Scientific Scribbles

The voice of UniMelb Science Communication students

Obese to Beast: A Cold Exposure Therapy

Over 1.6 billion adults worldwide are overweight with 400 million of them being obese. The obesity epidemic has only risen and poses major risks for diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. If there was a time to treat obesity immediately, it is NOW. Seminal research has showed exposure to cold environments may serve as a therapeutic potential in combatting obesity by burning calories in a process called “Non-Shivering Thermogenesis”.

Why is it so easy to gain weight?

Energy Balance. Source Marta Wave via Pexels

Our bodies are constantly balancing between energy intake and energy expenditure. Energy intake consists of the food we consume while energy expenditure includes exercise, our basal metabolic rate such as the energy our cells use, and a key concept called non-shivering thermogenesis. Energy expenditure is linked to metabolism. In order to maintain body weight, our energy input must equal energy output. When our energy intake is more than our energy output, our body begins accumulating more and more white adipose tissue (WAT) that leads to weight gain overtime. WAT stores energy from our food in large fat globules that reside around the hips and thighs.

Non-shivering thermogenesis

Source: Yaroslav Shuraev via Pexels

Unlike WAT that stores energy, brown adipose tissue (BAT) expends energy and while doing so, produces heat in a process called thermogenesis. BAT thermogenesis activity is increased by 20% in cold environments in an adaptive response to generate heat. When it generates heat, it uses the energy stored our bodies to burn calories, giving it a therapeutic potential for obesity. The term “non-shivering thermogenesis” arises simply because when we are cold, our body responds in two main ways; by shivering coordinated via muscle movement to stay warm and by BAT thermogenesis – a form of non-shivering that generates heat.

How can we generate more BAT?

One study has reported even two hours of exposure to cold environments can “turn” WAT into BAT. This is why you might have heard that a cold shower or an ice bath can be beneficial, not only for your fat cells but also for your skeletal muscle if you’re an athlete.

Our bodies produce a protein called irisin, which can aid in the transition of WAT into BAT. Another study suggests, exercise can increase the production of irisin, helping to tackle obesity through a double whammy effect!

BAT thermogenesis in the cold as a therapy for obesity

File:Adipocyte types.jpg
Transition from WAT to BAT. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Since we now have concrete evidence that BAT thermogenesis burns calories, can’t we just generate more BAT in obese populations then expose them to cold environments and overcome obesity? The answer to this is not so simple. Although BAT thermogenesis can burn calories, there is only so much that can be burned even in the coldest environment. This is linked to limited BAT reserves and the amount of WAT an individual possesses. This means, we cannot solely rely on this technique to overcome obesity. In order to rid the obesity epidemic, these populations of obese individuals must adopt a conglomerate of mindset, exercise and diet.

Cleaner air might be the end of clouds

Could you imagine a world without clouds? We all think we want cleaner air, but if the air was completely clean, clouds may cease to exist.

For an enthusiastic cloud spotter, such as myself, this was quite a shock to learn.

Cumulus cloud. Source: dimitrisvetsikas1969 via Pexel

Clouds need ‘seeds’ to grow

‘Cloud seeds’ are the name given to condensation nuclei. These nuclei provide a surface for water molecules to attach and condense to. When lots of molecules assemble, a raindrop is formed. Condensation nuclei are usually not floating around on their own. They usually move about in pockets of air. So when a pocket of air has the right temperature, pressure, water saturation, and condensation nuclei, well, that my friend is the recipe for a cloud.

According to NASA, the majority of the air supply is composed of gases such as nitrogen and oxygen. If we only had gases in the air, there would be no organic particles for the water molecules to condense onto (aka, no clouds). The main exception to this rule is ‘hair-like’ cirrus clouds. These ice crystal clouds can condense onto mineral and metal particles found at high altitudes.

Seed of Dust

Water requires a physical surface to condense from vapour to liquid form. The most common cloud seeds are dust. That’s right, we need ‘dusty’ air to form most clouds. Dust can be composed of many things, including pollen, leaf fragments, salt, and even dandruff (that’s right, clouds can form from your dead skin)!

Over time, a water drop can grow to around 100 times bigger than the dust that it started from. Given the right conditions, these water drops can accumulate in an air pocket, forming a visible cloud.

Cumulus clouds (often called ‘picture clouds’) are well defined and look like shapes in the sky. Clouds can hold water droplets without producing rain, however, given the right conditions, the water drops may begin to grow in size and number. Cumulus is originally a Latin word that means ‘heap or pile’ and is the origin of the word ‘accumulate’ (fits quite well, doesn’t it?). As drops keep forming, they may collide with each other and eventually become too heavy to stay floating in the air. The result; a cumulonimbus cloud (nimbus meaning ‘rain-bearing’) that brings rain.

Gif from the Pixar movie, UP. Source: Jasonelkin86 via Tenor

Let us flip the coin, what if the air is too dirty?

Well, according to an article by NASA, moderate pollution can cause excess cloud growth as more particles (condensation nuclei) are in the air for water to attach to. However, too much pollution can trap heat close to the ground and the water cannot rise high enough to cool and condense (liquify) into clouds.

Therefore, we ideally want our air in a goldilocks zone: not too clean (no cloud seeds) and not too dirty (water can’t rise and condense) but ‘just right’ (cool clouds!).

So, next time you scratch your head whilst reading a brilliant Scientific Scribbles article, think to yourself; “Did my dandruff just create a cloud?”.


Are Our Electronic Devices Doing Us More Harm Than Good?

Our electronic devices allow us to do things we never used to be able to do.

We can have a video call with someone that lives on the opposite side of the world and search up the answer to just about any question we have.

We are constantly surrounded by electronic devices. Source: Firmbee via Pixabay

However, for everything that is too good to be true, there is usually a catch.

Our electronic devices emit radiation, and scientists have been trying to understand the impacts that this could have on our body for decades now.

Additionally, World Health Organisation has labelled the use of mobile phones as ‘potentially carcinogenic.’ This causes us to wonder: will using our devices now have implications on our bodies in the future?

What is radiation?

Radiation is energy that stems from a source and travels through space at the speed of light. We cannot see radiation, which is why most of us disregard its impact on our bodies.

The electromagnetic spectrum. Source dave.collins84 via Flickr

The main type of radiation our electronic devices emit are radio waves – a type of electromagnetic radiation. The image below depicts the electromagnetic spectrum, and we can see that the radio waves are at the very beginning of it. This is important, as this tells us that radio waves are very low in energy.

When people usually think of radiation, they think of the high-energy ionizing radiation. This is what we find at the latter end of the spectrum. These have enough energy to excite electrons off atoms. Think x-rays, which can penetrate right through your skin like lightning travelling through the sky! Routine exposure to this type of radiation has consequences, but the radiation emitted from our electronic devices are very different.

Radio waves are non-ionizing, which means that they do not have enough energy to break chemical bonds. Therefore, it cannot penetrate tissue and damage our internal organs. The National Cancer Institute states that ‘there is no consistent evidence that non-ionizing radiation increases cancer risk in humans.’

Can mobile phone usage really cause cancer?

In 2016, Professor Simon Chapman conducted a short experiment to see if there was any correlation between brain cancer and mobile phone usage. He examined the number of incidents of brain cancer in Australian between 1982 and 2012 and compared it against mobile phone usage in that same time frame.

Despite the dramatic increase in mobile phone usage during that time period, he found that there was no substantial increase in brain cancer patients.

Scientists have also tested their theory on animals. The National Toxicology Program did an experiment where they zapped 1200 rats with cell phone radiation, for 9 hours a day, for 2 years. They found that 6% of the rats developed malignant schwannomas in their heart and 3% developed gliomas in their brain (types of tumours).

This study did not provide conclusive results, as the rats were exposed to a much greater dose of radiation than humans would. The impact that radiation has on humans also differs greatly to that of animals.

However, this does tell us one thing: there could be consequences to excessive exposure to radiation from electronic devices.

Guidelines for electronic devices

The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) has set regulations for the amount of radiation that an electronic device can emit. The limit for mobile phones is 2 watts per kilogram for body tissue. This means that we can safely use our electronic devices without being fearful that the radiation will damage our body. Phew.

Lack of long-term evidence

As of now, there is no clear correlation between electronic device radiation and cancer. Clinical Physicist, Lawrence Dauer proposes that ‘we haven’t used [mobile phones] for long enough to see an effect on cancer rates.’

Cancers can take years to develop, and phones have only been around for 15 or so (how did humans survive before then?). Therefore, it will take years for us to come to a clear conclusion on this issue.

How to reduce radiation exposure

It is always worth trying to reduce our exposure to radiation if possible, so here are some ways that you can do so:

  • Limit your use of electronic devices
  • Use the speaker function on your phone when on a call
  • Distance yourself from your laptop when working on it, and avoid using it on your lap
  • Turn off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on your devices when not needed
  • Purchase an electromagnetic shielding case for your laptop

There is no need to fret and put your electronics away into hiding from now on – but it is important that we do stay mindful about device usage. But for now, go and write that assignment or start your next Netflix binge. 

Further Resources:

ARPANSA Fact Sheet

Information about Laptop Radiation

Your Data? No, Our Data.

Image by ThisIsEngineering via Pexel

Gone are the days where the only footprint we, as individuals, leave behind were of our own two feet. With the rapid digitisation caused by the current Technological Revolution, we have a new ‘digital footprint’. One that follows us from the moment of first internet connection to our last, making an indelible mark on the fabric of the digital void of our every movement in this space, or does this have to be?

Our digital footprint forms our digital identity and refers to the trail of data we leave behind on the internet. This footprint is historic, starting from the first connection. For most, it may just be a portion of your life, but for coming generations, this footprint could span their whole life. You may be saying to yourself: “I mean, who really cares if my digital history is permanent? I don’t have anything to hide! ..or do I?”

This may be a surprise, but yes you should care.

This digital footprint tracks a lot more than what is searched or viewed. It includes any information you submit online such as emails, forms filled, transactions made and more. This can then be used to build a profile for the user, condensing an individual to a set of attributes that can be leveraged for mild (albeit, still invasive) actions such as target marketing. Whilst this may seem beneficial to help the consumer get to desired pages faster, this is just the tip of the iceberg of what your digital footprint can be used for. 

It is the malicious actors within this internet sphere that you, the user, must defend yourself against.

It is commonplace for data to be traded by businesses and also through dark web channels. Terabytes on terabytes of data held ransom by hackers for increasingly large sums of untraceable cryptocurrency. Why would there be such a vibrant trade in this area if the data itself is not the most valuable asset in this technological age? Recently, a poorly secured database was leaked, resulting in portions of the records of around 1 billion Chinese individuals from the Shanghai police department being hawked on a well known cybercrime site for
around 10 bitcoin (approx. USD$200,000 at the time), solidifying the fact that data is extremely valuable.

Image by Henry & Co via Pexel

Your digital footprint is commoditised. It is permanent. It is extensive. It is historic. But, you can still take control of what can and will be shared online.

Here are some suggestions to protect your digital footprint from bad actors:

1. Use tighter privacy settings
This can be done on any device especially on your phone through settings.
2. Decline constant location tracking unless necessary
Next time you are prompted, select “Only track while using app” and ensure to close the app when not in use
3. Be cautious when using social media and when agreeing to terms & conditions
Read what the application is asking for before blindly accepting it!
4. Limit online accounts and delete those that are inactive



How to age like fine wine? Avoid the alcohol!

We all enjoy a good drink on the weekend, but is Australia’s drinking culture making us age at a faster rate?

In short, the scary answer is yes, unfortunately the alcohol is making us age. It was found drinking just ten standards a week can age us three years more than if we had less than six drinks a week.

A recent genetic study conducted by Oxford Population Health has determined excessive drinking can promote aging within our genetic makeup. And detrimentally, has the potential to forward the development of age-related diseases alike Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular diseases, and some forms of cancer.

Most of us understand that drinking isn’t particularly good for our health, but many of us like to assume the benefits outweigh the potential harm. However, evidence exclusively linking drinking and a shortened life expectancy has never been so clear.


Photo by Pixabay via []


What exactly was this evidence?

Every single one of us have structures on our DNA, called Telomeres. These protein complexes cap the end of our DNA strands protecting the strands from degradation, fusion, or random recombination. When our cells divide, the DNA is replicated, but the telomeres shorten with each copy of DNA. Once the telomeres run out, the cell becomes inactive and/or dies. As we grow older, we replace more and more cells, with each new cell the Telomeres shorten further. It is for this reason telomeres have been labelled as our ‘biological clock.’ Scientists have used this DNA marker to monitor aging and health, determining that shorter telomeres correlate to ill health and disease where excessive cell death occurs. Oxford Population Health’s study outlined that drinking increases the extent of this shortening, consequently increasing the rate of our aging.


So, how much can we get away with drinking before reaching our impending doom?

The research determined there may be a threshold before any damage occurs, but being a recent study, this is yet to be determined. Genetic factors and even your parent’s alcohol consumption before you were born can affect how your telomeres react to alcohol. However, other lifestyle choices (alike smoking) were considered in these findings and were independent to the effects of alcohol. Meaning, we can’t really blame any of our other unhealthy choices.

The paper recommends we keep our alcohol intake to casual as any reduction in alcohol consumption can be beneficial. In summary, stick to The Australian Alcohol Guidelines’ recommendation of no more than ten standard drinks per week with no more than four per day.

By no means I am I claiming we should all remain as sober as a judge on a Saturday night, but if reducing our consumption has the possibility to extend how long we live a healthy and happy life why not try it out? Maybe we can cut back on a few or say no to that glass of wine with dinner. And with inflation raising the cost of a night out in Melbourne, this lifestyle change might benefit us in more ways than one.

Photo by Edu Carvalho via []

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