N.C. Parks system onboard for April science festival
The N.C. Science Festival – April 8-24 this year – continues to expand. What started in 2010 as a statewide science outreach blitz last year fielded about 800 events in 95 of North Carolina’s 100 counties, about half at K-12 schools and half geared to the general public. Many events are hands-on, family-friendly and free.
Venues range from university halls and museums to state parks, and the parks component is expanding this year. It was announced last week that the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation will partner with the festival, offering citizen-science programs involving collection of data in all 41 state parks during the festival’s run.
“Our 200-plus park rangers are trained naturalists and outdoor scientists themselves and are a natural fit for this effort,” said Mike Murphy, parks and recreation director. “On a daily basis, they conduct outdoor research, including cataloging rare species of birds, plants and insects, as well as leading educational programs.”
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With the theme “Science in the Great Outdoors,” the 2016 science festival will also recognize the 100th anniversary celebration of the state park system.
Slow division of stem cells may cause smaller brains
Duke University researchers have figured out how a developmental disease produces a much smaller brain than normal: Some cells are simply too slow as they proceed through the neuron production process.
The findings, published in the journal Neuron, provide a new mechanistic explanation for microcephaly and could also aid understanding of autism or other neurodevelopmental disorders that are thought to arise from disruptions in the proper balance of neurons in the brain.
“This study shows that the time it takes for a stem cell to divide matters during brain development,” said Debra Silver, an assistant professor of molecular genetics and microbiology at the Duke University School of Medicine.
Microcephaly is a rare disease that causes intellectual disability and seizures. A genetic form of microcephaly manifests as the fetal brain develops during pregnancy; the cerebral cortex, a large brain structure responsible for abstract thought, memory and language, is particularly vulnerable to the disorder.
Genes have influence on chickens’ anxiety
Chickens that chicken out in unfamiliar surroundings may shed light on anxiety in humans, according to research published in the January issue of the journal Genetics.
Domestic chickens are much less anxious than their wild cousins, the red junglefowl. The new research identifies genes that contribute to this difference and reveals that several of the genes influence similar behaviors in mice. The authors argue that these results, combined with evidence from studies in humans, demonstrate the potential of the chicken to serve as a powerful model for understanding the genetic underpinnings of human behavior.
Study leader Dominic Wright, of Linkoping University in Sweden: “Animal models like the chicken allow us to address challenging questions like these using controlled breeding experiments.”
Anxiety behaviors in animals are typically measured by observing their activity in a brightly lit, featureless space they have never encountered before. In this new environment, junglefowl spend most of their time either frozen with fear or rapidly darting around. They also avoid the exposed center of the test arena. But domestic chickens traverse the whole area, and at a less erratic pace.
Why choose the chicken as a model for anxiety? This approach takes advantage of a “natural” genetics experiment, the transformation of junglefowl in Asia into the modern domestic chicken, which after thousands of years of breeding is more tame and less anxious than its jungle-dwelling counterpart. The chicken genome also has properties that can make it easier to study than the human or mouse genomes.