Facebook for Chimps
According to the UN environment programme about 3,000 great apes, two thirds of which are chimpanzees, are illegally trafficked around the world every year. The chimpanzees are often offered and sold via social media, including advertisement via Facebook posts. To make catching perpetrators easier, the non-profit Conversation X Labs, in collaboration with computer vision expert Dr Colin McCormick, are now developing a face recognition programme called “ChimpFace”. The software can be used on social media to identify chimpanzees that have previously been rescued or were removed from their wild habitats. It can be surprisingly difficult for a programme to distinguish between a human and a chimpanzee face and to tackle this problem, nine chimpanzee conservation organizations have contributed pictures for the programme to learn from. The database now uses about 3,000 ape face images and about 30 images per chimp to identify an individual. Similar pattern software already exists for lemures, which can identify a lemur with 97% accuracy. Face recognition does not only work for apes and monkeys though and the Zoological Society of London has worked with Google to develop a facial recognition software that can help to track elephants in the wild. With processing times of under a second per picture, illegal online animal trade might soon be a thing of the past.
Life on the Moon
China’s Chang’e-4 mission set out to explore the dark side of the moon and landed successfully on the moon’s surface on the 3rd of January 2019. On board was an 18 centimetre tall, 3 kilogram heavy cannister, which was designed by a collaboration of 28 Chinese Universities. This container carried cotton and potato seeds, as well as yeast and fruit fly eggs. The idea was to create a self-sustaining, albeit artificial, mini biosphere on the moon. And it worked. The seeds became the first biological matter to ever sprout on the moon. Growing things in space in naturally difficult, and although plants have been successfully grown on the international space station, none have ever been grown on the moon before. The cannister controlled the environment of the plants, in particular the temperature, as it can vary between -173◦ C to +100◦ C on the moon’s surface. While successful at first, the sprouting plant died soon after, as the experiment was only designed to last for about 200 hours, after which the temperature control was disabled and the extreme conditions on the dark side of the moon caught up with the young plants. This experiment shows that it is in theory possible to grow things in space, which could be an important step towards longer journeys through space, e.g. to Mars, where self sufficiency in food and or water supplies could make or break a mission. The often-cited concern over contamination did not pose a great risk on the moon, as human waste had been left behind from the Apollo missions several decades earlier.
Bleeding gums and Alzheimer’s
Porphyromonas gingivalis might not sound familiar, but it is the key bacteria causing chronic gum disease in people. Gum disease affects about one third of the population and worryingly has been connected to the development of Alzehimer’s Disease (AD). Certain proteins, called amyloid plaques and tau tangles, accumulate in the brain of Alzheimer’s patients and have long been thought to be the cause of the disease. This hypothesis has recently been called into question, after it was found that people can have protein plaques without developing dementia and treating the plaques does not lead to a betterment of the disease. Growing evidence actually points towards the reverse, namely that the role of amyloid proteins might be to protect the brain from bacteria. Bacteria have been found in brains of people with AD, but until recently it wasn’t clear whether this was causal or consequential of the disease. Interestingly, gum disease has been known to be a major predictor for the development of AD and now a possible mechanism of action has been discovered. Research revealed that p. gingivalis invades and inflames the brain regions affected by AD and gum infections have been shown to worsen symptoms in mice that have been genetically engineered to develop AD. P. gingivalis secretes a toxic enzyme called gingipains, which is thought to be the root of the problem. Both, bacteria and gingipains have been found at higher levels in brains of people with more severe AD, as well as in their spinal fluid. The exciting thing is that the presence of p. gingivalis or their toxins could potentially be used as a biomarker for AD and a drug that blocks this main toxin is already entering major clinical trials this year. Studies in mice have already shown that the drug can reduce p. gingivalis infection in the brain, reduce amyloid production, lower brain inflammation and even rescue damaged neurons. The drug is especially exciting because it isn’t an antibiotic and therefore the bacteria are less likely to build up a resistance. The number of people living with AD in the UK is set to hit 1 million in 2025 and while the research is still in its infancy, the possibility of a treatment or even vaccine for AD is an exciting one.