Nature Middle East’s weekly science dose (Oct 4 — Oct 10)


Have you heard of reptiles that swim? Such animals used to exist back in the Late Cretaceous period (that is, 98–66 million years ago). Mosasaurs were discovered back in 1764; it quickly became clear that they were marine predators, but the debate still continues on how exactly they swam. A part of the scientific community argues they moved like snakes. Bringing robust analysis and proofs, a recent study demonstrates that Mosasaurs were skilled swimmers, achieving swim speed comparable to sharks.

On a different and more to-the-ground note, researchers have identified a better curative approach for acute leukaemia. The latter is the blood cancer that claims hundreds of lives every year. A comparison between more than 1,000 samples revealed that a drug treatment gives much better remission results. It thus improves survival rates than total body irradiation.

Saudi Arabia in the spotlight

Saudi Arabia has drawn quite some attention this last week. First because of a rare syndrome that has left physicians confused: why are some babies born with decreased brain size, visual impairment and kidney dysfunctions? A first hint was that such symptoms actually appear in closely related parents. Researchers studied the genetic makeup of patients affected by this syndrome and identified a mutation in the ARNT2 gene, which produces a transcription factor that controls neural differentiation. The mutation resulted in an almost complete absence of the ARNT2 protein. This highlights its crucial role in brain and urinary tract development.

The Kingdom has also been in the spotlight as the annual pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj) is to begin on 13 October. Yet, the MERS coronavirus continues to threaten the region. Counting the highest number of deaths by MERS infection, Saudi Arabia is on high alert as at least two million pilgrims are to flock to Mecca. Such beefed-up security does not, however, help dwell worries. Indeed, the Kingdom’s Minister of Public Health continued to deflect questions about what his country is doing to determine the source and transmission patterns of the virus.

Last but not least, Saudi Arabia is aiming at becoming an important player in the international research scene. Dr Mohammed ibn Ibrahim Al-Suwaiyel, president of the King Abdulaziz City for Science And Technology (KACST), spoke to NatureJobs. He shared a vision of science in the Kingdom. He also spoke of aspirations Saudi Arabia has when it boils down to developing public policies on science and research.

Saudi Arabia is not the only country in the region to have high hopes about achieving scientific excellence. Qatar has been quite successful in attracting renowned institutions. Indeed, a stroke centre supported by a US$2 million grant and in partnership with the Imperial College is to open doors in the coming months in the small Gulf country.

Beyond the hood

This week is an exciting one as Nobel Prizes award ground-breaking discoveries in science and medicine. The first one was the Nobel Prize in medicine which went to Americans James Rothman and Randy Schekman and German-born researcher Thomas Suedhof. It rewards their work on vesicle transport or how key substances move within cells.

The Nobel Prize in Physics went to Belgian Francois Englert and British Peter W. Higgs for their seminal work on the Higgs boson particle, regularly nicknamed the “God particle”.

Lastly, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2013 went to Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel for bringing chemistry to the cyberspace. Their work took chemistry out of the lab and to the world of computing: they developed computational methods to study complex molecules.

Keeping up this celebration mood is International Octopus Day. Held on 8 October, the Day also kicks off International Cephalopod Awareness Days that span 9 to 11 October. Other than eight arms, octopuses have many specific features and have existed for 300 million years. This seniority makes them ancestors even to impressive T. rex. Such incredible longevity pushes many to consider octopuses as resilient to external pressures.

Yet scientists still ignore how many octopuses exist in the oceans. Besides, thousands of tons of these eight-armed are being caught every year. Some countries have taken measures to limit cephalopod fishing but the biggest octopus exporters continue unabated. The Awareness Days thus aim at drawing back attention to these incredible animals and the threats they face.

Brought to you first at the Nature Middle East’s ‘House of Wisdom’ blog.