Life Sciences

UPDATE (March 27 2015): US gives Texan rhino hunter an import permit A Texan who won an auction to shoot an endangered black rhino in Namibia has been given a US permit to import the trophy if he kills one. The US Fish and Wildlife Service said hunting an old rhino bull helps to increase the population. There was an outcry when Corey Knowlton won the auction last year, with animal rights activists decrying it. It's not yet clear when the hunt will happen. Namibia is home to some 1,500 black rhino, a third of the world's total. The US agency issuing the permit said that importing the carcass…
One of the more bizarre bits of cancer quackery that I've come across is that of an Italian doctor (who, like many cancer quacks, appears not to be a board-certified oncologist) named Tullio Simoncini, who claims that cancer is really a fungus and has even written a book about it, entitled, appropriately enough for this particular quackery, Cancer Is A Fungus. The first time I encountered Simoncini, about five years ago, I was floored by his arguments, not because of how bizarre they were (although that was part of it) because of their sheer stupidity. Seriously, Simoncini's reasoning—if "…
Guest post by Tim Fothergill, Ph.D. In January of this year the British Chief Medical Officer urged her government to add  threat posed by superbugs to the official list of "Apocalypses to Worry About" along with catastrophic terrorist attacks and massive flooding. With typical British understatement, its actual name is the National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies but a very stark picture was painted of a post-antibiotic world in which routine operations, such as hip replacements, could prove fatal. In September, The Centers for Disease Control in the US issued a similar statement which…
Over at Uncommon Descent, Vincent Torley serves up a long post about the problem of evil. He was responding to this post by John Loftus, but Torley's post can mostly be read independently of what Loftus wrote. I devote a chapter of Among the Creationists to the problem of evil. I open the chapter like this: Pride of place among theological problems must surely go to the problem of evil. That there is something incongruous in the picture of a just and loving God presiding over a world of extravagant cruelty and suffering is obvious to even the most unreflective person. Indeed. I've…
Somebody tipped over a bag full of a white powdery substance. Most of what fell out splayed across the dirty wooden table, but about a cup poured onto the dirt floor of the open-air Baraza at our research site in a remote part of the Congo’s Ituri Forest. Embarrassed about tipping onto the ground more of this valuable substance than most people living within 50 kilometers would ever see in one day, the tipper started to push loose dirt onto the powder to cover it up. But the spill had been noticed by two children lounging nearby; in what seemed like a fraction of a second, the boys were face…
I've had, off and on, a minor obsession with a particular number. That number is 210. Look for it in any review of evolutionary complexity; some number in the 200+ range will get trotted out as the estimated number of cell types in a chordate/vertebrate/mammal/human, and it will typically be touted as the peak number of cell types in any organism. We have the most cellular diversity! Yay for us! We are sooo complicated! It's an aspect of the Deflated Ego problem, in which scientists exercise a little confirmation bias to find some metric that puts humans at the top of the complexity heap.…
I prepared for the Carnival of Evolution late at night over the last several days, bracketing the Halloween holiday, and coupled them with my traditional custom of watching horror movies. It wasn't a good match. The evolutionary stories were far more frightening! Terrifying complexity! psynetresearch Let us consider the mind-blasting madness of dealing with tens of thousands of genes interacting epistatically with one another. The second problem is that while it may in theory be possible to assign fitnesses to individual alleles at individual loci, there are some 25,000 loci in humans,…
One of the things that I've noticed over the last (nearly) nine years blogging about pseudocience, quackery, and conspiracy theories is that a person who believes in one form of woo has a tendency to believe in other forms of woo. You've probably noticed it too. I've lost count of the examples that I've seen of antivaccinationists who are into other forms of quackery, of quacks who are 9/11 Truthers, of HIV/AIDS denialists who are anthropogenic global warming denialists, and nearly every combination of these and many other forms of pseudoscience, pseudohistory, and denialism. Several years…
Over the years, I've not infrequently noted that there is a serious disconnect between what most people would think of as "natural" and what is considered "natural" in the world of "complementary and alternative medicine," or, as I like to call it, CAMworld. I started thinking about this again after yesterday's post about Jessica Ainscough's decision to treat her rare sarcoma with the quackery that is the Gerson therapy and how her mother's decision to use the same quackery, instead of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, resulted in her untimely demise. Reading over Jessica Ainscough's blog…
John Bohannon of Science magazine has developed a fake science paper generator. He wrote a little, simple program, pushes a button, and gets hundreds of phony papers, each unique with different authors and different molecules and different cancers, in a format that's painfully familiar to anyone who has read any cancer journals recently. The goal was to create a credible but mundane scientific paper, one with such grave errors that a competent peer reviewer should easily identify it as flawed and unpublishable. Submitting identical papers to hundreds of journals would be asking for trouble.…
Image from www.123rf.com A new study published in the American Journal of Physiology presents data suggesting that birds do not carry a specific anti-inflammatory protein critical for keeping inflammation under control in mammals, reptiles and amphibians. The specific protein is tristetraprolin (TTP). It functions mainly by inhibiting key mediators of inflammation in the body, such as tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNFa). In fact, mice that are missing this protein have chronic systemic inflammation from unchecked TNFa. Moreover, mice missing the protein specifically in myeloid cells develop…
Image of Indian Flying Fox from Wikipedia, Fritz Geller-Grimm An ambititous project seeks to identify all unknown viruses in mammals to determine the relative risk of infection to humans and to develop strategies to prevent and treat infections before they become pandemics. The pioneering research team is led by Dr. Simon Anthony at Columbia University and Dr. Peter Daszak from EcoHealth Alliance. The team started by looking for viral infections in the Indian flying fox (Pteropus giganteus), a species with pathogens known to transfer to humans (Nipah and Hendra viruses). Over five years,…
Image of velvet worm from: Oliveira et al / Zoologischer Anzeiger A new species of velvet worm (Eoperipatus totoros) is the first to be described from Vietnam after its discovery in 2010. This 2.5 inch long worm is distinguished from other velvet worms by hairs with unique shapes that cover its body.  These animals are difficult to find and study because they are usually hiding in the moist soil to prevent dehydration. However, during the rainy season, they exit the soil and can be spotted. What is neat about these worms is that they hunt by spraying a glue-like substance from two…
Life has been growing on Earth for about 4 billion years, and during that time there have been a handful of mass extinctions that have wiped out a large percentage of complex lifeforms.  Asteroid impact, volcanic eruption, climate change, anoxia, and poison have dispatched untold numbers of once-successful species to total oblivion or a few lucky fossils.  Species also die off regularly for much less spectacular reasons, and altogether about 98% of documented species no longer exist. Cry me a river, you say, without all that death there would have been no gap for vertebrates, for mammals, for…
The Bottleneck Years by H.E. Taylor Chapter 49 Table of Contents Chapter 51 Chapter 50 Eco 110 - Carrying Capacity, January 15, 2057 Notes on a lecture It was the first class of the term. I was purposefully late, because I wanted everyone to be present and impatient. I walked in, dropped my case on the wide black presentation desk and turned to face the old theatre style hall. "Okay, here is the question: Are we collectively smarter than a vat of yeast?" I let that sink in for a few seconds, then continued with: "The topic for today is carrying capacity. "Intuitively, the idea is how many…
Image of the 52 Hertz whale song from Wikimedia Commons, NOAA. According to Discovery News, scientists and filmmakers are on the hunt for what people have called the Loneliest Whale in the World. In 1989 William Watkins (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) discovered the vocalizations of a whale that were unlike that of any other whale. The vocalizations of the mystery whale were 52 Hertz whereas other whales sing in the 17-18 Hertz range, allowing their songs to travel far distances. Beginning in 1992, he and his team started tracking the movements of the 52 Hertz whale using recordings…
The evidence from real-world observations, sophisticated computer models, and research in hundreds of different fields continues to pile up: human-caused climate change is already occurring and will continue to get worse and worse as greenhouse-gas concentrations continue to rise. Because the climate is connected to every major geophysical, chemical, and biological system on the planet, it should not be surprising that we are learning more and more about the potential implications of these changes for a remarkably wide range of things. And while it is certainly possible – even likely – that…
I know you're thinking we've had more than enough discussion of one simplistic umbrella hypothesis for the origin of unique human traits — the aquatic ape hypothesis — and it's cruel of me to introduce another, but who knows, maybe the proponents of each will collide and mutually annihilate each other, and then we'll all be happy. Besides, this new idea is hilarious. I'm calling it the MFAP hypothesis of human origins, which the original author probably wouldn't care for (for reasons that will become clear in a moment), but I think it's very accurate. A list of traits distinguishing humans…
Student guest post by McKenzie Steger Off the southeastern coast of Australia lies a small island that in the 1700 and 1800’s was inhabited by the very worst of Europe’s criminals and is now the only natural home in the world to a species named after the devil himself. Decades later beginning in 1996 Tasmanian devils were going about their nocturnal lifestyle in normal devilish fashion feasting on small mammals and birds, finding mates and reproducing, occasionally fighting with one another and so on. (1) Just as criminals divvied up their booty hundreds of years before, the devils were…
Student guest post by Bradley Christensen No, this isn’t a clip from a science fiction movie.  Although dramatic, this does occur in the brains of some people and animals around on our home planet.  What is a prion you ask?  Prions are almost as mysterious to the scientists that research them as they are to me, you and the neighbor down the street.  Prion is a term used to describe an abnormal and particularly destructive strand of protein found in the brain.  Proteins are the building blocks of the muscles and tissues of our bodies that work combine together to perform different functions. …