JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Nobel Prize in Chemistry Awarded for DNA Repair Research

JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Three scientists whose work greatly advanced our understanding of DNA repair have won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. They share the prize equally. 

Their discoveries, the Nobel Prize committee said in a press statement [PDF], "have provided fundamental insights into how cells function, knowledge that can be used, for instance, in the development of new cancer treatments." 

Far from stable or pristine, our DNA is constantly battered by external forces like UV radiation, free radicals, and other carcinogens, along with internal instability. DNA molecules are also constantly changing; your genome is not what it was yesterday. Genetic problems can also arise from the replication of DNA during cell division, which happens in your body several million times a day.

DNA damage is constant; but so is its repair. A legion of proteins monitor your genes, proofreading the genome and making any necessary fixes. Without DNA repair, the Nobel Prize committee said, our genetic material would “disintegrate into complete chemical chaos.” They awarded the prize to three chemists, each of whom identified a different mechanism of repair.

Scientists used to believe that DNA was constant and unchanging. In the 1970s, Tomas Lindahl, of the Francis Crick Institute in the UK, demonstrated that DNA does, in fact, decay—at a rate that should have made the development of life on Earth impossible. Lindahl concluded that the damage must be repaired as quickly as it happens.

Over the next few decades, Lindahl would find some of the molecular mechanisms that carry out these repairs. He outlined the concept of base excision repair, a process by which damaged pieces of DNA are removed from the cell. In 1996, Lindahl successfully re-created the human DNA repair process in vitro.

There are two bacterial systems for fixing damaged DNA. One is dependent on ultraviolet (UV) light, and the other takes place in the dark. Biochemist Aziz Sancar, of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, was awarded one third of the prize for his work illuminating the mechanisms of the dark system. Sancar developed the concept of nucleotide excision repair, the process by which enzymes find UV-damaged nucleotides, then snip them from the DNA strand. This form of repair is essential to our ability to recover from sun damage. 

A defect caused by an error in cell division is called a mismatch. Paul Modrich, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (Maryland) investigator at Duke University, has spent his career studying the mechanisms of mismatch repair. In the 1980s, Modrich identified, cloned, and mapped numerous enzymes involved in the mismatch repair process. In 1989, he published a report on his successful recreation of the mismatch repair process in vitro. Defective mismatch repair systems are associated with a number of diseases, including a hereditary form of colon cancer.

The work of these awardees may lead to future treatments for cancer. “That is why curiosity-based research is so important,” Paul Modrich told the Nobel Prize committee [PDF]. “You never know where it is going to lead … a little luck helps, too.”

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How Does Catnip Work?
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If you have a cat, you probably keep a supply of catnip at home. Many cats are irresistibly drawn to the herb, and respond excitedly to its scent, rubbing against it, rolling around on the floor, and otherwise going nuts. There are few things that can get felines quite as riled up as a whiff of catnip—not even the most delicious treats. But why does catnip, as opposed to any other plant, have such a profound effect on our feline friends?

Catnip, or Nepeta cataria, is a member of the mint family. It contains a compound called nepetalactone, which is what causes the characteristic catnip reaction. Contrary to what you might expect, the reaction isn’t pheromone related—even though pheromones are the smelly chemicals we usually associate with a change in behavior. While pheromones bind to a set of specialized receptors in what’s known as a vomeronasal organ, located in the roof of a cat's mouth (which is why they sometimes open their mouths to detect pheromones), nepetalactone binds to olfactory receptors at the olfactory epithelium, or the tissue that lines the mucus membranes inside a cat’s nose and is linked to smell.

Scientists know the basics of the chemical structure of nepetalactone, but how it causes excitement in cats is less clear. “We don’t know the full mechanisms of how the binding of these compounds to the receptors in the nose ultimately changes their behavior,” as Bruce Kornreich, associate director of the Cornell Feline Health Center, tells Mental Floss. Sadly, sticking a bunch of cats in an MRI machine with catnip and analyzing their brain activity isn’t really feasible, either from a practical or a financial standpoint, so it’s hard to determine which parts of a cat’s brain are reacting to the chemical as they frolic and play.

Though it may look like they’re getting high, catnip doesn’t appear to be harmful or addictive to cats. The euphoric period only lasts for a short time before cats become temporarily immune to its charms, meaning that it’s hard for them to overdo it.

“Cats do seem to limit themselves," Michael Topper, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, tells Mental Floss. "Their stimulation lasts for about 10 minutes, then it sort of goes away.” While you may not want to turn your house into a greenhouse for catnip and let your feline friend run loose, it’s a useful way to keep indoor cats—whose environment isn’t always the most thrilling—stimulated and happy. (If you need proof of just how much cats love this herb, we suggest checking out Cats on Catnip, a new book of photography from professional cat photographer Andrew Martilla featuring dozens of images of cats playing around with catnip.)

That said, not all cats respond to catnip. According to Topper, an estimated 70 percent of cats react to catnip, and it appears to have a genetic basis. Topper compares it to the genetic variation that causes some individuals to smell asparagus pee while others don’t. Even if a cat will eventually love the smell of catnip, it doesn’t come out of the womb yearning for a sniff. Young kittens don’t show any behavioral response to it, and may not develop one until several months after birth [PDF].

But some researchers contend that more cats may respond to catnip than we actually realize. In one 2017 study, a group of researchers in Mexico examined how cats might subtly respond to catnip in ways that aren’t always as obvious as rolling around on the floor with their tongue hanging out. It found that 80 percent of cats responded to catnip in a passive way, showing decreased motor activity and sitting in the “sphinx” position, an indicator of a relaxed state.

There are also other plants that have similar effects on cats, some of which may appeal to a wider variety of felines than regular old catnip. In a 2017 study in the journal BMC Veterinary Research, researchers tested feline responses to not just catnip, but several other plants containing compounds similar in structure to nepetalactone, like valerian root, Tatarian honeysuckle, and silver vine. They found that 94 percent of cats responded to at least one of the plants, if not more than one. The majority of the cats that didn’t respond to catnip itself did respond to silver vine, suggesting that plant might be a potential alternative for cats that seem immune to catnip’s charms.

Despite the name, domestic cats aren’t the only species that love catnip. Many other feline species enjoy it, too, including lions and jaguars, though tigers are largely indifferent to it. The scent of the plant also attracts butterflies. (However, no matter what you’ve heard, humans can’t get high off it. When made into a tea, though, it reportedly has mild sedative effects.)

The reason Nepeta cataria releases nepetalactone doesn’t necessarily have to do with giving your cat a buzz. The fact that it gives cats that little charge of euphoria may be purely coincidental. The chemical is an insect repellant that the plant emits as a defense mechanism against pests like aphids. According to the American Chemical Society, nepetalactone attracts wasps and other insect predators that eat aphids, calling in protective reinforcements when the plant is in aphid-related distress. That it brings all the cats to the yard is just a side effect.

Because of this, catnip may have even more uses in the future beyond sending cats into a delighted frenzy. Rutgers University has spent more than a decade breeding a more potent version of catnip, called CR9, which produces more nepetalactone. It’s not just a matter of selling better cat toys; since catnip releases the compound to ward off insects, it’s also a great mosquito repellant, one that scientists hope can one day be adapted for human use. In that case, you might be as excited about catnip as your cat is.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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13 Scientific Explanations for Everyday Life
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Science holds our lives together. It explains everything from why bread rises to why you need gas to power your car. In his book Atoms Under the Floorboards, author Chris Woodford lays out the abstract science that underlies the everyday world, from the big (how do skyscrapers stay up?) to the small (why does my laptop get hot when I’m watching Netflix?). Along the way, he also calculates the answers to whimsical questions like, “How many people would I have to gather together to keep my house warm without heat?” (A lot, but not as many as you'd think.) Here are 13 things we learned about the world through his eyes.

1. A POWER DRILL COULD SET YOUR HOUSE ON FIRE, IN THEORY.

Because of friction, electric drills generate heat. The motor, the drill bit, and the wall all get hot. It takes about 2000 joules of energy to heat one kilogram of wood just 1°C. Assuming a typical power drill uses 750 watts of electricity, and it puts out 750 joules of energy, Woodford calculates that it would take just four minutes to set fire to a wooden wall in a 68°F room.

2. STICKY NOTES COME OFF EASILY BECAUSE THEIR ADHESIVE IS UNEVEN.

Post-it Notes feature a plastic adhesive that is spread out in blobs across the paper. When you slap a Post-it onto your bulletin board, only some of these blobs (technically called micro-capsules) touch the surface to keep the note stuck there. Thus, you can unstick it, and when you go to attach it to something else, the unused blobs of glue can take over the adhesive role. Eventually, all the capsules of glue will get used up or clogged with dirt, and the sticky note won't stick anymore.

3. GUM IS CHEWY BECAUSE IT'S MADE OF RUBBER.

Early gums got their elastic texture from chicle, a natural type of latex rubber. Now, your bubble gum is made with synthetic rubbers like styrene butadiene (also used in car tires) or polyvinyl acetate (also used in Elmer’s glue) to mimic the effect of chicle.

4. OFFICE BUILDINGS ARE EVER-SO-SLIGHTLY TALLER AT NIGHT.

After all the employees go home, tall office buildings get just a little taller. A 1300-foot-tall skyscraper shrinks about 1.5 millimeters under the weight of 50,000 occupants (assuming they weigh about the human average).

5. A LEGO BRICK CAN SUPPORT 770 POUNDS OF FORCE.

LEGOs can support four to five times the weight of a human without collapsing. They are strong enough to support a tower 375,000 bricks tall, or around 2.2 miles high.

6. POLISHING SHOES IS LIKE FILLING IN A ROAD'S POTHOLES.

Regular leather appears dull to the eye because it’s covered in teeny-tiny scrapes and scratches that scatter whatever light hits the material. When you polish a leather shoe, you coat it in a fine layer of wax, filling in those crevices much like a road crew smoothes out a street by filling in its potholes. Because the surface is more uniform, rays of light bounce back toward your eye more evenly, making it look shiny.

7. YOU COULD HEAT YOUR HOUSE WITH JUST 70 PEOPLE.

People give off body heat, as anyone who has been trapped in a small crowded room knows. So how many people would it take to warm up your home with just body heat in the winter? About 70 people in motion, or 140 people still, figuring that humans radiate 100-200 watts of heat normally and that the house uses four electric storage heaters.

8. DENSITY EXPLAINS WHY COLD WATER FEELS COLDER THAN AIR AT THE SAME TEMPERATURE.

Because water is denser than air, your body loses heat 25 times more quickly while in water than it would in air at the same temperature. Water's density gives it a high specific heat capacity, meaning it takes a lot of heat to raise its temperature even a little, and it's very good at retaining heat or cold (the reason why hot soup stays hot for a long time, and why the ocean is much cooler than land). Water is a great conductor, so it's very effective at transferring that heat or cold to your body.

9. WATER CLEANS WELL BECAUSE IT HAS ASYMMETRICAL MOLECULES.

Because water molecules are triangular—made of two hydrogen atoms stuck to one oxygen atom—they have slightly different charges on their different sides, kind of like a magnet. The hydrogen end of the molecule is slightly positive, and the oxygen side is slightly negative. This makes water excellent at sticking to other molecules. When you wash away dirt, the water molecules stick to the dirt and pull it away from whatever surface it was on. This is also the reason water has surface tension: it’s great at sticking to itself.

10. THE "PULSE" SETTING ON A BLENDER WORKS BETTER BECAUSE OF TURBULENCE.

When your blender stops chopping up food and begins just spinning it around in circles, it’s because everything inside is spinning at the same rate. Instead of actually blending ingredients together, it’s experiencing laminar flow—all the layers of liquid are moving in the same direction with constant motion. The pulse function on the blender introduces turbulence, so instead of the fruit chunks rolling around the side of the blender, they fall into the center and get blended up into a smoothie.

11. BABIES' BODIES CONTAIN MORE WATER THAN ADULTS.'

Adults are around 60 percent water. By contrast, newborn babies are about 80 percent water. But that percentage quickly drops: A year after birth, kids' water content is down to around 65 percent, according to the USGS.

12. GLASS BREAKS EASILY BECAUSE ITS ATOMS ARE LOOSELY ARRANGED.

Unlike other solid materials, like metals, glass is made up of amorphous, loosely packed atoms arranged randomly. They can’t absorb or dissipate energy from something like a bullet. The atoms can’t rearrange themselves quickly to retain the glass’s structure, so it collapses, shattering fragments everywhere.

13. CALORIE COUNTS ARE CALCULATED BY INCINERATING FOOD.

Calorie values on nutritional labels estimate the energy contained in the food within the package. To figure out how much energy is in a specific food, scientists use a calorimeter. One type of calorimeter essentially burns up the food inside a device surrounded by water. By measuring how much the temperature of the water changes in the process, scientists can determine how much energy was contained in the food.

This story originally ran in 2015.

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