The Dirt: This Week in Nature (August 18-24)

  1. Artificial Intelligence Scans for Mutations.

    Tiny organisms, such as C. elegans, form the backbone of much biological research. Until now, scientists interested in spotting mutations among these tiny creatures had to resort to microscopic examination, which is time consuming and inaccurate. Now a new artificial intelligence programs pioneered by scientists at Georgia Tech uses sophisticated imaging to scan thousands of minute organisms. The program is able to detect minute differences in an organism’s physical form that indicates a mutation. In fact, the AI is so sophisticated that once running, it can predict mutant forms by itself.

    More at Red Orbit.

  2. Targeting Tumors with Nanoparticles.

    New research from the National Cancer Institute has developed a test tube proof of concept prototype for fitting nanoparticles with virus-like targeted chemotherapy. Just as a virus can attack a cell by using a chemical key to unlock its surface receptors, these artificially created nanoparticles use a similar system — they can self-assemble and then enter a tumor cell by means of a specially engineered chemical key. Once inside, they can deliver a chemotherapeutic payload to kill the cell. The next step in this groundbreaking research is to set loose the charged nanoparticles into animal tumor cells.

    More at Nature News Blog.

  3. Finally: Why Dogs Chase Their Tails.

    Researchers from the University of Helsinki may be on the trail to the answer to an age-old question: why do dogs chase their tails? It turns out that the answer is more depressing than charming. Tail chasing is the dog equivalent of human obsessive compulsive disorder. Just as some people cannot stop obsessively washing their hands, dogs who exhibit high levels of tail chasing are not able to refrain from this activity. The disorder is to some extent breed specific, with german shepherds and bull terriers among the most afflicted breeds. On a somewhat brighter note, vitamin supplements seem to be associated with a diminishment of the behavior.

    More at Red Orbit.

  4. Detective Blood Cells.

    An astonishingly ingenious idea might soon turn red blood cells into non-invasive chemical detectors. The process involves filling red blood cell with a fluorescent chemical by allowing the red blood cells to swell up, opening their pores to receive the fluorescent additive. The blood cells would then be resealed and reintroduced into the patient. Next, the researchers take advantage of the fact that near-infrared light can penetrate the skin and in doing so, will cause the fluorescent material in the blood cells to glow. That glow can be picked up by a special monitor and can be used to interpret what chemical changes have occurred in the blood cells since they were reintroduced into the patient.

    More at Nature News Blog.

  5. An Insect with Plant-like Traits.

    Sopping up and using the sun’s radiated energy through photosynthesis is a skill that most plants share. Why can’t animals do the same thing? Well, in fact some do. Some years ago the green sea slug was discovered to produce chlorophyll and put it to the same use as plants. Now, another member of the animal kingdom, the pea aphid, appears to have adopted the same ability. When exposed to sunlight, the pea aphid produces a critical chemical (adenosine triphosphate or ATP) which is used for cell energy, just like green plants. They can also produce an antioxidant pigment, just like plants do. Scientists believe that the aphids acquired the necessary genes to accomplish these feats by swapping genes with fungi, with which they have had a long association.

    More at Live Science.

  6. House Cats Cleared of Human Cancer Risk.

    Fluffy has reason to rejoice if University of Oxford epidemiologist Vicky Benson is correct. Her recent analysis of a huge pool of data contradicts earlier suggestions that a particular parasite found in mice, T. gondii, which is known to contribute to brain cancer in humans, might be transmissible to people by their house cats. T. gondi reproduces inside a cat’s gut. Remarkably, its chances of getting inside a cat’s gut are increased if it alters mice neurochemistry in such a way as to decrease their normal fear of the scent of cats. However, despite premature newspaper speculation, the cancer-causing parasite is not easily transmissible from cats to people. Indeed, several food sources pose a much higher risk of infection for people than do their cats.

    More at Live Science.

  7. Elephants’ Low Frequency Vocalizations Resemble Singing More than Purring.

    An elephant’s vocal “folds” are eight times as long as those of humans. That means they produce sound frequencies too low for humans to hear. These ultra-low frequency sounds can travel as far as 10 kilometers — over six miles. It also turns out that elephants produce these sounds not by quick muscle contractions similar to a cat’s purring, but by blowing air through their vocal tracts in the same manner that people sing or hum.

    More at Science News.

  8. Tigers “Protected” from Tourism?

    In the Indian town of Sawai Madhopur, tigers are not just an attraction, they are its primary industry. However, a temporary ban on tiger tourism by India’s supreme court has put that industry on hold. The court has found that unregulated tiger tourism is a threat to the tigers. But locals and many tiger experts disagree. They contend that it is tourism and the people who depend upon it who protect the tigers and deter poachers. Of course, economic realities can cloud judgments and it can only be hoped that ultimately the prevailing argument will end up protecting India’s tigers, which represent one half of the world-wide tiger population.

    More at Global Animal.

  9. U.S. Corn and Kenyan Maize Face Different But Serious Troubles.

    Much has been said about the disastrous mid-western drought that has crushed the yield of corn in the United States this year. But Kenya is facing a different but equally serious problem with its maize crops. Two viruses are causing what is known as maize lethal necrosis. The result is that up to 80% of the maize crops in some parts of Kenya have wilted and died. Kenya has encouraged farmers to destroy what is left of their infected fields and plant alternative crops. Combined with the U.S. corn losses, a drastic increase in grain prices is the one thing that will be certain.

    More at Scientific American.

  10. Butterfly Club’s Records a Scientific Resource.

    The Massachusetts Butterfly Club’s members have taken pains to document butterfly sightings in Massachusetts on over 20,000 sighting expeditions over the past 19 years. It turns out that those amatuer records are an invaluable resource for scientists studying climate change. By analyzing the club’s meticulous sightings, scientists have uncovered a pattern of movement among certain species of butterflies, each of which require especially narrow climate conditions. The results of the analysis confirm that the climate has been steadily warming and that this is reflected in the species of butterflies that have migrated to and from Massachusetts.

    More at

“The Dirt: This Week in Nature” curated and written by Robert Raciti.