Four-Legged Medical Models

Animals serve as useful models in medical research—but they also serve as models for our anthropocentric fantasies. On Life Lines, Dr. Dolittle reports that researchers were able to “restore locomotion in paralyzed rats using a combination of nerve stimulation and engaging the mind by having the rats complete simple tasks.” The rats, outfitted with a “support jacket” to provide external stimulation, learned to walk and even sprint to their favorite snack. Dr. Dolittle writes “the nerves had actually reorganized to create new connections around the injury site” and “these new research findings may one day help paralyzed humans fully regain the ability to walk.” Meanwhile, on Respectful Insolence, Orac examines another method of healing animals…with mystical tranfusions of energy. Orac writes “In a way, dogs are smarter than humans in that they don’t fool themselves into believing that hand motions are anything more than hand motions.” But that won’t keep Cesar Milan from sticking them with needles.

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Divergent & Convergent Evolution

On ERV, Abbie Smith reports that scientists have discovered an entirely new branch of viruses in the boiling acid pools of Yellowstone National Park. By analyzing RNA segments from the pools, researchers inferred the existence of positive-strand RNA viruses with unknown genetic configurations. Smith writes, “These viruses are not just kinda new. They are really really different from the RNA viruses we already know about!” They infect primordial single-celled organisms called Archaea which thrive in the extreme heat of the pools. On the multicellular side of life, Dr. Dolittle shares the first pictures of “a new family of limbless caecilian amphibians” from India. Although they look like worms, “genetic testing and comparative analyses of their cranial anatomy show that they are in fact an ancient lineage of amphibians that first appeared ~140 million years ago.”  This seems like a clear example of convergent evolution–does living in the dirt lead one to look like an earthworm?  Or do these caecilians gain some advantage through resemblance?

Tisn’t the Season

Spring is in the air, and Clostridium tetani is in the earth. On Casaubon’s Book, Sharon Astyk writes “with playing in the dirt comes minor injuries that you really don’t want to turn into anything nasty.” Infection through open wounds can be fatal, as the bacterium releases a neurotoxin that causes uncontrolled muscular contractions. So if it’s been ten years or more since your last vaccination, now is a good time for a booster. Meanwhile, Dr. Dolittle shares the amazing winning images of the inaugural Bio-Art competition on Life Lines. From the discharge of electric fish to the branching capillaries of a mouse kidney, serious science is made more accessible through imaging and visualization. And finally, The Weizmann Wave introduces us to the IceCube neutrino detector at the South Pole, where 5,000 detectors arrayed in a cubic kilometer of ice wait for weakly interacting massive particles. A summer day in Antarctica can reach 40°C below—but south of the equator, winter is just around the corner.

New Books & eBook Pricing

On EvolutionBlog, Jason Rosenhouse says his new book Among the Creationists: Dispatches From the Anti-Evolutionist Frontline is now available with turnable pages and a hardcover binding. Rosenhouse calls the book “a collection of stories and anecdotes from my experiences attending creationist conferences over the last ten years” as well as an exploration of religious and scientific viewpoints. Electronic versions of the book were released in February. On Uncertain Principles, author Chad Orzel reflects on the anti-trust suit filed by the US Department of Justice against major ebook publishers and Apple. Orzel writes “having been through the writing and editing process twice now, I find a lot of the arguments that publishers don’t actually provide anything of value to be somewhere between disingenuous and insulting.” Commenter SM says “the expensive thing in a novel is labour, not paper, and until you send it to the printer an ebook requires just as much labour as a hardcover.” How much should a well written, edited, and formatted ebook cost? And can we check them out at the library?

Barrel Bottoms Up

On Earth Day, Greg Laden took the opportunity to thank BP for the “modifications made to the ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico” by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Surviving specimens of coral “have been provided with hip new color schemes (mainly black and blackish),” while creatures such as shrimp and crabs exhibit physical deformities “which will surely make them easier to catch and, according to BP, does not affect their edibility.” Crude oil is organic, after all, as Kevin Bonham reminds us on We Beasties. He says “it turns out that nearly million barrels of oil naturally seeps out of the sea floor every year,” and microbes are used to eating the stuff. Bonham concludes “after the BP spill, these populations bloomed, and are still busily breaking down all that oil for food – perhaps as much as 40% by the time it’s all said and done.” Meanwhile, Sharon Astyk shares new EIA data on Casaubon’s Book, revealing that crude production has remained flat since 2005. Like it or not, oil is a limited resource—and it could soon be last call.

The Honeybee Bubble

By gluing radio chips to the backs of 800 honeybees, researchers proved that Neonicotinoid pesticides interfere with their behavior. Greg Laden reports that bees exposed to the common aphid-killer “forage abnormally, have ‘olfactory memory’ problems, are easily disoriented and become poor learners.” Fewer of them return to the colony. Laden observes, “One thing that strikes me as especially interesting here is that many bees don’t make it back over a fairly long period of time even under normal conditions, and that some bees stay out overnight!” Another likely contributor to Colony Collapse Disorder is a tiny parasitic fly that lays its eggs inside a bee. Dr. Dolittle writes, “scientists have identified a host of potential culprits including pesticides that might weaken their immune systems, pathogens, parasites, and malnutrition.” In an age of global agriculture and invasive species, honeybees are threatened on all sides. But they are also vital to the propagation of many fruit and vegetable crops.

No Star Unturned

On Dynamics of Cats, Steinn Sigurðsson sifts through Hubble’s vast catalog of stars, gas, and galaxies, looking for a diamond in the rough. Many images captured by the Hubble Space Telescope have never really been looked at; Sigurðsson says “In some cases the PI died before doing so. More usually these are engineering test images, or ‘parallel images,’ where a second camera was set to take images of wherever it happened to be pointed.” The European Space Agency wants your help to search through these pictures. In 2004, Hubble resolved the famous Ultra Deep-Field with 10,000 galaxies across three black arc-minutes of space. On Starts With a Bang, Ethan Siegel leads us through a new image of 200,000 galaxies produced by a telescope called VISTA. VISTA combined over 6000 exposures of a section of sky “about eight times the area of the full moon,” or about 800 times the area of Hubble’s UDF. Siegel says “the only remarkable thing about this patch of space is how unremarkable it was!” And there’s a lot more where that came from.