Ian Barnett takes a look at this month’s Science news

How the leopard really got its spots

The mechanism by which big cats get their markings has been determined by a group of scientists at King’s College London. The research confirms Enigma code-breaker Alan Turing’s 60-year-old theory that pairs of chemicals, called morphogens, work together in an activator-inhibitor system, to develop regular patterns. The results, published in Nature Genetics, details how the activity of these morphagens explains the ridge patterns in mice’s mouths, according to the equations Turing developed in 1952. This model can be extended to regular motifs in the natural world, from vertebrae down hair follicles, responsible for spots and stripes. It seems extraordinary, yet rather disappointing, that merely a pair of chemicals can be responsible for the compelling complexity of nature.

Novel cancer drug shows encouraging results

A new cancer drug has performed remarkably well in a series of recent studies. Cabozantinib (or cabo for short) primarily targets tumours by obstructing their blood-supplies; it then prohibits the cancer spreading to new tissues, thereby preventing secondary tumours. In an experimental trial, mice inoculated with cancer were given either cabo or a placebo daily. At the end of the trial, none of the medicated mice had died, unlike the entirety of the placebo group. Human tests have fared just as well, with prostate, bone and kidney amongst the variety of cancers to have been effectively treated using this drug. Cabo also has a surprising lack of selectivity with respect to the type of cancer, with 12 out of 13 cancers tested having been successfully treated. Although it is officially still under development, this drug seems to have the virtues of an oncological miracle.


Moths found with fondness for wine

A new species of moth has been discovered chomping chardonnay leaves in vineyards in northern Italy. The species, whose genetic code has now been sequenced, was first discovered in 2006. After initially having been confused with a similar indigenous North American species, the moth has now been named Antispila oinophylla. The recently discovered insect is part of a little known family of similar leaf miners; when their larvae hatch, caterpillars tunnel through edible parts of the leaves. Observations of the moths in vineyards have revealed that they have incredibly refined taste, showing preference for chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and muscat vines!


Y chromosome makes a comeback!

Previously, it had been predicted that the Y chromosome was shrinking at such a rate that it would disappear in 5 million years; some predictions were as low as only 100,000 years. This chromosome holds around 78 genes, and is responsible for determination of the male gender, is comparatively miniscule to its antithesis, the X chromosome, which holds 800 genes. Fresh research, however, has concluded that this shrinking has all but come to a halt: good news for us worried men facing extinction!


Einstein was right all along

Researchers at CERN’s OPERA experiment have admitted that results showing neutrinos travelling faster than the speed of light were incorrect. This discrepancy appears to have arisen due to a faulty connection between a computer and a GPS unit. If these results had been accurate, an entirely new model for particle physics would have been needed to be postulated. However, Einstein’s theory of special relativity, which states that nothing in the universe can travel faster than the speed of light in a vacuum, still holds. These latest findings are not related to the hunt for the Higgs boson, at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, which still eludes the grasp of scientists.


Ian Barnett


Image 1 by JanErkamp

Image 2 by Peter Forster