Friday coffee break: Livestreaming cicadas, World Turtle Day, and dolphin-“assisted” birth

Turtle wanna coffee

From Sarah: Budget sequestration is making the falling budgets at NIH even worse.

“They said, ‘Great. This is good science. This is going to have a big impact on the field and on patients’,” [Stephanie] Zerwas said. “I don’t think people realize just how difficult the grant writing process is. It’s almost like winning the lottery when you get a grant marked for funding.”

But that lottery ticket may never pay off. Thanks to this year’s doomsday budget deal between Congress and the White House known as the sequester, Zerwas is one of about 700 NIH research applicants whose projects have been frozen.

Also from Sarah, happier things: Buzzfeed celebrates World Turtle Day.

From Jeremy: Here’s a self-serving link to his review of John Thompson’s new book Relentless Evolution. And a public service announcement that dolphin-assisted birth is probably not as cool as it sounds.

No matter how cute they might appear, dolphins are not cuddly companions; they are real, large, ocean predators with a track record for violence — even when it comes to humans.

From Amy: Animal Planet has a cicada live cam. Because of course.

Friday coffee break: Potato blight, phylogenetics 101, and venemous FAQs

2010.03.24 - Breakfast

From Amy: Analysis of DNA from museum specimens has identified the pathogen responsible for the Irish Potato Famine of 1845.

…the strain that changed history is different from modern day epidemics, and is probably now extinct.

From Sarah: Digital visualizations may be making it easier to teach students how to understand evolutionary trees. As in, for instance, this visualization of the phylogeny of birds.

Taxa appear as dots whose relative spatial distances are determined by phylogenetic relatedness. When reading a cladogram, the intuitive impulse to infer relatedness from spatial distance between branch tips inevitably leads to error. The DEM works with this intuition, rather than against it.

From Jeremy: Hard as it may be to believe, this FAQ about dealing with the bites of venemous snakes just keeps getting better as you go down.

Hey. Where’d you get that fungus?

Fungi are pretty. And the ones in your home are (hopefully) smaller than this.

I’m very excited to be going to this meeting in June that focuses on the microbiome (i.e., all the living microbes) of our built environment – our homes, work places, sewers, etc. I’m used to thinking about the genetics of much larger living things – like chipmunks – where large non-living things – like rivers – create barriers between populations within a species which allows the populations to evolve independently. It’s been surprisingly difficult for me to apply my background “macro” knowledge to my new “micro” interests. How do different microbial species arise? What is a microbial species, anyway? Specifically restricting my many questions to our homes – what barriers could cause divergence between seemingly connected individuals?

Bacteria abound on our skin and when we come in contact with items in our home, our bacteria are directly transmitted to the surface (think door knobs). Additionally, we shed skin cells – and their bacteria – in our homes resulting in a near constant snow of human-associated (and pet!) bacteria. These facts lead to human occupancy being a source of our indoor microbiome. But bacteria are not the only miniscule things sharing our living spaces. What about other microbes? And now for the question of the day: where does the fungi in your house comes from?

Continue reading

Friday coffee break: Honeycombs, peer review, and better state birds

New Honey Today

From Sarah: Why are honeycombs hexagonal, anyway?

From Devin: How many papers have you reviewed in the past year? And, more important, how many review requests have you turned down?

From Jeremy: Most U.S. states have pretty lousy state birds. (Everyone who picked Northern Cardinal, I’m looking at you.) Here are suggestions for much better ones.

Friday coffee break: Ant architecture, the importance of sleep, and an ArXive for biologists

Coffee Time

From Sarah: Here are ten ways your house is like an ant’s. And here are ten cool recent dinosaur discoveries.

And, also from Sarah: a new international study shows that students need sleep.

I think we underestimate the impact of sleep. Our data show that across countries internationally, on average, children who have more sleep achieve higher in maths, science and reading. That is exactly what our data show,” says Chad Minnich, of the TIMSS and PIRLS International Study Center.

From Devin: A new preprint server, bioRxiv, is looking to be the ArXive for the life sciences. (But lots of biologists are starting to use ArXive already.)

… Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press is set to test the waters in preprint publishing before the end of the year. The service, called bioRxiv, will be largely modeled after arXiv, with a few additional features to entice life scientists. These include public commenting, room for supplementary information and links to established databases such as GenBank.

From Jeremy: A study tests the quality of plant trait data from public databases by comparing it to new samples.

… the correlation between sampling effort and payoff is still (as usual) high. It may be easier to get traits from a database, but it is not usually better.

Surveying LGBTQ folks in STEM


So, I’ve already announced this in other venues, but, what the heck: I’m collaborating on a new survey of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans* folks working in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. If that describes you, my collaborator and I would really like you to answer some questions. It’s all anonymous (unless you volunteer for a followup interview), and it’ll help fill a real gap in our understanding.

Friday coffee break: Stinkbugs and Tasmanian facial cancer and spider-mimicking moths


From Amy: The U.S. Department of Agriculture is looking into unleashing parasitoid wasps to control invasive Asian stinkbugs.

From Devin (@DevinDrown): A cure for the contagious cancer plaguing Tasmanian devil populations may rely on making the cancer cells “visible” to the devils’ own immune systems.

It turns out that [devil facial tumor disease] cells down-regulated genes that are required for antigen processing—ultimately leading to a lack of MHC expression on the outside of the tumor cells. Without that signal from the MHC molecules, the immune system is oblivious to this sinister presence, and the cancer proliferates until it has killed the animal—explaining why this disease has a 100% mortality rate.

From CJ (@cejjenkins): What scares sperm whales? Orcas. But, what, exactly is scared by a moth that looks like a spider?

From Sarah (@SarahMHird): What not to do in the early stages of your academic career. And, if you want to despair for the future of science in the U.S., here’s a depressing article about how Pennsylvania science teachers handle/avoid teaching evolution.

“My approach is to teach the textbook content of Darwinian evolution but modified to explain that data can be interpreted differently dependent upon one’s world view.”

From Jeremy (@JBYoder): Sixteen-year-old sets up a DIY chemistry experiment, gets charged with a felony. There’s a petition you should sign.

A system that values obedience over curiosity isn’t education and it definitely isn’t science. Her expulsion and arrest sends a very clear and striking message to students, especially urban students of color: Don’t try this at home, or school or anywhere. Science exploration is not for you!