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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Today in the News (15 Jul 09)

Going to make this one quick, going out to see the new Harry Potter movie with my daughter.

Evolution:

A University of Calgary archaeologist who is one of the few researchers in the world studying the material culture of human beings' closest living relatives – the great apes – is joining his colleagues in creating a new discipline devoted to the history of tool use in all primate species in order to better understand human evolution. Mercader was the lead author of a team that laid the foundations of the emerging discipline of chimpanzee archaeology in two previously-published papers in Science and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). He is the archaeologist who uncovered the first prehistoric evidence of chimpanzee technology in 2007 — a 4,300-year-old nut-cracking site in the rainforests of Côte D'Ivoire, West Africa that provides proof of a long-standing chimpanzee "stone age" that likely emerged independently of influence from humans.

The appearance of many species of flowering plants on Earth, and especially their relatively rapid dissemination during the Cretaceous (approximately 100 million years ago) can be attributed to their capacity to transform the world to their own needs. In an article in Ecology Letters, Wageningen ecologists Frank Berendse and Marten Scheffer postulate that flowering plants changed the conditions during the Cretaceous period to suit themselves. The researchers have consequently provided an entirely new explanation for what Charles Darwin considered to be one of the greatest mysteries with which he was confronted.

The mode of reproduction seen in modern sharks is nearly 400 million years old. That is the conclusion drawn by Professor Per Erik Ahlberg, Uppsala University, from his discovery of a so-called "clasper" in a primitive fossil fish earlier this year. The research results are published in Nature. In February this year, a paper published in Nature by a team of Australian and British researchers showed that placoderms, a group of ancient fishes that died out more than 350 million years ago, gave birth to live young. Beautifully preserved fossil embryos in the body cavity of the placoderm Incisoscutum showed that these fishes, close to the common origin of all jawed vertebrates, had a mode of reproduction similar to modern sharks.

Vaccines:
Medical mycologists in The South Texas Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases (STCEID) and the Department of Biology at The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) have significantly advanced the fight against San Joaquin Valley Fever, a respiratory infection of humans, commonly called Valley Fever, which is caused by the Coccidioides fungus. For the first time, the researchers have genetically engineered a live, attenuated vaccine that successfully protects mice against Valley Fever, known in scientific circles as coccidioidomycosis. A live, attenuated vaccine is used as a preventative treatment based upon creation of a mutated form of the pathogen that is no longer capable of causing disease.

New interventions show promise against two different types of brain abnormalities, both of which are implicated in the development and progression of Alzheimer's disease. A drug called Dimebon seems to improve cognitive function in both mice and humans but, new research reveals, it actually increases brain levels of beta amyloid, a protein long thought to be a leading culprit in the development of Alzheimer's disease.

Autism:
Scientists from the University of Cambridge have identified 27 genes that are associated with either Asperger Syndrome (AS) and/or autistic traits and/or empathy. The research will be published July 16 in the journal Autism Research. This is the first candidate gene study of its kind. The research was led by Dr Bhismadev Chakrabarti and Professor Simon Baron-Cohen from the Autism Research Centre in Cambridge. 68 genes were chosen either because they were known to play a role in neural growth, social behaviour, or sex steroid hormones (e.g. testosterone and estrogen). The latter group of genes was included because AS occurs far more often in males than females, and because previous research from the Cambridge team has shown that foetal testosterone levels are associated with autistic traits and empathy in typically developing children.

Social cognition—the ability to think about the minds and mental states of others—is essential for human beings. In the last decade, a group of regions has been discovered in the human brain that are specifically used for social cognition. A new study in the journal Child Development investigates these brain regions for the first time in human children. The study has implications for children with autism. Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Yale University scanned the brains of 13 children ages 6 to 11 as they listened to children's stories. At the moment the plot of the stories revealed what a character wanted, believed, or knew, or presented the mental state of the character, the researchers observed increased activity in these specific brain regions. When the story turned to other topics—such as the physical world or the visual appearance of the characters—activity in these brain regions went back down.

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