Posts about biology

Goats Excel at Learning and Remembering a Complex Tasks

I like research showing animals using intelligence that seems advanced, for example: Crow Using a Sequence of Three ToolsInsightful Problem Solving in an Asian ElephantBird-brains smarter than your average apeTropical Lizards Can Solve Novel Problems and Remember the SolutionsPigeon Solves Box and Banana Problem.

I also like open access science, and this has both: Goats excel at learning and remembering a highly novel cognitive task

The majority of trained goats (9/12) successfully learned the task quickly; on average, within 12 trials. After intervals of up to 10 months, they solved the task within two minutes, indicating excellent long-term memory. The goats did not learn the task faster after observing a demonstrator than if they did not have that opportunity. This indicates that they learned through individual rather than social learning.”

The individual learning abilities and long-term memory of goats highlighted in our study suggest that domestication has not affected goat physical cognition. However, these cognitive abilities contrast with the apparent lack of social learning, suggesting that relatively intelligent species do not always preferentially learn socially. We propose that goat cognition, and maybe more generally ungulate cognition, is mainly driven by the need to forage efficiently in harsh environments and feed on plants that are difficult to access and to process, more than by the computational demands of sociality. Our results could also explain why goats are so successful at colonizing new environments.

The experiment was done with domesticated goats. I also learned this from the article, which I didn’t know before:

Domestication is known to strongly affect brain size. Consistent reductions in brain size relative to body size, as well as in brain size parts, have occurred in many domestic species.

Related: Orangutan Attempts to Hunt Fish with SpearFriday Fun: Bird Using Bait to FishPhoto of Fish Using a Rock to Open a Clam

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Refusal to Follow Scientific Guidance Results in Worms Evolving to Eat Corn Designed to Kill The Worms

An understanding of natural selection and evolution is fundamental to understanding science, biology, human health and life. Scientists create wonderful products to improve our lives: vaccines, antibiotics, etc.; if we don’t use them or misuse them it is a great loss to society.

There is also great value in genetic enhanced seeds and thus plants (through natural human aided processes such as breeding and providing good genetic material over a wide area – distances that would not be covered naturally, at least not in a time that helps us much). Genetic Modified Organisms (GMO) food, in which we tinker with the genes directly also holds great promise but has risks, especially if we forget basic scientific principles such as biodiversity.

Voracious Worm Evolves to Eat Biotech Corn Engineered to Kill It

First planted in 1996, Bt corn quickly became hugely popular among U.S. farmers. Within a few years, populations of rootworms and corn borers, another common corn pest, had plummeted across the midwest. Yields rose and farmers reduced their use of conventional insecticides that cause more ecological damage than the Bt toxin.

By the turn of the millennium, however, scientists who study the evolution of insecticide resistance were warning of imminent problems. Any rootworm that could survive Bt exposures would have a wide-open field in which to reproduce; unless the crop was carefully managed, resistance would quickly emerge.

Key to effective management, said the scientists, were refuges set aside and planted with non-Bt corn. Within these fields, rootworms would remain susceptible to the Bt toxin. By mating with any Bt-resistant worms that chanced to evolve in neighboring fields, they’d prevent resistance from building up in the gene pool.

But the scientists’ own recommendations — an advisory panel convened in 2002 by the EPA suggested that a full 50 percent of each corn farmer’s fields be devoted to these non-Bt refuges — were resisted by seed companies and eventually the EPA itself, which set voluntary refuge guidelines at between 5 and 20 percent. Many farmers didn’t even follow those recommendations.

Using extremely powerful tools like GMO requires society to have much better scientific literacy among those making decisions than any societies have shown thus far. The failure of our governments to enforce sensible scientific constraints on such use of genetic engineering creates huge risks to society. It is due to this consistent failure of our government to act within sensible scientific constraints that causes me to support efforts (along with other reasons – economic understanding – the extremely poor state of patent system, risk reduction…) to resist the widespread adoption of GMO, patenting of life (including seeds and seeds produced by seeds).

Wonderful things are possible. If we grow up and show a long term track record of being guided by scientific principles when the risks of not doing so are huge then I will be more supportive of using tactics such as GMO more easily. But I don’t see us getting their anytime soon. If anything we are much less scietifically minded and guided than we were 50 years ago: even while we bask in the glorious wonders science has brought us on a daily basis.

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More Muscle Mass Appears Linked to Longer Life

New UCLA research suggests that the more muscle mass older Americans have, the less likely they are to die prematurely. The findings add to the growing evidence that overall body composition — and not the widely used body mass index, or BMI — is a better predictor of all-cause mortality. The study was published in the in a closed science journal (it is too bad UCLA promotes such anti-science practices). The research was funded by the NIH (who also shouldn’t allow such anti-science practices).

Dr. Preethi Srikanthan: “many studies on the mortality impact of obesity focus on BMI. Our study indicates that clinicians need to be focusing on ways to improve body composition, rather than on BMI alone, when counseling older adults on preventative health behaviors.”

The researchers analyzed data collected by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) III, conducted between 1988 and 1994. They focused on a group of 3,659 individuals that included men who were 55 or older and women who were 65 or older at the time of the survey. The authors then determined how many of those individuals had died from natural causes based on a follow-up survey done in 2004.

The body composition of the study subjects was measured using bioelectrical impedance, which involves running an electrical current through the body. Muscle allows the current to pass more easily than fat does, due to muscle’s water content. In this way, the researchers could determine a muscle mass index — the amount of muscle relative to height — similar to a body mass index. They looked at how this muscle mass index was related to the risk of death.

They found that all-cause mortality was significantly lower in the fourth quartile of muscle mass index compared with the first quartile.

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Why Don’t All Ant Species Replace Queens in the Colony, Since Some Do

My response to: There are other species of ants that do replace the queen, so why did some species not do this?

Basically the method they evolved copes well with losing the queen. Out of various ways of dealing with having a dominant Queen some may lead to replacement if she dies.

There are lots of examples of method is very effective at creating lots of successful offspring but happens to be less than ideal in some situations. Natural selection is pretty amazing and awesome at creating effective genes but we certainly can look at the results sometimes and see improvements that would be useful.

Likely if losing the queen was very common a good way of dealing with that would be found (or that species would be disadvantaged and at risk). If the queen happens to evolve to being very reliable coping with her death becomes less important. If they produce lots of useful offspring but have a less than ideal method of coping with their home colony losing her it is entirely sensible to imagine that species could flourish.

I would imagine species with queens that had shorter lifespans, that invested more in the home colony, that were less effective at setting up new colonies… would be more likely to have better queen replacement strategies/results.

Related: Ants, Ants, AntsE.O. Wilson: Lord of the AntsAmazonian Ant Species is All Female, Reproduces By CloningRoyal Ant GenesHuge Ant Nest

How Our Brains React to Sugar

The dopamine reaction to sugar leads us to seek out that good feeling. Sugars can lead us astray by encouraging us to seek more than is good for us.

A sensible explanation is that sugars provide high calories and were rare and so the more we could find the better. Evolution takes a long time to adjust though (and of course misses things that don’t affect passing on successful genes) so long (in our human timeframe, short in evolutionary timeframe) after we have far too much sugar available our brains our encouraging us to eat all we can find. This of course, at best, is a very oversimplified view.

Related: Can Just A Few Minute of Exercise a Day Prevent Diabetes?Does Diet Soda Result in Weight Gain?How Caffeine Affects Your Body

DNA Contains Gene Control Instructions

Scientists discover double meaning in genetic code

Scientists have discovered a second code hiding within DNA. This second code contains information that changes how scientists read the instructions contained in DNA and interpret mutations to make sense of health and disease.

“For over 40 years we have assumed that DNA changes affecting the genetic code solely impact how proteins are made,” said Stamatoyannopoulos. “Now we know that this basic assumption about reading the human genome missed half of the picture. These new findings highlight that DNA is an incredibly powerful information storage device, which nature has fully exploited in unexpected ways.”

The genetic code uses a 64-letter alphabet called codons. The UW team discovered that some codons, which they called duons, can have two meanings, one related to protein sequence, and one related to gene control. These two meanings seem to have evolved in concert with each other. The gene control instructions appear to help stabilize certain beneficial features of proteins and how they are made.

The discovery of duons has major implications for how scientists and physicians interpret a patient’s genome and will open new doors to the diagnosis and treatment of disease.

“The fact that the genetic code can simultaneously write two kinds of information means that many DNA changes that appear to alter protein sequences may actually cause disease by disrupting gene control programs or even both mechanisms simultaneously,” said Stamatoyannopoulos.

The wonder of DNA continues to amaze.

Related: Epigenetic Effects on DNA from Living Conditions in Childhood Persist Well Into Middle AgeDNA Passed to Descendants Changed by Your LifeDNA based Algorithmic Self-Assembly

Outdoor Air Pollution Resulted in 223,000 Cancer Deaths in 2010

The specialized cancer agency of the World Health Organization, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), announced today that it has classified outdoor air pollution as carcinogenic to humans.

After thoroughly reviewing the latest available scientific literature, the world’s leading experts convened by the IARC Monographs Programme concluded that there is sufficient evidence that exposure to outdoor air pollution causes lung cancer. They also noted a positive association with an increased risk of bladder cancer.

Particulate matter, a major component of outdoor air pollution, was evaluated separately and was also classified as carcinogenic to humans.

The IARC evaluation showed an increasing risk of lung cancer with increasing levels of exposure to particulate matter and air pollution. Although the composition of air pollution and levels of exposure can vary dramatically between locations, the conclusions of the Working Group apply to all regions of the world.

Air pollution is already known to increase risks for a wide range of diseases, such as respiratory and heart diseases. Studies indicate that in recent years exposure levels have increased significantly in some parts of the world, particularly in rapidly industrializing countries with large populations. The most recent data indicate that in 2010, 223,000 deaths from lung cancer worldwide resulted from air pollution.

“The air we breathe has become polluted with a mixture of cancer-causing substances,” says Dr Kurt Straif.

The stories of amazingly high (and persistent) air pollution levels in China have been continuing for years. But, while China, likely represents several of the worst existing air pollution conditions hundreds of thousands have died outside China due to air pollution just in the last 5 years.

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Deadly Trio of Acidification, Warming and Deoxygenation Threaten Our Oceans

An international panel of marine scientists is demanding urgent remedies to halt ocean degradation based on findings that the rate, speed and impacts of change in the global ocean are greater, faster and more imminent
than previously thought.

Professor Dan Laffoley, International Union for Conservation of Nature, said: “What these latest reports make absolutely clear is that deferring action will increase costs in the future and lead to even greater, perhaps irreversible, losses. The UN climate report confirmed that the ocean is bearing the brunt of human-induced changes to our planet. These findings give us more cause for alarm – but also a roadmap for action. We must use it.“

Results from the latest International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO)/IUCN review of science on anthropogenic stressors on the ocean go beyond the conclusion reached last week by the UN climate change panel the IPCC that the ocean is absorbing much of the warming and unprecedented levels of carbon dioxide and warn that the cumulative impact of this with other ocean stressors is far graver than previous estimates.

Decreasing oxygen levels in the ocean caused by climate change and nitrogen runoff, combined with other chemical pollution and rampant overfishing are undermining the ability of the ocean to withstand these so-called ‘carbon perturbations’, meaning its role as Earth’s ‘buffer’ is seriously compromised.

Professor Alex Rogers of Somerville College, Oxford, and Scientific Director of IPSO said: “The health of the ocean is spiraling downwards far more rapidly than we had thought. We are seeing greater change, happening faster, and the effects are more imminent than previously anticipated. The situation should be of the gravest concern to everyone since everyone will be affected by changes in the ability of the ocean to support life on Earth.”

Among the latest assessments of factors affecting ocean health, the panel identified the following areas as of greatest cause for concern:
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Mechanical Gears Found in Jumping Insects

A natural example of a functioning gear mechanism has been discovered in a common insect – the plant-hopper Issus – showing that evolution developed interlocking cogs long before we did.

The gears in the Issus hind-leg bear remarkable engineering resemblance to those found on every bicycle and inside every car gear-box. Each gear tooth has a rounded corner at the point it connects to the gear strip; a feature identical to man-made gears such as bike gears – essentially a shock-absorbing mechanism to stop teeth from shearing off.

The gear teeth on the opposing hind-legs lock together like those in a car gear-box, ensuring almost complete synchronicity in leg movement – the legs always move within 30 ‘microseconds’ of each other, with one microsecond equal to a millionth of a second.

This is critical for the powerful jumps that are this insect’s primary mode of transport, as even miniscule discrepancies in synchronisation between the velocities of its legs at the point of propulsion would result in “yaw rotation” – causing the Issus to spin hopelessly out of control.

“This precise synchronisation would be impossible to achieve through a nervous system, as neural impulses would take far too long for the extraordinarily tight coordination required,” said lead author Professor Malcolm Burrows, from Cambridge’s Department of Zoology.

“By developing mechanical gears, the Issus can just send nerve signals to its muscles to produce roughly the same amount of force – then if one leg starts to propel the jump the gears will interlock, creating absolute synchronicity.

Interestingly, the mechanistic gears are only found in the insect’s juvenile – or ‘nymph’ – stages, and are lost in the final transition to adulthood. These transitions, called ‘molts’, are when animals cast off rigid skin at key points in their development in order to grow.

It may also be down to the larger size of adults and consequently their ‘trochantera’ – the insect equivalent of the femur or thigh bones. The bigger adult trochantera might allow them to can create enough friction to power the enormous leaps from leaf to leaf without the need for intermeshing gear teeth to drive it, say the scientists.

It’s not yet known why the Issus loses its hind-leg gears on reaching adulthood. The scientists point out that a problem with any gear system is that if one tooth on the gear breaks, the effectiveness of the whole mechanism is damaged. While gear-teeth breakage in nymphs could be repaired in the next molt, any damage in adulthood remains permanent. It is amazing what evolution results in, not only gears but a system that changes to a different solution (maybe, who knows the real “reason”) when the gears solution lack of robustness would create a problem for survivability.

While there are examples of apparently ornamental cogs in the animal kingdom – such as on the shell of the cog wheel turtle or the back of the wheel bug – gears with a functional role either remain elusive or have been rendered defunct by evolution.

Related: Using Bacteria to Power Microscopic MachinesWebcast of a T-cell Killing a Cancerous CellBuilding A Better Bed Bug Trap Using Bean Leaves

In the video above, Professor Malcolm Burrows talks about finding the bugs that led to the science, and working with artists Elizabeth Hobbs and Emily Tracy and members of the community in the London borough of Hackney to produce the film ‘Waterfolk’.

Full press release

Another Bee Study Finds CCD is Likely Due to Combination of Factors Including Pesticides

Abstract of open access science paper funded by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Crop Pollination Exposes Honey Bees to Pesticides Which Alters Their Susceptibility to the Gut Pathogen Nosema ceranae:

Recent declines in honey bee populations and increasing demand for insect-pollinated crops raise concerns about pollinator shortages. Pesticide exposure and pathogens may interact to have strong negative effects on managed honey bee colonies. Such findings are of great concern given the large numbers and high levels of pesticides found in honey bee colonies. Thus it is crucial to determine how field-relevant combinations and loads of pesticides affect bee health.

We collected pollen from bee hives in seven major crops to determine 1) what types of pesticides bees are exposed to when rented for pollination of various crops and 2) how field-relevant pesticide blends affect bees’ susceptibility to the gut parasite Nosema ceranae. Our samples represent pollen collected by foragers for use by the colony, and do not necessarily indicate foragers’ roles as pollinators. In blueberry, cranberry, cucumber, pumpkin and watermelon bees collected pollen almost exclusively from weeds and wildflowers during our sampling.

Thus more attention must be paid to how honey bees are exposed to pesticides outside of the field in which they are placed. We detected 35 different pesticides in the sampled pollen, and found high fungicide loads. The insecticides esfenvalerate and phosmet were at a concentration higher than their median lethal dose in at least one pollen sample. While fungicides are typically seen as fairly safe for honey bees, we found an increased probability of Nosema infection in bees that consumed pollen with a higher fungicide load.

Our results highlight a need for research on sub-lethal effects of fungicides and other chemicals that bees placed in an agricultural setting are exposed to.

The attempts to discover the main causes of bee colony deaths and find solutions continues to prove difficult years after the problems became major. The complex interaction of many variables makes it difficult. And special interest groups pushing pesticides and the like, which have seemed to be major contributors to the problem for years, make it even more difficult (by preventing restrictions on potentially damaging pesticide use).

The challenges in determining what is killing bees are similar to the challenges of discovering what practices are damaging human health. The success of studying complex biological interactions (to discover threats to human health) is extremely limited. I am concerned we are far too caviler about using large numbers of interventions (drugs, pesticides, massive antibiotics use in factory farms, pollution…).

Related: Europe Bans Certain Pesticides, USA Just Keeps Looking, Bees Keep DyingGermany Bans Chemicals Linked to Bee Deaths (2008)Virus Found to be One Likely Factor in Bee Colony Colapse Disorder (2007)Study of the Colony Collapse Disorder Continues as Bee Colonies Continue to Disappear

Go Slow with Genetically Modified Food

My thoughts on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO), specifically GM foods, basically boil down to:

  • messing with genes could create problems
  • we tend to (and especially those seeking to gain an advantage tend to – even if “we” overall wouldn’t the people in the position to take aggressive measures do) ignore risks until the problems are created (often huge costs at that point)
  • I think we should reduce risk and therefore make it hard to justify using GMO techniques
  • I agree occasionally we should do so, like it seems with oranges and bananas.
  • I agree the practice can be explained in a way that makes it seem like there is no (or nearly no) risk, I don’t trust we will always refrain from stepping into an area where there is a very bad result

Basically I would suggest being very cautious with GMO. I like science and technology but I think we often implement things poorly. I think we are not being cautious enough now, and should reduce the use of GMO to critical needs to society (patents on the practices need to be carefully studied and perhaps not permitted – the whole patent system is so broken now that it should be questioned at every turn).

Antibiotic misuse and massive overuse is an obvious example. We have doctors practicing completely unjustified misuse of antibiotics and harming society and we have factory farms massively overusing antibiotics causing society harm.

The way we casually use drugs is another example of our failure to sensibly manage risks, in my opinion. This of course is greatly pushed by those making money on getting us to use more drugs – drug companies and doctors paid by those companies. The right drugs are wonderful. But powerful drugs almost always have powerful side effects (at least in a significant number of people) and those risks are multiplied the more we take (due to interactions, weakness created by one being overwhelmed by the next etc.). We should be much more cautious but again we show evidence of failing to act cautiously which adds to my concern for using GMO.

I love antibiotics, but the way we are using them is endangering millions of lives (that is a bad thing). I don’t trust us to use science wisely and safely. We need to more consciously put barriers in place to provent us creating massively problems.

Related: Research on Wheat RustThe AvocadoOverfishing, another example of us failing to effectively cope with systemic consequences

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