A microscopic “water bear” uses its fluorescent pigmentation to withstand otherwise lethal levels of ultraviolet light, while a beetle with an elaborate suit of armor can be run over with a car repeatedly — and then dust itself off and keep on crawling. Meanwhile, a vaccine could help patients’ immune systems slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease in the brain. Resilience is the watchword in this week’s coolest scientific discoveries.
What is it? A team led by researchers at Dublin’s RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences has developed, for the first time, a score that can help predict which patients will experience a severe form of COVID-19.
Why does it matter? The ability to predict the severity of symptoms will help clinicians triage patients and identify who will benefit from therapies like steroids, and who might need to be admitted to an intensive care unit. The score indicates how severe the disease might be on day seven of infection based on blood samples taken during the first four days. “Until this study,” according to a university release, “no COVID-19-specific prognostic scores were available to guide clinical decision-making.”
How does it work? The blood test analyzes two immune system molecules that help control inflammation: interleukin 6 and interleukin 10. The researchers measured the ratio between the two molecules in 80 patients hospitalized for COVID-19, then created the Dublin-Boston score, a “simple 5-point linear score predictor of clinical outcome,” as they explain it in a new paper in EBioMedicine. Professor Gerry McElvaney, the study’s senior author, said, “The Dublin-Boston score is easily calculated and can be applied to all hospitalized COVID-19 patients.”
What is it? The microscopic aquatic creatures known as tardigrades — aka water bears — are incredibly hardy, able to survive extremes of heat and radiation, “even the vacuum of outer space.” Now Indian researchers have discovered a new species of tardigrade so invincible it can survive intense blasts of ultraviolet light.
Why does it matter? Researchers found that the new tardigrade’s ability to withstand UV light related to a naturally occurring “protective fluorescent shield,” as they write in Biology Letters. That may reveal important information about the function of fluorescence in some microscopic creatures: Whereas fluorescence in macroscopic animals, such as birds, provides a “visual communication signal,” its significance is “unknown in most cases.”
How does it work? The discovery of the new species was accidental: Researchers at the Indian Institute of Science were studying tardigrades generally, and exposed samples to a germicidal UV lamp. As expected, most died; what they didn’t expect was to find a reddish-brown tardigrade species that survived the lethal blast. They discovered that fluorescent pigmentation, probably under the creatures’ skin, “absorbs harmful UV radiation and emits harmless blue light.” It’s possible the tiny creatures evolved the pigment to protect themselves from the punishing Indian summers.
What is it? Speaking of indestructible creatures: Check out the diabolical ironclad beetle, which didn’t get its name for nothing. It can resist all manner of attacks from its natural predators; it can also survive being run over by a car — repeatedly! A new paper in Nature explores the mechanisms behind the beetle’s impossible durability.
Why does it matter? To put a number on it, the diabolical ironclad beetle can withstand force equal to 39,000 times its body weight. That’s an ability that intrigues mechanical engineers, as this study’s authors write, who may be interested in “developing tough, impact- and crush-resistant materials for joining dissimilar materials.”
How does it work? The researchers used advanced microscopy and computer simulation to identify, as they write, “multiscale architectural designs” in the exoskeleton of the beetle: a layering of joints and support structures and a kind of “airy buffer” beneath the shell, as the New York Times put it, all of which help dissipate stresses placed on the creatures. Lead author Jesus Rivera compared the arrangement to an “industrial-strength egg,” where the whites provide a kind of cushion for the yolk: “You can compress the shell without the yolk, or the organs, getting squished.”
What is it? Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, or CSAIL, have designed a system that can help decipher “lost” languages — that is, ancient languages whose particulars are so unknown that they can’t be read today.
Why does it matter? Deciphering lost languages can help modern-day researchers understand a linguistic system; it can also unlock information about the people who spoke the languages. One of the challenges in this area is languages that don’t appear to be related to any others, which might otherwise offer a point of comparison for those trying to decipher them. As MIT News put it, “The team’s ultimate goal is for the system to be able to decipher lost languages that have eluded linguists for decades, using just a few thousand words.”
How does it work? The MIT system, which can also help illuminate connections between different languages, works based on a few general principles of historical linguistics: for instance, the fact that given sounds rarely just appear or disappear from a linguistic system, but instead may evolve into other sounds. The MIT team developed a “decipherment algorithm” that, according to MIT News, “learns to embed language sounds into a multidimensional space where differences in pronunciation are reflected in the distance between corresponding vectors. ... The resulting model can segment words in an ancient language and map them to counterparts in a related language.”
What is it? A team of scientists at the University of South Florida Health is at work on a vaccine that could halt the progression of Alzheimer’s disease in elderly patients.
Why does it matter? Research has shown that immunotherapies — therapies that boost the immune system’s own disease-fighting capabilities — hold promise against Alzheimer’s.
How does it work? The vaccine under development, which has been tested in mice, targets neurotoxic forms of the peptide amyloid beta, which clumps between nerve cells in the brain and is one of the primary pathologies of Alzheimer’s. “This therapeutic vaccine uses the body's own immune cells to target the toxic [amyloid beta] molecules that accumulate harmfully in the brain,” said Chuanhai Cao, who is leading the research. The vaccine is described further in a new paper in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
Top image credit: Tardigrade, Getty Images.