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Teratomas: Terrible, but Maybe Also Terrific

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I just wrote a piece about stem cells, and I'd like to take a moment to talk about one of the things I briefly mention in the article: teratomas, which, like most of the best things in medicine, are both intellectually fascinating and spectacularly gross. (For the sake of the squeamish, I'm not including any pictures except the one at left [apparently her name is "Tabitha"], but there is a disgusting one here.)

Teratomas are essentially tumors made of cells that have decided to differentiate into any old thing -- teeth, hair, fat. That goes a long way toward explaining their name, which comes from the root word for "monster" (as those of you who participated in our coin-a-new-word contest will know). Normally they tend to arise in the ovaries, testes, and sacra -- but in experiments, they also seem to turn up where scientists implant embryonic stem cells. You may know them from season 2 of Grey's Anatomy, in which a man thinks he is pregnant a la Arnold Schwarzenegger but turns out to be carrying a large teratoma instead. But what interests me most about them (at present, anyway) is their relationship with the aforementioned stem cells. Yes, they present a problem for embryonic research. But they might end up providing a solution to that very same problem:

As clusters of human cells that are not independent organisms, teratomas may prove better test subjects for drugs than lab animals, and they are inspiring ways to grow stem cells without harvesting embryos. ...

Teratomas' most fascinating quality, Dr. Skorecki said, is their capacity to generate a smorgasbord of human tissue varieties, including bones, skin and ligaments. As a result, researchers testing a new medicine on a cancer-seeded teratoma can gauge what effects the drug will have on different cell types without enlisting human subjects. ...

Like ordinary embryos, the tumors produce stem cells that have the potential to develop into hundreds of tissue types — raw material researchers may need to treat diseases like Alzheimer's.

PS: My husband says I've written the plural of teratoma incorrectly and that it should be "teratomata." Well, you say tera-tomata, I say tera-tomahta...

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FRED TANNEAU/AFP/Getty Images
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Animals
Fisherman Catches Rare Blue Lobster, Donates It to Science
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FRED TANNEAU/AFP/Getty Images

Live lobsters caught off the New England coast are typically brown, olive-green, or gray—which is why one New Hampshire fisherman was stunned when he snagged a blue one in mid-July.

As The Independent reports, Greg Ward, from Rye, New Hampshire, discovered the unusual lobster while examining his catch near the New Hampshire-Maine border. Ward initially thought the pale crustacean was an albino lobster, which some experts estimate to be a one-in-100-million discovery. However, a closer inspection revealed that the lobster's hard shell was blue and cream.

"This one was not all the way white and not all the way blue," Ward told The Portsmouth Herald. "I've never seen anything like it."

While not as rare as an albino lobster, blue lobsters are still a famously elusive catch: It's said that the odds of their occurrence are an estimated one in two million, although nobody knows the exact numbers.

Instead of eating the blue lobster, Ward decided to donate it to the Seacoast Science Center in Rye. There, it will be studied and displayed in a lobster tank with other unusually colored critters, including a second blue lobster, a bright orange lobster, and a calico-spotted lobster.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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Courtesy Murdoch University
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Animals
Australian Scientists Discover First New Species of Sunfish in 125 Years
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Courtesy Murdoch University

Scientists have pinpointed a whole new species of the largest bony fish in the world, the massive sunfish, as we learned from Smithsonian magazine. It's the first new species of sunfish proposed in more than 125 years.

As the researchers report in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, the genetic differences between the newly named hoodwinker sunfish (Mola tecta) and its other sunfish brethren was confirmed by data on 27 different samples of the species collected over the course of three years. Since sunfish are so massive—the biggest can weigh as much as 5000 pounds—they pose a challenge to preserve and store, even for museums with large research collections. Lead author Marianne Nyegaard of Murdoch University in Australia traveled thousands of miles to find and collected genetic data on sunfish stranded on beaches. At one point, she was asked if she would be bringing her own crane to collect one.

Nyegaard also went back through scientific literature dating back to the 1500s, sorting through descriptions of sea monsters and mermen to see if any of the documentation sounded like observations of the hoodwinker. "We retraced the steps of early naturalists and taxonomists to understand how such a large fish could have evaded discovery all this time," she said in a press statement. "Overall, we felt science had been repeatedly tricked by this cheeky species, which is why we named it the 'hoodwinker.'"

Japanese researchers first detected genetic differences between previously known sunfish and a new, unknown species 10 years ago, and this confirms the existence of a whole different type from species like the Mola mola or Mola ramsayi.

Mola tecta looks a little different from other sunfish, with a more slender body. As it grows, it doesn't develop the protruding snout or bumps that other sunfish exhibit. Similarly to the others, though, it can reach a length of 8 feet or more. 

Based on the stomach contents of some of the specimens studied, the hoodwinker likely feeds on salps, a jellyfish-like creature that it probably chomps on (yes, sunfish have teeth) during deep dives. The species has been found near New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and southern Chile.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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