Snippets from Science

• Accidentally hit your finger with a hammer? Bang your head against a cabinet door? Swearing a blue streak helps alleviate the pain, according to a study in the August 5th issue of NeuroReport. Favorite swear words: the s-word, f-word, two b-words, and a c-word. The effect, however, is transient, so don’t overdo it.

• The second largest company in the world, ExxonMobil, is investing $600 million over a five-year period to develop and scale up methods to produce biofuels from algae. One company has already genetically modified certain kinds of algae to secrete hydrocarbons from their cells. Stephen Mayfield, a cell biologist at Scripps Research Institute, believes that the technology is in hand and that the biggest hurdle is to scale up the process. Two biofuel plants are now in the planning stage, one in Brazil and one in Mexico. (Science, July, 2009)

• All cells have binding sites on their surface. Called “receptors,” cells in general may have 1,000 or more such sites. Certain hormones, for example, bind to specific receptors and cause the cell to turn on or off certain chemical processes. Viruses gain entry to cells by first binding to certain receptors on the cell’s surface. If the specific receptor is not on the cell surface, the virus can’t infect the cell. In some people, there is a receptor on some young blood cells that destines them to become cancerous and cause leukemia. This receptor is designated the CD123 receptor, and a group at the U. of Toronto developed an “antibody/drug” that blocks this receptor. When the drug was given to mice implanted with human leukemia precursor cells, the animals survived twice as long as those not protected by the drug. Blocking the virus receptor(s) is also being used in preventing HIV viruses from entering cells. (Science News, August, 2009)

• Relative to body size, the toco toucan has the largest beak of all birds. These birds, with their giant orange beaks, have a comical appearance, and ornithologists have long wondered how such a large beak can enhance the life of this bird. Is it a sexual ornament? Has it evolved for feeding purposes? Now three researchers have discovered that the toucan’s bill functions as a large surface for the dissipation of heat by regulating blood flow through the beak. The effect of this is to keep the body cooler. This is important in its jungle habitat, where elevated temperature and humidity are the norm. (Tattersall, et al, Science, July, 2009)

• “Researchers have discovered that the mind keeps most memories for just a day but then at night acts like a film editor sifting through the ‘video clips’ before transferring the best bits to long term storage in our own movie archive.” So says Richard Alleyne, writing in The Daily Telegraph (London), about the research of Susuma Tonegawa of MIT. The degree to which we “edit” memories while sleeping isn’t fully understood. If the editing is extensive, then how accurate are our memories when awake? (Brain in the News, July, 2009)