ToxSquad Outreach Blog
Issues in Environmental Health, Current events, and cutting edge research
Issues in Environmental Health, Current events, and cutting edge research
By Danielle Love Cucchiara and Alexis Wormington
In the digital age, information is shared across the world with just one click. Facilitated by the world-wide web, ideas are proposed, discussed, and spread globally within seconds; a fact that has introduced a new, unprecedented level of collaboration to human society. However, the unlimited availability of information is a double-edged sword, as the spread of information is not always dependent upon its value or truth, but instead by how it is communicated. And often enough, communicators can manipulate or even falsify information to achieve a purpose. Some of the most valuable information is gathered through scientific discovery; and, unfortunately, this information is often the target of deceptive communication.
The internet is riddled with ads claiming lavender oil or shark cartilage can cure cancer. There are anti-vaccination parties where parents take their children to the home of a child with chickenpox or measles, intentionally trying to infect them. There are large, vocal groups of people who do not believe in scientifically verified concepts such as climate change and a round earth. Companies are making millions selling “health” products that are unregulated and scientifically unverified. All these ideas are shared and supported through the spread of scientific-sounding information – not all of which is accurate or even true.
There is wealth of misleading or blatantly false information out there posing as science, leading to real-life, substantial consequences. For example, nutritional and herbal supplements, which are often advertised as “safe” and “natural” even though they are unregulated, are responsible for around 23,000 emergency room visits and 2000 hospitalizations annually. Another example of the harm caused by misleading science is the re-emergence of preventable diseases, such as measles, due to the “supposed” controversy surrounding vaccinations. The vaccines controversy originated from a retracted paper published in 1998 that falsely claimed that the MMR vaccine was associated with autism – a claim based on falsified data and an experiment conducted by a discredited physician with a huge financial conflict of interest. Although the paper’s “findings” are widely disregarded by the scientific and medical communities, all it took was the support of the charismatic, non-scientist celebrity Jenny McCarthy to get the anti-vaccination movement rolling in 2007. Despite the scientific support and success of vaccination programs, physicians are seeing more parents who ignore medical advice and refuse to vaccinate their children – a problem with no easy solution except to continue educating the public and addressing the concerns of parents in a respectful way.
Communicating effectively with a general audience is a learned skill that academics do not always have the time or resources to develop. Researchers tend to take the logical approach to convey a message, reporting only facts and neglecting to consider the emotions, beliefs, and culture of those receiving the information. This has created a disconnect between scientists and those who do not have scientific training. The archetype of the cold, calculating scientist and of the ivory tower elitist exists, and unsurprisingly, many people believe that it’s accurate. With Scott Pruitt (a non-scientist, former lobbyist for big oil companies) running the Environmental Protection Agency, vacant research positions throughout the federal government, cuts to federal research funding, and a decreasing number of scientifically literate legislators in Washington, researchers can’t afford to stay in our towers any longer. Scientists must become better at communicating the importance and role of their research in the lives of regular people. The question is: How?
The Oxford Dictionary chose “post-truth” as their 2016 word of the year. The definition: Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. Attacking people with only data and complicated terminology does not work; in fact, people tend to think of those with opposing views as morally or intellectually inferior, even when those opposing views are factually correct. So, if a full-frontal fact attack doesn’t accomplish an efficient exchange of information, then it’s time to investigate some alternative strategies. During a seminar entitled The Counter Intuitive Nature of Effective Science Communication, Dr. Kevin Folta, a professor and chairman of the horticultural sciences department at the University of Florida, discussed ways to better communicate scientific information to concerned citizens. Rather than pelting them with facts, Dr. Folta suggested listening to the audience, ensuring them that their concerns are important, and trying to relate to them on a more personal level.
Something to consider during the exchange of information is the amount of trust and respect between the two parties. The truth is, the public has a more negative view of the role science in society than it did ten years ago. It is clear that scientists need to try harder to foster trust and respect with the public, but doing so is easier said than done. Many of the issues facing the country affect people on a personal level, and so it may be effective to connect with people personally when discussing these issues from a scientific perspective. The mother of three listening to a presentation on food safety doesn’t care about p-values or bar graphs, she cares about the health and well-being of herself and her family. Empathy is the key here – scientists should try to listen to the concerns of the public, understand where they’re coming from, and show them that their concerns matter. Additionally, scientists should try a little harder to break the bubble of academia that metaphorically separates them from regular society, and emphasize the fact that they are just people, just trying to contribute to society world– like everyone else. Scientists, like everyone else, have values and things that they feel passionately about. Express that passion – it makes scientists more approachable when they care, and can communicate that with compassion and enthusiasm.
Another issue faced by the scientific community is that the public and scientists differ widely in their opinions on scientific topics. This issue, while likely influenced by several factors from media coverage to social circles, is not helped by the way that scientists are currently trained to communicate their work. Explaining a complicated topic scientific jargon may be effective for communicating within an academic circle, but is likely not an efficient way to relay information to the public. Dr. Marshall Shepherd, Director of Atmospheric Sciences Program at the University of Georgia, suggests the use of analogy or metaphor in lieu of hard data. Scientists are trained to discuss all of the details, but Dr. Shepherd advises getting straight to the point and to avoid oversharing. His take-home tips are to stick to 3 topics and keep the message memorable, meaningful, and miniature.
Going forward, it is of the utmost importance to teach young scientists to properly communicate to a layperson audience. A paper published in the Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education in 2013 advocates for the incorporation of formal science communication into university undergraduate and graduate program curricula. Social media is an excellent tool to encourage this sort of communication, and is good way to help introduce researchers to scientific communication. For example, to underscore the importance of learning to communicate our work to the public, Dr. Folta asks his students to present in one publication geared to regular people for every scientific publication they submit.
Scientists have information that is important to everyone, and it is paramount that the general population understands this information so that the members of the public can make informed decisions about their own lives. There is a lot of false or manipulated information out there with the goal of taking advantage of uninformed individuals, influencing policy decisions, or simply pushing an idea. These purveyors of faux-science are appealing to consumers and lawmakers in a different way than scientists do, through the use of emotions and beliefs. If scientists want a voice in this world, and they should, it’s time to move outside of their comfortable boxes of data and facts, reach out to the public, and earn their trust.
By Amanda Buerger
Everyone knows that St. Valentine is the patron saint of lovers (and the namesake of Valentine’s Day), but did you know that he is also the patron saint of beekeepers? Unfortunately, over the past several decades, there has been a drastic decrease in global honeybee populations. In the United States, nearly half of all honeybee colonies died off from April 2015-April 2016 (Figure 1). You may have even noticed the “B’s” missing from your Burt’s Bee’s lip balm lately in an effort to raise awareness for the disappearance of honeybees. So, what is happening?
Researchers have found a link between the decline in honeybee populations and the broad use of a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. Several studies have found that neonicotinoids are toxic to honeybees. One study found that honeybees exposed to these pesticides have altered learning abilities and are less efficient at foraging pollen for their colonies, which has negative impacts on colony growth. Another study found that neonicotinoids impair honeybee motor control and their response to light, which are skills honeybees need to find pollen and carry it back to their colony. Both of these possibilities relate to a reduced ability of bees to harvest pollen, which can lead to colony starvation.
So, why do we care about the honeybees? Honey bees pollinate around 75 crops for us, including apples, avocados and even coffee! A decline in bee populations means a decline in pollination, a vital ecosystem service, and therefore fewer crops, which will make their prices surge and may ultimately contribute to food shortages. It is estimated that insects in the United States, including honey bees, create revenue upwards of $30 billion annually for agriculture.
How can you help? Support your local beekeepers! Instead of buying some flowers for your special someone this Valentine’s Day, get your honey some honey from a local beekeeper!
By Alexis Wormington
Ah, the humble pufferfish. Known for its particularly unique defensive strategy, the pufferfish is likely one the world's most comical marine fish, next to the blobfish (yes, it’s a thing, Google it for a giggle). However, this funny little fish packs a deadly punch – it secretes tetrodotoxin, one of the most potent neurotoxins on the planet!
Tetrodotoxin, although known colloquially as the pufferfish toxin, is actually produced by a variety of marine and even terrestrial animals – not just the pufferfish! It has been found in certain species of octopus, starfish, frogs, and even newts. Although there is some scientific debate regarding the how tetrodotoxin is produced in these species, there is a large amount of new evidence that suggests that these animals accumulate the toxin from gastrointestinal bacteria - the literal definition of a toxic relationship!
Luckily for most of us, it's pretty difficult to be exposed to tetrodotoxin. The animals that produce it tend to mind their own business, so it's an unlikely thing to come across during a casual day at the beach. Most exposures actually occur through the consumption of fugu (pufferfish meat) that has been improperly prepared. However, despite the popularity of fugu in countries like Japan, fugu poisoning is rare and only affects a few people annually. Japanese chefs must be licensed to prepare the dish, and only a handful of restaurants have it on their menu. Additionally, some Japanese companies are raising pufferfish that do not produce the toxin with the hope that more people can consume fugu safely.
Although tetrodotoxin is obviously dangerous in its undiluted form, its neurological effects make it useful for medicinal and research purposes. At very dilute concentrations, it is potentially therapeutic - showing promise for use in pain relief and thought to reduce drug cravings in heroin addicts. Tetrodotoxin is also used extensively in the research of ion channels and organ function., a valuable tool for the field of neuroscience. Just like botulinum toxin (aka Botox), tetrodotoxin has a place in human society as well, and there is still much to learn from it.
By Amanda Buerger, Sara Humes, and Alexis Wormington
One aspect of environmental health revolves around understanding how changes in the environment, whether human or naturally-caused, may impact the health of global populations and ecosystems. Model organisms are non-human species used to understand biological processes in a laboratory setting. Model species should be affordable, easy to keep in a laboratory setting, and an appropriate species to study in the context of the scientific question being asked. In this post we’ll go over three model species that are commonly used in the field of environmental health, why we use them, and their advantages and disadvantages as models.
Daphnia, commonly known as the “water flea”, are a genus of aquatic crustaceans used very commonly in basic toxicological studies. Daphnia species are favored because they are very inexpensive, low maintenance animals with a short life cycle. Since they are invertebrates, the ethical and legal requirements for their use are minimal compared to more complex models, such as non-human primates and rodents. Daphnia are unique because they typically reproduce asexually, meaning all of their offspring are genetically identical to the mother. They can produce over 100 eggs at a time, and reproduce approximately every two days! Because of their rapid and unique life cycle, these organisms are valuable to use in both reproductive studies and toxicity tests. Daphnia studies often provide the foundation for the basic toxicity of chemicals.
Like with any model, using Daphnia comes with its disadvantages. Since Daphnia are invertebrates, their application to human health is very limited, as mammals and invertebrates have vastly different molecular, chemical, and physical processes involved in biological function. Additionally, their brief life cycle makes them impossible to use in long-term studies, which restricts the kinds of questions we can ask and answer using Daphnia as models.
Alternatives to invertebrate and mammalian models are fish, which are generally smaller, cheaper, and easier to care for than rodents, non-human primates, and other higher level models. There are several species of model fish, from tiny minnows, to predatory trout and bass, to one of the most common fish models - zebrafish. While not as closely related to humans as mammals, fish share several characteristics with humans, including conserved biochemical processes in the brain, gastrointestinal system, and cardiovascular system. In the case of the zebrafish, the gut is similar to that of humans, and therefore these fish are used to study diseases related to the intestinal tract, such as obesity and inflammatory diseases. Due to increased funding of studies using zebrafish, this inexpensive model organism is becoming more commonly used in scientific research. Because of their prolific use, the genome of the zebrafish has been sequenced, and scientists are able to utilize this knowledge to create zebrafish that are useful for their studies. Finally, the development of zebrafish is easy to monitor, as the embryos and larvae are transparent.
As with any model, there are limitations to its use. Most fish species experienced a duplication of genes millions of years ago, and therefore generally have two functioning genes for each one human gene. Additionally, there are some other differences between fish and humans, such as the respiratory tract and the presence of two pairs of kidneys in some fish, each with distinct function. Fish are also housed together in tanks, and there is uncertainty as to whether the whole tank should count as one sample or if each fish in a tank should be considered individually. As we understand more about zebrafish, we will be able to evaluate the use of this organism as a model for different human diseases.
The most commonly used and well-established mammalian models in scientific research are the mouse and rat. Compared to other mammalian models, such as non-human primates, livestock, and cats, mouse and rat models are less expensive and easier to house. Some advantages of using mice and rats for toxicological research include their short lifespan, small size (for easier care and housing), short gestation times for large litters, and genetic and biological similarity to humans. Approximately 95% of some 30,000 genes are shared between mice, rats, and humans, resulting in a lot of biological resemblance. This similarity makes rats and mice a good stepping stone between lower models and humans. Additionally, we have fully sequenced the genome of the mouse and rat, making it easier to focus on a particular gene of interest for a research project. Knowing the full genome allows researchers to create genetically engineered rodents that are missing or have an excess of certain genes or proteins to shed light on their function and role in response to toxicological stressors. Research rodents are also bred so that two animals of the same strain are nearly genetically identical, eliminating much of the variability between individual animals.
Despite these advantages, there are some disadvantages to using rodent models. Rodents and humans still have some fundamental differences in physiology, limiting their application to humans in certain cases. For example, rodents cannot cough, so study outcomes related to the respiratory system may be different than those observed in humans. Since rodents are mammals, there are also many more regulations, training, financial resources, and ethical considerations required to work with them compared to non-mammalian models. Regardless, rodents are a well-respected, frequently used model in all areas of scientific research, and their use has led to many scientific advancements.