SciTeens' Ampere News: 5 Significant Breakthroughs From This April

By Grace Jiang
April 28, 2021 · 7 minute read

Welcome back to SciTeens’ Ampere News! At the end of each month, we publish an article highlighting some interesting developments in the world of science over the last thirty(ish) days. For today's edition, we'll provide a summary of science news from April.

For those curious as to why we named the series Ampere, the ampere is the standard unit of measurement of electrical current. Likewise, we hope that SciTeens will become the standard for keeping up with the most interesting and current news in STEM! The following infographic summarizes what we have in store for this month; feel free to scroll through and jump right to which story seems the most interesting to you!  

1. Human cells grown in monkey embryos

What happened?

In a report published on April 15th, researchers inserted human stem cells into monkey embryos. After culturing for 13 days, the researchers found that human cells remained in around one-third of the embryos. The human cells seemed to have integrated themselves with the monkey cells, beginning to specialize into different cell types that would give rise to the different organs. Yet, the human cells tended to clump together, demonstrating that the two species’ cells did not fully integrate.

How did it happen?

In the study, scientists injected 25 human “extended pluripotent stem cells” each into 132 cynomolgus monkey embryos and cultured these resulting embryos in culture dishes. Pluripotent stem cells are able to differentiate into specialized cells from all three basic body layers: the ectoderm, mesoderm, and endoderm. Extended pluripotent stem cells take this one step further; exposing pluripotent stem cells to a special chemical cocktail increases the variety of cells they can differentiate into.

One thing to note is that United States federal funding does not cover the creation of nonhuman primate embryos containing human stem cells. This study was therefore undertaken in China, funded through non-US government sources. 

Why does this matter?

In the past, mouse stem cells have been successfully inserted into rat embryos, with the resulting developed organs transplanted back into mice. However, this marks the first time human cells have successfully been integrated into the embryo of another species. If this process is studied further, human organs could potentially be grown in animal species, opening another source of organ transplant opportunities and other benefits in the field of medicine. 

But there’s a concern. Because the monkey embryos in this study weren’t cultured for a long time, the embryos didn’t reach a point of development in which they gained consciousness. However, if future experiments continued, the possibility of human nerve cells entering a monkey embryo and changing the monkey’s mental capabilities would raise ethical issues. 

2. Solved mystery of strange blood clots in some COVID-19 vaccine recipients

What happened?

On April 13th, federal authorities in the United States paused the use of Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines after a small number of recipients (6 out of ~7.2 million) reported mysterious, severe blot clots. In Europe, a similar situation was seen with the AstraZeneca vaccine. Scientists have since uncovered the mystery: these vaccine brands cause a tiny percentage of people to develop an immune response against platelet factor 4 (PF4), a signaling molecule sometimes involved in blood clotting. 

How did it happen?

In a study published on April 16th, researchers analyzed blood samples from 23 patients who reported blood clot symptoms after receiving the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. Out of the 23, 22 patients tested positive for antibodies to PF4. This suggests that the AstraZeneca vaccine had caused these patients to develop an immune response against PF4, the source of their blood clots. 

Why does this matter?

Now that we understand the cause of the patients’ blood clots, we can better diagnose and treat this rare vaccine side effect. Scientists have noted that the formation of antibodies to PF4 here is also seen in a condition called “heparin-induced thrombocytopenia,” in which patients develop blood clots after treatment with the common blood-thinning drug heparin. Therefore, patients who develop clots after getting a COVID-19 vaccination must not be administered heparin, which may worsen their condition. 

The United States has since lifted the pause on Johnson & Johnson vaccines, seeing that the benefit of vaccination outweighs safety concerns over vaccine side effects. 

3. Ingenuity helicopter’s successful first flight on Mars

What happened?

If you remember our Mars Perseverance rover article from February, you might notice that this event sounds familiar. As part of a mission by NASA, the helicopter “Ingenuity” was launched to Mars along with Perseverance, which successfully landed on February 18th. Recently, on April 19th, the helicopter succeeded at its first flight, marking the first time a man-powered flight has been achieved on another planet. Ingenuity has since performed three total flights, and NASA is currently preparing more future flights.

How did it happen?

Ingenuity was purposefully launched to Mars along with Perseverance, with the aim to test controlled flight on another planet. In preparation, scientists back at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory extensively analyzed the helicopter’s flight performance during development before launch. This initial flight was self-piloted based on algorithms developed beforehand. 

The flight was not observable in real-time from Earth due to the long-distance satellite signals that must travel between Earth and Mars. However, Perseverance was able to capture a video of Ingenuity’s first flight, which you can watch below!

Video of Ingenuity’s first flight, captured by Perseverance Mars rover:

Why does this matter?

The Wright brothers pioneered the first flight on Earth, and now, NASA has pioneered the first flight on Mars. Every world only gets one first flight; Ingenuity’s flight is special in this way. A new aerial dimension of Mars has now been successfully unlocked for us to explore more fully in the future. 

4. Insight into the “Brazil nut effect”

What happened?

The “Brazil nut effect” refers to the phenomenon in which larger particles in some mixtures tend to end up at the top after the mixture is jostled. It’s named after the large Brazil nuts that always seem to gather at the top of mixed nut packages. In a report published on April 19th, scientists were able to use 3D imaging to model a container with a mix of peanuts and Brazil nuts as it was shaken back and forth.

How did it happen?

Scientists placed Brazil nuts and peanuts in a box, with the Brazil nuts initially at the bottom. This box was placed in a CT (computed tomography) scan instrument, a device that can perform computerized x-ray imaging. The CT instrument took scans of the box to generate x-ray images, with the box being shaken once between each scan. In the report, scientists analyze their results from these scans and put together videos depicting the movement of Brazil nuts upwards to the top of the nut mixture.

Why does this matter?

The videos generated in this study are the first 3D videos of the Brazil nut effect in action! This new insight could, in the future, help create more uniform mixtures of ingredients for food processing or more uniform distributions of active ingredients in medicines.

Video of Brazil nut effect from the study:

5. A new technique allows for compostable plastic

What happened?

Biodegradable plastics are made from plant material instead of petroleum and are able to be broken down by microorganisms. In theory. In reality, the conditions in landfills and compost bins often aren’t right for these plastics to degrade, making them hardly any different from normal plastic. In a paper published on April 21st, researchers made plastics that are realistically biodegradable, being able to break down in compost or tap water within days to weeks.

How did it happen?

Researchers inserted special types of enzymes into biodegradable plastic, accelerating decomposition. The researchers also added to the plastic another ingredient that prevents the enzymes from clumping together or falling apart. Without this extra ingredient, the enzymes would clump together and randomly break down parts of the plastic, causing the formation of microplastics, tiny pieces of plastic harmful to the environment. With the extra ingredient, the enzymes could systematically break down the plastic, preventing microplastics from forming.

Why does this matter?

The team of scientists in their paper only tested this technique on a few select types of biodegradable plastics. If the technique was expanded to other forms of plastic and commercialized, easily compostable plastics could hit the grocery stores, a huge leap forward in the world of sustainability. 

Wrapping Up

  1. Human stem cells were inserted into monkey embryos
  2. Blood clot side effects from the J &J vaccine are explained by an immune response against platelet factor 4 (PF4)
  3. The Ingenuity helicopter flies on Mars, marking the first time a man-powered flight has been achieved on another planet
  4. “Brazil nut effect” refers to the phenomenon in which larger particles in some mixtures tend to end up at the top after the mixture is jostled
  5. Special enzymes were added to biodegradable plastics to make them more easily broken down by microorganisms

If you enjoyed this style of article and would like to see more, please reach out to grace@sciteens.org for suggestions and future article recommendations. In the meantime, be sure to check out SciTeens.org for more news and resources to progress your STEM education.

References:

https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2021/04/lab-grown-embryos-mix-human-and-monkey-cells-first-time

https://www.sciencenews.org/article/covid-vaccine-blood-clot-immune-astrazeneca-johnson-johnson

https://mars.nasa.gov/news/8923/nasas-ingenuity-mars-helicopter-succeeds-in-historic-first-flight/

https://www.sciencenews.org/article/brazil-nut-effect-mixed-nuts-xray-scan-physics

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-021-87280-1

https://www.sciencenews.org/article/plastic-compost-new-enzyme-technique-biodegradable

Did you enjoy this article?

About The Author

Grace Jiang is currently a senior at Pine View School. She loves many things, the most notable of which being ice cream, harp seals, bubble tea, and (of course!) science. Definitely go contact her at grace@sciteens.org if you have any future article recommendations or just want to discuss life. 

More on this topic...

TL;DR Science: Oncogenes

Perhaps you may have heard someone say at one point “I am at risk for ___ cancer, so I have to take extra precautions…”. Or, you may have heard the claim that “Sunscreen can reduce your risk of getting skin cancer”. Two questions consequently arise: first, how do we actually know of cancer risk; second, what does it mean to be at risk? To start we have to look at our cells’ DNA and what can happen if it becomes mutated. 

TL;DR Resources: Your Mini Guide for College Preparations

It’s almost the end of the school year, and we can all agree that everyone is anxiously trying to figure out what they want to pursue as a future major for the next couple of years and which college they should choose. Nevertheless, they shouldn't decide that whilst having little knowledge and experience. Lucky for you, this guide is here to help you.

TL;DR Speaker Series: Biomedical Engineering: A Multipotential STEM Major

Introducing our new speaker series only at Sciteens! Starting off the series we have Jana Al Hinnawi and her experience as a biomedical engineering major.

TL;DR Science SI Units of Measure and the metric system

You may be familiar with many of the measures called the metric system, customary system, but what do you know about the inner workings of the measures used by the scientific community? Check out this week's article to learn more!

TL;DR Science: The Greenhouse Gases

As climate change worsens, sea levels rise, and global temperatures increase, greenhouse gases have become a common topic of discussion. But what are they really? What makes them greenhouse gases, and how could this knowledge be useful in reducing their influence on the greenhouse effect? This week, I’ll be answering all of these questions in part 2 of a 3-part series on the greenhouse effect and greenhouse gases.