Biology and Biotech

As amphibians, toads prefer a wet environment. Those that live in arid regions hide during dry spells underground, where the soil is moist, and they emerge from their shelter when the rain returns. But given that the subterranean soil they inhabit is already damp, how do the toads know when it's raining?

An international team of researchers figured the toads can sense low-frequency vibrations. To test their hypothesis, the scientists visited the sand dunes on the southern coast of Spain. They captured toads of two different species and built enclosures for them on the dunes. Then, using pre-recorded rain vibrations combined with a sound transducer buried 10 centimeters underground, they were able to play back the vibrations and monitor the emergence of the toads.

As shown...

As if the starfish itself wasn't beautiful enough, now we have new research revealing the beauty and wonderous efficiency of how this fascinating, five-pointed creature survives and grows in the sea.

Driven by the curiosity surrounding its very early stages of life, a team of researchers from Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, California decided to study why the starfish's larvae look the way they do, as well as how they're able to survive and grow into adulthood. Among its research, the team "studied the organisms in a systematic way, feeding the larvae nutrient algae and observing their movements with video-enabled microscopes," according to a release this week from the Stanford School of Engineering.

What the team discovered was pretty fascinating....

Pandas are picky creatures.

They insist on eating bamboo, even though it is not particularly nutritious since their gut flora is not well adapted to it. In captivity, they are choosy with whom they will mate, sometimes preferring not to mate at all. And in the wild, they live largely (though not exclusively) solitary lives. 

Now, it appears that pandas have yet another quirk: minimum area requirements. A new study published in Scientific Reports shows...

Lost in all the talk about toxicity, endocrine disruption, and the like, is one fundamental property of chemicals, drugs, enzymes, and receptors, that people do not fully appreciate: Binding affinity— the tightness that ligands (chemicals, drugs) stick to their targets (enzymes, receptors).

Perhaps the best example of this property is carbon monoxide (CO). The reason that the colorless, odorless gas is so dangerous is that its binding affinity to hemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen in the blood throughout the body, is so strong (about 1,000-times that of oxygen) that it easily displaces oxygen from hemoglobin, which causes asphyxiation very quickly.  In other words, oxygen doesn't have a chance when CO is around.

(For a more detailed look at how this works, see:...

The proliferation of coffee shops and energy drinks bears testimony to the fact that caffeine is in high demand. The stimulant is even added to some medicine, like Excedrin Migraine. However, because only a handful of plants produce it, there has been some interest in creating caffeine synthetically. One approach would be to genetically engineer microbes capable of producing the molecule.

The trouble with this method is that caffeine is toxic to many microorganisms. (Caffeine is also a natural insecticide.) So, if microbes are to be used as tiny caffeine factories, they will first need to be made resistant to its noxious effects. A team of molecular biologists based mostly in China has accomplished just that using baker's yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae.

The...

Vervet monkeys can be testy. Squabbling between social groups is common, particularly when food is at stake. Females of the species, which tend to remain in the same location and social group, have a much greater incentive to guard and fight over food sources than males, which change social groups several times in their lives. Therefore, when intergroup territorial conflict arises, males don't always feel obliged to participate.

Woe be unto the males who make this grave mistake. New research in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B reveals that males who choose to sit out during such scuffles may be subjected later to domestic abuse.

The team observed the interactions of four groups of vervet monkeys in South Africa. Conflicts, which lasted anywhere from a few...

Identifying Brain Trauma

A small, yet promising, brain trauma study may someday lead to a time when doctors can forecast which patients who incurred concussions or repeated blows to the head will be at risk for future neurological problems.

The new study, released this week, has the potential to advance scientists' knowledge of brain injuries and expand the scope of work currently being done to include preventative measures for treating psychiatric issues and onset dementia before they surface. Currently, confirmation of brain damage stemming from concussions, blows and the like, a condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, can only be diagnosed post-mortem.

For the study, which was conducted between 2015 and 2016, researchers at Johns Hopkins assembled two groups of men. The...

“Eat your bran even if it tastes horrible – its good for you!” Many of us remember this advice from decades ago. While fiber has been a good cure as a bulking agent for exciting disorders like constipation, it has a dull image and has faded into the background behind trendier (and more commercial) food messages like gluten, cholesterol, saturated fat and sugar. Often it can be the hardest item to find on the food label.

But fiber’s fortunes may now be on the turn. New research in the journal Cell sheds light on how fibre works to protect the gut.

An international team used special mice born and raised...

At this time of year, we look forward to feasting to celebrate the holidays. But, as Earth's population grows, feasts may become more scarce.Currently there are more than 7 billion people on the planet; according to some authorities, the increase in population between 1900 and 2000 was greater than that in all of human history. Although these same folks note that the rate of population growth has been slowing, we can still expect that by the year 2100, there will be over 11 billion people hanging around this planet. So, how are we going to feed them all? No, organic agriculture isn't going to do it. Genetic engineering will be needed to help increase food production. And scientists are working constantly to find new and...

Pheromones have long been credited (or blamed) for our behavioral choices, most notably our choice of sexual partners. The idea that we could base such a seemingly personal choice on a unconscious chemical signal is fascinating but, is it real? 

The answer is probably not - despite it being a widely held belief that humans make pheromones that affect our behavior - there is no scientific evidence to support that this is the case. But, it is still a question that garners much attention. In fact, Science magazine's special 125th anniversary issue, included the question “Do pheromones influence human behavior?” on the list of 100 of the most interesting questions still...