ICYMI: This Week’s Science News (5/26/17)


By: Jaclyn Cascio (@jaclynator)

Life-saving straws, space sperm, and more. There’s always something going on in the STEM world, so ICYMI, here’s a taste of some of the science news from the last week!

I’d like a straw for my beer.

An entrepreneurship class in a Florida high school led three teenage ladies to develop straws that are able to test for common date rape drugs. Two test strips in the straws will allow the users to determine if their drink has been tampered with. A patent is pending for the straws, and the smart ladies hope to be able to market them to college students and supply the straws in restaurants, bars, and clubs in order to take a step toward reducing the number of women affected by drink tampering. It’s certainly a step in the right direction!

Blood has more to say than you think.

A new study has established a strong connection between cancer and thrombocytosis, a condition in which too many blood platelets are produced in the body. While breast lumps turn out to be cancerous only 8.5% of the time, the statistics are higher with those suffering from thrombocytosis. 11.6% of males with the condition were found to have cancer within a year, as opposed to 4.1% found with cancer who didn’t have the condition. In women, 6.2% of those with thrombocytosis were diagnosed with cancer within a year while only 2.2% of those without were diagnosed. A second platelet count six months later raised the percentages even higher! For researchers, this appears to be a fairly clear indicator to of cancer, and hope that it will be used in the future as a detection method to diagnose patients’ cancer earlier and improving their survival rate!

Down in front! I can’t see!

If you remember a theory, not too long ago, that a certain star would be an excellent place to look for extraterrestrial life with their own artificial structure, you might already be familiar with “Tabby’s star.” If not, the short story is that the brightness of the star varies, dimming by as much as 20% in an irregular and, thus far, unpredictable pattern. One theory was that an alien structure was passing between us and the star, obstructing our view and darkening the star. Now, Tabby’s star has had its first clear dimming since 2013, and astronomers are scrambling to get as much information as they can during this “dip” to try to pinpoint what is happening around the star that is 1300 light years away. Is it aliens, or something else entirely? Time will tell!

I always wanted rice that couldn’t catch a cold.

Pesticides are still commonly used on crops to protect them from various problems that reduce or even ruin crops. As more and more dangers become associated with pesticides, scientists have been trying to find a way to genetically engineer better plants that can fight off disease more naturally. Unfortunately, most plants that have successfully been engineered to do this also end up stunted and equally troubled in different ways. However, a recent study has successfully engineered a rice plant that is able to fight off the pathogens without the subsequent growth stunting. The study has thus far only worked with microbes that alter living cells of the plant, and not microbes that destroy cells as a food source, but the progress is promising!

Space sperm works!

In planning for possible colonization of Mars in the future, there are some bizarre factors to take into account. One of those factors to take into consideration is genetic diversity. Sending sperm along for the ride can compensate for a colony with limited genetic diversity. But will sperm that has travelled through space through the increased radiation still operate as usual? Researchers have tested the theory and it seems that the answer is yes! Mouse sperm was stored for nine months on the International Space Station and then brought back to Earth. Combining the space sperm with fresh eggs in surrogate mouse mothers led to a normal production of mouse pups and any DNA that had appeared fragmented appeared to have repaired itself after fertilization. Further studies on other mammalian species are needed, but it’s just another step on the way to Mars.

Man makes AI. AI makes AI. AI destroys man. Woman inherits the Earth.

Google’s DeepMind artificial intelligence has become fairly well known, even in the non-scientific world. It has learned about aggression and betrayal and it even dreams. Google has just recently announced that their AutoML neural network process is helping the AI learn to generate code and algorithms for itself. The AI is now capable of (and has) created programs on the same level as state-of-the-art programs designed by human experts in the field. The AI will soon be able to edit and improve itself to cope with its environment. (Like Skynet… I’m just saying…)

Special K isn’t a cereal. And it doesn’t do what you think.

Ketamine is a drug given in regulated doses for pain, and on the streets is used as a recreational hallucinogenic. The drug also seems to relieve symptoms of depression quickly and effectively. With its reputation on the street, however, information has been hard to come by with extremely small studies with 100 participants or less. However, a new study has analyzed 41,000 patients who take ketamine (legally) for pain and their rates of depression. The study found that those taking the drug were half as likely to show symptoms of depression. With most medications for depression taking two to four weeks to kick in and only showing results 20-30% more effective than placebos, ketamine appears to be significantly more effective at treating the mental health problem. More studies and possible large scale clinical trials would need to take place to support this, but it’s an interesting look at a possible treatment!

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