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Week in Review: September 30–October 4

Scientists feel the shutdown’s sting; dogs comprehend human cues; lab-grown secretory glands; whether online comments help or hurt science

By | October 4, 2013

Shutdown could stall grant decisions

WIKIMEDIA, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF THE TREASURYReacting to furloughs and other cutbacks enacted with the US government shutdown that began this week (October 1), federally funded researchers expressed concerns over obtaining new grants and sustaining their current programs. Federal science agencies including the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) are left unable to process grant proposals while Congress continues its budget debates, and have asked applicants to hold onto their materials for later submission.

“We have a grant that is currently awaiting review—the panel is scheduled to meet October 21,” Michigan State University’s Robert Britton told The Scientist. “So that will likely be delayed.”

Longer term, academic researchers are concerned about the doubly harmful effects that both federal budget sequestration and the current government shutdown could have on the careers of junior scientists. “Funding has always been cyclical and hopefully will turn around soon, but it is getting harder to look people in the eye and tell them there will be a decent job waiting for them at the end of their training,” said Britton.

Timothy Girard, an assistant professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, echoed Britton’s worry, noting the significant challenges of finding funding. “The bottom line is that, as much as I enjoy my work and believe strongly that it is benefiting hundreds of thousands of patients, is it becoming more and more difficult to be a biomedical researcher in this country,” Girard said.

Follow The Scientist’s continuing coverage of the effects of the US government shutdown on science, and take part in our discussions on Facebook and Twitter.

Dogs catch on to humans’ nonverbal cues

JINGZHI TANDomesticated dogs seem to really “get” humans somehow—and not just because of what people say. New research continues to confirm just how clever humans’ canine companions really are, showing that dogs can pick up on people’s more subtle actions.

“Dogs use human gestures, like the pointing gesture, flexibly, and they do so better than any other species we’ve looked at; even six-week old puppies use human pointing,” Juliane Kaminski, a comparative cognition researcher at the University of Portsmouth, UK, told The Scientist. “With a dog, there seems to be a certain readiness to attend to these gestural cues and to read and use them.”

But scientists caution that it’s too soon to jump to conclusions about how dogs interpret human actions. “It’s entirely plausible that’s there’s a really simple set of mechanisms that explain what dogs are doing that doesn’t require them thinking about your intentions,” said Duke University’s Brian Hare.

Check out the sharp dogs of The Scientist on Facebook.

Growing new secretory glands

TSUJI ET AL.Researchers from the Tokyo University of Science (TUS) have created functional precursors to salivary and lacrimal glands that, when transplanted into mice, successfully connected to the host ducts and nervous system.

“People have done a lot of work with stem cells, but this is the first time I’ve seen transplantation of a whole [bioengineered] salivary gland,” said the University of Buffalo’s Olga Baker, an assistant professor of oral biology, who was not involved in the work. “To my knowledge, this is a first.”

To create the secretory gland buds, TUS’s Takashi Tsuji and his colleagues built on their previous work that used a bioengineering technique to reconstitute organ precursors from teeth and hair follicles. They then engrafted those secretory gland precursors in mice, from which healthy salivary or lacrimal glands had been removed.

“Further investigation of the clinical application of these methods, including engraftment and recipient niches for organ regeneration, will contribute to the development of . . . gland regeneration therapy in humans,” study coauthor Masatoshi Hirayama told The Scientist.

Pheromone puts adults off

MARC SPEHR, RWTH AACHEN UNIVERSITYWhen adult mice attempt to mate with juveniles, both parties can be negatively affected. Researchers had long thought that a lack of pheromones emitting from too-young mice was what kept adult males’ advances at bay. But a study published in Nature this week showed that the tears of two- to three-week-old mice contain a pheromone—exocrine-gland secreting peptide 22 (ESP22)— that deters adult males from sexual contact.

“In the past, people actually thought that the lack of [sexual] reaction to young was due to the lack of pheromones. No pheromones, no behavioral responses—that was the common thinking,” said neuroscientist Roberto Tirindelli of the University of Parma in Italy, who did not participate in the study. “Now, for the first time, they show that there is a specific pheromone which is actually active, preventing sexual contact. The inhibition of sexual contact is due to the presence of this pheromone and not to the absence of other pheromones.”

Robert Karn, a geneticist from the University of Arizona College of Medicine who was also not involved in the work, added: “The little bit of juvenile-adult interactions [studied so far] seem to work the other way. . . . In this case, it appears that the signal is being produced in the pups [and eliciting] a behavioral response [in the adults]—or, you might say, a lack of behavioral response.”

Spambots, trolls, and discussing science online

WIKIMEDIA, OCTAHEDRON80Biological anthropologist and science communicator Greg Laden asks in an opinion piece this week whether comments posted to blogs and news websites help or hurt science. According to him, they can do both. For that reason, Laden suggests scientists sticking with the many other fora that are available to them to communicate with one another and the public.

Laden wrote that while discussions that occur in the comment sections of blogs and websites “can be quite interesting and informative . . . they have virtually nothing to do with how science is done.

“Non-scientists with a thirst for scientific knowledge read websites like Popular Science, The Scientist, and ScienceBlogs, and indeed, members of the general public can learn and engage in the comment sections of these sites,” he continued. “But if the comments have become infested with trolls, then that’s all been ruined and there is not much hope of advancing the general understanding of science by preserving such a forum.”

Other news in life science:

Bug Off
Identification of a DEET-sensitive olfactory receptor leads to alternative, possibly better, repellants.

Bacteria Trade Genes
Extremophiles living in Antarctica’s salty Deep Lake exchange genes much more often than previously observed in nature.

Prehistoric Pollen
Scientists discover fossilized remnants of a flowering plant about 100 million years older than the oldest previously found.

Centipede Venom Tops Morphine
The substance targets the same ion channel that's mutated in people who don't feel pain.

Pondering Photosynthesis
New research uncovers previously unappreciated insights into the evolution of the well-studied energy-producing process.

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