The top three news stories of the week, as chosen by our resident students. This week’s top stories are crow technology, a new test for cancer and eternal youth of the naked mole rat

By Brooke Lumicisi. 

Stone the crows!

The development of fishing hooks by humans about 23 000 years ago was a significant technological milestone, allowing humans to inhabit islands. Scientists have reported a similar technological development has been discovered in a group of crows. Professor Rutz and his team at St Andrews University published a paper last year showing that the New Caledonian crows routinely bend twigs into hook shapes in order to ‘fish’ food from inside crevices in logs and other similar hiding places. The group carried out this study last year after a New Caledonian crow named Betty was observed bending a piece of wire into a hook to retrieve a bucket of food from inside a tube. It was initially thought that Betty had developed the advanced tool in response to the task, however it was later found that this hook making was also carried out in the wild by these birds. Now the team at St Andrews University have shown that there may be significant benefits to this hook making. Use of these relatively complex tools to find food is up to 10 times more efficient than without, indicating that this ‘technology’ development may be directly driven by this factor. We readily accept the use of complex tools by species closer to ourselves, however this finding shows us significant technology development in animals we would not have expected.


A simple blood test could detect 8 types of cancer

Catching cancer early is key to effective treatment. This is why innumerable groups of researchers are working on simple and cost effective ways to screen for cancer. A group at Johns Hopkins university claim they have developed a simple blood test that can detect 8 different types of cancer. The test named cancerSEEK  was successful at detecting cancer in 70% of 1005 people with ovary, liver, stomach, pancreatic, oesophageal, colorectal, lung or breast cancer. The test looks for a combination of changes in genes or proteins that have been shown to be hallmarks of the specific cancers listed above. However, there were a few problems. The test was not very good at detecting breast cancer at only 33% of cancers detected and it did give a small number of false positives in healthy subjects (7 of 812 people tested). This is a promising step towards the development of cost effective pre-screening approaches for cancer detection, however some researchers and clinicians have warned that it is not a complete solution yet as there are still reports of conflicting results between different testing methods and the test is not 100% effective.


Naked mole rats defy the rules of ageing

Naked mole rats rule the world of animal models in research. They may not be the cuddliest critters, even in the rodent family, but they are ideally suited as animal models. They are almost entirely resistant to cancer, they don’t feel pain, and it was recently reported that they can live for extended periods without oxygen (some reports say up to 18 months). Now, researchers at Calico Life Sciences a Google biotech spin-off focused on ageing and longevity have published a paper reporting that these amazing little creatures don’t conform to the normal mammalian rules of ageing. This study that looked at thousands of naked mole rats in laboratory settings, found that their risk of death doesn’t go up as the years go on, as is the case for all other mammals. This phenomenon is explained by the Gompertz law. In 1825, British mathematician Benjamin Gompertz found that the risk of dying rises exponentially with age; in humans, for instance, it doubles roughly every 8 years after the age of 30. However, in the case of the naked mole rat once they reached sexual maturity at 6 months of age, each naked mole rat’s daily chance of dying was a little more than one in 10,000 and amazingly it stayed the same the rest of their lives. This research is very preliminary, and as most of the naked mole rats in the study were eventually used for research, or sent to other laboratories, the final stages of these animals lives were not studied. It is possible that the naked mole rats do eventually go through a process of ageing that happens very late in life and proceeds very rapidly. More research needs to be done, but the little supermodels of animal models could soon be adding another amazing feat to their already spectacular list of abilities.

naked mole rat