Scientific discoveries this week: 10/28/12

Norway – A team of researchers found that the marine worms known as priapulids develop their intestines in the same way as humans, fish, frogs, and starfish. The team led by Dr. Andreas Hejnoly from the Sars International Centre for Marine Molecular Biology, found that these worms even use the same genes as humans. Priapulids are a group of marine worms that live in shallow waters. The fact that different animals share a common way of forming the gut suggests origins of the human intestine are much older than previously thought. The similarity between these animals and their intestines most likely developed over 500 million years ago when the first bilaterally symmetric animals appeared on Earth. According to the researchers, priapulids are important for understanding the evolution of animals because they have experienced little change since the Cambrian Period.

Japan – A new report from researchers in Oxford and Japan investigated the impact of smoking on mortality in a large group of people who were living in Hiroshima or Nagasaki in 1950. The findings have nothing to do with radiation exposure from the bombs, but are instead based on data received by the Life Span Study (LSS) which was initiated in 1950 to investigate the effects of radiation on over 100,000 people. Surveys obtained smoking information for 68,000 men and women who were followed for an average of 23 years to relate smoking habits to survival. According to the study, the younger a person was when they started smoking, the higher the risk in later life. Smokers who started to smoke before age 20 lost nearly a decade of life expectancy and had more than double the death rate of lifelong non-smokers. The researchers also examined the benefits of quitting. Those who quit smoking before age 35 avoided almost all excess risk among continuing smokers and stopping at any time still reduced future health risks. The researchers concluded that future health risks to young smokers in Japan are similar to those in other countries and that they can be avoided by quitting.

England- Scientists at the University of London recently developed a new method of oral vaccination which could help boost immunity to tuberculosis and influenza, as well as prevent C. difficile for which there is currently no vaccine. Lead scientist Dr. Simon Cutting developed the method through the use of probiotic spores. The researchers discovered that the bacteria Bacillus subtillis, which can form spores that can last millions of years before germinating under the right environmental conditions, act as ideal vehicles to carry antigens and promote an immune response. Cutting said, “Rather than requiring needle delivery, vaccines based on Bacillus spores can be delivered via a nasal spray, or as on oral liquid or capsule. Alternatively they can be administered via a small soluble film placed under the tongue, in a similar way to modern breath fresheners. As spores are exceptionally stable, vaccines based on Bacillus do not require cold-chain storage alleviating a further issue with current vaccine approaches.” According to the researchers, this method of vaccination would eliminate the pain associated with needles and provide greater benefits, such as being safer to administer, being inexpensive to produce, being easier to store, and reducing concerns of adverse reactions.

Boston, Massachusetts- Scientists at Boston Children’s Hospital developed “RAGE Control” a fast-paced video game that involves shooting at enemy spaceships and avoiding friendly spaceships. This game is being used to treat children with anger problems who are often uninterested in psychotherapy but eager to play video games. As the children play, a monitor tracks their heart rate and when it goes above a certain level, the player loses the ability to shoot at the enemy spaceship, meaning that to improve they must learn to keep calm. The study compared two groups of 9 to 17 years olds who had high levels of anger. One group received standard treatments for anger including cognitive-behavioral therapy, presentation of relaxation techniques and social skills training for five consecutive days. The second group got the same treatment but spent the last 15 minutes of their psychotherapy session playing “RAGE Control.”
After five sessions, the gamers were better at keeping their heart rate down, showing decreased anger scores on the State Trait Anger Expression Inventory. The gamers also gave their therapy experience higher marks than non-gamers and showed statistically significant decreases regarding the intensity of anger at a particular time, the frequency of angry feeling over time, and expressions of anger towards others or objects. The researchers are planning another clinical trial to test whether taking “RAGE Control” home to play with parents and siblings will increase its effect.

UCLA, California – Astronomers disagree about why the infrared light they observe exceeds the amount of light emitted from known galaxies. Light emitted from regions of space that are neither stars nor galaxies are referred to as fluctuations. One explanation says that the fluctuations are from very distant unknown galaxies, while another says that they are from faint galaxies that are much closer. Recent research by UCLA professor Edward Wright and his colleagues presents evidence that these explanations are wrong and proposes an alternative. They say that the explanations are not supported by the data from the NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. The researchers propose that the small number of stars that were kicked to the edges of space during violent collisions of galaxies may be the cause of the excess infrared light. They argue that scatterings of light emitted from the galaxy halos that extend beyond the outer reaches of galaxies are produced by these stars that were thrown from their galaxies. According to Wright, “Galaxies exist in dark matter halos that are much bigger than the galaxies; when galaxies form and merge together, the dark matter halo gets larger and the stars and gas sink to the middle of the the halo. One star in a thousand does not do that and instead gets distributed like dark matter. You can’t see the dark matter very well, but we are proposing that it actually has a few stars in it — only one-tenth of 1 percent of the number of stars in the bright part of the galaxy. One star in a thousand gets stripped out of the visible galaxy and gets distributed like the dark matter.” For their study, the astronomers used the Spitzer Space Telescope to produce an infrared map of a region of the sky in the constellation Boötes. By understanding the origin of this infrared background, the researchers hope to understand when all of the light in the universe was produced and how much was produced.

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