Scitech Briefs

Ant colonies model the response of the nervous system

This week, researchers from the University of Bristol, England published a study in the journal PLOS ONE that examined migrating ant colonies’ collective responses to perceived threats. Researchers simulated predator attacks by plucking certain ants from their environments. When researchers plucked “scout” ants from the colony’s periphery, the perceived threat caused the rest of the ants to pull back into the nest for safety. When worker ants were plucked from the nest itself, the colony fled and sought shelter elsewhere as a unit.

The authors believe their research suggests a parallel between the ants’ environmental sensitivity and the nervous system of single organisms. They suggest that the nervous system responds to cell damage via pain just as ant colonies respond to colonial damage, through group awareness. This new research could provide a new way of thinking about nervous system damage and repair.

Source: ScienceDaily

Eyedrops with potential to treat cataracts created

Cataracts, a clouding of the clear lens within an eye, are the leading cause of blindness all over the world, affecting nearly 20 million people worldwide. A team of researchers from the University of California San Francisco, the University of Michigan, and Washington University in St. Louis have identified a compound which is soluble enough to constitute the basis of eye-drop medication for cataracts. Cataracts are usually removed with surgery, so an eye-drop form would be revolutionary for treatment the world over. The proposed eye-drops will function by preventing maintenance proteins within the eye, crystallins, from clumping to form cataracts. Crystallins are an essential component of the eye’s lens, tasked with maintaining the transparency and flexibility of the lens’s fiber cells, the components of our eyes’ lenses. The research could also provide insight into the study of nervous system diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s diseases, which involve similar protein aggregates.

Source: ScienceDaily

Uncovered Maya village Ceren yields social histories

In 1978, an El Salvadorian Maya village known as Ceren was discovered, preserved in amazingly precise condition by the ash cloud of a volcanic eruption that occurred approximately 1400 years prior.

Continuing studies of Ceren have allowed archaeologists to hypothesize about the social relationships between citizens. The shadows of villagers, left behind in garden footprints and finger swipes on pottery, as well as evidence of thatching, weaving, and agricultural skills, have led to a colorful posthumous image of this civilization. Ceren appears to have been a free-range society, offering “virtually no influence and certainly no control by the [Maya] elites.” It appears the only contact the individuals would have had with the Maya elite was in public marketplace transactions in El Salvador’s Zapotitan Valley, and even this contact appears to have been minimal and non-essential for most people.

Source: National Science Foundation

Scientists discover multitude of uses for decaying wood

Dead wood is not dead weight. A living tree is one organism within a forest, but a dead tree is an ecosystem all its own, says Mark Harmon, a biologist at Oregon State University. While a living tree sustains only itself, a dead tree becomes a host for insects, fungi, bacteria, and many other living things. Harmon is one of several researchers who is helping with a 200-year-long study on the decomposition of trees. Their research shows that since logs take a long time to decompose, they create a stable living space for other organisms. The organisms aid in the tree’s decomposition process in many ways: beetles track fungal spores into the log’s interior, and the fungi grow and use the tough bits of the wood as sustenance. Decomposition depends not only on the kind of tree itself, but all of the other organisms which take up residents within it. This research will allow forestry units to better understand the work they do within forest ecosystems.

Source: National Science Foundation

New research suggests babies are judgmental

Research supported by the National Science Foundation’s Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Directorate has shown that babies are judgmental.

Babies have many different sociological preferences. They have been observed to prefer people who look like them and who speak the same language. Babies tend to be drawn to social people, disliking those who are antisocial. There is also some evidence that babies can prefer people who mistreat others, so long as the mistreated individuals do not share the child’s food preferences. This suggests that babies behave with the mentality of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

This research shows that infants develop certain social biases early on, associating themselves with those with similar qualities and distancing themselves from those who are different. This research provides further insight into the way babies develop social skills.

Source: National Science Foundation

Gene editing used in treatment of leukemia

Doctors’ toolkits are expanding into the molecular realm as gene splicing becomes practical treatment. Doctors from the Great Ormond Street Hospital in London recently announced their use of modified immune cells in treatment of a one year-old girl’s leukemia.

Using molecular surgery tools known as TALENs and CRISPRs, doctors are effectively editing patients’ DNA. CRISPRs are RNA molecules which guide Cas9 enzymes to a certain spot on the DNA. The Cas9 then snips the DNA in that specific place. TALENs are enzymes which cut the DNA strands themselves.

In the case of Layla, the one year-old child treated with this technology, researchers used TALENs to engineer immune cells known as T cells, which were able to distinguish between her own body’s cells and invaders. Since then she has had a bone-marrow transplant and is currently cancer free.