Life has unbelievably complex and diverse strategies to ensure survival. Organisms are able to go dormant during unfavorable conditions, and resuscitate once the environment becomes ideal again. This can play out over relatively short time periods such as when animals hibernate, or over longer periods where organisms can go into stasis, e.g. reviving bacteria from 250 million year old salt crystals.
Researchers in Russia recently thawed out permafrost sediment frozen for the past 42,000 years, and revealed once frozen and now living nematodes. Yes you heard that correctly, worms birthed and subsequently frozen during the Pleistocene (42,000 years earlier) were just resurrected in the 21st century. Frankenstein, eat your heart out.
Eophasma jurasicum, a fossilized nematode. (Photo credit: Ghedoghedo)
Our lives are a blip in the space time continuum. As a result, it can seem that the Earth is relatively static, with many of the large scale dynamic changes that shape our sphere largely unnoticeable to us occurring on geological time-scales. One such change is the movement of landmasses on earth, better known as plate tectonics.
Earth’s landmasses are not static but in constant flux. The Earth’s lithosphere (formed by the crust and the upper part of the mantle) is broken up into a number of tectonic plates that move relative to each other at varying speeds, “gliding” over a viscous asthenosphere. There is still ongoing debate about what force or forces causes this movement, but whatever the forces are they can also cause the plates to rupture, forming rifts, and potential leading to the development of new plate boundaries. When this happens landmasses break-up and new continents forms; this is currently happening in the East African Rift in southwestern Kenya.
View of East African Rift in Kenya from space (Photo credit: Google Earth. Data SIO, NOAA, US Navy, NGA, GEBCO).
Cancer is a tricky disease. It comes in many varieties and can pop-up anywhere in the body seemingly at random. The somewhat cryptic nature of this disease can make diagnosis difficult; this can be frustrating because most cancers are treatable if diagnosed early. Thats what makes this most recent breakthrough all the more exciting; a method to detect cancer through a single blood test!
The blood test is called CancerSEEK and its speculated that it would cost less than 500 USD, which is comparable to or lower than other screening tests. CancerSEEK, is a single blood test that was shown to detect 8 types of common cancer (ovary, liver, stomach, pancreas, esophagus, colorectum, lung, and breast) and helps identify the location of the cancer.
Photo credit: fotoquique – Getty Images
One of the most basic things that we learn when growing up is that water can exist in 3 different states of matter: as a gas (water vapor), as a liquid (water… water), and as a solid (ice). This basic and fundamental concept has recently been turned upside down as scientist have discovered that water might also exists in a fourth state; liquid water it appears might actually come in two different states. A collaborative team of researchers led by Dr. Laura Maestro at Oxford University, found that the physical properties of water changed their behavior between 50 and 60℃ potentially changing to a second physical state of water.
(Photo credit: Pixabay/Public Domain Pictures via CC0 Public Domain)
That ominous specter of death. The one certainty in life that we are all careening towards. But how much do we really understand about death? Medically death is defined as the moment the heart stops beating and cuts off blood to the brain. Within seconds after heart failure the brain’s cerebral cortex — the “thinking part” of the brain — slows down instantly and flatlines (meaning no brainwaves are visible on an electric monitor). This initiates a chain reaction of cellular processes that eventually results in the death of brain cells; as a result the brain’s functions also stop and can no longer keep the body alive. The big question is after the heart stops beating, and both heart and brain activity flatlines, how quickly does cognition or awareness fade? A relatively recent study suggests that consciousness continues even after death.
(Photo credit: Getty)
Roughly 20 years ago the Cassini orbiter launched from Cape Canaveral for a seven year journey to the ringed planet Saturn. Towing with it was the Huygens probe, built and maintained by the European Space agency. On its journey to Saturn the orbiter flew by Venus through the asteroid belt, past Jupiter with its giant red eye, before finally arriving at Saturn. After spending countless years investigating Saturn and its moons, today is the culmination of that journey as Cassini begins its death orbit down into Saturn.
Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Cassini was a triumph of science and engineering, sending back amazing views and increasing the state of knowledge in astronomy. Cassini discovered two previously unknown moons orbiting Saturn (bringing Saturn’s total known moon count to 60), discovered ice plumes from Enceladus (another Saturn moon) via magnetometer, and detached and sent the Huygens probe down to the surface of Titan (Saturn’s largest moon). The landing of Huygens on Titan is the first and only landing on the surface of a world in the outer solar system.
Cassini orbiter sees Earth from Saturn (Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
The world we currently live in would have seemed like science fiction to humans in the not to distant past. Everyday more and advancements transform sci-fi dreams into reality. Most recently gene editing of human embryos has been birthed into the realm of possibility (cheesy pun intended!). In theory gene editing embryos could allow you to choose preferential traits in your soon to be human flesh-blob. That level of ability does not currently exist, but the latest developments in gene editing are still pretty astonishing.
Eggs before gene editing (left), and eggs after gene editing and already undergoing cell division (right)
(Photo credit: Ma et al. 2017)
In a recent study scientists took a human embryo and edited a dangerous mutation from the genes of that embryo; human reality, meet science fiction. Scientists at Oregon Health and Science University, with colleagues in California, China and South Korea, edited embryos, fixing a mutation that causes a common heart condition that can lead to sudden death later in life. The biggest hurdles were producing embryos in which all cells, not just some, were mutation-free, while also avoiding creating unwanted extra mutations during the process. The researchers found that when gene-editing components were introduced with sperm to the egg before fertilization, the success of the process was markedly different from previous approaches. If embryos with the repaired mutation were allowed to develop into babies, they would not only be disease-free but would also not transmit the disease to their descendants.
One of the greatest scourges of the mid 20th century, leading into the 21st century, has been the human immunodeficiency virus, better known as HIV, which can lead to acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). HIV is a virus that attacks a person’s immune system. Without treatment, over time HIV can completely destroy a person’s immune system leaving them mortally vulnerable to common pathogens that would otherwise be easily dealt with. Since this disease first burst onto the scene in the mid-20th century it has claimed countless lives, and science has struggled to develop a cure given the ability of the disease to rapidly change and hide-out in the body.
(Photo credit: gamjai / Fotolia)
Ah the measles, a childhood illness that most of my generation has never experienced; due in large part to the success of measles vaccination. A lot of people think the measles isn’t that big of a deal, its just some combination of a rash and fever that goes away in due time. While this is true in most people, in about 1 in 1,000 cases the infection becomes systemic and moves to the brain resulting in death, in what is known as measles encephalitis. The measles vaccination resolved this issue but also had an unexpected secondary effect.
16th-century Aztec drawing of someone with measles (Photo credit: Unknown – (2009) Viruses, Plagues, and History: Past, Present and Future, Oxford University Press, USA, p. 144)
When the measles vaccine was first introduced in America in the 1960s, scientists were perplexed why childhood deaths from all infectious diseases plummeted along w/ the measles; even deaths from diseases like pneumonia and diarrhea were cut in half. An obvious assumption was the drop in childhood deaths was just a result of our advances in modern medicine. While there is undoubtedly truth in the assertion that modern medicine was advancing rapidly in the mid-20th century, whenever the measles vaccine was introduced to Europe a few years later, and even now as its being introduced to third world countries, the same phenomena has been observed. Places that have the measles vaccine see a steep decline in deaths from all other childhood diseases. So whats going on?
As 2016 winds to a close, and in the spirit of the holiday season behold the world’s smallest snowman, measuring in at 3 microns. To put that into perspective, the smallest grains of sands are approximately 60 microns.
Mini snowman, ~3 microns in height (Photo credit: Western Nanofabrication Facility)
This creation is the work of Canadian nanotechnologists from the Western Nanofabrication Facility. The snowman is made from three ~1 micron silica spheres stacked using electron beam lithography. The eyes and mouth were cut with a focused ion, beam while the arms and nose were sculpted with platinum.
Tiny snowman amongst other 1 micron silica spheres. (Photo credit: Western Nanofabrication Facility)
A cool feel good story to round off 2016 as we head into 2017. Happy New Year all!