Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

Citizen Scientists Help Unravel the Genetics of Taste

By December 19th, 2015 at 11:40 am | Comment

Citizen scientists participate in the genetics of taste lab (Image Credit: Denver Museum of Natural History)

Citizen scientists participate in the genetics of taste lab (Image Credit: Denver Museum of Natural History)

Citizen scientists help make discoveries about how genetics may shape the way we taste food. 

Turkey or ham? Stuffing or mashed potatoes? Pumpkin or apple pie?

As I prepared for Thanksgiving this year, I reflected on all the culinary choices this feasting day offers and wondered why people who share a culture, a community, or a family have such diverse preferences when it comes to their favorite holiday foods.

Maybe it’s genetics?

Researchers at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science are exploring this question through their Genetics of Taste Lab, a permanent “science on the floor” health exhibit that brings together citizen science and crowdsourcing to understand our relationship with food. Read the rest of this entry »

3 Citizen Science Projects You Can Do on Earth Day

By April 22nd, 2014 at 10:00 am | Comment 1

African Elephants

African elephants in the Zuurberg Mountains, South Africa.

It’s Earth Day! Celebrate the planet we live on with these amazing environmental citizen science projects!

The Earth Day Network records that in 1970 the average American was funneling leaded gas through massive V8 engine blocks, and industry was exhausting toxic smoke into the air and chemical slush into the water with little legal consequence or bad press.

The nation was largely oblivious to environmental concerns, but Rachel Carson’s New York Times bestseller Silent Spring in 1962 set the stage for something new, as she raised public awareness and concern for living organisms, the environment and public health.

Earth Day was born in 1970 and it built upon a new sense of awareness, channeling the energy of a restless youth, and putting environmental concerns front and center. Now it is celebrated in some way in 192 countries across the world. As we celebrate Earth Day 2014, here is a selection of citizen science projects you can choose from, and they are perfectly suited to both the young and young at heart.

1. Mammal Map is a project that helps to update the distribution records of African mammal species. Based out of the University of Cape Town, you can add recent photos of animals photographed in Africa.

2. Based in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, YardMap allows participants to map habitats in your own backyard. After signing up for the free online project, participants zoom in on satellite images to construct maps of their yards, local parks, workplaces, local cemeteries, or any other green space they know well. They mark the maps to show areas of lawn, buildings, native plants, feeders, and other landscape features. Scientists and participants can see how the spaces connect to form larger landscapes and share information about improving habitats at home and across communities.

3. By 2050 we will need to feed more than 2 billion additional people on the Earth. By playing Cropland Capture, you will help improve basic information about where cropland is located on the Earth’s surface. Using this information, researchers will be better equipped at tackling problems of future food security and the effects of climate change on future food supply.

Image:  Ian Vorster

Ian Vorster has a MS in Environmental Communications and most recently served as director of communications at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. Prior to that he worked in the health communications field. Ian has served as a designer, writer, photographer, editor and project leader in the field of science, and now works freelance in a blend of these roles. You can see more of Ian’s work at

Me, Myself, and My Microbes

By March 19th, 2014 at 5:34 pm | Comment

Participate in American Gut to find out what bacteria live in your body and help scientists gather data on the diversity of microorganisms that affect our health.

Explore the microbiome around and inside you with these citizen science projects!


Bacteria usually get a pretty bad rap. Perpetrators of strep throat, food poisoning, hospital infections, the list goes on. But not all bacteria are insidious in their intentions–in fact, many are harmless and even friendly, including the trillions that tag along in and on our bodies on a daily basis. In return for providing these microorganisms with a comfortable and long-lasting residence, they perform a number of chores for us and proactively help maintain our health.

Notably, they extract energy out of the food we eat, aid in the development of our immune system, and fend off intruding pathogens. Bacteria live in multiple areas on the human body, but bacteria in the gut have received the bulk of scientists’ attention so far. And not without good reason–these bugs amount to a whole kilogram in an average individual’s gastrointestinal tract, meaning that on a yearly basis a human adult will excrete their own weight in fecal bacteria. Recent work has shown that bacteria in the gut environment play a causative role in weight gain, obesity, and malnutrition, and that sustained changes in diet can have substantial effects on the composition of these bacterial populations. So not only do the bugs in our gut affect our health and well-being, but our diet and lifestyle modulate what bacteria live there, giving the phrase “you are what you eat” a whole new meaning.

Thus far, most scientific studies on gut-residing bacteria have focused on specific cohorts of carefully selected individuals. As a result, these studies reflect our diversity “to about the same extent that Congress does,” as a team of researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder puts it. This team, led by microbial ecologists Rob Knight and Jeff Leach, wants to remedy current limitations by obtaining a larger set of bacterial data from a much more diverse population- basically people like you and me, or even literally you and me.

In a citizen science project called American Gut, Knight, Leach, and collaborators offer anyone living in the U.S. the opportunity to submit a biosample (from your skin, mouth, or fecal matter), and for a $99 donation they will process and analyze your sample and give you a detailed description of the microorganisms on your body, in your mouth, or in your gut (depending on the source of your sample). Additionally, the analysis offers you a relative comparison of your bacterial community to the thousands of other people who have participated in the project.

So what’s happening with all the data that’s being collected? American Gut asks participants to take a lifestyle survey and a detailed week-long dietary inventory to accompany their biosample. American Gut researchers and collaborators seek to associate different factors like smoking, veganism, or gluten intolerance to different microbial communities. ”We’re interested in whether we can pick up diet, geographical or seasonal associations. There are also some more specific projects being run through American Gut on inflammatory bowel disease, autism, and several other diseases” said Knight. Overall, scientists studying the human microbiome (or the collective genome of host-associated bacteria) want to know which of these factors make a difference in shaping our microbial populations and what that means for our health. By crowd-sourcing data from all walks of life, American Gut is amassing what’s arguably the largest and most diverse set of information on host-associated communities to start discerning this information. “It will substantially expand our knowledge of the kinds of microbiomes that are out there, will give us a better understanding of what matters and what doesn’t (in terms of factors and controls), and will perhaps allow us to start seeing similarities among different disease states (depending on how many people who are willing to share de-identified medical information sign up).”

Using a citizen science approach offers the benefit of having a large pool of data to work with, but there are some downsides. “The main challenge is cleaning up errors in the data, for example, we don’t really think we have participants who were born in 1060 or in the future (and we don’t know how they managed to bypass the web form validation either),” said Knight. In line with its citizen science goals, Knight and Leach have prioritized making the project open source and open access. The data, in the form of sequences of bacterial DNA (with no personal information), will be publically available for anyone to obtain and analyze. Most academic labs don’t have the funding to generate this type of data, so American Gut enables researchers to independently pursue their own hypotheses about the microbiome and its complex interplay with the environment and human health.

Interested in knowing what bugs are in and on your body? Perhaps you want to know how your bacteria change over time or what bacteria you share with a family member or significant other? Check out different options for your donation to American Gut. Even biosamples from dogs are welcome!

Image: Courtesy of Rob Knight at American Gut

More reading on the microbiome:



Sheetal R. Modi is a postdoctoral fellow at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University where she studies how bacteria develop and spread antibiotic resistance. She has a PhD in Biomedical Engineering, and when she’s not growing her bacterial cultures (and repeatedly killing them), she enjoys science communication and being outside.


The Genetics of Taste: A Bitter Story

By February 11th, 2014 at 9:40 am | Comment

The Genetics of Taste citizen science project from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science set out to understand the link between genetics and TAS2R38 gene, responsible for the “bitter” taste receptor.

Come to your senses! SciStarter has curated a list of citizen science projects for all five senses.

Guest post by Michelle Murphy-Niedziela.

Don’t like brussels sprouts? Hate IPA beers? Prefer your cream with a bit of coffee? You might be a supertaster. So, what’s your super power as a supertaster?

tasteBeing a supertaster means that you have an increased taste sensitivity, particularly for bitter foods, due to the presence of the TAS2R38 gene and an increased number of fungiform papillae (or taste buds). Those taste buds have receptors that sense sweet, salty, bitter and sour. TAS2R38 is the gene responsible for a certain type of bitter taste receptor, sensitive to the bitter chemicals PROP and PTC. So more taste buds + more bitter receptors = SUPERTASTER!

The citizen science efforts from the community-based Genetics of Taste Lab at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, led by curator Dr. Nicole Garneau, set out to replicate the academic data and prove that non-scientists can do genetics work.  By recruiting members of the community to participate, they collected 3000 samples, analyzed for age, gender and genetics.

After a rocky start while figuring out and learning the techniques, they completed the study in early August 2013 with 1800 genetic samples and 500 tongue photographs.  While they weren’t able to replicate all the findings found in academic labs (they did find differences in TAS2R38 expression in males versus females as well as age differences), they were not able to find a connection between the number of taste buds and genetics.

Separate from Garneau’s study, scientists studying taste genetics have found that supertasters may have better control of their appetite and may avoid sweet and fatty foods leading to better health and a less occurrence of metabolic syndrome and obesity (Shafaie et al., 2013; Turner-McGrievy et al., 2013).  Further, supertaster patients are less likely to need surgical intervention for chronic rhinosinusitis (Adappa et al., 2013). Women are more likely to be supertasters, 35% of women and 15% of men (Bartoshuk et al., 1994). It turns out, about 25% of people are supertasters; 25% are non-tasters; and the other 50% are somewhere in the middle (medium tasters carry only one copy of the TAS2R38 gene, so fewer of those special bitter receptors and fewer taste buds than supertasters). But have no fear, being a supertaster or nontaster represents normal variation in the human population like eye or hair color.

Garneau and her team will be presenting their work at the Association for Chemoreception Sciences (AChemS) and have even submitted their work for publication in the academic journal Frontiers in Neuroscience.

Want to find out if you are a taster or a non taster? Here are two more fun things you can do at home.

1. Count your taste buds – Dye your tongue using blue food coloring and count the number of bumps on your tongue, compare with your friends!

2. Taste test at home – Order PTC or PROP taste strips online (can be found on Amazon); place them on your tongue; and tell us the results! If you taste nothing, then you are a non-taster. If you taste bitter, then you are a taster!

Image: The Creative Panic

Dr. Michelle Murphy Niedziela is a behavioral neuroscience expert in neuropsychology, psychology and consumer science with a focus on flavor and fragrance technologies. Michelle obtained a PhD and masters in neuroscience and biopsychology from Purdue University and a BS in psychology from Florida State University. In the past she’s worked at Johnson & Johnson, Mars Chocolate and is now a neuromarketing Scientific Director at HCD Research. In her spare time, Michelle enjoys cooking, blogging and traveling. Follow her on Twitter @nerdoscientism and her blog.

Celebrate Father’s Day at the Pollinator-Palooza

By June 17th, 2011 at 10:22 am | Comment 1

A Common Blue Morpho butterfly lands on a young visitor at the Sophia M. Sachs Butterfly House.  (Photo: Sophia M. Sachs Butterfly House)

A Common Blue Morpho butterfly lands on a young visitor at the Sophia M. Sachs Butterfly House. (Photo: Sophia M. Sachs Butterfly House)

Next week is National Pollinator Week!

Pollinators, like bees, birds, and butterflies, play an important role in all of our lives. They aid in flowering plant reproduction, help ensure the health of national forests and grasslands, and work together with famers and ranchers in the production of fruits and vegetables. National Pollinator Week is a yearly effort to build more awareness about the need to maintain a healthy pollinator population.

Today, we’re highlighting one of the many National Pollinator Week events taking place all over the nation: the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Pollinator-Palooza.

To celebrate National Pollinator Week, the Missouri Botanical Garden‘s Sophia M Sachs Butterfly House is connecting people with pollinators in a whole new way. On Father’s Day, families in the Greater St Louis Area and beyond are invited to join games and crafts (designed for kids ages 2-11), observe bee hives, and ask a trained entomologist about pollination or the pollinators themselves.

I had a chance to chat with Laura Chisholm, a program specialist and entomologist at the Sophia M Sachs Butterfly House, about what we can expect at this weekend’s Pollinator Palooza. Laura knows her bugs! She runs the Pollinator-Palooza event and Bug Hunt which occur during the June and July. She also assists with other special events throughout the year, including October Owls and Orchids, March Morpho Mania, Booterflies, and Hot! Hot! Hot!

Read the rest of this entry »