The New York Times, May 9, 2013, by Anahad O’Connor — For years, health officials have told parents not to share utensils with their babies or clean their pacifiers by putting them in their mouths, arguing that the practice spreads harmful germs between parent and child. But new research may turn that thinking on its head.
In a study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, scientists report that infants whose parents sucked on their pacifiers to clean them developed fewer allergies than children whose parents typically rinsed or boiled them. They also had lower rates of eczema, fewer signs of asthma and smaller amounts of a type of white blood cell that rises in response to allergies and other disorders.
The findings add to growing evidence that some degree of exposure to germs at an early age benefits children, and that microbial deprivation might backfire, preventing the immune system from developing a tolerance to trivial threats.
The study, carried out in Sweden, could not prove that the pacifiers laden with parents’ saliva were the direct cause of the reduced allergies. The practice may be a marker for parents who are generally more relaxed about shielding their children from dirt and germs, said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious diseases expert at Vanderbilt University who was not involved in the research.
“It’s a very interesting study that adds to this idea that a certain kind of interaction with the microbial environment is actually a good thing for infants and children,” he said. “I wonder if the parents that cleaned the pacifiers orally were just more accepting of the old saying that you’ve got to eat a peck of dirt. Maybe they just had a less ‘disinfected’ environment in their homes.”
Studies show that the microbial world in which a child is reared plays a role in allergy development, seemingly from birth. Babies delivered vaginally accumulate markedly different bacteria on their skin and in their guts than babies delivered by Caesarean section, and that in turn has been linked in studies to a lower risk of hay fever, asthma and food allergies. But whether a mother who puts a child’s pacifier in her mouth or feeds the child with her own spoon might be providing similar protection is something that had not been closely studied, said Dr. Bill Hesselmar, the lead author of the study.
In fact, health officials routinely discourage such habits, saying they promote tooth decay by transferring cavity-causing bacteria from a parent’s mouth to the child’s. In February, the New York City health department started a subway ad campaign warning parents of the risk. “Don’t share utensils or bites of food with your baby,” the ads say. “Use water, not your mouth, to clean off a pacifier.”
In the new study, doctors at the University of Gothenburg and elsewhere followed a group of about 180 children from birth. The children were examined regularly by a pediatric allergist, and their parents were instructed to keep diaries recording details about food introduction, weaning and other significant events.
By the age of 18 months, about a quarter of the children had eczema, and 5 percent had asthma. Those whose parents reported at least occasionally cleaning their children’s pacifiers by sucking them were significantly less likely to develop the conditions — particularly eczema — and blood tests showed that they had lower levels of a type of immune cell associated with allergies. Analyses of the children’s saliva also showed patterns that suggested the practice had altered the kinds of microbes in their mouths.
The researchers then looked to see if the method of childbirth provided any additional protection.
It did. The children who were delivered through Caesarean section and whose pacifiers were rinsed or boiled had the highest prevalence of eczema, nearly 55 percent. The group with the lowest prevalence of eczema, about 20 percent, were born traditionally and had parents who cleaned their pacifiers in their mouths.
But are these parents also transmitting harmful infections to their children?
The bacterium that causes dental cavities, Streptococcus mutans, is highly contagious. Studies show that children can be infected at a very young age, and that the strain they pick up is usually one that they get from their mothers. That is why health authorities tell parents to do things that can lower the rate of transmission to their children, like not sharing utensils or putting their mouths on pacifiers.
But Dr. Joel Berg, president of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, said those efforts are misguided, since parents are bound to spread germs simply by kissing their children and being around them. “This notion of not feeding your baby with your spoon or your fork is absurd because if the mom is in close proximity to the baby you can’t prevent that transmission,” he said. “There’s no evidence that you can avoid it. It’s impossible unless you wear a mask or you don’t touch the child, which isn’t realistic.”
Dr. Berg, who does salivary research at the University of Washington, said the new findings underscore something he has been telling his patients for years, that “saliva is your friend.” It contains enzymes, proteins, electrolytes and other beneficial substances, some of which can perhaps be passed from parent to child.
“I think, like any new study, this is going to be challenged and questioned,” he said. “But what it points out pretty clearly is that we are yet to fully discover the many and varied benefits of saliva.”
SingularityHub.com, May 10, 2013, by Peter Murray — In what they call the “first step in creating sustainable natural lighting,” a group of innovators coming out of Singularity University have launched a Kickstarter campaign to create glowing plants. Admittedly the idea of replacing street lamps with glowing foliage will seem far-fetched to many. But after just three days the campaign has gone viral, already having surpassed its goal of $65,000.
The core team includes Omri Amirav-Drory, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford and founder of the gene building startup Genome Compiler, a Singularity University company coming out of the rapidly expanding Singularity Labs. Also part of the core team are Senstore co-founder Antony Evans, and Kyle Taylor, a biologist who teaches Intro to Molecular and Cell Biology at the biohacker space BioCurious. The three have now joined forces at Singularity University. I got a chance to speak with Evans, the group’s Project Manager, and ask him about the groups’ exciting and eccentric vision.
To create the glowing plants, the team will first generate modified genes with the Genome Compiler software, then insert them into Arabidopsis, a small flowering plant related to mustard and cabbage (they make sure to point out that the plant is not edible). The main gene, luciferase, is the same one that makes fireflies light up the night.
Evans acknowledges that this isn’t the first time luciferase has been used to create glowing plants. But to create plants bright enough to light our way will take a lot of optimizing. The feature that they’ve already worked out is modifying the luciferase gene so that it recycles, as lots of the enzyme will be needed to make the plant sufficiently bright.
With Genome Compiler they’re able to design and print DNA, to make new sequences from scratch. But even while the price of DNA synthesis drops, costs can mount quickly, especially when you’re troubleshooting. At the time of this writing, the Kickstarter campaign had raised over $64,000 – less than a thousand shy of their goal after just three days. The more money the group gets, the more genes they’ll be able to print and test.
To create a system that people can experiment with, they had to start simple. If you’ve seen Arabidopsis you know it’s more suited to light a dinner table than a sidewalk. “We chose it for good reasons, it’s about as safe as it gets. It’s a winter plant that won’t do well in direct sunlight, so it won’t go crazy [by spreading uncontrollably]. Two, it’s about as good as it gets as a model organism. Because it has such a small genome its metabolic pathways have been completely mapped. What I would really like to do one day is a willow tree, but genetically engineering trees is pushing the boundaries of science that we’re not ready for.”
While the genetics will have to be worked out, for Arabidopsis and willow trees or whatever comes after, Evans said the toughest part about getting the project going was “dealing with the ethics and regulatory questions. Science in some ways is the easy part. There isn’t a lot of precedent for what we’re doing. It took a long time to get to a consensus [with regulatory bodies] on that.”
The glowing gene is first inserted into agrobacteria which are then used to move the gene into the plant. [Source: Kickstarter]
Want to support the cause, or maybe just have the only house on the block with a glowing yard? People from the US who back with $40 or more will be sent seeds (50 to 100) of their own so they can cultivate the glowing crop in their own backyard. They emphasize that the seeds will never be sold commercially, so the only chance ever to get the seeds is through Kickstarter. Those interested can follow them on twitter or Facebook or follow developments on their blog. And anyone in the Sunnyvale, CA area can meet up with the team at the Bioluminesence Community meetups at BioCurious Monday evenings.
Evans acknowledged that they’ve encountered a fair amount of skepticism, but the team hopes to convert those skeptics. “More than lighting streets it’s about educating and inspiring the public – it’s not as dangerous as people think. We want to put a beautiful plant in their hands and show them it’s useful and safe.” And for those who are interested, the team plans on publishing a paper so that others can learn from their trial-and-error and won’t have to reinvent the wheel. “The plant is the sexy part, but if we can establish guidelines, I think that might be the more important part.”
The funds raised with the campaign are just the beginning. The real resource, Evans tells me, is people. “Bigger than the light itself, if we can get people to invest their time, being creative, building an ecosystem, then they can get together to try things and build things. I know it sounds cheesy, but I think of the light of the plant as ‘lighting the way.’ I want kids to see it and think, ‘I can do that,’ go down to the lab and start coming up with things. And that’s where the real innovation will come from, because they’ll come up with things we can’t.”
Like the campaign, Evans hopes the plants will eventually grow into something beyond the original vision. Plants are exquisitely sensitive to their environment and respond to minute changes in air, temperature, light. “You could modify the plants for all kinds of sensing applications,” he says. “I firmly believe that this is something that’s going to revolutionize our society. With this technology we have a lot of tools that can solve a lot of humanity’s problems. We’re limited only by our imagination.”
Kickstarter Replaces Lights with Glowing Plants!