Archive for the ‘Biology’ Category

Musk’s newest startup is venturing into a series of hard problems

July 16th, 2019
Elon Musk in Idaho in 2015.

Enlarge / Elon Musk in Idaho in 2015. (credit: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Tonight, Elon Musk has scheduled an event where he intends to unveil his plans for Neuralink, a startup company he announced back in 2017, then went silent on. If you go to the Neuralink website now, all you'll find is a vague description of its goal to develop an "ultra-high-bandwidth brain-machine interfaces to connect humans and computers." These interfaces have been under development for a while, typically under the monicker of brain-computer interfaces, or BCIs. And, while there have been some notable successes in the academic-research world, there's a notable lack of products on the market.

The slow progress comes, in part, because a successful BCI has to tackle multiple hard problems and, in part, because the regulatory and market conditions are challenging. Ahead of tonight's announcement, we'll take a look at all of these and then see how Musk and the people who advise him have decided to tackle them.

A series of problems

AN effective BCI means figuring out how to get the nervous system to communicate with digital hardware. Doing so requires three problems, which I'll call reading, coding, and feedback. We'll go through each of these below.

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Posted in Biology, brain, Computer science, electronics, Elon Musk, neuralink, neurobiology, science | Comments (0)

Snowball the dancing cockatoo has wide range of killer moves, new study finds

July 8th, 2019

Snowball the Dancing Cockatoo shows off 14 different dance moves to the beat of "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." The movements come from different video segments of the study, with a single music track overlaid for illustrative purposes.

Chances are you've stumbled across YouTube videos of Snowball the Dancing Cockatoo grooving to his favorite tunes and keeping reasonably good time to the beat. Now the same researchers who demonstrated Snowball's unusual flair for dance are back with a new paper in Current Biology, showing that Snowball has quite a broad range of distinct moves—14 in all.

Snowball is a male Eleonora cockatoo who came to national attention around 2008, when his owner, co-author Irene Schulz, posted a video of him moving to the beat on YouTube. (She runs the bird shelter where Snowball lives in Schererville, Indiana.) The Internet went crazy, and Snowball made numerous TV appearances, even appearing in several TV commercials—most notably a 2009 Taco Bell spot where he grooved to "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)." And he's not the only bird species to show a flair for dance. In 2009, Harvard scientists surveyed a large swath of YouTube videos, looking for those featuring animals moving in time to the music. They found 33, all featuring birds.

Co-author Aniruddh Patel, then with the Neuroscience Institute in La Jolla, California, had previously theorized that perhaps only certain kinds of animals had the type of specialized brain circuitry capable of responding to rhythm and beat. Notably, he considered those with complex vocal learning—that is, the ability to imitate complex sounds, an unusual ability in the animal kingdom. "We're the only primate with that ability," said Patel, now at Tufts University. "So I made some predictions that if we ever saw this, it would only be in vocal learning species. Building these strong auditory motor connections may be an important prerequisite for rhythm and beat perception."

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Posted in animal behavior, Biology, science, Snowball the Dancing Cockatoo, vocal learning | Comments (0)

Two tactics effectively limit the spread of science denialism

June 27th, 2019
Debunking the flat Earth is a relatively easy task.

Debunking the flat Earth is a relatively easy task. (credit: NASA)

“Vaccines are safe and effective,” write researchers Philipp Schmid and Cornelia Betsch in a paper published in Nature Human Behavior this week. “Humans cause global warming. Evolution theory explains the diversity and change of life.” But large numbers of people do not believe that these statements are true, with devastating effects: progress toward addressing the climate crisis is stultifyingly slow, and the US is seeing its largest measles outbreak since 2000.

Getting accurate information across in the face of this science denialism is something of a minefield, as there is evidence that attempts to correct misinformation may backfire, further entrenching the beliefs of science deniers instead. In their paper, Schmid and Betsch present some good news, some bad: rebutting misinformation reduces the ensuing level of science denialism, but not enough to completely counter the effect of the original exposure to misinformation.

Denialism is not skepticism

Schmid and Betsch make a point of emphasizing that science denialism is a universe away from a healthy skepticism. In fact, skepticism of existing results is what drives research to refine and overturn existing paradigms. Denialism, they write, is “dysfunctional” skepticism “driven by how the denier would like things to be rather than what he has evidence for.”

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Posted in behavioural science, Biology, science, science denialism | Comments (0)

Declining monarch-butterfly populations may be hard to restore

June 25th, 2019
Declining monarch-butterfly populations may be hard to restore

Enlarge (credit: Beth Waterbury)

Monarch butterflies engage in a spectacular migration that encompasses multiple generations. They surf the green wave of spring as it spreads north, producing new generations on the way. Then, as autumn sets in, that generation of butterflies shuts down reproduction and starts heading south, eventually reaching their wintering grounds in staggering numbers. But in recent years, those numbers have grown far less staggering. The loss of some of those wintering grounds, habitat destruction across North America, and other threats have steadily reduced the migrating population to the point where it's under consideration for endangered species designation.

The declining population has inspired people throughout North America to try to give the butterflies a hand. Their efforts include planting more of the insects' favorite food plants, protecting the butterflies in their pupal stage, and even ordering monarch pupae from commercial suppliers. Raising monarchs is also a common school project.

But a new study raises questions about whether buying pupae is really helping the butterflies. A group of researchers at the University of Chicago have found that the monarchs purchased from commercial suppliers may not be able to migrate effectively and so might only give the monarch population a transient boost.

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Posted in Biology, conservation, Ecology, migration, monarch butterflies, science | Comments (0)

Physics indicates some of Earth’s earliest animals helped each other feed

June 21st, 2019
Image of bright lines representing fluid flow.

Enlarge / The result of a fluid mechanics simulation with multiple Erniettas. (credit: Dave Mazierski)

What drove the evolution of the earliest animal life? In modern animals, it's easy to infer a lot about an organism's lifestyle based on its anatomy. Even back in the Cambrian, with its large collection of bizarre looking creatures, these inferences are possible. Anomalocaris may have had a freakish, disk-shaped mouth, but it clearly was a mouth.

Go back to Earth's earliest animals in the Ediacaran, however, and things get much, much harder. There's only one species known so far that appears to have the right body plan to act as a predator of sorts. Beyond that, it's all a collection of soft-looking fronds and segments that are difficult to ascribe any obvious function to. Faced with a lot of questions without obvious answers, biologists turned to an unlikely source of help: physicists and engineers who understand fluid mechanics.

All of these creatures lived in an aquatic environment, so tracing how fluid flows across them can provide some hints as to how food might have arrived. Now, the same sort of research indicates that a strange cup-shaped species grew in communities because it improved the feeding of some of the community members.

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Posted in Biology, ediacaran, evolution, fluid mechanics, fossils, paleontology, Physics, science | Comments (0)

We may have inadvertently selected for muscles on dogs’ faces

June 18th, 2019
Two images of a dog showing different facial expressions.

Enlarge / A muscle flex raises the inner portions of the eyebrow at right. (credit: Waller et al.)

Humans domesticated dogs about 30,000 years ago. Since then, we've worked with them, hunted with them, played with them, and come to rely on them for companionship. And, in the process, we've bred them for everything from general cuteness to the ability to guard and fight for us. Figuring out who's manipulating whom and who's getting more out of the relationship is a hopeless task.

But that doesn't mean that some aspects of the changes dogs have undergone aren't amenable to study. After studying the facial muscles of dogs and wolves, a US-UK team of researchers has now found that dogs have two muscles that wolves mostly lack. These muscles control the movements of the face near the eyes, and the researchers suspect that the muscles' presence helps the dogs make a sad-eyed face that we find appealing.

A “take me home” look

The new work arose from an earlier paper done by several of the same researchers (Juliane Kaminski, Bridget Waller, and Anne Burrows). In it, they looked at what's technically called a "paedomorphic facial expression" in dogs. Paedomorphic means that adults retain features that are commonly associated with young animals—we tend to view these as cuter. In this case, the expression was raising the skin above the eyes, closer to the bridge of the nose. This expression, shown above, has been interpreted as "sad-eyed" and thought to tug on humans' heart strings.

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Posted in artificial selection, Biology, Dogs, domestication, evolution, science | Comments (0)

Medical marijuana vs. opioid abuse: New study questions the connection

June 13th, 2019
Legal cannabis for sale in a tobacco shop in Italy.

Enlarge / Legal cannabis for sale in a tobacco shop in Italy. (credit: Stefano Guidi | Getty Images)

In the US, federal law has severely restricted our ability to study any potential medical properties of cannabis. But, given some limited studies and a lot of anecdotal stories, a number of states have gone ahead and legalized medical marijuana. This has allowed some population-level studies of what's going on in the states, but those have faced additional complications, like rules that differ from state to state and an ongoing legalization of recreational use confusing the picture.

Just how confusing all this can be was driven home this week by the release of a paper that suggests that one of medical marijuana's greatest successes was illusory. A couple of early studies indicated that states that had legalized medical marijuana use saw drops in opioid-related deaths. The new research replicates those results but finds that the trend has reversed in recent years, with those states now seeing increased deaths. While the new study's authors suggest the initial results were spurious, others suggest that the shifting legal landscape and changes in drug abuse may have driven the change.

What does everyone agree upon?

Back in 2014, researchers compared deaths due to opioid abuse in states with and without legalization of medical marijuana. For the decade prior to 2010, the trend was clear: states that allowed medical marijuana had lower rates of opioid-abuse-driven death.

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Posted in Biology, epidemiology, Medical Marijuana, medicine, opioids, Policy, science | Comments (0)

Why do bats have such bizarrely long lifespans?

June 11th, 2019
Image of a bat in flight.

Enlarge (credit: Ohio Department of Health)

In mammals, there's a relatively simple relationship among metabolism, body mass, and lifespan. As the size of the mammal goes up, for the most part their metabolism slows down, and their longevity increases. There are exceptions, and we are one of them. We're much longer lived than other mammals with a similar body mass. Bears, which tend to weigh quite a bit more than us, rarely live past 30.

But a new paper about longevity includes a remarkable statistic: "Nineteen species of mammals live longer than humans, given their body size, of which 18 are bats." What is it about bats that's so exceptional? A new study takes a careful look at bat aging and finds, at a time when most species are shutting down genes that help keep cells and tissues healthy, bats are cranking them up.


To an extent, bats have an advantage, in that flight selects for minimizing body weight. But even by that standard, some bat species are extraordinarily long-lived. The Irish-French team behind the new study notes that a species called Brandt's bat weighs only about seven grams, yet lives for over 40 years in the wild. There have been some hints as to how they manage this exceptional aging. For example, bats maintain the ends of their chromosomes, preventing cells from slipping into senescence, yet do this while managing to keep cells from growing out of control and turning cancerous.

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Posted in Aging, bats, Biology, gene activity, Longevity, science | Comments (0)

Target of first human gene editing cuts life expectancy short

June 5th, 2019
Chinese geneticist He Jiankui speaks during the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing at the University of Hong Kong days after he claimed to have altered the genes of the embryo of a pair of twin girls before birth, prompting outcry from scientists of the field.

Enlarge / Chinese geneticist He Jiankui speaks during the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing at the University of Hong Kong days after he claimed to have altered the genes of the embryo of a pair of twin girls before birth, prompting outcry from scientists of the field. (credit: S.C. Leung/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Late last year, a Chinese researcher shocked the scientific community when he announced that the first gene-edited humans had already been born. He Jiankui barreled past an emerging consensus that the technology wasn't ready for use and, once it was, should be reserved for otherwise untreatable diseases. Instead of respecting those boundaries, He did much of his work without any clear institutional oversight.

Rather than target an incurable genetic disorder, He Jiankui focused on something for which we have both preventative measures and treatments: HIV infection. He did so by using CRISPR gene editing to damage a gene that encodes a protein that HIV uses to enter human cells; previous studies have shown that mutations in this gene protect against HIV infection. But the same mutation was already known to make humans more susceptible to other diseases, raising the question of whether the gene editing put its recipients at risk.

That question has now been answered with an emphatic "yes." Researchers have found that adults carrying mutations in the gene see their general mortality rise by 20 percent compared to their peers.

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Posted in Biology, Genetics, Genomics, HIV, medicine, science | Comments (0)

Why haven’t genetically engineered crops made food better?

June 4th, 2019
Rice grains in different shades of yellow.

Enlarge / Normal rice (bottom), the first version of golden rice (right), and the current strain (left). (credit: Environmental Health Perspectives/NIH)

One of the arguments that has been advanced to promote genetically engineered crops is that the techniques have the potential for improving the food we eat. Crops could be engineered so that they provide nutrients they currently don't or so that good nutrition is in reach of poor people in developing nations.

In fact, the technology does have that potential, and a couple of efforts have been made to do exactly this. Yet, decades into the GMO era, all of the engineered crops on the market provide enhanced productivity and other benefits to farmers but nothing for the people who ultimately end up eating the results. So why the huge gap between potential and reality? The huge number of problems involved is the subject of a review in Nature Plants.

Far from golden

The people behind the review come from the Rothamsted Research, a UK-based nonprofit agricultural science institution. The nonprofit aspect is rather critical. Rothamsted's work does include developing genetically modified crops, but it's not doing so to make money; instead, the organization is dedicated to improving farming in developing economies and sees GMO crops as a potential contributor there. But even with those things going for it, the organization has been caught up in the public's disapproval of GMOs, with protesters having threatened to destroy one of its test plantings in 2012.

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Posted in Biology, genetic engineering, GMOs, plants, science, synthetic biology | Comments (0)