Science & Technology


Ants are able to 'self-medicate' by changing diet when they are unwell

© The Independent, UK
Findings of study raise questions over how ants 'know' they are sick.
It appears that ants, usually seen as the ultimate self-sacrificing workers, are also not bad at saving their own skins.

Scientists have shown that ants with a life-threatening fungus are able to "self-medicate", eating a normally harmful substance that treats the condition.

This form of "self-medication" in insects has been suspected in research circles but has never been proven until now, raising questions about how the ant "knows" it is sick.

Researchers at the University of Helsinki in Finland showed that ants infected with the fungus Beauveria bassiana would choose to eat small doses of hydrogen peroxide, which had been proven to reduce their deaths by at least 15 per cent.

The fact that most healthy ants gave the poison a wide berth - since it usually caused a 20 per cent mortality rate - appeared to show that sick ants knew the poison would help them recover.

Depending on how strong the toxic solution was, the infected ants would also either choose to eat the poison as often as normal food, or only a quarter of the time, showing they were "careful" about their selecting their doses.

Nick Bos, one of the researchers, said ants close to death in the wild also seem to know because they often leave the nest to die in isolation.


Urban river beds store pharmaceuticals that endanger aquatic organisms

Pharmaceuticals pose a danger to aquatic organisms in urban-area riverbeds, according to two UF/IFAS scientists. The scientists say the chemicals in the riverbed in Hillsborough County are representative of chemicals in riverbeds in urban areas globally.
River beds in urban areas worldwide store pharmaceuticals, and University of Florida scientists warn they can pose a potential environmental danger to aquatic organisms.

UF/IFAS Post-Doctoral Researcher Yun-Ya Yang conducted a study along rural and urban areas of the Alafia River, which runs through parts of Hillsborough County and empties into the Gulf of Mexico. In her study, Yang collected sediment samples at several sites along the river and found 17 pharmaceuticals.

Yang found a lower amount of pharmaceuticals than in previous similar studies because river beds in Florida do not contain enough silt and clay, but they can still present an environmental concern.

Comment: The exposure to these drugs not only poses a potential risk to the health of wildlife but may be changing behaviour and physiology. Pharmaceuticals are designed to alter physiology at low doses and can be particularly potent contaminants. It is also now emerging that pharmaceuticals and their bio-transformation products are present in a range of habitats, some can bio-accumulate and may have significant, but largely unstudied, consequences for individuals, populations and ecosystems.


Scientists create completely new type of glass by accident

© Wokandapix
University of Chicago scientists accidentally created an entirely new type of glass - one with unusual peaks that indicate a molecular order in a material previously thought to be entirely amorphous and random.

"This is a big surprise," said Juan de Pablo, a molecular engineering professor at the University of Chicago. "Randomness is almost the defining feature of glasses. At least we used to think so."

"What we have done is to demonstrate that one can create glasses where there is some well-defined organization. And now that we understand the origin of such effects, we can try to control that organization by manipulating the way we prepare these glasses."


Unexpected Trojan horse strategy found in pathogenic bacteria

© Peter Allen
Bacteria switch between antibiotic susceptible-to-resistant states during infection using a Trojan horse strategy.
Bacteria are pretty wily creatures. Take for example, an organism such as Salmonella, which which are killed by antibiotics in lab tests, but can become highly resistant in the body.

It is an example of what UC Santa Barbara biologist Michael Mahan refers to as the Trojan horse strategy. Identified through new research conducted by Mahan and his colleagues, the Trojan horse strategy may explain why antibiotics are ineffective in some patients despite lab tests that predict otherwise. The research findings appear in the journal EBioMedicine.

"We are not petri plates, and we need to revisit the way antibiotics are developed, tested and prescribed," said Mahan, a professor in UCSB's Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology. Current methods for testing resistance to antibiotics do not reflect the actual and varying environments in the body, where bacteria fight to survive. Mahan noted that this difference can render antibiotic susceptibility testing inaccurate.


Human orphan genes: A challenge to evolutionary theory?

What makes us human? Some would say it's our genes. I don't want to argue the case that we are more than our genes, which we are. I simply want to point out that interesting new research indicates we have a number of new genes - genes that are specifically human - in our genome.

These new genes are few in number, some would say, but there is a current bias in genome annotation against classifying sequences as novel genes. Estimates range from 3 to 60 to 300 human-specific protein-coding genes. In fact, one genetic analysis came up with 1177 human-specific genes, and then proceeded to systematically eliminate them all as non-coding for a variety of reasons, reasons that may or may not be valid. Why does this matter? 1177 genes is nearly 6% of our genome. 300 is about 1.5%. Those numbers are not something to trifle with, given that our reported base pair difference with chimps is about 1.3%.

Comment: So if humans - and all other species - possess totally unique genes, with no similar genes in any other species or evolutionary history, where do they come from? How does evolution 'find' these needles in the cosmic haystack? Clearly there is more to the molecular biology picture than mainstream science has assumed until now. Perhaps we live in a 'purpose-driven' universe?


Fukushima contaminants in sediment uncovered by typhoons, carried offshore by currents

© Makio Honda, Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology
Researchers deployed time-series sediment traps 115 kilometers (approximately 70 miles) southeast of the nuclear power plant at depths of 500 meters (1,640 feet) and 1,000 meters (3,280 feet). The two traps began collecting samples on July 19, 2011 -- 130 days after the March 11th earthquake and tsunami -- and were recovered and reset annually.
An international research team reports results of a three-year study of sediment samples collected offshore from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in a new paper published August 18, 2015, in the American Chemical Society's journal, Environmental Science and Technology.

The research aids in understanding what happens to Fukushima contaminants after they are buried on the seafloor off coastal Japan.

Led by Ken Buesseler, a senior scientist and marine chemist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), the team found that a small fraction of contaminated seafloor sediments off Fukushima are moved offshore by typhoons that resuspend radioactive particles in the water, which then travel laterally with southeasterly currents into the Pacific Ocean.

Comment: The authors seem to downplay the risks associate with these buried contaminates while ignoring the ongoing serious environmental and health consequences from this disaster.

Cloud Lightning

Astronaut captures rare sprites while taking photos of Earth from orbit

An astronaut flying over Central America earlier this month captured a beautiful photo of the nighttime sky above Earth illuminated by enormous red bursts of electromagnetic discharge known as a sprite.

The image, captured on August 10 from the International Space Station, shows the moon and a massive thunderstorm, and above the storm cloud is the red sprite, which is similar to lighting.


Bacteria's extraction of phosphate is its secret weapon against pesticides and antibiotics

© Ditlev E. Brodersen, Aarhus University
Figure A. Methyl phosphate. B. Methyl phosphonate. Phosphonate compounds are characterised by a direct link between carbon (C) and phosphorus (P), marked with red. C. The molecular structure of the C-P lyase complex.
Bacteria exhibit extreme adaptability, which makes them capable of surviving in the most inhospitable conditions. New research results produced by Danish and British researchers now reveal the molecular details behind one of the secret weapons used by bacteria in their battle to survive under very nutrient-poor and even toxic conditions.

All living things need phosphate to grow, which is why several hundred million tons of phosphate fertilisers are used every year in agriculture throughout the world. The nutrient content is so low in many parts of the world's oceans that all growth comes to a halt, and bacteria have therefore developed advanced mechanisms to extract phosphate from other substances. These are known as phosphonate compounds, which are produced by many primitive organisms and account for the largest known stock of phosphorus in the marine environment (see figure). Many of these compounds are formed as toxins (antibiotics) as part of the ongoing battle for survival among marine organisms. Several million kilograms of glyphosate (Roundup®) are used as pesticide in agriculture every year, and the accumulation of residues of this phosphonate compound in groundwater has led to growing concern in recent years.

Comment: Studies have shown, that despite manufacturer's claims, Roundup does not break down rapidly in the environment, and is accumulating there in concerning quantities. A recent comprehensive research study on environmental glyphosate levels exposed widespread contamination of soil and water in the US, as well as its water treatment system.

Comment: See also: Roundup herbicide causes antibiotic resistance in bacteria


Why are screams so spine-tingling? Scans reveal they activate the same 'fear circuits' in the brain as smoke alarms

A baby's scream will grab our attention no matter what's on the television or happening around us.

And now scientists have learnt why screams are so arresting - and it's not just because they are loud and high-pitched.

Screams activate 'fear circuits' in our brain because they have a subjective quality called 'roughness' where they quickly switch, or 'modulate', from loud to soft.
© Corbis
Using an MRI scanner, researchers analysed the brains of people listening to recorded screams (Janet Leigh is shown screaming in a grab from the 1960 film Psycho). The scans revealed that the sound activates the amygdala region of the brain, which is typically associated with our fear response
This is what helps give them their jagged, jarring quality that set our nerves on edge.

The same quality of 'roughness' is also found in burglar and car alarms - suggesting engineers may have hit on the feature through trial and error.

Comment: See also: Animal Screams Manipulate Movie Audiences

Comet 2

Meteorite impacts in ancient oceans may have formed DNA building blocks

© Dr. Yoshihiro Furukawa
These are chematics of nucleobases formation by meteorite impact on earth.
A new study shown that meteorite impacts on ancient oceans may have created nucleobases and amino acids. Researchers from Tohoku University, National Institute for Materials Science and Hiroshima University discovered this after conducting impact experiments simulating a meteorite hitting an ancient ocean.

With precise analysis of the products recovered after impacts, the team found the formation of nucleobases and amino acids from inorganic compounds. The research is reported this week in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

Comment: With the increased frequency of meteors entering our atmosphere in recent years, one might wonder what they might be bringing with them, and the effects on earth of their overhead airbursts and impacts.