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    40 years after the first IVF baby, a look back at the birth of a new era

    (Article by Laura Sanders from ScienceNews.org)

    At 11:47 p.m. on July 25, 1978, a baby girl was born by cesarean section at the Royal Oldham Hospital in England. This part of her arrival was much like many other babies’ births: 10 fingers and 10 toes, 5 pounds, 12 ounces of screaming, perfect newborn. Her parents named her Louise. But this isn’t the most interesting part about Louise’s origins. For that, you have to go back to November 12, 1977, also near midnight. That’s when Louise Joy Brown was conceived in a petri dish.

    Louise was the first baby born as a result of in vitro fertilization, or IVF, a procedure that unites sperm and egg outside of the body. Her birth was heralded around the world, with headlines declaring that the first test-tube baby had been born. The announcement was met with excitement from some, fear and hostility from others. But one thing was certain: This was truly the beginning of a new era in how babies are created.

    To celebrate Louise’s 40th birthday, I took at look at IVF’s origins, its present form and its future. IVF’s story starts around 1890, when scientist Walter Heape transferred a fertilized egg from an Angora rabbit into a different breed, and saw that Angora bunnies resulted.

    Scientists soon began to work on other animals before turning eventually to humans. A fascinating account of the early days, written by IVF pioneer Simon Fishel in the July issue of Fertility and Sterility, recounts some of the more lively — and shocking — aspects of the nascent field. For example, IVF researcher Robert Edwards, who won a 2010 Nobel Prize for his work, used to carry eggs between labs in Oldham and Cambridge in a container strapped to his body. And some of the early experiments involved inseminating the eggs with the researchers’ own sperm. There was a steep learning curve that led to many failures: More than 300 women had oocytes, or egg cells, removed without success before Louise was conceived.

    Bu then things turned around. On November 9, Lesley Brown began to ovulate (naturally, since the researchers hadn’t had success using hormones to stimulate ovulation in many  women). The next day, researchers saw that her left ovary contained a single follicle, the structure that holds an oocyte. Along with the surrounding fluid, that follicle was aspirated and carried by a nurse to another researcher and then finally to Edwards, who was waiting at a microscope. The egg was fertilized with sperm and allowed to mature into an 8-cell embryo. At midnight on the 12th, it was ready for the fateful transfer back to Lesley.

    From there, the research took off, often with dicey funding and public outcry. Along with colleague Patrick Steptoe, Edwards and other pioneers opened the first private IVF clinic in 1980. Today, clinics exist worldwide. That brings us to more modern numbers. In 2016 in the United States, an estimated 76,930 babies were born via assisted reproductive technologies. The vast majority of those babies were born via IVF. Over the past decade, assisted reproductive technology birth rates have doubled over the past decade, the CDC estimates. Today, about 1.7 percent of all babies born in the United States each year are conceived via the technology. Worldwide, millions of babies have been born with IVF.

    The method has been hugely successful in helping families who otherwise wouldn’t be able to have children. And overall, the procedure has a good safety record. A study of Israeli teenagers born via IVF, for instance, didn’t turn up any problems when the teens were compared with those conceived the old-fashioned way. The teenagers all had comparable mental health, physical health and brainpower, researchers reported in 2017 in Fertility and Sterility.

    But that doesn’t mean the technology will stay in its current form forever. Evolving biological capabilities might one day lead to better genetic screenings of embryos before they are implanted. And genetic tweaks might one day be possible, given the rapid rise of gene editing technology. Already, scientists have repaired a gene related to a heart defect in human embryos.

    Other improvements might come too, such as making it easier on women to produce eggs for extraction. Less extreme hormone regimens might one day become more standard. With advances in stem cell technology, eggs may no longer be needed at all. Scientists may one day be able to coax skin cells into gametes. Scientists have already turned mouse skin cells into eggs and combined them with sperm to produce pups.

    As I mull over the past and present of IVF, I’m amazed at how much progress has been made, both in labs and in clinics, and I suspect that the most exciting advances are yet to come. I also think about all of these well-loved babies, born to families destined to treasure them for the masterpieces of biology that they are.

    Do you really need to properly eject a USB drive before yanking it out?

    USB drive

    (Article by Rob Verger from popsci.com)

    Pull a USB flash drive out of your Mac without first clicking to eject it, and you’ll get a stern, shameful warning: “Disk Not Ejected Properly.”

    But do you really need to eject a thumb drive the right way?

    Probably not. Just wait for it to finish copying your data, give it a few seconds, then yank. To be on the cautious side, be more conservative with external hard drives, especially the old ones that actually spin.

    That’s not the official procedure, nor the most conservative approach. And in a worst-case scenario, you risk corrupting a file or—even more unlikely—the entire storage device.

    “I’ve been pulling out thumb drives since the last five years and I haven’t had a problem,” says Frank Wang, a PhD candidate in computer science at MIT. Granted, that’s anecdotal evidence, but he estimates that the vast majority of the time, “for the average user, nothing bad would happen.”

    It’s worth taking a look at what’s happening behind the scenes when you remove a thumb drive, and why it’s unlikely to mess up much, if anything.

    What could go wrong?

    First, some context, and the bad possibilities.

    Say you’re copying a file from your computer to a USB drive. Your machine may actually be using something called a write cache; instead of transfering the file from one device to the other directly, it’s using that cache to make the process more efficient. The cache is just local memory storage that your computer is really good at writing to, quickly.

    “When you write to the drive, it will actually just write it into memory, and then come back to you and say, ‘yeah I wrote it,’” says Andy Pavlo, an assistant professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University. “But it’s actually not made it to the drive yet.”

    With a write cache, your computer will finish the copying process in the background. All of it happens very quickly, from a human perspective: “We’re talking like milliseconds here,” Pavlo says. A Mac’s operating system always uses the write cache, but on a Windows machine, the user can decide whether to enable it or not; the default is that the write cache is off.

    Managing data in the write cache is where the “eject” feature comes in. “The eject basically says, ‘okay, we’re pulling this thing out, flush the write cache,’” Pavlo says.

    Knowing about the write cache is key because there is a theoretical risk that while you think the computer has finished transferring your files, it actually hasn’t. For that reason, Pavlo recommends properly ejecting if you’re using a Mac, because it always uses the write cache feature.

    So what bad stuff could happen if you pull the thumb drive out while you’re copying a file to it, or while the write cache is doing something in the background?

    The first possibility is that the file you were copying to the USB drive gets corrupted (although chances are the original file on your computer would still be okay). After that, there’s the chance that another file on that thumb drive gets corrupted, too.

    The biggest problem would be if you were to corrupt the USB drive itself—the file system metadata could be ruined, meaning the drive wouldn’t know where things are stored.

    For the record, SanDisk, which makes external storage devices like USB drives, says to follow official protocol. “Whether it’s a USB drive, external drive or SD card, we always recommend safely ejecting the device before pulling it out of your computer, camera, or phone,” Brian Pridgeon, director of product marketing for SanDisk, said in a statement. “Failure to safely eject the drive may potentially damage the data due to processes happening in the system background that are unseen to the user.”

    But let’s be optimistic

    So should you bother to hit eject? “Generally, it’s not going to make much of a difference,” says Jim Waldo, the chief technology officer at Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

    “The catastrophic form of failure,” he says, “would be that if you picked just exactly the right time when it was in the middle of a write, so it had written some bits and not others, you could corrupt your USB drive—but your chance of doing that is so slight, that I have never had it happen, [and] never heard of it happening.”

    In other words: corrupting that drive is very, very unlikely.

    If you’re concerned you might interrupt something the write cache is doing in the background after you’ve copied a file, rest assured that the process finishes so quickly that humans who move at regular speed shouldn’t worry about that, says Waldo, “unless you’re the Flash.”

    Frank Wang, the MIT PhD student, agrees that fast write speeds to modern USB drives are key. “By the time it looks like it’s done, and you’re able to perform the action of pulling it out, it would have already finished,” he says.

    In short, follow these rules of thumb if you want to live dangerously and just yank that USB drive out: Don’t do it while it is actively copying, and don’t do it within milliseconds after it has finished. Be aware that a Mac will be using a write cache, while a Windows machine probably is not. The more modern the equipment, the better your chances that nothing bad will happen.

    Finally, it’s best to play it safe when dealing with something like an external hard drive (although it may be hard to corrupt a modern, solid-state external drive). If you’re using one to make backups of your computer, for example, like with Time Machine on a Mac, it’s best to hit eject. That rule applies even more so to an old, spinning drive. It takes much longer to write information to a spinning drive than it does something with solid-state storage, and since it has moving parts, it is more susceptible to damage.

    “In terms of threats to worry about on a USB drive, unplugging it without ejecting the drive is way down there,” Waldo says. A bigger threat? Plugging one in. That’s because, he points out, there’s always the chance it has a virus on it.

    Scary Science: How Your Body Responds to Fear

    (Article from livescience.com)

    Cultural influences can lead people to be fearful of certain things, such as black cats or killer clowns. But there are also universal triggers of fear, according to neuropsychiatrist Dr. Katherine Brownlowe, chief of the Division of Neurobehavioral Health at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

    "Typically, those are things that are going to make you die," Brownlowe told Live Science.

    "Heights, animals, lightning, spiders, somebody running after you in a dark alley — generally, people have some kind of fear response to those kinds of things," she said.

    Fear is, first and foremost, a survival mechanism. When the senses detect a source of stress that might pose a threat, the brain activates a cascade of reactions that prime us either to battle for our lives or to escape as quickly as possible — a reaction in mammals that is known as the "fight-or-flight" response.

    Fear is regulated by a part of the brain within the temporal lobes known as the amygdala, Brownlowe told Live Science. When stress activates the amygdala, it temporarily overrides conscious thought so that the body can divert all of its energy to facing the threat — whatever that might be.

    "The release of neurochemicals and hormones causes an increase in heart rate and breathing, shunts blood away from the intestines and sends more to the muscles, for running or fighting," Brownlowe explained. "It puts all the brain's attention into 'fight-or-flight.'"

    Some of our bodies' responses to mortal terror are throwbacks to mechanisms that served our ancient ancestors, though these responses aren't as useful to us anymore. When fear raises goose bumps on our skin, it makes the hair on our arms stand up — which doesn't seem to help us either fight an enemy or escape from one. But when our early human ancestors were covered with hair, fluffing it up could have made them look bigger and more imposing, Brownlowe said.

    Freezing in place like a deer caught in a car's headlights is another frequent response to being scared, and Brownlowe noted that this behavior is commonly seen in animals that are preyed upon.

    "If you freeze, then the predator is less likely to see you and pay attention to you — and, hopefully, less likely to eat you," she said.

    The emotional response that we feel when we're afraid serves a purpose, as well — it heightens alertness, keeping the body and brain focused on staying safe until the threat is neutralized.

    Even babies can be fearful of things such as loud noises, sudden movements and unfamiliar faces, and young children may be terrified of things that adults know aren't real — like a monster hiding under the bed or a boogeyman in the closet. It isn't until kids reach age 7 or so that they can differentiate between real-world threats and threats that live only in their imaginations, Brownlowe said.

    What makes humans' responses to fear different from other animals' is that people can process that fear and tamp it down once they consciously understand that they are not really in danger.

    "We can get startled, but instead of running away like bunny rabbits, we reassess the situation and figure out that we don't need to respond in a 'fight-or-flight' manner," Brownlowe said. "And then we can just get on with our day."

    Some people even deliberately seek out the experience of being frightened — they watch horror movies, brave the terrifying drop of towering roller coasters and do whatever generates a feeling of immediate personal risk. According to Brownlowe, they're enjoying the chemical aftermath that follows a rush of fear — a feeling that can be euphoric.

    "Once the 'fight-or-flight' signals cease, the brain releases neurotransmitters and hormones that mediate what we call the 'rest-and-digest' system," Brownlowe said. "The heart rate is coming down, the breathing is slowing, goose bumps are relaxing. There's a sense of internal cognitive relief in the body, and that feels good."

    The modern world comes with a number of stresses that early humans never faced and never could have imagined — financial burdens, performance anxieties, and a number of other social pressures that can generate fear and crushing anxiety. A good old-fashioned scare can make some of the everyday fears we face seem less terrifying, Brownlowe added.

    "It gives people perspective," she said. "If you're anxious about talking to your boss about getting a raise and then you get the crap scared out of you, talking to your boss is no big deal."

    Original article on Live Science.

    Materials may lead to self-healing smartphones.

    A new material not only heals itself, but it also stretches up to 50 times its usual size; these properties could fix your phone's battery if it cracks or prevent it from breaking in the first place.
    Credit: Wang lab


    Taking a cue from the Marvel Universe, researchers report that they have developed a self-healing polymeric material with an eye toward electronics and soft robotics that can repair themselves. The material is stretchable and transparent, conducts ions to generate current and could one day help your broken smartphone go back together again.

    The researchers will present their work today at the 253rd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

    "When I was young, my idol was Wolverine from the X-Men," Chao Wang, Ph.D., says. "He could save the world, but only because he could heal himself. A self-healing material, when carved into two parts, can go back together like nothing has happened, just like our human skin. I've been researching making a self-healing lithium ion battery, so when you drop your cell phone, it could fix itself and last much longer."

    The key to self-repair is in the chemical bonding. Two types of bonds exist in materials, Wang explains. There are covalent bonds, which are strong and don't readily reform once broken; and noncovalent bonds, which are weaker and more dynamic. For example, the hydrogen bonds that connect water molecules to one another are non-covalent, breaking and reforming constantly to give rise to the fluid properties of water. "Most self-healing polymers form hydrogen bonds or metal-ligand coordination, but these aren't suitable for ionic conductors," Wang says.

    Wang's team at the University of California, Riverside, turned instead to a different type of non-covalent bond called an ion-dipole interaction, a force between charged ions and polar molecules. "Ion-dipole interactions have never been used for designing a self-healing polymer, but it turns out that they're particularly suitable for ionic conductors," Wang says. The key design idea in the development of the material was to use a polar, stretchable polymer, poly(vinylidene fluoride-co-hexafluoropropylene), plus a mobile, ionic salt. The polymer chains are linked to each other by ion-dipole interactions between the polar groups in the polymer and the ionic salt.

    The resulting material could stretch up to 50 times its usual size. After being torn in two, the material automatically stitched itself back together completely within one day.

    As a test, the researchers generated an "artificial muscle" by placing a non-conductive membrane between two layers of the ionic conductor. The new material responded to electrical signals, bringing motion to these artificial muscles, so named because biological muscles similarly move in response to electrical signals (though Wang's materials are not intended for medical applications).

    For the next step, the researchers are working on altering the polymer to improve the material's properties. For example, they are testing the material in harsh conditions, such as high humidity. "Previous self-healing polymers haven't worked well in high humidity, Wang says. "Water gets in there and messes things up. It can change the mechanical properties. We are currently tweaking the covalent bonds within the polymer itself to get these materials ready for real-world applications."