Saturday, January 5, 2013

Weekly Science Roundup #13

How fitting to start out 2013 with my 13th Weekly Science Roundup?

Onwards, in the name of science!

1. Itchiness Explained!

This new research is of particular interest to me. Itching from allergies is awful! That's why I was so excited to read that science is one step closer to understanding how and why we experience the sensation of "itch".

Itching is a useful sensation, informing of us an irritant, but itching can also become the irritant if it goes on for a long time. Now, scientists have discovered a type of cell in the skin of mice that specifically triggers the itch-feeling. Even if these cells experience pain, they signal it to the brain as itch.

This is critical to learning how to stop chronic itching. Before, it was uncertain if the same cells experienced both pain and itch and separated out the two sensations to let the brain know what was up. However now it seems that cells are more specialized than that, and there truly are "itch" cells. With this knowledge, scientists can begin to work on procedures to target those particular types of cells and tone down their relay messages to the brain for people who suffer from chronic itchy problems.

Science, I love you.

2. New Martian Meteor is all Water-y

Northwest Africa 7034 is the first meteorite to be dated to the 2.1 billion year-old geological epoch of Mars. It likely originated from Mars' crust, as it contains many minerals deposited via volcanic activity.

It also contains way more water than any other Martian meteorite to date. It surfaced on Mars about 2 billion years ago, and there likely interacted with water. Not oceans of water, exactly. But some significant amount of water, perhaps from brought in from comet impacts. That's how water was hypothesized to get to Earth, after all. So why not Mars, too?

I just think it's awesome that while rovers are sent to Mars so we can learn more about the red planet, in a unknowing way, Mars has sent us objects in return. Martian meteorites--rocks freed from Mars' surface by impacts that eventually make their way to Earth--are one of the coolest types of space visitor Earth has ever received.

But as cool as these first two stories are, my third story this week makes me smile the most.

3. Oviraptors Knew How to Shake Their Groove Thangs

As many modern dinosaurs do today, it appears likely that the bizarre herbivorous therapods known generally as oviraptors actually shook their tail feathers for display.

The evidence comes from the fossils. The final vertebrae of their tails were fused, forming a pygostyle, which is a long ridged structure that modern birds have to support tail fans of feathers. In addition, the vertebrae of the tail closer to the body were short (and existed in a large quantity), which allows for great flexibility. Finally, the bones demonstrate large, strong muscle attachments down the tail that would allow for dramatic swishes of the tail in an up-and-down and side-to-side motion...just like modern peacocks. Whoa.

Of course, we can't actually guess what their dances looked exactly like, but isn't it awesome that we can deduce from a few fragmented fossils this degree of behavior? Oh, paleontology, you are an amazing science.

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