An Exoplanet That Could Harbor Life; Scientists Animate Their Own Blob Creature

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Discovered: Super-Earth exoplanet seems habitable; it's alive—this gelatinous lab-bred blob; rethinking the theory that genes cause disease; fairy-wrens identify themselves with code words.

The truth may be out there on that newly discovered exoplanet. Someone call SETI and tell them to train efforts on HD 40307, the newly discovered exoplanet in a six-planet system 42 light-years away from Earth in the constellation Pictor. This Super-Earth has great potential to harbor life, according to the a team of European astronomers that discovered it. The star it orbits is a bit smaller and a bit dimmer than our own sun, but its distance from the star is optimal for sustaining oceans and temperate climates. [Wired]

Scientists animate a lab-made blob. It's not quite on the same order as animated a stitched-together corpse a la Frankenstein, but scientists have discovered a way to make drops of gelatinous, protein-rich substance move by themselves. The blob is made of proteins extracted from cow brains, tiny polymers, and motor proteins from bacteria, which when combined are able to move themselves at a rate of about 8 nanometers per step. "It mimics a little bit what might happen in a living system," comments biomaterials researcher M. Cristina Marchetti from Syracuse University. This kind of autonomy is a crucial feature of life, but the researchers stress that the substance has no life of its own. They hope it will prove useful for delivering drugs in the human body, or perhaps even targeting cancer cells. Watch it come to "life" below: [New Scientist]

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Do genes really underly disease? The ability to predict and control for individuals' likelihood of contracting certain diseases is one of the major breakthrough scientists are hoping to make by decoding the genome. But Baylor College of Medicine's Suzanne Leal and her colleagues say there's cause for skepticism over the claim that DNA holds the answer to understanding disease. Scanning the genomes of 6,700 European and African American people, they were unable to definitively link patients' diseases to specific genetic variants common to all sufferers of these diseases. "We have learned that the effect size of these very rare variants is quite small," says Leal.  [Science News]

Code words help fairy-wrens sniff out intruders. Fairy-wrens aren't that great at visually identifying their fledgling chicks in the darkness of their insular nests. Predatory Horsfield's bronze-cuckoos know that and take advantage of it to try and prey on the poor little wrens. But Diane Colombelli-Negrel from Flinders University in Australia has discovered that they've developed a clever way of detecting when an intruder is in their midst—code words. Mother wrens teach their chicks a secret "incubation call," one that she sings every time she brings food back to the nest for them. If she hears the young birds repeat the call, she knows the coast is clear, but if she hears an impostor call, she knows to get out. [Discover]

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