Howdy Readers, did you miss us? We sure missed you! We are now back and swinging and we thought we would compensate for our temporary absence with a giant edition of Top 3 Of the Week, imaginatively named Top 6 Of The Fortnight. Take an extra-comfy seat, grab an extra-large drink and get stuck into this extra-large serving of science!

Free Science for everybody!

European Leaders this week called for free access to all scientific papers by 2020 at the frighteningly named Competitiveness Council. During the 2-day meeting, the European Commissioner for Research and Innovation and the Dutch government (who is currently occupying the rotating EU presidency) were said to be lobbying aggressively towards the overall goal of open – science. The 4-year time frame the European Council has set itself towards goal seems like a long time to achieve something most scientists believe should already be commonplace. However, the majority of policy and publishing experts agree that 2020 is actually almost definitely an overly optimistic deadline and that publishing in its current form will need a while longer to adjust to fully open access. It’s going to be an interesting process to watch, made even more exciting by the potential outcomes of the British EU referendum.

Ant unicorns roamed the tiny Earth

Scientists at Current Biology this week have reported on a 99-million year old amber find that carries even more excitement than its lookalike in Jurassic Park. Instead of a mosquito, this particular amber crystal embedded an ant which sported a bizarre bulbous horn at the top of its head. This microscopic unicorn creature was actually a terrifying predator (for smaller insects). In fact, the lower part of the horn was covered in horns which, when touched, would trigger the jaw to shoot in forward to trap its prey. Interestingly, other ants now sport a similar mechanism, even though these did not evolve until millions of year later.

Ancient ant

The evolutionary roots of Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s disease is usually believed to be caused by the β-amyloid protein, which has the potential to mis-fold and form plaques. β-amyloid plaques are thought to “suffocate” neurons, causing Alzheimer’s disease. A study recently published from the University of Melbourne in Australia suggests that β-amyloid plays an evolutionary role in protecting the brain from bacterial infection. In fact, mice expressing excess amounts of β-amyloid were more resistant to Salmonella infection to the brain. What’s more, young mice that would not normally have β-amyloid plaques in their brains quickly developed plaques after being injected with Salmonella bacteria. These two experiments, together with more evidence from different systems, suggests that infection and β-amyloid plaques are somehow linked together. This is especially interesting as it opens up new avenues to understand and potentially develop new treatment avenues for Alzheimer’s.   

Filaments of ß amyloid form around yeast cells in a lab dish.

A bit more light shed on the link between Zika and microcephaly

Here at Top 3 News of the Week we have been following the Zika outbreak from its beginnings in South America (and so have the news media and the scientific community). A new study published in Cell Research is now shedding more light on the molecular mechanism that underlies the link between Zika infection in pregnant women and microcephaly in the developing foetus. Pregnant mice were injected with a Zika strain that is currently infecting patients in South America and the brains of the foetuses were analysed for viral particles. It emerged that cells within the radial glia cells of the dorsal ventricular zone of the brain of the foetuses was infected with the Zika virus. These cells are responsible for cortex development and when they are infected with the Zika virus this results in a significant decrease in surface areas of the cortex. Understanding this mechanism is really important as it is the first step towards developing a treatment for affected women. Hopefully the mechanism described in mice is similar to what happens in humans and valuable lessons can be learnt from this work.

Maths got out of hand

Computer-assisted proofs have become the standard way things are done in the computer science world. Funnily enough, these are way too large to be read and verified by human beings: in fact, most people with normal computers would not even be able to download them. An especially poignant example of this new trend is a recently released proof that happens to be the largest-ever mathematics proof of all times. The problem the proof seeked to solve was to work out whether it is possible to colour each positive integer either red or blue, so that no trio of integers a, b and c that satisfy Pythagoras’ famous equation a2 + b2 = c2 are all the same colour. We have all wondered that at some point haven’t we? Turns out that you can’t (although you can try up until the magic number 7,824 for some reason). The file proving that is 200 terabites long! Although apparently the compressed version in 68 gigabites, which is an be downloaded in a manageable 300000 hours at the link above.

Science Sniffles

Are you a scientist? Raise your hand if you’ve ever sneezed all over an experiment (cold season seems to seamlessly merge into hay fever season)! Once you’ve sneezed, you’ve probably wondered whether that was going to matter too much or not. Most likely, if you were past the critical no-return point you probably carried on. Did you see a difference between your sneeze and no-sneeze conditions? Tell us your disgusting stories in the comments below. Science magazine teamed up with fluid physicists from the MIT to find out just what actually happens when you sneeze all around you.

Written by: Gaia Cantelli