Archive for January, 2011

The Insulin-Like Hormone That Gives Rats a Memory Boost

By Andrew Moseman | January 27, 2011 1:11 pm

A surprise to remember: Scientists have found that a naturally occurring hormone usually involved in cell repair is also present in the hippocampus of the brain, and when they extra doses of it to rats in their experiments, it appeared to greatly enhance the rats’ memory.

The hormone is called insulin-like growth factor II (IGF-II), and the fact that it showed up in the hippocampus (associated with memory and learning) made Cristina Alberini wonder if it could be a key player in memory formation. So she and her colleagues designed a test:

The team came up with a box that was lit on one side and unlit on the other. Rats that entered the dark side got a mild foot shock. The rats’ subsequent hesitation to return to the dark after getting shocked gave the scientists a measure of how well they remembered the traumatic event. [ScienceNOW]

The rats showed elevated IGF-II levels after the shock, but Alberini wanted to see whether tinkering with those levels could change the rats‘ ability to form and recall memories.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain
MORE ABOUT: memory

Orangutan Genome: The Orange Apes Evolved at Their Own Quirky Pace

By Andrew Moseman | January 27, 2011 1:10 pm

Welcome to the family of critters with sequenced genomes, orangutans. In Nature this week, scientists unveil the draft DNA sequencing of our great ape cousins—the only great apes that live exclusively in Asia.

The researchers assembled the draft genome of the female Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) using a whole-genome “shotgun” strategy, an old-fashioned approach that cost about $20 million. In addition, the researchers gathered sequence data from five wild Sumatran orangutans and five Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) using a faster and thousandfold cheaper next-generation platform. [LiveScience]

What did scientists find in there? For one thing, orangutans share about 97 percent of the their genome with humans, compared to the 99 percent we famously share with chimpanzees. The two orangutan species—inhabiting the Indonesian islands of Borneo and Sumatra—diverged about 400,000 years ago, lead author Devin Locke says. That’s much more recently than scientists had thought.

They also discovered that over the last 15 million years, orangutan DNA changed at a different rate than either ours or chimps’. Orangutans have undergone fewer mutations of the DNA, have a lower gene turnover rate, and have fewer duplicated DNA segments.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Origins, Living World

Deepest Space: Hubble Spots the Most Distant Galaxy Ever Seen

By Andrew Moseman | January 27, 2011 10:22 am

Its’ time for another mind-blowing, record-breaking discovery by the Hubble Space Telescope. This time, it’s creeping closer than ever toward the beginning of the universe.

From Phil Plait:

Astronomers have just announced they have discovered what may be the most distant galaxy ever seen, smashing the previous record holder. This galaxy is at a mind-crushing distance of 13.2 billion light years from Earth, making it not just the most distant galaxy but also the most distant extant object ever detected!

Named UDFj-39546284, the galaxy is seen as it was just 480 million years after the Universe itself formed! The previous record holder — which was announced just last October — was 13.1 billion light years away. This new galaxy beats that by 120 million light years, a substantial amount. Mind you, these galaxies formed not long after the Big Bang, which happened 13.73 billion years ago. We think the very first galaxies started forming 200 – 300 million years after the Bang; if that’s correct then we won’t see any galaxies more than about 13.5 billion light years away. Going from 13.1 to 13.2 billion light years represents a big jump closer to that ultimate limit!

For plenty more about this, check out the rest of Phil’s post at Bad Astronomy.

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Bad Astronomy: How Deep Is the Universe?
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Image: NASA, ESA

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space

How the Seahorse Got Its Curvaceous Shape

By Patrick Morgan | January 26, 2011 5:31 pm

If you’ve ever wondered why the seahorse has its elegantly curved body (aside from luring snorkelers into the water), wonder no more: it helps them hunt.

Researchers at the University of Antwerp in Belgium, led by biomechanicist Sam Van Wassenbergh, analyzed video footage of seahorses on the hunt and used mathematical models to come to the conclusion that a seahorse’s curvy neck lets it strike at more distant prey.

“They rotate their heads upward to bring their mouth close to the prey [passing above],” explained Dr Wassenbergh…. The creatures’ curved bodies mean that when they do this, their mouths also moved forward, helping to bring passing small crustaceans within sucking distance of their snouts. [BBC News]

He even has an evolutionary theory to back up his observations.

“My theory is that you have this ancestral pipefish-like fish and they evolved a more cryptic lifestyle,” said Dr Wassenbergh. [BBC News]

Unlike the seahorse, the related pipefish has a straight body and swims while attacking its prey. Seahorses, on the other hand, tend to hide out and wait for the prey to come to them. And according to this study, published in the journal Nature Communications, a longer striking distance is a big advantage for a couch-potato creature.

“Once this shift in foraging behavior is made, natural selection will favor animals that can increase the strike distance, which according to our study puts a selective pressure to increase the angle between head and trunk and to become what we now know as sea horses,” [said] researcher Sam Van Wassenbergh. [LiveScience]

Related Content:
Not Exactly Rocket Science: Pregnant male pipefish abort babies from unattractive females
Science Not Fiction: Electric Fish “Plug in” and Turn Their Zapping Into Music
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DISCOVER: Your Inner Fish

Image: flickr / oscar alexander

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World

Documentary Tells the Tale of Nim Chimpsky, the Chimp Raised as a Human

By Andrew Moseman | January 26, 2011 5:14 pm

The 1970s: a time for Reggie Jackson, the first go-round of John Travolta, and adopting a chimpanzee to settle a scientific dispute.

The new film Project Nim by director James Marsh, the documentarian behind the acclaimed Man On Wire, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah this week. Marsh tells the tale of a chimp that was taken from its mother and raised in a human family just like a human baby; the experimenters were attempting to show that language is not unique to our species.

In Project Nim [Marsh] looks at a project dreamed up by Columbia University psychologist Herbert Terrace and carried out on Nim Chimpsky, a chimp named for famed linguist Noam Chomsky, who has argued language is uniquely human. Alternating between previously unpublished footage and interviews with participants in the experiment, the film shows how Nim initially connects with his family before his animal nature gradually takes over. [AFP]

Where a previous study had taught a chimp named Washoe symbols in American Sign Language, Terrace sought to go further with Nim. The chimp lived with the LaFarge family of New York, and for four years Terrace’s team tried to teach Nim to respond using a series of signs to make a sentence. (Nim’s Wikipedia article lists all the “phrases” he put together.)

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What Did T. Rex Have for Dinner? New Study Says: Fresh Meat

By Patrick Morgan | January 26, 2011 4:40 pm

Clunky, clumsy, and slow–these are the words that some scientists have associated with Tyrannosaurus rex in the past decade, using these physical traits as evidence that it was more of a scavenger than a hunter. But another group of researchers has held to the notion of T. rex as a fierce predator worthy of the name “tyrant lizard king.” It’s a debate that just won’t go extinct, and this week brings an interesting new argument for the predator position.

In the past several years, scientists have pointed out that T. rex had small eyes and a good sense of smell, and have argued this as evidence that it was a scavenger.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World

In Borneo, Bats and Plants Form a Peculiar Poop Partnership

By Andrew Moseman | January 26, 2011 11:52 am

Some plants want ample water and sunshine. The plant Nepenthes rafflesiana, however, desires the droppings of Hardwicke’s woolly bats.

The carnivorous plant and the key-sized tiny bat live on the Indonesian island of Borneo, where their unusual arrangement has blossomed. Scientists who placed trackers on the backs of the bats found that they nap away their days nestled in the pitcher of this pitcher plant, and they use it as their personal commode. That’s just fine for the pitcher plant, which doesn’t trap as many bugs as its relatives, but makes up for it by deriving one-third of its nutrients from bat excrement.

“It’s totally unexpected,” said Ulmar Grafe, an associate professor at the Universiti Brunei Darussalam who led the study. “There’s a lot of animal-plant mutualisms, but this one is where the animal gives a nutrient to a plant. Usually it’s the other way around.” [Reuters]

You might think it’d be dangerous for bats to lay around in a plant’s pitcher, where they could plummet into the gooey nectar the plant uses to trap and eat insects. But, in fact, the pitcher is shaped just right so that the bats can’t fall through. Says Grafe:

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World

In State of the Union, Obama Promotes Green Tech & Science Fairs

By Andrew Moseman | January 26, 2011 10:59 am

At least now we know what the title of President Obama‘s self-help book will be: “Winning the future.”

Last night, in the third State of the Union Address of Obama’s presidency, he began by extolling the need for the country to compete with other rising nations for the jobs of the future (and using some version of his new catchphrase multiple times). The President hit many notes that have science and technology advocates smiling this morning, including his call to turn around yesterday’s sobering statistics about the lack of science proficiency of American students.

The world has changed, Obama told Congress, and the US will only retain its competitive edge over nations like China and India if it invests in a skilled workforce and cutting-edge science and technology: “We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.” [New Scientist]

Obama went on to urge parents to get their kids’ priorities straight, and uttered the line that may have tickled science geeks the most:

We need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair.

The President also called for more funding for biomedical, renewable energy, and other research to launch a wave of innovation. Obama deemed this our “Sputnik moment,” comparing it to the moment in the late 1950s when the Soviet Union launched the first satellite and the U.S. raced to catch up to and then surpass Soviet space science.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Space, Technology, Top Posts

Genetic Study of the Grape Reveals Weakness in Our Wine Supply

By Patrick Morgan | January 25, 2011 6:03 pm

Shrink a grape, and you get a raisin. Shrink the grape genetic tree, and you get a looming disaster for oenophiles. That’s according to scientists who discovered that our cultivated wine grapes are more closely related than previously thought.

Sean Myles, a researcher at Stanford University, created a gene chip for common grape cultivars using genomes from the Department of Agriculture. In his study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, he reveals that 75 percent of our 583 kinds of cultivated grapes are either parents, children, or siblings of each other.

“Previously people thought there were several different families of grape,” Dr. Myles said. “Now we’ve found that all those families are interconnected and in essence there’s just one large family.” [New York Times]

In this grape-world equivalent of the Jerry Springer Show, wines like merlot, pinot noir, and chardonnay are all interrelated in one big incestuous mash-up. And it’s the cultivators who are partly to blame.

The reason is obvious in retrospect. Vines can be propagated by breaking off a shoot and sticking it in the ground, or onto existing rootstock. The method gives uniform crops, and most growers have evidently used it for thousands of years…. The result is that cultivated grapes remain closely related to wild grapes, apart from a few improvements in berry size and sugar content, and a bunch of new colors favored by plant breeders. [New York Times]

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World

The Nation's Science Report Card Is Out, and It's Not Pretty

By Andrew Moseman | January 25, 2011 4:48 pm

This evening, according to early reports, President Obama will spend part of his State of the Union Address addressing the United States’ “competitiveness.” But ahead of the national pep talk, the Department of Education brought the mood down a notch. The latest results from a federal test called the National Assessment of Educational Progress were released today, and the “Nation’s Report Card” doles out some depressingly low grades for American students’ understanding of basic science.

A third of the nation’s fourth-graders, 30 percent of eighth-graders and 21 percent of 12th-graders are performing at or above the proficient level in science…. Fourth-graders considered proficient are able to recognize that gravitational force constantly affects an object, while advanced students can design an investigation comparing two types of bird food. Proficient 12th-graders are able to evaluate two methods to control an invasive animal species; advanced students can recognize a nuclear fission reaction. [Bloomberg]

At the other end of the spectrum, 28 percent of the 4th graders failed to show a basic understanding of science, and that number was up to 40 percent for high school seniors. That troubles Alan Friedman, a member of the board that oversees the test:

“I’m at least as concerned, maybe even more, about the large number who fall at the low end,” Friedman said. “Advanced is advanced. But basic is really basic. It doesn’t even mean a complete understanding of the most simple fundamentals.” [AP]

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain
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