If you seem to be the target of bloodsucking attention, there are two biological systems you can blame
— your microbial flora, and/or your immune system. Your particular mix of skin bacteria play a big role in determining how well mosquitoes can smell you (and whether you smell delicious). Meanwhile, your immune system controls your allergic response — or lack thereof — to mosquito bites. If you never get red welts to go with the biting, it's easy to think that you're not getting bitten as often as someone who does.
I'm reading a ton of baby and pregnancy books right now, preparing both for the October birth of my daughter and an upcoming BoingBoing feature about evidence-based books for science-minded soon-to-be-parents. After reading this interview at The New Inquiry
, I really want to check out The Motherhood Archives
— a documentary about the ways culture shapes and reshapes how we understand the biology of birth and the growth of an infant. From the Marxist origins of Lamaze, to the early-20th-century feminists who pushed for pain-free birth, to the rise of the birth center, The Motherhood Archives
sounds like a fascinating exploration of how different generations think and rethink the same ideas and an anthropological assessment of what "the right way" to give birth and raise children really means. (Thanks, Emile Snyder!)
At The Conversation, neuroscientist Melissa Hines talks about what little biological basis there is behind the idea of heavily gender-coded toys for children
. It's true that male and female fetuses are exposed to different hormones before birth and that might affect what kinds of toys they're interested in later. But it's also true that there is natural variability in both hormone levels and interests within
the sexes and (intriguingly) human babies all
prefer reds and pinks, regardless of their sex. (Meanwhile, human adults prefer blue colors, regardless of sex.)
Good news for humanity's sense of shiny special uniqueness! Sure, other animals use tools. Chimpanzees and bonobos might even have behaviors that can be classified as cultural. But those damn dirty apes still can't throw a fastball to save their lives.
Becky Lang at Discover magazine has an interesting story on this research, which centers around the biology that allows fast pitches to happen, and how we developed it, while our closest relatives did not.
Cell culture lines are cells, taken from donor tissue, that have been divided and separated over and over and over — providing researchers with reliably identical "families" of cells that can be used to biomedical research. Some, like the now-famous HeLa line, are derived from cancerous tissue and replicate indefinitely. Others, like WI-38, will only divide a set number of times (in the case of WI-38, it's 50), but new cells can be frozen at any point and stored. When you thaw them out later, they'll pick back up dividing from the point in the 50-division cycle where they were when frozen.
WI-38 is a particularly important cell culture line. Used extensively in the development of vaccines, these are the cells that helped create the vaccine for Rubella, a disease that, just a few decades ago, used to kill and maim many fetuses whose mothers' became infected. Between 1962 and 1965, it's estimated that rubella infections caused 30,000 stillbirths and left 20,000 children with life-long disabilities.
But WI-38 is controversial. That's partly because the cells that founded the line came from the lung tissue of a fetus that was legally aborted during the fourth month of pregnancy by a woman in Sweden in 1962. At Nature News, Meredith Wadman has a fascinating long read about the moral and ethical issues surrounding WI-38. This isn't just about the abortion question. Also at issue: Did the fetus' mother consent to tissue donation? And are we okay with the fact that she and her family have never received compensation, despite the money that's been made off selling WI-38 cell cultures?
Medical Research: Cell Division by Meredith Wadman in Nature News
"Kristjan Loftsson, CEO of the the company Hvalur hf." Photo: News of Iceland.
Icelandic news outlets are reporting that an Icelandic whaling company, Hvalur hf, "caught its first fin whale yesterday evening," after sailing out yesterday with two boats, both due back in port today.
Fin whales are the second-largest whale, and are classified as an Endangered species.
From News of Iceland:
Read the rest
The Encyclopedia of Life announces the winners of the Armchair Taxonomist competition featured here at Boing Boing. Everyone gets a warm thanks for helping to fill an open-source database with information about animals, plants, fungi, protozoa, and bacteria—but who gets to go on a tour of the Smithsonian?Read the rest
As we all know by now, ducks have penises
. Rather epic penises
, in fact. Chickens, though, are penis-less. In fact, most birds don't have them. In an important update in duck sex news, Ed Yong follows the work of several scientists who are trying to better understand how genitals evolve and why they differ so much between species and genuses
. Bonus new fact: A dissected goose penis looks surprisingly like a less-colorful Man-O-War jellyfish.
An example of fantastic, whimsical bio-tableware from sculptor Etienne Meneau. Holds a full bottle.
If it looks difficult to pour from or clean, Meneau has an FAQ for that.
Via the good folks at The Annals of Improbable Research
Here's an incredibly cool video showing the prow of a massive ice breaking ship as it plows through Antarctica's Ross Sea. The footage is sped up, to pack two months of travel into five minutes. But, unlike a lot of time-lapse videos, this one also has a really informative audio track, in which marine scientist Cassandra Brooks waxes poetic about the many different kinds of ice and explains why she and her team were out there, breaking through the stuff, to begin with.
Bonus: At the end, you get to see the absolute adorableness that is penguins on high-speed fast forward.
Via Deep Sea News
Canadian artist/photographer NicoleWilliam created this cell model cake for her BIOL330 class in 2010. I hereby grant her a retrospective A+. It even comes apart!
Biology Cell Cake
(via Geeks Are Sexy)
Over at Fast Company, our pal Chris Arkenberg wrote about how advances in synthetic biology and biomimicry could someday transform how we build our built environments:
Innovations emerging across the disciplines of additive manufacturing, synthetic biology, swarm robotics, and architecture suggest a future scenario when buildings may be designed using libraries of biological templates and constructed with biosynthetic materials able to sense and adapt to their conditions. Construction itself may be handled by bacterial printers and swarms of mechanical assemblers.
Tools like Project Cyborg make possible a deeper exploration of biomimicry through the precise manipulation of matter. David Benjamin and his Columbia Living Architecture Lab explore ways to integrate biology into architecture. Their recent work investigates bacterial manufacturing--the genetic modification of bacteria to create durable materials. Envisioning a future where bacterial colonies are designed to print novel materials at scale, they see buildings wrapped in seamless, responsive, bio-electronic envelopes.
"Cities Of The Future, Built By Drones, Bacteria, And 3-D Printers
Trouble is, a lot of information about living things is hidden behind paywalls or scattered across random sources where the general public can't easily get to it. That's where you come in! Help fill the Encyclopedia of Life's open-source database with information about animals, plants, fungi, protozoa, and bacteria.Read the rest
Ocellated icefish live deep underwater in the cold oceans surrounding the Poles. They have clear blood. If you remember your childhood biology classes, you should remember that this kind of makes no sense. After all, blood is red because of hemoglobin — the iron-rich protein that carries oxygen around in your blood stream. No hemoglobin, no oxygen. No oxygen, dead fishies. Right? Popular Science explains how ocellated icefish get around this little conundrum
At Double X Science, Jenny Morber has an excellent piece about the wide range of diversity seen in human lady parts
. "Are you normal? Yes. Are you average? No. Most likely," she writes. What follows is a fascinating tour of human biology, from the different lengths and colors of labia to the wide range of shapes exhibited by the inside of the vaginal canal, itself. Even better, all of this can change over the course of an individual woman's life, rendering "average" even more meaningless.
If you think about lactation too hard, it starts to seem a little strange — like the biological equivalent of saying the word "that" over and over until it's just a weird sound you're making. But, writes Nicholas Day at Slate, the sort of existential weirdness of breast milk is nothing compared to what's going on in the stuff at a chemical level
. For instance, breast milk contains sugars that aren't actually digestible by human infants. That's because they aren't meant for the infant, itself. Rather, your breast milk is helpfully feeding your baby's intestinal bacteria. Freakier still: In monkeys, the chemical composition of breast milk can change, depending on factors like your baby's sex and whether your baby is showing signs of illness.
At Wired, Ed Yong has an incredible long-read story about the researchers who are figuring out how and why individual animals sometimes turn into groups operating on collective behavior
. That research has implications far beyond the freakish, locust-filled laboratories where Yong's story begins. Turns out, bugs and birds can teach us a lot about the brain, cancer, and even how we make predictions about our own futures.