CLOSE
Thierry Hennet
Thierry Hennet

Breast Milk: The Swiss Army Knife of Bodily Fluids

Thierry Hennet
Thierry Hennet

We here at mental_floss appreciate urine, and blood is vital. But for sheer versatility, you just can’t beat breast milk. So say scientists today in the journal Trends in Biochemical Sciences, who characterize the fluid as a food, a fertilizer, an umbrella, a clock, a remote control, and a wastebasket.

“Breastfed at Tiffany’s”—that’s the actual name of the journal article—compiles the findings of more than 70 research papers on breast milk and breastfeeding. While the research on the substance is plentiful, the chemistry of the stuff itself remains elusive. Most mammal milk contains around 30 to 50 different sugar molecules. Human milk has more than 200. This complexity is both fascinating and frustrating to chemists.

“Despite its recognized benefits, the structural richness of breast milk has also impeded the characterization of the multiple effects of milk components on infant physiology,” the authors write.

A new mother can make up to 4 1/2 cups of milk per day, a process that requires a tremendous amount of energy. But it’s worth it, the authors write, because of all the things breast milk can do.

To begin with the obvious: Breast milk is terrific nourishment for a fast-growing newborn human. In particular, the rich milk called colostrum, which a mother typically makes just before and after a baby’s birth, has high concentrations of proteins and beneficial carbohydrates.

Breast milk is also a form of protection for infant and mother. Studies have shown that “the ultimate personalized medicine,” as the researchers describe it, decreases infant mortality, can reduce a child’s risk of later obesity, and can even help protect mothers against later breast and ovarian cancer.

Breast milk also helps support the growth of healthy bacteria in a baby’s gut. At birth, each person is equipped with only the bacteria they collected as they exited their mother. (Some have suggested supplementing this bacterial load through a technique called "vaginal seeding," but the jury is still out on its effectiveness.) In order to protect yourself and develop a healthy microbiome, you’re going to need more than that, and you’re going to need to feed them. The plentiful sugar compounds in breast milk give brand-new baby bacteria the sustenance they need to survive and grow.

“Infants don't have the machinery to digest these sugars so they are literally for the bacteria,” paper co-author Thierry Hennet said in a press statement. “It's like a seeding ground, and breast milk is the fertilizer.”

And breast milk contains vitally important antibodies called immunoglobulins, as well as proteins called cytokines, defensins, and lactoferrins, all of which help strengthen and build a baby’s fragile immune system.

As a clock, breast milk helps regulate both hormone circulation in a woman and weaning in her baby. During pregnancy, an ebb and flow of hormones keep a woman from lactating too soon. Once the baby is born, chemicals in the milk itself trigger a decrease in those hormones, allowing a free flow of milk to the baby.

For milk sugars to be absorbed in the gut, they must first be processed by an enzyme called lactase. Our bodies make lactase until we’re around 2 or 3 years old. When that tap shuts off, the sugars proceed, unprocessed, into our gut, where they can cause bloating, cramps, and nausea (a.k.a. lactose intolerance). That intolerance is a not-so-subtle sign for a child’s body that it’s time to stop breastfeeding.

Breast milk also operates as a remote control for a baby’s growth. The hormones leptin, insulin-like growth factor 1, and adiponectin contribute to an infant’s fat storage, metabolism, and overall body growth.

Lastly, there’s the wastebasket function, which is as undesirable as it sounds. Harmful chemicals, including pesticides, heavy metals, and medications, can accumulate in a mother’s breasts and breast milk, then pass into her child.

Breast milk's other claim to fame? It influenced the scientific name for humans, mice, cows, weasels, and everything in between. According to the authors, “Breast milk is ultimately why Carolus Linnaeus, as the father of seven children, chose the term Mammalia to define our own class of animals in the tree of life.”

Of course, breastfeeding is not an option or the right choice for every mother. Experts agree that baby formula, designed specifically to meet infants' nutritional needs, is a safe alternative. 

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
science
Scientists Accidentally Make Plastic-Eating Bacteria Even More Efficient
iStock
iStock

In 2016, Japanese researchers discovered a type of bacteria that eats non-biodegradable plastic. The organism, named Ideonella sakaiensis, can break down a thumbnail-sized flake of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the type of plastic used for beverage bottles, in just six weeks. Now, The Guardian reports that an international team of scientists has engineered a mutant version of the plastic-munching bacteria that's 20 percent more efficient.

Researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the University of Portsmouth in the UK didn't originally set out to produce a super-powered version of the bacteria. Rather, they just wanted a better understanding of how it evolved. PET started appearing in landfills only within the last 80 years, which means that I. sakaiensis must have evolved very recently.

The microbe uses an enzyme called PETase to break down the plastic it consumes. The structure of the enzyme is similar to the one used by some bacteria to digest cutin, a natural protective coating that grows on plants. As the scientists write in their study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they hoped to get a clearer picture of how the new mechanism evolved by tweaking the enzyme in the lab.

What they got instead was a mutant enzyme that degrades plastic even faster than the naturally occurring one. The improvement isn't especially dramatic—the enzyme still takes a few days to start the digestion process—but it shows that I. sakaiensis holds even more potential than previously expected.

"What we've learned is that PETase is not yet fully optimized to degrade PET—and now that we've shown this, it's time to apply the tools of protein engineering and evolution to continue to improve it," study coauthor Gregg Beckham said in a press statement.

The planet's plastic problem is only growing worse. According to a study published in 2017, humans have produced a total of 9 billion tons of plastic in less than a century. Of that number, only 9 percent of it is recycled, 12 percent is incinerated, and 79 percent is sent to landfills. By 2050, scientists predict that we'll have created 13 billion tons of plastic waste.

When left alone, PET takes centuries to break down, but the plastic-eating microbes could be the key to ridding it from the environment in a quick and safe way. The researchers believe that PETase could be turned into super-fast enzymes that thrives in extreme temperatures where plastic softens and become easier to break down. They've already filed a patent for the first mutant version of the enzyme.

[h/t The Guardian]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Robin Stott, via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
arrow
science
15 Overlooked Facts about Rosalind Franklin
Robin Stott, via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Robin Stott, via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Today is the 60th anniversary of the death of English chemist Rosalind Franklin, a brilliant and dedicated scientist best known for the honor denied her: the 1962 Nobel Prize for discovering the structure of DNA. Here are 15 facts about her.

1. SHE KNEW HER CALLING EARLY, BUT HER FATHER RESISTED EDUCATING A DAUGHTER.

Rosalind Elsie Franklin was born in London in 1920. She was one of five children born into a wealthy Jewish family. She decided she wanted to become a scientist at 15, and passed the admissions exam for Cambridge University. However, her father, Ellis, a merchant banker, objected to women going to college and refused to pay her tuition. Her aunt and mother finally managed to change his mind, and she enrolled at Cambridge's all-female Newnham College in 1938.

2. SHE ATTENDED COLLEGE WITH ANOTHER WOMAN WHO DIDN'T GET FULL CREDIT FOR HER WORK.

Bletchley Park cryptanalyst Joan Clarke was a few years older than Franklin, but they were both at Newnham in the late 1930s. Clarke would go on to be recruited for the war effort, cracking the German Enigma codes. The full scope of Clarke's work is still unknown, due to government secrecy.

3. HER SCHOLASTIC ACHIEVEMENTS WERE DENIED BY HER UNIVERSITY FOR YEARS.

Newnham College, Cambridge
Azeira, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Despite Newnham College having been at Cambridge since 1871, the university refused to accept women as full members until 1948, seven years after Franklin earned the title of a degree in chemistry. Oxford University started granting women's degrees in 1920.

4. HER RESEARCH ON COAL HELPED THE AEROSPACE INDUSTRY.

After graduation, Franklin got a job at the British Coal Utilization Research Association (BCURA), where she researched coal and charcoal, and how it could be used for more than fuel. Her research formed the basis for her 1945 doctoral dissertation; it and several of her later papers on the micro-structures of carbon fibers played a role in the eventual use of carbon composites in air- and spacecraft construction.

5. HER MALE COLLEAGUES WERE HOSTILE AND UNDERMINED HER RESEARCH.

Franklin had a direct nature and was unwilling to be traditionally feminine. One reason she left Cambridge to work on coal was that her doctoral supervisor did not like her and believed women would always be less than men. When she was hired in 1951 at King's College, London, to work on DNA, she clashed with researcher Maurice Wilkins, who had thought she was his assistant, not his equal. Meanwhile, Franklin was under the impression that she'd be completely independent. Their relationship got worse and worse the longer they worked together. Wilkins went so far as to share Franklin's research without telling her with James Watson and Francis Crick—even though they were technically his competitors, funded by Cambridge University. Watson was particularly nasty about Franklin in his 1968 book, The Double Helix, criticizing her appearance and saying she had to be “put in her place.”

6. HOW EVENTS UNFOLDED IN THE DISCOVERY OF DNA'S STRUCTURE IS STILL DEBATED TODAY.

Double helix of DNA
Altayb, iStock

Many books have been written hashing over events, either criticizing Watson and Crick, saying they stole Franklin's research, or defending the duo, saying her research helped them but that Franklin would not ultimately have reached their conclusions on her own. Though Franklin and Watson never became friendly, Crick and his wife welcomed Franklin into their home while she was being treated for ovarian cancer.

7. HER WORK MAY HAVE LED TO HER UNTIMELY DEATH.

Franklin died of cancer in 1958. She was 37. Though genetics likely played a part in her illness, her work with crystal x-ray diffraction, which involved constant exposure to radiation, did not help. She is not the first woman in science to risk her health for her research. Marie Curie died from aplastic anemia, which has been tied to radiation exposure. Many of Curie's personal belongings, including her cookbooks, are too radioactive to handle even today.

8. HAD SHE LIVED LONGER, SHE MAY HAVE QUALIFIED FOR MORE THAN ONE NOBEL PRIZE.


Maurice Wilkins (on left), Francis Crick (third from left), and James Watson (fifth from left) accept their Nobel Prize in 1962.
Keystone, Getty Images

The first, of course, would have been awarded with Watson, Crick, and Wilkins, had they been made to share credit with her. (Pierre Curie had to ask the Nobel Committee to add his wife to the nomination in 1903.) As for the second, chemist Aaron Klug won the prize in 1982, carrying on work he and Franklin had started on viruses in 1953, after she left King's College. Because of the rules at the time of her death about awarding prizes posthumously (and in 1974 all posthumous awards were eliminated, the sole exception being in 2011), Franklin has none.

9. DESPITE BEING DENIED HER PRIZE, SHE'S BEEN HONORED BY MANY ACADEMICS.

In 2004, the Chicago Medical School renamed itself the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science. She has also had a number of academic programs, auditoriums, and labs named for her. In 2013, Newnham College principal Dame Carol Black helped install a plaque commemorating Franklin at the Eagle Pub in Cambridge. Crick and Watson, who already had a plaque in the pub, drank there often while working on the DNA project, and allegedly boasted about discovering “the secret of life” to other patrons.

10. SHE IS THE SUBJECT OF SEVERAL BIOGRAPHIES.

The first, 1975's Rosalind Franklin and DNA, was written by her friend Anne Sayre, largely as a reaction to Watson's The Double Helix. In 2002, Brenda Maddox published Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA.

11. AN OBJECT IN SPACE IS NAMED AFTER HER.

In 1997, amateur Australian astronomer John Broughton discovered an asteroid, which he named 9241 Rosfranklin.

12. AT LEAST ONE HISTORY RAP BATTLE IS ABOUT HER.

It was produced by seventh graders in Oakland, California (with some help from teacher Tom McFadden). And it is delightful.

13. SHE HAS BEEN IMMORTALIZED ON THE SMALL SCREEN AND THE BIG STAGE.

In 1987, BBC's Horizon series aired The Race for the Double Helix, starring Juliet Stevenson as Franklin. Jeff Goldblum played Watson. In 2011, playwright Anna Ziegler premiered a one-act about Franklin called Photograph 51. It opened on the West End in 2015, starring Nicole Kidman as Franklin.

14. THE 2015 RUN OF PHOTOGRAPH 51 RE-IGNITED THE OLD CONTROVERSY.

While Kidman got much praise from critics for her turn as Franklin in Photograph 51, Maurice Wilkins' friends and former colleagues have taken exception to a scene where Wilkins takes a photograph—the titular Photo 51, which showed evidence of DNA's structure—from Franklin's desk when she isn't there, saying he would never have done something so dishonorable.

15. THE PLAY MAY COME TO THE BIG SCREEN IN THE NEXT FEW YEARS.

In 2016, the West End production's director, Michael Grandage, told The Hollywood Reporter that he hopes to turn the play into a film, with Kidman reprising the role.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios