Faculty research

The Amish lifestyle protects kids against asthma; how airlines can promote fuel efficiency and lower carbon dioxide emissions; predicting divorce; obesity increases the risk of organ transplant rejection.

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Breathing amish

The Amish lifestyle protects children from developing asthma, according to a New England Journal of Medicine study published August 4 by an interdisciplinary team of UChicago scientists that included Carole Ober, Jack Gilbert, Anne Sperling, Cara Hrusch, and Rebecca Anderson, as well as graduate students Catherine Igartua and Michelle Stein. The researchers compared two farming communities: the Amish of Indiana and the Hutterites of South Dakota. Despite similar genetic ancestry, Amish children are four times less likely to develop asthma than their Hutterite counterparts. The study found that the microbe-rich dust from Amish homes provides protection against asthma by engaging and shaping the innate immune system, the body’s first major defense against invading substances. Exposure to these microbes is a byproduct of the Amish community’s traditional farming practices, which require close contact between families and their animals. The Hutterites have replaced these methods with industrialized machinery.

Clearer skies ahead

Getting pilots involved is the most effective way for airlines to promote fuel efficiency and reduce carbon dioxide emissions, according to a June National Bureau of Economic Research working paper by John List, the Kenneth C. Griffin Distinguished Service Professor in Economics, and Becker Friedman Institute postdoctoral scholar Robert Metcalfe. The researchers found that providing airline captains with personalized feedback, monthly information on fuel efficiency, and future targets significantly reduced emissions. Incorporating data from more than 40,000 Virgin Atlantic flights over an eight-month period, their study estimates that the measures saved $5.37 million in fuel costs for the airline and reduced emissions by more than 21,500 metric tons of carbon dioxide. The researchers’ approach also highlights the potential benefits of focusing on workers rather than whole firms, and so far the results are lasting: the in-flight efficiency measures and taxiing practices have remained in use since the study’s completion in September 2014.

Divining divorce

It’s possible to predict the likelihood of divorce, writes Chicago Harris’s Ioana Marinescu in the January Labour Economics. Despite the common theory that couples divorce after gradually learning they’re poorly matched, Marinescu argues that certain economic shocks to marriage quality best account for divorce patterns. Using the US Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation, Marinescu discovered that a couple is 65 percent more likely to divorce when one spouse is fired, and 57 percent more likely when a spouse is laid off. Other variables, such as home ownership, might mitigate the influence of job loss. The upshot? “People who are more resilient in the face of change are likely to have more stable marriages,” Marinescu said.

Troubled transplants

A study in the May Transplantation suggests that obesity increases the risk of organ transplant rejection. Anita Chong, professor of surgery; Maria-Luisa Alegre, PhD’93, professor of medicine; and their team used mice fed a high-fat diet to assess how obesity-related inflammation and metabolic issues might affect immune response to transplanted organs. The obese mice rejected heart transplants more quickly than lean mice, though it is not yet clear how obesity heightens the immune response that causes their bodies to reject the graft. Developing treatments to improve the chances of transplant survival may one day be possible, but for now doctors can only acknowledge the added risk. “It’s just a reality of our population that we have a lot of patients who are overweight, and we need to monitor them carefully,” Alegre said.

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