Archive for May, 2010

Saturday links

By Ed Yong | May 22, 2010 1:39 pm

As you’ll probably already know, the big news this week is Craig Venter’s work on Synthia. Some say he’s created life; I think he’s merely plagiarised it (albeit in an admittedly very complicated way). Some of the best pieces on the work are as follows: Nature has eight glowing reactions; one of the scientists who worked on the project took questions from Reddit readers; the New York Times has a more reserved take; Ars Technica decides to focus on the paper’s technical achievements; Mark Henderson has a measured commentary in the Times; and Carl Zimmer argues that “it is life, ultimately, that recreates life from life”. The Daily Mail wrote some guff about I Am Legend, but I’m not linking to them.

Wired has some incredible reporting about a watershed case in the use of brain-scanning evidence in courtrooms.

Laelaps covers a study that confirms how thresher sharks use their massive tails to stun their prey.

600 light years away, a sun is eating a planet. OM NOM NOM. The Bad Astronomer has the story.

“WHAT… is your favourite colour?” Neurotopia covers a cool paper on colour preferences.

“I’m not sure if I’d be too pleased to wake up after a serious brain injury to find someone pouring milk in my ears, but then again, I’m not an Ancient Egyptian,” says Mind Hacks.

Law and Order shamelessly rips off the Henrietta Lacks story. Abel Pharmboy is quite rightly peeved.

Is organic food preferable to non-organic food? Not according to wild birds, who prefer protein-rich non-organic seeds, as covered in Ars Technica.

Earlier this year, I wrote about slime moulds simulating the Tokyo rail network. Now, the same trick has been used for America’s roads.

Forbes has an excellent piece about foods that masquerade as drugs, from supplements to probiotic drinks.

Andrew Wakefield: the Graphic Novel! Look for Wolverine to guest-star in a future issue, slashing credibility with his adamantium claws.

The New York Times wonders if an obsession with search engine optimisation will kill the clever headline. It starts, unpromisingly, by talking about the Huffington Post but there’s some sensible stuff in the closer.

Wired tells us that dementia caregivers more likely to develop dementia themselves. Odd. The mechanism isn’t clear.

The Times discusses the first press conference from the UK’s new science minister, David Willetts. He’s not a climate change skeptic and he supports blue-skies research. That’s a bare minimum standard for acceptability and somehow, I’m disproportionately happy that it’s been met.

Journalism students are apparently desperate for jobs in mainstream media, says the Guardian. Er, why? More interestingly, talks about the portfolio career

COSMOS hilariously describes a trained turkey vulture, used to find the corpses of missing people and fitted with GPS as ‘low-tech’.

Pest numbers rise around farms growing genetically modified strains of Bt cotton.

God, the Telegraph’s science reporting is appalling. Once more with the evolutionary psychology.

And finally, Zooillogix considers the mechanics of death by rectal swamp eel. No, really.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Links, Uncategorized

Photo safari – barking owl

By Ed Yong | May 22, 2010 12:00 pm


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.


Chimps prefer to copy others with prestige

By Ed Yong | May 21, 2010 9:00 am


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.

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Scientists create first ever synthetic bacterium that looks like Craig Venter

By Ed Yong | May 20, 2010 3:33 pm


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.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Not Exactly Rocket Satire
MORE ABOUT: genome, synthetic, venter

Tree frogs shake their bums to send threatening vibes

By Ed Yong | May 20, 2010 12:00 pm


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.

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Fighting bacteria with bacteria – common nose germ provides new weapon against superbugs

By Ed Yong | May 19, 2010 1:00 pm


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.

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Scientists solve millennia-old mystery about the argonaut octopus

By Ed Yong | May 18, 2010 7:00 pm

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.

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Shutting off a single gene could improve fertility by activating dormant egg-producing cells

By Ed Yong | May 17, 2010 3:00 pm

FollicleRight 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.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Genetics, Medicine & health

Photo safari – darkling beetle

By Ed Yong | May 17, 2010 9:00 am

I saw this large beetle scurrying around the ruins of the roman city of Jerash in Jordan. It was the first live sighting after seeing several of its squashed peers.


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Animals, Beetles, Insects, Invertebrates

Saturday links

By Ed Yong | May 15, 2010 1:49 pm

It’s been a great week for science news. Here are my picks:

  • Is Earth the best place to search for other forms of life? Paul Davies thinks so. “No planet is more Earth-like than Earth itself, so if the path to life is easy, then life should have started up many times over right here.” Meanwhile, Wired covers a US biochemist who has done the first rigorous statistical test of the LUCA hypothesis – that all life on Earth descended from a common ancestor.
  • I have just discovered the Animal Review blog. It has reviews. Of animals. And it’s brilliant.
  • The Deepwater Horizon tragedy is far worse than initially suggested. The Boston Globe’s Big Picture uses beautiful photos to highlight the scope of the disaster while over at The Intersection, Darlene Cavalier (the Science Cheerleader) has a compelling post on whether prizes for innovative solutions can save the gulf.
  • A new study narrows down the genetic changes that allow Tibetans to live in the roof of the world, 15,000 ft above sea level. 80 Beats has the story, and Razib dives into the detail.
  • It’s like a cloudspotter’s dream – if you think clouds look cool from the ground, Wired shows you just how amazing their formations can seem from space.
  • David Dobbs has a gracious and thoughtful piece on “push” science journalism – how to get science out to as diverse an audience as possible.
  • Brooke Greenberg is 17 but she’s still the size of a one-year-old. What does her DNA tell us about the genetics of ageing? The Times investigates.
  • Amid the hullaballoo over Britain’s new coalition government, Mark Henderson has a thoughtful analysis of the appointment of David Willetts, the new Science Minister.
  • Robert Mugabe is set to send a modern ark to Kim Jong-Il as a present. You can’t make this stuff up. Presumably he’ll send two elephants… no, 50 eleph… no, 740,030 eleph… no, 374,001,058 ele.. oh sod it.
  • From now on, when new papers on fossil hominids come out, I’m just going to head straight to Scientific American to see what Kate Wong has to say about it. Check out her cracking piece on the full Neanderthal genome and how it shows that Neanderthals and humans interbred. Meanwhile, Nature has a great piece on ancient DNA and New Scientist has an editorial on welcoming Neanderthals to the Homo sapiens family. And the lamentable Huffington Post shows how not to write about science with this piece that could well have come from the Onion.
  • Science Now reports on a crack in the mirror neuron hypothesis of autism. One wonders how people will look back on the mirror neuron hypothesis in decades to come.
  • I don’t usually link to the BBC’s science coverage (a bit vanilla for my tastes) but this piece on black holes is notable because it, shock, gasp, actually links to the original paper. The end times are nigh.
  • Vaughan Bell and the Neuroskeptic skewer pieces that oversimplify the roles of cortisol, the so-called “stress hormone”. “A few data points short of a bar graph,” says Vaughan.
  • Massive congratulations to Rebecca Skloot, whose peerless book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks will be turned into an HBO movie thanks to Oprah and Alan Ball. The Lacks family will be consulting on the project.
  • Michael Marshall meets the self-sacrificing child clone wasps
  • Two papers came out this week about the early bird, Archaeopteryx. I blogged about one of them, which showed that its feathers were too narrow for flapping, and Ars Technica has the other story, which reveals the feathers’ biochemistry.
  • The Illusion of the Year is an absolute cracker. Go and marvel.
  • Fascinatingly, Twitter turns out to be a decent stand-in for public opinion polls with a 72-79% correlation to traditional polls, according to Ars Technica.
  • Can lions eavesdrop on the calls of their competitors, the beautiful African wild dogs? Brian Switek analyses.
  • Say hi to Deborah Blum, writer of the Speakeasy Science blog, author of the Poisoner’s Handbook and the latest ScienceBlogs recruit. Go add her to your RSS list.
  • And also say hi to John Rennie, former editor of Scientific American, who now has his own blog, Rennie’s Last Nerve, which promises to be very entertaining. Follow him on Twitter too.
  • SciencePunk shows us a bee that creates beautiful nests out of flower petals.
  • Dolphins are gits. They beat up porpoises, pulping their internal organs and using their sonar to aim the blows. Where are your rainbows now, teenage girls? And according to The Onion, they can’t even mock celebrity culture.
  • Amid dozens of Genome-of-the-Day stories, Nature discusses a recent development that’s actually important – technology that can simultaneously read both a genome and an epigenome.
  • Do mice show pain on their faces? Yes, according to scientists who have created the Mouse Grimace Scale. They’re laughing on the inside, really.
  • Lizards – the latest known casualties of climate change. Science Now and Nature tell us that “20% of all lizard species could go extinct by 2080 if climate change is left unchecked”. The trends are particularly worrying because lizards, which David Attenborough described as “dragons of the dry”, should be very tolerant of climate change.

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