Archive for the ‘Food’ Category
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 »
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.
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 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?
Being 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.
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!
A new partnership between Microsoft and the European Environmental Agency is combining detailed scientific information on air and water quality with observations made by citizen scientists.
Ever wondered about the air quality in Copenhagen? Or perhaps the water quality in Paris?
Eye on Earth uses Microsoft’s Bing Maps to combine goespatial and environmental data from 22,000 bathing sites and 1,000 air quality monitoring stations throughout Europe. An “air quality model” provides the air pollution situation between air quality monitoring stations.
Citizen scientists can contribute their knowledge by clicking on simple user feedback icons. For each location, the map displays the average yearly value of all ratings submitted by citizen scientists. Users can then overlay the environmental data with their own observations with the click of a mouse.