Welcome to the science news, Nobel Prize/space jump/shrimp puke edition! (Yes, I am serious. Pics after the cut!)
The Nobel prizes were announced last week! On Monday, John B. Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for their discovery that it was possible to take mature cells and reprogram them to essentially turn them into stem cells. Gurdon found a way to rejuvenate mature cell nuclei in 1962; replacing the nucleus of a frog egg with a mature nucleus and successfully growing the first cloned animal. Over the last decade, Yamanaka has taken this one step further, adding four genes to mature skin cells to make them act like embryonic stem cells. Tuesday, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Serge Haroche and David Wineland. Their research revolutionized the field of quantum optics, the study of individual photons and ions that is essential to furthering the study of quantum mechanics. Wrapping up the science prizes, on Wednesday Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Lefkowitz discovered “G-protein-coupled receptors,” the tiny mechanism in cells that allow chemicals like medications, hormones, and even scents and tastes to enter the cells. Kobilka found the genes that create the receptors. (Of note: No women were awarded Nobels this year, not even in the other categories. Sigh. I really hoped I’d need to update my series on women who won Nobel prizes in the sciences.)
SpaceX launched the first-ever commercial mission to the International Space Station last Sunday evening. Their Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral carrying the Dragon capsule full of food and other essentials, and will also deliver a new freezer and some scientific experiments for the astronauts living aboard the ISS. The rocket successfully docked with the space station on Wednesday, but due to problems with one of its engines was unable to properly complete its secondary mission of delivering a new prototype communications satellite. The satellite was still launched, but its orbit was too low and it crashed after four days. Still, enough data was sent back to confirm that the satellite worked and more should be launched soon. Private rockets are essential now that NASA grounded its shuttle fleet.
Curiosity has kept busy the last couple weeks. It discovered a new rock on the surface that’s a type never before seen on Mars. It’s similar to rocks found in volcanic islands and rift zones and probably formed deep below the surface. Last week’s mission to scoop up some sand to analyze its components has briefly interrupted when a shiny object was spotted on the ground near the rover, but it appears that it was just a tiny piece of plastic that came from Curiosity or the descent module.
Space discoveries! A new star has been discovered orbiting the black hole at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. S0-102 is a hundred times closer to the black hole than most previous discoveries and orbits it in only 11.2 years. Scientists hope that by plotting changes in the orbits of S0-102 and S0-2 (another star that orbits the black hole in only 16 years) they can test Einstein’s theory of relativity to see if the extreme mass of the black hole affects the stars in the way he predicted. A carbon-rich planet found only 40 light years away may be predominantly made of diamonds due to its superhot orbit very near its sun. Another recently-discovered planet has four suns! It orbits a binary star system which in turn has another binary star system orbiting it. More evidence has been collected from the Voyager 1 space probe to show that it may have truly left our solar system, though no official announcement has been made yet. Finally, a new set of craters has been spotted on Mercury that resemble a childhood friend.
A newly-discovered fanged dinosaur may look scary, but it actually ate plants. Sadly, we’ll never be able to clone dinos because a new study of DNA from extinct moas shows that it has a half-life of only 521 years; the proteins would be too broken to be usable after about 1.5 million years and the DNA chains would totally disintegrate by 6.8 millions years.
An 11-year-old Siberian boy found a well-preserved adult mammoth carcass while walking his dogs. Awesome.
A piece of amber was found in Myanmar that captured the final moments of a spider attack. The spider and wasp were trapped in tree resin sometime between 97 and 110 million years ago. There’s an awesome picture here if spiders don’t freak you out.
Scientists have figured out a new way to analyze ancient bones to determine if the animals were eaten by other animals or by ancient humans. So far it can’t tell us if hominids a million years ago killed antelope and deer themselves or if they merely scavenged meat left behind by predators. Meanwhile, evidence from south-west China shows that prehistoric humans may have eaten pandas. Glad we don’t have to do that anymore!
New species! Eight new mammal species were found in a sanctuary in northern Peru, including a night monkey and an “enigmatic porcupine” (which is the best species name ever). Meanwhile, an expedition into the remote forests of Borneo has uncovered more than 160 new species of animals, plants, and fungi. Even cooler, the team collected DNA samples from 3,500 specimens in an attempt to figure out how more than 1,400 species are related.
Scientific American’s Extinction Countdown blog has a cool interview with a researcher who’s using drones to study the orangutan population in Sumatra. Orangutan numbers have dropped by 80% over the last 75 years, largely due to deforestation.
Scientists in New Zealand have genetically engineered a cow that produces hypoallergenic milk. A gene was inserted to prevent the cow from producing beta-lactoglobulin, the protein that causes an allergic reaction in some babies (which is a totally separate issue from lactose intolerance, the inability to digest lactose sugars).
Bad science study/headline of the week: Are there only 100 cod left in the North Sea? Not even fucking close. Try half a billion, give or take. The study somehow got the erroneous idea that North Sea cod live to be 25 and that they therefore reach adulthood at 13. Their average lifespan is really more like 11 years and they’re considered adult at 6. Then several papers took the study’s estimate that there might only be 100 “adult” cod and misstated that in headlines as 100 total cod left. No, no, no!
A mysterious giant eyeball that washed up on a Florida beach probably belonged to a swordfish. Cool but gross pictures at the link.
People love to joke about being so excited they barf a rainbow, but one kind of shrimp pukes up a cloud of bioluminescent chemicals when it gets startled.
Half of the coral in the Great Barrier Reef has disappeared in the last 27 years, mostly due to damage from cyclones and the crown-of-thorns starfish, which eat coral polyps. About 10% of the loss is from coral bleaching caused by warming oceans.
While the Arctic Ocean saw record low amounts of sea ice this summer, sea ice in the Antarctic reached its highest recorded level in September, the end of winter in the southern hemisphere. While skeptics are trying to claim this as evidence that global warming is a hoax, climate change is actually responsible for the increase in ice. Changing wind patterns around the pole trap colder air there and push ice away from the continent, increased moisture in the air leads to more snowfall, and the hole in the ozone over the South Pole removes a layer of insulation from the atmosphere, lowering temperatures.
Health news! The venom of the black mamba snake contains painkillers that are as powerful as morphine but without all the unwanted side effects. More work is needed before the substance can be tested in humans. New DNA sequencing methods allow doctors to diagnose rare genetic disorders in two days, which could lead to better care for very sick newborns. More states are making it harder for parents to opt out of vaccinating their children (about damn time). Molecular embryologists have used embryonic stem cells to grow working thyroid tissue in mice artificially given hypothyroidism. Lastly, “wind farm syndrome,” a mysterious ailment that seems to only affect people who didn’t want turbines erected in their area, is a bunch of malarkey. Color me shocked!
Finally, the coolest story of the weekend had to be Felix Baumgartner’s jump from a balloon 24 miles above the surface of the earth. He was in free-fall for 4 minutes 20 seconds, falling nearly 22.7 miles before opening his parachute, though this wasn’t quite long enough to break the previous free-fall record. Pending verification by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI), he did break the record for the highest jump ever and was the first skydiver to break the speed of sound, with a peak velocity of Mach 1.24 (833.9mph). For more info on the science behind the jump, check out the official Red Bull Stratos page.
Also, this was too awesome not to share. I love it.