TIME Research

Your Home Is Covered In Bacteria

And the bugs you live with are unique to you

If you think your home is a refuge from the gross bacteria of the world, a new study published in Science will burst your antibacterial bubble. Every room in your house teems with bacteria so unique to you and your family that a swab of any room reveals your microbial signature.

Scientists involved in the Home Microbiome Project sequenced bacteria from seven families (pets included) and their homes over six weeks. They swabbed the surfaces of skin, hands, feet, noses, countertops, doorknobs, and nearly every surface with which the residents interacted in their abodes. Turns out, our bodies release bacteria in almost every encounter we have with our environment—when we shed skin, when we yawn, when we open the fridge door. And that germ-sharing happens rapidly. When three of the families in the study moved to a new house, it took less than 24 hours for their new places to look exactly like their old ones, at least when it came to their bacterial housemates. And that was true even when the new place was a hotel room.

“People get very fidgety and itchy about hotel rooms,” study author Jack Gilbert, a microbiologist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, says — from his hotel room in South Korea. “But realistically, my hotel room right now looks like my microbiome. I’ve wiped out any of the previous occupants’ microflora in here—it’s 99.9% me.”

We don’t only share our bacteria with our houses, but also with each other. In the study, couples and their young children shared the most microbes with each other, thanks to regular physical contact. Hands were the most similar microbially, while noses retained an air of germy individuality since we pretty much keep them to ourselves (thank you, tissues!). The microbial constellations of families were so specific and unique that researchers were able to predict which family a given set of floor germs belonged to.

That’s fine when it comes to the more benign microbial hitchhikers, but what about the more scary ones that can cause disease? The researchers tracked a potentially antibiotic-resistant human pathogen from a kitchen countertop to the hands of family members, but no one got sick. “It’s likely that we all carry around nasty pathogens all the time in our body,” Gilbert says. “People aren’t getting ill because of them.” So our immune systems are able to ward off many of the nastier bugs most of the time — as long as we’re relatively healthy. Gilbert believes that it’s only when our microflora are compromised or unbalanced that the bad bugs get the chance to attack us.

Exposing your immune system to a wider array of the microbial universe is another way to bolster your defenses against them. And one way to do that is to get a pet. Dogs and cats track in the outside world, and that includes microbes. In the study, families with pets had more plant and soil bacteria in their homes — and that’s a good thing: a study earlier this summer found that infants who lived among pet dander had lower rates of allergies. “[Having a dog] rapidly supercharges the highways of microbial transmission in the house,” Gilbert says. (He is so convinced by the results, in fact, that he got a dog.)

The results are just the beginning of understanding how we interact with our environment, including with elements that we can’t even see. “There’s a continuum between you and your world, not a brick wall that ends at your skin,” says Gilbert. “We have to really embrace it in every aspect of our lives.”

TIME Cancer

IBM Watson’s Startling Cancer Coup

A general view of IBM's 'Watson' computing system at a press conference at the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center on January 13, 2011 in Yorktown Heights, New York.
A general view of IBM's 'Watson' computing system at a press conference at the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center on January 13, 2011 in Yorktown Heights, New York. Ben Hider—Getty Images

For the early part of its existence, IBM’s Watson supercomputer was a bit of a carnival act. It could perform feats of computational magic, win on Jeopardy, and whip up crazy burrito recipes at SXSW. But Watson is designed to become IBM’s money-making, Big Data platform, earning its keep across a variety of industries. In New York, the company announced that a Watson-enabled group of researchers was able to speed the process of discovery to uncover new targets for cancer research.

“We’re moving from a time where Watson helps answer questions to one where it tackles the questions that don’t have answers,” says IBM vice president John Gordon, Watson’s boss.

Using a Watson app developed with Baylor College of Medicine called KnIT (Knowledge Integration Toolkit) that reads and analyzes millions of scientific papers and suggests to researchers where to look and what to look for, a Baylor team has identified six new proteins to target for cancer research. How hard is that? Very. In the last 30 years, scientists have uncovered 28 protein targets, according to IBM. The Baylor team found half a dozen in a month.

More than 50 million research papers have been published, and that is doubling every three years. “Not only are our databases growing; they are growing faster than we can interpret all the data that they contain,” says Dr. Olivier Lichtarge, a computational biologist and professor of molecular and human genetics at Baylor Med who is one of KnIT’s developers.

Lichtarge and colleagues used KnIT to read 23 million MedLine papers, including 70,000 studies on a protein called p53, which is a tumor suppressor. The p53 protein is associated with half of all cancers. They also looked at other proteins called kinases—there are more than 500 of them in humans—that act as switches in turning p53 off and on. In cancer, mutations cause the switching function to go haywire, which lets cancer cells run amok. Using the KnIT analytics, the team was able to identify six previously unknown kinases that affect the p53 protein.

It sounds like Google for scientists—which already exists—but Watson’s calling card is its natural language and cognitive abilities. The program doesn’t just sift through the literature and spit out the search matches—it interprets the papers, looking for previously unseen connections involving proteins, drugs and molecular mechanics. Then it builds a graphic analysis to help the researchers see those connections. “You are not looking for an answer,” says Gordon. “You are looking for a chain across the papers. If we were playing pool: you would see all the direct shots. What would be less obvious are the combinations.”

At the end of the data-mining and analyses, Watson generates hypotheses for the scientists to consider, along with the probabilities that it has picked the right targets.

To test the process, researchers cut Watson’s reading material off at 2003, and then asked it to suggest protein targets to investigate. It came up with nine. Over the next decade, seven of them were actually discovered.

For IBM, it’s a kind of road test of Watson Discovery Advisor, a cloud-based service that the company is launching. The target: some $600 billion is spent annually on research and development by large corporations. IBM sees thousands of applications in everything from finance, engineering and science to law enforcement–basically any place where data is piling up faster than humans can absorb it. Other companies are doing likewise of course, as Big Data has the potential set off another wave of expansion in cloud services.

Watson has its limits. It isn’t going to do the scientists’ homework, the nuts and bolts of research; nor is it going to replace scientific intuition. “Let me be clear that nothing replaces good critical reading, in depth, by a specialist of a research paper,” says Lichtarge. “It doesn’t tell the scientist what to do: it suggests possibility,” he adds. Watson may be recommending bank-shots in the game of medical research, the scientists are still going to have to make them.

TIME Research

Study: Trash Burning Causes Serious Health Problems

A young scavenger walks near a burning pile of trash in the Anlong Pi landfill on June 11, 2014 in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
A young scavenger walks near a burning pile of trash in the Anlong Pi landfill on June 11, 2014 in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Omar Havana—Getty Images

More than 40 percent of trash worldwide is burned in unregulated conditions

More than 40% of trash produced around the world today is burned without regulation or oversight in a process that damages public health and contributes to climate change, according to a new study from the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

“Air pollution across much of the globe is significantly underestimated because no one is tracking open-fire burning of trash,” said NCAR researcher and lead author of the study Christine Wiedinmyer in a statement. “The uncontrolled burning of trash is a major source of pollutants, and it’s one that should receive more attention.”

Mercury and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a type of particle created during burnings, are among the potent materials released from unregulated burnings that have been linked to health problems like neurological disorders, cancer and heart problems.

While garbage burning happens across the globe, it’s particularly rampant in developing countries with limited access to controlled methods of trash disposal. More than 20 percent of large-particle pollutants in China come from trash burning. In fact, it was the visible presence of pollutants in the air during a trip to Ghana that in part inspired Wiedinmyer to conduct this study, she has said.

And, even if the problem is clear, the lack of current data solutions difficult to design.

“This study was a first step to put some bounds on the magnitude of this issue,” Wiedinmyer said. “The next step is to look at what happens when these pollutants are emitted into the atmosphere—where are they being transported and which populations are being most affected.”

 

TIME Diet/Nutrition

The Bacteria That May One Day Cure Food Allergies

Peanut
Peanut allergies have risen sharply, but a new therapy is in the beginning stages of research Getty Images

As a kid, Cathryn Nagler used to eat a daily peanut butter and jelly sandwich at school. That’s a lunch she can’t pack for her children. “There’s an estimated two children in every classroom with such severe peanut allergies that a few crumbs left behind by another kid could cause an anaphylactic response,” says Nagler, a food allergy professor at the University of Chicago. “That’s a huge change in a generation.”

Every round of antibiotics a person takes will wipe out strains of bacteria inside the body, some of which are eliminated forever. Considering how early and how often antibiotics are administered to kids—coupled with our increasingly antimicrobial lifestyles—we’ve become more prone to allergies and other ailments, the hygiene hypothesis goes. There’s no cure for food allergies, just lifestyle adjustments and abstention. But Nagler and her team may have the germ of an idea for treatment using gut bacteria, according to a new mice study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The team dosed two groups of mice with peanut allergens. One group of mice had been bred to be entirely without gut germs; the other group had sparsely populated gut bacteria due to treatment with antibiotics. Both groups of mice had higher levels of the allergen in their bloodstream compared to mice with healthy gut-bacteria populations.

After giving those same mice a mix that contained the bacteria strain Clostridia, their allergen levels plummeted. Infusing the mice with another group of intestinal bacteria, Bacteroides, didn’t help—so the researchers think the effect is special to Clostridia. “These bacteria are very abundant and they reside very close to the epithelial lining, so they’re in intimate contact with the immune system,” Nagler says.

She and her team plan to investigate how other allergens react to Clostridia, and how Clostridia signals the immune system to elicit the protective responses they saw in the experiment. Next, they’ll transfer gut bacteria from food-allergic infants and healthy infants into germ-free mice, Nagler says. “If we give back Clostridia to a mouse that has the bacteria of an allergic child, can we now reverse susceptibility in that mouse?”

The hope is that one day, we might see probiotics armed with Clostridia. Its ability to form stable spores may make the bacterial group ideal for this type of packaging. “They could potentially be encapsulated, given as a drug, and allowed to germinate when they reach the GI tract,” Nagler says.We hope now to be able to develop these bugs as a novel treatment for food allergy.”

TIME Research

Ice Bucket Challenge Nears $80-Million Mark

Supporters of Michael Brown, Kalisha Gilmore (L) and Recorida Kennedy (R), pour ice water on Kevin Ephron as he takes the ice bucket challenge in remembrance of Brown along Canfield Drive, where he was fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri August 24, 2014.
Supporters of Michael Brown, Kalisha Gilmore (L) and Recorida Kennedy (R), pour ice water on Kevin Ephron as he takes the ice bucket challenge in remembrance of Brown along Canfield Drive, where he was fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri August 24, 2014. Joshua Lott—Reuters

The funds have come from 1.7 million donors

The ALS Association has raised $79.7 million to combat Lou Gehrig’s Disease since July 29, as the Ice Bucket Challenge continues to encourage people around the world to dump ice over their heads and send in money.

The organization raised just $2.5 million during the same period last year.

The Ice Bucket Challenge, which began last month and has become a viral Internet sensation, has attracted 1.7 million contributors. Political figures like George W. Bush and celebrities like Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner have taken the challenge.

The ALS Association, which raised $64 million in all of 2013, has described the influx in funds as “a game changer” for the organization’s efforts.

Other groups outside the ALS Association have benefited from the challenge, too. The Project ALS, which also raises money for ALS research, said earlier this month that the challenge has attracted donations.

TIME Research

School Should Start Later So Teens Can Sleep, Urge Doctors

The American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) says there’s strong scientific evidence to support later school start times for middle and high schoolers

When it comes to the importance of sleep, it’s all about the biology, say pediatric experts. And in a report released Monday, the American Academy of Pediatrics supports pushing back start times for older kids, particularly teens, because it’s better for their mental and physical health.

“The evidence is clearly mounting both in terms of understanding the repercussions that chronic sleep loss has on the health, safety and performance of adolescents, and there is also really solid compelling data supporting the fact that delaying school start times is a very important intervention that can mitigate some of the impact of sleep loss,” says Dr. Judith Owens, director of sleep medicine at Children’s National Medical Center and lead author of the report.

In a statement published in the journal Pediatrics, the Academy’s Adolescent Sleep Working Group reviewed the studies to date involving how inadequate sleep among teens—which means anything less than 8.5 hours to nine hours a night on school days—can contribute to health issues such as obesity, diabetes, mood changes and behavior problems. They even analyzed studies linking poor sleep to increased reliance of substances like caffeine, tobacco and alcohol and the effect of sleep deprivation on academic performance. The evidence, they concluded, supports giving teens more time in bed by pushing back the time they have to be at school to at least 8:30am. Even a half-hour delay, some studies showed, can have dramatic effects on improving children’s health and academic performance.

MORE: The Most Well-Rested and Sleep-Deprived Cities in the World

The AAP committee studied the issue of adolescent sleep for nearly four years to come up with this policy statement, says Owens, and that data show that puberty may biologically wire teens to stay up late and wake up late—which means that forcing them to bed earlier won’t do much good. Something about the hormonal changes occurring during that period of development shifts their body clocks, which regulate the balance between sleeping and waking, later, like daylight savings in reverse. Puberty also pressures kids to stay up later because the normal sense of tiredness that builds up during the day is slower to develop among teens, so they can’t fall asleep earlier even if they wanted to. ”It doesn’t change how much sleep they need, but it makes it easier for them to stay awake longer,” says Dr. Mary Carskadon, a professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University Medical School and director of sleep and chronobiology at Bradley Hospital.

That’s why delaying school start times may make more sense than enforcing earlier bedtimes. According to a 2006 National Sleep Foundation poll, 87% of high school students don’t get the recommended 9 to 10 hours of sleep they need to function at their best and promote healthy mental and physical development; most average around seven hours of sleep on weeknights. And the effects of that deprivation may show up in their grades; about 30% of students report falling asleep in class at least once a week, and studies consistently connect less sleep with lower grades in school and on standardized tests. Students who don’t get the recommended amount of sleep also tend to have higher rates of anxiety and mood disorders, including depressive symptoms.

But in the 70 school districts involving more than 1,000 schools that have adopted later start times for high school students, teachers, parents and the students themselves are seeing substantial benefits. In one district that pushed back start times by one hour, half of the students reported getting eight or more hours of sleep, compared to 37% who had prior to the shift.

MORE: Less Sleep Pushes Your Brain to Age Faster

Owens and her colleagues also conducted a study among students at an independent school that delayed start times by 30 minutes. That was enough to shift bed times earlier, by an average of 18 minutes, something that surprised her and her team. They also found that the delay increased the percentage of students getting eight or more hours of sleep a night. “Anecdotally, a lot of the students said they felt better with the extra half hour of sleep they got in the morning, and that motivated them to go to bed earlier as well,” she says. “They said they could focus better and concentrate better and that it took them less time to get their homework finished so they could go to bed earlier.”

None of the studies show that delaying school start times encourages students to go to bed even later, a concern that some parents and health care workers have raised about the policy.

Having high school students start later may also have domino effects on everything from their extra curricular activities, including sports, which often occur after school, and on child care issues for parents who rely on older children to take care of their younger siblings following school. “Communities and school districts really need to go all in and make a commitment [to it],” says Carskadon. “Where it doesn’t work is where schools just dabble and say they will try it for six months to see how it works.” Adds Dr. Cora Breuner, professor of pediatrics and adolescent medicine at Seattle Children’s Hospital at University of Washington and a member of the committee, “we know that implementation of our recommendations wild be challenging but we stand behind these recommendations and strongly ask that they be considered for the health of our children.”

MORE: Poor Sleep Affects Babies’ Weight Later In Life

And in some districts, efforts to overcome the hurdles are starting to work. Some schools, for example, have created after-school programs where younger children can remain at school in a supervised setting until their older siblings or parents can take them home. And in communities in Minnesota and Massachusetts, where elementary school students are starting school earlier to accommodate bus service for the older students later, community volunteers have manned the stops to ensure younger children are safe while they are waiting to be picked up during early morning hours.

“The hope is that this statement will galvanize communities,” says Carskadon. “Now they have another tool in their tool kit, and another set of evidence and advice to take to school committees and school boards, to get communities moving on addressing adolescent sleep.” Given the state of the data on how poor sleep affects adolescent development, adds Owens, “to do nothing Is really to do harm. The status quo of starting schools at 7:15 or 7:20 is not in the best interest of the students.”

TIME Environment

Climate Change Could Happen Slower for the Next Decade, Study Says

California's Drought Becomes Critical
One of two major water storage lakes on the Russian River is lake Mendocino, which is nearly empty on January 24, 2014, near Ukiah, California. George Rose—Getty Images

Atmospheric temperatures are expected to rise slowly in the next decade

Temperatures have risen more slowly in the past decade than in the previous 50 years and will continue to rise at a somewhat slower rate in the next decade, according to a new study, even as climate change continues to raise temperatures to unprecedented levels worldwide.

The study, published in the journal Science, explained the temporary slowdown in rising temperatures as a potential consequence of the end of a 30-year current cycle in the Atlantic Ocean that pushes heat into the ocean.

“In the 21st century, surface warming slowed as more heat moved into deeper oceans,” the study says.

Despite this brief respite, the study says temperatures will begin to rise more quickly after the cycle is complete.

“Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850,” according to a different study published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“Trends based on short records are very sensitive to the beginning and end dates and do not in general reflect long-term climate trends,” the IPCC study said, cautioning that the slowdown in global warming does not mean the atmosphere will not continue to heat at a faster rate.

TIME

Why Your Fear of Looking Stupid Is Making You Look Stupid

New research indicates that we're all scared of asking for help and looking dumb. But we shouldn't be -- people find you more competent if you come to them for advice

Have you ever been in a situation where you wanted to ask someone’s advice, but were worried you would look incompetent? Well, in the words of RuPaul, “Your fear of looking stupid is making you look stupid.”

In fact, a new report released this week by researchers from Harvard Business School and Wharton School suggests that RuPaul is on to something, (though, obviously, the researchers phrased it in a slightly more delicate fashion). The research, which will be published in an upcoming issue of Management Science, found that though many people are afraid to ask for advice — and risk looking incompetent — they’ve actually got it backwards. People who seek advice are likely to be thought of as more competent, at least by the people they’re asking.

The researchers came to that conclusion by conducting a series of studies. In the first, researchers tried to determine whether people are actually afraid of looking incompetent by telling participants to imagine that they needed advice from a co-worker. Some were then told that their hypothetical selves would actually seek advice and others were told they would not. Participants were then asked to rate how competent they thought their hypothetical co-worker found them. Turns out, the people who hypothetically asked for help felt that they would be viewed as less competent than those who didn’t.

Which is understandable, to an extent. Though the old adage says “there are no stupid questions,” anyone who has spent time on the snark-riddled internet knows that that’s not actually the case. Sometimes it feels wiser to shut up and muddle through, than risk looking like a complete fool.

Yet that’s where the new reasearch gets interesting. In the next study, researchers paired participants with an unseen partner that they could only communicate with over instant message. (Their partners did not actually exist; the messages sent were programmed by the researchers.) The participants were then asked to do a brain teaser, before handing the task off to their partner. Once they’d finished the task, they received a message from their “partner” that either read, “I hope it went well. Do you have any advice?” or “I hope it went well.” Later, when asked by the researchers, people rated the partners who asked for advice as being more competent than those who had simply wished them well. What’s more, the harder the brain teaser, the more competent the advice-seeking “partners” were rated.

Even more interesting, is that when the researchers asked participants to rate their own self-confidence after completing a task, the ones who had been asked for advice felt better about themselves than the ones who had not been asked.

The researchers concluded that people’s egos are boosted when they’re consulted and asked to dole out advice, which in turn leads them to think more highly of the people who’ve just boosted their egos.

Essentially, people are so flattered to be asked for advice that their heads swell a little and they think of themselves as smart; that reflects well on the advice-seeker who is in turn believed to be smart enough to recognize their game. So take our advice: the next time you’re itching to ask for help, do it.

TIME Research

Ice Bucket Challenge ALS Donations Break $50 Million Mark

The organization raised $64 million in all of 2013

The Ice Bucket Challenge is the gift that keeps on giving for the ALS Association. The organization raised more than $10 million on Thursday alone, it said, bringing its total haul since July 29 to $53 million. For comparison’s sake, the group raised $2.2 million during the same period last year.

The contributions, which have come from more than 1 million new donors as well as some old donors, are an enormous boon for the ALS Association, whose national office raised only $19 million in all of 2012.

Since the Ice Bucket Challenge went viral in early August, social media outlets have been crowded with videos of people dumping ice on their heads after delivering a short message explaining their support for research and treatment of Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Public figures who have taken the challenge include politicians like George W. Bush and movie stars like Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck.

The ALS Association is not the only organization to benefit from the viral trend. Opposition to embryonic stem cell research from some Catholics has led to an influx in donations to other charities that support ALS research without using embryonic stem cells. Project ALS, a smaller charity dedicated to ALS research, raised huge sums after Ricky Gervais and Ben Stiller took the Ice Bucket Challenge in its support.

TIME Research

Why Some Catholics Won’t Take the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

Concerns raised about stem cell research

Not everyone is jumping to take part in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, which has gone viral and raised millions for research into Lou Gehrig’s disease. Following the Archdiocese of Cincinnati’s decision to ban its schools from donating to the ALS Association and a widely read blog post by a Catholic priest, some Catholics are questioning the ethics of contributing to ALS charities that fund research with embryonic stem cells.

“We deeply appreciate the compassion, but there’s a well established moral principle that goods ends are not enough. The means must also be morally licit,” said Cincinnati Archdiocese spokesperson Dan Andriacco.

Father Michael Duffy, whose blog post on the issue has been shared on Facebook more than 100,000 times, said he started hearing chatter online two weeks ago suggesting that donations to the ALS Association might be used for embryonic stem cell research, which conflicts with Catholic doctrine. When he was nominated for the challenge himself, he looked into it and discovered that the ALS Association did in fact fund embryonic stem cell research.

Catholic church doctrine holds that life begins at conception. Because embryonic stem cells come from very early-stage embryos, the church holds that destroying the embryo is akin to taking a life.

ALS Association spokesperson Carrie Munk acknowledged that the organization currently funds one study using embryonic stem cells, but added that donors can ask that their money not be used for this purpose.

Duffy said that option isn’t sufficient.

“I would still have trouble with that because you’re supporting an organization that is taking someone’s life,” he said.

Instead, he suggested an alternative charity, the John Paul II Medical Research Institute, which advocates for stem cell research using adult stem cells. In Cincinnati, the Archdiocese has taken Duffy’s recommendation and asked its schools to direct their funds there if they want to participate in the Ice Bucket Challenge.

Apparently, Duffy’s recommendation is working. The John Paul II organization said it has received dozens of donations per hour in recent days and that its website crashed because of the influx in traffic. Typically, the organization only receives a couple donations each day.

But despite the questions from some Catholics, the ALS Association continues to rake in cash. It’s raised $41 million since July 29, compared with just over $2 million in the same period last year.

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