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Archive for April 2009

If it’s swine flu, why do people get it?

Illustration of avian flu on a human cell.

The event we hope never happens: a human cell (lower right) becomes infected with both an avian influenza virus (purple core, upper right) and a human influenza virus (orange core, upper center). Inside the cell, the viruses can mingle, producing new viral particles (purple and orange core, upper left) capable of spreading easily from person to person and as deadly as the original avian strain. Illustration from Russell Kightley Media.

With swine flu so much in the news these days, it’s a good time to look back at a story Washington State Magazine ran in August of 2007 (“Contagion! Emerging diseases: Unraveling the mystery“). Washington State University has one of the best teams of researchers in the world devoted to the study of diseases that can pass from their usual animal hosts to humans, such as Salmonella and E. coli. Our story delved into what changes a  virus or bacterium has to go through before it can infect people, why pigs are so often a way station for “bugs” that eventually infect people, why these diseases seem to occur in bursts, and why some outbreaks become full-blown epidemics.

Pie Hopes

An apple pie with only 100 calories? Well, I had to try it. So last week I wandered over to the Food Science/Human Nutrition building, where Washington State University students on the Food Product Development Team were taste-testing their latest creation, a low-cal apple snack dessert.

100 calorie apple pies

100 calorie apple pies

Apparently this was a popular taste test. In the first 20 minutes about 30 people had lined up to sample the pies. I barely made it in.

The testing space was quiet hallway lined with booths on the right. In one corner of each booth waited a laptop computer.  Once you sat down, you faced a small metal door, about a foot square. To announce your presence, you pushed a blue button, which triggered a light in front of the door telling the students on the other side that you’re there.

I quickly finished the introductory section of the questionnaire on the laptop, which asked things like my age and dessert preferences, and then I pushed the button. The door slid up and I could see a portion of a student – her chin, arm, and some torso. She greeted me and slid forward a napkin, a paper cup of water, and the first little pie. It looked like a small bran muffin. It smelled of grain and a bit of apple.

Since I’m more of the hot apple pastry topped with vanilla ice cream type of person, I didn’t really feel like I was eating apple pie. It was more like a healthy breakfast or hiking snack.  And it was a little dry. The water helped.

The second pie, which another student slid in when I pressed the blue light button again, really wasn’t as good. It had some other taste – a different kind of sweet flavor that was off-putting. I wrote on the questionnaire that even if I knew that the second pie was a healthy treat, I wasn’t likely to buy it. The first I might buy in a pinch as a healthy alternative to potato chips. (more…)

Wine in a cool climate

Thomas Henick-Kling, the new director of Washington State University’s viticulture and enology program, focused on wine from western Washington during a recent reception at the WSU Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center in Mount Vernon.

Wine bottles - Mount Vernon

Wine bottles - Mount Vernon

On the tables around him stood bottles holding wines made primarily from grapes grown in areas like Hoodsport, Bainbridge Island, Mount Vernon, and the San Juans. While eastern Washington regions such as Walla Walla and the Columbia Basin form the base of the state’s wine operations, there are now more than 50 commercial vineyards and 150 acres planted in wine grapes on the west side of the Cascades. The oldest vineyard represented was Bainbridge Island Vineyards, established in 1973. Most, though, have only started up in the past five years. They are very small operations, with just a few acres of grapes. The varieties include the Müller-Thurgau a Riesling-like grape, the Armenian Burmunk, and the Madeleine Angevine which comes from the Loire Valley.

Thomas Henick-Kling

Thomas Henick-Kling

“There are so many great varieties out there: Regente, Siegerrebe, Pinot Noir. And some we haven’t even tried yet,” says Henick-Kling. He is looking forward to helping with evaluating new varieties for the region and looking at interspecific hybrids – grapes that are the result of crosses between European varieties and one or more American species. That would involve using native grapes to breed new grapes with ripening qualities, disease tolerance, and winter hardiness suited to western Washington’s climate, he says. (more…)

Remember that memory story…

If you enjoyed reading my WSM story on memory, check out this article from Monday’s New York Times. It gets into one of the deepest questions about memory, which is, how and when does the brain select which memories to keep and which to discard? We take in far more information every day than we can remember, and since our brains are of finite size, they can’t retain a record of everything.

New York Times article on memoryThe memories with the greatest staying power, says WSU psychologist Jay Wright, are those that are important to us personally, especially those with a strong emotional element. Such memories seem to be engraved so deeply in our minds that we can vividly recall a moment that occurred decades ago, even if we haven’t thought about it for years.

But scientists don’t know how that happens. The brain records many things in short-term memory but only a few make it into long-term storage. The hypothesis is that the brain has a mechanism to strengthen the synapses, or active connections between nerve cells, that encode memories that the brain deems to be worth keeping longer.

The work described in the NYT article is a big step in understanding that process. Researchers at the SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, working with rats, have identified a protein that accumulates in heavily-used nerve endings, those that receive a lot of input from other neurons. The protein probably has something to do with stabilizing those synapses and creating long-term memories, because the scientists have also found that a drug that interferes with the protein destroys the memory of something the rats had learned weeks or months ago.