Fast Friday Four (August 19)

Virtual Studs Help Train Duds

Looking for a well-suited workout partner? Think playing video games can give you a good exercise? Well you’re in luck, because you won’t even need a human to help you perform better.

According to research from Deborah Feltz, chairperson of the Department of Kinesiology at Michigan State University, a virtual workout partner who is a little better than you will greatly improve your performance in exercise video games.

To prove this, researchers had a group of people perform plank exercises by themselves and then with a virtual workout partner. Some people had a workout partner who was worse than them while others had one that was manipulated to always be a bit better. And wouldn’t you know, the people who  trained with the superior virtual friend performed 24 percent better.

Now, if they could just get wall-sized screens with partners working with my preferred weight regimen in the gym, they’d be on to something.

Skipping the Virus: Direct Gene Therapy

Evolution is a tricky business. Sure, selecting for the best mutations that helps a species survive – better known as adaptation – sounds  easy enough, but what about back a few million years when complexity was first trying to arise? How the hell did that happen?

Scientists at the University of Chicago and Indiana University think they might have a partial answer to that question. That answer arises not from a species strengths, but from its defects. Every now and then, a mutation is going to come along that makes a protein weaker. It won’t be bundled as tightly and thus it will be more susceptible to damage in an aqueous environment.

While this weakness obviously hinders that individual protein from doing its job, it could also spark evolution. According to Ariel Fernandez at the University of Chicago and Michael Lynch in Bloomington, that weakness also makes the protein more prone to latch onto other proteins. And when that happens, chaos ensues.

Well, more specifically, randomness happens. Proteins joining forces like this could result in any number of results, some of which would help the organisms, some of which would hurt it, but all of which would be interesting. In small populations – say billions of people instead of gozillions of bacteria – these protein weaknesses build up, causing more and more diversity to spark up all the time.

Life’s protein weaknesses may be its greatest asset.

Adaptation Not All of Evolution

Genetic therapy sounds like a pretty good idea. Have a nasty bit of DNA causing some cancer? Send in some new DNA to knock out that genetic sequence. Problem solved.

Except that the solution has problems of its own.

The vehicles scientists have come up with so far to deliver DNA into cells can be harmful in themselves. Viruses – which basically do nothing but inject their DNA into cells to create more viruses anyways – can be manipulated to inject medicinal DNA instead. The virus – however – really isn’t controllable and can inject DNA into the wrong cells or just go off on its own tangent. And other delivery methods like peptides or charged polymers can be just as dangerous.

But Northwestern University chemist Chad Mirkin thinks he may have found a way around the problem. They key could be in a new form of DNA created in the lab.

Instead of a double helix, this DNA is formed with nucleic acids attached at the base and tightly packed into a spherical shape. Because of their formation, they easily pick up proteins in the body that shuttle them into the cell. Once there, their specific shape and placement of different nucleotides controls how it affects the DNA.

Obviously this has a long way to go, but it is a very promising step forward towards creating non-toxic and more effective ways of delivering gene therapy.

Nano-sized Silver Antenna to Save the World (not really)

Solar cells aren’t exactly efficient. Even plants that use photosynthesis and have had billions of years to figure it out can only eek out about six percent of the total solar radiation available. And for the longest time, solar cells weren’t any better.

But that is quickly changing.

Recently, a solar cell was shown to have 28.2 percent efficiency. But University of Michigan scientists believe they can do even better.

The key, they say, are tiny nanoparticles of silver. They act like tiny antennaes, harvesting and focusing the sun’s energy that accelerate the production of renewable solar fuels and other chemicals. In one paper, they prove that these particles can be used to accelerate the separation of hydrogen and oxygen in water. In a second, they show that chemical creation processes historically reliant on fossil fuels to provide energy for the reaction can be at least partly replaced by the new technology.

The press release (remember this is Fast Friday, so no real investigative reporting) declines to say just how much more efficient these particles can make solar power.  Must not be all that impressive.



About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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