Friday Coffee Break

coffee cherries

Before and After – coffee cherries (right) & green coffee beans (left)

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.

Scientists have discovered a (potential) new species of spider in the Peruvian Amazon that builds spider-like decoys within its web.  While other species of spiders are known to exhibit similar behavior, this species appears to make particularly elaborate structures. (From Sarah)

Here is some advice on what makes a good PhD application from the point of view of a PI at Columbia University. (From Devin)

Did you know that there are fields of ice flowers in the arctic ocean? Scientists studying them have once again found abundant life where it is least expected. (From CJ)

From Nature, here are the top 11 images and top 10 scientists of 2012.  Check out my favorite (and theme-appropriate) image below! (From CJ & Amy).

Caffeine Crystals Cavanagh and McCarthy

Caffeine Crystals

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Is epigenetics totally gay?

… epigenetics is why I love you? (Photos from the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archive.)

In the light of much of what we know about evolution, human homosexuality doesn’t make a lot of sense. Available data suggests that sexual orientation has some inborn, probably genetic, basis. But it’s hard to reconcile that with the fact that gay men and lesbians aren’t, by definition, particularly interested in doing what it takes to pass on any genes that might have contributed to creating their orientation. Natural selection is, all things being equal, pretty good at eliminating genes that make people less likely to make babies.

I’m gay. I’m also an evolutionary biologist. You could say this particular puzzle is tailor-made to attract my interest.

It turns out that there are a number of ways that human populations might accommodate gene variants for same-sex attraction without suspending the rules of natural selection. But it’s also possible that human sexual orientation has a biological basis without being genetic. Natural selection can’t do anything about a trait if variation in that trait isn’t linked to variation at the genetic level. So I was immediately interested by the recent announcement that a team of biologists at NIMBioS, the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis, had found that human homosexuality is due not to genetics, but to epigenetics.

However, as soon as I secured a copy of the study itself (available in PDF format here), I was disappointed to find out that the reports of a solution to this particular evolutionary enigma are somewhat exaggerated. The paper doesn’t present any new data that directly links a specific developmental process to human sexual orientation — it’s a review article, gathering existing results in support of a hypothesis that isn’t, at its most basic level, entirely new. But it’s not the job of a review article to present new data; reviews are supposed to gather up what is already known on a topic and identify what new research could do to better answer the questions that remain. And that’s exactly what the new study does.

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Friday Coffee Break


Coffee Berries

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.

The Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab in NYC is investigating how humans and dogs play together together by cataloging behaviors displayed in short video clips contributed by dog owners from around the world.  To participate, submit a video of you and your dog here. (From Sarah)

The filmmakers from Chasing Ice show us what it is like when an iceberg, roughly the size of Manhattan, breaks up right in front of our eyes. (From CJ)

Applying for jobs? Check out this comprehensive guide to the Academic CV.  (From Jeremy)

Here is an interesting post from Scientific American on the biology of Jewel Caterpillars. If you are unfamiliar with the awesomeness of these critters, just check out the picture below! (From Noah)

Still trying to find a gift for that tricky population geneticist on your Christmas list? Look no further than the 2012 Gift Guide for Population Geneticists from Lost in Transcription. (From Devin)

In response to the popularity of their recent post on advice for graduate seo companies students, The Molecular Ecologist has put together a carnival of advice titled: Knowing What I Know Now. (From Jeremy)

jewel caterpillar 2

Jewel Caterpillar

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More than just a metaphor, Wright’s Adaptive Landscape provides inspiration

Review of The Adaptive Landscape in Evolutionary Biology edited by Erik Svensson and Ryan Calsbeek

adaptive_landscape_book_coverHave you ever wished you could go back in time to be present at a particular historical event? The 1932 International Congress of Genetics sounds perfect, right? There R. A. Fisher, J. B. S. Haldane, and Sewall Wright all presented papers of their recent research. If you’re a student of population genetics, you probably recognize these names as some of the founders of the field. At this meeting, Wright was asked to condense some of his more technical mathematical framework into a form that was more widely accessible to the audience of biologists. The result was his conceptualization of the Adaptive Landscape where an analogy is made between the fitness of an individual or population and the varied topographic landscape (pictured on the cover of the book). Wright used this metaphor to describe aspects evolutionary dynamics of populations.

The editors of a recent book, The Adaptive Landscape in Evolutionary Biology, gathered together contributions from evolutionary biologists, ecologists, and philosophers to demonstrate the impact that the Adaptive Landscape has had on the field of biology. This book embraces an 80 year old metaphor created by one of the founders of the modern synthesis to explore the breadth and depth of research generated in evolutionary biology. Unlike a recent book addressing aspects of the modern synthesis, Evolution: The Extendend Synthesis (Pigliucci and Müller, 2010) which called for a revolution, Svensson and Calsbeek have assembled authors that explore the innovations and contributions that build upon the fundamental ideas of population genetics and seek to grow the field. Early in this book, Pigliucci asks about the utility of the Adaptive Landscape metaphors, even titling his chapter with the question, “what are they good for?” I think the rest of the book provides a more than sufficient answer to his question.

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Friday Coffee Break


Coffea arabica flowers

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.

Researchers have found that the insecticidal properties of cigarette butts protect the nests of urban birds from parasites.  Could this be a clever adaptation to an urban environment? (From Jeremy)

There is a new podcast for biologists by biologists.  Check it out at Breaking Bio. (From Devin)

It turns out that children get into their mother’s head both metaphorically and physically. Researchers have found that children’s cells not only circulate in the mother’s bloodstream during pregnancy, but can also become permanently embedded in the mother’s brain. (From Sarah) has a new series of articles about Pandemics.  Go check out why bats are the world’s most dangerous animal or why koalas have horrible health.  (From Devin)

A new documentary, ‘Extraordinary Ordinary Junco‘, shows us how studying a common North American songbird has advanced our understanding of animal behavior, ecology and evolution. (From Noah)

And, finally, a beautiful slow-mo video of cheetahs running really fast. (From Sarah)

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Where have all the ‘N-mt’s gone?

Screenshot 12:4:12 1:19 PM

This week I would like to highlight a recent scientific publication by one of our very own contributor’s here at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! – Devin Drown. Drown and colleagues recently published an article in Genome Biology and Evolution that investigates how nuclear genes that interact with the mitochondria (N-mt genes) are distributed within the genome. They show that when it comes to the location of genes within the genome, all is not equal, and suggest that conflict between males and females may influence where our genes are located.

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