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It’s a sheep-eat-plant world…except sometimes

It’s a dog-eat-dog world. Or, in this case, it is usually a sheep-eat-plant world. But in Chile, sometimes the plants eat the sheep.

When I first read that, I thought I was being had, that I would excitedly tell people about this carnivorous plant with a taste for sheep and be told I was wrong. It would, however, appear that the truth is stranger than fiction.

Puya chilensis looks a bit like a green and prickly cannon stoker, and far from being a rare botanical find grows abundantly on the Chilean hill sides. What does make it interesting, aside from its meaty tooth, is that it grows very slowly and can take up to 20 years to flower. This is why I found out about it: the Royal Horticultural Society at Wisley says the plant will bloom and sprout its deadly petals in the next few days, according to the BBC.

So how, you may ask, does a plant eat a sheep? Even I couldn’t eat a whole sheep without some preparation and maybe a week of dinner parties. The plant can grow quite thickly in its natural habitat, making it a treacherous snare for birds and animals. They get caught in the thicket, eventually die of dehydration or hunger, and then the plant absorbs the nutrients.

It is said that the Puya chilensis makes a good house plant, but I don’t know if I approve of something that may consider my cat a tasty morsel.

Science snippets for the week:

1) Going small
The reason that our computers are getting faster and we can store more data in a smaller space is because the components – transistors, batteries and computer chips – are getting smaller. Smaller and cheaper. Researchers announced a development on June 18 that has lowered the bar even further: 3D printing lithium-ion batteries the size of a grain of sand. For some context, the battery in your cellphone is a lithium-ion battery.

“To make the microbatteries, a team based at Harvard University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign printed precisely interlaced stacks of tiny battery electrodes, each less than the width of a human hair,” Harvard said. “The printed microbatteries could supply electricity to tiny devices in fields from medicine to communications, including many that have lingered on lab benches for lack of a battery small enough to fit the device, yet provide enough stored energy to power them.”

2) The fight against cancer
Researchers from the University of Texas, Dallas, have found a new way to fight lung cancer, which doesn’t involve radiation or surgery. Published in online journal PlosONE, their research shows that the metabolism of cancer cells is different, and more complex, than healthy cells. They compared non-small-cell lung cancer cells with healthy lung cells taken from the same patient, and made two notable discoveries. First, the cancer cell consumed almost two and a half times as much oxygen as the healthy cell. Second, the cancer cell synthesised substantially more of a substance called “heme”. It is a component of hemoproteins, which are responsible for the metabolism of oxygen and transporting it around the body, among other things.

“All cells need a certain level of heme, but our findings indicate that normal cells need much less heme compared to cancer cells,” said Dr Li Zhang, professor of molecular and cell biology at the university and senior author of the paper.

“We think a high level of heme in cancer cells results in a lot more hemoproteins, which metabolise oxygen and produce more cellular energy. That then drives the cancer cells to proliferate, to migrate and to form colonies. Cancer cells not only make significantly more heme, we also found they uptake more heme from the blood,” said Zhang.

Zhang, with a biology graduate student Jagmohan Hooda, treated both the cancer cells and the healthy cells with a heme inhibitor, called succinyl acetone.

“Suppressing heme availability reduced the lung cancer cells’ ability to use oxygen, and hence the cells’ ability to proliferate and migrate,” Hooda said.

“The cultured cancer cells we studied stopped proliferating and eventually died.”

But this didn’t affect the normal cells “too much”, Zhang said, but “selectively affected cancer cells”.

While it will be many years before we see this as a viable treatment for humans, this research does offer some hope in future treatment of lung cancer.