Images courtesy of NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, 2013 Northeast U.S. Canyons Expedition.
An octopus hides in the rocks in Welker Canyon.
I have no studies for you this week. No controlled randomized tests. No laboratory bedrooms or solar weather. I have only radiant, extraordinary images and videos in honor of one rather surprising fact: We barely know our own world at all.
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A shrimp rests on octocoral in Hydrographer Canyon.
Ocean covers just about everything on this planet. But we primates stick to land, and 95% of the ocean remains unexplored. It’s just sitting right there—everywhere—and we’ve never seen exactly what’s going on in its depths.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) aims to change all that. In July and August of this year, their Okeanos Explorer voyaged near the northeastern US along the Atlantic Continental Slope, where the submerged edge of the North American continent begins to drop off into deeper ocean.
Northeast US Canyons Expedition 2013
The Okeanos Explorer isn’t a research vessel. According to NOAA’s website, its “sole assignment is to systematically explore Earth’s largely unknown ocean.” That’s right: pure exploration. Ain’t it grand? Perhaps most thrillingly, at least for armchair scientists everywhere, the expedition tested a new remotely operated vehicle (ROV) that can go down to 6,000 meters (over 19,000 feet). It’s got six cameras, two of them high-def, and an elaborate lighting system. It can move and zoom and produce unutterably awesome (and thoroughly new) images that the team shared in real time with other scientists and with the public.
Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus is not only terrible to say—that, of course, is why we shorten its name to MRSA and pronounce it “mer-suh,” like it’s some kind of Aquaman sidekick—but the potent, stubborn infections it creates are especially horrible. For one thing, they’re really difficult to cure. (That’s the resistant part of the name—antibiotics, our standard weapons against infection, are exactly what they’re resistant to.) For another, MRSA-caused infections, whose symptoms include everything from boils to fever, can be extremely painful.
But what causes all that pain? Until now, doctors believed it was an immune system response. According to this theory, your body basically screams, Holy crap I’ve been invaded! I’d better alert the brain! [Stab stab stab.] Your brain says, Ouch! Okay, dude, I’ve got it. But your body refuses to shut the hell up. [Stab stab stab.]
Not so, says a new study published in Nature on Aug. 21. You’re not wracked with pain because of your body’s immune response, but because of the bacteria itself. The pain associated with MRSA isn’t your body trying to alert you to the problem; it’s actually one of the effects of the problem. "We found that major parts of the immune system are not necessary for pain during infection, but that bacteria themselves are the source of much of the pain,” says Isaac Chiu, PhD, the study's lead author.
The whole study came about because Chiu and coauthor Christian A. Von Hehn, MD, PhD, wanted to see what would happen when they cultured sensory neurons and immune cells in the same petri dish. Much to their surprise, the neurons responded to the bacteria “immediately,” says Chiu.
The study made another surprising discovery: Once pain neurons can tell that nasty invading bacteria are present, the immune system should leap into action to fight off the intruders, right? Because that's supposedly the whole point of pain neurons and an immune system and all those other intricate bits. But the scientists instead observed that the pain neurons suppressed the immune system.
It seems like a terrible idea. Something hurts! the pain neurons are apparently tweeting their friends. Let's totally not raise the alarm. Pretend everything's fine! How did it evolve that way in the first place? The question needs to be studied a lot more, but Chiu hypothesizes that our neurons might be trying to protect our body from the additional damage caused by inflammation, part of the immune system response. (Inflammation, though useful in battling infection, can cause damage to the body when it happens too often.) Those wily bacteria just might be taking advantage of a loophole.
Figuring out how pain and MRSA go hand-in-horrible-hand isn't merely an academic question. The hope is that studies like these will help doctors and scientists figure out how to deal with other serious infections and eliminate the pain that inevitably comes along with them. Let’s hope they do it soon, because ouch.
As it turns out, the sun flips its magnetic field about every 11 years. “North” becomes “South” and vice versa. It’s all part of the sun’s cycle of solar weather. When the sun flips its magnetic field, it’s halfway into its period of greatest solar activity, known as the solar maximum (or solar max, if you’re cool like me). We’re in the midst of Solar Cycle 24, apparently, and when the field shift occurs, we’ll be halfway through the solar max.
The magnetic field flip will happen in an estimated 3 to 4 months, and it “will have ripple effects throughout the solar system,” says Todd Hoeksema, the director of the Wilcox Solar Observatory at Stanford University.
Now here’s a part that sounds really Star Trek: There’s something called a “current sheet” that radiates from the sun’s equator. It’s vast, extending outward for billions of kilometers. It’s ten thousand kilometers thick. Seriously, we’re talking about something really enormous, here—Pluto’s orbit looks teeny-tiny in comparison.
The current sheet is affected by those field reversals in the sun. It gets all wavy, for one thing, kind of like a warped vinyl record—so as the Earth keeps orbiting the sun, we move in and out of the current sheet. The movements can create stormy “space weather” around the Earth. (Possibly you are thinking that “space weather” doesn’t even sound like a real thing. I don’t blame you. “Let’s check on the space weather before we beam into that wormhole at warp speed, Captain!” Sure, that makes sense.) Space weather, though, includes things like solar wind, solar flares, coronal mass ejections and sunspots.
Ripples in the current sheet can also help shield our solar system from cosmic rays, superfast particles that are no good for astronauts and space probes (and might also affect our earthly climate, though the jury’s still out on that one).
There’s nothing like considering the grand mechanics at work in our universe to provide some perspective. Though some media outlets (and I use the term loosely) are using the real science behind the sun’s field flip to stir up inane fears—which is what has required NASA scientists to reassure us in the first place that doom be not at hand—rest assured that the universe is ticking along exactly as it’s supposed to.
If you want to know more about current sheets and space weather and the like, take a gander at this very helpful video:
Take a look at the sky. See a big ball of light? If so, it’s probably doing something to you right now. Humans respond to light from the sun and the full moon in measurable ways, two new studies report, and our sleep hangs in the balance.
In one study, a bunch of lucky volunteers went camping in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains for a week. (For SCIENCE!) Before they went, they’d spent some time wearing activity monitors on their wrists. The monitors measured stuff like average activity levels, sleep duration and waking/sleeping times. After a week of monitoring, researchers used a saliva test to measure participants’ melatonin and determine their “natural” circadian rhythms.
During the camping trip, anything except natural light was verboten. No phones, no flashlights, just sunlight and campfires. After their wilderness adventure, during which they slept and woke when they wanted to, participants went back to the lab for more testing. Since all those measurements had been taken earlier, the researchers could see what had changed.
The main difference was in the amount of light individuals were exposed to: Study participants got four times as much of the stuff when camping. A thing to know about melatonin is that it normally rises in the early evening near sunset (to encourage sleep) and drops off in the morning before waking. For many of us, though, a life surrounded by the comforting glow of technology means that we’re getting artificial light at all hours of the day and night—and our melatonin levels reflect it, increasing later in the evening and sometimes not decreasing until after we’ve woken.
The campers’ melatonin levels after their trip, however, rose and fell according to the normal rhythm, chilling out at sunrise and ramping up at sunset. Participants’ circadian clocks shifted two hours earlier on average, indicating that time spent camping—or exposed to natural light—can “reset” the clock and help people fall asleep and wake up more easily.
Those are some pretty dramatic results, and they point to actions you can take if you want to adjust your own circadian rhythms. For example, you might try getting more natural light during the day. In the case of the moon, however, the measurable effect is more subtle and the plan of action isn’t so obvious.
*L*u*z*a* via Flickr
The moon study analyzed sleep data acquired from a previous study in a controlled laboratory setting. It looked at what phase of the moon the sleep data was associated with and found—much to the surprise of researchers—that a distinct pattern emerged. Despite volunteers being unable to actually see the moon in their laboratory bedrooms, their sleep was affected if it fell on a night near a full moon. Sleepers took five extra minutes, on average, to zonk out, plus they got shallower sleep and about 20 minutes less of it.
Do we have an internal clock that responds to cycles of the moon, just like we do for the sun? Maybe. Researchers really can’t say at this early point; this is “the first reliable evidence” that the moon can affect our sleep under laboratory conditions, they note.
Astrology this ain’t.These studies are small—only 8 people in the solar study and 33 people in the lunar—and additional research with larger groups and in other locations globally is needed if we want to draw firm conclusions. Nonetheless, this is science functioning precisely as science is supposed to. In both studies, we have a testable hypothesis, an experiment whose parameters can be repeated and results that can be impartially measured. Damn right, you should be excited.
Adila’s owner touches the cone for Adila to imitate.
Your dog has a memory. And not just the kind where Snookums wanna cookie? takes on monumental significance. New evidence shows that dogs have the ability to remember a human action and then recreate it after a delay. You read that right: Dogs can learn to do something just by watching their human do it first, even after the passage of time.
So, okay, your dog probably can’t actually remember your misdeeds from summers past. Luckily for you. But deferred imitation and declarative memory are abilities we had previously only ascribed to humans and apes.
To figure out what dogs’ brains are capable of, researchers Claudia Fugazza and Adám Miklósi from Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary had owners train their dogs in a method called “Do as I do.” The technique involves teaching dogs an “imitation rule” with familiar actions that can then be generalized to new situations.
Eight dogs (and their owners) were involved in the study. All the dogs were female, ranging in age from 2 to 10 years old. The subjects were comprised of collies, a Shetland sheepdog, a Czechoslovakian wolfdog, a Yorkshire terrier and a mixed breed.
In the study, the dog owner first told their canine to sit. The owner then performed a simple novel task—ringing a bell, for example, or walking around a bucket—that the dog watched. It would be one thing to have the dog perform the same action right away, but the mere ability to immediately imitate an action isn’t what the researchers were studying. Looking at retention span, they wanted to know if dogs could still perform the action after they’d been forced to think about something else for a while.
So dog and owner would go behind a screen for a delay ranging from 40 seconds to 10 minutes, meaning the dog couldn’t keep staring at (and thinking about) that bell or that bucket. Out of sight, out of mind, right? During the delay, the owner “distracted” their dog with some other task, such as playing with a ball.
Once the break ended, the owner took the dog back to the starting point and commanded, “Do it!” And danged if the dog didn’t go ring that bell or walk around that bucket. (At least, some of the dogs, some of the time.) Take a look at the video below to see for yourself.
To avoid what’s known as the Clever Hans Effect, where an animal responds to unconsciously given cues from a human, researchers also had someone other than the owner give the “Do it!” command. Without knowing what the original action was, this other person had no way of accidentally directing the dog. If the dog performed the action, therefore, it was because their doggy brain had retained the information.
The results are pretty impressive. Think about it—in order to imitate ringing a bell, for example, a dog not only has to maintain a mental image of what her owner did, but she has to figure out how ringing a bell with a human hand translates into a doggy body ringing a bell.
The researchers conclude, “The ability to encode and recall an action after a delay implies that the dogs have a mental representation of the human demonstration. In addition, the ability to imitate a novel action after a delay without previous practice suggests the presence of a specific type of long-term memory in dogs. This would be so-called ‘declarative memory,’ which refers to memories which can be consciously recalled, such as facts or knowledge.”
We’ve known for decades that babies conceived at certain times of the year tend, on average, to be healthier than babies conceived at other times. But what the hell, right? Why should that be? By looking at the birth records for over 1.4 million children born in the 1990s and 2000s, two economists may have figured out how it happens.
Science deals with the big, messy soup of our world. Its eternal challenge lies in teasing out what’s truly connected from that which simply happens at the same time. Previous studies have shown the correlation between infants who are born in winter and a host of problems later in life, but no one knew why it was happening. Wintertime diseases? Higher winter pollution? It could’ve been almost anything. The questions were complicated by data showing that certain mothers, ones from a lower socioeconomic tier, are statistically more likely to have children with developmental and health problems. But they’re also more likely to give birth in the first half of the year. So what’s been causing what? To study the problem, scientists needed a way to control for things like a mother’s race, marital status and education level so they didn’t end up comparing apples to oranges.
Janet Currie and Hannes Schwandt, economists out of Princeton University, came up with a solution. They looked only at mothers who had given birth to more than one child—over 600,000 of them. That way, when the differences in outcomes were measured, it had more to do with when the baby was born than the particular social conditions of the mother.
What they noticed was kind of startling. For babies conceived in May, the study found more than a 10-freaking-percent increase in premature births. The average gestation length is only about half a day shorter, but it still matters. Being born prematurely is linked to all kinds of problems, including a weaker immune system, neurodevelopmental complications and impaired vision or hearing.
Photo by +Angst
Clearly, this sucks and we need to find the culprit. The study’s authors think we can most likely blame the seasonal flu, which really gets roaring in January and February, when May-conceived babies are born. The 2009-2010 flu season was particularly nasty, infecting more people than usual, and corresponded to a more dramatic dip in gestation times.
Plenty more work needs to be done to see if the common winter flu is really the reason for the premature births and therefore the reason for the generally worse outcomes of babies conceived in May. Right now, it’s just an association—the outcomes could actually be caused by some other seasonal disease or by climate or temperature, which this study wasn’t able to control for. But by looking at large samples of already-existing data, Currie and Schwandt have given other researchers a strong lead for their inquiries. And knowledge inches forward once more.
Moths avoid bats. It’s nothing personal, just an understandable desire not to get devoured. In the perpetual evolutionary arms race between the nocturnal creatures, moths seem to have developed ears for the sole purpose of hearing bats’ echolocation cries—because if you want to avoid becoming someone’s midnight snack, getting wind of their approach is key.
Do you remember that part in Dead Poets Society where Robin Williams asks his students why language was invented? “To communicate,” suggests one. “No!” he replies, “To woo women.” Well, humans aren’t the only mammals that have a way of making everything about sex. Until recently, scientists believed that moths could hear sounds, but not produce them. Turns out, though, that most male moths make sounds when they want to engage in a little nookie. And not just any sounds, either—their calls are distinctly bat-like.
A sensory physiology researcher from the University of Southern Denmark, along with colleagues from the University of Tokyo, has been studying two different species of moths to find out exactly how sound is used for courtship. It’s not quite the same for everyone.
On the importance of language
In the Asian corn borer, a moth much prettier than it sounds, males make a call that’s indistinguishable from a bat’s hunting cry. Females instinctively freeze at the sound, making it harder for the bats to find them. But in Asian corn borer society, immobility apparently equals consent, because when a female holds still, that’s when the magic of reproduction can happen.
On the other hand, male Japanese lichen moths also make sounds like bats gone a’hunting. But the females of that species aren’t fooled—they can tell the difference between a bat and a suitor. The sound the males make, then, has evolved into a specific mating call.
photo by Ryo Nakano
The Japanese lichen moth
“The acoustic communication between bats and moths is a textbook example of the interaction between predator and prey,” says Annemarie Surlykke, the researcher from Denmark. “However, our studies show how such a system can evolve, so also moths use their ability to hear and produce sounds to communicate sexually and that they have developed many different ways of doing it. It is a beautiful example of evolutionary diversity.”
If you were wondering how moths can make sounds like bats without attracting their mortal enemies, the key seems to be volume. Moths essentially whisper their calls while only inches apart, whereas bats are pretty much just screaming through the night sky. Spooky! Since we humans aren’t equipped to hear any of it, you’ll just have to imagine what sweet nothings moths murmur to one another.
Researchers using data from the European Space Agency's Cluster spacecraft have found evidence that a “plasmaspheric wind” is releasing a kilogram (over two pounds) of plasma from the plasmasphere into the magnetosphere every second.
I swear you’re not reading an X-Men comic. Supervillains do not appear to be involved. Yet.
The plasmasphere is a region of dense, cold plasma that surrounds the Earth. Filled with charged particles, it’s shaped like a donut and forms the inner part of the magnetosphere, the area around our planet controlled by the magnetic field.
The existence of plasmaspheric wind was theorized over two decades ago, but it’s difficult to detect. It requires fancy instrumentation and detailed measurements of moving particles in the plasmasphere. Now, the four Cluster spacecraft have provided ion measurements from the plasmasphere that support the plasmaspheric wind theory.
We need to understand what’s going on in the plasmasphere because of its effect on things like satellites, GPS and traveling astronauts. Presumably, we also need to keep one step ahead of Magneto.
Maybe you've heard this a jillion times: Core strengthening is vital if you want to avoid injury. But is it true? A new study doesn't conclusively say one way or the other, but it sure casts some doubt on the incrediblycommon assertion.
In the study, released in the journal Physical Therapy, 1,100 soldiers aged 18 to 35 were divided into two groups. One group used a core stabilization exercise program that lacked sit-ups, while the other used a traditional exercise program that included bent-knee sit-ups. The point was to compare how the two programs affected the rate of musculoskeletal injury.
Why the focus on sit-ups?
Despite longstanding tradition and the widespread popularity of sit-ups, it has been postulated that this exercise results in increased lumbar spine loading, potentially increasing the risks of injury and low back pain (LBP). Specifically, sit-ups produce large shear and compressive forces on intervertebral disks and across the lumbar spine. Increased muscle activation anteriorly results in both initial hyperextension and subsequent hyperflexion of the lumbar spine, contributing to large compressive forces during sit-ups.
Sit-ups have long been an important yardstick by which the US Army measures physical health. But if they're causing injuries, or failing to prevent injuries that core strengthening could prevent, that might need to change.
The results, though, didn't show any massive difference in injuries between the two groups. “There were no differences in the percentages of soldiers with musculoskeletal injuries. There also were no differences in the numbers of days of work restriction for musculoskeletal injuries overall or specific to the upper extremity.”
It’s worth nothing that the results for the two groups weren't identical. Soldiers who completed the traditional exercise program did have more days of work restriction than the other group if their injury was to the low back.
As much as we all like studies that conclusively prove broad truths, the reality is that what we “know” tends to advance in teensy increments. This study is one thread in a much larger tapestry. What it tells us, though, is that sit-ups might not be the bogeyman and core strengthening might not be quite the miracle each has been portrayed as—as usual, more studies are needed.
Springs underwater and the coral reefs that live near them sustain other species.
Rising carbon dioxide levels—and oh boy, do we haz them—lead to lower pH in our oceans. The lower the pH, the more acidic the water. Coral reefs, underwater structures notoriously unwilling to relocate, are stuck dealing with the result. A new paper shows that coral reefs that have been exposed to acidic waters are less dense and more fragile.
Marine scientist and paper co-author Adina Paytan points out that it could’ve been worse. “The good news is that they don't just die,” she says, in what one can only imagine to be a hollowly perky tone of voice. “They are able to grow and calcify, but they are not producing robust structures.”
Fortunately, what she’s not saying is that the whole wide world of coral has gone rickety. Scientists, being scientists, work hard to gather data that lets them make predictions about what will happen. In this case, the study focused on coral located near underwater springs off of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, where the ocean water becomes naturally more acidic.
Vibrant coral community at submarine springs along the Caribbean Coast of Mexico.
Because, though they can simulate conditions in a laboratory, scientists can’t be deliberately acidifying coral environments in the wild, now can they? By looking at a place where coral is already surviving in conditions of higher acidity, the paper’s authors found a site “where nature is already doing the experiments for us,” explains Don Rice, program director in the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Division of Ocean Sciences.
For Paytan, the results mix not-terrible news with a concise course of action. "We need to protect corals from other stressors, such as pollution and overfishing. If we can control those, the impact of ocean acidification might not be as bad."