02/10/2017

An Advance Towards Male Birth Control, Sequencing the Quinoa Genome, and Slip-Off Gecko Skin

07:21 minutes

Researchers testing a potential male contraceptive called Vasalgel have found that the drug prevented pregnancies in rhesus monkeys for over a year. The compound, which must be injected, physically blocks the passage of sperm through the vas deferens during ejaculation. That block can be removed later using a second injection, potentially making the procedure more reversible than a vasectomy. Rachel Feltman, Science Editor at Popular Science, joins Ira to discuss the study, along with other science news, including the sequencing of the quinoa genome and the discovery of a new species of gecko with large, sheddable scales.

Segment Guests

Rachel Feltman

Rachel Feltman is Science Editor at Popular Science in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, we’re going to be talking about the wide world of ice here on earth and beyond.

But first, this week, the House Science Committee promoted a story that claimed NOAA scientists had manipulated climate data in a recent scientific report. But, well, as is the case with a lot of what’s in the news today, that’s not what really happened. Here to unpack the tale and other selected short subjects in science is Rachel Feltman, science editor at Popular Science Magazine. Welcome back, Rachel.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Thanks for having me, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: So what is the paper that the committee is all worked up about?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah. So this is a very famous study from 2015 called the Karl study. And it deals with this question of whether or not there was a climate change hiatus. Now, the scientific consensus is that human activity has contributed to global warming climate change.

And for a while, it looked in the data like that climate change had slowed down at some point. There had been some kind of cooling period, if you will. And in 2015, the Karl study re-evaluated a bunch of data. Basically, NOAA had changed the way they were getting data. And once you ironed all that out, it became clear that the hiatus had not occurred.

Now, what happened is that a former NOAA employee named John Bates has started to complain that he doesn’t agree with the way all of the data in the Karl study was handled. What the House Science Committee did was write a press release based on a Daily Mail article, which is a British tabloid of fairly ill repute, if you’re not familiar. The House Science Committee, which is tasked with overseeing all of our scientific institutions. And their press release implied that Bates’ whistleblowing meant that the hiatus had occurred. That scientists had falsified data.

And what’s really crazy here is that even if you believe Bates, what he’s saying has nothing to do with the hiatus. He’s saying he doesn’t agree with the way the Karl study handled land temperature data. But the hiatus was based on sea surface temperature data. So it’s just incredibly misleading. And it’s very troubling that this was put up on the House Science Committee website.

IRA FLATOW: You’re trying to confuse the issue with the evidence. You’re bringing real evidence. You’re never going to make it in the news media if you keep doing that.

Let’s move on. In other news this week, there’s new findings about a possible male contraceptive. Tell us about that.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah. So 45% of pregnancies in the US are still accidental, which is kind of crazy. And an area where that could really be improved is male birth control. Right now, men really only have condoms as an option. And they fail a lot. Apparently, 15% of men actually remove condoms before sex is over. Which, guys, that’s not how condoms work. Please keep them on.

IRA FLATOW: Didn’t get the memo.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah. So this product called Vasalgel has been very exciting as a male birth control. It’s basically a gel that is injected. It blocks sperm from moving through the vas deferens. And then it can be removed very easily. So it’s kind of like a reversible vasectomy.

In this new study, 16 young male monkeys had the procedure. And then were allowed to live with fertile females for one to two years. And there were no pregnancies. There were a couple of complications, but female birth control has a lot of side effects. So if men want Vasalgel, they’re probably going to have to accept it with some low rates of troublesome side effects.

So it is– it was a pretty promising study. And hopefully we’ll move to human trials at some point.

IRA FLATOW: Is this an injection? Is it a cream or what?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yes. So it’s an injection of a gel. And then in theory, it lasts as long as you want it to. And then you get a second injection that causes the gel to break up. And it just gets reabsorbed by your body. So, again, it acts just like a vasectomy, but the mechanical block is temporary.

IRA FLATOW: You have a story about the genome of–

SPEAKER 1: You’re connected, but we do not–

IRA FLATOW: Of a grain. Tell us about this. And this is a grain, everybody. It’s like the grain of choice now.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah. quinoa, because of it’s really relatively high protein content compared to rice and barley, is considered kind of a superfood. But it’s also really a specialty item because it’s almost exclusively grown on these small farms. And it’s only a staple crop in South America where it’s grown by hand.

It’s this very tall, fragile stalk. So it’s difficult to really scale up. So by sequencing the quinoa genome, researchers hope that they can figure out better ways of doing targeted cross-breeding to make it kind of shorter and sturdier so that it can be grown on a larger scale.

Now, quinoa, even though it’s physically fragile, it’s actually quite resilient. It can grow in very salty soil with salty irrigation water. So on the other hand, they hope that looking at the genome can help them figure out how to make other crops like rice and barley more resilient. So we’re going to be able to grow more quinoa and we’re going to be able to use its secrets to grow crops in less ideal soil.

IRA FLATOW: So why does everybody look toward quinoa? What’s the– it’s basically better because?

RACHEL FELTMAN: It just, again, compared to rice and barley, it has a really high protein content and some other nice nutritional value. It’s still–

IRA FLATOW: It’s gluten-free, right?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, I believe so. And it’s still just a plant that you can eat. But it has some attractive nutritional properties. And it tastes good too, I guess.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. It’s pretty good. And lastly, you have a story about an unusual new species of gecko.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yes.

IRA FLATOW: And something special about this gecko?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, something really horribly special about it. So the fish-scale gecko genus is known for having tearaway skin, which is what it sounds like. If a predator grabs one of these geckos, they just leave their skin behind to escape.

And it’s not like the way a snake sheds it skin, where it only does it once there’s healthy skin underneath. The geckos, they’re just– they look like raw chicken. It’s terrible. But it’s better than getting eaten.

And scientists found this new species, Geckolepis megalepis. So it’s got the largest scales, and they’re also the most fragile. So even handling it in the lab, the geckos that they found lost most of their scales. So they actually had to do CT scans of them so that they could look at their skeletal structure. Because otherwise, they didn’t feel like they would be able to define the species well enough because they couldn’t take a good look at it.

They’re really interested in how they’re able to survive so well with this very raw skin. And their scales grow back very quickly over the course of a couple of weeks. So there’s a lot of interest in terms of looking at possible medical applications for burn victims. But they’re really hard to study because of how hard they are to catch. So it’s hard to say when we’ll actually be able to find something useful there.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Well, we’ll have you back when they do actually find that. Thank you, Rachel. Rachel Feltman, science editor at Popular Science Magazine.

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