Tag Archives: biology

Tupperware in space!

Capitalism in space: Tupperware and NASA have partnered to provide space-grown gardens an artificial material for roots to grow and be watered.

First flown to the ISS in 2014, the Vegetable Production System, (aka the “Veggie” facility), is an experiment for growing plants in zero gravity in a plastic greenhouse. It consists of a collapsible plastic tent with a controllable atmosphere lit by red, blue, and green LED lamps to promote growth. Since dirt and space travel don’t mix, the seeds are embedded in rooting “pillows” that take the place of soil to retain water and give the roots somewhere to grow.

The problem is that the pillows don’t hold onto water very well, so the hydroponic system keeps drying out unless it’s tended regularly. Given how much it costs to keep an astronaut on the station, time spent watering the lettuce is about as economical as hiring a brain surgeon to mow the lawn, so a team led by Howard Levine at the Kennedy Space Center is working on some upgrades for the system.

One key example is the semi-hydroponic Passive Orbital Nutrient Delivery System (PONDS) being produced by Tupperware. With over 75 years of experience working with food-grade plastics as well as injection molding and other plastic manufacturing processes, Tupperware is producing a new disposable pillow made of plastic mesh that uses capillary forces and unusual geometries to replace gravity and hold water in like a zero gravity sponge while permitting root formation.

In other words, rather than design and built the pillows itself, as it would have in the past, NASA has hired Tupperware to build them. I am willing to bet this is saving NASA both time and money.

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Growing cucumbers in space

New research growing cucumbers on ISS has found that the roots of these plants grew in the direction of water in weightlessness.

Plant roots grow to find water, according to a process known as hydrotropism. Roots are also influenced by gravity and tend to grow downwards, called gravitropism. To find out whether gravity or water had the greater influence on root growth, investigators grew cucumber plants in the microgravity environment on board the International Space Station. In their experiments, water (or hydrotropism) had more influence in controlling root growth.

“We will be able to utilize roots’ ability to sense moisture gradients for controlling root growth orientation and efficiently growing plants in future space farms,” said Dr. Hideyuki Takahashi, senior author of the New Phytologist study.

You can read the full science paper here.

This might sound obvious, but it isn’t. Past plant growth experiments on Mir and ISS had tended to show that plant roots did not know where to grow in weightlessness, suggesting that they needed gravity to guide the roots to water. Because of this, later experiments in space provided the roots complicated engineering to guide the roots to the water.

This experiment shows that maybe that complex engineering is not necessary, or at least could be simplified a bit. At a minimum it is crucial information engineers will need to design any future gardens for interplanetary spaceships with long term weightlessness.

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How cats used humans to conquer the world

Link here. The bottom line is this:

Compared to many other animals, cats have also changed very little in the domestication process. Behaviorally, they’ve become more tolerant of humans. Physically, though, they’re still about the same size and shape. They still like to pounce on small prey. “Cats have done since before they were domesticated what we needed them to do,” says Leslie Lyons, a feline geneticist at the University of Missouri. In other words, unlike dogs that herd sheep or hunt badgers, cats didn’t need humans to breed them to become good mouse hunters.

In other words, cats did what they want (as they always do), and humans paid them with food and companionship, while providing them the transportation they needed to reach every continent.

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Worm grows 2 heads on ISS

The uncertainty of science: For reasons that are not yet understood, a flatworm fragment flown to ISS in a microgravity experiment regenerated with two heads.

But the most dramatic difference was a type of regeneration observed in one of the 15 worm fragments sent to the ISS. That worm returned to the scientists with two heads (one on each end of its body), a type of regeneration so rare as to be practically unheard of — “normal flatworms in water never do this,” Levin told Live Science. When the researchers snipped both heads off back on Earth, the middle portion regenerated into a two-headed worm again.

“And these differences persist well over a year after return to Earth!” Levin said. “Those could have been caused by loss of the geomagnetic field, loss of gravity, and the stress of takeoff and landing — all components of any space-travel experience for living systems going to space in the future,” he said.

The flatworms that flew in space showed other significant differences from the control group that stayed on Earth, further suggesting that for flatworms at least the environment of weightlessness causes more problems that were expected.

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How NIMH policy effects research

The uncertainty of science: A policy change in how the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) awards grants during the Obama administration has had a profound influence on the research of mental-health in the United States.

An analysis by Nature suggests that the number of clinical trials funded by the NIMH dropped by 45% between 2009 and 2015. This coincides with the agency’s launch, in 2011, of the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) — a framework for research on the mechanisms of mental illness. The NIMH’s roll-out of RDoC included asking researchers to focus more on the biological bases of behaviour — such as brain circuitry and genetics — than on the broader symptoms that clinicians typically use to define and classify mental illness.

The NIMH’s embrace of fundamental research has infuriated many clinical researchers, who see it as an attempt to invalidate their methods — and say that there is scant evidence to support the idea that using RDoC will lead to greater insight or better treatments for mental illness. Many of these researchers also note that NIMH funding for clinical trials has declined steadily over the past decade, adding to the perception that the agency now favours research that uses the RDoC framework.

Read the article. I have no idea if the change in NIMH policy is a good or bad thing. What disturbs me however is the federal government’s overall top-down control over mental-health research. Rather than obtain funding from many different sources — which would allow for the greatest flexibility and the most creativity — this research field appears to depend almost entirely on NIMH grants. Thus, the particular preferences of that agency dictates the nature of the research, whether or not its preferences are right.

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Rat sperm exposed to weightlessness still produces healthy rats

An experiment that flew on ISS has found that rat sperm exposed to weightlessness and space radiation and then used on Earth to fertilize eggs still produce healthy rats.

The first issue for the researchers was how best to get the sperm up there. They decided to have the samples freeze-dried, just like instant coffee. This meant the sperm weighed almost nothing and could be kept at room temperature, ideal for travel on a rocket, or on a distant planet. The mouse sperm then spent 288 days on the ISS before coming back to Earth to be compared with fresh sperm from the same mice.

First, the scientists analysed how space travel affected the integrity of the DNA within the sperm. We know that high levels of fragmentation of sperm DNA are associated with male infertility. As expected, the scientists discovered that the space sperm had higher amounts of fragmented DNA than the sperm which had stayed on Earth. However, when used to fertilise a mouse egg, the space sperm resulted in a similar number of healthy embryos being generated – and these offspring had the ability to develop into normal, fertile adult mice. A final test the researchers did was to compare the patterns of genes being expressed within the brains of the adult mice. Here, the researchers saw no overall differences and concluded the space sperm was equally capable of generating offspring.

Obviously, this result is encouraging, but we are still a long way from nonchalantly letting women get pregnant and give birth in space. The risks on the child remain too great and are unknown.

In fact, I suspect the first time a child is born and raised in space will be an event that is unplanned.

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Irreplaceable plant specimens destroyed by Australian customs.

Do the paperwork! Because the proper paperwork was not completed, and then mailed to the wrong address, Australian customs officials destroyed six daisy specimens, some collected in the 1700s.

Earlier this week, many botanists learned about the destruction of six type specimens of daisies—some collected during a French expedition to Australia from 1791 to 1793—which the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in Paris had mailed along with 99 other specimens to the Queensland Herbarium in Brisbane, Australia.

After the package arrived in Brisbane in early January, the specimens were held up at customs because the paperwork was incomplete. Biosecurity officers asked the Queensland Herbarium for a list of the specimens and how they were preserved, but the herbarium sent its responses to the wrong email address, delaying the response by many weeks. In March, the officers requested clarification, but then incinerated the samples. “It’s like taking a painting from the Louvre and burning it,” says James Solomon, herbarium curator at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis.

According to Australia’s Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, which enforces biosecurity rules, part of the problem was that the samples had a declared value of $2—and its agents routinely destroy low-value items that have been kept longer than 30 days. Michel Guiraud, director of collections at NMNH, says his museum’s policy is to put minimal values on shipments. “If it is irreplaceable, there is no way to put an insurance value on it,” he says.

It appears that the fault here is not entirely limited to Australian customs. Both the Paris and Brisbane museums appear to have been very sloppy in this matter.

The result, for now, is that some research organizations are now ceasing all shipments to Australia.

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ISS twin study suggests weightlessness stresses the body in unexpected ways

The first preliminary results from NASA’s comparison of Scott Kelly, who spent 340 days on ISS, and his twin brother Mark, who did not, suggests that weightlessness stresses the body’s genetic system in ways not previously measured.

Preliminary results are in from NASA’s unprecedented twin study — a detailed probe of the genetic differences between astronaut Scott Kelly, who spent nearly a consecutive year in space, and his identical twin Mark. Measurements taken before, during and after Scott Kelly’s mission reveal changes in gene expression, DNA methylation and other biological markers that are likely attributable to his time in orbit.

From the lengths of the twins’ chromosomes to the microbiomes in their guts, “almost everyone is reporting that we see differences”, says Christopher Mason, a geneticist at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. He and other project scientists reported the early results on 26 January in Galveston, Texas, at a meeting of scientists working in NASA’s Human Research Program. “The data are so fresh that some of them are still coming off the sequencing machines,” Mason says.

It remains unclear at this point the medical consequences of these genetic changes. The data from this first experiment is still too preliminary, and it only involves looking at two people, a sample that is obviously too small. Nonetheless, it is a beginning, and of some significance.

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Cause of vision problems in space pinpointed?

New research suggests that scientists have pinpointed the cause of the vision problems astronauts experience from long term weightlessness.

The new research showed that intracranial pressure in zero-gravity conditions, such as exists in space, is higher than when people are standing or sitting on Earth, but lower than when people are sleeping on Earth. The researcher’s finding suggests that the constancy of pressure on the back of the eye causes the vision problems astronauts experience over time.

More important, the research has also suggested a possible cure.

“The information from these studies is already leading to novel partnerships with companies to develop tools to simulate the upright posture in space while astronauts sleep, thereby normalizing the circadian variability in intracranial pressure, and hopefully eliminating the remodeling behind the eye,” said Dr. Levine, who holds the Distinguished Professorship in Exercise Sciences.

The researchers have continued studying whether it is possible to lower intracranial pressure by means of a vacuum device that pulls blood away from the head. They previously showed that a negative pressure box that snuggly fits the lower body can lower intracranial pressure when applied for 20-minute periods. They will soon be testing the effect of the lower body negative pressure device on eye remodeling when negative pressure is applied for eight-hour periods. “Astronauts are basically supine the entire time they are in space. The idea is that the astronauts would wear negative pressure clothing or a negative pressure device while they sleep, creating lower intracranial pressure for part of each 24 hours,” said first author Dr. Justin Lawley, Instructor in Internal Medicine at UT Southwestern and a researcher at the IEEM.

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A centrifuge costing 20 cents based on a toy

Scientists at Stanford have developed a centrifuge costing 20 cents to make, based on a child’s toy, that can be used in the field to separate blood samples.

According to Stanford, Prakash and post-doctoral fellow Saad Bhamla came up with the “paperfuge” while looking at toys like tops and yo-yos for inspiration. Noticing how the disc of a whirligig spins when the cords on either side are pulled, they decided to make a slow motion video of one, only to discover that it rotated at 10,000 to 15,000 RPM.

The pair started developing prototypes using a blood capillary tube mounted on a paper disc, but they went beyond simple tinkering as they recruited three undergraduate engineering students from MIT and Stanford to create mathematical models of how the whirligig could change a pulling motion into a rotary motion. Looking at variables like disc size, string elasticity, and pulling force, they combined this with equations from the physics of supercoiling DNA to gain a better understanding of the whirligig’s mechanism.

The result was a centrifuge made of 20 cents of paper, twine, and plastic that could spin at 125,000 RPM, generate 3,000 G’s, and process samples in 1.5 minutes.

I have embedded a video explaining the paperfuge below the fold. I wonder if a variation of this on ISS could do low gravity experiments.
» Read more

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Possible cause of microgravity vision problems identified

Scientists think they may have located the cause of the vision problems experienced by nearly two-thirds of all astronauts after long missions in weightlessness.

Prof Alperin has been looking at another potential source of the problems – the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). This helps cushion the brain and spinal cord, and can accommodate the changes when a person moves from a lying to a standing position. “In space the system is confused by the lack of the posture-related pressure changes,” Prof Alperin explained.

The team performed high-resolution MRI scans before and shortly after spaceflights for seven long-duration astronauts. They compared the results with nine astronauts who flew into orbit for short stints on the space shuttle. The results showed that long-duration astronauts had significantly greater post-flight increases in the volume of CSF within the bony cavity of the skull that holds the eye, and also in the volume of CSF in the cavities of the brain where the fluid is produced.

The sample size is small, and the study has not yet been peer reviewed, so these results must still be taken with some skepticism.

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Birds that can fly practically forever

New research using data loggers tagged to thirteen common swifts has revealed that these birds were capable of remaining airborne for months at a time.

The researchers found that some of the birds made a few brief night landings in winter but remained airborne for 99% of the time. Three birds didn’t touch down once in the entire ten months….“Common swifts have evolved to be very efficient flyers, with streamlined body shapes and long and narrow wings, generating lift force at low cost,” says Anders Hedenström, a study co-author and a biologist at Lund University in Sweden. The birds even eat while airborne, snatching flying termites, ballooning spiders and other aerial insects for in-flight meals.

Hedenström says that common swifts have adapted to a low-energy lifestyle, but his team does not yet know whether the birds sleep while aloft. “Most animals suffer dramatically from far less sleep loss,” says Niels Rattenborg, a neurobiologist at Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany. “But these birds seem to have found a trick through evolution that allows them to get by on far less sleep.”

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The effect of weightlessness on the spine

New observations of astronauts before and after four to seven month long missions to ISS has found the back pain many astronauts experience appears to be caused by significant muscle atrophy.

The MRI scans indicated significant atrophy of the paraspinal lean muscle mass —which plays a critical role in spinal support and movement—during the astronauts’ time in space. The lean muscle, or “functional,” cross-sectional area of the lumbar paraspinal muscles decreased by an average of 19 percent from preflight to immediate postflight scans. A month or two later, only about two-thirds of the reduction had recovered. There was an even more dramatic reduction in the functional cross-sectional area of the paraspinal muscles relative to total paraspinal cross-sectional area. The ratio of lean muscle decreased from 86 percent preflight to 72 percent immediately postflight. At follow-up, the ratio recovered to 81 percent, but was still less than the preflight value.

In contrast, there was no consistent change in the height of the spinal intervertebral discs. Dr. Chang and coauthors write, “These measurements run counter to previous hypotheses about the effects of microgravity on disc swelling.” Further studies will be needed to clarify the effects on disc height, and whether they contribute to the increase in body height during space missions, and to the increased risk of herniated disc disease.

These results are very encouraging, because they indicate that the back problems seen are mostly attributable to weakened muscles, not actual spinal damage, and can therefore be more easily mitigated by new exercises while in orbit.

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Breakthrough increases plant yields by one third

Plant scientists have found a way to encourage plants to better use atmospheric nitrogen, thus increasing yields by more than one third.

For years, scientists have tried to increase the rate of nitrogen fixation in legumes by altering rhizobia bacterioid function or interactions that take place between the bacterioid and the root nodule cells.

Tegeder took a different approach: She increased the number of proteins that help move nitrogen from the rhizobia bacteria to the plant’s leaves, seed-producing organs and other areas where it is needed. The additional transport proteins sped up the overall export of nitrogen from the root nodules. This initiated a feedback loop that caused the rhizobia to start fixing more atmospheric nitrogen, which the plant then used to produce more seeds. “They are bigger, grow faster and generally look better than natural soybean plants,” Tegeder said. “Some evidence we have suggests they might also be highly efficient under stressful conditions like drought.”

The technique not only produces healthier plants and more seeds, it reduces the need for fertilizer, the overuse of which can be an environmental issue.

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Cosmic rays a threat to Mars travel

The uncertainty of science: New research using rats has found that cosmic rays might damage human brains during a long mission to and from Mars.

Radiation oncologist Charles Limoli and his colleagues at the University of California Irvine bombarded mice and rats with low-doses of ionized oxygen or titanium. These charged particles have similar energies to those of cosmic rays that can pass right through the shielding on spacecraft. The dosage levels that the researchers used were similar to what astronauts would be exposed to during a three-year round-trip mission to Mars, Limoli says.

The researchers looked at the prefrontal cortex, the brain region linked to decision-making, executive function, and long-term memory. They saw significant damage and inflammation in the brains of exposed animals as long as six months after the exposure. The radiation damaged the tiny branches on neurons that help transmit electric signals to the nerve cell body. This led to a loss in learning and memory. The exposed animals performed poorly on behavioral tests that measure intelligence, and they showed higher, constant anxiety levels.

Though the uncertainties here are enormous, the research here has essentially discovered the obvious. The radiation experienced during a long interplanetary voyage is unhealthy, and any interplanetary vessel for carrying humans on such a voyage must be designed with sufficient shielding to protect its passengers. That this research has proven that cosmic rays are a threat also means that providing a ship with a safe room where passengers can take refuge during solar storms is not sufficient. Cosmic rays are random and come at all times in an unpredictable manner. The research suggests that the shielding will have to protect the ship’s entire living quarters.

The payload weight requirements for any rocket that will launch the first interplanetary ships just went up significantly. This means that space stations we have been building (Mir, ISS, and Tiangong) are not even close to sufficient for interplanetary travel, and need significant redesign to make them work. This also means that human interplanetary travel will require cost-efficient heavy lift rockets such as the Falcon Heavy.

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How cats conquered the world

Link here. This first large scale study of the DNA of ancient cat remains tracks how felines initially spread through human society in the ancient world.

The article and the researchers appear to make one mistake, however, in questioning whether cats have been domesticated. Anyone who owns a cat can answer that question unequivocally: No! Cats merely agree to live with us, on the condition that we treat them as they demand.

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Polio returns to Nigeria

Two years after the last previous case and only one year from declaring Nigeria polio-free, two children have been diagnosed with the crippling virus.

They are going to immediately begin immunizing 5 million children in the affected region.

Coincidentally, that area has been the epicenter of an insurgency waged by Boko Haram, an Islamist militant group that has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced more than 2 million since their fight began in 2009. During Boko Haram’s time in Borno, the group has been responsible for destroying hundreds of health centers, and has caused so much damage in some areas that it has become hard for vaccinators to do their jobs effectively.

One can’t help wondering if these new cases occurred because of this Islamic insurgency.

Posted on the road from Tucson to the Grand Canyon.

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July 12, 2016 Zimmerman/Batchelor podcast

Embedded below the fold. I spent a large portion of the podcast talking about the medical problems caused by long-term weightlessness, and how it might limit our ability to send humans to other planets. We also touched on the possible consequences to space policy should Donald Trump pick Newt Gingrich as his VP.
» Read more

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Vision problems from weightlessness

This article provides an excellent review of the vision problems caused by long term exposure to weightlessness, including the efforts to study the problem on Earth.

Bottom line:

Before a human trip to Mars — a journey of six-to-nine months that NASA says it wants to achieve by the 2030s — researchers agree that VIIP [the name given to this problem] must be understood much better. VIIP could be the first sign of greater dangers to the human body from microgravity. “We’re seeing the visual and neural, ophthalmic manifestations of it,” Barratt said. “I’m fairly certain this is a bit more global than that.”

Richard Williams, the chief health and medical officer at NASA, agrees that what we do not know about VIIP still poses the biggest threat. Ironically, one of the only ways to get more knowledge is spend more time in microgravity. “The longer we stay in space, the more we’re going to learn,” Williams said.

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Kelly describes medical issues from weightlessness

In prepared remarks to a congressional subcommittee today, astronaut Scott Kelly described the medical problems he has experienced since returning from his 340 day mission on ISS.

Kelly claimed in these remarks that weightlessness caused permanent effects (which this news article decides to emphasize), but I think that might be an overstatement. None of the specific problems he experienced appear to be permanent ones, and in my interviews with Russian astronauts who stayed even longer on Mir they noted no permanent effects. One did say however that the recovery time tended to match the mission time, so that if you spent a year in space it took a year to completely recover. Kelly has only been back about three months, so his recovery is certainly not over yet.

Update: Kelly’s remarks were part of a hearing promoting legislation that would give astronauts lifetime medical coverage from the government. Thus, there is a bit of lobbying going on here.

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New jellyfish spotted at 2 miles depth

A NOAA mapping robot working two miles beneath the ocean surface recently captured video of a species of jellyfish previously unknown.

The newly discovered jellyfish has two sets of tentacles, short and long. When the the long tentacles are even and extended outward, and the bell is motionless, this could mean it’s readying to ambush its prey, scientists speculate. Inside the bell, red radial canals connect what scientists say looks like the bright yellow gonads.

I have posted the video below the fold.
» Read more

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Fake images in biology research papers

The uncertainty of peer review: A new study has found that since 1995 as many as 5.5% of all biomedical research papers per year contain duplicate or faked images.

Bik, who is at Stanford University in California, spent two years looking at articles published from 1995 to 2014 in 40 different journals, hunting for instances in which identical images were used to represent different experiments within the same paper. She cross-checked the duplications that she found with her two co-authors, both microbiologists.

Overall, 4% of the inspected papers contained such images, the researchers found. But rates ranged from over 12% in the International Journal of Oncology, to 0.3% in the Journal of Cell Biology, which has since 2002 systematically scanned images in its accepted papers before publication. Journals with higher impact factors generally had lower rates of duplicated images.

…Many of the problems were probably sloppy mistakes where people selected the wrong photograph, says Bik. But half or more look deliberate — because images are flipped or rotated or the same features occur twice in the same photograph. [emphasis mine]

Essentially, a significant number of scientists in medical research are purposely faking data.

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Avoiding the period in space

New research has outlined the techniques available to female astronauts to prevent menstruation in space.

Rather than researching the consequences of women having a period in space, the researchers are recommending that women avoid them completely, something that appears to have been the policy of NASA on ISS. This is a big mistake. The whole point of having a space station is to find out the consequences to the human body imposed by weightlessness. Future space explorers will need to reproduce. We need to know now if that will be possible.

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China grows mouse embryos in space

During a two week unmanned biology satellite mission, Chinese scientists successfully demonstrated that mouse embryos can develop in weightlessness.

The team developed an embryo culture system and placed it within a small enclosed chamber [on the spacecraft] that provides the ideal conditions for the embryos to develop in space. While the chamber was in orbit, a camera attached to the experiment took photographs of the embryos as they developed in microgravity, and sent these images back to Earth. With the aid of their imaging technology, the researchers were able to observe how the mammalian two-cell stage embryos developed into blastocysts under microgravity after four days. Blastocysts are structures formed in the very early development of mammals. In humans blastocysts begin to form five days after fertilization.

The researchers will now compare their space-developed embryos to those cultured in normal laboratory environments on Earth to see what differences there are between the two at both a cellular and molecular level.

None of this proves that life can be conceived and grow in weightlessness. It does however suggest that it might be possible.

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Liver damage from weightlessness?

The uncertainty of science: Mice flown for almost two weeks on the last space shuttle mission in 2011 have shown evidence of the early symptoms of liver disease.

The mice spent time orbiting the Earth on the final space shuttle flight in 2011. Once they returned home, teams of scientists were allowed to share and study their internal organs.

Jonscher’s team found that spaceflight resulted in increased fat storage in the liver, comparing pair-fed mice on Earth to those on the shuttle. This was accompanied by a loss of retinol, an animal form of Vitamin A, and changes to levels of genes responsible for breaking down fats. As a result, mice showed signs of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and potential early indicators for the beginnings of fibrosis, which can be one of the more progressive consequences of NAFLD. “It generally takes a long time, months to years, to induce fibrosis in mice, even when eating an unhealthy diet,” Jonscher said. “If a mouse is showing nascent signs of fibrosis without a change in diet after 13 ½ days, what is happening to the humans?”

This result doesn’t prove that weightlessness causes liver damage. It only suggests that more research is needed, though the data from six month to year long missions suggest that the liver harm to humans is either non-existent or temporary.

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Tetanus boosters can work for almost thirty years

The uncertainty of science: A new study has found that tetanus vaccine booster shots might last three times longer than previously believed.

The study looked for tetanus antibodies in 546 adults who had received the tetanus vaccine at some point in the past. Of those 546 adults, the researchers found that 97 percent still had sufficient antibodies to fight off tetanus. Since tetanus boosters are also designed to fight diphtheria, the same percentage also had antibodies to fight off that disease.

The researchers then looked at the amount of antibodies present in each individual compared to the amount of time that had passed since they received their vaccines. The result was that the study determined the half-life of a tetanus booster to be about 14 years, which means that the average person should be able to go about 28 years between boosters, or almost three times as long as the current CDC recommendation.

The half-life for diphtheria immunity was found to be even longer, at about 27 years, or roughly 54 years between boosters.

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White nose syndrome found on Washington state bat

Bad news for bats: Scientists have confirmed a bat with white nose syndrome in the state of Washington, 1,300 miles further west than the previous detection.

On March 11, hikers found the sick bat about 30 miles east of Seattle near North Bend, and took it to Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) for care. The bat died two days later, and had visible symptoms of a skin infection common in bats with WNS. PAWS then submitted the bat for testing to the USGS National Wildlife Health Center, which confirmed through fungal culture, molecular and pathology analyses that it had WNS.

I hate to express such a thought, but I can’t help wonder about the legitimacy of this detection. It is so far west and so far from the nearest other bat with white nose syndrome I cannot understand how this bat came to be infected, naturally. In order for this discovery to be confirmed they are going to have to detect it again, and more than once, on a number of bats. Otherwise, it will remain suspect and a possible false positive.

The worst part of this is that the government is surely going to begin instituting draconian measures to protect the bats in Washington, as well as across the entire western United States, even before this detection is confirmed. Having this single detection will make it much easier for government officials to ban humans from many more places, even though white nose syndrome is nowhere close.

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Does captivity hurt or help killer whales? Scientists disagree

The uncertainty of science: Two different science research teams strongly disagree about the positive or negative effects of living in captivity for killer whales.

In a decision hailed by animal-rights groups, the US marine-park company SeaWorld Entertainment announced last week that it will no longer breed killer whales. But whether captivity harms the planet’s biggest predator is an area of active scientific debate.

The latest arguments centre on two 2015 studies that drew dramatically different conclusions about the lifespans of captive killer whales (Orcinus orca), relative to those of wild populations. Although many factors affect well-being, an apparent discrepancy between the survival of captive and wild animals has long been cited by activists as evidence of the poor welfare of captive killer whales.

One of the studies is authored by a team largely made up of researchers at SeaWorld, which is headquartered in Orlando, Florida, and owns several animal parks that keep killer whales; the other is by two former killer-whale trainers at the company who feature in the 2013 documentary film Blackfish, which is critical of SeaWorld. In letters published last week, authors from each paper accuse the others of cherry-picking data to support positions on whether the animals should be captive — charges that each team in turn rejects.

Obviously, each science team has its own agendas. The result unfortunately is that the science is cloudy and unclear.

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Injected stem cells cure osteoporosis in mice

Scientists have discovered that an injection of stem cells into mice with osteoporosis was able to completely cure them of the bone disease.

Researchers at the University of Toronto and The Ottawa Hospital had previously found a causal effect between mice developing age-related osteoporosis and a deficiency in mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs). One of the promising attributes of MSCs is that, while they can grow into different cells in the body just like other stem cells, they can be transplanted without the need for a match. “We reasoned that if defective MSCs are responsible for osteoporosis, transplantation of healthy MSCs should be able to prevent or treat osteoporosis,” says William Stanford, senior scientist at The Ottawa Hospital and Professor at the University of Ottawa.

To put this reasoning to the test, the scientists injected MSCs into mice with the condition. Six months later, which is one quarter of the life span of the animal, they observed a healthy functional bone in place of the damaged one. “We had hoped for a general increase in bone health,” says John E. Davies, co-author of the study. “But the huge surprise was to find that the exquisite inner ‘coral-like’ architecture of the bone structure of the injected animals – which is severely compromised in osteoporosis – was restored to normal.”

The importance of this discovery for space travel is that it might eventually allow scientists to use it to somehow prevent the loss of bone density during weightlessness.

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