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Science News Digest - 7th May 2013

In the news this week… scientists unlock the secrets of why human hair greys with age, new researchers uncovers unusual ways plants might be communicating with each other, the first gun produced using a 3D printer is successfully fired in the United States, and finally... a potential new cure for baldness, that's not for the squeamish!

How scientists may be able to reverse greying hair

A team of experts, including scientists from Bradford University, may have uncovered the reason that hair turns grey as we get older.  The discovery, published in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) Journal, was actually made whilst scientists were studying the skin disease, vitiligo. The condition, which pop star Michael Jackson claimed to suffer from, causes sufferers to lose inherited skin and hair colour.

The study found that a build-up of hydrogen peroxide inside the hair follicle, caused hair to bleach itself, and lose its natural colour. This mechanism came to light, when an international cohort of patients suffering from vitiligo were treated with a pseudocatalase compound, activated via sunlight. Researchers noted that pigment of their skin and eyelashes return, and has led to the theory that loss of hair colour could be reversed by the application of antioxidant compounds.

Gerald Weissman, editor-in-chief of the FASEB Journal, spoke to the Daily Telegraph.

“While this is exciting news, what’s even more exciting is that this also works for vitiligo. This condition, while technically cosmetic, can have serious socio-emotional effects on people. Developing an effective treatment for this condition has the potential to radically improve many people’s lives.”, he said.


Forget talking to your plants – they can talk to each other!

Scientists from the University of Western Australia have been studying how seedling growth is affected by neighbouring plants. The study, which focused on chilli plants, showed that seedlings put next to so-called ‘friendly’ plants, grew stronger, although being planted next to other crops such as fennel, could hinder their development.

The ‘neighbour’ plants tested were already known to have positive or negative impacts on neighbouring plants due to chemical emissions. For example, fennel is known to give off chemicals that stunt the growth of rival plants, in contrast, basil tends to have a positive impact on neighbouring plants as it emits natural insecticides and repels weeds.

However, it seems that these chemicals may be only part of the story.  The study was set up to block all known means of communication between plants, including chemical signals and physical contact. The chilli seedlings were placed in isolated dishes around a central ‘neighbour’ plant, which was sealed in a cylindrical box, covered in black plastic. The sealed box blocked all airborne chemical signals, as well as all wavelengths of light.

And yet, even when basil plants were sealed off, seeds still germinated as though they could communicate with the basil, more effectively than in isolation. A similar result was seen for fennel – even when chilli seeds were protected from the chemicals release, they did not germinate well, when placed near a fennel plant.

The mechanism by which these neighbourly interactions  might be taking place, is as yet, unidentified, although the team believe that the answer may involve acoustic signals, generated by microscopic oscillations inside the cells of the plants.

The findings are published online in the journal BMC Ecology, and discussed on Science Daily.


3D guns you can print at home

3D printing has been hailed by some as the future of the manufacturing industry. Whereas traditional printers can replicate 2D designs using ink, 3D printers build up layers of plastic, to build a solid object. Supporters suggest that in the future, consumers may find that it is cheaper to download templates for everything from toys to shoes, and produce goods at home, than to buy them.

Although still relatively new, the technology has raised some interesting dilemmas already, and this week has seen the first gun made using a 3D printer, successfully fired.

The gun, which was produced in the United States, contains only one metal component, the firing pin. This has caused significant concern, as the gun would not be sensed by metal detectors, feasibly making it much easier to move the weapons on-board aircraft.

The BBC describes how Senators have already called for a ban on guns produced by 3D printers, under the Undetectable Firearms Act, although the producers “Defense Distributed” have acted lawfully, and there is currently nothing to stop them making the blueprint publically available. The US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) granted a license which permits Defense Distributed to manufacture and sell firearms. A spokesperson from ATF, told the BBC that it would be legal in the United States, for people to manufacture firearms for their own use, as long as it did not contravene the National Firearms Act (for example, automatic weapons), and producers would only be required to apply for a licence if they were producing guns that would be sold on.

Given the current debate about whether more, or fewer guns would make America safe, this new technology adds a new dimension to the argument. 

And finally…

‘Vampire’ cure for baldness

More hair-related good news – a new technique dubbed “vampire” treatment, may offer a cure for bald patches. Researchers based at the University of Brescia in Italy, and the Hebrew University Medical Centre in Israel, are investigating the process  by which blood is taken from a patient, and processed to extract “platelet-rich plasma” (PRP). This plasma is then injected in to the head, and scientists believe that the solution stimulates new stem cells to form beneath the skin, and promotes hair growth.

The findings, published in the British Journal of Dermatology, were based on a study of people suffering from alopecia areata, who received PRP injections on half their head.  Medical News Today describes how results showed significant hair growth, compared to placebo, and to more traditional steroid treatments. The researchers are now keen to develop a topical application, to avoid the need for needles, and also believe there may be implications for more common types of baldness, such as male-pattern baldness.



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