25 years ago, a mutant American crayfish turned to asexual reproduction, and all of Europe's lakes are filling up with its clones

The marbled crayfish (Procambarus virginalis) is a mutant slough crayfish (Procambarus fallax) an American species; the mutation that allowed slough crayfish to reproduce asexually by cloning itself occurred a mere 25 years ago, and it came to Germany as an aquarium pet in 1995, sold as "Texas crayfish." Read the rest

Future astronaut food could taste like shit

Scientists have been working on a way to turn poop into an edible which, even if it winds up tasting like French fries, will never let you entirely forget about the fact that you're eating poop.

According to Penn State News, researchers at the university's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences have been puttering about their lab, looking for a way to turn human waste into a viable food source for astronauts on deep space missions.

As most people don't want to play with their own brand, the researchers turned to an artificial human waste analog, commonly used for testing purposes in waste treatment plants. The waste was placed inside of a closed cylinder and treated with microbes. These microbes broke down their faux-feces through a process called anaerobic digestion. This breakdown of the waste results in a discharge of methane, which can be used to produce a microbe called Methylococcus capsulatus. Methylococcus capsulatus is currently used in animal feed, and since humans are animals, BOOM: astronaut food. By growing the microbes at a temperature that kills harmful bacteria, the research team was able to produce a bio mass consisting of 61% protein and 7% animal fats.

According to Penn State professor of Geosciences, Christopher House, the resulting foodstuff would have the consistency of Vegemite or Marmite.

With this being the case, there could be a large contingent of future astronauts that would prefer to eat their own crap, instead.

Photo via Flikr, courtesy of Dave Young

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Deep-sea expedition seeks clues about how extraterrestrial life might exist

Life on the Rocks is a fascinating account of a scientific expedition to a craggy archipelago off Brazil, where conditions may unlock secrets about possible life forms on Europa, Enceladus, and other nearby celestial bodies. Read the rest

New York's rat population has genetically diverged into "uptown" and "downtown" subpopulation

Matthew Combs, a Fordham University Louis Calder Center Biological Field Station grad student worked with colleagues from Fordham and the Providence College Department of Biology to sequence the genomes of brown rats in Manhattan, and made a surprising discovery: the geography of rats has a genetic correlation, so a geneticist can tell where a rat was born and raised by analyzing its DNA. Read the rest

How bacteria rule over your body - new explainer video

Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell latest explainer video tackles the human microbiome - those passive, friendly, and unfriendly tiny lifeforms that inhabit and cover our body and affect our health and behavior in profound ways. Read the rest

Turkish high school students will no longer be taught "controversial" evolutionary theory

Evolution is one of 170 topics that have been purged from the high-school curriculum by the Erdogan regime as part of its efforts to cozy up to the reactionary religious right that has backed its extreme authoritarianism. Read the rest

Four anatomical models you assemble from 132 anatomically correct sub-components

The $45.28 Learning Resources Anatomy Models Bundle Set is a well-reviewed set of anatomical models: a 5" heart, a 3.75" brain, a 4.5" body and a 9.2" skeleton, all of which disassemble into anatomically correct sub-components that you assemble into the finished pieces. (via Fun Finds) Read the rest

About 40% of "worker" ants just hang around, doing nothing

Ants are cultural signifiers of busy industriousness, but a new paper in Plos One reveals that, across species, about 40% of "worker" ants spend most of their days doing nothing. Read the rest

Are solar storms causing whales to beach themselves?

A new study in the International Journal of Astrobiology posits that beached whales may sometimes be influenced by solar storms. Read the rest

Clear-cut tropical forest revitalized with industrial orange peel waste

In 1997, ecologists Daniel Janzen and Winnie Hallwachs convinced a Costa Rican orange juice maker to to dump their waste peels in a clear-cut abandoned pasture that was in a national park. Twenty years later, the enriched soil nourishes tropical forest again, according to a new report. Read the rest

Skeleton Flower turns transparent in the rain

Diphylleia grayi, the "skeleton flower" is normally opaque white but when it rains, the petals become transparent until the flower dries. Nanotechnologists are developing new materials inspired by the flower's structure that could lead to the likes of new underwater goggles that repel oil. From Mother Nature Network:

Skeleton flowers are native to wooded mountainsides in the colder regions of Japan, and they bloom from mid-spring to early-summer in shady conditions. The plant might be easier to spot if you look for its large, umbrella-shaped leaves. The pearly white (or clear, if it's raining) blossoms top the leaves in small clusters...

A related species, Diphylleia cymosa, can be found in the deciduous forests of the Appalachian Mountains here in the United States.

(via Daily Grail)

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Evolutionary psychologists are very butthurt about the new Scientific American

Scientific American dedicates its September issue to The New Science of Sex and Gender, and sociobiologists haven't been in this kind of tizzy since the Emmy-nominated Bill Nye episode about sex and gender. Read the rest

Researchers encoded a film clip in DNA and store it inside a living cell

In an astonishing step forward in biomolecular computing, Harvard researchers encoded a 19th century film clip in DNA and stored it inside living bacteria. Later, they sequenced the bacterium's genome and decoded the film. From IEEE Spectrum:

To get a movie into E. coli’s DNA, (neuroscientist Seth) Shipman and his colleagues had to disguise it. They converted the movie’s pixels into DNA’s four-letter code—molecules represented by the letters A,T,G and C—and synthesized that DNA. But instead of generating one long strand of code, they arranged it, along with other genetic elements, into short segments that looked like fragments of viral DNA.

E. coli is naturally programmed by its own DNA to grab errant pieces of viral DNA and store them in its own genome—a way of keeping a chronological record of invaders. So when the researchers introduced the pieces of movie-turned-synthetic DNA—disguised as viral DNA—E. coli’s molecular machinery grabbed them and filed them away.

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The psilocybin in magic mushrooms is an insect repellant

The psilocybin in magic mushrooms is a potent psychedelic for animals. But what good is the psilocybin for the shrooms? New genetic research from Ohio State University suggests that the psilocybin might act as an insect repellant, protecting the mushrooms. From New Scientist:

The gene cluster (linked to psilocybin production) is found in several distantly related groups, suggesting that the fungi swapped genes in a process called horizontal gene transfer. This is uncommon in mushrooms: it is the first time genes for a compound that is not necessary for the fungi’s survival – called a secondary metabolite – have been found moving between mushroom lineages.

Since these genes have survived in multiple species, Slot thinks psilocybin must be useful to the fungi. “Strong selection could be the reason this gene cluster was able to overcome the barriers to horizontal gene transfer,” (researcher Jason Slot) says.

Hallucinogenic mushrooms often inhabit areas rich in fungi-eating insects, so Slot suggests psilocybin might protect the fungi, or repel insects from a shared food source, by somehow influencing their behaviour.

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Artificial intelligence identifies plant species by looking at them

Machine learning algorithms have successfully identified plant species in massive herbaria just by looking at the dried specimens. According to researchers, similar AI approaches could also be used identify the likes of fly larvae and plant fossils. From Nature:

There are roughly 3,000 herbaria in the world, hosting an estimated 350 million specimens — only a fraction of which has been digitized. But the swelling data sets, along with advances in computing techniques, enticed computer scientist Erick Mata-Montero of the Costa Rica Institute of Technology in Cartago and botanist Pierre Bonnet of the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development in Montpellier, to see what they could make of the data.

Researchers trained... algorithms on more than 260,000 scans of herbarium sheets, encompassing more than 1,000 species. The computer program eventually identified species with nearly 80% accuracy: the correct answer was within the algorithms’ top 5 picks 90% of the time. That, says (Penn State paleobotanist Peter) Wilf, probably out-performs a human taxonomist by quite a bit.

Such results often worry botanists, Bonnet says, many of whom already feel that their field is undervalued. “People feel this kind of technology could be something that will decrease the value of botanical expertise,” he says. “But this approach is only possible because it is based on the human expertise. It will never remove the human expertise.” People would also still need to verify the results, he adds.

"Going deeper in the automated identification of Herbarium specimens" (BMC Evolutionary Biology) Read the rest

Scientists discover transparent frog

Scientists discovered this new species of "glass frog" in Ecuador's Amazon lowlands. Hyalinobatrachium yaku's belly is so transparent that you can clearly see its kidneys, bladder, and beating heart. From Science News:

Yaku means “water” in Kichwa, a language spoken in Ecuador and parts of Peru where H. yaku may also live. Glass frogs, like most amphibians, depend on streams. Egg clutches dangle on the underside of leaves, then hatch, and the tadpoles drop into the water below. But the frogs are threatened by pollution and habitat destruction, the researchers write. Oil extraction, which occurs in about 70 percent of Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest, and expanding mining activities are both concerns.

"A marvelous new glassfrog (Centrolenidae, Hyalinobatrachium) from Amazonian Ecuador" (ZooKeys) Read the rest

Cats domesticated themselves

In many, animal species are domesticated when humans bring them into their homes whether they want to be there or not. For example, it's mostly accepted that humans domesticated wolves, breeding them in captivity until they became the modern dogs we love today. Now, a new study of cat genetics reveals that cats just kind of hung around humans for thousands of years before they were domesticated. From Casey Smith's article in National Geographic:

The earlier ancestors of today’s domestic cats spread from southwest Asia and into Europe as early as 4400 B.C. The cats likely started hanging around farming communities in the Fertile Crescent about 8,000 years ago, where they settled into a mutually beneficial relationship as humans’ rodent patrol.

Mice and rats were attracted to crops and other agricultural byproducts being produced by human civilizations. Cats likely followed the rodent populations and, in turn, frequently approached the human settlements.

“This is probably how the first encounter between humans and cats occurred,” says study coauthor Claudio Ottoni of the University of Leuven. “It’s not that humans took some cats and put them inside cages,” he says. Instead, people more or less allowed cats to domesticate themselves.

A second lineage, consisting of African cats that dominated Egypt, spread into the Mediterranean and most of the Old World beginning around 1500 B.C. This Egyptian cat probably had behaviors that made it attractive to humans, such as sociability and tameness.

The results suggest that prehistoric human populations probably began carrying their cats along ancient land and sea trade routes to control rodents.

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