I love science. I have no science background, but I’ve always been fascinated with it. I regularly love to peruse some of the Science Blogs, and I have a few of them down there in my blogroll. Here’s a few posts and other tidbits that I recently found interesting. Perhaps you will too.
Quaking Aspen trees are being engineered to take advantage of their natural propensity to convert highly toxic trichloroethylene (TCE) into harmless byproducts at rates 100 times faster than control plants. There seems to be other advantages. The trees grow to sexual maturity within three years, they convert CO2 to oxygen while they are working on the toxic waste problem, and since they need to be harvested before reaching the capacity to cross-pollinate native trees, their wood might be usable in the production of ethanol. Apparently, three years is sufficient time for them to clean up a toxic waste site.
Isn’t that so much better than simply wringing your hands over what humans are doing to the environment? Science to the rescue!
H/T to Mike at Tangled Up In Blue Guy, a fellow Dylan aficionado.
Have you ever wondered where whales come from? I don’t mean, from their mommies. I mean in the evolutionary sense. We know that mammals arrived on the evolutionary scene well after fish, but then how did whales end up looking like fish, and living in the sea, if they were mammals? Clearly, a land based mammal eventually continued on a path of evolution that led back to the sea, but who were the whale’s ancestors?
Recently, fossils have been discovered of an immediate ancestor to the whale. It is Indoyhus, “a small deer-like animal that waded in lagoons and munched on vegetation.” It doesn’t look much like what we know as whales, and it’s only about the size of a domestic cat, but it shares characteristics with modern whales that other fossils don’t, such as bone structure.
Whale evolution is thought to have begun with creatures like Indohyus becoming more adapted to a watery environment to avoid land-based predators. The animal’s heavy bones would have made Indohyus a slow beast on land, but in the water, they would help it stay on the bottom, where it could forage and hide.
Scientists say that this find is comparable to Archaeopteryx, one of the first fossils to fill in the gap between dinosaurs and birds. It looks like another gap, previously ascribed to god, has been filled. Are there any left?
H/T Carl Zimmer at The Loom.
It is probably fallacious to assume that evolution accounts for every anomaly in the human body, as I’m often wont to think. Or maybe not. I’ve been told that my herniated disc in my lower back is a direct result of a direct connection to my quadra-pedal ancestors. Man wasn’t designed (a metaphoric, not literal verb) to stand upright. The lower back, as such, is not built to carry my weight, without the assistance of some knuckle dragging on my part.
This article, by Neil Shubin, (which is actually an excerpt from his recently published book) explains that many of the other ailments I suffer from can actually be traced back farther than the primates, to my distant piscine cousins. For instance, hernias:
Our gonads begin their development in much the same place as a shark’s: up near our livers. As they grow and develop, our gonads descend… In males the descent goes farther.The descent of the gonads, particularly in males, creates a weak spot in the body wall. To envision what happens when the testes and spermatic cord descend to form a scrotum, imagine pushing your fist against a rubber sheet. In this example, your fist becomes equivalent to the testes and your arm to the spermatic cord. The problem is that you have created a weak space where your arm sits. Where once the rubber sheet was a simple wall, you’ve now made another space, between your arm and the rubber sheet, where things can slip. This is essentially what happens in many types of inguinal hernias in men. Some of these inguinal hernias are congenital—when a piece of the gut travels with the testes as it descends. Another kind of inguinal hernia is acquired. When we contract our abdominal muscles, our guts push against the body wall. A weakness in the body wall means that guts can escape the body cavity and be squeezed to lie next to the spermatic cord.
Females are far tougher than males, particularly in this part of the body. Because females do not have a giant tube running through it, their abdominal wall is much stronger than a man’s.
This is a good thing when you think of the enormous stresses that female body walls go through during pregnancy and childbirth. A tube through the body wall just wouldn’t do. Men’s tendency to develop hernias is a trade-off between our fish ancestry and our mammal present.
Other problems, like hemorrhoids, hiccups and cardioencephalomyopathy (whatever that is) can also be traced back to our evolutionary connection with fish.
Take the body plan of a fish, dress it up to be a mammal, then tweak and twist that mammal until it walks on two legs, talks, thinks, and has superfine control of its fingers—and you have a recipe for problems. We can dress up a fish only so much without paying a price.
H/T Richard Dawkins
Some might say, who cares? Well, scientists do. Paleontologists, evolutionary biologists, hell, everybody should be interested in this, but perhaps that’s just my inner geek showing through.
Medullary bone, a type of tissue present in modern birds when they are developing eggs, has been found in three dinosaur fossils, researchers report in Monday’s online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The dinosaurs were aged 8, 10 and 18, indicating they reached sexual maturity earlier than previously thought.
In modern birds, medullary tissue lines bones for only a few weeks when they are producing eggs and is then reabsorbed. Finding it in dinosaurs, which are believed to be the ancestors of birds, sheds light on their reproduction also.
Most dinosaurs lived to only about age 30, though some reached 60, the researchers said.
We know that dinosaurs are actually ancestors of birds. There have been many findings of transitional fossils between those large amphibians (or whatever the hell they are) and our present fowl. This finding just adds another layer of evidence, showing that dinosaurs and birds share a biological process that occurs prior to reproduction.
What I can’t tell from the article is how they determine the age of dinosaurs that existed millions of years ago.
5. Darwin Day
Finally, February 12 will mark the 199th anniversary of the Birth of Charles Darwin. Darwin epitomizes the concept of the scientist’s scientist – an idea, meticulous and rigorous research and plenty of hypothesis, testing and formulation of theory. There may be more brilliant scientists in the history of science, but there are very few who have had such an impact on the everyday lives of humanity. Risking a Lennonesque gaffe, I’ll stick my head out on the block and say that Darwin has had a greater positive impact on humanity than Jesus Christ.
The man certainly deserves a holiday to himself.