Category: Living World

5 Ways Yeast Will Help Save Lives

By Carl Engelking | October 6, 2016 2:09 pm
A bowl of dried yeasts. (Credit: Shutterstock)

A bowl of dried yeast. (Credit: Shutterstock)

Try to imagine life without yeast. It’s kind of a bummer.

The single-celled fungi are the leavening agents that gave rise to sourdoughs, ciabattas and chewy pizza crusts. They’re the microorganisms that convert sugar into carbon dioxide and ethanol to give beer and wine its intoxicating effects. They are used to produce insulin. You can buy yeast supplements. Yeast also played an instrumental role in a Nobel Prize win earlier this week.

Yeast, it turns out, is a life-saver. Although there are some 1,500 different species, it is one of the most well studied eukaryotic organisms known to science, and it’s serving on the front lines as a model organism for cutting-edge research in genetics, biology, agriculture and medicine.

Here are five reasons we owe this simple organism a debt of gratitude. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: microbes & viruses

17th-century Ruins Could Unravel Mysteries of Earth’s Magnetic Field

By Andrew Jenner | September 28, 2016 4:14 pm
ruinas_de_sao_miguel_das_missoes

Jesuit church ruins from the 17th century, like the São Miguel das Missões, were built with clay bricks that contain magnetite, which realigned with earth’s magnetic field when it was fired in kilns. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons) 

It seems safe to say that the laborers firing clay pavers, bricks and tiles to build the Jesuit mission of Santo Ângelo over 300 years ago had no idea that their toils might someday bear relevance to spacecraft orbiting 600 miles above what is now southern Brazil.

As the bricks and pavers were fired in kilns, magnetite in the clay abandoned its inherent magnetic properties and realigned in response to the magnetic forces exerted by the earth itself. The point at which this occurs – 580 degrees Celsius, in the case of magnetite – is known as the Curie point.

After these building materials cooled and were stacked to form a church, school and other buildings at Santo Ângelo, the magnetite inside retained this reshuffled alignment, a record of the magnetic past sealed away like a proverbial mosquito in amber. Along with several dozen other Jesuit missions built in the same era, Santo Ângelo flourished briefly along what was then the poorly defined border between the Spanish and Portuguese colonies in South America. At its height, the mission was home to about 8,000 people, nearly all of them indigenous Guarani whom the Jesuits were trying to Christianize.

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts

Can a Smartphone App Help Save a Dying Language?

By Carrie Arnold | September 23, 2016 4:07 pm
About half of the world’s languages are expected to disappear by 2100 if nothing is done to stop their decline. To counteract this trend, some tribes are using new technologies to revive their languages. Joshua Hinson of the Chickasaw Nation is leading the effort to revive the language of his ancestors.

About half of the world’s languages are expected to disappear by 2100 if nothing is done to stop their decline. To counteract this trend, some tribes are using new technologies to revive their languages. Joshua Hinson of the Chickasaw Nation is leading the effort to revive the language of his ancestors. (Credit: Chickasaw Nation)

(This post originally appeared in the online anthropology magazine SAPIENS. Follow @SAPIENS_org on Twitter to discover more of their work.) 

Joshua Hinson’s first biological son was born in 2000. His son’s birth marked the start of the sixth generation that would grow up speaking English instead of Chickasaw, which was the primary language his ancestors had spoken for hundreds of years. Hinson was born in Memphis, Tennessee, and grew up in Texas. Other than a small handful of words, he knew almost nothing about his ancestral language—formally known as Chikashshanompa’. Hinson had a few pangs of sadness over the years about what was lost, but it didn’t really affect him—until his son was born.

As he counted the 10 tiny fingers and 10 tiny toes of his firstborn child, Hinson realized he had nothing to teach his son about his Native American roots. The only thing he had to pass on was his tribal citizenship card. Hinson wanted to bequeath more than just a piece of paper; he wanted his son to be a part of Chickasaw culture. He recognized that the most direct way to understand his culture was to speak the language. But to make that happen, Hinson had to start with himself. Read More

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

Taking Pangolin Off the Menu

By Steven Bedard | August 25, 2016 2:14 pm
Chinese pangolin Manis pentadactyla Mother and two-month-old baby. Mother was rescued from poachers and is now part of Taipei Zoo's captive breeding program. Taipei Zoo, Taipei, Taiwan *Captive *Digitally removed leaf debris in foreground

This Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla) was rescued from poachers and given safe haven at the Taipei Zoo. She and her two-month-old baby are evidence of the zoo’s successful captive breeding program. (Credit: Suzi Eszterhas)

When acclaimed conservation photographer Suzi Eszterhas settled in for the evening, she didn’t know what to expect. She seldom does when trying to photograph elusive, nocturnal creatures. But circumstances on this particular night were unusual. She was sitting in an enclosure—albeit a naturalistic one—and although she knew her photographic subjects couldn’t flee, she thought it was quite possible she might spend the entire night being riddled by biting ants without capturing a single shot. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts

Is It Neander-TAL or Neander-THAL?

By Bridget Alex | August 25, 2016 12:40 pm
neanderthal

(Credit: Gianfranco Goria/Flickr)

Here’s the deal: you can write or say Neanderthal or Neandertal, but you should only write Homo neanderthalensis and say “Homo neander-TAL-ensis”.

I promise that will make sense by the end of this.

The name comes from Neander Valley, Germany, where the first recognized Neanderthal fossil was found in 1856 (other Neanderthal bones had been discovered earlier, but people didn’t know what to make of them). Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts

Fecal Feasts Bring Earwig Families Together

By Erica Tennenhouse | August 3, 2016 7:00 am
European earwig

A European earwig (Credit: InsectWorld/Shutterstock)

A steaming bowl of fresh feces isn’t a meal that will bring the family together over the holidays. But for many animals, fecal consumption is a way of life.

The technical term for eating poo is coprophagy, from the Greek kopros for “dung”, and phagein, “to eat”. Though we most commonly associate coprophagy with domestic dogs, many other animals are known to indulge.

Rabbits re-ingest their own droppings to extract extra nutrients; dung beetles have gone a step further and built a specialized diet around balls of manure; growth of American bullfrog tadpoles is enhanced by access to intestinal output; and consumption of fecal matter helps mediate the exchange of essential gut fauna in mice. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts

Lost or Found? A Stick Chart From the Marshall Islands

By Stephen E. Nash | July 29, 2016 2:07 pm
Chart, Navigational; Micronesian; Republic of the Marshall Islands; Oceania

It would be hard to guess, but this arrangement of bamboo sticks and cowrie shells makes up a map of the ocean and the greater Marshall Islands region. (Credit: A.926.1/DMNS)

This post originally appeared in the online anthropology magazine SAPIENS. Follow @SAPIENS_org on Twitter to discover more of their work.

In a recent blog post, I focused on the Global Positioning System (GPS) and mused on how we ever got along without high-tech navigational aids. GPS units became common in cars and phones only in the last 15 years or so.

I remember when a road trip required a stop at the local American Automobile Association office to gather free maps of the planned route. Likewise, I remember when well-traveled road warriors had at least one dog-eared copy of a Rand McNally Road Atlas in their cars. Those days are gone, and I miss them. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts

From Jet Fuel to Medicine, Tobacco Growers Turn a New Leaf

By David Warmflash | July 27, 2016 7:00 am
A tobacco farm in the southern United States.

(Credit: Raymond Gregory/Shutterstock)

It is notorious for its role in the expansion and continuation of American slavery, and for its adverse health effects. The latter includes cardiovascular disease and various cancers, including lung cancer, the most common malignancy, underlying millions of deaths each year.

Health officials, attorneys, and activists have spent decades targeting its industrial cultivators in an effort to limit its advertising and sale, particularly to minors. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: agriculture, plants

What We’re Learning from the World’s Oldest Calculator

By Mike Edmunds, Cardiff University | July 21, 2016 2:58 pm
Antikythera mechanism

The Antikythera mechanism (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

When we talk of the history of computers, most of us will refer to the evolution of the modern digital desktop PC, charting the decades-long developments by the likes of Apple and Microsoft. What many don’t consider, however, is that computers have been around much longer. In fact, they date back millennia, to a time when they were analogue creations.

Today, the world’s oldest known “computer” is the Antikythera mechanism, a severely corroded bronze artifact which was found at the beginning of the 20th Century, in the remains of a shipwreck near the Mediterranean island of Antikythera. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the importance of the Antikythera mechanism was discovered, when radiography revealed that the device is in fact a complex mechanism of at least 30 gear wheels. Read More

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

Extinction Looms for Easter Island’s Only Remaining Native Species

By Nathaniel Scharping | July 19, 2016 12:58 pm
DSCN0357

Jut Wynne at Rano Kao Volcano conducting reconnaissance for the cliff work to take place in August. (Credit: Rafael Rodriguez Brizuela)

On Easter Island, isolated in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean, ten species of near microscopic insects are all that remain of the island’s native species — at least for now.

Hidden in volcanic caves that dot the island, the endemic insects of Rapa Nui eke out an existence in an increasingly imperiled habitat. Their ancestral homes, fragile gardens of moss and ferns, are endangered by tourists flooding into the tiny island, and hordes of invasive species threaten to crowd them out. The island may have been immortalized by its iconic Moai, monolithic stone statues standing some 40 feet tall, but its most important inhabitants are almost too small to be seen. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World, Top Posts
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