Zero calories and other awe-inspiring science tales

Zero-calorie sodas always seemed a bit too good to be true. So it wasn’t all that shocking to me when I heard (again) that artificial sweeteners may not be that good for you, as Rachel Ehrenberg reports in “Artifical sweeteners may tip scales toward diabetes.” (For a longer take on the sometimes confusing research on artificial sweeteners, read Bethany Brookshire’s recent Scicurious blog post.) What is intriguing about the new study is the how. In mouse and limited human studies, saccharin appears to change the makeup of the microbial garden that flourishes in the gut, boosting blood sugar levels. Because high blood sugar is linked with a risk of diabetes and obesity, it’s a worrisome finding. To me, the research is also a bit awe-inspiring, hinting at a complexity of interactions within the lowly human gut that few might have suspected in an earlier, pre-microbiome era.

The effort of botanists determined to save a rare native plant in the coastal mountains of California is also awe-inspiring, as Nsikan Akpan’s feature, “Climbing high to save a threatened West Coast plant,”  describes. This fall, scientists hope to begin a difficult, multiyear project to restore a cliff-growing succulent listed as threatened by federal agencies and almost completely wiped out by a wildfire. The story highlights one example of thousands of species living life on the edge. But this tale might just have a happy ending.

Physicists appear to like a good tale, too. Proof of that can be found in “Quasiparticles help physicists make sense of the world,” Andrew Grant’s explainer on quasiparticles, which are essentially fictional particles. But like great fiction, they carry the stuff of truth, serving as tools that allow physicists to better understand the world at very small scales. Quasiparticles, Grant says, are surprisingly practical and promise to lead to better solar cells and superconductors.

In “SSP’s new leader has a habit of making things happen,” readers will meet Science News’ new publisher and learn about her unusual life story. What’s striking about Maya Ajmera, who joined the Society for Science & the Public in August as CEO and president, is the entrepreneurial spirit and enthusiasm she brings to her new role. She ended our first meeting with the remark, “This is going to be so much fun.” Stay tuned for the next chapter for SSP and Science News

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