March 3rd, 2019

This past Thursday I floated out of my research lab, in awe of the capabilities of molecular biology. The actual practice of research would appear surprisingly mundane to an outsider; in my case, I spend a lot of time moving miniscule quantities of liquid from one container to another (punctuated by some mouse husbandry). But even if the physical manifestation of research can often be banal, the actual sub-microscopic manipulations that one can perform are astounding. I can take DNA out of one thing, swap out some of the letters of the genetic code, and stick it back into something else. I can get the complete sequence of an organism’s DNA, or find every place where a specific protein binds to that DNA. In the mid-nineties it took hundreds of scientists and $2.7 billion dollars to sequence the first human genome. Now, a measly undergrad like myself could do the same for less than $2,000.

It is stupefying that a hundred years ago we didn’t even really know what DNA was, and now we’re able to sophisticatedly study and manipulate our own genetic material (generally for the better, sometimes for the worse). But science does not move forward uniformly. As much as we know about genetics, we know shockingly little about other extremely fundamental aspects of our own physiology. Take sleep, for example. We spend about a third of our life doing it, but we have a very primitive scientific understanding of its purpose, mechanism, and pathology.

Biologists, generally, are biased towards teleology – they assume that most biological processes or entities aim at a particular function or purpose. (This notion, a clear component of Darwinian evolution, can be traced back as far as Aristotle’s Physics.) Thus, sleep, a thing that all humans do a lot, must, itself, have a purpose.

The argument for a purpose to sleep is bolstered by studies using the most powerful resource in the sleep researcher’s toolbox – sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation impairs cognitive functioning, memory, and attention, increases morbidity for cardiovascular diseases, and may even increase pain sensitivity.

Sleep doesn’t just affect our brains – it causes cellular changes in our pancreatic tissue, fat tissue, immune cells, and skin as well. But sleep deprivation, as a scientific tool, is more of a sledgehammer than a scalpel. We need alternative approaches to sleep research to get at some of the finer mechanistic details that explain our need to sleep.

A recent article in Nature Reviews Neuroscience makes a fascinating case for expanding our study of sleep beyond the anthropomorphic lens of human health – instead zooming out to study the function of sleep across all animals. Sleep has been identified in “every animal carefully examined” – from mollusks to roundworms to jellyfish. Even animals that don’t have a central nervous system, such as the upside-down jellyfish of the genus Cassiopea, show sleep behavior during the night.

If sleep is a fact of life for all animals, even those without a brain, is it possible that sleep is a fundamental fact of life? What happens when we expand our investigation to organisms that couldn’t possibly exhibit what we would consider sleep behaviors, like plants or bacteria? Botanists, dating back to the 18th-century, have documented plants responding to daily changes in their environment and following strong circadian rhythms. Even light sensitive bacteria have their own cyclic responses to night and day – these bacterial molecular clocks can be replicated in a test tube containing just three different proteins and an energy source.

There are cycles to be found all over biology – in the timing of the cell cycle during the replication of cells, in the menstrual cycles of female animals, in the metabolic fluctuations of nearly all our cells. Through these oscillations, life, in its many realizations, becomes firmly rooted in time – a push and a pull between setting our own internal biological clocks and responding to the cycles in the external world. Is sleep, or something like it, a fundamental force of life – the way that gravity is a fundamental force in physics?

Even our human experience of sleep undergoes its own oscillations. One moment we glorify minimizing our restful hours, generally in the name of productivity. (I’m sure many of my college-aged readers are familiar with the standoffs over who has pulled the most all-nighters this semester.) In the next moment, we’ve added “sleep hygiene” to the lists of things that fall under the umbrella of “wellness.” But knowing what constitutes good sleep-hygiene (Straight-through eight hours a night? “Split” sleep? Naps?) is about as bewildering as knowing what constitutes a good diet (No fats? Lotsa fats? No carbs? Paleo? Intermittent fasting?). Perhaps the best move (at least until sleep science catches up a bit) is not to focus on making sleep just another thing to be good at (and stress about), but rather to appreciate it as a mysterious foundation of our experiences, and something that we share with the living world at large.

Contrary to connotation, aesthetics is everywhere in science! One of those places is a technique called immunohistochemistry, where different molecules in a cell or tissue are “tagged” with chemicals and them imaged using fluorescent light. Derek Song, an MD-PhD candidate at Penn, curates an Instagram of stunning immunohistochemistry images – blurring the lines between science and art.

Yes, fat is beautiful!
Actin fibers in skin fibroblasts.
Epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition.

This article from Vice News’s culinary division “Munchies” begins with a poem from Angela Jackson:

all night
she watch the pot, cooked
her grits thick for hours
(not the quick kind) till grains disappear
into smooth with a slick
coat on top
hot enough
for a man to wear
(she said) on both
his faces.

Cynthia R. Greenie tells the alternate story of scalding grits (boiled cornmeal, and a southern culinary staple, for my northern friends), as a weapon in the hands of Southern black women against abusive male partners on the battlefield of domestic warfare. Famously, the singer Al Green took a pot of boiling hot grits to the bare back, and the act has since become a symbol, rearing its head in cultural phenomena ranging from the advice of Tyler Perry’s Madea to the confessionals of R. Kelly.

This week in music, give a listen to New Atlantis, a recent release from Efdemin, an acclaimed German DJ with a residency at the legendary Berlin club Berghain. The album offers classic techno beats made for the dancefloor, juxtaposed with forward-thinking ambient and Avant Garde tracks.

As in immunohistochemistry, aesthetics is a crucial aspect of the culinary sciences as well. Although I can always appreciate ugly delicious food (also David Chang’s Netflix Series, Ugly Delicious) – think of a nice putrid brown liver pate or Japanese curry – there’s a little something extra to every food experience that tickles the beauty sensor in your other senses as well. Feast your eyes of these little works of art from pasta chefs in New York, caught between the calls for authenticity and individuality, in this article from New York Magazine’s Grub Street column.

I’ll leave you with the quiet sublimity of the woodblock prints of Hasui Kawase (1883-1957), depicting the austerity and serenity of Japan.

That’s all for this week folks! Please send in original work, cultural recommendations, responses to the stuff here, or stray thoughts to Older newsletters are archived at Share with your pals. Feedback in all forms is always appreciated. If you or your friends aren’t on the listserv already, please use this form to sign up!

Much love,

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