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December 2009 Archives

It's been pointed out to me that this post could be construed as dissing the EPP drug & its producers. This was not in any way my intention - the post was about the fairly poor reporting around a couple of medical science stories, ending with a wish that science journalists were more aware of the fact that much medical research tends (for a whole lot of perfectly good reasons!) to be 'wrong'. (Hopefully this awareness would be followed by a decline in the hyperbolic reports about new breakthroughs & discoveries...)

Two stories in this morning's Herald caught my eye - & made me sigh. One announced the imminent release of a 'UV vaccine', & the other elevated another fruit to the level of 'superfood'. Both were examples of how not to present research findings to the public.

The first (originally from the UK paper The Telegraph) carries the headline UV protection drug prevents skin cancer & the first paragraph tells readers that [an] anti-sunburn drug that protects even the fairest-skinned people from skin cancer and ultra-violet rays could soon be made available to the public. It's difficult to assess all the claims made in the article because, unfortunately, the actual research study on which this story appears to be based has yet to be published. However, there are a number of statements in the story that set my teeth on edge (beginning with 'the results [of the study] will be published soon').

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We saw this lovely tree on the shoreline at Cape Tribulation. The flowers last just a day before their petals fall. I took this particular photo because I liked the way the fallen petals exposed the colourful reproductive structures - I'm always on the lookout for images to use in my lectures.

red beech flower.JPG

This reminds me that Charles Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus, wrote a long poem about plants which talked about their reproductive features in what was probably regarded as fairly salacious in its time. Take this verse, for example (the words in capitals are genus names):

"With vain desires the pensive ALCEA burns/And, like sad ELOISA, loves and mourns./The freckled IRIS owns a fiercer flame,/And three unjealous husbands wed the dame./CUPRESSUS dark disdains his dusky bride,/One dome contains them, but two beds divide."

Erasmus' metaphors makeit sound as if he's talking about all sorts of hanky-panky - but under it all he's talking about the arrangement of stamens & carpels & how their number & arrangement relates to plant taxonomy a la Linnaeus. I fear my lectures are quite staid by comparison!

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Researcher Translation

From xkcd - & thanks to Orac where I saw it first.

I wouldn't mind a hovercar...guess I'm not in the right area  :-)

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... with good things:

wonderful company

pleasant surprises

and good food

but perhaps not too much of that last one - you don't want to end up like Winston:



 too much catmas.jpg


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Plant roots don't just grow down under the soil surface. A few posts back I wrote about the aerial roots of strangler figs: beginning as thin hair-like structures, they thicken into strong cables & eventually their interlaced networks engult the trunk of the hapless host tree. Then there are the pneumatophores of mangroves and bald cypresses, their pores & air-filled internal spaces allowing the tree roots to obtain oxygen directly from the air (an adaptation to life in anoxic soils). And of course, there are buttress roots.

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This is the only photo we got of a cassowary, on our recent jaunt to Australia. (I'll stop rubbing it in soon, I promise!). She was sitting in the corner of an enclosure at the Habitat in Port Douglas.

female cassowary.JPG

Like our own kiwi, cassowaries belong to the ancient flightless group of birds known as ratites. Cassowaries are rainforest birds, & in Australia as the rainforests shrank so did the cassowary population, so that now there are only about 1500 left in the wild, 150 of them in the Daintree National Park (DNA data from the birds' dung was used to gain an accurate estimate of population size). And this poses a problem for the forest, because the cassowaries play a crucial role in distributing the seeds of many of the trees.

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We went for quite a few walks on the beach while we were in Port Douglas, usually in the early morning before things got too hot! We were surprised by the near-total lack of shells washed up on the sand (the copious cuttle-fish 'bones' didnt' count). And fascinated by the way that the sand between high & mid-tide was usually covered by little balls of sand.

mud snail mud balls.JPG

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 'Community' is one of those words that has different meanings in science & general use. Every time I set an essay that asks students to talk about biological communities, someone will tell me about ant communities, or monkey communities, or human communities. But a biological community is a group of populations from several different species, living & interacting in a particular area.

There are at least two schools of thought when it comes to considering the nature of a biological community. One is that the various species that make up a community have evolved together, & that a particular type of community will always have the same general makeup & structure. Another is what you could call an 'individualistic' model: members of any given community come together by chance. I was moved to write about this when I came across a website detailing the weird & wonderful members of a community based upon the decaying carcase of a dead sperm whale that lies 2900m below the surface of the ocean - surely one from the 'individualistic' end of the spectrum, as the community could form only when the whale's corpse arrived at the bottom of the sea, & there's surely no way of predicting when & where that might happen. (With the proviso, of course, that many colonisers may well arrive in larval form, dispersed widely throughout the water column, so there will be some species in common.) The particular community that's the focus here includes hagfish**, snails, crabs, fish, crabs, sea anemones, octopuses - & of course, bone-eating worms!

Find another deceased & sunken whale, & you will almost certainly find a different assemblage of species. Ah, the wonders of the deep-ocean decomposition/recycling system! :-)

** Hagfish have neither jaws nor a bony skeleton, and the cartilagenous supporting rod called a notochord is retained throughout their life. They're scavengers & produce large quantities of slime when handled, a characteristic that has seen them also dubbed 'snot eels'. ('Rock snot' aka Didymo, snot eels, bone-eating snot-flowers - did those naming these various species have something of a preoccupation with nasal exudates??)

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Just catching up on my 'official' reading, including the Education Review. The November 13th issue (see? I said I was behind!) included a series of articles to do with the government's draft Tertiary Education Strategy (or TES for short). One in particular caught my eye as it was related to something I wrote a while ago, on choosing school subjects carefully so that they support your future study plans. (Yes, it's that time of year again - we are frantically busy in the Dean's office working on students' applications to enrol for 2010.)

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owlcat - why evolution is so interesting.jpg

Makes me chuckle when I think about it. Not just because Lolcats make me LOL (they do), but also because the idea of an owlcat epitomises a standard creationist argument. It goes something like this: if evolution is true, how come there aren't any crocoducks/owlcats/<insert laughable hybrid here>?

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No, I'm not trying to suggest that spaceship designers/engineers have to be male. That would be a) stereotypical & b) incorrect as well, given that women also produce a certain amount of this hormone. But I wanted to catch your attention & direct it to a post by Ed Yong on Not exactly rocket science, where he discusses a recent bit of research on the influence of testosterone on behaviour. I first saw this story in the NZ Herald (there's a copy of the article here) when the husband drew my attention to it. This is an interesting piece of research because it shows (again) just how strong the power of placebo can be: women who believed that they'd received testosterone (even if they'd actually received a placebo) behaved in the stereotypical belligerent way - but women actually under the influence of testosterone behaved more altruistically than expected. Fascinating stuff.

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One of several highlights of our holiday was a guided tour of part of the Daintree National Park. There was so much to see! But we'd probably have walked straight past some wonderful plants & animals if it wasn't for our guide, Ross. For example, the first time we encountered a Boyd's forest dragon, all of us would have walked straight past this beautiful little reptile if Ross hadn't drawn our attention to it. Clinging to a slender tree trunk, it looked so much like a piece of warped & broken bark. The one we managed to photograph was a bit more obvious, but by that time we'd got the right search image. (The little fellow was about 30cm long, & quite well camouflaged even when lit up by the flash.)

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One of the nice things about going on holiday for a reasonable period of time, without computer, e-mail, cellphone etc, is that you can settle down for a bit of serious reading. In a fairly full 7 days I still managed to complete 2 books & start another. One was detective fiction (PD James rocks!). The other was Martin Brasier's book Darwin's Lost World.

I found this particular volume both irritating & entralling, although the fascination won out. (The irritation was caused by some - to me, anyway - rather laboured metaphors.) One of the things I particularly enjoyed was that Brasier led me to think again about things we tend to take for granted. For example, the Burgess Shale and Ediacaran fossils are over 500 million years old, & yet show much better preservation of partially or wholly soft-bodied organisms than many more recent fossil specimens. Why should this be? (I'm embarrassed to say I'd never really thought about this...) And - did the ancient jellyfish that ballooned their way through the Pre-Cambrian oceans sting? (A topical question, given that the stinger nets were up in Port Douglas & anyone swimming outside them was regarded as dicing with a very unpleasant death by box jellyfish.)

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This one's really for those teachers who might be thinking of getting their year 13 students to look into xenotransplantation. I've written a bit about this previously, but you might also be interested in the following, from the Science Media Centre:

Animal-human transplants OKed
Auckland-based Pig cell therapy pioneer Living Cell Technologies looks set to expand its trials across the Tasman in the near future, following a move by the Australian Government to lift a ban on animal to human tissue transplants.

LCT's Professor Bob Elliot told NZPA last night that "...some trials of its implants for type-1 diabetics may be tested in Australia when the company needs multi-site clinical trials. And eventually, the company might establish a quarantine colony of the pigs it breeds to slaughter for tissues that can be implanted in human patients."

The AusSMC wrapped up reaction from scientists in Australia to the news of the five year ban being lifted.

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Well, we're back in the country but I'm still slightly in holiday mode. So I thought I'd share some of the photos we took while visiting various places near Port Douglas (in northern Queensland) - I'll write some 'serious' stuff about things we saw over the next few days.

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Some more entertaining & educational reading for you while I'm away :-) This time it's from the Bug Girl's Blog, where the eponymous Bug Girl describes as 'egregious' the headline  Fruit Fly Sperm Makes Females Do Housework After SexVisit the Bug Girl's place to find out not only what egregious means, but also why she's so annoyed about the headline. (I would have written an 'annoyed' something too, if I'd found the news item myself!)

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This is a re-post of an item I wrote a couple of years ago, when I was just getting into blogging. (Hopefuly it will encourage some of you to peruse my back catalogue!) Anyway, I think it's a nice little story about a rather neat piece of taxonomic detective work, so I thought I'd share it again :--)

One of the neat things that have come from advances in molecular biology is our ability to use DNA technology to tease out evolutionary relationships - especially those that aren't immediately obvious (such as the subject of an earlier post). Now here's another example - an animal that looks superficially like a worm, but turns out to be most closely related to sea anemones, jellyfish, & other radially-symmetrical animals.

You're probably familiar with the idea that you can classify most animals into two main groups: the radially-symmetrical animals (eg the phylum Cnidaria, which includes sea anemones & jellyfish) & the bilaterally-symmetrical animals (including chordates and vertebrates, arthropods, molluscs, and 'worms'). However, there are apparent exemptions, such as the myxozoans, which are tiny endoparasites with a relatively simple structure and no obvious close relatives among the other phyla. One of the myxozoans is Buddenbrockia plumatellae, which moves like a worm, looks like a worm - but turns out to be most closely related to Cnidaria. I don't know about you, but I think that's pretty neat! 

Cnidarians have a fairly simple body plan - 2 layers of 'true' tissue, with a jelly-like layer, the mesoglea, between them (the group includes jellyfish, after all!). They have a simple, sac-like gut with only a single opening, and have a unique feature - nematocysts, or stinging organelles. 

In comparison, most myxozoans are tiny organisms that live as endoparasites on other aquatic animals. They have bodies that are either sac-like, or something like a plasmodium; with the exception of Buddenbrockia, the 'worm', they don't look very much like any other animal group. However, they do form spores with structures that are similar to cnidarian's nematocysts, which suggests a relationship to that group.

Buddenbrockia's resemblance to a worm is more than skin-deep. Although it lacks a nervous system and obvious sense organs, once it has left its host (an organism called a bryozoan) it uses four blocks of longitudinal muscle to writhe & wriggle just like a worm. However, analyses of some of its protein-coding genes (Jiminez-Guir et al. 2007) suggest that Buddenbrockia is actually a cnidarian - and so, by extension, are the other myxozoans. (Other scientists have already shown that this strange 'worm' is closely related to the other tiny members of this phylum.)

If you're keen to find out more, PZ Myers goes into the story in a lot more detail.

E. Jiminez-Guri, H. Philippe, B. Okamura & P. Holland (2007) Buddenbrockia is a cnidarian worm. Science 317: 116-118

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Casting around for something to read, I've come across several interesting posts on various blogs. So I thought I'd share them with you :-)

For those interested in competition & its effects on plant growth forms & also plant diversity, check out Taking below-ground processes seriously: plant coexistence and soil depth at The EEB & flow. We do tend to focus on 'above-ground' plant relationships - this is a timely reminder that there's a whole other world beneath our feet :-)

Our family is occasionally lucky enough to have a fishing friend present us with a crayfish. A live crayfish. I hate the way they try to climb out of the stockpot when they're put in there - but is there a better way to kill a crustacean than by boiling it? The Neuro Dojo has a look at some recent research & says, mmm, perhaps not...

And for those of you interested in endosymbiosis, the Lab Rat talks about some recent genomic research into the question of just where did plastids come from.

That should keep you quiet for a little while :-)

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Today the husband & I are winging our way to warmer climes :-) The dog's in the kennels, the grown-up kids are minding the house, & all's right with the world. In fact, by the time you read this, we may actually be lounging by a pool, book in one hand (in my case, at least - there's a huge pile of reading waiting for me to catch up on!) & a cool, refreshing, & quite possibly alcoholic drink in the other. And there will be no computer.

So - if I got sufficiently organised before we left, you may find the occasional post popping up over the next week or so. If I didn't - please don't be upset & never come back! I'll be back on the keyboard soon :-)

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When you studied animal behaviour in year 13 you probably learned about the different mating systems: polygamy (polygyny & polyandry), promiscuity - & monogamy: a bond between a single male & a single female. You may also have heard that in some species, such as swans, that bond is life-long.

It turns out things are more complex than that. My first inkling of this came back when I was working on the literature survey for my PhD on behaviour in black swans, & found (rather to my surprise - I was probably too naive for my own good back then) that swans indulged in some definitely non-standard breeding practices, with more than one paper describing a menage a trois (one female, 2 males). Cuckoldry wasn't unknown, either. Plus, our own stitchbirds are known to practice polyandry, polygyny, and monogamy as well; homosexuality's been documented in a large number of animal species; & of course there's that recent example of oral sex in fruit bats. Anyway, the concept of variations on monogamy in swans got me thinking & I realised that for monogamy the idea of life-long fidelity probably didn't hold either - after all, if your current partner is incapable of producing offspring, or turns out to be a lousy parent, it's probably worth your while (in genetic & evolutionary terms) to divorce them & find a new one. Plus, if one partner dies, the other is unlikely to sit around doing nothing (in the reproductive sense) for the rest of their life. But it wasn't something I investigated further at the time.

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