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October 2007 Archives

On Saturday I was over in Taranaki, doing some revision work with a group of Schol Bio students. After we'd finished I had a look through their feedback forms. While most felt they'd got something from the session, a few said that they felt 'more concerned' about the exam than they had before the session. This in turn concerned me a bit, as it made me wonder if maybe I could have done a better job.

So...

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On hot summer nights male crickets chirp constantly in their attempts to attract mates, rubbing a toothed ‘file' on one forewing over a ridge on the other forewing to produce their song. But this can be a risky business, as it might not be only females who are drawn by the males' calls. Predators and parasites may turn up too, using the same auditory cues to find a quick meal. Researchers on the Hawaiian island of Kauai have found that pressure from parasites has led to the rapid evolution of males who cannot sing at all (Bretman & Tregenza, 2007).

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The concept of punctuated evolution - bursts of evolutionary novelty separated by long periods of stasis - was first proposed by Stephen Jay Gould & Niles Eldredge in 1972. Since then, there's been an ongoing debate among evolutionary biologists about how significant ‘punk eek' could be in the evolution of new species. (Remember that they aren't arguing about evolution itself, but about the relative speed of evolutionary change.)

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Models of human evolution give quite a bit of attention to the role that climate change may have played in the evolution and dispersal of hominin species, both ancient and modern. A study just published presents evidence of an extreme and prolonged drought in East Africa, spanning 135,000 - 75,000 years ago - the time when the Out of Africa hypothesis suggests that Homo sapiens was moving out into Europe and Asia.

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Is this a trick question? No. While the majority of plants are free-living autotrophs, some are parasites on other plants (think mistletoe, for example). And while the seeds of many of these parasitic plants won't germinate unless they are in contact with host plant tissue, this isn't true of dodder (Cuscuta species). Dodder actively seeks out its host (Pennisi, 2006).
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I was browsing SciTech Daily Review (always a good source of breaking science stories) when this headline caught my eye: Ants drug their aphid slaves. What a tantalising title! It led me to a just-published article (T.H.Oliver et al. 2007) looking at how ants control the aphids that they 'farm'.

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Last week I was doing a session with some local Schol Bio students & we were talking about navigation & migration. One of the cues animals use to navigate round their world is magnetism - more specifically, sensitivity to the Earth's magnetic field. We agreed that we'd heard about some birds (e.g. pigeons) using magnetic cues, but then I asked, what about bacteria?

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Sometimes I base these blogs on a scientific paper that's caught my eye. I'm hoping that sometimes you'll search out the original reference and read it for yourself. But when a paper is cited in support of an argument - how can you decide whether the contents stack up?

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This one isn't strictly curriculum-related - but it's such a neat bit of palaeontological detective work, I thought it was worth sharing :-)

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Perhaps the best-known fossil of Homo erectus is the one known as the Nariokotome boy (or Turkana boy) - a boy who, when he died at around 9 years old, already stood nearly 160cm tall. Members of this tall, long-legged species are generally regarded as being the first of our genus to move out of Africa and into Europe and Asia. Fossil remains from Dmanisi, in Georgia, suggested that this migration must have occurred at least 1.8 million years ago. However, the remains consisted only of skulls, and so nothing was known of what the Dmanisi individuals might have looked like - until the recent publication of a description of the post-cranial remains.

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Just a quick link to an article this time - the 2007 Nobel Prize for Physiology/Medicine has been awarded to the scientists who developed the technique of gene targeting. This has allowed scientists to 'knock out' single genes, & by doing this to work out their function. My favourite science blogger, Orac, has just posted an excellent short article around this here, including a great explanation of how the technique works. Well worth reading for an outline of a new & significant technique in molecular biology.

 

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After I posted Food for thought?I got a message from a student saying that she'd seen the study reported on the Documentary Channel. She thought the results looked good, but commented

... it never stated if they had a control, possibly placebos, so that it can be assesed whether some of the children merely concentrated more because they believe they should, or if this experiment was actually achieving such positive results.

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We hear a lot, these days, about eating healthy foods (& not too much of anything!). If you read the ads, and sometimes news items, you'll find some particular foods promoted as being particularly good for you. One of these is fish oil, rich in omega-3 oils and supposedly good for brain development, among other things. Should we all be rushing out and buying fish-oil capsules? What's the science here?

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