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.

Rejoice Winos! The Grape Depression is Over!

wineYou’ve had a long week, the latest episode of Scandal is on and all you want to do is put your feet up and enjoy a nice glass of Pinot Noir like Olivia Pope. But as you watch your favorite heroine down glass after glass of delicious red wine, you start to wonder how she’ll function in the morning with the nasty wine headache she is sure to wake up with. Fortunately for Ms. Pope and you, there will soon be a solution for wine lovers everywhere.

University of Illinois scientists are working on a wine that would allow a wine connoisseur to finish an entire bottle with no repercussions, except perhaps embarrassing photos of them dancing on the table. Researchers are developing a genetically- modified yeast that will jointly add even more health benefits to the glorified grape juice as well as reduce toxic byproducts that cause hangovers. Wine, created by fermenting grapes over a long period of time, produces polyploidy strains of yeast. By genetically altering this particular yeast, scientists have increased the antioxidants found in the wine by up to ten times and reduced the side effects the toxic byproducts cause.

The compounds that cause migraines and irritation the next morning are still being discovered as there are several sources of the irritating compounds. One culprit seems to be the skin of the grapes that are left on in red wine for the fermenting process. While drinking white wine may reduce the risk of hangover, the researchers are hopeful that true winos and staunch Catholics will no longer suffer from their love of vino.

The Origin of Life

shutterstock_211499647Many people say (in various ways and languages) that it is important to know where we came from in order for us to get to where we want to go. We’re not exactly sure if those that advocate this idea meant to go as far back as these origin-of-life scientists went when they set out to find how life began on Earth, though. And not just human life, mind you, but all life!

That seemed on par with the chicken-and-egg conundrum, but apparently they found it. In a published article in Nature Chemistry, chemists from the University of Cambridge in the UK led by John Sutherland took their “RNA World” theory in hand and did some fancy deconstruction. They took their favorite building blocks for life, formaldehyde, and acetylene and broke it down into even simpler components that were around in primordial times. These are hydrogen cyanide, hydrogen sulfide, and ultraviolet rays. When combined, they would eventually lead to the formation of nucleic acid and lipids. You could say they found the yolk, white, and shell that laid the chicken that served as the base for the (primordial) chicken soup.

They are not saying that this is how life began on earth, but they are saying that it is possible. However, it still doesn’t answer the question: which came first, the chicken or the egg?

It’s a bird…it’s a plane…or, no…it’s a solar powered plane?

shutterstock_133340789If one day, you walk outside, see an unusual gigantic mass in the sky, and are overcome with a feeling that the world is about to end, it’s okay. Don’t be alarmed. Swiss engineers Andre Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard have created the first solar powered plane. It seems as though we have a 21st century version of the Wright brothers on our hands, although without a sibling relationship this time. Embarking on a trip around the world in their solar powered plane, the two are furthering the boundaries of transportation technology.

The plane, named Solar Impulse 2, is covered by solar panels and equipped with batteries. Solar panels are comprised of photovoltaic cells. These cells combined together create the large solar panels, and enable the conversion of sunlight to electricity. When the sunlight hits the panels, the photons separate electrons from atoms, thus creating a flow of electricity. The plane will operate according to this phenomenon during the day, while batteries will sustain it through the night.

The plane’s light-weight structure is designed to increase the plane’s efficiency. Improved since the first Solar Impulse, the wingspan of Solar Impulse 2 is 236 feet, and weighs about the same as a car. Backing up, yes; there was a first Solar Impulse. However, this one only took flight from California to New York. Now, Borschberg and Piccard have implemented corrections and economical upgrades for Solar Impulse 2.

Ready or not, it’s already coming. The Solar Impulse 2 took flight out of Abu Dhabi, the capital of United Arab Emirates, on March 8th. Future stops will be India, Myanmar, China, United States, and either Europe or Africa as it returns. The co-founders and co-pilots say they are prepared and eager to take on this challenge, however, watching the journey on solid ground will satisfy most of us just fine.

Battle Royale: Dark Matter vs. Dinosaurs

shutterstock_200852918From a giant comet collision to alien attacks, there are hundreds of theories as to what killed off the dinosaurs. One more theory was recently thrown into the mix that posits mysterious dark matter as the culprit behind the mass extinctions that Earth experiences about every 26 million to 30 million years. This exact time frame is the same interval at which Earth and the rest of our solar system passes through the plane of the Milky Way. Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not.

Here’s what we know about dark matter: not much. It is invisible to the eye but causes pretty impressive gravitational effects and radiation. Researchers believe that for every square light-year there’s one solar mass of dark matter. That is quite a bit of dark matter just floating around the universe. This would be absolutely fine if it wasn’t for this same dark matter flinging comets at Earth and causing planets to collide. More on this later.

Scientists now believe that the reason that Earth’s core runs hot enough to cause some areas to become completely uninhabitable every couple million years or so isn’t because it caught a space cold and is running a gnarly fever. They theorize that as the Earth enters through the haze of particles at the edge of the Milky Way, dark matter falls to Earth and enters into the core where it is transferred into heat. While the core burns up, the dark matter also causes space debris to rocket towards the earth, triggering extraterrestrial impacts and geological upheavals in Earth’s make up all at once.

We might be able to survive one cataclysmic event but having dark matter attacking Earth from the inside out makes for good odds that we’ll meet the same fate as the dinosaurs. Next up in the ring: Dark Matter vs. Cockroaches and Twinkies.

All out of Fresh Eggs? Just Un-boil the Boiled Ones!

EggsIt seems that the chemistry geeks from University of California Irvine and Flinders University in South Australia has finally sniffed a bit too much of their own products. They have come up with a way to un-boil an egg. Literally. And they published it too!

Most of us never wonder why boiled egg white turns rubbery. Well, according to these researchers, egg white is made up mostly of proteins that when heated changes shape, folds and becomes tangled up. One scientist describes proteins as elastic bands. They can be stretched and pulled into all kinds of configurations without changing their fundamental composition. What the researches did to return the boiled egg white to its original form was to first liquefy it and then spin it really fast in something called a vortex-fluid device so it straightens out the folded and tangled up proteins.

The achievement was recently (January 27) published in the ChemBioChem journal and despite how ridiculous (albeit pretty amazing) it sounds, there are important real world applications for un-boiling an egg. Take cancer, for example. One type of cancer treatment makes use of proteins loaded with antibodies to attach to cancer cells so that the immune cells can locate and destroy them.

The problem is making the antibody protein, which is a long and expensive process using hamster ovary cells which is resistant to “folding.” With this “un-boiling” technique, the process is much faster and uses any type of protein, even yeast. Because antibody proteins become more affordable with this new method, cancer patients no longer have to go into hock to get these treatments.

Of course, they had to break a few eggs to make it.

House Pests Help Build Oases in the Desert

Remember in the prelude to the movie “The Mummy Returns” where the Scorpion King saved his troops from dying in the desert by magically building an oasis for them? There may be some mistake there. It may have been the Termite King.

Researchers from Princeton University believe that termites help in keeping back the desert from taking over agricultural and semi-arid ecosystems in Asia, Africa, and South America. They chew, they mulch, they tunnel. This much we know from our own unhappy experience. But what we probably don’t realize is that termite mounds where they bring the chewed and mulched vegetation contain the moisture and nutrients that plants can use to survive, and the tunnels that they make in the soil helps whatever rain that comes from penetrating deeper. As a result, plants flourish around termite mounds the same way guys gather around a hot girl. This is called an oasis, and it provides a chance for life around it to flourish instead of dying under the hot, dry sun. Guys around a chick, exactly.

Such oases eventually become self-sustaining ecosystems, where the termites eat the vegetation and the vegetation lives on the termite leavings. At least until the rain comes, at which point the plants that survived the dry season propagate further out. And then it goes around full circle. It is really pretty cool if you think about it.

If termites would just go to where they were wanted, and not eating us literally out of house and home, everybody would be happy.

We Don’t Need to Sugar Coat it — Stick on Tattoos can Measure Blood Sugar for Diabetics

tattoosSweet news for diabetics out there; the never ending days of pin pricks to your fingers may soon be over. Remember how this past summer, you couldn’t leave the house without seeing those shimmering temporary flash tattoos on every 20-something and under girl you passed? What if those gaudy tats were the answer to reading your glucose levels needle-free?

Researchers at the University of California San Diego are working on technology that puts sensors in temporary tattoos in order to read blood sugar levels. The printed electrodes attached to the temporary tattoo paper generate a current through the skin, drawing glucose in the blood close enough for the sensors to read.
So far, the technology has been tested on seven non-diabetic people aged 20-40 years old. They were monitored eating and drinking a carb-heavy meal while stick on tattoos measured their glucose levels. The result was consistent with measurements taken by the traditional finger prick method.

These sensors were built on the same technology that brought us the GlucoWatch back in 2002. Unfortunately, that invention was found to be too irritating to the skin and quickly became irrelevant. The temporary tattoo revises the technology to use lower, non-irritating electrical currents.

Currently, each tattoo is only a couple of cents to replace. The affordability makes the new technology a wonderful option for those on a budget. And the ease of a daily temporary tattoo is greatly preferred to the glucose level reading contact lenses that Google announced last year.

Eventually the tattoos will have Bluetooth technology capabilities to send real time data to the wearer and their physician. We can only hope the manufacturers see the opportunity in making fashion tattoo options, too.