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Notebook Science

All in the family

(Krieg Barrie)

Eliot Gomez/Linkoping University
Stuart Robinson/ University of Sussex


All in the family

During pregnancy, moms exchange cells with their babies

A mother holds her child in her heart as long as she lives—literally. And also possibly in her brain, liver, and other tissues, according to recent research.

Scientists have discovered that a baby’s cells can travel through the placenta into the mother’s bloodstream and slip into her organs. And, similar to stem cells, these rogue cells have the ability to transform into other cell types.

“They can go to the liver and become liver cells, or go into the heart and become muscle cells,” J. Lee Nelson, a rheumatologist at the University of Washington, told National Public Radio. According to Nelson, fetal cells can even cross the mother’s blood-brain barrier and turn into brain cells.

In September 2012, the journal PLOS ONE published a study in which Nelson and her team examined the brains of 59 deceased older women who had given birth to sons. They found male Y chromosomes left behind by the baby boys in 63 percent of the maternal brains.

It appears these cells are often a beneficial gift from baby. Fetal cells can make collagen, which facilitates wound healing, and they may reduce the mother’s risk of rheumatoid arthritis. They may also help protect the mother from cancer, V.K. Gadi, an oncologist at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, told USA Today.

The exchange of cells is a two-way relationship: The mother’s cells also cross the placenta into the baby, including those cells she carries from previous pregnancies and from her own mother. That means we may all be carrying bits of our older siblings and grandmothers within us, Amy Boddy, a postdoctoral fellow at Arizona State University, told NPR.

Initially researchers blamed rogue fetal cells for maternal health risks such as pre-eclampsia, a dangerous pregnancy complication, and autoimmune diseases.

But Nelson believes the benefits outweigh potential problems: “It’s actually a beautiful cooperation.”

‘Flower power’

A rose is a rose, unless it’s a transistor. Researchers in Sweden have created bionic roses with digital circuits running through their stems. In a study published in Science Advances in November, scientists submerged the cut end of a rose stem into a chemical compound. Capillary action pulled the compound into the vascular system of the rose, where the chemicals self-assembled into a network of wires, some up to 10 centimeters long. The researchers then attached gold probes to the wires to make individual organic transistors and a simple digital circuit.

The scientists believe it may be possible to trigger a growth spurt in the plant by means of the embedded electronic circuits. If successful, the method could also be used to convert some of the flower’s sugars into electricity. “We call it flower power,” lead researcher Magnus Berggren told the journal Nature.

The technique is inexpensive and combines the functions of electronics with the plant’s natural resistance to cold and moisture. The scientists told Gizmag the method may even make it possible to harvest electrical energy from the plant’s photosynthesis. —J.B.

Beam it up

Invisible tractor beams may have been the creation of sci-fi writers, but now researchers in the United Kingdom have built sonic tractor beams that use high-pitched sound waves to levitate and manipulate small objects. The University of Bristol and University of Sussex researchers, who published their work in Nature Communications, believe the technology could be used in the medical field to treat kidney stones or blood clots. It could also allow doctors to control microsurgical instruments inside a patient’s body from the outside without making an incision, they said. —J.B.