AI, your age, and your bugs.

AI, your age, and your bugs.


Getting old isn’t only happening to you, it is happening to your personal microorganism community as well.   What we didn’t quite realize until as of late (thanks to a study out of UCSanDiego) is that you can actually predict the age of a person based on what’s going on with the critters in their bodies. How?  Using machine learning artificial intelligence (AI) technologies.    


The human body is host to millions of microorganisms, many of which are bacteria, and make up what is called the ‘microbiota’.  Most of this community of tiny life is acquired in the process of being born, and the first 5 years of life. Once they are with you – they are with you.  They help you digest, grow, and find many normal biological processes. What’s more, they exist in a delicate balance of good and evil. If the balance is disrupted, by diet or environment or a list of other excuses, they can cause disease.  It works the other way as well, disease can cause an imbalance potentially leading to other issues. For instance, Asthma is thought to be triggered by the introduction of certain bacteria into the microbiota. A recent study has found that Asthma also creates imbalances of microbiota in the airways alone, creating a greater bacterial burden than what exists in non-asthmatics.  Moral of the story, a healthy microbiota is worth keeping healthy and necessary for life. In that same theme, there is a lot to be revealed about a person just by peering into their micro-organism community.  

Why is this particular study remarkable?

Given the window that microbiota provides into the health of an individual, we are now able to view a different angle of the ageing process.  In the study, researchers sampled skin, mouth and fecal microorganisms. Guess which one yielded the most accurate results in predicting age? The skin! (Bet you thought it was poop).  Skin samples were able to deliver a prediction of the individual’s age – via machine learning – to within 3.8 years of accuracy. Machine learning? They pop their findings into a specifically programmed computer that uses AI to deliver the most accurate ageing prediction possible.  

Why was poop not more successful?  An interesting study from 2014 revealed that the gut microbiome is directly related to developmental maturity in infants – so if an infant is malnourished in any way, it will have a differently evolved gut biome than an infant who is not. These first few years are critical for that sort of development, and therefore easily influenced by external factors.  So some kids get a head start on their gut biomes in terms of ageing, while some might lag behind.  

The skin microbiota has an easier time.  It is influenced from a young age by environment and contact with its mother’s (or other caregiver’s) microbiota.  The changes that then occur to the skin are more predictable for the microbes to adapt to (ie: dry skin and shifts in oil production).  These guys can remain a little more consistent from the start of life to the end.    

When looking at the skin microbiota in the context of ageing, this level of accuracy to help us develop a better picture as to the overall health of an individual as they progress through life.  What’s more, it shows us yet another innovative application of machine learning and artificial intelligence – this time with the ability to look at the microbiome.

What does this mean for the future?

It means a couple of things. 

Firstly, as mentioned earlier,  we have a new perspective on ageing.  Ageing in many ways is still quite unknown to us.  As we start to paint a more complete picture, the element of microbiota is a vibrant addition.  This might help researchers look for diseases related to ageing from other angles. 

Second – the application of artificial intelligence and machine learning has now been proven to have significance when looking at microbiota.  This opens up a plethora of opportunities to create microbiome-based models that can scale and be applied in other contexts.

Pay Attention to Peat!

Pay Attention to Peat!

Two articles have been released this week – both focusing on the significance of peat as a factor of climate change.  The interesting thing is both studies look at two fairly different aspects of the matter and in two very different regions of the world.  My first thought – why is ‘peat’ a thing?

For those of us concerned with the levels of CO2 in our atmosphere, we often consider the implications of burning fossil fuels when driving, the factory output of manufacturing, the methane production of cattle farts, and so on.  If we dig a little deeper, we consider the carbon locked up in the ocean – on ocean floors and frozen in our ice caps.  Peat is also a culprit of carbon storage though – and I am only a little embarrassed to admit that I had no idea.  After several blind ‘googles’, I found dozens of articles on the matter – so it is definitely a thing that many people know about, just not me.  If you are also in the dark on the peat topic, let me enlighten you first so that we can discuss the articles from a more intellectual vantage point.

Peatlands (lands made of peat – usually in relationship to bogs) are formed when organic matter dies and stays wet through its decomposition process. The decomposition process becomes halted due to acidic or anaerobic conditions leaving a spongy looking soil material that is great for holding onto water.   When it is dried, it works well as a fuel source.  In Ireland, there is a large company that even extracts peat and forms it into handy bricks to utilize for domestic heating.  This is true, people in Ireland still live in homes where they take these peat bricks and throw them in their peat furnace so that they can cozy up to a peaty warmth.  Naturally, peat also has an affinity for carbon – sucking it out from the cycle and locking it away.

So peatlands exist as giant carbon sinks, locking it up creating a fragile ecosystem always hinging in delicate balance. There is a fancy word for this – sequestration.  Why is this significant?  It has been known for a while that when you drain a peatland for reasons of – well really anything – land use, farming, why else do we mess with land – we are left with fields of dry peaty fuel.  Throw a match on it and this stuff burns for months.  It is crazy – and Indonesia has a huge problem with this as they have been quite often guilty of draining peatlands to create palm plantations (hint hint).

Peatlands cover about 3% of the earth’s surface – but they account for almost A THIRD of all of earth’s organic carbon.  Let that sink in for a second (carbon sink pun untended) – only 3% of the earth’s surface, but contains nearly ONE THIRD the earth’s carbon.  This ecosystem is a very close second to what the oceans do to hold carbon from our atmosphere.  This makes the concentration insane, and the potential for carbon release into the atmosphere – well – significant.

Now we know a little about our friend peat – what have the scientists been revealing as of late?

With epic foreshadowing one paragraph back, let’s start with Indonesia.  In 2015 El Nino happened causing a surge in fires in Indonesia – so much so that a giant evil cloud was released to travel around South East Asia depositing bad air quality to major city centres.  After a few years of careful analysis, this cloud is found to have come predominantly from the burning of peat.  Ancient peat, peat that predated the Industrial Revolution.  So in this regard, the effects of El Nino created fires that released a bunch of carbon into atmosphere that was once held in peat – more so than the forests and garbage that was also burning at the same time.

On to the next study – we know how peatlands can suck carbon out of a cycle now, imagine how much carbon must be stored in a peatland existing in the Amazon basin where carbon runs rampant.  These scientists not only attempted to quantify the amount of carbon stored here, but also sought to find out just how climate change could effect this particular delicate peatland ecosystem.  The answer to the first question is a lot of carbon of course.  The effects (based on model simulations) of climate change, however, are pretty grim.  A little bit of warming can encourage carbon intake over “millennial periods of time”.  The amount of warming we are seeing now though can actually spawn more of a release of carbon into the atmosphere.  This would turn this gigantic carbon sink into a gigantic carbon source.

Now I am no scientist, but it is probably safe to assume a bit of a cause and effect action here.  Warming engagements like El Nino cause carbon release, causing more warming to the planet, causing more carbon release from big sinks like in the amazon, causing more warming to the planet – the cycle goes round and round. If you hadn’t given much thought to peat before, you certainly should now.



Meerkats who have more sex have been found to age faster!

Meerkats who have more sex have been found to age faster!

True story, according to a recent study breeding takes years off their little lives – but interestingly enough non breeding individuals STILL die younger.   Let’s explore why this is such a fascinating fact.

If you are unfamiliar with the relationship between mating opportunity and lifespan, know now that it is a thing and in mammals that live in a community there exists a rather notable correlation.  In our primate cousins, individuals who have access to breeding potential will also typically show a higher status within the group*.  This means better access to food and the benefits that tie in with all that – think of it like living in the US, breeding monkeys are like wealthy people that have better access to health care and other opportunities.  In other social animals, there is a similar pattern revealing itself on varying levels of complexities.  And it makes sense – breeding individuals are more valuable to a species.  They are the ones with the good genes, the ones you want to make up the population, so nature has a way of prioritizing them over the less desirable individuals.  Sad but true – nature is a cruel mistress.

Recently, researchers sought to investigate this same phenomenon in the beloved Meerkat. (Timon from Lion King is a meerkat – in case you are uncertain as to what a meerkat is).  One way to measure the capability of life expectancy is by looking directly at an area of the DNA responsible for aging. The region that caps the end of DNA strands are called telomeres and as we age these regions diminish in length.  Once they are gone or down to nearly nothing, the strand is rendered useless and stuff starts going wrong – hence aging and natural death due to the process.  Of course telomere shrinking does not take into account the idea of being taken by predators, disease or other potential killers.

In meerkats, individuals who breed more often showed correlation with shrinking telomeres, indicating that they are aging at an accelerated rate.  Those who are not breeding as often, however, will take more risks to try an do so – often leaving their group in search of mates out in the world.  Because of this risky behaviour, they are far more likely to get snagged by a hawk or a snake, which commonly occurs with these little solo travellers.

So there we have it – meerkats who get more action age faster, but won’t die faster.  Interesting!

The source: HERE

*Here is an article that discusses a little bit about the differences between human breeding and primate breeding and the impacts on aging – should you be so inclined to dig deeper!