Supernova Flashes and Silver Linings

New research from the Weizmann Institute of Science reveals that “cells in our brain form little hexagonal grids that keep us oriented, map-like, in our surroundings.” Weizmann’s resident blogger describes this finding as “a pyrotechnic flash of insight that changes how we understand the brain to work.” Game developers delight; this discovery shows “that you can really apply mathematical models to understand how our mammalian brains get their bearings.” It may also have immediate implications for understanding human brain disorders such as vertigo. Meanwhile, on ERV, Abbie Smith explores a silver lining emerging from ongoing research into the viral scourge known as HIV. Abbie explains that HIV viruses genetically reprogrammed by scientists to “modify relapsed acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) patients T-cells” are prolonging and possibly saving the lives of kids. Continued genetic modification could transform HIV into a powerful tool for fighting cancer and other diseases. Finally, on The Pump Handle, Elizabeth Grossman writes that rapid job growth in oil and gas industry is shining a light on some of the most dangerous jobs on the planet. Elizabeth writes, “Last year, 112 oil and gas industry workers were killed on the job and about 9,000 suffered non-fatal, work-related injuries and illnesses.” Hazards include toxic chemicals, respirable silica, and radiation exposure, not to mention “motor vehicle crashes, fires, electrocution and explosions.” But a new alliance between OSHA, NIOSH, and the National STEPS Network promises to fight for better workplace safety for these very important employees. Oh and for those not satisfied with a metaphor: some real supernova goodness from Ethan Siegel.

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Ebola: Horror and Hope for a Cure

As an unprecedented outbreak of Ebola crosses borders in West Africa, people are asking new questions about the virus and its potential to turn into a global pandemic (hint: it’s not gonna happen). Greg Laden writes “The disease is too hot to not burn itself out, and it has no human reservoir. Ebola accidentally broke into the human population earlier this year or late last year.” The current numbers from the WHO suggest 1800 confirmed and suspected cases of Ebola so far with a mortality rate edging down toward 55%.

Last week some in the U.S. objected to bringing two American patients back home, but Tara C. Smith writes that Ebola has been there all along, in government labs, while related viruses like Lassa and Marburg have been imported by infected travelers without causing additional cases. The one characteristic of Ebola we can be thankful for is that it is only spread through contact with bodily fluids, not through the air like a cold or flu. Smith concludes, “Ebola is exotic and its symptoms can be terrifying, but also much easier to contain by people who know their stuff.” Meanwhile, Greg Laden writes that an extremely rare, untested ‘cure’ for the illness does exist, and it has also been given to the two infected Americans. He’s referring to anti-serum, i.e. blood serum containing natural Ebola antibodies modelled after those generated by infected mice. On Discovering Biology in a Digital World, Sandra Porter shows how the antibodies lock onto viral proteins, and says it is time to focus on mass-producing an effective antiserum for this horrible disease. On ERV, Abbie Smith explains how the manufacturing process works: genetically modifying viruses to contain blueprints for parts of Ebola antibodies, putting the viruses in bacteria as delivery vehicles, and using the bacteria to infect GMO tobacco plants whose cellular machinery will be hijacked to make molecules. Smith writes, “Plants are a pretty cheap way to produce a lot of protein. Blow up the plant cells, purify your protein, and BAM! A ton of anti-Ebola antibodies.”

Last Week on ResearchBlogging.org

Perovskite solar cells can not only emit light, they can also emit up to 70% of absorbed sunlight as lasers.

Critical signaling molecules can be used to convert stem cells to neural progenitor cells, increasing the yield of healthy motor neurons and decreasing the time required to grow them.

Mexican blind cavefish are so close to their sighted kin that they are considered the same species, but they use pressure waves (from opening and closing their mouths) to navigate in the dark.

Electrostatic assembly allows luminescent elements (like Europium) to be embedded in nanodiamonds; these glowing particles “can be used as biomarkers, allowing researchers to track things that are happening inside cells.”

In a rather cruel experiment, researchers tortured male rats by isolating them, depriving them of food and water, clamping their tails, shocking them with electricity, dunking them in cold water, placing them in soiled bedding, and keeping the lights on all night.  Then they cut off and dissected the rats’ testicles to look for signs of stress in their reproductive cells.

On the brighter side of testicular slices, researchers have shown that cancer cells cannot survive a new process for removing and freezing a sample of testicular tissue from boys with cancer.  The process could allow patients to sidestep infertility caused by radiation and chemotherapy by implanting spermatogonial stem cells back into survivors when they reach adulthood.

A newly engineered bacterium can better manufacture pinene, “a hydrocarbon produced by trees that could potentially replace high-energy fuels, such as JP-10, in missiles and other aerospace applications.”

Weather extremes don’t always cause crops to fail; extra rain (as opposed to drought) can boost yields significantly, but it also boosts mosquito populations and the prevalence of mosquito-borne disease.

People with children “experienced less physical pain, felt they had more enjoyment in their lives, earned higher incomes, were better educated, and were healthier” than childless individuals, but still reported lower overall life satisfaction.

Like everyone else, most prisoners feel they are kinder and more moral than the average person; they also feel they are equally law-abiding.

Male wasps mouth the antennae of females during coitus to make them horny (with an oral pheromone), but a second exposure to the pheromone causes a lady wasp to lose interest in “unlocking her genitals” and start looking for fly larvae to deposit her eggs in.

Mafia members, despite their violent lifestyle, are highly social and not likely to be psychopaths.

Using more wood in building construction could reduce CO2 emissions related to the manufacture of steel and concrete while maintaining sustainable forestry practices.

New research replicates a pioneering 19th-century study of blood flow to the brain during cognitive processing.

Some children with autism respond favorably to naltexone, an opiate antagonist, but the drug did not demonstrate an impact on core features of the disorder.

Dogs placed in foster homes—dressed in “Adopt Me” vests and taken to public places—relieve crowding in animal shelters and are more likely to be adopted for the long-term.

Many “hot” foods, like capsaicin, activate the TRPV1 receptor; deceptive showmen apply ginger to the anuses of older horses to make their tails more erect.

Growing soccer players at elite levels of play are more likely to develop cam deformities of the hip.

A patient who lost his hippocampus in a motorcycle accident (and his ability to form new memories) still understands the concepts of past and future, yet he has no regrets, and cannot imagine anyone having regrets (even Richard Nixon).

Hybrid cars get better gas mileage in countries like India and China due to higher levels of traffic congestion.

Among 65,226 UK residents, eating 7 servings of fruits and vegetables per day reduced risk of death from all causes by 42%.