Research blog: January

The Murmur takes a look at some of the best research coming out of Denmark each month

Learning from vultures
The Technical University of Denmark (DTU), University of Copenhagen, Aarhus University, Copenhagen Zoo and the Smithsonian Institute in the US have been researching the nuances of the mighty digestive system of vultures.

Vultures rarely ingest live prey, relying instead upon carrion – dead and decomposing carcasses – for nutrition. As a result, they are in contact with deadly microbes that few other animals would survive an encounter with. Not only that, but because the feathered scavengers aren’t equipped with beaks to penetrate skin, they often access carcasses via openings including the mouth, eyes, nose, ears and rectums.

A team of researchers from DTU, University of Copenhagen, Aarhus University, Copenhagen Zoo and the US-based Smithsonian Institute investigated why vultures were capable of eating food that would make most animals extremely ill. One of their main findings was that while they found 528 different types of micro-organisms on the faces of the studied birds, they only found 76 types of micro-organisms in their guts.

The researchers believe that the birds have developed an incredibly strong digestive system that eradicates the majority of these microbes. Additionally, they have probably built up a tolerance to many of the bacteria as an evolutionary adaptation. The research might be able to tell us more about how humans can combat these microorganisms, both physically and agriculturally.

21st Century Concrete Man
Professor Kristian Hertz from the department of civil engineering at DTU has developed a way to produce ultra-light structures using concrete by mimicking Roman building techniques.

The method involves blending different concretes within the same structure, first using a strong and dense concrete to create the scaffolding and frame, before filling it with a lighter concrete to stabilise it. This results in a composite concrete that is more soundproof, four times more fire resistant, and cheaper to produce than ordinary concrete.

“The advantage of the ultra-light structures is that they grant architects much more flexibility, while providing much better soundproofing than standard floors,” Hertz told DTUavisen. “This means less noise disturbance between the storeys in a building. Moreover, tests have demonstrated that the new elements are able to withstand fire for four times as long as standard units.”

Hertz has patented the ultra-light structures, which are being mass-produced by his new company, Abeo, and used in new building projects including Gammel Hellerup upper secondary school, DTU Building 324, the Innovest building and the apartments on Krøyers Plads in Christianshavn.

A vitamin that is literally music to your ears
If the recent barrage of fireworks and New Year’s fanfare left you worried about your hearing, you’ll be happy to learn of a new development in treating noise-induced hearing loss.

Here’s how hearing works. There are small hairs in your inner ear – an area called the cochlea – that activate nerves, sending signals to your brain which are decoded into sound. Our hearing becomes damaged when we are exposed to sounds that are louder than what these hairs typically deal with. The louder the sound, the more damage there is to the way these hairs transmit messages to the brain. Too many loud noises can cause the hairs to almost entirely lose their ability to transmit information.

But fear no more! There is now hope for musicians, construction workers and others frequently subjected to sonic bombardments. Researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College and The Gladstone Institute have found a chemical compound, nicotinamide riboside (NR), capable of protecting the nerves that transmit signals.

After administering NR to mice both before and after being exposed to high volumes, the researchers found that NR protected against both short-term and long-term hearing loss. What’s more, it worked just as successfully whether administered before or after exposure, meaning that the compound has a rehabilitative quality.

The researchers believe that NR works because it enhances a protein called sirtuin 3 (SIRT3) that is needed by the mitochondria, which power cells. Enhancing SIRT3 makes the cells more resilient. This theory is supported by the fact that SIRT3 levels decline as we age, which could explain age-related hearing loss.

Researchers postulate that STR3 and NR can hold a multitude of answers as to how our cells degenerate in the aging process. These other areas have yet to be explored, but for now, they are confident that this compound will prevent noise-induced hearing loss and can be manufactured commercially like other medicines. We’d wait for human trials to confirm NR’s efficacy before you blast that heavy metal, though. M


By Nereya Otieno

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