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Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of science... the thrill of discovery... and the agony of failed experiments... the human drama of scientific advancement... This is the Blue Streak Science Podcast!

Jan 25, 2019

On This Week’s Show

  • Anti-vaccination movement hits the big-time
  • Gardening on the moon
  • Silencing a type of brain cell can reduce pain
  • Mitochondria kicking bacteria butts

Science News with Dr. Amrita Sule, and Nevena Hristozova

Anti-Vaccine Movement Joins Ebola, Drug Resistance on List of Top Global Threats

Amrita Sule

Every year the World health organization (WHO) comes up with a list of issues which threaten global health. This year they’ve laid out a list of 10 problems which need attention from the WHO, and their health partners.  

Some of the issues in the list were pandemic flu, dengue, climate change, and superbugs. But guess who has also made it to the list? Anti-vaxxers!

The anti-vaccine movement, which has mostly been prevalent in the United States, is now an international concern and poses a significant threat to the whole world. The WHO’s list refers to it as “vaccine hesitancy.”

A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that the number of unvaccinated children under 35 months age had gone up four-fold between 2001-2005.

A number of people refuse vaccination or are reluctant to get vaccinated due to complacency, lack of confidence or poor access to vaccines.  There are about 18 states in the US that allow vaccine exemptions ‘conscientious objector' or ‘philosophical/personal beliefs'.

A survey from mid-2018 showed that vaccination support had fallen by 10% in the US in last 10 years.

Vaccine hesitancy can pose a serious threat to herd immunity. So by choosing not to vaccinate children (and adults) for preventable diseases you are putting the entire population at risk.

Live ScienceCNNNewsweek

Growing Cotton on the Moon

Nevena Hristozova

That’s it! The Chinese did it again – quietly working on something and then BANG! This time the bang was more of a very little “pop” as a cotton seed sprouted on the surface of the Moon.

This is the first time plants have sprouted there. The leading scientist of this experiment, which was on board the latest Chinese lander which landed on the far side of the moon, Liu Hanlong said “Learning about these plants’ growth in a low-gravity environment would allow us to lay the foundation for our future establishment of space base”.

The Chinese space programme is actually planning the establishment of a lunar base with manned crew in the 30's and this is one of the biggest steps to maintain living conditions and certain level of independency from Earth of such crew.

They not only grew a plant on the Moon, they also were the first one to have a plant die on the moon. Unfortunately, the cotton sprout did not last long. The lunar lander has to power down for the duration of the lunar night (14 earth days), which means that with no oxygen, temperature or water control the seedling had no chance of survival. Bummer! Still – next up, I hope, is rice cause I ain’t going anywhere if there’s no sushi!

Silencing brain cells in mice can make them no longer care about pain

Amrita Sule

Imagine that you accidentally burn your hand while making a pan of brownies. Ouch, that’s painful. Now in such a scenario, the brain will notice two things. One that there was a burning sensation and two that it was pretty unpleasant one.

In a study conducted at Stanford University, a group led by Dr. Gregory Scherrer has identified brain cells that are responsible for the negative emotions of pain.

There are pain receptors all over our body and while nerves detect pain there is no emotional distress until it reaches the brain.  The researchers identified an ensemble of cells in the amygdala region of the brain. The amygdala is associated with emotion and fear and also acts as an on/off switch for pain aversion.

Their experimental set up to identify these specific cells in the amygdala was very neat. They engineered cells in mouse brains such that they would light up when they were active. On pain stimulus only certain cells lighted up in the amygdala.

They also used a miniscope attached to the mouse’s head to monitor the activity of cells in the amygdala. This way they identified that a group of cells called the basolateral were active when mice were exposed to some kind of uncomfortable stimuli.

To further confirm if these cells were indeed associated with the emotional aspect of the pain the scientists made these cells inactive, and observed the mice. They made them walk on a track, which was warmer/ colder than normal. The mice with the inactive basolateral cells seemed undeterred by the temperatures compared to the normal mice.

This is really cool and more than that a significant discovery. Chronic pain is real problem and there is no good treatment. Patients are prescribed opioids for pain management which is a driver of the ongoing opioid epidemic. The scientists who led this study hope that this could be new avenue to treat pain. They want to study if any drugs can be developed to target these basolateral cells in the amygdala for treating pain.

New ScientistStanford

Mitochondria Play an Unexpected Role in Killing Bacteria

Nevena Hristozova

At least once in our lives most of us had to use antibiotics to control and kill a bacterial infection. But the truth is – there is so much in our own body to fight infections, that you gotta give kudos to the bugs that actually succeed in making us ill!

Obviously I’m talking about our immunity. But did you know how many different parts of our body are involved in the immune response at a given time? Now scientists inform on yet another tool our organisms use to fight bacteria – our mitochondria.

This info just came out as a peer reviewed scientific article in the Journal Cell Host Microbe and it shows how tiny bubbles of subcellular size are released by the mitochondria when there’s an infection in the body. The mitochondria normally are full of reactive oxygen species (the things that scientists think make us old, ill or messed up in a number of ways). Normally the mitochondria and the cells in general are very thoroughly cleaning up those reactive oxygen species (or ROSes) so they don’t damage the components of the cell. Which is why the body produces the well-know and often-fad-pseudoscience-abused antioxydants.

Turns out though that the mitochondria are keeping a small stock or are ready to quickly produce more of those ROSes when a bacterial cell attacks the body. These ROSes get sent via these minute bubbles (think of them like little hand grenades) to the phagosome.

The phagosomes are another type of cellular compartment which are usually the first encounter of the bacterial cell after it enters the host organism cell. So the bacteria gets engulfed in these vesicles, full of nasty super destructive and corrosive chemicals and gets… Well… Destroyed.

As a result, if this is happening for example in an immune cell, the different leftovers of the “neutralised bacteria” like proteins, sugars, DNA and RNA and lipids, can be used by the host cell to signal to the immune system what exactly the invader is and help it then recognise it faster and fight it better.

Kudos to the first author Dr Basel H. Abuaita for finding out the origin of these ROSes in the phagosome – this has been a mystery for a while!

The Scientist

The Climate Lounge

If You Thought 2018 Was Bad, Just Be Glad It Wasn’t 536

Tom Di Liberto

Today’s Lounge story has us looking on the bright side of things. Yes, it may seem like 2019 is just as much a dumpster fire as 2018. Yes, there are lots of bad things going on. BUT, there are also lots of good things going on, led by great people. So don’t lose faith people. Oh also, um… just as an FYI… actualllllllllllllllllllly the year 536 was a million times worse.

Let me paint a bleak picture. According to Michael McCormick, a historian and archaeologist who chairs the Harvard University Initiative for Science of the Human Past (what an awesome title for something, btw), “536 was the beginning of one of the worst periods to be alive, if not the worst year.” In 536, a mysterious fog enveloped Europe, the Middle East and parts of Asia in darkness for 18 months! I get annoyed for how long it’s dark during winter! This darkness was noted by historians at the time as “For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year.” You all obviously know who wrote those words right. I mean, who doesn’t know Procopius when they hear him.

As a result temperatures in the summer of 536 fell around 2C, and it started the coldest decade in the last 2300 years. Snow fell in China, crops failed people died. In 541, the plague came to the Roman port of Pelusium in Egypt starting the Plague of Justinian which killed 1/3 to ½ of the eastern Roman Empire.

None of this was unknown of course as tree ring studies from the 90s showed that 540 was particularly cold. What WAS unknown is what caused this extremely dark period in the Dark Ages. And that brings us to the climate lounge. An analysis of ice from a Swiss glacier by an intrepid team of scientists include McCormick and glaciologist Paul Mayewski at the Climate Change Institute of the University of Maine has found the culprit in a study published in the journal Antiquity. A ridiculously huge and long lasting volcanic eruption in Iceland which threw so much ash into the northern hemisphere in early 536 to darken the sky. This eruption was followed by two more in 540 and 547 to run ashy salt in the climate impacting wound.

What type of wound given a plague, freezing temperatures and a lack of food?  Well Europe entered a period of economic stagnation that last a hundred years to 640. How can we be so specific? Scientists discovered another signal in the ice, an increase in airborne lead marking the resurgence of silver mining.

Ok, I haven’t really explained how scientists used ice to determine an icelandic volcano was the culprit. When volcanoes erupt they throw sulfur, bismuth, and other junk high into the air, where they cool the planet. Scientists used these elements as tracers in the ice record from Greenland and Antarctica to know that a volcano caused this cold period. But they couldn’t nail down a location. Mayewski and crew used an ice core from the Colle Gnifetti Glacier in the Swiss alps and a laser to carve out 120 micron slivers of ice that represented a few days or weeks of snowfall. In that ice Grad student Laura hartman found microscopic particles of volcanic glass. After finding the chemical fingerprint of the glass, they found they resembled glass found earlier in lakes and peat bogs in Europe and a Greenland ice core. And THOSE particles resembled volcanic rocks from Iceland. And Voila.

A big volcano, and unfortunate wind pattern lead to a 100 year freeze in europe's economy. Never underestimate mother nature.


Pub Quiz

The latest science news in quiz form. Can you beat the Blue Streak team?

In Closing

That concludes this episode of the Blue Streak Science Podcast.

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This show is produced by the Blue Streak Science team, and edited by Pro Podcast Solutions.

Our hosts today were Amrita Sule, Nevena Hristozova, and Tom Di Liberto.

I’m JD Goodwin.  

Thank you for joining us. 

And remember…follow the science!