Archive for August, 2010

Bonobo males get sex with help from their mums

By Ed Yong | August 31, 2010 7:00 pm


Most human men would be appalled at the idea of their mothers helping them to get laid. But then again, we’re hardly as sexually carefree as bonobos. While these apes live in female-led societies, the males also have a strict pecking order. For those at the bottom, mum’s assistance may be the only thing that allows them to father the next generation.

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Massive eggs were the most fragile of any bird (Pocket Science)

By Ed Yong | August 31, 2010 2:00 pm


Some of the largest bird eggs in history were surprisingly also some of the most fragile. That’s the conclusion from Leon Huynen from Brisbane University, who has been studying the eggs of an extinct group of flightless birds called moas. These giants roamed New Zealand until the 14th century when they were wiped out by humans. Today, all that remains are bones and eggs but some of the broken shells have preserved traces of the moas’ DNA. Earlier this year, Australian scientists sequenced the genes of moas for the first time. Now, Huynen has used the same techniques to work out how these birds cared for their young.

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Goodbye smallpox vaccination, hello monkeypox

By Ed Yong | August 31, 2010 9:00 am


In 8 May 1980, the World Health Organisation declared that “the world and its peoples have won freedom from smallpox.” Through decades of intense vaccination, this once fatal disease had been wiped out. It was a singular victory and having won it, countries around the world discontinued the vaccination programmes. After all, why protect against a disease that no longer exists (save in a few isolated stocks)?

Unfortunately, this is not a rhetorical question. The smallpox vaccine did more than protect against smallpox. It also reduced the risk of contracting a related illness called monkeypox, which produces the same combination of scabby bumps and fever. It’s milder than smallpox but it’s still a serious affliction. In Africa, where monkeypox originates from, it kills anywhere from 1-10% of those who are infected. And more and more people are becoming infected.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Medicine & health, Viruses

Balaur the stocky dragon – Velociraptor’s double-clawed Romanian cousin

By Ed Yong | August 30, 2010 3:00 pm


The “killing claw” of Velociraptor has been a fixture of popular imagination ever since it tapped its way across a kitchen floor in Jurassic Park. But if Velociraptor became iconic, then its close relative Balaur should be doubly so; this newly discovered dinosaur had two sickle-shaped claws on each foot. And unlike the lithe, agile form of its cousin, Balaur was built for strength, with the build of a kickboxer rather than a sprinter.

Balaur bondoc was discovered in Romania by Zoltán Csiki from the University of Bucharest and in Romanian, its name means “stocky dragon”. It lived in the late Cretaceous period. Back then, Europe was a fragmented series of islands rather than a solid landmass. The strange body of Balaur – very different to those of other raptors (or dromaeosaurids) – is testament to the fact that islands have always been great places for natural selection to try out some wacky stuff.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Dinosaurs, Evolution, Palaeontology

The beetle with bifocal eyes

By Ed Yong | August 29, 2010 12:00 pm

SunburstBifocal glasses allow wearers to focus on both far and near objects by looking through different parts of the lens. It’s commonly said that Benjamin Franklin invented these lenses, but they have actually been around for millions of years. In the streams of North America, the nightmarish larva of the sunburst diving beetle hunts with a pair of natural bifocal lenses.

The beetle relies on its keen eyesight to stalk other insect larvae amid often murky streams. It sees the world through no less than six pairs of eyes and in 2006, Elke Buschbeck discovered that each of these has at least two retinas. One of her students Annette Stowasser has focused on the front pair, and shown that they are unlike any other in the animal kingdom.

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Spotted links – 28th August 2010

By Ed Yong | August 28, 2010 12:00 pm


Geneticist Hugh Rienhoff has finally found a promising gene that might explain his daughter’s mystery genetic disorder. You must read Brendan Maher’s feature on Reinhoff from Nature in 2007.

“A US court has issued a temporary block against federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research as permitted by the Obama administration last year,” says Nature. More from New Scientist, some history from It’s Okay to be Smart, and the Independent has a contest to see which scientist can provide the most outraged quote.

At CNN, ocean scientists Chris Reddy talks about how he-said-she-said reporting screwed up the coverage of the Gulf oil spill. He has a point. Last week the NYT said, “Oil Plume Is Not Breaking Down Fast.” Five days later: “Undersea Oil Plume Vanishes in Gulf.” The Knight Science Journalism Tracker described the story as “another example of why daily journalism (nay, hourly journalism) is a terrible way to cover science”.  The Columbia Journalism Review describes the duelling papers that didn’t.

The world’s smallest frog, the size of a pea. [Updated – well, one of the smallest! See first comment]

This is incredible. One of our largest proteins – BRCA2, a cancer protector – has finally been purified. One of the three labs that independently did it was the one I worked in as a PhD student for a while. The protein is around 6 times bigger than a typical human one. Purifying it is like cooking the world’s biggest ball of spaghetti out of a single continuous strand that must be arranged just so. It’s really really hard to do it without the whole thing collapsing in a big sloppy heap.

Placebo beats coffee for memory and learning. DAMN YOU SCIENCE!

More after the jump…

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Links, Uncategorized

Tobacco leaves emit warning chemicals that summon predators when mixed with caterpillar spit

By Ed Yong | August 27, 2010 9:00 am


When hornworm caterpillars eat tobacco plants, they doom themselves with their own spit. As they chew away, a chemical in their saliva reacts with airborne substances that are released by the beleaguered plants. This chemical reaction sends out a distress signal that is heard and answered by the predatory big-eyed bug. The bug eats hornworm caterpillars. Drawn by the chemical SOS of plants under distress, it finds plenty to devour.

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Two heads better than one (if the heads talk and know how competent they are)

By Ed Yong | August 26, 2010 2:00 pm


Two party leaders have to cooperate in a coalition government, despite their political differences. A referee and a linesman have to make a decision that could spell success or failure in an international sporting tournament. Two heads have to direct the same groovy body towards saving the galaxy. From politics to sport to interstellar hitchhiking, there are many situations that require two people to work together.

Now, Bahador Bahrami from the Interacting Minds Project has found evidence that two proverbial heads can indeed be better than one… but only under certain circumstances. Through a simple experiment where volunteers cooperated to find a hidden image in a screen, Bahrami found that pairs trump individuals if they freely discuss their disagreements, not just about what they saw but how confident they were in their decision.

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When Interviewees Record! An experiment/interview on journalism

By Ed Yong | August 26, 2010 6:00 am


How can journalists make the most of the interviews that they do? And how can interviewees protect themselves from being misquoted? I’ve been thinking about both of these questions for some time and was delighted when an excellent opportunity presented itself for testing a potential answer.

A few weeks ago, Zoe Corbyn asked to interview me about science journalism and blogging for a feature she was writing for the Times Higher Education Supplement. I agreed and suggested that we try a little experiment: I would record the interview myself, transcribe it and post it here to coincide with her piece.

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Why gonorrhoea is like a general sabotaging his own siege

By Ed Yong | August 25, 2010 9:00 am

Infected_cellYou’re a general laying siege to a fortress. You troops are eager to attack and they’re surprised when you order them to hold back, so when your message to the enemy prompts them to strengthen their defences. It seems like a fool’s strategy – why would any commander prevent their army from entering a building they are trying to storm? The reason is that the troops are ill-prepared for battle. They need to be trained and they need to be properly equipped. If they rushed in unprepared, they’d risk a swift defeat. For the moment, the best strategy is to sit, wait and prepare.

This scenario seems odd, but it’s what happens when people contract gonorrhoea. This sexually transmitted disease is caused by a species of bacteria called Neisseria gonorrhoeae. During the later stages of infection, the bacteria invade our cells and use them to make more copies of themselves. They may even advance through the cells into deeper tissue.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Bacteria, Molecular biology

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