Friday coffee break

luwak 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: An apparently immortal jellyfish species reverts to its larval stage instead of dying.

[Christian] Sommer kept his hydrozoans in petri dishes and observed their reproduction habits. After several days he noticed that his Turritopsis dohrnii was behaving in a very peculiar manner, for which he could hypothesize no earthly explanation. Plainly speaking, it refused to die. It appeared to age in reverse, growing younger and younger until it reached its earliest stage of development, at which point it began its life cycle anew.

From Noah: It’s apparently possible to reconstruct the history of European wood-boring beetles from flaws in old woodcut prints. And someone has done just that.

The beetles only emerged a year or so after the [printing] blocks were carved. The holes they left must have been frustrating, but remaking them would have been expensive. So the blocks were kept and reused despite their defects, unless the beetles had really gone to town. The holes they left behind preserve a record of wood-boring beetles, across four centuries of European literature.

(The original journal article has a predictably delightful title.)

From Jon: Increased frequency of mammography has not increased the rates of detecting advanced breast cancer.

For years now, doctors like myself have known that screening mammography doesn’t save lives, or else saves so few that the harms far outweigh the benefits. Neither I nor my colleagues have a crystal ball, and we are not smarter than others who have looked at this issue. We simply read the results of the many mammography trials that have been conducted over the years. But the trial results were unpopular and did not fit with a broadly accepted ideology—early detection—which has, ironically, failed (ovarian, prostate cancer) as often as it has succeeded (cervical cancer, perhaps colon cancer).

From Devin: The purpose of data visualization has changed quite a bit — or maybe diversified? — since the origins of the field.

Those [early] charts were drawn to communicate, not to analyze. Snow’s cholera map often wrongly serves as an example of visual analysis, when it was drawn to convince. Similarly, Florence Nightingale’s chart of deaths in the Crimean War was used to illustrate her argument that improvements in hygiene would save many lives, and William Playfair illustrated the trade balance between England and its trade partners. [links sic.]

From Sarah: Microbiologists have found bacteria living in a sub-freezing, super-salty, oxygen-starved Antarctic lake.

Despite the very cold, dark and isolated nature of the habitat, the report finds that the brine harbors a surprisingly diverse and abundant assemblage of bacteria that survive without a present-day source of energy from the sun. Previous studies of Lake Vida dating back to 1996 indicate that the brine and its’ inhabitants have been isolated from outside influences for more than 3,000 years.

And: the Molecular Ecologist is still taking contributions for a blog carnival of “Knowing What I Know Now.”

Science denial is…rational?

I, until very recently, believed that there were two types of people in this world – those who accept the theory of evolution and those who do not understand the theory of evolution. In my mind, it was impossible to be presented with the overwhelming evidence for and beautiful simplicity of The Theory and not be convinced. Yet, a small, informal survey of sophomore-ish biology majors here at LSU revealed only 35% responded with “Evolution” to the question: What are your feelings/beliefs about how we, as humans, came to exist on Earth? To be fair, the highest category was “Some mix of evolution, creationism and intelligent design”, which really means only 23% of respondents did not include evolution. These numbers are much better than our national average: Miller et al. (2006) conducted a multinational survey that showed nearly 40% of Americans deem evolution “false”. This makes us second from the bottom (out of 34 countries!) in acceptance of evolution – right below Cyprus and above Turkey.

Small informal survey of undergraduate science majors.

As it turns out, I have overlooked a third type of person: a person who can be exposed to a well-supported argument for an uncontroversial scientific consensus and reject it. These people are a major source of science denial. Rosenau (2012) published an amazing and concise review this week in Trends in Microbiology that discusses science denialism and how it’s more about identity and social groups than scientific facts.

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Friday turkey break

Pumpkin Pie Season Again

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 — or while recovering from a turkey-induced coma.

From Jon: Psychiatrists consider one possible reason why genes for psychiatric disorders persist in spite of their selective disadvantages, and find some supporting evidence.

Another theory is that the genetic mutations that cause a disorder in one person somehow make that person’s sibling more likely to have children. In a situation like that, the mutation offers a net benefit to a person’s family.

A team of Swedish and British scientists recently tested these theories by comparing the rates at which people suffering from mental illness have kids to those of their siblings. The data came from a medical database of more than 2 million Swedes.

From Noah: A new comprehensive study finds that, on average, new species aren’t formally described and named until 21 years after samples are first collected.

Given the recent increase in extinction rates due to human activities, however, a species can go extinct between the time it is collected and when it is written up. Many of the new species being identified are already endangered, notes Lee Grismer, a biologist at La Sierra University in Riverside, California. “A median shelf life of 12 years is catastrophic,” he says. “We will not save biodiversity with this.” Fontaine agrees: “It’s difficult to protect things we don’t know about.”

And from Sarah: A helpfully complete fossil lets paleontologists clarify the relationship between modern great white sharks and even bigger prehistoric sharks.

“The nice thing about this new species is that we have an articulated set of jaws which almost never happens and we could see that the third anterior tooth is curved out, just like in the tooth row of mako sharks today,” [Professor Dana Ehret of Monmouth University] said.

Dying young? Better live fast — if you’re an ant.

Among the many things I hope you’re thankful for — whether you’re U.S.-based and celebrating Thanksgiving this week, or you’re feeling generally grateful regardless of geography and time — you can add to the list the fact that you’re not an ant. Worker ants are essentially enslaved to the task of helping their mother, the queen, reproduce. Any individual worker is disposable, in support of that broader task of the whole colony.

And it’s not as though the workers don’t seem to be aware aware of this — to the extent that a worker ant can be “aware” — at some level. An experiment described in the current issue of The American Naturalist demonstrates pretty clearly that, when workers are injured, they take greater risks — as you’d expect if they’re trying to give the colony the greatest possible benefit from their shortened lives.

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Friday coffee break

rem:everybody hurts

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.

Over at The Molecular Ecologist, Jeremy offered up some advice for grad students from a postdoc’s perspective, and invites contributions to a blog carnival of “Knowing What I Know Now.”

I can’t claim to have any blinding new insights — my own career is very much still under construction. But I’ve been interacting with a number of freshly-arrived graduate students this semester, and I’ve found myself thinking, after conversations with them, about what I might have done differently back when I was looking ahead to five (oops, six) years of grad school — and about what I did that worked out pretty well.

From Sarah: An English hospital stops an outbreak of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus using intensive DNA sequencing.

Doctors were concerned after MRSA was detected in 12 babies during routine screening.

However, current tests could not tell if it was one single outbreak being spread around the unit or if they were separate cases being brought into the hospital. About one in 100 people carry MRSA on their skin without any health problems.

To find out, researchers at the University of Cambridge and the Sanger Institute embarked on more sophisticated version of a paternity test.

They compared the entire genetic code of MRSA bugs from each baby to build a family tree. It showed they were all closely related and part of the same outbreak.

From Jon: A new polymer has the properties that could make it ideal as “skin” for prosthetic limbs — it’s flexible, electrically conductive, touch-sensitive, and self-healing.

Writing in Nature Nanotechnology, the researchers detail how they increased the conductivity of a self-healing polymer by incorporating nickel atoms, allowing electrons to “jump” between the metal atoms. The polymer is sensitive to applied forces like pressure and torsion (twisting) because such forces alter the distance between the nickel atoms, affecting the difficulty the electrons have jumping from one to the other and changing the electrical resistance of the polymer.

Friday coffee break

To Make a 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 Devin: In case slicing that bagel isn’t tricky enough for you, how about a mobius bagel?

From Sarah: Superb fairy-wren chicks learn to sing for their supper while they’re still in the egg.

Superb fairy-wren (Malurus cyaneus) mothers sing to their unhatched eggs to teach the embryo inside a ‘password’ — a single unique note — which the nestlings must later incorporate into their begging calls if they want to get fed.

The trick allows fairy-wren parents to distinguish between their own offspring and those of the two cuckoo species that frequently invade their nests.

From Noah: The good news is that the spade-t00thed whale isn’t extinct after all. The sad news is that we found this out when a mother and her calf beached and died.

Until now, we’ve only known about the spade-toothed beaked whale from a few bone samples, as no intact specimens have been discovered. This has made identifying the species extremely complicated.

And from Jeremy: A captive cockatoo at a research station in Austria has started making tools to pull cashews into his aviary. And there’s video:

Evolve the vote?

Barack Obama in Lima - November 2nd

President Obama at a rally in Lima, Ohio, on Friday.

Cross-posted from Denim and Tweed.

You may have heard that there’s an election happening in the United States today. It’s been ten months of “campaign season” since the early Republican party primary elections in Iowa and New Hampshire, and the two presidential campaigns and their various allies have raised and spent going on two billion (billion!) dollars on advertising and campaigning and probably also consultants’ fees.

This seems like an awfully expensive and inefficient way to choose someone to run a government, which is to say an awfully expensive and inefficient way to work together to decide upon and achieve common goals. Winston Churchill famously noted that democracy is the worst form of government “except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” But Churchill was really only talking about democracy in comparsion to other human forms of government. The living world contains all sorts of examples of individuals coordinating their actions for mutual benefit, and none of them need political action committees to do it.

Is there a better approach to group organization somewhere else on the tree of life? Let’s consider a few options:

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