Category Archives: Let’s Explore

Inbreeding, Invading & Pacemaking || Labrat’s Digest

Aaaaannd I’m baaacck with The Labrat’s Digest! Happy new year to all, and it’s time to see what’s in store for science in 2019. This week, we’re taking a trip back in time to the Tudor years, checking out some of the critters in our homes, and finally, can scientists create a pacemaker for the brain?

Keeping it in the Family

It’s a poorly kept secret that many of the European royal dynasties believed in keeping their power concentrated within the bloodline. And a big part of “keeping it all in the family” has always included members of these ruling houses marrying and having offspring with their distant or close cousins, aunts, sometimes even their siblings! This way, they could make sure that the bloodline was kept “pure” and fit for ruling the kingdom.

This practice isn’t ancient history either. Queen Elizabeth II of England married her third cousin, Prince Phillip, and they’re still married to this day!

It’s also a poorly kept secret that inbreeding can be dangerous for the child;
you see high rates of miscarriages, stillbirths, deaths, or genetic deficiencies that manifest as physical deformities or mental disabilities. One particular deformity that was common among royals was known as the “Habsburg jaw“.

The Habsburgs were a powerful Austrian family that ruled over various parts of Europe during the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. They were also notorious for their incestuous relationships: nine out of eleven royal marriages during their reign were between family members. The Habsburgs did this in a desperate bid to maintain power, but it backfired in a very unpleasant way.

The “Habsburg Jaw”, which is a condition correctly known as “mandibular prognathism,” is characterized by a long chin, jutting lower jaw and an abnormally large tongue. Sometimes, it can affect one’s ability to speak properly and make it difficult to fully close one’s mouth.

Take a look at these portraits of the Habsburgs, and this defining feature will quickly become obvious:

The Hapsburgs didn’t feel the need to stop marrying their family members, so their medical issues only proceeded to get worse.

Charles II was the last Habsburg ruler of Spain; his father, Philip IV, married his own sister’s daughter. Charles was nicknamed El Hechizado (Spanish for “the hexed one”), as his lower jaw was so pronounced that he struggled to speak, eat solid food, and his oversized tongue caused him to drool.

On top of this, he was short, lame, impotent and mildly retarded, and the icing on the cake: Charles II was sterile. Unable to produce any more heirs, the Habsburg’s rule finally came to an end in 1700, when Charles died a few days before his 39th birthday.

But why does inbreeding cause these sorts of deformities? Well, let’s learn about a phenomenon is known as genetic variation, which is crucial for the survival of any species.

When a sperm cell and an egg cell combine, they each come with their own set of 23 chromosomes which contain genes which code for different characteristics. The alleles of the genes randomly assemble so you inherit a mix of characteristics from your mother and your father. Because of this, if you have a defective gene from one parent, it’s likely that a working gene from your other parent will cancel this defect out.

But when your parents are related, chances are they’re carrying around similar copies of the genes that they would have inherited from their parents. So, if you inherit a defective gene from your mother, and your father is related to her….CHANCES AAARRRE you’re getting two copies of this defective gene.

So when the genetic variation is decreased, the chances of inheriting defective genes are increased. This is why inbreeding leads to so many different types of deformities. Sometimes, “keeping it in the family” isn’t always the best idea.

Rare bacteria popping up in your home?

Among the many different types of bacteria, extremophiles are definitely the daredevils. As their name suggests, these bacteria thrive in extreme environments: inside of volcanoes, hot springs glaciers, the Dead Sea…

So what are these bacteria doing in our homes?

A recent study showed that some extremophile species of bacteria are popping up inside of water heaters in the Unites States and Puerto Rico. One such species is Thermus scotoductuswhich is usually found in hot springs such as those in the Yellowstone National park.

The same microbes from these hot springs ending up in your home?

The temperature and organic environment inside the water heaters make them an ideal home for these types of bacteria, so it’s no surprise that these critters have taken up residence there.

But the real question, which still remains unanswered, is how did these rare bacteria get there in the first place?

A pacemaker for the brain?

Just like we’ve seen pacemakers work to keep the heart going, could we also see the same kind of technology to keep the brain working?

Scientists have developed a new neurostimulator which can listen to and stimulate electric current in the brain at the same time. This has potential for treating neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s and epilepsy.

The device is known as the WAND (wireless artifact-free neuromodulation device). It monitors the brain’s electrical activity, then gives off an electrical stimulation if it detects something’s going wrong.

The WAND is very effective at preventing tremors or seizures in patients with neurological conditions. It learns to recognize the signs of tremor or seizure, then adjusts its stimulation to prevent the unwanted activity.

The device is wireless, autonomous and closed-loop (can stimulate and record simultaneously), so it’s everything you’d need to respond and adjust to seizures happening in real time. Additionally, when compared to other closed-loop systems which can record electrical activity from 8 points in the brain, WAND can record from over 128 points in the brain!

As science goes, WAND is not quite ready to be the solution to all our problems yet. Work is still being done to enable the device to figure out the best way to stimulate a patient for the best outcome.

Best Podcasts This Week

Is there anything you’d like to see in the digest next week? Leave a comment in the box below!

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So what’s the deal with UV light and manicures?

I’ve recently started getting gel manicures as one of my 2018 steps into the world of being a hot gyal a.k.a. a Goodie. Last week, as my girl at @GetnailedJA was sorting me out and I had my fingers under the UV lamp, I started to wonder what it was about the UV lamp that made my nails dry so pretty and perfectly. I knew quite a bit about UV light, but admittedly, very little about nail polish, so I decided to do some research to solve this mystery, once and for all.

So of course, I must share this newfound knowledge with you.

 

Making Plastics in the Nail Salon?

Both gel and acrylic nail polishes are made up of components called polymers. Polymers are compounds which are formed from a number of single building blocks (monomers) linking together to form one long chain molecule.

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Polymerization occurs when repeat monomers (single blocks) join to form one long chain

Essentially, the process entails building hard plastic coatings for your nails (either gel or acrylic) from smaller sub-units. When the nail polish is the bottle/tube, the polish is separated into individual monomers, hence the gel is liquid. Once the monomers join up to form the long chain polymers, the nail polish will harden and voila! your beautiful nails will be ready to go.

Ok, but what about the UV light?

download (5)Well, gel polishes also contain these cool molecules known as photoinitiators. These are compounds which only undergo reactions when exposed to light at a specific wavelength. The photoinitiators added to nail polish react at a wavelength of 340-410 nm. Once exposed to light at this wavelength, the molecules are activated and emit a particle known as a free radical. Free radicals have many many roles in chemistry and daily life, but in this case, the free radical initiates the polymerization reaction of the polish. This is why UV light at wavelengths between 340-410 is used to harden or “cure” gel nails.

So, expose the polish to UV light at the correct wavelength –> free radicals start polymerication of gel –> gel hardens and dries

download (6).jpgThe same principle applies to acrylic nails, however instead of UV light, acrylic nails are  usually cured with peroxide. The powdered peroxide plays the same role of the photoinitiator, and activates polymerization of the monomer in the liquid polish.

So which one is better?

Well I definitely didn’t write this post to be a plug for either method, but it’s probably important for you to know the risks associated with each method.

Let’s look at gel polishes first. Of course, any method that requires UV light carries some risk, as it is well known that exposure to UV light can cause skin (and other types of cancers). That being said, the couple minutes your fingers spend under the UV lamp will probably have a negligible effect on your cells. We still walk in the sun every day, which is a huge ball of UV light, and most of us are fine.

Nonetheless, if you’re scared of the exposure, you can simply apply a SPF sunscreen to your fingers/toes before your nail appointment, to reduce the impact of the UV light on your skin cells. And nails techs should wear soft gloves if they’re going to be working with the UV light very often. Some gel polishes also contain a compound called butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), which can also be cancer causing, so it’s best to choose polishes that state that they’re BHA-free.

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Many nail techs will wear masks to protect from the noxious fumes when using acrylic polish

Acrylic polish also carries a fair bit of health risks with it. We can all attest to walking into a nail salon and being taken aback by the smell of the acrylic polish. That’s because some of the chemicals used in application are formaldehyde (used to embalm the dead if you need some reference here) and resins which are actually pretty bad for your nails and can cause them to split and break. This is why your nails feel so soft after you take off an acrylic set. Additionally, some acrylic polishes contain a poisonous chemical called MMA (Methyl Methacrylate). MMA is illegal in many countries because it can cause serious damage to your lungs from the fumes it gives off. Unfortunately, MMA is still widely used on many unwitting customers.

Also for both methods, soaking your nails in acetone to remove the polish can weaken your overall nails.

All things being considered, gel polish seems to be the better bet for you health-wise, but whatever beauty method you’re using, it’s always best to do your research and know what chemicals you’re being exposed to.

Leave your comments, suggestions, questions, below. And don’t forget to be join me on my #Goodie journey by visiting the Be A Goodie page and ordering your products!

My Very Educated Mother Just Showed Us Nine (Minus One) Planets

Whatever Happened To Pluto?

In grade 3, when I was learning about the solar system for the (almost) first time, my friend taught our class a mnemonic device to help us remember the order of the planets:

My (Mercury)

Very (Venus)

Educated (Earth)

Mother (Mars)

Just (Jupiter)

Showed (Saturn)

Us (Uranus)

Nine (Neptune)

Planets (Pluto)

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Pluto: My (once) favourite planet

Well…not quite anymore huh? Since learning this nifty trick some 17 years ago, the scientific community has provided a few adjustments to this order. The biggest one, of course, was the removal of distinguished planetary status from our beloved outlier, Pluto. Before its unceremonious demotion, Pluto was the planet which lay furthest from our Sun (which is the star around which all the planets in our solar system, including earth, orbit around).

So what happened to Pluto? Did it disappear? Did it change, somehow shrink into obscurity? Was it replaced by a more deserving celestial body? Why isn’t Pluto a planet anymore?

The Answer? Reclassification

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Pluto (right) in comparison to its moon Charon

Well this whole story started in the late 1970s, when scientists were able for the first time, accurately determine the size of one of Pluto’s moons, Charon. This discovery led them to re-evaluate the size of Pluto itself. Originally, Pluto was believed to be roughly the same size or a bit larger than Mercury. However, upon this re-evaluation, astronomers were able to realize that Pluto was actually must smaller in mass than Mercury.

Later on, in the early 2000s, scientists began to record the presence of other extraterrestrial bodies which were in fact larger than Pluto (even our own moon turned out to be bigger than our tiny ninth planet), which led researchers to realize that someone needed to develop an official definition of a planet. They came up with these 3 major criteria for classification as a planet.

For a celestial body to be considered a planet, it must;

 

 

1) be in orbit around the sun.

2) have sufficient mass to assume hydrostatic equilibrium (i.e. must have enough gravity to overcome other forces to maintain a spherical shape)

3) have cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit.  (i.e. must have cleared its orbit of all other objects of a similar size)

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Size comparison of the smaller planets

While Pluto is able to maintain the first two conditions (i.e. it’s spherical in shape and does indeed orbit around the sun), it’s the third requirement that disqualifies poor Pluto from planetary acclaim. Because Pluto is so small, its orbit actually sits INSIDE the orbit of Neptune (the next closest planet to the sun), and it also shares its orbit with a number of other celestial bodies.

For this reason, in 2006, Pluto was officially reclassified as a “dwarf planet”. So yes, Pluto still exists, it’s still out there orbiting the Sun, and it still sits in pretty much the same place as it always did. However, it can no longer be grouped with the other major planets in our solar system, and we no longer count Pluto as one of our official nine planets.

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*****

This October, we’ll be taking an “Extra Terrestrial Trip”. We’ll dive briefly into the world of astronomy and explore some more about life beyond the borders of the earth.  Eventually, we’ll even take a look at the existence of life outside of Earth. What REALLY is out there? Are you excited? Because I definitely am! Stay tuned in the upcoming weeks for more.

Mothers of Science IV: Jennifer Doudna

Have you ever heard of CRISPR? Basically the next generation of science as we know it, the ability to accurately edit DNA. Welllllll, meet the woman behind it.

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Jennifer Anne Doudna is a Professor of Chemistry and of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California, Berkeley. While getting her Ph.D in Biochemistry, she worked on splicing and reengineering a certain ribozyme (basically a type of RNA that can imfluence reactions within the cell).  dounda2Because much of molecular biology and biochemistry is so microscopic, and takes place in a tube, it is often hard to visualize exactly what is happening. Doudna figured out a way to crystallize the ribozymes into a 3-Dimenstional structure, and later on, she was able to further solve the folded RNA structure of the ribozyme. Basically, Doudna and her team were able to figure out exactly what the ribozyme molecule looked like.

t was in 2012, however, that a team at UC Berkeley, composed of Doudna and another mother of science, Emmanuelle Charpentier, made a revolutionary discovery that would change the world of DNA editing. They figured out that a protein found in the immune system of Streptococcus species (cas9 protein) can work like a scissors, identify virus DNA, and simply snip it out of the cell. This protein could significantly reduce the time and accuracy needed for DNA editing, giving scientists and medical professionals the ability to engineer DNA and cure the incurable.

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Doudna and Charpentier

 

Very recently, a public patent dispute  has been taking place over the CRISPR technology. On one side was Doudna’s team at UC Berkeley, while on the other side was a team from the Broad Institute. The UC Berkeley team filed a patent interference on the Broad Institute’s patent application. Even though Doudna’s team had been the first to discover this technology and its applications, the team at Broad had gone a step further, and figured out a way to actually use CRISPR in eukaryotic cells in a way that would work. The US patent office officially ruled that the Broad Institute’s work was different from that of UC Berkeley, and allowed the application to proceed. UC Berkeley then appealed this decision.

dounda23Doudna has received many honours and awards throughout her career, including the 2014 Lurie Prize in Biomedical Sciences, Dr. Paul Janssen Award for Biomedical Research and Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences and the 2015 Gruber Prize in Genetics. (last three shared with Charpentier). The two were also named among Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2015. She was a Searle Scholar and received a 1996 Beckman Young Investigators Award and in 2002, she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. She gave a 2015 TED talk on the importance of bioethics with the revolution of technology such as CRISPR.

Jennifer Doudna remains a mother of science as she was the first to unearth what could potentially be the face of medicine in the future. And because this mother of science is still with us, we wait excitedly to find out what else she will continue to discover.

 

 

 

“Mothers of Science” III: Ada Lovelace

adaAugusta Ada King-Noel was the female Bill Gates of the 19th century. Well, sort of.  She was an English mathematician and is regarded as the first computer programmer, when in 1842, she wrote the first algorithm to be used by the first ever computer created by Charles Babbage.

ada3Ada grew up in Victorian aristocratic society as the only legitimate, although unwanted daughter of the famous poet Lord Byron, who eventually left her to be raised by her mother. Ada spent much of her childhood suffering from various illnesses which left her confined to bed. Her mother was convinced that Lord Byron suffered from a particular form of madness, and in a bid to rescue her young daughter from sharing the same fate, she ensured that Ada was taught mathematics from a very young age. During these periods, Ada discovered her love for mathematics and technology as early as age 12, when she decided that she wanted to fly and set about constructing wings to make this happen.

difference engine
The Difference Engine

Ada was introduced the mathematician Charles Babbage in 1833, after which he invited her to look at the prototype for his first automatic calculator – the “Difference Engine”. Babbage asked for her help in translating an article about his machine to English, however Ada went further to make her own set of notes and amendments to accompany the article. Ada’s notes ended up being much longer and more detailed than the original article, and well received within the scientific community. Most importantly, these notes contained detailed instructions on calculations that could be performed by the machine. Ada’s work, and subsequent algorithm, is now recognized as the world’s first ever computer program, long before the existence of the modern-day computer as we know it.

ada2Much of Ada’s work was never recognized by any public accolades or merit. Some have even raised questions as to the true extent of her contribution to computer programming. However, without a doubt, Ada had the foresight to see the potential for the automatic calculator as more than just a “numbers machine”, but also with the capability to do much more – as we now know about the capabilities of computers. For this, we salute her in our “Mothers Of Science” series this week.