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Gut check

Science | Researchers say a cleaner environment may be making children more prone to asthma

Issue: "Agony and ecstasy," April 7, 2012

Canadian scientists working with lab mice have discovered what might be contributing to rising rates of asthma in developed nations. When they gave a common antibiotic called vancomycin to young mice, the rodents' gut bacteria ecosystem was altered and they became more likely to develop severe allergic asthma. The antibiotic didn't produce the same asthma effect on adult mice, suggesting that early exposure to the drug had affected immune system development.

The findings, published in EMBO reports, lend support to the "hygiene hypothesis," which posits that children raised in cleaner environments miss out on exposure to bacteria and fungi that would ultimately strengthen their immune systems. Last year a study found that kids raised on farms were up to 50 percent less likely to develop asthma. Other evidence suggests genes play a role in increasing risk. The asthma rate in the United States increased by a percentage point from 2001 to 2009, with prevalence highest among children (9.6 percent of kids have the disease, compared to 7.7 percent of adults).

Brett Finlay, one of the Canadian researchers, thinks modern sanitation and antibiotic use is "causing the disappearance of ancestral species of bacteria in our gut that may be critical to a healthy immune system."

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'Loved' but wanted

In a rare "wrongful birth" case, a jury in Oregon on March 9 awarded $2.9 million to Ariel and Deborah Levy, whose daughter Kalanit was born with Down syndrome in 2007 even though a genetic test had concluded her genes were normal. A doctor at Legacy Emanuel Medical Center in Portland had performed chorionic villus sampling on Deborah Levy's pregnancy at 13 weeks, but the Levys' lawyer claims the doctor sampled maternal tissue instead of Kalanit's, missing the Down diagnosis.

The Levys said they would have aborted the baby had they known she had the chromosomal disorder. Although the parents claim they love their 4-year-old daughter, they wanted financial compensation from the hospital to cover the additional lifetime cost of caring for her. -Daniel James Devine

By the numbers


5 years Length of time women ages 30 to 65 can safely go without a combined Pap smear and HPV test, according to new cervical cancer screening guidelines from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Last October the government panel had said there was too little information to recommend the HPV test, but its guidelines now align with those of medical groups. Many doctors continue to advise annual screening.

25% Increased yields from a salt-tolerant variety of durum wheat that Australian researchers created using traditional interbreeding. A gene in the wheat blocks salt from traveling up the plant's stem, and could boost food security in multiple nations where farmland salinity is a growing problem (Nature Biotechnology).

7 acres Size of a new "public food forest" planned for Seattle, where locals will be able to plant their own vegetable plots and partake of apple and mulberry trees, berry shrubs, and other edible flora. The Beacon Food Forest is benefiting from a $100,000 city-backed grant, and will be the largest U.S. park of its kind when completed. -Daniel James Devine

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is managing editor of WORLD Magazine and lives in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.


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