Smart bats, portable brain scans, microbiome under fire: this week in science

Here’s a look back at this week in science, with stories you don’t want to miss.

Quarter of human drugs disrupt microbiome

Scientists reported the results of a large study this week that tested the effects over 1,000 pharmaceutical drugs on the gut microbiome–the bacterial buddies that live symbiotically with us. The more we learn, the more we appreciate the importance of the microbiome on human health. And so it is also important to have more than a gut feeling about how current medical practices affect our bacteria. The researchers found that roughly a quarter of the drugs they tested, including many non-antibiotic classes like antipsychotics, disrupted the growth of at least one strain of gut bacteria. This discovery also points to a previously unknown pathway through which bacteria can develop resistance to antibiotics. As we’ve reported before, this is one of the gravest threats to human health.

Bats can learn from other species

A new study has determined that the fringe-lipped bat can learn to identify new prey not only from members of its own species, but from bats of other species as well. These first tests also showed that fringe-lipped bats picked up hunting cues and calls from white-throated round-eared bats, joining in on catching prey they usually don’t hunt. The researchers think that this skill might explain why bats are such evolutionarily successful animals, filling ecological niches all across the globe.

Bats can learn hunting patterns between species. Photo: Sweetaholic | Pixabay. | Miles O'Brien Productions
Bats can learn hunting patterns between species. Photo: Sweetaholic | Pixabay.

Relativity signs engine testing contract with NASA

Relativity, the 3-D printed rocket company, has signed a 20 year contract with NASA for the exclusive use of a 25-acre rocket engine test facility at the agency’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. This kind of deal is the first of its kind, and allows the startup to avoid large up-front costs of building its own engine test facility, like those incurred by SpaceX and Blue Origin. To learn more about Relativity’s engines and how they plan to 3-D print full rockets, watch our NewsHour report from this week:

A new, brain-scanning helmet

In a technological breakthrough for neuroscience, a portable helmet that can perform brain scans using magnetoencephalography (MEG) has been developed. Traditionally, patients getting their brains scanned would need to stay very still with their heads in a large, immovable device like an MRI machine. With this portable version of the technology, subjects are now free to move around with a lightweight helmet. This greatly increases the types of experiments that neuroscientists can perform, hopefully unlocking more knowledge about how the brain works in situations previously inaccessible to researchers.

Playing with a ball and paddle while wearing the new brain scan helmet. Photo: Wellcome. | Miles O'Brien Productions
Playing with a ball and paddle while wearing the new brain scan helmet. Photo: Wellcome.

DNA duplicates when mouse pups are ignored by mothers

The debate over nature versus nurture continues: a new study has shown that mice pups that receive less attention from their mothers develop a greater number of DNA duplicates in some parts of their brains. The trend was confirmed when pups were raised by foster mothers as well, which shows that this effect is environmental and not genetic. The scientists have not yet determined what, if any, behavioral or health effects this DNA duplication confers, but the genetic segments in question have been linked with anxiety and stress in human children as well. Further studies could shed more light on the connection between environmental stimuli and these gene duplications, as well as their subsequent effects.

Reminds me of some other work on rat parenting we discussed in a film we did for NOVA in 2013 called “Mind of a Rampage Killer”. If you don’t have an hour to spare, cue in to 8:30 to see how a well-licked rat baby makes for a well adjusted rat adult–and vice versa.

These mouse pups certainly don’t look starved for attention! Photo: Kapa65 | Pixabay. | Miles O'Brien Productions
These mouse pups certainly don’t look starved for attention! Photo: Kapa65 | Pixabay.

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Banner image credit: CDC, edited.

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