Scientific American assistant news editor, Tanya Lewis, and collections editor, Andrea Gawrylewski, take a deeper look at two short articles from the Advances news section of the December issue, on counterfeit whiskeys and the effect of real ecstasy...on octopuses.
Scientific American assistant news editor, Tanya Lewis, and collections editor, Andrea Gawrylewski, take an deeper look at two short articles from the Advances news section of the December issue, on counterfeit whiskeys and the effect of real ecstasy...on octopuses.
Tanya Lewis: Hi, I'm Tanya Lewis, Scientific American's assistant news editor.
Andrea Gawrylewski: And I'm Andrea Gawrylewski, the collections editor at Scientific American.
Lewis: And on this episode of Science Talk, we talk about some of the stories we've loved from this month's issue in a section called Advances.
Gawrylewski: Tanya, just for our new listeners, can you explain what the Advances are?
Lewis: Sure. So Advances is basically the front of the book new section where we review the latest discoveries and new technologies. And today, we're gonna be talking about a couple stories in the December issue. One is called Rolling Octopuses, by Rachel Nuwer and the other one is called Catching Whiskey Fakers, by Lucas Laursen. The opener story is about how scientists are kind of determining new ways to detect whiskey fraud, which is apparently a big problem that a lot of spirit makers have to deal with where basically –
Gawrylewski: Like counterfeit whiskey?
Gawrylewski: This is a disaster.
Lewis: Yeah, I know. Especially for the whiskey makers because they're trying to sell these high-end products.
Gawrylewski: It sounds like it's for the drinkers, it's a disaster.
Lewis: Yeah, that, too.
Gawrylewski: I don't need no counterfeit whiskey.
Lewis: No, exactly. I mean, you've heard of probably fake vanilla or other types of products. And fake honey is another big one.
Gawrylewski: Oh, really?
Lewis: Yeah, so there's all different kinds of products that are faked.
Gawrylewski: How do they fake whiskey?
Lewis: There's a couple different ways you can kind of fake whiskey. It can either be a product that's like adulterated, sort of like a moonshine liquor that's not really real whiskey. It's not properly distilled and everything. It's just kind of moonshine that's sold as whiskey. And that can be really dangerous because people can drink it and go blind, for example.
Gawrylewski: Oh my God.
Lewis: But then, there's also just like regular sort of cheap whiskeys that they sell as high-end whiskeys. They just put a high-end label on it basically. But yeah, there's all these different scientists trying to figure out ways to detect fake whiskey by using spectroscopy, for example, which is where they shine a light through the liquor and they try to measure what compounds are in it based on the wavelength of the light.
Gawrylewski: They intend to test at random in a liquor store? Or what is the on-the-street relevance of this research?
Lewis: Well, sometimes they'd be testing it when it's already on the shelf. They might be – they have, for example, they have whiskey auctioneers like Isabelle Graham-Yooll who she basically goes and looks at the whiskey collections. And she can tell just based on the color whether it's too light or too dark.
Gawrylewski: Right. She's a real connoisseur.
Lewis: Exactly. But then she can go beyond that using a tool – or scientists could use a tool to actually detect whether it's a fake product or a real. Or like a lowbrow whiskey.
Gawrylewski: Lowbrow. Plenty of that out there.
Lewis: And another thing that they're doing is using big databases to track kind of when there's been a report that there's fake liquor on the market. And they can just kind of – it's like a food recall.
Gawrylewski: I see. There are scientists – to get this straight – there are scientists who are just making spot visits to liquor stores and testing whiskey? And then, reporting it to the agencies to ensure –
Lewis: I'm not sure if it's always the scientists that are detecting it but scientists are the ones that like when there's a type of whiskey that might have been flagged as suspicious, then they would bring it to the scientists who would then test it. And determine whether or not it's actually liquor.
Gawrylewski: I see.
David Ellis: It's estimated that about $17 billion is lost to the industry, the food industry, to counterfeiting and fraud. One of the areas of that is the counterfeiting of spirits.
Gawrylewski: That was Dr. David Ellis, a chemist at Manchester Institute of Biotechnology at the University of Manchester in the U.K.
Ellis: The thing with spirits, it's one of the only areas of food fraud or one of the fewer areas of food fraud anyway which is definitely a food safety issue because they're making up dodgy spirits either like vodkas or rums. Or whiskeys, as we were mentioning earlier. And they are using industrial alcohols to make these things, which is methanol and ketones and isopropyl and that kind of thing. People are dying, you know?
Lewis: I think that what is so fascinating about it is that it's such a complex substance with all these really sophisticated flavors and the idea that it could be adulterated in some way I think is something that not everyone thinks about when – you just think, "Oh, I'll order a drink and I'm getting what I'm advertised."
Ellis: Whiskey is one of the most chemically complex drinks in the world. It's marvelous, actually, and that's what makes it so attractive as well because it's so much diversity of flavor and aroma. And that's typically due to the maturation processes and things like this. How long it's kept in wood and the different parts of Scotland it's made from.
I mean, my favorite was the Speyside whiskeys, which are the mildest. But you get some that have got real peaty, strong peaty flavors and salty. But a lot of that's imparted by the maturation, where they get their barrels from or what the barrels have previously been used to store such as port and sherry. And things like that. It's an extremely complex and diverse drink, yes.
Lewis: And what exactly, I mean, when you talk about counterfeit whiskey, is it still a type of alcohol that's just colored in such a way to look like whiskey? But it's not distilled in the same process?
Ellis: It's absolutely that. Counterfeiters can use one of many, many industrial type alcohol. So-called de-natured alcohols where something's been added to the alcohol to make it unfit for human consumption. As well as the most famous one, the most famous industrial alcohol – infamous, I should say – is methanol, of course, which can cause blindness and death.
They'll use any old industrial alcohol they can get a hold of and like you've just said, they'll add colorings to it, flavorings to it such as vanilla, sucrose, limonene, trans-anethole, this kind of thing. Anything to make it look like whiskey. All they concoct some old, blended whiskey into recycled bottles. That's another way of doing this and that's a big industry in the counterfeiting world itself.
It's old bottles and labels, et cetera. And packaging, which they're all recycled. They're bona fide. They look very bona fide, indeed, some of them where some of them in Asia don't look – they're absolutely silly. They have really crazy names that we would understand as looking absolutely silly because English is our first language. But there's massive whiskey drinking in east Asia, Southeast Asia where English isn't their first language. And they wouldn't spot it as easily.
Gawrylewski: Dive into that, the method, a little bit more. If you could just describe your spectrometer and what exactly it's detecting for our listeners, I think that would be really fascinating.
Ellis: Yeah, this is – it's a technique called Raman spectroscopy. It's named after the Indian scientists who discovered the technique in 1928, Chandrasekhara Raman. And he got the Nobel Prize. He was the first non-white person to win the Nobel Prize in science, actually, in 1930 and it's to do with the interaction of light with matter.
When we point a laser beam of a specific wavelength at something, the vast majority – or there's an interaction. There's molecular interactions and the vast majority of light that comes back from that is scattered back from us point this laser beam at a sample, that will be the same wavelength as the laser that we use to interrogate something. And that's called Rayleigh scattering. It's like what we see in the sky at dusk and dawn. It's exactly the same wavelength.
One absolutely minute part about one-four _____ in 10 million is so-called “inelastically” scattered or Raman scattered. And that comes back in a different frequency and wavelength as the incident light or the laser beam that we point at a sample. And it's that tiny, tiny fragment of the light that comes back. It's carrying a lot of information about the structure if the sample that we're interrogating. And that, in a nutshell, is Raman spectroscopy or the Raman Effect.
And what we've been using in Raman spectrometry is – and it's quite clever, actually, because one of the papers that we just published in the World Society of Chemistry Analyst uses conventional Raman spectrometer, a little handheld device that we got from the states. The one that we publish within scientific reports here is a so-called SORS device, S-O-R-S, which is basically offset Raman scattering.
And that's quite clever because it fires a laser, first of all, through the surface of the container that you put it against. Then, the laser moves just by a few millimeters and it fires the laser again. And then, there's a scaled subtraction between these two lasers. So what you're actually doing – its quite neat – is you're subtracting all of the surface contributions. The container itself, in other words, the glass or whatever the container may be made of. It's making that invisible by firing the laser twice. It's an angle, then doing the scaled subtraction and that's where we've had the most success.
Gawrylewski: And I was really fascinated by this story because it would never occur to me that there was fraudulent products being made. And so is this, is your work sort of a new field? Or has it been around for ages?
Ellis: I think it – well, our application of it is relatively new because we're using handheld spectroscopy. Normally, these things are laboratory based, huge machines on optical tables. We're using machines, handheld machines that are less than a – well, just a pound or so in _____. Something like that. The main thing is that these are highly transportable so we can take them anywhere. But the other thing the whiskey industry are very, very interested in is that these are through-bottle devices so we can take measurements without having to pop the cap, as it were.
And food fraud itself, it's a very, very old problem. It was first documented in the scientific field in the 1800s so it's very hold. But it's really hit the press after the so-called Horse Gate incident in the U.K. and Europe. Around 2013, they tested burgers that were found – so-called beef burgers – but some of them were 100 percent horse. And many of them contained horse. It was a huge issue here so it's an international thing, definitely. It involves all sorts of products.
Gawrylewski: I have to ask. Are you a scotch-whiskey drinker, sir?
Ellis: I used to be. Believe it or not, I'm teetotal now. I've been teetotal since about 2010 but I used to like my Speyside scotch whiskeys. And in fact, I was in Kentucky recently. And I had a wonderful tour of the in Bardstown of the 1792 distillery. I brought some of that back for friends. It was absolutely marvelous. The people there were just great.
Gawrylewski: Well, is there anything else we haven't asked about that you think you'd like to mention or it's important for everyone to hear?
Ellis: Yeah, just be very alert when you're buying particular spirits because as I said earlier at the start of the conversation really that food fraud is a major problem internationally and this is one of the very few areas of food fraud, which is a definite food safety issue. And can do you some serious harm. I'd be careful where going on holiday and things like this. You're getting cheap triple shots and all this kind of stuff. And you really don't know what's going in there sometimes. I'd just be very aware indeed and drink responsibly.
Gawrylewski: Did you ever see that Seinfeld where everyone in the city –
Lewis: No. I've got to watch Seinfeld.
Gawrylewski: Oh my God.
Lewis: But go on, please.
Gawrylewski: Never – well, you don't watch it. The episode where everyone in the city is eating this "fat-free" yogurt.
from Seinfeld: “This yogurt is really something, huh? And it's nonfat.”
Gawrylewski: And yet, they're all getting a little chunky.
from Seinfeld: “Oh my God, I've gained seven pounds.”
from Seinfeld: “I've gained eight.”
Gawrylewski: And so, they sneak a sample of the yogurt to be tested by scientists to get the true fat content.
from Seinfeld: “Jerry, there's got to be a way that we can find that out.”
from Seinfeld: “There must be some kind of lab that would do that kind of thing.”
Gawrylewski: This is exactly what's going on here with the whiskey. I wonder if it's like a user-generated flagging system.
Lewis: And what did they find?
Gawrylewski: They found that it was hella full of fat.
Lewis: Oh, God.
Gawrylewski: Yeah, it was a total lie and then the store actually started, they had to go fat free and it tasted disgusting.
from Seinfeld: “Oh, this is terrible fat.”
from Seinfeld: “Oh, it stinks.”
from Seinfeld: “Mine, too.”
Gawrylewski: Anyway, Seinfeld tangent of the day.
Lewis: Geez. Man, well –
Gawrylewski: Whiskey cops in science, love it. What else is in this issue?
Lewis: Scientists are always trying to understand how the brain works and it's kind of tricky to test stuff on humans because, well, for various ethical reasons. You can't just give humans some crazy drugs and –
Gawrylewski: Obviously, mm-hmm.
Lewis: But if you want to understand how other animals respond, you could give octopuses MDMA or ecstasy as a couple of researchers recently did.
Gawrylewski: Hmm, well.
Lewis: And as you might expect, the octopus – well, as you might expect or might not expect.
Gawrylewski: Is it not octopi?
Lewis: Yes. These octopuses or octopi, surprisingly they started acting kind of like ravers. They were hugging each other in the container that they were in. And they were basically sort of dancing in the water, which could mean –
Gawrylewski: Wow, moving rhythmically?
Lewis: Yeah. And the crazy thing is that these octopuses or octopi are so evolutionarily distant from humans that you wouldn't expect their brain to necessarily respond the same way as humans.
Gül Dölen: We have been studying MDMA for a while now and the reason that we're interested in MDMA is that as a tool, it's actually very powerful because it has these very well-established pro-social effects.
Lewis: That was Dr. Gül Dölen, an assistant professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University.
Dölen: We know in humans and in mice that if you give this drug, that the animals – even if they're a social species to begin with like mice and humans – that it encourages the animals and the humans to become even more social than normal.
Lewis: Why did you want to give MDMA to octopuses in the first place?
Dölen: Because octopuses are not social so the vast majority of the 300 or so known species are asocial. And they not only live alone. But if you put them kind of together with other octopuses in a tank, they'll be very aggressive to each other and possibly kill each other. They're really asocial.
And the idea was that even though these animals are very asocial, they may have the brain circuitry that you would need to encode social behavior because they do sort of suspend their sort of asocial behaviors when they're mating. When they're mating for two or three minutes, they will become social and then as soon as the mating is over, they will stop being social. And be aggressive towards each other again.
And so, that suggested the possibility that they have the infrastructure but normally they turn it off because for whatever reason being asocial is adaptive for these animals under these conditions.
Gawrylewski: How do you actually go about giving an octopus MDMA?
Dölen: That was another thing that we sort of had to work out because we, when other people have told us that they have given their anesthetic drugs just by submerging them into seawater that contains diluted versions of those anesthetics. We wanted to see if we could do the same thing with MDMA but that gave us a little bit of a problem because we didn't really know how to convert the doses of MDMA from humans and mice, which are very similar in their dose range, to diluted in water.
We took some time to sort of figure that out and we eventually decided that if we diluted it to roughly the same dilution that would be in what you would give to a human or a mouse. And then, let the octopus sit in a beaker full of that dose diluted in artificial seawater for 10 minutes. And then, we just take 'em out of that beaker. And put 'em in a beaker that just has seawater without MDMA. And then, let them rest for 20 minutes. And then, after that, we put them in the tank. And measure how much time they spend in each chamber for 30 minutes.
Lewis: How did you actually measure the drug's effects on the octopuses? Did you just observe them or do you have a more formal way of quantifying the effects of the drug?
Dölen: Yeah, I mean, our goal really was to figure out a way to be able to quantitatively measure social behaviors because we didn't want to just give 'em the drug and give a description of what we thought it looked like because we're scientists. We want to count things and measure things.
And so, we decided to start with a behavioral assay that's been used in mice and rats and prairie voles, so rodents, for decades. And we wanted to know whether or not we could adapt that behavioral assay to octopuses. That was sort of our first goal.
And the way that that test works is that for an octopus is that you put an animal inside of a big aquarium that's divided into three chambers. And the three chambers are connected to each other with walls that have holes in them. And then, on one side of the chamber, you have just a toy object underneath an inverted flower pot that has holes in it. And on the other side, you have that same flower pot. But instead of a toy, you have another octopus. And we just put in the center chamber the animal that we were testing. And then it just, it over the course of 30 minutes measured the amount of time they spent in the chamber that has the toy versus the chamber that has the other octopus.
And as not too surprisingly, when the other octopus was a male, the subject octopus, the one that we were testing, spent more time in with the toy object than with the other octopus because that's sort of what we would expect for an asocial species.
And so, once we had established that sort of baseline response, then we wanted to know well what happens now if we give them MDMA? We gave them the MDMA.
Gawrylewski: In the Advance's story, our writer mentions that you observed that the octopuses appeared to be "dancing" while taking this drug. How do you know if an octopus is dancing or if their behavior is significantly different?
Dölen: Yeah, I mean, that is something that I am happy to mention but I should just say that it's an anecdotal observation. We didn't quantify that. It's not part of the results section of the paper and part of that is because as you said, how do you quantify dancing in an octopus? And so, I just want to stress that that is my interpretation and it's susceptible to sort of anthropomorphizing or whatever. I'm definitely imposing my own notion of what dancing might look like in an octopus to it.
Butt that being said, normally before we gave the MDMA as the octopus explored the tank, it moved somewhat in a way that is not of – is that we see in videos of octopuses. They mostly crawl around on the bottom of the tank 'cause they are benthic animals. They definitely mostly get around by walking on the bottom of the tank and sometimes they'll do this jet propulsion swimming to get away very, very quickly. But that's not their normal way of just exploring a new area.
And so, on MDMA what we saw is that the animals kind of left the bottom and spent a lot of time floating with all eight arms extended out completely. And they made sort of like a tent. And they were just floating. And it sort of looked like water ballet, a little bit. It was all of their arms extended out, which is not something they normally do. normally, most of them are sort of curled in under their mantle and just one or two of them are moved out at any one time. And so, this totally stretched out thing was new.
And then, the other thing is that they had to what seemed to me a little bit like play behavior. As I said, the chambers were divided into three zones with these plastic barriers that had holes in 'em at the bottom. And so, a couple of the octopuses we noticed did this thing where they would swim through the hole at the bottom. And then, go up to the top. And then, do a sort of backflip over the barrier like jump out of the water, over the barrier to the other side. And then, do it again. And they just seemed to be on some kind of waterslide or something. They just were doing it over and over and over again.
And it didn't look like a stereotyped behavior like sometimes in different mutant mice that we use to genetically engineer mice that have certain diseases, they'll show stereotyped black back flipped behaviors. This wasn't like that at all. It was like they meant to do it because it was fun.
And so, that's the kind of thing that we saw. Yeah, they definitely looked like they were enjoying it but again, that's not a quantitative observation. That's just me.
Lewis: So octopuses I know are pretty intelligent, sophisticated animals and I'm just curious whether you thought about the ethics of administering a psychoactive drug to these really smart animals.
Dölen: We have thought about this a lot and the fact is, is that currently in the United States the research guidelines for how to treat the animals and how to conduct experiments in these animals basically treat octopuses just like a fly or a worm. Not really very much regulation. But in Europe, sort of in recognition of the sort of sophistication of their repertoire of behaviors. The guidelines are very similar to the guidelines you would use to do studies on mice or cats or dogs.
When we were doing the dose test, we started out high and we could tell at the very high doses that they were uncomfortable. But they never kind of elevated that discomfort to the level of inducing them to ink, which is a behavior that octopuses do when they're really very stressed. And so, we kind of had a good measure of how stressed out were the animals by even the very highest doses. And then, we tried to monitor them throughout the whole experiment.
And we knew that they were okay because after the experiments were over, we actually sent them back to Woods Hole, which is so that they could be used for breeding. And we were told that they were bred successfully. And were perfectly happy when they returned.
Gawrylewski: Yeah, well I'm sure they were having a really good time. On a more serious note, do these findings have a larger significance in terms of our understanding of how the brain works?
Dölen: Yeah, I guess these experiments are really interesting to us from a basic science point of view because who doesn't, who isn't interested in knowing where we came from and how we became who we are? On that level, on the fundamental level, it's really interesting to us. But it's also really interesting because you may or may not have heard but there is a renaissance right now in the interest in psychedelic drugs because they have shown such incredibly therapeutic potential.
Both MDMA and LSD or psilocybin are in clinical trials in humans right now for treating diseases like PTSD and addiction. And depression. Those are the three major things that these drugs are being explored for. And despite knowing a few things about how they work, there's really a lot about how these drugs work that we don't understand.
And so, we think that these experiments are an important part of working out that puzzle of exactly how are these things working. Because they kind of tell us what things are necessary and sufficient. And what things aren't.
Gawrylewski: Thanks for listening to this new Scientific American podcast. We'll be back soon with a new episode. Meanwhile, get your science news fix at our Web site, www.scientificamerican.com and follow us on Twitter where you'll get a tweet whenever a new item hits the Web site. Our Twitter handle is @sciam. For Scientific American, I'm Andrea Gawrylewski.
Lewis: And I'm Tanya Lewis.
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