Key to life found at the centre of our galaxy and bee ‘waggle dances’: Most viewed articles of July 2022

By Colm Gorey, Frontiers science communications manager


Each month, Frontiers shines a spotlight on some of the leading research across a wide range of topics. Here are just some of the highlights that resonated strongly with readers on our news site in the month of July.

  1. Building blocks for RNA-based life abound at center of our galaxy

Nitriles, a class of organic molecules with a cyano group, that is, a carbon atom bound with an unsaturated triple bond to a nitrogen atom, are typically toxic. But paradoxically, they are also a key precursor for molecules essential for life, such as ribonucleotides, composed of the nucleobases or 'letters' A, U, C, and G, joined to a ribose and phosphate group, which together make up RNA.

Now, a team of researchers from Spain, Japan, Chile, Italy, and the US show in Frontiers in Astronomy and Space Sciences that a wide range of nitriles occurs in interstellar space within the molecular cloud G+0.693-0.027, near the center of the Milky Way.

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2. Bees’ ‘waggle dance’ may revolutionize how robots talk to each other in disaster zones

Where are those flowers and how far away are they? This is the crux of the 'waggle dance' performed by honeybees to alert others to the location of nectar-rich flowers. A new study in Frontiers in Robotics and AI has taken inspiration from this technique to devise a way for robots to communicate.

The first robot traces a shape on the floor, and the shape’s orientation and the time it takes to trace it tell the second robot the required direction and distance of travel. The technique could prove invaluable in situations where robot labor is required but network communications are unreliable, such as in a disaster zone or in space.

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3. Verbal insults trigger a 'mini slap to the face', finds new research

Hearing insults is like receiving a “mini slap in the face”, regardless of the precise context the insult is made in. That is the conclusion of a new paper published in Frontiers in Communication. The researchers used electroencephalography (EEG) and skin conductance recordings to compare the short-term impact of repeated verbal insults to that of repeated positive or neutral evaluations. The results provide us with a unique opportunity to research the intersection between emotion and language.

Yet the study only shows the effects of insults in an artificial setting. The participants will have recognized the insults as such, but as decontextualized statements the actual emotional effects of insults lose power. Studying insults in a real setting remains ethically challenging.

Even so, the results show an increased sensitivity of our brains to negative words compared to positive words. An insult immediately captures our brain's attention, as the emotional meaning of insults is retrieved from long-term memory.

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4. Scientists identify DNA ‘hotspots’ that tell zebrafish to change sex in warmer waters

Higher water temperatures induce specific chemical tags at targeted locations on the DNA of embryonic zebrafish. These 'epigenetic' changes can then reroute genetic pathways, so that the embryos change sex. This finding, in Frontiers in Cell and Developmental Biology, is not just of fundamental scientific interest. It's also relevant for conservation, since an influence of temperature on sex determination could be recipe for disaster for species living through rapid climatic change.

The study's first author, Dr Shahrbanou Hosseini, a postdoctoral researcher at the Molecular Livestock Science and Diagnostics Group of the Department of Animal Sciences at Göttingen University, said: "Here we show that epigenetic modifications influence the variation in sex ratio between zebrafish families. This implies that the interaction between genotype and environment in determining sex is mediated by epigenetics."

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