Gummy Bear Science
By Stuart M. Smith, MD and Brown J. McCallum, MD
Primary Care and Subspecialty Medicine, WJB Dorn VA Medical Center, Columbia, SC, USA
The gummy bear (Ursus elasticus) is an under-utilised research animal in the world of science today. Though there is little question about its recent history, its early evolution remains unclear and even today little is known about their social structure or reproductive habits. Despite the large holes in our gummy bear knowledge base, they have the potential to be of use in many high tech fields, including the defense industry and medical field. Future uses for gummy technology are almost boundless, limited only by imagination and the physical properties of the bear itself.
The common gummy bear has been used in research for many reasons. They are plentiful, inexpensive to acquire and maintain and have easily recognized races (rubra, flavi, albi, viride, aurantiacaum). Furthermore, gummy bears are generally not covered by the regulatory agencies which can impede research on other animals.
However, impediments to using U. elasticus as research subjects have been well documented. Their method of reproduction remains somewhat elusive, as does their genetic code, preventing use in any form of reproductive experimentation or gene therapy. In addition, it is difficult to gauge cholesterol, blood sugar levels, or other markers of disease. As a result, most research in this field deals with the primary endpoint of death, which has caused a few animal rights organisations to question the use of gummies in widespread experimentation.
Predation of gummy bears by researchers remains on ongoing problem. This is not generally seen with human research subjects, but may be under-reported.
Evolution and Ecology of Ursus elasticus
The common gummy bear appeared in the area of Western Europe now known as Bonn, Germany in the early 20th Century. The bears are known locally as Gummibärchen [little rubber bear(s)] and are more commonly thought of as a food item than an experimental model. They remain a local delicacy and a prime export product of the region.
It is believed that the modern gummy bear descended from a small, terrier-sized bear (Ursavis elemensis) in subtropical Europe some 20 million years ago. We have yet to find the gummy bear "missing link" as their absence of a skeleton tends to hamper fossil formation.
We know virtually nothing about their social structure, although we suspect they live in geographically isolated colonies which would account for their small size compared with other European bears.
Despite lacking the great size and sharp claws and teeth of their cousins such as the grizzly bear, gummies are not without aegis. They appear to employ some means of chemical defense. In susceptible individuals this induces anaphylaxis, rapidly incapacitating the attacker1.
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Uses of U. elasticus in modern society
Their aforementioned lack of a skeleton has also lead to gummy bears being employed as a research models for mastication. The bears have an elastic modulus of 0.07 MPa3. For comparison, Aramid fibers (Kevlar or Twaron) have moduli of 3630 MPa. This makes it unlikely that gummy bears will be used as protective armour, despite their having some "self sealing" ability. It is equally unlikely that we will see Aramid fiber snack foods any time soon.
Gummy bears have been known to cause gastric distress when ingested in copious quantities. Of interest and possible application, a CAT scan of the abdomen of one individual guilty of partaking of a large quantity of gummies revealed this particular herd to be visible on x-rays4. This suggests that similar herds, perhaps bred specifically for this trait, could in fact be used to follow the path and speed of food through the stomach and intestines.
Other medical uses abound. The current test for prenatal diabetes utilises a syrupy sweet liquid which tastes terrible, as any pregnant woman can verify. Ursus elasticus contain 2.28 grams of carbohydrates per individual (each mature individual weighs approx 2.86 grams). The diabetes challenge could therefore be performed with consumption of 22 individuals. Similar attempts have been carried out with Brach's brand jelly beans, requiring consumption of 16-18 jelly beans in two minutes. Certain low carbohydrate subspecies (high in sorbitol) have also been used successfully as laxatives, particularly for children.
Once the mysteries of breeding Ursus elasticus are unraveled, it is conceivable that gummy bears could be used as biochemical plants to make vaccines, biological medications and even tasty, high carbohydrate snacks with their own insulin. However, alas, the limited electrical fields generated by gummy bear will likely limit their use in the fields of semi- and super conductors, thereby short-circuiting their once promising future in the field of electronics.
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(1) Scurlock, A; Althage K; Christie L; Burks A; Jones S "Anaphylaxis after ingestion of gummy bears" J Allergy Clin Immunol 2002 Dec;110(6):936-7
(2) Headd B, Dallas, S; Rolfe R . "Herd Immunity in Gummy Bears". Journal of Irreproducible Results 1999
(3) Williams SH, Wright BW, Truong V, Daubert CR, Vinyard CJ "Mechanical properties of foods used in experimental studies of primate masticatory function" Am J. Primatol. 2005 Nov;67(3):329-46
(4) Ufberg JW, Lex J "Abdominal calcifications on unenhanced CT scan due to gummy bear ingestion". J Emerg Med 2005 May;28(4):469-70
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Credits for fig 1 (clockwise from top left): 1 & 2: Emiliano Spada; 3: Kerim Ergaz; 4: Livien Volckaert; 5 & 6: Jyn Meyer; 7: Andrés Giordano; 8: Alessandro Paiva; 9: Georgios M. W.; 10: Nara Vieira da Silva Osga
Credits for fig 2: none