Stories tagged Life Science


Bird brain: A large-brained raven has a better chance of survival than a small-brained bird of the same size. Photo Bureau of Land Management.
Bird brain: A large-brained raven has a better chance of survival than a small-brained bird of the same size. Photo Bureau of Land Management.

A scientific paper published in England reports that birds with bigger brains have higher survival rates than do small-brained species. A team of scientists studied birds and determined which ones had the largest brains, relative to their body size. They then collected data on birds in the wild, and found that a large-brained bird had a better chance of surviving year-to-year than a small-brained bird of the same body size.

Scientists attribute this to the large-brained birds being better able to modify their behavior in response to a change in the environment.

A big brain can be a disadvantage early in a bird’s life cycle. Big brains require a lot of energy to grow, and a lot of time to develop. But once the bird matures, a bigger brain helps them survive.


Monkey business: Could pet monkeys be a new cure of anxiety? A Missouri woman claims that she's successfully been off of her anxiety treatment medications since having a pet monkey be her constant companion. (Photo by Hector)
Monkey business: Could pet monkeys be a new cure of anxiety? A Missouri woman claims that she's successfully been off of her anxiety treatment medications since having a pet monkey be her constant companion. (Photo by Hector)
More fun than a barrel of monkeys may be a new prescription, not just an old saying.

A Missouri woman is crediting monkey medication, the presence of a monkey around her all the time, with helping her cope with mental illness issues.

Like me, you may have seen her featured on Good Morning America today. In the report, Debby Rose claims that her pet monkey, Richard, gives her medicinal benefits in treating her anxiety disorder.

“He’s an emotional support. He calms me down. He lowers my blood pressure from his soothing eye contact. He helps with that,” she said on the report. One of the big problems that can come from anxiety disorders are panic attacks. Since having Richard as her constant companion, Debby has had no panic attacks. She no longer needs to take the medications that doctors normally prescribe for people dealing with anxiety issues.

While she and Richard are quite happy with the arrangement, not everyone is so excited. Some people around her community don’t appreciate seeing a monkey at the grocery store or restaurant that Debby might be visiting. And some authorities question if a monkey is an acceptable helper animal to be going around to public places.

Some people filed complaints with the county health department and it is now taking action to bar the Richard from being in stores or restaurants.

"This type of old world monkey has been known to be aggressive. It has a high prevalence of herpes B infection, which is highly fatal in humans when they are exposed to that," said a health department official.

But Debby’s doctor is very supportive of her unusual form of anxiety treatment.

"I have a lot of patients that suffer from anxiety. Many patients are on lots of medication for this problem," said Dr. Larry Halverson. "Debbie has a monkey that she carries with her and takes no medications and remains very functional. So I think it's a great thing."

The situation does raise some interesting questions. What types of animals are acceptable therapy animals? What settings should they be kept out of? Who ultimately should be responsible for making these decisions?

What do you think should be done about Debby and Richard? Share your thoughts by submitting a comment here.


Insulin pump: New hope for diabetics.
Insulin pump: New hope for diabetics.

Diabetes in 171 million (WHO)

My niece nearly died from diabetes complicactions just before Thanksgiving. Shortly after being diagnosed with child onset diabetes (type 1), she suffered toxic shock syndrome. Before eating her Thanksgiving meal she needed to get blood from her finger, measure her blood sugar, calculate the amount of insulin needed for the food she would eat, then inject the proper amount via a needle into her body.

At Christmas time I shared with her that perhaps within a few years, a cure for her diabetes would be available. In a breed of mice genetically predestined to develop diabetes, researchers discovered that

after just one injection of a neuropeptide called "substance P" the diabetes disappeared overnight and the mice remained diabetes-free for weeks, and even months in some

New model for diabetes cause (and cure)

This research is reported in the December 15 issue of the journal, Cell.
Scientists at a Toronto hospital found that malfunctioning pain neurons in the pancreas might be the cause of diabetes. This upsets conventional wisdom that Type 1 diabetes is caused by an auto-immune response.

“We started to look at nervous system elements that seemed to play a role in Type 1 diabetes and found that specific sensory neurons are critical for islet immune attack in the pancreas,” said Dr. Hans Michael Dosch, study principal investigator, senior scientist at SickKids and professor of Paediatrics and Immunology at the University of Toronto. “These nerves secrete insufficient neuropeptides which sustain normal islet function, creating a vicious circle of progressive islet stress.”

The researchers caution they have yet to confirm their findings in people, but say they expect results from human studies within a year or so. Any treatment that may emerge to help at least some patients would likely be years away from hitting the market. Post


Raw data: The Food and Drug Administration will soon be deciding if meat from cloned animals will be able to be sold to consumers.
Raw data: The Food and Drug Administration will soon be deciding if meat from cloned animals will be able to be sold to consumers.

Have you ever had that hamburger or steak that you liked so much you just wanted to eat it again and again? Well, you might be able to eat meat produced by the same set of animal genes for years and years if a plan for the sale of cloned meat gets government approval.

The federal government’s Food and Drug Administration will soon be deciding if meat from cloned animals will be able to be sold in your corner grocery store. Last week it received a recommendation from a study group that it okay the public sale of meat and milk from cloned animals.

"All of the studies indicate that the composition of meat and milk from clones is within the compositional ranges of meat and milk consumed in the U.S.," the FDA scientists concluded in a report published in the Jan. 1 issue of the journal Theriogenology, which focuses on animal reproduction.

For several years, the FDA has put the brakes on commercial sales to the few companies that have been researching and developing cloned meat. But over the course of this year, those companies have been presenting a pile of evidence that they think shows cloned meat is safe to eat.

While there can be differences between natural-born and cloned, especially at the genetic and physiological levels, the cloned meat companies contend that there’s no difference between the meats that come from cloned or natural-born animals. But consumer protection groups are leery. And at a minimum, they think cloned meat products should carry special labels to allow people to know when they are buying cloned meat products.

One of the authors of the study supporting cloned meat notes that genetic differences between cloned and natural animals are most pronounced in the embriotic stages of development. By the time a cow, for instance, is mature, those differences are so small that it makes little or no impact on the quality of its meat or milk.
Even if cloned meat does get the FDA’s approval, there likely won’t be a huge jump in the amount of animals cloned for food production purposes. That’s due to the current economics involved with cloning.
Right now is costs about $19,000 to clone a cow. The more you clone, the cheaper the process gets. Six cloned cows would cost about $72,000, or $12,000 a piece. Naturally bred cows are a lot cheaper to reproduce.

But proponents for cloning meat-producing animals could have limited benefits. With certain breeds, cloning could help to promote strong, disease-free genes. Or a farmer might want to clone an unusually productive cow or steer. The cloned-meat industry estimates that only one-percent of herd would be made up of cloned animals. And some ranchers and farmers how have been experimenting with cloned animals admit that some of their cloned animals have already gone into our food chain. There is no process of checking if animals going to a slaughterhouse have been cloned or were naturally born.

Even if cloned meats to get the government’s okay, they might not prove popular with the meat-buying public. A recent national survey of consumers found that 64 percent of Americans are uncomfortable with animal cloning and that 43 percent believe that food from clones is unsafe.

Would you be willing to eat the meat of a cloned animal or drink the milk from a cloned cow? What do you think the FDA should do on this issue?


Eritrea, an east African nation bordering Ethiopia, announced Monday a plan to protect its entire coastline. This is the first nation in the world to make such a bold step towards environmental protection. Eritrea will preserve 837 miles of mainland coast and 1,209 miles of coast around 350 islands.

Currently, Eritrea’s dry coastal plains are largely undeveloped, except for two large cities including its capital, Asmara. The Eritrea Coastal Marine and Island Biodiversity Conservation Project (ECMIB) will create a 330-foot buffer along the coast protecting against future development. Inland areas that are part of the Red Sea watershed will be preserved, and places of ecological importance will be placed under permanent protection as national parks and reserves.

Solving environmental problems is typically a luxury developing nations cannot afford. The little revenue their government generates must be used for economic development and building infrastructure. Still, developed nations, such as the US, continue to learn that it is more cost effective to prevent environmental problems than to fix them. Even more difficult to measure on an economic scale is the cost of ecosystem services, such as clean water. Cities spend billions dollars on water treatment facilities to perform a function that a healthy ecosystem would provide for free. By protecting their coastline and watersheds, Eritrea is protecting against environmental disasters, such as flooding, and guaranteeing that many ecological services will be maintained.

Eritrea is plagued with many of the typical problems of developing nations in east Africa. After a 32-year war of independence from Ethiopia, which ended in 1993, they fought with Yemen and again with Ethiopia. Today there is peace, but it is tenuous. The boarder dispute that ignited its most recent fighting with Ethiopia is still unresolved. These issues are compounded by other problems. Two-thirds of the population needs government assistance to provide enough food for their family. Any economic progress is slowed due to the large proportion of Eritreans who are in the army, rather than the workforce.

Still, with a host of social and economic problems, Eritrea has made an unprecedented step towards environmental protection. They realize that their current problems will only worsen with continued ecological degradation. Severe droughts and other natural disasters caused famine and economic decline in east Africa between 1974 and 1984. Protecting the Eritrean coastline will protect more than just the environment. It is a cost-effective and necessary effort to protect the country and region.


The Minnesota Department of Health is investigating seven suspected cases of E. coli infection linked to Taco John's restaurants in Albert Lea and Austin. Almost three dozen people in Iowa came down with suspected E. coli infections after eating at a Taco Johns in Cedar Falls.

There's no indication that these infections are linked to the E. coli outbreak (64 cases) related to Taco Bell restaurants in the Northeast, but the Centers for Disease control haven't ruled a connection out, either.

Investigators initially thought contaminated green onions were the source of the infections, but follow-up testing on the samples was negative for E. coli. So we still don't know what the contaminated food was. But fresh produce is a likely culprit.

Bagged lettuce: Packaged produce, like this lettuce, makes it easier for us to  consume the recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables. But packaged, fresh produce is increasingly linked to outbreaks of food-borne illness. (Photo courtesy Michael Dietsch)
Bagged lettuce: Packaged produce, like this lettuce, makes it easier for us to consume the recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables. But packaged, fresh produce is increasingly linked to outbreaks of food-borne illness. (Photo courtesy Michael Dietsch)

And it's hardly the first time fresh produce has been implicated in outbreaks of food-borne disease. These latest cases follow hard on the heels of salmonella cases linked to tomatoes, and the nationwide E. coli outbreak linked to bagged spinach. (All in the last three months!)

According to the Washington Post,

"The number of produce-related outbreaks of food-borne illness has increased from 40 in 1999 to 86 in 2004, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Americans are now more likely to get sick from eating contaminated produce than from any other food item, the center said."

Why the increase?
Well, more people are eating fresh produce, especially pre-cut and packaged fruits and vegetables. Distribution has improved, as has electronic reporting of outbreaks. And the aging population of the US is more susceptible to food-borne disease. And produce is a particularly difficult challenge: with contaminated meat, cooking to the proper temperature will kill the bacteria that cause disease. (Food safety experts call this a "kill step.") But produce is often meant to be eaten raw—no kill step.

(For more on the SOURCES of E. coli in fresh produce, see the thread on the September spinach outbreak.)

So what do we do?
Again, according to the Washington Post,

"Consumer advocates think that tougher mandatory food safety standards and stepped-up enforcement are the answer. The country's largest food distributors and restaurants are pursuing self-regulation, arguing that government rules can take years to put in place. Produce growers and packers have suggested a voluntary system with elements of mandatory oversight."

But none of these are ready to be implemented right away.

Some folks are advocating for better and more frequent inspection of processing plants by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but the agency is chronically short-staffed and underfunded. And the FDA doesn't have authority over food production at the farm level. Buyers such as Safeway and Albertsons have hired their own inspectors. But inspectors and food safety experts agree that there's no consistency because federal guidelines aren't specific enough.

The article says,

"'We don't have enough science to base those (guidelines) on to be comprehensive," said Kevin Reilly, a California food safety official who is participating in the investigation of the E. coli outbreak traced to bagged spinach. 'What's necessary is an agreed-upon set of agricultural practices. Instead of "Be aware of water quality," we need to say, "Test it with this frequency and in this fashion."'"

In the meantime, scientists are looking at various ways to kill potential contaminants without ruining the produce or having to cook it.

Unless something changes, there WILL be another outbreak.

My $0.02? I don't want to read any more stories about children or grandparents having kidney failure or even dying from E. coli infection. So I guess I'm all for killing off the bacteria, if we can. But part of me thinks, yes, I want safe food, but I also want CLEAN food. Even if eating poop can be made safe, I still don't want to eat poop!

What do you think? Do you worry about food safety? Do you rely on pre-cut and or packaged fruits and vegetables? What safety measures would you like to see? Any ideas about how we can improve the situation?


Digging dinosaurs in Utah: Courtesy Bureau of Land Management
Digging dinosaurs in Utah: Courtesy Bureau of Land Management

That’s how many types of dinosaurs remain to be discovered. According to Steve Wang, a statistician at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, and Peter Dodson, a palaeontologist at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, at least 70% of the dinosaurs that once existed have yet to be found. They arrived at this figure by taking the known dino discoveries and plugging them in to a mathematical model that has proven successful in extrapolating data.

The scientists estimate that about half of the missing dinos will probably never be found. They lived in upland areas where fossilization is rare. Or the rocks that held their bones have been destroyed by glaciers or other Earth processes. But that leaves some 700 types of dinosaurs yet to be discovered.

Dinosaur discovery has accelerated in recent years. Nearly half of all dinosaurs known today have been dug up in just the last 20 years. Countries like China and Argentina – long inaccessible to paleontologists – have been producing many new finds. But there are plenty of other countries, particularly in Africa, that have yet to be fully explored. Wang and Dodson figure that most of the remaining dinosaur discoveries should come to light in the next 100 to 140 years.


A new vaccination strategy in India could finally eliminate polio by the end of the decade.

In northern India, particularly Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the polio virus persists, despite good vaccination coverage, due to overcrowded living conditions and poor sanitation. Researchers at the Imperial College in London say that the three polio strains in the trivalent vaccine can interfere with each other inside the body, producing immunity to one strain but not another. So switching from a vaccine that protects against three strains of polio to a vaccine that protects only against the dominant one, along with stepped up vaccination efforts, could help eliminate the virus from its few remaining reservoirs.

More polio stories on the Buzz:

Polio in Minnesota

Minnesota's polio hero

Polio jumps an ocean to Indonesia


Two years ago, a scientist in Australia has a really lucky day. Tired after driving for several hours, he stopped to stretch his legs and -- boom! -- he tripped over a 100-million-year-old pterosaur jaw. (Pterosaurs were flying reptiles that lived at the same time as dinosaurs. The Science Museum has one hanging in our main lobby.) The jaw bone was encased in rock; after two years of careful preparation, the bone is finally free and can be studied by scientists.

(OK, so it wasn't a technically a dinosaur, and it was actually off to the side of the road, but c'mon, how often do I get to reference my favorite bad song of the Seventies?)


The Bell Museum of Natural History is hosting a CAFE SCIENTIFIQUE tonight (Tuesday, November 14) at 6pm at the Varsity Theater in Dinkytown. (There's a $5 suggested donation, but you can attend for free.)

This month, Cafe Scientifique explores the science and politics of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. What is a GMO? How and why have researchers been modifying the genetic makeup of plants and animals, and what are the possible risks and benefits of this type of research? Speakers from the University of Minnesota will discuss the science as well as the policy concerns of genetically modified organisms.

Guest speakers are:

  • Professor Anne R. Kapuscinski, Ph.D., University of Minnesota Department of Fisheries and Conservation Biology, Sea Grant Extension Specialist in Biotechnology and Aquaculture
  • Jennifer Kuzma, Ph.D., Interim Director and Assistant Professor at the Center for Science, Technology, and Public Policy, Humphrey Institute, University of Minnesota.

Dr. Kuzma was featured on Minnesota Public Radio's Midmorning show this morning, discussing the politics of genetically modified foods and potential safety issues.

Do you have questions about genetically modified crops? Do you try to avoid genetically modified foods at the grocery store? What worries you or excites you about the potential of GMOs?