A Journal of the Irrepressible

Archive for the ‘biology’ Category

Generosity by Richard Powers

leave a comment

Richard Powers is a master of sleight-of-hand. He writes novels full of science but escapes being called a science fiction writer. In Generosity: An Enhancement, the latest novel by the MacArthur “genius” grant and National Book Award winner (for The Echo Maker), Powers feints and flourishes in order to — presto-magico — pull together two seemingly unrelated themes: genetic engineering and creative nonfiction.

In Powers’ hands, the relation between the two themes is laid bare: they both are concerned with the nature, manipulation, and enhancement of reality. In recent years, we’ve seen the formerly innocuous genre of memoir mutate into the high-stakes blockbuster industry of creative nonfiction. And woe unto he who fudges the truth in his memoir, who tells a lie, however small. What used to be par for the course in memoir is now a cardinal sin: remember James Frey and A Million Little Pieces? Read the rest of this entry »

  • Share/Bookmark

Written by Brian

January 21st, 2010 at 11:13 am

DDT Gives Good Mutations

leave a comment

A story in today’s Science News reports that

Women who lived in villages sprayed with DDT to reduce malaria gave birth to 33 per cent more baby boys with urogenital birth defects (UGBD) between 2004 and 2006 than women in unsprayed villages, according to research published online by the UK-based urology journal BJUI.

A lot of folks don’t realize that Big Ag Chem is still peddling the banned pesticide in the Third World. But, yeah, DDT is still in widespread use; Rachel Carson is still frequently blamed for millions of deaths (they don’t call it junk science for nothing); and chemistry is the path to better living, at least according to a 2006 report from WHO.

And women who stayed at home in sprayed villages, rather than being a student or working, had 41 per cent more baby boys with UGBDs, such as missing testicles or problems with their urethra or penis.

The authors suggest that this is because they spent more time in homes where domestic DDT-based sprays are still commonly used to kill the mosquitos that cause malaria, even in areas where organised mass spraying no longer takes place.

  • Share/Bookmark

Written by Brian

October 23rd, 2009 at 1:23 pm

Dr. Doolittle of the Microbes

leave a comment

Bonnie Bassler asks, How can bacteria do anything? They’re so small, seemingly reclusive, how can they accomplish the good stuff they do not to mention the evil things, like make you sick? They talk to each other, that’s how. You think you’re human — and you are, Bassler says; at least 1 percent. The rest of you is bacteria. Check out this cool TED talk to find out more.

  • Share/Bookmark

Written by Brian

September 9th, 2009 at 4:20 pm

Posted in biology, the marvelous

Rapid burst of flowering plants set stage for other species

leave a comment

A new University of Florida study based on DNA analysis from living flowering plants shows that the ancestors of most modern trees diversified extremely rapidly 90 million years ago, ultimately leading to the formation of forests that supported similar evolutionary bursts in animals and other plants.

This burst of speciation over a 5-million-year span was one of three major radiations of flowering plants, known as angiosperms. The study focuses on diversification in the rosid clade, a group with a common ancestor that now accounts for one-third of the world’s flowering plants. The forests that resulted provided the habitat that supported later evolutionary diversifications for amphibians, ants, placental mammals and ferns.

“Shortly after the angiosperm-dominated forests diversified, we see this amazing diversification in other lineages, so they basically set the habitat for all kinds of new things to arise,” said Pamela Soltis, study co-author and curator of molecular systematics and evolutionary genetics at UF’s Florida Museum of Natural History. “Associated with some of the subsequent radiations is even the diversification of the primates.”  Read more…

  • Share/Bookmark

Written by Brian

February 20th, 2009 at 12:26 pm

ew, podcasting, and beasts on planets

leave a comment

The Oxford English Dictionary’s December ‘08 list of new words includes “ew” (as in “yuck”) and “podcast.” Ew joins

a large family of imitative words expressing disgust or aversion, ew takes its place, alongside ugh, ough, auh, yah, pew, faugh, and many more, on the list of words which have attempted to tackle the age-old problem of how to represent in print what are essentially inarticulate sounds. Even within the scope of this one entry, many different opinions prevail as to how one should spell ew, as the variants section shows: we have found examples of euuw, euuww, euw, euww, ew, and eww, plus instances in which even more “u”s or “w”s (or both) are pressed into service: as many as 6 “u”s or 16 “w”s have been sighted. Read the rest of this entry »

  • Share/Bookmark

Written by Brian

January 27th, 2009 at 12:01 am

Viagra, Hallucinogens and Circadian Rhythms in Plants

leave a comment

Science Daily is a great site for weird stories. Here are some snips from the past few days.

In a follow-up to research showing that psilocybin, a substance contained in “sacred mushrooms,” produces substantial spiritual effects, a Johns Hopkins team reports that those beneficial effects appear to last more than a year.

Watermelon may have a viagra-like effect: Read the rest of this entry »

  • Share/Bookmark

Written by Brian

July 2nd, 2008 at 7:00 pm

Peak Oil

one comment

My friend B. wrote me this:

So I was reading the Bay Area Guardian, something I do exactly as regularly as I vote, and I ran across something that I thought might interest you. It seems San Francisco has a Peak Oil Preparedness Task Force to explore life after fossil fuels. Of course few take them seriously.

And I replied:

Do you mean that people locally don’t take the task force in SF seriously? Or don’t take post-oil seriously?

The peak oilers are sometimes hard to listen to because they’re so apocalyptically pessimistic. They see the energy packed into a hydrocarbon molecule and moan, What can possibly replace this? They don’t see anything on the shelf that can replace oil, so assume we’re all doomed. I do admire their historical analysis, tho, and I think Hubbert was right; well, he was right, US production peaked right when he said it would. A year or so ago the Saudi Minister of Energy said the planet was running out of oil and had to get ready. And now the King of Saudi Arabia has created a $10-billion endowment for a new university, sci and tech research, that will be a mini-kingdom unto itself in order to free it (and thus attract students and faculty) of Sharia, the heinous religious law of fundamentalist Islam. The king’s reasoning was explicit: Saudi Arabia won’t be an energy economy for much longer and needs to transform itself into a knowledge economy. Amen, brother. At last we agree on something. Read the rest of this entry »

  • Share/Bookmark

Written by Brian

June 18th, 2008 at 5:56 pm

Stand Tall for Phenols

leave a comment

I’ve suggested before that plants are the ultimate selfish genies. Or geniuses. Red queens in green drag. One day soon, I swear, I’m going to get around to explaining what I mean by that and once and for all answer the question, Who cultivates whom?

In the mean time, here’s a tantalizing tidbit that underscores just how dependent we are on plants. Norm Lewis is a scientist at Washington State University’s Institute for Biological Chemistry. Lewis’s work interests me because it’s straight up cool: I’ve learned from talking to scientists to never turn my back on a plant, much less an entire monocropping field of them.

PhenylalanineLewis and his crew of researchers, in the words of a Newswise press release,

has cloned six genes coding for different forms of the enzyme arogenate dehydratase (ADT), which converts a compound called arogenate into phenylalanine.

A description of phenylalanine’s fate underscores its central role in terrestrial plant life and the importance of the enzymatic reaction that produces it.

Phenylalanine is converted into phenolic compounds that are the building blocks of many of the plant world’s most distinctive and important substances, including the pigments in flower petals and chemicals that protect leaves, stems and bark from ultraviolet radiation. Perhaps the best-known end product of phenols is the one that allows trees to stand upright.

But, the release continues,

Phenylalanine is more than a precursor to other important compounds. Since it is an amino acid, it is used as a building block itself in the production of proteins. That happens in animals as well as in plants; humans and other mammals, however, can’t produce phenylalanine. We obtain it by breaking down proteins in the food we eat—either plant material, or the meat of animals that ate plants.

We’re getting close to the big-bang heartbeat of the living world here or, at least, to identifying a strand that weaves all life together.

Lewis said our reliance on plants to make phenylalanine means the reactions that produce it are as crucial to our survival as they are to that of plants.

“If these don’t exist, we don’t exist. It’s as simple as that,” he said.

  • Share/Bookmark

Written by Brian

November 6th, 2007 at 10:37 pm

Spies in Our Midst?

leave a comment

DragonspySnips from the Washington Post:

Vanessa Alarcon saw them while working at an antiwar rally in Lafayette Square last month.

“I heard someone say, ‘Oh my god, look at those,’ ” the college senior from New York recalled. “I look up and I’m like, ‘What the hell is that?’ They looked kind of like dragonflies or little helicopters. But I mean, those are not insects.”

No agency admits to having deployed insect-size spy drones. But a number of U.S. government and private entities acknowledge they are trying. Some federally funded teams are even growing live insects with computer chips in them, with the goal of mounting spyware on their bodies and controlling their flight muscles remotely.

The Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems project aims to create literal shutterbugs — camera-toting insects whose nerves have grown into their internal silicon chip so that wranglers can control their activities. DARPA researchers are also raising cyborg beetles with power for various instruments to be generated by their muscles.

  • Share/Bookmark

Written by Brian

October 12th, 2007 at 10:51 am

Mushrooms, Molds, and Miracles


review by Brian Charles Clark

Mushrooms. Molds, and Miracles
Lucy Kavaler
backinprint.com, 2007

Mushrooms, Molds, and Miracles by Lucy KavalerGod is fungi. God is the stuff of the web—the food web, the web of life, call it what you will—and without fungi, we’d be less than dead; we never would have existed—“we” meaning every living thing on the planet. Fungi are everywhere, and everywhere essential, and what is god if not the ultimate mixmaster, the one who breaks it all down so the big bang beat can begin again?

“The process of decay,” Lucy Kavaler writes, “is… essential in making room on this small planet for new living things.” Kavaler wrote that line just a couple years after Carson’s Silent Spring was published. “The development of life on earth is related to the evolution of fungi.” Read the rest of this entry »

  • Share/Bookmark

Written by Brian

September 2nd, 2007 at 10:18 pm