Life, um, finds a way—except when it doesn’t

This week the LA Review of Books has my review of Unnatural Selection, a nifty new book in which ecological toxicologist Emily Monosson describes how living things evolve their way around the things we humans do to try and contain them.

… the introduction of the insecticide DDT rapidly led to the evolution of resistant mosquitoes, houseflies, and, yes, bedbugs. Decades of farming with the herbicide glyphosate, better known under the brand name Roundup, have led to the evolution of resistance in dozens of weed species. One after another, Monosson ticks off cases, dividing them into chapters corresponding roughly to biological classification. She goes beyond these headline examples to describe lesser-known triumphs of “resistance evolution,” such as viruses evading human immune responses and inadequate vaccination, cancer cells overcoming chemotherapy, and fish that survive water polluted by biochemical toxins.

This hits some of the same themes as that recent review about using evolutionary biology to solve major problems in the coming century, though I might have liked it if Unnatural Selection spent a bit more time discussing the cases when life doesn’t find a way—the myriad reasons we’re in the middle of the sixth mass extinction in the history of the planet. But I highly recommend the book for the folks in your life who may not realize how personal evolutionary biology can be.

Ebola: Why you should and shouldn’t be concerned

Over at Wired, this article does an excellent job summarizing why you should be concerned with Ebola in Africa, and maybe not worry about it as much in the US.

Especially worth reading this quote here:

“Ebola isn’t anywhere near as contagious as the flu, for example. Or measles, which is much more of a threat in the United States now that people are no longer routinely vaccinating their children. Scientists estimate that one person infected with measles can transmit the disease to as many as 18 others; for Ebola, that number is around two.”

It also does an excellent job of highlighting the concerns with the virus, and why you should and shouldn’t be worried.

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Did someone say coffee?

Boy howdy, do I need love coffee. Drinking coffee feels like it’s in my blood. Perhaps literally. A recent study has identified some pretty interesting genes linked to coffee consumption.

They also found two regions of DNA near genes called BDNF and SLC6A4 that might play a role in how caffeine affects the brain by positive reinforcement. The study participants with a certain variant, who secrete less BDNF, may feel less of the rewarding effects of drinking coffee, according to the study. But the bigger coffee drinkers were more likely to have a certain variant of the SLC6A4 gene, which encodes a protein that transports the brain chemical serotonin.

Read more about the results here.

No, wait. Scratch that. I don’t.

Down Syndrome Awareness Month

This month is Down Syndrome Awareness Month, and while this is the most common chromosomal abnormality, there is still a lack of social understanding.

So this week’s link(s) are all going to be about the efforts to raise awareness of Down Syndrome.

As NiB has talked about raising money for scientific research (watch Jeremy get soaked with water) I’d like to encourage you to call your congress person and lobby for increased funding for scientific research.

Or make a donation to Down Syndrome research here 

Or please read this article about a parent trying to raise awareness.

Or read about and/or sign up for one of the Down Syndrome Buddy walks here.

Atlanta Falcons Jake Matthews posted a photo of his favorite Falcons fan, his sister Gwen, who has down syndrome.

Or read about other ways to become an advocate at the National Down Syndrome Society.

Or just enjoy these photos of  my adorable friend Charlotte, who is growing up beautifully.

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Some are born great…

There has been a lot of interest throughout history in what makes great people great. Like the freakishly great people. The Yo-Yo Mas and the Michael Jordans, if you will. Some research pointed to genetics. Some research pointed to practice making perfect (ever heard of the “10,000 hours” rule?). An article in Slate, “Practice Does Not Make Perfect” sums up some pretty compelling evidence that genes play a mighty big role in all sorts of aptitudes.

In a recently published analysis of the data, researchers found that there was a stronger correspondence in drawing ability for the identical twins than for the fraternal twins. In other words, if one identical twin was good at drawing, it was quite likely that his or her identical sibling was, too. Because identical twins share 100 percent of their genes, whereas fraternal twins share only 50 percent on average, this finding indicates that differences across people in basic artistic ability are in part due to genes. In a separate study based on this U.K. sample, well over half of the variation between expert and less skilled readers was found to be due to genes.

And if you’re already thinking about the implications and ramifications of snubbing practice because it all comes down to genetics, the article discusses that (in depth) too.

It is therefore crucial to differentiate between the influence of genes on differences in abilities across individuals and the influence of genes on differences across groups. The former has been established beyond any reasonable doubt by decades of research in a number of fields, including psychology, biology, and behavioral genetics. There is now an overwhelming scientific consensus that genes contribute to individual differences in abilities. The latter has never been established, and any claim to the contrary is simply false.

 

How much would I have to practice before I could run as fast as Usain Bolt? My guess is infinity.

England is known for its gardens… that can kill you

The english countryside is know for gardens filled with magnificent roses and elegant floral arrangements.

But when the Duchess of Northumberland moved into her husbands family castle she decided to do something a little different with her garden… she made it deadly.

Read all about it over at Smithsonian!

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