November 5, 2013
In October 2012, a Duke University biologist named a newly discovered genus of ferns after Lady Gaga. Then, in December, Brazilian scientists named a new bee species Euglossa bazinga, after a catch phrase from a TV show.
“The specific epithet [bazinga] honors the clever, funny, captivating “nerd” character Sheldon Cooper, brilliantly portrayed by the North American actor James Joseph “Jim” Parsons on the CBS TV show ‘The Big Bang Theory,’” they wrote [PDF]. Scientists weren’t done honoring dear old Sheldon: This past August, he also got a new species of jellyfish, Bazinga rieki, and was previously heralded with an asteroid.
These organisms and astronomical entities are far from the first to be given cute pop culture-inspired names. The tradition goes back at least a few decades, with bacteria named after plot elements from Star Wars, a spider named for Frank Zappa and a beetle named after Roy Orbison.
All of which makes an observer of science wonder: Why do we keep naming species after figures from movies, music and TV shows?
“Mostly, when you publish research about termite gut microbes, you don’t get much interest—even most of the people in the field don’t really give a crap,” says David Roy Smith, a scientist at University of Western Ontario who studies these and other types of microorganisms for a living. Recently, though, he saw firsthand that this doesn’t always have to be the case: His colleagues discovered two new species of protists that lived inside termite guts and helped them digest wood, and the group named them Cthulhu macrofasciculumque and Cthylla microfasciculumque, after the mythical creature Chtulhu, created by influential science fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft.
“I remember Erick James, who was the lead author on the study, telling us that he’d named it something cool right before we submitted it, but we didn’t really pay him much attention,” Smith says. “Then, afterwards, day after day, he kept coming into the lab telling us he’d seen an article on the species on one site, then another. By the second week, we were getting phone calls from the Los Angeles Times.” Eventually, James was invited to present work on the protists at an annual conference of H.P. Lovecraft fans, and a search for Cthulhu macrofasciculumque now yields nearly 3,000 results.
The episode prompted Smith to take silly scientific names seriously for the first time—so much so that he wrote an article about the phenomenon [PDF] in the journal BioScience last month. For him, a scientist’s incentive in giving a new discovery this sort of name is obvious. “Science is a competitive field, if you can get your work out there, it’s only going to help you,” he says. Mainstream press attention for an esoteric scientific discovery, he feels, can also garner increased citations from specialists in the field: A microbe researcher is likely to notice a Cthulhu headline on a popular news site, then think of it when she’s writing her next paper.
But is naming species after sci-fi villains and TV catch phrases good for science as a whole? Smith argues that it is. “Scientists are perceived to be serious and stiff,” he says. “When you put some entertainment and fun into your work, the general public gets a kick out of it, and appreciates it a little more.” In an age when public funding for science is drying up, garnering every bit of support can make a difference in the long-term.
There are critics who take issue with the idea, though. It’s easy to imagine, for instance, that the vast majority of the people who shared articles about Lady Gaga’s fern focused mostly on the pop star, rather than the botanical discovery.
Moreover, species names are forever. “The media interest will subside, but the name Cthulhu will stay and plague the biologists who deal with this organism, tomorrow and 200 years from now. It’s difficult to spell and pronounce and utterly mysterious in meaning for people who don’t know Lovecraft,” Juan Saldarriaga, a research fellow at the University of British Columbia, told Smith for his BioScience article. “And for what? People saw the name on their Twitter account, smiled, said ‘Cool,’ and then went on with their lives.”
For his part, Smith feels that all species names inspired by pop culture are not created equal. The Cthulhu microbe, for example, is named after a legendary character with legions of fans nearly a century after its creation; moreover, the protist itself, with a tentacle-like head and movements resembling an octopus, calls to mind Lovecraft’s original Cthulhu character. This is a far cry from, say, a bee, jellyfish and asteroid all named for a catch phrase from a current (and likely to be eventually forgotten) primetime sitcom. “You can do it tactfully, and artfully,” Smith says. “Other times, people might be reaching, and just desperately want to give something a popular name.”
It’s also worth remembering one of the earliest instances of naming a discovery after heroes from contemporary culture: the planets, which the ancient Greeks named after their gods–for example, the gods of war and love. The planets were later rebranded by the Romans—and nowadays, the average person might have no idea that Mars and Venus were gods in the first place—but their names live on.
This blogger’s opinion? Long live Cthulhu.
July 30, 2013
Pickles and potato chips, ice cream and burgers: the cravings that hit women during their pregnancies might be more than strange–they may be permanently changing the brains of their unborn children. New research, to be presented by scientists from the University of Adelaide on August 1 at the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior (SSIB) in New Orleans, suggests that women who eat a junk-food heavy diet during their pregnancies alter the opioid signalling pathways in their unborn child’s brain, transforming the way these pathways operate when the child is born.
The word “opioid” may conjure images of semi-synthetic drugs like oxycodone, a strong painkiller. But not all opioids are synthetic, or even semi-synthetic–in fact our body creates natural opioids known as endogenous opioids. Endogenous opioids are chemicals that are released in the brain and in turn signal the release of dopamine, the “feel good chemical” that is responsible for the euphoric feelings.
When we eat food high in sugar or fat, our brains release large amounts of opioid, which accounts for the “high” we experience after raiding the kitchen for a midnight bowl of ice cream or tucking back a bag full of Cheetos. As psychologist Leigh Gibson explains in an interview with the Daily Mail, our brains are rewarding us for ingesting foods loaded with calories. “From an evolutionary point of view, junk food cravings are linked to prehistoric times when the brain’s opioids and dopamine reacted to the benefit of high-calorie food as a survival mechanism,” Gibson said. Although foods rich in calories are available with much greater ease–and in greater abundance–than they were for our evolutionary predecessors, our brain chemistry remains the same, rewarding our intake of fatty, sugary foods with euphoria.
In the study to be presented at the SSIB meeting, researchers found that the chemical response to junk food was higher in rats whose mothers consumed a junk-food laden diet while pregnant. In comparing the rats who ate junk food with rats who ate standard rat feed, scientists found that in the offspring of the junk-food fed rats, the gene encoding one of the key endogenous opioids, enkephalin, was expressed at a higher level. This means that means that the baby rats of junk-food fed moms have more pathways to receive opiods than those whose moms were fed regular food. These findings add to previous research conducted by the group that shows that injecting the rats with a chemical that blocks opioid reception was less effective at stemming the fat and sugar intake in the offspring of the mothers who were fed junk food.
Combining these results, the group concludes that opioid signalling pathways are less sensitive in the offspring of the rats who ate only junk food. The findings reenforce prior research conducted by members of the group, which initially suggested a distinct preference for junk foods in the offspring of junk-food fed mothers. The new study adds to previous knowledge by pinpointing the specific brain chemistry at work, singling out the genetic encoding of enkephalin. More pathways and decreased sensitivity to opioids means that offspring of junk-food fed mothers would need to eat larger amounts of fatty and sugary foods to attain the same kind of high–leading scientists to speculate that they would consistently overeat junk food as they grow older.
If the implications of these findings hold true for humans, those who sport a baby bump are sure to pay attention. Expectant mothers are already told not to consume alcohol, sushi, cold cuts, soft cheeses, and daring to consume anything on the laundry list of off-limits items is a quick way to earn public censure. Could junk food become the next no-no for pregnant women? Could what you eat while you’re expecting inadvertently contribute to a more obese next generation? Or will the finding mirror the recent revelation that “crack babies,” children whose mothers used crack cocaine while pregnant, were no more worse off than other children of similar socioeconomic backgrounds?
For now, it is likely too soon to make sweeping generalizations about “junk food babies,” though the University of Adelaide researchers hope to continue building on their findings with continued research. Says Jessica Gugusheff, the graduate student leading the team’s recent research, “the results of this study will eventually permit us to better inform pregnant women about the enduring effect their diet has on the development of their child’s lifelong food preferences and risk of negative metabolic outcomes.”
July 15, 2013
Déjà vu is a rare occurrence, but you know it when you feel it. As you walk through a new city for the first time, something familiar clicks in your mind, giving you pause. You’ve definitely been here before.
But you haven’t. So what gives?
Well, no one really knows for sure. The origin of déjà vu (French for “already seen”), a sense of familiarity with something entirely new, remains hidden somewhere deep in our brains. The phenomenon is difficult to study—most people, when they experience déjà vu, aren’t hooked up to a bunch of electrodes, with clipboard-toting researchers at the ready.
However, scientists have pondered the question for quite some time: A description of a déjà vu experience in patients with epilepsy appears as early as 1888. The observation was no coincidence—those with some types of epilepsy seem to feel déjà vu more often than those without the neurological disorder. Research on such patients showed that their feelings of déjà vu
were likely linked to seizure activity in the medial temporal lobe, the part of the brain associated with sensory perception, speech production and memory association.
During a seizure, neurons misfire, sending mixed-up messages to different parts of the body. For these patients, déjà vu is a result of getting their wires crossed. When some patients undergo brain surgery to stop the seizures, they wake up to a world free of the phenomenon.
Some scientists posit that similar neural misfiring—a glitch in the system—also causes healthy, seizure-free brains to experience a sense of familiarity when there’s no reason to.
A second hypothesis involves another brain error; this time, the problem is with our memory, says Anne Cleary, a cognitive psychology professor at Colorado State University. Something about a new situation or setting activates a memory of a similar past experience, but our brains fail to recall it. Cleary offers this scenario to help explain: Imagine you’re visiting Paris for the first time, and you have arrived at the Louvre. Your gaze lands on the giant glass pyramid jutting out of the museum’s main courtyard, and you get that strange feeling.
At that moment, your brain is failing to retrieve a memory that could explain it away: A few months ago, you watched The Da Vinci Code, a film that provides an up-close look at the Louvre Pyramid. “In the absence of recalling that specific experience,” Cleary says. “You’re left only with this feeling of familiarity with the current situation.”
Cleary suspected that this sense of familiarity results from our ability to remember the spatial configuration of surroundings. To test this hypothesis, she set out to induce déjà vu in a laboratory setting (PDF). Using the life simulation game The Sims, Cleary and her team built two scenes, different in their features but identical in their layout. The first was a courtyard setting featuring a potted tree in the center, encircled by various plants, and hanging plant baskets on the walls. The second was a museum setting that swapped the tree for a large statue, the floor plants with rugs and the hanging baskets with sconces.
When participants explored the second room, they reported experiencing a feeling of déjà vu, but they couldn’t connect that to their time spent navigating the first room. “People do have an increased sense of déjà vu when the scene has a similar layout, but they’re failing to recall the source of that familiarity,” Cleary says.
Yet another possible explanation for déjà vu, says Cleary, dates back to 1928, when psychology Edward Titchener described the sensation using the example of crossing a street. As we begin to cross a street, we instinctively look to the left, but if something catches our attention on our right,
we turn in that direction. By the time we look to our left again, our brains may have forgotten the first glance. This second glance triggers a feeling of familiarity, because, in this case, we really have seen something before.
In many cases, people who experience déjà vu can’t pinpoint why it’s happening. But for what it’s worth, our brains are trying to tell us, Cleary says. Tip-of-the-tongue experiences work in much the same way: for instance, we know that we know the name of that actor in that one movie, but we can’t pull it to the front of our minds. “When retrieval does fail, our memories still have a way of alerting us to the fact that there’s something relevant in there,” she says. “There’s something there that maybe we want to keep searching for.”
May 10, 2013
After 17 years underground, billions of cicadas are ready to emerge and see sunlight for the first time. They will blanket the East Coast until around mid-June, buzzing like jackhammers in harmony as they search for a mate. Since 1996, the periodical insects, which belong to a group called Brood II, have lived as nymphs two feet deep in the soil, feeding on nothing but the liquid they suck out of tree roots. Once they crawl up to the surface, they molt, mate, lay eggs and die within a month.
Scientists are still trying to determine how periodical cicadas know when to emerge. But in the last 17 years, researchers have made some other important discoveries about other insects, some of whom also enjoy swarming the United States. Here are 17 news items about the bugs’ brethren since 1996.
1. British researchers figured out how insects fly. In 1996, scientists at the University of Cambridge solved the mystery of how many winged insects can produce more lift than can be explained by aerodynamic properties. The team unleashed hawkmoths into a wind tunnel with smoke and then took high-speed photos of the insects in flight. By studying how the smoke moved around the moths’ wings, researchers were able to determine that flying insects create whirling spirals of air above the front edges of their wings, providing more lift.
2. Cuba claimed that the United States brought an insect infestation to the island. In 1997, Cuban authorities accused the U.S. of staging a biological attack the previous year by using a crop-duster to spread insects over the island. But what really happened? An American commercial airliner had flown over the country and released smoke to signal its location, an event that coincided with bug infestations on Cuba’s potato plantations.
3. A plague of crickets ravaged the Midwest. In 2001, hordes of crickets descended upon Utah, infesting more than 1.5 million acres in 18 of the state’s 29 counties. The damaged wreaked on the
ironically named Beehive State’s crops totaled nearly $25 million. Michael O. Leavitt, Utah’s governor at the time, declared the infestation a n emergency and sought help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in combating the little critters.
4. Scientists uncovered an entire new order of insects. In 2002, entomologists discovered a group of inch-long wingless creatures that comprised a new order, a taxonomic rank used in the classification of organisms. The first to be identified in 88 years at that time, the order, dubbed Mantophasmatodea, consists of insects with features similar to praying mantises. The finding became the 31st known insect order.
5. A swarm of butterflies, thought to be one single species, turned out to be 10 of them. In 2004, researchers used DNA barcoding technology to study the Astraptes fulgerator butterfly, whose habitat ranges from Texas to northern Argentina. What they found was remarkable: an insect that was thought to be one species was actually 10 different species. The species’ habitats overlapped, but the butterflies never bred with its doppelganger neighbors.
6. Researchers pinpointed the world’s oldest known insect fossil. Until 2004, a 400 million-year-old set of tiny insect jaws—originally found in a block of chert along with a well-preserved and well-studied fossil springtail—lay untouched for almost a century in a drawer at the Natural History Museum in London. The rediscovery and subsequent study of the specimen meant that true insects appeared 10 million to 20 million years earlier than once thought. The researchers believe these ancient insects were capable of flight, which would mean the tiny creatures took to the skies 170 millions years ago, before flying dinosaurs.
7. Brood X invaded the East Coast. In 2004, another group of cicadas known as Brood X emerged after 17 years underground. The bugs’ motto? Strength in numbers. This class is the largest of the periodical insects, including three different species of cicada.
8. America’s bee population started to plummet. By spring of 2007, more than a quarter of the country’s 2.4 million honeybee colonies had mysteriously vanished. Something prevented the bees from returning to their hives, and scientists weren’t sure why, but they gave it a name: colony-collapse disorder. According to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the phenomenon continues to plague apiaries across the country, and no cause has been determined.
9. Gypsy moths destroyed thousands of trees in New Jersey. In 2007, gypsy moths ravaged more than 320,000 acres of forest in the Garden State. One of North America’s most devastating forest pests, the insect feeds on the leaves of trees, stripping branches bare. Agricultural officials said the infestation was the worst of its kind since 1990.
10. Scientists figured out how to extract DNA from preserved insect specimens. In 2009, researchers removed a barrier from the study of early insects, a practice that often left ancient specimens destroyed. In the past, too much tinkering around with tiny specimens meant that the samples often became contaminated or eventually deteriorated. The scientists soaked nearly 200-year-old preserved beetles in a special solution for 16 hours, a process that allowed them to then carefully extract DNA from the bugs without damaging them.
11. Hundreds of ancient insect species were found lodged in one chunk of amber. In 2010, a team of international researchers discovered 700 new species of prehistoric insects inside a block of 50-million-year-old amber in India. The finding signaled to scientists that the area was much more biologically diverse than previously thought.
12. The first truly amphibious insects were discovered. In 2011, a study reported that 11 species of caterpillar with the ability to live underwater indefinitely were found in freshwater streams in Hawaii. The twist? The same insects studied were land-dwellers too.
13. Scientists discovered a cockroach with more than just a spring in its step. In 2011, a new species of cockroach, for whom jumping and hopping accounts for 71 percent of movement, was found in South Africa. Saltoblattella montistabularis can cover a distance 50 times its body length with each hop. Dubbed the leaproach, the insect relies on its powerful hind legs, which are twice the length of its other limbs and make up 10 percent of its body weight, to propel it forward in high-speed bursts.
14. Japanese scientists documented radiation-induced mutations in butterflies. When a massive earthquake and tsunami severely damaged the Fukushima nuclear power plant in 2011, dangerous radioactive materials were spewed into the air and waterways. The following year, Japanese researchers said they observed dented eyes and stunted wings in local butterflies, mutations they believe were a result of radiation exposure.
15. The East Coast suffered a stink bug epidemic. In the summer of 2011, growing numbers of stink bugs prompted the Environmental Protection Agency to issue an emergency ruling that would allow farmers to use lethal insecticides. The insects had invaded crops of apples, cherries, pears and peaches from Virginia to New Jersey.
16. The world’s largest insect was discovered in New Zealand. Scientist Mark Moffett, known as Doctor Bugs, discovered the world’s largest insect, a surprisingly friendly female Weta bug, while traveling in New Zealand in 2011. The massive creature has a wingspan of seven inches and weighs three times as much as a mouse. Here’s a video of the bug eating a carrot out of Moffett’s hand.
17. A fly found in Thailand was determined to be the smallest in the world. Discovered in 2012, the fly, named Euryplatea nanaknihali, is 15 times smaller than a house fly and tinier than a grain of salt. But don’t let the miniature bugs fool you: they feed on tiny ants by burrowing into the larger insects’ head casings, eventually decapitating them.
April 4, 2013
What can’t a 3D printer build? The number of possible answers to this question has shrunk exponentially in recent years, as the high-tech machines continue to churn out solid object after object from computer designs.
The last few months alone saw countless new products and prototypes spanning an array of industries, from football cleats and pens to steel rocket parts and guns. Last month, the technology helped replace 75 percent of a person’s damaged skull, and this week it restored a man’s face after he lost half of it to cancer four years ago.
Today, a new study suggests 3D-printed material could one day mimic the behavior of cells in human tissue. Graduate student Gabriel Villar and his colleagues at the University of Oxford developed tiny solids that behave as biological tissue would. The delicate material physically resembles brain and fat tissue, and has the consistency of soft rubber.
To create this material, a specially designed 3D printing machine followed a computer programmed diagram and ejected tens of thousands of individual
droplets according to a specified three-dimensional network. As seen in the video above, its nozzles moved in various angles to establish the position of each tiny bead. Each droplet weighs in at about one picoliter—that’s one trillionth of a liter—a unit used to measure the size of droplets of inkjet printers, whose nozzle technology works much the same way to consolidate tiny dots of liquid into complete images and words on paper.
The droplets of liquid contained biochemicals found in tissue cells. Coated in lipids—fats and oils—the tiny aqueous compartments stuck together, forming a cohesive and self-supporting shape, with each bead partitioned by a thin, single membrane similar to the lipid bilayers that protect our cells.
The shapes that the printed droplets formed remained stable for several weeks. If researchers shook the material slightly, droplets could become displaced, but only temporarily. The engineered tissue quickly sprung back into its original shape, a level of elasticity the researchers say is comparable to soft tissue cells in humans. The intricate latticework of a network’s lipid bilayers appeared to hold the “cells” together.
In some of the droplet networks, the 3D printer built pores into the lipid membrane. The holes mimicked protein channels inside the barriers that protect real cells, filtering molecules important for cell function in and out. The researchers injected into the pores a type of molecule important for cell-to-cell communication, one that delivers signals to numerous cells so that they function
together as a group. While the 3D-printed material couldn’t exactly replicate how cells propagate signals, researchers say the movement of the molecule through defined pathways resembled the electrical communication of neurons in brain tissue
Water readily permeated the network’s membranes, even when pores were not built into its structure. The droplets swelled and shrank by the process of osmosis, trying to establish equilibrium between the amount of water they contained and the amount surrounding them on the outside. The movement of water was enough to lift the droplets against gravity, pulling and folding them, imitating muscle-like activity in human tissue.
The researchers hope that these droplet networks could be programmed to release drugs following a physiological signal. Printed cells could someday also be integrated into damaged or failing tissue, providing extra scaffolding or even replacing malfunctioning cells, perhaps even supplanting some of the 1.5 million tissue transplants that take place in the United States each year. The potential seems greatest for brain tissue transplants, as medical engineers are currently trying to grow brain cells in the lab to treat progressive diseases like Huntington’s disease, which slowly destroys nerve cells.
Whether it’s growing human tissue or entire ears, 3D printing technology is in full swing in the field of medicine, and countless researchers will no doubt jump on the bandwagon in the coming years.