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Fantastic beasts

Creatures with incredible superpowers including the ability to survive being frozen and suffocated and resist ageing could revolutionise medicine, space travel and even war

IT HAS been holding its breath for months. Locked under an airless seal of ice, the extraordinary animal waits. At last, the warmth of spring brings relief. Claws twitch, a brain rouses and a beak pushes through the lake’s thawing slush to take a lungful of air. Incredibly, the western painted turtle is none the worse for having endured the kind of oxygen starvation that would normally kill a human in minutes.

At more than 100 days, the turtle holds the record among four-legged animals for surviving without oxygen. It is by no means the only creature to boast jaw-dropping talents. The constellation of powers found across the animal kingdom seems fantastical: the ability to almost completely regenerate innards, to dodge ageing or cancer, to slumber immobile for months without bone or muscle wasting, to slow biological time or even enter a state of suspended animation that can withstand all manner of trials, from freezing to bombardment with gamma rays.

Almost as implausible-sounding is the idea that humans might be able to borrow some of these abilities. Yet the discovery that these powers are underpinned by genes and biological processes we too possess makes this a distinct possibility. Some potential applications – such as putting people into a sort of hibernation for space travel – remain distant goals. But others – including keeping transplant organs fresh without cooling and developing new tactics to tackle cancer and ageing – seem feasible. In fact, the US has launched a research project to exploit animal powers that could help injured soldiers on the battlefield (see “Stop the clock”).

Read more: https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24432510-500-want-to-regrow-organs-and-defy-cancer-just-copy-these-awesome-animals/#ixzz66fUIdOgP

Image: Karunakar Rayker from India [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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Penguin archaeology

It’s amazing what you can discover about a penguin when you rummage through its waste, finds Claire Ainsworth

AS EUREKA moments go, it wasn’t the most dignified. David Lambert lost his footing and face-planted into a patch of expired penguins. He had been taking blood samples from living birds at a nesting site, but as he scrambled to his feet, it dawned on him that he was standing on a mass grave. “In those penguin colonies you are literally walking on matted bodies,” he says. “When you scratch around, you just find bones after bones after bones.”

Lambert’s insight was to realise that he had stumbled on a deep-frozen archive. The remains belonged to Adélie penguins, which return to the same spots to nest year after year, often for centuries. And this was Antarctica, the coldest, driest place on the planet, offering the ideal conditions for preserving DNA. By digging into this repository, he could unearth the story of Adélies and their evolution.

That’s not all. This frozen treasure trove has the potential to give new insights into the past, present and future of the Antarctic, too. This promise is what’s drawing scientists like Lambert to the bottom of the world, braving seat-of-your-pants helicopter rides and vicious polar storms to sift through layers of mummified penguin bodies and reeking semi-fossilised bird faeces. And what they are finding has exceeded expectations. The preserved Adélie remains are providing clues about past climate conditions, changes in ice shelves and sea ice, the impact of historical human activities such as whaling, and even the mechanism of evolution itself. Not bad for a short, stout bird with a reputation for belligerent curiosity.

Read more: https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24032093-700-the-mummified-penguins-that-hold-the-secrets-of-antarcticas-past/#ixzz66fQu6RO9

Image: Jerzy Strzelecki [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)]

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Sex and the single cell

Sex chromosomes in every cell of the body exert widespread and sometimes unexpected effects.

It was the mouse equivalent of the midnight munchies. Instead of sleeping normally, Karen Reue’s lab mice were waking early and nibbling on extra snacks, which was making them obese. On investigation, she was surprised to find that the probable reason for this out-of-hours feeding was the genetic sex of their cells — the number and kind of sex chromosomes they contain. “It wasn’t at all what we expected,” says Reue, a geneticist at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

“There is a huge consequence to having two X chromosomes versus an X and a Y.

The idea that our body cells have a ‘sex’, and that this property has consequences for our health, has taken biologists by surprise. Experiments performed in the mid-twentieth century had implied that the hormones produced by the ovaries or testes were the source of physiological differences between males and females. But Reue’s findings are part of a growing body of evidence showing that hormones are only part of the story. It now seems that the genetic sex of cells is crucial too. Cellular sex may also help to explain why women and men have different susceptibilities to conditions such as obesity, heart disease, neurodegeneration, autoimmunity and cancer, and why such conditions can behave differently in the two sexes. Certainly, when it comes to metabolism, “there is a huge consequence to having two X chromosomes versus an X and a Y throughout your whole body,” says Reue…

To read more, click here: Nature Outlook article on cellular sex (5th October 2017)

 

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Secrets of life in a spoonful of blood

The intricate development of the fetus is yielding its long-held secrets to state-of-the-art molecular technologies that can make use of the mother’s blood.

Life starts with a puzzle. Out of sight in a mother’s womb, 3 billion letters of DNA code somehow turn into 3D bodies, all in the space of a mere 40 weeks. Fetuses form eyes, brains, hearts, fingers and toes — in processes that are meticulously coordinated in both time and space. Biologists have pieced together parts of this puzzle, but many gaps remain.

Now, a crop of molecular technologies is giving scientists tantalizing hints about how to fill in those gaps. Improved ways of reading and interpreting the information in fetal genetic material are uncovering a raft of genes involved in human development, and letting researchers eavesdrop on the hum of gene activity before birth. They can see which genes turn on or off at pivotal moments, and sense how the environment nurtures or intrudes on this…

Read more on Nature‘s website here.