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Why Americans Still Avoid Msg, Even Though Its ‘Health Effects’ Have Been Debunked

On April 4, 1968, a biomedical researcher wrote a letter that would forever change how America eats. In it, Robert Ho Man Kwok described a strange illness he contracted at Chinese restaurants — specifically those that cooked with the flavoring MSG. MSG was popular in the United States at the time. But when Kwok’s letter hit the New England Journal of Medicine, the ingredient’s fortunes reversed: Consumers spurned it. Food-makers axed it. Scientists threw themselves into critical MSG research. Fifty years later, 4 in 10 U.S. consumers still say they actively avoid MSG, according to the International Food Information Council, an industry-funded nonprofit that advocates for science in nutrition. That’s despite repeat studies that have shown MSG does not produce numbness, weakness or heart palpitations, the symptoms Kwok experienced.

“Sometimes it’s easier to put a ‘free from X’ label on something than to actually educate consumers about it,” said Lisa Watson, the spokeswoman for the Glutamate Association, an MSG trade group. “Personally I wish food companies would take the longer view.” In an effort to push back, Watson and her member companies regularly meet with chefs and nutritionists to talk up the merits of MSG. She has been heartened by statistics that show younger consumers are not quite as adverse to the product as their parents were. She has been glad to see media outlets run debunks of the MSG myth, and celebrity chefs, such as Hugh Acheson and David Chang, vocally embrace the seasoning. The “foodie movement” also has revived interest in cooking that shows off science, said Sarah Tracy, an adjunct professor at UCLA’s Institute for Society and Genetics who will publish a history of MSG this year. While Tracy isn’t entirely willing to give the seasoning her seal of approval — it is being researched for its possible role in promoting weight gain, she points out — she sees other cooks and consumers embracing the seasoning as a sign of their culinary savviness.

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Food for Thought: Was Cooking a Pivotal Step in Human Evolution?

Fireplace, Wood, Fire, Boil Water, Cook, Flame, HeatThe shift to a cooked-food diet was a decisive point in human history. The main topic of debate is when, exactly, this change occurred. All known human societies eat cooked foods, and biologists generally agree cooking could have had major effects on how the human body evolved. For example, cooked foods tend to be softer than raw ones, so humans can eat them with smaller teeth and weaker jaws. Cooking also increases the energy they can get from the food they eat. Starchy potatoes and other tubers, eaten by people across the world, are barely digestible when raw. Moreover, when humans try to eat more like chimpanzees and other primates, we cannot extract enough calories to live healthily. Such evidence suggests modern humans are biologically dependent on cooking. But at what point in our evolutionary history was this strange new practice adopted? Some researchers think cooking is a relatively recent innovation—at most 500,000 years old. Cooking requires control of fire, and there is not much archaeological evidence for hearths and purposefully built fires before this time.

Like all ideas about human evolution, the cooking hypothesis can only be tested indirectly—without a time machine we cannot know exactly what happened in our evolutionary history. But there are several converging pieces of evidence that support Wrangham’s cooking hypothesis.

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What Happens When You Put Evolution on Replay?

A team of scientists from the University of Arizona have engineered an instant replay switch for evolution. The technique, known as ancestral gene resurrection, inserts ancient genes into modern E. coli bacteria. It gives researchers the opportunity to watch evolution unfold again and again, providing insights into how life evolved on early Earth, and what it might potentially look like on other planets. “Organisms can function just fine even when they’ve been engineered with an essential gene that is over 700 million years old,” the study’s lead author Betül Kaçar, an astrobiologist at the University of Arizona, tells Astrobiology Magazine. “This work is a proof of concept. The next questions are: How far back can we go? And would we expect the sequences to evolve and function the same way that they did? Just because sequences are similar doesn’t mean that the gene will function in the same way.”

Kaçar and colleagues published their work in the Journal of Molecular Evolution.

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Complete Genomes of Extinct and Living Elephants Sequenced

Image result for elephantAn international team of researchers has produced one of the most comprehensive evolutionary pictures to date by looking at one of the world’s most iconic animal families — namely elephants, and their relatives mammoths and mastodons-spanning millions of years. The team of scientists-which included researchers from McMaster, the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Harvard Medical School, Uppsala University, and the University of Potsdam-meticulously sequenced 14 genomes from several species: both living and extinct species from Asia and Africa, two American mastodons, a 120,000-year-old straight-tusked elephant, and a Columbian mammoth. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, sheds light on what scientists call a very complicated history, characterized by widespread interbreeding. They caution, however, the behaviour has virtually stopped among living elephants, adding to growing fears about the future of the few species that remain on earth.

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Monkey Vocabulary Decoded

Image result for marmosetsFrom short ‘tsiks’ and ‘ekks’ to drawn-out ‘phees’ — all the sounds produced by marmoset monkeys are made up of individual syllables of fixed length: that is the result of a study by a team of researchers headed by Dr. Steffen Hage of the Werner Reichardt Centre for Integrative Neuro-science (CIN) at the University of Tübingen. The smallest units of vocalization and their rhythmic production in the brain of our relatives could also have been a prerequisite of human speech. The study was just published in Current Biology.

The researchers recorded thousands of instances of the little monkeys’ ‘tsiks’, ‘ekks’ and ‘phees’ in a sound chamber. They interrupted the animals’ natural vocalization with white noise at irregular intervals. The researchers effectively ‘talked over’ the monkeys, causing them to fall quiet. Such a rhythm might be an evolutionary prerequisite on the path to developing true speech. The new study demonstrates that research in marmosets can provide the necessary clues to better understand the origins and properties of human speech — a question that has been much debated in the scientific community.

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New Guide For Finding Genes Linked With Behavior

Scientists interested in finding specific genes that influence the behavior of humans and animals have a new tool, thanks to a two-year research effort aimed at describing how to apply the latest techniques of molecular genomics to the study of complex behavior.  “There’s a really steep learning curve when you get into genomics, and if you’re starting from a place of very little knowledge, it’s incredibly intimidating,” said Sarah Bengston, a Rice University behavioral ecologist and lead author of a new review article about genomic tools for behavioral scientists. “I am the person who needed this paper,” said Bengston, a Huxley Faculty Fellow in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in Rice’s Department of BioSciences. “I needed a novice-level introduction to how genomic tools could help me answer research questions. For example, was my experimental setup an appropriate system to use for genomic sequencing or any kind of molecular techniques? I couldn’t find that kind of reference, so I worked with a group of really smart people to write one.”

The article, which appears online this week in Nature Ecology and Evolution, is designed to guide behavioral scientists from any discipline with specific recommendations about whether genomics tools are appropriate for their research, and if so, which tools are likely to best work in their labs.

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Received An At-Home DNA Test As A Holiday Gift? Proceed With Caution

If you or a family member received a consumer genetic testing kit as a holiday gift, you probably weren’t alone. Sales of at-home DNA testing kits reportedly soared in 2017, as people sought clues to their ancestry or future health. Some genetic-testing companies encouraged the purchase of kits as holiday gifts — even offering free gift wrapping. However, the results from at-home DNA tests are proving problematic for some people, even as the tests’ growing popularity helps to raise public awareness of the link between one’s genetic make-up and their health. “We’ve definitely seen a steady increase in at-home genetic tests and an uptick recently, in part because of the new trend to give these tests as a family gift,” said Wayne Grody, director of the UCLA Molecular Diagnostic Laboratories and Clinical Genomics Center and a professor of pathology, human genetics and pediatrics at the Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “Our genetic clinic gets an increasing number of calls from people who either don’t understand the results or are upset and seeking someone to explain the findings to them.”

Grody notes that at-home DNA tests differ significantly from the much more comprehensive and scientifically rigorous genetic testing that is performed at UCLA’s genomics center. At the center, people undergo a comprehensive analysis and diagnostic interpretation of their entire protein-encoding genome, involving some 20,000 genes, to potentially locate the single DNA change responsible for a person’s disorder. Grody sees some value in the at-home DNA tests. From his experience, he has seen a small number of cases in which use of the tests has led to a quicker diagnosis of a medical condition than would otherwise have happened. “Also these at-home tests have provided a kind of education and stimulation of interest about DNA among people who didn’t have a genetics background in school or who had forgotten it,” he said.

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Flower Or Flesh? Genetics Explain Mosquito Preference

Image result for mosquitoImagine a world in which mosquitoes choose blossoms over blood. Nice, right? There already exists a mosquito species called Wyeomyia smithii in which most of the bugs refuse blood meals in favor of sweet floral nectar. And new research is helping to explain the evolutionary genetics of the switch from blood sucker to flower fanatic. The researchers, including co-lead author David Denlinger of The Ohio State University, expect that all of the mosquitoes in the species once relied on blood for nourishment and that over time, some evolved to prefer plants. He suspects that the majority of the species moved away from blood meals because of the associated risks – risks that include the aggravated patio-sitting human. “Blood meals come at a cost. A person could swat you – even do you in,” Denlinger said. On top of that, the warm meal is a stressor on the mosquito’s body and can contain agents that are toxic to the bug. “If you could survive without taking all those risks, there could be some evolutionary advantages,” Denlinger said.

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