Old Biophilia

50 ways to convince your husband to get a dog
June 22, 2010, 6:06 pm
Filed under: Diversity in the animal world, Human biology

I’ve been working on my husband for quite some time now to let me adopt a dog. This week’s reason is that I would feel oh-so-much safer in the house on those long lonely nights when he is fishing until midnight. He’s entirely unconvinced. We all know about the variety of jobs that our domesticated friend can perform for us — rescue dogs search for missing persons, seeing-eye dogs help the blind….on a recent trip to Mexico I watched a dog walk the conveyor belt sniffing every piece of luggage for the faint trace of blood. These feats aren’t enough to convince my hubby…..but wait! There’s more! Biologists are now working with dogs to solve a variety of scientific dilemmas.

Looking to initiate an invasive plant management strategy?? Set this guy loose at your site.

A study just published in Invasive Plant Science and Management showed that trained dogs outperformed humans in their ability to detect invasive plant species. This weed outcompetes native plant species and causes both ecosystem and economic destruction, but it is often difficult to control the plant if you can’t find it! Enter Fido! Dogs are more accurate than humans (overall success rate of 81% compared to humans 59%) at locating the invasive week and could find it from much greater distance.

Kincaid’s Lupine, a rare, endangered, Oregonian plant, is the one plant on which the endangered Fender’s blue butterfly will lay its eggs.Conservationist have been working with the belgian sheepdog Rogue to spot this  endangered plant and the tiny eggs laid there by the blue butterfly. Rogue and his buddies made only 5 errors in a total of 378 plots.

Rogue working hard for his steak dinner

Of course the possibilities are endless. “EcoDogs” are being used to sniff out a variety of different endangered species – plants and animals alike! Sophie, a 15-month-old black Labrador retriever, is trained to find scat from eastern spotted skunks, while Bishop, a 3-year-old black Labrador retriever, is trained to find scat from striped skunks in Alabama. Both have been trained through EcoDogs, a collaborative organization that trains “detection dogs for ecological research”.

If you happen to be on the Puget Sound this summer and see Gator with a stiff body, mouth open, tail erect, and nose twitching it’s because he just smelled a killer whale pooping nearby! Gator’s first class nose can also detect black bear, grizzly bear, lynx, bobcat, puma, maned wolf, wolverine, fisher, marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and crack —and all he wants in return is to play with his ball.

Dogs have also been reported to sniff out low blood sugar and skin cancer. They can identify prostate cancer from urine samples. A study published in Intergrative Cancer Therapies in 2006 report that, in a matter of weeks, “ordinary” household dogs could be trained to accurately distinguish breath samples of both lung and breast cancer patients from those who were cancer-free.

Now, if you were my husband….wouldn’t you be convinced???

Oh, and if you’re ready to adopt a dog, check your local shelter or animal rescue! If you’re here in orange county check out Friends of Orange County’s Homeless Pets.

What are your memorial day weekend plans?
May 30, 2010, 5:28 pm
Filed under: Human biology, Student post

by Guest Blogger and Bio 185 Student: C. Lauren Loban

Does moderate alcohol consumption in women lead to a smaller waistline?

In a study originally published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, researchers may have discovered a link between drinking alcohol and maintaining a slimmer waistline. This study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston was conducted over a period of 13 years and followed almost 20,000 women, all of who began with healthy weights. The study showed that moderate amounts of alcohol might curtail weight gain in women over time, specifically 30% less likely to become overweight or obese. However, “moderate” drinking should be clearly defined for women, as many women may create their own interpretation from this study of what “moderate” drinking is. The small amount that researchers discovered may cause women to gain less weight as compared to those who drank no alcohol at all was the equivalent of one to two drinks per day. Red wine had the greatest association with lower weight, while the effects were also found for white wine, beer and spirits.  However, an example of one drink is considered a 5 oz glass of wine, and many restaurants and bars serve glasses of wine much larger than 5 oz, so it is easy for women to miscalculate how many calories they are actually consuming. It may also become easier for women to justify their drinking habits if they believe it will keep them trim, however it is important to consider the other lifestyle habits of those who drink regularly.

The common characteristics of those who imbibe regularly are essential details of the study, and are very likely linked to the effects of moderate alcohol consumption on body weight. Women who drink moderately are also more likely to consume fewer calories from food, exercise more, have less healthy diets and perhaps not surprisingly smoke cigarettes. So, in the long run of overall health, who is going to win, the moderate drinker-smoker with a lower body mass index who eats less amounts of unhealthy food, or the non-drinker who eats healthfully and doesn’t smoke? My vote is for the latter, or even better –mindful, healthy sensible eating coupled with moderate exercise topped off with a small glass of red wine!

Read more here: http://articles.latimes.com/2010/mar/09/science/la-sci-women-alcohol9-2010mar09

Before we get serious, I’d like to see the results of your genetic testing kit
May 23, 2010, 5:42 pm
Filed under: Human biology, Student post

by Guest Blogger and Bio 185 Student: Pauline Do

Imagine a world of dating where you could ask your significant other for the genetic risks he or she carries before you decided to start a family with this person. High blood pressure? Strong likelihood of getting a heart attack? Sayonara. Well, look no further and imagine no more because  San Diego-based company Pathway Genomics plans to make genetic testing kits called the Insight test available at 6,000 Walgreens stores nationwide. Although genetic testing kits are old news, this decision signals the first attempt at mass marketing personalized genomic medicine.

Ranging from $20-$249 per kit, customers are instructed to spit into a vial which is sent to the company. Depending on the amount of money spent, the company will test  customer’s DNA for 23 genetic conditions that they carry (and can potentially pass on to their children) such as diabetes or 23 conditions they are at risk for such as high blood pressure and obesity. Another test presents likely responses a customer’s body would make if introduced to 10 different substances such as caffeine and an assortment of other drugs.

Opponents of the kit maintain that because few things are understood about reading genetic markers, results from the kit will be inconclusive. Paralleling the Humane Genome Project, there is a possibility of misusing and misinterpreting the information. However, the company argues results could motivate individuals to lead healthier lifestyles and even provides guidance for interpreting results over the phone.

According to Robert Stein, many are also concerned that: “[the kit] will open a Pandora’s box of confusion, privacy violations, genetic discrimination and other issues.” Adding to the confusion, many customers may psych themselves out and procure an unwarranted sense of security which could lead to negligence of important, preventive measures or over-worry about diseases and conditions they don’t have which could lead to uncalled for costly treatments.

In my opinion, these genetic kits are precarious. I agree with the article when it says that our decision to genetically test ourselves could lead to testing of the fetus. I think this leads to parents playing “God”. People could become discriminatory and decide they’d rather have an abortion and try again, to obtain the perfect baby. As kits become more advanced and more companies join the arena of over-the-counter kits, maybe the parents will want blue eyes over brown eyes or maybe they don’t want to deal with the costs of a diabetic child. In the same manner, a person in a serious relationship might decide to end it because, “There is no way I’d want to marry a guy who might have leukemia in the future”. Moreover, what if companies begin to play on these issues to make more money? My belief is that access to such information is controversial and people are unready to deal with such power.

To read more  (or to test  your genes, whatever floats your boat), the article is available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wpdyn/content/article/2010/05/10/AR2010051004904_2.html?g=0.

The science of weddings
March 11, 2010, 5:19 pm
Filed under: Human biology

I am getting married in 16 days. I like to think that i’ve taken a scientists approach to the wedding—I think many brides would covet my many excel spreadsheets. But my approach is nothing compared to that of bride Linda and her groom Nic. They added an unexpected dimension to their nuptials; they decided to conduct an experiment to determine what happens to our bodies when we say “I do”.

Researcher Paul Zak measured levels of oxytocin in the bride, groom, three close family members and eight friends before and after the ceremony (now those are some dedicated bridesmaids!!). Oxytocin is released from the pituitary gland in the brain and has been dubbed the “cuddle chemical” because of its association with bonding, trust, and generosity (it also triggers childbirth and the release of milk during breastfeeding).

As expected, the bride and groom both experienced a surge of the “cuddle” hormone during the ceremony (as did the mother of the bride and father of the groom!). The closer the genetic relatedness to the bride and groom, the higher the level of oxytocin.

Researcher Paul Zak proposes that this “group oxytocin” surge supports the theory that public weddings have evolved as a way of binding couples to their friends and families (perhaps to help out with future child-rearing in order to increase biological fitness!!). It is also not surprising that they observed a greater spike in the hormone in family members than in friends.

To learn about the action of the other hormones measured at their wedding (vasopressin–released during sex, involved in male aggression and pair bonding’ testosterone–released by the testes, levels tend to fall in the early stages of a relationship; ACTH and cortisol–“stress hormones”, moderate levels promote the release of oxytocin but high levels inhibit it), read the New Scientist article at http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20527471.000-my-big-fat-geek-wedding-tears-joy-and-oxytocin.html?full=true

PS I wouldn’t want blood being drawn an hour before my vows but I am pretty jealous of the centrifuge in the bridal ready room

Welcome to “Biophilia”
March 5, 2010, 6:27 pm
Filed under: Human biology

The term “biophilia” was coined by Edward O. Wilson, a Harvard University entomologist, naturalist, and conservationist. I have had a fondness of E.O. Wilson ever since he declared that if he could start his life over he would work in microbial ecology! Back to biophilia—Wilson introduced the term to describe the instinctive bond between human beings and living systems. Literally, biophilia means “love of life or living systems“. It can be thought of as the “innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes” or the “connection that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life”.

So that is the inspiration for this blog….to share my love of life and living organisms and living systems with my friends, family, and students. I hope to highlight for you some of the wonders and marvels of the natural world.  In E.O. Wilson’s words, “If you study life deeply, its profundity will seize you suddenly with dizziness . . .”