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A Trip Down Your Toilet December 10, 2010

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Brain Power, Environment, Human Body, Tough Stuff.
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Nope, I’m not giving a lesson on plumbing. But I am going to give you the scoop on a secret that starts inside your toilet, all thanks to the crew at Thames Water who are helping people stay warm this winter. What’s this secret? Well, when a toilet takes your daily (or whatever frequency..let’s not go there) offering, all that human gunk can get converted into renewable gas to heat your home.

In fact, my dog Tiko got so excited about this concept, he decided to contribute. Before we see what he got up to though, let’s first find out what’s happening in the bowels of your toilet and then follow it through the twists and turns of the pipes below.

A Good Kind Of Gas

Each time you perch on the toilet, you may soon take heart that you’re not the only one who’s a bit lighter – you’re taking a burden off the environment as well. Approximately 200 homeowners in an English town called Didcot are among the first in the UK to benefit from gas made from their own waste and supplied through the national grid to heat their houses. The future plan is to make this process available throughout the UK.

So why all the fuss to find new sources of energy? Well, the UK has a goal for 2020 to have 15 percent of the energy it produces come from renewable sources. Producing gas in this way is a strong step toward that goal. Oh, and if you’re worried your house will be smelly, fear not! The gas is odorless and your house will remain toasty.

From Flush To Finish

From the time you flush your toilet to the time your house gets heat, it’s around 23 days. Let’s take it step-by-step, based on the procedure and image below that Thames Water has generously shared.

Waste has a bit of a path to travel before making your home warm. But it’s worth the trip because it brings the UK closer to its energy goals.

  1. All the muck from toilets and stuff like sinks and dishwashers gets channeled to the Didcot works. Let me tell you, with 13.8 million customers, it’s a lot of waste!
  2. Waste gets separated into sludge and water inside settlement tanks
  3. Water is put through cleaning processes and then back to the environment it goes via a local watercourse
  4. Sludge goes a different route. It gets heated in massive containers called digesters. All the heat gets anaerobic digestion going, which is where bacteria breaks down biodegradable material. Now, we’re left with biomethane – also called biogas
  5. The gas gets collected and goes into a gas cleaning machine
  6. After the biomethane gets cleaned and smells more like normal gas, it goes to the national gas grid
  7. From here, it’s just like any other gas in the grid. Off it goes to heat up your home and fuel other things like your stove

Tiko Turds

Once Tiko heard about the capabilities of poo, he did what all good and respectable dogs do – he went to relieve himself. But instead of trotting to the door for me to let him outside, he wanted to do his part to help heat up the house. The cheeky mutt raced into the bathroom and plonked himself down on the toilet.

When Tiko found out that human waste from toilets was being used as a renewable source of energy to heat homes, he decided to help out. Now, where’s the air freshener?

I appreciate that he’s determined to help the environment but I tried to explain that nobody wants to sit on a toilet seat covered in his fur. He responded by barking at me to close the door because he wanted some privacy.

On second thought, I should be grateful I have such an environmentally conscious dog, even if he is a modest one.

Get Smarter The Dirty Way October 5, 2010

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Brain Power, Human Body, Psychology and Behavior, Tough Stuff.
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Sometimes, intelligence can happen in the dirtiest of places. A new study suggests that exposure to certain kinds of bacteria outside could help improve learning.

Researchers at The Sage Colleges in New York studied Mycobacterium vaccae, which earlier studies showed might have antidepressant properties. In this new study, it seems that M. vaccae could help increase learning behavior. Their work was presented at the 110th General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in San Diego.

To learn how the research began, let’s ask some mice.

What Do Mice Say About It?

Why mice? It’s one way to initially test out an idea. If all goes well, then we might see how it affects humans. But to find out what happens when mice get up close and personal to bacteria, we have to take a step back and check out an experiment some other researchers did years ago.

Let’s Start With Dead Bacteria

In an earlier experiment, mice were injected with heat-killed bacteria. It got neurons in their brains growing, which then led to more serotonin – a brain messenger – being released. Serotonin is a member of a chemical crew called neurotransmitters that have all sorts of neat roles.

Can bacteria help learning? Some curious researchers decided to find out.

Time To Try Living Stuff

Since one of serotonin’s roles is to contribute to learning, a different group of researchers wondered if live bacteria could improve learning in mice. They fed the mice some live bacteria and then got the mice to navigate a maze. Another bunch of mice didn’t get the bacteria and still had to do the maze. This way, researchers could compare the two results. So who won?

Fast, Wee Critters

The mice who got live bacteria navigated the maze twice as fast as those who got none. Another cool thing was that those bacteria-guzzling mice showed less anxiety. Imagine if you had to do a maze? You might be nervous too! Researchers think the bacteria helped the mice get less worked up about finding their way out, plus helped them figure it out quicker too.

But do these benefits last? Unfortunately, nope. Three weeks later, researchers tested the mice again, but didn’t give them bacteria. This time, the mice couldn’t do it any faster. We can’t say for sure that this will help humans. But the results tell us that M. vaccae might play a role in learning and anxiety in mammals.

Getting More Out Of Playtime

It could be that when kids spend time outdoors – like during lunchtime – exposure to the bacteria may have some pretty smart benefits. If not, at least you can have fun kicking up some dirt. At my age, I’d probably be considered daft if I do that but maybe the bacteria will balance it all out? Somehow though, I think if my dog Tiko was perched nearby, he’d loudly bark “no.”

Whale Poo Is Good For You September 12, 2010

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Animals, Brain Power, Environment, Ocean, Tough Stuff.
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In fact, it’s good for all living things.  Australian researchers recently found that whale poo is battling one of the planet’s toughest battles ever – climate change.  The poor whales previously had a horrid reputation.  Since they breathe out a common greenhouse gas known as carbon dioxide (CO2), they were disliked for contributing to global warming.  Estimates are that they breathe out 200,000 tonnes of CO2 a year.  Eep!  It isn’t surprising people had a bad opinion of them!

But there’s way more to the story than this one fact.  Let’s start with the basics and see how something so gross can actually be good for us all.  Major science geeks can read the full study results in the Fish and Fisheries journal.

Benefits Of Whale Poo

A young sperm whale gracefully swims in the Southern Ocean. A trip up to the surface might mean a poopy feeding for the hungry phytoplankton, helping to fight global warming. Image credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

In the Southern Ocean, we’ve got an estimated 12,000 sperm whales.  They hunt down fish and squid for food.  Once digested, out comes all that poo.  Why should we care about whale feces?  Well, it contains loads of iron.  All of those whales poop out approximately 50 tonnes of iron each year.

What’s so special about the iron?  It’s a fabulously delicious food for phytoplankton, which are marine plants that exist up near the surface of the ocean.  These helpful plants like to take in CO2 from the atmosphere through a process called photosynthesis.

Better still is that the whales pop out their poop (even I chuckled as I wrote that) in a liquid form that’s close to the surface of the ocean, making it easier for the phytoplankton to access.  After, the whale dives down into the ocean, presumably feeling a little – or a lot – lighter!

Let’s Do The Math

First, we have to see how much CO2 gets sucked up by the plants, which is all thanks to the whale poo.  It’s 400,000 tonnes.  Now that’s twice as much as the 200,000 tonnes they breathe out through respiration each year.  The 200,000 tonnes is equivalent to emissions from 40,000 cars!

I got in touch with Steve Nicol of the Australian Antarctic Division to find out how the study all started.  He explained:

Our research was actually looking at baleen (krill eating) whales and the iron that they release.  The research was stimulated by some ideas raised by Victor Smetacek and we had the samples and the expertise here in Hobart to do the measurements necessary to test these ideas.

When I asked Steve what we can do to help, his answer was a simple one.  Simple but not necessarily easy to attain, especially given the attraction of whale hunting in many places around the world.  According to Steve:

Many populations of great whales are recovering fairly fast – some at about the maximum rate possible.  The best assistance we can give them is to avoid killing them – either accidentally or deliberately.

Don’t Judge Too Soon

I think an important lesson here is that we can’t judge too quickly and instead, should always look at the big picture.  When we first hear about all the CO2 the whales are putting out there, it’s easy to think badly of these massive sea creatures.  But with the Southern Ocean normally being a poor source of iron, the whales are making sure those phytoplankton are happily fed.  This way, the phytoplankton can do their job of taking out the nasty CO2.

Now, if only human poo had such fantastic capabilities.

The Return Of Bed Bugs – Smarter Ones January 13, 2010

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Animals, Evolution, Insects, Tough Stuff.
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Your mattress may be home to more than your pillow or favorite stuffed animal. It could be the home of bed bugs!

The title reads like a horror movie but for those who have battled it out with bed bugs, it makes a lot of sense. Others might think that ‘don’t let the bed bugs bite’ was just some bedtime line their parents used as a cute joke.

In fact, let’s see now who knew that bed bugs really existed. Try out the poll below (be honest!).


Bed Bug Basics

Bed bugs are small, reddish brown insects that feed on human blood, which engorges them and makes them bigger. They are from the insect family Cimicidae and common bed bugs are formally called Cimex lectularius. They tend to be most active at night, coming out of the cracks in walls or bed frames and other hiding places to get their bloody grub. They can travel in suitcases, so hotels are a hot spot for bed bugs as well as other places that see plenty of people coming and going. Cornell University has an ace fact sheet to give you the lowdown on bed bugs. You can also have some fun playing around on Pest World for Kids, a website created by the National Pest Management Association (NPMA). But let’s get back to finding out why these wee pesky critters have returned and what makes them smarter today.

Gone But Not For Long

Here we have a bed bug hiding in a wood bed frame. The bed bug looks like it's having a Sunday snooze but I bet it's getting rest so it can hunt for fresh blood! Image credit: Thomas Oldani

Bed bugs were once nearly destroyed in our modern environment, where the use of chemicals such as dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane – otherwise more easily known as DDT – kept these beasties at bay. DDT is a pesticide that is either very useful or very toxic, depending on who you ask or what journal study you read. Ultimately though, it was banned.

The Good And Bad Of DDT

DDT was used to keep mosquitoes under control, mostly because they spread malaria. It was used to keep lice numbers down too. So what happened when it was banned? As somewhat of a side effect of its use, DDT had kept bed bug numbers down. After it was banned, a bunch of other chemicals were used to treat bed bug infestations. The bed bugs, however, got smart and developed resistance to some of these chemicals. That resulted in a big UH OH for society as bed bug infestations are now on a major rise! Scientists from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Korea’s Seoul National University decided that it would be important to find out more about resistant strains of bed bugs in New York. The work was published in the Journal of Entomology. Let’s see what they discovered, shall we?

When researchers got busy observing bed bugs in New York, they found these pests had mutations in their nerve cells. What does this mean? It means they are resistant to the chemicals used to kill them. Where the chemicals would previously have paralyzed and killed the bed bugs, the mutations mean that bed bugs are now outsmarting their opponents – us!

Let The Bed Bug Collecting Begin!

To get the scoop on bed bug resistance, researchers took a sample of easily controllable ones from Florida and compared these to ones from New York that were harder to deal with. So just how resistant were these little bugs?

Look at this partially engorged bed bug. It probably looks similar to the bed bugs in Milan after they feasted on my blood. Oh, and a fun fact of the day: the Italian word for bed bugs is cimice dei letti.

Researchers found that the bed bugs in New York had up to 264 times the resistance to the modern chemical used to kill bed bugs – deltamethrin. If we picture a nerve cell, it has these little sodium channels on the outer membrane bit. This is where the flurry of nerve impulses come to life. In the New York bed bugs, this nervous system mutation means they can keep feeding long after those Florida ones have been exterminated.

Grossaroo

When I was in grade 3, I made up the word ‘grossaroo’ to describe anything yucky. This word is fitting in the case of what happened to me recently when I was working at an agency in Milan. After a few nights at what seemed to be a nice corporate flat, I began to get loads of itchy, inflamed red bites. I awoke one night to find a flattened-looking bug moving across my otherwise clean, crisp white sheets.

I yelped and quickly squished it with my slipper, only to see it turn into a smattering of blood, which it just took from its recent feeding of my body! Just after, I saw another one. By morning, my bed looked like a crime scene with all those splats of blood and bugs. Eeek! Fortunately, I got moved to a new place and had everything washed. Hopefully, those Milan bed bugs weren’t too hard for the building owners to get rid of, unless they’re resistant beasts like those New York ones.

Bed Bug Warrior To The Rescue

So now you know (if you didn’t already!) that bed bugs do exist. Not only that, but they’re continually evolving to get smarter, doing so in ways that make it harder to get rid of them. For now, you can be smart by being extra cautious when traveling. Always check for signs of bed bugs around the mattress and furniture. Since not everyone shows bites from these little pests, prevention will remain the best line of defense. And while it’s not necessarily smart, it sure is fun when checking for bed bugs to yell “YOU’RE GOING DOWN!” If your parents ask what you’re doing, you can explain that you’re the self-appointed family warrior here to protect everyone from bed bugs.

Image credits: Unless otherwise specified, images courtesy of the National Pest Management Association.

Evolution Gets Colorful August 24, 2009

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Brain Power, Environment, Evolution, Tough Stuff.
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Summer is still going strong but soon it will be fall – a time when we can enjoy the pretty autumn leaves. Or as I always like to do, throw leaves at my wee dog and race through the massive piles of foliage.

Unless you’ve traveled a bit and have a sharp eye for detail, you might not have noticed that autumn leaves are usually red in America but yellow in Europe. Seems strange, doesn’t it? If you’re wondering why, then you’re not the only one. Two professors thought about these differences too and they came up with a cool theory.

Prof. Simcha Lev-Yadun of the Department of Science Education at the University of Haifa-Oranim in Israel and Prof. Jarmo Holopainen of the University of Kuopio in Finland had their work published in New Phytologist.

Stepping Back In Time

Red leaves in America serve as a warning flag to ward off insects. But in Europe, none of these evolutionary 'tricks' are needed, which means leaves are yellow.

To find out more, we have to step back 35 million years to sort out the mystery. Up until that time, huge areas of the globe were rich in evergreen forests. Then, a bunch of ice ages and dry spells came into the picture. Lots of the tree species evolved to become deciduous – meaning they lose their leaves depending on the season. Some trees even started to produce red leaves to keep the pesky insects away. But, something else came into play and you might be surprised to learn just what it was!

Look To The Mountains

It’s true. We have to check out the orientation of the mountains to get the scoop on why the leaves evolved to be red in America but yellow in Europe. In North America, north-to-south mountain chains created a protected area, enabling the plants and animals to migrate south or north. Joining them were the insects. So, the leaves in America remained red to continue warding off these annoying bugs.

But in Europe, the mountains are oriented from east-to-west, leaving no protected areas as the ice and other environmental conditions came to visit. Loads of the tree species just couldn’t survive the extreme cold. When they died, so did those insects that needed the trees for their survival. By the time the ice ages were over, those trees that had managed to survive didn’t have to deal with the now-extinct insects. So, no need for red leaves to keep them away!

Curious Minds Want To Know

I asked Simcha Lev-Yadun how he ended up studying leaves. While my background is in the life sciences (medicine and nutrition), I always wonder how people end up in the many different, neat areas of science. He explained:

I wanted to be a biologist and archaeologist since I was ten years old. For me, science is a lifestyle, not a job. At the age of 57…I look backwards and see that I made the right decision.

He also shared his plans to meet up in Scandinavia with his colleague Jarmo Holopainen, where they hope to find out even more about why plants have such cool and different colors.

My Wishful Thinking

While my dog Tiko probably doesn’t care much about leaf color when he dashes through the crisp autumn leaves, I like to understand what makes one leaf a bright yellow and another a brilliant red. Now, if only leaves could somehow evolve to become fluorescent pink, my favorite color. Somehow though, I just don’t see it happening!

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