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.
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.
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.
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.
On Mother’s Day this year, we told you why, if you have biological children, those children are literally a part of you for life thanks to a phenomenon called microchimerism. When a woman is pregnant, some of the fetal cells slip past the barrier between mother and fetus and take up residence in the mother. What researchers hadn’t turned up in humans before now was that some of those cells can end up in the mother’s brain. Once there, according to a study published today in PLoS ONE, they can stick around for decades and, the researchers suggest, might have a link to Alzheimer’s disease. Note that is a big “might.”
The easiest way to tell if a fetal cell’s made it into a maternal tissue is to look for cells carrying a Y chromosome or a Y gene sequence (not all fetuses developing as male carry a Y chromosome, but that’s a post for another time). As you probably know, most women don’t carry a Y chromosome in their own cells (but some do; another post for another time). In this study, researchers examined postmortem brain tissue from 26 women who had no detectable neurological disease and 33 women who’d had Alzheimer’s disease; the women’s ages at death ranged from 32 to 101. They found that almost two thirds (37) of all of the women tested had evidence of the Y chromosome gene in their brains, in several brain regions. The blue spots in the image below highlight cells carrying these “male” genes a woman’s brain tissue.
Photo Credit: Chan WFN, Gurnot C, Montine TJ, Sonnen JA, Guthrie KA, et al. (2012) Male Microchimerism in the Human Female Brain. PLoS ONE 7(9): e45592. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0045592
The researchers also looked at whether or not these blue spots were more (or less) frequent in the brains of women with Alzheimer’s disease compared to women who’d had no known neurological disease. Although their results hint at a possible association, it wasn’t significant. Because the pregnancy history of the women was largely unknown, there’s no real evidence here that pregnancy can heighten your Alzheimer’s risk or that being pregnant with or bearing a boy can help or hinder. As I discuss below, you can end up with some Y chromosome-bearing cells without ever having been pregnant.
Also, age could be an issue. Based on the reported age ranges of the group, the women without Alzheimer’s were on average younger at death (70 vs 79), with the youngest being only 32 (the youngest in Alzheimer’s group at death was 54). No one knows if the women who died at younger ages might later have developed Alzheimer’s.
Indeed, most of this group–Alzheimer’s or not–had these Y-chromosome cells present in the brain. The authors say that 18 of the 26 samples from women who’d had no neurologic disease were positive for these “male” cells–that’s 69%–while 19 of the 33 who had Alzheimer’s were. That’s 58%. In other words, a greater percentage of women who’d not had Alzheimer’s in life were carrying around these male-positive cells compared to women who had developed Alzheimer’s. The age difference might also matter here, though, if these microchimeric cells tend to fade with age, although the researchers did get a positive result in the brain of a woman who was 94 when she died.
Thus, the simple fact of having male-positive cells (ETA: or not enough of them) in the brain doesn’t mean You Will Develop Alzheimer’s, which is itself a complex disease with many contributing factors. The researchers looked at this potential link because some studies have found a higher rate of Alzheimer’s among women who’ve been pregnant compared to women who have not and an earlier onset among women with a history of pregnancy. The possible reasons for this association range from false correlation to any number of effects of pregnancy, childbearing, or parenting.
Nothing about this study means that migration of fetal cells to the brain is limited to cells carrying Y chromosomes. It’s just that in someone who is XX, it’s pretty straightforward to find a Y chromosome gene. Finding a “foreign” X-linked gene in an XX person would be much more difficult. Also, a woman doesn’t have to have borne a pregnancy to term to have acquired these fetal cells. As the authors observe, even women without sons can have these Y-associated cells from pregnancies that were aborted or ended prematurely or from a “vanished” male twin in a pregnancy that did go to term.
In fact, a woman doesn’t even have to have ever been pregnant at all to be carrying some cells with Y chromosomes. Another way you can end up with Y chromosome cells in an XX chromosome body is–get this–from having an older male sibling who, presumably, left a few cellular gifts behind in the womb where you later developed. As the oldest sibling, I can only assume I could have done the same for the siblings who followed me. So, if you’ve got an older sibling and have been pregnant before–could you be a double microchimera?
But wait. You could even be a triple microchimera! This microchimerism thing can be a two-way street. If you’re a woman with biological children, those children already carry around part of you in the nuclear DNA you contributed and all of the mitochondria (including mitochondrial DNA) in all of their cells. Yes, they get more DNA from you than from the father. But they might also be toting complete versions of your cells, just as you have cells from them, although fetus–>mother transfer is more common than mother–>fetus transfer. The same could have happened between you and your biological mother. If so, a woman could potentially be living with cells from her mother, older sibling, and her children mixed in with her own boring old self cells.
The triple microchimera thing might be a tad dizzying, particularly the idea that you could be walking around with your mother’s and sibling’s cells hanging out in You, a whole new level of family relationships. But if you’re a biological mother, perhaps you might find it comforting to know that a cellular part of you may accompany your child everywhere, even as your child is always on your mind–and possibly in it, too.
Over the last few months, the concept of birth control has been under great scrutiny in the American eye. Many politicians have been discussing it’s “moral” implications, and whether institutions or organizations should have the right to deny insurance coverage for hormonal contraception if it does not fall within the confines of their belief systems. And while American women have narrowly escaped legislation that would impede their reproductive health and freedom, politicians, mostly men, feel it necessary to make misinformed or even completely false statements about birth control.
For some strange reason, there is this erroneous idea that birth control is not a matter of health, but rather a means by which a woman can engage in careless and frequent sexual activity, with a man, and without the consequences of pregnancy. It’s clear that the picture these politicians are trying to paint is that of debauchery and immorality, which, of course, is a departure from the puritanical integrity they embody. But, rather than focus on this utter nonsense, I would prefer to highlight the significant impact birth control will have on the future of our civilization and our planet.
The human population has grown steadily since the beginning of our species. However, the rate of growth began to skyrocket after the industrial revolution, and our population has actually doubled over the last 50 years, reaching 7 the billion mark in March of this year. This is an astounding statistic since it took until 1804 – around 50,000 years – to reach our first billion.
World Population: 1800 – 2100 (Wikimedia Commons)
What makes these numbers really scary is the concept of carrying capacity, which is an ecological term used to describe the maximum number of individual members of a species that a certain habitat can support. In this case, the species is human and that certain habitat is planet earth.
Here’s the thing: the availability of our resources will not match the rate of population growth. Given our current technologies, there is only so much food we can grow, only so much water we can drink, only so much space we can inhabit, only so much waste we can safely rid, only so much energy we can harness. There will be a point that the human population will hit its carrying capacity on earth, and when it does, the chances of widespread famine will be great, and the delineation between the developing world and the developed world will be no longer.
Given this very serious issue, Britain’s Royal Society has recently convened to discuss the future of the human population and on April 26th, 2012, and published their findings in the People and the Planet Report [PDF]. For me, key findingnumber three struck a cord:
Reproductive health and voluntary family planning programmes urgently require political leadership and financial commitment, both nationally and internationally. This is needed to continue the downward trajectory of fertility rates, especially in countries where the unmet need for contraception is high. (emphasis theirs)
Political leadership and financial commitment – Did you see that, American politicians?? For those of you who are unnecessarily waging war on women’s reproductive rights, its time to get your giant heads out of your collective asses and realize the implications of legislation that would go against ensuring both the continued success of our species and the health of our planet. It is time to stop spending money on these regressive and oppressive campaigns guised under the false pretense of “religious freedom” and start making a financial commitment to the women (and by association, men) who live in our nation.
To drive this point even further, here is another excerpt from the People and the Planet Report (my favorite bit, found in Box 2.5 on page 33):
Women bear the main physical burden of reproduction: pregnancy, breastfeeding and childcare. They also bear the main responsibility for contraception as most methods are designed for their use. Men, it may be argued, reap the benefits of children without incurring an equal share of the cost. It follows that women may be more favourable to the idea of small families and family planning than their partners but unable to express their inclinations in male-dominated systems. Such views received international endorsement in the Program of Action resulting from the UN conference on population in 1994. Paragraph 4.1 states that “improving the status of women is essential for the long-term success of population programs”.
We currently live in a nation where 99% of women who are of reproductive age have used some form of birth control at least once. And when it comes to hormonal contraception, over 80% of sexually active women aged 15-44 have relied on “the pill” as a means to prevent unwanted pregnancies. This has contributed to an average of two births per American woman, which is considered to be the replacement rate for a population. Compare this number to countries where birth control and reproductive education is scarce – countries like Niger (7.52 births per woman) or Afghanistan (5.64 births per woman) – and one can see the impact of family planning through contraception. Furthermore, it has been well documented that women in developed worlds who are provided with the means to control their fertility are more empowered and their families are healthier.
While our situation in the US is significantly better compared to underdeveloped nations where rape and the cultural devaluing of women is commonplace, we still have a responsibility to uphold – a responsibility that would undoubtedly increase the quality of life for women (and men), as well as contribute to the overall health of the human population. Why would we want to go backwards and remove the ability of a woman to decide when, if ever, she would like to reproduce?
Having access to birth control empowers women and allows them to make greater contributions to society. And because contraception is primarily the responsibility of a woman, our society needs to ensure that birth control, reproductive education, and family planning resources are readily available to EVERYONE.
The United Nations predicts that the ten-billionth person will be born around 2050. Will we continue to fight this ridiculous fight against women’s rights or will we redirect our collective energy to developing technologies that will help our species and planet better cope with the increasing demands associated with a steadily rising population? Let’s stop allowing stupidity to prevail and let’s start doing the right thing: making sure that birth control is readily available to any woman who wishes to use it. Because, now more than ever, it is clear that birth control will save the world.
Note: In my readings for this article, I came across a wonderful resource for anyone interested in learning more about human fertility and population growth. Through the wonders of the internet, Academic Earth is offering a free (!) online course called Global Population Growth, given by Yale University professor Robert Wyman.
These views are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily either reflect or disagree with those of the DXS editorial team.
A case of ulcerative colitis, a form of inflammatory bowel disease. Photo via Wikimedia Commons. Credit: Samir.
A two-hit punch in the gut might explain why some people find themselves alone among their closest relatives in having inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). The double gut punches come in the form of a compromised intestinal wall coupled with a poorly behaved immune system, say Emory researchers, whose work using mice was published in the journal Immunity. IBDs include ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, the latter of which is slightly more common in women.
An inflamed gut is the key feature of IBD, which affects about 600,000 people in the United States each year. Typical symptoms include bloody diarrhea, fever, and cramps, which can come and go with bouts of severe inflammation punctuating relatively calm periods. The going explanation for these disorders is a wonky immune system, but some breach of the barrier that keeps your gut contents in their place is also implicated. Researchers also have identified a link between bouts of gastroenteritis–known around my house as “throw-up” illnesses–and development of IBD. What’s remained unclear is how people who have these so-called “leaky guts” don’t develop a disease like Crohn’s when a close family member with a leaky gut does.
These hints in humans led the Emory investigators to examine the interaction of a compromised gut and the immune system in mice. The mice in the study had ‘leaky’ gut walls because they lacked a protein that usually ties cells together into water-tight sheets. Without these proteins sealing up the intestinal lining, bacteria and other components can make their way their deeper into the intestinal wall, triggering chronic inflammation.
The thing is, these mice with their leaky guts don’t develop colitis spontaneously, a situation, the investigators hypothesized, that reflects families full of people with leaky guts but rarely IBD. Permeable intestines alone aren’t enough. Some other dysfunction related to the immune system, they figured, must pile onto that leakiness and bring on the inflammatory disorder.
If you’re an immunologist–which I am not–an obvious choice for investigation is a class of immune cells called T cells. These cells come in a dizzying array of types, but one way to narrow them down relies on a protein that some but not all of them make. Pulling out the T cells that make this protein, says Timothy Denning, PhD, a mucosal immunologist at Emory and study author, is “the simplest way” to start examining the immune system involvement because these cells play a ton of roles in balancing different immune responses. So, they first collected the T cells carrying this protein from the mouse intestines.
“There are good and bad” versions of T cells carrying these identifier molecules, though, says Denning, so the next step was to find the “good” ones that might be protecting mice in spite of their sieve-like intestinal linings. To achieve that goal required some fancier lab moves. “We stimulated the cells and looked at the cytokines (immune signaling molecules) they make,” explains Charles Parkos, MD, PhD, an experimental pathologist and mucosal immunologist at Emory and also a paper author. “We found that the cells in the mice that were better protected predominantly secreted TGF-beta, a prototypic marker for ‘good’ cells.”
One of the things T cells do with TGF-beta is to talk to B cells, another class of immune cell. B cells take responsibility for remembering what’s attacked you in the past and marshaling forces if it attacks again. Also, when B cells are stimulated, explains Parkos, one way they respond is to release proteins–antibodies–that target the offending invaders. In the gut, the kind of antibody the B cells make in response to the TGF-beta message is immunoglobulin A, or IgA. This antibody “keeps bacteria in check,” says Denning, and also probably “broadly neutralizes lots of different microorganisms” in the intestines, adds Parkos.
The Emory-based team found that when the leaky-gut mice also had an IgA deficiency, they became more open to the types of immune cells that cause gut inflammation. The animals also were far more susceptible to colitis triggered by a chemical treatment in the lab and had much worse disease. Without the IgA, the mice couldn’t dampen inflammation triggered by bacteria slipping through the intestinal breaches. The results of this two-step physiological fail, in mice, at least: severe inflammatory gut disease.
Denning cautions that these results in mice don’t suggest a rush to TGF-beta or IgA treatment for inflammatory diseases. “TGF-beta has many effects and on many different cell types, and too much is not a good thing because it’s known to play a role in fibrosis and cancer,” says Denning. “If your child had IBD, the last thing you’d want to do is to give TGF-beta.” Much more work has to be done, he adds, for a better understanding of the implications of these results before anyone starts talking about therapies. Parkos agrees. “To our knowledge, administration of TGF-beta is not a viable therapy.”
The same applies for IgA, Denning says. “We couldn’t just take any old B cells and get them to make IgA and put it in and hope that it would do something,” he says. The reason, he explains, is because B cells make many different types of IgA molecules specific to foreign invaders they encounter, a process that happens on the spot, not in a lab dish. “We need to understand much more about the basic mechanisms, but we do believe that these pathways would be critical to induce in people who are more susceptible to IBD, such as first-degree relatives.”
Some research groups are conducting trials to treat IBDs with helminth worms–intestinal parasites–on the hypothesis that their presence would induce a balance in the immune system and tamp down an overactive inflammatory response. The balance in this case is supposed to be between two competing aspects of the immune system, called Th1 and Th2. But one issue in these intestinal inflammatory disorders, says Denning, is that Crohn’s is linked to Th1 hyperactivity while ulcerative colitis is associated with Th2.
Yet the worms appear to show some beneficial effects in both disorders, in spite of the different involvement of Th1 and Th2. The TGF-beta signaling effect on IgA that the Emory group identified operates by a third component, tentatively identified as Th3. Both Denning and Parkos are intrigued by the possibility that the presence of helminths might trigger this pathway, rather than influencing Th1 or Th2, explaining why worm treatment has sometimes proved useful for both Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis.
As for why IBD arises, the researchers hope their findings answer some questions. “There are different camps in the IBD community,” says Parkos. “Some say immune system, some say barrier, others say genetics or environment.” What they have with their results, he says, is evidence showing that a leak alone is not enough and that a wonky immune system alone is not enough. But the double-whammy of a leaky gut and an absence of immune protection “dramatically increase susceptibility to disease, and that helps explain why diseases are so complicated,” he says.
The use of parasitic worms for these inflammatory diseases arose from the concept of the hygiene hypothesis, the idea that we’re too clean in the modern developed world, leading to an immune imbalance that can include chronic inflammation and autoimmune disorders. Asked about any links between the hygiene hypothesis and this pathway to IBD they identified in mice, Denning says, “It’s not obviously all about the parasites. That’s just one key thing–it’s probably an exposure to a lot of different types of things in your gut and airways.” He describes the immune system as being a thermostat that registers a specific set-point early on based on these exposures. This set-point, he says, is lower in people who grow up in developed countries like the United States and leads to a “trigger-happy immune system that is ready to fire much more easily.”
That doesn’t mean that a worm infection or just being dirty will prevent your developing IBD. That said, these immunologists both have the same general advice for parents regarding their children. “Being too clean is not a good thing,” they agree. As immunologists, he adds, “We feel exactly the opposite. Go play in the dirt.”
“Motherhood”: Sculpture at the Catacumba Park, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Motherhood. It can mean many things, and our own definition of it is largely defined by our individual experiences. To one person, motherhood might simply mean the act of raising children; to another, motherhood might be what defines them.
It is not uncommon to generalize the concept of “motherhood” and lump everyone who upholds a single criterion – being a mom – into one group. But, really, motherhood affects us all in one way or another, and that way is as unique as the pattern of curves and ridges on a fingertip.
Despite the recent outbreak of (heated) discussion surrounding the Time cover story depicting a beautiful and young woman nursing a toddler, and the questioning if following a certain philosophy makes one more or less of a mother, humans, as a whole, are truly bound by a common goal: to raise the next generation to the best of our abilities under the circumstances at hand. But, there is no one answer.
Every mom will have her own definition of motherhood. But, being a mom is by no means a prerequisite for understanding motherhood as it relates to an individual. For this special Mother’s Day post, we would like to pay homage to motherhood in its many forms. Here you will not find a singular description of motherhood. What you will find, however, is what it means on a more personal level, which is to say that the definition can only come from the heart.
Thank you to all of the wonderful people who participated in this project (and with short notice!) – we have answers in paragraph, tweet, and prose forms.
Motherhood means feeling a kaleidoscope of emotions simultaneously – fear, glee, worry, angst, pride. And it means being an advocate and a revolutionary who empowers her children to engage in society in a meaningful, fun, vibrant way. And lastly, motherhood means always giving up the biggest piece of cake and the last popsicle and being okay with that.
Motherhood means accepting responsibility. If you read the news or listen to the hype, you know what I mean. Every choice you make, from before a child is conceived, until long after you’re dead, there is someone out there that will tell you how it impacted your kid. As my nana always said, “It’s always the mother’s fault.” I just hope that as the time passes I get more credit than blame for how my kids turn out.
Motherhood is how you stretch your heart in ways you never thought possible. It’s how you love through the ups & down, the challenges that life brings. And, it lasts a lifetime from that first tiny cry.
I’m a human geneticist by training, so I’ve been told having a child is the ultimate version of participating in my research. But the science analogy that best summarizes it for me is maternal-fetal microchimerism. Data demonstrating that my son and I each likely have some of each other’s intact cells inside us forever — as I have with my mother, and she with hers, and so on — beautifully represent to me the meaning of motherhood. As the quote from Elizabeth Stone goes, having a child “is to decide forever to have yourheart go walking around outside your body.” To me, that includes half my DNA, some of my cells, and so many of my hopes and dreams, all in one sweet, kissable package.
Motherhood: As a mom of triplets, some would say I have triple the work but I like to think of it as triple the hugs, triple the joy, triple the fun! And when people ask me what it’s like to become a mom I tell them “it’s the toughest job you’ll ever love.” Happy Mother’s Day to all of you amazing, do-it-all moms out there!
I’m a man, so I obviously have no first-hand experience as a mother. That said, I was raised by a (wonderful) single mother, and have had the pleasure of watching my wife be an awesome mom to our three daughters. Those experiences have shaped my impressions of motherhood. To me, motherhood means being kind, but honest. Being gentle, but strong. Being nurturing, but encouraging independence. Motherhood is letting your kids think you are ten feet tall and bulletproof, so they feel you can keep them safe — even though there’s stuff out there that scares the hell out of you. It’s encouraging your kids to learn new things and to work their butts off in school, without making them feel stupid. Motherhood is leading by example when it comes to telling right from wrong, and showing your kids which battles are worth fighting. And, when the time comes, motherhood is letting go of the reins to see where the kids go on their own. Motherhood is not for wimps.
The greatest realization of motherhood for me was that the children we have are people of their own, not “our” children or some kind of nutty, messy, screaming, demanding “other” invading our space, disrupting our lives, and taking our precious time. They are people I love to have around me because they make me laugh, they bring out the teacher in me (not hard to do), they are cool and interesting and imaginative and fun, and each of them (I have three) is a complete individual with a unique personality, outlook, potential, talent, and beautiful, beautiful face that I love to see every day. Just as I choose to spend time with others whom I love, respect, admire, and laugh with, I choose to do the same with my children. That said, I also still have what I had before my children arrived–a happy, full busy life with a partner to whom I seem to grow closer every day, and work that I love. Thanks to my children, I’ve got something even more–three more wonderful people added to my life whom I am deeply delighted and, frankly, honored to know. As Bill Murray’s character in Lost in Translation observes, “They learn how to walk and they learn how to talk… and you want to be with them. And they turn out to be the most delightful people you will ever meet in your life.”
Motherhood is humbling. Of all the endeavors I have tackled in my life, never have I wanted so badly to get everything right and yet known that I would not. Never have I been so emotionally invested in the results, so exhausted by the labor of it, and also, so strangely confident that it will turn out OK. It is the most human thing I have ever done.
For men whose ideas of fatherhood were shaped in large part by its absence in our own lives, motherhood may mean something a bit different. I’m by no means a scholar, but I’ve had the opportunity to speak often and at length with women across the globe on this topic, and to curate their thoughts a bit. These women talk about the feeling of connection to their children they know no one else has. They describe the magic of watching their little ones narrate the moments of discovery in their lives. They talk about how their children “complete the circle” and teach them the other side of unconditional love. They help you understand why people invoke the lioness or the grizzly when describing the protective instinct.
My perspective of motherhood is a lot like that last sentiment – it’s the unyielding power that rises up in you when you realize a little person depends on you for everything. I know that many men step up when left in that situation – I’ve seen it first-hand – but I suspect the feeling is different for women because this little person actually came from you, is an extension of you, is connected to you in ways no man will ever fully understand.
When I think of motherhood, I think of unconditional love. It’s what my mother gave to me, and it’s what I expect I would feel for the children I don’t intend to have. My mother made countless sacrifices for me, but she was independent and did not allow motherhood to define her. She has always encouraged me to be my own person and chase my own dreams. She didn’t want me to feel constrained by gender roles. I feel fortunate to live in a time when motherhood is a choice, not an obligation. I admire my peers who have chosen to have kids, but I’m content to enjoy the rich mother-daughter relationship I have with my mom without feeling obliged to replicate it.
Carin Bondar, Blogger and Filmmaker for Scientific American, the David Suzuki Foundation and Huffington Post, @drbondar
As a working mother of 4 very young children, I don’t have much time to reflect on much – this stage of my life is pretty much dedicated to surviving. I do know that once I decided that I really wanted to start having children (when I was almost finished my PhD) – my life seemed oddly empty. It was as though I realized that something tremendous was missing and I became completely obsessed with wanting them. Now that I have them (yes all 4 of them!) there are many times when I feel completely overwhelmed and exhausted, but I will always remember the feelings of desire to have a family. I know that my life would be empty and incomplete without my lovely babies.
Jeanne Garbarino, Biology Editor at Double X Science and Rockefeller University Postdoc, @JeanneGarb
For five years, I have been a mother. I have learned – and am still learning – some very difficult lessons on time management and prioritization, on choosing my battles wisely, and on being ok when things aren’t exactly perfect (or even decent). But, to be honest, these are all lessons I really needed to have in my life. Though it might seem a bit counterintuitive, the mostly delightful chaos associated with rearing my girls has given me more focus. For me, motherhood is more of a state of being, and it has helped me learn how to not sweat the small stuff (for the most part), to be more mindful of the present, and to think more about the future. Oh, and motherhood also gives me that special golden ticket to buy really cool games and toys (because who isn’t interested in seeing what Doggie Doo is all about), as well as provides a dependable companion for roller coaster rides.
Motherhood had made me stand in my living room as my kids run around me and think how odd it is that I protect these three little persons. Motherhood has made me weep at the sight of children hurt or hungry; has made me rageful at a world where monsters are free; has made me face my own capacity for anger; and it has graced me with random gifts like hysterical laughter over blueberry waffles at the breakfast table.
It’s tempting to cast the role of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) as one of struggles and battles because of their sex, rather than as one of contributions because of their minds. But for Women’s History Month and this Diversity in Science Carnival #14, our focus is the role of women in the enterprise of STEM. There’s more to a woman than her sex and her struggles in science–there is, after all, the enormous body of work women have contributed to science.
Our history is ongoing, but we can start with a look back. Thanks to the efforts of the Smithsonian Institution Archives, we can put faces to the names of some of the female STEMmers of history. In a presentation of photographs in an 8 by 9 space, we can see the images of 72 women who contributed to the enterprise of STEM, many of them involved with the Smithsonian in some capacity. As their clothes and the dates on the photos tell us, these women were doing their work in a time when most women didn’t even wear pants.
Some are Big Names–you’ve probably heard of Marie Curie. But others are like many of us, women working in the trenches of science, contributing to the enterprise of STEM in ways big and small. Women like Arlene Frances Fung, whose bio tells us she was born in Trinidad, went to medical school in Ireland, and by 1968 was engaged in chromosome research at a cancer institute in Philadelphia. From Trinidad to cancer research, her story is one of the millions we could tell about women’s historical contributions to science, if only we could find them all. But here there are 72, and we encourage you to click on each image, look at their direct gazes, ponder how their interest in science and knowledge trumped the heavy pressures of social mores, and discover the contributions these 72 women made, each on her own “little two inches wide of ivory.”
For more on historical and current women in science, you can also see Double X Science’s “Notable Women in Science” series, curated by Adrienne Roehrich.
And then there are the women STEMmers of today, who likely are, according to blogger Emma Leedham writing at her blog Pipettes and Paintbrushes, still underpaid. Leedham also mulls here what constitutes a role model for women–does it require being both a woman and a scientist, or one or the other?
Laurel L. James
Laurel L. James, writing at the University of Washington blog for the school’s SACNAS student chapter, answers with her post, “To identify my role as a woman in science: I must first honor my mother, my family and my past.” Her mother was the first “Miss Indian America,” and Laurel is a self-described non-traditional student at the school, where she is a graduate student in forest resources. She traces her journey to science, one that involved role models who were not scientists but who, as she writes, showed her “how to hang onto the things that are important with the expectation of getting something in return all the while, persevering and knowing who you are; while walking with grace and dignity.” I’d hazard that these words describe many a woman who has moved against the currents of her society to contribute something to the sciences.
A great site, Steminist.com, which features the “voices of women in science, tech, engineering, and math,” runs a series of interviews with modern-day STEMmers, including Double X Science’s own Jeanne Garbarino, and Naadiya Moosajee, an engineer and cofounder of South African Women in Engineering. You can follow Naadiya on Twitter here. Steminist is also running their version of March Madness, except that in honor of Women’s History Month, we can choose “Which historical women in STEM rock (our) world.” The 64 historical STEMinists in the tourney are listed here and include Emily Warren Robling (left), who took over completion of the Brooklyn Bridge when her husband’s health prevented his doing so; she is known as the first woman field engineer. Double X Science also has a series about today’s women in science, Double Xpression, which you can find here.
Today, you can find a woman–or many women–in STEM just about anywhere you look, whether it is as a government scientist at NOAA like Melanie Harrison, PhD, or at NASA. It hasn’t always been that way, and it can still be better. But women have always been a presence in STEM. In the 18thand 19th centuries, astronomer Caroline Herschellabored away through the dark hours of just about every night of her adult life, tracking the night sky. Today, women continue these labors, and STEM wouldn’t be what it is today without women like Herschel willing to stay up all night with the skies or spend days on end in the field or lean over a microscope for hours just to add a tiny bit more to what we know about our world and our universe.
For women in science, we’re there–at night, in the lab, in the field–because we love science. But as the non-science role models seem to tell us, we stick to it–and can stick with it–because we had role models in and out of science who showed us that regardless of our goals, our attitudes and willingness to move forward in spite of obstacles are really what drive us to success in STEM careers. Among the links I received for this carnival was one to Science Club for Girls, which is sponsoring a “Letter to My Young Self” roundup for Women’s History Month. The letters I’ve read invariably have that “stick with it” message, but one stood out for me, and I close with a quote from it.
It’s a letter by Chitra Thakur-Mahadik, who earned her PhD in biochemistry and hemoglobinopathy from the University of Mumbai and served as staff scientist a Mumbai children’s hospital for 25 years. She wrote to her younger, “partially sighted” self that, “The future is ahead and it is not bad!” She goes on to say, “Be fearless but be compassionate to yourself and others… be brave, keep your eyes and ears open and face the world happily. What if there are limitations? Work through them with awareness. —Yours, Chitra”
Links and resources for women in STEM, courtesy of D.N. Lee
Stay tuned for the April Diversity in Science Carnival #15: Confronting the Imposter Syndrome. This topic promises to resonate for many groups in science. I’m pretty sure we’ve all felt at least of twinge of imposter syndrome at some point in our education and careers. Your editor for this carnival will be the inimitable Scicurious, who blogs at Scientific American and Scientopia.
UPDATE: Carnival #15 is now available! Go read about imposter syndrome, why it happens, who has it, and what you can do about it.
It’s not easy being green. First, you have decide which green to be. (Source)
[We at Double X Science had been considering a “toxins” post but then found the following post by Jennifer Mo, a happily childfree vegetarian who lives in California with a cat named Brie but variously nicknamed Walnut “for her brain capacity” or Toxokitty for her history of toxoplasmosis–which, as it turns out, turns up in Jennifer’s guest post, below. This post first appeared at Jennifer’s blog, It’s Not Easy to Be Green, where she writes about environmental issues as a “rationalist and a pragmatist.” You can also follow Jennifer on Twitter @noteasy2begreen. We appreciated the pragmatics of this particular post quite a bit and thank Jennifer for allowing us to host it at Double X Science. We are particularly taken with the fact that she asks if we’d ever wanted to call our own brain a troglodyte.]
It’s a common demand from the public to scientists: prove to us something is safe before unleashing your monster on the world. And on one hand, it’s a totally fair, reasonable request to not be treated as lab rats. I get that. I hate the idea of having big chemical corporations profiting off their creations that create long term problems for ordinary people and the environment. On the other, whether you’re talking about GMOs or synthetic chemicals, it’s a problematic request for a couple of key reasons:
It assumes a binary between safe and unsafe without regard to exposure level or other circumstances. Just about everything can be harmful under the right (or perhaps I should say wrong?) conditions. Take water, for example.TonsContinue reading →
Today’s guest post (originally posted here) is from Katie Hinde, an Assistant Professor in Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. Katie studies how variation in mother’s milk influences infant development in rhesus monkeys. You can learn more about Katie and mammalian lactation by visiting her blog, Mammals Suck… Milk!. Follow Katie on Twitter @Mammals_Suck.
Milk is everywhere. From the dairy aisle at the grocery store to the explosive cover of the Mother’s Day issue of Time magazine, the ubiquity of milk makes it easy to take for granted. But surprisingly, milk synthesis is evolutionarily older than mammals. Milk is even older than dinosaurs. Moreover, milk contains constituents that infants don’t digest, namely oligosaccharides, which are the preferred diet of the neonate’s intestinal bacteria (nom nom nom!) And milk doesn’t just feed the infant, and the infant’s microbiome; the symbiotic bacteria are IN mother’s milk.
Evolutionary Origins of Lactation
The fossil record, unfortunately, leaves little direct evidence of the soft-tissue structures that first secreted milk. Despite this, paleontologists can scrutinize morphological features of fossils, such as the presence or absence of milk teeth (diphyodonty), to infer clues about the emergence of “milk.” Genome-wide surveys of the expression and function of mammary genes across divergent taxa, and experimental evo-devo manipulations of particular genes also yield critical insights. As scientists begin to integrate information from complementary approaches, a clearer understanding of the evolution of lactation emerges.
In his recent paper, leading lactation theorist Dr. Olav Oftedal discusses the ancient origins of milk secretion (2012). He contends the first milk secretions originated ~310 million years ago (MYA) in synapsids, a lineage ancestral to mammals and contemporaries with sauropsids, the ancestors of reptiles, birds, and dinosaurs. Synapsids and sauropsids produced eggs with multiple membrane layers, known as amniote eggs. Such eggs could be laid on land. However, synapsid eggs had permeable, parchment-like shells and were vulnerable to water loss. Burying these eggs in damp soil or sand near water resources- like sea turtles do- wasn’t an option, posits Oftedal. The buried temperatures would have likely been too cold for the higher metabolism of synapsids. But incubating eggs in a nest would have evaporated water from the egg. The synapsid egg was proverbially between a rock and a hard place: too warm to bury, too permeable to incubate.
Ophiacodon by Dmitri Bogdanov
Luckily for us, a mutation gave rise to secretions from glandular skin on the belly of the synapsid parent. This mechanism replenished water lost during incubation, allowing synapsids to lay eggs in a variety of terrestrial environments. As other mutations randomly arose and were favored by selection, milk composition became increasingly complex, incorporating nutritive, protective, and hormonal factors (Oftedal 2012). Some of these milk constituents are shunted into milk from maternal blood, some- although also present in the maternal blood stream- are regulated locally in the mammary gland, and some very special constituents are unique to milk. Lactose and oligosaccharides (a sugar with lactose at the reducing end) are two constituents unique to mammalian milk, but are interestingly divergent among mammals living today.
Illustration by Carl Buell
Mammalian and Primate Divergences: Milk Composition
Among all mammals studied to date, lactose and oligosaccharides are the primary sugars in milk. Lactose is synthesized in mammary glands only. Urashima and colleagues explain that lactose synthesis is contingent on the mammalian-specific protein alpha-lactalbumin (2012). Alpha-lactalbumin is very similar in amino-acid structure to C-type lysozyme, a more ancient protein found throughout vertebrates and insects. C-type lysozyme acts as an anti-bacterial agent. Oligosaccharides are predominant in the milks of marsupials and egg-laying monotremes (i.e. the platypus), but lactose is the most prevalent sugar in the milk of most placental (aka eutherian) mammals. Interestingly, the oligosaccharides in the milk of placental mammals are most similar to the oligosaccharides in the milk of monotremes. Unique oligosaccharides in marsupial milk emerged after the divergence of placental mammals.
Marsupial and monotreme young seemingly digest oligosaccharides. Among placental mammals, however, young do not have the requisite enzymes in their stomach and small intestine to utilize oligosaccharides themselves. Why do eutherian mothers synthesize oligosaccharides in milk, if infants don’t digest them?
In May, Anna Petherick’s post “Multi-tasking Milk Oligosaccharides” revealed that oligosaccharides serve a number of critical roles for supporting the healthy colonization and maintenance of the infant’s intestinal microbiome. Beneficial bacterial symbionts contribute to the digestion of nutrients from our food. Just as importantly, they are an essential component of the immune system, defending their host against many ingested pathogens. The structures of milk oligosaccharides have been described for a number of primates, including humans, and data are now available from all major primate clades; strepsirrhines (i.e. lemurs), New World monkey (i.e. capuchin), Old World monkey (i.e. rhesus), and apes (i.e. chimpanzee).
Among all non-human primates studied to date, Type II oligosaccharides are most prevalent (Type II oligosaccharides contain lacto-N-biose I). Type I oligosaccharides (containing N-acetyllactosamine) are absent, or in much lower concentrations than Type II(Taufik et al. 2012).
In human milk, there is a much greater diversity and higher abundance of milk oligosaccharides than found in the milk of other primates. Most primate taxa have between 5-30 milk oligosaccharides; humans have ~200. Even more astonishingly, humans predominantly produce Type I oligosaccharides, the preferred food of the most prevalent bacterium in the healthy human infant gut- Bifidobacteria (Urashima et al 2012, Taufik et al. 2012).
Human infants have bigger brains and an earlier age at weaning than do our closest ape relatives. Many anthropologists have hypothesized that constituents in mother’s milk, such as higher fat concentrations or unique fatty acids, underlie these differences in human development. But only oligosaccharides, a constituent that the human infant does not itself utilize, are demonstrably derived from our primate relatives (Hinde and Milligan 2011). At some point in human evolution there must have been strong selective pressure to optimize the symbiotic relationship between the infant microbiome and the milk mothers synthesize to support it. The human and Bifidobacteria genomes show signatures of co-evolution, but the selective pressures and their timing remain to be understood.
Vertical Transmission of Bacteria via Milk
In the womb, the infant is largely protected from maternal bacteria due to the placental barrier. But upon birth, the infant is confronted by a teeming microbial milieu that is both a challenge and an opportunity. The first inoculation of commensal bacteria occurs during delivery as the infant passes through the birth canal and is exposed to a broad array of maternal microbes. Infants born via C-section are instead, and unfortunately, colonized by the microbes “running around” the hospital. But exposure to the mother’s microbiome continues long after birth. Evidence for vertical transmission of maternal bacteria via milk has been shown in rodents, monkeys(Jin et al. 2011), humans(Martin et al. 2012), and… insects.
A number of insects have evolved the ability to rely on nutritionally incomplete food sources. They are able to do so because bacteria that live inside their cells provide what the food does not. These bacteria are known as endosymbionts and the specialized cells the host provides for them to live in are called bacteriocytes. For example, the tsetse fly has a bacterium, Wigglesworthia glossinidia,* that provides B vitamins not available from blood meals. Um, if you are squeamish, don’t read the previous sentence.
*I submit the tsetse fly and its bacterial symbiont (Wigglesworthia glossinidia) for consideration as the number one mutualism in which the common name of the host and the Latin name of the bacteria are awesome to say out loud! Bring on your challenger teams.
Hosokawa and colleagues recently revealed the Russian nesting dolls that are bats (Miniopterus fuliginosus), bat flies (Nycteribiidae), and endosymbiotic bacteria (proposed name Aschnera chenzii)(2012). Bat flies are the obligate ectoparasites of bats (Peterson et al. 2007). They feed on the blood of their bat hosts, and for nearly their entire lifespan, bat flies live in the fur of their bat hosts. Females briefly leave their host to deposit pupae on stationary surfaces within the bat roost.
Bat flies are even more crazy amazing because they have a uterus and provide MILK internally through the uterus to larva! Male and female bat flies have endosymbiotic bacteria living in bacteriocytes along the sides of their abdominal segments (revealed by 16S rRNA). Additionally, females host bacteria inside the milk gland tubules, “indicating the presence of endosymbiont cells in milk gland secretion”.
The authors are not yet certain of the specific nutritional role that these bacterial endosymbionts play in the bat fly host. The bacteria may provide B vitamins, as other bacterial symbionts of blood-consuming insects are known to do. My main question is what is the exact role of the bacteria in the milk gland tubules? Are they there to add nutritional value to the milk for the larva, to stowaway in milk for vertical transmission to larva, or both?
The studies described above represent new frontiers in lactation research. The capacity to secrete “milk” has been evolving since before the age of dinosaurs, but we still know relatively little about the diversity of milks produced by mammals today. Even less understood are the consequences and functions of various milk constituents in the developing neonate. Despite the many unknowns, it is increasingly evident that mother’s milk cultivates the infant’s gut bacterial communities in fascinating ways. A microbiome milk-ultivation, if you will, that has far reaching implications for human development, nutrition, and health. Integrating an evolutionary perspective into these newly discovered complexities of milk dynamics allows us to reimagine the world of “dairy” science.
Hosokawa et al. 2012. Reductive genome evolution, host-symbiont co-speciation, and uterine transmission of endosymbiotic bacteria in bat flies. ISME Journal. 6: 577-587
Jin et al. 2011. Species diversity and abundance of lactic acid bacteria in the milk of rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta). J Med Primatol. 40: 52-58
Martin et al. 2012. Sharing of Bacterial Strains Between Breast Milk and Infant Feces. J Hum Lact. 28: 36-44
Oftedal 2012. The evolution of milk secretion and its ancient origins. Animal. 6: 355-368.
Peterson et al. 2007. The phylogeny and evolution of hostchoice in the Hippoboscoidea(Diptera) as reconstructed using fourmolecularmarkers. Mol Phylogenet Evol. 45 :111-22
Taufik et al. 2012. Structural characterization of neutral and acidic oligosaccharides in the milks of strepsirrhine primates: greater galago, aye-aye, Coquerel’s sifaka, and mongoose lemur. Glycoconj J. 29: 119-134.
Urashima, Fukuda, & Messer. 2012. Evolution of milk oligosaccharides and lactose: a hypothesis. Animal. 6: 369-374.