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Posts Tagged ‘biology

“Extreme remedies are very appropriate for extreme diseases”*…

 

frog

The Toad Mountain harlequin frog is endangered and at risk from the Bd fungus

 

A century ago, a strain of pandemic flu killed up to 100 million people—5 percent of the world’s population. In 2013, a new mystery illness swept the western coast of North America, causing starfish to disintegrate. In 2015, a big-nosed Asian antelope known as the saiga lost two-thirds of its population—some 200,000 individuals—to what now looks to be a bacterial infection. But none of these devastating infections comes close to the destructive power of Bd—a singularly apocalyptic fungus that’s unrivaled in its ability not only to kill animals, but to delete entire species from existence.

Bd—Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis in full—kills frogs and other amphibians by eating away at their skin and triggering fatal heart attacks. It’s often said that the fungus has caused the decline or extinction of 200 amphibian species, but that figure is almost two decades out-of-date. New figures, compiled by a team led by Ben Scheele from the Australian National University, are much worse.

Scheele’s team estimates that the fungus has caused the decline of 501 amphibian species—about 6.5 percent of the known total. Of these, 90 have been wiped out entirely. Another 124 have fallen by more than 90 percent, and their odds of recovery are slim. Never in recorded history has a single disease burned down so much of the tree of life. “It rewrote our understanding of what disease could do to wildlife,” Scheele says…

The story of an unprecedented pathogen: “The Worst Disease Ever Recorded.” (Lest one rest too easily because this threat seems to target not humans but animals at some distance on the tree of life, see here.)

* Hippocrates

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As we do our best to stave off extinctions, we might recall that on this date in 1981, Nature set the world’s record for “Longest Scientific Name” when it published the systematic name for the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) of the human mitochondria; it contains 16,569 nucleotide residues and is thus about 207,000 letters long.

220px-Map_of_the_human_mitochondrial_genome.svg

The 16,569 bp long human mitochondrial genome with the protein-coding, ribosomal RNA, and transfer RNA genes

source

 

Written by LW

April 9, 2019 at 1:01 am

“It is a good day to study lichens”*…

 

lichen

Wolf lichen

Science is sometimes caricatured as a wholly objective pursuit that allows us to understand the world through the lens of neutral empiricism. But the conclusions that scientists draw from their data, and the very questions they choose to ask, depend on their assumptions about the world, the culture in which they work, and the vocabulary they use. The scientist Toby Spribille once said to me, “We can only ask questions that we have imagination for.” And he should know, because no group of organisms better exemplifies this principle than the one Spribille is obsessed with: lichens.

Lichens can be found growing on bark, rocks, or walls; in woodlands, deserts, or tundra; as coralline branches, tiny cups, or leaflike fronds. They look like plants or fungi, and for the longest time, biologists thought that they were. But 150 years ago, a Swiss botanist named Simon Schwendener suggested the radical hypothesis that lichens are composite organisms—fungi, living together with microscopic algae.

It was the right hypothesis at the wrong time. The very notion of different organisms living so closely with—or within—each other was unheard of. That they should coexist to their mutual benefit was more ludicrous still. This was a mere decade after Charles Darwin had published his masterpiece, On the Origin of Species, and many biologists were gripped by the idea of nature as a gladiatorial arena, shaped by conflict. Against this zeitgeist, the concept of cohabiting, cooperative organisms found little purchase. Lichenologists spent decades rejecting and ridiculing Schwendener’s “dual hypothesis.” And he himself wrongly argued that the fungus enslaved or imprisoned the alga, robbing it of nutrients. As others later showed, that’s not the case: Both partners provide nutrients to each other…

Gorgeous and weird, lichens have pushed the boundaries of our understanding of nature– and our way of studying it.  Learn more at: “The Overlooked Organisms That Keep Challenging Our Assumptions About Life.”

* Henry David Thoreau, A Year in Thoreau’s Journal: 1851

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As we contemplate cooperation, we might spare a thought for John James Audubon; he died on this date in 1851.  An ornithologist, naturalist, and artist, Audubon documented all types of American birds with detailed illustrations depicting the birds in their natural habitats.  His The Birds of America (1827–1839), in which he identified 25 new species, is considered one of the most important– and finest– ornithological works ever completed.

Book plate featuring Audubon’s print of the Greater Prairie Chicken

 source

Happy Birthday, Dante, Mozart, and Lewis Carroll!

Written by LW

January 27, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Science is a process”*…

 

klee

Paul Klee, “The Bounds of the Intellect,” 1927 (detail)

 

When my grandfather died last fall, it fell to my sisters and me to sort through the books and papers in his home in East Tennessee. My grandfather was a nuclear physicist, my grandmother a mathematician, and among their novels and magazines were reams of scientific publications. In the wood-paneled study, we passed around great sheaves of papers for sorting, filling the air with dust.

My youngest sister put a pile of yellowing papers in front of me, and I started to leaf through the typewritten letters and scholarly articles. Then my eyes fell on the words fundamental breakthroughspectacular, and revolutionary. Letters from some of the biggest names in physics fell out of the folders, in correspondence going back to 1979.

In this stack, I found, was evidence of a mystery. My grandfather had a theory, one that he believed to be among the most important work of his career. And it had never been published…

The remarkable– and illuminating– story of Veronique (Nikki) Greenwood’s quest to determine whether her grandfather was “a genius or a crackpot”: “My Grandfather Thought He Solved a Cosmic Mystery.”

* T.S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolution

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As we note that the history of science is, effectively, the history of the instruments developed to help us “see” things smaller, larger, smaller, farther, or outside our human sensory range, we might recall that it was on this date in 1664 that natural philosopher, architect and pioneer of the Scientific Revolution Robert Hooke showed an advance copy of his book Micrographia— a chronicle of Hooke’s observations through various lens– to members of the Royal Society.  The volume (which coined the word “cell” in a biological context) went on to become the first scientific best-seller, and inspired broad interest in the new science of microscopy.

source: Cal Tech

Note that the image above is of an edition of Micrographia dated 1665.  Indeed, while (per the above) the text was previewed to the Royal Society in 1664 (to wit the letter, verso), the book wasn’t published until September, 1665.  Note too that Micrographia is in English (while most scientific books of that time were still in Latin)– a fact that no doubt contributed to its best-seller status.

 

Written by LW

November 4, 2018 at 1:01 am

“From so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved”*…

 

tree-of-life_1000

This Tree of Life diagram is based primarily on the evolutionary relationships so wonderfully related in Dr. Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale, and timetree.org. The smallest branches are purely illustrative. They are intended to suggest the effect of mass extinctions on diversity, and changes in diversity through time. This diagram is NOT intended to be a scholarly reference tool! It is intended to be an easy-to-understand illustration of the core evolution principle; we are related not only to every living thing, but also to everything that has ever lived on Earth

Climb around in The Interactive Tree of Life Explorer.

* Charles Darwin

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As we ponder our progenitors, we might a thought for Kenneth Page Oakley; he died on this ate in 1981.  An anthropologist, paleontologist, and geologist, he  developed a method of dating fossilized bones by measuring their fluoride levels (based on a French mineralogist’s theory that bones would gradually absorb fluoride from surrounding soil).  He was able to use his technique, in 1953, to expose the “Piltdown Man” skull as a forgery.  It had been “unearthed” in 1912, in Piltdown, England, and had for decades been said to represent the “missing link” in human evolution.

Oakley source

 

Written by LW

November 2, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Now I can look at you in peace; I don’t eat you any more.”…

 

TulaneFishArchiveInterior

Hidden in a bend of the Mississippi River just south of New Orleans, 29 concrete bunkers lie on a grid of dirt and grass roads. Some hold remnants from the past—40-year-old gas masks and biohazard signs still hang on a wall. Most of them have been abandoned for decades. But inside two of those bunkers, 15 million fish eyes stare at the walls through the glass of their jars. This is the Royal D. Suttkus Fish Collection, the largest collection of preserved fish in the world, and almost no one knows it exists…

More of the story– and explore the collection– at “A Pair of WWII Bunkers in New Orleans Contains 7 Million Fish.”

* Franz Kafka (commenting on his then new-found vegetarianism)

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As we ponder preservation, we might spare a thought for David Starr Jordan; he died on this date in 1931.  The leading ichthyologist of his time, he was also an educator and advocate for science.  He became the youngest President of Indiana University, then founding President of Stanford; he was an expert witness at the Scopes Trial, testifying for the efficacy of the theory of evolution.

His career was not unblemished however: he helped cover up the murder of Jane Stanford, and argued in favor of eugenics.

220px-Portrait_of_David_Starr_Jordan source

 

 

“Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents”*…

 

st-patrick-snakes

During St. Patrick’s Day, most revelers won’t remember the patron saint of Ireland for his role as a snake killer. But legend holds that the Christian missionary rid the slithering reptiles from Ireland‘s shores as he converted its peoples from paganism during the fifth century A.D.

St. Patrick supposedly chased the snakes into the sea after they began attacking him during a 40-day fast he undertook on top of a hill. An unlikely tale, perhaps—yet Ireland is unusual for its absence of native snakes. It’s one of only a handful of places worldwide—including New Zealand, Iceland, Greenland, and Antarctica—where Indiana Jones and other snake-averse humans can visit without fear.

But St. Patrick had nothing to do with Ireland’s snake-free status, scientists say….

Find out what actually happened to those snakes at : “Snakeless in Ireland: Blame Ice Age, Not St. Patrick.”

[image above: source]

* Luke 10:12

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As we just say no to serpents, we might send chronically-correct birthday greetings to Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon; he was born on this date in 1707.  A naturalist, mathematician, cosmologist, and encyclopédiste, Buffon formulated a crude theory of evolution, and was the first to suggest that the earth might be older than suggested by the Bible: in 1778 he proposed that the Earth was hot at its creation and, judging from the rate of its cooling, calculated its age to be 75,000 years, with life emerging some 40,000 years ago.

In 1739 Buffon was appointed keeper of the Jardin du Roi, a post he occupied until his death. There he worked on the comprehensive work on natural history for which he is remembered, Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière. He began in 1749, and it dominated the rest of his life.  It would eventually run to 44 volumes, covering quadrupeds, birds, reptiles and minerals.  As Max Ernst remarked, “truly, Buffon was the father of all thought in natural history in the second half of the 18th century.”

 source

 

Written by LW

September 7, 2018 at 1:01 am

“It would be a very naive sort of dogmatism to assume that there exists an absolute reality of things which is the same for all living beings”*…

 

Clockwork sized-archive-trunk

Detail of the nerves of the trunk from Cerebri Anatome 1664 by Thomas Willis

 

The model of nature as a complex, clockwork mechanism has been central to modern science ever since the 17th century. It continues to appear regularly throughout the sciences, from quantum mechanics to evolutionary biology. But for Descartes and his contemporaries, ‘mechanism’ did not signify the sort of inert, regular, predictable functioning that the word connotes today. Instead, it often suggested the very opposite: responsiveness, engagement, caprice. Yet over the course of the 17th century, the idea of machinery narrowed into something passive, without agency or force of its own life. The earlier notion of active, responsive mechanism largely gave way to a new, brute mechanism…

The idea that nature is a humming, complex, clockwork machine has been around for centuries. Is it due for a revival? “Alive and Ticking.”

* Ernst Cassirer, An Essay on Man: An Introduction to a Philosophy of Human Culture

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As we muse on the mechanical, we might send insightful birthday greetings to Loren Eiseley; he was born on this date in 1907.  An anthropologist, educator, philosopher, and natural science writer, he was one of the preeminent literary naturalists of our time.   Publishers Weekly called him “the modern Thoreau.” Fellow science writer Orville Prescott praised him as a scientist who “can write with poetic sensibility and with a fine sense of wonder and of reverence before the mysteries of life and nature.” And Ray Bradbury, praising Eiseley’s “The Unexpected Universe,” remarked, “[Eiseley] is every writer’s writer, and every human’s human… One of us, yet most uncommon…”

You can find his annotated bibliography here.

220px-Eiseley_UPenn source

 

Written by LW

September 3, 2018 at 1:01 am

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