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

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By Jaclyn Cascio (@jaclynator)
 
In the last week, things happened. Other things didn’t happen. Got it? Good. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, we can get to the important stuff in the STEM world! So ICYMI, here’s the science news from the last week!
 

You won’t lay this jacket over a puddle for your girlfriend to walk on!

We love Google. (I mean, it’s a verb now for goodness sake!) We love Levi’s. (Not just the ones who founded Nerd HQ.) Google and Levi’s have come together to make a “smart” trucker jacket due to be released this fall (retailing for about $350). Tiny electronic circuits will be woven into the fabric, creating “interactive denim.” When paired with a small cuff-link style Bluetooth device, the “interactive denim” jacket will have a touch sensitive sleeve, with five gestures you can assign to do specific functions on the paired device. The sleeve can even vibrate to alert you to calls or messages! And when the jacket needs a wash, just detach the Bluetooth cufflink device and you’re golden!
 
Who knows? Maybe denim will become the new “must have” in everyone’s wardrobe, like the matching Britney and Justin from long ago! (You know what I’m talking about 90’s kids!)
 

And then scientists made yeast, and it was good…

In the struggle to make artificial life, scientists have taken a major leap by artificially producing 6 of 16 yeast chromosomes. Part of the Synthetic Yeast Genome Project, they hope to get the rest of the chromosomes figured out within the next year. If they can do it, they will be able to produce custom yeast genomes in the lab.
 
If you’re wondering why a substance in your bread recipe is noteworthy, keep in mind this development is just a step toward a final goal of creating a functional artificial organism from scratch. If they can do it, it would be the first eukaryotic organism to be artificially created in a lab. (Humans, animals, and plants are all eukaryotic organisms.) Eventually, researchers hope to be able to custom-build organisms that can be utilized to create disease treatments or even biofuels.
 
One small step for man, one giant step for yeast…
 

My dendrites are doing what now?

Anyone who has taken an Anatomy and Physiology class (or remembers high school biology) may remember that dendrites, a part of the brain’s neurons, are generally believed to be fairly passive receptors for neural signals from other brain cells. But here’s the kicker… the dendrites might not be the lazy note-passers in class! It turns out they might be sending their own notes!
 
Scientists studying rat brains have recently discovered that dendrites are actually generating signals, and creating up to 10 times more electrical pulses than the soma, which is the part of the neuron generally believed to be the electrical signal production site.
 
If the study is verified by other teams (and with human brain cells instead of only those from rats), it could completely change the way we understand our brains and how they process information! It may also contribute to how we understand neurological disorders and may even lead to alternative treatment methods.
 
What a wonderful mystery our own brains still prove to be!
 

If you think a dropped contact is hard to find, just wait.

IBM has recently announced that they have created the world’s smallest hard drive – using a single atom. As scientists try to cram more and more data into smaller and smaller electronics, there is belief that eventually we will reach the limit of computing power in small spaces.
 
Now, to be clear, the researchers didn’t cram an entire iTunes library into an atom. They managed to get one bit of information in (a 1 or a 0, like most electronics operate with). And while the process was expensive and time-consuming and unlikely to lead to commercial use anytime soon, the achievement is proof that drives can potentially continue to shrink, but can grow in density of data contained with them.
 
Just wait for the day when you can carry your hard drive full of documents, songs, movies, etc. on a credit card in your wallet!
 

Dr. Doolittle isn’t the only one who can understand animals!

It’s common knowledge that many different studies are conducted on mice and rats. But even rat emotions have been a source of study. While often looking at signs that rats are distressed, even developing a “rat grimace scale,” a recent study has asked the question, “How do we know when rats are happy?”
 
In case you were wondering, rats are ticklish. After a tickle session, most rats will return for more and even vocalize a response, which scientists are interpreting as a form of laughter. Realizing this, researchers decided to tickle rats and measure their facial expressions to see how they change in response to the fun act. It turns out that rats smile with their ears! When tickled, the ears of the rats droop, apparently in relaxation, and they flush pink. Scientists are unsure if the flushing is due to happiness or is a response to the physical activity, but the ear movement seems to be a clear indicator in mood change.
 
Science can be fun for the researchers and the participants! Tickle on, team! Tickle on!
 

Great minds think alike, they say.

A new brain-imaging device using functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) which measures brain activity by looking at oxygen levels in brain cells. The new device is easy to wear and therefore can be used to understand about how the brain operates during daily activities, such as face-to-face interactions.
 
The team used the device in a live story-telling/listener activity, and found that brain activity between speakers and listeners tends to sync when actively engaged in the interaction. The study showed that listeners displayed matching patterns of activity as the speakers after a short delay, believed to be due to the brain processing the incoming information. The hope is that the study will be just a step in the process of understanding communication and hopefully will help to understand how to best communicate to avoid misunderstandings and mistakes.
 

I spy, with my little eye…

Chandrayaan-1 was India’s first moon mission, created to perform chemical and geological mapping. It worked for 10 months, and then contact was cut off. The craft was eventually classified as “lost.” (Apparently this happens a lot.)
 
However, by uing a new radar technique, NASA found the “lost” spacecraft, still orbiting the moon. While researchers knew that the craft was still supposed to be circling the moon, the moon has spots with higher than usual gravitational pull that have pulled orbiting bodies out of their predicted orbit, sometimes even causing them to crash into the lunar surface. But it turns out that Chandrayaan-1 has only shifted its course by a small margin after 8 years drifting out in space alone.
 
Finding a spacecraft 8 years after lost contact is proof that the new radar technique will be a useful tool to keep track of objects or people launched into space in the years to come.
 

Indiana Jones isn’t the only archaeologist to risk life and limb for artifacts.

Iraq is still haunted by violence and terrorism, and ISIS has been particularly destructive when it comes to archaeological sites, trying to destroy history they consider “idolatry.” In late January, Iraq state troops got control of a part of Mosul once again, and Iraqi officials found a previously undiscovered 2,600 year old Assyrian palace under a shrine that had been destroyed by ISIS.
 
Tunnels are collapsing daily as the area falls in on itself after destruction, but archaeologists are risking the dangerous conditions to recover stone reliefs, inscriptions, and sculptures while they still again, hoping to learn more about Assyrian culture and art with the new discoveries!
 
As long as there aren’t any snakes, we wish them luck!
 

Indiana Jones, the sequel…

It looks like archaeologists (from Egypt and Germany) have found a statue of Pharaoh Ramses II in an unexpected place! The pharaoh was a powerful ruler of Egypt who conquered land and expanded the holdings of the Egyptian kingdom. The 8 meter statue was submerged in ground water in a slum neighborhood of Cairo. Another statute, approximately 80 centimeters long was found along with the Ramses II figure, and it appears to be a figure of Pharaoh Seti II, Ramses grandson.
 
One man’s slum is another man’s archaeological dig. Treasures are everywhere!
 

Why can’t you be more like Daniel? He found a lost plane!

Ground water areas in Cairo aren’t the only places to find hidden treasures! Denmark has its fair share too!
 
Given homework about WWII, few students go out and find a German Luftwaffe plane on their property. But that’s exactly what Danish student Daniel Rom Kristiansen did! Following up on the story his grandfather had told about a plane crashing on the family farm, Daniel and his father headed out with a metal detector. And voila! They found a German Luftwaffe fighter plane along with the remains of a crewmember (and that individual’s personal belongings).
 

“Magic Rabbit” isn’t just the bunny pulled out of a hat.

The Ili Pika is a small high-altitude dwelling creature believed to be related to rabbits. Living in mountains, the animal is extremely rare, with an estimated 1,000 remaining in existence. And this week brings the first photo of the rare animal in the last 20 years!
 
The photo was taken by Li Weidong, who discovered the animal, named the “Magic Rabbit,” in 1983 in northwestern China. Since then, sightings have been few and far between, with photos long in coming. Look them up! They’re adorable!
 

You WANT a real-life horror movie about ants?

It seems like genetically altering rats and mice has become commonplace in the science world (although I’m sure it’s much more complicated than that). However, scientists have been unable to reliably modify the genes of ants. There’s some obstacles to overcome, as ant colonies revolve around a single egg-laying queen and worker ants to raise the eggs. But it seems researchers have finally leapt the hurdle!
 
Using clonal raider ants, who have no central queen in the colony, the scientists were able to inject edited DNA into unfertilized eggs laid by the females. In this particular study, they altered the olfactory system of the ants, and found that by diminishing the olfactory abilities of the ants, they were severely impacting their sociality. In time, they hope to learn more about sociality by playing with genetically modified ants and watching their behaviors within a colony.
 
Or we’ll end up with giant ants taking over the world… Whatever… who am I to say?
 

Matt Damon was right. Potatoes on Mars!

With a bill recently passed by Congress to try to get human on Mars by 2033, NASA has its work cut out for itself. On that note, scientists from NASA and the International Potato Center (CIP) in Peru (yes, it’s real), have begun an experiment recreating the extreme Martian environment to see if potatoes really can grow like Matt Damon said they did in The Martian.
 
In a box called a CubeSat, Mars conditions are simulated by controlling factors like temperature, light cycles, air pressure, gases, etc. And the results so far are looking pretty good! Of course, it’s not actually Martian soil, so we can’t know for sure if potatoes can be successfully grown there. The experiment also used cuttings, while colonists on Mars would likely have to use seeds. But it’s still a positive start!
 
Gollum doesn’t know what a tater is, but Martians will!
 

Bionic eyes? Yes, please!

Scientists at the Italian Institute of Technology have developed an artificial retinal implant. In tests with rats who have lost their vision, the device restored the lost vision. Using a thin layer of conductive polymer absorbs photons when light enters the eye. After that, electricity stimulates the retinal neurons, bypassing the problem of defective photoreceptors in some types of blindness.
 
The team is planning on conducting human trials on the new implant during the first half of this year while gathering results of the trial during the second half of the year, with publishing hopefully coming in 2018. Just one more way science is making the world a little better!


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