Science Buzz: HIV treatments and tasteless penguins

Robert Starr

Editor’s note: In this new recurring column, science writer Robert Starr will round up the previous week's top science stories. Have a suggestion? Send a tweet to @RobertKStarr, and your link might appear in next week's Science Buzz. 

Since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, there’s been an ongoing search for a vaccine against HIV. So far, such treatments have eluded even the best researchers in the field. A new approach, described this week in Nature, has scientists cautious but optimistic. The researchers created an artificial antibody and injected it into rhesus macaque monkeys. Sixteen weeks later, the researchers injected the monkeys with HIV, but the vaccine prevented the infection from taking hold. Future research will assess the safety of the vaccine as well as if it’s as effective in humans as it is in monkeys.

Click here to read the report in Nature.

Every day, ultraviolet rays bombard our skin, exciting melanin and potentially causing DNA damage. A new study shows this damage continues after exposure to the sun, even if the skin moves into complete darkness. While this is bad news, the understanding could lead to better ways of preventing skin cancer and designing better sunscreens to protect us from the sun’s harmful radiation. 

To read more, click here.

At 93 million miles from Earth, the sun is the closest star to us. Second place goes to Proxima Centauri — a mere 4.2 light-years away — but scientists recently discovered a pair of stars passed much closer than that 70,000 years ago. “Scholz’s star,” as the pair is known, consists of a red dwarf and brown dwarf, both of which are small. Combined, they contain no more than 15 percent of the sun’s mass. Long before modern human civilization, these stars passed through the Oort Cloud and flew as close as 5 trillion miles to Earth — still about 52,000 times the distance of the Earth to the sun. Today, Scholz’s star is far outside the reach of our solar system, at a distant 120 trillion miles away, and invisible to all but the most sensitive telescopes.

Read more about "Sholz's star" here.

A recent presentation at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting showed a map highlighting the noisiest and quietest parts of the United States. The big cities, such as Los Angeles and New York, are obviously the noisiest, but for those who want to escape to somewhere quiet, there’s always West Texas. While honking cars and loud house parties may be annoying to us humans, they’re even more annoying to animals such as bats or owls, whose ears are many times more sensitive than our species’. Researchers hope to use the map to better understand how human-made noise affects animal life. As to how human-made noise affects human life, that’s already understood by anyone who’s spent a semester in Jester Center.

View the map here.

Similarly, anyone who’s lived in Jester may have a passing familiarity with the connection between certain substances and late-night cases of the munchies. According to a new paper published in Nature, “cannabinoid-induced feedings” come from neurons normally intended to suppress appetite. Instead, under the influence of marijuana, these neurons drive hunger. According to lead author Tamas Horvath, “it’s like pressing a car’s brakes and accelerating instead.” Although many undergraduates experiment with marijuana, this research had the benefit of a team of scientists carefully monitoring the results, which could lead to future treatments for chemotherapy patients experiencing loss of appetite. 

Click here to read more about the munchies.

The munchies help satisfy our five tastes — sweet, umami, bitter, sour and salty — but the next time you enjoy a Snickers bar or Slim Jim, shed a tear for the poor penguins. According to recent research, our tuxedoed friends of the South don’t have functional genes to experience the first three tastes and, therefore, can probably only taste sour and salty. It’s not clear why this happened from an evolutionary perspective, but because the three disabled genes don’t work at colder temperatures and penguins swallow their food whole anyway, scientists presume that taste isn’t as important for these flightless birds as it is for humans. 

To read more about penguine's sour and salty taste buds, click here.

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