The top three news stories of the week, as chosen by our resident students. This week’s top stories include flying spiders, a new type of superconductivity and a new experimental drug to treat Parkinson’s disease.
By Yonis Bare
Nowhere to hide: spiders can ‘fly’!
To all readers who suffer from arachnophobia, continue at your own peril as your worst fears have been realised – spiders, despite having no wings, have been found to have the ability to travel airborne for distances up to 4km into the sky!
This behaviour is known as ‘ballooning’ whereby spiders climb to a high vantage point, raise their abdomens into the air, shoot out silk strands and float away. It was first documented in the 1800s by Charles Darwin, yet the mechanism and reasons behind this behaviour are still poorly understood. Scientists over at the University of Bristol have recently published a study explaining that spiders are able to detect the Earth’s electric field and use it to ‘fly’ via electrostatic repulsion.
The study involved using adult Linyphiid spiders and attaching them to a vertical strip of cardboard in the center of a polycarbonate box, which will limit the movement of air. Applying a vertical electric field of differing strengths, they observed that there was a significant increase in spiders displaying ballooning behaviour in the presence of an electric field and an increase in the number of spiders displaying ‘tiptoeing’ behaviour – a predictor of ballooning activity in which the spiders stand on the ends of their legs and raise their abdomens. Furthermore, they were able to show that the mechanosensory hairs on the spiders were able to be activated by weak electric fields alone without any airflow stimuli, illustrating that electrostatic forces on their own can trigger ballooning.
Physicists discover a new type of superconductivity
Electricity is carried by the flow of electrons, which lose energy when they collide with atoms in materials as they move (resistance). However, when materials are cooled down to very low temperatures, electrons begin to pair up and flow without resistance. This phenomenon is called superconductivity and is one of the biggest challenges facing modern physics today. Utilising superconductivity will make our electronic devices more energy efficient, but maintaining the cold temperature requires large and expensive equipment.
Recently, a group of researchers at the University of Maryland have discovered a new type of superconductivity by looking at semi-metal materials at very cold temperatures. A few years ago, scientists discovered YPtBi to be a superconductor, which was a surprise as this material does not fit the usual criteria of being a good conductor with lots of mobile electrons. Nevertheless, the scientists observed that when the material was cooled down, superconductivity occurred. To understand how this happened, their aim was to look at how YPtBi interacted with magnetic fields due to the fact that as materials transition into becoming superconductors, they expel any additional magnetic fields from their surface.
Using copper coils to detect any changes, they showed that as YPtBi warmed up from absolute zero (0 K), the magnetic field could penetrate the material and this increased over time in a linear fashion – similar to that seen in conventional superconductors. The team concluded that the electrons may be disguised as particles with a higher spin (a quantum property that describes how electrons interact) of 3/2than normal electrons (1/2). This was believed to be impossible in solid materials and has now led a new direction in this type of research.
New drug stops progression of Parkinson’s disease in mice
Researchers at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine have reportedly developed an experimental drug that has been shown to slow down the progression and symptoms of Parkinson’s disease in mice.
The aims of this study, published in Nature, was to observe the mechanisms in which drugs that are similar to compounds used to treat diabetes could be neuroprotective (helps to preserve neuronal structure and function). The drug, named NLY01, is a known glucagon-like peptide-1 receptor (GLP1R) agonist and was tested against cultures of human brain cells and live mouse models of Parkinson’s diseases and neurodegeneration.
Data from the study illustrated that microglia, a brain cell type important for immune response in the CNS, had more binding sites for NLY01 than any other cell type in the body and the number of NLY01 binding sites were found to be 10 times higher in people suffering from Parkinson’s disease than healthy controls. Furthermore, the group was able to show that when treated with the drug, microglia were unable to convert astrocytes into a more aggressive form, preventing neuron death. Other data also illustrated that NLY01 prevented the loss of dopamine neurons in mice injected with alpha-synuclein and that a transgenic mouse model that expressed a human-type alpha synuclein treated with the drug were able to survive for more than 100 days compared to untreated mice. The drug is now planned to undergo human clinical trials and is poised to be one of the first treatments available that can directly target the progression of Parkinson’s disease