3 Things You Probably Didn’t Know about Turkey

The Merriam’s subspecies of wild turkey. Photo by Dan Garber, Smithsonian Institution.

The Merriam’s subspecies of wild turkey. Photo by Dan Garber, Smithsonian Institution.

This Thanksgiving, millions of Americans will once again head over the river and through the woods—or onto the interstates and jam-packed jets, as the case may be. Millions more will stay home to host family and friends. Most will likely serve turkey. After all, it’s America’s traditional Thanksgiving entrée.

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Julie Long, a scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service. In the spirit of the Thanksgiving holiday, here are three things Long shared that you probably didn’t know about turkey.

  1. There may no longer be any populations of the wild turkey that was the ancestor of the turkey most Americans will eat this Thanksgiving.

Long and other scientists from USDA, the Netherlands’ Wageningen University, and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute determined that the ancestor of today’s Thanksgiving dinner turkeys was most likely a wild turkey from Mexico.

However, the only place the team could find that turkey was as a preserved specimen at the Smithsonian Institution. And that turkey was genetically distinct from today’s wild turkeys.

“The wild birds that are in North America are not genetically related to the commercial breeds that we eat,” Long says. The team published its findings in BMC Genomics in 2012.

Apparently, early Spanish explorers took the ancestral birds back to Europe. Farmers there developed different breeds. Later, English colonists brought domesticated turkeys with them to Jamestown. So much for a totally “American” tradition.

  1. Although many media photos of live turkeys show brown birds, the turkey on most Americans’ tables this Thanksgiving will have had white feathers.

Brown turkeys are tasty and edible. But they probably wouldn’t look that good to most Americans.

“At the tip of every feather that’s colored, there’s a bit of pigment in the skin,” Long explains.

That pigment causes dark spots on the skin. Rather than educate people about the meat’s wholesomeness, commercial turkey breeders just raise white turkeys instead.

  1. All turkeys for large-scale U.S. commercial operations must be artificially inseminated.

In a quest to get the most white meat per turkey at the lowest cost, farmers have bred turkeys to have “enormous breasts,” says Long. “A male turkey can up to get up to 70 or 80 pounds when they’re mature,” says Long.

However, those big-breasted males “physically can’t get where they need to be,” Long says. As a result, farmers need to help them along with artificial means. Because of poultry’s biology, however, achieving high rates of success is more difficult than it is for mammals.

I’m thankful that Long shared these insights with me, along with lots of other fascinating information for the article I was preparing at the time. That piece should be out this winter.

More generally, I’m grateful for all the patience and courtesies that researchers show to me throughout the year so I can better understand and write about science. And I’m thankful for readers who enjoy this blog, along with my books and articles for a variety of outlets.

Here’s hoping everyone has a blessed and wonderful Thanksgiving!

 

 

Sleeping Like a Baby

Photo (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

Photo (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

Everyone knows newborn babies sleep a lot. At least, that’s what the books say–although many sleep-deprived parents might disagree. But why?

Scientists have mounting evidence to support the idea that sleep is necessary for effective learning and memory functions. Other research links lack of sleep to increased risks for different types of mental disease.

Now new research adds additional support for the broader idea that researcher Howard Roffwarg and his colleagues suggested as early as 1966–that infant sleep might help in the structural maturation of circuits in the central nervous system.

The new study shows those circuits aren’t limited to those needed for learning and memory. Moreover, the effects of sleep deprivation could last much longer than we think. Amita Sehgal of the University of Pennsylvania presented the research at the Society for Neuroscience’s 2014 annual meeting.

Sehgal first described how fruit flies are a useful model for sleep research. For starters, they’re practical. Fruit flies are cheap to use and breed in large numbers.

Second, fruit flies have many of the same behaviors that mammals do. And yes, fruit flies actually sleep.

Fruit flies have a simpler anatomy than mammals, however. As a result, it’s easier for researchers to do dissections and identify interactions in their central nervous systems.

And beyond all of this, fruit flies are useful for forward genetics work. They have distinct mutant phenotypes with less redundancy and compensation. Modify the genetic makeup, and the fruit fly usually won’t be able to make up for the change with other mechanisms. With these factors in mind, researchers have developed several specific strains of fruit flies to have particular characteristics.

The research team explored how differences in fruit flies’ neurotransmitter levels affected different aspects of sleep, such as difficulty in arousing them from sleep or “rebound” after a period of sleep deprivation.

Researchers also looked at fruit flies’ behavior. In particular, the team found that particular scent pathways that are necessary for effective courtship behavior did not function properly in mature flies if they had been deprived of sleep after being newly hatched.  Sehgal and her colleagues Matthew Kayser and Zhifeng Yue published the research in the journal Science in April 2014.

Last month, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) ranted about NIH funding research “to discover whether or not male fruit flies would like to consort with younger female fruit flies.” Sehgal said yes, her group’s research was what Rand was referring to.

But the study wasn’t about sex, she stressed. And while the study was done with fruit flies, their importance as an animal model means that human researchers can learn a lot from the results.

Bottom line: Much more happens in newborn sleep than we realize. And scientists now have measurable evidence to document some of what’s going on.

Of course, much more work remains to be done. Maybe some of today’s newborns will one day add to the growing body of scientific knowledge and understanding about the brain.

And maybe their parents will get to catch up on some sleep.

 

What’s for Lunch?

Food service workers prepare meals for the school lunch program. Photo by Ken Hammond, USDA Agricultural Research Service Image Library, Image 03CN0713-4.

Food service workers prepare meals for the school lunch program. Photo by Ken Hammond, USDA Agricultural Research Service Image Library, Image 03CN0713-4.

What’s on your child’s lunch tray? It depends on whether your child packs lunch or buys the full meal deal available under the National School Lunch Program.

Either way, the meal probably meets nutrition standards “almost entirely,” says Alisha Farris, lead author of a new study at Virginia Tech. The report appears in the November/December issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, published by Elsevier.

Lunches brought from home were more likely to exceed recommendations for fat and saturated fat. They were also more likely to have dessert items, savory snacks, and sugar-sweetened drinks.

The researchers examined both types of school lunches for kids in preschool and kindergarten after implementation of the 2012-2013 National School Lunch Program standards. The results are mostly consistent with earlier studies that compared school lunch program and packed lunches for different grade levels.

“This is consistent with what we have seen,” says Beth Spinks, a registered dietitian and director of nutrition services for the Berea City School District in Ohio.

Yet while packed lunches on average came close to meeting nutrition standards, there was still a lot of variation in what was in those lunches. At one point Spinks asked a grad student to evaluate packed lunches brought by fifth graders in that school district.

“They were all over the place in nutrients,” Spinks says. Indeed, some lunches packed by students themselves “just had chips and cookies.”

To the extent school lunches fell short in the Virginia Tech study, it was generally on the energy and iron recommendations. When it comes to calories, kids don’t have to take all the items offered by school meal plans, and researchers were focusing on what kids actually had on their trays.

Just having food on their trays isn’t enough, though. Kids actually have to eat the food to get the nutritional value, and the Virginia Tech team recognized this as a limitation in their study. Thus, one recommendation it makes for future studies is to gather food waste data and compare consumption for packed and school lunches.

Spinks agrees this would be worthwhile.

“When we watch the garbage cans, we see a lot of food from both the packed and purchased lunches being thrown away,” she says. “We need to figure out why. Planning a great lunch does nothing if the child does not eat it.”

Meanwhile, the study could be helpful to promote school meals and give parents suggestions for packing lunches, she notes.

And nutrition isn’t the only thing parents should focus on if they pack lunches for themselves or children. Food safety matters too, stresses Spinks.

Now there’s another topic for research….

 

 

Creative Minds in Medicine

Karen Bowersox of Downs Designs shows the "Dip Down" jeans her company designed for people with Down Syndrome. Photo (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski.

Karen Bowersox of Downs Designs shows the “Dip Down” jeans her company designed for people with Down Syndrome. Photo (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski.

What do the arts and medicine have in common? More than you might think.

This week’s Creative Minds in Medicine conference in Cleveland brings together a wide range of experts from both the artistic and medical communities. Presented by the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture, the program spotlights some of the many ways art can contribute to better health outcomes and how health issues are influencing art.

Different forms of art therapy have been practiced for decades, but innovation continues. The Alzheimer’s Poetry Project is a prime example. Founder Gary Glazner led the packed conference room through a spirited session using call-and-response, stories, and on-the-spot composition. The session showed how the project uses poetry to improve the quality of life for patients with memory loss.

Deforia Lane’s presentation on the healing power of music showed how and why music therapy is helping people of all ages dealing with mental and physical disease and disabilities. Lane directs art and music therapy at University Hospitals Case Medical Center’s Seidman Cancer Center in Cleveland. Her rousing session had participants singing along, clapping, and even hand-dancing. (You had to be there.)

Research results support these and other forms of art therapy. But more is needed, stressed Sunil Iyengar of the National Endowment for the Arts. Toward that end, his office offers some grants and is partnering with other government agencies to increase funding opportunities for researchers.

But art doesn’t just help patients directly. It can help health professionals too—enabling them to serve patients better.

Toward that end, the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Vital Signs program for healthcare professionals brings medical residents and students into the museum for focused programs. Rather than spending just a few seconds in front of an artwork, groups focus on them for about 20 minutes. They discuss pieces of art together, and questions help them see and appreciate different perspectives.

Artists and designers are producing products and services that help the medical community too. A design and innovation panel showcased mobile apps, custom-designed skull plates, and even adaptive clothing.

The program continues today in Cleveland. And artists and designers in Ohio and elsewhere will continue to innovate and contribute to medicine and other fields that touch our lives everyday.

 

 

Spooky Data?

Would you believe Minnesota’s Twin Cities rank first and second on a list of the United States’ 100 best cities for celebrating Halloween this year?

So says a new study from WalletHub, a personal finance social network founded by Evolution Finance. The same study ranks Winston-Salem, North Carolina, last, behind Anchorage, Alaska, and Detroit, Michigan.

Despite the study’s conclusions, though, you won’t see me booking a flight to rush to Minnesota, where the Twin Cities’ current forecast calls for sunny weather but a high of just 42° F. Nor would I flee Winston-Salem, where the high on Friday is expected to be 63° F.

Image (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski.

Image (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski.

For one thing, jet-setting in search of the perfect Halloween city isn’t for me—nor for most people, I expect.

More importantly, the fact that one study ranks a city above or below others depends on the criteria. Yes, some things can be measured objectively. But the weight study authors give to different factors doesn’t necessarily reflect that I might value.

In this study, for example, the methodology assessed things such as weather forecast data, crime rates, percentage of the population under age 14, prices for Halloween party tickets and other entertainment, and even the number of candy stores per capita.

Certainly I would rank safety and the relative percentage of children as items that help make somewhere a good place to celebrate Halloween. Last-place Winston-Salem ranked 96th there, although 44th-place Scottsdale, Arizona, ranked 98th.

I also agree that weather is an important factor. Living in the Midwest, I often designed my kids’ costumes to allow plenty of room for them to wear warm jackets underneath. And a Halloween with torrential rain isn’t much fun for kids or the adults who take them around trick-or-treating.

In this year’s report, El Paso, Texas, tied with Las Vegas, Nevada, for first place weather-wise. Yet while El Paso ranked 22nd overall, Las Vegas placed 10th—even though the safety rank for Las Vegas was 76, compared to 29 for El Paso.

The reason: The study’s methodology gave Las Vegas a much higher “parties and activities” rank than it gave El Paso. But, duh! Las Vegas bills itself as a “parties and activities” destination. I wouldn’t want to take my kids trick-or-treating from casino to casino, though. Nor would I, as an adult, necessarily want to find myself in the middle of a huge costumed throng, trying to live up to the motto that what happens in Vegas stays there. Large parties and a vibrant bar scene are fine as far as they go. But I wouldn’t let them be a deciding factor in which city is “better” for celebrating Halloween than another city.

Other criteria in the methodology likewise seem irrelevant to me. The number of candy stores per capita? Sure, I’ve been in some superb confectionaries. Chatham Candy Manor on Cape Cod makes some amazing fudge, for example, and Malley’s is a venerable establishment in Cleveland. But for stuff to give trick-or-treaters, don’t most of us just head to the local supermarket for a name brand item?

The number of costume stores per capita seems irrelevant as well. The average person buying a costume may well spend more than $77 this year, and I understand the business can be a nice uptick for the local economy. But a costume store on every corner doesn’t make one city better than another for celebrating Halloween.

In short, the worth of any study depends on its methodology. And any survey combining and weighting different factors necessarily involves some value judgments on the part of the researchers.

WalletHub’s study is still interesting and worthwhile. As with any similar study, though, it’s important to look behind the rankings and dig deeper into the data.

Peace Should Know No Boundaries

Malala Yousafzai, 2013. Crop from public domain White House photo by Pete Souza.

Malala Yousafzai, 2013. Crop from public domain White House photo by Pete Souza.

Congratulations to Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi on winning the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize. The Pakistani teen girl and 60 year-old Indian man are sharing the award “for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.”

Satyarthi gave up a career as an electrical engineer to take a stand against child slavery. In addition to leading public protests, he has rescued thousands of child slaves and helped them start new lives.

“Child slavery is a crime against humanity,” he told the Associated Press. “Humanity itself is at stake here.”

Although Yousafzai is only 17, she has spent years speaking out on behalf of girls’ right to an education. Her 2013 book, I Am Malala, became a best-seller.

Although working independently, both Yousafzai and Satyarthi have been targets of violence. Satyarthi has survived multiple murder attempts. Yousafzai was shot in the head while traveling on a school bus in 2012.

“The Nobel Committee regards it as an important point for a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, to join in a common struggle for education and against extremism,” says the committee’s official press release.

Yet while both winners have made an enormous difference, much remains to be done. Women and girls continue to be oppressed in various countries in the Middle East and elsewhere. And child labor continues to oppress roughly 168 million young victims.

“It is a prerequisite for peaceful global development that the rights of children and young people be respected,” the Nobel committee stressed. “In conflict-ridden areas in particular, the violation of children leads to the continuation of violence from generation to generation.”

The 2014 Nobel Peace Prize celebrates the work that its two deserving honorees have done so far. Yet it is also a challenge to the rest of us: What is each of us doing to promote peace in this world?

 

 

Can Religion Reduce Risks of Suicide?

Teen suicide is always a tragedy. Sadly, it’s the third leading cause of death in the United States for young people between the ages of 10 and 24, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And beyond the 4,600 young people who die from this preventable cause each year, another 157,000 in that age group wind up at emergency departments for self-inflicted injuries.

Torahs at Congregation Mickve Israel in Savannah. Photo (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski.

Torahs at Congregation Mickve Israel in Savannah. Photo (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski.

While these figures are just for the United States, teen suicide is a concern for countries around the world. Now a new study from Tel Aviv University provides some interesting insight.

Researchers Gal Shoval and Ben Amit found that observant Jewish teens displayed 45 percent less suicide risk behavior, including attempted suicide, than Jewish teens who did not actively practice their religion. The study appears in the journal European Psychiatry.

Previous studies of Christian teens had also found lower risks for suicidal behaviors among those who actively practiced their faith versus those who didn’t. However, Shoval and Amit believe the explanation for the lower risks are different for the two groups.

As Amit explained in the press release from Tel Aviv University:

Using statistical tools, we demonstrated that the protective effect of the practice of Judaism was not associated with a decreased risk of depression. Instead, it enhanced effective coping mechanisms. This stands in direct contrast to studies of religious Christian teenagers who reported feeling less depressed than their secular peers. According to our study, religious Jewish teens appear less likely than secular ones to be at risk of suicide even though they are still likely to be depressed.

Shoval suggests that practicing their religion might provide Jewish teens with a source of hope, even if they continue to suffer depression:

We know from working with suicide survivors that even when they were 99 percent sure they were going to kill themselves, they still sought hope. Jewish faith and community may be their most important source of hope.

This raises some questions and challenges for everyone, regardless of which faith they may follow or not follow. For starters, what can everyone who cares about teens do to spread hope, both at and outside of a church or other religious community?

Beyond that, how can we address continuing problems of depression for all teens, both as a society and in our individual lives? Even if a teen is not suicidal, living with depression is not a happy situation.

Access to mental health services and support for getting help are crucial. After all, someone’s life may depend on it.

 

 

 

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