This is the final installment of planet-of-the-apes and in fact my final story as a staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Higgs and I have already folded up our tents and started setting up for our next gig – at WHYY’s website NewsWorks, where we will be joined by former collaborator Tony Auth.
We’re calling our next column/blog Lightning Rod, charged issues in science.
Thanks to all those who contributed ideas and discussion points to Planet-of-the-Apes. It wouldn’t have been so much fun without you. I hope you will follow us to Lightning Rod. We’re planning to start before the end of the month. The show will go on!
Gripping New Book Details Origins of AIDS, SARS, Ebola and Other Diseases that Jumped from Animal Hosts
Higgs here, with an announcement about another interesting event that I can’t attend, but you should. Tuesday (10/16), at the Academy of Natural Sciences, author David Quammen, will talk about his new book Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. My human and I have been reading it together and highly recommend this book. The subject matter is important, and the writing is suspenseful and gripping. This is science writing at its best.
The first chapter details the horrors of the mysterious “Hendra” virus – a disease that appears to have jumped from bats to horses to humans in Australia.
Here’s what the Academy has to say:
Higgs here. I will be taking over POTA until October 26. Apparently after the 26th I will be felid non grata at philly.com. : (
But in this brief time that remains let's have some fun. This post is about Penn Museum archaeologist Patrick McGovern, who has discovered that people drank wine before 5000 B.C. Here’s the first sentence from a story my co-blogger wrote about him in 1996:
Before man invented the wheel or wrote the first word, he made wine.
This is my penultimate column for the Philadelphia Inquirer. It will run in print on Monday. The final one runs the following Monday:
A century ago, Americans so vehemently hated the wolves of their Western states that they attacked them with germ warfare.
Veterinarians deliberately infected coyotes with a disease called mange, hoping it would spread to the wolves, which it did, causing many of them to lose so much fur that they froze to death in the harsh winters.
One of the more difficult aspects of evolution for some people to swallow is the notion that random copying errors in DNA can add up to anything useful.
In two recently published projects, however, scientists show how typos can indeed lead to improvements. In numerous species of insects, they document the DNA errors that led to changes that are not only beneficial but also brilliant. Various species of beetles, aphids, butterflies, and moths have independently acquired genetic errors that allow them to eat highly toxic plants and then use the toxins to defend themselves against predators.
The toxins in question, called cardenolides, are made by several plants including milkweed, which is the staple food for monarch butterfly caterpillars. The toxin kills by binding to and disabling a protein shared by all complex animals and needed for transmitting nerve impulses and other key functions.
Here's my column for this week. It also appeared in Monday's Philadelphia Inquirer:
Once DNA evidence made clear that all humanity came from Africa, researchers have been scouring that vast continent in search of a fuller story of our origins. Where in Africa was the cradle of humanity? And how are modern people related to the common ancestor that all humanity shares?
Two groups have recently added surprising new details to the picture by using DNA collected from modern hunter-gatherers - the Pygmies of Cameroon, the Sandawe and Hadza of Tanzania and Khoe-San of southern Africa.
Here's my column for Monday's Inquirer, a couple of days early:
Scientists have been hard pressed to explain why menopause happens so early in humans - there’s no obvious evolutionary advantage to having your reproductive system shut down decades before the rest of your body.
Most other long-lived animals keep reproducing until the end. Female turtles can lay fertile eggs at 100. Our primate relatives, too, keep pumping out young until they are near death.
Now, scientists are finding clues to our unusual life pattern in killer whales – one of the few other species in which females get decades of so-called post-reproductive life. What they found was a surprising connection between longevity of mothers and their sons.
In addition to exploring the evolutionary implications of junk DNA in my last column, I’ve written two posts for the Knight Science Journalism Tracker discussing the hype surrounding recent junk DNA -related claims.
The claims came from a press conference staged by NIH and designed to drum up publicity for a genome-related project called ENCODE.
This was the first: