Blog just for my science interests, keeping my personal life outta this one. Nothing I post is my own unless otherwise stated.


Beyond Salty and Sweet: A Budding Club of Tastes

Sweet, salty, sour and bitter — every schoolchild knows these are the building blocks of taste. Our delight in every scrumptious bonbon, every sizzling hot dog, derives in part from the tongue’s ability to recognize and signal just four types of taste.

But are there really just four? Over the last decade, research challenging the notion has been piling up. Today, savory, also called umami, is widely recognized as a basic taste, the fifth. And now other candidates, perhaps as many as 10 or 20, are jockeying for entry into this exclusive club.

“What started off as a challenge to the pantheon of basic tastes has now opened up, so that the whole question is whether taste is even limited to a very small number of primaries,” said Richard D. Mattes, a professor of nutrition science at Purdue University.

Taste plays an intrinsic role as a chemical-sensing system for helping us find what is nutritious (stimulatory) and as a defense against what is poison (aversive). When we put food in our mouths, chemicals slip over taste buds planted into the tongue and palate. As they respond, we are thrilled or repulsed by what we’re eating.

But the body’s reaction may not always be a conscious one. In the late 1980s, in a windowless laboratory at Brooklyn College, the psychologist Anthony Sclafani was investigating the attractive power of sweets. His lab rats loved Polycose, a maltodextrin powder, even preferring it to sugar.

That was puzzling for two reasons: Maltodextrin is rarely found in plants that rats might feed on naturally, and when human subjects tried it, the stuff had no obvious taste.

More than a decade later, a team of exercise scientists discovered that maltodextrin improved athletic performance — even when the tasteless additive was swished around in the mouth and spit back out. Our tongues report nothing; our brains, it seems, sense the incoming energy.

“Maybe people have a taste for Polycose,” Dr. Sclafani said. “They just don’t recognize it consciously, which is quite an intriguing possibility.”

Dr. Sclafani and others are finding evidence that taste receptors on the tongue are also present throughout the intestine, perhaps serving as a kind of unconscious guide to our behavior. These receptors influence the release of hormones that help regulate food intake, and may offer new targets for diabetes treatments, Dr. Sclafani said.

Many tastes are consciously recognized, however, and they are distinguished by having dedicated sets of receptor cells. Fifteen years ago, molecular biologists began figuring out which of these cells in the mouth elicit bitter and sweet tastes.

By “knocking out” the genes that encode for sweet receptors, they produced mice that appeared less likely to lap from sweet-tasting bottles. Eventually, the putative receptors for salty and sour also were identified.

In 2002, though, as taste receptors were identified, the evidence largely confirmed the existence of one that scientist had been arguing about for years: savory.

Umami is subtle, but it is generally described as the rich, meaty taste associated with chicken broth, cured meats, fish, cheeses, mushrooms, cooked tomatoes and seaweed. Some experts believe it may have evolved as an imperfect surrogate for detecting protein.

Since then, researchers have proposed new receptor cells on the tongue for detecting calcium, water and carbonation. The growing list of putative tastes now includes soapiness, lysine, electric, alkaline, hydroxide and metallic.

“The taste field has been absolutely revolutionized,” said Michael Tordoff, a biologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center. “We’ve made more progress in the last 15 years than in the previous 100.”

One candidate for the next basic taste appears to have emerged as the front-runner: fattiness. The idea has been around for a while, and many scientists thought it was not a specific taste, more like a texture or an aroma.

But researchers recently identified two taste receptors for unsaturated fats on the tongue. And fat evokes a physiological response, Dr. Mattes has found that blood levels of fat rise when we put dietary fat in our mouths, even without swallowing or digesting it.

Hours after a meal, the taste of fatty acids alone can elevate triglyceride levels, even when the nose is plugged. But fat, like umami, does not have a clear, perceptible sensation, and it is hard to distinguish a texture from a taste.

Dr. Mattes says that fat may have a texture that we like (rich and gooey) and a taste that we don’t (rancid).

If so, the taste may serve as part of our sensory alert system. When food spoils, he notes, it often contains high levels of fatty acids, and the taste of them may be “a warning signal.”

Although there is still no consensus beyond sweet, salty, sour, bitter and savory, the research makes clear there is more to taste than a handful of discrete sensations on the tongue. Before long, scientists may have to give up altogether on the idea that there are just a few basic tastes.

“If you’re talking three, four, five, six, you can still call it a pretty exclusive club,” Dr. Mattes said. “If you start getting beyond that, is the concept really useful?”



A gif representing nuclear fusion and how it creates energy. 

[Click for more interesting science facts and gifs]

For those who don’t understand the GIF. It illustrates the Deuterium-Tritium fusion; a deuterium and tritium combine to form a helium-4. Most of the energy released is in the form of the high-energy neutron.

Nuclear fusion has the potential to generate power without the radioactive waste of nuclear fission (energy from splitting heavy atoms  into smaller atoms), but that depends on which atoms you decide to fuse. Hydrogen has three naturally occurring isotopes, sometimes denoted ¹H, ²H, and ³H. Deuterium (²H) - Tritium (³H) fusion (pictured above) appears to be the best and most effective way to produce energy. Atoms that have the same number of protons, but different numbers of neutrons are called isotopes (adding a proton makes a new element, but adding a neutron makes an isotope of the same atom). 

The three most stable isotopes of hydrogen: protium (no neutrons, just one proton, hence the name), deuterium (deuterium comes from the Greek word deuteros, which means “second”, this is in reference two the two particles, a proton and a neutron), and tritium (the name of this comes from the Greek word “tritos” meaning “third”, because guess what, it contains one proton and two neutrons). Here’s a diagram

Deuterium is abundant, it can be extracted from seawater, but tritium is a  radioactive isotope and must be either derived(bred) from lithium or obtained in the operation of the deuterium cycle. Tritium is also produced naturally in the upper atmosphere when cosmic rays strike nitrogen molecules in the air, but that’s extremely rare. It’s also a by product in reactors producing electricity (Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant). Tritium is a low energy beta emitter (unable to penetrate the outer dead layer of human skin), it has a relatively long half life and short biological half life. It is not dangerous externally, however emissions from inhaled or ingested beta particle emitters pose a significant health risk.

During fusion (energy from combining light elements to form heavier ones), two atomic nuclei of the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium must be brought so close together that they fuse in spite of the strongly repulsive electrostatic forces between the positively charged nuclei. So, in order to accomplish nuclear fusion, the two nuclei must first overcome the electric repulsion (coulomb barrier ) to get close enough for the attractive nuclear strong force (force that binds protons and neutrons together in atomic nuclei) to take over to fuse the particles. The D-T reaction is the easiest to bring about, it has the lowest energy requirement compared to energy release. The reaction products are helium-4 (the helium isotope) – also called the alpha particle, which carries 1/5 (3.5 MeV) of the total fusion energy in the form of kinetic energy, and a neutron, which carries 4/5 (14.1 MeV). Don’t be alarmed by the alpha particle, the particles are not dangerous in themselves, it is only because of the high speeds at which they are ejected from the nuclei that make them dangerous, but unlike beta or gamma radiation, they are stopped by a piece of paper.


This is Your Brain on Drugs

Funded by a $1 million award from the Keck Foundation, biomedical researchers at UCSB will strive to find out who could be more vulnerable to addiction

We’ve all heard the term “addictive personality,” and many of us know individuals who are consistently more likely to take the extra drink or pill that puts them over the edge. But the specific balance of neurochemicals in the brain that spurs him or her to overdo it is still something of a mystery.

“There’s not really a lot we know about specific molecules that are linked to vulnerability to addiction,” said Tod Kippin, a neuroscientist at UC Santa Barbara who studies cocaine addiction. In a general sense, it is understood that animals — humans included — take substances to derive that pleasurable rush of dopamine, the neurochemical linked with the reward center of the brain. But, according to Kippin, that dopamine rush underlies virtually any type of reward animals seek, including the kinds of urges we need to have in order to survive or propagate, such as food, sex or water. Therefore, therapies that deal with that reward system have not been particularly successful in treating addiction.

However, thanks to a collaboration between UCSB researchers Kippin; Tom Soh, professor of mechanical engineering and of materials; and Kevin Plaxco, professor of chemistry and biochemistry — and funding from a $1 million grant from the W. M. Keck Foundation — the neurochemistry of addiction could become a lot less mysterious and a lot more specific. Their study, “Continuous, Real-Time Measurement of Psychoactive Molecules in the Brain,” could, in time, lead to more effective therapies for those who are particularly inclined toward addictive behaviors.

“The main purpose is to try to identify individuals that would be vulnerable to drug addiction based on their initial neurochemistry,” said Kippin. “The idea is that if we can identify phenotypes — observable characteristics — that are vulnerable to addiction and then understand how drugs change the neurochemistry related to that phenotype, we’ll be in a better position to develop therapeutics to help people with that addiction.”

To identify these addiction-prone neurochemical profiles, the researchers will rely on technology they recently developed, a biosensor that can track the concentration of specific molecules in vivo, in real time. One early incarnation of this device was called MEDIC (Microfluidic Electrochemical Detector for In vivo Concentrations). Through artificial DNA strands called aptamers, MEDIC could indicate the concentration of target molecules in the bloodstream. 

“Specifically, the DNA molecules are modified so that when they bind their specific target molecule they begin to transfer electrons to an underlying electrode, producing an easily measurable current,” said Plaxco. Prior to the Keck award, the team had shown that this technology could be used to measure specific drugs continuously and in real time in blood drawn from a subject via a catheter. With Keck funding, “the team is hoping to make the leap to measurements performed directly in vivo. That is, directly in the brains of test subjects,” said Plaxco.

For this study, the technology would be modified for use in the brain tissue of awake, ambulatory animals, whose neurochemical profiles would be measured continuously and in real time. The subjects would then be allowed to self-dose with cocaine, while the levels of the drug in their brain are monitored. Also monitored are concomitant changes in the animal’s neurochemistry or drug-seeking (or other) behaviors.

“The key aspect of it is understanding the timing of the neurochemical release,” said Kippin. “What are the changes in neurochemistry that causes the animals to take the drug versus those that immediately follow consumption of the drug?”

Among techniques for achieving this goal, a single existing technology allows scientists to monitor more than one target molecule at a time (e.g., a drug, a metabolite, and a neurotransmitter). However, Kippin noted, it provides an average of one data point about every 20 minutes, which is far slower than the time course of drug-taking behaviors and much less than the sub-second timescale over which the brain responds to drugs. With the implantable biosensor the team has proposed, it would be possible not only to track how the concentration of neurochemicals shift in relation to addictive behavior in real time, but also to simultaneously monitor the concentrations of several different molecules.

“One of our hypotheses about what makes someone vulnerable to addiction is the metabolism of a drug to other active molecules so that they may end up with a more powerful, more rewarding pharmacological state than someone with a different metabolic profile,” Kippin said. “It’s not enough to understand the levels of the compound that is administered; we have to understand all the other compounds that are produced and how they’re working together.”

The implantable biosensor technology also has the potential to go beyond cocaine and shed light on addictions to other substances such as methamphetamines or alcohol. It also could explore behavioral impulses behind obesity, or investigate how memory works, which could lead to further understanding of diseases such as Alzheimers.

(via scinerds)


On July 23, 2007, astronaut Clay Anderson says, “Hello from space!”


(via afro-dominicano)


Forty-five years ago today, two human beings first set foot on the moon. On July 20, 1969, the lunar module of Apollo 11 touched down in the Sea of Tranquility, and forever changed how we view our place in the universe. When I think about the fact that four and a half decades ago, at the very moment I am writing this, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were walking on the freakin’ moon, I am humbled and inspired.

I’ve combined some of my favorite photos from Apollo 11 with some of the actual words spoken by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins.

If you’d like to relive the historic mission moment by moment, word by word, and photo by photo, head over to SpaceLog

(via astrotastic)


Aldrin Next to Solar Wind Experiment by NASA on The Commons on Flickr.

Tramite Flickr:
Astronaut Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr., Lunar Module pilot, is photographed during the Apollo 11 extravehicular activity (EVA) on the lunar surface. In the right background is the Lunar Module “Eagle.” On Aldrin’s right is the Solar Wind Composition (SWC) experiment already deployed. This photograph was taken by Neil A. Armstrong with a 70mm lunar surface camera.

Image # : AS11-40-5873


Fundamental Studies in Droplet Combustion and FLame EXtinguishment in Microgravity (FLEX-2)

The Flame Extinguishment - 2 (FLEX-2) experiment is the second experiment to fly on the ISS which uses small droplets of fuel to study the special spherical characteristics of burning fuel droplets in space. The FLEX-2 experiment studies how quickly fuel burns, the conditions required for soot to form, and how mixtures of fuels evaporate before burning. Understanding how fuels burn in microgravity could improve the efficiency of fuel mixtures used for interplanetary missions by reducing cost and weight. It could also lead to improved safety measures for manned spacecraft.

  • More information: here

Credit: Reid Wiseman/NASA


Our Three (Brain) Mothers

Protecting our brain and central nervous system are the meninges, derived from the Greek term for “membrane”. You may have heard of meningitis - this is when the innermost layer of the meninges swells, often due to infection, and can cause nerve or brain damage, and sometimes death.

There are three meningeal layers: the dura mater, arachnoid mater, and pia mater. In Latin, “mater” means “mother”. The term comes from the enveloping nature of these membranes, but we later learned how apt it was, because of how protective and essential the meningeal layers are.


  • The dura mater is the outermost and toughest membrane. Its name means “tough mother”.

The dura is most important for keeping cerebrospinal fluid where it belongs, and for allowing the safe transport of blood to and from the brain. This layer is also water-tight - if it weren’t, our cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) would leak out, and our central nervous system would have no cushion! Its leathery qualities mean that even when the skull is broken, more often than not, the dura (and the brain it encases) is not punctured.

  • The arachnoid mater is the middle membrane. Its name means "spider-like mother", because of its web-like nature.

The arachnoid is attached directly to the deep side of the dura, and has small protrusions into the sinuses within the dura, which allows for CSF to return to the bloodstream and not become stagnant. It also has very fine, web-like projections downward, which attach to the pia mater. However, it doesn’t contact the pia mater in the same way as the dura: the CSF flows between the two meningeal layers, in the subarachnoid space. The major superficial blood vessels are on top of the arachnoid, and below the dura.

  • Pia mater is the innermost membrane, which follows the folds (sulci) of the brain and spinal cord most closely. Its name means “tender mother”.

The pia is what makes sure the CSF stays between the meninges, and doesn’t just get absorbed into the brain or spinal cord. It also allows for new CSF from the ventricles to be shunted into the subarachnoid space, and provides pathways for blood vessels to nourish the brain. While the pia mater is very thin, it is water-tight, just like the dura mater. The pia is also the primary blood-brain barrier, making sure that no plasma proteins or organic molecules penetrate into the CSF. 

Because of this barrier, medications which need to reach the brain or meninges must be administered directly into the CSF.

Anatomy: Practical and Surgical. Henry Gray, 1909.

(via scinerds)