Not Exactly Rocket Science

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New science + good writing = Not Exactly Rocket Science. Articles on new discoveries written so that anyone can understand them.

Ed Yong
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  • January 2, 2009
  • 09:38 AM

Worrying slowdown of coral growth in the Great Barrier Reef

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

It's not a good time for corals. Last year, a third of coral species went straight into the endangered lists after being assessed for the first time, and it looks like 2009 isn't going to bring any reprieves to the doom and gloom. In particular, a new study provides hard evidence that the mightiest of coral super-colonies - the Great Barrier Reef - is in trouble.

Like reefs across the world, the Great Barrier Reef faces many threats, including pollution, physical destruction, predatory starfish........ Read more »

G. De'ath, J. M. Lough, & K. E. Fabricius. (2009) Declining Coral Calcification on the Great Barrier Reef. Science, 323(5910), 116-119. DOI: 10.1126/science.1165283  

  • January 1, 2009
  • 06:12 PM

Life-shortening bacteria vs. dengue mosquitoes

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

The mosquito Aedes aegypti sucks the blood of people from all over the tropics, and exchanges it for the virus that causes dengue fever - a disease that afflicts 40 million people every year. The mosquito has proven to be a tough adversary and efforts to drive it from urban settings have generally failed in the long-term. So how do you fight such an accomplished parasite? Simple - use a better parasite. In fact, try the most successful one in the world, a bacterium called Wolbachia.

Wolbachia's........ Read more »

C. J. McMeniman, R. V. Lane, B. N. Cass, A. W.C. Fong, M. Sidhu, Y.-F. Wang, & S. L. O'Neill. (2009) Stable Introduction of a Life-Shortening Wolbachia Infection into the Mosquito Aedes aegypti. Science, 323(5910), 141-144. DOI: 10.1126/science.1165326  

  • December 30, 2008
  • 09:00 AM

Spookfish eye uses mirrors instead of a lens

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

In the twilit waters of the deep ocean, beneath about 1000m of water, swims the brownsnout spookfish (Dolichopteryx longipes). Like many other deep-sea fish, the spookfish is adapted to make the most of what little light penetrates to these depths, but it does so with some of the strangest eyes in the animal kingdom.

For a start, each eye is split into two connected parts, so the animal looks like it actually has four. One half points upwards and gives the spookfish a view of the ocean above. T........ Read more »

  • December 28, 2008
  • 01:00 PM

Solar-powered green sea slug steals ability to photosynthesise from algae

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Solar power is a relatively new development for humans but, of course, many living things have been exploiting the power of the sun for millions of years, through the process of photosynthesis. This ability is usually limited to plants, algae and bacteria, but one unique animal can do it too - the emerald green sea slug Elysia chlorotica. This remarkable creature steals the genes and photosynthetic factories of a type of algae that it eats (Vaucheria littorea), so that it can independently draw ........ Read more »

M. E. Rumpho, J. M. Worful, J. Lee, K. Kannan, M. S. Tyler, D. Bhattacharya, A. Moustafa, & J. R. Manhart. (2008) From the Cover: Horizontal gene transfer of the algal nuclear gene psbO to the photosynthetic sea slug Elysia chlorotica. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(46), 17867-17871. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0804968105  

  • December 27, 2008
  • 01:00 PM

Lacking control drives false conclusions, conspiracy theories and superstitions

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

"Control - you must learn control!" These wise words were uttered by no less a sage than Yoda, and while he was talking about telekinetically hoisting spacecraft, having control has another important benefit. It protects a person from spotting false patterns that aren't there, from believing in conspiracies and from developing superstitions.

Control and security are vital parts of our psychological well-being and it goes without saying that losing them can feel depressing or scary. As such, peo........ Read more »

  • December 24, 2008
  • 08:06 PM

How life became big in two giant steps

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Since the first living things appeared on the planet, the biggest among them have become increasingly bigger. Over 3.6 billion years of evolution, life's maximum size has shot up by 16 orders of magnitude - about 10 quadrillion times - from single cells to the massive sequoias of today (below right). And no matter what people say, size does matter.

The largest of creatures, from the blue whale to the sauropod dinosaurs, are powerful captors of the imagination, but they are big draws for scienti........ Read more »

J. L. Payne, A. G. Boyer, J. H. Brown, S. Finnegan, M. Kowalewski, R. A. Krause, S. K. Lyons, C. R. McClain, D. W. McShea, P. M. Novack-Gottshall.... (2008) Two-phase increase in the maximum size of life over 3.5 billion years reflects biological innovation and environmental opportunity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0806314106  

  • December 18, 2008
  • 08:30 AM

Predatory slime mould freezes prey in large groups

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

This post is part of a celebration of the two-year anniversary of the open-access journal PLoS ONE.

Gathering in large numbers is usually a good way of protection yourself against predators, and it's no surprise that mass defence is a common strategy in the natural world. But it doesn't always work. There is one hunter that has found a way to use group defence to its advantage. It allows its prey to gather in large numbers and then freezes them in place with a chemical weapon, providing it ........ Read more »

  • December 15, 2008
  • 09:33 AM

Sponging dolphins keep it in the family

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

In Shark Bay, off the Western coast of Australia, a unique population of bottlenose dolphins have a unusual trick up their flippers. Some of the females have learned to use sponges in their search for food, holding them on the ends of their snouts as they rummage through the ocean floor.

To Janet Mann at Georgetown University, the sponging dolphins provided an excellent opportunity to study how wild animals use tools. Sponging is a very special case of tool use - it is unique to Shark Bay's dol........ Read more »

Janet Mann, Brooke L. Sargeant, Jana J. Watson-Capps, Quincy A. Gibson, Michael R. Heithaus, Richard C. Connor, & Eric Patterson. (2008) Why Do Dolphins Carry Sponges?. PLoS ONE, 3(12). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0003868  

  • November 21, 2008
  • 09:30 AM

Parasites keep red tides at bay

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Over the past decade, some coastal waters have started turning red with alarming frequency. The cause is not some Biblical plague, but dense concentrations of microscopic algae called dinoflagellates. Red tides can often contain more than a million of these cells in a mere millilitre of water. Many are harmless and essential parts of the ocean environment, but others produce toxins that can kill local wildlife and risk the health of humans who eat their poisoned flesh.

These "harmful algal bloo........ Read more »

  • November 16, 2008
  • 01:22 PM

How to tell Wonderpus Joe from Wonderpus Bob

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Many naturalists become so familiar with the animals they study that they can recognise individuals within a population using just their shapes and patterns. If that's too difficult, animals can be ringed or tagged. These tricks give scientists the invaluable ability to track the fates of individuals, but try using them on octopuses.

Recognising shape and pattern is impossible when your subject has the ability to change the texture and colour of its already pliant body on a whim. Injured indivi........ Read more »

Christine L. Huffard, Roy L. Caldwell, Ned DeLoach, David Wayne Gentry, Paul Humann, Bill MacDonald, Bruce Moore, Richard Ross, Takako Uno, & Stephen Wong. (2008) Individually Unique Body Color Patterns in Octopus (Wunderpus photogenicus) Allow for Photoidentification. PLoS ONE, 3(11). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0003732  

  • November 12, 2008
  • 11:00 AM

Lizard claws shed light on the evolutionary origin of hair

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Hair, or fur, is one of the hallmarks of mammals, the group of animals to which we belong. It is an evolutionary innovation that provides us with protection and helps us to maintain our constant body temperature And while hair is a uniquely mammalian feature, its genetic building blocks are anything but. A new study has found that genes responsible for building the locks on your head have counterparts that construct the claws of lizards.

Hair is made of proteins called keratins, which interact ........ Read more »

L. Eckhart, L. D. Valle, K. Jaeger, C. Ballaun, S. Szabo, A. Nardi, M. Buchberger, M. Hermann, L. Alibardi, & E. Tschachler. (2008) Identification of reptilian genes encoding hair keratin-like proteins suggests a new scenario for the evolutionary origin of hair. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0805154105  

  • November 11, 2008
  • 09:30 AM

Corn is everywhere in American fast food

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Fast-food restaurants like to bedazzle consumers with choice, offering a smorgasbord of different foods and drinks with varying flavours and  sizes. And yet, these options have more in common than you might think. According to a new study, this multiplicity of choice hides the fact that the overwhelming majority of American takeaway food is actually based on a single source - corn. It provides food for the animals whose meat makes up the burgers, the oil for frying chips and the syrup that ........ Read more »

  • November 10, 2008
  • 06:00 PM

Lymph node injections provide safer, faster and easier relief against hay fever

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

If you're anything like me, then you will find that the onset of spring is a time of great rejoicing and equally great woe. The longer days, rising temperatures and greening world also signal the arrival of pollen, microscopic granules of hell determined to make you breathe fresh air only in the short spaces between sneezes, and enjoy the increasingly beautiful world through watery eyes.

But help is at hand. Allergens in the air can cause misery for about a third of people in Western countries,........ Read more »

G. Senti, B. M. P. Vavricka, I. Erdmann, M. I. Diaz, R. Markus, S. J. McCormack, J. J. Simard, B. Wuthrich, R. Crameri, N. Graf.... (2008) Intralymphatic allergen administration renders specific immunotherapy faster and safer: A randomized controlled trial. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0803725105  

  • November 6, 2008
  • 07:40 PM

Plastic tubes and pipette tips leach chemicals that botch experiments

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

They say that a poor workman blames his tools but according to a new study, laboratory scientists may well have cause to. Reid Macdonald from the University of Alberta has found that some botched experiments may be due to chemicals leaching from the very plastic tubes that scientists use on an everyday basis.

Disposable plasticware like the ubiquitous Eppendorf tubes are a staple of laboratory research, as essential to a biologist as a mixing bowl is to a cook. They are always sterilised before........ Read more »

G. R. McDonald, A. L. Hudson, S. M. J. Dunn, H. You, G. B. Baker, R. M. Whittal, J. W. Martin, A. Jha, D. E. Edmondson, & A. Holt. (2008) Bioactive Contaminants Leach from Disposable Laboratory Plasticware. Science, 322(5903), 917-917. DOI: 10.1126/science.1162395  

  • November 5, 2008
  • 09:30 AM

Caterpillars vomit detergents to wreck ant waterproofing

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

If you want to drive someone away, then throwing up on them is probably going to do the trick. But the caterpillars of the small mottled willow moth (aka the beet armyworm; Spodoptera exigua) take defensive vomiting to a whole new level. Their puke is both detergent and chemical weapon; its goal is not to cause revulsion but to break through the waterproof layer that its predators find so essential.

Willow moths are attacked by a variety of predatory ants. To study their defences, Rostas and Bl........ Read more »

Michael Rostás, & Katrin Blassmann. (2008) Insects had it first: surfactants as a defence against predators. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, -1(-1), -1--1. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2008.1281  

  • November 4, 2008
  • 09:30 AM

Clones produced from mice frozen for 16 years

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

With current technology, could we clone a mammoth? Cloning techniques have made significant progress in recent years and at least one well-preserved specimen has been found. But the same freezing process that preserves the bodies of many extinct mammals would also be the undoing of cloning endeavours. Ice destroys cells, puncturing their membranes, bursting them and exposing their contents. Upon thawing, the dead cells would be useless as a basis for cloning.

Until now, the destructive power of........ Read more »

S. Wakayama, H. Ohta, T. Hikichi, E. Mizutani, T. Iwaki, O. Kanagawa, & T. Wakayama. (2008) Production of healthy cloned mice from bodies frozen at -20 C for 16 years. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(45), 17318-17322. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0806166105  

  • November 3, 2008
  • 09:30 AM

Space Invader DNA jumped across mammalian genomes

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Mammals like ourselves pass our genes 'vertically' from parent to child. But bacteria aren't quite so limited; they have mastered the art of gene-swapping and regularly transfer DNA 'horizontally' from one cell to another. This "horizontal gene transfer" has been largely viewed as a trademark of single-celled organisms, with few examples among animals and plants. That is, until now.

A group of American researchers have discovered a group of genetic sequences that have clearly jumped around the ........ Read more »

J. K. Pace, C. Gilbert, M. S. Clark, & C. Feschotte. (2008) Repeated horizontal transfer of a DNA transposon in mammals and other tetrapods. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0806548105  

  • October 29, 2008
  • 07:43 PM

Common pesticide is good news for parasites, bad news for frogs

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Our amphibians are not doing well. Populations of frogs, toads, salamanders and newts the world over are falling dramatically. Their moist, permeable skins and their need for water to reproduce make them vulnerable to a multitude of threats including drought brought on by climate change, a deadly fungus, and other infectious diseases. Now, we can point an accusatory finger at another culprit - a chemical called atrazine that is second most commonly used pesticide in the United States, and perhap........ Read more »

Jason R. Rohr, Anna M. Schotthoefer, Thomas R. Raffel, Hunter J. Carrick, Neal Halstead, Jason T. Hoverman, Catherine M. Johnson, Lucinda B. Johnson, Camilla Lieske, Marvin D. Piwoni.... (2008) Agrochemicals increase trematode infections in a declining amphibian species. Nature, 455(7217), 1235-1239. DOI: 10.1038/nature07281  

  • October 27, 2008
  • 10:30 AM

An ecosystem of one in the depths of a gold mine

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Most of the planet's ecosystems are made of a multitude of different species, rich tangles of living things all interacting, competing and cooperating in order to eke out an existence. But not always - in South Africa, within the darkness of a gold mine, there is an ecosystem that consists of a single species, a type of bacteria that is the only thing alive in the hot, oxygen-less depths. It is an ecosystem of one, living in complete isolation from the Sun's energy.

This incredible and unique h........ Read more »

D. Chivian, E. L. Brodie, E. J. Alm, D. E. Culley, P. S. Dehal, T. Z. DeSantis, T. M. Gihring, A. Lapidus, L.-H. Lin, S. R. Lowry.... (2008) Environmental Genomics Reveals a Single-Species Ecosystem Deep Within Earth. Science, 322(5899), 275-278. DOI: 10.1126/science.1155495  

  • October 26, 2008
  • 12:00 PM

Warm hands, warm heart - how physical and emotional warmth are linked

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

We will readily describe a person's demeanour as "warm" or "cold" but this link between temperature and personality is more than just a metaphorical one. A new study shows that warming a person's fingertips can also bring out the warmth in their social relationships, pushing them to judge others more positively and promoting their charitable side.

Lawrence Williams at the University of Colorado and John Bargh from Yale University managed to influence the behaviour of a group of 41 volunteers wi........ Read more »

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