Something glowing on...
- Published on Thursday, 25 September 2014 16:19
After twenty-five years of hell, birds living in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone show the scars of their suffering. Hideous cataracts, tumors, and dramatically shortened lifespans are all too common. Many species that once lived in the area have experienced dramatic declines or vanished entirely. Yet, some populations have endured and a few have even managed to thrive. Surprised by this, a team of biologists has braved the zone to study these survivors and discovered something remarkable: they have evolved radiation resistance. Read on in my article in The Economist.
Reprogramming the enemy
- Published on Monday, 15 September 2014 16:12
The bacterium E. coli makes a lot of people violently ill but, like something out of a science-fiction film, a team of scientists have just reprogrammed a batch of this nasty bacterium to do their bidding. More specifically they reprogrammed E. coli to sense another harmful species of bacterium that readily forms impenetrable biofilms and causes infections in hospital patients that are almost impossible to treat. They tested their reprogrammed bacteria out in the lab and made a number of fascinating discoveries. Read on in my article in The Economist.
Better with beer
- Published on Friday, 05 September 2014 16:06
Lots of studies have shown an association between substances that form when meats are cooked at very high temperatures on a grill and a high incidence of colorectal cancer. Beer, wine and tea have all shown some ability to destroy carcinogens like these and reduce the harm that they can cause, but little has been known about how different sorts of beer marinades on meats might affect the formation of these nasty substances in the first place. Curious, a team of researchers went about the arduous task of grilling samples of pork marinated for four hours in various sorts of beers. It is a tough life being a scientist sometimes... Read on in my article in The Economist.
Image courtesy of Oddjob.
Caffeinated golden bullet
- Published on Monday, 25 August 2014 15:07
Gold is precious for a reason. When worked in the hands of a master artisan it can be shaped into a thing of splendour. This, along with the metal’s relative rarity, has been behind its value for centuries. The coffee bean is not much different. When grown properly and prepared by an expert, the result is divine. Beyond this, the two would seem to have nothing in common but chemists are rapidly proving otherwise. Gold and caffeine both have the potential to attack cancer cells and a new report in Inorganic Chemistry is demonstrating that when these two materials are merged they can pack a particularly effective punch.
Stopping the spread of cancer
- Published on Tuesday, 05 August 2014 14:44
Why some cancers seem to have a preference for spreading into certain organs as they enter metastasis is a huge and important question. Really, if we could understand what it is that facilitates these migrations, we could save a lot of lives. With this in mind a team noted that a number of breast cancers readily spread into the skeleton and, from there, kill people off. To explore this relationship, they studied cancer behaviour in a vascularised bone cell microenvironment with all the bells and whistles and, right in the middle of it all, they stuck breast cancer cells of the nastiest sort. The researchers closely monitored cancer cell migrations and found that by day five, they had spread into bone, creating micro-tumors. Most importantly, when they studied the chemical interactions taking place between the bone and the cancer cells, they found chemical interactions between the cancer and the bone cells that helped the cancer to make its dangerous move into the skeleton. Interfering with these reactions looks like it will be a valuable tool for doctors fighting to stop metastasis. Read on in my article in The Economist.
- Published on Friday, 15 August 2014 15:49
For years researchers have argued that tool use, by definition, is "the efficient wielding of foreign object to accomplish some sort of goal." This has included probing a hole with a cactus needle, using a stick to feed on termites, picking up a rock and using it to scratch an itch... The list is long but a new finding, where woodpeckers use tree branches as vices, is challenging it.
Waluts are tough nuts to crack. They have long been assumed to only be fed upon by rodents but recently woodpeckers have been found eating them as well. However, the woodpeckers cannot simply peck through the nuts when they are lying loose on the ground. Doing so causes the nut to roll and makes it impossible to get a precise shot on the furrow of the shell where it is most vulnerable to cracking.
What the team behind the new work has discovered is that woodpeckers are picking up their nuts and wedging them solidly in the "Y" found between thick branches on trees. Moreover, they are orienting them so that the furrow of the nut faces outward and they can thus strike right where they must to crack the thing open. And they really seem to know what they are doing because, when the researchers presented the birds with wedged nuts that had their furrows the wrong way around, the woodpeckers pushed the nuts out of place and reoriented them so they could properly break them.
Does wedging a nut in the branches of a tree count as "wielding" the tree as a tool? The authors argue that this is tool use, I agree, but no doubt the wider zoological community will debate it as they did when Caledonian crows were found throwing nuts into car traffic to break them open...
This research published in Animal Cognition. Image courtesy of Jason Thompson.
- Published on Friday, 25 July 2014 15:29
While their skins are thick, there are plenty of things that piss elephants off. People with spears, arrows and bullets are top on the list but insect stingers are not far off. Now a couple of papers are revealing that elephants speak to one another to communicate which sorts of threats are near them. They make specific sounds when near bees and specific ones when near people. Yet what is far more amazing is that they make different sounds around different sorts of people. Near tribes that traditionally threaten them, they made one sound while around tribes that are usually peaceful towards them, they made another. They even differentiated between men, women and children, almost as if using words. It is mind-blowing stuff, read on in my articles in Nature and The Economist.
Image courtesy of Peter Wredge.