Category Archives: Science

BPA Links to Infertility

When the fertility doctor broke the news to us that my husband was struggling with his fertility, our first question was, “What’s causing it?” We wanted to know how we ended up there, and whether something could be done to solve the issue. The doctor explained that rarely do families determine the actual cause of infertility issues. A few expensive tests (often not covered by health insurance) are available to check the function of a woman’s reproductive system, but for most people who suffer through it, no explanation is found and doctors are left to simply treat the symptoms with fertility drugs or, as in our case, suggest the use of egg and/or sperm donors and adoption.

My first instinct was to suspect chemical exposure through his job as an auto technician. He’s touched and breathed an array of toxic chemicals over more than 25 years to maintain other people’s cars. My initial assumption was part of a culturally pervasive idea that increases in infertility could be due in part to subtle exposure to toxic chemicals in our environment.

One industrial chemical (and subsequent environmental pollutant), Bisphenol-A (BPA), found in hard plastics and known as an estrogen-disruptor and for its negative effects on the heart and central nervous system, has also recently been linked to changes in immune response within the uterus. Because of its chemical similarity to the hormone estradiol in the body, BPA binds to proteins meant to interact with estradiol.

Many Washingtonians are familiar with BPA because it was part of a phased ban in Washington State in 2010. By July 1, 2012, no one can make or sell reusable sports bottles, sippy cups, or baby bottles containing BPA in the state. Last year, Oregon considered a similar ban that would also add baby formula containers to the list along with warning labels to consumers.

New research in the March Journal of Reproductive Toxicology shows that mice exposed to BPA in their food can experience bacterial infections in the uterus (pyometra), a condition observed in cats and dogs.

Whether a causal link exists between BPA and human uterine infertility is too soon to tell. The study focused on pathological changes and not fertility rates and uterine changes due to BPA exposure haven’t been scientifically demonstrated in humans. However, this research will continue the scientific quest to understand what role subtle environmental exposures have on human fertility rates. My guess is that once the data are finally in, the list of toxic chemicals effecting fertility will be much longer than we ever suspected.

Our Brethren: The Chimpanzee

When I decided to be Snooki for Halloween two years ago, I started watching episodes of The Jersey Shore. Originally, I wanted to perfect the costume and the accent, perhaps emulate some of her mannerisms. I was very happy with how my costume turned out (below). But once Halloween was over, I missed watching the show and I couldn’t figure out why exactly, or for that matter, why reality TV has been so successful over recent years compared to scripted shows.

I think I’ve figured out at least one reason. In sensational reality TV, whether the characters are eating unusual insects, competing to be the last person on an island, discovering paternity on Jerry Springer, or fighting in a club on the Jersey Shore, we see our ancient selves in them, our wildest nature, a more instinctual lifestyle that many of us have abandoned for more refined and civil decorum. We see the lifestyle of our ancient brethren, with whom we share 96% of our DNA, the chimpanzee.

But what makes these shows so appealing to us is that these people are living the wilder life, a life full of emotions and feelings that we still possess and feel with animal intensity, but most of us win the struggle to suppress them.

As exhibit A, I present a short clip from a BBC Wildlife documentary on chimp behavior, showing a male display of authority and dominance.

Exhibit B is a clip from the reality TV series The Jersey Shore, filming in Italy. Mike, The Situation, is fed up with Ronnie’s behavior.

I was reminded of the similarities between us and the chimpanzees when I saw this article today at Science Daily News, about how chimpanzees have policemen within their groups to help maintain social order. My first thought was, of course they do. They probably also have twenty other cultural role similarities that haven’t even occurred to us before.

As you might have heard, Snooki is now engaged and with child. She said she won’t spend the summer at the Jersey Shore because, “those days are over.” Being pregnant and engaged is changing her behavior. I haven’t looked yet, but I bet I can find a chimpanzee nature show or article that asserts that female chimpanzees participate in fewer risky behaviors when pregnant. If you find one, please do let me know.

What do you think of reality TV? Do you see any connections to your own primal nature? Which wild shows are your favorite vices? I’d love to hear your comments.

More Fertility Help On the Horizon

Although the authors of a new Swedish study suggest it will be ten years before this technology is available to the public, a new molecule Cdk1 has been discovered that can help the maturation of mammalian eggs.

Women whose bodies are unable to produce mature eggs can not currently be helped by in vitro Fertilization (IVF).

With the success rates for fertility treatments growing steadily via discovery of new technologies and greater understanding, the term “struggling with infertility” might soon become a faint memory.

Dr. Seuss Must Be Rolling

I don’t usually watch TV commercials. I have a DVR and generally fast forward through them. I LOVE movies and I respect the artistry involved in film making, including an especially creative commercial, but I also think of most commercials as subliminal messages that whisper, “You’re not good enough unless you own this (look like this, etc.).”

Last night, when the kids made me stop fast forwarding so they could watch an ad for the new movie, The Lorax, but instead we discovered a car commercial, I was sure that Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel) must be rolling over in his urn.

There he was, the modern cartoon Lorax, romping through a car commercial in an untouched Truffula forest, without a hint of irony. While searching for a clip of the commercial I discovered that several people had beaten me to my rant, including this article, Is the Lorax Really Just Hawking Big SUV’s? at The National Post.

The Lorax has been one of my favorite Dr. Seuss books since I was a budding environmental scientist, collecting frogs at the age of six from the corn field ditch in my back yard. For those of you that are not familiar, Seuss’ classic clearly refers to a bad guy, the Once-ler, in search of fortune, who cuts down every last Truffula tree in the forest to be made into a variety of unneccessary consumer goods, converting the land from fairytale to wasteland, forcing several dependent species to relocate or die. The Lorax has been accused over the years of being “anti-capitalist” and “blatant indoctrination of children,” and perhaps rightly so. But would Dr. Seuss approve of the Lorax appearing in a car commercial, even if that commercial mentions fuel economy?

We can’t ask him, but if you read The Lorax yourself, I think you’ll agree that this beloved author would be very disappointed. Why couldn’t the Lorax appear in commercials for taking the bus or riding bicycles, for energy conservation, or alternative energy like solar or wind power? The answer is $$. None of these environmental ventures spend (or can afford) that kind of bank on marketing the way car companies do, so the environmental movement is destined to be helmed by certainly less recognizable and dynamic cartoon characters.

A part of me is really torn on this issue. My grandfathers and my sister worked for car companies in Michigan before the jobs moved to Mexico and other countries. But if I’d written a book with as much staying power and clear message as The Lorax, leaving it behind among my greatest works for the world to appreciate some twenty years after my death, only to have its core message and ideals polluted (pun intentional) for financial gain, I think my ghost would haunt these folks who truly missed my point with Paranormal Activity proportions.

I will definitely watch the newest remake of The Lorax with my kids, at home on DVD, where we can fast forward through the commercials (for things other than movies that now grace even DVDs), and pause to discuss the global significance of Seuss’ story. Is it brainwashing? You betcha. Just like learning about Dr. Martin Luther King’s message. If we don’t learn from our past mistakes and make better choices in the future, we won’t have any natural resources left to fight over.

But please, don’t take my word for it. Reread The Lorax and decide for yourself.

Further reading:

NPR blog post The Lorax Speaks for the SUV’s

The Washington Post The Lorax Helps Market Mazda SUVs to Elementary School Children Nationwide

IVF Success Rate Increasing

According to this article at FoxNews.com, a new method has been developed that could increase in vitro Fertilization (IVF) success rates from 32-35% to 45%. The new method uses incubators in the handling process to maintain eggs and embryos in conditions similar to those in a woman’s body.

One might think, “Of course, why didn’t they think of that sooner?” But working with microscopic cells in a controlled environment while continuously looking through a microscope is a lot more elaborate and expensive than it might sound. Below is a photo of the standard method without incubators.

This increase in success rate could mean so much to families who choose IVF: fewer disappointments and subsequent attempts equals fewer $$’s spent on those attempts, and potentially shorter backlogs at the doctor’s office.

Yay for the Return of Tree Lobsters!

I blogged a couple of days ago about the invasive species, the Asian Carp, and its potential infiltration into the Great Lakes. Today the Huffington Post shared the rediscovery of tree lobsters, an insect thought to be extinct due to invasion of Australian volcanic islands by the black rat, introduced via ship wreck in 1918.

It’s so very rare to find an organism that we thought was gone forever. Hooray for the potential return of the tree lobster!

Lord Howe Island Stick Insect hatching from Zoos Victoria on Vimeo.

Invasive Carp in the Great Lakes?

Of the many environmental issues we have to consider, invasive species get my attention.

The U.S. Supreme court just failed to take action on a suit requesting measures that would keep invasive Asian carp from entering the Great Lakes water system.

When it’s time to scrutinize a potential Supreme Court appointment, the media and politicians focus on a hotbed of issues like abortion, immigration, and capital punishment. But maybe we need to look more closely at the environmental record of future potential appointees.

I worked in environmental restoration for many years and the downside of that field is when you realize that what you’re working on was pretty avoidable, if we’d only known more, thought first, and/or worked together better.

Spending money and time now to prevent the invasion of such a huge and intricately connected water system would be far less than the effort we’ll expend responding to the invasion over the next 30+ years.

If I’m going to remain the eternal optimist that I am, all I can say is watch for an uptick of environmental job openings in the Midwest over the next 20 years. Maybe we can retrain those unemployed auto workers into carp fisherman? I better finish up here so I can work on the proposal for my new carp cook book?

Instinct and Emotion

I’m a few minutes past 40 and occasionally I look back, playing the hindsight game, and wonder what I might have done differently. Of course, there are lots of little things I would change (hurting other people’s feelings and making a fool of myself float to the top of the list). But one of the bigger choices might be that I would have studied the brain, like the Watson of DNA decoders Watson and Crick. We poorly understand how much (or little) our brains influence human nature, decision-making, and personality.

I can’t help wanting to grasp how our brains influence writing, improv, parenting, relationships, and virtually every other outward expression of our being.

When I struggle with any situation, it’s a swirling battle between my brain and my emotions, but then I think, aren’t my emotions created by my brain? Why such conflict? If our brain is the original source of both, why do they have to battle, why haven’t we evolved to a place where instinct and emotion harmonize, where we respond more like the colony of poorly communicating ants that we are?

This morning I read an article What Can Animals’ Survival Instincts Tell Us About Human Emotion? over at Science Daily about a researcher who is trying to tease out these details.

New York University neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux says that we still don’t understand the complex connection between instinct and emotion and that it will probably be some time before we do. Study in this area is slow. We’ve mapped the human genome and found cures for literally hundreds of diseases, but why do we understand the brain so poorly? It’s because you can’t get a reliable, scientifically verifiable answer out of a guinea pig about how he’s feeling today, and because even us “advanced” humans struggle to accurately interpret our own feelings. Did I freak out about my hubby’s inquiry about money because I was angry? Confused? Afraid? Sad? It was more likely a combination of several of these emotions, and it only took me three days of introspection to think I know.

I’m psyched that scientists who took the path that I did not are working on this, I just hope they solve this great mystery before I’m gone.

Bicycling for Social Change

I haven’t spoken much about my love of bicycling here since I injured my knee last year, but today, thanks to bloggers Cathy Belben and Laural Ringler, I got to see this short documentary about How the Dutch Got Their Bike Paths. One might think they’ve always been there, as a part of their culture, but as this doc mentions, the lanes were fought for by the country’s citizens on behalf of their children’s safety.


I love to cycle, and vastly prefer it over car travel, but I don’t do it as often as I’d like because many of the places I need to go in my moderate-sized progressive town do not offer a safe route for me when my children are in tow.

I think we’re heading in the right direction with alternative transportation, however slowly. So even when that thoughtless cyclist cuts you off in traffic, crosses three lanes without signaling, or makes you late for your appointment, remember to support cyclists for what they do for our community. They conserve oil and protect our air quality, they improve the physical health of our community and decrease traffic, and they are safer for our children than vehicles. Lobby for safe biking. There are many ways to get there and cars are only one. Let’s think bigger, together.

Truly Modern Family = Three Parents?

Approaching the stuff of science fiction novels, a January 20 article in UK’s Mail Online by Tamara Cohen reported that a new in vitro Fertilization (IVF) technique could produce embryos within the next two years that are made up of genetic material from three parents.

Graphic from Dawn of the Designer Babies with Three Parents and No Hereditary Diseases by Fiona Macrae, Mail Online, 15 April, 2010.

The article emphasizes that this new approach is meant to help couples conceive without the risk of incurable diseases like muscular dystrophy, but laws in some countries prohibit the use of this technique for ethical reasons.

As a scientist, I find ground-breaking research that can eliminate genetic disease worthy of Nobel consideration. This article reminds me of how we felt when cloning and stem cell research first entered the public consciousness. At first rare and practiced only in controlled settings, these techniques are no longer so mysterious and mystical, but instead something that a good doctor or scientist can learn and do after a few weeks of training. The article rightly focuses on long-term ethical regulation of the technique.

Exactly where is the line and are we even getting close to it? I surely don’t know. We used to call them test-tube babies. We used to think of sex selection as something only done in sci-fi novels, and yet now every fertility specialist in the U.S. has access to these techniques. Right or wrong depends a lot on your point of view. Is it such a leap to think that 30 years from now, we’ll be making TV-ready intellectual super-babies, free of predispositions to diseases and possessing the optimal genetics of Olympic athletes?

Luckily I found this article by Genetic Counselor Allie Janson Hazell from last week, The Myth of the Designer Baby, that made me feel a little better. She, like me, hopes that we’ll never learn to manipulate genes at that level and that even if we do, we won’t actually use the technology in that way.

Of course, knowing how and actually taking the steps are two very different things, but without regulation and the potential for this to become a money-making venture, we can’t be sure some trippy version of this fantasy won’t happen someday.

I’m sure someone out there, as I write this, is working on this as the plot of their new novel. Hmmm, maybe I should be! But how will their novel end?

Let’s hope it ends with the world getting population growth under control, and all the money saved on treatment and management of genetic disease is rerouted toward environmental preservation and restoration. Why not? A girl can dream, right?