10 Mind-Blowing Discoveries This Week

When the next natural disaster strikes, squads of trained cockroaches may come to rescue you.

So this week I came into one of my freelance jobs 90 minutes earlier than I should have, forgot the dates of two meetings and absent-mindedly put my key into the door of the wrong car necessitating a pricey call to a locksmith. Nobody could be happier than I to find that scientists have been able to implant memories into the brains of mice. Maybe one day they can implant some more memory in me.

1. Mice memories

Actually, these mice memories weren’t quite like the extra memory you put in a computer, nor were they memories of happy Christmases past or who shot JR or anything like that.  Medical Daily’s Makini Brice reports that Professor Ben Strowbridge and Robert Hyde of Case Western University attempted to create a declarative memory, the type you use when remembering a phone number or other simple facts as opposed to remembering a skill (implicit memory); they “isolated rodent tissue to form a memory in which one of four neural pathways was activated. The neural circuits located in the hippocampus maintained the memory of input for 10 seconds.”

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Another recent study by professors at the University of Pennsylvania and University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center has found how the brain converts short-term memories into long-term memories, “which can be accessed months or years after their implantation.” By studying how memory works in the brain, researchers hope to better understand diseases such as Alzheimer’s. 

Perhaps I should be horrified in some future-phobic way about the implantation of memories in the brain. But I’m looking on the bright side. Today it’s 10-second mouse-memories to identify specific neural pathways; tomorrow we’re saving time and money on travel by getting memories of fabulous European getaways implanted in our heads. To say nothing of the possibilities for the adult entertainment industry. 

2. Otterly adorable and totally green

I even forgot that instead of such weighty matters as those above I wanted to start out this week with something 100% charming: otters. They’re adorable, especially when they’re holding handsin South Park episodes, and talking about smashing clams on their tummies. Now, it turns out, they’re quietly doing their bit for the environment.

Kelp forests absorb a lot of greenhouse gases. Sea urchins eat up a lot of kelp. Sea otters eat up a lot of sea urchins. By eating up the sea urchins the otters are helping kelp forests to flourish. Kate Andries from National Geographic reports on a study which found that, “An otter-assisted kelp forest can absorb as much as 12 times the amount of C02 [carbon dioxide] from the atmosphere than if it were subject to ravenous sea urchins," and while it might not exactly be the key to climate-change reversal it’s a help to the ecology of the areas the sea otters live in. 

"The general phenom in which the interactions between species are linked to the carbon cycle," said James Estes, co-author of the study, "is going to be very important."

And cute. Don’t forget cute. 

3. Just don’t say, “And step on it!”

The otter story is a nice example of how the natural balance works. It’s good to protect and respect all creatures -- a philosophy it’s easy to forget when it comes to cockroaches. Somehow it never seems like a bad idea to smash them. Or to outfit them with tiny backpacks and censors and send them on dangerous and important missions via remote control. 

Remote-control cockroaches are not the dream of some super-bright-and-slightly-disturbed little kid. CNet’s Amanda Kooser reports that researchers at North Carolina State have taken a wireless receiver and a lightweight chip -- the whole unit weighs only .02 ounces, writes Lee Rannals of redOrbit -- and been able to connect a microcontroller to a cockroach’s antennae and cerci (sensory organs like motion detectors on the roach’s tummy). When those wires move it makes the bug move thinking a predator is threatening. The wires attached to the antennae “create small electrical charges into the insect’s neural tissue, which is what helps to steer the cockroaches,” Rannals writes. The researchers hope to use the little creatures to go into disaster sites, like areas hit by earthquakes, to find survivors in hard-to-reach places.

It is, on one hand, an amazingly cool idea and one I’d never thought could exist outside a cartoon or CGI film. On the other hand, it sounds kind of awful to survive, say, a hurricane and then be swarmed by cockroaches, even if they were there to save you. The team did choose the Madagascar hissing cockroach as its vehicle, and living in Florida I can tell you those aren’t the most hideous of the roach clan so that’s a perk. Maybe one day the tiny rescue squad could be made up of something less ooky, though -- how about a guinea pig and a duckling? Art does come to life occasionally and this makes me hope that one day the Wonder Pets could become reality. Sewiously.

4. Is there any intelligent life out there?

Since as far as we know there is no life on Mars which means no cockroaches, I’m ready to go. I know it’s not habitable at the moment. Whether it was ever inhabited is uncertain. Water is considered essential for life, and Martian clay would seem to suggest that enough water was present on Mars to form that material if life might have been possible there. But a French scientist has discovered that the clay may not have required water at all, not from a new finding on Mars, but from one right here on Earth. 

Nola Taylor Redd of Space.com writes that Alain Meunier of the Université de Poitiers in France discovered clays in a region of French Polynesia that were “formed quickly with cooling magma rather than slowly with cold ocean water.” The composition of the clays is similar to some “Martian mineral mixes.”

The findings don’t mean that Mars was always dehydrated: there is evidence of “extensive river systems, lakes, and oceans” on its surface and different types of clays, differently formed, exist on Earth as well. So there is still a possibility that life existed on Mars…but less likely where the clay was formed from magma, a process that would be “quick and hot, and thus not good for biology," said Brian Hyneck of the University of Colorado (though it must be said that for some types of biology, quick and hot is a really good thing). 

And speaking of Mars what’s Curiosity been up to? Among other things like getting ready for a road trip, it took some pictures of itselfAnd why not? We all do that when we’re traveling. Plus, not only does it look like Wall-E, but the image was taken with Mars Hand Lens Imager -- MAHLI.

Cute. Doubleplus interplanetary cute.

5. Hot pink science?

Apparently science isn’t cute enough or girly enough for some girls to be interested in -- at least that seems to be the reasoning behind some of the ways people are trying to get them interested. Diana Betz of the University of Michigan writes in Scientific American about a couple of approaches meant to show that scientists can be feminine and girly girls can also do math and insert memories into mice and whatnot. They included Computer Engineer Barbie, and a video (eventually scrapped) by the EU Commission’s “Women in Research and Innovation” campaign that featured images of test tubes interspersed with girls giggling, blowing kisses and being noticed by a male scientist.

Yeah. I can see Jane Goodall doing that.

That latter type of attempt can backfire, Betz says (the story is worth reading in its entirety), citing her own study with Denise Sekaquaptewa showing that middle-school girls who saw pictures and read interviews with women who ranged from STEM (science, tech, engineering, math) role models who were very feminine (pastel makeup and clothing; fond of fashion mags) to not-very-STEM or very femme. The femme STEMs made the girls feel the least interested in math, and the least confident and the already disinterested were even less interested by these sweethearts of science. A follow-up study showed the “math-disinterested girls saw the feminine STEM role models’ success as furthest out of reach.”

“When a role model’s success seems impossible to achieve, people may feel less motivated to try,” Betz concludes (which makes you wonder if all the gorgeous models and actors we see are one of the reasons we so often just give up and wade into the Ben & Jerrys).

In contrast, Betz reports that eighth-grade girls warmed to women in science after discovering they had lives outside the lab. “Rather than broadcasting videos of women who look relatable to young girls, we should highlight women who are relatable to girls,” she writes.

Understandably so. Isn’t looking past the surface -- no matter how hot pink it is -- what the sciences are all about? 

6. Oooh, shiny thing

Case in point: the Pollia berry. This, Discover Magazine’s Ed Yong reports, is the shiniest living thing on the planet, shiny enough to pass for a piece of art nouveau jewelry or something from the Christmas section of your local craft store.

But was “Oooh, pretty!” enough for Silvia Vignolini from the University of Cambridge and her group, lead by Ullrich Steiner? Nope. Vignolini found a sample at Kew Gardens that still looked the same despite having been collected in 1974. The fruit contains “three to four layers of of thick-walled cells,” the cells contain more layers of cellulose fibers which run parallel to each other but at a slight angle. As light hits the plants those layers upon layers are reflected.

Yong writes: “Provided the layers are exactly the right distance apart, the reflected beams of light amplify each other to produce exceptionally strong colours. The technical term is 'multilayer interference.'" Or alternatively: “Ooh, shiny!” 

And this pretty thing is not something you’ll end up getting much out of besides looks (who’s surprised?). It’s nutritionally vacant and would seem to have mastered the art of looking attractive enough for birds to notice and then either eat or take with them as ornaments, thus getting to spread the seeds inside them without having to actually go to the effort of producing fruit or anything. 

Alluring. Smart. Accomplishes its goals with minimal effort. Role model, anyone? 

7. Gender bending: It’s natural 

Role models for gender have traditionally been a kind of big deal for human beings. Some people find it  “natural” or “unnatural” for men or women to behave a certain way when, in fact, the natural world has no idea about these rules and couldn’t care less. 

In the first installment of a new series on human perceptions of sex and gender versus what goes on outside our species, Ars Technica’s Kate Shaw explains the difference between sex and gender with sex being whether we are biologically male or female and gender being a “sociological construct” or the behaviors and activities we tend to assign to the sexes. Think of it as holes versus roles: how many you have of the first dictates how the second is often assigned to you. Even researchers don’t escape this cultural conditioning; Shaw writes about a study which “found that scientists tend to assign traditional human gender roles to animals—and even to plants.”

Some of our biology is tied to our gender, Shaw writes, i.e. the ability to lactate means you’d be a good bet to feed the baby, but other things, like whether that baby ought to be dressed in pink or blue are just cultural perceptions.

When it comes to things like size, ornamentation and even biological equipment, nature doesn’t have the preconceived ideas we do either. Female hyenas, Shaw writes, have “psuedopenises” that can be up to 7 inches long through which they urinate, copulate and give birth, while 97% of bird species have no external sex organ at all. Adornment is something humans think of more as the province of the female but other species’ males -- i.e., peacocks, lions, antlered deer -- can be the glamour pusses, too.

Bigger-is-better is something we generally think of as being in the male column of pluses but there is one hypothesis that suggests it’s a girl thing: that the bigger a female is the more eggs she can carry and the more offspring she can let loose on the world while the male’s size doesn’t matter. It’s called the the “BOFFFF (Big Old Fat Fecund Female Fish) hypothesis.” Just make sure, when you repeat this (and you will) to get the word “fecund” right. 

8. Virgin births

Underscoring Shaw’s piece on the variety of ways different species accomplish their reproductive goals, Charles Choi of LiveScience reports that another sexual peculiarity, virgin births (also known as faculative parthenogenesis or asexual reproduction in a normally sexual species), might be more common in the wild than anyone thought. Researchers collected samples from both mothers and offspring of two closely related pit vipers -- 22 litters of Connecticut copperheads and 37 litters of Georgia cottonmouths -- and found that one in each set of litters had no genetic input from a father. 

"We just sat there stunned at the discovery," researcher Warren Booth, a molecular biologist at the University of Tulsa told LiveScience, adding that “Essentially, somewhere between 2.5 and 5 percent of litters produced in these populations may be resulting from parthenogenesis. That's quite remarkable for something that has been considered an evolutionary novelty, even by me up until this finding."

Because it had been observed in captive vertebrates, parthenogenesis was thought to be “a rare curiosity outside the mainstream of vertebrate evolution,” but finding it among wild reptiles changes the picture. Reptiles, Booth says, are the group of vertebrates that seems disposed to either faculiative or obligative -- where no males of the species are known -- parthenogenesis. Komodo dragons, pit vipers, chickens and turkeys have all been known to give birth via parthenogenesis.

Why they’d want to leave the fun part of out reproduction is anyone’s guess and I’m not getting close enough to a cottonmouth to ask. 

9. But wait! There’s more! 

This was a big week for intriguing reproductive strategies to jump out and yell “Surprise!” at scientists, because right behind those reptile virgin births, British scientists discovered that Antarctic mollusks can change sexes when they need to for reproductive purposes in the very cold ocean. 

The BBC’s Ella Davies reports that the mollusks, first described in 1845, have a “hermaphrodite nature” that was unknown until they were recently studied by researchers from the National Oceanography Center, Southampton. Previously scientists had only studied “large eggs and broods,” lead study author Adam Reed said, but looking on a cellular level they discovered small eggs in males, more than they could ever brood in a lifetime.

“The team suggested that the bivalves reproduce as males while they are still in the "small" stages of development, switching to female organs once they are large enough to brood a significant number of eggs,” Davies writes (which feels like it goes back to the BOFFFF hypothesis).

Interestingly, since scientists are only at the Antarctic station for certain months, what the mollusks are up to the rest of the time is anyone’s guess. "Perhaps they may alternate their sex so they can continue to reproduce as males while brooding their young for 18 months?" Reed theorized.

After all that cool information on those myriad reproductive strategies, would anything be surprising? 

10. Turn-ons and turn-offs

Admittedly, it kind of surprises me (again) that any species would leave the fun part out of breeding, but that’s just me. In my house even the computer is always turned on.

And I’ve long wondered if that’s a good idea. Even having been assured by an expert that it’s fine, it always seems like a lot of work for the poor little thing, so when I fall asleep with it on (which happens routinely: such is my dedication to your scientific awareness and supply of cocktail party chat) I worry for its well-being. 

Thank you, Lifehacker, for responding to this quandary with my favorite answer: It depends.

It’s neither all good or all bad to routinely shut down or leave your machine turned on, Lifehacker’s Adam Dachis reports, listing the pros and cons of each choice but summing up that whatever your choice (even accidental) -- it’s okay.

Huzzah! One less answer I have to remember. 

This is our last publication of 10 Mind-Blowing Discoveries, thanks for reading.

Liz Langley is a freelance writer based in Orlando, Florida. #OrlandoUnited. OrlandoStrong.