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What is Rubella?

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Rubella Virus. Wikimedia Commons

Almost everyone is familiar with the measles and mumps, but the 'R' in the MMR vaccine might not ring a bell. Here's the lowdown.

Discovery and Symptoms

Rubella is a disease caused by a virus of the same name. It can be spread through the air or by close contact with a carrier and cause symptoms like fever, headache, runny nose, bruising, bloodshot eyes, muscle or joint pain and a fine, red rash, for which the disease is named.

Rubella was first described in the late 1700s by German physician Friedrich Hoffmann. Other Germans studied it and suggested that it was derivative of either measles or scarlet fever, and the disease was nicknamed "German measles," after the doctors who were most familiar with it. In 1814, another German doctor, George de Maton, was called to a school to investigate an outbreak of skin rashes. He recognized the symptoms of German measles and, while examining his patients, realized that the sickness was distinct enough from measles to be its own disease. In 1881, the German measles was recognized as an individual disease, and was named rubella (Latin for "reddish") by British Army surgeon Henry Veale in 1886.

Not So Harmless, After All

For a while, rubella didn't receive much attention. It was a relatively mild illness with symptoms that were uncomfortable but not life-threatening, and lasted only three days to a few weeks. Through the rest of the 19th century, it became a sort of rite of passage for kids not unlike, more recently, chicken pox. Almost every child got sick with it, and would just have to suffer the rash and aches for a few days. This changed in 1941 when ophthalmologist Norman Gregg noticed that a few years after a local rubella outbreak, he would always see a large number of children with cataracts, and often a few other congenital defects, too. Further research showed that, while rubella was not particularly hard on the children or adults who contracted it, the disease could be devastating to unborn babies if their pregnant mother came down with it. Babies with congenital rubella syndrome could be born blind, deaf, with heart defects or with developmental disabilities.

Rubella could not be ignored as harmless any longer, and doctors in the U.S. and Europe started looking for a preventative treatment. In 1964, the last major epidemic of rubella in the U.S. broke out. Some 20,000 infants were born with congenital defects after the disease struck them in utero, and another 11,000 died.  In 1969, Stanley Plotkin and colleagues from the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia developed a preventative rubella vaccine, which was then combined with the measles and mumps vaccines in 1972. After the vaccine's development, the number of rubella cases in the U.S. fell sharply, and today there are fewer than 1,000 cases reportedly annually. But Europe and Canada have not fared as well. In 2004, there was a rubella outbreak among an orthodox Protestant group in the Netherlands who had religious objections to vaccination; 387 cases of rubella were reported, and the disease then spread to Canada, resulting in 309 more cases there. Between the two countries, there were two fetal deaths and 14 babies born with congenital rubella syndrome.

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Big Questions
Can You Really Go Blind Staring at a Solar Eclipse?
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A total solar eclipse will cut a path of totality across the United States on August 21, and eclipse mania is gripping the country. Should the wide-eyed and unprotected hazard a peek at this rare phenomenon?

NASA doesn't advise it. The truth is, a quick glance at a solar eclipse won't leave you blind. But you're not doing your peepers any favors. As NASA explains, even when 99 percent of the sun's surface is covered, the 1 percent that sneaks out around the edges is enough to damage the rod and cone cells in your retinas. As this light and radiation flood into the eye, the retina becomes trapped in a sort of solar cooker that scorches its tissue. And because your retinas don't have any pain receptors, your eyes have no way of warning you to stop.

The good news for astronomy enthusiasts is that there are ways to safely view a solar eclipse. A pair of NASA-approved eclipse glasses will block the retina-frying rays, but sunglasses or any other kind of smoked lenses cannot. (The editors at, an eclipse watchers' fan site, put shades in the "eye suicide" category.) NASA also suggests watching the eclipse indirectly through a pinhole projector, or through binoculars or a telescope fitted with special solar filters.

While it's safe to take a quick, unfiltered peek at the sun in the brief totality of a total solar eclipse, doing so during the partial phases—when the Moon is not completely covering the Sun—is much riskier.


NASA's website tackled this question. Their short answer: that could ruin their lives.

"A student who heeds warnings from teachers and other authorities not to view the eclipse because of the danger to vision, and learns later that other students did see it safely, may feel cheated out of the experience. Having now learned that the authority figure was wrong on one occasion, how is this student going to react when other health-related advice about drugs, alcohol, AIDS, or smoking is given[?]"

This story was originally published in 2012.

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Big Questions
If Beer and Bread Use Almost the Exact Same Ingredients, Why Isn't Bread Alcoholic?
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If beer and bread use almost the exact same ingredients (minus hops) why isn't bread alcoholic?

Josh Velson:

All yeast breads contain some amount of alcohol. Have you ever smelled a rising loaf of bread or, better yet, smelled the air underneath dough that has been covered while rising? It smells really boozy. And that sweet smell that fresh-baked bread has under the yeast and nutty Maillard reaction notes? Alcohol.

However, during the baking process, most of the alcohol in the dough evaporates into the atmosphere. This is basically the same thing that happens to much of the water in the dough as well. And it’s long been known that bread contains residual alcohol—up to 1.9 percent of it. In the 1920s, the American Chemical Society even had a set of experimenters report on it.

Anecdotally, I’ve also accidentally made really boozy bread by letting a white bread dough rise for too long. The end result was that not enough of the alcohol boiled off, and the darned thing tasted like alcohol. You can also taste alcohol in the doughy bits of underbaked white bread, which I categorically do not recommend you try making.

Putting on my industrial biochemistry hat here, many [people] claim that alcohol is only the product of a “starvation process” on yeast once they run out of oxygen. That’s wrong.

The most common brewers and bread yeasts, of the Saccharomyces genus (and some of the Brettanomyces genus, also used to produce beer), will produce alcohol in both a beer wort
and in bread dough immediately, regardless of aeration. This is actually a surprising result, as it runs counter to what is most efficient for the cell (and, incidentally, the simplistic version of yeast biology that is often taught to home brewers). The expectation would be that the cell would perform aerobic respiration (full conversion of sugar and oxygen to carbon dioxide and water) until oxygen runs out, and only then revert to alcoholic fermentation, which runs without oxygen but produces less energy.

Instead, if a Saccharomyces yeast finds itself in a high-sugar environment, regardless of the presence of air it will start producing ethanol, shunting sugar into the anaerobic respiration pathway while still running the aerobic process in parallel. This phenomenon is known as the Crabtree effect, and is speculated to be an adaptation to suppress competing organisms
in the high-sugar environment because ethanol has antiseptic properties that yeasts are tolerant to but competitors are not. It’s a quirk of Saccharomyces biology that you basically only learn about if you spent a long time doing way too much yeast cell culture … like me.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.


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