ICYMI: This Week’s Science News (6/2/17)


By: Jaclyn Cascio (@jaclynator)

Stories about brains, hearts, and tongues…and some other stuff. Find out what’s happening in the crazy world of science! ICYMI, here’s a taste of some of the science news from the last week!

Zombies are voracious eaters because…

A small section of brain underneath the thalamus and above the hypothalamus called the zona incerta is still a bit of a mystery to neuroscientists. It has been associated with a variety of responsibilities, from attention to movement and posture. But a new study on mice shows that it might actually have a significant effect on eating behavior. When scientists activated cells in the zona incerta, the mice would immediately stop their current task, find food, and begin eating. And with continued stimulation, the mice ate, and ate, and ate, consuming 35% of their normal intake in ten minutes (as opposed to the usual 4% in ten minutes). This ultimately led to significant weight gain in the mice as well. It seems that the zona incerta warrants further study in humans…but not too much, because no one wants zombies with insatiable hunger issues.

Things that float: rafts, buoys, and solar power plants

The populous China, once one of the worst offenders of carbon emissions, has brought the world’s largest floating solar power plant online. In a creative turn, the power plant is floating in a lake formed after rainwater filled a cavity created by coal mining, which left the almost useless. The power plant avoids using up valuable space by putting the otherwise unutilized water, and the water actually acts as a natural coolant for the system. This is just one of many steps by China to use renewable resources, and the world should be paying attention!

Two problems, one treatment

Scientists in China are about to start clinical trials that will be the world’s first of their kind. Surgeons are going to inject embryonic stem cells into the brains of victims of Parkinson’s disease to treat the symptoms of the disease. Another medical group will be using stem cell from human embryos to replace lost cells in the retina in an attempt to treat vision loss. Similar studies have been conducted by the teams in Australia, but those cells were from unfertilized eggs, not embryos. With major changes in China’s handling of studies involving stem cells, the country may lead the way with other stem cell trials, and it may be interesting to see the successes they might have while also dealing with potential ethical concerns from other world medical research teams.

Sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami, and…water?

The tongue was once believed to sense four basic tastes. More recently, the savory umami taste sense joined the playing field. And now, scientists are considering a sixth sense attuned specifically to water! Water has been thought to be flavorless, even since the days of Aristotle, with flavors only being sensed because of other factors (minerals, foods consumed before drinking, etc.). Now, brain scans suggest that the brain receives signals about water from the mouth and tongue before the hypothalamus kicks in to send signals about a thirst being quenched. Following studies on mice have found some interesting results with the tongue’s sour taste sense cells in response to the presence of water. Although not definitive, the studies are being pursued to learn more about the mouth and tongue’s role in thirst and the sensation of water.

Can I get some DNA to find out if you’re my mummy?

While there’s a lot to be learned from preserved mummies, DNA is not one of those things. For a variety of reasons, scientists haven’t been able to extract genetic material from mummies. However, a team of researchers has successfully retrieved genetic data from 90 mummies from their bones and teeth using a new method to pull the DNA from the mitochondria of cells, where there is apparently plenty to gather. Unfortunately, mitochondrial DNA comes only from the mother, and the individual’s paternal lineage cannot be determined. Luckily, the team was able to get DNA from the nucleus of three of the mummies to get a more complete picture! Another step forward for those who love studying mummies (unlike Brendan Fraser)!

Do the ends justify the means?

A recent study of 66 convicted Colombian terrorists has found some commonalities between them that might contribute to the mindset leading them to violent action. After many cognitive and psychological studies, the team found that in comparison to non-terrorist subjects, the terrorists exhibited increased levels of aggression, lower levels of emotional recognition, and most interestingly, a difference in moral judgment. Basically, the terrorists struggled to integrate intentions and outcomes, showing that their focus was on the ends, with a disregard for the means. While a cause for such a mindset can’t be determined from this study, it shows that terrorists have goals that they will accomplish at any cost. In the wake of the Manchester Arena terrorist attack, it becomes all the more important to find out what makes some people turn to such dark and terrible actions.

Are your clothes working out when you do?

MIT scientists have created a workout suit of living cells designed to keep you cool while you work out. The latex suit has square flaps all over it, and those flaps are covered in microbial cells which expand as exposed to moisture (i.e. your sweat). The flaps stay flat on the skin while dry, but when they absorb moisture, the cells expand and then lift the flips away from the skin to cool off the body inside the suit. A prototype suit and shoes have been created using this new technique, and similar technology is being tested on other products, like lamp shades and curtains. None of the products are available to the public just yet, and the suit still needs further development to ensure that it is durable, washable, and affordable, but the future looks like it will bring clothes that move and change with us!

The Tin Man asked the Wizard of Oz for a heart. (Batteries not included.)

Heart pumps are utilized when someone’s heart doesn’t pump properly, such as before or after a heart transplant or surgery. One of the biggest obstacles with the device is the cord that connects the device inside the body to the battery, which is outside the body. Due to the hole in the body that can’t close, infection becomes a significant risk. Until now. Scientists in Australia are working on a wireless system to resolve this issue, however. The device and a copper coil would be placed inside the body, while the battery and a transmitter would be outside the body, with no cord in between. Tests so far have shown the system to work with 94% efficiency in powering the pump. More testing is needed, but it looks like a great start!

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