ICYMI: This Week’s Science News (5/13/17)


By: Jaclyn Cascio (@jaclynator)

Dragon skin ice. Gut talk. And the truth about eating salty foods. If you’re looking for the good stuff that’s happened in the world of science this week, read on!

Technology creators said, “Let there be light!” and it was good.

In typical electronic devices, microchips are present, utilizing billions of transistors that channel electrons in a circuit to transport data. As devices continue to process more and more data, they are filled with more transistors. However, we are quickly reaching a point where it will simply be impossible to integrate any more transistors into electronics. Alternatives are being explored, one of which is a photonic, or light-based computers. Researchers have developed a new kind of transistor using lasers (and light) with the ability to switch to electronic conduction as well. This creates a potential for electronics that will share the load between electronic and photonic transistors, allowing technology to pack a bigger punch in a smaller space. While the technology is still being developed and is not currently operable in typical conditions, progress is being made!

Listen to your gut.

Recent research has tied gut bacteria and activity to disorders of the nervous system, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. Another study has emerged on the subject, and it appears that there is a connection between gut bacteria and common blood vessel abnormalities in the brain, leading to lesions and/or strokes. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania studied mice who were prone to developing brain lesions and found that those who had gut issues or were introduced to a bacteria normally found in the gut were more likely to develop vascular issues in the nervous system. It’s beginning to look like the journey to saving the brain starts with saving the gut!

But Officer Pepper, I was a-salt-ed!

It’s commonly thought that consuming salty food products make us thirsty. However, science shows that such “common” thought might be misguided. A new study of Russian cosmonauts (and a follow-up study on mice) showed that when consuming more salt, the subjects actually decreased the amount of fluids they drank! It appears that the body, a huge fan of homeostasis, produces or retains more water already within its system to deal with the increased salt intake. In turn, the body appears to exert more energy in the process of utilizing its own fluids, and therefore increases the appetite of the individual consuming more salt. Despite the general belief, it appears that our thoughts on salt may have to change as we eat salt, get hungrier, but feel less need to drink water. New insight into the body’s functions concerning water content of the body as well as dietary beliefs will now have to be explored further!

Ice, ice, baby!

Antarctica is easily the most inhospitable continent of Earth. Covered with snow and ice that are melting with climate change, it’s hard to imagine there could be anything below the surface. However, a recent study has shown massive land forms beneath Antarctica, in some places growing as large as the Eiffel Tower! These land masses are formed as meltwater makes its way from the continent to the ocean. As these water flows widen, sediment creeps in, accumulating into long, sharp-edged masses. This is a significant discovery as the formations, called eskers, actually cut into the ice from below, leaving the ice unstable and more susceptible to the thinning of ice shelfs. This new information provides more concrete data for researchers to better predict what will happen to the land and ice of the world as the climate changes.

Is that a liver or a balloon?

Livers are pretty amazing. They serve many important functions in the body (like detoxifying your blood so you can drink alcohol) and can even regenerate themselves to an extent. But things are starting to get weird, as a recent study suggests that your liver isn’t always the same size. While studying mice, scientists found that livers follow the body’s circadian rhythm, actually increasing in size during the day, and shrinking back down while the body is sleeping. It’s not just about waking and sleeping, however. If the mice were forced to operate on a reversed schedule, their livers did not change in size, potentially decreasing the effectiveness of the liver’s functions. If the same result is found in humans, it not only becomes another interesting fact about our incredible organ systems, but it also means that we have even more reason to carefully monitor and care for our sleep patterns! (And an excuse to feel a little chubbier during some times of the day!)

Winter is coming and seems to be bringing dragon-skin ice with it.

Back in 2007, a phenomenon called “dragon-skin” ice was observed in Antarctica. Ten years later, researchers have found the mysterious ice once again. This particular kind of ice is formed when strong winds and cold temperatures form ice in open water, and then continually force up more water to form more ice, creating a layer that looks like dragon skin. The discovery came as part of an expedition to study such winds and sea ice and the studies are intended to continue for another two weeks before continuing into June with other parts of research designated for the expedition. (They’ll probably be looking for a blonde-haired ruler with some fire-breathing and flying creatures, too. Just in case.)

Ready for another Ice Bucket Challenge?

Not long ago, the Ice Bucket Challenge went viral. So what’s been happening in the world of science and ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) since then? For the second time in FDA history, a drug for ALS treatment has been approved for the U.S. The new drug, called Edaravone, appears to slow the progress of the neurodegenerative disease affecting approximately 5,000 Americans each year. While it doesn’t treat symptoms of the disease, life expectancy of those with ALS might increase as the speed of progress is decreased. While the medication is extremely expensive and the administration of it is taxing, it gives hope to patients who haven’t seen a drug treatment for ALS in 22 years! Good job, ice bucketeers!

Jurassic Park isn’t the only thing leading diggers to extinction!

Finding fossils is not an easy task, and significant finds are actually pretty rare. This makes extrapolating data about the DNA and other information about human and animal ancestors difficult, at best. However, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany have developed a way to get DNA from something much more common – dirt! Successful in their work, the team of scientists became the first to recover ancient human DNA directly from the ground (as opposed to a fossil). If others are able to successfully replicate the process, researchers will possibly be able to discover and study more evidence from our ancestry and history using only sediment! They just have to get their hands dirty!

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