Ten years ago, Professor Miguel Nicolelis and his team at Duke University made history. They implanted electrodes — sensors — into a monkey’s brain and trained her to control a robotic arm with her thoughts. That may sound like the stuff of science-fiction, but his latest work is even more incredible. In a paper recently published in Scientific Reports, Professor Nicolelis and his team used similar technology to enable a pair of rats to communicate — one brain to another — even when they were a continent apart. If you’ve read some of the news coverage of this story, you may have gotten the idea that it’s some kind of telepathy, mind control or mind meld. It’s not, but the truth, though more down-to-earth, is no less exciting. Continue reading »
While popular imagination may be fascinated by when our ancestors first began to walk upright, scientific debate has focused on whether these early humans were still skilled climbers. A group of researchers in New Hampshire addressed the issue in a paper recently published in PNAS, gleaning new data from modern humans who climb regularly.
Today officially marks the first anniversary of Inspiring Science, and it’s been a great year! I think I managed to make some progress towards the goals I outlined in my first post. Over the course of the past year, I’ve learned how to make my writing more accessible and become better at engaging with non-scientists, though unfortunately I haven’t managed to write as frequently as I would have liked. I hope I can rectify that and continue to improve those skills, but I’m also going to try to do a better job of fostering discussion over the next 12 months. I have a few ideas about how to do that; we’ll see how well they pan out. (If you have a suggestion, let me know!)
If you’re one of the newer readers, why not take a romp through the archives? There’s some good stuff buried on there that doesn’t often make it onto the “What’s popular now?” list in the sidebar. I’ve also picked five posts from the past year which I wish had received more attention and listed them below; I hope you’ll enjoy them.
- Natural selection: On fitness
- Social wasps are specialists at recognizing faces
- Of moss and micro-arthropods
- We still don’t know how birds navigate
- Gene expression: shape matters
With that said, I look forward to another year of writing about science; thanks for reading, commenting and generally keeping me company on this adventure! If you have any suggestions about what I could do differently or better (or what I’m doing well) please leave a comment so I can learn and improve.
Humans and chimpanzees famously share more than 98% of their genome and yet the two species look and behave quite differently. This apparent paradox stretches well beyond our little corner of the tree of life; we share more than half our genes with chickens and those we share are 75% identical. Two studies published together in the December issue of Science tackled this perplexing discrepancy by showing that there may be more to a genome than meets the eye. Continue reading »
Several years ago, scientists published an excellent study about how desert ants find their way home after foraging. The story got a lot of media attention; unfortunately, much of the coverage described the ants “counting steps”, which isn’t what the researchers reported and feeds into existing myths rather than broadening our scope. To explain what I think is wrong with that approach, I’m going to tell you a story about ants on stilts, body swapping and how we perceive space. Continue reading »
This was originally a guest post on The Trenches of Discovery. Thanks, Shaun!
One out of every 8,000 humans is born with some of their internal organs on the wrong side of their body, a condition which can have serious medical consequences. Although we’re usually described as symmetric, that’s only superficially true. Like other vertebrates, we look symmetric from the outside but our internal organs show left-right asymmetry; unless you happen to be a Time Lord, you have only one heart which is normally located on the left side of your chest. Changes to the organization of the internal organs can lead to cardiac defects, misalignment of the bowel and other serious problems. Many genes are known to play a role in establishing this asymmetry, but we still don’t fully understand its evolutionary and developmental origins. Earlier this year, a paper published in the journal PNAS described how this asymmetry is established by subcellular components early in embryonic development.
There’s been a great furor recently about a study which purports to show that rats fed GM corn develop more tumors than rats fed regular corn. I’m actually a bit late to this party; scientists and science writers across the web have already picked apart the flaws in this study, from shoddy statistics to poor design, and Carl Zimmer has called the whole thing “a rancid, corrupt way to report about science“. I don’t have much to add to the chorus; what I’d like to do with this post is to make clear to the layperson what we mean by “bad statistics” and why that makes the study unconvincing.
A recent study looking at how colonies of ants regulate their foraging behaviour has caused a bit of a buzz online. A lot of the coverage has focused on a similarity highlighted in the press release, which says that the ants “determine how many foragers to send out of the nest in much the same way that Internet protocols discover how much bandwidth is available for the transfer of data”. While it’s wonderful that the study has received so much attention, I can’t help but feel that the really interesting aspect of this study has been overlooked in the excitement about the “anternet”. While the similarity between the two systems is striking, I’m more fascinated by a basic difference: unlike our computer networks, the regulation system in ants isn’t purposefully designed but emerges from uncoordinated decisions made by individuals.
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Everyone knows that migrating birds are capable of incredible feats of navigation; for example, the Bar-tailed Godwit manages to navigate across the Pacific during its non-stop 11,000km flight from Alaska to New Zealand. Some birds use visual or olfactory cues to navigate, but many birds are able to sense the Earth’s magnetic field, an ability which is supposed to be underpinned by a group of iron-rich cells in the upper beak. However, a study just published in Nature has uncovered the true identity of these cells and shown that they’re probably not involved in sensing magnetism, re-opening the question of how birds can navigate across thousands of kilometers.
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According to a recent study, your chances of developing adult onset diabetes may depend on what kind of bacteria are living in your gut. It’s been known for some time that type 2 diabetes can be caused by a combination of genetic and lifestyle factors; over the past few years, it’s become clear that these factors somehow interact with the microbiome, but the nature of this interaction and the microbiome’s role in determining susceptibility to diabetes hasn’t been properly explored. Last year a team of scientists from Brazil published results showing that changes in the community composition could completely reverse the effect of genetic factors.
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