Science: One of the tell-tale signs of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is the accumulation of proteins in the neurons that control muscle movement. Researchers from Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich and the University of Antwerp in Belgium have determined that a genetic mutation common in ALS patients appears to be responsible for the creation of the sticky proteins. If the mutated genetic area is translated, it creates dipeptide repeat (DPR) proteins, which don’t normally occur in humans and tend to clump together. When the researchers looked for DPR in ALS patients, they found the proteins in the brain tissue of only the patients who showed the genetic mutation. Further study is needed to verify the findings, to rule out other possible factors, and to determine what role DPR proteins play in the neurodegeneration of ALS.
BBC: The migration of adult sockeye salmon from the northern Pacific Ocean back to the freshwater rivers where they were born is one of the most incredible of any species. How the fish find their way has been the subject of much debate, and one of the primary theories was that they used Earth’s magnetic fields. Nathan Putman of Oregon State University and his team examined 56 years of data on salmon migrations back to the Fraser River in British Columbia, Canada. When the team compared the local magnetic field variations along the river to the magnetic field around Vancouver Island, they found that the salmon chose their route around the island by selecting the local magnetic field intensity that matched that of the intensity near where they were born. How the fish remember or detect information about the magnetic field is not yet known, but it may be tied to olfactory abilities.
Ars Technica: A group of researchers in Japan has rigged a small robotic vehicle with a polystyrene ball that functions like a trackball in a computer mouse. When a silk moth was placed on top of the ball and started walking, the ball rolled, directing the vehicle forward. With male moths as drivers, the researchers directed them toward a particular target by using a strong female pheromone. That particular species of moth zigzags back and forth to localize odors. Although somewhat erratic drivers, the moths were successful in reaching the target within the allotted time and without hitting the walls of the chamber in which they were confined—even when the researchers threw a few curveballs in the form of blindfolding the moths, causing the vehicle to respond unevenly when turning, and introducing a time delay between the moth’s movements and the vehicle’s response. Such biologically based robots could one day be used to detect gas leaks or chemical spills.
Nature: The National Ignition Facility (NIF) is a fusion research project based at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. After the failure of a six-year drive to use lasers to implode matter and ignite fusion, the plans for the facility have shifted. However, the investigation into what went wrong is still ongoing. An independent report initiated by the Department of Energy has been released by the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the operation of NIF. The panel’s findings agree with previous project reviews. The independent scientists highlighted problems in controlling the symmetry of the implosion, which is necessary to maintain stable fusion, and in controlling the mixing of hot and cold fuels. They also noted that because of the complexity, current computers and software simply may not be capable enough. The panel was split, however, as to whether NIF could ever achieve successful ignition.