ET phone home: Have we found extra-terrestrial life?

Back in February, we heard the news of the discovery of “7 earth-like planets” with claims that these planets can support life. So what makes these planets different from the other countless planets and star-systems forming our universe? As a biologist, I was determined to come out of my comfort zone and find out!

The Discovery

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The TRAPPIST-1 System with its seven planets.

At its core, the discovery is that we have found seven planets in a single solar system that we believe have the ability to support life; either our own or extra-terrestrial. This system of planets, known as exoplanets as they are outside our solar system, has been named TRAPPIST-1 with each of the seven planets being named TRAPPIST-1b to TRAPPIST-1h with its star, TRAPPIST-1a, being found in the centre. TRAPPIST-1 is 40-light-years away from earth, equivalent of 235 trillion miles, and is found in the constellation of Aquarius, ‘The Water-Bearer’

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The constellation of ‘Aquarius’, known as ‘The Water-Bearer’

 

Ultra-Cool Stars!!

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These stars are ULTRA-COOL!!!

While these planets have been described as ‘earth-like’, the TRAPPIST-1 system as a whole is different to our own solar system in a variety of different aspects. Starting with the central star, TRAPPIST-1a is different type star compared to our sun and is classed as an ‘Ultra-Cool Star’. This means that it is smaller and cooler than our sun. In fact, TRAPPIST-1a is only 8% of the mass of our sun and is only slightly larger than the size of Jupiter. By comparison you would need around 1000 Jupiters to recreate the size and mass of our sun! Ultra-Cool stars are also around half the temperature of our sun. Now while TRAPPIST-1a’s 2300°C temperature may not exactly seem cold, it is nothing compared to our sun’s 5500°C temperature.  Because of its small size and lower temperature, it does not give out as much energy and is therefore much harder to find than other stars. However, it is because of these features that scientists believe that Ultra-Cool Stars are the best place to look for life outside of our solar system.

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Our Sun and the planets in our solar-system. TRAPPIST-1a is only the size of Jupiter for comparison!

The search for life

Is there life on other planets? Are we alone in the universe? These kind of questions have plagued scientists for generations as we searched the stars. The way scientists predict whether a planet can sustain life is whether liquid water can be found there. Liquid water is essential for life, as we currently understand it, to exist.  It is believed that all seven of the planets may have water, and therefore be able to support life, but three have been singled out as more likely than the others. This is because they are found in the star’s ‘habitable zone’ which is the area around the star that’s at the correct temperature to have water in its liquid state. This area is also lovingly called ‘The Goldelocks Zone’ as the temperature is ‘not too hot, not too cold but just right’!

Habitable Zones
Comparison of the TRAPPIST-1 habitable zone and our solar system’s habitable zone. All of the TRAPPIST-1 planets are closer to their sun than Mercury is to out sun!

‘7 names for 7 planets’

NASA asked Twitter to name the series of planets and the internet had a field day (I guess some people will never learn from Boaty McBoatface!). I’ve included some of my favourites but if you want to look further into some of the suggestions, search for the hashtag ‘#7NamesFor7NewPlanets’. Click the images below to enlarge them.

If you want some more information about the TRAPPIST-1 system then visit www.trappist.one, a website set-up and run by a group of the researchers.  As I said earlier, talking about life in space was a little out of my comfort zone, and I shall be going back to human biology for the next post! However, personally I found this topic really interesting to research so hopefully I’ll come back to space later in the future!

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To jab or not to jab; that is the question!

Flu, short for Influenza, is one of those diseases that everyone knows. Whether you have suffered from it yourself, or whether a friend or family member has, it is one of those conditions that we are aware of from very young age, similarly to the common cold or chicken-pox. However, unlike the common cold, flu has a devastating effect on people’s lives year on year. While for most of us flu will clear up on its own after a week or so, flu can cause serious complications such as pneumonia and meningitis. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that flu causes 3-5 million serious infections and 500,000 deaths across the globe every year! To help combat this, WHO recommend that a free flu jab should be offered to ‘at-risk’ groups to reduce chances of flu, however there are many myths surrounding whether this annual jab actually works.

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Flu is coming to get you!!!!

What actually is Influenza?

Influenza is caused by the influenza virus that can be found in one of three types; A, B or C. Each of these types of virus have different structures and properties. Influenza A viruses are the most common strain of virus to cause flu and are the only strain able to infect both animals (such as swine and bird flu) and humans. Influenza B viruses are the second most common form of flu and can only be found in humans. This form is thought to have originated from Asian countries but now has spread globally. Influenza C viruses are rare and usually only cause mild flu symptoms in children.

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Ham from Toy Story makes sure he’s vaccinated against swine flu!
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Don’t be a chicken! Get your jab!

Both A and B viruses can be further divided into subtypes by their structure.  A viruses are sub-classified depending on which proteins are found on the virus’ surface, specifically which form of the proteins haemagglutinin (H) and neuraminidase (N).  Each of these two proteins exists in a number of forms, specifically 18 forms of haemagglutinin and 9 forms of neuraminidase. The two most common forms of A viruses are the ‘H1N1’ (i.e. the virus contains type 1 of the haemagglutinin protein and type 1 of the neuraminidase protein) and ‘H3N2’ virus subtypes. B viruses fall into one of two groups, or ‘lineages’, called Yamagata and Victoria. While the viruses fall into these broad subtypes or lineages, they are not all identical. Each group has a variety of viruses where each is said to be a different ‘strain’.

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3D animation of the complex flu virus

Dissecting the Flu Jab

Vaccines are one of the most beneficial discoveries in modern medicine.  By using weaker versions of the disease, vaccines can trigger our body’s immune system to fight off the infection, our body can remember which viruses it has fought against, allowing a faster response in the future. A vaccine for flu, the flu jab, has been approved for human use since 1945 and usage has been on the rise ever since. There are two forms of the jab, a Trivalent Vaccine, which can protect a person against 3 strains of the influenza and a newer Quadrivalent Vaccine which can protect against 4 strains which was approved in 2012.  Both forms of the vaccine protect against two A-Strains and one B-Strain with the Quadrivalent including protection against an addition B-Strain. The exact strains that are chosen for the vaccine are decided by WHO on an annual basis and patients and public alike must have the jab re-administered every year.

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Don’t forget the annual flu season from October to February this year!

How effective is it?

A popular news story surrounding the flu jab is that it “doesn’t work”, however the situation is a little more complex than that. The influenza virus is known to ‘shift’ and ‘drift’ meaning that the virus can mutate at any time, or even fuse to other influenza viruses, to form a new strain. Because of this, new strains of influenza are present every year, meaning we need a new vaccine every year to combat these new strains. In order to do this, we predict which strains of the virus shall be the most prominent year on year. This is done by an influenza specific subdivision of WHO, the Global Influenza Surveillance and Response System (GISRS) Network.  The network collects surveillance data, both from hospitals and laboratories, computer simulations, genetic profiling, vaccine effectiveness and other forms of data on the influenza virus every year. WHO then evaluate this evidence twice a year and select which strands are to be included in that year’s vaccine, once for the northern hemisphere in February and once for the southern hemisphere in September. Each year WHO recommends an A/H1N1 strain, an A/H3N2 strain, a B/Victoria strain and a B/Yamagata strain of the influenza virus to be included in the vaccines. These predictions need to be done around 9 months before the next flu season for the recommendations to be approved and the vaccines to be mass produced. However, if these recommendations are wrong and are not the most prominent strains of the influenza virus, the jab does not protect patients.

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Don’t let a little prick stop you from getting your jab!

Protecting those in need

As with most vaccines, the flu jab is available to the general public who wish to receive the jab, however certain demographics are advised to receive the jab over others. WHO recommends that 75% of the elderly, children, pregnant women and patients with chronic conditions should all receive free flu jabs from their respective countries. WHO also recommend health care workers to receive flu jabs and here in the UK, the NHS launched a flu jab awareness campaign to increase the numbers of protected healthcare workers to help protect not only themselves, but also their patients.

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NHS England wants to make sure that you stay well this winter.

However, annual uptake of the flu jab still remains remarkably low in these groups across Europe. More action still needs to be done by governments and hospitals alike to help protect those in need from the dangers of influenza.

Quick Update

So looks like I forgot about my blog for a few months again… however I have a very good reason as to why. I actually got a job!!!! I accepted a three month internship in Healthcare PR and Medical Education at Ketchum’s London office. I had an amazing experience but now that’s finished, I have some more time on my hands while I look for a new job. I’ve got some really exciting ideas lined up for the near future and hope to use my experience at Ketchum to broaden the science I want to talk about.

Sorry again for neglecting this but look out for my next post coming in the next few days!

I Remember When I Lost My Mind

GUEST WRITER – Leo

My psychiatric troubles are, like many others, drug-induced. I was a consumer of large quantities of weed daily and began taking hallucinogenic mushrooms after using MDMA and cocaine. At the time I also drank enough to black out almost every time I drank during my first year in University. A friend who has been hospitalised several times once told me there’s no one in a Psychiatric Ward who hasn’t taken drugs.

After blacking out once again at a party, I witnessed my friends’ attitude change towards me. Strangers stared and laughed as I went by and the people I knew made increasingly frequent jokes about memory loss. I became obsessed with finding out what I had done but my questions remained unanswered.eab119fdbe8175785cc52b749c90ab3e

Two weeks later, I introduced a friend to hallucinogenic mushrooms. I was increasingly upset and in the weeks since the party I had travelled to Boston only to blackout again after taking pharmaceutical stimulants and drinking.

This time was different, to this day I do not know what happened but I can very clearly tell you how it felt: Like my mind, all my preoccupations of this world, my cares and rules and lifelines had all been vacuumed out of my skull leaving in their place a terrible emptiness.

My first experience in dealing with this new state was an attempt at buying pizza. We arrived in the restaurant and my friend asked me what I would like. I looked around me and realised my mind made no logical connection whatsoever between the question and our presence here. No connection between the man at the counter and pizza. No connection between the menu and the act of eating pizza. I left the restaurant in a hurry and, somehow managing to find old voice half-successfully, instead of the monotone one I’d recently acquired, explained I needed sleep and left.

I walked through Montreal for five hours trying attempting to find my way home; a trip that should have taken 30 minutes. I asked people for directions then instantly forgot them. I felt alien, disconnected, far. This lasted nearly nine months until a mix of anti-psychotics and therapy helped me reconnect with reality.

The reconnection is a thread you have to clutch for dear life. A moment’s inattention and it’s all gone. And then you’re back to square one.

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Over the course of those nine months I alienated almost all of my friends.  I found myself in a vicious spiral of social suicide. My thought process had changed dramatically since using drugs. My thought process now went along these lines:

  • They are laughing. Someone made a joke.
  • They look to me expecting an emotional reaction.
  • I say nothing and they stare.
  • The joke was about me and I didn’t get it.
  • Fuck them (fight or flight response).
  • Doubting my perceptions.
  • Ask for help.
  • Doubt the help.
  • Isolation.

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My advice to anyone considering taking hallucinogens is the following: ask yourself if you’d play Russian roulette with your sanity. Ask yourself what your sanity is worth to you.

If you happen to be going through a difficult and uncertain period after drug use or times of trouble know this:

The less you use, the better you will feel. Only you can choose to hold on to reality. Trust your psychiatrist – never be afraid to contradict him, he will help you find the cognitive dissonance in your thoughts like pulling at strings until a knot comes undone. Do not reject old friends and family. And if you are considering suicide, keep singing this mantra “Things can only get better than they are now.”

Guest Writer Bio: Leo is a second year communications student at university in Paris, France. He hopes to use his degree to work to reduce the stigma against mental illness.

 

 

Mental Disorders Exhibit: Experience It First Hand?

Science is disseminated to the public through a number of ways with some being more commonly used than others. One method that isn’t used or talked about as much are science exhibits at museums and other public places. Exhibits are one of my favourite ways to show science to groups as they allow the public to become fully interactive with the chosen topic. I have attended a number of science exhibits over the years, and even helped coordinate one or two as well, but the exhibit on Mental Disorders at La Villette in Paris was by far one of my favourite exhibits I’ve visited in my life.

I was fortunate enough to visit Paris, France for a week  in September 2016 and, between going to various bars and drinking copious amounts of wine, my host Lucie took me to visit one of Paris’ Science Museums. Cité des sciences et de l’industrie (City of Science and Industry, also called La Villette based on the museum’s location) is the biggest science museum in Europe. The museum consists of an astounding  11 permanent exhibits, 4 temporary exhibits, a planetarium, aquarium and a greenhouse spread over the five story building. ‘Mental Disorders’ is one of their temporary exhibits running from Tuesday 05th April 2016 to Sunday 06th November 2016.

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Paris, France. Parc de la Villette, Cite des sciences. Europe’s largest science museum.

The exhibit consisted of 19 different activities designed to not only educate the public about mental disorders, but also designed to place the public in their shoes. This ranged from classic activities showing the history of how mental health is treated and understood and quizzes on mental health to the weird and wonderful such as a large shredder to ‘destroy’ depressive thoughts and placing yourself in Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’.

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My face making a cameo in ‘The Scream’

One singular aspect of the exhibit has stayed with me more than any other which was  an activity designed to how your perception of reality changes during a psychotic episode commonly seen in schizophrenia. It was a very simple but effective way to show how metal illness changes a person’s thought process. The room was set-up like a barber’s shop and featured an internal monologue of not only what the person thinks, but also what they see. Throughout the monologue you see how the reality we know is distorted into something terrifying yet realistic. The monologue begins relativity tame but quickly ramps up intensity. Before long you’re hearing that this is ‘their’ hideout and everyone at the barbers is out to get you. This is accompanied by faces turning to stare at you and bottles of hair product flashing to reveal hidden bottles of toxic chemicals. You leave the room with a better understanding of reality can be distorted to show a dangerous and frightening scenario in all locations. More information on ‘Mental Disorders’ can be found here.

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Enter the barber’s chair and see your reality distort before your eyes.

While I was in Paris, I was introduced to Leo, a friend of my host. Our conversation turned to what I saw that day at the exhibit which was when Leo told me he had experienced a similar distortion of reality after taking drugs, specifically hallucinogenics. He describes his experience in that state-of-mind below:

 My first experience in dealing with this new state was an attempt at buying pizza. We arrived in the restaurant and my friend asked me what I would like. I looked around me and realised my mind made no logical connection whatsoever between the question and our presence here. No connection between the man at the counter and pizza. No connection between the menu and the act of eating pizza. I left the restaurant in a hurry and, somehow managing to use my old voice half-successfully, instead of the monotone one I’d recently acquired, explained I needed sleep and left.

Leo has kindly agreed to write about his experience in more detail which can be found here.

Exhibitions are a fascinating way to show science in an interactive and novel environment to the public and an outlet that I believe is currently not utilised to its fullest potential. The reason I found this exhibit so memorable was the interactivity aspect did not treat the visitor as a child and put everything in a kid-friendly manner. Instead, it tried to show the brutal truth of what having a mental disorder might be like and for that I must applaud the designers of the exhibition.

 

Three Person IVF: Disease Management or Designer Babies?

The use of technology to help those wanting to conceive a child is not a new concept.  IVF, in vitro fertilisation, is a phrase that most of us will recognise from the media or perhaps even know someone who has undergone the procedure. Simply put, the procedure involves sperm and ovum (egg) being donated by willing participants,  the sperm penetrates the ovum (fertilisation) in a laboratory environment and the new embryo is planted back into the woman or a surrogate who bares the embryo through a normal pregnancy.

IVF as a theory begun in the 1950s with it only being perfected to be compatible with humans in the 1970s. The first human ‘created’ via IVF was Louise Brown who was born in July 1978 after her parents had volunteered to trial the procedure. Over the decades that followed, IVF has become more common place with over 5 million babies being born worldwide through using the procedure.

 

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Image of the first human fertilised using the IVF technique, Louise Joy Brown, born 25th July 1978 in England. 

Those who use IVF have primarily use it as a way to overcome infertility. Fertility problems from both male and female partners can be overcome using this procedure such as blocked or damaged Fallopian tubes in the uterus as well as low sperm count or damaged sperm motility.

IVF has recently resurfaced in the media here in the UK became the first country in the world to approve the use of Three-Person-IVF. Three-Person-IVF builds upon the IVF procedure described above but is used but is used to overcome genetic mitochondrial diseases instead of simply infertility.

So what on earth are genetic mitochondrial diseases? Let’s start with what are mitochondria? Some readers may be getting flashbacks from school of ‘Mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell’. This phrase, in the simplest sense, is correct as mitochondria use glucose to create a molecule called ATP, which the body uses for energy transportation. Mitochondria also differ from other parts of the cell in how they are created. Every other component of human cells are created using a fusion of DNA from the mother and father, however, mitochondria have their own loop of DNA and they are produced using this DNA set.

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Image of a mitochondria producing ATP as an portable energy store.

Mitochondrial diseases occur when this DNA goes wrong one of which is Muscular Dystrophy. Here the DNA is mutated in such a way that the mitochondria don’t work as efficiently and less ‘energy’ is produced. One of the first signs of the disorder are weakened muscle, hence it is known as a Mitochondrial Myopathy (‘Myo’ meaning Muscle and ‘Pathy’ meaning Disease).

Three-Person-IVF is used when offspring are of high risk of developing one of these mitochondrial myopathies. There are a number of different ways this IVF can be done but they all follow the same basis. Following normal IVF, as described above, the genetic material of the offspring (i.e. only the DNA) is is taken out of the cell. Here it is moved to a ‘donor cell’ which has healthy mitochondria. The donor cell has it’s own DNA replaced with the new offspring and it grows inside that new cell. This procedure is more commonly known as ‘Mitochondrial Donation’ in the scientific community than Three-Person-IVF.

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Image of the first human fertilised by IVF, Louise Joy Brown, born 25th July 1978 in England.

Many fear over different aspects of the procedure with a common fear of the beginning of a slippery slope to designer babies. If the technology allows, people fear of paid scientists ultimately choosing genes to be expressed from a cosmetic point-of-view instead of a health one. However, as things stand now, Three-Person-IVF is not made for this.

 

DHMO Hoax: There’s WHAT in my water?!

Building on from my previous theme of Science Scandals (click here to see my post on the MMR Vaccine-Autism scare), one very common scandal that is still seen today is the DHMO Hoax.

DHMO is a chemical that is used in a large variety of industries. It is a major component for oven cleaners, bleaches, pesticides and coolants and is a major part of nuclear reactions. It has been known to cause adverse affects if it comes in contact with the human body or the environment. Some of these adverse affects include:

  • Major component of acid rain
  • Contributes to the “greenhouse effect”.
  • May cause severe burns.
  • Contributes to the erosion of our natural landscape.
  • Accelerates corrosion and rusting of many metals.
  • May cause electrical failures and decreased effectiveness of automobile brakes.
  • Has been found in excised tumours of terminal cancer patients.
  • Death due to accidental inhalation of DHMO, even in small quantities.

Those who are against DHMO say it is absurd that a chemical that causes this much damage is constantly used in the production of our food and drink. Surveys have shown that the public were unaware of these facts and supported banning the substance.

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But what is DHMO?

If we look into DHMO a little more carefully then we can see that DHMO stands for Dihydrogen Monoxide, which is the chemical name for H2O, more commonly known as water! Yes, everyday, normal water that covers two-thirds of the Earth’s surface! This hoax  shows how if science is presented in certain ways,misconceptions are made. If we have a second look at the facts presented above, it can be clearly seen how the presentation of scientific facts can scare the public.

DHMO (Water) has been known to cause adverse affects on the human body and the environment, some examples include:

  • Major component of acid rain –  What is rain made of? Water! 
  • Contributes to the “greenhouse effect”. –  Water is part of our atmosphere and therefore involved in the “greenhouse effect”
  • May cause severe burns. –Have you ever put your hand in boiling water? 
  • Contributes to the erosion of our natural landscape. – Erosion of landscapes are often caused by rivers which contain (guess what) water!
  • Accelerates corrosion and rusting of many metals. – Water is a major part of corrosion and rust.
  • May cause electrical failures and decreased effectiveness of automobile brakes.- Have you ever dropped your phone in the bath or down the toilet? Water is commonly known to short-circuit electronics and damage brakes.
  • Has been found in excised tumours of terminal cancer patients. – Water is part of all cell types in the body, including cancerous ones.
  • Death due to accidental inhalation of DHMO, even in small quantities. – Ever had a choking fit from water ‘going down the wrong way’? 

But does anyone actually fall for this? Does it actually change anything? Actually, it does! This isn’t about people simply misunderstanding science. This is about people explaining science in a certain way to cause chaos and distrust towards the scientific community. For people who don’t realise DHMO is ordinary water, this can become a huge issue with very prominent people attempting to ban DHMO! Since it began in the 1990s, multiple people have come with calls to ban DHMO. Two politicians from New Zealand alone, Sue Kedgley in 2001 and Jacqui Dean in 2007, have released (and later retracted) statements supporting the ban of DHMO. For those who don’t realise the satire behind this hoax, it becomes a conspiracy theory of governments allowing this dangerous chemical to go unchecked.

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Often there is no malicious intent behind this hoax and it is used to highlight how if something sounds scientific, we  believe it as correct. It has been used for a number of April Fools jokes around the world, however not all have been received in such a light-hearted manner. My personal favourite use of this hoax is the Facebook page ‘Dihydrogen Monoxide Awareness‘ which commonly shares photos of how DHMO is used in industry and has recently funded a mockumentory on DHMO. I have been using their photos throughout this post.

 

 

The DHMO hoax at its core is all about how science is presented to the public. The science itself says ‘water can be harmful in certain situations’ however as it is presented with complex scientific jargon, it appears as a dangerous chemical that has not been checked. Afterall, water is a fundamental to survival of life!