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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  • June 27, 2008
  • 10:00 AM

Cuttlefish learn from watching potential prey even before they are born

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

For humans, sight is the most important of senses but only after we are born. Within the womb, surrounded by fluid, muscle and darkness, vision is of limited use and our eyes remain closed. But not all animals are similarly kept in the dark.

Cuttlefish develop inside eggs that are initially stained black with ink, but as the embryo grows and the egg swells, the outer layer slowly becomes transparent. By this time, the developing cuttlefish's eyes are fully formed and we now know that even ........ Read more »

  • June 26, 2008
  • 11:00 AM

Death-trap or fortress - the two web designs of black widow spiders

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

I've written two news stories in this week's New Scientist. One is on the different tactics of four-year-old boys and girls as they compete for animal puppets. The other is on the webs spun by black widow spiders. The article on the venomous, evil, little critters is longer so I'm going to use this space to talk about the black widows instead...

Black widows are notorious for both the toxicity of their venom and the cannibalistic nature of their sex, but their webs are equally i........ Read more »

  • June 21, 2008
  • 02:00 PM

Round peg, square hole - why our bird flu drugs are a fluke

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

The world's nations are stockpiling two drugs, Tamiflu and Relenza, to counter the threat of a bird flu pandemic. These drugs work by blocking a key protein that allows the virus to spread. But two years ago, a study revealed the structure of this protein and in doing so, shown that both Tamiflu and Relenza only work through a fortunate fluke.

The threat of bird flu is looming large in the minds of the public, scientists and politicians alike. So far, 241 people have died of the di........ Read more »

Rupert Russell, Lesley F Haire, David J Stevens, Patrick J Collins, Yi Pu Lin, G Michael Blackburn, Alan J Hay, Steven J Gamblin, & John J Skehel. (2006) The structure of H5N1 avian influenza neuraminidase suggests new opportunities for drug design. Nature, 443(7107), 45-49. DOI: 10.1038/nature05114  

  • June 20, 2008
  • 05:00 PM

Brains of gay people resemble those of straight people of opposite sex

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

The differences between heterosexual and homosexual people are as much the subject of fascinating science as they are a source of social debate. And in many cases, the former can help to inform the latter. There is now plenty of research which shows that a person's sexual orientation, far from being a phase or a lifestyle choice, is a reflection of fixed properties of their brain that develop at an early age.

A new study adds new weight to this evidence by using brain-scanning technology ........ Read more »

  • June 14, 2008
  • 02:00 PM

RNA gene separates human brains from chimpanzees

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

We've all found gems hidden among junk before - the great album you own but never listened to, the book on your shelf that you never read, or the boot sale item that's worth a fortune. Geneticists are no different. Two years ago, Katherine Pollard and Sofie Salama discovered that one of the most important genes in human evolution has been lying in plain sight, hidden within a pile of genetic clutter.

Humans and our closest cousins, chimpanzees, evolved from a common ancestor, and we f........ Read more »

Katherine Pollard, Sofie R Salama, Nelle Lambert, Marie-Alexandra Lambot, Sandra Coppens, Jakob S Pedersen, Sol Katzman, Bryan King, Courtney Onodera, Adam Siepel.... (2006) An RNA gene expressed during cortical development evolved rapidly in humans. Nature, 443(7108), 167-172. DOI: 10.1038/nature05113  

  • June 11, 2008
  • 05:00 PM

Tree leaves keep the same temperature from tundra to tropics

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

A Canadian spruce and a Caribbean pine couldn't live in more different environments. One sits amid freezing tundra and the other basks in tropical heat. But despite their wildly different habitats, both trees have something in common - the temperature inside their leaves. Over the course of a year, their leaves manage to stay at a balmy average temperature of 21 degrees Celsius, the ideal temperature for photosynthesis.

The amazing finding comes from a survey of 39 trees by Brent He........ Read more »

  • June 1, 2008
  • 02:00 PM

Who needs sex? - Rotifers import genes from fungi, bacteria and plants

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

You inherited your genes from your parents, half from your father and half from your mother. Almost all other animals contend with the same hand-me-down processes, but not the bdelloid rotifers. This intriguing group of small freshwater creatures are not content with their genetic hand-me-downs; they import genes too. A new study shows that their genomes are rife with legions of foreign DNA, transferred from bacteria, fungi and even plants.

The swapping of genetic material is all part of a day........ Read more »

E Gladyshev, M Meselson, & I R Arkhipova. (2008) Massive Horizontal Gene Transfer in Bdelloid Rotifers. Science, 320(5880), 1210-1213. DOI: 10.1126/science.1156407  

  • May 29, 2008
  • 06:00 PM

Monkey see, monkey control prosthetic arm with thoughts

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

The realm of science-fiction has just taken a big stride towards the world of science fact, with the creation of a prosthetic arm that can be moved solely by thought. Two monkeys, using only electrodes implanted in their brains, were able to feed themselves with the robotic arm complete with working joints.

Bionic limbs have been fitted to people before but they have always worked by connecting to the nerve endings in the chest. This is the first time that a prosthetic has been placed under dir........ Read more »

Meel Velliste, Sagi Perel, M Spalding, Andrew Whitford, & Andrew Schwartz. (2008) Cortical control of a prosthetic arm for self-feeding. Nature. DOI: 10.1038/nature06996  

  • May 24, 2008
  • 02:00 PM

Snake proteins have gone through massive evolutionary redesign

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

The era of genetic sequencing has revealed as much about the ties that bind us to other animals as the differences that set us apart. Often, comparing the genomes of different species shows that large changes in body size, shape and form are not mirrored by similar changes at a genetic level. New adaptations typically come about through small changes that redeploy existing genes to different ends, rather than raw innovation.

Snakes are an exception. A new study by Todd Castoe and Zhi Ji........ Read more »

Todd Castoe, Zhi J Jiang, Wanjun Gu, Zhengyuan O Wang, David D Pollock, & Jason E Stajich. (2008) Adaptive Evolution and Functional Redesign of Core Metabolic Proteins in Snakes. PLoS ONE, 3(5). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0002201  

  • May 24, 2008
  • 02:00 PM

Hatena - when two cells are better than one

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

The prisoner was plucked from a free-living existence and plunged, without trial, into a cell from which it will never leave. It will be provided with food but will have to cater to the needs of its jailer, bereft of its own independence. And yet, this apparent injustice will go unchallenged. No liberal hackles will be raised and no bags of angry letters from Amnesty International will flood the oppressor's mailbox.

For this event did not occur in the world of autocrats and tyrants, but i........ Read more »

N Okamoto. (2005) A Secondary Symbiosis in Progress?. Science, 310(5746), 287-287. DOI: 10.1126/science.1116125  

  • May 19, 2008
  • 02:00 PM

Feeling powerless impairs higher mental abilities

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Feeling powerless is no fun. A lack of control can make the difference between contented and unhappy employees. But new research shows that a lack of power doesn't just make people feel disgruntled. It has a more fundamental effect on their mental skills.

In a series of experiments, Pamela Smith from Radboud University Nijmegen has shown that the powerless actually take a measurable hit to important mental abilities. Even if people are subconsciously primed with the concept of being powerl........ Read more »

Pamela Smith, Nils B Jostmann, Adam D Galinsky, & Wilco W van Dijk. (2008) Lacking Power Impairs Executive Functions. Psychological Science, 19(5), 441-447. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02107.x  

  • May 17, 2008
  • 02:00 PM

Aphids get superpowers through sex

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

As far as humans are concerned, sexually-transmitted infections are things to avoid. But imagine if these infections didn't cause death and disease, but gave you superpowers instead. It may sound like a bizarre fantasy, but it's just part of life for aphids.

Aphids mostly reproduce without sex, giving rise to many all-female generations that are exact copies (clones) of their parents. They only have sex once in autumn, the only time when mothers give birth to males. Asexual reproduct........ Read more »

N Moran. (2006) Sexual acquisition of beneficial symbionts in aphids. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103(34), 12803-12806. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0605772103  

Kerry Oliver, Jaime Campos, Nancy A Moran, & Martha S Hunter. (2007) Population dynamics of defensive symbionts in aphids. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 275(1632), 293-299. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2007.1192  

  • May 12, 2008
  • 11:00 AM

Orchid lures in pollinating wasps with promise of fresh meat

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

A common wasp on a foraging mission catches an enticing scent on the breeze. It's a set of chemicals given off by plants that are besieged by hungry insects and it means that there is food nearby for the wasp's grubs - caterpillars. The wasp tracks the smell to its source - a flower - and while it finds nectar, there are no caterpillars and it leaves empty-mandibled. The smell was a trick, used to dupe the wasp into becoming a unwitting pollinator for the broad-leaved helleborine.

The........ Read more »

  • May 10, 2008
  • 03:00 PM

How Big Brother keeps us honest

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Imagine that you're walking along a quiet street and you see a wallet lying on the pavement. Would you take it? Now imagine a slightly different situation - the wallet has a red circle drawn around it. While many people would be tempted in the first scenario, almost no one would touch the wallet in the second. The key difference is that the lone wallet was most likely dropped accidentally by a passer-by buy the encircled wallet was clearly placed and marked by someone, who may well still b........ Read more »

Melissa Bateson, Daniel Nettle, & Gilbert Roberts. (2006) Cues of being watched enhance cooperation in a real-world setting. Biology Letters, 2(3), 412-414. DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2006.0509  

  • May 9, 2008
  • 06:00 PM

Rats succumb to peer pressure too

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

This week's New Scientist includes a short piece from me about conformist rats.
Until now, only humans and chimps were known to succumb to peer pressure, to the extent that we often ignore our own experiences based on the preferences of others. But a new study in brown rats shows that these rodents are similarly prone to following the Joneses. They can even be persuaded to choose a piece of food that they know makes them sick if they smell it on the breath of a 'demonstrator' ra........ Read more »

  • May 5, 2008
  • 10:00 PM

Single memory training task improves overall problem-solving intelligence

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Forget 'smart drugs' or brain-training video games. According to new research, a deceptively simple memory task can do what no drug or game has done before - it can boost your 'fluid intelligence', your ability to adapt your powers of reasoning to new challenges. Fluid intelligence doesn't rely on previous knowledge, skills or experience. It's at work when we solve new problems or puzzles, when we draw inferences and spot patterns, and when we test ideas and desi........ Read more »

S Jaeggi, M Buschkuehl, J Jonides, & W J Perrig. (2008) Improving fluid intelligence with training on working memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0801268105  

  • May 5, 2008
  • 10:00 PM

Enormous bacterium uses thousands of genome copies to its advantage

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

They say that size doesn't matter, but try telling that to bacteria. Most are very small, for they rely heavily on passive diffusion to ferry important nutrients and molecules across their membranes. To ensure that this happens quickly enough, bacteria need to ensure that their surface area is large enough relative to their volume - become too big and they won't be able to import enough nutrients to support their extra size.

These constraints greatly limit the size of bacteria. The l........ Read more »

J Mendell, K D Clements, J H Choat, & E R Angert. (2008) Extreme polyploidy in a large bacterium. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0707522105  

  • May 5, 2008
  • 10:00 PM

Dogs and devils - the rise of the contagious cancers

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

I'm away for the weekend so I thought that I'd repost an article from the old Wordpress blog. This is actually the first ever article I wrote for Not Exactly Rocket Science and I've updated it slightly to take more recent findings into account. I'm considering doing these reposts every Saturday, but let me know whether you're keen on the idea.

Cancer cells are, for all intents and purposes, immortal. Having broken free of the rules and strictures that govern other ce........ Read more »

  • May 5, 2008
  • 10:00 PM

Sexy jumping spiders court females with ultraviolet patches

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

Ultraviolet (UV) radiation lies beyond the violet end of the rainbow. Our eyes aren't equipped to see it and its presence only becomes visually apparent when enough of it hits our skin and causes a painful, red patch - a sunburn. But not all animals have eyes that are so ill-equipped. The females of the jumping spider Phintella vittata not only see UV light, they also find it sexy.

UV light may be invisible to us but many animals can see it and use it to communicate. Sometimes, thi........ Read more »

  • May 5, 2008
  • 10:00 PM

Making sense of obesity genes

by Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science

This is a quick follow-up to my other post on fat cells, which as it happens, isn't the only obesity-related story out today. Another paper found a common genetic variant that increases the risk of obesity in its carriers.

A huge team of researchers scoured the genomes of almost 17,000 European people for genetic variations that are linked to obesity. Until now, only one has been found and it sits within a gene called FTO. This new study confirmed that FTO variants have the strongest assoc........ Read more »

Ruth Loos, Cecilia M Lindgren, Shengxu Li, Eleanor Wheeler, Jing Hua Zhao, Inga Prokopenko, Michael Inouye, Rachel M Freathy, Antony P Attwood, Jacques S Beckmann.... (2008) Common variants near MC4R are associated with fat mass, weight and risk of obesity. Nature Genetics. DOI: 10.1038/ng.140  

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