SciTech Briefs

“Saturn on Steroids” planet 400 light years away

In a paper published by the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, researchers Steven Rieder and Matthew Kenworthy investigated the celestial body named J1407b, which is either a giant planet or a brown dwarf. An interesting characteristic about J1407b is its expansive rings, which measure about 200 times larger than Saturn’s ring system at 75 million miles in diameter. J1407b orbits around a star, much like the planets of our solar system orbit around the sun, and at one point in its orbit, its rings approach the star at a distance that should disrupt the ring system. Rieder and Kenworthy propose that the lack of disruption is due to the rings spinning in the opposite direction of J1407b’s orbit. This hypothesis would explain the rings’ stability, but now Rieder and Kenworthy must rationalize how the rings can possibly spin in the other direction.

Source: New York Times

Virus steals black widow’s poisonous genes

A virus called WO, which is classified as a bacteriophage, appears to have copied the genetic codes of latrotoxin, the poison of a black widow spider. WO targets a bacterium named Wolbachia, which infects insect and spider cells. Up until now, it was thought that bacteriophages only steal DNA from bacteria, so this new insight is especially surprising.

Because latrotoxin can break down cell membranes, the researchers hypothesize that the virus uses this toxin in order to penetrate cell membranes and reach the bacteria living inside of animals. The latrotoxin may also allow the virus to exit cells as it needs to.
Researchers Sarah and Seth Bordenstein from Vanderbilt University published the results of their analysis of the WO genome in the journal Nature Communications.

Source: BBC News

Ketamine as a new, possibly better drug to treat depression

Depression is still a vastly misunderstood disorder that researchers are working to demystify. For the most part, scientists have hypothesized that depression is caused by low levels of monoamines, chemicals that act as neurotransmitters in the brain. Drugs like Prozac boost the level of monoamines in order to treat the symptoms of depression. However, another type of drug, ketamine, which historically has been used for anesthetics, is rising. Ketamine has worked for 75 percent of patients who did not respond to other forms of treatment, and it works much faster than drugs like Prozac, which may take months. Ketamine does not primarily affect monoamines, so scientists must ascertain whether low monoamines levels are really the cause of depression, and how the functions of ketamine can be modeled to possibly create a new kind of antidepressant.

Source: The Economist

Jumping spiders detect sounds three meters away

Not only do jumping spiders have stellar vision, but they also apparently have great hearing capabilities. Researchers at Cornell University used metal microelectrodes to show that the spiders’ auditory neurons can sense sounds up to 600 spider body lengths away. When they stimulated the spiders’ hairs on their legs and body, the same auditory neurons fired, demonstrating that the hairs detect nanoscale air particles excited by sound waves. The researchers also found that the spiders are extremely sensitive to 90 Hz frequency, which is near the frequency of wing beats of parasitic wasps, which are jumping spiders’ greatest enemy. When exposed to 90 Hz sounds, eighty percent of the spiders in the experiment froze before trying to escape, which is a classic defense mechanism. The full study can be found in the journal Current Biology.

Source: Science Daily

Prosthetics that send feedback to the user

Historically, prosthetics could only receive commands from their wearers. Robert Gaunt and a group of researchers at the University of Pittsburgh are working towards developing a new prosthetic that not only receives commands, but also gives feedback.

Gaunt is researching ways to send natural sensations to someone wearing a prosthetic. After the first six months of his experiment, his patient, who had lost the ability to use his hands, could identify the correct finger being touched 84 percent of the time wearing a prosthesis. The issues included the patient feeling sensations from below the skin and not being able to feel his fingertips. Despite the current roadblocks, the outlook is optimistic.

Currently Gaunt and his researchers are 18 months into the experiment.

Source:*The Economist*

Google begins fact-checking its content

Google launched its new fact check tag just in time for the upcoming election. Now, users will be able to see fact check labels next to news articles on Google News, in addition to the labels denoting opinion, related, and local articles. This is an effort to help users distinguish between fact and fiction, which is an increasingly prevalent problem, particularly on the Internet.

Google is not by any means a pioneer in the field, however. Many sites, including BBC, have their own fact-checking tools.
Time will tell how effective Google’s algorithm is; Facebook has already revamped their “trending” tool after claims of left-wing bias.

Source: BBC News