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Friday, July 31, 2009

Today in the News (31 Jul 09)

First of all, sorry about the lack of update yesterday. I decided to spend some time with the family, and it just got too late.

Evolution:
Discovery Of Elephants' Oldest Known Relative. Emmanuel Gheerbrant, paleontologist at the Paris Museum (1), discovered one of the oldest modern ungulates related to the elephant order. The beginnings of the radiation (diversification) of the modern mammals (placental orders) remain poorly known because of fossil gaps, and especially in some key Southern continents such as Africa. Emmanuel Gheerbrant, researcher at the CNRS (2), reports(3) the discovery of one of the oldest known modern ungulates in Paleocene beds from Morocco. Dated to about 60 millions years ago, this fossil mammal belongs to a new species called Eritherium azzouzorum. It comes from the same Ouled Abdoun phosphate basin which yielded Phosphatherium escuilliei (4), which was until the Eritherium's discovery the oldest and most primitive proboscidean found. This is the oldest known African ungulate (called paenungulates), and among them the oldest known member of the elephant order (proboscideans) (5).


This seems like a repeat, but the dateline on it is today: Parasites May Have Had Role In Evolution Of Sex. What's so great about sex? From an evolutionary perspective, the answer is not as obvious as one might think. An article published in the July issue of the American Naturalist suggests that sex may have evolved in part as a defense against parasites. Despite its central role in biology, sex is a bit of an evolutionary mystery. Reproducing without sex—like microbes, some plants and even a few reptiles—would seem like a better way to go. Every individual in an asexual species has the ability to reproduce on its own. But in sexual species, two individuals have to combine in order to reproduce one offspring. That gives each generation of asexuals twice the reproductive capacity of sexuals. Why then is sex the dominant strategy when the do-it-yourself approach is so much more efficient?

Ongoing evolution you say? Rodent Size Linked To Human Population And Climate Change. You probably hadn't noticed -- but the head shape and overall size of rodents has been changing over the past century. A University of Illinois at Chicago ecologist has tied these changes to human population density and climate change. The finding is reported by Oliver Pergams, UIC research assistant professor of biological sciences, in the July 31 issue of PLoS One. Pergams said that such size-and-shape changes in mammals, occurring around the world in less than a century, are quite substantial.

Vaccines:
So, do you think this would be possible without all that stuff we learn by knowing EVOLUTION: Scientists Decoding Genomic Sequences Of H1N1 Using Isolates From Outbreak In Argentina. Researchers at the Center for Infection and Immunity (CII) at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health are working with Argentina's National Institute of Infectious Diseases, the National Administration of Laboratories and Health Institutes (ANLIS), and Roche 454 Life Sciences to decode the complete genomic sequences of influenza pandemic (H1N1) 2009 virus from patients with severe respiratory disease. The scientists will be comparing sequences of viruses associated with the current outbreak in Argentina with those found in other locations to determine if there are differences that may be linked to higher mortality rates or provide insights into virus evolution.


College Students Who Feel 'Invincible' Unlikely To Accept STD Vaccines. Vaccines to protect against sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV and herpes, are being developed and may soon be available to college students. However, limited research has been conducted to determine if students will accept the vaccines once they are available. In a new study, a University of Missouri researcher has found that students who feel invulnerable, or invincible, to physical harm are unlikely to get an HIV vaccine. Alternately, students who feel invulnerable to psychological harm are more likely to get the vaccine.

Autism:
Will fear of autism keep swine flu vaccinations down? Despite all the actual evidence that should calm those irrational fears? The frustrated and callous part of my mind would say good riddance to that populations, but sadly it's generally not the irresponsible adults that pay the price, but rather the children and those around the irresponsible adult.

Here is an interesting article on "Learning from Aspergers". Since this is my daughter's diagnosis, I could really relate!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Today in the News (29 Jul 09)

Evolution:
Did an ice age boost human brain size? It is one of the biggest mysteries in human evolution. Why did we humans evolve such big brains, making us the unrivaled rulers of the world? Some 2.5 million years ago, our ancestors' brains expanded from a mere 600 cubic centimetres to about a litre. Two new studies suggest it is no fluke that this brain boom coincided with the onset of an ice age. Cooler heads, it seems, allowed ancient human brains to let off steam and grow.


First Vertebrate To Live In Trees Described. In the Late Paleozoic (260 million years ago), long before dinosaurs dominated the Earth, ancient precursors to mammals took to the trees to feed on leaves and live high above predators that prowled the land, Jörg Fröbisch, PhD, a Field Museum paleontologist has concluded. Elongated fingers, an opposable "thumb," and a grasping tail of Suminia getmanovi demonstrate that this small plant-eating synapsid is the earliest known tree-climbing vertebrate. Suminia was relatively small, about 20 inches from its nose to the tip of its tail. The tree-climbing lifestyle of this Paleozoic relative of mammals is particularly important because for the first time in vertebrate evolution it gives access to new food resources high off the ground, and also provides protection from ground-dwelling predators. The evidence for this lifestyle is based on several excellent skulls and more than a dozen exceptionally well preserved, complete skeletons from a single large block of red mudstone that was discovered in central Russia's Kirov region.

Naming Evolution's Winners And Losers. Mammals and many species of birds and fish are among evolution's "winners," while crocodiles, alligators and a reptile cousin of snakes known as the tuatara are among the losers, according to new research by UCLA scientists and colleagues. "Our results indicate that mammals are special," said Michael Alfaro, a UCLA assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and lead author of the research.

Vaccines:
First Genetically-engineered Malaria Vaccine To Enter Human Trials. Walter and Eliza Hall Institute scientists have created a weakened strain of the malaria parasite that will be used as a live vaccine against the disease. The vaccine, developed in collaboration with researchers from the US, Japan and Canada, will be trialled in humans from early next year. Malaria kills more than one million people each year and destroys – through premature death and disability – the equivalent of at least 35 million years of healthy, productive human life every year.


I am including this story, even though it's not directly about the vaccine because it's some interesting information. Also because it's one of those onfusing articles that peole latch on to, and in the end you'll hear all sorts of crazy stuff about this study that don't even resemble the results they published here. Low Prevalence Of HPV Infection May Be Tied To Poor Prognosis For Blacks With Head And Neck Cancer. Researchers at the University of Maryland Marlene and Stewart Greenebaum Cancer have found that head and neck cancer patients who test positive for the human papillomavirus (HPV) have much better survival rates than patients who don't have the virus, according to a new study in the journal Cancer Prevention Research. The researchers also discovered that blacks in the study had a very low rate of HPV infection, and consequently worse survival, which may explain why African-American patients traditionally have had a poor prognosis for head and neck cancer. "For the first time, we have evidence that the major difference in survival between black and white patients with head and neck cancer appears to be the rate of HPV infection. We found an astounding difference in prognosis between patients who are HPV-positive and those who are HPV-negative," says the study's senior author, Kevin J. Cullen, M.D., director of the University of Maryland Marlene and Stewart Greenebaum Cancer Center and professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Autism:
In the field of Autism, I have not found anything really new or news worthy to report today. Although, I did notice something incredibly disturbing, and sad. Many of the "suggested" links on my search involved stem cell treatments for autism. While I am hopeful that one day we'll have a cure for autism, we DON'T yet. And people attempting to fleece the gullible with these treatments are probably doing a lot more harm than anything. Please, actually think about what you may be doing to your child before succumbing to the latest fads like unproven stem cell treatments and not vaccinating your kids. You are only putting your child and everyone else in danger.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Today in the News (28 Jul 09)

Evolution:
Human Population Expanded During Late Stone Age. Genetic evidence is revealing that human populations began to expand in size in Africa during the Late Stone Age approximately 40,000 years ago. A research team led by Michael F. Hammer (Arizona Research Laboratory's Division of Biotechnology at the University of Arizona) found that sub-Saharan populations increased in size well before the development of agriculture. This research supports the hypothesis that population growth played a significant role in the evolution of human cultures in the Late Pleistocene.


Earliest Animals Lived In A Lake Environment, Research Shows. Evidence for life on Earth stretches back billions of years, with simple single-celled organisms like bacteria dominating the record. When multi-celled animal life appeared on the planet after 3 billion years of single cell organisms, animals diversified rapidly. Conventional wisdom has it that animal evolution began in the ocean, with animal life adapting much later in Earth history to terrestrial environments.

Vaccines:
Cancer Vaccines Led To Long-term Survival For Patients With Metastatic Melanoma. Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian has announced promising data from a clinical study showing patient-specific cancer vaccines derived from patients' own cancer cells and immune cells were well tolerated and resulted in impressive long-term survival rates in patients with metastatic melanoma whose disease had been minimized by other therapies. "There is continued interest in developing new therapies for melanoma patients with recurrent or distant metastatic disease at the time of diagnosis because there are no systemic therapies that can be relied upon to cure them," said Robert O. Dillman, M.D., F.A.C.P., executive medical and scientific director at the Hoag Cancer Center and lead investigator for the study. "Patients with metastatic melanoma are at high risk for additional metastases and death."


Vi Typhoid Vaccine Proves Highly Effective In Young Children, Study Suggests. A new study has found that a currently available yet underused vaccine against typhoid fever is highly effective in young children and protects unvaccinated neighbors of vaccinees. The study, conducted by the International Vaccine Institute (IVI) in collaboration with the National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases (NICED) in Kolkata, India, was published in the July 23 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM). The IVI, based in Seoul, Korea, is a non-profit international organization devoted exclusively to development and deployment of new vaccines primarily for people in developing countries.

Autism:
I am skeptical of this report about breast milk causing autism, HOWEVER, I want to see what the anti-vax pro-disease nutters do with this info. I wonder if they will latch on to this like they did to things that have actually been tested and shown conclusively not to have a link? I doubt it!

Also, again leaning towards some sort of genetic link, there are changes in the genome even as a male ages, so this article would lend the conclusion that autism is genetic more than anything else. I would say this is inconclusive at best, but merits more study. Although, with as weak as the media is in even understanding basic science, I doubt that will really come out in any coverage.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Today in the News (27 Jul 09)

Evolution:
After Dinosaurs, Mammals Rise But Their Genomes Get Smaller. Evidence buried in the chromosomes of animals and plants strongly suggests only one group -- mammals -- have seen their genomes shrink after the dinosaurs' extinction. What's more, that trend continues today, say Indiana University Bloomington scientists in the first issue of a new journal, Genome Biology and Evolution. The scientists' finding might seem counter-intuitive, given that the last 65 million years have seen mammals expand in diversity and number, not to mention dominance in a wide variety of ecological roles. But it is precisely their success in numbers that could have led to the contraction of their genomes.

When Did Humans Return After Last Ice Age? The Cheddar Gorge in Somerset was one of the first sites to be inhabited by humans when they returned to Britain near the end of the last Ice Age. According to new radio carbon dating by Oxford University researchers, outlined in the latest issue of Quaternary Science Review, humans were living in Gough's Cave 14,700 years ago. A number of stone artefacts as well as human and animal bones from excavations, spread over more than 100 years, shed further light on the nature as well as the timing of people to the cave.


Vaccines:
The government in the United States is hoping to avoid the mistakes of the 1970s with the swine flu, and are looking for as many volunteers as possible for clinical trials. What is interesting is that there seems to be no shortage of volunteers. The thing that tickles my irony bone though is that the flu vaccines is one of the few that may actually contain Thimerosal!

Although, with the WHO saying that H1N1 is "unstoppable" may have lent some urgency to trials. Of course, I foresee that there WILL be complications from this reactive strategy of the world. Sure, they won't be autism, but facts like that won't stop the anti-vax pro-disease crowd from furthering their agenda and spreading their lies.

Autism:
And in the ever more confusing world of medical studies, the idea of autistic children having digestive disorders is running into some contrary evidence. Unlike the studies attempting to link autism to vaccines (ALL properly conducted studies found NO such link), these studies are a bit harder to control. There may be more to the issues at hand here, just because of the numerous types of disorders classified as autism, the wide variance in people's diets, and even something as simple as physiological makeup. Not an open and shut case here, so it should merit more studies.

Sorry this is an older story, but I just found it by accident. Studies have also begun to show that there are physical and behavioral signs of autism much earlier than had been known before, another reason to doubt the possibility of a link between autism and vaccines. The reason I linked that article is because it links to WebMD's page on "What causes Autism?" Here is their reply:

What causes autism?

Autism tends to run in families, so experts think it may be something that you inherit. Scientists are trying to find out exactly which genes may be responsible for passing down autism in families.

Other studies are looking at whether autism can be caused by other medical problems or by something in your child’s surroundings.

Some people think that childhood vaccines cause autism, especially the measles-mumps-rubella, or MMR, vaccine. But studies have not shown this to be true. It’s important to make sure that your child gets all childhood vaccines. They help keep your child from getting serious diseases that can cause harm or even death.


Friday, July 24, 2009

Today in the News (24 Jul 09)

Fast one tonight. Got some work that I have to get to on other projects.

Evolution:
If you are confused as to why animals of the same species sometimes look very different from each other, biologists in England have an answer. Writing in the latest issue of Evolution, University of York experts have used the term ‘exuberant polymorphisms’ for this natural phenomenon. They also say that they have developed computer models that may help explain how this level of variation arises and persists.

I almost hesitate to put this article up, because IDiots will say that it shows people don't believe in evolution... Sadly they miss the point that all the discussions support evolution, they are just discussing the mechanisms and how we originally thought about it. But it was an interesting read none the less.

Vaccines:
Halting A Pandemic: NIH Mounts Search For A H1N1 Vaccine. Bracing for an outbreak of 2009 H1N1 (swine-origin) flu that a Saint Louis University infectious diseases expert estimates could sicken one in five people this fall, scientists at eight Vaccine and Treatment Evaluation Units funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are launching a series of clinical trials this summer to test vaccines to protect against the illness. “Efforts to find an effective vaccine against H1N1 influenza are historic,” said Sharon Frey, M.D., professor of infectious diseases at Saint Louis University School of Medicine and lead investigator for one of the national research studies.

Yep, Swine Flu is still the thing that everyone is talking about with vaccines. Can't seem to get away from it, so here is another article about vaccinating.

Autism:
First on the good news; autism is receiving more funding for research. But pay attention to what Mandell says. "Now every study we have done, suggests that there is no association between vaccines, which is the big environmental thing that people are worried about, and autism. what we are looking at is probably some gene environment interaction." Again, EVERY study says that, so will the nutters lay off? Probably not, and more babies will die as a result.

I found this article that links milk with autism! My baloney detection kit is tingling on this one a bit. I think some conclusions are over stated and deserve more research. Also, note the source of this article. I think the writers themselves may be overstating things to their agenda. However, keep in mind that lactose tolerance is a very recent human evolutionary change (within the past 8000 years), so I'm not going to discard this as nuttery.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Today in the News (23 Jul 09)

Sorry about not having any updates for the past couple of days. I was stuck in airports and without access to the internet at those locations. Hopefully that won't happen too often, but over the next month or two, I will be involved in a lot of travel and such, so please don't think I have dropped off the face of the earth.

Evolution:
New Discovery Suggests Trees Evolved Camouflage Defense Against Long Extinct Predator. Many animal species such as snakes, insects and fish have evolved camouflage defences to deter attack from their predators. However research published in New Phytologist has discovered that trees in New Zealand have evolved a similar defence to protect themselves from extinct giant birds, providing the first evidence of this strategy in plant life. "Plants are attacked by a bewildering array of herbivores and in response they have evolved a variety of defences to deter predators such as thorns and noxious chemicals," said lead researcher Dr Kevin Burns from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. "In contrast animals often use colours to hide from predators or advertise defences, but until now there has been little evidence of colour based defences in plants."


Australian Aborigines Initially Arrived Via South Asia. Genetic research indicates that Australian Aborigines initially arrived via south Asia. Researchers have found telltale mutations in modern-day Indian populations that are exclusively shared by Aborigines. Dr Raghavendra Rao worked with a team of researchers from the Anthropological Survey of India to sequence 966 complete mitochondrial DNA genomes from Indian 'relic populations'. He said, "Mitochondrial DNA is inherited only from the mother and so allows us to accurately trace ancestry. We found certain mutations in the DNA sequences of the Indian tribes we sampled that are specific to Australian Aborigines. This shared ancestry suggests that the Aborigine population migrated to Australia via the so-called 'Southern Route'".

New 'Molecular Clock' Aids Dating Of Human Migration History. Researchers at the University of Leeds have devised a more accurate method of dating ancient human migration – even when no corroborating archaeological evidence exists. Estimating the chronology of population migrations throughout mankind's early history has always been problematic. The most widely used genetic method works back to find the last common ancestor of any particular set of lineages using samples of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), but this method has recently been shown to be unreliable, throwing 20 years of research into doubt.

Vaccines:
'Single-Shot' Vaccines May Protect Against H5N1 Influenza Virus. Two newly developed "single-shot" H5N1 influenza vaccines protected ferrets against lethal infection with the H5N1 influenza virus and may allow for mass vaccination in humans in the event of a pandemic outbreak. As the highly infectious H5N1 influenza A virus continues to persist in bird populations and infect humans through poultry, concerns of a pandemic outbreak remain high. Although human-to-human transmission has remained limited, the fatality rate among those reported human cases is greater than 60%. The threat that the virus will mutate and achieve efficient human-to-human spread emphasizes the need for effective preventative therapies.


Vaccine Blocks Malaria Transmission In Lab Experiments. Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute have for the first time produced a malarial protein (Pfs48/45) in the proper conformation and quantity to generate a significant immune response in mice and non-human primates for use in a potential transmission-blocking vaccine. Antibodies induced by Pfs48/45 protein vaccine effectively blocked the sexual development of the malaria-causing parasite, Plasmodium, as it grows within the mosquito. Sexual development is a critical step in the parasite’s life cycle and necessary for continued transmission of malaria from mosquitoes to humans. “Development of a successful transmission-blocking vaccine is an essential step in efforts to control the global spread of malaria. In our study, we demonstrate the relative ease of expression and induction of potent transmission-blocking antibodies in mice and non-human primates. This approach provides a compelling rationale and basis for testing a transmission-blocking vaccine in humans,” said Nirbhay Kumar, PhD, senior author of the study and professor in Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s W. Harry Feinstone Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology.

Autism:
Genetic Marker Linked To Problem Behaviors In Adults With Developmental Disabilities. A common variation of the gene involved in regulating serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain may be linked to problem behaviors in adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities, new research indicates. The findings were published in the July 2009 issue of the American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

"Problem behaviors in these populations account for billions of dollars in intervention costs each year, but nearly all of these interventions occur after the fact," Craig Kennedy, a co-author of the study and professor of special education at Vanderbilt University's Peabody College of education and human development, said. "This research suggests one way we might predict which individuals are at risk of being aggressive and destructive and provide treatment before problems occur."


The Sounds Of Learning: Studying The Impact Of Music On Children With Autism. In June 2009, researchers reported that archaeologists in Germany had discovered a 35,000-year-old flute made of bird bone. It represented, one newspaper said, "the earliest known flowering of music-making in Stone Age culture." And we have been tapping our toes, humming along, singing and dancing ever since. The power of music affects all of us and has long appealed to our emotions. It is for this reason that UCLA researchers are using music to help children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), for whom understanding emotions is a very difficult task. This inability robs them of the chance to communicate effectively and make friends and can often lead to social isolation and loneliness.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Today in the News (20 Jul 09)

Today is the 40th anniversary of the first landing on the moon. It is my first vivid memory, and I know that in no way is this blog a place for that discussion. However, that one event was a watershed moment in human history, and no blog dedicated to any arm of science can not give simple homage to that event. It's amazing what the proper application of real science can do! Sadly, pseudo-science, lies, and fabrications are apparently much easier, and that's what people gravitate to instead. I can only hope this simple blog eventually steers people towards a journey based in reality!

Evolution:
How Evolution Can Allow For Large Developmental Leaps. How evolution acts to bridge the chasm between two discrete physiological states is a question that's long puzzled scientists. Most evolutionary changes, after all, happen in tiny increments: an elephant grows a little larger, a giraffe's neck a little longer. If those tiny changes prove advantageous, there's a better chance of passing them to the next generation, which might then add its own mutations. And so on, and so on, until you have a huge pachyderm or the characteristic stretched neck of a giraffe. But when it comes to traits like the number of wings on an insect, or limbs on a primate, there is no middle ground. How are these sorts of large evolutionary leaps made?


Global Model For The Origin Of Species Independent Of Geographical Isolation. The tremendous diversity of life continues to puzzle scientists, long after the 200 years since Charles Darwin's birth. However, in recent years, consistent patterns of biodiversity have been identified over space, time organism type and geographical region. Two views of the process of "speciation" -- the evolutionary process by which new biological species arise -- dominates evolutionary theory. The first requires a physical barrier such as a glacier, mountain or body of water to separate organisms enabling groups to diverge until they become separate species. In the second, an environment favors specific characteristics within a species, which encourages divergence as members fill different roles in an ecosystem.

Vaccines:
Insights Into Failed HIV-1 Vaccine Trial. Following the disbandment of the STEP trial to test the efficacy of the Merck HIV-1 vaccine candidate in 2007, the leading explanation for why the vaccine was ineffective – and may have even increased susceptibility to acquiring the virus – centered on the hypothesis that high levels of baseline Ad5-specific neutralizing antibodies may have increased HIV-1 acquisition among the study subjects who received the vaccine by increasing Ad5-specific CD4+ T-cells that were susceptible to HIV-1 infection. Now, a study by Dan Barouch, MD, PhD, and a scientific team at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), reported in the July 20 Advance Online issue of Nature Medicine, shows this was likely not the case.


South Africa launches AIDS vaccine clinical trials. South Africa announced the launch of clinical trials of the first AIDS vaccines created by a developing country with assistance from the U.S. on Monday. It represented a feat by scientists who overcame skepticism from colleagues and from some political leaders who shocked the world with unscientific pronouncements about the disease. "It has been a very, very hard journey," lead scientist Professor Anna-Lise Williamson of the University of Cape Town said at Monday's ceremony, attended by American health officials who gave technical help and manufactured the vaccine at the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

Autism:
NIH Issues Research Plan on Fragile X Syndrome and Associated Disorders. The National Institutes of Health has developed a research plan to advance the understanding of fragile X syndrome and its associated conditions, fragile X-associated tremor/ataxia syndrome and fragile X-associated primary ovarian insufficiency. Fragile X syndrome causes intellectual and developmental disabilities and results from a mutation in a gene on the X chromosome.

The plan puts forward goals to guide future research, setting research priorities for each of the conditions. A major priority of the plan is to investigate the biological processes underlying all three disorders and how to better diagnose and treat them. Other priorities are studying how widespread the gene variations are in the population and how the three conditions affect families.

"NIH’s research efforts have made great strides in understanding these conditions," said Raynard S. Kington, M.D., Ph.D., acting director of NIH. "We now intend to build on these advances."

Although the three disorders have very different symptoms, all result from variations in the same gene, known as the Fragile X Mental Retardation 1 (FMR1) gene. Full mutation of the gene means that cells do not produce a protein involved with communications between neurons in the central nervous system. The resulting disorder, Fragile X syndrome (FXS), occurs in approximately one in 2,500 births. People with FXS often have intellectual disabilities ranging from mild to severe. They may also have emotional and behavioral problems, including attention problems, hyperactivity, anxiety, aggression, and autism or autism spectrum disorder.



Children With Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) Have More Severe Behavioral Problems Than Children With Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Study Finds. Children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) have a high risk of psychiatric problems, particularly attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), conduct disorder, or both. Often children with FASD are initially diagnosed with ADHD. A new study is the first to examine a range of cognitive factors and social behavior in children with FASD and ADHD, finding that those with FASD have significantly weaker social cognition and facial emotion-processing abilities. Results will be published in the October issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research and are currently available at Early View.

"Behaviorally, FASD and ADHD can look quite similar, particularly with respect to problems with very limited attention, physical restlessness, and extreme impulsivity," explained Rachel Greenbaum, a clinical psychologist with the Children's Mental Health Team at Surrey Place Centre in Toronto, who conducted the study as part of her doctoral dissertation.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Today in the News (17 Jul 09)

Evolution:
Male Sex Chromosome Losing Genes By Rapid Evolution, Study Reveals. Scientists have long suspected that the sex chromosome that only males carry is deteriorating and could disappear entirely within a few million years, but until now, no one has understood the evolutionary processes that control this chromosome's demise. Now, a pair of Penn State scientists has discovered that this sex chromosome, the Y chromosome, has evolved at a much more rapid pace than its partner chromosome, the X chromosome, which both males and females carry. This rapid evolution of the Y chromosome has led to a dramatic loss of genes on the Y chromosome at a rate that, if maintained, eventually could lead to the Y chromosome's complete disappearance. The research team, which includes Associate Professor of Biology Kateryna Makova, the team's leader, and National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow Melissa Wilson, will publish its results in the 17 July 2009 issue of the journal PLoS Genetics.

Global Model For The Origin Of Species Independent Of Geographical Isolation
. The tremendous diversity of life continues to puzzle scientists, long after the 200 years since Charles Darwin's birth. However, in recent years, consistent patterns of biodiversity have been identified over space, time organism type and geographical region. Two views of the process of "speciation" -- the evolutionary process by which new biological species arise -- dominates evolutionary theory. The first requires a physical barrier such as a glacier, mountain or body of water to separate organisms enabling groups to diverge until they become separate species. In the second, an environment favors specific characteristics within a species, which encourages divergence as members fill different roles in an ecosystem.

Vaccines:
Most people have no immunity to Swine Flu, new research warns. New research into Swine Flu has shown that only those who lived through the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 are likely to have immunity against the virus, contradicting research by the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC). Furthermore, the research, performed by the University of Tokyo's Institute of Medical Science and other groups, showed through animal testing that unlike seasonal flu the Swine Flu virus is capable of reproducing in the lungs, making it a much more virulent infection.

Inviragen in quest for second-gen vaccines. Dan Stinchcomb and his team of researchers at Inviragen are closely watching the worldwide race to develop and manufacture an H1N1 vaccine for the coming influenza season. Inviragen is also a player in the quest to develop a vaccine that could be effective against multiple flu strains, including H1N1 or swine flu and seasonal flu. The Fort Collins company, formed in 2003, has previously taken on dengue fever, the West Nile virus and avian influenza.

Autism:
Social reasoning, brain growth and autism. People with autism seem to have special difficulty understanding false beliefs, but research may help understand this disorder, Canadians researchers say. The study finds electroencephalogram recording of brain electrical activity linked how preschool children deal with the sometime discrepancy between how people think about the world and the way the world really is to brain development.

Autism medical problem not a physiological one. Autism is a brain development disorder that begins at birth or within the first three years of a child’s life, and typically involves delays and impairment in basic social skills, language skills, and behavior. The illness currently has no cure although less severe cases may be diagnosed as a Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD) or the neuro–biological disorder: Asperger’s syndrome – both of which are less severe versions of autism. Variable in its clinical presentation, the spectrum of autism – known as the autism spectrum disorders (ASD) – ranges from mild cognitive changes and behaviors to severe emotional withdrawal.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Today in the News (16 Jul 09)

Evolution:
Ecologist Brings Century-old Eggs To Life To Study Evolution. Suspending a life in time is a theme that normally finds itself in the pages of science fiction, but now such ideas have become a reality in the annals of science. Cornell ecologist Nelson Hairston Jr. is a pioneer in a field known loosely as "resurrection ecology," in which researchers study the eggs of such creatures as zooplankton -- tiny, free-floating water animals -- that get buried in lake sediments and can remain viable for decades or even centuries. By hatching these eggs, Hairston and others can compare time-suspended hatchlings with their more contemporary counterparts to better understand how a species may have evolved in the meantime.

Last Supper Of The Hominids Establishes Times They Lived At Sites
. In the French cave of Arago, an international team of scientists has analyzed the dental wear of the fossils of herbivorous animals hunted by Homo heidelbergensis. It is the first time that an analytical method has allowed the establishment of the length of human occupations at archaeological sites. The key is the last food that these hominids consumed. For many years, the mobility of the groups of hominids and how long they spent in caves or outdoors has been a subject of discussion among scientists. Now, an international team headed by researchers from the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES) in Tarragona has based its studies on the dental fossils of animals hunted by hominids in order to determine the vegetation in the environment and the way of life of Homo heidelbergensis.

Not Only Dogs, But Deer, Monkeys And Birds Bark To Deal With Conflict. Biologically speaking, many animals besides dogs bark, according to Kathryn Lord at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, but the evolutionary biologist also says domestic dogs vocalize in this way much more than birds, deer, monkeys and other wild animals that use barks. The reason is related to dogs’ 10,000-year history of hanging around human food refuse dumps, she suggests. In her recent paper in a special issue of the journal, Behavioural Processes, Lord and co-authors from nearby Hampshire College also provide the scientific literature with its first consistent, functional and acoustically precise definition of this common animal sound.

Vaccines:
Discovery Of New Transmission Patterns May Help Prevent Rotavirus Epidemics. New vaccines have the potential to prevent or temper epidemics of the childhood diarrhea-causing disease rotavirus, protect the unvaccinated and raise the age at which the infection first appears in children, federal researchers report in a new study. The findings were based on changing patterns of rotavirus transmission in the United States, where the disease is rarely fatal, and they have implications for combating epidemics in other countries where the death toll is much higher.

Boosting Newborns’ Immune Responses. Newborn babies have immature immune systems, making them highly vulnerable to severe infections and unable to mount an effective immune response to most vaccines, thereby frustrating efforts to protect them. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 2 million newborns and infants less than 6 months of age die each year due to infection. Researchers at Children's Hospital Boston believe they have found a way to enhance the immune system at birth and boost newborns' vaccine responses, making infections like respiratory syncytial virus, pneumococcus and rotavirus much less of a threat.


Genetic Trigger For Disease-fighting Antibodies Discovered. A research team led by the La Jolla Institute for Allergy & Immunology has identified the specific gene which triggers the body to produce disease-fighting antibodies -- a seminal finding that clarifies the exact molecular steps taken by the body to mount an antibody defense against viruses and other pathogens. The finding, published online July 16 in the journal Science, has major implications for the development of new and more effective vaccines. The La Jolla Institute's Shane Crotty, Ph.D., was the lead scientist on the team, which also included researchers from Yale University.

Autism:
Okay, Science Daily didn't have any new stories on Autism, so I found this one about California's alarming increase, and how scientists are looking more to the environment. Although, since it's concentrated in one state, I wonder what it is about California that would be so different. Not only that, but I wouldn't be so quick to rule out some genetic anomalies in the state population (hey, California is the strangest state by far).

Also, for you parents out there with autistic children (like myself), this article about the dangers of poor diet due to "habits" the children hold on to is probably a good reminder to develop some challenges for your kids. A game I play with my daughter is to come up with unique, yet not always unappetizing names for different foods. Especially if we can tie it to another culture that would find that particularly appetizing.

Again, yesterday's news about the 27 genes is still in the news quite a bit. The implications are still being deciphered.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Today in the News (15 Jul 09)

Going to make this one quick, going out to see the new Harry Potter movie with my daughter.

Evolution:

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. Mercader was the lead author of a team that laid the foundations of the emerging discipline of chimpanzee archaeology in two previously-published papers in Science and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). He is the archaeologist who uncovered the first prehistoric evidence of chimpanzee technology in 2007 — a 4,300-year-old nut-cracking site in the rainforests of Côte D'Ivoire, West Africa that provides proof of a long-standing chimpanzee "stone age" that likely emerged independently of influence from humans.

The appearance of many species of flowering plants on Earth, and especially their relatively rapid dissemination during the Cretaceous (approximately 100 million years ago) can be attributed to their capacity to transform the world to their own needs. In an article in Ecology Letters, Wageningen ecologists Frank Berendse and Marten Scheffer postulate that flowering plants changed the conditions during the Cretaceous period to suit themselves. The researchers have consequently provided an entirely new explanation for what Charles Darwin considered to be one of the greatest mysteries with which he was confronted.

The mode of reproduction seen in modern sharks is nearly 400 million years old. That is the conclusion drawn by Professor Per Erik Ahlberg, Uppsala University, from his discovery of a so-called "clasper" in a primitive fossil fish earlier this year. The research results are published in Nature. In February this year, a paper published in Nature by a team of Australian and British researchers showed that placoderms, a group of ancient fishes that died out more than 350 million years ago, gave birth to live young. Beautifully preserved fossil embryos in the body cavity of the placoderm Incisoscutum showed that these fishes, close to the common origin of all jawed vertebrates, had a mode of reproduction similar to modern sharks.

Vaccines:
Medical mycologists in The South Texas Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases (STCEID) and the Department of Biology at The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) have significantly advanced the fight against San Joaquin Valley Fever, a respiratory infection of humans, commonly called Valley Fever, which is caused by the Coccidioides fungus. For the first time, the researchers have genetically engineered a live, attenuated vaccine that successfully protects mice against Valley Fever, known in scientific circles as coccidioidomycosis. A live, attenuated vaccine is used as a preventative treatment based upon creation of a mutated form of the pathogen that is no longer capable of causing disease.

New interventions show promise against two different types of brain abnormalities, both of which are implicated in the development and progression of Alzheimer's disease. A drug called Dimebon seems to improve cognitive function in both mice and humans but, new research reveals, it actually increases brain levels of beta amyloid, a protein long thought to be a leading culprit in the development of Alzheimer's disease.

Autism:
Scientists from the University of Cambridge have identified 27 genes that are associated with either Asperger Syndrome (AS) and/or autistic traits and/or empathy. The research will be published July 16 in the journal Autism Research. This is the first candidate gene study of its kind. The research was led by Dr Bhismadev Chakrabarti and Professor Simon Baron-Cohen from the Autism Research Centre in Cambridge. 68 genes were chosen either because they were known to play a role in neural growth, social behaviour, or sex steroid hormones (e.g. testosterone and estrogen). The latter group of genes was included because AS occurs far more often in males than females, and because previous research from the Cambridge team has shown that foetal testosterone levels are associated with autistic traits and empathy in typically developing children.

Social cognition—the ability to think about the minds and mental states of others—is essential for human beings. In the last decade, a group of regions has been discovered in the human brain that are specifically used for social cognition. A new study in the journal Child Development investigates these brain regions for the first time in human children. The study has implications for children with autism. Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Yale University scanned the brains of 13 children ages 6 to 11 as they listened to children's stories. At the moment the plot of the stories revealed what a character wanted, believed, or knew, or presented the mental state of the character, the researchers observed increased activity in these specific brain regions. When the story turned to other topics—such as the physical world or the visual appearance of the characters—activity in these brain regions went back down.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Today in Parody (14 Jul 09)

Okay, these may not be particularly new items, but I've just been on such a serious train of thought, that today I'd like to entertain you all with some parodies that you may find amusing.

Evolution:
Intelligent falling is the latest rage! In a classic parody of the misuse of the word theory, The Onion cuts right to the jugular. Sort of along the vein of my entry to the FL Citizens for Science Stick Figure Cartoon contest. I know a lot of folks don't think that mockery is a good vehicle, but after a while you come to realize that some people are beyond reason, and instead of just killing them to remove them from the gene pool, mockery is the most gentle way of handling them.

Vaccines:
This video by Jenny McCarthy's close personal friends of Mumps, Measles, and Ruebella was also quite funny! I decided to spare my sanity, so I haven't read the comments there. Hopefully at least some of the deluded people will find their way here, and mayhap learn a thing or two.

And while not really a subject for this page in general, I got an uproarious laugh out of this Homeopathic ER skit. Is it just me, or do you have to be entirely daft not to see the sham for what it is?

Science:
If you want a dose of science news, I highly recommend this site: http://www.sciencedaily.com/

Monday, July 13, 2009

Today in the News (13 Jul 09)

Evolution:
When scientists make statements about evolution, they aren't just making things up. They have evidence. For instance, 40,000 years ago, they have direct evidence of people eating fish. Huh? What does that have to do with evolution? Well, first of all, it shows how far humans had travelled. It shows that different habits developed in different locations. And, well, it's data from well before 6000 years ago! And finally, it is a pretty cool story.

This is an interesting story about skeleton analysis on some chimp skeletons, and a multidisciplinary approach to understanding our origins. I only wanted to point this out, since it's apparently the author's sixth installment in his series celebrating Darwin's 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of his book.

I also wanted to point out this quick bit about humans and some monkeys using similar face recognition mechanisms. Ah, how close to kin they are!

Vaccines:
Well, the pro-disease nutters have driven away an autism research advocate from a position where he could do actual help. Dr. Eric London resigned from the Autism Speaks organization. You can read his letter in the link. Although, I think it's quite obvious where he stands... Sadly, this is a case where someone finally got overwhelmed by the dismal science that they would rather walk away than stain their credibility. Autism has lost a fierce advocate for understanding it better (as opposed to just blaming whatever is handy). I'l like to call out this part of his letter (emphasis mine):
The arguments which Dr. Dawson and others assert-- that the parents need even further assurances and there might be rare cases of “biologically plausible” vaccine involvement --are misleading and disingenuous. Through its website and other communications, Autism Speaks has been influential and contributory in encouraging parents’ doubts. By preferentially investing and advocating for the use of limited financial resources on the “biological plausibility” argument, the organization is adversely impacting the advancement of autism research.

Recent reports have documented significant outbreaks of measles and other infectious diseases which could have been controlled and even eradicated. The lowering of the vaccination rate has already led to deaths. If Autism Speaks’ misguided stance continues, there will be more deaths and potentially the loss of herd immunity which would result in serious outbreaks of otherwise preventable disease. I further fear that if and when herd immunity is lost, there may be a societal backlash against the autism community.
So, not only are these nutters increasing the risk of people dying, but they are hurting their own cause. How poetic.

On to other subjects regarding vaccines, since there is a lot of research to prevent Malaria with a vaccine, I'm sure the pro-disease folks would rather just see 3000 children a day just die? Okay, maybe over stating it, but the way they spread their lies, it sure seems like it!

Autism:
I already mentioned that the anti-vax pro-disease nutters are not only doing harm to innocent people, but to their own cause, so I won't discuss that much more.

In the field of science, where scientists do research though, they have identified some interesting "soft links" between autism and other disorders. Again, many of these disorders are thought to be genetic, so the interplay between the genes that can cause autism and these disorders is of very high interest. Another study also highlighted many of the genetic factors in brain development. So, again we are on the trail of gene therapies for, and genetic causes of, autism instead of the wild goose chase with vaccines. Funny how science works, isn't it?

And on the heels of those two stories regarding genetics, we have another one where Danish researchers are identifying numerous other genes involved in Alzheimers and autism. Again, the link to vaccines grows weaker and weaker.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Weekend News! (11 JUL 09)

I generally don't intend to blog on weekends (I have a family and all those social obligations to fulfill), but today I am making an exception. Not because I have something exciting to share or because it's a particularly news worthy day, but just to get back into the swing of things, and to remind readers that this site is mainly updated on weekdays.

Also, on the evolution page, the "standard rebuttals" page was getting unmanageable, so I broke it down into three specific sections. One section is the standard rebuttals that we put together on our own. Then there is one section that lists 25 rebuttals as written by Dr. Michael Shermer of Skeptic Magazine (and also a writer for Scientific American). Another section takes on 15 specific items, and was written by John Rennie for Scientific American. I hope this makes the evolution page a little more manageable for our readers. Please send us feedback on this if you would like to see more.

Anyway, on Monday, you'll get news and information again. Also, I am going to attempt (at the risk of my sanity) to go to the age of autism site, and tear apart random articles of theirs, should I find the time in the future. I know that generally our sources have been a little narrow, but with the sheer amount of lies and distortion out there, it's hard to find anything that passes the baloney detection kit... So, just to give you a look into the crazy, we'll attempt to delve into their strange little world. Maybe not now, but eventually, just so we aren't accused of only going to one source.

Also, we are still looking for more guest writers. While I enjoy finding and researching things, it does take up a lot of time, and since this is strictly a volunteer project, I am finding my real life obligations taking away from this from time to time. I sincerely apprecite IVAN3MAN's help and Todd W.'s help, but the more the merrier.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Today in the News (10 Jul 09)

I'm BACK! I had a nice retirement ceremony, a nice bit of vacation, and spent a few days sending out 125 resumes, so now back to work on things that I also have obligations to. At least this is a project that I enjoy and have a lot of interest in. I would like to thank my compatriot IVAN3MAN for entertaining you all while I was gone. He has such a British sense of humour, and I know that I particularly enjoy that!

While I was gone on vacation, Radio Freethinker aired their interview with me. Click on the link and have a listen (assuming I did the link correctly). Okay, on with the normal blogging:

Vaccines:
So, in a department that should make the nutters happy (but I'm sure they will find a way to complain still), there is research (ACTUAL RESEARCH) showing that a reduced dose schedule may still be effective! Never mind the fact that currently our vaccine schedule, while immunizing against twice as many diseases, use only a tenth of the antigens used back in the 1980s!

Now that I am a retired military person, it always makes me smile a bit when I see things happening that the military can still help in. Tracking the H1N1 is one of the things that the military is actually set up to do qwuite well. A lot of this comes from military research and even prevention of biological weapons. Nice spin-off!

Autism:
A little late on this particular article, but again and again, there are links showing genetic relationships to autism. The anti-vax pro-disease crowd just doesn't seem to get that. Much like a single gene can be traced to other neurological disorders. Not only neurological dissorders, but things that are traditional considered behavioural disorders even! Again, this is what good science does!

To go along with the article I posted a while back about the need for modified education for autistic children, I also found this new article about the way autistic children learn. While to some this may seem an esoteric thing, I assure you that knowing the way of things is essential to good science.

Evolution:
I just file this one under: The American public has been dumbed down too much, and now we're doomed to be overtaken by the Chinese, Indians, and pretty much all of Europe. I found the last part of the article particularly disheartening:

According to the study, 58 percent of the general public favors government funding for stem cell research, while 93 percent of scientists favor federal backing. The majority of Americans, 69 percent, believe parents should vaccinate their children, compared to 82 percent of the scientific community.

The AAAS members did not see eye to eye with the public on other matters also, including evolution. Research found that only 32 percent of the public believes humans and other living creatures evolved naturally, compared with 87 percent of scientists.

Global warming was also a differing issue with 84 percent of scientists saying the Earth is getting warmer because of human activity, while only 32 percent of the public agreed.

And these were just "general" scientists, not ones who would be on average be qualified to speak to a specific subject. I guess that all this article shows is that most of the general public shouldn't be allowed outside without supervision (or at least a helmet and a note pinned to their chest explaining their stupidity).

A popular denier's strawman is to talk about the Cambrian Explosion. While the average denier doesn't even know what the Cambrian Period really was, or what the explosion really entailed, SCIENTISTS are hot on the trail of more information and clues as to the how and why of it all.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Today in the News (9 July, 2009)

Evolution

In today's issue of Science Daily (9 July, 2009), there is this article -- "Evolution Guides Cooperative Turn-taking, Game Theory-based Computer Simulations Show" -- on how turn-taking has evolved across a range of species. According to new research by University of Leicester psychologists: It’s not just good manners to wait your turn – it’s actually down to evolution.

A study in the University’s School of Psychology sought to explain how turn-taking has evolved across a range of species. The conclusion is that there is an evolution-based 'invisible hand' that guides our actions in this respect. What's more, the researchers have shown that this behaviour can be simulated using a simple computer algorithm and basic genetic laws.

Professor Andrew Colman, who carried out the study with his colleague Dr. Lindsay Browning, stated: “In human groups, turn-taking is usually planned and coordinated with the help of language. For example, people living together often agree to take turns washing up the dishes after meals or taking their children to school. [However], turn-taking has also evolved in many other species without language or the capacity to reach negotiated agreements. These include apes, monkeys, birds, and antelopes that take turns grooming each other, and mating pairs of Antarctic penguins that take turns foraging at sea while their partners incubate eggs or tend to chicks.

“It is far from obvious how turn-taking evolved without language or insight in animals shaped by natural selection to pursue their individual self-interests.”

The researchers also say that playing 'tit for tat' – copying in each time period whatever the other individual did in the previous period ­– can explain synchronized cooperation, but cannot fully explain turn-taking; e.g., many predatory animals hunt in pairs or larger groups, and this involves synchronized cooperation. ‘Tit for tat’ has been shown to work very well in initiating and sustaining this type of cooperation.

However, where cooperation involves turn-taking, a ‘tit for tat’ instinct could sustain the pattern once it was established, but could not initiate it in the first place; e.g., in a mating pair of penguins who both went foraging or both incubated the eggs at the same time, ‘tit for tat’ would not be enough to evolve the habit of taking turns.

Using evolutionary game theory and computer simulations, Professor Colman and Dr. Browning discovered a simple variation of 'tit for tat' that explains how turn-taking can evolve in organisms that pursue their individual self-interests robotically.

The researchers state: “Turn-taking is initiated only after a species has evolved at least two genetically different types that behave differently in initial, uncoordinated interactions with others. Then as soon as a pair coordinates by chance, they instinctively begin to play ‘tit for tat’. This locks them into mutually beneficial coordinated turn-taking indefinitely. Without genetic diversity, turn-taking cannot evolve in this simple way.”

Professor Colman added: “In our simulations, the individuals were computer programs that were not only dumb and robotic but also purely selfish. Nevertheless, they ended up taking turns in perfect coordination. We published indirect evidence for this in 2004; we have now shown it directly and found a simple explanation for it. Our findings confirm that cooperation does not always require benevolence or deliberate planning. This form of cooperation, at least, is guided by an ‘invisible hand’, as happens so often in Darwin’s theory of natural selection.”

As a British citizen, I find this interesting because it is reminiscent of the "Dunkirk spirit" that is exhibited by the British species.

However, the American species finds that sort of behaviour rather strange, whose typical behaviour is illustrated below:

Western Saloon Brawl

As for the female of the American species, they are even worse, as was observed in the archived newspaper article via this link: Pandemonium reigns as customers fight over dolls.

Those department store security guards who have survived the Cabbage Patch Doll sale battles in the early 1980s, now recollect with great trepidation, in their retirement years, their bitter experiences of those times while their friends and relations, that have gathered around, listen intently with hushed awe that is usually reserved for an old soldier.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Today in the News (8 July, 2009)

Evolution

According to this article -- "Making A Bigger Splash In The Gene Pool, And How Delaying Reproduction Can Help" -- in Science Daily (8 July, 2009), "We humans have a strong urge to reproduce, but if the environment steers us into putting off having children, we may be rewarded with both longer life and a bigger genetic footprint in future generations."

Well, I don't know about that... because, in my case, the only urges that I've had are from relatives urging me to get married and have children, which I'm reluctant to do because I don't like children -- I went to bloody school with them! Man, it was a relief to finally get out of high-school, that's for sure!

Anyway, the aforementioned conclusion is the result of a new study by the University of Minnesota that reveals what may be a major force in shaping the evolution of most living things, including humans. Harnessing this natural effect could open the door to new means of delaying reproduction while promoting longer, healthier lives.

The work, led by ecology, evolution and behavior graduate student Will Ratcliff, was published online on 25th June in the Public Library of Science.

The basic idea is simple: when environmental cues like food shortages signal that the population is about to shrink, individuals who can afford to wait until this has happened should do so; then their offspring, when they come, will represent a bigger fraction of the gene pool.

Click on the the above link to read the full article.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Today in the News (6 July, 2009)

Evolution

During World War II, some British comedian complained that American servicemen were: "over paid, over fed, over sexed, and over here!" So, it comes as no surprise that the following article should come from an American journal:

Parasites May Have Had Role In Evolution Of Sex

ScienceDaily (July 6, 2009)What's so great about sex? From an evolutionary perspective, the answer is not as obvious as one might think. An article published in the July issue of the American Naturalist suggests that sex may have evolved in part as a defense against parasites.

Despite its central role in biology, sex is a bit of an evolutionary mystery. Reproducing without sex—like microbes, some plants and even a few reptiles—would seem like a better way to go. Every individual in an asexual species has the ability to reproduce on its own. But in sexual species, two individuals have to combine in order to reproduce one offspring. That gives each generation of asexuals twice the reproductive capacity of sexuals. Why then is sex the dominant strategy when the do-it-yourself approach is so much more efficient?

One hypothesis is that parasites keep asexual organisms from getting too plentiful. When an asexual creature reproduces, it makes clones—exact genetic copies of itself. Since each clone has the same genes, each has the same genetic vulnerabilities to parasites. If a parasite emerges that can exploit those vulnerabilities, it can wipe out the whole population. On the other hand, sexual offspring are genetically unique, often with different parasite vulnerabilities. So a parasite that can destroy some can't necessarily destroy all. That, in theory, should help sexual populations maintain stability, while asexual populations face extinction at the hands of parasites.

The scenario works on mathematical models, but there have been few attempts to see if it holds in nature.

Enter Potamopyrgus antipodarum, a snail common in fresh water lakes in New Zealand. What makes these snails interesting is that there are sexual and asexual versions. They provide scientists with an opportunity to compare the two versions side-by-side in nature.

Jukka Jokela of the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, Mark Dybdahl of the University of Washington and Curtis Lively of Indian University, Bloomington began observing several populations of these snails for ten years starting in 1994. They monitored the number of sexuals, the number asexuals, and the rates of parasite infection for both.

The team found that clones that were plentiful at the beginning of the study became more susceptible to parasites over time. As parasite infections increased, the once plentiful clones dwindled dramatically in number. Some clonal types disappeared entirely. Meanwhile, sexual snail populations remained much more stable over time. This, the authors say, is exactly the pattern predicted by the parasite hypothesis.

"The rise and fall of these female-only lineages was surprisingly fast and consistent with the prediction of the parasite hypothesis for sex," Jokela said. "These results suggest that sexual reproduction provides an evolutionary advantage in parasite rich environments."

So we may well have to thank parasites—in spite of their nasty reputation—for the joy of sex.

More from Science Daily (July 6, 2009):

Ancient Fossils Shed Light On Anatomical Changes Accompanying Evolution Of First Land Vertebrates

Cartoon depictions of the first animals to emerge from the ocean and walk on land often show a simple fish with feet, venturing from water to land. But according to Jennifer Clack, a paleontologist at the University of Cambridge who has studied the fossils of these extinct creatures for more than two decades, the earliest land vertebrates — also known as tetrapods — were more diverse than we could possibly imagine.

"Some looked like crocodiles, some looked like little lizards, some like moray eels, and some were snake-like," said Clack. "They occupied all sorts of niches and habitats. And they varied tremendously in size — from about 10 cm long to 5 meters."

Long before mammals, birds, and even dinosaurs roamed the Earth, the first four-legged creatures made their first steps onto land, and quickly inhabited a wide range of terrestrial environments. These early land vertebrates varied considerably in size and shape, said Clack.

To understand the anatomical changes that accompanied this diversity, Clack teamed up with two biologists who work on living fishes — Charles Kimmel of the University of Oregon, and Brian Sidlauskas of the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in North Carolina.

The researchers focused on 35 early tetrapods that lived between 385 and 275 million years ago. As a proxy for body size and shape, they examined the dimensions of a number of bones in a region of the skull known as the palate. By tracing changes in the length and width of interlocking bones in this part of the skull, the researchers hoped to get a more fine-grained picture of skeleton evolution as a whole.

"I tend to think the genetic instructions for making a skeleton come from how you make individual bones first, and then how you fit those bones together as a refinement of that," said developmental biologist Charles Kimmel, who was the first author on the paper.

When they mapped the changes in bone length and width onto the tetrapod family tree, the researchers discovered that not all bones changed size at the same rate or in the same direction. This phenomenon can result in an overall reshaping from one lineage to the next, explained Sidlauskas. "Sometimes a change in size can have indirect consequences for the shape of the animal," said Sidlauskas. "When different parts of an animal's body change size at different rates over evolutionary time, that can generate changes in body shape from one species to another."

Moreover, some changes are consistent with an evolutionary quirk known as paedomorphosis, in which species retain in adulthood the youthful dimensions that their ancestors had as juveniles. "Paedomorphosis is definitely there — the descendents of some groups are retaining the proportions that their juveniles had in the past," said Clack.

These results not only help explain why early tetrapods were so diverse in size and shape, but also shed light on an important chapter in the evolution of life on land – the transition from fish to amphibians.

"One of the big questions at the moment is: where did modern amphibians come from?" said Clack. "One of the hypotheses is that they have evolved by paedomorphosis and miniaturization from early tetrapods. This study lends weight to that idea."

The National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) is an NSF-funded collaborative research center operated by Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and North Carolina State University.


Vaccines & Autism

Well, Jenny McCarthy is up to her old tricks again: initially, she produces a video of herself spouting anti-vaccine propaganda; then, for some reason, the video gets pulled from her website GenerationRescue.org. Go figure!

However, in anticipation of this, Scam Blasting has the video on-line here.

Anyway, the video starts off with the usual nonsense that one expects from her right away, when she says:

I am not anti-vaccine. I am antitoxin. I want the mercury, aluminum, ether, anti-freeze, human aborted tissue, to be removed. I also believe that we are giving too many shots too soon...


WTF is she talking about? Where does she get her 'facts' from?

For some real facts on what's in and what's not in vaccines, read the excellent article by my other brother-in-arms, Todd W., on "The Truth About the 'Evils' of Vaccinations".

Jenny McCarthy then continues to rabbit on about other toxins such as pesticides. Well, funny she should mention that, considering the fact that she, by her own admission in the video, used to smoke marijuana in high-school, as well as regular cigarettes pictured here. Furthermore, nicotine -- the narcotic in tobacco -- is an organic pesticide produced by the plant genus Nicotiana as a natural defence mechanism.

Things then go even further off the rails from there, with Jenny McCarthy making all sorts of ridiculous and unfounded assertions. One of the things that she asserts is that autism isn’t genetic, and then confuses the issue with a statement about epidemics, but she is entirely wrong -- as is the case with everything else she says! Well, what the hell do you expect from someone who is not a trained doctor of medicine. There are strong genetic indicators of autism, but the underlying cause is still unknown. She makes claims about what triggers autism, when in fact no one knows what physically causes autism; however, we do know vaccines do not cause them.

We hear antivaxxers all the time saying that if we don’t know what causes autism, how can we know vaccines don’t? However, that’s just more empty rhetoric. It’s possible to not know the cause of something while still eliminating possibilities; that’s one way how medicine and science work. Start with an event and possible cause — for example, does chocolate cause acne? — then test the idea. If it comes up negative, move on. Furthermore, there is a lot of research on vaccines, and the conclusion is clear. When people like Jenny McCarthy say vaccines cause autism, they are, like ignorant creationists, ignoring the tsunami of evidence showing that they are wrong.

Doctors know a vast amount about children’s health issues; pediatricians devote their lives to them, and the antivaxxers are hell bent on throwing all this knowledge away, and, like damn creationists, replacing it with fairy tales.

Vaccinations have rid this world of smallpox, a scourge that killed millions of people. Measles was on the decline, pertussis was on the decline, rubella was on the decline. We are seeing a surge in outbreaks from these and other easily preventable diseases — including, tragically, deaths of children, deaths of babies — and a lot of it is traceable to the misinformation from the anti-vaccination movement.

Now, I'm not a medical doctor, but neither is Jenny McCarthy; however, I do understand science, so here's my advice: when you need to have your automobile serviced, then talk to the engineer, not to the oily rag! The same reasoning applies with medical issues: consult a real doctor, not some bloody quack with a jar of leeches!

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Belated Weekend News (4-5 July '09)

Firstly, my apologies to my brother-in-arms, Larian LeQuella, for my slackening off. This was due to me updating my Firefox browser from v3.0.11 to v3.5, and, for some inexplicable reason, all my previous bookmarks and RSS Feeds were subsequently erased -- D'oh! So, I had to re-establish all my RSS news feed sources and bookmarks. Man, when it comes to RSS Feeds and bookmarks, Internet Explorer 8 is better!

Autism

Here is a belated news item from Science Daily (June 29, 2009) on genes being associated with autism:

More Gene Mutations Linked To Autism Risk

More pieces in the complex autism inheritance puzzle are emerging in the latest study from a research team including geneticists from The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and several collaborating institutions. This study identified 27 different genetic regions where rare copy number variations – missing or extra copies of DNA segments – were found in the genes of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), but not in the healthy controls.

The complex combination of multiple genetic duplications and deletions is thought to interfere with gene function, which can disrupt the production of proteins necessary for normal neurological development.

"We focused on changes in the exons of DNA—protein-coding areas in which deletions or duplications are more likely to directly disrupt biological functions," said study leader Hakon Hakonarson, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Center for Applied Genomics at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and associate professor of Pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. "We identified additional autism susceptibility genes, many of which, as we previously found, belong to the neuronal cell adhesion molecule family involved in the development of brain circuitry in early childhood." He added that the team discovered many "private" gene mutations, those found only in one or a few individuals or families—an indication of genetic complexity, in which many different gene changes may contribute to an autism spectrum disorder.

[...]

Click on the above link to continue.

Evolution

Strewth! Stone the flamin' crows...

Australia discovers 3 new large dinosaurs

SYDNEY, July 3, 2009 (Reuters) — Fossils of three new species of dinosaurs have been discovered in Australia, including a meat-eater larger than Velociraptor from the Jurassic Park movies, suggesting Australia may have a more complex prehistoric past.

The two plant-eating and one carnivore dinosaurs, the first large dinosaurs unearthed since 1981, were found in Queensland and date back 98 million years to the mid-Cretaceous period.

"It not only presents us with two new amazing long-necked giants of the ancient Australian continent, but also announces our first really big predator," paleontologist John Long, head of sciences at Museum Victoria said on Friday.

Paleontologist Ben Kear at La Trobe University in Melbourne said the discovery will pave the way for new studies on Australian dinosaurs and their environments.

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Saturday, July 04, 2009

News from Vacation

I know that I am on vacation, and hadn't planned to blog, but this was just a particularly personal article. Especially considering that I am in the process of possibly moving and finding a new school that my daughter will attend. This article really resonated with me:

Children With Autism Need To Be Taught In Smaller Groups, Experts Argue

ScienceDaily (July 4, 2009) — Since the 1970s, there has been much debate surrounding the fact that individuals with autism have difficulty in understanding speech in situations where there is background speech or noise.

At the annual meeting of the International Multisensory Research Forum (June 29th – July 2nd) being held at The City College of New York (CCNY), neuroscientists argue in favor of smaller class sizes for children with autism.

Speaking at the conference, Dr. John J. Foxe, Professor of Neuroscience at CCNY said: “Sensory integration dysfunction has long been speculated to be a core component of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) but there has been precious little hard empirical evidence to support this notion. Viewing a speaker’s articulatory movements can greatly improve a listener’s ability to understand spoken words, and this is especially the case under noisy environmental conditions.”

“These results are the first of their kind to verify that children with autism have substantial difficulties in these situations, and this has major implications for how we go about teaching these children in the classroom,” he continued. “Children with autism may become distressed in large classroom settings simply because they are unable to understand basic speech if the environment is sufficiently noisy.

“We should start to pay attention to the need for smaller numbers in the classroom and we need to carefully control the levels of background noise that these kids are exposed to. Imagine how frustrating it must be to sit in a classroom without being able to properly understand what the teacher or your classmates are saying to you.

“Being able to detect speech in noise plays a vital role in how we communicate with each other because our listening environments are almost never quiet. Even the hum of air conditioners or fans that we can easily ignore may adversely impact these children’s ability to understand speech in the classroom.

“Our data show that the multisensory speech system develops relatively slowly across the childhood years and that considerable tuning of this system continues to occur even into early adolescence. Our data suggest that children with Autism lag almost 5 years behind typically developing children in this crucial multisensory ability.”

Professor Foxe concluded that further studies may result in advances in the understanding of ASD and the communication abilities of individuals with autism by identifying the neural mechanisms that are at the root of these multisensory deficits. This will be an important step if viable intervention and training strategies are to be developed.