This is a barking owl, photographed at Caversham Wildlife Park in Perth. It’s a well-named creature, which, according to Wikipedia, emits noises that “range from a barking dog noise to a shrill woman-like scream of great intensity”. It’s said to be a potential source for Australia’s Bunyip legend, and I’m sure the striking yellow eyes don’t help either.
There is no action so stupid that you can’t persuade someone to do it by getting celebrity endorsement. Even the barmiest advice on everything from medical decisions to diets will have happy idiots queuing up to listen, if it comes from the mouth of someone who was once on TV. Such recommendations can be disastrous, but they can be beneficial if the people in question are wise and knowledgeable, from village elders to community leaders. This is all part of the same trend – the human penchant for apeing individuals with high status. And now, it seems that we aren’t the only species that does this. Chimpanzees have the same inclination for apeing those with prestige.
In a move that’s been hailed as one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of the century, a group of scientists have created a synthetic bacterium that looks like Craig Venter.
The team artificially synthesised a genome in the lab and inserted it into an empty bacterial cell, which promptly remodelled its outer wall into a picture of Venter’s face.
“Before today, there had only been one genome in the world with the right sequence of nucleotides to encode my face,” said Venter, speaking from his secret volcano lair. “Now there are two, and I can’t help but think that things have greatly improved.
“Of course, the ultimate goal is to build a creature with 100 heads, not unlike the mythical hydra, but where every head is my head.
“Or, er, something about biofuels,” he added.
Other scientists warned that the ethical debates sparked by the discovery had only begun. Andrew McQueen from New York University said, “Imagine going for a walk in the park only to find that every bird in the trees has Craig’s face on it and they’re all looking at you.”
“They’re not smiling either,” he added before curling up on the floor and crying quietly.
While the research was widely reported as a major breakthrough, other newspapers were more critical, with one spokesperson saying, “He’s basically just taken information from an existing source, copied it and reprinted it in another place. That’s our f**king job!”
Meanwhile, it transpired that Venter has coded a line from a James Joyce novel into his synthetic genome, a move that drew condemnation from America’s creationist groups, who didn’t understand what a novel was.
Two males red-eyed tree frogs square off over a female. Fisticuffs will soon ensue and as a final challenge to each other, the males… er… vigorously shake their bums at each other. Their quivering buttocks shake the plants they sit on, sending threatening vibrations towards their rival. This secret line of communication has just been uncovered by Michael Caldwell from Boston University. To decipher these messages, he has used a hi-tech combination of infrared cameras, saplings rigged with accelerometers and even a cybernetic Robofrog.
Our bodies are under siege, constantly fighting back assaults from disease-causing bacteria. But we are also home to many harmless bacterial species that are share our bodies to no ill effects. Now, it seems that these ‘commensals’ could be our hidden allies against their harmful cousins. In one such ally, a group of scientists has just discovered a potential new weapon against Staphylococcus aureus.
The argonauts are a group of octopuses unlike any other. The females secrete a thin, white, brittle shell called the paper nautilus. Nestled with their arms tucked inside this beautiful, translucent home, they drift through the open ocean while other octopus species crawl along the sea floor. The shell is often described as an egg-case, but octopus specialists Julian Finn and Mark Norman have discovered that it has another function – it’s an organic ballast tank.
An argonaut uses its shell to trap air from the surface and dives to a depth where the encased gas perfectly counteracts its own weight, allowing it to bob effortlessly without rising or sinking. Finn and Norman filmed and photographed live animals in the act of trapping their air bubbles, solving a mystery that has been debated for millennia.
Right from the moment of birth, women face a ticking clock, counting down to the end of their life’s fertile phase. In their fourth month in the womb, their immature ovaries begin to develop primordial follicles, the structures that will eventually give rise to egg cells. At birth, each ovary has around 400,000 follicles and won’t make any more. During each menstrual cycle, around a thousand of these cells become activated per ovary. By the time a woman goes through menopause, she has less than a thousand left and her chances of being a biological mother are slim to none.
Follicles stay in a dormant phase that can last for months or even years, until they are gradually activated. Now, a team of Chinese, Japanese and American scientists, led by Jing Li from Stanford University, have found a way to activate these dormant cells at will. It’s a step that could help infertile women, or those who freeze their ovaries before cancer treatments, to eventually have their own children.
It’s been a great week for science news. Here are my picks: