Weird Science: Two-Headed Worms; Wood is the New Steel; and Making Eye Contact

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Weird Science: Two-Headed Worms; Wood is the New Steel; and Making Eye Contact

If you thought the end of 2016 was going to be a slow for new science, think again. A scientist at Tufts hopes to use the regenerative powers of two-headed worms to help regrow limbs in humans. Over in the U.K., wood is apparently back and stronger than ever—literally stronger than steel. And, finally, over in Japan, the notoriously anti-social hikikomori have possibly found an excuse for why it’s impossible to talk and look someone in the eyes.


Scientists Use Two-Headed Worms to Regrow Human Limbs

Two-headed worms? Fairly normal in the world of annelids. But using two-headed worms to regrow limbs? That sounds like something out of Dr. Frankenstein’s Swiss laboratory or a cheesy slasher flick featuring 1990 Kevin Bacon. But researcher Michael Levin out of Tufts University hopes to test his limb-regenerating experiments on humans.

Since 2013, Levin has been applying his knowledge of biological regeneration found in worms on … other animals. Thus far, his laboratory, probably eerily reminiscent of Sid’s bedroom in Toy Story, has already seen eyes implanted on the back of tadpoles, and six legs grown on frogs. And now the researcher hopes to bring his findings to humans, particularly to army vets who’ve lost a limb.

The process behind Levin’s findings is fairly simple. He manipulates the way electricity flows through cells. So, for example, think about a man missing an arm. Doctors will clean out the wound and prepare an amputation site, exposing raw nerves, bones, tendons, muscles, and tissues, for regrowth. From there, the amputation site will be fitted with a sleeve made of silicone, rubber, and silk—mimicking the habitat of a womb—to keep the the area moist. After that, the arm will be treated with faint electrical charges, which will act sort of like a software code signaling cell division to the rest of the body. Now, the arm grows.

Of course, this regeneration will not be a quick process. Levin expects regrowth to take ten years and is confident we’ll see the process in our lifetime.


Wooden Skyscrapers Might Become the New Norm

Will wood become the new steel? Scientists at Cambridge University think it’s possible.

A group of researchers looking to determine the strength of cell walls of materials like wood and straw have found a polymer 10,000 times thinner than human hair and stronger than steel could rejuvenate the wood economy.

The study aimed to solve how sugars in cells bind to form indigestible materials—not unlike what happens to the digestive system on spicy curry night.

Lead author Professor Paul Dupree said: “What we found was that cellulose induces Xylan to untwist itself and straighten out, allowing it to attach itself to the cellulose molecule.” Once attached to the molecule, it acts as a kind of superglue on steroids that can protect the cellulose or bind the molecules together, making structures ridiculously strong.

According to Dupree, the solution is “elegant and simple.”

Let’s hope, first, scientists can create a wood strong enough to withhold the wrath of an eight-year-old’s fist at karate practice before they start building skyscrapers.


Scientific Proof Shows People Find it Hard to Maintain Eye Contact.

Those of you who struggle to maintain eye contact—or have a fear of staring contests—finally have some scientific backing to that unease. Researchers at Kyoto University have found an explanation for why it seems nearly impossible to maintain eye contact when talking to someone. The answer: Brain overload.

The researchers examined the brain’s processing during a conversation. To do this, they had twenty-six volunteers—yeah, yeah, small sample size—participate in a simple word-association game, in which they were shown a noun and asked to respond with a verb—e.g. Hammer >> pound. In the lab, the volunteers then interacted with a face on a computer as they played the game. What happened was that for more difficult words (e.g. radiator), participants who broke eye contact were able to respond to the noun faster (e.g. heat) than those who maintained eye contact when thinking of a response.

Both researchers suggested that this is the brain’s way of focusing to fulfill an obligation—or response, which is probably a good thing because there’s nothing worse than staring into blank, unresponsive eyes.

Top photo by Tobi Firestone CC BY-NC 2.0

Tom is a travel writer, part-time hitchhiker, and he’s currently trying to imitate Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? but with more sunscreen and jorts.