Friday coffee break


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 Sarah: Dolphins have been discovered imitating whale songs—in their sleep.

Researchers discovered the dolphins’ midnight melodies by accident. Ethologist Martine Hausberger of the University of Rennes 1 in France and her colleagues had hung underwater microphones in the tank because little is known about what dolphins sound like at night.

From Devin: Academic labs in many fields are going paperless.

One piece of equipment, however, is conspicuous by its absence: the humble paper notebook. Michelle James uses her iPad to jot down notes, check protocols and monitor the progress of her experiments on techniques for the early detection of Alzheimer’s disease. Since she first brought the device into the lab around four months ago, it has essentially replaced her former hardback notebook. “Paper has nothing to offer me,” declares James.

And from Jeremy: A big new study strongly supports the conclusion that Morgellon’s disease—a condition in which patients feel crawling sensations on their skin and develop skin lesions that sometimes sprout thread and lint—is psychosomatic.

Just because I don’t think that Morgellons is due to parasites doesn’t mean that I think that sufferers from Morgellons disease are crazy or “making it up” somehow. In fact, they are suffering. We don’t know why they are suffering, but we can say that it isn’t due to parasites and that the fibers that they on or in their skin are consistent with textiles, such as clothing, and superficial skin injuries due to scratching.

“Let’s stay together.” – Al Green

Some of the biggest questions in evolutionary biology deal with the origin of life. For example, if I go back one generation, I find my parents. Two generations, my grandparents. Ten generations are human beings who may or may not have looked like me. Five hundred thousand are, oh, I don’t know. Maybe a bipedal hominid? Anyway, if we continue going backward like this, we inevitably get to time zero and encounter some big-time questions that can really cause a brain to cramp up.

One of these major questions that can cause someone to drool on their shirt in amazement of evolution is the transition of life from unicellular, sovereign entities to cooperative multicellular organisms. A recent paper by Ratcliff et al. (2012) from the University of Minnesota posits that the first step towards multicellular organisms is cellular clustering; they then proceed to evolve clustering in unicellular yeast and ask questions about the clusters.


Premise: Bigger things settle in solution faster than smaller things.

(Oversimplified) Materials: Unicellular yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae), test tubes, solution that the yeast can eat, time

Step 1: Suspend unicellular yeast in solution in a test tube.

Step 2: Wait 45 minutes.

Step 3: Transfer the cells at the bottom of the tube to a new tube with fresh solution.

Step 4: Return to Step 2 60 times.

Step 5: Look in microscope. Continue reading

Help us make sense!

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Are you a working biologist, biology student, or other person with a first-hand connection to the living world? Do you like reading science blogs, including this one, and wonder what it’d be like to get into this online-popular-science-writing thing? Or do you have your own science blog already, and you’d like to expand your audience? Then you should consider writing a guest post for Nothing in Biology Makes Sense!

E-mail Jeremy to propose a post and discuss scheduling. We’ll prioritize contributions from folks who work in biology in a broad sense—anything from medicine to basic research, at career stages from students to professors. And, true to our headline, we’ll be especially interested in pieces that show how something in biology makes sense, if you think about it in light of evolution.

Mass extinction: Did ancient humans get the party started 30,000 years ago?


Bison priscus. The now-extinct Steppe Bison. This mummified individual, known as Blue Babe, was found in Fairbanks, AK, by a gold miner and is approximately 36,000 years old. Credit to Travis S.

During the last ice age, huge numbers of large mammals roamed the temperate zones of North America and Eurasia that lay south of vast continental glaciers. Familiar animals such as Woolly Mammoths, Woolly Rhinoceroses, Reindeer, Musk Oxen, Steppe Bison and the wild ancestors of domesticated horses along with more exotic creatures such as Glyptodon, a car-sized relative of armadillos and Megatherium, an enormous ground-dwelling sloth were abundant. With the ending of the ice age, which began around 21,000 years ago, many of these species experienced dramatic declines or went extinct. Woolly Rhinos, Mammoths, Glyptodon, and Megatherium went completely extinct, while Bison, Reindeer, Musk Oxen and wild Horse went through serious declines and range contractions.

These population declines roughly coincided with another major event in earth’s history, the global expansion of modern humans. Because of this synchronicity, there has long been debate about whether either is the cause. Did humans fuel their global expansion by hunting these animals to extinction, were they victims of a changing climate, or was it some combination of the two?

To answer this question, we need to know two main things. First, did climate change create extremely inhospitable environments for these species? Second, did the decline of these species coincide with contact with humans?

Continue reading