Myrmecos’ Alex Wild pays a visit to Italy

Hey, apparently a while ago Alex Wild of Myrmecos visited Parma, an Emilia-Romagna city not too distant from where I live! But what was he doing there? He was in collaboration with local researchers to start a project in which the local population (in this case, elementary school kids) would be directly involved into ant research, which is totally awesome. I was really envious when I read on Wild’s blog of similar projects that took place in America, because this kind of things both help researchers collect data on large territories and manages to sparkle more interest and understanding for science and biodiversity in non-scientists; since here in Italy there’s basically no real support for scientific research, I thought we would never start something like that, which would have been a pity because our nation, thanks to the enormous diversity of geographic and climate conditions, has the richest biodiversity in all Europe. Well, apparently (and fortunately) I was wrong, since this new initiative follows the american model: it consist in leaving open vials containing a bait (usually a piece of a cookie) in various places with different conditions (grass, concrete…), wait for local ants to enter them, then capture the insects. At this point, the citizen can attempt an identification, but more importently can record data on when, where, etc… the specimens where captured, then freeze the ants, pack them with the data and send them to experts, helping them to study the distribution and ecology of these amazingly important organisms. So, overall, that’s great news for italian biodiversity research. One minor note to Alex Wild’s otherwise excellent article: I kind of rolled my eyes reading “…the students went back inside to talk about what they had found and then, I assume, it being Parma, eat pasta and/or pizza for lunch…”. It’s a little bit weird. Yes, pizza and the pasta can be found everywhere in Italy, of course, but come on, you make me feel like this guy.

Awesome microbiologist saves the life of old, fat italian rockstar and gets funds for research

This is absolutely irrelevant to most people, especially non-italian readers, but I’ve just learned that a couple of weeks ago University of Bologna’s professor Davide Zannoni, who was my teacher of General Microbiology last year, contributed to helping old, fat, drug-addicted italian rockstar Vasco Rossi out of an infection which had plagued him for many months. Rossi, remembered for his songs but also for idiotic acts like trying to sue the italian version of Uncyclopedia for defamation, rewarded the effort by donating 75.000 that will fund a 3 years research program on microbial biofilms (I guess he was crying inside a little bit, thinking of how much drug he could have bought for himself instead – but then he did the right thing). Biofilms are a stage in the life cycle of many bacteria during which the single cells stop living an isolated, planktonic life and instead aggregate on a solid surface, creating a complex structure of polysaccharides that keeps them togheter and attached on the substrate, while allowing liquids to flow in and out through various canals. This way not only the colony can stay in a favourable habitat, but it’s also protected by many dangerous substances, including antibiotics and toxic metals. If a biofilm of dangerous bacteria forms in the human body (like it happened on Rossi’s heart), getting rid of it is extremely difficult: only free bacterial cells can be attacked, but the biofilm will persist, and after the treatement it will usually release more free cells in the organism, again and again. Zannoni’s goal is to find a way to inhibit the biochemical communication between bacterial cells, which is the tool bacteria use to regulate the growth and behaviour of a colony as it was a single organism (I’ve already mentioned this ability in an old article). This would disrupt the colony’s capability to coordinate and create biofilms, thus making the destruction of the bacteria much easier. Based on my experience, I can say that Zannoni is a great teacher and microbiologist, and a very intelligent man. I wish him and the other researchers success in their research, and I hope many will follow Vasco Rossi’s example and donate to scientific research, because the world needs it, and my country needs it more than ever.

P.S. The story (in italian, of course) is here.

Italy and Evolution

So, a part from openly creationist douchebags like Antonio Zichichi, what’s the situation of the teaching of evolution in Italy? Not too good, actually. Superficially, it seems like most people, even religious ones, have no problem to accept evolution. And yet, evolution is not thaught in our schools, or at least in the schools (elementary, middle, high school) I attended, which is kind of puzzling, since in many cases relatively complex notions of molecular biology are thaught in high and even middle school; why learn this if you don’t exactly know the main principle on which all biology is based?

Officially, the Catholic Church, with Karol Wojtyla,  has accepted evolution as more than a mere hypothesis; their “acceptance” however consists basically in an equivalent of the retarded Intelligent Design “theory”, in which there’s a creator that started all life and guided with his all-powerful hand the path of evolution; also, man is seen as something special, and not a mere accident. This means that most religious italian people (at least most of the ones who are not scientists) who say to accept evolution probably are in fact believers of the Intelligent Design, and thus actually just a variant of the standard creationist.

Data from UAAR (the italian Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics – the site is in italian) show that around 25% of the italian population believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible and its history of divine creation, and while this is probably not as dramatic as the american situation, it still sucks huge balls.