Toxic turkeys?

Now that the Thanksgiving feasting is winding down, now would be a great time to tell you that that succulent turkey you’ve been scarfing down for the last couple of days contains measurable amounts of carcinogens. That’s right: your turkey has toxic chemicals that cause cancer. No this isn’t some conspiracy – Big Turkey hasn’t been pumping cancer causing chemicals into the birds. It’s a natural product found in turkeys (in all cooked products, actually), and while the risks are real, they’re actually really low (so go on and continue eating).

Surprisingly, people don’t really like it when I bring this up at mealtimes. And I’ve brought it up enough times to know that you’re probably still concerned and have some questions, so let’s just nip those in the bud while we are here.

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Turkey meat contains measurable amounts of heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which have been shown to cause cancer in laboratory studies.

Q: How do turkeys naturally have cancer causing chemicals in them?

A: Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are classes of compounds that occur naturally throughout the world (including your turkey). These are diverse groups of chemicals that are all large and perfectly flat, which means they easily insert themselves into your DNA, disrupting the structure and causing DNA damage. This is the first step to cancer (and only the first step).

Q: Is there a way to avoid eating HCAs and PAHs?

A: HCAs and PAHs are natural byproducts formed by incomplete combustion of organic material. If you remember your middle school chemistry class – fires start when a fuel (organic matter) and oxygen combine and rearrange their chemical bonds to form water vapor, carbon dioxide (CO2), which releases a lot of heat. If organic matter is not fully combusted, in addition to CO2 you get things like HCAs and PAHs. Some marinades help reduce HCA and PAH formation and avoiding direct contact to flame (like grilling and barbecue) can also reduce their formation. But since meat is organic matter, and cooking is essentially very inefficient burning, it’s pretty much unavoidable in your plate.

Q: So why doesn’t everyone who has ever eaten a turkey in their life have cancer?

A: Well, part of it is that DNA damage is only the first step to cancer. There are a lot more required before you need to get worried. As it turns out, your DNA gets damaged pretty frequently – UV light damages DNA (hence all the hubbub about sunscreen), and a lot of times DNA gets damaged when your cells are dividing, just by chance. So your cells, in turn, have evolved quite a few ways of repairing your DNA all the time.

Q: But what about those studies that show increased risk of cancer with meat consumption?

A: You mean like those released by the World Health Organization about bacon causing cancer? Okay, yes, like I said before, the risk is low, but it’s still a risk. While your body is capable of defending itself from HCAs and PAHs at any given time, the more meat you eat, the more your body will have to defend itself, meaning eventually your cells may not catch the damaged DNA in time, resulting in cancer. Think of sun exposure as an example – if you go out into the sun more, you’re more likely to get skin cancer because you’re exposing yourself to UV light more than someone who likes to stay inside. So if you eat more meat, you’re exposing yourself more to HCAs and PAHs, then you’re increasing your risk for cancer.

Q: Do I have to stop eating this turkey?

A: Probably not. I certainly haven’t stopped. Like everything else in toxicology, it’s the dose that makes the poison. Too much of anything, even something that’s good for you, eventually becomes bad for you (again, think of sun exposure and skin cancer). But to put things in perspective – the Global Burden of Disease Project estimates 34,000 deaths per year result from diets high in processed meats. In contrast, about 600,000 people die each year from alcohol consumption, 200,000 people die every year from air pollution, and about 1 million people die each year from cancer resulting from smoking. Thanksgiving turkey isn’t really the top of my list of toxic worries.

Just be yourself

This blog is first, and foremost, a platform for me to communicate my science and to share my world with you all. With that being said, it’s important to consider the impacts that current events have on society as a whole, since our science only exists because the world around us does too.

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Unless you’ve been living underneath some very large, fortunate rock, you’re aware that Donald Trump is the president elect of the United States of America. I (and many, many others) are quite alarmed by this at many different levels: as a person of color, as a member of the LGBTQ community, as a scientist. As impartial and objective science supposedly is, scientists can, are, and should be partisan (there’s definitely going to be more on this in the future). It’s no secret which candidate most scientists backed in this last election: the one that believes that climate change is a real and human driven phenomenon, the one that doesn’t believe that vaccines cause autism, the one that does not want to slash scientific funding. And unfortunately that was the candidate who lost.

Not 24 hours after the election, word of Trump’s plan to appoint Myron Ebell as head of the EPA was announced, solidifying many environmentalists’ worst fears. Mr. Ebell is a notable climate change skeptic and has been a vocal opponent to the Clean Power Plan, a bill introduced during President Obama’s administration to drastically reduce emissions from electricity generation (which greatly curtails the coal industry). That was just the first of many announcements of key members of Trump’s cabinet and staff – most recently including Steve Bannon as chief strategist, a noted anti-Semitic white nationalist. Considering that it’s been less than a week since the election and so much has already been stirred up, it’s no wonder we all feel worried about the future of science in America. And that’s not to say the other looming implications of Trump’s presidency aren’t terrifying as well: a step back in human rights for ethnic and religious minorities (particularly Muslim people), transgendered people, the disabled, and women, just to name some of the groups at stake.

While the wound may still be fresh, there’s already been an outpouring of the community around the world and online. People are reaching out to each other with affirmations: you are valued, you are safe, and we will get through this together. Dr. Josh Drew at Columbia University wrote an open letter to his students on the importance of continuing their work in environmental science. Dr. Meghan Duffy of the University of Michigan wrote a beautiful piece reminding all of us to say ‘Yes’ to meaningful goals beyond our own research, which may have larger impacts in the long run. Dr. Terry McGlynn from Cal State Dominguez Hills, wrote a fantastic call to protecting those who are most vulnerable in this time. Dr. Andrew Thaler, editor in chief at Southern Fried Science, wrote a Mandate for Ocean Outreach, a call to arms for all scientists to critically think about how to fix our shortcomings in bridging science to stakeholders. I highly recommend reading these pieces, and any others that you can find.

While I am not nearly as established, knowledgeable, or eloquent as these writers, I do want to throw my own voice into the mix, particularly as one vulnerable person to another. To my brothers and sisters worried about the future: the bravest thing to do right now is to be yourself, your truest self, and then double down on it. It’s a scary time to be gay, or Muslim, or Black, or a woman, to be yourself, but now is the most important time to be all those things and more. Be everything it is that racist, homophobic, white nationalists hate most.

It’s petty of me, but I fully believe in spiteful pleasure, finding happiness in defiance to those that hate you. Take heed in the fact that the powers that will be are so threatened by the mere thought of you that they felt it necessary to take the White House, the House, and the Senate, in order to address your existence. That’s how much power you hold over them. By simply existing, by continuing to live your life despite whatever it is they try, you are partaking in the biggest act of rebellion possible. So live your life as a person of color, as a woman, as a member of the LGBTQ community, as a Muslim, as yourself, with twice the commitment: once for you, and once more for them. Know that I’m right there with you, along with 61 million other people.

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Many thanks to Kevin Kohl for use of his graphic, which was inspired by a tweet from Fryda Wolff.

A Primer: your introduction to introductions

What’s a primer? Well, it really depends who you ask. If you ask someone who’s maybe a little more handy or artsy, a primer might be that first coat of paint that goes on before the real color does, either to help the color stick better or to prevent other things like rust from attaching on. If you ask someone who’s a little more mechanically oriented, a primer is a small pump or cap that brings in small amounts of fuel to the engine to get it started. A molecular biologist, like myself, might say that a primer is a small molecule (usually a pair of them) that helps start a polymerization reaction.

Or if you're a real film buff - a primer might be that really really confusing 2004 movie about time travel. These will be much easier to understand. Hopefully....

Or if you’re a real film buff – a primer might be that really really confusing 2004 movie about time travel. These will be much easier to understand. Hopefully….

What these all have in common is that a primer is something that helps get things started; it provides the first bits of fuel or sets up the system so that it’s all ready to go. So for you, dear readers, a primer might be something that serves as an introduction to something scientific. Your brain is the system and I’m providing you that basic knowledge, the starting material, for you to build upon. In this ongoing series of posts (which will be tagged with ‘A Primer’), I’m going to be introducing the background reading, the basic material behind some very important concepts, methods, and procedures that will let you better understand what it is that biologists are doing. Stick around, read up, and let’s see what your mind is ready to do once it’s gotten primed up.

print(“Hello World!”)

Well hi there!

If you haven’t checked out the About section, let me fill you in.

I’m a west coast boy from the San Francisco Bay Area, where I somehow gained an interest in the natural world around us (I blame Sir David Attenborough). I studied it in more detail in undergrad at UC Davis, where I also developed an interest in molecular biology, particularly in how we might use it to study how pollution affects ecosystems. Which pretty much brings us here, to today.

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Casually measuring some crabs. As one does. 

I’m now a Ph.D. student in Dr. Anne McElroy’s lab at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. We’re an aquatic toxicology lab, so we’re mainly focused on how anthropogenic stressors affect aquatic ecosystems. Personally, I’m looking at how psychiatric drugs affect fish development and behavior, using zebrafish as a model system. But you’ll hear plenty about that if you stick around (please do!).

So what can you expect from this blog? Well, a lot of science, mostly. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, but it’s all I know! I promise I’ll try to make it fun. But like I said, I’m an ecotoxicologist, so that’s certainly going to be a big part of this blog. The title’s pretty evocative, but not many people really know what that means so I’m here to help show you. But more importantly, I want to share with you what it’s like to be a scientist. It’s an interesting life, and it would be a shame not to share it.

So stay tuned!