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Golden Scholars: Is Japan making our kelp radioactive? How can we eat like fat polar bears?

A cornucopia of food-based work at Berkeley trying to make food banks healthier (more cardio?), check kelp for radiation, and pick up diet advice from polar bears.

Who could forget the beloved Polar Bear uniforms?
Who could forget the beloved Polar Bear uniforms?
Jonathan Ferrey

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Congratulations to the five Berkeley faculty members who have been elected to the National Academy of Science! There are now 139 living Berkeley faculty in the academy.

Patricia Crawford, director of the Atkins Center for Weight and Health and an adjunct professor working with the College of Natural Resources and the School of Public Health, is behind a movement to get healthier food in our food banks.

Eat sushi freely

(Wait, I wasn't telling you to steal it!)

After the nuclear-plant failure at Fukushima in 2011, there have been concerns about radiation contaminating and affecting the local products that may eventually be imported into America. Kai Vetter, of the Department of Nuclear Engineering and the Lawrence Berkeley Lab, led a project analyzing kelp beds for radioactive content.

"Our data does not show the presence of Fukushima radioisotopes in West Coast Giant Kelp or Bull Kelp," [Steven Manley, CSU Long Beach] said. "These results should reassure the public that our coastline is safe, and that we are monitoring it for these materials. At the same time, these results provide us with a baseline for which we can compare samples gathered later in the year."

KelpWatch also found samples from Hawaii and Guam tested negative. While they claim they methods have "incredibly low detection limits" that could pick up small amounts of radioisotopes, this story never explicitly states what their limit of detection is, let alone put it in the context of a healthy or an unhealthy amount of radioactive exposure. Furthermore, it does not appear they tested kelp located closer to Fukushima. This would have been a huge step towards making convincing claims about a lack of irradiated samples in America by providing a positive control to prove their detection methods are functional.

There's no word of kelp-based superheroes emerging from this project. (And let this prove there's no joke too tired or bad for me to include in these posts.)

Golden Bears learning from polar bears

Science is so useless. When is it going to do something useful like let me eat ice cream all day without getting fat? Oh, tomorrow, you say? Thanks, science!

A group of Berkeley researchers, led by Professor Rasmus Nielsen, is working with an international squad of researchers from China and Denmark to study the genome of our white-furred and cold-loving brethren the polar bears; the work is taking a particular look at their evolutionary origins and how their bodies enjoy withstand a high-fat diet.

"The promise of comparative genomics is that we learn how other organisms deal with conditions that we also are exposed to," said Nielsen, a member of UC Berkeley's Center for Theoretical Evolutionary Genomics. "For example, polar bears have adapted genetically to a high fat diet that many people now impose on themselves. If we learn a bit about the genes that allows them to deal with that, perhaps that will give us tools to modulate human physiology down the line."

So, what are some of their technical findings, but presented in a digestible fashion? (Pun intended. Because I'm hilarious. And gorgeous.) The study found the polar bears underwent a great selection pressure to preserve a gene called APOB, which plays a role in low-density lipoproteins (LDL; known as "bad cholesterol"), transport of fat in blood, and the uptake of cholesterol by cells.

According to their primary research article, they found fewer variations in APOB sequences of polar bears compared to brown bears. In other words, APOB is so important to polar bears, evolution has found a way to restrict variants within a species because it must function at a certain level. Think of a race car. The color of the paint doesn't affect performance, so you can have a huge variety of colors in high-performing cars. But, just like how APOB seems to be critical to the metabolism of polar bears, painting flames on your car always makes it drive faster. Every great race car has flames painted on it because it makes it faster (and makes it look cooler).

So, why does this matter? This research suggests a strong role between APOB and the ability to "cope with high fatty acid intake by contributing to the effective clearance of cholesterol." APOB is just one of the genes they found to be significantly different in brown bears compared to polar bears; they found nine such genes that, when mutated in humans, are associated with heart disease. With a better understanding of the genetic causes that underlie these cardiovascular diseases, researchers can devise better treatments or solutions.