Issue 5

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In this issue:


  • Turns out choking under pressure might not just be a human oddity.

  • Feeling sad? Fruit flies eat their feelings too.

  • How vegan mozzarella might end up on your Dominos order someday.


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Remember when you screwed up that important presentation?

Choking under pressure — it can happen to anyone. You prepared, 
you trained, and you practiced, but you still messed up when it mattered most. Don’t you wish we understood why this happens? A new paper shows that, like people, monkeys can fumble under pressure too.

Why would someone do this experiment?

We know humans choke under various circumstances. But psychological research has struggled to understand why. An animal model for the phenomenon could change that by giving us a sneak peek of what’s happening in the brain. This raises the question – do animals struggle under pressure when the stakes are high?

The experiment: Three monkeys were trained to do a very specific task in which they had to touch an onscreen target quickly and accurately. At the start of a trial, the monkeys were told what reward size was up for grabs for doing the task correctly. There were four reward sizes — small, medium, large, and a 10X Jackpot. Critically, the jackpot was suuuuper rare and only appeared 5% of the time.

How did the monkeys do?

Monkeys performed the task more quickly and accurately as reward size increased from small to medium to large. But on the Jackpot, their performance plummeted by 20-30%. It was as if the increased reward stakes made the monkeys perform way worse than before. The researchers also showed that it wasn’t simply reward size or reward scarcity that made the monkeys choke; it was the distinct combination of both.

Whoa. So what does this mean?

It means we have an animal model for studying why we choke under pressure, which could maybe one day help us prevent it. It also means that monkeys are relatable af.

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The Leak: Choking (aka performing worse than expected despite ability) happens to many people when there’s a lot on the line. Now researchers at Pitt & CMU have shown that monkeys sometimes choke too. This marks the first step towards figuring out how to prevent choking from happening at all.


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Has this never-ending pandemic made your sleep and eating habits worse?

You can probably blame that on loneliness. A new study shows that long-term social isolation can lead to poor sleep and overeating. But get this — the scientists behind this study didn’t actually study people. Instead, they studied fruit flies.

Hold up. Flies??

Believe it or not, flies have complex social lives. They forage for food in groups and engage in social practices like fighting and mating. Male flies are even known to drink heavily after experiencing sexual rejection from females (honestly, what a mood). Scientists often carry out social behavior experiments using flies because a) it’s easier, b) flies are unexpectedly similar to people, and c) we have a pretty good understanding of fly genetics. In this study, the researchers wanted to see what would happen to flies if they were isolated from their buddies for an extended period of time.

The experiment: Flies who had previously lived in a group were removed and housed alone. After around 5-7 days of isolation, these flies started sleeping less than before. But that’s not all — these flies also started eating excessively. You know how when your friend goes through a rough breakup and suddenly all they’re doing is eating ice cream and sleeping odd hours? Basically that, but for flies.

Why does this happen?

These socially isolated flies underwent some curious genetic changes during the experiment. For instance, their brains began to express more of a hormone that is associated with extreme hunger. They also expressed less of a chemical that is associated with feeling full after a meal. It appears that experiencing social isolation places the brain in a state of constant starvation, leading the flies to eat more and sleep less.

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The Leak: There might be a biological reason for why loneliness can lead to crappy sleep and exorbitant eating. For flies, 7 days of solitary confinement was enough to change their brains at a genetic level and bring on these behavioral changes. Wanna avoid the same fate? Call your friends (seriously, they miss you).


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What to say to someone trying to make a convincing vegan cheese?

Gouda luck with that. It feels like every day, there’s a new vegan alternative at your overpriced neighborhood Whole Foods. Meat that isn’t really meat? Check. Milk that isn’t really milk? Check. But cheese that isn’t really cheese? Sounds…questionable. The problem is that the texture of cheese is not easy to replicate. Cheese melts, bubbles, and stretches under heat in a VERY satisfying way. Most vegan cheese substitutes do not.

What makes cheese so unique?.

Gruyère glad you asked. The secret ingredient responsible for the indulgent texture of cheese is a protein called casein. This protein is the main reason why cheese behaves the way it does when heated. It is also only found in the milk of mammals. You can see why this creates a bit of a conundrum.

Thankfully, scientists have begun to whey in on this problem.

One way to produce casein without animal products is by using bacteria. Using a process called precision fermentation, bacteria can be trained to produce casein in a lab. This animal-free casein can then be coagulated using an enzyme called rennet (also made in a lab) to make cheese. According to Dr. Inja Radman, the co-founder of a vegan cheese startup called New Culture, this entire method “basically follows the standard of traditional cheese making processes that have been around for thousands of years”, with minor adaptations.

Can I buy these science cheeses in store?

Not quite yet, but cheddar late than never. New Culture has partnerships with Kraft and local pizzerias for the big reveal in San Francisco in 2023. “Mozzarella without the cow” is just around the corner.

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The Leak: Making food in labs is on the rise, and while vegan “cheese” has been around awhile, it’s never been even remotely close to the real thing. That’s about to change. Scientists who love cheese (I mean, who doesn’t), have figured out how to reproduce the necessary ingredients without involving any animals. And if you camembert the science behind it, no worries — we have your back.


In case you missed it:


  • Think recording the activity of a few hundred neurons at once is cool? Try a million. 🧠

  • Look out for our next issue in 2 weeks (every other Wednesday)! 🙌



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