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10 Mind-Blowing Discoveries This Week

Storing books in DNA, cleaning useless information out of your brain, and more.
 
 
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We don’t know if it’s the biggest news because he’s got his hands over his crotch but one of the most sensational news items of this week was Prince Harry’s naked heinie; the other was Republican Rep. Todd Akin’s idiotic statement about “legitimate rape.”

Sigh. Well, as Senator Mark Lunsford Pryor (D) famously told Bill Maher, “You don’t have to pass an IQ test to be in the Senate,” and the same is evidently true of the House. However embarrassed the Brits might be over Harry’s happy snaps, better a naked ass than just an ass. 

1. Mars? They’re up for that

We’ll come back to that later because frankly there’s only so much political idiocy I can take before I start making plans to move to Mars. (If you’re going to be in a place with no intelligent life anyway, why not one that’s less crowded?)

Sadly, we can’t go there yet but one family is doing its best to mimic life on the red planet -- they’ve switched to Mars time. David Oh is the Mars Rover’s flight director and since he has to be on Martian time his whole family, including wife and kids, decided to join him in the adventure, reports the AP’s Alicia Chang.

The days on Mars are called “sols” and are 39 minutes and 35 seconds longer than ours. That might sound great to the time-starved, but it accumulates. Add 40-ish minutes a day to your schedule and within a week you're about four hours off your normal time scale, which is forever sliding. Many of the 800 people on the project have compared it to a feeling of “perpetual jet lag.” 

2. Marriage drives women to drink

My friend Dennis once gave me a perfect piece of advice about jet lag and the stress caused by transferring time zones and other elements of traveling. Every day at 3pm, he said, you stop and have a beer. Then the trip stress won’t actually ruin the trip.

It often works even when I’m not traveling.

People reach for the bottle for a lot of reasons and married women reach for it more frequently than single women, which shocks me a bit because I’ve known single women who can make Hunter S. Thompson look like Carrie Nation. 

Nontheless, John Bingham, writing in the London Daily Telegraph, reports on findings that while men tend to drink “significantly more” than women, married men drink less than their single or divorced contemporaries and married women drink more. A team of sociologists reviewed a long-running study of thousands of Wisconsinites and also “a separate set of 120 interviews with married, divorced, widowed and single people about their lifestyles.” 

“They concluded that getting married or divorced had a 'dynamic relationship' on drinking habits, but in very different ways for men and women.”

The researchers found that essentially women pick up men’s drinking habits when they marry them and drop them again after a divorce, whereas divorced men hit the bottle harder: “the biggest difference in drinking levels were between men who were happily married and those who were recently divorced,” Bingham writes, “suggesting that they turned to alcohol during their marital breakup.”

Bingham concludes that another study "found last year that married people were generally more content with their lives.”

Well, sure. The chicks are hammered

3. In his bones

If there was one person in this world who could have used a drink it was Joseph Merrick, also known as the Elephant Man. Next time you think you’ve got a problem like not being able to afford an iPad or having to resist the chocolate cheesecake, think of this guy. He had problems. What exactly caused Merrick’s disfigurement is unclear; at first it was “Elephantiasis, a parasitic infection characterized by the thickening and enlargement of skin and tissue, hence his nickname,” writes Paul Bignell of the Independent; in 2001 Proteus syndrome -- "a congenital disorder that causes skin overgrowth and abnormal bone development” was diagnosed by some scientists and dismissed by others. 

Now, Bignell writes, the bones will tell the story.

Scientists are planning to take DNA from Merrick’s skeleton, both the normal and the abnormal bones, in the hopes that sequencing his genes will find the alteration that caused his condition. His skeleton has been housed at the Royal London Hospital at Whitechapel since his death in 1890 (at the age of 27) and his bones have undergone boiling and bleaching -- according to this intriguing documentary, by the surgeon involved in the Jack the Ripper case. It was hoped that these methods would preserve the bones and Bignell says the bleaching was meant to keep them clean, but it may have made it difficult to get a proper DNA sample. Professor Richard Trembath, who is overseeing the research said it would be “extremely demanding,” but discovering the mystery behind Marrick’s condition will help treat others who suffer from it. 

4. A library in a test tube

DNA was on a serious roll this week: as Joseph Merrick’s condition is being decoded an entire book was encoded into DNA. Harvard biologist George Church led the project to encode his latest book into a strand of DNA, writes Robert Lee Hotz of the Wall Street Journal“Each strand contained a portion of the text and an address that indicated where it occurred in the flow of the book.” The book wasn’t stored in a living cell that would be changed by regular cell biology. “In a tube it is less subject to evolution,” Church said.

Okay, first you’re thinking “But I just adjusted to my iPad! Am I going to have to get some DNA decoder ring just to read an Agatha Christie one of these days?” Well, no. You’ll be able to buy the book in a normal format in October (it’s called Regenesis) but in the meantime it shows what an amazing medium DNA is for storing information. 

"For some archival problems, this could be the wave of the future," said Dr. Church. In DNA form, a billion copies of that book could now fit into a test tube. And you thought Space Bags were awesome.

You can encode all kinds of things in DNA. There are bioengingeered micro-organisms that carry the tune “It’s a Small World” in their DNA. For the first five minutes all the other micro-organisms think they’re adorable. After that they want them dead. 

5. Brain drain

Our brains seems so adept at information-gathering that at some point we often wonder why we don’t dump some of the useless stuff to make room for things we actually need. In Marie Osmond’s book Might as Well Laugh About it Now, the singer writes that in order to make room for the steps she had to remember for Dancing With the Stars, she “erased my brothers’ names and their birthdays. Sorry, Tito, Marlon and Jermaine.”

This week scientists saw for the first time how a mouse brain rids itself of unwanted materials. Since mouse biology is similar to ours we probably do the same thing. The process involves cerebrospinal fluid, but how it operated wasn’t clear until now, reports David Mosher of National Geographic News

In early experiments decades ago when scientists had opened the skull to study this system the researchers had accidentally turned the system off: “like a hydraulic pump it stops,” said Maiken Nedergaard, a neuroscientist of the University of Rochester who led the study. The recent experiments involved a two-photon microscope allowing a “deep clear look into living brain tissue without harming it.” The skulls of the mice had to be opened to see the living brain, but in the new study a glass plate sealed each hole so the fluid pressure was kept up and scientists could see in.

“Fluorescent dyes injected into the mouse brains then allowed the team to record movies of the cerebrospinal fluid moving through brain tissue,” Mosher writes. 

The team called the newfound plumbing the “glymphatic system,” after the glial cells that power cerebrospinal fluid. These cells build up around vessels, like a “pipe around a pipe,” Mosher writes, and pump nutrient-rich cerebrospinal fluid into some parts of the brain while pumping it away from others so the brain is fed and cleaned at the same time. If the same system exists in people -- which Nedergaard suspects it does -- it could have big implications especially for Alzheimer’s disease which is thought to be caused by a build-up of a protein waste that kills brain cells.

6. “Bring it”

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that cerebrospinal fluid could flush out all the things in our brain we think are right but are dead wrong? Which, of course brings us back to Todd Akin who now famously asserted that “the female body has ways of trying to shut that whole thing down."

It’s an idea he should flush out of his brain because it “is, according to a host of board-certified, well-respected physicians, a whole truckload of crap,” writesJezebel’s Doug Barry, who goes on to quote Dr. David Grimes, a clinical professor in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of North Carolina: "To suggest that there's some biological reason why women couldn't get pregnant during a rape is absurd,” and “a 1996 study published in the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology estimated that about 5 percent of rapes result in pregnancy.”

Then there’s Stephanie Pappas of LiveScience who uses Akin's “extremely non-scientific beliefs” as the kick-off to a story titled, “5 Politicians Who Got the Science Wrong.”

Don’t you want to know which politicians get the science right? Especially when they’remaking judgments the rest of us have to live with?

If so you’ll be interested to know that Scientific American has joined what writer Marissa Fessenden calls a “swelling chorus of voices” and paired up with ScienceDebate.org to call on President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to “address science and technology policy during the 2012 campaign.” They’ve sent the two candidates a list of 14 questions on topics from space exploration to vaccination campaigns, and a shorter list of questions to influential Senate members. SA will be evaluating the candidates’ answers down the road. In the meantime, if you want to join that chorus of voices you can sign up on ScienceDebate’s Web site.

7. Bot what about bender? 

In another point for democracy this year the inductees in the Robot Hall of Fame will be partly decided by popular vote. I know a lot of you think I just perfectly described the U.S. presidential election. Fair enough.

But seriously, there really is a Robot Hall of Fame! And it's looking for votes! So if you have a beloved bot you want to show your support for this might be your chance. Alan Boyle of NBC News’s Cosmic Log says the RHoF will take votes for the first time this year, but an expert panel of judges will also be influencing the outcome -- about 50/50 with the public vote. 

Michael Harper of redOrbit lists the four categories of robot: “Education & Consumer, Entertainment, Industrial & Service, and Research.” RHoF’s list of nominees includes NAO, an “autonomous, programmable robot,” made by Aldebaran who also made those robots who can dance Thriller. We also have Rosie from the Jetsons, the adorable Wall-E and Johnny 5 from Short Circuit. 

All fine specimens. But what Robot Hall of Fame could be complete without Bender? And Marvin the Paranoid Android from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? And the robot from Lost in Space

Boyle is taking People’s Choice nominations on his blog so you can head over there and leave a comment (“I Heart Hedonismbot!”). 

8. Citizen involvement helps endangered species

The democratic process that will help underappreciated robots get their due is also helping endangered species. In a study comparing those species listed as endangered or threatened as initiated by citizens versus those listed by Fish and Wildlife Service, professor Berri Brosi of Emory University and Eric Biber of UC Berkeley found that citizens do a better job, says Science Daily. There is a clause in the Endangered Species Act that allows citizens to petition the FWS to protect species and to use litigation to challenge their decisions; the clause has been considered controversial but the study, the authors say, shows the need to “keep the public highly involved.”

Citizen-initiated species were more likely to be a problem for development, but they were also “significantly more threatened” than FWS-initiated species. The public brings species-specific expertise and can “help counter the political pressure inherent in large development projects.” Plus, the FWS has a pretty huge job and the help doesn’t hurt. 

"There are some 100,000 species of plants and animals in North America, and asking one federal agency to stay on top of that is tough," Biber says.

"The overriding message is that citizen involvement really does work in combination with the oversight of the FWS," says Brosi. 

9. Give a hoot

Some species are considered endangered the minute they’re found. Such is the case with the 10, count ‘em 10 new species of owls recently discovered in the Philippines. Eight of those were previously considered sub-species, says the AFP, while two were brand-new: the Cebu hawk owl and the Camiguin hawk owl. It was their hoots that marked them out as different. Lisa Paguntalan, field director of Philippines Biodiversity Conservation Programme said they may already be endangered because they were only found in “small isolated islands or tiny pockets of forests.” Many wildlife species in the Philippines are threatened because of habitat destruction. 

This is the best photo of a pissed-off owl you’ll see all day: the Ninox-Reyi, who might be mad because he's endangered…or because he's suddenly being hounded by nature papparazzi.

10. Chasing a bit of tail

So yeah, it’s been a dizzying news week, but nothing is probably quite as dizzying as being compelled to spin around in a circle until bystanders start mentally betting on when you’ll hit the coffee table. If you’ve ever seen a dog chase its tail, what you’re witnessing is a behavior that’s very similar to human OCD.

LiveScience reports that a team of Finnish researchers surveyed 368 dog owners of four breeds and collected DNA from 181 dogs. They concluded that while there was no link between tail chasing and the gene CDH2 which has been genetically linked to tail chasing in dogs, there is still a genetic link to tail chasing, but that environmental factors are a cause as well. They also found that tail-chasing dogs and humans with obsessive-compulsive disorder shared a few traits. Both, for example, begin these behaviors at a young age; may develop more of them; and vitamins and minerals seem to help both animals and people. Childhood stress is linked to OCD; tail-chasing dogs were separated from their moms at a younger age. So what might look like a funny, cute behavior might not feel so cute to the animal who’s doing it.

Liz Langley is a freelance writer in Orlando, Fla.

 
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