Tag Archives | Biology

DIY Synthetic Biologists Creating Glowing Trees (via Kickstarter)

This is so sci-fi it’s positively scary! The home brewing school of science has turned to crowdfunding platform Kickstarter to fund the creation of genetically engineered glow-in-the-dark trees, reports Andrew Pollack for the New York Times:

Hoping to give new meaning to the term “natural light,” a small group of biotechnology hobbyists and entrepreneurs has started a project to develop plants that glow, potentially leading the way for trees that can replace electric streetlamps and potted flowers luminous enough to read by.

The project, which will use a sophisticated form of genetic engineering called synthetic biology, is attracting attention not only for its audacious goal, but for how it is being carried out.

glowing plants

Rather than being the work of a corporation or an academic laboratory, it will be done by a small group of hobbyist scientists in one of the growing number of communal laboratories springing up around the nation as biotechnology becomes cheap enough to give rise to a do-it-yourself movement.

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Could Humanity Have Descended From Aquatic Apes?

aquatic apesAre we all on team aqua ape? The admittedly far-fetched theory posits that certain key traits hint that humanity’s ape ancestors spent significant time in the water. Complete Genomics writes:

A controversial theory that humans evolved from amphibious apes has won new support. The aquatic ape theory, whose supporters include David Attenborough, suggests that apes emerged from the water, lost their fur, started to walk upright and then developed big brains.

While it has been treated with scorn by some scientists since it first emerged 50 years ago, it is backed by a committed group of academics, including Sir David. The group will hold a major London conference next week.

One of the organizers, Peter Rhys Evans told the Observer that humans are very different from other apes, as we lack fur, walk upright, have big brains and subcutaneous fat and have a descended larynx – which is common among aquatic animals.

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Does Moore’s Law Imply That Life On Earth Arrived From Elsewhere?

origin of lifeThe MIT Technology Review writes that earthly lifeforms appear to have 10 billion years’ worth of complexity, yet our planet is only 4.5 billion years old. So do our origins lie elsewhere?

As life has evolved, its complexity has increased exponentially, just like Moore’s law. Now geneticists have extrapolated this trend backwards and found that by this measure, life is older than the Earth itself.

Alexei Sharov at the National Institute on Ageing in Baltimore and Richard Gordon at the Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory in Florida argue that it’s possible to measure the complexity of life and the rate at which it has increased from prokaryotes to eukaryotes to more complex creatures such as worms, fish and finally mammals. That produces a clear exponential increase identical to that behind Moore’s Law although in this case the doubling time is 376 million years rather than two years.

That raises an interesting question.

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Animals Self-Medicate Far More Than Previously Realized

animals self medicateScience Daily on animal pharmacology as part of the ecosystem:

It’s been known for decades that animals such as chimpanzees seek out medicinal herbs to treat their diseases. But it now appears that the practice of animal self-medication is a lot more widespread than previously thought, according to University of Michigan ecologist Mark Hunter and his colleagues.

Animals use medications to treat various ailments through both learned and innate behaviors. The fact that moths, ants and fruit flies are now known to self-medicate has profound implications for ecology and evolution.

Wood ants incorporate an antimicrobial resin from conifer trees into their nests, preventing microbial growth in the colony. Parasite-infected monarch butterflies protect their offspring against high levels of parasite growth by laying their eggs on anti-parasitic milkweed. Lacking many of the immune-system genes of other insects, honeybees incorporate antimicrobial resins into their nests.

“Perhaps the biggest surprise for us was that animals like fruit flies and butterflies can choose food for their offspring that minimizes the impacts of disease in the next generation,” Hunter said.

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Accepting Alternate Forms Of Intelligence In The Animal Kingdom

Our inability to perceive animal intelligence revealed the limits of our own. Via the Wall Street Journal, Frans de Waal writes:

Who is smarter: a person or an ape? Well, it depends on the task. Consider Ayumu, a young male chimpanzee at Kyoto University who, in a 2007 study, put human memory to shame. Trained on a touch screen, Ayumu could recall a random series of nine numbers, from 1 to 9, and tap them in the right order, even though the numbers had been displayed for just a fraction of a second and then replaced with white squares.

I tried the task myself and could not keep track of more than five numbers—and I was given much more time than the brainy ape. In the study, Ayumu outperformed a group of university students by a wide margin. The next year, he took on the British memory champion Ben Pridmore and emerged the “chimpion.”

A growing body of evidence shows, that we have grossly underestimated both the scope and the scale of animal intelligence.

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Researchers Create Basis For Computers Made From Living Biological Cells

Technology and nature to become indistinguishable, New Scientist writes:

Computers made from living cells, anyone? Two groups of researchers have independently built the first biological analogue of the transistor. It should make it easier to create gadgets out of living cells, such as biosensors that detect polluted water.

Drew Endy at Stanford University and colleagues have designed a transistor-like device that controls the movement of an enzyme called RNA polymerase along a strand of DNA, just as electrical transistors control the flow of current through a circuit. Because combinations of transistors can carry out computations, this should make it possible to build living gadgets with integrated control circuitry.

A similar device has been built by Timothy Lu and colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Such devices will be key building blocks in cellular machines, says Paul Freemont at Imperial College London, who was not involved in either study.

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Are Men Doomed To Go Extinct?

The Sydney Morning Herald on evolutionary scientists’ assertion that biological males as we know them are on the way out, due to the inherent flawed nature of the Y chromosome:

The poorly designed Y chromosome that makes men is degrading rapidly and will disappear, even if humans are still around.

Evolutionary geneticist Jenny Graves says that while the process is likely to happen within the next five million years, it could have begun in some isolated groups. Professor Groves, who first made the prediction some years ago, gave a public lecture on the subject for the Australian Academy of Science.

If humans don’t become extinct, new sex-determining genes and chromosomes will evolve, maybe leading to the evolution of new hominid species. “As long as something came along in its stead, we would not even suspect without checking the chromosomes,” she said on Tuesday. This had happened in the Japanese spiny rat, which had survived the loss of its Y.

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The Preformationist Explanation Of Reproduction And The Creation Of Life

Preformationism—one of the dominant scientific theories of the 18th century—is the belief that a tiny tree is hidden inside every seed, and a tiny person curled up inside every sperm. Via Wikipedia:

In the history of biology, preformationism (or preformism) is the idea that organisms develop from miniature versions of themselves. Instead of assembly from parts, preformationists believe that the form of living things exist, in real terms, prior to their development. It suggests that all organisms were created at the same time, and that succeeding generations grow from homunculi that have existed since the beginning of creation.

Pythagoras is one of the earliest thinkers credited with ideas about the origin of form in the biological production of offspring. It is said that he originated “spermism”, the doctrine that fathers contribute the essential characteristics of their offspring while mothers contribute only a material substrate.

The groundbreaking scientific insights provided by Galileo and Descartes seemed to support preformationism.

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More Evidence Of Existence Of Ancient Hobbit People

Via Popular Science, the newest research suggests that the three-foot-tall beings who lived in prehistoric Indonesia were not merely short or deformed humans, but a distinct species:

In 2003, researchers uncovered 18,000-year-old bones of a woman with a skull a third of the size of a human’s on the island of Flores, Indonesia. They subsequently found more remains belonging to up to nine similarly pint-sized prehistoric creatures. Nicknamed after the the J.R.R. Tolkien characters, they stood some 3 and a half feet tall.

A study published in Journal of Human Evolution last week shows hobbit wrists were markedly different from humans’, lending credence to the theory that they were a separate species from Homo sapiens. After studying the differences between the carpal bones of the Homo floresiensis remains discovered in 2004 and modern human and Neanderthal wrists, scientists says that hobbits weren’t just abnormally small humans.

Hobbits reached Indonesia by 1 million years ago, and went extinct 17,000 years ago.

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