In a viral game, the fight isn’t fair

Lab explores how parvo wins in tug of war with cells

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Kinjal Majumder and David Pintel examine the protein levels in mouse cells during MVM infection. Each black band represents the amount of viral protein in infected cells over time. | Photo by Samantha Kummerer, Bond LSC

By: Samantha Kummerer, Bond LSC

At the start of any tug of war game, the battle is even. But it doesn’t stay that way for long. After a back and forth, the inevitable happens — the stronger team gives the rope one last tug and send the losers toppling over, claiming their dominance.

This is a game cells and viruses know well. In their version of tug of war, the virus eventually overtakes the cell and not only topples it but causes a consequence far worse than a few scraped knees.

This is how post-doctoral fellow Kinjal Majumder thinks of the interaction between parvoviruses and the dividing cells it conquers.

Majumder and others in the lab of David Pintel at Bond Life Sciences Center recently gained insight into how the virus achieves victory over the cell. These findings could improve human therapies and even play a role in treating cancer.

Meet the Champion

Parvoviruses are some of the smallest, simplest viruses. With only two genes, it has fewer DNA base pairs than most other viruses, up to ten times smaller in some cases. The virus’ size and simplicity, however, do not make it any easier to understand.

Pintel’s lab works at the “nitty gritty” level of the virus to study its basic molecular mechanism.

The group understands a little about how the virus operates but is working on the why.

Like a sly culprit, the virus uses its tiny nature to sneak inside the cell. The cell recognizes the presence of the virus as a foreign piece of DNA and responds to try to remove it. Once the cell responds, the virus begins replicating inside until it overtakes the cell. But, the tug of war game ends up more one-sided, so perhaps viewing the virus as a ruthless conqueror would be more accurate.

Latest Developments

Majumder’s experiments specifically focus on DNA damage response, an intrinsic function of cells. The DNA damage response constantly works to protect us from cancer by continuously repairing broken DNA to prevent harmful mutations in cells . This response uses a network of cellular pathways to monitor and provide checkpoints in the cell cycle to prevent damage from being passed on to the next generation of cells. But parvoviruses also tricks cells to begin a DNA damage response, which they use to eventually take over the host cell.

In July, the lab published the latest finding from a series of papers exploring a type of these parvoviruses called minute virus of mice (MVM). The discovery began when the team found that the virus stops cells from dividing within infected cells.

To do this, MVM uses the DNA damage response to stop cells from dividing, but still allows virus replication to continue. The group developed a system to examine how the virus took over the cell. Further experiments revealed the virus transcriptionally regulates cell cycle genes.

The team used CRISPR to target a cellular gene that the virus must inactivate for it to replicate. Expression of this gene is required for the cell to divide. They discovered the virus actually blocks the transcription of this gene so it cannot make its protein. Blocking this function also prevents the cell from dividing. Without cell division, the virus is free to rapidly replicate inside the cell.

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Post-doctoral fellow, Kinjal Majumder, points to the results of a recent experiment. When MVM is mutated at particular sites, the protein levels produced by the virus decrease, but the virus continues to replicate efficiently. | Photo by Samantha Kummerer. Bond LSC

Majumder said parvo’s manipulation of infected cell cycles is different from other viruses because it can only replicate in cells that are actively synthesizing DNA. It eventually halts the process of cell division in infected cells by dysregulating transcription factors that regulate cell cycle gene expression. That’s what makes this discovery unique.

Endless Possibilities

This discovery only scratches the surface.

Majumder said the lab constantly thinks of new experiments to explore parvovirus biology. The simplicity of its DNA expedites the process of culturing and growing the virus, leaving more time for what Majumder calls the “fun experiments.”

“We try to be thorough and confident of our findings, so we attack experiments from many different angles,” Majumder said.

Imagine viewing an object from multiple angles under varying light conditions. The change in perspective reveals something different about it with each new look. This approach expands their understanding of parvoviruses.

Majumder explained the lab makes use of everything from high-resolution imaging and CRISPR technology to proteomics and deep sequencing to study the tug-of-war between MVM and the DNA damage response.

“The thing about being a postdoc is you kind of have to be a jack of all trades,” Majumder said about his ability to conduct the range of experiments.

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Parv O’Lantern: A nucleus of an infected mouse cell is captured using a super-resolution GSD microscope. Parvovirus MVM creates replication centers within host cell nuclei. The viral DNA can be labeled with fluorescent probes for imaging. Viral genomes that haven’t made it inside are illuminated on the edge. The viral genomes that have entered made replication centers that resemble the face of a Jack O’Latern. | Photo by Kinjal Majumder and Alexander Jurkevich

Wider Implications

While parvoviruses are not a deadly threat to humans, understanding it has major implications for humans.

Parvoviruses are used to develop gene therapy tools to treat disorders like muscular dystrophy and spinal muscular atrophy. The Pintel lab collaborates with labs such as the Lorson and Sarafianos lab in Bond LSC, to explore its therapeutic potential.

Majumder explained the lab is also interested in understanding how the virus could improve cancer treatment. Parvo’s tendency to replicate in dividing cells links it to how cells divide uncontrollably in cancer. Majumder explained those scientists are trying to use that function of the virus to target cancer cells.

This makes work in the Pintel lab that much more important. But, before the virus can fully improve humans’ conditions, researchers better grasp its capabilities. And that means more of the daily experiments within the Pintel lab.

“What we learn from studying a simple virus can be expanded to more complicated viruses because there are some viruses that can make a dozen different proteins, so that’s a more complicated system,” Majumder said. “Before you can get to the more complicated systems, you need to be able to understand the one that makes just a few proteins.”

For now, scientists will play their own tug of war as they go back and forth in their findings and experiments to uncover the mystery surrounding this small, unique virus.

Vivek Shrestha #IAmScience

Vivek Shrestha

Vivek Shrestha, a Ph. D candidate, works in Dr. Ruthie Angelovici’s lab at Bond LSC. | photo by Allison Scott, Bond LSC

“#IAmScience because it provides me with a platform to make that which seems impossible possible.”

Agriculture is a mainstay in Nepal, where Vivek Shrestha was born and raised. He grew up in a small farming family, but he was surprised that although a significant portion of the country was involved with agriculture, food insecurity was prevalent.

“Nepal is a small, developing nation that is naturally beautiful,” Shrestha said. “Agriculture is huge, but still a lot of people are food insecure.”

Shrestha saw this need and decided to study plant sciences as an undergraduate at Tribhuvan University in Nepal. From there, he earned his master’s degree from South Dakota State University before coming to Mizzou to pursue his Ph.D.

“The overall goal of my study is to understand the genetic architecture of seed amino acid composition,” Shrestha said. “Seed amino acid composition is a complex metabolic trait and, despite having tremendous importance in biofortification efforts in seed crops, the underlying genetics are not clearly understood.”

Currently, Shrestha works in Dr. Ruthie Angelovici’s lab at Bond LSC studying the trait to better grasp its genetic breakdown.

“The {research} quality of amino acids has a tradeoff with the quantity, which makes it more challenging,” Shrestha said. “However, our research is of paramount importance because it has millions of beneficiaries.”

Shrestha’s research helps not only with food stability in places like Nepal, but also in cutting costs for the livestock feed industry in developed nations like the United States.

“Maize is a huge part of the feed industry for the United States,” Shrestha said.

This dual interest makes Shrestha’s work that much more rewarding. Although the amino acids are complex — having multiple cellular processes and interactions — the complexity gives Shrestha motivations and excitement in what he does.

“Every day is a fresh, new day for me to explore and enjoy science,” Shrestha said.

Modifying molecules with lasers

Jay Thelen

Jay Thelen

Brief by Roger Meissen| Bond LSC
What do lasers have to do with food allergies?

Bond LSC’s Jay Thelen was recently part of a team that looked at how short laser pulses might be used to modify peptides and proteins to make foods edible for those with specific allergies.

Thelen, a biochemistry professor, joined scientists from his department, engineering and Denmark to explore this possibility. What they found was a way to modify molecules quicker and more cheaply than current chemical methods. This could potentially lower costs for specific applications in medicine, pharmacology, biotechnology and more.

We don’t want to give everything away, so read the whole story from MU’s College of Engineering here.

Ronnie LaCombe #IAmScience

Ronnie LaCombe

Ronnie LaCombe, a Ph. D candidate in biological sciences at MU, stands near her lab station in D Cornelison’s lab in Bond LSC. | photo by Allison Scott, Bond LSC

By Allison Scott | Bond LSC

“#IAmScience because I feel most alive when I’m talking to people, both in and out of my field, about my work.”

While other kids were playing with Legos and dolls, Ronnie LaCombe was exploring the world through a microscope.

Alongside her cousins, LaCombe used science at an early age as both a way of learning and for entertainment.

“I’ve always wanted to be a scientist,” LaCombe said. “In third grade I told everyone I was going to be planetologist — a scientist who studies planets. Although that didn’t pan out, I guess I always knew science was the path for me.”

Years later she’s working in D Cornelison’s lab studying protein interactions in cells of rhabdomyoscarcoma, a form of childhood cancer. Specifically, the fifth-year biological sciences Ph.D. candidate is trying to uncover why a protein that’s typically on the outside of a cell is located inside the nucleus in this form of cancer.

“I was looking at the cells and saw that this protein was in the nucleus and not on the outside,” LaCombe said. “At first, I thought it was fake. I followed up on it, and it ended up being something potentially significant.”

After noticing the unusual location of the protein in the cell, LaCombe and others in her lab looked into other species to see if it existed in them, too. When they saw the structure was the same in both dogs and mice they knew it meant something.

“We were jumping up and down once as we saw it was in three different species,” LaCombe said. “That validated what we had thought earlier about it being something significant and not a mistake.”

Now, the lab’s test is to figure out why the protein is there and if it’s functioning the in the same way it would if it were outside of the cell.

“Cells touch each other and talk to each other through the proteins on the outside of the cell,” LaCombe said. “We’re trying to figure out what the protein is doing since it’s in the nucleus rather than at the surface.”

At this point, they’re still looking into how this is possible and what it means for this type of cancer.

“The hope is to figure out a method that can be used in other forms of cancer,” LaCombe said.

Until that solution is discovered, LaCombe is happy to put the puzzle together piece-by-piece.

“Research is like one very long, often very difficult, puzzle that you don’t always have all the pieces to,” LaCombe said. “I enjoy the challenge, though, and the difficulty of it makes solving the puzzle even more satisfying.”

Expanding the limits of knowledge

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Purva Patel presents her research on iron in plants during the undergraduate research forum. Patel works in Dr. Mendoza’s lab in the Bond Life Sciences Center.

By: Samantha Kummerer, Bond LSC

Purva Patel grew up captivated by newspaper articles discussing a method to grow plants without soil called hydroponics.

Today, she is one of the scientists mixing the mineral and nutrient solutions to plant seeds in this rapidly growing soil-less method.

The University of Missouri senior spent the past year working in David Mendoza-Cózatl’s Bond Life Sciences lab. Her research, which started out as a capstone project, has now turned into a pastime.

“I learn something new every day,” she said. “I did not know much about plants before joining this lab, but now I just love how all this is working at the genomic level, and I’m really very interested in understanding at what’s happening at the core of the plant.”

Patel studies how plants accumulate iron in the model organism, Arabidopsis thaliana. Iron is an important metal that provides nutrients humans need to perform important cellular processes. Plants are the primary source of iron and other essential micronutrients for humans and livestock worldwide.

Plants receive iron from the soil and transporters distribute iron from the roots to the rest of the plant. Most of the transporters involved in keeping the levels of iron balanced are not known; that’s where Patel comes in.

She started with more than 20 different Arabidopsis seed lines. Each seed line disabled a different gene, causing a loss of function that might be responsible for the movement of the metal into and out of cells.

The seeds were placed in different dishes with artificial soil that emulated real soil conditions. Some had regular levels of iron while others had an excess or deficient amount. Next, it’s time for them to grow. After they grow, she measures the roots and shoots and compares them to the wild-type plants that signify normal growth.

She narrowed down the potential genes to three seed lines. Those three types of seed lines were selected because they grew different than the normal plants and showed consistency in displaying the same leaf color and lengths of the shoots and roots.

For Patel, this step was the most exciting,

“Even in the absence of iron, the mutated plant has longer roots and the wild type does not, so I think the very visible difference between those would be the biggest thing I have come across.”

Now she wants to know the amount of other essential metals, like zinc and copper, that accumulate in plants’ tissues during various growing conditions with or without iron. For this, she uses a machine called ICP-OES (Inductively Coupled Plasma Optical Emission Spectrometry). The machine detects and measures metals in a plant sample. The results from ICP will help Patel determine how the mutants accumulate elements differently than the wild-type.

Patel explained her work is only one step in the process to understand the mechanism. She hopes her findings could produce more nutrient-rich crops someday.

“It can be nothing,” she admitted. “There is a chance, but I want it to be something.”

Whether she finds something substantial or not, Patel hopes to use her knowledge of genetics she gained in the lab to get a master’s degree in the biomedical field.

“It’s great that the science we learn in the classrooms is not only limited to there, but we get to apply it here and see the results and try to make the world a better place by using that knowledge for practical uses,” Patel explained.

A love story closes LSSP 2017

Jim Obergefell’s love endured through his partner’s death and all the way to the Supreme Court.
Jim ObergefellJim Obergefell speaks about winning the landmark Supreme Court case that granted equal marraige rights to same-sex couples. Obergefell received a standing ovation after his lecture.
Photo by Eleanor Hasenbeck | Bond Life Sciences

By Eleanor C. Hasenbeck | Bond Life Sciences

Jim Obergefell had a destination wedding, but not by choice. On a chartered medical jet on a tarmac in Baltimore, Obergefell married John Arthur, his partner of 20 years, in a union that would result in a landmark Supreme Court decision.

Obergefell was the named plaintiff in the landmark decision that granted same-sex couples the right to marry, Obergefell v. Hodges. He closed the Life Sciences and Society Symposium, The Science of Love, Friday, October 13, with a lecture and book signing.

Obergefell and his partner John met and began their life together in Cincinnati, Ohio, around the time the city passed an ordinance prohibiting any city laws that would protect LGBTQ people. In 2004, Ohio passed a state Defense of Marriage Act that explicitly prohibited marriage between same-sex couples in Ohio. In 2013, the Supreme Court handed down the Windsor decision, which struck down a key portion of the federal Defense of Marriage Act and gave same-sex marriages federal recognition.

When Obergefell learned this news, he leaned over, hugged and kissed his partner, and said “let’s get married.”

This was more complicated than your run-of-the-mill, spontaneous wedding. Due to marriage prohibitions in Ohio, the couple had to get a dying man to a state that would marry same-sex couples. Jim’s partner, John Arthur, suffered from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS is a degenerative disease of the nervous system. Nerves that control voluntary movements like breathing, walking and chewing deteriorate and die. A dead nerve cell cannot send pulses to the muscles, so a person with ALS will gradually lose all ability to move, talk and breathe. Arthur was entering the later stages of the disease, and he was confined to a wheelchair with little ability to move.

They settled on Maryland, because it didn’t require both spouses be present to obtain a marriage license. Obergefell got the license, and the couple’ family and friends helped them charter a medical jet to fly to their wedding. Because of Arthur’s illness, they said their vows in the tiny plane’s cabin on the tarmac, with the ceremony officiated by Arthur’s aunt.

That wasn’t the end of their love story. The following week, a human rights lawyer showed them a blank death certificate and told them when Arthur died, the state of Ohio wouldn’t recognize their marriage. Arthur would be listed as single, and in the eyes of their state government, Obergefell wouldn’t be his widow.

“I loved John,” Obergefell said. “I loved my husband, and I was willing to fight for that, and I was not willing to let my state, Ohio, tell me that I was not his widower. That wasn’t something that I was going to give up.”

Eight days after their wedding, Obergefell filed suit against the state of Ohio and the city of Cincinnati. Three months after the cases first hearing, Arthur died. Obergefell ordered 20 copies of his death certificate, knowing the state of Ohio wouldn’t get it right. The Sixth Circuit Court ruled against the couple, opening the case up for Supreme Court review.

It took two years from their wedding, but the Supreme Court ruled in their favor and granted equal marriage rights to same-sex couples on July 26, 2015. Obergefell left the courtroom to a crowd of cheers, cries, high-fives and slaps on the back. He received a phone call from President Barack Obama. He only remembered what he said after watching himself speak to the President on CNN News.

Today, he calls himself an “accidental activist.” He tells his story at speaking events across the country. He said he feels proud each time an audience member tells him he’s given them the bravery to come out to their friends and family. 20th Century Fox bought the movie rights to his book, Love Wins, and he’s starting a business selling LGBTQ-themed wines, with a portion of the proceeds benefitting organizations advancing LGBTQ equality.

As he spoke, it marked four years since his husband’s passing. Now ordained himself, he married two of his friends, a same-sex couple, earlier this week. For him, the Supreme Court’s decision marks his partner’s greatest legacy.

“You know, I’d give it all back for John to be here,” Obergefell said. “I couldn’t prevent John from dying of ALS, but I’m really happy I could help create a legacy of love for millions of people in his memory.”

Obergefell spoke as part of the The 13th annual Life Sciences and Society Symposium, The Science of Love, Oct. 6-13, 2017. It featured six experts that research various aspects of love, relationships and connection. Obergefell’s book, Love Wins, is available now.

McKibben urges climate action in campus lecture

Bill McKibben explained the impact of increasing carbon emissions on the global climate and explored solutions to slowing the trend

Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben responds to an audience member’s question at his lecture on Oct. 4 in Jesse Hall. The screen behind him shows demonstrators blocking an oil rig from leaving harbor. McKibben called them “kayak-tivists.” Photo by Eleanor Hasenbeck | Bond Life Sciences

Bill McKibben responds to an audience member’s question at his lecture on Oct. 4 in Jesse Hall. The screen behind him shows demonstrators blocking an oil rig from leaving harbor. McKibben called them “kayak-tivists.” Photo by Eleanor Hasenbeck | Bond Life Sciences

Eleanor Hasenbeck | Bond Life Sciences Center

Climate writer and activist Bill McKibben spoke to a packed house at the Missouri Theater Wednesday, October 4. With more than 300 people in attendance, McKibben discussed the changing climate, its impacts and his activism. The lecture was part of the Lloyd B. Thomas Lecture & Performance Series.

“It’s happened a hell of a lot faster and pinched a hell of a lot harder than we thought it would,” said McKibben of climate change.

McKibben said the signs of a warming planet first became apparent in the 1970s. Today, the oceans have become 30% more acidic as the world’s salt water takes in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Hurricanes are breaking records in the amount of rainfall and monetary damage they bring, McKibben said.

The solution lies in consuming less and using alternative energy, he continued. Last year, half of Denmark’s energy was generated by wind. Solar panels are so affordable now that homes in east Africa once lit by kerosene lanterns are powered by solar panels on the roofs of small homes.

“If we actually wanted to, we could move with real speed to make this transition,” McKibben said.

Why aren’t we then? McKibben blames the fossil fuel industry. Internal communications from Exxon Mobil show the corporation took steps to protect its drilling rigs from rising sea levels and increasing severe weather at the same time it was working to block regulations that would decrease carbon emissions.

“It took me far too long to figure out that we were not in argument at all,” McKibben said, referring to the so-called debate as to whether a warming climate is caused by human impact. “We were in a fight, and a fight is always about money and power. The fossil fuel industry was the richest and the most powerful industry on the planet, and the fact that it had lost the argument made very little difference to it. It was winning the fight day after day after day.”

But for all the doom and gloom surrounding climate change, McKibben still has hope that we can slow the process. He founded 350, an organization working to use grass roots movements to oppose fossil fuels. According to 350.org, 350 is named after an acceptable concentration of carbon in the atmosphere, 350 parts per million.  Demonstrations through the organization have taken place across the world, from American cities to places most susceptible to rising sea levels, like the Maldives and Haiti.

At Bond LSC, some are taking their own steps to slow down the rate of the world’s warming. Cheryl Rosenfeld studies Bisphenol A, a chemical component of many plastics. She recently installed solar panels on her home, and she earns credits for the energy they generate. She uses reusable bags at the grocery store to reduce the waste generated from plastic and the fossil fuels consumed to produce them.

“Each of us could be making the decisions in our own lives that can make a change,” Rosenfeld said. “If we all come together like that, we can make an impact.”

There are several ways to reduce your own carbon footprint:

  • Use renewable energy to power your home. You can find utilities companies that generate at least half their power through renewable energy
  • Weatherize your home to make your heating and cooling systems more efficient.
  • Invest in energy-efficient appliances. Use a power strip or unplug your devices when they are fully charged or not in use.
  • Reduce food and water waste. About 10 percent of American energy goes to food production, and about 40 percent of our food is wasted. You can save money and energy by eating what you buy.
  • Install solar panels on your home. Right now, you can earn a 30 percent federal solar tax credit. The city of Columbia also offers rebates to encourage utilities customers to use solar energy and invest in more energy efficient utility systems. The city also maintains a list of solar providers that meet its requirements for rebates.

The most important thing, said McKibben, is inspiring policy changes like carbon taxes or renewable energy programs.

“We’re so far deep into this problem that we can’t solve it one person at a time. What we need is a change in policy, said McKibben. “The best individual action is not to be an individual. It’s to come together in movements big enough – that doesn’t take an enormous movement. It takes between four or five percent of people coming together in a movement to force change in policy that might give us some chance.”

 

Bill McKibben is author of sixteen books about environmental issues and founder of 350. He frequently contributes articles and editorials to organizations such as the New York Times, the Guardian and Mother Jones. You can learn more about his writing and activism at his website.

Bond Life Sciences Center sponsored the 2016 LSSP Symposium, Confronting Climate Change, which brought experts in the field to MU to speak about its pressing issues.

 

Katy Guthrie #IAmScience

Katy Guthrie

Katy Guthrie, a Ph.D. candidate, works in Dr. Paula McSteen’s lab in Bond LSC. | photo by Allison Scott, Bond LSC

By Allison Scott | Bond LSC

“#IAmScience because I want to take the knowledge I gain and teach it to other young scientists so they share in this excitement, too.”

Katy Guthrie grew up as one of five girls. All five sisters took very different paths —one ended up in hospital management, another in marketing and advertising, one became an engineer and the other works in logistics for a start up.

But Guthrie took a different route.

Her love of science started long before she enrolled in classes at Northwest Missouri State University, but there she discovered her true love of plants. Guthrie took a required botany class, and less than a week into the course she was hooked.

“All biology students had to take zoology and botany,” said Guthrie. “I had an awesome botany professor second semester of my freshman year — her enthusiasm for the subject was captivating — and she and I developed a great relationship. It was in that class I discovered that plants are what I want to study for the rest of my life.”

As part of Dr. Paula McSteen’s lab, Guthrie studies the reproductive organs of maize and how its genes allow it to produce flower-bearing structures in pairs, while other plants only produce these structures singly.

“If you count the number of rows on a corn cob, it’s always even,” Guthrie said. “That’s because maize produces two flowers at a time instead of one. My research is essentially trying to figure out which genes are responsible for that doubling trait.”

It’s not an easy process, though, so Guthrie nurtures a unique approach to finding the solutions.

“I take ears of corn that make one flower-bearing structure and work backwards to try and find what’s missing,” Guthrie said. “If I can find that, I can assume that’s what’s making the difference.”

Although her work can be painstaking, Guthrie noted that science is all about learning from mistakes.

Ultimately, Guthrie wants to duplicate the gene that causes the doubling trait in other crops, such as rice, wheat and barley. This could have a big impact on cereal crop reproduction.

“We’re hoping to apply what we learn about maize other crops,” Guthrie said.

After finishing her studies at Mizzou, Guthrie plans to return to the classroom as a professor, preferably teaching undergraduates.

“The whole reason I decided to go to graduate school was to be able to teach,” Guthrie said. “I want people who aren’t necessarily interested in science initially to get invested in it. I also want to incorporate research into the classes I’ll teach because not every college is a research campus like Mizzou.”

The state of the American marriage

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Eli Finkel explains not all modern marriages are getting worse. Finkel spoke about his new book, “The All-Or-Nothing Marriage”. | Photo by Samantha Kummerer, Bond LSC

By: Samantha Kummerer, Bond LSC

“And they lived happily ever after. Like, what the hell?” Eli Finkel exclaimed. “That’s a foolish way of thinking. Really what you’re doing is stepping on the welcome mat of what’s actually going to be interesting, of what’s actually going to be challenging.”

Finkel set out to write a book about how the quality of American marriages have declined. But while the modern marriage is nowhere near a fairy-tale ending, it’s not as doomed as Finkel predicted.

“The initial version of the theory was the suffocation of marriage, that we’re suffocating this institution,” Finkel explained. “Now it’s a story about divergence.”

In fact, Finkel found the best marriages are getting better.

But he wasn’t completely wrong either; the average marriage is getting worse.

“We in America have changed marriage from something that can grow when neglected to something that requires constant care and affection, but if you get it right is pretty special,” the Northwestern psychology professor said.

This is the idea behind Finkel’s new book, “The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work.”

A better marriage has always been correlated with a higher quality of life. What’s new is the effect of marriage on an individuals life is increasing in importance.

To explain this change, Finkel breaks up the evolution of marriage into three stages.

The first was the pragmatic era during the preindustrial times. Life was fragile and couples married to meet basic needs to survive.

Then around the 1850’s, industrialization allows young people to be economically and geographically free. Finkel said this freedom was used to seek marriages for personal fulfillment and love.

“This marriage has a particular structure that had been the fantasy of people for generations,” Finkel elaborated.

By the 1950’s this idea of the wife as the homemaker and husband as the breadwinner was fully established. For Finkel, this is problematic because it assumes that men and women are fundamentally different and restricts them to two different roles. Data proves both genders can be assertive and nurturing.

People begin to revolt against this idea around the 1960’s. This is the third and current stage of marriage. Finkel calls it the expressive model of marriage. Now, in addition to love and personal fulfillment, people want a spouse who will help them grow.

For Finkel, these stages are mirror Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. At the base of the pyramid are basic needs then the psychological needs of love and belonging are positioned in the middle. At the top of the pyramid are self-fulfillment needs, which is what he views American couples need in a marriage today.

“In my mind, the story of rising expectations is not one where we are expecting too much,” he said. “There’s something special about looking to your marriage to do things up there. There’s something special about saying ‘what if I had a marriage that was not only loving but really helped turned us into the ideal versions of ourselves.’”

Finkel continued that such lofty expectations from a marriage are hard to achieve. Thus, the all-or-nothing state.

So how can we make our marriage meet these higher demands?

The author laid out three options.

  • Going All In: This option involves going on date nights, but not just going on specific types of date nights. A study revealed while going on comfortable dates and exciting dates increase the quality of the relationships, only exciting dates increase sexual desire.
  • Love Hacking: This technique doesn’t involve making a relationship better, but is about changing how you think about a relationship in a more constructive way. Finkel said this is one that doesn’t take much time and doesn’t need both couples. One way to do this, Finkel explained, is by writing about your fights from a third party perspective. A study that asked participants to do this showed that marriage quality stopped declining and the individual reported feeling less angry.
  • Recalibrating: This technique involves lowering your expectations. Floyd elaborated by speaking explaining that people are relying more on their spouse to satisfy theirto how marriage has taken on more of individuals’ social social,, emotional and psychological needs. Research shows that people who have more diversified social networks are happier than those who don’t.

“It’s an interesting time to be married,” Finkel concluded. “The average marriage is a little bit worse than before but those of us who are able to flourish while asking these ambitious things are able to have a level of marital fulfillment that was out of reach previously.”

The 13th annual Life Sciences and Society Symposium, The Science of Love, started Friday, Oct. 6 and Saturday, Oct. 7. It features six experts that research various aspects of love, relationships and connection. The event will conclude on Friday, Oct. 13 with its last speaker, Jim Obergefell, who was the plaintiff in the 2015 Supreme Court case on marriage equality.

Examining the African American marriage

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Charlandra Bryant reveals some of her findings on what influences African Americans’ marriage quality. Bryant spoke on the effects of health on African American couples on Saturday, Oct. 7. | Photo by Roger Meissen, Bond LSC

By: Samantha Kummerer, Bond LSC

“Race matters, even in marriage,” Charlandra Bryant said to open her talk on the marital functions of African American couples.

Bryant asked the crowd that gathered for the Annual Life Sciences & Society Program Symposium on Saturday, October 7, to name successful African American couples.

After naming the Obama’s, many people’s minds come up empty, and Bryant attributes this to the tendency of the media and literature to highlight single African American households.

Few studies explore how African Americans’ marriage quality relates to interactions between the couple.

Bryant wanted to explore factors like entering marriages with kids and poverty that are unique characteristics to African American relationships. Her project dives into the connection between African American marriages and health.

Over the years, she has collected data from hundreds of newlywed African American couples. The couples’ variance in other key demographics like age, education level and income, produced a result that realistically encompassed African American marriages.

Health

Weight was one aspect of Bryant’s research that impacted the health of a relationship.

She found that heavier husbands were more likely to be depressed, but their weight did not affect their wives’ happiness. However, if a wife was heavier, the husband often showed more signs of depression.

While this effect was interesting, Bryant said the most revealing part of this research was that if couples felt very close to their partner the link between depression and weight decreased. This behavioral closeness, in sum, improved their lives.

Stepfathers

The effect of stepfathers on relationships was another theme Bryant explored. Her research explored how stepfathers affected things like commitment, trust, marital happiness and love. Not surprisingly, she found stepfathers who had positive relationships with their stepchildren reported better marriage quality.

Racial Discrimination

Bryant’s work found that wives who experienced racial discrimination also reported less physical affection and hostile husbands. She said this association stumped her for a while.

Now, she theorizes that husbands may be frustrated by their lack of ability to help their wife to deal with the discrimination, so they displace their anger towards their wives, such as perhaps raising their voice asking “Why didn’t you stand up for yourself?” The wife who could be sensitive to the experience could interpret this as a hostile behavior.

The Role of Genes

Little is known about the effect that genes play in social relationships, Bryant explained, but that didn’t stop her from asking questions.

For one study, male participants were asked to spit into a cup. Those samples were then paired with participants’ responses on hostility and warmth within their marriages along with depression and marriage satisfaction.

It found men at high-risk for depression were more responsive to positive and negative effects. In essence, husbands with a higher risk for depression can actually report higher levels of marital satisfaction when they receive high levels of warmth than the husbands who are at low-risk for depression.

While individuals can’t change their genetic makeup, Bryant said knowing if your spouse is susceptible to depression could help in your relationship.

Goals

The goal of Bryant’s ongoing research is to help improve intervention techniques. She said not all interventions work for everyone; sometimes they need to be culture-specific so she hopes her findings can help improve the techniques used for African American couples.

The 13th annual Life Sciences and Society Symposium, The Science of Love, started Friday, Oct. 6 and Saturday, Oct. 7. It features six experts that research various aspects of love, relationships and connection. The event will conclude on Friday, Oct. 13 with its last speaker, Jim Obergefell, who was the plaintiff in the 2015 Supreme Court case on marriage equality.