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How the cave-dwelling salamander adapted for life in the dark

The blind cave salamander (Proteus anguinus) – also known as the olm or “human fish” – lives in the pitch-dark karst caves in Central and Southeastern Europe and has evolved an unusual set of adaptions to survive.

Often named in oddest animal lists, the amphibian is snake-like in appearance, colourless, and can live up to 100 years. It’s also blind: its eyes, and other parts of its visual structure have become small and incompletely formed.

An international team of scientists have now been able to directly view these changes by using X-ray computed microtomography (microCT) scans to produce 3D reconstructions of the soft tissue in its head. Living in complete darkness has led to other adaptations: its odour sensing organ is much larger than in the closely related surface-dwelling axolotl.

Given how rare Proteus are it’s difficult for researchers to obtain physical samples. These scans are available as opensource digital format, allowing scientists around the world to take advantage.

The research has been published in the journal GigaScience.

Fungal phone calls – could fungi signals resemble human communication?

A scientist looking at fungi communication has identified patterns of electrical activity that could resemble human speech, according to a new study.

By inserting tiny electrodes into blocks of substrate colonised by four species of fungi – ghost (Omphalotus nidiformis), Enoki (Flammulina velutipes), split gill (Schizophyllum commune) and caterpillar (Cordyceps militaris) – Andrew Adamatzky, professor in Unconventional Computing at the Department of Computer Science and Creative Technology, University of the West of England, was able to measure the electrical potential difference between the electrodes.

He found that the spikes in electrical potential are often clustered into ‘trains of activity’, which might be used by fungi to communicate and process information in their mycelium networks (the root-like structure of a fungus) across dispersed fungal colonies.

Using mathematical analysis he then showed that the distributions of lengths of these spike trains follows the distribution of word lengths in human languages and could resemble vocabularies of up to 50 words. The research was published in The Royal Society.

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Caterpillar fungus (Cordyceps militaris). Credit: Andy Adamatzky

Turmeric compound could help grow engineered blood vessels

Curcumin, a compound found in turmeric, has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and is also known to suppress the formation of new blood vessels in malignant tumours (angiogenesis).

Now, bioengineers from the University of California – Riverside have found that it also promotes the secretion of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) – which helps vascular tissues grow – when delivered through magnetic hydrogels into stem cell cultures.

A new study, published in ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces, describes how the researchers coated magnetic iron oxide nanoparticles with the compound and mixed them into a biocompatible hydrogel (a hydrophilic polymer that does not dissolve in water and is biologically safe).

When cultured with stem cells derived from bone marrow, the magnetic hydrogel gradually released the curcumin without injuring the cells. They also showed a higher amount of VEGF secretion compared to cells cultured with bare nanoparticles.

The researchers then used a magnet to successfully direct the movement of the nanoparticles through fresh pig tissue, suggesting that this method could eventually be used to deliver curcumin to help heal or regenerate injured tissue in people.

The secret to better coffee? The birds and the bees

Coffee beans are bigger and more plentiful when birds and bees team up to protect and pollinate coffee plants. Without these winged helpers, coffee farmers would experience a 25% drop in crop yields – a loss of more than $1000 per hectare of coffee – according to a new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers from Latin America and the US quarantined coffee plants at 30 farms, excluding birds and bees with a combination of large nets and small lace bags. They tested four scenarios: bird activity alone (pest control), bee activity alone (pollination), no bird or bee activity, and finally, a natural environment.

They showed that the positive effects of birds and bees on the amount of fruit, fruit weight, and fruit uniformity – key factors in quality and price – were greater combined than the sum of their individual contributions. The researchers emphasise the importance of measuring these contributions to help protect and conserve the many species that we depend on, and sometimes take for granted.

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The key characters in this love story? A bee (euglossa heterosticta), a coffee plant, and a bird (rufous capped warbler). Images courtesy of CATIE and John van Dort. Composite by Mary Kueser.

Clearest genetic signals of schizophrenia risk yet

Two new landmark genetic studies have identified a possible cause of schizophrenia: dysfunction at the synapse, where neurons connect and communicate with each other in the brain.

The first study has identified extremely rare protein-disrupting mutations in 10 genes that strongly increase an individual’s risk of developing schizophrenia – in one instance, by more than 20-fold. These variants – called “protein truncating variants”, or PTVs – prevent cells from producing a gene’s full-length functional protein.

This was done by sequencing the exomes (protein coding regions of genes in a genome) of 24,248 people with schizophrenia and 97,322 of those without.

In a second study of a larger (but overlapping) group of 76,755 people with schizophrenia and 243,649 without, scientists found 287 regions of the genome that have some involvement in schizophrenia risk. The genetic variants involved in schizophrenia are concentrated in genes expressed in neurons, and affect mechanisms that impact their function, such as synaptic structure and organisation.

The researchers hope that this research can facilitate the development of new treatments. Both studies are published together in the journal Nature.

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