ICYMI: This Week’s Science News (7/21/17)


By: Jaclyn Cascio (@jaclynator)

Giant water guns, hand transplants, friendly dogs, and poo predicting intelligence are just some of the fun from the world of science this week. If you’ve been missing out on the great and/or kooky research developments making their way into media this week, we’ve got you covered. So ICYMI, here’s a rundown of some of the science news from the last week!

If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands!

A boy named Zion Harvey was the subject of a double hand transplant almost two years ago, and his doctors have finally published some results of the transplant outcome and child’s progress. In 2015, 40 specialists and assistants spent approximately 11 hours giving Zion hands again after his loss of limbs due to an infection as a toddler, making Zion the youngest double hand transplant recipient to date. There have been eight rejection events since the surgery, where Zion’s immune system has fought against the foreign tissue and he will have a lifetime of medications in his future to prevent tissue rejection. However, the ten-year-old boy is doing activities like feeding and dressing himself better than ever, and he is even able to grip a baseball bat! The only question we should all be asking now is…will the transplanted hands grow with him or stay child-sized?

Good dog.

Williams-Beuren syndrome is a developmental disorder in humans characterized by many different symptoms, one of which is a lack of social inhibition and extreme friendliness to loved ones and strangers alike. If this human condition sounds like the enthusiastic affection dogs display, you’re not alone. Researchers Monique Udell and Bridgett vonHoldt saw the parallels and began research to find a possible genetic link. Studying wolves socialized with humans and domesticated dogs in various situations, it was expected that the dogs would be more sociable. But looking at their genes showed that certain variations in the area of the sixth chromosome of the dogs’ DNA correlated to the sociability of the animals. Interestingly, the human equivalent chromosome (chromosome seven) is linked to Williams-Beuren syndrome. While dog behavior is altered by genetic insertions into the chromosome, the human behavior is attributed to deletion of genes. The sample size was small and there’s still a lot to learn, but the connections in that specific chromosomal area of both humans and dogs is an interesting link. At least we begin to understand what makes dogs such loving and friendly creatures!

Your baby’s number two might predict if they’ll be number one.

A team of researchers at the University of Carolina’s School of Medicine have taken a close look at the possible influence of gut bacteria on intelligence, and the results are surprising! Recent studies have been linking bacteria in our intestinal tracts to activities in our brains, and that link might extend to cognitive abilities. The team analyzed the gut microbiomes of one-year-olds using their feces and one year later administered cognitive tests to the children. They found that children with less diversity in their gut microbiomes and those with a high level of certain bacteria appeared to perform better than their counterparts. The study utilized a small sample group and it only establishes correlation (not cause), so a direct link can’t be established. But the study reinforces the new idea in science that our guts are influencing more than our appetites.

Beginning research about brains boasting bacteria…

While researchers continue to pursue studies of gut bacteria and links to the brain and potential neurological disorders, a new study shows that bacteria in the brain itself may be linked to Alzheimer’s disease. Studying donor brains showed the research team that brains of those with Alzheimer’s disease had higher levels of bacteria, many with a particularly high ratio of Actinobacteria to Proteobacteria. The team admits that there is a lot more to learn before drawing any definitive conclusions or causal relationships, but the bacteria levels of diseased brains versus healthy brains has a lot of potential!

Star light, star bright, first satellite I see tonight…

The Moscow State Mechanical Engineering University launched a new satellite on Friday called Mayak. Roughly the size of a loaf of bread, the satellite will hopefully release a pyramid-shaped Mylar sail which is designed to reflect the sun. The company behind the project states that the crowd-funded satellite will hopefully draw the eyes of the public upward and will aid in testing de-orbiting technology. If successful, the object will appear in the sky as the third or fourth brightest object in the sky (depending on whose calculations you use), following the Sun, moon, and possibly Venus, which will make it visible to the naked eye. It may further knowledge, but the brightness of the object may also pose problems for other star-gazers and astronomers for the month (or longer) that it is set to remain in orbit. Get out your telescopes and see if you can spot Mayak!

PTSD isn’t “just in your head.”

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health condition with a growing body of research. A new study about PTSD has found that their might be a potential physical aspect of the disorder as well. Looking at the left and right amygdalae of the brain (which is associated with fear responses, decision making, and memories), the study found that military personnel with mild traumatic brain injuries and PTSD displayed a six percent increase in size of their amygdalae, particularly the right side when compared to their counterparts who suffered from brain injuries but no PTSD symptoms. Of course, further study is needed to look more closely at the link between the brain structure and the psychological disorders, as well as expanded sample subjects with PTSD resulting from experiences other than blast injuries, but it’s another step in the right direction to help those who need it!

Water fun with a giant water gun…

Former NASA engineer, Mark Rober, the builder of the world’s largest Nerf gun, has upped his game. This summer, Rober has built the largest Super Soaker water gun. Seven feet long, shooting water out at 272 mph under eight times the pressure of a fire truck hose, the enormous water pistol can shoot out water able to slice through watermelons, hot dogs, or other summer-friendly foods. You’ve got a chance to go a few rounds in a water fight if you can engineer the world’s largest water balloons, so get started inventing!

Usain Bolt could have outrun a T. rex.

Jurassic Park’s iconic T. rex has become the model to which most lay people refer to when thinking of the giant predator. And few can forget Jeff Goldblum and team fleeing the enormous lizard in a Jeep. But new research suggests that the chase wouldn’t have been as dramatic as the movies would have us believe. Using a computer system to create a multibody system dynamics model, a team of scientists found that the mass of the T. rex in conjunction with the strength of the skeletal system and its abilities to bend and twist likely place the king killer at a max 17mph running speed. (Usain Bolt can run 23.7mph.) Estimates over the years have shown that the T. rex was likely able to take some quicker strides, but the new study shows that an all-out chase for anything more than a few steps was not likely to be as fast the originally thought. Now, what about those velociraptors?

Wall-E and his girlfriend made a baby!

Taking a page straight out of Pixar’s book, engineers at Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) designed a small camera drone to operate at the International Space Station (ISS). Now active and going through initial testing on the ISS, the floating bot called Int-Ball is taking photos and recording video, able to move autonomously or under the control of operators on the ground. With astronauts doing tasks with a camera in hand an estimated ten percent of their working time, the adorable drone will hopefully free up time and hands for smooth work on the ISS. If successful throughout its testing period, doors may be opened for other drones to work in zero gravity environments to help astronauts with other tasks as well!

Diseases spread by mosquitos suck, so Google’s got a plan!

A life sciences company under the Alphabet (Google’s parent company) by the name of Verily is releasing one million mosquitos in two Fresno, CA neighborhoods every week for 20 weeks. While it sounds like some maniacal but strange villainous plan, this field study for the Debug Project is actually designed to decrease the number of mosquitos in an area, particularly those that carry diseases that infect humans. A robot is raising male mosquitos (who don’t bite humans) carrying a bacteria that renders them sterile (but doesn’t hurt humans). Released into the area, they mate with females but the eggs remain unfertilized and don’t hatch, reducing the biting mosquito population with each mating cycle that doesn’t produce offspring. Risk assessments for the project have yielded low results, and if the project is successful in the field study in California, further tests may occur in other countries. The Debug Project is hoping to reduce the risk of contracting diseases from the blood-sucking insects as they feed on humans, so we’ll have to cross our fingers that things go well!

Edgar Allen Poe’s raven was one smart bird!

The corvid bird family, which includes ravens and crows, has proven itself to be one of the smartest of the avian world. New research has shown that ravens are capable of planning ahead, displaying great feats of self-control, and using tools! The research team conducted a set of tests that were previously conducted on apes, finding that the ravens performed better than their ape counterparts with using tools to get something they wanted and bartering with tokens to get a desired reward. In another experiment, given the choice between immediate reward and a better reward after a delay, 70 percent of the time the ravens chose to wait for the better reward, outperforming apes and four-year-old human children alike in the test of delayed gratification! Ravens are the wave of the bird future and their intelligence is a marvel. It’s almost enough to make you want to stop eating fried chicken…

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