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When We Go to Mars, How Will We Protect the Microbes From Us?

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Getty Images

Humans have long been interested in developing space colonies, and lately, that’s starting to actually look possible. Silicon Valley giant Elon Musk is one of many tech-industry executives interested in making the leap to other planets.

"History is going to bifurcate along two directions,” Musk said in his recent SpaceX speech about the company's plans to send crewed missions to Mars. "One path is we stay on Earth forever, and eventually there will some extinction event. The alternative is to become a space-faring civilization and a multi-planet species."

Whether humanity’s time on Earth is limited by our own bad choices or natural destruction, Musk plans to get to Mars within the next few decades: He optimistically envisions tourists heading to the red planet in the next 20 years, and building a city there with a population of a million by the 2060s.

This may sound great for humans, but what about the Martians?


The word Martians summons mental images of H.G. Wells's gloppy octopi or Bradbury’s golden-skinned humanoids, but the most likely potential life on Mars is microorganisms. While we haven’t yet found any life on Mars, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter did find evidence of liquid water there, one of the most basic requirements for life. And while conditions on the red planet are incredibly harsh, there are similar places on Earth—inside super-hot geysers, deep in ocean vents, and under frozen-solid ice caps—where life has been found in recent years.

“[Microorganisms] are known to thrive in any biotope on Earth, no matter how ‘extreme’ the biotope is. They can withstand high doses of radiation, desiccation, and survive extended periods of starvation,” Alex Probst, a microbiologist at University of California, Berkeley, tells mental_floss. Probst has worked with NASA for almost a decade.

Though Mars may be pretty inhospitable (it has about 17 identified biocidal factors [PDF], which are destructive to life), its environment isn’t uniform; in fact NASA has already designated some parts of the planet as “special regions” which are, according to a paper in the journal Acta Astronautica, "areas that may support Earth microbes inadvertently introduced to Mars, or that may have a high probability of supporting indigenous Martian life.”

NASA already knows that given the opportunity, microscopic Earth life could thrive on Mars: “We test Earth microbes for growth in simulated conditions … there are many Earth microbes that can grow in Mars surface conditions, if protected from UV light (sunburn) and they have enough water and nutrients,” Catharine Conley, the Planetary Protection Officer for NASA, tells mental_floss.

If microorganisms were to be found in one of these special regions, or anywhere on Mars, it would be a huge deal. But the very possibility raises the important issue of keeping Earthling hitchhikers out. We know how problematic (and in some cases, disastrous) invasive species on Earth have been: What would happen to life on Mars if it’s overwhelmed or outcompeted by microbes from Earth before we even have a chance to study it?


These are serious enough considerations that NASA has a department dedicated to the issue of contamination, and developing protocols to deal with it. Known as The Office of Planetary Protection (OPP), the headquarters has a whole set of policies for vehicles headed to Mars, including definitions for levels of protection. For example, landers and probes going to Mars but not returning to Earth are category IV, which means they are completely decontaminated before they head out into space. The Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars in 2014, was assigned a level IV designation: It was assembled in a clean room, and parts that could be baked at high temperatures were. Missions that will travel to the “special regions” are classified at level IV(a-c), even higher levels of caution. Mars missions where equipment will need to be decontaminated before returning to Earth to prevent bringing anything alien home are categorized at the highest level: V, which so far is theoretical. 

All this caution isn’t just to protect creatures only microbiologists could get excited about. “Mars is an environment to which Earth organisms have never been exposed, over the entire known course of our evolution,” says Conley. “Anything that we find out about [these Martian organisms] will tell us about ourselves, and what are the possibilities for living elsewhere,” says Conley. The value of Martian life is hard to nail down, but NASA takes the tack that it’s a good idea to minimize our impact so that we can find out. “The focus of planetary protection is to make sure …the next robotic mission to Mars doesn't bring something along that might cause problems later,” says Conley.

The scale of Musk’s humans-on-Mars plan is such that some think contamination of the red planet is inevitable. “We have more microbial cells on our body than human cells, so if we go to Mars, so will microbes. And they will spread easily and fast just like on Earth,” says Probst.


But like colonizers past, Musk and SpaceX don’t seem concerned about their impact on the places they’re exploring; as Musk said on The Late Show With Steven Colbert in 2015, he’d nuke the red planet’s poles to make it warmer and begin terraforming Mars to make it more habitable for humans.

Moreover, if Musk’s plans succeed, there’s also Earth to worry about. Musk insists that going to Mars shouldn’t have to be a one-way journey, which begs another question: Is there any danger to Earth from the potential life on Mars? Under NASA’s current rules, all of the rocket launchers, fuel tankers, and ships people would travel in would need to be decontaminated before returning to Earth. “We don't know anything about Mars organisms. If they're related to us, then we could exchange DNA with unpredictable consequences; and whether or not they're related to us, they might find parts of the Earth really pleasant to invade,” says Conley.

As private exploration of the solar system expands, these are important questions to keep in mind. NASA’s approach is fundamentally different from Musk’s: “We are committed to exploration of the solar system in a way that protects explored environments as they exist in their natural state,” the agency wrote in a statement following Musk’s statements on Colbert. Considering that SpaceX and NASA will be working together to get us to Mars, we’ll see in coming years whose ideas prevail.

Maybe our biggest lesson from Mars exploration will be understanding how our own planet is “amazingly hospitable,” says Probst. He hopes that in light of Mars’ challenges, “our current life style of consuming all resources on this planet will hopefully change.”

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Uncombable Hair Syndrome Is a Real—and Very Rare—Genetic Condition
Keystone/Getty Images
Keystone/Getty Images

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.

A diagram of a hair follicle

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]

The Best Way to Wipe Your Butt, According to the Experts

Curtis Asbury, MD sees it all the time. A patient comes in with blotchy, red, irritated rectum and insists they’re not doing anything unusual. Peering into their sore bottom, Asbury nods solemnly, then delivers news most people never expect to hear.

“You’re not wiping correctly,” he says.

A dermatologist practicing in Selbyville, Delaware, Asbury has seen an uptick in the number of people coming in expressing dissatisfaction with their rectal hygiene. Whether it’s due to misguided parental instruction during toilet training or wiping on sheer instinct, some of us are simply not maintaining one of the most potentially dirty crevices of our body. And the consequences can be irritating.

“It’s called perianal dermatitis,” Asbury tells Mental Floss, describing the kind of topical irritation that afflicts people who are wiping poorly, infrequently, or overzealously. In an attempt to clean their rear end, some people scrub so violently that the American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons has given a name to the resulting tenderness: Polished Anus Syndrome, or PAS.

Fortunately, the key to avoiding PAS and other rectal misadventures is relatively easy. Here are some pro tips for a clean butt.


For starters, Asbury recommends that people stop using the pre-moistened cloths, which are heavily marketed to promote a sparkling cavity. Use of the wipes has been associated with allergic reactions to methylisothiazolinone, a preservative used to inhibit bacterial growth while products are on store shelves. “Even the all-natural ones can cause problems,” he says, since any kind of chemical present in the wipes isn’t usually rinsed off right away.

Does that mean you should reach for dry toilet paper instead? Not quite. “It’s healthier, certainly, to clean your body with water," Asbury says. "Nobody takes a dry piece of paper, rubs it over their skin, and thinks they’re clean.” Even the Greco-Romans (332 BCE–395 CE) knew this, as one historical account from the philosopher Seneca revealed that they used a damp sponge affixed to a stick as a post-toiletry practice. Of course, some ancient cultures also wiped with pebbles and clam shells, among other poor ideas, so perhaps we should stick with contemporary advice.


A bidet sprays water out of a toilet

Asbury is an advocate of the standalone or add-on toilet accessory that squirts a spray of water between your cheeks to flush out residual fecal matter. While bidets are common in Europe and Japan, the West has been slower to adopt this superior method of post-poop clean-up; others might be wary of tapping into existing home plumbing to supply fresh water, even though DIY installation is quite easy. For those patients, Asbury has developed an alternative method.


“What I tell people to use is Viva, a really soft, thick paper towel made by Kleenex,” he says. “You get a squirt bottle and you leave it near the toilet and moisten the paper towel.” Regular toilet paper is usually too flimsy to stand up to a soaking, while normal paper towels are too harsh for rectal purposes. Viva is apparently just right. (And no, Asbury is not a brand ambassador, nor does Kleenex endorse this alternative use.)

This advice does come with a major caveat: Viva wipes are not flushable and might very well clog your pipes if you try to send them down the drain. When Asbury recommends the technique, he advises people to throw used towels in the trash. If you find that idea appalling, and provided your butt is not already red from bad wiping strategy, lightly moistening a wad of durable toilet paper should do the job.


Once you’ve wiped enough to see clean paper, take a dry square and mop up any excess moisture. Whether it’s wet wipes or bidets, some people don’t bother with this step, but “it would be weird not to dry,” Asbury says. Occasionally, moisture can lead to intertrigo, which is irritation in skin folds, or a fungal infection.

You also want to have a soft touch. “I see people scrubbing hard,” Asbury says. “That just makes the problem worse.” Excessive wiping can lead to micro-tears in the anal tissue, causing bleeding and discomfort.


Make sure to go from front to back, pushing waste away from the groin. This has traditionally been advised for women to keep poop away from the vaginal canal and prevent urinary tract infections. While Asbury hasn't found specific studies to back up this advice, he still believes it's likely more hygienic. There’s also something to be said for sitting while wiping, since ergonomically, it may keep your perianal area open. But if you’re uncomfortable reaching into the toilet to wipe, standing should suffice.

Assuming you’ve done all that and you’re still feeling discomfort, Asbury warns it might be something else. “If you’re not feeling clean, there could be issues with your sphincter,” he says. Weakened muscles can cause leakage. But generally, it’s dry-wipers who have trouble getting everything they need to get. For the hard-to-clean, Asbury advises that they make the switch to a bidet.

“It’s cold at first,” he says. “But you get used to it.”


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