By: Hari Nanthakumar
The destruction of the hot flames was ruthless, engulfing, and destroying trees, homes, and anything else within reach.
As devastating wildfires raged through California this past year, individuals of all socioeconomic backgrounds fled their homes in the face of flames that seemed to encroach upon the very foundations of their lives. Undoubtedly, we feel sympathetic to those who have lost so much and have gone through some of the worst life has to offer.
Before we can understand exactly how wildfires affect people, we must first examine their environmental effects. Wildfires significantly worsen air pollution through particulate matter in their smoke. Particulate matter encompasses the microscopic pieces of material that fire releases, including a variety of chemical species, ash flakes, dust, and small shreds of wood. According to a reviewpublished in the Journal of Environmental Toxicology and Pharmacology (JETP), wildfires contribute up to 20% of fine particulate emissions in the United States and up to a third of all particulate emissions in Canada.
As the air fills with smog, people are forced to breathe in an inordinate number of respiratory irritants, developing harmful new health conditions. For example, a studyof the effects of the 2003 Southern California wildfires demonstrated that smoke stimulated asthma, while also causing symptoms of bronchitis, including shortness of breath and excess mucus production. The review in the JETP also revealed that, correlated with recent fires, was an increase in hospital visits for symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which blocks airflow and leads to dyspnea.
Even more worrying health developments stem from the smog and its particulate matter. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has stated that particulate matter can affect heart and lung tissue, trigger heart attacks, decrease lung function, and even cause premature death in those with preexisting heart or lung disease. Equally ominous is the potential linkbetween the inflammation caused by particulate matter and diabetes; toxic particulate matter enters the lungs and the bloodstream, causing inflammation in the organs and leading to insulin resistance. As this inflammation builds, the pancreas may be unable to produce enough insulin in response, and allows diabetes to set in.
As smog continues to fill the air from the California wildfires, government agencies, such as the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, have warned people to stay indoors to protect themselves. The homeless, however, often have no recourse and therefore cannot always evade the harmful effects of their environment. Even without smog, they face doublethe average rate of lung disease and are already more vulnerable to illnesses such as skin disorders, diseases of the extremities, and untreated mental illnesses, which can be exacerbated under the stresses of wildfires.
As Vice News reports, the wildfires may usher in a “new wave of homelessness” as increasing numbers of people’s homes are engulfed in the fires. The newly homeless will join the ranks of people who have nowhere to go as home prices and rents continue to soar throughout the California area. A case in point is the story of the paradoxically-named town of Paradise, California. With 14% of people living below the poverty line and average household incomes well below national averages, people were forced to live in front of nearby Walmart and Lowe’s parking lots due to the destruction of 90% of residential homes and Norovirus outbreaks in at-capacity homeless shelters.
Stories like this will become all too common in the future, as climate change is projected to increase wildfire emissionsup to 101% in California through 2100 through increasing temperatures and changing precipitation patterns. The number of wildfires and acreage burned is also expected to increase across the greater western United States.
Unless significant actions are taken to protect the most vulnerable of our population, we are in serious danger of putting stress on people’s health and our societal infrastructure. Just as diseases have spread within the close quarters of homeless shelters in Paradise, similar cases may befall hospitals and other public areas as crowds of people are displaced from their homes. Whether it be an efficient way to distribute air-quality masks or provide decent shelter, something needs to be done. Absolutely no one should be left alone, fearful of the very air they breathe.
Hari Nanthakumar is a freshman in SEAS hoping to study materials science & engineering.
By: Naviya Makhija
From hives to anaphylaxis to something as simple as a passing bout of sneezes, allergies are both common and annoying. In fact, they are becoming more widespread and, more disturbingly, are beginning to manifest later in life for many. As this particular aspect becomes the focus of more research, it is becoming increasingly important to return to the fundamentals: why do allergies manifest in such a seemingly random way, and, why do they occur at all?
An allergy, often defined as a hypersensitive immune response, is simply the body’s response to stimuli that it deems harmful and thus attempts to reject. Each reaction is specific to the victim. What one person experiences in response to a specific stimuli, such as peanuts, may differ in form and extremity to another person. In fact, for most people, the stimulus may not have any impact whatsoever. The response is “random” in this sense: the immune system attacks agents that look similar to ones that it considers harmful, but it is still uncertain why it launches such attacks in the first place. New theories suggest that the reason for allergic reactions is to build up a protective system. In 1993, Margie Profet won the MacArthur Genius Grant for being the first person to postulate that allergies are a protective mechanism. In her view, anything from sneezing and watery eyes to nausea and vomiting can be considered the body’s attempt to combat toxins, pathogens, or even carcinogens. She highlighted more severe cases involving anaphylaxis, and noted that the resulting fall in blood pressure was a protective measure to slow toxin circulation through reduced blood flow.
While not fully accepted at the time of its proposal, Profet’s theory has gained traction over the years. In 2012, researchers at Cornell University discoveredthat individuals with allergies are more resistant to certain types of cancer, yet it is still not fully understood how this incorporates Profet’s own discoveries. Profet believed that, since most of the carcinogenicmaterials were also the most allergenic, the patient would naturally avoid them due to his or her allergies. Other members of the scientific community continue to dispute this, stating that the patient would have a more hyperactive immune system due to his or her allergies and thus this system would become more adept at handling infections of all types, including those leading to cancer.
Researchers at Stanford University have recently discovered that exposure to allergens, such as venom and bee stings, in mice produces a protective responsethat creates unique antibodies to counteract the original stimulus. These antibodies are memorized by the body, and should the body come into contact with that stimulus again, the reaction intensity may be diminished due to the adaptive immune response. When these same mice, initially exposed to the bee venom, were given a lethal dose three weeks later, over80 percentof them survived. This evidence indicates that the body uses allergic reactions to build up resistance to harmful threats, supporting Profet’s original postulation that allergies are fundamentally protective responses that our bodies need.
It seems ironic that the purpose of allergies is to protect the body from external harm, since they are often so severe (anaphylaxis) that they end up causing more harm themselves. When the body reacts to an allergen, it releasesImmunoglobulin E—an anti-allergen antibody—and, if it is the first interaction with the stimulus, enters a process called sensitization. During this process, the body releases organic compounds such as histaminethat manifest as common allergy symptoms or, in more dangerous cases of overreaction like anaphylaxis, hives, hypotension, airway constriction, nausea, and even fainting.
Perhaps, sensitization was a protective measure on its own, during a time of less-advanced medicine. With no other alternative, maybe the body’s only way of protecting itself was to asphyxiate itself so as to prevent further exposure to the allergen. With modern medicine, this seems unnecessary and destructive, and, while it can be said that the presence of allergies has severely declined as a consequence of medicine, it’s strange that many have withstood the test of time. Perhaps new research rooted in Profet’s original hypothesis can help find new treatments as the cause of allergies becomes clearer.
By: Anna Christou
Adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine—these four nitrogen-containing compounds, also known as A, G, C, and T, respectively, have been known, since the mid-twentieth century, to be the main components of DNA. DNA defines our characteristics, including how we look, behave, and grow, and the sequence of these base pairs is crucial to determining how DNA replicates and codes for protein. With the rise in genetic engineering, scientists have been able to manipulate these base pairs to change an organism’s genes, which has a variety of implications for research, creating vaccines, and developing drugs. Given the endless potential that studying four DNA base pairs affords us, it's almost impossible to comprehend what we could do with eight base pairs. But recently, a group of researchers published a paperin Science, in which they revealed that they had synthesized four new DNA bases, naming the total of eight bases “hachimoji” (which means “eight letters” in Japanese). The synthesis of the four new bases—called S, B, P, and Z—radically changes our understanding of the genetic code and has the potential to transform genetic engineering.
DNA, which stands for deoxyribonucleic acid, is found in every cell and carries the information that determines the growth, development, and everyday functioning of an organism. DNA is a double-stranded molecule, and each strand consists of three components: nitrogen-containing bases (A, T, G, C), sugars, and a phosphate group. The bases of the two strands pair with each other through hydrogen-bonding and determine the identity of the genetic sequence. The main processes that DNA molecules undergo are replication, which allows cells to grow, and transcription, which helps DNA produce the different proteins that it codes for and which are necessary for a cell’s survival.
Replication occurs every time cells divide, since each daughter cell that results from the division must have the same genetic information as the parent cell. This ensures that the identity and normal functioning of each cell is maintained through every division. In transcription, an intermediate RNA molecule is created, which is then used to make proteins for use by the cell. RNA is very close in structure to DNA but the main function of RNA is to temporarily carry the information to make proteins.
The researchers synthesized two additional base pairs: S and B, as well as P and Z. Unlike the natural base pairs, these synthesized bases do not exist in nature. However, P, Z, S, and B have structures that are very similar to A, T, C, and G; they are also nitrogen-containing compounds that have small chemical differences to make them unique molecules. Like A, T, C, and G, they are able to undergo hydrogen-bonding, which is the link that holds bases and entire DNA strands together. The fact that the newly-synthesized base pairs have similar chemical structures and can hydrogen bond, just like the natural bases, indicates that they can behave very similarly.
After synthesis, the new base pairs had to be tested in order to determine whether they could undergo the same processes as natural DNA. The researchers added the synthetic base pairs into a double-stranded molecule that also included A, T, C, and G, and performed a variety of tests on this molecule to determine whether it maintained the characteristic features of natural DNA.
First, a crucial feature of DNA is that its base pairs are complementary and bind with each other through hydrogen bonding. This is necessary for preserving the identity of the genetic sequence and for ensuring that replication and transcription run smoothly. In this new molecule, the normal bonding between base pairs was preserved: A paired with T, and C paired with G, and notably, P paired with Z, and S paired with B. Also, the melting point—the temperature at which the bonds between base pairs break and the strands separate—of the molecule was very similar to that of natural DNA molecules. This important finding showed that the structure and stability of the synthetic base pairs is similar to that of natural DNA.
In addition, DNA is mutable: it can be changed both through natural and experimental mutations. Mutations provide an organism with genetic variation that allows it to adapt to different environments. Although mutations in DNA change the genetic sequence and potentially affect the functioning of a cell, DNA is easily changeable and the act of making mutations does not damage the structure and stability of DNA. As a matter of fact, researchers found that hachimoji that contained mutations were able to maintain the same structure; thus, like DNA, hachimoji is a mutable genetic information system. This feature of the hachimoji is crucial for its potential applications in genetic engineering: being a stable molecule that can withstand breaks and imperfections, it will likely be easily manipulated and inserted into cells.
The authors of the paper also tested whether transcription would occur, which is the process that copies a DNA sequence into an RNA molecule that can be used for protein synthesis. The synthetic DNA was able to undergo transcription, but only if specific RNA polymerases—enzymes that copy normal DNA into RNA in transcription—were present. The ability of this new DNA to make RNA opens up the possibility of developing new proteins, though limited by specific RNA polymerases. Also, the researchers did not test whether the RNA transcribed by the hachimoji would be able to be translated into protein. Nevertheless, the fact that the synthetic base pairs could be transcribed into DNA leads to endless pathways in genetic engineering, as RNA—a precursor to proteins—is often used in genetic engineering as a more direct method of inserting new proteins.
All in all, these researchers have established a new genetic system that can store and transfer genetic information with high stability and mutability. Thus far, this genetic system only exists in a precisely-controlled lab environment. Nevertheless, the authors of the paper emphasized that this finding has a wide variety of potential applications. With double the number of DNA bases as A, C, T, and G, hachimoji DNA has much more diversity and has the potential to make synthetic biology and genetic engineering more powerful. Currently, the number of codons, which make up proteins, is limited by the number of DNA bases at 64 possible codons. With an eight-letter alphabet, however, there are4,096 codons—a change that dramatically increases the number of possible, unique proteins that can be created. Having more possible sequences and proteins, for example, would lift constraints on drugs that need to bind to protein-specific receptors and targets in order to work. Without a doubt, this discovery completely upends the standard approach to research; rather than work within the confines of four base pairs, scientists in a variety of fields can employ this revolutionary discovery in unprecedented ways.
By: Clare Nimura
Can a toddler have anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or depression? We don’t often think about mental health problems afflicting very young children, but about ten percent of preschool-aged children have some form of emotional, behavioral, or relationship conflict. Currently, most young children (<5 years old) with these issues receive no diagnosis or intervention. Left untreated, they suffer long-lasting effects to their social and emotional well-being, including impaired social interactions, parent-child relationships, physical safety, and school readiness. If emotional, behavioral, and relationship problems are so common in young children, and can have such significant negative implications, why are they so often neglected? Moreover, how can we increase access to effective diagnoses?
The symptoms of emotional, behavioral, and relationship problems look very different in young children than in adults, which can make them difficult to recognize. For example, a depressed child might exhibit more irritability than a depressed adult, who might instead show sadness. Additionally, almost all children display these behaviors, though in milder forms. For these reasons, it can be difficult for parents or caregivers to recognize when children are showing signs of poor mental health, such as changes in mood or behavior, intense feelings, or difficulty concentrating. Conversely, healthy children are able to express their emotions and then return to stability without extensive intervention.
Additionally, emotional, behavioral, and relationship problems are difficult to identify in young children because they can be caused by innumerable factors. While some children may have a genetic predispositionto mental health problems, a child’s environment is critically important to the state of their social and emotional well-being. Environmental influences can work both ways: a supportive family can greatly improve a child’s mental health, whereas adverse life experiences can be powerful contributors to poor mental health. These experiences can include exposure to violence, parental depression, and housing or food insecurity, such that children in poverty are at a disproportionately higher risk for mental health issues. According to the CDC, 1 in 5 children living below the federal poverty line have a mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder.
Despite the staggering statistics surrounding early childhood mental health issues, both the general public and the medical field lacks awareness, reflected in the shortage of trained mental health providers; one study found that 43 statesare considered to have a severe shortage of child psychiatrists. For pediatricians not explicitly trained in mental health care, systematic screening surveys can be invaluable tools to identify young children with emotional, behavioral, or relationship problems, as well as children at risk. The only problem is that most surveys are arduous and time consuming. For primary care physicians under pressure from the medical system, extensive surveys can be infeasible; optimally, they would have a simple yet informative survey for their diagnoses.
Mary Margaret Gleason, a pediatrician, child psychiatrist, and graduate of the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, helped develop one such survey: the Early Childhood Screening Assessment (ESCA). The survey takes just 5 to 7 minutes and is written at a fifth-grade reading level. Parents complete this form in the waiting room, rating 36 items relating to their child’s behaviors on a scale of 0 (never/rarely), 1 (sometimes/somewhat), and 2 (always/almost always). The last 4 items on the survey screen for parental depression or other mental illnesses that could interfere with childcare.
The score determined by the survey can identify emotional, behavioral, or relationship problems and also serves as a risk assessment based on environmental conditions. This quantitative information can flag concerns that might otherwise remain unnoticed in a hurried pediatric physical. And as we know, neglecting to diagnose mental health in very young children can have many negative implications for their future well-being.
Mental health problems in very young children often go undiagnosed. Clearly, diagnosis is not the only factor—effective and sustainable treatment also requires great advancements—but awareness is a very important first step. Surveys like the ESCA can improve diagnosis and treatment for children in areas with limited access to trained mental health professionals. Increasing awareness of the prevalence and long-term implications of mental health problems in young children is essential to ensure that all children have the support they need to develop to their full potential.