Nitrogen, Mobile Phones and Anti-cancer traps

How dead dinosaurs fertilise forests, why mobile phones answer the call in emergencies, a DNA trip-switch for cancer and a Star Trek style "sick bay" beams down to...
04 September 2011

Interview with 

Naked Scientists NewsFlash!


Leicester University Sick Bay


The Rocky Road to Fertilising Forests

Meera -   Scientists studying how forests develop have discovered a new source of nitrogen that plants and trees can tap into, helping to boost their growth and so remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

By analysing samples of soils from coniferous forests in Northern California, a team at the University of California, Davis found that the underlying bedrock leaches nitrogen-containing chemicals into the soil, nourishing the plants and trees growing above. This source of nitrogen was previously unknown, according to Professor Benjamin Houlton who was part of the study...

Benjamin - It was thought for a long time that the way nitrogen comes in to our environment is from the atmosphere only, and especially by way of a couple of interactions. One interaction involves bacteria known as Rhizobium and, in addition, nitrogen can come in from rain water. But it turns out that there's a tremendous amount of nitrogen that's in rock material. This is kind of a new discovery that nitrogen actually is in the rock material and it's also available to forests and other types of plant ecosystems.

Meera - This new source of nitrogen is released by the rocks as they erode according to the groups paper published in Nature this week. More nitrogen, which is an essential ingredient for the formation of proteins and DNA, means that plants and trees grow faster, storing more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as a result. The findings could therefore be used, say the scientists, to identify fertile areas in which to site forests intended to function as carbon-offset schemes in the future.

Increased forest ecosystem carbon and nitrogen storage from nitrogen rich bedrock, Scott L. Morford, Benjamin Z. Houlton & Randy A. Dahlgren, Nature Volume: 477, Pages: 78-81 (01 September 2011)

Mobile Phones in Emergencies

Mobile PhoneUsing mobile phones to track how people move about in emergencies has enabled scientists to develop better ways to target aid to where it's most needed.

Although relief agencies have contingency plans in place for tackling a range of disasters, the way victims actually behave under these circumstances remains poorly understood.

But now, publishing in the journal PLoS medicine, Linus Bengtsson and colleagues from the Karolinksa institute in Sweden used mobile phone signals to follow the movements of more than 1.9 million people affected by the 2010 Haiti earthquake and the ensuing cholera outbreak, to predict, with very high accuracy, where people will go, in what sorts of numbers and over what time period following an emergency...

Linus - What characterises a disaster is often total chaos and it's very, very difficult to understand where people are. Since we know which tower each mobile phone used, we can sort of follow each phone as it travels across the country. We could see that approximately 600,000 people left Port au Prince 19 days after the earthquake. So, our hope is that this will contribute to making aid delivery much more efficient.

Gething PW, Tatem AJ (2011) Can Mobile Phone Data Improve Emergency Response to Natural Disasters? PLoS Med 8(8): e1001085. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001085

Anticancer Traps

A DNA-based "circuit" that "trips", and kills cancerous cells, has been engineered by scientists at the Swiss Institute of Technology and MIT.Described this week in the journal Science, the new system looks for specific microRNA molecules that are known to be present at higher-than-normal levels within cancer cells.

Mouse TrapOnce a threshold level of the microRNAs is detected, a DNA domino effect is triggered causing the cell to self-destruct by a process called apoptosis. Although the team have yet to solve the problem of how to achieve safe and large-scale delivery of these cancer-preventing trip-switches into a patients' cells, Lead Scientist Yakov Benenson believes the work could be a strong contender in the search for new, more specific, cancer therapies...

Yakov - If we think about what would be the ideal anti-cancer therapy, it has to be something that looks at each cell and determines whether it should be destroyed or should be left alone. We don't have any good ways right now to do so. I think our study shows how to look inside the cell and detect what's going on with the cell with high precision, based on the integration of multiple cancer signals and markers.

Multi-Input RNAi-Based Logic Circuit for Identification of Specific Cancer Cells, Zhen Xie, Liliana Wroblewska, Laura Prochazka, Ron Weiss, Yaakov Benenson, Science, 2 September 2011: Vol. 333 no. 6047 pp. 1307-1311


Star-Trek Style Sick Bay

A team of scientists at the University of Leicester have used space technology to develop a "Star Trek" style "sick bay" that can non-invasively detect a variety of illnesses, all at once.

Co-inventor Professor Paul Monks explains that how the technology can see, smell and feel diseases...

Paul - The first uses imaging technology, which has really been developed for use on the Mars rovers, to look at the colour of people's skin for instance, to see whether we can pick up disease from that. The second suite of  technology looks at the composition of people's breath. From that, you can actually tell how well people are. The third suite of monitors really looks inside the body, but non-invasively, to look at blood flow and how much oxygen is in the blood and muscles and skin at any given time. Put together, it's the first time that you'll get this holistic measure of a patient's well-being.

Meera - The whole diagnostic process should take just 15 minutes. and will be based at the Accident & emergency department of the Leicester Royal Infirmary, which sees 150,000 patients coming through its doors annually. 

The developers expect to be using the system to pick up a range of diseases including infections, heart disease, skin conditions, respiratory problems and some cancers.  Liver disease,  asthma and even MRSA are earmarked for the future.So what was once considered to be science fiction looks set to become reality....

University of Leicester scientists deploy space-age technologies to detect illness at science-fiction style 'sick bay'


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