Scientific discoveries this week: 11-28-11

Cambridge, Massachusetts – One strain of a species of worm appears to have the ability to distinguish between foods that are poisonous and foods that are not, similar to how humans avoid bad-smelling foods. This worm feeds on clumps of bacteria, and in the study the researchers gave several different strains a patch, or “lawn,” of a bacteria that is known to be lethal. The researchers observed that one strain of the worm avoided the bacteria, while the others consumed it and subsequently died. By studying this worm, they found that this ability to identify dangerous foods originates from the expression of one unique gene that was found to be mutated and basically inoperable in the other worms.

Oxford, United Kingdom – The effect of associating a color with a number, or a taste with a certain sound, is gradually becoming more understood. This effect, known as synesthesia, has been studied for years, and recently a group of researchers at the University of Oxford have reached what looks like a breakthrough. The reason for synesthesia may be that one part of the brain is more easily excited than it should be, and so the person “sees” or “tastes” something when a different part of their brain is stimulated. When the visual center of the brain is stimulated, it stimulates the tastes center simultaneously, which results in a taste associated with certain sights.

Madrid, Spain – Tractor beams may not be the subject of science fiction any longer. In a set of studies performed by four independent teams, scientists and researchers have found that light can be manipulated to produce an attractive force on very small objects. Scientists are already discussing the possibility of using this technology in the medical field as a micro-scale tractor beam made of light would be a of great use in manipulating individual biological cells. The tractor beam effect is produced by emitting a beam of light that contains several beams at different angles. This polarizes the object while limiting the forward push that the photons exert on the object, allowing it to be pulled toward the source.

Nanjing, China – The massive extinction that paleontologists believe happened about 252 million years ago appears to have happened much faster than they thought. In a new study of several rock outcrops in South China, it appears that a massive set of volcanic eruptions caused the extinction event, concluding that it took place in as little as tens of thousands of years.

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