Friday, August 31, 2012

Mozambique Bugs photo gallery

Lovely photos:
For example:

Julie Bosman describes the project:
Earlier this year, scientists from Harvard spent two months documenting insects in Mozambique. This was the first step in a long-term project, led by the biologist E. O. Wilson, to survey all life — and then help restore it — in the Gorongosa National Park, which was nearly destroyed by the country’s civil war. To avoid killing his portrait subjects, one of the entomologists, Piotr Naskrecki, built an open-air studio of white fabric that the bugs were free to flee if they wanted. Some did, forcing Naskrecki to chase them down. Others stayed — perhaps out of curiosity. ‘‘They will look at you, they will judge you,’’ he says. ‘‘They were very suspicious of the camera, and they were very wary of me. I’m sure that none of these animals had ever seen a human. They did not know what to make of us.’’

The Oracle and the Monkey

From Heather Pringle at The Last Word on Nothing, a nice portrait of Maria Reiche in her solitary, declining days: The Oracle and the Monkey
The Oracle and the Monkey
For nearly five decades, a scientific loner guarded a great labyrinth of lines on the desert floor near the small Peruvian town of Nazca. Day after day, until she was too elderly and too ill for such solitary work, Maria Reiche set out into the barren vastness with camera, compass, and papers, mapping thousands of straight lines and dozens of immense ground drawings inscribed on the desert floor more than 1500 years ago by the Nazca, masters of maize agriculture and irrigation.
Reiche had studied mathematics as a young university student in Weimar Germany. She thought that the Nazca Lines formed a vast celestial calendar, an early scientific masterpiece akin to the calendar that Maya astronomers created and preserved in bark-paper books known as codices. Reiche believed the desert was a Nazca codex, and she brooked no intruders, no vandals on the lines. She paid for guards herself, and by the strength of her convictions she persuaded the Peruvian government to protect the lines. After her death in 1998, Alberto Fujimori, then president of Peru, talked of renaming them the Reiche Lines.
I was reminded of all this, when I came across a Reuters news story from Lima last week.  Squatters recently invaded land next to the Nazca Lines, hammering together a makeshift settlement complete with pig corrals. The incursion now threatens delicate lines created long ago by clearing away small dark-colored pebbles from the lighter-colored desert floor. Archaeologists studying the Nazca culture are deeply worried: under Peruvian law, only a lengthy legal process can evict the squatters ...

Two more by Ed Yong this week

A great backgrounder on mites and another chapter in the gene-transfers-among-bacteria story. It's been quite a productive week for Ed! Quality and quantity.

Everything you never wanted to know about the mites that eat, crawl, and have sex on your face

Top of the story:
Everything you never wanted to know about the mites that eat, crawl, and have sex on your face
New Scientist published a story yesterday stating that rosacea – a common skin disease characterised by red blotches on one's face – may be "caused" (more on this later) by "tiny bugs closely related to spiders living in the pores of your face." Tiny bugs that "crawl about your face in the dark", lay eggs in your pores, and release a burst of faeces when they die.
This is the terrifying world of the Demodex mite. And by "terrifying world", I mean your face. For anyone who wants to know more, and who isn't currently clawing at their cheeks or bleaching their head (health tip: don't), here's everything you never wanted to know about your face-mites.
Say hello to my little friend
Mites are relatives of ticks, spiders, scorpions and other arachnids. Over 48,000 species have been described. Around 65 of them belong to the genus Demodex, and two of those live on your face. There's D.folliculorum, the round-bottomed, bigger one (top image, above) and there's D.brevis, the pointy-bottomed, smaller one (bottom image, above). These two species are evolution's special gift to you. They live on humans and humans alone. ...

Harmless soil bacteria are trading weapons with those that kill us

There are bacteria in the soil that can resist our antibiotics. That's predictable – these drugs are our versions of natural compounds that bacteria have been assaulted with for millions of years. Of course, they would have evolved resistance.
There are also disease-causing bacteria in our hospitals and clinics that can resist our antibiotics. That's predictable too – we expose ourselves, often unnecessarily, to high doses of such drugs. Of course, bacteria would have evolved resistance.
Here's something fascinating though: some of the genes that confer resistance to the harmless soil bacteria are exactly the same as the ones that confer resistance to the devastating clinical ones. Exactly the same, DNA letter for DNA letter.
This new discovery, by Gautam Dantas, suggests that environmental bacteria may be supplying genetic weapons to the ones that kill us (or the other way around). I've written about this secret arms trade for The Scientist. Check it out.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Undone, a short film

This is a lovely, poignant little 6-minute film. The creator, Hayley Morris, describes it this way:
A drifting man struggles to pull objects from the roiling sea below him and scrambles to keep the objects from slipping through his fingers. A stop-motion animation using textured and tactile materials, as well as personal imagery, that represents the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Inspired by my grandfather.

I've linked the above image to the video on Haley Morris's website. Maria Popova blogged about the film, but I've had trouble playing it on her Brain Pickings page:
Beautiful Stop-Motion Animated Film About the Progression of Alzheimer’s


Two Days from Ed Yong

It's been quite a week for stories from Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science. All five of these (posted in three days) are good and well worth a peek:

One gait-keeper gene allows horses to move in unusual ways

(European Robin)
Robins start with a magnetic compass in both eyes, and end up with just one

Reading your body clock with a molecular timetable, inspired by flowers

Unlike humans, chimpanzees only punish when they’ve been personally wronged

We can learn new information when we sleep


Saturday, August 25, 2012

Rusten's Picks from among Ed Yong's Weekly Picks

  Ed Yong

Stories, Short and Long
This is such a great image, well-narrated: picture the energy of the world as a giant waterfall, says Ollie Morton.
Lampreys purge 20% of genome from most cells. That’ll be the fraction that codes for mercy, then. [Rusten: do lampreys have lower than expected rates of cancer?]
The evolutionary history of dragons, illustrated by a scientist [Rusten: teaching phylogeny to dragon-lovers]
What do tool-making bonobos tell us about our own origins? Good coverage by Brandon Keim, and Sue Savage-Rumbaugh addresses the most important point here.
Cities are using nature to cut pollution – the rise of Green infrastructure  [Rusten: strong Puget Sound focus]
The war on parasites from the point of view of a bird and an extinct dinosaur [Rusten: ectoparasites driving morphological change]

Some videos and photos (with and without text)
Bacterium on a diatom on an amphipod! Amazing. [Rusten: be sure to click the link if it isn't moving ... amazing zoom]
French lake turns blood red. High salt content kills shrimp & releases the red algae they eat [Rusten: not surprising after the SF Bay salt ponds story]
Incredible mimicry: New species wants you to See No Weevil
More cool mimicry: a ladybug-mimicking spider
Gorgeous shot of a school of cownose rays
7 buildings that appear to defy the laws of physics
Squid camouflage cells pulsate to the tune of Cypress Hill. Insane! In the membrane!


Pelagic Animals

Wonderful gallery of pelagic critters:
A couple of thumbnail photos to get you started:


Genome detectives unravel spread of stealthy bacteria in a hospital

From Ed Yong. Fascinating summary including graphics from the original article:
See also Deb Blum's summary of coverage of this story at Knight Science Journalism Tracker.

Top of the story:

On 13 June, 2011, a woman was transferred to the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center with an infection of Klebsiella pneumoniae. This opportunistic bacterium likes to infect people whose immune systems have been previously weakened, and it does well in hospitals. In recent years, it has also evolved resistance to carbapenems – the frontline antibiotics that are usually used to treat it. These resistant strains kill more than half of the people they infect, and the new patient at the NIH hospital was carrying just such a strain.
She was kept to herself, in her own room. Any doctors or visitors had to wear gowns and gloves. The only contacts she had with other patients were two brief stints in an intensive care unit.
The woman eventually recovered and was released on 15 July. But by then, she had already spread her infection to at least three other patients, despite the hospital’s strict precautions. None of them knew it at the time, for K.pneumoniae can silently colonise the guts of its host without causing symptoms for long spans of time.
The second patient was diagnosed with K.pneumoniae on 5 August, ...

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Tracks of an Oak Killer

An informative story on sudden oak death (which has nearly wiped out the tan oaks and toppled some huge live oaks around our Healdsburg house) from recent UCSC Science Communications grad Erin Loury:

Top of the story:

The oak tree is so massive that it takes a minute for us to spot signs of the attack. A half dozen enormous branches arch over us, dividing into twisted limbs that stretch to the ground and form a cavernous tent of shiny green leaves. My guide, UC Berkeley researcher Doug Schmidt, works his flashlight over the chest-high base of one branch. Unlike the rest of the trunk, this patch is bare of frilled lichens and tendrils of moss. “See how it’s brown and bruised here?” he says. “That’s the disease fighting its way into the tree, and the tree defending itself.”

It’s a hopeless attempt. When the weather warms, an oozing red sap will bleed from the trunk as the silent killer marches around it, severing the tree’s food and water supply. In a year or two, all life will have drained from this century-old sentinel at the entrance of Sonoma County’s Fairfield Osborn Preserve. One powerful gust of wind could snap the skeleton tree, sending its stately crown of branches crashing to the earth.

All from a bit of slime.

Antibiotics fuel obesity by creating microbe upheavals

From Ed Yong:

 Top of the story:
Antibiotics fuel obesity by creating microbe upheavals
We aren't single individuals, but colonies of trillions. Our bodies, and our guts in particular, are home to vast swarms of bacteria and other microbes. This "microbiota" helps us to harvest energy from our food by breaking down the complex molecules that our own cells cannot cope with. They build vitamins that we cannot manufacture. They 'talk to' our immune system to ensure that it develops correctly, and they prevent invasions from other more harmful microbes. They're our partners in life.
What happens when we kill them?
Farmers have been doing that experiment in animals for more than 50 years. By feeding low doses of antibiotics to healthy farm animals, they've found that they could fatten up their livestock by as much as 15 percent. You can put the antibiotics in their feed or in their water. You can give the drugs to cows, sheep, pigs or chickens. You can try penicillins, or tetracyclines, or many other classes of antibiotics. The effect is the same: more weight.
Consistent though this effect is, no one really understands why it works. The safe bet is that the drugs are exerting their influence by killing off ...