It’s alive! This week, we look at resurrected pig brains, a planetary quake on Mars, robot dentists that remove plaque, life-saving lettuce, and what we should do about all those dead people profiles on Facebook.
Dentistry has come a long way since the days when barbers were in charge of pulling teeth. But despite many advances, even people in developed regions still struggle with dental issues. For example, 31.6% of American adults aged 20-44 have untreated tooth decay.
To help with this, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania have created tiny robots that can find and destroy the biofilm that builds up on teeth, AKA plaque. These microscopic machines are controlled by magnets and are specifically designed to clean surfaces in small spaces. The technology—which also has applications in cleaning water pipes and implants—could keep our teeth cleaner and make dentists’ jobs easier. Open wide!
Night of the digital dead
For many, the social media page of a loved one can offer solace after a loss, and profiles are often left online after death. As social media platforms have expanded worldwide, these digital memorials result in a huge number of inactive profiles.
Researchers from the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) have determined that the number of dead people on Facebook will outnumber those who are alive by 2070, with the number of deceased users reaching as high as 4.0 billion by the end of the century.
This raises social questions of how all of this post-mortem data should be managed and who has the rights to all of it. OII researcher David Watson points out that these profiles represent our global digital heritage. He cautions that this growing archive should not be allowed to fall into the hands of “a single for-profit firm.”
A team of researchers at the Yale School of Medicine have found a way to restore some activity in dead pig brains. Using nutrients and chemicals meant to simulate the heart’s function, the scientists were able to preserve the structure of the brains and prevent neuron death four hours after decapitation. Certain cells even retained their ability to consume sugar and oxygen.
Of course, none of these brains were conscious or even technically alive. However, this experiment has reshaped our understanding of the physical mechanisms of death, suggesting that the process may take longer or be less irreversible than previously believed.
When an earthquake hits, the ground shakes as the seismic waves roll through the earth’s crust. It can be as devastating as it is awe-inspiring—and now we have proof that they aren’t unique to Earth.
NASA’s Mars InSight lander officially recorded a “marsquake” on its 128thday on the red planet. Although the seismic reading wasn’t strong, it was enough to confirm a shaking originating from the planet’s interior (rather than a surface force, such as wind.)
This event was part of InSight’s mission to better understand the interior of Mars. The lander’s seismometer is extraordinarily sensitive, and was able to pick up the faint rumble. In fact, this tremor would have likely been ignored on Earth due to constant shakes from the ocean waves and weather events. However, this brand-new information about Mars that will help scientists learn more about how rocky worlds, such as the Earth and the Moon, formed.
Greens are good for you, but now there’s a lettuce that may help fight hemophilia. People with this inherited disorder can experience severe and life-threatening bleeding from even minor cuts because their blood contains too few clotting agents. Most sufferers can receive clotting factor replacement therapy that helps keep bleeding under control. But sadly, this treatment is only effective for two-thirds of patients.
Thankfully for the other third, researchers at Indiana University and the University of Pennsylvania think they have the answer. This team created a genetically engineered lettuce plant that creates a tolerance to clotting factor replacement therapy. After harvest, the scientists can freeze dry the plants and then grind them into a powder that keeps for up to two years.
Although the researchers have only seen success in animal models so far, this tolerance therapy could have far-reaching implications. It might even be possible to one day protect babies and young children by adding the lettuce powder to baby food, juice, or yogurt.