Archive for March, 2010

Chimp Bones & Monkey Blood: Folk Medicine Threatens 101 Primates

By Smriti Rao | March 29, 2010 11:59 am

gorilla-2Last week’s meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) put the spotlight on marine species like the bluefin tuna and some endangered sharks, as the meeting failed to protect them from being overfished to extinction. But a new survey published in the UK journal Mammal Review reminds us that it’s not just marine animals that are endangered by humans, but also primates.

The survey showed that despite CITES’ tight trade regulations for primates, more than a hundred primate species, from gorillas to monkeys to tiny lorises, are endangered by traditional medicine. The survey found that animals across the world were being hunted and killed for their perceived magical or medicinal values–of the 390 species studied, 101, or more than a quarter, are regularly killed for their body parts, with 47 species being used for their supposed medicinal properties, 34 for use in magical or religious practices, and 20 for both purposes [BBC].

The survey found that people still use primate parts to treat a wide variety of ailments. In Bolivia, spider monkey parts are used to cure snake bites, spider bites, fever, coughs, colds, shoulder pain, and sleeping problems; in India, the survey found that many people believe that macaque blood is a cure for asthma. Other monkeys or lorises have their bones or skulls ground up into powder administered with tea, or have their gall bladders ingested or blood or fat used as ointments [BBC]. Monkeys are also valued in Sierra Leone, where a small piece of chimpanzee bone is tied to a child’s waist or wrist, as parents believe it will make the child stronger as he grows older.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Living World

Evolutionary Biologist/Former Catholic Priest Wins $1.5M Templeton Prize

By Smriti Rao | March 26, 2010 4:48 pm

ayalaFormer Roman Catholic priest and respected evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala has won this year’s Templeton Prize. The $1.53 million award honors a living person “who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.” The John Templeton Foundation cited Ayala’s dogged work through the years advocating the peaceful co-existence of science and religion in its decision. The somewhat controversial prize is often given to scientists who find common ground between religion and science, but previous winners have also included more traditional spiritual leaders like Mother Teresa and televangelist Billy Graham.

Ayala is the former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and is respected for his research into the evolutionary history of the parasite scientists have associated with malaria, with an eye toward developing a cure for the disease. He also pioneered the use of an organism’s genetic material as molecular clocks that help track and time its origins [The Christian Science Monitor]. But he is known best, perhaps, for being an expert witness in the 1981 federal court trial that led to the overturning of an Arkansas law mandating the teaching creationism with evolution in science class. In 2001, he was awarded the National Medal of Science.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Human Origins

Bee Killer Still at Large; New Evidence Makes Pesticides a Prime Suspect

By Smriti Rao | March 26, 2010 1:54 pm

beeThis spring, many beekeepers across America opened their hives and found ruin within. At a time when they should have been buzzing with activity, the hives were half-empty, with most adult bees having flown off to die. A new federal survey indicates that 2010 has been the worst year so far for bee deaths. Another study suggests that pesticides might be to blame for the mass wipeout of adult honeybees.

This winter’s die-off was the continuation of a four-year trend. At any given point, beekeepers can expect to see 15 to 20 percent of their bees wiped out due to natural causes or harsh weather. But this alarming phenomenon, termed colony collapse disorder (CCD), has seen millions of bees perish in a mysterious epidemic, with some farmers losing 30 to 90 percent of their hives.

As for the cause of this epidemic, experts say their best guess is that many factors are combining to sicken bees, with the list of culprits including parasites, viruses, bacteria, poor nutrition, and pesticides. Now a new study published in the scientific journal PLoS ONE strengthens the case for pesticides’ culpability.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World

A Lesson From the Zebrafish: How to Mend a Broken Heart

By Smriti Rao | March 26, 2010 10:50 am


When a person has a heart attack, the heart repairs its damaged muscle by forming scar tissue. As a result, the heart never truly goes back to the way it was. But when a zebrafish has a heart injury, like having a large chunk of it chopped off, it grows a brand new piece to replace it.

Two independent reports published in the journal Nature show that within days of an injury to its heart, the zebrafish has the remarkable ability to regenerate most of the missing cardiac tissue using mature heart cells–not stem cells, as some researchers had suspected.

The findings help explain why human beings can’t regenerate a heart or missing limbs. The reports contradict a previous study (pdf) done by one of the research teams in 2006 that suggested that stem cells, the general all-purpose cells that develop into all the mature and functional cells of the body, were responsible for self-repair.

The finding suggest that doctors have been on the wrong track with recent stem cell-based therapies for heart attack patients. Many heart patients have received injections of stem cells, often ones taken from their own bone marrow. But the beneficial effects have generally been unremarkable [The New York Times].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

Photo Gallery: Ridiculously Good Photography of LIFE in All Its Glory

By Eliza Strickland | March 26, 2010 8:05 am

Life: Ain’t it grand?

That seems to have been the starting point for the new nature documentary series LIFE, which spotlights some of the planet’s most gloriously unusual critters. The series, which airs on Sunday evenings on the Discovery Channel, presents animals that belong in the evolution hall of fame. Many have developed remarkable tricks to survive in inhospitable environments, while others have developed fascinating mating rituals that ensure that the fittest individuals pass on their genes, generation after generation.

Click through the gallery for some of our favorite hall-of-famers from the show.

A Restless Trail-Runner


Size does matter, especially for the tiny rufous sengi, an “elephant shrew” whose small size and constant movement makes it hungry—all the time! But movement in a forest full of predators is dangerous, so the sengi devised a clever method to forage for food.

The tiny mammal constructs a series of neatly cleared trails between its regular feeding spots and memorizes their details. Then it launches itself on a trail patrol at breakneck speed, stopping only to check for tasty insects and to clear the trail of any debris. A single twig can be fatal, so the sengi spends up to 40 percent of its time running the trails and clearing away obstacles.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Photo Gallery

The Mightiest Mite: Dung Beetle Is Crowned World's Strongest Bug

By Smriti Rao | March 25, 2010 2:58 pm

dung-beetlesA certain species of dung beetle has been crowned the world’s strongest insect. A male Onthophagus taurus can pull 1,141 times its own body weight — the equivalent of a 70-kilogramme (154-pound) person being able to lift 80 tonnes, the weight of six double-decker buses [AFP]. That power comes in handy not just to roll up a few extra dung-balls, but also to protect mates and stave off potential rivals.

Chronicling the insect’s amazing strength in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, scientists Rob Knell and Leigh Simmons explain that the beetle’s amazing strength is connected to his sex life. These female dung beetles dig tunnels beneath choice pieces of dung in which to lay their eggs. If another male enters a tunnel already occupied by a rival, then the dung beetles duke it out, each male using his immense strength in an attempt to push the other out. Usually, the male that guards the tunnel repeatedly mates with the female inside.

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From GM: A 2-Wheeled, Electric, Networked Urban People Mover

By Smriti Rao | March 25, 2010 11:25 am

wheels-EN-V-red-blogSpanWhat looks like a giant helmet, can potentially zip through congested city streets, has eco-friendly bona fides, and can “talk” with other vehicles on the road? It’s the new 2-person EN-V, an “Electric Networked Vehicle” from GM–a concept car that the company hopes will change the way people in crowded cities drive in the future.

GM unveiled several models of the helmet-shaped concept vehicle in Shanghai. The 2-wheeled vehicles, built in collaboration with Segway and GM’s Chinese partner S.A.I.C., are powered by electric motors and can travel up to 25 miles on a single charge. The two-seater EN-V is also a third of the length of a regular car at 1.5 meters [about 5 feet]. It will be equipped with wireless communication and GPS-based navigation that will help it avoid accidents and pick the fastest routes based on real-time traffic conditions, GM says [The Wall Street Journal]. A driver could either control the car manually or could put it into the more relaxing autonomous mode.

Says GM executive Kevin Wale: “It provides an ideal solution for urban mobility that enables future driving to be free from petroleum and emissions, free from congestion and accidents, and more fun and fashionable than ever before” [The New York Times].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology

Tiny Island, Fought Over by India & Bangladesh, Vanishes Into the Sea

By Andrew Moseman | March 25, 2010 10:03 am

Bay_of_bengalRemember that time you and your sibling couldn’t stop fighting over a toy, so your mom wouldn’t let either one of you have it? It seems the same thing happens to unhappy neighboring countries and Mother Nature.

The island in the Bay of Bengal that Bangladesh called South Talpatti and India called New Moore or Purbasha appeared after a devastating cyclone, and it appeared right near the territorial boundary between the two. Decades of fighting over the uninhabited speck of land led to no political resolution. But now there’s a perfectly clear geographical resolution: The sea has reclaimed the island, scientists say.

According to oceanographer Sugata Hazra, the island was never very big, peaking at around 1.3 miles by 1.1 miles. The island began shrinking in the 1990s, part of an 81-square-mile decline in land mass in the Bay of Bengal’s Sunderbans mudflats over the last 40 years, Hazra said. And 27 square miles more has been lost to erosion. In the 1990s, the island was only 2 meters above sea level [Los Angeles Times]. Some experts say that in addition to erosion, rising sea levels caused by global warming are also to blame. Oceanographer Sugata Hazra, who discovered the island’s disappearance while looking at satellite photos, argues that sea-level rise caused by climate change was ”surely” a factor in the island’s inundation…. ‘The rate of sea-level rise in this part of the northern Bay of Bengal is definitely attributable to climate change,” he said [Sydney Morning Herald].

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Is the Mysterious Siberian "X-Woman" a New Hominid Species?

By Smriti Rao | March 25, 2010 9:44 am

Denisova_cave_exterior_smIn 2008, archeologists working at the Denisova Cave in Siberia’s Altai Mountains discovered a tiny piece of a finger bone, believed to be a pinky, buried with ornaments in the cave. Scientists extracted the mitochondrial DNA (genetic material from the mother’s side) from the ancient bone and checked to see if its genetic code matched with the other two known forms of early hominids–Neanderthals and the ancestors of modern humans. What they found was a real surprise. The team, led by geneticist Svaante Paabo of the Max Planck Institute, discovered that the mtDNA from the finger bone matched neither–suggesting there might have been an entirely different hominid species that roamed the planet about 50,000 years ago.

Looking back at the region and the cave, where scientists earlier discovered artifacts from humans and Neanderthals, Paabo thinks that it is possible that all the three species (modern humans, Neanderthals and the mystery hominids) could have possibly met and interacted with each other. The findings, which were published in journal Nature, present an unexpected twist in the story of human evolution and migration.

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Gates Goes Nuclear: Billionaire Backs Fledgling Mini-Reactor Technology

By Andrew Moseman | March 24, 2010 3:43 pm

Bill_GatesLet’s give Bill Gates some credit: Retiring from Microsoft with all the free time and money in the world, Gates could have launched  any number of Montgomery Burns-ian schemes for world domination. Instead, the multi-billionaire went the philanthropist route, becoming one of DISCOVER’s 10 most influential people in science through the health work his foundation funds. But a tinkerer is never done tinkering: In the last year Gates has patented an anti-hurricane device, given a few million dollars to fund geoengineering research, and then this week went public with his newest project: small-scale nuclear power.

A Gates-backed start-up company called TerraPower in talks with Toshiba to develop traveling-wave reactors (TWRs), which are designed to use depleted uranium as fuel and thought to hold the promise of running up to 100 years without refueling []. TWRs, which scientists have been playing with on and off for decades, need enriched uranium to get going, but are advantageous because they can use normal or even depleted uranium once the fission reaction is underway (and depleted uranium is something the United States has in great quantity). The technique requires bombarding uranium with a neutron to convert it to an unstable form of the element, which decays into neptunium and then fissile plutonium.

Toshiba’s already been working on mini reactors that run for about 30-40 years, and they believe that about 80% of the technology used in those can be used in the traveling-wave reactors [DVICE]. One of the challenges, though, is that if you’re that efficient at burning fuel, you need materials that can withstand that many years of constant radiation. TerraPower has completed the conceptual designs for both small units that produce electricity in the hundreds of megawatts, and a gigawatt-sized reactors that could power a city. But that’s the drawing board. In  other words, this is very early days. And as with any new energy technology, expectations that energy supplies will be transformed in the near future should … take a rest [Financial Times].

Related Content:
DISCOVER: The 10 Most Influential People in Science
80beats: Bill Gates Patents a Device Aimed at Halting Hurricanes
80beats: With $4.5 Million in Pocket Change, Bill Gates Funds Geoengineering Research
Bad Astronomy: Bill Gates Gives $10 Billion for Vaccines!

Image: Archive of the Chancellery of the President of the Republic of Poland


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