#19. Dirty Secrets: Are Laboratory Mice Too Clean?
March 25, 2017
THE hygiene hypothesis posits that certain diseases—notably asthma, eczema and type-1 diabetes—which are becoming more common than they once were, are caused in part by modern environments being too clean. The diseases in question result from misfunctions of the immune system. The hygiene hypothesis suggests such misfunctions are the result of children’s immune systems being unable to learn, by appropriate exposure to viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasitic worms, how to respond properly.
#18. Nature’s Cruellest One-Night Stand: Sexual Cannibalism in Spiders
October 22, 2016
ANIMAL mating can be a cruel and unusual process. Male bedbugs inseminate females by piercing their bellies and depositing sperm inside their paramours’ body cavities. Male chimpanzees and lions kill the suckling infants of females before mating with them, as this brings those females more rapidly into oestrus. Male dolphins routinely engage in rape. Nor are aggressive mating practices perpetrated solely by males against females. In many species of insects and spiders, females eat their partners after sex.
#17. To Your Health: Is Wine Good for You or Is It Not?
April 8, 2016
FEW things arouse such warm adulation and sharp denunciation as alcohol. It is beloved by some and despised by others, and its consumption is governed by legal and religious rules. Wine is central to Christian rites but is widely considered by Muslims to be forbidden by the Quran. It is also the subject of debate within the scientific community: some researchers contend that alcohol, particularly wine, has health benefits, but others disagree.
#16. Drug Supplies: Track Marks
April 2, 2016
MOST of the world’s supply of cocaine comes from just three South American countries: Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. Much of it is headed for the United States and Europe. Law-enforcement officials from America patrol international waters in the Caribbean and eastern Pacific, hoping to seize cocaine shipments before they reach their intended destinations. When they succeed in nabbing any smugglers, contraband samples are sent to chemists to help determine the source.
#15. Protecting Coffee Crops: Beetles and Bugs
July 18, 2015
THE coffee-berry borer is a pesky beetle. It is thought to destroy $500m-worth of unpicked coffee beans a year, thus diminishing the incomes of some 20m farmers. The borer spends most of its life as a larva, buried inside a coffee berry, feeding on the beans within. To do so, it has to defy the toxic effects of caffeine. This is a substance which, though pleasing to people, is fatal to insects—except, for reasons hitherto unknown, to the coffee-berry borer. But those reasons are unknown no longer.
#14. Genes and the Placebo Effect: Are You Easily Pleased?
May 2, 2015
GIVE someone who is sick a sugar pill that you have told him is a powerful drug, and it will often make him feel better. Even if you tell him what it really is, he may still feel better. The placebo effect, as this phenomenon is known—from the Latin for “I shall please”—is one of the strangest things in medical science.
#13. Peanut Allergy: Browned Off
Sept 27, 2014
BROADLY speaking, East Asians and Westerners suffer the same types of food allergies in about the same proportions. But there is an exception. Westerners are roughly twice as likely as East Asians to be allergic to peanuts. This is a puzzle—as is the question of why anyone is allergic to peanuts in the first place.
#12. Biotechnology: A New Opium Pipe
August 30, 2014
SYNTHETIC biology—the technique of moving genes from creature to creature not one at a time, but by the handful—promises much but has yet to deliver. Someone who believes it can, though, is Christina Smolke of Stanford University. And, as she and her colleagues write in Nature Chemical Biology, they think they now know one way that it might.
#11. Domesticated Animals: How the Labrador Got Its Spots
August 1, 2014
OVER the course of several thousand years, mankind slowly transformed the wild canine into man’s best friend. Wolves would linger near early human settlements, supplementing their diets with food scraps and other waste. Some of these beasts were less afraid of humans, and over generations, this intrepid subset of mongrels built a mutually beneficial relationship with humans.
#10. Academic Prestige: Why Climb the Greasy Pole?
May 10, 2014
MOST academics would view a post at an elite university like Oxford or Harvard as the crowning achievement of a career—bringing both accolades and access to better wine cellars. But scholars covet such places for reasons beyond glory and gastronomy.
#9. Microbial Warfare: Anthrax Assassin
February 3, 2014
A DEAD zebra in the open savannah of Namibia’s Etosha National Park would be an off-putting encounter for most people. But for Holly Ganz of the University of California, Davis and an international team of researchers, the striped ungulate’s carcass reeked of opportunity.
#8. Allergies: A Rash of Euroenthusiasm
December 30, 2013
THE European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy gets a lot of flak. Critics lambast it for illogical subsidies, onerous regulations and vast expense. It might even cause allergies.
#7. Oenology: Air Defenses
December 4, 2013
WINE, any connoiseur will tell you, is a living thing. And as with other organisms, for it, too, oxygen is a mixed blessing. The element breathes life, but it—or strictly speaking reactive oxygen species (ROS), the byproducts of the process through which cells extract energy from nutrients—can be toxic. Oxygen plays a role in red wines’ normal ageing process. However, through ROS, it can lay waste whites.
#6. Archaeological Technology: Rapid Diggers
September 22, 2013
ARCHAEOLOGY rarely rises to the level of excitement of bullwhip-cracking Indiana Jones. But a new technique to determine the geological origin of artefacts has plenty of researchers aflutter. A team led by Ellery Frahm from the University of Sheffield has found a way to pinpoint the source of artefacts made of obsidian, a glassy rock formed after volcanic lava hardens, on the spot, in ten seconds.
#5. The Origin of MERS: Watching the Detectives
August 31, 2013
IN APRIL 2012, two Jordanians died of a mysterious respiratory illness. Shortly afterwards another man with similar symptoms died in Saudi Arabia. For a moment, though they did not make too much of a fuss at the time, the world’s public-health apparatchiks held their breath—for the cause was a coronavirus, a relative of the pathogen that causes Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
#4. Staving Off Microbes: A Bling Offensive
June 21, 2013
SILVER has long been known as more than bling. In the fifth century BC Hippocrates noted its ability to preserve food and water. In the late 19th century silver-nitrate eye drops were administered to newborns to prevent conjunctivitis (though this remedy has since been replaced with an antibiotic). Today silver is routinely found in wound dressings and catheters to treat or prevent infections. Yet, despite its widespread use, the source of silver’s antibacterial properties has remained shrouded in mystery.
#3. Evolution: History Repeating
February 21, 2013
WIND back the tape of life, Stephen Jay Gould once quipped, and the chance becomes vanishingly small that anything like human intelligence would grace the replay. Not everyone agrees. Matthew Herron and Michael Doebeli, from the University of British Columbia, challenge Gould’s logic, at least when it comes to bacteria.
#2. Neutrinos and Solar Storms: And Now, the Space-Weather Forecast
August 23, 2012
RADIOACTIVE materials decay at a predictable rate—so predictable, in fact, that scientists widely use them to date artefacts and geological objects. That, at least, is the received wisdom, which Jere Jenkins and Ephraim Fischbach, from Purdue University in Indiana, think may need revising. In 2006 Dr Jenkins noticed that the decay rate of the radioactive isotope manganese-54 dipped 39 hours before a solar flare came crashing into Earth’s protective magnetic field. Now it seems that the sun might affect other types of decay, too.
#1. Vaccine Technology: No Sow’s Ear
July 10, 2012
Print edition: Tech Quarterly.
KEEPING drugs, and particularly vaccines, potent in tropical climes is a challenge. Heat tends to damage them. Such medicines have therefore to be passed from one refrigerator to another, along what is referred to as a cold chain, until they arrive at the clinics whence they are to be deployed. Fridges, however, are expensive. They also require electricity, which is not always available—or is available only unreliably—in the poorer parts of the world. As a consequence, breaks in cold chains are reckoned by the World Health Organisation to destroy almost half of the vaccines produced around the world.