Cultured follicles offer hope for beating baldness

Old cell-growth method moves hair restoration technique from mice to humans.

Life seemed to be unfair to balding people. More than four decades ago, scientists found a way grow hair follicles in hairless rodents by cultivating skin cells in a dish and implanting them under the skin. But when they tried the same thing in humans, it never worked. Now, a simple tweak to the culturing technique shows that there might be hope for countering baldness. Read more in Nature.

Low-tech data access is still needed

Here at the World Social Science Forum 2013 in Montreal, Canada, scientists are still calling for innovative, low-tech methods that will enable people in developing nations to capitalise on data.

In recent years there has been a surge in the amount of linked data: networks of connected data sets that can be combined to create powerful repositories of knowledge. All this data could be a boon for people in the developing world — as long as they can access it. Read more in SciDev.Net.

Judgement day

Many governments are assessing the quality of university research, much to the dismay of some researchers.

Two years ago, academics at Lancaster University, UK, found themselves in the uncomfortable position of being graded. They each had to submit the four best pieces of research that they had published in the previous few years, and then wait for months as small panels of colleagues — each containing at least one person from outside the university — judged the quality of the work. Those who failed their evaluations were offered various forms of help, including mentoring from a more experienced colleague, an early start on an upcoming sabbatical or a temporary break from teaching duties.

The university did not undertake this huge exercise just to make sure that the researchers were pulling their weight. The assessment was a drill to prepare for the Research Excellence Framework (REF), a massive evaluation of the quality of research at every university and public research institute in the United Kingdom, which is set to take place in 2014. Read more in Nature.

Researchers get down with the kids

Kids in Sub-Saharan Africa are getting involved in social sciences — and not just as the subjects of research.

A project led by Gina Porter, an anthropologist from Durham University in the United Kingdom, is using ‘child researchers’ to help academics study how mobile phone technologies are changing the way young people travel and interact. Read more in SciDev.Net.

Bats use ear trumpets for social calls

Mammals roost in megaphone-shaped leaves that amplify calls from friends.

Bats that nest inside curled-up leaves may be getting an extra benefit from their homes: the tubular roosts act as acoustic horns, amplifying the social calls that the mammals use to keep their close-knit family groups together.

South American Spix’s disc-winged bats (Thyroptera tricolor) roost in groups of five or six inside unfurling Heliconia and Calathea leaves. The leaves remain curled up for only about 24 hours, so the bats have to find new homes almost every day, and have highly specialized social calls to help groups stay together. When out flying, they emit a simple inquiry call. Bats inside leaves answer with a more complex response call to let group members know where the roost is. Read more in Nature.

Amorous insects predict the weather

Changes in atmospheric pressure reduce mating in beetles, moths and aphids.

People have long claimed that animals can predict the weather, for examply by curtailing their activity when rain threatens. Such theories have had little evidence to support them, but now, a team of scientists has found a concrete example: insects shy away from sex in response to the drop in atmospheric pressure that presages rain. Read more in Nature.

A drop in the river of time

Some things in science are worth waiting for.

Sometime towards the end of this year, one of the rarest events in science is expected to occur. In a display case in the lobby of the physics department at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, a small drop of black tar distillate known as pitch will detach itself from the stem of a funnel and fall into a waiting beaker below. It will be the first time a drop has fallen in 13 years, and only the ninth such drop since the experiment was set up 86 years ago.

Thomas Parnell, the university’s first professor of physics, set up the pitch drop experiment to show his students that pitch, which is brittle enough to shatter if hit with a hammer, can flow like a liquid if left to its own devices long enough. Over the course of almost a century, the experiment has survived the relocation of the university campus, extensive renovations to the physics building where it is housed and innumerable changes in university administration and staff. But it serenely carries on, despite the turmoil of the world all around it. Read more in Materials Today.

US conflict-of-interest case draws attention across continent

A conflict-of-interest case in Oregon is gaining attention across the United States and Canada for the precedent it may set regarding how much physicians should disclose to patients about their financial ties to medical companies.

Two physicians in Salem, Dr. Matthew Fedor and Dr. Kyong Turk, were charged under Oregon’s Unlawful Trade Practices Act. The doctors implanted defibrillators and pacemakers without disclosing to patients that they had been paid by the devices’ manufacturer, Biotronik, to train sales representatives from the company. Read more in CMAJ.

Spot of bother: have we been getting solar activity wrong?

For 400 years sunspot numbers have told us what the sun is up to. But wrinkles in the record have left solar scientists scratching their heads, until now.

EVERY lunchtime, Gustav Holmberg leaves his desk at Lund University in Sweden to take part in a scientific ritual that stretches back to Galileo’s time.

Back at his flat, the historian of science sets up a modest telescope and, taking due care not to burn his eyes, points it directly at the sun. He spends 5 minutes or so counting, and uploads a number to a server in Belgium. There, it is automatically combined with similar numbers from some 90 other observers around the globe, two-thirds of them amateurs like himself.

Satellite engineers use this number, updated daily, to predict how the sun’s future activity will affect their spacecraft. Climate scientists use it to pick out the sun’s long-term effects on Earth’s climate. Electricity companies use it to anticipate solar storms that could affect their grids. It is the international sunspot number: the world’s oldest continuous data series, and one of its most important. Read more in New Scientist.

Risk of tick-borne infections on the rise

Canadians should be prepared for a big increase in the rates of tick-borne diseases like Lyme disease in the coming years, as milder winters make the country more hospitable for the bugs, according to a New Brunswick biologist.

Vett Lloyd, who studies ticks at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, has seen a 6–8-fold increase in the number of ticks in the province so far this year. And the number of those infected with Lyme disease is inching up; it now stands at around 15%. “Even if the proportion of infected ticks stays the same, there are so many more of them around that you have a higher chance of encountering them,” she says. Read more in CMAJ.

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