Posts Categorized: Science

30,000-Year-Old Virus Comes Back from the Dead

shutterstock_113494426While more scientists would have you believe that rising sea levels will be the cause of worldwide headaches in a few decades, a new discovery may literally cause humanity headaches in the near future. Researchers recently discovered a giant, 30,000-year-old virus frozen in the thawed permafrost of a frozen region in Siberia. This discovery comes on the heels of scientists warning of melting Polar Regions and rising sea levels.

Okay, so the virus is technically not harmful to humans. The ancient virus is named Pithovirus sibericum and only infects amoebas. However, this new discovery may lead to a number of other frozen viruses, bacteria, and previously extinct organisms that could threaten human health. This includes viruses that previously caused planet-wide epidemics, which only furthers the fear of an Armageddon virus.

Scientists have already discovered previous giant virus families: Megaviridae and Pandoraviridae. These types of viruses have 50-250 times as many genes as modern day viruses such as AIDS or the flu. For instance, Pithovirus has 500 genes in comparison to the 10 genes of AIDS.

The discovery of Frosty the Snow Virus is not a surprise. Giant frozen viruses have been found in thawing permafrost since 2003 and scientists are only now beginning to discover the nature of the organisms. Drilling and oil exploration in the Arctic is bridging the previous gap between modern immunizations and old world viruses. If there is a world-ending virus awoken from cryosleep, it will be a comfort knowing that history rarely repeats itself.


NASA discovers closest thing to Earth 2.0, yet does not confirm nor deny alien life

NASA‘s Kepler space telescope has discovered a planet that is widely considered the most Earth-like of any to date: Keplershutterstock_183837821 452b. Kepler 452b is just one in a large series of discoveries by Kepler, which has been in use since 2009 and has since discovered 5000 potential planets.

Kepler 452b is estimated to be about 6 billion years old, making it 1.5 billion years older than Earth, and is 60 percent larger in diameter. Scientists believe that it has the same rocky exterior as Earth. These factors combined would mean Kepler 452b has twice the gravity of earth, meaning a visit to the planet would make you weigh twice as much. So to those on the weight-loss grind, 0 out of 10 would not recommend visiting this planet. It orbits its star at about the same distance and speed as earth and sun, which makes for a very good possibility of having liquid water on its surface.

In regards to whether this new Kepler discovery is inhabited by life, like Earth, John Grunsfeld, NASA’s science mission chief, says we are “one small step in answering that question” which does not necessarily deny the existence of other life forms, and is therefore a big win for the alien enthusiast in your life. Basically, if you’ve not yet found your earthly Bizarro world, we might be one step closer to finding it out in space 1,400 light-years away. Seinfeld fans rejoice.

You Won’t Like Me When I’m Hangry: The Science Behind Hunger Induced Anger

shutterstock_226371208Everyone has felt it – the short temper that creeps over you when the waiter seems to serve every other table before so much as taking your order; when your first meal of the day is the free samples at Costco and the person in front of you takes the very last artisan meatball; when the fast food drive-though could not move ANY slower. This phenomenon of hunger-induced anger has not gone unnoticed by anyone whose ever gone to the supermarket with an empty stomach.

This state of being “hangry” – a word invented to describe the feeling of being hungry-angry – was previously an unexplained correlation. Now, however, researchers the University of Sydney seem to have found an evolutionary explanation for this feeling. In her book “Don’t Go Hungry for Life,” Amanda Salis explains the chemical mechanisms that lead to this sensation.  Our glucose levels drop as time passes since our last meal. When this occurs, our bodies are alerted to produce other chemicals, most notably, adrenaline (also known as epinephrine) and cortisol. These are stress hormones, the same that one would feel in a fight-or-flight scenario. It’s these hormones that increase ones irritability.

Before you get frustrated at all of this unnecessary stress your body is putting you through, realize that this stress has not always been unnecessary. This chemical reaction originally served as a survival mechanism for early humans. Salis explains how this could have developed over the course of human evolution, noting “if hungry organisms stood back and graciously let others eat before them, their species could die out.” Species that exhibit this stress response, therefore, are more likely to survive.

So next time your “hanger” has you ready to become an uncontrollable rage monster, remember that it’s only natural- natural selection that is.

Monkey See, Monkey (Wired to Another Monkey’s Brain at NYU) Do

shutterstock_295328978At the risk of sounding like a pitch for a bad Syfy Channel remake of the “Planet of the Apes,” researchers at Duke University announced they have successfully wired monkey brains together in order to create what they are calling “organic computers” or, “brainets.” Researcher, Miguel Nicolelis, who apparently takes the phrase “two heads are better than one” too literally, led the team of neurobiologist who created the monkey network in order to see if two brains could collaborate in order to complete tasks more efficiently.

The study was conducted by implanting electrodes into the brains of several monkeys. By picking up the signals from several hundred electrodes, researchers were able to monitor about 3,000 neurons. Monkeys were then interconnected to a computer which displayed a digital monkey arm on the screen. The monkeys were then assigned the task of directing the digital monkey arm to a target. If successful, the monkeys were rewarded with juice.

Additional studies were conducted using four rats as well. These rats were directly wired to each other so that neural information could be passed from one rat to another when one of those rats responded to a stimulus. According to researchers, these ratborgs were at times able to perform certain tasks better than a single, un-wired rat would.

Nicolelis states that the purpose of the study was to explore the possibility of accelerating rehab for those suffering from neurological damage. Because of the long and difficult process these patients have to go through in order to relearn basic motor skills, Nicolelis believes that if a healthy brain could be wired to a recovering patient, then the healthy brain could essentially communicate with the damaged brain and teach it how to regain these motor skills.

UT researchers get rats addicted, then un-addicted, to drugs and alcohol

shutterstock_2180800While keeping Austin weird, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have trained rats to be alcoholics and addicted to cocaine, and thereafter proved a link between the blood pressure medication, isradipine, and a decrease in addiction.

Scientists classically conditioned rats to associate different colors of rooms with a dose of alcohol or cocaine, and found when given the choice, rats would gravitate toward the color room associated with the substance. However, when isradipine was introduced to the mix, the rats steadily began to show no preference for the rooms with doses of alcohol or cocaine.

According to the lead researcher of the study, Hitoshi Morikawa, associate professor of neuroscience at the University of Texas, “The isradipine erased memories that led them to associate a certain room with cocaine or alcohol.”

It used to be believed that people who became addicted to drugs simply lacked the willpower to stop using, which is pretty consistent with the drug-laden bum stereotype we grow up believing and which currently sprinkle the streets outside many a shoe-box-sized apartment in cities.

However, it is now scientific belief that environmental cues, such as sights, sounds and the dingy places you go to use drugs, can facilitate a relapse. Scientists now believe addiction has a lot more to do with classical conditioning than merely a lack of willpower.

The researchers found that the isradipine rewires the brain a bit, helping the addicted rat to dissociate room color with wanting to use drugs or alcohol, essentially helping them forget to be addicted.

Isradipine is already FDA approved as a high blood pressure treatment, which will likely make clinical testing easier, and could potentially help human addicts in the near future. However, it is unclear as of yet whether isradipine will be as effective for humans as it was the rats. Regardless, great news for the alcoholic rat in your life.

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.

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.