Suicidal Comets and Dancing Beetles

22 January 2012

Interview with

Carey Lisse, John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory; Congcong He, University of Texas Southwestern medical centre; Richard Allen, UC Berkeley; Emilay Baird, University of Lund

Comets in a New Light

A Comet diving into and disintegrating within the Suns atmosphere has been observed by scientists in the US.

The comet
C/2011 N3 is one of the so-called Kreutz family which pass extremely close to the Sun's surface. Over 2000 of them have been detected in the past 15 years.

But their paths through the Sun's atmosphere were previously uncharted and now thanks to NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, Solar Heliospheric Observatory and Solar-Terrestrial Relations Observatory, the self-destructive path of this most recent C/2011 N3 comet has been observed.

Carey Lisse from the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory comments on the discovery...

Carey -   It streaked at a million miles per hour through the Sun's atmosphere called the Corona which is a million degree plasma.  It took half an hour to cross the face of the sun before it disappeared.  So, you can imagine this giant dirty snowball that's been around for 4.5 billion years since the beginning of the solar system, streaking through this hellish environment and dissipating, rotating, fragmenting, breaking up, and finally, just totally being destroyed.  Watching how this comet falls apart and measuring the light that comes from it can tell us an awful lot about how the comet is put together.


The Benefits of Exercise

Exercise  induces the clearance and recycling of components within our cells, resulting in protection against metabolic disorders  such as diabetes.

Working with mice,
Congcong He and colleagues, from the University of Texas Southwestern medical centre, found that exercise triggers a process called autophagy - the self-clearance and catabolism of certain cell components.

This is mainly triggered within skeletal and cardiac muscle to enable increased endurance and glucose metabolism simultaneously protecting against certain metabolic conditions.

Congcong -   So our study helped develop the concept that increasing autophagy activity in general may be beneficial for combating insulin resistance, obesity, and maybe other related metabolic complications.  Autophagy activation can mimic that beneficial effects from exercise.  So the dream is to develop a reagent and induces autophagy can act as exercise mimic, so we can apply it to those patients who are physically confined and cannot exercise by themselves.

Detecting Earthquakes with Citizen Science

Citizen scientists could lead the way for
earthquake research and detection in the future.

Citizen science involves members of the public reporting on and collecting data to aid scientific research. Recent electronic applications in the field of seismology include the 'Quake-catcher'  program turning your computer into a seismometer and placing it on a global network  as well as more mobile apps such as the 'i-shake Cal' app for iPhones collecting ground shaking measurements.

Publishing in the journal science, UC Berkeley's Richard Allen explains their importance in seismology.

Richard -   People have collected relatively small amounts of data and they're using it to locate earthquakes, to map out the earthquake rupture propagation across the fault plane, they're using it to generate alerts before the shaking is actually felt.  We could go from having a seismic network, would have hundreds of stations to seismic networks that literally have millions of stations.  So that's a massive increase in the number of seismic recordings that we have and that has knock-in effects for all of the approaches that we take to mitigate earthquakes.

Dancing with Dung

And finally, the mystery of why
dung beetles dance, has been solved by scientists at the University of Lund.

Dung beetles form individual balls from a dung pile which they then roll a safe dung beetledistance away to feed on without competition. The beetles are known to climb on top of their ball and spin around along certain points of their route and the reasons behind this have previously been unknown.

Working with beetles in the lab, Emily Baird has discovered that this dance it's all about the beetles knowing where they're going...

Emily -   This dance behaviour is a strategy that the beetles are using to overcome unexpected disturbances to their roll path.  We've induced them to fall off a ramp, so they lose control of the ball, so their orientation is messed up when this happens.  So once they've become disoriented, the dance helps them to relocate their original roll bearing so that they can then continue in the same direction that they took.  So they make sure that they don't end up rolling back, straight back into the dung pile which is what they're trying to get away from.

The work is published this week, in the journal PLoS one.

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