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November 2008 Archives

... and the air will go up to the right side of your brain & improve your creativity.


I thought I'd seen a fair bit of nonsense but this one was new to me. It's one of several pseudoscientific claims that are due for a right royal debunking next month. Unfortunately this is in the UK - let's hope the lecture is available on-line after the event.

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A couple of nights ago I caught the end of a TV 'news' item about mammoths. Molecular biologists have managed to sequence the mammoth genome - the next thing, said the reporter breathlessly, will be bringing mammoths back to life...

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This is a little different: a guest blog by a friend of mine. Grant works as an independent scientist through his one-man consultancy, BioinfoTools, which mainly develops software for analysis of genetic and molecular biology data, and offers data analysis,contract research and science writing. He has his own research interests currently with a central theme of control of eukaryote gene expression, especially at the level of epigenetics and chromatin control of gene expression (I should get you to write more posts, Grant!), which are linked to, and build on, a wide range of other interests and experience including protein sequence, structures and their function, neuroscience, rare diseases and cancer. He has travelled fairly widely and would love to see work (or leisure!) take him overseas to interesting locations again.

So, read on...

This began as a few loose thoughts that I usually try pass on to students heading to university that grew into something a bit longer which Alison has kindly offered to host as a guest post. Many thanks, Alison, for hosting this. One of these days I will get my own blog...

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I'm still going on The eye: a natural history, but right now I'm going to talk about Richard Feynman's autobiography, Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman! (I must confess that I'm one of those people who keeps several books on the go at once - The eye is on the bedside table, but Feynman's book is what I read while on the exercycle at the gym.)

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I know that if you've finished, or have almost finished, your NCEA exams, probably the last thing you are thinking about is university study! More likely, a relaxing break is foremost in your mind :-) (Mine too, actually...) But I was talking this morning with colleagues about how different university is from school for many students, & thought it was a good topic to write a bit more on.

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A few posts back Heraclides referred to a kitten born with two heads - you may well have seen it on TV news the other night. (If you google 'two-headed kitten' you'll find this wasn't a unique birth. I remember we had a two-headed calf in the zoology museum at Massey, when I was a student there.)

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Yesterday, for the first time in more than 14 years, I went for a long walk by the river without my dog Bella. These days she's still keen to go for a walk - but it's more like an amble. A v-e-r-y s-l-o-w amble. And after 2-3 km that's it for the day. Her age is catching up with her.

Now, Bella's a golden lab. And 14 is a good age for that breed, going by the age/breed chart on the vet's wall. Especially because we've managed to keep her slender (a hard task with a lab!) & fit. Yet one of her friends, a little bichon, is much the same age but still leaping about like a young thing (as the age/breed chart suggests for her). So why do big dogs often seem to age (in relative terms) faster than little ones? And why do dogs age more quickly than humans?

There are few animals that have similar lifespans to those of humans - offhand I can think of elephants, turtles, & some fish. You could argue that up until recently, people were lucky to get beyond their 40th birthday. In the Western world, at least, advances in nutrition & medicine have seen that change. But then, in that same part of the world humans besotted with their pets tend to apply the same advances to their companion animals' well-being...

There's the possibility that, in selecting for size, we've also inadvertently selected for something else that shortens life. Something that impacts on the telomeres of big dogs, perhaps? Although that's not a universal feature, because there are smaller dogs - bulldogs, for example - that tend to lead shorter lives as well.

Hmmm. I have to say that I don't actually know. And so far, I haven't managed to find out. So view this as an open thread  - suggestions, anyone?

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I feel lazy today. I could review a paper for you... Or - I could share something completely off-topic!

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I was sorting some papers today & came across some notes I wrote for a lecture about animal communication.  And I thought they'd make a good subject for a blog.

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Well, here I am back in the office again. The conference was great - but it was on assessment in the tertiary education system: not something you want to hear about here :-)

But during a break in the proceedings I slipped out & investigated the Lambton Quay bookshops... (Dangerous things, bookshops; I could easily put down roots in a good one!) And among other things, I came away with Simon Ings' wonderful book, The Eye: a natural history.

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... sea biscuits, that is - what we call sand dollars. PZ has just posted a video clip of the early development of sand dollars, & it's absolutely gorgeous. It starts, as he says, with a bit of echinoderm porn - I never knew that sand dollar sperm looks like that whipped 'cream' stuff that come out of a pressurised can! And then you get to see fertilisation, cleavage, the early larval stages - which baby sand dollars spend, like all other echinoderm larvae, as plankton - and metamorphosis into this gorgeous little juvenile. Which is tiny - the clip shows it moving about (on its little tube feet) among individual sand grains. Quite lovely.

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(Another link-&-comment today - I'm at a conference & a bit short of time for longer posts.)

The Sensuous Curmudgeon offers a dry commentary on a web-post by the Discovery Institute oops Institute for Creation Research (thanks to the Curmudgeon). The DI post is itself a commentary on a recent research paper looking at the chromosomal arrangement of gene sequences in humans and chimpanzees - one which interprets the data as evidence of design rather than evolutionary relationships. The Curmudgeon points out (with a certain degree of sarcasm)  that this interpretation has no research evidence of its own to support it.

An interesting read - & it's piqued my interest in the original paper; I will have to blog on it when I have a little more time to spare :-)

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Quite probably - even though it's quite hard to envisage what a really really big number means.

But people can also be swayed by big numbers when they shouldn't be. Ben Goldacre gives an example in his latest post. A media story about a particular statin (a drug used to lower the levels of 'bad' cholesterol) reported that it lowered the risks of heart attack by 54%. Sounds good.

But hang on a minute - 54% of what? Before you can assess how good this statin is, you need to know the risk of heart attack for people not on the drug. The actual trial was looking at using the statin as a preventative in people who were already at low risk of having a heart attack. It turns out that in this group the relative risk was 0.37 events 'per 100 person years'. For those on the drug, this dropped to 0.17. Yes, it was indeed a 54% reduction in relative risk - but off a low base in the first place...

Ben concludes: We all love big numbers, and we’re all fooled by big numbers, because we’re all idiots. That’s why it’s important to think clearly, and ignore all newspapers.

(I don't know if I'd go that far - but you do need to think very clearly indeed about what you read.)

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I'm supposed to be finishing writing a paper for a conference right now, so I was casting around for something short & sweet to write. Fortunately for me, ERV has just written an interesting post examining claims about a possible new treatment for AIDS. It involves souping up the patient's killer T cells (part of the immune system) so that their response is much more rapid & effective. ERV explains why the claims made for this treatment are likely to be rather premature.

And it's back to the grindstone for me :-)

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And the answer isn't necessarily, 'for fun' :-)

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... this time about climate change. It's on the blog Hot Topic, where the author has written a rather sceptical review of an item in the Dominion-Post newspaper. The newspaper story included the statement that greenhouse gases don't cause global warming - rather surprising, given that in the absence of some level of greenhouse gases the world would be too cold for life as we know it! Both the post & its comments thread are worth reading.

And thanks to Ken at Open Parachute for the original link :-)

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I've just found another neat blog: Discovering biology in a digital world. It was recommended on The Panda's Thumb, & it's written by Sandra Porter, a molecular biologist & science educator. There's a whole range of stuff here, but the bit that first caught my eye was a post on the RNA world that many biologists think preceded the development of life as we know it. And - It's got links to a whole lot of nice animations for you to enjoy :-)

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Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research It can be hard to predict the outcomes of human interference in an ecosystem, even when it's done with the best of intentions. This paper looks at the unforseen consequences of removing large herbivorous mammals from part of an African savannah, & demonstrates just how complex ecosystem interactions can be.

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It seems that fish oil is back in the news. This morning's Herald carried an item about a school that's trialling the use of omega-3 fish oils in enhancing student performance. They obviously haven't heard of the Durham 'trials' in the UK...

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We've just been to see the BBC movie Earth - the reviews we'd seen recommended it & the images (on view on the wall-to-wall TVs in the electronics shop) were stunning. What did we think?

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I suscribe to the wonderful website, SciTechDaily - it's an excellent way of keeping up with the science headlines. Recently an article on 'deep time' caught my eye, & I thought I'd mention it here because the concept of deep time came up (implicitly) in my post on Earth's birthday.

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I get a daily compendium of science-related headlines - yesterday one in particular caught my eye. It said:

Autism linked with rainfall in study:  Children who live in the US Northwest's wettest counties are more likely to have autism, but it is unclear why.
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Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchAnimals may put food away for a rainy day - or at least, for a time when supplies are in short supply. Squirrels do it, storing nuts in hollow trees or holes dug in the leaf litter. How many they find later is another matter! But I didn't know that foxes are also into caching excess food.

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Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research This one's really hot off the press - & even then lots of people have beaten me to it! Oh well. In the latest issue of PNAS, Leore Grosman & her colleagues describe the ornate & unusual burial of an elderly woman who lived 12,000 years ago in what is now Israel.

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We know, from looking at the amount of genetic variation in the global human population, that it went through a fairly pronounced bottleneck around 70,000 years ago. This has been variously attributed to the founder effect, with only small populations moving out of Africa into Europe & Eurasia, and to the devastating consequences of the eruption of a supervolcano (Toba, in what is now Indonesia). The latter possibility has been the focus of a number of articles (e.g. Ambrose, 1998 - I might post more thoroughly on this another time).

I was idly searching for more information on this when I happened across an article on that does a good job of presenting contrasting viewpoints on the cause of this bottleneck - and showing how tentative our understanding in this area really is. Well worth a read.

S.H. Ambrose (1998) Late Pleistocene human population bottlenecks, volcanic winter, and differentiation of modern humans. Journal of Human Evolution 34: 623-651

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Here's another exercise in thinking carefully about the question: wind farms & bird kills.

In the US, it's been suggested that up to 40,000 birds might be killed by flying (splat! poof!) into wind farm turbines each year. Figures like this are put forward in arguments against wind farms but - in relation to bird kills - what else would you need to know?

Construction at the Apiti wind farm, near Palmerston North in the Manawatu.

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Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchHere's a neat bit of research that I was alerted to while reading the newspaper: a team of scientists studying the Cook Strait giant weta (Deinacrida rugosa) found that smaller males with longer legs are much more successful in gaining copulations (Kelly et al. 2008). (There's a lot of information & pictures on NZ soil invertebrates - not just weta - on this Massey University site.)

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