What’s the News: The best way doctors have to find out how much pain a patient’s in is to ask—but that approach can fall short when someone’s unable to speak, exaggerating or downplaying their condition, or just plain unsure how to rate their pain on a 10-point scale. Because of these problems with self-reporting, scientists have long been looking for an objective, physiological measure to quantify pain. A recent brain scanning study, in which the researchers could pick out painful experiences based on neural activity, brings that goal closer.
What’s the News: After a bone marrow transplant cured a Berlin man of HIV in 2008, scientists have been working to see whether similar, though less drastic, measures could be a treatment for the disease. And judging from the results of a recent clinical trial that used gene therapy to accomplish the goal, there’s potential.
What’s the Context:
A botanist has discovered a new species of plant in eastern Brazil whose branches bend down upon bearing fruit and deposit seeds on the ground, often burying them in a covering of soft soil or moss. This trick is an example of geocarpy, a rare adaptation to survival in harsh or short-lived environments with small favorable patches. The adaptation ensures seedlings germinate near their parents, helping them stay within the choice spots or microclimates in which they thrive. One well-known practitioner of geocarpy is the peanut, which also buries its fruit in the soil [PDF].
RNAs from rice can survive digestion and make their way into mammalian tissues, where they change the expression of genes.
What’s the News: It’s no secret that having lunch messes with your biochemistry. Once that sandwich hits your stomach, genes related to digestion have been activated and are causing the production of the many molecules that help break food down. But a new study suggests that the connection between your food’s biochemistry and your own may be more intimate than we thought. Tiny RNAs usually found in plants have been discovered circulating in blood, and animal studies indicate that they are directly manipulating the expression of genes.
Scientists have often wondered how woolly mammoths survived and thrived in the frigid climes of the far north in Earth’s last ice age. The hemoglobin in elephant (and human) blood cannot easily transfer oxygen to other cells in the body at low temperatures. Instead, the blood’s hemoglobin holds onto its oxygen in icy extremities and the tissue eventually dies; that’s the main reason we get frostbite. There must, then, have been something special about mammoth hemoglobin.
What’s the News: Researchers found that squalamine, a steroid present in the bodies of the dogfish shark, has a protective effect against several human viruses, all of which are difficult or impossible to cure with existing drugs. The chemical has so far been shown to be relatively safe in humans and can be synthesized, suggesting it could have promise as an antiviral drug in humans.
What’s the News: We may strive for humility, but we benefit from a little hubris, too, according to a study published last week in Nature. Overconfidence in your abilities can help you triumph in competitions you might not have won otherwise, the study found, and can impart an evolutionary advantage when the potential payoff is high compared to the cost of conflict.
The Laki fissure’s eruption in Iceland was behind tens of thousands of deaths in the 1780s.
What’s the News: Iceland’s busy volcanoes have caused their share of air traffic snafus in Europe lately, but they have the potential to be deadly, not just inconvenient. A new model examining how air quality would change should the volcanoes erupt as spectacularly as they occasionally have in the past suggests that increased particulates in the air could kill more than 140,000 people in Europe in the year following the eruption.
Enormous stone statues, called moai, on Easter Island
What’s the News: Easter Island is often held up as an example of what can happen when human profligacy and population outpace ecology: Wanton deforestation led to soil erosion and famine, the story goes, and the islanders’ society declined into chaos and cannibalism. But through their research on Easter Island, paleoecologists Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo have unearthed evidence that contradicts this version of events. The Polynesian settlers of Easter Island prospered through careful use of the scant available resources, they argue in their new book The Statues That Walked; the island’s forests were done in not by greedy humans, but by hungry rats.