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!
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER(until October 26th)
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:
David Quammen, author of The Song of the Dodo, will discuss his new book SPILLOVER: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. He will also be signing copies.
$5 nonmembers, free for Academy members
To register: http://spillover.eventbrite.com/
Tickets also available at the door.
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.
Man is shorthand for humanity, BTW. The story went on to describe how a stain on an ancient pottery jar showed traces of wine. The wine was most likely white. McGovern is giving a talk about ancient wine and beer on Tuesday night at Camden County College.
The lecture is free and a beer tasting afterwards costs $45. I can’t go to the beer tasting part because you have to be over 21 and while my age is not certain, the veterinarians estimate that I’m about 3.
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.
Now, according to a recent study by Penn State researchers, the mange survived in other animals long after the wolves were gone.
And it has resurfaced in wolf packs reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s. Those wolves are also losing cubs to canine distemper and a disease called parvovirus.
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.
Being toxic to all animals is a nice defense mechanism for a plant, said Princeton University biologist Peter Andolfatto, senior author of one of the papers. “But these insects are amazing.” More than two dozen species have independently acquired mutations in the same gene — the one that holds the recipe for the protein the plant toxin targets. The mutation allows the insects to make an alternative version the toxin can’t affect.
But many of the insects developed resistance in a tricky way — by creating a duplicate copy of this gene.
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.
Those studies suggest a new narrative of our human roots. The old story of a single superior group bursting through Africa and beyond is being replaced by a more complicated one that traces our roots to a fractured collection of ethnic groups who periodically interbred across the lines.
“There is a story of multiplicity of populations which is not well understood today,” said anthropologist Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. “There is no sort of magic moment where somebody became like Robert Redford and afterward it was done.”
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.
Biologist Emma Foster of Exeter University in England said that females become fertile around 12, have a calf every 3 to 5 years, and then stop reproducing in their late 30s and early 40s. After that they can live many years, sometimes to 90 and beyond. “No other animals have such long post-reproductive lives,” she said, except for pilot whales and humans.
And while there’s a small difference between the sexes in human longevity, it’s extreme for whales, with females living to 90 and males rarely getting past 40. Scientists have little understanding of why this would be.
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:
And this one I posted yesterday after more time and research.
The ENCODE project really was interesting, but the scientists and their PR people generated excitement for the wrong reasons.
Here's my column for the week of September 9. It will also appear in the health and science section of the Philadelphia Inquirer:
Last week, in response to a media blitz promoting a $288 million DNA project called ENCODE, headlines announced that most of our DNA formerly known as “junk” was actually useful.
A number of scientists both inside the study and out took issue with this claim — which centered on the 98 percent of our DNA that isn’t officially part of any gene.
Sorting the workers from the freeloaders in our DNA is crucial to understanding how our DNA works, and how it drives human evolution and influences our traits and health.
Some biologists dislike the term “junk DNA” because they already knew at least part of it is doing something essential — like regulating how the instructions in the genes are carried out.
The genes hold recipes for making proteins — the working parts and scaffolding of the body. Some of the rest of the DNA tells the genes how much of a given protein to make at any given time.
The goal of the ENCODE (Encylopedia of DNA Elements) project was to figure out which parts have those important regulatory jobs.
Here's my column for the week. It will also appear in Monday's Health and Science section of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Higgs says he's glad he wasn't a subject in this experiment.
When a wet dog shakes himself dry, he does something amazing. He hits just the right rhythm to maximize the drying effect with minimal effort.
The seemingly casual jiggle imparts enough centrifugal force to expel 70 percent of the water in his coat in a fraction of a second.
This fact comes courtesy of experiments by David Hu, a professor of mechanical engineering and biology at Georgia Tech. He and his students found that the highly tuned drying ability is shared by 30 other furry mammals.
Hu thinks engineers can learn from some of the remarkable features that evolution has built into living things. He envisions harnessing this ability for devices that can dry or clean
themselves, something like a Mars rover programmed to jiggle the dust off its solar panels.
He was initially inspired to study wet mammals by a toy poodle named Jerry, who was a gift to his current fiancee from her former boyfriend. Jerry ended up in Hu’s lab, where high-speed cameras recorded and measured the rhythm by which he shook his coat dry.