Category Archives: Science-y Stuff

The Measles Outbreak

Like many people, this measles outbreak is really pissing me off.

15 years ago, measles was declared eradicated in the US (1).  In the first month of 2015, there were over 100 cases of measles (2).

So much for eradication.

We all know what happened.  Thanks to a fraudulent paper and idiotic celebrities, many American parents  became duped into thinking that vaccines are dangerous.  The anti-vax movement has some of the hallmarks of a great conspiracy.  For example, every time a point that anti-vaxers bring up regarding vaccines being more dangerous than the diseases they prevent, and that argument is proven wrong, they change to a new argument.

First, it was that the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) combined vaccine causes autism.  That’s been proven wrong (3).  Repeatedly.  Also, the study that started this was considered completely fraudulent on a variety of counts.  So, the anti-vaxers started to blame thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative found in vaccines.  Besides the fact that thimerosal is made of the relatively harmless ethylmercury (4, as opposed to the bad methylmercury you eat when scarfing down your tuna sushi), the government caved in and removed thimerosal from vaccines. Autism rates continued to rise, proving this wasn’t an issue. But hey, great work, anti-vax conspiracy theorists- you have succeed in making life-saving vaccines exponentially more expensive and more difficult to get to impoverished areas worldwide where they are desperately needed.  Congrats!

Instead of saying, “Okay, maybe vaccines aren’t that super evil,” the anti-vaxers began attacking something new.  Vaccines have aluminum.  Vaccines cause allergies.  They’re made from aborted fetuses that are going to return from the dead as zombies and will jump out from our precious babies and eat our brains!

Just kidding on the last part.  NO ONE wants the brain of someone that doesn’t even understand the value of vaccinations.

There are plenty of other arguments that can all easily be refuted with a basic scientific understanding, backed up by decades of research and thousands of peer-reviewed, scientific papers (as opposed to the, like, three, that agree with the anti-vaxers).

What compelled me to write this is how close the outbreak is getting to my family.  I have to admit, my children are NOT fully vaccinated against measles.  Why?  Because they’re no old enough yet (although Roz will get her booster in April).

A daycare center in a Chicago suburb had 6 measles cases so far (5).  5 of the cases are in babies under 1 year of age, who simply aren’t old enough to get vaccinated yet.  Measles is highly contagious (6), so it’s likely this daycare center may have more of its infants getting infected.

What likely happened is that someone who wasn’t vaccinated spread the virus to at least one of the infants, who then passed it along to the rest.  This is why I’m angry.

The infants, little cute snuggly babies, were at risk because they are too young to be vaccinated.  Some other selfish person who is unwilling to actually understand the biology behind vaccinations decided to get them sick by refusing this protection.

Herd immunity is important.  It protects those who legitimately can’t get vaccinated because of age, allergies, or other actual health concerns.  Because the herd immunity wasn’t strong enough, these poor babies now have to suffer.

And that, to me, is just unacceptable.  Young babies should not be the ones having to deal with an eradicated disease.  Not when we have such powerful tools to protect ourselves and others.


Vaccines are Safe!

A new study was released saying something that I (and many others) have been saying for a while: Vaccines are Safe!

Of course, as with any medication, there is a possibility of a side effect.  The antibiotics your kid would need to treat whooping cough could be just as likely, and probably more so, to cause a reaction as the vaccine that would have just prevented it in the first place.



Iodide and Pregnancy

Great news, pregnant mommas out there!  There’s yet another thing for you to stress about!!


A recommendation came out recently saying that pregnant women should take iodide supplements.  Iodine, which can be obtained through iodide, is an important trace mineral that helps with thyroid function.  The recommendation comes after researchers estimated that about 1/3 of all pregnant women are at least somewhat iodine deficient.


Is taking a supplement really necessary, though?  Pregnant women already have a tough time swallowing those horse-pill multivitamins.  Iodide can be obtained naturally through foods like kelp, milk, eggs, seafood, and vegetables grown in iodine-rich soil.  In addition, table salt in the US can be purchased that contains iodide.  This is what makes the recommendation for iodide suplements surprising: Americans are excellent salt-eaters.

Why Babies Always Forget

Babies aren’t good at remembering things.  Well, that’s not accurate.  Babies aren’t good at making long term memories.  Think about it.  Do you remember stuff from when you were baby?

For along time, people assumed babies started to form long term memories as language developed.  These two things happen at roughly the same time, so it makes sense.  But, new research suggests something else.  New brain cells being made in baby brains might actually be the reason why babies can’t create long term memories.  Isn’t the brain a crazy thing?



Synthetic DNA

DNA double helix.

My nephew shared a very thought-provoking news article.  Recently, a group from The Scripps Research Institute published a paper in the journal Nature detailing an engineered bacterium that can use synthetic nucleotides.  Basically, they put lab-made DNA into bacteria, and it worked.

Normally, there are 4 bases used to make DNA.  Adenine (A), Guanine (G), Cytosine (C), and Thymine (T).  Normally, they pair up to make the double helix. An Adenine on strand of DNA will pair up with a Thymine on the other strand.  Likewise, a Cytosine on one strand will pair with a Guanine on the other.  The group added two extra, man-made bases to the DNA double helix, which they abbreviated X and Y.  The new nucleotides were replicated with the normal DNA, and weren’t removed by the cell’s normal DNA repair machinery.

Besides the obvious difficulties of making nucleotides that could be inserted into DNA, this study provided a lot for me to think about.  There are a lot of implications outside of the “We can do this!” excitement.  For example, in the biology class I teach, we are currently studying evolution.  One of our main concepts is looking at the relationships between organisms, and the biggest relationship all living things have is the genetic code.  It’s amazing, really.  Every living thing on this planet uses the exact same code to build and pass on information.  The same four letters of DNA have all the information every single little cell needs to live and to replicate and to grow.  But this study demonstrates that those four letters, A, C, G, and T, are not the only possible ways information could potentially be passed on.  Because we all have the same ancestry, though, we use the same code.

The study also demonstrates what we, as humans, don’t know (which is, of course, a lot more than we’d like to admit).  Looking for life in outer space is an exciting area of research.  But all we know is what life on earth looks like.  How can we recognize extra-terrestrial life?  It could be very different from what we know.  It would almost certainly not use the exact 4 nucleotides life on earth uses.  It might use a completely different method of storing and passing on information that what we use.  The “life” that we know and are looking for might not exist outside earth.  If we do come across some alien cells, they could easily be dismissed as inorganic material, simply because they don’t chemically resemble what we know as life.


There are, of course, other massive implications from the creation of this semi-synthetic life.  These were just the first thoughts that popped into my head.  What do you think about adding man-made DNA to bacteria?


It’s World Immunization Week

It’s World Immunization Week!  This is a great time to spread the word that vaccines are GOOD and save lives!  So remember, vaccines are good and save lives!


As a Science Momma, I get pretty annoyed by all the anti-vaccination rhetoric.  I’m guessing I won’t change anyone’s mind either way, but it’s still annoying.  People are graduates of the University of Google, and assume that because* says vaccines are bad, they’re clearly bad.  All those doctors and scientists and public health officials are clearly collaborating with the pharmaceutical companies to prevent people from getting debilitating diseases and need lifelong care whose cost would easily outweigh that of the vaccine itself.  Those kids dying in third world countries from diseases that are easily prevented by vaccines here in the US are probably in on it too, right?

That’s just one of the many, many things that bug me.  In general, I don’t like judging people, and I think child-rearing involves a lot of personal decisions.  But ignoring the advice of medical professionals and decades of research based on the opinions of vocal idiots doesn’t just hurt your kid- you can expose a bunch of other people to sickness, too.



* I’m not sure if there actually is a anywhere.  I don’t want to offend hippies, crazy or other wise.  I myself, as a cloth diapering momma, could be considered a crazy hippy, so please don’t be offended hippy mommas!

Blowing Up Balloons with Yeast

Yeast are amazingly talented little organisms.  They make bread, beer, wine, certain dairy products.  Did you know that yeast can also blow up balloons?


Here’s another fun experiment to do with the kids:


Find a small bottle, like a soda or water bottle.  The smaller the bottle, the better your results will be.

Fill the bottle about 1/2 to 3/4 full of warm water.  It should be about the temperature of nice, warm bath water.  If the water is too cold, this will take a long time.  If it’s too warm, it will kill the yeast.

Add some yeast and some sugar (about a tablespoon-ish of each).  Quickly stretch a balloon over the mouth of the bottle, and make it air-tight with some masking tape.  Give the bottle a bit of a splash/shake to help mix it up, and watch and see what happens.  After juts a few minutes, you should see the balloon start to fill up a bit.


What’s happening with this?

Well, the yeast is breaking down the sugar, and using it to get energy.  One of the by-products of this process is Carbon Dioxide.  The Carbon Dioxide is released by the yeast, and fills up the balloon.  That’s also how yeast helps bread rise- by producing air bubbles in the dough.