The science never stops. This week’s discoveries shed light on the origins of flight in birds, investigates a virus that has a startling effect on its host, exposes unexpected avenues of pollutions, and suggests a compact way to store all that data we keep creating.
Stone cold origins
Medusa, the snake-haired Gorgon of Greek mythology turned anyone who looked at her into stone. Now a team of scientists in Japan has discovered a giant virus with similar powers. They’ve named it Medusavirus because it infects a species of amoeba known as Acanthamoeba castellanii and causes it to develop a hard, stony shell.
The team, led by virologist Masaharu Takemura of Tokyo University of Science and Hiroyuki Ogata of Kyoto University found that genetic information was exchanged between the host and the virus as they coevolved. They also found that the virus contains some of the complex proteins that make up the building blocks of eukaryotic organisms such as animals, plants, and humans.
The authors suggest that in terms of evolution, the Medusavirus DNA polymerase lies at the origin of the DNA polymerase found in eukaryotes. According to co-author, Genki Yoshikawa, the findings could mean that human DNA polymerase originated from Medusavirus or one of its relatives.
Would you like ketamine with that shrimp?
Most of us are aware of the problem of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans. Stories like the one about a dead whale washing up in the Philippines with 88 pounds of plastic in its body make the crisis all too clear. But what about our rivers?
A recent study has found illicit drugs, pesticides, and other chemicals in UK river wildlife. These chemicals make their way to rivers after we use them in our drugs and household products.
Thomas Miller from King's College London looked at the exposure of wildlife, such as the freshwater shrimp Gammarus pulex, to different micropollutants. The most frequently detected compounds were illicit drugs, including cocaine and ketamine. He also found instances of the banned pesticide, fenuron.
Co-author Leon Barron was surprised to find illicit drugs in wildlife: “We might expect to see these in urban areas such as London, but not in smaller and more rural catchments.” The authors hope evaluating the impacts of these chemicals on wildlife will help inform public policy.
A teaspoon of protein helps the storage go down
2.5 quintillion bytes of data are produced every day. We’re creating and storing more information all the time, and eventually the cloud will be full.
Brian Cafferty of Harvard University thinks the solution might be to store information in molecules. Other scientists have recently found a way to record information on synthesized DNA strands. But Cafferty and co-author Milan Mrksich's technique borrows from organic and analytical chemistry rather than biology.
The researchers used low-weight oligopeptides, common molecules that are smaller than DNA or RNA proteins. One byte of information can be stored on just eight oligopeptides. Oligopeptides and similar molecules don’t need light or oxygen. They remain stable for hundreds or thousands of years and can withstand high temperatures and drought.
Cafferty’s team has “written,” stored, and “read” a Richard Feynman lecture, a photo of Claude Shannon, and Hokusai’s painting The Great Wave off Kanagawa. They can retrieve their data with 99.9% accuracy, “write” at an average 8 bits per second, and “read” at an average 20 bits per second.
The scalable molecular library is a zero-energy, corruption-resistant storage option that might one day let us store the contents of the New York Public Library with a teaspoon of protein.
Flapping to fly
When scientists discovered a fossil of Archaeopteryx in 1861, they called it the earliest known bird. It turns out that the creature had more in common with dinosaurs than modern birds, but its feathered wings and skeletal features suggest it may be a transitional fossil.
The origins of avian flight have been a point of debate ever since. Some believe that gliding flight happened before flight with active flapping. Jing-Shan Zhao of Tsinghua University thinks that wing flapping evolved separately from gliding.
Zhao and his colleagues studied Caudipteryx, a small dinosaur that weighed about 5 kilograms and ran up to 8 meters per second. It didn’t fly, but had feathered “proto-wings.” The researchers applied modal effective mass theory (a mathematical approach) to understand what happened in various parts of the dinosaur’s body when it ran.
Their calculations showed that running speeds between 2.5-5.8 meters per second would have caused the animal’s wings to flap. Zhao’s team built a life-size running robot and confirmed those results. They then attached artificial wings to a young ostrich and got the same effect when it ran.
According to Zhao, his team’s results show that wing flapping developed as a passive result of running. He says, "Although this flapping motion could not lift the dinosaur into the air at that time, the motion of flapping wings may have developed earlier than gliding."