Cloned Monkeys: Another Human Creation

http://english.cas.cn/head/201801/t20180123_189488.shtml Image credited to Qiang Sun and Mu-ming Poo, Institute of Neuroscience of the Chinese Academy of Sciences

First cloned none-human primates: Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua (Image credited to Qiang Sun and Mu-ming Poo, Institute of Neuroscience of the Chinese Academy of Sciences)

Cloned primates are here! Over three decades have passed since the birth of Dolly, the sheep, scientists have now tackled cloning mammals that are even closer to us on the evolutionary tree: macaque monkeys. What does this mean for a society that witnesses dramatic changes day by day: computers are outperforming doctors in calling out heart abnormalities in patients; 3D-printed organs are bringing us one step closer to tissue restoration; genome sequencing has become an online product easily available for anyone curious about their ancestry, bodybuilding, or just simply wine tastes. Breakthroughs in science and technologies are so prevalent in our life that by now, we probably shouldn’t be surprised by any new discovery. Yet when the two cute, little, cloned monkeys were born, the whole world was, once again, shaken.

Published in Cell on January 24th, 2018, a study from a group of scientists in China reported their methods in generating two non-human primates that are genetically identical. To clone the two identical macaque monkeys, the scientists applied Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer, the same method that generated Dolly in 1996. The key idea behind cloning is that a new organism, be it sheep or monkey, is generated without sexual reproduction. Asexual reproduction is not as uncommon as one would think, plenty of plants do so. For example, Bryophyllum shed plantlets from the edge of the leaves to produce new plants. Some insects, such as ants and bees, also exploit asexual reproduction to clone a huge working class army. Since asexual reproduction is essentially an organism duplicating itself, the offsprings are all genetically identical. Evolution, however, doesn’t favor asexual reproduction as identical offsprings don’t prevail in a fast changing environment. On the other hand, sexual reproduction combines different sperms and eggs to create diverse offsprings, of which some may survive. To combat challenges from the mother nature, higher organisms, such as mammals, almost exclusively reproduce sexually. This is why a cloned monkey, an anti-evolution human creation, is mind blowing.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kalanchoe_plantlets.JPG

The succulent, genus Kalanchoe, uses asexual reproduction to produce plantlets.

To clone mammals, scientists came up with the idea of transferring the nucleus of a somatic cell to an enucleated egg (an egg that lacks nucleus). Unlike  germ cells (sperm and eggs), somatic cells refer to any cells that don’t get passed onto the next generation. These cells have the full genome of an organism that is split equally in germ cells during sexual reproduction. Carrying half of the genome, sperm and egg need to fuse their genetic materials to make one viable embryo. Technically, the nucleus of a somatic cell holds all the genetic information an organism needs. Thus, by inserting the somatic cell nucleus into an egg, scientists could generate a functional embryo. But why not into a sperm? Evolution has trimmed mammalian sperm tremendously so that it can accomplish its only job better: swim faster to fertilize the egg. As a result, not much other than the sperm’s genetic information is incorporated into the fertilized egg and the embryo relies on the cellular machinery from the egg to finish development. Using this technology, the scientists generated over 300 “fertilized” embryos. Of these embryos, 260 were transferred to 63 surrogate mothers to finish developing. 28 surrogate mothers became pregnant, and from those pregnancies, only 2 healthy monkey babies were born. Although they were carried by different surrogate mothers, every single piece of their genetic code is the same as the the somatic nucleus provider, a real-life demonstration of primate-cloning. Followed by millions of people since their debut to the world, these two macaque superstars are the living samples of a revolutionary breakthrough in our science and technologies.

 

Despite the extremely low success rate, this technology erects another monument in the history of mankind’s creations. Carrying identical genetic information, cloned monkeys like these two can be a very powerful tool in biomedical research and diseases studies. Co-author Mu-ming Poo, director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Neuroscience in Shanghai, said that these monkeys could be used to study complicated genetic diseases where environmental factors also play a significant role, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. While there are ethical concerns on this technology and its easy application to human cloning, it is worth noting that almost all human creations (explosives, GMO food, the internet, etc.) are double-sided swords. It is up to the hand that wields this sword to decide whether to do good or bad. It is wise to be cautious with the development of new technologies, but it’s also important not to constrain our creativity. After all, it is our creative minds that drive us toward creating a better life for everyone.

Peer edited by Cherise Glodowski.

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Why is the Flu such a Big Deal?

With each flu season comes a bombardment of new advertisements reminding people to get a flu vaccine. The vaccine is free to most and widely available, yet almost half of the United States chooses to forgo the vaccine.

When Ebola emerged, there was 24 hour news coverage and widespread panic, but the influenza virus (the flu) feels more familiar and much less fear inducing. This familiarity with the flu makes its threat easy to brush aside. Yet, every flu season is met with stern resolve from the medical community. What’s the big deal with the flu?

What makes the flu such a threat?

Influenza is a globetrotting virus: flu season in the northern hemisphere occurs from October to March and April to September in the southern hemisphere. This seasonality makes the flu a year round battle. The virus also evolves at a blistering pace, making it difficult to handle.

To understand why the flu is able to evolve so rapidly, its structure must be understood.The graphic to the right shows an illustration of the ball-shaped flu virus.

https://www.cdc.gov/flu/images/virus/fluvirus-antigentic-characterization-large.jpg

Illustration of flu structure

On the outside of the ball are molecules that let the virus slip into a person’s cells. These molecules are called hemagglutinin and neuraminidase, simply referred to as HA and NA. HA and NA are also used by our body’s immune system to identify and attack the virus, similar to how a license plate identifies a car.

These HA and NA molecules on the surface can chanAntigenic shift in the fluge through two processes. One such process is like changing one license plate number; this is known as antigenic drift. When the flu makes more of itself inside a person’s cells, the instructions for making the HA and NA molecules slightly change over time due to random mutations. When the instructions change, the way the molecules are constructed also changes. This allows the flu to sneak past our immune systems more easily by mixing up its license plate over time.

Another way the virus can evolve is known as antigenic shift. This type of evolution would be more like the virus license plate changing the state it’s from in addition to a majority of its numbers and letters, making the virus completely unidentifiable to our immune systems. Unlike antigenic drift, antigenic shift requires a few improbable factors to coalesce.  

Antigenic shift happens more regularly in the flu when compared to other viruses.For instance, one type of flu virus is able to jump from birds, to pigs, and then to people without the need for substantial change. This ability to jump between different animals enables antigenic shift to occur.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:AntigenicShift_HiRes_vector.svg

How antigenic shift occur in the flu

This cross species jumping raises the odds of two types of the virus to infect the same animal and then infect the same cell. When both types of the flu virus are in that cell, they mix-and-match parts, as can be seen in the picture to the right. When the new mixed-up flu virus bursts out of the cell, it has completely scrambled it’s HA and NA molecules,generating a new strain of flu.

Antigenic shift is rare, but in the case of the swine flu outbreak in 2009, this mixing-and-matching occured within a pig and gave rise to a new flu virus strain.

This rapid evolution enables many different types of the flu to be circulating at the same time and that they are all constantly changing. This persistent evolution results in the previous year’s flu vaccine losing efficacy against the current viruses in circulation. This is why new flu vaccines are needed yearly. Sometimes the flu changes and becomes particularly tough to prevent as was the case with swine flu. At its peak, the swine flu was classified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a class 6 pandemic, which refers  to how far it had spread rather than its severity. Swine flu was able to easily infect people, fortunately it was not deadly. The constant concern of what the next flu mutation may hold keeps public health officials vigilant.

Why is there a flu season?

A paper by Eric Lofgren and colleagues from Tufts University grapples with the question “Why does a flu season happen?”. The authors highlight several prevailing theories that are believed to contribute to the ebb and flow of the flu.

One contributing factor to the existence of flu seasons is our reliance on air travel. When flu season in the Australia is coming to an end in September, an infected person can fly to Canada and infect several people there, kickstarting the flu season in Canada. This raises the question: why is flu season tied with winter?

The authors touch on this question. During the winter months, people tend to gather in close proximity allowing the flu access to many potential targets and limiting the distance the virus need to cover before infect another person. This gathering in confined areas likely contributes to the spread of flu during the winter, but another theory proposed in this paper is less obvious and centers around the impact of indoor heating.

Heating and recirculating dry air in homes and workplaces creates an ideal environment for viruses. The air is circulated throughout  a building without removing the virus particles from the air, improving the chances of the virus infecting someone. The flu virus is so miniscule that air filters are unable to effectively remove it from the air. The authors come to the conclusion that the seasonality of the flu is dependent on many factors and no single cause explains the complete picture.

What are people doing to fight the flu?

The flu is a global fight, fortunately the WHO tracks the active versions of the flu across the world. This monitoring system relies on coordination from physicians worldwide. When a patient with the flu visits a health clinic, a medical provider, performs a panel of tests to detect the type and subtype of flu present. This data is then submitted to the WHO flu database, which is publicly accessible.

This worldwide collaboration and data is invaluable to the WHO; it allows for flu tracking and informed decision making when formulating a vaccine. Factor in the rapidly evolving nature of the flu and making an effective vaccine seems like a monumental task. Yet, because of this worldwide collaboration twice a year, the WHO is able to issue changes to the formulation of the vaccine as an effort to best defend people from the flu that year.

Peer edited by Rachel Cherney and Blaide Woodburn.

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How Evolution Gave Us Dragons

https://www.flickr.com/photos/x1brett/5953249239

Hiccup and his friendly dragon, Toothless, from How to Train Your Dragon. Credit: Brett Jordan

Whether our favorite characters are trying to train them, ride them, or simply escape from them, there is no denying the prevalence of dragons in popular culture. Dragon myths have existed for centuries in every civilization. In medieval Europe, uncharted parts of maps were supposedly marked with “Here be dragons” to designate danger and the unknown. In contrast, Chinese culture sees dragons as symbols of wisdom and benevolence. It is remarkable that such similar looking mythical creatures popped up separately in various cultures – and there may be an evolutionary explanation.

Dragons are depicted as large, reptilian-like creatures that can sometimes fly and breath fire. But why reptiles and why do they have to be so huge? It has often been speculated that some of the first discoveries of dinosaur or whales bones helped spark dragon mythology. People who discovered these huge bones, which resembled nothing they were familiar with, could have come up with a mythical creature like the dragon to explain them. However, it may not have been the curious mind that spawned dragons, but the fearful one.

In the book An Instinct for Dragons, anthropologist David E. Jones makes the case that a primal fear of predators, such as big cats and snakes, generated the dragon myth. Studies of Vervet monkeys demonstrate that they are especially fearful of three particular predators – lions, eagles, and snakes – and Vervet monkeys have specific cries they make when they spot these predators. Jones argues that this primal fear could have been passed along to humans through evolution. It is not hard to imagine our fearful ancestors combining the body of a snake with something as ferocious as a lion, and tacking on the ability to fly like an eagle, to get a dragon.

https://pixabay.com/en/animal-beast-creature-dragon-2029670/ (left) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chinese_black_dragon.svg (right)

A primal fear of snakes, lions, and eagles may have inspired the creation of dragons in Western (left) and Eastern culture (right).

The hypothesis proposed by Jones is an interesting one, but has received criticism. It is nearly impossible to test and as powerful as evolution is, there is also the possibility that the myth was passed from culture to culture through storytelling. With cultures being so isolated for much of history, it would have been difficult for that to occur, but not impossible. And while their huge size would make it impossible for dragons to fly, it is not impossible to imagine that dragon myths will continue to mesmerize people for centuries to come.

Peer edited by Tom Gilliss.

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Synthetic Chimeras: Separating Science from Science Fiction

Earlier this year, scientists from the Belmonte lab at the Salk Institute (La Jolla, CA) reported the first successful grafting of human stem cells into pig embryos. In other words, they were able to merge human stem cells with a nonhuman embryo to create an organism called a chimera.

https://pixabay.com/en/stem-cell-sphere-163711/Chimeras usually contain genetic information from two or more sources. They need not be man-made or interspecies; an example of a naturally occurring chimera is a fetus that incorporates genetic information from a deceased twin (a condition known as tetragametic chimerism). But in order to create a synthetic, interspecies chimera, the genetic material from the donor species must be compatible with the host’s genetic material.

For experts in the field of synthetic biology, this announcement may signal the first step towards the goal of growing transplantable human organs in animals. But such research might be contentious, especially when the human genome is involved. Ethical issues, such as the creation of mammals with human-like intelligence or human reproductive organs, are currently at the forefront of debates. Reflecting public and expert concerns, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) placed a moratorium on the use of federal funding for this kind of research in 2015 before lifting it in the fall of 2016. However, privately funded research in this area is unrestricted (such as the Belmonte lab’s work). Thus, the use of synthetic chimera in biomedical research will only continue to grow, and separating the science from the science fiction will be increasingly crucial.https://www.flickr.com/photos/95230066@N07/29697835732

Prior research in 2010 by Kobayashi and coworkers at the University of Tokyo focused on merging pluripotent stem cells (PSC) from rats into mouse embryos. Their goal was to grow a rat pancreas in the mouse host. PSC are ideal for chimera creation as they can turn into a wide variety of specialized cells, which in turn can give rise to organs. However, this method of using PSC to create full organs runs a high risk of randomness – PSC may not become the desired organ.

To get around this problem, Belmonte and coworkers used a relatively new genetic tool, CRISPR-Cas9, to “turn off” the gene in mice that leads to pancreatic development. When the researchers injected the rat PSC into their mice embryonic hosts, they were able to create mice with a functional pancreas. Thus, Belmonte and coworkers were able enrich chimerism for the rat-mouse system, potentially allowing biologists to translate this method to other synthetic mammalian chimeras.

Belmonte and coworkers then attempted to translate their work into a mouse-pig donor-host system, but were unsuccessful due to different evolutionary lineages between the species and gestation times. Taking a step back, the researchers decided to focus on closer mammalian relatives – pig and cattle. Belmonte and coworkers decided to test the viability of human PSC (hiPSC) towards generating human-animal chimerism. They developed specialized hiPSC and implanted these cells into pig and cattle embryos. The researchers found that a very low amount of human cells were incorporated into the embryos (approximately 1 in 100,000 cells). With these results, they concluded that the current method for generating human-pig chimeras is highly inefficient.

Consequently, this method is unsuited for the construction of human-like organs. The organs harvested from the pig hosts were, essentially, pig organs. They contained a high percentage of animal tissue, despite the incorporation of human cells. Using these organs in humans would very likely lead to organ rejection. Belmonte and coworkers hypothesized that a large evolutionary distance between humans and pigs may be responsible for the difficulties with this system, citing the relatively close genetic lineages between mice and rats as being crucial to the success of the mouse-rat chimera. Since the gestational differences between human and pigs are vastly different (9 months vs. approximately 112 days respectively), the embryonic cells may be developing at different rates, potentially leading to lower hiPSC counts. However Belmonte and coworkers plan to apply the CRISPR-Cas9 technique toward the human-pig chimeras to boost the presence of human cells.

Individuals troubled by the ethics of synthetic chimeras can breathe easy for now, as fully functional human chimeras still exist in the realm of science fiction. But as research in this burgeoning field continues, science fiction may very well become fact. However, given the difficulty of moving from rat-mouse chimeras to human-pig chimeras (a process that took 10 years), applications of this basic research may take some time to realize. Nevertheless, it is crucial for the scientific community and the broader public to be informed and to communicate on this piece of exciting science.

Peer edited by Julia DiFiore and Kaylee Helfrich.

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When Science Meats Fiction

In Vitro Meat (IVM), or lab-cultured meat, aims to transform the livestock industry into a more sustainable and ethical enterprise, but it will have to get through a few hurdles first. IVM involves taking a small sample of animal tissue to grow it into consumable meat, which is no simple task. It is being developed as an alternative to the livestock industry, which is a significant contributor of greenhouse gasses, uses up to 30% of arable land, and has been subject to criticism for animal rights violations. Despite the increased awareness of these issues, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) predicts that meat consumption will increase 73% by 2050, particularly in developing countries where median incomes are rising. This presents a niche market for IVM, which scientists are now trying to scale up while reducing costs. The real challenge will be to effectively communicate this technology and actively engage with ethical issues and consumer fears.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/fabricedenola/5046634041

In vitro meat (IVM) could one day be a reality. This image, while fake, shows what could be in future meat departments.

IVM is reminiscent of stem cell research and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which were promising research fields that sparked intense debate in the early 2000s. Religious concerns resulted in the restriction of federal funding to stem cell research during the Bush administration; distrust of the safety of GMOs led to heavy regulation and banning of these crops in certain countries. We are only now gaining momentum in these fields. For instance, in 2013 (nearly 12 years after the funding ban), stem cell transplants were shown to regrow heart tissue in heart attack patients. Golden rice, a genetically fortified rice produced to combat vitamin A deficiency, was developed in 2005, though it is still not commercially available. Perhaps if scientists had more effectively communicated stem cell science or been more transparent about transgenic plants, more progress would have been made today without controversy looming. The same case can be made for a technique like IVM. 

Image Credit: Amala John

Lab-grown meat may be the sustainable alternative to the livestock industry. 

Effective communication is easier said than done. I recently witnessed a conversation that mirrors the discourse we often have about novel technologies. On our way to lunch, my cousin mentioned the first lab-grown burger presented to the public in 2013 and cited the benefits of such a technology, to which my aunt responded with disgust at how unnatural IVM was. As they went back and forth about the environmental impacts of the factory farming system or the moral implications of culturing meat, the conversation got pretty heated. I stayed out of the argument, which seemed to only breed misunderstanding and frustration, but decided to research IVM later to bring up in a more neutral manner.
With any new technology, backlash is inevitable. Today, however, the emergence of new technologies and their integration into society far exceeds the rate of their communication to the public. The controversies around stem cells and GMOs reveal just how important effective communication is early on to the acceptance of a technology. Beyond their work in the lab, scientists should think about their role as communicators, especially when the steaks are so high.

Read more about In Vitro Meat here or here.

Read about some of the critiques and challenges of IVM here.

Peer edited by Tyler Farnsworth. 

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Toad-ally Accurate Predictions?

Today, groundhogs tell us if there will be six more weeks of winter or an early spring. Soon, puppies will be unleashed to help predict the Super Bowl winner. But have you ever considered looking to toads in order to forecast earthquakes?

Animals and Earthquakes

For centuries, there have been reports of animals acting strangely before an earthquake. From ancient Greece to the modern day Bay Area, people have observed rats, snakes, and dogs leaving their normal habitats for safe shelter in the days leading up to an earthquake. Currently, seismologists do not have a way to accurately predict earthquakes, so these animals may provide some clues. One Japanese doctor claimed that earthquakes could be predicted by unusual dog behavior, like an increase in barking or biting. Despite continued research efforts in Japan and China, countries often hit by devastating earthquakes, no consistent relationship between animal behavior and earthquakes has been seen.

Toad-ally New Connection

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bufo_bufo_04_13Jul2009.jpg

The humble toad, Bufo bufo, holds some promise for detecting pre-seismic changes and alerting us of imminent earthquakes.

The observation of odd toad behavior before an earthquake was published in the Journal of Zoology in 2010. Rachel Grant of Open University was studying the how the lunar cycle impacted toad behavior and reproduction in L’Aquilla, Italy when one day, she noticed there were suddenly no toads at the breeding site. Such behavior was extremely odd in the middle of mating season since toads do not leave until breeding is completed. A 6.3 magnitude earthquake occurred in the area days later and the toads started returning the day after the earthquake.

Grant was curious about what cues the toads were responding to when they departed the breeding site. She found reports that there had been changes in the ionosphere, which is the upper layer of Earth’s atmosphere, leading up to the earthquake. These changes are common before earthquakes and lead to a lot of gases being released into the atmosphere, which could change the water chemistry of the toad habitat. Toads and other amphibians are very sensitive to such changes, so this disruption may explain their sudden departure.

While intriguing, more work will need to be done to take this study from a well-documented anecdote to a reliable method for predicting earthquakes. A similar mass migration of toads was seen in 2008 before a large earthquake in China, but all of these results will have to be replicated at these site and others, which will be difficult due to how rare and unpredictable earthquakes are. But in the meantime, if you see a mass exodus of toads, it might not be a bad idea to follow them.

Peer edited by Madelyn Huang.

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The Science of Spice

I watched the man at the table next to me begin to sweat profusely. I was enjoying wings with my family, and he had clearly chosen one of the spicier sauces. Why was he doing this to himself?  

According to the US Department of Agriculture, the average American eats over 7 pounds of chilies a year. What is it that attracts people, like the man in the wings restaurant, to the burn of eating chilies? It is possible that you feel the same reaction eating chilies that you do riding a roller coaster? Yes, it is surprisingly similar! You get the same sense of anticipation, heart beat increase, then a rush of adrenaline and endorphins.  

It has to do with the receptors that send signals to your brain, telling you that you are eating something hot. Your papillae, located on the tongue, are the receptors that detect spice, but these receptors also are activated by thermal stimuli. When you eat a chile pepper, your brain thinks your tongue is literally on fire, hence the sweating that ensues. With enough heat, your body begins to produce adrenaline and your heart pumps faster. Then, to help block the pain, your body produces endorphins. Just like riding a roller coaster, this is what makes peppers so exciting to consume.

Many people enjoy the effects of spice, but why do some people max out with the mildest jalapeno, while others enjoy much hotter peppers? There is no solid research yet to indicate that genetic differences could play a role in our tolerance to spice. However, there is plenty of data suggesting that the receptors on our tongues lose sensitivity under prolonged exposure to the same stimulus. So the more spice our capsaicin receptors are exposed to over time, the less we feel the burn. Meaning, if I had eaten a diet rich in spicy food as a child, I would be less sensitive to the burn today.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/argonne/11194316945

Scoville Heat Units (SHU) measure the spiciness of peppers. Photo credit: Flickr

Capsaicin (pronounced cap-SAY-iss-in), the chemical compound produced by the chile that gives them their heat, can be detected by human taste buds in solutions of ten parts per million. The spice of a chile is measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHU). Wilbur Scoville, a chemist at Parke-Davis Pharmaceutical Company in Detroit, developed the SHU scale in 1912 by diluting chile pepper extract in sugar water. A panel of tasters would then rate the spice in the dilutions until the burn was no longer detectable. Today, we no longer rely on a panel of human tasters to determine SHU, but instead we can use high-pressure liquid chromatography, a computerized method that can determine the capsaicin concentration very precisely. This method is still not perfect though, as it may ignore other chemicals that are enhancing how spicy we perceive the pepper. Today, Chile peppers range in heat from 0 SHU (bell pepper) to over 1,000,000 SHU (Bhut Jolokia pepper).  A typical jalapeno ranges between 2,500-5,000 SHU.  

https://pixabay.com/en/paprika-fruit-vitamins-eating-716909/

Capsaicin, what gives peppers their heat, is made in the glands under the stem and held in the placenta, the lighter color rib, which is down the inside of the pepper.

 

When making dishes with chile peppers, do you carefully discard the seeds thinking you are avoiding the spice? If so, you have been woefully misguided. The capsaicin is not in the seeds, but is actually produced in the capsaicin glands, which are in the bulb right underneath the stem and stored in the chile’s placenta, the lighter colored rib running down the inside of the pepper.  The seeds can occasionally absorb some of the heat because of their proximity to the area where the capsaicin is produced, but they are not the spicy part of the pepper.

Humans have conserved the capsaicin receptors presumably to warn us that whatever we’ve put in our mouths is bad news. However, capsaicin and other hot foods won’t damage your tongue – so eat as much as you want and enjoy the burn!

Peer edited by Mikayla Armstrong.

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Lacking Nobel-ity

Adapted by Kaylee Helfrich.

Do you want to learn about how the material of pants affects the sex life of rats?  Or about the different personalities of rocks? How about someone who invented prosthetic limbs to mimic the movement of goats?

These are only a few examples of hilarious research studies that received this year’s Ig Nobel prizes. The Ig Nobel awards are presented by the Improbable Research group based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who awards these prizes in order to “first make people laugh and then make them think.”

www.improbable.com

“The Stinker,” courtesy of Improbable Research.

The most recent Ig Nobel awards ceremony was held this past September, making this the 26th year of the Ig Nobel awards. Each year, 10 prizes (of a small money award and recognition) are awarded in subjects such as economics, physics, medicine, peace, literature, and math. Maybe the most interesting part is that real Nobel Laureates are at each ceremony to hand out awards. The Ignoble awards even have their own mascot, “The Stinker,” which is based on the famous statue “The Thinker,” except that theirs has fallen off of its pedestal.

While looking through past Ig Nobel Awards, I selected 5 favorites to share with you:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/justindc/225868241. Ponytail Physics, or “Shape of a Ponytail and the Statistical Physics of Hair Fiber Bundles.” This research investigates the “bending elasticity, gravity, and orientational disorder” of the hairstyle beloved by grad student girls (and boys) everywhere during rushed mornings.

2. Doggie Bathroom Habits, a.k.a. “Dogs are sensitive to small variations of the Earth’s https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Smiling_dog.jpgmagnetic field.” These Czech researchers observed 70 dogs from 37 different breeds defecate and urinate over 7,000 times, ultimately discovering that dogs prefer to align their bodies with north-south geomagnetic lines while relieving themselves. Maybe you can make some observations of your own the next time you take your dog on a walk!

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bushveld_elephant_shrew3. “Human Digestive Effects on a Micromammalian Skeleton.” This dedicated researcher ate a dead shrew (without chewing) so that it would pass through his digestive system, and he could discover which bones his body would dissolve and which bones it would not. Who else is committed enough to research to swallow an animal whole and then pick through feces to find the bones?

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Anchorage_chickens.jpg4. “Walking Like Dinosaurs: Chickens with Artificial Tails Provide Clues about Non-Avian Theropod Locomotion.” In this study, researchers tied weighted sticks to chicken butts in order to simulate how dinosaurs probably walked. Creative!

5.“On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bullshit.svgBullsh*t”.  Beyond the amusing title and the fantastic opening line (“Although bullshit is common in everyday life and has attracted attention from philosophers, its reception…has not…been subject to empirical investigation.”), the research is actually interesting and applicable to everyday life – everyone knows at least one person who can expound at length on a topic without saying anything at all!

And… a bonus one: The Art of Procrastination.  This is an essential topic for graduate students (and anyone else who has work to delay).  John Perry lays out his theory of “structured procrastination,” a technique in which you accomplish certain tasks while avoiding other tasks.  A must-read for anyone who has work they don’t want to finish!

Besides the Ig Nobel awards, the Improbable Research group also runs a blog, publishes the Annals of Improbable Research (AIR) along with an associated newsletter (the mini-AIR), has a podcast and video series, and (maybe most interestingly) has a club called “The Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists”.  They even have a cookbook!  However, they are quick to point out that they are not mocking scientific achievements but rather celebrating the often absurd nature of science.  Personally, I believe that they wish to enliven an often humorless, stressful, and dry field of study with science humor.

So the next time you have an urge to find the chemical recipe for unboiling an egg, check out some Improbable Research!

Peer edited by Suzannah Isgett and Deirdre Sackett

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Puff, Puff, Pass the Pufferfish: Drug Use in the Animal Kingdom

Drug use is a fairly common, oftentimes problematic issue among humans. However, Homo sapiens isn’t the only species that likes to experiment with mind-altering substances. In the animal world, many species use questionable substances to get a little buzz.

1. Dolphins pass the puffer (fish)

Dolphins are some of the world’s most intelligent creatures and demonstrate cognitive abilities comparable to those of humans. They socialize, solve complicated puzzles, and…enjoy getting high? Here’s the real kicker: they torment innocent fish to do so. In the wild, dolphins have been seen harassing pufferfish — those spiky, angry-looking, balloon-like creatures — to get high. Continue reading