Dinner Table Science: My 3 Favorite Findings of 2010

Last year, at Christmas dinner with my husband’s family, I was stumped by a seemingly simple question: “What was the biggest scientific discovery of 2009?” What a great question, I remember thinking, as the papers and news I’d read over the past year churned through my mind, struggling to bubble up to consciousness. For a biology graduate student, it should have been easy; I should have been able to come up with something, anything, that was a notable scientific achievement, yet also engaging enough to be of interest to my in-laws. (The overlap between these two spheres of science is smaller than you might think. In fact, as I tried in vain to pull an answer from the murky depths of my memory, I was beginning to believe it was non-existent.)

I fumbled for a long minute, and exchanged a blank glance with my husband (who was also a grad student) – he too was at a loss. (After all, not all research comes with the headline-grabbing, NASA-approved stamp of extra-terrestrial life.*) One of us eventually bumbled towards an answer (I think it was the Mars rover’s discovery of water), but I vowed at that moment to be better prepared in 2010.

So today, I present you with three science-y things from 2010 that you can talk about around the dinner table. Some were striking enough for me to remember on my own, others were featured in ScienceNOW’s excellent compilation of the most popular stories of the year, or Nature magazine’s top science articles of 2010. All have two things in common: 1. They make great conversation starters. 2. You don’t have to be a scientist to understand them.

#3. Men with good dance moves attract women.

Dancing avatar The Gist: What exactly is a ‘good’ dance move? Researchers at Northumbria University in the UK identified the essential elements of a man’s good moves by devising a way to separate the attractiveness of the dancer from the attractiveness of the dance. When attempting to quantify a woman’s perception of a man’s dancing ability, it’s nearly impossible to control for the appearance of the dancer. His height, clothing, body shape, and facial features can all influence her impression of his skills.

To remove these confounding factors, the authors in the study used 3D motion-capture technology to create computer-generated avatars. Each dancing male wore 38 reflective markers distributed from his wrists to his neck to his ankles, and danced to a 30-second clip of music in front of a camera that recorded every shake, twist, bump, and grind. Videos were played for women, and researchers analyzed body position, movements, and speed.

The Controversy: No real controversy (or surprises) here. Heterosexual women like men (or at least purple gender-neutral computer avatars) who can dance. The authors speculated that good dance moves could signify important qualities in a potential mate (such as coordination, health, vigor, and athletic prowess). Don’t fret if you’re a badly dancing heterosexual male though; this study offers instructional advice. My favorite tip? Get that right knee moving. According to the study’s authors, it was one of the most important signs of dance quality.

Why I like it: It may not be ‘the greatest scientific discovery of 2010’, but it’s worth watching the videos of good and bad dancing avatars on YouTube. (I’m not the only one who likes them; combined, the videos have nearly 740,000 hits- not bad for a scientific article.) There’s no word yet on whether the ‘good’ moves have sparked a new dance craze, but I’m holding out hope.

#2. Barefoot runners generate less impact force than their shod counterparts.

The Gist: In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Kenya won 5 gold medals in track and field. All of their golds were for mid- or long-distance events, and all of their winning runners were from the Rift Valley Province. Kenyans from the Rift Valley are known for their incredible endurance, which has been attributed to everything from an automobile-free lifestyle (they run to and from school), to homeland geography (they live and run at altitude), to genetics. Oh, and they grow up running barefoot. Nature_TreadSoftly_small

At the beginning of 2010, runner and Harvard human evolutionary biologist, Daniel Lieberman, published a long awaited study that sought to answer a simple question: Do runners with shoes run differently than those without? Lieberman’s group compared the foot-strike patterns and forces of 5 different sets of runners, including athletes from the Rift Valley and the US. His team of researchers found that barefoot runners tended to strike the ground with their fore- or mid-foot, whereas shod runners typically hit with their heel. Why does this matter? Lieberman showed that forefoot striking reduces foot-to-ground collision forces nearly 3-fold.

If running shoes enable rear-foot striking, and rear-foot striking increases impact forces on the body, what’s the point of wearing shoes? It’s a good question (some would say revolutionary), and likely part of the reason Lieberman’s study made the cover of Nature magazine.

The Controversy: Lieberman’s paper was met with disbelief and derision on one side (podiatrists and running shoe companies decried the implied invalidation of their trades) and joyful righteousness on the other (barefoot running devotees basked in the vindication of their sport.) In the 11 months since the paper has been published, sales of minimal or ‘barefoot-style’ footwear have boomed (as have new barefoot-related running injuries). Vff

So should you ditch your running shoes completely? Podiatrists and barefoot runners agree on one thing: any attempt to change running style should be done gradually. In an interview with Runner’s World magazine (which has remained thick with running shoe advertisements), Lieberman is careful to note that their study does not make any connection between running shoes and injuries, or advocate going shoeless. (Though you may see him running barefoot through Cambridge.)

Why I like it: I love when conventional wisdom (i.e. running shoes = good) is turned on its head. Running shoes came into popularity in the 70s, and, despite little supporting evidence, have been considered an athletic necessity ever since. For some people, running shoes may be necessary, but for others, they could be making things worse.

This year, I started running in minimal shoes. From heel to toe, the soles of my running shoes are 4mm thick; a typical running shoe heel is about 24mm (~1 inch). Admittedly, my sample size is small, but after years of struggling with plantar fasciitis, I was ready to try almost anything. Today, my foot injuries are gone, and it’s hard not to root for the barefoot runners.

#1. Biologists create first bacterium with synthetic genome.

The Gist: In May 2010, researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute announced they had created “the first self-replicating species on the planet whose parent is a computer.” The claim, though slightly hyperbolic, sparked intense philosophical debate about the definition of life, and the ethics of creating it. Venter’s Institute synthesized and stitched together large swaths of DNA (more than a million base pairs total), and inserted the assembled chromosome into a bacterial cell whose own DNA had been removed.

M-mycoides-jcvi-syn1The artificially generated genome was based on the sequence of the Mycoplasma mycoides (a bacterial parasite that causes lung disease in cows), and implanted into the empty husk of close relative, Mycoplasma capricolum. When the M. mycoides/M. capricolum hybrid grew and replicated, only the synthetic M. mycoides remained: thus, according to Venter, a new species was born.

The Controversy: Craig Venter’s announcement was hailed as the first demonstration of “synthetic life,” the first man-made species. Technically, this isn’t completely accurate. Though the genome was synthesized from scratch, it was copied from a previously existing life form (M. mycoides) and transplanted into a living (albeit vacant) cell. Without the M. capricolum shell, the naked artificial chromosome would have been homeless, forever unprotected and inanimate.

And the ethics of creating this life form? Is it, as Venter said, “perhaps a giant philosophical change in how we view life”? Or is it just the next, inevitable step in the evolution of a science that will eventually tailor different bacterial genomes for different biological tasks?

J. Craig VenterWhy I like it: Time magazine has called him the ‘Gene Maverick’. To Forbes.com, he’s a ‘Gene Celebrity’. To me, Craig Venter is an irresistible mixture of unabashed ego and scientific diva that’s hard not to appreciate. I like him. I can’t help it. In 2007, the J. Craig Venter Institute sequenced the first complete genome of an individual human being. The DNA source? Craig Venter. The name of the completed sequence? HumanReference, or HuRef (in other words, they christened Venter’s genome the reference sequence for humankind).

To differentiate between synthetic vs. natural bacterial DNA in their artificial life form, Venter’s team inserted their coded names, and a quote from James Joyce into the synthetic bacterium’s genome: “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life.” Bold words, Dr. Venter. I can’t wait to see what’s next.


*Footnote: Earlier this month, NASA announced the discovery of a life form that could substitute arsenic for phosphorus as an essential component of DNA. They called it an “astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.” Despite the splashy claims, the original publishers of this research (Science magazine) didn’t include it in their ‘breakthroughs of 2010’. In their words, because “the paper ran late in the year, we feel it is prudent to allow for further analysis before giving it a nod.”