On June 26th, 2017 we learned about

The biological process that enables Burmese pythons regenerate or reduce organs on demand

As a warm-blooded mammal that’s never too far off from your next snack, it’s hard to appreciate what kind of commitment other animals can make to binge eating. Sure, you’ve maybe eaten too many cookies in a single serving, but you probably didn’t follow that infusion of calories with a month or two of fasting. The Burmese python’s dedication to this meal schedule really ratchets things up, as the snake will literally reduce the size of its internal organs when it’s not eating, then regrow them when it’s time to digest something again.

Burmese pythons (Python bivittatus) are large constrictors, capable of growing to 20-feet-long. At that size, their meals are considerably large, and can include pigs, goats, deer, and occasionally alligators. Since crawling around with large but empty stomachs and intestines really offers no benefit to an unfed snake, the snakes basically allow their organs to atrophy to 60 percent of their functional size. This saves energy on a daily basis as well, further extending how long a snake can go between meals. When it is finally time to chow down, the snakes regenerate the missing tissue so that they can process all the nutrition their prey has to offer. The process is fairly quick too, with organs regrowing in 48 hours, then regressing for around four days after a feeding.

Prompted by proteins

Researchers recently dug into the underlying mechanisms that make this repeated series of changes possible. They found that there were a few key proteins that acted as triggers to activate 1,700 genes throughout the snake’s body. Those genes each created tissue-specific commands for either regrowth or regression in a cascade of activity across lots of different anatomy.

This isn’t just useful to 20-foot-long pythons though. Some of the key proteins that kick off this activity have been found to also affect mammalian cells. For all the specific tasks needed to double the size of a snake’s stomach, there’s a chance that our bodies might be able to make use of some of this strategy as well. It may therefore be helpful in developing treatments for people with damaged organs, spurring regrowth, even without the need for binge-eating.

Source: How pythons regenerate their organs and other secrets of the snake genome, Science Daily

On April 24th, 2017 we learned about

Naked mole rats survive oxygen deprivation by temporarily giving up glucose

Living underground requires a lot of compromises, but naked mole rats seem to be determined to make it work, even if it means reworking their physiology to do so. On top of their insect-like social order, hormone-manipulating poop, and suppressed pain receptors, the latest compromise discovered for these small mammals’ subterranean lifestyle includes somehow surviving a total lack of oxygen. Unlike marine mammals who can plan their breaths and store extra oxygen in their muscle tissue for long dives, mole rats have a built-in metabolic trick for low-oxygen emergencies, and they seem to have borrowed it from plants of all places.

For the vast majority of animals on the planet, metabolic functions are based around sugars like glucose and oxygen. Food energy is converted to glucose that can be distributed around the body so that cells can make use of it when needed. Mitochondria in each cell then crack open that glucose using inhaled oxygen to make adenosine triphosphate (ATP), a molecule that can be used more directly by the cell as a source of energy to continue functioning. If oxygen isn’t so readily available, because you’re possibly in a stuffy tunnel full of other mammals breathing it as well, your cells can make due for a short time with just the glucose. This is a limited, last-ditch option though, as lactose quickly builds up and puts a stop to the whole system. For most mammals, crossing that point is when you go unconscious and cells get damaged until they die.

Sugar switch-over

Since naked mole rats (Heterocephalus glaber) live in large numbers in tunnels with limited ventilation, dying whenever the oxygen supply got low just wouldn’t work. Rather than break up the family into smaller burrows like other rodents, running out of oxygen just triggers an alternate form of metabolism. Since glucose gets hard to work with without oxygen, mole rats will instead start making and metabolizing fructose, a sugar normally only produced in plants. Fructose was still less efficient than glucose for mole rat cells to use, but it didn’t come with the lactose count-down. Energy levels were lower, but steady. In tunnels with as little as 5% oxygen (versus 20% on the surface) a mole rat could carry on for hours with no harm done. For most other mammals, including a similarly-sized mouse, that lack of O2 would be fatal within ten minutes. Even with no oxygen at all, switching to fructose allowed mole rats to survive in a semi-dormant state for 18 minutes.

If the exact mechanics of this metabolic switch-over can be controlled, it may prove to be helpful to those of us living outside cramped tunnels as well. One of the big problems with heart attacks and strokes is how they end up depriving various tissues, like say, the brain, of oxygen long enough for cells to start dying off. If it were possible to buy some extra time, victims of these serious conditions might be able to mitigate some of the additional harm associated with medical crisis.

My second-grader asked: So the mole rats switch to plant mode? If they breathe out enough oxygen, can they make fresher air again?

The mole rats’ ‘plant mode’ doesn’t seem to extend quite that far. They make an alternate form of sugar to supply cells with energy, but they don’t completely rework their respiratory systems in the process, inhaling carbon dioxide and exhaling oxygen like an actual plant. If they did, it would seem conceivable that a colony underground could recycle the air underground, at least enough to avoid members passing out while going about their business.

Source: Sweet? Naked mole rats can survive without oxygen using plant sugar tactic by Hannah Devlin, The Guardian

On March 22nd, 2017 we learned about

NASA drills the desert to test the tools on the prototype KREX-2 rover

The KREX-2 rover recently spent a month digging through dry, rocky terrain, hunting for microbial life. Under the close supervision of 35 NASA scientists, engineers and other staff, the four-wheeled rover explored the arid soil, digging into the dirt to look for signs of life. While all systems performed well, no Martian life was found, because KREX-2 was cruising through the Atacama Desert in Chile as part of NASA’s Atacama Rover Astrobiology Drilling Studies (ARADS). Even without running into actual alien life, the various instruments are on their way towards inclusion in future uncrewed missions to the Red Planet.

Digging in the driest dirt

Before sending a rover to another planet, it’s obviously a good idea to test it as much as possible. It’s hard to completely simulate Mars, but the Atacama Desert is the best proxy on Earth. Located between two mountain ranges, the high-altitude desert is one of the most arid places on the planet. The overall average rainfall is between one to three millimeters a year, although some weather stations have gone four years between precipitation. There’s probably still more life there than on Mars, but that also makes it easier to confirm that the instrumentation is working.

KREX-2 is equipped with a small suite of life-hunting tools, starting with a six-foot drill. The drill can dig into the soil and help gather samples for the Wet Chemistry Laboratory and the clearly labeled Signs of Life Detector. These instruments analyze soil samples for 512 compounds that are somehow tied to biology, either directly or as a byproduct that would indicate the earlier presence of a living thing. Rounding things out is the Microfluidic Life Analyzer, which can detect tiny quantities of water that may be trapped under or inside rocks, then look for amino acids.

Signs from the soil

The ARADS mission went well, with the drill exceeding expectations. Soil analysis indicated that the Atacama Desert has been home to extremely arid conditions for at least 10 to 15 million years, which may be a handy comparison point for future Mars missions. Since Mars doesn’t seem to have the abundant water and atmosphere it likely used to, the signs of life these sensors may someday detect will likely be remnants of microbes from millions (or billions) of years ago.

Source: NASA Tests Life-Detecting Mars Rover Tech in Brutal Chilean Desert by Nancy Atkinson, Seeker

On March 7th, 2017 we learned about

Isolating the mechanisms that let rays, skates and sharks sense electricity

Rays, skates and sharks have a sense that our ancestors gave up (mostly). These cartilaginous fish generally don’t have great eyesight, but they can make up for it by sensing electric activity in their prey. This ability, known as electrosensory, allows something like a little skate (Leucoraja erinacea) to detect prey buried under a layer of sand, picking up the electrical activity of the animal’s heart beat. The basics of this ability have been known for some time, but researchers now say they’ve figured out the underlying biology that makes it all possible.

To try to trace each step of some skates’ electrosensitivity, researchers modified skate’s genomes to isolate different genes that were thought to play a role in the electrosensory organs. Bit by bit, they put together how electrical activity in prey can somehow be detected and transmitted to the skate’s brain. The process starts with voltage-sensitive calcium in specialized cells, which draws in calcium ions when activated. To boost that signal, the calcium ions also trigger potassium in the cell, which causes an oscillation in the surrounding electrical field. This helps get even a faint amount of electricity up to a threshold that will trigger a nerve signal to the skate’s brain.

Electrosensitivity in our ears?

This bit of biochemistry may seem quite esoteric, but it has connections to our own anatomy. The genes involved in detecting electric perturbations were found to be connected to the genes that our bodies use to build our ears’ sensitivity to sound. Long ago, many organisms probably relied on electrosensitivity to find prey, particularly considering the how well electricity conducts in water. Sharks, rays and skates held onto this ability, but other fish repurposed some of these sensors into a structure called a lateral line, which lets them detect movement in the water around them. Eventually, those genes were modified further, and now play a role in how we detect sound.

In the lab, researchers were able to make similar modifications to ion channels on rat cells (not rats) that they carried out on the skates. This similarity helps support the idea of a common point of origin, and may allow for new avenues for research. It’s possible that insight gained from skates’ and sharks’ electrosensitivity will help inform us about how our inner ears send signals to our brains.

Source: Study shows how skates, rays and sharks sense electrical fields, Phys.org

On May 26th, 2016 we learned about

Caffeine can counter the effects of an extended workout

It makes sense that a vigorous workout leaves your muscles feeling tired, but why does a few hours of cycling have to take the rest of your body with it? Exercise can leave various motor systems out of whack, right down to the muscles that control your eyes. This phenomenon, called “central fatigue,” is more tied to your nervous system than your muscles though, which means opens the door to some simple manipulation, such as drinking coffee.

Most of the tiredness you notice after exercising is directly tied to muscles’ exertion. Muscle tissue demands a supply of adenosine triphosphate as it works, which is slowly diminished and replaced by lactic acid as the workout continues. This process can leave you feeling sore, but it’s not so demanding that it should necessarily affect less stressed muscles, much less your central nervous system. Those feelings of wear and tear are thanks to your neurology.

Keeping exercise from becoming exhaustion

Central fatigue isn’t completely understood, but it stems from a shift in your neurotransmitters rather than the direct buildup of lactic acid in your bicep. The best guess is that our bodies respond to continued exertion in this way to slow us down before we hit a point of absolute exhaustion. Hitting your limit may be exciting in the safety of a gym, but our ancestors certainly didn’t want to be surprised during a hunt by suddenly collapsing when their body had no strength left to give. A number of neurotransmitters seem to be in on this dynamic, including serotonin and dopamine.

A quick fix, if you’re looking to rebound after a workout that leaves you drowsy, is as simple as some coffee. Moderate doses of caffeine were found to alleviate the measured eight percent drop in test-subjects’ eye movement, helping them feel perkier while the adenosine was blocked in their brains. Since this dynamic takes place outside your exercised muscles, it shouldn’t impact the benefits of the workout, assuming you don’t use the coffee as an excuse to bike another couple of hours and really burn yourself out.

Source: Exercise doesn’t just tire your muscles—it makes your eyes sleepy by Ian Randall, Science Magazine

On May 19th, 2016 we learned about

Chemical emanations may reveal our emotional state

It turns out the idea of “smelling fear” might not be so off the mark. Humans, like all living things, emit various gaseous byproducts all the time, most of which we’re not consciously aware of. However, it seems that the makeup of those gases shifts with our moods, and that some emotional experiences can somehow trigger detectable changes in our collective smell.

Emotionally-oriented odors weren’t discovered thanks to an individual with really strong reactions, but with really big crowds. Over the course 108 screenings, 9,500 test participants’ air supply was monitored for changes in composition. A device called a proton transfer reaction mass spectrometer (PTR-MS) was used to pick detect 100 of the 872 volatiles humans are known to emit, allowing researchers to “smell” changes in the room with great sensitivity. Notable spikes in a single compound were then matched to the content in the movie at that moment, looking for correlations between particular moods and odors.

The chemical traces of tension

The strongest shifts in volatiles came when the audiences were watching something funny, or when there was a scene building tension or depicting injury. For example, a scene in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire that depicts the protagonist struggling with her burning dress matched a spike in isoprene in the theater. Isoprene is generally understood to be tied to muscle activity as well as cholesterol synthesis. Researchers can’t be sure yet if the increased isoprene detected was due to the collective tensing of muscles as viewers worried about their heroine, or if it was tied to the stress hormone cortisol via cholesterol. Another bump in isoprene was detected when audience members left the theater, probably due to muscle activity, but that was a lot more activity than nervous viewers gripping their armrest in excitement, so it’s unclear what the exact cause was.

The other question is if these volatile compounds serve an evolutionary purpose, or if they’re just a byproduct of metabolism. While we don’t consciously notice subtle odors like this, it’s possible they offer a non-verbal form of communication for moments of potential danger, or in the case of comedy, a signal that all’s clear. If it isn’t serving our biological noses, detecting changes in mood with electronic noses may still be of value. At a minimum, it can be used to gauge reaction and mood when test audiences screen next year’s big blockbusters.

Source: The chemicals we off-gas change when we watch something funny or thrilling by Beth Mole, ArsTechnica

On May 1st, 2016 we learned about

Sports drinks are sometimes best when swished, not swallowed

Do sports drinks have what your body craves, or maybe just your mouth? While these beverages have a number of ingredients and formulations, like salts that can help rehydrate your body, one of the key components is sugar. When you’ve been working hard for extended periods of time in aerobic activities like running or cycling, the water, salt and sugar can be a benefit, generally increasing people’s endurance by as much as an hour. For anything else, the benefits of guzzling Gatorade become a little murkier, to the point where you might as well just be swishing the stuff around in your mouth instead of swallowing it.

Depending on what you’re doing, gargling Gatorade may be just as helpful to your performance as ingesting it. For activities where concentration and accuracy are critical, such as fencing, merely exposing your body to the beverage’s sugars seems to offer plenty of benefit. Athletes were given either water or water dosed with maltodextrin, a flavorless sugar that couldn’t be detected, and asked to swish and spit between practicing lunges. Reaction times weren’t improved, but after spitting sugar water, fencers’ accuracy didn’t decline as quickly as they became otherwise fatigued. Even if participants couldn’t taste it, the maltodextrin had time to bond and activate receptors in their mouths, stimulating brain regions associated with motivation. This has also been found to benefit performance in endurance-oriented sports, like cycling.

Calorie control

The reason to avoid actually ingesting sports drinks is probably more obvious for a fencer than cyclist. While both activities require exertion, fencing is a bit less aerobic, burning fewer calories than cycling or running. As such, athletes may want to have better control over the amount of calories they take in, especially if they don’t need to replenish lost carbohydrates. While they can be beneficial if you’re exercising, especially in hot weather, it’s good to consider how many calories really need to be replaced while rehydrating. Otherwise, sports drinks generally have close to the sugar found in a soda, which isn’t good for anyone exercising to lose weight. Of course, if you’re also concerned about the effect of sugar on your teeth, maybe rinse with water after you finish swishing your sports drink.


Source: Why spitting is as good as swallowing when it comes to sports drinks by Lindsay Bottoms, The Conversation

On April 17th, 2016 we learned about

Caffeine boosts your brain by convincing it to delay natural drowsiness

I recently discovered that my first grader has learned two things about caffeine: it’s part of coffee, and it’s yet another wonderful gift humans have received thanks to plants trying to kill bugs. There’s obviously more to the story, even beyond listing the number of trimethylxanthine-containing products people regularly consume. It blocks neurological activity, while stimulating others. It can affect your circulation. It makes Daddy functional, and yet… I’d rather the kids avoid it when possible. After all, they need their adenosine, right?

Caffeine has a few physiological effects on us, but the big one is that it blocks adenosine from doing its job. Adenosine is a naturally occurring, inhibitory neurotransmitter. As long as you’re awake, it builds up in your brain, slowing you down to once again go to sleep, even from the start of the day. To slow you down though, the adenosine needs to plug into certain receptors in your brain, which gives caffeine an opening to buy you some extra perky time, pausing the clock on the build-up to your next bedtime. Caffeine molecules can fit into the A1 receptor well enough to keep about half the adenosine from doing its job, and until they’re cleared the adenosine just sits there instead of signalling your brain to slow down. This pause can also lead to boosted levels of dopamine and even epinephrine in your body, giving you a higher sense of alertness on top of not getting sleepier. This extra stimulation is also where increased heart rates, cooler skin and jitters can set in.

When the caffeine clears

This is all temporary though. Once the caffeine has been cleared from the A1 receptors, usually in around 45 minutes, you still have your normal build-up of adenosine waiting around, and it basically tries to catch you up, leading to a surge of sleepiness. In the long term, repeated doses of caffeine blocking your adenosine supplies can lead to an odd adjustment, wherein your brain can become more sensitized to the adenosine it does regularly receive, leading to blood-pressure drops when it finally hits you (which is why Daddy sometimes complains about a headache in the afternoon!) Caffeine’s effect on your blood pressure is actually leveraged by some headache medicines for similar reason, as it keeps your blood vessels contracted, which keeps pain sensors in your head from getting smooshed.

Risk or reward?

So where does this leave the multitude of people on Earth who consume caffeine on a daily basis? Are we being reckless with our adenosine supplies? Are coffee drinkers pooping on an unnatural basis? It may not be too serious, assuming you’re not disrupting your sleep cycles too much, forcing yourself to wake up with a build-up of yesterday’s adenosine still in your brain. There is some evidence that long-term caffeine consumption makes more permanent changes, but they may actually carry some benefits, like lower rates of dementia. That said, I think I’d rather my kids skip the dopamine/epinepherine boost and make it to bed on time. I also can’t risk them finishing the coffee before I’ve had my second or third cup of the day.


Source: Caffeine Chemistry by Anne Marie Helmenstine, PhD, About Education

On January 4th, 2016 we learned about

Puff adders are a stealthy snake that can’t be sniffed

If you’re an ambush hunter, looking like your surroundings will only get you so far. You can hold still, stay quiet and you might avoid detection by a human, but that still leaves you open to detection by a swath of creatures out there who rely on their noses more than their eyes. Hiding smell should be nearly impossible, but puff adders in Africa have recently been confirmed to be odoriferously invisible, even to some of the best sniffers out there. While the benefits of such stealth may seem obvious, it has scientists wondering just how it’s possible in the first place.

The metabolic processes that support life generally have byproducts, some of which are detectable as smells thanks to the release of airborne molecules. In some cases, these processes can go wrong, leading to increased body odors, but even a healthy body will leave a chemical trail that can be followed by sensitive noses. Puff adders (Bitis arietans), however, were observed being ignored by multiple sniffing animals, sometimes at point blank range, indicating that their body wasn’t emitting any of the usual signs of life while they were waiting for their dinner to walk by.

Seeking snake smells

To try to narrow down why normally interested parties, like dogs or mongooses, somehow missed the puff adders’ presence, researchers set up a test in the controlled environment of their lab. Dogs, as owners of some of the world’s best noses, were trained to search for smells that matched a cloth that had been rubbed on a snake’s body to pick up its scent. The dogs had to choose from a set of jars that either contained the matching snake’s scent, scents from the snake’s environment, or no scent at all. The dogs did quite well against some species of foraging snakes, like Boaedon capensis, but were at a loss when looking for the ambushing puff adders.

In case they had stumbled upon the lone gap in dogs’ sensory range, researchers also enlisted meerkats (Suricata suricatta) to replicate the tests. While the meerkats proved to be enthusiastic participants, sometimes refusing to relinquish their selected smell jars, they were no better at identifying a smell from a puff adder.

Advantageous for ambushes

At this point, the roots of the adders’ stealth isn’t confirmed, but the hypothesis is that as an ambush hunter, they’d need to avoid being smelled both by possible prey but also predators catching them while they lie in wait. To test this, more ambush hunters will need to be studied to see how widespread being odorless really is. On a physiological level, being scentless may be due unusually slow metabolisms, lowering their volatile output below smellable thresholds. Lowering the burn rate of the body might work well for an animal spending a lot of time holding still, and would explain why more active creatures couldn’t sustain a trait that would probably be beneficial to many prey animals.

Source: Unsmellable Snake Camouflages Its Scent by Elizabeth Preston, Inkfish

On January 4th, 2016 we learned about

Processed poop and plants provide methane for power

A nice thing about chemistry is that it’s source agnostic. Matching atoms from one source are as good as any other, which is why the methane we’re capturing from fresh sewage is just as good as the gas we’re extracting from deposits in the ground. Actually, that’s not entirely true, as the fresher sources of methane are also offering environmental benefits, making them more attractive places to get chemically identical CH4.

Benefits of a byproduct

While people have worked hard to extract methane, as natural gas, from the ground, wastewater treatment plants usually have the opposite problem. As sewage breaks down, it releases a lot of methane that had to be addressed in order to avoid becoming a fire hazard, or simply vent it as polluting greenhouse gas. Neither option could be considered terribly efficient or constructive, and now more and more waste treatment plants are trying to harness that unavoidable methane as a fuel source.

One option is to turn the wastewater facility into a hybrid power plant. To dispose of the methane, it’s burned to power turbines and generate electricity. That electricity can then be sent out to the grid, or at least help power the water treatment facility itself. In Colorado, engineers are refining the methane and packaging it for use in other power plants. The initial beneficiaries of this purified waste byproduct are natural gas vehicles, such as buses and garbage trucks. Once contaminants like water and oxygen are filtered out, the biomethane is indistinguishable from other sources of natural gas, making it usable in a wide variety of applications.

Mixing and matching

Between human waste and farm animals, there’s no shortage of fecal fuel sources. As operations have ramped up in Colorado, they’ve discovered one caveat about these sources though— even if the quality of resulting methane isn’t a concern, they have found that mixing different forms of organic materials for decomposition can yield greater returns per pound of waste. So rather than source their methane strictly from the sewer, they’re mixing in food waste as well, which not only increases their output, but of course helps with yet another collection of material we’re not making the most of. Basically, any food source for us can also power our buses or power plants, either before or after we’ve eaten it.

Source: From Poop To Power: Colorado Explores New Sources Of Renewable Energy by Dan Boyce, NPR.org