In brief

Zeitgeist

Martian avalanche

19 February was a lucky day for the team that operates the HiRISE – High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment – the camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. As its lens was pointed at the Red Planet’s north pole to study the movement of the dunes to the rhythm of the seasons, scientists were treated to the spectacle of an avalanche. From the ochre dust cloud caused by falling ice and solid CO2, the avalanche evidently occurred along a steep south-facing slope. Its likely cause was a temperature rise during the Martian spring – although a local earthquake or the impact of a meteorite were other possible causes. Phenomena of this kind give scientists new insights in their understanding of the planet’s water cycle and the irregularity of its seasons.


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Stem cells against cancer

There is good news for breast cancer research . Given that stem cells and cancer cells share certain characteristics, namely the ability to self-reproduce and mutate into different functional cells, a team from Northwestern University (USA) searched for proteins with the ability to interact with these two cell types. The researchers identified one protein, produced by stem cells, that is able to inhibit the proliferation of cancer cells in the breast. Named Lefty, it interacts with the protein Nodal which is responsible for the growth and reproduction of these cells. The results are highly encouraging: when these cancer cells are exposed to stem cells containing the protein Lefty they multiply at a reduced rate. But there remains one drawback: the Lefty proteins are in short supply as they must be synthetised by human embryonic stem cells, the use of which is still a sensitive subject.

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Cicada or ant...

At a workshop held in February, the FAO (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation) highlighted insects as a promising means of boosting the economy and food production of the world’s poorest regions. Rich in protein, fats and vitamins, today more than 500 insects are consumed in more than 90 countries. A hundred grams of caterpillars (commonly eaten in central Africa), for example, contains 53 grams of protein and enough minerals and vitamins to satisfy daily nutritional requirements. This makes entomophagy an effective solution in combating world hunger. But the FAO also sees it as offering potential for a new economy: insect rearing implies investment— collection must be manual – and the produce can supply local markets. In short, an extremely promising source of revenue, especially for women in rural areas of developing countries.

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Bacterial rain

A joint US and European project headed by Louisiana State University (USA) has drawn attention to the glaciogenic role of micro-organisms present in the atmosphere, such a bacteria, phages or viruses. The hypothesis is not new but the estimation of the degree to which these organisms influence rainfall is nevertheless surprising. If the temperature falls gradually, pure water can remain liquid to a temperature of -35°C. In this unstable state known as surfusion, it takes no more than an encounter between a water molecule and a dust particle or bacteria to trigger immediate freezing. Upon contact with these nucleation cores, the water freezes at their surface enabling neighbouring molecules to attach themselves and, in turn, to freeze. When analysing collected particles, researchers discovered that bacteria living in clouds represent between 69% and 100% of nucleation cores! These micro-organisms, which are parasites on certain plants, therefore play a major role in the intensity and distribution of rainfall, generating rain that is becoming even more necessary with global warming.

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Stay cool

A problem to solve? Then remain relaxed and keep your mind open. This is what a study by a team of researchers from the University of London has shown. They analysed the electric pulses produced by the neurons of 21 volunteers set to the task of resolving problems. On the basis of the electroencephalograms obtained, the scientists showed that the more the subject grapples with an insoluble problem the more gamma waves – thus with a frequency of over 30 Hz – the brain generates. Mentally deadlocked, you are less inclined to open the mind to restructure the problem posed or even to make use of clues provided. On the other hand, relaxed people produce alpha waves – a frequency between 8 and 13 Hz – and show the ability to find a solution by approaching a problem from different angles. In the near future, the team hopes to be able to affect the “rhythm” of subjects’ brains so as to influence their problem-solving abilities.


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«Au clair de la lune»

This is the title of the oldest voice recording discovered to date. First Sounds, an American association of historians, sound engineers and scientists, has restored and replayed this recording dating from 9 April 1860. It is credited to Edouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, one of the inventors of phonautography, and precedes the Edison phonograph by 17 years. The sound waves are etched onto a sheet of paper blackened by smoke from an oil lamp. It was by digitising the document at very high resolution that the engineers recreated a virtual disc. They also corrected the speed fluctuations inherent in the manual recording. This sound engraved 148 years ago is now available on the Internet, in mp3 format.

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Identical twins are… not identical

A perfect genetic similarity of homozygotic twins does not exist. That is what US and European researchers discovered when they studied 19 pairs of “identical” twins. Although they have the same DNA, subtle differences remain in the number of segment copies. Base pairs of DNA – the genetic code – are duplicated several times and it is in the variation of the number of these copies that differences appear. Until now, studies on identical twins have been used to determine what is inherent and what is acquired. As the brother of an identical short-sighted twin had only an 80% risk of also being short-sighted, the environmental factor could not be ruled out entirely. The bad news is that all studies of this kind have been called into question by these recent discoveries. But the good news is that this new progress will also give way to major progress in our understanding of many genetic diseases, offering new prospects for future treatments. The study, published in the American Journal of Human Genetics, was carried out by the University of Alabama (USA), the Leiden University Medical Centre (NL), VU University (NL), Uppsala University (SE) and the Karolinska Institute (SE).


Imperial arsenic

It seems that Napoleon was not poisoned but died a natural death. Analyses carried out at the National Institute of Nuclear Physics (NINP) in Italy have thus laid to rest an age-old theory. Researchers used several samples of the emperor’s hair taken between his childhood and the day before his death, placing them at the heart of a small nuclear reactor where they were bombarded with neutrons. When it acquires a neutron, arsenic becomes unstable and disintegrates, emitting gamma and beta rays. The radiation measured shows arsenic levels 100 times the normal, irrespective of when the hair samples were taken. Comparative analyses of the hair of his son, wife and contemporaries produced the same results. There is therefore every reason to believe that the living conditions at the time caused large quantities of the poison to be absorbed, ruling out once and for all the theory that Napoleon was poisoned during his imprisonment on the island of Saint Helena.

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European News

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Implants of hope

Regaining the use of a paralysed arm or a deaf person’s hearing is no longer mission impossible. At least that is one of the outcomes of the Healthy Aims project, which brings together 24 partners across 10 countries to develop a range of new techniques for nanoscopic medical implants. One of the devices developed by the project is STIMUGRIP, a tiny receiver that is implanted inside the forearm and attached to two electrodes wired to the muscles that control the wrist and fingers. The implant is remotely controlled by a small box wrapped around the arm, called an accelerometer. It fires simple electrical impulses through the nerves connected to the muscle to flex the wrist and open the fingers of a disabled arm. Cochlear implants placed under the skin will also enable hearing-impaired people to communicate in noisy places or to enjoy music. This multidisciplinary collaboration gives new hope to disabled people whilst also advancing state-of-the-art technology.

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Skin vaccine

Is tattooing the vaccine of the future? DNA vaccination is an innovative concept dating back to the early 1990s. It consists of injecting a part of a pathogen’s genetic material into the muscle tissue. Although it is less costly and more stable at ambient temperature than the traditional method, it confers relatively weak immunity. However, scientists from the Heidelberg German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) in Germany and the Prague Institute of Hematology and Blood Transfusion (UHKT) in the Czech Republic who have been working to remedy this failing have demonstrated the benefits of inoculation by tattooing. The method is simple. The use of several needles causes inflammation over a larger area of skin, which stimulates the immune system more than an intramuscular injection, so increasing antibody production. This makes adjuvants and booster vaccinations a thing of the past. As it is a more painful procedure, vaccine delivery by tattooing should be avoided in children and for preventive vaccination. Yet coupled with the advantages of the DNA vaccine, it achieves antibody levels 16 times higher than with intramuscular vaccination, making it extremely useful for therapeutic vaccination in humans and routine vaccination in livestock.


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Darwinian meteorites

Meteorites are thought to have made an immense contribution to the diversification of species. In fact, during the Ordovician period (which began 490 million years ago and ended 440 million years ago), the Earth was struck by more than 100 meteorites, after which new and varied forms of life rapidly emerged in the oceans. This discovery by two palaeontologists from the University of Copenhagen, assisted by colleagues from Sweden’s Lund University, indicates that the meteorites sped up the much slower process of natural biodiversification. The reasons for this acceleration are still unclear, but the environmental changes that influenced biological evolution have been substantially proven. The scientists studied the meteorites and fossils found in craters in Sweden and concluded that this is part of a regional phenomenon around the Baltic Sea, where it was observed. From this point on, research will focus on China, where there are meteorites with an identical composition, as well as the USA, to determine whether this is a worldwide phenomenon.

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A dunce’s memory

Some pupils who are lagging behind in their studies may be suffering from a short-term memory (STM) disorder rather than a low intelligence quotient or a lack of attention. In fact, a study conducted by the University of Durham (UK) on 3 000 pupils from 35 schools in the United Kingdom reveals that 10% of pupils have poor STM. The researchers, headed by Tracy Alloway, did not set out to explain the disorder but to detect it, and have developed the first ever tool for assessing memory in the classroom. The aim is to detect memory deficiencies as early as possible (from the age of four) to enable teachers to adapt their approach accordingly. In the first phase, a Working Memory Rating Scale (WMRS) is established to identify children with poor STM, after which they undergo an Automated Working Memory Assessment (AWMA). Teachers are then able to apply specific methods such as repeating instructions, simplifying phrases or breaking up elements of information for a task to be more manageable. The tool has already been tested in 35 schools in the United Kingdom and been translated into 10 languages.

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Trainers promote sleep

In March 2008, Vrije Universiteit Brussel(BE) published a study conducted on 50 novice runners from the Start to Run programme that confirms that regular physical activity really does improve sleep. After 10 weeks it was confirmed that not only did the trainee runners fall asleep faster and sleep better, the exercise also alleviated symptoms of hyperactivity. The beneficial effects of sport on sleep can be explained by an increase followed by a decrease in body temperature. Three or four hours following exertion, body temperature falls to a level that induces drowsiness. So the ideal time to exercise is about three to four hours before bedtime, either in the late afternoon or early evening. Sport appears to offer an alternative to sleeping pills and other methods for getting to sleep and feeling more relaxed during the day.

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Putting malaria on the map

Malaria (or paludism) may be spreading, but the battle to control the disease is being stepped up. Epidemiological study groups from the Center for Geography in Kenya and the University of Oxford (UK) are working together as part of the Malaria Atlas Project (MAP). The aim is to determine the geographic distribution of malaria and to control its spread. MAP has just published its first map, which reveals that 35% of the world’s population runs the risk of infection, particularly in Africa and South-East Asia. This represents a total of 2.4 billion people, of whom 1 billion (in Central and South America, Asia and parts of Africa) run a fairly low risk of contracting the infection. The map, which updates a document more than 40 years old, was drawn up on the basis of data from national health information systems and various national statistics. It studied 5 000 communities worldwide by conducting surveys taking into account climatic conditions.

The map will enable investment and malaria control measures to be targeted more effectively. In addition, it will contribute to a new agreement between the Research Network for Parasitology in Australia and the Biology and Pathology of Malaria Parasite (BioMalPar) Network. BioMalPar is a Network of Excellence bringing together 19 European research institutes and universities, backed by one Indian and five African partners. The partnership’s aims are to step up collaboration between malaria research authorities and to improve coordination between current programmes. Emphasis will be placed on molecular research, which is the point of convergence between the two aims and provides a new means for analysing malaria hosts and vectors by characterising the genomes of malaria parasites. Ultimately it should lead to new strategies to control this affliction.


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New blood

Researchers from the University of Bonn (DE) have recently discovered a new variant of haemoglobin that can distort measurements of oxygen saturation in the blood. This protein, present in red blood cells, transports oxygen to the body’s cells and, on the return journey, picks up carbon dioxide. The colour of blood pigment normally depends on the amount of oxygen in the blood. To measure whether there is enough oxygen present in the blood, an optical measuring device, called a pulse oximeter, is clipped onto a finger and, when infrared rays are passed through it, oxygen-deprived haemoglobin is seen to absorb infrared light. The lower the oxygen content of the blood, the less light penetrates the finger and reaches the oximeter sensor. This method is useful in detecting a congenital cardiac defect because it verifies that the blood contains enough oxygen. However, so-called ‘Haemoglobin Bonn’ absorbs infrared light even though the blood is saturated with oxygen. This improves the outlook for patients who have been wrongly diagnosed as suffering from low oxygen saturation. This new type of haemoglobin, though, remains quite rare. greement between the Research Network for Parasitology in Australia and the Biology and Pathology of Malaria Parasite (BioMalPar) Network. BioMalPar is a Network of Excellence bringing together 19 European research institutes and universities, backed by one Indian and five African partners. The partnership’s aims are to step up collaboration between malaria research authorities and to improve coordination between current programmes. Emphasis will be placed on molecular research, which is the point of convergence between the two aims and provides a new means for analysing malaria hosts and vectors by characterising the genomes of malaria parasites. Ultimately it should lead to new strategies to control this affliction.

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Infected mothers

According to a study by the European Union-financed PREMA-EU project, the conditions governing pregnancy and delivery are far from being the only factors determining maternal death in Mozambique. Based on 139 autopsies of women who died during childbirth at Maputo Central Hospital, the study has shown that “only” 38% of the deaths resulted from obstetrical complications, whereas 48% stemmed from infectious diseases completely unconnected with the pregnancy or delivery. Four of these infectious diseases are responsible for 40% of the deaths: human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), pneumonia, malaria and purulent meningitis. In view of this large percentage, researchers believe that many maternal deaths could be avoided by controlling HIV and these other infectious diseases more effectively. Around 250 000 maternal deaths are recorded in Africa each year. The goal is to slash this death rate by 75% by 2015.


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All in the head

The benefits of beta-blockers, drugs administered after a heart attack, could derive from their direct impact on the central nervous system. Up to now, doctors have used them without fully understanding how they work, but researchers from University College London now seem to have discovered the answer to this question. The cardioselective beta-adrenergic blocking agent, metoprolol, is found to work directly on the brain, more specifically on a group of cells known to be crucial in controlling blood pressure and heart rate. The brain therefore plays a key role in regulating the cardiovascular system. This discovery could open up the way for new cardiovascular treatments that are targeted specifically at the brain instead of the heart, as has been the case until now.

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The happiness economy

This year, one of the five Marie Curie Excellence Awards went to research on happiness. The aim of the EURECONAW project, led by brilliant Italian economist Luisa Corrado of the University of Cambridge (UK), is to determine which European citizens are the happiest and whether income levels, or any other geographic factor, elicit a propensity to be happy… Despite the wide diversity between regions and sectors, Luisa Corrado found two common factors that seem conducive to happiness. First, trust in the government, the police and the justice system seems to induce the highest happiness levels. Second, happier people also tend to have plenty of friends and acquaintances, as well as at least one very close friend, or a partner. Social integration, one key to a happy society, should therefore be placed firmly at the heart of socioeconomic cohesion policies. The report shows that it is not the inhabitants of the wealthiest regions who are the happiest, confirming the old adage “Money can’t buy happiness”.


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Virtual metro, real paranoia

Paranoia in the London Underground could be effectively and convincingly treated using virtual reality. Wearing a headset wired to a movement tracker, 200 volunteers got into the spirit of the game by taking turns to ride on an imaginary underground subway. The experiment involved moving around this confined space with the other passengers in the form of a computer representation of themselves (called an avatar). By observing their reactions, Daniel Freeman and his team had the opportunity to compare how each volunteer interpreted and experienced exactly the same social situation. This highly useful virtual programme will be of immense value to therapists, who currently rely on questionnaires to detect paranoia. The virtual subway ride can also be used to back up conventional or cognitive behavioural therapies, based on exercises in which patients are gradually exposed to the feared situation. Furthermore, the study’s results indicate that the extent of paranoia is underestimated: there are just as many people with paranoid thoughts as there are with anxiety disorders or depression. During the experiment, one-third of the volunteers developed persecutory delusions.

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European women’s breasts exposed

Nearly one in ten European women will develop breast cancer. And this figure is not set to fall in the future due to current levels of exposure to certain chemicals. It seems that the aetiology of breast cancer is to be found just as much in environmental factors as in heredity. In any case, this is the finding of Andreas Kortenkamp’s report unveiled to the European Parliament in early April. After coordinating a number of international projects between 2002 and 2007, the head of the toxicology department at the University of London states in his study, entitled Breast cancer and exposure to hormonally active chemicals, that the most hazardous products appear to be oestrogens (hormones that occur naturally or are contained in the contraceptive pill and menopause treatments). Other chemical substances are also under suspicion, such as insecticide residues present in nature (and therefore in foods), preservatives, antioxidants, ultraviolet stabilisers… the list goes on. Although all these products are evaluated before being placed on the market and are harmless on their own, when combined they seem to produce a dangerous ‘cocktail effect’. Since 2005, a total of 200 scientists have signed the Prague Declaration to voice their concern about daily exposure to chemicals, especially those acting on the hormonal system.


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Cholesterol buster

In March 2008, researchers from the Research Unit for the Ecology and Physiology of the Digestive Tract of the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) successfully isolated the bacterium that reduces cholesterol into coprostanol, a non-absorbable molecule excreted in the stool. Since the 1930s, it has been known that intestinal microbiota, or flora, are capable of reducing cholesterol. However, although some bacteria in the Eubacterium genus have been identified in certain animals (including rats and guinea pigs), this had not yet been done for humans, whom the cholesterol reduction rate varies from one person to another. By analysing the stool of a person with a high coprostanol level, the French researchers have managed to isolate a bacterium that is active in the process. In fact, the ‘cholesterol buster’ has a gene pool very similar to that of the Bacteroides dorei species, which is not capable of reducing cholesterol. So the researchers deduced that their active candidate, called Strain D8, is one of the variants, or strains, of Bacteroides dorei. Pending the arrival of a new cholesterol medication, the next step is to identify the genes responsible for the activity of Strain D8, as well as other bacteria in the human intestine with the same cholesterol-reducing ability. According to the British Heart Foundation, cardiovascular diseases cost Europe a total of nearly € 110 billion in 2006, i.e. € 223 per person per year, or nearly 10% of total healthcare expenditure across the continent.

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While awaiting Noah

Europe is helping the African nations to achieve the 2010 biodiversity target confirmed at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002. The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) has set up a website called Assessment of African Protected Areas, which is an information system that monitors 741 protected areas over a surface area measuring almost half the entire territory of Europe. In addition to identifying the numerous animal species inhabiting the area, the system also uses satellite technology to measure precipitation, fires and changes in vegetation. A comparison of these data with seasonal norms will enable park managers to assess the stress from human activity and decision-makers to plan the distribution of resources to priority areas. The conservation and sustainable use of biological resources is crucial and is at the centre of the battle to reduce poverty. Currently, 16 000 of the world’s species are in danger of extinction. Biotopes are declining at an unprecedented rate and life on Earth is dying out at a speed 100 to 1 000 times faster than that of natural evolution. The blame can be pinned on newly-introduced species, as well as pollution and the overexploitation of nature’s resources caused by human activity.

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Erratum

An error was made in the April 2008 special edition, page 25. The name of the Algerian Energy Minister is Chakib Khelil and not Chakib Alil. We apologise for this mistake.


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Science at your fingertips

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Diving beneath the oceans

Oceans4schools is an online magazine aimed mainly at secondary school pupils. It is the initiative of a small group of researchers from the Laboratory for Satellite Oceanography (Southampton, UK). The aim is to raise young people’s awareness of threats to the Earth’s oceans – of which only 4% of the surface area has escaped degradation by humans (in the form of biodiversity depletion, overfishing, pollution, etc. ). The ocean is seen as a rich resource for studying physics, geography, chemistry, biology, geology and other disciplines. Oceans4schools allows pupils to acquire knowledge by means of scientific journalism (news briefs and interviews) and by participating in virtual scientific adventures. They can follow the voyages of icebreaker RRS James Clark Ross, equipped with the most sophisticated instruments for geophysical and marine biology research, which embarks on the same voyage through the infamous ‘Drake Passage’ every year at the same time. Renowned for its hostile weather conditions this passage with a width of about 650 kilometres between South America and Antarctica is a good place to study global ocean circulation. The Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC) is the only current to circumvent the globe without meeting any land barrier. Squeezed between the continents of Antarctica and South America, nearly 140 million cubic metres of water surge through the gap every second – 140 times the flow of all the world’s rivers

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Art-a-gogo

In 1664, Robert Hooke published Micrographia, an unexpectedly successful scientific book. The book described Hooke’s microscopic and telescopic observations, with engravings and plates of insects invisible to the naked eye enlarged to 30 times their size, all using the miraculous new technology of lenses and microscopes. Today, children visiting the Small Worlds exhibition at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford (UK) have a chance to make detailed drawings of the microscopic creatures using the technique pioneered by Robert Hooke. Their drawings will be entered in the ninth nationwide Big Draw campaign for drawing, to be held throughout October 2008. Sunday, 12 October will mark the high point of this British artistic rally. Art galleries, museums, science centres and a host of other institutions will be opening their doors to anyone wishing to be creative using pencils, crayons, pastels, models, photographs or any other medium. There is no age limit and no certificate of talent required. Artists can express themselves on walls, doors, trees, windows or anything else they like. Architects, graphic designers and artists from across the UK will flock to Oxford for this original event


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Animals sound the alert

Climate Trackers features 35 short video clips in which animals of various species, across all continents, describe how they are suffering from climate change. And there’s plenty of food for thought… The rising sea level is destroying the nesting sites of sea turtles and flooding the hunting grounds of Bengal tigers. The warming of alligator nests is upsetting the balance between male and female embryos, resulting in a decidedly larger number of males. European roe deer are becoming infested with ticks, disease-carrying insects that pose a serious threat to humans as well. The geographic range of the arctic fox (or isatis), which can survive only in cold climates, is warming and therefore being colonised by a much sturdier and more skilled hunter, the red fox, which is migrating northwards. The red fox has been quick to starve out its arctic cousin. In each clip animals ”speak” in their natural environment, describe the situation of their species and end with an easy tip, such as - stopping your car engine in a traffic jam, switching off your computer when not in use, not driving a unless absolutely necessary, and so on. A small gesture by a large number of people would seriously reduce CO2 emissions. Launched by the World Wildlife Fund Belgium, the European Commission-backed Climate Trackers campaign is not meant to be just a catalogue of pretty pictures but an awareness tool to act against global warming. The clips are offered to television channels free of charge, so all they need to do is to subtitle them in their own country’s language. The campaign has been a bigger success than expected and has started off with a bang on all continents…

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Making child’s play of maths

Mathematicians do not subscribe to the commonly-held view that their discipline is impenetrable and boring. On the contrary, they see maths as not only exciting, fun and beautiful, but as having applications relevant to a wide range of disciplines. A group of top mathematicians and science writers has launched the online Plus magazine with the aim of popularising maths. This virtual magazine is aimed at all audiences, with articles accessible at different levels on topics as diverse as art, medicine, cosmology and sport. For example, Issue 46 discusses the theory of evolution and the melting Arctic from a mathematical standpoint. It might well provide maths teachers with a cunning way to entice even the most recalcitrant of students. How? With the aid of cryptography, for instance, which provides an excellent introduction to an intriguing field.

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Garden of Eden at St. Austell

Travel from the rainforests of Malaysia to the dry Mediterranean in the space of a few minutes, discover tropical plants and the secrets of irrigation, or find out more about nature to learn to respect it a little better… This is the opportunity offered by the two ‘biomes’ built on the enormous site of a former china clay pit, eight kilometres from St. Austell in Cornwall (UK). Designed by architect Nicholas Grimshaw, the biomes are impressive greenhouses comprising several geodesic domes. One of the biomes features a humid tropical climate and the other a dry climate, and both house rare plant species. All this is supplemented by exhibits, events, workshops and educational programmes, with sculptures and robots to help bring to life the complexities of plant systems and the use of plants in our daily lives –food, fuel, medicines and so on. The Eden Project, which critics have likened to Disneyland in some respects, receives 1.2 million visitors every year. The project is wholly owned by the Eden Trust, an educational charity whose aim is to teach people about good stewardship of the Earth’s diversity, environment and ecology.

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Science tourism off the beaten track

Why not visit the Nouragues research station? It takes several hours by dugout canoe and on foot (or more easily by helicopter) to reach the site nestled in the heart of the French Guianan forest, which, for the past 20 years, has been welcoming botanists, ornithologists, entomologists and paleoclimatologists from all over the world. As from this year, scientists from the CNRS (National Centre for Scientific Research – FR) specialising in Amazon forest ecosystems are hosting interested tourists who are willing to share not only in the scientists’ daily lives, but also in their work. The CNRS has joined forces with tour operator Escursia to develop this new form of tourism (the company specialises in nature-discovery and education trips accompanied by scientists). It gives the CNRS a chance to step up “efforts to make its activities more accessible by helping to optimise research results and to disseminate them to the general public”, so providing “food for thought about key environmental and sustainable development issues”.


Expo-Sciences: rendezvous in Hungary

A total of 250 stands, 200 scientific projects by students and secondary school pupils and 400 young attendees… The seventh Expo-Sciences Europe (ESE) provided an opportunity for a rather unusual week away from it all. ESE, organised by the MILSET Europe(1) and TIT Kossuth Klub associations, was held in Hungary 13 - 20 July. ESE has the reputation of attracting an enthusiastic young research and technology buffs, scientists, and teachers keen to pass on their knowledge. It offered them programmes with a mix of scientific, cultural and recreational activities. In Budapest, they visited a number of research institutes, as the intention of the movement’s organisers was to promote international cooperation, citizenship and peace. Their activities were designed to encourage “a spirit of respect, understanding and solidarity within different geographical and spiritual communities.” The international MILSET movement (of which MILSET Europe is a branch) is a non-governmental, non-profit youth organisation that seeks to develop scientific culture by promoting networking among tens of thousands of young people across the world. It enables them not only to engage in discussions with scientists and industrialists and to develop research projects, but most important of all, it allows them to embark on a multicultural voyage of discovery to share experiences and good practice. This really is science with the blinkers off… (1) MILSET: International Movement for Leisure Activities in Science and Technology


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Teaching Corner

Do-it-yourself genetics

Deoxyribonucleic acid (more commonly known by its acronym DNA) is the main protagonist of both detective series and biochemical research, and contains all the genetic information needed to duplicate cells. You probably think it would be quite a feat to isolate and observe such a molecule. Well, think again: a little methylated spirit and detergent are all you need to study a few strands of DNA.

Now to your test tubes… Take half a banana, some water, salt, pineapple juice, washing-up liquid, methylated spirit and a coffee filter. The first phase is to separate the cells by mashing the fruit with a fork. The DNA nestling at the nucleus of the cells is protected by a succession of membranes comprised of fatty-acid-rich phospholipids. A few drops of detergent mixed into your pap will be enough to force the cells to release their DNA. Now all you need to do is to destroy the protein ‘wrapper’ around the DNA. To do this, simply add a pinch of salt and around 5 millilitres of pineapple juice, which provides bromelin capable of breaking down the proteins into amino acids.

Now pour your mixture into a coffee filter and collect in a test tube or other suitable recipient a DNA-rich fluid that is free of fruit-cell residues. The resulting banana essence is translucent and the strands of DNA it contains are completely soluble, making them undetectable. However, by slowly adding methylated spirit equal in volume to the filtrate, the strands of DNA are forced to clump together into non-soluble pellets and separate from the solution. As the two liquids are very different in density, they will separate into two superimposed layers without blending together, leaving a milky substance with the curious name of DNA ‘jellyfish’ at the interface between the two.

You can perform exactly the same experiment with pears, kiwifruit or even onions. Although a fairly similar protocol is used to extract human DNA, it is useless to try it with your own hair or skin cells. The procedure is much more sophisticated, even if you go by the name of Olive, Apple or Cherry.


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Young Scientists

Aurélie, aged 25, biomedical researcher

© Frank Luerweg/Uni Bonn © Frank Luerweg/Uni Bonn

“Mummy, daddy, could I have a microscope?”

This question marked the start of my passion for scientific research. With a doll in one hand and a pair of tweezers in the other, I probed the secrets of nature with the aid of my beloved microscope. My childish passion continued, later leading me into a degree in biomedical science at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel - VUB (BE).

The world of space opened up when I wrote my dissertation on the behaviour of a bacterium in a simulated microgravity environment at the Belgian Nuclear Research Centre in Mol. There my interactions with other scientists and reflections on the physiological and molecular behaviour of an organism made the final degree year so exciting that I decided to continue with a doctorate.

My focus shifted to ESA’s Bacterial Adaptation to Space Environment (BASE) project to study the behaviour of non-pathogenic opportunistic bacteria brought back aboard the International Space Station (ISS). However, the space aspect of my work doesn’t overshadow its medical objective. Studying the behaviour of bacteria in space gave me a better understanding of how they develop in certain areas of the human body, like the lungs.

Thanks to a grant from the Belgian American Educational Foundation (BAEF), I am now in the United States, spending a year with Cheryl Nickerson’s research team at the Biodesign Institute of Arizona State University in Phoenix. After sending samples of salmonella into space aboard the space shuttle Atlantis in 2006, Nickerson found that the bacteria had become more virulent after their voyage in space. We have just sent samples of several bacteria aboard the space shuttle Endeavour to test these theories on other organisms and to confirm the previous results. The team is now impatiently awaiting the results.

I am now eight months into this American experience, which in enriching in so many ways – personally, interpersonally and, of course, scientifically. It is a world full of resources where I can realise my ambitions whilst enjoying life to the fullest!

Aurélie Crabbé


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