Earliest Evidence of Cheese Making * Penetrating Porcupine Quills * Electricity from the Ear * Birds Use Cigarette Butts to Repel Parasites * Planet Without Apes

Listen

The Great Apes are our species' closest living relatives. But according to a prominent primatologist we'll hear from on today's program, we could soon be facing a planet without apes, and we'll have only ourselves to blame.   Also on this week's show, we'll learn how porcupine quills might be showing up in operating rooms; we'll hear how electrical currents in our ears might be harnessed for medical sensors; and we'll discover why some birds have taken up the cigarette habit. But first - really, really, really aged cheese.

 

play-icon.jpg Listen to the whole show (pop up player) or use this link to download an mp3.



Earliest Evidence of Cheese Making

cheese_strainer.jpgFragment of a 7500 year old cheese strainer.  Photo M Salque
Fragments of pottery, found in Poland 30 years ago, attracted the attention of scientists because of their curious perforations.  They were unlike any other fragments found in the same area.  It was thought that the 7,500-year-old pottery might have been part of vessels used as cheese strainers, making this the earliest evidence of cheese making.  But it wasn't until a recent study by Dr. Richard Evershed, a Professor of Biogeochemistry at The University of Bristol in England, revealed that carbon isotope signatures of the residue on the fragments were consistent with milk fat.  This confirmed the cheese making theory, but was also evidence of milk being made into a product, which could be transported and stored, as well as more easily digested by early farmers, who were lactose intolerant.
          
Related Links

play-icon.jpgListen to this item (pop up player) or use this link to download an mp3.




Penetrating Porcupine Quills

quill.jpg Magnified porcupine quill tip showing barbs - J. Karp
Porcupine quills are notorious for how difficult they are to remove.  But in fact, their real trick is how easily they go in.  Canadian researcher Dr. Jeffrey Karp, a professor at Harvard Medical School, works on biologically-inspired medical devices, and was interested in porcupine quills for their holding power.  But his studies reveal that the flexible barbs that make the quills so hard to pull out, also help the quills to penetrate flesh.  In fact, the barbs help a quill penetrate skin much easier than a smooth steel needle.  Dr. Karp suspects that the barbs act a little like serrations, concentrating the force of penetration on a small area.  He plans to investigate the possibilities of quill-inspired design, both for surgical staples and also possibly for syringes.

Related Links

play-icon.jpgListen to this item (pop up player) or use this link to download an mp3.




Electricity from the Ear

ear_chip.JPG Close up of the energy harvesting chip - P Mercier
The human body generates a lot of energy, but not much in the form of electricity, which means implanted electronic devices need power supplies or batteries.  However, a team including Dr. Konstantina Stankovic, a professor of Otology and Laryngology at Harvard Medical School, have developed a way to harvest a tiny bit of power from a natural electrical source in the mammalian ear.  The cochlea generates a small amount of voltage as part of our hearing, and Dr. Stankovic's team have been able to harvest a portion of this to power up a device that has a sensor and a low-power radio.  The result is an implantable, self-powered, wireless device that could have application in monitoring vital signs and many other physiological processes.      

Related Links

play-icon.jpgListen to this item (pop up player) or use this link to download an mp3.





Birds Use Cigarette Butts to Repel Parasites

butt.jpg Photo by Kjetil Ree
When finches and sparrows build nests, they often include green leaves that contain a specific compound, called nicotiana, known to repel parasites.  But when these birds build nests in urban areas, they have found a substitute for the leaves.  A new study by Dr. Constantino Macias Garcia, an Evolutionary Ecologist from The National Autonomous University of Mexico, reveals that the birds are lining their nests with cellulose from smoked cigarette butts. The material contains many compounds, including high concentrations of nicotine, similar to the related nicotiana, that repels parasites.  The cigarette butts also provide a degree of insulation for the nest.  Future research will determine if the many toxins found in smoked cigarette butts are harmful to the birds and unhatched eggs.


Related Links

  • Paper in Royal Society Biology Letters
  • CBC News story
  • The Scientist story
  • Scientific American blog

Listen to this itemplay-icon.jpg (pop up player) or use this link to download an mp3.





Planet Without Apes

planet_without_apes.jpg
Great Apes, our closest living relatives, may be gone within the next century.  Chimpanzees, orangutans, bonobos and gorillas are all threatened by habitat loss, poaching, disease, consumption of bush meat, and political instability in the countries in which they live.  Dr. Craig Stanford is a Professor Of Biological Sciences and Anthropology, and Co-Director of The Jane Goodall Research Center, at The University of Southern California in Los Angeles.  His new book, "Planet Without Apes," explores the specific threats to each of the Great Apes and warns that without them, our last link to our own evolutionary past will be lost forever.

Related Links

play-icon.jpgListen to this item (pop up player) or use this link to download an mp3.





Theme music bed copyright Raphaël Gluckstein, Creative Commons License by-nc-nd-2.0