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Life is hard in Antarctica

Antarctica's Organic Lake is 8 degrees Fahrenheit, but the water doesn't freeze, thanks to a heavy concentration of salt. But wait, it gets more awesome. Despite the cold and the salt, Organic Lake is also home to a diverse array of life. Maggie 15

Why did the chicken lay a blue egg?

The answer: Because of a harmless-to-humans viral infection.

The bluish egg above was laid by an araucana, a breed of chicken native to Chile and one of two breeds well known for occasionally popping out a blue egg. Turns out, it's the result of the chicken being infected with a retrovirus — a virus that can insert its own genetic information into the host's DNA. In this case, the virus just happens to turn eggs blue.

Image: Lavender Araucana, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from julianjb's photostream

How animals pass disease to humans

Given the ongoing outbreak of H7N9 flu in China (and, now, also Taiwan), this is a good time to listen to a fascinating podcast discussion with David Quammen. Quammen recently published a FANTASTIC book, Spillover, about zoonoses — the diseases that humans contract from animals. This includes bird flus like H7N9. It also includes AIDS and a whole host of familiar viruses and bacteria. Bonus: Scary disease girl Maryn McKenna has a cameo in the podcast, discussing the way news media (in China and the US) are covering H7N9 and what you can do to better understand what's happening. Maggie

What you need to know now about H7N9 bird flu

Looking for a quick rundown of basic information about the new strain of bird flu that's infecting people in China? The Toronto Star's Jennifer Yang has a great, one-page breakdown that will get you caught up on just about everything you need to know — including how scared you should be. For the record, the answer to that is complicated. We aren't near a pandemic yet. But we do need to get a better handle on understanding how this virus works so we can stop it from spreading. It's a serious situation and the news is not all good news. But we don't seem to be at a point where anybody outside of China and the international public health community should be in an urgent crisis mode. Maggie

Disease superspreaders and the new coronavirus

Coronavirus — characterized by the halo of protein spikes that surround each individual virus particle — is the family that gave birth to SARS. Today, there's a new coronavirus stalking humans, especially in the Middle East. Scientists have documented 16 infections, and 10 fatalities. The good news is that there are probably lots of non-serious infections that aren't being reported, meaning the fatality rate probably isn't as high as it looks. Also, this coronavirus seems to have trouble spreading from person to person. But, in regards to that last factor, it's important to pay attention to a detail from the SARS outbreak that we still don't totally understand. Turns out, a handful of people were responsible for most of those infections. The Canadian Press' Helen Branswell writes about superspreaders and the scientists trying to understand how individuals can alter the course of an outbreak. (BTW: If you don't follow Helen Branswell on Twitter, you're missing some of the best infectious disease reporting out there.)

Anne of Green Gables had herpes (and you probably do, too)

Anne of Green Gables, by the time she reached middle-age, had apparently joined the majority of adults who test positive for the virus herpes simplex type 1.

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Viruses to the rescue

Technology Review's list of 35 Innovators Under 35 includes Timothy Lu, an MIT researcher who is engineering viruses designed to seek out and destroy biofilms — bacterial colonies that stick together on a surface, like bits of pear suspended in the world's most disgusting jell-o salad. Biofilms have been implicated in human disease, especially chronic infections like those that can happen in the urinary tract and inner ear. But the first place Lu's biofilm-eating viruses will likely be put to work is cleaning out ducts in industrial HVAC systems. (Via Carl Zimmer) Maggie

Why has this flu season been so mild?

Short answer: We don't know. Despite its ubiquity, there's a lot scientists don't know about the influenza virus. Helen Branswell is a great medical reporter. In this piece for the Winnipeg Free Press she explains why the flu virus makes seemingly simple questions frustratingly difficult to answer. Maggie