Author: José Betancourt

How Many Genes Do Cells Need?

How Many Genes Do Cells Need?

By knocking out genes three at a time, scientists have painstakingly deduced the web of genetic interactions that keeps a cell alive. Researchers long ago identified essential genes that yeast cells can’t live without, but new work, which appears today in Science, shows that looking only at those gives a skewed picture of what makes cells tick: Many genes that are inessential on their own become crucial as others disappear. The result implies that the true minimum number of genes that yeast — and perhaps, by extension, other complex organisms — need to survive and thrive may be surprisingly large. About 20 years ago, Charles Boone and Brenda Andrews decided to do something slightly nuts. The yeast biologists, both professors at the University of Toronto, set out to systematically destroy or impair the genes in yeast, two by two, to get a sense of how the genes functionally connected to one another. Only about 1,000 of the 6,000 genes in the yeast genome, or roughly 17 percent, are considered essential for life: If a single …

Down side of daydreaming

Daydreaming is one of life’s great joys. You can indulge in it when you’re stuck in a boring meeting or a long queue. This seemingly innocuous pastime, however, is a double-edged sword. Some research has found that it boosts creativity, but other studies suggest that it is bad for your mental health and could lower your intelligence. Before we look at the downside to daydreaming, let’s first look at the positive side. In a studyconducted by psychologists at the University of California, Santa Barbara, undergraduate students were asked to come up with as many uses for everyday objects – such as toothpicks, clothes hangers and bricks – as they could in two minutes, take a 12-minute break, and then repeat the exercise. The students were able to generate more creative uses for the objects the second time around if their break involved completing an undemanding task, which is known to promote more daydreaming, compared with a break filled with a more attention-demanding task, known to reduce daydreaming. Daydreaming has also been linked with feeling socially …

How build a colony on an alien world?

If the human race is to survive in the long-run, we will probably have to colonise other planets. Whether we make the Earth uninhabitable ourselves or it simply reaches the natural end of its ability to support life, one day we will have to look for a new home. Hollywood films such as The Martian and Interstellar give us a glimpse of what may be in store for us. Mars is certainly the most habitable destination in our solar system, but there are thousands of exoplanets orbiting other stars that could be a replacement for our Earth. So what technology will we need to make this possible? We effectively already have one space colony, the International Space Station (ISS). But it is only 350km away from Earth and relies on a continuous resupply of resources for its crew of six. Much of the technology developed for the ISS, such as radiation shielding, water and air recycling, solar power collection, is certainly transferable to future space settlements. However, a permanent space colony on the surface of …

How to help Vaccine Doubters

We are in the golden age for vaccines. We have dozens of highly effective vaccines licensed for infectious disease, promising new technologies contributing to massive advancement of vaccine development, and several promising vaccines on the horizon. Unfortunately, vaccines have been a victim of their own success. With the drastic reduction of once-devastating diseases like whooping cough and measles, it seems like some parents think that the vaccines themselves are the new danger. But the threat isn’t gone; it’s been kept at bay by vaccinations. With clusters of vaccine-hesitant individuals especially worrisome, we need to find effective ways to convince people that the true danger is still disease. Concerns about the chemical components of vaccines, government mandates of vaccinations for school entry, and “Big Pharma” pushing vaccination seem unchanged when facts countering these claims are presented. Most of the existing research focuses on providing education or addressing parental vaccine attitudes, but rarely addresses the values people hold. We know that a host of factors influence how people retain and use facts in their decision-making, and most …

Facts on Diet and Inflammation

In health, as with so many things, our greatest strength can be our greatest weakness. Take our astonishingly sophisticated response to injury and infection. Our bodies unleash armies of cellular troops to slaughter invaders and clear out traitors. Their movements are marshaled by signaling chemicals, such as the interleukins, which tell cells where and when to fight and when to stand down. We experience this as the swelling, redness and soreness of inflammation—an essential part of healing. But when the wars fail to wind down, when inflammation becomes chronic or systemic, there’s hell to pay. I’m looking at you, arthritis, colitis and bursitis, and at you, diabetes, colon cancer, Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular disease. Cardiovascular disease is the world’s biggest killer, and we’ve known for 20 years that inflammation (along with too much cholesterol) ignites the buildup of plaque in our arteries. Still, no one knew if runaway inflammation could actually pull the trigger on heart attacks and strokes—until this summer. Results from a large, well-designed trial showed that certain high-risk patients suffered fewer of these …

How Constitutions Reveal about How Societies Evolve

Timing can be everything when it comes to successfully expanding constitutional rights. Now, a study looking at how constitutions around the world have evolved has revealed patterns that could help people predict the best moment to introduce such changes. Amendments are generally introduced into a country’s constitution in a certain sequence, the authors report in a paper on the preprint server arXiv, and now under review at a journal. In addition, their computer analyses corroborate previously proposed ideas that the addition of some provisions is heavily influenced by the zeitgeist—the dominant social mores of the time—whereas the adoption of others reflects a country’s colonial history. The study validates computational techniques that could be applied to pressing questions about how constitutions reflect and affect societies, says Mila Versteeg, a legal scholar at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “These methods might be able to move the ball if applied to the right questions,” she says. Organizations and advocates could use the results to push for policies in a more strategic way, say the paper’s authors. “This can …

Making money on youtube?

Making money on youtube?

Following several high profile scandals, YouTube is tightening the rules around its partner programme – raising the requirements vloggers have to meet to be able to monetise their videos. This means that for creators to make money from YouTube – and have ads attached to videos – they must have clocked up over 4,000 hours of watch time on their channel within the past 12 months. Channels must also have at least 1,000 subscribers. Channels that don’t have these numbers will simply no longer be able to make income from ads. This change will effectively make it harder for new, smaller channels and hobbyists to be able to make money on YouTube. It’s not surprising then that these tighter ad rules have been met with dismay by many YouTubers – who feel the changes are an unfair reaction to a small number of high profile events. Bad actors The main reasons for the changes are the widespread concerns about YouTube’s ability to regulate its content. And more specifically, monitor what content is inappropriate for adverts …

Should the results of Nazi experiments ever be taken up and used?

During World War II, Nazi doctors had unfettered access to human beings they could use in medical experiments in any way they chose. In one way, these experiments were just another form of mass torture and murder so our moral judgement of them is clear. But they also pose an uncomfortable moral challenge: what if some of the medical experiments yielded scientifically sound data that could be put to good use? Would it be justifiable to use that knowledge? Using data It’s tempting to deflect the question by saying the data are useless – that the bad behaviour must have produced bad science, so we don’t even have to think about it. But there is no inevitable link between the two because science is not a moral endeavour. If scientific data is too poor to use, it’s because of poor study design and analysis, not because of the bad moral character of the scientist. And in fact, some of the data from Nazi experiments is scientifically sound enough to be useful. The hypothermia experiments in …

Women in gender-equal countries have better memory

Let’s try you. Read the title above once, then cover it and write down word for word what you remember. Having difficulties? How well you do may be down to which country you live in. That’s according to a new study, published in Psychological Science, involving an impressive 200,000 women and men from 27 countries across five continents. It revealed that women from more conservative countries performed worse on memory tests than those from more egalitarian countries. Demographics expert Eric Bonsang and his colleagues analysed national survey data from individuals above the age of 50. They used existing data on cognitive performance tests measuring episodic memory (memory of autobiographical events). These involved recalling as many of ten words read out by a researcher as possible in one minute either immediately or after a short delay. The team rated each country’s level of gender equality by looking at the proportion of people agreeing with the statement: “When jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than women.” Women outperformed men on memory in …

Just another ‘war on drugs’ disaster

The recent passing of a new addition to the British statute books, which will come into effect on April 6th, is the latest in a long line of poorly drafted drug laws. The new law, to act in parallel with the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, effectively bans all substances – with the exception of alcohol, tobacco and caffeine – with a “psychoactive effect” on “normal brain functioning”. The awful irony of a UK government exempting two of the most individually and socially harmful substances has not been lost on concerned commentators. So where exactly has this nonsensical law come from? How on earth have we got ourselves into this situation? And will it work? To answer that, it’s worth reflecting on the emergence of novel psychoactive substances (NPS), or so called legal highs. New highs In 2009, club drug researchers first heard talk of the stimulant NPS mephedrone or “M-Cat” at UK clubs and after parties. At that time, there was growing disillusionment among users with the purity of popular illegal club drugs – as one of our interviewees put …