Research Round-up: Week 0

Amedra Basgaran 15 January 2015

1) A recent study has shown that our skeletons have become much lighter and more fragile since the shift from foraging to farming. Before this shift, around 7,000 years ago, humans had bones with strength comparable to that of the modern orang-utan and a bone mass around 20% higher. Co-author Dr. Colin Shaw, from the University of Cambridge’s PAVE Research Group, summarises this evolutionary involvement in simple words: “sitting in a car or in front of a desk is not what we have evolved to do”. Findings concluded that rather than gross dietary and environmental changes it was hard physical activity of our ancestors that was the key to strong, healthy bones. What’s more, earlier hominids from around 150,000 years ago had even stronger skeletons. Shaw and colleagues hope delve deeper into the history to uncover what actually gave our ancestors such great physical strength.

2) Scientists at the University of Cambridge and Weizmann Institute have now created the first human primordial germ cells. Using stem cells these cells are the precursors to human eggs and sperm. Dr. Irie, primary author on the paper, states: “The creation of primordial germ cells is one of the earliest events during early mammalian development.” It marks the beginning of the totipotent state, when cells have the ability to become any cell in the body! Comparing the work to previous rat and mice studies, scientists have found that the equivalent role of SOX17 gene in humans was absent in mice, highlighting one of several key differences between mouse and human development. Nevertheless, human primordial germ cells have now been created and form a foundation for future studies to reset the genome of these cells for actual totipotency.

3) In association with Boeing, researchers from University of Cambridge have successfully tested the first ever aircraft with a parallel hybrid engine. The hybrid engine has the ability to recharge its batteries in air and uses up 30% less fuel than a petrol-only aircraft. Dr. Paul Robertson, leading the project at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Engineering, states: “Although hybrid cars have been available for more than a decade, what’s been holding back the development of hybrid or fully-electric aircraft until now is battery technology”. During take-off and climb, both the electric and petrol parts have to work together to generate maximum power; but once cruising height is reached, the electric motor can regenerate its batteries or even be used in ‘motor assist mode’ to minimise fuel consumption. Robertson and colleagues are now continuing to work on optimising the system for best performance and least fuel consumption.