Blogging around here has been slow lately - now that the crazy holiday season is over, I'm immersed in an essay I'm writing on the remarkable use of science in Thomas Pynchon's latest novel Against the Day. I think what Pynchon did in this novel has been severely underappreciated in the reviews that have been published, because you have to have enough awareness of the science to pick up on Pynchon's references and see what he's doing with them. One example: at one point in the novel a character (who is a math student studying Riemann manifolds) walks through a brick wall; Pynchon is playing around here with the notion of 'cuts' on a Riemann surface.
There's a whole lot more, and I'm putting something together that will hopefully be fun for Pynchon fans with little science background, induce scientists who haven't read a Pynchon novel to pick one up, and not make people who are both Pynchon fans and scientists cringe.
In the mean time, I have to highlight some recent papers that have come out of Jeff Gordon's lab here at the Center for Genome Sciences. The Gordon lab studies the interaction between the genes of mice and the microorganisms that live in their guts. We all have many, many different types of microorganisms living inside our intestinal tract, and the Gordon lab has been studying how that population of microorganisms impacts how we process food for energy. This is how the Gordon lab puts it in their most recent paper:
"The trillions of microbes that colonize our adult intestines function collectively as a metabolic organ that communicates with, and complements, our own human metabolic apparatus."
This paper reports that mice without these gut microorganisms don't become obese when fed a high-fat, high-sugar diet, and identifies several enzymes that may be related to this resistance to obesity.
The December 21/28 issue of Nature featured the Gordon lab's research on the cover and contained this paper and this paper connecting obesity with gut microbiota.
The studies look at the types of microorganisms present in the guts of obese mice and humans, compared with lean mice and humans. The group also has studied how these microorganisms "harvest energy from the diet."
These studies rely on mice with defined populations of gut microorganisms and genome sequencing. To look at what's living in a particular mouse's gut, you isolate some fecal samples from mice with various mutant genes, and then sequence the DNA to find out what's in there. The Gordon lab has germ-free mice - mice born without any microorganisms in their guts and kept sterile until the researchers add a defined population microorganisms. So you can take the microbiota from an obese mouse, put it in the gut of a germ-free lean mouse, and see if that lean mouse becomes obese.
Of course I'm really simplifying a lot here; I suggest checking out the abstracts I've linked to. This is an interesting, innovative way to use sequencing to study genes and health.