Friday, December 17, 2010

Beer, bugs and brains: Hot topics in 2010

It’s been a stellar year for the natural and social sciences at Emory. Beer, bugs, brains and rock climbing were popular themes, but advances in the quest for solar fuels and our understanding of the origins of life also ranked high. Here’s a roundup of the hottest topics on eScienceCommons during 2010.

Ancient brew masters tapped drug secrets: It appears that the art of making antibiotics, which officially dates to the discovery of penicillin in 1928, was common practice nearly 2,000 years ago. The drugs were in the beer. The story made news around the world, and will be the subject of an upcoming Discovery Channel documentary.

Another discovery that took the modern pharmaceutical industry down a notch: Monarch butterflies use drugs. Experiments show the insects can identify medicinal plants to cure themselves and their offspring of disease. The findings are the best evidence to date that animals self-medicate.

Brain trumps hand in Stone Age tool study: How did prehistoric toolmakers make the leap from simple flakes of rock to a sophisticated Acheulean hand axe? An area of the brain associated with language appears to be the key.

Physics theory wipes out: The “exceptionally simple theory of everything” proposed by a surfing physicist does not hold water, according to a rock climber who did the math. This complex story about a mysterious structure known as E8 caught the imagination of the social media world. Rock climbing may have been only incidental to the E8 story, but it is truly the sport of nerds. Check out this video explaining what it’s like to fall 40 feet down a sheer cliff face.

Tiny aphids hold big surprises: Pea aphids, expert survivors of the insect world, appear to lack major biological defenses, according to the first genetic analysis of their immune system. Aphids have evolved complex relationships with beneficial bacteria, and it’s possible that the weak immune response developed as a way to keep from killing off these microbes. Why should we care? Growing evidence shows that our hyper-clean society may be eliminating bacteria that the human immune system needs to fend off disease, from depression to cancer.

Midlife suicide rate rising: Baby boomers are driving a dramatic rise in suicides among middle-aged people. The reasons behind the disturbing findings are unclear, but statistics indicate that the upward pattern in midlife suicide is continuing. The research is cited in this New York Times article, "Boomers hit new self-absorption milestone: Age 65."

Babies do math: Even before they learn to speak, babies are organizing information about numbers, space and time in more complex ways than previously realized, a study finds. It’s almost like we’re born with a ruler in our heads.

Biology may not be so complex: A biophysicist identified parameters for several biochemical networks that distill the entire behavior of these systems into simple equivalent dynamics. The discovery may hold the potential to streamline the development of drugs and diagnostic tools.

The missing link to life? Chemists discovered that simple peptides can organize into bi-layer membranes. The finding suggests a “missing link” between the pre-biotic Earth’s chemical inventory and the organizational scaffolding essential to life. Technology is rapidly driving the search for the origins of life, including spectral surveys of small organic molecules in the “cool universe” of deep space.

The drive for solar fuel
: Chemists developed the most potent homogeneous catalyst known for water oxidation, a crucial component for generating clean hydrogen fuel using only water and sunlight. The goal is to imitate Mother Nature and create a water oxidation catalyst that will cheaply and efficiently perform artificial photosynthesis.

And, finally, we get back to bugs with the news that wasps nested with dinosaurs 75 million years ago. Wired Science named the discovery one of "The Year’s Best Fossil Finds.” An Emory discovery about a fish trace fossil was also featured in a New York Times article, "A bottom feeder leaves traces below."

Looking forward to bringing you lots more big stories in 2011, including a major announcement for math in January. Watch this space!

2010: A Science Odyssey

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