Best of Nature Network, NPG staff blogs and Scitable: 26 Nov – 2 Dec 2011

Status update: Facebook good for your heart?

That’s the theory behind the Social Heart Study, a new social network-based project aimed at understanding how Facebook friendships contribute to cardiovascular health. The Spoonful of Medicine gives more details on the project:

The Social Heart Study went live last week and is still in beta mode. But eventually, the organizers hope to recruit a cohort of more than a million adults who are willing to pour their hearts out (so to speak) for science. All this personal information should form a huge online database for observational and interventional studies into cardiovascular health, and the organizers hope it will reveal new ways to prevent heart disease.


You can find out the inspiration for this project and more information in their report.

Continuing the Facebook theme, Ian Fyfe, Scitable’s guest blogger, describes how the amount of Facebook friends a person has correlates with the structure of brain regions involved in social interactions. In his post, Ian looks a little closer at this research:

The researchers took brain scans of volunteers and measured the volumes of certain brain regions which have previously been linked with social behaviour in humans. These measurements were then compared with individuals’ answers to questions about their social life, including how many friends they have on social networking site, Facebook. They found that the volumes of some brain regions were bigger in individuals with more Facebook friends.

Find out more in Ian’s post.

Rise of the robots

This week, the Nature’s News blog reveal that a soft robot, which can crawl across surfaces and under obstacles, has been created by a research team based in Cambridge, Massachusetts:

Led by chemist George Whitesides of Harvard University, the team’s robot eschews the hard joints, hydraulics and motors of current robot technology in favour of low-pressure air. Inspired by starfish, squid and worms, their squishy four-armed creation lacks any kind of skeleton. Instead, air is pumped through valves and tubes made of elastomeric polymers to one of five pneumatic sections. By alternatively inflating and deflating the four leg ‘pneu-nets’ and the fifth body section, the robot can move at a stately 13 metres an hour (shown here, and in another video below).

You can see a video of one of these robots below.

Continue to the post for more videos and explanations.

Discoveries about the universe…

This week’s guest post on Soapbox Science is an interview with Michael Brooks. As well as holding a PhD in quantum physics, Michael is an author, journalist and broadcaster. As part of an ongoing cycle of lectures, the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, Spain, together with the British Council, recently invited Michael to discuss the origins of the universe

North by Southwest 50 – Michael Brooks at The City of Arts and Sciences by British Council

You can read snippets from the interview transcript in the post.


In her latest post, The economics of tree swallow brood sex ratios GrrlScientist reveals that a demographic imbalance in the sexes is not purely a human phenomenon; it is found throughout the animal kingdom:

Several studies have shown that offspring sex ratios apparently are not due to chance, in birds at least. In one especially elegant study, female Gouldian finches, Erythrura (Chloebia) gouldiae, choose the sex of their chicks based on the plumage colour of the father’s head. Further, a “mixed marriage” in this species causes the female to experience very high stress levels, which may be the triggering mechanism whereby she exerts control over her chicks’ sex. But might other factors be involved in a female bird’s choice over her chicks’ sexes?

GrrlScientist also explains why tree swallow’s sex ratios are an economic balancing act with far-reaching evolutionary consequences.


Adult tree swallow, Tachycineta bicolor, flying in central New York, USA.

Happy bats

Anne-Marie Hodge explains that it is not just humans who take advantage of the natural substances in the bark and roots of plants:

A new study reveals that humans are not the only species that are able to exploit A. schimperitrees for weaponization. In a recent issue of Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Kingdon et al. (2011) report that the African crested rat ( Lophiomys imhausi ) has hit upon a strikingly similar strategy. It chews on the bark of A. shimperi, and then licks a specific strip of long hairs along its back. Once this poisonous saliva has been applied, the rat contracts and relaxes muscles along its back, which distributes the toxic slime along the hairs. In addition, the hairs themselves are specially adapted to absorb the poison through their uniquely porous surfaces.


Advice on choosing the right lab

Sohini Mazumdar is back after a year and her first post is on a topic which most students don’t really pay attention to (even though they really, really should!) – choosing the right lab. She imparts some of her advice based on her experiences from when she went through the process:

4. Lab culture-Serious/hardcore" scientists dont like to consider this.. but it is critical. You are going to be spending the next 4-5 years of your life here, if you hate your lab you will be miserable. Lab culture comes in two flavors- 1: "is everyone in your lab a workaholic?, does your mentor monitor when you time stamp in and out? (eek!), is this going to take over your entire life? and 2: “Is your lab social? Are people friendly and collaborative?”.

Read on for more advice and feel free to add you own in the comment thread.


Viktor Poor’s Stripped Science blog will be four years old on Saturday! To celebrate, check out his latest cartoon….

One bacterium finds something strange in the Petri dish:


Advent Calendar #yuletubecalendar

Today is December 1st and that can only mean one thing; it’s time to open the first window of your advent calendar!

In the past on Nature Network we have celebrated Christmas with Lou’s festive poem and Viktor Poor’s themed cartoon. This year, we’ve created a YuleTube Advent Calendar!

Unfortunately, behind each window you won’t find chocolate…You will, however, find a music video and written clue to help you identify a key science news story from 2011. Let us know in the comments here each day what you think the answer is, or discuss it on Twitter using the #yuletubecalendar hashtag

Don’t forget to check back each day for a new clue!

If you’d like to make your own calendar to share, you can follow our simple instructions… We’d love to see how creative you can be and may also feature the best calendars here on the blog, so do tweet about it with the #yuletubecalendar hashtag or leave us a comment!

Best of Nature Network, NPG staff blogs and Scitable: 19 – 25 November

Happy Thanksgiving

Scitable’s blogger Eric Sawyer has been wishing his readers happy Thanksgiving, a traditional US celebration involving lots of eating. He looks at the merriments with a scientific twist explaining that, thanks to science, we now know the DNA sequences of many of the dishes sitting on the Thanksgiving table. He summarises a few of the foodie delights in his post:


Turkey is the obvious place to start. The genome of the domestic turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) was reported in PLoS Biology in 20101, finding about 16,000 genes. As part of the analysis, they compared the genomes of turkeys and chickens, both domesticated animals which have been shaped immensely by artificial selection. Surprisingly, they found that, despite the shared goal of breeding fat, fast growing birds, turkeys tended to be bred to have tweaked regulation of gene transcription, and chickens tended to have tweaked cell growth and protein production.


The day after Thanksgiving is Black Friday, when many retailers in the US run seasonal promotions. In a well-timed post, Paige Brown discusses the addiction of shopping and compulsive buying:

According to McElroy and colleagues, compulsive buying is characterized by both abnormal mental processes and physical/social behaviors. In the clinical setting, compulsive buying falls in with other impulse control disorders, disorders marked by an “inability to resist an impulse, drive or temptation to perform an act that is harmful to the person or others.” Biological researchers have debated the similarity of compulsive buying to other disorder including OCD, mood and anxiety disorders, alcohol and drug addiction.

Do you feel overly preoccupied with shopping and spending….? Continue reading to find out more.

Curiosity on its way to Mars

The News blog have reported that the Mars Science Laboratory, or Curiosity, is on its way to Mars!

An Atlas V rocket rattled off the launch pad at 10 am on Saturday from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, lifting the 900 kilogram rover to an Earth “parking” orbit. About 30 minutes later, a booster rocket burn sent the probe onto its interplanetary trajectory. At 10:46 am, the booster separated from its precious charge, and watchers in NASA’s launch control room burst out in applause.

Watch the lift off in the video above and continue reading the post for more information.


als.jpgThe Spoonful of Medicine blog explain that a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is considered a life sentence and most people with the neurodegenerative disease only survive two or three years after their diagnosis. Currently there is only a single drug on the market which targets ALS: Rilutek (riluzole), made by the Frenh company, Sanofi. The search for better drugs has made progress this week as scientists have found a potential new drug pathway:

Recent advances provide some hope for future drug pathways that can be targeted to treat the disease. In the latest issue of Archives of Neurology, Teepu Siddique and his colleagues at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago reported finding mutations in the gene that encodes a ubiquitin-binding protein (known as p62 or sequestosome 1) in about 3% of people with either sporadic or inherited forms of the disease. This protein assists the breakdown of other proteins, and its mutation may cause a build-up of dysfunctional proteins in neurons leading to the neurological problems associated with ALS.

Find out more about this research in the post.

Super Supercomputing

The Frontier Scientists are asking this week, What’s so Super about Supercomputing?

Cool games, weather forecasts, space simulations, and graphic visualizations all use supercomputing systems or techniques. Behind the supercomputing curtain or under the supercomputing hood are the 10,000 or more scientists, mathematicians, and engineers who attended SC11, the Supercomputing Conference 2011 in Seattle November 12-18.


Watch a video where Dr. Greg Newby, director of Arctic Region Supercomputing Center in Fairbanks Alaska, explains the synergy of the SC11 event, in the post.


Nature Jobs have been revealing that the number of scientists publishing research relating to sustainability is doubling every eight years, according to research from Los Alamos National Laboratory and Indiana University in the United States:

The field has a wide geographic spread and is prominent in locations with political and economic power. “The world’s leading city in terms of publications in the field is Washington DC, outpacing the productivity of Boston or the Bay Area,” explains study co-author Jasleen Kaur (right), a PhD student in Indiana University Bloomington’s School of Informatics and Computing.

Find out more in the post.

The Witches’ Sabbath

This week’s guest post by Manjit Kumar considers the very first Solvay Conference on Physics, held in Brussels. Attendees included Max Planck, Ernest Rutherford, Henri Poincare, Hendrik Lorentz and Marie Curie. It was the first international meeting devoted to a specific agenda in contemporary physics: the quantum.


Read his post, The Witches’ Sabbath to find out more about this unique meeting of minds.

A “rubbish” joke

Finally Viktor Poor asks what would happen if you were sent a bad batch of Horseradish peroxidase:

horseradish peroxidase.png

Best of Nature Network, NPG staff blogs and Scitable: 12 – 18 November


This week, GrrlScientist discusses how Natural History collections are important and can be used to research diseases. She presents us with a video which takes us on a behind-the-scenes tour through the largest and most complete ornithology collection in the world:


Birds of paradise, courtesy of AMNH, 9 November 2010. Image: Matthew Wills (Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License).

Safe Spaces

This week’s guest blogger is Rosemary Randall, a psychotherapist, founder of the community-based charity Cambridge Carbon Footprint and the nationally acclaimed Carbon Conversations project. She argues for the importance of Safe Spaces when tackling difficult-to-discuss subjects such as climate change:

The ‘safe space’ is not one which feels cosy but one which allows creativity and change to occur. It is safe enough to think, to feel, to question, to become uncomfortable, to be upset, to argue, fall out, make up and survive. If the safe space becomes merely comforting or self-congratulatory it is not doing its job.

Continuing the theme of successful communication, Scitable’s blogger Dave Deriso believes that making difficult science accessible to the general public, via engaging talks and inspiring writing is challenging but important:

Although science’s mystique is charming, it is also her fatal flaw. Scientists, and especially those who write about science, need to be acutely aware of this double-edged sword. The masses fear what they do not understand, and consequently, and largely due to the poor communication ability of scientists, a lot of great ideas are misconstrued as threats to society. How many zombie films start out with a science experiment gone wrong?

Podcast time

Nature’s weekly Podcast includes some “excruciating” new research on pain sensation, considers how to create something out of nothing and looks at climate targets post-Kyoto Protocol.

Make sure you subscribe for free to the Nature Podcast. All you have to do is copy and paste this URL into iTunes or your preferred media player: Nature Podcast rss feed.


The Frontier Scientists have featured a guest post from Carin Ashjian, a member of The Arctic Winter Cruise 2011. The Arctic Ocean in winter remains a mystery in many ways and the cruise’s goal is to explore the early winter ocean conditions – biological, physical, and chemical – in the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas to better understand what happens there during winter:

Late last night we conducted a station to the south of Bering Strait. The wind was howling and blowing snow sideways. The station went very well though and we caught a treasure trove of plankton in our net. Large amphipods swimming madly through the jars like shooting stars. Krill darting back and forth. And copepods. It was a great tow, with so many copepods and krill. The plankton group all fell to, sorting and photographing animals into the night until finally quitting at 2 or 3 AM.


Photo: The CTD being deployed off the side of the ship during the blowing snow last night (Photo by Sam Laney)

Continue reading the post for more updates and photos.

Aurora, aurora

In Barbara Ferreira’s latest post, she links out to a beautiful video showing the Northern lights over Fairbanks, Alaska:

Chris Mooney’s ‘Reality Fights’

On Tuesday afternoon, Paige Brown attended a talk at the Manship School of Mass Communication. Chris Mooney, a science journalist and Doctor of Political Science, along with Everett Young, discussed the increased incivility and political polarization in American politics. In order to archive the conversation from this talk, Paige has made a Storify collating tweets from the event. To whet your appetite, you can find a screen shot below:


Do check out her post to read the full Storify.

A blow for stem cell research


The Spoonful of Medicine blog has reported that the company which pioneered embryonic stem cell research is walking out on the research area it helped to create. Geron, based in Menlo Park, California, announced that it would kill off its stem cell program — and its landmark clinical trial of a treatment for spinal cord injuries — so that it can focus on cancer therapies.

For supporters of the technology, Geron’s exit is a blow. “This is very unfortunate for the field,” says Robert Lanza, chief scientific officer of Advanced Cell Technology, the only other embryonic stem cell company with regulatory approval to conduct clinical trials in the United States. “It is a big deal. It certainly puts a lot of pressure on us to deliver now.”

You can find out more about Geron’s decision in the report.

Alternative medicine?

Viktor Poor’s latest cartoon shows how alternative medicine works:

alternative medicine.png

Science events in Paris – Calendar

For those who are interested in scientific events in France, we would like to alert you to a new public calendar detailing events in and around the Paris area.

The calendar is moderated by MyScienceWork, an open access scientific research network. As well as focusing on open access, MyScienceWork are particularly interested in Women in Science and are currently in partnership with the international program, L’Oréal-UNESCO’s For Women in Science .

To find out more about MyScienceWork, you can catch up on their latest news via their blog

The calendar will be regularly updated so that the coming month contains the events that we’re aware of.

Please get in touch if we are missing any events or if you would like to contribute to this calendar or any of the other calendars listed below.

London Science Events

Cambridge Science Events

DC Science Events

NYC Sci Comm events

Boston Science Events

San Francisco Science Events

NPG Goes Neuro! #NPGsfn11 Part 2

Neuroscience 2011 is this year’s key conference for neuroscientists across the globe. Arranged by the Society for Neuroscience (SfN), the event took place from November 12th – 16th, in Washington, DC. To complement this event, NPG’s Neuroscience blog, Action Potential been hosting a special series of guest posts from some of the attendees. Action Potential’s editor, Noah Gray, has created a Google + circle listing the guest bloggers and you can also follow the hashtag #NPGsfn11 on Twitter to share in the discussion.

So far the series on the Action Potential Blog has been sharing observations, research and news from the conference. We’ve already created a round-up of the first set of posts, and we summarise the next set below.

Hot or not

Scientific American blogger Scicurious, a postdoctoral scientist in neuroscience, beleives that one of the best things about the SfN conference is being kept up-to-date with the latest neuroscience trends; “Optogenetics” is the new hot topic and “Oxytocin?” well that’s so last year. This year, food and reward and particularly the role of serotonin have been a hot topic:

While recent papers on food reward have focused on the hypothalamus, the Pratt lab have started to investigate the role of serotonin receptors in an area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens. Serotonin is the famous neurotransmitter that we all know and love, but remember that drug is only as good as its receptor.


(This is a slice through a rat brain, the nucleus accumbens is on each side, at the bottom, close to the middle)

You can find out more about this study in her post which includes a video displaying the soft oboe modulating sound of the serotonin receptors in the nucleus accumbens.

How well do you know your internal state?

Sandra Upson summarises an SfN poster session in her latest post, Your Introspective Insula. She looks at our ‘interoceptive sense,’ the ability to sense your internal state:

A group from the University of California at San Diego and the Naval Health Research Center theorizes that the extra edge that allows certain people to perform particularly well in stressful situations may come not from a physiological advantage but from differences in the brain. To explore this question, they tested a group of Navy SEALs, adventure racers, and Marines, all of whom have learned to triumph over physical challenges without succumbing to stress.

Read on to find out what these results mean and how staying in touch with both your insides and your outsides, may give you an added boost when you need it most.

Remember, remember…

In Gary Stix’s second guest post he asks, What Were You Doing on July 10, 1991? Research presented at SFN 2011 by a group of researchers from the University of California, Irvine, suggests that there may be real differences in the brain structures of people who can remember past events in great detail, in comparison to those who can’t:

A question that has persisted about this line of research is whether the brains of these people are distinct from the organs of others who can’t remember yesterday’s lunch, let alone trivial events from 20 years back. Preliminary research presented at SFN 2011 by the Irvine investigators suggests that there may be real differences in the brain structures of these people. MRI studies of 11 study participants demonstrate that multiple areas in the temporal and the parietal lobes tied to autobiographical memory are significantly larger than the same regions in a control group. At the same time, another area, the lentiform nucleus, linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder, is also bigger. Some of the study participants, in fact, have a tendency to hoard things or avoid germs, though none have been diagnosed with OCD.

memory poster.jpg

(Image from the SfN poster session)

Continue reading Gary’s post to find out more about this research and how an extraordinary memory can become an overwhelming burden.

Don’t worry!

Lucas Glover, a first year graduate student at the NIMH and Oxford in his guest post, Synchronized Anxiety, summarises a session given by Josh Gordon’s lab:

Synchronization between multiple brain areas is how these regions coordinate neural communication and Josh Gordon’s lab captured my attention on this topic with two interesting posters. Likhtik et al examined three brain areas implicated in fear-predictive behaviors and tightly linked to the ability to discriminate between neutral and aversive situations. The inability to discriminate between such situations or contexts can lead to anxiety and perhaps even a more generalized response to the fear/threat. Local field potentials (local activity patterns from many neurons) were recorded from the vHPC, mPFC, dHPC in mice, as well as the basolateral nucleus of the amygdala (BLA). Single unit recordings (activity from an individual cell) were taken from the BLA while the mice learned to discriminate between stimuli that either led to a shock (CS+) or not (CS-).

The Vole story

Zen Faulkes, an Associate Professor in the Department of Biology at The University of Texas-Pan American, explains that whilst browsing through a Neuroscience poster session, he was stopped by an unusual title. Where almost all the posters featured mice, he was intrigues by the one that featured “vole” in the title. He had to find out why:

The presenter, A.M. Anacker, had a great answer. Prairie voles are well known for pair bonding. This is the vole equivalent to going steady or marriage. This has been the subject of some very elegant neuroethology, which was partly responsible for the rise in people’s awareness of oxytocin. This lab was trying to use the vole’s monogamous pair bonds to test for the potential effects of alcoholism on social relationships.

Zen explains the take home messages from this research and how these findings could be used in relation to human relationships.

More links

In our last round up post we linked out to other blogging coverage on the SfN conference. Below are several more posts to add to the mix:

We will continue to update this when new posts are published.