Turns out getting sick is bad for you. Go figure.

In the great to vaccinate or to not vaccinate debate, one of the most common arguments against vaccination (particularly when it comes to measles) is that it is better for your (or your child’s) immune system to fight off the measles naturally. After all, we were born with this immune system, let’s give it something to do right?

I can understand the tendency to default to a nature is better mentality. And I am often skeptical when we humans try to find an artificial shortcut to trying to improve on what nature has spent billions of years perfecting. So this question is worth asking. Is it better, or at least not harmful, to let our natural immune systems deal with the measles and avoid any discomfort you have over the vaccine? In a word, no.

A recent study has found that when you get the measles, you get more than just the measles. You see waaayyy back in the 60s, when kids started first getting vaccinated for the measles, not only did measles cases drop, but over all child mortality dropped too. At the time, people just shrugged their shoulders and said “Eh, let’s say it’s just good hygiene.” And it’s that same argument that people have used against vaccinations: the vaccines didn’t help us, better hygiene did.

Turns out, it was the vaccine. A postdoc at Princeton found that measles doesn’t just make you sick, it also gives your immune system amnesia. The immune system works by remembering what you’ve been sick with in the past, so if those germs show up again (or something that looks a lot like those germs) it recognizes them immediately and fights them off before you even get sick. In fact, the measles can keep affecting the immune system for 2-3 years.

It seems like usually when we discover an amazing cure-all, we end up find out 50 years down the road that it might not be the miracle we were hoping for (I’m looking at you DDT, artificial sweeteners, etc.). But it turns out that the measles vaccine is actually better than what we had originally hoped for.

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Pretty sneaky Ebola!

I know I know, Ebola is just soooo last year. In fact, once it became clear that (shocker) the most of Americans had about zero risk of catching Ebola all public interest pretty much seemed to drop off, despite the fact that hundreds of people in Africa continued to be infected and killed by the virus.

But every once in a while it seems that an article pops up to remind us how weird and scary the Ebola virus is. In the past week we’ve found out that not only can the virus be transmitted through sexual intercourse with a male survivor, but it can also keep living in your eyes long after it was cleared from the rest of the body.

To me, this is interesting because it’s introducing me to things about our immune system I never knew before. Like apparently the testicles have a less active immune system compared the rest of the body (fun fact, there is an entire field of study dedicated to the immune system within the testes called testicular immunology). Turns out, we have several areas in our bodies where antigens (basically things that don’t belong in your body) can be tolerated without causing an immune response. These areas are said to have immune privilege. These lucky little body parts can basically do whatever they want without fear of incurring the wrath of the antibodies, usually for good reason. In the testes this suppressed immune system is due to the fact that a male’s antibodies don’t recognize sperm and will attack and destroy them. And can you imagine if your body staged a full-scale attack every time you got a piece of dust in your eye? But, as is usually the case this privilege comes at a cost. If you turn off your security system it makes it a whole lot easier for the bad guys to get in, like Mr. Ebola.

But not all viruses need to find a weak spot to get past the body’s security guards. HIV for example is the master of disguise. This virus is so sure of itself it hides in the immune system itself. So sorry Ebola, you keep trying to be the most bad ass virus on the planet, but it looks like you still have a little work to do before I’m willing to dub you destroyer of all man kind.

Why are we OK with one gene manipulation study, but not another?

Last week a huge stir was caused when Nature reported on a Chinese paper which described a new technique which could be used to alter the genes in a developing human embryo. As stated in a Science news article, the aim of the paper was said to alter a mutated gene to prevent a blood disorder, and despite the fact that the technique actually didn’t really work very well there was an ethical uproar. In fact, both Nature and Science, the most prestigious journals in the industry, refused to publish the paper on ethical grounds. Many researchers have demanded an end to this line of research.

Just a day before Science published their news story describing the ethical backlash to this human embryo gene editing paper, they published another story. In fact, it was on a subject I have talked about here before.  A lab in San Diego is working on techniques to edit the mitochondrial DNA of an embryo to prevent disease. Sound familiar? But while there is a brief mention of safety and ethics (one sentence to be exact), for the most part this study is presented as a promising new technique.

So why are these two studies being treated so differently? Is it because the Chinese study was actually done on human embryos, while the second study has only been done on mice? This doesn’t make much sense to me, if a technique is being designed with the intent of eventually being used on humans, it should be the technique called into ethical question, not whether it’s being done on human or mouse (the human embryos in the Chinese experiment where embryos that would not have survived anyway due to other, more drastic genetic mutations).

Of course, when we talk of gene editing there is always the Gattaca fear, that the rich will be able to get designer babies and the gap between the rich and the poor will be cemented genetically as well as financially. And so it is understandable why people would get a bit fussy if we start perfecting those techniques, even if it is with the intent of preventing horrific diseases. But here’s what I don’t get, the Chinese technique didn’t even work. The San Diego technique did. So shouldn’t we be freaking out about the one that worked even if it was done on mice, since the plan is to do it on humans next? Maybe it’s because the work is done on mitochondrial DNA, which has nothing really to do with your physical appearance. But still, what can be done with one type of DNA should be pretty easy to jump to the rest of our DNA.

And should we be freaking out at all? I’m not about to go supporting paying a little extra to change your embryo so your kid can be faster, stronger and smarter. But I am a huge fan of having the ability to change your embryo so you don’t have to watch your kid slowly die from a terrible disease.

Trees? We don’t need no stinking trees!

A lab at UC Berkeley has developed a new technique using nanotechnology to create artificial photosynthesis. Why is this a big deal? Because in order for real plants to turn light into energy they use up carbon dioxide. In case you haven’t heard, carbon dioxide is a major green house gas contributing to climate change. Not only could this artificial photosynthesis help remove carbon dioxide from the air, but it can also be used to produce chemicals and even

Sorry trees, you're fired!

Sorry trees, you’re fired!

pharmaceuticals!

Now, as psyched as I am that this could offer a huge help in the fight against climate change, I’m also a little freaked out by it. There is definitely  a Soylent Green sort of feel to this type of technology. Because this is really a job that should be done by, you know, trees. But since we’ve been systematically removing all our forests it’s time to show nature that anything it can do we can do better. I don’t think any of the researchers who came up with this method are saying we should just replace all plants with it, but at the rate we’re going sometimes it feels like eventually that will be our only option. But I really hope not. I hope this just proves to be a useful tool that can help us slow down climate change while we find a renewable energy source that will get us off of fossil fuels. Hey, a girl can dream can’t she?

Where can I get that squid’s makeup?

How many times have you looked at a squid and thought to yourself, man does that squid have a flare for style! I wish I could look that good! Well look no further my friend, because the scientists at the fabulous Central Institute of Fisheries Technology have heard your prayers and answered them in full by creating and safety testing lipstick made from squid chromatophores.

For those of you who don’t know, squid chromatophores (like all cephalopod chromatophores) are small sacs of pigment that cover the animal’s body. The squid can stretch these sacs to make them bigger or smaller, and in this way change the color of their skin.

Now before you ask no, this lipstick will not change colors after you put it on. However, it is apparently free of toxic metals and considered safe for human use. Since, as the study points out, a great deal of lipstick ends up getting eaten, there is a push towards more natural lipsticks free from toxic ingredients.

What this lipstick actually looks like it unknown. Chromatophores are limited in their color range (mostly yellow, brown, or red), and the lipsticks will probably also be somewhat limited though I’m betting enough mixing and matching could be done to create a pretty wide range of shades. Some names I’d like to throw out there for consideration: Sultry Squid Sienna, Calamari Crimson, and Opulent Octopus Orange.

So while we might not yet be able to match the squid in its ability to flawless change looks without having to run home and change, we’re still managing to steal a few tips from these divas of the deep-sea.

What House of Cards can teach us about climate change

*Spoiler Alert*

I’m in the process of watching the third season of House of Cards. Now, I’m not done yet, so even as I write my spoilers, I must ask that no one reveal any spoilers to me.

I just finished the episode where Underwood uses FEMA to fund his jobs bill. By declaring a State of Emergency in D.C. based on the unemployment rate, he uses the government’s emergency funds to create jobs. Or at least that’s his idea, like I said I don’t know yet if it actually works. But it did get me thinking.

In the show, all the other government officials and some members of the press believe Underwood is twisting the law and pretending to care about people to meet his own selfish ends. And in the show, they are right. But I don’t think that means his actions are completely wrong either. As a species, we rank immediate threats much higher than long-term threats, no matter how likely they are. Which makes sense evolutionarily, heart disease isn’t really an issue if you starve to death before you’re thirty.

But our society has become so advanced that those immediate issues aren’t as big of a threat to us as the long-term ones. There are countless statistics and comparisons on deaths on terrorism: you’re more likely to be killed by your furniture or a toddler, and yet we spend over $16 billions dollars annually fighting it. Heart disease on the other hand, the number one killer of Americans, got about $1.6 billion from the government in 2014. Now, even without the money that comes from donations and other funds for funding heart disease research, it doesn’t take a

Time to start calling this cardiac terrorism, led by the saturated fat extremists

Time to start calling this cardiac terrorism, led by the saturated fat extremists

math genius to see the huge gap. And like I said, people have been shouting this from the roof tops about this for ages. But it doesn’t seem to make a difference.

That’s because, in the short-term, the idea of terrorism is more scary. But more than that, it is easier to fight. The same is true for natural disasters. Hurricane hits? Set up tents, give people food, help them wash their clothes. See, money well spent.

And I’m not saying this is a bad thing, BUT the number of people we save from natural disasters is tiny compared to the people we lose from heart disease, and the people we have already started losing from climate change. We don’t see these things as emergencies because they aren’t big, dramatic events effecting lots of people all at once, which is basically how we define an emergency. But our definition of emergency needs to change. You can be damn sure people would be funding the research then. Just look at Ebola, it barely even effected a few Americans and yet everyone was clamoring for a vaccine because it is immediate and scary.

But those people with heart disease are probably going to die whether it’s tomorrow or this December, because we aren’t doing everything we could to stop it because it has become mundane. I think Frank Underwood has the right idea.We don’t see these things as emergencies because they aren’t big, dramatic events effecting lots of people all at once, which is basically how we define an emergency. But our definition of emergency needs to change.

Let’s all be a little kinder to the anti-vaxxers

The anti-vaccine movement has been getting more attention than ever after the recent measles outbreak starting in Disneyland. Most of this attention (at least what I’ve read) has been negative. Actually, negative is putting it lightly. Anti-vaxxers are being burned at the stake for ignoring science and putting other children at risk due to their belief in unproven conspiracies.

And I admit, this was my first reaction too. When I first found out there were people in the world who chose not to vaccinate their children (which I didn’t even know was legal) I too found it idiotic. But now I feel that I, and the rest of the world, have treated these people unfairly.

First let me say that I in no way agree with or condone the anti-vaccination movement. Vaccinations have saved the lives of countless people and no one has ever proven any side-effects that are worse than the diseases they prevent. But I was raised in a home where vaccines were a given, and more importantly I was raised to trust science.

This should be no surprise to anyone, since I grew up to become a scientist. I have been trained to believe the results of experiments, and to trust the honestly of my fellow scientists. But, in the words of the great Dr. Gregory House (yes, I even trust fictional doctors), everybody lies.

Wakefield lied when he said vaccines cause autism. Then again, the FDA apparently covers up fraud in many drug trials. If you’re a concerned parent with no scientific background, what do you do?

You take the option with the smallest chance of risk. In science we call this risk aversion. Now, as a parent in today’s society, what seems like a bigger risk; a disease that was practically wiped out decades ago, or a developmental disorder that seems to be getting diagnosed more everyday? And it’s true that as long as a large enough percent of the population gets vaccinated, the odds of a few unvaccinated people getting sick are very low. We call this herd immunity. But as anti-vaccine beliefs grow in popularity, our herd immunity shrinks and the diseases crop back up again. And since they’ve been gone so long, many people have little or no experience with them and may think them to be more harmless than they are.

Now here I could throw a bunch of websites at you saying that immunity from vaccines is better for you immune system than getting the disease, or tell you how awful the measles are (or any other disease with a vaccine), or how there are no long-term side effects to getting vaccinated. But anyone pro-vaccine will already agree, and anyone anti-vaccine will point me to another website that says the opposite with a grand “well what about this?”

That “what about this” is where I have my biggest sympathy with the anti-vaxxers. Because those “what about this” websites are clever. They take bits of truth and weave them in with their lies. They play into the fears you already had and tell you what you want to hear to make those fears go away. And to the untrained eye they look so credible.

So no, I don’t think all anti-vaxxers are evil, and I don’t think they are all idiots. I think that, for one reason or another, they have lost their faith in big science. I can’t say I completely blame them. But I do want to change that. So if you ever talk to someone who is anti-vaccine (or anti-climate change, or anti-insertyoursciencehere), don’t call them an idiot. When was the last time you found someone calling you an idiot to be a persuasive argument? Don’t spit back the same generic proving it with science argument. Instead, ask them why they don’t believe in it. Find out what it is about science they distrust, and work forward from there. Because until we can inoculate them against whatever is driving their anti-science beliefs, we’ll always just be treating the symptoms.

(see what I did there?)