‘Tis the season to travel

(Credit: iStockphoto)

If the holidays have you packing your bags and heading out, you’re not alone. From space travel to shark migration, these six stories are all about the journey of getting from here to there.

1. Shark fuel


To power non-stop migrations across the Pacific Ocean, great white sharks store energy in their massive livers.

Researchers have uncovered previously unknown details of how great white sharks power themselves and stay buoyant on long trips of more than 2,500 miles. The discoveries have potentially broad implications for conservation and management of coastal waters.

“We have a glimpse now of how white sharks come in from nutrient-poor areas offshore, feed where elephant seal populations are expanding—much like going to an Outback Steakhouse—and store the energy in their livers so they can move offshore again,” says researcher Barbara Block, a professor of marine sciences and a senior fellow at the Stanford University Woods Institute for the Environment. “It helps us understand how important their near-shore habitats are as fueling stations for their entire life history.”

2. Jet lag


Researchers at McGill University have identified how a fundamental biological process called protein synthesis is controlled within the body’s circadian clock—the internal mechanism that controls one’s daily rhythms.

The findings may help shed light on future treatments for disorders triggered by circadian clock dysfunction, including jet lag, shift work disorders, and chronic conditions like depression and Parkinson’s disease.

“In modern society, with the frequency of trans-time zone travel, we often deal with annoying jet lag problems, which usually require a couple of weeks of transition,” says Ruifeng Cao, a postdoctoral fellow. “However, by inducing a state like jet lag in the mice lacking that protein, we found they were able to adapt to time zones changes in about half of the time required by regular mice.”

3. Long journey to Mars



Travelling to Mars could damage the human brain. The cosmic radiation that would bombard astronauts on deep space missions to places like Mars could accelerate the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, say researchers.

“Galactic cosmic radiation poses a significant threat to future astronauts,” says M. Kerry O’Banion, a professor in the University of Rochester Medical Center department of neurobiology and anatomy and the senior author of the study.

“The possibility that radiation exposure in space may give rise to health problems such as cancer has long been recognized. However, this study shows for the first time that exposure to radiation levels equivalent to a mission to Mars could produce cognitive problems and speed up changes in the brain that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease.”

4. Biking is contagious


People who walk or bike to work are likely to influence co-workers and partners to do the same, research suggests.

“Social influences are important, specifically interpersonal influences, such as spouses and co-workers,” says Melissa Bopp, assistant professor of kinesiology at Penn State. Community and employers also significantly influence whether people choose to actively commute—such as bicycling or walking to and from work.

The findings show that married people are more likely to participate in active commuting than singles, men actively commute more often than women, and mothers are even less likely to actively commute.

5. Brain’s GPS


The brain can bring together unconnected memories about places, allowing us to mentally map out new routes to get us where we want to go, scientists have discovered.

Researchers monitoring the activity of special cells in the hippocampus of rat brains were able to see the rats’ “thoughts” as they navigated through familiar territory in search of a chocolate reward.

Knowing how this path finding takes place will help researchers understand how damage to the hippocampus causes specific types of memory and learning loss in people with Alzheimer’s disease and age-related cognitive decline.

6. Animal traffic


The southeastern US and five other regions could be major routes for mammals, birds, and amphibians on their way to cooler environments in a warming world, a study by researchers at the University of Washington shows.

Despite considerable human development, the region is one of theareas that could experience heavier traffic compared with the average species-movement across the Western Hemisphere in response to a warming climate.

The estimate in southeastern states, for example, is up to 2.5 times the average amount of movement across North and South America.

Other areas that could see pronounced animal movements are northeastern North America, including around the Great Lakes and north into Canada; southeastern Brazil, home to both the species-rich Atlantic Forest and major cities such as Sao Paulo with its 11 million residents; and the Amazon Basin.