Chemistry for kids: Make a DIY bubble snake!

A fun and completely safe experiment for the family to try during quarantine.

KATE THE CHEMIST: If you are at home and stuck with your kid you might as well do something fun and educational with them. What I've done here is put together a super, super fun science demonstration that is safe to do at home with your kids and hopefully all these ingredients you already have in your pantry or your craft drawer or something like that because I don't know about you, but I get maxed out on screen time so I think it's really fun to do something kinesthetic with your hands. And if you can learn something while you're doing it you might as well have fun too. Okay, this is called the bubble snake and I'm going to explain first the ingredients and then give you step-by-step instructions on how to do this.

First things first is you need to get a small plastic soda bottle or a water bottle. I have these little ones in my garage because I use them when I breathe fire but the bigger soda bottles or water bottles work just as well because what you're going to do with it is actually just cut it off so you have the top part of it but I'll get there in just a second. So, any size bottle will do. You need food coloring. I prefer the reds and the pinks when I'm doing this outside but because of being on camera I'm going to use greens and blues for you. You're going to need a half cup of water, a quarter cup of dish soap, a bowl to mix your dish soap and water, a spoon, one rubber band and then an old rag. You can use a sock, you can use a rag, you can use a towel, a tee shirt. Anything will really work for this. You just don't want something that's super, super porous or super thick.

The first thing you're going to do is you're going to take your plastic soda bottle or water bottle and you're going to cut off the bottom part. You only want the top portion of your soda bottle. So a perfect one is going to look like this. You're gong to see your top part here and then it's cut off right there at the edge. Then what you're going to do is take your old rag and you're going to wrap it around the edge of your soda bottle so that's where your rubber band comes into play. You're going to wrap the rubber band around your towel just like this. Two or three times should be absolutely plenty. You just want to make sure that towel sticks on here. I did this once and the rubber band snapped and the stuff went all over this actor's head because I was doing it on camera. It was an awesome day but the poor guy was covered in food coloring.

Once you have this you're going to put it off to the side and we're going to build our little concoction over here. In your bowl you need to have a quarter cup of dish soap. Any bubbles will do. Bubble bath will work if you're keeping your dish soap around for quarantine time which I totally understand. Then you've got a half cup of water so you're going to add that into your dish soap. Now you want to make sure that you stir this together so completely stir. And I would stir for at least 10 or 15 seconds. I'm not going to do that for you here but make sure you stir for a long time because you want to make sure that your solution is super bubbly. You don't want to dip your bubble snake apparatus into just water. You want to make sure you have the soap as well. So then you're going to take this, flip it upside down so that your towel is exposed and then grab your food coloring. Now the goal is to cover your entire patch down here, the whole piece on this side. Cover they entire thing with your food coloring. I like to do stripes and zig-zags and patterns with all types of different colors, but just for the sake of time today I'm just going to use a big green blob. Not super attractive but it will work for our purpose here.

Then what I'm going to do is I'm just going to move my soap out of the way for a second here. Now is the fun part. You're going to take your apparatus. Now you're going to dunk it food coloring side down into your dish soap water bowl. When you pick it up let it drain. You're going to see that the food coloring comes off, totally normal. But if you're type A like me and you don't like lots of messes let it drain into the bowl. Now, for the fun part. Once it stops draining you're going to go from the side. Take a deep breath and you blow. And you make this incredible bubble snake. And so what you're doing is you're exhaling all of this gas that's in your lungs out so there's nitrogen molecules, oxygen, carbon dioxide, even some water in here. If you can go outside but stay within your little area six feet away from everybody, you can let the wind actually carry this bubble snake around and it is so fun. I love, love, love it.

So what I love about this experiment is it's something you can do at home with your kids. It is completely safe. There's nothing here that's dangerous at all. No explosions or fire or anything, but you're outside, you're engaged, you're having a good time, you're outside, you're engaged, you're having a good time, some family time, but you're learning as well. The kids might ask you what are the molecules that are in your exhale and you can talk about how you exhale carbon dioxide and oxygen and nitrogen. I just think it's so fun to spend some time with the family and do some science as well. So, if you're looking for other experiments you can check out my Big Book of Experiments which has 25 experiments that you can do with things that are at home hopefully in your kitchen right now.

  • Most of us are staying home to help flatten the curve of COVID-19, but that doesn't mean there isn't learning and fun to be had.
  • It's important to take a break from screen time. Kate the Chemist, professor, science entertainer, and author of "The Big Book of Experiments," has just the activity: Creating a bubble snake using common household ingredients including dish soap, food coloring, rubber bands, a towel, and a small plastic bottle.
  • In this step-by-step tutorial, Kate walks us through the simple process of building the apparatus and combining materials to bring the fun snakes to life.




Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
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The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
Surprising Science
  • A study provides further confirmation that a prolonged lack of sleep can result in early mortality.
  • 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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