Ice cream that doesn’t melt

Ok, that’s kind of a lie. But it is much more resistant to heat than regular ice cream.

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Pic by Kanazawa Ice on Instagram

“Staring at her popsicle for five minutes under the sun, a 30-year-old woman who was visiting from Chiba Prefecture, said, “No change in the appearance.  . . .When heat from a dryer was applied in an air-conditioned room, a vanilla popsicle that was purchased from a regular shop began melting around the edges almost instantly. But the Kanazawa Ice retained its original shape even after five minutes. It also tasted cool.”

The magic ingredient is polyphenol extracted from strawberries. Food scientists are my third favorite kind of scientists!

I feel like Japan is the home of the most amazing food I’m never going to get to eat.

Double-headed space worm

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Both space worm heads convey a certain incredulous derpiness.

A bunch of NASA researchers headed by Junji Morokuma just published an article describing how they sent flatworms to the International Space Station for 5 weeks.

Flatworms are cool because if you cut them in half each half will regenerate the missing part. And Morokuma & Co didn’t just send whole flatworms. They sent 15 “pre-amputated” flatworm segments from which they had chopped off both heads and tails. And one of these flatworm segments, when returned to earth, did not regenerate a head and a tail. Instead it grew two heads.

Then they cut both heads off the body again, and the body fragment still re-grew two heads. Whatever changes had been caused by the time in space remained in the organism.

Morokuma’s team also detected “physiological, behavioral, morphological, and microbiological changes” in the flatworms. For example, for unknown reasons the space worms had considerably less tendency to avoid light than the control worms who remained on earth.

Changes in microbiome are particularly fascinating, although they make a much less interesting headline than “double-headed space worm”. If an organism’s microbiome changes after only 5 weeks in space, what might happen to human microbiota in the nine months it will take for colonists to travel to Mars.

Research on the effects of extended periods in space have generally focused on the big things: muscle loss, blood pressure, affects of gravity loss etc. But humans carry 1kg of bacteria in their gut, and there are totally fascinating connections between gut biota and human social behavior (including a controversial association with autism). Humans like to think we have free will, but the more we understand ourselves as a giant cluster of interdependent cells, mitochondria, and bacteria the more we realize we’re fooling ourselves. We’re not human individuals deciding we want to watch Game of Thrones with a friend, we’re a fleshy “brain–gut–microbiome axis” responding to constant chemical signals that affect our social communication.

What if, after all that careful testing of astronauts before and during training, people with quite different behaviors and personalities landed on Mars? Elon Musk has sworn to attempt a Mars colony by 2022, so I guess we’re gonna find out.

I can’t wait.

Human-eating sand dunes re-open

 

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Four years after 6-year-old Nathan Woessner got eaten by the Mount Baldy sand dune  in Indiana, the dunes are reopening. Nathan lived even after spending three-and-a-half hours trapped in a narrow hole, and geologists like Erin Argyilan have spent the last four years trying to work out what the hell happened.

Turns out “the entire dune had shifted 134 metres away from the lakefront between 1938 and 2007, swallowing up long-forgotten trees, trails and stairs along the way.”  As the sand-covered trees rotted over a seventy year period, “fungi on the covered trees formed a sort of cement that enabled the sand to keep its hollowed-out shape as the wood decayed and collapsed inward, leaving holes more than 10 feet deep in the dune.”

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The Mount Baldy dune, Indiana. Photo by Gail Fisher on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons Licence

Tree-trunk-shaped hole, meet small boy. Voila,  a parents’ worst nightmare. My favorite part is Argyilan — who was actually there that day — not believing the parents when they said their son had been eaten by the dune, because science said sand dunes couldn’t be hollow. See, Nathan is an N of 1, and anecdotal experience is not evidence. Statistically, even now, no one has ever been eaten by a sand dune. Argyilan figured the kid was hiding.

After authorities recovered Nathan, still and cold and “gasping like a fish”, ground-penetrating radar found more than 60 spots where the sandy surface covered voids lurking beneath.

And now I’m wondering if there are any skeletons lying unsuspected inside the dune: very thin humans who took an unwary step and didn’t have doting parents as witnesses. One day the dune will move again, and we might all find out. And if you’re visiting the Indiana lakeshore, watch your step.

Two heads are better than one

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Italian neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero just practised for his proposed human head transplant by transplanting a second head onto a rat. In multiple iterations. None lived for longer than 36 hours, but that’s a hell of a lot better than the results from 20th century animal head/brain transplants.

The isolated beating heart at the beginning of that video looks macabre, but those animal organ experiments directly led to human organ transplants, which are commonplace now.

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Canavero’s full paper is here, but it’s not public access. And frankly, that sucks. All academic knowledge should be free to read and not held ransom by journals.

Canavero used a third rat as a blood bag to keep the blood pressure up in the donor rat and the recipient rat during surgery.

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Hopefully Canavero will use a different technique during human surgery.

Maybe Canavero will attempt his human transplant this year as promised, maybe not. But someone will, somewhere, eventually.

Head transplants work on the basis that that bit of us that is “me” lives in our brains is a fixed unchanging essence, and our bodies are only interchangeable shells we use for ambulating and oxygen processing. But this ignores the fact we’re embodied beings: we experience reality through and in our bodies. For one thing, our bodies are home to at least as many bacterial cells as human cells. There’s increasing evidence that our bacteria alter the way we think, feel, and love: like the outgoingness of humans infected with toxoplasma gondii, or the link between gut bacteria and obesity.

Transplanting a brain onto another body isn’t just giving an existing personality a new home, it’s creating a whole different being. I think we should go for it, but we have to acknowledge we can’t know what the outcome going to be like.

The future is barreling toward us and we’re not ready.

Gattaca is coming and you should be worried

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Photo by University of Michigan School of Nursing, used under a Creative Commons Licence

Hey , Americans. Did you know H.R.1313 – Preserving Employee Wellness Programs Act has gone to your Committee of Ways and Means? Sounds pretty innocuous, right? Who wouldn’t support Employee Wellness?

If passed, HR1313 will overturn the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) George W Bush signed in 2008.

GINA means “it is against the law for your employer to use family health history and genetic test results in making decisions about your employment.”

If HR1313 passes it will now be legal for “workplace wellness programs to ask employees questions about genetic tests taken by themselves or their families, and to make inquiries about the medical history of employees, their spouses, their children, and other family members” and that if you refuse you will face a financial penalty “of up to 30 percent of the total cost of an employee’s health insurance.”

This raises the spectre of next being required to submit this information right at the hiring process. Imagine getting turned down for a job because your grandfather has Parkinsons, therefore making you a potential liability in twenty years. Or because your spouse is a carrier for sickle cell disease. Or being fired because your baby has long QT syndrome.

This shouldn’t be a thing. Knowledge is power, people.