Science


Organisms today employ multiple enzymes, proteins and RNA, to catalyze biochemical reactions that are essential for life. According to the RNA world model, DNA and proteins were absent when life originated. Life began with RNA, which passed on genetic information and catalyzed biochemical reactions.

In order for RNA to pass on genetic information, it must be able to copy itself and produce a complementary sequence of RNA. A few months ago, we covered a RNA enzyme that can replicate RNA sequences that are long enough to have biochemical functions.

In a recent issue of Nature Chemistry, chemists propose an explanation for the step between the formation of random, short RNA sequences and that of relatively large, catalytically active RNA enzymes. They propose that RNA replication is possible without the presence of any enzymes at all. Instead, it's possible to perform surface-assisted copying of immobilized RNA.

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Autism spectrum conditions are more prevalent in areas that are heavily involved with the information technology industry, according to a new study done at the University of Cambridge. Based on data drawn from three regions in the Netherlands, researchers found that an area with a technology-oriented university and tech-business campus saw two to four times the incidences of autism in schoolchildren as control regions, leading the authors to suggest that autism-related genes may express themselves in first-degree relatives as a talent for system-oriented thinking.

The region of Eindhoven in the Netherlands is home to the Eindhoven University of Technology, as well as the High Tech Campus Eindhoven, which houses offices for companies like Philips and IBM. Over 30 percent of jobs in Eindhoven are in IT and technology. That contrasts with more typical regions like Haarlem and Utrecht, where 16 and 17 percent of jobs are in that field, respectively.

The Cambridge researchers pulled statistics from the schools in each of the three areas to determine the proportion of children who have autism-spectrum conditions (ASC). Of the 62,505 children in their data set, they found 229 incidences of ASC per 10,000 children in IT-rich Eindhoven. By comparison, Haarlem had 84 incidences per 10,000, and Utrecht had only 57 per 10,000.

Simon Baron-Cohen, one of the researchers and director of Cambridge's Autism Research Centre, proposes that regions where parents gravitate toward jobs involving "systemizing," like IT, have a higher rate of autism because the genes for autism are expressed "as a talent in systemizing" in first-degree relatives. Baron-Cohen goes on to say that the results may explain why autism genes have persisted in the gene pool: they are linked to "adaptive, advantageous traits."

The authors caution that there may simply be more awareness of autism in the IT-industry region, and they plan to verify the diagnoses as well as test other possible explanations for the variance in ASC rates.

Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 2011. DOI: 10.1007/s10803-011-1302-1  (About DOIs).

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For years, proponents of the hydrogen economy have argued that hydrogen will replace traditional hydrocarbon fuels for transportation purposes. But, so far, a lack of new, inexpensive methods for hydrogen production and storage has impeded this goal. Over the last several years, an MIT professor has been pushing cobalt catalysts as a cheap replacement for the expensive metals typically used to split water. A paper in this week's Proceedings of the National Academies of Science describes the latest progress here: integrating the cobalt catalyst with a silicon solar cell to create a device that uses the sun to split water.

Hydrogen is a desirable fuel, because when it is burned or otherwise consumed (as in a fuel cell), it only produces water, although combustion results in small amounts of nitrogen oxides as by-products. However, unlike traditional liquid or gas fuels, hydrogen doesn't exist in its molecular form on Earth, so it must be produced from other sources—it is an energy carrier, rather than an energy source.

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Consumer technology is advancing at such a rate that it is becoming increasingly common for such technology to find its way into various scientific applications. One of the more obvious examples is seen in the benefits high-performance computing has received from consumer graphics cards. We have also seen laptops used to measure earthquakes, and accelerometers such as those found in the Wiimote, iPhone, and other consumer electronics used to measure the flight patterns of the Malayan colugo.

In a recent paper in Water Resources Research, a team reports on the use of the Wiimote to measure evaporation. Natural evaporation rates are an important part of the water cycle; estimates of evaporation are required for weather forecasts, flood forecasts, and water resource planning, among other things. 

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According to the National Institute of Mental Health, somewhere around 10 to 20 percent of Americans suffer from some form of a phobia. When the sufferer is exposed to the object they fear, problems can range from mild anxiety to full-fledged panic attacks. New research from Hiroshima University suggests that that our irrational fears may be able to be turned off with the help of a common anesthetic. The article that describes the results is published in the open access journal Behavioral and Brain Functions.

The experimenters trained commercially available goldfish (Carassius auratus) to be afraid of light flashed in their eyes by having a flash of light followed by a low-voltage electric shock. After a conditioning period, the researchers could monitor the fish's heart rate and see it drop in response to the stimuli—in a manner analogous to a human's heart rate rising during a fear response—even in cases where there were no negative consequences.

The researchers were able to show that, after an injection of a small amount of lidocane directly into the corpus cerebelli, the fish were unable to learn to be afraid. That is, once the lidocaine took effect, the conditioning of the fish to associate the flash and electric shock no longer took. Future flashes didn't slow the heart rate although, once the lidocaine wore off, the fish were still able to learn to be scared of the conditioned trigger. 

Now, any connection to humans may seem tenuous, but the vermal part of a mammal's cerebellum has been suggested to be homologous to the corpus cerebelli in fish. This may make the fish a useful model for studying ways of limiting the impact of phobias.

Behavioral and Brain Functions, 2010. DOI:10.1186/1744-9081-6-20  (About DOIs).

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