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Science news digest – 12th August 2013

In the news this week: malaria vaccine breakthrough, gaining power makes people less friendly, lobsters found to feel pain, and finally, rabbits that glow green to show successful DNA transfer.

Malaria vaccine shows success in small study

A US vaccine for malaria has successfully protected volunteers from infection, according to a study conducted by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and the Naval Medical Research Center, reports CNN.

The trial involved 57 participants, including 40 who received the vaccine, with those receiving several doses less likely to become infected. The vaccine, described in the peer-reviewed journal Science, is one of several currently in development, but this breakthrough is a major step. Lead author Dr Robert Seder, from the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institutes of Health, in Maryland, told the BBC: "We were excited and thrilled by the result, but it is important that we repeat it, extend it and do it in larger numbers."

It has been known for many years that exposure to mosquitoes treated with radiation can create immunity to malaria, but the process can require over 1,000 bites. The researchers improved on this technique by irradiating mosquitoes and then extracting the malaria parasites for direct injection.

Malaria is caused by parasites in the genus Plasmodium, producing flu-like symptoms and in some cases, death. In fact, an estimated 660,000 people died of malaria in 2010 alone, so there is a great need for effective vaccination.

The researchers attempted to administer the vaccine into the skin, which is the easiest method, but were unsuccessful. This latest trial uses intravenous injections, which are more invasive. The vaccine also requires several doses to be effective, creating a challenge in poorer countries where people will have to travel multiple times to medical centres. At these high doses, there is a high success rate; only 3 of the 15 in this group contracted the disease.

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Gaining power makes people less friendly

People who feel powerful are less likely to be friendly to their colleagues and empathise with their problems, according to research from Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada.

A study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology describes placing participants into a state of power or weakness by having them describe memories of times they felt in control or in need of help. Participants were then shown a video of a hand repeatedly squeezing a ball, all while being monitored using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). The technique reports activity in the mirror system, indicating the level of connection with the actions of others.

The mirror system is part of the brain responsible for helping us empathise with the actions of others. It’s responsible for that unpleasant feeling caused by seeing someone in pain, and our ability to imagine how squeezing a ball feels, even though we are not doing it ourselves.

"When I watch somebody picking up a cup of coffee, the mirror system activates the representations in my brain that would be active if I was picking up a cup of coffee," Obhi explained to NPR. "And because those representations are connected in my brain to the intentions that would normally activate them, you can get activation of the intention. So you can figure out, 'Hey, this person wants to drink coffee.' "

The study found that feeling powerful decreased the activity in participants’ brains, making it more difficult for them to understand the actions of others and empathise. Conversely, those who felt less powerful showed an increase in activity in the mirror system.

The paper concluded that “anecdotes abound about the worker on the shop floor whose boss seems oblivious to his existence, or the junior sales associate whose regional manager never remembers her name and seems to look straight through her in meetings. Perhaps the pattern of activity within the motor resonance system that we observed in the present study can begin to explain how these occurrences take place and, more generally, can shed light on the tendency for the powerful to neglect the powerless, and the tendency for the powerless to expend effort in understanding the powerful.”

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Study shows that crabs and lobsters feel pain

Animal welfare laws do not apply to crustaceans, ostensibly on the grounds that they do not feel pain when plunged into boiling water or torn apart while still alive, but new research indicates that crabs and lobsters can experience pain after all. Two experiments, undertaken by animal behaviour researchers at Queen’s University Belfast, call into question whether our treatment of crustaceans is cruel, according to Nature News.

The first study, published in the Journal of Experimental Biology set out to discover whether crabs and lobsters learn from pain, or if they simply continue to respond to the same stimulus. He presented shore crabs with two shelters: entering one would result in a series of small electric shocks, while entering the other would provide a safe haven. By the third trial, the crabs were far more likely to choose the second shelter, and co-author Robert Elwood writes that this behaviour is a key sign of experiencing pain.

 “Assessing pain is difficult, even within humans,” Elwood told a press conference in Newcastle. But there is a “clear, long-term motivational change [in these experiments] that is entirely consistent with the idea of pain”.

In a second experiment Elwood explored how hermit crabs changed their decisions in response to pain. This time published in the journal Animal Behaviour, they gave the hermit crabs electric shocks within their shells. Only the crabs that were shocked evacuated their shells, demonstrating an active aversion to the stimulus. Shocked crabs also moved into new shells with less investigation, showing that their past experience of shocks influenced their future decision making.

The results are not entirely conclusive. The reactions observed are consistent with the experience of pain, and are equivalent to the data used to justify tougher controls on those using mice, so it appears that our attitudes to crustaceans might have to change to accommodate this new research.

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And finally…

Rabbits made to glow bright green in genetic experiment

Scientists at have given two baby rabbits a green fluorescent glow by altering their genetic makeup. According to the Independent, they inserted a gene from a jellyfish into the embryos of a herd of 8 rabbits, and the gene was successfully taken up in a quarter of the herd. The technique will be used to indicate the successful expression of a range of genes, and could in future be used to develop medical treatments for a range of genetic illnesses.

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