Category: Living World

Instead of Poppies, Engineering Microbes to Make Morphine

morphine

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

The past few decades have seen enormous progress being made in synthetic biology – the idea that simple biological parts can be tweaked to do our bidding. One of the main targets has been hacking the biological machinery that nature uses to produce chemicals. The hope is – once we understand enough – we might be able to design processes that convert cheap feedstock, such as sugar and amino acids, into drugs or fuels. These production lines can then be installed into microbes, effectively turning living cells into factories.

Taking a leap in that direction, researchers from Stanford University have created a version of baker’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) that contains genetic material of the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), bringing the morphine microbial factory one step closer to reality. These results published in the journal Nature Chemical Biology represent a significant scientific success, but eliminating the need to grow poppies may still be years away.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts

3 Things You Didn’t Know About the Mites That Live On Your Face

By Michelle Trautwein | August 27, 2014 1:00 pm
Demodex brevis. Image by Alan R Walker

Demodex brevis. Image by Alan R. Walker

This post originally appeared at The Abstract.

You are not alone. Your body is a collection of microbes, fungi, viruses… and even other animals. In fact, you aren’t even the only animal using your face. Right now, in the general vicinity of your nose, there are at least two species of microscopic mites living in your pores. You would expect scientists to know quite a lot about these animals (given that we share our faces with them), but we don’t.

Here is what we do know: Demodex mites are microscopic arachnids (relatives of spiders and ticks) that live in and on the skin of mammals – including humans. They have been found on every mammal species where we’ve looked for them, except the platypus and their odd egg-laying relatives.

Often mammals appear to host more than one species, with some poor field mouse housing four mite species on its face alone. Generally, these mites live out a benign coexistence with their hosts. But if that fine balance is disrupted, they are known to cause mange amongst our furry friends, and skin ailments like rosacea and blepharitis in humans. Most of us are simply content – if unaware – carriers of these spindly, eight-legged pore-dwellers.

Scientists from NC State, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, and the California Academy of Sciences have just published a study that uncovers some previously unknown truths regarding these little-known mites – all the while providing a glimpse into even bigger mysteries that have yet to be solved.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: unusual organisms

How Faith – and Fear – Created the World’s First Time Capsule

By Jill Neimark | August 8, 2014 11:11 am

Atlanta, Georgia, prides itself on being a world class city, but in 6,000 years it may be remembered for one thing only: a massive time capsule buried in its midst. The waterproof, airtight, hermetically sealed time capsule, called the Crypt of Civilization, was locked and bolted shut on May 25, 1940 – making it the first ever time capsule in history. Its lofty ideal was to preserve a snapshot of all of civilization up until 1940, with strict orders not to be opened until the year 8113.

The crypt was the brainchild of Oglethorpe University president Thornwell Jacobs. who like many others of his time, was deeply moved when the tombs of the Egyptian pyramids were opened in the 1920s. But those tombs told us little about Egyptian daily life, and Jacobs decided that future civilizations might want a record of ours. And so he invented the time capsule, which has since been imitated around the world, in capsules ranging from the intimate to the immense. The International Time Capsule Society (ITCS) estimates there are now 10,000-15,000 capsules worldwide. However, most of them are forever lost to humanity, their whereabouts forgotten and their records misplaced over the years.

That makes it all the more remarkable that the Crypt persists, unopened but watched over by the university whose grounds it inhabits. Crafted out of a basement room that once held a swimming pool, the Crypt is twenty feet long and ten feet wide with ten-foot ceilings. It’s set in Appalachian granite bedrock under a stone roof seven feet thick, lined with enamel plates embedded in pitch. The only visible marker of its existence above ground is a tiny x carved in a flagstone outside the university’s Phoebe Hearst Memorial.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: archaeology

Jeans Designed by Lions and Tigers Are a Win-Win for Zoos

By Robert Young, University of Salford | July 10, 2014 10:50 am
zoo jeans

Fashionably mauled denim. Courtesy Zoo Jeans

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

A Japanese jeans maker has found a new way of capitalizing on zoo animals. Zoo Jeans is producing jeans “designed by dangerous animals.” Denim is wrapped around tires, which are then thrown to the lions who enjoy ripping and biting at the material. This produces that all-important designer, distressed look.

Rather than simply being a marketing gimmick, there is actually value in this from an animal welfare perspective. Involving lions and the zoo’s other large carnivores in the activity is part of what’s called environmental enrichment. This is the provision of stimuli to help improve well-being. It’s a win-win activity for many zoos, who can make alternative profits from their animals, which tend to be used to provide extra facilities for them.

The end result - this pair "designed" by lions.

The end result – this pair “designed” by lions.

Wrapping denim around a tire to make enrichment devices for toothy carnivores is just one way that zoos have profited from their animals’ hobbies over the years. Since their inception, zoos have looked for different ways to fund their activities. London Zoo when it first opened would let in penniless visitors for a cat or dog to be fed to the carnivores. Visitors with money were offered other things to keep themselves amused as they looked at the animals.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: conservation

The Secret to Dolphins’ Swimming Speeds

By Brad Balukjian | January 23, 2014 4:01 pm

dolphins

The “Acknowledgements” section of a scientific paper is usually a good cure for insomnia—just a list of names of collaborating scientists and funding agencies. So what is the U.S. National Swim Team doing in the acknowledgements of a new paper on dolphins?

Turns out our swim team held the answer to one of marine biology’s oldest conundrums—how dolphins swim so fast with limited muscle power.

The problem dates back to 1936, when Sir James Gray studied a dolphin clocked swimming at 22.4 mph around a boat (note: that’s fast for water). Using a simple hydrodynamic model and what he knew about the dolphin’s size and power, Gray concluded that there was no way the dolphin could move that fast without some fluid mechanics wizardry, such as some special technique to modify the flow of the water and reduce the amount of drag. Herein lay what became known as “Gray’s paradox”—short of having the same trainer as Alex Rodriguez, how could dolphins move at that speed?

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: animals

How Brachiosaurus (and Brethren) Became So Gigantic

By Guest Blogger | October 30, 2013 11:31 am

By Brad Balukjian

Mamenchisaurus_youngi_steveoc_86.jpg

I was 12 years old, sitting in a movie theater in Warwick, Rhode Island, when Steven Spielberg changed movies forever. His Jurassic Park made Jaws look like a silly hand puppet and ushered in the modern era of computer-generated special effects, for better or worse.

But for that iconic scene when the paleontologists laid eyes on living dinosaurs for the first time, Spielberg had a crucial decision to make—what type of dinosaur would appear first, bending imaginations and searing its place in cinematic history? Would he go with the ultra-kinetic, flesh-rending T. rex? Or maybe a more subdued Stegosaurus?

Much to my delight, he chose a sauropod, the clade of lumbering vegetarians that dominated for 120 million years as, unequivocally, the largest land animals ever. Specifically, a Brachiosaurus, one of the few sauropods that probably used its long neck to browse treetops rather than holding it parallel to the ground. (Kudos to Spielberg et al. for getting this scientific detail right!)

I’m not sure what dictated Spielberg’s decision, but sauropods’ sheer size—up to 90 tons and 130 feet long—probably had something to do with it. (Contrary to popular belief, most dinosaurs were not gigantic.) And that gargantuan size is what inspired the new PLOS ONE sauropod collection (“Sauropod Gigantism”), organized by evolutionary biologist Martin Sander of the University of Bonn. Sander and 13 other researchers united to answer one question: how did these thunder lizards get so freaking big—and its shuddering corollary—why didn’t they get any bigger?

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: dinosaurs

Are Dolphins Not as Smart as We Thought?

By Guest Blogger | October 4, 2013 12:02 pm

By Erik Vance

dolphins painting skills

In Douglas Adams’s hilarious classic, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, there are several animals said to be cleverer than humans. One – for the sake of irony – was the common lab mouse. The other was a creature that knew about the intergalactic bulldozers that eventually vaporized the planet and tried to warn us of the impending doom:

The last ever dolphin message was misinterpreted as a surprisingly sophisticated attempt to do a double-backwards-somersault through a hoop whilst whistling the ‘Star Spangled Banner’, but in fact the message was this: So long and thanks for all the fish.

It’s a fun punchline but it also reflects a long-held sentiment: that dolphins possess an unusual level of intelligence that sets them apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. In the popular consciousness it’s taken as a given that dolphins are highly intelligent, have complex behavior, and possess some kind of proto-language ability. However in recent months and years, a sort of backlash – or at least a re-alignment – has been fomenting on the periphery of animal behavior research.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts

Georgia’s Own Doomsday Stonehenge Monument

By Guest Blogger | September 9, 2013 3:01 pm

By Jill Neimark

georgia guidestones

“Planned genocide has begun,” read the Facebook entry on one of the groups I browse daily. The link: a picture of five monoliths looming like an American Stonehenge over a lush and lonely hill in remote Elberton, Georgia. I was only an hour away at the time, and decided to visit them in person.

The nearly twenty-foot granite slabs, known as the Georgia Guidestones, have sparked controversy around the world – praised by Yoko Ono, defaced by conspiracy theorists, featured on the History Channel, and the subject of the conspiracy web series Guidestones. The monument – five upright stones topped by a capstone – weighs nearly 240,000 pounds and is inscribed in eight languages with ten instructions for humans post-apocalypse. Three decades after being erected, the monument’s true purpose is still being argued, and its quasi-commandments can seem either sincere or satanic.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World, Top Posts

Lab-Grown Burger, Made From Cow Cells, Gets a Taste Test

By Guest Blogger | August 5, 2013 4:09 pm

By Katie Engelhart

The burger made from cultured cells. Credit David Parry/PA

The verdict is in. The world’s first hamburger made entirely of lab-grown, “cultured beef” tastes… OK.

It’s a little bland, tasters reported of the patty, which cost over $330,000 to produce. And it lacks juiciness. (The burger contains no fat.) But otherwise, it has a good “mouth feel” and a solid texture. Most importantly: it tastes like it once lived and breathed and mooed.

Scientists predict that you will be eating patties just like it in 10 or 20 years.

A Tasty First

Today, hoards of journalists gathered at a production studio in west London for a historic event: the unveiling of the world’s first-ever cultured beef* burger—engineered by Maastricht University professor Mark Post. In the frenzied minutes before the launch began, reporters and film crews gathered around platters of free sandwiches. Ham, cheese, tuna and the perennial British favorite “prawn mayo” were all on offer, though roast beef was noticeably absent.

Inside the auditorium, flashing screens welcomed the crowd. A promotional film opened with Google founder Sergey Brin, who was revealed as the anonymous donor behind the burger product. Brin, captured in an orange t-shirt and Google Glass, spoke of cultured meat’s transformative potential. The film then switched to a historical reenactment of hunter-gatherers roasting animal bones over an open flame.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: stem cells

During Cicada Boom, Birds Mysteriously Vanish

By Guest Blogger | June 18, 2013 10:05 am

By Madeline Bodin

cicadas

With thousands of newly-hatched 17-year cicadas blanketing the Eastern U.S., residents would be forgiven for not noticing a less conspicuous absence: birds.

Bird surveys have repeatedly shown a mysterious trend of a population downtick in areas of cicada emergence. It’s the exact opposite of what might be expected—crows, blue jays and cardinals are among the species affected, and they feed on insects. And it’s fascinated ornithologist Walter Koenig for years.

“The birds are just not coming in there to eat them,” says Koenig, a senior scientist at the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology. “Why aren’t the birds taking advantage of the cicadas? The fact that there may not be birds around seems like a good explanation.” Now, this spring is the first time he’s been able to measure his theories against a real-life emergence.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: birds, cicadas, insects
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