Science Interviews


Sun, 30th Apr 2006

Science Update - Elephants, OIl and Memory

Chelsea Wald and Bob Hirshon from AAAS

Part of the show Naked Science Question and Answer


Kat - Now we're going to hop over the pond and have our science update from Chelsea Wald and Bob Hirshon who are from the AAAS, the American Association for the Advancement of Science. This week we're going to be finding out how elephants are helping the oil crisis, and also meet the woman who never forgets. But first, it's time to find out the answer to the riddle that Chelsea set us last week.

Chelsea - This week for the Naked Scientists, we're starting off answering last week's riddle. Bob, pray tell, what is brown, sounds like a bell and could help solve the oil crisis?

Bob - Elephant DUNGGGG! Yes, that's right, elephant dung. Now you may ask how is elephant dung going to solve the oil crisis. You see, ethanol from plants like corn is a promising alternative fuel and now scientists in the Netherlands have developed a more efficient way to produce it using a gene from a fungus found in elephant dung. Industrial microbiologist Ton van Maris at the Delft University of Technology explains that baker's yeast can convert plant sugars in to ethanol but couldn't metabolise the indigestible wood sugars, until now.

Han - By taking this gene from the fungus we isolated from the elephant dung and putting it into baker's yeast, we have created a yeast strain that under laboratory conditions can produce almost twice the amount of ethanol from plant biomass as a normal yeast strain would do.

Bob - He says that because elephants eat so much roughage, their digestive tracts are full of micro-organisms that can tackle the tougher sugars.

Chelsea - Eugh. Well next we have a fascinating case study. We hear a lot about patients who lose their memory either due to an accident or a disease like Alzheimer's. But here's a patient with an abnormally good memory.

Bob - Do you remember what you did yesterday? Or how about May 10th 1996? For a forty year old woman known as AJ these questions are equally easy. Psychiatrist James Mcgarr of the University of California at Irvine has been studying her previously undocumented super memory. For example, given no advance warning, she was able to rattle off the dates of Easter for the past twenty years.

James - And she's Jewish and would have no specific reason to pay attention to Easters. Without any effort at all she immediately gave us the dates. She made a mistake by two days an then quickly corrected it. She also told us what she was doing on each of those days, which we verified by turning to a diary she had kept over the years.

Bob - Remarkably, he says that AJ doesn't rely on rote memorisation or mnemonic devices. She just vividly recalls each day as if it were yesterday. His team plans to use brain scans to find out if her memory is organised differently to other people's.

Chelsea - That's all for this week. Next time we'll talk about the latest things neurologists are talking about keeping your brain happy and healthy. Until then, I'm Chelsea Wald.

Bob - And I'm Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the science society. Back to you Naked Scientists.


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