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Darwin in the news, all agree it wasn’t the sponge, a fishy riddle, hobbits in the news, and more!
We’re less than two weeks away from Darwin’s birthday, and the news media isn’t forgetting.
This just in: sea sponges are not the oldest animal around, according to a recent evolutionary analysis.
It’s a bit of a riddle: three fish are totally unlike one another, yet they’re all the same species. How can it be?
Remember the hobbit? It’s back in the news—again.
Anatomical researcher Karen Baab of Stony Brook University and anthropologist Kieran McNulty of the University of Minnesota have conducted a new analysis of the skull of Homo floresiensis, the so-called “hobbit” found on the Indonesian island of Flores.
A wasp boring into the brain—it may sound painful, but it could be a key to gentler brain surgery.
Researchers studying female wood wasps have noted the ingenious apparatus the wasps use to bore into pine trees, where they lay their eggs. The needle-like egg-laying tube includes two dovetailed shafts that feature backward-facing teeth. The wasp rapidly oscillates each shaft backward and forward, with the teeth helping the needle-like tube move farther in. This tension created by the teeth keeps the shaft open. “It can insinuate itself into the tissue with the minimum amount of force,” notes Imperial College London’s Ferdinando Rodriguez y Baena, one of the researchers.
Rodriguez y Baena and his colleagues are working to replicate the wasp apparatus for surgical use. A prototype developed by the team places a silicon needle amid tiny fin-shaped teeth only 50 micrometers long. In contrast to existing “rigid” surgical probes, the new design is flexible enough to move through safer surgical routes. New Scientist’s David Robson explains that the flexibility allows the probe to bypass “high-risk areas of the brain during surgery” and “reduce the number of incisions needed to deliver cancer therapies.”
So while a brain-boring probe inspired by a needle-like wasp bore may sound quite painful, the technology may actually result in the opposite. It’s another marvelous design in nature that hadn’t yet dawned on human engineers.
The common perception of viruses is entirely negative (for good reason), but a possible virus therapy could change popular opinion.
MIT’s Technology Review covers a potential breakthrough in treating those with spinal cord injuries: using genetically engineered viruses to help support the re-growth of spinal tissue.
University of California–Berkeley bioengineer Seung-Wuk Lee is hoping the viruses can serve to replace the tissue scaffolds that support vital body tissues and provide chemical signals to keep the tissue functioning correctly. Since viruses are self-replicating and self-assembling, they could replace the scaffolds once engineered to express the right characteristics.
Lee is working with a bacteriophage virus (one that infects bacteria but cannot infect animal cells) called M13 that is long and thin, similar to the protein fibers that compose the body’s natural scaffolding. In the lab, Lee and colleague Anna Merzlyak have injected M13 into a solution containing neural-progenitor cells. The viruses “align themselves like a liquid crystal,” creating fibrous strands similar to neurons. Magnetic fields can even help the virus spread into a more complex arrangement.
The next step for Lee is to test M13 in live animals, monitoring for their immune system reaction. If those tests succeed, M13 could eventually be the therapeutic backbone for regenerating damaged spinal cord tissue.
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