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August 7, 2005

Resurrection Ecology and the Red Queen Hypothesis

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What the heck?

Sharon Begley's "Science Journal" column in this past Friday's Wall Street Journal introduced me to both of the terms above.

"Resurrection Ecology" is a term used to describe a new branch of biology in which eggs deposited long, long ago, in many cases by creatures who no longer live in the vicinity or even on the planet, are hatched.

What emerges are creatures from the past.

These time travelers of sorts enable scientists to examine evolutionary change from an entirely novel perspective.

The "Red Queen Hypothesis" in evolutionary biology means that predators and prey must evolve quickly and successfully to keep from falling behind and going extinct.

The term stems from the Red Queen's observation to Alice, in "Alice in Wonderland," that "It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place."

U2 did a nice take on this memorable insight in their song "Running To Stand Still." But I digress.

Sharon Begley is one of the very finest science writers in the world.

She consistently tackles topics that are very, very difficult and abstruse and somehow renders them understandable to my addled consciousness — high praise indeed.

Here's her column.

    Very Old Eggs Reveal A Fast, Changing Path Through Evolution

    Biologists studying how species change over the eons have always been hampered by the little problem of previous generations of a species being, well, dead.

    Sure, you can infer something about what a creature was like from fossils, but fossils generally fail to preserve much except bone.

    As a result, some of an animal's most interesting features vanish into the dust of time.

    But these days, not even death is forever.

    A few years ago, biologist W. Charles Kerfoot was examining "cores" -- basically, muck deposited decades earlier -- in a Michigan lake. Lo and behold, he and his colleagues discovered eggs, and not just any eggs.

    They had been laid long ago by tiny creatures (mostly insects and crustaceans) that no longer lived in the lake.

    Even better, there was still life in the eggs.

    Under the right conditions, they would hatch.

    "We knew right away that we were founding a whole new field," says Prof. Kerfoot of Michigan Technological University, Houghton.

    "I call it 'resurrection ecology.'"

    By hatching the eggs one muddy layer at a time, he realized, he could compare one generation with another to investigate evolutionary change.

    It has always struck me as odd that evolutionary biology is caricatured by opponents as being static, a tower of unchanging (and unchangeable) dogma dating from Darwin.

    In fact, it is full of competing ideas, new discoveries and bickering scientists.

    ***************

    In his resurrection work, Prof. Kerfoot focuses on eggs of a tiny water flea, Daphnia retrocurva, from Portage Lake.

    He sieves them out of the deep muck, pops them into an incubator, and is a proud papa a few days later.

    "We've resurrected eggs from 300 years ago," he says.

    "That's 3,000 generations, equivalent to 120,000 years of evolution for humans."

    And evolve is just what the little guys did.

    Daphnia share Portage Lake with creatures great and small, including predators, such as the shrimplike Leptodora.

    Prof. Kerfoot wondered whether the daphnia were doing something that biologists had hypothesized, but had struggled to prove -- namely, that the Red Queen in "Alice in Wonderland" was describing evolution when she told Alice, "It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place."

    In evolutionary biology, the Red Queen Hypothesis means predators and prey must evolve like heck just to keep from falling behind (and to remain able to hunt or elude capture).

    Sure enough, daphnia eggs taken from muck with a high population of predators hatched into veritable warriors: They had long spikes on their tails and an impressive helmet, the better to make themselves too prickly to eat.

    "But as predators became less abundant, spine length and helmets became smaller," says Prof. Kerfoot.

    "Evidence for the Red Queen is very strong here. It looks like these populations really are changing just to stay in place."

    He isn't the only scientist tinkering with classic Darwinism.

    The reigning theory of the molecular basis of evolution is that whether a mutation takes hold depends solely on natural selection: beneficial mutations last, detrimental ones disappear.

    But something else may be at work.

    ***************

    If a slew of mutations show up at once, more of them endure, scientists led by Bruce Lahn of the University of Chicago report in the July issue of Trends in Genetics.

    In my world, that's like an editor flooding you with dozens of suggestions for changes in your column.

    You're unable to fend them off, so more survive than if the requests come one-by-one over time.

    Thousands of scientific papers presume that the fraction of retained mutations depends solely on how beneficial they are.

    "This theory has been the workhorse of molecular evolution," says Prof. Lahn.

    His discovery that a gene accepts more mutations when many hit at once is counterintuitive and controversial; a handful of journals actually rejected his paper.

    But if he is right, the molecular underpinning of evolutionary biology is itself in need of mutation.

    Another pillar of evolution is that natural selection sculpts species toward some ideal fitness.

    In fact, what's "fit" is a matter of opinion.

    Consider the males of a little reptile called the side-blotched lizard, which come in three kinds.

    Orange-throated giants beat up on their diminutive blue-throated rivals, which in turn lord it over tiny yellow-throated guys.

    You'd think the yellows would eventually die out.

    But natural selection is more forgiving than that.

    The yellows are so beneath the contempt of the oranges that they are able to steal assignations with females attracted to the oranges' territory.

    As a result, the yellows reproduce and survive.

    Just as the game rock-paper-scissors has no single winning strategy -- it depends what your opponents choose -- so in lizard-dom there is more than one route to evolutionary fitness.

    Critics contend that evolutionary biology is a haughty club that forces members "to circle the wagons against any and all would-be challengers, and to achieve consensus on the most contentious issues," Michael Shermer, director of the Skeptics Society, has written.

    "This conclusion is so wrong that it cannot have been made by anyone who has ever attended a scientific conference," or dipped so much as a toe into the roiling waters of evolutionary research.

August 7, 2005 at 05:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Check–A–Spare Remote Spare Tire Inflator

Yjtgyuit

It's a 40"–long piece of tubing that screws on to your spare tire's air valve.

The loose end goes somewhere in your trunk where you can easily get at it once a year or so to check your spare's pressure.

Nothing like being out in the middle of nowhere with a flat tire, deciding to try to change it, then finding that your spare, which you've never ever even seen since you bought your car, is flat as well.

A very good use of your hard–earned $6.

If you want a red one then go here.

Buy a few for your friends, put them on and wait a few years to hear from one that "you saved my life."

I gave one to my mechanic last Christmas: he'd never heard of it before and loved it.

August 7, 2005 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Janet Cardiff's iPod Sound Sculpture

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Canadian multimedia artist Janet Cardiff has poked a hole in the envelope surrounding "art" with her newest work, entitled "Words Drawn in Water."

She calls it a "sound sculpture."

Long story short: you put on a specially–loaded iPod at Washington, D.C.'s Hirshhorn Museum, then take a 20–minute directed stroll among sites on the Mall while listening to her commentary and sound effects.

Blake Gopnik, the Washington Post's art critic, raved about the piece in a story which appeared this past Friday.

Here are the details should you wish to experience this fusion of art, sculpture, sound and 21st–century electronics.

Where: The Hirshhorn is at Seventh Street and Independence Avenue.

When: Headsets and iPods are available Wednesday through Sundays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Cost: Free.

Until when: October 30 is the last day.

More information: 202-633-1000 or the Hirshhorn's website.

August 7, 2005 at 03:21 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Multi–Outlet Photoelectric Nightlight

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Turn an ordinary wall socket into a multimedia center.

Simply plug in your photoelectric nightlight and you'll never be in the dark again.

When dusk settles in the device's built–in electric eye senses the dearth of photons and chips in with its own.

But wait — there's more.

Once it lights the way, you can plug in not one, not two but three other electricity–driven devices.

And you've still got the other wall socket as well.

$4.99 here.

I was trying to understand why I found the blocky, somewhat pyramidal form of this object so appealing without success until last night, when at that borderland of consciousness right on the edge of sleep, where you think the very last thought you'll ever have if you should happen to die before you wake, Lord's Prayer–style, it hit me: it's a faint echo of the ancient ziggurat of the Sumerians at Ur (below).

Cjhiuhui

Archetypes die hard – if, that is, they die at all.

Jungians are nodding thoughtfully in agreement as they read this.

Or are they simply falling asleep?

August 7, 2005 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sencha Green Tea Mints

Pict4blends

Pastel mints strongly infused with organic sencha, a green tea.

Sencha Naturals in Los Angeles makes them in three flavors: Original, Lively Lemongrass and Delicate Pear.

They even sound good.

Sugar–free.

Green tea is said to be a natural bacteria inhibitor, thus working "unlike other mints which merely mask odor in the mouth; Sencha Green Tea Mints work at the source."

A pocket-sized box (above) contains 77 mints and costs $3.50 to $3.75 at Whole Foods, Garden of Eden and Zabar's.

Sencha says three mints hold as much tea as one cup.

[via Florence Fabricant and the New York Times]

August 7, 2005 at 12:31 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Long–Reach Swingline Stapler

Hygg

Staple up to 12" from the paper's edge — ideal for center–stitch stapling or fastening cards or tags.

Handles up to 20 sheets of paper at once.

Integrated ruler and adjustable locking paper guide ensure precision alignment and consistency.

Rubber base pads.

Can be mounted to a desk or table via screw holes.

Measures 16.5" long with a 12" throat.

Uses full strips of standard staples.

Black.

Yhgyug

$23.11 here.

August 7, 2005 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

BehindTheMedspeak: 'Chopstick Injury'

Cristoflechopsticks

That's the term used for a common problem seen in the emergency rooms of Shanghai, China.

    From the July issue of Scientific American:

    A classic local example is the "chopstick injury," in which a barbed bamboo chopstick is pushed — usually through an eye socket — into the head during an argument over a meal; when the stick is removed, enough brain tissue sticks to it to be a source of neural stem cells.

The above is an excerpt from a fascinating article by Clive Cookson, science editor of the Financial Times, who contributed to a joint Financial Times/Scientific American supplement on the science and imminent booming business which is sure to accompany the widespread use of stem cells in regenerative medicine, most likely the leading edge of clinical medicine in the first few decades of this century.

Cookson's article focused on the generous staffing and funding of China's stem cell laboratories and the country's permissive laws, which have combined to create what will undoubtedly be the world's leader in this field in years to come.

Cookson estimated that, though statistics are hard to come by, China must have at least 300 researchers in the field working in at least 30 different institutions.

He focused on Jianhong Zhu of Huashan Hospital, part of Shanghai's Fudan University, who works with adult neural stem cells, "extracted from brain tissues exposed in patients who suffer open wounds."

He wrote, "Zhu has obtained encouraging results from a clinical trial in which eight such patients had their own neural stem cells cultured and transferred back into the the site of their injury; they fared significantly better than eight matched controls who had open brain surgery but no cell grafting."

August 7, 2005 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Page Boy® Folding Book Holder

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I bought one of these at least ten years ago and still use it when I travel.

It's beaten up but still perfectly functional.

I've been looking for a source since then without luck until yesterday when I turned the page in a giant library supply catalog and voila, there it was.

Now I can give them to people and share a superb design with excellent function.

    From the website:

    Folding book holder is compact enough for storage inside a binder or folder, yet it is sturdy enough to support an unabridged dictionary.

    Hold any kind of book, newspaper or magazine open for convenient note–taking.

    Great for displaying literature, too.

Chrome–plated steel.

4.5"H x 7.5"W x 6.5"D.

Folds flat for transport.

$5.99 here.

August 7, 2005 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

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