Science and Journalism in Society

Brandeis University JOUR 130B

Month: February 2016

Plastic Pollution in the Ocean Could Reduce Its Ability to Store Carbon

Earlier this month, Environmental Science and Technology published a study examining the effects that plastic pollutants may have on the biological systems of the ocean, and ultimately found that plastic pollution may slow down carbon storage. One of the ways that microscopic pieces of plastic are processed through the ocean is through zooplankton digestion. The zooplankton ingest microplastics, and excrete them within their faecal pellets. This process then allows the microplastics to sink with the faecal pellets and move away from the surface of the ocean and enter the marine food chain. This study is the first to examine the impact of microplastics on the zooplankton feces and the other marine life that depends on them.


The researchers found that the feces with microplastics in them are sinking much slower than uncontaminated feces, causing the movement of microplastics away from the surface of the ocean to slow down. Futhermore, the downward movement of these pellets is a significant part of the biological pump, moving carbon, nutrients and particulate organic matter into deeper waters. This process provides food for bottom dwellers, and stores carbon in the depths of the ocean. Due to the slowing of this process because of microplastic pollution, the pellets are more prone to consumption, fragmentation, or degradation along the way, therefore fewer pellets are reaching their destination, and ultimately, less carbon is being stored in the depths of the ocean.


Ultimately, much more research needs to be conducted to fully understand the complex processes that impact the ocean’s ability to store carbon, but if our plastic pollution is harming the way that our earth can combat our air pollution, we may be in bigger trouble than we thought.




Cole, Matthew et. al. “Microplastics Alter the Properties and Sinking Rates of Zooplankton Faecal Pellets”. Environmental Science and Technology. February 11, 2016.


Can fear rescue an ecosystem?

The only thing we have to fear is lack of fear itself, says new research in predator ecology. According to researchers from the University of Western Ontario, as published in Nature Communications last Tuesday, fear of predators can be enough to produce a cascade of changes in ecosystem structure, even when there are no predators around (Suraci et al., 2016). These findings shed some interesting new light onto the role that top predators play in an ecosystem, and may even provide us with insight towards how we can repair habitats suffering from a shortage of these long-persecuted, yet ecologically crucial, creatures.

In the Gulf Islands of British Columbia, raccoons have become a downright menace. With humans having locally eradicated all of their natural predators (cougars, wolves, and black bears), these secondary “mesopredators” have run amok, to the detriment of local bird, fish, and crab species. By playing recordings of predator sounds through speakers placed around the islands, and using non-predator sounds as a control, the researchers sought to determine if they could transform the species composition of the island ecosystems by merely convincing the raccoons that predators were near. Sure enough, the introduction of predator sounds led to significant rebounds in the prey populations previously ravaged by the overzealous raccoons, as well as corresponding declines in the populations of species consumed by those prey, in turn. Thus, by harnessing the raccoons’ instinctive fear of predators, the experimenters were able to directly manipulate multiple levels of the Gulf Islands’ ecosystem structure.

Due to their position at the top of the food chain, apex predators can exert profound effects on their respective ecosystems: keeping prey populations down, and all other species impacted by said prey in balance, as a result. Unfortunately, from as far back as the Pleistocene, apex predators have also been a major target of hunting activity, due to the danger they present to humans and livestock. Loss of these species often gives rise to surges in mesopredator populations, which can have serious destabilizing effects on the ecosystem as a whole (Prugh et al., 2009). For this reason, the restoration of predator species has become an issue of great concern to modern conservation. That the fear of predation, in and of itself, may have the power to manifest changes in ecosystem function is not a new concept (Laundré et al., 2001), but this groundbreaking study marks the first true experimental confirmation of this theory.

Before we may claim the ability to reform disturbed ecosystems with only the power of sound, however, some key issues remain to be resolved. For starters, this experiment took place over the course of only one month. It is impressive that such a significant recovery was achieved over such a relatively short timeframe, but without any actual danger of predation accompanying the artificial predator noise, these sounds may lose their threatening nature over time, and the reversal of any effects they may have produced on a given ecosystem would be likely to follow. Additionally, the researchers were merely able to partially reverse some of the trends plaguing an already heavily-disrupted ecosystem. To actually return the ecosystem of the Gulf Islands to its original state, such as it was before the loss of its native predator species, we will surely need more than a few strategically-placed speakers. 

Nevertheless, these findings still certainly represent a significant step along the way to determining how best to heal the lasting effects of mankind’s unfortunate predator-killing habit.



Suraci, J. P., Clinchy, M., Dill, L. M., Roberts, D., & Zanette, L. Y. (2016). Fear of large carnivores causes a trophic cascade. Nature Communications 7, 10698, doi: 10.1038/ncomms10698.

Laundré, J. W., Hernández, L. & Altendorf, K. B. (2001). Wolves, elk, and bison: reestablishing the ‘landscape of fear’ in Yellowstone National Park, U.S.A. Can. J. Zool. 79, 1401-1409, doi: 10.1139/z01-094.

Prugh, L. R., Stoner, C. J., Epps, C. W., Bean, W. T., Ripple, W. J., Laliberte, A. S., & Brashares, J. S. (2009). The Rise of the Mesopredator. Bioscence 59 (9), 779-791, doi: 10.1525/BIO.2009.59.9.9.

The Drink of Choice: Tea or Coffee?

When you walk into a cafe, should you order a cup of coffee or a cup of tea? Both beverages have health benefits.

Coffee: Research has shown though many studies, that coffee may reduce dementia or Alzheimer’s. The benefits of coffee may help type 2 diabetes also. Due to the higher caffeine content in coffee, it has the ability to relax the lung’s airways in individuals with asthma. The caffeine can also help contracting blood vessels in the brain and reduce migraines. The Harvard School of Public Health did research in over drinking coffee and no effects were seen in drinking up to 6 cups of coffee in one day.

Tea: Tea is filled with antioxidants and potential cancer-fighting properties. The National Cancer Institute at NIH claims tea reduces the rick of cancer and is a therapeutic drink that relaxes oneself.  Since tea is made from leaves of the Camellia sinensi, benefits from this plant are seen in all teas. The polyphenols, or a group of plant chemicals, are believed to be involved heavily in health benefits including protecting cells from DNA damage. Tea also hydrates one’s body and is better for your teeth then coffee.




10 Benefits of Drinking Tea Over Coffee




Conscious Coffee Drinker

A New York Times piece contemplated the benefits a non-coffee drinker is missing out on. There many scientifically proven pros, such as decrease risk of melanoma, cardiovascular disease, and colon cancer just to name a few. As any good article would, it also mentions the negative effects of daily coffee consumption. Coffee is a drug and is addictive so withdrawal occurs, and the user will need a cup to reach a normal state. Not to mention, there are side effects of insomnia, heart burn, and shakiness for some with a metabolism that doesn’t take coffee well.

Many articles list the benefits of coffee before workout, but a woman of 150lb should not have more than small cup (16oz) and the coffee should have milk and cinnamon to substitute cream and sugar.

The New York Times article fails to differentiate between black coffee and coffee with additives such as sugar, half & half, and name brand purchased cups that adds hundreds of calories to what was originally only 2 calories.

Don’t be fooled to believe that a Starbucks Caramel Macchiato a day will save you from illness and help shed some fat. A consistent amount, with little to no sugar and little to no milk, along with plenty of water and adequate sleep will make coffee a boon to the body.





Just one more reason why exercise is good for you

As if we need more motivation to get up and work out, a study published earlier this month may give us even more insight into the benefits of exercise. Every day through multiple facets of media we constantly hear about the new fad diet, or new pill, or workout regime to getting fitter and skinner. We hear about how weight loss can reduce the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular problems as well as increase overall mortality rate. Previous literature has discussed how exercise can potentially reduce risk of developing diseases at any point in our lives. Well, incase that was not enough to inspire you to get off the couch and get moving right now, the results of this article sure will. Published in the Cell Metabolism journal, researchers have shown that voluntary running in rats may reduce cancerous tumor manifestation. Performing multiple different trials, with different gendered and aged rats as well as different induced tumors, the researchers consistently found significant results for exercise effects potentially killing cancer cells. In one such trial, two groups of rats were inoculated with melanoma tumors but one group spent four weeks running on a wheel prior to inoculation. Running on the wheel reduced tumor growth by over sixty percent! Another experiment from this study showed that wheel running delayed the onset of malignant lesions (essentially cancerous tumors). A major response of the human immune system is inflammation, which helps to protect our bodies and fight off foreign pathogens; but chronic inflammation has been linked to tumorigenesis. Physical exertion causes inflammation and plasma levels of stress hormones increases extensively. One marker of this inflammation that is released are myokines which seem to have anti-proliferative effects on cancer cells. So although working out extensively creates potentially damaging inflammation, it also may be a protective factor against the growth of cancer.  The hope is that these findings can be further replicated to further assist cancer patients in recovery and remission as well as find other ways to limit the development of cancer in more individuals. Although, to be fair, it would be incorrect to generalize these finding to humans, if there is the slightest possibility that voluntarily working out can help me avoid developing cancer, I’m on the treadmill faster than you can say tumor.



The Death of Marine Life

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) released a shocking study stating that over the past 40 years, marine life has hit a devastating low. Around 50-74% of the marine population, including tuna and mackerel, have disappeared. Human-caused-activities is a major contributor to theses killings. Pollution and climate change add to this saddening reality along with smaller factors like “sea standing” or artificial lands in oceans like the islands off the coast of Dubai.

Overfishing is another main cause for the killing of marine life. “Overfishing not only affects the balance and interaction of life in the ocean, but also… the fish…way of life,” WWF states in their report. The report also released evidence about the pH levels changing, resulting in the destruction of many coral reefs. Coral reefs are biologically rich and home to 25% of all marine species. This change of pH threatens ¾ of the world’s coral reefs. The combination of the climate warming and acid pH, if not prevented, will kill off all the reefs by 2050.

Do you think we can change save the marine life in time?





Four News Stories on the Flint, Michigan Lead Crisis

In each of my three classes this semester the crisis involving lead contamination in Flint, Michigan has been discussed. It is apparent as a health science major that this health crisis causes a lot of commotion within the scientific community. However, it causes an even greater commotion for those who are affected by this event.

To keep up to date with the latest happenings, the professor for my introduction to epidemiology and biostatistics course decided to post links to articles and an online documentary that report on the events that have taken place in Flint. The following listicle provides links to these stories which take on both personal accounts of the crisis and larger theories and ideas that stem from this widely publicized event.


  1. “TIMELINE: Here’s how the Flint water crisis unfolded”
  2. “Not Safe to Drink” Documentary
  3. “Flint, Michigan: Did race and poverty factor into water crisis?”
  4. “Unsafe Lead Levels in Tap Water Not Limited to Flint”

A Time Before Antibiotics

When I get sick, I usually let my immune system fight off the “bug” on its own. However, when the symptoms persist, I find myself rushing to find the right medicine to help me return to a healthy state. I never thought to myself, what would I do if I did not have the proper medicine to eradicate my symptoms? Now that is a good question.

For my first blogpost I chose to write about the first time I learned about antibiotic resistance and how the topic continued to come up throughout my studies as a health science major. While online searching for the latest science articles, I found yet another recently published article on the topic of antibiotic resistance. Instead of focusing solely on the threat of resistance or a new resistant gene that was found, this article takes on a different approach to the topic by discussing how doctors used to treat bacterial infections in a time when there were no antibiotics to do the job.

In the article by Cristie Columbus, various methods for treating bacterial infections in the past are explained in detail. These include bloodletting, leeches, mercury, and herbal remedies. It was believed that the use of bloodletting and leeches helped to maintain homeostasis of the blood by ensuring that blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile were all balanced within the body. For chemicals like iodine, bromine, and mercury they were believed to inhibit bacterial replication killing off the infection. Columbus mentions, however, that researchers now know that these chemicals not only kill bacteria, but also cause harm to human cells and can cause more problems for a person’s health. The last method, herbal remedies, were most often used in liquid forms like tea, and are said to still be used in some ways in present day.

The article acknowledges that not all of these methods were effective in treating cases of bacterial infections, and not all are used today. The article also brings to question, if antibiotic resistance does occur will doctors return to older methods to treat bacterial infections? Although there is no answer to this question at the moment it is both essential and interesting to gain insight into alternative treatment methods and question what the future will hold.



Monkeys Are Used For New Autism Research – A Comparison Between Different Press Release

A new research, published in Nature on Monday, 25 January 2016, using genetically modified monkeys to mimic autism-like behaviors is conducted in search for possible therapies for autistic human beings. The scientists at the Institute of Neuroscience at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shanghai inject an autism-related humane gene, MECP2, which leads to an autism-like disorder called MECP2 duplication syndrome, into the eggs of female monkeys.


The New York Times, instead of focusing on the new study itself, pays much attention to the usage of monkeys. It has drawn many outside comments from people, who are not involved in the research itself, to evaluate if the monkeys used are suitable for designated purpose of the research as well as if the monkeys are used properly as a model.

According to the article, previous research in this field, instead of using monkeys,  prefer using mice for many reasons, such as the lower price and easier accessibility of mice. Meanwhile, monkeys also have much more problems with animal right advocates than mice do. However, mice have significant disadvantages, too. First, mice are far more simple model for this kind of research, and their life spans are too short for observing the developments along the way. Primates, like monkeys, are definitely a better model in this case.

Dr. Huda Zoghbi, the professor of neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine “who helped discover that mutated forms of MECP2 cause Rett Syndrome, a type of autism that affects mostly girls,” questioned if the behaviors, such as circling the cages, of those genetically modified monkeys used in the experiment are, indeed, similar to repetitive behavior appearing in the autistics since some crucial symptoms of MECP2 duplication syndrome have not been observed in those monkeys.

Scientific American first traces back to the history of the study, but it still mentions the credibility of using monkeys as a model in this research later by using the comment of Alysson Muotri, a researcher studying “stem cells, autism and Rett’s syndrome” at UCSD. Scientific American used Dr. Zoghbi’s comments as well and it wrote them in almost the same way as The New York Times did.

Scientific American, interestingly, also mentions another part of the research that the scientists are working with a hospital  at the same time trying “to identify the autism-linked genes that are most common in the Chinese population.” It then pointed out that “if non-human primates prove to be a useful model for psychiatric disorders, China and other countries that are investing heavily in research on monkeys, such as Japan, could gain an edge in brain research” since such non-human primates are “more expensive and controversial” in the US. While The New York Times only addressed that the price of monkeys are higher in the US as suggested by “Dr. Anthony Chan, whose research involves transgenic Huntington’s disease monkeys at Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta,” Scientific American pays attention to the future of research in the field; and therefore, provides its readers a totally different as well as broadened view on the problem.

The News & Comment section of the Nature has the same article as the Scientific American does and they uses the same video as well. When I saw the author information at the bottom of the Scientific American website that the personDavid Cyranoski, works for Nature magazine, people might not expect Nature to have the exactly same article at all since they are two independent media. Readers might hope to see another point of view by Nature, but it turns out that the same author attribute to two websites, or the Scientific American simply chose to use David Cyranoski’s work instead of creating its own piece.

The following video is used by both the Scientific American and the News & Comment section of the Nature.





Okay, but what is Zika?

The Zika Virus is  one of the most common news headlines these days, with alarming bylines including words such as threatening, nightmare, surge, outbreak, and microcephaly. We are all on edge and aware of this epidemic that is spreading through South and Central America like wildfire, and is creeping into the USA. I hear a lot of talk but minimal understanding of the infection, what it causes, and why it is terrifying. So, what exactly is the Zika Virus and what should we do?

Zika virus is an infection transmitted through the Aedes species of mosquitoes. It is related to dengue, yellow fever, and West Nile virus. This type of mosquito is day biting and is common within the U.S. in Florida, the Gulf Coast, and Hawaii. The virus has been around since 1947, mainly isolated in Africa and Asia. By way of the South Pacific Islands, Zika managed to jump its way into the Western Hemisphere where currently we are seeing a large outbreak in Brazil. This outbreak is spreading rapidly because majority of people in this region of the world do not have immune defenses against the virus.

Zika infection is on our radar because of a trend potentially linking Zika to microcephaly in newborn babies. Microcephaly is a disease where babies are born with small heads and usually brain damage. Seizures, impaired cognitive development, delayed motor functions, speech impediments and dwarfism are just a few of the problems that can arise from microcephaly. There are many other causes of microcephaly including rubella, toxoplasmosis, poisoning of the fetus by alcohol or drugs, diabetes, and Down syndrome. Although the evidence connecting the infection and microcephaly is only circumstantial, there has been a surge of babies born with the condition – nearly 4,000 cases have been reported compared to an annual 150 cases. Of these reported cases, only a few so far have direct links to Zika – only a few newborns with microcephaly have tested positive for the infection. Officials say it is still to early to claim a causal relationship between the virus and birth defects.

Why are we struggling to keep this infection under control? It’s been around for nearly 70 years, why are we just hearing about it now?

Zika was not considered a threat until recently. The symptoms of the infection are mild, especially compared to the symptoms of similar infections (dengue and chikungunya), which can be fatal. Only one in five people develop Zika symptoms, which include high fever, rash, joint pain, and red eyes. Most people pass the infection in one to two weeks and are advised to rest and hydrate until it passes.

There is no testing for the Zika virus because it is so closely related to dengue and yellow fever that any individual who has been infected with either or has had the yellow fever vaccine may obtain a false positive. Also, in order for accurate testing, blood or tissue samples from the first week of infection must be analyzed via advanced molecular technology. Many countries where Zika is located do not have the most up-to-date methods to perform this testing. Furthermore, obtained samples are needed from such a short window that majority of people do not seek medical attention quickly enough, or do not show symptoms and do not know they have the virus. Many women may have the virus unknowingly, and even if they get an ultrasound, microcephaly cannot be detected until the end of the second trimester. Even if a child is not born with microcephaly, the virus is linked to other developmental defects such as vision and hearing. Our problem isn’t with the virus itself per say, more with the potential connection between the infection and birth defects.

But, that may not actually be true; there may be another fish to fry in this Zika mess. Although the population is too small to form any conclusive correlations, there seems to be a trend linking Zika to a rare autoimmune condition called Guillain-Barre syndrome. This syndrome causes temporary paralysis where the immune system attacks part of the individual’s nervous system and can potentially be life threatening. Guillain-Barre affects about 1 in every 100,000 people and is so rare that officials did not have to report it. Now hundreds of cases are reported and people are starting to raise a nervous eyebrow. While there is no cure for Guillain-Barre, there are treatments where majority of patients make a full recovery.

So what should we do here in the U.S. before it becomes an epidemic?

It is inevitable that Zika will reach the U.S. – well it already has. So far it seems that U.S. citizens with Zika acquired the infection while traveling abroad to regions where Zika is prevalent. Mosquito control is probably the best form of protection. In the U.S. Aedes mosquito’s breed mainly in trash, usually litter on the sides of the road, and small puddles of standing water. Also, with global temperatures rising, mosquitos are moving further north with the warmer temperatures. Protection against mosquitos such as using bug spray with DEET, staying inside in air conditioning, and wearing long pants and shirts are all helpful ways to avoid getting bitten. Aggressive anti-mosquito pest control measures will be key in attempting to avoid an outbreak.There is not much fear throughout the U.S. because the mosquito that transmits the disease most readily does not reach majority of the country. Also the time period that mosquitos are active in this country is only a few months out of the year. Currently, other than not traveling to regions where Zika is located (the list now includes 24 countries) and especially not getting pregnant if you do travel there, are probably your best bet for avoiding Zika and it’s complications. A vaccine is an illogical method of mediating this outbreak because vaccines can take years to produce and be approved.


After the criticisms of how poorly the Ebola outbreak was handled, officials across the globe are working to find an efficient solution to resolve the Zika Virus. Fingers crossed that an answer is discovered sooner rather than later, otherwise our future is looking a little meek.




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