Ancient Caterpillars “Mustard” Up the Courage in Bitter Battle

shutterstock_127958429Odds are, if you had any kind of a childhood, you have probably heard of Colonel Mustard. However, rather than being a clean cut military man from an old board game, a new study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, PNAS, Colonel Mustard was actually a glucosinolate, a sharp tasting chemical, produced by ancestors of today’s Brassicale order which includes wasabi, horseradish, mustard, cabbage, and kale.

Way back in the day, like 90 million years ago, caterpillars and Brassicales were involved in what the study calls an “evolutionary arms race.” As a result of caterpillars feeding on the ancient plants, these plants developed glucosinolates to fend off the hungry critters. However, rather than finding new plants to feed on, these caterpillars fought back by developing their own chemical defenses against the glucosinolate toxins.

Scientists claim that this chemical evolutionary battle occurred three times in the past 90 million years. The most surprising part of the discovery is not that plants and bugs co-evolved by making small changes to their genes, but rather that they co-evolved by creating entirely new copies of their genes, a process that is said to be rare in the natural world.

Luckily for us, these ancient chemical battles lead to plants developing highly complex glucosinolates that give wasabi, horseradish, mustard, cauliflower, and radishes their distinct flavors. So the next time you open your refrigerator, be sure thank the “seasoned” caterpillar veterans.

The Secret Life of the European Neanderthal

shutterstock_164724497We all have our scandalous secrets and regrettable moments – problems that turn out to be as old as humans themselves. As much as your judgmental grandmother insists that you brought a less evolved subspecies of human to dinner, this hasn’t actually happened for 40,000 years, give or take. Still, this is far more recent than scientists previously thought. A recent discovery of the jaw bone of a man who lived an estimated 40,000 years ago in Europe contained a surprising revelation. Found in the Perstera cu Oase cave in Romania, DNA evidence indicated that this man had a Neanderthal ancestor in his recent past, as recent as four to six generations back in his family history.

Up to this point, anthropologist estimated that the most recent interbreeding between Neanderthals and modern humans occurred 50,000 to 60,000 years ago in the Middle East, shortly after modern humans migrated out of Africa. Until this recent discovery, there was no evidence that this mingling continued in Europe, after modern humans migrated out of the Middle East. This revelation gives us more evidence into the social dynamics of early humans and more clues into the mystery of what happened to the Neanderthals, as Neanderthal DNA was quickly lost from the human genome a few generations after this “Oase Man” (as he is now referred to) lived.

If you’re quick to judge the Oase Man for his scandalous family history, take a look at your own lineage. Modern humans alive today have 1-3% Neanderthal DNA. Although, if your grandma has anything to say about it, some have retained a little more than others.

Robot Skin, Because You’re Worth It

tattooCyborgs and other theories of humans hybridizing with robot parts have been a common theme for decades, dealing with how technology and humans will ultimately mix. However, it is looking more and more as if, instead of body parts being replaced by robots, we will simply tattoo the mechanics onto our bodies. Tattoos may not be the most ideal method for wearable technology for everyone, however the stick-on and temporary wearable devices that are currently in development may change some people’s minds.

Scientists are working on wearable technology that is as simple as placing a sticker or temporary tattoo onto the desired skin area. The tattoo bends and stretches with the skin, transmitting information back to the wearer. MC10, a company that specializes in wearable technology, announced progress in the BioStamp system. The BioStamp device is the size of a quarter and as thin as the skin it is placed on. The purpose of the device is to monitor and report heart rate, body movement, and other biometric data for health.

In another sector of tattoo technology, L’Oréal is working with scientists to create a patch that will work with their health and beauty products to better understand and treat skin conditions. The stickers can track blood flow and temperature via the sensors and report back to the researcher. The same research team is also working with the patches to control video games.

In a few years, the possibilities for wearable technology like the BioStamp and L’Oréal’s patch are endless. As mechanical devices shrink and storage capacity grows, the science community is looking forward to the medical and entertainment doors that can be opened. Perhaps our children will put a quarter into a vending machine and instead of the temporary tattoos we grew up with, a technology infused tattoo will come out with the latest video game already downloaded on it. Who knows?

You want the pain; you need the pain

shutterstock_40106719Researchers may just have discovered the gene that can keep you from feeling pain. No one wants to feel pain. Depending on its severity, it is uncomfortable, distracting, or debilitating. However, if you don’t feel pain at all, you may be headed for trouble.

Children typically learn very early on to avoid situations that will cause them pain because it is, well, painful. This is as it should be. Pain is just as necessary to human survival as insects are to ecology. The feeling of pain tells us that something is wrong. It could be external (hot surface) or internal (toothache). In either case, it is a warning that you should do something (take away your hand) or see someone (dentist) to find and eliminate the source of pain. In a very real sense, pain is the feeling that keeps us from doing stupid things or letting bad situations continue.

The pain-suppressing gene is called PRDM12, a protein that is present in the developing fetus that helps in growing pain-warning nerve cells. In some cases, however, the gene mutates naturally, and some people are born short of a few pain neurons. Researchers now believe that it may still be present in adults, keeping pain neurons from fully functioning. Theoretically, manipulating the PRDM12 gene may help suppress pain receptors for people who are in constant pain. The study was published in Nature Genetics on May 25, 2015.

The theory has yet to be put into practice, but it will be of great benefit for certain populations. People suffering from chronic and debilitating pain have bigger problems than a potential scalding from a carelessly placed hand. The pain they have is huge, and it is always there. It prevents them from functioning with any kind normality, and if manipulating a gene can help them cope with the pain, then it is a matter of weighing the risks against the benefits.

RBD may be a precursor to Parkinson’s disease

shutterstock_236914165A meta-analysis of studies within a 28-year period indicates that a sleep disorder may be early signs of degenerative brain disorders. The fact that there is no cure for either the sleep disorder or subsequent brain disorder makes this interesting, but ultimately useless, information.

Some people suffer from rapid eye movement sleep behavior disorder (RBD), where the subject physically acts out their dreams. Now, you are not supposed to be able to do that because the brain usually locks the body down while dreaming. This is most probably a very practical way of keeping you from knocking your sleep partner’s teeth out or your own while dreaming that you are Neo in The Matrix. The fact that you can move while dreaming probably means that something is not working right in the upper works.

Research analysts are now saying about 90% of cases with people with RBD who lived long enough acquired Parkinson’s disease or a similar condition. This means that people that punch, kick, or leap up while dreaming should probably start planning for the day when they will not be able to control their motor functions. Neurologists are saying that RBD is an early warning sign of alpha-synuclein breakdown, which causes Parkinson’s disease.

However, there is no cure for RBD, so there is no real way to put this insight to any good use at this point. It may come in handy someday but right now it is an effective way of putting the scare on the 10% or so RBD sufferers that will not get some type of degenerative neurological disorder in the future.

From Patch Adams to Patch Vaccines

shutterstock_116705086When a person makes the switch from their pediatric physician to an adult doctor, they lose an all too important part of the medical process: the lollipop at the end of their visit. While the promise of a sucker at the end of a doctor’s torture session doesn’t entirely make up for the insertion of a seemingly giant needle into a child’s arm, it does distract from the initial pain. Fortunately for children and adults everywhere, progress in biomedical engineering may soon yield a needless vaccine option.

Katarzyna Sawicka, a recent Stony Brook University PhD graduate, designed a needle-free patch capable of delivering vaccines through the skin in a non-invasive process. Much like a Band-Aid, the product Immuno-Matrix sticks to the skin and uses nanofibers to deliver vaccine molecules. The skin is the largest organ of the body, used primarily as a protective layer for the other vital organs. Previously, the large molecules and other particles of the vaccines were incapable of permeating the skin. However, Sawicka found that by removing and returning moisture to the skin, it would absorb larger molecules, up to 250 times the previously absorbable molecule size.

It gets better. Going back to the skin serving a protective function, Sawicka also found that the skin holds a high amount of antigen, a necessary solution that aids in the vaccination process. Therefore, the delivery of vaccine through the skin requires a smaller dosage than traditional vaccine methods. So far, the team of biomedical engineers has successfully tested Immuno-Matrix with whooping cough, influenza, and anthrax. Studies show that this new vaccination solution is as effective as intramuscular injections.

The large implication of this technology lies in the use of vaccines in less developed and poor countries. Immuno-Matrix does not require sterile needles or refrigeration like traditional vaccine solutions. Further development of this vaccine may result in a panacea for developing countries suffering from curable diseases all over the world.

Love is in the Air, or Being Sent through the Air

shutterstock_191161271A new study conducted at the University of Sussex puts texting emojis to shame when it comes to sending emotions through cyberspace. While a little winking smiley face or picture of a fried shrimp may convey some idea of how one preteen girl is feeling to her (as of two days and three hours) preteen boyfriend, researchers are looking to take the guessing game out of the equation.
Ultrahaptics is the new science that links touch sensation with emotions. For example, by stroking the index finger towards the thumb, the feeling of happiness is perceived. Sussex scientists are simulating touch sensation through ultrasound technology to trigger desired emotions. Participants in the study have identified all seven emotions through touch: surprise, fear, disgust, pensiveness, anger, joy and sadness.

Originally the study involved shaking hands with a robotic joystick that would interact with the human hand in different ways to stimulate different emotions. The result was study participants accurately perceiving the emotion twice as often as if guessing the emotion randomly. The Ultrahaptics was then created to send the same touch sensations through mid-air.

The goal for this developing technology is to create a wearable device that will transmit these sensations from user to user. Much like how the Apple Watch is capable of sending sensory notifications to the wearer when they receive a text message or email, a haptic device could send sensory stimulated emotions. The one-to-many concept is another possibility for this science. In application, a horror movie could intentionally trigger fear to movie-goers or a comedian trigger joy in their audience.

This kind of technology is not unheard of or far-fetched since wearable technology is an affluent trend as smart phones, smart watches, and Bluetooth devices gain prevalence in the market. In five or ten years, long-distance relationships and preteen texting scandals may get a helping virtual hand in dealing with emotional communication.

Self-healing may be hereditary

shutterstock_213336247Do you remember ever feeling a superior glow over all those people who seem to feel better even when they take fake medicine? You probably believe that the gullibility of these people is epic. Well, you might want to tone down that glow a bit, because those people may just have the ability to heal themselves without even knowing it.

This is not precisely what recent neurophysiological studies are saying about genetic traits and the placebo effect, however. What they do say is there is some evidence suggesting that some people respond more readily to treatment they believe they are taking even when they are in a placebo group. A placebo, in case you are wondering, is a pill or substance that has no therapeutic value, but the recipient does not know that. Placebos are typically given to a control group of people in clinical trials to measure the efficacy of a certain medication or treatment in a similar group.

This is a significant finding because it affects the benchmark for clinical studies. People in a control group would have to be screened to weed out those that respond no matter what they get. However, if you take it a step further, it could mean that certain people have the genetic traits that allow them to heal themselves using the power of their conviction, aka their mind. If that seems a bit X-Men-ish, it is what it is.

Thunder Lizards, Thunder Lizards, Thunder Lizards Ho!

Thunder LizardsBack in the early 1900s, it was decided that the beloved Brontosaurus excelsus, or “thunder lizard,” was just a duplication of the Apatosaurus. See, a few decades before, scientists were racing to name as many dinosaurs as possible before their colleagues had the opportunity in what is referred to as the “Bone Wars”. In this mad dash, paleontologist Othniel Marsh named one incomplete skeleton a Brontosaurus and the other an Apatosaurus. In his haste, he accidentally placed the wrong skull on the body of a Brontosaurus, thus discrediting his discovery and making the Apatosaurus the only “long-neck” we know and love today.

Recently, a report published in Peer J revealed that there are significant enough differences between the two dinosaurs to warrant a completely separate species and name for the Brontosaurus. Scientists reexamined and compared 81 dinosaur fossils and over 477 specific traits to find multiple and consistent distinctions between the two. These differences included size of neck, minor differences in bone structure, and skull shape. The minute variances would not have been possible to discover without the advanced technology we have today.

The dinosaurs lived 130 to 170 million years ago. The family of dinosaurs is known for their short, dachshund-esque legs and extremely long bodies. The average measure of these ancient lizards exceeded 20 meters, but their cousin the Supersaurus could reach up to 37 meters long.

The debate is still open to arguments. The Diplodocidae family of dinosaurs may have some brother uncles that still need sorting out, but chances look good for the Brontosaurus officially being reinstated as a “terrible lizard.”

Genetic Splicing: Episode VI Return of the Woolly Mammoth

wooly mammothJurassic Park was a nightmare of a film that ultimately showed us that terrifyingly large reptiles went extinct for a reason. However, researchers at Harvard University may have missed the memo. No, there won’t be Tyrannosaurus Rexes running amok anytime soon. Instead, scientists are working on a process called de-extinction. The idea is that gene splicing extinct animals with the genetic material of their living relatives may lead to hybrid species sharing traits of both animals. With enough time and energy, these hybrids could lead to the comeback of plants and animals that we thought we lost millions of years ago.

The scientists use a gene splicing and editing tool called a CRISPR. The spliced genes of the frozen woolly mammoth were placed in the genome of its closest living relative, the Asian elephant. While more tests are necessary, the hope is that these genes can be placed in an embryo inside of an artificial womb. Asian and African elephants are quickly decreasing in numbers because of their proximity to humans. One of the many goals of the experiments is to develop a new elephant capable of living in colder climates. The team focused on the DNA coding for the mammoth’s small ears, long hair, and fattier skin. This would theoretically move elephants farther from human contact and preserve the species from further endangerment.

The remaining DNA of these animals, however, is degrading in quality and quantity, making the efforts to restore the extinct species time sensitive. Tentatively, the technology and approval to develop the elephant/mammoth hybrid may be ready in three years and the gestation process is only 22 months. In the near future, it may be very possible that woolly mammoths, dodo birds, or saber tooth tigers will walk among us once more.