"In recent years a promising scientific approach to comparative mythology has emerged in which researchers apply conceptual tools that biologists use to decipher the evolution of living species. In the hands of those who analyze myths, the method, known as phylogenetic analysis, consists of connecting successive versions of a mythical story and constructing a family tree that traces the evolution of the myth over time." On using biological ideas to trace the paths of evolving myths across the world.
So-called 'mirror spiders' can "manipulate the mirrors in situations where they might feel threatened."
A Neil Gaiman tweet prompts debate on Tumblr: what is the species of the hyperintelligent rodent publicist running Lin-Manuel Miranda's Twitter feed?
The Evolution of Bacteria on a “MEGA-Plate” Petri Dish - a cinematic approach to visualizing drug resistance
From deities to data - "For thousands of years humans believed that authority came from the gods. Then, during the modern era, humanism gradually shifted authority from deities to people... Now, a fresh shift is taking place. Just as divine authority was legitimised by religious mythologies, and human authority was legitimised by humanist ideologies, so high-tech gurus and Silicon Valley prophets are creating a new universal narrative that legitimises the authority of algorithms and Big Data." [more inside]
Workers trapped for years in "a hostile environment in total darkness." - Bizarre ant colony discovered in an abandoned Polish nuclear weapons bunker.
UCSD Chemistry Nobel laureate Roger Tsien dies. Amongst many other achievements, he is most well known as co-discoverer of Green Fluorescent Protein, which, as well as making headlines with glow-in-the dark rats, initiated a field that revolutionized biology and our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of disease and life itself. More reaction and links from In The Pipeline. [more inside]
Nanowire Mesh Monitors Mouse Brains - "Injectable 'neural lace'* brain-computer interface works in mice for months at a time." (via) [more inside]
"She was born during the reign of James I, was a youngster when René Descartes set out his rules of thought and the great fire of London raged, saw out her adolescent years as George II ascended the throne, reached adulthood around the time that the American revolution kicked off, and lived through two world wars. Living to an estimated age of nearly 400 years, a female Greenland shark has set a new record for longevity, scientists have revealed." [more inside]
Vaults are large, barrel shaped protein complexes. Found in most eukaryotic cells, their exact function is currently unknown. [more inside]
Scientists fight crab for mysterious purple orb discovered in California deep. The E/V Nautilus team are working 5,000ft below sea off Santa Barbara, analysis has revealed a foot and proboscis, making it ‘a gastropod of some kind’
Logic hacking - "Writing shorter and shorter computer programs for which it's unknowable whether these programs run forever, or stop... the winner of the Busy Beaver Game for N-state Turing machines becomes unknowable using ordinary math - somewhere between N = 5 and N = 1919." [more inside]
If you whistle a tune often enough to a starling, the bird will not only sing it back to you, it will improvise its response and create something new. On May 27, 1784, Mozart whistled a 17 note phrase to a starling in a Viennese shop and to his delight it spat the tune right back — but not without taking some liberties first. So he bought it and brought it home. That bird lived with him for the three most productive years of his life, during which he completed more than 60 compositions, including Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. The piano concerto as we still understand it was built in those rooms. The “Jupiter” Symphony began and Figaro ended. Melodies that two centuries of humans have since whistled could have first been volleyed between a genius and his pet bird.
Genes that do the same thing in a human and a mouse are generally related by common descent from an ancestral gene in the first mammal. So by comparing their sequence of DNA letters, genes can be arranged in evolutionary family trees, a property that enabled Dr. Martin and his colleagues to assign the six million genes to a much smaller number of gene families. Of these, only 355 met their criteria for having probably originated in Luca, the joint ancestor of bacteria and archaea.Meet Luca, the Ancestor of All Living Things [more inside]
Biology textbooks tell us that lichens are alliances between two organisms—a fungus and an alga. They are wrong.
Culture, not biology, decides the difference between music and noise. “Consonance seems like such a simple phenomenon, and in Western music there’s strong supposition that it’s biological... But this study suggests culture is more important than many people acknowledge.” Study originally published in Nature.
Alaska is Having Its Hottest Year Since Records Began - "After a spring that was a full ten degrees hotter than normal, the northern state is on track for the most sweltering year on record." (via) [more inside]
Return of the Cicadas is a short film by Samuel Orr about the insects' (surprisingly beautiful) 17-year lifespans. [more inside]
Let these chipper YouTube science vids fill you with existential terror. Popular YouTube education channels CGP Grey and Kurzgesagt teamed up to produce a pair of videos designed to cause you to question everything about your existence.
In his follow-up to Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari envisions what a 'useless class' of humans might look like as AI advances and spreads - "I'm aware that these kinds of forecasts have been around for at least 200 years, from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and they never came true so far. It's basically the boy who cried wolf, but in the original story of the boy who cried wolf, in the end, the wolf actually comes, and I think that is true this time." [more inside]
How Technology Is Changing Our Hands by Darian Leader [The Guardian] Doctors predict that our increasing use of computers and mobile phones will permanently alter our hands. What will this mean for the way we touch, feel and communicate? [more inside]
Dictyostelium discoideum - dicty to its friends - has long been recognized as the world's most fascinating slime mold. A (previously) has a good introduction from a decade ago. You might be fascinated by their life cycle, which goes from individual cells, to animal-like slug, to plant-like fruiting body. You might be fascinated by their starvation-prompted altruism, in which most cells give up their lives so that a few can reproduce, and cheaters are punished. You might be fascinated by the way they farm and protect their crops. (Or maybe the farmed bacteria are farming them; it's hard to tell.) Or you might be fascinated by a brand new study about the DNA nets they use to trap and kill pathogens.
Rafinesque (previously) was not known for his social graces; as John Jeremiah Sullivan writes, Audubon is the "only person on record" as actually liking him. During their visit, though, Audubon fed Rafinesque descriptions of American creatures, including 11 species of fish that never really existed. Rafinesque duly jotted them down in his notebook and later proffered those descriptions as evidence of new species. For 50 or so years, those 11 fish remained in the scientific record as real species, despite their very unusual features, including bulletproof (!) scales. Turns out we missed another 17 species that Audubon threw in there for fun.
Rafinesque’s “absurd” botanical legacy, Gray wrote, amounted to little more than a “curious mass of nonsense.” Gray’s note wouldn’t be the last unkind obituary in the annals of taxonomy, nor would it be the worst. That’s because the rules dictating how taxonomists name and classify living things bind these scientists in a web of influence stretching far back into the 18th century. When an agent of chaos like Rafinesque enters the scene, that web can get sticky fast. In a field haunted by ghosts, someone has to reckon with the dead.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology BirdCast: Bird Migration Forecasts in Real-Time. When, where, and how far will birds migrate? Our migration forecasts will answer these questions for the first time.
The Raycat Solution is a 15 minute documentary by Benjamin Huguet about an idea proposed in 1981 by philosophers Françoise Bastide and Paolo Fabbri that by genetically engineering cats to be living Geiger counters, we could create a warning system for radioactive waste that would last at least ten thousand years. The idea languished for decades until Matthew Kielty did a feature on it for the 99% Invisible Podcast in 2014 [previously on MeFi]. Now biologist Kevin Chen is trying to bring the Ray Cat Solution to life.
Women do what they need to do to survive. "Emergencies so often don't look like emergencies as we're taught to understand them when we are children. Monsters don't look like the monsters we've been taught to avoid." [cw: rape] [more inside]
Science is desperate. It needs to believe itself honorable. It's threatened by the fact that it's not safe for so many of us. Period. It's just not safe.- A. Hope Jahren, in an interview about women in science and advancement in plant biology.
A newly discovered way for cells to die "Everything about this death process is different from apoptosis," he says. "It looks different under the microscope, it requires different genes, and it has different kinetics."
The butthole is one of the finest innovations in the past 540 million years of animal evolution. Why watching comb jellies poop has stunned evolutionary biologists.
The classification of Illinois's state fossil, the Tully monster, has been a mystery since its discovery in 1958. But now a team at Yale has determined that it is a vertebrate ancestor of the lamprey, after studying over a thousand fossils and noticing the presence of a notochord, among other distinctively vertebratey features. The (paywalled) Nature paper is here.
Transplantable human bone and cartilage made with 3D printer that creates a matrix in the desired shape and injects cells that can integrate with the patient's blood vessels on implant
Sexual harassment in science generally starts like this: A woman (she is a student, a technician, a professor) gets an email and notices that the subject line is a bit off: “I need to tell you,” or “my feelings.” The opening lines refer to the altered physical and mental state of the author: “It’s late and I can’t sleep” is a favorite, though “Maybe it’s the three glasses of cognac” is popular as well.
The Peer Perception Gap. The Washington Post describes a study in PLOS One which had a goal of identifying peer gender bias in the biology classroom: Men over-ranked their peers by three-quarters of a GPA point [...] In other words, if Johnny and Susie both had A's, they’d receive equal applause from female students — but Susie would register as a B student in the eyes of her male peers, and Johnny would look like a rock star.
Eighteen months after removal of the last chunks of two dams on Washington State's Elwha River, an event marked on Metafilter by this brilliant post by edeezy, the Seattle Times documents the remarkably fast recovery of the Elwha ecosystem, from headwaters to saltwater. Complete Seattle Times' Elwha coverage
In the wake of the sequencing of the human genome in the early 2000s, genome pioneers and social scientists alike called for an end to the use of race as a variable in genetic research. Unfortunately, by some measures, the use of race as a biological category has increased in the postgenomic age. Although inconsistent definition and use has been a chief problem with the race concept, it has historically been used as a taxonomic categorization based on common hereditary traits (such as skin color) to elucidate the relationship between our ancestry and our genes. We believe the use of biological concepts of race in human genetic research—so disputed and so mired in confusion—is problematic at best and harmful at worst. It is time for biologists to find a better way. - An editorial in Science exploring the conundrum facing genomic researchers where race is both fundamentally flawed as a scientific model and violently dangerous but still the only consistent lens through which study participants understand the information they have about their own connection to human diversity [more inside]
Kept in the dark for 60 years, fruit flies begin to reveal their genetic adaptations. In 1954, seven years after their cousins returned from space, a colony of fruit flies was plunged into a darkness which would continue through 1500 generations right up till the present day. The results of this study shed considerable light on the role of genetic variation in physical adaptation. Spoiler: [more inside]
We're the only animals with chins, and no one knows why. "I always get entertaining emails from lay people trying to help me so let me thank you in advance for what I'm about to receive."
Vice Motherboard on the immortal jellyfish and Shin Kabota, the man who sings their praise. Shin Kubota music video.
Sleepy gorillas make their nests in Kahuzi-Biega National Park. You can visit these gorillas by going on a virtual gorilla trek in Democratic Republic of Congo!
One of the most beautiful, amazing, and depressing things I’ve ever done is participate in a whale necropsy. This work helps us understand the patterns of whale mortality, and determine whether whale deaths are natural, or possibly man-made. This is important stuff. In fact, their work has helped guide changes in policy, especially when it comes to designing the shipping lanes that go into and out of San Francisco Bay. Their research helped establish new, longer, and narrower shipping lanes that reduced the chances of ships hitting, and often killing, whales. This work saved whales’ lives. [more inside]
Creatures avoiding planks - "After around a thousand generations of training, the agents became half decent at avoiding planks. Please see the final result in this demo." [more inside]
Sure, we may be a little weird compared to our close relatives for not having a baculum (penis bone), and maybe that's the sort of thing you want to explain for whatever reason, but does human penis size and shape need a uniquely human story? Assuming it's correlated to the vagina like it probably is in many other species, then no it doesn't... unless the size and shape of the human vagina has an exceptional story. Does it? We wouldn't know. [more inside]
Humans 2.0 - "With CRISPR, scientists can change, delete, and replace genes in any animal, including us. Working mostly with mice, researchers have already deployed the tool to correct the genetic errors responsible for sickle-cell anemia, muscular dystrophy, and the fundamental defect associated with cystic fibrosis. One group has replaced a mutation that causes cataracts; another has destroyed receptors that H.I.V. uses to infiltrate our immune system." [more inside]
As the first semester of the school year reaches the halfway mark, countless college freshmen are becoming aware that their clothes are feeling rather snug. While the so-called freshman 15 may be hyperbole, studies confirm that many students do put on five to 10 pounds during that first year away from home. Now new research suggests that an underlying cause for the weight gain may be the students’ widely vacillating patterns of sleep.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari - "The book delivers on its madly ambitious subtitle by in fact managing to cover key moments in the developmental history of humankind from the emergence of Homo Sapiens to today's developments in genetic engineering." Also btw, check out Harari on the myths we need to survive, re: fact/value distinctions and their interrelationships.