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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Happy 150th Anniversary Origins of Species

Today is an Evolution only news day in honor of the publishing of the groundbreaking work, "On the origin of Species" by Charles Darwin. Seen by many as a watershed moment in history that put science and the church in direct conflict. I would like to direct you to the Evolution Page. In particular this item:

* Evolution denies god(s).
Nothing in the Theory of Evolution denies the existence of god (or any other deity). At best, it merely contradicts a literal interpretation of either of the two biblical creation stories (and any of the countless other creation stories from other religions/cultures). All that the theory of evolution does is show how everything came to be the way it is without the need for god(s).

So with that said, on to the news for today.

Origin of Life: Generating RNA Molecules in Water. A key question in the origin of biological molecules like RNA and DNA is how they first came together billions of years ago from simple precursors. Researchers in Italy have reconstructed one of the earliest evolutionary steps yet: generating long chains of RNA from individual subunits using nothing but warm water. Many researchers believe that RNA was one of the first biological molecules present, before DNA and proteins; however, there has been little success in recreating the formation on RNA from simple "prebiotic" molecules that likely were present on primordial earth billions of years ago. BLOG NOTE: Okay, so this is more an abiogenesis article, but most evolution denyers are totally oblivious to the difference...

Using Darwin in Helping to Define the Biological Essentiality of Silicon and Aluminium. In this year, 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, a UK scientist has used Darwin's seminal work on Natural Selection in helping to define the biological essentiality of the second (silicon) and third (aluminium) most abundant elements of the Earth's crust. The lack of any clear or significant biological essentiality for both of these elements is a mystery as all other abundant elements of the Earth's crust are known to be biologically essential.

Evolution of Highly Toxic Box Jellyfish Unraveled. With thousands of stinging cells that can emit deadly venom from tentacles that can reach ten feet in length, the 50 or so species of box jellyfish have long been of interest to scientists and to the public. Yet little has been known about the evolution of this early branch in the animal tree of life. In a paper published November 18 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, NOAA researchers Allen Collins, Bastian Bentlage and Cheryl Lewis Ames of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center's National Systematics Laboratory and colleagues from the University of Kansas, Pacific Biosciences Research Center in Hawaii and the University of Queensland in Australia have unraveled the evolutionary relationships among the various species of box jellyfish, thereby providing insight into the evolution of their toxicity.

'Hobbits' Are a New Human Species, According to Statistical Analysis of Fossils. Researchers from Stony Brook University Medical Center in New York have confirmed that Homo floresiensis is a genuine ancient human species and not a descendant of healthy humans dwarfed by disease. Using statistical analysis on skeletal remains of a well-preserved female specimen, researchers determined the "hobbit" to be a distinct species and not a genetically flawed version of modern humans. Details of the study appear in the December issue of Significance, the magazine of the Royal Statistical Society, published by Wiley-Blackwell.

Paleontologists Find Extinction Rates Higher in Open-Ocean Settings During Mass Extinctions. For many years, paleobiological researchers interested in the history of biodiversity have focused on charting the many ups (evolutionary radiations) and downs (mass extinctions) that punctuate the history of life. Because the preserved record of marine (sea-dwelling) animals is unusually extensive in comparison, say, to that of terrestrial animals such as dinosaurs, it's been easier to accurately calibrate the diversity and extinction records of marine organisms. "Paleontologists now recognize that there were five particularly large, worldwide mass extinction events during the history of life, known among the cognoscenti as 'The Big Five,'" says Miller. "Much ink in research journals has been spilled over the past few decades on papers investigating the causes of these events."

Supervolcano Eruption In Sumatra Deforested India 73,000 Years Ago. A new study provides "incontrovertible evidence" that the volcanic super-eruption of Toba on the island of Sumatra about 73,000 years ago deforested much of central India, some 3,000 miles from the epicenter, researchers report. The volcano ejected an estimated 800 cubic kilometers of ash into the atmosphere, leaving a crater (now the world's largest volcanic lake) that is 100 kilometers long and 35 kilometers wide. Ash from the event has been found in India, the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea.

Before I hit publish, I would also like to leave you all with a few quotes regarding science and the self correcting mechanism involved.

In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. [Carl Sagan, 1987 CSICOP keynote address]

You can't convince a believer of anything; for their belief is not based on evidence, it's based on a deep seated need to believe. [Carl Sagan, Contact]

There are many hypotheses in science which are wrong. That's perfectly all right; they're the aperture to finding out what's right. Science is a self-correcting process. To be accepted, new ideas must survive the most rigorous standards of evidence and scrutiny. [Carl Sagan, Cosmos television series]

Think of how many religions attempt to validate themselves with prophecy. Think of how many people rely on these prophecies, however vague, however unfulfilled, to support or prop up their beliefs. Yet has there ever been a religion with the prophetic accuracy and reliability of science? [Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark]

Monday, November 16, 2009

Today in the News (16 Nov 09)

Evolution:
Caught In The Act: Butterfly Mate Preference Shows How One Species Can Become Two. Breaking up may actually not be hard to do, say scientists who've found a population of tropical butterflies that may be on its way to a split into two distinct species. The cause of this particular break-up? A shift in wing color and mate preference. In a paper published this week in the journal Science, the researchers describe the relationship between diverging color patterns in Heliconius butterflies and the long-term divergence of populations into new and distinct species.

Ancient Penguin DNA Raises Doubts About Accuracy of Genetic Dating Techniques. Penguins that died 44,000 years ago in Antarctica have provided extraordinary frozen DNA samples that challenge the accuracy of traditional genetic aging measurements, and suggest those approaches have been routinely underestimating the age of many specimens by 200 to 600 percent. In other words, a biological specimen determined by traditional DNA testing to be 100,000 years old may actually be 200,000 to 600,000 years old, researchers suggest in a new report in Trends in Genetics, a professional journal. The findings raise doubts about the accuracy of many evolutionary rates based on conventional types of genetic analysis. BLOG NOTE: I am almost reluctant to post this article, only because of how badly it will be misrepresented by creationists and their ilk, and you know it will... The fact that this shows that many evolutionary steps indicate an older age will escape them. Also, this is for Penguins, not all animals. Furthermore, the temperatures and climate may have some bearing on the results. That science is always learning doesn't seem to be a strenth to them.

Vaccines:
People With Less Education Could Be More Susceptible To The Flu. People who did not earn a high school diploma could be more likely to get H1N1 and the vaccine might be less effective in them compared to those who earned a diploma, new research shows. University of Michigan study looked at a latent virus called CMV in young people, and the body's ability to control the virus. Previous studies have shown that elderly people with less education are less successful at fighting off CMV, but this is the first known study to make that connection in younger adults as well, said study co-author Jennifer Dowd, who began the work while in the Health and Society Scholars program at the U-M School of Public Health. BLOG NOTE: Or is it that people who are less educated are more likely to listen to bimbos like Jenny McCarthy? Stupid is as stupid does?

Whooping Cough Immunity Lasts Longer Than Previously Thought. Immunity to whooping cough lasts at least 30 years on average, much longer than previously thought, according to a new study by researchers based at the University of Michigan and the University of New Mexico. Details are published October 30 in the open-access journal PLoS Pathogens. Once thought to be under control following widespread childhood vaccination, whooping cough (pertussis) has been on the rise since the 1980s in the United States and several other countries. Several explanations have been proposed for the surprising increase in cases, and one leading idea is that the immunity enjoyed by vaccinated or previously exposed people is waning. It has been documented that, in some individuals, immunity has waned over time, but details of how long protection typically lasts and how its waning affects disease transmission have not been clear.

Autism:
Children With Autism Show Slower Pupil Responses, Study Finds. Autism affects an estimated 1 in 150 children today, making it more common than childhood cancer, juvenile diabetes and pediatric AIDS combined. Despite its widespread effect, autism is not well understood and there are no objective medical tests to diagnose it. Recently, University of Missouri researchers have developed a pupil response test that is 92.5 percent accurate in separating children with autism from those with typical development. In the study, MU scientists found that children with autism have slower pupil responses to light change. "No comprehensive study has been conducted previously to evaluate the pupils' responses to light change, or PLR, in children with autism," said Gang Yao, associate professor of biological engineering in the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources and the College of Engineering. "In this study, we used a short light stimulus to induce pupil light reflexes in children under both dark and bright conditions. We found that children with autism showed significant differences in several PLR parameters compared to those with typical development."

Language Support In Schools Vital For Children With Autism. Teachers and parents must be vigilant in observing difficulties with language comprehension, reading and spelling in children and young people with autism, Asperger's syndrome and ADHD. "It is important that pupils are offered the support to which they are entitled," says Jakob Åsberg in a new thesis at the University of Gothenburg. "Pupils with these neuropsychiatric disorders are often reported as having problems with spoken and written activities. However, relatively little research has been carried out within the field. Considering how important such skills are for coping independently in school and in working life and society in general, it is of great importance that we become better informed about these issues," considers Jakob Åsberg, who is publicly defending his thesis in psychology.

Why Can't Chimps Speak? Key Differences In How Human And Chimp Versions Of FOXP2 Gene Work. If humans are genetically related to chimps, why did our brains develop the innate ability for language and speech while theirs did not? Scientists suspect that part of the answer to the mystery lies in a gene called FOXP2. When mutated, FOXP2 can disrupt speech and language in humans. Now, a UCLA/Emory study reveals major differences between how the human and chimp versions of FOXP2 work, perhaps explaining why language is unique to humans. Published Nov. 11 in the online edition of the journal Nature, the findings provide insight into the evolution of the human brain and may point to possible drug targets for human disorders characterized by speech disruption, such as autism and schizophrenia. BLOG NOTE: This article has a lot to do with genetics and evolution, but there is a tie in to autism and mental dissorders, so I put it here.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Today in the News (10 Nov 09)

Evolution:
Inefficient Selection: New Evolutionary Mechanism Accounts For Some Of Human Biological Complexity. A painstaking analysis of thousands of genes and the proteins they encode shows that human beings are biologically complex, at least in part, because of the way humans evolved to cope with redundancies arising from duplicate genes. "We have found a specific evolutionary mechanism to account for a portion of the intricate biological complexity of our species," said Ariel Fernandez, professor of bioengineering at Rice University. "It is a coping mechanism, a process that enables us to deal with the fitness consequences of inefficient selection. It enables some of our proteins to become more specialized over time, and in turn makes us more complex." Fernandez is the lead author of a paper slated to appear in the December issue of the journal Genome Research. The research is available online now. BLOG NOTE: Of course, people who like to deny science because they have no comprehension of how it actually works will attempt to cite this as another example of science being wrong, as opposed to science getting better.

Speed Limit To The Pace Of Evolution, Biologists Say. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have developed a theoretical model that informs the understanding of evolution and determines how quickly an organism will evolve using a catalogue of "evolutionary speed limits." The model provides quantitative predictions for the speed of evolution on various "fitness landscapes," the dynamic and varied conditions under which bacteria, viruses and even humans adapt. A major conclusion of the work is that for some organisms, possibly including humans, continued evolution will not translate into ever-increasing fitness. Moreover, a population may accrue mutations at a constant rate -- a pattern long considered the hallmark of "neutral" or non-Darwinian evolution -- even when the mutations experience Darwinian selection.

Vaccines:
New Strategies To Combat The Flu Virus. New anti-flu drugs could become a reality as a result of a study carried out by academics at the University of Hertfordshire. Dr Andreas Kukol at the University of Hertfordshire's School of Life Sciences led a team which studied the evolution of proteins from more than 2,000 viruses, which included swine, avian and human flu. Antivirals such as Tamiflu act on surface proteins, which are highly variable among different viruses. But the researchers found that, if they went deeper than the surface proteins, they could identify proteins which remain constant in evolution and therefore can be targeted more effectively with antivirals.

Sneezing In Times Of A Flu Pandemic. The swine flu (H1N1) pandemic has received extensive media coverage this year. The World Health Organization, in addition to providing frequent updates about cases of infection and death tolls, recommends hyper vigilance in daily hygiene such as frequent hand washing or sneezing into the crook of our arms. News reports at all levels, from local school closures to airport screenings and global disease surveillance, continue to remind us of the high risk. In times of heightened health concerns, everyday behaviors like sneezing can serve as a reminder to wash our hands or take our vitamins. But, what if we overreact to everyday sneezes and coughs and sniffles? Can these signals transform healthy discretion into an unreasonable fearfulness about germs and more?

Autism:
Handwriting Is Real Problem For Children With Autism. Handwriting skills are crucial for success in school, communication, and building children's self-esteem. The first study to examine handwriting quality in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) has uncovered a relationship between fine motor control and poor quality of handwriting in children with ASD, according to research published in the November 10, 2009, issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology. The study, conducted by researchers at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, compared handwriting samples, motor skills, and visuospatial abilities of children with ASD to typically developing children. The researchers found that overall, the handwriting of children with ASD was worse than typically developing children. Specifically, children with ASD had trouble with forming letters, however in other categories, such as size, alignment, and spacing, their handwriting was comparable to typically developing children. These findings build on previous studies examining motor skills and ASD conducted in 2009 by Kennedy Krieger researchers. BLOG NOTE: As a parent of a child with ASD, I can attest to this first hand! Looking at my own handwriting, you may suspect even more!

Clinical Tests Begin On Medication To Correct Fragile X Defect. NIH-supported scientists at Seaside Therapeutics in Cambridge, Mass., are beginning a clinical trial of a potential medication designed to correct a central neurochemical defect underlying Fragile X syndrome, the most common inherited cause of intellectual disability. There has to date been no medication that could alter the disorder's neurologic abnormalities. The study will evaluate safety, tolerability, and optimal dosage in healthy volunteers. The work is the outcome of basic research that traced how an error in the fragile X mental retardation gene (FMR1) leads to changes in brain connections, called synapses. The changes in turn appear to be the mechanism for learning deficits in Fragile X syndrome. The new trial tests Seaside Therapeutics' novel compound, STX107, that selectively and potently targets the synaptic defect.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Today in the News (2 Nov 09)

Evolution:
Novel Evolutionary Theory For The Explosion Of Life. The Cambrian Explosion is widely regarded as one of the most relevant episodes in the history of life on Earth, when the vast majority of animal phyla first appear in the fossil record. However, the causes of its origin have been the subject of debate for decades, and the question of what was the trigger for the single cell microorganisms to assemble and organize into multicellular organisms has remained unanswered until now. Within a longstanding research collaboration between the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia and Bielefeld University together with the Friedrich-Miescher-Institute in Basel and the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole (Massachusetts), Xavier Fernàndez-Busquets (Barcelona) and Dario Anselmetti (Bielefeld) and their colleagues published online in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution their biophysical single molecule results on the effect of calcium on the interactions of cell adhesion molecules from marine sponges. These simply organized organisms do not have specialized muscle or nerve cells and nevertheless survived the last 500 million years almost unchanged and are considered a link between the single-cell dominated Precambrian and later multicellular organisms.

A Solution To Darwin's 'Mystery Of The Mysteries' Emerges From The Dark Matter Of The Genome. Biological species are often defined on the basis of reproductive isolation. Ever since Darwin pointed out his difficulty in explaining why crosses between two species often yield sterile or inviable progeny (for instance, mules emerging from a cross between a horse and a donkey), biologists have struggled with this question. New research into this field by basic scientists at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, published online Oct. 22 in Science Express, suggests that the solution to this problem lies within the "dark matter of the genome": heterochromatin, a tightly packed, gene-poor compartment of DNA found within the genomes of all nucleated cells. "Speciation is one of the most fascinating, unsolved problems in biology," said Harmit Malik, Ph.D., an associate member of the Hutchinson Center's Basic Sciences Division and corresponding author of the paper.

Vaccines:
Pregnant Women At 'Serious Risk' from Flu. Pregnant women who catch the flu are at serious risk for flu-related complications, including death, and that risk far outweighs the risk of possible side effects from injectable vaccines containing killed virus, according to an extensive review of published research and data from previous flu seasons. The review, a collaboration among scientists from the Johns Hopkins Children's Center, Emory University and Cincinnati Children's Hospital, and published online Oct. 22 in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, found substantial and persistent evidence of high complication risk among pregnant women -- both healthy ones and those with underlying medical conditions -- infected with the flu virus, while confirming vaccine safety. The findings, researchers say, solidify existing CDC recommendations that make pregnant women the highest-priority group to receive both the H1N1 and seasonal flu vaccines.

Progress Made On Group B Streptococcus Vaccine. Scientists supported by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, have completed a Phase II clinical study that indicates a vaccine to prevent Group B Streptococcus (GBS) infection is possible. GBS is the most common cause of sepsis and meningitis in newborns in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It can also cause severe illness in pregnant women, the elderly and adults with chronic illnesses. Colonization of the genital or gastrointestinal tract is a critical risk factor for infections due to GBS.

Autism:
New 'Schizophrenia Gene' Prompts Researchers To Test Potential Drug Target. Johns Hopkins scientists report having used a commercially available drug to successfully "rescue" animal brain cells that they had intentionally damaged by manipulating a newly discovered gene that links susceptibility genes for schizophrenia and autism. The rescue, described as "surprisingly complete" by the researchers, was accomplished with rapamycin, a drug known to act on a protein called mTOR whose role involves the production of other proteins. The idea to test this drug's effectiveness at rescuing impaired nerve cells occurred to the team as a result of having discovered a new gene that appears to act in concert with two previously identified schizophrenia susceptibility genes, one of which is involved in the activation of the protein mTOR. This piecing together of multiple genes adds support for the idea that susceptibility to schizophrenia and autism may have common genetic fingerprints, according to the researchers.

Vaccine Inoculations Show No Link to Autism, Other Health Problems: Presented at IDSA. Vaccine inoculations show no link to autism or other health problems even in children with certain genetic disorders that might put them at risk for such problems, researchers stated here at the 47th Annual Meeting of the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA). The research findings could contradict previous concessions by the US Department of Health and Human Services that suggested a possibility that vaccination might have aggravated a child's underlying mitochondrial disorder and caused her autism symptoms.