Neanderthals in the Family, Elephants Learn to Bee-ware, Copying for Success, Aphids' Stolen Finery, The Pill Turns 50

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Neanderthals in the Family

may8-2010-green_neanderthal.jpg Dr Green & a distant relative - courtesy Jim MacKenzie/UCSC

The first draft of the genetic code of the Neanderthal was released this week, and the scientists responsible say it contains several surprises. The Neanderthal genome was painstakingly reconstructed from fragmentary and degraded DNA in 40,000-year-old Neanderthal bones by Dr. Ed Green, a professor of biomolecular engineering at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and his colleagues. The draft sequence represents about 60% of the whole genome, but is already interesting in both how it is similar and how it's different from the human genome. A few striking similarities seem to indicate that Neanderthals and modern humans interbred, but not when and where most scientists might have suspected. Most of the human population not descended recently from Africa seems to have traces of Neanderthal genes, suggesting encounters with Neanderthals very early in the time when modern humans were migrating out of Africa. Some of the differences between the Neanderthal and human genes are concentrated in genetic regions associated with cognitive function and bone development, which may point to some of the evolutionary changes critical to the development of modern humans.

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Related Links
external site - links will open in a new windowPaper in Science
external site - links will open in a new windowScience news special
external site - links will open in a new windowNews from UCSC
external site - links will open in a new windowNews from Max Planck Institute
external site - links will open in a new windowCBC News story
external site - links will open in a new windowCarl Zimmer's blog at Discover

Elephants Learn to Bee-ware

may8-2010-elephants_run.jpg Elephants flee from bees at Samburu National Reserve, Kenya - Dr. Lucy King
It may sound silly, but elephants are actually terrified of bees. Bees can cause great distress to elephants by stinging them around their eyes and up their trunks. Elephants gather together, then run away at the mere sound of bees approaching. A new study by Dr. Lucy King, a zoologist with Oxford University's Animal Behaviour Research Group in England and Save The Elephants in Kenya, has found that elephants have their own word for 'bee'. They make a very low rumble to tell each other that bees are near. This research is being used to help solve the problem of elephants eating and trampling farmers' crops. Beehive fences are being constructed to deter elephants and protect them from being killed by angry farmers.

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Related Links

external site - links will open in a new windowPaper in PLoS ONE
external site - links will open in a new windowNews release from University of Oxford (with video)
external site - links will open in a new windowInterview with Dr. King by University of Oxford
external site - links will open in a new windowDr. King's web page
external site - links will open in a new windowStory in ScienceNow
external site - links will open in a new windowSave the Elephants

Copying for Success

may8-2010-copying.jpg courtesy Gillian Brown
New research by evolutionary biologists at St. Andrews University in Scotland suggests that copying from others, or social learning, can ultimately be more beneficial to humans than innovating, or asocial learning. The study was based on the fact that copying is widespread in nature because is has been both successful and cost efficient. To test this idea, the researchers organised an international tournament played out through computer simulation - a worldwide battle of minds, which was ultimately won by two post-graduate students from Queen's University in Kingston. Timothy Lillicrap is a PhD candidate in the neuroscience program and one half of the winning team. The pair defeated 103 other teams from 16 countries with a strategy that relied heavily on copying from others.

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Related Links
external site - links will open in a new windowPaper in Science
external site - links will open in a new windowNews release from St. Andrews University
external site - links will open in a new windowNews release from Queen's University
external site - links will open in a new windowSocial Learning Strategies Tournament
external site - links will open in a new windowWeb page for Timothy Lillycrap
external site - links will open in a new windowWeb page for the other team member, Daniel Cownden

Aphids' Stolen Finery

may8-2010-aphids.jpg courtesy Jeffrey W. Lotz, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Bugwood.org
Gardeners are familiar with the diabolical nature of the Aphid. These ravenous little insects suck the sap from plants like vegetarian vampires. But that's not the end of their perfidy. Aphids use special chemicals called carotenes to produce the colours they use to camouflage themselves on plant leaves and stems. These chemicals are not normally produced in animals, though, and Dr. Nancy Moran has discovered that aphids have stolen the ability to produce these carotenes from an entirely different kingdom of life. They took the genetic machinery for carotene production from a fungus. This is an example of something called "lateral gene transfer" that is common in microbial animals, but very rare in multicellular life. Dr. Moran is a professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona.

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Related Links
external site - links will open in a new windowPaper in Science
external site - links will open in a new windowNews from University of Arizona
external site - links will open in a new windowNews from US National Science Foundation
external site - links will open in a new windowCBC News
external site - links will open in a new windowNot Exactly Rocket Science blog

The Pill Turns 50.

may8-2010-the_pill.jpg Oral contraceptive package, copyright tb, cc-by-sa-3.0
This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most significant medical advances ever. It not only saved lives, but heralded a social revolution that permanently changed modern society. And what made it unique was the fact that it was a pill designed not for sick people - but for perfectly healthy, fertile women. It was the world's first oral contraceptive - more widely known as The Pill. And back in May, 1960, the US Food and Drug Administration gave its approval to sell The Pill for birth control. Dr. Andrea Tone is the Canada Research Chair in the Social History of Medicine at McGill University, and author of Devices and Desires: a history of contraceptives in America. She tells us about the 3 remarkable scientists who were responsible for the development of The Pill: Gregory Pincus, John Rock, and Carl Djerassi.

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Related Links
external site - links will open in a new windowDr. Tone's web page
external site - links will open in a new windowDr Tone's book, Devices & Desires
external site - links will open in a new windowCBC Archives for The Pill
external site - links will open in a new windowHistory of The Pill (from the PBS documentary)

Theme music bed copyright Raphaël Gluckstein.
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