Are Artificial Christmas Trees Better for the Environment Than Real Ones? It Depends

By Bert Cregg, Michigan State University | December 11, 2018 11:13 am
File 20181210 76968 1mvyr7f.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Scotch pines on a Christmas tree farm in northern Michigan. (Credit: Bert Cregg, CC BY-ND)

 

Environmentally conscious consumers often ask me whether a real Christmas tree or an artificial one is the more sustainable choice. As a horticulture and forestry researcher, I know this question is also a concern for the Christmas tree industry, which is wary of losing market share to artificial trees.

And they have good reason: Of the 48.5 million Christmas trees Americans purchased in 2017, 45 percent were artificial, and that share is growing. Many factors can influence this choice, but the bottom line is that both real and artificial Christmas trees have negligible environmental impacts. Which option “wins” in terms of carbon footprint depends entirely on assumptions about how long consumers would keep an artificial tree versus how far they would drive each year to purchase a real tree.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: sustainability

Can We Blame Our Genes for Our Decisions?

By Nathaniel Scharping | December 10, 2018 5:24 pm
genetic data

(Credit: Zita/Shutterstock)

Forget meditation, forget ayahuasca ceremonies and mindfulness practice. Today, knowing yourself is as easy as swabbing your cheek. Home genetics tests like those offered by 23andme are becoming readily affordable — just $69 for a test kit — and they offer an unprecedented look at our personal blueprint.

It’s even possible today to study the genetics of your potential offspring before they’re born. So-called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis analyzes DNA from an embryo when it’s nothing more than a few cells. Even at that stage it’s possible to divine the unique set of genes that will shape a person’s life.

The tests are currently used for parents at risk of passing on dangerous genetic conditions, but they could conceivably do much more. Studies have picked out groups of genes associated with intelligence, academic achievement, criminal activity and other life outcomes. It now seems possible to chart your children’s lives before they ever emerge into the world. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: genes & health

Why You Shouldn’t Worry Too Much About Designer Babies

By A Cecile JW Janssens, Emory University | December 10, 2018 12:46 pm
File 20181206 128196 1vx10ln.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

Babies to order. Andrew crotty/Shutterstock.com

When Adam Nash was still an embryo, living in a dish in the lab, scientists tested his DNA to make sure it was free of Fanconi anemia, the rare inherited blood disease from which his sister Molly suffered. They also checked his DNA for a marker that would reveal whether he shared the same tissue type. Molly needed a donor match for stem cell therapy, and her parents were determined to find one. Adam was conceived so the stem cells in his umbilical cord could be the lifesaving treatment for his sister.

Adam Nash is considered to be the first designer baby, born in 2000 using in vitro fertilizaton with pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, a technique used to choose desired characteristics. The media covered the story with empathy for the parents’ motives but not without reminding the reader that “eye color, athletic ability, beauty, intelligence, height, stopping a propensity towards obesity, guaranteeing freedom from certain mental and physical illnesses, all of these could in the future be available to parents deciding to have a designer baby.

The designer babies have thus been called the “future-we-should-not-want” for each new reproductive technology or intervention. But the babies never came and are nowhere close. I am not surprised.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts

Is Gender Identity Unique to Humans?

By Jay Schwartz | December 7, 2018 5:30 pm
chimp groom social activity

(Credit: Oleg Senkov/shutterstock)

This summer, in the introductory course I teach on the evolution and biology of human and animal behavior, I showed my students a website that demonstrates how to identify frog “genders.” I explained that this was a misuse of the term “gender”; what the author meant was how to identify frog sexes. Gender, I told the students, goes far beyond mere sex differences in appearance or behavior. It refers to something complex and abstract that may well be unique to Homo sapiens. This idea is nothing new; scholars have been saying for decades that only humans have gender. But later that day I began to wonder: Is it really true that gender identity is totally absent among nonhuman species — even our closest evolutionary relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos?

Before tackling this question, it is necessary to define “sex” and “gender.” Sex refers to biological traits associated with male and female bodies. Sex isn’t a perfect binary, but it is relatively simple compared to gender.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts

How Did Human Language Evolve? Scientists Still Don’t Know

By Bridget Alex | December 7, 2018 5:03 pm
Human language adaptations first appeared in our ancestors

Most scientists think language emerged in stages, as our ancestors evolved the necessary adaptations for speech. (Credit: Sergey Uryadnikov/shutterstock)

Humans have language and other animals don’t. That’s obvious, but how it happened is not. Since Darwin’s time, scientists have puzzled over the evolution of language. They can observe the present-day product: People today have the capacity for language, whether it be spoken, signed or written. And they can infer the starting state: The communication systems of other apes suggest abilities present in our shared ancestor.

But the million-dollar question is what happened in between. How did we transition from ape-like communication to full-fledged human language?
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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts

Awesome Ears: The Weird World of Insect Hearing

By Stephanie Pain | December 7, 2018 3:40 pm
thorny katydid

Can you hear me calling? When darkness falls in the forests of the Upper Amazon Basin, the males of this species of spiny devil katydid (Panacanthus cuspidatus) begin to sing. Their loud, high-pitched, whistle-like songs travel high into the canopy to reach the ears of listening females. The left ear with its two eardrums is visible just below the creature’s left “knee.” (Credit: Dr Morley Read/Shutterstock)

In a small windowless room on a sweltering summer’s day, I find myself face-to-face with an entomological rock star. I’m at the University of Lincoln in eastern England, inside an insectary, a room lined with tanks and jars containing plastic plants and dozing insects. Before I know it, I’m being introduced to a vibrant-green katydid from Colombia.

“Meet Copiphora gorgonensis,” says Fernando Montealegre-Z, discoverer of this six-legged celebrity. The name’s familiar: It’s been splashed across the world alongside photos of the insect’s golden face and miniature unicorn’s horn. The renown of this katydid rests not on its looks, though, but on its hearing. Montealegre-Z’s meticulous studies of the magnificent insect revealed that it has ears uncannily like ours, with entomological versions of eardrums, ossicles and cochleas to help it pick up and analyze sounds.
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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: animals

Why Don’t We Have an AIDS Vaccine?

marchers for AIDS awareness

A demonstration for AIDS advances in July 2018 in The Netherlands, with Princess Margaret Van Orange pictured at the center. (Credit: Paolo Amorim/shutterstock)

I mentioned to a friend, a gay man nearing 60, that World AIDS Day, which has been observed on Dec. 1 since 1988, was almost upon us. He had no idea that World AIDS Day still exists.

This lack of knowledge is a testament to the great accomplishments that have occurred since World AIDS Day was created 30 years ago. It is also due to an accident in the timing of his birth that my friend escaped the devastation wreaked by AIDS among gay men in the U.S., before there was antiretroviral therapy.

Many people have forgotten AIDS, but there are consequences to forgetting. The fight against AIDS is at a tipping point. Increasingly, there are signs that we may be heading in the wrong direction.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts

CRISPR Babies Raise an Uncomfortable Reality — Ethical Guidelines Don’t Guarantee Ethical Research

He Jiankui

He talks to Matthew Porteus of Stanford during a panel talk following his presentation. (Credit: Ernie Mastroianni/Discover)

Uncertainty continues to swirl around scientist He Jiankui’s gene editing experiment in China. Using CRISPR technology, He modified a gene related to immune function in human embryos and transferred the embryos to their mother’s womb, producing twin girls.

Many questions about the ethical acceptability of the experiment have focused on ethical oversight and informed consent. These are important issues; compliance with established standards of practice is crucial for public trust in science.
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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
MORE ABOUT: genes & health

How Language Allows Scientists to Get Inside the Head of a Chimpanzee

By Bridget Alex | November 28, 2018 2:40 pm
chimpanzees on a branch

(Credit: kletr/Shutterstock)

In chimpanzee societies, a whistle followed by a high-pitched hoot seems to mean, “I’m leaving.” Energetic grunts probably say “good food.” And a hip thrust could signal that chimp is ready to get frisky.

These rough translations result from decades of research on chimp communication. In addition to revealing what apes are saying (big surprise: food and sex), the results also reflect why and how chimps communicate — and how this compares to human language. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World

A History of Hits and Misses in Predicting New Planets

By Korey Haynes | November 27, 2018 1:01 pm
planet with sun in background

Planet Nine could be lurking in the outer solar system, or it could join the ranks of other discredited planets. (Credit: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)

In 2016, astronomers announced there was a new planet in the outer solar system. Planet Nine, supposedly larger than Neptune and located far beyond the orbits of the planets known so far, is a particular mystery since no one has yet observed it. Scientists have merely tracked its supposed orbit by watching the gravitational pull the planet exerts on the asteroids and space debris near it.
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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts
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