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Black holes, carnivorous plants, smoking and... frogs

Tom Feilden | 10:16 UK time, Tuesday, 16 November 2010

It's one of those days. A lot seems to be going on and there's not enough space to fit it all on the programme. So for those of you interested in black holes, smoking, the discovery of new species and the latest developments in stem cell on.


One thing that did make it is a study of women who smoked heavily during pregnancy in the 1960's. It shows that their children were more likely to have become repeat criminal offenders as adults.

The findings, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, held true even after a comprehensive range of social factors, like mental ill-health and deprivation, were taken into account.

The study drew on data supplied by mothers who had taken part in one of the biggest and longest running surveys designed to track the ongoing impact of a wide range of behaviours during pregnancy - the Collaborative Perinatal Project.

The team, lead by Dr Angela Paradis at the Harvard School of Public Health, ran criminal records checks on nearly 4000 individuals whose mothers had been enrolled in the project between 1959 and 1966 and who smoked more than 20 cigarettes a day during pregnancy.

"While not definitive", Dr Paradis concludes "the findings do support a modest causal relationship between smoking during pregnancy and adult criminal offending".

While all that was going on in Massachusetts, doctors in Glasgow have broken new ground by injecting stem cells into the brain of a stroke patient. The PISCES study - Pilot Investigation of Stem Cells in Stroke - is the world's first fully regulated clinical trial of a neural stem cell therapy.

According to professor Keith Muir, principle Investigator for the study, the patient underwent a successful surgical procedure at Glasgow's Southern General Hospital and has now been discharged.

"We hope that, in future, it will lead on to larger studies to determine the effects of stem cells on the disabilities that result from stroke".

The patient will be monitored closely for the next two years as part of a phase 1 clinical trial to assess the safety of the procedure.

Nasa picture of newly discovered black hole

Meanwhile astronomers monitoring the constellation Virgo say they've witnessed the birth of a black hole for the first time.

Originally spotted by an amateur astronomer in 1979, researchers have used NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory to study the object - believed to be the remnant of a supernova in the galaxy M100 some 50 million light years from earth.

NASA astrophysicist Kimberly Weaver says the black hole formed when a star 20 times more massive than the sun collapsed at the end of its life.

"What's really exciting about it is that we know the exact birth date of this black hole. Now we want to watch how this system evolves and changes because that's how we will understand the physics of black hole systems".

Back on terra firma researchers at Conservation International have identified three new species of frog in western Colombia.

Newly discovered species of frog

The expedition, lead by CI's amphibian specialist Dr Robin Moore, was actually on a quest to rediscover the Mesopotamia beaked toad, which hasn't been seen since the outbreak of the first world war and is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Despite an intensive search extending from the cold, high cloud-forests to the tropical lowland rainforests of Colombia's Chocó and Antioquia departments, no trace of the elusive toad could be found.

Instead researchers returned having documented the discovery of three species new to science.

"After spending several days searching for the Mesopotamia beaked toad with no success, the team's spirits were pretty low" says Moore. "But finding these new species, including a new beaked toad, was like a shot of adrenaline. We definitely left on a high."

Newly discovered pitcher plant Nepenthesholdenii Cardamom

The penchant for describing new species isn't limited to South America. Scientists at Flora and Fauna International have announced the discovery of a new species of carnivorous pitcher plant, Nepenthes Holdenii, in Cambodia's remote Cardamom Mountains.

The large red and green pitchers are actually modified leaves designed to capture and digest insects. Photographer Jeremy Holden, who first found the plant and after whom it is named, says "The Cardamom mountains are a treasure chest of new species, but it was a surprise to find something as exciting and charismatic as an unknown pitcher plant".

But it isn't all good news for scientists set on discovering new species in obscure, unsurveyed regions of the planet. The Natural History Museum has suspended a planned expedition to Paraguay after protests that it might disturb one of the world's last uncontacted tribes.

As we featured on the programme last week anthropologists have warned that the expedition, to the remote Chaco region, was likely to make accidental contact with the Ayoreo people, putting them at risk of infectious diseases.


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