The Moon Is Keeping You Awake


You may have heard people justify a bad night of sleep because ‘it was a full moon’, and immediately dismissed it as a myth. Well, think again.

The moon affecting our sleep is not as weird and irrational as it sounds. In fact, it’s not even unheard of in the animal kingdom, as this is known to happen in many other organisms, from small worms to large marine animals, and can not only affect their sleep, but also their reproductive cycles. It even has its own name: the circalunar rhythm.

moon

Now you know who to blame for a lack of rest

But to see if it could happen in humans too, a group of researchers from University of Basel, Switzerland, followed a group of patients who, like normal human beings, fell asleep every night, and every time gave the scientists their opinion on how well it went. Most agreed that on the day of or close to full moon, the sleep quality was lower and they felt less rested. But this could be a subjective or biased opinion by the patients. So the scientists backed this up with the most undeniable proof of all: science.

They measured the hormone levels, brain activity and any eye movements before, during and after falling asleep. In case you’re confused about why bother measuring eye movement; it is because during REM phase, where we actually ‘rest’, our eyes subconsciously move around (in fact, REM phase stands for Rapid Eye Movement phase). After conducting this research at different times of the month, and therefore at different stages in the moon cycle, what they found only supported what the people had said themselves: there was a decrease, of up to 30%, in the people’s brain patterns during sleep. Not only was the quality worse, but it was also shorter, as they took 5 more minutes to become unconscious and in total were deprived of almost 20 minutes of blissful sleep.

This could’ve all been due to a decrease in the levels of melatonin, a very interesting hormone which can be found in animals that somewhat ‘predicts’ when it is going to get dark and prepares us for sleep, so a lack of it could lead to us not sleeping as deeply.

But researchers don’t know how the moon can even affect the amount of this hormone in our body and can end up causing the other symptoms. It’s not the presence of moonlight, as this was eliminated by keeping the test subjects in closed rooms. So this leaves the two most plausible ideas being either that the moon’s gravity somehow manages to affects us even though it is extremely weak at such a large distance, or that humans have a physiological clock inside of them which keeps track of the moon cycles. Although this may sound just bizarre, it already exists; but instead of with the moon, it uses the Sun. You may have heard of it: it’s called the circadian rhythm and it has a great effect on us as thanks to it, our body knows how to behave at the different times of the day.

The test was only done on 33 people, quite a small sample regardless of how standardised the whole procedure was. So in future investigations, larger groups of people should be investigated to not only support these scientists’ hypothesis, but maybe to even find out the mechanism by which the moon manages to ruin a good night’s sleep.

Boosting Spiders


Arachnophobia, the fear of spiders, is one of the most common fears, affecting slightly less than 50% of women and 15% men. But regardless of how scary they can be, spiders are fascinating creatures, and you can’t deny their skill. They can spin the second toughest natural material in this planet: spider silk.

Spider silk can be found in spider webs, which are made by quite the process. It is called ballooning, a hilariously weird name that describes the method by which spiders release silk strings into the air so the wind carries them away, until they attach to a surface. Step by step, fibres criss-cross until a web is formed.

You may have already met this creation when cleaning your old, dusty attic or from running face first into them in the woods, but what many people don’t know is that its strength is, in proportion, comparable to that of steel. However, it may not seem as strong because it is much thinner and less dense.

But let’s not get too caught up in spiders and their ways of life. Although their silk can boast of incredible characteristics, we as humans always insist on pushing harder and trying to improve what we see. In this case, this lead to scientists to add a man-made touch into the mix to toughen up silk.

Two groups of spiders, both from the species Pholcidae, were kept in different environments. One group was sprayed with water and graphene molecules dissolved in it whereas the others got water with carbon nanotubes. Then, in a mechanism still unknown to the researchers, the spiders were able to use the carbon compounds in the solutions to make stronger silk. This could’ve happened because they drank the water and the graphene and carbon nanotubes ended up in the silk-producing areas of their bodies or more simply, because the silk ended up covered in the solution and the compounds coated it.

spider web

Let’s hope the toughened up spiders don’t rebel against us

That is what the team of researchers will be investigating further, but for now, they are basking in the glory of being able to produce the strongest fibre ever: an artificial silk between 3.5 and 6 times stronger than the natural version. In perspective, this means the silk produced by these buffed up spiders is just as strong as Kevlar, the material used in bulletproof vests.

Who knows where this coalition between spiders and humans could go next. One idea is to repeat the process with other animals, like silkworms, which also produce their own type of silk. Before though, they need to know how we could actually use this type of silk, whether in sutures and clothes or in the craziest idea yet: creating huge silk nets strong enough to catch and hold falling airplanes.

The Diamond Hunting Plant


Finding diamonds may have just gotten easy peasy. The very sought after rock is one of the most expensive gems in the planet, recognised not only as a sign of power and wealth, but also as an extremely useful material, due to its outstanding hardness.

But what also makes it a costly product is its elusiveness. Not only are they rare, they are also extremely hard to find. Usually, miners in Africa, where the largest diamond deposits are found, have no indication of where diamonds may actually be found, so they resort to mining at random. But imagine if there was a way to know where to find diamonds, like an indicator. Well, imagine no more. Scientist Stephen Haggerty has been studying the areas in Libya where diamond miners usually work, and has found an interesting pattern: within the dense forest full of trees and bushes, a specific plant species called Pandanus candelabrum seems to grow only near kimberlite deposits.

Pandanus candelabrum

Watch out! Diamonds may be lurking beneath this plant

Kimberlite, for those who don’t know, is the mineral ore from which diamonds are extracted. It is formed in the depths of the Earth, in a layer called the mantle where the temperature and the pressure are so immensely high that there is enough force to compress carbon into diamond. Then, thanks to eruptions of underground volcanic activity, whole veins of kimberlite and the diamonds they contain move upwards, into the Earth’s crust, where they can be mined.

The reason this type of plant only grows in such areas is clear: kimberlite provides the soil around it (and by extension, the plants living in it) minerals like magnesium, potassium, and phosphorus, making the area especially fertile and a perfect environment for Pandanus candelabrum to grow and reproduce there

However, it must be noted that although this plant is a reliable sign of kimberlite, it is not necessarily an indicator of diamonds. Only about 10% of the kimberlite pipes in the whole world actually contain diamonds, and only 10% of these contain enough diamonds to generate any profit. It still has a lot of potential though, as it at least gives miners a heads up on where to start mining and doesn’t leave it all to chance.

Equalitarian Blood


Blood flows around the body all the time, yet we barely see it unless we suffer from an accident. If this were the case, and we lost too much of it, we’d need a blood transfusion. But it is not as easy as just putting blood from one individual into another: you need to test it and make sure the blood is compatible.

RBC

Can you guess what antigens these red blood cells have?

This occurs because human blood can be divided into many categories. The most common one is the ABO group classification, which divides blood into four types: A, B, AB and O. In each, red blood cells (those cells specialised in carrying oxygen around the body) have a specific antigen depending on the blood type. For example, if you have group A blood, you will have A antigens; if you have AB blood, you will have A and B antigens; and most importantly, if you have O blood, you will have no antigens.

Each antigen stimulates a response from our immune system to produces antibodies against the other antigens. So if you have blood group A, you will produce antibodies that will destroy cells with antigen B, and vice versa. This is potentially very dangerous, because if you give someone of type A blood from a person of type B, the antibodies can attack each other’s red blood cells and wreck havoc in our bodies.

When it comes to transfusing blood, the best one is group O- since it has no antigens, so there is no way your body can attack it. That is why we call it universal, since it works for anyone, no matter their blood type. This makes it very sought after for blood transfusions, but there isn’t always plenty of it available.

But what if we could convert all blood into O type blood? We can’t change the genotype of adults so that their body produced it, but we can change the blood itself after the blood has been donated. The most successful way to do this would be to insert bacterial enzymes into the blood which can recognise antigens in the red blood cells and cut them off so they are just like red blood cells from O group blood.

In the experiment which created this mechanism, the original enzyme worked mostly with cells from group B only, so to make it effective on cells from group A too they used a very interesting method called directed evolution. It’s just as it sounds: they grew the bacteria that produce this type of enzyme, and slowly mutated their genome (by adding bases to their DNA) so that every generation produced a better enzyme. At the end of the experiment, after 5 generations of bacteria, the final enzyme was produced, which not only could severe A antigens, but was also an impressive 170 times more efficient than the original one.

Yet this method is still not perfect: the enzyme can’t modify all the thousands of red blood cells in a sample of blood and therefore can’t make it completely safe, as there will still be some red blood cells with antigens present. But with enough time, the scientists hope to perfect it and make the technique available so blood transfusions are easier to carry out.

Evil Twin’s Downfall


So what if we have an evil twin, like in the movies? If he/she commits a murder, and DNA evidence is found in the crime scene, both you and your evil twin will be suspects, since you share the same genetic material. Although this is a rare and unlikely scenario, it is definitely a possibility, and has actually happened several times throughout the years.

Usually, this will end in no one being prosecuted, since it would be impossible to determine which twin did it, and sending both to jail would be terribly unfair to the innocent sibling. A new option for the police in these cases is to analyse the DNA of both twins in incredible detail, searching for any slight variations that may have randomly occurred due to mutations and changed the genetic code, but this option takes a lot of time (over a month) and also happens to be very costly.

twins

Now we can find out which twin actually did it

However, scientists have now come up with a sort of an upgrade to this method. Instead of looking for mutations, which occur randomly, they would look for differences in the DNA strands that have been caused by their way of life. These modifications are called epigenetic changes, and instead of causing a gene to change its sequence of bases, it just modifies how it is expressed into a protein. It can do this by adding a methyl group (-CH3) or by altering the histones in our DNA: the proteins that help condense our genetic information into a more compact shape so it can all fit into the nucleus of a cell.

These changes can be inherited, which would be unhelpful since both twins can have them, or caused by environmental factors, which would also be unhelpful if the twins have lived close together in the same conditions. Fortunately, very small differences can cause these changes, specifically in the early stages of the embryo’s development, so although still rare, these changes do exist in twins.

In the specific case of epigenetic changes by methylation, this would mean that the DNA strand is now larger, and has more molecules in it. This would increase the forces of attraction and increase its melting point. Since both twins will have different changes, and therefore different amounts of methyl groups, their DNA would not melt at the same temperature. So comparing their DNA’s melting temperature with that of the DNA found in the crime scene can tell the police which of the two twins did it, and solve the mystery in a much faster and cheaper process, as you only have to heat the suspects’ sample.

Puppy Dog Eyes


Dogs are the most popular pet in the world. They’re loyal, loving and most importantly, cute. But the reason we actually have them as our pets and may feel a connection to them lies beyond the heart, and in the realm of brain chemistry.

Humans release a hormone called oxytocin, the so called love-hormone, which creates feelings of affection and caring. It is produced by a mother gets when she stares into her child’s eyes, or by a spouse looking at their partner. And now, scientists have discovered, it is also liberated when a person makes eye contact or pets their dog, causing a bond to be formed. But, it’s not a one-side bargain: dogs also get a rush of oxytocin in their body, which makes them feel an emotional connection with their owners.

The experiment that discovered this looked into a group of people and their dogs, from breeds like Miniature Schnauzer or golden retrievers, and had them play in a room for half an hour, during which time they obviously touched and looked at each other. Before the test, the animals gave a urine sample, and after playtime was over, they gave another one. Oxytocin levels for all dogs were significantly higher after having spent time with their owners.

puppy dog

Can you feel the oxytocin flowing?

To investigate this further, they administered two solutions onto the dogs’ noses: on some, they sprayed an oxytocin solution; on others, they sprayed a salt solution to act as a placebo. The results supported the previous theory: those being sprayed with oxytocin spent more time looking into their owner’s eyes, and these corresponded by releasing more oxytocin into their system. But there was more to it. This effect only happened in female dogs. Male dogs did not provoke any change in behaviour or oxytocin levels. Although the reason is still not fully understood, and will be researched in future experiments, a possible theory is that in males, oxytocin can also cause animosity towards other people.

Interestingly enough, when the process was repeated with wolves and their owners it didn’t produce the same results, despite dogs and wolves being closely related. This may suggest that this mechanism was developed at a time when wolves and dogs were apart, such as when humans had already domesticating them.

However, don’t use this method to try and bond with any other wild animals. This could only work with dogs, as they are the only species other than humans that are known to release oxytocin because of eye contact. Usually, in the animal kingdom, eye contact actually means defiance, so it could get you in a lot of trouble…

Balding Irony


Baldness affects many people (mostly men) at some point in their lives and a lot of research has been carried out to learn how to prevent it. The secret to doing so might be the most ironic treatment ever: to prevent going bald, pluck your hair.

The science of hair growth is more fascinating than it may seem at first sight. Hairs actually go through cycles: first they grow thanks to the stem cells in the follicle (the anagen phase), then they stop growing (the rest phase), and lastly the hair falls out. But if you manually remove the hair at any of these phases, an interesting process is triggered. The follicle will release cytokines, specifically the CCL2 type, which is a chemical that attracts white blood cells. When these cells arrive, they also release their own set of chemicals that stimulate stem cells so they start producing hair again. However, what’s the point of plucking one hair so that it grows if you already have it?

Well, there’s a trick. Scientists at University of Southern California, Los Angeles, did some experiments with mice where they removed a handful of hair on a specific area of the mouse’s body, and to their surprise, found that not only did the patch of hair grow back, but also stimulated growth in others areas. The catch is that this only happened if a certain amount of hair was removed: there was a threshold for the amount of hair that needed to be pulled out for others to be stimulated.

bald head

Should’ve plucked his hair more often!

This is because the CCL2 signal from one follicle isn’t very large; you need CCL2 to build up so the effects are much stronger and can affect a larger area of the skin. In the specific experiment they carried out, the lowest number of hairs that had to be removed was of 200, which lead to the growth of 1200 hairs. The way these hairs can communicate with each other by accumulation of chemical signals is called ‘quorum sensing’, and it causes the hairs to act like a collective group, as if taking decisions together.

Although the study was carried out on mice, the researchers don’t rule out the fact that it could somehow be used in humans, although some modification may be necessary. It also shows the increasing complexity of the immune system, and possibly sheds some light as to how the mechanism of regeneration is controlled.

The 6th Sense


We are used to people talking about the 5 senses: sound, sight, touch, smell and taste. But scientists are now working on improving these, and even creating a new sense that would enable us to experience the world in a much more heightened way.

For now, it’s all based on an experiment to help blind mice. Since this type of mice isn’t able to see, their sense of direction is severely handicapped. But in the University of Tokyo, a team used a compass like those found in smart phones, albeit a more complex version, and inserted it into the visual cortex of blind mice. It had two electrodes attached, each connected to a hemisphere of the brain. They fired up, sending electric impulses to the brain, whenever the mice’s head turned a certain amount of degrees away from the north direction. Depending on how many degrees, it would change the intensity of the signal on each hemisphere, so for example, when the mouse faced south, the neuroprosthesis would only send an impulse to the left hemisphere. After a week, the mouse managed to interpret these signals correctly and was able to orient itself using this compass, instead of the usual vision.

mouse compass

These mice have a compass in their brain, which helps them overcome their blindness

This was demonstrated by putting the mice in a labyrinth with a prize in the middle, and comparing normal mice, blind mice, and blind mice with the compass. After about 60 rounds of labyrinth trials, the normal mice and those with the compass behaved practically the same, finding the prize in a small amount of time, whereas the blind mice took longer. It seemed like the mice were able to create a map of the labyrinth in their heads, so no matter where they were placed within the maze, they managed to find their way around. Although this did not actually cure the blindness, it enabled them to find their sense of direction and be more independent.

What’s especially interesting is not only that the rats were actually able to ‘see’, but that they could detect this foreign type of stimuli and understand and interpret it correctly. Even though they spent their lives without a compass in their head, as soon as it started working they were able to use it to their advantage, showing the great adaptability of these organisms. This could be extrapolated to use in human beings, and gives hope for a cure/alternative to blindness. Other scientists go further and suggest that it could open a path towards new types of senses, using stimuli like UV or infra red light that, together with receptors like this compass, we could use to see the world in much more complex ways, adding more senses to the pre-existent ones.

Ancient Antibiotic Antidote


Despite the absolutely mind-blowing scientific developments we have witnessed in the last few decades, it seems like our ancestors still have the upper hand, as a 1000-year-old recipe for a treatment is effective against our worst medical nightmare: superbugs.

Bald’s Leechbook

If you can read Old English, this page from the Bald’s Leechbook will give you the recipe to fight the almighty MRSA

The instructions for said cure, found in the “Bald’s Leechbook” manuscript (written in the 9th Century), called for mixing garlic, leeks, wine, and bile from a cow’s stomach in a brass container, so that’s what scientists in Nottingham University, curious about the effectiveness of this old-fashioned procedure, prepared. There was one slight exception: brass containers are costly and difficult to keep bacteria-free, so instead they used a glass bottle and inserted brass sheets into the mixture hoping it would have the same effect. It was left for nine days to sit, producing a dominant garlic scent which filled the lab. But proof did eventually start to show that demonstrated this was more than child’s play: the bacteria that had been added through the soil in the garlic and the leek had been killed, meaning the solution was actually sterilising itself.

Originally, the concoction was thought out to treat styes (eyelash infections) which are caused by Staphylococcus aureus bacteria, supposedly working perfectly fine. But the reconstruction has now been tested on Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus; the older, tougher sibling of the original bacteria and the mixture can still hold its ground. In an experiment using pieces of skin from infected mice, the centuries-old mixture cleared 90% of the MRSA infection; just as much as the standard modern antibiotic used for this type of bacteria.

What’s interesting to note is that only the mixture of all these compounds actually caused an effect on the bacteria. The scientists conducting this research carried out several repeats, each time changing the variables by using only one of the ingredients in a brass-containing water solution. By themselves, they were useless against MRSA, which was to expect because even though they all have some antimicrobial properties, this type of superbug is one of the hardest to kill. But when they were brewed together, they were able to almost completely massacre the culture. Although an explanation for why only their combined effects works is still missing, the frenzy of this wild event has caught many scientists from all around the world’s attention, and many experiments are currently being conducted in hopes of finding out the mechanism behind this ‘magical’ preparation.

This event just goes to show that although we may see most past scientists as delirious people who though the Earth was flat and there were only 5 elements, they still had some very promising ideas which should be remembered.

A great video on the matter you should watch if you’re interested is:

(Special thanks to reader pcawdron for sharing it)

Precious Faeces


Treasure hunters spend their lives looking for valuable objects like gold coins and silver ornaments in shipwrecks or archaeological sites, often involving dangerous stunts. But tonnes of precious metals are actually hiding in plain site, right where you wouldn’t expect them: in your faeces.

gold stuff

Who knows where this gold actually came from…

Many products we use in our day-to-day life, like shampoos and detergents, contain precious metals, which gather up in urban pipes. Or they can be found in the food and drink we consume and that, after a while, accumulates in our body until is removed by excretion, which also ends up in the sewage drains. So imagine if this process was carried out by thousands of people, all living together in a city. The amount of valuable elements in the sewage would be outstanding! And so has been confirmed in a study by the US Geological Survey that found out that the concentration of precious metals in a city’s sewage system is comparable to that in an actual working mine.

For example, in a single kilogram of ‘sewage slime’, you can find 0.4mg of gold and 28mg of silver, metals used in jewellery; 638mg of copper, a metal used in electrical wiring and 49mg of vanadium, which has important industrial applications. But in the larger scale of a whole city, it has been calculated that by all these metals being thrown into the sewers, up to £510 million a year are being lost in the UK.

In an attempt to profit from this waste, companies are starting to consider human faeces as a viable source of precious metals. It’d be quite a profitable venture for them, and much greener than traditional mining since instead of using hazardous chemicals in lands where they can contaminate a habitat, they are used in an enclosed factory. And although working with faeces sounds like an outrageous idea and a bad time, it has been done for many years now, as it is used to make plant fertilizers.

As a fortunate side effect, we would actually be making our excrements cleaner and therefore protecting the environment. Faeces not only contain gold and silver, but heavier metals like lead which can be toxic to an ecosystem. By processing our waste, we’d make sure that not only the valuable metals are removed, but the harmful ones too. This idea just gets better and better!

So who knows, maybe someday in the near future you will wear gold bracelets that come from your faeces, or phones with microchips made of components of our waste.