The world’s 40 billion commercial chickens are susceptible to crippling disease outbreaks because they are genetically uniform. On average, farmed chickens lack 50 percent of the genes in the chicken genome. To avert mass deaths and preserve a reservoir of potentially useful genes, farmers could breed commercial varieties with other types of chicken—possibly at the expense of traits such as enhanced egg-laying, however. The study appears in the November 11 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. —David Biello
Field Effect on the Brain
Strong magnetic fields might make the brain run slow. Scientists at Louis Pasteur University in Strasbourg, France, had repeatedly seen delayed response times during functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) experiments, which generate a two-tesla magnetic field (30,000 times stronger than the earth’s field at its magnetic poles). To investigate this phenomenon, the researchers had subjects press buttons when they saw a particular cue on a monitor, such as an “X” in a flow of consonants. As the scientists reported online October 29 in Nature Precedings, fMRI slowed response times up to 30 percent. Magnetic fields might be dampening the excitability of brain cells. —Charles Q. Choi
Fungal Clue in Mystery Bat Deaths
A novel fungus may be devastating bats in the northeastern U.S. In the past two years several species have displayed unusual behavior such as flying during the winter when they should be hibernating. Census counts in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Vermont have revealed that populations have thinned by at least 75 percent.
A clue has been a white, powdery organism on the muzzles, ears and wings of the dead and dying bats, creating what is called white nose syndrome. In a report published online October 30 in Science, microbiologist David S. Blehert of the U.S. Geological Survey and his colleagues identify the white stuff as a type of Geomyces fungus, one of a group of ubiquitous organisms that reproduce at refrigerator temperatures of four degrees Celsius—and a typical bat-cave reading.
Researchers remain unaware of the source of the fungus or even its exact role in the deaths. The pathogen may attack torpid bats and keep them awake, so that the mammals burn too much of their stored fat—most victims have been rail-thin, and some have been found outside their caves, perhaps after a futile attempt to catch insects to eat in winter. Or the fungus may simply be an opportunistic infection following a more profound sickness sweeping the animals. The researchers plan to study the effect of this fungus on healthy bats in the lab this winter. —Larry Greenemeier
Politics of Blank Looks
How we react to faces could be linked to our political affiliations. Psychologist Jacob M. Vigil of the University of North Florida had 740 college students look at 12 photographs of faces digitally blurred to not display any clear emotion. The volunteers were then asked if these faces expressed sadness, joy, disgust, surprise, fear or anger. The students who identified themselves as Republicans were more likely than those who identified themselves as Democrats to interpret these vague faces as more threatening, as measured by anger or disgust, and less submissive, as conveyed by fear or surprise. These findings, which appeared online October 21 in Nature Precedings, are consistent with research linking conservative political views on military spending and capital punishment with heightened reactions to disturbing images and sounds. Vigil conjectures that the political ideologies we advocate could be linked with the way that we respond to ambiguous details.
—Charles Q. Choi
Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "News Scan Briefs".