Check out this 480 million-year-old conga line of arthropods

When I was little, my big brother would take me fossil-hunting on a quest for trilobites, marine arthropods that have been extinct for around 250 million years. Occasionally we'd find lone specimens but never a bunch of them in a conga line as seen above. Paleontologists at France's Université Claude Bernard Lyon 1 studied lines of nearly two dozen trilobytes from Moroccan fossil beds to gain insight into the origins of collective social behavior. From the New York Times:

These trilobites lived during the Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event, a period defined by a dramatic increase in the variety and complexity of marine life. It was the evolutionary sequel to the first major diversification event, the so-called Cambrian explosion, which established most animal groups in the fossil record some 541 million years ago.

Before the Cambrian, there is “no evidence for group behavior” in animals, (paleontologist Jean) Vannier said, because Precambrian life-forms lacked sophisticated nervous systems.

Ampyx trilobites, in contrast, had an anatomy that could have enabled chemical communication and sensory stimulation. Though they were visually blind, the trilobites had long spikes protruding from their rear ends. These appendages clearly overlap and link individuals in the fossilized chains, and perhaps allowed tactile or pheromone signals to be exchanged.

Read the rest

An unintended consequence of New York's new clean water is a return of destructive marine borers

"Shipworms" are a menace, devouring the wood in ships and docks. For a while, as the New York Times explains, the pollution in New York harbor actually had some benefit in fighting them:

By the 1960s, the waters had become overrun with raw sewage and oil and chemicals discharged by factories. “Industries were using the harbor as a dumping ground,” Mr. Goldstein said. “You wouldn’t want to swim or eat the fish, and only the bravest would take out a kayak.”

Indeed, there were stories of boats being taken into the polluted harbor just to clean off any marine borers from other waters.

The good news is New York waterways are increasingly clean thanks to laws like the the 1972 Clean Water Act. But the bad news is the clean water has allowed marine borers to flourish:

Marine borers took out a heavily used Brooklyn footbridge over Sheepshead Bay in 2015, requiring the city to close it for several months to repair a hole-ridden foundation. The borers have also weakened timber pilings under the Carroll Street Bridge over the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, and under the F.D.R. Drive in Manhattan.

Along the New Jersey waterfront their handiwork led most notably to the partial collapse of a pier at Frank Sinatra Park in Hoboken.

Now the city is spending massive amounts to fight the pests, including $114 million to coat the 11,000 timber pilings under Brooklyn Bridge Park with epoxy.

(Image of Teredo navalis from Popular Science Monthly, September 1878 and Wikipedia.) Read the rest

Adding pink seaweed to cow feed eliminates their methane emissions

One of the major contributors to greenhouse gases is the methane that cows belch up as they break down cellulose, but five years ago, research from Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) found that adding small amounts of a pink seaweed called Asparagopsis to cows' diets eliminated the gut microbes responsible for methane production and "completely knocks out" cows' methane emissions. Read the rest

A deep dive into how parasites hijack our behavior and how we evolved to resist them

On Slate Star Codex (previously), Scott Alexander breaks down Invisible Designers: Brain Evolution Through the Lens of Parasite Manipulation, Marco Del Giudice's Quarterly Review of Biology paper that examines the measures that parasites take to influence their hosts' behaviors, and the countermeasures that hosts evolve to combat them. Read the rest

Find awe in the biology of these incredible leaping maggots

Above is a three-millimeter long maggot launching itself into the air for a distance of up to 36 times its body length. Researchers from Duke University and their colleagues studied how these larvae of gall midges leap between plants with the greatest of ease, even rivaling some jumping insects with legs. Their research could have applications in soft robotics and adhesives. From the Journal of Experimental Biology:

They store elastic energy by forming their body into a loop and pressurizing part of their body to form a transient ‘leg’. They prevent movement during elastic loading by placing two regions covered with microstructures against each other, which likely serve as a newly described adhesive latch. Once the latch releases, the transient ‘leg’ launches the body into the air. These discoveries integrate three vibrant areas in engineering and biology – soft robotics, small, high-acceleration systems, and adhesive systems – and point toward a rich, and as-yet untapped area of biological diversity of worm-like, small, legless jumpers.

(via Scientific American)

Read the rest

Delightful deepsea encounter with a wildly cute and weird piglet squid

This darling denizen of the deep is a Helicocranchia, aka a piglet squid. Scientists on the Ocean Exploration Trust's E/V Nautilus caught footage of the rarely seen creature at a depth of 4,544 feet near Palmyra Atoll in the Northern Pacific Ocean. The commenters' delightful descriptions really make the clip.

(MNN via Kottke) Read the rest

Snail slime inspires new super-strong reversible glue

Snail slime -- called an epiphragm -- is an incredibly strong yet reversible adhesive. Now, University of Pennsylvania scientists have developed a new kind of glue that employs the same mechanism as the epiphragm. The new material dries like superglue but once wet, it loses its adhesion. For years, scientists have explored adhesions inspired by nature but none have been demonstrated to have the same amount of strength and reversibility. For example, the researchers report that their new adhesive "is 89 times stronger than gecko adhesion." From the University of Pennsylvania:

The breakthrough came one day when Gaoxiang Wu was working on another project that involved a hydrogel made of a polymer called polyhydroxyethylmethacrylate (PHEMA) and noticed its unusual adhesive properties. PHEMA is rubbery when wet but rigid when dry, a quality that makes it useful for contact lenses but also, as Yang's team discovered, for adhesives.

When PHEMA is wet, it conforms to all of the small grooves on a surface, from a tree trunk's distinct ridges to the invisible microporosity of a seemingly smooth wall. This conformal contact is what allows PHEMA to stick to a surface.

To demonstrate just how durable their PHEMA adhesive is, one of Yang's lab members and co-first author, Jason Christopher Jolly, volunteered to suspend himself from a harness held up only by a postage-stamp-sized patch of their adhesive; the material easily held the weight of an entire human body. Based on the lab tests, the team determined that, although PHEMA may not be the strongest adhesive in existence, it is currently the strongest known candidate available for reversible adhesion.

Read the rest

Babby is fully formed

Mark Lisseman asks: "Is that diagram… accurate??" ‏ I looked into it and it turns out that the book is called The Story of Life and is by chris (simpsons artist). I've just ordered a copy.

Clear intent is but a small mercy. Read the rest

Breakthrough programmable computer made from DNA running chemical software

For more than two decades, researchers have explored using DNA as a chemical computer. Until now though, DNA computers have only been capable of solving whatever mathematical problem they were built to tackle. Now though, researchers have demonstrated a more general-purpose DNA computer that can run a variety of chemical "programs." From Caltech:

"Think of them as nano apps," says Damien Woods, professor of computer science at Maynooth University near Dublin, Ireland, and one of two lead authors of the study. "The ability to run any type of software program without having to change the hardware is what allowed computers to become so useful. We are implementing that idea in molecules, essentially embedding an algorithm within chemistry to control chemical processes."

The system works by self-assembly: small, specially designed DNA strands stick together to build a logic circuit while simultaneously executing the circuit algorithm. Starting with the original six bits that represent the input, the system adds row after row of molecules—progressively running the algorithm. Modern digital electronic computers use electricity flowing through circuits to manipulate information; here, the rows of DNA strands sticking together perform the computation. The end result is a test tube filled with billions of completed algorithms, each one resembling a knitted scarf of DNA, representing a readout of the computation. The pattern on each "scarf" gives you the solution to the algorithm that you were running. The system can be reprogrammed to run a different algorithm by simply selecting a different subset of strands from the roughly 700 that constitute the system.

Read the rest

More promising news about phages, the parasites that prey on parasites

For many years, we've been following the research on phages, viruses that kill bacteria, once a staple of Soviet medicine and now touted as a possible answer to the worrying rise of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. Read the rest

Fantastic gig posters for scientists' lectures

Bob Goldstein, a professor of cell biology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is also a talented graphic designer who creates fantastic "Gig Posters for Scientists" who lecture at the university. These days, Bob and his son do their own screenprinting too! Above:

12.5x19 inch hand screenprinted gig poster for distinguished scientist visiting UNC Chapel Hill. This one's got lights... LED lights are powered by 3V lithium-ion button cell batteries that were taped to the back of each poster. Image is based on results reported in this cool paper that showed that doublet microtubules are 2-lane highways. Locomotive image modified from this photo by priceman141, caboose modified from this photo by Roy Winkelman via ClipPix.

Read the rest

That first plant grown on the moon? Already dead.

On Monday, we reported that for the first time, a plant seed had germinated on the moon, an early experiment to test whether food could someday be grown on the moon to feed residents of a lunar base. The cotton sprout was inside a canister on China's Chang’e 4 lander that touched down on the far side of the moon earlier this month. Now, word that the first lunar plant has died. The little seedling froze to death during the lunar night. From GBTimes:

Liu Hanlong, head of the experiment at Chongqing University, said at a Chongqing government press conference on Tuesday that the temperature inside the 1-litre-capacity canister had reached -52 degrees Celsius and the experiment had ended.

According to Liu, the experiment did not carry a battery and could not continue environmental control during the lunar nighttime. The lack of battery was possibly due to mass constraints for the mission and the lander's own power demands...

"Although it is a biological payload for popularising science, it laid a foundation and technological support for our next step, that is, to build a lunar base for living," (Chongqing University professor and designer of the experiment) Xie (Genxin) said.

Previously:

China launching lunar spacecraft to test growing plants on the dark side of the Moon

• First images from China's probe that just landed on the dark side of the moon

Read the rest

These sneaky spiders wait inside tiny towers to attack their prey

The California turret spider build tiny towers on the forest floor that extend underground into a burrow. At night, they climb up into the tower and await their dinner -- beetles, moths, and other insects. Video above. From KQED's Deep Look:

While remaining hidden inside their turret, they’re able to sense the vibrations created by their prey’s footsteps.

That’s when the turret spider strikes, busting out of the hollow tower like an eight legged jack-in-the-box. With lightning speed the spider swings its fangs down like daggers, injecting venom into its prey before dragging it down into the burrow.

Read the rest

This is the first plant grown on the moon

A cotton seed has germinated on the moon. The sprout is inside a canister on China's Chang’e 4 lander that touched down on the far side of the moon earlier this month. From The Guardian:

Plants have been grown previously on the International Space Station, but this is the first time a seed has sprouted on the moon. The ability to grow plants in space is seen as crucial for long-term space missions and establishing human outposts elsewhere in the solar system, such as Mars.

Harvesting food in space, ideally using locally extracted water, would mean astronauts could survive for far longer without returning to Earth for supplies...

Scientists from Chongqing University, who designed the “mini lunar biosphere” experiment, sent an 18cm bucket-like container holding air, water and soil.

Inside are cotton, arabidopsis – a small, flowering plant of the mustard family – and potato seeds, as well as fruit-fly eggs and yeast.

Images sent back by the probe show a cotton plant has grown well, but so far none of the other plants had sprouted, the university said.

Imaging the marketing opportunity for a cannabis company to sell space weed!

Previously:

China launching lunar spacecraft to test growing plants on the dark side of the Moon

• First images from China's probe that just landed on the dark side of the moon

Read the rest

A delightful cartoon about the "living fossil" fish, the coelacanth

Known as a "living fossil," the coelacanth is an order of fish thought to have been extinct for 65 million years until one was caught in 1938 in a fisherman's net off the coast of South Africa and identified by museum curator Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer. This wonderful paper animation tells the story of the curious creature and its rediscovery.

(hhmi BioInteractive via The Kid Should See This)

Read the rest

Art show of exquisite bronze trilobites and insects

D. Allan Drummond is a a professor of biochemistry, microbiology, and human genetics who has a penchant for trilobites, the marine arthropods that first appeared more than 500 million years ago and went extinct 245 million years ago for unknown reasons. Drummond creates 3D renderings of his trilobite fossils and then has them cast in bronze. Now, Drummond has added insects to his practice, modeling jumping spiders, praying mantises, and stag beetles.

Seattle's reborn Roq La Rue Gallery is presenting Drummond's first show of his work until January 6: D. Allan Drummond: "Curiosity"

Read the rest

Why humans have so little hair compared to other apes

Why do humans have so little hair, at least compared to all other primates? At Smithsonian, Jason Daley shares the latest genetic research on the biological factors that result in humans' minimal body hair and its unusual distribution. Daley also surveys the fascinating current theories about why we evolved into the only naked apes. From Smithsonian:

One popular idea that has gone in and out of favor since it was proposed is called the aquatic ape theory. The hypothesis suggests that human ancestors lived on the savannahs of Africa, gathering and hunting prey. But during the dry season, they would move to oases and lakesides and wade into shallow waters to collect aquatic tubers, shellfish or other food sources. The hypothesis suggests that, since hair is not a very good insulator in water, our species traded in most of our fur for a layer of fat. The hypothesis even suggests we might have developed bipedalism to become more effective waders. But this idea, which has been around for decades, hasn’t received much support from the fossil record and isn’t taken seriously by most researchers.

A more widely accepted theory is that, when human ancestors moved from the cool shady forests into the savannah, they needed better thermoregulation. Losing all that fur made it possible for hominins to hunt during the day in the hot grasslands without overheating. An increase in sweat glands, many more than other primates, also kept early humans on the cool side. The development of fire and clothing meant that humans could keep cool during the day and cozy up at night.

Read the rest

More posts