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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Today in the News (22 Oct 09)

Evolution:
Before I start with the news, I did want to point out that "I was right" regarding "Ida" and the media hyper-sensationalism... I think the biggest thing that this points out though is that we have so many scientifically illiterate people around that none of them even could tell that they were jumping to the wrong conclusions, and using incorrect terminology, or a whole host of other dumb mistakes made on the part of the media and the general public.

Tool-making Human Ancestors Inhabited Grassland Environments Two Million Years Ago. In an article published in the open-access, peer-reviewed journal PLoS ONE on October 21, 2009, Dr Thomas Plummer of Queens College at the City University of New York, Dr Richard Potts of the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History and colleagues report the oldest archeological evidence of early human activities in a grassland environment, dating to 2 million years ago. The article highlights new research and its implications concerning the environments in which human ancestors evolved. Scientists as far back as Charles Darwin have thought that adaptation to grassland environments profoundly influenced the course of human evolution. This idea has remained well-entrenched, even with recent recognition that hominin origins took place in a woodland environment and that the adaptive landscape in Africa fluctuated dramatically in response to short-term climatic shifts.

Are Humans Still Evolving? Absolutely, Says A New Analysis Of A Long-term Survey Of Human Health. Although advances in medical care have improved standards of living over time, humans aren't entirely sheltered from the forces of natural selection, a new study shows. "There is this idea that because medicine has been so good at reducing mortality rates, that means that natural selection is no longer operating in humans," said Stephen Stearns of Yale University. A recent analysis by Stearns and colleagues turns this idea on its head. As part of a working group sponsored by the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in Durham, NC, the team of researchers decided to find out if natural selection — a major driving force of evolution — is still at work in humans today. The result? Human evolution hasn't ground to a halt. In fact, we're likely to evolve at roughly the same rates as other living things, findings suggest.

Time In A Bottle: Scientists Watch Evolution Unfold. A 21-year Michigan State University experiment that distills the essence of evolution in laboratory flasks not only demonstrates natural selection at work, but could lead to biotechnology and medical research advances, researchers said. Charles Darwin's seminal Origin of Species first laid out the case for evolution exactly 150 years ago. Now, MSU professor Richard Lenski and colleagues document the process in their analysis of 40,000 generations of bacteria, published this week in the international science journal Nature. Lenski, Hannah Professor of Microbial Ecology at MSU, started growing cultures of fast-reproducing, single-celled E. coli bacteria in 1988. If a genetic mutation gives a cell an advantage in competition for food, he reasoned, it should dominate the entire culture. While Darwin's theory of natural selection is supported by other studies, it has never before been studied for so many cycles and in such detail.

Vaccines:
Global Health Experts Report Childhood Vaccines At All-time High, But Access Not Yet Equitable. Reversing a downward trend, immunization rates are now at their highest ever and vaccine development worldwide is booming, according to a new assessment released today by the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF and the World Bank. The State of the World's Vaccines and Immunization reports that more infants are being immunized today than ever before -- a record 106 million in 2008 -- according to new data. At the same time, its authors are calling on donor nations to address a funding gap that leaves millions of children still at risk, particularly in the poorest nations and communities, where preventable diseases take their deadliest toll.

H1N1 Simulation Modeling Shows Rapid Vaccine Rollout Effective In Reducing Infection Rates. Early action, especially rapid rollout of vaccines, is extremely effective in reducing the attack rate of the H1N1 influenza virus, according to a simulation model of a pandemic outbreak reported in a new study in CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal). The article presents a simulation model that projects how many people will be infected under different disease control strategies. The model simulated a pandemic outbreak based on demographic information from London, a mid-sized city in Ontario, Canada as well as epidemiologic influenza pandemic data. It looked at the impact of vaccination timing, school closures and antiviral drug treatment strategies as well as the effect of pre-existing immunity.

Autism:
I put this in the category of "We wasted a bunch of money to shut you up, and it still probably won't matter..." Mercury Levels In Children With Autism And Those Developing Typically Are The Same, Study Finds. In a large population-based study published online today, researchers at the UC Davis MIND Institute report that after adjusting for a number of factors, typically developing children and children with autism have similar levels of mercury in their blood streams. Mercury is a heavy metal found in other studies to adversely affect the developing nervous system. The study, appearing in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, is the most rigorous examination to date of blood-mercury levels in children with autism. The researchers cautioned, however, that the study is not an examination of whether mercury plays a role in causing the disorder.

Possible Link Between Autism And Oxytocin Gene Via Non-DNA Sequence Mutation. Researchers at Duke University Medical Center have uncovered a new genetic signature that correlates strongly with autism and which doesn't involve changes to the DNA sequence itself. Rather, the changes are in the way the genes are turned on and off. The finding may suggest new approaches to diagnosis and treatment of autism. The researchers found higher-than-usual numbers of gene-regulating molecules called methyl groups in a region of the genome that regulates oxytocin receptor expression in people with autism.

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