So what’s the actual difference between Bitcoin and Altcoins?

  • Bitcoin has long been the king of the cryptocurrency market.
  • New coins and tokens have shaken up the status quo with unique use cases and innovations.
  • Bitcoin has responded with its own improvements, leading to a healthier market.

When it comes to cryptocurrency, Bitcoin has long been the king of the hill thanks to its status as the founder of the young industry and its first-mover appeal. A decade later, the original cryptocurrency is still the most valuable one on the market, at one point even reaching as high as $20,000 for a single Bitcoin. Today it is far from alone in the field. As blockchain (the technology that cryptocurrency is based on) evolved, so did the number of coins available, and the things these new coins' blockchains could accomplish.

These new cryptocurrencies dubbed "altcoins" use the same decentralized concept as Bitcoin but take things a step further with unique features. Ethereum, the second most popular cryptocurrency, introduced the idea of "smart contracts", code that can automatically execute agreements between two parties using blockchain technology. This opened the floodgates for the development of new use cases and applications for crypto.

More importantly, Altcoins have improved on overall functionality, processing transactions faster than bitcoin, and generally scaling to meet expanding demand for their services. As the market for Altcoins continues to expand, it's easy to wonder if Bitcoin's lead will end soon, or if it will be able to keep up with the new generation of cryptocurrencies.

A new take on old problems

Bitcoin was originally developed as an idea for alternative, decentralized digital currency that could eventually replace fiat money like the dollar and the euro. As such, it was built for simple transactions and uses a peer-to-peer consensus mechanism to power a network to collectively verify transactions, adding them to the "chain", which is comprised of a string of transactions in batches called blocks. As a payment mechanism, bitcoin still falls far short of methods like credit cards and even other digital payment tools. Moreover, verifying ("mining") transactions is resource intensive and expensive.

Newer coins use different mechanisms to reduce both the cost and complexity of mining and can process many more transactions per second than bitcoin's paltry seven. Additionally, some of these new cryptocurrencies use technology such as smart contracts, which let them build innovative apps directly on the blockchain.

Coins like Ripple and Dash, for example offer a fresh take on the transactability and speed of payments. Ripple is designed to facilitate centralized cross-border transactions between large corporations and institutions. Dash claims to have transaction speeds as fast as 1 second per transaction, focuses on superior security, and an easy ecosystem for individuals to manage their money.

In its original state, Bitcoin simply can't compete with these newer, more focused coins. Bitcoin was built as a catch-all currency, and its creator likely didn't envision the multiple use cases of blockchain technology. This imbalance has led pundits and industry veterans to repeatedly claim that Bitcoin is on its way out.

Old coins can learn new tricks

It seems that rumors of Bitcoin's end were greatly exaggerated and instead of fading into obsolescence, it's evolved to catch up to the Altcoin market, expanding its usability. In fact, Bitcoin still has the larger user base, which comes with mainstream appeal and substantial interest from developers. Now, it's fighting off newcomers by adding new tools and functionality over time.

Instead of building the next Bitcoin, many projects have chosen instead to build on the existing Bitcoin architecture, adding new features that make the currency more usable in various situations. RSK, for instance, gives users smart contract capabilities for Bitcoin, opening the doors for app development. Whereas this was once Ethereum's major draw, Bitcoin is now encroaching on that territory with expanded functionality from RSK's platform.

Similarly, tools like the Lightning network let users take their Bitcoin transactions off chain, taking the burden off the main Bitcoin blockchain and speeding up the pace at which peripheral transactions can be verified. These solutions don't change Bitcoin's original design but make it more competitive against younger and newer coins looking to claim the spotlight. In fact, improving these issues will only expand Bitcoin's usability and mainstream popularity.

A flourishing ecosystem

Although in theory Bitcoin could eventually be capable of doing everything Altcoins can, the reality is that it still benefits from the competition. As yet, blockchain is a young technology which requires a thriving ecosystem to truly develop and become valuable to society. Moreover, Bitcoin could do well to avoid feature creep and lose its value. The beauty of blockchain is that it allows for cryptocurrencies to be used for much more than just paying for things.

Tools like Golem, a blockchain-powered crowdsourced super-computer, or Fishcoin, which tracks fish and seafood from the sea to millions of kitchens for ethical fishing and sustainable operations, take the concept of blockchain in experimental new directions. Bitcoin is designed to be a digital currency, and it's only getting better at it. However, in a world where data is transactional by design, nearly any idea will inevitably be revolutionized by transplanting it into a decentralized ecosystem—and Bitcoin is the root of it all.

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Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
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Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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