Natalia Emsley brings you this August's research roundupCharmaine Au-Yeung with permission for Varsity

Fish use motion camouflage while hunting

The Department of Zoology set out to investigate the odd behaviour of trumpetfish swimming closely behind other fish while hunting (as seen here). According to James Herbert-Read: “The shadowing behaviour of the trumpetfish appears a useful strategy to improve its hunting success.”

The research involved manipulative experiments, in which 3D-printed models of trumpetfish were pulled past colonies of damselfish (a common prey of trumpetfish), whose responses were filmed. When the trumpetfish models moved past alone, the damselfish fled to shelter following inspection of the predator. In contrast, when the trumpetfish models were attached to a herbivorous parrotfish model to replicate the shadowing behaviour, the damselfish did not detect the predatory threat. Nothing like teamwork, right?

The researchers propose that this strategy may help animals adapt to environmental change, and may become more common as coral reef degradation reduces the availability of structures to hide behind.

Discovery of novel breast cancer susceptibility genes

Genetic tests for breast cancer currently focus on BRCA1, BRCA2 and PALB2, however, these breast cancer susceptibility genes only explain a small proportion of the genetic risk.

By looking at genetic changes using data from women with and without breast cancer, evidence for at least four new genes was found. This discovery will improve understanding of the genetic risk of breast cancer. It also offers insight into the biological mechanisms underpinning cancer development.

“Examining galaxies could show us how dark energy affects our universe”

These findings await validation using additional data to more precisely understand the risks associated with variants in these genes, the characteristics of the tumours, and how the genetic effects combine with lifestyle factors to affect risk.

Are we still in the dark? A new way to measure dark energy

Dark energy is described as a “mysterious force that makes up more than two-thirds of the universe”. Dr David Benisty from the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics says: “The simplest version of this is known as the cosmological constant: a constant energy density that pushes galaxies away from each other.” Since its identification, astronomers have developed methods to detect it, mostly by studying objects from the early universe and their movement away from us.

It is now thought to be possible to detect and measure dark energy by looking at Andromeda, our galactic neighbour. In contrast to other galaxies, Andromeda is actually headed towards the Milky Way on a collision course, as a result of the gravitational attraction between them. ETA: 5 billion years from now. Save the date, guys.

By studying the mass and movement of Andromeda, it was possible to place an upper bound on the cosmological constant; more accurate measurements could help to reduce this. The study also revealed that examining other pairs of galaxies could enhance our understanding of how dark energy affects our universe.

Genetics reveals organisation of the brain

Current knowledge of how our genetic make-up affects brain development, including overall volume of the brain, how it is folded and the thickness of the folds, is limited. Over 4,000 genetic variants linked to brain structure have been identified in the largest ever study of the genetics of the brain.

“MN-predict will be a valuable tool in identifying myeloid neoplasms early on”

Using MRI scans from more than 32,000 adults and 4,000 children, researchers at the Autism Research Centre confirmed and identified how different properties of the cortex (outermost layer of the brain) are genetically linked. One such finding, which solved a question that has interested scientists for a while, was that different sets of genes are responsible for the folding and size of the cortex. It was also found that the genes linked to variation in brain size in the general population overlap with the genes linked to cephalic conditions (where head sizes are larger or smaller than average).

Overall, Dr Varun Warrier reports that “how our brain develops is partly genetic”. He also says that the findings “can be used to understand how changes in the shape and size of the brain can lead to neurological and psychiatric conditions, potentially leading to better treatment and support”.

New platform identifies individuals with blood cancer risk

Researchers created “MN-predict”, a test that predicts a patient’s risk of developing myeloid neoplasms. Myeloid neoplasms are a group of related cancers affecting bone marrow that include acute myeloid leukaemia, myelodysplastic syndromes and myeloproliferative neoplasms, which mostly remain incurable.


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These cancers develop through the accumulation of mutations in blood stem cells. Specifically, these mutations cause stem cells to grow faster than normal, and in some cases can lead to leukaemia. Professor George Vassiliou at the Wellcome-MRC Cambridge Stem Cell Institute and Department of Haematology says: “We all know that prevention is better than cure, but it is not easy to prevent diseases like leukaemia without knowing who is at risk.”

It is therefore hoped that MN-predict will be a valuable tool in identifying cases early on.

Could shellfish farming be the future of the food industry?

With an increasing global population, achieving food sustainability is a major challenge. In response to this, the aquaculture industry is growing.

Broderick House, a Zoology PhD student at Cambridge, is conducting research into “delivering nutrient rich marine bivalves to urban environments that lack access to the ocean”. However, successful mussel and oyster farming relies upon freshwater, which poses a challenge to sustainability in itself. This has given rise to the innovation of “vertical seafood farming”, whereby fish are raised in vertically stacked layers, reducing freshwater requirements.

Broderick is actively involving farmers, alongside policymakers, businesses and other researchers, in the conversation, aiming to combat the scepticism and shift attitudes. By promoting the benefits for increasing access of highly nutritious seafood, he hopes to “pave the way for new forms of aquaculture”.