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.

Hearing Impaired can now “Hear” with their Tongues

shutterstock_145251097Instead of taking the words right about of your mouth, scientists have figured out a way to put words right into your mouth. Well, kind of. Scientists have developed a retainer-type device that could allow people to “hear” by using their tongues.

The two part system pairs a Bluetooth-enabled microphone earpiece with the tongue device in order to strengthen the wearer’s ability to recognize words. No, there’s not some new nerve link found between the tongue and ear. Instead, the earpiece works to rewire the brain to interpret certain tongue sensations as words. The research team likens the sensation to what pop rocks or even champagne bubbles feel like.

How it works is sounds enter through the earpiece’s microphone that is then encoded into separate words by the earpiece converter. Those codes are sent via Bluetooth to the retainer placed on the tongue, which conveys the wavelengths through distinct patters of somatic nerves. The tongue was chosen because of its hypersensitivity to touch, so it’s capable of distinguishing between the slight differences in the different sensations being sent to it.

Braille works in a somewhat similar way for the visually impaired. With enough practice, the nerves in their fingers are rewired in the brain to recognize certain touch sensations as words. With further research, the same idea of the tongue receptors could be used in cases of people who have lost their sense of touch. If the receptors were put in prosthetic limbs, a person could feel through their tongue when they’ve made contact with an object.

The contraption looks a little silly now, with wires and such falling out of your mouth. And everyone remembers how even though the orthodontist made you promise to wear your retainer every night, none of us ever did. So we’ll see if they can downsize the device to something more practical. If they can, the estimated $2,000 dollar cost will be a welcome alternative to the surgery and $40,000 price tag of a cochlear implant.

No need to go to the gym; they can grow muscles in the lab now!

musclesIt’s true. Lab rats at Duke University have just announced that they can now grow muscles in the lab.

Seriously, though, the lab-grown muscles are designed to be a crucial tool to be used in the study of neuromuscular disorders. It would also make it easier to develop new drugs for treating neuromuscular disorders because it can be used in place of actual humans in clinical trials. Researchers show in videos that they were able to simulate reactions in the bioengineered muscles that appeared to mimic native reactions from muscles that were actually attached to humans.

Currently, researchers need to extract sample tissue from a particular patient, grow the muscles, and then test drugs on those to see what happens. If the muscles react the way researchers want it to, the drugs are then used on the actual patient. This way the drugs are customized to factor in individual idiosyncrasies. It’s a bit like having designer coffee, but much less tasty. Scientists hope to eventually do away with the sample and simply grow the muscles from skin stem cells or blood samples, which is much less invasive than taking a tissue sample.

For most people, the development is just one of a series of mysterious goings-on in the labs, but its real world applications are actually awesome, but also slightly creepy. Imagine a disembodied muscle twitching in a petri dish and you can’t help thinking of The Blob.

Of course, although some neuromuscular disorders are due to something going haywire in the muscles themselves, such as muscular dystrophy, most are actually due to something going wrong in some part of the central nervous system. The next step, presumably, is to bioengineer a brain and spinal cord……

What Gain-of-Function is and Why it May not be such a Hot Idea

petri dish Fans of the television series The Walking Dead and any other zombie movie or show out there all ask one question: how? With the exception of The Resident Evil series, which goes into detail into the how, most of these thrillers keep explanations vague. Well, gain-of-function may have something to do with it.

“Gain-of-function?” You may ask, thinking “That doesn’t sound so bad.” Oh, yeah? Here’s another phrase for it: creation of potential pandemic pathogens (PPP). Are your spidey senses tingling now? No? Let us lay it on you then.

Gain-of-function (GOF) is the way researchers refer to experiments they conduct by taking a pathogen like anthrax, or small pox, or any of those nasty little viruses that kicked ass when they first came out, wiping out whole communities before they could be contained, and…get this: making them worse! Nastier, easier to transmit, harder to treat…get the picture?

“Why would they do that?” you may ask. Well, basically they want to know how bad it can get and develop ways to beat it. It’s like thinking about the worst case scenario and making a contingency plan for it. It sounds reasonable in theory, but one wonders if they ever bothered to make a risk-benefit analysis. If any of these reengineered super pathogens ever got out, can you imagine the effects?

“We should tell the government!” Tell them? They fund it! A couple of incidents (that we know of) of accidental exposure to anthrax (just the researchers, thank goodness) and a couple of mislaid (16) vials of smallpox, however, forced them to pull the plug (temporarily) on GOF experiments in October 2014.

Science gone mad, indeed.