FDA approves genetically modified chicken

shutterstock_179491004While genetically modified animals are usually looked at as being a bad thing, the United States government has just approved a type of genetically modified chicken that will supposedly improve the health of individuals.  These engineered chickens would make the drug Kanuma in their eggs, which is said to be a treatment for people with lysosomal acid lipase deficiency.  The rare condition prevents people’s bodies from breaking down fatty molecules inside cells but Kanuma works to replace this faulty enzyme.  The disease can be potentially fatal, especially when acquired by infants.

In order to collect the protein, researchers would have to purify the whites of the chickens’ egg.  This means the chicken would have the protein throughout their entire body, making it unsafe to eat.  Researchers have said, however, that because the chickens are raised indoors, it is highly unlikely that they would ever enter the food supply.  The FDA is still looking into whether altering the chickens’ DNA would harm the animal and if the modification could be passed onto future generations.

This isn’t the first time a transgenic animal modified to produce a drug has been approved—six years ago, genetically modified goats that could produce a drug in their milk that would prevent blood clots were approved —and researchers hope it isn’t the last. So why did the chicken cross the road? Maybe the actual answer was always to make a potentially life-saving drug for countless Americans in their eggs????

Robot Baby Fever

Babies are some of the fastest learners on Earth. This is in large part due to the low development of their prefrontal shutterstock_275149358cortexes. Unlike adults with fully-developed prefrontal cortexes, children are able to perceive things through sound, smell, touch, taste, and sight that are not hindered by preconceived notions. For example: if an adult were given a stick, they would see a stick because that is what prior knowledge and experience tells them. A child could see a sword, a javelin, or flag pole to mark their new fort. What if we could teach robots to see and think as children do, learning new skills and having abstract ideas just as easily as a human baby?

There is a problem within robot and artificial intelligence programs that seek to teach robots what to do rather than tell robots what to do. Currently, programmers have to specifically code sequences that robots can use to work through problems and perform tasks. By creating a robot that can learn like a human does, the robot is no longer inhibited by its programming and can problem solve on its own. Computer scientists at the University of Washington saw an opportunity here and partnered with university developmental psychologists to help teach baby robots just like we teach baby humans.

The team of scientists and researchers published their theory in PLOS One. The overarching goal of the project is to have robots learn through their own experiences. By using infant research studies, they were able to build algorithms that mimic learning models. In the first experiment, they used gaze-based simulations to have a robot learn from a human purely based on sight. First, the baby bot watched a human move his head back and forth until the baby bot was imitating the human and looking at the same object as the human. The second part of the experiment involved the baby bot learning about blindfolds and that they stop humans from seeing. The robot learned not to look at where the blindfolded human was looking because it understood that the researcher could not see.

A mission of the project is for baby bots to learn more complicated functions or ideas from humans through experience. There will be other experiments based on other senses, such as touch and hearing that may be able to teach these robots faster and more effectively than traditional programming. Who knows, this could lead to the friendly and capable robots like R2D2, C-3PO, or the new BB-8.

Tapeworm transmits cancer to Colombia man

shutterstock_183701153Anyone who has ever had, or even heard about, a tapeworm probably agrees that they are just the worst thing ever for numerous reasons. But a man from Colombia had a nasty tapeworm with an even worse side effect than usual. In January 2013, a 41-year-old man visited a local hospital complaining of fatigue, fever, cough, and weight loss that had lasted over several months. The man, who had tested positive for HIV in 2006, had not taken his medication and was open to serious infection, which resulted in countless dwarf tapeworms taking up residency in his body.

As the doctors began to run tests, they noticed extremely tiny, human-like tumors that lined the man’s lymph nodes.  Further tests showed cancer cells were present in the man’s body, but were not human.  As they ran more and more tests in the coming months, they found that the tapeworms had transmitted their own cancer to the man. Scientists were baffled by the findings, as they didn’t know that tapeworms could develop tumors in the first place, calling it one of the strangest cases they have seen.  Unfortunately, the man passed away before proper treatment could take place.

Doctors who worked on the case warn other medical professionals around the world to be on the lookout for strange medical occurrences such as this one. It seems like tapeworms are disgusting and terrible for even more reasons than we previously thought possible.

Scientists recreate functional vocal cords

shutterstock_128575862In a breakthrough study, scientists have grown and recreated functional vocal cords in a lab.  Scientists were able to reconstruct almost 170 vocal cords by using vocal tissue from four patients who had their larynxes removed and used cells from vocal folds to create the new vocal cords.  The cells were able to grow the vocal cords in the lab by themselves over the course of just 14 days.  When scientists tested the vocal cords, they found that blowing air through them made the same humming noise that isolated vocal cords in humans make.

While the study is still in the early stages, the scientists hope that it will help the over 20 million people across the United States who suffer vocal cord damage or have lost their voice all together.  These individuals include Julie Andrews, who lost her singing voice fully in 1997, Adele, and John Mayer.   They believe that through this discovery, they will eventually be able to grow damaged parts of vocal cords and implant them surgically. Tests also indicated that the immune system was surprisingly tolerant to the recreated vocal cords, something that have not seen in many other tests involving recreated organs.

Scientists hope to continue experiments on other animals to confirm that the vocal cords would be safe for use in humans. But I think we can all agree that any medical experiment that may be able to help Julie Andrews sing again is a winner in our eyes.

Ice-Spewing Volcanoes Discovered on Pluto’s Surface

shutterstock_50105569Although Pluto might be small and was officially kicked out of the “planet club,” it still has quite a lot of activity taking place on its tiny surface.  New photos transmitted back to NASA have shown two ice-spewing volcanos on the surface of Pluto, baffling scientists.  NASA first made a record pass by Pluto on July 14th with the New Horizon’s Spacecraft, which is still continuing to transmit photos back to those involved in the project.  Among the pictures the Spacecraft is expected to report back before the week is over, one of the most interesting shows two mountains which each measure 100 miles in diameter and are several miles tall.

However, instead of spewing lava, these mountains release ice and other frozen materials such as nitrogen, ammonia, and methane.  Scientists report having never seen anything like this in our outer solar system and are still investigating how these mountains and other depressions on the planet’s surface were created.  The New Horizon’s Spacecraft is expected to transmit even more information about the volcanoes, including measurements and additional pictures.  So even though Pluto didn’t quite make the cut to be a planet, it seems it will still be a major topic in science circles everywhere.

To the horror or everyone, it turns out cockroaches are actually pretty useful

shutterstock_180958520There are 4,500 known species of cockroach that live in a number of different environments all over the world. Sure, cockroaches that scurry around your kitchen are pretty gross and there is no real reason you shouldn’t just put your foot down on those little guys—but there are actually only four species of cockroach that are considered to really be pests. The other 4,496 species are about as diverse as you might expect, and have yielded some pretty useful applications for the scientific community.

All grossness aside, this photo-heavy spread in BBC Magazine looks at some of the most useful contributions that the biology of the cockroach has yet to make to humanity. As it turns out, the next generation of prosthetics will likely be based in part on the flexibility and springiness that is unique to roach legs—in particular, the mechanics of a roach leg may help researchers develop prosthetic hands that are more capable to gripping objects in the same way a human hand would.

Then there are the cybernetic roaches—live cockroaches implanted with miniature computers—that may be remotely operated to access places that would otherwise be difficult for people to access—think natural disaster areas. In fact, students from Shanghai Jiap Tong University have even gone so far as to demonstrate how human brain waves could be translated into electrical impulses that control one of these robo-roaches.

Perhaps one of the most promising areas of cockroach-inspired research—though it is not exactly new—is focused on the cockroach’s ability to synthesize relatively powerful antibiotics. It is hoped that this ability may help researchers develop new antibiotics capable of battling some of the most virulent bacteria known to humankind, including MRSA and E. coli.

Though it may be little consolation to you next time you surprise a cockroach that is roaming your countertops, you can rest assured that—somewhere and somehow—roaches may just end up making all our lives a little bit easier.


Internet Freaks Out after WHO Reveals Link between Eating Meat and Cancer

shutterstock_264832343Meat lovers everywhere may have to rethink their choices after the World Health Organization (WHO) announced a link between some meats and cancer.  The study found that processed meat, like hot dogs and bacon, increases the risk of cancer, along with red meat such as beef, pork, and lamb.  The report comes from WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and puts processed meats at the top tier of cancer causes along with alcohol and cigarettes, with red meat sitting on the second tier list.

The study shows a positive correlation in the risk for colorectal (bowel) and other types of cancer in individuals who consumed processed and red meat.  Essentially, as the amount of processed and red meat you ate increased, so did your risk of cancer.  For example, the agency estimated that eating a 50-gram portion of processed meat daily increased the risk of bowel cancer by up to 18%.  That’s only about 3 slices of bacon daily.  However, the study has already received criticism from meat industry groups who say the studies did not consider lifestyles and that meat is an important part of a balanced diet.  However, the IARC says their studies were extensive and show a probable cause between processed and red meat and cancer.

According to the reports, however, the risk can be decreased with a healthy lifestyle. Maybe vegetarians had the right idea the whole time???

Black Coffee Equals Black Hearts, New Study Finds

shutterstock_129339416We all have our taste preferences: some people dip their French fries in ice-cream and other people drench their pizza in ranch dressing. While we don’t normally analyze these decisions beyond a health perspective, a new study finds that some food preferences link directly to our personality traits. Professor Christina Sagioglou from Innsbruck University in Austria designed a study of 500 men and women to discover if our tastes buds were valid indicators of our personality.

In the experiment, men and women were shown a list of sweet, salty, sour, and bitter foods before being asked to rate them on a six-point Likert scale. For example, one participant would view a chocolate cake and decide if she disliked strongly to liked strongly that particular item. After finishing these tests, the participants were given four different personality tests.

These personality tests distinguished the aggression levels of the men and women, identified Machiavellianism, psychopathy and narcissism traits, and dimensions of extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness and emotional stability.

The study was originally published in the journal Appetite. It found a correlation between enjoying the taste of bitter foods, such as black coffee, beer, and broccoli to Machiavellianism, psychopathy, narcissism, and everyday sadism. In contrast, predictors of agreeableness and kindness were negatively correlated with interest in bitter foods.

While another test of 450 participants confirmed these findings, it is still probably too soon to write off a Tinder date that enjoys his coffee black or prefers IPAs. It is still a known fact that our taste buds change the types of foods we like on a semi-regular basis. With further research into what these relationships mean, perhaps the future of Buzzfeed quizzes will resemble something similar to “Does Your Dinner Choice Mean You’re a Psychopath?”

Scientists Digitally Recreate Slice of a Rat’s Brain

shutterstock_196810991Scientists have achieved a simulation milestone after digitally recreating a sliver of a rat’s brain on a computer.  The brain simulation is a part of the Blue Brain Project, the first goal of which is to digitally reconstruct a rat’s brain.  However, their final goal is much more ambitious, as they eventually want to digitally construct a human brain.

The Blue Brain Project’s experimentation began by recording the brain cell connections of tens of thousands of juvenile rats.  By doing this, they were able to calculate principles that governed how brain connections were made and use computer programs to fill in the rest of the brain structure they could not calculate.  From this, they were able to create a 3D model that showed over 600 million neuron connections.  The team continued experiments until a part of a virtual rat brain was rendered on a computer, which was able to solve billions of equations for every 25 microseconds of neuronal activity.

The new simulation is just a tiny slice of a rat’s brain but includes 31,000 brain cells with 37 million connections.   The simulation mimicked real experiments the team had done of rats and could even be used to predict behavior.  Although these rats may be a little less intelligent than humans, these findings can still eventually be used to do the same with human brains.  However, there is much to be improved on in this computer simulation, with other blood vessels, brain cells, and communications needing to be included in a future digital reconstruction for a more realistic picture.  In the meantime, Disney might be able to use the findings for an interesting sequel to Ratatouille.

Noble Prize Winners Wash Their Hands of Parasites

shutterstock_200494427The winners of the Noble Prize in Physiology or Medicine were announced as William C. Campbell, Satoshi Omura, and Youyou Tu for their advancement in parasite fighting medication. Unlike the Magic School Bus episode in which Ms. Frizzle leads the kids on a germ fighting adventure, this medical breakthrough is helping hundreds of millions. Campbell and Omura won for developing the drug Avermectin, a cure for river blindness and elephantiasis. They are sharing the $960,000 prize money with Tu, the inventor of the drug Artemisinin which is responsible for significantly reducing deaths from malaria.

While these parasites might be not as terrifying as the worm-like space creature from Alien, they are just as merciless. Over a third of the world’s population suffers from parasitic worms. While the most afflicted areas are sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America, these parasites affect the entire world. Not to continue being a Negative Nancy, but malaria is responsible for more than 450,000 deaths each year.

Dr. Tu previously won a Lasker Award in 2011 for the development of Artemisinin. Her work centered on using ancient Chinese remedies to find a cure for malaria. Her work includes researching 380 extracts from 200 different plants. Her discovery is now a working pharmaceutical that saves over 100,000 lives in Africa annually. When combined with other therapies, Artemisinin can reduce the mortality rate of malaria by more than 20 percent.

The three winners will be awarded diplomas and gold medals during a ceremony in December. Hopefully their work will inspire further research that leads to the complete eradication of disease-causing parasites. Lastly, a note to future Nobel Prize contenders: unfortunately, the Nobel Assembly does not have enough participation ribbons for all of the papier-mâché volcano entries.