Easy DNA editing will remake the world

From Wired: Easy DNA Editing Will Remake the World. Buckle Up.

Using the three-year-old technique, researchers have already reversed mutations that cause blindness, stopped cancer cells from multiplying, and made cells impervious to the virus that causes AIDS. Agronomists have rendered wheat invulnerable to killer fungi like powdery mildew, hinting at engineered staple crops that can feed a population of 9 billion on an ever-warmer planet. Bioengineers have used Crispr to alter the DNA of yeast so that it consumes plant matter and excretes ethanol, promising an end to reliance on petrochemicals. Startups devoted to Crispr have launched. International pharmaceutical and agricultural companies have spun up Crispr R&D. Two of the most powerful universities in the US are engaged in a vicious war over the basic patent. Depending on what kind of person you are, Crispr makes you see a gleaming world of the future, a Nobel medallion, or dollar signs.

The technique is revolutionary, and like all revolutions, it’s perilous. Crispr goes well beyond anything the Asilomar conference discussed. It could at last allow genetics researchers to conjure everything anyone has ever worried they would—designer babies, invasive mutants, species-specific bioweapons, and a dozen other apocalyptic sci-fi tropes. It brings with it all-new rules for the practice of research in the life sciences. But no one knows what the rules are—or who will be the first to break them. [continue]

Compensating for a missing chunk of brain

From The Atlantic: Compensating for the Missing Chunk of My Brain.

“Do me a favor and don’t wear any eye makeup when you come in,” I recall the receptionist having requested over the phone. “It messes with the goggles.”

Instead of saying, “Goggles?” as I was thinking, I said, “Eye makeup?”

“Mascara, eye shadow, eyeliner,” the receptionist said.

“Sure.”

I’d been to this functional neurology center in a suburb of Portland, Oregon, several times since 2007, when I was diagnosed with having a puddle of cerebral-spinal fluid—the water that your brain floats in—about the size of a lemon where my right parietal lobe would be. The parietal lobe is the part of the brain responsible for judging time, space, distance, and the location of the body, among other tasks. I was diagnosed only a couple of months before leaving for grad school in Southern California; I had been hoping to get to the bottom of why learning to drive had proven impossible for me. [continue]

Germ handprint

From Colossal: The Microbes on the Handprint of an 8-Year-Old After Playing Outside.

We all know our bodies are home to countless millions of bacteria and microorganisms, but without seeing them with our bare eyes it’s almost impossible to comprehend. This petri dish handprint created by Tasha Sturm of Cabrillo College, vividly illustrates the variety of bacteria found on her 8-year-old son’s hand after playing outdoors. The print itself represents several days of growth as different yeasts, fungi, and bacteria are allowed to incubate. [blockquote]

This is about eleventy million times cooler than plaster-casting a kids’ handprint. So interesting! The photos of the bacteria make me want to drop everything and become a bacteriologist.

Ecuadorean dwarves may unlock cancer clues

From abcnews.go.com: Ecuadorean Dwarfs May Unlock Cancer Clues.

Twenty years ago, when Guevara began treating and studying the dwarfs of southern Ecuador, it was because he wanted to help them. But an interesting and quirky pattern started to emerge. He realized that there has never been a single incidence of cancer or diabetes among them.

"I start noticing that somehow in this area that we all know in Ecuador is an area with high rates of cancer, not one of these patients has ever died of cancer," he says. "And I’m talking about a total of 135 names that I can think of. None of them has ever died of cancer. To me the possibility that that is a coincidence is almost none, because every single family in this case has at least one or two or three relatives that have died of cancer." [continue]

Odorprints like fingerprints?

From Science Daily: Odorprints Like Fingerprints? Personal Odors Remain Distinguishable Regardless Of Diet.

Scientists from the Monell Center present behavioral and chemical findings to reveal that an individual’s underlying odor signature remains detectable even in the face of major dietary changes.

"The findings using this animal model support the proposition that body odors provide a consistent ‘odorprint’ analogous to a fingerprint or DNA sample," said Gary Beauchamp, PhD, a behavioral biologist at Monell and one of the paper’s senior authors. "This distinctive odor can be detected using either an animal’s nose or chemical instruments." [continue]

Why Darwin would have loved Botox

From Discover Magazine: Why Darwin Would Have Loved Botox.

During unconscious facial mimicry, Schilbach discovered, several regions of the brain become active. One of those, the left precentral gyrus, becomes active when people get the urge to move their facial muscles (such as when a song makes them sad). Other regions (the right hippocampus and the posterior cingulate cortex) become active when we have emotional experiences, helping to retrieve emotional memories. Another part of the brain that becomes active during facial mimicry (the dorsal midbrain) relays emotional signals to the rest of the body, bringing on the physical feelings that go along with emotions, like a racing heartbeat.

When humans mimic others’ faces, in other words, we don’t just go through the motions. We also go through the emotions.

Recently Bernhard Haslinger at the Technical University of Munich realized that he could test the facial feedback theory in a new way. He could temporarily paralyze facial muscles and then scan people’s brains as they tried to make faces. [continue]

Dry-ice martini and electric cake

From the New York Times: Dry-Ice Martini and Electric Cake.

When does a recipe become a science project?

Is it when the compulsion to create an edible electrical circuit keeps a cook up all night, wrapping Twizzler string licorice in pure silver?

Is it when a baker decides to bake 20 equilateral-triangle-shaped pecan pies for Thanksgiving, then attach them together with magnets to form an 80-serving icosahedron? (The recipe begins with 30 cups of flour and 2 large sheets of 24-gauge steel.)

Certainly, when the urge to build a better chocolate fountain — and then fill it with 10 gallons of hot gravy — becomes irresistible, some line between cooking and science has been crossed. [continue].

Iceland’s new island is an exclusive club – for scientists only

From csmonitor.com: Iceland’s new island is an exclusive club – for scientists only.

Buckled in? Check. Life jacket secure? Check. Noise-reduction headphones on? Check. No seeds in any of your belongings? Check. You sure? Yes. And up lifts the Icelandic Coast Guard’s Super Puma helicopter ferrying me to Iceland’s jealously guarded natural gem, Surtsey Island.

Though it was named this summer to the UNESCO World Heritage List – joining other natural heritage sites like the Great Barrier Reef, the Galapágos and Yellowstone National Park – no tourist will ever get to visit.

Located 20 miles off Iceland’s southern coast, Surtsey – named after Surtur, the fire giant of Norse mythology – was created in a volcanic eruption that began not millions of years ago, but on Nov. 14, 1963. It was a fresh specimen of geological and biological evolution. And even as the eruption was still in progress in 1965, the Icelandic government designated the island a nature reserve – for scientists only; a place they could document the evolution rock by rock, blade by blade, bird by bird.

Geneticist Sturla Fridriksson has been here from the beginning, and my feet had barely hit the island before its white-maned icon was chuckling to me that he’s "twice as old as these hills… Here in Iceland we talk about the trolls getting very old. And the trolls are as old as the mountains." [continue]

Scientists target mouse memories to erase

From the Globe and Mail: Scientists target mouse memories to erase.

It seems like a movie plot, but scientists have developed a way to erase specific memories in mice while leaving others intact and not damaging the brain.

By manipulating levels of an important protein in the brain, certain memories can be selectively deleted, researchers led by neurobiologist Joe Tsien of the Medical College of Georgia reported in the journal Neuron.

While some experts have suggested there could be value in erasing certain memories in people such as [continue]

New life found in ancient tombs

From Science Daily: New Life Found In Ancient Tombs.

Life has been discovered in the barren depths of Rome’s ancient tombs, proving catacombs are not just a resting place for the dead. The two new species of bacteria found growing on the walls of the Roman tombs may help protect our cultural heritage monuments, according to research published in the September issue of the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology.

The Catacombs of Saint Callistus are part of a massive graveyard that covers 15 hectares, equivalent to more than 20 football pitches. The underground tombs were built at the end of the 2nd Century AD and were named after Pope Saint Callistus I. More than 30 popes and martyrs are buried in the catacombs.

"Bacteria can grow on the walls of these underground tombs and [continue]

Body exhumed in fight against flu

From the BBC: Body exhumed in fight against flu.

The body of an aristocrat who died nearly 90 years ago has been exhumed in the hope that it will help scientists combat a future flu pandemic.

Yorkshire landowner Sir Mark Sykes died in France in 1919 from Spanish flu.

Sir Mark was buried in a lead coffin which scientists hope may have helped preserve the virus.

They believe his remains will help piece together the DNA of Spanish flu, which could have a similar genetic structure to modern bird flu.

This knowledge, added to major breakthroughs by American scientists last year, could help prevent a modern pandemic through the development of new drugs. [continue]

Study may boost forecasts for Vesuvius blasts

From iol.co.za: Study may boost forecasts for Vesuvius blasts.

The magma pool feeding the Italian volcano that destroyed Pompeii in AD 79 has shifted in the past 2 000 years, a discovery that could help in predicting future eruptions, researchers said in the journal Nature.

Vesuvius is in southern Italy near Naples, one of the most densely populated volcanic regions in the world. Its crater is 1 280m above and 20km away from Naples, Italy’s third largest city.

Scientists had thought the pool remained constant over the past 4 000 years but new investigations detailed on Wednesday showed the chamber had actually shifted higher between the Pompeii eruption in AD 79 and the Pollena one in AD 472.

Knowing the location of the lava pool is important because [continue]

Build a tree-ring timeline

From Build a Tree-Ring Timeline

If you’re the skeptical type, you might raise an eyebrow when you hear that a particular Viking ship was built in the year 819. How could anyone determine the age of such an aged object so precisely, especially when there are absolutely no records to verify the date?

Well, tree-ring dating, or dendrochronology, can be this precise, and even more so. Dendrochronologists showed that an ancient wooden road uncovered in southwestern England not only was built in 3806 B.C., but that the trees used for the road were chopped down in the winter of that year (the winter of 3807-3806). The science can also reveal the origin of old pieces of wood. In one case, archeologists determined not only the age of a Viking ship found in Denmark, they also learned that it was built in Ireland.

The basis of dendrochronology lies in [continue]

Chocolate teapot experiment

Now this is the kind of science I really like: How useless is a Chocolate Teapot? From The Naked Scientists:

You have heard the saying, but it is meaningless unless you know exactly how useful a chocolate teapot actually is. We try to find out how thick the walls of a chocolate teapot would have to be to let you brew tea… [continue]

The site includes photos, a video, and look, there’s a chocolate teapot!

(Link found here at Scribal Terror.)

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In our genes, old fossils take on new roles

From the Washington Post: In Our Genes, Old Fossils Take On New Roles.

Over the past 15 years, scientists have been comparing the inherited genetic material — the genomes — of dozens of organisms, acquiring a life history of life itself. (…) It turns out that about 8 percent of the human genome is made up of viruses that once attacked our ancestors. The viruses lost. What remains are the molecular equivalents of mounted trophies, insects preserved in genomic amber, DNA fossils.

The thousands of human endogenous retroviruses, or HERVs, sketch a history of rough times during the 550 million years of vertebrate evolution. The best-preserved one, HERV-K113, probably arrived less than 200,000 years ago, long after human beings and chimpanzees diverged from a common ancestor.

But these retroviruses are more than just curiosities. They are some of the most important enemies we ever had. They helped mold the immune system that is one of the evolutionary marvels of life on Earth. [continue]

Tahitian vanilla originated in Maya forests, says botanist

From Science Daily: Tahitian Vanilla Originated In Maya Forests, Says Botanist.

The origin of the Tahitian vanilla orchid, whose cured fruit is the source of the rare and highly esteemed gourmet French Polynesian spice, has long eluded botanists. Known by the scientific name Vanilla tahitensis, Tahitian vanilla is found to exist only in cultivation; natural, wild populations of the orchid have never been encountered.

Now, a team of investigators led by Pesach Lubinsky, a postdoctoral researcher with Norman Ellstrand, a professor of genetics in UC Riverside’s Department of Botany and Plant Sciences, claims to have traced Tahitian vanilla back to its true origins. [continue]

Bees, fish analyzed to understand serial killers

From discovery.com: Bees, Fish Analyzed to Understand Serial Killers.

Studying species in the animal world helps police catch human criminals — and vice versa. Originally developed to catch serial killers, a method called geographic profiling is now being used to study great white sharks, bats and bees.

In turn, criminologists expect that these biological studies will help refine their criminal studies, making it easier for them to catch criminals more quickly. Eventually they want to apply it to other fields, such as epidemiology.

"The same general geographic framework that criminologists use to catch criminals can be used by zoologists as well," said Kim Rossmo, co-author of an article in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface and a professor at the Texas State University Center for Geospatial Intelligence and Investigation.

“This makes us think that it can be applied to other areas as well, like epidemiology.” [continue]

In the summer kitchen, the thrill of the chill

From the New York Times: In the Summer Kitchen, the Thrill of the Chill.

It lasted only a moment, but it was the most refreshed I’ve ever felt at the dining table. All of a sudden my mouth was shockingly cold, so cold that I could see my breath. As the cold dissipated I could sense acidity, astringency, the aroma of lime. Meanwhile, there was the sight of my companions, eyes wide open and vapor jets shooting from their lips and nostrils. Each of them looked like Yosemite Sam blowing his stack.

The morsels that had cleansed our palates and minds were a mixture of lime juice, green tea, vodka, sugar and egg white that was whipped into a light foam, portioned into spoonfuls, and frozen. At 320 degrees below zero. In liquid nitrogen.

The nitro-poached mousse was invented in 2001 at the Fat Duck, near London, and has been much emulated since. These days there is less talk in cutting-edge kitchens about burners and B.T.U.’s, and more about the Antigriddle, a boxy flat-top appliance that keeps its surface at minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit. With it you could, for example, freeze puddles of crème anglaise and flip them into soft-center ice cream flapjacks. Cold is the new heat. [continue]

I’m tempted to try the no-tech ice cream method listed at the end of the article.

Continue reading

How a terrified expression could keep you alive

From the Guardian: Face of fear: how a terrified expression could keep you alive.

The evolutionary mystery of why our faces contort when we are scared has been solved by a team of Canadian neuroscientists.

When our facial expression shifts to one of eye-bulging, nostril-flaring fear, our ability to sense attackers or other imminent danger improves dramatically, researchers found.

The findings lend support to an idea first laid out by Charles Darwin in one of his less well-known tomes, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, published in 1872. Darwin noted that [continue]

Mini subs to probe odd structures in BC lake

This is from McMaster University , via EurekAlert: Mini subs to probe odd structures in BC lake.

Single person submersibles have been called in to help scientists retrieve samples from a lake in northern British Columbia that may hold vital clues to the history of life on Earth and on other planets.

Greg Slater, an environmental geochemist in the Faculty of Science, says the objects of scientific interest are unique carbonate rock structures, known as microbialites because they are covered with microbes. Some of these microbialites grow at depths up to 180 feet below the water’s surface, too deep to reach by non-decompression SCUBA diving.

"Are they the result of biological or geological processes? Why are there different microbes living on them and how long have these microbial communities been preserved? These are some of our big questions," says Slater, who joined the international team researching these curious specimens three years ago. [continue]

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Five things humans no longer need

From ABC News: Five Things Humans No Longer Need.

Vestigial organs are parts of the body that once had a function but are now more-or-less useless. Probably the most famous example is the appendix, though it is now an open question whether the appendix is really vestigial. The idea that we are carrying around useless relics of our evolutionary past has long fascinated scientists and laypeople alike.

This week we tackle vestigial organs in a feature article that looks at how the idea has changed over the years, and how it has come under attack from creationists anxious to deny that vestigial organs (and hence evolution) exist at all. To accompany the article, here is our list of the five organs and functions most likely to be truly vestigial. [continue]

Sulfur in marine archaeological shipwrecks

From EurekAlert: Sulfur in marine archaeological shipwrecks — the ‘hull story’ gives a sour aftertaste.

Advanced chemical analyses reveal that, with the help of smart scavenging bacteria, sulfur and iron compounds accumulated in the timbers of the Swedish warship Vasa during her 333 years on the seabed of the Stockholm harbour. Contact with oxygen, in conjunction with the high humidity of the museum environment, causes these contaminants to produce sulfuric acid, according to a new doctoral thesis in chemistry from Stockholm University. [continue]

Scientists discover why plague is so lethal

From Science Daily: Scientists Discover Why Plague Is So Lethal.

Bacteria that cause the bubonic plague may be more virulent than their close relatives because of a single genetic mutation, according to research published in the May issue of the journal Microbiology.

"The plague bacterium Yersinia pestis needs calcium in order to grow at body temperature. When there is no calcium available, it produces a large amount of an amino acid called aspartic acid," said Professor Brubaker from the University of Chicago, USA. "We found that this is because Y. pestis is missing an important enzyme."

Bubonic plague has killed over 200 million people during the course of history and is thus the most devastating acute infectious disease known to man. Despite this, we are still uncertain about the molecular basis of its extraordinary virulence.

"Y. pestis evolved from its ancestor Y. pseudotuberculosis within the last 20,000 years, suggesting its high lethality reflects [continue]

As some of you were discussing Y pestis in this comment thread, I thought you might be interested.

Tests confirm T. Rex kinship with birds

From the New York Times: Tests Confirm T. Rex Kinship With Birds.

In the first analysis of proteins extracted from dinosaur bones, scientists say they have established more firmly than ever that the closest living relatives of the mighty predator Tyrannosaurus rex are modern birds.

The research, being published Friday in the journal Science, yielded the first molecular data confirming the widely held hypothesis of a close dinosaur-bird ancestry, the American scientific team reported. The link was previously suggested by anatomical similarities.

In fact, the scientists said, T. rex shared more of its genetic makeup with ostriches and chickens than with living reptiles, like alligators. On this basis, the research team has redrawn the family tree of major vertebrate groups, assigning the dinosaur a new place in evolutionary relationships. [continue]