Science, folks, it’s pretty great. I like it a lot, like, more than as a friend. So do the good people at the American Association for the Advancement of Science who publish the academic journal Science (also called Science Magazine). You know that if you call your scientific journal just ‘Science’ that you’re pretty confident you’re publishing the best of the best. But the best science isn’t all dry or huffy or pretentiously self-important – a lot of it is kinda nuts. I scoured every
article a bstract table of contents published by Science in 2019 to find the very cream of the crazy crop to share with you, my friends. Enjoy this (un)balanced breakfast.
Expanding the Information Density of DNA with Synthetic Nucleotide Bases
All life on Earth stores information in DNA made up of only four building blocks – earth, air, fire, and water – or A, T, C, and G, for short. Despite this relative simplicity, differences in the sequence of those four building blocks account for all of the vast variation in microbes, plants, animals, and all the weird shit in between. The first unicellular life, every dinosaur, trees, humans, and even viruses – which aren’t necessarily even alive – all share the same genetic information system. This ubiquity is a testament to how well DNA performs its function.
Scientists have developed four additional synthetic nucleotide bases – P, B, Z, and S (everyone’s favorite letters, am I right?) – that can be incorporated along with the OG four to form DNA strands composed of eight bases. This ‘Hachimoji’ DNA massively increases the information density of DNA and exhibits similar enough chemical and molecular properties that it can be stored and manipulated in exactly the same way as naturally occurring DNA.
Given that DNA is a frontrunner to replace digital storage in the coming decades, expanding its capacity is highly relevant to your overstuffed iPhoto library (I know you’ll do something with all of those food photos someday). An enlarged DNA lexicon also has applications in DNA nanotechnology and computing. You know, in case you needed another reason to pay attention to this rad-ness.
Kitty Cat Battle Royale (In Australia, Where Else?)
You may have heard of Australia. It’s been meme’d as the land of spiders and snakes and other venomous things that want only to murder the unwary. But really, it’s the land of aliens – invasive species, that is – and one of the worst is domestic cats.
The carnage that feral and outdoor cats inflict on small birds and mammals is well documented, but in Australia it’s somehow worse. There, native wildlife evolved sans cats and thus has no instinctual response to the threat they pose. Cats are a large reason why more than 30 Australian species – found nowhere else – have gone extinct since Europeans arrived.
In a bid to save the continents’ remaining small marsupials, one researcher is forcing them to confront their tormentors. By placing bilbies and bettongs (two of Australia’s most made-up sounding and looking animals) into fenced areas also populated by cats, she’s forcing the marsupials to adapt or perish cage match-style.
There’s some evidence that this extremely metal method is actually working. Individual bilbies and bettongs are developing more cautious behaviors when exposed to cats in controlled conditions and even adapting to have larger feet in one case (presumably to kick more ass).
Larger trials are in the works and, if there is a higher power in the universe, those will be televised. Oh, and, I should mention, the scientists settled on this extreme exposure method only when they realized they wouldn’t be able to euthanize enough feral cats to make a difference (though not for lack of trying). Australia, am I right!?
The Year of the Fecal Transplant
Has anyone else read Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace? Allow me to be an insufferable white man for a moment in order to make this extremely unnecessary point. In Wallace’s alternate reality, not only have Canada, the United States, and Mexico united in a single Organization of North American Nations, but time has been subsidized and corporations are able to purchase the naming rights to each year. So most of the story takes place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment (YDAU), though my personal favorite is the Year of the Yushityu 2007 Mimetic-Resolution-Cartridge-View-Motherboard-Easy-To-Install-Upgrade For Infernatron/InterLace TP Systems For Home, Office Or Mobile (sic). It’s insane.
Based on my qualitative survey of the articles published in Science last year, I am pronouncing 2019 to be the Year of the Fecal Transplant. Seriously, every other issue seemed to feature some new affliction or condition that now, thanks to medical science, can be cured with a wholesome dose of someone else’s poop (thanks, medical science!).
The benefit here is not from the stool itself, but rather the community of microorganisms that go along with it. You’ve probably heard the factoid that 90% of the cells in your body are not, well, you – they’re bacteria that call your body home. The actual ratio is more like 50/50, but that’s still a lot of (mostly) beneficial bacteria kicking around. A bunch of them live in your gut and intestines where they play a large role in digestion and nutrient absorption.
A growing body of research also describes how the gut microbiota play a role in many other facets of physical and even mental well-being – so much so that scientists have been experimenting with the link between these bacteria and mental illness. Certain species of gut bacteria have been found to be missing in folks afflicted by depression. While a causative relationship hasn’t yet been proven, the Science scientists did demonstrate that these bacteria can produce compounds that affect nerve cell (aka brain cell) function.
This line of research is so promising that another group of researchers in Switzerland have already begun testing the aforementioned stool transplants to treat depressed patients. And yes, a stool transplant is exactly what it sounds like (and also a perfectly safe and effective procedure). A number of other Science articles delved into the human-microbiota relationship so expect to see more stool transplants on your doctor’s menu in the near future.
Physics Wizardry Roundup
I have a bachelor’s degree in biology which I leaned on heavily to research this article. Ecology I was good with, medicine and microbiology I could make it through as long as I skipped over jargon, and then just knowing how to read a scientific paper let me limp along with most of the rest.
But against some topics, I never stood a chance. For example, there was a good amount of quantum physics research in Science in 2019 that went over my head at approximately commercial airliner altitude while sipping a tiny can of Coke mixed with a tiny bottle of Jack Daniels and munching on an individually wrapped Biscoff cookie.
But don’t worry, I’m not going to let my tenuous understanding of <10% of some of these papers stop me from telling you about them – ’cause they’re freaking rad! Thus, I give you my ranking of the top three ways scientists in 2019 broke physics (and my brain) in what is most definitely an arbitrary order.
- “Torsional refrigeration by twisted, coiled, and supercoiled fibers” or “Making a fridge out of fishing line”
Did you know that things like rubber and polyethylene fishing line heat up as you twist and stretch them? The opposite happens when you let them unwind and contract – they cool off and absorb heat from their surroundings, a property you can take advantage of for refrigeration. Using “twist fridges” (the authors’ words) as opposed to the conventional ones made with compressible gas refrigerants could save massively on energy costs due to increased efficiency. Plus, scientists made fibers that cool down when you stretch them, too, so you can imagine a device that puts both kinds of fibers together to work in tandem to cool when they stretch AND when they slacken.
- “Volumetric additive manufacturing via tomographic reconstruction” or “Summon an object from the aether by 3D printing with light”
Regular-ass 3D printing is already science fiction. But really, it’s just building an object by adding layer upon layer of material – not too wild when you break it down. Alternatively, with Computed Axial Lithography you can just shine a light at some liquid resin and watch your “printed” object appear before your eyes fully formed. It’s truly bonkers and you should just watch the video of this magic. Basically, what’s happening is the light is catalyzing a reaction to turn the resin into a solid and it’s done so precisely that an entire complex object is catalyzed all at once. It’s essentially the opposite of a CT scan and very similar to the radiation therapy used to treat tumors, as if it could be any more rad. Seriously, watch the video.
- “Probing gravity by holding atoms for 20 seconds” or “Probing gravity by holding atoms for… holy shit how long???”
This is the one I understood the least, but honestly it doesn’t matter because the title says it all. The only thing I’ll add is that previously we were performing these measurements on atoms (to assess gravity, explore quantum mechanics, and other boring stuff, presumably) for a maximum of a few seconds. And this was by putting them in something understatedly called an atomic fountain and measuring their acceleration during hundreds-meter long free falls. So not only is this method way better time-wise, it’s also simpler and more accurate. Good work, science folks, you should keep doing science in 2020.
Johnny Venger is in love with science and science just needs to know that he’ll always be there for it, through the good times and the bad, no matter what, ride or die, you and me boo. xxoo
S. Hoshika, N. A. Leal, M. J. Kim, M. S. Kim, N. B. Karalkar, H. J. Kim, A. M. Bates, N. E. Watkins, H. A. SantaLucia, A. J. Meyer, S. DasGupta, J. A. Piccirilli, A. D. Ellington, J. SantaLucia, M. M. Georgiadis, S. A. Benner, Hachimoji DNA and RNA: A genetic system with eight building blocks. Science (80-. ).363, 884–887 (2019).
A. Braun, In Australia, a bold effort to teach rare animals to fear cats. Science. 364, 721 (2019).
E. Pennisi, Gut bacteria linked to mental well-being and depression. Science (80-. ).363, 569 (2019).
R. Wang, S. Fang, Y. Xiao, E. Gao, N. Jiang, Y. Li, L. Mou, Y. Shen, W. Zhao, S. Li, A. F. Fonseca, D. S. Galvão, M. Chen, W. He, K. Yu, H. Lu, X. Wang, D. Qian, A. E. Aliev, N. Li, C. S. Haines, Z. Liu, J. Mu, Z. Wang, S. Yin, M. D. Lima, B. An, X. Zhou, Z. Liu, R. H. Baughman, Torsional refrigeration by twisted, coiled, and supercoiled fibers. Science (80-. ).366, 216–221 (2019).
B. E. Kelly, I. Bhattacharya, H. Heidari, M. Shusteff, C. M. Spadaccini, H. K. Taylor, Volumetric additive manufacturing via tomographic reconstruction. Science (80-. ).363, 1075–1079 (2019).
V. Xu, M. Jaffe, C. D. Panda, S. L. Kristensen, L. W. Clark, H. Müller, Probing gravity by holding atoms for 20 seconds. Science (80-. ).366, 745–749 (2019).
This is rad as hell! I like that you covered more science fields than just biology/oceanography. It makes me want to dig into all of these topics more, like going back to the buffet for delicious (and possibly regrettable, in the case of learning more about the poop transplant) seconds.