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.

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.

A Chameleon’s Colourful Secret


Chameleons are definitely one of the most fascinating creatures on Earth, and their characteristic colour changes, to camouflage themselves or gain the attention of their mates, can impress both kids and adults alike. As if their ability to change their appearance into anything they’d like wasn’t enough, the mechanism by which they do so could also be unique and worth some credit.

In nature, colours are usually produced by pigments: substances that have a specific colour. For example, our skin gets tan because of a pigment called melanin which darkens it. In chameleons, it was originally thought that they showed one colour because a pigment of that same colour covered their skin, and when they wanted to change colour, a pigment of a new colour just substituted the original one. But it has now been discovered that their colour change, contrary to popular belief, had nothing to do with pigments. It’s actually all because of crystals.

A chameleon’s skin has an outer layer full of specialised cells called superficial iridophores, which have tiny guanine crystals embedded that can reflect light at different wavelengths and so produce different colours. Guanine not only plays an important role for this process, but is also one of the four bases in our DNA, which code for all the substances in our body. When the chameleon wants to change colour, it simply twist these cells around so the distance between crystals changes, which causes the reflection pattern, and subsequently the colour it produces, to change.

chameleon coloured

Chameleon’s can express a wide variety of colours thanks to guanine crystals

This is a very smart design which saves the chameleons a lot of energy and resources on producing and transporting the pigments around. If the animal wants a bluish colour, it just needs to push all these crystals together. For a reddish/yellow colour, just spread them out.

The only thing yet to be discovered is how the chameleons actually modify the superficial iridophores’ shape. In the experiment they carried out to test this new theory, they used salt water to expand and contract the cells and see what effect this had on the colour. But the natural process in chameleons is not necessarily chemical, it could be mechanical. Finding out which one it is is the team from the University of Geneva’s new objective.

Either way, discovering the truth behind this ingenious technique is not only an interesting fact to know about, but could also have real-life applications, for example, in developing computer screens.

Prophetic Neurones


Being able to tell the future is a superpower that we have all wanted at some point or another in our life. And although it seems like science-fiction material, we actually do have this ability. Granted, it is not as accurate or far-reaching as we would like, but it is still quite impressive and useful at a smaller scale.

In our everyday lives, we often encounter situations where we need to predict what other people are going to do. These can range from normal conversations to arguments, or even playing games. It is precisely this last scenario which can be used to investigate how exactly we are able to foretell other people’s actions.

The game in particular is called Prisoner’s Dilemma, and the experiment consists of having monkeys play this game and examine any patterns in their actions. In this game, two people face each other with two options: either cooperate or refuse to work together. Every different combination of choices yields different results. For example, if one declines and the other cooperates, the one that declines gets a great reward, whereas the other doesn’t. If both cooperate, they both get a smaller reward. If both refuse to work together, they get the smallest prize. So to win the most in this game you have to be good at predicting what your opponent will do and acting accordingly.

A team at Harvard Medical School made monkeys play this game hundreds of times, but did it so that each time the monkeys could see what their companion had chosen. This way, they could base their decision for the next turn on what the opponent had done and predict how they could get the greatest reward.

anterior cingulate

Highlighted in yelllow is the anterior cingulate, where these ‘clairvoyant’ neurones are found

At the same time, their brains were monitored. Specifically, an area called the anterior cingulate, which has been shown to be involved in the decision making process. The results showed that some neurones in this area acted according to a pattern, depending on the decisions the monkeys took. But to make the results more reliable and make sure these cells were responsible, they used some exterior electrical impulses to inhibit them and prevent them from working correctly. By doing this, the monkeys became more selfish and refused to cooperate more often, even though tactically it made no sense, as it would result in a lower prize. Since confusing these neurones caused the monkeys to make different choices, especially involving disconnection from their partner and a lack of prediction of their movements, it is safe to say that the specific group of cells in the anterior cingulate have an effect on foretelling the future.

Although this theory has only been tested in monkeys, the process in humans is thought to work in a similar way, and studying it can help study social interactions between humans, in light of diseases such as autism.

The Infamous Dress


At the expense of becoming another sheep in the herd of humanity’s trends, today’s article is going to be about the dress that has invaded the Internet. For those of you who don’t know, ‘the dress’ is a picture of a dress taken at a wedding and published on Tumblr, where it proceeded to reach international fame due to an odd fact: different people see the dress being different colours. It may sound like a weird online hoax, but it’s just an optical illusion that causes some people to see the dress and white and gold, whereas others see it as blue and black. Recently, there have been many theories suggested to explain why this phenomenon happens (for example, because of bad eyesight), but it actually has nothing to do with our eyes, but rather, with our brains. If you’re curious, the actual dress is blue and black, but that doesn’t mean that those who see it in other colours have worse eyesight or worse brains, as you will see.

Think about it like this. When you see an object in the shade, you automatically assume it is of a lighter colour than it actually looks like because you know shade makes things look darker. Therefore, your brain unconsciously tries to compensate for by processing the image your eyes are supplying and making it lighter.

But shade is not the only way images can be distorted. It also happens at normal daylight. If you are observing a piece of paper right underneath the sun, you will be viewing it thanks to a yellowish light. Your brain is smart enough to detect the light has a slight colour of its own and will therefore modify the image and subtract some yellow from it. If, on the other hand, you are seeing the piece of paper with the sun blocked but still receiving light from the sky, the light will be slightly blue, so your brain will take that bluish undertone away.

With this image, it’s the exact same scenario. The dress can appear to be in the shade to some people, and exposed to sunlight to others. Depending on how you unconsciously interpret it, you will see the dress a specific way. Those who think the dress is in the shade will unconsciously think it is darker than it should be, so their brains modify the image and make it lighter. This results in light colours like white and yellow-gold to appear. Those who don’t see the dress in partial darkness keep the colours mostly the same and don’t process the image, making it blue and black.

Interestingly enough, some people see it one way sometimes, the other way other times, and even a mixture of the two! This is just caused by our brains varying the amount of modification they do to the image, and may also have to do with the quality of the screen the picture is being viewed through.

But despite all of this, if you ask me, the dress is obviously white and gold.

dressgate

What colour do you see this dress?

 

FrankenBattery


We live in a world where energy is currency. Wars are fought over petrol and other fossil fuels, whilst millions of people work tirelessly to provide alternatives like solar energy to prevent global warming and provide a greener and safer future for our planet.

Since energy is so important, a lot of research is put into it, yielding fascinating results. The most recent one has to do with lithium-sulfur batteries. Their mechanism is not new; in fact, it has been known for decades. But there have always been practical imperfections with their functioning. Scientists seem to have discovered a way to solve them and create one of the most useful batteries to date.

lithium sulfur battery

Lithium-sulfur cells coould soon power your phone, your computer, your car, etc…

Normally, this battery consists of two electrodes, one made of lithium and the other of a carbon-sulfur compound. When the battery works, ions from one electrode move to the other through the electrolyte, creating a current. Unfortunately, lithium can react with the sulfur and form lithium sulphides, which dissolve into the electrolyte and slowly use up the sulfur electrode. Up until now, the solution had been to add some other chemicals, like titanium oxide or manganese dioxide, which would stabilise the sulfur and prevent it from dissolving so easily in the electrolyte. But the method which seems the most promising is actually the most unexpected: adding DNA.

Yes, you read that right. DNA, deoxyribonucleic acid, the organic molecule that codes for all of our characteristics actually improves lithium-sulfur batteries. DNA is made of oxygen, nitrogen and phosphorus, and luckily for material scientists, all these elements easily bond with sulfur. This makes DNA ideal for trapping sulfides, preventing them from dissolving in the electrolyte. In turn, it improves the efficiency of these batteries by almost 3 times. Even better: DNA is cheap and biodegradable, and a very small amount is needed for it to improve the battery’s performance.

The interest in this specific type of batteries is not unjustified. They have a high energy density (can deliver up to 3 times as much energy as lithium ion cells), are cheaper to produce and greener for the environment. It is therefore not strange that scientists are trying to do as much work as possible to help improve this technology. However, the battery world is a slow one, and although an idea may look good in the lab, it is harder to extrapolate that into the industry. But keep your hopes up! Lithium-sulfur batteries could very well substitute the widely used lithium ion cells in only 15 years, with original ideas like the one exposed on this article to push it through.

Magnifying Eyes


It is a popular depiction of the futuristic world to show contact lenses that can display smartphone information: text messages, emails, phone calls… Don’t get too excited, this isn’t today’s news exactly. What has actually been created is a set of contact lenses that allow the user to zoom in and out of everyday life.

The gadget is basically a slightly larger contact lens that covers both your retina and the whites of the eye. It is also thicker and much more rigid than normal contacts, but can still be worn comfortably. In addition, it is covered with strips of aluminium mirror forming a circle, which cause light to be reflected many times within the lens, creating a magnification of 2.8 times. For the apparatus to work at its finest, it has to be joined to a pair of electronic glasses. When the subject winks with one eye, it activates the glasses, so they switch from normal mode to polarised mode. Then, they filter light so only light of one wavelength passes through (polarises) and focuses it on the telescopic area of the lens, which gives a zoomed in view. By winking with the other eye, the glass switches back to normal mode so there is no zoom.

At the moment, there have been no human trials due to the risk of harming the eye. The lenses are naturally thick, so it is difficult for air to pass through and keep the surface of the eye fresh and oxygenated. The newest model of this contact includes many little pores that allow air to pass, so the lenses can be worn for a longer period of time with a much lower risk.

contact lens zoom

These lenses were originally planned as a substitute for binoculars for soldiers

Designing these lenses was not only for entertainment or a cool technological device, but rather for medical purposes. These zooming contact lenses can help people with limited visibility, like those with macular degeneration, a disease which affects muscles in the retina. They offer a much easier and practical alternative than surgery or special, expensive glasses.

Mom, Dad and the Mitochondrial Donor


They say three is a party. But in this case, three parents may be just enough parents to save future babies from suffering a crippling disease for the rest of their lives.

We are talking about the mitochondrial replacement procedure. Found in the cytoplasm of a cell, mitochondria are powerhouses which supply it with energy to function and survive. However, they are not perfect organelles, and may sometimes have mutations which cause disease. Unfortunately, this can be passed on to children, since when fertilisation occurs, it uses the mother’s egg cell as the starter cell, and so all of her mitochondria, meaning that any subsequent cells that form from that zygote will carry the mother’s defective mitochondria.

zygote

A human zygote, which would contain a nucleus with genes from the mother and the father, and mitochondria from a donor

To prevent this, scientists have designed a new process, called mitochondrial replacement, to be carried out on women with mitochondrial diseases, allowing them to have children and prevent these from also suffering from the disease. It is done by a form of In Vitro Fertilisation. An egg cell from the mother and a sperm cell from the father are taken, like in normal IVF. The change comes when we add another egg cell, this time from a different woman (a donor). The nucleus of the mother’s egg cell is taken and it replaces the nucleus from the donor egg cell. The sperm is then allowed to fertilise the new egg cell and a zygote is formed which can then be implanted onto the mother and allowed to grow into a healthy baby. This way, the zygote will develop from a cell which contains the mother’s genes, but none of her mitochondria, so the baby is safe.

Messing around with zygotes is never child’s play, and always carries some controversy. In this case, it is due to the questionable effects of adding a third group of genes to a person. Since mitochondria are essential for life, having them come from a different source than the rest of the genome could have unpredictable consequences.

Despite some uncertainty, the UK government has approved this measure, saying there is no real proof it is unsafe. Rest assured, there will be plenty of human trials before it becomes a standard procedure, but at least it’s a brave step towards helping people suffering from these diseases improve their lives.

Fossils on the Moon


the moon

The answer to the origin of life on Earth may actually not be on Earth

Although the Universe is 13.8 billion years old, life took a lot longer to develop. Estimates say that life ‘happened’ up to 17 million years ago somewhere in the Universe, but only spread through the Earth 3 million years ago. There are various theories as to how life developed on Earth specifically. Some think that the random collisions of molecules that give rise to life happened independently on Earth, since it had favourable conditions. Others think that this may have occurred someplace else, deep in the vastness of space, and that those small living creatures were transported to Earth via a meteorite.

At the moment, there is no way to confirm which of these theories is correct. It was thought that analysing fossil records could show whether any meteorite that arrived at the time life started actually contained living organisms. But Earth is an active planet, and its continuous geological activity has pretty much erased all evidence of it. But scientists have thought of an alternative.

If 17 million years ago there were meteorites containing life roaming around the universe colliding with planets like the Earth, they could have hit the Moon, since they are so close together. And the great thing about this possibility is that it is actually verifiable. The Moon has a much calmer tectonic history, since it currently does not contain any lava in its center to wreck fossil records. But at the time life is thought to have spread on Earth, the Moon was covered in lava, which is more helpful than you imagine. Several experiments in the past have shown that complex organic molecules that made up early life are able to withstand the high temperatures in the lava, and may have actually been protected from radiation by being buried deep inside the hot liquid.

So now we only need to go on a mining expedition to the Moon to find any fossils that may give us the next clue as to when and how life started in this wonderful Solar System of ours.

Micro Slavery


bacteria culture

This is the only way these modified organisms can live: in a dish in the lab

Bacteria can be both useful and lethal. In either case, scientists want total control over them to maximise their efficiency or prevent any diseases. However, it does sounds impossible: how can humans control a bacterium, which is a free living organism so small we can’t see it with our naked eye and is incapable of understanding our commands? But of course they have accomplished this, or otherwise I wouldn’t be writing an article on it.

Subjugating bacteria is done by a simple method. All living organisms require proteins made out of amino acids to live, and bacteria are no different. They use them to carry out many varied functions: they act as enzymes, hormones, connective tissue… so if you control how bacteria make proteins, you can basically dictate how they live their lives. Since proteins are coded by the DNA, scientists tweaked the genetic information so that bacteria didn’t code for proteins they way they would usually do. But changing the whole genome is a long, tiresome process; so instead, they targeted a specific set of genes which code for a specific set of proteins: those that are crucial for a bacterium to make other proteins. It is quite effective. If bacteria can’t make the proteins that guide DNA transcription and translation (the processes that produce proteins), then the bacteria are hindered and can’t work any further.

The modifications involved changing the bases in the DNA sequence so they didn’t code for the usual, natural amino acids. Instead, some new bases introduced coded for an artificial amino acid, created and only found in the lab, so proteins could only be made if this one artificial amino acid was present. This idea, although creative, was developed by two independent teams, one of which used a large, artificial amino acid and the other used three different artificial amino acids. Either way, if these bacteria wanted to survive, they would have to stay in the lab, the only place where they can obtain the amino acid necessary for creating proteins.

The main implications of this development are related to genetically modified organisms (GMOs). People fear that creating beings with features enhanced in the laboratory is dangerous, and if they somehow make it into the wild and grow there, they can harm other, more natural species, or reproduce with them, which would destroy the natural balance of natural selection. This technique solves both of those problems, since the new GMOs developed with dependency on this amino acid would only be able to live in the lab, and could be easily controlled and kept in small numbers.