© Roger Hangarter
© Roger Hangarter

These Algae Live Inside Growing Baby Salamanders

© Roger Hangarter
© Roger Hangarter

Nature has produced some very odd couples. One of the most beautiful and bizarre may be the duo of green algae and baby salamanders. It’s a relationship that has fascinated scientists for more than a century. Now a new paper in the journal eLife sheds a little light on their weird and wonderful dynamic.

Mutually beneficial relationships between species are a dime a dozen, lead author John Burns of the American Museum of Natural History said in a statement, “but the relationship between this particular alga and salamander is very unusual.”

The alga Oophila amblystomatis and its pal, the spotted salamander, don’t just hang out in a living room somewhere. The beautiful, grassy green alga enters the salamander’s jelly-like egg—and then enters the cells of the salamander itself.

The in-egg cohabitation seems to benefit both parties. The alga makes oxygen for the salamander, and the salamander makes nitrogen for the alga through its waste.


© Roger Hangarter

It’s a “strange arrangement,” said co-author Ryan Kerney of Gettysburg College. But how does it work?

To find out, Kerney, Burns, and their colleagues analyzed both species’ cells at the molecular level. They looked at the RNA of algae that lived with and inside salamanders; algae that didn’t; salamanders that lived with algae; and salamanders that didn’t.

They found that, as with any intense relationship, being together changed things for both partners. For the algae, the changes weren’t all positive: those living inside salamanders showed signs of stress and difficulty adapting. This is not a huge surprise; green algae ordinarily get their energy from the Sun. Moving inside an animal’s sunless body would be a pretty big shock.

The same was not true for the salamanders. The results showed that their bodies changed to become more hospitable for the algae by suppressing their immune systems, which suggests that they may have something to gain by letting the algae in.

Learning more about these two weirdos could teach us more about the way the rest of the natural world works.

“These two fundamentally different cells are changing each other dramatically,” co-author Eunsoo Kim of AMNH said. “This might be relevant for other symbiotic systems, including human and parasitic microbe relationships.”

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Medicine
Charles Dickens Museum Highlights the Author's Contributions to Science and Medicine

Charles Dickens is celebrated for his verbose prose and memorable opening lines, but lesser known are his contributions to science—particularly the field of medicine.

A new exhibition at London’s Charles Dickens Museum—titled "Charles Dickens: Man of Science"—is showcasing the English author’s scientific side. In several instances, the writer's detailed descriptions of medical conditions predated and sometimes even inspired the discovery of several diseases, The Guardian reports.

In his novel Dombey and Son, the character of Mrs. Skewton was paralyzed on her right side and unable to speak. Dickens was the first person to document this inexplicable condition, and a scientist later discovered that one side of the brain was largely responsible for speech production. "Fat boy" Joe, a character in The Pickwick Papers who snored loudly while sleeping, later lent his namesake to Pickwickian Syndrome, otherwise known as obesity hypoventilation syndrome.

A figurine of Fat Boy Joe
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Dickens also wrote eloquently about the symptoms of tuberculosis and dyslexia, and some of his passages were used to teach diagnosis to students of medicine.

“Dickens is an unbelievably acute observer of human behaviors,” museum curator Frankie Kubicki told The Guardian. “He captures these behaviors so perfectly that his descriptions can be used to build relationships between symptoms and disease.”

Dickens was also chummy with some of the leading scientists of his day, including Michael Faraday, Charles Darwin, and chemist Jane Marcet, and the exhibition showcases some of the writer's correspondence with these notable figures. Beyond medicine, Dickens also contributed to the fields of chemistry, geology, and environmental science.

Less scientifically sound was the author’s affinity for mesmerism, a form of hypnotism introduced in the 1770s as a method of controlling “animal magnetism,” a magnetic fluid which proponents of the practice believed flowed through all people. Dickens studied the methods of mesmerism and was so convinced by his powers that he later wrote, “I have the perfect conviction that I could magnetize a frying-pan.” A playbill of Animal Magnetism, an 1857 production that Dickens starred in, is also part of the exhibit.

A play script from Animal Magnetism
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Located at 48-49 Doughty Street in London, the exhibition will be on display until November 11, 2018.

[h/t The Guardian]

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Health
Feeling Down? Lifting Weights Can Lift Your Mood, Too
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There’s plenty of research that suggests that exercise can be an effective treatment for depression. In some cases of depression, in fact—particularly less-severe ones—scientists have found that exercise can be as effective as antidepressants, which don’t work for everyone and can come with some annoying side effects. Previous studies have largely concentrated on aerobic exercise, like running, but new research shows that weight lifting can be a useful depression treatment, too.

The study in JAMA Psychiatry, led by sports scientists at the University of Limerick in Ireland, examined the results of 33 previous clinical trials that analyzed a total of 1877 participants. It found that resistance training—lifting weights, using resistance bands, doing push ups, and any other exercises targeted at strengthening muscles rather than increasing heart rate—significantly reduced symptoms of depression.

This held true regardless of how healthy people were overall, how much of the exercises they were assigned to do, or how much stronger they got as a result. While the effect wasn’t as strong in blinded trials—where the assessors don’t know who is in the control group and who isn’t, as is the case in higher-quality studies—it was still notable. According to first author Brett Gordon, these trials showed a medium effect, while others showed a large effect, but both were statistically significant.

The studies in the paper all looked at the effects of these training regimes on people with mild to moderate depression, and the results might not translate to people with severe depression. Unfortunately, many of the studies analyzed didn’t include information on whether or not the patients were taking antidepressants, so the researchers weren’t able to determine what role medications might play in this. However, Gordon tells Mental Floss in an email that “the available evidence supports that [resistance training] may be an effective alternative and/or adjuvant therapy for depressive symptoms that could be prescribed on its own and/or in conjunction with other depression treatments,” like therapy or medication.

There haven’t been a lot of studies yet comparing whether aerobic exercise or resistance training might be better at alleviating depressive symptoms, and future research might tackle that question. Even if one does turn out to be better than the other, though, it seems that just getting to the gym can make a big difference.

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