In Brief

In Brief

March 24, 2006


Whales use syntax like a language

Humpback whales have a form of chatter that resembles a language, according to neuroscientist Ryuji Suzuki, who recorded and analyzed the whales' songs near Hawaii to learn how they communicate.

Although they don't use anything as complex as our speech, Suzuki found, they do have their own syntax, using sound units to build phrases that they combine into songs.

Sound travels four times faster in water than in air, and with a limited sense of sight and smell, whales and other marine mammals depend heavily on sound to communicate. Male humpbacks in the same population will sing the same song during their mating season. The songs, believed to attract females, also change over time.

Whale songs are repetitive, rigid and can last for hours, according to the report. But Suzuki, a postdoctoral fellow at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, developed a computer program that assigned symbols to each element. He found that the whales repeat unique phrases made up of short and long segments to craft a song with multiple layers, or scales, of repetition.

His research is being published in this month's online issue of the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. To hear the whale sounds online, go to


Kidney disease

Anti-rejection drug may reverse effects

An anti-rejection drug widely used in organ transplants could provide the first useful treatment for polycystic kidney disease, a deadly disorder caused by a single defective gene.

Studies in mice show that the drug, rapamycin, can reverse the previously unstoppable growth of kidneys associated with the disease. Studies of a small number of humans suggest that it could work for people, too, the team reported this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Because the drug is approved by the Food and Drug Administration and known to be safe, clinical trials in patients could begin soon, said Dr. Thomas Weimbs of the University of California, Santa Barbara, who led the study.

An estimated 600,000 Americans and 12.5 million people worldwide suffer from the disease, which generally produces kidney failure requiring either a lifetime of dialysis or a kidney transplant. There is no treatment for the disorder.



Steam not best remedy for croup

Treating croup by rushing a gasping child into a shower or in front of a steaming kettle does little to ease the frightening condition, a new study shows. Researchers now say it is more important to hold and calm a child with moderate to severe croup because it helps restore normal breathing.

Exposure to cool night air also helps, said Dennis Scolnik, lead author of the report and an emergency room doctor at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, noting that attacks tend to occur in the early morning hours and usually resolve themselves within 30 minutes. If a child does not improve and the coughing persists, or if the child becomes pale or blue, then emergency help should be sought, Scolnik said.

Scolnik's report, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, was based on 140 children with moderate to severe cases of croup.


Weight control

Fat-processing gene found in humans

Researchers at Rutgers University have found a human gene that influences how the body processes fat, a discovery that may lead to drugs to control obesity and promote weight loss.

The so-called "fat gene" carries the code for lipin, a protein that is a key fat-regulating enzyme in metabolism, said George M. Carman, a professor in the department of food science. The lipin enzyme acts as a catalyst that the body needs to form fats, specifically triglycerides, Carman said.

Drugs must be developed to control lipin, which could help reduce fat in obese people and increase fat in underweight people, such as HIV/AIDS patients, Carman said. His study was published online by the Journal of Biological Chemistry.



Kids can help with light pollution study

Most parents talk to their children at some point about the evils of pollution. But have you ever talked to yours about light pollution?

Here's your chance. In a program run by Colorado State University and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, students and their families can make simple measurements of the quality of the night sky by viewing the constellation Orion through Wednesday.

The results will become part of a global database on light pollution, which affects astronomy and the behavior of many animals. The observations are easy to make and should take only about 15 minutes. Most of that time will be spent waiting for the eyes to adapt to the dark.

An activity packet, including instructions, is online at The packet also shows how to find Orion.


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