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 scotoductus, which is usually found in hot springs such as those in the Yellowstone National park.
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.