Science Now: Science Stories From June 2015 - Part 1

In this two-part installment of Science Now, we take on the science news that caught our attention last month. 

SOCIAL SCIENCE

While many of us are guilty of procrastinating while watching videos of cute furry animals like cats, a recent survey with 6795 people has found that watching videos of Internet cats can significantly improve one's mood.1

A look at the study's methods however, finds that a vast majority of the sample had owned a cat at some point in their lives (93%), while a third of the respondents described themselves as cat people. Thus, the study may be skewed towards those who already have an affinity for cats in the first place.

Nevertheless, the researcher recommends viewing cat videos as a form of low-cost pet therapy, which has already been shown to improve moods for a number of populations.

                                          [Photo credit: Orange Jasmine Purple Yam blog]

While developmental psychologists consider 7-8 years old as the age of reason for children, a recent study from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology has found that children as young as 3 years old may already have a sense of justice.

For comparison, experiments with chimpanzees have found that while they will punish another chimp that steals food from them, they will not budge if they observe a theft occurring between two other chimps. On the other hand, while the 3-year olds in the Max Planck experiment interceded approximately half of the time when a puppet stole a treat from them, they also interceded around 40% of the time when they observed it occurring between two puppets. 5-year olds interceded nearly 80% of the time when they were stolen from, and roughly 70% of the time on behalf of a puppet.2

This is called by the scientists as third-party punishment, where the individuals carry out justice even if they are not directly involved. It still remains to be seen, however, if this behavior is possibly culturally influenced.

                                        [Photo credit: Friendship Circle Special Needs Resource Blog]

Social structures are not unique to us humans; wild olive baboons for instance, live in hierarchical, authoritarian societies, with large males often getting their way with food or mate choice. Despite this stratification, collective decisions are made democratically, maintaining group cohesion.

Scientists tracked a group of 25 baboons with GPS collars and observed their behavior for two weeks.3  They found that some individuals are initiators (not necessarily the dominant males), who deviate from the group and move in one direction, with the group most likely to follow when many initiators agree upon a general direction. If two subgroups proceed in conflicting directions, the rest follow the majority.

                                          [Photo credit: Muhammad Mahdi Karim]


ASTRONOMY


Astronomy nerds have something to look forward to for the next decade, with the planned construction of the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT). With its seven mirrors, its vision will be 10 times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope, allowing us to see even further and deeper into the universe and into time. 

Wendy Freedman, chair of the GMTO board of directors, adds that it would help to "reveal the first objects to emit the light in the universe, explore the mysteries of dark energy and dark matter, and identify potentially habitable planets in the Earth's galactic neighborhood."

The telescope is estimated to be fully operational by 2024. 

                                         [Photo credit: GMTO Corporation, from Space.com]

Scientists have been reporting evidence of volcanic activity on Venus for years, with regions showing fresh lava flow in 2010, and a spike in atmospheric sulfur dioxide in 2007. This year, they've found hot spots on the surface of the planet demonstrating significant changes in temperature over just a few days.

The hot spots, found along the edge of the Ganiki Chasma rift zone, cover areas of no more than 1 square kilometer, and may have reached temperatures above 825˚ (higher than the global average temperature of 480˚C).

                                         [Photo credit: Magellan spacecraft, NASA/JPL]

DNA AND FORENSICS

With DNA analysis as one of the most reliable techniques in forensic science, it even extends its utility into solving crimes in conservation biology. By analyzing DNA from confiscated ivory and matching it to elephant dung found in nature reserves, scientists can actually trace where the elephants were slaughtered.5

                                         [Photo credit: Infinite Fire blog]

By tracing this location, law enforcement such as Interpol can identify the poaching routes and catch the criminals before they kill any more of the waning population. According to biologist Samuel Wasser, more than 50,000 were killed in 2013 alone. 

                                          [Photo credit: Hackworth website]

An important assumption for fingerprint analysis is that fingerprints are unique, and constitute individual evidence. Statistical analysis of a sample of 15,597 subjects has shown that these prints in fact, change over time.6 However, it is not by a significant amount - at least, not enough to change the conclusions of an analysis. 

BIODIVERSITY AND EVOLUTION

From March to May 2015, Terry Gosliner and his team from the California Academy of Sciences (CAS) ran a marine expedition to the Philippines, and discovered more than 40 news species of nudibranchs, and also found many other potential species of barnacles and urchins. This incredible biodiversity could have arisen because of the high nutrient content of the waters that mix in the Verde Island passage. 

Terry and his team have been conducting expeditions in the Philippines before, with the author having attended a workshop with CAS in 2013. With greater technology this time around, they were able to find more species. It is hoped that this will promote greater awareness for the preservation of the Philippines' coral reefs.


If you find your cat is a picky eater, this news might shed more light on how to solve your problem - two bitter taste receptors (Tas2r38 and Tas2r43) have been identified in domestic cats which respond to compounds that have similar molecular structures to foods like broccoli and Brussels sprouts7

Apparently, cats taste bitter differently from that of humans, and this research could help pet food manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies in developing more palatable foods for our pets.

[Photo credit: Hubhomedesign.com]

Adaptation to a hot environment is necessary to survive and therefore manifests in different ways in desert organisms. Animals regulate their water loss to prevent dehydration and some tend to avoid the sun when it's bright in the sky. For foraging ants, they will need to face the heat. 

The Saharan silver ants keep cool in the desert with a special coating of silver hairs on their backs and sides that reflect much of the light that hits their bodies8. The absorbed light is converted to infrared light, and radiated away through the hair. A silver coating along their ventral surfaces also reflects heat coming from the ground.


                                         [Photo credit: ChronicleCouncil.com]

HEALTH AND MEDICINE


                                         [Photo credit: AlJazeera.com]

So far, there have been two reported cases in the Philippines of the MERS virus - but why did this virus spread so easily in Korea? JongKoo Lee, the director of the Seoul National University Hospital, suspects it could be due to bad ventilation in one of patient zero's hospital rooms. The 68-year old patient zero was diagnosed with MERS after a business trip in the Middle East, and was treated at St. Mary's Hospital, where many of the infected had ties to (30 of the 41 confirmed cases).

The room he stayed in was meant for six people, with no ventilation and only one small window that was kept closed. The air conditioning kept the virus circulating throughout the air, and indeed, MERS viral RNA was found on the membrane of the air conditioning unit. 

Virologist Christian Drosten adds that a patient with a much greater viral load in his or her breath could also contribute to the spread. Currently, more than 1600 people who have had contact with the infected have been isolated for quarantine. 

If you've ever wanted to know every single virus you've been infected with, it may actually be possible in the future. Current immunological assays test for one pathogen at a time, but Boston researchers developed the VirScan, which not only determines the viruses you've been infected with based on the antibodies your body produces in response, but also allows you to compare the viral histories of different groups9. Most people in the sample were found to have had antibodies for around 10 viral infections, with those outside of the US averaging more. The most common include the common cold as well as the herpes virus.

                                         [Photo credit: Newsweek.com]

Microbiologist Vincent Racaniello points out a limitation of the test - it might not detect antibodies such as those for intestinal infections, since they don't persist as long in the body. Regardless, this new technology has many potential uses in the future: annual physical exams could just ask for a drop of blood, and you would know if you've had any asymptomatic diseases. 

Lastly, it is common knowledge that our brains (and the brains of many other gyrencephalic species) contain grooves and folds. A new study from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro states that the degree of this folding follows the scaling law: a mathematical relationship that also explains how paper crumples10.

                                         [Photo credit: Wired.com]

The researchers studied the brains of 62 different species, and plotted the area of the cerebral cortex multiplied by the square root of its thickness versus the exposed brain area. The data fell on a single curve for both smooth-brained and folded-brained species. Just like how paper folded into a ball settles into the configuration that uses the least energy, so does our brain's cortex. 

While neuroscientist Georg Striedter11 suggests that the forces that shape the cortex are internal and thus not fully incompatible with the paper crumbling analogy, researcher Suzana Herculano-Houzel states that the cortex is indeed subject to an external force, causing it to crumple - the limited space caused by the cranium. 



REFERENCES:

1.  Myrick, JG. (2015). Emotion regulation, procrastination, and watching cat videos online: Who watches internet cats, why, and to what effect? Computers in Human Behavior 52: 168-176.
2.  Riedl, K. et al. (2015). Restorative justice in children. Current Biology 25(13): 1731-1735.
3.  Strandburg-Peshkin, A. et al. (2015). Shared decision-making drives collective movement in wild baboons. Science 348(6241): 1358-1361.
4.  Shalygin, EV. et al. (2015). Active volcanism on Venus in the Ganiki Chasma rift zone. Geophysical Research Letters 42.
5.  Wasser, SK. et al. (2015). Genetic assignment of large seizures of elephant ivory reveals Africa's major poaching hotspots. Science 349(6243): 84-87.
6.  Yoon, S. &   Jain, AK. (2015). Longitudinal study of fingerprint recognition. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
7.  Sandau, MM. et al. (2015). A functional comparison of the domestic cat bitter receptors Tas2r38 and Tas2r43 with their human orthologs. BMC Neuroscience 16:33. 
8.  Nan Shi, N. et al. (2015). Keeping cool: Enhanced optical reflection and heat dissipation in silver ants. Science. 
9.  Xu, GJ. et al. (2015). Comprehensive serological profiling of human populations using a synthetic human virome. Science 348(6239). 
10.  Mota, B. & Herculano-Houzel, S. (2015). Cortical folding scales universally with surface area and thickness, not number of neurons. Science 349(6243): 74-77.
11.  Striedter, GF. & Srinivasan, S. (2015). Knowing when to fold them. Science 349(6243): 31-32.

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