A Volcano Mystery, HIV and Alzheimer’s, and Cold Lab Mice

11:58 minutes

A crater lake atop Mount Baitou
A crater lake atop Mount Paektu. Credit: Bdpmax/Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 3.0

Mount Paektu was the site of one of the largest volcanic eruptions in the last 2,000 years. But the volcano, which straddles the border of North Korea and China, is situated far from the collision zone of any tectonic plates. Recently, North Korea opened up the site for study. Maggie Koerth-Baker, a science writer for FiveThirtyEight, discusses the mysterious volcano and other science stories from the week.

Plus, should medical researchers be paying closer attention to what temperatures lab mice are living in? STAT science writer Ike Swetlitz shares some recent arguments for why these mice may be too cold, and how the chill could affect the studies we rely on them for.

Segment Guests

Maggie Koerth

Maggie Koerth is a science journalist based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A little bit later in the hour, primatologist Frans de Waal is here to talk about animal intelligence, and why we shouldn’t underestimate the cognitive capacities of even, yes, insects.

But first, one of the hot topics taught in middle school earth science is, of course, volcanoes. Who hasn’t made one of those models that spewed out baking soda and vinegar? And you probably learned that volcanoes form when two tectonic plates crash into each other. But that’s not the case for a volcano on the border of North Korea and China. And just as interesting is the politics of the situation.

Maggie Koerth-Baker is here to tell us that story, and other short subjects in science. She’s a senior science writer for 538.com, based out of Minneapolis. And she joins us from NPR studios. Welcome back, Maggie. My heart goes out to all you folks in Minneapolis, today, remembering Prince.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: We are getting by as best we can.

IRA FLATOW: All right, maybe we can change what’s on our minds a little bit, just for the next few moments. Let’s talk about what’s going on there. This is a mysterious volcano for, what, a few different reasons.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Well, so it’s a really interesting volcano. So we know that about 1,000 years ago, Mt. Paektu is what it’s called, had one of the biggest volcanic eruptions that we have any record of. On a scale of 8, this was a 7. And it’s also interesting because it is a sacred volcano, both to the North Koreans and to the Manchu ethnic group of Chinese. When Kim Il Sung took over North Korea, he actually set up a legend that he’d been born there, as part of legitimizing his leadership. So it’s important culturally. It’s important scientifically. And it’s also got this weird thing, where it’s not on the border of where the tectonic plates meet. It’s kind of in the middle of solid earth.

So there’s all these interesting things happening with it, but nobody had really been able to study it from the Western science perspective, because it was sitting there, in North Korea. And then in 2011, a group of British and Chinese researchers were invited to come to North Korea and actually study the interior plumbing, get into the guts of this volcano with seismometers, and understand what was going on with it.

IRA FLATOW: That seems unusual. I mean, North Korea is so closed to Westerners. Wasn’t that a little bit unusual, that they would allow British scientists to come in there?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: It is a little bit unusual, but there’s actually a couple of different groups– international organizations– that have been working on building scientific connections between other countries and North Korea, as a way of improving diplomacy and spreading information to the North Koreans. And this is just one of those groups, that has been involved, here– although, this is the first time that those kind of scientific collaborations have actually resulted in research published in a major journal.

IRA FLATOW: So this could be– like ping-pong diplomacy opened up China– this might, volcano diplomacy might open up North Korea.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: It’s a possibility.

IRA FLATOW: OK. Let’s move on to your next story. It’s kind of interesting, also. Your story looks at how Alzheimer’s affects HIV patients. That’s– wow.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yeah, so this is another really fascinating thing. Researchers identified the first person living with HIV who now, also, has Alzheimer’s. It might have happened before, but this is the first time that it’s been recorded. And this is part of this really changing situation, where you have people in Western countries, in Europe, in the US, who are over the age of 65, and living with HIV. And this is– it’s hard to explain to younger people, I think, just what a huge deal this is– that when some of these people were first diagnosed with HIV, they expected to live months, weeks, certainly not years.

Many of them quit their jobs. They lost everyone in their fam– everyone who was part of their emotional support system, often, also had AIDS. And many of those people died. And Erin Allday did a story last month, for the San Francisco Chronicle, that followed the lives of some men who were, now, in their 60s, in their 70s, living with AIDS, and just what a huge cultural and social impact they had, by having this situation where they thought they were going to be dead at 30. And now, they’re elderly.

IRA FLATOW: So they, themselves, weren’t even prepared to survive for that long.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: No, not at all. Not at all. And so now, you have this population that is going into old age, and is getting the diseases of old age on top of the diseases of AIDS. And in many cases, they also don’t have support systems, don’t have savings, haven’t had jobs in years, because that wasn’t the future they were planning for.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, that is quite interesting, and a challenge. Because the population is aging. Let’s move on to another topic that is very much in the news, and that’s climate change. And we’re finding, now, that climate change is having some unforeseen consequences, like opening up the Northwest Passage over the North Pole. No one expected that, either.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yeah, I know. Finally proving somebody right, from 1400– this is such an interesting thing to me, because it’s– the early history of European colonization is all about finding this Northwest Passage that can take ships from the Atlantic to the Pacific, without having to go all the way around South America, or all the way around the world the other direction. And nobody ever found it. They sent Lewis and Clark out, looking for this thing, and they couldn’t find it. All these explorers died on ships, stuck in the ice in the Arctic, and never found it.

IRA FLATOW: And then they built the Panama Canal, so they wouldn’t have to do that, yeah?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Right, yeah. And now there’s enough ice melt happening that, at least for certain parts of the year, there is a Northwest Passage through the Arctic. And China is now setting itself up to start using that to haul freight from the Pacific to the Atlantic. So for example, if you’re going from Shanghai to Hamburg, if you take the Arctic route, that’s 2,800 nautical miles less than if they went through the Suez Canal, and went that direction. So it could save money. It could save time.

The trouble is that it could also be an international incident, because there’s a lot of debate about whether that Northwest Passage is international waters, or whether it’s something owned by Canada.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, and all the bordering arctic countries– all the way from Scandinavia to Canada, the US– they’re all claiming. They’re all gearing up for a fight over this, aren’t they?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yeah, yeah, they definitely are. And there’s actually a lot of raised eyebrows about China’s casual way of kind of deciding that they’re going to start doing this shipping. Their Maritime Safety Administration released a guide that offers route guidance to captains, so that they can go through that. And they’re going to start encouraging ships that are flying their flag to take that route.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, that’s what we need, is another flash point in the world. All right, Maggie. Thanks for taking time to be with us, and our condolences to all of you in Minneapolis, today.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Thank you for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Maggie Koerth-Baker is a senior science reporter at 538.com, in Minneapolis. Now it’s time to play Good Thing, Bad Thing– because every story has a flip side. And we’re going to talk about the flip side about lab mice, really– the furry, four-legged cornerstone of medical research that help us investigate everything from obesity, to sleep, to tumor growth. And to ensure studies using them are both humane and scientifically appropriate, the National Research Council recommends that mice be kept in rooms that are between 68 and 79 degrees Fahrenheit.

Many researchers don’t even bother reporting what temperature they keep their mice at, but one group suggests that it is time to pay closer attention to that thermostat. So what might be good or bad about how warm or cold a mouse is? Here to explain is Ike Swetlitz. He’s senior reporter at STAT. He’s been covering this story for the publication. Welcome to Science Friday.

IKE SWETLITZ: Thank you. It’s good to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Why does the temperature of the room a mouse is kept in matter for research?

IKE SWETLITZ: So the temperature of a room that the mice is in impacts a lot of things about the mouse’s physiology. If a room is very cold, the mouse will expend a lot of energy trying to heat itself up, basically. And then that impacts the results of a variety of experiments. If the mouse is very stressed, right? Imagine if you were in a room that was freezing cold, you could put on some clothes. But a mouse can’t really just put on clothes. So its heart rate will go up. That can have impact on a lot of things, from how tumors grow to how effective cancer therapies can be.

IRA FLATOW: Right, so that’s the bad thing about keeping them at a cooler temperature. What’s the good thing?

IKE SWETLITZ: So it’s really good for the humans who are working with them. Because when you’re working with mice, you have to wear a lot of protective equipment, depending on the type of mice or the diseases they may be carrying. You might have to wear masks or ventilators. And if you’re in a room that’s really hot, you’re going to be very uncomfortable. So keeping the room at a low temperature makes it easy for the researchers to work. It also cuts down on the odors in the room, at lower temperatures. And there are a variety of other benefits, as well.

Mice are less aggressive at lower temperatures, and you don’t want the mice killing each other in the process of your experiment. So there are a variety of advantages, as well.

IRA FLATOW: So the fact that the mice are kept in this cold temperature, is that affecting all the research? Is it invalidating all the research from years past?

IKE SWETLITZ: So a recent review article that was published that summarizes the research in this field didn’t go that far, right. It brought together a number of studies that showed how temperature impacts different aspects of mouse physiology. But it hasn’t gone so far as to invalidate any particular study. The authors of the review are more calling on researchers to take temperature into account, in ways they may not have before, but weren’t pointing out specific ways in which studies might be invalid because of– yeah.

IRA FLATOW: So at least, if you’re going to do the research, document the temperature it’s being done in, so we can use that as part of the paperwork.


IRA FLATOW: Yeah, we can judge from there. Thank you, Ike. Very interesting. Thanks for taking time to be with us, today.

IKE SWETLITZ: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Ike Swetlitz is a science reporter at STAT, based out of Boston. When we come back, we’re going to talk to Frans de Waal. He’s here to take us on the tour of intelligence in the animal kingdom. They are smarter than you think– or maybe you already know that. Depends if you have a pet or not, I think. Stay with us. We’ll talk with Frans de Waal, right after this break.

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