Friday Coffee Break… in space!

Jovians must get TONS of work done. You know, because Jupiter looks like its a giant ball of delicious coffee. Get it?

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 Jeremy:

A biologist publishes a study linking cancer to GMO corn, but doesn’t mention that he’s writing a book and producing a documentary about it in the conflict-of-interest statement.

If you like watching nature films but think that world’s ~400,000 plant species are perhaps… underrepresented, check out this series of videos on youtube, “Plants are cool too!”.

From Sarah:

A website containing “the first complete edition of the writings of naturalist and co-founder of the theory of evolution Alfred Russel Wallace”. It also has a bunch of excellent illustrations.

Not exactly biology, but awesome: an “extreme deep field” image made by the Hubble telescope of a tiny patch of space. It is compiled from over one million seconds of exposure and the faintest object appearing in it is one ten-billionth the minimum brightness required to be visible by the unaided human eye.

From Devin:

The current process of peer review for scientific articles is frequently criticized as slow, outdated and often unfair. Peerage of Science is trying out a new model, and the first paper using it has been published.

From CJ:

Another space link, but with a gleam of astrobiological potential: the Mars rover Curiosity has found an ancient stream bed in which water between ankle and thigh deep once flowed.

Google is adding “street view” imagery for coral reefs. I’m wondering if they’re going to have to blur all the fishes faces, or whether they’ve caught any turtles LARPing.

From Noah:

An online science career “development planner”, including a self assessment. It’s pretty interesting, but kind of told me what I already know. My values and interests say “teaching and research” but my skills scream “live in a van down by the river.


Evolution of Diabetes?


As a medical student and health care professional, if there is one disease that continually comes up in daily discussion, it’s diabetes.  As a disease, diabetes is one that I would not wish on anyone, not that I ever wish disease on anybody to begin, but I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.  As a disease diabetes my initially seem fairly tame, but it has the potential to eventually affect just about every organ system in the body.

As I begin to plan my career as a future Family Medicine Physician, I know that I will be dealing with diabetes on a regular basis.  Any opportunity I have to learn more about the risk factors to look out for in order to help people avoid it, or to better manage it is one I need to take.  So I am following up on a previous post regarding the frequency of the 230Cys allele found in Native American groups as a potential adaptation to feast or famine and storage of energy in the form of fat to hold out during harsh conditions.

How is this relevant to diabetes?  Well, first of all, a little background.  Diabetes is a disease that has a huge global burden. Currently, around 285 million people worldwide are affected and that number could potentially climb to 430 million by the year 2030.  Diabetes also accounts for 12% of all health care expenditure.  It is also a highly genetically associated disease, at least Type 2 Diabetes.  Now, in type 2 diabetes the individual will have high levels of circulating insulin.  Insulin is a key regulator of fat storage.  It is released following meals in response to glucose from the meal and stimulates the uptake of that glucose into liver, muscle and fat.  It also acts to antagonize other hormones that would breakdown and use the stored glucose as energy.  So, this is where I got to thinking, if there is a gene that is linked evolutionarily to helping survive famine, is there a potential link between such genes and diabetes.

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Ejournal Club now a virtual reality

ImageEver want to participate in a journal club, but just can’t seem to find the right group of people locally? Why not find the critical mass you need from colleagues online at other universities? That’s more or less what a group did recently. Last week, Rafael Maia, a PhD candidate at the University of Akron, organized an online journal club for discussing evolutionary biology.

For the first meeting, they discussed a recent Nature paper by Hugall & Stuart-Fox titled “Accelerated speciation in Colour-polymorphic birds.” The discussion was held via Google+ hangouts which worked remarkably well considering the number of participants. Be sure to check back often as they are aiming for meetings every two weeks (or more often).

If you missed the session live, you can see the recorded video by heading over to the Evolutionary Biology Online Journal Club blog.

Friday Coffee Break

Coffee beanz

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:

Long menopausal lifespans are unusual in animals. They’re only known to occur in humans, pilot whales and killer whales. A new study suggest that in killer whales, that post-reproductive life exists so that mothers can “coddle” their sons.

From Sarah:

Great photos of some of the planets most threatened species.

From Noah:

A few years ago, a new exotic ant species appeared in the vicinity of Houston, TX, reproduced explosively, and became a major new pest. And nobody could figure out what the hell it was or where it came from. After several years, we may have finally figured it out.

A controversy over the taxonomy of one of evolutionary biology’s most famous “field model organisms“: Anolis. There are a series of posts at Anole Annals with interesting comments sections.

Andrew Gelman brings to our attention some disturbing quantitative estimates of the economic effects of climate change.

Over at the Molecular Ecologist, a guide to creating maps in the statistical programming language R. I have been wanting to acquire this skill for quite some time!

Scientific workshops are great!

Sometimes my job requires me to manually remove the contents of a dead bird’s intestines. I call this skill “hand-pooping”. And at rare and beautiful times, my job requires me to go someplace awesome. Last week was one of those rare times and I went to Switzerland.

I have attended several scientific conferences over the years, but last week I had the privilege to attend my first “workshop”:  Ecology and Evolution of Host-Associated Microbiota. A workshop differs from a conference in one basic and important way: the number of people speaking at a given time. At a workshop, there’s only one person speaking at all times, whereas at a conference, where everyone is encouraged to give a talk, there can be 10+ people talking at once and the attendee must choose which talk to go to. These both have positives and negatives but I had no idea how wonderful one concurrent session could be! There was no agonizing over the schedule and no running around – just one person to see and, for better or worse, no other option.

This workshop had a lot of pleasant logistical aspects. There were ~150 people attending, which was a really nice size. It was small enough to be able to speak to almost everyone there but large enough that a great cross section of the discipline was represented and it was never boring. Although the main conference organizer, Dr. Dieter Ebert said it wasn’t super intentional, there was nearly a 50-50 ratio of male to female speakers, a feature I noticed after the second woman spoke. It’s not rare to see a nearly equal male to female ratio at meetings, but when it comes to invited speakers (aka “big wigs”), the ratio is usually y-chromosome biased.

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Friday Coffee Break

Floral 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 Sarah:

The malleable genome: paternal life history can influence offspring traits via epigenetic factors.

From Devin:

Beautiful but useless: the most brightly colored living thing known is a tiny berry with no nutritional value.

And: an evolutionary biology-oriented online journal club is starting up!

From Jeremy:

I don’t know about you, but my grandpappy wasn’t no cetacean: large brains in dolphins and humans may have evolved via changes in the same genes.

From CJ:

I know why there’s so much disappointment with the iPhone 5, no synaesthesia app: A colorblind man describes how he’s learned to “hear color” through an “electronic eye permanently attached to [his] head.”


Give the NSF a piece of your mind

Cross-posted from Denim and Tweed.

This last year, the Biological Sciences Directorate at the National Science Foundation—one of the biggest single funders of ecology and evolutionary biology research in the U.S.—introduced a new process for reviewing grant proposals.

Lots of other folks with better first-hand knowledge have written about the new process. The key change is that, where formerly NSF offered two opportunities per year to submit a proposal for funds, the new procedures introduced a “pre-proposal” stage in which biologists write a much shorter pre-proposal first. If this mini-proposal is judged worthy, the applicant is then invited to submit a full proposal several months later.

This effectively reduced the workload (in terms of full proposals) for NSF reviewers, and it makes the funding rate for “full” proposals look much better—as long as you don’t look too closely at the triage (i.e., rejection) rate for preproposals, which, eek. But it also cut the “real” opportunities to submit a grant proposal in half. If you’re trying to land NSF funding in the few short years before a tenure review, that might make you a bit … concerned.

So a bunch of biologists wrote to NSF about this [PDF], pointing out that the new process

  • Creates a much longer “lag time” between submitting a new idea as a proposal and recieving money to pursue the idea, effectively slowing down the pace of basic science;
  • Reduces the scope and complexity of ideas that can be proposed; and
  • Provides less feedback for applicants, which makes it difficult to improve rejected proposals for the next round of applications.

That letter, and followup discussions, got NSF thinking about (or maybe thinking about thinking about) some changes to the new process. I’ve just learned via an e-mail from the Society for the Study of Evolution that there’s a very short survey that interested parties (i.e., those of us who study ecology and evolutionary biology, and might like the NSF to pay for some of our work) should fill out by next Tuesday, the 18th. It took me about a minute. So maybe go do it now?◼