Body Part Regeneration Is in Our Future

A Human Regrowth Industry?

The ability to regenerate body parts has always been a fascinating prospect, inspiring characters like Wolverine who can instantly heal themselves and regrow body parts they’ve lost — and now regeneration has inspired scientific research. Many species in the animal kingdom can regenerate: arthropods (like scorpions) can regrow appendages, some annelids (like worms) can regenerate from only a few segments of their body, echinoderms (like starfish) can both self-amputate and re-grow limbs, amphibians (like salamanders and newts) can regenerate a limb in as little as a month, and some reptiles can regenerate their tails.

The aquatic acorn worm, a small coral reef dweller that burrows in the sand and one of the closest invertebrate relations to the human, can regenerate any part of its body that has been cut off, even its nervous system and head. Cutting an acorn worm in half simply results in two complete, indistinguishable specimens within fifteen days. They are also unusually similar in body structure to humans. Researchers wondered: since humans have most of the same genes, shouldn’t we be able to do the same thing?

“I really think we as humans have the potential to regenerate, but something isn’t allowing that to happen,” biology professor Billie Swalla commented in a University of Washington (UW) press release describing his recent work. Swalla is the Director of Friday Harbor Laboratories and part of a research team, along with Shawn Luttrell, that’s focused on the study of regeneration in invertebrates. “I believe humans have these same genes, and if we can figure out how to turn on these genes, we can regenerate.”

Although it may sound like only the most fanciful science fiction, many research scientists believe that the regeneration of human body parts is achievable. We already regenerate skin, pieces of other organs, and nails; we also have many of the necessary genes. “We share thousands of genes with these animals, and we have many, if not all, of the same genes they are using to regenerate their body structures,” says Luttrell. “This could have implications for central nervous system regeneration in humans if we can figure out the mechanism the worms use to regenerate.”

Reverse Engineering Worms

The human roadmap that is contained in our DNA is present in every cell in our bodies, and it should also contain enough information to build or regenerate the body. However, access to that part of the plan is not accessible in humans for some evolutionary reason. One possible reason for this is that regeneration may take too much energy in a large, complex organism like a human. Another could be that our highly developed immune system actually stops the process with responses such as scar formation.

The UW team has been investigating which gene expression patterns take place when regeneration begins in acorn worms. Since regeneration follows precisely the same steps in every worm once it starts, the researchers believe that a “master control” gene may exist. If such a gene is what starts the process, it may be able to trigger regeneration in humans.

They are also attempting to identify which kinds of cells function as the building blocks of regeneration. Stem cells are an obvious possibility, but there may be other types of cells which could be repurposed for regeneration. Eventually, the team hopes to use gene activation or editing to start the process in other animals, including humans.

An Exponential Timeline of Organ Transplants
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Ultimately, this would change the face of medicine. Burn victims could regenerate their skin, people would no longer need to wait for organ transplants, and if limbs were lost in an accident, they could be regrown. This technology, if it is possible, is not happening anytime soon. The challenges are complex, and so is the duplication of working human nervous systems, brains, and internal organs that would need to be mastered. Genetically we are in a favorable position, and our progeny may see human regeneration as part of our medical reality in 100 years or so.

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New Research Challenges What We Thought We Knew About the Big Bang

Gravity and Electromagnetism

New research from physicists at Louisiana State University (LSU) and Universidad de Valencia, Spain, may offer the answer to questions left open by classical theories of electromagnetism. If this new research solves part of this mystery, it may also provide a window into the origins of the universe.

Waves of all kinds, including light, are made of magnetic and electric fields. For around 150 years, scientists have accepted the idea that magnetism and electricity are really just two sides of the same coin. When Michael Faraday spun magnets, generating electricity — and used electrical currents to make magnets spin — the connection seemed obvious. James Clerk Maxwell took the experiments of Faraday and turned them into the classical theory of electromagnetism, which provided a unified framework for studying optics, magnetism, and electricity.

Via Pixabay
Credit: Pixabay

The mystery of electromagnetism lies in the absence of magnetic charges. Maxwell’s theory, referred to as the electric-magnetic duality, rests on a concept of symmetry and assumes that magnets having charges. However, no isolated magnetic charges have ever been observed in nature, and while something that behaves in a similar way has been simulated in laboratories, this is scarcely the same as actual empirical evidence. If magnetic charges don’t exist, then Maxwell’s theory of symmetry is impossible.

Now, LSU’s Ivan Agullo and his team of researchers think they know why these isolated magnetic charges, also called magnetic monopoles, have never been found: gravity and quantum effects disrupt the symmetry of the electromagnetic field.

“Gravity spoils the symmetry regardless of whether magnetic monopoles exist or not,” Agullo said in a press release from LSU. “This is shocking. The bottom line is that the symmetry cannot exist in our universe at the fundamental level because gravity is everywhere.”

Studying the Universe’s Birth

This new research challenges many basic scientific premises that may affect other research, including the study of the origins of the universe. Satellites collect data from the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), the radiation emitted from the Big Bang and which holds valuable clues about the history of the universe.

The Evolution of Human Understanding of the Universe [INFOGRAPHIC]
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“By measuring the CMB, we get precise information on how the Big Bang happened,” Agullo said in the press release.

Until now, scientists analyzing CMB data have assumed that the gravitational field in the universe does not affect the polarization of photons in the CMB. However, this is only true if electromagnetic symmetry exists. If it doesn’t, cosmic evolution may be changing the polarization of the CMB constantly.

Should this research be accurate, scientists will need to analyze CMB data in new ways. The team’s focus for future work will be the identification of just how much the polarization may be changing, and how scientists can adjust their analyses to cope with this new asymmetrical reality.

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Astronomers Found an Enormous Object Orbiting at the Edge of Our Solar System

Didn’t See You There

It’s no Planet Nine, but the planetary body astronomers have found at the far edge of our solar system is a notable discovery nonetheless. They’ve named it DeeDee, for Distant Dwarf, and although it was first noticed in late 2016, little information about its physical structure was known back then. Now, new data from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) has uncovered details about DeeDee, and it’s even larger than scientists predicted.

2040: A Space Odyssey [INFOGRAPHIC]
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The new data reveals that DeeDee is around two-thirds the size of Ceres, the dwarf planet whose claim to fame is being our asteroid belt’s largest member. DeeDee also has enough mass to be spherical, so it qualifies as a dwarf planet, although astronomers have not bestowed that official label upon it just yet.

DeeDee rests approximately 92 astronomical units — that’s about 137 billion kilometers or 86 billion miles — from the Sun toward the edge of our solar system. Light from the Sun takes around 13 hours to reach DeeDee, making it second only to the dwarf planet Eris in terms of most distant known trans-Neptunian object (TNO) orbits. DeeDee takes around 1,100 years to lap the Sun just once.

Seeing and Understanding More

Finally noticing this distant neighbor to the mysterious Planet Nine hints at how much is still unknown right here in our own solar system. “Far beyond Pluto is a region surprisingly rich with planetary bodies,” lead researcher David Gerdes said in a news release from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). “Some are quite small but others have sizes to rival Pluto and could possibly be much larger.”

Planetary objects like DeeDee are the best clues to understanding how the planets in our solar system formed. They are remnants from our solar system’s past, but also a sign of our astronomical future — a future that includes modern technology capable of detecting extremely distant and slow-moving objects on the edges of our solar system. That future is just on the horizon thanks to continued tech advancements like bigger telescopes such as the James Webb.

*4* Astronomers Have Found a Large, Lurking Object at the Edge of our Solar System
Artist concept of 2014 UZ224 (DeeDee) / Credit: Alexandra Angelich (NRAO/AUI/NSF)

DeeDee is a perfect example of the rapid pace of this advancement. It was first noticed by researchers at Chile’s Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory as part of the Dark Energy Survey last year. At the time, astronomers weren’t sure if it was small and very reflective or large and very dark. Follow-up observations from ALMA were able to confirm its unusual size and darkness readily.

“ALMA picked it up fairly easily,” Gerdes confirmed in the NRAO release. “We calculated that this object would be incredibly cold, only about 30 degrees Kelvin, just a little above absolute zero.” They then confirmed that DeeDee reflected only around 13 percent of the sunlight that reached it, making it about as bright as a candle at the halfway mark between Earth and the Moon — yet we still saw it.

The discovery of DeeDee heralds more revelations to come, both bright and dark, with all revealing new clues about our mysterious solar system and universe.

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Graphene That Changes Color When It Cracks Could Literally Save Lives

A Natural Remedy

Since it’s discovery, graphene has been changing our society dramatically. The radically versatile material can filter sea water while also beating steel in tensile strength over 200 times. Now, the material might just save lives by revolutionizing the maintenance of infrastructure.

Graphene: The Miracle Material of the Future [INFOGRAPHIC]
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A team of researchers at the Leibniz Institute of Polymer Research in Germany have developed a graphene coating can signal inspectors about potential damage with a simple color change. The team published their results in the journal Material Horizons, elaborating on the development and potential applications of the graphene revelation.

The researchers took a close look at nature when approaching their experiments. Taking cues from fish scales and the inner shell of mussels, physicists decided to manipulate the arrangement of molecular structures to reflect light. Rather than following the common practice of adding pigments that only absorb or reflect light, the scientists designed the coating so it can amplify certain wavelengths of reflected light while dulling others.

They placed graphene flakes at particular angles that, if compromised, would bounce light back in a different direction that the other, uniform flakes, thereby emitting an alternate colors of red, yellow, and green. This opens up a host of possibilities when it comes to applications.

A Better Standard of Safety

Much of the technology involving transportation requires a complex array of man-made structures coming together to build a cohesive unit. More often than not, it’s difficult to locate damage in the structural integrity of things like bridges and airplanes, meaning that minute flaws could pose great threats that can abruptly lead to failure. With the new coating, inspectors can easily detect a color change that is proportional to the severity of the flaw.

Other applications of this material could be for coating wings of airplanes to indicate stress fractures. The safety material may be even more handy for a structure like the new space station. Sending detection equipment into space is extremely costly, so simply applying a thin graphene coating to equipment that would allow for astronauts to pinpoint fractures with just a visual inspection could potentially help space agencies conserve their resources.

But before we implement the new coating technique, more testing is needed to determine whether the coating material can stand up to conditions in the real world.

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Goodnight, New Horizons. Sleep Well.

Do Space Probes Dream of Electric Sheep?

NASA’s Pluto probe, New Horizons, has been hard at work for the past 852 days and has earned its epic five-month-long nap that just began on Monday, April 10. Imagine working for almost two-and-a-half years straight — you’d welcome a bit of hibernation yourself.

New Horizons: To Pluto and Beyond [INFOGRAPHIC]
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The period of rest is meant to reduce wear and tear and allow for the allocation of resources, such as funds and personnel, to other NASA missions. According to New Horizons mission operations manager Alice Bowman in a news release, “We’re looking forward [to] taking advantage of the reduced mission operations workload during this hibernation, as well as one early next year, to plan much of the MU69 flyby.”

The hibernation will continue until September 11. At that point, the extended New Horizons mission begins its next leg, which will focus on observing objects in the Kuiper Belt.

Peeking at Pluto

New Horizons has been an invaluable contributor to NASA’s space exploration initiative. Since the mission’s launch in January 2006, it has helped the space agency meet its goal to “explore the mysterious, icy worlds at the edge of our solar system and tell us about the origin and evolution of our planetary neighbors.”

Image Credit: NASA

Alan Stern, the head of the mission, shared some inspiring words on the goals of the New Horizons mission in an interview with Futurism:

Beyond the obvious — that we’re creating new knowledge — we create a greater society. We do something which is, in the case of great exploration, historic. It’s something people read about, not just days and weeks later, but decades and centuries later. It makes a mark for our time of what we aspire to be, which is a greater society.

New Horizons is bringing us closer to that greater society. Learning more about the farthest reaches of our solar system will help us understand our place here in the Universe.

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Physicist: We Need A New Kind of Physics to Reconcile the Quantum World

The Standard Model of particle physics requires that there be a Higgs boson because all of the cosmic DNA in the universe relies on something that gives particles mass. Without mass, none of us would be here right now—electrons would fly away from neutrons at light speed, and there would be no atoms to build anything from.

Unfortunately, neither Newton nor Einstein told us what gave particles this mass, and that’s where the Higgs boson and the Higgs field come into play. They fill in this gap in our knowledge and are absolutely essential to modern physics, which is why confirming their existence in 2013 was such a huge achievement.

Now, the scientific community is seeking answers to other questions: What is the nature of dark matter? And what is the difference between matter and antimatter? Is it connected to the fact that matter dominates antimatter in our universe today?

In a newly released video, CERN physicist John Ellis, a believer in the need for a “new physics” that will allow us to reconcile quantum effects and what we already know about the universe, describes the trouble with empty space, the difficulty in calculating quantum effects, and which new discoveries appear to be just on the horizon for modern physicists.

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Scientists Have Captured the First-Ever “Image” of a Dark Matter Web

Seeing the Unseeable

The theory that birthed the concept of dark matter came to be out of necessity. Based on the matter we can see, our universe shouldn’t be able to exist and operate as it does — this visible matter can’t generate the gravity necessary to keep our galaxies held together. Dark matter is a way for scientists to account for this discrepancy. They posit that our universe must contain a kind matter that we cannot see, a kind that doesn’t absorb, reflect, or emit light — a truly dark matter.

For our scientific models to hold true, dark matter must make up more than a quarter of all the matter in the universe. Still, what dark matter is actually made of remains a mystery, and finding evidence of something that cannot be seen is a daunting task. Previously, the gravitational effects of dark matter are the closest thing to proof that scientists have, but now, researchers from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, have something even better: a composite picture that proves that galaxies are indeed connected by dark matter.

Credit: S. Epps & M. Hudson / University of Waterloo
Credit: S. Epps & M. Hudson / University of Waterloo

Using a technique known as weak gravitational lensing, the researchers combined images taken over the course of years to show the presence of dark matter. The composite was created using images from more than 23,000 galaxy pairs situated 4.5 billion light-years away.

The Missing Universe

We may not have greater insight as to exactly what this matter is composed of, but at least we now have a physical representation of its existence between galaxies.

What Is Dark Matter?
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“For decades, researchers have been predicting the existence of dark-matter filaments between galaxies that act like a web-like superstructure connecting galaxies together,” explained Mike Hudson, a professor of astronomy at Waterloo, in a press release from the Royal Astronomical Society. “This image moves us beyond predictions to something we can see and measure.”

Indeed, the image is an important step toward legitimizing dark matter and dark energy at a time when other scientists are proposing models that would do away with the need for dark matter to exist entirely. It brings us closer to understanding dark matter and the role it plays in binding the universe together. Existence is an infinitely large puzzle comprising innumerable pieces. Any time we can find a way to connect those pieces we bring the big picture into greater focus and move one step closer to truly understanding the world in which we live.

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New Research Uses “Brain Stimulation” to Influence an Individual’s Honesty

Honesty Is Key

Isaac Newton once said, “Truth is ever to be found in simplicity,” but the biological basis for honesty isn’t that simple and remains poorly understood. That’s changing thanks to a study by researchers from the University of Zurich (UZH) working with colleagues from Chicago and Boston.

They’ve demonstrated the possibility of controlling honest behavior using a non-invasive form of brain stimulation. Their research, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, pinpoints a deliberation process between telling the truth and self-interest in the brain’s right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (rDLPFC).

The researchers arrived at their conclusion using a die-rolling experiment in which participants could increase their earnings by cheating. About 8 percent of the participants cheated whenever they could to maximize their profits, but many others opted to tell the truth at times and cheat at other times. “Most people seem to weigh motives of self-interest against honesty on a case-by-case basis; they cheat a little but not on every possible occasion,” said Michel Maréchal, an Experimental Economics professor at UZH.

*4* Brain Stimulation Creates a “Truth Serum” Effect

The researchers then applied their “truth serum” to the experiment. Rather than a drug like you’d see in a spy movie, they used a non-invasive transcranial direct current stimulation over a region of the rDLPFC. This causes brain cells to be more active by making them more sensitive. After it was applied, the sometimes cheaters were less likely to cheat — the consistent cheaters remained, well, consistent.

“This finding suggests that the stimulation mainly reduced cheating in participants who actually experienced a moral conflict, but did not influence the decision making process in those who were committed to maximizing their earnings,” UZH Professor of Neuroeconomics Christian Ruff pointed out.

Getting the Truth Out

In most situations, getting the truth out is important. After all, isn’t an honest people the foundation of a good society? The UZH research sheds light on the brain processes involved in telling the truth. “These brain processes could lie at the heart of individual differences and possibly pathologies of honest behavior,” Ruff explained.

The Evolution of Brain-Computer Interfaces [INFOGRAPHIC]
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Maréchal put it more bluntly: “If breaches of honesty indeed represent an organic condition, our results question to what extent people can be made fully liable for their wrongdoings.” It’s necessary to understand the extent of how biological predispositions affect honest behavior. The researchers, curiously enough, found that their brain stimulation method only affected honesty in situations that weighed moral motives against material ones, i.e., telling the truth vis-a-vis increasing earnings.

While the researchers didn’t really highlight more practical applications for this brain stimulation technique, there are potential uses for it. Perhaps it could improve existing lie-detection technologies, or it could be used in legally questioning persons of interest in criminal cases. Maybe. The point is, it now seems possible to “force” the truth out of a person in certain situations, which is itself a truth worth mulling over.

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We May Be Able to Build a Rocket That Can Go 99.999% the Speed of Light

Theoretical Spacecrafts

Theoretical physics often lifts the sanctions we set on our own imaginations. Whether it’s exploring the possibility of warp drives or understanding the rate of the universe’s expansion, we are quick to explore the unknown on our chalkboards until our tech is ready for our ideas.

In a similar deep-dive into the theoretical, a Norwegian professor argues in the journal Acta Astronautica for the of possibility of photon rockets that can reach 99.999 percent of the speed of light (300,000 km/s [186,000 mph]); asserting that, while humanity can’t do it anytime soon, we could potentially build a spacecraft that falls just short of the ultimate speed limit sometime in the future when the necessary technology is feasible.

*2* A Finance Professor Predicts the Absolute Speed Limit for all Human Spacecrafts

Espen Gaarder Haug is a professor of quantitative finance at the Norwegian University School of Life Sciences who believes that the math in contemporary physics isn’t too distant from the math in quantitative finance. This background gave Haug an unconventional perspective for his predictions on photon rockets.

A Future Far, Far Away

Haug’s paper outlines the mathematics involved in developing a rocket that could take us to speeds just shy of light speed by taking cues from projects that utilize photons as driving mechanisms. Such a photon rocket could make the idea of deep space travel far more attainable, and could open up the universe to the human race.

While this idea may seem improbable, the proposal stays within the limitations of the laws of natural physics. Haug asserts to Forbes that, as long as none of the fundamental particles travel faster than the speed of light, then his proposal on spacecraft speed “must also be the absolute maximum speed limit for a rocket.”

However, Haug makes it clear that we have a long way to go before we can develop photon rockets that can send materials or people into outer space. While the promise of using any fuel as long as it can be converted entirely into light Energy is exciting, we would need a particle accelerator magnitudes stronger than Europe’s Large Hadron Collider. This means that our dreams of traveling to Mars in less than 5 minutes might need to be put on hold until we have a few major breakthroughs in particle physics.

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A Network Of “Mini Brains” May Be Responsible for Your Pain

A (De)centralized Nervous System

Those annoying Crossfit instructors that like to say that pain is all in your head used to have the general support of the scientific community backing them up. The widely accepted scientific theory has been that the central nervous system — your brain and spinal cord — is the sole arbiter capable of analysis and interpretation of sensations like temperature, texture, or pain.

The Evolution of Human Understanding of the Universe [INFOGRAPHIC]
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Now, neuroscientists studying how rodents react to stimulation say that the body’s peripheral nervous system — all those nerves running throughout the rest of your body — may do more than just send sensory input from the environment on to the CNS for interpretation. They may interpret and react to it, too.

Recent research has hinted at a more complex role for the ganglia, a collection of nodules that make up part of the peripheral nervous system. In the past, they were thought to be a source of energy to transport messages throughout the nervous system, but now, it seems likely that these nodules might also work as “mini-brains,” modifying the nature and quantity of information that is transmitted to the central nervous system with the help of GABA, a signaling molecule.

“We don’t yet know how the system works, but the machinery is definitely in place to allow the peripheral system to interpret and modify the tactile information perceived by the brain in terms of interpreting pain, warmth, or the solidity of objects,” said neuroscientist Professor Nikita Gamper, who led the research, which has been published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation. “Further research is needed to understand exactly how it operates, but we have no reason to believe that the same nerve arrangements would not exist in humans.”

Managing (or Eradicating) Pain

This discovery may be important to the management — or even eradication — of pain. Pain relief drugs currently target the central nervous system, often with side effects such as tolerance problems, nausea, and addiction. Targeting the peripheral nervous system for pain management could mean safer yet more effective therapies without such problems as addiction or drowsiness.

This research is still in its early stages, and further work is needed before we can know whether these results apply to humans. If they do, even more work will need to be done before drugs could be developed, tested, and clinically trialled. Unfortunately, that could take 15 to 20 years.

Currently, pain affects more people in the U.S. than diabetes, heart disease, and cancer combined, according to the National Institute of Health. Many of those people turn to prescription medications for relief, and now, more than 2 million people in this country abuse opioid pain relievers and more people are dying from their use than any illegal drugs. With the numbers only continuing to grow, any potential future alternative to their use is encouraging, no matter how distant it may be.

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