Archive for August 2009

Comments Off Posted on Friday 28 August 2009 at 5:48 pm by Sam Wong
In About Just A Theory

Hello Just A Theory readers.

It’s been a while since I posted here, so sorry about that. Clearly when Jacob decided to stop posting every day, it wasn’t the ideal time for me to drop off the radar completely. Happily though, I was blogging elsewhere, and if you ever look at the Guardian’s science site, you might have seen some of my work there. I had a great time on my three week placement, and got plenty of stuff published on the web. In case you haven’t seen any of it, the highlights included:

I also managed to get on the podcast: you can hear me asking museum-goers about venereal disease and talking to Prof Will Stewart about autonomous vehicles. I hope to write some new stuff for you here soon, but like the other JAT bloggers, my dissertation deadline looms so I’m not making any promises.

Enjoy the bank holiday weekend. Mine will be spent at my desk.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 28 August 2009 at 3:48 pm by Emma Stokes
In Biology, Health & Medicine

Another week and another bunch of research headlines from Understanding Animal Research:

How do you mend a broken heart?

A team of scientists have developed a patch which could help the heart to heal after damage. Heart attacks often cause irreversible damage to the heart muscle, leaving survivors more prone to further attacks or heart failure.

In a recent study, scientists took immature heart cells from newborn rats, and placed them onto a biodegradable ‘scaffold’. They then exposed the patch to chemicals which encouraged the cells to grow, before transplanting it into the abdomens of rats.

To read more about this story please click here.

Monkeys with two mums may eradicate mitochondrial disorders

Scientists have produced four infant monkeys using a technique which could stop women with genetic diseases passing them on to their children. Faulty DNA contained within cell structures called mitochondria was replaced by healthy mitcochondrial DNA (mDNA) from a donor egg, so genetic faults were not passed from mother to baby.

To read more about this story please click here.

Low-carb diets could be more damaging than you’d think

A team studying the effect of diet on the cardiovascular system in mice have shown that a diet low in carbohydrates could lead to artery damage.

Three groups of mice each received a different diet: a standard mouse type, a western diet (high in fat) and a low-carb, high-protein version. After 12 weeks, one sixth more of the mice eating the low-carb diet had developed atherosclerosis compared with the standard diet.

To read more about this story please click here.

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 26 August 2009 at 4:12 pm by Seth Bell
In Inventions & Technology

I’ve been away for a while, poncing around in Switzerland. In between burning my back to a crisp and getting stung in a very painful place by a wasp (lets just say it couldn’t happen to a woman), I’ve actually been doing a bit of journalism for a online magaine called international Science Grid This Week, based at CERN.

If you’ve never heard of it, grid computing is a cool way for computers to share processing power remotely (in the same way that the World Wide Web allows people to share information remotely).

Anyway, heres the first few paragraphs of an article I’ve written about a project called The Lost Sounds Orchestra. In a nutshell its about a real-life orchestra which consists of dead musical instruments, the sounds of which have been recreated using complex computer modelling. Its pretty cool stuff.

Last September, iSGTW reported upon the return of the “epigonion,” an ancient Greek wooden stringed instrument resembling a harp. Ancient instruments can be lost because they are too difficult to build, or too difficult to play, but the epigonion was heard again after ASTRA (Ancient instruments Sound/Timbre Reconstruction Application) recreated its sound using grid-enabled computer modeling.

More ancient instruments are to be heard soon, after the organization’s official Lost Sounds Orchestra finishes its preparations for a unique performance towards the end of this summer.

It should include a whole host of other lost instruments, including the barbiton (an ancient base guitar), the syrinx (a pan flute), an ancient lower Mediterranean frame drum, the salpinx (a kind of ancient trumpet) and the aulos (an ancient oboe).

 You can read the rest here if thats sparked your interest.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 25 August 2009 at 5:28 pm by Jacob Aron
In Happenings

Last Saturday I got up nice and early and headed down to the Royal Institution for Science Online London 2009. Long time readers may remember I attended Science Blogging London 2008; this year the focus had been expanded from blogs to include the wide range of science communication taking place online.

I was slightly miffed to find out the “breakfast” promised by the programme was little more than coffee and biscuits, but was soon chatting to various science bloggers, including Just A Theory’s Sam and Colin. After a while we headed up to the RI’s famous Faraday Theatre for the first of the day’s sessions.

This was supposed to be a talk on the benefits of blogging, but due to technical difficulties it was switched with a discussion of the legal and ethical issues surrounding blogging. A slightly dry topic to cover so early in the morning, but speakers Petra Boynton and David Allen Green (aka Jack of Kent) were fairly informative. Although they did make me slightly concerned about being sued for libel…

As a lawyer, David was concerned people might rely on what he said for legal advice, and insisted we did not liveblog or tweet his advice. Of course, this lead to lots people tweeting along the lines of “in a session, but can’t talk about it!” As befits an conference on online matters, Twitter was out in full force throughout the day. Apple seem to do well amongst the science community, as the Faraday Theatre was lit up with the glow of Macbook icons and iPhones, for the most part. That did get a bit annoying later in the day when someone forgot to switch off their ringtone

The technology was kicked up another notch at the start of the next session, when we were joined by a gaggle of Second Lifers. If you’ve never heard of Second Life, it’s a sort of online virtual reality. Video from all of the sessions (besides the first, for the aforementioned legal reasons) was streamed to those who couldn’t actually attend in person.

This included one of the speakers, Dave Munger, who had to pull out at the last minute. Mark Henderson of The Times stepped in to replace him, but Dave was still able to join in through Second Life. Listening to his voice boom through the speakers was a bit strange, but allowed him to talk about his site Research Blogging, which we make use of here on Just A Theory. Other interesting nuggets came from Mark, who revealed the quality of comments on his blog posts was much higher than normal news stories, and Daniel MacArthur of Genetic Future who discussed the difficulties of managing your online and offline identities.

As tends to happen, my note taking became increasingly sloppy as the day went by, so I will refer you to the extensive online coverage for detailed analysis of the other sessions. These included the role of scientific institutions online, community management, citizen science, and more.

We were also treated to a live demo of Google Wave, the latest tool for collaboration from the web giant. Like many of the audience I didn’t quite “get it”, but some people were very excited about the possibilities for writing future science papers online. Anyone care to explain to me what it’s all about?

The day was naturally rounded off with a trip to the pub round the corner, where drink flowed and conversation continued. I finished the evening with a good natured but heated debate with Tim about the relevance of Second Life, and whether we’d all eventually be living in a virtual reality or an augmented one. We’ll have to wait and see what the future holds. I can’t imagine much will have changed by the time Science Online London 2010 swings round, but I’m sure I’ll be heading along next year for more interesting conversations.

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 22 August 2009 at 7:05 pm by Emma Stokes
In Biology, Health & Medicine

This week’s updates from UAR headquarters:

New target for stopping colon cancer

A team of scientists studying mice have found a target that could lead to an effective way to kill colon cancer cells.

Past treatments for many types of cancer target the epidermal growth factor (EGFR). This belongs to a group of proteins that signal cells to reproduce; if the cells can no-longer reproduce, then the cancer cannot spread.

However, the drugs designed to target the receptor have shown very little effect against colon cancer,so the search is on for new targets. The new study identified the ERBB3 receptor (a close relation to EGFR) as a candidate.

To read the rest of this story please see the Understanding Animal Research site.

‘Magnetic’ stem cells target damaged blood vessels

Scientists have harnessed the power of magnetism to guide stem cells towards damaged tissue in rats. The team coated stem cells with iron nanoparticles.

This allowed them to be moved by an external magnet around the body, to the site of injury. It also allowed their path to be tracked using MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scanners.

They used endothelial progenitor stem cells, which circulate in the blood and are involved in the healing of blood vessels. They become endothelial cells, the cells that line the blood vessels.

To read the rest of this story please see the Understanding Animal Research site.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 21 August 2009 at 2:11 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Climate Change & Environment

I’m still surrounded by cardboard boxes and half-built Ikea furniture, with a dodgy wireless connection that isn’t mine, but fellow sci-commer Mia has offered to step in for today:

It has been a few weeks since the second of two research ships of ‘Project Kaisei’ set of from San Francisco bound for the huge “island” of rubbish in the Pacific Ocean. An accidental-island build by swirling currents pushing the waste together in an area supposedly twice State of Texas. Now, a separate research group have published the results of new study looking at just what happens to plastic waste as it floats in the sea.

It has been well documented that plastics pose one of the biggest direct threat to marine animals – when they eat or get caught up in them. Researchers from Nihon University now report that plastics are not as ‘indestructible’ as once thought. With a surprisingly speedy decomposition these versatile convenience materials are resulting in a double whammy of harm as they release toxic substances into the water.

“Plastics in daily use are generally assumed to be quite stable,” said study lead researcher Dr Katsuhiko Saido, “We found that plastic in the ocean actually decomposes as it is exposed to the rain and sun and other environmental conditions, giving rise to yet another source of global contamination that will continue into the future.”

Dr Saido and his team found that when plastic decomposes it releases potentially toxic bisphenol A (BPA) and PS oligomer (both not normally found naturally) into the water, causing additional pollution. They also discovered that three new compounds not found in nature formed. These are styrene monomer (a known carcinogen) and styrene dimer and trimer- both also suspected to be. Although plastics don’t usually break down in an animal’s body after being eaten, the substances released from decomposing plastic are absorbed and could cause harm. BPA and PS oligomer are of concern because they can disrupt the functioning of hormones in animals and can seriously affect reproductive systems.

The timeframe for this process can be surprisingly short, polystyrene begins to decompose within a year. Cancers, hormonal abnormalities and reproductive problems are just the tip of our knowledge about the long term adverse effects of plastic, and yet we still can’t get enough of the stuff.

Mia Kukathasan studied biology at King’s College, London, and has taught science in secondary schools. She has written bits for Null Hypothesis and in the book Defining Moments In Science and the occasional student publication. Mia also dresses up in gorilla suits in the name taking science to music festivals, as a co-organiser of Guerilla Science. Science aside, she has a show On ICradio based on Free Music.

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 19 August 2009 at 8:30 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Psychology

We’re normally warned about the dangers of exercising too little, but it seems that too much physical activity can also be a problem. A drug which causes withdrawal symptoms in heroin addicts can have the same effect in rats after excessive use of exercise wheels. Rats which exercised the most had the severest symptoms.

A study published in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience split rats in to an active and inactive group, and gave each group either one hour of food a day, or a round-the-clock feast. To examine their addiction to exercise, all rats were given naloxone, a medicine for heroin overdose that produces immediate withdrawal symptoms.

The active rats who ate for only one hour a day were the heaviest exercisers, and also the worst hit by withdrawal symptoms. Their behaviour mimicked a potentially fatal eating disorder called anorexia athletica, in which exercise undertaken to lose weight becomes as addictive as taking drugs. Inactive rats had little reaction to the drug, regardless of how much they ate.

It seems that exercising activates the same part of the brain as drugs. Working out releases endorphins and dopamine, giving a sense of reward. This research should not be used as an excuse for avoiding exercise though, warns lead author Robin Kanarek:

“As with food intake and other parts of life, moderation seems to be the key. Exercise, as long as it doesn’t interfere with other aspects of one’s life, is a good thing with respect to both physical and mental health.”

Instead, the researchers hope their work may lead to new treatments for addiction that incorporate moderate forms of exercise. Addicts could be weaned off drugs by replacing their missing sense of reward with exercise.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 18 August 2009 at 8:11 pm by Emma Stokes
In Chemistry, Inventions & Technology

Now we’ve all heard that DNA could be the future of computing, in fact Sam wrote an article for the Guardian about a recent development that showed it was possible to make DNA into components such as toothed gears and pipes.

However, it has to be said I have remained a little sceptical, I think it has something to do with the fact that, after reading the stories, I often come away with weird pictures in my head – like miniscule versions of existing machines made out of DNA.

However, last week a paper was published in Nature Nanotechnology which made more sense to me than the others. It convinced me that DNA could actually be useful in computing – to make microchips.

Shapes made using different orientations of multiple DNA origami trianglesThe paper describes how DNA can be made to “self assemble” into shapes, which are then mounted on silicon and can act as tiny fastening posts for nanoscale electrical components. Because the DNA shapes are so small, they can be placed very close together, opening up the possibility of being able to build much smaller computer components. In fact, the researchers say each component could be as little as six nanometers apart, eight times closer than is currently possible.

The technique involves taking a long strand of DNA in solution, and adding shorter ‘staple’ strands. Due to the complimentary base pair nature of DNA, the shorter strands fold the long strand of DNA into shape. The solution is then poured over a silicon substrate.

This silicon substrate requires lithographic pre-treatment to make etched ‘sticky sites’, otherwise the DNA shapes would stick randomly. However, the sites are negatively charged and would therefore repel the negatively charged DNA. The silicon is therefore washed with magnesium chloride, to allow positively charged magnesium ions to attach to the etched surface. The magnesium ions then attract the DNA shapes, which bind strongly and become mounted on the silicon.

There are still a few problems with this new technology though. Since the only shapes currently possible are triangles, or shapes composed of multiple triangles, any attached components will be able to point in any one of three directions – not ideal when the direction of the nanowires and other components need to be accurate. The researchers will also need to carry out extensive research into what the best conductor is for this application. Scientists put the timescale of the development of this technology at 10 years.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 17 August 2009 at 3:29 pm by Emma Stokes
In Biology, Health & Medicine

This weeks updates from UAR headquarters:

Buzz surrounds cancer treatment

A group of scientists has harnessed the power of bee venom and used it to kill tumour cells in mice. By arming small particles dubbed nanobees with the bee venom melittin, they successfully delivered the toxin directly to tumours.

To read the rest of this story please see the Understanding Animal Research site.

How infection can lead to psychiatric problems

Scientists using mice have discovered how early exposure to a common type of bacterium can lead to psychiatric disorders. PANDAS (Paediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal infection not the furry black and white kind!) causes problems such as obsessive-compulsive behaviour, ticks and Tourette syndrome.

In this study researchers showed how a specific strain of streptococcus bacteria – GABHS – can cause PANDAS symptoms in mice.

To read the rest of this story please see the Understanding Animal Research site.

Delaying motor neuron disease

By blocking the production of a faulty protein in mice, researchers have delayed the onset of motor neurone disease, improved mobility, and extended life-span. Motor neurone diseases affect the cells that control movement.

To read the rest of this story please see the Understanding Animal Research site.

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 15 August 2009 at 8:25 pm by Jacob Aron
In About Just A Theory

I’m moving house tomorrow, and so will be without internet access for a week or so. Whilst I’m hoping to grab the occasional cheeky connection, it’s going to be hard get online enough for regular updates. Don’t worry though; as soon as I’m hooked up I’ll be back to blogging as normal!

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 14 August 2009 at 1:40 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology

Picture a dog playing with a ball. The dog is alive, and the ball is inanimate. Obvious stuff, but how do we know? You might think our brains use visual cues to sort the living from the non-living, but research published in the journal Neuron this week proves it’s a little more complicated.

A team of scientists lead by Alfonso Caramazza of Harvard University found that even people who have been blind since birth use different areas of the brain when thinking about dogs or balls.

The part of the brain used to identify objects is known as the ventral stream. Previous research has shown that looking at inanimate objects like a spanner or a house activates a different part of the ventral stream to viewing animals or faces.

In an experiment with both sighted and blind individuals, participants were asked to listen to recordings of various words, including animals and tools. They then had to judge which category the word belonged to (living or non-living) and the relative sizes of the objects described.

“Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we found that the same regions of the ventral stream that show category preferences for non-living stimuli and animals in sighted adults, show the same category preferences in adults who are blind since birth,” explains Caramazza.

The researcher caution this does not necessarily mean sighted individuals don’t use visual information to categories objects. It does however suggest that blind individuals access the same areas of the brain by using a different stimuli such as hearing or touch.

Mahon, B., Anzellotti, S., Schwarzbach, J., Zampini, M., & Caramazza, A. (2009). Category-Specific Organization in the Human Brain Does Not Require Visual Experience Neuron, 63 (3), 397-405 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2009.07.012

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5 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 12 August 2009 at 12:25 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology

Are a generation of children growing up with text messaging at risk of turning their brains to mush? The Daily Mail seems to think so.

“Predictive text messaging changes the way children’s brains work and makes them more likely to make mistakes generally, a study has found.”

The study in question was recently published by the journal Bioelectromagnetics, and did indeed look at mobile phone use and cognitive function in children. What Michael Abramson and colleagues did not find, however, was a causal link, despite what the Mail might think. Remember folks, correlation does not imply causation.

Researchers tested the mental abilities of 317 Australian 12 and 13-year-olds, and recorded their mobile phone usage. Results show children who had more calls and text messages were less accurate in memory tests, but completed them faster. The paper goes on to suggest that text messaging could be responsible, as predictive text “train[s] the user to favour speed over accuracy.” A quote from Abramson in the Mail article backs this up:

“We suspect that using mobile phones a lot, particularly tools like predictive text, is behind this.

“Their brains are still developing so if there are effects then potentially they could impact down the line, especially given that the exposure is now almost universal.

“The use of mobile phones is changing the way children learn and pushing them to become more impulsive in the way they behave.”

In a word: bollocks. The data gathered simply does not back this up. It may be completely true, but it’s not a statement that can be drawn from the evidence available in his paper. Makes a nice sound bite, though.

This line of argument is further undermined because the same correlation was seen with phone calls, not just texts, implying the underlying mechanism might be the same. Perhaps children who use their phones more often are just naturally more easily distracted, thus pay less attention? There is no way to tell from this study.

That doesn’t stop Baroness Susan “Facebook makes you fat” Greenfield weighing in, with her usual attacks on anything invented in the past couple of decades. In addition to suggesting “Generation Text” will cause the downfall of humanity, she has a go at Twitter:

When I was a child, if I wanted to tell someone about my day, I spoke to them face-to-face, I wrote them a letter or I walked to the phone box down the road.

Communication was far from instant and, although we were not aware of it at the time, it influenced what information we deemed worthwhile sharing.

Today, we can ‘tweet’ to the universe such inanities as: ‘I’ve just put my socks on.’ A friend can respond – ‘Congratulations!’ – within seconds.

A Twitter search for “I’ve just put my socks on” does admittedly turn up a single result, but this is just one of the thousands of message sent every day. Despite this common criticism of banality, I don’t think most people actually use Twitter in this way. No one cares what you had for breakfast, so tweeting about it probably results in a quick exodus of followers. Of course, I have no evidence to confirm this other than my own anecdotal experience, but at least I admit as much!

I agree with Greenfield that new technologies must be evaluated for potential harm. Where we differ is my requirement for causal links and solid evidence, rather than conclusions pulled out of thin air.

Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 11 August 2009 at 10:52 pm by Thom Hoffman
In About Just A Theory, Inventions & Technology

So I wrote a post a few weeks ago about some new software that looked to help emails self destruct, hoping to spark a debate about online privacy. I got in touch with the producer of the BBC World Service’s Digital Planet and got commissioned to do a radio piece on it. You can download the podcast here, my piece starts at 13.40. It is also available  on the website to stream directly (Episode 11/08/2009).

I interviewed one of the inventors Yoshi Kohno, Assistant Professor at the University of Washington and Peter Sommer, a Digital Forensic Specialist and Visiting Professor at the London School of Economics.

It was great to make the blog go auditory and hopefully there will be more to come soon.

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2 Comments » Posted on Monday 10 August 2009 at 7:00 pm by Jacob Aron
In Psychology

A woman’s choice of food is influenced by the gender of her dining companions, according to a study published in the journal Appetite. Meredith Young, a psychologist at McMaster University in Canada, lead a team observing 469 students as they ate in university cafes. She found that the more men a woman dined with, the lower her calorie consumption was.

Two women eating together consumed an average of 665 calories each, but for a male and female pair the woman opted for just over 550 calories. When women dined in larger groups without men, their calorie consumption edged higher to almost 800. Men seem to eat the same amount regardless of their dining partners; a little over 715 calories on average.

Mealtimes are often a social occasion, and the paper suggests that women may feel they need to conform to social norms when eating. Women are targeted by the diet industry to make them think smaller, healthier portions are more feminine. Eating less could be an attempt to appear more attractive to male companions. The effect is not present in men because male sex appeal is not as dependant on physical attractiveness.

Young and colleagues warn that these results may only apply to university students, who are perhaps particularly concerned about their appearance and believe eating less will make them more attractive. Further studies in other natural environments could confirm the effect. They also suggest investigating whether men eat more expensive food when with women, because male attractiveness is more strongly influenced by social status and wealth.

Young, M., Mizzau, M., Mai, N., Sirisegaram, A., & Wilson, M. (2009). Food for thought. What you eat depends on your sex and eating companions Appetite DOI: 10.1016/j.appet.2009.07.021

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 9 August 2009 at 7:57 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Mathematics, Physics, Weekly Roundup

Another 100 metres

High-speed running will sap the energy of even the top athletes, but it seems scientists never tire of it. Dutch statisticians have declared the 100-metre sprint could potentially be run in just 9.51 seconds. The current record, set by Usain Bolt in 2008, stands at 9.69 seconds.

If this sounds familiar, its because I wrote not one but two blog posts last year on the very same subject. This time, the researchers used a branch of statistics called extreme-value theory to analyse previous records.

As the name suggests, extreme-value theory is used to answer questions about extreme events. It’s normally used by insurers to calculate the risks of natural disasters, but it seems that a record-breaking sprint can also be classed as “extreme”.

Machines are better than you

Japanese engineers have built a robot that can move faster than the human eye can see. Watch, with the aid of slow mo, how the robotic hand deftly controls balls and sticks as no human can:

LHC will run on half power

Ah, the Large Hadron Collider. It’s been good to Just A Theory, providing a wealth of blogging material from raps to rants, but has faired less well in actually working. Even the classic technological fix, “have you switched it off and on again?” hasn’t worked, because when the LHC boots up again this November, it will only operate at 3.5 TeV, half normal operating power.

The massive ring had to be shut down in September last year after damage caused by an incident that caused the temperature to rise rapidly. The LHD will run through Christmas to let researchers gain experience in running it, and then the power will be boosted to 5 TeV. If all goes to plan, the machine will be shut down again at the end of 2010 to prepare for full power operations of 7 TeV.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 7 August 2009 at 4:13 pm by Emma Stokes
In Biology, Health & Medicine

Glaucoma reversed in rats and humans

Researchers have reversed the symptoms of glaucoma in rats using medicated eye drops. Further tests on a small number of human patients also showed promising results. Glaucoma is caused by increased intraocular pressure (pressure inside the eye). This gradually causes damage to the optic nerve, which eventually leads to blindness. Researchers used rats suffering from glaucoma to test eye drops containing nerve growth factor (NGF).

To read the rest of this story please visit the Understanding Animal Research website.

Rodent teeth grown from stem cells

mice toothMice have grown new teeth from stem cells implanted into the jawbone. Stem cell technology has been used before to produce tissues, but in a limited way. This is the first time a study has shown that a few cells can go on to produce a fully functioning organ. The team began by removing the upper molars from five-week-old mice. They developed a seed-like bioengineered tooth tissue containing stem cells and the genetic instructions necessary to form a tooth, and transplanted the tissue into the jawbones of mice. The implanted cells developed into fully formed teeth with an identical structure to normal teeth.

To read the rest of this story please visit the Understanding Animal Research website.

Heart stimulated to heal itself

Scientists have shown for the first time that it is possible to stimulate the heart to heal itself without the use of stem cell technology. Heart muscle cells are undifferentiated in a fetus, so are able to multiply and grow to create new heart muscle tissue. However, as the fetus develops, these cells become differentiated and, it was previously thought, no longer produce new tissue. This has consequences in adults when damage occurs to the muscle, for example in heart attacks and in congenital heart defects.

To read the rest of this story please visit the Understanding Animal Research website.

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1 Comment » Posted on Friday 7 August 2009 at 3:20 pm by Jacob Aron
In Musings

The science news reported by the mainstream media makes up just a small fraction of research being done. Every day, scientists publish their work in a multitude of journals, but science journalists only really pay attention to the big ones: Nature, Science and so on.

Why? Simply because these journals often publish the best and most interesting research around. It’s not just journalists who think so; scientists agree as well. There is even a measure of a journal’s importance, known as the impact factor, which is based on the number of citations a journal receives. Nature and Science bath have high impact factors.

What about all those other journals? Are they not worth reading? Two scientists from Finland did some research to find out, publishing their paper today in PLoS One. They found that whilst the big journals are often the first to publish breakthrough research, work in smaller journals still contributes to scientific knowledge.

When ranked by their importance, it turns out scientific journals follow a distribution known as the long tail. This means only a very small number have a high impact, with the rest tailing off to not very much. You may have heard of the long tail in the context of online retailers such as Amazon. Though it may stock millions of items, most of Amazon’s profit comes from a small percentage of top products.

The researchers looked at over 15,000 journals using the SCImago journal rank, which is based on Google’s ranking technology. Anything with a rank of 1 or more is considered a top journal, but only 1.6% achieved this. Interestingly, these top journals produced nearly one tenth of all scientific articles.

Even this fraction of new papers is too much for any one scientist to keep up with. The researchers point out that it is “physically impossible” to keep up with the latest research in say, cancer. That would require reading over 11,000 papers every month!

Are there just too many journals then? Surprisingly, no. Only 6% of the journals investigated received zero citations during 2007, the year they examined. It’s true that roughly 40% of citations come from the top 2,000 journals, but that leaves 60% for the other 13,000 plus. Clearly, someone must be reading them.

The media will always go for the big journals. That’s where you get the breakthroughs, the new discoveries, the superstars of science. Next time you read a story from Nature or Science however, spare a though for those scientists working away in the long tail. It may not be glamorous, but it’s certainly useful science.

Michon, F., & Tummers, M. (2009). The Dynamic Interest in Topics within the Biomedical Scientific Community PLoS ONE, 4 (8) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0006544

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 5 August 2009 at 2:21 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Wrong, Science Policy

[Whoops, I'm off schedule already. Apologies to those who were expecting a post on Monday, but another bout of illness over the weekend meant I had to take a few days off. And now, the news.]

On the path to a greener future, governments must lead the way. Without legislation that suitably incentives green behaviour, the necessary changes to our economy will not be possible. Carbon trading, if appropriately priced, seems like a good way to do this. Unfortunately, the UK Government seems to have missed the point of the scheme: reducing emissions.

A report published today by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) warns that the Government may not meet its own targets for emission cuts, and could have to use taxpayers money to purchase more carbon credits.

In 2006, then Prime Minister Tony Blair promised a 12.5% reduction in carbon emissions by 2010-11, relative to 1990/2000 levels. The EAC have criticised the Government for not doing enough to reduce energy use in its buildings, the largest source of emissions. So far, only a 6.3% reduction has been achieved.

Failure could come at a hefty price. Starting in April next year, around 5,000 organisations including Government departments, retailers and banks will have to buy carbon credits. Under the Carbon Reduction Commitment, these organisations will have to pay £12 for every tonne of carbon dioxide they produce.

All of this money is contributed to a central pot, and emissions are assessed on a yearly basis. Organisations that do well are given their money back, plus a bonus, whilst those that do poorly get back less than they put in. Effectively, inefficient organisations pay money to those which can reduce emissions the most.

This means that unless targets are met, the Government will be handing taxpayers money to private businesses to make up for its carbon excess. You could say this is how the scheme is meant to work – reward those who are greenest, and allow the stragglers to pay for their sins. A fair point – but shouldn’t we expect better?

If the Government are forced to purchase more carbon credits in this way, it sends out the completely wrong message to the country. We must learn that simply paying your way is not enough; at some point we must all make emission reductions.

What’s worse, this is a double cost to the taxpayer. In not reducing energy usage, the Government will have already paid more in utility bills than is necessary. Instead of investing in insulation or solar panels, it has thrown money away on a short-term “solution”. It’s not good enough. The short-term is running out.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 2 August 2009 at 6:53 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Weekly Roundup, Yes, But When?

A week on the Guardian’s Technology desk means I haven’t been keeping up with all the science news as much as I normally would. Don’t worry though, I’ve still got some good stuff in this week’s roundup.

Run Forrest.exe, Run!

Toyota have created a robot that can run. Not an easy task, as the machine must keep its balance whilst moving at fast speed, but the result looks promising:

Will we eventually have millions of these little guys running about the place, I wonder?

LaTeX tech

Bit of a geeky one this. LaTeX is a language used by scientists and other people to create documents containing lots of equations. I’ve used it in the past, and whilst it produces nice results, it can be tricky to use because of all the commands you have to learn. Remembering the codes for mathematical symbols can be especially difficult. Detexify allows you to draw the symbol you want with your mouse, and it will give you the code. Even if you have no use for LaTeX, it’s fun to have a play and watch the symbol recognition in action. Try drawing a smiley face!

Kill or cure?

Kill or cure? is a website that seeks to “make sense of the Daily Mail’s ongoing effort to classify every inanimate object into those that cause cancer and those that prevent it.” Where else can you learn that ketchup prevents cancer, but toothpaste causes it?

Kids vs climate change, round 2

A while back Sam wrote a post laying out the environmental reasons not to have children. It inspired quite a debate between some commenters, and now his position has been backed up by new research. Statisticians at Oregon State University found that in the US, having one less child will have an almost 20 times larger impact on the environment than things like changing the car you drive, or recycling.

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