Recent Interesting Science Articles (April 2017)

A whole bunch of stuff this month, most of it once again in biology.

  • Let’s start with the many articles about animals this month. I’ve previously posted about how octopuses are highly unusual in that much of their nervous system is distributed along their tentacles, unlike other animals in which their neurons are mostly located in their brains. This article talks about how they are also highly weird in that they make extensive use of RNA editing. This seems to allow them to tailor make proteins for a variety of different situations but the researchers speculate that this comes at a cost of slower long-term evolution.
  • Next up is a short article with a cool video that demonstrates how an African ant species that eats only termites has an unusual survival strategy: they are able to sense when their compatriots become injured and come to their aid by carrying them back to the nest to recuperate. Or as the article puts it, they employ combat medics. As far as I know, ants don’t have mechanisms to allow them to heal major injuries or regenerate lost limbs but the articles that they may in time learn to adapt to the loss.
  • Having been laid low by the flu for much of this month, I was pleased to see this article. Viruses are of course unaffected by antibiotics which is why the usual medical advice for dealing with the flu is just to wait for your own immune system to develop antibodies to overwhelm it. This article talks about how a species of frogs in India oozes mucus that is able to latch onto flu virus particles and cause them to burst apart. Perhaps even more unusual is that it specifically targets only flu virus particles, in fact only the H1 subtype of flu viruses, and nothing else so it appears to be non-toxic.
  • The last of the articles about animals is this one about the invention of an artificial womb. Hitherto all reproductive technologies such as artificial insemination or cloning still rely on a live mother to carry the fetus to term. This invention, called the Biobag, resembles a clear plastic bag that allows the fetus to develop inside it immersed in an electrolyte solution and equipped with pumps to circulate its blood. So far it has only been tested with baby sheep but if it works as promised, it will obviously be extended to all kinds of animals.
  • Finally let’s end with a history article which proposes a different view of the practice of footbinding in China. The usual view is that it is imposed on women who are trophy wives as a visible symbol of their inability to work and therefore are dependent on servants for their wellbeing. This article argues that they do indeed valuable work with their hands, mainly weaving cloth, and that footbinding was a way to ensure that they stuck to it. They offer as proof the fact that the practice was common even among poor people and that its demise can be tracked by the arrival of machine-made cloth. I have no idea how true this alternative view is, but it certainly makes for fascinating reading.

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