Stories tagged Life Science

Jun
17
2007

Chinese paleontologists have pulled something rad out of the sands of the Gobi desert - a giant birdlike dinosaur.
The Gigantoraptor: Just reemphasizing how weird and cool dinosaurs are.    (Image by "ArthurWeasley")
The Gigantoraptor: Just reemphasizing how weird and cool dinosaurs are. (Image by "ArthurWeasley")

The newly discovered dinosaur belongs to the oviraptosaurs, a subgroup of the theropods (the family of Tyrannosaur rex and velociraptors, among others). The oviraptosaurs were beaked and feathered, and are very closely related to primitive birds (some scientists actually consider them to be flightless birds, and not dinosaurs, but this is debated).

The thing is, as theropds evolved to become more birdlike (like oviraptorsaurs were), they almost always became smaller as well - the largest of the oviraptosaurs were about the size of an emu. The gigantoraptor, as its name would suggest, seems to be the exception to this rule.

Probably still a juvenile - growth patterns on the bone suggest it was only about 11 years old when it died - the gigantoraptor found by the Chinese team was already 25 feet long, and would have weighed around 3000 pounds. It had clawed arms, and disproportionately long and slender legs (larger dinosaurs usually have shorter, stockier legs). Like other oviraptosaurs, it had a toothless beak, and may also have been feathered. Paleontologists are still unsure about what it ate, but it has been suggested that the gigantoraptor may have been an open pursuit predator, and a dangerous one - the size and structure of its limbs could have made it "the fastest dinosaur on two legs."

While the paleontologists who discovered the gigantoraptor are stressing that it does not place any doubt on the link between theropods and modern birds, the find is forcing some scientists to reevaluate the idea that dinosaurs only got smaller as they became more birdlike. "If you saw a mouse as big as a pig you would be very surprised – it is the same when we found the Gigantoraptor," pointed out one of the Chinese paleontologists.

The Gigantoraptor.

Wikipedia on oviraptosaurs.

Jun
09
2007

The answer to the question posed by the title of this entry is, of course, “yes.” There are many things fruit flies can’t do: they can’t roller-skate, they can’t drink a Pepsi in under 30 seconds, and they can’t get into an argument without resorting to foul language (trust me on this). There are other things they can’t do, but these are the main ones. And, until recently, “provide clues on inhibiting aging” was also on this list, but that may have changed.

Scientists at the University of Southern California (which happens to be the anti-aging capital of the world) have discovered that a single genetic change engineered in fruit flies can extend their life spans by a third, with no apparent side effects.
My mutant power? Eternal youth.: If we could only be a little more like them.
My mutant power? Eternal youth.: If we could only be a little more like them.

The scientists found a way to block certain cell receptors (areas on cells that transmit signals across the cell membrane) associated with aging and disease. Cells were bombarded with peptides (short proteins) until the researchers found a group that would bind to the aging-receptors, blocking them. Fruit flies were then genetically engineered to produce these specific receptor-blocking peptides. I don’t really understand this part of the process, but it involves getting the peptides to replicate the same way DNA replicates by fusing these peptides to RNA. At any rate, these flies did indeed live longer.

The technique could, hopefully have applications in treating human diseases – once specific disease-related receptors were located, scientists could go through their library of peptides until a group was found that bonds to the receptors. Some of us maintain hope, also, that our DNA might be altered so that it reproduces not just receptor-blocking peptides, but rad things like fireballs and adamantium claws. Scientists have odd priorities, though.

Fruit flies with mutant healing powers.

Jun
03
2007

Lately I’ve been reading a book called “Predatory Dinosaurs of the World” by Gregory S. Paul that details the traits and behaviors of carnivorous dinosaurs throughout the Mesozoic Era. Of course, since most dinosaurs (except birds) have been extinct for 65 million years, the theories in the book derive mainly from clues left in the fossil record. However, a lot can also deduced from studying and comparing the behaviors of present day predators and prey. It’s easy to surmise that not much in that arena has really changed over time.

Which brings me to this amazing piece of video I stumbled upon on YouTube. It was taken at South Africa's Kruger National Park by tourist David Budzinski, and is a great example of predator-prey behavior! This one even has a couple surprises which I wasn't expecting. I think you’ll find it as fascinating as I did.

Jun
02
2007

Walt Disney’s dream has finally become nightmare-reality.
I don’t think that statement needs any clarification, but for those of you who are unwilling to accept what’s in front of your very eyes, let me lay things on the line: Scientists from Texas (of course!) have genetically engineered super mice.
Our Only Defence: Keep these close at hand. They may be our only hope. (photo credit to billselak)
Our Only Defence: Keep these close at hand. They may be our only hope. (photo credit to billselak)

What are coming to be known as the “six million dollar mice” (and I can not confirm that price tag, only that they are indeed as cute as the original six million dollar creation, if significantly smaller than Lee Majors) were created by the genetic deletion of the enzyme “Cdk5” from their mousy brains. This causes “an increase in sensitivity to their surroundings” which “seems to have made [the mice] smarter.”

The smart-mice have become more adept at learning to navigate through mazes, and working out new routes as the mazes change. They also are able to quickly learn that “being in certain boxes involves a mild shock.” These are things that I can’t even do, and I have a degree in English.

As horrifying as the prospect of a genius mouse may be, the Texan scientists are quick to point out aspects of their research that will likely be beneficial to human health and psychology.

The technique used to suppress the Cdk5 enzyme works at the genetic level, and is referred to as “conditional knockout.” It allows scientists to eliminate the gene only in the brain, and only once the subject is an adult, as opposed to the older and less sophisticated “traditional knockout,” which eliminates the gene entirely.

This sort of therapy might be used to help people suffering from conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder “learn that a once-threatening situation no longer poses a danger.” Also, Cdk5 seems to be associated with drug addiction and Alzheimer’s disease, and the researchers are hopeful that the study might lead to further treatments for these and other conditions.

So, we may not be doomed to some kind of Mickey Mouse/Bladerunner-esque future after all, but, still, I’ll be keeping my eyes and puny human brain trained on this one.

An article about the smart mice

Jun
01
2007

Big surprise! Sometime between Tuesday and yesterday, the fourth egg hatched. (This youngest bird hatched out of the first egg laid, and we didn't have high hopes for it.)

The whole brood: This shot, captured yesterday, shows Athena and all her chicks.
The whole brood: This shot, captured yesterday, shows Athena and all her chicks.

Dinner time...: Keeping these guys fed is a full-time job.
Dinner time...: Keeping these guys fed is a full-time job.

The young birds will grow fast, and will fledge--leave their nest--sometime in mid July. They'll stay with their parents for about two months afterward, learning to hunt. First the parents catch prey and the young birds learn to snatch it from them in mid-air. When they get good at that, the chicks start learning to hunt on their own.

Here's the sobering truth, though: On average, only two juveniles successfully fledge per nest. And the first year is dangerous. But a peregrine that survives the first year has a good shot at a long life. Some birds have even lived to be 18-20, but that's not typical. An average lifespan is more likely somewhere between 2 and 8 years.

New pictures appear every few minutes on the High Bridge Falcon Cam daily photos site.

Here are earlier 2007 falcon updates, as well as the story of the 2006 season. Or learn more about peregrines, and get to know Athena.

Visitors to the museum get to name falcon chicks. Right now, we're taking name suggestions. Later on, we'll turn those into a visitor poll, and the names with the most votes will go to the chicks.

May
30
2007

Visitors to the Science Museum will get to pick a name for at least one of the peregrine falcon chicks in the High Bridge power plant nest box. (Last year, we got to name one. Your pick? Starshadow.)

The challenge? Each chick in the nest box program gets a unique name. No repeats. So here's a list of all the names that are "taken" already:

Abby, Alice, Allie, Alpha, Amanda, Amilia, Amy, Andrea, Andy, Angel, Anton, Apryl, Athena, Barbara, Belinda, Bend, Berger, Bern, Bert, Bertha, Beta, Bolt, Bomber, Bor, Brice, Britta, Burt, Buzz, Candy, Cassie, Charlee, Charlie, Cherokee, Chicklet, Chris, Cleo, CoCo, Cole, Colleen, Coz, Craig, Crystal, Cyndi, Dale, Dana, Danberg, Davey, Dawn, Delene, Delta, Diamond, Diana, Diane, Dick, Dixie Chick, Donna, Doolittle, Dot, Ed, Eileen, Elaine, Electra, Esperanza, Faith, Fast Track, Fluffy, Fran, Frank, Gamma, George, Gib, Gloria, Gold, Gretta, Grunwald, Harmony, Hickey, Hippie, Hope, Horus, Hotshot, Howard, Hunter, Huske, Irvine, Isabel, Jackie, Jacob, Jan, Janice, Jasmine, Jay, JB, Jenny, Jessy, Jim, Joe, Judy, Julie, Kali, Karlsen, Katraka, Kester, Kitty, Kidy, Kramer, Krista, Laura, Leo, Leon, Leona, Leonard, Liberty, Lightning, Lily, Linton, Lolo, Lon, Lora, Loree, Loretta, Lori, Louise, Lucky, Mac, Mae, Maggie, Malin, Manthey, Mapper, Marie, Marshall, Marty, Mary, Laude, Mew, Mica, Michael, Michelle, Minnie, Miranda, Miss, Miss Pam, Mulder, Murphy, Neil, Nero, Nicole, Nora, Oar, Orville, Oscar, Pam, Pamella, PF Flyer, PaTao, Pathfinder, Penelope, Penny, Phyllis, Polly, Porky, Prescott, Princess, Putnam, Quark, Queen, Rachael, Ralph, Razor, Red Ed, Rick, Rochelle, Rocket, Rocky, Romeo, Ryan, Ryu, Sarah, Scarlett, Screech, Scully, Seminole, Shakespeare, Sharky, Sheri, Sheridan, Sherlie, Smoke, Smokey, Sonic, Sophia, Speedy, Spider, Spirit, Spivvy, Starshadow, Static, Stephanie, Sue, Survivor, Swoop, Terri, Thelma, Thunder, Travis, Tundra, Vector, VernaMae, Veronica, Waldo, Wanda, Warren, Wayne, Webster, Wilbur, Willie, Wood, Younger, Yugi, Zack, Zippidy

Have a name you think would suit a falcon? Tell us. We'll turn the list of submitted names into a visitor poll, and the names with the highest number of votes will go to the chicks.

One other thing: last year, the number one name was "Santa's Little Helper," but it was too long. Keep the names short, if you want yours to be the one!

May
29
2007

Blood from bird flu survivors successfully treats H5N1 virus in mice.

Treatment for H5N1
Treatment for H5N1
The antibodies worked well when administered three days after the mice were infected, with all 20 mice in the treatment groups surviving, compared with none out of five in the control group. Antibody-producing white blood cells, called memory B cells, were separated from the blood of four Vietnamese who had recovered from H5N1 influenza (bird flu). In Switzerland, Dr. Lanzavecchia treated them with a process he developed so that they rapidly and continuously produced large amounts of antibody.

Next, researchers in Dr. Subbarao's lab screened 11,000 antibody-containing samples provided by the Swiss team and found a handful able to neutralize H5N1 influenza virus. Based on these results, Dr. Lanzavecchia purified the B cells and ultimately created four monoclonal antibodies (mAbs) that secrete H5N1-specific neutralizing antibodies." Science Daily

Human antibodies used in flu pandemic of 1918.

Using blood products from influenza survivors is an old idea, the researchers note. During the flu pandemic of 1918-19, for example, physicians took serum from recovered flu patients and gave it to new victims. A recent study suggests it halved the death rate, from 37% to 16%.

Antibodies are costlier and harder to mass produce.

The new antibody treatment could be used together with antivirals:

“What we are trying to do is add another arrow to the quiver of options for treating patients with H5N1 infection," says Cameron Simmons, who led the study. New Scientist

Because the survival rate was excellent even when treatment was delayed for three days, this antibody treatment would work well in treating the few people who catch the disease directly from birds, and for localized outbreaks. For large scale prevention against bird flu, antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu are the still the best defense.

Research article in PLoS Medicine: Prophylactic and Therapeutic Efficacy of Human Monoclonal Antibodies against H5N1 Influenza.

May
29
2007

Poison found in food and drugs from China.

Melamine: poisoned pets
Melamine: poisoned pets
In recent months, multiple deaths of people and pets have been blamed on Chinese ingredients. At least 51 people in Panama died after taking medicine containing diethylene glycol falsely labeled as glycerin from China. The same poisonous ingredient was found in toothpaste traced back to China. China was also blamed for 14,000 reports of sickened pets due to tainted pet food.

In recent years, for instance, China’s food safety scandals have involved everything from fake baby milk formulas and soy sauce made from human hair to instances where cuttlefish were soaked in calligraphy ink to improve their color and eels were fed contraceptive pills to make them grow long and slim. New York Times

Melamine fools food testers

Melamine, a cheap plastic made from oil, and when added to animal feed, looks like protein in tests.

“It just saves money if you add melamine scrap,” says a manager of an animal feed factory in China.

Melanine in food is illegal in the United States. Sixteen pet deaths linked to melanine led to the recall of 60 million packages of pet food.

China needs to improve food and drug regulations.

China's former top drug regulator was sentenced to death today for taking bribes to approve substandard medicines, including an antibiotic blamed for at least 10 deaths.

Zheng's acts "greatly undermined ... the efficiency of China's drug monitoring and supervision, endangered public life and health and had a very negative social impact," the court said.

Under a nationwide safety campaign launched Monday, 90 administration inspectors will be sent to 15 provinces over the next two weeks. The government also announced plans for its first recall system for unsafe products. Hopefully China will learn that regulating food and drug safety is worth while.

May
28
2007

On Saturday, May 26, Buzz blogger Thor Carlson emailed the staff here at the Science Museum of Minnesota that our resident peregrine falcon Athena's first egg had hatched:

Athena the peregrine falcon was quite agitated this morning and I think midday we had our first hatching. Something fuzzy seems to be fluffing out from under her and than about 2 p.m. I saw her picking her beak through half of an egg shell. With the weather being pretty drippy today, she's likely keeping the little one underneath her with the three other eggs.

Stop on up at the Mississippi River Gallery and check out the latest developments...more falcon chicks should be on the way.


Three new mouths to feed: This shot, captured late Monday (5/28) afternoon, shows three new chicks. Athena's going to be busy...

Previous news from the 2007 falcon season.

May
20
2007

I am often complimented on the condition and arrangement of my teeth. In particular, I have a very specialized space, or "gap," in between the central incisors of my upper jaw, something frequently admired by friends and strangers alike. This "gap" is a near-perfect adaptation the requirements of my diet - it makes short work of chocolate chip cookies, and I think "evisceration" is the most accurate term to describe its effect on burritos, and other soft food items. It is a source of great personal pride.

However, as they have in so many other ways, the long-dead Tyrannosaurids (the family of the T. Rex) have once again put me to shame.

Comparing CT scans of fossilized Tyrannosaur skulls with those of non-Tyrannosaur theropods (two-legged meat eaters), a group of Canadian scientists have recently shown that "fused, arch-like nasal bones are a unique feature of tyrannosaurids."
Tyrannosaur Nasal Bones: T-rex nasal bones and how they fit onto the skull. (Credit: Dr. Eric Snively, University of Alberta)
Tyrannosaur Nasal Bones: T-rex nasal bones and how they fit onto the skull. (Credit: Dr. Eric Snively, University of Alberta)

What's so special about "fused, arch-like nasal bones" you ask? Everything, says University of Alberta researcher Dr. Eric Snively. Previous estimates for the bite strength of Tyrannosaurids (long assumed to be one of history's top biters, second only to new-metal star Fred Durst) have been so high that the act of biting could have crushed the Tyrannosaur's own head. The fused nasal bones, however, would have allowed a Tyrannosaur to employ the massive strength of its head and neck with out harming itself. Larger theropods, such as the carcharadontosaurus and giganotosaurus, would have been unable to match the skull strength of even a medium sized tyrannosaur.

So where does this now place the T. Rex in the old hunter/scavenger debate? Dr. Snively and the coauthors of this research describe the T. Rex's jaws as a "zoological superweapon." But scavengers often display massive bone-crunching teeth and jaws (check out the archaeotherium and the hyenadont in the SMM's Dino's and Fossils gallery, if you get the chance - both have some impressive jaws, and both were probably at least occasional scavengers. While you're at it, take a look at our moveable T. Rex skull and jaws). Or does this research just plant the T. Rex more firmly in the category of "opportunist?"

Oh, also, here are a couple of fun bits of trivia from ScienceDaily's article:

"In a split second, a T. rex could toss its head at a 45 degree angle and throw a 50kg person five metres in the air. And that's with conservative estimates of the creature's muscle force."

"[Tyrrell museum researchers] showed that a T. rex's lower jaw could apply 200,000 newtons of force--that's like lifting a semi-trailer."

All pretty impressive, I guess, but, still, you should see me tear through a box of Twinkys. Grr.