Re-vegetating the desert
Norwegian agricultural chemical company Yara has set up a pilot study in Qatar to transform desert areas into fertile ‘greenhouses’ in an attempt to feed the world’s increasing population. Traditional greenhouses allow the intensive farming of crops in areas that would naturally be too cold to grow them. This idea has now been reversed to make use of overly hot desert space, employing the evaporative cooling of seawater to moisten and so cool the air in these new greenhouses. The sea water is used first in the cooling system and then with the aid of solar powered technology, desalinated to be used on the crops themselves. The excess salt can then be sold. The long term aim is not just sustainable agriculture but restorative ecology, reviving desert ecosystems for future generations.
The American Society of Clinical Oncology in Chicago this week will discuss the latest evidence which identifies three human antibodies that have the ability to seek out hidden cancerous cells. Tumour cells are extremely well-adapted for the purpose of evading the immune system’s natural killer T cells. They do this by sprouting a surface molecule, ligand, which disguises the cancerous cell as normal healthy tissue. But these three identified antibodies interfere with the ligand, and allow the cancerous cells to be identified by the T cells and destroyed. It is the next step in research which aims to use the body’s own defence system to combat cancer.
Nuclear testing unusual benefits
Studies of the development of the human brain have in recent years suggested that humans have the ability to create new neural pathways, not just during childhood but throughout life. While genetic and behavioural evidence has backed this there has been no way to prove this on a molecular level, until now. Jonas Frisén at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, used carbon-14, a by-product of the nuclear bomb tests carried out by the US, UK and Soviet Union between 1945 and 1963, to date brain cells of those living during this period. The carbon-14 enters the food chain and incorporates itself eventually into body’s cells as they are produced. The results have shown that brain neurons in an area of the hippocampus called the dentate gyrus are indeed created throughout adulthood. And that in fact, we generate around 700 new neurons every day.
Fast-paced city life
Dr Barbara Helm, from Glasgow University's institute of biodiversity, animal health and comparative medicine, has completed a study which has shown that animals living in urban human habitats actually have a different internal biological body clock, to those living in the wild. The animals were active for around 40 minutes longer each day. It is thought to be the result of micro-evolutionary changes in response to urban phenomena such as artificial light and increased noise levels. It is interesting now to look at whether this has a detrimental effect on the physical and social health of the animals. If this is the case we can start to ask questions as to whether it has the same effect on humans too.
Brain-computer interface technology takes another leap forward this week. Researchers have used the power of human thought to guide a remote controlled helicopter through an obstacle course. The work has been carried out at the University of Minnesota's Institute for Engineering in Medicine. Scientists used electrical brain patterns, transmitted via non-invasive scalp electroencephalogram (EEG) caps, to guide objects through physical 3D space. The work is being developed to help those suffering from motor neurone diseases to restore or enhance function. The technology, however, can also be used creatively. At the University Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona researchers developed the same technology to create the first ever ‘brain orchestra’.
In jWC's regular series, Katherine Templar Lewis outlines the latest developments in the world of science – from the unimaginably weird to the potentially world-changing.