Science Update - Communication and Cat Proteins

The Naked Scientists spoke to Chelsea Wald and Bob Hirshon
26 March 2006

Interview with 

Chelsea Wald and Bob Hirshon


Chris - Every week we cross the pond to find out what's going on courtesy of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Chelsea Wald and Bob Hirshon are there with Science Update, and this week they're going to be telling us about how disabled kids could be better at communicating, how cats could be knocking off sea otters and also getting proteins out of prehistoric things like dinosaurs.

Chelsea - For the Naked Scientists this week we'll be taking a look at new technologies that are helping disabled children find their voices. But before that we have a story of particular interest to cat lovers. New research shows that keeping cats indoors instead of out is not only safer for them but is also safer for other cute fuzzy animals too.

Bob - That's right. Cats are killing sea otters in California, but probably not in the way you're thinking. Cats carry a parasite called toxoplasma that they shed in their faeces. That's according to scientist Pat Conrad of the University of California at Davis.

Pat - When cats defecate outside or if cat litter is dumped outside and then it rains, those parasites are washed into rivers and streams and those ultimately reach the ocean.

Bob - There the parasite causes brain disease in sea otters, killing many of them outright and making others easier prey for sharks. Conrad says that sea otters are vulnerable because they live near the coast, but other marine mammals such as manatees can also get infected, In humans, toxoplasma can be dangerous for pregnant women or people with weak immune systems. Conrad says pet owners can control this parasite by keeping their pets indoors and bagging all litter.

Chelsea - That's right. I know that many Naked Scientist fans are fond of composting, but I'm sorry to say that kitty litter isn't a good candidate for the compost pile because of these parasites. Our next story is about a scientist who has discovered a new way to get information out of some very old bones.

Bob - That's right and they're old as in prehistoric. You may remember in the movie Jurassic Park that scientists use ancient DNA to bring dinosaurs back to life. Well biogeochemist Peggy Ostrom from Michigan State University doubts DNA can last that long but she does think that she may be able to find and sequence the next best thing: dinosaur proteins. Her lab has already sequenced one type of protein in bones from a nearly 50 000 year old horse and a half million year old musk ox.

Peggy - SO that gives us some hope that we could push back the time limits in other fossils. So we're working our way back in time.

Bob - Proteins in dinosaur bones could tell scientists what dinosaurs ate and what diseases they had. And since proteins contain genetic information, they could also reveal new clues about how dinosaurs evolved.

Chelsea - Thanks Bob. Autism, Down's Syndrome and cerebral palsy are very different disabilities but one thing they have in common is that they make it harder to communicate through speech and that can make other things harder too.

Bob - That's right. Children with disabilities often fall behind in reading, writing and even social skills later on. But most speech therapy technologies are skewed towards adults. That's why Penn State University communication scientist Janis Light is leading an effort to re-tool them.

Janice - So our work has really looked at trying to develop computer technologies that are more appealing to young children that are really fun to interact with and at that same time to develop ones that are extremely easy for the children to understand and use. Our goal is that we would put a computer system in front of a child as young as a year of age or even younger and that from the moment they first see the computer system, that they would be able to interact with it and use it.

Bob - One strategy is to custom tailor the computers to each child's life. To hear the word 'dog' for example, the child might touch a picture of his or her own pet rather than a stock photo. The new systems have already helped disabled children learn language at near normal rates.

Chelsea - Well that's all for this week's Science Update from AAAS, the science society. Next week we'll be learning about a tiny plane that flaps its wings. Until then, back to you Naked Scientists.


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