What's the buzz

What's the buzz

New way to tackle reef-killing starfish

An Australia-based team of marine scientists has discovered what may prove an effective control for the dreaded Crown of Thorns starfish (COTS), which has been wiping out some of the world’s most valuable coral reefs.

A harmless protein mixture, used to grow bacteria in science labs, has been found to destroy the starfish in as little as 24 hours.

The breakthrough comes as new starfish outbreaks hit parts of the Great Barrier Reef and reef systems across the Asia Pacific.

The next step will be tests to show the protein is safe for other marine life, say researchers from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University.

If there are no adverse effects, the discovery will provide a far more efficient tool to control outbreaks at sites critical for conservation and tourism.

"A crown of thorns outbreak can destroy from 40 to 90 per cent of the corals on a reef and over the past 50 years it has caused more damage than bleaching,'' the Telegraph quoted researcher Dr Jairo Rivera Posada as saying.

"There were massive outbreaks in many countries in the 1960s and 1980s and a new one is well underway on the Great Barrier Reef.''

Currently starfish outbreaks at high-value sites are controlled by divers who inject them with poison.  "The protein solution needs only a single jab into a starfish, enabling a diver to kill as many as 500 crown of thorns in a single dive compared with 40 or so using the poison injection,'' Dr Posada said.

Soon, cream that may help fight skin cancer

Scientists have taken the first step towards creating a simple cream that they hope could one day treat skin cancer.

Researchers at Melbourne’s RMIT University have designed a new chemical that acts like a known virus by killing off melanoma cells.

While the chemical is effective at destroying the cancer cells, normal skin cells remain unharmed.  According to Dr Taghrid Istivan, the preliminary research will hopefully lead to developing a cream to treat early stage melanoma.

“We found it is active against cancer cells, against melanoma, but it doesn’t harm the normal cells,” the Telegraph quoted her as saying.

“It could be made into a cream and can be used to treat cancer,” she said.

Current early stage melanoma treatments require minor surgery to cut out the cancer cells and healthy skin around a mole but the new research has created a peptide, or a chain of amino acids, that mimics how the proteins of the myxoma virus interact with melanoma cells.

Dr Istivan said there were many benefits to using a synthetic cream over the virus itself, including the cost and concerns the virus could one day mutate and start killing other kinds of cells.

“And with a cream, you can just apply it at home, or in a clinic,” she said.

The research, however, still needs to be tested on animals and then in clinical trials, meaning a final product could be years to decades away.

The findings of the study will be presented at a medical conference in Jerusalem later this month.
Sleeping brain behaves as if it’s remembering something

In a new study, researchers including one of Indian origin have measured the activity of a brain region known to be involved in learning, memory and Alzheimer’s disease during sleep.

UCLA researchers discovered that this part of the brain behaves as if it’s remembering something, even under anesthesia, a finding that counters conventional theories about memory consolidation during sleep.  The research team simultaneously measured the activity of single neurons from multiple parts of the brain involved in memory formation.

 The technique allowed them to determine which brain region was activating other areas of the brain and how that activation was spreading, said study senior author Mayank R. Mehta. His team found that the entorhinal cortex showed what is called persistent activity, which is thought to mediate working memory during waking life, for example when people pay close attention to remember things temporarily, such as recalling a phone number or following directions.