Inspired by this XKCD Up-Goer Five comic (and aided by this Up-Goer Five text-editor), we present two cases of complicated science made… simpler. Science Buffs writers Gretchen Geibel and Aroob Abdelhamid describe their research only using the 1,000 most common English words.
Ten-hundred Word Challenge
Sometimes different parts of your body forget how to talk to each other. Think about the game where you whisper something to one person, then they have to whisper it to someone else, and this keeps going until it gets to the last person. Each person hears the words a little different each time someone whispers them and so at the end, the words don’t make any sense.
Something like this can happen in your body: your body parts can still talk to each other, but the words don’t make any sense. The parts of your body that help you walk and play need to talk to the parts of your body that store the power from your food so that the moving parts can use this power. Sometimes the power-storing parts and the moving parts don’t remember how to talk to each other. This makes people sick, but we don’t know why or how we can make them better.
I use tiny, tiny animals from the ground to study how our moving parts talk to our power-storing parts, or what “words” they use. One by one, we stop the moving parts from “speaking” one word to the power-storing parts. We look at how the power-storing parts change when they don’t “hear” this word, like if they grow bigger or get smaller. This helps us understand why our body parts talk to each other, and how these “conversations” help them work together. If we learn how these parts usually talk to each other when people are not sick, maybe we can figure out how to fix people when these parts aren’t talking to each other right.
We’ve long known that fat tissue is an endocrine organ, communicating with and regulating other tissues and organs in the body. More recently, we’ve begun to appreciate the fact that other tissues such as muscle can talk back to fat tissue. Metabolic changes in muscle can contribute to metabolic dysregulation in fat, and fat metabolic dysfunction is strongly associated with heart disease, diabetes, and other metabolic disorders. Studies on muscle-specific regulators of fat metabolism have been rather sporadic and limited; as such, we still do not know the degree to which muscle signaling regulates fat metabolism and the mechanism(s) of this tissue cross-talk.
To address this problem, I performed a tissue-specific knockdown screen in the worm C. elegans to identify genes expressed in muscle that regulate fat storage. We identified over 100 genes whose knockdown in muscle significantly increases or decreases the amount of fat stored in the animals. Elucidating the mechanism(s) through which muscle regulates fat metabolism will deepen our understanding of both tissue cross-talk as it applies to regulation of fat metabolism and, more broadly, our understanding of muscle’s contribution to metabolic disease.
Ten Hundred Word Challenge
Our air has a lot of things in it. Some of those things can make our world hotter or less clean. We need to know exactly what is in the air to make it clean enough for people. I look at things that comes from animals, people, and even trees. We put these things on our ground to make our trees grow big and strong. The stuff that we look at makes up most of the air in our world, but comes in different forms. Sometimes we forget about it because most of it does not do anything, but some parts change over time and can hurt people. Sometimes it makes it harder to breathe or see because the air is not clean.
Have you ever looked above a city and seen brown air? Then you have seen the hurt that these things can cause! This brown air can make it hard to see and can even make people sick. This brown air is made of really small things that can enter our bodies when we breathe. It can also make our air hotter, like how when you wear a black shirt in the sun you feel hotter than if you wear a white shirt. The brown air is made up of a lot of things, but some of it is the stuff we put on our ground to grow trees.
We have known these things make the brown air worse, but not too long ago we found that these things look different than we thought it would. To find out why, my team and I look at what this stuff does if it runs into other things in the air. I focus on the things that come from the trees and animals that people eat because there are so many in the world now that they give off a lot of stuff that can make our air less clean. I want to see if I can make the new, different-looking stuff that makes air worse and help find where it comes from.
I do this by getting a bag, putting a lot of stuff in that bag, and then use very new and big computers to look at what happens. I have to figure out how much stuff to put in the bag, if the bag has to be hot or cold, or if I need to add water to the air. After I get that right, I look to see if the computer says we made brown air and the different-looking stuff. By knowing how we make it, we know what to change to make less or even stop making it at all. We can also see how it changes the air we breathe and the world we live in so we can do a better job of keeping it clean.
My research focuses on organic nitrogen emissions and their sources, sinks, and chemical transformations in the atmosphere. These nitrogen compounds have been implicated in new particle formation events and the formation of brown carbon. Particles in the atmosphere are known to affect the climate, visibility, and human health. Brown carbon is also important because of its climate warming implications. Brown carbon is a relatively new class of organic carbon that is very much misunderstood but is relatively ubiquitous in the atmosphere.
I specifically look at organic nitrogen in agricultural areas because nitrogen emissions tend to be very high there and particle formation in those areas cannot be fully explained by conventional theories. One of the ways I elucidate the mechanisms of this particle formation is to run chamber and flow tube studies with various amines and other compounds.