Scattershot Science: Blood, Neandertals, Robot Arms and More

Scientific developments worth blogging about pile up faster than I can find time to write about them. But rather than watch yet another heap of these worthwhile stories die of old age in my queue, I’m shotgunning a bunch of them here for your exploration. Today’s topics: blood substitutes, the latest on Neandertals, whale peregrinations, better prosthetic arms and a phone app that helps the blind.

FAKE BLOOD AND REAL DONORS. Because blood for transfusions is almost always in short supply, especially for rare types, biomedical scientists around the world have sought an artificial blood substitute for decades. Witness, for example, this University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill write-up from last January about work its researchers have done on making hydrogel particles that could function like artificial red blood cells. That effort has now passed an important milestone with the news that HBOC201, a synthetic substitute made from cow plasma, has saved the life of an Australian car-wreck patient whose religion forbade her to receive transfusions, as Clay Dillow describes for Popular Science. Still, blood substitutes won’t be in routine medical use for a long time to come, and the need for blood won’t wait. All the more frustrating, then, that U.S. Food and Drug Administration rules prevent blood banks from accepting donations of blood and marrow from gay men, even when their blood represents little or no real threat from HIV. Cassandra Willyard has that story at The Last Word on Nothing.

NO NEANDERTAL NEIGHBORS? First, we had to accept that Neandertals might need to be a completely separate species to explain why modern humans had apparently not interbred with them despite overlapping with them for about 10,000 years in Europe. Then, genomic analyses showed that Neandertals might actually have interbred with us after all, enough to contribute about 4 percent to our modern genome. Now, the revisionism seemingly goes further, with new carbon-dating analyses by paleoanthropologist Thomas Higham of the University of Oxford and his colleagues indicating that Neandertals were largely extinct by about 40,000 years ago—meaning that they were essentially gone before our ancestors trekked into Europe. (Perhaps some mixture of Neandertal and modern bloodlines in the Middle East or elsewhere during a brief period of overlap accounts for the Neandertal trace in our DNA.) Nature News and ScienceNOW explain those findings in detail. But don’t be too quick to rule out European overlap with the Neandertals: John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin-Madison says that conclusion is wrong.

THE TELLTALE WHALE. Last September I commented on a grey whale—of a species nowadays found only in the Pacific—that unexpectedly turned up off the coast of Israel. (It was later seen near Spain, then disappeared, presumably into the Atlantic.) New research by Aviad P. Scheinin and his colleagues appearing in Marine Biodiversity Records supports the conclusion that the whale did indeed most likely originate in the Pacific rather than in some overlooked pod of grey whales that evaded extinction in the North Atlantic. The scientists take no position on whether climate change and the thawing of the Arctic are singularly responsible for this whale migrating between oceans, but they note that the opening of those northern waterways will inevitably lead to significant mixing of northern Pacific and Atlantic marine life, with unpredictable consequences. Nadia Drake writes more about this for Nature News. What I’m curious about is whether whales are likely to be among the first, pioneering species to make such a move, or whether many other, less conspicuous ones might have done so already.

WHAT PROSTHETICS UNDERSTAND. In 2008 Andrew Schwartz of the University of Pittsburgh and his team revealed their progress in building robotic arms that rhesus monkeys could control purely by thought, through electrodes implanted in their motor cortex. Ferris Jabr, reporting in New Scientist, describes how Schwartz is now working with Michael McLoughlin of Johns Hopkins University, who developed the Modular Prosthetic Limb (MPL), a lightweight, five-fingered, dexterous bionic arm “that closely approximates the form and agility of a human arm and hand.” People wearing the original MPL controlled it through surgically redirected nerves; the collaboration could yield a prosthetic that would respond to its wearer’s mental commands. How soon such prosthetic arms might be ready for the public remains to be seen (Ferris’s story suggests they might be only a year away, but… well, let’s see.) In any case, work on prosthetics continues to teach neuroscientists quite a bit about how the brain naturally perceives and controls the body, as Katie Palmer writes for Scienceline. [Update: And on a related note, read Daniel Lende’s great, fun post today on Mind Reading to Furries: Turning Thought into Action.]

CROWDSOURCED SIGHT. Speaking of aids for the disabled: A new app for mobile phones called VizWiz allows blind people to snap photos of their surroundings, ask a question about it and then get an audio answer quickly from Amazon’s legion of Mechanical Turk online workers. Ferris Jabr has the details. The technical term for this work, as we say back in Massachusetts, is “wicked smahht.”

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