Legislation Looks at Lavender Labeling

In the EU lavender oil, or any products containing lavender oil, may soon come with a warning label. (By soon I mean 2018.) Lavender oil is generally used as a fragrance, but can also be an antiseptic and an anti-inflammatory. According to WebMD people claim lavender is good for depression, insomnia, headache, toothache, colic—the list goes on—with apparently little to no scientific backing. The one “possibly effective” use of lavender oil is for regenerating hair loss caused by alopecia. The European Chemicals Agency, who is pushing for the labels, claims that lavender oil can oxidize and cause skin irritation.

Warning: Field May Cause Allergies, But If You Aren't Already Sneezing Then You're Probably Fine

Warning: Field May Trigger Allergies, But If You’re Not Already Sneezing Then You’re Probably Fine

The labels are quite controversial among lavender growers, not only because the labels may hurt sales but because lavender oil is not a synthetic product. The plants are grown in fields, many in southern France, and the flowers are steam distilled into oil. Even more, this isn’t even a remotely new process. People have been growing lavender and distilling it long before the European Chemicals Agency existed.

What’s more, a report released by Givaudan (a fragrance and flavoring company) claims the amount of linalool (the molecule under question in lavender oil) in fragrances is much, much lower than that in patch tests that show skin irritation. It takes about 400 μg/cm2 to cause irritation and there’s only about 0.3 μg/cm2 of the chemical in average fragrance samples.

French farmers are putting up signs in their fields that say “Help us: Save the lavender!” and “Lavender is not a chemical product” in protest. One grower told Chemical & Engineering News that she would rather close her business than add warning labels to her products. A French association (PPAM de France) that represents fragrance and medicinal farmers begun a campaign this summer to fight the labeling. Switzerland is taking things more diplomatically (who would have thought) and their International Fragrance Association released a statement saying that they’ll comply with any new legislation.

I’m not sure why they aren’t treating the oil like peanuts and simply putting “May Contain Lavender Oil” on products with lavender oil. But, as Nelson Muntz would say, I donno, gotta label somthin.

Breaking News: Fish Confused by Optical Illusions

Despite the sarcastic title, this work is pretty neat. In a recent Scientific Reports paper (open access, yay!), researchers from the University of Padua in Italy found that fish pretty much see the world as we do, as least when talking about motion illusions. If you’ve spent time as a child, you’re probably familiar with optical illusions (personally, I was obsessed with Magic Eye books; maybe I shouldn’t say was). Motion illusions are a type of optical illusion that make the brain perceive motion from a static image (see picture below).


Their version of the classic Rotating Snakes illusion, abbreviated RSI in the paper because all academic papers need more abbreviations.

Why fish? It turns out that fish don’t have a visual cortex like humans and other mammals. We know fish can see (they need to to hunt and escape predators) but we don’t know exactly what they see. We do know they see changes in light, but can they see texture and contrast and form? In mammals, this additional sight comes from our visual cortex. If fish do get additional visual information, then they must do so in a manner completely distinct from us. That’s why fish were chosen: to see if they perceive an illusion that arises in mammals from our visual cortex.

To find out this interesting piece of scientific information, they crammed a fish tank between two computer monitors. On one monitor was the RSI (the allure of abbreviations has not yet left me). The other monitor had a static version of the image, only subtly different, without the motion illusion. The fish were trained to spot motion to get a food reward (tasty, tasty brine shrimps).

After all was said and done, 18 out of 24 fish were confused (that’s 75%). They thought the illusion was real and tried to get their food reward (their… just desserts). This compares fairly well with the percentage of humans who can see the illusion (that’s 84%).

The experiment didn’t explain how fish, with their lack of visual cortex, saw the motion. If anything it threw more questions into the mix, which I think is a good thing. The object of a good scientific paper shouldn’t be to answer all the questions but to ask more… unless you’re trying for a Theory of Everything (the answer to it all, the mack daddy of theories, the big ToE).

I’m like a rat. I only fly away.

A decade ago, scientists at the University of Florida taught a Petri dish rat brain to fly a flight simulator. They grew a culture of 25,000 rat neurons and, using 60 electrodes, hooked it up to a common desktop computer. At first, the neurons were simply scattered in the dish, but they quickly started to form connections. “You see one extend a process, pull it back, extend it out – and it may do that a couple of times, just sampling who’s next to it, until over time the connectivity starts to establish itself,” Thomas DeMarse, the lead biomedical engineer of the work, described in a ScienceDaily release. When the neural network was joined to the computer, more connections formed as the “brain” learned to control the simulated F-22. Eventually, the “brain” could control the pitch and roll of the aircraft in a variety of conditions, including hurricane-force winds.


Would a Petri dish brain get motion sickness?

According to the release, “As living computers, they may someday be used to fly small unmanned airplanes or handle tasks that are dangerous for humans, such as search-and-rescue missions or bomb damage assessments.” A prescient statement for a time before drones (or at least before the public knew). Who knows, maybe the next generation of war will be fought by rat brains.

(For anyone who doesn’t understand the title of this post, I thought I’d bring back some early 2000s references. Remember this?)

Hemp: Not Just for Granola-Eating Hippies

Hemp is back, man, and more energizing than ever. David Mitlin, then at the University of Alberta and now at Clarkson University, has developed a method for making supercapacitors out of hemp that is not only much cheaper than graphene (the cream of the crop as far as organic conductors go), but also outperformed standard devices by nearly 200%.

In a press release from the American Chemical Society, Mitlin gives the best quote possible on his research: “We’ve pretty much figured out the secret sauce of it. The trick is to really understand the structure of a starter material and to tune how it’s processed to give you what would rightfully be called amazing properties.” Right on.


The American Society of Mechanical Engineers is down with hemp.

To make the supercapacitors, his group heated hemp waste at 180 °C (~350 °F) for a day to get a nice char going, then blasted it at 800 °C (~1470 °F) with a little potassium hydroxide. That final burn turned the char into carbon nanosheets (as so nicely depicted in the above picture from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers). The hemp precursor left a lasting impression on the nanosheets, giving them the unique molecular structure that Mitlin claims is key to his device performance. The sheets were riddled with holes 2–5 nanometers in diameter, making nice paths for charges to move in and out.

Yury Gogotsi, materials scientist at Drexel University, in a comment to Chemical & Engineering News, says that scaling up the process may be difficult (read: costly), what with the high temperatures and day-long heating process.

But that’s just, like, his opinion, man.

Froggy Style

City frogs like to look for mates in the gutter, according to a report in the Journal of Zoology. Researchers in Taipei found that male tree frogs were congregating in storm drains. It turns out that the structures amplify their mating calls by about 4 decibels, which could help to attract the ladies. The verdict is still out on whether this technique works, but I suspect frogs aren’t too picky about the setting of their romantic trysts.


Our little buddy desperately calls for a mate.

Read a bunch of articles on the paper here: Nature News, Live Science (which got picked up by Mother Nature Network and for some reason The Christian Science Monitor), CityLab (complete with “Sexy Sewer Mix” recording) and News Tonight Africa.

That Spider Looks Like Shit

Bird shit, to be specific. In a sad-for-you but funny-for-me play by evolution, the Cyclosa ginnaga orb-web spider has somehow learned to fashion its nest so, when sitting in it, the spider looks like bird poop. This is, like most evolutionary advances, done in an effort to avoid predators (thankfully, these spiders don’t dress up like poop to find a mate). To predators such as ants and wasps, the color of the spider’s body and its web decorations are indistinguishable from each other and from bird dukes. A group in Taiwan published these findings in a recent issue of Scientific Reports (which is open-source, hooray).

(a) Our spider friend pretending to be poop and (b) a reference in case you don't know what bird poop looks like.

(a) Our spider friend pretending to be poop and (b) a reference in case you don’t know what bird poop looks like.


In the paper, the authors noted  that many have pointed out that the spider looks like shit, but no one has ever done a scientific experiment to confirm this “hypothesis”.  So they gathered up 10 spiders and waited for them to spin their webs. Then they measured the specific wavelengths of light emitted by the spider’s bodies, their webs, and, of course, bird turd for comparison. Using a computer program to analyze the emitted patterns, they found that bees and wasps couldn’t distinguish between the spider and its web—it all looked like one big blob to them. What’s more, they couldn’t distinguish the spider-web blob from a pile of bird dinks either.

Then, they went out in the wild and decided to color some of the webs black so that the spiders could no longer hide. In short: “When the color signal of decoration silk is altered the predator attack rate increased significantly,” I-Min Tso, an ecologist at Tunghai University and co-author of the paper, told Smithsonian Magazine. The spiders not only needed to blend in with their web, but the entire setup had to blend in with the background, the forest. Black was just too obvious of a disguise.

Oddly enough, “it’s really not all that uncommon. Several other spiders, like Bolas spiders, also use this disguise,” Cornell University arachnologist Linda Rayor, who was not involved in this study, told National Geographic.

So the next time you think you look like shit, remember our little friend C. ginnaga and realize you don’t look so bad after all.

Journal of Proteomics Gets Weird

Harry Belafonte and the secret proteome of coconut milk sounds like a bad detective novel from the 50s (maybe even a radio show). Really, it’s the title of a January 2012 paper in the Journal of Proteomics. After the title, the abstract calms down a bit. They talk about mapping the proteome (proteins expressed by a genome) of coconut milk. Their reason for doing this pain staking work is to create a starting point to discover the proteins responsible for the beneficial health effects often attributed to coconut milk.

And then there’s the graphical abstract:


And their wonderful caption: “Here is your coconut woman, as perhaps envisioned by Harry Belafonte. For its proteome, though, have a look at the report inside!”

They also have a list of highlights about coconut milk.

  • The beverage promoted by Harry Belafonte since at least 1957!
  • A most nutritious beverage in vogue in the Caribbean and all over the world.
  • A grand total of 307 unique gene products detected.
  • Now you know what is the proteome in your Mocha Coconut or Coconut Crème Cappuccino or even in your Piña colada.

In the introduction they even have a recipe for a Batida de Côco coctail (“coconut milk is mixed with sugar and cachaça”). The paper then goes on to talk about proteomics and gel electrophoresis and mass spectrometry, but, man, did they really put some effort into making their work “interesting.”

Preceptor? Like in Harry Potter?

The University of Delaware is taking a hint from medical fields like nursing and pharmacy to join together two difficult topics: chemistry and biology. The goal is to help students learn complicated chemistry in relation to basic biology ideas, which C&EN reported in this week’s issue.

Basically, the program is taking graduate level scientists who have their Ph.D. or masters and having them act as a learning guide. These preceptors play a role between TA and professor. They’re in the labs and classes getting their hands dirty, but aren’t involved in grading or assessment. They’re mentors which give no judgement. Michael Weir, one of the preceptors, equates his role to that of a “friendly uncle” who will answer questions and solve problems without students being afraid of punishment. Students are divided into smaller groups (though still 48 large) and assigned to a specific preceptor. The students have more access to the preceptor as opposed to a professor overseeing a class of 200.

I really hope the idea catches on. Not only will the undergraduates have access to more personalized help (which I think is absolutely important for first and second year undergraduates) but the preceptors will have experience teaching at the university level. One thing I think larger schools suffer from is the larger class sizes, which is absolutely necessary unless you want a huge staff of professors whose priority is to teach rather than do research (which would cost more money and drive up tuition prices even more). Though I’m not sure that the preceptors need to be staff members as they are at University of Delaware. I think upper level graduate students who want to go into academia could nicely fill this role. It would give them a one-up on their resume, too.

David’s Tree of Lice

Note: I am at the National Science Writer’s Association meeting in Gainesville, FL! Today was the New Horizon’s sessions featuring researchers in different scientific fields. This post is about one of those talks.

David Reed paces the stage, microphone clipped to his tie, flipping through slide after wordless slide, like he’s giving a TED talk. With great enthusiasm, he tells us about human evolution and how much we’ve learned about our ancestral lines in the past few decades.

He showed a lot of pictures like this:


And this:


Then he starts talking about pubic lice. Apparently, the evolution of lice tells a partial story of the evolution of man. Lice cospeciate with us, meaning that we are so closely linked they evolve along side us. Their lineage line, showing when a a line splits into two genetically distinct species, mirrors ours. Lice are our evolutionary pals.

Humans have two species of lice: Pediculus Humanus, which covers head and clothing, and Pthirus Pubis, which covers, you guessed it, the pubis—crabs. Closely related in the evolutionary trees is Pthirus Gorillae, pubic lice for gorillas. In fact, Reed has shown that human and gorilla pubic lice come from the same lineage. He noted science writers headlined their stories with “Humans Got Pubic Lice From Gorillas” even though this exchanged happened about 3 million years ago.

To test the louse lineage, he had to run the genome, which meant getting samples.

“Getting pubic lice is pretty easy,” he said. The crowd giggled at this seemingly Freudian slip. “But getting pubic lice off a gorilla is pretty hard.” The crowd roared.

Shared crabs isn’t the only thing he’s learned from our lice friends. Looking at where a species splits can give us valuable evolutionary timeline information. For example, clothing lice and head lice shared a common ancestor. The split gives us an estimate on when lice traveled from our bodies to the new furry things wrapped around our shoulders—our very first clothes. The split happened between 80 to 170 thousand years ago, so Reed estimates that sometime in there humans started wearing clothing (his work estimates around 100k). This time line also corresponds to when humans were moving north to cooler climates and our relatively non-hairy skin just wasn’t cutting it.

Humans evolve pretty slowly, so it’s hard to determine our “recent” history. What Reed is calling recent is actually about 15 thousand years ago, when humans first crossed the ice bridge over to the Americas. By “studying the passengers that took that road trip with us” we can discover something about ourselves.

Just something I want to point out

I don’t know why people think animals are generally stupid. Maybe because they don’t have language (although sperm whales have regional accents, so that must say something) and haven’t taken over the world (opposable thumbs really helped us with that one). Maybe it’s from the religious notion that animals don’t have souls. Either way, it’s left us with an undue pride of being the only truly cognizant species on the planet.

Recent years have shown that animals do think and reason—some researchers even go as far to say animals have rudimentary feelings, though in the scientific literature they are careful in their phrasing. Now, we’ve learned that elephants can understand what a human means when they point. The researchers pointed and the elephants found food. Apparently, they’re the first wild animal to do this. (Wolves are known to follow a human’s gaze,  but don’t understand pointing.) Elephants already use their trunks to point so it makes sense that they understand what a little creature is doing when they wave their two tiny side trunks.

I’m reading Animal Wise by Virginia Morell and she really highlights the ability for animals, even insects, to think and learn. I think (I hope) that in the next few decades we’ll come to realize that how we see the world isn’t so different from how animals see the world. Rather than categorizing their actions under the broad topic of “animal instinct” we’ll realize that these creatures think and learn just like us. Sure, humans have the benefit of being able to mold the world around them, but maybe, just maybe, we’ll realize that we’re not so much better.