10 Mind-Blowing Discoveries This Week

You may have had a bad week, but you can be thankful that a squid didn't try to knock up your face. This, and other science news.

Bad things may happen to you this week. You might have a photo taken that will haunt you forever, get attacked by a snake while on your motorcycle or have life-threatening gas. But no matter how dismal things are you can be happy that the following story did not happen to you. Whatever ignominious BS you suffer, at least a squid didn’t try to knock up your face. 

1. Disgust-ink

It’s true: ABC News blogs reported on a paper from the Journal of Parasitology (which is an awesome name for a very bitter love story) that a 63-year-old Korean woman bit into a piece of par boiled squid and felt “severe pain” and a “pricking and foreign body sensation in her oral cavity.” 

But wait! There’s more! 

“Twelve small, white spindle-shaped, bug-like organisms stuck in the mucous membrane of the tongue, cheek, and gingiva were completely removed." The organisms were squid spermatophores or sperm packets which, MSN reported with horrified delight “celebrated their freedom by attempting to impregnate parts of the woman's mouth. Eep!”

Eep indeed. But how? 

Enter io9 with a wonderfully detailed story by Danna Staaf of the Squid a Day blog, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of squid sperm. The video of Staaf speaking about it is 100% worth watching. The short of it is that squid sperm packets have sharp ends that help them “burrow into the skin of the female squid… or the mouth of the connoisseur,” as Staaf puts it. 

So that’s how they embedded themselves in the mouth of the unfortunate diner: it’s what they do. But how were they able to do that after being par boiled? 

Staaf writes in io9 that her fellow squid fancier José Eduardo Marian of the University of São Paulo says that the spermatophores, which are inside a sac in the body cavity may never have made contact with the boiling water in which the whole, uncleaned squid spent just a few seconds. In the video Staaf notes that the squid was whole -- still full of organs -- and recommends simply that if you’re going to eat squid, “clean your squid first. Take out all the spermatophores, and you can eat it, no problems.”  A PSA if ever there was one. 

You’ve heard it before, but yes -- things can be transmitted orally so do yourself a favor: practice safe cephalopod. No one wants to end up with a mouthfulla packets. 

2. Male birth control gel

If only the squid-eater had had this to gargle with before dinner maybe it never would have happened. 

A gel being tested has the potential to be the first chemical birth control for men, reports Thomas H. Maugh II of the LA Times. The gel is a blend of testosterone and Nestorone and dramatically reduced sperm counts in test subjects. 

Nesterone is a synthetic progestin developed by the Population Council and doesn’t have the side effects progestin does, such as acne and altered cholesterol levels. Progestin helps boost the effects of testosterone, which can turn off the hormones that control sperm productions. Test subjects were either given either a) a gel containing  testosterone and “one of two concentrations of Nesterone,” or b) testosterone and a placebo. 

“A complete absence of sperm occurred in 78% and 69% of the men receiving the drugs (depending on dose), compared with 23% of those receiving placebo,” Maugh writes and 88-89% had a sperm concentration “compatible with very low pregnancy rates,” lead researcher Dr. Christine Wang reported. 

Naturally I’m happy about all the possibilities of a new advance in birth control. It’s wonderful that men will be able to contribute to that effort, plus anything that reduces the unplanned pregnancy rate in the U.S. from a bewildering “half” is welcome preventive health care. Bonus: since we’re talking pregnancy here’s io9 with an fMRI on what childbirth looks like from the inside.

So that’s all great news. But right now I’m just enjoying the fact that the head researcher on the male birth control study is called Dr. Wang.

3. New shark species doesn’t mean more sharks

Returning to our sea creature friends for a moment, this is exactly what you want during beach season: researchers have discovered 79 new species of shark, some of which might already be endangered.

“Boo effing hoo,” you think, clutching your boogie board, pissed that you’re rethinking your long-awaited Nestea Plunge into the briny. I hear you. But we need sharks to keep the ocean, the world’s largest ecosystem, in balance. They’re important to a healthy planet. 

And now there might be more species -- but that doesn’t mean more sharks. Daniel Creasy and Nature magazine via Scientific American report that a genetic study of sharks and rays found that samples of 4283 of these animals found 574 species, 79 of which are though to be new (there are an estimated 1200 species in total). Some of the new species might not have been noticed before because they resemble another species -- meaning that species number would be smaller than previously thought.

Anyway, they are having a worse time with us than we are with them. The UK recently signed an international agreement to protect endangered sharks and Our Amazing Planet reported in 2010 that a third of sharks and rays were “threatened with extinction.” CNN reported back in April that in Pacific reef areas that were populated by humans the shark population had dropped 90% compared to uninhabited reefs and that their populations were likely decimated by either getting accidentally caught in commercial fishing nets or being fished for their fins.

I’m an avid omnivore, but this is the kind of thing that makes it seem like the Dutch scientists who are growing a hamburger in a lab (as reported here by the BBC) are onto something. That burger is going to take a year and cost a little over a quarter of a million dollars, but with the growing population and potentially unsustainable current food production methods, there’s no time like the present to start in on a backup plan. It can’t be any worse than the boatloads of junk food I ate as a kid and I’m still here. Bring on the Frankenfins.

4. Sweet start for desserters

But let’s leave squid, sharks and lab burgers and talk about something more appetizing: dessert for breakfast. A study from Tel Aviv University suggests it might be good for you, especially if you’re on a diet.

Connie K. Ho of Red Orbit reports that researchers studying weight loss in non-diabetic obese test subjects put them on two different low-calorie diets (1600 for men, 1400 for women) with about the same number of calories but from different foods. “While one group had a low-carbohydrate diet that had a 304-calorie breakfast with only 10 grams of carbohydrates, the other group had a 600-calorie breakfast with 60 grams of carbs of a small sweet like chocolate, cake, cookie or doughnut.”  The diet that included the breakfast dessert also had 45 grams of protein as opposed to 15 on the other plan.

Halfway into the eight-month diet the participants had lost an average of 33 pounds but in the last few months the low-carb/non-dessert group gained back 22 of those pounds while the dessert-at-breakfast people lost another 18 pounds. 

Who DARES make fun of the Krispy Kreme now? 

The dessert dieters reported fewer cravings, had less difficulty sticking to their diet and had lower levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin after their dessert-y breakfast. The researchers believe that “meal timing and composition,” gave the desserters better results, that the higher protein-and-carb content stemmed their hunger and the sweets reduced  their cravings for “sweet, starchy, fatty foods.” 

It’s kind of a hard idea to oppose. Besides, the only part of the current let-’em-eat-cake zeitgeist might be taking it literally. 

5. While you were sleeping

“If desserts for breakfast worked Homer Simpson would be thin,” I just thought and then remembered he’s a cartoon character. 

There was an episode, though, where Homer tried to diet by listening to subliminal weight loss tapes while he slept but, having been given a vocabulary tape instead he didn’t lose an ounce but ended up talking like Tim Gunn.

Turns out that could almost happen. If Homer had known all those $10 words in the first place having them reinforced in his sleep could have helped him remember them. And according to a study out of Northwestern University learning reinforced during sleep could help you remember things, too. 

Science Daily reports that research subjects learned to play two “artificially generated musical tunes with well-timed key phrases,” and while the subjects napped, researchers played one of the tunes but not the other. The tunes were played while the subjects were in a sleep stage called slow-wave sleep (deep sleep) (which the researchers determined by using an EEG). When reproducing the melody that was played while they slept the subjects made fewer mistakes than when playing the other. Paul J. Reber, co-author of the study, stressed that strengthening one’s memory during sleep is only for things you’ve already learned, not things you’re trying to acquire.

It’s all well and good if you’re trying to remember. But alas! What (puts hand to forehead dramatically) if you are trying to forget? (Looks wistfully out the window. Sigh.) 

6. Communicating with unconscious patients

So our conscious minds are evidently more active than we thought while we are sleeping. And now some researchers are looking for ways to see how much awareness people have when they’re in a much deeper state uncommunicative state, like coma. In  the Ethics of Unconsciousness by Moheb Costandi from the Dana Foundation brain research Web site the author discusses the work of Adrian Owen at the University of Western Ontario, and Steven Laureys at the University of Liège in Belgium who are studying ways to use fMRI and EEG images to “study consciousness disorders” and help doctors diagnose those disorders more accurately.

“They now estimate that at least one in five patients given a diagnosis of being in a vegetative state are actually minimally conscious.” The team has found a way to ask yes/no questions of some of these patients, asking them to envision different scenarios for “yes” or “no." In the New England Journal of Medicine study on that link, of 54 patients studied, one was able to answer “yes,” or “no,” during an fMRI but not “at the bedside.” 

It’s a complex, nuanced, provocative area of study that might mean the eventual reclassification of some patients and even enable them to make their own end-of-life decisions -- Costandi invokes the Terri Schiavo case. But before that here’s another ethical dilemma: because they can be asked, should they be asked? “Should we even ask these patients if they wish to remain alive or die?” Costandi asks.

“That’s the question on everybody’s mind,” Owen says, “but it’s probably not appropriate to ask until we know what we will do with the answer. If a patient answers ‘Yes, I want to die,’ we still don’t have a procedure for allowing that to happen.” 

The story is fraught with deep questions about patient competency and also a study about patients with locked-in syndrome (in which patients are fully aware but can’t move and only communicate with eye movements) who Laureys and colleagues surveyed and “more than half said they were relatively satisfied with their quality of life.” There were some, though who “asked for euthanasia and we just cannot ignore that,” Laureys said, but it’s something most countries don’t have laws for. 

Judy Illes, a neuroethicist of the University of BC who is working with Owen on those issues, said one of the best questions should be “Are you in pain?” because that and other issues of comfort and preference could at least be addressed immediately. “The question,” she says, “is how can we use this technology most beneficially.”  

The brain is amazing and there’s not much cooler than stories of it finding ways to figure itself out.

7. Close-up

It’s also quite beautiful, at least according to a few contest judges. 

A photo of a living brain won the Wellcome Image Award 2012, an annual event celebrating the most striking and informative images in medicine. Stephanie Pappas of LiveScience wrote about the awards and the winner, a close-up of a living brain during surgery by Robert Ludlow at the UCL Institute of Neurology, who took the picture during a surgical procedure on a patient with epilepsy. Theinitial reaction to all the scrambling veins might be “Eww” but after a moment the surreal beauty of it sinks in, especially when you realize that everything we have comes through that oh-so-delicate network. 

Beauty and Brains: Award-Winning Images is the photo gallery of dazzling micro-images of our bodies and the bodies of other creatures. Never would I have thought soil bacterium would make a beautiful fabric. Guess it pays to look beyond surfaces.

8. A little meteor

Actually there is one time you don’t have to look past the surface: most human beings can be reliably judged by their hairstyles. Otherwise, surfaces can be deceiving.

Take for example this rock (via Rob Quinn of Newser). It looks like an pretty ordinary rock of the kind Charlie Brown gets every Halloween. But it’s not. It’s a piece of the Allende meteorite which fell in Mexico in 1969 and contains a mineral Wired’s Alan Brown describes as “previously unknown to science: panguite.” 

Geologist Chi Ma of Caltech and his team have determined that panguite was “one of the first solid materials to coalesce in our solar system 4,567 billion years ago.” It was around before the earth was formed so can probably tell us about the conditions that brought our planet into existence and contains some commonly known elements like oxygen, magnesium and aluminum and not-so-common ones like zirconium and scandium (which is looks like gold leaf and is used in sports equipment).

So now you know that there is something new under the sun. 

Bonus: Panguite was named after Pan Gu, a giant of Chinese mythology who separated the yin from the yang with an ax. Just the way you’d think the symbol of balance and harmony would come to exist.

9. Hot primordial soup comin’ through

Speaking of the origin of the universe, Alan Boyle of MSNBC writes that physicists seeking to recreate conditions just after the Big Bang managed to get themselves -- or rather their creation -- declared the hottest thing of all time by Guinness World Records (you came in second). 

Actually it was the hottest man-made thing, but anyway Jeanna Bryner of Live Science breaks this complicated story into bite-sized info pieces the gist of which is this: the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) is like a big race track where gold nuclei were sent smashing into each other at nearly light speed, resulting in such intense energy that the protons and neutrons in the gold nuclei are broken up into their basic parts, quarks and gluons…to get a picture think perhaps of your latte (the gold) broken up into its parts of coffee and milk (protons and electrons) and those being broken up into their constituent parts. 

The quarks and gluons then formed a “nearly friction-free primordial plasma thought to resemble the stuff that filled the universe just after the Big Bang created it some 13.7 billion years ago. (This matter would have cooled and condensed to form the protons and neutrons that make up the matter here today.)”

The quark-gluon plasma reached 7.2 trillion degrees Fahrenheit -- 250,000 times hotter than the sun and just a little warmer than my un-air-conditioned Florida car.

Boyle writes that this hot plasma soup could offer information about how “the universe is put together at its most fundamental level.”

So they’re trying to recreate conditions just after the Big Bang. I can’t help wondering what if they do an awesome job -- but are just a little early, recreate the actual moment and a whole other universe pops into existence? If cable TV is any cheaper in that one, I’m going.

10. Iron egghead

You know why I put so many links in the piece above? Because particle physics is hard. Gluons aren’t things that pop up in most people’s day-to-day, certainly not in mine. It’s an enormous help for those to whom it’s not intuitive (like me) to have someone explain it well. 

If you have the gift of sci-gab you might just want to get in on the Iron Egghead competition. The contest, writes Phillip Yam of Scientific American (which is putting on the contest in conjunction with SciVee), says it’s based on their own “Instant Egghead” series and the cooking show "Iron Chef," in which contestants are given set ingredients and have to make something out of them. You have a fixed set of props (listed in the story) and with them you must appear on camera and describe a “a part, process or system of the human body in two minutes or less.”

The contest runs through October 21, 2012 and evidently it helps to have a little of that MacGyver thing. (“Gimmie me two Mentos, a Coke and a lighter and I’ll make the Fourth of July fireworks this year.”) 

You can do it, Cinderella! Think of the possibilities! You could be on the Internet! I mean legitimately for once! 

Just don’t make some video of how to get your face inseminated by squid. And if you do, you didn’t hear any of this from me. Good luck! 

Liz Langley is a freelance writer in Orlando, FL.