Scientists have completed an unusual survey: a census of the fungi that inhabit different places on our skin. It's part of a big scientific push to better understand the microbes that live in and on our bodies.
"This is the first study of our fungi, which are yeast and other molds that live on the human body," says Julie Segre, of the National Human Genome Research Institute, who led the survey.
Trillions of microbes live everywhere in and on our bodies. Most of these viruses, bacteria and other microorganisms are harmless. Many of them are actually helpful. But scientists are just starting to figure out exactly what they are and what they do.
"A lot of medicine has to do with not just our own human cells but really [is] about how humans interact with the bacteria and fungi that live on our bodies," Segre says.
To assess the fungal population, Segre and her colleagues collected samples from 14 different patches of skin on 10 healthy volunteers.
"We did an exploration where we looked at all the different little crevices of your body," she says.
The researchers then sequenced the fungal DNA in those samples and report what they discovered in this week's issue of the journal Nature.
"What we found was that the human body is an even more diverse ecosystem than we had known when we looked only at the bacterial communities," Segre says.
The survey turned up dozens of types of fungi — far more than anyone knew were there. In most parts of the body, fungi from the genus Malassezia dominated. One part of the body had an especially wide array: the feet.
For example, researchers found at least 80 varieties on the heel, at least 60 between the toes and at least 40 on toenails. Elsewhere on the body, they only identified between two and five types of fungi.
The researchers aren't sure why feet are teeming with such a broad fungal assortment. One possibility is that temperature of our feet fluctuates a lot. Segre says there may be another, simpler explanation: "Even those of us who wear shoes a lot still walk around barefoot, either in our homes or in locker rooms. And there's just great exposure to fungi."
Whatever the explanation, the survey could eventually lead to new ways to treat millions of people who suffer from all sorts of skin conditions, such as toenail infections and athlete's foot.
"It really would certainly underlie the idea that you really do need to take very good care of your feet," Segre says. "So, for example, I do wear flip-flops when I walk around a locker room because I know from these studies that I don't actually want to share the fungi with the, you know, 20 other people who are showering after just going swimming."
The researchers were also surprised when they discovered that one volunteer's fungi were still out of whack seven months after she had taken an antifungal drug.
"We want to think there is a resilience of our bacterial communities, of our fungal communities, and that as soon as we stop medicating that they would bounce back into a state of health," Segre says.
But the volunteer's experience provides more evidence that this expectation is far from the case. It suggests that all the antibiotics, antibacterial products and antifungal medications people use these days may be affecting the good microbes that live on our bodies more than we think.
"The scale at which people are being exposed to antimicrobial drugs is really substantial," says infectious disease specialist Martin Blaser, at New York University. "And it would be surprising if there were not consequences from that."
Researchers plan to use this survey to explore a number of questions, including why women tend to get yeast infections when they take antibiotics. And why do some people get dandruff and some babies get diaper rash while others don't.
"There will be many further follow-up studies looking at the disease state on the skin and what kind of perturbations are associated with both the bacteria and the fungi there," says Joseph Heitman of Duke University, whose research focuses on microbial pathogens.
The results may also yield insights into skin cancer, he says. "What if we were to find the microbes on the skin either increase or decrease the risk for skin cancer, for example? That might be very important information to have," Heitman says.
The man Art Review magazine named the most powerful artist in the world is trying his hand at rock-stardom. In 2011, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei spent 81 days in detention. He was later let go and charged with tax evasion. Now, he has released his first heavy metal song, based on his time in police detention.
The video for the song, "Dumbass," opens with a scene showing Ai Weiwei sitting in a chair, a black hood over his head. Written on the hood are the words "suspected criminal." As he paces the cell, two guards pace with him. As he sleeps, one stands over his bed. Even seated on the toilet, they are just feet away, always present.
These scenes dissolve into the fantasies of one of the prison guards, including plastic blow-up dolls taking Ai's place in his bed, and the whole video ending with Ai, head shaved, dancing in drag. Ai says this dystopian nightmare — shot by cinematographer Christopher Doyle — reflects his detention experience,
"At least you shared my nightmares. I had terrible nightmares after I was released," Ai says during an interview in his Beijing studio Wednesday. "But think about so many political prisoners, they're still in jail. So I make my music to give to them."
Ai's voice is angry, and the lyrics are explicit, at one point comparing China to a prostitute. The song's title refers to anybody, Ai says, "who still has illusions about this political condition, and have illusions to think there is possibility to make some kind of change. I think the system itself refused to make any kind of change."
This is the first track issued from "The Divine Comedy," an album set to be released on June 22, the anniversary of his release from detention.
As he taps away incessantly on Twitter, Ai Weiwei seems to be becoming a global brand.
He can't leave China because the government never gave him back his passport after he was released from his detention. But he has ongoing projects scattered around the world.
He has an exhibition in Indianapolis, and another piece in Hong Kong. Three projects are coming up in the Venice Biennale, as well as a traveling exhibition heading for Princeton, Cleveland, Toronto and Miami.
He's the featured interview in this month's Playboy magazine, while filmmaker Alison Klayman's documentary "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry" has played in theaters around the world.
Ai Weiwei says he's "amazed" by the experience of watching someone portraying his experience on stage on the other side of the world. But playwright Howard Brenton sees the play as a collaboration, pointing out that it was Ai's own idea.
"We are part of his project really," Brenton told the BBC. "Ai Weiwei's work is like stones being thrown into a pond, the ripples, sort of like shock waves, get everywhere."
So what is his project anyway?
"My project is very simple," Ai answers. "It's freedom."
Though Ai Weiwei may not be able to carry a tune, he's not deterred. It may be dumb to speak out, he says. But Ai believes every citizen with a voice should use it to speak up for those who cannot.
"Courage," he says, "is not something you should sacrifice."
Last week I gave a lecture at a corporative event for some 200 executives in the insurance business. Although this happened abroad, my experience is that things would not have been very different here. My mission was to jump-start some macro-level reflection, gently pushing people out of their comfort zone, posing questions that, in the rush of everyday life, we tend to leave aside.
As I was asked to speak about our place in the Universe, I embarked on an exploration of how modern science sees the perennial questions of our existence: our origin, the search for meaning, our role as a thinking species, our future.
I started by mentioning how we are creatures bound by time, with a history that begins and ends. I argued that, just the same, stars and the Universe have their own histories, with a beginning and an end. The passage of time and our awareness of it is, perhaps, our most defining trait: knowing that we exist and that this existence has an end. (At this point, the folks from the life-insurance sector smiled.)
I also argued that much of the human creative effort, our poems and symphonies, our literature, the sciences and philosophical ideas, the sum total of our cultural output, can be seen as a response to the unease of being aware creatures, an attempt to have some measure of control and grace in face of the inexorable. Love, sex, power, relationships, are the road signs of our path ahead, leading this way or that according to our choices.
I then moved to the question of origins: of the Universe, of stars, of life, arguing that every culture that we are aware of, from the oldest to the most current, have offered a narrative of Creation, an attempt to understand where everything came from.
To stare at the night sky, far from city lights, and see hundreds, even thousands, of stars compels us to ask whether other creatures live out there, and how similar or different they are from us. Could there be another kind of intelligence in the cosmos? What kind of intelligence would that be? Individual? Collective? Machine-like? Something unexpected and new?
The case for extraterrestrial life becomes even more compelling when we learn that there are some 200 billion stars in our galaxy alone, the sun being but one of them. And now that we know that most stars do have planets around them, and that many of these probably will have moons, we arrive at the staggering figure of trillions of worlds besides ours in our galaxy alone, each unique, each with its own history and possibilities.
I showed breathtaking images from the Hubble Space Telescope and other space telescopes, of lunar modules and Mars rovers, explaining that these machines are our wonderful creations, small robots travelling for millions of miles across space, visiting and taking images of other worlds while being controlled from Earth by scientists and engineers. I suggested that we should celebrate such technological marvels as we celebrate other great works of human ingenuity such as the pyramids and medieval cathedrals, the architecture of Brasília and Barcelona, the Mona Lisa and Mahler's symphonies.
I argued that contrary to what most think, and as I explain in my book Tear at the Edge of Creation, the more we learn about the Universe the more relevant we become, molecular machines capable of seeing far beyond our limited perception of reality.
I tried, with words and images, to celebrate the human condition and the austere beauty of the Universe, both capable of amazing feats of creation and destruction. I argued that the tragic and the sublime are, like the two-faced Janus, two inseparable aspects of existence, part of the same whole. I argued that we matter because we are unique, that we can be special creatures without being specially created. I argued that our cosmic loneliness should not scare us but instill us to action, working as a unifying force in times of division.
At the end of all this, as inexorable as the passage of time, came the inevitable question, betraying our most ancient fears: "Sir, do you believe in God?"
AskReddit is a section on the popular website Reddit where folks post pretty philosophical, sometimes abstract questions about things like how not to procrastinate, what surprises Americans about Europe and people's best one-liners.
AskReddit is also the best place on the Internet to talk about race.*
And people do, often. Last month, for example, someone posed a question that spawned a luminous dialogue:
The flood gates opened:
- "Is black church really that fun like in the movies?" asked Redditor stuff711.
- "White people: why are you never covered up during the winter time? Do you guys never feel cold?" asked TechMe0ut
- "What's with all the cocoa butter?" wondered YAISEDDIT.
- "what are you asians taking pictures of?!?!" asked egnaro2007.
- "If you're looking straight ahead, can you see the floor and the ceiling at the same time?" someone once asked LitLady, a user who identified as Asian.
- Kamigami had two questions. One for blacks: "How can you tell if you have a bruise?" and one for East Asians: "Do you struggle to tell strangers apart?"
It surprised us, having heard so many questions ourselves, that there were still folks who felt reticent about asking them. After all, some people are comfortable asking pretty bold questions.
Just this week, a police officer followed a white father to his home and asked whether the man's biracial children were actually his. We asked our multiracial followers on Twitter if they'd ever experienced something similar. Turns out, they too have been asked some outlandish questions.
(Once, a friend asked me why Chinese people always go by their full names. "I mean, you go by Kat Chow," he said, rattling off a string of his other Chinese friends' full names. "What's up with that?"
I go by "Kat" or "Katelin," too, by the way.)
So we wanted to turn the question around. What odd or ridiculous or hilarious questions have you been asked, no matter your race or ethnic background? And in case you want to share with us in a more private way, you can answer using this form.
Let us know in the comment section, or tweet your question to us at @NPRCodeSwitch, using #theyasked.
*AskReddit is not the best place on the Internet to talk about race.