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Nobel Prize in Medicine Explained

So the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for 2012 has been announced, but what have the deserving winners done anyway? Here’s a look at the defining achievements that have cemented their place in history.

What’s the Big Deal With Stem Cells?

Sir John Gurdon from Cambridge and Dr. Shinya Yamanaka from Kyoto University have won the prize for their work on induced pluripotent stem cells (IPS), and every biologist has greeted this news with a cheer. Every cell in our body is specialized to perform its own task; that’s why your food goes into your stomach and air into your lungs. However, every cell in our body arises from one single cell. How does this division of labor occur? At some stage of development in the womb, cells undergo a process called ‘differentiation’, which is what tells the cells what functions they will be restricted to performing. What we call ‘stem cells’ are essentially undifferentiated cells, which are enormously powerful simply because they can turn into any type of tissue we want!

Sir John B Gurdon, who first proved that differentiation could be reversed. [Image Credit:]

This differentiation was thought to be one-directional. In 1962, Sir John Gurdon showed that the reverse of the ‘differentiation’ process could be achieved. Cells from a tissue like the skin could be reversed to form ‘stem cells’ that could in turn turn into any type of tissue. He took out the nucleus of an adult frog and injected it into an egg cell of a tadpole (from which the DNA-containing nucleus had been removed). This embryo then grew into a live tadpole, showing that ‘adult DNA’ really could become ‘immature’ again.

Dr. Shinya Yamanaka converted skin cells from mice into embryos that could grow into adult mice. [Image Credit: nobelprizeorg]
Dr. Shinya Yamanaka, in 2006, concocted an actual recipe for this reverse differentiation, and produced IPS cells from the skin cells of mice in this seminal paper. He identified 4 genes that could convert these skin cells into immature yet all-powerful stem cells.

These cells have huge potential in both medicine and research. Brain cells, for example, are notoriously difficult to isolate. Thanks to their discovery, we can produce IPS cells and culture brain cells instead of having to isolate them. While the direct applications to medicine are not yet on the horizon, this technology does hold promises for the future.


List of Nobel Prize Winners 2012 [Live Webcast Link Included]

The Nobel Prize announcement week is upon us!

The Nobel Prize for Medicine, Physics and Chemistry are out. The list of winners follows.

The Nobel Prize celebrates the pinnacle of human thought and intellect. The prize money is approximately $1.2 million and there is also a medal and a certificate following that. The first prize is given for Medicine, followed by that for Physics, Chemistry, Economics and Peace. The Literature Prize will be announced later.



The winners of the Medicine Nobel Prize are Sir John B. Gurdon of the Gurdon Institute, Cambridge, United Kingdom, and Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University, Kyoto, Japan, and their citation says that they got it for “the discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent”. Each shares half the prize.

The Medicine Nobel Explained for the Layman:


The winners of the Physics Nobel Prize are Sergie Haroch and David J. Wineland and their citation says that they got it for demonstrating the direct observation of individual quantum particles without destroying them.
They share the prize equally.


The winners of the Chemistry Nobel Prize are Robert J. Lefkowitz from Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, NC, USA and Brian K. Kobilka from Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, CA, USA and their citation says that they got it for studies of G-protein-coupled receptors.
They share the prize equally.


Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year. His citation reads that it was he “who with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary”

You can see the live webcast here:

or at the main site.

We will update this post with the daily winners. So stay tuned

Get the Webcast Link for the Nobel Prize Announcements!

The winners of the 2012 Nobel Prize will be announced starting from today. The first Nobel winner to be announced will be in the field of medicine. We will be bringing you the winners as they are announced. The Nobel Prize winner for Physics will be announced tomorrow and there is considerable interest about that.


You can watch the live webcast here:

The Nobel prize site is:

The Swedish Nobel Committee will be awarding exceptional work done in the fields of medicine/physiology, physics, chemistry and literature. Two other Nobel Prizes include economics and peace. Medicine, physics and chemistry will be followed by peace and economics, while the prize for literature will be announced later as usual.

Stay with us for the real time coverage. We will also try and have follow-up posts on the different fields for which the Nobel Prize was given out.
Let the celebration of human intellect begin…

Google Celebrates Niels Bohr’s Birthday with a Doodle

The Great Dane would leave a legacy that few would even dream of rivaling. Niels Bohr was a quiet and shy man, whose contribution to 20th century physics is so fundamental that, without it, the whole edifice would only be half built. His brilliant insights into physical problems not only gave solutions, but also taught the world a new way of thinking of a physical problem – think of only what can be explained and what can be observed, leaving all your philosophical baggage behind. Bohr, the great, celebrates his birthday today and Google honours him with a doodle.


Bohr’s great insight

If you asked me to judge the doodle, I would just give it passing grades; Google could’ve easily been more imaginative. The doodle shows an atom, given by the Bohr’s atomic model (well, not quite, but more on that in a bit) and a photon (particle of light) being emitted having exactly the right frequency. This frequency times the Planck’s constant gives the energy of the photon. It turns out that the transition of an electron from a higher energy level to a lower one would involve the emission of a photon with energy equal to exactly the difference between the levels and this was Bohr’s great insight.

Niels Bohr


So what problem was I referring to about the Bohr’s Atomic Model? Well, Bohr’s Atomic Model doesn’t involve elliptic orbits*. It just involves electrons going around the nucleus in circular orbits. So just a bit mistaken there! (*See corrigendum below)

Bohr happened to be on the Manhattan Project too. His escape out of Nazi occupied Denmark is the stuff of folklore. Apparently, he received a permit letter, allowing him to leave Copenhagen when Denmark was being captured by the Nazi power in the 2nd World War. This special permit came probably from Heisenberg who was holding a high position in the department of science in Nazi establishment. Niels Bohr was then smuggled out of Denmark and given a safe haven in America.

More than just a scientist

So Bohr! More than being a brilliant physicist, he was also a pioneer. He was one of the founding fathers of CERN, 1954. Where we would be without the Great Dane. And of course, the Copenhagen Institute which housed the great minds of the 20th century at a time was co-founded by Niels Bohr.

An atom wouldn’t be the same without you! Happy Birthday Niels Bohr.


Corrigendum from the author: A good friend of mine and a regular reader of the blog, Joe Phillips Ninan, research scholar at TIFR, Mumbai, wrote to me pointing out that my conclusion of the orbits not being circular is incorrect. He says that they are circles oriented in 3D planes and thus just look like ellipses, but are not actually ellipses. This is what he wrote to me in an email:

I carefully checked the pixel position of the nucleus in the Google Doodle image. They lie exactly at the center of line connecting the diameter. Hence they are not elliptical orbits with nucleus at one of the foci. They have drawn only perfect circles, oriented in different planes in 3D.

Good point Joe and it’s gracefully accepted. The hasty error on my part is regretted.

Mothers Carry Pieces of their Children—In Their Brain

Did you know that long after you’re born, your mother carries little parts of you in her body? This phenomenon is called ‘microchimerism’, the presence of foreign cells in a tissue or organ. Recent research has now found cells from the foetus in the most distal part of the mother’s body, the head.

Babies’ Cells Migrate Into Mothers’ Bodies

Microchimerism arises during pregnancy when fetal cells move into the mother’s body where they may persist and multiply for a long time. This phenomenon is how the complete sequence of a foetus’s DNA can be determined simply from the mother’s blood. The effects of these cells on the mother’s health, if any, aren’t known. Some hypothesize that these ‘foreign’ cells could trigger off the mother’s immune system leading to autoimmune diseases. Others hypothesize that these cells actually help in the repair of damaged tissues in the maternal body. The kidneys, lungs, liver, lymph nodes and the hearts of mothers have been found to contain their sons’ DNA. Do they also travel to the brain?

fetal DNA in mother's brain
The origins of microchimerism. It is during pregnancy that cells from the foetus enter the mother’s body and may persist for as long as a few decades. [Image Credit: Wikimedia commons]

Looking for Y Chromosomes in Female Brains

Firstly, let’s talk about why ‘son’s’ DNA is mentioned, but not daughters’ DNA lest scientists be accused of sexism. Males contain a copy of the Y chromosome while females don’t. Merely finding a piece of this chromosome in a woman would be sufficient to determine the presence of foreign cells (most likely to be her son’s). On the other hand, to look for a daughter’s DNA, scientist would have to look for very specific differences between the mother and the daughter’s genes.

Keeping this in mind, researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle tested if a particular sequence of DNA in the Y chromosome was found in the brains of women who had sons. 63% of mothers were found to contain this segment of DNA, indicating that fetal cells do, in fact, travel all the way to the brain.

The next time your mother says you’re in her heart or on her mind, you know she means it literally. You can read about this research here.

Electronics That Dissolve in the Body

Electronics are often bought with one thing in mind—how long are they going to last? A new class of electronics might be on its way to reversing this paradigm. New on the technology block are ‘transient electronics’ that dissolve in water, and importantly, body fluids.

From Use-and-throw to Use-and-Disappear

Researchers at the University of Illinois, Tufts University and Northwestern University have pioneered biocompatible electronics that are both robust and high performance, and also capable of dissolving and thus free of the problems of waste disposal that accompany conventional electronic goods.

The applications of this class of devices could be wide-ranging and important. Starting with medical implants that perform a biological function for a specified duration of time or record biological parameters before being resorbed into the body’s system, and moving to environmental monitors that dissolve and reduce environmental impact,  these ‘transient electronics’ have great potential.

A biodegradable sensor seen to be dissolving in water. [Photo Credit: Beckman Institute, University of Illinois and Tufts University]

How Do They Dissolve?

The key to this invention is the use of ultra-thin silicon sheets which are so thin they easily dissolve. Used together with soluble conductors employing primarily magnesium and magnesium oxide, they offer the raw materials for a wide range of applications. Wireless power coils, radio transmitters and antennae, solar cells and temperature sensors are some devices that have already been constructed.

The engineers have also come up with a way to control the time after which these devices dissolve,  by wrapping them in a layer of silk. It is the structure of the silk that determines the rate of dissolution. The timescales for dissolution can range from as small as a few minutes to days, weeks, months or potentially, years, all depending on the silk packaging.

You can read about this research here.

Elon Musk Reveals Electric Car Supercharger for Tesla Motors

Forget about fuel, electric cars are the way to go ahead into the future. At least, if you believe what visionary Elon Musk has to say. Yes, this is the same Elon Musk who founded PayPal, surged ahead with the SpaceX company, the largest private company to aspire to touch the great beyond and is also the CEO of Tesla Motors – the world’s leading makers of electric cars. Now, Tesla introduces a Supercharger – a brilliant imposing monolith structure capable of charging a Model S sedan from nothing to full charge in under an hour!

The Supercharger made by Tesla Motors


Musk’s great plan is to have these Superchargers at regular intervals, first within America and then all across Europe. When electric cars become the norm, rather than the outcasts that they are today, these will allow them to travel virtually unlimited distances all around the globe.

Making power and giving it back too!

The Superchargers will themselves be powered by solar power and purely solar power. Tesla Motors calculates that the solar panels will be able to generate more power than what the cars might use and thus will be able to feed power back into the power grid, answering the questions of a lot of critics that the fuel-powered substitutes will actually be sucking in a lot more power than what meets the eye. Not anymore, says Musk. By giving power back to the power grid, Tesla has ensured that the day of the electric cars is not very far into the future.

Already rolling

Six Superchargers have already been installed across California and two of them are running off of the power grid. More are expected the follow the trend. The Supercharger will charge at 100 kilowatt and this means that the Model S sedan, the highest battery capable car marketed by Tesla Motors, will be fully charged in under an hour, starting from nothing! Elon Musk says it better:

What it means is that you can drive for three hours, stop for less than half an hour, recharge, and be ready to go again

Musk’s next target is to get these Superchargers across the U.S. in the next two years and enter Canada in the next half a decade or so.
Docking in space with the International Space Station or building a giant charger ushering in the future – Elon Musk does it all! Nikola Tesla would’ve been proud!

Here is a video from the unveiling of the Supercharger:

Video streaming by Ustream

Dry-run Experiments Push Us Closer to Nuclear Fusion Power

Beryllium Liner
Sandia researcher, Ryan McBride, observes central beryllium liner to be imploded by the powerful magnetic field generated by Sandia’s Z machine (Photo by Randy Montoya/Sandia National Laboratories)

It is the holy grail of many physicists. Nuclear fusion, the process of fusing two atomic nuclei together to form a single heavier nucleus, could turn the energy industry on its head. You see nuclear fusion everyday. Just look up at that bright ball of fiery gas in the sky and you’ll see what I mean. The process that occurs everyday on the sun is called nuclear fusion and its by-product is enormous energy. The problem with trying to replicate the process here on earth is that we haven’t been able to reach the “break even” point, which is the point where the amount of energy produced by the reaction exceeds the amount of energy it takes to start it. Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories have succeeded in a dry-run experiment that draws us one step closer to nuclear fusion power.

Pictured above, a cylindrical tube called a “liner” is subjected to intense electromagnetic pressure by the labs “Z” machine thereby causing it to implode. The process is called MagLIF (Magnetized Liner Inertial Fusion). The tube is intended to eventually be filled with nuclear fuel called deuterium (AKA heavy hydrogen). In theory, if the liner can maintain its cylindrical integrity while being crushed by the incredible magnetic pressure, it should essentially squeeze these deuterium atoms in a manner that would create a fusion reaction. The problem is to find the sweet spot to make this happen. If the liner is too thick, then it will take too much energy to produce the reaction. If it is too thin, then the liner will be ripped to shreds before the reaction can take place. The cylindrical beryllium liners fared pretty well in the recent experiments. Researchers plan to perform a couple more MagLIF concepts in experiments this December, which will incorporate lasers to preheat the core fuel to put more energy into the experiment prior to the magnetic pulses, and additional coils at the top and bottom of the liner to keep possible fuel elements from leaking out. They hope to test the full concept by the end of 2013.

For more information, visit Sandia National Laboratories website at


Giant Roman-Era Mosaic Discovered in Turkey

Crews from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, have unearthed a gorgeous Roman mosaic in the ancient city of Antiochia ad Cragum on the southern Turkish coast. This massive 1,600 square foot work of art is a testament to the craftsmanship of the era and the vast reach of the Roman empire at the time.

Mosaic View from Above
View of the mosaic from above. (Credit: Michael Hoff, University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

Michael Hoff, Hixson-Lied professor of art history at UNL was the director of the excavation. Hoff believes it to be the largest mosaic to be found in this area and explains the finds impact on the history of the region by saying, “We were surprised to have found a mosaic of such size and of such caliber in this region – it’s an area that had usually been off the radar screens of most ancient historians and archeologists, and suddenly this mosaic comes into view and causes us to change our focus about what we think (the region) was like in antiquity.”

The project at Antiochia ad Cragum began in 2001, when Hoff and other researchers discovered small mosaic tiles that had been dug up by a farmer. The find was brought to the attention of the archeological museum in Alanya. Last year the museum asked Hoff to clear the mosaic and help preserve it as a tourist spot and for academic purposes. Hoff directed students from both UNL and Atatürk University in Ezrurum, Turkey.

The mosaic was part of a Roman bath which was a very common feature in Roman antiquity. “This would have been a very formal associated pavement attached to the bath,” Hoff said. “This is a gorgeous mosaic, and its size is unprecedented”. In fact, it is so large, that the team estimates they have only uncovered 40% of it.  Pictured below, you can see a close up view of the bath that was excavated at the site.

Roman Bath
The Roman bath uncovered during the summer. (Credit – Office of University Communications University of Nebraska–Lincoln)

A find like this must make someone like Hoff feel like a kid in a candy store. In a UNL press release, you can almost feel the enthusiasm jump off the page when you read:

“As an archaeologist, I am always excited to make new discoveries. The fact that this discovery is so large and also not completely uncovered makes it doubly exciting,” he said. “I am already looking forward to next year, though I just returned from Turkey.”

For more information, and to see more incredible pictures, please visit UNL’s website at

Is That Drink Container Making Your Children Obese?

A study published in the September 19th edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association has raised concerns about a commonly used chemical, bisphenol A(BPA), and its link to obesity in children and teens.

soda can

BPA is an organic compound that is used in the manufacturing of everything from polymers and epoxies, to plastic bottles and aluminum cans. It’s been used in manufacturing since the 60’s. There are many concerns that BPA has negative effects on the endocrine system by essentially disrupting human metabolism. Other studies have associated BPA exposure to cardiovascular disease, breast cancer, prostate cancer, neurological disorders, diabetes and infertility. It appears that the most significant current use of BPA is in aluminum cans as an anitseptic. The FDA continues to study BPA, but has not called for an outright ban. However, it has banned its use in sippy cups and baby bottles.

A study done by  New York University School of Medicine has shown “significant association” between obesity in children and teens with higher levels of urinary BPA. According to their press release, “This is the first association of an environmental chemical in childhood obesity in a large, nationally representative sample,” said lead investigator Leonardo Trasande, MD, MPP, associate professor of pediatrics and environmental medicine. “Our findings further demonstrate the need for a broader paradigm in the way we think about the obesity epidemic. Unhealthy diet and lack of physical activity certainly contribute to increased fat mass, but the story clearly doesn’t end there.”

This was one of the most comprehensive studies done on the subject of BPA in children and teens and its correlation to obesity. It controlled for numerous factors such as, race/ethnicity, age, caregiver education, poverty to income ratio, sex, serum cotinine level, caloric intake, television watching, and urinary creatinine level. What the researchers found is that those who had the highest levels of urinary BPA were 2.6 times more likely to be obese than those with the lowest levels of BPA. They even took the testing a bit further to see if there may be other sources of BPA such as sunscreens and soaps. These proved to be insignificant sources.

“Most people agree the majority of BPA exposure in the United States comes from aluminum cans,” Dr. Trasande said. “This data adds to already existing concerns about BPA and further supports the call to limit exposure of BPA in this country, especially in children. Removing it from aluminum cans is probably one of the best ways we can limit exposure. There are alternatives that manufacturers can use to line aluminum cans.”

To read FDA statements regarding BPA, visit their website at or download a PDF regarding the subject at