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Science Snippets

This issue’s round-up of science news

By Joanna Kritikou



Photo credit: Tina Franklin (Flickr)


You probably knew that a sneeze is pretty gross, but how gross exactly is explained in a recent study by researchers at MIT. They used high-speed cameras to capture what happens during a sneeze. They discovered that when people sneeze they eject fluids in compact sheets that then break up into long filaments. The spray of droplets that we usually associate with a sneeze comes only at the end. This, they claim, is important to further understand transmission of airborne diseases in order to design strategies to reduce contamination and spread of pathogens. (Experiments in Fluids, Feb. 2016)


Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity says that gravity can bend space-time; and the bigger an object is, the larger the effect. So, when massive objects move they create an oscillation in space-time, called gravitational waves, like the waves forming in front of a moving ship. They were observed for the first time on September 14, 2015 by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and were produced by a pair of merging black holes. In the 20 milliseconds of the merger, the energy of the waves was equivalent to annihilating the mass of three Suns (!).  (Physical Review Letters, Feb. 2016)


A tumor begins from a single cell within a group of cells that acquires genetic mutations. Scientists have for the first time investigated cancer development and spread from a single cell inside live animals. They used zebrafish and a fluorescent reporter that specifically shows neural crest progenitor cells, which are only present during embryogenesis or during melanoma formation. The appearance of the tumor correlated with a set of genetic regulatory elements whose identification and manipulation may prove beneficial in detecting and preventing melanoma initiation. (Science, Jan. 2016)


The UK Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) is now allowing scientists to genetically modify early embryos and have them develop for up to seven days. By doing this, researchers want to unravel which genes are involved in the development of human embryos, how this process can go wrong, and how it can lead to infertility and miscarriages. There are strict guidelines to adhere to, however. Embryo editing cannot take place until the research receives independent approval from an ethics committee. It is also illegal for any edited embryo to be implanted into a woman.  (, Feb. 2016)


Photo credit: Hans Splinter (Flickr)


Archaeological studies of Viking latrines have found massive infestations of parasitic worms, while genetic analyses reveal that a particular mutation of the Alpha 1 Anti Trypsin (A1AT) gene was prevalent and may have protected the Vikings from these parasites. However, with the demise of the worms, this genetic adaptation is now being associated with the development of lung diseases. It increases inflammation and the release of proteases. These damage the air sacks in the lungs and cause them to merge into one large air chamber, reducing the surface area of the lungs, rendering them less efficient and thus causing emphysema. (Scientific Reports, Feb. 2016)


Photo credit: Sparky (Flickr)


Apart from making a delicious snack, cotton candy machines can also be used in the lab to create functional, artificial capillary networks. Researchers took advantage of the machine’s ability to spin thin threads of sugar into a network. They used materials such as hydrogel and PNIPAM (the latter being insoluble in temperatures over 32oC) and formed microfiber structures. These were infused with living cells from natural capillaries in an incubator and then moved into room-temperature. There the PNIPAM threads dissolved, leaving behind thin channels that closely resembled capillaries. (Advanced Healthcare Materials, Feb. 2016)


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