Death bacon, tractor beams, and all electrical creatures! – Sciencish News for 29/10/2015

Hello, and welcome to the inaugural edition of the Sciencish News, where I pick out what’s caught my eye. Let’s get stuck in.

Hamming it up

News that meat will kill us all swept across social media yesterday after the International Agency for Cancer Research (IARC) released its most recent paper that, if you were to believe the headlines, classed processed meats like bacon and sausage as being as dangerous to health as smoking and drinking. Except, of course that’s not true. The IARC report doesn’t rank potential carcinogens (cancer-causing substances) as being better or worse for health, but instead simply ranks them according to how confident scientists are that they do or do not contribute to cancer. So, smoking probably causes cancer, and kale probably doesn’t. The IARC report never states that eating processed meats is equivalent to smoking, except as far as we are now confident that they both do contribute to cancer, making them both “Group 1 carcinogens”. But their actual contributions are very different. As pointed out by Cancer Research UK, while some 86% of lung cancers are caused by smoking (amounting to 19% of all cancers), this most recent data suggests that processed meats contribute to 21% of all bowel cancers, the equivalent of only 3% of all cancers. Meanwhile, red meats have been classed only as “Group 2A” carcinogens, meaning they only “probably” contribute to cancer. It’s currently unclear what a “healthy” amount of red and processed meat is, however most government bodies recommend less than 70g per day.


Find the report here.

Moved by sound

Researchers at Public University of Navarre, Pamplona, Spain, have developed a working sonic tractor beam, that can move objects through the air. Similar technologies in the past have relied on at least two speakers. These use interfering sound waves to create pockets of low pressure air, in which small objects can sit. Opposing high pressure pockets can then push or pull the object. The Pamplona team achieves the same result with just one flat stack of speakers, creating 3D patterns of sound waves on top of the speakers which they call “acoustic holograms”. These patterns are extremely flexible, acting as anything from cages to tweezers to move small polystyrene beads in three dimensions. Because human bodies can conduct sound waves, the researchers hope this technology could be used to move a drug through a patient’s body right to the site where it would be move effective, such as right up to the edge of a growing tumour. However because the system relies on sound waves, it’ll be a long time before any spaceships are being dragged to their doom with tractor beam technology – after all, sound needs an atmosphere to work.

Find the paper here.

Supercharged eels

It seems that electric eels (or, more awesomely in Latin, Electrophorus electricus), know how to make the most of what they’ve got. When attacking prey, E. electricus emits 1 millisecond, high-voltage pulses. This causes muscle contractions similar to a TASER that temporarily immobilise the victim, after which it is swallowed whole. The eel body can be thought of as having two ends like a battery, with the head and tail being the positive and negative ends, respectively. Attacks are usually “monopolar”, with the positive head-end being the major source of the electric field. However, eels could theoretically double the strength of their attack by joining their head and tail together, completing the electric circuit. Now, a researcher at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, USA, has shown E. electricus does precisely that when dealing with larger, more troublesome prey. This induces debilitating muscle fatigue, giving the eel ample opportunity to move its victim into a better position to be devoured. A hand please for the most awesome, best-named creature around: Electrophorous electricus.

Find the paper here.

Electric union

Finally, levels of the potent greenhouse gas methane in Earth’s atmosphere are known to significantly rely on events that take place deep under the sea. Here, microorganisms break down methane that is released from the seabed, using it as a food source in the otherwise harsh environment. This has the bonus effect of keeping global methane levels, and global warming, in check. This process relies in particular on two highly specialised microorganisms: a bacterium called deltaproteobacteria; and a bacteria-like microbe known as anaerobic methanotrophic archaea (or ANME). These distantly related microbes are often found living together in dense colonies, and appear to cooperate to break down methane. Each species performs one half of the energy-intensive chemical reaction: indeed neither can do the job on its own! However, researchers have been unable to identify how exactly they achieve this teamwork. Now, two independent papers from groups in Japan and Germany have shown that deltaproteobacteria and ANME may interact through electrical connections. Microscopic wire-like structures called “pili” were observed connecting ANME and deltaproteobacteria, and ANME appears to secrete iron-rich haem proteins into the space between it an deltaproteobacteria which may help to conduct electrons. This may allow ANME to electrons in its half of the methane oxidation reaction, which it then donates to deltaproteobacteria for use in its half of the reaction.

Find the papers here and here.

That’s it for today! Please leave any comments below, or email me at You can also follow me on Twitter @Sciencish.

– J


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