The Madagascan fat-tailed dwarf lemur could hold the secret to human hibernation and mankind’s chances of exploring the deepest reaches of the known universe, according to a team of top neuroscientists.
Vladyslav Vyazovskiy, a Ukrainian neuroscientist, says harnessing the power of hibernation is vital if humans are to venture beyond our solar system.
Interest in suspended animation, the ability to set biological processes on hold, peaked in the 1950s as Nasa poured money into biological research. The hope was that sleeping your way to the stars would mean spacecraft could carry far less food, water and oxygen, making long-haul flights to distant planets more practical. It would also save astronauts from years of deep-space boredom.
Nasa’s interest died at the end of the space race, but Mr Vyazovskiy and his team of researchers at the University of Oxford are now exploring ways to put astronauts into stasis, using knowledge gained from mammals, including bears and dwarf lemurs.
“A journey to our nearest planet, Mars, would take around eight months using current technology. If we one day hope to visit another star system, even if we could travel at the speed of light, the journey would take years. Being able to go into a state of long-term torpor would make such distances considerably less tedious for the astronauts and conserve vital resources,” said Mr Vyazovskiy.
Science news in pictures
Science news in pictures
1/18 Vegetables grow well in soil from Mars
Scientists have taken a leaf out of the script of The Martian by showing how easy it would be to grow your own veg on the Red Planet. In the hit Ridley Scott film, a stranded astronaut played by Matt Damon uses his botanical skills to cultivate potatoes. Now his success has been emulated by researchers in the Netherlands who harvested tomatoes, peas, rye, rocket, radish and cress raised on simulated Martian soil supplied by Nasa
2/18 Ancient Roman 'leisure complex' unearthed in Jerusalem
An ancient Roman estate complete with its own wine press and bathhouse has been unearthed in Jerusalem. A series of buildings dating back at least 1,600 years were discovered underneath the city's famous Schneller Orphanage which operated on the site from 1860 until the end of the Second World War, when it was turned into an army base. The ruins were discovered by archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority who were excavating the site ahead of building new flats for the city's Orthodox Jewish community
3/18 Scientists discover possible new species of deep-sea octopus nicknamed 'Casper'
Scientists believe they may have found a new species of octopus likened in appearance to Casper, the friendly cartoon ghost. Researchers with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration made the discovery by chance as they searched the seabed on an unrelated mission collecting geological samples. Teams were operating an unmanned submarine on the Pacific Ocean floor at depths of more than four kilometres (two-and-a-half miles) in the Hawaiian Islands when they spotted the unusual creature
4/18 Black hole captured eating a star then vomiting it back out
Astronomers have captured a black hole eating a star and then sicking a bit of it back up for the first time ever. The scientists tracked a star about as big as our sun as it was pulled from its normal path and into that of a supermassive black hole before being eaten up. They then saw a high-speed flare get thrust out, escaping from the rim of the black hole. Scientists have seen black holes killing and swallowing stars. And the jets have been seen before.But a new study shows the first time that they have captured the hot flare that comes out just afterwards. And the flare and then swallowed star have not been linked together before
5/18 'Male and female brains' aren't real
Brains cannot be categorised into female and male, according to the first study to look at sex differences in the whole brain. Specific parts of the brain do show sex differences, but individual brains rarely have all “male” traits or all “female” traits. Some characteristics are more common in women, while some are more common in men, and some are common in both men and women, according to the study
6/18 Dog-sized horned dinosaur fossil found shows east-west evolutionary divide in North America
A British scientist has uncovered the fossil of a dog-sized horned dinosaur that roamed eastern North America up to 100 million years ago. The fragment of jaw bone provides evidence of an east-west divide in the evolution of dinosaurs on the North American continent. During the Late Cretaceous period, 66 to 100 million years ago, the land mass was split into two continents by a shallow sea. This sea, the Western Interior Seaway, ran from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean. Dinosaurs living in the western continent, called Laramidia, were similar to those found in Asia
7/18 Asteroid to skim past Earth on Halloween 2015
A huge asteroid is set to skim by Earth on Halloween, just three weeks after it was first spotted. The rock is travelling through space at 78,000 miles per hour, and will fly past the Earth at a distance of only 300,000 miles – only slightly further away than our moon, and easily close enough for Nasa to class it a potentially hazardous object. The asteroid is bigger than a skyscraper
8/18 Life on Earth appeared hundreds of millions of years earlier than previously thought
Life may have come to earth 4.1 billion years ago, hundreds of millions of years earlier than we knew. The discovery, made using graphite that was trapped in ancient crystals, could mean that life began "almost instantaneously" after the Earth was formed. The researchers behind it have described the discovery as “a potentially transformational scientific advance”. Previously, life on Earth was understood to have begun when the inner solar system was hit by a massive bombardment from space, which also formed the moon's craters
9/18 Earth could be at risk of meteor impacts
Earth could be in danger as our galaxy throws out comets that could hurtle towards us and wipe us out, scientists have warned. Scientists have previously presumed that we are in a relatively safe period for meteor impacts, which are linked with the journey of our sun and its planets, including Earth, through the Milky Way. But some orbits might be more upset than we know, and there is evidence of recent activity, which could mean that we are passing through another meteor shower. Showers of meteors periodically pass through the area where the Earth is, as gravitational disturbances upset the Oort Cloud, which is a shell of icy objects on the edge of the solar system. They happen on a 26-million year cycle, scientists have said, which coincide with mass extinctions over the last 260-million years
10/18 Genetically-engineered, extra-muscular dogs
Chinese scientists have created genetically-engineered, extra-muscular dogs, after editing the genes of the animals for the first time. The scientists create beagles that have double the amount of muscle mass by deleting a certain gene, reports the MIT Technology Review. The mutant dogs have “more muscles and are expected to have stronger running ability, which is good for hunting, police (military) applications”, Liangxue Lai, one of the researchers on the project. Now the team hope to go on to create other modified dogs, including those that are engineered to have human diseases like muscular dystrophy or Parkinson’s. Since dogs’ anatomy is similar to those of humans’, intentionally creating dogs with certain human genetic traits could allow scientists to further understand how they occur
11/18 Nasa confirms Mars water discovery
Nasa has announced that it has found evidence of flowing water on Mars. Scientists have long speculated that Recurring Slope Lineae — or dark patches — on Mars were made up of briny water but the new findings prove that those patches are caused by liquid water, which it has established by finding hydrated salts.
12/18 Bees in the Rocky Mountains are evolving shorter tongues
With warmer summers, flowers in the Rockies have become shallower and more suited to shorter-tongued bees
13/18 The majority of the UK public believe in aliens
The titular alien character from 2011's 'Paul' - a poll has found the majority of the public in Britain, Germany and the US believe that intelligent life is out there in the universe
14/18 Researchers discover 'lost world' of arctic dinosaurs
Scientists say that the new dinosaur, known as Ugrunaaluk kuukpikensis, “challenges everything we thought about a dinosaur’s physiology”. Florida State University professor of biological science Greg Erickson said: “It creates this natural question. How did they survive up here?”
15/18 Scientists find exactly what human corpses smell like
New research has become the first to isolate the particular scent of human death, describing the various chemicals that are emitted by corpses in an attempt to help find them in the future. The researchers hope that the findings are the first step towards working on a synthetic smell that could train cadaver dogs to be able to more accurately find human bodies, or to eventually developing electronic devices that can look for the scent themselves.
16/18 The Syrian civil war has caused the first ever withdrawal from the 'doomsday bank'
Researchers in the Middle East have asked for seeds including those of wheat, barley and grasses, all of which are chosen because especially resistant to dry conditions. It is the first withdrawal from the bank, which was built in 2008. Those researchers would normally request the seeds from a bank in Aleppo. But that centre has been damaged by the war — while some of its functions continue, and its cold storage still works, it has been unable to provide the seeds that are needed by the rest of the Middle East, as it once did.
17/18 A team of filmmakers in the US have made the first ever scale model of the Solar System in a Nevada desert
Illustrations of the Earth and moon show the two to be quite close together, Mr Overstreet said. This is inaccurate, the reason being that these images are not to scale.
18/18 Academics claim a full bladder makes for a better liar
People lie more convincingly if they have a full bladder, according to research by academics at California State University. Iris Blandón-Gitlin's team asked 22 students to lie to a panel of interviewers. Half were given 700ml to drink before the interview and the other half, just 50ml. The students with the full bladders showed fewer signs that they were lying and their untrue answers were longer and more detailed, meaning interviewers were less able to detect that they were telling porkies. PM David Cameron has previously attested to giving speeches on a full bladder.
“The fact that large mammals such as bears and even primates, such as the fat-tailed dwarf lemur of Madagascar, can hibernate means that theoretically humans aren’t too big or energy-hungry to enter torpor.”
Mr Vyazovskiy’s team, part of a European Space Agency programme, say that despite some “open questions” over human hibernation it is theoretically possible to put astronauts in stasis for long periods. They point to the wide use of controlled hypothermia and slowed metabolism in medicine, including during cardiac surgery when the body is cooled below its normal temperature, as a possible avenue to perfecting the technology.
However, to take hibernation to the stars they admit they will need to better understand how and why animals spontaneously hibernate for a few hours or many months. Animals seem to “know” how to hibernate safely.
Scientists also need to overcome the devastating effect of cold on the brain’s ability to retain memories. “Research in animals such as bats shows that most memories are preserved even after many months in a state of almost complete neuronal depression. But some memories seem to be taken better care of than others, such as the ability to remember close kin,” said Mr Vyazovskiy, in an article for The Conversation website.
Dr Lewis Darnell, an astrobiologist at the University of Kent who is funded by the UK Space Agency, told The Independent: “The genes for hibernation exist in the mammalian body; the trick for researchers is to learn how to reprogramme the human body to access this capability.”
Hibernation habits: What animals can do
Many hibernating animals eat a lot during the summer, creating fat stores that will last throughout the winter.
Bats remember far more than other animals after hibernation, due to an unknown neuroprotective mechanism.
After hibernation, animals are more likely to recognise family members than familiar, unrelated animals.
The arctic ground squirrel sets its internal temperature to 0°C when it hibernates.
Bears neither urinate nor defecate during hibernation, but recycle nutrients from their waste. Their heart rates drop from 55 beats a minute to as low as nine. A female can give birth, the cubs feeding on her milk till she wakes.