Here in Chicago, we’re entering the second of our two seasons: transitioning from “Construction” into “Winter.” The rampant highway repair that happens during warm weather months is largely due to the stresses of the cold weather months, which leave our roads cracked and potholed. But perhaps we’ll be saved from all that misery if a team of Dutch researchers are successful in their efforts to create biologically self-healing concrete. The process embeds calcite-precipitating bacteria into concrete paste, so that when cracks occur, the microorganisms can secrete a mineral that will fill those fractures. It’s a cool example of biology-inspired engineering, and was mentioned as part of the New York Times’ interesting “What’s Next in Science?” feature this week.
Two exciting studies from the other side of the University of Chicago campus came out in this week. In the first, Chuan He in the Department of Chemistry helped characterize the activity of “the most exciting protein family now in biology,” a DNA repair protein called AlkB. In charge of demethylating DNA, AlkB has the power to re-activate silenced genes, a valuable epigenetic function that could someday be harnessed to treat diabetes, obesity, and cancer. The study also utilizes a delightful science word to describe one of the protein’s intermediate states: “zwitterionic,” when an object has a neutral charge, but acts positive or negative when interacting with other objects.
In another study, University of Chicago psychologist Susan Levine found that a child’s early exposure to mathematics can influence later success in the subject. Researchers videotaped interactions between parents and their children when they were between the ages of 14 and 30 months, counting how many “number words” were used by the parents. When the children were given a simple math test at the end of the experiment, those that heard more about math from their parents tended to perform better.
Today and tomorrow, the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics will hold its 22nd annual conference, a two-day festival of ethical lectures and discussion. Today’s session will expand upon the local, national, and global health disparities theme of the center’s weekly seminar series, while the second day takes a broader approach with topics such as pediatric ethics, palliative care, transplant medicine, and a session dedicated to the memory of faculty member Stephen Toulmin. The schedule is available here (pdf), and we’ll have coverage of the conference next week.
ScienceLife is very excited to have gotten in during the very brief window that registration for Science Online 2011 was open this week. The “unconference,” held in North Carolina in January brings together a dream team of science bloggers for open discussions and workshops on the growing field of internet science journalism. Expect to hear more about it.