Alt-week takes a look at the best science and alternative tech stories from the last seven days.
In isolation, this week's stories are all pretty notable, but if you put them together, it begins to sound a lot like the plot of a movie. Four-stranded DNA, a database of alien planets, a new super-chemical to kill hospital bugs and a byzantine gamma-radiation blast. You can almost picture the plucky heroine trying to unpick the galactic conspiracy before someone loses an eye -- and if you've already cast weepy Clare Danes in the role, then you've already passed the entry exam to read Alt-week.
NASA's Kepler observatory is designed to explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and civilizations traces of exoplanets and has clocked up around two thousand unconfirmed sightings. The team behind the program have decided to lessen the workload by opening up its findings and letting armchair astronomers worldwide participate. As well as being able to chip in with opinions about what constitutes a planet, the team are letting students develop data mining experiments, looking for patterns that could assist in the discovery of alien life -- or just look neat when graphed visually.
Scientists think that a blast of Gamma radiation might have hit our planet in the halcyon days of the year 775. Fusa Miyake discovered Carbon-14 and Beryllium-10 traces in tree rings from the era, which point to a gamma ray burst from a celestial body other than the Sun. Of course, the natural question is why we have no recorded instances of Dr. Brvce Banner turning green and smashing up Byzantine Constantinople? Well, it seems that astrophysicist Ralph Neuhauser has the unexciting answer -- most of the radiation would have been caught by the atmosphere, meaning that it's highly unlikely anyone succumbed to an accidental overdose.
Hospital bugs like MRSA are easy to kill when they're outside your body, just as long as you've got some alcohol nearby. If they get inside you, then there's always the option of taking an antibiotic or two to kill 'em off. If, however, they've hitched a ride on a catheter that's implanted into your body, then the bugs can grow a biofilm -- in short, a biological beachhead that will constantly reinfect you and is impenetrable to antibiotics. IBM, in partnership with the Singapore Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, has developed a hydrogel that can be smeared all over such implants, greatly reducing the risk of infection. Safe enough to go into the human body, the hydrogel prevents biofilms from growing and, thanks to its positive charge, attracts negatively charged microorganisms, which it then pops like water balloons. There's no word on if Big Blue plans to share the discovery with chemical corporations, but it certainly sounds better than downing a shot of Purell every time we venture in for a check-up.
DNA can only be found in a double helix, right? That fact seems destined for the biology section of Snopes after scientists found a quadruple helix. A team at Cambridge University used structure-specific markers to tag the G-Quadruplex, proving that these structures can exist in the human body as well as in petri dishes and in simple organisms. It transpires that they can form during cell division at the point where DNA is being replicated, and may have a hand in the development of some cancers -- meaning they're of great interest to oncologists.
Seen any other far-out articles that you'd like considered for Alt-week? Working on a project or research that's too cool to keep to yourself? Drop us a line at alt [at] engadget [dot] com.
[Image Credit: NASA / IBM / JP Rodriguez / G.Biffi]