Ripped From the Journals: The Biggest Discoveries of the Week
Nature Nanotechnology, October
The carbon nanotubes that hold such technological promise may be more dangerous to human health than we realized, according to a new study. Lab mice that inhaled nanotubes were found to have the tubes in the outer linings of their lungs–that’s the same place where inhaled asbestos fibers settle and cause the slow-growing cancer known as mesothelioma. The researchers stress that they didn’t find any evidence of cancer in the mice that inhaled nanotubes during the 14-week study, but suggest that longer studies should examine the question further.
Journal of the American Medical Association, October 28
The new generation of antipsychotic drugs may be of enormous benefit to patients’ mental health, but they may take a toll of their bodily health. A study of children and adolescents taking the drugs for the first time found that the young patients added 8 to 15 percent to their weight in less than 12 weeks, leading researchers to caution that the pills may put patients at risk of diabetes and heart disease. The study focused on young patients in order to examine the drugs’ effects on people who had never tried them before, but researchers believe they have the same metabolic effects on adults.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, October 27
Here’s a strange tale of animal behavior that could make for a lurid episode of the Sundance Channel’s Green Porno: Researchers have discovered that one species of jumping spider uses a bloody perfume to make itself irresistible to the opposite sex. According to the study (not yet available online), spiders that feast on blood-fattened mosquitoes just before they search for a mate have much more success than those that eat anything else, including mosquitoes that had been fed on sugar. Stepping from the insect to the mammalian world, another study examined the medical lessons that can be learned from naked mole rats, those ugly subterranean rodents with unusually long life spans. Researchers previously noted that mole rats never get cancer, and now they think they know why: The mole rats’ cells hate to be crowded and stop multiplying when they come into contact with each other. That means that the runaway cell divisions that produce cancerous tumors can’t take place.
Nature, October 29
Researchers have taken another step towards understanding the uncanny accuracy with which migratory birds navigate their annal routes: At least in the case of the European robin, they’re aided by amazing magneto-vision! Researchers knew that some birds can detect magnetic fields, but weren’t sure how the mechanism worked. Now, a new study has found that certain proteins in light-sensitive cells in a robin’s eyes convey the message to a visual processing area of its brain. The study also disproved the theory that it is iron-based cells in the birds’ beaks that did the trick. Moving on to a journey just a tad bit longer than that of a European robin, another study examined some gamma rays that traveled billions of light-years across the universe. The gamma rays were the result of a massive supernova that occurred 7.3 billion years ago, and they were detected by the Fermi Space Telescope. Astrophysicists realized they offered an excellent opportunity to settle some nagging questions about the nature of space-time: namely, is it smooth and continuous, as Einstein’s theory of general relativity assumed, or is it granular and sometimes lumpy, as predicted by quantum mechanics? If space-time is lumpy, then the gamma rays with the shortest wavelengths might get slowed down by inference from the tiny grains as they travel across the universe, while rays with longer wavelengths would speed on ahead. So researchers checked to see if the gamma rays detected by the Fermi Telescope arrived in a staggered procession–but they didn’t, instead they all arrived within nine-tenths of a second. Their conclusion: Space-time is smooth, and Einstein was right about the speed of light always being constant. Unless, of course, the grains of space-time are much smaller than we have ever dared imagine, and had a much tinier effect on the gamma rays. Got all that?