What’s more punk rock than tendons?!

Tendons are bands of connective tissue which connect muscles to bones. They provide the stability and flexibility we need for running, jumping, or just scrolling through this blog post. The most well-known tendon is the Achilles tendon in the heel. Point and relax your toes and you’ll feel the tendon moving between your calf muscle and heel bone.

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Achilles tendon in action

Tendons are made almost entirely of bundled groups of collagen. Collagen is a structural protein which provides flexibility and strength while also allowing tendons to withstand the stress of movement. It’s not perfect though; overuse and injury can cause painful bruising, sprains, and tendonitis. Due to the poor blood supply and complex structures of tendons, these injuries often turn into lifelong issues. I personally have recurrent pain from shoulder and ankle sprains I received a decade ago!

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Bobak Ferdowsi, the JPL systems engineer who landed Curiosity & became an internet sensation

Chronic aches and pains may not feel very punk rock, but it turns out that tendons express a little edge by sporting a gene called Mohawk! Ok, so it’s not quite the same as a gravity-defying hairstyle, but we can’t all be Bobak Ferdowsi.

 

Mohawk, or Mkx, was originally discovered when scientists were studying how tendons formed, but it appears to have a much bigger role than previously though. Several teams, led by Dr. Asahara at the Scripps Research Institute in California and Dr. Liu at Zhejiang University in China, have been studying Mohawk’s role in injury repair.

Dr. Liu’s team implanted Mohawk genes onto the injured Achilles tendons of mice. They discovered that it not only healed the tendon, but that the tendon actually became stronger than the control group tendons! This is the first time we’ve seen Mohawk’s repair abilities in full animal models and researchers are very excited to expand their studies.

Why Do We Care?

Just about everyone will experience mild to severe tendon damage at some point in their life. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, every day 25000 Americans will

An injured football player

Injured soccer player

sprain an ankle. Additionally, increased computer and smart phone usage is a major cause of hand/wrist tendonitis in people of all ages. Athletes and the elderly are at an increased risk of severe tendon injuries which could lead to permanent disability.

In this latest research, scientists also found that expression of the Mohawk gene decreases both with age and in inflammatory disorders like arthritis. Weakened gene expression means tendons are less able to repair damage, leading even small day-to-day damage to chronic injury . But with new advances through research like this, doctors may someday be able to use targeted gene-therapy to jumpstart a patient’s Mohawk genes. This could allow them to heal sprains in record time while also revitalizing aging tendons to prevent injuries in the first place.

If you’re interested in learning more about tendons, come check out our current exhibit Bodies Human! This amazing exhibit allows you to get up close and personal with what lies underneath our skin. You’ll see how tendons join muscle to bone and so much more! Bodies Human will be at the Mobius Science Center until December 31, 2016.

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Underwater Space Aliens?!

Could there be life beneath the icy surface of one of Jupiter’s moons and what would that look like? How would we know? In the last couple of weeks, NASA has released a new study suggesting that the ocean lurking beneath Europa’s ice crust might look similar to bodies of water here on Earth. This week we will dive into this study and why it could be important for those of us who are holding out hope for life elsewhere in our solar system.

As our knowledge of the cosmos expands, some of the most pervasive questions asked by curious scientists of all ages are, “Do aliens exist?! Is there life elsewhere in the universe?” In order to explore this question, we first need to talk about the ingredients necessary for life. To the best of our knowledge, the recipe for life includes these three things:

  • Water
  • Energy
  • Essential Chemicals

Life on Earth is a special thing. So far, this is the only planet that we know of – that has all three of these necessary components. Earth has liquid water and temperatures capable of keeping it that way, sunlight to provide energy, as well as essential chemicals like oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen (all that good stuff) that support life.

Here on Earth, we have a lot of all three ingredients, but what about other worlds like Europa, does it have the full recipe? Let’s take a look!

 

 

 

Europa Interior

Content Credit: NASA’s Planetary Photojournal/Wikipedia

Water – Scientists have known since the 1990’s that Europa contains more water and ice than the entire planet Earth. Some of the earlier, flyby missions revealed that the moon has a thick, ice surface, which many scientists believe covers a liquid ocean.

 

But Alexandromeda! Europa is so far away and so cold!

Well, you’re not wrong. Europa is abut 485 million miles away from the sun and its energy. It has an average surface temperature of -260 degrees Fahrenheit, which is super cold. However, there might be something interesting going on under the surface ice of the moon, which brings us to the second ingredient for life…

Energy – As it turns out, scientists have considered it very likely that Europa may have volcanoes and hydrothermal vents! This means that even if the surface of the moon is incredibly cold, there might be places beneath the ice where hot water full of important minerals erupts from the ocean floor. Speaking of those minerals…

Vents

Content Credit: NOAA

Essential Chemicals – NASA’s new study suggests that Europa may be able to produce both hydrogen and oxygen in such amounts that would make it possible for life to evolve in those oceans. Both chemicals would come from chemical reactions taking place beneath the ice where minerals from the water react with Europa’s rocky core producing other elements necessary for lifeforms to exist.

So how can we know these things for sure?

Well, we can’t, unless we send a mission there! NASA is currently formulating a plan to explore Europa and study whether this icy moon – which isn’t too far from us compared to other solar systems and exoplanets – might be capable of harboring life. A mission to launch sometime in the 2020’s would perform multiple flybys to determine what else we can learn about Europa from orbit. What’s even more exciting is a project being tested at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab has tested a device called a Buoyant Rover for Under-Ice Exploration (BRUIE, for short). This BRUIE could theoretically be used to explore the ocean and terrain under the ice!

What kind of things live in cold, dark water?

I’m so glad you asked! Now before I go any further, I must say this:

The following pictures are from Earth.

Since we haven’t been to Europa yet, we have no idea what might live there. But there are some pretty incredible things living right here in our own waters.

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Content Credit: NOAA

jelly2

Content Credit: NOAA

 

Here you see an unidentified jellyfish that was filmed at a depth of nearly 3,700 meters (just over 12,000 feet) beneath the surface. This creature was found on one of Okeanos’s missions to explore the still mysterious Marianas Trench. The Trench itself is almost 11,000 meters deep (over 6,000 miles) and is home to many species that can only survive in a habitat that is exceptionally dark and cold.

Even the depths of Earth’s oceans require much more exploration. If we continue to find new and fascinating species on our planet, who knows what bizarre life may be lurking beneath the ice of Europa’s surface. We will simply have to wait and see!

For further reading check out NASA’s mission page for Europa here.

For more information on the Okeanos Mission, visit NOAA’s page here.

Seeds & Sprouts!

Spring has reached the Inland Northwest and it’s time to start our gardens again! Whether you start seeds indoors or prefer store-bought seedlings, gardening is a great activity to do with your family. We were recently invited to an Earth Day celebration in Idaho where we shared this activity with elementary students and their families. Get an up-close look at the plant life cycle, and put those leftover CD cases to a use, with this easy greenhouse!

 

Materials

  • CD case with inner plastic tray removed (clear ziplock bags also work)
  • Potting soil
  • Water
  • Eye dropper or other small watering tool
  • Seeds! Beans are the classic choice, but many work! Try radish, pumpkin, chia, or any other smaller seeds

Directions

  1. Fill a quarter of the CD case with potting soil; keep the hinge at the top
  2. Dampen soil with water
  3. Plant your seeds! Tiny seeds, like chia or radish, should be sprinkled near the top to the soil while larger seeds should be placed in the middle of the soil
  4. Lightly water seeds
  5. Close the case, seal any holes, and stand it upright with the hinge at the top
  6. Keep your greenhouse in a sunny window; water can be easily added through the CD case hinge’s gap
  7. Watch your seed grow into a seedling! Be patient; this can take over a week for germination

Science Sleuthing

Deepen learning by having kids answer questions and take observations. Even very young children can help mark growth by drawing lines on the CD cases with permanent markers while older children can design their own experiments!

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Taken from Junior Master Gardener

  • What do plants need? Water and sunlight are simple, but what about carbon dioxide and nutrients?
  • Label roots, seed casings, stems, and leaves. Ask children what the job of each might be
  • Upper elementary students may be learning about photosynthesis or chlorophyll in their class; this is a great time for them to share with you! Chlorophyll is a chemical that makes leaves green; it also absorbs energy from the sun. Photosynthesis is how plants make their own food by combining the sun’s energy with water and CO2.

Don’t forget to share your results with us here or on our Facebook page; we love seeing our Community Scientists at work!

 

Friends, Romans, Countrymen…print me your Ear?

This week, let’s explore a few possibilities from the world of medicine.  Science fiction from “Space, the final frontier” is juxtaposed alongside the real-world science of printing living tissue.

Not long ago my father was diagnosed with a fatal and incurable disease of the lung. He was blessed to be the recipient of a donated lung and is proof of what can happen when science interacts with medicine. Transplant science and anti-rejection kidney research perked up my ears this week, especially since March is National Kidney Month.

Here’s the problem: our bodies have an immune system created to attack anything that is not an original part of the body. Most of our cells are marked with proteins specific to each person.  These proteins, called Human Leukocyte Antigens or HLA, are how our own immune system recognizes friend from foe.  This causes issues when one of our parts wears out or is rendered useless by disease and needs replacing. Normally the person who needs the organ is placed on a long waiting list to ensure the best match of cellular HLA markers, thus lowering the chance the body will “reject” or attack the implanted organ

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photo credit usofga.com

Dr. Dorry Segev is the lead author of the new national study and a transplant surgeon at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. The study focused on kidneys and a new procedure called desensitization that would tweak our immune system so that any organ of the correct size could be used without the wait. The process of desensitization is as follows…

  • Step 1: Filter out all the antibodies from your blood.
  • Step 2: Add other antibodies to maintain a healthy level of immunity while…
  • Step 3: Your body makes new antibodies. These newly created antibodies are less likely to attack the new organ (hooray!!).

The study showed great promise when the organ was taken from living patients.  There is hope that this science could be extrapolated to other organs in the body. Imagine for just a moment if our bodies could accept any donated organ. The increase in survival rates means patients could spend less time waiting in line and more precious time with their families.

ear

 

The medical world is constantly being transformed in other ways as well through advances in 3D printing. Although printing of tissue is old news, a revolutionary ink made of human cells has written new life into the printing process. Recently Swedish scientists successfully implanted living tissue in mice through a process called “bioprinting.” The 3D printed tissue is cartilage, the material in our bodies which makes up our nose, ears and the cushioning between our bones. Currently this exciting work is continuing in partnership with the plastic surgery community to ensure future human trials go off without a hitch. Printed human cartilage could be used to quickly and inexpensively help the surgical reconstruction and restoration of many body parts, especially facial injuries, joint reconstruction, and birth defects. Not to mention you could get a real set of Vulcan ears!

 

Gravity Waves and Brains, Oh My!

February was an exciting month for science lovers! A ton of scientific research is always being prepared and shared, however I’ll be limiting these Science Surveys to the two that excited me the most in the last month. Now this is nearly impossible with so much great research (the first hour of every morning at Mobius is spent discussing the latest findings over coffee!) but I’ll do my best to narrow it down.

Physics

GRAVITY WAVES! While these waves were technically detected September 14, 2015, it took months of intense work to officially confirm them. After decades of attempts, this confirmation was so momentous that the websites for both the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory), which discovered it, and the American Physical Society were overloaded and shut down temporarily. The waves came from two black holes colliding around the Magellanic Clouds about 1.3 BILLION light years away, meaning it took them that long to get here!

But wait, what IS a gravitational wave you ask? Well back in 1916, a slightly famous scientist by the name of Albert Einstein predicted, using his theory of general relativity, that when two black holes merged the force would be so powerful that it would ripple through the curves of spacetime itself. And now 100 years later we know he was correct. Even though the merger only lasted 20 milliseconds, the energy released was equivalent to 50 times the total power output of every single star in the universe and its mass was 62 times larger than our sun’s. Pretty monumental!

Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) optics technician inspecting one of LIGO's core optics. Photo Credit: Caltech/MIT/LIGO Lab/AFP

LIGO optics technician inspecting one of their core optics.
Photo Credit: Caltech/MIT/LIGO Lab/AFP

Amazingly, one of the LIGO detectors is right in our backyard over in Hanford, WA! (Though technically we detected it 7 milliseconds after our sister center in Louisiana…) The technology used is so powerful that it was able to detect these waves by noting a discrepancy so tiny that it was about 1,000th the size of an atomic nucleus. To take your family or classroom here, check out their tours: HERE

Why Do We Care?

Other than proving Einstein was right, how does this affect us? First of all, this is the strongest direct evidence we have for the existence of black holes. Previously, all we had was oodles of incredibly complicated math and indirect evidence. Not only that, but this is proof for binary black hole systems, systems where two black holes orbit around each other.

Advances such as this help us calculate the rate our universe expands, allow us to map out and identify major cosmological events throughout our entire universe’s history, learn the shape of stars, and so much more. Discoveries such as these have improved things we use every day, such as the computing and GPS technology in our smart phones. “We can now hear the universe,” said LIGO physicist and spokesperson Gabriela Gonzalez.

For additional information on gravity waves, check out this quick video from PhD Comics:

Biology

It’s alive! It’s alive! Well, not quite. But scientists at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, led by Dr. Thomas Hartung, have created mini-brains from human skin cells! The team manipulated skin cells into stem cells, which then were specialized into brain cells. Even though these brains are super tiny at only 350 micrometers in diameter (about the size of a fly), they each included nerve cells with electrical insulating layers called myelin sheaths. Most excitingly, brains showed spontaneous electrical impulses, ie brain waves, through these sheaths!

Image of Mini-Brain Photo Credit: Johns Hopkins

Image of Mini-Brain Photo Credit: Johns Hopkins

Why Do We Care?

Studying the human brain can obviously be very difficult, expensive, and create ethical issues. With this new technique, researchers can make thousands of these mini-brains in only two months. Because these are directly derived from human skin cells, they’re both more ethical and more effective than animal testing. Most importantly, because these mini-brains produced myelin sheaths, we can use them to study many ailments that result from damaged myelin sheaths. This so-called demyelination is common in ailments that affect millions around the world, such as multiple sclerosis (MS), Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease, and autism. By studying how these sheaths grow and react when exposed to different test drugs, scientists could make huge strides in understanding many neurological issues.