Sunday 31 December 2023

Last Year in Science 2023

The weight loss drug of 2023

Obesity is the risk factor for type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. Achieving weight loss before these diseases take you in their grip is the best case scenario but even if you develop one of these diseases, weight loss remains as one of the treatment goals. 

Wegovy or semaglutide is the weight loss drug was a hype online in 2023. It was approved for use in 2017 for diabetes, and then later in 2021 for obesity. Since then it is being hailed as the best weight loss drug ever known to humans. 

Wegovy or semaglutide increases insulin release, slows down stomach emptying, and signals the brain that the stomach is full. It is owned by Novo Nordisk and their recent clinical trial results show that not only is the drug effective in causing weight loss but also reduces the risk of heart disease by 20%. 

The sales for the drug are expected to go as high as billions of dollars in the next year. It does feel like a miracle drug but before you think of going to the nearby pharmacy to buy it, hear the downside. It needs to be injected weekly and once you go off this medicine, the lost weight is gained back. 

There are many more weight loss drugs on their way to the market in 2024 and some of them are going to focus on burning fat instead of reducing sugar levels and your appetite.

A sweet protein that can replace artificial sweetener

Why not remove one of the major culprits of weight gain, obesity and type 2 diabetes? I am talking about sugar. There are artificial sweeteners in the market but many of them have been shown to affect the microbes inside your gut, reducing the good gut bacteria and leading to health complications including eventual weight gain. 

Now, we have a new sweetener - which is a protein and is 3000 times sweeter than sugar. The protein is monellin and was discovered in serendipity berries, a type of tropical berry. Amai Proteins is going to synthetically produce this protein - and have named it sweelin,  which can withstand the high temperatures of cooking unlike the naturally occurring protein monellin. They claim that sweelin will reduce the percentage of sugar by 50 - 70% in chocolates and ketchup.

Chandrayaan-3 moon landing

I reached my destination and you too!' was the first message from Chandrayaan-3 after landing on the south pole of the moon on 23rd August 2023. 

The whole world was watching as the Chandrayaan 3 spacecraft was launched on 14th July. With an indigenous propulsion module, lander (Vikram lander) and rover, the mission life was of 14 earth days or one lunar day. The main purpose of this mission was to demonstrate the technological readiness of India for conducting inter planetary missions. 

After the soft landing, the rover explored the surface of the moon's south pole, conducting experiments that measured temperatures at different depths from the surface of moon, looked for the different elements that are present on the pole to see if it is different from other regions of the moon. It found Sulfur along with other elements like - Al, Ca, Fe, Mn, Si which are present in other areas of the moon as well.

Now the world is waiting for the results from ISRO's solar mission Aditya L1.

AI boom with ChatGPT

Artificial Intelligence was another biggest hype of 2023. Tools that can generate text, art, and code with a simple or a detailed text prompt were being rolled out throughout the last year. ChatGPT by OpenAI was the first one to be made open to the public. ChatGPT did not only pass the Turing test but was found to be clearing exams like the pre medical entrance, law and engineering.

Since then there have been debates and polls on whether to use text generating tools like ChatGPT or not. Articles and videos describing how best to use AI started doing the rounds on the internet. Talks about job loss and the AI taking over the world continued.

And then ChatGPT was found to be making up information that did not exist. The concerns over intellectual property infringement and plagiarism were soon brought to attention. Tools to detect content generated by AI started coming out. As ChatGPT or similar tools are computer programs that are trained using a large amount of language data available on the internet. They generate text by predicting what the next word could be based on the information that they were trained on. This not only is breach of intellectual property but also reinforces the existing biases. ChatGPT does not understand language - the way we do has been said repeatedly by linguists like Noam Chomsky. 

It seems the pandora's box has been opened but we shall come up with solutions as we always do. 

Hottest year on record

Even though we have a solution for the epidemics, we still are struggling to save our planet Earth. 

2023 is the hottest year on record, taking up the position of 2016 which is now the second hottest year in the human recorded history. The average global temperature was 1.4 degree Celsius higher than the pre industrial 1850 - 1900 average global temperature, i.e just 0.1 degrees less than the crossing over the 1.5 degrees mark of irreversible damage. Levels of greenhouse gases - carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, sea surface temperature and sea level rise are also the highest so far in the recorded history.

And to make it all worse, 2024 could beat all the records of 2023.

Other references-

Sunday 24 December 2023

Last Week in Science (24th Dec 2023)

Those dark brown eyes

What secrets do those dark brown eyes hold.
Are we the ones who had the dogs mold?

Dogs melt our hearts with their puppy eyes. Have you wondered if there is a reason why most dogs have brown eyes? Scientists at Teikyo University of Science might have found the answer. The scientists showed photos of dogs with brown and light colored eyes to individuals and asked them to rate the dogs based on whether looked aggressiveness, friendliness and intelligence. They found that the dogs with dark eyes were seen as friendlier and non aggressive and also less intelligent - exactly how a puppy would be like.

Light colored eyes, as present in wolves are advantageous for communication in the wild because of the ease of picking up cues from a dark colored pupil on a light background of the iris. And we all know how scary a wolf is. So, the dark eyed dogs might have been selected by humans during the domestication of dogs. One reason could be that the pupils look larger in dark colored eyes and humans prefered those dogs as larger pupil appears to be a sign of friendliness and also babies have a larger pupil.

But more studies need to be done as how can we forget the drama queen - siberian huskies who have blue colored eyes and are still loved around the world? But no wonder they do look scary as a wolf!


Talk, talk and talk

Could not stop yourself from talking to your toddler? Guess what, it helps the toddler as well. Recent research at Harvard University shows that the more the parents talk to their kids, the more the kids talk and have larger vocabularies. 

The scientists made the kids wear a small recording device, not to spy on them, but to record how much are they speaking or blabbering and how much of the talking is happening in their environment. They made these recordings in 12 different countries from 1001 kids to get 40,000 hours of recording from 2865 days. They also found that there were no differences in how much a kid talked because of the socio-economic status of the parents - mother being less educated or the family being poor.

The sleepy reindeers

Eat, sleep and repeat - is not the only mantra.
Sleep while you eat - says the Santa.

What do you like the most after a fulfilling meal? Sleep, right? What if you could eat and sleep at the same time? That will definitely save some time for those slow eaters. Researchers at University of Zurich, Switzerland have found that reindeers show sleep like brain activity while they ruminate - an activity that is similar to what cows do i.e, chewing the food stored in stomach long after they have eaten it.

What makes this study interesting is the following! When the reindeers were kept awake for 2 hours longer than their regular active time by making loud sounds or giving them tasty treats, then their need to sleep during their active team increased. But if the reindeer had ruminated and were disturbed thereafter, then the need for sleep during active time was not seen. 

The reindeers eat as much as possible during the summers so as to bulk up for the coming winters when the food would be scarce. So, spending the maximum time eating by reducing their need to sleep separately lets them optimize their time. The reindeers thus save up time on sleeping because they can multitask.


Sunday 17 December 2023

Last Week in Science (17th Dec 2023)

The social life of snakes

By Wilson44691 - Own work, Public Domain,

How many friends do you have? Two? Three? I am not asking about the ones on Facebook/Instagram. It would definitely not as high as 46. This is the maximum number of friends that garter snakes, that are found in the United States and Canada, can have. 

Researchers in Queen's University in Canada made this interesting finding while studying garter snakes that were being relocated due to some road construction work. The ecologists were tracking some 3000 snakes for 12 years to ensure they are happy in their new environment. This data was then looked at by researchers of Queen's University. They found that they would catch the same group of snakes hanging together each time they were caught. Another interesting finding was that these groups were led by female snakes, and the younger females would follow the older ones. While the males were found to become aloof as they aged. I wonder whether the older females would be giving tips the younger ones on how to find that perfect mate.

Nuclear fusion is here to stay

Nuclear fusion happens inside the Sun and happens to be the source of all energy for the Earth. Scientists have been working on generating energy from nuclear fusion reactions in a lab bu each time they would get lesser energy output than they would provide for the reaction as the input. Unfortunately, such energy equations do not matter when making a hydrogen bomb that uses the same nuclear fusion reaction. 

Last year in December, a breakthrough was made when scientists at US National Ignition Facility managed to produce more energy than they had supplied to carry out the nuclear fusion reaction. But in the world of science you need to repeat any experiments to be certain that it wasn't a fluke. Now, the laser facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California has repeated this feat four times which is a reason to rejoice. There is still a long away from creating fusion power plants because the amounts of input energy are less so as to ensure that the Sun like environment does not blow up the lab but experiments are underway, including the ones for nuclear weapons, to keep increasing the input so that we may eventually be able to generate enough clean energy to sustain our daily activities on this planet.

Don't blame the fetus for that morning sickness 

Pregnancy comes with its own challenges and nausea and vomiting is one of them. In some 0.3- 3% of pregnancies, the frequency of vomiting is so high that the pregnant women need to be hospitalized and it often leads to either abortion or the death of the mother. The cause for this condition, which is known as hyperemesis gravidarum (HG) hasn't been known for long. 

In the study carried out at the University of California, the researchers found that a specific gene - GDF 15 (growth differentiation factor 15) increases the chances of a woman developing HG. The researchers found that there were two forms of this gene. GDF 15 gene produces a hormone that circulates in the blood. One of the forms that is known as H202D causes the non pregnant women to have low levels of GDF 15 in their blood. The researchers also found that GDF 15 in the blood during pregnancy comes from the fetus.

Now, when both the mother and fetus have the some form of GDF 15 then the mother does not develop HG. But when the mother has H202D GDF 15 and the fetus has the other form then the women develop HG. This study will help in finding a cure for HG and also will support research for other diseases that occur during pregnancy. An interesting question that still remains unanswered is why are humans the only species that have morning sickness during pregnancy? 

Sunday 10 December 2023

Last Week in Science (10th Dec 2023)


The Honey Hunters and their companions

Honey hunters in Africa, people who look for honey bee nests to extract honey use a special guide - the honey guide birds. What makes this cooperation interesting? The honey hunters use a special sounds to call the birds to lead them to honey bee nests. The birds get wax and bee larvae in return. And at times it is the bird that calls upon these humans to go honey hunting.

People in different regions of Africa use different sounds to call birds of that region. What makes it unique is that the birds are genetically same but have learnt to recognize different sounds. The study was carried out by researchers of Cambridge university. They say that that cultural practices of these birds and honey hunters are affecting each other. The sounds that are being used by the hunters are passed on from generation to generation. But if that is the same for the honey guide birds still needs to be studied.   

~~ ___________ ~~ ________ ~~

Predicting disease by looking at your blood

We hear all the time that age is just a number and now we have scientific evidence to back that. 

There have been studies that predicted the biological age of a person by looking at the condition of the body using various tests, but they haven't looked at individual organs. The existing tests for various organs tell us about the status of a disease condition. What if we get to know in advance that one of our organs is at risk of developing a disease, would it not help us by taking timely precautions?

Researchers at Stanford University have taken a step in that direction. They found after looking at the blood samples of 5000 individuals that different organs age differently in an individual and amongst different individuals by identifying proteins - molecules that make an organ function, coming from different organs. They used machine learning to predict the age of an organ and found that 20 out of 100 individuals in those 5000 people that they studied, had an organ that was ageing faster than what it would have been like in most individuals of their age. This increases their chance of developing disease in that organ and increased the chances of early death. 
The blood tests need to be tested in more individuals before it will become available to know the age of your different organs. 

~~ ______ ~~ _______ ~~

A sense of relief

Do you remember feeling a sense of relief after that stressful interview was over or after coming out of the examination hall? Although, we still don't know why it happens but the researchers at Zhejiang University, China have found an important application for this behaviour. 

This feeling of relief is seen because the reward centres in the brain become activated as the stress ends.
The researchers show that this feeling of relief after stress helps in preventing depression. They tested depressed mice by giving them stress - a foot shock or by keeping them immobile - and then gave them a reward like a chocolate. They found that these mice showed less of depressed behaviour but this did not happen in mice that were not given the reward. 

The researchers suggest that providing reward within two hours after the stressful situation is over could help in alleviating symptoms of depression. 

We now know why that ice cream/chocolate or shopping after a stressful situation feels so good.

~~ _______ ~~ ______ ~~


Sunday 3 December 2023

Last Week in Science (3rd Dec 2023)

10,000 naps

Have you experienced a power nap? Can you remember the shortest nap you had? It might have lasted at least a few minutes. The naps of chinstrap penguins lasts from 4 to 32 seconds. What is interesting is they survive on thousands of such naps that they take during a day, including night times. The naps that they take amounts to some 11 hours of sleep in a day and this is all they need to survive. Think of taking 600 naps in an hour.

Scientists from Neuroscience Research Center of Lyon in Bron, France implanted electrodes in chinstrap penguins housed in King George Island, Antarctica to record sleep pattern of the penguins over a duration of 10 days. The scientists were intrigued by this finding and are now hoping to understand how and whether other organisms use such microsleep or naps to stay alert. Would you exchange your 6-8 hours of sleep for 10,000 micro naps?



Robots made of human cells

Kids often wonder whether there are humanoid robots inside our bodies that perform the functions that help us survive. While that is not the reality but what may be a reality soon is scientists sending robots (not humanoid but made of human cells) inside the human body. 

In this cool experiment, scientists at  University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia created tiny robots made of human cells- called as 'anthrobots', each one made of 100s of cells. These robots were created in a dish and were found to be moving in circles, straight line or haphazardly. Next they created a layer of neurons and then made a scratch on it. When the tiny robots were added to this layer, they could repair the layer by causing formation of more neurons. The scientists are hoping that if we can make anthrobots from a person's body cells then they can be used in repair processes, like clearing of an artery (that may have caused a heart attack if not cleared) or deliver medicines inside the body. 



Attack on the brain due to stress

As the cases of depression increase a need to understand what causes depression becomes imperative. While many individuals with depression respond to medication, one thirds of the patients do not respond. So, there is also a need to develop new treatment options. 

It has been seen in individuals with major depressive disorder (MDD) - who have a chronic form of depression - that incidence of autoimmune diseases are high. Immune system that helps in defense of the body when starts attacking itself that is when autoimmune diseases happen. It is known that after facing chronic stressful conditions, immune cells of the body (like neutrophils and monocytes) can start to attack the brain in individuals who have MDD. It is not known whether it is a cause of depression and whether it can affect the severity of the disease.

A recent study was performed to study the effect on immune system using mice that were made depressed by creating social stress; these mice were kept together with an aggressive mice for 1 hour/ day for a total of 10 days. The aggressive mice fight and defeat the non-aggressive mice. Such social defeat stress causes depression in mice. It was found that the depressed mice had antibodies against brain tissue. Antibodies are created by B cells of the body to fight invading pathogens and cause their destruction. What was interesting was that the mice who had low B cell counts did not get affected by the social defeat stress. So, can we use targeting of antibody producing cells to treat depression? It will take a while to find that answer so till then keep yourselves away from stress as much as possible.