Health & Science

Seeding Earth with life; A computer on your wrist; A real cure for cancer?; Mysteries without mystery

Seeding Earth with life

The seeds of life on Earth may have originated in outer space—raining down aboard meteorites billions of years ago. Scientists analyzed 12 meteorites discovered in Antarctica and Australia and found that they harbored the nucleobases adenine and guanine—two of the four molecules needed to form DNA and RNA. Scientists have found nucleobases in meteorites before, but until now they could not prove whether these building blocks of life had arrived from space or “contaminated” the rocks after they hit the ground. This time, researchers were able to show that the meteorites also contained other compounds very rarely found on Earth, and that didn’t exist in the surrounding sediments. In the lab, researchers created similar nucleobases using cyanide and ammonia—substances common in space. All this evidence strongly suggests that meteorites “may have been molecular tool kits, which provided the essential building blocks for life on Earth,” study author Jim Cleaves, of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, tells The findings have “far-reaching implications,” researchers said: If the seeds of life can be found in space, meteorites have probably seeded countless other planets with life’s building blocks. And in the different conditions on those planets, life may have evolved very differently.

A computer on your wrist

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We may soon be wearing our electronic gadgets—from heart monitors to cell phones—as a second skin. Researchers have discovered a way to create circuits so thin and flexible that they can be applied like temporary tattoos. “All established forms of electronics are hard, rigid,” study author Yonggang Huang, an engineer at Northwestern University, tells ScienceDaily​.com. But by using wires thinner than a hair and mounting them in flexible sheets of silicon and rubber, he and his colleagues were able to make digital patches that are as soft and elastic as human skin. The circuits, called epidermal electronic systems, can be rubbed on with water instead of needing tape or glue to attach. And they’re small enough to be recharged with solar power. Researchers say the technology will be nearly invisible to wearers and could be used instead of bulky machines to record medical patients’ vital signs. The paste-on computers will also let us interact with video games and MP3 players using muscle or voice commands. “Ultimately,” says co-author John Rodgers, they will “blur the distinction between electronics and biology.”

A real cure for cancer?

A potent new cancer treatment may hold the key to curing leukemia—and other cancers as well. Using a new gene therapy technique, University of Pennsylvania researchers eradicated chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) in two patients who’d been close to dying of the disease and reversed it in a third. Doctors usually treat CLL with a bone-marrow transplant, which carries a high risk of death and only a 50 percent success rate. Instead, the Penn team genetically reprogrammed T cells from the patients’ own immune systems to become “tumor-seeking missiles.” They also modified these new cells so they’d rapidly multiply in the bloodstream. “Within three weeks, the tumors had been blown away,” says lead researcher Carl June. What’s more, the designer T cells remained in the patients’ bloodstreams a year later, protecting against a recurrence. The new gene therapy needs further testing, but “the potential here is huge to apply this to different tumor types,” says oncologist Walter Urba of Providence Cancer Center. It may someday be possible to engineer T cells to attack not only leukemia but also lung, prostate, and breast cancers.

Mysteries without mystery

Have you ever been tempted to flip to the end of a mystery novel? Go ahead: Suspense, a new study has found, is irrelevant to our enjoyment of a story. In fact, say researchers at the University of California at San Diego, most people like stories more if they know in advance how they end—even with plots that hinge on a mystery or a twist. The researchers set up different versions of 12 short stories written by authors such as Agatha Christie, Raymond Carver, and Anton Chekhov. One came with an introduction that spoiled the ending; one had a spoiler embedded in the middle of the text; and a third appeared just as its author had written it. Surprisingly, readers who learned the endings of their stories up front reported liking them much more on a scale of one to 10 than did readers of the other two versions. Why? The pleasure readers get from a good story, researcher Jonathan Leavitt tells, has far more to do with the quality of the writing and character development than with a nail-biting plot. Once a reader knows how a story turns out, Leavitt says, he or she “can focus on a deeper understanding of the story.”

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