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New Research Shows Mars-Bound Astronauts Need Their Sleep

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It might not be one giant leap for mankind, but a mission completed on November 4, 2011, is definitely one small step toward sending men to Mars. On that date, a team of six international volunteers finished a 520-day simulated trip to our red neighbor that included more than 90 experiments and realistic scenarios astronauts might encounter on the journey. The goal of the simulation was to gather psychological and medical data on the effects of long-term deep space flight, and yesterday, a team of researchers led by faculty at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and the Baylor College of Medicine released the results of their study, which looked at the impact of prolonged confinement on sleep, performance, and mood in astronauts.

"The success of human interplanetary spaceflight, which is anticipated to be in this century, will depend on the ability of astronauts to remain confined and isolated from Earth much longer than previous missions or simulations," said Dr. David F. Dinges, professor and chief, Division of Sleep and Chronobiology in the Department of Psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine, and co-lead author of the new study. "This is the first investigation to pinpoint the crucial role that sleep-wake cycles will play in extended space missions."

The mission, developed by the Institute for Biomedical Problems (IBMP) of the Russian Academy of Sciences, was broken into three phases: 250 days for the journey to Mars, 30 days on the surface, and 240 days for the return to Earth. The astronauts were confined in a 723 square foot spacecraft-like facility in Russia for the duration of the simulated mission. During that time, the U.S. research team continuously monitored the crew’s rest-activity patterns, monitored light exposure, and administered weekly, computer-based neurobehavioral assessments to determine the extent that sleep loss, fatigue, stress, mood changes, and conflicts occurred in the 17 months of confinement.

The data gathered by the researchers, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, revealed that as the mission progressed, the crew grew more sedentary; there was less waking movement and more sleep and rest time. Most crewmembers had one or more disturbances of sleep and altered sleep-wake intervals, which suggests a disruption of circadian rhythm. Crewmembers also showed decreased alertness.

Preventing these types of disturbances will be a matter of building the right kind of spacecraft, one that artificially mimics Earth’s sleep-wake cycles using light exposure. Appropriate nutrition and exercise will also be factors in keeping crewmembers on circadian rhythm.

This research doesn’t just have takeaways for people hoping to take a trip to Mars; in fact, it underscores how important getting a good night’s sleep is for everyone. “As a global society, we need to reevaluate how we view sleep as it relates to our overall health and ability to lead productive lives,” Dinges said. “Whether it is an astronaut being challenged to reach another planet or a newborn baby just learning to walk, the human body's need for sleep is as essential as our need for food and water and integral to our ability to thrive."

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The Delicious Chemistry of Sushi
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The secret to sushi's delicious taste is invisible to the human eye. Chefs spend years training to properly prepare the Japanese culinary staple, which consists of fresh fish and seasoned rice, either served together or wrapped in seaweed. At its most elemental, as the American Chemistry Society's latest Reactions video explains below, the bite-sized morsels contain an assortment of compounds that, together, combine to form a perfectly balanced mix of savory and sweet. They include mannitol, iodine, and bromophenol, all of which provide a distinctive tang; and glutamate, which adds a savory, rich umami flavor (and turns into MSG when it's combined with a sodium ion).

Take a bite of science, and learn more fun facts about the Japanese culinary staple's long history and unique preparation method by watching the video below.

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Courtesy the University of Colorado Boulder
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Fossilized Poop Shows Some Herbivorous Dinosaurs Loved a Good Crab Dinner
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Lead author Karen Chin of the University of Colorado Boulder
Courtesy the University of Colorado Boulder

Scientists can learn a lot about the prehistoric world through very, very old poop. Just recently, researchers from the University of Colorado-Boulder and Kent State University studying fossilized dinosaur poop discovered that some herbivores weren't as picky about their diets as we thought. Though they mostly ate plants, large dinosaurs living in Utah 75 million years ago also seem to have eaten prehistoric crustaceans, as Nature News reports.

The new study, published in Scientific Reports, finds that large dinosaurs of the Late Cretaceous period seem to have eaten crabs, along with rotting wood, based on the content of their coprolites (the more scientific term for prehistoric No. 2). The fossilized remains of dinos' bathroom activities were found in the Kaiparowits rock formation in Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a known hotspot for pristine Late Cretaceous fossils.

"The large size and woody contents" of the poop suggest that they were created by dinosaurs that were well-equipped to process fiber in their diets, as the study puts it, leading the researchers to suggest that the poop came from big herbivores like hadrosaurs, whose remains have been found in the area before.

Close up scientific images of evidence of crustaceans in fossilized poop.
Chin et al., Scientific Reports (2017)

While scientists previously thought that plant-eating dinosaurs like hadrosaurs only ate vegetation, these findings suggest otherwise. "The diet represented by the Kaiparowits coprolites would have provided a woody stew of plant, fungal, and invertebrate tissues," the researchers write, including crabs (Yum.) These crustaceans would have provided a big source of calcium for the dinosaurs, and the other invertebrates that no doubt lived in the rotting logs would have provided a good source of protein.

But they probably didn't eat the rotting wood all year, instead munching on dead trees seasonally or during times when other food sources weren’t available. Another hypothesis is that these "ancient fecal producers," as the researchers call them, might have eaten the rotting wood, with its calcium-rich crustaceans and protein-laden invertebrates, during egg production, similar to the feeding patterns of modern birds during breeding season.

Regardless of the reason, these findings could change how we think about what big dinosaurs ate.

[h/t Nature News]

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