I’ve noticed:

1. Observe maximum occupancy rules during orgies

To each his or her own. And what the hell, to each a few others’ as well. After all, the only thing more sexy than observing the dermatological mishaps on your own body and those of your loved one would have to be observing those of your increasingly-sticky friends. Get right in there! The more, the merrier!

But as if cheaply-made, Chinese lingerie from Fredericks of Hollywood, CVS candles, cheap wigs and cheaper cologne didn’t present enough of a fire hazard, please: let us not also introduce a trampling hazard. Be mindful of the maximum occupancy rules for the room you’re in. The gimp suit you save might be your own.

2. Your dick in a pizza box: chicks don’t actually dig that.

Strange but true. I’m still not allowed in Irondequoit after having learned this lesson.

3. Weightlifting equipment + lube = an invitation to a broken rib and a collapsed lung.

Nothing in the world could be hotter than the thick, fully-scented ambrosia of workout sweat under Spandex. That’s a given. But if you’re gonna fuck like the pros, you’ll need a good lubricant and sadly, sweat just doesn’t have the proper viscosity. Introducing KY Jelly to the weight room is a dicey affair, however. Other workout equipment may work better, but you don’t often see it in movies.

And enticing though it may be, I suspect the rowing machine has some nasty pinching accident potential. So steer clear.

4. An interview in a room with bare walls, four cameras and a black leather couch? Trust me: it’s not that kind of modeling.

This one’s just for the ladies. Keep in mind when seeking out modeling jobs that not all modeling jobs are the same. That’s all.

Oh! And your boyfriend absolutely will mind.

5. If your hot, busty boss tells you that you’re doing a shitty job, that’s because you’re doing a shitty job.

This is how I lost my job at Unisys.


The Mating Game: RIT boffin explores what is “desirable” in the long term.

Boobs help. Money helps. But there must be more to it than just that, right?

Actually, that may be very nearly all there is according to one researcher at RIT. Professor John Edlund has been studying, not so much what attracts people to each other, but what makes for enduring relationships. And that magical ingredient seems to be similarity in “meaningful characteristics,” thus those who are most commonly seen as desirable end up with people who are similarly desirable.

In addition to physical attractiveness, similarities in upbringing and socio-economic status are also helpful in maintaining a long-term relationship. So, pro tip for you gold diggers: find an old dude, ’cause its not gonna last.

RIT Professor Studies ‘Mate Value’: Do You Possess Qualities That Are Desirable in a Mate? – RIT News.


There’s an Environmentally Friendly Option for Everything.

I tell ya, today has been an interesting day of surfing over here at DFE, people!

The Herbwife’s Kitchen » Flax in the bedroom.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, gooey flax tea makes a great personal lubricant!

Homemade lube. How cool is that?

. . . .

My first response to that recipe is that the quantities are way too large (unless you plan to give some away to all your friends). We’re talking about a perishable product here, so I’d suggest making only a cup or two at a time.

And, . . . say! Doesn’t that website look an awful lot like No reflection on you guys, I’m sure! LOL!