Highlights from the AAAS: Food allergies, superheroes, electric cars and Opie


Now we're getting into the thick, juicy part. I spent Friday in a flurry of tweeting and note-taking, bopping from one two-hour symposium to another. I was really pleased with myself for managing to pack in five different sessions—until I realized that I'd totally missed meeting Ron Howard, King of the Gingers, at a presentation on science and Hollywood. Whoops. Thanks to my science journalism colleagues, though, I am able to tell you this: Nobody ever worked out the physics behind turning a jukebox on just by hitting it.

Those disappointments aside, the day was chock full of fascinating facts. After the jump, I'll tell you about the science of superheroes, the best way to make electric cars profitable to own and why the advice many new parents get about preventing food allergies is probably wrong.

Hopeful Monsters

This session featured writers from "Heroes", the scientific advisor to "Watchmen" and a scientist studying the real-world evolution of the—relatively super—traits that turned single-celled organisms into animals, and people.

It's that last speaker, Nichole King, Ph.D., from the University of California, Berkeley, who brought up a really interesting point about the intersection between evolution and sci-fi. Evolution, as you know, is driven by random mutations in DNA, and most of those mutations have no visible impact at all. DNA changes, but nothing important happens to the overall organism.

Other changes in DNA lead to negative impacts—for instance, the mutations that lead to cancer. Finally, and luckily, some mutations are beneficial. But, King reminded me, they're very seldom only beneficial. The same innovative mutations that make an organism stronger are usually also associated with at least one biological trade-off. You may gain, but you also lose. And whether the mutation gets counted as "successful" depends a lot on how the benefits and detriments balance out.

Think about what that could mean for, say, the X-men? Should Warren Worthington III be dealing with the osteoporosis that must surely go along with his light, flight-ready bone structure?

The Real Benefit of Hooking Your Electric Car Up to the Grid

Vehicle-to-Grid is a relatively new concept. It can refer to a lot of different ideas but, generally, we're talking about enabling electric vehicles and utility companies to establish a close, personal relationship, built on two-way communication. Its theoretical potential was first studied in 1997. In 2008, researchers first hooked up an all-electric vehicle to the real, not just simulated, grid.

I'd certainly heard of the idea before today, but mostly with the idea that doing this would enable consumers to sell electricity stored in the battery back to their utility companies. Easy peasy. You know, if you overlook the fact that buying electricity from and selling electricity to the same company, for the same price, isn't going to help anybody turn a payback on their initial investment in the car.

No, the real place where vehicle-to-grid power has considerable financial potential is frequency regulation, according to researchers from the University of Delaware, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and other institutions. If you're one of the companies that runs America's electrical grid system, you have to pay a lot of attention to keeping the flow of power humming along at a steady, reliable rate. In fact, you're legally obligated to have a certain amount of generator backup dedicated to ramping power production up and down, smoothing out the fluctuations in frequency.

But coal and other traditional power plants are slow moving beasties, trying to respond to what is, essentially, a zap-quick problem. Fleets of electric vehicles, plugged in and able to communicate with the electrical grid control systems, have the potential to be a better (and way more green) alternative. And, because utilities need that backup capacity—whether or not they're using it at any given moment—the price they'd pay a consumer to make an electric car part of that backup is much higher than the rate they'd pay just to buy excess power from the car's battery. Kind of the difference between a monthly membership fee at the gym, and a one-off charge to use the sauna for an hour.

So just how profitable is that. The calculations vary—and the impact is larger for fleets than individual cars—but a 2007 study done by Jasna Tomic, Ph.D., from the alternative transportation institute CALSTART, makes it appealing. Using utility rate numbers from 2003, a 250-vehicle fleet would have grossed more than $1 million in a year, and netted close to $700K.

A new perspective on childhood allergies

For years, parents have been told to put off introducing their babies to certain foods—things like milk, soy and peanuts—that tend to cause allergic reactions. The idea behind the advice was that, if you gave a baby's immune system a chance to mature before tossing a food trial at it, it might not be so likely to overreact.

But that theory is turning out to be wrong, according to a panel of European and American public health experts from organizations like the FDA and the British National Health Service Trust. There's no evidence that delaying the introduction of potentially allergenic foods does anything to reduce a child's likelihood of developing an allergy, they said. And, in fact, there's some evidence that delaying the foods may actually increase the risk of allergic reaction.

Why? Researchers can only speculate right now, but it might have to do with the fact that you can never completely eliminate environmental exposure to certain foods. Even if you stringently avoid peanuts, you might still come into contact with very, very minute amounts of the allergy-causing nut proteins. As it turns out, it's these small, rare, random exposures that are more likely to set the stage for developing a sensitivity to a particular food, rather than regular consumption.

Once they're ready to eat solids, your baby or toddler is better off being adventurous with new foods.

More to come tomorrow! Plus, over the next few weeks, I'll also be doing a few more in-depth stories, based on AAAS lectures and symposia.