3 science stories not to miss: Saturn’s moon, stressed-out DNA, and Italian violins

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    This photo shows water vapor jets

    This photo shows water vapor jets

    The Scientist’s Kerry Grens updates us on a discovery on Saturn’s moon, new research correlating stress with telomere length and more. 

    In this week’s science recap, The Scientist‘s Kerry Grens updates us on a discovery under Saturn’s icy moon, new research correlating stress with a reduction in telomere length and the results of a blind study on the sound quality of old Italian violins. 

    With the help of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, researchers have confirmed the existence of liquid water beneath the surface of Saturn’s tiny moon, Enceladus. The body of water, located under the ice at the moon’s south pole, is estimated to be similar to the size of Lake Superior.

    The discovery creates the potential for extraterrestrial life on the tiny moon.

    “Liquid water would be essential to life,” says Grens. “And because there are other ingredients such as sodium and potassium and methane on Enceladus, adding water to the mix makes for a very compelling reason to explore further if life could have possibly developed there.”

    Can stress play a role in telomere length?

    In a recent study, scientists set out to determine whether or not stress in early life has any impact on our DNA.

    This particular study looked at 40 young boys up until they were 9 years old. Some were in extremely stressful home environments and others were in more privileged environments. It turned out that the telomeres of children in the more disadvantaged environments had much shorter telomeres, or caps at the end of their chromosomes, meaning their telomeres looked much older than the cells really were.

    “It was a small study and this does not prove cause and effect,” says Grens. “We’re not proving that the environment is causing these changes in the telomeres; they’re just correlated. But I think it does speak to the potential for this very profound influence that our environment can have on us.”

    Reduction in telomere length is a normal part of aging; every time a cell divides, the telomeres get shorter. It’s not clear yet if a shortened telomere length has any negative health impacts on children or whether the damage can eventually be reversed.

    Testing legendary violins with the pros

    The Stradivarius, a 300-year-old type of Italian violin, is one of the most coveted instruments in music. But scientists recently put that sound to the test. They brought 10 professional soloists to France to play a variety of violins – six were new and six were old Italian violins, including the Stradivarius. The soloists wore goggles so they couldn’t see the instruments they were playing.

    “The violinists tended to favor the new violins,” says Grens. “The violinists were actually no better at figuring out which violins were old and which were new than if they had just flipped a coin.”

    While this study likely won’t devalue the old Italian violins, it’s good news for violin players who may not be able to afford the millions of dollars that a legendary Stradivarius costs. 

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