Scientific discoveries this week: 10/1/12

San Francisco, California – New viruses don’t appear often, so when the cause of death of three separate cases of a hemorrhagic fever is linked back to a virus that doesn’t match any yet known, virologists and geneticists immediately take notice. Such was the case last week, when the genome of a virus that killed three people in the Democratic Republic of Congo was successfully sequenced and found to be a new virus in the same family as the rabies virus. The virus, dubbed the Bas-Congo virus for the region where it was discovered, killed two of the three people it infected. The third was a male nurse who treated the other two victims. When the cases were first reported, samples were taken of the blood of the three infected, and the local virus lab tested the virus in an attempt to determine it’s origin. They were unsuccessful, and sent the samples to a group of researchers at the University of San Francisco, where they assembled the roughly 140 million pieces into a single genome. That genome gave them the information they needed to determine that this was a new virus in the Rhabdovirus family.

Seattle, Washington – The popular old saying that a woman’s brain acts differently when she is pregnant with a boy, known as “pregnancy brain”, may actually hold some weight, according to a new study regarding the effect of male DNA on a woman’s brain. The study says that when a woman is pregnant with a male, the DNA cells from that child gradually migrate from the child to the mother. Over time, the DFNa cells have been found to reach the woman’s brain, which appears to produce remarkable results. While there is no scientific correlation between being pregnant with a boy and thinking any differently, there does appear to be a correlation between pregnancy with a male and a significantly decreased likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease. According to the study, out of the women studied, the ones with significantly more male DNA present in their brains than others did not have Alzheimer’s disease at the time of death. While the connection between male DNA and the absence of Alzheimer’s is not fully understood, there does appear to be a connection. The result of the study concludes that having a boy does have an effect on a female’s brain.

Gainesville, Florida – There is a select group of animals that is capable of regenerating significant parts of their bodies as needed. Until recently, scientists believed that only reptiles and crustaceans could regenerate limbs and skin at will. However, there is one known mammal that is also capable of regenerating the skin; everything from muscle to the epidermis. The group that established the identity of this unique mammal had heard stories of a mouse in Africa that had tiny, hard spines on it’s back that resembled a hedgehog. After observing the mouse, they found that it’s skin was so weak that it would simply tear off if a predator attacked it, allowing the mouse to escape. This would be fatal, except that the mouse is capable of regenerating all of the missing skin. The regenerated skin looks nearly identical to the original skin, including hair follicles. The rodent, aptly named the “African Spiny mouse”, does this by forming a “pool” of embryonic cells when the skin is removed, which form the necessary cells to form the hair follicles, skin, and glands. This trait of regrowing lost skin entirely is unique in the known mammal world, and those involved in the study are excited to investigate how this discovery can be used in medicine.

Edinburgh, Scotland – Long before the Great White shark was the king of the oceans, a group of prehistoric sea-crocodiles fought and maimed their way to dominance. the largest of the species is known as the “Plesiosuchus Manselii”, with a skull as large as that of an adult T-Rex. After extensive study, the research group that has documented the ocean-going dinosaurs compared the killing methods these monsters used to modern-day killer whales, who are known for their ferocity. The skulls of the crocs allow them to effectively tear and shred their prey, not unlike modern killer whales. Their size allowed them to exert dominance over anything in the oceans, giving them a similar reputation to the well-known Tyrannosaurus Rex. These massive crocodiles were larger and and probably stronger than modern Great White sharks, which has lead the researchers to postulate that they may have eaten early humans.

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