Friday coffee break

Musical coffee

Every Friday at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! our contributors pass around links to new scientific results, or science-y news, or videos of adorable wildlife, that they’re most likely to bring up while waiting in line for a latte.

From CJ: The New Yorker covers recent work on genetic evidence that ancient humans knocked boots with Neanderthals. So to speak.

Once the Neanderthal genome is complete, scientists will be able to lay it gene by gene—indeed, base by base—against the human, and see where they diverge. At that point, Pääbo believes, an answer to the age-old question will finally be at hand. Neanderthals were very closely related to modern humans—so closely that we shared our prehistoric beds with them—and yet clearly they were nothumans. Somewhere among the genetic disparities must lie the mutation or, more probably, mutations that define us. Pääbo already has a team scanning the two genomes, drawing up lists of likely candidates.

From Devin: A new study analyzes cross-cultural variation in musical styles using a method analogous to the way biologists analyze genetic variation among and within populations.

We attempt here for the first time to quantify both components of cultural diversity by applying the AMOVA [Analysis of MOlecular VAriance] model to music. By employing this approach with 421 traditional songs from 16 Austronesian-speaking populations, we show that the vast majority of musical variability is due to differences within populations rather than differences between. This demonstrates a striking parallel to the structure of genetic diversity in humans. A neighbour-net analysis of pairwise population musical divergence shows a large amount of reticulation, indicating the pervasive occurrence of borrowing and/or convergent evolution of musical features across populations.

(Devin also notes that this sounds rather like Ishkur’s Guide to Electronic Music.)

From Jon: Employer-provided health insurance plans are increasingly penalizing customers for unhealthy behavior.

So far, companies including Home Depot, PepsiCo, Safeway, Lowe’s and General Mills have defended decisions to seek higher premiums from some workers, like Wal-Mart’s recent addition of a $2,000-a-year surcharge for some smokers. Many point to the higher health care costs associated with smoking or obesity. Some even describe the charges and discounts as a “more stick, less carrot” approach to get workers to take more responsibility for their well-being. [Links sic.]

From Jeremy: A series in Slate this week examines the ways in which the widespread use of standardized lab mice might limit biomedical research, and discusses some alternatives.

This time she infected cells from a naked mole rat with a virus designed to corrupt their nuclei with the cancer-causing genes SV40 TAg and Ras. Then she slipped those cells into a live mouse, under the skin behind its ear. If you do the same using infected material from a mouse or a rat, or even a cow or a human, the transplant quickly grows into a deadly tumor, invading nearby fat and muscle tissue. But when Buffenstein and her colleagues used cells from a naked mole-rat, nothing happened. [Links sic.]