Metro Science: Baby talk, the non-placebo, and the DNA sequencing revolution
Take a tour of the most important technology you've never heard of.
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Reading the chemical blueprint of life went from a pipe dream to a real thing only 40 years ago. It's done by sequencing DNA. Today's technology allows scientists to sequence huge volumes of diverse DNA with ease, making it possible to study the genetics of a whole community or ecosystem.
Old-school tech could only look at one species' genetic material at a time. Today, scientists can take a scoop of, say, pond scum, extract and purify all the DNA it holds from different organisms, and analyze the data with a powerful computer. This technology is called high-throughput sequencing (HTS), and game-changer doesn’t even begin to cover it.
INSIDE THE MAGIC BLENDER
The biological soup goes into a machine that reads each DNA sequence and translates it from a long string of molecules into a long string of letters. A computer cross-references them with a genetic library of known sequences from different species.
SPITTING OUT SPECIES
After decoding, the computer spits out a report of living things likely present in the goo. That's a huge feat, since species share a great deal of common DNA. The system needs to differentiate, for example, human DNA from chimp (99 per cent the same). Now, with artificial intelligence and machine learning, computers use sophisticated probability to teach themselves what species are likely inside in particular samples.
The applications are practically limitless. Projects include trapping mosquitoes in bulk and analyzing the blood they contain to find out what animals they’ve bitten and what viruses they harbour. Then there’s the American Gut Project: Thousands of people are sending samples of their poo – plus a detailed questionnaire – to the University of California so scientists can take a census of microorganisms in their guts.
Science story - The tower of babble
Forget Esperanto. There's only one universal language: baby talk. A new study in the journal Current Biology analyzed the voices of mothers who use 10 different languages. It found that when they speak to babies, they all use the same kind of sing-song speech and exagerrated syllables. The computer algorithm picked up the same vocal changes in all the women, regardless of their mother tongue. Other research has shown that far from being immature, baby talk has an important role to play in the development of babies' language and emotions.
Sound Smart: Your science vocabulary word for the week
A nocebo effect is the flip-side of a placebo effect: the pain or unpleasant sensation you feel because of the power of suggestion.
USE IT IN A SENTENCE
That cereal you just ate? It was served with a centipede milk, a new high-protein dairy alternative. Just kidding! It's cow milk. Any queasiness you may be feeling is just the nocebo effect.
Watch Metro Science on Facebook: Could diet soda be causing your joint pain? Genna Buck has the answers. Tune in at Facebook.com/MetroCanada at 12 noon EST.