Friday Coffee Break


Here’s what we’ll be talking about while we wait in line for a latte:

The latest news in the human-neanderthal hybridization story: some neanderthal genes may have contributed to human adaptation during the expansion out of Africa. From Amy.

Anemones have been discovered living attached to antarctic sea ice. From Amy.

Rattlesnakes in the southwest have astoundingly variable venom. The variation confounds attempts at developing antivenoms and its adaptive significance is unknown. From Jeremy.

Did we learn nothing from Jurassic Park? The strain of Yersinia pestis that caused one of the worst plagues in human history has been extracted from a preserved tooth of one of its victims and had it’s genome sequenced. From Sarah.

A link containing a video of a flying snake. What more could you ask for? From Noah.

Think your tilapia-tomato aquaponic system is clever? Well the three-toed sloth has got you beat. It’s running an algae-moth system in its fur. From Noah.


The (f)utility of debating creationists

This is a guest post by Reid Brennan, a Ph.D. student studying the genomics of adaptation in response to environmental stress as part of Andrew Whitehead’s lab at the University of California, Davis.

Ken Ham hates evolution. Bill Nye hates creationism. After Nye released the great video “Creationism is not appropriate for children“, Ham decided to personally respond in a number of videos (link, link). Eventually Ham challenged Nye to a debate, a challenge that Nye accepted.

For those of you not closely following the creationist crowd, Ken Ham is the founder of Answers in Genesis, the anti-evolution organization responsible for the Creation Museum and Ark Park (That’s right, an amusement park featuring a full sized ark on which all the animals of the world were saved from the flood). On February 4th at 7PM ET, Ham and Nye will meet to debate the following topic/question: “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern, scientific era?”

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Friday Coffee Break

Here’s what we’ll be talking about while we wait in line for a latte (and ^^^ is what we’ll be doing when we read the links):

A new amazonian river dolphin species discovered! From Noah.

Not biology, but… Yale student fight with their administration over use and display of course evaluation data. From Noah.

Everyone loves a nice juicy taxonomy fail. Don’t know what a salp is? Neither do a whole bunch of people writing stories about them on the internet. From CJ.

Mantis shrimp, best known for rapidly producing enormous amounts of force with their claws also have a unique and somewhat mysterious visual system. From CJ.

8 ways animals survive the winter. From Sarah.

Antibiotic resistance defined. From Sarah.

An absurd PLOS ONE paper presents the “quilt plot” which is really just a simple heatmap… but it spurs Lior Pachter to ask just what measures should go into a heatmap comparing gene expression data sets. From Noah.

Amateur ornithologists banding hummingbird (particularly in Louisiana!) have helped show that many species successfully winter year after year on the gulf coast. From Noah

Should women in science have to choose between starting a career and starting a family?


Last week Nature published a short correspondence – and people got really angry.  In case you missed it, here is a short summary of events. It started when Nature published an update on their efforts to reduce the gender bias in their publication.  This was inexplicably followed by Nature also publishing an ill-conceived short correspondence criticizing their efforts and blaming the inequality on women’s decisions to have children.  A number of people responded to the piece (including here, here, and here) and in response, Nature issued a strongly worded mea culpa.

I find that the most frustrating part of this whole fiasco is not that top tier journals sometimes publish things they shouldn’t (I think we already knew that), but that it sidetracks the discussion away from the types of conversations that we should really be having.  The underrepresentation of women in top tier journals (as well as math and science fields in general) is a real problem.  When half of our brightest minds aren’t being fully represented, we all lose out, regardless of the cause.  However, understanding the cause allows us to implement the appropriate solutions.

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Friday Coffee Break


Here’s what we’ll be talking about while we wait in line for a latte:

How to get ants to carry a sign for you. From Jeremy.

Amazonian builder of mysterious tiny picket fences sort of discovered. From Amy.

Scientific meetings feature more women speakers when women are included in the organizing committees. From Sarah.

PLOS ONE papers that made the news in 2013. From Sarah.

A personal account of growing up unvaccinated in the 1970s. From Jeremy.

Even tiny roads built through amazon rainforest disrupt canopy-dwelling frog communities. From Noah.

On the evolution of blind cave fish.

Astyanax mexicanus cave dwelling form.

Evolution requires variation in traits among individuals to act. If evolutionary fitness is determined by a given trait, and everyone in a population has the trait, then there is no basis for natural selection to discriminate among individuals. Furthermore, when variation does exist, it must be genetically based so that it can be passed down by successful parents to their offspring. The trait variation on which selection acts can either come from genetic variation existing in a population before selection begins or it can result from new mutations. Because natural selection acts to eliminate unfavorable variation, there is a question as to how selection in a changing environment could reverse change, or remove a trait it had previously favored. Where would the necessary variation come from?

One controversial hypothesis is that genetic variation for a given trait can be masked from selection by very stable (or “canalized”) developmental processes. These canalized processes result in highly uniform traits within a population despite underlying genetic variation. Under certain environmental conditions (in particular, stressful ones), they can be destabilized, allowing underlying genetic variation to cause traits to vary, thus providing grist for natural selection’s mill.

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