Breathing very dirty air may boost obesity risk

Beijing smog

Serious air pollution, like this smog over China’s capital city, may increase the risk of obesity.

Air pollution is bad for our lungs. It may not be great for our waistlines either, a new study in rats finds.

China’s capital city of Beijing has some of the worst air pollution in the world. On really bad days, its air can host more than 10 times as many tiny pollutant particles as the World Health Organization says is safe for human health. In a new study, rats breathed in this air. And those rodents gained more weight, and were unhealthier overall, than were rats breathing much cleaner air. The results suggest that exposure to air pollution can raise the risk of becoming extremely overweight.

And, adds Loren Wold, “It is highly likely that this is happening in humans.”

Wold works at Ohio State University in Columbus. There, he studies how air pollution affects the heart. He was not involved in the new study. But he says it agrees with many other studies that have suggested air pollution can affect metabolism, which is how the body breaks down food and uses it for fuel.

Polluted air contains particles of ash, dust and other chemicals. Sometimes these particles are so numerous that they create a thick, dense smog can cuts visibility.

Earlier experiments among 18-year olds in Southern California had linked heavier traffic with higher body mass index (a measure of overweight and obesity). Areas with heavy traffic also tend to have more of those pollutant particles. Another study found that when pregnant mice were exposed to exhaust from diesel engines, their pups grew up to be heavier. The pups also developed more inflammation in their brains.

In the new study, researchers tested how Beijing’s polluted air affects the health of pregnant rats.

Jim Zhang is an environmental scientist at Duke University in Durham, N.C. He and his co-workers put rats in two indoor chambers in Beijing. They piped polluted air from the city directly into one chamber. Air piped into the other chamber went through a filter. That filter removed almost all of the big pollution particles from the air and about two-thirds of the smaller ones. This made the air more like what people breathe in typical U.S. cities and suburbs, Zhang says.

All rats ate the same type and amount of food. But after 19 days, the pregnant rats breathing the heavily polluted air weighed more than the rats breathing the filtered air. They also had higher amounts of cholesterol — a waxy, fatlike substance — in their blood than did the rats breathing filtered air.

Those breathing the dirtier air had higher levels of inflammation. This is a sign of the body responding to tissue damage. These rats also had higher insulin resistance. This means their bodies weren’t responding as well to insulin, a hormone that helps with using sugar for energy. Insulin resistance can lead to diabetes, a dangerous health condition.

Taken together, the scientists say, these symptoms indicate the rats were developing metabolic syndrome. It’s a condition that puts the animals at risk of heart disease and diabetes.

During the experiment, the pregnant rats gave birth. Their pups stayed in the chambers with their mothers. And young rats that breathed in the polluted air were heavier than pups born to moms living in the cleaner air. Like their moms, the pups breathing very polluted air had more inflammation and insulin resistance.

The longer these pups breathed the dirty air, Zhang says, the more unhealthy they became. This suggests that breathing polluted air for a long time can lead to sickness, Zhang says.

It’s not yet clear exactly how air pollution affects rat metabolism. But it seems, Zhang says, to impair how the animals process fat and sugar. Pollution also increases signs of inflammation in the lungs, blood and fat. Zhang says this is probably what led to weight gain in the animals.

Wold says it might be possible to create medicines that reverse the negative health effects of air pollution. But these medicines will take time to develop.

Until then, Zhang and Wold say that paying attention to air pollution levels can help people manage their health risks. On days when pollution levels are high, they recommend that people stay indoors, if possible — or at least avoid tough outdoor exercise

When will the universe end? Not for at least 2.8 billion years

Cosmic doom

We’re safe for now. The way the universe is expanding, it won’t be tearing itself apart for at least a few billion years.

For those of you only now discovering that such an end was a possibility, here’s a little background. Observations of stars and galaxies indicate that the universe is expanding, and at an increasing rate. Assuming that acceleration stays constant, eventually the stars will die out, everything will drift apart, and the universe will cool into an eternal “heat death”.

But that’s not the only possibility. The acceleration is thought to be due to dark energy, mysterious stuff that permeates the entire universe. If the total amount of dark energy is increasing, the acceleration will also increase, eventually to the point where the very fabric of space-time tears itself apart and the cosmos pops out of existence.

One prediction puts this hypothetical “big rip” scenario 22 billion years in the future. But could it happen sooner? To find out, Diego Sáez-Gómez at the University of Lisbon, Portugal, and his colleagues modelled a variety of scenarios and used the latest expansion data to calculate a likely timeline. The data involved nearby galaxies, supernovae andripples in the density of matter known as baryon acoustic oscillations, all of which are used to measure dark energy.

The team found that the earliest a big rip can occur is at 1.2 times the current age of the universe, which works out to be around 2.8 billion years from now. “We’re safe,” says Sáez-Gómez.

Time equals infinity

And when is the latest it could happen? “The upper bound goes to infinity,” he says. That would mean the rip never comes and we end up with the heat death scenario instead.

Given that the sun isn’t expected to burn out for at least another 5 billion years, it would be surprising if the universe ended so early. But pondering our doom could be a worthwhile exercise anyway, Sáez-Gómez says. Scenarios like the big rip result from a lack of understanding of physics in particular our inability to marry quantum mechanics and general relativity, the theory of gravity. Exploring the possibilities could show us a way forward.

“You learn more about a physical theory by looking at the exotic and extreme cases,” says Robert Caldwell of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, who helped come up with the big rip idea. He thinks Sáez-Gómez’s lower bound is very conservative, however – the universe is likely to last much longer. Even if it doesn’t, at least we’ve got a good run ahead of us. he says.


Missing Y chromosome kept us apart from Neanderthals

The Y chromosome is a hindrance

Modern humans diverged from Neanderthals some 600,000 years ago – and a new study shows the Y chromosome might be what kept the two species separate.

It seems we were genetically incompatible with our ancient relatives – and male fetuses conceived through sex with Neanderthal males would have miscarried. We knew that some cross-breeding between us and Neanderthals happened more recently – around 100,000 to 60,000 years ago.

Neanderthal genes have been found in our genomes, on X chromosomes, and have been linked to traits such as skin colour, fertility and even depression and addiction. Now, an analysis of a Y chromosome from a 49,000-year-old male Neanderthal found in El Sidrón, Spain, suggests the chromosome has gone extinct seemingly without leaving any trace in modern humans.

This could simply be because it drifted out of the human gene pool or, as the new study suggests, it could be because genetic differences meant that hybrid offspring who had this chromosome were infertile – a genetic dead end.

Four gene mutations

Fernando Mendez of Stanford University, and his colleagues compared the Neanderthal Y chromosome with that of chimps, and ancient and modern humans.

They found mutations in four genes that could have prevented the passage of Y chromosome down the paternal line to the hybrid children.

“Some of these mutations could have played a role in the loss of Neanderthal Y chromosomes in human populations,” says Mendez.

For example, a mutation in one of the genes, KDM5D that plays a role in cancer suppression, has previously been linked to increased risk of miscarriages as it can elicit an immune response in pregnant mothers.

“That could be one reason why we don’t see Neanderthal Y chromosomes in modern human populations,” says Mark Pagel an evolutionary biologist at the University of Reading.

It could also be one factor keeping the two species as separate species.

The researchers also used the new DNA sequences to estimate the time when the most recent common ancestor of Neanderthal and modern human Y chromosomes existed. They came up with a figure of around 590,000 years ago, which agrees with other estimates for the split of the two groups.


Journal reference: The American Journal of Human Genetics, DOI: 10.1016/j.ajhg.2016.02.023

Researchers have written quantum code on a silicon chip for the first time

For the first time, Australian engineers have demonstrated that they can write and manipulate the quantum version of computer code on a silicon microchip. This was done by entangling two quantum bits with the highest accuracy ever recorded, and it means that we can now start to program for the super-powerful quantum computers of the future.

Engineers code regular computers using traditional bits, which can be in one of two states: 1 or 0. Together, two bits create code words that can be used to program complex instructions. But in quantum computing language there’s also the possibility for bits to be in superposition, which means they can be 1 and 0 at the same time. This opens up a vastly more powerful programming language, but until now researchers haven’t been able to figure out how to write it.

Now engineers from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia have demonstrated that not only can they do this, but they can do it on silicon microchips very similar to the ones that make up today’s computers, which means the technology will be easy and quick to scale up.

So how exactly do you write quantum code? It all comes down to a phenomenon known as quantum entanglement. When two particles are entangled, it basically means that the measurement of one of them will instantly affect the state of its entangled particle, even if it’s thousands of kilometres away.

“This effect is famous for puzzling some of the deepest thinkers in the field, including Albert Einstein, who called it ‘spooky action at a distance’,” said lead researcher Andrea Morello, from the Centre for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology at UNSW. “Einstein was sceptical about entanglement, because it appears to contradict the principles of ‘locality’, which means that objects cannot be instantly influenced from a distance.”

But entanglement has been demonstrated time and time again through something by something known as Bell’s test, which requires engineers to violate Bell’s Inequality Principle. Basically, Bell’s Inequality Principle sets a limit for the amount of correlation there can be between two classical bits – anything above that must be quantum entangled.

“The key aspect of the Bell test is that it is extremely unforgiving: any imperfection in the preparation, manipulation and read-out protocol will cause the particles to fail the test,” said one of the researchers, Juan Pablo Dehollain. “Nevertheless, we have succeeded in passing the test, and we have done so with the highest ‘score’ ever recorded in an experiment.”

In their experiment, the two entangled particles in question were the electron and the nucleus of a single phosphorous atom, which was placed inside a silicon microchip. By entangling the two particles, they made it so that the state of the electron was entirely dependent on the state of the nucleus.

This meant that they expanded on the four possible digital codes that can be made with two traditional bits (00, 01, 10, or 11) to being able to create a much wider set of code words with two entangled bits, such as 00+11, 00-11, 01+10 or 01-10.

CollageEntangled web

“This is, in some sense, the reason why quantum computers can be so much more powerful,” said team member Stephanie Simmons. “With the same number of bits, they allow us to write a computer code that contains many more words, and we can use those extra words to run a different algorithm that reaches the result in a smaller number of steps.”

The next step is to entangle more particles and create more complex quantum code words, so that the team can begin to program an entire quantum computer. All the other pieces are already in place, in large part thanks to another UNSW team, which just last month built the first logic gate in silicon. The material is important, because it’s something we’re already incredibly familiar with building computers out of.

“Now, we have shown beyond any doubt that we can write this code inside a device that resembles the silicon microchips you have on your laptop or your mobile phone,” said Morello. “It’s a real triumph of electrical engineering.”

The research has been published in Nature Nanotechnology.

Gonorrhea Becoming More Resistant to One Antibiotic: CDC

One of several antibiotic treatment options for the sexually transmitted disease gonorrhea seems to be losing its effectiveness, U.S. health officials warn in a new report.HealthDay news image

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest tracking suggests that although resistance to the antibiotic treatment cefixime went down between 2011 and 2013, it started to creep back up in 2014.

The good news is that cefixime isn’t usually the first drug of choice for treating gonorrhea infections. The CDC’s most recent guidelines for gonorrhea treatment (issued in 2012) recommend only using cefixime when the preferred option — ceftriaxone-based combination therapy — isn’t available. And the CDC’s new report doesn’t indicate any recent waning in the effectiveness of that combination therapy.

Still, indications of antibiotic resistance among any gonorrhea treatment is considered troubling, the study authors said.

“It is essential to continue monitoring antimicrobial susceptibility and track patterns of resistance among the antibiotics currently used to treat gonorrhea,” said study lead author Dr. Robert Kirkcaldy, an epidemiologist in the CDC’s division of STD prevention in Atlanta.

“Recent increases in cefixime resistance show our work is far from over,” he said.

The study findings are published as a research letter in the Nov. 3 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The CDC noted that gonorrhea is spread during unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex. The sexually transmitted infection is particularly common among youth and young adults between the ages of 15 and 24.

Many people have no symptoms when infected. When symptoms do occur, they may include a painful or burning sensation when urinating; painful, swollen testicles and discolored discharge from the penis among men. In women, symptoms may include increased vaginal discharge and vaginal bleeding between periods. Rectal infections may spark soreness, itching, bleeding, discharge, and painful bowel movements, the CDC said.

If gonorrhea goes untreated, “serious health complications” can result, Kirkcaldy said. Those can include chronic pelvic pain, infertility and life-threatening ectopic pregnancy — an abnormal pregnancy that occurs outside of the uterus. In rare cases, gonorrhea can spread to your blood or joints, causing a potentially life-threatening infection, the CDC warned.

But when identified, antibiotics can provide an effective cure for those with gonorrhea.

The new CDC study looked at treatment outcomes among male gonorrhea patients who had been treated at public clinics across the United States between 2006 and 2014.

More than 51,000 samples were gathered across 34 cities. About one-third were collected in the western United States and one-third collected in the South. A little more than a quarter of the samples were drawn from men who either identified as gay or bisexual, the study said.

The investigators found that the CDC’s 2012 shift away from recommending cefixime and toward ceftriaxone-based combination therapy had a profound impact: while the combination therapy had been given to less than 9 percent of the patients in 2006, that figure shot up to nearly 97 percent by 2014.

Alongside that shift, the team found that cefixime-resistance went up from 0.1 percent in 2006 to 1.4 percent in 2011, and then back down to 0.4 percent in 2013. But by 2014 resistance trended upward to 0.8 percent, the research revealed.

What does this mean? “Trends of cefixime susceptibility have historically been a precursor to trends in ceftriaxone,” said Kirkcaldy. “So it’s important to continue monitoring cefixime to be able to anticipate what might happen with other drugs in the future.”

Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, co-vice chair of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force in Rockville, Md., emphasized the importance of routine screening.

“The task force recommends screening for gonorrhea in sexually active women age 24 years or younger, and in older women who are at increased risk for infection,” she said.

The task force doesn’t advocate for or against screening for men, saying more research is needed to prove effectiveness. However, Kirkcaldy said that the “CDC recommends an annual gonorrhea screening for high-risk sexually active women and for sexually active gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men.”

What Is Naloxone And How Can It Help Save Drug Users Who Overdose?

Naloxone, commonly known as Narcan, is a medicine that temporarily reverses the effects of opioid drugs such as heroin, morphine and oxycodone. If a person overdoses on an opioid, administering naloxone can help revive them.

Naloxone has been widely used in hospital emergency departments and many ambulance services since the 1970s. It has been shown to be remarkably safe, reliable and effective.

In most countries, including Australia, naloxone is only available in the community on prescription. But since the mid-1990s, clinicians and advocates have called for regulators to make naloxone more widely available to opioid users, their peers and family members who might be present or nearby when an overdose occurs.

Earlier this month Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) heeded this advice and recommended rescheduling naloxone to allow over-the-counter (OTC) purchase of single-use pre-filled syringes through pharmacies.

It is likely that from February 2016 Australia will become the second country (after Italy in 1995), to have naloxone formally available without a prescription.

Prescription Take-Home Naloxone Programs

Take-home naloxone programs involving supply through prescription have successfully operated in Australia since April 2012, when a program was launched in the Australian Capital Territory. This was soon followed by programs in New South Wales, Western Australia, Victoria and South Australia.

A recent evaluation found that over two years, the ACT program reversed 57 overdoses. The program trained more than 200 participants (mostly opioid users) in overdose-prevention and management, and naloxone administration.

A 2010 survey of naloxone programs operating in the United States since 1996 found that 53,000 kits containing naloxone were distributed through 188 programs across 16 US states. This distribution was reported to have resulted in over 10,000 successful overdose reversals.

Growing international research on implementation of take-home naloxone programs provides further evidence that people who are at risk for overdose and other bystanders are willing and able to be trained to prevent overdoses and administer naloxone.

Recent research shows that even very brief minimal training in using the medicine can be all that is needed to safely administer naloxone.

There is no evidence that wider availability of naloxone leads to riskier or more widespread drug use.

In 2014 the World Health Organization recommended that people likely to witness an overdose should have access to naloxone.

How Does Naloxone Reverse Overdoses?

When a person has an opioid overdose, they lose consciousness and their breathing can slow and even eventually stop. This results in damage to the brain and other organs and, eventually, death.

Most opioid overdoses occur among experienced users. People are most at risk of overdose when their opioid tolerance drops after a period of abstinence or reduced opioid use, such as after prison release, or if they use other drugs such as alcohol or sleeping pills in addition to the opioids.

Research shows that most overdose deaths occur more than an hour after last injection and that others, such as friends or family, are usually nearby.

However, in most fatal cases, tragically, there is no intervention before death. This is primarily because most people are ill-equipped to respond to overdose (wrongly) assuming, for example, that the deep snoring or gurgling associated with impending respiratory collapse means that the person can be left to “sleep it off”.

But opioid overdose can be managed by monitoring the person, maintaining their airway, providing ventilation (with rescue breathing), basic life support and calling an ambulance.

Naloxone administration can greatly assist in reversing overdose by helping to quickly restart normal breathing.

Naloxone has a very specific action in reversing the effects of opioid intoxication. It does not produce any intoxication itself and has no effect on people who don’t have opioids in their system.

In an emergency situation, naloxone is typically administered by injection into a muscle. It can also be provided in a device so it can be sprayed into the nostrils, but naloxone is not licensed for nasal use in Australia.

Taking The Next Step

While over-the-counter access to naloxone will be an important step in facilitating wider access to the medicine, a number of measures will be needed to expand naloxone availability sufficiently to have a significant impact on the rate of lethal overdoses in the community.

Work will be done over the next few months to make the naloxone product packaging and instruction materials suitable for lay people buying it over-the-counter. Systems must also be developed to train people in how to use the medicine, such as through brief advice from pharmacy staff.

Naloxone is not a silver bullet for preventing overdose deaths. But its wider availability should be one important component of an effective strategy to prevent opioid overdose fatalities. The rescheduling of naloxone in Australia will set a new precedent for other countries and will help save lives for years into the future.

Protein discovery promises to improve mapping of brain tumors

One of the problems with removing brain tumors is ensuring no cancerous tissue remains so they do not regrow. Now, a new study promises to reduce this problem – scientists have discovered a way to highlight a protein on brain scans so the edges of a tumor can be seen more clearly.
mri scanner
Researchers have found a promising way to show the edges of brain tumors in MRI scans more clearly.

The study, which offers scientists the most complete picture of brain tumors yet, is the work of a team from the University of Oxford in the UK, and was presented on Monday at the National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI) Cancer Conference 2015, in Liverpool, UK.

The edges of a tumor contain the most invasive cancercells. For surgery or radiation therapy to succeed, doctors need good maps that show not only where the tumor sits in the brain, but also where its edges are – a clear delineation between cancerous and healthy tissue.

This is important not only in order to remove all the cancerous tissue, but also because the most invasive cells are at the edge of a tumor, as one of the researchers, Cancer Research UK scientist Nicola Sibson, a professor in the Institute for Radiation Oncology at Oxford, explains:

“If we can’t map the edge of the tumor, surgery and radiotherapy often fail to remove aggressive tumor cells – and the brain tumor can grow back.

Currently, on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, you can see where the brain tumor is, but its edges are blurred. This is because the MRI spots leaky blood vessels inside the tumor. But on the edges of the tumor, the blood vessels are intact, so they do not show as clearly on the scans.

Highlights edges of both primary and secondary brain tumors

Now, for the first time, Prof. Sibson and her team have discovered a useful protein inside the blood vessels at the invasive edge of brain tumors.

In tests on rats, they showed it is possible to use the protein to define the edges of both primary and secondary tumors on MRI scans.

The protein – called VCAM-1 – is released as part of an inflammatory response caused by the brain tumor. The researchers developed a special dye that recognizes and sticks to the protein. The dye highlights the protein – and thus the edges of the tumor – on MRI scans.

An added advantage, note the researchers, is that the protein is on the inside of the vessels, so the dye can access it from the bloodstream.

Prof. Sibson concludes:

“This research shows that we can improve imaging of brain tumors, which could help both surgeons and radiotherapists with more effective treatment.”

Every year, around 256,000 people worldwide are diagnosed with cancer in the brain or another part of the central nervous system. In the UK, where the study was conducted, this figure is around 9,700, or 27 people a day.

“Brain cancers continue to have very poor survival rates,” says Harpal Kumar, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, which co-funded the study with the Medical Research Council. Kumar adds:

“The holy grail would be to be able to completely remove brain tumors with the help of this new imaging technique – reducing recurrence of the disease and saving more lives.”

Sperm whales’ clicks suggest the animals have culture The whales appear to learn sounds to socialize, similar to the way humans learn language

sperm whale

Sperm whales love to chitchat. They talk to each other in clicks. Now, scientists say, those clicks hold hints that the whales have culture.

Culture is a way of life passed on from generation to generation through learning. “There’s a lot of debate if culture is exclusive to humans or if you can find it in animals, too,” says Maurício Cantor. He is a biologist at Canada’s Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Earlier research had suggested that dolphins, primates, birds and a few other wild animals have culture. Sperm whales should be added to that list, Cantor and his colleagues now argue in the September 8 Nature Communications.Sperm whales can make some of the deepest dives of all the animals in the sea. They can plunge up to 2,250 meters (7,380 feet) below the ocean’s surface. And they can stay underwater for nearly 90 minutes. When diving, the whales send out loud clicks and listen for the echoes that bounce back after the clicks hit something close by. This is calledecholocation. It’s the animal equivalent of sonar, and the whales use it to hunt — mainly for large squid. But when the whales are not hunting, they use those clicks to chat with each other.

Females and their calves do most of the talking. Tens of thousands of them hang out in the warm waters of the South Pacific Ocean. They usually swim in small units of 12 or so moms, grandmas, aunts and friends. These gals all work together to raise their pod’s babies.

These units are part of larger groups of 30 to 300 whales, which belong to even larger communities, called clans. Individuals in each clan talk to each other using distinct patterns of clicks. These varying patterns are similar to dialects in human speech. A dialect is a regional pattern in speech. People in Boston, Mass., and Dallas, Tex., both speak English, for example. Yet they may use words differently or give them a different pronunciation. Those differences reflect their regional dialects.

Cantor and his colleagues wanted to know how the whales got their distinct dialects. The researchers followed groups of whales around the Galápagos Islands, off South America. Along the way, they recorded the whales’ identities and behaviors. The scientists logged the whales’ sounds and tracked with which other groups these sperm whales interacted.

Back in their lab, the scientists loaded all of these data into a computer. Then they programmed it to test different ways the whale dialects could have developed over thousands of generations. Perhaps the dialects developed by chance. Or there might have been some innate bits of sound passed from mom to baby through DNA. The computer program ruled out both of those scenarios. Instead, the analysis showed that the whales had to have learned their distinct dialects from the other whales around them.Scientists refer to this as social learning.

“Social learning is the foundation of culture,” Cantor says. Because sperm whales learn their dialects from their extended family, there are cultural differences between clans. The clans actually exist because of those cultural differences, he says.

Luke Rendell is a biologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He was not involved in the study. He points out that the new finding is based on a computer model of how the sperm whale dialects came to be. A model, though, can only simulate the real world. It is not a direct observation of what actually occurred. “Like all models, it is wrong, but it is also useful,” Rendell says.

The model suggests whales have a bias for the sounds of their own clan members, which shapes their society, Rendell notes. This kind of conformity, or sticking with individuals who behave the same, is thought to underpin a lot of human culture. In non-humans, however, it is considered rare. Finding hints that it exists in sperm-whale clans “really starts to lift the lid on cultural processes in non-human societies,” he says.

Cantor notes that the scientists are not suggesting that the whales’ sounds or culture are as complex or diverse as human cultures are. But, he says, “Whale culture, like human culture, seems to be very important for the whales’ social structure.”

Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

bias   The tendency to hold a particular perspective or preference that favors some thing, some group or some choice. Scientists often “blind” subjects to the details of a test so that their biases will not affect the result.

biology  The study of living things. The scientists who study them are known as biologists.

clan    A large family or group of families that have much in common, both genetically and culturally.

computer model A program that runs on a computer that creates a model, or simulation, of a real-world feature, phenomenon or event.

culture  (in social science) The sum total of typical behaviors and social practices of a related group of people (such as a tribe or nation). Their culture includes their beliefs, values, and the symbols that they accept and or use. It’s passed on from generation to generation through learning. Once thought to be exclusive to humans, scientists have recognized signs of culture in several other animal species, such as dolphins and primates.

dialect  A form of language or pattern of communication that is distinct to a specific place or a social group.

DNA  (short for deoxyribonucleic acid) A long, double-stranded and spiral-shaped molecule inside most living cells that carries genetic instructions. In all living things, from plants and animals to microbes, these instructions tell cells which molecules to make.

dolphins  A highly intelligent group of marine mammals that belong to the toothed-whale family. Members of this group include orcas (killer whales), pilot whales and bottlenose dolphins.

echolocation  (in animals) A behavior in which animals emit calls and then listen to the echoes that bounce back off of solid things in the environment. This behavior can be used to navigate and to find food or mates. It is the biological analog of the sonar used by submarines.

generation  A group of individuals born about the same time or that are regarded as a single group. Your parents belong to one generation of your family, for example, and your grandparents to another. Similarly, you and everyone within a few years of your age across the planet -are referred to as belonging to a particular generation of humans.

innate  Something such as a behavior, attitude or response that is natural, or inborn, and doesn’t have to be learned.

model A simulation of a real-world event (usually using a computer) that has been developed to predict one or more likely outcomes.

pod    (in zoology) The name given to a group of toothed whales that travel together, most of them throughout their life, as a group.

primate  The order of mammals that includes humans, apes, monkeys and related animals (such as tarsiers, the Daubentonia and other lemurs).

programming  (in computing) To use a computer language to write or revise a set of instructions that makes a computer do something. The set of instructions that does this is known as a computer program.

scenario   A possible (or likely) sequence of events and how they might play out.

simulate  (in computing) To try and imitate the conditions, functions or appearance of something. Computer programs that do this are referred to as simulations.

social learning  A type of learning in which individuals observe the behavior of others and modify their own behavior based on what they see.

social network  Communities of people (or animals) that are interrelated owing to the way they relate to each other.

sonar  A system for the detection of objects and for measuring the depth of water. It works by emitting sound pulses and measuring how long it takes the echoes to return.

sperm whale  A species of enormous whale with small eyes and a small jaw in a squarish head that takes up 40 percent of its body. Their bodies can span 13 to 18 meters (43 to 60 feet), with adult males being at the bigger end of that range. These are the deepest diving of marine mammals, reaching depths of 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) or more. They can stay below the water for up to an hour at a time in search of food, mostly giant squids.

zoology  The study of animals and their habitats. Scientists who undertake this work are known aszoologists.

Scientists have developed an eye drop that can dissolve cataracts

Researchers in the US have developed a new drug that can be delivered directly into the eye via an eye dropper to shrink down and dissolve cataracts – the leading cause of blindness in humans.

While the effects have yet to be tested on humans, the team from the University of California, San Diego hopes to replicate the findings in clinical trials and offer an alternative to the only treatment that’s currently available to cataract patients – painful and often prohibitively expensive surgery.

Researchers in the US have developed a new drug that can be delivered directly into the eye via an eye dropper to shrink down and dissolve cataracts – the leading cause of blindness in humans.

While the effects have yet to be tested on humans, the team from the University of California, San Diego hopes to replicate the findings in clinical trials and offer an alternative to the only treatment that’s currently available to cataract patients – painful and often prohibitively expensive surgery.

Affecting tens of millions of people worldwide, cataracts cause the lens of the eye to become progressively cloudy, and when left untreated, can lead to total blindness. This occurs when the structure of the crystallin proteins that make up the lens in our eyes deteriorates, causing the damaged or disorganised proteins to clump and form a milky blue or brown layer. While cataracts cannot spread from one eye to the other, they can occur independently in both eyes.

Scientists aren’t entirely sure what cases cataracts, but most cases are related to age, with the US National Eye Institute reporting that by the age of 80, more than half of all Americans either have a cataract, or have had cataract surgery. While unpleasant, the surgical procedure to remove a cataract is very simple and safe, but many communities in developing countries and regional areas do not have access to the money or facilities to perform it, which means blindness is inevitable for the vast majority of patients.

According to the Fred Hollows Foundation, an estimated 32.4 million people around the world today are blind, and 90 percent of them live in developing countries. More than half of these cases were caused by cataracts, which means having an eye drop as an alternative to surgery would make an incredible difference.

The new drug is based on a naturally-occurring steroid called lanosterol. The idea to test the effectiveness of lanosterol on cataracts came to the researchers when they became aware of two children in China who had inherited a congenital form of cataract, which had never affected their parents. The researchers discovered that these siblings shared a mutation that stopped the production of lanosterol, which their parents lacked.

So if the parents were producing lanosterol and didn’t get cataracts, but their children weren’t producing lanosterol and did get cataracts, the researchers proposed that the steroid might halt the defective crystallin proteins from clumping together and forming cataracts in the non-congenital form of the disease.

They tested their lanosterol-based eye drops in three types of experiments. They worked with human lens in the lab and saw a decrease in cataract size. They then tested the effects on rabbits, and according to Hanae Armitage at Science Mag, after six days, all but two of their 13 patients had gone from having severe cataracts to mild cataracts or no cataracts at all. Finally, they tested the eye drops on dogs with naturally occurring cataracts. Just like the human lens in the lab and the rabbits, the dogs responded positively to the drug, with severe cataracts shrinking away to nothing, or almost nothing.

The results have been published in Nature.

“This is a really comprehensive and compelling paper – the strongest I’ve seen of its kind in a decade,” molecular biologist Jonathan King from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) told Armitage. While not affiliated with this study, King has been involved in cataract research for the past 15 years. “They discovered the phenomena and then followed with all of the experiments that you should do – that’s as biologically relevant as you can get.”

The next step is for the researchers to figure out exactly how the lanosterol-based eye drops are eliciting this response from the cataract proteins, and to progress their research to human trials.

One night of sleep loss can alter clock genes in your tissues

Reading a biological clock in the dark

Swedish researchers at Uppsala University and the Karolinska Institute have found that genes that control the biological clocks in cells throughout the body are altered after losing a single night of sleep, in a study that is to be published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism.

“Previous research has shown that our metabolism is negatively affected by sleep loss, and sleep loss has been linked to an increased risk of obesity and . Since ablation of in animals can cause these disease states, our current results indicate that changes of our clock genes may be linked to such negative effects caused by sleep loss”, says Jonathan Cedernaes, lead author on the study and a researcher at Uppsala University.

For the study the researchers studied 15 healthy normal-weight men who on two separate occasions came to the lab for almost 2-night long stays. During the second night the participants slept as usual (over 8 hours) in one of the two sessions, while they were kept awake in the other of these sessions, but in random order. To minimize the influence of various environmental factors, light conditions, food intake and activity levels in the lab were strictly controlled and the participants were bed-restricted when they were kept awake.

Following the second night on both occasions that the men were studied, small were taken from the superficial fat on the stomach, and from the muscle on the thigh – two kinds of tissues that are important for regulating metabolism and controlling . Blood samples were also taken before and after the participants had consumed a sugar solution to test their insulin sensitivity, a practice commonly done to exclude the presence of diabetes or a metabolic state called impaired , which can precede type-2 diabetes.

Molecular analyses of the collected tissue samples showed that the regulation and activity of clock genes was altered after one night of sleep loss. The activity of genes is regulated by a mechanism called epigenetics. This involves chemical alterations to the DNA molecule such as methyl groups – a process called methylation – which regulates how the genes are switched on or off. The researchers found that clock genes had increased numbers of such DNA marks after sleep loss. They also found that the expression of the genes, which is indicative of how much of the genes’ product is made, was altered.

“As far as we know, we are the first to directly show that epigenetic changes can occur after sleep loss in humans, but also in these important tissues”, says Dr. Cedernaes. “It was interesting that the methylation of these genes could be altered so quickly, and that it could occur for these metabolically important clock genes”, he continues.

The changes that the researchers observed were however different in the adipose tissue and the skeletal muscle. “This could suggest that these important molecular clocks are no longer synchronized between these two tissues”, Dr. Cedernaes says. “As such, ‘clock desynchrony’ between tissues has been linked to metabolic pathologies, this could suggest that these tissue-specific changes were linked to the impaired glucose tolerance that our participants demonstrated after the night that they had been kept awake”

The researchers do not at this stage know how persistent these changes are. “It could be that these changes are reset after one or several nights of good sleep. On the other hand, epigenetic marks are suggested to be able to function a sort of metabolic memory, and have been found to be altered in e.g. shift workers and people suffering from type 2 diabetes”, Dr. Cedernaes points out. “This could mean that at least some types of or extended wakefulness, as in shift work, could lead to changes in the genome of your tissues that can affect your metabolism for longer periods”, Dr. Cedernaes concludes.