Week in Review: Swamped

UNC-TV Science Week In Review
UNCTV Science Week In Review: August 8, 2013


It happens to everybody. You get one task, then another, then another, then another until you feel like you need 4 hands and 48 hours to finish a day’s work. 

This week, North Carolina has been overflowing with stories of everything from skin cells to solar panels taking on multiple jobs. So in the interest of covering as many as possible, let’s get started!

Where Was This in June?
Earlier this summer, I spent too much time outside at a pool party and turned red as a lobster. I spent the next week burned, itching and cringing when I put on my backpack. But new research this week shows that by shutting down a UV-detecting protein in our skin, called TRPV4, dummies like me may be able to avoid painful sunburns.  

UV-B light activates TRPV4 in keratinocytes, the cells that make up 90% of our skin. Activated TRPV4 sends a signal, using calcium ions, to the keratinocyte to make a compound called endothelin-1. Endothelin-1 activates more TRPV4 and “changes the program” of all types of skin cells, according to Dr. Martin Steinhoff, UCSF dermatologist and co-author of the study. These program changes cause the skin damage and pain we know as sunburn. 

Detection and signaling are jobs normally reserved for neurons, and Dr. Wolfgang Liedtke, a Duke neurobiologist and co-author of the study, described the keratinocyte’s ability to fill this role as a “fundamental advance,” in our understanding of sunburn.

The researchers silenced the gene that makes TRPV4 (creatively called trpv4) in mice and found that they experienced less blistering and sensitivity than normal mice when exposed to UV light. They also showed that rubbing a TRPV4 suppressor into mice’s skin protected them from sunburn, opening the possibility of adding TRPV4 suppressors to sunscreen.

Dr. Steinhoff says suppression of TRPV4 might even be able to prevent chronic sun damage, photo-aging and skin cancer. He says that rapid skin aging and skin cancers are caused by “program” changes in skin cells, so if TRPV4 doesn’t change cell programs, these issues don’t come to pass. Both Steinhoff and Liedtke say, however, that much more research is needed to determine the scope of what TRPV4 suppression can effectively do.

A paper on this work appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week. Dr. Liedtke also published a study in the journal Pain this week involving TRPV4. In that study he suppressed neuron TRPV4 in mice to relieve pain from tricky-to-treat temporomandibular joint disorder, which affects 10 million Americans.

A Sense of Purpose A Day Keeps the Doctor Away
When we get stressed, some of our immune cells make fewer protective molecules (antibodies and interferons) and more inflammatory molecules. This process is called conserved transcriptional response to adversity or CTRA.

Thus the conventional wisdom from the field of positive psychology was to stay happy. But a new study from UNC-Chapel Hill shows that it may not be as simple as whether we’re happy or not.

The researchers, led by Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, separated happiness into 2 categories: hedonic (“simple self-gratification”) and eudaimonic (“a noble purpose"). The researchers asked 84 participants questions about their general happiness and sense of purpose and then tested their blood.

They found that while both hedonic and eudaimonic happiness led to less depression and a general good feeling, simple hedonic happiness led to CTRA and lower immune function, while the eudaimonic people made more protective molecules. 

The paper appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and preliminarily shows that fulfillment may have profound effects on our bodies. The scientists wrote, however, that longer studies are needed to reach any conclusions.

Bend, Don’t Break. Then Stop Bending.
Athletes everywhere are familiar with the process of tearing down and building back up. When you exercise, muscle fibers tear and stronger ones replace them. Manmade materials, however, break down at a molecular level under stress, getting weaker and weaker with more use and eventually need replacements.

But Duke chemist Stephen Craig is challenging this idea. His polymers form new chemical bonds as they break, making them stronger than when they started.

Think of a polymer as a long chemical cord. Craig’s polymers have small triangular rings of carbon atoms hanging off the cord, which by themselves are completely unreactive. The whole thing looks like a string of Christmas lights. 

If you pull on the polymer, the cord snaps and the rings split open. Open rings are free to react with each other, and using a connector, open rings from many strings can attach to each other, making more bonds than the polymer originally had, and a stronger material. Click here for a diagram.

The group battered a liquid polymer with sound waves and it turned into something like Jell-O. They stretched and twisted a putty polymer and it made a hard plastic.

A Solar Panel With a Pulse
Currently most solar panels are made with silicon, but scientists are eager to move toward cheaper and more environmentally friendly organic dyes. The problem with dyes, though, is that they break down over time. This means frequent, costly replacements.

But engineers from NC State University found a clever way around the replacement problem. They added tiny veins into their panels so that when the dye breaks down, they can wash it out and pump new dye in.

When the dye breaks down, engineers wash out the panel with sodium hydroxide, which changes the panel’s chemistry in such a way that it can’t hold the dye. Once the old dye is gone, hydrochloric acid changes the chemistry back to where the panel can hold dye again. Finally new dye is added and the panel is again operational.

This research, which appeared in the journal Scientific Reports, is potentially a huge step forward in moving solar panels away from silicon.

The Biofuels Center of North Carolina announced in its newsletter this week that it will gradually shut down over the next 90 days and officially close its doors on Halloween. The Oxford non-profit, which coordinated biofuel development in every phase from research to industry, was written out of the state budget signed by Gov. Pat McCrory last week.

The Biofuels Center is considered a national leader in organizing and promoting biofuel development. It has been in operation since 2008.

And Now for Something Completely Different...
How’s this for weird? Benjamin Perlman, a PhD student at Wake Forest University is studying a fish that can live on land for up to 66 days! The mangrove rivulus can breathe through its skin, unlike most fish, so as long as it stays moist, it can live comfortably on land. And if that wasn’t odd enough, this fish gets around not by crawling, but by arching its tail and catapulting itself through the air. 

Click here to see a video of the mangrove rivulus on the move. Perlman hopes that the mangrove rivulus will provide insight into the time when our ancestors first crawled (or flipped) out of the sea.

- Daniel Lane

Daniel Lane covers science, medicine and the environment as a reporter/writer. He is currently pursuing a master's degree in medical and science journalism at UNC - Chapel Hill.

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