Biology Explainer: The big 4 building blocks of life–carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and nucleic acids

The short version
  • The four basic categories of molecules for building life are carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids.
  • Carbohydrates serve many purposes, from energy to structure to chemical communication, as monomers or polymers.
  • Lipids, which are hydrophobic, also have different purposes, including energy storage, structure, and signaling.
  • Proteins, made of amino acids in up to four structural levels, are involved in just about every process of life.                                                                                                      
  • The nucleic acids DNA and RNA consist of four nucleotide building blocks, and each has different purposes.
The longer version
Life is so diverse and unwieldy, it may surprise you to learn that we can break it down into four basic categories of molecules. Possibly even more implausible is the fact that two of these categories of large molecules themselves break down into a surprisingly small number of building blocks. The proteins that make up all of the living things on this planet and ensure their appropriate structure and smooth function consist of only 20 different kinds of building blocks. Nucleic acids, specifically DNA, are even more basic: only four different kinds of molecules provide the materials to build the countless different genetic codes that translate into all the different walking, swimming, crawling, oozing, and/or photosynthesizing organisms that populate the third rock from the Sun.

                                                  

Big Molecules with Small Building Blocks

The functional groups, assembled into building blocks on backbones of carbon atoms, can be bonded together to yield large molecules that we classify into four basic categories. These molecules, in many different permutations, are the basis for the diversity that we see among living things. They can consist of thousands of atoms, but only a handful of different kinds of atoms form them. It’s like building apartment buildings using a small selection of different materials: bricks, mortar, iron, glass, and wood. Arranged in different ways, these few materials can yield a huge variety of structures.

We encountered functional groups and the SPHONC in Chapter 3. These components form the four categories of molecules of life. These Big Four biological molecules are carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids. They can have many roles, from giving an organism structure to being involved in one of the millions of processes of living. Let’s meet each category individually and discover the basic roles of each in the structure and function of life.
Carbohydrates

You have met carbohydrates before, whether you know it or not. We refer to them casually as “sugars,” molecules made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. A sugar molecule has a carbon backbone, usually five or six carbons in the ones we’ll discuss here, but it can be as few as three. Sugar molecules can link together in pairs or in chains or branching “trees,” either for structure or energy storage.

When you look on a nutrition label, you’ll see reference to “sugars.” That term includes carbohydrates that provide energy, which we get from breaking the chemical bonds in a sugar called glucose. The “sugars” on a nutrition label also include those that give structure to a plant, which we call fiber. Both are important nutrients for people.

Sugars serve many purposes. They give crunch to the cell walls of a plant or the exoskeleton of a beetle and chemical energy to the marathon runner. When attached to other molecules, like proteins or fats, they aid in communication between cells. But before we get any further into their uses, let’s talk structure.

The sugars we encounter most in basic biology have their five or six carbons linked together in a ring. There’s no need to dive deep into organic chemistry, but there are a couple of essential things to know to interpret the standard representations of these molecules.

Check out the sugars depicted in the figure. The top-left molecule, glucose, has six carbons, which have been numbered. The sugar to its right is the same glucose, with all but one “C” removed. The other five carbons are still there but are inferred using the conventions of organic chemistry: Anywhere there is a corner, there’s a carbon unless otherwise indicated. It might be a good exercise for you to add in a “C” over each corner so that you gain a good understanding of this convention. You should end up adding in five carbon symbols; the sixth is already given because that is conventionally included when it occurs outside of the ring.

On the left is a glucose with all of its carbons indicated. They’re also numbered, which is important to understand now for information that comes later. On the right is the same molecule, glucose, without the carbons indicated (except for the sixth one). Wherever there is a corner, there is a carbon, unless otherwise indicated (as with the oxygen). On the bottom left is ribose, the sugar found in RNA. The sugar on the bottom right is deoxyribose. Note that at carbon 2 (*), the ribose and deoxyribose differ by a single oxygen.

The lower left sugar in the figure is a ribose. In this depiction, the carbons, except the one outside of the ring, have not been drawn in, and they are not numbered. This is the standard way sugars are presented in texts. Can you tell how many carbons there are in this sugar? Count the corners and don’t forget the one that’s already indicated!

If you said “five,” you are right. Ribose is a pentose (pent = five) and happens to be the sugar present in ribonucleic acid, or RNA. Think to yourself what the sugar might be in deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. If you thought, deoxyribose, you’d be right.

The fourth sugar given in the figure is a deoxyribose. In organic chemistry, it’s not enough to know that corners indicate carbons. Each carbon also has a specific number, which becomes important in discussions of nucleic acids. Luckily, we get to keep our carbon counting pretty simple in basic biology. To count carbons, you start with the carbon to the right of the non-carbon corner of the molecule. The deoxyribose or ribose always looks to me like a little cupcake with a cherry on top. The “cherry” is an oxygen. To the right of that oxygen, we start counting carbons, so that corner to the right of the “cherry” is the first carbon. Now, keep counting. Here’s a little test: What is hanging down from carbon 2 of the deoxyribose?

If you said a hydrogen (H), you are right! Now, compare the deoxyribose to the ribose. Do you see the difference in what hangs off of the carbon 2 of each sugar? You’ll see that the carbon 2 of ribose has an –OH, rather than an H. The reason the deoxyribose is called that is because the O on the second carbon of the ribose has been removed, leaving a “deoxyed” ribose. This tiny distinction between the sugars used in DNA and RNA is significant enough in biology that we use it to distinguish the two nucleic acids.

In fact, these subtle differences in sugars mean big differences for many biological molecules. Below, you’ll find a couple of ways that apparently small changes in a sugar molecule can mean big changes in what it does. These little changes make the difference between a delicious sugar cookie and the crunchy exoskeleton of a dung beetle.

Sugar and Fuel

A marathon runner keeps fuel on hand in the form of “carbs,” or sugars. These fuels provide the marathoner’s straining body with the energy it needs to keep the muscles pumping. When we take in sugar like this, it often comes in the form of glucose molecules attached together in a polymer called starch. We are especially equipped to start breaking off individual glucose molecules the minute we start chewing on a starch.

Double X Extra: A monomer is a building block (mono = one) and a polymer is a chain of monomers. With a few dozen monomers or building blocks, we get millions of different polymers. That may sound nutty until you think of the infinity of values that can be built using only the numbers 0 through 9 as building blocks or the intricate programming that is done using only a binary code of zeros and ones in different combinations.

Our bodies then can rapidly take the single molecules, or monomers, into cells and crack open the chemical bonds to transform the energy for use. The bonds of a sugar are packed with chemical energy that we capture to build a different kind of energy-containing molecule that our muscles access easily. Most species rely on this process of capturing energy from sugars and transforming it for specific purposes.

Polysaccharides: Fuel and Form

Plants use the Sun’s energy to make their own glucose, and starch is actually a plant’s way of storing up that sugar. Potatoes, for example, are quite good at packing away tons of glucose molecules and are known to dieticians as a “starchy” vegetable. The glucose molecules in starch are packed fairly closely together. A string of sugar molecules bonded together through dehydration synthesis, as they are in starch, is a polymer called a polysaccharide (poly = many; saccharide = sugar). When the monomers of the polysaccharide are released, as when our bodies break them up, the reaction that releases them is called hydrolysis.

Double X Extra: The specific reaction that hooks one monomer to another in a covalent bond is called dehydration synthesis because in making the bond–synthesizing the larger molecule–a molecule of water is removed (dehydration). The reverse is hydrolysis (hydro = water; lysis = breaking), which breaks the covalent bond by the addition of a molecule of water.

Although plants make their own glucose and animals acquire it by eating the plants, animals can also package away the glucose they eat for later use. Animals, including humans, store glucose in a polysaccharide called glycogen, which is more branched than starch. In us, we build this energy reserve primarily in the liver and access it when our glucose levels drop.

Whether starch or glycogen, the glucose molecules that are stored are bonded together so that all of the molecules are oriented the same way. If you view the sixth carbon of the glucose to be a “carbon flag,” you’ll see in the figure that all of the glucose molecules in starch are oriented with their carbon flags on the upper left.

The orientation of monomers of glucose in polysaccharides can make a big difference in the use of the polymer. The glucoses in the molecule on the top are all oriented “up” and form starch. The glucoses in the molecule on the bottom alternate orientation to form cellulose, which is quite different in its function from starch.

Storing up sugars for fuel and using them as fuel isn’t the end of the uses of sugar. In fact, sugars serve as structural molecules in a huge variety of organisms, including fungi, bacteria, plants, and insects.

The primary structural role of a sugar is as a component of the cell wall, giving the organism support against gravity. In plants, the familiar old glucose molecule serves as one building block of the plant cell wall, but with a catch: The molecules are oriented in an alternating up-down fashion. The resulting structural sugar is called cellulose.

That simple difference in orientation means the difference between a polysaccharide as fuel for us and a polysaccharide as structure. Insects take it step further with the polysaccharide that makes up their exoskeleton, or outer shell. Once again, the building block is glucose, arranged as it is in cellulose, in an alternating conformation. But in insects, each glucose has a little extra added on, a chemical group called an N-acetyl group. This addition of a single functional group alters the use of cellulose and turns it into a structural molecule that gives bugs that special crunchy sound when you accidentally…ahem…step on them.

These variations on the simple theme of a basic carbon-ring-as-building-block occur again and again in biological systems. In addition to serving roles in structure and as fuel, sugars also play a role in function. The attachment of subtly different sugar molecules to a protein or a lipid is one way cells communicate chemically with one another in refined, regulated interactions. It’s as though the cells talk with each other using a specialized, sugar-based vocabulary. Typically, cells display these sugary messages to the outside world, making them available to other cells that can recognize the molecular language.

Lipids: The Fatty Trifecta

Starch makes for good, accessible fuel, something that we immediately attack chemically and break up for quick energy. But fats are energy that we are supposed to bank away for a good long time and break out in times of deprivation. Like sugars, fats serve several purposes, including as a dense source of energy and as a universal structural component of cell membranes everywhere.

Fats: the Good, the Bad, the Neutral

Turn again to a nutrition label, and you’ll see a few references to fats, also known as lipids. (Fats are slightly less confusing that sugars in that they have only two names.) The label may break down fats into categories, including trans fats, saturated fats, unsaturated fats, and cholesterol. You may have learned that trans fats are “bad” and that there is good cholesterol and bad cholesterol, but what does it all mean?

Let’s start with what we mean when we say saturated fat. The question is, saturated with what? There is a specific kind of dietary fat call the triglyceride. As its name implies, it has a structural motif in which something is repeated three times. That something is a chain of carbons and hydrogens, hanging off in triplicate from a head made of glycerol, as the figure shows.  Those three carbon-hydrogen chains, or fatty acids, are the “tri” in a triglyceride. Chains like this can be many carbons long.

Double X Extra: We call a fatty acid a fatty acid because it’s got a carboxylic acid attached to a fatty tail. A triglyceride consists of three of these fatty acids attached to a molecule called glycerol. Our dietary fat primarily consists of these triglycerides.

Triglycerides come in several forms. You may recall that carbon can form several different kinds of bonds, including single bonds, as with hydrogen, and double bonds, as with itself. A chain of carbon and hydrogens can have every single available carbon bond taken by a hydrogen in single covalent bond. This scenario of hydrogen saturation yields a saturated fat. The fat is saturated to its fullest with every covalent bond taken by hydrogens single bonded to the carbons.

Saturated fats have predictable characteristics. They lie flat easily and stick to each other, meaning that at room temperature, they form a dense solid. You will realize this if you find a little bit of fat on you to pinch. Does it feel pretty solid? That’s because animal fat is saturated fat. The fat on a steak is also solid at room temperature, and in fact, it takes a pretty high heat to loosen it up enough to become liquid. Animals are not the only organisms that produce saturated fat–avocados and coconuts also are known for their saturated fat content.

The top graphic above depicts a triglyceride with the glycerol, acid, and three hydrocarbon tails. The tails of this saturated fat, with every possible hydrogen space occupied, lie comparatively flat on one another, and this kind of fat is solid at room temperature. The fat on the bottom, however, is unsaturated, with bends or kinks wherever two carbons have double bonded, booting a couple of hydrogens and making this fat unsaturated, or lacking some hydrogens. Because of the space between the bumps, this fat is probably not solid at room temperature, but liquid.

You can probably now guess what an unsaturated fat is–one that has one or more hydrogens missing. Instead of single bonding with hydrogens at every available space, two or more carbons in an unsaturated fat chain will form a double bond with carbon, leaving no space for a hydrogen. Because some carbons in the chain share two pairs of electrons, they physically draw closer to one another than they do in a single bond. This tighter bonding result in a “kink” in the fatty acid chain.

In a fat with these kinks, the three fatty acids don’t lie as densely packed with each other as they do in a saturated fat. The kinks leave spaces between them. Thus, unsaturated fats are less dense than saturated fats and often will be liquid at room temperature. A good example of a liquid unsaturated fat at room temperature is canola oil.

A few decades ago, food scientists discovered that unsaturated fats could be resaturated or hydrogenated to behave more like saturated fats and have a longer shelf life. The process of hydrogenation–adding in hydrogens–yields trans fat. This kind of processed fat is now frowned upon and is being removed from many foods because of its associations with adverse health effects. If you check a food label and it lists among the ingredients “partially hydrogenated” oils, that can mean that the food contains trans fat.

Double X Extra: A triglyceride can have up to three different fatty acids attached to it. Canola oil, for example, consists primarily of oleic acid, linoleic acid, and linolenic acid, all of which are unsaturated fatty acids with 18 carbons in their chains.

Why do we take in fat anyway? Fat is a necessary nutrient for everything from our nervous systems to our circulatory health. It also, under appropriate conditions, is an excellent way to store up densely packaged energy for the times when stores are running low. We really can’t live very well without it.

Phospholipids: An Abundant Fat

You may have heard that oil and water don’t mix, and indeed, it is something you can observe for yourself. Drop a pat of butter–pure saturated fat–into a bowl of water and watch it just sit there. Even if you try mixing it with a spoon, it will just sit there. Now, drop a spoon of salt into the water and stir it a bit. The salt seems to vanish. You’ve just illustrated the difference between a water-fearing (hydrophobic) and a water-loving (hydrophilic) substance.

Generally speaking, compounds that have an unequal sharing of electrons (like ions or anything with a covalent bond between oxygen and hydrogen or nitrogen and hydrogen) will be hydrophilic. The reason is that a charge or an unequal electron sharing gives the molecule polarity that allows it to interact with water through hydrogen bonds. A fat, however, consists largely of hydrogen and carbon in those long chains. Carbon and hydrogen have roughly equivalent electronegativities, and their electron-sharing relationship is relatively nonpolar. Fat, lacking in polarity, doesn’t interact with water. As the butter demonstrated, it just sits there.

There is one exception to that little maxim about fat and water, and that exception is the phospholipid. This lipid has a special structure that makes it just right for the job it does: forming the membranes of cells. A phospholipid consists of a polar phosphate head–P and O don’t share equally–and a couple of nonpolar hydrocarbon tails, as the figure shows. If you look at the figure, you’ll see that one of the two tails has a little kick in it, thanks to a double bond between the two carbons there.

Phospholipids form a double layer and are the major structural components of cell membranes. Their bend, or kick, in one of the hydrocarbon tails helps ensure fluidity of the cell membrane. The molecules are bipolar, with hydrophilic heads for interacting with the internal and external watery environments of the cell and hydrophobic tails that help cell membranes behave as general security guards.

The kick and the bipolar (hydrophobic and hydrophilic) nature of the phospholipid make it the perfect molecule for building a cell membrane. A cell needs a watery outside to survive. It also needs a watery inside to survive. Thus, it must face the inside and outside worlds with something that interacts well with water. But it also must protect itself against unwanted intruders, providing a barrier that keeps unwanted things out and keeps necessary molecules in.

Phospholipids achieve it all. They assemble into a double layer around a cell but orient to allow interaction with the watery external and internal environments. On the layer facing the inside of the cell, the phospholipids orient their polar, hydrophilic heads to the watery inner environment and their tails away from it. On the layer to the outside of the cell, they do the same.
As the figure shows, the result is a double layer of phospholipids with each layer facing a polar, hydrophilic head to the watery environments. The tails of each layer face one another. They form a hydrophobic, fatty moat around a cell that serves as a general gatekeeper, much in the way that your skin does for you. Charged particles cannot simply slip across this fatty moat because they can’t interact with it. And to keep the fat fluid, one tail of each phospholipid has that little kick, giving the cell membrane a fluid, liquidy flow and keeping it from being solid and unforgiving at temperatures in which cells thrive.

Steroids: Here to Pump You Up?

Our final molecule in the lipid fatty trifecta is cholesterol. As you may have heard, there are a few different kinds of cholesterol, some of which we consider to be “good” and some of which is “bad.” The good cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein, or HDL, in part helps us out because it removes the bad cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein or LDL, from our blood. The presence of LDL is associated with inflammation of the lining of the blood vessels, which can lead to a variety of health problems.

But cholesterol has some other reasons for existing. One of its roles is in the maintenance of cell membrane fluidity. Cholesterol is inserted throughout the lipid bilayer and serves as a block to the fatty tails that might otherwise stick together and become a bit too solid.

Cholesterol’s other starring role as a lipid is as the starting molecule for a class of hormones we called steroids or steroid hormones. With a few snips here and additions there, cholesterol can be changed into the steroid hormones progesterone, testosterone, or estrogen. These molecules look quite similar, but they play very different roles in organisms. Testosterone, for example, generally masculinizes vertebrates (animals with backbones), while progesterone and estrogen play a role in regulating the ovulatory cycle.

Double X Extra: A hormone is a blood-borne signaling molecule. It can be lipid based, like testosterone, or short protein, like insulin.

Proteins

As you progress through learning biology, one thing will become more and more clear: Most cells function primarily as protein factories. It may surprise you to learn that proteins, which we often talk about in terms of food intake, are the fundamental molecule of many of life’s processes. Enzymes, for example, form a single broad category of proteins, but there are millions of them, each one governing a small step in the molecular pathways that are required for living.

Levels of Structure

Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. A few amino acids strung together is called a peptide, while many many peptides linked together form a polypeptide. When many amino acids strung together interact with each other to form a properly folded molecule, we call that molecule a protein.

For a string of amino acids to ultimately fold up into an active protein, they must first be assembled in the correct order. The code for their assembly lies in the DNA, but once that code has been read and the amino acid chain built, we call that simple, unfolded chain the primary structure of the protein.

This chain can consist of hundreds of amino acids that interact all along the sequence. Some amino acids are hydrophobic and some are hydrophilic. In this context, like interacts best with like, so the hydrophobic amino acids will interact with one another, and the hydrophilic amino acids will interact together. As these contacts occur along the string of molecules, different conformations will arise in different parts of the chain. We call these different conformations along the amino acid chain the protein’s secondary structure.

Once those interactions have occurred, the protein can fold into its final, or tertiary structure and be ready to serve as an active participant in cellular processes. To achieve the tertiary structure, the amino acid chain’s secondary interactions must usually be ongoing, and the pH, temperature, and salt balance must be just right to facilitate the folding. This tertiary folding takes place through interactions of the secondary structures along the different parts of the amino acid chain.

The final product is a properly folded protein. If we could see it with the naked eye, it might look a lot like a wadded up string of pearls, but that “wadded up” look is misleading. Protein folding is a carefully regulated process that is determined at its core by the amino acids in the chain: their hydrophobicity and hydrophilicity and how they interact together.

In many instances, however, a complete protein consists of more than one amino acid chain, and the complete protein has two or more interacting strings of amino acids. A good example is hemoglobin in red blood cells. Its job is to grab oxygen and deliver it to the body’s tissues. A complete hemoglobin protein consists of four separate amino acid chains all properly folded into their tertiary structures and interacting as a single unit. In cases like this involving two or more interacting amino acid chains, we say that the final protein has a quaternary structure. Some proteins can consist of as many as a dozen interacting chains, behaving as a single protein unit.

A Plethora of Purposes

What does a protein do? Let us count the ways. Really, that’s almost impossible because proteins do just about everything. Some of them tag things. Some of them destroy things. Some of them protect. Some mark cells as “self.” Some serve as structural materials, while others are highways or motors. They aid in communication, they operate as signaling molecules, they transfer molecules and cut them up, they interact with each other in complex, interrelated pathways to build things up and break things down. They regulate genes and package DNA, and they regulate and package each other.

As described above, proteins are the final folded arrangement of a string of amino acids. One way we obtain these building blocks for the millions of proteins our bodies make is through our diet. You may hear about foods that are high in protein or people eating high-protein diets to build muscle. When we take in those proteins, we can break them apart and use the amino acids that make them up to build proteins of our own.

Nucleic Acids

How does a cell know which proteins to make? It has a code for building them, one that is especially guarded in a cellular vault in our cells called the nucleus. This code is deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. The cell makes a copy of this code and send it out to specialized structures that read it and build proteins based on what they read. As with any code, a typo–a mutation–can result in a message that doesn’t make as much sense. When the code gets changed, sometimes, the protein that the cell builds using that code will be changed, too.

Biohazard!The names associated with nucleic acids can be confusing because they all start with nucle-. It may seem obvious or easy now, but a brain freeze on a test could mix you up. You need to fix in your mind that the shorter term (10 letters, four syllables), nucleotide, refers to the smaller molecule, the three-part building block. The longer term (12 characters, including the space, and five syllables), nucleic acid, which is inherent in the names DNA and RNA, designates the big, long molecule.

DNA vs. RNA: A Matter of Structure

DNA and its nucleic acid cousin, ribonucleic acid, or RNA, are both made of the same kinds of building blocks. These building blocks are called nucleotides. Each nucleotide consists of three parts: a sugar (ribose for RNA and deoxyribose for DNA), a phosphate, and a nitrogenous base. In DNA, every nucleotide has identical sugars and phosphates, and in RNA, the sugar and phosphate are also the same for every nucleotide.

So what’s different? The nitrogenous bases. DNA has a set of four to use as its coding alphabet. These are the purines, adenine and guanine, and the pyrimidines, thymine and cytosine. The nucleotides are abbreviated by their initial letters as A, G, T, and C. From variations in the arrangement and number of these four molecules, all of the diversity of life arises. Just four different types of the nucleotide building blocks, and we have you, bacteria, wombats, and blue whales.

RNA is also basic at its core, consisting of only four different nucleotides. In fact, it uses three of the same nitrogenous bases as DNA–A, G, and C–but it substitutes a base called uracil (U) where DNA uses thymine. Uracil is a pyrimidine.

DNA vs. RNA: Function Wars

An interesting thing about the nitrogenous bases of the nucleotides is that they pair with each other, using hydrogen bonds, in a predictable way. An adenine will almost always bond with a thymine in DNA or a uracil in RNA, and cytosine and guanine will almost always bond with each other. This pairing capacity allows the cell to use a sequence of DNA and build either a new DNA sequence, using the old one as a template, or build an RNA sequence to make a copy of the DNA.

These two different uses of A-T/U and C-G base pairing serve two different purposes. DNA is copied into DNA usually when a cell is preparing to divide and needs two complete sets of DNA for the new cells. DNA is copied into RNA when the cell needs to send the code out of the vault so proteins can be built. The DNA stays safely where it belongs.

RNA is really a nucleic acid jack-of-all-trades. It not only serves as the copy of the DNA but also is the main component of the two types of cellular workers that read that copy and build proteins from it. At one point in this process, the three types of RNA come together in protein assembly to make sure the job is done right.


 By Emily Willingham, DXS managing editor 
This material originally appeared in similar form in Emily Willingham’s Complete Idiot’s Guide to College Biology

DoubleXplainer: What is a vagina?

Development of the female (right) and male (left)
sex anatomy (now unreversed; thanks Peter Edmonds!). (Source)

By Emily Willingham, DXS managing editor

What is a vagina?

First, let’s just practice saying the word. Vagina. Vuh-ji-nuh. VAGINA!

OK. Why are we practicing this? So that we can avoid suffering from the fluttery sensibilities of one Rep. Mike Callton of Michigan who, upon hearing colleague Rep. Lisa Brown use the word vagina during a speech on the Michigan House floor, commented:

What she said was offensive. It was so offensive, I don’t even want to say it in front of women. I would not say that in mixed company.

So here we have a fellow who is so squeamish about female anatomy that he won’t even use the appropriate terminology for that anatomy in front of the people who have the body part. So beflustered are his tender feelings about the word vagina that he and the Republican leadership of the Michigan house of representatives refused to allow Rep. Brown speak again when discussing a bill about retirement of school employees. I assume they were concerned that somehow, she’d drag in the dreaded V-word again while talking about pensions.

All for the transgression of saying the word “vagina.” Vagina.

You know what? It’s not a mellifluous word. It has that giraffey g in it, an ugly “vuh” sound. It would probably be more palatable in general if we had decided to term this particular part of female anatomy something else, perhaps “hibiscus.” Unfortunately, as with so much in anatomy, we had to rely on Latin instead of flowers, and in Latin, vagina means “sheath” or “scabbard.” In other words, a place to put a sword… or a penis. Or, as I like to call them, “sperm delivery systems.”

The offensive body part is indicated. (Source)
People tend to have a misunderstanding about the vagina. They think that what they’re seeing on the outside of the woman is the vagina. Unless their viewpoint is very up close and personal, it isn’t. Those are the labia majora and labia minora, sometimes referred to crassly as “the lips,” and making up part of the vulva (actual vulva pic, fair warning). There’s a big pair (the majora) and a little pair (the minora). In men, the two sides of the big pair zip early in development to encase the testes (see top image). The little pair forms the shaft of the penis. In women, both pairs stay apart. No zipping (ETA: see good interactive explanation here). But that’s not the vagina. 
Behold the clitoris. (Source

 

For those who are unfamiliar, you can usually find the entrance to the vagina if you peek between the labia minora. If you’ve never poked around knowledgeably in the female anatomy, let’s orient ourselves a little. Up at the very top, tucked away under the labia majora, is the clitoral hood. Look under the hood–this is highly recommended on specific occasions–and you’ll find the clitoris. This fabulous body part has far more to it than first appearances might suggest. What you see there under the hood is a small fraction of what a woman gets (recommended reading!), and we have this clitoris to thank for a woman’s superior orgasmic capacities. Yes, I said “superior.” The male echo of the clitoris is the glans penis (actual penis pic, fair warning), and the two anatomical features share some commonalities, including the ability to become erect. Of course, if you have a clitoris, no one notices if you become aroused in algebra class. Clitoris FTW!

Just below all of those interesting bits is the urethral opening. Men have this opening at the tip of the penis, where it serves a double duty, releasing semen and urine, preferably not simultaneously. In women, this opening is dedicated to elimination only. Follow that sucker up a few inches, and you hit the bladder. Don’t go in there. That’s an “exit only” kind of orifice, like your nostrils.

Move down just a tad more and… that’s it! There between the labia minora, that’s the vaginal opening. That’s where the actual vagina is. The part of the female anatomy that got a female legislator blocked from speaking just for saying it.

There it is, the vagina, bridging the outside
and inside worlds and freaking out Michigan
legislators since time began. (Source)

 

The vagina is an amazing structure. Nothing else in human anatomy has the flexibility of this thing. It starts there at the opening and extends several inches into the body, leading to the cervix. Cervix means “neck” (think of cervical collars), and it is indeed the neck of the uterus. If you’ve given birth vaginally, you know that the baby exits the uterus through this neck, travels very quickly through the vagina, and enters the world through the vaginal opening. If you’ve seen the cervical or the vaginal opening, you will be astonished that an entire baby can fit through either. But the uterus, the most powerful muscle in the body, handles the cervical part, contracting and pulling and contracting and pulling until the cervix is juuuuuust wide enough for an infant human head to fit through… sort of. The vagina deals with the rest.

And once that infant–someone like you, Mike Callton–leaves the cervix, it is in the vagina. If you didn’t arrive here via C-section, you got here by making your first extended trip–through a vagina. The vagina is so accommodating and flexible that it can stretch to many times its usual diameter to allow an entire human infant to exit a woman’s body and enter the world. If you’ve never put a finger in a vagina, try it if you can find a willing partner or if you have a vagina of your own. Then imagine that cozy-feeling vagina stretching fairly effortlessly to accommodate an entire infant.

That flexibility isn’t relevant only to childbirth. When a woman becomes aroused during sex, the vagina elongates to facilitate the process of sperm delivery and penis accommodation. It also self lubricates and has a ton of nerves near the opening, all part of making sex that super fun thing that people with vaginas or penises tend to think it is. But it wouldn’t be so fun–or pragmatically useful–without the vagina. There. I said it. Thirty times in this single blog post. And you should, too.

These views are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily either reflect or disagree with those of the DXS editorial team. 

See also our Pregnancy 101 series, by Jeanne Garbarino, biology editor

Anorexia nervosa, neurobiology, and family-based treatment

Via Wikimedia Commons
Photo credit: Sandra Mann
By Harriet Brown, DXS contributor

Back in 1978, psychoanalyst Hilde Bruch published the first popular book on anorexia nervosa. In The Golden Cage, she described anorexia as a psychological illness caused by environmental factors: sexual abuse, over-controlling parents, fears about growing up, and/or other psychodynamic factors. Bruch believed young patients needed to be separated from their families (a concept that became known as a “parentectomy”) so therapists could help them work through the root issues underlying the illness. Then, and only then, patients would choose to resume eating. If they were still alive.

Bruch’s observations dictated eating-disorders treatments for decades, treatments that led to spectacularly ineffective results. Only about 35% of people with anorexia recovered; another 20% died, of starvation or suicide; and the rest lived with some level of chronic illness for the rest of their lives.

Not a great track record, overall, and especially devastating for women, who suffer from anorexia at a rate of 10 times that of men. Luckily, we know a lot more about anorexia and other eating disorders now than we did in 1978.

“It’s Not About the Food”

In Bruch’s day, anorexia wasn’t the only illness attributed to faulty parenting and/or trauma. Therapists saw depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and homosexuality (long considered a psychiatric “illness”) as ailments of the mind alone. Thanks to the rising field of behavioral neuroscience, we’ve begun to untangle the ways brain circuitry, neural architecture, and other biological processes contribute to these disorders. Most experts now agree that depression and anxiety can be caused by, say, neurotransmitter imbalances as much as unresolved emotional conflicts, and treat them accordingly. But the field of eating-disorders treatment has been slow to jump on the neurobiology bandwagon. When my daughter was diagnosed with anorexia in 2005, for instance, we were told to find her a therapist and try to get our daughter to eat “without being the food police,” because, as one therapist informed us, “It’s not about the food.”

Actually, it is about the food. Especially when you’re starving.

Ancel Keys’ 1950 Semi-Starvation Study tracked the effects of starvation and subsequent re-feeding on 36 healthy young men, all conscientious objectors who volunteered for the experiment. Keys was drawn to the subject during World War II, when millions in war-torn Europe – especially those in concentration camps – starved for years. One of Keys’ most interesting findings was that starvation itself, followed by re-feeding after a period of prolonged starvation, produced both physical and psychological symptoms, including depression, preoccupation with weight and body image, anxiety, and obsessions with food, eating, and cooking—all symptoms we now associate with anorexia. Re-feeding the volunteers eventuallyreversed most of the symptoms. However, this approach proved to be difficult on a psychological level, and in some ways more difficult than the starvation period. These results were a clear illustration of just how profound the effects of months of starvation were on the body and mind.

Alas, Keys’ findings were pretty much ignored by the field of eating-disorders treatment for 40-some years, until new technologies like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and research gave new context to his work. We now know there is no single root cause for eating disorders. They’re what researchers call multi-factorial, triggered by a perfect storm of factors that probably differs for each person who develops an eating disorder. “Personality characteristics, the environment you live in, your genetic makeup—it’s like a cake recipe,” says Daniel le Grange, Ph.D., director of the Eating Disorders Program at the University of Chicago. “All the ingredients have to be there for that person to develop anorexia.”

One of those ingredients is genetics. Twenty years ago, the Price Foundation sponsored a project that collected DNA samples from thousands of people with eating disorders, their families, and control participants. That data, along with information from the 2006 Swedish Twin Study, suggests that anorexia is highly heritable. “Genes play a substantial role in liability to this illness,” says Cindy Bulik, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and director of the University of North Carolina’s Eating Disorders Program. And while no one has yet found a specific anorexia gene, researchers are focusing on an area of chromosome 1 that shows important gene linkages.

Certain personality traits associated with anorexia are probably heritable as well. “Anxiety, inhibition, obsessionality, and perfectionism seem to be present in families of people with an eating disorder,” explains Walter Kaye, M.D., who directs the Eating Disorders Treatment and Research Program at the University of California-San Diego. Another ingredient is neurobiology—literally, the way your brain is structured and how it works. Dr. Kaye’s team at UCSD uses fMRI technology to map blood flow in people’s brains as they think of or perform a task. In one study, Kaye and his colleagues looked at the brains of people with anorexia, people recovered from anorexia, and people who’d never had an eating disorder as they played a gambling game. Participants were asked to guess a number and were rewarded for correct guesses with money or “punished” for incorrect or no guesses by losing money.

Participants in the control group responded to wins and losses by “living in the moment,” wrote researchers: “That is, they made a guess and then moved on to the next task.” But people with anorexia, as well as people who’d recovered from anorexia, showed greater blood flow to the dorsal caudate, an area of the brain that helps link actions and their outcomes, as well as differences in their brains’ dopamine pathways. “People with anorexia nervosa do not live in the moment,” concluded Kaye. “They tend to have exaggerated and obsessive worry about the consequences of their behaviors, looking for rules when there are none, and they are overly concerned about making mistakes.” This study was the first to show altered pathways in the brain even in those recovered from anorexia, suggesting that inherent differences in the brain’s architecture and signaling systems help trigger the illness in the first place.

Food Is Medicine

Some of the best news to come out of research on anorexia is a new therapy aimed at kids and teens. Family-based treatment (FBT), also known as the Maudsley approach, was developed at the Maudsley Hospital in London by Ivan Eisler and Christopher Dare, family therapists who watched nurses on the inpatient eating-disorders unit get patients to eat by sitting with them, talking to them, rubbing their backs, and supporting them. Eisler and Dare wondered how that kind of effective encouragement could be used outside the hospital.

Their observations led them to develop family-based treatment, or FBT, a three-phase treatment for teens and young adults that sidesteps the debate on etiology and focuses instead on recovery. “FBT is agnostic on cause,” says Dr. Le Grange. During phase one, families (usually parents) take charge of a child’s eating, with a goal of fully restoring weight (rather than get to the “90 percent of ideal body weight” many programs use as a benchmark). In phase two, families gradually transfer responsibility for eating back to the teen. Phase three addresses other problems or issues related to normal adolescent development, if there are any.

FBT is a pragmatic approach that recognizes that while people with anorexia are in the throes of acute malnourishment, they can’t choose to eat. And that represents one of the biggest shifts in thinking about eating disorders. The DSM-IV, the most recent “bible” of psychiatric treatment, lists as the first symptom of anorexia “a refusal to maintain body weight at or above a minimally normal weight for age and height.” That notion of refusal is key to how anorexia has been seen, and treated, in the past: as a refusal to eat or gain weight. An acting out. A choice. Which makes sense within the psychodynamic model of cause.

But it doesn’t jibe with the research, which suggests that anorexia is more of an inability to eat than a refusal. Forty-five years ago, Aryeh Routtenberg, then (and still) a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, discovered that when he gave rats only brief daily access to food but let them run as much as they wanted on wheels, they would gradually eat less and less, and run more and more. In fact, they would run without eating until they died, a paradigm Routtenberg called activity-based anorexia (ABA). Rats with ABA seemed to be in the grip of a profound physiological imbalance, one that overrode the normal biological imperatives of hunger and self-preservation. ABA in rats suggests that however it starts, once the cycle of restricting and/or compulsive exercising passes a certain threshold, it takes on a life of its own. Self-starvation is no longer (if it ever was) a choice, but a compulsion to the death.

That’s part of the thinking in FBT. Food is the best medicine for people with anorexia, but they can’t choose to eat. They need someone else to make that choice for them. Therapists don’t sit at the table with patients, but parents do. And parents love and know their children. Like the nurses at the Maudsley Hospital, they find ways to get kids to eat. In a sense, what parents do is outshout the anorexia “voice” many sufferers report hearing, a voice in their heads that tells them not to eat and berates them when they do. Parents take the responsibility for making the choice to eat away from the sufferer, who may insist she’s choosing not to eat but who, underneath the illness, is terrified and hungry.

The best aspect of FBT is that it works. Not for everyone, but for the majority of kids and teens. Several randomized controlled studies of FBT and “treatment as usual” (talk therapy without pressure to eat) show recovery rates of 80 to 90 percent with FBT—a huge improvement over previous recovery rates. A study at the University of Chicago is looking at adapting the treatment for young adults; early results are promising.

The most challenging aspect of FBT is that it’s hard to find. Relatively few therapists in the U.S. are trained in the approach. When our daughter got sick, my husband and I couldn’t find a local FBT therapist. So we cobbled together a team that included our pediatrician, a therapist, and lots of friends who supported our family through the grueling work of re-feeding our daughter. Today she’s a healthy college student with friends, a boyfriend, career goals, and a good relationship with us.

A few years ago, Dr. Le Grange and his research partner, Dr. James Lock of Stanford, created a training institute that certifies a handful of FBT therapists each year. (For a list of FBT providers, visit the Maudsley Parents website.) It’s a start. But therapists are notoriously slow to adopt new treatments, and FBT is no exception. Some therapists find FBT controversial because it upends the conventional view of eating disorders and treatments. Some cling to the psychodynamic view of eating disorders despite the lack of evidence. Still, many in the field have at least heard of FBT and Kaye’s neurobiological findings, even if they don’t believe in them yet.

Change comes slowly. But it comes.

* * *

Harriet Brown teaches magazine journalism at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications in Syracuse, New York. Her latest book is Brave Girl Eating: A Family’s Struggle with Anorexia (William Morrow, 2010).

be there for that person to develop anorexia.”

One of those ingredients is genetics. Twenty years ago, the Price Foundation sponsored a project that collected DNA samples from thousands of people with eating disorders, their families, and control participants. That data, along with information from the 2006 Swedish Twin Study, suggests that anorexia is highly heritable. “Genes play a substantial role in liability to this illness,” says Cindy Bulik, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and director of the University of North Carolina’s Eating Disorders Program. And while no one has yet found a specific anorexia gene, researchers are focusing on an area of chromosome 1 that shows important gene linkages.
Certain personality traits associated with anorexia are probably heritable as well. “Anxiety, inhibition, obsessionality, and perfectionism seem to be present in families of people with an eating disorder,” explains Walter Kaye, M.D., who directs the Eating Disorders Treatment and Research Program at the University of California-San Diego. Another ingredient is neurobiology—literally, the way your brain is structured and how it works. Dr. Kaye’s team at UCSD uses fMRI technology to map blood flow in people’s brains as they think of or perform a task. In one study, Kaye and his colleagues looked at the brains of people with anorexia, people recovered from anorexia, and people who’d never had an eating disorder as they played a gambling game. Participants were asked to guess a number and were rewarded for correct guesses with money or “punished” for incorrect or no guesses by losing money.
Participants in the control group responded to wins and losses by “living in the moment,” wrote researchers: “That is, they made a guess and then moved on to the next task.” But people with anorexia, as well as people who’d recovered from anorexia, showed greater blood flow to the dorsal caudate, an area of the brain that helps link actions and their outcomes, as well as differences in their brains’ dopamine pathways. “People with anorexia nervosa do not live in the moment,” concluded Kaye. “They tend to have exaggerated and obsessive worry about the consequences of their behaviors, looking for rules when there are none, and they are overly concerned about making mistakes.” This study was the first to show altered pathways in the brain even in those recovered from anorexia, suggesting that inherent differences in the brain’s architecture and signaling systems help trigger the illness in the first place.
Food Is Medicine
Some of the best news to come out of research on anorexia is a new therapy aimed at kids and teens. Family-based treatment (FBT), also known as the Maudsley approach, was developed at the Maudsley Hospital in London by Ivan Eisler and Christopher Dare, family therapists who watched nurses on the inpatient eating-disorders unit get patients to eat by sitting with them, talking to them, rubbing their backs, and supporting them. Eisler and Dare wondered how that kind of effective encouragement could be used outside the hospital.
Their observations led them to develop family-based treatment, or FBT, a three-phase treatment for teens and young adults that sidesteps the debate on etiology and focuses instead on recovery. “FBT is agnostic on cause,” says Dr. Le Grange. During phase one, families (usually parents) take charge of a child’s eating, with a goal of fully restoring weight (rather than get to the “90 percent of ideal body weight” many programs use as a benchmark). In phase two, families gradually transfer responsibility for eating back to the teen. Phase three addresses other problems or issues related to normal adolescent development, if there are any.
FBT is a pragmatic approach that recognizes that while people with anorexia are in the throes of acute malnourishment, they can’t choose to eat. And that represents one of the biggest shifts in thinking about eating disorders. The DSM-IV, the most recent “bible” of psychiatric treatment, lists as the first symptom of anorexia “a refusal to maintain body weight at or above a minimally normal weight for age and height.” That notion of refusal is key to how anorexia has been seen, and treated, in the past: as a refusal to eat or gain weight. An acting out. A choice. Which makes sense within the psychodynamic model of cause.
But it doesn’t jibe with the research, which suggests that anorexia is more of an inability to eat than a refusal. Forty-five years ago, Aryeh Routtenberg, then (and still) a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, discovered that when he gave rats only brief daily access to food but let them run as much as they wanted on wheels, they would gradually eat less and less, and run more and more. In fact, they would run without eating until they died, a paradigm Routtenberg called activity-based anorexia (ABA). Rats with ABA seemed to be in the grip of a profound physiological imbalance, one that overrode the normal biological imperatives of hunger and self-preservation. ABA in rats suggests that however it starts, once the cycle of restricting and/or compulsive exercising passes a certain threshold, it takes on a life of its own. Self-starvation is no longer (if it ever was) a choice, but a compulsion to the death.
That’s part of the thinking in FBT. Food is the best medicine for people with anorexia, but they can’t choose to eat. They need someone else to make that choice for them. Therapists don’t sit at the table with patients, but parents do. And parents love and know their children. Like the nurses at the Maudsley Hospital, they find ways to get kids to eat. In a sense, what parents do is outshout the anorexia “voice” many sufferers report hearing, a voice in their heads that tells them not to eat and berates them when they do. Parents take the responsibility for making the choice to eat away from the sufferer, who may insist she’s choosing not to eat but who, underneath the illness, is terrified and hungry.
The best aspect of FBT is that it works. Not for everyone, but for the majority of kids and teens. Several randomized controlled studies of FBT and “treatment as usual” (talk therapy without pressure to eat) show recovery rates of 80 to 90 percent with FBT—a huge improvement over previous recovery rates. A study at the University of Chicago is looking at adapting the treatment for young adults; early results are promising.
The most challenging aspect of FBT is that it’s hard to find. Relatively few therapists in the U.S. are trained in the approach. When our daughter got sick, my husband and I couldn’t find a local FBT therapist. So we cobbled together a team that included our pediatrician, a therapist, and lots of friends who supported our family through the grueling work of re-feeding our daughter. Today she’s a healthy college student with friends, a boyfriend, career goals, and a good relationship with us.
A few years ago, Dr. Le Grange and his research partner, Dr. James Lock of Stanford, created a training institute that certifies a handful of FBT therapists each year. (For a list of FBT providers, visit the Maudsley Parents website.) It’s a start. But therapists are notoriously slow to adopt new treatments, and FBT is no exception. Some therapists find FBT controversial because it upends the conventional view of eating disorders and treatments. Some cling to the psychodynamic view of eating disorders despite the lack of evidence. Still, many in the field have at least heard of FBT and Kaye’s neurobiological findings, even if they don’t believe in them yet.
Change comes slowly. But it comes.
* * *
Harriet Brown teaches magazine journalism at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications in Syracuse, New York. Her latest book is Brave Girl Eating: A Family’s Struggle with Anorexia (William Morrow, 2010).

Literal XX Xplainer: How we can live with two X chromosomes

This cat also haz those two chromosomes 
to blame for that splotch on its face.
By Emily Willingham, DXS managing editor

We are “Double X Science” because we target evidence-based information to women, most of whom carry two X chromosomes, although exceptions exist. Some women carry a single X chromosome, and some people can be XY and develop and/or identify as female. That’s one reason we mention “the woman in you” here at Double X Science.

But today, I’m writing about those of us who have at least two X chromosomes. You may know that usually, carrying around a complete extra chromosome can lead to developmental differences, health problems, or even fetal or infant death. How is it that women can walk around with two X chromosomes in each body cell–and the X is a huge chromosome–yet men get by just fine with only one? What are we dealing with here: a half a dose of X (for men) or a double dose of X (for women)?

X chromosome
(Source)
The answer? Women are typically the ones engaging in what’s known as “dosage compensation.” To manage our double dose of X, each of our cells shuts down one of the two X chromosomes it carries. The result is that we express the genes on only one of our X chromosomes in a given cell. This random expression of one X chromosome in each cell makes each woman a lovely mosaic of genetic expression (although not true genetic mosaicism), varying from cell to cell in whether we use genes from X chromosome 1 or from X chromosome 2.

Because these gene forms can differ between the two X chromosomes, we are simply less uniform in what our X chromosome genes do than are men. An exception is men who are XXY, who also shut down one of those X chromosomes in each body cell; women who are XXX shut down two X chromosomes in each cell. The body is deadly serious about this dosage compensation thing and will tolerate no Xtra dissent.

If we kept the entire X chromosome active, that would be a lot of Xtra gene dosage. The X chromosome contains about 1100 genes, and in humans, about 300 diseases and disorders are linked to genes on this chromosome, including hemophilia and Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Because males get only one chromosome, these X-linked diseases are more frequent among males–if the X chromosome they get has a gene form that confers disease, males have no backup X chromosome to make up for the deficit. Women do and far more rarely have X-linked diseases like hemophilia or X-linked differences like color blindness, although they may be subtly symptomatic depending on how frequently a “bad” version of the gene is silenced relative to the “good” version.

The most common example of the results of the random-ish gene silencing XX mammals do is the calico or tortoiseshell cat. You may have heard that if a cat’s calico, it’s female. That’s because the cat owes its splotchy coloring to having two X chromosome genes for coat color, which come in a couple of versions. One version of the gene results in brown coloring while the other produces orange. If a cat carries both forms, one on each X, wherever the cells shut down the brown X, the cat is orange. Wherever cells shut down the orange X, the cat is brown. The result? The cat can haz calico. 

Mary Lyon (Source)
Cells “shut down” the X by slathering it with a kind of chemical tag that makes its gene sequences inaccessible. This version of genetic Liquid Paper means that the cellular machinery responsible for using the gene sequences can’t detect them. The inactivated chromosome even has a special name: It’s called a Barr body. The XXer who developed a hypothesis to explain how XX/XY mammals compensate for gene dosage is Mary Lyon, and the process of silencing an X by condensing it is fittingly called lyonization. Her hypothesis, based on observations of coat color in mice, became a law–the Lyon Law–in 2011.


Barr bodies (arrows).
(Source)
Yet the silencing of that single chromosome in each XX cell isn’t total. As it turns out, women don’t shut down the second X chromosome entirely. The molecular Liquid Paper leaves clusters of sequences available, as many as 300 genes in some women. That means that women are walking around with full double doses of some X chromosome genes. In addition, no two women silence or express precisely the same sequences on the “silenced” X chromosome. 

What’s equally fascinating is that many of the genes that go unsilenced on a Barr body are very like some genes on the Y chromosome, and the X and Y chromosomes share a common chromosomal ancestor. Thus, the availability of these genes on an otherwise silenced X chromosome may ensure that men and women have the same Y chromosome-related gene dosage, with men getting theirs from an X and a Y and women from having two X chromosomes with Y-like genes.  

Not all genes expressed on the (mostly) silenced X are Y chromosome cross-dressers, however. The fact is, women are more complex than men, genomically speaking. Every individual woman may express a suite of X-related genes that differs from that of the woman next to her and that differs even more from that of the man across the room. Just one more thing to add to that sense of mystery and complexity that makes us so very, very double X-ey.


[ETA: Some phrases in this post may have appeared previously in similar form in Biology Digest, but copyright for all material belongs to EJW.]

The path from science to alarmism: How science gets twisted before it gets to you



Source.


Today’s post is long. It’s long because it involves the winding path that science can take from ignition to exploding into the public view… and how the twists and turns in that path can result in a skewed representation and understanding of the science. Read the whole thing. It focuses on an example that involves autism–which seems to pop up in skewed representations every day–but certainly this path from science to you, the consumer, happens with scientific information in general. The author is Jess, who blogged this originally at “Don’t Mind the Mess” and graciously gave us permission to reproduce it here. Jess, an attorney with a B.S. in biochemistry, parent of an autistic child and brand new baby, and self-described “Twitter fiend,” tweets as @JessicaEsquire
—————————————————————
I am putting my foot down.
As the parent of an autistic child I hear a lot about vaccines and about half a million other things that people think cause autism.
I’m hyperaware of the attention autism gets in the media. So I know about the CDC’s new stats on autism rates. I know about the debate on whether the increase in autism is due to more awareness and diagnosis or more actual occurrences. (Personally, I find the former to be a serious factor, though who’s to say how much.) And I see all the articles that come out week after week about the millions of things that are linked to autism.
There’s a recurring problem here. Valuable research is done. Research is disseminated. Information is reported. Articles are read. Findings are spread. What starts in a lab ends up in a Facebook status. What starts as truth ends up as mistruth in something like a child’s game of telephone. Along the way, piece by piece, truth fades away in favor of headlines and pageviews and gossip.
It’s getting just plain stupid. I’m starting to suspect these articles have nothing to do with serious research but with a search for traffic and hype, an attempt to ride the wave of a trendy topic as concerned parents read every horror story they can find.
A particularly egregious one came up recently. This one doesn’t just cite some random correlation. This one is just plain making things up. The problems here just pile one on top of the other. So let’s consider it piece by piece, a case study in how real research becomes misinformation.

Part One: Research

It starts with scientists. It starts with research. They write up their findings and publish them in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. In this case there are several papers published over a few years about chemicals and their link to brain development. They cover a wide variety of issues and present a wide variety of conclusions. All of them suggest further study.
Maybe they have bad methodology or use statistics incorrectly. Only a few people would ever know the difference. That’s not my concern today. Bad science is one thing, but bad information on good science is another. So let’s assume we have good, solid science in this research.

Part Two: The Conference

Scientists and researchers with similar interests get together and discuss their findings. It’s not that difference from any other conference. There are panels and presentations.

Part Three: The Op-Ed

Next, a group that works on environmental hazards for children publishes a paper. Not a research study but an op-ed in a peer-reviewed journal. In this op-ed they review the conference from Part Two and encourage the study of environmental factors and their relationship to neurodevelopment disorders. Autism is one of many neuro-ish disorders and is mentioned by name in the piece and its title. It’s unclear to me why they zero in on autism. They have a couple vague pieces of evidence that are autism-specific, but the vast majority of what they’re looking at has never been demonstrated to have any kind of relationship to autism, not even a correlation.
Problem #1 is the unnecessary autism name-checking. Problem #2 is much worse, it’s the list of 10 chemicals they suggest for future study. The list itself isn’t a bad idea, I guess. They’re suggesting places for potential research, which certainly needs to be done. But it does reek a little bit of the kind of thing magazines do, you know what I mean, 10 Ways To Get Your Guy All Fired Up! and such. Still, it’s their prerogative.
So let’s examine their evidence for these suggestions. They cite at least one paper for each of these chemicals. I checked them all. The vast majority of them have never shown any connection to Autism (or even ADHD, another diagnosis they name-check). In fact, many of them show that with exposure to these chemicals, the outcome differentials between exposure and non-exposure is 5 IQ points.
FIVE IQ POINTS. Statistically significant? Perhaps. Practically important for a parent? No.
IQ itself is a strange and vague thing. And 5 points isn’t going to move your super-genius down to the level of an average person They’d still be a super-genius. And adding 5 points to someone with severe deficits isn’t going to make them average, either. It’s hard to imagine what difference you’d see between two people whose IQ’s are 5 points apart.
Such statistical differences may well be a sign to warrant further study. And they may be a sign that these chemicals affect neurological development. But it’s getting a bit ahead of ourselves to say they are suspected of being tied to autism. Many of these papers are in areas of research that are just beginning. Many of them involve homogeneous groups (for example, all the participants are Mexican-American migrant workers) which makes issues of genetics and heredity very difficult to account for. Many involve parents self-reporting by filling out surveys rather than having the children examined by professionals.
Let’s be fair. These are the very beginnings of research. You’ll need to do all sorts of rigorous testing and consideration to make real connections. Of course more research is needed. And it’s important that we keep that in mind as we move forward.
(Though, of course, no one else will.)

Part Four: The Press Release

The op-ed is about publicity so it’s the beginning of the problem. But it gets worse. A press release comes out with the list of ten chemicals and already the twisting starts. These are chemicals suggested for further research, but suddenly they’re a ”List of the Top Ten Toxic Chemicals Suspected to Cause Autism and Learning Disabilities.” This, unsurprisingly, is the headline you’ll see all over the internet when news organizations report on the press release. Already it’s turned from suggestions for research into a watchlist.
It gets worse. The press release has this second headline:
The editorial was published alongside four other papers — each suggesting a link between toxic chemicals and autism.
No, actually that’s not at all accurate.
Let’s start with the first paper, which examines the possibility of a connection between maternal smoking and autism. What’s their conclusion?
The primary analyses indicated a slightly inverse association with all ASDs[.]
What does that mean? Among the autistic kids vs. regular kids, there was actually LESS maternal smoking in the autism group. The paper does point out that when it comes to “subgroups,” for instance high-functioning ASD or Asperger’s, there may be a possibly positive relationship. But there are so many caveats I can’t even get to them all. Let’s just take this one:
The ASD subgroup variables were imperfect, relying on the child’s access to evaluation services and the documentation by a myriad of community providers, rather than direct clinical observation.
This means that when they’re saying some groups of ASD kids may have this relationship, they didn’t actually classify these kids. They never saw these kids. They’re relying on data collected by other people. Not even by a consistent set of people. It comes from 11 different states and who knows how many providers. Who’s to say how accurate any of it is. And who’s to say whether these kids are correctly classified at their particular place on the spectrum.
So take all that with a whole jar full of salt and you’re still looking at, overall, no connection with smoking. If anything, the data would indicate smoking has LESS autism rather than more.
After this there are 2 papers on the same chemical. One of them does not contain the word “autism” anywhere. (One of its references has it, but nowhere does it appear in the text of their paper.) The second paper is better. It focuses on the chemical’s effects in particular processes which have been linked to autism. This is very micro-scale science, there are no people involved, just cells and chemicals. It’s important research, but there’s a long stretch between cellular interactions and a person’s diagnosis. It didn’t involve any analysis with autistic individuals. This is certainly the most useful paper of the bunch by a long shot, but it still just sets the stage for further research.
The fourth paper is a review. That means it asserts no new information but summarizes the research on a particular issue, specifically pesticides and autism. Technically I suppose it does assert a link, but none of this is new information.
So I think we’ve pretty much destroyed the headline in that press release. There were not 4 articles suggesting a connection between chemicals and autism.
Is it likely that the writers who take this press release and write articles on it are going to read the papers it cites? Are they going to realize that what they’re saying isn’t actually true? They should. Of course they should. But they don’t.
This list has chemicals suspected of being tied to neurological development. And we should just leave it at that. It’s not that they shouldn’t be studied. They should. But we shouldn’t be throwing out buzzwords like ADHD and Autism when the research doesn’t show any firm data.

Part Five: News Articles

This is a process, though. First research, then op-ed, then press release and finally news articles. So what’s the headline of our news article? “Top 10 Chemicals Most Likely to Cause Autism and Learning Disabilities.” Guilty of serious fearmongering, no? A more accurate title may be: Researchers propose list of chemicals potentially tied to neurological development for further study. But I doubt anyone’s going to write that.
The article itself, to be fair, is full of caveats. The reasons for the increase in autism are “controversial.” There is a “gap in the science.”  But then you get a sentence like this:
But clearly, there is more to the story than simply genetics, as the increases are far too rapid to be of purely genetic origin.
Clearly? Clearly says who? What source says it’s too rapid? The author certainly isn’t a reliable source. She is Robyn O’Brien, a writer for Prevention who posted this article. Her scientific credentials are nonexistent. She is a former financial analyst who now writes about the food industry. She has an MBA, and her undergraduate was in French and Spanish.
Full disclosure: I have a B.S. in Biochemistry, but I feel I’m unqualified to write this article. I’d much rather it be written by someone with a PhD. I’m married to a PhD, which has given me a lot more exposure to science since leaving school, but I fully acknowledge that I shouldn’t be the one doing this. I know how to read a scientific article and examine its conclusions, but I certainly am not someone who can tell you if their methods and analysis are correct.
But I’m talking because there aren’t enough people talking about it. Because the PhD’s aren’t generally science writers. They are scientists. They write about their research in journals, not in the newspaper. And certainly not on a blog for a healthy living magazine.
The author goes on to restate the inaccurate subheadline of the press release verbatim.
In the end she suggests things like buying organic produce, opening your windows and buying BPA-free products.
This is part 5 of our process, but it’s where many of us start. Many of us will only read this article and not the press release or the op-ed or the research papers. Most of us aren’t qualified to do so, all we have is this article. Well, we have that and what other people tell us. Which leads us to our next step.

Part Six: Readers

The article is frustrating, but I can only get so mad. She is saying what the scientists told her to say. She has even included some cautionary language. The problem is that when writing for laymen, you have to be careful.
And with AUTISM? You have to be really careful. Just for you I’m going to venture into the comments to this article to show you how people have responded.
–How about we quit injecting our kids with aluminum, formaldehyde and the rest of the toxic stew that they call vaccines — we bypass every natural defense our bodies have (skin, saliva, stomach acid) to put these things directly in the blood stream.
–Thank you Robyn for always providing sound information to continue guiding our decisions.
–What about heavy metals like Arsenic that are trapped in soils that our “organic” brown rice is growing in to be made into brown rice syrup to sweeten organic foods and baby formula? Not to mention the reports coming in regarding the radiation and contamination from Fukushimi that has reached the west coast an is spreading across this country in the produce and even the pollen…
–Unvaccinated children are some of the healthiest little people on the planet. As far as the Autism link, who really knows but why risk it.
–Thank you for this information. It confirms to me that we should keep doing what we are doing. It also helps me to enforce our no shoes policy in our home. Some people are so disrespectful and just don’t take them off and I hate to sound like a nag and ask even though they already know its what we prefer.
Thankfully there are some people in there who take the writer to task, but how is a reader to trust any one commenter over another? You have no way of knowing from a comment what someone’s experiences or qualifications are.
There’s a reason we need responsible scientific reporting. I’m all for the open dissemination of information, but I’m also aware of what happens when people read something they don’t understand.
autism FB The Whole Truth About Autism
I encountered this FB conversation the other day. Usually I overlook such things but I could not help myself. I jumped in. I tried hard to be polite and present facts. When all that was over, no one was convinced. The response?
autism FB 2 The Whole Truth About Autism
Enough articles on vaccines and people are scared even without evidence. Enough headlines and people don’t bother reading articles. It doesn’t matter how much is retracted or debunked, the damage is done.
We need responsible science reporting. We need responsible reporting, period. I’ve seen plenty of lazy articles on Supreme Court opinions that lead me to read the opinion myself only to realize that they’ve stated the conclusions all wrong.
I don’t want to go on all day, but I do feel like it’s important for us to put our foot down and demand better.
We aren’t all scientists. But we can ask for science writers with the appropriate qualifications. We can ask for links and citations in their articles. (I spent quite some time tracking everything down for this post, and luckily I’m relatively familiar with looking up scientific articles online.) We can ask for articles that show failed connections. It doesn’t all have to be “Autism linked to X” there’s plenty of “Autism not linked to Y” that happens in these studies but you never see that, do you?
As for us laymen, we have to find our own trusted experts. Ask your pediatrician. And if your pediatrician’s not qualified (most of them are MD’s but not PhD’s) ask them if they have a trusted source. Track down specialists in Autism with PhD’s and ask them what they think of the research. Find reliable books and articles and spread them to your friends. We can’t necessarily do a lot, but we can do our part to stop the spread of misinformation and demand better.


These views are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily either reflect or disagree with those of the DXS editorial team.
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We also suggest

LEGO those gender stereotypes


My daughter, patiently waiting to get her own balloon jetpack.
Photo credit: Phil Blake
Why can’t you understand that my daughter wants a damn jetpack?

Last weekend, I took my daughters to a birthday party that featured a magician/balloon artist.  He was really fantastic with the kids, and kept their attention for close to 1 hour (ONE HOUR!!!).  At the end of his magic show, he began to furiously twist and tie balloons into these amazing shapes, promoting energetic and imaginative play.  Of these shapes was his own, very intricate invention: a jetpack.  

When he completed the first jetpack, I watched as the eyes of my five-year-old daughter, who happens to be a very sporty kid, light up with wonder.  She looked at me and smiled, indicating through her facial expression alone that she wanted the same balloon toy.  But, alas, when it was her turn for a balloon, her requests were met with opposition.  Here was the conversation:

Magician: How about a great butterfly balloon?

Daughter: No thanks, I’d like a jetpack please.

Magician: I think you should get a butterfly.

Daughter: I’d prefer a jetpack.

Magician: But you’re a girl.  Girls get butterflies.

Daughter (giving me a desperate look): But I really want a jetpack!

Realizing that my daughter was becoming unnecessarily upset, especially given the fact that there were 3 boys already engaging in play with their totally awesome jetpacks, myself and the hostess mother intervened.  We kindly reiterated my daughter’s requests for a jetpack.  And, so she was given a jetpack.

Later that evening, my daughter asked me why the magician insisted that she get a butterfly balloon when she explicitly asked for a jetpack.  Not wanting to reveal the realities of gender stereotype at that very point in time, I simply stated that sometimes we (a gender neutral “we”) might have to repeat ourselves so that others understand what we want.  Then she asked, “but why are butterflies only for girls?”

I was able to more or less able smooth it over with her, but it was clear to me that a very archaic reality was still in play, and my daughters were about to inherit it.  While I have nothing against typically female role-playing or dolls or princesses, I do not like when they are assumed to be the preferred activities.  I also do not like the idea that some toys, based on years of “market research,” are designed to basically pigeonhole girls into a June Cleaveresque state of being, especially without alternative play options.

The five LEGO Friends 
For instance, LEGO has recently launched a “for-girls-only” campaign, exemplified by the new “Friends” LEGO kit.  Slathered in pink and purple, this kit is designed around a narrative involving five friends and a pretend city named Heartlake.  Like nearly all cities, Heartlake boasts a bakery, a beauty salon, a cafe, and a veterinarian’s office to take care of sick animals.  However, unlike every city, Heartlake lacks things like a hospital, a fire department, a police station, and a local airport (thought they do have a flying club).  In essence, this toy is facilitating pretend play that centers ONLY on domestication, which absolutely limits both experiences and expectations for girls playing with this toy.  In essence, LEGO is assuming that all girls want the butterfly balloon instead of the jetpack.

Some might think, “jeeze, it’s just a toy!” and dismiss my objection to all that the Friends kit encompasses.  And perhaps when the Friends kit is offered in addition to a variety of toy types – gender neutral, masculine, and feminine – it may not have a significant effect on the mindset of its young, impressionable owner.  But what if that’s not the case?

Traditional LEGO bricks: For boys AND girls, goshdarnit!
LEGO has also gotten it wrong when it comes to the assumption that girls are not into the traditional LEGO blocks.  In fact, just last night, my daughter (the very one who wanted a jetpack) saw a commercial for a LEGO City product – I forgot which one – and asked that we put it on her ever expanding Christmas list.  Furthermore, both of my daughters are huge fans of the LEGO produced show on the Cartoon Network, Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu, which is based on the traditional LEGO figures and game.  My oldest daughter is arguably very sporty and may be more inclined to like “boy” things, but my younger daughter is chock-full of sugar and spice and yada yada yada.  She prefers to wear dresses, LOVES shoes, and demands to have her nails painted at all times.  And she still gets down with regular LEGOs and monster trucks and basketball and karate (all her own choices).  So why is LEGO shoving pastel bricks down girls’ throats?    

Gender and play

Play is an important part of cognitive development.  When children engage in play, they learn through discovery, become familiar with their own limitations, gain a better understanding of spatial relationships, become introduced to cause and effect, and, most relevant to this discussion, play exposes children to societal and cultural norms, as well as family values.  Placing limits on play can affect how a child sees him or herself in the world, which can impact both career and lifestyle choices.   

Research (and experience) has shown that the toys kids choose are shaped by societal expectations; however, these expectations are often dictated by marketing teams and their assumptions of what they think their customers want to see, perpetuating a toy culture that has changed little since the 1950s.  Furthermore, parents may impose toys that are gender “appropriate,” or even punish play that does not align with traditional gender expectations.  But what toys do kids actually want to play with?

In 2003, researchers at the University of Nebraska conducted a study to, in part, identify the impact that stereotyped toys have on play in young children.  There were 30 children who participated in this study, ranging in age from 18-47 months.  They were observed for 30 minutes in a room full of toys, with each toy defined as being traditionally masculine, feminine, or gender neutral.  Interestingly, when assessing the toy preferences of the children, boys tended to play with toys that were either masculine or gender neutral, whereas girls played with toys that were largely gender neutral.  These findings were consistent with previous studies showing that girls tend to play with toys that are not traditionally gendered (i.e. blocks, crayons, puzzles, bears, etc).  
Cherney, et al, 2003
Why is there a disconnect between the natural tendencies of toy choice among female children and what marketing executives deem as appropriate toys for girls?  While fantasy play based on domestic scenarios does have its place during normal development, restricting children to certain types of gendered toys can promote a stereotypical mindset that extends into adulthood, possibly adding to the gender inequity seen in the workplace.  Furthermore, assigning and marketing toys to a specific gender may also contribute to the gendering of household duties and/or recreational activities (i.e. only boys can play hockey or only girls do laundry).

This is obviously problematic for females, especially given the disproportionately low number of women executives and STEM professionals (just to name a few).  However, a conclusion from this study that I hadn’t even considered is the idea that overly feminized toys are not good for boys. 

How “girls only” is disadvantageous to boys

When looking at “masculine” versus “feminine” play, one would see that there is some non-overlap when it comes to learned skills.  For instance, “masculine” play often translates into being able to build something imaginative (like a spaceship or other cool technology) whereas “feminine” toys tend to encourage fantasy play surrounding taking care of the home (like putting the baby to sleep or ironing clothes). 

Both types of learning experiences are useful in today’s world, especially given that more women enter the work force and there is growing trend to more or less split household duties.  So when a kid is being offered toys that encourage play that has both masculine and feminine qualities, there is enhanced development of a variety of skills that ultimately translate into real, modern world scenarios.

However, the issue lies in the willingness to provide and play with strongly cross-gender-stereotyped toys.  Because of the number of toys having this quality, there is a huge gender divide when it comes to play, and boys are much less likely to cross gender lines, especially when toys are overtly “girly” (see figure above).  This is most often because of parents and caregivers who discourage play with “girl” toys, usually citing things like “they will make fun of you.”  Toys heavily marketed to match the stereotypical likes of girls, such as the Friends LEGO kit, clearly excludes boys from engaging in play that develops domestic skills (in addition to pigeonholing girls into thinking that girls can only do domestic things).   

Just yesterday, I came across an article on CNN discussing this issue, and it contained anecdotes similar to the one I described above.  The author described how a little girl was scoffed for having a Star-Wars thermos as well as how a little boy was told (by another little girl) that he could not have the mermaid doll he wanted.  My arguments thus far have been centered on developing a variety of skills through play, but I’d also like to add that limiting self-expression could be disastrous for the future wellbeing of an individual. 

There is some progress being made with regard to how toys are being presented in stores.  For instance, the same article described the new Toy Kingdom at Harrod’s, which does not conform to the traditionally separated “boy” and “girl” sections.  Instead, it has “worlds,” such as The Big Top(with circus acts and fairies) or Odyssey(with space crafts and gadgets).  This type of organization allows any child, regardless of gender, to engage in play that facilitates imagination and cognition.

Hey Toys’R Us, are you listening?                

 Final thoughts

Please don’t misinterpret this as being anti-pink, anti-princess, or anti-feminine.  I embrace my own femininity with vigor and pride.  I like to wear dresses and makeup and get my hair did.  Give me a pair of Manolo Blahniks and I will wear the shit out of them.  But I will do so while elbow deep in a biochemical analysis of intracellular cholesterol transport.    

My point is that if you are going to make a toy more appealing to girls by painting it pink, don’t forget to include facets that allow girls to be comfortable with their femininity while providing an experience that promotes empowerment and an unlimited imagination.  Furthermore, don’t exclude boys from getting an experience that helps them acquire skills that are applicable (and desirable) in the modern world.  As it stands right now, toys like the Friends LEGO kit does neither of these and I believe that they major fails, both of the Double X and the XY variety.    

For more, check out Feminist Frequency’s takedown of LEGO:



References:
Judith E. Owen Blakemore and Renee E. Centers, Characteristics of Boys’ and Girls’ Toys, Sex Roles, Vol. 53, Nos. 9/10, November 2005 [PDF, paywall]

Gerianne M. Alexander, Ph.D., An Evolutionary Perspective of Sex-Typed Toy Preferences: Pink, Blue, and the Brain, Archives of Sexual Behavior, Vol. 32, No. 1, , pp. 7–14, February 2003 [PDF, paywall]

Isabelle D. Cherney, Lisa Kelly-Vance, Katrina Gill Glover, Amy Ruane, and Brigette Oliver Ryalls, The Effects of Stereotyped Toys and Gender on Play Assessment in Children Aged 18-47 Months, Educational Psychology: An International Journal of Experimental Educational Psychology, 23:1, 95-106, 2003

Carol J. Auster and Claire S. Mansbach, The Gender Marketing of Toys: An Analysis of Color and Type of Toy on the Disney Store Website, Sex Roles, 2012 [abstract link]

Isabelle D. Cherney and  Kamala London, Gender-linked Differences in the Toys, Television Shows, Computer Games, and Outdoor Activities of 5- to 13-year-old Children, Sex Roles, 2006 [PDF]

Isabelle D. Cherney and Bridget Oliver Ryalls, Gender-linked differences in the incidental memory of children and adults, J Exp Child Psychol, 1999 Apr;72(4):305-28 [abstract link]