Issue 66

Toe-curling science, anti-aging in space?, the best countries for organ donation

April 20, 2019

Hello friend! Welcome to Scrap Facts.

I'm a reporter covering health and science with insatiable curiosity. I love everything I learn, not all of which gets its own story. Each week, I'll bring you some of my favorite facts that I picked up on the job or while out living life.

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My goodness, what a long time it’s been! I’ve been working on a project that’ll be up next week. I think you’re really gonna like it.

Instead of one email at the end of the week, you’ll hear from me every day next week as we publish new stories.

For now, here’s a regular dose of scrap facts.

Scientists use toe-curling as an indication of sexual pleasure in animals.

Found while reporting: Dolphins’ complex clitorises are the key to understanding their sex lives.

Because we have yet to develop the ability to talk to animals, it’s pretty hard to estimate what they’re feeling.

Sometimes, scientists can guess by studying their anatomy—which is the case in the above study with dolphins. (Apparently, somewhere in Mount Holyoke College, there is a facility storage over 300 samples of dolphin, whale, and porpoise reproductive tracts.)

Other times, though, scientists study animal behavior to approximate what’s going on. It’s an empathetic approach: Several years ago, I spoke with an evolutionary biologist named Barbara King who argued that animals obvious grieve based on the way that they behave around their loved ones’ bodies.

In this case, though, scientists have been trying to figure out if animals copulate for any other reason besides reproduction. So far, it appears that some types of primates, like bonobos, dolphins, and some rats actually get some enjoyment out of sex.

Dara Orbach, a mammalian biologist who studies whale, porpoise, and dolphin reproductive patterns and co-authored the paper above, told me that in the case of animals with feet, scientists have also used toe curling as a measure of whether or not they’re having fun. Dolphins lack toes, so it’s impossible to see this particular physiological response.

That said, there is another behavioral clue dolphins give us—they tend to mate outside of when they’re fertile, and they also tend to engage in same-sex copulation. Orbach told me that this is likely not just for pleasure, but because sex can sometimes play a role in dolphin social structure.

Her work—which was an in-depth look at the structure of dolphin clitorises—strongly suggested, but still can’t prove, that female dolphins gain some pleasure from reproduction. But, on the other hand, that also means it’s impossible to say that it isn’t true too.

Space seems to have a weird, anti-aging effect on your chromosomes.

Found while reporting: NASA’s twins study shows how the body changes in space.

There was a lot of space news last week (hear about the black hole?), and the story I got to focus on had to do with what travel does to the body.

Scott and Mark Kelly are identical twins (read: same genetic code) and astronauts. NASA took advantage of this fact to conduct an experiment on the physiological changes that occur with prolonged time in space while actually having a control.

Scott Kelly spent roughly a year in space, while Mark remained behind. They took all kinds of data on themselves, including blood, stool, and urine samples (Scott stored his in a freezer in the International Space Station). When Scott came back, scientists compared all of his biological data to all of Mark’s.

The paper had no major good or bad conclusions. Scott’s body definitely changed, sometimes in ways that scientists had expected, like Scott’s eye shape changing. Others were previously unknown, like Scott’s microbiome changing.

And one was completely bizarre: Scott’s telomeres grew. Telomeres are a part of the chromosome that shorten with age; scientists don’t totally know why Scott’s grew in space, but one theory is that the radiative stress of space (there isn’t a protective atmosphere in space) meant that Scott’s DNA was working overtime to try to protect itself from radiative damage.

The weird thing is, when Scott returned, most of the changes his body underwent in space—including the telomere lengthening—went back to levels similar to Mark’s. So even if space travel could make your cells appear younger, the effects would only be visible to other astronauts traveling with you.

In France and Spain, ambulances are a little more at peace with death.

Found while reporting: Pig brain cells revived after death show that the brain may be more resilient than we thought.

This week, researchers reported that they could make dead brain cells from pigs act like they were alive again. They didn’t reanimate the whole brain, and there was no pig consciousness reconstructed or anything—but it truly sounded like the stuff from science fiction.

Naturally, it sent bioethicists into a frenzy. If you can reanimate brain cells after death…what does that mean for the definition of “brain-dead”? Brain death which is typically the point at which people can become organ donors if they agreed to do so while they were living.

Some bioethicists pointed out that while the tech used to give some activity back to pig brain cells could one day be a treatment for people who have suffered from strokes. The flipside of that, though, is that it could make it more difficult for people to donate organs.

In the US, typically people don’t donate organs unless they happen to be declared brain-dead at the hospital, and all other treatments have been exhausted. Only then will doctors start prepping the body for transplantation. In France and Spain, though, EMTs are actually equipped to start the process of prepping an organ donor when they arrive in some cases. Usually, this happens when a patient has a fatal heart attack. EMTs will try to revive the patient for about 20 minutes, but, if it’s not working, they will then move on to prep the body for organ donation for when they arrive at a hospital.

If you’d like to read more about this topic and debate around death, check out this commentary by two bioethicists from Case Western University.

Stuff I learned from others:

The idea that breakfast is critical for health largely comes from the wellness-loving, deeply religious, doctor who created cornflakes, from Ranjani Chakraborty for Vox (video).

Cottage cheese can take days to make. Really makes me appreciate my new favorite breakfast all the more, from Liz Webber for the Quartz Obsession email. (Don’t @ me it’s good.)

Any medical symbol that has two snakes intertwining a staff with wings is WRONG, from Five Guys, a user on Medium. (It should be the Rod of Asclepius, which is one snake around a staff without wings.)

Animal of the week: Cassowaries.

You may have heard that a man in Florida was killed by a cassowary earlier this week. The incident is tragic, but suggests that perhaps, Florida should make it illegal to own these human-sized flightless birds, who come from Australia and the surrounding region. Right now, they’re considered to be a class II animal, which means they’re more dangerous than a house cat, but less so than a tiger.

This week, my colleague Ephrat Livni wrote about the incident, and in doing so, conveyed a tone of respect for these solitary creatures. They have colorful plumage, enjoy fruit, and have two dagger-like claws that are four inches long. They’re incredibly athletic, and can reach speeds of 31 mph and jump seven feet. And a glare from a female is enough to make a male retreat.

Long reads of the week: Should pregnant women go to prison? Last week, my colleague Zoë Schlanger published the story of Siwatu-Salama Ra, who went to Michigan’s only women’s prison at 6.5 months pregnant. Her reporting sheds light on a major way in which the criminal justice system completely overlooks arguably the most dangerous, completely natural experience a woman will go through in her lifetime.

That’s all for now. Stay curious, friend! <3

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PS: I got a cool new sketched headshot! If you like it, check out more of the artist’s work here.