FEATURED VIDEO: The invisible bicycle helmet
Video produced by WG Film with the support of The Swedish Film Institute - Film commissioner Andra Lasmanis. Swedish design students Anna and Terese took on a giant challenge as an exam project: they wanted to invent an invisible bicycle helmet. Why? Because, yes, as a cyclist I can tell you, helmets are annoying. But necessary, it’d be crazy to ride a bike in traffic without wearing a helmet. And bicycles are green, so anything that can be done to increase the number of people who commute by bike is a big plus for our planet. Do watch till the very end. You will not regret it. I loved the creativity! I wonder if it could be used for motorcycle riders, too.
And speaking about technological advances that can be good for humanity and our planet, here is another potential invention that can help humans, and animals, too. And hopefully would be not only more ethical, but also greener than the current methods of production.
Printing a lab-made 3-D edible burger or steak. Given that the demand for meat is likely to increase with increased human population, wouldn’t it be great to produce meat that did not involve killing animals and producing vast amounts of greenhouse gases? The Thiel Foundation (it was started by the founder of PayPal) has given a six-figure grant to Modern Meadow, a Missouri-based startup company that wants to print 3-D meat. We have discussed in this blog the possibility of printing blood vessels and maybe even organs for transplants, using bio-printing, which is a novel tissue engineering technology (A great, detailed explanation of what bio-printing is can be found here). Printing meat involves creating a template, that looks like a hamburger and a steak, and then the printer carefully prints several layers of cells, previously cultured in vitro in a bioreactor. If the layers, called bio-ink, are of different cell types (for example muscle and fat) and are mixed in a certain way, the texture and taste of meat could be reproduced. Their short term goal is to print an edible thin slice of meat, around two centimeters by one centimeter, and less than half a millimeter thick, which is edible. The company recognizes that marketing the lab-made meat will be challenging, but they are counting on daring culinary geniuses to promote it, and on the sector of the vegetarian community that rejects meat for ethical reasons. Interestingly, they seem to think there will be a kosher and halal market for the meat, since there is no need to regulate the method of slaughter. In theory, production could be cheap so the lab-made meat could be marketed as a more frugal alternative to the real thing. My question is: would you eat it?
And wouldn’t this next one be a great invention? One can never have too many safety procedures in place when it comes to avoiding unwanted pregnancies. Plus it would be very useful for guys who want to make super sure that they won’t become fathers by accident or by being tricked by a woman supposedly on the pill (I do know a couple of cases of the latter, unfortunately).
A male contraceptive pill in the horizon? A paper that just came out in today's issue of the prestigious journal Cell describes how a small molecule blocks the production of sperm (spermatogenesis) in a safe and reversible manner, in mice. The compound is called JQ1 and it was initially studied as a potential anti-cancer agent, because it binds to BRD4, a protein that regulates cell division. BRD4 has a "cousin" protein, BRDT, which is crucial to spermatogenesis because it controls the division of sperm cell precursors in the testis, and it was found to JQ1 was found to bind to BRDT as well. When given to mice, the compounds blocks spermatogenesis and within a month of taking the drug, the mice couldn't sire any offspring even though their mating behavior was normal. After a month or two off the drug, sperm counts return to normal and the mice could father healthy offspring again. Although the results are encouraging, further studies will be necessary to determine the safety of the drug before it can be tested in men.
The Golden Ratio in the human womb. There is a new science journalist at The Guardian, Alex Bellos, and I really enjoyed his first article. A gynecologist in Belgium measured the ratio of height to width in the wombs of 5,000 using ultrasound, and he found that at the peak of a woman's fertility (ages 16 to 20), the ratio approaches 1.6, the Golden Ratio. This ratio is found all over in nature, from seashells to the seeds in flowers, and for some, it is the nature's "perfect number". In a Fibonacci series, where each number is the sum of the previous too, the ratio of any two numbers is or approaches 1.618. Interestingly, when girls are born, the ratio of uterine length to width is 2, it reaches the golden ration by peak fertility, and it decreases to an average of 1.46 in old age. The gynecologist who carried out the study was inspired by the observation that experienced gynecologists can tell if a woman will be fertile just by looking at the proportions of her uterus, so he decided to measure the ratio; we still don't know what it means, but it is a neat, intriguing little finding. The golden ratio is found elsewhere in the human body, for example the ratio of the 3rd to second phalanx (finger bones) approaches 1.618. The image is of fractals illustrating the Golden Ratio.
Sperm and womb…what do those words in association with each other make you think about? Babies, of course! Which brings me to the burning issue of Neanderthal-Homo sapiens babies.
Was there interbreeding between H. sapiens and Neanderthals? First it was assumed that no interbreeding had occurred between us and Neanderthals, based on mitochondrial DNA. Then came the genomic sequence of Neanderthals, and a comparison with the genomic sequences of Eurasian and Oceania peoples revealed that interbreeding had occurred, and 1-4% of the DNA of all humans, except sub-Saharan Africans came from the Neanderthals. This was 2-3 years ago already. Now a new study in PNAS suggests that the common DNA that we have with Neanderthals came from a common ancestor and not from interbreeding. These questions are hard to answer because they are answered statistically, and shared DNA between two species or subspecies can come from either interbreeding or a common ancestor. I do not know enough of the statistical methods used by geneticists to come to these conclusions but I was expecting this sort of development because this is the way science operates, especially around models, when we cannot directly experiment. The proponents of the Neanderthal hybridization/interbreeding hypothesis disagree with the results recently published in PNAS. So the jury is still out there on whether the ancestors of Eurasian populations had hot sex with Neanderthals. It is possible that some of the sequences we share with Neanderthals come from a common ancestor, while others come from interbreeding. In other words, both hypotheses may end up being right to a certain degree.
After all this priming with stories about sperms, womb, and hot ancestor sex, it is possible that your mind is now in the gutter, so to speak. Better do some brain cleaning.
Scientists discover how brains keep clean. Getting rid of waste is one of our bodies extremely important physiologic duties. Every single cell and every organ produce waste and have mechanisms to get rid of waste products. The lymphatic system is in charge of getting rid of waste, so because the brain is the only organ without a lymphatic system, it was a mystery how the brain, an organ very sensitive to the accumulation of waste, cleared it up. A new study performed in mouse brains shows that waste is flushed out by being pumped alongside blood vessels. New imagining techniques allowed the visualization of the process: cerebrospinal fluid runs right outside of blood vessels, through a “plumbing” system made out of protein structures. The fluid picks up the waste that accumulated between cells, and finally drained out through major veins. The new technique is called two-photon imaging, which can detect radioactive tracers hit with just two low-energy photons, and it can be used to peek inside the brain of a living animal, as opposed to previous imaging techniques such as those in the photo, which can be used only on dead tissue. This new insight could one day help treat Alzheimer’s disease, where amyloid protein builds up instead of being completely cleared up, as it happens in a healthy brain. The idea is to find a way to increase the rate of clearance of the brain’s “flushing” system. Photo: the system of water channels is shown in purple, and the cells in green. The system is tightly wrapped around blood vessels. Image: J. Iliff and M. Nedergaard
And now I would like to turn your attention to the other earthlings: non-human animals. And when we mix non-human animals with human intervention, strange stuff can happens, like zebras turning into polar bear killers.
Zebra herpes virus kills polar bears. There have been a number of polar bear deaths in zoos around the world, in Germany, and in San Diego, and the cause of death remained a puzzle until scientists dissected the brain of a female polar bear, Jerka, who died at the Wuppertal zoo. The veterinarians noticed that she had suffered from inflammation in the brain, and that is usually a sign of viral infection. They examined her tissues for signs of all kinds of virus, especially canine distemper or rabies, but they ended up finding only one virus: EHV1, or equine herpesvirus 1. This virus infects horses, donkeys and zebras in zoos, and it affects their lungs and brains. Jerka’s killer was actually a hybrid between EHV1 and another equine herpesvirus, EHV9. The zebra enclosure is over 200 feet away from the polar bear enclosure, so it is likely that zookeepers or other personnel acted as vehicles. EHVs have killed black bears, Thompson’s gazelles and guinea pigs, in other zoos. At this point, we do not know how common infection with EHV1 or EHV9 is among zoo animals, or even how to control the spread. But we know one thing: equine herpesviruses are promiscuous and can jump from one species to others, relatively easily. Let us hope that zoos figure out a way to keep these potentially very dangerous viruses at bay.
As more research on animal behavior is carried out, we increasingly realize that even though we are extraordinary animals when it comes to our intellectual abilities, the difference is more one of a degree rather than of kind. Do go to the discussion and check the comments, to read about a touching reunion of brothers.
African grey parrots capable of inferential reasoning. One of the hallmarks of human intelligence is that we are capable of making logical inferences. We are not the only ones, because great apes can do that too. The classical example is that apes can infer when a treat is hidden in a container by the noise the container makes when shaken by a tester. If the container makes no noise, the clever apes will immediately infer that it is empty and disregard it. However, monkeys and domestic dogs fail that test. They cannot use acoustic references (sound) to infer whether a container has treats or is empty. But a new paper just published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society Biological Sciences claims that African grey parrots can instantly infer that a container is full when they hear the noise produced by the shaking of a container with a treat (nut). They tested six African grey parrots, ages 10 to 35, from a parrot rescue in Vienna (Austria). Just like great apes, the grey parrots spontaneously used the presence and the absence of a rattling noise to deduce in which container the treat was hidden. When the parrots were played a recorded noise, but the container was not shaken, they did not choose it. So it appears that they understand the link between the shaking and noise, and that the treat is causing it. They solved the task with the same success rate as human 3 year-olds. Strangely, they can make the inference if the container is shaken side to side, but if it was shaken vertically, they made mistakes. The authors speculate that the vertical shaking looks like the vertical head bobbing so typical of parrots and that it interferes with their ability to make the correct reasoning, by distracting the birds. The birds responded to the vertical shaking with head bobbing of their own. Animal behavior experts have previously observed that if the anticipated response interferes with a component of the species’ behavioral repertoire, conditioning training was not possible, so this striking fact could be related to that observation. Nevertheless, it is remarkable that untrained parrots spontaneously solved this task from the first try, while trained capuchin monkeys consistently fail.
I’m a sucker for new species, and I want to share with you this interesting new specimen from the depths of the ocean.
Strange New Fish Found Deep off New Zealand. This strange looking creature is an unknown species of flabby whalefish (who came up with that name?), found 1.7 miles down in the ocean east of New Zealand. This strange has tiny eyes and they completely lack ribs (hence, “flabby”, I assume). The 12.5-inch-long (32-centimeter-long) New Zealand's National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) reports other odd-looking species as well found trawling at that depth. Below 1.3 miles deep, there are very few other species, so the flabby whalefish is rather lonely at those depths.
Meanwhile, on another galaxy:
Record-breaking star formation in huge galaxy cluster. Michel reports in The Daily Cosmos: galaxy clusters typically have the following properties. They contain 50 to 1,000 galaxies, hot X-ray emitting gas and large amounts of dark matter. The distribution of these three components is approximately the same in the cluster. They have total masses of 1014 to 1015 solar masses. They typically have a diameter from 2 to 10 megaparsecs (see 1023 m for distance comparisons). The spread of velocities for the individual galaxies is about 800–1000 km/s. It is already amazing that from the bottom of our gravity well we can conceive of these things, let alone have factual knowledge about them. Hot gas flows to the center of these huge clusters, cooling in the process, a perfect breeding ground for new stars. But astronomers are puzzled because this does not seem to be the case, in general. Now the found this new cluster, the Phoenix galaxy cluster, is one of the biggest in the universe, and it is 5.7 billion light-years away from Earth. The Phoenix cluster is booming with star formation events; astronomers speculate that this is because the cooling of gas is not being neutralized by emission of hot jets from a central black hole. The finding is significant because it is the first example of a galaxy cluster where a substantial fraction of the cold gas is giving rise to stars. It’s possible that the Phoenix cluster is at a temporary stage in in the evolution of clusters, just before the central massive black hole starts counteracting the cooling of gas at its center.