Something about nothing, or, the question of advice columns


It is not that I disdain all advice columns, but sometimes I really do wonder about the purposes they serve. For instance, Carolyn Hax, whose column appears in The Washington Post:

Dear Carolyn:

I am 1½ years into a relationship and I have lost my libido. I have gone from wanting sex about three times a week to about once every two weeks. I’m young, I still like my boyfriend and I still find him attractive, but I find myself more interested in falling asleep than any other bedroom activity. Of course, he is still interested in having sex and has started to notice my indifference. I’ve been giving in to keep him happy, but I rarely really enjoy it. I think that’s been making the problem worse. I’m afraid this will ruin my relationship, but I have no idea how to fix it.

Adapted from an online discussion—and perhaps this should be our first clue—the resulting exchange is revealing, including the two cents we hear from other participants. Continue reading

Something about beer


It would be melodramatic to start with, “Beer will save the world!” But the question of biomedical and bioenergy researches bring us to the tale of Saccaromyces cerevisiae, a yeast of a genus commonly used in the manufacture of bread, wine, and beer. S. cerevisiae is a species used to make lagers. Marco Werman of PRI’s The World, and geneticist Chris Todd Hittinger explain:

Orange-colored galls, such as these pictured in 2010, from the beech tree forests of Patagonia have been found to harbor the yeast that makes lager beer possible. Marco Werman: … A lager is a clear, cold-fermented kind of beer. You have to use a specific kind of yeast to make the stuff. Lagers were first brewed in Bavaria in southern Germany back in the 15th century. Scientists have long known that the yeast involved was a hybrid, half European and half well, that was a mystery until now. Turns out the mystery yeast originated in Patagonia on the tip of South America. Chris Todd Hittinger is a genetic scientist and co-author of a study on lager yeast. It was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week. Hittinger says he and his team made the discovery while investigating different species of yeast, or Saccharomyces, around the globe.

Chris Todd Hittinger: Saccaromyces is the Latin name for the close grouping of yeasts that include the ones that make ale, and bread and wine; and those are all made by cerevisiae, Saccaromyces cerevisiae. And Saccaromyces are often found in association with oak trees and also with fruits. And it turns out that all southern beech trees, they form galls in response to infection by another fungus.

According to Hittinger, the Patagonian yeast contributing to what we now know as S. cerivisiae most likely crossed the Atlantic via trade, both in the products—including fruit, drink, and even wood—and also in the fruit flies that would have come along for the species. And it is true, something about the chronology doesn’t quite match up if we stick strictly to the detail of Werman’s introduction; that is, if we stick with Columbus and 1492. But Hittinger acknowledges, “This is where the genetic research can’t be particularly informative, but we can speculate a little bit.”

Still, though, it was not questions of beer in particular that brought Hittinger to pursue the lineage of lager yeast. Yeast plays an important role in biomedical research and bioenergy development. According to Hittinger, “most of the genome technologies have actually been worked out in half a dozen fairly simple organisms, and Saccaromyces is really one of these champion research organisms.”

So, yes, it is possible that, one day, beer will save the world. But we need not go out and drink ourselves silly to celebrate the potential of one particularly interesting yeast. Indeed, there are plenty of reasons to hoist a pint, and it would seem stupid to pound ourselves into a drunken haze to celebrate health.

Then again, we are human.

Or, as a great man once said: Drink up, dreamers; you’re running dry.