By: Sylvina Raver, Ph.D.
How agriculture controls nutrition guidelines
Every five years, the nutritional recommendations that help Americans make healthy dietary choices are revised to reflect the current state of nutritional and health science. Although only 4% of Americans adhere to these Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs), DGAs have a huge impact. For example, physicians routinely use them to advise patients on how to stay healthy. DGAs also affect billions of dollars in government spending as they inform meal content for military personnel, those helped through the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and US children who are served public school lunches.
The process of updating DGAs involves compiling the recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC), a panel of scientific experts who distill thousands of scientific studies into an advisory report, with comments from the public and input from federal agencies. For the first time, the 2015 DGAC report recommended that sustainability of food sources be considered in the final 2015 DGAs. Sustainable diets are defined by the United Nations as those with “low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and healthy life for present and future generations,” and the recommendation to consider sustainability is within the statutory bounds of the DGAC as defined in 1990. Proponents of the sustainability language emphasize the importance of considering the environmental impact of food production, and argue that nutrition is influenced by agricultural practices; for example, wild-caught fish or grass-fed beef is generally more nutritious than farm-raised fish or corn-fed beef. Opponents argue that sustainability is beyond the scope of the DGAC and accuses the committee of writing the recommendations from a political perspective rather than a scientific one.
Unsurprisingly, considering the extent of government funding that is influenced by the DGAs, the 2015 DGA revision process has come under constant attack by the agricultural industry. On Wednesday October 7, during a meeting of the House Committee on Agriculture, chaired by Representative Mike Conaway of Texas, Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack conceded that the 2015 DGAs were not “…the appropriate vehicle for this important policy conversation about sustainability” as a “matter of scope,” and that sustainability would not be a factor in the 2015 DGAs. The sustainability debate will likely resume in 2020 when the DGAs are next revised. (James Hamblin, The Atlantic; Kathleen Merrigan et al., Science; Sandra Hassink & Steven Stack, The Hill)
Neuroscientist team calls for a National Brain Observatory
A team of six influential neuroscientists has proposed the creation of a national network of neurotechnology centers that they’re calling the National Brain Observatory. The same group of scientists, dubbed “the Kavli six” due to their affiliation with The Kavli Foundation, is credited with drafting a proposal to map the activity of the living brain that would become President Obama’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative announced in Spring 2013. The first round of BRAIN funding was awarded mostly to individual labs or multi-lab research teams. In an opinion article published October 15 in the journal Neuron, the Kavli six call for the next step in the BRAIN initiative: a coordinated effort to synergize the discoveries made by the multiple individual laboratories funded by BRAIN. The scientists believe that the technological challenges facing neuroscience necessitate large investments in advanced technologies that are beyond the scope of any individual lab or research institution, similar to the national telescopes and particle accelerators used in the fields of astronomy and physics.
The goal of the National Brain Observatory proposal would be to expand shared access to four types of expensive technologies required to map the brain’s structure and activity: 1) large scale electron microscopes, capable of magnifying objects by more than 10 million times; 2) fabrication facilities to develop nanosized electrode systems capable of recording the activity of large networks of neurons with minimal damage to brain tissue; 3) new optical and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) facilities to monitor the dynamics of neural circuits in real time; and 4) advanced electronic storage and computational data mining to collect and analyze vast amounts of data.
The Kavli six suggests that such technologies could arise from existing Department of Energy (DOE) National Labs around the country, such as Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, or they could be housed in newly created facilities. The group argues that the experimental challenges being undertaken by the BRAIN Initiative, and by the neuroscience field at large, can only be surmounted through “highly coordinated, multi-investigator, cross-disciplinary efforts” such that a National Brain Observatory would permit. (Emily Underwood, ScienceInsider)
The crowdsourcing site that wants to pool our genomes
Two geneticists have launched a new crowdsourcing science project to collect the genetic data generated by direct-to-consumer (DTC) companies like Ancestry.com and 23andme.com. The project, called DNA.LAND, is a non-profit website created by Drs. Yaniv Erlich and Joe Pickrell and is affiliated with the New York Genome Center of Columbia University. DNA.LAND urges potential users to “Know your genome; Help science,” and the platform is designed to give participants ancestry and relationship data, as well as help to fill in missing sequences of DNA overlooked by DTC companies through a method called imputation. Although some of these functions are already provided by DTC companies, these companies compare users’ genetic information within individual company databases, and customers may miss out on connecting with relatives who have had their genetic information sequenced elsewhere. DNA.LAND compiles genetic information from multiple DTC companies, thus creating a dataset that is beyond the scope of anything amassed to date. To the extent to which users consent, scientists can then use this vast pool of genetic data to tackle research questions that require very large sample sizes. The project’s founders also envision linking DNA.LAND data with that from other sources, such as from activity tracking devices like Fitbits, or from social media activity that might indicate someone’s sleep patterns or mood fluctuations.
Privacy concerns are obvious. The site’s consent form contains minimal medical and legal jargon to describe guidelines that the founders say should lessen many of the privacy risks, such as not sharing personal identification information or genetic data with third parties without the user’s explicit permission. Still, the form contains the important caveat that the chance of a confidentiality breech is not zero and sharing data of this type carries inherent risks. Indeed, in 2013, Dr. Erlich and colleagues authored a study that revealed that men who have had their full genomes sequenced could be re-identified based on short DNA sequences found on their sex chromosomes. To help ease users’ privacy concerns, both of DNA.LAND’s Principal Investigators adopt a “skin in the game” philosophy by making their own personal genomes publicly available. They are not alone; by October 15, less than a week after the site went live, nearly 6,000 genomes have already been uploaded. (Ed Yong, The Atlantic; Erika Check Hayden, Nature; Andrea Anderson, GenomeWeb)
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