Thursday 27 November 2014

Turkeys may be key to huge medical breakthrough

The turkey commonly plays host to a particularly "good" bacteria - one that could create a potentially life-saving antibiotic.

Antimicrobial resistant (AMR) bacteria pose a very real threat to the world. Now a team of researchers has identified a new natural antibiotic in horse dung-dwelling fungus, offering up secrets that might help us avoid or at least understand an encroaching AMR world crisis.

That's at least according to a study recently published in the Journal of Bacteriology which details how the MP1 antibiotic is produced by a bacteria commonly referred to as "Strain 115."

MP1 has been known to target roughly half of all infectious bacteria that affect humans, even the causes of staph infection, strep throat, and several gastrointestinal diseases. Researchers have known that strain 115 can be found in turkeys, and has been keeping the birds healthy on farms for years.

The team of scientists claim to have discovered how this "good" bacteria strain produces the mysterious antibiotic - a process that could potentially help experts craft a similar functioning antibiotic in humans.

The research team used mass spectrometry and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to identify exactly how Strain 115 makes MP1 without killing itself in the process, as the antibiotic should normally attack the strain as well.

The team found that when producing MP1, the bacteria also produces a protective plasmid, effectively shielding it from its own medicine.

Griffitts and his team are trying to see if a similar mechanism can be crafted to work in humans, which would be a life-saving boon in a world where traditional antibiotics are becoming increasingly useless.

Thursday 20 November 2014

Electrical Capacitors made from wood

When you think of advanced electronics or heavy-duty electrical storage, trees may not be the first thing that comes to mind. But a team from the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center has used wood waste to produce super capacitors that are as effective as advanced activated-carbon units. This offers extremely cheap and green opportunities for energy storage from wind and solar energy production.

The new supercapacitors are made from biochar and waste products can be used for fertilizers offering a green alternative to the chemical processes needed to produce regular supercapacitors.

“Supercapacitors are power devices very similar to our  batteries,” said study leader Junhua Jiang, a senior research engineer at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center at the University of Illinois.
“Supercapacitors are ideal for applications needing  instant power and can even provide constant power – like batteries, but at  lower cost,” he said. “They are useful in transportation, electronics and solar-  and wind-power energy storage and distribution.”

The process of making biochar superconductors is relatively easy and cheap. It also does not produce large amounts of chemical pollution. The wood is baked at low temperatures and then the resulting biochar is activated using a weak nitric acid solution. The acid washes away the ash and leaves pores that are needed for ion storage. The acid waste can be used as fertilizer.

Wednesday 19 November 2014

Experimental evidence shows that birds can count

A new study has found strong evidence that robins, like crows, are clever birds, and can even count.

A new study recently published in the journal Behavioural Processes, details how wild robins in New Zealand become noticeably bothered when they've been "cheated" out of a set number of promised mealworms.

In a standard test used to determine an animal's ability to measure values, researchers placed a small box with two layers in the woods. Making sure that robins were watching them, they placed a pair of small mealworms into the box's second layer. They then slid the first layer on top - this layer only containing one small worm.

From the bird's perspective, the box should contain two worms, but they will only have access to the layer with one.

"The robins clearly recognize that there is only one worm when they saw two go into the box," explained New York Times scientist writer Jim Gordan, who was not involved in the study. "That's when they search intensely with a lot of pecking."

According to the study, in nearly every instance where this experiment was done in the field, the robins started furiously pecking around the box when the maths didn't add up. This searching didn't occur for nearly as long or as vigorously as when the birds found the exact number they were expecting.

This is a strong indication that the robins can at least count in small values, but what exactly makes
counting necessary?

Study author Jason Low believes that this has to do with the robin's tendency to leave cashes of food near their homes. When males are away looking for food, their female partners have been observed raiding these cashes. Interestingly, they always go for the cache with the most stored food.

"We asked ourselves, how does she know to rob the site with the biggest food source? And that's when we started to think that these birds understood the concept of amounts," Burns explained in a statement.

However, this counting goes both ways, as males know how much they've stored."The males get very aggressive when they catch their female partners stealing from them," Burns said, adding that these squabbles over who had their hand in the "cookie jar" last are common among robins.

Emerald Ash Borer continues to Spread in North America and Canada

Even as winter closes in, the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB)  beetle continues to be a threatening nuisance to states across the East Coast, destroying ash trees and jacking up the price of firewood. Now it has spread to new states and Canada, sparking renewed efforts to keep it contained.

As of late last week, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) confirmed the concentrated presence of EAB parts of Quebec. Disturbingly, this discovery is well outside regulated boundaries, marking Canada's first case of the invasive insects breaking through pre-established quarantines.

And while the EAB is relatively new to North America, first showing up in 2002, the United States and the Canadian regions of Ontario and Quebec have already been deeply affected by the harmful eastern Asian beetle.

23 states, largely in the eastern US along the East Coast, are currently being affected by the tiny green beetle. And while the adult EAB itself is not a huge problem, its larvae feed just below an ash tree's bark, interfering with the plant's water and nutrient uptake and causing it to die.

Symptoms are

•Thinning or yellowing of foliage
•Fissures in bark, 5-10 cm in length
•Woodpecker activity, as the birds strip away bark to get at the beetles
•D-shaped holes, 3mm in diameter, produced by emerging adults

Many trees die within 2-3 years

Because the EAB has little-to-no natural predators in North America, it's free to reproduce en masse,
posing a serious threat to the ash tree industry.

A firewood quarantine is thought to provide the best chance for slowing the spread. However, for states that have already seen what the EAB can do, a quarantine just doesn't seem enough.

It's tough on Ash trees in Europe as well, with Ash Die-back fungus spreading and killing millions of the trees over there. So far there is little that can be done to stop the advance of either the beetles or the fungus.

Tuesday 18 November 2014

9300 year old mummified Bison found in Siberia

A 9,300-year-old bison mummy was found in Siberia literally frozen in time, providing researchers with the rare opportunity to learn how this animal lived and died during the Ice Age.

Though the Yukagir bison mummy, as it's called, may have withered over time, the surprisingly well-
preserved carcass still has a full coat of fur and several major organs, including its brain, heart, blood
vessels and digestive system.

Many large charismatic mammals went extinct at the end of the Ice Age - approximately 11,000 years ago - including the Steppe bison (Bison priscus).

The steppe bison was a predecessor to modern bison species and could be found throughout the plains of Europe, Central Asia and North America, according to the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre. Along with the woolly mammoth and small horse, it was one of the most common plains species of its time and lived from about 2 million years ago to around 10,000 years ago.

The bison mummy presented this week dates back 9,300 years, and was discovered in 2011 by members of the Yukagir tribe in the Yana-Indigirka Lowland of Eastern Siberia.

A necropsy of the unique mummy does not indicate any obvious cause of death, though the lack of fat around the abdomen suggests that starvation may have led to its demise. Next researchers plan to study its anatomy and histology in more detail to learn more about these Ice Age beasts.

Wednesday 12 November 2014

Bees and Flowers Out of Sync, Climate Change is Blamed

A new study has revealed that more and more specialized flowering plants may wind up missing out on pollinators as the spring season grows warmer for many parts of the world. As net temperatures continue to climb, researchers have found that bees are waking from their wintering earlier, disrupting a synchronized bloom that some flowers had painstakingly adapted for.

That's at least according to a new study published in the journal Current Biology, which details how the Early Spider Orchid (Ophrys sphegodes) usually boasts an impressively synchronized bloom with the bee Andrena nigroaenea.

According to historical records and ecological observation dating back to 1848, this flower and bee
pairing was a prime example of how flawless timing could promote absolute efficiency in nature. Compared to many less specialized flowering plants, the Early Spider Orchid only flowers for a very short amount of time. Amazingly, this narrow window is usually perfectly timed to begin when A. nigroaenea males wake from their wintering slumber before their female counterparts.

Past studies have found that the flower then releases a deceptive scent that resembles the female-produced sex pheromone of the solitary bee species, drawing in males and promoting a high rate of pollination. When the flowers' bloom peaks, the female bees wake, eventually distracting the males from their work.

"These orchids have evolved so that when spring comes, their flowers appear at the same time as this
specific bee - making pollination possible," researcher Karen Robbirt said in a statement. "But we have shown that plants and their pollinators show different responses to climate change, and that warming will widen the timeline between bees and flowers emerging."

"Warming by as little as 2 degrees Celsius causes the males to emerge much earlier, meaning they are less well synchronised with the orchids," added lead researcher Anthony Davy. "The problem is compounded by the female bees which are also emerging earlier, and attracting the attention of the male bees. This means that the male bees are more likely to copulate with the female bees, rather than pollinating the orchids."

Thursday 6 November 2014

New approaches to control pathogenic bacteria

Bacteria are becoming ever more resistant to our Antibiotics and there is a danger that many diseases will resurface and cause an increasing number of deaths Worldwide. Researchers are developing new approaches controlling bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, and some of the techniques can target specific bacterial strains.

Some of the methodes include:

Bacteria have natural predators called phages—viruses that replicate inside the organisms and burst out to destroy them, Alien-style. One upcoming human clinical trial pits phages against bugs in infected burn wounds, while another targets drug-resistant staphylococcus.

Scientists can design DNA-like molecules that block specific genes so cells can't translate the code into proteins. No proteins for cell division or membrane-building means bacteria can't reproduce. This is being tested on animals currently.

Bacteria already attack each other with toxins called bacteriocins. Doctors just need to get them to go
for the specific target. Researchers have engineered a strain which will deploy these chemicals only when it detects pheromones from a pathogenic bug.

A recently discovered gene-editing system called Crispr attacks bacteria by destroying their DNA. It
searches out gene sequences unique to drug-resistant strains and then chops up the strands to kill the
organisms. Development of this as a medical option is still in its early stages.

World's largest bat cave saved from developers

The world's largest bat colony has been saved from a San Antonio (Texas) land developer thanks to efforts from conservation groups, Nature Conservancy announced on Friday, ensuring the protection of vital habitat, including the famous Bracken Bat Cave, home to 15 million Mexican free-tail bats.

As part of a $20 million deal a 5,000-acre swath of land was taken out of the hands of the development company Galo Properties and placed into the protective care of the non-profit group Nature Conservancy.

"Bracken Cave is the largest colony of bats in the world, somewhere between 15 and 20 million Mexican free-tail bats," Nature Conservancy spokeswoman Laura Hutchins told NPR. "So they deposit the baby in what we call the nursery section of the cave, which is just millions of hairless baby bats, so when you look at it, it's a ceiling of pink, hairless baby bats."

The gestation period of a female bat, according to Defenders of Wildlife, can range anywhere from 40 days to six months. And during that time, nursing mothers are gaining their weight in milk as well as eating their body weight in insects every day.

"So this colony alone, that's 100 tons of bugs every night," Hutchins explained.
Not only is this food frenzy necessary to produce healthy pups, which will only weigh up to 25 percent of its mother's weight at birth, but it also serves as a natural pest control, saving farmers billions of dollars nationwide and reducing the need to use insecticides.

Ther are about 1,000 bat species worldwide, Defenders says, and while some like those in San Antonio number in the millions, many species are in decline or becoming rare.