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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

2014 Science Highlights: Part 2


Continuing last week’s list of the most interesting scientific events of 2014, here I present 5 more discoveries that marked this year.

6. Curious Curiosity

moon earth curiosity

The picture Curiosity took in which the Moon and Earth can be seen together

2014 was Curiosity’s year. It was always present in the news, whether it was because of its 2 Earth years anniversary, its 1 Martian year anniversary, the popular selfie it took of itself or the breathtaking picture of the Moon and the Earth. But Curiosity is not only a great photographer; it’s a great researcher too. Since its arrival on Mars, it has provided us with a lot of information about the Red planet. It has made some curious discoveries on the methane gas concentrations in Mars’ atmosphere, and the deuterium to hydrogen ratio, to shed some light on the controversial history of water in Mars.

 7. ALS Fever

als icebucketchallenge

ALS got lots of attention from the insanely popular Ice Bucket Challenge

The Ice Bucket Challenge swept the world; almost everyone, from celebrities to normal citizens did it, and most donated some amount of money to the ALS Association. Overall, $115 million dollars were raised, and the money will now go into helping people with this condition and into research for a treatment and a cure. Although ALS is not a very common disease, it is a crippling one and can leave those affected with a very disabled life. Therefore, it is absolutely amazing to see the amount of support this charity received, and very hopeful how much effort was put into spreading awareness.

 8. The $1000 Genome

genome 1000

By making reading genomes cheaper, we are getting closer to personalized medicine

A machine that could effectively read a person’s whole genome for less than 1000 dollars was invented this year. This has been a very sought after discovery, and a milestone in the genetic field. Scientists have expected this for years, and it is such an important creation that even prizes were created for those who could accomplish this feat to motivate scientists into researching it. Now that we finally have it, it’s better than we imagined. The machine can actually sequence 5 sets of genomes per day. This could set off a revolution in genomics, and fasten the pace of discovery tremendously.

 9. Giant Dinosaur

giant dinosaur

A drawing of the largest creature ever; its size is roughly that of a seven-story biulding

Dinosaurs have always been known for their size, ferocity and majesty. A new species of dinosaur discovered in Patagonia has been calculated to measure 40m long and 20m high, with an estimated weight of 77 tonnes; that’s 77000 kg! Not only is this the largest dinosaur ever found, but it is also the largest animal to ever walk the Earth. What’s also great bout this discovery is that there were dozens of bones from this creature and allconserved in a great condition, so investigating these bones won’t be too difficult. Unfortunately, it still doesn’t have a name; it is such an important aspect that archeologists want time to think of a name that can represent the importance of this animal.

 10. Fake Life Flourishes

X and Y

Base X (left) and base Y (right), completely new bases which act like the natural ones

Synthetic biology grew greatly this year. On one hand, scientists were able to create a synthetic version of yeast’s chromosome, by substituting the original, natural genes by artificial ones created in the lab. But also, two new bases were proven effective this year. All animals use the usual 4 bases (A, G, C, T) in their genes to code for proteins. But new research has created a bacterium that uses two extra bases, named X and Y, which can code for new amino acids and extend the range of chemicals organisms can produce.

 

2014 was a great year for science; let’s hope 2015 has even more interesting and fascinating discoveries in store for us!

2014 Science Highlights: Part 1


Another year passes, so it’s time for another round up of the most interesting scientific events that have happened in the last 12 months. 2014 has been a year full of fascinating discoveries, both in this planet and outside of it, but with some disappointing realisations too.

 1. The Ebola Crisis Continues

ebola

The Ebola virus keeps taking lives and will continue to do so until we find a treatment

The Ebola virus gained a lot of attention this autumn when it grew to an unprecedented size: it became the larges Ebola outbreak in history. In fact, the WHO declared it a global public health emergency and many countries and organisations rushed to contribute some help. At first contained in West Africa, there were a couple of isolated cases in Europe and the USA which caused even more panic, but it has died down. As with many catastrophes, after the initial spotlight, the Ebola pandemic has lost a lot of attention from the public, even though it has not stopped growing. However, it is slightly more controlled, and due to all the press it received, plenty of research is going into treating it, which should hopefully yield some treatments or a vaccine.

2. Stem Cells Stump

Mouse embryo with beating heart

The original STAP cells, which held so much potential, but turned out to be too good to be true

There was a great flurry of excitement at the beginning of this year when researchers in Japan claimed to have created stem cells by simply dipping blood cells into acid. The STAP (Stimulus-Triggered Acquisition of Pluripotency) cells were great for medical research since they got rid of the ethical issues of using embryonic stem cells. The potential of this easy and cheap method were immense, so as soon as the results were published, many scientists from around the world tried to carry out the experiment themselves. But they couldn’t. The results couldn’t be replicated. A more in depth investigation showed that the results of the original experiment were not accurate, and now the theory has, unfortunately, been disproved.

3. Rosetta and Philae

rosetta philae

A representation showing Rosetta (left) and Philae (right) on the surface of 67P

You can’t summarise 2014 without mentioning either the Rosetta spacecraft or the Philae lander. They have both accomplished feats in science which could have only been dreamed of. Rosetta has been in space for 10 years in pursuit of the 67PN comet which is travelling through our Solar System. This year it finally reached it and is now moving relative to it, becoming the first object to rendezvous with a comet. But Rosetta is not the only one who’s kept busy. After rendezvousing with the comet, Rosetta released Philae, a small robot whose objective was to land on 67P. And so it did, although it was a bumpy ride. Unfortunately, it ran out of battery soon after the landing, making it impossible for it to analyse the comet and take samples; its original purpose. But 67P is supposed to pass close to the Sun at some point, which might reactivate Philae and help it complete its mission

4. Dusty Waves

primordial waves

The graph showing what scientists thought were primordial waves, the proof of inflation theory, but is actualy dust

There was another fascinating discovery this year, in which a special type of wave was detected coming from space, with massive implications. Called primordial waves, they are theorised to have been produced during the Big Bang, and if their existence was confirmed, the theory of inflation, which states that the universes started expanding just after it was created would be proved. What were supposed to be these waves were then detected, and scientists were ecstatic. The Big Bang is one of the most confusing aspects of science, and this discovery could help clarify it greatly. But again, after further investigation, the results did not look too good. The alleged ‘primordial waves’ were most likely just dust in the Universe, interfering with the results and creating false hopes.

5. Young Calls Young

blood

Blood could hold secrets for eternal youth

In a truly zombie-like procedure, scientists sewed young and old rats together so they created blood vessels between each other and shared blood. After some time, they investigated how tissues had grown and developed in the two rats and the results were utterly fascinating. The old rats had created more neural connections in their brains, their muscles had healed faster, and their heart muscles had been rejuvenated. However, the young mice suffered the opposite effects.

But scientists concentrated on the positive side, on what chemicals in the young rats caused these changes in the old ones and detected a specific protein, GDF11, which seemed to activate stem cells and cause all these beneficial effects. They also discovered chemicals in older mice which did the opposite: they made stem cells react slower, which in turn deteriorated the health of the younger rats. The next step is finding the equivalent proteins in humans, so that older people can be healed from diseases such as Alzheimer’s or arthritis.

 

Stay tuned for the more of the most interesting scientific events of 2014 in the epic conclusion: 2014 Science Highlights: Part 2.

A Bacterial Lunch


The secrets to weight loss may not lie on strange synthetic chemicals or unhealthy new fad diets, but actually in some simple bacteria we’ve known for as long as we’ve been born.

The bacteria in our intestines help us digest the food we intake; from carbohydrates to proteins to fats. But there’s something we humans can’t actually digest: fibre, so instead we use it to push the rest of the food through our guts and prevent constipation. However, since we should eat plenty of fibre, some bacteria use the excess and digest it too, and when doing so, release a substance scientists call propionate. This chemical triggers a reaction in our cells which results in them releasing a specific type of hormones: satiety hormones, such as PYY and GLP-1. As their name suggest, they are used by the body to make people feel ‘full’, by sending messages to the brain telling it to stop eating. In people, it usually takes a decent amount of fibre to trigger this response, so the person has to ingest a large amount of food before this reaction happens.

bacteria lunch

Don’t they look delicious?

But in developed countries, there is an excess of food, so people over indulge and end up over weight or obese. To stop this, scientists have been working with these bacteria in our guts and have come up with a possible solution.

In the form of IPE (inulin-propionate ester), propionate is in a concentration 8 times as large as that of a normal dinner, high enough to trigger the “I’m full” response despite not eating enough fibre. In theory, if a person takes this at some point during the day, they will produce the satiety hormones that will tell the body they are full so the person won’t feel the impulse to eat. The objective of the drug is therefore to reduce weight gain by reducing food intake.

To test this drug, some interesting experiments were carried out. The most curious one consisted of having two groups of people: one taking IPE and one not (the control) face a buffet and an open invitation to eat as much as they wanted (a.k.a. heaven). People with IPE in their system ate 14% less than those without IPE. And if the drug was given to people leading normal lives for six months, those taking the drug ate on average 9% less than those with no drug.

So although eating bacteria’s remains doesn’t sound like the most appealing plate in the book, it could produce long-term improvements in our health.