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Could there be an 'exercise pill' in the future?

What if we could just skip the workout part and take the results in supplement form? Researchers did it… On mice and flies.

Photo Credit: Sven Mieke / Unsplash
  • A group of scientists found that boosting the protein Sestrin in mice and flies mimicked the effects of exercise.
  • One hypothesis is that the protein activates metabolic pathways that result in certain biological benefits.
  • Researchers hope these findings could eventually help scientists combat muscle wasting in humans due to physical limitation.


"I'm so tired, I wish I could just download these miles into my cells," I moaned a few nights ago before reluctantly trotting off into the cold dark for an evening run. Unfortunately, society is not there yet. But science just got a tiny bit closer to letting us pop a pill and calling it a workout according to new research published this month in Nature Communications.

Exercise can be time-consuming, energy-draining, painful, and stressful. It's also considered something of a panacea, offering a wide swath of health benefits. The magic ingredient responsible for the more glamorous results of working out is Sestrin, a natural protein that accumulates in the muscles after exercise. A group of scientists who have been studying the protein recently tested to see how boosting it in mice and flies affects the critters' fitness levels. Their research showed that it pretty much mimicked the effects of exercise.

The study

The researchers needed to encourage some lab flies to workout. They did this by utilizing the insects instinct to climb up and out of a test tube and developed a contraption that worked like a fly "treadmill." One group of flies was bred without the ability to produce Sestrin, the other was not. The flies were trained on the cardio device for three weeks, then matched up on their running and flying abilities.

"Flies can usually run around four to six hours at this point and the normal flies' abilities improved over that period," explained University of Michigan physiology professor Jun Hee Lee to a university health blog. "The flies without Sestrin did not improve with exercise."

Additionally, when the researchers maximized Sestrin levels in the muscles of normal, untrained flies, they found that those flies actually outperformed the trained flies in fitness tests even though they hadn't exercised. Interestingly, the flies with enhanced Sestrin didn't develop any more endurance when they did exercise. It was as if they had already reached their max. But Sestrin can boost more than just endurance levels. When the mice were bred with Sestrin absent from their muscles, they lacked improvement in fat burning that is typically the result of exercise.

"We propose that Sestrin can coordinate these biological activities by turning on or off different metabolic pathways," said Lee, who co-authored the study. "This kind of combined effect is important for producing exercise's effects."

So, about that exercise pill…

Photo Credit: Flickr/e-MagineArt.com

According to Lee, this study demonstrates that Sestrin by itself is able to produce most of the benefits that result from exercise and physical movement. But, sadly, those were just animals. In fact, scientists still are not sure how exactly exercise produces Sestrin in the human body. So, if you're wondering when the Sestrin pill will hit the market for humans, it isn't likely in the near future. But the intriguing results seen on other animals give the green light for researchers to continue exploring the effects that Sestrin has on humans. However, there are some complications involved with producing a Sesterin supplement.

"Sestrins are not small molecules, but we are working to find small molecule modulators of Sestrin," Lee said.

A more pressing concern for the researchers has been how these findings could eventually help scientists combat muscle wasting due to physical limitation. In fact, they have already demonstrated that Sestrin can also help avoid the muscle atrophy that occurs when a muscle is immobilized. They want to find out if their research could lead to a new type of treatment for people who are unable to exercise because of a disability, age, or other physical restrictions.

How to train smarter

For now, it looks like we'll all have to keep exercising the old school way if we want the results. Though it isn't as easy as swallowing a pill, here are some ways that you can get more out of your workout.

  • Have a pre-gym cup of joe. Drinking caffeine before working out has been found to enhance the benefits by stimulating your central nervous system.
  • Take an herbal supplement. Ashwagandha and Rhodiola are two well-studied herbs found to offer athletic benefits. One study found that people who took an ashwagandha supplement saw significant improvements in their VO2 max, which is considered the best assessment of a person's endurance abilities. Rhodiola has also been shown to have some pretty remarkable effects as a triple-threat analeptic for energy, focus, and vitality. (In fact, the Russians once secretly tested the herb on their Olympic athletes.)
  • Try HITT. High-intensity interval training has become a popular gym trend because of its incredible efficiency. It's been found to be one of the most effective exercises for achieving a leaner body.

As for the almighty Sestrin supplement, we can keep dreaming.

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If you don't practice accountability at work you're letting the formula for success slip right through your hands.

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  • In this lesson for leaders, managers, and individuals, Shideh Sedgh Bina, a founding partner of Insigniam and the editor-in-chief of IQ Insigniam Quarterly, explains why it is so crucial to success.
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What if Middle-earth was in Pakistan?

Iranian Tolkien scholar finds intriguing parallels between subcontinental geography and famous map of Middle-earth

Could this former river island in the Indus have inspired Tolkien to create Cair Andros, the ship-shaped island in the Anduin river?

Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission
Strange Maps
  • J.R.R. Tolkien himself hinted that his stories are set in a really ancient version of Europe.
  • But a fantasy realm can be inspired by a variety of places; and perhaps so is Tolkien's world.
  • These intriguing similarities with Asian topography show that it may be time to 'decolonise' Middle-earth.
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Giant whale sharks have teeth on their eyeballs

The ocean's largest shark relies on vision more than previously believed.

An eight-metre-long Whale shark swims with other fish at the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium on February 26, 2010 in Motobu, Okinawa, Japan.

Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • Japanese researchers discovered that the whale shark has "tiny teeth"—dermal denticles—protecting its eyes from abrasion.
  • They also found the shark is able to retract its eyeball into the eye socket.
  • Their research confirms that this giant fish relies on vision more than previously believed.
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A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

A gigantic star makes off during an eight-year gap in observations.

Image source: ESO/L. Calçada
Surprising Science
  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
  • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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