Of Schemes and Memes Blog

Best of nature.com blogs, SciLogs.com and Scitable: 27 – 9 August

Why rabbits have white tails

Many rabbits have tails with white undersides that flash prominently when they run. HARVEYHENKELMANN; WIKIPEDIA

Rabbits are one of the many animals that have the apparently contradictory features of carefully camouflaged coats and hugely conspicuous rump patches. In the News BlogDaniel Cressey links out to research  that may explain why this is:

Dirk Semmann, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Göttingen in Germany, thinks he has the answer to this puzzle — and the evidence to back it up. Other theories hold that rump patches are warning to other animals, are sexually selected, or serve to show a predator that they have been spotted.

Hear more about Semmann’s research in Daniel’s post.

Artificial Skin — for Robots

Photograph credit: US National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety

As robots become integrated with human activities, it will be useful if robots seem more like us. Of course, that will require them to have skin that responds to physical forces such as movement, especially speech movements and emotions. Lowell Goldsmith continues this discussion in his SciLogs blog:

While cutaneous biologists concentrate on  reproducing human skin with elegant biological systems (including 3-D printing), in the parallel universe of robotic research, artificial polymers have been used to recreate many of the physical properties of human skin. Respirator masks are being tested and refined on robotic heads covered with “Frubber“™ — an artificial patented rubber polymer with physical characteristics of human skin important for the respirator fitting.

Continue to the post as it links out to a video showing a robot with  Frubber™ skin talking.

When science becomes personal

This week’s Soapbox Science guest post features a poignant story by PhD student Stephani Page. She looks at the role of personal life in advocacy:

 I am a PhD candidate in the Department of Biochemistry & Biophysics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  One of the labs in my department actually assisted in the development of a chemotherapy drug prescribed for my father’s pancreatic cancer.  For many years I had struggled to explain to my family (made up of homemakers, lawyers, career military, teachers, nurses, etc.) what I do as a scientist and why what scientists do is important.  Suddenly, my family needed no further explanation.

Share your experiences in the comment thread.

Obama nominates astrophysicist to lead NSF


Astrophysicist France Anne Córdova has been tapped to head the US National Science Foundation (NSF), which has been run by an acting director since March 2013. Helen Shen reveals more on this in the News Blog:

If confirmed, Córdova would fill the gap left by Subra Suresh, who announced his resignation in February, after serving less than half of his six-year term leading the US$7 billion agency.

Córdova, who earned her doctorate from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, served as president of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, from 2007 to 2012. In 2010, she oversaw the creation of the Colombia-Purdue Institute for Scientific Research, which aims to foster scientific collaboration between the Colombia and the United States.

Learn more about France Anne Córdova in Helen’s post.


Compound kills drug-resistant tuberculosis through novel mechanism

Liz Devitt explains in the Spoonful of Medicine blog, how a new experimental compound could help kill drug-resistant tuberculosis:

In a paper published online today in Nature Medicine, researchers describe a small molecule called Q203 that thwarts drug resistant tuberculosis infections in mice by targeting the mycobacterial cytochrome bc1 complex—a mechanism distinct from that of existing agents.

“Q203 works in ways [other] drugs do not,” says Kevin Pethe, project head of the antitubercular program at the Institute Pasteur Korea in Gyeonggi-do, who led the study, “and it can work against the resistant bacteria.”

Find out more about this compound in Liz’s post. 

Researchers put synthetic meat to the palate test

Richard Johnston details in the News Blog, that the world’s first laboratory beef burger was cooked and eaten during a live press conference in London this week:

Hanni Rützler, a food scientist, and Josh Schonwald, a writer, were the first to sample the cultured beef burger, but were not blown away by its taste, either positively or negatively. The texture was “crunchy and hot”, but didn’t have an intense meat flavour, and “it is a bit like cake”, Rützler said.

The chief creator of the artificial patties, Mark Post of Maastricht University in the Netherlands, was on hand as well, and said he feels so comfortable about the safety of the artificial food that he would feed it to his children. In fact, he said he planned to bring the leftovers from the event back home and have his kids taste them.

For now, the burgers are 100% lean, but Post said that his team is working on developing artificial fat tissue as well.

What does the future hold for sustainable synthetic beef? Find out more in Richard’s commentary.

What can India learn from Bose, Raman & Saha?

Subhra Priyadarshini introduces Indigenus Blog readers to some of India’s scientific greats:

 Meghnad Saha

Meghnad Saha

First up, things that you might or might not have heard about these greats — Raman was a supreme egotist, Saha loved mathematics as much as he dug history, Bose tore off a scientific paper of significance and threw it in the bin when he heard of  Einstein’s death. And similar anecdotes, which lend the film a human touch.

‘The Quantum Indians’ traces the scientific legacy of India through the lives of these scientists, all of whom “fought colonialism, British rule, racism, inadequate funding and limited resources to place India at the cutting edge of world science more than 20 years before Independence.” And it does so by going back in time to see what life was like for Bose, Raman and Saha — all starting their careers at the Calcutta University in 1917 and going on to become Fellows of the Royal Society. Raman also won India her sole science Nobel till date.

Learn more about these greats in Subhra’s post. 

Experiments reveal that crabs and lobsters feel pain

Every year thousands of them are boiled or torn apart while they are still alive, and now there is strong evidence to suggest that crustaceans experience pain. Daniel Cressey expands in the News Blog:

Lobsters and other crustaceans may feel pain. MATTHEW ROY; WIKIPEDIA

That was the stark message delivered by Robert Elwood, an animal behaviour researcher at Queen’s University Belfast, to the Behaviour 2013 meeting in Newcastle, UK, today.

Crustaceans — crabs, prawns, lobsters and other creatures — are generally not protected by animal-welfare laws, despite huge numbers of them being caught or farmed for human consumption. The exclusion has been based on the belief that these animals cannot experience pain — generally regarded as an ‘unpleasant feeling’ — and instead only have nociception, a reflex response to move away from a noxious stimulus.

Whether wider society is ready to consider crabs as things that can feel pain and should be protected is not clear. Share your opinion in the comment thread. 

What Happens to Matter Inside a Black Hole?

Scitable blogger, Arvind Raju explains why black holes have become so essential to the study of theoretical physics:

Well, one of the most fascinating and unsolved mysteries of the universe is what happens inside a black hole. It was a question that stumped scientists for decades after they initially hypothesized the existence of black holes, especially since there was really no way to study them. 

Intravenous vaccine for malaria offers robust protection in small clinical trial

Liz Devitt reports in the News Blog, in a study published online this week in Science, researchers report on a new vaccine that provided remarkable protection against Plasmodium falciparum, considered the deadliest of the four malaria strains:

Image by dr_relling via Flikr.com

With this intravenous vaccine, we are striving to reach the World Health Organization goal of a [malaria] vaccine with 80 percent efficacy by 2025,” Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), in Bethesda, Maryland, told Nature Medicine. The clinical study was led by Robert Seder, an immunologist at the NIAID Vaccine Research Center, and involved a vaccine developed by Stephen Hoffman and his colleagues atSanaria, a biotechnology company based in Rockville, Maryland.

Scientists have spent decades trying to block Plasmodium infections at different stages of the parasite’s life cycle—from the sporozoite that migrates out of the mosquito salivary gland and into host liver cells, to the merozoites that invade red blood cells before further developing into reproducing gametocytes.

Further details can be found in Liz’ post.

Mapping the brain

The Head of Multimedia at Nature, Charlotte Stoddart, showcases two amazing videos on how complex the brain is in a guest post on Of Schemes and Memes:

Two years ago, researchers at Harvard Medical School and the Max Planck Institute for Medical Researchmapped tiny pieces of mouse brain including just 20-30 cells – and I made a video about it.

Watch the other video in Charlotte’s post.

Hardiest Critter on Earth

Finally, SciLogs blogger Paige Brown introduces us to the Tardigrade in her latest post:

Tardigrade, by Proyecto Agua, Flickr.com.


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