You Can Blame Your Mother For Obesity Now

Two weeks ago, I posted about how your mother’s nutrition during gestation could have influenced your circadian rhythm today (e.g. your mother may have determined whether you’re an evening or a morning person). Well, a new study published recently in Archives of Disease in Childhood suggests that your mother’s decision to get a caesarian could may have also caused your obesity if you’re overweight. Three-year olds who were born via cesarean section were twice as likely to be obese when compared to their peers born by normal vaginal birth.

How!? The scientists who published the study believe it might have something to do with the bacteria that populate our gut. Most of our gut is populated by Firmicutes and Bacteroidetes bacteria, but obese individuals tend to have a higher abundance of Firmicutes. Mouse studies have shown that Firmicutes bacteria can lead their host to gain weight, and babies born by c-section have been shown to have a higher abundance of Firmicutes in their gut.

Babies born the natural way are exposed to the vaginal microbes of their mother’s during delivery, whereas c-section babies are not exposed to the same microbes! This might explain the differences in the intestinal microbiota of c-section vs. normal babies, and might explain why c-section babies are more likely to be obese at 3 years of age.

Why NOT to go to graduate school

As a graduate student myself, I’m finding this blog rather entertaining: it’s entitled 100 Reasons NOT to Go to Graduate School. Only 83 reasons have been proposed so far, but it brings up some really important points for those considering joining a graduate program. You can find the complete list to date here.

As of yet, I’m finding my experience as a graduate student rewarding, but I can agree with many of these reasons nevertheless.

New Study Shows Organic Foodies are Self-Righteous Pricks.

When I came across this study published recently in Social Psychological and Personality Science, it was just too hilarious not to mention. A researcher at Loyola University collected experimental evidence which confirms all of our suspicions: people who specifically buy only organic foods are self-righteous pricks.

It was a pretty silly experiment. In this study participants were shown pictures of either organic foods (like a USDA-approved organic apple), “comfort” foods (like ice cream), or “control” foods (like mustard) that don’t really fit into either category. The participants were then asked to rate (on a scale of 1 to 7) how morally-wrong a set of “counterbalanced moral transgressions” were. If you’re interested, the moral transgressions included in the study were as follows:

second cousins engaging in consensual incest, a man eating his already-dead dog, a congressman accepting bribes, a lawyer prowling hospitals for victims, a person shoplifting, and a student stealing library books.

The participants were also told “that another professor from another department is also conducting research and really needs volunteers”, and the participants were asked whether they’d be willing to help and how much of their time they would be willing to volunteer.

Interestingly, people shown the organic foods were more likely to judge this set of moral transgressions more harshly, and they were also less likely to volunteer as much of their time to help another person out. This led the study to conclude “that exposure to organic foods may lead people to affirm their moral identities, which attenuates their desire to be altruistic.” In other words, organic foods lead people to be self-righteous pricks.

Want to live longer? Inject this virus!

Accumulation of short/damaged telomeres with increasing age is considered one of the main sources of aging-associated DNA damage capable of causing loss of the regenerative capacity of tissues and systemic organismal aging both in humans and mice with impaired telomerase activity.

Telomeres are caps of repeating DNA at the ends of our chromosomes that protect our genes from damage. Telomeres are often referred to as our clock. Every time our DNA replicates and our cells divide, our telomeres get a little shorter, and our clock ticks a little closer to our death at midnight. The shorter our telomeres, the more damage our DNA incurs — damage which is highly correlated with aging.

But luckily, there’s an enzyme, telomerase reverse transcriptase (TERT) which can polymerize new telomeric repeats and add these to the ends of our DNA, helping us live longer. As expected, overexpression of this enzyme in cancer-resistant mouse systems has been shown to increase longevity. Ever since the discovery of this enzyme, many scientists have hoped that we can use gene therapies involving this enzyme to extend the human lifespan. Now I’m happy to announce that, very recently, researchers in Spain have gotten us one step closer to this goal.

Two perspectives of the catalytic subunit of TERT from Tribolium castaneum: (left) electrostatic surface map and (right) ribbon diagram.

These researchers explored a TERT gene therapy in mice using a new adeno associated viral (AAV) vector which is able to cross the blood-brain barrier. One month after injection of the TERT-AAV in 1 & 2 year old mice groups, the researchers found significant increases in expression of TERT in the liver, kidney, lung, heart, brain, and muscle compared to the control.

After noting increases in the amount of active TERT expressed in these tissues, they next studied a variety of biomarkers related to aging to see if TERT was providing any aging-related benefits. As mice (and humans) age, they tend to lose bone mineral density and subcutaneous adipose tissue, become glucose intolerant and insulin resistant (marked by increased insulin levels), and their cognitive abilities, coordination, and balance degrade. Compared to the control group, mice treated with the TERT-AAV had higher bone mineral density, thicker subcutaneous layers, lower insulin levels, improved coordination and balance, and improved neuromuscular coordination — all signs of slowed aging progression! Interestingly, the more aged 2-year old mice tended to show greater improvement in these areas than younger 1 year-old mice subjected to the gene therapy.

Not only were there improvements in the biomarkers relevant to aging, but TERT-AAV treated mice also showed increased longevity compared to the control group (as illustrated below).

Graph showing percent survival of three groups of mice over time. Color-coding is as follows: mice treated with TERT-AAV gene therapy (black), mice treated with AAV vector containing protein unrelated to aging outcome (grey), mice treated with no gene therapy at all (blue).

Unfortunately, TERT overexpression is a common feature of cancer, due to TERT’s ability to confer “unlimited proliferative potential”, so the most foreseeable problem with a TERT gene therapy would be increased incidence of cancer. Remarkably, however, this study did not find a higher incidence of cancer in mice treated with the TERT gene therapy!

I hope other laboratories will quickly follow up on this exciting preliminary study, so we can hopefully get this gene therapy to human clinical trials soon. Who would have thought 114 years ago, when the first virus was discovered, that today we would be engineering our own viruses to infect us with beneficial genes to extend our lifespans. If this gene therapy is as effective in humans as it is in mice, the average life expectancy may increase from 78 to 94! Wouldn’t that be amazing?

Be Careful What you Read

Research suggests that people tend to take on the personalities of the main characters in books they read.  So try not to read too many books about serial killers!

Try to read about characters who exhibit the qualities you want to exhibit yourself.

Anecdotally, I can confirm this reasearch.  The last book I read was Gambit Queen.  I must say, it made me feel empowered and very intelligent.  No surprise: The protagonist is a strong, intelligent, female character who knows how to kick ass and take names.

A Google search for “G from Gambit Gueen” tells me that I’m not the only one who felt inspired:

U.S. Plans to Sucker Punch Alzheimer’s

The Obama Administration has launched a new national strategy against Alzheimer’s disease. My grandmother was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Unfortunately the diagnosis came much too late. A lot of the preventative treatments for Alzheimer’s unfortunately don’t work for late-stage patients, like my grandmother.

As part of the new action plan, the U.S. government is funding two clinical trials. One of these trials will be for a new drug that attacks amyloid, fibrous aggregates of protein that are thought to be the cause of Alzheimer’s. The second trial is for an insulin nasal spray that has promise to improve the memory of patients with mild to moderate cognitive impairment.

I’m glad the government is leading the fight against Alzheimer’s. Although it may be too late for my grandmother, it’s important that we find a cure or treatment for this disease for future generations. Right now it is predicted that 1 in 85 people will be affected by Alzheimer’s by 2050.

Tattoos and Unborn Babies

Researchers at UCSD are working on tattoos for monitoring “uterine contractions, fetal heart rate and oxygen, and maternal heart rate and body temperature”.

A friend of mine — an artist with multiple psychedelic full-body tats — was pregnant last year.  During her third trimester, an elderly lady stopped her outside of a grocery store in Texas, pointed to her belly and said, “I’m usually pro-life, but I wish you weren’t.  It ain’t right to bring a crack baby into the world.  I should call social services right now.”

Maybe one day, though, people will see pregnant mothers and say, “You don’t have enough tattoos.  Don’t you care about your baby?”  From stigma to stigmata.