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Heroes

I spent a few minutes digging in my yard all in the name of cancer research.

There is rainwater seeping into my jeans, and my instructions are about to blow away. But my front yard could hold the cure to cancer, so I keep digging.

I am outside my home in Portland, Oregon, digging in the soil with a small plastic scoop I requested from the Natural Products Discovery Group at the University of Oklahoma. An interdisciplinary team of researchers are hard at work there, looking for fungi and natural products found in soil that may be used for a host of drugs and cures for cancer, infectious diseases, and even heart disease.

So the least I can do is get my knees wet.


That's me, going full science. Photo by Margaret Ryan for Upworthy.

It sounds like something from the future, but natural products have been used in drugs for thousands of years.

Soil is packed with teeny, tiny living elements, including millions of fungi. You can't see them without a microscope, but they're really good at making and emitting new compounds called natural products. And these natural products may be the microscopic molecules researchers need to slow down growing cancer cells or stop deadly pathogens in their tracks.

But this isn't an entirely new concept.

"On the one hand, people will argue that humans have been using natural products for millennia," said Dr. Robert Cichewicz, principal investigator for the Natural Products Discovery Group, before telling me about the poison that killed Socrates. But he admits modern scientists have been using natural products to create drugs since the turn of the 20th century.

And they've come a long way since then.

A researcher assessing soil. Photo via Dr. Robert Cichewicz/NPDG/University of Oklahoma, used with permission.

Since soils are home to so many fungi and natural products, researchers at the Natural Products Discovery Group have one of the dirtiest jobs in the biz.

A biologist and natural products expert, Cichewicz leads a team of researchers assessing soils to identify promising fungi and natural products that could be turned into compounds and maybe one day, life-saving drugs.

"[Drugs] aren't just created out of the thin air in a laboratory. It's a process," Cichewicz said. "Natural products have a long history of supplying roughly half of the drugs that are prescribed today. So we're continuing that search."


Hard at work in the laboratory, studying fungi. Photo via Dr. Robert Cichewicz/NPDG/University of Oklahoma, used with permission.

Cichewicz and his team assess soil samples from all across the country to look for natural products that appear promising for slowing down cancer, attacking microbial infections, and inhibiting parasitic diseases.

The fungi and natural products can vary widely from neighbor to neighbor, or even front yard to backyard, so every sample counts.

"What we look at as a homogeneous yard is really a complex matrix of different types of micro-environments," Cichewicz said.

This is where you — yes, you! — and your matrix of a yard come in.

Photo by Margaret Ryan for Upworthy.

Cichewicz and his team are looking for soil samples from citizen scientists, no Ph.D. required.

The team is looking for people to take soil samples from their yards for use in their research. Individuals across the country can participate and request a free collection kit online. The kit includes instructions, a small scoop, a plastic bag for your sample, and a pre-paid envelope to mail your soil back.

Mine arrived two business days after I submitted my request online, and I soon found myself hard at work in my front yard. Short of a couple of soggy knees, collecting the sample was easy.

Just use the supplied scoop to get a few tablespoons of soil.

Photo by Margaret Ryan for Upworthy.

Then seal the bag tight before placing it in the pre-paid envelope.

Photo by Margaret Ryan for Upworthy.

You also have to answer a few questions about your soil, but it's nothing too tricky.

Photo by Margaret Ryan for Upworthy.

Once you submit your sample, you'll be able to track it online and eventually see the types of fungi and natural products found in your soil. It's a rare chance to get a closer look at what's under your feet every day, and it's a chance for you to play an active role in some amazing research.

A picture of the samples as they move through the testing process, which can take up to a year. Photo via Dr. Robert Cichewicz/NPDG/University of Oklahoma, used with permission.

The best part? Fungi from your soil could end up at the National Cancer Institute.

Cichewicz is working with the National Cancer Institute to make the entire collection of fungi free to researchers.

This means researchers or teams with different goals — whether it's drugs and cures for Alzheimer's, heart disease, or Parkinson's — wouldn't need to start their own collection from scratch.

"Natural products as a field has traditionally involved everybody going their own way, finding their own organisms whether they're in the jungles of South America, the frigid waters of Antarctica, or right here in Oklahoma," Cichewicz said. "This would be really a game-changer, in that, 'Here's a collection. Focus on producing new drug leads.'"

Access to this fungi library could save countless amounts of time and money and frees up the nation's top researchers to do what they do best: find compounds that work.

Photo via Dr. Robert Cichewicz/NPDG/University of Oklahoma, used with permission.

I sealed my soil and survey in the envelope and rested it gingerly on my kitchen table. After all, it's precious cargo.

Photo by Margaret Ryan for Upworthy.

Later, on my walk to the mailbox, I caught myself looking closely at my neighbors' yards for the first time. What secret does their soil hold? Maybe those flowers are so tall because they're rooted in possibility. Is there a cure for Alzheimer's under those cherry blossoms?

Maybe. Maybe not.

But since many of us know or will know someone who could benefit from this vital research, it can't hurt to look.

Nature

Pennsylvania home is the entrance to a cave that’s been closed for 70 years

You can only access the cave from the basement of the home and it’s open for business.

This Pennsylvania home is the entrance to a cave.

Have you ever seen something in a movie or online and thought, "That's totally fake," only to find out it's absolutely a real thing? That's sort of how this house in Pennsylvania comes across. It just seems too fantastical to be real, and yet somehow it actually exists.

The home sits between Greencastle and Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, and houses a pretty unique public secret. There's a cave in the basement. Not a man cave or a basement that makes you feel like you're in a cave, but an actual cave that you can't get to unless you go through the house.

Turns out the cave was discovered in the 1830s on the land of John Coffey, according to Uncovering PA, but the story of how it was found is unclear. People would climb down into the cave to explore occasionally until the land was leased about 100 years later and a small structure was built over the cave opening.

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A growing number of people are reevaluating traditional relationships and entering lifestyles that work for them instead of trying to fit into preexisting roles. It makes sense because the more lifestyle options that are available, the greater chance we have to be happy.

A recent trend in unconventional relationships is married couples "living apart together," or LATs as they are known among mental health professionals.

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Marie Kondo playing with her daughters.

Marie Kondo's book, "The Life-Changing Art of Tidying Up," has repeatedly made huge waves around the world since it came out in 2010. From eliminating anything that didn't "spark joy" from your house to folding clothes into tiny rectangles and storing them vertically, the KonMari method of maintaining an organized home hit the mark for millions of people. The success of her book even led to two Netflix series.

It also sparked backlash from parents who insisted that keeping a tidy home with children was not so simple. It's one thing to get rid of an old sweater that no longer brings you joy. It's entirely another to toss an old, empty cereal box that sparks zero joy for you, but that your 2-year-old is inexplicably attached to.

To be fair, Kondo never forced her way into anyone's home and made them organize it her way. But also to be fair, she didn't have kids when she wrote her best-selling book on keeping a tidy home. The reality is that keeping a home organized and tidy with children living in it is a whole other ballgame, as Kondo has discovered now that she has three kids of her own.

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Pop Culture

YouTube star MrBeast sponsors 1,000 people's cataract surgery to help them see again

"I had never heard of MrBeast so I almost hung up. But gratefully did not hang up."

YouTube star sponsors 1,000 people's cataract surgery

Blindness touches people's lives around the world and YouTube star Jimmy Donaldson, more popularly known as MrBeast, is trying to do something about it. Donaldson made it his mission to help 1,000 people regain their eyesight with the help of Dr. Jeff Levenson, an ophthalmologist and surgeon in Jacksonville, Florida.

Levenson has been operating a program called "Gift of Sight" for over 20 years. The program provides free cataract surgery to uninsured people who are legally blind for free, so long as they meet certain criteria. Levenson had never heard of Donaldson, and he almost hung up on him when the YouTube star called to ask about a partnership.

"I had never heard of MrBeast so I almost hung up. But gratefully did not hang up," Levenson told CNN.

After figuring out that Donaldson was indeed a real person who wanted to help others, the duo called around the Jacksonville area to determine the people who needed help the most. They got their list of clients from free clinics and homeless shelters, which covered the United States portion of the surgeries.

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If you're in the group of people who need to be entertained, look no further than Gaël Monfils, a professional French tennis player that has earned the nickname, "The Entertainer." Monfils turned pro in 2004 and has multiple championship matches under his belt, and yet he still takes the time to be...extra while playing.

In a compilation video uploaded to TikTok, we see the 36-year-old tennis player dancing after hitting the ball across the net just out of his opponent's reach. But of course, he also doesn't hit the ball like your average player, either. In one part of the video, Monfils jumps up extremely high and bicycle kicks as he hits the ball with his tongue hanging out of his mouth.

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