Monday, April 15, 2013

At Discover This Month: 20 Things You Didn't Know about Hair

1. Here’s the bald truth: Fur and hair are essentially the same thing, constructed of identical protein building blocks called keratin. 

2. All mammals have hair at some point in their lives, be it the fuzz on a newborn whale, a shield of hard porcupine quills or your long locks. 

3. Insects can wear it, too. The microscopic belly hairs on the male freshwater Micronecta may help amplify its mating call. Some scientists think that when the bug rubs its penis against the tip of its abdomen, the hairs trap air and sound, making it the world’s loudest animal relative to its size. 
Read all 20 at Discover.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Must Extinction Always Be Forever?

Not if certain biologists have their way.

Synthetic biologists use chemically synthesized DNA to create organisms. It's potentially a transformative technology. In theory, with synthetic biology scientists may one day "raise from the dead" species that have long been extinct. But more proximately, synthetic biology holds the potential to address human needs like toxic waste clean-up and enhanced fuel production. 

At the same time, the prospect of new species for which native species and natural ecosystems are unprepared raises pressing ethical and safety questions. 

In "Synthetic Biology and Conservation of Nature: Wicked Problems and Wicked Solution," a new paper in PLOS Biology, a group of scientists argue that synthetic biology is useful enough to warrant an urgent dialogue about what we mean by "natural," how governments and scientists can weigh private and public benefits with private and public risks, and how the world can best anticipate what will happen when newly created synthetic life forms ... evolve.

If the current controversy about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the food chain is any indicator, it promises to be a conversation fraught with suspicion.

Lead author Kent Redford of the Wildlife Conservation Society, the science-based conservation organization that manages the Bronx Zoo, the New York Aquarium, the Central Park Zoo, the Prospect Park Zoo, and the Queens Zoo, acknowledges that "synthetic biology and conservation communities are largely strangers to one another, even though they both share many of the same concerns and goals. An open discussion between the two communities is needed to help identify areas of collaboration on a topic that will likely change the relationship of humans with the natural world.”

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Redford KH, Adams W, Mace GM (2013) Synthetic Biology and Conservation of Nature: Wicked Problems and Wicked Solutions. PLoS Biol 11(4): e1001530. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001530

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Lust vs. Lysol

Conventional wisdom suggests that women are drawn to men who help out around the house. Yet new research indicates that some divisions of labor may be sexier than others. A February paper in the American Sociological Review reported that married couples in which men take on a greater share of the dishes, laundry and other traditionally female chores had sex less often than average, which in this study was about five times a month. 


Thursday, March 28, 2013

Robot Ants on the Highway of Life

Robot ants are probably not a significant part of our technological future. Still, it’s news that scientists at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and at the Research Centre on Animal Cognition in France have created robots that mimic theswarming behavior of real ants, rushing purposefully at high speed through complex passages just like ants do.

The ants that the robots were built to mimic are Argentine ants. In nature, they leave pherome trails as they move. Pheromes are hormones that act outside the body. For Argentine ants they act like road signs, signaling to other ants where they’ve been and how to follow. Remember the fairy tale characters Hansel and Gretl who left a trail of bread crumbs when they walked into the forest? Their trail, as the story went, was eaten by birds. Pheromes, on the other hand, are smelled—by other ants.

The ant robots built by the scientists in New Jersey and France are about the size of sugar cubes. Rather than drop pheromes, they leave trails of light that other ant robots in their colony detect with sensors. In this study, the lead robot ants moved in the way real ants do when they’re exploring—rather randomly, but in the same general direction. But as they moved other robot ants swarmed after them.

According to the study’s scientists, what all this implies is that, in nature, individual ants don’t need to be navigators—nor do they need to be particularly smart. Which is good, because individual Argentine ants have poor eyesight and, in general, rush about too quickly to plan where to go next. It’s a high-speed life that ants lead, and on their “roadways” they, like human drivers, depend on big, obvious signals about where to safely go next.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Weight Loss the Easy Way?

The Second-Hand Benefits of Gastric Bypass Surgery

Imagine having to lose 100 pounds or so, wishing you could have gastric bypass surgery, and then finding out that if a friend has the surgery you may be able to lose weight without going under the knife.

Well, that scenario has become a distinct possibility … for a few years down the road. The breakthrough comes from scientists at Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital. Working with laboratory mice they’ve found that gastric bypass surgery results—as expected—in dramatic weight loss in mice. But they also found that the surgery altered the community of microbes in the mice’s guts. And when the scientists extracted those microbes and inserted them into the guts of mice that didn’t have surgery, the receiving mice lost weight‑lots of it. In general, they lost about 20% as much weight as the mice who’d actually had the surgery.

This isn’t the first time that research has shown a significant change in gut microbes after gastric bypass surgery. But this new work is the first to show that changes in the bacterial community of the digestive tract can be “the gift that keeps on giving,” In this case the changes helped mice who had surgery as well as mice who hadn’t.

The researchers do caution that any human applications of their work may be years off. But Lee Kaplan, director of the Obesity, Metabolism and Nutrition Institute at Massachusetts General, and one of the study’s senior authors, suggests that already people who’ve struggled for years with obesity can find some comfort. Apparently, as many suspected, the problem lies not in just what you eat, but in how you digest.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Job Search Tip: Don't Drink at the Interview!

Looking for a job? Has your prospective boss invited you to a dinner interview? If so, don't drink! 

And if someone pours wine, don't even pick up the glass.

Publishing in this April's Journal of Consumer Psychology, researchers at the University of Michigan and at the Wharton School of Business demonstrate that:
  • Your even holding an alcoholic beverage might diminishes someone's impression of your intelligence.
  • Being seen drinking also makes your arguments seem less persuasive.
  • Job candidates who drink wine during recruiting interviews are seen as less intelligent.
Unfortunately for them, many job candidates have the wrong intuitions about alcohol and interview dinners. In a study of 444 Executive MBA students from Wharton, most students said about a hypothetical dinner interview that ordering wine would make them seem more intelligent than would ordering soda.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

No Discrimination in the Criminal Justice System?

Thoughts on how to report news of a study that might fan the flames of hatred.

Just by its subject line, the email changed my day and my outlook on my responsibilities as a journalist.

Because I contribute to Scientific American and Discover magazines, I receive embargoed press releases from a variety of scholarly journals. (An “embargoed” release is sent to journalists who have promised in writing not to disclose the release’s contents until after a certain date.)

This particular email came about a week ago. It announced the results of a study in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. “No Evidence of Racial Discrimination in Criminal Justice Processing: Results from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health” was its title. Got that? The claim was that a large, national study found no evidence of discrimination in the criminal justice system.

But we all know that America’s prisons are filled disproportionately with African American men. The received wisdom is that, from arrest through conviction, the odds are stacked against them. Cops, prosecutors, judges, and juries don’t like them, or so we “know.”

Intrigued, I had the full text sent to me.

Indeed, investigators at seven prestigious universities—six in America and one in Saudi Arabia—had together examined data collected in waves over 14 years in America. In 1994 and 1995 about 90,000 middle school and high school boys and girls were surveyed.....