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.

Google’s Self-Driving Car Ready for Public Testing

shutterstock_191586596Divers, beware. Google has announced that their self-driving car is now ready to take to public roadways for some real-world driving experience. The adorable prototype comes outfitted with NO STEERING WHEEL OR PEDALS and, according to its Internet giant maker, is now fully functional and ready to show what it can do.

This model is the most recent in several different prototypes that Google has created, and while there aren’t conventional modes of vehicle operation, the car will come with a number of controls that motorists can use in an emergency situation. The vehicle will first be tested on a closed track, and then, in terrifying fashion, set loose on the populous to wreak havoc.

Google has ambitious plans to make self-driving cars a ubiquitous presence on roadways in as little as 5 to 10 years, giving the rest of us approximately 5 to 10 years to prepare ourselves emotionally and physically for the amazing, yet terrifying, road ahead.

Rise of the worm-brained machine

What may be thought of as the first cyborg, is both very dumb—worm-brained—and rather clunky—a little, wheeled robot body. After digitally mapping the neurons of the simplistic C. elegans roundworm, a research team with the OpenWorm project has simulated the worm’s brain in a comparatively complicated wheeled robot. The result, as described by the folks at SingularityHUB: the robot behaved like a C. elegans roundworm, in so far as a robot can act like a roundworm, by moving and avoiding objects without being explicitly programmed to do so.

While robots can currently be programmed to perform similar operations, this research is intended to show how, given a digital map of an organism’s brain, a robotic body may be made to behave like its organic counterpart. Now, the C. elegans’ 302 neurons and 7,000 synapses don’t quite compare to a human’s roughly 86 billon neurons and 100 trillion synapses, but this research is considered to be a single, small step toward mapping the human brain nonetheless.

All of this on the heels of public figures like Stephen Hawking and Space X’s chief executive, Elon Musk, openly discussing their fear of full artificial intelligence. While these fears bear an uncanny resemblance to those at play in the Terminator franchise—was that a neural map of Arnie’s brain controlling the Terminator?—they do bring the discussion back to a key question: how and when should technological discovery be tempered by fear?

Boozers are the Key to Evolution

alcohol Drinking alcohol is considered by many to be a vice, but this typically refers to excessive consumption. But in moderate amounts, our desire to drink and our ability to metabolize alcohol may have led to our evolution.

Humans are known to have developed fermentation processes around 9,000 years ago, so it would be reasonable to assume that it was then that we developed the vibe to imbibe. A recent study indicates, however, that drinking booze may be hardwired in the human DNA more than 10 million years ago.

Humans are able to drink significant amounts of alcohol (ethanol, primarily) because we can process it before it kills us (after making us hopelessly sloshed, of course) but not all primates can tolerate ethanol. Our presumed ancestors, gorillas and chimpanzees, were found to have developed an effective type of booze-busting proteins which includes alcohol dehydrogenase enzyme (ADH4) way back when which allowed them to digest fruit that had fallen on the ground and started to spoil (ferment). All primates actually have ADH4, but not every species has the right kind.

This is important in times of scarcity; those who could literally stomach eating the fruit from the ground survived, unlike their more fastidious counterparts without the requisite protein enzymes. It follows that because our ancestors lived, they were able to evolve; thus, humans! This will also explain why we associate drinking alcohol with having a good time; staying alive can really put you in a good mood.