CLOSE
Ad Meskens via Wikimedia Commons
Ad Meskens via Wikimedia Commons

Amish Farms Are Really Good at Protecting Kids from Asthma

Ad Meskens via Wikimedia Commons
Ad Meskens via Wikimedia Commons

Some ethnic groups are more asthma-prone than others, but that doesn’t mean it’s genetic. A study of 60 kids on Amish and Hutterite farms found huge differences in asthma between the two groups despite their similar genetic backgrounds, lifestyles, and customs. The study was published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Asthma and other autoimmune conditions have increased dramatically over the past three decades. Today, around 10.3 percent of all American kids from ages 5 to 14 have asthma, yet there’s still a lot about this condition we don’t understand, like why it happens or if it could be prevented. Some studies have shown that kids who live with dogs are less likely to develop asthma, as are kids who live on farms. But the farm itself seems to make a difference. Previous studies have found that Amish children are only half as likely (5.2 percent) as children in the general population to develop asthma, while those in Hutterite communities have almost double the chance (21.3 percent).

To find out why that might be, researchers recruited 30 kids aged 7–14 from an Amish community in Indiana and another 30 aged 8–14 from a Hutterite farm in South Dakota. They took samples of the kids’ blood and looked at their DNA and immune systems. They also installed dust collectors in the families’ homes and used a vacuum to suck up additional particles from the participants’ living room floors and mattresses. Some of the dust samples were used to test the house’s microbiome, or microbial ecosystem. Others were turned into dust extract and used to treat lab mice, which had already been dosed with compounds that made them sensitive to asthma.

Amish and Hutterite cultures can seem very similar to outsiders. Both groups were founded by immigrants from Central Europe. They have big families and live relatively old-fashioned lifestyles, eschewing things like TV and pasteurized milk. But there is one pretty big difference: the way they farm. Amish communities are divided into single-family dairy farms and use horses for field work and transportation, while Hutterite families use modern agricultural equipment on centralized farms, living slightly apart from where they work. Would the communities’ different farming styles be enough to alter their kids’ immune systems?

For sure. Co-author and University of Chicago geneticist Carole Ober said the team observed a “whopping disparity” in asthma between the groups. Six of the Hutterite children (20 percent) had asthma, but none of the Amish kids did. Their immune systems were very different: Amish kids had more infection-fighting cells called neutrophils and fewer inflammation-promoting eosinophils than their Hutterite counterparts.

These differences were mirrored in the very air they breathed. The authors note that dust from Amish homes was “much richer in microbial product.” And mice treated with Amish dust were far less likely than the others to show asthma symptoms.

The researchers were quick to clarify that a richer microbial ecosystem doesn’t equate to a dirty house. Every home has dust; it’s the contents of the dust that differ. In this case, those contents are altered by Amish houses’ proximity to farms. “Their children run in and out of them, often barefoot, all day long,” Ober said in a press statement. “There's no obvious dirt in the Amish homes, no lapse of cleanliness. It's just in the air, and in the dust."

In the future, the team said, these findings could lead to targeted asthma prevention therapies. "You can't put a cow in every family's house," Ober said, "but we may be able to protect children from asthma by finding a way to re-create the time-tested Amish experience."

Know of something you think we should cover? Email us at tips@mentalfloss.com.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Emery Smith
arrow
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
The 'Alien' Mummy Is of Course Human—And Yet, Still Unusual
Emery Smith
Emery Smith

Ata has never been an alien, but she's always been an enigma. Discovered in 2003 in a leather pouch near an abandoned mining town in Chile's Atacama Desert, the tiny, 6-inch mummy's unusual features—including a narrow, sloped head, angled eyes, missing ribs, and oddly dense bones—had both the “It's aliens!” crowd and paleopathologists intrigued. Now, a team of researchers from Stanford University School of Medicine and UC-San Francisco has completed a deep genomic analysis that reveals why Ata looks as she does.

As they lay out in a paper published this week in Genome Research, the researchers found a host of genetic mutations that doomed the fetus—some of which have never been seen before.

Stanford professor of microbiology and immunology Garry Nolan first analyzed Ata back in 2012; the mummy had been purchased by a Spanish businessman and studied by a doctor named Steven Greer, who made her a star of his UFO/ET conspiracy movie Sirius. Nolan was also given a sample of her bone marrow; his DNA analysis confirmed she was, of course, human. But Nolan's study, published in the journal Science, also found something very odd: Though she was just 6 inches long when she died—a typical size for a midterm fetus—her bones appeared to be 6 to 8 years old. This did not lead Nolan to hypothesize an alien origin for Ata, but to infer that she may have had a rare bone disorder.

The current analysis confirmed that interpretation. The researchers found 40 mutations in several genes that govern bone development; these mutations have been linked to "diseases of small stature, rib anomalies, cranial malformations, premature joint fusion, and osteochondrodysplasia (also known as skeletal dysplasia)," they write. The latter is commonly known as dwarfism. Some of these mutations are linked to conditions including Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which affects connective tissue, and Kabuki syndrome, which causes a range of physical deformities and cognitive issues. Other mutations known to cause disease had never before been associated with bone growth or developmental disorders until being discovered in Ata.

scientist measures the the 6-inch-long mummy called Ata, which is not an alien
Emery Smith

"Given the size of the specimen and the severity of the mutations … it seems likely the specimen was a pre-term birth," they write. "While we can only speculate as to the cause for multiple mutations in Ata's genome, the specimen was found in La Noria, one of the Atacama Desert's many abandoned nitrate mining towns, which suggests a possible role for prenatal nitrate exposure leading to DNA damage."

Though the researchers haven't identified the exact age of Ata's remains, they're estimated to be less than 500 years old (and potentially as young as 40 years old). Genomic analysis also confirms that Ata is very much not only an Earthling, but a local; her DNA is a nearest match to three individuals from the Chilote people of Chile.

In a press statement, study co-lead Atul Butte, director of the Institute for Computational Health Sciences at UC-San Francisco, stressed the potential applications of the study to genetic disorders. "For me, what really came of this study was the idea that we shouldn't stop investigating when we find one gene that might explain a symptom. It could be multiple things going wrong, and it's worth getting a full explanation, especially as we head closer and closer to gene therapy," Butte said. "We could presumably one day fix some of these disorders."

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Health
Just Two Cans of Soda a Day May Double Your Risk of Death From Heart Disease
iStock
iStock

If you've been stocking your refrigerator full of carbonated corn syrup in anticipation of warmer weather, the American Heart Association has some bad news. The advocacy group on Wednesday released results of research that demonstrate a link between consumption of sugary drinks—including soda, fruit juices, and other sweetened beverages—and an increased risk of dying from heart disease.

Study participants who reported consuming 24 ounces or more of sugary drinks per day had twice the risk of death from coronary artery disease of those who averaged less than 1 ounce daily. There was also an increased risk of death overall, including from other cardiovascular conditions.

The study, led by Emory University professor Jean Welsh, examined data taken from a longitudinal study of 17,930 adults over the age of 45 with no previous history of heart disease, stroke, or diabetes. Researchers followed participants for six years, and examined death records to determine causes. They observed a greater risk of death associated with sugary drinks even when they controlled for other factors, including race, income, education, smoking habits, and physical activity. The study does not show cause and effect, the researchers said, but does illuminate a trend.

The study also noted that while it showed an increased risk of death from heart disease, consumption of sugary foods was not shown to carry similar risk. One possible explanation is that the body metabolizes the sugars differently: Solid foods carry other nutrients, like fat and protein, that slow metabolism, while sugary drinks provide an undiluted influx of carbohydrates that the body must process.

The news will likely prove troublesome for the beverage industry, which has long contended with concerns that sugary drinks contribute to type 2 diabetes and tooth decay. Some cities, including Seattle, have introduced controversial "soda tax" plans that raise the sales tax on the drinks in an effort to discourage consumption.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios