Ad

Fixing hungry microglia may help us treat obesity-related cognitive decline

Kelsey Lloyd

Neuroscience and Nutrition

University of Cincinnati

We know that obesity is bad for the brain. Obese people tend to have inflammation in their brains, which can lead to decreased cognitive function and increased risk of developing disorders such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. What we don’t yet know is the exact mechanism of how obesity causes these cognitive impairments. 

We do know bits and pieces, like that obesity causes the loss of synapses, which are the connections between brain cells. Synapse loss is a normal developmental process and when a synapse is no longer needed it is destroyed up by microglia, the immune cells of the brain. Obesity is also known to increase the activity of microglia. This leads to the question, which way does this relationship go? Does obesity increase the rate of synapse loss, causing microglia to increase their activity to keep up, or does obesity put microglia into overdrive and cause them to destroy needed synapses?

To answer this question, researchers from Princeton University compared the mental functioning of obese and lean mice. As expected based on the previous research I outlined above, obese mice had impaired learning and memory compared to lean mice, as well as fewer synapses and more microglia. When the researchers then reduced the number or activity of microglia, they prevented both the learning deficits and the synapse loss in obese mice. Reducing the activity of microglia caused no changes in the lean mice (probably because their microglia weren’t very active to begin with). These results suggest that overactive microglia destroying needed synapses was the cause of the obesity related learning impairments. 

This study provides the first experimental evidence that microglia are not just bystanders, but play an active role in obesity-related cognitive impairment. This suggests that someday, we could use drugs that target microglia in order to treat cognitive impairment in obese human patients.  

The secret to longevity may lie in a gene called REST

Centenarians were found to have almost double the amounts of REST in their neurons, as compared with those who only lived to their seventies

Tara Fernandez

Cell Biology

Findings from a recent study published in Nature reveal an unlikely physiological connection between the nervous system activity and longevity. Pattern shifts in the brain’s excitation levels have long been linked to specific neurological conditions such as epilepsy and dementia. Now, Bruce Yanker and his team describe for the first time these new implications of overactive brain signaling.

On a biochemical level, brain activity — which encompasses anything from thoughts, feelings or motor coordination — sets off a cascade of molecular pathways in neurons. 

RE1-Silencing Transcription Factor, or REST, is a critical orchestrator of such signaling pathways, and acts by repressing genes associated with the excitation of neural circuits. Yanker and colleagues previously found that REST actually suppresses the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. REST does this by protecting neurons against oxidative stress. 

Could REST levels, therefore, be a diagnostic marker of brain activity levels and consequently life span?

A white mouse held in a scientist's hand.

Model organisms used to investigate REST included genetically modified mice.

Image by Tibor Janosi Mozes from Pixabay  

To test this hypothesis, the Yanker laboratory performed a comprehensive study using a variety of experimental models, including worms, genetically-modified mice and even brain tissue samples from individuals with lifespans of over a hundred years.

In these models, evidence supporting REST’s involvement in both neural excitation and biochemical pathways was found to be correlated with aging. REST was found to be a pivotal inhibitor of genes that stimulate effective communication between neurons.

Fascinatingly, REST was also strongly correlated with longevity, with centenarians found to have almost double the amounts of REST in the nuclei of their neurons as compared with those who only lived to their 70s.

Given this evidence, could our REST levels indicate how long we will live? Perhaps besides the molecular action of REST, could relaxation techniques such as meditation activate molecular processes that slow aging? 

For now, the verdict is still unknown, but the authors suggest that REST may be a favorable therapeutic target for neurological conditions that are associated with overactive neural circuits, such as bipolar disorder. 

Watch a Dragon launch towards the International Space Station today!

Takeoff is at 12:30PM EST. SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft is resupplying the ISS with stuff for new experiments and tech demos

There are two launches to the International Space Station (ISS) this week. Today, SpaceX's Dragon is launching to the ISS, carrying a bunch of different supplies, mostly resources for experiments ongoing at the ISS. Watch the launch here:

Among the resources being launched is the Hyperspectral Imager Suite (HISUI), a Japanese-designed instrument for imaging Earth from space. Look at it:

HISUI team

This launch is uncrewed, which is a shame 'cause check out SpaceX's wild, futuristic suit:

SpaceX/NASA

On Friday, an uncrewed Russian Soyuz Progress 74 craft launches with more supplies.

Researchers who collaborate with top scientists early on do better in their lifelong career

Though some researchers have questioned the study's methodology, including what constitutes a top scientist or a prestigious institution

Rebecca Muir

Genetics

University College London

New research, out in Nature Communications, shows that working with a prestigious scientist can give junior researchers a competitive advantage throughout their careers.

By examining the publication data from over 20,000 scientists in the fields of cell biology, chemistry, physics, and neuroscience, this study found that early co-authorship predicts a higher probability of repeatedly coauthoring work with top-cited scientists. This then leads to a higher likelihood of becoming a top scientist twenty years later. Here, the researchers defined a "top" scientist as an individual belonging to the top 5% of cited authors in their discipline for that same year.

In addition, junior researchers affiliated with less prestigious institutions reap the most benefits from co-authorship with a top scientist.

The authors admit that they can’t completely control for whether these students who co-author with top scientists are likely to excel in their career regardless. It may just be that top scientists attract top students, the authors say. Additionally, as the researchers only studied scientists who began their careers between 1980 and 1998, it could be that science today is more meritocratic. 

Furthermore, although working with a top scientist was a strong predictor, their early career citations, productivity, and institutional prestige were still very important.

However, the research may indicate that prestige bias from working with top scientists is unfairly and systematically benefiting some students over others, leading to inequality in career outcomes which does not reflect scientific ability. 

On Twitter, Giacomo Livan, one of the study's co-authors, says that “coauthorship with a top scientist truly has potential career-altering consequences.”

But other researchers have a different perspective on the work, with some calling different aspects of the paper's methodology into question.


It may be that the research has wide implications for university hiring policies, paper co-authorship practices, and for students’ individual careers, but that remains to be seen.

Ancient Egyptians were drinking beer that looked just like modern brews

Researchers recently took a physical sample from the vats of Egypt’s oldest brewery establishment and analyzed the chemical components

Lauren Gandy

Biochemistry, Microbiology, and Chemical Biology

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

If you ever thought about going back in time and cracking open a cold one with the Egyptians, you might be surprised to find that ancient Egyptians drank a similar brewski to the ones on tap today. 

The fermented drink featured prominently in Egyptian culture, a gift from the gods that graced pharaohs’ tombs and became the staple, everyday drink for men, women and children. To further probe the ancient Egyptian beer recipe, researchers recently took a physical sample from the vats of Egypt’s oldest brewery establishment (with a production volume reaching 650 bottles per vat!) and analyzed the chemical components of the preserved sludge.

Located in the Heirakonpolis archeological site near modern-day Edfu, archaeologists unearthed one of the oldest-known Egyptian breweries and earliest large-scale brewing site in the world in 2003, consisting of five free-standing ceramic vats. The vats had a thick, black film coating the interior. Early botanical analysis identified several components from the sludge, including emmer wheat, the staple ingredient of beer-making, and barley. However, the researchers analyzed the chemical composition further using instrumental methods, like gas chromatography-mass spectrometry and infrared spectroscopy, and discovered interesting additives.

The researchers found that more than a quarter of the total sample consisted of phosphoric acid. Phosphoric acid is commonly used today as a drink preservative and flavor enhancer, originating from hops in modern-day beer. Interesting, the previously oldest-known usage of phosphoric acid in alcoholic fermentation was in Crete, dating to approx. 1700 BCE. These Egyptian samples pre-date those by about 2000 years (~3600 BCE). 

Further analysis identified other volatile organic acids and esters found in modern-day beer (caprylic acid, capric acid, laurate, and geranyl acetone to name a few) and bourbon whiskey (γ-nonalactone, which creates a coconut-like smell). Amino acids additionally accounted for 27.4% of the sample, with proline consisting of the majority (25.3%) of the amino acids. Proline is enriched in fruits, and previous evidence showed the addition of dates and grapes in ancient Egyptian beer residues, though botanical analysis has not confirmed this.

Though we know a lot about ancient Egypt, this is the first time scientists have shown that ancient Egyptians (perhaps) purposefully added barley, because its fermentation and subsequent phosphoric acid release preserved the all-important beverage and prevented rapid spoilage.

Forget pumpkin spice lattes — there are pumpkin toadlets living among us

These weird and wonderful amphibians are small enough to fit on a penny

Hannah Thomasy

Neuroscience

University of Washington

By this time of year, you probably think you’ve seen all of the pumpkin things that could ever exist: pumpkin pie, pumpkin candles – there’s even pumpkin spice spam. But you might not have seen a pumpkin toadlet (Brachycephalus ephippium). These weird and wonderful amphibians are native to eastern Brazil and are small enough to fit on a penny.

This year, scientists discovered that the toadlets (like some chameleons) have bones that glow! Although fluorescent bones are not unique to these toadlets, thin, light-colored skin combined with bones that are “exceptionally fluorescent” compared to closely related species means that the glow can be seen in living animals.

Scientists don’t know why the pumpkin toadlets evolved this way, but they have a few guesses. These fluorescent bones might be used as visual communication – pumpkin toadlets rely heavily on vision due to underdeveloped ears. In fact, researchers showed that they appear to be unable to hear their own high-frequency mating calls! Another hypothesis is that the fluorescent bones serve as a warning to predators that the toadlets are highly toxic. 

Conquistadors brought disease to the pumpkins and squash of the Americas

Cucumber disease, brought by invaders, jumped to native agriculture

Conquistadors brought new human diseases like smallpox and cholera when they invaded North and South America. They also brought infections to local agriculture. 

Bacterial wilt is a disease that can infect Curcurbita plants, like pumpkins, squash, and gourds. It also infects plants in the genus Cucumis, things like cucumber and muskmelon. Caused by the bacteria Erwinia tracheiphila, infected plants wilt, turn yellow and brown around the edges, and die off. The disease progresses down the vine until an entire crop could be lost. It is only transmitted from bites of the leaf beetle (the bacteria survives winter by living in the beetles' guts). Economic losses from bacterial wilt numbers in the millions of dollars.

E. tracheiphila is an unusual bacteria: its range is today limited to the Midwestern and eastern portions of North America, even though susceptible plants are distributed all over the world. When they analyzed the genetic diversity of the Erwinia bacteria, in search of an explanation for this unusually limited range, scientists last year found something unusual. 

They found that Erwinia can be assigned to three related groups, but that overall there wasn't much genetic diversity in the bacteria, and genetic traits that are usually rare were overrepresented. These are two clues that the bacteria went through a "bottleneck," where a large percentage of the population died off, with the survivors eventually rebounding. They also found that cucumbers, a plant native to Europe, Asia, and Australia but absent from North America until the 1500s, could be infected by all three Erwinia groups, but pumpkins and squashes couldn't. 

The scientists infer that the newly introduced cucumbers, brought by conquistadors in the 1500s, acted as a reservoir for Erwinia. Moving from Europe bottlenecked Erwinia, but it grew and diversified into infecting local plants native to the Americas. It had safe harbor in cucumbers until it developed the ability to spread elsewhere. In the same way that colonizers brought human diseases like smallpox and measles, they brought bacterial wilt to the crops.

So, if your squash is sick this Thanksgiving, you'll know who to blame. 

New research shows how protein aggregates destroy muscle cells

These findings have important implications for the treatment of myofibrillar myopathies, a set of diseases that affect the muscles

In neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimers and Parkinson’s, accumulation of aberrant proteins leads to the death of neurons. This same disease process can also be observed in muscles, leading to the break down of muscle cells. One such class of degenerative diseases that affect the muscles are called  myofibrillar myopathies (MFMs).

A new study by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis and University College London has looked at aggregates of proteins in muscle cells to understand how a protein called desmin is involved in muscle degeneration. Based on a host of genetic and structural clues, they suspected that desmin could assemble in muscles in a similar way to how other protein aggregates form in the brain. They ultimately found that desmin aggregates can destroy muscle cells. 

To do this, they first used an algorithm to help them predict forms of desmin they could use to study protein aggregation. Next, in order to look for and measure these aggregations, they used various types of spectroscopy and microscopy. They observed not only desmin aggregates but also the presence of prominent fibrils, or long, thin protein fibers. They were also interested in exactly how desmin aggregated: for example, did a few proteins clump together and then recruit others to join them, or does the aggregate form all at once? Finally, they tested whether the desmin fibrils that they had observed were toxic to skeletal muscle cells. When the desmin aggregates were added, they saw that the muscle fibers collapsed.

This research may help us understand how to more effectively treat MFMs. From a therapeutic standpoint, having a clear picture how these aggregates come together can lead to development of inhibitor drugs. Although MFMs are rare, they can be extraordinarily painful and be life threatening, so advances in treatment of these diseases would substantially help many people.

A science holiday guide for the nerd in your life

Show people how much they mean to you with brain games, microbe toys, animal art, and more

It's easy to give thoughtless gifts. This year, give thoughtful gifts: science gifts! They're experimentally validated as wonderful*. This is Massive's 2019 holiday science shopping guide, with cool stuff from all around the science web, for Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Christmas, and beyond.

tarot spread using massive's women of science tarot deck

Illustrated by Matteo Farinella, Designed by Allan Lasser

Massive Science

Oh wow, so weird to see us at the top here. The coolest thing on this list is definitely the Women of Science Tarot deck we made. The deck features is itself a work of art, with beautiful original work from Matteo Farinella. Instead of the traditional face cards of many tarot decks, instead there are portraits of important women in science's history, including Mae Jemison, Rachel Carson, Marie Curie, Ada Lovelace, and more. If the the $75 price tag is too steep, there are also postcard packs with art from the deck and posters

Genius Games

The geniuses at Genius Games make science-themed board games and card games. In Virulence, take on the role of a virus and replicate. Build atoms in Subatomic. Or, become the world's first programmers in Lovelace & Babbage. Massive has partnered with Genius Games to offer a 20% off coupon, just use the code MassiveScience20! 

The box of Lovelace & Babbage, a board game from Genius Games.

Courtesy of Genius Games

Two Photon

The undisputed champion of science art, pins, jewelry, and more. Our favorites include the neuroscience section, with brain pins and neuron necklaces, the virus t-shirt, and the nameplate necklaces, with options like "Scientist", "Doctor", and "Programmer."

A nameplate necklace that reads "Programmer."

Stitching Hew

What really sets Stitching Hew apart are their intricate stitch patterns, especially the Brainbrow Pyramidal Neuron Print, detailed enough to make Cajal blush. There are even downloadable stitch patterns or an entire beginner's science hand embroidery kit.

Rachel Ignotofsky

The prolific author and illustrator made one of our favorite books, Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World. But she also has other books, like Women in Art: 50 Fearless Creatives Who Changed the World, along with a whole pile of beautiful art prints to choose from.

Science On A Postcard

If you're looking for an enamel pin to signal your allegiance to a particular scientific field, then this Etsy shop is for you! Packed with notebooks, postcards, stickers and an even a pocket mirror, the Science On A Postcard shop hosts some of our favourite pins, including ones that say science communicator, future scientist and that climate change is real.

Awkward Yeti

You've undoubtedly seen their comics all over the great wide web, but Awkward Yeti's store is packed with goodies. There's tabletop games for the gamer who loves organs, some of the best stuffed organs (okay, the only stuffed organs) we've seen, like a uterus and an irritable bowel, and prints from the comic.

A plush toy in the shape of a brain wearing glasses reading a book. Also the brain has two legs and two arms.

Courtesy of Awkward Yeti

Waterlust

You don't have to be a marine scientist to love their products. Waterlust carries leggings (with pockets!), rashguards and swim tops, board shorts, and more for people who love being in the water. Their products are great on land too — the fabric is soft and stretchy, and the leggings and shorts have a wide waistband that makes them incredibly comfortable for lounging around the house or going to the gym. Each pattern is dedicated to a specific marine conservation cause (my favorite is the Floridian Aquifer collection). Their products are partially made from recycled plastic bottles and the gear is shipped in eco-friendly packaging, making Waterlust a great choice for the outdoor enthusiasts in your life! 

PurpleLilacAmigurumi

This science crochet shop is run by a PhD student at the University of Toronto, so you know the plushies are accurate. Oh and they're lovely too. Take the crocheted neuron necklace, or our personal favorite, the Islets of Langerhans crochet pattern. 

Skype a Scientist

Skype a Scientist is one of the best science outreach organizations we know of and they have the merch to match. If you love snakes and also Greek myths, consider this Medusa-as-a-scientist t-shirt. Or rather, if you're more of an astrobiology person, maybe the hardy tardigrade is more your speed. 

The Vexed Muddler

If you're interested in science-themed underwear, this is the store for you. Consider the Maratus volans (aka the peacock spider) boxer briefs, which to be honest are kind of terrifying. If that's not your thing they also have phylogenetic tree skirts, intergalactic space dresses, and oh what the heck here's black widow underwear.

Slow Dance

Perhaps something a bit more...meditative? Slow Dance is a frame that produces slow-motion, real-time movement. The creators say it helps lower stress and is quite good for meditation (we weren't just being cute).


*data not shown

A continuously updated list of bad genetics studies

Is there a gene for being a cat person? A dog person? A mean person? A selfish person?

When you read a story about scientists finding the "gene for" something, what you probably read about was a genome-wide association study or GWAS (pronounced "gee-was," but in my mind pronounced as one syllable, "gwas," or better, "gwaaaaaas", like spaaaaace). Gene sequencing is getting cheaper all the time and genetics is a vast and barely explored science. So, if you have an idea for something humans do and you want to know if there are genes "for" that behavior, you could do a GWAS. If, say, you wanted to know if there was a gene that explained why someone likes ranch dressing, you could gather a bunch of ranch-lovers, ranch-haters, and, I don't know, some ranch-agnostics as a control, and see if the ranch lovers had a gene that was more common than in any other groups. Maybe that's the gene for loving ranch. That would be a bad GWAS.

Here's a continuously updated list of bad GWAS studies. There are only five on here at first because I'm made of flesh and have a limited capacity for understanding things. Feel free to email more to me at your leisure:


A GWAS for same-sex sexual behavior

What purpose does this work have? I'm not sure, which is wild because the scientists spent a lot of time justifying their work. Sexual preferences isn't a pathology so...why does this exist? Does anyone go looking for genetic explanations for heterosexuality? 

A GWAS for musical rhythm 

If someone isn't good at dancing, maybe there's a genetic explanation for that. Or maybe they could just practice dancing. 

A GWAS for being smart 

Sorry it's actually not for being smart, which is a nebulous concept. It's for "educational achievement," a super rock solid measurement of...something. Probably being well-fed, wealthy, and white? 

A GWAS for getting a lot of sleep and having a high IQ

If you see "IQ" anywhere you can just stop reading (not now, please keeping reading this). Having a high IQ doesn't mean anything. The findings from this study is that people who do have high IQs have flexible sleeping schedules. I don't know what that's supposed to mean to me. 

A GWAS for being hot

I don't know. 

Updated: November 21st, 2019

A GWAS for being rich

Have rich people evolved to be rich? I've heard of inherited wealth but this is ridiculous!

Immune cells like to double up for stronger infection fighting power

Once thought to be experimental artifacts, these cell pairs could provide important insights into the immune system

Sruthi Sanjeev Balakrishnan

Cell Biology

National Centre for Biological Sciences

Scientists have long known that physical interactions between different types of immune cells are essential for proper functioning of the immune system. Yet for years, doublets — or pairs of cells — were often discarded in some types of experiments because scientists thought they were simply a failure of the processes and machines used to separate different cell types in the lab. A new study has countered this longstanding assumption, showing that cell doublets are probably not just a result of faulty lab equipment and instead are a naturally-occurring component of the immune system.

NIAID

Bjoern Peters’ group at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology in California uses a technique called flow cytometry to study immune cells. Immune cells fight off infections and come in more than a dozen varieties. Studying all of them together would be difficult, so the researchers separate them based on certain tags the cells carry, like sorting mail. Flow cytometry allows scientists to feed in a hodgepodge of cells and come away with neat little groups sorted by their tags.

The sorted cells are usually pretty happy by themselves and don’t stick to other cells in the group. Every once in a while, though, pairs of cells called doublets turn up. For years, doublets were discarded as artifacts of the flow cytometry process.

Peters’ lab, however, became interested in these doublets that were observed in flow cytometry experiments when they identified a strange group of immune cells. Although at first the strange cells appeared to be just T-cells, they were actually doublets formed by two types of immune cells called T-cells and monocytes. After some more careful separation and analysis, the group found that levels of these doublets were associated with infections like tuberculosis and dengue. Doublets could also be affected by recent vaccinations. 

The researchers now plan to see if more doublets like these exist and use them to further study how immune cells work. 

CRISPR technology for human gene editing is promising, but serious scientific and ethical concerns remain

Multiple sectors of society must be involved in the regulation and applications of CRISPR to medicine

Marnie Willman

Virology

University of Manitoba Bannatyne and National Microbiology Laboratory

CRISPR-Cas9 has received global attention for its potential to  eliminate genetic disorders, infectious diseases, and many other  ailments that plague humans (pun intended). But in the realm of science, when something seems too good to be true, there are often important caveats. The current standing of gene editing technologies leaves many scientists wondering if we know enough about the genome and consequences of “genetic tampering” to do it in the name of betterment of mankind. 

Recently, the US National Institutes of Health pledged $190 million to make gene editing more widespread. Last month, the story of a Russian couple, both of whom are deaf or partially-deaf and want to use CRISPR to genetically modify their embryos so that their future child is not, circulated around the world of science news. But we still do not know all of the potential adverse effects and consequences of gene editing human beings, leading some to argue that the regulation and applications of this important scientific technology cannot be left up to scientists.

The human genome is a complicated and intertwined set of information, and edits in one part of a gene may have downstream effects that we are currently unaware of. For example, gene editing can lead to large-scale deletions and rearrangements of genetic information that could lead to abnormal gene function and cell activity

While the ability to edit and change the human genome is appealing to virtually every branch of medicine, serious ethical, social, and policy concerns surrounding CRISPR and other gene editing technologies must be grappled with alongside their scientific promise. 

I want a new smartphone, but the human and environmental cost is giving me doubts

New gadgets are fun. They're also abysmally destructive

Cassie Freund

Ecology

Wake Forest University

I need a new phone. Like many of us with older model iPhones, my battery life is just a few hours and I've stopped updating the operating system to extend the phone's life. But I'm having a tough time pulling the trigger. It's not the cost (although that is hefty, especially on a grad student salary). It's not the hassle either. It's the environment.

Making smartphones, laptops, and other tech takes a lot of resources. This is partly due to the carbon emissions from the manufacturing process, but the biggest toll comes from the mining of the rare earth metals that make your phone work. If you're reading this on your phone right now, you're holding about 0.034 grams of gold, 0.34 grams of silver, and smaller amounts of palladium, platinum, yttrium, terbium, and gadolinium — among others. These are tiny amounts, but consider the demand for smartphones around the world. 

All of these rare elements have to be mined from inside the Earth, in places like China and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mining is hugely environmentally destructive: forests are decimated, the ground is disturbed, and water quality in the area takes a dive. Worse still, the cobalt mining industry in the DRC depends on child labor. And elsewhere in the DRC, mining for coltan, another smartphone ingredient, threatens a key population of Grauer's gorillas.

Now take these environmental risks, and combine them with the fact that the average lifespan of a smartphone is just two years, the length of your contract with your cell phone company. After that, if you're lucky, you get a "free" upgrade. Awesome, right? Sure, if you ignore the fact that the environmental impact of a new phone is about the same as using  your old one for a decade. 

The environmental impact of illegal gold mining in the Amazon

Planet Labs, Inc. / Wikimedia

It's nearly impossible to live in the 21st century without contributing to environmental destruction and climate change. I am guilty as well — I eat meat and occasionally fly. But that doesn't mean that we should stop trying to do better by our planet, or ignore the consequences of our actions. This Christmas, I urge you to think carefully about that smartphone purchase, not matter what the Black Friday ads are telling you. 

I know I am.

massivesci.com

Win a chemistry-themed board game from Genius Games

We’ve joined forces with Genius Games to giveaway two of their chemistry-themed table-top games, Ion and Periodic. Enter through Saturday, 11/23 for your chance to win!

Allan Lasser

Co-founder and CTO, Massive Science

We’ve joined forces with Genius Games to give away their chemistry-themed table-top games, Ion and Periodic to readers of Massive Science.

Enter for your chance to win a copy for yourself or a friend! This giveaway will be open through Saturday, 11/23/19, so don't miss your chance.

We love how Genius Games combines fun, accessible games with fundamental scientific ideas and concepts. We're really excited to be able to be able to giveaway some of their games—but make sure to check out their entire collection, featuring games inspired by biology, chemistry, and history.

Soon, algae might absorb carbon dioxide emissions before they even leave the factory

Algae are efficient biofuel producers, and scientists are working on improving our algal-centered technology

Nikita Nandakumar T

Chemical Engineering

Syracuse University

Researchers are always working on developing technologies to reduce carbon emissions to deal with the climate crisis. Recently, algae bioreactor technology has been highlighted as a way to convert carbon emissions from industries into biofuel and other useful by-products. But cost-effective methods for doing just this are needed to speed up the rate at which these new technologies are adopted. 

Now, researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's (PNNL) Marine Sciences Laboratory in Sequim, Washington, aim to lower the cost of producing algae-based biofuels to $3/gasoline-gallon equivalent by 2030 by cultivating highly productive strains of algae. The PNNL's work on algal biofuels is funded and directed by the U.S. Department on Energy as part of the Algal DISCOVR project.

The algae technology eliminates challenges associated with existing carbon capture methods. Algae in the bioreactor use minimal resources: they depend solely on carbon emissions produced by industry and light to produce biofuel. Algae is thought to be 10-100 times more productive as compared to the non-food crops, such as switchgrass, used in current biofuel production. This means algae is capable taking up more carbon dioxide and producing more biofuel per acre, than these alternatives. Since they lack the tough fibrous structures of switchgrass and other plants, algae are also easier and cheaper to process. Other benefits of using algae for biofuel are that they don't take up agricultural land and don't require much water input.

Ideally, algal bioreactors could be installed in factories to capture the carbon dioxide as it is emitted. The company Hypergiant has already developed this type of reactor, which uses artificial  intelligence to continually monitor and adjust airflow, the amount of light and carbon dioxide, temperature, and other parameters to maintain the optimal conditions for algae growth. There is hope for our future to be green, yet.

New research points to a simple way to diagnose autism, even in non-verbal patients

Measuring the brain's ability to toggle between two images is highly correlated to the severity of autism symptoms in study participants

Sarah Anderson

Chemistry

Northwestern University

A recent study from researchers at Johns Hopkins University and Dartmouth College has identified a new marker for autism that could facilitate earlier diagnosis. The marker is a difference in the autistic brain’s capacity for binocular rivalry, which describes the visual cortex’s ability to process one image at a time when presented with multiple images at once. The brain's inability to ignore one of several competing stimuli is tied to the hypersensitivity to sensory input that is characteristic of autism.

Study participants were shown checkerboard patterns of different colors in their right and left eyes, and their visual processing of the images was measured through an electrode that picks up on brain signals. Autistic participants were much less able to toggle their focus between the two images, compared to neurotypical  participants. Amazingly, the researchers found that the rate of binocular rivalry they measured was predictive of the severity of one’s symptoms, and using the data they could diagnose autism in study participants with 87% accuracy. A clear benefit of this study is that this marker is non-verbal, which means it can be used to evaluate young children who have not started talking yet as well as non-verbal adults.  

While this work provides insight into the underlying neurological root of autism and establishes a new diagnostic tool, it’s important to remember that autism is not a problem to be solved. While the differences in the autistic brain may lead to social challenges, they also impart unique intellectual abilities.  

How did our ancestors start walking upright?

A newly discovered species of ancient ape could shed light on the origins of human bipedalism

Darcy Shapiro

Evolutionary Anthropology

Rutgers University

In a recent Nature paper, a team of paleoanthropologists announced the discovery of a new fossil ape from Germany, which they named Danuvius guggenmosi. Dating to 11.62 million years ago, this little (17-31 kg) ape seems to have had an previously unknown way of moving through the trees. 

One of the biggest open questions in paleoanthropology is how our ancestors evolved to walk upright. Our mode of locomotion, called obligate bipedalism, is unique among primates and our closest living relatives, the great apes, have very different ways of getting around.

Human ape skeletons

Gary Todd

So how did our last common ancestor with the great apes move? Were they upright, like us, or were they more reliant on using their arms, like the great apes?

The researchers who studied Danuvius suggested that it combined upright walking in the trees (aided by a grasping big toe) with the kinds of forelimb movements used by the great apes. They called this new kind of locomotor behavior "extended limb clambering" and wrote that it might be a potential candidate for the way the last common ancestor of humans and the great apes moved. 

They haven't yet analyzed how this new ape might fit into the family tree, but its fossils are still helping to shed light on a complicated time in our evolutionary past.  

Using the old-fashioned blueprint chemical process for modern art

The cyanotype printing process is not only still useful in the 21st century, it's still beautiful

Sarah Anderson

Chemistry

Northwestern University

Have you ever wondered why we call floor plans and other diagrams “blueprints”? The term “blueprint” originates from the cyanotype printing process, which yields prints in vivid cyan-blue colors and was widely used to replicate complex technical drawings in the 19th and 20th centuries. While cyanotype printing could have been made obsolete by the invention of copy machines, artists today continue to use this process to create startling cyan images. For example, photographer Takeshi Moro exclusively used cyanotype to produce pieces for his 2013 exhibition “Wannsee in Berliner Blau.” The crude quality of the images was meant to transport the patrons to the time of the 1942 Wannsee Nazi Conference, and their blue hues were intended to invoke the sorrow of this era of history.  

A cyanotype of algae done by Anna Atkins.

An example of cyanotype of algae done in the 19th century by Anna Atkins

New York Public Library

I helped Takeshi to develop images for the exhibition by making the cyanotype solution in the lab. I combined two chemicals, ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide, at a fixed ratio. Takeshi then applied the solution to the photographic prints and exposed them to light (the duration of this exposure period and the intensity of the light will affect the contrast of the image). Together, the light and the citrate cause the iron atoms in the ferric ammonium citrate to lose an electron, making them more unstable and reactive toward the ferricyanide. This reaction yields a dye known as Prussian blue that saturates the print and produces a cyan-toned image.  

Given that “photography” is now as simple as aiming your iPhone 11’s multiple cameras at an object and pressing a button, it’s refreshing to know that photographers continue to use cyanotype printing as a strategic artistic choice to elicit a specific emotional response from the viewer. And while it may have been inconvenient for Takeshi to enlist a chemist to assist in producing pieces for his exhibition, we agreed that the experience was very valuable because we both came to learn about and appreciate the other’s area of expertise. Cyanotype creates stunning images and opportunities for collaboration between artists and scientists—there’s no need to be blue!

Researchers optimized a reaction involving DEAD to reduce chemical waste

The Mitsunobu reaction is key to using alcohols in organic chemistry, but it also generates considerable chemical waste

Teresa Ambrosio

Chemistry

University of Nottingham

Alcohols are heavily used in organic chemistry because they are cheap and widely available. However, they are also quite stable and react slowly. Before their use, alcohols require a pre-activation step, and one of the most common ways to do it is the Mitsunobu reaction

This reaction involves the use of the chemical diethyl azodicarboxylate, which is known as DEAD in the chemistry community for its high toxicity. DEAD is used in a stoichiometric amount (i.e. a one-to-one ratio) with respect to the alcohol in this reaction. This means that if we want to modify 1,000 units of alcohol, we need 1,000 units of DEAD, which will consequently produce 1,000 units of chemical waste. This major drawback prevents the implementation of the Mitsunobu reaction on a larger industrial scale, especially in uses such as the production of drug candidates.

Recently, researchers at the University of Nottingham have managed to design and optimize a new way of carrying out the Mitsunobu reaction through the use of an organocatalyst. Here, an organocatalyst refers to an organic compound which can speed up a chemical reaction, but isn't consumed by the reaction. Specifically, the researchers designed a phosphine oxide compound to optimize the Mitsunobu reaction. 

The way this newly optimized reaction works is the following: the alcohol is bound to the organocatalyst, which leads to the formation of "activated" alcohol. Once the alcohol is activated, it reacts much more quickly with a nucleophile (i.e. a chemical species which donates electrons), leading to the formation of the desired product and returns the organocatalyst to its original state. In this state, the organocatalyst can bind to a new unit of alcohol and repeats the reaction. This cycle keeps on repeating until all the alcohol units undergo activation and are used up.

Replacing DEAD with an organocatalyst not only has the advantages of removing a highly toxic and dangerous chemical compound, but also forms water as the only side-product. This newly optimized reaction was used to produce thiocarlide, a drug used to treat tuberculosis, which highlights the potential of this newly optimized reaction and its promising application on an industrial scale.

Fires explode across Australia as the continent records its first-ever day without rain

And they are predicted to get worse as the dry weather persists

Olivia Box

Natural Resources and Forest Ecology

University of Vermont

Earlier this week, no rain fell anywhere in Australia for a full day. This was the first time in recorded history that no location on the continent received a drop of rain — and as a result, the wildfire situation, already dire, is growing still more severe.

While the IPCC has stated that we have 12 years to reduce carbon emissions substantially enough to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, in some ways the crisis is already here. In  Australia, the dryness and hot air combined have raised fire warnings to "catastrophic". As of November 11th, there were over 80 fires raging across Australian states, and the number has climbed since then. A state of emergency has been declared in New South Wales, Australia's most populated state. As of now, at least four people have died and countless property damage has occurred, with the fire season projected to become even worse as the Australian summer arrives.
 

A tracker is keeping tabs on the Trump administration's assault on science

The Silencing Science Tracker has been compiling records since 2018

It's difficult to remember all the ways the Trump presidency has ignored, subverted, or  kneecapped science in the United States. Picking a story that best exemplifies the administration's hostility towards evidence-based policy is like picking the perfect rock to smash your own head against. 

There's the eviction of two US Department of Agriculture (USDA) research agencies from DC to Missouri, effectively firing career scientists who weren't willing to pick up their lives and move. There's the move to allow slaughterhouses to self-regulate themselves. And of course there have been countless ways that the administration has undermined the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This week the EPA announced its plan to relax coal industry regulations around waste disposal, which were put in place to prevent metal contamination in water supplies. Also this week the EPA announced new policies that would restrict what research could be used to base policy on. It's too much to keep track of.

Luckily you don't have to. The Silencing Science Tracker has been keeping diligent records on the Trump administration's behavior around science for almost two years. The tracker lists every instance of distorting science that's occurred at the federal and state level in the US since January 2018, founded on the one year anniversary of Donald Trump's inauguration. I spoke with Susan Rosenthal at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law and Climate Science Legal Defense Fund at Columbia University, which houses the Tracker:

"[We're] seeing all these things, a lot of stuff about web pages being removed, and [scientists] were being asked to or were choosing to censor their work, to stop using certain words, from this fear of attracting attention from officials that were appointed by the new administration." 

The Tracker only deals with absolute, concrete stuff. So even though the westward movement of USDA and Bureau of Land Management scientists out of DC has a strong air of suppression, since there's no hard evidence that the move was an act of repression, it's left out. 

You can sort by state, agency, explanation given, and even by scientists affected. The amount of climate science being ignored or interfered with is so great that the scientists affected are simply categorized as "Climate," with 261 entries, or 201 "Other" entries. The depth and breadth of climate science suppression is breathtaking. Even Amtrak of all agencies has deleted references of climate change from reports, and withheld studies on the effects of climate change. Said Rosenthal:

"We have a lot of stuff to add, which is good for the Tracker, but obviously, is bad."

Science articles written by scientists perform as well as those written by journalists

Scientists are helping to fill a critical void and bringing unique perspectives to science communication

Amy R Nippert

Neuroscience

University of Minnesota

Can scientists fill the void in science journalism? A new study posted on bioRxiv asked this exact question, and found that in terms of article engagement, scientists and journalists engage audiences at roughly equivalent rates. The researchers, led by PhD student Yael Baren-Ben David from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, looked at views, clicks, comments and time spent on the page as metrics of engagement, and compared equivalent articles written by scientists and professional journalists. For the two major Israeli online news sites that they studied, the audiences literally and figuratively “liked”  articles equivalently no matter who wrote them. 

As the number of professional science journalists has declined, scientists have fulfilled the important task of communicating science to the public. As a scientist writing for Massive, it’s reassuring to me to see data confirming that scientists can write in a way that engages the general public, and that the public responds positively. 

The study authors note that while scientists can inform and share science news, they are not independent outsiders and have other limitations on their time and knowledge. Increasing the number of scientists writing articles may accelerate the decline of science journalists, and increase reliance on unpaid, outside sources. Despite these caveats, scientists can still play an important role in science communication. It only benefits society to hear their unique points of view.

To adapt to city life, snails in urban centres are more likely to be yellow than pink

Science-loving citizens helped researchers look at how urban environments affect snails

Sruthi Sanjeev Balakrishnan

Cell Biology

National Centre for Biological Sciences

Simply owning a smartphone takes you one step closer to becoming a scientist. They're sometimes the instrument of choice for evolutionary biologists. By submitting pictures of snails through an app, science-loving citizens helped researchers look at how urban environments affect snails.

Human activity makes cities warmer than their surroundings. Snails are sensitive to such temperature changes, so having paler shells keeps them cool by reflecting sunlight. The snails studied here, Cepaea nemoralis i.e. a grove snail, can have pink, yellow or brown shells, with up to five dark stripes on them. They are also found both in cities and forests. If shell patterns are actually adaptations to different temperatures, are there more light-patterned snails in cities?

Grove snail - yellow outer shell - bark, tree, nature

 The grove snail or brown-lipped snail (Cepaea nemoralis) on a branch.

By Mad Max 

Menno Schilthuizen’s research group at Leiden University tried to answer this question by studying snail pictures from across the Netherlands. Schilthuizen’s lab built an app  — SnailSnap  — that could be downloaded by anyone with a smartphone. The app had instructions on the kind of snails to take pictures of, which were uploaded to a server and analyzed by an algorithm.

The algorithm classified pictures in three ways: shell color, number of stripes, and environment. After sorting through nearly 8,000 images, it showed that yellow shells were more common in urban areas. This made sense as yellow reflects more sunlight than other colors. 

Strangely, it was not snails with the least number of stripes, but ones with an intermediate number that were more populous in cities. This observation directly clashed with the “lighter is better” notion, as stripes are dark bands and having them reduces the shell’s capacity to reflect light. The researchers think they may have stumbled upon a novel way of regulating temperatures, where the snails use a combination of light and dark patterns to adjust heat radiation. 

The scientists now plan to expand their project and analyze feather patterns in urban birds, once again enlisting the help of citizens in research. So next time you snap a picture of a pigeon, consider turning it in to these Dutch scientists.

We need to talk about our current global antimicrobial resistance crisis — in a more effective manner

Antimicrobial resistance has been declared a global health threat, but we're running into barriers when it comes to communication

Luyi Cheng

Molecular Biology and Structural Biology

Northwestern University

Antimicrobial resistance has been declared a global health threat by the World Health Organization and a quick Google search can easily lead you to many other reports and awareness efforts. These resources, in addition to explaining the current issue of antimicrobial resistance, also detail methods to manage and prevent the further spread of drug-resistant microorganisms. But all of this evidence will remain hidden — unless we effectively communicate the contents of these reports to achieve widespread public understanding and support.

Recently, to fill this gap, the Wellcome Trust released a report on how to communicate about antimicrobial resistance.

The report first summarizes current barriers to successful communication. These barriers include how we use multiple terms for antimicrobial resistance (for example antimicrobial versus antibiotic), which doesn’t help to connect different messages into one unifying issue. Media coverage often focuses on specific outbreaks, which also makes it hard for audiences to connect broad causes to resulting events.

In response, the report recommends five principles for effectively communicating about microbial resistance, based on desk research, media analysis, interviews, and public message testing. One suggestion is to frame antimicrobial medicine as undermining all of modern medicine and negatively affecting treatment across several diseases, rather than treating it as a singular health issue, like tuberculosis or MRSA. Additionally, using ‘apocalyptic’ messaging can lack credibility and lead to skepticism with audiences. Instead, the report suggests showing that antimicrobial resistance is not only an issue we are facing in the upcoming future but as an everyday issue in our lives right now. Usng this messaging encourages immediate action.

To me, this report is valuable for addressing the particular global issue of antimicrobial resistance and also more. It is part of a growing body evidence-backed resources for communicating current scientific issues that is incredibly valuable for bridging gaps in sharing knowledge in our communities. 

Catch Mercury crossing in front of the Sun, or wait 'til 2032 for your next chance

From about 7:35AM to 1PM EST, a tiny dot will chug across the Sun

Every year there are special astronomical events. This one only happens a handful of times a century. A tiny, tiny, small, smol dot, the planet Mercury, will transit across the Sun the morning of November 11th, like an eclipse in miniature. Look up (with proper eye protection), or wait until 2032 for your next chance to see it. The picture above is of the last transit in 2016 (here's a fun, dramatically-scored video of it, just for fun). 

Check out more info from NASA Jet Propulsion Lab here.

By tracking star "pollution," scientists have found exoplanets similar to Earth's structure

Using oxygen pressure as a measure, scientists examined the structural properties of white dwarfs

Rebecca Dzombak

Biogeochemistry

University of Michigan

Humans have been wondering whether we truly are alone in the universe for millennia. Part of our quest to understand our place has involved searching for other planets like Earth in the Solar System and beyond — but that's much easier said than done. Space, as it turns out, is big, and other planets are far, far away. Studying them in detail, then, is tricky.

A new study in Science gets around this roadblock by studying white dwarfs, which are not an obscure fantasy reference but are actually the remnants of low and medium mass stars. By studying the "pollution" in these white dwarfs, which occurs when rocky bodies crash into the stars earlier in their lives, Doyle and colleagues were able to estimate the rocks' geochemical and geophysical properties — specifically, what was are they made of and what their structures involve.

To estimate these properties, Doyle and colleagues relied on a key geochemical indicator: oxygen fugacity, which is a measure of the partial pressure of oxygen in rocks as they form. They measured six elements as oxides, including magnesium, silicon, aluminium, calcium and iron. As these oxides must have been in thermodynamic equilibrium with oxygen during formation, their abundances can be used to estimate an overall oxidation state. That estimate can then be linked to atmospheric composition, the geochemistry of its crust and mantle, and even the size of its core.

Ultimately, Doyle and colleagues determined that these rocky exoplanets were similar to Earth and Mars in terms of both composition and structure. So there are some exoplanets like ours in the universe...and this brings us one step closer to knowing how we fit in the universe. 

More Lab Notes →