How ‘bout them apples?

November 24, 2014

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

Do you have a good gut feeling about apples? Your body may — and that could be important to your overall health.

Some of the components of apples survive their trip through the upper part of the human digestive tract. Non-digestible compounds, including fiber and substances called polyphenols, stand up to chewing and the effects of enzymes in spit. They even remain intact after a bath in stomach acid. These compounds move all the way to the colon, where they undergo a transformation that can be quite beneficial to you.

The non-digestible compounds are fermented in the colon. That’s right, you could say you have a little brewery at work in your body. The fermentation allows for the growth of certain bacteria in the gut.

Which bacteria flourish in your colon really matters. Studies have shown that obese mice have different bacterial families and diversity of bacteria in their gut than do lean mice.

Now researchers at Washington State University have concluded that apples — especially Granny Smith apples — may lead to healthy bacteria in the colon and this, in turn, may help prevent a variety of medical disorders.

“Apples are a good source of non-digestible compounds,” Professor Giuliana Noratto told me. “We have now studied the differences in apple varieties to look for the most useful types.”

Results of the study were recently published in the journal Food Chemistry by Noratto and her co-researchers Luis Condezo-Hoyos and Indira P. Mohanty.

The new research indicates that Granny Smiths contain more non-digestible compounds than many other apples including Braeburn, Fuji, Gala, Golden Delicious, McIntosh and Red Delicious.

As a first step toward understanding the gut processes better, Noratto’s team simulated colon fermentation in test tubes. Fecal bacteria were cultured in apple compounds that survived gastrointestinal enzyme digestion.

“The non-digestible substances in the Granny Smith apples actually changed the proportion of fecal bacteria from obese mice to be similar to what you find with lean mice,” Noratto told me.

Now Noratto is feeding Granny Smiths directly to rats. This takes the ideas suggested by the test tube experiments and tries them out in the real-world condition of flesh-and-blood guts. Noratto expects results from the animal trials sometime in the New Year.

One thing about the rats interested me as an aside. The obese and lean rats are fed the same number of calories each day. But a high fat diet produces overweight rats, while a lower fat diet leads to lean rats. I’ll try to remember that the next time a bowl of ice cream is calling to me.

Down the road, Noratto’s work with apples could be important in the battle of the bulge that so many of us face. Beyond that, it could be useful in combatting diabetes. From Noratto’s perspective, obese people have an unfortunate community of bacteria in their gut. The bad bacteria make for byproducts that can lead to inflammation and influence metabolic disorders associated with being overweight.

It would be interesting if modern science can show that “an apple a day” really is a helpful addition to the human diet. Stay tuned!

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

Bones can tell quite a story

November 14, 2014

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

His teeth had no cavities, but they were heavily worn. He was about my height — some 5 feet, 7 inches tall. He wasn�t petite, likely weighing around 160 pounds. Well before his death, he broke six of his ribs. Five of them never healed, but he kept going nevertheless.

A recent article in �The Smithsonian Magazine� details all this and more about Kennewick Man, an ancient skeleton found on the banks of the Columbia River in south-central Washington State in 1996. The occasion for the article is the publication of a 680-page book on Kennewick Man being released this fall by Texas A&M University Press.

Carbon-14 dating indicates Kennewick Man lived about 9000 years ago. His ancient bones have told researchers an interesting tale about the route the first people to reach North America may have taken in their journey to reach our part of the world.

But first, some specifics about the man himself. People who study bones closely can tell which muscles were well developed when a person was alive because of the marks that muscle attachments leave behind. According to the piece in �The Smithsonian,� Kennewick Man�s right shoulder was very well developed. That indicates he likely made a living throwing a spear with his right arm. His right shoulder even has a fracture in its socket, perhaps because he once threw something a little too hard, like baseball pitchers do today.

It may have been because he threw right-handed that the five ribs on his right side never properly healed after they were broken. As the article says, �This man was one tough dude.�

A stone spear-point was embedded in Kennewick Man�s hip. It had a downward arc, perhaps meaning it was thrown from a distance. Looking at bone growth around the point, scientists believe he encountered that spear when he was 15-20 years old (Kennewick Man is believed to have been around 40 when he died.) The injury to his hip from the 2-inch long point was significant. Researchers think he must have been helped by other people to survive and regain his health. So although he was a tough dude, he wasn�t a lone wolf.

Kennewick Man�s skull reveals still more injuries. He had two small skull fractures, one on his forehead. Possibly he was in a serious fight. Another thing that might explain the injuries could be a bola. That weapon involves whirling a couple of rocks connected by a rope above the head. A miscalculation with a bola could have injured Kennewick man�s skull.

The bonus question in anthropology is where Kennewick Man came from. The features of the famous specimen can be seen as an indicator that North America was originally peopled by coastal Asians who worked their way around what�s now Japan and Kamchatka to Alaska and then points south. That�s a hypothesis that will no doubt be tested over time as other ancient bones are discovered and analyzed.

Stay tuned.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

Breeding better wheat

November 10, 2014

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

Earlier this year I went to a fundraiser where I bought a bag of Glee flour. Glee is a variety of hard red spring wheat that was developed at Washington State University. I used the flour in my favorite bread recipe, one I have modified a bit from a Mennonite cookbook I treasure.

There’s a bit of soy flour and powered milk in my bread, which ups the protein content. The recipe calls for 50 percent white flour, 40 percent whole wheat, and 10 percent rye. I used the Glee flour as the white flour. When I set the dough in a slightly warm oven, I was amazed at how fast it rose.

“That’s perfect,” said Professor Kim Kidwell of WSU who bred the wheat that went into the Glee flour. “Glee was specifically bred to bake bread, so I understand why the dough popped up quickly.”

Kidwell explained to me that “all-purpose flour” from the grocery store is a blend of wheat varieties, some of which are not ideal for baking bread.

“I often say that all-purpose flour is really no-purpose flour,” she said. “It is kind of good for making everything, but not great for making any one thing.”

I buy bread flour, not all-purpose flour, at the grocery store, just as my mother taught me. But Kidwell explained even bread flour is a blend of varieties. By using a lot of straight Glee flour in my bread, I benefitted from its special properties. The bread made great eating and now I know why.

Glee is currently grown by farmers in the Pacific Northwest. It has several attractive features: it has good yield potential, and it has good resistance to a disease called striped rust.

“I don’t want farmers to have to apply a lot of chemicals on their fields,” Kidwell said. “My favorite way to reduce input costs is through genetics.”

By genetics Kidwell means the traditional approach to breeding better plants: crossing varieties and looking for resultant strains that have desirable properties. If all goes well, it takes about 8 to 10 years from the time of the initial cross to when the researchers have a variety ready for release to farmers. Breeding better crop plants is part of the ongoing research work that takes place at land grant universities across the nation.

The name “Glee” deserves a bit of explanation. The variety was named in honor of Virginia Gale Lee, a graduate student in the WSU spring wheat breeding program. Lee was dedicated to research that could revolutionize crop production and help feed the world. Unfortunately she was struck down by an aggressive cancer at the age of 24. Money to help support current graduate students in her area has been donated to WSU, much of it raised from people who knew Lee and were inspired by her idealism and dedication.

I wish I had known Lee because the people who did were clearly touched by her life. But I’m glad I was able to learn about her — and wheat breeding more generally — through my use of Glee flour.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

“Eat right and exercise.”

It’s good advice. But millions of us Americans struggle every day to live up to our hopes regarding diet and activity. Some of us are pretty good at one thing (for me, it’s exercise) but not good at the other (starch and sweets make up too much of my diet). It just ain’t easy to both eat right and exercise, and do so every day.

But maybe we have been making some progress on our personal goals regarding diet and activity. It looks like our collective efforts to address obesity — and associated diseases like diabetes — may be starting to have some results.

A new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Although the devil is in the details, the publication argues that if you look at Americans as a group, obesity and diabetes are no longer increasing as they had been in recent decades.

As the Los Angeles Times reported recently, the rate at which Americans are being newly diagnosed with diabetes has now actually fallen. The statistic reflects how many new cases doctors found per thousand people. In 1990, for Americans between 20 to 79 years old, the number of new diabetes cases was 3.2. That figure shot up to 8.8 in 2008. The good news is that for 2012, the figure was 7.1, a downward trend worth celebrating.

But three groups are not participating in that improvement. They are Latinos, African Americans, and people with only a high school education or less. For a variety of reasons, people in those groups are still experiencing a rising rate of diabetes.

“It’s not good news for everybody,” Shakira Suglia told the Los Angeles Times. Suglia is an epidemiologist at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

And that bad news really matters because diabetes is such a debilitating disease. People with diabetes are more likely than the general population to suffer heart attacks and strokes, to name only two maladies that crop up in the medical statistics. Beyond that there’s blindness and kidney failure to fear, and problems in feet and legs that, in the worst case, can lead to amputation.

The overall problem posed by diabetes in the U.S. remains enormous. Nearly 1 in 10 Americans have the disease. There is the human dimension of the suffering that diabetes brings to people, and there is also the financial cost associated with treating the disease. Our national health care bill is significantly impacted by the cost of diabetes, which was estimated at $245 billion in 2012.

But even if it’s fragmentary, let’s be thankful for at least a bit of good news in the fight against obesity and diabetes. Let’s keep up the good work and encourage one another to eat right and exercise. Everyone needs to get on board this wagon, and that includes me.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

How hard is that?

October 20, 2014

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

A good friend of mine checks each morning on the web for the final “Jeopardy” question. It’s the last question on the taped “Jeopardy” program to be broadcast later that day. I don’t go to movies or follow sports, so I’m often at a loss when it comes to many quiz show questions. But recently I was in a position to answer the “Jeopardy” question because of my early training in geology.

The category of the question I got right was “to ‘dum’ it up.” That means, in Jeopardy-speak, that the answer will have the syllable “dum” in it. The clue mentioned that there is a substance a chemist would call aluminum oxide that’s sometimes used as an abrasive. How could it be named with “dum” in the word?

Aluminum oxide, or Al2O3, is well known to geologists. You likely know aluminum oxide with certain impurities in it as the gemstone sapphire. With somewhat different impurities, the gem is ruby. So if you find a deposit of the right kind of aluminum oxide in the back of beyond, your financial problems could be over.

But most aluminum oxide in the world isn’t gem quality. Instead it’s the mineral corundum. That was the answer to the “Jeopardy” question. I knew the answer because like all geology students and many a rock hound, I learned the names and properties of scores and scores of minerals (and a few gems) when I was young. Call it my misspent youth.

Like sapphire and ruby, corundum is very hard. On the scale geologists use to measure such things, it has a hardness value of nine. Some gemstones are eight on the hardness scale. Diamond – the hardest natural substance in the world – has a hardness value of ten.

Most sandpaper is made of small quartz grains. Quartz has a hardness of seven. That’s generally hard enough for smoothing down a bit of wood. Depending on its exact chemical composition, garnet is a bit harder than quartz, and in a good hardware store you’ll find garnet sandpaper. Corundum is harder still, making it an abrasive for tough jobs.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Apple is investing $700 million to give its new iPhone and smartwatches what are termed “sapphire screens.” The idea is that the screen of the phone won’t be scratched as it rattles around in your pocket or purse with your car keys, and the watch face won’t be scratched if you scape it against a wall – even a brick wall.

Mineralogy to the rescue. But don’t ask what proportion of “Jeopardy” clues I can usually solve.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard Universities. This column is provided as a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. See more columns or listen to the Rock Doc’s broadcasts of them at

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

As a kid, I read the Sherlock Holmes stories and the mysteries of Agatha Christie. As an adult, I wrote four mysteries that focused on a Quaker heroine solving crimes she happened across in her religious community. (I published them using my grandmother’s name — Irene Allen — as a pseudonym.) And, as a geologist, I’ve read about real-life criminal investigations that involved samples of sand and soil.

But it wasn’t until I talked with Dr. Nathalie Wall of the chemistry department at Washington State University that I got my head around forensic science that relates to radioactive materials.

“The basic definition of forensics is that it gives you information about the past,” Wall said to me. “The best known type of forensics is the criminal kind.”

Nuclear forensics is the study of radioactive materials found on places like a suspect’s hand. The goal is to develop information about such things as the source of the nuclear material. One part of the research Wall does is to help develop techniques that can be used for prosecution of people linked to illegally transporting or trafficking in radioactive substances.

“A fingerprint belongs to just one person, so it has real importance as evidence,” Wall said. “But you can’t arrest someone just for having a trace amount of uranium on their hands. There is uranium in granite, so a person can pick up trace amounts of it just from handling rocks.”

That’s part of the reason why it can be much more complicated to make a legal case against a person for dealing in radioactive materials than it can be to prove other kinds of criminal cases.

“The cool thing about nuclear chemistry is that radioactive elements come in sets or suites,” Wall told me. “If you find a specific suite of elements of different proportions, you can potentially tell where the material came from and what it’s been used for. So this is the ‘fingerprint’ we look for.”

Wall’s work is in the chemistry of various radioactive elements. She collaborates with people who make sophisticated devices for testing trace samples of materials.

“Just as the TSA may swipe your hand to see if you’ve touched conventional explosives, our goal is to develop tests for trace amounts of radioactive isotopes,” Wall said. “Part of the challenge is to make the tests both accurate and fast.”

Wall got a start in the research world working on nuclear repositories and contaminated sites. Nuclear forensics has been a recent addition to her work.

“From a chemist’s point of view, it’s all the same story,” Wall said.

Wall’s work is part of a broader who-done-it effort that’s important to all of us. I’m glad she and others like her are at work on real-life investigatory techniques that can stop terrorists.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

The Michael Crichton book “Jurassic Park” and the movie based on the best-seller presented what might happen if scientists were able to clone extinct dinosaurs, bringing them back to life. While nothing like that is possible at this time — a good thing when you recall the mayhem the dinos caused in the world Crichton conjured up — sometimes scientists surprise themselves in breathing new life into old organisms.

One example of some success in what’s sometimes called “resurrection ecology” comes from a small island that lies off Antarctica. The place is called Signy Island. It’s one of the South Orkney Islands. Signy experiences short summers (during our northern hemisphere winters), but long winters during much of the year characterize the place. The local environment is too harsh to support trees: instead, the land is carpeted by thick beds of moss.

Peter Convey, a scientist with the British Antarctic Survey, has worked on the island for some 25 years. He recently described the carpet of moss to The New York Times.

“It’s just like a big, green, spongy expanse,” he said.

But only the top layer of the moss is a growing mass of vegetation. The deeper layers don’t get sunlight, so they turn brown. In time, they freeze and join the permafrost that is the core of the island. That frozen moss has been building up in place for thousands of years.

In their short summer field seasons, Convey and colleagues have drilled down through the carpet of moss and into the permafrost. In the cores they removed, they found shoots of moss within the permafrost and even down in gravel layers. Generally, plants break down when they become permafrost, but something different seemed to be happening with the moss shoots.

Convey and his co-workers wondered if the ancient moss might be able to grow again.

“It was just kite-flying,” he said of his idea to a reporter from The New York Times.

The researchers took a core of the permafrost and put it near a lamp in a laboratory. They also misted it with water. In just a few weeks, they were rewarded with moss that was generating new, green growth, even from the zone three and a half feet below the surface.

As they have now reported in the journal Current Biology, they analyzed the moss for carbon-14, the radioactive or “hot” form of carbon that decays naturally over time at predictable rate. This gave the researchers a well-established method to test for how old the buried moss was. The moss they revived in the lab was more than 1,500 years old. In other words, it’s been dormant since around the year 500, but was able to spring back to active life when conditions were favorable. A pretty good trick!

But, obviously, it’s a far cry from reviving old moss to reviving animals like dinosaurs. Still, science yields some surprises now and then. Let’s not rule out anything when it comes to resurrection.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

A tale of two stoves

June 7, 2014

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

My elderly aunt in Canada recently came into some money. She decided — very generously — to send part of it to each of her nieces and nephews. This gave me the rather wonderful task of deciding how I wanted to spend $1,000 that I had not anticipated receiving. After a bit I decided on a new range for my kitchen. I wouldn’t otherwise buy a new appliance, and by spending the money on a range I will be able to remember my aunt and bless her name each night as I cook supper.

My old range was electric. The oven was a bit slow, but otherwise baked things OK. The burners, however, were constantly problematic. I had replaced them all but still had to suffer with unpredictable and inconsistent heating.

I grew up with a natural gas cook stove and so decided to buy something similar for my house. I like gas because you can see when it’s on, because it cuts off instantly when you turn off the flame, and because I think of natural gas as a pretty clean fuel we can get from domestic sources.

No sooner had I made up my mind about what to do with the unexpected money than my brother Nils explained he plans to change from a gas range to an electric one. (Leave it to siblings to always disagree?)

Nils thinks a lot about climate change and his family’s use of energy. Some of his ideas are at odds with mine, but I’m (mostly) OK with that.

My brother is truly concerned about humankind’s production of greenhouse gases and the climate change we may bring about during the remainder of this century. He wants to eliminate his own household’s greenhouse gas pollution and he’s willing to do some real work to meet that goal. While I’m more concerned about other political issues, I respect Nils’ earnestness and his willingness to think and spend differently because of climate change concerns. He sees the matter as a moral one, and he’s committed to doing what he can to help bring about changes in both his household and his community.

One step for my brother is to switch his appliances from natural gas to electricity. His idea is that if he uses natural gas to do things like cook supper, he’s making carbon dioxide that adds to what’s building up in the global atmosphere. If he uses electricity to do those same tasks, he can — at least in principle — not create greenhouse gases. While he waits to purchase solar panels, for pays the power company extra each month to purchase electricity from wind.

I like to say to my brother that not all his power can come from windmills or solar panels. After all, he uses electricity on calm winter nights when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining. In short, we all need what the utility people call “base load power.” Across the country, that kind of power comes from several different things, but part of it is from natural gas power plants. So, from my perspective, we all of us are “sinners” when it comes to greenhouse gas production, including people who only own electric appliances.

Nils counters that our need for base load power is not a rationale to continue business as usual, it’s just another challenge to be met by conservation or energy storage. In the meanwhile, he is working hard constructing a new building on his property. It’s the size of a small house and will be used as a commercial kitchen. The building is super-insulated, and it has a solar air heater and a solar water preheater. Nils is putting in LED lighting (more efficient than compact fluorescents). The heat is electric, but because of the clever designs my brother is using, very few kilowatt-hours are needed to keep the place warm. Nils plans to use what he’s learning as he builds the kitchen to retrofit two other buildings on his property to reduce their carbon footprints.

I’ve got to respect parts of my brother’s thinking. And I really applaud his building efforts. Not many of us put our money where we say our values are.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

When you fill your tank, you likely see a little sticker on the pump saying part of the fuel is ethanol. Ethanol is a biofuel, which means it comes from plants like corn, rather than from fossil fuel — ancient carbon that’s been buried within the Earth for millions of years.

Producing more biofuels is on the agendas of governments and private industry alike. Biofuels can potentially help nations become more energy independent. If a country can grow plants and produce biofuels from them, that nation could potentially import less crude oil. Biofuels, if done right, also could reduce the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced in the transportation sector.

But there are drawbacks, at least with corn-based ethanol. For one thing, using ethanol in our vehicles means we are essentially burning food as we tootle down the road. Food is pretty precious stuff in a hungry world, so a number of people are worried about corn-ethanol. It also takes considerable petroleum-based fuel to grow corn, harvest it, and process it into ethanol. So researchers around the world are on the lookout for better ways to make biofuels.

Biodiesel is another biofuel that you’ve likely heard something about. It’s blended into petroleum-based diesel to power trucks and diesel-fueled cars. Biodiesel is quite simple to make from vegetable oil. In freshman classes, I’ve led students to make it in small batches. But if biodiesel is made from oils we eat, it has some of the same drawbacks as corn-based ethanol.

Recently there was an interesting report about an advance made by scientists researching a new approach to making biodiesel. A team of researchers used genetically modified E. coli bacteria to convert sugar into a material very similar to petroleum-based diesel fuel. The fuel produced is so much like petroleum diesel, it can be used at full strength in engines.

Professor John Love, a synthetic biologist at the University of Exeter, was one of the scientists involved in the work. Talking with a reporter from BBC News, he said, “What we’ve done is produced fuels that are exactly the chain length required for the modern engine and exactly the composition that is required.”

Some people fear bioengineering when it comes to the food we eat, but there might be less resistance to the approach if it is used to produce fuel rather than vittles.

But there is more work to be done. E. coli doesn’t produce a lot of fuel. According to the BBC news report, it would take over 100 quarts of E. coli to produce a teaspoon of diesel fuel.

“Our challenge is to increase the yield before we can go into any form of industrial production,” Love said. “We’ve got a timeframe of about three to five years to do that and see if it is worth going ahead with it.”

The devil is in the details when it comes to biofuels developed so far. But don’t count researchers out – there are many good ideas being pursued all the world around.


Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.