ICYMI: This Week’s Science News (3/11/17)


By Jaclyn Cascio (@jaclynator)
Unless you’re out there hunting for information about scientific discoveries and technological developments, you might be missing out on the some of the coolest things that human beings are doing! Creative minds are at work, and you don’t want to be left in the dark when it comes to their revolutionary projects. So ICYMI, here’s the science news from the last week!

I said, Brrrrr! It’s cold in here! There must be some Bose-Einstein condensate in the atmosphere!

Deep space is cold. Like, REALLY cold. But NASA apparently thinks that space just isn’t cool enough, so they’re going to launch a Cold Atom Lab on a SpaceX rocket to the International Space Station (hopefully in August of this year). This Cold Atom Lab will create conditions 100 million times colder than the depths of space. Scientists hope to use the space ice box to create an environment in which they will be able to view atoms and their unique behaviors in a way they are unable to do on Earth. They optimistically expect the experiment to provide some insights into the world of physics, in particular into the realm of dark energy, gravity, and even a form of matter called the Bose-Einstein condensate.
And hey, if it doesn’t work, the astronauts up there have a ridiculously effective cooler for their drinks, right?

Peanuts! Peanuts! Everybody eat up!

One of the most common food allergies is an allergy to peanuts. Approximately 1.5 million children in the U.S. are allergic to peanuts. (Poor kids are missing out on the food of the gods!) For some people, even the tiniest exposure to peanut products can cause a severe reaction. For most people, the only way to deal with the allergy is to avoid the offending substance altogether, or perhaps try a desensitization treatment.
But DBV Technologies has been developing a patch to lessen the severity of allergic reactions to peanuts. At an Asthma and Immunology conference on Sunday, the company presented results of phase two of the clinical trial for the patch. It was tested on a wide range of people of various ages, but results were best in children. In fact, they found that 83% of children between the ages of 6 and 11 could eat 1,000mg of peanuts without having an allergic reaction, after having used the patch for 3 years. (Yes, the treatment takes a hot minute to work.) While 1,000mg doesn’t sound like a significant amount, that’s generally about 10-times more than the children could handle before the patch.
DBV Technologies isn’t stopping there. They are also developing patches to treat other food allergies, such as milk or eggs. Patches aren’t just for the ex-smokers anymore!

Magnets might make Mars manageable.

Scientists think that Mars is the dry red planet that it is today because its magnetic field may have collapsed billions of years ago. Without the protective field around Mars, solar wind has been transforming the planet into the cold and arid beast we see today.
But in a new wild hypothetical proposal, NASA believes that Mars could potentially be restored to its former glory with a thick and warmer atmosphere, water, and maybe even life. The scientists believe that with a powerful enough magnetic shield launched into space to surround Mars, the planet could naturally revert to its former state. If this could be achieved in our lifetime, colonies full of your great (great) grandchildren might be settling on the red planet! The idea is outlandish and if such a project were taken on, it wouldn’t be easy. But scientists recently proposed a way to refreeze the Arctic – so maybe crazy ideas are the future!

Speaking of NASA and Mars…

While we are on the subject of NASA and Mars, this week, it looks like both the Senate and House of Representatives have passed a bill approving funding for NASA and laying out new mandates for the work expected from the space agency. The NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 allocates resources and states intentions for the organization to do things such as further exploration of Mars, put people on or near the red planet in the 2030s, expand humanity’s presence beyond Earth’s lower orbit, or even send a probe to Europa. It looks like the U.S. government has big plans for NASA, and we are all hoping they can deliver!

As Seen on TV: Grow your own computer!

Traditional computers are quickly reaching the point where there simply won’t be a way to fit any more silicon computing chips into devices. Devices will be as small and as fast as they’ll ever be. Unless we find another way. Thus, the race to develop a functioning quantum computer is happening. But some scientists are postulating that it might be possible to build a self-replicating computer from DNA. Considering the amount of information stored in a single strand of DNA, the strength of DNA, and then the ability of that DNA to replicate itself – it sounds like a logical leap for researchers to make. The team has even reported that “the design works using both computation modelling and in vitro biology experimentation.” Developments will continue on the project, and perhaps living computers will make an entrance into the world of technology before quantum computers!

Skulls are always single because they have no body!

Scientists are slowly piecing together the history of humans and the spread of our ancestors from Africa. But when tracing the travels to East Asia, the puzzle gets even more difficult and there are still lots of missing pieces. However, two fossilized skulls recently found in Central Asia might provide some clues!
The newly discovered skulls are approximately 105,000 to 125,000 years old. The scientists have not yet been able to extract DNA for analysis to determine the species definitively. However, the physical aspects of the skulls are unlike any others in the current fossil record, which has led to researchers to believe that they may be evidence of an unidentified new species, or even a cousin of Neanderthals. Further study may provide more conclusions about the owners of these ancient skulls!

Come forth sickle cell, and be sick no more!

Researchers at the University of Paris in France have successfully used a new gene therapy technique to reverse sickle cell disease for the first time. Sickle cell disease occurs when hemoglobin, designed to carry oxygen in our bodies takes an abnormal form. The abnormal form then causes blood cells to lose their elasticity, and clumps can form (leading to severe pain!)
In a case study with a French teenager, the scientists removed bone marrow stem cells from the participant, added a specially designed virus that then would replicate and change the cell’s coding to produce normal hemoglobin. The recoded cells were then injected back into the participant. Results have shown that half of the cells in the participant are healthy and he has not needed transfusions for the last three months following the first treatment. The patient is also not suffering pain any longer.
The study will need to be expanded to include more participants to confirm that the gene editing therapy will be successful, but that fact that a disease is in remission due to the treatment is a good sign!

Who needs a Lazarus Pit?

In what is sure to be a controversial study, a biotech company in the United States has just gotten approval to start a research project involving 20 brain-dead patients. The goal of the research is to attempt to stimulate and regrow neurons by implanting stem cells into the brains of the patients. The researchers will also inject various chemicals into the spinal cords of the patients, as well as utilize nerve stimulation techniques. Overall, the team is hoping to “jump start” the brain and neural activity, in an attempt to bring the (brain) dead back to life! While the study is considered unlikely to achieve its goal and positive results, the efforts may still lead to more information about genesis of neurons and treating neurological disorders in the future.

Petri dish babies make history!

No egg. No sperm. But somehow scientists have created a functional artificial embryo from scratch! Using a combination of different types of mouse stem cells, a team of researchers from the University of Cambridge were able to develop stem cells outside of a body, in a petri dish of a gel… and those cells formed an embryo that even began to develop early stage internal organs!
The researchers are not necessarily trying to create life and play creator. The team’s goal is to observe development at the beginning stages of life. In human pregnancies, more than 2 out of 3 pregnancies lead to miscarriage, and generally there is no known cause. Growing artificial life outside the womb may lead to more information about embryonic development and could answer questions scientists have about problems such as miscarriages or other developmental issues.
The experiments have thus far been done with cells from mice, but the team hopes to continue the research using human stem cells.

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