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Little Things Mean a Lot

— February 14, 2018

Bacteria, atoms, fungal spores, yeast, seeds, gametes, the things you whisper to your sweetie… on Valentine’s Day, little things mean a lot.

On Valentine’s Day, those of us with a special someone (or something – link possibly NSFW!) and a sense of romance may be whispering sweet nothings into an even sweeter ear. Someone out there might even say those three little words for the very first time. Like anybody in a relationship knows, little things mean a lot. It’s in this spirit that I’ve gathered a basket of little things to share – some intriguing, some hopeful, and some a bit heartbreaking, but all, in some way, small.

Atoms. Within tiny, uninhabited Runit Island in the Pacific Ocean, under a half-meter thick concrete cap, lies the debris left over from dozens of nuclear weapons tests. In the 1970s, radioactive material was left in a 100-meter wide bomb crater and covered over. Little things don’t always stay buried, though, and rising seawater now leaks into the vault, from cracks in the concrete and from the porous soil below. Lining the crater was deemed too expensive during cleanup, compared to simply dealing with potentially leaking radiation that has a half-life of 24,100 years. With their traditional diet of fish and coconuts no longer safe, the atoll’s native population have switched to a safer diet of imported processed food like Spam and chips, which leads to health problems like diabetes. If the concrete cap gives way, they’ll have to move. And if it merely keeps leaking, well, radiation yearns to be free.

Seeds. Natalie Mueller, an archaeobotanist at Cornell, has been looking for “lost crops” – food plants that Native Americans once grew, but which were lost or forgotten when maize (or Europeans) spread across the continent. Signs of once-domesticated plants that have gone feral include bigger seeds and thinner skins. Mueller is teaming up with Logan Kistler, a Smithsonian anthropologist, who examines the genomes of such plants. Together, their findings hint at the unwritten history of the people who once cultivated these plants, little things we might not have known otherwise, and may provide new opportunities for food sources in a changing world.

Eggs. For women who want kids – someday! – but who also want a life without them first, freezing eggs seemed like the best option. Although the procedure is potentially painful and expensive, many women went through with it, sometimes as a perk from hip employers. Well, now the first women who signed up are looking to thaw their eggs and start those delayed families, only to find out that it doesn’t work as well as was hyped. Little things happen to cause the loss of eggs at every step of the process. Some don’t survive freezing, some don’t thaw well, and some may even be lost in transit. Then, not all of the eggs are fertilized, some don’t develop properly, many won’t attach to the uterine wall, and even then, miscarriages happen. This tech, which was once all the rage, turns out to have a relatively small success rate.

Microscopic image of blue-tinted Enterococcus faecalis bacteria on a brown background.
Enterococcus faecalis. Image by Pete Wardell, USCDCP, courtesy of Public domain CC0.

Bacteria. These little things are adept at trading handy bits of DNA with their peers, but one intrepid strain of Enterococcus (a common intestinal bacteria) found in a sample of cow feces at a South Carolina farm managed to learn a neat trick. It’s now capable of producing botulinum toxin, a deadly poison that was once only the purview of a single species, Clostridium botulinum. Luckily, this strain of Enterococcus is still susceptible to antibiotics, but since resistance is also a trait that gets swapped around, disaster is still within the realm of the possible.

Yeast. A study out of Cal Poly suggests that craft beer may convey a greater health benefit than red wine. Craft beer is usually less pasteurized than macrobrews, so there are more good little things in it for you, such as niacin (vitamin B3) and remains of brewer’s yeast, which is reported to help lower bad cholesterol levels. Beer, thought to be part of an unhealthy, junk food based diet, isn’t often considered a beverage worthy of the dignity of study, but craft brews, which often follow some pretty decent food down the gullet, may be worth drinking for more than their hops content.

Spores. Researchers at Binghamton University, inspired by the way the human body heals itself, have potentially come up with a design for self-healing concrete. With infrastructure spending down, we need our roads and bridges to last longer. Unfortunately, it’s the nature of concrete to form cracks, and once water and air penetrate, the fissures can reach all the way to the metal underneath, rusting it away. A fungus called Trichoderma reesei might provide a solution. Fungal spores mixed into concrete would remain dormant until a crack inevitably appears. Then, the fungus would spring into action, forming a calcium carbonate barrier that seals the crack. Serious challenges remain, such as finding a way to ensure the spores survive in the concrete, but hopefully these are little things that can be worked out.

So, this evening, take your sweetie out for a healthy craft beer, chat about eggs and/or seeds, play a romantic song, and perhaps whisper some sweet little things about – ahem! – filling cracks. We here at Legal Reader wish you and your Valentine the very best.

Related: People Finally Noticing Insect Collapse


A poison in our island
Analysis of North America’s weeds reveal the crops, trade, and cuisine of early indigenous people
The struggle to conceive with frozen eggs
Botulinum Toxin Jumps to Ubiquitous Bacterial Family
Craft beer healthier than red wine: study
Using Fungi to Fix Bridges

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