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Rochester Science

Beyond Curiosity: Rochester’s commitment to off-world civilization.

As if last week’s landing of the rover Curiosity on Mars weren’t cool enough news on its own, that landing also contained an acknowledging nod towards our very own Rochester, NY.

Street cred? Nah, Man. Space cred – something Rochester apparently has had for quite some time, albeit, slightly under the radar.

When you think of cities rich in space technologies, you probably think of Houston or Cape Canaveral. But Rochester? 8 years ago during the summer of 2004, NASA and Xerox announced a technology partnership, formed to help NASA implement the then Vision for Space Exploration.  The Constellation Program ended with last summer’s final Endeavor launch, but space investigation is not dead – far from it.  Our Greater Rochester Area continues to be of help in space discovery – which brings us back to the Curiosity.

NASA’s Curiosity, a robotic rover now on the surface of Mars, carries a little piece of home with it.  A variety of optics manufactured by Optimax Systems Inc., a Wayne County optics firm, is used in the cameras that are attached to Curiosity’s remote sensing mass. Additionally, the rover is operating with image sensors manufactured by Truesense Imaging Inc. of Rochester. That’s 2 points for the home team!

It should come as no surprise, then, that one of New York’s three chapters of the National Space Society (the other two both hosted in the New York City area) calls Rochester home. This non-profit, grassroots organization dedicates itself to the creation of civilization in space and is widely touted as the preeminent citizen’s voice on space. Rochester’s NSS chapter is made up of local space enthusiasts who are all very passionate regarding the future of space travel and is extremely active in promoting space education throughout schools and exhibits at area events. Any member will adamantly confirm for you that although the space shuttle program has ended, space travel is only just beginning.

To learn more about NSS membership or their upcoming plans for space travel, check out their mission statement. Even if you never got to go to Space Camp like you dreamed of as a kid, the next best thing may just be in your backyard!

 

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Rochester Science

Just how little rain fall have we had this summer? Is this a drought?

As much as people complain about the harsh winter weather (excluding of course, this past winter), we are truly spoiled by the summer months in Rochester. As fun as the festivals, celebrations, and concerts are, my favorite part of summertime has always been the thunder storms. There is just something about watching the sky grow darker, feeling the wind pick up around you, hearing the claps of thunder become louder, and seeing the faint glow of lightning in the distance turn into quick flashes and bolts.

This year, though, one main aspect of the summer thunderstorm has often been missing – the smell of rain. This lack of rain has done more than simply skimp out on thunderstorms; it’s also the culprit for the state’s 90-day ban on brush burning.

On average, Rochester typically receives 2.93 inches of rain during the month of July. Although we still have one week left in the month, 2012 totals are drastically lower, with our total rainfall for July 2012 currently only 0.35 inch, and only 3 days with rain so far this entire month.  Our situation this summer is not unique. According to meteorologist, Brad Rippey from MSNBC, this summer’s drought has hit more than half of the contiguous United States.

“This year’s high temperatures have certainly played into this drought. There’s a lot more evaporation and demands for water.”

So, what exactly is a drought? Well, by definition, it’s just what Mr. Rippey has described– a deficiency in water supply, whether above or underground, for an extended period of time.  This has affected Monroe County in several ways, from loss of crops (including pumpkin patches and Christmas tree farms, if you can imagine thinking that far ahead), to a drastic increase in wild fires due to the combination of high heat and severe dryness, and even something known as “dairy heat stress” as a result of overheated cows producing less milk.

This sounds pretty intense – and it is – but never fear! According to Bob Morrison, Director of Water for the City of Rochester, this is only a moderate drought and although conditions may not be ideal, we are doing okay thanks to our lakes – which all currently have sufficient water levels.

“There is a point we could reach [where we would enter into conservation mode] but we’re doing very well right now, so that is not a concern for us. Right now, residents can keep on doing what they’re doing.”

So what are we, as Rochester residents in a moderate drought, to do? Keep living summer the way we would otherwise. Run through sprinklers. Wash your car in your driveway. Just don’t run around striking matches in fields of dead grass, and you’ll be just fine.

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Science

Bath salt-eating zombies are bullshit. But bath salts are synthetic fertilizer.

Zombie stories have been all the rage for decades, dating as far back to the 1932 film, White Zombie, to the cult classic, Evil Dead, and the fairly recent soon-to-be classic, Zombieland. It should come as no surprise, then, that when the dubbed “Miami Zombie” story hit headlines, we, the general public, would naturally eat it up – pun intended?

By now, we have most likely heard many recounts of the tale many times – naked man attacks homeless man beneath a Florida causeway, devours the flesh of the homeless man’s face, barely acknowledges being shot at by police until in the end, one man is dead, and one man is alive, but without a face.

Nearly every aspect of this gruesome and unfortunate turn of events has been covered: drug abuse, synthetic legal drugs, homelessness, police brutality, even voodoo.  However, while Epsom salts may have undeservingly received a bad rep thanks to “bath salts” making a rapid advance into the common knowledge/household names realm, there’s one crucial piece to this puzzle that has somehow more or less been forgotten. What exactly are these “bath salts”, and why would they make someone act out the most terrifying of zombie tales in real life?

MDPV (short for methylenedioxypyrovalerone – cheers to acronyms!) and mephedrone are two of the main ingredients used to create bath salts. These two chemical drugs are both cathinones, forms of which are found naturally in the Catha edulis plant. Both chemicals are similar to amphetamines, and illegal in the US.

Contrary to recent popular belief, neither of these chemicals acts as a hallucinogen. Neither is there any evidence that they cause a hunger for human flesh, as is so much a part of the current memeosphere. Mephedrone is a stimulant and MDPV is both a stimulant and psychoactive drug, meaning the drug crosses the blood-brain barrier and causes changes in neurochemical function, resulting in amplifying effects on mood, thought, perception, and behavior. Who would have thought?

According to Doctor Anthony Ocon of New York Medical College,

 “These two drug components making up bath salts are thought to cause euphoria, a rush feeling, and heightened libido – those are the effects people seek them out for. However, they also cause paranoia, psychosis, erratic behavior, insomnia, memory disturbances, and resistance to pain – which could explain why the gentleman in Florida was initially unresponsive to being shot”.

These chemicals are entirely man-made, and have had cameo appearances in laboratories since the 1960s and 1920s respectively. While the  recreational use of them is something of a novel concept, their intended use when they were originally developed is actually quite mundane: MDPV and mephedrone are synthetic fertilizer additives. Clearly, our nation’s corn crop has been having a much better time of it than we might have thought!

Bath salts, improperly named and with the warning “not for human ingestion” on their packaging to bypass the FDA, are currently legal, relatively inexpensive, and conveniently sold at many stores and shops throughout the U.S. Contrast this with marijuana, which is illegal because it is clearly a much larger threat and the answer to what is wrong with our country. Bon appetit.

Categories
Sci-Friday

Your automatic transmission is plotting against you

Just over a year ago, I either was really dumb or took a great leap of faith in myself. I bought a car with a standard transmission without knowing how to drive a stick shift. Needless to say, this “do or die” situation I put myself in greatly expedited my learning rate. By day two, I was near tears and convinced I would kill myself as well as everyone else on the road. By day four, I was a pro.

As everyone predicted, the inevitable happened: I became a manual transmission elitist. Yes, I do think my driving skills are superior to yours and no, I don’t care what cool features your vehicle has; if it’s an automatic, it’s lame. Case closed.

I’m one of those lucky people who absolutely loves my job – I work for a car dealership in Brockport. Sure, I have my regular tasks, but for the most part, every day is something different. In order to finish something I had been working on this past week, I needed to briefly move one of the SUVs on our lot. No biggie. I grabbed the keys, hopped inside, and was astounded by what I realized – I had forgotten how to drive an automatic.

After a few minutes of awkwardly shuffling my feet and accidentally flooring the gas pedal, it all came back to me, but I had to laugh at how the basic fundamentals of driving had thrown me for such a loop. The more I thought about it though, I realized I wasn’t simply bored by the idea of an automatic transmission; I was actually slightly creeped out by it.

What does an automatic transmission do? It allows the car to shift gears on its own. No shifting, no clutch, just put it in drive and go. Forget the fact that this immensely takes away from the driving experience; it’s also putting a large amount of trust into a machine which for all intents and purposes is just a big hunk of metal with a motor and some oil.

Apparently I’m not the only one who thinks essentially giving a car a mind of its own is a little scary. Who could possibly forget Stephen King’s classic, Christine? I’m sure most car owners can understand the feelings of closeness one develops with their automobile – hell, I’ve had full-out conversations with mine – but the day Jemma (yes, she has a name) cock blocks me by attempting to kill my love interest, is the day we are going to have some pretty big issues. I’m not worried, though; Jemma is a stick shift, and therefore, does not have a mind of her own.

It seems as though homicidal automobiles were quite a problem for Mr. King. Anyone remember his made for TV movie, Trucks a few years later? Once again, these vehicles develop minds of their own and begin attacking their owners. First they’re shifting themselves; next, they’re killing your friends. Where will this madness end?

However, I admit that I stand corrected. The wonders of Netflix recently introduced me to a little gem called Rubber. This time, it’s not the entire car that’s obsessive and demonic; instead, it’s just one single tire. If this is the case, it looks like all drivers are now doomed: automatic, standard, or otherwise. Damn.

Not enough science fiction in your weekly diet? Head straight to the Dryden Theatre this upcoming Wednesday, 5/16, to check out Faust! You won’t be disappointed with this mid 90s Czech tale of alchemy, puppets, and the occult. Be sure to let us know what you think!

 

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Sci-Friday

What is science fiction?

Although it’s been a relatively short period of time, I can’t exactly recall how I found my niche as the designated ScFriday writer for DragonFlyEye.  I’m a two-time graduate from RIT, which means I naturally have more nerd in my blood than the average blogger, but it was still a step outside of my usual rock ‘n roll/cat love/bathroom gripes box of my personal blog, Blue Eyes & Spitfire.  The metamorphosis of writing for SciFriday has thus far been one of the biggest and best milestones of 2012 for me, not just because it forces me to broaden my writing horizons, but also because it’s made me look at daily life in a very unique way.

As I said to my boyfriend over dinner last night, this is a very interesting time to be alive. Even in my mere 27 years of existence, I’ve seen more technological, medical, and industrial advances than I’m sure my grandparents could have ever imagined possible.  Sure, we don’t have flying cars – yet – but look at all the things we do have that once were only found in science fiction stories. I remember watching old cartoon reruns of The Jetsons as a kid and thinking telephones that allowed you to see the person you were calling would be the coolest thing ever. Skype, Facetime, Google Hangout,  Anyone? Name your device or network of choice, and we can make it happen.

Science fiction, or what was once seen as science fiction, is around us every day; whether it’s my personal choice of birth control, someone’s medical miracle, or claiming the mayorship of your place of employment, it’s everywhere.  Every day I catch myself looking for (and more often than not, finding) the sci-fi twist in my conversations and surroundings. This week, however, I questioned myself.

I found myself in a very interesting and in-depth Twitter conversation regarding ghost stories in Rochester, particularly the Main Street Armory’s haunting history dating back to the first World War. I’ve always been a huge fan of ghost stories but was especially excited for this Roc-Centric story to turn into a SciFriday article. But wait – ghosts are horror, not sci-fi. Right?

This is what got me thinking. What is the determining factor to categorize something as science fiction? As I thought and researched, I found an infinite amount of stories, books, and movies that could easily bounce between sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, depending how you decide to look at them.

Mythological creatures are obviously fantasy, right? Well, no, not necessarily. We’re all familiar with the portrayal of a Cyclops, but Cyclopia can (and has been, albeit rarely) documented in real life, making it a possibility and something that could fall under science fiction. Okay, well what about, say, zombies? Blood, brains, and horror all the way! Sure. But what makes up the foundation for zombie tales? A virus. Something we find new cases of every day. Is it really so far-fetched of an idea that your kooky neighbor could be fiending for your brains someday? Maybe. Maybe not.

Essentially, we live in an amazing time and an amazing world where most anything can be viewed or explained with a science fiction spin – so this is where you help me, DragonFlyEye reader:  what daily occurrence do you want to hear about in a spooky, fantastical, science fictional light? Tell me, and I’ll make it happen!

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Sci-Friday Technology

Rochester, New York – The Capital of Cyborg Nation

If you happen to follow me on Twitter or any of the other blogs I write for, then you’ve undoubtedly (and perhaps, unwillingly) been privy to the details of my quest for an IUD. For those of you who don’t, I’ll keep this brief. Long story short, I am unmarried and have not yet had a baby, which for all intents and purposes should have nothing to do with anything as far as choices of contraception are concerned, especially in the year 2012, but unfortunately it does. After what has seemed like an eternity, but in all actuality just a mere 2 months of jumping through hoops, I finally received my IUD insertion earlier this week.

Never being one to truly understand shame and always being an open book with all my friends, males and females alike, I happily shared this victorious news with anyone who would listen. The day of my insertion, I received a good luck text from a male friend of mine, assuring me I would be fine and soon have “the best robotic cyborg uterus ever.” To say the least, this unconventional compliment got me thinking.

A cyborg, short for cybernetic organism, by definition, is a living creature having both biological and artificial parts. The term cyborg is typically applied when the organism demonstrates enhanced abilities due to its technology from these inorganic parts. I would definitely say my IUD is giving me superior abilities compared to someone who doesn’t have one, so by the loosest definition of the word, sure, I am in fact a cyborg – but so are many others.  Metal rods, pacemakers, cochlear implants – the list goes on and on.  Are we living in a Cyborg Nation? We might be – and Rochester might just be the capital.

Researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center have been on the cutting edge of implant technology since the 1990s with Dr. Arthur Moss. Moss led a series of trials leading to a new way to treat heart failure with implantable devices.  These devices, known as implantable  cardioverter defibrillators or ICDs can detect potentially fatal arrhythmias and shock the heart back into a normal rhythm. ICDs have significantly reduced the risk of sudden cardiac death by 31 percent in heart attack survivors and are now implanted in hundreds of thousands of patients each year, including former Vice President of the United States, Dick Cheney.

More recently, another URMC researcher, Dr. Spencer Rosero, has received a patent for an implantable chip that can monitor physiological and chemical changes in real-time, such as changes in blood protein levels in a patient with heart failure. This biochip is designed to send a wireless signal, which could be used to alert a physician or to interact with another device, such as an insulin pump or a pacemaker. In his patent application, Rosero described the possibility of using the technology to treat patients with a variety of disorders, including epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease and hypertension.

Sure, these implants are used to correct something that is wrong (or in my case, prevent something until I’m ready!) but I don’t think anyone could pose that they aren’t giving us a one up on where we’d be without them, or at the very least, making our lives a little easier. On that note, I say cyborgs unite! It’s a lovely day to be a cyborg in Rochester.

Love Science Fiction and want to enjoy on days other than just #SciFriday ? Check out Rochester’s very own Science Fiction Book Club!

 

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Sci-Friday

Its Friday the 13th! Kiss that $900m goodbye.

Even though they only occur up to 3 times a year at most, Fridays occurring on the 13th of the month are notorious. Though superstitions may seem silly, many take them quite seriously. Even large-scale hotels will tend to omit the existence of a 13th floor all together, opting instead for a 12, 12A, 14, or skipping from 12 to 14 completely. But why? It’s just a number, and just a day, right?

According to the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Asheville, North Carolina, an estimated 17 to 21 million people in the United States are affected by a fear of Friday the 13th, also known as friggatriskaidekaphobia, making it the most feared day and date in history. Some people are so paralyzed by this fear that they avoid their normal routines in doing business, taking flights or even getting out of bed.  According to Doctor Donald Dossey of the Stress Management and Phobia Institute,

“It’s been estimated that [U.S] $800 or $900 million is lost in business on this day.”

That’s a pretty hefty sum of money, if you ask me. But what is it exactly that makes people dread this day to such an extreme extent?

Honestly – we aren’t 100% certain. Theories stemming from the last supper, the Stock Market crash, numerology, and even our favorite required high school reading, The Canterbury Tales, float around; however,  according to folklorists, there is no written evidence for a “Friday the 13th” superstition before the 19th century.

One common theory holds that the superstition is really a modern mixture of two older superstitions, claiming thirteen as an unlucky number and Friday as an unlucky day. That’s right – the one day of the workweek we look forward to and anticipate more than any other is actually a doomed day of bad fortune. How do you like them apples?

Let’s not get bent out of shape over this, though. Granted, I grew up having a black cat as a pet/stand in best friend until I was 9 years old and have always thought skulls are pretty, so maybe I’m a little on the creepy side to begin with – but superstitious days can be fun! If we can’t find a way to sleep through it or avoid it, why not make the most of it?

Hollywood has been feeding off the Friday the 13th superstition for years ranging from Black Sabbath’s debut album to the classic Friday the 13th horror slasher series, in which five of the twelve total films (including the most recent edition released in 2009), all having release dates on a Friday the 13th. Gimmicky, sure, but fun, right?

2012 is no exception! Today, the horror/comedy The Cabin in the Woods, starring Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon makes its debut at Regal Henrietta, Culver Ridge, Greece Ridge, and Eastview, AMC Loews Webster, and Tinseltown, sure to pack theatres full with Friday the 13th scream-seekers and popcorn lovers alike.

This Friday the 13th, don’t hide under your covers! Grab your favorite black cat, smash a mirror, walk under a ladder, open an umbrella indoors, and check out some cheap cinematic thrills! After all, it’s all in good fun – right?

Categories
Sci-Friday

Will STASIS creep you out? The latest in horror video play.

Last week we discussed the rejuvenated popularity of sci-fi and fantasy on television as well as the big screen.  With The Hunger Games still packing theaters full and the leak of the second Game of Thrones episode for season two, both genres are undeniably thriving.  However, it appears that sci-fi is about to receive recognition on yet another screen – your PC.

This week, a second teaser trailer for sci-fi horror adventure game STASIS was released. Although no real gameplay is included in the trailer, the game’s designers have done an excellent job in creating tension build up– and that’s just in the trailer. If the game in its completed stage keeps up with what the trailer has anticipated, players are sure to experience all the chills, thrills, and goosebumps they hope for.

STASIS begins with “you” waking up disoriented on the floor as John Marachek – an ordinary family man who finds himself in an extraordinary and unfortunate situation. Although the game plays off of traditional adventure game mechanics including puzzle solving and logic, it is very unique in its graphics and attention to detail, creating an interactive and realistic environment for players to immerse themselves in.

Possibly the most terrifying part of STASIS, though, is that most of the situations the player finds himself in are not over the top far-fetched and could feasibly happen in real life, truly playing off of players’ instincts and challenging their thoughts. Dubbing its environment as “a place where humanity’s horrors come out to play”, STASIS ultimately asks the question: how far would you go to protect your family? – a question I’m sure we’ve all thought about at one time or another, but hope to never need to find out.

Although no official release date has been announced, Stasis is predicted to launch sometime in 2013. While STASIS is certain to meet or exceed expectations and excitement, I would not be surprised if it also leaves us questioning things we’ve never previously considered or looking at daily circumstances in a slightly different light.

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Sci-Friday

As Ned Stark dies, science fiction is reborn.

Just a mere two years ago, it seemed as though Science Fiction’s popularity as a genre was dying in the United States. The nice folks over at io9.com even created this nice little infographic for us, detailing the rise and fall of Sci Fi and Fantasy esteem on television, both in a steady decline after receiving a sincere whooping from reality television.  Although it does sadly look like reality TV is here to stay, at least for a little while longer, it also appears that both Sci Fi and Fantasy are in the midst of a popular comeback tour.

Headlining for the Fantasy fanatics, we have the Game of Thrones HBO program, based on the popular Song of Ice and Fire book series. I have not read the books myself, and the only two scenes of the show I’ve witnessed both happened while walking through my living room when others were watching it – one with the unnaturally blond chick drenched in blood from consuming a human heart, and the other with a woman breastfeeding a young boy who looks to be about 9 or 10 years old – so while I personally do not share the same enthusiasm for Sunday’s premiere, I do recognize I am very much in the minority and should probably give these books a chance. Season 1’s finale brought in over 3 million viewers, trumping the ever popular Vampire porn series, True Blood, and leveling the same playing field as Boardwalk Empire. With these figures and a projected even higher audience for Season 2, it’s hardly feasible to regard Fantasy as a dying genre in 2012.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, it should come as no surprise to anyone that playing in SciFi’s court, we have The Hunger Games. This popular book series took it to the big screen, hitting theaters last weekend. Although only in its second week, The Hunger Games has already broken box office records, grossing an estimated $155 million in its opening weekend and selling out more than 2,000 show times before Friday’s premiere to reach the highest advance ticket sales of any non-sequel movie. Even with sequels included in the mix, The Hunger Games still scored highly on the charts, ranking as third-highest opening gross ever, beat only by Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 and The Dark Knight. To top that off, it also receives the award for biggest opening weekend for a non-summer release. I’d call that a return with a vengeance for Sci Fi!

Although reality television remains America’s guilty pleasure we love to hate, it is extremely refreshing to see both big and small screen hits stemming from literary roots. And, you know, the reassurance that our country still has the ability to branch out of the Kardashian/Jersey Shore bubble once in a while.

 

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Science

U of R researcher discovers cognitive changes in menopause

Does Mom seem a little “off” to you? Don’t worry.  Just because the woman who has been your living schedule book is suddenly unable to comprehend simple daily tasks, it’s not as abnormal as it may seem. Her brain may be a little cloudy and there may be a scientific reason behind it.

Dr. Miriam Weber, neuropsychologist at the University of Rochester, recently led a study published in the journal, Menopause, the official journal of the North American Menopause Society.  This study, one of only a small handful, found that the difficulties many women describe as memory problems when menopause approaches are in fact real.

Dr. Weber’s team, which consisted of scientists at the University of Rochester Medical Center and the University of Illinois at Chicago, conducted a series of vigorous cognitive tests on 75 female participants between the ages of 40 and 60 who were approaching or beginning menopause. The study found that women’s complaints of memory loss were linked to certain types of memory deficits, specifically in working memory – the ability to manipulate new information, such as calculating gratuity after a restaurant meal or adjusting to schedule conflicts.

During the studies, scientists also found memory difficulties to be connected to a decreased attention span among women during menopause, particularly where more challenging tasks were at hand, like filing taxes or keeping alert during a longer than average drive.  Although when one typically hears “memory loss”, cognitive processes are not typically what come to mind, it can be extremely frustrating for women experiencing them.  According to Dr. Weber,

“The most important thing to remember is that there really are some cognitive changes that occur during this phase of a woman’s life.  If a woman approaching menopause feels she is having memory problems, no one should brush it off or attribute it to a jam-packed schedule. She can find comfort in knowing that there are new research findings that support her experience. She can view her experience as normal.”

Dr. Weber’s study is significant, not only because it brings these “brain fog” difficulties to light, but it is also one of the first to thoroughly investigate the transitional phase that is menopause.  Dr. Weber, does, however, offer some advice to women experiencing these cognitive memory issues:

“When someone gives you a new piece of information, it might be helpful to repeat it out loud, or for you to say it back to the person to confirm it – it will help you hold onto that information longer. You need to do a little more work to make sure the information gets into your brain permanently. It may help to realize that you shouldn’t expect to be able to remember everything after hearing it just once.”

So remember – if mom is a little more forgetful these days, be patient with her. As frustrating as it may be for you, it’s twice as frustrating for her.  Additionally, if this is a first for you and mom, consider yourself lucky! I’m 27, decades away from my “change of life”, and I still can’t figure out how to tip properly or file my taxes without TurboTax.

Categories
Science

Could flooding turn your home into a giant cocoon? Ballooning spider storm takes over Australia

Survival is the most primal of instincts. If danger approaches us, we run. If a hurricane warning threatens, we evacuate. However, it just so happens as humans, we are not the only species to reflexively respond to evacuation as a means of survival. In Australia, thousands upon thousands of wolf spiders have abandoned their homes due to flooding; but instead of taking refuge in a high school gymnasium or a YMCA, they’ve taken over private residences – over 8,000 of them.

It sounds like something out of the Twilight Zone, but it’s true. Over 8,000 individuals have been temporarily forced out of their homes due to a phenomenon known as ballooning.  With the recent flooding of the Murrumbidgee River, hordes of wolf spiders have been spinning sticky webs of dragline silk to survive the inundation. This behavior is especially strange for wolf spiders which are typically solitary ground-dwelling creatures.  According to Steve Heydon, senior museum scientist at the Bohart Museum of Entomology,

“Wolf spiders would rather be hiding somewhere, trying to escape birds and other predators, but when land gets so flooded, the spiders are forced to flee into trees and other high things”

Ballooning allows the wolf spiders to fly into the air and parachute to other locations, sometimes covering long distances if need be. Each spider casts a thread of silk into the air and rides wind currents away from danger, resulting in the blanketing effect that has forced so many Australian civilians out of their homes.

Although ballooning is indeed a sight to behold, and in the case of the Australian residents, a severe inconvenience, it is not terribly uncommon. Post-flood ballooning also occurred in Pakistan just last April, with millions of spiders forming gigantic web clusters in trees to escape rising waters.

Although a sequel to 1977’s “Kingdom of the Spiders” is in development to be filmed this year (I know. I’m serious.) it won’t be as a result of Australia’s flooding situation. The wolf spiders are not expected to get cozy enough to stay in the residential homes permanently. Weather reports in Australia say the flood waters have begun receding, meaning the wolf spiders will soon be returning to their natural habitats and locals will soon be able to return home.

 

 

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Science

Girl, look at that genome! Working out reprograms your DNA, science discovers

Just over 2 months ago, we rang in 2012. For many of us, that meant resolutions and goal setting. The most common nationwide new year’s resolution is hands down becoming physically fit. Gyms recognize this trend and often offer new member new year specials or trial periods or various other marketing tactics to drive home the point of attaining a new you for the new year.

Working out changes your body. Endurance builds, muscles strengthen, metabolism grows – and your DNA loses chemical modifications. Wait, what?

A paper published in Sweden just this week studied the methylation status of genes in small biopsies taken from the thigh muscles of healthy young adults before and after working out on an exercise bike. The biopsies showed that some genes involved in energy metabolism were demethylated in the promoter regions by the workout – the parts of DNA that facilitate the transcription of particular genes.

The amount of demethylation in the genes varied on a person by person basis depending on the intensity of the workout. In other words, individuals who had cycled the hardest showed the greatest amount of gene demethylation in their biopsies.

Interestingly enough, similar demethylation processes have been observed in cultured muscle cells upon receiving large doses of caffeine.  According to Juleen Zierath, a member of the team providing research for the paper,

“Caffeine releases calcium from the sarcoplasmic reticulum, an organelle found in muscles. It sort of mimics a contracting muscle. Calcium might, therefore, be the cellular trigger that activates the demethylation pathway.”

So what does this all mean? Well, your body works differently after demethylation, as different genes begin to get expressed. Its like changing the settings on your phone: it’s the same phone, but now it operates differently. In this case, the change happens in the muscles.  Just like caffeine makes you physically feel more awake, demethylation sort of “wakes up” your muscles, making them respond more quickly than they would have before exercise.

Despite the fact that demethylation happens in response to caffeine, this doesn’t necessarily mean we should change our resolutions from working out more to drinking more coffee.  To achieve the same effect on muscles that exercise does, one would need to consume approximately 50 cups of coffee per day, a near lethal amount!

Although it is unclear exactly how these methyl groups were removed from the DNA tested, demethylation is quickly becoming a topic of scientific popularity. It is expected to undergo many tests and experiments so we can have a full understanding in the next 3-6 months of why the process happens and what exactly it does.  In the meantime, I’ll continue to enjoy both my morning caffeine fix and evening gym workout.