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.
- 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.
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, 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.
- Published on Saturday, 05 July 2014 14:54
That all bumblebees buzz is well known. Slightly less well known is that some species use their buzz to get at food by rattling pollen loose with vibrations and that some species buzz as a threat, literally telling others to buzz off. What nobody has known is whether these buzzes are different, so a team took a look and found out that, yes, they are. However, in doing so they discovered something far more interesting. Different bumblebee species buzz quite differently when trying to knock pollen loose from flowers. This suggests that the frequency and amplitude of a buzz for each bee species is quite specific to the flowers that they depend upon, functioning like a highly evolved mouthpart that allows them (and only them) to get at the badly needed nectar. We had no idea that this lock and key system even existed. Read on in my article in The Economist.
Image courtesy of Alvesgaspar.
Not so bitter pill
- Published on Tuesday, 15 July 2014 14:25
Since insulin's crucial discovery nearly a century ago, countless diabetes patients have had to inject themselves with the life-saving medicine but this is not fun. Needles hurt and the pain often leads patients who need the drug to not take it as often as they should. Now scientists are reporting a new development towards a less painful tactic... an insulin pill. The new technique depends upon packaging insulin inside tiny sacs made of fats and then wrapping these sacs in layers of highly protective molecules called polyelectrolytes. They figured that this combination would keep insulin safe from highly damaging stomach acids that have prevented an insulin pill from ever being made before. It worked but this technique also kept insulin from ever getting absorbed by the body. To help work around this problem the researchers tried adding folic acid, which readily pulls fats across intestinal cell membranes. It is really remarkable what they managed. Read on in my article in The Economist.
Time is not money
- Published on Sunday, 29 June 2014 13:41
As much as we may love having lots of it, money is often associated with bad behaviour. This has led many psychologists to run experiments revealing that people subconciously view money itself as corrupt and that people are more likely to cheat and lie when presented with money (and the more money they are shown the stronger the unethical effects). Now a team is demonstrating that a way to potentially reduce the negative psychological effects of money is to instead get people to focus on another resource that is equally as ubiquitous in our daily lives... time. Across four experiments, a team examined whether shifting focus onto time salvaged a person's ethics. Indeed, it did. Read on in my article in The Economist.