Environment

10 Amazing Discoveries That Should Be Worth Millions

These research discoveries will blow your mind.

In all the breaking news this week, perhaps the story about how entertainment television channel E! would be renewing the Kardashian family's $40 million contract was probably the least significant. Except it got us thinking about how to better spend all that dough. 

The fantasy of wealth has such power. If we had a few mil to throw at the people who engage, inspire and entertain us, here's who we’d award it to:

1. Brainiacs: We all make mistakes

“Can it be doubted that three-kilogramme brains were once nearly fatal defects in the evolution of the human race?”  

The question was posed by the late, great Kurt Vonnegut in his novel Galapagos. Once you read about the idea that our brains were not an entirely beneficial adaptation, you never forget it. It pops up whenever you see us doing something that doesn’t seem very evolved at all.

It popped up when we read Jennifer Welsh’s "Did A Copying Mistake Build Man’s Brain?" on Live Science. It doesn’t judge our big brains as harshly as Vonnegut, but does suggest it was the cellular equivalent of an inattentive Kinko’s employee that made us who we are.

Here's the gist: When cells divide they make a copy of their entire genome. These copies sometimes spawn errors or “mutations,” one of which is duplication: making more than one copy. These extra copies are inessential to the original so evolution can noodle with them…like (we suppose) if you order two pizzas and it’s okay to go crazy and get pineapple and jalapenos on the second because you have the first, essential, tummy-filling pizza. 

Researchers at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla studied one gene in particular, SRGAP2, which they think went through this erroneous duplication process 2.5 million years ago but made an incomplete copy that that may have interfered with the original, ancestral copy. 

The second duplication coincided with the decline of Australopithicus and the “Homo, which led to modern humans,” and the expansion of our brains. 

They added this partially duplicated genome to a mouse genome and “it seemed to speed the migration of brain cells during development, which makes brain organization more efficient,” and had more “spines” which connect with other brain cells and make them look like human brain cells. 

Could this tiny copying error have put us on such a remarkably different trajectory than our ape relatives? Ask anyone who ever hit the wrong key by accident: one error can truly change everything.

2. Bigfoot and time warpers

There’s one creature that some consider to be the bridge that connects homo big brain to our ape relations: Bigfoot. 

We’re agnostic about Bigfoot. We’re dubious about the existence of the ape-man, but have seen enough seemingly impossible things to be wary of saying “absolutely never.” Besides, real or not, his legend has enriched the culture and we wouldn’t shoot him even though we could. In Texas.

John Lloyd Scharf of Salem, Oregon isn’t happy about that. Life’s Little Mysteries reports that Mr. Scharf emailed the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission to find out whether the manimal (or womanimal) was protected. 

The short answer is “No,” but we’ll say this for David Sinclair, of the law enforcement division of Texas Parks and Wildlife: he took the question seriously, replying in part that "A nonprotected, nongame animal may be hunted on private property with landowner consent by any means, at any time and there is no bag limit or possession limit."

Scharf is concerned that this would mean you could shoot the last of a previously undiscovered species and LLM says the matter has been taken up by the cryptozoology site Cryptomundo.

It would be sad to kill the supposed only member of a supposed species, but honestly we think it’s a baseless concern. Everyone knows Bigfoot doesn’t even live in Texas. He goes from Star Wars event to Star Wars event, winning costume contests as Chewbacca and getting babes and prize money. That’s how he stays below the radar. Anyone who could elude the press this long is no dope. 

And who’s to say that Bigfoot isn’t as elusive as he is because he’s got a warp drive?

In theory...string theory, to be precise...the Star Trek quick-getaway known as the warp drive is the ability to move a ship faster than the speed of light, which is supposedly impossible for anything with mass. ZidBits says the trick is not moving the ship but moving space-time around the ship instead, compressing it in front of the vehicle and expanding it behind the vehicle til the ship is “like a surfer riding a wave of water.” Or, in our minds, like old movies where the car stood stationary and the scenery behind it moved, making it look like the car was in motion.

Researchers (Dr. Gerald Cleaver and Dr. Richard Obousy) have calculated that a warp drive could work by “shrinking and expanding the tiny, curled up, subatomic spacial dimensions that theoretically exist in string theory,” and that it would take about 100kg of antimatter “to warp the space around a ship the size of the space shuttle.”

We don’t have the technology yet, but we believe in it. After all, we’re already able to move at lightspeed when we see someone we don’t want to bump into on the street, and we have more mass than the Vatican. 

3. Nutrition researchers: A big fat help

A lot of us have masses that would move more quickly if they were a little smaller and now science may be coming to the aid of the very troubled dieter by clearing out the fat our bodies hang onto like something out of Hoarders.

Science Daily reports that researchers led by Dr. Jorge Plutzky of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School have figured out how to convert white fat -- the unhealthy kind that sticks around -- into brown fat, the healthy kind that expends energy. By inhibiting an enzyme called Aldh1a1 in white fat cells (where it is abundant) researchers were able to make them act like brown fat cells, burning energy and generating heat. 

So, to paraphrase Delbert the Exterminator, “Take out bad fat. Put in good fat.” 

Plutzky says that while more research is needed, getting white fat to take on brown fat’s traits is getting more attention as a way to treat obesity (the CDC says more than a third of US adults are obese).

Sounds like a plan, because we’re clearly not going to change our behavior and do it via healthier diet, or so says one charmingly fed-up British nutrition expert who thinks health education “is a load of diverting, delaying rubbish,” and that government needs to make healthy food affordable.

Christopher Wanjek, LiveScience’s Bad Medicine columnist reports that Peter James, president of the London-based International Association for the Study of Obesity at World Nutrition Rio 2012 says it’s economics, not education, that will change our diet. Marion Nestle, author and professor of nutrition at NYU, advocates for the kind of regulation the government imposes on cigarettes, including marketing restriction of junk food to kids and a ban on sugary drinks in schools.

4. Nature photography and medical research: Clearly deserving

After seeing museum shows like “Bodies: The Exhibition,” we thought that if we could actually see what some of our choices -- like unhealthy foods -- do to our bodies, we might change our habits more quickly. Being opaque allows us to be in denial about lots of things. 

There is one creature you can look right through: the jewel caterpillar, a dazzling gem of an insect, revealed to the world this week by an amateur wildlife photographer named Gerardo Aizpuru who spotted one on a red mangrove leaf in Cancun and posted pictures on Project Noah

The crystalline beauty of the jewel caterpillar also gave us an interesting window into the different places it took the minds of two science writers. First there was Ferris Jabr over at Scientific American. Click there and you can see the yellow-orange Acraga coa moth the caterpillar may turn into and a larvae from the Dalceridae family, to which the caterpillar probably belongs -- it looks like something made by glass master Chihuly. Jabr tells how the insects’ stickiness may be what protects it from predators -- ants who tried to bite it were quickly grossed out by its texture, plus the spines snap off easily, possibly allowing it to evade getting entirely eaten. Jabr said the jewel caterpillar “reminded me immediately of nudibranchs, a group of strikingly colored mollusks whose appearance is perhaps best summarized as 'trippy.'"

The little jewel caterpillar, meanwhile, reminded  io9’s, Robert T. Gonzales of a decidedly different image: “Looking at A. coa's naturally translucent body, I can't help but be reminded of the work of researchers like Atsushi Miyawaki, whose team is working to develop chemical agents that could turn otherwise opaque biological tissue transparent,” like that of the mouse embryos pictured on both io9 links, one opaque, the other, treated with that chemical reagent, as transcluscent as  “a pineapple gummi bear.” It’s a must-click.

Miyawaki says a gentler kind of chemical reagent “would allow us to study live tissue the same way.” 

Living tissue? So could our dream of one day being transparent (in more than a social sense) really be possible, allowing us not only to avoid invasive tests, but romantic interludes with the TSA? The hope alone is worth $40 mil. 

5. Discreet new tech: Priceless?

Sometimes you want a lot of you to be seen but usually you don’t want everyone in the entire world seeing it. Just one special person. That’s why the minute people could send digital pictures they invented sexting.

The problem with those intimate pictures is that they can quickly become public (didn’t we post this guy already?). Enter Snapchat, an iPhone app that allows you to send someone a picture and control how long they will be able to look at it -- up to 10 seconds, and then it disappears. In other words, even if you can’t resist sending it you’re less likely to suffer negative consequences …we think it’s like digital Olestra

Snapchat will also alert you if the recipient tries to take a screenshot of your picture, but the New York Times' Nick Bolton notes in the Bits blog that you shouldn’t feel too safe because “even if a Snapchat image is set to vanish after a few seconds, there’s nothing to stop someone from taking a photograph of his smartphone screen with another camera.” We’re not sure that would be a huge problem since only superheroes would have the cat-like reflexes to find and use a camera that fast. 

But, Bolton does make a point that Snapchat’s servers don’t guarantee your image will be erased. He adds: "Messages, therefore, are sent at the risk of the user."

We’re all for consenting adults having safer fun, but if you were getting sextually harassed wouldn’t this make it easier for the sending pervert to say “Never happened?” 

Okay, for that potential glitch this doesn’t merit millions, but if in this “arms race” they give it an addendum that immediately alerts an appropriate party to unwanted sexts? Come get your check.  

6. Beautiful writing: It’s a bug’s love life

Insects don’t have such tawdry concerns. They do not worry about their ant parts turning up on Twitter. In fact, one of their mating rituals seems downright romantic by comparison. There’s thrills! Danger! Aerial sex! And it’s all performed by ants, no less -- ants, the bugs in the gray flannel suits, the dutiful drudges of the world, but in spring, they take flight ISO love.  

Marlene Zuk, the author of Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on Life, Love and Language from the Insect World and many other books writes beautifully in the LA Times of the alates, winged ants that fly from their colonies in groups so large they interrupt big human human sporting events to find the torrid romance that will perpetuate their genes, but which ultimately ends in doom for many. The fate of romantic failure and even doom, Zuk says, is something non-humans face all the time, the “millions of ants, millions of robin’s eggs, millions of flower seeds,” that never reach their goal is something we seldom even consider. Personally it reminds us a bit of Daytona Beach at Spring Break: torrents of hopeful youth migrating to meet and mate, not all of whom can possibly be successful. 

But what if the ants succeed?

“If two ants do manage to connect, the much-smaller male attaches himself to the female and inseminates her, whereupon his genitalia explode and he falls to the ground, lifeless,” Zuk writes, leaving us to muse: is it better to have sought love and lost out than to get one’s skull sucked dry by a spider? 

So maybe getting picked last in the game of love -- or having your ant parts turn up on Twitter -- might not be so bad after all. 

7. Star searchers

The endgame of that magical, aerial ant mating dance is reproduction and self-reproduction is one trait which, according to Professor Gerald Joyce of the Scripps Research Institute, defines “life.” 

In an essay regarding the new forms of it we humans are always on the lookout for Joyce defined what life means: “Life self-reproduces, transmits heritable information to its progeny and undergoes Darwinian evolution based on natural selection.” Science Daily reported on Joyce’s essay in the journal PLoS Biology. If we’re going to look for new life forms, after all, we have to know what we mean by “life,” and how a new form of it might come to be. 

Joyce calls that heritable information “bits” and says that though these bits recombine and evolve that doesn’t constitute a new life form. “Indeed, to date no truly new life form has been discovered -- either in extreme environments on Earth or on other planets -- that contains new bits, despite evidence suggesting life on meteorites recovered in Antarctica, or on any of the so-called 'habitable' planets discovered in our galaxy.” 

Joyce explains in the full piece ways that new life forms could arise or be discovered but it’s a terrifically complicated prospect and, it seems from this very complex piece, an elusive one.

So, why do we care? 

"I think humans are lonely and long for another form of life in the universe," says Joyce, "preferably one that is intelligent and benevolent. But wishing upon a star does not make it so. We must either discover alternative life or construct it in the laboratory. Someday it may be discovered by a Columbus who travels to a distant world or, more likely in my opinion, invented by a Geppetto who toils at the workbench."

It might not be the answer we want to hear but it’s more poetic than a lot of poetry.Also, you think he’s been to Disney lately? 

8. Our new movie: Ants in the plants

Disney stories are often about an oddly matched pair that manages to get together to conquer all kinds of problems -- a puppet and a cricket, a cowboy and a spaceman, a lady and a tramp. Now we think we have a new one for them: the ant and the plant. 

LiveScience’s Charles Choi  reports a wonderfully beneficial relationship between Nepenthes bicalcarata -- a carnivorous pitcher plant, carnivorous plants always being the coolest things in the garden -- and their ant buddies Camponotus schmitzi. The plant provides the ant a place to live and nectar to drink and in return it bodyguards the plant, systematically attacking insects who try to escape the plant's predatory clutches, cleans away dead insect debris, keeps the pitcher lip clean so victims will more likely fall in and fertilizes the plant with its waste.

Researcher Vincent Bazile, an ecologist at University Montpellier 2 in France said plants with ants have fuller leaves, are three times richer in nitrogen, “the nutrient that is key to organic molecules such as proteins and DNA” and had larger pitchers that held more prey. 

Is that a great buddy movie or what? We’re calling it Schmitzi and Pitch, changing that one Randy Newman song to "I’ve got a friend in me."

9. More creamy vanilla nutritional research, please!

If ants in the plants aren’t an odd enough match, how about mice and yogurt?

Not for breakfast…for each other. Elle Dolgin of Scientific American writes that MIT researchers studying the effects of yogurt on obesity found a decidedly unexpected and hilariously beneficial effect it had on male mice. Following up on research that yogurt prevented age-related weight-gain more than any other food researchers split up a group of male and female mice, feeding half a regular diet and half a junk food-mimicking diet. “They then supplemented half of each diet group with vanilla-flavored yogurt.”

They set out to study the effects of yogurt on obesity. Well, something got bigger alright.

The coats of all the yogurt-eating mice grew to become remarkably shiny and silky, but that wasn’t biggest news: the testicles of male mice who ate the yogurt were 5% heavier than those of the regular-diet mice and 15% heavier than the junk food mice. Researchers had noticed the males “projected their testes out which endowed them with a certain “mouse swagger,” Dolgin writes. The reproductive rates of the yogurt-eating mice were better, too, with the males inseminating the females more quickly and producing more offspring and the female yogurt eaters producing larger litters and weaning their offspring more successfully.

The findings could have implications for human fertility,” Dolgin writes.

Come to think of it, we’ve never seen a yogurt commercial that targets men. Something tells us yogurt marketing executives are going to be somewhere they never imagined: all over those mouse 'nads.

10. Orangutech

Yet another sweet-but-unlikely mix: orangutans and iPads. Orangutans share 97% of our DNA and are strikingly like their human counterparts when it comes to iPad use. The young orangutans love it -- “they draw, play games and expand their vocabulary,” writes David Fischer of the APThe old folks want nothing to do with it. 

Linda Jacobs, who runs a mental stimulus program for the endangered apes at Miami’s Jungle Island Zoo and hopes to bridge the communication gap between us and the apes says, “Our young ones pick up on it. They understand it. It's like, 'Oh I get this,'" Jacobs said. "Our two older ones, they just are not interested. I think they just figure, 'I've gotten along just fine in this world without this communication-skill here and the iPad, and I don't need a computer.'"

If you’re an older person who is techno-savvy, accept our apologies for the generalization. Our own elders refused to even use a microwave and cited their age as reason to be exempt from pushing buttons. 

In other news…organutans use iPads!! The program they use was originally designed for humans with autism -- the apes need only to press a picture on the touchscreen to communicate their needs. 

“The long-term plan is to set up a larger, orangutan-proof screen in the holding area, along with another screen outside for guests. They would ask the orangutans questions and the apes could respond.” 

A group called Orangutan Outreach is also hoping to set up video conferencing so apes can see their relatives who were transferred to other zoos.

If they’re really 97% like us, they’re already thinking about how to cut that obligatory family holiday call short. 

 

Liz Langley is a freelance writer in Orlando, FL.