Lab Notes

Short stories and links shared by the scientists in our community

How photography can overturn traditional killing of rattlesnakes

Scientists and activists share the beauty of these misunderstood species

Sara Zlotnik

Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

University of Florida

On July 16, snake lovers and snake biologists around the globe celebrated World Snake Day and used the occasion to draw attention to pressing global threats to snake conservation. Some activists even spent the entire month of July honoring one particularly maligned and misunderstood group of reptiles: the rattlesnakes.

Rattlesnakes have long been feared and hated by many people who live near them. While it is healthy to stay alert around venomous snakes, many people use their fear as justification to indiscriminately kill any snakes they encounter. The extreme version of this behavior is on full display at annual “rattlesnake roundups”, where snakes are often slaughtered by the hundreds or even thousands. Conservation organizations such as the Rattlesnake Conservancy have been working with communities to replace roundups with wildlife appreciation festivals, but this can be slow and difficult work.

Recently, photography has been used as a medium through which to raise awareness about rattlesnake conservation and welfare issues as well as to promote a greater appreciation of these unique animals. Jo-Anne McArthur’s photograph “The Wall of Shame”, highly commended by the Natural History Museum of London’s 2019 photography competition, unflinchingly depicts the gruesome reality of a major Texas roundup. 

And to show off the prettier side of this story, Emily Taylor and other snake biologists dedicated July 2020 to a #RattlesnakeBeautyPageant, in which they posted gorgeous photographs of rattlesnakes on Twitter. Some of these pictures even made it into a calendar that supports the non-profit Advocates for Snake Preservation (ASP), which educates people about local snake species and reduces killings by relocating animals that have made their way into backyards.

Whether or not you already love rattlesnakes, these pictures can make you reflect on your relationship with wildlife, and hopefully, inspire you to appreciate the underappreciated organisms living all around us.

A previous version of this article incorrectly reported the beneficiary of the rattlesnake calendar. --BGB (Editor)

Skilled hermit crabs more likely to win battles over shell homes

There’s more to winning fights than brute strength in the animal kingdom

Asher Jones


Hermit crabs are the renters of the crustacean world, making their homes in discarded shells of other sea creatures. But with high demand for shell real estate, hermit crabs often forcibly evict other crabs to seize a better-fitting shell. 

During these battles, attackers repeatedly “rap” their shells against defenders, and those who rap most vigorously are more likely to win. But, just as the outcome of a boxing match depends not only on how many punches a boxer lands, but also on the skillful placement of these blows — researchers wondered if skill helps crabs win shell skirmishes.

 To prompt conflicts between crab pairs, scientists from the University of Plymouth gave one crab (the attacker) an ill-fitting shell, whereas the other (the defender) received a perfect fitting one. They found that attackers who rapped on a particular area of the defender’s shell — the “sweet spot” — were more likely to win fights than those who rapped elsewhere. 

To be evicted from their homes, losing crabs first have to release muscles that grasp onto their shells. The sweet spot suggests that attackers must accurately strike a specific anchor point to dislodge their opponent’s grasp, and victorious crabs may skillfully target this spot. 

High-volume attacker rapping may also lead defenders to flee their shells. The team found that the number of raps was linked with proportion of raps to the sweet spot. This could mean that rapping in the sweet spot allows attackers to perform more raps (perhaps due to a better grasp of their opponent) or that accurate crabs also rap the most vigorously.

shell-less hermit crab

Shell-less hermit crab

Arnstein Rønning / Wikimedia

In the animal kingdom, winners of battles over mates, food, and territory are often the biggest, strongest, and most heavily armed. But as champion boxers — and hermit crabs — show us, there’s more to winning fights than brute strength. Skill is important because it allows fighters to strike with greater accuracy and conserve energy. Spatial skills may give hermit crabs a competitive edge in shell real estate wars, and similar abilities could help other animals win conflicts too.

Stones from porcupine guts are a hot commodity on Instagram

The wildlife trade has moved online, and porcupines are under threat

Cassie Freund


Wake Forest University

Porcupines have long been captured and sold in the wildlife trade. Some people eat them, and their quills and hairs are used in clothing and other decorative items. Porcupines also produce stone-like collections of undigested plants in their guts called bezoars. Bezoars from several species, including cows, goats, oxen, and porcupines are used in traditional and folk medicine, particularly in East and Southeast Asian countries. 

One of the dark sides of social media and other internet sites is that they have become virtual wildlife markets, where hunters can easily sell their wares to buyers around the world. In a new study published in Global Ecology and Conservation, scientists from Australia's University of Adelaide and the UK's Oxford Brookes University searched 11 online social media and retail sites in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore — including popular platforms like Instagram, Alibaba, and Lazada — for porcupine bezoars for sale. Over a three-month study period, they found 121 listings marketing nearly 450 porcupine bezoars. Over a third of them were posted on Instagram, and the bezoars were selling for an average of $152 USD per gram.

These findings are concerning. Porcupines must be killed to retrieve the bezoars, and relatively few porcupines have them (the actual incidence rate, however, is unknown). This means that, if every listing the researchers found was real, far more than 450 porcupines had been killed for their bezoars over a relatively short amount of time. 

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which maintains a list of which species are vulnerable and endangered, currently lists all Asian porcupine species except for the Philippine porcupine as "least concern," meaning that, as far as conservationists know, the animals are still common. But with rapid deforestation and the hunting of these animals for food and the wildlife trade, this may not be true for long. Stronger international and domestic trade laws in Southeast Asian countries would be a good first step toward protecting porcupines, along with all of the animals that share their habitats. 

A new shape-shifting species of tardigrade with spiky eggs stumps scientists

These tardigrades are able to change their eggs' appearances seemingly at random

Zena Jensvold

Cell Biology and Molecular Biology

University of Wisconsin - Madison

Tardigrades, also known as water bears or moss piglets, are eight-legged microscopic animals known for their indestructible nature. Using cryptobiotic abilities they are able to dry themselves to crisp husks to survive extreme temperatures, pressure, and radiation, then come back to life when rehydrated.

So far 60 tardigrade species have been recorded in the harsh nature of the Antarctic. A new species has recently been discovered that lays eggs riddled with small spikes, which — strangely — vary in number, shape, and size

Scientists on King George Island, off the coast of Antarctica, cataloged the new species of tardigrade by sequencing its DNA and measuring and describing its features, including its eggs. The new species is called Dactylobiotus ovimutans. 

They wondered how and why D. ovimutans was able to alter the shape of its eggs. So they bred the tardigrades in lab, controlling temperature, light, and food. Other species of tardigrade occasionally lay differently-shaped eggs, and this has been tied to seasonality and environmental variation. The scientists expected that breeding the tardigrades in the lab might cause D. ovimutans to lay eggs that were similarly shaped.

But they found that the egg’s ornamentation continued to change in appearance. With no easy explanation, the scientists settled on another explanation to describe this phenomenon: epigenetics.

The question remains, why would D. ovimutans use important resources to change its egg’s appearance? What environmental factor is controlling this proposed epigenetic regulation? Many mysteries of the tardigrade and how it thrives in such harsh conditions still remain, including the discovery of these morphing, ornamental eggs.

Physicists plucked and collided two ultracold molecules with laser tweezers

The new laser method can help scientists better understand shockingly cold collisions

Karmela Padavic-Callaghan

Theoretical Physics

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Physics students tend to learn about collisions early in their education. They study billiard balls flying away from each other or lumps of clay sticking and moving together after colliding. Scientists can study collisions of objects that are much smaller and much colder as well. 

In a recent experiment, physicists observed two calcium fluoride, or CaF, molecules colliding at a shocking low temperature — only a few millionths of a degree above absolute zero. Molecular collision measurements are important. Scientists can use them to better design future experiments involving ultracold CaF molecules. Since each collision helps molecules lose some energy and therefore become colder, understanding collisions is important for reaching very low temperatures. 

Making molecules ultracold is hard because they can find any of a bunch of different ways to warm up collecting energy, such as by rotating or vibrating. However, researchers learned how to use lasers and magnets to cool molecules and are learning how to control them with incredible precision. 

In this experiment, they used highly focused laser beams, called optical tweezers, to hold two CaF molecules apart and then bring them into an optical trap. Here, it is crucial that light and matter interact. If a laser beam doesn’t have constant intensity, then its electric field would yank the molecules in undesirable ways with electrical force. By manipulating light very precisely, optical tweezers use these forces to pluck each molecule and move it around. 

In optical traps, electric forces due to light-matter interactions keep molecules stuck in place. By holding two CaF molecules with two separate tweezers then bringing them together, physicists were able to study their collisions in detail. 

The optical tweezer method these researchers developed is now another tool in the toolbox of scientists studying ultracold systems. Other scientists could use this tool in the future to investigate collisions of more complicated molecules or to engineer collisions, and therefore reactions, between other ultracold particles.

Scientists look to mussels' feet to build a better adhesive

Water is a big problem for manmade adhesives, but nature has already figured out a solution

Josseline Ramos-Figueroa


University of Saskatchewan

When it comes to adhesives — materials applied between two surfaces to hold them together — water’s presence is detrimental. This disruption is primarily caused by the polar nature of water molecules. As water comes into contact with adhesives, it creates a thin layer that coats the sticky surface. Therefore, adhesives often lose their binding ability under wet conditions. Because water is highly abundant in biological systems, maintaining stickiness in the face of water would immediately benefit research in tissue repair, drug delivery, and biomedical devices.

But of course, nature has already figured out the solution to this problem. In the ocean, mussels have perfected their own adhesive recipe to firmly attach to wet rocks. They mediate attachment through their byssus, or foot, which secretes proteins with high adhesive power. The repetitive pattern of two amino acids, lysine (K) and DOPA (Y), in these proteins have been shown to play a crucial role in binding. Prior studies have centered on DOPA, and questions remain regarding the impact of lysine.

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have studied the combination of both amino acids, K and Y. They measured the detaching force of several mussel protein analogs by sticking them to a rock mimic made of titanium dioxide. Results showed that the analog composed of three KY amino acid pairs was the strongest, and that further pair addition did not increase strength.

With these results, the researchers also created a knock-off copy of the most abundant mussel foot protein (mfp-5). They did this by using three KY pairs separated by non-amino acid linkers, then they measured the detaching force again. Results indicated that this material was "stickier" than three KY repeats without the linker addition.

With the development of a full-length model of mfp-5, researchers think this work could serve as a solid foundation for further wet adhesive design and preparation.

A chaotic week for one of the world's most powerful telescopes ends with major damage

Puerto Rico's Arecibo observatory scientists dealt with a hurricane and an asteroid before the accident

Gabriela Serrato Marks

Marine Geology

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

In 2020 alone, Puerto Rico has faced the COVID-19 pandemic, earthquakes, and major storms. There's an important radar astronomy system in Arecibo, on the northern side of the island, that has weathered it all. 

The Arecibo Observatory hosts a giant telescope that observes radio waves, rather than the visible light tracked by optical telescopes. The reflector dish is 1000 feet wide, making it one of the largest radio telescopes in the world. It's also the most powerful and most sensitive planetary radar system. According to the University of Central Florida, the observatory has collected more than 12 petabytes of data in its 50-year history — that's 1.2 x 1010 megabytes, over 10 billion megabytes.

(Personally, as a geologist, I'm a huge fan of the observatory because the reflector dish was built into a karst depression, also called a sinkhole.) 

Arecibo Observatory/NSF

In late July, the facility shut down for Hurricane Isaias, which brought torrential rain and flooding to Puerto Rico, but didn't damage the telescope. They got all the systems back online just in time to observe Asteroid 2020 NK1, a Potentially Hazardous Object discovered in June. Arecibo found that the asteroid is not an immediate threat to Earth, as it is expected to stay more than 9 times further away than the moon at its closest approach in 2043.

But just a few days later, on August 10th, a 3-inch thick support cable broke, tearing a 100-foot-long (30-meter) gash in the telescope's reflector dish. No one was hurt, but observatory staff are still working on assessing the damage and what repairs will be required.

Drone footage from the Observatory captured the dramatic scale of the dish, the large, white cable hanging down from the upper structure, and the marred reflector panels: 

Video Credit: Arecibo Observatory, University of Central Florida

The gash is even visible on high-resolution satellite imagery (the dark area on the center-left side of the dish), captured by Planet Labs on the day of the break: 

Planet Labs, Inc.

Of course, all this is occurring during the annual hurricane season, which is predicted to be very active this year. The whole astronomy community will be hoping for a quick return to operations. 

New research on Nipah virus finds the virus spreads rapidly as patients approach death

This science must be balanced with the rights of sick people and their loved ones

Marnie Willman


University of Manitoba Bannatyne and National Microbiology Laboratory

If you followed the news during the Ebola Virus outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, you might remember reading that the funeral practices in the region were not compatible with outbreak control measures. Traditional funeral practices in Africa include washing and touching the body extensively after someone dies to prepare them for burial. This poses a problem because many viruses, including Ebola, are passed through bodily fluids such as sweat and blood and remain contagious after the infected person has died. 

Maintaining the boundaries of dignified burials, respecting cultural practices, and reducing transmission from deceased individuals to their surviving family and friends is a significant challenge facing frontline healthcare professionals during many disease outbreaks, including COVID-19.

Recently, scientists have turned to Nipah virus (an infectious respiratory illness) transmission in Bangladesh to understand disease transmission dynamics. Contact patterns, or contact tracing, is used to track how viruses spread from one person to another. Whether, like COVID-19, the virus is spread by respiratory droplets, or like Nipah or Ebola by bodily fluids, contact patterns show how the virus spread by examining the chain of infection. This aids epidemiologists in tracking how viruses move through populations, and can improve future outbreak preparedness. 

They found that, similar to Ebola, the number of personal contacts between a sick person and their friends and family increases rapidly as they person approach death. This is because family and friends want to visit the person, fearing it is their last chance to see them, and people begin to arrive for funeral preparations. The sickest (and likely most contagious) people had more contacts, leading the researchers to conclude that end-of-life preparations spread the virus rapidly. 

This suggests that disease control efforts should focus on funeral practices, an approach we have also seen during the current pandemic, with friends and family mourning their loved ones over Zoom. However, this is an instance where scientific best practices intersect with important human rights and ethics considerations — for example, in 2014 the WHO released a "safe and dignified burial" protocol to ensure that deceased Ebola patients, their families, and their cultural practices are treated respectfully.

Scientists bombarded Stonehenge stones with X-rays to figure out where they came from

Most of the sarsens came from the area, but two remain a mystery

Vidya Ganapati

Swarthmore College

The prehistoric monument of Stonehenge is shrouded in unanswered questions, including where the site's stones came from. There are two types of stones that make up the iconic monument, smaller bluestones and larger sarsen sandstones. The main architecture is comprised of these sarsens, each weighing around 20 metric tons (the same weight as about 10 cars).

Recent research published in Science Advances traces the origins of the sarsens by using portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometry to chemically "fingerprint" each of these large boulders. Bombarding a spot on the sarsen with X-rays makes an invisible glow radiate back. By measuring this glow, scientists can figure out exactly what elements are in the stone. 

Sarsens are mostly silica (the stuff in sand and computer chips), but trace amounts of elements such as aluminum, phosphorus, and calcium are clues to their origin. Scientists were able to match the chemical fingerprints of 50 out of 52 sarsens to stones from West Woods, Wiltshire, about 25 km north of Stonehenge. Now two questions remain: where did those other two stones come from, and why were they sourced from a different place?

What does COVID-19 do to your gut microbiome?

New research compares the gut microbiomes of COVID-19 patients with healthy people

Gastrointestinal distress is now a known symptom of COVID-19. This indicates that the gut may be an additional place where the virus can thrive, and a site where it can be treated. By observing whether there are changes in the gut microbial communities of hospitalized patients during the course of a COVID-19 infection, researchers hope to learn the role of gut bacteria in infection and how to fight it.

To explore this question, researchers at The Chinese University of Hong Kong conducted a small pilot study of 36 individuals: 15 with COVID-19, 6 with pneumonia, and 15 healthy participants. Those with COVID-19 not only had significantly different gut microbial makeups compared to the healthy participants and those with pneumonia, they also found that a person with COVID-19 who had been on antibiotics tended to move even further from a “healthy” gut microbe profile than those patients with the virus but who hadn’t been on antibiotics.

The researchers also identified types of bacteria that were notably more and less abundant in patients with severe COVID compared to those with a milder form of the disease, indicating that some bacteria may play a protective role against the development of COVID-19, while others may allow the virus to make us sicker.

Learning more about how the human gut microbiome interacts with respiratory diseases might open up new ways to predict who is at risk for severe COVID-19 infection, and may even indicate how to treat it.

Why did ancient cats begin hanging around humans?

New research suggests they had a taste for the rodents we attracted

Rebecca Dzombak


University of Michigan

It's a question that haunts cat owners and has its roots in ancient civilizations: Do cats love us, or just our food?

Archaeologists believe that cats and humans have had a relationship for thousands of years, starting when crop cultivation became the norm. As agriculture spread in the Fertile Crescent (between the modern Mediterranean Sea and Persian Gulf), the concentration of grains would have attracted rodents like mice and voles. Rotund little rodents nestled in a field would have been easy targets for the wild cats who lived in the area, so rather than roughing it in the desert, cats moved in with people by around 7,500 BCE... sort of.

The exact relationship between early, semi-domesticated cats and humans isn't clear cut. While there's some evidence that people had personal connections to cats, with one potential pet burial site in Cyprus as old as 9,500 years old, it's just as likely that cats tolerated the presence of humans for the convenience of plentiful mouse populations.

Do cats like us, or just our rodents?

Photo by Humberto Arellano on Unsplash

So when humans began heading north to Europe, farming along the way, proto-Fluffy apparently tagged along. New research found human and cat bones dating back to 4,200 to 2,300 BCE in a cave in Poland, coinciding with a period of rapid settlement in the Late Neolithic period. To examine the relationship between the humans and cats, the scientists wanted to know what the cats were eating. If it looked like mostly wild mice — rather than diets closer to humans and domesticated dogs — it would confirm that the cats were along for the ride, rather than attached to the humans.

Animals' diets can be recorded in the chemical composition of their bones — specifically, their carbon and nitrogen isotopic values. These values vary due to anything from water sources to nearby plants, so they serve as a diet "fingerprint." By comparing the nitrogen composition of cats' bones to those of the mice, the researchers were able to confirm that the cats were primarily eating mice. 

It seems likely that these semi-domesticated cats were doing what house cats do today — using people as a reliable food source, but not getting too attached.

Children can, and should, wear masks in school

The CDC says it is safe for kids two years old and older to wear a mask

Kristen Vogt Veggeberg

Science Education

University of Illinois at Chicago

One of the biggest social challenges in the wake of COVID-19 in American society is figuring out how to safely educate children during the pandemic. And one of the most efficient solutions is so simple: a cloth mask, worn over the nose and mouth, to keep the infection spreading from breathing, coughing, and sneezing. Whenever an individual over the age of two years of age is in public or in close proximity to other individuals not within their household, they should be wearing a mask, according to recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control.  

Two years old is a hard cut off, as kids at that age are less likely to choke or have their breathing impaired by the use of a face mask than younger children. They are also more likely to be socializing in less than six feet from each other (Have you been to a children’s museum? All the hugging, grabbing, touching — yikes!), and are still learning how to act in social settings, let alone the pandemic situation. 

Children need to be wearing masks in public, especially as the demand for school reopenings continues, even though many schools in the United States are continuing to operate through distance learning as the school year begins. As young children learn best through social interaction and play, their need for in-person learning is crucial, and the need for keeping children in school and socializing is a concern of working parents (many of whom are faced with the impossible choice of doing their jobs or staying home with their children at this time), psychologists, and some physicians. If it just requires a simple mask, perhaps it is easier to pretend Halloween has come early. 

2000-year-old shipwreck will help catch elusive neutrinos traveling from distant supernovae

Scientists say that ancient lead from the Roman ship is better suited than new metal

Eleni Petrakou

Particle Physics

Billions of neutrinos, an elusive species of subatomic particles, pass through our bodies and the entire Earth each second. But experiments to find neutrinos requires new ways of cleaning up the sensitive measurements.

The most recent ally in this quest seems to come from archaeology: lead from a Roman ship which sank 2000 years ago could be ideal for capturing neutrinos from distant exploding stars.

The RES-NOVA research team, set on catching neutrinos coming from the cores of supernovae, turned to ancient mineral to improve its experimental signal. A few of the passing neutrinos will be caught by colliding with atomic nuclei, making lead the material of choice thanks to its heavy nucleus. 

Radioactivity is an important consideration though. Scientists design crystals with lead in order to detect neutrinos. Newly mined lead contains traces of radioactive elements which begin to cool down only after processing, and this radioactivity affects these measurements.

But if the lead was processed a long time ago, say during the Roman empire, the natural radioactivity has largely settled down by now. And this is how the wreck of a ship loaded with the mineral, sunk off Sardinia around 50 BCE, provided lead with ten thousand less radioactivity than newer lead. 

The ship was discovered in 1988 but its load was too costly to retrieve. The expedition was eventually funded by Italy's National Institute for Nuclear Physics, or INFN, in exchange for a few tons of this VIP metal. 

Part of it has already been used in experiments as a shield against ambient radiation. The proposal of RES-NOVA (Latin for “new thing”) is novel though: here the lead will be a component of the crystals with which the neutrinos from outer space will actually collide.  The low-radioactivity crystals are expected to be more sensitive in detecting neutrinos and thus to study more distant supernovae, covering the whole bulk of the Milky Way.  

In the process, ancient lead, probably initially destined to become ammunition, will be given a second life as an explorer of stars. 

Correction: This story was updated to clarify the role of low-radioactivity lead in crystals

Glowing worms have less sex when the lights are on

Artificial lighting makes it harder for bioluminescent insects to find mates

Sara Zlotnik

Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

University of Florida

Human activities like deforestation and fossil fuel use are major drivers of biodiversity loss. But what about seemingly innocuous activities like turning the lights on at night? While most people who live in cities or suburbs are used to the effects of artificial lights, many wild animals that live alongside us are not so good at coping with this widespread form of pollution.

Ecologists in Finland recently published a study on the effects of artificial lights on mate attraction in a bioluminescent beetle species called the common glow-worm of Europe (Lampyris noctiluca). Female glow-worms use their bioluminescent abdomen to attract male mates, but this reproductive strategy only works at night, when the glowing signal is readily apparent. Artificial lights are making the night-time landscape much less dark in many places, which could reduce the glow-worms’ ability to find mates.

To test the effects of artificial lights on mate attraction, the researchers made fake female glow-worms and set up traps to capture any males that came in contact with them. Very few males approached female glow-worms that were just one meter from away from an artificial light, while they easily found the females that were over two meters away. So, mate attraction in these insects is seriously disrupted by artificial lights, but females might be able to compensate if they move further away from the light.

Unfortunately, the researchers ran another experiment and found that in the presence of an artificial light, female glow-worms are likely to not signal at all, or even hide, rather than to move further away. This unhelpful behavior is quite understandable considering that for most of the evolutionary history of these insects, artificial lighting did not exist.

The results of these experiments clearly demonstrate how detrimental night-time lighting can be for wild animals, especially nocturnal animals that use visual forms of communication such as bioluminescence.  And beyond these worms, artificial lights have also contributed to global firefly declines as well as the declines of many non-bioluminescent insects, such as moths, crickets, and mayflies.

What's really in your salmon? These scientists found out

Nutritional information isn't required on seafood packaging in North America

Salmon is enjoyed by people around the world for its range of nutritional benefits. However, purchasing Canadian salmon with high nutritional content and low levels of contaminants can be a shot in the dark because nutritional information is not required on seafood packaging in North America. 

Stephanie Colombo, an assistant professor of Aquaculture at Dalhousie University, wanted to determine the nutritional composition of different types of salmon available to Canadian consumers. No study has been done like this on Canadian salmon before, so her results provide a comparative baseline for future research.

Colombo’s team purchased six types of salmon fillets available in Canadian grocery stores to compare their nutritional information. They analyzed farmed Atlantic, farmed organic Atlantic, farmed organic Chinook, wild Chinook, wild Pacific pink and wild Sockeye. There are many misconceptions when it comes to choosing between wild and farmed salmon, with many consumers believing that farmed salmon is nutritionally inferior to wild salmon, and has more contaminants. The researchers analyzed the salmon's protein, fat, fatty acids, and mercury contents to determine if there is any truth behind these preconceptions. 

salmon up close

Photo by Sas Kia on Unsplash

Surprisingly, the study found that the biggest determinant of protein and fat content and mercury levels was the species of salmon the fillets came from, which is due to their different diets. They also found that factors like wild or farmed and organic or non-organic did not have a major impact on mercury levels in the tested salmon.

Wild Sockeye and wild Chinook fillets were the most nutrient-dense and had the highest omega-3 fatty acid content. However, for frequent consumers, the study suggested farmed Atlantic salmon as an affordable, nutrient-dense, low-mercury alternative to Sockeye or Chinook. Future research should consider the nutritional content of farmed salmon fed sustainable plant-based diets in comparison with traditional fish-based diets.

The two halves of a new compound team up to fight cancer

When combined, ruthenium and platinum do a better job at killing cancer cells than their individual parts

Cancer cells' ability to gain drug resistance makes them smarter than we think. To outsmart these rogue cells, some research groups are working to develop multi-action, multi-target cancer therapies. Molecules for such therapies are like Swiss-army knives that can change their reaction mechanisms depending on the job at hand. 

One recent molecule, made by researchers in France and Israel, is better than the sum of its parts. Made up of two metals — ruthenium and platinum — one half of the new molecule turns into a lethal cancer-killer when irradiated with light, and the other half kills cancerous cells just by gluing itself to them.

Photodynamic therapy is a medical procedure that uses light as a way of treating cancers and other skin diseases. Normally, a drug known as a photosensitizer is used in combination with the light therapy to increase the effectiveness of the treatment. Photosensitizers do this by absorbing lots of light and reacting to help make small molecules that can go on to destroy tumors. 

The new molecule for multi-action therapy works in two ways. The ruthenium center helps the solubility of the drug so it can reach the tumors and acts as a miniature antenna to gather as much light as possible there, much like a traditional photosensitizer. But rather than working alone, it transfers some of this light energy to the platinum half of the molecule, turning the platinum site into a highly efficient chemotherapy drug that can bind very tightly to DNA. By doing this, the platinum half of the molecule only reveals its identity as a highly effective chemotherapy drug when it is already at the site of the tumor, reducing unwanted side-effects and toxicity elsewhere in the body. By teaming up and working together, the ruthenium half of the molecule also helps to boost the anti-cancer activity of the platinum, helping it overcome issues with drug resistance.

A new scientific method plays tag to understand neutrinos

Neutrinos are subatomic particles that scientists have puzzled over for decades

Simone Eizagirre


University of Cambridge

An interdisciplinary collaboration of physicists, chemists, and materials scientists lead by the University of the Basque Country (UPV-EHU) and the Donostia International Physics Centre has invented a new ultrasensitive molecular sensing technique to monitor a nuclear decay reaction. With it, the collaboration could solve a decadeslong mystery about the nature of neutrino particles and address some of the fundamental questions about our universe.

Neutrinos are subatomic particles that have no electrical charge and extremely small mass — some even think they could have no mass. Most particles of matter have a corresponding antiparticle, which has the same mass but opposite physical charges, but scientists have been puzzling for decades over whether neutrinos could be their own antiparticles.

One way to answer this question is by studying a process called “neutrinoless double beta decay.” In this rare type of nuclear decay, two neutrons from the nucleus of an atom turn into protons, emitting two electrons in the process. This can occur spontaneously in a particular isotope of xenon atoms (136-Xe), which undergo decay into barium ions. However, the process is so rare that observing it is very difficult and until now, scientists had not found a viable method of detecting individual barium ions.

In their results, published recently in Nature, the authors report a “tagging” method that could be used to detect barium ions that originate from this decay. They have designed a fluorescent molecule that can capture the barium ions to form a supramolecular complex. These molecules usually emit green light when excited with ultraviolet illumination, but the emission turns blue if the complexes have captured barium ions.

What is remarkable about this work is its truly interdisciplinary nature. It harnesses the expertise of synthetic chemists and materials scientists to develop an experimental technique that will be applied in a completely different field: particle physics. The success of this collaboration, involving researchers from nine different research institutes, shows how interdisciplinary science often leads to innovative and impactful solutions, as well as the value in bringing in new perspectives to our work.

During the pandemic, mid-day might be the safest time to play soccer

New research looks into how to keep sports leagues in play while minimizing COVID-19 spread

Francesco Zangari

Molecular Biology

University of Toronto

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought global sports to a halt and led to uncertainty of how leagues will complete the season in progress. While North American leagues like the MLB, NBA, and NHL have just started up again, time will tell how successful their COVID control plans are.

Nonetheless, soccer has resumed across Europe and a recent preprint by scientists at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem highlights how this restart can be made safer by simply scheduling matches strategically. 

The, researchers focused on the primary surfaces most contacted by soccer players. They began by taking grass and synthetic leather (as a proxy for the ball’s surface) and monitoring how long a virus very similar to SARS-CoV-2 survived on them at two time points when matches are frequently played: mid-day (1:00 PM, ~30 degrees Celsius) or nighttime (8:00 PM, ~22 degrees C). 

They saw a stark difference in virus survival. Surfaces exposed to mid-day conditions had little virus survival past 90 minutes, while nighttime exposed surfaces remained contaminated for 24 hours. They pointed to differences in heat and UV light as the potential mediators of virus inactivation. These findings suggest that organizers of European soccer leagues should schedule matches at mid-day for safety. 

Chewing pasta too much makes it less healthy

The latest pasta research shows that tiny bits of noodles lead to higher glucose levels

Josseline Ramos-Figueroa


University of Saskatchewan

Refrigerating dried or homemade pasta may be beneficial to health, but also may alter how pasta breaks down upon chewing.

When cooking every day becomes too impractical, many people resort to meal prepping. This can mean a constant cycle of refrigerating and reheating meals. In the case of pasta, this process actually might be be beneficial for your health.

Controlling glucose levels is critical to decreasing the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Previous studies have shown that eating reheated pasta produced lower blood glucose levels than consuming freshly boiled pasta. Lower glucose levels were obtained because a new type of starch, called resistant starch, forms at cold temperatures. In our gut, enzymes break starch down into units of glucose. But for this resistant starch, degradation is slower, so less glucose forms. Do different types of pasta produce the same result? And does harsh or mild chewing affect starch degradation?

To find some answers, a group of researchers dug into two types of pasta: dried spaghetti and fresh homemade tagliatelle. And to simulate pasta particles produced upon chewing, they cut cooked pasta to two different sizes.

Results showed that cooled or reheated dry pasta only produced a small change in starch degradation than in freshly boiled pasta. However, with small-sized fresh pasta, the researchers saw a sharper decrease in starch degradation compared to dry pasta.

The researchers presume that the non-starch ingredients in pasta might point to additional factors for the formation of resistant starch. They also argued that the size of pasta particles formed during chewing may have greater effect than the process of cooling and reheating pasta. They proposed that industrial pasta production should consider pasta sizes and shapes that will naturally break into large pieces.

Jaime Chambers


Washington State University

Two wolves press their noses against a fence, scenting a tray of food on the other side. A rope dangles within their reach — a clue to the puzzle. If only one wolf pulls the rope, it comes loose and no one gets the food. But if they tug together, the snack will be theirs.

This might seem like a test of plain-old smarts. Put two good problem-solvers together, and they can figure it out. But according to a recent study published in Nature, the wolves’ bond with each other — rather than either individual’s intent or mental abilities — matters most. 

Wolves cooperate famously well. They coordinate to tackle large prey in the wild, and outperform dog duos in experiments requiring teamwork. But individual wolves’ cooperative abilities vary, and researchers at the University of Vienna’s Wolf Science Center wondered why.

To find out, they presented wolf pairs with three tasks designed to measure cooperation. In the rope test, each duo coordinated to get a meaty morsel. In the other two tests, wolves made choices with no reward to themselves. They pushed a touch screen to give their partner a reward (or not), and took turns pushing a buzzer that sometimes gave both a snack, and sometimes only their partner. 

 Researchers also measured each wolf’s individual traits, such as self-control, learning speed, persistence, and understanding of cause-and-effect. When it came to cooperating, these qualities didn’t matter so much. The wolves’ social bond most strongly shaped their success, not any particular individual quality. The more positive the prior relationship between two wolves, the better they performed on all three tasks.  

Scientists are still learning what drives cooperation in many species, but many hypothesize that “emotional bookkeeping” plays a role. When individuals share positive experiences, they tend to associate each other with positive emotions. A mental record of good vibes makes cooperation more likely, as an automatic first response. 

This study supports that idea. Wolves that feel good about each other cooperate better. The same has been found in humans, too — something to consider the next time you’re faced with a group project.

How mezcal bubbles can help us understand lava flows

The fluid mechanics of a good mezcal are complex

Adam Fortais


McMaster University

Mezcal is a classic Mexican spirit distilled from the agave plant. It can take your margaritas to the next level, but a new understanding of a traditional distillation technique used by mezcal producers could also provide insight into producing biofoams and better understanding lava flows.

When a mezcal producer wants to test the their product, they squirt a thin jet of the spirit into a vessel and observe the bubbles that result. If the bubbles pop quickly, that's not good; there is likely something wrong with the alcohol content. But if the bubbles survive 30 seconds or longer, they have a well-balanced spirit. And while this technique has been used for many years, exactly why it works has long been a mystery.

Bubbles on the surface of a liquid pop when the bubble "membrane" thins and becomes unstable. This happens to soap bubbles when gravity causes the fluid in the bubble to drain and thin. However, when a group of fluid mechanists studied mezcal bubbles, they found fluid flowed up, into the bubble. 

Alcohol has a lower surface tension than water, which means it evaporates and spreads more readily. So, when a mezcal bubble forms, the alcohol begins evaporating faster than the water. This increases the surface tension in the bubble compared to the rest of the liquid, and causes more high-alcohol fluid to flow up, into the bubble, thus slowing the thinning process.

The specifics involve viscosity and density of the fluid as well, but the researchers found that the effect was largely dependent on alcohol content. There was a narrow range of alcohol contents that maximized bubble lifetime; deviations above and below 50% drastically reduced how long bubbles lasted. 

The physics behind this process is useful for distilling alcohol, but the principals are transferable to all sorts of materials, like lava, biological materials, and soaps, just to name a few. The research team hopes this information will also be useful for better understanding some environmental, biological, and industrial processes. 

Farah Qaiser

Molecular Genetics

University of Toronto

In early June, a racist incident in Central Park sparked #BlackBirdersWeek: a week-long social media effort which celebrated and amplified the voices of Black nature enthusiasts. Since then, several social media movements have emerged to celebrate Black academics across a variety of disciplines, including #BlackInAstro (June 22 - 26), #BlackBotanistsWeek (July 6 - 11) and #BlackInAnimalBehaviour (July 23 - 27). 

#BlackInNeuro is in progress. Between July 27th and August 2nd, organizers have developed several activities to celebrate Black excellence in all things neuroscience, including panels and discussions on neuroracism, graduate school journeys, and more. Organizers have also asked for participants to share pop talks (a short one-minute introduction video) – never an easy task.

Instead of trying to capture all of these stories in words, here are some you should dive into and share.

Meet Mia Larrieu, an incoming PhD student who will be studying the behaviour of chickadees.

Wondering how many Black women have earned a PhD in astronomy in the US? Check out #BlackInAstro.

Learn about Taylor Harris’ journey into plants:

Why are campaigns like this important? 

Have you ever tried to explain your research in one minute, using accessible language? Here’s #BlackInNeuro co-organizer, Ti’Air Riggins, talking about microelectrode arrays (aka brain probes).

Since June, Black academics have been sharing their experiences in academia, from microaggressions to physical threats. Massive Science editor, Cassie Freund, spoke to #BlackInTheIvory co-founder, Dr. Shardé Davis, about this:

Additional campaigns along these lines are already being planned, with #BlackInChem set to take place between August 10-15th. And, importantly, a group of Black ecologists recently penned a comment in Nature’s Ecology & Evolution, calling for an acceptance of the “full expression of Black excellence in all its forms,” pointing out that these social media movements demonstrate the many forms of Black scholarship and community engagement, and should also be recognized in guidelines for tenure, promotion and hiring.

Despite the ADA, science often isn't accessible for disabled people

Laboratories and field work aren't set up for disabled scientists. They must be

Jennifer Keelan left her wheelchair at the bottom of the Capitol building steps. She was eight years old, the youngest person participating in the "Capitol Crawl." She stuffed a pamphlet into the pocket of her pinstripe jeans. She intended to hand it to a member of Congress, urging them to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act. As she dragged herself up the steps she exclaimed, "I'll take all night if I have to."

There was anger in her voice and it is an anger that I, and many other disabled scientists, can relate to.

The ADA prohibits discrimination against disabled people. Yet here we are, thirty years after its passage, and disabled scientists still don't have access to our work and learning spaces. And when we say we don't have access, we mean that quite literally. 

At UC Davis, there is an outdoor teaching area that may appear unremarkable to most. But it caught the eye of Megan Lynch, a Master's student in Horticulture and Agronomy. She took a picture and posted it on Twitter, asking able-bodied folks to #SpotTheAccessibilityFail, a hashtag she created. 

Uneven stones, a small step, a faded map - all barriers that prevent disabled people from using this space. "It was not designed with the idea that horticulture students at a public university would include disabled people,” Lynch said via email.

Administrations treat the ADA as if it is the gold standard for accessibility. But disabled people know that it mandates only the bare minimum and most campuses fail to meet it.  

Lynch isn't impressed. She has had trouble getting anyone at UC Davis to care about disability inclusion, even her union. So she founded UC Access Now, a campaign for universal design, accessibility, and inclusion for disabled people on the University of California campuses. 

This campaign is important. But as Lynch says, "It's hard enough to survive as a disabled student without adding on unpaid DEI work in the form of activism." It isn't the responsibility of disabled scientists to break down the barriers meant to exclude us.

"The assumption that no one with a disability could ever possibly do [horticulture and agronomy] is part of what keeps the field so inaccessible." Abled people refuse to change and that is why there are so few disabled people in science, Lynch said. And she is right. 

It's time to show up for disabled scientists. To fulfill the promise made to us thirty years ago. It's time for change.

You can follow UC Access Now on Twitter at @AccessUC and read their Demandifesto here.

[Ed: An earlier version of this  article misused the term "able-bodied" in the 8th paragraph. This has been replaced with the appropriate term, "abled." The distinction is important as there are some disabled people who are able-bodied.  Dan Samorodnitsky, Senior Editor]   

Wolbachia bacteria stop mosquitos from spreading viruses

You may have never heard of Wolbachia, but these bacteria could save us from dengue and malaria

Marnie Willman


University of Manitoba Bannatyne and National Microbiology Laboratory

The Aedes aegypti mosquito is one of the most notorious insects because of it can transmit tropical diseases such as dengue, yellow fever, malaria, and Zika virus. Climate change threatens to amplify their damage as increasing global temperatures enable the mosquitoes to survive in new geographical areas that were traditionally too cold. 

But, there is a glimmer of hope to this tale. It turns out, mosquitos have a natural emeny: Wolbachia. Wolbachia is a bacteria that infects over half of arthropod species, including A. aegypti. These bacteria can stop the viruses that mosquitos carry from being contagious, blocking transmission to humans. Little is known about how the Wolbachia can do this, and has become the subject of global research. 

In a paper published in Frontiers in Microbiology, Suzanne Ford and colleagues unravel some of the mystery behind Wolbachia "virus blocking.". Wolbachia introduced to A. aegypti mosquitoes was found to be stably-inherited by offspring, meaning that the bacteria was passed from mosquito parents to offspring, and that this blocked transmission of dengue, Zika, and chikungunya viruses.

This study also aimed to inspect the genetic inheritance of the bacterium and how blocking could be enhanced in a lab to make viral transmission from mosquitoes more ineffective. The researchers found a specific signaling pathway that resulted in resistance to dengue virus in mosquitoes. Mosquitoes that are resistant to the virus have faster cell replication in their midgut region than those who are susceptible. This study found Wolbachia bacteria enhanced this effect. These mosquitoes in turn do not acquire the dengue virus as easily, and as a result, they don't pass it to other animals, such as humans. 

This is an important step forward, because so little is known about how Wolbachia bacteria reduce transmission of tropical viral diseases. Imagine if Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes populated the globe, eliminating mosquito-borne viruses altogether!  

A new COVID-19 test uses CRISPR to detect the virus

The test returns results in just 40-70 minutes

Polychronis Fatouros

Synthetic Biology

Having tests that can quickly and accurately detect SARS-CoV-2 is of utmost  importance now that sports leagues are starting up again and parents are considering sending their children to school. 

Now, scientists from the Broad Institute at MIT have harnessed  the power of the versatile CRISPR system to rapidly and accurately detect the genetic material of the virus on the spot, without  sophisticated equipment of a research clinical lab. This is a major breakthrough, because it means that testing now can be deployed at far-reaching places miles away from medical infrastructure. 

This paper (currently posted as a pre-print) showcases the new test, which is aptly named STOPCovid. Upon contact with a sample, the CRISPR system searches for the genetic material of the virus. If present, it gets activated and runs rampant, snipping up RNA molecules. Once the RNAs are chopped up, they undergo a chemical reaction and give distinguishable signal on a strip of paper in just 40-70 minutes. 

Both the sensitivity and specificity of this test are very high and this is a crucial weapon in our arsenal against this virus. Time to test, test, test!