A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Posts Tagged ‘science

[BLOG] Some Thursday links

  • Centauri Dreams considers the possibility of probes hitchhiking, as it were.
  • Crooked Timber’s John Quiggin considers the problems with replicating papers.
  • The Dragon’s Gaze reports on a search for gas giant exoplanets orbiting massive A and F type stars.
  • Language Log looks at Scott Walker’s proposal for a US-Canada wall and finds it was no such thing.
  • Lawyers, Guns and Money considers the case of Kim Davis.
  • Torontoist notes the controversy surrounding a public discussion on carding.
  • The Volokh Conspiracy quotes Scalia as to why Kim Davis should find another job.
  • Window on Eurasia argues against Ukraine abandoning Crimea and Donbas, notes the negative impact of Donbas veterans on law and order in Russia, and examines the economic casualties of the Russian recession.

[LINK] “How We Can Tame Overlooked Wild Plants to Feed the World”

Wired‘s Hillary Rosner describes intriguing efforts by some scientists to produce wholly new food crops, using promising plants from the wild and breeding them into more useful forms.

A hand-painted wooden sign marks the entrance to Steven Cannon’s community garden, tucked between a sidewalk and some train tracks in Ames, Iowa. It depicts the iconic image of a seedling poking from a mound of dirt. At the far end of the garden, Cannon, a tall and reedy geneticist for the US Department of Agriculture, digs into the soil with a shovel and then his bare hands, pulling up fistfuls of lumpy roots. Strip the scene to its essence—ignore the cars driving past and the power lines strung overhead—and you could be watching a Neolithic farmer. They collected seeds from wild plants, buried them near their homes, and harvested the crop, hoping it would be bigger and better than the last one. That simple act—agriculture—came to define us as a species.

Cannon isn’t trying to re-create the past, though. He’s inventing the future. On this fall afternoon, his team is harvesting tubers that resemble dark-skinned fingerling potatoes. They’re called Apios americana, the potato bean—a legume endemic to North America. Native Americans gathered them and may even have served them at the first Thanksgiving. European settlers found them thriving in their cranberry bogs—places with low light, few nutrients, and bad soil. But they didn’t bother domesticating them into an agricultural staple.

After a couple hours of labor, Cannon’s harvest is complete. A dozen rubber bowls overflow with dirt-crusted tubers. Still, he is disappointed. “We were hoping for a little better yield,” he says. “This is about average.” Average is fine if you’re just messing around in a kitchen garden. But Cannon is up to something far more essential. The potato bean is part of his plan for remaking our food supply from the ground up. He doesn’t want to just grow Apios. He wants to turn it into a new crop that could help feed the world.

We need new crops. Thousands of years of breeding and decades of genetic modification have made the crops we sow predictable, easy to harvest, and capable of feeding more than 9 billion people. But they are also vulnerable to disease, pests, and the whims of weather. That’s troubling, because global warming is bringing more disease, more pests, and more whimsical weather. On current trend lines, global wheat and soybean harvest yields could fall by nearly 30 percent by midcentury. Corn yields could drop by 7.5 percent. In the baking-hot European summer of 2003, plant growth fell by 30 percent. By 2050, that kind of summer will be the new normal. “Suppose the US breadbasket ends up with a climate like Texas,” Cannon said at a genetics meeting last year. “We need to look to species already adapted to extremes.”

The potato bean is one of those species. Versatile like a potato, protein-rich like a bean, with a flavor vaguely like a starchy peanut, Apios does well in both dry and soggy soils. And there are plenty of others like it. Roughly 18,000 species of legumes grow around the world. They’re packed with protein and help fertilize the soil. Yet people have domesticated fewer than 50, and commonly eat only half that many. Cannon has assembled a short list of additional candidates: marama beans, yehub nuts, lupine, and a bunch of other so-called orphan crops, wild edible plants that could change the face of agriculture if someone could just turn them into reliable crops.

The article goes into much more detail, providing among other things recipes.

Written by Randy McDonald

September 2, 2015 at 7:43 pm

Posted in Science

Tagged with , , ,

[LINK] “The world’s most famous gorilla is showing signs of early speech”

Jake Flanigin’s Quartz article caught my attention.

Koko, a 44-year-old gorilla famous for her ability to communicate with keepers using sign language, is now showing signs of early speech. “Koko has developed vocal and breathing behaviors associated with the ability to talk, which were previously thought to be impossible in her species,” The Daily Mail reports. The new development could further blur the line between what distinguishes humans from some of our more hirsute cousins.

[. . .]

Primatologists have long believed in a limited “vocal repertoire” for each species of ape—rendering them unable to learn new sounds beyond a certain range. This theory suggests that development of verbal language is a uniquely human characteristic. Koko is perhaps on the verge of shattering scientific notion.

Marcus Perlman, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has been working at the Gorilla Foundation, which houses Koko, since 2011. “I went there with the idea of studying Koko’s gestures, but as I got into watching videos of her, I saw her performing all these amazing vocal behaviors,” he told The Daily Mail. These were learned behaviors, and not part of a “typical gorilla repertoire,” Perlman and fellow researchers found.

Though Koko’s command of sign language is indeed extraordinary, Perlman believes she is “no more gifted than other gorillas … The difference is just her environmental circumstances. You obviously don’t see things like this in wild populations.”

Written by Randy McDonald

September 1, 2015 at 7:32 pm

[LINK] “Sea level has climbed 8 centimetres since 1992”

CBC carries the Thomson Reuters report noting that sea levels have already risen in the past two decades.

Sea levels worldwide rose an average of nearly eight centimetres (3 inches) since 1992, the result of warming waters and melting ice, a panel of NASA scientists said on Wednesday.

In 2013, a United Nations panel predicted sea levels would rise from 0.3 to 0.9 metres (1 to 3 feet) by the end of the century.

The new research shows that sea level rise most likely will be at the high end of that range, said University of Colorado geophysicist Steve Nerem.

Sea levels are rising faster than they did 50 years ago and “it’s very likely to get worse in the future,” Nerem said.

The changes are not uniform. Some areas showed sea levels rising more than 25 cm (9 inches) and other regions, such as along the U.S. West Coast, actually falling, according to an analysis of 23 years of satellite data.

Written by Randy McDonald

August 27, 2015 at 7:48 pm

[LINK] “More Evidence That Comets May Have Brought Life to Earth”

Universe Today’s Nancy Atkinson presents evidence comets may have contributed to life on Earth, not by importing it but rather by making the precursor chemical compounds to life.

The idea of panspermia — that life on Earth originated from comets or asteroids bombarding our planet — is not new. But new research may have given the theory a boost. Scientists from Japan say their experiments show that early comet impacts could have caused amino acids to change into peptides, becoming the first building blocks of life. Not only would this help explain the genesis of life on Earth, but it could also have implications for life on other worlds.

Dr. Haruna Sugahara, from the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology in Yokahama, and Dr. Koichi Mimura, from Nagoya University said they conducted “shock experiments on frozen mixtures of amino acid, water ice and silicate (forsterite) at cryogenic condition (77 K),” according to their paper. “In the experiments, the frozen amino acid mixture was sealed into a capsule … a vertical propellant gun was used to [simulate] impact shock.”

They analyzed the post-impact mixture with gas chromatography, and found that some of the amino acids had joined into short peptides of up to 3 units long (tripeptides).

Based on the experimental data, the researchers were able to estimate that the amount of peptides produced would be around the same as had been thought to be produced by normal terrestrial processes (such as lighting storms or hydration and dehydration cycles).

Written by Randy McDonald

August 19, 2015 at 9:38 pm

Posted in Science

Tagged with , , , , ,

[BLOG] Some Friday links

  • blogTO lists the ten weirdest houses in Toronto.
  • Centauri Dreams takes issue with the science of Kim Stanley Robinson’s new novel Aurora.
  • Crooked Timber notes the ongoing controversy regarding the dismissal of Steven Salaita.
  • The Dragon’s Gaze reports on the imaging of exoplanet 51 Eridani b.
  • Joe. My. God. notes that Madonna is abandoning Russia for its homophobia.
  • The Power and the Money notes Douglas Muir’s argument that dictatorship, as a system of government, has not become less common.

[LINK] On the genetics of the octopus

I liked to the sensationally-titled Metro.co.uk article “Octopuses ‘are aliens’, scientists decide after DNA study” because it was so sensational. A Facebook friend’s suggestion, by way of providing inspiration of science fiction writers, that contemporary cephalopods are actually the technology-less descendants of ancient alien visitors, amused me. Another friend linked to Janet Fang’s IFL Science article “The California Two-Spot Is The First Octopus To Have Its Genome Sequenced”, much more sober and informative.

Cephalopods, which include the octopus, squid, cuttlefish, and nautilus, emerged as predators throughout the ancient seas half a billion years ago. They were likely the first intelligent life-forms on Earth, and these days, the list of octopus innovations is long and impressive: camera-like eyes, the ability to regenerate complex limbs, a propulsion system, and three hearts that keep blood pumping across the gills, to name a few.

Now, to investigate the molecular basis of the cephalopod brain – the largest nervous system among invertebrates – as well as their cool innovations, a team led by University of Chicago’s Caroline Albertin isolated and sequenced genomic DNA from a single male California two-spot octopus, Octopus bimaculoides. These clever problem solvers have a blue eyespot on either side of their heads. A juvenile female is pictured below to the right.

The octopus genome is about 2.7 billion base pairs in size, with long stretches of repeated sequences and more than 33,000 protein-coding genes. This means that their genome is slightly smaller than ours, but they have more genes. Researchers used to think that the large size of the octopus genome was due to whole genome duplication events during their evolution. But while these can result in increased genomic complexity, the team found no evidence of duplications.

Rather, a couple of gene families expanded, novel genes appeared, and the whole genome was shuffled around. “With a few notable exceptions, the octopus basically has a normal invertebrate genome that’s just been completely rearranged, like it’s been put into a blender and mixed,” Albertin says in a statement. “This leads to genes being placed in new genomic environments with different regulatory elements.”

Nature‘s “Octopus genome holds clues to uncanny intelligence” goes into more detail.

[T]he octopus genome turned out to be almost as large as a human’s and to contain a greater number of protein-coding genes — some 33,000, compared with fewer than 25,000 in Homo sapiens.

This excess results mostly from the expansion of a few specific gene families, Ragsdale says. One of the most remarkable gene groups is the protocadherins, which regulate the development of neurons and the short-range interactions between them. The octopus has 168 of these genes — more than twice as many as mammals. This resonates with the creature’s unusually large brain and the organ’s even-stranger anatomy. Of the octopus’s half a billion neurons — six times the number in a mouse — two-thirds spill out from its head through its arms, without the involvement of long-range fibres such as those in vertebrate spinal cords. The independent computing power of the arms, which can execute cognitive tasks even when dismembered, have made octopuses an object of study for neurobiologists such as Hochner and for roboticists who are collaborating on the development of soft, flexible robots.

A gene family that is involved in development, the zinc-finger transcription factors, is also highly expanded in octopuses. At around 1,800 genes, it is the second-largest gene family to be discovered in an animal, after the elephant’s 2,000 olfactory-receptor genes.

The analysis also turned up hundreds of other genes that are specific to the octopus and highly expressed in particular tissues. The suckers, for example, express a curious set of genes that are similar to those that encode receptors for the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. The genes seem to enable the octopus’s remarkable ability to taste with its suckers.

Written by Randy McDonald

August 14, 2015 at 7:33 pm


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 472 other followers