Transcript: Nov 10, 2009

Kirsten: This show is brought to you by listeners like you and your contributions. We couldn’t do it without you. Thanks.

Justin: Disclaimer! Disclaimer! Disclaimer!

From the womb, the world is a familiar yet mysterious place. We can recognize the muffled tones of parental speech and the rhythm of a mother’s heartbeat, held in warmth without need for air or food or light, we dream, now, unimaginable dreams that either long forgotten or remembered without words for a lifetime.

At some point, we are properly introduced into the world and find it much colder, brighter and seemingly less familiar than we may have expected. While the shivering naked blindness greets us on our way into life – much like the following hour of our programming – it does not necessarily represent the views or opinions of the University of California at Davis, KDVS or its sponsors.

But as we grow, as we learn, as we explore this world, we discover unimaginable realities. Imagine the yet unrealized possibilities and become at once familiar with the world and alert the chance that further surprises will await us, as though at any moment, we could find ourselves again being born, thrust into a colder, brighter, even less familiar world of This Week in Science, coming up next.

Good morning, Kirsten!

Kirsten: Good morning, Justin!

Justin: How are you doing?

Kirsten: I’m doing great. I’m sitting here in front of a microphone, thinking about talking about science, which makes me happy.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: It does.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: It makes me very happy. And we have a lot of science ahead on the show today. The crinkling of papers, the rustling – I do everything electronically and so, it’s really hard to have that natural physical sound of, “Look, paper! Something tangible!”

Justin: Wow. Wasting pixels, wasting pixels.

Kirsten: I know. You know, think of all the electronic trees I could be saving.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Maybe – I don’t know. Today on the show, we have stories about uracil, lightning and wolfies.

Justin: Volfies?

Kirsten: Wolfies.

Justin: Ah!

Kirsten: Did you ever see that movie, Amadeus? Did you ever see that movie, Amadeus?

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: Amadeus, Amadeus. His wife called him, “Wolfie, Wolfie!” Anyway, moving on. What did you bring?

Justin: I’ve got altruistic ants, prenatal phonics, a new kind of supernova and why the kids – one reason perhaps – fitness is lacking, nutrition is lacking in our children.

Kirsten: What’s going on with the kids, the youth of today?

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: These are the questions that keep you up at night, huh?

Justin: No.

Kirsten: No, not really.

Justin: Not really, no.

Kirsten: No. Well, in the lightning realm of the world…

Justin: This is an amazing story. Yeah, yes, yes,

Kirsten: This is – I think, this is the biggest. Well, I don’t know. There are two incredibly large stories this week. Huge in terms of advancement and crazy implications.

Justin: Wow.

Kirsten: So, I’m starting off this half hour with one big story. And the next half hour – the second half of the show, I’m going to start it with another big story.

Justin: Wow.

Kirsten: We have two big stories…

Justin: Wow!

Kirsten: …to start up the halves. Anti-matter, the signature – yeah, signature of anti-matter discovered in lightning.

Justin: That is so wow.

Kirsten: It’s a little strange too, and scientists don’t really know what’s going on. They used the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, which normally is pointed into…

Justin: Deep, deep into the space.

Kirsten: …deep space. Yeah, its job is to search space for gamma-rays, for these pulses of high energy particles. It usually uses these gamma-rays to be able to pinpoint pulsars. And it’s been working for I think a little bit over a year now.

And a paper or I guess there was actually – I believe it was a conference this last week – the Fermi Symposium. So, a bunch of researchers got together and talked about what they’ve noticed from the data coming out of the Fermi telescope.

One group of researchers reported what was expected and kind of neat. They reported that gamma-rays were actually used to pinpoint pulsars in outer space because it’s been hypothesized that pulsars, these high-frequency pulsing star jets in space release gamma-rays and send them shooting towards Earth. And so if we can actually pick-up on the directionality of the gamma-rays coming at us, we can find pulsars.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: And that’s what they did, they noticed a whole bunch of pulsars. But Fermi also looked at our planet and 17 times during terrestrial storms, they picked up on – it picked-up on gamma ray flashes – that was an exciting little burst of sound – it picked up on gamma-ray flashes associated with lightning in storms.

Now, normally, that wasn’t expected to happen, it’s just not been expected to happen at all. Researchers have been using satellites to look at emissions terrestrially for years and they found x-rays, maybe some gamma-ray flashes but they weren’t really sure what was going on.

The anti-matter aspect of this is what’s so crazy. They found – what they found…

Justin: Positrons.

Kirsten: Positrons, exactly! And what happened is they found the way that it was moving. It suggests that the normal – the regular orientation of the electrical field of these lightning flashes is somehow reversing.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: It’s somehow, it’s just turning around, reversing. We have an opposite orientation over the electrical field that’s releasing anti-matter positrons.

Justin: Here on Earth.

Kirsten: Here on Earth. Which was not expected at all.

Justin: No.

Kirsten: You know, “Okay, x-rays, gamma-rays, whatever. Okay, great.” Positrons? And so now, they’re trying to model reality. Usually – usually what happens is the scientists go, “Hey! We’re hypothesizing this thing and we’re going to come up with a way that kind of – let’s come up with some math that’s going to explain this thing that we think is going to happen. And then let’s go look for it in the real world.”

And now, they’re going, “Oh! Look at this thing that really happened, let’s try and…”

Justin: Let’s figure out why.

Kirsten: “… let’s try and put some math together and figure out why it happened.” I like it when scientists are puzzled.

Justin: It means…

Kirsten: It’s cool.

Justin: Yeah, because it means that we’re on a verge of a new kind of breakthrough, kind of a thing.

Kirsten: Right. And something – there’s – actually it’s really cool. You know, there’s the worldwide lightning location network. And you can actually go to their website, it’s – the worldwide lightning location network. It has maps, basically in real time of lightning flashes all around the world.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: They have a network of sensors that are set to pick up the particular signatures of lightning. They’ve got these censors all around the globe and they’re able to triangulate lightning flashes based on the electrical signal, based on the electromagnetic signal that’s given off.

And so you can look at it. And it’s got this great picture, you could see exactly where lightning is happening all around the world.

Justin: Wow. It’s awesome.

Kirsten: Yeah, it’s pretty cool. It’s a really neat, really neat moving picture and they’ve got all sorts and they’ve got averages over and, you know, a number of days and – I’d never seen it before. But it’s just kind of neat to see where clusters of lightning are – where it’s taking place.

Justin: Yeah. The global – I think it’s a global survey or somebody’s got a map of the earthquakes…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: …that go off and the sizes.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: It’s an exciting map in California.

Kirsten: California is always, the tremblers.

Justin: Because whenever there’s an earthquake, I go to the site and I look at and then you can see, you know, the thousands and thousands of other tremors that are taking place in the state all the time. And you’re like…

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: “Oh, that was just a little bit bigger but we’re always moving.”

Kirsten: But the funny thing is I never feel an earthquake ever.

Justin: Really?

Kirsten: I hardly have ever felt an earthquake, I live in San Francisco.

Justin: Oh, really?

Kirsten: I mean, I’m probably going to jinx myself now but…

Justin: Great, you just jinxed the whole city.

Kirsten: Great, good job.

Justin: Avoid San Francisco this weekend. Predicting earthquake. So, that was something they found. And that they now need to make predictions on and do some math.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: And this was a – there’s a new class of supernova…

Kirsten: Oh. really?

Justin: …that was predicted by a team of astrophysicists at UC Sta. Barbara in their theoretical work a couple of years ago. And it would be the product of two white dwarves. So, these are suns that have collapsed down to about the size of the Earth. They have cooled to a degree in which there’s no more fusion going on.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: And these dwarf stars, if they’re close enough, to get into a tight orbit with each other – where they go around each other every few minutes.

Helium, from the lighter of the two, gets pulled off by a tidal force and accumulates on the more massive dwarf. So again…

Kirsten: Okay…

Justin: … you have the one that’s pulling…

Kirsten: Kind of sucking the helium away.

Justin: In theory…

Kirsten: Hungry.

Justin: …in their theoretical theory – theorizing? Oh, my gosh. In their theory, this rare occurrence should lead to an explosive thermonuclear ignition and a complete ejection of all the accumulated helium. So, you’ve got a gaggle of these unusual radioactive elements, particles zipping out through space as there’s a rapid fusion explosion going on.

It should make a bright light show of this newly synthesized matter that should last a couple of weeks. We should be able to see it with our telescopes. Right, we should be able or – yeah, we should be able to actually view this out there.

Kirsten: This – because of the increase in brightness, it burns for a while and then it kind of…

Justin: All the…

Kirsten: …will go – it will dim down as the fuel is taken up.

Justin: Yeah, this will be a couple weeks, which – whereas a regular supernova is like months it will be as an exploding star will be out there and visible to us.

So, this is from – let’s see – Dr. Bildsten is the lead researcher on this, a professor at UC Santa Barbara’s Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics, “As we have talked about our work of the last years, most astronomers in the audience reminded us that they had never seen such an event. We told them, keep looking.”

The discovery of such an explosion has happened and it was lead by UC Berkeley postdoctoral fellow Dovi Poznanski, who is also Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, he’s also there. And it was reported on November 5th Express edition of Science Magazine.

So, this is what’s kind of interesting though – the supernova that they’ve discovered, that fits this, was seen in 2002. This is a great sort of way that science can work.

The observation was actually made in 2002, but they didn’t really classify it, they didn’t really know that it was this new type of supernova. The theory came up with it two years ago. Right, that it could exist.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: That this could be out there.

Kirsten: That they could be, right.

Justin: Then, two years later, they discovered that in 2002 – seven years ago – that they’ve actually seen it.

Kirsten: Nice.

Justin: That’s amazing, yeah.

Kirsten: Well, some – I would imagine if you don’t expect something to be there, you’re not looking for it and so you probably overlook certain trends in the data…

Justin: Right.

Kirsten: …and then, when you go back again thinking, “Oh, okay. Well, now, we’re looking for this, let’s look at our old data and see if we have possibly noticed this before.” Just makes you go back and check again, like paleontologists going in to their drawers, in the basements of museums. “Maybe…”

Justin: Maybe they classify them.

Kirsten: “…I saw a tooth like that be somewhere before.”

Justin: Yeah. So, this is my favorite quote says, UCSB graduate student Ken Shen, who is working on this currently, “We were always interested in these new possibilities, but now we have a real motivation. Where there is one, there are many, so things are going to get exciting.”

Yeah, if you see one phenomenon in space of the billion and billions and billions and billions of, you know, magnitudes of billion of stars out there.

Kirsten: Billions and billions and billions.

Justin: Seventy-something sextillion stars in the known universe. And you’ll probably going to see this a couple of times.

Kirsten: The odds are there.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: It’s a lot more likely. I think that’s neat. I wonder how that – how that’s going to affect the new supernova if that’s going to affect the standard candle measurement. I mean, the type 1, it’s a type 1a supernova that’s used as the…

Justin: Right.

Kirsten: …standard candle, so to speak, for distance measurements in space.

Justin: This is just a small, it’s called a .1a…

Kirsten: .1a.

Justin: …supernova. It is.

Kirsten: It’s a super baby.

Justin: It’s .1a, because it’s really, really…

Kirsten: It’s like of instead of having a yardstick, you have a centimeter-stick.

Justin: Yeah, it could come in handy.

Kirsten: It could be great. An inch-stick. Where did the big bad wolf come from?

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: Mm hmm. He huffed and he puffed and we ended up making them go extinct.

Justin: What?

Kirsten: Isn’t that terrible?

Justin: The wolf?

Kirsten: The Falkland Island Wolf.

Justin: Oh, the Falkland Island wolf.

Kirsten: Falkland Island – Falkland Islands are off the coast of Chile, Argentina, South America – South, South America.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: And Charles Darwin visited the Falkland Islands during his travels noticed these wolf-like, dog-like animals and commented…

Justin: On an island?

Kirsten: On an island, they’re on an island. And he said, “Oh, they look a little funny, they look kind of like wolves but they’re not really like wolves, they’re more like foxes. And well, they’re kind of like dogs too. Hmm, they’re interesting. I wonder who they’re actually related to and how they got here.”

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: So, he noticed that they were there. Years later though we decided that, “Hey, they look great, their fur is pretty. Let’s shoot them.” And so, we made them go extinct because we like their fur.

Justin: Wow.

Kirsten: Yeah. And then also, you know, human influence coming in and just devastating ecosystems, so you know, part of that.

Anyway, now, 140 years after its extinction, scientists have gone into museum specimens in order to look at the DNA. They’ve done a phylogenetic analysis based on nuclear and mitochondrial DNA sequence data from specimens located in museums. And they put it in a family tree – this phylogenetic analysis – kind of places it according to where it fits with its relatives. And its closest living relative is known as the South American maned wolf.

Justin: Wait, South American?

Kirsten: The South American maned wolf. However, the analysis is – it gets really interesting. The study is published in Current Biology. And the researchers say that, “The specimens last shared a common ancestor 70,000 years ago, 50,000 years before humans ever made it to the Falklands.”

So, it was suggested in an earlier idea…

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: …is that somehow, it was humans that have brought the animals…

Justin: Right.

Kirsten: …or some similar species to the islands and then, that’s how this wolf-like, dog-like, fox-like animal – how they got out there…

Justin: Darwin made that assumption about a lot of things, too.

Kirsten: Right, oh, many people did it.

Justin: Like originally he thought the turtles of the Galapagos, like the different types of species at first they thought they were brought there by sailors.

Kirsten: Right, it’s very possible. I mean, we move around and we do take things with us when we move around. So, it is possible. We have had effects like that before.

But the dating of this suggests that’s not possible…

Justin: Right.

Kirsten: …for this Falkland Island wolf. Beyond that though, they also found the split from the South American maned wolf happened 6.7 million years ago. So, the South American…

Justin: Wow.

Kirsten: …maned wolf at that time wasn’t even in South America, it was up in North America. So, it was four million years before wolves ever made it to South America. So, at some point, 6.7 million years ago, all these wolf species lived in North America.

The South American – which was then I guess, the North American maned wolf or its previous incarnation – 6.7 million years ago, there was some split. And the lineage that lead to the Falkland Island wolf split off back then.

The animals moved around and they kept moving all the way down to South America. And then at some point 50,000 or – no, 70,000 years ago, we had the last common ancestor probably on the South American mainland. And then, that’s when the island split probably happened.

So, they think that this Falkland Island wolf was able to survive an extinction that occurred because it actually lived on the islands. There was an island extinction – or there was a South American canid extinction event, there was an entire – and the Pleistocene extinctions that occurred, lots of animals died.

And they think that maybe because the Falkland Island wolf is on the island that helped it to survive until humans came along.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: Yeah, good job, good job.

Justin: Right.

Kirsten: But it’s just really fascinating, they go into a museum specimen, check out the DNA and be able to figure out where this wolf that used to live on an island, where it came from…

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: …how it got there and be able to tell its whole story.

Justin: That’s awesome.

Kirsten: It’s pretty neat, yeah. More news…

Justin: We can be heroes just for one day.

Kirsten: Are you going to try and be David Bowie now?

Justin: Yes. We human Bowies – we human beings – can be heroes. Uh-oh we got a phone call. Can we take it?

Kirsten: We have a phone call. Sure, before we get – let’s be – a phone call..

Justin: Before I get to my David Bowie routine…

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: Good morning TWIS minion. You’re – I just hang up him.

Kirsten: You’re not on the air, call back. Justin got carried away with the buttons.

Justin: So, we can be heroes. We can have this altruistic thing about ourselves as human beings, where we see one person drowning and jump in the water and pull them out and we do it all. Wait, they’re trying again.

Kirsten: I want to hear the hero story.

Justin: I know, we’ll get to the…

Kirsten: Push the button, let’s turn it on.

Justin: I’m trying to hit…

Kirsten: Somebody’s got something to say.

Justin: I keep – the button. Good morning TWIS minion. You’re on the air with This Week in Science.

Man: Hey, good morning.

Kirsten: Good morning.

Man: Hey, I just caught your program just now and I was on another station listening to – it was actually a sports talk station. And they were talking about this guy who’s making the circuit with Dr. Phil, the Oprah and all that stuff.

Kirsten: Uh-huh.

Man: He actually takes the DNA, the sperm from celebrity look-alikes…

Justin: Mm hmm.

Man: …as opposed to people just, you know, artificially inseminated. This person actually gets to put a face on their donor. Now, I was thinking more cynical and I’m thinking, is this going to create a new wave of sub-human groups of kids who will never ever have a father or could trace their father?

Justin: Well – no, first of all – first of all…

Kirsten: They have a father.

Justin: They have a father. And…

Man: But are you allowed to trace your father on a sperm donation?

Justin: …and, you know, probably if your father is living – was made by sperm donation, might not be somebody you want to be in contact with. Think of…

Man: Yeah, I’m just taking a mindset of this generation of kids who really don’t have that grounding because we all have…

Justin: Right.

Man: …that human connection of whether you had a great parent or not, you still have that connection, you know who they are…

Justin: Right.

Man: …you know you came from actual being. You know what I’m saying?

Kirsten: Mm hmm. Yeah, the psychology of it could be really interesting.

Man: Right.

Kirsten: But we have – I mean, there are – we already have kids who are being brought up in single parent homes, you know.

Justin: Four – actually, 40% I think it is of all children born right now are born to a single mother.

Man: Yeah.

Justin: Or to parents who aren’t together. So…

Kirsten: Right.

Man: Okay.

Justin: So, we’re – we’re already over the edge there.

Man: Right.

Kirsten: And I think also, it’s not just, you know, the mother-father unit, there’s the village – a child being raised by a group of people can have a very beneficial effect as well. So, you know, I think there are many, many different things to look at.

Justin: But thanks for checking in, yeah.

Kirsten: It’s an interesting question.

Justin: Sub-humans. Such a good band.

Kirsten: Not sub-humans.

Justin: Huh?

Kirsten: Not sub-humans. I mean, maybe if they really didn’t have a father, it’ll be different.

Justin: I don’t know. I’m all for it.

Kirsten: I know.

Justin: I think we should be genetically engineering the future.

Kirsten: But there is the news, there is the news recently of – last week I think we talked about the pluripotent stem cells that have been turned into stem cell – or…

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: …germ cells that could be become either egg or sperm…

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: …in the laboratory. So, I mean, we’re getting to a point where maybe we could take your skin cell and create an egg and a sperm and then put them together and then, hey, there you go.

Justin: Yeah. I mean, then…

Kirsten: All we need is the laboratory womb.

Justin: We’re one step of getting rid of the need for sex to be involved in procreation.

Kirsten: Sweet.

Justin: Yeah. Great. We can be heroes.

Kirsten: Back to being heroes. Let’s be heroes again. Yey!

Justin: Altruistic ants are proving themselves to be amazingly adaptive and self-risking in their rescue efforts of fellow nestmates.

Kirsten: Really?

Justin: Yeah, the set up of this study was done by Elise Nowbahari of the University of Paris and she put the ants into apparent peril. She had them half-stuck in the sand with a buried nylon snare on one of their legs, keeping them from escaping, keeping them from getting out of the sand.

Kirsten: The ant?

Justin: Yeah, the ant. How she did this, I have no idea. But…

Kirsten: I love scientific research.

Justin: In a stunning display of cognitive and behavioral complexity, the passerby nestmate ants saw the trapped ant and went into rescue mode.

Kirsten: Oh.

Justin: They started by digging out the trapped ant, removing the sand that was burying it, freeing its limbs one by one until they found the trap. And then, they began biting at the nylon strap.

So now, there have been in the past – there have been studies that have shown that nestmate ants will go in and pull out, you know, try to unbury. They’ll dig to unbury an ant – fellow ant that’s trapped.

But this was always thought to be triggered by some sort of chemical thing. Like a chemical release, it’s like, “Help! Dig, dig,” and so ants go, “Oh, there’s a dig signal,” and then they would go there and just dig because ants are supposed to be not that complicated, they’re supposed to be sort of mechanical-chemical induced.

But now, this required them to find – to actually find what it was that was keeping their fellow ant strapped and then attack it and try to remove it.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: It’s pretty advanced for what we thought ants would be capable of.

Kirsten: Because – I mean, how can you explain that chemically? There’s no chemical explanation – I mean, maybe there is but I don’t know…

Justin: I think, they’re thinking. So anyway, this test itself is…

Kirsten: We got to think out of the box for this one.

Justin: Yeah. The test itself had several versions to examine this behavior. One, a trapped individual from the same colony or nestmates. One was a trapped – no, two, was a trapped individual from a different colony. Three, was an ant from a different ant species all together. Four, a common prey. Five, a motionless nestmate. Well, I guess it says “chilled” or maybe they got it really cold so it wouldn’t move.

Kirsten: Probably.

Justin: And six was just an empty snare apparatus, just to be sure that perhaps chewing on the nylon strand wasn’t attractive on its own. So, the only one that activate the rescue behavior was version one, where that were – they saw a trapped nestmate from the same colony over there in trouble.

The results demonstrate that the ants are able to recognize what exactly holds their nestmate in place and direct their behavior – the rescue efforts – to that nylon snare. Wow, so that’s…

Kirsten: I wonder if that – I mean, if the nylon snare in some way is – mimics a predator or some kind of an attacker that would be grabbing the ant, holding it. Maybe the other ants would go and try and overwhelm the attacker by biting it. So, maybe that is part of the response.

Justin: I suppose it – yeah, I suppose it could be, like the limb pulling. When they were pulling out – they sort of were pulling at the different limbs…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: …individually. That’s also a known behavior from previous research that they would sort of do that to try to free.

Kirsten: Check all the limbs and…

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: It’s like make sure all your legs – because if you can move all your legs you’re good, you’re good to go. Just, you know.

Kirsten: Can you move your legs? Can you move your legs?

Justin: But it’s – yeah. But the fact that they go and get out this nylon thread and start to bite at it to remove it. So, this kind of seems like a form of reasoning on the part of the ants, may be or may not be.

It’s being talked about in this paper, sort of as being coined as a rescue effort. Without looks – it like, sort of like an altruism-like knowing, you know, you’re kind of, it kind of seems to me like the primitive resonance of nationalism though, too.

Kirsten: What?

Justin: Well, because if you think about it, they’re not interested in helping ants from different species, for one.

Kirsten: Or even if they have colonies.

Justin: But not even just a different colony.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: They can be the same kind of ant but if they’re not nestmates…

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: …if they’re not working on – out of the same hole in the ground.

Kirsten: One of us.

Justin: They just walk on by.

Kirsten: One of us.

Justin: They’re just like, “Man, not one of us, not going to help. I’m not going to risk myself.” Because there’s an element of risk involved in this…

Kirsten: Right, which is true.

Justin: …which is also not been seen before in very many, you know, animal species. It’s one where sometimes they’ll help each other, like…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: …dolphins will help push a sick dolphin up to the surface…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: …to make it easier for it to breathe. But there’s not a lot of examples of sort of doing this risk behavior where, you know, you can get…

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: …trapped too while you’re doing this help. So…

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: Yeah. They only…

Kirsten: Yeah, that’s interesting. There’s definitely – there’s probably some amount of, you know, the chemical signature that you recognize if you’re nestmates…

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: …and there’s that relatedness that probably indicate some amount of relatedness…

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: …and then the ant probably determines whether or not it’s worth it to them.

Justin: Right. But on the nationalist – primitive nationalism sort of a thing, if you think about it, you know, we are much more moved by tragedies that take place in this country than we are somewhere else, even though it’s happening to humans.

You know, if it happens in America we’re like, “Oh, gosh. Jesus, that’s terrible,” and then it happens to the other we’re like, “Wow, yeah, the world’s messed up,” you know, it’s like…

Kirsten: Too bad. What else is going on in the world, this wonderful, wonderful world? Viruses! Viruses, viruses trapped in the waters of the cold Antarctic.

Justin: What?

Kirsten: Yeah, published in Science, a group of researchers sucked some icy water from an under ice lake. What was the name of the lake, it was Lake Limnopolar on the Byers Peninsula in Antarctica.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: The research team has been trying to figure out, what they’re looking for is some indication of the ecosystems that take place, that exists in these environments. And then from the ecosystem, how things change from season to season. Do the populations of bacteria and other creatures of the cold icy water – do they – how much do they change over the winter to summer season?

They looked at these samples taken from the lake and they actually saw huge changes in virus populations. And they actually found a new group, new groups of viruses that have never been seen before.

Justin: Wow.

Kirsten: New viruses that are only bacterial viruses. And then they saw viruses also that are known to only usually predate – I guess you say predate – or exist in conjunction with mammals, birds and – what was the other group – and another group but definitely not bacteria.

Justin: Huh.

Kirsten: So, the researchers assembled from what they found in the water. They assembled ten circular ssDNA genome elements that were previously completely undescribed. And they found – they found that those are dominant during the winter, when there’s way more ice cover on the lake.

However, in the summer, there’s a different domination of viruses, different and different bacteria are dominant as well. And so, there seems to be some kind of a switch in the bacteria that are dominant and with them which associated viruses become dominant.

And the viruses don’t just predate. Like, we think of viruses as something that, you know, we get a virus like the flu virus or the HIV – or HIV, the HIV virus. These ones actually help the bacteria metabolize. So, they help to metabolize carbohydrates and amino acids, help them with respiration, help them with stress responses…

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: …and so they actually are a crucial, crucial part in the existence of the bacteria that are dominant during the summer season. So, the bacteria that become dominant probably wouldn’t become without the associated viruses that come along with them.

Justin: Symbiotic.

Kirsten: Yeah. So, there’s an interesting symbiosis there. And the viruses that they found are mostly DNA viruses. So, the viruses get into the DNA, which is very interesting. They say in the story that I found in Ars Technica that viruses found in aquatic environments usually infect prokaryotes, like bacteria.

But the viruses that they found infect DNA – single-stranded DNA and can infect eukaryotes, which is what we are, the mammals, birds, et cetera.

And so, this is…

Justin: You and me -karyotes.

Kirsten: You and me, -karyotes, exactly. And so, it’s a very interesting change and something that wasn’t expected; and a very diverse unexpected surprise from the icy waters of the Antarctica.

Justin: That’s really – I love that because it’s – there some – there’s something like chain of life going on there. Because we can’t digest most of what we eat without our gut bacteria.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: And then our gut bacteria maybe they can’t do everything they need to do without the viruses on board.

Kirsten: Without some kind of virus and I think it’s just fascinating. We think of virus as just this negative thing but here is the implication that the viruses are actually an integral part of the functioning…

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: …of the bacteria. So, it’s not a far leap to go from, okay, well, we know that bacteria have been taken into our cells and integrated in certain cases like mitochondria. So, what about viruses being integrated into bacterial DNA…

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: …to give them functioning, that give a greater functioning. So, it kind – I think it kind of helps with that the idea of maybe we started in an RNA world, moved to a DNA world viruses, bacteria, multicellular creatures…

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: …and everything kind of builds one on the other. And I think this kind of fits right into that puzzle.

Justin: And then like the bacteria and viruses that are going out and causing illness are probably just not in the environments that they were built to survive in.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: Yeah, they’ve just found some other – some other system in which…

Kirsten: But the illness is just how they fit.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: That’s what happens. We have to take a break. It’s that time. It is 9:04 in the morning. You’re listening to KDVS, this is This Week in Science. And we’ll be back, just a few moments. Stay tuned.

Justin: Thank you for listening to TWIS. If you rely on this show for weekly science-y updates, please understand that we rely on your support to keep bringing those to you. Donate, keep the science-y goodness on the air. We’ve made it very easy for you, go to our website, Click on the button that will allow you to donate $2, $5, $10 or if you like, you can donate any amount of money you choose, as many times as you like.

Again, just go to and donate today. We need your support and we thank you in advance for it.

Kirsten: Justin wrote a book. Amazing, right? It’s called Ome. And you can go to to buy yourself a copy of Ome. Buy one for yourself, buy one for a friend, buy one for a complete stranger. Justin’s book, Ome. Go to, buy Justin’s book. Buy it!

Justin: Huh?

Kirsten: Robots are great, dude. It’s This Week in Science.

Justin: It is. We’re back.

Kirsten: Welcome back. We have more science, big stories.

Justin: You have another big story to break for the second half of the show.

Kirsten: I know. Did you want to do another story first?

Justin: No, no, go for it.

Kirsten: No? Go?

Justin: Yeah, I want to hear it. I’m all – I’m full of anticipa…

Kirsten: NASA scientists are doing some crazy awesome science in the laboratory mimicking the conditions of cold harsh space. They have put some compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, PAHs for short, of which pyrimidine is one.

These PAHs have been located, identified in meteorites. They have been identified all around the universe. Their carbon signature has been identified in the interstellar gases around our universe.

PAHs, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, so, the aromatic aspect means that they are six-carbon ringed structure, a fused hexagon, kind of like the chicken wire.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: Or I guess one of the little hexagons on a soccer ball.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: I think they’re hexagons, right? So, they…

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: …they know that pyrimidine is found in outer space, they know it’s one of these PAHs. And they know it’s usually very – it’s temperamental, it can be broken down or I think it combines with other compounds fairly easily. It is the basis for one of the – one of the pieces of our genetic code.

Justin: Wow.

Kirsten: Uracil, which is found in RNA is based on pyrimidine. Pyrimidine with a little addition is uracil. And so, they’re like, “Okay, we’ve noticed some uracil in outer space.” Pyrimidine and uracil – this base – this nucleic acid, has been found, the signature of it – in the interstellar medium in these gassy areas.

So, what they did is they put it in a laboratory in water because they said, okay, well if pyrimidine can exist, can survive long enough to kind of get into clouds where they could be protected from radiation from stars; then, maybe they would freeze in these clouds because radiation doesn’t get in so the clouds are a bit colder, that pyrimidine could combine with water and get frozen onto dust molecules.

And so they said…

Justin: Panspermia ensues.

Kirsten: Well, this is – yeah, so that’s were they’re thinking, “Okay, well then these dust clouds and then they get into the meteorites and the meteorites go around…”

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: “…and so then it’s combined.” But, what would happen potentially to the pyrimidine in these situations if in the cloud some radiation does get through? And so, they stuck the pyrimidine in the laboratory in an ice sample, exposed it to ultraviolet radiations in space-like conditions, which means a vacuum and low temperature and this very, very harsh radiation.

Look to see what happened, they did find that it doesn’t breakdown as easily as it does just in open space when it’s not protected by the water ice. But instead of being destroyed, as you would think it might be, it actually becomes new molecules, it combines with other compounds and it took on the form of RNA’s uracil.

Justin: Wow.

Kirsten: So, in the laboratory, mimicking the conditions of outer space, scientists at NASA created one of the building blocks of our genetic code from a basic compound. Then this is – this suggests a pathway of how uracil could have been created in outer space without anything else around.

One of the researchers, Scott Sandford says, “Nobody really understands how life got started on Earth. Our experiments demonstrate that once the Earth formed, many of the building blocks of life were likely present from the beginning. Since we are simulating universal astrophysical conditions, the same is likely wherever planets are formed.”

Justin: Anywhere, anywhere…

Kirsten: Anywhere.

Justin: …in this 70 sextillion stars that have planets spinning around them.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: It’s possible that there’s life…

Kirsten: Yeah, I think, this is another – this is one of – I mean, we had the – there’s the old experiment from the 50s that I can’t remember the name of where they basically – they try to simulate, creating the building blocks of life in a test tube and, you know, people replicated that experiment in different ways over and over again.

It’s pretty well understood there that we can get from basic molecular compounds, that we can get some of the building blocks that are necessary. But this is one more step in that experimental chain of creating compounds that really do go on and become components of life.

Justin: Anywhere.

Kirsten: Anywhere.

Justin: Anywhere.

Kirsten: Anywhere.

Justin: Anywhere.

Kirsten: I know! It’s so exciting. NASA scientists, I’m so excited for you people. And I think you’re awesome. That’s my, you know…

Justin: Yeah, you’re all right.

Kirsten: …that’s my unbiased journalistic opinion.

Justin: Whatever, it’s cool. They’re all right.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: Prenatal phonics produce babies born with intuitive notions of native intonations.

Kirsten: Hooked on phonics.

Justin: Yeah, in the first days of life, French babies already cry differently than German babies.

Kirsten: Wa, wa!

Justin: Yes, this was the result of a study by researchers from Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences and the Laboratory of Cognitive Sciences and Linguistics in Paris. In the study, the scientists compared recordings of 30 French and 30 German newborns between two and five days old.

And they found…

Kirsten: Wow.

Justin: …that they have accents, basically.

Kirsten: That’s neat.

Justin: Specifically, the French newborns tend to cry with a rising melody contour whereas the German newborns tend to prefer a falling melody contour.

Kirsten: That fits with like the whole German nihilist kind of thing, you know.

Justin: I don’t know about the nihilism. I don’t think post nihilism now into new – but anyway – no, but it does – it does match like speech patterns.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: Like in – like the word “papa,” in French it’s “papa” and in German it’s “papa.”

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: So, it actually matches the….

Kirsten: The natural intonations.

Justin: …typical intonation, right. But this is like two and three days old, and what they’re saying is this wasn’t just picked up in those couple of days, this was learned prenatally.

Kirsten: Wow.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: So, the sticking the headphones – giving early language lessons while the young baby is in the womb.

Justin: Yes, yes.

Kirsten: It could actually be doing – having a major effect.

Justin: Yeah, “In the last trimester of pregnancy, the human preborn can become active listeners. The sense of hearing is the first sensory system that develops”, says Angela Friederici, one of the Directors at Max Planck Institute. “The mother’s voice, in particular, is sensed early on. So, however, the preborn’s hearing is restricted somewhat due to the surrounding amniotic fluid.”

Kirsten: Right, it’s like listening to something when you’re underwater.

Justin: Yeah, but what does get through is the melodies, the intonations.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: The sort of overall way that the language is spoken and so, even though you don’t have words when you’re born…

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: …you have figured out the song of your people already or the way that they are going to communicate through melody.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: Yeah, that’s awesome.

Kirsten: Well, I know there is also evidence that babies recognize the mother’s voice versus the father’s voice for a very early…

Justin: And…

Kirsten: …early stage as well. They recognize different people, yeah.

Justin: And their own language. I think it was – the other study was like they were like four months old or something. And they could – they would recognize their own language being spoken.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: And will pay sort of like extra attention when somebody came in with a different language because that was unusual…

Kirsten: That’s not…

Justin: …it wasn’t fitting…

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: …with the – their nestmates, where…

Kirsten: Let’s get with – if we had a title for today’s show it’s…

Justin: Nestmates.

Kirsten: …nestmates.

Justin: So, you know, preborns they say are able to memorize sounds from the external world by that last trimester of pregnancy with particular sensitivity to melody contour in both music and language.

Oh, wow.

Kirsten: That’s fascinating.

Justin: And they picked French and German because as close as these nations are, there’s extreme differences in the intonations.

Kirsten: Well, the languages come from different lingual roots. Anyway, you know, they’re very different languages.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Yeah. That’s so nice, cool study. I like that.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Oh, little babies.

Justin: Little baby, preborn babies learning.

Kirsten: That’s right, it goes right along with the frogs from last week. Little…

Justin: Like the frogs in the blender?

Kirsten: No, not in the – that was just a joke.

Justin: Oh.

Kirsten: The frogs learning about the scent of the salamander predator.

Justin: Yeah, there was – tadpoles in the blender. That’s what it was.

Kirsten: Tadpoles in the blender. That’s – yeah, it was, you’re right. Okay.

Justin: And that makes you think of babies?

Kirsten: Oh, dear.

Justin: What’s going on Kirsten? Are you all right?

Kirsten: I’m so maternal.

Justin: I thought of babies and I just think blender.

Kirsten: Blender, oh, hey. Researchers at Yale University have been playing with synthetic molecules that they are targeting to HIV and cancer, specifically, prostate cancer.

What they’ve been able to do in rats is get these – what they’re called are antibody-recruiting molecules. And they have one group, antibody-recruiting molecule targeting HIV, otherwise known as ARM-H and antibody-recruiting molecule targeting prostate cancer, ARM-P, very technical names here.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: The molecule goes in and it binds to an antibody or a little segment of protein that’s present in the blood stream. And then it goes and it uses that antibody to help target HIV. And so, it basically, is a big flag that attaches to cells that have HIV that’s showing.

And then – or in the case of the prostate cancer, it goes and it attaches itself to prostate cancer as cells. And then, what it does is it creates a situation where it basically calls for help to the body’s immune system and it gets the body’s immune system to react in a way that it wasn’t reacting originally. Because what…

Justin: Wow.

Kirsten: …tends to happen in cancerous cells is that the cancerous cells and also HIV cells – cells that are infected with HIV – they’re able to slip past the immune system.

Justin: Right, they…

Kirsten: And they kind of subvert…

Justin: They don’t look unhealthy to the body.

Kirsten: Right, they don’t seem unhealthy at all so the body doesn’t attack them. But what this does is because it’s a strange molecule that’s being put in, this ARM-H molecules don’t really – they don’t make sense to the antibody that they grab on to.

It’s like being a person that you’re holding on to somebody and you’re waving a flag and you’re saying, “Help!” You know if somebody’s falling in the river, you grab that person falling in the river and keep them from falling and you have a big flag or a flare that’s calling for emergency reinforcements.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: And basically, that’s what these antibody recruiting molecules are doing, is they’re playing that middle molecule to tell the immune system to come and to do something about this.

Justin: Wow.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: That’s an amazing idea. I guess the next step or two would be to like mimic something else that the antibodies would be attacking.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: So, that you can only attach but, you know, you’re trying to get rid of – it doesn’t recognize that there’s an emergency here.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: It doesn’t recognize that there’s something that needs to be taken care of, like a crime.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: Like you’ve got somebody robbing a bank but they can’t see bank robbery, it’s not on the books yet, bank robbery isn’t illegal yet, okay. So, you got to go there and be like, “Look, I think they just like…

Kirsten: Took…

Justin: …shoplifted the piece of candy from the front,” and they’re not a member of the bank. So, you have to find some other excuse.

Kirsten: Find other – yeah, another way to get them arrested.

Justin: That’s a horrible analogy.

Kirsten: Start over.

Justin: I should have stopped myself making analogy.

Kirsten: But it’s a first – it’s a new approach, it’s one of the first times that this idea of using a synthetic molecule – something that’s not natural and not actually, you know, going in and just mimicking the immune system.

Justin: Right.

Kirsten: Like – or going in and attacking the cells directly or using something natural to do. It’s a synthetic molecule that goes in and the body goes, “Okay, we got to do something about it.”

Justin: That’s brilliant.

Kirsten: Yeah, it’s completely new approach and it could really help to target these things that are happening. And because they’re synthetic and they’re not actually included in any major process of the body, it’s not going to have major side effects because it’s not gumming up any essential biological process at any point. It’s just going in and attaching to these infected or cancerous cells.

Justin: Wow, that’s really – that’s a huge – I can’t believe that wasn’t one of the top stories.

Kirsten: They’re all top stories this week.

Justin: Oh, my goodness.

Kirsten: It’s all big news.

Justin: This one is out of researchers at the University of California-Davis. They have analyzed types of food advertisements seen by children watching American television programs on Saturday mornings and weekday afternoons, which are the highest viewing times for children.

Kirsten: If I ever have kids, no television.

Justin: Yeah, right. Yeah, right. I can’t even tell you how ridiculous a comment that is.

Kirsten: Keep going, sorry.

Justin: Yeah, you’re going to just read books all day and I’ll have the patience and time to do that for you, read them to you. Because I won’t need any mama time. No, none for me! Won’t need it at all. I’m going to be super mom. Oh, I need a few moments to take care of my mental capacity so I can go on with the day. No, no, no, don’t sit in front of the TV and give mama 5 and 10, 15, 23 hours. I need three hours, just keep them from the television now.

Look, I got some cute little puppets, you can look at. It’s fantastic, that’s it, watch. No talking, leave me alone.

Kirsten: Wow.

Justin: So, I mean, a lot of kids do watch TV. Recordings were made of programs on 12 networks including highly rated children’s cable channels – Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and Kids’ WB. Networks that appeal to older youths were also looked at – MTV, BET and the mainstream channels ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, UPN, also the Spanish channels of Univision and Telemundo.

Out of 5,724 commercials recorded, 1,162 were food-related. So, about one in five advertisements was for a food nutrition-related product. And overall it was about five food advertisements presented every hour.

Fastfood, sugary food, chips, sugar, beverages accounted for more than 70% of food commercials. And 34% of those were food on the run, like fast-food restaurants.

Kirsten: Food on the run.

Justin: Children’s networks had the highest percentage of food-related commercials. Food advertisements were predominately for sugary cereals, sweets and high fat food. When compared to television for general audiences…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: …you know, children’s networks exposed the young viewers to 76% more food commercials per hour…

Kirsten: Wow.

Justin: …than did the other networks. And the Saturday morning, which is like used to be the cartoon time – not that cartoons are on all the time – but Saturday morning time is the most saturated with food commercials with approximately 7.7 commercials per hour in the children’s programming.

Wow! So, a food commercial every eight minutes.

Kirsten: Oh, my gosh.

Justin: As children move on to adolescence and begin to watch more older youth programming, such as music videos on BET and MTV, they continue to be exposed to advertising for food and less healthy categories. Eighty percent of MTV food commercials were for fast-food restaurants, sugar-added beverages and sweets.

In contrast though, vegetables, juices were advertised only 1.7% of the commercials over all. Only one nutritional public-related service announcement was found for every 63 food ads.

So, it’s – I don’t understand why our children are eating poorly. Must just be all about the parents…

Kirsten: It must be.

Justin: …letting them…

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: … be in our society, which is a media society, which is…

Kirsten: Telling them to eat.

Justin: …eat junk food and sugar.

Kirsten: Eat, eat.

Justin: Eight times an hour. Once every eight minutes, I guess.

Kirsten: Could you imagine, if like once every eight minutes somebody just came up to you and…

Justin: Cheeseburger.

Kirsten: Cheeseburger.

Justin: Cheeseburger. Mmm.

Kirsten: Pizza. Cereal, sugar pops, sugar bombs.

Justin: Soda. Excuse me?

Kirsten: Candy bar.

Justin: I’m just saying candy bar.

Kirsten: Every eight minutes somebody’s, I mean , you’ll be like, “Yeah, I think I want a candy bar.”

Justin: Yow, Kirsten Twinky. All I wanted to say.

Kirsten: Thanks, thanks, thanks, Justin.

Justin: You’re welcome.

Kirsten: We’re at the end of the hour. I’m so sad to go.

Justin: Energy drink, make you happy.

Kirsten: It’s going to keep going if I drink too…

Justin: Energy drink to make you happy.

Kirsten: It’s going to keep going. It’s the end of the hour, I just want to say thanks to everyone for listening. Until next week’s show, I would like to say maybe think about reading along with us. The TWIS Book Club is reading a book called 1492 and then it’s got some subtitle that I can’t remember by Charles C. Mann.

And we’re reading that for the month of November. It’s a scientific history of the Americas. So, going beyond what you might have learned and, you know, 8th grade history class or whatever year it is that you do the big Thanksgiving thing.

The actual history of the Americas is very interesting and this story is based on lots of archaeological evidence, chemical evidence, very neat rebuilding of what actually happened here over the last millennia or two.

Justin: Two millennia?

Kirsten: Two or three or four. Maybe more.

Justin: Wow!

Kirsten: But – yeah, going back – going back, way back, way back. The rise and fall of civilizations and the reasons for it – it’s fascinating.

Justin: It’s all there.

Kirsten: It’s all there. I’m really – I’m loving it, I’m loving the book. Yeah, shout outs today, who was on Twitter? (Jeremy Faulkner, Rambo Muse, James Pulp) – risk market news?

Justin: What?

Kirsten: (Justin Reade). Thanks for listening along with us and interacting on the tweeters. I appreciate it very much. And Ed Dyer, thanks for sending in stories. Who else sent in stories? (David Morgan). Hi to (John Caraback) who’s actually in the bay area with his wife, maybe we’ll…

Justin: West side.

Kirsten: West side or I guess East side, West side or whatever. I don’t know, we’re on the East side. Yeah, maybe we’ll try and get some kind of little TWIS-y get together in the bay area some time later this week.

And (Bob Randall and Mark Smith). I said (David Morgan), David Eckard, (Christopher), thank you so much for writing in and supporting us this last week.

Justin: If you haven’t figured it out by now, TWIS is available as a podcast. You can go to our website, and click on subscribe to the TWIS science podcast or you can just go to the iTunes podcast directory and put in This Week in Science.

Kirsten: That’s right. And for more information on anything you’ve heard here today, show notes are going to be available on our website, We also want to hear from you so, email us at or

Justin: Put TWIS in the subject or you’ll be immediately spam filtered.

Kirsten: No excuses.

Justin: No.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: We love your feedbacks. So, if there is a topic you’d like us to cover, address or suggestion for an interview, let us know. Send us the emails or hit us up on the Twitter. We’re at jacksonfly. I’m going to officially change my name to jacksonfly pretty soon.

Kirsten: Okay.

Justin: Or drkiki.

Kirsten: Drkiki, drkiki. We will be back here on KDVS next Tuesday at 8:30 AM Pacific time. And we hope you’ll join us again for more great science news.

Justin: Until then, if you’ve learned anything from today’s show remember…

Kirsten: It’s all in your head.