Nurturing parent orchids, Lolamicin, & the third thumb | Last Week in Science (2 Jun 2024)

A case of nurturing in plants

Young orchid plants are seen to grow close to the parent plant, unlike other plants which have seeds that are dispersed far and wide by wind. This has remained a mystery for the last two centuries. A new study conducted at the University of Sheffield has found the answer in a fungus.

The Common Spotted Orchid produces tiny seeds that are carried by wind, yet the seedlings grow near the mature orchid plants. The scientists found that there is an underground fungal network that connects the mature orchid with the growing seedling. Scientists grew seedlings near mature orchid plants connected via the fungal network in the lab. They found that the 'parent' plant sends sugars—the major food that plants produce by photosynthesis and use for their growth and functioning—to the growing seedling. They think that this helps the seedling as they do not have to compete with other plants in their environment for nutrients.

Orchid seeds are tiny and do not have sufficient food supply to grow compared to those of other plants like legumes (peas, beans) and grasses (rice, corn, wheat), which have enough food packed by their parents. Thus arises the need for the orchid parent to nurture their seedlings.

Scientists are next going to test their lab-observed findings out in the field.

Reference: Orchids support seedlings through ‘parental nurture’ via shared underground fungal networks

Lolamicin, nothing funny about this antibiotic

The usual antibiotics that are prescribed come with the discomfort of losing the good gut bacteria. So, probiotics are usually prescribed along with them. Scientists have developed a new antibiotic that kills only the harmful, disease-causing bacteria without harming our friendly microbes.

There exist two different types of bacteria—gram-positive and gram-negative—based on their structure. Disease-causing bacteria can belong to either of the two types, but gram-negative bacteria are harder to kill because of the presence of a protective covering. Gram-negative bacteria are responsible for diseases like pneumonia and cholera. Antibiotics that cannot distinguish between different types—gram-positive and gram-negative—or between disease-causing and good bacteria are called broad-spectrum antibiotics. These antibiotics are the ones that are usually given to treat diseases caused by gram-negative bacteria.

In a recent study, scientists developed an antibiotic that can distinguish between gram-negative and gram-positive bacteria by identifying 'Lol' proteins that are present only in gram-negative bacteria. It thus kills only the gram-negative bacteria, leaving the good bacteria in the gut unharmed. It could also kill 130 multi-drug-resistant bacteria—i.e., bacteria that cannot be killed by other antibiotics.

This antibiotic, named Lolamicin, has been tested in mice. It is a long way ahead before it gets tested in humans. We can only hope that newer antibiotics that are safe and effective become available soon so that diseases caused by multi-drug-resistant bacteria can be treated.

Reference: ‘Smart’ antibiotic can kill deadly bacteria while sparing the microbiome

Would you like to have a third thumb?

A prosthetic robotic thumb can help an individual who does not have one, but can having a third thumb be of any use to thumbed individuals? Individuals who visited the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition in 2022 got to test a third thumb developed by researchers at the University of Cambridge. 

The robotic thumb is worn on the hand on the opposite side of the biological thumb. It is controlled by the movement of big toes under which pressure sensors are placed. It takes a few minutes to learn how to control the movement of the thumb.

Individuals were made to wear the thumb and asked to perform two different tasks that involved picking up pegs with the robotic thumb and picking up five to six foam objects with the hand using both the biological and robotic thumb.

Their goal was to see whether the technology they are developing is inclusive or not. They tested the thumb on 500+ individuals between the ages of three and 96. The results were published this week, reporting that all but four individuals could use the third thumb.

Their goal was to see whether the technology they are developing is inclusive or not. They tested the thumb on 500+ individuals between the ages of three and 96. The results were published this week, reporting that all but four individuals could use the third thumb.

Technologies that can extend human abilities beyond their natural capabilities are being rapidly developed. A third thumb can help in doing tasks that require two hands or two individuals. This testing of the thumb in such a diverse age group ensures that the resources are being utilized to develop a technology that can be used by all. The need for inclusivity was felt because many existing technologies are not inclusive of caste, gender, body size, and handedness, among other factors, which puts users for whom it has not been tested into dangerous situations. Some examples include the testing of seat belts in car crashes, which has only been done on average-sized males, and many factory equipment being designed only for right-handed users.

We hope future technology developers will take into account the diversity of the human population before rolling out new technology in the market.

Reference: Getting to grips with an extra thumb

Grammar editing by ChatGPT