Alien Molecule


isopropyl cyanide

Isopropyl Cyanide, the molecule found light years away that could tell us about how we were formed

Where did life come from? Are we alone in the universe? These are common questions which scientists from all around the world are trying to answer everyday, and that have yet to be answered. But we could be closer to understanding the origin of life thanks to the combined work of researchers at Cornell University, the Max Planck Institute, and Cologne University in Germany, who have discovered a complex organic molecule deep in the heart of the universe.

The molecule itself is isopropyl cyanide and consists of carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen. Compared to other chemicals floating around in space, it’s special because it’s branched, rather than straight, and larger than usual. In fact, it may be the largest molecule ever detected in a region of space without a fully formed star.

Obviously, scientists didn’t go all that way themselves to retrieve a sample of the compound to analyse it, and sounding rockets don’t go that far. Instead, they used ALMA, a set of radio telescopes in Chile which can detect microwaves produced by chemicals many light years away, to scan an area of space an examine its chemical makeup. Surprisingly, they found isopropyl cyanide, 400 light years away, in gas cloud Sagittarius B2, where a star is in the process of being formed.

It is not a clear sign or of life, so all you crazy UFOs enthusiasts can calm down, but it is an interesting discovery. Its complex structure, although simpler, is reminiscent of amino acids, the building blocks of life. These are often found in meteorites, so a popular theory is that the ingredients for life were formed in space and then drifted onto our planet, where they became ‘alive’.

Finding out more about how this chemical is formed and the conditions under which it is produced could be used to paint a better picture of how life managed to originate in our planet.

 

Shedding Light on Light


Messing around with the very essence of matter, scientists at Princeton University in New Jersey have managed to change the nature of light into unprecedented characteristics.

To do so, all you need is a superconducting wire with photons flowing through it and a machine containing 100 billion atoms made of superconducting material. Easy, right?

These atoms can then be modified to act as one single atom, thanks to the unusual properties of superconduction and so once this is done, you just need to push these two objects closer to end up with a group of photons acting like crystals.

light

Light as we know it has drastically changed

This is so bizarre because usually, photons of light are free from interacting with each other. But in this experiment, they were able to ‘bond’ together to form a crystal structure. This happens because of a quantum process called entanglement, where two photons can become connected over large distances. When the giant atom was brought closer to the photons, these linked to it and exhibited similar properties to it, effectively making light solid. The mechanism could be varied so that light behaved like a liquid or a gas, and with further refinements, like even more exotic materials such as superfluids; fluids with zero viscosity which flow defying gravity.

Although this discovery sounds like just interesting information, it actually has applications. Obviously, it is important to understand matter and how it works (a science named condensed matter physics), since it brings us closer to discovering new materials or characteristics of objects which we can use in our favour. For example, it could help devise the very sought-after room-temperature superconductor, with which electricity could be transmitted in our day-to-day lives with an incredible efficiency, since it offers no resistance.

As if the nature of light wasn’t hard enough to comprehend already, with wave-particle duality, here’s a new behaviour to complicate things even more. Sorry, students, sounds like you’ve got something else to make sense of.

Superhero Chloroplasts


This week, I bring you another plant-related article, this time discuss how scientists are trying to upgrade the photosynthetic process in plants.

chloroplast

A chloroplast, which, in the future, could be filled with honeycomb-like structure called carboxysomes

It has been a billion years since an eukaryote ingested a chloroplast and by accident created the essential symbiotic relationship to which we owe all the energy by which we survive. However, the way chloroplasts work hasn’t really changed in all these years, even though the environment has, and its system is quite obsolete. On the other hand, the descendants from the species of the first chloroplast, the cyanobacteria, have really changed their photosynthesis, which is much more efficient than that of chloroplasts.

The main difference between our world and the world a billion years ago, at least for this topic, is CO2 and 02 levels in the atmosphere. Before, there was an enormous amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which cyanobacteria and chloroplasts could exploit to produce food by photosynthesis. But as plants became more abundant, they absorbed the CO2 and released 02 , giving rise to our current balance of elements in the air. The most favourable conditions for a fast photosynthetic rate are high levels of CO2 in the air but since this is not the case anymore, there is a need for some changes in the organisms themselves. Plants, which have remained mostly unchanged, have reduced their efficiency, whereas cyanobacteria, which have evolved, actually improved it. The key to their success lies in their ability to maintain high levels of CO2 within the cell, thanks to carboxysomes. These are tiny, regularly-shaped compartments that fill the bacteria, and are specialised in maintaining CO2 trapped in them, so there is more of it available for photosynthesis. They even have protein pumps in their membrane which actively pumps CO2 into the cell.

This unique mechanism is what scientists are now trying to copy into a normal plant chloroplast. To do so, they would use genetic engineering: adding genes from the marvelous cyanobacteria to the chloroplasts so they would develop the pumps, which could increase efficiency between 15-25%; an outstanding upgrade. Transferring the carboxysome technology would be a bit more complicated, requiring more genes and the knowledge on how to make the structure itself, which at the moment is lacking.

Still, this innovative improvement offers an immense upgrade, which would sure be useful to farmers and food suppliers, who have found a rapid increase in their customer pool but a slow increase in their yield, a problem which could be remedied if this solution worked.

As always, there is some opposition, arguing that if plants have evolved for millions of years and have never developed a new way for photosynthesis to occur, there must be a reason for a reason, so natured shouldn’t be tinkered with. The pros and cons for this situation are many, and it is a subject which divides the scientific community.

The Tree of Light


Today I bring you an interesting project I came across on my search for a new topic, which I found too interesting to ignore.

When you walk down a street at night, you will probably find lamp posts around you shedding light so you can see where you’re going. If you also happen to be in a park, you will probably see trees somewhere. Well what if I told you there was a way to combine these two seemingly opposite objects into one? The product is a surprisingly simple yet brilliant idea: trees that glow in the dark.

Glowing plants are not new to the field; in fact, they have been around since the 1980s. But it is only in the recent years that the idea of making glowing trees and planting them on the streets has appeared. It could indeed solve many problems: it would cut down electricity use and improve the city’s biosphere, being greener in not one but two ways.

To make a glowing tree, scientists have 2 methods. One involves genetic engineering, where genes from bioluminescent organisms such as bacteria are inserted into plant cells, and if a whole plant develops from that one cell, the whole plant will emit a soft glow. There have also been experiments which used firefly and jellyfish genes, but they were not as efficient and in some cases the plant had to be sprayed with a specific substance for it to actually glow.

The other method, which is a lot more specific, is to dip the plant in a solution of gold nanoparticles. The plant then absorbs the gold into its system, so when UV light is shone onto the plant, the electrons in the gold became excited, and produced a bluish glow when the UV is stopped.

A popular case of glowing plants occurred just last year, when a Kickstarter fund called ‘The Glowing Plant Project’ collected almost $500,000 and with the money was able to create plant seeds which, if treated nicely, would grow into a full, glowing plant. Its aim was to popularize biotechnology and genetic engineering in the mainstream public, and to do so, sent some seeds to all the donors. Of course, there was some repercussions, mostly by scientists disliking the idea of releasing engineered plants into people’s hands with no real regulation.

glowing tree street

Don’t they?

Whether it has drawbacks or not, glowing plants and trees are a fascinating idea, which could have many important applications; the use of glowing trees to substitute lamp posts being only one of many.

They do look pretty cool too.

 

MagnetoMemory


We are constantly making new memories, at the same rate as we live them. But most of these will be lost, since they contain information we don’t really care about, like a boring bus trip or walking down the street. But some memories are more important and so remain in our mind, like those of family and friends, and it is a really heartbreaking when due to illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease they disappear.

hippocampus

The hippocampus controls memory formation

This new invention is therefore something to hope for. Scientists from Northwestern Univeristy, Chicago, discovered that when they applied a magnetic field on a patient’s brain their memory performance would be boosted. This was investigated in a trial, where two sets of patients were given either this treatment, called TMS for Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, or a placebo. After, they were provided with images of people’s faces, and when a picture was shown, some words were read aloud. Once this was done, the patients were given a couple of minutes, and then tested to see if they could relate the images to the words they had heard. Those that had been given TMS scored better in the test than those without it.

But how does TMS actually work? Well, it has been known for quite a while that the nervous system works by a series of impulses of electricity. The brain is no different, so if you want to stimulate the brain, you want to apply an electric current to it. This can be done with drugs or surgery, but what makes TMS special is that it is non-invasive, so it doesn’t enter the patient’s body, making the whole procedure easier and somewhat safer. The magnetic field that flows through the brain creates an electric field, which stimulates the brain. If this is done in the right area, it can enhance certain abilities.

To improve memory, the immediate assumption would be to treat the hippocampus with TMS, since this is the area were most of the brain’s work on memory happens. But the hippocampus is too deep in our brains, so the magnetic radiation wouldn’t reach it well enough. Therefore, the researchers decided to work on a more superficial part of the brain that indirectly stimulates the hippocampus. The new electric current flowing through the brain caused memories to last longer, specifically the associative memories (those that link something to something else). However, the effects seemed to last for 24 hours only.

Still, with enough research, TMS could develop into an efficient treatment for memory-loss diseases, but care has to be taken since the brain is very delicate and even the slightest of changes can cause a chain reaction.

The Ebola Crisis


There’s been a lot of attention in the media recently regarding the ebola outbreak in Central Africa, so I thought it would be useful to learn the basics of this disease which has already killed more than 1000 people, and then move on to the drastic measures that have been taken to fight it.

ebola

The ebola virus has caused hundreds of death so governments from all around the world are uniting to fight it

 Ebola, being a virus, works by entering the host’s cells, and manipulating them so it produces proteins to make more viruses rather than proteins to make new cells. It acts specifically on endothelial cells, those that cover our skin, line our blood vessels and other tubes in our bodies. To protect itself from being attacked by the immune system, the ebola virus makes cells produce a special glycoprotein which affects the mechanism with which white blood cells detect intruders, so it goes by undetected and can reproduce inside the cells.

 The effects this has on the sufferer are diverse but horrible. They range from fever and headaches to severe internal bleeding. So far, there is no treatment, much less a cure or a vaccine, although there is a lot of work towards it. However, when a patient comes into a hospital with those symptoms, and eventually gives positive for ebola, there are ways to prevent the lethal effects of the virus, which can be mortal in 70% of the cases. Usually, he is given plenty of water to prevent dehydration, and can be prescribed procoagulants (drugs that stimulate blood clotting) in the later stages of the infection to stop large internal bleeding.

 Since the start of the pandemic last December, it has become the largest ebola outbreak in recorded history, and although governments worldwide are fighting its spread and the WHO (World Health Organisation) has declared it a global public health emergency, the virus is still working its way through the population. At the moment, there are about 1700 infected people, all living in Africa, and all from only 4 countries, but without measures could expand to others. Fortunately, ebola is not airborne, and the only way to pass it on to someone else is by fluid exchange, for example by blood.

 Due to the high incidence of the virus, there have been outstanding exceptions to the usual drug control. For example, it hit the news last week that the American government had approved the use of experimental drug ZMapp to treat two infected civilians in the USA, which then expanded to treating priest Miguel Pajares in Spain. After his death on the 12th, the WHO announced it was now legal to treat infected people in Africa with unlicensed drugs. However, ZMapp, the most popular one, is running out, so other countries like Canada are now donating other drugs which although are on the experimental phases, are thought to help treat ebola.

 This situation is unheard of, and of course many people think it is unethical to treat humans with drugs whose efficacy and side effects are not completely known. But WHO says that the situation calls for extreme measures, so any chance of helping the diseased should be used. Even better, the people who are given those drugs will be closely monitored, and they will be treated as part of a clinical trial. This could eventually help identify effective drugs against ebola and at some point stop this catastrophe.

Rosetta Pioneer


rosetta spacecraft

The Rosetta Spacecraft, an inspiration to all other spacecrafts

After ten years of travelling (Are we there yet?), the spacecraft Rosetta, lead by investigators in ESA (European Space Agency), has finally reached its destiny: the 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet.

Since the 2nd of March of 2004, the explorer has travelled the unimaginable distance of 400 million kilometres, and it was only now, on the 6th of August of 2014, that it managed to move close enough to the comet and actually obtain a relative velocity of 1 m/s compared to the space rock. This makes Rosetta the first man made object to rendezvous with a comet.

67p comet

[67P Comet] Does it look like a rubber duck to you?

 67P, which resembles a rubber duck due to the odd shape formed by two rocks fusing in space, is of interest because it was formed from the remnants of the original formations in the beginning of our Solar System, so it could provide vital information on water and the origin of life. That’s why Rosetta will now spend the next 16 months investigating 67P’s characteristics, first from 100km away to study its shape and eventually moving closer. But Rosetta won’t work alone. A small probe named Philae will soon land on the surface of the comet, after scientists at the ESA decide on a safe landing spot. Once there, it will dig into the surface and analyse what its composition, and even use X-rays to visualise the structure. Meanwhile, the dusty and icy comet will travel at 55000 km/h towards the Sun, heating up expelling dust which Rosetta will analyse.

There’s a lot to be learned form this comet, and this will take time, but after ten years, the climax of the story has only but started. Be prepared to hear amazing discoveries from this dedicated project.

Cancer’s Gene Struggles


It’s been a very productive week for cancer research. There’s been a new protein discovered which almost tricked everyone into thinking it was helpful against cancer, and scientists found that just by cancelling some genes tumour growth can occur. Seeing as interesting these discoveries are, let’s delve into them.

First and foremost, let’s talk about the p35 gene. This section of the DNA produces a protein, called p35 protein (who knows why), that can detect abnormal cells, and then start to kill them to prevent them from reproducing, therefore preventing a tumour from forming. This has been known for more than 30 years, and by now we thought we knew all there was to know about it. But the discovery of a variant of this gene hit the news this week. Said gene is called the p35-psi gene, which produces another protein, chemically similar to the p35 protein, which also caused an inflammatory reaction in mutated cells, just like p35 does. But after further study, scientists discovered it does the complete opposite of its cousin: it encourages the growth of cancerous cells. The mechanism works by p35-psi teaming up with another protein, cyclophilin D, which together change the mitochondria organelle so the whole cell itself transforms into a new type, similar-looking to a muscle cell, which usually precedes a cancer.

This opens up a door of possibilities for cancer treatments. New drugs could target cyclophilin D, to stop the transforming process from occurring. Or they could suppress the p35-psi gene to stop it from producing the harmful protein in the first place

 

Cancer Cells

Cancer cells divide uncontrollably, even if they have a mutation which would normally be eliminated

Now moving on to the second piece of news.

We all know how mutations can lead to cancers, but the novelty here was that inactivating genes also caused the disease. This can be done through a process called epigenetic methylation, because a methyl group is added to a gene and so prevents it from being transcribed.

Epigenetic methylation occurs naturally in our cells, and actually helps them repair their DNA. But when this process occurs over and over by continuously exposing the same genes to methyl groups, they might just end up permanently attached, effectively cancelling the gene.

The problem, however, is that it is not known for certain whether epigenetic methylation is a cause of cancer or if cancer causes this methylation. In the study carried out, scientists added a new gene into mice cells, a gene that specifically attracted methyl groups and caused methylation in nearby genes. And speaking of tumour suppressing genes, the team in this investigation concentrated on the effects of methylating gene p16, which also prevents the growth of tumours. Over the course of the experiment, those mice with the injected gene had an increased chance of developing cancer, especially in areas like the spleen or the liver.

Although this information does seem to indicate methylation causes cancer, some researchers argue that maybe when they added the new methylating-prone gene, they messed with the already existing genome so it mutated and turned the cell cancerous.

However, since methylation definitely has an effect on cancer, the group of researchers at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, where the experiment was carried out, will now focus on investigating a way of reversing this process in cancer cells.

It is interesting to note that methylation occurrence can be linked to our diet, since methyl groups come from the food we consume. Some products like green tea and broccoli help decrease methylation rate, so it might be time you had a sip of some delicious tea just in case.

Pikachu Bacteria


Similar to Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, scientists have discovered a type of bacteria that live only on pure electrons. Found in the seabed, in mud or rocks, these bacteria survive by extracting electrons from the surface of nearby materials, and after processing them and using their energy, they excrete them.

Although it sounds like a very simple and basic organism, its way of life is actually quite smart. In more evolved beings like us humans, we use many complex molecules to obtain energy: sugar and oxygen, which turn into ATP, and all this respiration process to end up with energy for survival. These bacteria manage to eliminate these useless (to them) intermediates, and just function with the basic electrons. They go for the easy route, whilst we masochists use larger molecules when all we really need are the electrons in those molecules.

electricity bacteria

These unimaginable bacteria live in electricty and from that they can extract everything they need to survive

However, these are not the first bacteria found to have this peculiar lifestyle. Other species, like the Shewanella or Geobacte bacteria do pretty much the same thing, but the novelty in this case is that the new bacteria can be found in large numbers by just applying a slight current through some seabed rocks. The fascinating experiment studied the microbiome of said rocks and analysed it, to determine how much voltage each of the new 8 bacteria species needed to survive. This eventually led to the recreation of those conditions in a culture, using a battery and an electrode to supply the energy to the bacteria. This simple way of life also raised a question: How much do these bacteria essentially need to survive? If all they need is electrons, by constantly feeding them these in a set of electrodes, they could theoretically live forever.

And as always, what some would call ‘greedy scientists’ are looking for ways to earn some profit out of their discoveries. In this case, it’s the possibility of automated biomachines, where these robots could carry out jobs with no necessary electrical input, only their ability to use power from their surroundings.

Unruly HIV


HIV is still fighting back. After famous claims of having rid a baby of the HIV virus and therefore ‘curing’ it, a few months later the child seems to be affected again.

The news an 18 months old baby had been ‘cured’ from HIV spread like wildfire in the scientific community. This promising medical feat was accomplished by treating a newly-born baby, daughter of an HIV-sufferer, with three antiretroviral drugs (those drugs used to treat HIV). But after a period of 18 months, the treatment was stopped, and the baby left, and nothing more was known of her. Or at least that was the case until March this year, when during blood analysis, after almost a year with no drugs, the girl was found to have no HIV virus circulating in her blood.

This was praised by many scientists as being the solution to the HIV problem- providing the drug in the very early stages of the disease, a tactic which was already known to help treat more effectively the disease. But their hopes were crushed this week when in another check up the patient had plenty of the viruses in her body. This, together with high levels of the antibodies for this virus and a decrease in white blood cells, concluded she was no longer ‘cured’ from the disease.

A possible reason for this reappearance is the fact that HIV virus, although mostly found in the blood, can sometimes hide in other tissues, so when a person is treated with antiretroviral drugs, it only kills those virus cells in the blood. The effect the medicine had on the infant was of wiping out the virus in her blood, so that there were so few virus cells hidden in the rest of her body that her own immune system was capable of handling the rest. Obviously though, this balance was unstable and it was interrupted, setting off an increase in the virus population so the disease was in effect again.

hiv virus

This is an example of an HIV virus, which causes HIV and can lead to AIDS. Its cure has been sought after for a long time, and it seems we still have to work towards it

Researchers have concluded that there are other factors that control the limitations of the virus in the body, not only numbers, so it is their goal to find these and exploit them to increase the effect of antiretroviral drugs. This could ultimately lead to more effective drugs which could be taken less regularly but still maintain the virus at bay. Another objective is to develop a new treatment that targets the hidden virus cells too, so that the numbers can be reduced even further and maybe someday the virus can be completely wiped out from the body.