Cutting Edge Fetal Surgery, Did Viking Miss Life on Mars?, Termite Head-Bangers, Gassy Windbags, Question of the Week: Cold Water and Mint

 

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Cutting Edge Fetal Surgery

fetus.jpg Human fetus at 12 weeks - Courtesy, NIH

The things doctors can do for newborn babies with diseases that threaten their brand new lives are amazing. But in recent decades, neo-natal medicine has taken a step even further towards the medical frontiers -- by taking a step back. They can now intervene to save the lives of babies long before they're even born. Fetal surgeons literally open up the wombs of pregnant women, expose the fetus, perform the surgery -- whether it's removing a tumour or fixing a heart block -- and then stitch fetus and mother back up and wait for a healthy baby to be born several weeks later. It sounds miraculous, and sometimes these surgeries can indeed save fetuses that would otherwise have stood little chance of surviving once they were born. But fetal surgery is not without controversy either. The surgery can be risky, not just to the fetus but to the pregnant mother, as well. And now surgeries are being performed to improve upon conditions that might be serious, but that are not life-threatening, raising questions about how we determine what risks are acceptable, and how far we should push the medical boundaries.

Dr. Timothy Crombleholme is the head of the fetal care unit at Cincinnati Children's Hospital. He's been a fetal surgeon almost as long as the field has existed. He points out that fetal surgery can carry great risks, and there is no guarantee of success.

Dr. Holly Hedrick is an attending surgeon at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, one of the most advanced children's hospitals in the world. The hospital is part of the multi-centre clinical trial studying the effects of fetal surgery for spina bifida.

Dr. Erik Skarsgard is the head of pediatric surgery at the BC Children's Hospital in Vancouver. He's one of few Canadian doctors trained to do fetal surgery. But he's also doing research that pushes the medical frontiers even further. He's working on a cure for cystic fibrosis at the fetal stage, using fetal gene therapy.

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Did Viking Miss Life on Mars?

viking.jpg View from Viking Lander 2 - Courtesy, NASA

When Viking landers searched the surface of Mars, they were looking for life. So, they took soil samples, warmed them up to earth-like temperatures and added water. Unfortunately, they didn't find any evidence of metabolism by living organisms. But that doesn't mean life isn't on Mars. Dr. Dirk Schulze-Maluch, an associate professor of geology at Washington State University, thinks we may have been looking for the wrong kind of life. He recently announced his theory that life on Mars needs hydrogen peroxide in the cells to survive. If his theory is right, it also explains why Viking never found life: we accidently killed it by either drowning or overheating the cells.

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Termite Head-Bangers

termite1.jpg Formosan Subterranean termites - Courtesy, T. Fink

Communication is difficult for the lowly termite. Some animals, like birds, have the luxury of using their songs to summon or communicate with their kind. Other animals can use visual displays. Still others can rely on chemical signals to communicate. But these solutions aren't available to the termite when trouble looms and the nest needs defending. So when a termite soldier recognizes a threat to the nest, and needs to summon aid, he does the next most obvious thing. He uses his head. Literally. The termites bang their heads with great force on the inside of their nests, sending vibrations to the other termites. The termites can bang their heads with a force as great as 70 times the force of gravity. Dr. Tom Fink has been studying the termites' unique cry for assistance. He's a research scientist with the National Center for Physical Acoustics, at the University of Mississippi.

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Gassy Windbags

wind1.jpg An artist's conception of a gas-giant planet orbiting very close to its parent star - Courtesy, NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt

Think a hurricane has strong winds? Well, you'll be blown away by the winds on three extra-solar planets that astronomer Nicolas Cowan, a doctoral student in the Department of Astronomy at the University of Washington, has been studying. Each planet orbits one of three nearby stars. The planets are thought to be gas giants, similar to Jupiter or Saturn. The difference is that these planets orbit only a few million miles away from their respective star - closer than Mercury is to our sun. As a result, they're locked in a tidal orbit with one side constantly facing the star and the other side perpetually facing the cold vacuum of space. Using the Spitzer Space Telescope, Cowan measured the temperatures of the day and night sides of these gas giants. Cowan found both sides of each planet were about the same temperature, meaning that the super-heated atmosphere from the sun-scorched sides of the planets is being pumped into the cooler night sides. The resulting atmospheric models suggest that the winds on these planets reach over 14,000 kms per hour - over 11 times the speed of sound.

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Question of the Week: Cold Water and Mint

This week's question comes to us from Elizabeth Schwiezer in Lubock, Texas, who asks: Why is it that a glass of cold water feels so much colder when you drink it after eating a peppermint candy cane, brushing your teeth with mint toothpaste, or chewing mint gum?

For the answer, we've reached Dr. Massimo Marcone, an adjunct professor in the Department of Food Science at the University of Guelph.

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