biology, evolution, psychology, Robotics, Science, science news

Sunday Science 17/12/17

This is the last Sunday Science of the year; I’ll start the series up again after the New Year, and bring some more longer posts too. This week, we have the genome of the extinct Tasmanian tiger, origami-inspired artificial muscles, and the psychological scars of the Industrial Revolution.

The genome of the extinct Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, has been sequenced from a preserved specimen of a young pup. This animal died out over 80 years ago, and the genome gives hints of earlier population reduction before humans arrived, and possible reasons for why this marsupial bears such an uncanny resemblance to a dog or a wolf, despite being completely unrelated.

Engineers have designed artificial muscles inspired by origami folding.  (Pictured). Sounds a bit crazy, and looks a bit bizarre too, if you look at some of the videos in the original article, but they are flexible, light and very strong. There is a Science Daily summary here.

The industrial revolution left psychological scars. An analysis of 400,000 personality tests indicates that people living in the former industrial heartlands of England and Wales are more disposed to negative emotions. Researchers suggest this may be due to the social effects of severe work and living conditions, amongst other factors. These traits persist today given that most of these regions face high unemployment after the closure of mines and factories.

Researchers have long puzzled over why humans have such variable eye colour. It’s thought to be due to sexual selection, initially for novelty value. A hypothesis paper here points out that variable eye colour within the same species tends to occur only in humans and domesticated animals.

Lastly, one for the biochemists (and not open access, unfortunately). Rubisco, the enzyme which catalyses the first major step in the conversion of carbon dioxide to sugar molecules in plants, has been made in genetically engineered bacteria. To get a protein this large, with all its associated helper proteins, is a phenomenal achievement; it’s an incredibly complex and important enzyme, but not a very efficient one – it’s easy for oxygen instead of carbon dioxide to get into the binding site and cause a wasteful oxygenase side-reaction. Researchers have tried for years to make a better version. Now that it’s been genetically engineered into bacteria, this should be much easier to do.

Featured image

Derived from figure 1, Li, et al, “Fluid-driven origami-inspired artificial muscles.” doi: 10.1073/pnas.1713450114







Sunday Science 10/12/17

In this week’s Sunday Science: more CRISPR refinements to treat human disease, confused narwhals, disease-carrying bats, and a trio of studies on bias, fake news and psychological targeting.

CRISPR gene editing advances seem to be getting published almost every day at the moment. This latest study manages to refine the technique such that it can reliably alter gene activity without cutting the DNA (which risks introducing mutations). They also tested it to successful treat mouse models of diabetes, acute kidney disease and muscular dystrophy. The original paper is here (probably only intelligible if you have at minimum a molecular biology degree).

The probable origin of the deadly SARS virus has been found in a bat cave in China. I just wanted to write bat cave, to be honest.

One of my lectures of this term covered the molecules that mediate the classic “fight, flight or fright” response to a threatening event. Well it seems that narwhals have a bit of a confused response to a threat they are encountering with greater regularity: humans. In a typical ‘freeze’ response, the heart rate slows, whereas in a ‘flee’ response, it speeds up. After being freed from entanglement in nets, the whales made rapid deep dives — i.e. fleeing — but their heart rates dropped as low as 3–4 beats per minute. In a normal dive they’d do this to conserve oxygen, but in this situation they were swimming far more rapidly, which used a lot of oxygen, a huge stress on their systems. Oh, and the article includes a sound recording of a narwhal’s heartbeat, if you ever wished to listen to one.

Finally, three links relating to bias, psychological traits and fake news.

(1) Targeted advertising could take a new step: mass persuasion based on people’s psychological traits is highly effective. This has already been used to some extent in e.g. targeted Facebook ads during the US election last year.

(2) A thoughtful, objective piece about the phenomenon of fake news, how it can be detected and what can be done about it.

(3) A study of scientific peer review, here, regarding the merits of single-blind review, in which anonymous reviewers know the authors of a paper and their affiliations, compared with double-blind review, in which this information is hidden. This analysis, in the field of computer science, shows that single-blind reviewing confers a significant advantage to papers with famous authors and authors from high-prestige institutions.

Image credit.

Paul Nicklen/NGC/Getty via Nature News.

biology, evolution, Explainer, Miscellaneous, Science, science news, Sunday Science Stories

Sunday Science 03/12/17

Welcome to this week’s Sunday Science, with pterosaur eggs, scallop eyes, sponges (of the animal kind), and some very tough women.

A huge cache of fossil pterosaur eggs has been discovered in China, giving remarkable clues as to their development and lifestyle (pictured).

A long-standing argument over the whether sponges or comb jellies are the sister group of animals may have been resolved, and it looks like the sponges are it. It does sound rather obscure, but it’s an important step forward for understanding animal evolution. That link is the original article: this did make the mainstream news (link for the non-specialist).

The largest tree-planting scheme in England for 30 years has been given the green light. Over 600,000 trees will be planted in Northumberland over the next two years. Good news for our heavily deforested country, and hopefully providing habitat for the red squirrel.

Prehistoric women were strong and tough. As in, really strong and tough, with better arm strength than elite rowers, a new study has found. This isn’t just a novel finding – it’s important to understanding the heavily overlooked history of female manual labour. (A news story based on this study may be found at Daily Science News here.)

And finally, scallop eyes work like teeny tiny telescopes:


Featured image via, by Zhao Chuang.