Mobiles Track Malaria and Mice Learn New Squeaks

Mobile phone data tracks malaria as it moves with humans; Spirals of dust help understand evolution of stars; A new technique keeps lungs alive outside the body for longer than...
14 October 2012

Interview with 

Caroline Buckee, Harvard School of Public Health; Matthias Maercker, University of Bonn; Gregor Warnecke, Hanover Medical School; Erich Jarvis, Duke University Medical School;


Tracking Malaria with Mobile Phones

Mobile PhoneFor the first time, anonymous mobile phone data has been used to discover how human travel patterns contribute to the spread of malaria.  The same model could be also be used to track diseases like influenza.

Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health,


publishing in


Science, mapped the locations of calls and texts from 15 million mobile phones in Kenya over a 12 month period.

This information was combined with data charting cases of malaria, enabling the team to identify factors that contribute to outbreaks such as, for instance, journeys to high-risk outback areas.  Co-author Caroline Buckee explains how she will build on this work...


Caroline -   We'll be trying to apply it to other countries in sub-Saharan Africa.  One of the problems is getting hold of these mobile phone datasets.  So, we're going to be working on trying to get more comprehensive data over longer periods of time and I think that will have a range of useful applications.



Dust Spirals Shed Light on Stellar Evolution

New features of stellar evolution have been observed by astronomers at the University of Bonn, using the ALMA Array telescope in Chile.

The radio telescope is made up of many smaller telescopes working together, giving vastly more detailed images of stellar objects than previously available. Using the telescope, the researchers were able to study the outer shell of dust and gas a star throws off in its later life, during a so-called 'thermal pulse'. The team unexpectedly found a spiral structure of dust and gas connecting the star to its shell, which allowed the team to find far out more about how the star behaved before, during and after the creation of the outer shell than they previously expected.

Matthias Maercker, a co-author of the paper published in Nature explained the importance of this work.

Matthias -   Thermal pulses are really a main driver of the evolution of old stars.  They really drive the creation of new elements inside the stars, so it leads to the chemical evolution of the star itself and all this material eventually gets put into the stellar wind and blown into space.  Most of the elements that we see on Earth for example, especially the ones that are lighter than iron, all the carbon, all the oxygen comes from stars like this.  So, understanding this process is basically understanding how life is formed in the universe.

Keeping Lungs Alive

Heart and LungsMedical engineers have designed a device that can not only keep donor lungs alive for longer, outside of the donor's body, but also enable more thorough checks and even some improvement for partially damaged lungs for transplant.

Normally, lungs are transported at a cold temperature to slow down the effects of metabolism and oxygen starvation outside the body.  This new system puts, or perfuses, a blood-like solution through the lungs, at body-temperature to keep the lungs viable for 10 hours, several hours longer than previous systems.

Gregor Warnecke, a co-author of the Lancet paper and a member of one of the several German institutions involved in the study described the device's potential for longer term storage in laboratory trials...

Gregor -   We have perfused these organs for 24 hours and in some occasions, even for up to 72 hours and still, having stable function after that time.


Male Mice Mimick Squeaks

And finally, it was thought that mice lack the ability to learn new vocalisations, or to put it more simply, learn a new squeak.  That is, until now. Work published this week in PLoS ONE by researchers at the Duke University Medical Centre, have found parts of the brain in mice that controls copying a sound, a behaviour thought to be unique to humans and songbirds. The researchers found that male mice could learn to match vocal pitch of another mouse, mimicking its squeak.  The co-author Erich Jarvis explains why...

Erich -   They sing these songs to the females.  It's probably a courtship display, meaning that they're trying to attract the female for mating.  So, if one guy is getting the female more often than the other, what he might try to do is match that pitch of that guy's song. This study shows that we could use mice as a model to find out more about speech disorders affected by vocalisation, such as Autism.


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