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Why are plants green?


Satellite photos such as the one above depict our precious planetary home as a roughly spherical object colored with some mix of white, blue, green and brown pigments. I’m fairly confident that pretty much all of us know that the white color comes from snow, the blue color comes from bodies of water on our planet, the brown color comes from dirt in various forms, and the prominent green color comes from plants.
Continue reading Why are plants green?

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An Introduction to genetic mutations in plain english

Thanks in large part to Stan Lee and the Marvel comic universe that he created, hearing the word mutant immediately brings heroic fictional characters such as Storm, Jean Grey, or the perpetually angry but loveable Wolverine to many of our minds. While the underlying story of the X-Men in the Marvel universe has a grain of truth to it, it is important to note that the word “mutant” isn’t synonymous with “super power”. In actual fact, when we call a living organism a “mutant”, it means that it has somehow acquired a slight variation in its DNA relative to the norm. At this point, you might want to read this article if you’re new to all this DNA stuff and would like to get a basic understanding of it before you continue. Continue reading An Introduction to genetic mutations in plain english

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Oil and water don’t mix. Except when…

closeup to white foam on blue water
In a previous article, we discussed the scientific reason behind why oil and water don’t mix. At the end of that same article, we noted that there is one special circumstance under which you can actually get water and oil to mix well with each other. In this article, we’ll explore the science behind this special circumstance that facilitates the mixing of oil and water… two substances that we all know typically don’t mix well with each other. Continue reading Oil and water don’t mix. Except when…

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Here’s why oil and water don’t mix… in plain english

Oil and water
A while ago, I was in the process of dressing a gorgeous looking salad with some olive oil, until I accidentally spilled quite a bit of the olive oil into my glass of water that happened to be sitting right by my salad bowl. As usual, the oil floated to the top of the glass of water, forming a distinct layer at the top. I shrugged and dumped my ruined glass of water into the sink and got another glass of water to enjoy with my meal. While eating, I wondered how many of us actually took time to ponder the following interesting questions about the relationship between these two fluids: Continue reading Here’s why oil and water don’t mix… in plain english

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How caffeine works… in plain english

Caffeine chemical molecule structure.
 
For the purposes of this article, brain cell = neuron = nerve cell.
 
The ancient drink also known as coffee has been around for centuries, with the earliest records of it found around 10th century Ethiopia. Its resilience as a popular drink is remarkable as many of us still drink it on a near daily basis till this very day, centuries after it was first discovered. It is worth considering why coffee has stuck around for so long and is loved by so many. After all, coffee doesn’t get you happy drunk like alcohol will, and strictly avoiding it won’t kill you like strictly avoiding water probably will. So why do many of us still drink this brownish black liquid so often? Well, with the right mixture of sweeteners and cream dialed in to suit each individual’s taste, it actually tastes pretty good. Also, it can give you an energy jolt of biblical proportions when you need to get something done. Continue reading How caffeine works… in plain english

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Malaria in plain english Vol II

Virus or disease transmitted by mosquito illustration conceptWelcome to Malaria in plain english volume II. Yep, you guessed it, this is the second installment of the “Malaria in plain english” series. It is highly recommended that you start with ”Malaria in plain english Volume I” if you haven’t already read it… it is a nice segue to this article, and will give you a generally decent historical understanding of the disease.

In this installment of the malaria in plain english series, we’ll discuss some of the important scientific concepts that are central to understanding how this lethal disease works. In line with the usual conversational tone that most of the articles on our blog are written in, we will convey most of this information as answers to frequently asked questions that everyday folks like us tend to have about malaria. Continue reading Malaria in plain english Vol II

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Malaria in plain english Vol I

Macro photo of biting mosquito
Macro photo of biting mosquito

Even as a young boy growing up in Nigeria, I have always been relatively fearless except when it came to two things: pissing my mother off, or suffering a bite from an anopheles mosquito. It is probably patently obvious to most people who have a close knit bond with a loving maternal figure why I avoided pissing my mom off… after all, hell hath no fury like a good mother scorned. However, the other major fear of my youth might be confusing to especially those of us who grew up in the western developed world. Let me explain myself… Continue reading Malaria in plain english Vol I

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In vitro fertilization (IVF) in plain english

Colorful 3d Illustration of a in-vitro fertilization of an egg cell
For the remainder of this article, I will use IVF and in vitro fertilization interchangeably.

One of our prime directives as human beings is to “go forth and multiply”. This natural urge is built into the vast majority of us and is probably the main reason why many of us like sex so much. Our urge to procreate is a good thing because the human race would have died out eons ago without it. Anyhow, even though we humans are wired to procreate, we aren’t always successful at it for a variety of reasons. Among these reasons are: a loss of feminine fertility with increasing age, low sperm count, etc. As we’ve seen many times throughout the history of mankind, we aren’t very good at accepting our limitations and are thus prone to fighting like hell to overcome them. In the struggle to overcome the limitation of poor fertility, we discovered what is known as “in vitro fertilization” which is the central theme of this article.

So… what the heck does “in vitro fertilization” mean? Well “in vitro” is latin for “in glass” and back in the day, laboratory utensils and equipment were made of glass. So in vitro fertilization is the technical term for a procedure that allows for the fertilization of a human egg in a laboratory dish rather than in the female reproductive tract. Having read that, you might be thinking whoa! Really? I’m here to tell you yes… really. The next logical question that is probably bouncing around in your head is – so how does all this medical/scientific voodoo work? Fair question… grab a snack and a glass of wine (if you’re old enough) and let’s see if we can make sense of this in vitro fertilization thing. Continue reading In vitro fertilization (IVF) in plain english

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Diabetes type II in plain english

DiabetesThe human body in its structure and function is a marvel of engineering. It’s dexterity and adaptability are more or less unrivaled throughout the annals of time. In order for the human body to keep running smoothly, there are a number of vital signs that must be maintained and tightly regulated from moment to moment. A good example of one of these vital signs is your body temperature. Believe it or not, there are processes within your body that constantly work to ensure that its temperature remains between 97.8oF (36.5oC) and 99oF (37.2oC) regardless of how high or low the ambient temperature around you is. Among the other vital signs that must be tightly regulated to ensure that you and I keep functioning properly is the amount of sugar we each have in our bloodstream and that my friends is a major theme of this article.

As mentioned in a previous article related to this topic, glucose (commonly known as sugar) is released into your bloodstream each time you eat. This is a good thing because glucose is a rich source of fuel for the cells that make up our bodies. That being said, glucose molecules have to find a way to get into the interior of our cells in order to actually serve as fuel. A hormone called insulin plays a critically important role in granting glucose molecules access to a cell’s interior. Having read that last sentence, you might be wondering if you have to take insulin after every meal. The answer to that question is a resounding yes and nature in her infinite wisdom, automated that process for a lot of us. So even though you don’t have to think about it, your body secretes insulin after each meal to help with the absorption of sugar/glucose provided your blood sugar system is in good shape. Thank goodness for mother nature because a lot of us would probably forget to take insulin after each meal and suffer the consequences (degenerating eyesight, kidney malfunction, etc). Speaking of which, how does the body automatically produce insulin when needed? Continue reading Diabetes type II in plain english

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Type I Diabetes in plain english

My first memory of diabetes was at about the age of ten while attending a wedding with my family in my native Nigeria. The grown ups at the time were busy enjoying the wedding festivities while me and my cousins spent the entire day running all over the place engaged in a bunch of games, the names of which I can no longer remember. Our intense play sessions got broken up by the adults a bunch of times that day but the play interruption that I can still clearly remember was when we stopped to eat lunch. Like the rest of the children, I got ushered to one of the many tables in the “crockpot” restaurant at the Sheraton in Lagos and started work on the plate of Jollof rice, chicken, and fried plantains placed in front of me by one of the servers. As I attacked my rice dish, I noticed out of the corner of my eye as my aunt Stella pulled out a syringe from her purse. I was puzzled as to why she had a syringe in her purse in the first place… even doubly confusing was why she would need to bring it to a wedding. I sat there completely bemused as she nonchalantly injected herself, completely emptying the contents of the syringe into her bloodstream before she began her meal. In my youthful innocence, I blurted out “Why did you bring that to a wedding Aunt Stella”. She looked over in my direction and said in her usual elegant voice “Agwu agwu (one of my nicknames)… it‘s because I need it for my diabetes”. My super short 10 year old attention span at the time got the better of me before I could follow up with clarifying questions. I wouldn’t really understand what Aunt Stella was doing and why she was doing it until almost two decades later when I developed an interest in the biochemistry of the human body. Continue reading Type I Diabetes in plain english

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Anatomy of the human knee

The remarkable human knee is one of the most complex and important joints in the human body. It is built to simultaneously embody the attributes of strength and flexibility and is put to near constant use to facilitate the performance of a myriad of actions. Your knee has to be sturdy enough to support the impact of your upper body weight while walking or running, yet flexible enough for you to fold yourself into the lotus position for a meditation session for example. The knee joint is mostly made up of components like bone, muscle, ligaments, tendons, cartilage… and each of the component parts of the knee serves a distinct function. The bones of the knee joint provide support, the surrounding muscles furnish the human with the ability to control his/her movements, the ligaments and tendons within the knee joint provide stability, and the cartilage provides cushioning to absorb the shock from the constant pounding associated with daily movement and exercise. When healthy, the components of the knee work together so that we can walk, run, jump, and change direction instinctively. As a matter of fact, the knee works so well when healthy, that many of us do not fully appreciate its importance until something goes awry. I can say that with confidence because I for one certainly didn’t appreciate the benefit of having two perfectly functional knees until I injured one of them. Continue reading Anatomy of the human knee

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Speculations on the impending era of artificial intelligence

Robot_AI

The relationship between man and machine has been a very fruitful one for our species mainly because it has empowered us to transcend many of our limitations. I remember coming across a Scientific American study a while ago that nicely illustrated how well humans have been empowered by our technology. The study measured the efficiency of locomotion for various animal species on the planet. In that study, the condor was found to be most efficient… using the least amount of energy to travel one kilometer. Comparatively, we humans came in with a rather abysmal showing somewhere way down the list… not exactly the most flattering result for the supposed crown of creation. However, when some brilliant person at Scientific American had the insight to test the efficiency of locomotion for humans on bicycles, we blew the condor away, climbing to the very top of the “efficiency of locomotion” charts. Thinking deeper, we start to realize that in an analogous way, our technology has served as a metaphorical bicycle for our limited physical and mental abilities. For example, the advent of the internal combustion engine and the automobile has reduced what would have been a multiple month long journey 100 years ago to one of just mere hours as I type this. Also, the next time you open up a spreadsheet on your computer to do some quick calculations at work, think about how much longer that would have taken if you had to use a slide rule or an abacus. It is likely that the same task would have required a ton more effort and probably taken 10 to 100 times longer if you had to do it in say the 1930’s when computers didn’t exist. These kinds of miraculous time savings have allowed us to be more productive while simultaneously conserving more mental cycles to devote to things at the higher echelons of mental function. Continue reading Speculations on the impending era of artificial intelligence

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Why is the daytime sky blue?

Oak tree on a green meadow covered by a rainbow
Oak tree on a green meadow covered by a rainbow
Most of us know for a fact that the daytime sky is usually blue on a sunny day but few of us stop to ask why. We know the sun isn’t blue so why does the sky turn that color when the sun rises? Why isn’t the daytime sky orange, or yellow? Well, if we were to venture a collective guess, we could reason that the “blueness” of the daytime sky is probably due to the risen sun. This guess makes sense because when the sun completely sets, the sky turns black except for maybe the moon and little specks of light, which are actually other stars from distant solar systems.

According to our current level of scientific understanding, we humans perceive the daytime sky as blue in color for two primary reasons. The first reason is because of the way our atmosphere interacts with light from the sun. The second reason is because of the way the human eye detects color. Let’s look at these two points from a deeper perspective to see if we can really grok why the daytime sky is so often colored blue. Continue reading Why is the daytime sky blue?

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The nuisance also known as the common cold, and how to avoid it

Ill boy lying in bedLet’s face it, the common cold ranks pretty high in the pantheon of annoying illnesses. It is nowhere near as aggressive or life threatening as pancreatic cancer for instance, but it creates just enough discomfort to significantly hinder your productivity and quality of life in the short term. As we probably all know from experience, constantly sneezing, getting the chills, feeling tired, and dealing with sinus pressure due to a cold or flu can make life pretty miserable for any of us. Thanks to modern science and medicine, we now have over the counter medications at our disposal to alleviate most of the uncomfortable symptoms of the common cold. There is a very important point to make here about over the counter cold/flu medications, and it goes something like this: the truth is that over the counter cold/flu medications merely alleviate the symptoms associated with the common cold and do not deal with the underlying cause. In plain english, while DayQuil or Sudafed might get you to stop sneezing and coughing all over the place for 4ish hours at a time while you fight off a cold, neither of them really do anything to correct the root cause that brought about the cold in the first place. I remember how “duped” I felt when I first learned this fact – “oh… no wonder the sinus pressure and sneezing bouts always return with a vengeance ~3.5 hours after my last dose” – I thought to myself. Regardless though, we should be thankful that we live in a time where we have remedies to quell the annoying symptoms of a cold. Can you imagine having to constantly deal with flu like symptoms all day every day for 10 straight days with no periods of relief while you try to be productive? Continue reading The nuisance also known as the common cold, and how to avoid it

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How alcohol affects the human body

For the purposes of this article, you can loosely assume that alcohol = ethanol

He is out. Young man passed out on bean bag with joystick in his hand, in messy room after a party
He is out. Young man passed out on bean bag with joystick in his hand, in messy room after a party
Alcoholic drinks are one of the many perks of living in the modern world, and they can act as stress reducers if consumed in just the right quantity. Since we human beings generally have a tough time limiting ourselves to a moderate dose of things that feel or taste good, some of us will inevitably have a bit too much to drink at some point in our lives. I’m assuming that most of us know what a hangover feels like, but for the ultra disciplined amongst us (who have so far managed to resist drinking too many alcoholic drinks in one sitting), here’s a brief description. A hangover is the general “yucky” feeling a person experiences after a long night of far too much drinking. A hangover generally means being very tired, dehydrated, having a pretty persistent headache, having trouble focusing on or remembering anything, and just generally feeling like shit as your body struggles to recover from the abusive amount of alcoholic beverages you fed it the night before. From all we’ve learnt so far, I think it is fair to say that alcohol can either be a friend that helps you relax after a hard day, or it can be an enemy that will eventually poison you (to death in some cases) if you consume too much of it too quickly. The way the laws of nature keep repeating themselves time and time again is truly uncanny, and alcohol intake follows one of those general rules which advocates for everything in moderation. Continue reading How alcohol affects the human body

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The hardest working muscle in the human body

oxygenated blood is the same as oxygen rich blood is the same as blood that is high in oxygen saturation

deoxygenated blood is the same as oxygen poor blood is the same as blood that is low in oxygen saturation

 

The human body needs a steady supply of nutrients and gases to survive and thrive. To keep our bodies functioning properly, we all have to regularly breathe in oxygen and consume good nutrition. Thankfully, we have a few “difficult to ignore” natural signals that clearly indicate to us when we need to eat (hunger), breathe (the pain of suffocation), or drink (thirst). Without these signals, the human race would have probably gone extinct ages ago. Can you imagine a world in which none of us ever felt any hunger? We’d probably all eventually starve to death being too preoccupied with seeking out sexual encounters around every corner to remember to eat. Alright, so it is unlikely that any of us in our right state of mind would intentionally neglect eating, breathing, or drinking so it may seem that we’ve got that bit completely covered. However, it isn’t enough to just consume food and breathe in oxygen. These important life sustaining substances have to somehow get transported to all the cells, tissues, and organs in your body. When you eat for instance, the food ends up in your stomach and gets digested there for the most part, but the resulting nutrients from your digested food must somehow be distributed to the rest of your body. Continue reading The hardest working muscle in the human body

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Why do plastic water bottles burst if left in a freezer for too long?

Simple Answer…
Because water starts to expand when you chill it to within a certain temperature range. If you want to know why this strange fact is true, keep reading.

 
More detailed answer…
Through our early years, we all learned at one point or another that heat makes things expand and cooling things generally makes them contract or shrink. As we all grew up, most of our practical experiences verified and validated this seemingly unassailable law of nature. Whenever a body part became swollen as a result of an injury or a bug bite, applying a bag of ice to the affected area would consistently reduce the swelling… a form of contraction. If ever we placed an empty plastic bottle in a refrigerator or freezer, it would shrink and crumple in on itself… also a form of contraction. We have all also witnessed the opposite end of this assertion every time we’ve watched the evaporation that occurs off of a pot of boiling soup. As the soup is heated, some of it expands as it transforms into gas and seemingly disappears before our very eyes. This phenomenon of heat induced expansion as well as contraction under conditions of extreme cold generally holds true in the physical world. As with most rules of nature however, there is an exception to this general law. To put it plainly, not everything contracts when it is cooled. As a matter of fact, one of the most plentifully present fluids and primary source of life on our planet disobeys this law within a particular temperature range. That’s right… water actually expands when it is cooled to a certain temperature. This rather strange behavior of water is technically referred to as the “anomalous expansion of water” (anomalous is just a fancy word for abnormal or strange). To understand this phenomenon completely, we’ll have to start by dipping our “intellectual toes” into the vast labyrinths of physics and chemistry. Continue reading Why do plastic water bottles burst if left in a freezer for too long?

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Stem cells, artificial organs, and the potential for a healthier future

If you’ve ever looked up human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) in technical journals or textbooks, you have probably seen them defined as pluripotent cells derived from the inner cell mass of a 5 – 8 day old preimplantation blastocyst. In plain english, this means that human embryonic stem cells are immensely powerful and versatile cells that are carefully isolated from the interior of a fertilized egg, 5 to 8 days after fertilization and before said fertilized egg has had a chance to attach itself to the thickened walls of the uterus. The last part of the statement above is a bit misleading because it’s not like scientists are on constant standby ready to accost people and take their fertilized eggs from them after sexual intercourse. Rather, most human embryonic stem cells are derived from eggs that were fertilized using IVF (in vitro fertilization) techniques. First off, you are probably wondering what the heck “in vitro” means. Well “in vitro” is latin for “in glass” and back in the day, laboratory utensils and equipment were made of glass so in vitro fertilization of a human egg simply means the human egg was fertilized in a laboratory dish rather than in the fallopian tubes of a woman. And yes, you read that correctly… modern science has endowed us with the power to fertilize a human egg right in a laboratory dish provided that the right temperature and chemical conditions are present. These IVF derived embryos are then grown in a laboratory as they go through the multiple cellular divisions that would usually result in the formation of a full human being if it occurred in the womb. After 5 – 8 days of development, the fertilized egg takes the form depicted in the figure below due to multiple cell divisions and physical cell movements. At this stage, the fertilized egg or embryo is called a blastocyst and the tiny clump of cells within its fluid filled cavity is called the ICM or inner cell mass. This tiny clump of cells that we call the inner cell mass will eventually give rise to a full blown human being if normal development is allowed to occur in the womb. The inner cell mass is the source of the super versatile and powerful embryonic stem cells that you have probably heard about in popular scientific culture. Continue reading Stem cells, artificial organs, and the potential for a healthier future

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An ACL tear, and surgical repair

Ligaments of the human knee joint ACL: Anterior cruciate ligament PCL: Posterior cruciate ligament LCL: Lateral collateral ligament MCL: Medial collateral ligament
Ligaments of the human knee joint
ACL: Anterior cruciate ligament
PCL: Posterior cruciate ligament
LCL: Lateral collateral ligament
MCL: Medial collateral ligament
So… what exactly is an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament)? Well, anterior means front, cruciate means to cross in a diagonal kind of way, and ligaments are tough fibrous bands of tissue that connect the bones in our human joints. So in plain english the ACL is a ligament in the knee which connects the thigh bone to the shin bone… it is situated close to the front of your knee and runs across the PCL (another ligament) in a diagonal kind of way. Make sense? If it still doesn’t, don’t worry… the figures in this article should elucidate further. The ACL is arguably the most important ligament in the knee joint. Its major functions are to resist excessive twisting or rotation of the knee, and to prevent the tibia (shin bone) from sliding too far forward underneath the femur (thigh bone) when one comes to an abrupt stop. This ligament is so important that without it, the average person’s knee would constantly “give out on them” while they perform seemingly mundane tasks. This super important knee ligament may be injured or torn due to a direct forceful blow to the front or side of the knee. ACL tears are common in sports such as football (soccer), and basketball where rapid acceleration, deceleration, and changes of direction are common. Continue reading An ACL tear, and surgical repair

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Sickle Cell Anemia: When red blood cells look like sickles

As a young boy growing up in Nigeria, football (or soccer as it is called in the United States) was a religion unto itself. Yes, all of us in my small group of friends endured long church sermons every Sunday but that was just because our respective parents forced us to attend them. While the priest or pastor talked about the virtues of being a devout christian for hours on end we were secretly plotting the dribbling moves we planned to execute on the dirt road which we had converted into an imaginary football stadium by my childhood home. We played barefeet using a deflated makeshift game ball and with a passionate intensity that was out of all proportion to the actual importance of the games. Our games were fiercely competitive and we loved it that way. We played each game like life itself depended on it… as if armageddon would ensue if our team lost and we had to wait another turn to play again. Although we were all pretty much soccer mad, one of the members of my childhood posse wasn’t allowed to physically play the sport. His mother expressly forbade him from playing football for reasons unbeknownst to us. For the sake of respecting his privacy, we’ll refer to this friend of mine using “Ade” as a pseudonym. Ade’s mother would frequently let him hang out with the rest of us under the strict condition that he was never allowed to actually play football or any other sport. Continue reading Sickle Cell Anemia: When red blood cells look like sickles

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Clever genetic tests, and mitigating the effects of Down Syndrome.

Down syndrome is a genetic disorder that presents itself right at the event of a child’s conception if said child has an excess amount of a particular portion of the genetic code embedded in its genetic makeup. Down syndrome occurs in about 0.13% of all live births and can manifest as physical growth defects, general mental slowness, and excessively impulsive behavior as the afflicted child matures. This genetic defect may also result in the loss of a pregnancy before birth as certain key developmental stages during pregnancy are perhaps significantly altered or hindered. Interestingly, this defect is more common with mothers that are of a relatively advanced age. Studies have shown that the frequency of down syndrome related pregnancies actually increases to ~1% in mothers that are 35 years of age or older. In our modern world where most women spend their 20s building careers, a lot of families now routinely have children while the childbearing mother is in her 30s and beyond. Thankfully, advances in modern medicine have yielded minimally invasive screening and diagnostic techniques that can tell a family with a high degree of certainty whether or not the current pregnancy is associated with a child afflicted by down syndrome. Continue reading Clever genetic tests, and mitigating the effects of Down Syndrome.

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The blueprint of life: DNA

You and I are largely physical products of the genetic information passed down to us from our ancestors through our biological parents. The fact that all the members of your family share a certain resemblance is no accident… you all share pretty similar genetic material. As a matter of fact, you and your biological siblings are actually hybrids of your biological parents. DNA (Deoxyribonucleic Acid) is the vehicle through which the information that governs and maintains each human’s physical form is passed down. The building blocks of DNA are called nucleotides and there are 4 of them – Adenine (A), Cytosine (C), Guanine (G), and Thymine (T). A legitimate argument could be made that these are the very building blocks of life itself because these same nucleotides make up the DNA of pretty much all living things on this planet. Continue reading The blueprint of life: DNA

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How MRI Works

MRI_magnetThe interior of the human body is largely made up of bones (the skull, tibia, fibula) and soft tissue (muscles, tendons, ligaments) most of which are invisible to the naked eye. Prior to the invention of MRI, the x-ray was the gold standard for getting a detailed view of the body’s innards without cutting it open. Even though the x-ray worked brilliantly for decades, it had a few drawbacks. First, excessive exposure to x-rays leads to deadly radiation poisoning. As a matter of fact, radiation poisoning actually claimed the life of the esteemed inventor of the x-ray (Marie Curie, 1867 – 1934).
Second, it only allowed you to visualize things that were dense enough to block or significantly attenuate the x-rays. This meant that in visualizing the human body, the x-ray method was largely limited to the skeletal system. X-rays were perfect for diagnosing broken bones but were found wanting when it came to diagnosing torn muscles or severely sprained ligaments. Continue reading How MRI Works