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Archive - May 2009

Date

May 3rd

Birdsong of Isolated Finches Reverts to Normal Over Several Generations

Researchers have shown that the abnormal song of isolated male zebra finches reverts to normal over several generations of one-on-one “tutor-pupil” pairings with a new generation of male finches (the pupils). Male finches typically learn their song from other male finches. In the experiments, the pupil finches imitated their tutors' songs, but changed certain characteristics. The alterations accumulated over generations. By the fourth generation, the original isolate’s song had evolved toward the wild-type song. “Culture appears to be encoded in the birds. It just needed a few generations to emerge," said the senior author of the study. He noted that the same pattern of evolution in the song occurred whether the subsequent generations of male birds were raised among female birds (who do not sing) and siblings in a colony setting, or just among isolate males one-on-one. The results were published in the May 3 online edition of Nature. [Press release] [Wired News story] [Science Daily story] [Nature abstract]

May 2nd

Qatar Researchers Establish Draft Genome Sequence for Date Palm Tree

Using next-generation sequencing technology, researchers at the Weill-Cornell Medical College in Qatar (WCMC-Q) have determined a draft genome sequence for the date palm tree. Date palm trees play a significant role in agriculture throughout the Middle East, Northern Africa, and Pakistan. The fruit is a major source of nutrition in those areas, and the tree itself plays an important role in the development of sustainable agriculture in many drought- and saline-affected regions of the world. References in the Qur'an have kept alive the use of dates for medicinal purposes over the centuries. Genetic information about the date palm is expected to be extremely valuable to researchers who are working to improve fruit yield and quality and to better understand susceptibility and resistance to disease. The date palm sequencing work was a proof-of-concept study, according to Joel Malik, director of the Genomics Laboratory at the WCMC-Q, who established the genomics laboratory last year. The goal was to establish and validate the capabilities of the core lab for large-scale genomics projects. The lab is an integral part of a large biomedical research program launched last year by the WCMC-Q, with support from the Qatar Foundation, that aims to make Qatar a hub for research in the Middle East. [Press release]

May 1st

Non-Native Beetle Destroying Oaks in Southern California

A beetle first detected in California in 2004 has now attacked 67 percent of the oak trees in an area 30 miles east of San Diego, according to a recent report. The beetle is Agrilus coxalis and the reporting researchers have proposed that it be given the common name: goldspotted oak borer. Land managers and scientists are concerned about further spread of the beetle infestation because oaks are the dominant tree species in the area. Further tree mortality will increase fire danger and decrease wildlife habitat in southern California. The managers and scientists are also concerned that drought and climate change will make more oaks susceptible to this insect that is not native to California. Oak trees have a nearly continuous distribution in the state, reaching from the infestation area north to the Oregon border. “We don't know how the beetle arrived in San Diego County because there's a broad barrier of desert around the localities where it was previously collected in Arizona, Guatemala, and Mexico," said one of the study's authors. "We suspect it was either recently brought to California or somehow expanded its range." There are reports of oak firewood from Mexico frequently being brought into the area in the past 20 years and that could be how it was introduced, the scientist said. Further research is necessary to determine how to halt the spread of the beetle infestation. [Press release]

Nitric Oxide Nanoparticles Show Promise in Treating Staph Infections

Researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine have shown that nanoparticles containing nitric oxide (NO) gas are effective in the topical treatment of drug-resistant Staphylococcus aureus infections in mice. “As the particles take on water, they loosen up and the nitric oxide slowly trickles out, releasing specific amounts of the gas—which is exactly what happens in your body," said a senior author of the study. NO is produced normally by many cells throughout the body and has several important biological functions including killing bacteria, healing wounds, and increasing blood flow by dilating blood vessels. Until now, however, the delivery of NO to infection sites has proven difficult. S. aureus bacteria cause the majority of superficial and invasive skin infections, resulting in more than 11 million outpatient/emergency room visits and 464,000 hospital admissions annually in the U.S. S. aureus infections can be deadly if the bacteria invade the bloodstream, heart, lungs, or urinary tract. As more strains of S. aureus become resistant to common antibiotics, the need for new treatments has become urgent. The encouraging results in mice, followed by additional experiments, may pave the way for clinical trials in humans. [Press release]