Scientific discoveries this week: 2/4/13

Salt Lake City, Utah – Evolutionary biologist Michael Shapiro of the University of Utah in Salt Lake city began studying the head crests of pigeons since 2006, originally as an effort to understand the process by which there came to exist the many species of pigeons that exist today. Shapiro worked with Chinese scientists to sequence the pigeon genome, then began studying genes to find specific areas that differ between pigeons with head crests and those without. They found that all crested and uncrested birds had the same gene for the way the feathers grow up at the back of their heads, but in the uncrested birds there was a protein that developed a special amino acid that prevented the protein from becoming active. This research provides insight into how very minute changes in DNA can often cause very significant results far down the line. In the case of pigeons, the change resulted in a crest, whereas in other animals, small changes may be far more drastic.

Pasadena, California – Neurobiologists have been working with genetically engineered mice to determine what makes petting enjoyable for both parties by identifying specific skin cells that respond to gentle stroking, but not pinching or poking. These special nerve cells trigger a pleasant sensation when they are stimulated properly, primarily by gentle touch. The group of researchers inserted a gene into the mice that would cause neurons to light up when certain skin cells were activated,and by opening a tiny hole on the spine of the mouse, they could see the nerve cells light up when the cells were working. Through further behavioral research, the group found that petting and gentle stroking actually produced a calming, soothing effect when the mice were under duress of some kind.

Saitama, Japan – Brain activity holds many secrets and neurologists are continually looking for easier and faster ways of monitoring how the brain reacts to certain environmental stimuli. Neurologists like studying zebrafish larvae for brain activity, because the larvae are translucent and allow for easy views into the inner workings of the brain. Many of the observations made with zebrafish transfer over to new techniques in observing brain activity in humans. The latest development in neural imaging allows neurologists to watch brain activity in zebrafish while they are swimming freely, without restraining them. The process involves inserting a modified gene into the fish genome, which causes actively firing neurons to fluoresce, allowing the researchers to track brain activity without dyes or restraints. To test the system, they released a group of zebrafish larvae into a tank and followed them as they hunted for food. When a fish caught sight of food, it would turn its head, then dart over and eat the food. Every time it did so, the researchers could see the critical neurons firing in the fish’s brain.

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