Stories tagged Life Science


A Rock Pigeon: Rock pigeons are the pigeons that are common in large numbers in most major cities. Photo courtesy Josh215 via Wikipedia.
The City of St. Paul is aiming to look its best when the Republican National Convention comes to town in late summer 2008. Part of the plan to spiff up the capitol city is a crack down on pigeon poop – a daunting adversary for many major cities.

The City plans to build ideal nesting grounds for pigeons on rooftops in downtown and then take the eggs in order to attempt to control the population. The hope is that fewer pigeons will mean less pigeon poop. City officials are not sure the pigeon “condo” scheme will be effective, but they are willing to give it a try after numerous other plans have fallen short of the goal.

Pigeons find food easily in the city: The readily available food in an urban environment allows pigeons to breed year-round.  Photo courtesy Photo courtesy sarmoung via Flickr.
Pigeons find food easily in the city: The readily available food in an urban environment allows pigeons to breed year-round. Photo courtesy Photo courtesy sarmoung via Flickr.
Pigeons love city life

Rock Pigeons, often also commonly called doves, are the most common type of pigeon found in urban areas. They are found in cities all over the world as they find high buildings an ideal substitute for their preferred nesting habitat in the wild – sea cliffs.

Rapid reproduction

Many techniques have been used to attempt to control pigeon populations – but it is a major undertaking. Pigeons breed when they have access to a steady food supply. Given the readily available food in an urban environment – from garbage to residents actively feeding pigeons – the food supplies in cities allow pigeons to reproduce year-round, laying eggs six to nine times a year.


Your goose is cooked!: Photo by lisso at
Your goose is cooked!: Photo by lisso at

The city of Chicago is looking for volunteers to go on a wild goose chase. The city has been plagued for over a decade by an ever-growing flock of Canadian geese. The birds have virtually taken over some city parks, harassing users and covering the ground with their droppings.

The city wants volunteers to find goose eggs during the nesting season. Then, wildlife control experts will shake the eggs to destroy the embryos. The geese will continue to incubate the eggs (and not lay new ones), but no goslings will hatch. Experts claim this is a more humane form of animal control than rounding up wild geese and killing them.


The South Korean research team at Seoul National University once lead by the now disgraced stem cell researcher Hwang Woo-suk (see Bryan’s post for more on that story) announced this week that they have produced the first two cloned wolves in the world. My first thought was that if you have cloned sheep, you’ll need something to hunt them – a sort of cloned animal population management system, but the researchers say that the Korean Wolf clones were produced to help an endangered species.

The wolves, named Snuwolf and Snuwolffy were born 18 months ago. It has taken the team this long to publish their results due to the extra intense review of their work they must now endure as a result of the stem cell research scandal. The team’s findings will be published in an upcoming issue of Cloning and Stem Cells.


The world premiere RACE: Are We So Different? exhibit is showing Science Museum visitors that race has an impact on our lives each day, often in ways that are hidden or undetected by popular media.

In conjunction with the exhibit, the Science Museum is drawing upon local, regional, and national perspectives and inviting visitors to explore an in-depth understanding of race and its impact on our society during a speakers’ forum this spring.

Each forum includes live entertainment, a featured speaker, time for reaction from a panel of respondents, and questions from the audience.

Thursday, March 29
Race and Immigration

Hosted by Arlene Torres, associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Respondents are

  • Kazoua Kong-Thao, Vice Chair of St. Paul Board of Education,
  • and Sandra Vargas, Hennepin County Administrator.

Admission to the RACE Forums is $12 per person ($8 for members, seniors, and students and $4 for individuals with limited incomes) and includes admission to the RACE exhibit.

Forums take place in the 3D Cinema. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Please help spread the word! To make reservations, call (651) 221-9444.


OK, so save the baby seals, but kill the baby bears--is that right?: Photo from Backgrounds Archive
OK, so save the baby seals, but kill the baby bears--is that right?: Photo from Backgrounds ArchiveCourtesy Backgrounds Archive

There's a line attributed to George Orwell: "Some ideas are so wrong, only an intellectual could believe them." This story is exhibit A.

Last December, a polar bear in the Berlin Zoo gave birth to two cubs. The mother abandoned her offspring, as wild animals sometimes do. The first cub died. The zookeepers intervened and have raised the second cub by hand.

Now, "animal rights" activists are demanding that the zoo kill the little cub. Seriously. They actually claim it is cruel to keep the cub alive, saying it will suffer humiliation if it is kept as a pet.

Listen to the words of these "animal lovers:"

"The zoo must kill the bear," said spokesman Frank Albrecht. "Feeding by hand is not species-appropriate but a gross violation of animal protection laws." … They argue that current treatment of the cub is inhumane and could cause him future difficulties interacting with fellow polar bears. "They cannot domesticate a wild animal," added Ruediger Schmiedel, head of the Foundation for Bears.

Y'know, when I was 10 years old, I would do the stupid things that 10-year-old boys do. And my mother in her frustration would sometimes ask, "Do you sit on your brains?" I would ask the same thing of these people, except that would imply they actually have brains to sit upon. Keeping an animal alive is inhumane? Wild animals experience human emotions? Wild animals cannot be domesticated? It boggles the mind that a person can actually be this stupid and still live.

(Though perhaps not for long. Recently, another "animal lover" broke into the cheetah cage at the Belgian Zoo to be with the cats that she loved. The cheetahs had her for lunch. A zoo spokesman, who really should know better, said "the cheetahs betrayed her trust." It's difficult to say who's the bigger fool: the lady who got into the cage with the wild animals, or the spokesperson who thinks wild animals recognize "trust." Yikes.)


Malaria isn’t even on the radar screen of most people in the US, but it is a huge global problem! Did you know that a child dies from malaria in Africa every 30 seconds? That is seven jumbo jets of children everyday. A powerful video has been produced by the Against Malaria organization.

Malaria is spread through mosquitoes that bite at night and can’t be spread person to person without a mosquito vector. This means using bed nets is an effective way to prevent the spread of malaria. Using bed nets is something that can be used right now while scientists continue to work on other methods (like vaccines, GM mosquitoes, better treatment options…)

A team of us at the Science Museum of Minnesota is developing an exhibition about infectious diseases called Disease Detectives which will open in the Human Body Gallery in January 2008. We feel stopping the spread of malaria is very important and have started our own page to encourage others to help too by donating funds for the purchase of bed nets. Each bed net costs only $5 and 100% of the money goes to purchase bed nets. For more information go to


Indonesia—with the world's highest death toll from H5N1 avian influenza—briefly stopped providing samples to the World Health Organization (WHO), saying only organizations that agreed not to use the samples for commercial purposes would have access. Now the Indonesian government has struck a new deal to share samples under a plan that would guarantee access to any resulting vaccines.

H5N1 avian influenza viruses: This is a colorized transmission electron micrograph of Avian influenza A H5N1 viruses (in gold). (Courtesy J. Katz Goldsmith and S. Zaki, CDC)
H5N1 avian influenza viruses: This is a colorized transmission electron micrograph of Avian influenza A H5N1 viruses (in gold). (Courtesy J. Katz Goldsmith and S. Zaki, CDC)

The Reuters article says,

"Indonesia has said it was unfair for foreign drug firms to use samples, design vaccines, patent them and sell the product back to the country. ...

Menno de Jong of the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit in Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City said sharing viruses and clinical data was vital to improve diagnostics, clinical care and vaccine development, but sharing vaccines was vital too.

'I think the point is well taken from the Indonesia experience that there should be some guarantees for countries affected by H5N1 that they will also share in the vaccines produced,' he said."

Biotech and pharmaceutical companies spend BIG money to produce tests, treatments, and vaccines for a huge range of conditions, from the life-threatening to the merely inconvenient or uncomfortable. And they’re understandably concerned about protecting their investments.

But afflicted patients are usually not compensated for the samples that make these medical miracles possible. (For a good discussion of the problem, read this editorial from the New York Times).

Check out Bryan’s blog entry ((“Patenting human genes”), and then vote in our poll.

Tell us what you think: Does Indonesia’s insistence that compensation (in the form of access to resulting vaccines) for H5N1 avian influenza samples make you feel safer/better?


Nano "TNT" destroys cancer cells without collateral damage.

Triton BioSystems' TNT (Targeted Nano-Therapeutics) consists of magnetized iron-oxide particles attached to monoclonal antibodies, which are engineered versions of human immune system proteins that seek out a specific protein.

The TNT attacks cancer in three steps.

First, the patient receives a simple infusion containing trillions of bioprobes, each of which is a nano-scale magnetic sphere bound to an antibody. Once in the bloodstream, the bioprobes seek out and attach to cancer cells. Finally, the doctor switches on a magnetic field in the region of the cancer, which causes the bioprobes to heat up, killing the cancer cells within

Not toxic like chemo or radiation treatments.

In the March issue of the Journal of Nuclear Medicine, Sally Denardo, a professor of internal medicine and radiology at UC Davis, described how this treatment resulted in slower tumor growth rates and no toxic side effects.

"This is not just intriguing basic science," she said, adding that the therapy could be combined with other treatments like chemotherapy, to give patients a better shot at beating cancer. "It could have a major impact," she said.Reuters

Additional reading and graphics here (pdf):

December, 2006 - Sally Denardo Turns up the Heat on Cancer


Cows: The UN estimates that cows and other livestock are responsible for 18% of the global warming effect. Save the planet, eat a cow?
Cows: The UN estimates that cows and other livestock are responsible for 18% of the global warming effect. Save the planet, eat a cow?
Last night, I was curled up on the sofa reading an old issue of The New Yorker (January 22, 2007, to be exact). The book review feature ("Vegetable Love: The History of Vegetarianism") was about Tristram Stuart's The Bloodless Revolution: A Cultural History of Vegetarianism from 1600 to Modern Times. And one section, in particular, made me sit up and read a little closer. I quote:

"These days, the environmental argument [for vegetarianism] os not about maximizing the number of people that the environment can sustain but about sustaining the environment. Does producing a pound of lentils involve burning less fossil fuel than producing a pound of hamburger meat, or more? How many square miles of forest are cleared to graze cattle? How much biodiversity is lost both in grazing livestock and in raising the corn and soybeans to fatten them? A recent report by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization reckons that at least 18% of the global warming effect comes from livestock, more than is cause by all the world's transportation systems. It has been estimated that 40% of global grain output is used to feed animals rather than people, and that half of this grain would be sufficient to eliminate world hunger if--and it's not a small if--the political will could be found to insure equitable distribution.

Yet the energy-cost argument is formidably complicated and cannot by itself support refusing all forms of meat in favor of all forms of plant matter: shooting and eating the deer chewing up the tulips in your garden may turn out to be more environmentally virtuous than dining on tofu manufactured from Chinese soybeans, and walking to the local supermaket for a nice hanger cut steak cut from a grass-fed New Zealand steer may be kinder to the planet than getting into your Toyota Prius to drive five miles for some organic Zambian green beans."

(This issue continues to befuddle me. Is it better to buy all local produce when I can, regardless of organic status (which, I must admit, I don't really care so much about)? Or does the bulk production and transport of the run-of-the-mill produce at the big-box grocery cancel out some harmful environmental effects?)

The article continues:

"The number of vegetarians in developed countries is evidently on the increase, but the world's per capita consumption of meat rises relentlessly: in 1981, it was 62 pounds per year; in 2002, the figure stood at 87.5 pounds. In carnivorous America, in increased from 238.1 pounds to 275.1 pounds, and the practice is spreading in traditionally herbivorous Asia. Indians' meat consumption has rised from 8.4 to 11.5 pounds since 1981; in China, it has increased from 33.1 to an astonishing 115.5 pounds. This result has nothing to do with principle and everything to do with prosperity."

(275.1 pounds! Crazy! My family eats a lot of vegetarian meals, not on principle, but just because we like them. I wonder how we compare?)

The article ends with an awesome quote from Ben Franklin, who flirted with vegetarianism but didn't quite make it stick. He was 16, and on his first sea voyage from Boston, when his ship was becalmed off Block Island in the Narragansett Bay. He wrote:

"Our Peopl set about catching Cod, & haul'd up a great many. Hitherto I had stick to my Resolution of not eating animal Food; and on this Occasion, I consider'd . . . the taking every Fish as a kind of unprovok'd Murder, since none of them had or ever could do us any Injury that might justify the Slaughter. All this seem'd very reasonable. But I had formerly been a great Lover of Fish, & when this came hot out of the Frying Pan, it smeled admirably well. I balanc'd some time between Principle & Inclination: till I recollected, that when the Fish were opened, I saw smaller Fish taken out of their Stomachs: Then though I, if you eat one another, I don't see why we mayn't eat you. So I din'd upon Cod very heartily and continu'd to eat with other People, returning only now & then occasionally to a vegetable Diet. So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable Creature, since it enables one to find or make a Reason for everything one has a mind to do."

Indeed! :)


Last fall I attended a talk by one of the other students at my university (Harvard). He was discussing recent results from a perception experiment he had posted online. He said he had over a thousand subjects. "How long have you had this experiment online," I asked him. "Just over a week," he responded.

"Holy crap!" I thought. There are many experiments I would love to do except they require hundreds or thousands of subjects -- something that just isn't feasible in a traditional laboratory setting. So I started the Visual Cognition Online Laboratory. I am getting respectable traffic after one week, but it's going to take a while before I am getting 1,000 participants per week, which is what I need.

Most experiments, I should say, are surveys. What this grad student and I are doing is putting up actual perception experiments, which are always done in the lab. Most researchers believe you need strong controls in timing, display, etc., in order to do perception experiments. For some, this is true, but there are many you can do online given how much bandwidth there is now. Also, if you have enough subjects, that extra noise will wash out.

If you are interested in trying out one of my experiments, they typically take 5 minutes or less.