Ripped From the Journals: The Biggest Discoveries of the Week

By Eliza Strickland | July 31, 2009 5:26 pm

PNAS 7-28Proceedings 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.

PediatricsPediatrics, 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.

Nature 7-30Nature, July 30
A nifty new study has determined that the oceans are not mixed simply by macro forces like winds and tides, but also by the motion of all the critters, big and small, that swim through the watery expanses. Videotaped experiments with jellyfish and fluorescent green dye reveal that every time a sea creature moves, it brings some of the ocean with it. Another article caught the collective media eye since it offers tantalizing clues to a new obesity treatment. Researchers figured out how to change ordinary skin cells into brown fat cells, which are sometimes called “good” fat cells for their turbocharged ability to burn calories and turn them into body heat. While plump little babies have ample brown fat reserves, adults have very little. But the new study suggests that in time, researchers could find a way to boost brown fat deposits in adults to help them burn off those extra pounds.

Science 7-31Science, July 31
Feeling both stressed out and stuck in a rut? New research suggests there’s a good reason for that: rats that were exposed to chronic stress in the lab made decisions based on habit, even when those habituated decisions no longer provided the maximum amount of food pellets and sugar water. Relaxed mice were able to adapt as the circumstances changed. But here’s one less reason to stress out: New calculations show that a killer comet is quite unlikely to smash into the Earth, annihilating all life. The researchers’ main objective in this study was to figure out where comets come from–it turns out many come from a region at the solar system’s edge called the inner Oort cloud. But their corollary finding that even the worst comet showers produce few Earth impacts seemed more interesting to anyone who remembers the movie Deep Impact.

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