Posts about scientific inquiry

Scientific Inquiry Leads to Using Fluoride for Healthy Teeth

This webcast, from the wonderful SciShow, explores how we discovered fluoride helps prevent tooth decay and how we then used that knowledge and finally discovered why it worked.

I love stories of how we learn for observing what is happening. We don’t always need to innovate by thinking up creative new ideas. If we are observant we can pick up anomalies and then examine the situation to find possible explanations and then experiment to see if those explanations prove true.

When working this way we often are seeing correlation and then trying to figure out which part of the correlation is an actual cause. So in this dental example, a dentist noticed his patients had bad brown stains on their teeth than others populations did.

After investigation the natural fluoridation of the water in Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA seemed like it might be an explanation (though they didn’t understand the chemistry that would cause that result). They also explored the sense that the discolored teeth were resistant to decay.

Even without knowing why it is possible to test if the conditions are the cause. Scientists discovered by reducing the level of fluoridation in the water the ugly brown stains could be eliminated (these stains took a long time to develop and didn’t develop in adults). Eventually scientists ran an experiment in Grand Rapids, Michigan and found fluoridation of the water achieved amazing results for dental health. The practice of fluoridation was then adopted widely and resulted in greatly improved dental health.

In 1901, Frederick McKay, a recent dental school graduate, opened a dental practice in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He was interested in what he saw and sought out other dentists to explore the situation with him but had little success. In 1909, he found some success when renowned dental researcher Dr. G.V. Black collaborate with him.
Dr. H. Trendley Dean, head of the Dental Hygiene Unit at the National Institute of Health built on their work when he began investigating the epidemiology of fluorosis in 1931. It wasn’t until 1945 that the Grand Rapids test started. Science can take a long time to move forward.

Only later did scientists unravel why this worked. The fluoride reacts to create a stronger enamel than if the fluoride is not present. Which results in the enamal being less easily dissolved by bacteria.
Health tip: use a dental stimudent (dental picks) or floss your teeth to maintain healthy gums and prevent tooth decay. It makes a big difference.

Related: Why does orange juice taste so bad after brushing your teeth?Microbiologist Develops Mouthwash That Targets Only Harmful Cavity Causing BacteriaUsing Nanocomposites to Improve Dental Filling PerformanceFinding a Dentist in Chiang Mai, ThailandFalse Teeth For CatsWhy Does Hair Turn Grey as We Age?

Yacouba Sawadogo – The Man Who Stopped the Desert

Quote from the video

Yacouba single-handedly had more impact on the soil conservation in the Sahel than than all the national and international researchers combined.

Dr. Chris Reij, Vrije University of Amsterdam.

As is normally the case making improvements in the real world is challenging and visionaries often face setbacks. Even when they have success that success is threatened by those that want to take the rewards but ignore the lessons. The clip above is a excerpt from the documentary film on his efforts.

Meet Yacouba Sawadogo – The Man Who Stopped the Desert

The simple old farmer’s re-forestation and soil conservation techniques are so effective they’ve helped turn the tide in the fight against the desertification of the harsh lands in northern Burkina Faso.

Over-farming, over-grazing and over population have, over the years, resulted in heavy soil erosion and drying in this landlocked West African nation.

Zai is a very simple and low-cost farming technique. Using a shovel or an axe, small holes are dug into the hard ground and filled with compost. Seeds of trees, millet or sorghum are planted in the compost. The holes catch water during the rainy season, so they are able to retain moisture and nutrients during the dry season.

According to the rules of Zai, Yacouba would prepare the lands in the dry season – exactly the opposite of the local practice. Other farmers and land chiefs laughed at him, but soon realized that he is a genius. In just 20 years, he converted a completely barren area into a thriving 30-acre forest with over 60 species of trees.

Yacouba has chosen not to keep his secrets to himself. Instead, he hosts a workshop at his farm, teaching visitors and bringing people together in a spirit of friendship. “I want the training program to be the starting point for many fruitful exchanges across the region

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Defying Textbook Science, Study Finds Proteins Built Without DNA Instructions

Open any introductory biology textbook and one of the first things you’ll learn is that our DNA spells out the instructions for making proteins, tiny machines that do much of the work in our body’s cells. Results from a recent study show for the first time that the building blocks of a protein, called amino acids, can be assembled without blueprints – DNA and an intermediate template called messenger RNA (mRNA). A team of researchers has observed a case in which another protein specifies which amino acids are added.

“This surprising discovery reflects how incomplete our understanding of biology is,” says first author Peter Shen, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in biochemistry at the University of Utah. “Nature is capable of more than we realize.”

To put the new finding into perspective, it might help to think of the cell as a well-run factory. Ribosomes are machines on a protein assembly line, linking together amino acids in an order specified by the genetic code. When something goes wrong, the ribosome can stall, and a quality control crew is summoned to the site. To clean up the mess, the ribosome is disassembled, the blueprint is discarded, and the partly made protein is recycled.

Yet this study reveals a surprising role for one member of the quality control team, a protein conserved from yeast to man named Rqc2. Before the incomplete protein is recycled, Rqc2 prompts the ribosomes to add just two amino acids (of a total of 20) – alanine and threonine – over and over, and in any order. Think of an auto assembly line that keeps going despite having lost its instructions. It picks up what it can and slaps it on.

“In this case, we have a protein playing a role similar to that filled by mRNA,” says Adam Frost, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and adjunct professor of biochemistry at the University of Utah. He shares senior authorship with Jonathan Weissman, Ph.D., a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at UCSF, and Onn Brandman, Ph.D., at Stanford University. “I love this story because it blurs the lines of what we thought proteins could do.”

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Epigenetics, Scientific Inquiry and Uncertainty

Science is full of fascinating ideas. Epigenetics is one area I find particularly interesting. This previous post has a few links to learning more: DNA Passed to Descendants Changed by Your Life.

Angela Saini is one 109 people I follow on Twitter. I don’t see the point in “following” people on Twitter that you have no interest in, I only follow the small number of people that post Tweets I want to read.

In, Epigenetics: genes, environment and the generation game, Angela Saini looks at the confused state of current scientific understand now. It is very difficult to tell if, and if so, to what extent, epigenetic inheritance happens in people.

Professor Azim Surani, a leading developmental biologist and geneticist at the University of Cambridge, adds that while there is good evidence that epigenetic inheritance happens in plants and worms, mammals have very different biology. Surani’s lab carried out thorough studies on how epigenetic information was erased in developing mouse embryos and found that “surprisingly little gets through” the reprogramming process.

Professor Timothy Bestor, a geneticist at Columbia University in New York, is far more damning, claiming that the entire field has been grossly overhyped. “It’s an extremely fashionable topic right now. It’s very easy to get studies on transgenerational epigenetic inheritance published,” he says, adding that all this excitement has lowered critical standards.

Related: Epigenetic Effects on DNA from Living Conditions in Childhood Persist Well Into Middle AgeMedical Study Findings too Often Fail to Provide Us Useful KnowledgeScientific Inquiry Process Finds That Komodo Dragons Don’t have a Toxic Bite After All

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Anti-Science Politics in Australia, Canada and the UK

Age of Unreason by George Monbiot

The governments of Britain, Canada and Australia are trying to stamp out scientific dissent.

in Canada… scientists with government grants working on any issue that could affect industrial interests – tar sands, climate change, mining, sewage, salmon farms, water trading – are forbidden to speak freely to the public(17,18,19). They are shadowed by government minders and, when they must present their findings, given scripts to memorise and recite(20). Dozens of turbulent research programmes and institutes have either been cut to the bone or closed altogether(21).

In Australia, the new government has chosen not to appoint a science minister(22). Tony Abbott, who once described manmade climate change as “absolute crap”(23), has already shut down the government’s Climate Commission and Climate Change Authority(24).

Follow the link for sources. Sadly governments are fighting for the crown of how anti-science they can be. It isn’t a matter of the countries that are doing a good job and a better job of using scientific understanding to aid in policy decisions. It is a matter of how extreme the anti-science crowds are in each country.

Trashing the scientific method and the use of scientific knowledge to pursue a pre-determined political agenda is a foolhardy action putting political expediency above effectiveness. Making political judgement, considering the available scientific research is fine, and will result in some people being upset. But the extremely bad process behind ignoring and intentionally sabotaging the use of data and scientific thinking is extremely harmful to society.

Every man has a right to his own opinion, but no man has a right to be wrong in his facts.
– Bernard Baruch (Daniel Patrick Moynihan said something very similar later)

Related: The Politics of Anti-Science (USA focus)Science and Engineering in PoliticsStand with Science: Late is Better than NeverScience and Engineering in Global Economics

Another Bee Study Finds CCD is Likely Due to Combination of Factors Including Pesticides

Abstract of open access science paper funded by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Crop Pollination Exposes Honey Bees to Pesticides Which Alters Their Susceptibility to the Gut Pathogen Nosema ceranae:

Recent declines in honey bee populations and increasing demand for insect-pollinated crops raise concerns about pollinator shortages. Pesticide exposure and pathogens may interact to have strong negative effects on managed honey bee colonies. Such findings are of great concern given the large numbers and high levels of pesticides found in honey bee colonies. Thus it is crucial to determine how field-relevant combinations and loads of pesticides affect bee health.

We collected pollen from bee hives in seven major crops to determine 1) what types of pesticides bees are exposed to when rented for pollination of various crops and 2) how field-relevant pesticide blends affect bees’ susceptibility to the gut parasite Nosema ceranae. Our samples represent pollen collected by foragers for use by the colony, and do not necessarily indicate foragers’ roles as pollinators. In blueberry, cranberry, cucumber, pumpkin and watermelon bees collected pollen almost exclusively from weeds and wildflowers during our sampling.

Thus more attention must be paid to how honey bees are exposed to pesticides outside of the field in which they are placed. We detected 35 different pesticides in the sampled pollen, and found high fungicide loads. The insecticides esfenvalerate and phosmet were at a concentration higher than their median lethal dose in at least one pollen sample. While fungicides are typically seen as fairly safe for honey bees, we found an increased probability of Nosema infection in bees that consumed pollen with a higher fungicide load.

Our results highlight a need for research on sub-lethal effects of fungicides and other chemicals that bees placed in an agricultural setting are exposed to.

The attempts to discover the main causes of bee colony deaths and find solutions continues to prove difficult years after the problems became major. The complex interaction of many variables makes it difficult. And special interest groups pushing pesticides and the like, which have seemed to be major contributors to the problem for years, make it even more difficult (by preventing restrictions on potentially damaging pesticide use).

The challenges in determining what is killing bees are similar to the challenges of discovering what practices are damaging human health. The success of studying complex biological interactions (to discover threats to human health) is extremely limited. I am concerned we are far too caviler about using large numbers of interventions (drugs, pesticides, massive antibiotics use in factory farms, pollution…).

Related: Europe Bans Certain Pesticides, USA Just Keeps Looking, Bees Keep DyingGermany Bans Chemicals Linked to Bee Deaths (2008)Virus Found to be One Likely Factor in Bee Colony Colapse Disorder (2007)Study of the Colony Collapse Disorder Continues as Bee Colonies Continue to Disappear

Go Slow with Genetically Modified Food

My thoughts on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO), specifically GM foods, basically boil down to:

  • messing with genes could create problems
  • we tend to (and especially those seeking to gain an advantage tend to – even if “we” overall wouldn’t the people in the position to take aggressive measures do) ignore risks until the problems are created (often huge costs at that point)
  • I think we should reduce risk and therefore make it hard to justify using GMO techniques
  • I agree occasionally we should do so, like it seems with oranges and bananas.
  • I agree the practice can be explained in a way that makes it seem like there is no (or nearly no) risk, I don’t trust we will always refrain from stepping into an area where there is a very bad result

Basically I would suggest being very cautious with GMO. I like science and technology but I think we often implement things poorly. I think we are not being cautious enough now, and should reduce the use of GMO to critical needs to society (patents on the practices need to be carefully studied and perhaps not permitted – the whole patent system is so broken now that it should be questioned at every turn).

Antibiotic misuse and massive overuse is an obvious example. We have doctors practicing completely unjustified misuse of antibiotics and harming society and we have factory farms massively overusing antibiotics causing society harm.

The way we casually use drugs is another example of our failure to sensibly manage risks, in my opinion. This of course is greatly pushed by those making money on getting us to use more drugs – drug companies and doctors paid by those companies. The right drugs are wonderful. But powerful drugs almost always have powerful side effects (at least in a significant number of people) and those risks are multiplied the more we take (due to interactions, weakness created by one being overwhelmed by the next etc.). We should be much more cautious but again we show evidence of failing to act cautiously which adds to my concern for using GMO.

I love antibiotics, but the way we are using them is endangering millions of lives (that is a bad thing). I don’t trust us to use science wisely and safely. We need to more consciously put barriers in place to prevent us creating massively problems.

Related: Research on Wheat RustThe AvocadoOverfishing, another example of us failing to effectively cope with systemic consequences

Medical Study Findings too Often Fail to Provide Us Useful Knowledge

There are big problems with medical research, as we have posted about many times in the past. A very significant part of the problem is health care research is very hard. There are all sorts of interactions that make conclusive results much more difficult than other areas.

But failures in our practices also play a big role. Just poor statistical literacy is part of the problem (especially related to things like interactions, variability, correlation that isn’t evidence of causation…). Large incentives that encourage biased research results are a huge problem.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science

He discovered that the range of errors being committed was astonishing: from what questions researchers posed, to how they set up the studies, to which patients they recruited for the studies, to which measurements they took, to how they analyzed the data, to how they presented their results, to how particular studies came to be published in medical journals. The systemic failure to do adequate long term studies once we approve drugs, practices and devices are also a big problem.

This array suggested a bigger, underlying dysfunction, and Ioannidis thought he knew what it was. “The studies were biased,” he says. “Sometimes they were overtly biased. Sometimes it was difficult to see the bias, but it was there.” Researchers headed into their studies wanting certain results—and, lo and behold, they were getting them. We think of the scientific process as being objective, rigorous, and even ruthless in separating out what is true from what we merely wish to be true, but in fact it’s easy to manipulate results, even unintentionally or unconsciously. “At every step in the process, there is room to distort results, a way to make a stronger claim or to select what is going to be concluded,” says Ioannidis. “There is an intellectual conflict of interest that pressures researchers to find whatever it is that is most likely to get them funded.”

Another problem is that medical research often doesn’t get the normal scientific inquiry check of confirmation research by other scientists.

Most journal editors don’t even claim to protect against the problems that plague these studies. University and government research overseers rarely step in to directly enforce research quality, and when they do, the science community goes ballistic over the outside interference. The ultimate protection against research error and bias is supposed to come from the way scientists constantly retest each other’s results—except they don’t. Only the most prominent findings are likely to be put to the test, because there’s likely to be publication payoff in firming up the proof, or contradicting it.

Related: Statistical Errors in Medical StudiesMedical Study Integrity (or Lack Thereof)Contradictory Medical Studies (2007)Does Diet Soda Result in Weight Gain?

Tropical Lizards Can Solve Novel Problems and Remember the Solutions

Brainy Lizards Pass Tests for Birds

[Duke biologist Manuel Leal] tested the lizards using a wooden block with two wells, one that was empty and one that held a worm but was covered by a cap. Four lizards, two male and two female, passed the test by either biting the cap or bumping it out of the way.

The lizards solved the problem in three fewer attempts than birds need to flip the correct cap and pass the test, Leal said. Birds usually get up to six chances a day, but lizards only get one chance per day because they eat less. In other words, if a lizard makes a mistake, it has to remember how to correct it until the next day

Leal’s experiment “clearly demonstrates” that when faced with a situation the lizards had never experienced, most of them were able to devise a way to solve the problem. Their ability to “unlearn” a behavior, a skill that some mammalian species have difficulty in, is the mark of a cognitively advanced animal, said Jonathan Losos, a biologist at Harvard who was not involved in the study.

To see if the lizards could reverse this association, Leal next placed the worm under the other cap. At first, all the lizards bumped or bit the formerly lucrative blue cap. But after a few mistakes, two of the lizards figured out the trick. “We named these two Plato and Socrates,” Leal said.

It is very cool to see what scientists keep learning about animals.

Related: Insightful Problem Solving in an Asian ElephantBird Using Bread as Bait to Catch FishCrows Transferring Their Understanding to Novel ProblemDolphins Using Tools to Hunt

Scientific Inquiry Process Finds That Komodo Dragons Don’t have a Toxic Bite After All

This articles is another showing the scientific inquiry process at work. Scientists draw conclusions based on the data they have and experiments they do. Then scientists (sometimes the same people that did the original work) seek to confirm or refute the initial conclusions (based on new evidence or just repeating a similar experiment) and may seek to extend those conclusions.

Sometimes the scientists conclude the initial understanding was incorrect, such as with Komodo Dragon’s: Here Be Dragons: The Mythic Bite of the Komodo

for centuries Komodos have been feared by many, with tales of their deadly bite echoing through local cultures. It’s even thought the monstrous lizards may have inspired the mythical beasts that share their name. Their villainous reputation only grew when these fearsome predators were discovered by Europeans in the early twentieth century. But of all the terrible tales told about these dragons, none has been so persistent and pervasive than that of their bite. The mouths of Komodos are said to be laden with deadly bacteria from the decaying corpses they feed on, microbes so disgustingly virulent that the smallest bite lethally infects prey. As the story goes, Komodos have turned oral bacteria into a venom.

It’s a truly fascinating way for an animal to feed — well, truly fascinating in that it’s not true at all.

Related: Video of Young Richard Feynman Talking About Scientific ThinkingNanoparticles With Scorpion Venom Slow Cancer SpreadBig Lizards in Johor BahruNigersaurus

Drugmakers Are Desperate to Know Why Placebos Are Getting More Effective

Fascinating article from Wired: Placebos Are Getting More Effective. Drugmakers Are Desperate to Know Why.

The fact that an increasing number of medications are unable to beat sugar pills has thrown the industry into crisis. The stakes could hardly be higher. In today’s economy, the fate of a long-established company can hang on the outcome of a handful of tests.

Potter discovered, however, that geographic location alone could determine whether a drug bested placebo or crossed the futility boundary. By the late ’90s, for example, the classic antianxiety drug diazepam (also known as Valium) was still beating placebo in France and Belgium. But when the drug was tested in the US, it was likely to fail. Conversely, Prozac performed better in America than it did in western Europe and South Africa. It was an unsettling prospect: FDA approval could hinge on where the company chose to conduct a trial.

In one study, Benedetti found that Alzheimer’s patients with impaired cognitive function get less pain relief from analgesic drugs than normal volunteers do. Using advanced methods of EEG analysis, he discovered that the connections between the patients’ prefrontal lobes and their opioid systems had been damaged. Healthy volunteers feel the benefit of medication plus a placebo boost. Patients who are unable to formulate ideas about the future because of cortical deficits, however, feel only the effect of the drug itself. The experiment suggests that because Alzheimer’s patients don’t get the benefits of anticipating the treatment, they require higher doses of painkillers to experience normal levels of relief.

Benedetti often uses the phrase “placebo response” instead of placebo effect. By definition, inert pills have no effect, but under the right conditions they can act as a catalyst for what he calls the body’s “endogenous health care system.” Like any other internal network, the placebo response has limits. It can ease the discomfort of chemotherapy, but it won’t stop the growth of tumors. It also works in reverse to produce the placebo’s evil twin, the nocebo effect. For example, men taking a commonly prescribed prostate drug who were informed that the medication may cause sexual dysfunction were twice as likely to become impotent.

Moreover, a pill’s shape, size, branding, and price all influence its effects on the body. Soothing blue capsules make more effective tranquilizers than angry red ones, except among Italian men, for whom the color blue is associated with their national soccer team—Forza Azzurri!

Medical research presents significant difficulties. The funding of the health care system also distorts behavior and pushes companies to focus on being able to justify selling drugs instead of focusing on finding effective solutions. Even without incentives distorting behavior, the challenges are difficult enough. Adding the distortions just makes it worse.

It is wonderful we have so many scientists accepting these challenges and spending their careers fighting the odds to help find us wonderful health breakthroughs.

Related: The Majority of Clinical Trials Don’t Provide Meaningful EvidenceSystem for Approving New Medical Options Needs ImprovementMedical Study Integrity (or Lack Thereof)Discussing Medical Study Results

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