Week in Review: Orientation

UNC-TV Science Week In Review 

UNC-TV Science Week in Review: June 27, 2013


One popular conception of science is that researchers manifest their major discoveries from thin air. We all know the story of Isaac Newton understanding gravity after an apple fell on his head. Another tale depicts Archimedes realizing how to tell the difference between pure gold and mixtures while he sat in his bathtub. (That story, by the way, ends with Archimedes screaming “Eureka!” and running naked through the streets of Syracuse to celebrate).

Most discoveries, however, require years of preliminary research. Scientists devote an extraordinary amount of work to orienting themselves to how a problem works before they can even begin to think of how to solve it. This week, such orientation took a prominent place in North Carolina science.

Test It Before You Ingest It

Governor Pat McCrory recently signed the Private Well Water Education Act into law. Private wells are not subject to the same quality testing guidelines as public water supplies and contamination of private wells has been reported from Union County to Wake Forest to Camp LeJeune.

The Private Well Water Education Act requires the Commission for Public Health to create rules about sampling and testing of private wells and educate citizens on where they can get their water tested. Governor McCrory also appeared in a public service announcement encouraging private well users, who make up almost a quarter of North Carolina’s population, to get their water tested.

Click here for more information on water quality tests.

Fracturing Gases Found in Water

On the subject of water quality, hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” of shale beds is hotly debated because of its potential impacts on ground water. A new study from Duke University provides more concrete evidence that fracturing allows gases to escape into ground water.

The group, led by Robert B. Jackson, PhD, tested water from 141 wells near a fracking site in Pennsylvania. They found that homes within one kilometer of the site had, on average, six times as much methane and 23 times as much ethane in their water as homes further than one kilometer. Fluids used to actually break open the deposits were not found in the wells.

North Carolina has significant deposits of natural gas, which provide a cleaner energy alternative to coal in terms of air quality. This study, however, provides more support for the idea that fracturing is, for now, not a perfect solution.

Pass the GALT

Newsflash: we’re not the only ones living in our bodies. In fact, our bodies (especially our intestines) are home to trillions of bacteria. A healthy immune system is usually enough to keep these bacteria at bay, but people with immune deficiencies like HIV have trouble fighting them off.

But researchers from UNC-Chapel Hill recently discovered a key player in our intestines that could be used to help restore immune function. Groups of cells called gut-associated lymphoid tissue or GALT fight off the bacteria. Mice build their GALT using cell groups called cryptopatches, but scientists were not sure how humans made theirs. By using mice with human DNA, the researchers showed that cryptopatches also build human GALT.

With more research, doctors may be able to stimulate GALT growth and repair it in the millions of patients who have compromised intestinal immunity.

Send in the Roaches

When you think of using animals for rescue, you probably think of Lassie telling people that somebody fell down a well. North Carolina State University researchers, however, decided that cockroaches would be a better option.

A group led by Eric Whitmire, PhD recently demonstrated that they could hook a computer chip up to a cockroach and essentially drive it around. The computer chip stimulates an organ called the antennae cerci, which picks up changes in air current and makes the cockroach think there is a predator chasing it. Click here for a video of a cockroach in action.

The technology originally required a person to remotely control each cockroach, but Whitmire’s team is using technology from the X-Box Kinect to create an autopilot system.

The eventual goal of the project is to use the cockroaches to map out disaster sites. The remote cockroaches would use radar to map debris and microphones to find survivors. Whitmire says they might also be able to attach a speaker to allow rescuers and survivors to communicate.

Man’s Best Friend

Last week we reported that scientists from North Carolina State University would undertake studying cancer in golden retrievers. As it turns out, B-Cell Lymphoma, a prevalent form of lymph node cancer is similar in humans and dogs, according to a new study.

Researchers from NCSU, UNC and Duke collaborated to show that human and canine B-Cell Lymphoma is similar on a molecular level. This discovery helps identify the most essential parts of the cancer (those present in humans and dogs) that would be ideal targets for treatment. Going forward, discoveries in canine lymphoma research may be applicable to humans and vice versa.

- 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.