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Talk nerdy to me

This week we’re investigating free will, getting down and dirty with novel viruses, fighting sex trafficking, and wondering why the human genome project hasn’t yet cured all our ills.

The question of free will

Someone brought donuts to the office. Do you reach for one and cheat on your diet, or choose not to indulge? Which decision represents the use of free will? Scientists at EPFL in Switzerland are investigating the idea of free will and how it relates to the state of your body.

Breathe in, breathe out. For decades, a signal from the brain called the “readiness potential” has been interpreted to mean that free will may be an illusion. Backed by signals from the brain and lungs, EPFL scientists have discovered that the readiness potential is in fact coupled to breathing and that acts of free will happen as you exhale. Courtesy EPFL.

In other words, is your independent decision-making hijacked by your body when you ‘decide’ to indulge? It depends, suggests EPFL neuroscientist Olaf Blanke.

A recent study suggests that voluntary action is connected to bodily signals, but particularly to  breathing. Something called the readiness potential (RP) is at the core of these findings. The RP is a signal of brain activity that consistently occurs before voluntary muscle movement.

The significance of RP has long been a subject of debate. Since RP brain activity takes place before you become aware of your intention to move a muscle, some experts believe it proves the phenomenon is an illusion. 

Blanke’s findings suggest that the breathing pattern could be used to predict ‘when’ people begin voluntary action. Could advertisers use breathing patterns to predict consumer behavior?

Doctors might use breathing in conjunction with diagnostic tools to help people with deficits in voluntary action, like Parkinson’s disease and Tourette syndrome.

So, before you pick up that donut, take a breath!

Chatbots deter trafficking

It’s as easy to order a sex-trafficking victim as it is a pizza, says Robert Beiser, the former executive director of Seattle Against Slavery. And the transactions aren’t taking place in some hidden corner of the dark web—they’re out in the open on the regular internet.

<strong>Chatbots posing as sex workers</strong> helped deter up to 30% of online searches for sex in the Seattle area. That’s why the group turned to chatbots to help protect the 4.8 million people who are victims of forced sexual exploitation. The group used a Google ad grant to post fake ads targeting people who searched for sex online. People who clicked the ads were connected with chatbots posing as sex workers. But instead of setting up a time to meet, the bots delivered deterrent messages such as, “You could be arrested for buying sex online.”

In two years, the bots had about 19,000 conversations with 15,000 people. Those who received deterrent messages were 30% less likely to click one of the ads again. The group has also used tech to reach out to victims, by scraping phone numbers from online escort sites—and have so far received 2000 responses.

Faded expression

Scientists want to know why Edvard Munch’s famous painting, “The Scream,” is fading. Experts at the Munch Museum in Oslo have been working with scientists in New York since 2012 to understand how Munch worked and to make a plan to prevent further change. They also want to give viewers an idea of how it looked when the paint was first laid to canvas in 1910.

<strong>High-tech solutions for historic art.</strong> Cadmium yellow in Edvard Munch’s famous painting, ‘The Scream,’ has oxidized into two white chemical compounds, causing the original colors to appear faded. Jennifer Mass, president of the Scientific Analysis of Fine Art lab in New York, leads the team of conservators and researchers analyzing the iconic painting. Microscopic examination reveals nanocrystals growing on the canvas—a clear sign of degradation.

Munch’s original paint tubes, held in the Munch Museum, were analyzed to determine the chemical composition of his original color choices for The Scream. The Lab found that the yellow cadmium sulfide has oxidized into two white chemical compounds.

Scientific analysis of fine art can reveal information like a painting’s actual age, whether it contains drawings underneath its surface, or what environmental factors might be causing it to deteriorate. This work on “The Scream” can be used by other conservators to analyze Impressionist through Expressionist paintings created between the 1880s and 1920s.

No match found

Viruses can only survive and reproduce within a host organism. That’s why some scientists question their classification as living things. But it gets stranger: scientists have recently discovered a virus with no recognizable genes.

<strong>A new virus</strong> with no genes that match those of any other known virus was discovered in Lake Pampulha in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Courtesy Antonio Thomás Koenigka. <a href='https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/'>(CC BY 2.0)</a>Other researchers have found thousands of new viruses hiding in the tissues of dozens of animals. Jônatas Abrahão, a virologist at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte, says these findings mean we still have much to understand about viruses. Abrahão and his colleagues were hunting for giant viruses that infect amoebae in an artificial lake when they discovered a new unusually small virus that they named ‘yaravirus.’

When they sequenced the yaravirus genome, none of its genes matched any that scientists have previously come across. Other researchers who search for viruses in wastewater also find novel viruses frequently.

Before you get too creeped out by these mysterious lifeforms, understand that they’re not just about disease. Curtis Suttle, an environmental virologist at the University of British Columbia explains that some viruses actually keep us healthy and are essential for keeping ecosystems running smoothly. Suttle says, “There are enormous benefits to the discovery and characterization of viruses.” 

No need for a DNA card

<strong>Causation is complex.</strong> When the Human Genome Project began in 1990, researchers hoped that it would lead to a complete transformation in our ability to treat devastating disease. So why hasn’t it turned out that way? Courtesy US Air Force. Expectations were high when the Human Genome Project (HGP) began in 1990. Many in the scientific community believed that mapping the human genetic code would allow doctors to look at a patient’s DNA, find the disease-causing gene, and prescribe a gene-therapy cure. They even predicted that every person would carry a DNA card, providing instant access to their entire genome. 

Unfortunately, it isn’t that easy. Most debilitating diseases are caused by a combination of mutations in multiple genes. Also, environmental factors and microbes that live in the human body also play a role in causing disease.

Despite its limitations, argues Ari Berkowitz of the University of Oklahoma, The HGP continues to spur advances in biological research. Doctors can now use genomic findings to guide treatments for cancer and other common diseases.  According to a 2011 Battelle report, the project has impacted the US economy by producing economic output, personal income, and employment.

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