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


By Jaclyn Cascio (@jaclynator)
You’ve probably heard the latest news about all the upcoming Marvel movies. You’re probably up to date on the progress of the next “Game of Thrones” book. You likely even know the identity of Prometheus on Arrow. But you might have missed out on the latest scientific discoveries and developments. So ICYMI, here’s the science news from the last week!

I love you to the moon and back… literally.

This week, SpaceX founder, Elon Musk, announced that the company plans on flying two people around the moon in 2018, most likely utilizing the Dragon 2 spacecraft. The passengers of the flight are currently unknown, but a “significant deposit” has been made. The one week trip is designed to take its (apparently wealthy) passengers on a 300,000-400,000 mile long journey beyond the moon and back.
So if you’re wondering what to do with your Powerball winnings, give Elon Musk a call and see if there will be another flight in 2019!

The only fasting I’ve done is breakfasting. And second breakfasting.

Researchers placed mice on a fasting-mimicking diet and found that it helped to reverse symptoms of diabetes and restored proper pancreatic functions. In the diet, certain foods are still consumed, but the diet essentially fools the body into a mode of fasting. The mice were put into the “fasting mode” for four days a week over a period of several months. Doing so “triggered… some kind of developmental programming” in the pancreas, according to research team head, Valter Longo. Damaged cells in the pancreas were replaced with functioning ones.
The fasting-mimicking diet has been shown in previous studies to also help people lose weight more effectively as well as reduce risk factors for heart disease and cancer and even reduce symptoms of multiple sclerosis. The “starving” of cells appears to be some kind of factory reset for cells in the body.
The team is working toward human clinical trials to see if the results in mice will also carry over to humans. If so, the study will show that diet can help to reprogram cells without the use of drugs or genetic alterations.

Do you think Sicilians invented lava cake?

Sicily is known for its delicious cuisine and beautiful vacation views. But did you know it’s also home to the tallest active volcano in Europe (and one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world)? Mount Etna sits where the African and Eurasian tectonic plates meet, and is also planted right on top of a hot spot. Needless to say, the volcano is quite active, and on February 27 Mount Etna erupted once again, spilling rivers of lava down the slopes. (If you want an idea of what this looks like, take a look back to Darth Vader’s fall into lava on Mustafar. Mount Etna was the real life location!)
So far, it looks like there’s no cause for concern from the lava flows and no evacuations have been ordered.

Today’s reading: How to Train Your Dragon (to fight bacteria)

Komodo dragons are the world’s largest lizards, weighing in at up to 154lbs and growing to almost 10 feet long. Not only are they large enough to eat water buffalo on the islands of Indonesia, they have mouths chock full of almost 60 kinds of dangerous bacteria. However, the fantastic beasts are somehow resistant to the deadly bacteria infecting their mouths.
Scientists from George Mason University analyzed blood from komodo dragons to find protein fragments that work as part of the creature’s immune system. Using synthesized peptides from the blood of the dragon, they found that several peptides were successful in killing two “superbugs,” (like MRSA, an antibiotic resistant bacteria). The researchers hope to continue their research with the peptides from the dragon blood, in an effort to develop much needed and new antibiotic medications to fight deadly “superbugs.”

Happy Feet 3: Paleocene Era

Scientists in New Zealand recently discovered the fossil of a giant penguin – standing at 150 centimeters! Found in the Waipara River in New Zealand, the fossil is nearly as big as the largest penguin-fossil found to date (Anthropornis nordenskjoeldi), which measures 180 centimeters tall. The new fossil found in New Zealand is approximately 61 million years old, making it one of the oldest penguin fossils in the world to date. The discovery of such a large penguin skeleton shows that the penguin population was much more diverse than previously believed and that penguins reached large sizes fairly early in their evolutionary development. It turns out Happy Feet didn’t teach us everything about penguins, did it?

In business news today: Charon is expanding his enterprises and widening the “doorway to the underworld.”

One of the biggest craters in Siberia, formed as permafrost quickly melts and the ground literally changes underfoot, is called the “doorway to the underworld” by locals. The crater is officially called the Batagaika crater, a kind of “megaslump” or “thermokarst.” Several similar craters have been appearing all over Siberia over the last few years, but the “doorway to the underworld” is something special! The gigantic crater is the largest of its kind, and it is growing so quickly that great treasures are being uncovered in the forms of forests and carcasses.
There are a lot of dangerous negatives to these megaslumps appearing, but scientists are nothing if not optimists. They believe that the crater has exposed up to 200,000 years of climate record history in Siberia (where little data has been gathered before). The data may tell them about previous permafrost melts in Siberia and allow them to predict what to expect as the melting continues today.

Freezer burn, be gone!

On average, 22 people die in the U.S. each day waiting for an organ transplant. Approximately 60% of the heart and lungs donated for transplants each year have to be discarded. What’s the problem here? Organs can only be kept viable on ice for 4 hours, and often can’t make it to a matching recipient in need fast enough.
Cryopreservation is a possible solution to the problem. Some developed cryopreservation techniques can potentially allow organs to be stored for years, allowing doctors to build up a supply of organs. The big obstacle isn’t the freezing process – it’s the thawing process! In general, thawing tissues after cryopreservation damages tissues through ice crystals and tissue cracking. But a team in Minnesota is working on a technique using nanoparticles to rapidly rewarm tissues without damage. They have successfully thawed human and pig tissue samples from 1 to 50mL and hope to eventually work their way up to larger masses of tissues like human organs. The progress is slow, but the team is on the right track to solving the cryopreservation thawing problem and perhaps one day revolutionize organ donation and preservation.

The takeover begins at the ping-pong table… Then, the world.

Are you an introvert who is no good at human interaction and also no good at table tennis? You’re in luck! Omron robotics has developed FORPHEUS – Future Omron Robotics Technology for Exploring Possibility of Harmonized Automation with Sinic Theoretics – the first robot table tennis tutor, according to Guinness World Records. (Yeah, I’m not sure how the acronym works out either.) Using multiple cameras and motion sensors, the ping-pong playing AI assesses the human player’s skills and adapts. The screen even displays encouraging messages for the human opposition! Play some ping-pong, improve your skills, and get in good with the robots before Skynet takes over.

AI isn’t coming over to borrow a cup of sugar. They want your code!

An AI project run by Microsoft and the University of Cambridge, called DeepCoder, is solving problems by borrowing code from other programs. The goal of the system is to help human coders by pulling code from other publicly available programs to combine them into a new program, doing so much faster than a human could, with better abilities to predict outcomes. The system can only solve simple problems now, involving around five lines of code, but using deep learning techniques, the system should be able to learn as it goes, getting smarter and more sophisticated in its abilities to pull and combine code into a new program and solve programming problems. Like Skynet. (Just saying!)

“Power plant” has new meaning.

One day you might be asking your grandchildren (or great grandchildren) to run into the garden to get a lettuce computer. A team of scientists have discovered a way to inject a conducting solution into rose cuttings, which is then capable of growing into a full network of wires in the stem, leaves, and petals. The e-plant system is a fully functioning supercapacitor for energy storage. The rose was able to be “charged” hundreds of times without declination of performance.
The next step of research is to find a way to utilize the technique in living roses (and other plants). This could be a contribution to the reduction of deforestation of the planet, growing electronic systems (albeit simple ones) within forest vegetation or even vegetable fields, allowing us to harvest energy while also keeping things green!

There’s old, then there’s “fossils in quartz in Canada” old.

Scientists looking at quartz in Canada have found what might be the fossilized remains of tiny organisms. If confirmed, the fossils would be the oldest ever discovered, at 3.77 billion years old. The structures have not been proven to be of biological origin just yet, but if they are, the discovery may help explain some of Earth’s history as well aid in the identification of life on other planets!

Who wants to be Daredevil?!

Daredevil uses his heightened hearing abilities much like dolphins and bats use echolocation, allowing him to hide his disability from a majority of the characters in the comic books. While Stan Lee believed he was greatly exaggerating the enhancement of other senses after the loss of sight, it turns out that he might not have been too far off from the truth.
Researchers have successfully taught both blind and sigh-enabled people to use tongue clicks as a form of echolocation to detect the size of rooms accurately. While some blind people have used this type of coping mechanism, scientists were unsure if sighted individual would perform as well, considering their general reliance on visual cues. But following the same curriculum, they were just as effective in their detection of room size.
So start sewing those suits, practice your kung fu, and go be a vigilante! (Okay, don’t really do that. You’ll get arrested.)

Ready for a brain teaser?

Your brain is filled with billions of neurons with even more connections! But using a new brain imaging technique, a team of researchers found a single giant neuron that wraps around the circumference of a mouse brain. The giant neuron is one of three that have been recently discovered to stretch across the both hemispheres of the brain, all coming from the claustrum (a thin covering of grey matter in the brain). The claustrum is closely connected to all major parts of the brain associated with higher cognitive functions and has been hypothesized to be a structure connecting all external and internal perceptions into a singular experience, and a possible “conductor of consciousness” (Francis Crick).
There’s still a lot more information to be learned about the claustrum and the mysterious giant neurons in the brains of mice, and we don’t yet know what it means for us. But even as AI are developing and learning, we too are learning about ourselves and our own consciousness.

LEGO my Hidden Figures!

It’s not exactly science news, but this is still pretty great…
Women have played important roles in the STEM fields, particularly in the US Space Program, as we have seen in the recent hit film Hidden Figures. In 2014, LEGO responded to the criticisms of a seven year old child about the lack of female professional figures in their line-up by releasing an all-female toy set, which had an astronomer, chemist, and paleontologist. Now, LEGO has announced that they will be releasing a “Women in NASA” set in late 2017 or early 2018. The set will include figures for Margaret Hamilton (computer scientist), Nancy Grace Roman (astronomer), Katherine Johnson (mathematician), and Sally Ride with Mae Jemison (astronauts). Keep an eye out as NASA and LEGO work together on the project to finalize the project and the character designs!

While we’re on the topic of STEM…

On February 28, President Trump signed off on two Congressional bills designed to recruit more women into STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) jobs. One bill will require NASA to increase (and report) its efforts to recruit and encourage women into STEM careers. The second bill will authorize the National Science Foundation to boost its recruitment efforts of women. Get your science on, ladies!

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