If you’ve got some free time, here are a couple talks for your listening pleasure.
Radiolab presents a story I told about a fateful trip to Sudan on their latest podcast. I’ve embedded it here:
Last week, I also talked about viruses on Skeptically Speaking, and they’ve posted our conversation here. (If you have trouble at that link, try here.) Among other things, we talk about the unimaginably huge number of viruses on Earth, and I offer my vote for the Worst Virus Ever. Fortunately, if you’re not a catepillar, you don’t have anything to worry about.
Earlier this year in National Geographic, I wrote about how feathers evolved long before flight. This timing naturally raises the question, how did feathered dinosaurs take to the air? My article was accompanied by a picture from the University of Montana lab of Ken Dial, who argues that before dinosaurs flew, they flapped their wings to help them travel up and down inclines. While not all experts accept Dial’s hypothesis, it has the undeniable strength that he can gather evidence for it in living birds, rather than just inferring behavior from fossils alone.
This video shows some of the astonishing climbs birds can make with the help of some wing flapping. It’s a mix of lab climbs and footage from the wild, with an evolutionary tree of birds.
This is a skill that takes time for birds to develop, as shown in this video below. Dinosaurs might have gradually acquired the skill as well, as their arms evolved into more bird-like wings.
Dial argues that this flapping would also help on the way down, too. Here’s a young bird leaping to the ground, and flapping its wings to control its fall.
By the time dinosaurs had evolved the ability to use feathers to assist in climbs, they would have already developed the wing stroke used by birds today for true flight, as this video shows.
Even without full flight, Dial argues, flapping feathered wings would have given little feathered dinosaurs the boost they needed to escape hungry predators. And this behavior could have served as an evolutionary bridge from the land to the air.
Tip of the maniraptoran hat to Tom Holtz
We’re getting close to the publication of Science Ink (official date, November 1), and some very fun things are approaching. The wonderful National Public Radio show Studio 360, hosted by Kurt Anderson, decided to talk to some of the scientists featured in the book–about their science, about their tattoos, and about the nature of openness. It will be on their next episode, which starts airing around the country this weekend. (Here’s the segment page on their web site.)
And you can listen to it right here–
More announcements to come!
Ten years ago this month, a team of University of Oxford scientists published a description of a family who struggled with words. By comparing their DNA, the scientists zeroed in for the first time on a gene associated with language, dubbed FOXP2. In my newest column in Discover, I look back at what scientists have learned over the past decade about how FOXP2 works, and what it tells us–or leaves us wondering–about how language evolved. Check it out.
Nuria Gonzalez-Montalban, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Maryland, writes:
My name is Núria and I am a biologist working with prions. Since the structure of prions has not been described yet (at least completely), I would not want to tattoo a possibly-wrong prion. Instead, I chose a T4 virus since part of my undergrad and PhD were related to E.coli and T4 bacteriophages.
Given that bacteriophages are the most common living thing on Earth, it’s good that at least one person on Earth has it on his arm.
Josephine Schuppang of Technical University in Berlin writes,
I was pointed to your blog when I talked to a friend about my newest tattoo. He told me that you are collecting scientific tattoos. I didn’t even know there were other people who did that sort of thing. You bet my tattoo artist looked strangely at me for my request.
So attached find a picture of my tattoo of Bragg’s Law. It is along the side of my left foot and shows nicely in my favorite pair of heels.
I studied Physics, and although I wanted to go in to Astronomy I got lost a bit and landed in Crystallography, which has a long history here in Berlin. Last year I wrote my thesis on the transmission electron microscopy of nitride semiconductors. After my defense I wanted to get a tattoo to remember this occasion. But all the formulas I did use were too long and complex to use, and all the images I took wouldn’t have worked.
So I decided on a fundamental formula, Bragg’s Law. It is important for electron diffraction, so that fits. And I have always liked the Bragg story, the father-son tag team of physics and the fact that William Lawrence Bragg was only 25 when they got their Nobel Prize.
There are many weird viruses on this planet, but none weirder–in a fundamentally important way–than a group known as the giant viruses.
For years, they were hiding in plain sight. They were so big–about a hundred times bigger than typical viruses–that scientists mistook them for bacteria. But a close look revealed that they infected amoebae and built new copies of themselves, as all viruses do. And yet, as I point out in A Planet of Viruses, giant viruses certainly straddle the boundary between viruses and cellular life. Flu viruses may only have ten genes, but giant viruses may have 1,000 or more. When giant viruses invade a host cell, they don’t burst open like other viruses, so that their genes and proteins can disperse to do their different jobs. Instead, they assemble into a “virus factory” that sucks in building blocks and spits out large pieces of future giant viruses. Giant viruses even get infected with their own viruses. People often ask me if I think viruses are alive. If giant viruses aren’t alive, they sure are close.
Ever since giant viruses were first unveiled seven years ago, scientists have argued about the origins of these not-so-wee beasties. Many of their genes are different from those found in cellular life forms, or even other viruses. It’s possible that giant viruses amassed their enormous genetic armamentarium over billions of years, picking up genes from long-extinct host or swapping them with other viruses we have yet to find. Other scientists have suggested that giant viruses started out giant–or even bigger than they are today. Some have even argued that they represent a new domain of life, although others aren’t so sure.
A new study suggests that giant viruses are indeed ancient. It is the work of a team of French researchers led by Jean-Michel Claverie, who went searching for new giant viruses in the waters near a marine biology station in Chile. They found a new kind so different from other giant viruses that they gave it a name of its own:
It’s astonishing to me that such a glorious name wasn’t already taken. In the dinosaur world, people are always hunting for Latin ways to say, “I’ve got a really big dinosaur.” Supersaurus, Ultrasaurus, Megalosaurus, Truckasaurus. The name Megavirus is truth in advertising. Its genome is 1.259 million base pairs long, which is 6.5 percent longer than the previous record holder among giant viruses. In that abundance of DNA are 1120 genes. That’s hundreds more genes than found in a lot of bacteria. (You can browse its genome for yourself here.)
Claverie and his colleagues compared the genes in Megavirus to the best-studied of the giant viruses, Mimivirus. They could not find matches for 258 Megavirus genes in Mimivirus. But they found counterparts to most of its genes, including genes for distinctively giant-virus features such as the viral factory. (The inset in the picture above shows the portal of a Megavirus viral factory, called a “stargate.” It’s similar to the stargate found in Mimivirus.) Mimiviruses have some genes for building and folding proteins, and so do Megavirus.
These results lead Claverie and his colleagues to conclude that giant viruses started out giant. They might have even been some full-blown cellular life form. In the Mimivirus and Megavirus lineage, the genes mutated in different trajectories, and new copies of genes arose, producing different gene families. The lack of 258 Megavirus genes in Mimivirus might not mean that Megavirus picked up those genes from other sources. It’s possible that Mimivirus lost those genes. Likewise, Megavirus may have lost hundreds of genes as well. Giant viruses might thus be relicts of the first chapters of the history of life. (You can read more about this scenario in this 2010 review by Claverie: pdf.)
Fortunately, there’s a straightforward way to test this hypothesis: find more giant viruses and see if they fit the pattern. Giant viruses seem to thrive in all sorts of habitats, so there should be no end of new species to find. And given that it didn’t take long to trump the old genome-size record with Megavirus, you can expect scientists to find even bigger viruses somewhere on Earth.
Whether they should call these new species Truckavirus, I leave to greater minds.
Reference: “Distant Mimivirus relative with a larger genome highlights the fundamental features of Megaviridae” Defne Arslan, Matthieu Legendre, Virginie Seltzer, Chantal Abergel, and Jean-Michel Claverie. PNAS, in press. Link [should work by the end of this week]
Noting a colleague’s DNA-inspired tattoo at a pool party, science writer Zimmer (A Planet of Viruses) wondered how widespread the phenomenon of the inked scientist was. He solicited pictures for his blog, “The Loom,” and, inundated with photos and stories from scientists and laypeople alike, quickly became a curator of science-inspired body art. Mary Roach’s foreword lays out why, given the passion with which so many approach their fields, it should be no surprise to encounter this worldwide tribe whose obsessed love for every far-flung corner of science’s domain was marked permanently on their bodies. Divided into 13 sections, the book is filled with breathtaking color photos accompanied by grounding texts: Portuguese geneticist Dônovan Fereira Rodrigues, who got Isaac Newton’s “shoulders of giants” quote inked on his back, tells the story behind the phrase; August Kekule’s “discovery” of benzene’s structure inspired Virginia pharmacology PhD. Jeffrey Ikeda; a tattoo of Nikola Tesla’s visions of a wireless future lies on the arm of Abraham Orozco, the science director of a children’s community center in L.A. Genetics, neuroscience, and evolution (Darwin gets his own section) form the book’s modern cornerstones and the tattoos range from full back pieces and sleeves to little—often concealable—personal reminders. Encyclopedic in essence, Zimmer’s coffee-table art book presents a wealth of material.
The book is officially published on November 1, but one reader told me she had received hers in the mail already. I’ll post updates here on reviews and talks about Science Ink. And I’m going to finally start posting some images from the backlog of tattoos that people have sent me since I finished work on the book.
[PS--Just one correction: I wrote the historical explanation of the "shoulders of giants" quote, not Rodrigues. That's true for most of the other stuff in the caption-essays.]
Once more we are going through the annual ritual of the Nobel Prize announcements. The early morning phone calls, the expressions of shock, the gnashing of teeth in the betting pools. In the midst of the hoopla, I got an annoyed email on Tuesday from an acquaintance of mine, an immunology grad student named Kevin Bonham. Bonham thought there was something wrong with this year’s Prize for Medicine or Physiology. It should have gone to someone else.
Kevin lays out the story in a new post on his blog, We Beasties. The prize, he writes, “was given to a scientist that many feel is undeserving of the honor, while at the same time sullying the legacy of my scientific great-grandfather.” Read the rest of the post to see why he feels this way.
Kevin emailed me while he was writing up the blog post. He wondered if I would be interested in writing about this controversy myself, to give it more prominence. I passed. Even if I weren’t trying to carry several deadlines on my head at once, I would still pass. As I explained to Kevin, I tend to steer clear of Nobel controversies, because I think the prize is, by definition, a lousy way to recognize important science. All the rules about having to be alive to win it, about how there can be no more than three winners–along with the lack of prizes for huge swaths of important scientific disciplines–make these kinds of disputes both inevitable and tedious.
The people behind the Nobel Prize, I should point out, have done a lot of good. Their web site is a fine repository of information about the history of science. I’ve tapped it many times while working on books and articles. There’s also something pleasing to see the world drawn, for a couple days at least, to the underappreciated byways of science. If the Nobel Prize makes more people aware of quasicrystals, the Prize is doing something unquestionably wonderful.
But the vehicle that delivers this good is fundamentally absurd. The Nobel Prize rules say no more than three people can win an award, for example. This year’s prize for physics went to Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt, and Adam Riess for their work on the
dark energy that is accelerating the accelerating expansion of the universe. Half went to Perlmutter, and a quarter went to Riess and Schmidt. But, of course, scientists do not work in troikas. It wouldn’t even make sense to say that three people could accept the prize on behalf of three labs. Science is a stupendously complex social undertaking, in which scientists typically become part of shifting networks over the course of many years. And those networks are not just made up of happy friends collaborating on projects together. Rivals racing for the same goal can actually speed the pace towards discovery.
Now, some individual scientists are certainly remarkable people. But the Nobel Prize doesn’t merely recognize them for being remarkable individuals. The citations link each person to a discovery, as if there was some sort of equivalence between the two. But discoveries are usually a lot bigger than one person, or even three.
In his wonderful book The 4% Percent Universe, Richard Panek describes the history of the research that led to this year’s physics prize. I read the book to review it for the Washington Post, and I was particularly taken by a story at the end. In 2007, the Gruber Prize, the highest prize for cosmology research, was awarded for the research. Schmidt haggled with the prize committee until they agreed to widen the prize to all 51 scientists who had been involved in the two rival teams. Thirty-five of them traveled to Cambridge for the ceremony. It would have been fun to watch Schmidt go up against the Nobel Prize committee. He would have lost, of course, but at least he would have made an important point.
Should scientists get credit for great work? Of course. But that’s what history is for. Charles Darwin and Leonardo da Vinci never got the Nobel Prize, but somehow we still manage to remember them as important figures anyway. The time that’s spend arguing over whether someone should get fifty percent of a prize or twenty-five percent or zero percent could be spent on much better things, like more science.
[Update: Revised post to clarify that the prize was for research on the acceleration of the universe, not the dark energy many think is driving the acceleration.]