Art Imitates Life at the Battlestar Galactica U.N. Summit

This week television series Battlestar Galactica travelled to where few shows have gone before—a United Nations summit.

Sound surreal?  You can watch the full 2-hour summit here and see just how real science fiction can get.  Sponsored by the U.N’s Creative Community Outreach Initiative, the event juxtaposed scenes from the series with testimony from U.N. representatives who have faced the reality of human rights violations across the globe and discussion with the show’s producers and actors. Stand out moments include when Mary McDonnell speaks on the challenges of portraying a female president whose dispersion of power necessarily reflects the tensions women face today in assuming historically masculine roles. Likewise, Edward James Olmos’ soon to be famous speech on race followed by his invocation of the show’s anthem “So Say We All!” seems to erase the boundaries between Olmos the actor and the powerful Admiral Adama he plays on the series.


It’s exactly this breakdown between fiction and reality that becomes so compelling throughout the summit.  While the social utopianism of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek or the clear moral dichotomies of George Lucas’s Star Wars often seem more escapist than realist, Battlestar Galactica creators Ronald Moore and David Eick have once and for all made the case for realism in science fiction—in escaping, we return to the real issues that we can least afford to escape from. We can have our cake and eat it too.   

By partnering with a television show that brings reality to serious issues that may otherwise seem worlds apart for those living in developed nations, the U.N. has latched onto a strategy that might just work to compel community dialogue and action. And come on, Edward James Olmos at the U.N. chanting “So Say We All”?  That’s just cool.    

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Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.