Posts about biology

Chimpanzees Solving Numerical Memory Test Better Than People

I can’t even see all the numbers before they disappear. But chimpanzees are shown seeing a flash of 9 numbers on a screen and then pointing to where they were on the screen in order from 1 to 9. Human test subjects can’t even do 5 numbers most of the time.

Related: Chimpanzees Use Spears to Hunt Bush BabiesOrangutan Attempts to Hunt Fish with SpearCrows can Perform as Well as 7 to 10-year-olds on cause-and-effect Water Displacement TasksTropical Lizards Can Solve Novel Problems and Remember the Solutions

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The Challenge of Protecting Us from Evolving Bacterial Threats

I have long been concerned about the practices we continue to use increasing the risks of “superbugs.” I have written about this many times, including: The Overuse of Antibiotics Carries Large Long Term Risks (2005)Are you ready for a world without antibiotics? (2010), Antibiotics Breed Superbugs Faster Than Expected (2010), Entirely New Antibiotic (platensimycin) Developed (2006), Our Poor Antibiotic Practices Have Sped the Evolution of Resistance to Our Last-Resort Antibiotic (2015).

I do also believe the wonderful breakthroughs we make when we invest in science and engineering have made our lives much better and have the potential to continue to do so in many ways, including in dealing with the risks of superbugs. But this is something that requires great effort by many smart people and a great deal of money. It will only happen if we put in the effort.

Winning war against ‘superbugs’

hey won this particular battle, or at least gained some critical intelligence, not by designing a new antibiotic, but by interfering with the metabolism of the bacterial “bugs” — E. coli in this case — and rendering them weaker in the face of existing antibiotics

ROS, or “reactive oxygen species,” include molecules like superoxide and hydrogen peroxide that are natural byproducts of normal metabolic activity. Bacteria usually cope just fine with them, but too many can cause serious damage or even kill the cell. In fact, Collins’ team revealed a few years ago the true antibiotic modus operandi: they kill bacteria in part by ramping up ROS production.

We need to continue to pursue many paths to protecting us from rapidly evolving bacterial risks. Many promising research results will fail to produce usable solutions. We need to try many promising ideas to find useful tools and strategies to protect human health.

US Fish and Wildlife Service Plans to Use Drones to Drop Vaccine Treats to Save Ferrets

Despite significant recovery successes, the black-footed ferret remains one of the most endangered animals in the world.

Black-footed ferret

Black-footed ferret, photo by J. Michael Lockhart, USFWS.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has developed a plan to use (UAS) to deliver prairie dog sylvatic plague vaccination.

The primary purpose in this proposal is to develop the equipment, protocols and experience in use of UAS (drones) to deliver oral sylvatic plague vaccine (SPV). It is anticipated that this approach, when fully developed, will offer the most efficient, effective, cost-conscious and environmentally friendly method to apply SPV annually over large areas of prairie dog colonies in support of black-footed ferret recovery.

Plague is a primary obstacle to black-footed ferret recovery. After more than 20 years of intensive reintroduction efforts across 27 reintroduction sites ranging from Mexico to Canada, approximately 300 ferrets were known to exist in the wild at the end of 2015. Ferrets are constantly threatened by plague outbreaks that affect both ferrets, and their primary prey and habitat provider, prairie dogs.

To date, SPV has been applied by hand with people walking pre-defined transects and uniformly dropping single SPV baits every 9-10 meters to achieve a deposition rate of 50 SPV doses per acre. Depending on vegetation and terrain, a single person walking can treat 3-6 acres per hour. All terrain vehicles (ATVs) have been considered but have various problems.

The bait treats are M&Ms smeared in vaccine-laden peanut butter.

Preliminary discussions with people experienced with UAS suggest an aerial vehicle travelling at a modest 9 meters per second could drop a single SPV bait once per second that would result in treating one acre every 50 seconds. If the equipment and expertise can be developed as proposed here, a single UAS operator could treat more than 60 acres per hour.

If the equipment can be developed to deposit 3 SPV doses simultaneously every second, as they envision is possible, some 200 acres per hour could be treated by a single operator. The idea is that the drone would fire the treats in 3 different directions to increase the spread of treats.

The areas to be treated are located in South Phillips County, Montana.

Related: Using Drones to Deliver Medical Supplies in Roadless Areas (2014)The sub-$1,000 unpiloted aerial vehicles UAV Project (2007)Autonomous Flying Vehicles (2006)Cat Allergy Vaccine Created (2011)AlienFly RC Mosquito Helicopter (2007)

Dinosaur Bird Wing and Feather in Amber

Rare Dinosaur-Era Bird Wings Found Trapped in Amber

Two tiny wings entombed in amber reveal that plumage (the layering, patterning, coloring, and arrangement of feathers) seen in birds today already existed in at least some of their predecessors nearly a hundred million years ago.

Skin, muscle, claws, and feather shafts are visible, along with the remains of rows of feathers similar in arrangement and microstructure to modern birds.

photo of dinosaur wing in amber with feathers visible

The nearly 100 million year old wing shows a structure that is very similar to modern birds.

The piece in this photo, and others samples, were bought at an amber market in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin state in northern Myanmar. The region is politically unstable and most of the amber is sold to Chinese consumers for jewelry and decorative carvings.

Read the related posts for more on the wonderful discoveries saved in amber of hundreds of millions of years. We get to read about these amazing discoveries so often it is easy to lose appreciation for how amazing each one is. This photo shows a wind that was used by a dinosaur almost 100 million years ago.

Related: Marine Plankton From 100 Million Years Ago Found in Amber 2008)Learning About Life over 200 Million Years Ago From Samples Trapped In Amber (2012)The evolution of birds from small predatory dinosaursDino-Era Feathers Found Encased in Amber (2008)Amber Pieces Containing Remains from Dinosaurs and Birds Show Feather Evolution (2011)Ancient Whale Uncovered in Egyptian Desert

An Eukaryote that Completely Lacks Mitochondria

If you don’t have any idea what the title means that is ok. I probably wouldn’t have until the last 15 years when I found how interesting biology is thanks to the internet and wonderful resources online making biology interesting. I hope you find learning about biology as interesting as I do.

Look, Ma! No Mitochondria

Mitochondria have their own DNA, and scientists believe they were once free-living bacteria that got engulfed by primitive, ancient cells that were evolving to become the complex life forms we know and love today.

What they learned is that instead of relying on mitochondria to assemble iron-sulfur clusters, these cells use a different kind of machinery. And it looks like they acquired it from bacteria.

The researchers say this is the first example of any eukaryote that completely lacks mitochondria.

However, the results do not negate the idea that the acquisition of a mitochondrion was an important and perhaps defining event in the evolution of eukaryotic cells, he adds.

That’s because it seems clear that this organism’s ancestors had mitochondria that were then lost after the cells acquired their non-mitochondrial system for making iron-sulfur clusters.

Biology is amazing and mitochondria are one of the many amazing details. I wish so much that my education could have given biology a tiny fraction of the interest I have found it in after school.

Related: Human Gene Origins: 37% Bacterial, 35% Animal, 28% EukaryoticOne Species’ Genome Discovered Inside Another’sParasite Evolved from Cnidarians (Jellyfish etc.)Plants, Unikonts, Excavates and SARs

Healthy Living Greatly Reduces Likelihood of Dying from Cancer

Lifestyle choices can greatly reduce the incidence and death rates from cancer. 4 factors can reduce the incidence of cancer by up to 40% and death rate by 50%: don’t smoke, don’t drink alcohol in excess, maintain a BMI between 18.5 and 27.5, and exercising at a moderate intensity for at least 150 minutes or at a vigorous intensity for at least 75 minutes every week.

Preventable Incidence and Mortality of Carcinoma Associated With Lifestyle Factors Among White Adults in the United States

A substantial cancer burden may be prevented through lifestyle modification. Primary prevention should remain a priority for cancer control.

Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States, with 1.6 million new cancer cases and 0.6 million cancer deaths projected to occur in 2016.1 The cancer mortality rate, age-standardized to the 2000 US standard population, decreased from 199 to 163 per 100 000 between 1969 and 2013.2 However, this decline (17.9%) has been modest compared with the dramatic decrease in heart disease mortality (67.5%) during the same period, highlighting the need for further efforts in cancer prevention and treatment.

The study reviewed previous studies and the makeup of the previous studies and available statistics. As they state in the paper: “Because our cohorts’ participants were predominantly whites, to avoid any influence of different racial distributions on the comparison with the general population, we only included whites in the analysis.” They also excluded about 10% of cancers that are believed to have strong environmental factors.

Table Showing a Comparison of Lifestyle Factors in the Low- and High-Risk Groups

In the 2 cohort studies of US white individuals, we found that overall, 20% to 40% of carcinoma cases and about half of carcinoma deaths can be potentially prevented through lifestyle modification. Not surprisingly, these figures increased to 40% to 70% when assessed with regard to the broader US population of whites, which has a much worse lifestyle pattern than our cohorts.

Notably, approximately 80% to 90% of lung cancer deaths could be avoided if Americans adopted the lifestyle of the low-risk group, mainly by quitting smoking. For other cancers, from 10% to 70% of deaths could be prevented. These results provide strong support for the importance of environmental factors in cancer risk and reinforce the enormous potential of primary prevention for cancer control.

Related: A Healthy Lifestyle is More About Health Care than the Sickness Management That We Call Health Care IsBetter Health Through: Exercise, Not Smoking, Low Weight, Healthy Diet and Low Alcohol Intake (2013)Exercise Is Really Really Good for YouPhysical Activity for Adults: Inactivity Leads to 5.3 Million Early Deaths a Year (2012)

Medicinal Plants

Another great webcast from SciShow. In this webcast Hank Green discusses how we have used plants to treat us and improve our health.

In the webcast, Hank also does a good job touching a bit on the scientific inquiry process (which is something I find interesting and I think is very important for people living in society today to understand).

Related: Youyou Tu, The First Chinese Woman to Win a Nobel PrizeRubber TreesPhotosynthesis: Science Explained

Gut Bacteria Explored as Medical Treatment – even for Cancer

The interaction between gut bacteria and human health continues to be a fertile area of medical research. It appears to be in the very early days of such research. Of course, as I have said before, headline making news often doesn’t result in medical breakthrough, and even when it does a decade isn’t a long wait for it to happen.

How Gut Bacteria Are Shaking Up Cancer Research

In November, University of Chicago researchers wrote that giving mice Bifidobacterium, which normally resides in the gastrointestinal tract, was as effective as an immunotherapy in controlling the growth of skin cancer. Combining the two practically eliminated tumor growth. In the second study, scientists in France found that some bacterial species activated a response to immunotherapy, which didn’t occur without the microbes.

The complex interactions involved in human health is another area that has huge room for research going forward.

Related: Some Bacteria Might Fight Cancer (2008)Cancer Vaccines (2011)Using Diatom Algae to Deliver Chemotherapy Drugs Directly to Cancer Cells (2015)Webcast of a T-cell Killing a Cancerous Cell (2012)

Webcasts on the Human Microbiome

The human microbiome is a very interesting aspect of our health and biology.

The 99% figure they quote is mainly silly. It might be technically accurate, but it is much more misleading than accurate (if it is accurate). We have more non-human cells than human but those cells are much smaller and we are overwhelmingly made up of human cells by weight (95+%).

The complexity of healthy bodies is far from understood. It is interesting to watch our understanding of the balancing act going on inside of us. Many foreign “invaders” are critical to our health.

Related: People are Superorganisms With Microbiomes of Thousands of SpeciesPeople Have More Bacterial Cells than Human CellsFighting Superbugs with Superhero BugsWe Have Thousands of Viruses In Us All the Time

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Parasite Evolved from Cnidarians (Jellyfish etc.)

This is another instance of science research providing us interesting details about the very odd ways life has evolved on earth.

Genome sequencing confirms that myxozoans, a diverse group of microscopic parasites that infect invertebrate and vertebrate hosts, are actually highly reduced cnidarians — the phylum that includes jellyfish, corals and sea anemones.

“This is a remarkable case of extreme degeneration of an animal body plan,” said Paulyn Cartwright, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas (KU) and principal investigator on the research project. “First, we confirmed they’re cnidarians. Now we need to investigate how they got to be that way.”

images of myxozoans parasite spores and a jellyfish

Not only has the parasitic micro jellyfish evolved a stripped-down body plan of just a few cells, but via data generated at the KU Medical Center’s Genome Sequencing Facility researchers also found the myxozoan genome was drastically simplified.

“These were 20 to 40 times smaller than average jellyfish genomes,” Cartwright said. “It’s one of the smallest animal genomes ever reported. It only has about 20 million base pairs, whereas the average Cnidarian has over 300 million. These are tiny little genomes by comparison.”

Despite its radical phasedown of the modern jellyfish’s body structure and genome over millions of years, Myxozoa has retained the essential characteristic of the jellyfish — its stinger, or “nematocyst” — along with the genes needed to make it.

“Because they’re so weird, it’s difficult to imagine they were jellyfish,” she said. “They don’t have a mouth or a gut. They have just a few cells. But then they have this complex structure that looks just like stinging cell of cnidarian. Jellyfish tentacles are loaded with them — little firing weapons.”

The findings are the stuff of scientific fascination but also could have a commercial effect. Myxozoa commonly plague commercial fish stock such as trout and salmon.

“They’re a very diverse group of parasites, and some have been well-studied because they infect fish and can wreak havoc in aquaculture of economic importance,” Cartwright said.

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Fighting Superbugs with Superhero Bugs

As concerns over deadly antibiotic-resistant strains of ‘superbug’ bacteria grow, scientists at the Salk Institute are offering a possible solution to the problem: ‘superhero’ bacteria that live in the gut and move to other parts of the body to alleviate life-threatening side effects caused by infections.

Salk researchers reported finding a strain of microbiome Escherichia coli bacteria in mice capable of improving the animals’ tolerance to infections of the lungs and intestines by preventing wasting–a common and potentially deadly loss of muscle tissue that occurs in serious infections. If a similarly protective strain is found in humans, it could offer a new avenue for countering muscle wasting, which afflicts patients suffering from sepsis and hospital-acquired infections, many of which are now antibiotic resistant.

images of E. coli bacteria, salmonella typhimurium and burkholderia thailandensis

Salk scientists found a strain of E. coli bacteria (left) that were able to stop muscle wasting in mice infected with either Salmonella Typhimurium (center) and Burkholderia thailandensis (right). Image courtesy the Salk Institute.

“Treatments for infection have long focused on eradicating the offending microbe, but what actually kills people aren’t the bacteria themselves–it’s the collateral damage it does to the body,” says Janelle Ayres, a Salk assistant professor in the Nomis Foundation Laboratories for Immunobiology and Microbial Pathogenesis and senior researcher on the study.

“Our findings suggest that preventing the damage–in this case muscle wasting–can stave off the most life-threatening aspects of an infection,” she adds. “And by not trying the kill the pathogen, you’re not encouraging the evolution of the deadly antibiotic-resistant strains that are killing people around the world. We might be able to fight superbugs with ‘superhero’ bugs.”

Once the most powerful and revolutionary of drugs, antibiotics appear to have reached their limits, due to the ability of bacteria to rapidly evolve resistance to the medicines. The rise of antibiotic resistance presents a grave threat to people around the world, as diseases once easily controlled repel all attempts at treatment. A recent study found that up to half of the bacteria that cause infections in US hospitals after a surgery are resistant to standard antibiotics.

In the United States alone, two million people annually become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and at least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of these infections, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

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