December 24, 2006

That Coleslaw was Killer

Filed under: Health Tips — Sharon Moalem @ 1:59 am

This may surprise you but most bad bugs, that cause food poisoning anyway, aren’t actually trying to kill you. Most are just trying to lay claim to what they believe to be theirs namely your dinner.

Microbes accomplish this gastronomical prospecting feat by sprinkling your delicious coleslaw with poison. This is really similar to what happens on playgrounds the world over. When kids don’t feel like sharing their food they usually succumb to the old spit or lick technique. This is where they apply saliva in one way or another to their food rendering it gross and inedible to other kids. Well the poisons that many bacteria produce seek to accomplish the same thing.

So the next time you happen to sicken any of your dinner guests be sure to remind them that bacteria, like most everything else that is alive on this planet typically isn’t into being eaten.

December 19, 2006

Excerpts from the Book Posted!

Filed under: News — Sharon Moalem @ 2:08 pm

Just to let everyone know excerpts of Survival of the Sickest, have just been posted on this site. Check it out!

Germs, Germs, Everywhere

Filed under: Evolution and You — Sharon Moalem @ 1:56 pm

Germ phobs beware! This post is definitely not for you. A recent study by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that the air you and I breathe is a teeming bacteria jungle. One of the biggest advances offered by genetic and molecular biology today is that we can now ‘see’ or find germs that were always there, but lacked the techniques to find them.

The old method hasn’t changed much in over 150 years. It uses small plates or containers to try to grow bacteria. This is what the doctor does when he does a ‘throat swab’. The swab that he tickles your throat with, gets sent to a lab that then puts the swab on a plate filled with what looks like cherry jello. It’s not cherries that infuse the jelly like substance but calf blood that is added to help bacteria grow. The problem with this technique is that bacteria are really finicky and worse than any two year old when it comes to what they like to eat, so most, something like 99% of unknown bacteria are thought to be typically missed.

So according to this new study, turns out that we also grossly underestimated the diversity of bacteria in the air. Thankfully evolution has provided us with many defense mechanism to filter out any unwanted guests we might be sniffing in at any moment. One of these adaptations is little hairs called cilia that resemble sperm tails, that line most of our respiratory tract that help sweep out debris and mucous up into our mouth for us to dispose of. There are some rare disorders where people are born without functional cilia or you can get rid of your cilia by smoking. Without these little hairs, that you may not have even known existed until, now you’d be in big trouble.

So take a deep breathe and thank evolution for allowing you to survive very fresh yet bacteria laden air.

December 17, 2006

The most underused medicine

Filed under: Views — Sharon Moalem @ 9:12 am

The placebo effect, whereby a sugar pill, seemingly has the power to make people feel better, especially if the person taking the pill thinks that what they are taking is a ‘real’ bona fide drug, has to be one of the least understood phenomenon in medicine. In some studies up to 40% of people report improvements from ‘fake’ placebo pills or treatments.

In fact, most researchers try to get rid of the placebo effect when trying to evaluate the potential of a new drug. To most researchers the placebo effect is nothing but a nuisance. But to the brave few who dare to actually study the effect directly, they see its significant potential to heal.

Many people have raised an ethical eyebrow as to whether treating someone with a ‘fake’ sugar pill constitutes treatment in the traditional sense. To me the most interesting thing about the placebo effect is the power of belief. It’s a nice reminder that we have some say in how we interact with the world around us. And as I said in my last post regarding PNI, be careful of what you think and do, your body is always listening.

December 13, 2006

Milk it does the body good, sometimes.

Filed under: Evolution and You — Sharon Moalem @ 9:57 pm

I must admit it. I love ice cream. Gelato, Haagen-Dazs, Ben and Jerry’s, in all forms you scoop it and I’ll eat it. If most of the world’s population tried to eat what I eat (buckets of ice cream per week) they would most likely experience bloating, cramping and diarrhea. The reason for this is that the majority of people on the planet do not produce enough of a protein called lactase, necessary to break down the main sugar found in milk, past childhood.

From an evolutionary perspective it makes sense for humans to stop producing lactase into adulthood since most well adjusted adults (at least according to Freud and his intellectual heirs) do not breastfeed and so would not need a protein that can digest milk. The only groups of people that have not given up the teat so to speak are those whose ancestors raised animals and then stole their milk and worldwide they are the minority. A recent study that was covered in an article by Nicholas Wade of The New York Times found that multiple mutations arose as recently as 3,000 years ago allowing some early herdsman to happily digest milk.

As I get ready to dig into another bowl of magnificent ice cream heaven I can’t help but think, being a mutant has its perks.

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