Welcome Richard Gallagher, President and Editor-In-Chief of nonprofit publisher Annual Reviews, to our news blog. In the coming months Richard, an immunologist, science editor, and publisher, will contribute occasional posts from a personal and professional perspective here and in Annual Reviews’ Twitter stream (tweets signed RG).
On a recent visit to Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, I spent a fascinating hour being guided around a collection of nineteenth- and twentieth-century garments from diverse Jewish communities by a docent (volunteer guide). She brought to life an exhibit that I would otherwise, in my ignorance, have breezed through in minutes.
It got me thinking that a docent tour of some personal favorites of Annual Reviews articles published in 2018 might be of interest. All articles described are freely available to read through the end of February, 2019. I’d be delighted to have suggestions for articles to include in future guides (simply leave a comment on this post or tweet us @AnnualReviews).
Let’s start with a brief article on “Science as a Culinary Art” from the Annual Review of Biomedical Data Science. It presents a vision for transforming medicine based on sharing the responsibility for collecting data and testing ideas among, essentially, everyone. Author Nicholas Tatonetti of Columbia University, New York, likens the process to cooking. “Today alone,” he writes, “billions will form hypotheses about the right combination of spices, temperatures, and wine pairings. Each of these hypotheses will be tested, evaluated for their success, and accepted or rejected, ultimately contributing to the body of human culinary knowledge.” Why can’t the same be done for biomedical research, he asks, with Big Data as the ingredients? It’s a clear and optimistic idea.
One group that is already contributing a lot of data to the pursuit of health and well-being is people age 100 years and over, the centenarians. A century ago, life expectancy was 50-55 years. Today, in developed countries, it’s up to 87 years for women and 84 for men, and there are some 434,000 100-year-olds alive right now. I suspect that most of us would sign up for a substantial life extension if we knew we’d be healthy enough to enjoy it, so the factors that impact longevity, covered in this Annual Review of Nutrition article on Nutrition and Inflammation by three researchers from Bologna, Italy, are of more than passing interest. I was surprised (read dismayed) to find that regular timing of meals is critical, in part due to effects on the gut microbiome and on sleeping patterns.
The importance of maintaining circadian rhythms isn’t just a key characteristic of healthy aging and longevity; another great review in the Annual Review of Cancer Biology, Circadian Clock’s Cancer Connections, traces the link between circadian dysfunction and cancer risk. If your lifestyle is anything like mine, that is, unregulated eating and sleeping patterns and a lot of travel across time zones, a rethink may be required! I wonder when circadian rhythm gurus will start to appear on YouTube – if they haven’t already.
Substantially reducing meat consumption was a personal change I made in 2018 that may provide some positive health impact. My decision was made primarily on environmental grounds, but reading an anthropologist’s take on corporate animal agribusiness (Industrial Meat Production in the Annual Review of Anthropology), offers additional reasons. Some of the statistics quoted by Alex Blanchette (Tufts University, Massachusetts) are grimly impressive, including the fact that “[b]etween 1935 and 1995, the time it took to raise a mature chicken decreased by some 60%, and yet the average size of each grown bird swelled by a stunning 65%.” Other facts, such as the existence of packinghouses where 20,000 pigs are killed every day, are simply grim. I challenge you not to find the “deanimalization” of meat to be grotesque.
This article on Gun Markets from the Annual Review of Criminology addresses an even greater social ill, gun violence. While the article is focused on the transactions that arm criminals and the sources of their weapons, it also provides an overview of guns in the United States. “Increasingly, people buy guns not to shoot animals or targets but rather to prepare for a time when they might need to shoot or at least threaten another person,” Philip Cook (Duke University, North Carolina) writes. “Half of gun owners say that self-protection is the reason or primary reason they own a gun.” That’s before he turns his attention to criminal use! Cook describes the underground gun market as “thin and balkanized,” depending on personal connections. Depressingly, after assessing regulation changes to impact this market, the best that he can say is that “[t]here is enough evidence of regulatory effectiveness to rule out the extreme version of the futility argument.” Hmm. Meanwhile, in 2018 there were 35 murders within 5 miles of my house, of which 30 were shootings. As an immigrant here in the United States, I find it unfathomable that we are prepared to live (and die) with the current legal, and consequent illegal, gun cultures.
And now for something completely different: mycofluidics, which (of course!) is microfluidics in fungi. Cells are the building block of all forms of life. You can think of them as enormously complex over-stuffed bags of chemistry and biochemistry. There must be rules that bring order, direction, and intent to the chaos, and this enthralling article from the Annual Review of Fluid Mechanics (Mycofluidics) describes one such set of rules: the fluid mechanics and engineering that underlie the growth and dispersal of fungi. For example, Marcus Roper (UCLA, California) and Agnese Seminara (Institut de Physique de Nice, France) describe four different approaches by which fungi can relocate by using explosive movement – remember, fungi lack limbs, fins, or wings – that are quite extraordinary. The illustrations are excellent and their writing is wonderfully descriptive; for example, “The unfurling of a mushroom is a feat of reverse origami.”
Another mind-expanding article covers our new-found ability to explore evolution through the analysis of ancient biomolecules. In Ancient Biomolecules and Evolutionary Inference from the Annual Review of Biochemistry, a distinguished group of European experts describe the preservation of ancient DNA, proteins, and lipids; how they are extracted and analyzed; and the unique processes developed for their sequencing and analysis. The second half of the article sheds new light on everything from the origins of early life forms to the domestication of plants and animals. Analyzing ancient biomolecules “profoundly deepened our understanding of the origin of early life forms, adaptation and extinction processes, and past migrations and admixtures that gave rise to present-day biological diversity, including in our own species,” the authors say. And this is just the beginning; their extensive “Future Directions” section points to even more profound insights to come.
As a keen-but-crummy chess player, I took some pleasure in reading that championship chess, attained by only the most gifted minds, is actually easier than moving the pieces. Dubious? In Toward Robotic Manipulation from the Annual Review of Control, Robotics, and Autonomous Systems, Matthew Mason (Carnegie Mellon University, Pennsylvania) explains that while there are world-champion-level chess computers, they “still need human beings to do the actual moving of the chess pieces.” Manipulation of objects (control of the environment through selective contact) is a routine but extraordinary talent that animals in general, and especially humans, excel at, but that presents an array of challenges to robots. Mason contrasts animals’ manipulative breadth, robustness, and adaptability on the one hand, with specialization and performance advantages on the other gripper. He describes how machine learning will improve robotic manipulation, but it will be a while before a robot team competes in baseball’s World Series.
Science is a pursuit of excellence that has parallels in art, athletics, cooking, and even comedy. But, while we have ready access to the deepest thoughts and the daily doings of rock stars, football players, chefs, and funnymen, similar treatment of researchers is rare; unfortunately so, because it could help reduce the gap between science and mainstream culture. Many of the Annual Reviews journals do include autobiographical profiles, which present scientists as, well, real people. A case in point is Fred Ausubel’s Tracing My Roots: How I Became a Plant Biologist from the Annual Review of Genetics. Ausubel’s early earnestness, influenced by C.S. Lewis and Zhou Enlai; curiosity; collegiality; and, ultimately, flexibility on what he wanted to study shine through in this description of evolving research on plant-microbe interactions over a 20-year period between the mid-1960s and mid-1980s.
I hope you’ll dip in to some of these articles. None of them are a quick, relaxing read, but they’ll leave you with the natural high that a little insight provides and a positive feeling about humankind’s abilities to explore our external and internal worlds.
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