Father's microbes, self healing orangutan, & sugar | Last Week in Science (5 May 2024)


Father and his microbes

The number of microbes in the human body outnumber the cells of human body. The link between the microbes present in the human digestive tract or the 'gut' is emerging as a cause for numerous health conditions and diseases ranging from inflammatory bowel disease to Alzheimer's. The effect of the mother's  gut microbes has also been seen in the newborn and so does the effect of mother and father's life experiences. Do the microbes of the father affect the offspring? A recent study has found out that it does.

We know that the offspring gets half of their DNA from the father. There are changes in the way genes are expressed without changing the sequence of the DNA called as epigenetic changes and these changes are also passed on to the offspring. The scientists wanted to see whether the change in the diversity of gut microbes that happen due to antibiotic use can affect the sperm and thus the offspring. They studied the effect of antibiotics in male mice and observed that the newborns had a low birth weight and also high chances of dying. They found changes in the reproductive system of the male mice which affected the expression of genes in sperms, thereby passing these 'epigenetic' changes to the offspring. The scientists observed a reversal of this effect eight weeks after the antibiotic usage had been stopped in the male mice.

This study has discovered a new effect of antibiotics which is not brought into consideration during conception and provided a word of caution to prospective couples who are planning parenthood.  


The Orangutan that healed himself

Humans are not the only animals that use plants to self treat. Many animals like chimpanzees and orangutans are also known to do the same. There have been sightings of chimpanzees in the wild chewing upon plant leaves that they would not eat otherwise or orangutans taking detours to munch upon leaves of a certain plant when being sick or injured. In a recent study, one of the orangutans was seen to be using a known medicinal plant for treating himself.

Scientist have been studying Sumatran orangutans in a National Park in Indonesia since 1994. They spotted a new male orangutan - Rakus - there in 2019. They did not know where he had come from. Rakus was seen to undergo a growth spurt in the year 2021 when he developed secondary sexual characteristics. On 22 June 2022, Rakus was found to have an injury on his right cheek. He had made a long call just before he was spotted as he may be in pain. It appeared that Rakus got into a fight with another orangutan to establish his dominance. Three days after his injury the scientists saw him chewing the leaves of a known medicinal plant - Fibraurea tinctoria - and applying the juice on the wound. As flies started to settle on the wound, he went on to cover the wound with the paste of the chewed leaves. By 30th June 2022, the wound was found to be closed. They don't know how Rakus had learnt to use this particular plant for his treatment. Was it a serendipitous discovery or he learnt it by watching someone.

The scientists wonder whether humans learnt to use medicinal plants by observing other apes or animals. It may also be possible that the common ancestor of humans and other apes had already discovered the use of plants to treat minor illnesses and injuries.

Sugar may help reverse global warming

Scientists have found a new way to reduce the levels of carbon dioxide, the major green house gas, that is present in our atmosphere and sugar may help to achieve that. Catalyst is an agent that helps to speed up a reaction. Many catalysts have been synthesised that can convert carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide to sponge off the excess carbon dioxide from the environment. We all know carbon monoxide as a poisonous gas but it also happens to be a starting material for the synthesis of plastic, diesel and jet fuels. 
A combination of hydrogen with carbon monoxide can also replace gasoline. So why are we not using this method? The existing catalysts are expensive, require very high temperatures (>1000 °C), and are unstable.

In a recent study, scientists report a new catalyst molybdenum carbide and table sugar. They found this combination to require a temperature of 600 °C to convert carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide. It is inexpensive and was found to be stable for 500 hours during the conversion.



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