Cancer cell clusters are blasting off into outer space, in a research effort that aims to crack one of the final frontiers in cancer biology.
Housed in a specially designed biomodule, samples of aggressive ovarian, breast, nose and lung cancer will travel to the International Space Station (ISS). The question at stake: how will the cells behave in microgravity?
A malignant tumour consists of cancer cells stuck together that replicate uncontrollably, until a point is reached where the cells begin to break off and invade other parts of the body. This switch between clumping together and spreading isn’t well understood, but researchers reckon the cancer cells have a way to ‘sense’ each other, and that this sense relies on the presence of gravity to function.
In a preliminary test in a zero-gravity chamber at the University of Technology Sydney, 80 to 90 per cent of cancer cells were ‘disabled’.
Now, the mission to send cancer cells to the ISS aims to replicate this finding—with the hope it could lead to future therapies that trick cancer cells into thinking they’re in outer space.
“It would not be a magic bullet, but it could give current treatments like chemotherapy a big enough boost to kill the disease,” said Joshua Chou, the scientist leading the study.
Museums have a gender equality problem. Wander the halls of any natural history gallery and chances are, you’ll see more male than female specimens on display.
Researchers at London's Natural History Museum analysed 2.5 million records from five prominent museums around the world and found that just 40 per cent of bird specimens are female, while 48 per cent of mammal specimens are female. This slight percentage difference equates to 40,000 more male mammals housed in museums.
It’s not just an issue for the stuffed display animals, either—the male bent also afflicts research collections. When it comes to type specimens—the ‘official’ specimen used to scientifically describe a species—the sex ratio drops further, with just 27 per cent of birds and 39 per cent of mammals being female.
These ratios have remained unchanged for the last 130 years, except in species with marked sexual dimorphism. This is where males have ostentatious features such as bright colours while females may be more understated in appearance. In such species, the proportion of females in museum collections has decreased.
This bias towards males has implications for our understanding of evolution, genetics and ecology.
“Natural history collections play a critical role in … answering vital questions for the future of biodiversity,” the study authors wrote. “These results imply that previous studies may be impacted by undetected male bias, and vigilance is required when using specimen data, collecting new specimens and designating types.”
The toutouwai (North Island robin, Petroica longipes) has eyes bigger than its stomach. Weighing about the same as a lightbulb, toutouwai regularly take down large invertebrates including wētā, stick insects and even 30-centimetre-long earthworms.
But there’s only so much the tiny toutouwai can devour of these meals. Rather than let that protein go to waste, toutouwai are adept at storing leftovers—a caching behaviour similar to a squirrel hiding nuts for winter.
To remember where all these tidbits are stored, toutouwai need a good memory map. Researchers gave 63 wild birds a puzzle with a mealworm treat hidden in one of eight compartments. The puzzle was placed in the toutouwai’s territory several times per day, with the treat always hidden in the same compartment. Toutouwai learned the location of the snack, opening fewer compartments to find the mealworm over time.
Following these individuals over the next breeding season, researchers found that males with better memory raised more chicks and fed their offspring larger prey items. But for females, food memory was not linked to reproductive fitness, leading the researchers to speculate that females may have other traits under selection pressure—perhaps related to nest-building.
Climate change could spell the end for emperor penguins by the year 2100—that’s the somber prediction of a new international study.
If current warming trends continue, emperor penguins will be marching toward an 86 per cent population decline by the end of the century, at which point, “it is very unlikely for them to bounce back,” says study author Stephanie Jenouvrier, a seabird ecologist from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
Emperor penguins, the largest penguin species on Earth, require sea ice of a specific type to survive. It must be fixed to Antarctica’s shoreline, but also extend far enough into the open sea to allow for foraging. Without sea ice, emperor penguins are unable to raise their chicks and numbers plummet.
By combining two computer models, researchers mapped future sea ice distribution and modelled how the penguin population would respond to changing ice conditions under three different climate scenarios.
If humans limit warming to 1.5ºC, as proposed in the Paris Agreement, sea ice will only decrease by five per cent, leading to a 19 per cent drop in emperor penguin numbers by 2100. Under a 2ºC warming regime, sea ice loss triples and 31 per cent of the population is lost. The worst case—guaranteed extinction—arises if no action is taken and current warming is allowed to continue unabated.
“If we don’t hit the Paris Accord emissions goals,” says Michelle La Rue, study co-author from the University of Canterbury, “emperor penguins are in deep trouble.”
Just after midnight on November 14, 2016, more than 24 fault lines around Kaikōura ruptured in spectacular fashion. One of these rifts—the previously unmapped Papatea Fault—threw up a few extra surprises for scientists.
Normally, the rupture of a fault is caused by a build-up of stress. But Papatea was stress-free until its rupturing neighbours squeezed it, triggering a violent fracture. In a matter of seconds, the earth split open along 19 kilometres and sections of mountainous land were shifted upwards by eight metres. Of the 24 fault lines, Papatea produced the largest vertical movement.
At first, Papatea’s behaviour confused scientists, because the fault wasn’t under strain. In a study published in Science Advances in October, New Zealand and Canadian researchers used before-and-after images of the fault line to create a model and figure out what happened.
It’s another unusual aspect of the most complex earthquake ever studied, with implications for assessing seismic risk. Current earthquake forecasting is based on the strain model, where faults accumulate tension until they fail, but Papatea shows that displacement is also a risk, says Mark Stirling, chair of earthquake science at the University of Otago: “A ten-metre displacement in a built-up area or beneath a critical facility, such as a large dam, would have significant consequences.”
Painting cows with black and white stripes reduces fly bites by 50 per cent, according to a study by a team of scientists in Japan, published in PLOS One in October.
The zebra-print cows displayed fewer signs of annoyance, such as tail flicking and head shaking, and attracted lower numbers of biting flies than unpainted cows.
The study was inspired by previous research suggesting the zebra’s iconic striped coat functions as a fly deterrent. The stripes are thought to work by confusing the insects: the pattern interferes with flies’ motion detection, and they fail to land on the striped surface. (This is, however, just one of a number of theories attempting to explain the evolutionary advantage of the zebra’s stripes.)
Biting flies are a significant pest for cattle worldwide, including in New Zealand. Their persistent attacks cause stress and prevent cattle from sleeping and eating—which in turn affects growth and milk production.
Our next-door neighbour is a cannibal. Andromeda, the closest spiral galaxy to the Milky Way, has a history of eating smaller galaxies, and we’re next on the menu—in about four billion years.
Research published in Nature in October documents the leftovers of galactic meals: dense star clusters called globular clusters dotted throughout the stellar halo orbiting Andromeda.
By tracing the faint remains of smaller galaxies embedded in the globular clusters on Andromeda’s outskirts, researchers reconstructed how and when the smaller star systems were gobbled up.
“We are cosmic archaeologists, except we are digging through the fossils of long-dead galaxies rather than human history,” said the study’s co-author, Geraint Lewis from the University of Sydney.
Andromeda is on a collision course with the Milky Way—so now we have a clearer picture of the ultimate fate of our galaxy.
Normally, more than 200 sightings of great white sharks are recorded every year in False Bay, near Cape Town, South Africa. This year, that number is zero.
Receivers that are supposed to ‘ping’ when a tagged shark passes by remain silent, while whale carcasses usually found in the bay are free of shark bite marks.
False Bay is a renowned great white hotspot, and shark scientists are puzzled by the predators’ absence. It’s possible that orcas are the culprits—they’re known to attack great whites, and have a particular taste for their livers. Indeed, sightings of great whites decreased after two orcas visited False Bay in 2015. Alleged victims of orca predation have washed up along the South African coast, their livers removed with surgical precision—the orca’s calling card. This is also consistent with observations from Australia and California, where orcas on the prowl have led to a mass exodus of great whites.
But there’s another suspect in this case: humans. It’s possible that changing prey distribution, pollution or overfishing could also be responsible for the missing sharks.
In August 1849, Sarah and Isaac Cripps and their three children boarded the Fancy, bound for Auckland Island, 465 kilometres south of New Zealand. They were part of a group of 66 prospective colonists planning to start a new settlement in the subantarctic. As they put to sea, they imagined the sunny weather and gentle pastures that awaited them. They would not find out until December that they’d all been tricked.