Discovered: RC cockroaches; female snakes conceive for themselves; anti-obesity campaigns engender stigma; deaf gerbils given stem cell transplants hear.
Virgin snake births. They're not quite capable of immaculate conception, but female North American pit vipers are able to reproduce without a male, University of Tulsa researcher Warren Booth has found. Snakes in captivity have demonstrated facultative parthenogenesis (the fancy term when females give birth without relying on sperm for fertilization), but this is the first example of virgin birth ever found amongst vertebrates in the wild. Booth believes this capability is much more than an "evolutionary novelty," and may change our understanding of the link between sexuality and reproduction. He's excited to find out whether these fatherless offspring will grow up to live full snake lifespans. "If they cannot survive and reproduce, then this is a reproductive dead-end. However, if they are healthy and can reproduce, that opens an entirely new avenue for research," he said. [BBC]
Scientists create a cyborg cockroach, because they can. When most people see a cockroach they cringe and think, "Ew ew ew, get it away." But researchers at North Carolina State University's iBionicS lab see a cockroach and think, "Wouldn't it be awesome if I could steer that bug like an RC car?" By attaching a circuit to a cockroach, the researchers were able to drive a Madagascar hissing cockroach via remote control. The electrical circuit hooks up to the cockroach's two antennae, which the bug uses as a tactile sense organ. By jiggling the joystick, scientists were able to make the insect think it ran into an obstacle. These remote-controlled roaches aren't just playthings for mischievous scientists, though. The reserach was funded by DARPA with hopes that remotely manned insects could be useful in search-and-rescue and spy mission. Watch roboroach in action:
Hearing restored, thanks to stem cells. Cochlear implants are already enabling formerly deaf people to hear, but they only approximate the sensation of sound. Scientists have hoped that stem cells would provide better treatments for deafness, and now, they've come one step closer. The University of Sheffield's Marcelo Rivolta led research that allowed deaf gerbils to hear again through stem cell transplants. The cells developed into nerves capable of transmitting aural information from the ear to the brain. In humans, hearing depends on on inner ear cilia and spiral ganglion neurons. "Obviously the ultimate aim is to replace both cell types," says Rivolta. "But we already have cochlear implants to replace hair cells, so we decided the first priority was to start by targeting the neurons." Commenting on the work, Mark Maconochie of Sussex University says, "In the past, there has been work where someone makes a single hair cell or something that looks like one neuron [from stem cells], and even that gets the field excited. This is a real step change." [Science Now]
Anti-obesity message could make obese people stay that way. Tackling obesity is one of the more pressing public health priorities facing the U.S.—Michelle Obama even made fighting childhood obesity a priority as First Lady. But some researchers are cautioning about the common missteps anti-obesity campaigns make to undermine their own efforts. A team of researchers from Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity say that many anti-obesity campaigns engender stigmas, ensuring that obese people will feel defeated, ashamed and unable that to improve their health. In their International Journal of Obesity paper, they cite some of the worst examples of anti-obesity campaigns. A Georgia campaign promoted ideas such as "fat kids become fat adults" and "being fat takes the fun out of being a kid." Australians were subjected to messages such as, "childhood obesity is child abuse." Rebecca Puhl, who led the study, finds that such shaming messages only encourage obese people to eat more, says, "We find that people actually cope with stigma by eating more food." Over 90 million Americans are obese. [Los Angeles Times]