In this monthly rundown from OPB, we feature the most interesting, wondrous and hopeful science coming out of the Pacific Northwest, from Jes Burns, creator of “All Science. No Fiction.” And remember: Science builds on the science that came before. No one study tells the whole story.
Lipstick made of what?
Paraffin is the most common wax produced worldwide, and it’s relatively common in cosmetics. But paraffin is made from petroleum, and a market has popped up for renewable alternatives to beauty products.
The scientists were originally trying to create new biofuels from a substance called alkenone, which is produced by certain ocean phytoplankton. They couldn’t get the biofuel idea to pan out economically, so they shifted their attention to a more promising market.
Now they’ve licensed their formulation to a new company called Upwell Cosmetics with the goal of commercializing the algae-based wax. The researchers say their invention has the potential to replace petroleum-based waxes in products such as lipstick, sunscreen and deodorant.
Read more about how alkenone performs in product trials in the International Journal of Cosmetic Science here.
Shifting the burden
Birth control pills have been available to people who don’t want to get pregnant since 1960 in the United States, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration still hasn’t approved a male contraceptive pill (the more general story of why is pretty interesting).
Researchers at Washington State University are hoping to buck this trend by developing “the pill” for men — and anyone else who doesn’t want to get someone pregnant. They’ve identified a particular gene expression, called Arrdc5, that shows up as a protein in testicular tissues of mammals. When they knocked out that gene expression in male mice and let them have sexy times with females, nary a pregnancy resulted.
Men who naturally don’t have Arrdc5 protein have a condition called oligoasthenoteratospermia. They’re often infertile because their sperm production drops, and the sperm that are made are deformed and don’t swim very well.
The scientists say developing a drug that inhibits the Arrdc5 protein could result in an effective and reversible male contraceptive. They’ve applied for a patent to do just that.
Read the paper in the journal Nature Communications here.
Less wasteful … with AI
Every year it’s estimated that up to 40% of the food produced in the United States is wasted. Most of that waste happens at retail outlets and at home. But the reality is we don’t know exactly how much food is actually thrown out at the end of the line — and it’s very difficult to manage something that isn’t being measured.
Computer science and agricultural researchers at Oregon State University Cascades have just received a chunk of funding to find a solution for this problem. They’re developing a smart compost bin that tracks how much food is tossed inside.
In the first iteration, you’ll tell the bin what you’re throwing inside. It will use voice recognition to record the data. Eventually the idea is to have a bin that relies on artificial intelligence to recognize food waste without any outside help.
The researchers intend to start a pilot program with their new smart compost bins next spring. They want the data to help inspire systemic changes to help reduce food waste in the future. But in the shorter term, they hope the measurements can help individuals make better choices to reduce food waste at home.
Motor voter side effects
In 2016, Oregon became the first state to implement an automatic voter registration system. Since then, 20 others have followed the model of linking voter registration to getting a driver’s license or registering a car. The change in Oregon has been significant: In the first year, the voter rolls swelled 14% and (as of 2017) voter turnout and diversity has increased.
But an analysis by researchers at Lewis and Clark College has flagged an unintended consequence of the particular way Oregon runs its motor-voter system: a roughly two-thirds drop in political party registration.
Oregon uses a “back-end” registration system, meaning individuals are automatically registered to vote through the state department of motor vehicles and then can opt out or join a political party through a form they’re sent via mail. Most motor-voter states use a “front-end” system where citizens can pick a party or opt out while they’re at the DMV.
The researchers found that the drop in registration affected all political parties similarly. One impact of the decline is that fewer new voters will be eligible to vote in primaries where party membership is required.
Read the study in the journal Electoral Studies here.
Dusty waves to the rescue
The ocean is the largest carbon sink on the planet, absorbing more than 30% of our annual carbon emissions. One of the big drivers of ocean carbon storage is phytoplankton because — like plants — they use carbon dioxide to grow. When they die, they sink to the seafloor and store that carbon away safe and sound.
Like all plants, phytoplankton also need nutrients to thrive. A lot of these nutrients come from the ocean itself. But we now know that a significant amount of those nutrients comes from the land — in the form of dust.
Researchers at Oregon State University, NASA Goddard and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County used satellite imagery to gauge phytoplankton health and abundance over time. They paired that with data about dust movement (from wind, storms, etc…) and how much falls into the ocean.
They found 4.5% of the world’s total annual carbon storage is driven by dust falling into the ocean and feeding the phytoplankton. That’s a lot of carbon sequestration.
The researchers caution that one of the coming effects of climate change is a change in the atmosphere, which is expected to decrease its ability to transport dust.
Read the paper from the journal Science here.
“All Science. No Fiction.” update: What if we could 3D print new organs?
Back in February, we told the story of researchers at Oregon Health and Science University who are doing amazing work in a field called biofabrication.
Now that lab has been awarded $1 million to equip their Knight Cancer Precision Biofabrication Hub in Portland. The funds will help the lab expand its work using 3D printers, with the aim of doing everything from healing major bone injuries, personalizing cancer treatments and even building full-sized functional organs for transplant.