This Week in Research: Worm Sex, Seal Spit, and Insomnia

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Sometimes — like, say, when you’ve had a fight with your significant other — hermaphrodite life seems like the way to go. Back in the day, nematodes (aka roundworms) reproduced through male-female mating, but it didn’t take them long, evolutionarily speaking, to get over that; nowadays, they self-fertilize. Sounds very neat and uncomplicated — except that self-fertilization creates its own set of problems, according to recent research out of the University of Maryland.

The culprit? Genetic diversity. After centuries of self-fertilization, the researchers found, the nematodes’ genome shrank in terms of size and complexity.  “C. elegans and C. briggsae [the hermaphroditic nematodes] seem to have the Cliffs Notes version of the [sexually reproducing] nematode genome,” said UM evolutionary biologist Eric Haag. “Once a sex-related gene is lost, it probably stays lost… Over time this reduces mating further, and each cycle the genome gets smaller. But if variation becomes important again, and they try to go back to mating, they can’t do it well anymore. Self-fertilizing species go extinct faster than those that keep mating, and this may be why.”
Did you know that the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing has a whole lab dedicated to spit? Okay, okay, scientists:  saliva. Their ongoing studies include measuring how saliva can be used to study stress and illness in the human body; now saliva expert Douglas Granger wants to apply that same methodology to studying endangered animals, namely sea lions.

Because sea lions can’t complain vocally about stressful changes in their environment (like moving from one zoo to another), the idea is that their caregivers could monitor their anxiety through swabbing for saliva. “Advancing our understanding of these relationships may allow us to better serve the needs of animals in zoos,” Granger says.
For some people who are having trouble sleeping, the answer might be annoyingly simple:  losing weight. According to a new study out of Johns Hopkins, overweight and obese patients found that their sleep quality significantly improved when they lost weight — especially belly fat. It didn’t matter whether the weight loss happened via changes in diet or increased exercise, researchers said.

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