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Scientists Discover Why Growing Up on a Farm Helps Protect You from Allergies

The idea that children growing up on farms may be less likely to develop allergies and asthma is not new. People have made anecdotal observations about the healthiness of farm kids relative to their urban counterparts for years. But a new study from VIB (a Belgium-based life sciences institute) is the first to find a causal relationship between farm life and allergy resistance. The discovery could potentially lead to the development of an asthma vaccine, the researchers claim.

The key, it turns out, is a special kind of dust. Testing on mice, researchers at VIB found that exposure to "farm dust" helps build resistance to other dust-based allergies—including house dust mite allergy, the most common cause for allergies in humans—as well as asthma. The study, published in the journal Science, also found that a specific protein, called A20, was at the heart of farm kids' increased allergy resistance. 

A20 is a protective protein in the mucous membrane of the lungs which reduces the body’s response to allergens. Breathing in farm dust, scientists found, causes the lungs to produce more A20. This, in turn, reduces allergic reactions to other kinds of dust. The scientists assessed 2000 children growing up on farms, and found that most of them were protected from allergies.

Unfortunately for city dwellers prone to sneezing and wheezing, just going to a farm and breathing deeply won’t alleviate allergies; the resistance is created while the lungs are still developing. But don’t despair just yet. While much more research is still needed, Hamida Hammad, one of the researchers on the study, says, “Discovering how farm dust provides this type of protection has certainly put us on the right track towards developing an asthma vaccine and new allergy therapies. However, several years of research are required still before they will be available to patients.

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Food
Thanks to a Wet Winter, New Zealand Faces a Potential Potato Chip Shortage
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New Zealand has plenty of unique and tasty snacks, but kiwis also love potato chips. The universal comfort food is in danger Down Under, however, as an unusually wet winter has devastated the island country’s tuber crops, according to BBC News.

Twenty percent of New Zealand’s annual potato crop was wiped out from a series of major storms and floods that ravaged the nation’s North and South Islands, The Guardian reports. In some regions, up to 30 percent of potato crops were affected, with the varieties used to make chips bearing the brunt of the damage.

Potato prices spiked as farmers struggled, but the crisis—now dubbed “chipocalypse” by media outlets—didn't really make the mainstream news until supermarket chain Pak’nSave posted announcements in potato chip aisles that warned customers of a salty snack shortage until the New Year.

Pak’nSave has since rescinded this explanation, claiming instead that they made an ordering error. However, other supermarket chains say they’re working directly with potato chip suppliers to avoid any potential shortfalls, and are aware that supplies might be limited for the foreseeable future.

New Zealand’s potato farming crisis extends far beyond the snack bars at rugby matches and vending machines. Last year’s potato crops either rotted or remained un-harvested, and the ground is still too wet to plant new ones. This hurts New Zealand’s economy: The nation is the world’s ninth-largest exporter of potatoes.

Plus, potatoes “are a food staple, and this is becoming a food security issue as the effects of climate change take their toll on our potato crop,” says Chris Claridge, the chief executive of industry group Potatoes New Zealand, according to The Guardian.

In the meantime, New Zealanders are preparing to hunker down for a few long months of potential potato peril—and according to some social media users, kale chips are not a suitable alternative. “Chipocalypse” indeed.

[h/t BBC News]

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Weird
See (Probably) the World's Heaviest Squash in All Its Glory
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A Rhode Island man has likely set a world record for growing the world’s heaviest squash, the Associated Press reports.

Joe Jutras stole the show with his giant squash at last weekend’s Southern New England Giant Pumpkin Growers Pumpkin Weigh-off. It tipped the scales at 2118 pounds, shattering grower Scott Holub’s 2016 record of 837 pounds.

Jutras, a retired cabinet maker from Scituate, Rhode Island, has spent the last 20 years or so growing giant foods, according to NPR. In 2006, he scored a Guinness Record for producing the world's longest gourd (127 inches), and in 2007 he grew a record-breaking pumpkin that weighed 1689 pounds. These titles are no longer in the book, but Jutras is still the only person who’s ever set world records in the pumpkin, gourd, and squash categories, making him a celebrity of sorts among growers.

Jutras says he’s finally seeing the (literal) fruits of his labor, after trying for years to hit this elusive trifecta. A few years ago he was on track with another giant squash, but it split before weigh-in time. This time around, Jutras used a seed from last year’s world-record holding squash and nurtured it to greatness using new and improved farming techniques.

Guinness still hasn’t confirmed Jutras’s giant squash as the world’s largest, but he’s confident that it will reign supreme. As for the hefty fruit itself, it’s going on display at the New York Botanical Garden, where it will be carved for a Halloween display.

[h/t Associated Press]

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