Posts about Science

Deinocheirus is a Totally Bizarre Dinosaur

A very strange dinosaur has been uncovered, studied and explained by scientists. The dinosaur is from Mongolia about 70 million years ago.

“Deinocheirus is a totally bizarre dinosaur,” explains Phil Currie, professor and Canada Research Chair in Dinosaur Paleobiology at the University of Alberta. At 11 meters long and with an estimated weight of 6.4 tons, Deinocheirus was a behemoth to be sure—but hardly the giant tyrannosaur its massive arms may have suggested. Rather, the apparently disproportionately large forearms were more likely used for digging and gathering plants in freshwater habitats, or for fishing. Among its other unusual attributes are tall dorsal spines, truncated hoof-like claws on the feet to prevent sinking into muddy ground, and bulky hind legs that indicate it was a slow mover.

“Although the arms have been known since 1965 and have always aroused speculation because of their enormous size and sharp, recurving claws, we were completely unprepared for how strange this dinosaur looks,” says Currie. “It almost appears to be a chimera, with its ornithomimid-like arms, its tyrannosaurid-like legs, its Spinosaurus-like vertebral spines, its sauropod-like hips, and its hadrosaur-like duckbill and foot-hooves.”

Currie notes that Deinocheirus is a descendant of ostrich-like dinosaurs that were only slightly larger than humans, so its evolution into a giant, multi-tonne creature is almost certainly responsible for most of its unusual characteristics. “Its great size probably gave it some protection from the tyrannosaurid Tarbosaurus, which appears to have been relatively common in that part of Mongolia some 70 million years ago,” says Currie. To feed its great bulk, Deinocheirus was apparently an omnivore that ingested both plants and fish, as evident from fish remains found in its stomach contents.

“The study of this specimen has shown that even in dinosaurs like Deinocheirus, an animal that has been known for almost half a century, we can still learn surprising things about their anatomy,” says Currie. “Furthermore, it underlines the fact that even today, dinosaurs are still relatively poorly known. The fact that Deinocheirus is from the Nemegt Formation of Mongolia, one of the richest and most diverse dinosaur faunas known, hints that there are probably thousands of dinosaurs that we still do not know about from the majority of dinosaur localities in the world.”

Including poached dinosaur bones (stealing bones has long been a problem to the advancement of science) with the existing bones available to scientists allowed the new understanding of this amazing dinosaur. The now near-complete Deinocheirus specimen has been returned to its home for further study in the Mongolia Centre for Paleontology.

Full press release

Related: Ancient Whale Uncovered in Egyptian DesertNigersaurus, the Mesozoic CowDinosaur Remains Found with Intact Skin and TissueLobopodians from China (“the walking cactus” – an animal)Korea-Mongolia International Dinosaur Project

Epigenetics, Scientific Inquiry and Uncertainty

Science is full of fascinating ideas. Epigenetics is one area I find particularly interesting. This previous post has a few links to learning more: DNA Passed to Descendants Changed by Your Life.

Angela Saini is one 109 people I follow on Twitter. I don’t see the point in “following” people on Twitter that you have no interest in, I only follow the small number of people that post Tweets I want to read.

In, Epigenetics: genes, environment and the generation game, Angela Saini looks at the confused state of current scientific understand now. It is very difficult to tell if, and if so, to what extent, epigenetic inheritance happens in people.

Professor Azim Surani, a leading developmental biologist and geneticist at the University of Cambridge, adds that while there is good evidence that epigenetic inheritance happens in plants and worms, mammals have very different biology. Surani’s lab carried out thorough studies on how epigenetic information was erased in developing mouse embryos and found that “surprisingly little gets through” the reprogramming process.

Professor Timothy Bestor, a geneticist at Columbia University in New York, is far more damning, claiming that the entire field has been grossly overhyped. “It’s an extremely fashionable topic right now. It’s very easy to get studies on transgenerational epigenetic inheritance published,” he says, adding that all this excitement has lowered critical standards.

Related: Epigenetic Effects on DNA from Living Conditions in Childhood Persist Well Into Middle AgeMedical Study Findings too Often Fail to Provide Us Useful KnowledgeScientific Inquiry Process Finds That Komodo Dragons Don’t have a Toxic Bite After All

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Lactic Acid Bacteria in Bees Counteracted Antibiotic-Resistant MRSA in Lab Experiments

13 lactic acid bacteria found in the honey stomach of bees have shown promising results as an antibiotic treatment in a series of studies at Lund University in Sweden (Open access paper: Lactic acid bacterial symbionts in honeybees – an unknown key to honey’s antimicrobial and therapeutic activities). The group of bacteria counteracted antibiotic-resistant MRSA in lab experiments. The bacteria, mixed into honey, has healed horses with persistent wounds. The formula has also previously been shown to protect against bee colony collapse.

photo of a bee on a flower

Photo by Justin Hunter

Raw honey has been used against infections for millennia, before honey – as we now know it – was manufactured and sold in stores. So what is the key to its’ antimicrobial properties? Researchers at Lund University in Sweden have identified a unique group of 13 lactic acid bacteria found in fresh honey, from the honey stomach of bees. The bacteria produce a myriad of active antimicrobial compounds.

These lactic acid bacteria have now been tested on severe human wound pathogens such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), Pseudomonas aeruginosa and vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus (VRE), among others. When the lactic acid bacteria were applied to the pathogens in the laboratory, it counteracted all of them.

While the effect on human bacteria has only been tested in a lab environment thus far, the lactic acid bacteria has been applied directly to horses with persistent wounds. The LAB was mixed with honey and applied to ten horses; where the owners had tried several other methods to no avail. All of the horses’ wounds were healed by the mixture.

The researchers believe the secret to the strong results lie in the broad spectrum of active substances involved.

“Antibiotics are mostly one active substance, effective against only a narrow spectrum of bacteria. When used alive, these 13 lactic acid bacteria produce the right kind of antimicrobial compounds as needed, depending on the threat. It seems to have worked well for millions of years of protecting bees’ health and honey against other harmful microorganisms. However, since store-bought honey doesn’t contain the living lactic acid bacteria, many of its unique properties have been lost in recent times”, explains Tobias Olofsson.

This is a very cool: “When used alive, these 13 lactic acid bacteria produce the right kind of antimicrobial compounds as needed, depending on the threat.” As is the note that store bought honey doesn’t contain the living bacteria. My guess is some honey bought directly from farmers or bee-keepers, at farmer’s markets may well still have those live bacteria – but I am just guessing I may be wrong.

The next step is further studies to investigate wider clinical use against topical human infections as well as on animals.

The findings have implications for developing countries, where fresh honey is easily available, but also for Western countries where antibiotic resistance is seriously increasing.

Related: People are Superorganisms With Microbiomes of Thousands of SpeciesThe Search for Antibiotic Solutions Continues: Killing Sleeper Bacteria CellsOur Dangerous Antibiotic Practices Carry Great RisksPotential Antibiotic Alternative to Treat Infection Without Resistance
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The Feynman Lectures on Physics Available Online

The Feynman Lectures on Physics are now available to read online. They are a great collection of lectures covering physics and touching on many areas including: the Mechanisms of Seeing, Semiconductors and Algebra. This is a fantastic resource for learning about physics.

You can also get a boxed set of The Feynman Lectures on Physics for those that like paper. It is fantastic but not cheap.

Bill Gates bought the rights to the rights to The Character of Physical Law, 7 lectures Feynman gave at Cornell University (these are separate from the lectures listed above) and made them available online, which is great. Unfortunately the website is based on Microsoft tools and therefore quite a bother for many (or maybe even impossible with Linux computers – I am not sure). I guess since he made all his money via Microsoft it isn’t that surprising but it would have been nice if he provide the content in a more easily accessible way (even if they didn’t do the fancy additions they did on the Microsoft site. These are great enough videos to probably be worth the bother of installing proprietary Microsoft software in order to view them.

Related: Video of Young Richard Feynman Talking About Scientific ThinkingFeynman “is a second Dirac, only this time human” (Oppenheimer) – Classic Feynman: All the Adventures of a Curious Character

Why do Bats Transmit so Many Diseases like Ebola?

Bats are generally wonderful creatures and helpful to us. For example, they eat lots of insects that are annoying (like mosquitoes) and pollinate lots of plants. Of course, they also eat lots of good (for us humans) insects but the insects still seem to be able to fulfill their environmental niches so all is good.

And they are flying mammals which is, of course, cool.

But bats also transmit virus to us, which do us lots of damage. As the video explains as we have intruded into bat territory and chopped down their natural feeding spots we have come into contact with them more. And because bats evolved to be very resilient to virus and they live in large colonies (for easy transmission of the viruses to lots of bats) they can host viruses and survive long enough to infect lots of other bats, and to infect us if we meet them.

I actually didn’t know this (mentioned in the video): most viruses have a very difficult time surviving even with temperatures a bit above the normal human temperature (98 degrees Fahrenheit). Bats, while they fly, have internal temperatures that soar to 104 degrees (40 degrees centigrade) which kills off most viruses, but certain hardy viruses survive. This also explains why we run fevers when we are sick (which then can kill off viruses) – which I am sure I learned at some point but I forgot. But for the bat viruses that strategy doesn’t work.

Bats, of course, are not impervious to disease. In the USA a disease has killed more than 90 percent of the cave bats in Eastern states.

One of the causes of the current ebola outbreak is believed to be people eating bats in West Africa.

Related: Ebola Outbreak in Uganda (2007)A Breakthrough Cure for Ebola (2010)Swine Flu: a Quick Overview (2009)

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Massive Blast of Measles Vaccine Wiped Out Cancer In Study

Unfortunately these stories are not uncommon but the hoped for follow through of practical solutions that work at all are rare. But we keep learning and while the breakthroughs based on these news stories is rare we do keep finding new and better methods to cope with health issues.

Mayo Clinic trial: Massive blast of measles vaccine wipes out cancer

Stacy Erholtz was out of conventional treatment options for blood cancer last June when she underwent an experimental trial at the Mayo Clinic that injected her with enough measles vaccine to inoculate 10 million people.

The 50-year-old Pequot Lakes mother is now part of medical history.

The cancer, which had spread widely through her body, went into complete remission and was undetectable in Erholtz’s body after just one dose of the measles vaccine, which has an uncanny affinity for certain kinds of tumors.

Erholtz was one of just two subjects in the experiment and the only one to achieve complete remission. But the experiment provides the “proof of concept” that a single, massive dose of intravenous viral therapy can kill cancer by overwhelming its natural defenses, according to Dr. Stephen Russell, a professor of molecular medicine who spearheaded the research at Mayo.

Researchers have known for decades that viruses can be used to destroy cancer. They bind to tumors and use them as hosts to replicate their own genetic material; the cancer cells eventually explode and release the virus. Antiviral vaccines that have been rendered safe can produce the same effects and can also be modified to carry radioactive molecules to help destroy cancer cells without causing widespread damage to healthy cells around the tumors. The body’s immune system then attacks any remaining cancer that carries remnants of the vaccine’s genetic imprint.

Mayo started out giving patients 1 million infectious units and gradually cranked up the dosage — but it didn’t work until Erholtz and another patient were injected with 100 billion infectious units, he said.

While the treatment worked in Erholtz, whose tumors were primarily in her bone marrow, the results weren’t sustained in the second patient, whose tumors were largely confined to her leg muscles. Russell said researchers need to study how the nature of the tumor affects the lethality of the virus.

One challenge of health research on fatal health conditions is that the experimentation with people is usually limited to people that have no available options left from the approved treatments. So, in general they are very sick. And the great complexity of dealing with human immune systems, the variation in the disease and in people create a very difficult research environment. Thankfully we have many great scientists dedicated to finding new treatments.

Related: Virus Kills Breast Cancer Cells in LaboratoryVirus Engineered To Kill Deadly Brain TumorsUsing Bacteria to Carry Nanoparticles Into CellsWebcast of a T-cell Killing a Cancerous Cell

Science Explained: How Cells React to Invading Viruses

This illustrated webcast introduces the microscopic arsenal of weapons and warriors that play a role in the battle for your health.

TED education has been putting out some good videos which is a wonderful thing to see. It is wonderful to let people everywhere (kids and adults) that are interested in learning (and that have internet access) can learn about the world around us. Traditional educational institutions have not done much with this opportunity to broaden their impact.

The video looks at the cells reaction to a virus infiltrating the cell.

Related: Cells AliveScience Explained: Cool Video of ATP Synthase, Which Provides Usable Energy to UsThis webcast is packed with information on the makeup and function of eukaryotic (animal) cellsCool Animation of a Virus Invading a Person’s BodyCell Aging and Limits Due to TelomeresWebcast of a T-cell Killing a Cancerous Cell

How Healthy Is Squid for Us?

I try to eat healthfully, especially when I can tweak what I eat to gain a health advantage. I know fish have good qualities. I live in Malaysia now and squid (called sotong here) is often available. I often prefer squid to fish here as the fish use here are often fairly small with bones to deal and not much meat for the effort (it is great sometimes but I am often lazy).

photo of squid dinner

Sambal Sotong (squid) with bitter gourd (home delivery). Very tasty. The bitter gourd is very bitter, but a few bites are ok.

So I looked online for some details, it wasn’t as easy I would have hoped. The Shellfish Association of Great Britain offered a good overview.

They say 100g of raw squid (pre cooking weight) provides about 200% of Vitamin B12, 100% of Selenium, 80% of Copper, 50% of Vitamin B6, 35% of Vitamin E, 34% of Phosphorous, 30 % of Protein, 20% of Niacin, 10% of B1 (Thiamin), 8% of Potassium, 10% of Magnesium, 14% of Zinc.

From various sources online it seems there are 92 calories in 100 grams of Squid with a calorie breakdown of 72% protein, 14% fat and 14% carbs.

From the Heart Association of Australia “omega-3s are found primarily in oily fish, such as Atlantic and Australian salmon, blue-eye trevalla, blue mackerel, gem fish… Other fish such as barramundi, bream or flathead, and seafood such as arrow squid, scallops and mussels, are also good sources of omega-3… To reduce the risk of heart disease, the Heart Foundation recommends that Australian adults consume about 500 milligrams of omega-3 (marine source) every day.”

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Alternative Career Paths Attract Many Women in Science Fields

Instead of following traditional paths, women are using their science, technology, engineering, and math degrees to create new careers.

There are plenty of women out there engaged in traditional jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math, but many are forging novel, interdisciplinary, STEM-based careers that blur categories and transcend agenda.

Because women have traditionally been excluded from these disciplines, and because their fresh eyes allow them to make connections between fields, many women are launching careers, and even entire industries, based on a flexible and creative definition of what it means to be a scientist, artist, or engineer. K-12 schools have done a particularly poor job of integrating study across STEM fields and encouraging creativity and interdisciplinary connections.

We continue to teach science, technology, and math in isolation, as if they have little to do with one another. This sort of compartmentalized approach runs counter to what we know about effective learning: Students need to be able to connect content knowledge and concepts to real-world applications in order to develop mastery and passion for a subject.

The challenge for anyone seeking to forge a brave new path through STEM careers, particularly ones that involve interdisciplinary study and practice, is the challenge of job stability. Kendall Hoyt, professor of technology and biosecurity at Thayer School of Engineering explained, “Interdisciplinary career paths are easier to create than they are to sustain, because there is not an established career trajectory and evaluation system.”

The challenge of how to maximize the opportunities for those interested in careers in science, technology, engineering and math is important to all economies. There are difficulties in doing this and so continued focus on this area is good. My personal belief is we focus too much on the gender issue. Yes, we should reduce discrimination. I think we have done well but still have further to go.

Most of the suggested changes in how things should be done help women and also plenty of men that are turned off by the old way of doing things.

I also think we need to be careful in how we use data. Clamoring about discrepancies in a field with far more men (say physics) while not doing the same about a field with far more women (say psychology) is questionable to me. I don’t believe that any field that isn’t 50% male and 50% female is evidence that we need to fix the results so they are 50% each.

I believe we should provide everyone the opportunity to pursue the interests they have. They must perform to earn the right to continue. And we don’t want to waste potential with foolish barriers (for women, minorities or men). But if we do so and certain fields attract more women and others attract more men I think we can waste our effort by being too worried that certain fields are problematic.

If we are concerned it should be based on data and looking at the real world situation. In the coming decades my guess is women will exceed men in careers in many science disciplines (engineering still has fairly high male bias overall though some field, such as bio-engineering are already majority female graduates). It starts with education and women are already the majority of undergraduate degrees in science and engineering overall. And in many disciplines they dominate.

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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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