Tag: biology

I so want to make one of these! Cellular miniature golf.

Specifically, what if a bunch of us sciencegeeks at UBC agree to make a few. AND THEN WE WOULD HAVE A WHOLE SCIENCEGEEK MINIGOLF COURSE!


Also this:

By NYC Resistor, via Thinx

If it comes to using forced “re-education” tactics on the anti-evolution folks, this here is your brainwashing graphic.


By Nicolas Fong Go, via Fresh Photons

Fake but very detailed scientific paper on why you can’t kill Wolverine. #nerdgasm


(Click on the paper image to download full text pdf of the research paper).

– – –

Wolverine, a mutant from the X-men team, possesses super healing abilities. Wolverine’s healing abilities have striking similarities to that seen in axolotl, an amphibian with the capacity to regenerate amputated limbs. In this study we sought to determine the mechanisms by which Wolverine regenerates. We identified a novel protein, dubbed Howlett, that is nearly identical to the Amblox protein in axolotl which is known to be responsible for the amphibian’s limb regeneration. siRNA knockdown of the howlett and amblox genes demonstrated decreased replication in Wolverine and axolotl, respectively, and Howlett was found in all Wolverine tissues. Using mass spectrometry and x-ray crystallography, we identified an S2 pocket in the Howlett protein that we postulate contributes to the 5.66-fold increased specific activity observed over Amblox in cleaving a large substrate analogue. Our findings show that Howlett is a major contributor to Wolverine’s incredible regeneration capacity, and further investigation of the signaling and regulatory mechanisms associated with this novel protein could provide outstanding advances in the field of regenerative medicine.

Sigrid Alvarez, Emma Conway et al. (2013) “Howlett: Novel Wolverine Protein Contributes to Rapid Regeneration and Heightened Cellular Replication.”  JOURNAL OF SUPERHERO MUTATIONAL SCIENCE. Vol 13 Issue 2. pp297-302

Full text via the Science Creative Quarterly

In case you need an interesting anecdote on human feces and excrement generally

For slides on the value of feces. Like… ecosystem assessment of feces as a seed dispersal system? Nutrient rich manure for soil upkeep? Things that would resemble a sort of poo-nomics: using feces for microbial or metagenomic analysis?


“In 1961 Italian artist Piero Manzoni offered art buyers 90 tins of his own excrement, signed and numbered, each sold by weight at gold’s daily market price.

That would have been a good investment. A tin that would have cost $37 in 1961 was auctioned by Sotheby’s for $67,000 in 1991 — outperforming gold more than seventyfold.”

Text via Futility Closet. Image from Wiki Commons.

These images by Hollis Brown Thornton would make interesting slides for a segue into astrobiology.



By Hollis Brown Thornton

The Von Trapp Children Speak to a Geneticist



LIESL: Why is it that we can all sing very well?

GENETICIST: Liesl, that is an excellent question! And essentially one that boils down to the classic debate of nature versus nurture. Are your genes responsible for this particular talent, or has it more to do with your upbringing? Looking at this scenario objectively, I would have to say that it is both. There have been reports that the ability to have perfect pitch—that is the ability to distinguish musical notes without points of reference—is a hereditary phenomenon, thereby strongly suggesting a genetic basis. This would seem to be supported by your father’s musical talent as well. Of course, you’ve also had the benefit of being tutored by your wayward novice governess with all-world pipes, Maria.

In conclusion, like most things pertaining to our individuality, we are influenced by both our biology and our surroundings.

GRETL: I think Liesl is very beautiful. Why am I not as pretty?

GENETICIST: Assuming no mutational errors occur during the production of sperm and egg cells, there was approximately a 1-in-70,000,000,000,000 chance that you would have been an identical clone of your sister. If you included the multitude of mutational and regulatory events that ensue during this process, that statistic would escalate to an even smaller chance that is, quite frankly, unfathomable to calculate. How did I get to this absurd number? Well, one must realize that your genetic instructions are housed as a collection of 23 pairs of chromosomes (i.e., 46 in all). In other words, it is correct to say that each human has two sets of instructions—one given to you by your father, and one by your mother. If you keep in mind that your parents themselves also have 23 pairs of chromosomes, and you realize that the child may receive only one from each pair, the likelihood of siblings having the same 46 chromosomes is the fantastic number mentioned above.

However, Gretl, do not fret. You are the youngest of the lot and still have a good chance to blossom into a stunning flower like your sister Liesel. Furthermore, cosmetic surgery these days I hear is quite impressive. And then there is always the chance of Liesl having a disfiguring accident—I hear she may be a Nazi sympathizer, which is never a good thing.

FRIEDRICH: Yes, Liesl is hot. Sometimes, even I have feelings for her. Why is it bad for me to feel that way?

GENETICIST: Incestuous relationships, as well as being frowned upon by most of society, are also disadvantageous from a biological point of view. In the genetic world, diversity breeds fitness. One example is to imagine the following. You have a set of genes that determine the ability of your immune system to recognize and combat various pathogens. Your sister Liesl also has a set of genes that do the same thing. And because you and your sister come from the same genetic pool (you have the same parents), Liesl’s immunity is quite likely to be similar to yours. Do you not see that the net effect of this is that you would create offspring with a limited repertoire of immune-system genes? Compare that to your having a child with, say, Marcia from The Brady Bunch, and you will note that this union will create offspring that have the benefit of a wider genetic pool (your parents and Marcia’s parents), thereby allowing your children to acquire a more diverse and fitter immune system.

Also, dude, she’s your sister.

BRIGITTA: Why do all of our siblings have blondish hair and blue eyes, whereas Marta and I have dark hair and dark eyes?

GENETICIST: You are thinking, perhaps, that your mother was a whore? It is true that the disparity in your outward appearances is a mite unusual. However, there is no reason to believe that any adultery has occurred. Here is the reason why. Although it is generally thought—though not confirmed—that extreme blondness (as in the case of Louisa and Friedrich) has a recessive distribution, there are numerous factors that can account for your instances of dark hair and dark eyes. First, hair and eye color are very subjective terms. Is Greta or Kurt blond, dirty blond, or strawberry blond? Genetic characterization is very difficult when the observational characterization is less than strict. Second, the pigmentation of hair is normally attributed to melanin levels, which have been shown to vary greatly during different stages of a person’s life. You may have noticed, for example, that a person’s childhood hair color tends to be lighter than their adult hair color. Third, the amount of melanin that an individual produces is influenced in part by their environment. For instance, melanin acts to protect the person from the damaging effects of the sun’s radiation. In conclusion, I do not feel that there is anything to worry about. Besides, you did not mention Liesl, who herself has dark hair. Did you omit her because you are secretly jealous of her hotness?

KURT: I think I might want to be with another boy. Is this to do with my DNA?

GENETICIST: Unfortunately, the answer is currently unknown. There have been numerous reports that have tried to implicate specific genetic regions to homosexual behavior, but presently those studies, although titillating, are at best only an indication that there is a hereditary factor for this type of sexual orientation. However, there is an abundance of ongoing research in this area, particularly with homosexual men. If you are interested, perhaps you could participate in the scientific process. Of course, it is important to remember that the Nazis do not dig gay people.

LOUISA: Why doesn’t anybody remember who I am?

GENETICIST: Alas, it appears that this is because you are the second child. I would not be surprised if there are very few pictures of you. It is not, I assume, because your parents did not love you, but simply a facet of being born after the initial excitement and newness of parenthood has passed. This, of course, has nothing to do with genetics. In order to be taken more notice of, you could try different fashions, or perhaps a new haircut. In truth, Liesl could probably give you better advice, as I am, sadly, only a geneticist.

– – –

Originally published at McSweeney’s

Gotta get me one of these muscle suits…

Would be kind of funny to wear this at the gym…



You can buy it here. Via Sweet Station.

Adding to the “dumb ways to die” list: Because of a patent. #C398

Apologies if you haven’t seen this yet (it will stick to your brain like nothing you’ve ever experienced), but it provides a little light hearted context for a serious issue.

Serious issue explained in a piece entitled A moment of your time: about Bill C-398 and how Canadians can contribute to global health.

(Video campaign by McCann Melbourne, animation by Julian Frost).

Cellular Generation and Intracellular Diversion: the paintings

By Regina Valluzzi. Available for purchase here and here (via Fresh Photons)

Sperm plus egg plus disembodied hand equals baby?

From Thanks, Textbooks.

Cartoon Episodes About Science


The Super Friends epsiode:
“Wonder vs. Wonder”

When it becomes clear that a mission is botched because Wonder Woman is clearly visible in her invisible jet, unhappy murmurs begin to surface within the Super Friends’ organization. In particular, Zan, of the Wonder Twins, is merciless in his teasing of Wonder Woman. It also doesn’t help that Wonder Woman, herself, is generally not impressed with his otherwise useless superpower (“Form of a bucket of water? What in Amazon is that about?”)

In any event, Batman decides to put his scientific mind to work by fixing the jet and soon discovers a small error in the optics of one of the twenty cameras that are responsible for the illusion. Unfortunately, this only seems to encourage Zan further, who torments Wonder Woman on the seemingly mundane manner that invisibility is conferred. (“It’s literally all done with cameras! What a loser plane!”) In the end, fed up with Zan’s abuse, Wonder Woman soundly beats the crap out of him.

– – –

Peanuts episode:
“That’s Biotechnology, Charlie Brown!”

Charlie Brown loses yet another kite within the branches of his nemesis, the kite-eating tree. However, Linus cleverly observes that this action is not unlike the concept of phytoremediation—whereby green plants are capable of removing pollutants from the environment. Linus, along with Sally as his doting lab assistant, immediately sets upon cloning this particular tree, and goes on to secure a patent for “the use of the kite-eating tree to remove kites and other airborne contaminants from the air.” As a result, Charlie Brown and Linus embark on a biotechnology business venture that quickly makes them extremely wealthy. Empowered with his new affluence, Charlie Brown finally tells Lucy to “fuck off.”

– – –

The Simpsons episode:
“My Fat Bonehead”

Guest starring as herself, Jessica Simpson visits Springfield to teach Homer the ropes of becoming a southern gentleman (à la My Fair Lady). This goes as well as expected, and Bart in particular becomes completely smitten by the young lady. However, it is then revealed that Lisa is recently diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, and furthermore is in need of a bone marrow transplant. Miraculously, Jessica Simpson is the perfect match, which culminates in the use of genetic testing techniques to show that she is, indeed, Homer and Marge’s long-lost lovechild. Bart then has to deal with conflicting feelings of lust and the heebie-jeebies from this apparently incestuous crush.

– – –

Dora the Explorer episode:
“¡Hola! I Have a Brain Tumor!”

In this episode, Dora visits her doctor to complain about her dry, red, and itchy eyes. The doctor quickly solves the problem by advising Dora to try blinking for a change. However, at this visit, the doctor quickly suspects Dora is plagued with a more serious psychosomatic condition, since she continually refers to a talking backpack, a talking map, and a talking monkey with a perceived preference for sturdy yet red colored footwear. When Dora continues to stare off into the distance and ask bizarre and loud questions towards no one in particular (“What was YOUR favorite part of the day?”), the doctor decides to take matters into his own hand and schedules her for a CAT scan.

(Originally published at Yankee Pot Roast)

“If something bores you, dig deeper.” Wise words in the case of cell theory, and science history generally..

Brilliant TEDEd animation on the origins of cell theory, which also stands as a lively reminder of how wonderful science history can be.

Great scientific hazard warning signs from video game.

From the video game Portal, via Imgur.

Beautiful White Sea Coral art made from tiny holes. #pretty

By Anatoly Vorobyev (and available at Etsy).

The Nude Mouse: An Exclusive Interview

Ben Cohen and I wrote this one a few years back. The Nude mouse (image from wiki) has always been one of those things that is almost always misunderstood by the general public. Consequently, we decided to write something that could also work as a pinup. Hey, these mice also need some validation – they have feelings too…

(CLICK HERE FOR PIN-UP POSTER – pdf file ~250k)
– We suggest photocopying at 129% – LTR to 11×17 –

Earlier this week, we had the chance to sit down with a member of a growing army of naked bubble mice. In thousands of biology labs around the globe, these lab mice quietly do their part in the pursuit of science and medicine. Called Nude Mice, these striking creatures are a result of spontaneous inbreeding, natural genetic freak shows if you will. More importantly, they are bereft of both hair and immunity – things that would normally protect them from the elements of the sky and the cooties of the world. And lucky for us, traits that not only afford some big advantages in the research arena but make for a great interview. The nude mouse we interviewed was just finished with a talk biopsy, so we met in his lab while he worked through his lunch.

– – –I want to shoot straight from the hip here: On having no hair. How is it?
It can get cold sometimes, but generally it doesn’t bother me. Besides, most females prefer it that way.

Okay, okay. Then I’ll stay on this pattern: On having no immune system. Your thoughts?
Well, I have to say that as bad as it sounds, I love it. I mean – it’s who I am. If anything, the part I hate is having to explain what having no immune system actually means. If you go into B cells, T cells, antibodies and the like, people just glaze over. It can really kill a conversation.

I’m with you on that.
In the past, I’d talk about being like the bubble boy. Nowadays, I usually just say rent the movie Fantastic Voyage – yes, that Fantastic Voyage, with Raquel Welch in the tight suit – and watch out for those bad ass white cells eating the spaceship. I tell them that not having an immune system means stuff like not having any of those bad ass white cells.

Sort of After-School Special-ish, no?
Don’t judge me, ‘kay?

Of course not. How about, Give us your reflections on the media.
You’re asking me?

The media I can live without. We’re fairly private creatures, so the whole publicity thing is not cool. Besides, they almost never get it right. One time, my uncle had a human ear prosthetic grow on his back, and well, Christ, with all the press that ensued, you’d think he was sleeping with Jennifer Anniston. Not only that, but if you picked up a newspaper, you’d see this picture of poor naked Uncle Orv with a huge human ear on his back, and you’d be totally thinking that he could hear out of this thing. Which, of course, is not at all true. A shame really – that experiment was pretty elegant in my view.

You’re kidding me, right?
Not at all. Engraft a hollow polymer scaffold (shaped like an ear) on Uncle Orv’s back, infiltrate it with tissue cells from a burn victim needing an ear prosthetic, and wait for growth. Unky Orv ends up doing good because he has no hair, and he also doesn’t have the biology to reject the foreign ear tissue. How brilliant is that?

Point taken. Let’s move on. On stem cell research. React.
Basically, and to quote a GREAT movie, “bring it on!” Although to be honest, my opinion is pretty biased. They do a lot of bone marrow research on types like me, since having no immune system means I’m great as a clean slate. Just put some stem cells in my spleen and hey, you just might reconstitute my immune system. That’s awesome when it happens, because then I can actually leave my bubble for a while. I hate living in a fucking bubble.

On scientists playing God, creationism and intelligent design.
Seriously, do I look like something that is a result of intelligent design? And I don’t care much for those creationism types either. Did you know that only humans get to enter the gates of heaven? What’s up with that?

I have no problem with that, if you’re asking. But let’s keep this one-way. On the ethical treatment of animals. Everyone’s always bitching about that.
Look, it’s really not so bad. I get nice living quarters, and plenty of food. And every once in a while, they bring in a wheel or a bunch of females, sometimes both. Plus, I know I’m doing some good in this world – the experiments they carry out can actually help people. Really, what more could you ask for?

The Evolutionary Biology of the Unicorn.


Unicorns are great. Seriously.

And here I’m going to think out loud and think of them in a conventional biology sort of way. You know – have a little fun evolution wise.

In many respects (except for the magical powers bit) I don’t think this is necessarily too hard to do. i.e. you have something that looks like a horse, but hey what’s this – there’s also a horn there.

I guess the question I’m pondering is whether a unicorn could occur from a realistic evolutionary biology point of view – you know, given the right circumstances and the right timescale. And if so, exactly what sort of things, biologically and genetically, would need to happen?

Anyway, here’s a couple options to sift through.

One possible way to get the whole horn thing started on a poor horse is through a condition known as “cutaneous horn” formation. In this situation, you essentially have an abnormal, sometimes cancerous growth, that results in a keratin structure protruding from the skin.

(Here’s a picture of a cutaneous horn – it’s kind of ugly)

“Cutaneous horns usually arise on sun-exposed skin but can occur even in sun-protected areas. The hyperkeratosis that results in horn formation develops over the surface of a hyperproliferative lesion. Most often, this is a benign verruca or seborrheic keratosis; or it could be a premalignant actinic keratosis. A malignancy has been reported at the base of a cutaneous horn in up to 20% of lesions. More than half of all cutaneous horns are benign.Benign lesions associated with cutaneous horns include angiokeratoma, angioma, benign lichenoid keratosis, cutaneous leishmaniasis, dermatofibroma, discoid lupus, infundibular cyst, epidermal nevus, epidermolytic acanthoma, fibroma, granular cell tumor, inverted follicular keratosis, keratotic and micaceous pseudoepitheliomatous balanitis, organoid nevus, prurigo nodularis, pyogenic granuloma, sebaceous adenoma, seborrheic keratosis, trichilemmoma, and verruca vulgaris. Lesions with premalignant or malignant potential that may give rise to cutaneous horns include adenoacanthoma, actinic keratosis, arsenical keratosis, basal cell carcinoma, Bowen’s disease, Kaposi sarcoma, keratoacanthoma, Paget’s disease, renal cell carcinoma, sebaceous carcinoma, solar keratosis, and squamous cell carcinoma.” (From eMedicine)

So you have something producing horn-like features, and whilst not exactly common, is still within the realm of possibility.

However, this possibility of unicorn evolution is kind of weak, because often the base of the “horn” structure is not at all stable, and in fact it looks like these horn structures can often be quite easily removed surgically. As well, this is not really a heritable trait in the usual sense – i.e. normally these structures are formed due to abnormal growth coming from a one cell, possibly mutated from exposure to a some mutagen (the sun is often sited for example). In other words, whilst susceptibility to the abnormal growth is likely genetic, the act of it always occuring on the horses head is less so (or something like that).

In other words, let’s move on.

One thing I can say is that it’s interesting to note that both the horse ((Equus ferus caballus) and the rhino (Rhinocerotidae) both belong to the Perissodactyla order, also often termed the odd-toed ungulates. This suggests that in the grand scheme of things, these two types of creatures are not so far apart. Whilst obviously interbreeding isn’t an option (since the species barrier would presumably be more than sufficient to disallow the formation, as well as the propagation, of hybrids unicorn like rhino-horses), it does present the idea that however the horn formed on the rhino, this could still be in the realm of reality with something like a horse.

Which actually makes all the more sense when you look through a paper published in the Journal of Morphology in 2006, which did CT scanning of rhinoceros’ horns to get a better sense of their anatomy. Here, the suggestion is that the horn of rhinos are markedly different from a horn of, say, a sheep. Specifically:

“The horns of most animals have a bony core covered by a thin sheath of keratin, the same substance as hair and nails. Rhino horns are unique, however, because they are composed entirely of keratin.”

This might fit a little with the “cutaneous horn” angle, but then another observation came about from the CT scans. The lead authors goes on to say that:

“The horns most closely resemble the structure of horses’ hoofs, turtle beaks and cockatoo bills. This might be related to the strength of these materials, although more research is needed in this area.”

And this nugget of information brings up a delicious possibility.

That is – maybe a unicorn could develop initially from a mutation within a hox gene, resulting in a hoof like structure coming out of the animal’s head. And in case, you’re wondering what a hox gene is all about, it’s essentially:

(From wiki) “A group of related genes that specify the anterior-posterior axis and segment identity of metazoan organisms during early embryonic development. These genes are critical for the proper number and placement of embryonic segment structures (such as legs, antennae, and eyes).”

In plain speak, this simply means that the hox family of genes are the grand controllers of body architecture – as in your arms go here, your head here, and this is about right for your big toes.  In other words, for our unicorn, we really just need a mutational event where something meant to be coming out at the limbs is inadvertently coming out of the wrong part of the general body plan.

Classic examples of hox mutants occur in fly embryogenesis, and here are two of many examples of mutations that result in something along the lines of a foot/leg like structure coming out of the head area.

This is an image of a fly with a mutated proboscipedia gene: basically the labium develops into a pair of legs (image link)

Here’s another:

(Image link)

All to say that I’m wondering if the hox idea might actually have some (pardon the pun) legs to it.

Of course, even so, the hox idea would only be part of the story. Natural selection and the whole epic time scale stuff would still need to do its thing. Here, I must admit that I am curious to see what readers would think are the best environmental conditions (serious and funny ones) to produce the right selecting pressures for unicorn morphology. Maybe a few suggestions in the comments section would be cool?

And what about those magical powers? Well, how about we let the Intelligent Design folks debate over that one…

FYI: data transfer via sperm is way faster than a 4G network.

Not sure of the source of this one.

Is the microscope an instrument of the Devil?

From goats.com.

Best sperm documentary EVER!

Just watch until you get to about a minute and 8 seconds. You won’t regret it.

Via National Geographic (?), hat tip to @sciencecomedian.

Photograph of a university biology lab in the 1950’s.

Via William Madison Randall Library Image Archive.

%d bloggers like this: