Paralysis Cured By A Nose

Paralysis is a terrible condition suffered by over 3 million people, but can actually affect anyone and has very few solutions. In an almost miraculous turn of events, this has now changed thanks to scientists, doctors, and curiously enough, a chef.

David Nicholls is a world-known, Michelin Starred-chef whose son Daniel became paralysed in an accident in 2003. Since then, he has tried everything possible to help his son, including creating the Nicholls Spinal Injury Foundation (NSIF) which aims to raise awareness of paralysis and fund any promising cure projects.

Spinal surgery breakthrough

Darek Fidyka, showing the extent of his recovery

One of these donations was used by a team of researchers at UCL to pioneer a mechanism for nerve regeneration in spines. They were lead by Professor Geoffrey Raisman, a scientist with a long history in nerve cell innovations. He was the discoverer of ‘plasticity’, a quality our bodies possess by which damaged nerve cells can regenerate. Although this idea was controversial at first, it eventually opened the door for possible repair treatments.

His newest brilliance involves implanting cells from the nose to the damaged area in the spinal cord. But this doesn’t work with any nose cells. It specifically requires OECs, which stands for olfactory ensheathing cells, and their role is to repair broken nerve cells in the nose so that communication between these and the brain is restored, and our sense of smell works correctly.

This idea was applied by a group of doctors in Poland, lead by spinal repair expert Dr Pawel Tobakow, with surprising results. The patient they treated was Darek Fidyka, a man who was stabbed in the back so his spinal cord was cut in two, leaving a gap with severed nerve cells. The operation consisted of implanting Fidyka’s OECs into the gap where these, instead of healing nose nerve cells, would bridge the separated spinal nerve cells so given time and the appropriate rehabilitation, the spine would no longer be divided into two.

And so it happened. Two years later, the nerve cells on either side of the cut have regenerated and the connection between these has been re-established, effectively ‘curing’ the paralysis. The changes to Fidyka’s life have been enormous. Weeks ago, he wasn’t even able to feel his legs. Now, not only is he regaining some feeling, but can also walk and is even capable of driving a car! More patients are waiting to be treated with this method in hopes of recovering from this horrendous condition and to prove this treatment effective enough so even more injured people can be cured and the fullness of their lives restored.

Nobel Prizes 2014: Part 2

Today, with Jean Tirole being awarded the Economics Nobel Prize, was the last day of the Nobel Prize award season. Last week, we looked into the winners for physiology and physics, so we still have one scientific award to investigate: chemistry.

The 2014 Nobel Prize for Chemistry went to… Eric Betzig, Stefan W. Hell and William E. Moerner for “the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy”.

Microscopes are a valuable tool for all scientists, from physicists examining subatomic particles to biologists investigating cells. But for many years, it was believed that microscopes were limited in how much magnification they could provide. The smallest they could go was 200 nanometres, or at least that was what they though until these laureates came along. The key to their innovation was brought by the use of fluorescence to increase resolution.

Hell created a mechanism called STED (Stimulated Emission Depletion) to take higher resolution pictures which involved laser lights. As an example, he used an E. coli bacterium coated with fluorescent molecules and a special microscope which emitted two tiny rays of light. One of these excited some molecules so certain parts of the bacterium glowed, whilst the other did the opposite, and made the sample duller. This might seem contradictive, except the centre of the convergence was left to shine, so only a small area was illuminated. A picture was then taken of the glowing part, and the procedure repeated at many angles. Combining the pictures taken, he was able to form an image of an unprecedented resolution.


Imagine being able to look deeper into cells – it’s possible now thanks to this year’s Chemistry winners

This is close to what Moerner and Betzig did. They used fluorescent proteins, which could be activated by short pulses of lights. They shone these onto a different part of the sample every few milliseconds, so they only glowed for a short period of time. By superimposing the images of the lighted parts, they were able to capture individual molecules in images! This amazing method is now called single-molecule microscopy and has been used in a wide variety of studies, from HIV research to gene modification.

Thanks to these men’s work and dedication towards science, we can now see deeper into our world than we have ever done before. A few years ago, we could only look at individual cells, never inside of them. But now, we can actually see what they contain, into their small organelles like mitochondria and the Golgi body that allow cells to do all the complex processes that keep us alive. Not only this, we can actually investigate individual molecules from chemicals, advancing the field of chemistry. Their contribution to our knowledge pool is immeasurable, both directly and indirectly, and for this, they are well-deserving of the Chemistry Nobel Prize.

Nobel Prizes 2014: Part 1

Probably the most prestigious scientific award, the Nobel Prize is, for many, the intellectual event of the year, where the world’s greatest scientists are rewarded for their hard work and brilliance. As of yet, only two results have been announced, those for physics and physiology, and the rest will be unveiled as the week progresses.

The 2014 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine went to… John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser for discovering the ‘GPS’ system in brains.  

human gps

Not a literal GPS in our head, but a group of cells that enable us to travel

It all started 40 years ago, when O’Keefe was investigating rats’ brains and their response to certain stimuli to understand their behaviour. In one experiment, he found that in a group of nerve cells in the brain, some became active when the rat physically moved to one area of the room, whilst other cells became active in other areas of the room. The conclusion he reached was that this group of cells was making a mental map of the rat’s environment to help it locate itself and move around. The ‘place cells’, as he called them, were a revolution in the field, but it took O’Keene 40 years and two collaborators to win the famous Prize.

The other recipients of the award are the Mosers, a married couple who, working in O’Keene’s lab, examined in more depth the mechanism and using modern technology, discovered that a close group of cells in the entorhinal cortex also helped in movement. What they found was that these new cells could be active in many positions of the room, not just one specific location. ‘Grid cells’ is their name and they do exactly what their name would suggest: they create a grid of their surroundings.

Both the place cells and the grid cells are used in human brains too, and their work is essential for us to be able to travel, even from one room to another, without getting lost.

The Nobel Prize for Physics went to… Shuji Nakamura, Isamu Akasaki and Hiroshi Amano for the invention of blue LEDs.

At first sight, it looks like they gave these men a Nobel Prize for inventing a bulb, but it is much more complex than that. First of all, let’s explain what an LED is and how it works. An LED stands for Light-Emitting Diode and it is used to produce light. It works by having thin sheets of material over each other, some of which contain a lot of electrons whereas other don’t and so have positive ‘holes’. When an electron collides with this hole, it emits a photon; a particle of light.

blue led

Making blue light is much harder than it may seem!

Red and green LEDs have been around for a long time, but only blue light could be transform into white light. The problem is that blue light has a higher energy and therefore very few materials can emit this wavelength. So when Akasaki, Amano and Nakamura discovered gallium nitride, it was a real miracle. This material is special because apart from having electron-rich areas, it can also produce a layer of itself which lacks electrons, so that together, they can react and produce blue light.

This apparently simple mechanism has had unimaginable consequences, which is the main reason why the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award them the prize. Blue LEDs gave us the opportunity to make white light by coating the bulb with a substance called phosphor. Thanks to this combination, we now use blue LEDs everywhere, from our TV screens to the lightning in the streets. The advantage it has over the normal, incandescent bulbs is that it can last 100 times longer, and is extremely more efficient. In fact, it is said that if all light bulbs were switched to these energy saving ones we could half the electricity usage by lightning in the whole world.

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 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.


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.



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.


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.


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.