How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire

Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

Why Is Pee Yellow?

Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron

WHY? is our attempt to answer all the questions every little kid asks. Do you have a question? Send it to why@mentalfloss.com.

Your body is kind of like a house. You bring things into your body by eating, drinking, and breathing. But just like the things we bring home to real houses, we don’t need every part of what we take in. So there are leftovers, or garbage. And if you let garbage sit around in your house or your body for too long, it gets gross and can make you sick. Your body takes out the garbage by peeing and pooping. These two things are part of your body’s excretory system (ECKS-krih-tore-eee SISS-tem), which is just a fancy way of saying “trash removal.” If your body is healthy, when you look in the toilet you should see brown poop and yellow pee.

Clear, light yellow pee is a sign that your excretory system and the rest of your body are working right. If your pee, or urine (YER-inn), is not see-through, that might mean you are sick. Dark yellow urine usually means that you aren’t drinking enough water. On the other hand, really pale or colorless pee can mean you might be drinking too much water! 

Your blood is filtered through two small organs called kidneys (KID-knees). Remember the garbage we talked about earlier? The chemicals called toxins (TOCK-sins) are like garbage in your blood. Your kidneys act like a net, catching the toxins and other leftovers and turning them into pee.

One part of your blood is called hemoglobin (HEE-moh-gloh-bin). This is what makes your blood red. Hemoglobin goes through a lot of changes as it passes through your body. When it reaches your kidneys, it turns yellow thanks to a chemical called urobilin (yer-ah-BY-lin). Urobilin is kind of like food coloring. The more water you add, the lighter it will be. That's why, if you see dark yellow pee in the toilet, it's time to ask your mom or dad for a cup of water. 

To learn more about pee, check out this article from Kids Health. 

Scientists Discover How to Snap Spaghetti Into Two Perfect Pieces

iStock
iStock

Important news for pasta lovers: Researchers at MIT just figured out how to snap a strand of spaghetti into two perfect pieces, according to New Scientist. The days of having to sweep up the tiny fragments that fly in all directions when you break spaghetti into two pot-ready portions are over.

In 2005, researchers in France figured out why spaghetti cracks into bits: The strand flexes in the opposite direction after the initial snap, creating a “snap-back effect” that causes it to break a second time.

Now, after snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks, MIT mathematicians have the solution. The researchers used a pair of clamps to twist individual strands of spaghetti almost 360 degrees. Next, the two clamps were slowly brought together to bend the stick, resulting in a perfect fracture. This worked for two kinds of spaghetti with different thicknesses—Barilla No. 5 and Barilla No. 7, to be precise.

The process was recorded using a high-speed camera (which can be viewed on MIT's website). While reviewing the footage, researchers realized that adding a twist is key because it prevents the spaghetti stick from forcefully flexing backwards. Their findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Even without equipment, you can can try this at home. It might take a bit of practice, though, so have a couple of boxes handy. Ronald Heisser, a former MIT student who is now a graduate student at Cornell University, came up with the technique for how to manually snap spaghetti in two.

“I would start with my hands opposite each other—one hand upside down and the other right side up—and then make both of them right side up while twisting the spaghetti so you can work your arm strength into it,” Heisser tells Mental Floss.

“You know you're twisting it right when you feel it really trying to untwist itself. Then, you can carefully bring the ends together, trying not to change the twist at all.”

He noted that your hands should also be dry, because oiliness can make the strand slip in your fingers.

However, it's unlikely that anyone has the patience to sit there and snap one strand of spaghetti at a time. So does this trick work for a whole handful of pasta? Dr. Jörn Dunkel, who led the study, says it’s difficult to predict how a handful of spaghetti would fracture, but he believes this technique would reduce the number of pieces you end up with.

“When many spaghetti [strands] become bunched together, they can transfer energy between them, which can change their bending and fracture behavior significantly,” Dr. Dunkel tells Mental Floss. “Very roughly, as a rule of thumb, one would expect that splitting the energy between bending and twisting should always help to reduce the fragment number compared to pure bending.”

Of course, if you want to cook the true Italian way, you’ll leave your spaghetti unsnapped and intact. (Longer pasta is said to wrap around your fork better, making it easier to eat.)

But if you want to try this bend-and-snap technique for yourself, the purists would probably give you a pass.

[h/t New Scientist]

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