April Eventually

You might still be able to find copies of April Australasian Science on newsagency shelves if you hurry, so I’m putting my much delayed summary of the edition up.

Neurological diseases pose a huge threat to an aging population, and there is still plenty of debate on the causes. Still, it’s exciting to see all the research coming out in this area, even if some of it looks contradictory at the moment. Just last month I wrote about work targeting the bundles of tau proteins inside cells, rather than beta amaloid plaques that are the most obvious symptom. Commentator (yes I have some) Kim Jeffs noted, “In Alzheimer’s research there has been long rivalry between those espousing the role of beta-amyloid plaques (the BAPtists) and those who favour tau (the TAUists)”. Tau filaments are also associated with Parkinson’s Disease.

Now it seems the TAUists have taken a new path. Prof Ashley Bush believes the problem is not the tau bundles, but their source. Cells normally contain soluble tau proteins, and when the insoluble bundles appear the cell doesn’t contain more tau, instead there has been a change in form. Bush has published a paper in Nature Medicine revealing the soluble tau proteins help remove iron from inside brain cells. If the proteins precipitate they cannot perform this role, and iron builds up. Damaged brain cells in culture recover when the iron is removed. Bush says finding drugs that will safely get the iron out of living neurons is not so easy, but Clioquinol may have promise. Clinoquinol is already being tried against Alzheimer’s with some success, but it was thought this was for it’s capacity to remove zinc and copper, rather than iron.

Amongst my other contributions is a piece on research showing that having a simple name makes people more likely to vote for you or promote you. This applies irrespective of the ethnicity of the name (that is the study carefully excluded racism by comparing pairs of names that were obviously of the same ethnicity). Simon Latham of Melbourne Uni and his US colleague Adam Alter did the research in four different ways, reaching the same conclusion each time. So while I can see problems with each individual study, they’re different problems, making it likely the findings are sound. Three of the four studies only looked at surnames, so it is not totally clear that the results apply to first names as well, but logic and the fourth study suggest they do, making a strong argument for parents to give their children names people will find easy to pronounce.

There was a great piece of fortuitous research when Macquarie’s Dr Darrell Kemp went home for Christmas during the locust plague of 2010-2011. The locusts are preyed on by the black digger wasp and Kemp did some observing while he was there, finding that there was a 10% chance of a locust pair being killed by the wasp each time they mate. Since the average locust mates 3-4 times and males are at virtually no risk while not mating, with female risk fairly low as well, this is an indication of just how high a price some creatures pay for sex.

More evidence, published in Nature, for the developing case that planets are really very common. Indeed it appears there are far more planets than stars in the galaxy. While most of the planets we have discovered have come from observations of the motion their gravity triggers in the parent star, we get a smaller, but more typical sample from microlensing. Microlensing involves the temporary brightening of a distant star as an object passes in front of it, with it’s gravity acting like a lens to focus the light from the more distant star onto Earth. University of Tasmania’s Dr John Greenhill is part of a team that has found ten planets that way. While this is a tiny fraction of the more than 2000 extra-solar planets we know of, the capacity of microlensing to find smaller planets at greater distances from their star helps give us a better idea of what sort of planets are out there, and how common they are.

Just two days ago two of my friends had birthday’s, one a 27th and the other a 28th. Both made reference to the “27 club” the idea that rockstars are particularly likely to die at that age. While the world has certainly lost some great talents that year, a Adrian Barnett looked at every musician to have a number one albumn in the UK between 1956 and 2007 and concluded there was no statistically significant peak for 27 year olds. I twas also pleasing to find that the tendency for musicians to die in their late 20s and early 30s has, Amy Whitehouse not withstanding, dropped off since the mid 80s. Barnett says this may be a result of a decline in the hard-partying rockstar life, or better treatments of heroin overdose. I particularly liked the fact that, for data completion, Barnett investigated the longevity of the performers who sang Kermit and Miss Piggy’s parts on their hit record. Yes sorry to break it to you, they were lipsynching.

Did you know Australia had native rice species? I didn’t, and it somewhat complicates Jared Diamond’s theory that Indigenous Australians never began agriculture because they had no suitable species. (We’ve published features previously on evidence that agriculture was actually quite developed in parts of Australia prior to European arrival). It turns out some of these native rice species are quite good at coping with heat and the diseases that come with it. Cross breeding of the relevant genes into commercial rice could be a lifesaver for millions of farmers in a globally warmed world, and Robert Henry has set about tracking some of these varieties down, including evidence that the centre for historical rice diversity may lie in the Torres Strait.

Joel Miller is the winner of the international Dance Your Thesis contest, encouraging students to teach people about their research through interpretive dance. He’s also April’s Cool Scientist. You can see his prize-winning entry here.

Features include one on how epigentics can produce differences in identical twins, the surprising finding that habitat fragmentation can actually be a good thing for coral reefs and an attempt to reconstruct extinct 850 million year old enzymes to learn about the conditions our ancestors once faced.

About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
This entry was posted in Australasian Science, neuroscience, Self Promotion. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to April Eventually

  1. Pingback: Alzheimer’s Update | Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats

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