For many people, leprosy brings to mind Biblical stories of diseased people cast out from society. It’s a condition that today is largely found in developing countries, whereas in other, mostly Western nations it’s a pestilence of the past that was eradicated decades ago. But recent research has shown the disease not only persists in Britain but, perhaps more alarmingly, is also being carried by one of our best loved and most endangered native mammals, the red squirrel.
The study by researchers at the University of Edinburgh and EPFL in Switzerland found red squirrels from England, Scotland and Ireland were infected with leprosy. In particular, a group from Brownsea Island on the south coast of England had a strain of the disease virtually identical to one that infected humans in the middle ages. Read More
When the American painter Abbott H. Thayer published his book Concealing-Coloration in the Animal Kingdom in 1909, he put forth the hypothesis that animals’ colors served one function and one function only: to camouflage.
While that theory has since been disproven (animal colors also play a role in threatening predators and attracting mates), his work made a significant impact on our understanding of camouflage and how it could be used in war. During World War I, both the French and the German militaries relied on his book to develop designs for camouflaging their soldiers, and it became required reading for the U.S. Army’s newly launched unit of camoufleurs. Thayer’s work noted how nature “obliterates” contrast by both blending into its environment and disrupting it by using arbitrary patterns to break up outlines. Read More
“Cancer has been cured a thousand times.”
So says Christopher Austin, the director of the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) at the National Institutes of Health. Austin should know — as the director of NCATS, his focus is on exactly these kinds of groundbreaking laboratory studies.
His proclamation comes with a significant caveat that will pop the bubbles in your champagne. Austin is so interested in these studies because they all happened in mice, in a lab. When the hundreds of different drugs that made mouse tumors disappear were carried forward to human trials, they went in and came out without doing what they promised. Or worse, they turned out to be toxic. Read More
Back in August, it seemed that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was cleared of playing any role in one of the greatest hoaxes in scientific history. But in true Sherlockian form, there may still be a twist in this case that appears to be closed. And it’s a fitting discussion on Halloween.
The infamous ‘Piltdown Man’ hoax culminated in 1912 after esteemed geologist Sir Arthur Smith Woodward and amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson announced they had discovered the ‘missing link’ between ape and man. It featured a human-sized skull with an ape-like jaw, and it fooled scientists for 40 years before it was debunked.
So how did Conan Doyle get involved in this, and why should he still remain on the suspect list, despite the latest evidence? Stay with me as I dig deeper into this longstanding controversy. Read More
You’ve felt it at one time or another. You’re standing on a crowded train platform, or in the park, and suddenly, your alertness spikes: you’re being watched.
The hair on the back of your neck stands up. From some unconscious part of your brain, an alarm sounds: “Look over there!” Often, you turn and find your mind was playing tricks on you. But sometimes you turn and meet the eyes of a stranger whose gaze you’ve somehow sensed without consciously seeing it.
The idea that we can feel another’s person’s gaze has captured the attention of fringe researchers and parapsychologists for decades, but are we anywhere closer to explaining the roots this unnerving feeling? Does it exist? Read More
One day, it’s bound to happen. An astronaut dies in space.
Maybe the death occurred en route to Mars. Maybe she was interstellar, on board solo spacecraft. Or maybe the body was thrust out an airlock, a burial at space.
That corpse (or the corpse’s spacecraft) could spend anywhere from decades to millions of years adrift. It would coast listlessly in the void, until the creeping tendrils of gravity eventually pulled it into a final touchdown. Likely this corpse will burn up in a star.
But lets say it lands on a planet. Could our corpse, like a seed on the wind, bring life to a new world? Read More
Our bodies’ cells didn’t evolve to flourish in a petri dish. Even fast-growing skin cells stop dividing and turn thin and ragged after a few weeks outside the body. This natural obstacle limited the therapeutic potential of lab-grown cells – if you can’t grow the cells, you can’t use them to heal damaged tissue.
Then, a decade ago, Nobel Prize winner Shinya Yamanaka identified a cocktail of genes that, when added to mouse skin cells, transformed them into a new kind of cell that grew happily in ever expanding colonies. More importantly, these cells, dubbed “induced pluripotent stem cells” (iPSC), had their internal clocks set back to an earlier stem cell-like state, giving them the ability to grow into any other cell type found in the body. Read More
The banana is the world’s most popular fruit crop, with over 100 million metric tons produced annually in over 130 tropical and subtropical countries. Edible bananas are the result of a genetic accident in nature that created the seedless fruit we enjoy today. Virtually all the bananas sold across the Western world belong to the so-called Cavendish subgroup of the species and are genetically nearly identical. These bananas are sterile and dependent on propagation via cloning, either by using suckers and cuttings taken from the underground stem or through modern tissue culture.
The familiar bright yellow Cavendish banana is ubiquitous in supermarkets and fruit bowls, but it is in imminent danger. The vast worldwide monoculture of genetically identical plants leaves the Cavendish intensely vulnerable to disease outbreaks. Fungal diseases severely devastated the banana industry once in history and it could soon happen again if we do not resolve the cause of these problems. Plant scientists, including us, are working out the genetics of wild banana varieties and banana pathogens as we try to prevent a Cavendish crash. Read More
Automated financial trading machines can make complex decisions in a thousandth of a second. A human being making a choice – however simple – can never be faster than about one-fifth of a second. Our reaction times are not only slow but also remarkably variable, ranging over hundreds of milliseconds.
Is this because our brains are poorly designed, prone to random uncertainty – or “noise” in the electronic jargon? Measured in the laboratory, even the neurons of a fly are both fast and precise in their responses to external events, down to a few milliseconds. The sloppiness of our reaction times looks less like an accident than a built-in feature. The brain deliberately procrastinates, even if we ask it to do otherwise. Read More
Let us consider the humble chicken.
Or, rather, consider a world without them. Gone are breakfast burritos at Sunday morning brunch, wings at your next tailgate, half the menu at an Italian restaurant, your grandma’s precious soup recipe and nearly every fast-food chain out there. It’s a bleak world, to be sure.
Given the extent to which we rely on the nameless, faceless birds that gift us so many culinary delights, perhaps it’s time we paid more attention to them. That’s the insight behind the Cosmopolitan Chicken Project, an artistic endeavor 20 years in the making. It’s the brainchild of Belgian artist Koen Vanmechelen, and it celebrates the wonder and power of the riotous diversity found in the myriad lineages of chickens the world over. Read More