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Monday, August 10, 2009

Today in the News (10 Aug 09)

Evolution:
Extinction Runs In The Family: Efforts To Preserve Evolutionary History. Global calamities like the one that doomed most dinosaurs forever alter the varieties of life found on Earth, but new research shows that it doesn't take a catastrophe to end entire lineages. An analysis of 200 million years of history for marine clams found that vulnerability to extinction runs in evolutionary families, even when the losses result form ongoing, background rates of extinction. "Biologists have long suspected that the evolutionary history of species and lineages play a big role in determining their vulnerability to extinction, with some branches of the tree of life being more extinction-prone than others," said Kaustuv Roy, a biology professor at the University of California, San Diego, noting that human activities threaten some evolutionary lineages of living vertebrates more than others. "Now we know that such differential loss is not restricted to extinctions driven by us but is a general feature of the extinction process itself." Roy and colleagues Gene Hunt of the Smithsonian Institution and David Jablonski of the University of Chicago report their findings in the journal Science on August 7.

Scientists Find Early Evolution Maximized The 'Spellchecking' Of Protein Sequences. As letters of the alphabet spell out words, when amino acids are linked to one another in a particular order they "spell out" proteins. But sometimes the cell machinery for building proteins in our bodies makes a mistake and the wrong amino acid is inserted. The consequences can be devastating, resulting in a garbled protein that no longer has the correct function, possibly leading to cancers and other diseases. Now scientists at The Scripps Research Institute have examined how an enzyme responsible for adding one amino acid, alanine, to proteins has come to have its own spellchecker. In their paper published in the August 7, 2009, issue of Science, Scripps Research Professor Paul Schimmel and colleagues show that two separate functions—alanine adding and editing—were joined together in a single enzyme during early evolution, in a way that greatly enhances these activities. The findings provide a glimpse into how enzyme functions have evolved.

Climate-caused Biodiversity Booms And Busts In Ancient Plants And Mammals. A period of global warming from 53 million to 47 million years ago strongly influenced plants and animals, spurring a biodiversity boom in western North America, researchers from three research museums report in a paper recently published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "Today, the middle of Wyoming is a vast desert, and a few antelope and deer are all you see," said lead author Michael Woodburne, honorary curator of geology at the Museum of Northern Arizona. "But 50 million years ago, when temperatures were at their highest, that area was a tropical rainforest teeming with lemur-like primates, small dawn horses and a number of small forest rodents and other mammals. In fact, there were more species of mammals living in the western part of North America at that time than at any other time."

Bipedal Humans Came Down From The Trees, Not Up From The Ground. A detailed examination of the wrist bones of several primate species challenges the notion that humans evolved their two-legged upright walking style from a knuckle-walking ancestor. The same lines of evidence also suggest that knuckle-walking evolved at least two different times, making gorillas distinct from chimpanzees and bonobos. "We have the most robust data I've ever seen on this topic," said Daniel Schmitt, a Duke University associate professor of evolutionary anthropology. "This model should cause everyone to re-evaluate what they've said before."

Primate Archaeology Sheds Light On Human Origins. A University of Calgary archaeologist who is one of the few researchers in the world studying the material culture of human beings' closest living relatives – the great apes – is joining his colleagues in creating a new discipline devoted to the history of tool use in all primate species in order to better understand human evolution. Julio Mercader, holder of the Canada Research Chair in Tropical Archaeology in the U of C's Department of Archaeology, is a coauthor of a new paper titled "Primate archaeology" published recently in the journal Nature. Mercader is one of 18 co-authors from universities including Cambridge, Rutgers, Kyoto University and schools in Spain, Italy and France. They argue that recent discoveries of tool use by a wide variety of wild primates and archaeological evidence of chimpanzees using stone tools for thousands of years is forcing experts to re-think the traditional dividing lines between humans and other primate species as well as the belief that tool use is the exclusive domain of the genus Homo. The researchers advocate for a new inter-disciplinary field of primate archaeology to examine tool use by primates in a long-term, evolutionary context.

Wow, that's a lot of evolution news in one day! Maybe because the evidence is incontrovertible?

Autism:
Unlikely Genetic Suspect Implicated In Common Brain Defect. A genetic search that wound its way from patients to mouse models and back to patients has uncovered an unlikely gene critically involved in a common birth defect which causes mental retardation, motor delays and sometimes autism, providing a new mechanism and potentially improving treatment for the disorder. Researchers from the University of Chicago, University of Alberta and other institutions announce in the September issue of Nature Genetics (available online August 10) that the FOXC1 gene contributes to Dandy-Walker malformation (DWM), a brain defect that occurs in 1 of every 5,000 births. The role of the gene in Dandy-Walker malformation dispels the fog surrounding what goes awry in the brains of children born with the disorder. DWM is characterized by an improperly formed cerebellum, the region at the back of the brain involved in movement and coordination. As a result children with this disorder require considerable medical care, and in some cases surgery to treat the build up of fluid around the brain, a condition called hydrocephalus.

Even a small nation like New Zealand is being afflicted by anti-vax pro-disease nonsense. Thankfully, even a "liberal bloke" can understand the basics of science and how evidence actually works. Now if we could only get the celebrities with IQ that hover below room temperature to understand that here in the US...

Vaccines:
Hopefully the CDC and other agencies will learn from the fiasco of the 1970s and do things right in regards to swine flu. This time the testing should be more robust, although even testing is always limited. One can only hope that things are more controlled now, and we are actually able to prevent an epidemic. Although, if there is a global epidemic like 1918, can we heap this on the laps of the anti-vax pro-disease nutters? Please?

As if H1N1 wasn't enough o worry about, what about H3N2? Okay, this particular virus isn't expected to spread to humans, but that doesn't mean we may not be missing other obvious viruses that do pose a threat. Remember, us humans suck at evaluating risks and dangers. In being all caught up over H1N1, w may be missing something obvious. Although I would blame the scientifically illiterate drones of our society for being the dumbasses they are, and forcing researchers to hyper-focus on something as opposed to keeping their eyes open. I just hope it doesn't bite us in the end.

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