Tag Archives | Biology

Humans Who Photosynthesize?

Tuke, Henry Scott (1858–1929) - 1904 - The sun worshipper (In the morning sun)From BBC Future:

The discovery that some animals have found ways to feed off the Sun’s energy has led to the intriguing idea that humans could one day create solar-powered nourishment.

Humans have to grow, hunt, and gather food, but many living things aren’t so constrained. Plants, algae and many species of bacteria can make their own sustenance through the process of photosynthesis. They harness sunlight to drive the chemical reactions in their bodies that produce sugars. Could humans ever do something similar? Could our bodies ever be altered to feed off the Sun’s energy in the same way as a plant?

As a rule, animals cannot photosynthesise, but all rules have exceptions. The latest potential deviant is the pea aphid, a foe to farmers and a friend to geneticists. Last month, Alain Robichon at the Sophia Agrobiotech Institute in France reported that the aphids use pigments called carotenoids to harvest the sun’s energy and make ATP, a molecule that acts as a store of chemical energy.

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Archaeology Being Undermined By Fake Fossils Of Imaginary Animals

Could your favorite ancient animal species not be real? Via the Archaeology News Network:

Fake fossils are duping scientists and museums, a senior paleontologist has warned, after a scholar was forced to retract a controversial essay that stated the cheetah originated in China.

According to Li Chun, associate researcher at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, counterfeits are now widespread and have become a serious risk to genuine study projects. “I believe many scholars are victims of fake fossils,” he said, before estimating that more than 80 percent of marine reptile specimens on display in Chinese museums “have been altered or artificially combined to varying degrees”.

Li’s alert follows the debunking last month of an essay co-authored by Huang Ji, a Chinese scientist, and Danish researcher Per Christiansen in 2008 about an alleged new species of cheetah.

“Probably to make it appear more complete, thus enhancing its commercial value, Chinese fossil dealers makes numerous fake fossils.

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Elephants Are Able To Sing Like Humans

I see a future of interspecies jazz combos.  Via the Indian Express:

Elephants “sing” like humans but at a frequency so low we can’t hear them, scientists have claimed. Researchers have found that elephants use an ultrasound rumble, often too low for humans to hear, to keep the herd together and for males to find mates. It allows the animals to communicate over distances of up to six miles.

Experts had wondered whether, like a cat’s purr, elephant infrasound was generated by muscular ‘twitching’ movements of the vocal cords.

Instead, it turns out the elephant sounds are made purely by air being blown through the larynx, or voice box, as in the case of a human singer. The German team carried out laboratory tests on a larynx removed from an African elephant that had died naturally at a Berlin zoo.

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A Genetic ‘Mistake’ 500 Million Years Ago Led To Advanced Life

Live Science on the fluke that eventually led to our current situation:

Over 500 million years ago a spineless creature on the ocean floor experienced two successive doublings in the amount of its DNA, a “mistake” that eventually triggered the evolution of humans and many other animals, says a new study.

The good news is that these ancient DNA doublings boosted cellular communication systems, so that our body cells are now better at integrating information than even the smartest smartphones. The bad part is that communication breakdowns, traced back to the very same genome duplications of the Cambrian Period, can cause diabetes, cancer and neurological disorders.

“Organisms that reproduce sexually usually have two copies of their entire genome, one inherited from each of the two parents,” co-author Carol MacKintosh explained. “What happened over 500 million years ago is that this process ‘went wrong’ in an invertebrate animal, which somehow inherited twice the usual number of genes.

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The Nazi Plan To Breed Lost Animal Species

Jurassic Park fifty years prior? Cabinet Magazine on a strange form of zoology in Nazi Germany, centered around the cordoning off of untainted forests for the re-creation of pure, ancient breeds of ponies, boars, and a mystical striped oxen called the auroch:

In 1920, the brothers Lutz and Heinz Heck, directors of the Berlin and Munich zoos, respectively, began a two-decade breeding experiment. Working with domestic cattle sought out for their “primitive” characteristics, they attempted to recreate “in appearance and behavior” the living likeness of the animals’ extinct wild ancestor: the aurochs.

This conflation of biological and aesthetic destiny coincided with a strain of Nazi thought that sought to apply pseudo-Darwinian theories in support of a racialized conception of the state. In this mode, the zoologist Konrad Lorenz identified parallels between the changes he observed in animals as the result of their domestication and what he saw as the deleterious genetic effects of civilization.

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Lichen Can Survive In Hostile Space Conditions

Humans are ill-equipped for traveling into outer space, but the same isn’t true for other earthly life forms. Should we send funguses to colonize our galaxy, before we go? Via Phenomenica:

In 2008 the European Space Agency sent a suitcase-sized experiment package to the International Space Station filled with organic compounds and living organisms to test their reaction to outer space.

When astronauts venture on a spacewalk, hours are spent preparing protective suits to survive the hostile conditions. However, no effort was made to protect the bacteria, seeds, lichen and algae attached to the outside of the space station.

The samples returned to Earth in 2009. Lichen have proven to be tough cookies – back on Earth, some species continue to grow normally. You can freeze it, thaw it, vacuum dry it and expose it to radiation, but lichen still survive.

Living organisms surviving in open space supports the idea of ‘panspermia’ — life spreading from one planet to another, or even between solar systems.

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Olympics Struggle With ‘Policing Femininity’

In a potential move which seems both startlingly futuristic and archaic, the Olympics may require some of the world’s top female athletes to alter their natural bodies through surgery or hormone therapy to become more similar to what the Olympics imagines a “woman” is, if they wish to compete. Time to scrap the outdated two-gender sporting system and experiment with three or more classes? The Toronto Star writes:

There are female athletes who will be competing at the Olympic Games this summer after undergoing treatment to make them less masculine. Still others are being secretly investigated for displaying overly manly characteristics, as sport’s highest medical officials attempt to quantify — and regulate — the hormonal difference between male and female athletes.

Caster Semenya, the South African runner who was so fast and muscular that many suspected she was a man, exploded onto the front pages three years ago. She was considered an outlier, a one-time anomaly.

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New Life Blooming Under Melting North Pole

How long before someone starts marketing pure polar algae? Pete Spotts reports for the Christian Science Monitor:
Scientists have discovered a vast pea-soup-green bloom of tiny plant-like marine organisms under Arctic Ocean ice. The bloom represents an enormous, and until now, unknown reservoir of food for marine life in frigid waters at the top of the world. These waters, in sum, appear to be far more biologically productive than previously believed. "This wasn't just any phytoplankton bloom," says Kevin Arrigo, a Stanford University marine scientist and lead author of the study. "It was literally the most intense phytoplankton bloom I've ever seen in my 25 years of doing this type of research" in oceans around the world. The scientists sampled only a relatively small section of ice above...
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It Is Now Possible To Decode An Unborn Baby’s DNA

Writes Bonnie Rochman on TIME:

Researchers at the University of Washington have sequenced the entire genome of a fetus. The scientific advance could help detect certain diseases in the womb, but some experts worry that the trove of genetic information may prove more scary and overwhelming than useful.

Suspended in the blood of a pregnant woman — along with some added information from a dad-to-be’s saliva — lurks enough fetal DNA to map out an unborn baby’s entire genetic blueprint.

It may sound like something conjured by Jules Verne, but it happened at the University of Washington: a professor and his graduate student used DNA samples from the parents of a baby boy who was still in utero and reconstructed his entire genetic makeup from A to Z.

The account, published in Science Translational Medicine, takes prenatal testing to new heights, promising a motherlode of genetic information about a child who had not even been born — along with a corresponding trove of data that even experts don’t yet know how to interpret…

Read more: TIME

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Americans’ Heads Getting Bigger In Size And Changing Shape

Writes Jacqueline Howard on the Huffington Post:
Did the 20th century make us big-headed? Maybe so, since forensic anthropologists at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville found that white Americans' heads are getting bigger and bigger ... in size, that is. The researchers studied about 1,500 skulls that dated from the mid-1800s through the 1980s. They noticed that the skulls gradually became larger, taller, and narrower. As a result, faces have become longer. "The surprising thing is the skull size increase has not been documented in modern Americans," researcher Dr. Richard Jantz told the Huffington Post. "We might have suspected that that was happening but this documents it ... The shape of the skull has also changed rather dramatically. In fact, shape change has been more dramatic than size change.”...
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