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Science news digest – 27th November 2013

In the science news this week, red squirrels show resistance to deadly pox, skies to be lit up by comet Ison, and finally…a teenager constructs massive rollercoaster in his bedroom.

Merseyside squirrels show resistance to deadly pox

Scientists from the University of Liverpool have been excited by findings that red squirrels in a nearby National Trust reserve, have shown signs of resistance to the pox virus that has decimated the species.

Ten percent of red squirrels at the Merseyside site were found to have pox antibodies in their blood. When the virus enters the bloodstream, these antibodies act as chemical tag – helping the squirrel’s immune system to recognise, and respond to the infection very quickly.

The researchers believe that the antibodies have been found in the squirrels’ bloodstreams because they have previously been infected with, and recovered from, the virus.

"Before we started this project, it was debatable whether any squirrels had survived exposure to the virus," Tim Dale, the project's leading researcher told the BBC.

"But the work that we've done has shown that a small percentage have been exposed to the virus and they're still running around healthy in the forest," said Dale.

The UK population of red squirrels has been under threat since the introduction of grey squirrels from North America, in Victorian times. As well as competing for the same habitat and resources, the grey squirrels also brought the pox virus with them. The red squirrels were extremely susceptible to the disease as they had not previously encountered it – and the population sharply declined.

This resistance could potentially be passed on to future generations, and may be the first step in helping the population to recover.

"It's obviously great news, but there's still a lot of work to be done," said Mr Dale. "It's a very small percentage [that have the antibodies] and whether that's enough to pass it on to the next generation we just don't know.”

The researchers are now applying for further funding to continue their work, and to investigate the routes by which the virus is transmitted.


Comet Ison to light up December skies

A comet that is on a journey around the Sun will soon be visible in the early morning according to astronomers... as long as it survives its close encounter with our star.

Comet Ison is currently on a path towards the Sun, and at its closest will be just 720,000 miles above the solar surface - 130 times closer than our planet ever reaches it.

Like all comets, Ison is predominantly made up of ice and rock that was left over from the formation of the Solar System. As it gets closer to the Sun, it’ll heat up to about 2,700C, which could be enough to evaporate the comet, reported the Guardian.

Over the weekend, the comet became brighter, making it easily visible to the naked eye. This could be a sign that the comet is breaking up, but Alan Fitzsimmons, of Queen’s University, Belfast, thinks that the comet is “still keeping it together”.

Although we won’t be able to tell if the comet will survive its fly-by of the Sun until it starts to move away, John Brown from the University of Glasgow, has studied sungrazing comets in the past, and he thinks Ison stands a fairly good chance.

In 2011, comet Lovejoy survived an even closer encounter with our star, Brown explained. It was just 85,000 miles above the solar surface at its closest, but very little of the comet remained afterwards. Ison is a bit bigger, and it won’t get nearly as close.

"I'm not a gambling man but if I had to bet a fiver, I'd say Ison will survive,' said Brown.

If fragments break off of the comet as it travels around, the tail of the comet could be a pretty spectacular sight for skywatchers in December.

The first and second weeks of December will be the best time to see the comet from Earth, as at the moment the glare from the Sun will be hiding it from view. It should appear as a ghostly fan shape, which will be most easy to spot just before sunrise.

Fitzsimmons will be watching for both professional and personal reasons. "How Ison behaves now will reveal its chemical and physical composition," he says, "But personally I'd just love to see another bright comet over the UK. It's been 16 years since the last one, comet Hale-Bopp, and it's about time for another."


And finally…

Teenager builds giant K’Nex model in his bedroom

In an impressive feat of engineering (and imagination) a Canadian teenager has created a giant rollercoaster model using over 25,000 piece of K’Nex. The model, which fills his entire bedroom, took Nick Cottreau over six months to finish. A full cycle takes around 7 minutes to complete, and features lifts, drops, spins and loops, which keep balls moving around the track, reported Yahoo News.

The construction toy is the brainchild of Joel Glickman – who came up with the concept at a wedding. Glickman claims he was inspired when he started to wonder what kind of structures he could create if he linked lots of drinking straws together – thus the idea for the rods and connectors was born. The system has become more and more complicated, and enthusiasts have created everything from bicycles to models of the Eiffel Tower. The largest K’Nex sculpture on record was created by the U.S Space and Rocket Centre.

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