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2010

Is Music for Wooing, Mothering, Bonding -- or Is It Just "Auditory Cheesecake"?
Discover, December 2010
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When Charles Darwin listened to music, he asked himself, what is it for? Philosophers had pondered the mathematical beauty of music for thousands of years, but Darwin wondered about its connection to biology. Humans make music just as beavers build dams and peacocks show off their tail feathers, he reasoned, so music must have evolved. What drove its evolution was hard for him to divine, however. “As neither the enjoyment nor the capacity of producing musical notes are faculties of the least direct use to man in reference to his ordinary habits of life, they must be ranked among the most mysterious with which he is endowed,” Darwin wrote in 1871.

Siberian Fossils Were Neanderthals’ Eastern Cousins, DNA Reveals
The New York Times, December 22, 2010
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An international team of scientists has identified a previously shadowy human group known as the Denisovans as cousins to Neanderthals who lived in Asia from roughly 400,000 to 50,000 years ago and interbred with the ancestors of today’s inhabitants of New Guinea.

"This Paper Should Not Have Been Published"
Scientists see fatal flaws in the NASA study of arsenic-based life.

Slate, December 7, 2010
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On Thursday, Dec. 2, Rosie Redfield sat down to read a new paper called "A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorus." Despite its innocuous title, the paper had great ambitions. Every living thing that scientists have ever studied uses phosphorus to build the backbone of its DNA. In the new paper, NASA-funded scientists described a microbe that could use arsenic instead. If the authors of the paper were right, we would have to expand our notions of what forms life can take.

Bones Give Peek Into the Lives of Neanderthals
The New York Times, December 20, 2010
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Deep in a cave in the forests of northern Spain are the remains of a gruesome massacre. The first clues came to light in 1994, when explorers came across a pair of what they thought were human jawbones in the cave, called El Sidron. At first, the bones were believed to date to the Spanish Civil War. Back then, Republican fighters used the cave as a hide-out. The police discovered more bone fragments in El Sidron, which they sent to forensic scientists, who determined that the bones did not belong to soldiers, or even to modern humans. They were the remains of Neanderthals who died 50,000 years ago.

Fifty Years of Animal Technology
PsychologyToday.com, December 16, 2010
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Let us take a moment to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the greatest take-down of human hubris. In November 1960, a 29-year-old British woman named Jane Goodall was wrapping up a long field season among the chimpanzees of Tanzania. She had won their trust, or at least their indifference, and so Goodall could observe the chimpanzees up close, discovering things about their behavior that no one had seen before. One day, walking alone through a valley, she passed by a termite mound with a tree stump nearby. It occurred to Goodall that there was no stump there. She dropped to the ground, realizing that a chimpanzee was crouched over the mound, fifty yards from her. He was eating termites.

A Man From Whom Viruses Can’t Hide
New York Times, November 22, 2010
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Dr. W. Ian Lipkin was spending the afternoon prowling his empire of viruses. The Center for Infection and Immunity, which he directs, occupies three floors of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. Rather than wait for the elevator, Dr. Lipkin ran up and down the back stairs to move from floor to floor, leaning into the doorways of labs and glass-walled offices to get updates from a platoon of scientists.

The “Router” In Your Head
Discover, November 2010
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Pop quiz: What is 357 times 289? No pencils allowed. No calculators. Just use your brain.

Got an answer yet? Got it now? How about now? Chances are you still don’t. As you solved the problem one step at a time, you lost track of the numbers. Maybe you tried to start over, lost track again, and eventually gave up in frustration before you could discover that the answer was 103,173. I used a calculator to get that, I confess.

Voices: What's Next in Science
The New York Times, November 9, 2010
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Scientists can’t say what they’ll be discovering 10 years from now. But they do pay careful attention to the direction in which their fields are moving, and they have some strong hunches about where they are headed in the year ahead. Here are prognostications for science in 2011 from 10 leading figures in 10 widely scattered disciplines, from genomics to mathematics to earth science. Regardless of whether they prove true next year, they offer a glimpse into the kinds of possibilities that get scientists excited.

Learning To Love Science Films
Nature, November 4, 2010
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For two years now I’ve judged science films for the Imagine Science Film Festival, a week-long celebration of the genre that runs each October in New York City. It’s a peculiar job, I confess, because I’m often underwhelmed by science on the screen. But the more I watch, the more hopeful I feel.

"Ringing in the Ears" Actually Goes Much Deeper Than That
Discover, October 2010
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In some of the world’s oldest medical texts --papyrus scrolls from ancient Egypt, clay tablets from Assyria--people complain about noise in their ears. Some of them call it a buzzing. Others describe it as whispering or even singing. Today we call such conditions tinnitus. In the distant past, doctors offered all sorts of strange cures for it. The Assyrians poured rose extract into the ear through a bronze tube. The Roman writer Pliny the Elder suggested that earthworms boiled in goose grease be put in the ear. Medieval Welsh physicians in the town of Myddfai recommended that their patients take a freshly baked loaf of bread out of the oven, cut it in two, “and apply to both ears as hot as can be borne, bind and thus produce perspiration, and by the help of god you will be cured.”

Sizing Up Consciousness by Its Bits
The New York Times, September 20, 2010
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One day in 2007, Dr. Giulio Tononi lay on a hospital stretcher as an anesthesiologist prepared him for surgery. For Dr. Tononi, it was a moment of intellectual exhilaration. He is a distinguished chair in consciousness science at the University of Wisconsin, and for much of his life he has been developing a theory of consciousness. Lying in the hospital, Dr. Tononi finally had a chance to become his own experiment.

Engineering Viruses to destroy biofilms
Technology Review, September 2010
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At Harvard Medical School, many of Timothy Lu's patients were being attacked by carpets of microbial goo. They had "really bad infections," Lu says. "Patients with cystic fibrosis, people getting infections in their catheters. All caused by biofilms."

The Places in the Brain Where Space Lives
Discover, September 2010
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The great philosopher Immanuel Kant believed that nothing matters more to our existence than space. Every experience we have--from the thoughts in our heads to the stars we see wheeling through the sky--makes sense only if we can assign it a location. “We never can imagine or make a representation to ourselves of the non-existence of space,” he wrote in 1781.

Scientists Square Off on Evolutionary Value of Helping Relatives
The New York Times, August 30, 2010
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Why are worker ants sterile? Why do birds sometimes help their parents raise more chicks, instead of having chicks of their own? Why do bacteria explode with toxins to kill rival colonies? In 1964, the British biologist William Hamilton published a landmark paper to answer these kinds of questions. Sometimes, he argued, helping your relatives can spread your genes faster than having children of your own.

Black is the New Green
Conservation, August 2010
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Win-win solutions can be hard to come by. But if Cornell University soil scientist Johannes Lehmann is right, there may be a way to lower our emission of heat-trapping greenhouse gases, save millions of people’s lives, and significantly boost the productivity of the world’s farms--all at the same time. And, most remarkably, his strategy is based on a deceptively simple technology invented 8,000 years ago.

A Looming Oxygen Crisis and Its Impact on World’s Oceans
Yale Environment 360, August 5, 2010
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The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is overshadowing another catastrophe that’s also unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico this summer: The oxygen dissolved in the Gulf waters is disappearing. In some places, the oxygen is getting so scarce that fish and other animals cannot survive. They can either leave the oxygen-free waters or die. The Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium reported this week that this year’s so-called “dead zone” covers 7,722 square miles.

What Happens to a Linebacker's Neurons?
Discover, August 2010
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Every spring the National Football League conducts that most cherished of American rituals, the college draft. A couple of months before the event, prospective players show off their abilities in an athletic audition known as the combine. Last winter’s combine was different from that of previous years, though. Along with the traditional 40-yard dashes and bench presses, the latest crop of aspirants also had to log time in front of a computer, trying to solve a series of brainteasers. In one test, Xs and Os were sprinkled across the computer screen as the athletes took a test that measured how well they could remember the position of each letter. In another, words like red and blue appeared on the screen in different colors. The football players had to press a key as quickly as possible if the word matched its color.

How Microbes Defend and Define Us
The New York Times, July 12, 2010
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Dr. Alexander Khoruts had run out of options.

In 2008, Dr. Khoruts, a gastroenterologist at the University of Minnesota, took on a patient suffering from a vicious gut infection of Clostridium difficile. She was crippled by constant diarrhea, which had left her in a wheelchair wearing diapers. Dr. Khoruts treated her with an assortment of antibiotics, but nothing could stop the bacteria. His patient was wasting away, losing 60 pounds over the course of eight months. “She was just dwindling down the drain, and she probably would have died,” Dr. Khoruts said.

Dr. Khoruts decided his patient needed a transplant. But he didn’t give her a piece of someone else’s intestines, or a stomach, or any other organ. Instead, he gave her some of her husband’s bacteria.

The Switches That Can Turn Mental Illness On and Off
Discover, July-August 2010
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This month’s column is a tale of two rats. One rat got lots of attention from its mother when it was young; she licked its fur many times a day. The other rat had a different experience. Its mother hardly licked its fur at all. The two rats grew up and turned out to be very different. The neglected rat was easily startled by noises. It was reluctant to explore new places. When it experienced stress, it churned out lots of hormones. Meanwhile, the rat that had gotten more attention from its mother was not so easily startled, was more curious, and did not suffer surges of stress hormones.

The Microbe Factor and Its Role in Our Climate Future
Yale Environment 360, June 1, 2010
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When new reports about global warming come out, they typically include a picture of the land and sky, with arrows marking the movement of carbon dioxide around the planet. Some arrows rise up from cities and farmland, while other arrows plunge down to forests and oceans. This sort of diagram does a great job of illustrating the big picture. Thanks to human activity, carbon dioxide is rising into the atmosphere faster than the planet can draw it down. But the giant scale of this picture hides some of the most important players in the global warming story, which are as crucial to the future of the planet as factories and forests: the planet’s vast swarms of microbes.

7,000 Miles Nonstop and No Pretzels
The New York Times, May 24, 2010
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In 1976, the biologist Robert E. Gill Jr. came to the southern coast of Alaska to survey the birds preparing for their migrations for the winter. One species in particular, wading birds called bar-tailed godwits, puzzled him deeply. They were too fat.

“They looked like flying softballs,” said Mr. Gill.

At the time, scientists knew that bar-tailed godwits spend their winters in places like New Zealand and Australia. To get there, most researchers assumed, the birds took a series of flights down through Asia, stopping along the way to rest and eat. After all, they were land birds, not sea birds that could dive for food in the ocean. But in Alaska, Mr. Gill observed, the bar-tailed godwits were feasting on clams and worms as if they were not going to be able to eat for a very long time.

“I wondered, why is that bird putting on that much fat?” he said.

The First Yardstick for Measuring Smells
Discover, May 2010
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Your nose is a paradox. In some ways the human sense of smell is astonishingly precise. For example, natural gas companies add a smelly molecule called n-butyl mercaptan to natural gas, which is odorless by itself, so that people can sniff gas leaks. All it takes is one n-butyl mercaptan molecule for every 10 billion molecules of methane to do the trick. To put this precision in perspective, imagine you are standing in front of two Olympic-size swimming pools. One of them contains a grand total of three drops of n-butyl mercaptan, and the other has none. Your nose could tell the difference.

But don’t get too smug, because in other ways your sense of smell is practically useless. To judge for yourself, find someone to help you run a simple experiment. Close your eyes while your partner raids your refrigerator and then holds different foods under your nose. Try to name each scent. If you’re like most people, you’ll bomb. In a number of studies, scientists have found that people tested on items in their own kitchens and garages give the wrong answer at least half the time. And as bad as we normally are at identifying smells, we can easily be fooled into doing worse. If orange food coloring is added to cherry-flavored soda, for example, people are more likely to say that it smells like oranges.

Evolution and the Media
Evolution: Education and Outreach, June 2010
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Evolution has been news from the start. On March 28, 1860, The New York Times ran a massive article on a newly published book called On the Origin of Species (Anonymous 1860). The article explained how the dominant explanation for life’s staggering diversity was the independent creation of every species on Earth. “Meanwhile,” the anonymous author wrote, “Mr. DARWIN, as the fruit of a quarter of a century of patient observation and experiment, throws out, in a book whose title has by this time become familiar to the reading public, a series of arguments and inferences so revolutionary as, if established, to necessitate a radical reconstruction of the fundamental doctrines of natural history.”

Download the full article.

The Search for Genes Leads to Unexpected Places
New York Times, April 26, 2010
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Edward M. Marcotte is looking for drugs that can kill tumors by stopping blood vessel growth, and he and his colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin recently found some good targets -- five human genes that are essential for that growth. Now they’re hunting for drugs that can stop those genes from working. Strangely, though, Dr. Marcotte did not discover the new genes in the human genome, nor in lab mice or even fruit flies. He and his colleagues found the genes in yeast.

“On the face of it, it’s just crazy,” Dr. Marcotte said. After all, these single-cell fungi don’t make blood vessels. They don’t even make blood. In yeast, it turns out, these five genes work together on a completely unrelated task: fixing cell walls.

Yet Another "Missing Link"
Slate, April 8, 2010
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The news began bubbling out over the weekend: "Missing link between man and apes found," declared an April 3 story in the London Telegraph. When I saw that headline, I thought to myself, "Please, please, not again."

Whenever scientists make a major discovery about human evolution, we get treated to a lot of misconceptions. The most popular of them all is the myth of the missing link--the idea that paleontologists are on an eternal quest for ancestors linking us directly back to earlier forms of life. Last May, for example, scientists reported the discovery of a 47-million-year-old fossil of a primate called Darwinius. "Fossil is evolution's 'missing link,' " blared a headline in the Sun."The beautifully preserved remains--dubbed Ida--is believed to be a direct connection between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom," the article said--a sentence that makes no sense the first time you read it and then somehow manages to make even less sense the longer you look at it. The Sun was not alone in its delivery of nonsensical hype. Shortly after Darwinius was unveiled, the History Channel aired a show about its discovery, called The Link. The show itself may be long gone, but its elaborate Web site lives on, still "uncovering our earliest ancestor." To all our wormlike ancestors and primordial bacterial forerunners: You have my deepest sympathy for that slight.


Why Athletes Are Geniuses
Discover, April 2010
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The qualities that set a great athlete apart from the rest of us lie not just in the muscles and the lungs but also between the ears. That’s because athletes need to make complicated decisions in a flash. One of the most spectacular examples of the athletic brain operating at top speed came in 2001, when the Yankees were in an American League playoff game with the Oakland Athletics. Shortstop Derek Jeter managed to grab an errant throw coming in from right field and then gently tossed the ball to catcher Jorge Posada, who tagged the base runner at home plate. Jeter’s quick decision saved the game--and the series--for the Yankees. To make the play, Jeter had to master both conscious decisions, such as whether to intercept the throw, and unconscious ones. These are the kinds of unthinking thoughts he must make in every second of every game: how much weight to put on a foot, how fast to rotate his wrist as he releases a ball, and so on.

In recent years neuroscientists have begun to catalog some fascinating differences between average brains and the brains of great athletes. By understanding what goes on in athletic heads, researchers hope to understand more about the workings of all brains--those of sports legends and couch potatoes alike.

Artists Mine Scientific Clues to Paint Intricate Portraits of the Past
The New York Times, March 23, 2010
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Somewhere in England, about 600 years ago, an artist sat down and tried to paint an elephant. There was just one problem: he had never seen one.

The artist was illustrating a book known today as the “Bestiary of Anne Walshe,” a guide to animals. To paint an elephant, he could not jet to Kenya to scrutinize one in person. He could not visit the London zoo. He could not watch a David Attenborough DVD or click through a Web gallery of nature photographs. The only clues the artist could have found were in the mix of facts and myths preserved in old books.

Answers Begin to Emerge on How Thalidomide Caused Defect
The New York Times, March 16, 2010
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The word “phocomelia” means seal limb. It describes an extremely rare condition in which babies are born with limbs that look like flippers.

The long bones of the arms fail to develop, but fingers sometimes sprout from the shoulders. In some cases, the legs fail to develop, too. The French anatomist Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire coined the word in 1836, and it immediately sank into scientific obscurity for 120 years. And then, 50 years ago, it suddenly became all too familiar.

Look Deep Into The Mind's Eye
Discover, March 2010
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One day in 2005, a retired building surveyor in Edinburgh visited his doctor with a strange complaint: His mind’s eye had suddenly gone blind.

The surveyor, referred to as MX by his doctors, was 65 at the time. He had always felt that he possessed an exceptional talent for picturing things in his mind. The skill had come in handy in his job, allowing MX to recall the fine details of the buildings he surveyed. Just before drifting off to sleep, he enjoyed running through recent events as if he were watching a movie. He could picture his family, his friends, and even characters in the books he read.

The Primitive, Complicated, Essential Emotion Called Fear
Discover, January-February 2010
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Fear: See also dread, panic, terror, fright, trepidation, anxiety, worry, phobia, disquietude, angst, foreboding, the creeps, the jitters, the heebie-jeebies, freaking out.

Any halfway decent thesaurus will provide a long list of synonyms for fear, and yet they are not very good substitutes. No one would confuse having the creeps with being terrified. It is strange that we have so many words for fear, when fear is such a unitary, primal feeling. Perhaps all those synonyms are just linguistic inventions. Perhaps, if we looked inside our brains, we would just find plain old fear.

Fatal Attraction
National Geographic, March 2010
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A hungry fly darts through the pines in North Carolina. Drawn by what seems like the scent of nectar from a flowerlike patch of scarlet on the ground, the fly lands on the fleshy pad of a ruddy leaf. It takes a sip of the sweet liquid oozing from the leaf, brushing a leg against one tiny hair on its surface, then another. Suddenly the fly's world has walls around it. The two sides of the leaf are closing against each other, spines along its edges interlocking like the teeth of a jaw trap. As the fly struggles to escape, the trap squeezes shut. Now, instead of offering sweet nectar, the leaf unleashes enzymes that eat away at the fly's innards, gradually turning them into goo. The fly has suffered the ultimate indignity for an animal: It has been killed by a plant.

An Ominous Warning on the Effects of Ocean Acidification
Yale Environment 360, February 15, 2010
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The JOIDES Resolution looks like a bizarre hybrid of an oil rig and a cargo ship. It is, in fact, a research vessel that ocean scientists use to dig up sediment from the sea floor. In 2003, on a voyage to the southeastern Atlantic, scientists aboard the JOIDES Resolution brought up a particularly striking haul.

They had drilled down into sediment that had formed on the sea floor over the course of millions of years. The oldest sediment in the drill was white. It had been formed by the calcium carbonate shells of single-celled organisms -- the same kind of material that makes up the White Cliffs of Dover. But when the scientists examined the sediment that had formed 55 million years ago, the color changed in a geological blink of an eye.

Evidence Builds on Color of Dinosaurs
The New York Times, February 5, 2010
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Until last week, paleontologists could offer no clear-cut evidence for the color of dinosaurs. Then researchers provided evidence that a dinosaur called Sinosauropteryx had a white-and-ginger striped tail. And now a team of paleontologists has published a full-body portrait of another dinosaur, in striking plumage that would have delighted that great painter of birds John James Audubon.

“This is actual science, not ‘Avatar,’ ” said Richard O. Prum, an evolutionary biologist at Yale and co-author of the new study, published in Science.

Dr. Prum and his colleagues took advantage of the fact that feathers contain pigment-loaded sacs called melanosomes. In 2009, they demonstrated that melanosomes survived for millions of years in fossil bird feathers. The shape and arrangement of melanosomes help produce the color of feathers, so the scientists were able to get clues about the color of fossil feathers from their melanosomes alone.

Study Offers an Insight Into Dinosaur Colors
The New York Times, January 28, 2010
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What color were dinosaurs? Well, at least one of them had a feathered mohawk tail in a subdued palette of chestnut and white stripes.

That is what a team of Chinese and British scientists reported Wednesday in Nature, providing the first clear evidence of dinosaur colors from studies of 125-million-year-old fossils of a dinosaur called Sinosauropteryx.

“We might be able to start painting a picture in color of what these things looked like,” said Lawrence M. Witmer, a paleontologist at Ohio University, who was not involved in the study.

Of course, such pictures have been painted many times, but the colors were products of a painter’s imagination, not a scientist’s laboratory.

Network Theory: A Key to Unraveling How Nature Works
Yale Environment 360, January 25, 2010
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Ecologists who want to save the world’s biodiversity could learn a lot from Kevin Bacon.

One evening in 1994, three college students in Pennsylvania were watching Bacon in the eminently forgettable basketball movie The Air Up There. They started thinking about all the movies Bacon had starred in, and all the actors he had worked with, and all the actors those actors had worked with. The students came up with a game they called Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, counting the steps from Bacon to any actor in Hollywood. In general, it takes remarkably few steps to reach him. Even Charlie Chaplin, who made most of his movies decades before Bacon was born, was only three steps away. (Chaplin starred with Barry Norton in Monsieur Verdoux, Norton starred with Robert Wagner in What Price Glory, and Wagner and Bacon worked together in Wild Things.)

Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon became a 1990s sensation, complete with talk show appearances and a book deal. University of Virginia computer scientists got on the bandwagon as well, building a web site called The Oracle of Bacon. You can use it to analyze the connections between all 1.6 million actors listed in the Internet Movie Database. It reveals that all actors in Hollywood are connected to Bacon on average by just 2.95 steps.

Hunting Fossil Viruses in Human DNA
The New York Times, January 12, 2010
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The borna virus is at once obscure and grotesque. It can infect mammals and birds, but scientists know little about its effects on its victims. In some species it seems to be harmless, but it can drive horses into wild fits. The horses sometimes kill themselves by smashing in their skulls. In other cases, they starve themselves to death. Some scientists have even claimed that borna viruses alter human behavior, playing a role in schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, although others say there is no solid evidence of a link.

The virus now turns out to have an intimate bond with every person on Earth. In the latest issue of Nature, a team of Japanese and American scientists report that the human genome contains borna virus genes. The virus infected our monkey-like ancestors 40 million years ago, and its genes have been passed down ever since.

Borna viruses are not the only viruses lurking in our genome. Scientists have found about 100,000 elements of human DNA that probably came from viruses. But the borna virus belongs to a kind of virus that has never been found in the human genome before. Its discovery raises the possibility that many more viruses are left to be found.

Using a Virus’s Knack for Mutating to Wipe It Out
The New York Times, January 5, 2010
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Evolution is a virus’s secret weapon. The virus can rapidly slip on new disguises to evade our immune systems, and it can become resistant to antiviral drugs.

But some scientists are turning the virus’s secret weapon against it. They hope to cure infections by forcing viruses to evolve their way to extinction.

Viruses can evolve because of the mistakes they make when they replicate. All living things can mutate, but viruses are especially prone to these genetic errors. In fact, some species of viruses mutate hundreds of thousands of times faster than we do.

Scientists Discover Origin of a Cancer in Tasmanian Devils
The New York Times, January 1, 2010
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The Tasmanian devil, the spaniel-size marsupial found on the Australian island of Tasmania, has been hurtling toward extinction in recent years, the victim of a bizarre and mysterious facial cancer that spreads like a plague.

Now Australian scientists say they have discovered how the cancer originated. The finding, being reported Friday in the journal Science, sheds light on how cancer cells can sometimes liberate themselves from the hosts where they first emerged. On a more practical level, it also opens the door to devising vaccines that could save the Tasmanian devils.

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