BLAST FROM THE PAST
April 15 1947—Jackie Robinson starts for the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field, integrating major league baseball. The UCLA sports standout (the school’s first athlete to letter in baseball, basketball, football and track) and one of the first black U.S. Army Officer Candidate School graduates will go on to play in 6 World Series, average .311, drive in 734 runs, and steal 197 bases by the time he retires in 1957.
1923—This is the date generally cited for the first availability of commercial quantities of insulin for the treatment of diabetes. Eli Lilly’s launch comes after the company makes a breakthrough in scaling up production of product pure enough for injection, following methods pioneered by University of Toronto researchers Frederick Banting, Charles Best, and Clark Noble in 1921 and 1922.
April 19 1928—The Oxford English Dictionary publishes its 125th and last fascicle, completing the first edition, 70 years after the Oxford Philological Society formally committed itself to the plan and 50 years after the inspired monomaniac James Murray was invited to Oxford to discuss taking over the project.
1943—Sandoz chemist Albert Hofmann (1906-2008) accidentally absorbs a transdermal dose of a candidate circulatory stimulant he had first synthesized five years earlier, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). Hofmann will go on to head the natural products department at Sandoz and continue his study of psychotropic compounds, including the synthesis of psilocybin.
April 25 1953—In a trio of papers in Nature, Francis Crick and James D. Watson (“A structure for deoxyribose nucleic acid”); Maurice Wilkins, A.R. Stokes, and H.R. Wilson (“Molecular structure of deoxypentose nucleic acids”); and Rosalind Franklin and R.G. Gosling (“Molecular configuration in sodium thymonucleate”) persuasively describe the double-helical structure of DNA. Watson and Crick’s paper begins, “We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (D.N.A.). This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest,” and closes, “It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.” —Douglas McCormick
SCIENCE REVEALS THE MECHANISMS OF THINGS WE ALWAYS SUSPECTED
What mother knew. Slovenly housekeepers, rejoice. New research supports the 20-year-old “hygiene” hypothesis—that the young immune system requires microbial challenges to remain healthy. Too clean an environment in early life leaves the organism more vulnerable to inflammatory and autoimmune disease later on.
“Microbial exposure during early life has persistent effects on natural killer T cell function,” by Torsten Olszak and colleagues at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (published online by Science, bit.ly/yjpMwW), shows that mice raised in a germ-free environment have unusually large complements of invariant natural killer T-cells (iNKT), which promote inflammation when they sense invading antigens. These germ-free mice are prone to attacks of autoimmune and inflammatory diseases—like the colitis and asthma that afflict humans—while germ-free mice engineered to lack iNKT cells are not. Moving otherwise normal germ-free adults to an everyday, microberich environment did not reduce their iNKT cell populations. But moving pregnant females to a germy environment did guarantee that their pups would be born with lower iNKT populations and a reduced disposition to autoimmune and inflammatory conditions.
Aside from confirming that you really can be too clean and too careful, the results suggest iNKT cells as a target for treatments for those who already have asthma.
What the bartender knows. Drinking to dull the pain of rejection? Blame neuropeptide F—if you’re a fruit fly. Another Science study, by G. Shohat-Ophir and colleagues at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Farm Research Center (bit.ly/wasAT4) shows that Drosophila melanogaster males may drink to drown their sorrows. Given a choice between regular and ethanol-spiked food, male fruit flies who had mated successfully consumed equal amounts of each. Male flies whose attentions had been rejected headed for the bar about two-thirds of the time.
The researchers were examining the molecular biology of the fruit-fly reward systems, tracking the levels of one signaling molecule, neuropepide F (NPF) during the mating cycle. Successful mating boosts NPF levels; rejection depresses NPF (and, presumably, the fly himself). The ethanol-richer diet also increased NPF levels. There was hope, however: when heavy-drinking flies finally succeeded in mating, their alcohol consumption dropped to normal levels. —D.M.
The Riddle of Autism
A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study reports that autism spectrum disorders (ASDs, “developmental disabilities characterized by impairments in social interaction and communication and by restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior”) are on the rise in the U.S. The widely publicized report* indicates that as many as one child in 88—one boy out of every 54 and one girl out of 252—will be identified as having an ASD by age 8. Overall, 11.3 children out of 1,000 were diagnosed with an ASD in 2008—and that rate was up 23% from 2006 and up 78% from 2002 data.
Beyond this growth and boys’ much higher vulnerability, the data show few patterns. The authors do attribute some—but not all—of the increased prevalence to wider awareness and improvements in diagnosis and reporting. And changes in the makeup of the study regions may account for some of the change. But there remain wide and puzzling variations: The two states with the highest reported overall rates are sparsely settled Utah (21.2 cases per 1,000) and the very urban New Jersey (20.3 per 1,000)— but these states differ from others mostly in large numbers of reported cases of ASD with average or above average intelligence. Indeed, Utah reports one of the nation’s lowest rates of ASD among children with IQs lower than 70 (2.4, versus a nationwide average of 4.6 per 1,000). Distributions by age of first diagnosis, IQ, race, and ethnicity all differ markedly from location to location.
“One thing the data tells us with certainty —there are more children and families that need help,” said CDC Director Thomas Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. “We must continue to track autism spectrum disorders because this is the information communities need to guide improvements in services to help children.” —D.M.
*Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network Surveillance Year 2008 Principal Investigators (2011). Prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorders—Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, 14 Sites, United States, 2008. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://1.usa.gov/HlH9rk.
Thimk (sic): Bad Ideas in Advertising
Quick (Negative) Response Codes. Granted, most places in the U.S. do not have extensive subway systems—but major population centers do. So we keep wondering about underground ads that prominently feature QR codes—even though there are no cell-phone signals down there to let viewers connect if they click. Sure, you can always take a photo and then load the image into Google Goggles (or whichever recognition app you use) when you’re above ground—but doesn’t that assume a level of forethought and interest at odds with the medium?
These musings led us to designer Brad Frost’s tumblr collection (wtfqrcodes.com) of badly thought-out QR code applications. The rogues’ gallery features QR codes on highway signs, on bus bumpers, in the middle of busy intersections, and on flags flapping two stories above the street. There are codes on tombstones, and codes that lead you back to the page you were already viewing. There is even one QR code that lets you know you cannot open this page on your phone, but need to go to a laptop to open the page so you can see the QR code for the mobile device you are currently using.
Puckering Posters. But there are further frontiers of marketing perversity. Gizmodo picked up an interactive video poster developed by researchers at Japan’s Keio University: it uses ultrasound sensors to gauge the viewer’s proximity and modify a spokesmodel’s video image so that she or he can react as the viewer leans in for a kiss—presumably by smooching back. —D.M.