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Researchers Created Spiders That Spin Super-Silk

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Spider silk is nature’s wonder material. It's stronger than steel, but just one-sixth the density. It's more elastic than a rubber band, sometimes stretching up to five times its original length without breaking. “A thread with a diameter of 2 centimeters could pull a whole airplane,” says biochemist Artem Davidenko at RWTH Aachen University in Germany. This material, produced by nature, may be stronger than anything man has ever made, but researchers from the University of Trento in Italy found a way to make it even stronger: lace it with carbon. 

For the study, Nicola Pugno, a professor of solid and structural mechanics at the University of Trento, decided to combine spider silk with some of the strongest synthetic materials around: graphene and carbon nanotubes. Both are very light, thin, and incredibly conductive—meaning they could have huge implications for how materials and electronics are made. Pugno and his team sprayed several spiders with one of two solutions: water and graphene, or water and carbon nanotubes. 

The results? While some of the test spiders’ silk became weaker, others spun super-strength silk that would make even Spider-man jealous. The strongest stuff came from the arachnids that received a spritzing of water and carbon nanotubes, producing silk 3.5 times stronger and more flexible than the toughest spider silk out there (which, for the record, is already 10 times stronger than Kevlar and comes from this creature found in the depths of Madagascar). 

“This is the highest toughness modulus for a fibre, surpassing synthetic polymeric high performance fibres (e.g. Kelvar49) and even the current toughest knotted fibers,” they say. In other words, this mutant spider silk is made of the strongest fibers ever measured. 

How the spiders turned the carbon into silk is a bit of a mystery, though Pugno thinks they absorbed the material from the environment, ingesting it and then incorporating it into the silk. Another theory is that the carbon coated the silk after it was spun. 

The implications for this super-strength spider silk could be great: picture extremely strong textiles, or a new method of repairing damaged tissues. Pugno even suggests it could be used to make a net that could catch a falling aircraft. That’s some straight-up superhero stuff right there (though hopefully there won’t be a high demand for that kind of product). We’ve been coming up with new ways to use spidey silk for years and we’ve thought of everything from bulletproof clothing to better bandages to softer, more absorbent airbags. It could even be used for stitching wounds, because it maintains its strength even under extreme heat, so it could be easily sterilized. 

So why don’t we see all these wonder products yet? The problem is that producing and harvesting spider silk in bulk is really difficult, and we haven’t quite figured out how to do it yet. Spiders are cannibalistic, so the idea of colonies raised to pump out silk for commercial purposes is a bit unrealistic.

However, researchers have seen some promise in genetically engineering silkworms to produce spider silk in large amounts. Could the carbon spray method have the same effect on silkworms? That’s what Pugno wants to explore next. “This concept could become a way to obtain materials with superior characteristics," he says.

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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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Uncombable Hair Syndrome Is a Real—and Very Rare—Genetic Condition
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Everyone has bad hair days from time to time, but for roughly 100 people around the world, unmanageable hair is an actual medical condition.

Uncombable hair syndrome, also known as spun glass hair syndrome, is a rare condition caused by a genetic mutation that affects the formation and shape of hair shafts, BuzzFeed reports. People with the condition tend to have dry, unruly hair that can't be combed flat. It grows slower than normal and is typically silver, blond, or straw-colored. For some people, the symptoms disappear with age.

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Although there have been only about 100 documented cases worldwide, one of the world's leading researchers on the condition, Regina Betz, of Germany's University of Bonn, believes there could be thousands of others who have it but have not been diagnosed. Some have speculated that Einstein had the condition, but without a genetic test, it's impossible to know for sure.

An 18-month-old American girl named Taylor McGowan is one of the few people with this syndrome. Her parents sent blood samples to Betz to see if they were carriers of the gene mutation, and the results came back positive for variations of PADI3, one of three genes responsible for the syndrome. According to IFL Science, the condition is recessive, meaning that it "only presents when individuals receive mutant gene copies from both parents." Hence it's so uncommon.

Taylor's parents have embraced their daughter's unique 'do, creating a Facebook page called Baby Einstein 2.0 to share Taylor's story and educate others about the condition.

"It's what makes her look ever so special, just like Albert Einstein," Taylor's mom, Cara, says in a video uploaded to YouTube by SWNS TV. "We wanted to share her story with the world in hopes of spreading awareness."

[h/t BuzzFeed]

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