Research Roundup: 2 biological seasons, whale songs decoded, virtual trainers

Oct. 12, 2020, 9:02 p.m.

Each week, The Daily’s Science & Technology section produces a roundup of the most exciting and influential research happening on campus or otherwise related to Stanford. Here’s our digest for the week of Oct. 4 — Oct. 10.

Changes in human biomolecules follow two-season pattern

Human biology molecular patterns fluctuate based on two nontraditional seasonal periods, a study published on Oct. 1 in “Nature Communications” found. The seasonal periods are late spring-early summer and late fall-early winter.

“We’re taught that the four seasons — winter, spring, summer and fall — are broken into roughly equal parts throughout the year, and I thought, ‘Well, who says?’” genetics professor and chair Michael Snyder told Stanford Medicine News. “It didn’t seem likely that human biology adheres to those rules. So we conducted a study guided by people’s molecular compositions to let the biology tell us how many seasons there are.”

The findings suggested that during late-spring, inflammatory biomarkers known to cause allergies and molecules associated with rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis peak. During late-fall, hypertension biomarkers, immune molecules, and acne-causing molecules increase.

“Many of these findings open up space to investigate so many other things,” genetics postdoctoral research fellow Reza Sailani told Stanford Medicine News. “Take allergies, for instance. We can track which pollens are circulating at specific times and pair that with personalized readouts of molecular patterns to see exactly what a person is allergic to.”

Blue whale song patterns predict migration

Blue whale song patterns have been decoded by scientists to understand animal behavior as they migrate from their feeding grounds in North America to their breeding grounds in Central America, a study published on Oct. 1 in “Current Biology” reported.

“We decided to compare daytime and nighttime song patterns from month to month, and there, in the divergence and convergence of two lines, was this beautiful signal that neither of us really expected,” John Ryan, a biological oceanographer at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, told Stanford News.

The findings suggested that whales sang their loudest during the summertime and at night, however, once whales began migrating towards their breeding grounds, they transitioned singing during the daytime. 

“Blue whales exist at incredibly low densities with enormous distances between them but, clearly, are sharing information in some way,” third-year biology graduate student William Oestreich told Stanford News. “Trying to understand that information sharing is one motivation, but also potentially using that signaling as a means to study them is another exciting possibility.”

Virtual trainer helps older adults become more physically active

Virtual trainers can help older adults become more physically active, a study published on Sept. 28 in “JAMA Internal Medicine” reported.

“In particular, we see that adults who are around age 50 and up tend to struggle with maintaining adequate physical activity,” medicine, epidemiology and population health professor Abby King told Stanford Medicine News. “But this is an age when people can really benefit from even small amounts of regular physical activities such as walking; it’s important for lowering the risk of a number of diseases and health conditions, such as Type 2 diabetes and obesity.”

The team studied nearly 240 Latino participants with ages between 50 to 87 who were provided Carmen, a virtual trainer, or human coaches for a year to encourage activity. Carmen has a digital human form who interacted with participants through a computer screen.

At the end of the year, the researchers found that participants who used Carmen increased their physical activity, walking 154 minutes more per week on average. The participants with human coaches walked 132 minutes more per week.

Contact Derek Chen at derekc8 ‘at’

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