Archived entries for biology

Apparently, Sweden has some horrific summer invasions of tent caterpillars. This is the sort of thing that nightmares are made of. Video at the end.

More (and higher res) at the source.

The key conclusion of the logic I’ve set out above is that there is a threshold rate of biomedical progress that will allow us to stave off aging indefinitely, and that that rate is implausible for mice but entirely plausible for humans. If we can make rejuvenation therapies work well enough to give us time to make then work better, that will give us enough additional time to make them work better still, which will … you get the idea. This will allow us to escape age-related decline indefinitely, however old we become in purely chronological terms. I think the term “longevity escape velocity” (LEV) sums that up pretty well.

-Aubrey de Grey, from the article BOOTSTRAPPING OUR WAY TO AN AGELESS FUTURE

Saving this to read later. Basically, around the time the Singularity hits, we’ll be effectively immortal.

Thanks, Ben.

From National Geographic:

A mile and a half (two and a half kilometers) underwater, a remote control submersible’s camera has captured an eerie surprise: an alien-like, long-armed, and—strangest of all—”elbowed” Magnapinna squid.

In a brief video from the dive recently obtained by National Geographic News, one of the rarely seen squid loiters above the seafloor in the Gulf of Mexico on November 11, 2007.

The clip—from a Shell oil company ROV (remotely operated vehicle)—arrived after a long, circuitous trip through oil-industry in-boxes and other email accounts.

“Perdido ROV Visitor, What Is It?” the email’s subject line read—Perdido being the name of a Shell-owned drilling site. Located about 200 miles (320 kilometers) off Houston, Texas, Perdido is one of the world’s deepest oil and gas developments.

The video clip shows the screen of the ROV’s guidance monitor framed with pulsing inputs of time and positioning data.

In a few seconds of jerky camerawork, the squid appears with its huge fins waving like elephant ears and its remarkable arms and tentacles trailing from elbow-like appendages.

Despite the squid’s apparent unflappability on camera, Magnapinna, or “big fin,” squid remain largely a mystery to science.

Thanks, Ben.

…and that’s why I’m posting it.

Photographs of a giant spider eating a bird in an Australian garden have stunned wildlife experts.

The pictures show the spider with its long black legs wrapped around the body of a dead bird suspended in its web.

The startling images were reportedly taken in Atheron, close to Queensland’s tropical north.

Despite their unlikely subject matter, the pictures appear to be real.

—–

Greg Czechura from Queensland Museum said cases of the Golden Orb Weaver eating small birds were “well known but rare”.

“It builds a very strong web,” he said.

But he said the spider would not have attacked until the bird weakened.

The Golden Orb Weaver spins a strong web high in protein because it depends on it to capture large insects for food.

Full article here at the Telegraph.

Here’s the preliminary story from NewScientist.

Three people have died and another is seriously ill with a previously unknown strain of a virus carried by a common African rodent. The virus requires close contact to spread, but experts warn that more like it could be circulating.

A 36-year-old woman on a small farm outside the Zambian capital Lusaka developed flu-like symptoms in early September. When they worsened she was taken by air ambulance to South Africa, where she died.

Alarms were raised after the ambulance paramedic and the nurse who attended her also died after developing similar symptoms two weeks later. The nurse who tended the paramedic is also in a serious condition.

On Sunday South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases announced that the victims were infected by an arenavirus, one of a family of viruses carried by rodents.

“They are very widespread,” says Bob Swanepoel, former head of the NICD and one of the world’s leading experts on haemorrhagic viruses. In Africa, arenaviruses are carried, with no symptoms, by the multimammate mouse, a common farm pest sold in Europe as a “pocket pet”.

It is not known whether animals caught in Africa are being sold as pets.

And here’s the confirmation from the World Health Organization

13 October 2008 — The results of tests conducted at the Special Pathogens Unit, National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) of the National Health Laboratory Service in Johannesburg, and at the Special Pathogens and Infectious Disease Pathology branches of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, USA, provide preliminary evidence that the causative agent of the disease which has resulted in the recent deaths of 3 people from Zambia and South Africa, is a virus from the Arenaviridae family.

Analysis continues at the NICD and CDC in order to characterize this virus more fully. CDC and NICD are technical partners in the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN).

Meanwhile, a new case has been confirmed by PCR in South Africa. A nurse who had close contact with an earlier case has become ill, and has been admitted to hospital. Contacts have been identified and are being followed-up.

WHO and its GOARN partners continue to support the Ministries of Health of the two countries in various facets of the outbreak investigation, including laboratory diagnosis, investigations, active case finding and follow-up of contacts.

For those that don’t know what a hemorrhagic virus does, it liquefies you from the inside out. You shit, vomit and piss out your organs as you waste away over the course of a few days. Most have at least a 50% mortality rate, and some have mortality rates as high as 95%. If one of these things ever became airborne, nearly every human on the planet would be dead in a month. If they cross over to fleas or mosquitoes, the odds aren’t much better.

Luckily, while being highly lethal, hemorrhagic viruses easy to contain. Transmission occurs only with direct fluid to fluid contact, so hazmat suits and an extended quarantine are usually sufficient to putting down an outbreak. However, the number of virus organisms needed to cause a full infection is frighteningly low. As few as five individual virus organisms are all that are needed to infect the trillions of cells in an adult human.

The only thing scarier to pathologists than a hemorrhagic virus is smallpox, which we’ve made effectively extinct. These viruses, on the other hand, are very much alive and adapting to the encroachment of man into their environment. These things have been buried away in the darkest, most hidden places in African since God knows when, and we’re setting them free with each new clear cutting and mining operation. We’re playing a very dangerous game of chance with the biological sphere of this planet right now. And, as any casino owner will tell you – the player always loses.

And Ectoplasmosis always gives me the best weapons to do that with.

Behold, the Goblin Shark in it’s natural habitat (plus one slightly chewed diver) and its FUCKING TELESCOPING JAWS.

I dare you to get that shit out of your head for the rest of the day.

According to researchers at UC Berkley, the current mass extinction of amphibians is a sign that another great mass extinction has begun. And, like all cheery news about the environment these days, they are blaming us.

From the article:

In an article published online this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers argue that substantial die-offs of amphibians and other plant and animal species add up to a new mass extinction facing the planet.

“There’s no question that we are in a mass extinction spasm right now,” said David Wake, professor of integrative biology at UC Berkeley. “Amphibians have been around for about 250 million years. They made it through when the dinosaurs didn’t. The fact that they’re cutting out now should be a lesson for us.”

————————————–

The sixth mass extinction event, which Wake and others argue is happening currently, is different from the past events. “My feeling is that behind all this lies the heavy hand of Homo sapiens,” Wake said.

There is no consensus among the scientific community about when the current mass extinction started, Wake said. It may have been 10,000 years ago, when humans first came from Asia to the Americas and hunted many of the large mammals to extinction. It may have started after the Industrial Revolution, when the human population exploded. Or, we might be seeing the start of it right now, Wake said.

But no matter what the start date, empirical data clearly show that extinction rates have dramatically increased over the last few decades, Wake said.

I looks like our only hope to avoid a slow ecological collapse is for the LHC to do what it everyone is threatening it will. Like spit out dragons.

Found via I09.

Dropping this here for reference later.

In response to us completing human genome sequence a while back, scientists, philosophers and thinkers of all disciplines have been trying to think of a way to codify how we should proceed in the new era where the physical differences between us can be summed up in the letters A,T,G and C. This week a group issued what they are calling the The Ten Commandments of Race and Genetics:

1. All races are created equal

No genetic data has ever shown that one group of people is inherently superior to another. Equality is a moral value central to the idea of human rights; discrimination against any group should never be tolerated.

2. An Argentinian and an Australian are more likely to have differences in their DNA than two Argentinians

Groups of human beings have moved around throughout history. Those that share the same culture, language or location tend to have different genetic variations than other groups. This is becoming less true, though, as populations mix.

3. A person’s history isn’t written only in his or her genes

Everyone’s genetic material carries a useful, though incomplete, map of his or her ancestors’ travels. Studies looking for health disparities between individuals shouldn’t rely solely on this identity. They should also consider a person’s cultural background.

4: Members of the same race may have different underlying genetics

Social definitions of what it means to be “Hispanic” or “black” have changed over time. People who claim the same race may actually have very different genetic histories.

5. Both nature and nurture play important parts in our behaviors and abilities

Trying to use genetic differences between groups to show differences in intelligence, violent behaviors or the ability to throw a ball is an oversimplification of much more complicated interactions between genetics and environment.

6. Researchers should be careful about using racial groups when designing experiments

When scientists decide to divide their subjects into groups based on ethnicity, they need to be clear about why and how these divisions are made to avoid contributing to stereotypes.

7. Medicine should focus on the individual, not the race

Although some diseases are connected to genetic markers, these markers tend to be found in many different racial groups. Overemphasising genetics may promote racist views or focus attention on a group when it should be on the individual.

8. The study of genetics requires cooperation between experts in many different fields

Human disease is the product of a mishmash of factors: genetic, cultural, economic and behavioral. Interdisciplinary efforts that involve the social sciences are more likely to be successful.

9. Oversimplified science feeds popular misconceptions

Policy makers should be careful about simplifying and politicising scientific data. When presenting science to the public, the media should address the limitations of race-related research.

10. Genetics 101 should include a history of racism

Any high school or college student learning about genetics should also learn about misguided attempts in the past to use science to justify racism. New textbooks should be developed for this purpose.

Full article is here on NewScientist.

Migration of the Golden Rays

Captured by Sandra Critelli. More pictures here at the Telegraph UK.

Thanks, Ben.

The Idolomantis Diabolica

Nature is fucking awesome.

Polar Bears kill whales

Did you know that polar bears can hunt and kill whales? Not massive bastards like this lucky fellow above stumbled across, but 8-10 footers like the beluga whale. The belugas get trapped when the ice shifts, and they are stuck returning to a single breathing hole until the ice shifts again. If a polar bear happens across this unfortunate whale, it will wait for it to come back up to the surface then it will fucking punch, head butt, bite and claw the whale until it is subdued enough to be drug up on the ice by the bear. They are the only land animal known to prey on whales.

And this is just one of the many reasons why, when I die, I want it to be to one of these creatures.

The Horror Frog

From the article here on NewScientist:

“Amphibian horror” isn’t a movie genre, but on this evidence perhaps it should be. Harvard biologists have described a bizarre, hairy frog with cat-like extendable claws.

Trichobatrachus robustus actively breaks its own bones to produce claws that puncture their way out of the frog’s toe pads, probably when it is threatened.

David Blackburn and colleagues at Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, think the gruesome behaviour is a defence mechanism.

We aren’t really sure why, but we’re are calling it colony collapse disorder. Adult bees just up and abandon their hives. They fly away and never come back. And it’s been devastating to the US commercial bee market. The West Coast has been hardest hit, with up to 70% of the bee populations being lost in certain areas.

Our best guess as to the culprit to the bee decimation? No surprise here – it’s us. Scientists think that cell phone signals are disrupting the bee’s internal navigation. Bee’s have amazing path finding abilities that we’ve never fully understood, and we think our cell signals are disrupting them. Which means that things like the nation-wide roll out of a wi-fi network would pretty much be the end of bee in the States.

Economically, bees are responsibly for some 14 plus billion dollars of domestic pollination each year. Which means their plummeting numbers are only going to worse the world’s skyrocketing food prices. Manufacturers that rely on bee honey and other bee pollinated crops have already put up more than ten times the amount of research money that the government has. Haagen Dazs alone has put up over a quarter of a million dollars to further research on the mystery.

To quote Einstein on this -

If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live. No more bees, no more pollination … no more men!

Rape Seal

Since some of you didn’t believe me when I told you about this.

From the BBC’s story on this:

An Antarctic fur seal has been observed trying to have sex with a king penguin.

The South African-based scientists who witnessed the incident say it is the most unusual case of mammal mating behaviour yet known.

The incident, which lasted for 45 minutes and was caught on camera, is reported in the Journal of Ethology.

The bizarre event took place on a beach on Marion Island, a sub-Antarctic island that is home to both fur seals and king penguins.

…..

“At first glimpse, we thought the seal was killing the penguin,” says Nico de Bruyn, of the Mammal Research Institute at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.

…..

The 100kg seal first subdued the 15kg penguin by lying on it.

The penguin flapped its flippers and attempted to stand and escape – but to no avail.

…..

After 45 minutes the seal gave up, swam into the water and then completely ignored the bird it had just assaulted, the scientists report.

That’s the difference between seals and humans. It failed to fuck the penguin. A human would have succeeded.

Via Warren Ellis.

Victimless Leather

From this article on the The Art Newspaper:

One of the central works in the exhibition “Design and the Elastic Mind” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (until 12 May), Victimless Leather, a small jacket made up of embryonic stem cells taken from mice, has died. The artists, Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, say the work which was fed nutrients by tube, expanded too quickly and clogged its own incubation system just five weeks after the show opened.

….

Ms Antonelli says the jacket “started growing, growing, growing until it became too big. And [the artists] were back in Australia, so I had to make the decision to kill it. And you know what? I felt I could not make that decision. I’ve always been pro-choice and all of a sudden I’m here not sleeping at night about killing a coat…That thing was never alive before it was grown.”

Link to the MoMA bit about the gallery.

GINA is the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, which simply put, keeps the world from turning into Gattaca. Insurance companies and employers won’t be able to discriminate against you for your family’s genetic legacy.

“It’s the first civil rights bill of the new century of life sciences,” said veteran Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts last week, after the US Senate finally passed the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA).

After more than a decade of political debate, GINA bans health insurers from setting premiums or denying coverage based on the results of genetic tests, as long as customers have no pre-existing disease symptoms. It is also aimed to prevent discrimination in employment decisions.

The bill should pass the House any day now, and Bush has had a moment of clairvoyance, and has said he’ll sign it.

Source.

From this story on Physorg.

Last year Kidd’s team reported evidence that recent natural selection in East Asia had caused one particular variant of the alcohol-regulating gene to become common. In this new paper Li and others in Kidd’s team analyzed this variant in the DNA of individuals in many different population groups in several more East Asian countries.

They uncovered evidence that the variant became widespread through natural selection in only some of those East Asian populations — specifically, the Hmong- and Altaic-speaking groups. Those genetic clues, say the scientists, suggest that something was different in the environment of those populations and that the genetic difference assisted survival in that environment. The researchers have not yet identified that environmental difference and say the genetic change could be triggered by any number of factors, such as the emergence of some new parasite.

That these populations turn out to be less prone to the ravages of demon rum, says Kidd, “is just a serendipitous event’’ of evolution. “What this finding does is highlight that something important in recent human history has affected the genetic composition of many East Asian populations,” he notes.

Basically, there is a gene that is fairly common among Asians that regulates the metabolizing of alcohol differently than the rest of the world. But, there is a variant that makes people who consume a small amount of alcohol get sick. Turns out this variant has become the norm in a few specific groups of people in China and Korea. This has lead to dramatically lower levels of alcoholism in those groups.

Fuck yes.

Researchers from Sapporo Medical University in northern Japan used a vitamin A-laced minuscule sac containing a genetic material to prevent the production of collagen, which contributes to hardening of the organ.

To hell with the lot of you, I’m going to the bar to celebrate this fantastic news.

Story here on the always amazing Physorg.com.

Lake Vostok

This is Lake Vostok. She’s buried under 3 kilometers of solid glacial ice and has a surface area of over 6 thousand square miles, making her the largest lake in Antarctica. The water in her is over a million years old and only kept liquid by a combination of geothermal heat from the bottom of the lake and pressure from the ice on top of it. She’s has the most oxygen rich environment on the planet, and what ever life exists down there will be unlike anything else on this planet, but probably very similar to any life we’d ever find on Europa. She has tides, too. Which gives the water just enough motion to keep things from separating out. Simply put, Lake Vostok is the largest sealed ecosystem in the world. She hasn’t been exposed to the outside world in at least a half million years.

The funny thing about this lake is that it fits in with bits of Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. Lovecraft talks about a giant underground lake where the Old Ones built their last redoubt against their rebellious creations, the Shoggoth. The funny thing was that no one had any idea that there were lakes under all of that ice back then.

The wikipedia entry for Lake Vostok is here.



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