10 Amazing Discoveries You Missed This Week

Here's what researchers revealed this week: blood tests for depression, how to escape a ticket, the science behind Tupac's reappearance, crazy new species and more.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock/Angela Waye

Here are 10 amazing discoveries you may have missed this week. 

1. Blood Test for Depression

“Where are you going?”

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“Who are you with?”


“When will you be back?”


Ah, the teen years. Our culture regards adolescents as sullen, moody and disillusioned, but it’s no joke at any age when what appears to be moodiness is actually depression or anxiety, serious problems that can be hard to diagnose.

That’s why a new study -- preliminary but promising -- showing that a simple blood test can diagnose depression is pretty huge news. 

"Once you have a measurable index of an illness, it's very difficult to say, 'Just pull yourself together,' or 'Get over it,'" Eva Redei, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago and leader of the study told Melissa Healy of the LA Times

The Times story describes how the study was done by testing rats, one group of healthy test subjects, another with a vulnerability for depression. The rats with depression had 11 molecules in their blood and brains that were “largely absent” in the healthy rats, and 15 molecules in rats that had depression and anxiety that were absent in those with depression only. Researchers then tested for these “biomarkers” and found teens with depression “had significantly higher concentrations of the 11 targeted molecules in their blood,” and 18 biomarkers distinguishing teens with depression from those with depression and anxiety.

More research needs to be done, but the study heralds a brighter future for early diagnosis and “the researchers said they hoped to include adults in future testing.”

Teen or otherwise, even the toughest cynic would have a hard time looking at how lives can be changed by this new test and say “Yeah…whatever.”

2. The Math to Enlightenment

Speaking of adolescence...thirty years out of high school and finally someone has shown that the math we dismissed as impractical in our high school misery is not only practical but it could get you out of one of life’s little miseries: a traffic ticket.

Physics Central reports that Dmitri Krioukov, a physicist from the University of California at San Diego was pulled over by an officer for blowing through a stop sign. Krioukov didn’t pay the fine: instead he wrote a paper proving he was innocent by showing that the officer was mistaken because of three simultaneously occurring phenomena: 1) the officer measured Krioukov’s angular, not linear velocity; 2) Krioukov’s rapid deceleration, which made it look like he hadn’t stopped; and 3) another car momentarily obstructed the officer’s view at just the right moment, causing him to miss Krioukov’s actual stop. The argument is detailed on Physics Central -- with graphs -- and you can look at the paper if you’d like to try to prove him wrong (wouldn’t dream of it).

Best part: not only were both the officer and the judge convinced, but the judge says the officer was not at fault either. Kate Scott from Wired UK noted via Ars Technica that the judge said the officer’s “perception of reality did not properly reflect reality.” 

Happens to us every day.

3. What’s Under Those Sheets?

A news story that directly references Jurassic Park, The Empire Strikes Back, The Andromeda Strain and Contagion? We’re there!

And if it sounds scary, don’t panic: Just read Scientific American’s beautifully written "Melting Glaciers Liberate Ancient Microbesby Cheryl Katz and the Daily Climate (an extended version of Bugs in the Ice Sheet, SA’s May 2012 issue). Now that the ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland are melting, “tiny organisms that may have been trapped there longer than modern humans have walked the planet, biding their time until conditions change and set them free again,” will become, well, free again.

It’s a breathtaking prospect…and not as scary as it might seem. Though we are talking about bacteria that is still able to “grow and divide” after ages under ice, "Bugs in the Ice Sheet" soothingly says up front “most of what has been identified appears related to common soil and marine bacteria.” Some more highlights from “Melting Glaciers”: 

  • There’s evidence that these tiny “microbes are evolving inside the ice sheets exchanging DNA and gaining new traits."
  • That pathogens whose host populations had become immune could survive in the ice waiting for a population that hasn’t been exposed to them (again, not likely but interesting…read the whole story)
  • Thawing ice sheets that “will allow ancient microbial genes to mix with modern ones, flooding the oceans with never-before-seen types of organisms.”

So there’s lots of news to look forward to under the ice. 

4. Blind Shrimp and Clawless Crabs

Those melting ice sheets may introduce or reintroduce microbial species into our world but they may have to wait to get looked at…new species seem to turn up at a pretty awesome rate. On Wednesday the AP reported the discovery of “blind, tiny, almost translucent shrimp” in a cave near Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico. A specialist with the Bureau of Land Management said the shrimp have “been down there tens of thousands of years, millions of years and we’re just now getting around to finding them."

Jump from that awesomely cool finding to some blind shrimp many are sure to wish were never found, eyeless shrimp, in fact…and clawless crabs, gill-less fish and numerous other marine life deformities. Amir Khan of the The International Business Times reports that after the 200 million gallon BP oil disaster of 2010 researchers and fisherman continue to make findings, including shrimp with tumors, crabs with soft shells or no spikes on their shells and fish with lesions. 

“BP officials said tests show that gulf seafood is safe and that fish deformities were documented before the oil spill,” Khan reports. 

Jim Cowan, an oceanographer at Louisiana State University has a different take on it, telling Al Jazeera that the fisherman have never seen anything like this and after 20 years and up to 30,000 fish “I’ve never seen anything like this either.” 

Also, Khan reports, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said that before the spill only “one-tenth of 1 percent of fish had any growths or sores,” while the University of South Florida did a study that says post-spill 2-5 percent of fish have skin lesions or sores. That study reported by the Tampa Bay Times shows a map of the affected area and a red snapper with a skin lesion. Oceanographer Steve Murawski says that it’s not necessarily the BP spill that caused the lesions -- the area has so many oil rigs that it could be leaking from any of them or from natural vents.

Khan’s story says that “Environmental researchers blame the spill and also BP’s attempt to clean it up using two million gallons of a dispersant called Corexit." Khan writes, “The exact effects of the dispersant are unknown and researchers with Corexit's manufacturer Nalco didn't conduct toxicity studies on the product before use.”

5. The Good News Is…

Thanks to some researchers at Rice University and Penn State there might soon be a much better way to clean up after an oil spill. They figured out that if you add boron during the creation of carbon nanotubes you end up with “solid, spongy, reusable blocks that have an astounding ability to absorb oil spilled in water,” reports Science Daily. Boron promotes covalent bonds (bonds created when atoms of a molecule share a pair of electrons) in the nanotubes which is what gives them their “robust quality” -- they can be used over and over again and a sample “remained elastic after about 10,000 compressions in the lab.” 

Cleaning up big oil spills is just one use for the nanosponges says Mauricio Terrones, co-author of the paper that appeared in Nature’s online open-access journal Scientific Reports -- they could also help make lighter batteries, “scaffolds for bone-tissue regeneration,” materials for the auto and aircraft industries and also for filtration systems.

It’s truly exciting to hear about a breakthrough that could make oil spill clean-up safer and easier. It’s doubly exciting that this material can be used in many ways, because we won’t be oil-dependent forever…right? 

6. Color Them Smart

If you want your child, friend’s child, niece, nephew, etc. to grow up to be a brilliant chemist like the ones at Rice and Penn who did that trick with the boron and invented a potentially ocean-saving material, check out these neat chemical crayon labels from Queinteresante on Etsy, (via io9). There are 96 color labels that match a basic 96 crayon pack but bear the names of the chemicals that create the color.

Kids love coloring, learning big new words (all kids can name more dinosaurs than most adults can) and sounding smarter than you so this should be a breeze. Caveat: you’re going to have to remember them, too, because if your kid says “Please hand me the mercuric iodide,” and you look at her like you left your frontal lobe on the bus, well, that’s not going to be a good example, is it? 

7. Would You Want to Know?

If you do give your kids that nobody-home look it might not be your fault.

Scientists looking for a genetic cause of brain disease stumbled on a gene mutation that makes people more intelligent so now we can all wonder whether or not we have it. 

Mariette Le Roux of the AFP writes that the genetic variant is not the last word on how bright you are -- many factors go into that -- but it does provide a glimpse as to why some people are smarter than others. 

“DNA, the blueprint for life, comprises four basic chemicals called A (for adenine), C (cytosine), T (thymine) and G (guanine), strung together in different combinations along a double helix,” La Roux writes. On the gene HMGA2, people who had an extra C instead of a T on a specific segment of the gene had larger brains. People with two Cs also scored 1.3 points higher on standardized IQ tests than those with one C while those with no Cs scored 1.3 points lower than average.

“The team found that every T in place of a C represented a 0.6 percent smaller brain -- equal to more than a year's worth of brain loss through the normal aging process.”Study leader Paul Thompson said that while the effect was small “it would help our brain resist cognitive decline later in life.” Also, "Most other ways we know of improving brain function more than outweigh this gene,” including exercising and improving both our diets and our educations. 

So…would you want to know? What if you had no Cs? Would you try harder, or not at all? 

One bonus: it could get you out of a lot of things: “Help you with your taxes? Forget it. Solid Ts, remember?” 

8. Size Matters

People’s perceptions can be easily altered in many ways and it’s interesting what factors can change them. 

A research team at UCLA studying how humans assess threats found that men who were holding a .357 Magnum handgun looked taller than men who were holding other objects, Amina Khan of the LA Timesreports. Participants looked at photos of men’s hands holding either the gun or another object like a drill or caulking gun and then asked them to estimate the size of the person holding the object. The gun toters always came out taller -- two inches taller than those with the caulking gun.

In order to ensure that viewers weren’t responding to the object’s weight they did another study with hands holding a kitchen knife, a paintbrush and a squirt gun -- the knife, the more menacing object, made the holders appear bigger and stronger.

The more complex an animal is, the more complex their threat assessment Khan writes. and Daniel Fessler, evolutionary anthropologist and director of UCLA’s Center for Behavior Evolution and Culture and his research team theorize that “the many factors that go into assessing a threat in our species might be represented in a very simple and primitive way in the brain: simply as an image of the person's size and strength.”

Dang! Do you think if the study had concluded “Holding a gun makes you look really fat,” that gun violence might plummet or is that too simplistic?

9. Grand Illusion

Tupac Shakur was killed by gunfire in 1996 at the age of 25 and yet managed to make a stunning appearance at the Coachella Music and Arts Festival that blazed through the web faster than his stage partner Snoop Dogg’s smokeable book the week before. You can check out his lifelike performance here.

You’d think it was the latest next-generation techno miracle, but according to Ars Technica it’s not really a hologram -- nor is it 100 percent new. A mix of computer tech courtesy of AV Concepts and an optical illusion technique known as “Pepper’s Ghost,” spiffed up a bit with modern equipment is the magic behind this astonishing resurrection. 

Pepper’s Ghost works by training your eye on a target area while off to the side, out of the viewer’s line of vision, is a main room where the actual performer/object really is. Hidden in the target area is a piece of glass. Light shining on the object in the main room is reflected in the glass pushing it into the target area and creating a ghostly illusion. It’s probably explained on the DoomBuggies Web site as the method used to create the specters of Disney’s Haunted Mansion. 

AV Concepts added an tech-slick-trick by using a sheet of something called Musion Eyeliner, a “proprietary Mylar foil,” instead of glass. Ars Technica quotes a press release saying that it "delivered uncompressed media for 3 stacked 1920 x 1080 images, delivering 54,000 lumens of incredibly clear projected imagery."

Now that we have an idea how it’s done, we’re wondering who will be the next star to pull a Lazarus. Freddie Mercury? Michael Jackson? Maybe a Beatles reunion isn’t so far-fetched after all. 

10. Whatever You’re Doing, Do It With Care

It’s not as exciting a quartet as the Beatles but the names are cool: the saddleback, the io, the puss and the hag: together they sound like the oldest and weirdest league of super-villains ever. Actually they’re breeds of caterpillar with spines so poisonous an accidental brush could put you in a world of pain…non-lethal pain, but pain nonetheless. Victims are advised to put tape over the affected area and rip it off to tear the spines out. 

Welcome to the tropics!

David Fleshler of the Sun-Sentinel writes that warm temperatures have put them on the march in South Florida where their venom helps protect them against predators -- just about everything is out to eat them. Dr. Jaret Daniels of the University of Florida says less than 2 percent of butterfly and moth larvae make it to adulthood, so those who have to deal with them should adopt the attitude of Tracie Terrell who was stung by an io: "I didn't have the heart to kill it even though it got us good," she said. "Such a unique and colorful little guy."

She’s right: they’d do Jim Henson and George Lucas proud. Here are some unfreakingbelievable pics of the saddleback, io and puss and their relations.

Wherever you live, whatever your hobbies, take some safety advice from medical researcher Dr. Struan Sutherland as interviewed in Douglas Adams' Last Chance to See who described his pastimes thus: “Gardening -- with gloves. Fishing -- with boots. Traveling -- with care. That’s the answer.” 


Liz Langley is a freelance writer in Orlando, FL.