Science Briefs: N.C. State uses fungal DNA to trace dust, maple syrup extract helps fight illness, housecleaning helps seniors live better

Neal Grantham is a Ph.D. student in statistics at N.C. State.
Neal Grantham is a Ph.D. student in statistics at N.C. State. Neal Grantham

NCSU team traces dust samples using fungal DNA

Researchers from N.C. State and the University of Colorado have developed a statistical model that allows them to tell where a dust sample came from within the continental United States – based on the DNA of fungi found in the sample.

The primary goal of the research was to develop a new forensic biology tool for law enforcement or archaeologists. “But it may also give us a greater understanding of the invisible ecosystems of microbial life that we know are all around us, but that we don't fully comprehend,” said Neal Grantham, a Ph.D. student in statistics at N.C. State and lead author of a paper on the work.

The researchers’ model used data from the Wild Life of Our Homes citizen science project conducted at N.C. State. The project collected dust samples from approximately 1,000 homes across the continental U.S.

About 5 percent of the time, the model’s predictions were within 35 miles of the correct sampling site. Those were the most accurate predictions. The worst 5 percent were off by at least 645 miles. The research team is now working to make the model more accurate by developing more advanced algorithms.

Syrup extract helps fight disease-carrying bacteria

A concentrated extract of maple syrup makes disease-causing bacteria more susceptible to antibiotics, according to laboratory experiments by researchers at McGill University in Montreal.

The findings, to be published in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology, suggest that combining maple syrup extract with common antibiotics could lead to lower antibiotic usage. Overuse of antibiotics fuels the emergence of drug-resistant bacteria, which has become a major public-health concern worldwide.

The researchers prepared a concentrated extract of maple syrup from that from North American maple trees, a rich source of phenolic compounds. It was tested on infection-causing strains of certain bacteria, including E. coli and Proteus mirabilis (a common cause of urinary tract infection). By itself, the extract was mildly effective in combating bacteria. But the maple syrup extract was particularly effective when applied in combination with antibiotics.

Seniors who keep surroundings clean tend to feel better

Older adults who keep a clean and orderly home – because of the exercise it takes to get the job done – tend to feel emotionally and physically better, according to new findings by a Case Western Reserve University school of nursing researcher.

“Housecleaning kept them up and moving,” said post-doctoral student Kathy Wright. “A clean environment is therapeutic.”

The study’s 337 participants, ages 65-94, had to have at least one chronic illness, be enrolled in both Medicare and Medicaid, have physical restrictions that prevented them from doing at least one basic daily task, such as bathing and dressing, and be unable to manage such responsibilities as taking medicines, handling finances or accessing transportation.

Wright said she was surprised to learn that housework and maintaining their property affected participants’ physical and mental well-being more than such factors as neighborhood or income: “What I found was that neighborhood poverty did not directly affect mental or physical health.”