Nature Middle East | House of Wisdom

NME’s weekly science dose (Sep 27 – Oct 3)

Lebanon steals the limelight this week on our science roundup, and with good reason too. Archaeologists excavating a site in the city of Tyre in southern Lebanon looking for an archaeological mound got more than they bargained for when they hit an ancient Phonetician temple built somewhere between the 6th and 6th centuries BCE. The temple, however, had already been excavated and then well-hidden. Some four decades ago, Emir Maurice Chehab , Lebanon’s director of antiques, made the discovery but hid the temple when civil war erupted in the country to protect it.

For some reason, however, no one has ever found any documentation of the temple on his writings, even though Chehab was a prolific writer. All the artefacts inside had been removed and not found since then. The excavators are studying the well-conserved temple now for any clues to the exact time it was built, but without any trace of the artefacts that were hidden it is proving to be tricky.

On a different note, agricultural researchers from the American University in Lebanon are urging farmers to abandon their old habits of heavy ploughing of the soil and switch over to conservation agriculture by adopting a technique “no-tilling farming”.

They found that it yields the same – and sometimes better – results than ploughing the earth, and saves the extra costs associated with it. The only drawback is that conventional seeders do not work with unploughed soil. The farmers need to switch to zero till (ZT) seeders, which are specially designed machines that are able to deliver the seeds and fertilizers deep into the soil with minimum disturbance. These machines are rather expensive, however, and while Syria and Iraq have been able to convert their old seeders into ZT seeders at a fraction of the cost, these have performed poorly in Lebanon’s soil which is rich in clay.

Finally, we have two pieces highlighting interesting research on cancer this week. Researchers from Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar have found that breast cancer is on the rise among Arab women, and they are getting it on average 10 years earlier than women in the West. The researchers found that a more aggressive form of breast cancer was more widespread in the region compared to other areas in the world.

In the other paper we highlight, scientists from KAUST in Saudi Arabia and from France came up with a new computer model that can detect variations in histones, which are proteins that DNA wraps around, that can cause cancers. The new model can accurately identify these modifications which can silent the production of proteins that suppress tumour formation. This can help designing anticancer drugs that can undo these changes, protecting from one of the epigenetic sources of cancer.

Beyond the hood

Volcanoes have played an important part in the history of Mars, with around 70% of the Red Planet’s crust formed from their activity. But a series of craters that were assumed to be the result of meteorites crashing into the planet may actually be long extinct supervolcanoes that were so huge they could have buried the whole planet in ashes. The craters are found in the Arabia Terra region of northern Mars — an area with many deposits of layered rocks of unknown origins that has not previously been considered a volcanic terrain.

If the researchers are right, these supervolcanoes would have been active during the first billion years of Mars’ life only. They would have played a pivotal role however in the formation of environments in Mars – maybe even ones that could support life.

Finally, how many times have you found yourself wet and drenched, caught in an expected storm and a downpour? Apparently, insects never have that problem. They can detect changes in air pressure before a storm hits, and can change their mating behaviour accordingly. Researchers put pairs of cucurbit beetles in a pressure chamber and dropped air pressure, which mimics what happens before rain. If the beetles were already close to each other, they quickly mated, ignoring normal courtship rituals, as if trying to mate quickly before rainfall. When they were further apart, the male beetle did not follow the phermones of the female, possibly since it would be too dangerous to search for a mate when a storm is just around the corner – quite a handy trick too!

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