Cheating death? That's science play

27th Jul 2013 | 09:30

Cheating death? That's science play

And why that distant blue dot is kinda interesting

This Week in Science our collective health gets a possible boost because we might have found a way to actually cheat death, as well as a new weapon against the scourge of Anthrax and MRSA to stop us dying in the first place.

If that wasn't enough we've also gotten an eyeful of Earth from Saturn, plus we've developed carbon dioxide batteries that'll produce power from our waste gases without further wrecking the planet. All that and more in another week of exciting scientific progress.

We may have a new weapon against the superbugs that can even kill Anthrax

Anthrax - out of here

Researchers from California have discovered a novel antibiotic naturally secreted by a marine-dwelling member of the Streptomyces family of bacteria. The compound can surprisingly succeed where everything else fails, killing both MRSA and Anthrax.

Anthracimycin, as the new compound is called, could be refined into a viable antibiotic for our war against superbugs and other anti-biotic resistant species of bacteria. Discoveries of truly novel antibiotic chemicals such as anthracimycin are few and far between, ramming home how much of a resource the un-explored ocean depths could be, with their ecologically and chemically distinct environments and species. [Angewandte Chemie]

It looks like your Y chromosome isn't the be-all and end-all its manliness was cracked up to be

It was thought for many years, ever since we determined that there were two types of chromosomes that dictated sex in mammals, that the Y chromosome was solely responsible for all male-specific characteristics. That's because it's the one that all males have but females possess. It turns out, that's not quite true.

It seems the X chromosome leads a double life. While present in a female, a whole series of genes contained within it lay dormant. But when present in a male in an XY pairing, the swath of genes is activated, and play important roles in all sorts of male-specific features, like the development of sperm. It also seems that these genes are some of the most recently evolved since the diversion of mammal species. Now that we know human evolution has focussed, at least in part, on the X chromosome, it's time we discovered what this library of unique genes actually do, as they could play an important role in both body function and disease. [Nature]

This tiny blue speck is Earth, all the way from Saturn

There's no place like home

NASA's released this incredible image from its Cassini spacecraft that shows the Earth and if you squint a lot, the Moon, all the way from Saturn.

Cassini was in the process of capturing a detailed portrait mosaic of Saturn, which allows astrophysicists studying the planet's beautiful rings a better view of the more diffuse or faint ones though backlighting by the Sun. Earth just happened to photobomb the shot. It just goes to show how insignificant out little planet is in the whole grand scheme of things. [NASA]

Carbon dioxide batteries? Now why didn't I think of that?


Coal and gas power stations, as well as a load of other industrial burning systems produce a load of CO2. It's a by-product we currently don't really have a use for, and which contributes to climate change. But now scientists have come up with an ingenious use for it that'll produce even more electricity without spitting out any more carbon.

The system essentially uses the carbon dioxide to create bicarbonate ions, which are produced when CO2 is bubbled through water. The ions are combined into what is essentially an electrochemical cell, or a two-stage battery. Combined with hydrogen ions, you get a potential difference when the bicarbonate ions are created in the water, driving the ions to their respective electrodes. Once the electrodes are saturated, air-bubbled water can then be pumped through the system to release the potential energy and produce electricity. By alternating the two stages of the process you have the potential to generate vast amounts of electricity without adding any more carbon into the atmosphere, from what is essentially waste gas. [ESTL]

Dolphins call each other names

Get that bloody pen off my head Dave

Those high-pitch screeches we can barely hear are, as you might expect, the language of the dolphins, or at least a rudimentary method of communication between the animals. However, it seems they're more than just grunts or expressions of basic feelings. Some of them are actually names.

Bottlenose dolphins have been found to respond to specific bursts of sound, or 'signature whistles', corresponding to something akin to a name or individual demarcation. Each dolphin develops its own whistle, broadcasting it to others. Researchers found that individual animals will recognise their own whistle and blast it back at a recording, indicating recognition of their name. Apart from humans, dolphins are the only known mammals to name individuals, possibly showing a much more evolved self-awareness than first thought. [PNAS]

We're easily seduced by shiny cigarette packages

We might have put the plan to force cigarette manufacturers into using plain packages on hold, but the Australians haven't. Since December last year, cigarettes have been sold in plain packages and the results are surprising.

Despite the "these will kill you warnings" the colourful and rich-looking packets affect the taste and satisfaction of the smokes inside. Smokers deemed the cigarettes in plain packages of poorer quality despite the brand staying the same, and thought about quitting more often, which is a major win for health advocates. Now that the evidence is clear, it shouldn't be long before the same legislation comes into force in the UK and elsewhere, as long as the tobacco industry's lobbying can be overcome, of course. [BMJ Open]

Death isn't quite as instantaneous as we first thought

Gone but not for…something

A new study on cell death has shown that, rather than an instant cross-body cessation of life, death propagates throughout an organism much more slowly than you might assume.

The signal for cell death, which terminates cell function, moves through an organism, in this case a worm, like a wave. Calcium signalling passes from one cell to the next, triggering necrosis and therefore death. Now that we know the mechanisms behind the cell death signal's movement through an organism, there's a possibility that we'll be able to halt it, effectively cheating death, at least in limited cases. Researchers were able to prevent death from infection-induced stress by blocking the signal in worms, but not death related to age. Maybe one day paramedics will come equipped with death-halting drugs to help injured patients survive trauma. [PLoS Biology]

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