Web ensnared by U of T student’s spider sex tweets

PhD student Catherine Scott has captivated the Twitter world by live-tweeting a black widow mating session at Maydianne Andrade’s lab at U of T’s Scarborough campus. Scott was trying to increase the size of her black widow lab population, while also taking notes on their courtship behaviour. Out of boredom, she ended up sharing every move of the spiders to her followers, including descriptions of abdomen-vibrations and silk-throwing, and facts about copulatory organs.

“I hope that [my followers] learned something new about the biology and behaviour of spiders, and if [the tweets] inspired even a few people to want to learn more or to be a little less fearful … then that feels pretty great,” said Scott. She also admitted that she used to be afraid of spiders, but learned to love them after observing their fascinating courtship behaviour and communication systems. Judging by Scott’s 500 new followers and the plethora of responses to her tweets, others were interested in doing the same.

Besides her Twitter handle, ‘@Cataranea’, Scott also runs a blog called spiderbytes.org where she shares her knowledge of and passion for spiders. “I’m trying to shift people’s perceptions of [spiders] by countering misinformation and fearmongering with actual facts,” she added.

Unfortunately, her black widows never mated, but they certainly succeeded in entertaining and educating the web.   

— Sophia Savva

Modeling the surface of a strange world

Research on exoplanets — the bodies found outside our solar system orbiting distant stars — entails the exciting possibility of discovering new habitable worlds. However, the unique properties of these planets sometimes introduces new challenges for astronomers. In a new study published this past month in Astrophysical Journal Letters, researchers from the University of Washington and the University of Toronto used computational modeling to gain insights into the composition of the strange clouds surrounding GJ1214b, a potential water world.

Just like the planets orbiting our sun, exoplanets can be rocky, or have thick hydrogen-helium atmospheres. Clues about a planet’s atmospheric composition can be garnered from looking at how a planet’s atmosphere absorbs or scatters different wavelengths of light produced by that planet’s star. To determine the composition of the planet’s atmosphere, Benjamin Charnay, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Washington, used a climate model to simulate how salt clouds on GJ1214b would be able to migrate high into the atmosphere and produce the spectrum that the researchers observed.

While the telescope required to verify this model won’t be available for a few years, Charnay is looking to use his model to demonstrate the atmospheres of other strange worlds, such as Saturn’s moon, Titan, and the early Earth.

— Anastassia Pogouts

Hope at the bottom of the bucket

Many of us still vividly recall the ice bucket challenge, which was ubiquitous on social media last summer, and generated significant enthusiasm and funding for ALS research.

ALS, or ‘Amytrophic Lateral Sclerosis’, is a fatal neurodegenerative disease characterized by loss of motor neurons. The death of motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord leads to the wasting of related muscles, and the loss of voluntary control. To date, the cause of the disease, other than a 5–10 per cent genetic link, remains unknown.

However, research from the University of Toronto and the University of Cambridge led by Dr. Peter St. George-Hyslop has shed light on the role of a protein called ‘FUS’ as a key player in this process. FUS, an RNA-binding protein, collects and presents materials to neurons that are essential in the synthesis of proteins.

Initially, FUS collects the material in a gelatinous state. Upon reaching the neurons, it transforms into a liquid form and releases the materials for uptake. This physical transformation was found to be impaired in certain ALS mutations, resulting in a poorly soluble gel state that inhibits protein formation by neurons. Therefore, FUS represents a novel aspect of nervous system activity in ALS, and a potential therapeutic target. The world of degenerative disease research lives in hope that these results may be one more step in solving the puzzle of ALS, and may eventually help lead to a cure.

— Stefan Jevtic