Review: The Lives of a Cell

In a scurrying ant hill, it is tempting to see a civilization, constructing its pyramids or cathedrals for generations far in the future — tempting too to consider our own societies as higher-order ant hills, each individual barely aware of their contributions to a larger force. Often these metaphors are dry, breaking down at the slightest probing, offering little beyond a shrug.

But in The Lives of a Cell, Lewis Thomas manages to create, from such simple analogies, deep and complex meaning. In this delightful collection of essays from the early 1970s, Thomas, a physician and member of the National Academy of Sciences, uses empiricism not as final truth, but as a nucleating event for greater insights into our human nature and the driving curiosity behind science.

His central thesis, conveyed steadily across each compact essay, is the fundamental need for life to interact and the whole that emerges greater than its parts. From termite colonies to human language to the biosphere itself, Thomas treats symbiosis and emergence not as special arrangements but as the natural order of things: organisms seek cooperation before annihilation.

What sets this collection apart from most science writing is that it principally focuses on forming good questions rather than leading the reader to the ‘correct’ conclusion. It is searching and expansive. The essays synthesize disparate facts into cohesive, fresh interpretations of the meaning of life — all life. Most of Thomas’ ideas, unlike the science they are based on, are untestable. Those that could be falsified may be one day. Does this detract from his insights? I hardly think so; not all things worth considering can be tested.

It is also refreshing to see a committed scientist connect his discipline to his wider interests. Language in particular fascinates Thomas, with whole essays committed to language as humanity’s anthill — our genetic inheritance to construct and improve, ceaselessly. Entire other pieces absorb the reader in the speciation of words from Indo-European roots and the surprising (or is it obvious?) parallel development of etymological and biological evolutionary theories in the 19th century.

The work is of its time, of course. Thomas writes lovingly of our endosymbiotic organelles — the mitochondria and chloroplasts that undergird all complex life — and speculates that the centriole, the fibers that properly divide chromosomes, may be the third such cellular companion. Though this is not the case, we now know, it hardly detracts from the lesson on symbiosis as a deeply entrenched force of nature.

And even 25 years after the Cold War, his appeal against Armageddon resonates still. It takes the form of a challenge: to input into a computer a complete set of knowledge about a single organism, so that the survivors of a nuclear holocaust have a head start in rebuilding biological science. The target, Mixotricha paradoxa, is a brilliant choice as it, astoundingly, comprises at least five species in close endosymbiosis. These bonds are so tight that, in place of cilia, the protozoan uses hundreds of thousands of spirochete bacteria to power its swimming through the termite’s gut, where it digests cellulose in an additional layer of collaboration.

Thomas gives the challenge a lunar-like ten years and, more optimistic about a computer’s motivations than our own, writes:

“I take it on faith that computers, although lacking souls, are possessed of a kind of intelligence. At the end of the decade, therefore, I am willing to predict that the feeding in of all the information then available will result, after a few seconds of whirring, in something like the following message, neatly and speedily printed out: ‘Request more data. How are spirochetes attached? Do not fire.’”

With such cleverness, he explores the anxieties of his time and communicates enduring lessons about the ceaselessly mysterious nature of studying biology, where each new answer only spurs more questions.

Science can tell us truths about nature; it has little to say on truths about ourselves, on how we should live, how we should feel about the world we study. Yet in contemplating the human need to search for understanding, and in attempting to synthesize a collection of biological facts into a philosophy of life, Thomas has drawn from science inspiration for a decidedly unreductive view of the creatures that inhabit our blue and green Earth.

Joyce Carol Oates, in reviewing this collection, writes:

“The Lives of a Cell anticipates the kind of writing that will appear more and more frequently, as scientists take on the language of poetry in order to communicate human truths too mysterious for old-fashioned common sense.”

Indeed, it is just this kind of poetry that elevates science — so often mistaken for dull and dry — to the the level of exploration, of wonder, of… what if!

[A version of this post originally appeared on the Haswell lab blog]

 

Ushering Science through the Media

I joined other scientist-communicators to talk about science in the media

I joined other scientist-communicators to talk about science in the media

 After four long days at a conference, all you want to do is board a flight home, crawl into bed, and try to forget how your boss saw you dancing at the open-bar party. But on July 30, 2015, a dedicated group of scientists and communicators rallied at the end of Plant Biology 2015 conference in Minneapolis, MN, for the Standing Up for Science Media Workshop on science and public engagement hosted by Sense About Science USA.

As the 2015 ASPB-sponsored AAAS Mass Media Fellow, I was invited to participate in the workshop and talk about why and how I began pursuing opportunities in science communication. And I eagerly joined my colleagues in discussing ways early-career scientists can improve how science weaves its way into the media.

The media workshop was divided into three sessions, with a corresponding panel of scientists, journalists, and scientist-communicators.

To start, Douglas Cook, a professor at University of California, Davis, made it clear that scientists should be firm about combatting myths and speaking forcefully for evidence-based action. “Science is not democracy,” he said, no matter what the polls say. For effective communication, facts and data are insufficient—people find their own version of the truth. Instead, Cook suggested, look for the values people hold, and see if your work can fulfill those values.

Coming at the issue of how to engage with the public from a different perspective, Sally Mackenzie, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and president-elect of ASPB, felt that a coordinated, repeated message could break through even to opponents of some scientific advance, such as genetically modified (GM) foods.  “Some level of activism is our responsibility,” she said, dispensing with the notion that scientists should remain disinterested observers from their labs.

During the question and discussion period of the session, we discussed the labor force of science communication: should it be advanced by scientists who add on communication, or by dedicated communicators with scientific training? Do you need a Ph.D., or is a Bachelor’s degree sufficient? Do you need to study science at all?

The issue we kept coming back to is whose responsibility is communicating science? In academia, science communication is usually left as an extracurricular activity for overworked professors. That will never compete with efforts made by organizations that are committed to advocacy that goes against science and evidence. For instance, as someone noted Greenpeace—a vocal opponent of GM foods—spends $185 million a year on communication alone [The figure was closer to $211 million in 2013].

And with that, it was time for lunch and group work on what the media gets right and wrong when covering science, which led to the second session for the day. In the journalist panel we heard from Emily Sohn, a freelancer and contributor to the Science Writer’s Handbook, and Elizabeth Dunbar of Minnesota Public Radio.

To a room filled mostly with scientists, Sohn described how she finds stories, and how scientists can help her get their research to the public. If you are responsive to emails and phone calls from journalists and give clear, concise answers to questions, you might just end up as one of her “Super Sources” – someone she returns to time and again. And though Cook and Mackenzie, as well as several other scientists in the audience, felt that they had “been burned” by sloppy journalism, Sohn tried to make clear that she was on their team: “We’re all trying to get it right,” she said.

Dunbar, who had stumbled into science journalism from a general assignment background, freely admitted that in radio—where four minutes is a lifetime—she has learned that to communicate effectively she needs to cut all but the most basic scientific concepts. “I try to teach my audience something about science,” she said, and then explain just a fraction of the hot new research.

At the end of the panel discussion, the audience was given a chance to pitch their own work to the journalists to see how well they could capture attention for a possible story. In one instance, Sohn and Dunbar helped Don Gibson, a Ph.D. student at University of California, Davis, plan his pitch to journalists on his campaign to put Barbara McClintock on the ten-dollar bill. Their advice: Give a positive message, and make the main point—it’s time to put a female scientist on currency—pop out right away.

And then it was finally time for the last panel, where I joined Karl Haro von Mogel of Biology Fortified; Natalie Henkaus of the Boyce Thompson Institute (which supported the workshop) and soon-to-be ASPB staff member; and Neda Afsarmanesh, Deputy Directory of SAS USA and the organizer of the Media Workshop. We all had scientific backgrounds and we were all in the process of or had already moved into full-time science communication positions.

Henkaus stressed the importance of collaborative communication efforts from the NSF’s Research Coordination Networks, ASPB’s National Plant Science Council, and Cornell’s Alliance for Science (another supporter of the day’s workshop). Von Hogel described how Biology Fortified began as a group blog and morphed into a forceful advocate for biotechnology—and purveyor of cute GMOs. And I got to tell what it’s like to jump straight from the lab into the newsroom, and the importance of funding for training in communication. As the final panel, we had the luxury of longer, casual conversations that conveniently morphed into hor d’oeuvres and drinks. Business cards were exchanged; dramatic reenactments of speeches were staged; theories of science communication were pored over and debated.

My takeaway from the day: Journalists and scientists have a lot in common. They both want to tell others about what they see in the world—what they know to be true—and they both want everyone to be as excited about the story they have to tell as they are.

[This post first appeared on the Sense About Science USA website]

Why my sources are (usually) happy to talk to me

Hard at work in the Journal Sentinel newsroom

Hard at work in the Journal Sentinel newsroom

Mid-way through my experience as a science journalist for the summer, I realized that unlike some of my colleagues in the newsroom around me, my conversations on the phone with sources were rarely combative. The university researchers and government scientists and physicians were usually happy to talk with me about their work—the process, the scope, and the limitations.

(In fact, many are keen to point out the limitations, for fear of stoking baseless hype.)

Sure, getting your name in print is fun, and most scientists don’t often see that. But maybe more that that: Scientists want to look at the world and then tell other people about what they’ve seen. Is that really so different than what drives journalists?

We even use the same language. The verb “report” comprises a formal account, as in a research study, and the gathering of information and preparation for print or broadcast. Reporting is what I do at the Journal Sentinel. Reports are the main section of Science Magazine.

Science has its share of scandals and closed doors—it's a human endeavor after all—but as an institution it’s about discovery and transparency, even if it falls short of those goals.

So I can go ahead and ask probing questions. That’s what scientists are trying to do of themselves all the time; there’s no offense to be taken there.

Now, it doesn’t always go so smoothly.

Scientists are concerned about their reputation, like anybody else. The one piece of hate mail I have received in my work was from a researcher who was incensed, thinking we intentionally made him look bad. It was a misunderstanding, and he reacted petulantly, saying his reputation was at stake. Nobody wants to look dumb, and I’m sorry he felt hurt.

Other sources have been guarded at the beginning of our conversations, claiming they have been “burned” before with misquotes and inaccuracies. Speaking with a reporter is a brief relationship built entirely on trust, so it’s natural that when that trust is violated people are more cautious for a time. A few well-formed questions and assurances typically open them up; their inclination is ultimately to speak freely.

But most have been thrilled to set aside half an hour or more of their time to talk with me. They are passionate about sharing their work with just one person, and hopeful that our readers will see their work as they do.

I am preparing to go back to being a scientist as my ten-week internship continues to fly by. I hope that I have gained some skills in communication, writing and investigation that will help me be more successful in that work.

But I also hope that the passion for discovery and communication I hear from the sources I speak to every day sticks with me as I head back to lab.

 [This post originally appeared on the Haswell lab blog]

A Summer of Science Reporting

The motherboard at the NPR mothership

The motherboard at the NPR mothership

After learning I’m a graduate student, a lot of people I meet start asking me in the spring what kind of job I’ll get for the summer. It’s a year-round appointment, I tell them, and is a lot like a normal job—no summer vacation. I had to do even more explaining than usual this year because I am taking the summer off from lab, but neither to lollygag nor to pad my bank account. Instead, I’ll be a science reporter in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This summer, I am one of 20 scientists accepted into the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Mass Media Fellowship. We will scatter all around the country to report on science for newspapers, magazines, radio, and television.

Now in its 41st year, the MMF aims to give young scientists the opportunity to learn about and hone their skills in science communication. Many alumni stay in academia or industry research, while still writing for a general audience more often than their peers. But many others—43% according to the AAAS—formally transition to science journalism and communication, a number many fold greater than for most graduate students.

The fellows are drawn from a pool of students pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees in the natural sciences and engineering; journalism students do not qualify. Across their different disciplines and education levels, the MMF participants are connected by their motivation to solve the challenges of translating technical information into understandable and engaging material. The program has trained hundreds of students in four decades, and counts among its alumni the co-chair of President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and popular reporters such as NPR’s Joe Palca and David Kestenbaum.

I can no longer remember how I learned about the program, or even how I discovered that ‘science communication’ was a viable (albeit not exactly lucrative) profession. But knowing both, securing a spot in this program became my top professional priority. As one alumni says, the MMF is “a ready-made way to pole vault out of academia and into journalism.” And I needed that boost.

About this time last year, I happened to meet the one person in the world who knew that the American Society of Plant Biologists-sponsored fellow had dropped out at the last minute, and I was put in touch with the program coordinator, Dione Rossiter. I hurriedly submitted a half-application to try and fill the slot, but was rejected in light of the unusual circumstances, although invited to reapply for real in 2015. The 2015 program was already in my sights, but I was only more motivated to land a spot by this close encounter. Plus, I got to learn more about the application process in a way that helped me prepare to apply in January of this year. Luckily, things broke my way and I was accepted.

Now I am cruising at 33,000 feet on my way to Washington, D.C. to meet the 19 other fellows and go through orientation. We’ll practice interviewing techniques and how to pitch a story to our editors, tour NPR(!), and mingle with alumni. Then off to Wisconsin, where I will write science stories for the local desk of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. According to accounts from previous fellows at the JS, it’ll largely be up to me to find, pitch, and report the stories I’m interested in, so long as they have a local angle. The freedom is enticing, but nerve-wracking. Fortunately, the paper has Pulitzer prize-winning science reporters I can probe for advice, but the impetus will be on me to make the connections necessary to be successful.

I am grateful for this opportunity and anxious to get started moving my byline from blog posts to newsstands. Check back here for updates during the summer. Or pick up a copy of the Journal Sentinel in the coming weeks to see what I've been up to.

[This post first appeared on the Haswell lab blog]

Listening in on Plant Defenses

It’s enchanting to consider that classical music might help plants grow better, like something out of a fairy tale. A simple Google search shows that a lot of people are interested in it, from the throngs at Yahoo Answers to marijuana growers looking for an edge. Mythbusters tested it, with mixed results. Academic researchers have explored the effects of tones on plant growth, finding frequency-specific gene regulation and growth responses. But it remains unclear what evolutionary benefit sensitivity to sound could provide, and a solid understanding of what is sometimes called ‘plant bioacoustics’ eludes researchers.

In a widely-reported study released last year, two researchers over at the University of Missouri, Columbia tested the effects on plant defenses of the vibrations caused by a caterpillar chewing on a leaf. Although much of the reporting fell prey to the temptation to claim the plants “heard” the chewing and responded, the real answer is both more complicated and more interesting. I had the opportunity to attend a talk Drs. Appel and Cocroft gave at Washington University a few months ago where I learned more than I could have extracted from their paper, published in Oecologia, alone.

Sound waves are longitudinal. Insect vibrations are transverse

Dr. Cocroft studies insect communication, especially the ability of insects to find mates and prey by sensing the vibrations of other insects on a plant. Like sound, the information is encoded in vibrational waves passing through a substance. Instead of a pressure wave like sound that varies in the same direction of travel—a longitudinal wave—insect vibrations on plants are transverse waves, moving up and down like a wave on the ocean (see figure).

We could never hear these kinds of waves ourselves, but their frequency can be directly translated to sounds we can hear. Cocroft played a number of humming soundscapes recorded with a laser on a wild prairie—the result of hundreds or thousands of insects communicating silently on stalks of grass. A plant, Cocroft noted, is a great conductor for these vibrations, flexible yet strong. His field studies how insects benefit from communicating this way, but he joined forces with Appel to ask: Do plants respond to the vibrations of insect herbivores in an adaptive way?

One major defense that plants have against pests is producing noxious compounds to deter feeding. Appel and Cocroft hypothesized that Arabidopsis plants would produce more defense compounds if they were exposed to the vibrations of herbivorous insects before actually being attacked. This effect is called priming, and could help defend against a second wave of insect damage.

To test this, the researchers first used lasers to record the vibrations of caterpillars allowed to eat the leaves of Arabidopsis plants. To play the vibrations back to undamaged plants, Cocroft attached leaves to tiny pistons driven, essentially, by speakers, ones that could replicate the vibrations of an insect chewing. Then caterpillars were allowed to feed on either the leaf that was vibrated or another, untouched leaf.

Both vibrated and distant leaves responded more vigorously to caterpillar attack than leaves on untouched plants. The plants that were primed by recorded caterpillar vibrations produced more glucosinolates, or mustard oils, than those of unvibrated plants. This is evidence of an adaptive response to insect vibrations, but leaves open the possibility that any vibration encouraged plant defenses.

To see if the effect really was specific to the herbivorous caterpillars, Appel and Cocroft played back vibrations of harmless insects, wind, or caterpillars on different plants and again measured defense compounds—this time anthocyanins, responsible for the deep reds and purples of many plants. Only caterpillar vibrations could prime plants to increase their defense response to herbivory; wind and the neutral insects had no effect.

One important caveat: although the researchers looked for an effect of vibrations alone, they found none. Only vibrations plus actual insect feeding induced higher defenses; the plants were primed for future attack, but vibrations alone made no difference. Of course, a real insect is more than just its vibrations. Herbivore attack is a physical, chemical, and auditory assault, and plants likely respond to each stimulus in different ways.

But how are plants able to sense the vibrations of caterpillars, and even differentiate them from similar sounds in nature? It’s entirely unknown. A very good candidate is a diverse group of proteins bound together by their responsiveness to physical forces—mechanoreceptors. These proteins can signal within a cell in response to vibration or touch and are potentially behind the priming effect that Appel and Cocroft observed.

In fact, to test this, the Haswell lab is working with Appel and Cocroft to see if our favorite mechanosensitive ion channels are part of the vibrational-response pathway. I got to see Liz’s face pop up in the corner at the end of their presentation over on the medical campus as they told us that work was underway. We’ll just have to wait to find out.

[A version of this post first appeared on my lab's blog]

Reaching Across the Gap with Curiosity


"I think there is nothing so exciting as listening to someone think on the radio." — Jad Abumrad


On Wednesday, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich of Radiolab fame presented at Washington University’s first Ampersand Week, a series of events celebrating the ‘and’ of Arts and Sciences, or the value of liberal arts education over exclusive specialization. A perfect choice for such a purpose, Radiolab draws on the composing background of Jad and the inventive science journalism of Robert to explore scientific topics with a humanistic lens. The event took place in Graham Chapel, the pews filled with students, faculty, staff, and the public for the free event.

I was not sure what this presentation would entail. Would they present a live version of Radiolab? Or just introduce a series of archived podcast segments? The experience was somewhere between those two. Relying on existing tape, Jad and Robert discussed the production of Radiolab, the task of distilling technical knowledge from experts for a lay audience, and the musicality and intimacy of radio over other mediums.

Jad opened by acknowledging his mother, sitting in the front row, an obesity researcher here at Washington University, a professor in my program no less. I had no idea. On the large screen behind them, Jad put up a picture of his mother’s protein, what she studies every day, which helps bring fats into the cell. In fact, Jad grew up in a scientific home, with a medical doctor father and scientist mother, an environment that clearly influences his work to bridge the sciences and the arts.

The first segment began by peeling back the curtain on how a formal interview with a scientist becomes radio drama. Robert spoke with Cynthia Kenyon, a C. elegans researcher at UCSF, about two genes that control aging in the tiny worms. One is a hormone receptor, which, when activated, represses the activity of a transcription factor. When the transcription factor is allowed to function, it controls the expression of many separate genes that work together to increase the lifespan of the worms several fold. Jad played the unedited interview, demonstrating how even a media-savvy researcher stumbled to translate the molecular action of genes into something a non-scientist could grasp, and even care about. It was awkward and difficult to keep track of.
 
But as Jad pointed out, Cynthia’s explanation naturally gravitated to exciting, narrative verbs. Spring. Inhibit. Leap into action. The nouns suffered from alphabet soup—scientists rely heavily on acronyms and jargon for naming genes—and specialized phrases. Receptor. Transcription factor. DAF-2. Radiolab’s job, then, was what Jad called “noun replacement therapy.” Keep the substance, but swap technical language with vernacular.


The translated version: The Grim Reaper Gene (hormone receptor) cue evil laugh battles it out with the Fountain of Youth Gene (transcription factor) cue toddler giggles for control of the aging process. Beat up on the Grim Reaper (mutate it) painful groans and the baby is free to keep cells, and the animal, youthful, blowing spit bubbles as it does.

To some scientists, this kind of translation may seem simplistic. (Cynthia produced the gene nicknames, it was not a liberty taken by Radiolab.) Robert even phrased it as having to ask, “How stupid do you want to be?” Always there is a trade-off between accuracy and understandability. Always. “You’re somehow trying to find a way to stay in the middle,” Robert said. Choosing that point, and then finding that point, is the challenge a show like Radiolab contends with for every topic. But to avoid any kind of simplifying is to wall off scientific research to the ivory tower, something far more damaging than “noun replacement therapy.”

This translation is not foreign to most of us, maybe just lost. Jad recalled trying to bridge the gap with his mom to explain her work when he was a kid, dinner plates standing in for cells and the salt shaker for her protein, the iterative process of trying to get closer to the truth one curious question after another. Our interest in understanding something new, something difficult, is dampened by a culture that discourages looking stupid, but it can be encouraged as well. Jad and Robert try to use the power of stupid questions asked with genuine curiosity to recapture that sense of wonder. “Yes, but why?”

Robert said that if they approach a scientist with sincere curiosity, about 60 percent will spend the time to tell them what they need to know. I wish that number were higher, but I am surprised it is that high. I think they may have a self-selecting group of scientists more inclined to work with the media than most. But I could not say for sure.

Beyond translation, the hour-long presentation delved into the frenetic production of the show, with layers of music and noise and swirling audio energy, a style that aims for a composer’s musicality and an authentic struggle for new knowledge. As a technically naïve but huge fan of radio, I appreciated seeing the depth of production at the software level that goes into making one of my favorite shows. Although hard to miss in a show like Radiolab, I know that most audio production is successful when it goes unnoticed, but it is good to be reminded of the work that goes into these programs.

The floor open to questions, I waited in line at the mic to ask: How can scientists help reach back out to the journalists, or the public, who have reached toward us to help bridge these gaps? I did not get an answer to my question, but I did get a good answer to a good question.

Robert instead answered the why. Why should scientists care about communicating their work? He couched it in militaristic, epic terms—scientific inquiry is the product of intellectual freedom, a resource that is constantly endangered. To tell a story of the science we do is an enchantment, one that can draw people in and convince them that the freedom required for this kind of work is worth demanding and worth preserving. No less than the ability to perform honest work is at stake in the communication of our research.

Jad again put on screen the structure of his mother’s protein, her life’s work, to help illustrate his partner’s answer on the value of free inquiry. He then answered a question closer to my own. “The story of science is in most cases the story of ceaseless failure, which is really the story of everyone who walks the earth,” he said. Tell that human story of vulnerability, confusion, failure, and occasional bright points of insight and success, and anyone can be reached.



Audio File #3: Getting Entangled in Invisibilia

Cover for "Entanglement" by Daniel Horowitz
“Two things separated in space can be the same thing.” –Geoff Brumfiel, Entanglement

After the hit podcast Serial landed and enraptured a widening audience of audio fanatics, I think that a lot of people have been searching for new shows to fill the gap left behind by the conclusion of Serial season one. To this group—and to existing podcast aficionados—I present Invisibilia.

Invisibilia is the spiritual successor of Radiolab, and its production love-child along with This American Life. The two hosts, Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller, are founding producers of This American Life and Radiolab, respectively, and NPR science reporters besides. Latin for “all the invisible things,” Invisibilia promises a weekly exploration of the invisible forces that shape human behavior. So far, four shows in, this means Spiegel and Miller are creating a surprisingly spiritual discussion rooted in cutting edge neuroscience about the psychology and brain biology behind how humans feel and act.

The first three episodes covered the power and intrigue of our very own thoughts; how to control your fear (and what happens when you feel none); and the profound, very real, effects of people’s expectations of the blind. Each is truly, almost alarmingly, excellent. Today, I want to cover the latest episode: Entanglement.

Lulu and Alix begin by visiting a physics lab at the University of Maryland to witness the creation of quantum entanglement, the physical phenomenon of linking two objects together at a deep level. Once entangled, if one particle is altered—even at a great physical distance from its partner—the other responds accordingly. It’s messy, and brushes up against our notions of causality and the fundamental limit of the speed of light, but it is very real. And quantum entanglement is the lead in to the equally bizarre and fascinating world of entanglement among people, how we are intimately tied to the people around us in conscious and unconscious ways.

The first story of entanglement takes Alix and Lulu to a woman, Amanda, and her family. Amanda experiences a very rare form of extreme empathy, called mirror-touch synesthesia. Synesthesia is the general term for relatively rare but well-documented cases when people experience a mixing of traditionally separate senses, like seeing colors in numbers or tasting sounds. Basically, synesthesia boils down to crossed wires in the brain, which ultimately integrates all of our senses into conscious experience. In some people, that integration is messier.

For Amanda, the very experience of seeing someone experience something triggers the subjective sense of that act within herself. When she was young, she realized that seeing someone get hugged felt like a hug, at a very real, physical level. A woman scratching her arm felt like a scratch. People chewing food felt like they were stuffing food in her own mouth. Pain also transferred across space. Experiencing all of this, and an intense level of emotional empathy as well, left Amanda drained every day, and even unsure of her own identity as she took on the feelings and mannerisms of those around her.

The neurological explanation of Amanda’s difficult condition relies on mirror neurons. Observed directly only in monkeys so far, mirror neurons fire both when observing an action and when doing it. They are a cellular explanation for empathy. Presumably, mirror neurons, or something much like them, cause Amanda’s sensory cortex to light up just when watching a stranger feel or do something. I will leave the engrossing and melancholic exploration of the effects of this overcharged empathy on Amanda and her family to the hosts. Suffice to say, it is not easy being so intimately wrapped up in the world.

The second story features psychology researchers Elaine Hatfield and Dick Rapson of the University of Hawaii and their studies on ‘emotional contagion,’ the phenomenon of mimicking the physical and emotional states of those around you. Unconsciously, we match the posture or speaking patterns of people we interact with. Lulu goes on to explain that even imperceptible patterns, like blinking or breathing, will become synchronized.

Emotional mimicry is at play here as well. Linked to microexpressions—unconscious, rapid-fire flashes of emotion—this kind of emotional empathy influences the mood of everyone you interact with. Filled with audio of old Candid Camera episodes and the meshwork of Elaine and Dick marveling at the subject of their studies, the story comes alive with emotion and a sense of wonder. The researchers explain the consequences of this sponge-like absorption of our environment’s emotional energy, which include a limit on our individuality. We cannot truly be isolated, emotionally contained individuals if we react so viscerally to the emotions around us. Like smokers who try to quit but still hang around smokers, all of us are influenced in obvious and subtle ways by the people we surround ourselves with.

Or as Lulu explains: “It's like without quite being aware of it, we are all one organism, a heaving, swirling organism contracting the feelings and thoughts of the people around us.”

There is a bonus story at the end about the greatest entanglement—the one with our mothers—that I won’t spoil. In their exploration of Amanda’s extreme empathy, and our commonplace experience of it, Lulu and Alix manage to weave an emotional hour of awe, sadness, and laughter. Their story-telling pedigrees, and science journalism chops, combine to create the best science show I know of since Radiolab.

The show can stretch credulity. This is clearly not an accident. Alix and Lulu want to stretch your mind to the border of science fiction, and then push you back just over the edge toward reality. They deliberately construct ridiculous claims—about the blind seeing or the material reality of thoughts—and then carefully lead you to that exact conclusion through their narrative. They may test the boundaries of accuracy with hyperbole, but the sense of curiosity and wonder they instill seems worth it.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the refreshing power of having two quick, smart women discuss science with a clear sense of awe, respect, and desire to learn and share. Although Lulu and Alix are journalists, not scientists, I expect the show could really impact our culture where women are still underrepresented in science and face a lack of role models for scientific curiosity. Not scientists, no, but Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel have the scientific curiosity down, and we all benefit in Inivisibilia.



Keeping Spuds Safe--And Humans Too

Fortunately, potatoes are never quite as toxic as the alien carrots
in the Looney Tunes "Invasion of the Bunny Snatchers" episode
A team of Japanese scientists has published research that may help both protect potatoes from serious diseases and safeguard humans from poisonous spuds. The researchers, led by Dr. Kazui Saito, were able to identify a gene critical for making the toxic alkaloid chemicals that potatoes produce to protect themselves from pests. Although commonly-eaten varieties contain safe, low levels of these alkaloids, they are also more susceptible to certain major diseases. To combat infections, breeders want to crossbreed these safe spuds with disease-resistant—but poisonous—wild potato species without increasing the levels of toxic alkaloids in the potatoes we eat. Dr. Saito’s group has discovered a way to largely disable the production of these chemicals, opening up safer avenues to breed strong, resistant potatoes that do not make people sick.

Although normally safe, potatoes are serious contenders for the most toxic vegetable in the American diet. Potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplants are all members of the nightshade family, which produces a group of chemicals called steroidal glycoalkaloids to defend against pests. In small amounts, these chemicals may cause an upset stomach, but extremely high doses can lead to dizziness, hallucinations, and even death.

Human domestication long ago selected for potatoes with low levels of these alkaloids. But domestication also produces crops that cannot defend themselves as well against diseases—in particular, our efforts to make potatoes safer, larger, and tastier have impaired the spud’s ability to protect itself against late blight disease, the most damaging potato infection. Late blight led to starvation in Ireland in the 1840s, and today accounts for billions of dollars in lost productivity worldwide.

Crop breeders routinely scout out hearty wild relatives of our foods, seeking to breed in traits like disease resistance. For potatoes, scientists must ensure that borrowing beneficial traits from wild varieties does not increase the levels of steroidal glycoalkaloids above a safe threshold. One way to limit this risk is to reduce the production of these alkaloids in potatoes before breeding programs even start.

So Dr. Saito’s group set out to understand how potatoes make these chemicals in order to control and limit their production. Steroidal glycoalkaloids primarily consist of a steroid backbone, which is made from cholesterol. As a result, the scientists searched for genes in the potato genome that resembled a human gene that helps synthesize cholesterol. Although humans, peas, and rice have only one copy of the gene, potatoes have two—SSR1 and SSR2.

Having two similar genes is often a sign that the two copies have evolved to specialize. While most plants use a single gene to make cholesterol and other important chemicals like hormones, Dr. Saito and his colleagues reasoned that potatoes might have divided those two tasks between the two SSR genes.

To test this, they put the genes into yeast that made the chemical precursors of either cholesterol or plant hormones and measured what chemicals each SSR gene produced. They found that while SSR1 efficiently produced plant hormones, SSR2 excelled at making cholesterol. This specialization means that disabling SSR2 would shut down cholesterol and steroidal glycoalkaloid production without affecting SSR1’s synthesis of important hormones.

Scientists can add snippets of a plant’s own gene to activate a natural viral defense mechanism—a kind of plant immune system—and impair the native gene’s function. When the Japanese researchers did this with SSR2, alkaloid levels plummeted to a tenth their normal level, while the plants themselves grew just fine, a sign that hormones still functioned properly.

Another technology, called genome editing, can produce permanent errors in a specific gene, turning it off completely. The researchers added an editing protein that disrupted SSR2 and found that the alkaloid levels again dropped to a fraction of their normal amount. The editing protein can be removed in the next generation. This leaves only the precise changes dialed in by the scientists and 100 percent potato DNA, unlike most crop genetic modifications that add DNA from other species.  

The ability to produce specific new changes with the potato’s own DNA may reduce widespread concerns about genetically modified crops, which, although shown to be safe, are rejected by a large number of consumers.  This would be good news for scientists looking for new tools to improve potatoes and other foods.  Late blight and other diseases are ongoing scourges and the expanded toolbox for safely combating them provided by Dr. Saito’s group may help keep the world’s fourth-largest crop on a level playing field with these infections while keeping spuds safe.


[This news story served as part of my application to the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship]