Week In Review: Gingerbread Houses

UNC-TV Science Week In Review: December 12, 2013
Gingerbread Houses

If the job of a scientist is to explain why things happen in the universe, the “Holy Grail” of discoveries would be a unified theory of everything. Physicists are currently trying to unite the fundamental particles and forces of the universe into one set of equations that represent everything that has occurred or will occur. We’re not there yet, but the dream is to kick back with a glass of sweet tea, look at the equations and say, “Glad we got that figured out. Anybody want to play Scrabble?”

Currently, in all branches of science, we have wide swaths of phenomena explained, but we don’t quite have a way to connect those swaths. It’s like a gingerbread house. We have the knowledge to make gingerbread walls and roofs, but we’re falling a little short of the understanding to put dough in the oven and withdraw a whole house. So for now, we’re reliant on makeshift junctions (frosting) to hold the pieces of the grand gingerbread theory together. This week, North Carolina scientists found published work that gave us larger gingerbread walls, and provided the frosting to join them together.

When it Comes to Conservation, Quality Matters as Much as Quantity
Here’s a big gingerbread wall: in order to preserve ecosystems, we should preserve as many local species as we can. That makes sense. Each species has a role to play and to support a vibrant habitat, keeping more species around makes sure all of the roles get filled.

But Duke University ecologist Brian Silliman says the quality of the preserved species may be as important as the quantity. According to a study he and collaborators published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, when protecting ecosystems, it is important to consider what functions each species performs.

Silliman surveyed eight patches of salt marsh (swampy areas along the coast) and systematically removed crabs, snails and fungus while surveying the productivity, decomposition and filtration of the marsh. He found that as each of those organisms plays a specific role, the salt marsh broke down as he removed each organism. Findings like this can influence the strategies that conservationists use to effectively protect the environment.

Gene Therapy for Thin Blood
Hemophilia A is a genetic disease in which patients are missing a protein called coagulation factor VIII, which forms the blood clots that heal wounds. Patients with hemophilia can suffer extensive bleeding from very small cuts. The disease is treatable, but depending on your sensitivity to the protein therapies, the medications can cost from $200,000 to $2 million per year, and even then cuts can be deadly.

Dr. Tim Nichols of UNC Health Care, however recently discovered a new gene-based therapy for hemophilia A. Nichols removed platelets (the small cell fragments in blood that help form clots) from hemophiliac dogs, and he altered the genetic makeup of those platelets so that they would produce factor VIII. After implanting those genetically modified platelets back into the dogs, their numbers of major bleeding events dropped from 3 per year to 1 per year. Those bleeds were also easily managed.

The findings appear in the journal Nature Communications.

A Scientifically Supported Joint Therapy
I was a competitive distance runner for several years, and after pounding the pavement for thousands of miles, my knees have taken some punishment. My left knee, in particular, gets sore if I run on it for too long, so I take glucosamine and chondroitin, which make it feel a little better.

Glucosamine and chondroitin, however, have a colored past in the scientific community, in that they haven’t been definitively shown to be effective in treating joint pain. Some studies support it and some don’t. But Appalachian State University researchers, led by Dr. David Nieman, have shown in a recent study a new cocktail of ingredients that do relieve joint pain.

Nieman conducted a trial with 100 active 50 to 75-year-olds with joint pain giving half of them a mix of glucosamine sulfate, methylsulfonylmethane, white willow bark, ginger root, boswella serrate, turmeric, cayenne pepper and hyaluronic acid and giving the other half placebos. The group on the cocktail experienced 37% less pain while the placebo group experience 16% less pain. The FDA does not require clinical trials for nutritional supplements, but this work is useful in showing the efficacy of a joint relief treatment.

America’s Next Top Pollinator
Many flowering plants require insects to help them reproduce, through a process called pollination. A bug lands on a flower, gets covered in pollen, flies to another flower and drops off the pollen where it combines with cells on the other flower to make seeds.

But what makes a good pollinator? Scientists from NC State University recently answered that question with a set of criteria that make a first-rate pollinator. They say a good pollinator will:

  1. Make many seeds every time it visits a flower
  2. Frequently visit flowers
  3. Visit flowers in bad weather (wind, rain, etc.)
  4. Bring lots of its buddies to visit flowers with it

The researchers, led by Hannah Burrack, have begun conducting a pilot study to find the perfect pollinator and so far, they haven’t found it yet. They found that some small bees in North Carolina are very good at making a lot of seeds in every visit, even in bad weather, but they don’t visit often or with many other bees.

The research appeared in the journal Environmental Entomology, and was funded in part by the North Carolina Blueberry Council. I mention that because finding a “perfect pollinator” could help farmers easily produce new crops and because I think it’s awesome that our state has a blueberry council.

Geminid Meteor Shower
Getting back to gingerbread houses, what is a gingerbread house without some bright candy decorations on top? In that spirit, the sky will be brightly decorated on the night of December 13 and December 14, 2013 by the Geminid meteor shower.

The Geminid meteors are unusual in that they are fragments of an asteroid called 3200 Phaethon. Meteors are usually pieces of comets, not asteroids. This particular meteor shower happens around this time every year, and will reach its peak at about 1 a.m. on December 14. About 120 meteors should cross the northeastern sky every hour.

For more information on the Geminid shower, visit the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute.

- Daniel Lane

Daniel Lane covers science, medicine and the environment as a reporter/writer. He is currently pursuing a master's degree in medical and science journalism at UNC - Chapel Hill.