How to Control an Army of Zombies
The New York Times,
December 5, 2012Link
In the rain forests of Costa Rica lives Anelosimus octavius, a species of spider that sometimes displays a strange and ghoulish habit.
From time to time these spiders abandon their own webs and build radically different ones, a home not for the spider but for a parasitic wasp that has been living inside it. Then the spider dies -- a zombie architect, its brain hijacked by its parasitic invader -- and out of its body crawls the wasp’s larva, which has been growing inside it all this time.
The current issue of the prestigious Journal of Experimental Biology is entirely dedicated to such examples of zombies in nature. They are far from rare. Viruses, fungi, protozoans, wasps, tapeworms and a vast number of other parasites can control the brains of their hosts and get them to do their bidding. But only recently have scientists started to work out the sophisticated biochemistry that the parasites use.
Past Pandemics Are in Our Genes
December 6, 2012Link
To understand what it means to be human, you have to understand koalas. Or, to be more precise, you have to understand how they are dying from a bizarre viral outbreak that has been raging for the past 150 years or so. The koalas are now going through something our ancestors experienced 31 times over the past 60 million years. And those ancient viral outbreaks have helped to make us who we are today.Read the entire article at Slate
The Charlie Brown Effect
December 2012 Link
I am sitting in a darkened, closet-size lab at Tufts University, my scalp covered by a blue cloth cap studded with electrodes that detect electric signals from my brain. Data flow from the electrodes down rainbow- colored wires to an electroencephalography (eeg) machine, which records the activity so a scientist can study it later on.
Wearing this elaborate setup, I gaze at a television in front of me, focusing on a tiny cross at the center of the screen. The cross disappears, and a still image appears of Snoopy chasing a leaf. Then Charlie Brown takes Snoopy’s place, pitching a baseball. Lucy, Linus, and Woodstock visit as well. For the next half hour I stare at Peanuts comic strips, one frame at a time. The panels are without words, and while sometimes the action makes sense from frame to frame, at other times the Peanuts gang seems to be engaging in a series of unconnected shenanigans.
An Electric Cure for the Mind
Ian Reid, a psychiatrist at the Royal Cornhill Hospital in the Scottish city of Aberdeen, has treated people with severe depression for 25 years. “It’s a very nasty illness, depression,” he says. “I have worked with people who have cancer and depression, and more than one of them has said, ‘If I had to choose one of those two diseases, I’d go for the cancer.’ ”
When patients come to Royal Cornhill with major depression, they’re first treated with psychotherapy and antidepressants. Only about 40 percent respond to their first medication. Sometimes a different one will do the trick, but in Reid’s experience, about 10 to 20 percent of depressed people respond to no drug at all. In those cases, Reid regularly shifts to a third option. It’s officially called electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT-- better known by its unofficial name, shock therapy.
Scientists Move Closer to a Lasting Flu Vaccine
The New York Times,
October 30, 2012Link
As this year’s flu season gathers steam, doctors and pharmacists have a fresh stock of vaccines to offer their patients. The vaccines usually provide strong protection against the virus, but only for a while. Vaccines for other diseases typically work for years or decades. With the flu, though, next fall it will be time to get another dose.
“In the history of vaccinology, it’s the only one we update year to year,” said Gary J. Nabel, the director of the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
That has been the case ever since the flu vaccine was introduced in the 1950s. But a flurry of recent studies on the virus has brought some hope for a change. Dr. Nabel and other flu experts foresee a time when seasonal flu shots are a thing of the past, replaced by long-lasting vaccines.
Misconduct Widespread in Retracted Science Papers, Study Finds
New York Times,
October 2, 2012Link
Last year the journal Nature reported an alarming increase in the number of retractions of scientific papers -- a tenfold rise in the previous decade, to more than 300 a year across the scientific literature.
Other studies have suggested that most of these retractions resulted from honest errors. But a deeper analysis of retractions, being published this week, challenges that comforting assumption.
From Cooling System to Thinking Machine: The Long, Strange History of Ideas About the Brain
October 10, 2012Link
Hilary Putnam is not a household name. The Harvard philosopher’s work on the nature of reality, meaning, and language may be required reading in graduate school, but Putnam’s fame hasn’t extended far beyond the academy. But one of Putnam’s thought experiments is familiar to millions of people: what it would be like to be a brain in a vat?
Read the entire article at Being Human
Ecosystems on the Brink
Peter Lake lies deep in a maple forest near the Wisconsin-Michigan border. One day in July 2008 a group of scientists and graduate students led by ecologist Stephen Carpenter of the University of Wisconsin–Madison arrived at the lake with some fish. One by one, they dropped 12 largemouth bass into the water. Then they headed for home, leaving behind sensors that could measure water clarity every five minutes, 24 hours a day.
The scientists repeated the same trip two more times in 2009. Each time they dropped 15 more bass into the water. Months passed. The lake cycled through the seasons. It froze over, thawed out and bloomed again with life. Then, in the summer of 2010, Peter Lake changed dramatically. Before the scientists started their experiment, the lake abounded in fathead minnows, pumpkinseeds and other small fish. Now, however, those once dominant predators were rare, for the most part eaten by the largemouth bass. The few survivors hid in the shallows. Water fleas and other tiny animals that the small fish once devoured were now free to flourish. And because these diminutive animals graze on algae, the lake water became clearer. Two years later the ecosystem remains in its altered state.Read the entire article at Scientific American
Are Neanderthals Human?
September 20, 2012 Link
In August 1856, in the German valley of Neander--Neanderthal in German--men cutting limestone for the Prussian construction industry stumbled upon some bones in a cave. Looking vaguely human, the bones--a piece of a skull, portions of limbs, and fragments of shoulder blades and ribs--eventually made their way to an anatomist in Bonn named Hermann Schaafhausen.
Schaafhausen pored over the fossils, observing their crests and knobs. He noticed that the bones had the overall shape you'd expect from a human skeleton. But some bones had strange features, too. The skullcap, for example, sported a heavy brow ridge, hanging over the eyes like a boney pair of goggles. It was, at once, human and not.
The Neanderthal Man challenged Schaafhausen with a simple yet profound question: Was it a human, or did it belong to another species?
It's been over 150 years since the bones first emerged from the Neander Valley--a time during which we've learned a vast amount about human evolution. Today, scientists can even scan the genomes of Neanderthals who died 50,000 years ago. And yet the debate still rages. It's a debate that extends beyond Neanderthals, forcing us to ask what it means to be a species at all.Read the entire article at PBS
Gene Tests in Yeast Aid Work on Cancer
The New York Times,
August 21, 2012Link
People have been searching for new medicines for thousands of years, and yet we have barely explored the universe of possibilities. Recently chemists at the University of Bern in Switzerland tried to estimate how many promising molecules have yet to be tested. In June they published their best guess: over a million billion billion billion billion billion billion. Blindly testing those molecules one at a time is not practical, and most of them will turn out to be useless anyway. So many scientists are looking for strategies they can use to zero in more quickly on promising candidates.
At the University of Texas at Austin, a team of biologists is speeding the search by exploring our evolutionary history. They are finding surprising links between the biology of humans and that of our most distant relatives -- links that point the way to new drugs. On Tuesday in the journal PLoS Biology, the researchers describe the first fruit of this approach: a drug that shows a promising ability to shrink tumors. Its cancer-fighting ability has been hiding in plain sight since the 1960s, when it was approved to treat fungal infections. Until the new research, no one had thought to test the drug against cancer.
Good Scientist! You Get a Badge
August 14, 2012Link
As a young biologist, Elizabeth Iorns did what all young biologists do: She looked around for something interesting to investigate. Having earned a Ph.D. in cancer biology in 2007, she was intrigued by a paper that appeared the following year in Nature. Biologists at the University of California-Berkeley linked a gene called SATB1 to cancer. They found that it becomes unusually active in cancer cells and that switching it on in ordinary cells made them cancerous. The flipside proved true, too: Shutting down SATB1 in cancer cells returned them to normal. The results raised the exciting possibility that SATB1 could open up a cure for cancer. So Iorns decided to build on the research.
There was just one problem. As her first step, Iorns tried replicate the original study. She couldn’t. Boosting SATB1 didn’t make cells cancerous, and shutting it down didn’t make the cancer cells normal again.
For some years now, scientists have gotten increasingly worried about replication failures. In one recent example, NASA made a headline-grabbing announcement in 2010 that scientists had found bacteria that could live on arsenic--a finding that would require biology textbooks to be rewritten. At the time, many experts condemned the paper as a poor piece of science that shouldn’t have been published. This July, two teams of scientists reported that they couldn’t replicate the results.Read the entire article at Slate
Flu That Leapt From Birds to Seals Is Studied for Human Threat
The New York Times,
July 31, 2012 Link
Four times in the past century, a new strain of flu has emerged that can spread quickly in humans. One of those strains, which emerged in 1918, killed an estimated 50 million people.
All human flu strains evolved from flu viruses that live in birds. To understand how these transitions happen, scientists have recently been tinkering with a strain of bird flu to see how many mutations it takes until its spreads from mammal to mammal.
When news of their efforts emerged last fall, a fierce debate broke out about the wisdom of publishing the experiments in full.
Eventually, the scientists got the go-ahead from a federal advisory board, and earlier this year they described how a few mutations of a strain called H5N1 enabled it to spread among ferrets. But the controversy still rages: Responding to worries about an accidental release of an engineered virus, leading flu scientists agreed in January to a moratorium on further research, and experts are debating when it should be lifted.
Humans Driving Evolution of the Spotted Salamander
“There’s some hopping going on here,” says Steve Brady.
Brady is mucking through a pond. His hair, black dusted with gray, swirls over his forehead. He wears hip-high wading boots, which keep him dry as he wobbles in the deep mud and negotiates downed logs. The pond he’s slogging through sits on the eastern edge of Westwoods, a forest preserve in Guilford, Conn. Piles of tumbled granite boulders and stands of maples rise over the water. Long-legged mosquitoes drift around Brady, looking for a patch of skin. Water striders flit along the pond’s surface to get out of his way. A frog croaks from time to time. Brady stops and scans the water like an egret, and then he shoots his arm into the water. He brings up his hand in a delicately clenched fist.
“I’m not sure what I’ve got,” he calls out. “I just see the nose.”
Bottles Full of Brain Boosters
I dig a knife into a cardboard box, slit it open, and lift a plastic bottle of bright red fluid from inside. I set it down on my kitchen table, next to my coffee and eggs. The drink, called NeuroSonic, is labeled with a cartoon silhouette of a head, with a red circle where its brain should be. A jagged line--presumably the trace of an EKG--crosses the circle. And down at the very bottom of the bottle, it reads, “Mental performance in every bottle.”
My office is full of similar boxes: Dream Water (“Dream Responsibly”), Brain Toniq (“The clean and intelligent think drink”), iChill (“helps you relax, reduce stress, sleep better”), and Nawgan (“What to Drink When You Want to Think”). These products contain mixtures of neurotransmitters, hormones, and neuroactive amino acids, but you don’t need a prescription to buy them. I ordered mine on Amazon, and you can even find them in many convenience stores.
I unscrew the cap from one of them and take a gulp. NeuroSonic tastes like cherry and aluminum. I wait for my neurons to light up.
The Evolution of Bird Flu, and the Race to Keep Up
The New York Times,
June 26, 2012Link
On May 20, a 10-year-old girl in rural Cambodia got a fever. Five days later, she was admitted to a hospital, and after two days of intensive care she was dead.
The girl was the most recent documented victim of the influenza virus H5N1, a strain that has caused 606 known human cases and 357 deaths since it re-emerged in 2003 after a six-year absence.
H5N1 can race through bird populations, and the World Health Organization suspects the girl was infected while preparing chicken for a meal. While humans are not ideal hosts for H5N1, bird flu viruses do sometimes manage to adapt for easy transmission from human to human, and the results can be devastating. In 1918, one such transformation led to the Spanish flu pandemic, a global outbreak that claimed an estimated 50 million people.
Tending the Body’s Microbial Garden
The New York Times,
June 18, 2012Link
For a century, doctors have waged war against bacteria, using antibiotics as their weapons. But that relationship is changing as scientists become more familiar with the 100 trillion microbes that call us home — collectively known as the microbiome.
“I would like to lose the language of warfare,” said Julie Segre, a senior investigator at the National Human Genome Research Institute. “It does a disservice to all the bacteria that have co-evolved with us and are maintaining the health of our bodies.”
This new approach to health is known as medical ecology. Rather than conducting indiscriminate slaughter, Dr. Segre and like-minded scientists want to be microbial wildlife managers.
'Zoobiquity’: What Animals Can Teach Us About Our Health
June 17, 2012Link
Barbara Natterson-Horowitz’s world was turned upside down by a monkey with a heart attack. Natterson-Horowitz is a cardiologist at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. She’s also on the medical advisory board for the Los Angeles Zoo, where she goes from time to time to consult for the zoo veterinarians. One day in 2005, the vets at the zoo asked her to come by to take a look at a kitten-size emperor tamarin named Spitzbuben that was suffering from heart failure.
As Natterson-Horowitz examined Spitzbuben, she did what she usually does with her human patients: she gazed into Spitzbuben’s miniature eyes to put her at ease.
Immediately she felt the vet’s hand on her shoulder.
Tree of Life Project Aims for Every Leaf and Twig
The New York Times,
June 4, 2012Link
In 1837, Charles Darwin opened a notebook and drew a simple tree with a few branches. Each branch, which he labeled with a letter, represented a species. In that doodle, he captured his newfound realization that species were related, having evolved from a common ancestor. Across the top of the page he wrote, “I think.”
Two decades later Darwin presented a detailed account of the tree of life in “On the Origin of Species.” And much of evolutionary biology since then has been dedicated to illuminating parts of the tree. Using DNA, fossils and other clues, scientists have been able to work out the relationships of many groups of organisms, making rough sketches of the entire tree of life. “Animals and fungi are in one part of the tree, and plants are far away in another part,” said Laura A. Katz, an evolutionary biologist at Smith College.
Now Dr. Katz and a number of other colleagues are doing something new. They are drawing a tree of life that includes every known species. A tree, in other words, with about two million branches.
The Vital Chain: Connecting The Ecosystems of Land and Sea
Yale Environment 360,
May 17, 2012Link
For the past few years, Douglas McCauley has been tracking Pacific manta rays that live around a chain of remote islands called Palmyra Atoll. McCauley, a marine biologist at the University of California at Berkeley, and his colleagues tag the giant fishes with “pingers” -- acoustic devices that emit pulses -- and then follow the sound. “You’re in a boat, following the animal night and day,” says McCauley.
The scientists embarked on this study to learn more about the ecology of these majestic animals. “There’s remarkably little known about manta rays,” McCauley says. Pacific manta rays are among the biggest fishes in the world, with wing-like fins that can stretch as far as nine meters across. To feed their massive bodies, they suck water into their mouth and out of their gills, trapping tiny animals in a filter-like mesh of bones. Any changes to the ocean food web -- a rise in temperature or a drop in nutrient levels, for example -- can influence the size of the manta ray population.
Curing our Influenza Amnesia
, May 17, 2012Link
Our brains are not the only places where we can store memories. Each time a new pathogen invades our bodies, our immune cells have an opportunity to recognize it by some feature, usually some distinctive cleft or spike of a protein on its surface. After our bodies defeat the infection, some immune cells are tasked with keeping the memory of that feature alive for years. If that same pathogen returns for a second attack, our bodies can launch a far faster counterattack.
We can tutor our immune systems with vaccines. Depending on the disease they protect against, vaccines may contain dead viruses, protein fragments, or some other substance derived from a pathogen. Our bodies then make antibodies against those substances, and some immune cells continue making those antibodies for years. For many diseases, our memories can endure like etchings in stone. Once children get shots for polio, they’re usually protected for the rest of their lives.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the flu virus. When it comes to influenza, it’s as if we have short-term amnesia.
Tapeworms Living Inside People's Brains
June 2012; published online May 15, 2012.Link
Theodore Nash sees only a few dozen patients a year in his clinic at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. That’s pretty small as medical practices go, but what his patients lack in number they make up for in the intensity of their symptoms. Some fall into comas. Some are paralyzed down one side of their body. Others can’t walk a straight line. Still others come to Nash partially blind, or with so much fluid in their brain that they need shunts implanted to relieve the pressure. Some lose the ability to speak; many fall into violent seizures.
Underneath this panoply of symptoms is the same cause, captured in the MRI scans that Nash takes of his patients’ brains. Each brain contains one or more whitish blobs. You might guess that these are tumors. But Nash knows the blobs are not made of the patient’s own cells. They are tapeworms. Aliens.
It’s Not So Lonely at the Top: Ecosystems Thrive High in the Sky
The New York Times,
May 7, 2012Link
Looming over the northern edge of the Amazon rain forest are some of the most remarkable mountains on earth. Known as tepuis, or tabletop mountains, they are typically ringed by sheer cliffs that rise thousands of feet from the surrounding lowland jungles. Instead of peaks, tepuis have enormous flat expanses at their tops. To reach the tops of many tepuis, the only choices are scaling the cliffs or flying in a helicopter.
For all their isolation, the tops of tepuis are not barren. They are like islands in the sky, covered with low forests and shrublands that support a diversity of animals likes frogs and lizards. Many of the species that live on top of the tepuis are found nowhere else on the planet.
In a paper to be published in the journal Evolution, a team of scientists report the first DNA-based study to address an age-old question about the tepuis: How did animals and plants end up in such an inaccessible place?
Can a Brain Scan Tell You What Drugs to Take and Choices to Make?
Ahmad Hariri stands in a dim room at the Duke University Medical Center, watching his experiment unfold. There are five computer monitors spread out before him. On one screen, a giant eye jerks its gaze from one corner to another. On a second, three female faces project terror, only to vanish as three more female faces, this time devoid of emotion, pop up instead. A giant window above the monitors looks into a darkened room illuminated only by the curve of light from the interior of a powerful functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. A Duke undergraduate--we’ll call him Ross--is lying in the tube of the scanner. He’s looking into his own monitor, where he can observe pictures as the apparatus tracks his eye movements and the blood oxygen levels in his brain.
Ross has just come to the end of an hour-long brain scanning session. One of Hariri’s graduate students, Yuliya Nikolova, speaks into a microphone. "Okay, we’re done," she says. Ross emerges from the machine, pulls his sweater over his head, and signs off on his paperwork.
The Common Hand
The hand is where the mind meets the world. We humans use our hands to build fires and sew quilts, to steer airplanes, to write, dig, remove tumors, pull a rabbit out of a hat. The human brain, with its open-ended creativity, may be the thing that makes our species unique. But without hands, all the grand ideas we concoct would come to nothing but a very long to-do list.
The reason we can use our hands for so many things is their extraordinary anatomy. Underneath the skin, hands are an exquisite integration of tissues. The thumb alone is controlled by nine separate muscles. Some are anchored to bones within the hand, while others snake their way to the arm. The wrist is a floating cluster of bones and ligaments threaded with blood vessels and nerves. The nerves send branches into each fingertip. The hand can generate fine forces or huge ones. A watchmaker can use his hands to set springs in place under a microscope. A pitcher can use the same anatomy to throw a ball at a hundred miles an hour.
A Sharp Rise in Retractions Prompts Calls for Reform
New York Times,
April 16, 2012Link
In the fall of 2010, Dr. Ferric C. Fang made an unsettling discovery. Dr. Fang, who is editor in chief of the journal Infection and Immunity, found that one of his authors had doctored several papers.
It was a new experience for him. "Prior to that time," he said in an interview, "Infection and Immunity had only retracted nine articles over a 40-year period."
The journal wound up retracting six of the papers from the author, Naoki Mori of the University of the Ryukyus in Japan. And it soon became clear that Infection and Immunity was hardly the only victim of Dr. Mori's misconduct. Since then, other scientific journals have retracted two dozen of his papers, according to the watchdog blog Retraction Watch.
"Nobody had noticed the whole thing was rotten," said Dr. Fang, who is a professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine.
The Brain: The Connections May Be the Key
If I didn’t know Sebastian Seung was a neuroscientist, I would have pegged him as a computer game designer. His onyx-black hair seems frozen in a windstorm. He wears black sneakers, jeans, and a frayed bomber jacket over an untucked shirt covered in fluorescent blobs. If someone had blindfolded me on Vassar Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, led me into Building 46 on the campus of MIT, past the sign that says Department of Brain and Cognitive Science, taken me up in the elevator to the fifth floor and whisked off the blindfold in Seung’s lab, I still wouldn’t have guessed he had anything to do with brains. There are no specimens floating in jars on the shelves. There are no electrodes plugged into the heads of sea slugs. Instead, I see a dozen young men gazing at monitors, some pushing their computer mice, others drawing tethered pens across digital tablets to manipulate 3-D images, each packed with more megabytes than a feature film on a Blu-ray Disc.
And there is Seung himself, gazing over the shoulder of postdoc Daniel Berger, whose monitor looks like a science fiction forest, with branches and trunks colored turquoise and cherry, floating unrooted in space. I almost find myself wondering when Seung’s next game will hit the stores.
2 Studies Point to Common Pesticide as a Culprit in Declining Bee Colonies
The New York Times,
March 29, 2012Link
Scientists have been alarmed and puzzled by declines in bee populations in the United States and other parts of the world. They have suspected that pesticides are playing a part, but to date their experiments have yielded conflicting, ambiguous results.
In Thursday’s issue of the journal Science, two teams of researchers published studies suggesting that low levels of a common pesticide can have significant effects on bee colonies. One experiment, conducted by French researchers, indicates that the chemicals fog honeybee brains, making it harder for them to find their way home. The other study, by scientists in Britain, suggests that they keep bumblebees from supplying their hives with enough food to produce new queens.
The authors of both studies contend that their results raise serious questions about the use of the pesticides, known as neonicotinoids.
Antiviral Drugs Could Blast the Common Cold -- Should We Use Them?
There’s a moment in the history of medicine that’s so cinematic it’s a wonder no one has put it in a movie. The scene is a London laboratory. The year is 1928. Alexander Fleming, a British microbiologist, is back from a vacation and is cleaning up his workspace. He notices that a speck of mold has invaded one of his cultures of Staphylococcus bacteria. It isn’t just spreading through the culture, though. It is killing the bacteria surrounding it.
Fleming rescued the culture and carefully isolated the mold. He ran a series of experiments that confirmed it made a Staphylococcus-killing molecule. And Fleming then discovered it could kill many other species of infectious bacteria as well. "I had a clue that here was something good, but I could not possibly know how good it was," he later said.
Hope, Hype and Genetic Breakthroughs
The Wall Street Journal,
March 10, 2012Link
I talk to scientists for a living, and one of my most memorable conversations took place a couple of years ago with an engineer who put electrodes in bird brains. The electrodes were implanted into the song-generating region of the brain, and he could control them with a wireless remote. When he pressed a button, a bird singing in a cage across the lab would fall silent. Press again, and it would resume its song.
I could instantly see a future in which this technology brought happiness to millions of people. Imagine a girl blind from birth. You could implant a future version of these wireless electrodes in the back of her brain and then feed it images from a video camera.
As a journalist, I tried to get the engineer to explore what seemed to me to be the inevitable benefits of his research. To his great credit, he wouldn't. He wasn't even sure his design would ever see the inside of a human skull. There were just too many ways for it to go wrong. He wanted to be very sure that I understood that and that I wouldn't claim otherwise. "False hope," he warned me, "is a sinful thing."
Amateurs Are New Fear in Creating Mutant Virus
The New York Times,
March 6, 2012Link
Just how easy is it to make a deadly virus?
This disturbing question has been on the minds of many scientists recently, thanks to a pair of controversial experiments in which the H5N1 bird flu virus was transformed into mutant forms that spread among mammals.
After months of intense worldwide debate, a panel of scientists brought together by the World Health Organization recommended last week in favor of publishing the results. There is no word on exactly when those papers -- withheld since last fall by the journals Nature and Science -- will appear. But when they do, will it be possible for others to recreate the mutant virus? And if so, who might they be and how would they do it?
The Troublesome Bloom of Autism
Eric Courchesne managed to find a positive thing about getting polio: It gave him a clear idea of what he would do when he grew up. Courchesne was stricken in 1953, when he was 4. The infection left his legs so wasted that he couldn’t stand or walk. “My mother had to carry me everywhere,” he says. His parents helped him learn how to move his toes again. They took him to a pool to learn to swim. When he was 6, they took him to a doctor who gave him metal braces, and then they helped him learn to hobble around on them. Doctors performed half a dozen surgeries on his legs, grafting muscles to give him more strength.
Courchesne was 11 when the braces finally came off, and his parents patiently helped him practice walking on his own. “Through their encouragement, I went on to have dreams beyond what you’d expect,” he says. He went to college at the University of California, Berkeley. One day he stopped to watch the gymnastics team practicing, and the coach asked him to try out. Before long Courchesne was on the team, where he won the western U.S. championship in still rings.
The Secret Life of Bees
On the front porch of an old Coast Guard station on Appledore Island, seven miles off the southern coast of Maine, Thomas Seeley and I sat next to 6,000 quietly buzzing bees. Seeley wore a giant pair of silver headphones over a beige baseball cap, a wild fringe of hair blowing out the back; next to him was a video camera mounted on a tripod. In his right hand, Seeley held a branch with a lapel microphone taped to the end. He was recording the honeybee swarm huddling inches away on a board nailed to the top of a post.
Seeley, a biologist from Cornell University, had cut a notch out of the center of the board and inserted a tiny screened box called a queen cage. It housed a single honeybee queen, along with a few attendants. Her royal scent acted like a magnet on the swarm.
To Evict Parasite, Canny Fruit Flies Pick Their Poison
The New York Times,
February 21, 2012Link
Fruit flies may seem as if they lead an uneventful life. They look for old fruit to lay their eggs. The maggots then hatch and graze on the yeast and bacteria that make the fruit rot.
In reality, however, these flies have to do battle with horrifying enemies. Tiny wasps seek out the maggots and lay eggs inside them. The wasps develop inside the still living flies, feeding on their tissues. When the wasps reach adult size, they crawl out of the dying bodies of their hosts.
The flies are not helpless victims, however. In the journal Current Biology, Todd Schlenke, an Emory University biologist, and his colleagues report a remarkable defense the insects use: To kill their parasites, the flies get drunk.
Our Strange, Important, Subconscious Light Detectors
There was no way the blind mice could see, yet somehow, they could. The year was 1923, and a Harvard grad student named Clyde Keeler had set out to compare eyes from different animals, starting with mice that he bred in his dorm room. Keeler cut open one mouse’s eye and put it under a microscope. Immediately he realized something was wrong. Missing from the eye was the layer of rods and cones, the photoreceptors that catch light. Turning back to his colony, Keeler realized that half of his animals were blind. Somehow a mutation had arisen, wiping out their rods and cones.
The mutation had blinded those mice with surgical precision, yet for reasons lost to history, Keeler got the strange idea to shine a light in their eyes anyway. Based on everything that scientists knew about mammalian eyes, nothing should have happened. After all, the mice had no way to capture light and relay it to the retinal ganglion cells, the neurons that normally pass visual signals on to the brain. And yet something did happen: The mouse pupils shrank.
Friends with Benefits
February 20, 2012Link
Since 1995, John Mitani, a primatologist at the University of Michigan, has been going to Uganda to study 160 chimpanzees that live in the forests of Kibale National Park. Seventeen years is a long time to spend watching wild animals, and after a while it’s rare to see truly new behavior. That’s why Mitani loves to tell the tale of a pair of older males in the Kibale group that the researchers named Hare and Ellington.
Hare and Ellington weren’t related, yet when they went on hunting trips with other males, they’d share prey with each other rather than compete for it. If Ellington reached out a hand, Hare would give him a piece of meat. If one of them got into a fight, the other would back him up. Hare and Ellington would spend entire days traveling through the forest together. Sometimes they’d be side by side. Other times, they’d be 100 yards apart, staying in touch through the foliage with loud, hooting calls. “They’d always be yakking at each other,” says Mitani.
Their friendship--for that’s what Mitani calls it--lasted until Ellington’s death in 2002. What happened next was striking and sad. For all the years that Mitani had followed him, Hare had been a sociable, high-ranking ape. But when Ellington died, Hare went through a sudden change. “He dropped out,” says Mitani. “He just didn’t want to be with anybody for several weeks. He seemed to go into mourning.”Read more
From Inside Lions and Leviathans, Anatomist Builds a Following
The New York Times,
February 7, 2012Link
Joy Reidenberg’s trip from Dublin to New York in January 2009 was without a doubt the most embarrassing flight of her life.
Her skin gave off a foul stench, like a refrigerator that has gone days without power. She told the flight attendants she was sick, and they discreetly moved her to a seat by the lavatory. They told the other passengers that they were having a little trouble with the bathrooms.
In fact, Dr. Reidenberg was perfectly healthy. “The truth was too hard to explain,” she said: “ ‘Don’t mind me, I was inside a whale yesterday.’ ”
Study Finds Virus to Be Fast Learner on Infecting
The New York Times,
January 27, 2012Link
Viruses regularly evolve new ways of making people sick, but scientists usually do not become aware of these new strategies until years or centuries after they have evolved. In a new study published on Thursday in the journal Science, however, a team of scientists at Michigan State University describes how viruses evolved a new way of infecting cells in little more than two weeks.
The report is being published in the midst of a controversy over a deadly bird flu virus that researchers manipulated to spread from mammal to mammal. Some critics have questioned whether such a change could have happened on its own. The new research suggests that new traits based on multiple mutations can indeed occur with frightening speed.
Yeast Experiment Hints at a Faster Evolution From Single Cells
The New York Times,
January 16, 2012Link
Our ancestors were single-celled microbes for about three billion years before they evolved bodies. But in a laboratory at the University of Minnesota, brewer’s yeast cells can evolve primitive bodies in about two weeks.
The transition to multicellular life has long intrigued evolutionary biologists. The cells in our bodies have evolved to cooperate with exquisite precision. The human body has more than 200 types of cells, each dedicated to a different job. And a vast majority of the 100 trillion cells in our bodies sacrifice their own long-term legacy: Only eggs and sperm have a chance to survive our own death.
Can A Scientist Define “Life”?
January 10, 2012Link
In November 2011, NASA launched its biggest, most ambitious mission to Mars. The $2.5 billion Mars Science Lab spacecraft will arrive in orbit around the Red Planet this August, releasing a lander that will use rockets to control a slow descent into the atmosphere. Equipped with a “sky crane” (NASA’s official, and very cool, term), the lander will gently lower the one-ton Curosity rover on the surface of Mars. Curiosity, which weighs five times more than any previous Martian rover, will perform an unprecedented battery of tests for three months as it scoops up soil from the floor of the 96-mile-wide Gale Crater. Its mission, NASA says, will be to “assess whether Mars ever was, or is still today, an environment able to support microbial life.”
For all the spectacular engineering that’s gone into Curiosity, however, its goal is actually quite modest. When NASA says it wants to find out if Mars was ever suitable for life, they use a very circumscribed version of the word. They are looking for signs of liquid water, which all living things on Earth need. They are looking for organic carbon, which life on Earth produces and, in some cases, can feed on to survive. In other words, they’re looking on Mars for the sorts of conditions that support life on Earth.
King of the Cosmos (A Profile of Neil deGrasse Tyson)
Playboy, January 2012
On a hay-mown crest, dozens of people are crouching in the dark. The Earth has turned away from the sun, and the sky has flowed down a color chart, from light gray to orange to bluish-black. A sliver of a waxing moon has appeared briefly and then slipped below the western horizon, leaving the sky to blinking airplanes rising from La Guardia fifty miles to the south, to satellites gliding in low orbit, to Jupiter and its herd of moons and to the great river of the Milky Way beyond.
The crowd that sits in this chilly field in North Salem, New York, is surrounded by a ring of telescopes. There’s a Dobsonian, a giant barrel-shaped contraption that’s so tall you have to climb a stepladder to look through its eyepiece. Small, squat Newtonian cylinders sit on tripods, rigged to computers that give off a weak lamp-glow from their monitors. A few older men are fussing over the telescopes, but everyone else is huddled on the grass.