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This week in science (April 19 – April 26)

Graphic Illustration by Claire Roth

By Claire Roth

Wildlife – Ants, fungus, and Radiohead

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Graphic Illustration by Claire Roth

Though the subjects of ants, fungus, and the rock band Radiohead are all normally unrelated, the discovery of a new ant species created a connecting thread between all three. The species was found in the Venezuelan Amazon by a team of scientists from the Smithsonian Institution’s Ant Lab in Washington, D.C. It was named Sericomyrmex radioheadi in recognition of Radiohead’s recent environmental advocacy, including raising awareness of climate science and joining environmental movements such as Friends of the Earth, an international network of environmental organizations. Its namesake aside, the ant itself is an impressive gardener. Sericomyrmex radioheadi grows its own food in a fungus garden and females are thought to possibly produce a natural parasite and microbial weed deterrent with a crystalline substance on their backs.

Source(s): Phys.org, Rolling Stone

Wildlife – A taste for plastic

A taste for plastic

Graphic Illustration by Claire Roth

An ally has appeared in the environmental war waged on plastic bags, and in an unlikely way. A caterpillar called the wax worm, most commonly used as fishing bait, poses a significant threat to the wellbeing of bee colonies. After wax moths lay their eggs inside of hives, the larvae grow on the walls of wax inside the hive and become pests to the bees. In the process of removing the wax worms from the beehive, Federica Bertocchini, a beekeeper and member of a research team deposited the retrieved wax worms in a plastic shopping bag. Curiously, small holes began to appear. In a controlled experiment conducted at a later time, the research team found that wax worms placed inside of a plastic shopping bag created holes in just under an hour. This was a result of the wax worm’s ability to break the chemical bonds found in the plastic bag. Their ability to do this stems from their ability to break the chemical bonds of the beeswax that they grow on, which has a similar chemical structure to that of plastic. Researchers from the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria in Spain and from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Biochemistry aim to pinpoint the wax worm’s chemical bond-breaking ability and possibly scale it up for use in plastic waste reduction.

Source: Phys.org

Medicine – Mice, spice, and weed

Mice, Spice and weed

Graphic Illustration by Claire Roth

An experiment conducted by researchers from the University of Connecticut has raised questions about the interactions between the brain and the immune system. In the experiment, mice were fed chili pepper in order to observe how the chemical responsible for spiciness in peppers, capsaicin, reacted with a receptor called TRPV1 in the mice’s gastrointestinal tracts. TRPV1’s interaction with capsaicin resulted in cells making anandamide. Anandamide caused the mice’s immune systems and stomachs to calm down and become less inflamed, even curing type 1 diabetes in some mice. Anandamide is also similar to cannabinoids found in marijuana, and the brain’s receptors for anandamide are what cause the high feeling when reacting with cannabinoids. The question researchers asked was why anandamide receptors could be found in both the brain and the immune system, when they are not particularly necessary for bodily functions. The research team hopes to use the observed effects of ingested marijuana and hot peppers in order to develop ways to combat varieties of intestinal, pancreatic, and digestive disorders.

Source: Medical Xpress

Wildlife – Naked mole-plant

Naked Mole Rat

Graphic Illustration by Claire Roth

It’s not easy being a small, naked mammal near the bottom of the food chain. Life consists of burrowing underground to escape snakes, coprophagia (eating one’s own feces), and looking like a cross between an earthworm and a rat. This is perhaps why the naked mole-rat has developed such a specific and strange set of skills that allow it to survive. Colonies of naked mole-rats are eusocial, meaning they have the highest classification of a social structure. They live the longest out of all rodents, typically surviving for around 30 years in the wild, and have one queen per colony. Naked mole-rats also can thrive in oxygen-deficient environments and are cancer and pain resistant. Scientists from several universities recently discovered another strange ability of the naked mole-rat: the ability to use fructose, a sugar found in fruits, to power their brain cells when oxygen is not available for use. When deprived of oxygen for too long, brain cells will begin to run out of energy and die, posing a serious problem to the underground-dwelling naked mole-rat. However, the brain cells of naked mole-rats create energy anaerobically by burning fructose. This is a process that has beforehand only been observed in plant life.

Source(s): Science News, Wikipedia

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