Hold it Properly

It’s a familiar sight seen in dozens of  Hollywood gangster films: the gangster aiming down the side of his pistol before pumping a volley of bullets into his victim.

But with most people knowing that the aiming sights are found on the top of a gun barrel, it’s also a counter-intuitive way  to accurately fire a weapon.

So why is it that gangsters are always shown  using their guns in this way? According to Jon Davis, a former marksmanship  instructor with the U.S. Marine Corp, there is a good reason, at least in theory.

Which is best? researchers have analysed the reason gangsters often hold their gun sideways - and say it can actually help aimWhich is best? researchers have analysed the reason  gangsters often hold their gun sideways – and say it can actually help aim

As a specialist in pistol marksmanship and a veteran of the war in Iraq, Mr Davis has fired these kinds of weapons thousands of times.

He explains that when aiming a handgun in the conventional, barrel-up manner, the rear sites must line up with the front sight in the horizontal and vertical planes to make sure the bullet travels a straight line.

This important technique, known as ‘building the castle’ since the gunman has to line up the three ‘turrets’ into an even position, ensures that the barrel of the gun is aligned perfectly along the trajectory he wants the bullet to travel.

The problem with ‘building the castle’ each time you want to fire your gun is that it takes time. Time you might not have in a combat situation – or alternatively when you want to quickly execute your victim and make a fast getaway.

'Building the castle': This graphic shows the conventional way to line a target up using the sites on the top of a handgun‘Building the castle’: This graphic shows the  conventional way to line a target up using the sites on the top of a handgun

Instead, gangsters – albeit unkowingly – use another method to get what’s called a ‘flash sight picture’ by quickly aiming down the side of the gun barrel without perfectly lining it up with the target.

The ‘flash sight picture’ is a way to quickly get an aim that’s good enough for combat but without worrying too much about  being totally precise with your aim.

Marines do it too, Mr Davis says, but they hold their guns the right way up.

'Flash sighting' - gangster style: Mr Davis explains that this method is a much faster way of aiming a weapon, but it is much less effective for aiming accurately‘Flash sighting’ – gangster style: Mr Davis explains  that this method is a much faster way of aiming a weapon, but it is much less  effective for aiming accurately

In answer to a question on quora.com Mr Davis explains: ‘The problem with tilt style shooting is that it is almost impossible to acquire a reliable sight alignment. The alignment in tilt style is achieved by making the weapon flat and aiming down the side.

‘In theory this works, but in practice you  can’t accurately measure movement left or right and you have absolutely no way  of knowing if the weapon is tilted down below your field of vision from the back  of the weapon.

‘This means that you never actually take the same shot twice since you are never actually aiming the same way.’

This, Mr Davis adds, shows that there is in fact a rational method behind why gangsters aim their weapon side on. However,  it’s not a particularly good method – and they probably don’t realize that there’s method to it at all.

The research sheds new light on why holding a gun sideways can help aim under pressureThe research sheds new light on why holding a gun  sideways can help aim under pressureAttribution: Damien Gayle

Molotov Cocktail

‘Don’t do this yourself… you would be an  idiot.’

With that friendly warning, the ‘Slow Mo’  team launches a Molotov Cocktail at the side of a typical house in  suburbia.

And thanks to their super slow motion capture – which can take a staggering 2,500 frames a second – we can see every moment of  this explosive and destructive attack in the kind of detail normally reserved  for Hollywood action films.

Gavin Free and Daniel Gruchy, AKA the Slow Mo  team, have a track record for this sort of thing , having previously smashed  watermelons, popped popcorn, and dropped water balloons, all in the name of  science and fun.

This time, it is the side of a house which  falls victim to their destructive ways.

Scroll  down for video:

Get ready for the explosion: The Molotov flies through the air - in super-slow motion - as the Slo Mo team take great glee in educating their viewers

Get ready for the explosion: The Molotov flies through  the air – in super-slow motion – as the Slo Mo team take great glee in educating  their viewers
As the molotov cocktail hits the wall, the glass shatteers and the fuel begins to spread

As the molotov cocktail hits the wall, the glass  shatteers and the fuel begins to spread
It's time to burn! As the flames spread out, more and more fuel catches alight, leading to a blossoming flame

It’s time to burn! As the flames spread out, more and  more fuel catches alight, leading to a blossoming flame
The flames spread across the brick wall - luckily this was not thrown in anger as the ferocity of the flame is obvious

The flames spread across the brick wall – luckily this  was not thrown in anger as the ferocity of the flame is obvious
The burning liquid spreads down the side of the house - on slow-motion is looks spectacular, if savage

The burning liquid spreads down the side of the house –  on slow-motion is looks spectacular, if savage
As the liquid drops down, the flames lick across the floor, burning the pool of fire

As the liquid drops down, the flames lick across the  floor, burning as it goes

The flames 'drip' down the wall as the liquid burns. This whole sequence has lasted around a second, with the bottle not even landing by the time of this final image

The flames ‘drip’ down the wall as the liquid burns.  This whole sequence has lasted around a second, with the bottle not even landing  by the time of this final image

The Slow Mo team have millions of subscribers  to their YouTube channel and more than 60,000 Twitter followers.

Hollywood director Michael Bay – known and  lampooned for his high-octane super-slow-motion scenes in action films such as  Transformers – may well end up jealous of the pair’s camera.

They used a Phantom Flex camera to record the  action, which provided them with high-definition footage to keep for  posterity.

The video is part of a series of slow-motion  videos, more than 60 in total, posted by the pair on their YouTube  video.

What did we just do? Gavin Free (left) and Daniel Gruchy (right) enjoy blowing things up in the name of scienceWhat did we just do? Gavin Free (left) and Daniel Gruchy  (right) enjoy blowing things up in the name of science

Previously they have tackled a  computer with  a sledgehammer, played golf with an apple, and exploded  ‘bottle-bombs’,  capturing each moment at a fraction of the pace of real  life.

The pair do not go to lengths to  explain  their motivations or what the audience is witnessing. Instead they seem to enjoy nothing more than watching everyday objects explode in super slow motion.

But that is part of the beauty of  science –  sometimes there doesn’t need to be a reason, other than watching life from a new perspective.

Power of Kawaii

One thing the internet has  shown us, it is that few  people can resist looking at images of cute animals.

Now new research has  revealed that looking at cute images of baby animals doesn’t just make you feel  warm and fuzzy inside, but can actually improve your work performance and help  you concentrate.

The study comes from  researchers at Hiroshima University. In Japanese, the word ‘kawaii’ means cute,  and so the report is rather appropriately entitled ‘Power of Kawaii’.

The subjects were told the  pictures, which they viewed during a ‘break’ in the tasks, were for a separate  experiment.

In the Operation  experiment, the participants who were shown images of puppies and kittens  performed their tasks better after the break than those who looked at cats and  dogs. Performance scores improved by 44%. They also took their time. The time it  took to complete the task increased by 12%.

‘This finding suggests that  viewing cute images makes participants behave more deliberately and perform  tasks with greater time and care,’ said the researchers, according to the  published paper.

Similar jumps in  performance were seen in the numbers experiment, suggesting that looking at cute  images increases attentiveness even when the task at hand is unlikely to raise  feelings of empathy.

The group that saw kitten  and puppies were more accurate, improving their scores by about 16%. They were  also faster, increasing the number of random numerical sequences they got  through by about 13%. There was no change among groups that saw cats and dogs,  and food images.

‘Kawaii things not only  make us happier, but also affect our behavior,’ wrote the researchers, led by  cognitive psychologist Hiroshi Nittono. ‘This study shows that viewing cute  things improves subsequent performance in tasks that require behavioral  carefulness, possibly by narrowing the breadth of attentional  focus.’

The study’s authors write  that in the future cute objects could be used as a way to trigger emotions ‘to  induce careful behavioral tendencies in specific situations, such as driving and  office work.’

Melts in Your Mouth or in Your Hand

MEDFORD/SOMERVILLE, Mass.–Tiny, fully biocompatible electronic devices that are able to dissolve harmlessly into their surroundings after functioning for a precise amount of time have been created by a research team led by biomedical engineers at Tufts University in collaboration with researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Dubbed “transient electronics,” the new class of silk-silicon devices promises a generation of medical implants that never need surgical removal, as well as environmental monitors and consumer electronics that can become compost rather than trash.

“These devices are the polar opposite of conventional electronics whose integrated circuits are designed for long-term physical and electronic stability,” says Fiorenzo Omenetto, professor of biomedical engineering at Tufts School of Engineering and a senior and corresponding author on the paper “A Physically Transient Form of Silicon Electronics” published in the September 28, 2012, issue of Science.

“Transient electronics offer robust performance comparable to current devices but they will fully resorb into their environment at a prescribed time—ranging from minutes to years, depending on the application,” Omenetto explains. “Imagine the environmental benefits if cell phones, for example, could just dissolve instead of languishing in landfills for years.”

The futuristic devices incorporate the stuff of conventional integrated circuits — silicon and magnesium — but in an ultrathin form that is then encapsulated in silk protein.

“While silicon may appear to be impermeable, eventually it dissolves in water,” says Omenetto. The challenge, he notes, is to make the electrical components dissolve in minutes rather than eons.

Researchers led by UIUC’s John Rogers — the other senior and corresponding author — are pioneers in the engineering of ultrathin flexible electronic components.   Only a few tens of nanometers thick, these tiny circuits, from transistors to interconnects, readily dissolve in a small amount of water, or body fluid, and are harmlessly resorbed, or assimilated. Controlling materials at these scales makes it possible to fine-tune how long it takes the devices to dissolve.

Device dissolution is further controlled by sheets of silk protein in which the electronics are supported and encapsulated.   Extracted from silkworm cocoons, silk protein is one of the strongest, most robust materials known. It’s also fully biodegradable and biofriendly and is already used for some medical applications.   Omenetto and his Tufts colleagues have discovered how to adjust the properties of silk so that it degrades at a wide range of intervals.

The researchers successfully demonstrated the new platform by testing a thermal device designed to monitor and prevent post-surgical infection (demonstrated in a rat model) and also created a 64 pixel digital camera.

Collaborating with Omenetto from Tufts Department of Biomedical Engineering were Hu Tao, research assistant professor and co-first author on the paper; Mark A. Brenckle, doctoral student; Bruce Panilaitis, program administrator; Miaomiao Yang, doctoral student; and David L. Kaplan, Stern Family Professor of Engineering and department chair. In addition to Tufts and UIUC, co-authors on the paper also came from Seoul National University, Northwestern University, Dalian University of Technology (China), Nano Terra (Boston), and the University of Arizona.

In the future, the researchers envision more complex devices that could be adjustable in real time or responsive to changes in their environment, such as chemistry, light or pressure.

The work was supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Science Foundation, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research Multi University Research Initiative program, the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering of the National Institutes of Health under award EB002520 and the U.S. Department of Energy.

Attribution: Real Clear Science

New Supercar

Peugeot has unveiled a sinister looking supercar concept that will be debuting this month at the 2012 Paris Auto Show.

The vehicle has been built using materials that have been processed as little as possible. They include aluminum, carbon fiber, PMMA (PolyMethyl MethAcrylate), copper and even felt.

The chassis is a carbon fiber monocoque and weighs just 220 pounds. It’s one of the main reasons the total weight of the Onyx is only 2,425 pounds.

Power comes from a mid-mounted 3.7-liter V-8 turbodiesel, developed with the help of Peugeot’s motorsport arm, Peugeot Sport. Cooled by ducts which begin at the roof via NACA take-offs, the V-8 transmits its 600 horsepower to the rear wheels via a six-speed sequential gearbox.

For added performance, Peugeot designers have also added their company’s HYbrid4 system. The latest version of the system uses a kinetic energy recovery system to charge up an array of lithium-ion batteries. These batteries are used to power an electric motor that sends an additional 80 horsepower to the front wheels, coming online automatically when the Onyx is accelerating.

One of the Onyx’s most distinguishing features is its interior. Made of felt, compressed and stretched, the cabin is formed as a one-piece pod, with no stitching or joints.

It creates a real cocoon around the occupants and is fitted into the carbon structure, visible in places, it replaces a number of elements found in regular cars: soundproofing, floors, dashboards, roofs, and even seats.

To make the seats, for example, designers simply inserted foam padding under the felt. The best part is that felt is not only quite flexible to use, it’s completely renewable as it’s made from wool. The dash, meanwhile, is made from old newspapers that have been compressed to form a hard material that, believe it or not, resembles wood. If you take a close look at the dash, Peugeot says you’ll even notice some of the original newspaper print.

Sadly, Peugeot stresses that the Onyx is simply to showcase the talents of its design team and preview new materials and construction techniques that could be making their way into future cars. In other words, you can’t purchase one.

A Slice of Water

You’ve likely heard of or seen swordsmen who can expertly and accurately slice through all kinds of objects, but scientists are now taking precision-cutting to the next level of awesome.

Researchers at Arizona State University, in cooperation with colleagues at Youngstown State University, have perfected the subtle science of slicing water droplets in half. They detailed their exploits in a study just published in the online open-access journal PLoS ONE.

The scientists accomplished the feat using superhydrophobic (extremely water-resistant) knives and cutting surfaces. The knives were composed of polyethylene and zinc and dipped in solutions of silver nitrate and another superhydrophobic solution abbreviated HDFT (its systematic name is far too long to fit on one line). Cutting surfaces were simply composed of Teflon.

Even with their water-resistant knives and cutting boards, the researchers had to be incredibly meticulous when actually slicing the H2O. They delicately cut through water droplets ranging in size from 15 to 70 µL, utilizing wire loops to keep the droplets stationary. Their meticulous efforts produced no satellite drops, nor did they result in any “catastrophic rupture” of the water droplets.

The researchers envision their knives and methods potentially being employed in biomolecular research settings where scientists have to efficiently separate proteins or other components in very small liquid samples.

Attribution: Real Clear Science, The New Scientist

Remember When?

Researchers discover technique to erase newly formed memories

Erasing memories has long been a staple of sci-fi films, but researchers now believe they have made a breakthrough in making the process reality.

The groundbreaking research at Uppsala University in Sweden could lead to radical new treatments for sufferers of anxiety and post traumatic stress disorders.

It shows for the first time that newly formed emotional memories can be erased from the human brain.

Men in Black famously used memory erasing gadgets - now scientists believe they can actually erase short term memories.

Men in Black famously used memory erasing gadgets – now scientists believe they can actually erase short term memories.

This is shown by researchers from Uppsala University in a new study now being published by the academic journal Science.

‘These findings may be a breakthrough in research on memory and fear. Ultimately the new findings may lead to improved treatment methods for the millions of people in the world who suffer from anxiety issues like phobias, post-traumatic stress, and panic attacks,’ says Thomas Ågren, who led the study.

When a person learns something, a lasting long-term memory is created with the aid of a process of consolidation, which is based on the formation of proteins in the brain.

When we remember something, the memory becomes unstable for a while and is then restabilized by another consolidation process.

‘In other words, it can be said that we are not remembering what originally happened, but rather what we remembered the last time we thought about what happened,’ the researchers say.

By disrupting the reconsolidation process, the team found they can change what was remembered.

In the study the researchers showed subjects a neutral picture and simultaneously administered an electric shock.

In this way the picture came to elicit fear in the subjects which meant a fear memory had been formed.

In order to activate this fear memory, the picture was then shown without any accompanying shock.

For one experimental group the reconsolidation process was disrupted with the aid of repeated presentations of the picture.

For a control group, the reconsolidation process was allowed to complete before the subjects were shown the same repeated presentations of the picture.

In subjects that were not allowed to reconsolidate the fear memory, the fear they previously associated with the picture dissipated, and the memory was rendered neutral.

At the same time, using a MR-scanner, the researchers were able to show that the traces of that memory also disappeared from the part of the brain that normally stores fearful memories, the nuclear group of amygdala in the temporal lobe.

Attribution: Daily Mail


Genetically modified foods: Why does California insist on finding a problem where nobody else does?

by: Erika Johnsen

On the state’s ballot in November, Californians will be voting on Proposition 37 — an initiative that would require all foods produced with or from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to carry mandatory warning labels. Oh, sure, it all sounds well and good and simple enough, except that such a measure would impose significant expenses on (often small) businesses; would cost the way-past-completely-broke California government up to over a million dollars to regulate the practice; and, oh yeah — is completely pointless because there is not a single documented case of “adverse health consequences” due to genetically engineered foods.

For a group of people who subscribe to the supposed “party of science,” progressives and environmentalists have waged a strange and steady campaign against the very idea of genetically modified foods. These “frankenfoods,” as they’re sometimes dubbed, are supposedly bad for us because they don’t occur by themselves in nature. But, here’s a news flash, greenies: Human beings have been ‘modifying’ foods with agricultural techniques for centuries. We didn’t just stumble upon corn as we know it today, and we make new apple hybrids all the time. Many medicines, I might also point out, are man-made, but we know that medicines can save lives. Tylenol doesn’t grow on trees, you know. From Forbes:

Except for wild berries and wild mushrooms, virtually all the fruits, vegetables and grains in our diet have been genetically improved by one technique or another – often as a result of seeds being irradiated or genes being moved from one species or genus to another in ways that do not occur in nature. But because genetic engineering is more precise and predictable, the technology is at least as safe as – and often safer than – the modification of food products in cruder, “conventional” ways. This superior technology is the target of Prop. 37.

The safety record of genetically engineered plants and foods derived from them is extraordinary. Even after the cultivation worldwide of more than 3 billion acres of genetically engineered crops (by more than 14 million farmers) and the consumption of more than 3 trillion servings of food by inhabitants of North America alone, there has not been a single ecosystem disrupted or a single confirmed adverse reaction.

The advantages are also remarkable. Every year, farmers planting genetically engineered varieties spray millions fewer gallons of chemical pesticides and substantially reduce topsoil erosion. In addition, many of these varieties are less susceptible to mold infection and have lower levels of fungal toxins, making them safer for consumers and livestock.

Not only would requiring these types of foods to carry mandatory labels impose costs on producers and raise prices for everybody, including consumers, they would imply to consumers that they need to be wary of undefined dangers, which in turn limits their choices unnecessarily. Maybe part of the idea is that consumers are supposed to spring for the organic foods as an alternative (which no state has any business doing anyway), except that recent studies have suggested organic food might not actually be all that it’s cracked up to be:

…Stanford University doctors dug through reams of research to find out — and concluded there’s little evidence that going organic is much healthier, citing only a few differences involving pesticides and antibiotics.

Eating organic fruits and vegetables can lower exposure to pesticides, including for children — but the amount measured from conventionally grown produce was within safety limits, the researchers reported Monday.

Nor did the organic foods prove more nutritious.

Even the federal Food and Drug Administration, normally inclined towards being more meddlesome over less, has declined to require all foods in the U.S.A. to carry GMO labels. Imposing such a mandate in California would create a whole new level of regulation-and-litigation bureaucracy that no Californian food-business or individual consumer could avoid paying for. (For more resources, here’s a great piece from the Volokh Conspiracy on why this whole labeling idea is a possibly unconstitutional farce, and an op-ed from the LA Times on why California’s entire ballot-initiative procedure is a hot mess.)

The hubris of ignorant environmentalist groups never ceases to amaze. Have they ever paused to consider that genetically modified foods can, perhaps, save lives and help lift human beings out of poverty? Maybe? I know I’ve posted this video from Penn & Teller before, but it is great, and well worth the watch (warning: some brief foul language).

Trillions of Carats

Russia is about to start tapping into a huge source of diamonds that could supply the world market for the next 3,000 years.

Scientists estimate there are ‘trillions of carats’ lying beneath a 35million-year-old asteroid crater in Siberia – more than ten times the global stockpile.

The Kremlin has known about the reserves under the 62-mile-wide impact zone since the 1970s.

But it has kept it a secret until now because it was already reaping big profits in what back then was a heavily controlled market.

Hidden treasures: A aerial view of the 35-mile-wide Popigai Astroblem crater which contains enough diamonds to supply global markets for the next 3,000 years

Hidden treasures: A aerial view of the 35-mile-wide Popigai Astroblem crater which contains enough diamonds to supply global markets for the next 3,000 years
In the money: The crater, in eastern Siberia, has been known about since the 1970s, but the Kremlin kept it a secret to exploit its already rich reserves of the precious stone

In the money: The crater, in eastern Siberia, has been known about since the 1970s, but the Kremlin kept it a secret to exploit its already rich reserves of the precious stone

The Soviets had also been producing various artificial diamonds for industry which proved a lucrative enterprise.

Government officials finally gave scientists from the nearby Novosibirsk Institute of Geology and Mineralogy permission to lift the lid on the crater’s hidden gems in a meeting with journalists over the weekend.

The official news agency, ITAR-Tass, said the diamonds at the site, known as Popigai Astroblem, are ‘twice as hard’ as the usual gemstones, making them ideal for industrial and scientific uses.

According to The Christian Science Monitor, the institute’s director, Nikolai Pokhilenko, told the agency that the new source would cause a radical shake-up in the precious stones market.

Lucrative industry: These diamonds, weighing over 50 carats each, were found in Russia's Yakutia mine, which has been rich resource for the country, but nothing compared to the new one

Lucrative industry: These diamonds, weighing over 50 carats each, were found in Russia’s Yakutia mine, which has been rich resource for the country, but nothing compared to the new one

The resources of super-hard diamonds contained in rocks of the Popigai crypto-explosion structure are by a factor of ten bigger than the world’s all known reserves,’ he said.

‘We are speaking about trillions of carats. By comparison, present-day known reserves in Yakutia (a Russian mine) are estimated at one billion carats.’

The stones at Popigai are known as ‘impact diamonds’ which result when an object like a meteor strikes an existing diamond deposit.

They are also unique, which will make them even more sought-after in high-precision scientific and industrial markets.

Pokhilenko said: ‘The value of impact diamonds is added by their unusual abrasive features and large grain size.

‘This expands significantly the scope of their industrial use and makes them more valuable for industrial purposes.’

Diamond production was booming in Russia in 2007 when output reached $1.35billion, 98 per cent of which was exported to Belgium, Israel, Southeast Asia and the USA.

But the bottom fell out in 2009 when polished diamond production fell to an unprecedented low of US$350 million during the economic crisis.

With world markets starting to show signs of resilience, this may explain why Russia has chosen now to reveal its hidden treasure.

Attribution: Mail Online

It’s Alive!

by: Sam Shead

Experiments with echoes of Frankenstein suggest electricity could one day be used to regenerate tissue and regrow lost limbs.

Scientists believe electric currents and fields hold the key to major advances in tissue engineering.

In the distant future they may even help people with severed limbs, such as victims of industrial accidents or soldiers, to grow new arms and legs.

Electric currents and fields could one day be used to grow tissue for soldiers with severed limbs
Electric currents and fields could one day be used to grow tissue for soldiers with severed limbs

Electrical stimulus has already shown some success in stimulating sensory nerve regrowth in people with damaged spinal cords.

There is also evidence that bio-electric fields play a role in regenerating lost fingertips, especially in children.

But the importance of electricity in wound healing and tissue repair has been largely overlooked because of its association with Victorian quackery and Frankenstein, according to Dr Ann Rajnicek.

‘Electricity is key; its something that has been under-appreciated,’ she said. ‘But people still think of Frankenstein and the Victorian age. Even when you try to sell the idea to a research funding agency, they say ‘oh no, I’m not sure about that’.’

In Mary Shelley’s novel, electricity provides the spark that brings Frankenstein’s monster to life. 

The idea of using electricity for tissue engineering has been dismissed due to the connotations it holds with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein novel.

The creature created by Frankenstein later went on to be called Frankenstein itself
The creature created by Frankenstein later went on to be called Frankenstein itself

During the Victorian era, when the novel was written, electricity and its biological effects gripped the public imagination.

Electrical devices were built that were supposed to treat all manner of ills, from depression to kidney disease and impotence.

Macabre stage experiments were also common in which the dead were apparently brought to life using electricity to make limbs jerk or teeth chatter, said Dr Rajnicek.

In a show conducted in Glasgow in 1818, the corpse of a man hung for murder suddenly sat up, causing members of the audience to flee in terror. One man fainted.

Dr Rajnicek’s research at the University of Aberdeen has demonstrated the effect of electricity on flatworms rather than human corpses.

‘We’re using flatworms that multiply asexually by spontaneous fission,’ she said. ‘The worm snaps itself in two like an elastic band so you have one end missing a head and other missing a tail.

Geckos have the ability to regrow their tails with a surplus of stem cells that migrate towards parts of the body that need healing

‘Each half reforms, and this is something that has perplexed scientists for hundreds of years. How does a tail know it needs a head or a head know it needs a tail?

‘We believe the natural electrical field that’s associated with the wounding process acts like a compass to tell cells where to migrate. You get a field that points towards the wound and directs cells there.

‘We’ve also found that there’s a gradient – the electrical field is positive but at the very tip of the head of the worm its much less positive, so the animal has natural electrical polarity. We think the stem cells are being directed to build either a head or tail because one end is more positive and the other end is more negative.’

When a flatworm is cut, electricity leaks out of the wound – and the same thing occurs in all other animals, including humans, said Dr Rajnicek. ‘The skin [is] like a battery,’ she said.

Earmouse: Scientists managed to graft a lab grown human-like ear onto the back of a mouse
Earmouse: MIT Scientists managed to graft a lab grown human-like ear onto the back of a mouse in 1995

In animals that regenerate limbs, such as flatworms and amphibians, the leakage produces an electrical potential that causes cells at the ‘stump’ to regress to an embryonic state. They can then mature into different kinds of new regenerated cells.

By reversing the polarity of the electric field at the wound site, Dr Rajnicek was able to produce worms with heads where their tails should be, and vice-versa. Manipulating the field led to worms with two heads or two tails.

The scientists know there is much more to the story because flatworms are not completely simple creatures. They have complex nervous systems with two parallel nerve cords and a brain, eyes, a gut, and around 40 different cell types.

‘We are still at the early stages, but we want to look at the genes that are switched on or off by the presence or absence of this field,’ said Dr Rajnicek, who gave a presentation on her work at the British Science Festival at the University of Aberdeen.

There is evidence that the leakage of electricity from wounds aids healing in humans, she added.

In the 1980s, researchers studied cases of children who regrew the tips of their fingers after having them sliced off in car doors.

They found that younger children healed better, and also leaked the most current from their wounds. When the wounds were sutured and sealed up, it prevented regeneration.

Another case in 2008 involved American Lee Spievak who chopped half an inch off the end of a finger in the propeller of a model aeroplane. The finger tip was lost, but Mr Spievak treated himself with a powder obtained from a tissue engineering lab at the University of Pennsylvania where his brother worked. The media described the regrowth of his finger tip as a ‘medical miracle’.

Mr Spievak put his recovery down to the powder, prepared from pigs bladder cells, which he called “pixie dust”. Dr Rajnicek believes growth factors in the powder may have worked in conjunction with the electrical effect of the open wound.

Covering up open wounds might help prevent infection, but could also hinder recovery, she suggested.

She added that early work had already shown that manipulating electricity can help repair damaged spinal cords.

A team from the University of North Texas improved sensory nerve function in 10 patients using electrical stimulus, although no effect was seen on motor function.

‘We’re not saying electricity is the only thing that matters, but it is one piece of the puzzle that has been neglected,’ said Dr Rajnicek.