Parasitic Worm Inspires Better Skin Graft * Penis-like Organ Helps Bowheads Keep Cool * Beothuk Beliefs Inspired by Birds * Lake Erie Algae Bloom * Time Reborn

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Does the universe have too much time or not enough? Or does it have any at all?  That's the question we examine this week as we try to determine if time, in fact, is real.  Plus, we'll learn how bowhead whales keep a cool head; we'll hear why birds were so important to the Beothuk people of Newfoundland; and we'll look into what lessons have been learned from a giant algal bloom in Lake Erie. But first, how to worm your way into medical school.

 

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Parasitic Worm Inspires Better Skin Graft

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Spiny-headed worm inspired Micro-needles. Courtesy J Karp. Click to enlarge
Nature often provides a model or inspiration for solving human problems, particularly in the area of medical research.  For example, the spiny-headed parasitic worm pierces the intestines of its host fish with its proboscis.  It remains firmly in place by swelling the tip of the proboscis.  This inspired Dr. Jeffrey Karp, a Canadian scientist at Brigham and Women's Hospital, and Harvard Medical School in Boston, to invent a micro-needle that provides better adhesion for skin grafts.  Like the head of the worm proboscis, the tip of the micro-needle swells once inside damaged tissue, providing a stronger, closer bond.  When a series of micro-needles are used as a patch, the graft will hold better than with the traditional staple method, and be less prone to infection.

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Penis-like Organ Helps Bowheads Keep Cool

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The pink strip in the roof of a bowhead whale's mouth is the organ that help it cool down. Credit: Craig George.  Click to enlarge

Bowhead whales live exclusively in Arctic waters.  They are well adapted to these conditions, thanks to a very thick layer of blubber, which provides insulation from the frigid temperatures.  But because of their immense size, they generate a lot of heat internally.  Scientists have been puzzled as to how bowheads are able to thermo-regulate in order to keep organs - especially the brain - cool. Now, new research by Dr. Alex Werth, from the Department of Biology at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, has found the answer.  A three-to-four-metre long penis-like organ than runs the entire length of the roof the of the mouth keeps the bowhead cool.  The organ engorges with warm blood, drawn away by numerous blood vessels at the base of the brain.  The blood is then cooled and recirculated as the whale takes in a mouthful of cold Arctic water. 

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Beothuk Beliefs Inspired by Birds

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Beothuk carved feather and bird foot pendants found in Newfoundland.  Credit:  Todd Kristensen.  Click to enlarge

The indigenous Beothuk people occupied Newfoundland for about 2,000 years.  The last known Beothuk descendant  - a woman - died in 1829.  The Beothuk disappeared for a number of reasons, including disease and violent encounters with others, both related to the arrival of Europeans.  Little is known about their religious beliefs, but new research by Todd Kristensen, a PhD student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, has found that birds, in particular seabirds, were important to them.  About 400 Beothuk pendants, intricately carved out of caribou bones, were found in various collections and sites around the province.  The 3 to 15cm long pendants depict bird motifs - feathers, webbed feet and birds in flight - and were buried alongside the dead.  It is thought that the depictions may be a symbolic representation of birds carrying the souls of the dead to the afterlife.

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Lake Erie Algae Bloom

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Western Lake Erie in the summer of 2011.  Image courtesy USGS/NASA
In 2011, the western part of Lake Erie - almost one-sixth of the entire lake - experienced a massive and unprecedented bloom of algae that fouled beaches and killed fish.  Dr. Anna Michalak, a Canadian scientist in the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, California, and her colleagues, have done a forensic study of the huge bloom to determine just what caused it to occur.  What they found was a "perfect storm" of conditions.  Changes in farming practices had led to more fertilizer-enriched runoff, intense spring rains had carried that runoff to the lake, and warm temperatures and low winds in summer made conditions perfect for the algae.  Unfortunately, they also conclude that these conditions are far more likely to re-occur in the future, so blooms like 2011 will probably be seen again.

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Time Reborn

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Dr. Lee Smolin thinks the trouble with physics is that we need more time.  Dr. Smolin has been contemplating a fundamental question: "Is Time Real?"  This is an important question because much of the physics we've generated for the last 400 years or so seems to suggest that time isn't real, and that it's a kind of illusion that disguises the real way the laws of physics work.  But in his new book, Time Reborn:  From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe, Dr. Smolin makes the case that time is real.  And he thinks that working out what time is will help us solve some of the deep problems of the universe, including the question of where it all really came from.  Dr. Smolin is a founding and senior faculty member at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo.

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Theme music bed copyright Raphaël Gluckstein, Creative Commons License by-nc-nd-2.0