Nature is full of surprises, and totally marvellous at the same time. It's always great when something new gets discovered that simply seems to fit. It was one of those times recently at Cambridge University when scientists Paolo Bombelli and Chris Howe discovered that a species of wax worm likes to eat plastic.
Pollution caused by plastic refuge is a global problem, causing hazardous situations across the entire ecosystem. From large scale objects to tiny particles, the effects on wildlife can be fatal. Because plastic doesn't naturally degrade, we have all become used to the common sight of various objects which simply linger where they are left or deposited.
It has its uses, the hard wearing and water resistant qualities of plastic really come in handy, we use it for all sorts of things and some of those actually help save lives. Think of all the medical equipment that relies on those very properties to contain and deliver drugs and machinery. No, plastic isn't the stuff of the devil but it is a tricky substance to dispose of.
There are ways of recycling some plastics, and safely disposing of the rest, but its thought that only around a quarter of all plastic manufactured ends up in the correct disposal facility. The rest is left to not rot somewhere where it really shouldn't be. An estimated 300 million tonnes of the stuff are made each year, so that's an awful lot of waste.
So the fact that nature seems to found a way of disposing of it, although rather tiny, gives us another ray of hope. All is not lost, I am sure we can put the little things to work somehow, or find some clever chemical process that we can replicate on larger scales. You can read the scientific write up here.
An astounding new bone healing technique has shown effervescent results in studies on minipigs. Every year, hundreds of thousands of bone breakage casualties encounter difficulties in healing and complications arise. Bone grafts have been the answer which require marrow transplantation in order to work. The problem with transplants is that the body often rejects them and to reduce this risk, immune system suppressing drugs are needed. This puts the patient at extreme risk when combined with the fact that many broken bone complications arise in the elderly.
Another modern technique has been to deliver bone healing proteins via a virus which has been programmed to produce the right molecules to encourage regrowth. These are called bone morphogenetic proteins. The problem with this method is that a viral agent also causes negative symptoms and swelling often is the result. This creates a painful and difficult breakage that is even harder to manage.
A new method was needed, one that wouldn't put the patient under so much strain. This is where the pigs come in. It may seem like overly cruel to be overly kind to some, but for those in the future who benefit from this new technique, life expectancy is set to be much greater. According to Director Edward Schwarz of Rochester University's Centre for Musculoskeletal Research (The Verge), you can expect to live longer with a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer if you are elderly and suffer from a non-healing fracture.
So what is this remarkable method? Micro-bubbles. By inserting biodegradable scaffoldings for stem cell growth into caused 0.4 inch fractures on 18 minipigs, and then left for two weeks, the scaffolds became populated with stem cells. But they didn't reproduce into bone, so the researchers injected micro-bubbles and morphogenetic proteins onto the scaffold which miraculously sparked the desired growth when burst using ultra-sound. Genius.
How do you feel about using animals to discover this technique? Have you lost anyone due to them not healing from broken bones? Would you accept this treatment if you needed it? The ethics in medical sciences are often complex, and it takes a certain type of person to be a part of the process. Could you do it?
A new mathematical study of chaos has revealed larger scale order seemingly appearing out of nothing when left to its own devices, during studies of bacteria colonies, each one an individual cell, existing on its own. It was in 2015 when Hong-Kong university post-graduate Chong Chen demonstrated his remarkable findings in studies of E.Coli.
Although self autonomous and totally independent to one another, it was seen that in large scale colonies, uniform structures began to evolve. Seemingly non-random motion was causing functional ellipses at scales far larger than the influence of the single cells. The statistical analysis which revealed this organisation was in the early stages and it fell on the shoulders of Hugues Chate, theoretical physicist at CEA Saclay France, to carry the torch further.
With Chong Chen's advisor in tow, the three scientists set about studying the strange phenomenon in greater detail. The results have been published in Nature from Feb 17, and they have shown that the results can be repeated in varying bacteria type. Chate has described the process as “robust” and “spectacular” (Quanta magazine).
Discovering collective behaviour of non-verbal and apparently non-communicating organisms on large scale is a truly remarkable find. It provides evidence that in some way life has patterns and behaviours that transcend the individual. The motion of bacteria has been harnessed before to provide power to miniature machines and to provide structure in visual displays. It's a subject that is revealing many pathways of knowledge.
Using mathematical functions to describe the motion of a body of individuals could become a key factor in determining medical interventions in several forms of illness. Understanding the principles that govern life on large scale could translate into the behaviour of herding animals and even human beings when in large groups. We too have tendencies to behave differently when in crowds. Maybe there's more going on than just copying the person next to you.
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Ghostbusters Gets Its Own Dinosaur
Zuul is the fantasy demon in the Ghostbusters film, played by Ivan Reitman, and his furious and overbearing nature has been the influence towards the naming of a new dinosaur skeleton from the Cretaceous period. This armoured tank like reptile, known for its thick plates and heavily weighted tail-bulb from the ankylosaurid family, has been named zuul crurivastator. Its latter name can be translated into “crusher of shins” which is what it is most likely to have done in defence of itself and its young.
The splendid element of this fossilised thunder-lizard is that is has been scientifically verified to contain mummified tissues like skin. Perhaps a first for palaeontologists who are those charged with joining the dots made by far flung clues which scatter geological time. It's possible to date rocks and fossils using a variety of methods, carbon dating and geological layers represent the most efficient. By looking at the biology and structure of this creature in the best resolution ever seen we stand able to gain terrific insights into the nature and development of these creatures and their avian descendants.
The Judith River Formation in Montana is a period of time in the area now known as Montana that spanned around 4 Million years in the Cretaceous era of Earth's history, a larger period spanning from approx 145 Million BC until approx 66 Million BC. This is where the new dinosaur fossil is classified, and it represents a later period in the history of dinosaur evolution. Protective armour plated skin complete with spikes and a heavy club for a tail suggests millions of years of self-preservation in evolutionary action.
Such unprecedented preservation of soft tissues gives us an insightful eye towards the ultimate evolution of modern skin, not only in lizards and birds but in mammals too. Identifying similarities between us and dinosaur soft tissue formation can help us plot the network of genetic phenotype which link back to common ancestral heritage. This unique opportunity to study so far unseen biology belonging to long extinct creatures has been taken up by the Royal Society of Open Science who recently published a paper on their findings.
See how the hammer headed tail could smash its way through the shins of anything that came too close in this video from the Royal Ontario Museum.
Something at the front of scientific research but perhaps not as well communicated is the field of quantum biology. In physics, quantum theory explains the behaviour of the very small packages of energy which make up everyday matter. Quantum physics covers everything from the atom to dark matter,it is the study of particles at a sub-atomic level. It was found that when something is observed at a tiny scale, the usual laws of physics suddenly no longer serve as valid for natural behaviour. A new set of laws and equations were drawn up to describe this new quantum world.
Biology is an old science, it's much older than the hundred year old quantum physics, and could be argued to be tens of thousands of years old. The new array of properties that can be ascribed to individual quanta, which is the term for the packets of energy that quantum science studies, are likely to play vital or important roles in the biological working of life.
When looking at it rationally, we can see how evolution favours natural results of universal action which benefit the life-form. By mutating in tiny amounts, life feels its way around the laws of the universe until a more advanced life system is found than the previous. Because the basis of biology is in fact chemical, the workings of life are considered to be bio-chemical. The way in which chemicals react together is determined by their sub-atomic structure. This structure is adaptable according to quantum physics. So it can be shown that there must be a direct link between quantum states of organic chemistry and the biological processes which it allows.
Nature must have had to adapt to the natural quantum laws as it evolved, and so the actions of quantum principle will be wired into the DNA instructions in the same way regular chemical reactions are also maintained. As the DNA is read by chemical processes and translated into reactions which build the molecules of life, the quantum states present within the DNA and the surrounding cell will undoubtedly have an effect on the end result.
So what does it do? The notion of life is very complicated and so far mostly unexplained. Even processes such as photosynthesis which is the method plants change sunlight and carbon-dioxide into food, and respiration which is the process in which animals make energy from food and oxygen, are not fully understood in chemical terms. It is known that energy states within electrons of atoms are manipulated in order to transfer energy from one type to another. This in itself is a quantum process.
No-one can really explain in real terms how life is alive, and how consciousness allows us to be aware. It's not properly understood how we grow into the shapes that we are and how our electromagnetic field affects our physical health. All of these mysteries are likely to have clues as to their origin in the quantum world. In the way that quanta can be entangled over space and time, the way that they exist in many more dimensions than we can consciously perceive, the fact that quanta can appear and disappear in an instant, move through 'walls', and possibly travel faster than the speed of light, in the way that quantum energy can exist in a dual state as both a particle and a wave, suggesting that its main origin is outside of our reality and its presence is marked by the manifestation of a near solid entity in the visible universe, all gives the biology of life many new ways of establishing itself.
It's almost as if a part of ourselves is in another quantum world, inhabiting strange dimensions that hide just behind the reality we can perceive. I wonder if the imagination has any effect on the quantum state of our mind, or even our fundamental biological processes? Does the way we think and the use of our gift of consciousness change the quantum state of what makes us alive? Many faiths and religious beliefs will have you thinking and acting in certain ways for this very reason. Blessed are the meek.
A recent study in the UK has shown that students have better memories when the scent of rosemary is added to the room. The essential oil has been known as a potent tool for generations, however science is always looking for ways to prove it. Controlled environments and comparable results are difficult to find in the real world and it seems that an attempt has been made to establish a positive peek into the actions of these stimulating oils.
Dr Mark Moss of Northumbria University has demonstrated the effects on memory with a group of students in a class room asked to perform memory recall tests. A room was used without rosemary, and in another test the rosemary oil was allowed to diffuse around the students. It was shown that there was an almost ten percent increase in memory ability.
Dr Moss suggests (BBC) that the results are similar in adults. This benefit of rosemary can easily be applied to situations where memory is important. Exams spring to mind, revising is always a drag and finding the space in the head to store all the information needed tends to cause stress and worry for many. This mentally stimulating aroma could be something to help with that.
It's been traditional knowledge for many years, ancient Greeks would wear rosemary for exams, and even Shakespeare noted its ability for “remembering” in Hamlet. There are three types of memory, according to the experts. Past memory is a knowing of past events, present memory is being able to hold ideas and concepts in the mind during daily life, and then there is future memory, where we make a mental note of something for later. We all have various abilities with each type of memory, the latter being the one most people struggle with.
Rosemary appears to be benefiting the whole range of memory application, which maybe could act as a protective element to help us keep our ability to remember. It would be worth exploring it a little more, neuroscience is very tricky to analyse, but the long term effects of rosemary use could be tracked over time.
Rowan Blair Colver for Alternative Fruit
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