Are Rats Innocent of Spreading the Black Plague?

A new study suggests that human parasites—like fleas and lice—and not rats, may be responsible for spreading the Black Death that killed millions of people in Medieval Europe.

A personal favorite infectious disease of mine is the plague, what a perfect confluence of infection agent (the bacteria Yersinia pestis), susceptible population (do you know what passed as cleanliness standards in medieval Europe?), and good environmental factors (over crowding).

But it turns out that rats, previously thought to be the main culprits of spreading the plague, may not be responsible for spreading the Black Death (also, GREAT name).

Want to know more? Read about it here!

 

 

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Oldest fossil on earth?

The history of life on earth is fascinating, and largely one of the reasons I started studying evolutionary biology.

There is solid evidence of life dating back to 3.5 billion years, at which point the earth was a billion years old.

Last August, Dr. Van Kranendonk and his colleagues reported discovering fossils in Greenland that are 3.7 billion years old and were once mats of bacteria that grew in shallow coastal waters.

But then, a new study, published in the journal Nature, Mattew S.Dodd, Dominic Papineau and their colleagues at University College London studied rocks that are older.

They came from a remote geological formation in Canada called Nuvvuagittuq, which stretches across four square miles on the coast of Hudson Bay.Researchers have variously estimated its age at 3.77 billion years or 4.22 billion years — just 340 million years after the formation of the planet.

Want to read more? Check it out at the Washington post!

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Iron-rich chert, shown here in red, containing ancient fossils was formed near hydrothermal vents on an ancient seafloor, according to a new study. 

 

What plague doctors can teach us about doing science

The bird mask wearing plague doctor.

They stuffed the beaks of their masks with aromatic flowers, spices, and perfume to ward off disease carrying miasmas.

Their lenses were darkened to avoid the evil eye which could have allowed an evil spirit to enter their bodies and give them the plague.

They practiced bloodletting and turned to barbers to do surgeries on their patients.

By today’s standards their methods were wrong. But that’s not really the whole story. We have the benefit of years of experience and science to be able to say we know better.

And ultimately understanding how they came to the above conclusions allows us to look at science in general, and the scientific method in particular.

Read about it here! 

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The Altered Arctic Food Chain

Food chains are complicated. That simple idea of a direct line from primary producer, to primary consumer, to top of the food chain is just that, overly simplified.

And given the complexity of these interactions (who eats who) it’s hard to predict what happens when the menu suddenly changes.

Which is what is happening right now in the Arctic, due to the effects of climate change.

Read about it over at the NYTimes!

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#ThanksNASA

The incoming presidential administration has talked about axing funding for NASA earth science research.

This would result in a loss of 40% of funding dedicated to understanding our planet.

Why? It’s been suggested it has to do with NASA’s focus on what was called “politically correct environmental monitoring“.

In response, scientists have taken to twitter, with the hashtag #ThanksNASA to highlight the good work done at NASA

Read about it here! 

 

Stand up for NIH funding

Elizabeth Warren recently posted a piece on Medium about a bill to help advance medical innovation in the United States. But, as she points out, this bill does not provide money to basic research funded through the NIH, but rather is meant to make it easier for pharmaceutical companies to make money by lying to the public.

Needless to say this is upsetting, and given the current funding rates and the tightening of the federal budget for scientific research (NIH funding was cut by 20% over the last dozen years…), this bit of science news should inspire you to call your senator or congressman.

Read the piece here, and remember: This is not normal.

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Epic Battles: Humpback Whales vs. Killer Whales?

Altruism: behaviour of an animal that benefits another at its own expense.

This is rare within species (bees and other social animals being the notable exception), but between species? Practically unheard of.

But apparently the raging war between humpback whales and killer whales (which I genuinely did not know was happening), has caused humpbacks to intervene in the killer whales hunting other species.

Read about it over at National Geographic… and puzzle over why humpbacks keep picking on killer whales.

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