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The Centaur that Killed the Common Cold

A promising series of tests of a new antiviral drug has researchers so jazzed up about its potential success that they're throwing around wild mythology-inspired comparisons to herald its ingenious lethality. If the drug's daunting name—DRACO—isn't enough to unnerve pesky viruses, sending them scurrying to the darkest recesses of your outermost extremities in search of safe haven, then Bucknell University molecular virologist Marie Pizzorno's explanation of how it mimics the attributes of a centaur surely will:

"The horse is one piece of a protein that normally we make and that can recognize the [long double-stranded DNA] made by the virus, and the man is something that triggers the cell-death pathway."

Most viruses act "sort of like the aliens in the Alien movies," explains Todd Rider, the co-author of the drug study. They enter a cell, replicate inside it, create double-stranded RNA, and destroy the cell from the inside. Up until now, most attempts to attack viruses with antiviral medications have been target specific, with each drug aimed at a particular strain of virus. This has allowed viruses to mutate or become resistant to any given medication.

According to this very illuminating National Geographic post, what DRACO does, inventively, is work with the body's natural defenses to detect the whereabouts of virus-generated double-stranded RNA. The body naturally releases proteins that latch onto the viral RNA to prevent replication. DRACO hitches a ride with these proteins, then triggers the cell's self-destruct mechanism when it locates a virus... halting it in its tracks.

Researchers believe that DRACO's ability to work against multiple viruses simultaneously might signal a sea-change in the way we combat viral infections, much like antibiotics changed the way we dealt with bacterial infections. In addition to possibly eradicating major viruses like HIV, Ebola, and smallpox, the drug might one day help eliminate the supremely aggravating common cold. Though still in its early stages of development, and probably about ten years away from your local pharmacy's highly ineffectual Cold and Flu remedy shelf, DRACO is doing its best Chiron impersonation against our most deadly viruses.

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Animals
How a Pregnant Rhino Named Victoria Could Save an Entire Subspecies
Sudan, the last male member of the northern white rhino subspecies, while being shipped to Kenya in 2009
Sudan, the last male member of the northern white rhino subspecies, while being shipped to Kenya in 2009
Tony Karumba, AFP/Getty Images

The last male northern white rhino died at a conservancy in Kenya earlier this year, prompting fears that the subspecies was finally done for after decades of heavy poaching. Scientists say there's still hope, though, and they're banking on a pregnant rhino named Victoria at the San Diego Zoo, according to the Associated Press.

Victoria is actually a southern white rhino, but the two subspecies are related. Only two northern white rhinos survive, but neither of the females in Kenya are able to reproduce. Victoria was successfully impregnated through artificial insemination, and if she successfully carries her calf to term in 16 to 18 months, scientists say she might be able to serve as a surrogate mother and propagate the northern white rhino species.

But how would that work if no male northern rhinos survive? As the AP explains, scientists are working to recreate northern white rhino embryos using genetic technology. The San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research has the frozen cell lines of 12 different northern white rhinos, which can be transformed into stem cells—and ultimately, sperm and eggs. The sperm of the last northern white male rhino, Sudan, was also saved before he died.

Scientists have been monitoring six female southern white rhinos at the San Diego Zoo to see if any emerge as likely candidates for surrogacy. However, it's not easy to artificially inseminate a rhino, and there have been few successful births in the past. There's still a fighting chance, though, and scientists ultimately hope they'll be able to build up a herd of five to 15 northern white rhinos over the next few decades.

[h/t Time Magazine]

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entertainment
Why Our Brains Love Plot Twists
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From the father-son reveal in The Empire Strikes Back to the shocking realization at the end of The Sixth Sense, everyone loves a good plot twist. It's not the element of surprise that makes them so enjoyable, though. It's largely the set-up, according to cognitive scientist Vera Tobin.

Tobin, a researcher at Case Western Reserve University, writes for The Conversationthat one of the most enjoyable moments of a film or novel comes after the big reveal, when we get to go back and look at the clues we may have missed. "The most satisfying surprises get their power from giving us a fresh, better way of making sense of the material that came before," Tobin writes. "This is another opportunity for stories to turn the curse of knowledge to their advantage."

The curse of knowledge, Tobin explains, refers to a psychological effect in which knowledge affects our perception and "trips us up in a lot of ways." For instance, a puzzle always seems easier than it really is after we've learned how to solve it, and once we know which team won a baseball game, we tend to overestimate how likely that particular outcome was.

Good writers know this intuitively and use it to their advantage to craft narratives that will make audiences want to review key points of the story. The end of The Sixth Sense, for example, replays earlier scenes of the movie to clue viewers in to the fact that Bruce Willis's character has been dead the whole time—a fact which seems all too obvious in hindsight, thanks to the curse of knowledge.

This is also why writers often incorporate red herrings—or false clues—into their works. In light of this evidence, movie spoilers don't seem so terrible after all. According to one study, even when the plot twist is known in advance, viewers still experience suspense. Indeed, several studies have shown that spoilers can even enhance enjoyment because they improve "fluency," or a viewer's ability to process and understand the story.

Still, spoilers are pretty universally hated—the Russo brothers even distributed fake drafts of Avengers: Infinity War to prevent key plot points from being leaked—so it's probably best not to go shouting the end of this summer's big blockbuster before your friends have seen it.

[h/t The Conversation]

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