Biology Letters, August 23
A fossilized feather has proved that birds had already developed fancy plumage 40 million years ago. Using scanning electron microscopy, researchers examined tiny structures on the feather and determined them to be melanosomes, the organelles inside pigment cells that determine coloration. The organization of the melanosomes resembled patterns seen in the iridescent feathers of birds like starlings and grackles, according to the study. This finding is just the latest progress from a team working to discover the colors of prehistoric birds and even feathered dinosaurs.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, August 25
In a study that probably provoked fierce debate in text messages, emails, and blogs simultaneously, researchers found that people who frequently multitask are actually bad at multitasking. The researchers expected multitaskers to be better than average at organizing information and switching between tasks quickly, but found just the opposite. Elsewhere in the journal, researchers examined the genome of honeybees and offered a partial explanation of colony collapse disorder. The study suggests that a variety of viruses are damaging the bees’ ability to make proteins that are needed to protect them from all the other slings and arrows of the world, like bacterial infections and food shortages. While this is an incremental step towards understanding what is destroying honeybee hives around the country, every little bit helps.
Nature, August 27
The most exciting thing in Nature this week was a fairly technical paper about a clever bit of genetic engineering, but it nonetheless received a good bit of media attention due to 1) the ethical implications of the work and 2) the cute pictures of baby monkeys that accompanied it. The study documented a new procedure in which the nucleus from one female monkey’s egg was removed and placed in an egg that had its nucleus stripped out. That recipient egg still contained a small bit of DNA in the form of mitochondrial DNA that resides in the cell’s cytoplasm, which means that the egg became a hybrid of two women’s genetic material. The eggs were then fertilized and succesfully produced those cute baby monkeys, who have the distinction of having three genetic parents. The medical rationale for this: Many inherited diseases can be carried in mitochondrial DNA, and this procedure could give women a chance to swap out their faulty genetic material and have healthy babies.
Science, August 28
Perhaps in homage to the final dog days of summer, Science published a nifty genetic study revealing the surprising simplicity behind the wide variation in dog coats. Just three genes determine whether a dog’s hair will be long or short, straight or curly, wiry or fuzzy. In the past year, researchers have also figured out the genes responsible for short-legged breeds like dachshunds and bald breeds like Mexican hairless dogs–but they haven’t yet found the gene that makes dogs want to destroy your slippers. Another study in the journal reported on the mysterious way in which sunspots impact the Earth’s climate. Even though years of intense sunspot activity only increase the amount of solar radiation reaching Earth by a tiny amount, researchers found that busy solar years can cause big changes in rainfall and wind patterns around the globe. The findings could help meteorologists predict weather patterns, the researchers say.