Vol. 1 / No. 27 — MERS in America, Solving the Spanish Flu, and NASA’s New Spacesuit


MERS-CoV - Photo Credit: NIAID, CC-BY 2.0
MERS-CoV – Photo Credit: NIAID, CC-BY 2.0

MERS in America

The cousin of SARS has arrived in America. Officially known as the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus, or MERS CoV, the disease has been reported to have arrived in Indiana, carried by a male healthcare worker returning from the region via London. While less easily communicable than its asian cousin, it also has a higher recorded mortality rate so far: of the 401 cases recorded, 93 fatalities have resulted. That number may decline, because there may well be unreported mild cases that currently haven’t been taken into the tally, but even so it’s cause for concern. The CDC is advising anyone who develops fever and cough or shortness of breath within 14 days of traveling through countries in or near the arabian peninsula to see their doctor and let them know where they’ve traveled. For more, here’s the CDC’s website on the disease.

Spanish Flu Solved?

A new study out of the University of Arizona at Tucson hints at an explanation for why the Spanish flu of 1918 was so deadly to those who should have been best protected. The research, led by Dr. Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist, suggests that two previous waves of influenza, an H1 strain that appeared before 1889, and an H3 strain that appeared afterward, created a mismatch in the immune systems of those affected. The Spanish flu was an H1 strain, which meant that those old enough to have experienced the H1 flu before 1889 had more protection; meanwhile, the younger generation, whose experience of flu had been limited to the H3 strain, had little to no defense against the 1918 flu. The Quirks and Quarks podcast has an interview with Dr. Worobey this week. The paper appears in Publications of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) this month.

Maternal Diet and Epigenetics

A new study out this week in the journal Nature Communications suggests that the diet of mothers just before and at the start of a pregnancy can have lasting effects on the expression of their child’s genes. The study examined a number of Gambian women, whose diets were linked strongly to seasonal changes in food variety. It found that possibly as much as “you are what you eat,” your kids might be “what you eat” too. This is just another piece of the picture that scientists are beginning to reveal relating to the way gene expression can change from generation to generation in nature’s “quick and dirty” response to environmental changes. The BBC has a brief explainer on the research.

And speaking of diet — PopSci has an article this week linking to a page on the fast food restaurant Taco Bell’s page, wherein it’s explained what all those “unpronounceable” ingredients are and what they do for the food (and why just because something has a scary name doesn’t mean it’s bad for you — for example dihydrogen monoxide).

“Dim” Matter

Forget “dark matter” for a minute, and think instead about “dim matter”: threads of cosmic gas that stretch throughout the universe, not especially radiative or energetic, just dust and gas floating their way through space. Since the 1980s, these connective threads, called the intergalactic medium (IGM), have been theorized about, but never seen. That is, until now. A team of astronomers from CalTech have just used a multi-spectrum imager called the Cosmic Web Imager to take the first 3D pictures of the IGM. Check out the explainer over at io9, or if you’re feeling brave, check out the articles published this week in The Astrophysical Journal: Here’s one, and here’s another.

The UK’s Plans for Space

An announcement from the British government this week has outlined plans to attempt to expand the UK’s space industry by a factor of four by 2030. The news, a response to last year’s Space Growth Action Plan, would see the industry expand to £40billion (approx. $67.5billion US), through relaxed regulations and an attempt to set up the legal framework for a UK-based spaceport. The industry already generates roughly £9billion for the economy each year, and saw growth year-over-year even through the recession. It’s hoped that the expansion will allow for the UK to make use of more of its specialized, well-trained technology workforce, and be a boon to the economy.

Here’s hoping it turns out better than this piece of news though: Brazilian fishermen have recovered a large piece of space junk bearing the Union Jack, and they’d like the UK to come and take it off their hands.

Jet Fuel From Sunlight and Air

In another step toward the renewable future, scientists working for the private SOLAR-JET Consortium have announced the creation of kerosene from nothing but sunlight and air.  The process uses the heat of (at this point simulated) concentrated sunlight to break water vapour and carbon dioxide into a hydrogen and carbon monoxide synthetic gas which can then be processed into kerosene. For now it’s only one jar of kerosene in a lab, but if the process is scalable, it could see the generation of tens of thousands of litres of jet fuel a day. But don’t get your hopes too high yet: a single 747’s gas tank can hold as much as 200,000 litres, which is enough to get it across the Atlantic once. Something tells me we’re going to need a lot of sunny days.

NASA’s New Spacesuit

The New Z-2 - Photo Credit: NASA
The New Z-2 – Photo Credit: NASA

The new Z-2 spacesuit design has been decided upon, and it looks — well, futuristic. With the form-fitting design and rear-entry port taken from the Z-1, and a new LED-lit composite torso shell, the new design will now proceed to the underwater testing and vacuum chamber before hopefully finding its way into some pretty great looking spacewalks.

Bad Astronomy on Saturn’s Rings

Finally, here’s a great explainer from a great blog: Phil Plait over at Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog has an article on the composition (and sheer flatness) of Saturn’s rings. It’s well worth a look.

The Best of the Rest

In other news this week, Stanford researchers have figured out a way to turn brain cells on and off with a little light (and some genetic tweaking); other Stanford researchers have found out more about the connection between superconductivity and magnetism; scientists at CalTech have managed to make some really amazing models of stellar collapses; and Ars Technica has an article on how the humble neutrino could force us to rewrite the standard model.

Have a great week.