Your Burger Is Full of Living Things, Even If It’s Vegetarian

Post 7038

Maddie Stone

Your Burger Is Full of Living Things, Even If It’s Vegetarian

Your Burger Is Full of Living Things, Even If It's Vegetarian

We all have our personal feelings about how a burger should be cooked. But if there’s one thing that’s universally agreed upon, it’s that a burger on bun with ketchup and toppings should be very much dead. In reality, that’s not the case at all.

Your cow patty is a goddamn ecosystem. And yes, vegans, so are your seitan burgers.

Like everything else on the surface of planet Earth, our meals are teeming with life. We just didn’t notice until recently, when scientists began using genetic tools to study the invisible microbial ecosystems, or microbiomes, that permeate our world. Today, we’re just beginning to discover how the microbiomes in our bodies, our homes, and yes, our sandwiches, impact our health. Let’s explore what we know about the ecosystems we eat.

How Many Bugs We Talkin’?

Obviously the first question on any sane person’s mind is how many microbes am I actually consuming in my meal. At first glance, you might suppose this is the sort of information you could find online. But while food manufacturers are required by the FDA to monitor microorganisms in the case of pathogens and probiotics, until recently, very little was known about the more benign critters we consume on the daily.

Your Burger Is Full of Living Things, Even If It's Vegetarian

Yum. Image via Michael Stern / Flickr

It’s not really an easy question to answer. Produce picks up microbes in the fields, during transport, and at the grocery store. Meat gathers a handful of critters at the processing plants. Even microwave dinners aren’t sterile—freezing will kill most microorganisms, but a small number survive and can be resuscitated after food thaws. Even if you zap the crap out of your hot pocket in the microwave, it’ll pick up bugs from the air, your plate, and your utensils before it ever enters your mouth (also teeming with microbes).

The long and short of it is, every meal you eat is alive, and no two meals are quite the same. But that’s not a very satisfying answer. As we’re becoming increasingly aware, even the non-pathogenic microbes in our environment can have major impacts on our health. Before we can determine how much the microbes we eat matter, we need to get a sense of roughly how many critters we’re consuming—and how much that number varies much from diet to diet.

One of the first studies to tackle this topic is a paper published in the open-access biology journal Peer-J this past December. In the study, researchers from University of California, Davis prepared or purchased a day’s worth of meals and snacks representing three different ‘typical’ American diets: A fast-food diet featuring Starbucks, McDonalds, and frozen dinners, a USDA-recommended diet that included a mix of fruits, veggies, meat, dairy products, and whole grains, and a vegan diet containing oatmeal, protein shakes, and tofu soups. All meals were purchased or prepared in a home kitchen, whipped up in a blender, and subjected to several microbiological tests—plate counts to estimate the total number of critters present, and DNA analyses to determine the overall community diversity.

The USDA diet contained the most microbes, roughly 1.3 billion. The lion’s share of these bugs were found in a cup of cottage cheese (1.1 billion), although the meal plan’s turkey sandwich also contained a notable 38 million microbes, and a small yogurt and apple snack harbored another 55 million. The vegan diet clocked in second with way fewer microbes—roughly 6 million—most of which were hiding out in a blueberry banana soy protein shake. And the processed-food diet contained the fewest, but still a modest-sized city’s worth of life forms: 450,000 critters in a Starbucks Mocha Frappuccino, 240,000 in a Big Mac, large fries and coke, and 680,000 in a prepared Stouffer’s lasagna.

Your Burger Is Full of Living Things, Even If It's Vegetarian123

Fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi and yogurt contain huge numbers of tasty bacteria. Image via Shutterstock

Most of the foods the researchers studied were dominated by bacteria, although certain meals contained a healthy population of viable yeast (roast turkey sandwich, presumably the bread) or mold (1.5 million cells in a bowl of Kashi cereal, and I’d rather not know why.) For the exact numbers and the full breakdown of all the meals, you can check out the open-access scientific paper.

Caveats to this study abound. The three diets the researchers profiled only contained a limited number of foods, and if different meals were swapped in, the overall numbers might have been dramatically different. For instance, the USDA diet was the only one to included cultured foods—yogurt and cottage cheese—and these contained more microbes than just about everything else put together. If the vegan meal plan had featured kombucha and kimchi, it might have come out the frontrunner.

But while the lives of the hundreds of thousands of microbes in your frappucino are certainly intriguing (I for one am wondering whether they’re into the sugar or the caffeine), the exact numbers aren’t really what’s important here. The takeaway is that most of us are consuming millions to billions of relatively harmless microbes on the daily, and that the total number varies depending on our dietary preferences.

The next question is whether we should care.

Do They Matter?

If the article you’re reading right now — presumably after having consumed millions of microbes for breakfast — isn’t sitting so well, know this: Most of the microbes you eat are swiftly dissolved by your stomach acid, which has a pH of about 1.5. Still, a small number of acid-tolerant microbes will make it past that hurdle unscathed, moving merrily along into your digestive tract. And here, they meet the natives.

Your Burger Is Full of Living Things, Even If It's Vegetarian

The microbial cells in your body outnumber your own 10:1. Image via Shutterstock

If you thought there were a lot of microbes in your food, please have a look at your intestines. Even a moldy bowl of Kashi pales in comparison to what’s living in your gut. It’s estimated that the average human harbors somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 trillion gut microbes—a diverse community comprising bacteria, archaea, and eukaryotes. A large body of research now suggests that our gut microbiome influences our health in diverse ways, touching everything from digestion to the immune and the endocrine system.

When it comes to the microbes we eat, then, a key question is whether they contribute to this cast of invisible characters that secretly influence our lives. This is a very, very new area of research, and right now we have more questions than answers. In a few cases, such as breastmilk, we do know that food microbes matter. Not long ago, human breastmilk was thought to be sterile; we now know that it is, in fact, a creamy bacterial soup. And we’re learning that some of the bacteria in breastmilk are making their way into into the infant gutand establishing themselves as permanent colonists.

By the age of 2 or 3, a toddler’s gut microbiome will typically have the full diversity of a healthy adult. At that point, it seems to be harder, though not impossible, for newly ingested microbes to set up shop. According to a review paper published last month in Trends in Microbiology, probiotic bacteria such as Lactobacillus — which we consume by the billions in certain dairy products — tend to stick around for a short period of time before moving on:

There is compelling evidence that some ingested bacteria can reach the small intestine and colon alive and metabolically active. Here, they make up an important part of our transient microbiome which, in turn, is part of the variable microbiome that is repeatedly identified in comparative microbiome studies.

Even if the microbes we eat don’t stay in us, they can swap snippets of DNA with members of the established gut community, in a process known as horizontal gene transfer. It’s possible, then, that our meals represent something of a reservoir of new genetic material for our established gut biota. But we’ve yet to learn how important this process is and exactly what traits might be shared between the visitors and the natives.

“Ultimately,” the authors of the aforementioned review paper write, “a key question is whether the impact of ingested bacteria reaches beyond pure ecology of the gut microbiome and impacts host health.” As we continue to dig deeper, profiling the microbes in both our diets and our bodies, we will begin to answer that question.

For now, it’s probably best to just make peace with the fact that your meals are in fact quite alive. Every bite you swallow results in a very tiny mass murder.

Contact the author at or follow her on Twitter.

Top image via Flickr

The Milky Way Over Yellowstone is Impossibly Beautiful

Post 7037

Mika McKinnon

The Milky Way Over Yellowstone is Impossibly Beautiful

The Milky Way Over Yellowstone is Impossibly Beautiful

These photographs of Yellowstone National Park by Dave Lane are so gorgeous it’s difficult to believe they’re from real life.

The Milky Way Over Yellowstone is Impossibly Beautiful

The Abyss Pool in Yellowstone National Park. Image credit: Dave Lane

Lane photographed the Abyss Pool in Yellowstone National Park just after a storm had passed the area — you can catch the hint of a flash of lightning between the trees in the center light. The image contains an astonishing example of airglow, the faint emission of light in a planetary atmosphere that prevents the night sky from ever being completely dark. When first posting the photograph to his Facebook page, Lane explained that instead of dropping airglow saturation by 10% like he usually does, he emphasized it by 10% in a gentle tweak on this stunning image. He spent 4 months colour-correcting the night time images to match them to the natural colours seen in the daytime at Yellowstone National Park.

The Milky Way Over Yellowstone is Impossibly Beautiful

Black Pool in Yellowstone National Park. Image credit: Dave Lane

When asked about his astrophotography, Lane practically glows with awe in our astonishing, beautiful universe:

Get away from the light drive out 20-30 miles out of town and look up on a clear dark nite and you may see something that will forever change your life. This is what a galaxy looks like from the inside.

Top image: Multi-Prismatic Springs in Yellowstone National park. Credit: Dave Lane

This Is What Happens When You Dissolve an Antacid On the Space Station

Post 7036

Ria Misra

This Is What Happens When You Dissolve an Antacid On the Space Station

This Is What Happens When You Dissolve an Antacid On the Space Station

Drop an antacid into water here on Earth and you’ve got yourself a glass of fizzy water. Do the same thing up on the space station, and you’ve just made yourself a disco ball.

International Space Station crew member Terry Virts shoot this footage showing just what happens when an antacid tablet is dissolved into a floating clump of water up on the ISS. The results are like so:

This Is What Happens When You Dissolve an Antacid On the Space Station

The demonstration is not just to show the strange fluid dynamics that you can spot on the ISS, although those are certainly on display here, it’s also about the hardware used to capture it.

In the resupply mission earlier this year, one of the new items brought aboard was an incredibly high-resolution camera, capable of shooting in up to 6K. This was a test run for the new camera, and the detail is exceptionally sharp—you can see all the bubbles as they shoot outwards from the water they were dissolved. NASA plans to use the new camera to broadcast videos from the ISS, but it’s also going to double as a piece of lab equipment to document—in incredibly small detail—the experiments they do up there.

Gruesome Find: 100 Bodies Stuffed into Ancient House

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Gruesome Find: 100 Bodies Stuffed into Ancient House

The remains of 97 human bodies have been found stuffed into a small 5,000-year-old house in a prehistoric village in northeast China, researchers report in two separate studies.

The bodies of juveniles, young adults and middle-age adults were packed together in the house — smaller than a modern-day squash court — before it burnt down. Anthropologists who studied the remains say a “prehistoric disaster,” possibly an epidemic of some sort, killed these people.

The site, whose modern-day name is “Hamin Mangha,” dates back to a time before writing was used in the area, when people lived in relatively small settlements, growing crops and hunting for food. The village contains the remains of pottery, grinding instruments, arrows and spearheads, providing information on their way of life. [In Photos: Remains of ‘End of World’ Epidemic Found in Ancient Egypt]

“Hamin Mangha site is the largest and best-preserved prehistoric settlement site found to date in northeast China,” a team of archaeologists wrote in a translated report published in the most recent edition of the journal Chinese Archaeology (the original report appeared in Chinese in the journal Kaogu). In one field season, between April and November 2011, the researchers found the foundations of 29 houses, most of which are simple one-room structures containing a hearth and doorway.

remains of nearly 100 bodies in an ancient house in China.

Archaeologists found nearly 100 bodies in a small house in northeast China. The house burned down at some point, leaving some of the bodies charred and deformed.
Credit: Photo courtesy Chinese Archaeology

The house with the bodies, dubbed “F40,” was just 210 square feet (about 20 square meters). “On the floor, numerous human skeletons are disorderly scattered,” the archaeologists wrote.

Photos taken by the archaeologists convey the prehistoric scene better than words do. “The skeletons in the northwest are relatively complete, while those in the east often [have] only skulls, with limb bones scarcely remaining,” the archaeologists wrote. “But in the south, limb bones were discovered in a mess, forming two or three layers.”

At some point the structure burnt down. The fire likely caused wooden beams of the roof to collapse, leaving parts of skulls and limb bones not only charred but also deformed in some way, the archaeologists wrote.

The remains were never buried and were left behind for archaeologists to discover 5,000 years later.

What happened?

An anthropological team at Jilin University in China is studying the prehistoric remains, trying to determine what happened to these people. The team has published a second study, in Chinese, in the Jilin University Journal – Social Sciences edition, on their finds. (A brief English-language summary of their results is available on the American Association of Physical Anthropologists website.)

The prehistoric village contained dozens of small one-room houses.

The prehistoric village contained dozens of small one-room houses.
Credit: Photo courtesy Chinese Archaeology

The Jilin team found that the people in that house died as the result of a “prehistoric disaster” that resulted in dead bodies being stuffed into the house.

The dead came in faster than they could be buried. “The human bone accumulation in F40 was formed because ancient humans put remains into the house successively and stacked centrally,” wrote team leaders Ya Wei Zhou and Hong Zhu in the study.

The team found that about half of the individuals were between 19 and 35 years of age. No remains of older adults were found.

The ages of the victims at Hamin Mangha are similar to those found in another prehistoric mass burial, which was previously unearthed in modern-day Miaozigou in northeast China, the researchers noted.

“This similarity may indicate that the cause of the Hamin Mangha site was similar to that of the Miaozigou sites. That is, they both possibly relate to an outbreak of an acute infectious disease,” wrote Zhou and Zhu.

If it was a disease, it killed off people from all age groups quickly, leaving no time for survivors to properly bury the deceased. The scientists did not speculate as to what disease it may have been.

The excavation was carried out by researchers from the Inner Mongolian Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology and the Research Center for Chinese Frontier Archaeology of Jilin University.

Follow us @livescienceFacebook Google+. Original article on Live Science.

The Subway Stop to the Underworld

Post 7034

Katharine Trendacosta

The Subway Stop to the Underworld

The Subway Stop to the Underworld

The Subway is a slot canyon at Zion National Park in Utah. It’s the kind of natural phenomena that looks so beautiful it’s almost otherworldly. You can imagine catching a supernatural train to the underworld here.

The Subway was formed by water rushing through the rock, creating not just the the tunnel-shaped but the shallow pools in the floor. Light, leaves, water, and stone all mean that the tunnel never photographs the same way twice.

The Subway Stop to the Underworld

Image credits: Subway by John Fowler/flickr/CC BY 2.0; The Subway Station by Mark Smith/flickr/CC BY-NC-2.0; The Subway by Tiffany Nguyen via the US Department of the Interior/Instagram


Image Gallery: Ancient Treasure Trove Revealed

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Image Gallery: Ancient Treasure Trove Revealed

Uncovering a Treasure

Credit: Sharon Gal, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.
Archaeologists uncovered about 140 gold and silver coins along with gold jewelry in a pit in the courtyard of an exposed building dating to the Roman and Byzantine period.

Wealthy Stash

Credit: Sharon Gal, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.
A wealthy woman likely stashed the hoard of coins and jewelry in the pit due to the impending danger of the Bar Kokhba Revolt, the researchers suggest.

Dazzling Earring

Credit: Clara Amit, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.
Among the treasures, the scientists found a gold earring crafted in the shape of a flower.

Dainty Jewelry

Credit: Clara Amit, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.
The gold earring.

Winged Goddess

Credit: Clara Amit, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.
Among the treasure is a ring holding a precious stone that is covered with a seal of a winged goddess.

The Cache

Credit: Clara Amit, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.
“This is probably an emergency cache that was concealed at the time of impending danger by a wealthy woman who wrapped her jewelry and money in a cloth and hid them deep in the ground prior to or during the Bar Kokhba Revolt,” said archaeologist Sa’ar Ganor of the Israel Antiquities Authority. “It is now clear that the owner of the hoard never returned to claim it.”

Rotting Fungus Creates Beautiful, Glistening ‘Hair Ice’

Post 7032

Rotting Fungus Creates Beautiful, Glistening ‘Hair Ice’

A century-long puzzle over how delicate strands of glistening ice burst through rotting tree branches, like heads of hair, is closer to being solved.

The strands, called “hair ice,” exist only when cold-tolerant fungi are present, and scientists now understand how the fungi can stimulate ice growth.

Alfred Wegener, famous for his continental drift theory, first identified and studied hair ice in 1918. At the time, he suspected the ice formation was linked to the presence of mycelium — the roots of a fungus that live on rotting wood and absorb nutrients, forming a pale, white, cobweblike coating. However, it wasn’t until about 90 years later that researchers found evidence that the fungal roots were vital precursors to hair ice. After treating mycelium-covered wood with a fungicide or dipping it in scalding water, hair ice didn’t grow, they found.

“The same amount of ice is produced on wood with or without fungal activity, but without this activity, the ice forms a crustlike structure,” Christian Mätzler, a co-author of the study and professor emeritus at the Institute of Applied Physics at the University of Bern in Switzerland,said in a statement.

The fungus helps the ice grow into thin hairs with diameters of just 0.01 millimeters (0.0004 inches), and helps to keep the strands in this shape over several hours at temperatures close to 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius), he added.

Researchers blamed the century-long delayed explanation for how hair ice grows on its ephemeral nature and northern range — the glimmering threads grow predominately at latitudes between 45 and 55 degrees north through countries including Canada, France, Germany, India, Ireland, the Netherlands, Russia, Scotland, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, the United States and Wales. [Watch Hair Ice Grow in Time-Lapse Video]

Hair ice in forest near Moosseedorf, Switzerland. Credit: Christian Mätzler.

“Hair ice grows mostly during the night and melts again when the sun rises,” said Gisela Preuß, a biologist at the Wiedtal-Gymnasium in Neustadt, Germany, who captured some of the hair-ice photos for the new study. “It’s invisible in the snow and inconspicuous in hoarfrost.”

Hunting for hair ice

“When we saw hair ice for the first time on a forest walk, we were surprised by its beauty,” Mätzler said. Although the hair ice typically melts the same day it forms, if the temperature stays below the freezing point and the air is humid, “it can last longer, but then it fades away,” Preuß told Live Science in an email.

In the new study, Preuß examined samples of dead wood that bore hair ice from the winters of 2012, 2013 and 2014 in forests near Brachbach in western Germany. She looked at the wood pieces under a microscope and found 11 different species of fungi. One species — Exidiopsis effuse— appeared in every sample.

Hair ice on the forest floor in Brachbach, Germany. Credit: Gisela Preuß.


“Similar ice formations are known from soil and dead stalks of some plants, but up to now, there is no hint [of] the presence of a fungus in these cases,” Preuß said.

From rotting wood to hair ice

The researchers also analyzed the melted hair ice and found fragments of the organic compounds lignin and tannin. Lignin, which is found in vascular plants including land plants like mosses and conifers, makes up about 20 to 30 percent of dry wood and helps give wood its hardness and resistance to rotting.Tannin also occurs widely in vascular plants, and protect plants from herbivories, who dislike its astringent taste.

Hair ice growing on a branch in Moosseedorf, Switzerland. Credit: Christian Mätzler.

However, certain fungi and bacteria can secrete the enzyme lignase and break down the lignin, causing rot with moist, soft and spongy bark that looks white or yellow. White rot can enhance the fungi’s effects — the brightness of hair ice on wood increases as the wood decomposes, the researchers found, because the decomposed wood is brighter. [Ice World: Gallery of Awe-Inspiring Glaciers]

Fungus also acts as a hairspray by shaping the fragile ice hairs and keeping the strands in place, while lignin likely prevents recrystallization, which is the conversion of small ice crystals to bigger ones.

The hair ice is also influenced by the structure of the wood from which it radiates, the new study revealed. Tufts can grow outward from a branch, forming a center part much like human hair and can extend straight or curl back toward the branch. The latter radial growth pattern is more common and seems to be an extension of the natural rays that radiate in wood. All the strands grow 10,000 times longer than they are thick.

Another view of hair ice growing on a branch near Moosseedorf, Switzerland. Credit: Christian Mätzler.

The researchers also found that the root of the hair ice — called a crystallization nucleus — is likely composed of lignin and tannin. When the air temperature drops sufficiently, water freezes into crystallization nuclei on the wood. Then, the nuclei create a passage for water to seep out of the pores of the wood and extend into ice hairs.

In future research, the researchers intend to fine-tune the details of the connection between the fungus and hair ice.

Coifs of hair ice growing on a branch in Moosseedorf, Switzerland. Credit: Christian Mätzler.

“I would like to let people realize that science can be unforgettably beautiful without any need for relevance for things that matter in human needs,” Mätzler told Live Science in an email.

The study was published July 22 in the journal Biogeosciences.

Elizabeth Goldbaum is on Twitter. Follow Live Science @livescience,Facebook & Google+. Original article published on Live Science.


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