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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  • October 4, 2008
  • 12:00 PM

Learn to smell underwater with the star-nosed mole

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Sniffing brings molecules in the air around us into our nose, where they are detected and manifested in our brains as smells. But try the same trick underwater and you would rapidly choke or drown. Nonetheless, smell is a tremendously important sense for most mammals and at least two species have found a way to safely sniff in water.

The star-nosed mole (Condylura cristata) is one of them and it has one of nature's most unusual noses. Its snout ends in a ring of 22 fleshy tentacles that are loa........ Read more »

  • October 3, 2008
  • 12:00 PM

Virgin birth by Komodo dragons

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

According to Christian lore, Mary gave birth to baby Jesus without ever having had sex with Joseph. A biologist might describe this as 'parthenogenesis', the Greek version of the more familiar phrase 'virgin birth'('parthenos' means virgin, and 'genesis' means birth). The New Testament aside, shunning fertilisation and giving birth to young through parthenogenesis is rare among higher animals, occurring in only one in every thousand species. Nonetheless, two Christmases ago, eight virgin births ........ Read more »

Phillip C. Watts, Kevin R. Buley, Stephanie Sanderson, Wayne Boardman, Claudio Ciofi, & Richard Gibson. (2006) Parthenogenesis in Komodo dragons. Nature, 444(7122), 1021-1022. DOI: 10.1038/4441021a  

  • October 2, 2008
  • 12:00 PM

Taking the new out of neurons

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

You are not the person you used to be. Two weeks ago, the surface of your skin was covered with a completely different set of cells, which have since died and flaked off. Four month ago, you had a wholly different set of red blood cells. Since birth, your body has grown tremendously in size and much of it is constantly regenerating, replacing old cells with new ones.

But your brain is different. At birth, the part of your brain that controls your most human abilities - the neocortex - came ful........ Read more »

  • October 1, 2008
  • 12:00 PM

How to turn cotton into a food crop

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

The world is currently home to 6.5 billion people and over the next 50 years, this number is set to grow by 50%. With this massive planetary overcrowding, Band Aid's plea to feed the world seems increasingly unlikely. Current food crops seem unequal to the task, but scientists at Texas University may have developed a solution, a secret ace up our sleeves - cotton.

Cotton is famed for its use in clothes-making and has been grown for this purpose for over seven millennia. We do not think of it as........ Read more »

G. Sunilkumar, L. M. Campbell, L. Puckhaber, R. D. Stipanovic, & K. S. Rathore. (2006) From the Cover: Engineering cottonseed for use in human nutrition by tissue-specific reduction of toxic gossypol. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103(48), 18054-18059. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0605389103  

  • September 30, 2008
  • 12:00 PM

Robo-starfish learns about itself and adapts to injuries

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

I am walking strangely. About a week ago, I pulled something to my left ankle, which now hurts during the part of each step just before the foot leaves the ground. As a result, my other muscles are compensating for this to minimise the pain and my gait has shifted to something subtly different from the norm. In similar ways, all animal brains can compensate for injuries by computing new ways of moving that are often very different. This isn't a conscious process and as such, we often take it for........ Read more »

J. Bongard, V. Zykov, & H. Lipson. (2006) Resilient Machines Through Continuous Self-Modeling. Science, 314(5802), 1118-1121. DOI: 10.1126/science.1133687  

  • September 29, 2008
  • 12:00 PM

Camouflaged communication - the secret signals of squid

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Two strangers are having a normal conversation in the middle of a large crowd. No one else can see them. No one else can listen in. Thanks to advanced gadgetry, they are talking in coded messages that only they can decipher. These invisible conversationalists sound like they've walked out of a Bond film. But they are entirely real, and their skill at secrecy is biological, not technological. They are squid.

Squid and their relatives, the octopus and cuttlefish, are masters of concealment. They ........ Read more »

  • September 28, 2008
  • 12:00 PM

Elephants recognise themselves in mirror

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

You are on a date and by all accounts, it's going well. Midway through dinner, you excuse yourself and head to the bathroom where, to your chagrin, the mirror reveals that you have a streak of sauce on the side of your face. Embarrassed, you wipe it away and rejoin your date.

It's a fairly innocuous scene but it requires an ability that only the most intelligent of animals possess - self-awareness. It's the understanding that you exist as an individual, separate from others. Having it is a vita........ Read more »

J. M. Plotnik, F. B. M. de Waal, & D. Reiss. (2006) From the Cover: Self-recognition in an Asian elephant. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103(45), 17053-17057. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0608062103  

  • September 24, 2008
  • 12:00 PM

Caterpillars use wormholes and early warning hairs for defence

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

A caterpillar is an eating machine - a mobile set of mandibles, whose sole mission is to survive long enough to munch its way to adulthood. Standing in their way are spiders, birds and predatory insects that want to eat them, and parasitic wasps that want to convert them into living incubators for their own larvae.

With so many enemies, defence is paramount for caterpillars and the various species have evolved a dazzling array of countermeasures. Some camouflage themselves, others use bright co........ Read more »

  • September 20, 2008
  • 02:00 PM

Natural selection does a handbrake turn for leggy lizards

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

The decades that make up a typical human lifespan can seem like vast stretches of time to us. But to the forces of evolution, they are mere temporary blips. Common wisdom has it that evolution occurs over geological timescales - thousands and millions of years. As such, evolutionary biology takes a lot of criticism for being a 'descriptive science', being less open than other fields to that fundamental aspect of science - experimentation. Though there are exceptions, those who study evolution mu........ Read more »

J. B. Losos, T. W. Schoener, R. B. Langerhans, & D. A. Spiller. (2006) Rapid Temporal Reversal in Predator-Driven Natural Selection. Science, 314(5802), 1111-1111. DOI: 10.1126/science.1133584  

  • September 13, 2008
  • 02:00 PM

Asymmetrical brains help fish (and us) to multi-task

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

As you read this post, your computer is probably busy. You may have multiple programs running in the background, with email clients, anti-virus software or file-sharing software all competing for valuable memory. The ability of computers to multi-task has grown substantially in recent years, as processors have become increasingly powerful.

Evolution has chartered a similar course, and humans are particularly talented at dividing our attention among multiple priorities. Now scientists are showin........ Read more »

  • September 6, 2008
  • 12:00 PM

The right side of fair play

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

A stranger walks up to you and a friend and offers to give you both £100. As always, there is a catch - your friend must choose how to split the money between you. Accept his offer, and you both keep your respective shares; reject it, and you both come away empty-handed. Now imagine your friend offered you a single pound. What do you do? Most people would reject the offer to spite the friend. Even though you would financially better off if you accepted, you friend's proposal is unfair and rathe........ Read more »

  • September 1, 2008
  • 10:00 AM

European genes mirror European geography

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Within a drop of blood, you can find all the information you need to reasonably guess where a person came from, without ever having to look at their face, name or passport. Small variations in our DNA are enough for the task. They can be used to pinpoint someone's place of origin to a remarkable degree of accuracy, often to within a few hundred kilometres.

The new discovery comes from a team of Swiss and American researchers led by  John Novembre at UCLA, who wanted to understand how the h........ Read more »

John Novembre, Toby Johnson, Katarzyna Bryc, Zoltán Kutalik, Adam R. Boyko, Adam Auton, Amit Indap, Karen S. King, Sven Bergmann, Matthew R. Nelson.... (2008) Genes mirror geography within Europe. Nature. DOI: 10.1038/nature07331  

  • August 30, 2008
  • 12:38 PM

Too few genes to survive - the bacterium with the world's smallest genome

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

The complex cells that make up plants and animals only survive today because their ancestors formed partnerships with bacteria. In a previous post, I wrote about a microbe called Hatena, which provides us with a snapshot of what the early stages of this alliance might have looked like. Hatena swallows an alga which becomes an integrated part of its body.

Millions of years ago, the ancestors of complex cells did the same thing, taking in bacteria and merging with them to form a single creatu........ Read more »

A Nakabachi, A Yamashita, H Toh, H Ishikawa, H Dunbar, N Moran, & M Hattori. (2006) The 160-Kilobase Genome of the Bacterial Endosymbiont Carsonella. Science, 314(5797), 267-267. DOI: 10.1126/science.1134196  

  • July 25, 2008
  • 12:00 PM

Parasites outweigh top predators and castrators do best of all

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

To a science-fiction filmmaker, the concept of being controlled by unseen forces is creative gold, but for the rest of us, it's a fairly unsettling prospect. But like it or not, it's clear that parasites - creatures that live off (and often control) the bodies of others - are an integral part of the world we live in and carry an influence that far exceeds their small size.

Now, a painstaking survey of the residents of river estuaries shows that parasites do indeed punch above their we........ Read more »

Armand Kuris, Ryan F Hechinger, Jenny C Shaw, Kathleen L Whitney, Leopoldina Aguirre-Macedo, Charlie A Boch, Andrew P Dobson, Eleca J Dunham, Brian L Fredensborg, Todd C Huspeni.... (2008) Ecosystem energetic implications of parasite and free-living biomass in three estuaries. Nature, 454(7203), 515-518. DOI: 10.1038/nature06970  

  • July 17, 2008
  • 08:00 AM

Obesity amplifies across generations; can folate-rich diets stop it?

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Many measures to curb the obesity epidemic are aimed at young children. It's a sensible strategy - we know that overweight children have a good chance of becoming overweight adults. Family homes and schools have accordingly become critical arenas where the battle against the nation's growing waistlines is fought. But there is another equally important environment that can severely affect a person's chances of becoming overweight, but is more often overlooked - the womb.

Overwe........ Read more »

  • July 12, 2008
  • 02:00 PM

Tarantula climbs walls by spinning silk from its feet

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

There is an old joke that if Spider-Man has the powers of a spider, he really ought to be shooting webs from somewhere less salubrious than his hands. In the films and comic books, Peter Parker is empowered with the powers of a human-sized arachnid through a spider bite. He effortlessly scales walls and ceilings and shoots sticky webs from his wrists. Now, scientists have found a type of spider that does just that.

Like Spider-Man, most spiders can climb sheer surfaces and they do so with two t........ Read more »

Stanislav Gorb, Senta Niederegger, Cheryl Y Hayashi, Adam P Summers, Walter Vötsch, & Paul Walther. (2006) Biomaterials: Silk-like secretion from tarantula feet. Nature, 443(7110), 407-407. DOI: 10.1038/443407a  

  • July 5, 2008
  • 02:00 PM

The Lady Macbeth effect - how physical cleanliness affects moral cleanliness

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

"Out, damn spot! Out I say!" In Macbeth's fifth act, Lady Macbeth's role in the treacherous murder of Duncan takes its toll, and she begins obsessively washing her hands to alleviate her guilty conscience. Now, some four centuries after Shakespeare penned his play, scientists have found that physical and moral cleanliness are just as inextricably linked as he suggested.

The link between bodily cleanliness and moral purity is evident throughout the world's cultur........ Read more »

  • July 4, 2008
  • 11:00 AM

Is Sudden Infant Death Syndrome caused by a serotonin imbalance?

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

There can be few events more devastating for a parent than cot death - the sudden and unexpected death of a baby. Cot death is more formally known as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and it is an apt title, for affected babies often seem outwardly healthy and show no signs of suffering. Studies have suggested that things like passive smoke and breastfeeding can affect the risk of SIDS but the underlying biology behind the syndrome is a mystery, as is the cause of death in most cases.

B........ Read more »

E Audero, E Coppi, B Mlinar, T Rossetti, A Caprioli, M Banchaabouchi, R Corradetti, & C Gross. (2008) Sporadic Autonomic Dysregulation and Death Associated with Excessive Serotonin Autoinhibition. Science, 321(5885), 130-133. DOI: 10.1126/science.1157871  

  • July 3, 2008
  • 10:00 AM

The spider that crushes its prey with 140 metres of webbing

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Spider silk is a most amazing and versatile material, and spiders put it to all sorts of uses. It helps them to climb, to travel from place to place and most famously, to ensnare their prey. But one group of spiders, the uloborids, use their silk in a unique way - as a murderous garbage-compactor.

Most spiders kill with venom and even those that pose no threat to humans pack enough poison to deal with insect prey. Their famous webs are simply elegant traps, designed to immobilise prey so tha........ Read more »

  • June 28, 2008
  • 02:00 PM

Neutralising anthrax by gumming up a molecular lock

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

In the final months of 2001, five people died because they opened their mail. The killers were hidden inside the envelopes, small spores that were inhaled by the unfortunate addresses. Inside their bodies, the spores turned into the deadly bacteria, Bacillus anthracis - anthrax.

Anthrax has a long history in biological warfare but it made its debut as an agent of bioterror in 2001. The US anthrax postal attacks infected 22 people and claimed the lives of five. Since then, scientists have........ Read more »

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