Every year, scientists do some really confusing experiments, and 2021 was no exception. From cultivating mini-brains with your own eyes in petri dishes to reviving 24,000-year-old self-replicating zombies from the Siberian permafrost, here are the year’s most bizarre scientific experiments.
Growing miniature human brains with their own eyes
In August, a group of scientists made news that was equally fascinating and terrifying when they announced that they had successfully cultivated a small human brain in the laboratory with their own eyes. They made the Cronenberg-like mini-brain, called an organoid, by transforming stem cells into neural tissue and then stimulating the cells with chemical signals to form small rudimentary “optical cups” filled with light-sensitive cells.
Fortunately for our collective reason and for the mini-brains themselves, the small organoids do not have near enough neural density to be conscious – so they will not immediately ask themselves how they woke up when a pair of lost eyes slipped around a petri dish. However, they are incredibly useful constructs for studying brain development and potentially creating cures for retinal disorders that cause blindness – something that researchers want to study.
Read more: Laboratory-made mini-brains grow their own set of ‘eyes’
Finding out that crows understand the concept of zero
If the Cronenburg body horror from the last post did not touch you, then this year too scientists are revealing an experiment more in line with Hitchcock’s classic horror film “The Birds” – which proves that crows were smart enough to understand the concept of zero. The concept of zero, supposedly developed by human societies somewhere in the fifth century AD, requires abstract thinking. So it came as something of a surprise when a June newspaper came in Journal of Neuroscience revealed that crows not only chose zero unlike other numbers, but also associated it more easily with number one than with higher numbers.
Scans of the birds’ brain activity during the experiments showed that crows have specially tuned neurons to understand the zero number, but what they use these brain cells for (besides potentially planning to take over the world, of course) is a mystery. The scientists were amazed that both human and crow brains can calculate zero, even though we shared our last common ancestor with birds long before the extinction of dinosaurs; this shows that evolution takes several paths to create brains with the same higher-level functions.
Read more: Crows understand the ‘concept of zero’ (despite their bird brain)
To find out why Brazil nuts rise to the top of the bag
In April, scientists finally found the answer to one of humanity’s most pressing questions: Why do Brazil nuts rise to the top of the bag? The nutty mystery was solved by shaking a mixture of peanuts and Brazil nuts, with the Brazil nuts placed at the bottom, and take a 3D X-ray scan of the bag after each shake. It turned out that successive vibrations eventually moved the larger nuts to a vertical orientation, after which each vibration forced them upward. The researchers believe their research could help engineers design better ways to prevent size separation from occurring in other blends – something that, while crucial to bags of nuts, could have significant uses in medicine and construction.
Read more: ‘Brazil nut puzzle’ cracked by scientists
Creating a mutant “father shortlegs”
By turning off certain nuisances in father’s long legs, scientists created a crippled “daddy shortlegs” version – but why? By shortening the legs of the famous arachnid, the researchers hoped to reveal the secrets behind its body plan as well as its unique method of movement: walking with three pairs of legs and waving with the longest pair to feel around.
After the readjustment, the legs of the crippled daddy shortlegs had not only changed in size but also in shape; they turned into short food-manipulating pendants called pedipalps. This gave scientists a glimpse back in time at the kind of creatures that Dad’s long legs could have evolved from 400 million years ago. And this is not the last mutant arachnid that scientists want to create; they also plan to mutate spider teeth to gain similar insights into their evolution.
Read more: Mutant ‘father shortlegs’ created in a laboratory
From early antiquity until the 17th century, alchemists were obsessed with the stones of the wise: a mythical substance with the power to transform to lead into gold. In July, scientists reported on an experiment similar to the fabled process: in just a few fleeting seconds, they were able to transform water into a shiny, golden metal. The researchers achieved this by mixing the water with sodium and potassium Metals that donate their extra electrons to the water and therefore make the electrons of the water move freely and make it metallic. The short-lived metallic water they created could provide scientists with some important insights into the hearts of the planets under high pressure, where the water could be pressed so intensely that this process occurs naturally.
Read more: Scientists are turning water into shiny, golden metal
Inventing an above-earth time crystal
In July, researchers working with Google revealed that they had created a time crystal inside the heart of the technology giant’s quantum computer, Sycamore. The crystal was brand new phase of the substance which the researchers claimed were able to evade the second law of thermodynamics, which dictates that entropy, or disorder in a system, must always increase. Unlike other systems, which see their entropy increase over time, the entropy of the time crystal did not increase no matter how many times it was pulsed with a laser. What is really remarkable about the strange quantum crystals is that they are the first objects that break a basic symmetry of the universe, called discrete time translation symmetry. Scientists hope to use the above-ground crystals to test the limits of quantum mechanics – the strange rules that govern the world of the very small.
Read more: Supernatural ‘time crystal’ made inside Google’s quantum computer can change physics forever
Resuscitation of 24,000-year-old zombies from Russian permafrost
If you were to find a group of zombies from the Pleistocene era frozen inside Siberian permafrost, resuscitation and cloning of them is probably not high on your agenda. However, that is exactly what scientists described in a June issue published in the journal Current biology. Fortunately, these zombies are not the shocking, fictional brain-eaters that George Romero has popularized, but are instead small multicellular organisms called bdellooid wheeled animals. Once thawed, the little creatures began to reproduce asexually through a process called parthenogenesis, which created perfect clones by itself. Remarkably, analysis of the earth around the creatures showed that they had been frozen for 24,000 years and they had survived by putting themselves inside a protective stasis called cryptobiosis. Researchers hope to study this clever trick to better understand cryopreservation and how it can be adapted to humans.
Read more: 24,000 year old ‘zombies’ revived and cloned from Arctic permafrost
Drills the deepest ocean borehole ever in the Pacific Ocean
In May, researchers working off the coast of Japan used a long, thin drill called a giant piston drill to drill an 8,000-foot-long hole at the bottom of the Japan tomb. The researchers then extracted a 120-foot-long (37 m) sediment core from the bottom of the ocean and pulled it all the way back to their ship. The researchers wanted to investigate the sediment core because they were searching for traces in the region’s earthquake history – the drilling site is located very close to the epicenter of the Tohoku-oki earthquake with a magnitude of 9.1. The 2011 earthquake caused a huge tsunami that smashed into the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and caused a devastating meltdown.
Read more: Scientists have just dug the deepest ocean hole in history
Releases a set of ‘Russian doll’ with stomach-bursting parasites
A study from July published in the journal Molecular Biology revealed that an already strange previous investigation had yielded even stranger unintended consequences. Decades ago, Finnish scientist Ilkka Hanski introduced the Glanville fritillary butterfly on the remote island of Sottunga, and planned to study how a population of a species located in a harsh habitat could survive. Little did he know, the butterflies housed a species of tummy tuck wasp, and these wasps also carried their own, smaller, tummy tuck hyperparasite – even a parasitic wasp. When the butterflies were released on Sottunga, the wasps broke out and spread across the island with their hosts. This experiment later gave scientists not only a fascinating ecological study, but also a clear warning that we need to understand the ecological webs that form around endangered species before introducing them to new environments.
Read more: ‘Russian doll’ set of stomach-breaking parasites released into the butterfly on a remote Finnish island
Cultivation of magic mushrooms in the blood through a bad injection
Okay, so this one was not made by a scientist, but it’s by far one of the strangest amateur experiments we’ve heard in years. A January study in Journal of the Academy of Consultation-Liaison Psychiatry revealed that a man who had brewed a “magic sponge” tea and injected it into his body ended up in the emergency room with mushroom growing in his blood. After injection of psilocybin tea, the man who had hoped to relieve symptoms of bipolar disorder and opioid addiction quickly became lethargic, his skin turned yellow, and he began vomiting blood. The man survived but had to take antibiotics and antifungal drugs to remove the psychoactive fungus from his bloodstream. He also had to be put on a respirator. A growing body of research indicates that psilocybin, the psychoactive compound found in magic mushrooms, may be a promising treatment for depression, anxiety and substance abuse – but only if taken safely.
Read more: ‘Mushrooms’ grow in human blood after injection with fungal
Originally published on Live Science.