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

Survival is Gendered, According to Scholastic

[Editor's note: We were going to write this as a she said/he said sort of thing with Emily Willingham and Matthew Francis, but then Francis got all serious and did an analysis and stuff. So his smart analysis appears first, and Willingham's (not quite) equally sober chapter-by-chapter evaluation of the "girls" book follows.]

Last week Ryan North, purveyor of the excellent webcomic Dinosaur Comics, stumbled across a pair of books published by Scholastic. The books are titled For Boys Only: How to Survive Anything and For Girls Only: How to Survive Anything, which already should be a tip-off, but the tables of contents really hammer home a message. As North says, “Maybe – MAYBE – How To Pick Perfect Sunglasses is actually in the same class as Surviving When Your Parachute Fails.” However, it’s obvious that boys and girls are not expected to want to survive the same things, and that the very idea of survival is gendered in these books.

Thanks to the outcry, Scholastic has already announced they will discontinue the titles, which is great. However, I wonder why they approved them in the first place, and their announcement shows that they don’t really understand what the big deal is. My friend JeNel, who is a children’s librarian, points out that Scholastic’s displays are always gendered, with a lovely regressive social agenda. So, shall we break it down for Scholastic?

First, anytime you name two books “For Boys Only” and “For Girls Only”, put an alligator on the cover of one and a pink cell phone on the cover of the other, you’re telling your audience of impressionable children that these books aren’t going to be equivalent. It’s almost inevitable that the “boy” book is going to be full of adventure and the “girl” book is going to be full of social stuff, and that’s the case here. “Survival” for boys includes broken legs, tornadoes, and earthquakes (since boys are obviously the only ones who will ever experience those), while “survival” for girls includes frenemies, brothers, and teaching your cat how to sit. (I suppose treating cat scratches and bites is kind of a survival skill.) In other words, “survival” for girls is a set of potentially useful social skills – which I guess boys don’t need to know. I split the contents into five categories, and assigned each chapter to one of the categories. 

Here’s the breakdown:

  1. True survival skills, where the knowledge could save your life or at least help you cope with injuries (forest fires, flash floods, snakebites, etc.). Not all of these are likely to be experienced (such as polar bear attack), but at least they could happen. The score: “boys” 22, “girls” 0.
  2. Survival skills for science fiction or fantasy scenarios, which are fun, but will never happen in real life (ghost attack, vampire attack, dinosaur attack, etc.). The score: “boys”  4, “girls” 3.
  3. Useful skills and advice for daily life or unusual situations (dealing with annoying people, getting over rejection, etc.). Not all of these are of equal um…significance, unless you think picking the right sunglasses is equivalent to coping with bullies, but I didn’t want to break the categories up too much. The score: “boys” 0, “girls” 23.
  4. Skills and advice for sudden stardom or suddenly becoming rich, which are fun to dream about, I suppose. The score: “boys” 0, “girls” 3.
  5. Teaching your cat how to sit. The score: “boys” 0, “girls” 1.

Let’s ignore the hyperbolic titles, since obviously neither book is intended to actually teach you to survive everything. However, the implications are clear: Boys need to know how to survive broken legs and earthquakes, but girls evidently will never experience that sort of thing. (Or perhaps Scholastic is assuming the girls will always have a knowledgeable boy around to help out. That sentence caused me psychological pain to even type.) Similarly, boys won’t ever need help dealing with bullies, frenemies, or learning how to camp. Either that, or (as Greg Gbur suggests) girls already know how to deal with the hard survival stuff, so they don’t need the book.


———————————————————————–

So, like, talking on a cell phone held in
one hand while engaged in this activity is so
totally NOT a survival technique. 

GIRLS ONLY: How to Survive Anything!  
Table of Contents

  • How to survive a BFF Fight (Boys don’t have friends and fight with them? What is that thing they’re doing when they’re rolling around all over the floor trying to kill each other?)
  • How to Survive Soccer Tryouts (assuming very male David Beckham once had to do this)
  • How to Survive a Breakout (like this?)
  • How to Show You’re Sorry (because being a boy means never having to show you’re sorry)
  • How to Have the Best Sleepover Ever (My sons have sleepovers; just discreetly double-checked their gonads)
  • How to Take the Perfect School Photo (like this guy did?)
  • How to Survive Brothers (My sons have brothers, two each; they could really use some tips on this)
  • Scary Survival Dos and Don’ts (if it’s scary, don’t do it)
  • How to Handle Becoming Rich (Nooo! Not RICH!)
  • How to Keep Stuff Secret (It’s like, so hard, to like, keep your mouth shut, you know?)
  • How to Survive Tests (At first I thought this said “testes,” and I was confused. That said, apparently females do have more test anxiety than males. It’s because we’re too stressed about that perfect school photo).
  • How to Survive Shyness (Have you met my husband? No? That’s because he’s shy)
  • How to Handle Sudden Stardom (Boys and men never suddenly become stars. Ever)
  • More Stardom Survival Tips (because one chapter on stardom just isn’t enough)
  • How to Survive a Camping Trip (Boys never go camping. Or they automatically know how because they have testes. Or something like that)
  • How to Survive a Fashion Disaster (You see, fashion is an equal-opportunity threat, people)
  • How to Teach Your Cat to Sit (a critical skill, no doubt, but one boys need to know, too)
  • How to Turn a No Into a Yes (I just …  no)
  • Top Tips for Speechmaking (because we’ve never, ever seen a boy give a bad speech)
  • How to Survive Embarrassment (gentlemen, clearly no concern of yours, sudden erections during algebra notwithstanding)
  • How to Be a Mind Reader (I see what you’re thinking here. No. Just no)
  • How to Survive a Crush (So for boys, is the corollary “How to Survive a Lust?”, or what?)
  • Seaside Survival (More than half of the US population lives in a coastal county. I guess all the males in that portion are expendable)
  • How to Soothe Sunburn (like this fellow did)
  • How to Pick Perfect Sunglasses (living proof that boys could use some help with this, too)
  • Surviving a Zombie Attack (two of these people are male)
  • How to Spot a Frenemy (Paul, meet John. Mick, meet Keith. Simon, meet Garfunkel. Freud, meet Jung. See? Boys have frenemies, too!)
  • Brilliant Boredom Busters (Am copying these now for my three sons, for whom a houseful of toys, books, art supplies, games, videos, and movies simply isn’t enough)
  • How to Survive Truth or Dare (see “No., Just no” above)
  • How to Beat Bullies (Is this a recommended approach? ‘Cause I need to do some time traveling, if so)
  • How to be an Amazing Babysitter (You can start by not taking a gendered approach to every single facet of existence of the child you’re babysitting)

To Everything (Turn Turn Turn) There is a Season

Today – June 20 – is the northern Summer Solstice, sometimes known as the Northern Solstice, “first day of summer”, or Midsummer’s Day, depending on where you live. It’s the longest day and shortest night of the year in the northern hemisphere (where I live), though exactly howlong or short depends on how far north you live. And of course in the southern hemisphere, today is is the shortest day and longest night, since the seasons are reversed.
The secret to the solstice and to Earth’s seasons in general involves the tilt of Earth’s axis. Our planet orbits the Sun in an elliptical path, which you can draw on a flat piece of paper: it doesn’t move “up” or “down”, but stays in a single plane known as the ecliptic. (The name “ecliptic”, as you might guess, is related to the word “eclipse”, since ancient astronomers determined eclipses of the Moon and Sun could only occur at certain places in the sky.) Earth’s axis is tilted compared to the ecliptic, and the axis points more or less in the same direction, wherever the planet is in its orbit. The axis points almost directly at Polaris, the North Star, which is why that star is a good navigational guide for those in the northern hemisphere: no matter what time of year, it’s always in the same spot in the sky. Other stars rise and set as Earth rotates, but not Polaris. (Unfortunately, there isn’t a South Star.)
As you can see from the diagram above, during about half the year, the North Pole points more toward the Sun, while it points more away for the rest of the year. Where I live, the Sun will never be directly overhead, even at noon. The farthest north that will ever happen is a special latitude known as the Tropic of Cancer – and the northern Summer Solstice is the day that occurs. On the northern Winter Solstice, which happens on December 21 or 22, the Sun is directly overhead at noon at the latitude of the Tropic of Capricorn.
Now we can see why summers are hot! In summer, the Sun rises earlier, sets later, and reaches a higher point in the sky. Those things combined mean extra sunlight, heating up the air and the ground longer. We can also see why I put “first day of summer” in quotes: the Solstice is the apex of the process, but the increase in daylight and temperatures begins long before June 20 (at least every place I’ve lived). The Midsummer’s Day festival, celebrated throughout northern Europe, acknowledges that; Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream may have been written for the English version of the festival (though from what I can tell, the historical evidence is scant).
Similarly, during winter the Sun’s light comes in at a steeper angle and days are shorter, so the time for the ground to warm is greatly reduced. The northern Winter Solstice (also known as the Southern Solstice, “first day of winter”, Midwinter’s Day, or Yule) is the shortest day and longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere. On that day, the North Pole points as far away from the Sun as it ever does. We also have the reason the tropics are warm all year around: they receive about the same amount of sunlight during both summer and winter.
Approximately halfway between the solstices, the Sun appears directly overhead at noon at the Equator. On those days, everywhere on Earth gets about 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of night. These days are the equinoxes, meaning “equal night”. (The spell to extinguish light in the Harry Potter books is “nox”, for what it’s worth. Yes, I remember such things. I’m still waiting for my “accio!” summoning spell, though.) The two days are known as the Vernal(or spring) and the Autumnal (or autumn) Equinox, again based on the seasons in the northern hemisphere. From an astronomical point of view, Earth’s “solar year” is marked between successive vernal equinoxes. (A second measurement of the year, known as the sidereal year, is measured with respect to the stars. These two year measurements are almost, but not quite, the same length!)
Now let’s put all of this together in a movie! (For some reason, the Sun – which was a gently glowing lamp in my original simulation – came out looking flat and boring in the final movie. I guess I still have more to learn about creating three-dimensional animations.) For best results, please view this full-screen.

Double X Science panel at GeekGirlCon 2012

On Sunday, Aug 12, Managing Editor Emily Willingham, Chemistry Editor Adrienne Roehrich, and Contributor Raychelle Burks spoke on bringing science to you. Here’s a summary of our panel.

Photo by Ryan Roehrich and used with permission.

We started with a welcome and gratitude to the organizers and attendees and our tagline “Science, I am Just That Into You.” We were selected to appear with a lot of fantastic programming over the weekend.
We introduced our 3 panelists:
Adrienne Roehrich, your panel moderator and the chemistry editor at Double X Science
Emily Willingham, founder and managing editor 
Ray Burks, contributor to Double X Science 
Photo by Ryan Roehrich and used with permission.

All 3 have PhDs in their respective fields – Emily is a developmental biologist, Ray is an analytical chemist, and Adrienne is a physical chemist. Emily and Ray are prolific writers. You can find their articles all over the internet and in print. Ray is a staff member for GeekGirlCon and Adrienne is a Special Agent volunteer. All 3 are active on social media and welcome live-tweeting and suggest the #DXS hashtag along with the #GGC12. And you can use the @DoubleXSci for the panel.

Then a poll of the room to see who had heard of the site. Only a few attendees were already familiar with the site, so we told them that DoubleXScience covers a lot of current science. For example on (the previous) Monday, Emily posted about the Mars Curiosity Rover touchdown. In July, the physics editor covered the Higgs particle announcement. We also cover timeless, yet updated science, such as pregnancy and other health issues that we editors perceive to be of interest to ourselves and our readers.
It’s hard to discuss what Double X Science is without discussing who it is.
After a review of who all the people on that particular slide are and what they have to do with Double X Science, three questions were asked by the moderator:
In November of 2011, Emily founded Double X Science, Emily what was your motivation in founding the site and what was then and is now your vision for it?
As mentioned, we have content from editors, other sites and contributors. Ray was the first contributor to the site – what attracted you to Double X Science?
What do the attendees want to know?
And then our discussion really got started. Thankfully, we had 3 great tweeters attending, so I can just point you along their tweets:

[<a href="http://storify.com/fiainros/double-x-science-panel-at-geekgirlcon-2012" target="_blank">View the story "Double X Science panel at GeekGirlCon 2012" on Storify</a>]

Photo by Adrienne Roehrich and used with permission.

Posted by Adrienne M. Roehrich, Chemistry Editor

Double Xpression: Karyn Traphagen, co-founder of ScienceOnline

Hanging out with Al.

Karyn Traphagen is the Executive Director of ScienceOnline Inc., a non-profit organization representing a diverse science community that cultivates conversations both online and face-to-face. At face-to-face events, including a perennially popular signature conference in North Carolina, ScienceOnline encourages creativity, collaborations, connections, and fun. Through social media, the ScienceOnline community listens, supports, shares, recommends, and reaches out. ScienceOnline also develops tools such as ScienceSeeker news river and curates The Open Lab, an annual anthology of the best science writing on the web.

Karyn previously taught physics at the high school, undergraduate and graduate levels. As a teacher, she sought to connect the science of the curriculum with the everyday life of her students and to instill lifelong skills for learning. Karyn completed graduate work at the University of Virginia and also studied at the University of Stellenbosch (South Africa). She has trained physics teachers through the University of Virginia’s Physics department and traveled to South Sudan to conduct professional development training for local teachers. She has more than 10 years of experience developing and teaching online courses.

In addition to her science work, Karyn maintains a freelance graphic design studio. Her latest project was a work on Ancient Near Eastern royal inscriptions.

Karyn lives in Durham, North Carolina, and she encourages readers wherever they are to Stay Curious at her blog. Connect with her on Twitter or Google+. You can also follow ScienceOnline on Twitter and Google+.  [Editor's note: Karyn is also an official ADK46er, which is pretty incredible.]



DXS: First, can you give me a quick overview of what your scientific background is and your current connection to science?

Karyn enjoys creating art with…LEGOS!

I remember one of my favorite childhood gifts was a chemistry set and a microscope. My mother was a great role model. She left a job as a chemist to get married and raise a family, but she always instilled in me the attitude that if I was interested in any subject, I could learn it and do it. I always accepted a challenge.

Although I attended excellent public schools, I had to overcome some significant challenges. Our family was one of the only ones in our town designated as eligible for the new free lunch program, and I started high school when Title IX was passed (go ahead, do the math). This was an exciting time for girls in school–but not just for sports (our legacy to our 8thgrade class was a change in our public (!) school policy to allow girls to wear jeans).

I was thrilled to be the one of two females on our Math League squad and to have access to advanced science courses and labs in high school. It seems I always took a circuitous route though. I helped change the rules so that I could graduate in 3 years. I was very fortunate to have lots of opportunities after graduation (including being recruited for the first female class at West Point). But then, I took on other responsibilities and went back to school later to finish my degrees.

In addition to research, I have taught high school physics and physical science, undergrad physics (I especially liked the Physics for Non-Science majors!), and helped to develop a degree program in the university physics department for high school physics teachers. I’ve led sailing trips in the Bahamas for biology students and I’ve been trained by the American Meteorological Society to use live data in classrooms. I’ve even been a programmer. Obviously I’m interested in too many things for my own good.

Currently, I am the Executive Director of ScienceOnline, a non-profit organization that facilitates discussion about science through online networks and face-to-face events. We welcome all to the conversation – scientists, journalists, librarians, educators, students, and anyone interested in engaging in science. Four words that help to define ScienceOnline are: Connections, conversations, collaborations, and community. We also develop projects that work to connect scientists and their research to the public. I’m thrilled to be representing this thriving community, and I enjoy working with so many talented, brilliant, and fun people.

Karyn has traveled to South Sudan to conduct professional development training for local teachers.

DXS: What ways do you express yourself creatively that may not have a single thing to do with science?

I have an insatiable thirst to learn and try new things, which has resulted in a string of very diverse jobs. Over the years my creative activities (and jobs) have included medieval calligraphy, art, photography, mathematics (I count this as creative), LEGO creations, graphic design, garment creation, gardening, construction projects, violin/guitar (as musician and also instructor), studying ancient languages and writing systems (both real and created).

On the surface, many people think these are not “science-y” but really, they are all about science. Seeing that connection is something I love to introduce people to. My science career has included research that helps create more bio-fidelic crash test dummies (I worked with cadavers–this makes for great party stories), meteorology, high school physics teacher, and university physics instructor. I used to think that people would think I was flighty or unable to commit to a project. Now I see the benefits of having been successful at so many different skills and fields of study. The key was seeing how they all tapped into my curiosity and creativity.

DXS: Do you find that your scientific background informs your creativity, even though what you do may not specifically be scientific?

Definitely. Paying attention to the details of the world gives me opportunity to see beauty, symmetry, order, and chaos in unusual places. I am thrilled by the macro and the micro vision of our universe and lives (which is why I continue to study other fields of science in addition to physics). These are not only realms to explore with experiments, but to experience emotionally and to communicate creatively. I have learned to appreciate the details in science and that carries over into the art, photography, design, and construction projects that I may spend time on. Even my tattoo (snow crystals) reflects both beauty and science (and a lot of personal meaning too!)

DXS: Have you encountered situations in which your expression of yourself outside the bounds of science has led to people viewing you differently–either more positively or more negatively?

I think that sometimes the more conventional creative side of my life makes me seem more “human” and approachable. When non-science people ask what I do, I don’t usually start with “physics” in the answer because that often is hard for people to relate to and the conversation dies. But if they get to know some things I am interested in or the diversity of things I’ve created, and THEN learn about my science background, they are more likely to perceive me as more than a physics geek. At that point they feel more comfortable asking questions about science.

On the other hand, some of my science colleagues in the physics department saw those other activities as something that took me away from time that could be spent on physics. Even if they thought my non-science activities might be amazing they minimized their value. Thinking back now, maybe this is why I keep so much of what I do to myself and it takes time to draw out of me all the things that I have had the joy of learning and doing.

I think there is a geek aspect to many of the things I like to do. They don’t completely overlap with the same brand of geekiness though. It’s just that you align yourself with a community that is very engaged in a certain niche. A tribe if you will. Some of these tribes don’t understand each other very well, so I sometimes feel like an ambassador of the various communities I am a member of.

DXS: Have you found that your non-science expression of creativity/activity/etc. has in any way informed your understanding of science or how you may talk about it or present it to others?

Karyn collecting water samples in Molokai, Hawaii

Yes, I used to focus more on the narrow aspects of my field. Now I try to see interconnectedness—not only with other fields of science, but more broadly with day-to-day life. My “non-science” expressions are really gateways into understanding the science better or being willing to think more creatively about how to solve a research problem. Bottom line: I always want to stay curious. We don’t value curiosity enough. I think curiosity undergirds creativity. Curiosity doesn’t just beget science questions. We also have to ask, “What would happen if I mixed these colors together?” or “How small can I write with this pen nib and ink?” or “What kind of effects can I create in this photograph by changing the lens?”

DXS: How comfortable are you expressing your femininity and in what ways? How does this expression influence people’s perception of you in, say, a scientifically oriented context?

I really tried to think about this carefully. In the physics department at the university where I worked, my main concern was not the fact that I was in the minority (or that there were more men’s rooms in the building), but that the lab was freezing and I needed to keep warmer layers at work to survive! Basically, the lab protocols determined what kind of clothing and shoes I could wear, how I kept my hair (out of the way!) etc. I never felt those things were anything particularly against being feminine, but I didn’t go out of my way to wear makeup or dress special.

On the other hand, I do think that female visitors and students who dressed more feminine were definitely treated differently. I desperately wanted to be valued for my ideas and work ethic and not what I looked like or which bathroom I used, so I was probably more affected by others attitudes than I realize(d).

Probably the most feminine thing I’ve ever done was to have children and show my priority for them (I realize that there are fathers who do this too, so it may be more a parent thing than a feminine thing, but in the society I live in, it is still the mothers who bear the lion’s share of the responsibility for child-rearing). I had colleagues who could not understand some choices I made because of family. They felt I was wasting my potential (whatever that means!).

Now that I am not in a lab and don’t have small children at home, I alternate between tomboy and professional attire. I do like that it is easier to create a more feminine professional wardrobe these days.

I find it odd that women are complimented for their appearance more than men. I don’t think people realize how out-of-balance this is. I try to notice and mention men’s clothing and appearance as a small step toward equalizing that.

DXS: Do you think that the combination of your non-science creativity and scientific-related activity shifts people’s perspectives or ideas about what a scientist or science communicator is? If you’re aware of such an influence, in what way, if any, do you use it to (for example) reach a different corner of your audience or present science in a different sort of way?

I think that getting the attention of whatever audience you are addressing is paramount. You may have something wonderful to share, but if you don’t have their attention, it will fall to the ground. I want to develop a relationship with people in order to get them to trust me, believe me, and be interested in what I have to say. Dispensing information is not enough.

The manner in which I communicate makes all the difference in how the person will engage the topic. To do this, I need to listen first and understand who my audience is. Using creativity, I will then try to connect with each person or audience in a way that I hope will best bring them along the journey I have experienced. Some people will want to know more specific details, others will want to know how it affects their lives, and still others will challenge and question my thoughts and methods.

Using visual arts (e.g. fine arts, video, etc) can be as important as a data chart. As long as the conversation continues, then I have been successful in communicating. My goal is to make someone (whether a researcher or a teenager) so interested that they will take on a search for more information on their own. That’s really how we learn and retain best—to explore something we have invested our own time in.

I also use a variety of outlets for communication. There are definitely important and different roles for journals, conference presentations, Twitter, blogs, Google+, etc. These diverse outlets are just as important as creative ways of presenting material. Again, you must always be aware of your audience. I would use a museum’s Twitter account to communicate differently than I would my regular account.

DXS: If you had something you could say to the younger you about the role of expression and creativity in your chosen career path, what would you say?

Knowing myself, I’m not so sure that the younger me would listen to any advice I would give! In some ways, going through the experiences is what made me who I am and there are no short cuts for that. However, there are definitely things that would have been great to learn earlier on.

So, I would tell the younger me not to try to keep creative interests and career objectives separate or think that they have to be at odds with each other. They don’t need to be in competition for your attention. Creativity, job skills, life experiences, and responsibilities can interweave. You will not only be more content, but probably more productive in all your endeavors.

I would also tell her that “no” is not a dirty word and that it is ok to be selective in how you spend your time.

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.
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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).