Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, July 28
A paper describing how a chemical compound closely related to a common blue food dye could help repair spinal injuries got a hefty dose of attention this week, garnering extravagant headlines like “Can Blue M&Ms cure paralysis?” Despite the oversimplified hype, the findings are exciting: spinal-damaged rats that were given the drug recovered the ability to limp about, with only one side effect–a slight blueish hue. Another report published online established DNA “barcode” system for plants: two sections of DNA that will serve as a unique identifier for every species. Botanists have been squabbling over which genetic sequences to use for years; now that they’ve settled the matter they can begin to build a genetic library that will allow for quick plant identification across the world.
Pediatrics, August issue
An 18-year-long study found that autistic children do not have more gastrointestinal problems than other children, refuting a notion that has gained some currency with families of autistic children. The researchers note that some parents have adjusted their autistic children’s diets in hopes of altering the children’s symptoms, and call for a halt to such practices. Autistic kids should not be put on dairy-free or gluten-free diets without a proper diagnosis of dairy or gluten intolerance, the researchers say, because such restrictive diets can cause nutritional deficiencies.
NASA’s current goal is to land humans on the moon once again by 2020, but the panel, which was set up by the White House, has suggested other possible ventures that could speed NASA towards another goal: a manned mission to Mars. For example, long missions to deep space would help scientists learn how to manage long-duration space missions far from Earth, which human missions to Mars would require…”It is true we need to gain experience exploring planetary surfaces, but in fact we’ve done some of that…. What we actually have almost no experience at all with is operations in deep space” [New Scientist], said committee member Edward Crawley. Missions into deep space would require further research into how to protect humans from space radiation, the harmful charged particles from which lower-orbit missions are shielded by the Earth’s magnetic field.
Gone are the days when scientists considered the spleen a waste of space. Previously, doctors knew that the organ–which is located behind your stomach–performs a variety of functions, from making antibodies to storing red blood cells, but they categorized it as nonessential. A new study published in Science, however, found that while it’s true that people can survive without a spleen, the organ is far from worthless [Science News]. Researchers found that the spleen is actually a crucial storage place for large numbers of monocytes, a type of immune cell.
Monocytes form in bone marrow and rally to fight an infection or repair the body after a trauma such as a heart attack, and scientists previously believed they were stored in the blood stream. In the study, scientists analyzed the monocytes found near the hearts of mice that had experienced a heart attack, and traced nearly half of the cells to the spleen. Later they found that the spleen contains ten times as many monocytes as blood—making it a far more important storehouse [National Geographic].
The world’s fisheries may be seriously depleted, but a comprehensive new study shows that all is not lost–and suggests that when humans really put the effort into turning the tide, fish stocks can be returned to good health. The researchers found that efforts introduced to halt overfishing in five of the 10 large marine ecosystems they examined were showing signs of success. A combination of measures – such as catch quotas, no-take zones, and selective fishing gear – had helped fish stocks recover [BBC News].
The new study sprang from another report from marine ecologist Boris Worm in 2006, in which he made an alarming prediction: if current trends continue, by 2048 overfishing will have destroyed most commercially important populations of saltwater fish. Ecologists applauded the work. But among fisheries management scientists, reactions ranged from skepticism to fury over what many called an alarmist report [The New York Times]. Eventually the two groups agreed to collaborate on a study that would bring both their perspectives to the table, and which would determine the best ways to revive and manage the ocean‘s fish stocks.
An ancient Roman city that was the predecessor of Venice has been rediscovered beneath croplands near the Venetian lagoon using sophisticated aerial imagery and some clever analysis. Researchers say they’ve found the harbor city of Altinum, which was once one of the richest cities of the Roman empire. But terrified by the impending invasion of the fearsome Germanic Emperor Attila the Hun, its inhabitants cut their losses and fled in AD452, leaving behind a ghost town of theatres, temples and basilicas [Times Online].
Many of the city’s ancient buildings were dismantled and the stones were carted away in the Middle Ages. The remaining foundations sunk back into the marsh, which was drained and turned into agricultural land in the 19th century. The new study, published in Science, is a result of aerial images taken in unusually dry summer of 2007, when the crops were suffering from drought. When the visible light and near-infrared images were processed to tease out subtle variations in plant water stress, a buried metropolis emerged. The researchers discovered that the crops planted on the land were in different stages of ripening, thanks to differences in the amount of water in the soil [ScienceNOW Daily News].
A comet from the deep space far beyond Pluto probably won’t smash into the Earth and obliterate all life, reassuring researchers said today. New calculations have determined that most extinction events that have occurred over our planet’s history probably weren’t caused by killer comet showers, which bodes well for the future, too. The findings are both welcome and well-timed since only last week an object dramatically smashed into Jupiter; many researchers believe the culprit was a comet.
In the new study, published in Science, researchers focused on long-period comets, which are among the wild cards in a thick deck of cosmic threats. In contrast with short-period comets, such as Comet Halley and Comet Tempel-Tuttle, long-period comets trace insanely eccentric orbits that range out beyond Neptune, Pluto and the Kuiper Belt to a little-understood region on the solar system’s edge known as the Oort Cloud [MSNBC]. The Oort cloud, which contains billions of small, icy objects, may extend from about 93 billion miles from the sun to as far as 9 trillion miles away.
Malaria in Cambodia is becoming increasingly resistant to one of strongest anti-malarial treatment available, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. That could cause literally millions of deaths as malaria, already the world’s third-deadliest infectious disease, becomes unresponsive to remedies that once proved effective against the disease.
The drugs examined were derived from artemisinin, the basis of the most effective treatment for the bloodborne parasite that causes malaria. To study the treatment’s effectiveness, researchers compared the effects of artemisinin drugs in 40 malaria patients in western Cambodia and 40 patients in northwestern Thailand. On average, the patients in Thailand were clear of malaria parasites within 48 hours, compared to 84 hours for the Cambodian patients [HealthDay News]. That means the remedies were significantly less effective against the mosquito-transmitted parasite in Cambodia. Furthermore, in the time since the study concluded, healthcare workers have observed lengthened clearance times among malaria patients in southern Cambodia, indicating the resistant strain has already begun to spread.
From the skin cells of humans and mice, scientists have successfully made brown fat, the kind that burns white fat by producing heat and is possessed in the greatest quantities by babies. The study, published in Nature, could potentially lead to a way to help overweight and obese people slim down.
Brown fat was once thought to be found only in children, but earlier this year researchers confirmed that adults also have a small amount of brown adipose tissue. In 2007, researchers discovered that a protein called PRDM16 made immature muscle cells turn into brown fat. In the new Nature study, the same team of scientists found that PRDM16, in combination with a second protein produced in muscle cells, is the master switch for brown fat cells and will also convert skin cells into brown fat, even though this is not the process nature intended. [Scientists] used this master switch to convert mouse skin cells to brown fat cells, which seem to work as expected when transplanted into normal mice [The New York Times]. The next step is to implant brown fat into obese mice to see if they lose weight; that will provide evidence that the discovery might be used outside of the lab.
The region today known as Iraq was once known as Mesopotamia, which means “Land Between the Rivers,” and since that ancient time the land between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers has been renowned for its fecund soil and thriving farms. But now the Mesopotamian cradle of civilisation seems to be returning to desert [New Scientist].
Decades of war and mismanagement, compounded by two years of drought, are wreaking havoc on Iraq’s ecosystem, drying up riverbeds and marshes, turning arable land into desert, killing trees and plants, and generally transforming what was once the region’s most fertile area into a wasteland…. “We’re talking about something that’s making the breadbasket of Iraq look like the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma in the early part of the 20th century” [Los Angeles Times], said Adam L. Silverman, a social scientist with the U.S. military.
Just when it seemed that there were no more mysteries left in the wild parts of the planet, scientists have turned up a new species of bird–an odd-looking creature that has been named the Barefaced Bulbul because of its mostly bald head. The never-before seen songbird was spotted in a remote forest in Laos, and the find provides a cheerful contrast to the steady drumbeat of endangered species news. Despite the ever-spreading imprint of humanity on this small planet, scientists keep discovering new species, even among relatively conspicuous classes of vertebrates like mammals and birds [The New York Times, blog].
The new bulbul is about the size of a thrush, and sports olive green feathers on most of its body. But it has a bald, pink face with just one line of feathers that ornaments its head like a mohawk. Hardly a shy and retiring bird, the bald-headed bulbul foraged and noisily moved about the researchers during the day, making them wonder how this eye-catching bird went undiscovered for so long. “Certainly one reason is that the bird appears to be truly restricted to some very harsh and inaccessible terrain in Indochina” [Discovery News], said Peter Clyne of the Widlife Conservation Society.