Heads Up Jan 4: Robot tails, delicate sabre teeth and nanocircuits PDF Print E-mail

New insight from Antarctic thermal vents

PLoS Biology

Expeditions to little-explored hydrothermal vents on the seafloor near Antarctica have revealed whole communities of new species living near them - the first time these high-latitude vents have been explored in detail. In addition, some species common to hydrothermal vents in other parts of the world, such as tube worms, aren’t found at these vents. This suggests that the southern ocean may represent a barrier for some vent species, possibly explaining why hydrothermal vents in different oceans have different species assemblages. 


An  extra-terrestrial quasi-crystal


Scientists say they have found a 4.5 billion-year-old meteorite in Russia whose rocks are arranged in a quasicrystalline form - a special kind of pattern  that is regular but not repeating, and previously thought possible only in synthetic substances. Scientists say the rock’s composition could only have come from very high pressure like a meteorite impact, and if confirmed, would mean that quasicrystals not only occur naturally in astronomical conditions, but can be stable over very long periods of time.


Old violins, new tricks


Twenty-one musicians who participated in a double blind experiment and were asked to play a violin for whose origin was unknown to them, rated the sound produced by newer quality violins as good or better than old violins by Stradivarius and Guarneri. The experiment was done with experienced violinists at the Eighth International Violin Competition in Indianapolis.


BMI still best


When treating children and adolescents with eating disorders, how should doctors decide on the ‘expected’ body weight - the healthy weight they should be at for their height? A group of researchers studied three methods (Body Mass Index, the Moore method and McLaren method,) and concluded that of those three, the BMI scale is the preferred indicator.  


Bigger limbs prevent sabre rattling


A paper finds that ancient species that had sabre teeth also had thicker forelimbs than similar species without sabre teeth. They think this may be because sabre teeth, however fearsome-looking, are actually more easily broken than shorter, thicker canines. Sabretoothed predators would have relied more on upper-forelimb strength than their non-sabre toothed cousins to overpower and bring down prey. 


Tails could help robots keep it stable


Robots that move through tricky environments, such as those on search and rescue  missions, could be more stable if they had tails. Inspired by leaping Agama lizards that use tails to balance in the air, researchers constructed “Tailbot”, a robot with a range of removable tails, and studied how the tail affected stability as the robot flew off a ramp. Comparing observations of Tailbot with those of live lizards,  they concluded  that tails help as a dynamic stabilizer  during irregular  motions ( such as a leap).  Video and images are available.


Monkey virus could fight Hep C

Science Translational Medicine

Researchers have found that a group of viruses present in monkeys could be used in a vaccine against hepatitis C in humans. There’s no currently available Hep C vaccine. Audio and visuals are available, and an associated comment by Canadian Michael Houghton can be found here. 


Herpes still spreads with antivirals

The Lancet

Even with high doses of currently available antiviral drugs, those with herpes simplex virus Type 2 still shed the virus at transmissible levels from their skin  during symptom-free episodes. Evidence suggests that new therapies are needed not only to combat outbreaks but  also to prevent transmission of the HS2 virus to partners of infected people who may believe they are sufficiently protected  by these drugs. 


Neural stem cells in the eye of the beholder

Cell Stem Cell

A layer of cells found behind the retina of the eye can be reprogrammed to become adult neural stem cells, researchers have found. Patients undergoing stem cell therapy in the central nervous system may therefore have a potential source of stem cells right in their own eyes. 


Man’s best friend for a reason

Current Biology

Dogs are more likely to listen to a person who expresses an intent to communicate, either through eye contact or a verbal address, than to those who don’t. Authors  of a new study suggest that this level of social understanding is akin to the behavior of a 6-month to 2-year old child, and may be one of the reasons why humans feel a close kinship with canines. 


Evolution’s not just in the genes


Octopuses live in a range of water temperatures worldwide - and some of the cellular adaptations that allow them to survive in cold water don’t appear to be controlled by their DNA, but rather stem from edits to their RNA, according to a new study. This shows that RNA editing can be a response to evolutionary pressure that keeps the genes the same but allows the species a diversity of responses to the environment.


Nano-circuits keeping current


A big problem for nano-scale circuits is that as materials shrink, quantum effects are expected to interfere with their ability to effectively conduct a charge, making them a challenge to engineer. A new nano-scale circuit has been designed using nano-wires coated with single phosphorous atoms, carrying a current  just as effectively as ones  made with copper wires.  


Ants try on their old genes


Ants of the genus Pheidole posess genes that produce a special kind of ‘supersoldier’ caste - ants whose heads grow so enormous, the colony uses them to guard tunnel entrances and protect against intruders. But ant populations rarely produce supersoldiers in nature. Researchers - including several Canadians - prompted the supersoldier genes to activate and the trait to appear by applying hormones to juveniles, showing how species can maintain the genes for traits they no longer exhibit, perhaps to help them quickly evolve if needed.




A series of three papers is published in The Lancet this week on drug addiction worldwide. One paper, coauthored by Canadian researchers, says that few drug policies are evidence-based but that new interventions show promise in harm reduction.