28 December, 2016 – Episode 599 – This Week in Science Podcast (TWIS)


Dr. Kiki, Justin, and Blair wish you a Happy New Year with the Top 11 Science Stories of 2016!!! And, of course, much more!!!

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You can’t be everywhere at once!
And while this may be true for you, it is not true for science…
Science is everywhere at once throughout all time…
How is this possible?
Is science a time traveling faster than light super hero,
bending the laws of physics to her will and whimsy?
But if there was a time traveling faster than light super hero,
bending the laws of physics to her will and whimsy…
she’d damn sure be using science to do it…
Science begins with that most human of all human traits, observation…
We watch a thing…
we try to figure it out…
Maybe that thing is another human…
So we watch them…
maybe we watch them try to figure something out…
Maybe that thing we watch them try to figure out is dangerous.
Like the best way to fell a mastodon,
or what poison berries taste like,
or what fire tastes like…
Maybe we watch them try and fail to figure something out…
And in our observing…
We learn something new about the world…
And therefore, science.
And while the observations and potential discoveries are everywhere,
there are some that stand out more than others…
And we’ve got the top eleven from 2016 for This Week in Science…
Coming Up Next…

Number 11 – Zika
The Zika-Brain Link
Although preliminary, a study shows that neural progenitor cells can be infected with Zika, and the infection leads to a reduction in cell growth and division.
Zika Vaccine
An experimental DNA vaccine for Zika has gotten FDA approval to begin Phase-1 trails. Luckily, this vaccine is not the only one in the works as the US NIAID is hoping to be ready to start trials on theirs in August.
Zika vaccine trial, funding for research from US administration???, spreading in the US and American countries.
The NIH is beginning its stage 2 trial of a DNA vaccine for Zika virus, which essential will test for safety and proof of concept in healthy volunteers. Of concern are reports from the Obama administration that funds are running low for such research, which will delay the research and production process. Additionally, Zika has now been reported in over 40 US military members and their dependants, and in many cities across the US.
Zika Protection
A Zika antibody was successful in protecting pregnant female mice and their offspring from developing complications related to zika infection. It is suggested that the antibody might be useful as a therapeutic agent until a vaccine becomes widely available.

Number 10 – Space
First Light
The Kepler space telescope has detected the “shock breakout” of a supernova. This is the first time that we have seen the instant of ignition for the massive stellar explosion.
Alien Oceanography
The Cassini mission explored Saturn’s moon Titan over several years, and a new paper out describes the moon’s polar oceans, specifically Ligeia Mare. It appears to contain mainly methane, have a soft bottom, and be surrounded by wetlands.
Juno You Know
Successfully performing a brilliant entry into orbit around Jupiter, the tank-like spacecraft named after Jupiter’s wife begins its science mission.
First light from orbit. JunoCam has started sending back images.
Canyons On Titan
Cassini has found evidence that there are liquid hydrocarbons flowing through a canyon system on Saturn’s moon Titan.
Plan-et B!
If we destroy this planet, maybe there’s a Plan B for humanity! The ESO reported finding an exoplanet within the habitable zone around Proxima Centauri… the closest star to Earth aside from the sun.
Getting There
An analysis of the physical dangers to the StarShot campaign suggests that craft planning to accelerate to 20% the speed of light require special shielding and design considerations since they will even be damaged by impacts with atoms.
Blue Origin Lands
Blue Origin Again!
Blue Origin reflew its reusable booster rocket, and again successfully landed it vertically.
Breakthrough Starshot
100 million dollars and a bunch of big names are teaming up to send a tiny space kite to Alpha Centauri by way of laser.
Space X Win!
Finally, the Space X team successfully returned its booster rocket to the water-based landing pad with a landing that can only be called a perfect 10.
Snow-capped Pluvian Mountaintops
Mountains covered with methane abound on Pluto, according to new evidence from the New Horizon’s mission. An instrument named Ralph imaged the mountains rising out of a region named Cthulu, and found infrared evidence of ice on the mountaintops.
Ceres Spotlight
A volcanic-looking dome rises from Occator Crater, and indicates recent geologic activity. Also, more in-depth analyses suggest water ice just below the surface and mainly near the poles.
Pluvian Lakes
Frozen lakes of nitrogen on Pluto. Looks like it!

Number 9 – Intelligence
Slime Molds solve problems!
A life form without a brain, or even neurons, can make strategic, logical decisions. Dude…
Apes can read minds…
They can predict that expectations can be different than reality.
Cuttlefish can count!
Cuttlefish have state-dependent evaluation, and can tell different amounts by sight.
Tool making monkeys?
Capuchin monkeys made tools disturbingly similar to those of early hominids
“Human-like” generosity found in magpies
Magpies will exhibit prosocial behavior, something that until recently has been considered uniquely human. So, they’re not just out to steal my jewelry!
Crowdsourced Memory
Slime molds have much to teach us, like the chemical basis for the transmission of memory.

Number 8 – AI/Robots
Computer Beats Man
The game of Go is considered the most complex in the world with over 10e171 possible board positions. Last October, the AI called AlphaGo created by Google DeepMind beat the European Go champion, a feat considered at least a decade away. What does this mean for the future of AI?
Alpha Go Recap
Holy SkyNet, Batman!
Air Combat Robot Domination
An AI called ALPHA has bested an expert human opponent at aerial combat for the first time.
A new X-Prize $5 million competition in partnership with IBM’s Watson pits groups against one another “to develop and demonstrate how humans can collaborate with powerful AI technologies to tackle the world’s grand challenges.”
Thinking Machines
Google’s DeepMind AI has taken a small step forward by learning and reasoning using memory rather than programming.

Number 7 – Human Evolution
Human migration
Australopithecus out of Africa… (great rift valley anyway)
Blood brains
Ancienter Out of Africa humans with Neanderthals

Number 6 – Medicine
Teixobactin Progress
Chemists have succeeded in synthetically producing the novel anti-bacterial agent Teixobactin that was discovered just last year. While still a long way from being able to use the compound for treatment of human infections, it is the first step in creating a new class of antibiotic drug.
Anti Bacterial Humans
Human microbiome contains genes for potent antibiotics that researchers could use.
Re-invigorating antibiotics
Scientists discovered compounds (tarocins) that reinvigorated antibiotics that would otherwise get thrown away. Say goodbye to expiration dates on those pill bottles!
Cutting out HIV
HIV is being clipped out of genes (not in human clinical trials yet) by an enzyme. They’ve gotten to using it in mice to great effect!
Sight regained
Scientists coaxed optic-nerve cables, responsible for conveying visual information from the eye to the brain, into regenerating after they had been completely severed, and found that they could retrace their former routes and re-establish connections with the appropriate parts of the brain.
Three-Parent Baby
It’s not the first time that a baby has been born with the help of three parents, but it is the first time that a baby has been born thanks to a technique called spindle nuclear transfer in which the nucleus of a female egg is tranplanted into the egg of a donor that has the nucleus removed. The resulting egg was then fertilized with the husband’s sperm, and implanted into the mother using IVF techniques. The take-home here is that a woman with mitochondrial disease was able to birth a healthy baby.

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Number 5 – Gravitational Waves
What?!? The rumors are true.
It was announced that the upgraded LIGO detector confirmed detection of the merger of two black holes approximately 1.3 billion years in the past.
Then, there were… More of them!

Number 4 – Bacteria/Microbiome
Hedgehogs For Teeth
The bacterial populations from the surface of teeth have been mapped, and they work together beautifully.
Giving Babies Cooties
Researchers smeared babies delivered by C-section with vaginal secretions from their moms. When compared to the microbiomes of vaginally-delivered babies, the C-section microbiomes appeared almost normal. This suggests a proof of concept that could be fine-tuned for use in hospitals.
Your Bacterial Home
An analysis of rural and urban homes shows dramatic differences in microbial populations, which could have implications for urban healthcare and recommendations.
It Takes a village… of bacteria…
Paradigm shift: ‘We need to study lumps of bacteria’
Extremophile Culture!
Scientists at Oak Ridge National Lab have succeeded in growing nanoarchaebacteria in the lab. These organisms survive in the crazy acidic hot springs in Yellowstone, and have eluded culturing before now. Thanks to genomic sequencing, the researchers were able to determine the metabolic needs of the bacteria, and design appropriate culture conditions… made to order!
Immune system… uses gut bacteria to control glucose metabolism
How probiotics… can beat cancer

Number 3 – Climate Change
Rapidly Rising Waters
Four papers in PNAS this week based both on computer models and actual data of historical changes conclude that sea level rise is the fastest it’s been in the past 2000 years.
Great Barrier Reef Bleaching
93% of the Great Barrier Reef is experiencing bleaching to some degree this year, and while there is an expecteded 50% mortality in the northern sector, the central and southern portions are expected to recover.
Frogs are the first group to be identified as at great risk from climate change.
Even more than from habitat destruction. As frogs are indicator species, this is concerning.
Alters behavior of fish
They swim towards predators when exposed to too much CO2.
So Hot!
The first 6 months of 2016 have broken all temperature records! Are we on track to win once La Nina has an influence on conditions?
Military base under snow since the 1950’s will soon be unearthed, along with a whole lot of gross stuff, and some harmful stuff. Uh oh.
Ice-free Northwest Passage
A southern route between Amundsen and Boffin Bays is almost clear, allowing cruise liners to make expeditions along the Northwest Passage.
CO2 You Know
Global emissions of CO2 stayed steady for the third year in a row in 2016. However, atmospheric CO2 continued to rise, mainly because El Nino conditions decreased possible carbon sinks in the terrestrial biosphere. In fact, an assessment found that no country is currently reducing CO2 emissions fast enough to keep us below a 2 degree global temperature increase.
Hot Arctic Weather
Low sea ice and warm air flow from a wavy jet stream have set the Arctic up for unseasonably warm temperatures… about 20 degrees celsius above normal.
Antarctic Retreat
An ice core study has marked the 1940’s as the earliest point at which the Pine Island glacier in Antarctica began its retreat.
The Great Barrier Reef is far from “dead.”
But it does need our help, ASAP!

Number 2 – Policy
New Chemical Rules!
The US Senate has finally ratified a reform bill that changes the decades old and out-of-date Toxic Substances Control Act, aiming to bring more science into the regulation of new chemicals.
FDA Finally Bans
After years of reports by TWIS (jk)… scientific evidence against the usefulness of antibacterial agents in soaps, the FDA voted to ban 19 specific substances giving manufacturers a year to phase them out of products.
FTC Votes Science
New rules for the marketing of OTC homeopathic products were released by the FTC, finding many misleading in their claims of efficacy, and recognizes “that an OTC homeopathic drug claim that is not substantiated by competent and reliable scientific evidence might not be deceptive if the advertisement or label where it appears effectively communicates that: 1) there is no scientific evidence that the product works; and 2) the product’s claims are based only on theories of homeopathy from the 1700s that are not accepted by most modern medical experts.”
Science Gets Policy
The House and now the Senate have approved the 21st Century Cures Act, and sent it to the President for signing. It will earmark funding for Bidens Cancer moonshot, and possibly open the FDA up to fast-tracking medical devices and drug treatments.

Number 1 – CRISPR
CRISPR Update!
Scientists have used CRISPR-CAS9 to repair retinal stem cells with a defect for retinitis pigmetosa. The cells could potentially be transplanted back into the same patient to treat the disease.
Single nucleotide mutation editing
In a new CRISPR development, researchers have confirmed a form of CRISPR/Cas9 that cleaves single-stranded RNA, potentially opening up a novel direction for therapeutic innovations.
CRISPR For Cancer
Researchers at U of Pennsylvania are working on developing a CRISPR treatment for cancer involving T cells, which has been approved for human testing by a federal biosafety and ethics panel. The experimental treatment still needs approval from the medical centers that would run the study and the FDA.
Cas9 Versus Mutations
The Church lab published a paper in the BioArchiv last week that describes a novel system for inhibiting point mutations in organisms using the Cas9 genetic editor. The paper suggests that this system could potentially be used to prevent antibiotic resistance in bacterial species as well as creating oncogenic mutation prevention systems or even preventing the spread of undesired traits in plants.
CRISPR For Humans
Stanford University research shows that it is time to test a CRISPR methodology for repairing Sickle cell anemia in humans.
CRISPR For Humans
The first human trial of a CRISPR therapy has begun in China. Researchers are injecting edited cells into cancer patients to determine whether the treatment is received safely, and whether it allows the patients to fight off the cancer.
CRISPR Cures Hemophilia
In mice, researchers have used a two-vector system to specifically return the function of a clotting protein in Hemophilia B.

And, Blair’s Write-in votes…
Epigenes From Dads
Evidence suggests that tRNAs that hitch a ride on sperm as they travel down the epididymus alter protein expression in offspring and affect metabolism.
A little semen goes a long way…
seminal fluid from one male had an effect on offspring, even if he wasn’t the actual “father.”
Beetles drink the stuff up!
Females had sex more than necessary, cause she was parched.
Pre-selecting gender
Sperm of particular genders follow particular chemical trails, so you could potentially pick the gender of your next baby!

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About the Author

I'm the host of this little science show.