Thursday, August 19, 2010

Dating advice from your friendly neighborhood finch

In the animal kingdom, it's well established that by interacting with some individuals and avoiding others, you can influence your experience with natural selection (read: your chance of mating with a hot stud/chick). I think this paradigm is especially obvious in the high school setting: hanging out with the footballers and the cheerleaders increases your odds of mating (or at least, attempting to mate), while hanging out with the geek squad (ah, the good old days) definitely decreases your chance of mating (Glee, anyone?).

A while back, I wrote about dating lessons we can learn from monkeys. Today, I'll share with you the results of a recent study that highlights a dating lesson we can learn... from birds. American researchers set out to analyze the social networks of a species of wild finches to study the relationship between how pretty they are (ornament elaboration), how social they are (social lability), and how successful they are at mating. So they captured and banded a whole bunch of finches, and tracked them year-round.

The researchers found that less elaborate males (the "ugly" ones) shifted social groups more often than the prettier males. When it came to finding a mate, this party-hopping behavior somewhat compensated for their ugliness: the highly social birds were more successful at finding a mate when compared with equally ugly but less social birds.

There's an important lesson here: to increase your chance of mating, it might be a good idea to vary who you hang out with. I'm sure Dear Abby would approve.

Reference: Structure of social networks in a passerine bird: consequences for sexual selection and the evolution of mating strategies. (2010) Oh and Badyaev, Am Nat 176(3):E80-9.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

To supplement or not to supplement

Health information can sometimes be a real puzzle*. For example, your doctor may recommend that you take a calcium supplement, since calcium is important for strong bones. Then, the next day, you may read in the news that calcium supplements will give you a heart attack, which is exactly what happened to my mom last week. What should you do? Like most medical interventions, it’s all about risks and benefits. While a new study (you may have already heard of) highlights a risk of calcium supplements, don’t throw away the bottle just yet.

The researchers carried out a meta-analysis: a study of studies. Essentially, they searched for previous studies of calcium supplementation (compared with a placebo) and compiled them together to try to tease out effects that each single study may not have detected. Overall, the researchers ended up analyzing 11 studies between 1990 and 2007, for a total of 12,000 participants. In all the studies, 143 people who were taking calcium supplements had a myocardial infarction (a heart attack), compared with 111 people who were taking the placebo. This represents an increase in the risk of myocardial infarction of 31% for those taking calcium supplements. Interestingly, calcium supplements were only associated with an increased risk of myocardial infarction in people who already had a big calcium intake through their diet (more than 805 mg/day).

This study will no doubt shake things up in the fields of cardiovascular health and osteoporosis prevention. However, there is one important caveat with this analysis: the researchers did not look at studies where the supplement was a combination of calcium and vitamin D. Therefore, one cannot assume that calcium/vitamin D supplements would lead to the same risks. In fact, another recent study in women reported that calcium and vitamin D administered together had no effect on the risk of heart disease. It’s also important to remember that when weighing risks and benefits, calcium (and vitamin D) does a lot more than just strengthen your bones: it has also been shown to play a role in the prevention of certain cancers.

One thing is for sure: dietary calcium intake is safe. So go ahead and enjoy the moo juice.

*You’ll be pleased to hear that I am dedicating my postdoctoral training to solving the puzzle.

Reference: Effect of calcium supplements on risk of myocardial infarction and cardiovascular events: meta-analysis. (2010) Bolland et al. British Medical Journal [Epub ahead of print].

Monday, August 2, 2010

Relevant science for a summer party

I've been busy. I would like to say that I've been enjoying the wonderful Vancouver summer, but in academia, summer rhymes with grant writing. This means that I spend most of my days writing up long-winded research proposals that describe the exciting science I'd carry out if only (insert name of funding agency) would give me the (insert large amounts of money) I need. Of course, each funding agency (usually charitable organizations or government organizations) has slightly different requirements. One wants an 11-page proposal in New Times Roman font in size 12 with the references as part of the proposal. The other wants an 14-page proposal in Arial font size 11 with the references in an appendix. So on and so forth. So yeah, buckets of fun.

Interestingly, trying to convince others that my brilliant ideas should be funded also makes me wonder how other types of research get funded. Since this is the summer and I'm sure you'd prefer some light reading, I thought I'd share a little gem of an article on a topic of utmost importance that really illustrates my point about funding: the best possible way to... Pour champagne.

French researchers (who else?) looked closely at two different ways of pouring champagne into a champagne glass (a flute): (1) the traditional way, which consists of letting champagne fall vertically and hit the bottom of the flute, thus generating a thick head of foam, and (2) the "beer-like" way, which consists of pouring the champagne on an inclined flute wall, which generates less foam. The researchers analyzed a number of parameters such as the concentration of dissolved carbon dioxide and the temperature of the champagne. As it turns out, serving champagne chilled (4-12 degrees Celsius) in the beer-like way minimizes the loss of dissolved carbon dioxide, a parameter of utmost importance since it impacts various aspects of the champagne-tasting experience. The researchers stress the value of their research and call for revisiting the traditional way of serving champagne, especially when champagnes are to be compared in competitions.

Wow. Seriously, who funds this? And most importantly, why is it that some researchers have all the fun? The fine print tells us that the researchers "thank Champagne Pommery for regularly supplying (them) with various champagne samples". I think I missed my calling.

Reference: On the losses of dissolved CO2 during champagne serving. (2010) Liger-Belair et al. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. [Epub ahead of print].

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