Archive for February, 2012

What To Do With Invasive Asian Carp: Electrocute, Poison, or Bow and Arrow?

By Sarah Zhang | February 18, 2012 9:24 am

At 50 pounds, the Asian carp can pack up a punch–especially if you get caught in a cloud of jumping fish. “The air is so thick with fish that some bash together mid-flight, showering everyone with a snot-like splatter,” writes Ben Paynter in a Bloomberg Businessweek feature on the invasive Asian carp.

Damaged boats and injured boaters—broken noses and concussions are among the alleged crimes of the Asian carp—aren’t even the biggest problems with the fish. The bottom-dwellers eat voraciously, starving the native fish and quickly outgrowing any natural predators. They’re now in 23 states, and fears are that they will soon invade the Great Lakes.

Drastic policies to protect the Great Lakes, such as completely rerouting the trade through Chicago’s waterways, have made it as far as the Supreme Court even though tracking the fish’s actual location is rather imprecise. (The Supreme Court rejected the request.) eDNA—e for “environmental”—detects the presence of DNA from Asian carp but it can’t tell the difference between 1 and 100 fish or even between a live fish or a few scales. Instead, writes Paynter, researchers have resorted to brute force methods for counting fish in a river: electrocution and poison.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World

Study: Prions Can Be Helpful Engine of Evolution, Rather than Cause of Disease

By Sarah Zhang | February 17, 2012 1:18 pm

spacing is important
Yeast under a microscope.

What’s the News: Prions get a bad name—the very word is a portmanteau of “protein” and “infection,” which suggests that they’re up to no good. And there’s obviously some truth to this: Prions are a type of protein that have alternative folded forms, and if they aggregate into insoluble clumps, they can cause problems like mad cow disease. But prions might also be a key part of evolution. A new survey published in Nature found prions in 1/3 of yeast strains, and 40% of the traits they conferred were beneficial.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts

A Molecule That Can Help Antibiotics Kill Superbugs

By Veronique Greenwood | February 17, 2012 8:26 am

bact
K. pneumoniae

Bacteria that have evolved defenses against antibiotics are something of a disaster waiting to happen. Whenever a new drug-resistant strain, or a gene that confers resistance, crops up in a new place—as when the NDM-1 gene, which confers resistant to up to 14 drugs, showed up in drinking water in New Delhi—it’s another nail in coffin of a world in which we can heal nearly everything. Scientists are looking into how to get around that resistance, though, and there are some hopeful headlines now and then, including a recent study from researchers at North Carolina State University in which they identified a molecule that can boost the efficacy of two antibiotics against bacteria 16-fold.

The molecule, which the researchers found by testing about 50 candidates to see if they could reduce the number of NDM-1-carrying K. pneumoniae by a significant amount, doesn’t have any antimicrobial properties of its own. It’s an adjuvant, which means it has to be applied in tandem with another drug to have any effect—in this case, the antibiotics carbapenem and cephalosporin. The researchers checked a couple of different ways that it could be working, and found that it was making bacterial membranes easier for the drug to get through, but not enough to account for all of its surprising strength: it lowered by 16 times the amount of antibiotic required to knock the bacteria on their behinds. That’s handy, because taking massive amounts of antibiotics—enough to overwhelm the defenses of resistant bacteria—can be hazardous to your health, and if adding in this adjuvant tips the scales so that safe amounts can knock out infections, that’s pretty neat.

As an antibiotic sidekick, it’s definitely still on the mysterious side. But the team writes that they are looking further into its mechanism, so stay tuned.

Image courtesy of Muriel Gottrop / Wikimedia Commons

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

Flies Infected With Parasites Drink Alcohol as an Antibiotic

By Sarah Zhang | February 16, 2012 12:24 pm

spacing is important
Fruit fly larvae and wasp

What’s the News: Fruit fly larvae have unusually high alcohol tolerance, which scientists used to think was because they happen to feed on yeast in rotting fruit. Turns out they’re in it for the alcohol, too—as medication. According to a new study*, alcohol protects them from the wasp parasites that lay eggs in fruit fly larvae.

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Quantum Dots Can Get Nearby Neurons Firing

By Sarah Zhang | February 16, 2012 8:54 am

spacing is important

The quantum dot has many super powers. It can capture light energy for solar panels, team up with LEDs to emit entangled photons, and according to new research, activate neurons in a Petri dish. Quantum dots are tiny bits of semiconductor material, and their unique properties coming from being so small—no more than 10 nanometers across—that they’re governed by weird rules of the quantum world. Quantum dots are already used in biology to label individual cells or proteins. But now, quantum dots are no longer just labels; they can change how neurons behave.

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Miniature Chameleon Sits on the Head of a Match

By Veronique Greenwood | February 15, 2012 12:08 pm

chameleon

This irascible-looking little guy was recently discovered by biologists on the small island of Nosy Hara, in northern Madagascar. Members of this newly discovered species are on average an inch long from snout to tail tip, a remarkably tiny size that puts them among the world’s smallest reptiles. When not turning their baleful glares at the camera, they run around in a landscape of limestone boulders and leaf fragments and at night roost in low-hanging vegetation no more than a couple inches from the ground. Their diminutive size seems to be the evolutionary result of a phenomenon called island dwarfism, by which animals slowly shrink in size, perhaps in response to the limited resources available on an island (though it also goes the other way, a phenomenon called island gigantism, possibly a result of having few predators).

The species’ name, reflecting its tiny-ness, is Brookesia micra.

chameleon

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World

The Would-Be Nuclear Power Plant That Became a Tourist Attraction

By Sarah Zhang | February 15, 2012 8:49 am

In a dank, humid room 45 miles west of Manila is a direct line to the office of the Philippine president. The Bataan Nuclear Power Plant was to be the first nuclear plant in Southeast Asia. That never happened, and the power plant hasn’t generated a single kilowatt-hour since its completion in 1984. Owners sold off the uranium in 1997. In 2011, it was a reborn as a tourist attraction. The phone to the direct line sits on display, never used.

The Bataan plant has proved popular as a tourist destination, getting booked up months in advance. Especially common are Japanese tourists, who are wary about the safety of nuclear power since the Fukushima disaster. In fact, the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear disasters both pushed Bataan out of favor just when prospects for the nuclear power plant were just looking up. “We don’t need to hire nuclear experts but feng shui masters to get rid of the bad luck,” says Mauro Marcelo, a nuclear engineer who works there.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology

Graphic: The Meter-by-Meter Account of How Russian Scientists Got to Lake Vostok

By Veronique Greenwood | February 14, 2012 12:29 pm

vostok

Antarctic lake, ho! Nearly twenty years ago Russian scientists began drilling through the over two miles of ice above Lake Vostok, a gigantic underground lake in Antarctica that hasn’t seen the surface in 20 million years. The pristine lake was reached last week, prompting a flurry of discussion among scientists and members of the media about how the Russian team could keep from contaminating it and whether unusual microbial life would be found there. Kept warm and liquid by heat from the center of the Earth, Lake Vostok, the largest in a chain of about 200 underground (or under-ice) lakes, is similar to the oceans supposed to exist below the surface on moons Enceladus and Europa, which makes this an exciting time to be an astrobiologist. Or, really, anyone interested in the origins of life.

It can be hard to reconstruct in your head the long, drawn-out process of reaching the lake when poring over the recent news stories on this topic. But a nice graphic put together by Nature News gives a blow-by-blow: In 1990, scientists began drilling at Vostok Station, the Russians’ Antarctic base, returning every summer to continue the task. At first they were drilling to remove ice cores that would provide data on climate, but by the mid-1990s, scientists had realized that a huge lake was deep below the surface. To protect the lake from contamination by the drilling fluids, which include kerosene, the team agreed they would melt the last bit of ice using a thermal probe instead of the drill (we don’t know yet if they did in fact follow the plan). As they got deeper into the ice, the drill became stuck, but trying another route met with success on February 5th.

[via Nature News]

Image courtesy of Nature News, created from Lukin, V. & Bulat, S. Geophys. Monogr. Ser. 192, 187–197 (2011).

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment

Theoretical Metamaterial Could Protect Buildings From Earthquakes By Dissipating Energy

By Valerie Ross | February 14, 2012 8:45 am

Metamaterials—materials engineered to have optical, thermal, or other specific properties naturally occurring substances don’t—can block, bend, and otherwise manipulate all sorts of waves: they can, at least in theory, twist light to render objects invisible, contort ultrasound waves to hide things from sonar, and disguise the telltale wake of a submarine. Now, in an arXiv paper, Australian and Korean researchers have suggested another wave-altering use for metamaterials: protecting buildings from earthquakes’ powerful seismic waves.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Physics & Math

The Mystery of the Exploding Manure Pits

By Sarah Zhang | February 14, 2012 8:26 am

The only thing worse than a huge stinking pit of manure may be a huge stinking and foaming pit of manure that blows up the barn. Over the past few years, explosions have destroyed several Midwestern pig farms, killing thousands of hogs and causing millions of dollars of damage. Pig farmers and scientists have been at a loss to explain these explosions. Could the culprit be a small microbe?

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World
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