A tree that threatens to make orchards much smaller

Friday, 1 August, 2014

A single tree that can bear forty different types of stone fruit? The notion sounds incredible, but thanks to some complicated grafting techniques, branches from various fruit trees were attached to one, bringing forth the “Tree of 40 Fruit”.

Working with a pool of over 250 varieties of stone fruit, Van Aken developed a timeline of when each of them blossom in relationship to each other and started grafting a few onto a working tree’s root structure. Once the working tree was about two years old, Van Aken used a technique called chip grafting to add more varieties on as separate branches. This technique involves taking a sliver off a fruit tree that includes the bud, and inserting that into an incision in the working tree. It’s then taped into place, and left to sit and heal over winter. If all goes well, the branch will be pruned back to encourage it to grow as a normal branch on the working tree.

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If life rose up again on Earth would it be the same as it is now?

Thursday, 26 June, 2014

If life was all but wiped out on Earth, but was able to start over again from minute organism level, would the lifeforms that currently populate the planet eventually return? Opinion is divided, but seemingly it is possible.

Both scholars recognized that convergence and contingency exist in evolution. Their debate instead revolved around how repeatable or unique key adaptations, like human intelligence, are. Meanwhile, other biologists have taken up the puzzle, and shown how convergence and contingency interact. Understanding the interplay of these two forces could reveal whether every living thing is the result of a several-billion-year-long chain of lucky chances, or whether we all – salamanders and humans alike – are as inevitable as death and taxes.

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Editing our DNA, not with a keyboard, but through bacteria

Friday, 14 March, 2014

By tapping into the workings of the immune systems of certain types of bacteria, it may be possible to makes changes to, or edit, human DNA. The implications here are both positive and negative, but interesting nonetheless.

The sequences, it turns out, are part of a sophisticated immune system that bacteria use to fight viruses. And that system, whose very existence was unknown until about seven years ago, may provide scientists with unprecedented power to rewrite the code of life. In the past year or so, researchers have discovered that the bacterial system can be harnessed to make precise changes to the DNA of humans, as well as other animals and plants.

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Birds don’t have a fear of falling… they’re latched onto the trees

Friday, 13 December, 2013

Your liberal arts education continues. How is it that a bird can sleep while perched on a branch, yet not fall off the limb? It comes down to the mechanics of their talons, or claws:

The avian talon works through a “pulley system of tendons,” according to the animal morphology blog Ars Anatomica, and it can lock into place. “The bird’s foot closes and grasps automatically as the ankle and knee joints are bent,” we read. “This grasp cannot be released until the limb is straightened again.” So, instead of expending precious energy holding the muscles tight – as you would if you were hanging onto a branch with your fists/arms – the system simply physically locks in place.

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What are people made of? Sugar, spice, all things nice? Not quite…

Monday, 18 November, 2013

You’re not only what you eat, read, or watch on TV, you are very much a product of the environment around you. Your blood, fingernails, the curls in your hair, together with your teeth, all take at least a little of their composition from the elements and chemicals swirling about us:

When you smile, the gleam of your teeth obscures a slight glow from radioactive waste. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, atmospheric testing of thermonuclear weapons scattered so much radioactive carbon-14 into the atmosphere that it contaminated virtually every ecosystem and human.

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There can’t be too many stones left unturned in this Pigeon study

Thursday, 14 November, 2013

If someone studied pigeons for ten years, as London based biologist Luke Taylor has, I guess they’d be able to tell one or two stories about them. Actually there’s quite a lot to be learnt here. Pigeons may not be the fondly looked upon of birds, but if you’re pressed for a babysitter you may want to rethink your attitude towards them…

A baby pigeon was nursed by a kind family who went on a two week holiday. When the family came back from the holiday the pigeon remembered who they were and followed them around whilst cooing cheerfully.

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A virus so big it was mistaken for something else

Friday, 26 July, 2013

A recently discovered virus that is much larger than most other known pathogens of the same ilk, sounds to me like it could be big trouble…

In a study published in the journal Science, the researchers say that the Pandoravirus is so unique, it deserves its own classification. For one, the virus is twice as big as the second-largest known virus, and dwarfs the size of most others – it’s volume is 1,000 times that of the common flu. What’s more, of its 2,556 genes, just seven percent match genes already identified by science. That, they say, suggests the virus grew out of a completely separate gene lineage from its peers.

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In the distant future there’s no doubt that the eyes will have it

Monday, 17 June, 2013

Human face in 100,000 years, image by Nickolay Lamm

US artist and illustrator Nickolay Lamm has created a series of images depicting how our heads and faces may look in the distant future as they evolve, and are possibly even engineered, to suit the conditions we may find ourselves in, such as colonies on planets further out from Earth, for example.

Kwan says that 60,000 years from now, our ability to control the human genome will also make the effect of evolution on our facial features moot. As genetic engineering becomes the norm, “the fate of the human face will be increasingly determined by human tastes,” he says in a research document. Eyes will meanwhile get larger, as attempts to colonize Earth’s solar system and beyond see people living in the dimmer environments of colonies further away from the Sun than Earth. Similarly, skin will become more pigmented to lessen the damage from harmful UV radiation outside of the Earth’s protective ozone. Kwan expects people to have thicker eyelids and a more pronounced superciliary arch (the smooth, frontal bone of the skull under the brow), to deal with the effects of low gravity.

There’s nothing to say this is what will actually happen, but Lamm’s work is certainly thought provoking.

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Genome theft, worse than identity theft?

Monday, 10 June, 2013

As if the prospect of identity theft isn’t bad enough, someone could really get to the heart of the matter, so to speak, if they managed to get hold of the genetic information contained in your genome:

What kind of private information could your genome data reveal? At this point, not too much, but this will change quickly. In the near future, it may not be difficult for someone with access to your genome data to make a good guess about your ethnicity, your skin color, your propensity to obesity, addiction, bipolar disorder, attention-deficit disorder, early onset cancer, or Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, or Alzheimer’s Disease, not to mention the identity of your real father. A hack of your Facebook or credit card account seems minor by comparison.

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The sex life of the dinosaur Stegosaurus, prickly to say the least

Wednesday, 3 April, 2013

Sexual reproduction would have been more challenging for some species of dinosaurs than others. If you’ve never given the matter much thought, think for a minute about how the Stegosaurus – together with their sharp back plates and tail spikes – might have gone about continuing their lineage:

Heinrich Mallison, a scientist at the Museum of Natural History in Berlin, has developed computerized models showing the numerous positions available to lusty dinosaurs. His software models proved that the male Kentrosaurus (a relative of Stegosaurus) had a major obstacle to overcome; namely, castration by the female’s sharp-spined back. “These prickly dinosaurs must have had sex another way,” Mallison told the Times. “Perhaps the female lay down on her side and the male reared up to rest his torso over her. Other species would have used different positions, like backing up to each other.”

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