Sunday, October 28, 2012

Eat Your Heart Out

Spoiler alert! This could spoil your appetite. Read and view on at your own risk.

(Donna, I'm sorry I didn't spot these before you left London. Though maybe a walk in the Richmond Deer Park was a better use of your limited free time.)

Spotted in time for Halloween by Ed Yong on The Guardian's website: "Herpes cupcakes! Smoker’s lung cake! The world’s most revolting (anatomically correct) cakes." And not just herpes: a full range of STD cupcakes (affectionately known as "STuD Muffins", I'm sure). Many more delights, including "a cup of flesh". All available (for a limited time only, ends today) at the cake shop at the Pathology Museum in London. All are edible. All depict some kind of morbidity.

As I understand it, you pay three and a half pounds, and you get what you get. Just like diseases in real life ... you don't get to choose, for the most part.

Some of these (as Ed notes) are delightfully repulsive. All would be loads of fun to have arrive on a plate at one's table. Here's one that probably won't put anyone off their feed. It probably fits the "eat your heart out" theme best. It's a fruit cake wrapped in marzipan ... with stitches.

I think my favorite are the Magotty Cupcakes. I'll put a photo at the bottom of this post so that the queasy among you can avoid it. But if you have the stomach, look at all 11 photos. They're really beautifully done. Happy Halloween!

Announcement from The Guardian website:

The world's most revolting cakes - in pictures

A repulsive cake shop is about to open at London's Pathology Museum graphically illustrating medical conditions and symptoms of disease in sugar, chocolate and sponge. Catch it while you can ...

 Eat Your Heart Out 2012 runs from 26–28 October at St Bart's Hospital, London

... and, as promised:

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Two Stories about Birds by Ed Yong

I'm always on the lookout for bits about the physiology or anatomy of a bird that helps explain some unique behavior. Here are a couple of pieces by Ed Yong that fit that bill (sorry).

In this first story, Ed reports on some new thinking about why the New Caledonian crows are even better at innovative tool use than other corvids (crows, ravens, jays, etc.). You've probably seen some of the videos of New Caledonian crows using tools to get morsels of food, even using one tool to get another and using that second tool to get the food. (If you haven't seen the videos, Ed's piece has links to those, too.)

Smarter than the average crow, or just equipped with a face for fishing?

"Our intelligence clearly surpasses those of our primate relatives, even though other apes and monkeys also rank within the highest tiers of animal smarts. Likewise, the corvids – the group of birds that includes crows, ravens, rooks, magpies and jays – have very sophisticated brains for birds, but one species reputedly outclasses the rest. It’s the New Caledonian crow.

"Found in a Pacific island, this crow wields tools in a way that none of its relatives can match. It uses sticks to “fish” for grubs buried in dead wood, and can chosen the right tool for different jobs,combine tools together, and improvise from unusual materials. These abilities have fuelled the New Caledonian crow’s reputation as the top of the corvid class – an unusually intelligent member of an already intelligent family.

"But what if it just has the right face?" ...

And in a second story mentioned in the first one, Ed did a nice job of explaining why vultures, so sharp-sighted, are so very bad at avoiding the blades of the turbines in big wind farms.

Vulture blind spots lead to collisions with wind turbines

"Vultures have such large blind spots in their visual field that they cannot see objects directly in front of them when they fly. This discovery explains why vultures frequently collide with conspicuous structures such as wind turbines and power lines, despite having some of the sharpest eyes of any animal.

"This means that making wind turbines more conspicuous will do little to reduce collisions. 'You can paint them with bright stripes or hang things off them, but that won’t be effective,' says Graham Martin, an ornithologist at the University of Birmingham, UK, who led the study published this week in the journal Ibis. 'You’ve got to keep the birds and the turbines apart.'"

Reprogrammed Cells

This week, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine went to Gurdon and Yamanaka for work related to cloning and reprogramming somatic cells to pluripotency. New York Times: "Cloning and Stem Cell Work Earns Nobel".

Also this week, there were a couple of good reprogramming-related science stories:

Ed Yong wrote in The Scientist about success in reprogramming a type of brain cells (pericytes) into neurons in both mouse and human cell cultures ... without cell divisions.
Image  courtesy M. Karow et al., 2012
Growing New Neurons

"Making new neurons in the brain may not be as hard as once believed. Using just two proteins and without any cell divisions, scientists from Ludwig-Maximilians University Munich succeeded in reprogramming brain cells known as pericytes into neurons in both cultured cells from humans and mice."

And Katherine Harmon at Scientific American Blogs wrote about turning two types of mouse stem cells into viable mouse egg cells that were successfully fertilized and produced healthy baby mice.
Mouse pups from induced pluripotent
stem cell-derived eggs;
image courtesy of Katsuhiko Hayashi

Stem cells have been coaxed into creating everything from liver cells to beating heart tissue. Recently, these versatile cells were even used to make fertile mouse sperm. ... Now two types of stem cells have been turned into viable mouse egg cells that were fertilized and eventually yielded healthy baby mice.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Cryptobiotic Soil Crusts

Very informative post by Chris Clark on "Cyanobacteria, the desert soil, and you" at Pharyngula. I learned a lot. I'll include a bit of Clark's post below, but the whole thing isn't all that long ... and it's good.

Soil crust in Utah | J. Brew photo
"Cryptobiotic soil crusts, also referred to as cryptogamic soils, or just plain “crypto,” are pretty common in arid lands that haven’t been disturbed for a while. They’re alive, as indicated by the  suffix “biotic”: living communities of half a dozen different kinds of organisms: cyanobacteria, green and brown algae, fungi, lichens, mosses and liverworts. The “crypto” part means that when conditions are less than optimal, the organisms that make up the crust can go dormant, seeming to die off — “hiding” their life. Cryptobiotic.

"The crusts develop in places where there isn’t enough moisture to maintain a soil vegetative cover: no trees, no sod, no leaf litter, no humus. They usually start with filamentous cyanobacteria, which grow mats similar to fungal mycelia penetrating the top inch or three of soil. Cyanobacteria photosynthesize and many of them fix nitrogen, so  all they need to grow is water and a few soil nutrients. When it’s wet they extend their filamentous sheathes into the soil, which is exactly as sexy as it sounds, and then when the drought comes the cyanobacteria shrink back but the sheathes — made of polysaccharides, mainly — stay behind.

"Sometimes the crusts begin with green algae instead of cyanobacteria, often in places where the base soil is more acidic. Sometimes the two foundational phyla coexist, and sometimes a crust’s bedrock filament mat will shift from one to the other if soil pH shifts. Over time an entire swath of soil can become riddled with the filaments, and other organisms colonize them. Lichens are common crust inhabitants, as are free-living fungi, and the fungal hyphae from both add to the sturdiness of the crust. Mosses often join the cryptobiotic crust community, as do liverworts ..."