Stories tagged Life Science


Mysterious creature invades local lake: Local woman seen fleeing for her life. Is anyone safe?
Mysterious creature invades local lake: Local woman seen fleeing for her life. Is anyone safe?Courtesy Mark Ryan
There have been recent reports of sightings of some sort of sea monster on Lake Harriet in Minneapolis. I don't live far from the lake so I thought I'd go see if I could spot the so-called "Lake Creature" or at least debunk the sightings. Rumors of mythical creatures are common in the area, like I've heard there's an elf living in a tree trunk on the south end of the same lake. I've seen where he supposedly lives but I've never seen the elf himself. So when I went to investigate, I wasn't expecting to see anything other than a large piece of driftwood or a massive floating blob of something like they saw in Alaska this week. But I got to tell you, this lake creature thing is for real. I saw him with my own eyes on the east side of the lake. The sight of it was so startling, I was afraid to stop my car to take a photo so I just snapped one as I sped by. Let's hope this thing hasn't already destroyed the bandshell.


Watch out for that F-bomb coming right at 'cha.
Watch out for that F-bomb coming right at 'cha.Courtesy wickenden
A new study shows that bad language could serve as a pain reliever. NeuroReport published the study, which measured how long college students could keep their hands submerged in cold water. Students had a choice to either swear repeatedly, or use a neutral word. And what do ya know, the cursing kids reported less pain and also managed to keep their hands immersed for an average of 40 seconds longer. Well what the @%$#?

Richard Stephens of Keele University in England says, "Swearing is such a common response to pain that there has to be an underlying reason why we do it.” His research has shown that we could benefit. He states, “"I would advise people, if they hurt themselves, to swear."

So how does swearing achieve physical relief? In the study, students’ heart rate rose when they swore, which suggests the fight-or-flight response in which the heart rate climbs so that we become less sensitive to pain. The structure that triggers this response, the the amygdala, was indeed activated during the study which means that unlike normal languages, expletives activate emotional centers in the right side of the brain.

Stephens cautions that the more you swear, the less emotionally potent the word becomes. So don’t be cursin’ left and right because you read it here. But hopefully, with scientific information to back it up, mothers will no longer feel the need to wash their kids’ mouths with soap.


Turn the arrows around, and you've got the right idea!: Feels like clean energy, doesn't it?
Turn the arrows around, and you've got the right idea!: Feels like clean energy, doesn't it?Courtesy bre pettis
Just kidding! The burning sensation is probably just one of the many symptoms you’ll experience during your bout with gonorrhea. It may feel like electric fire, but, really, it’s only inflammation somewhere in your urinary tract.

But while we’re on the subjects of urine, electric fire, and the future, check this out: your bladder is full of rich, savory hydrogen fuel, and some Ohio scientists have found a great way to get at it.

Using urine in power storage/production devices has been explored before, and, naturally, Science Buzz has been all over it. The story that was on Buzz before, however, was about using urine as an electrolyte medium in batteries, so it’s just there to allow the passage of electrons from one material to another. (That’s how I understood it, anyway—I couldn’t get to the original article.)

What we have here is something entirely different. With this technology, it’s the urine itself that could supply power, instead of just activating a chemical reaction in other materials.

Hydrogen, as we all know, is awesome. It’s easy to remember where it is on the periodic table (somewhere near the beginning, I think), it’s light, so it can lift stuff like zeppelins up in the air, it’s super flammable, so it can run the internal combustion engines we love so much, and it can be made to undergo a chemical reaction in a fuel cell, producing electricity. Unfortunately, hydrogen is also kind of... not awesome. Its otherwise delightful explosiveness also means that riding a hydrogen-filled zeppelin isn’t a great idea, it’s tricky to store, and despite being the most common element in the universe, it’s a pain to get a hold of.

We can get hydrogen out of water, because every molecule of water has two hydrogen atoms for each oxygen atom. But those hydrogen and oxygen atoms don’t like splitting apart, so we have to run electricity through water to get them to break up, and depending on how we produced that electricity, it sort of defeats the purpose; we’re using a lot of some other kind of fuel to make hydrogen fuel.

These clever Ohio scientists, however, realized that by using the right materials, they could get hydrogen and nitrogen to split apart from each other with a lot less electricity. (It takes them .037 volts to split hydrogen and nitrogen, compared to 1.23 volts for hydrogen and oxygen.) Where, then, is a cheap plentiful source of nitrogen bound with hydrogen? Where indeed…

You know where this is going: urine, or as I call it, yellow gold. Urea, one of the main components of urine, has four hydrogen atoms bound to two nitrogen atoms. If you put a nickel electrode into some urine and run electricity through it, that hydrogen gets released, and you can do with it what you will.

One cow, claim the scientists, could produce enough hydrogen to supply hot water for 19 houses. A gallon of urine could theoretically power a car with a hydrogen fuel cell for 90 miles. A refrigerator-sized unit, they say, “could produce one kilowatt of energy for about $5,000.” Someone might have to help me out on that last one. That can’t be per kilowatt, or “kilowatt-hour” (how we usually measure electricity usage), because a kilowatt-hour costs about 10 cents these days. I’m assuming that it would cost about $5,000 to build a unit like that, and the cost to run it would largely fall upon your kidneys. (Maybe?) Commercial farms, required to pool their animal waste anyhow, could power themselves with all the spare hydrogen.

It’s a pretty neat idea, and one that I actually had a long time ago. I have to give it to the scientists, though—they definitely advanced on my original idea. See I was just trying to burn urine straight up, and, frankly, it wasn’t working. Nothing about it was working.

I’m wondering, also, what the byproduct of urine-produced hydrogen would be. Fuel cells should just produce water vapor, but what’s happening when the hydrogen is separated from the urea? The chemical formula for urea is (NH2)2CO, so after the hydrogen leaves you’ve got two leftover nitrogen atoms, a carbon atom, and an oxygen atom. Laughing gas, or nitrous oxide, is N2O, but what about that carbon? We don’t like carbon just wandering around unsupervised these days.

Can anyone help me out here? When we remove the hydrogen from (NH2)2CO, what’s left over?


The patch-nosed salamander: Think of how many dimes you could fit in your mouth! And this would be easier, because salamanders are so soft!
The patch-nosed salamander: Think of how many dimes you could fit in your mouth! And this would be easier, because salamanders are so soft!Courtesy University of Georgia
Oh, happy July 8, Buzzketeers! A brand new salamander has been discovered in a Georgia creek! (In several Georgia creeks, actually.) And it represents not only a new species, but also an entirely new genus! This is the first time in fifty years that a new genus of four-legged animal has been found in the United States.

But that’s not the best part; the best part is that this new salamander is small enough to easily fit in your mouth! At just two itty-bitty inches, the salamander is in fact small enough to easily fit into a baby’s mouth. An average adult could probably fit dozens of these things in his or her mouth! (This is assuming that said mouth isn’t wired shut for some reason. The salamanders may be able to fit up a straw whole, but I’m guessing that it would make more sense to blend them up first, in which case one could still get in plenty of salamanders by volume, but determining the number of individuals might be hard.)

The researchers are excited to study the new genus, and hope that, being among the smallest salamanders in the world, the new specimen might tell them something about the evolution of miniaturization in salamanders. And when they’re finished with that, they can just toss the little suckers in their mouths, and maybe eat them.


Mayflies: Developing a sudden interest in trucks, apparently.
Mayflies: Developing a sudden interest in trucks, apparently.Courtesy adolson13
Did things just get a little… sexier in here? By “in here” I mean in my local metro area? So did things just get a little… sexier in the Twin Cities?

Oh ho, I think they just did. I took my shoes off the write this post, and that’s part of it, but that’s not where it starts. No, it starts with thousands upon thousands of young adults—in the blazing prime of their life, really—with one thing on their minds, and not much time on their hands.

Yep, the mayflies have hatched. That is, they hatched about a year ago, and have just now completed their final moults into adulthood. Now they have anywhere between a day and just half an hour to do what needs to be done. In their case, it’s sex that needs to be done. Other than vague efforts at avoiding premature death via fish mouth or windshield, adult mayflies haven’t got a lot of distractions—while immature naiad mayflies spend months paddling around at the bottoms of streams and lakes eating algae, their mouthparts are vestigial (useless) when they reach maturity, and their digestive tracks are full of air. (Exactly when this occurs is based on temperature and humidity, so all the mayflies in a particular area will become mature at the same time.) So, as a young mayfly, asking a prospective mate out for dinner would be pretty much pointless even if you had the time.

It might seem kind of crazy evolving into a creature that only lives for a few hours and can’t do anything but fly around and try to have sex. But if that’s all you have to do, you can invest all your resources into ensuring that you reproduce, and if your whole generation is doing it at more or less the same time, your chances are pretty good. Plus, time is relative, and there are probably those who’d say that a life of just flying around and having sex would be okay. Assuming you didn’t get eaten by a walleye.

I’m going to put up a boring ol’ picture of a mayfly here, just so you know what to look for when you’re trying to avoid thousands-strong airborne orgies over the next couple of days. Hopefully, though, I’ll have some pictures of actual swarming mayflies soon. (I know where to find some, but if y’all are already on top of things, don’t hesitate to post your own!)


Super Corn!: Resistant to bugs AND delicious!
Super Corn!: Resistant to bugs AND delicious!Courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture

While every other industry in the world seems to be tanking and going to visit their loyal bankruptcy lawyer, science and the genome project is on top!

The cost of sequencing has drastically decreased over the past few years and now smaller institutes can afford to contribute to the genome project. The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council has recently opened a new research center in Norwich, England to aid farmers in the face of climate change.

Their main overarching goal is to help boost food production for future generations. They take seriously the threats of climate change on the global food sources. As such the institute is hoping to develop crops that are more resistant to harmful insects and can withstand severe drought. Outside of issues surrounding climate change there is great interest on the board to develop new strains of vegetables that will contain compounds that reduce the incidence of some cancers.

With more institutes like the one in Norwich and affordable genome sequencing we may well survive the terrors of climate change!


I've recently heard about someone living in MN who went to back to Africa to visit family and he came back with a case of malaria. This is exactly the situation advisors to the exhibition Disease Detectives highlighted as a growing problem. Did you know that if you've developed immunity to malaria you lose that immunity when you move away from a region where malaria is endemic?

Exciting news on the diagnostic front comes from Glasgow University where scientists have developed a new test to quickly diagnose malaria. Currently to diagnose malaria researchers look at a patients sample of blood under a microscope and look for signs of the parasite. You need to be highly trained to be good at diagnosing this way. The new procedure is not only faster and more accurate but it can tell if the parasite is resistant to the first line of drug treatment. Go to this link for an article from the university and this link for a BBC video about the new diagnostic technique. In Disease Detectives we highlighted another new diagnostic technique which can easily be used away from expensive labs called a rapid diagnostic test which uses a "dipstick" method to indicate if certain proteins from the parasite is in a patient's blood. We've highlighted two professionals working on the test on the Disease Detective's website. Find out information about Norman Moore and Sara Hallowell who both work on this rapid diagnostic test.

I wonder what is the best way to get these tests to the people who most need them?


Now, these are Brad Pitt's eyes: Or... no, maybe not. I'm not certain.
Now, these are Brad Pitt's eyes: Or... no, maybe not. I'm not certain.Courtesy myrmician
I’ll save you the anxiety of guessing and the effort of researching—it’s the third one. Or maybe psychology grad students really are good at Photoshop, and I simply can’t stand pictures of Bradbrad that have been adulterated in any way.

JGordon, what are you talking about?

Aahh, I don’t even know anymore. But I guess I’m referring to this study that recently came out of Vanderbilt University, about how we recognize human faces. It turns out that while we identify most stuff (cars are given as an example in the article) by individual features, individual humans are identified by the whole collection of facial features.

Holistic recognition (the way we see faces) is nice because we can quickly distinguish between lots of individuals. But the reason we’re able to do it so well, say the scientists, is because we associate names with faces, individuating them as we learn them. This is a different mental path than identifying something by individual parts.

Basically, we don’t identify people by thinking “Let’s see… square jaw, pointy nose, thin eyebrows, small ears… ah! That’s David!” And if we had learned to identify people that way, we would have to relearn to identify them holistically by all their features at once, because the two methods of identification aren’t really linked.

Or something. Like I said, I don’t really know what I’m talking about.

The scientists did, however, attempt to illustrate their point with this picture of actor Brad Pitt. The idea is as follows:
“See this picture of Brad Pitt?”
“Yes, I see that picture of Brad Pitt. Very nice.”
“Are you sure? Take a closer look.”
“What on Earth are you… Oh my goodness! The eyes! Those are Matt Damon’s eyes! Well, I never!”
“Yes, those are Matt Damon’s eyes! But you didn’t look at the eyes and say, ‘This is Matt Damon,’ did you?”
“No indeed!”

Except, if you’re anything like JGordon, you looked at that picture and thought, “What happened to Brad Pitt? Has Angelina Jolie been hitting him? Does he have eyeball parasites?” And you were so distracted by this that any future mention of psychology was overwhelmed by your concern for Benjamin Button himself. He’s only a child, after all.

Eh. Anyway, your photo project looks crazy, Vanderbilt.


This is another good strategy: Decoy ears.
This is another good strategy: Decoy ears.Courtesy niclindh
Just kidding, of course. Whisper into either ear, and you’ll probably get all sorts of nothing. I’m cold like that.

For most people, though, it turns out that speaking into someone’s right ear is a good way to get what you want. Not a perfect way to get what you want, but it seems to help.

Apparently it’s been widely accepted that the right ear is usually dominant in “listening to verbal stimuli” (I suppose that means that you pay more attention with that ear, or that that ear pays more attention itself, as it were), but a new study has explored how this plays out in actual human behavior. It was tested in the most sophisticated of human laboratories: the European discotheque. By asking for cigarettes.

I imagine that there has never been a scientific study with “What?!” shouted so many times. Nonetheless, the researchers, sweating and bedecked in glowsticks, determined observed several things over the course of three studies. In the first two, they found that when clubbers couldn’t hear a cigarette request very well, they offered their right ears most often, and 72% of cigarette negotiation took place on the right side. In the third study, the researchers approached people intentionally from either the right or the left when asking for cigarettes, and those clubbers who were asked through the right ear yielded “significantly more” cigarettes.

The reason for this, the scientists think, is that the right ear is (oddly) more directly connected to the left hemisphere of the brain, and the left brain is dominant when it comes to words and numbers. (The left brain is sort of like your inner math nerd, and the right brain is sort of like your inner art nerd. Your inner jock is the stem.) This direct connection, I suppose, makes people more naturally inclined to listen to verbal requests through the right ear, and makes requests received through the right ear more easily processed than those taken through the left ear.

Because I don’t like doing what I’m told, no matter what I’m told, I am now wearing a right ear patch at all times. It has a skull and crossbones on it, to give me a sort of nautical, pirate-getting-dressed-while-drunk look. Please contact me if you’d like to order your own ear patch. Unless you’d rather go around giving everybody cigarettes all the time.