Health & Science
Will we build astronaut igloos on Mars?
NASA has identified a surprisingly basic building material for housing astronauts on Mars: ice. There is thought to be a giant slab of frozen water only a few meters below the Martian surface, spanning an area larger than New Mexico. NASA researchers, working in collaboration with two space architectural firms, believe this ice could potentially be mined and used to make igloo-like homes for astronauts. There would be no need to transport large quantities of building materials and equipment from Earth, and the hydrogen-rich ice would shield the Martian explorers from harm ful cosmic rays. The “Mars Ice Home” would consist of a large inflatable dome, surrounded by an icy outer shell. A layer of carbon dioxide between the two would provide insulation from the chilly temperatures outside, keeping the living and working quarters at a comfortable 72 degrees Fahrenheit. Construction would take as long as 400 days, but that work could be done by robots before the astronauts’ arrival. The Ice Home could be larger than a building made from traditional materials, and could be deflated and relocated if required. Another benefit, notes NASA’s Kevin Kempton, stems from the translucent qualities of ice. “Some outside daylight could pass through,” he tells Space.com, “and make it feel like you’re in a home and not a cave.”
Dinosaurs’ egg problem
Dinosaurs took much longer to incubate their eggs than previously thought—a factor that may have contributed to their demise. Scientists at Florida State University came to this conclusion after analyzing the teeth of rare fossilized dinosaur embryos. Like human teeth, reptile teeth are formed during incubation from a liquid called dentin; this calcified tissue builds up, adding a new layer each day as the embryo develops. “They’re kind of like tree rings,” lead author Gregory Erickson tells CSMonitor.com. “We could literally count them to see how long each dinosaur had been developing.” The researchers calculated that smaller Protoceratops hatchlings took nearly three months to develop, while the eggs of the Hypacrosaurus, a duck-billed dinosaur that grew to be about 30 feet long, incubated for about six months. With such long incubations, dinosaurs must have been very slow reproducers—a trait that would hurt their ability to rebuild their populations after a comet or asteroid strike wiped many of them out 65 million years ago. The discovery may also help explain why birds, whose eggs have significantly shorter incubation times than dinosaurs’ did, survived the same mass extinction event.
Novel penis implant
A heat-activated penis implant may offer new hope for men suffering from erectile dysfunction. Scientists at the University of Wisconsin–Madison used nitinol, a nickeltitanium alloy known for its elasticity and shape memory, to develop a device that expands when heated. The implant remains flaccid at normal human body temperature, becomes erect when warmed slightly, and returns to its flaccid state on cooling. The device isn’t perfect: Men fitted with it would get an erection every time they bathed, unless they draped a cold, wet towel over their groin. But Brian Le, who led the research, hopes it will offer men with treatment- resistant erectile dysfunction an option that’s simpler and less awkward than an implant requiring a penis pump. “We’re hoping that, with a better device, a better patient experience, and a simpler surgery, more urologists would perform this operation, and more patients would want to try the device,” he tells MedicalDaily.com. Le and his team are now working on a remote control that would activate the implant, using heat induction, when waved over the penis.
A new human organ
Since the late 1800s, medical textbooks like Gray’s Anatomy have listed 78 organs in the human body. But that tally has just gone up, reports The Washington Post. Irish researchers have determined that the mesentery, a sheet of tissue that connects the intestines to the abdominal wall, should be categorized as a bona fide organ. For decades, it was widely believed that the mesentery was merely a series of fragmented membranes. But after re-examining its structure, two scientists from the University of Limerick concluded that it is in fact one continuous entity that plays a vital role in preventing the intestines from flopping around in the belly. They believe the mesentery fits the broad definition of an organ: a self-contained structure that performs a specific bodily function. “Without it,” says study author J. Calvin Coffey, “you can’t live.” It remains unclear what other purposes the mesentery serves, or to which system of the body it belongs. But the researchers say that reclassifying the body part as an organ will encourage further study, which could help shed light on Crohn’s disease and other gut disorders.
Health scare of the week
Mumps infections spike
Reported cases of mumps have spiked to a 10-year high in the U.S., jumping from 229 cases in 2012 to more than 4,000 in 2016. A vaccine-preventable disease that affects the salivary glands, mumps causes headaches, fatigue, and swelling of the jaw; in rare cases, it can lead to complications including deafness or brain inflammation. Infections were reported in 46 states and the District of Columbia last year; particularly hard hit were Arkansas, Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, and Oklahoma. Health officials have noted that the controversial “anti-vax” movement, which opposes the use of vaccinations, isn’t entirely to blame: Most of the people diagnosed with mumps last year had received the two recommended doses of the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine. There is also no evidence that the virus has mutated, which would render the vaccine less effective. “The most likely reason for these outbreaks is that vaccine immunity is fading,” Dr. Paul Offit, with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, tells Scientific American. Health officials investigating the issue say a third dose of the MMR vaccine may be required.