Scientific Scribbles

The voice of UniMelb Science Communication students

Not getting enough sleep? You’re actually torturing yourself!

Every time you don’t get enough sleep, you put your body through a decline in health and well being.

credit half life – so zzzz via flickr

Sleep is so important. It’s always been obvious that it is an enormous part in staying healthy, but people never really tell you why.

So let me open up with a story that can summarise to you why good sleep is so crucial:

“I didn’t really think sleep was necessary,” my friend Sophie told me before our exam, “if I could do better in this subject by studying more.” And although she did smash her exams with flying colours, (and I’m very proud of her for that,) sleeping so little evidently took a toll on her.

A week later she was still recovering.

credit Sander van der Wel via flickr

Sophie was struggling to get into her usual sleeping habits, resorting to bingeing on her cappuccinos with 2 sugars to stay remotely aware and wandering around the campus like a zombie without a drive.

Remember, only a single day of little sleep did this to her. Imagine what would’ve happened if it was 2 days, or even 3.

Well good thing you don’t have to imagine, because science has found that out for you!

Sleeping less than 7 hours a day not only makes you drowsy but also impairs your decision making skills, drastically reduces reaction times and is just straight up terrible for your health.

Does that sound familiar?

Yes, being sleep deprived is like chugging a couple of beers every morning and then going straight to work.

Sleep Deprivation can make you act similarly to being drunk, a study shows.

And if the majority of us know not to drink and drive, why are we sleep-deprived and driving? Why are we sleep-deprived while doing anything?

It sounds pretty silly doesn’t it?

But we know many people that do it- heck, even I do it sometimes. Whether its to finish watching the latest Game of Thrones episode or cramming in those last few pages of lecture notes for the exam, we are all guilty of doing this to ourselves. It’s no secret.

Okay, so we’ve talked briefly about how getting too little sleep affects your day to day functioning. But now let’s delve into a scenario where you get no sleep at all.

Pulling all nights over a few days is more torturous than you realise.

credit Thomas Hawk via flickr

Sleep deprivation is actually used as an interrogation technique on prisoners held in captivity. Having a lack of sleep leaves you mentally drained, and being in that state makes it harder to lie or even to realise what reality is. Interrogators exploit this, and usually question suspects when they grow tired, when all they want to do is to desperately doze off to sleep.

Preventing someone from sleeping for 2 days causes them to be extremely disorientated. At 3 days, it crosses ethical lines because people start to go insane and have hallucinations of things that aren’t really there.

I’m not going to lie, it’s pretty scary stuff.

Although getting poor sleep can never be compared to getting none, you now know that sleep is no joking matter.

So the next time you think sleep can always be compromised for whatever activity you want to do, think again. Sleeping for less than 7 hours on a daily basis will not only have immediate effects, but long term effects on your mental and physical health.

Sleeping does nothing but good for your body! All of your organs will love you for resting your head on a pillow, so consider how drained they become from working overtime and start giving them enough rest.

P.S. If you’ve decided to have better sleeping habits but don’t know where to start, just follow this link to this article I highly recommend. These tips are simple but highly effective if you use them right. Good luck and happy sleeping! 🙂

A diamond is forever (and sustainable?)

The allure and promise of diamonds often paints an image of everlasting love and commitment to someone special. “A diamond is forever”, as many would say. But is the industry of mining diamonds here to stay too? Perhaps there are many reasons as to why it probably won’t.

Deforestation. By Dikshajhingan [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Mining have a notorious reputation of causing detrimental environmental impact. Irresponsible diamond mining has caused soil erosion, led to deforestation, and forced local populations to relocate. Dams were constructed and rivers re-routed in order to expose riverbeds for mining, causing disastrous effects on fish and wildlife. In extreme cases, diamond mining can cause entire ecosystems to collapse. These mining pits have also created a public health issue. When the pits fill with stagnant rainwater, they become infested with mosquitoes, spreading mosquito and other water-borne diseases.

Mining Pit. By Staselnik [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
The social impact of diamond mining is equally adverse, in some cases the practice is outright illegal, conjuring the infamous term ‘Blood Diamonds’. These gemstones are often produced in operations that do not abide international laws on labour rights or fair trade, and are severely exploitive to diamond miners. Blood Diamond operations often use slave labour of men, women and children, and are attached to bloody and criminal military activities. Blood diamonds are smuggled into the international diamond trade and sold as legitimate gems, making consumers unable to conscious choose their stones based on ethical grounds. Furthermore, even legal diamond trade is often criticised for violating labour rights, creating wealth inequality, and continuing practices of neo-colonialism.

Photo by Gunnar Salvarsson on Flickr

Truly, a diamond is forever, but so is its irreversible impact to poorer parts of the world. Many would consider the diamond mining industry to epitomise environmental and social unsustainability, so what could diamond consumers do to negate the impact?

Fortunately, synthetic diamonds or lab grown diamonds have been around since the 1950s, providing us with a more sustainable and ethical alternative.

What is the difference between lab diamond and natural diamond?

Can you tell these diamonds apart? By Mario Sarto [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], from Wikimedia Commons
Lab grown diamonds, or synthetic diamonds are diamonds made synthetically in laboratory conditions instead of being mined from the earth. Both natural and synthetic diamonds have the exact same crystal structure as well as chemical composition. Therefore, they look the same, sparkle the same, and have the same hardness.

The only perceivable differences between the two is perhaps price. Lab grown diamonds are grown in a controlled and reproducible process, guaranteeing higher quality and less cost of production. On the other hand, natural diamonds are formed organically within the earth’s crust, and tend to be always imperfect. This difference between the two implies that high quality lab diamonds are more readily available, and cheaper.

How are lab diamonds made?

There are many ways to ‘grow’ diamonds. The most popular and earliest method of growing diamonds is by using high temperature and high pressure. This process mimics the natural environment diamonds are formed in the earth.

A diamond (carbon) lattice. By original uploader: Brian0918 [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
It all starts out with a diamond seed, made of repeating network of carbon atoms, just like natural counterparts. This diamond seed is subjected to extremely high temperature and pressure inside special machines in a lab. Temperatures and pressures can reach as high as 2200°C and 7.7GPa to stimulate the naturally occurring heat in the earth required to create a natural diamond. The outcome – a colourless diamond.

No one has estimated the environmental impact of growing diamonds in labs yet, but it’s certainly less problematic than diamond mines. More importantly perhaps, synthetic diamonds are a strong competitor on the market due to their price, and they can potentially upset the status quo of the unsustainable diamond mining industry, ending the plight of ‘blood diamonds’ once for all.

The verdict

Photo by Bridget Flohe on Unsplash

Other than being cheaper, lab grown diamonds are just like natural diamonds, but largely without consequences of unsustainability. So, the next time you’re thinking of getting your sweetheart (or mum) a diamond accessory, consider these man-made gemstones. Alternatively, opt for diamond simulants. These are stones such as cubic zirconia and rhinestones. Although they are not true carbon crystals, they look aesthetically similar to diamonds.

Save earth, save lives, wear ‘fake’ diamonds.


A trial of red meat and processed meat

I started to rethink my diet after I read some papers relevant to colon cancer. I fell into a dilemma: should I or should I not stop eating red and processed meat? This is not a black or white problem that can be easily answered. However, one night, I had a bizarre dream.

In the court of law, a judge said “Quiet! Quiet! Please quiet!” He then continued to highlight the background of red meat and processed meat.

Background

The history of meat-eating among human beings can be traced back to 2.6 million years ago. With improving quality of life for most people, eating meat is not considered a luxurious diet in daily life. It is notable that the consumption of meat is remarkably high in some industrial countries following recent years. A survey from the World Health Organization estimates that 34,000 cancer deaths are caused by excessive consumption of processed meat in the world annually. According to the Organization of Economic Development and Co-operation and UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Australians devoured 94.6 kilograms of meat per capita in 2017; which makes our red meat consumption rank in top three around the world.

 

Meat consumption around the world

red meat includes beef and veal, pork meat and sheep meat.

Source: OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook (Edition 2017).

 

Subsequently, red meat and processed meat were summoned to appear and gave a private prosecution.

 

Vibrant red meat, in a small salami shop in a Roman market. Image credit Aghogho Omonigho via Flickr

 

My name is all mammalian muscle meat, everyone calls me ‘red meat’. My friend, processed meat is a famous person, who is good at packaging (salting, curing, fermentation, smoking) itself, such as sausages, ham and corned beef. Following studies which show that we contribute to some cancers, people turn pale at the mere mention of us.

 

What types of cancers are linked to eating red meat and processed meat?

Strong but limited evidence illustrates that bowel cancer, pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer are associated with eating red meat. Conversely, processed meat is able to cause bowel cancer. Researchers spent around 20 years to quantify the risk of bowel cancer between 10,210 individuals who were either vegetarians or low-meat consumers and high-meat consumers. Surprisingly, they found that high-red meat consumers do not experience a significantly higher risk of bowel cancer when compared to vegetarian or low-meat consumers. (more details can be found in paper: Vegetarianism, low meat consumption and the risk of colorectal cancer in a population based cohort study.) There is no clear evidence which shows that processed meat and I are not bad for men. Have you thought that cancers are caused by multi-factors, such as cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption and physical activity? Please look at yourself men!

“Red meats and processed meats are demons. Kill them!” A voice comes from jury.

 

Are red meat and processed meat offenders?

As red meat, I provide essential nutrients for people, such as proteins, vitamin B, iron and zinc. My charming friend, processed meat, takes responsibility for increasing your appetite. We have taken pride in one of our successes, which is to be part of Australia’s national dish, the meat pie. We are so tasty! What faults do we have?

Homemade Upper MIchigan Pasty Meat Pie with Ketchup. Image credit Brent Hofacker via Flickr

 

Currently, people often evade us when we say “hi”. They think we increase their risk of bowel cancer. However, high-level and long-term consumption of processed meat or red meat are most likely to increase bowel cancer risk. In this case, people are responsible for their dietary habits.

Although we do not want to mention our competitor, fibre, people can gain multiple benefits from a balanced diet, which consists of limited lean meat with a variety of fibre (vegetables, fruit, grains and legumes). Cancer Australia recommends eating less than 500 grams red meat per week and avoiding processed meat to reduce risk of cancer. You can read more about dietary recommendations on the Australia Cancer Council page.

The audiences fell silent. Suddenly someone yelled out “red meat is lying! They are criminals!” Most people were resentful, then, a big bang was heard in the court. I woke up.

I still remember that it was a foggy Friday afternoon. I decided to buy a BBQ bacon cheese stacker at Hungry Jack’s and plenty of lettuce from the market to spoil myself. At dinner, I ate a dish made of lettuce and was thinking whether I should start quantifying the amount of red meat and processed meat that I am consuming each day.


Victoria’s Cultural Cornerstone – Literally!

 

Melbourne is a beautiful city, anyone can tell you that. And not just due to its elegant skyline; one could easily spend a day only touring the laneways and historical buildings of the city. And if that person was paying close attention, they may have noticed a common thread in many of these sites: they are constructed from the same material.

This, of course, is Victoria’s famous “Bluestone,” so called after its steely blue veneer. It is a stone that has been a prized for its hardness and durability since the 19th century, when the Victorian gold rush saw a huge influx of fortune seekers. With the colonies rapidly expanding, building material was in great demand, and so bluestone was quarried from huge deposits in the surrounding areas.

Some of the most famous of Victoria’s historical buildings are constructed from bluestone. Going clockwise: Melbourne Grammar School (credit: Donaldytong via Wikimedia), Saint Paul’s Anglican Church in Kyneton (credit: Diverman via Wikimedia), Old Melbourne Gaol (credit: Bidgee via Wikimedia), St Patrick’s Cathedral (credit: Donaldytong via Wikimedia).

 

 

What Melbourne was built upon.

In Melbourne, and many other Victorian towns, Bluestone was used as the foundation of many buildings and was extensively used as cobblestone. It has proved itself to be extremely robust: take the Old Melbourne Gaol for example. Constructed in the 1850s, only an occasional light wash is needed in order to maintain it. Even today, bluestone remains ever popular: next time you’re in the CBD, look down. Chances are you’re treading on bluestone pavement!

 

But what is bluestone exactly?

Well, as it turns out, Victorian bluestone is actually basalt; a volcanic rock that spewed forth as lava millions of years ago, then subsequently cooled. These eruptions occurred remarkably recently: beginning a mere 4.5 million years ago and continuing intermittently until around 4000BC. While these time periods may seem unimaginable from a human perspective, in geological timescales they are a blink of the eye. Even so, this series of volcanic activity managed to produce a huge amount of lava and ash, creating what is now known as the Newer Volcanics Province. It is the cooled lava from the province, now basalt, that is bluestone.

 

Wait a minute: Australia has volcanoes?

Indeed, it does! While Australia has the deserved reputation for being flat and tectonically inert, there are hundreds of extinct volcanoes dotted across the South-Eastern region. These are the volcanoes that created the Province and are also responsible for some of the area’s most recognisable natural landmarks!

Mostly flat and featureless, driving through the Victorian countryside can be a bit of a drag. However, occasionally conspicuous mounds will appear, rising comparatively high into the air to offer a refreshing change in scenery. These are scoria cones, often optimistically called mountains. They can rise to be several hundred metres high and are actually mounds of ash and volcanic rock created by brief, violent eruptions. The most well-known of these include Mt Sugarloaf, Mt Elephant and Red Rock Lookout.

When creating these scoria cones, lava can sometimes overflow and spill out over the landscape. In some places these lava flows accumulate into massive deposits of basalt, forming the bluestone quarries throughout south Victoria.

These scoria cones are found throughout south-eastern Australia, and in Victoria especially. At Red Rock Lookout, maar lakes can be seen as well. Going clockwise: Mt Sugarloaf (credit: denisbin via Flickr), Mt Elephant (credit: Mattinbgn via Wikimedia), Red Rock Lookout (credit: Sean O’Brien via Wikimedia)

 

Crater lakes leave an explosive impression!

Often occurring close to these scoria cones are maar crater lakes. They form when magma rising from within the earth encounters groundwater, causing enormous explosive eruptions of steam and lava. The huge hole left behind forms the lake, and the ejecta rains down and forms scoria cones. Famous maars that are a part of the Newer Volcanics Province include Lake Bullen-Merri, Lake Gnotuk and Lake Purrumbete.

 

Surviving through cultural memory

The most famous maar lake in Australia is also a part of the Province. The Blue Lake of Mt Gambier, in South Australia, erupted as little as 6000 years ago. This is so recent that many believe that the actual event is still remembered today.

There are several aboriginal stories from the region that bear remarkable similarities to the events that must have transpired. The stories have been passed down orally for thousands of years. They detail the earth rumbling, cracking and heating, the air filling with dust, and ear-shattering shrieks. Interpreted by them to be the works of the Rainbow Serpent and other folkloric characters, it could also very well be an eyewitness account of the end of Australian volcanism.

 

Future volcanic eruptions: should I be worried?

After all this talk about volcanoes and explosions, some of you may be worried. If these eruptions have been occurring for millions of years, and only stopped a couple of thousand years ago, what’s the guarantee that they won’t resume in the future? Well, the short answer is: there isn’t one. But reassuringly, volcanism in Victoria seems to only occur cyclically every 25000 years or so.  So if the volcanoes were to return, it definitely wouldn’t be our (or even our great-great-grandchildren’s) problem.

 

The Newer Volcanics Province has shaped Victoria in uncountable ways: literally in the formation of our landscape, historically in the bluestone of our buildings, and culturally in the Aboriginal mythos.  So the next time you visit an aboriginal cultural centre, or any of Melbourne’s historical sites or even if you decide to take a break from the city to explore the surrounding countryside, keep on the lookout for these links to Victoria’s past.


DNA size to scale, the biggest instruction set ever written

Let’s say we can print your DNA in a book, how many pages should it have? Fortunately for us, The Human Code Foundation literally printed a human genome, which is the entire collection of DNA a living thing has, and this resulted in 175 volumes of 1,600 pages each! The enormous amount of information that defines a living organism is stored in these DNA molecules.

Not surprised? Well now consider this, that collection of books is the amount of information we can find in a single cell when it contains a unique copy of the code, also most of our cells include twice this amount and we are made of trillions of cells!

An even more interesting question might be: How cells manage to store so much in such a small space?
Instead of just giving you numbers like the length of DNA molecules inside a single cell, or the diameter of the nucleus, which is the inner compartment in which cells store DNA, allow me to picture the proportion between the size of both, DNA molecules and the nucleus, in terms of objects we are more familiar with.
First, consider that we are about to use as reference the equivalent of two copies of the entire Human Code books collection mentioned above because this is the amount of information present in most of our cells. Actually, if we could put all these 46 DNA molecules one next to each other as a stretched line it should reach 2 meters in length! On the other hand, the diameter of a nucleus is equivalent to 0.00001 meters, see where we are going?

Now let’s use our imagination:
If a mandarin orange represents the nucleus of a cell and the 46 DNA molecules inside it are represented as silk fibres, then the resulting length of putting the 46 fibres next to each other as a stretched line should reach 16 kilometres, which is longer than the depth of the Mariana Trench, the deepest spot on Earth’s oceans. Take a moment to picture that in your mind, you swimming at that point, and all the distance between you and the bottom of the ocean … inside a delicious mandarin orange!

 

Location of the Mariana Trench. Image by Kmusser on Wikimedia Commons.

To be fair the width of the fibres are also important and above we represented them as silk fibres following the same proportion considering the mandarin orange as a reference to a human cell nucleus. Also, the width of a silk fibre is slightly below the smallest object visible to the naked eye but still, I am sure you can better feel the dimension of the question we did before: How cells manage to store so much in such a small space?
As you might expect, a complex packaging system is part of the answer and the key idea behind it is that it shows several levels of folding. A group of auxiliary proteins called histones play a central role and the resulting DNA-protein structure is known as chromatin. Let’s take a closer look.

Electron micrograph of loosened chromatin. Image by Chris Woodcock, derivative work made by Gouttegd on Wikimedia Commons.

In the image only the first packaging level is visible: the nucleosome. These units, seen as black dots (black arrowheads), are made by histones and the DNA, seen as lines between the dots (white arrowheads), wraps around each unit almost two times. From here some sections of chromatin get more tightened as the fibre made of nucleosomes coils in the second level of packaging: the 30-nano meter fibre. Yes, most of the names in biology are as original as this one.
Additional levels of packaging arise when the cell enters division, but that is a story for another day. More research is needed, as new discoveries always come up with more questions.


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