IBM Needs Your Help Studying the Human Microbiome

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iStock

Humans have been to the Moon and the deepest part of the ocean, but when it comes to understanding what goes on in our own bodies, there's much that still needs to be explored. The human microbiome, for instance, is made of up of trillions of microscopic organisms that dictate everything from our gut health to certain chronic diseases. Now, Boston Magazine reports that IBM is attempting to study the human microbiome like it's never been studied before, and they're calling on the public to help with the effort.

The goal of the initiative, dubbed the Microbiome Immunity Project, is to decode the genomes of the many bacteria living inside the human body. Scientists know that the micobiome is linked to some diseases, such as Type 1 diabetes, Crohn's disease, and ulcerative colitis. By analyzing the proteins these bacteria produce, researchers hope to get a better understanding of how these diseases happen and how to treat them at the microbial level.

To do this, scientists plan to study the proteins related to the 3 million unique bacterial genes of the human microbiome. For comparison, more than 20,000 genes were mapped for the Human Genome Project, and that undertaking lasted 13 years.

Technology has come a long way since that project was completed in 2003, but IBM will still need all the help they can get to make the Microbiome Immunity Project happen. In addition to collaborating with the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Massachusetts General Hospital, University of California-San Diego, and the Flatiron Institute, IBM is calling on members of the public to donate their surplus computing power.

If you're interested in contributing to the citizen science project, you can sign up to join IBM's World Community Grid. From there, you'll be able to download a software program that detects when your computer has extra processing power to offer and uses it to run virtual experiments for the project. "Had World Community Grid not existed, we wouldn't have even contemplated this project," Rob Knight, director of the Center for Microbiome Innovation at UC-San Diego, said in a press statement. "By harnessing the efforts of volunteers, we can do something that exceeds the scale of what we have access to by a factor of thousands. For the first time, we're bringing a comprehensive structural biology picture to the whole microbiome, rather than solving structures one at a time in a piecemeal fashion."

IBM's software won't be able to access anything on your computer other than its processing power, and the company assures users that the system will be tested regularly for vulnerabilities. The crowdsourced computing program has been used to conduct research in areas such as cancer, HIV/AIDS, Zika, clean water, and renewable energy in the past. If IBM can get enough people to take part this time around, they plan to share their data publicly with other scientists working to study the microbiome's role in disease.

[h/t Boston Magazine]

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Winter is Coming: Why Some People Seem to Feel Colder Than Others

Work blanket? Check. Hot tea? Check. Writing gloves? Check.
Work blanket? Check. Hot tea? Check. Writing gloves? Check.
shironosov/iStock via Getty Images

For a few weeks a year, as winter turns into spring, or summer gives way to fall, people in heavy coats coexist with those in sandals and shorts. Similarly, in an office where the thermostat is set at 74°F, some workers will be comfortable in short sleeves, while others will be wearing sweaters and scarves.

Underlying this disagreement are the different ways people perceive cold—and scientists are still trying to understand them.  

Men, Women, and Metabolism

In work settings, men and women often have different opinions about the ideal temperature. A 2019 study found that women performed better in math and verbal tasks at temperatures between 70°F and 80°F, while men did better below 70°F. The researchers proposed that gender-mixed workplaces might boost productivity by setting the thermostat higher than the current norm (which the Occupational Safety and Health Administration suggests should be between 68°F and 76°F).  

The discrepancy has a known physical basis: Women tend to have lower resting metabolic rates than men, due to having smaller bodies and higher fat-to-muscle ratio. According to a 2015 study, indoor climate regulations are based on an “empirical thermal comfort model” developed in the 1960s with the male workers in mind, which may overestimate female metabolic rates by up to 35 percent. To compound the problem, men in business settings might wear suits year-round, while women tend to have more flexibility to wear skirts or sundresses when it's warm outside.

Culture and the Cold

Cultural factors are also involved. European visitors are habitually alarmed by the chilly temperatures in American movie theaters and department stores, while American tourists are flabbergasted at the lack of air conditioning in many European hotels, shops, and offices. The preferred temperature for American workspaces, 70°F, is too cold for Europeans that grew up without the icy blast of air conditioners, Michael Sivak, a transportation researcher formerly at the University of Michigan, told The Washington Post in 2015.

The effects of cultural change on the human ability to withstand extreme temperatures can be dramatic. In the 19th century, 22 percent of women on the Korean island of Jeju were breath-hold divers (haenyeo). Wearing thin cotton bathing suits, haenyeo dove nearly 100 feet to gather shellfish from the sea floor, holding their breath for more than three minutes in each dive. In winter, they stayed in 55°F-57°F water for up to an hour at the time, and then warmed up by the fire for three of four hours before jumping back in.

In the 1970s, haenyeo starting wearing protective wet suits. Studies conducted between the 1960s and the 1980s showed that their tolerance for cold diminished [PDF].

Blame Your Brain

Beyond the effects of cultural practice and body composition, scientists have started to identify the cognitive factors that influence our temperature perception. It turns out that what feels unpleasantly cold versus comfortably chill is partly in our own minds.

One example is the phenomenon described as “cold contagion.” A 2014 study asked participants to view videos of people immersing their hands in visibly warm or cold water. Observers not only rated the hands in cold water as cooler than those in hot water, but their own hands became cooler when watching the cold-water videos. There was no comparable effect for the warm water videos, however. The findings suggest that we may feel colder when surrounded by shivering people at the office than if we're there by ourselves, even when setting the thermostat at the same temperature in both cases.

Other studies highlight the psychological aspects of temperature perception. Experimental participants at the Institute of Biomedical Investigations in Barcelona, Spain, watched their arms become blue, red, or green by means of virtual reality, while the neuroscientist Maria Victoria Sanchez-Vives and her team applied heat to their actual wrists. As the temperature increased, participants felt pain earlier when their virtual skin turned red than when it turned blue or green.

Subjectivity in temperature perception has led to some creative treatments for burn patients. In the 1990s, Hunter Hoffman, David Patterson, and Sam Sharar of the University of Washington developed a virtual-reality game called SnowWorld, which allows patients in hospital burn units to experience virtual immersion in a frozen environment. Amazingly, playing SnowWorld counteracted pain during wound care more effectively than morphine did.

“The perception of temperature is influenced by expectations,” Sanchez-Vives tells Mental Floss. “Putting one’s hand inside a virtual oven is perceived as ‘hot,’ while sticking one’s hand into a virtual bucket filled with iced water is perceived as ‘cold,’ despite being at room temperature in each scenario.”

In other words, if you expect to feel cold walking into the office or out on the street, chances are that you will.