Category Archives: Biology

Why animals would win every gold medal at the Olympics

The Olympic Games are a celebration of humans’ strength, speed, and stamina. London 2012 is currently upon us, in which the greatest athletes from across the globe compete to see who can run faster, jump higher, and leap longer than any other human in the world.

We like to think of ourselves as the most powerful creatures on the planet, but we are fooling ourselves. A tuna fish can swim ten times faster than Michael Phelps. A patas monkey would beat Usain Bolt by three seconds in the 100 metre sprint.

The two links below are a reminder that the animal kingdom has the most phenomenal athletes in this world. The power of evolution and the need for survival can create more incredible speed and strength than any gym or training field. And it also demonstrates that, if all animals could enter the Olympic Games, human beings would probably finish bottom of the medal table.

Slide show: The Nature Conservancy

Animal Olympics: BBC Nature


Women may be able to see more colours than men, say researchers

Humans have the ability to recognise and perceive more than one million different colours. Our eyes are organs that capture light bouncing off objects and project an (upside-down) image onto the retina. These images are then sent to the brain, which is then able to interpret objects, shapes, and colours.

The brain does all the hard work when it comes to seeing things, but the eyes themselves determine colours for us. The fact we can see any colour at all is due to cells in our retinas called cone cells. There are three different types of “cone” at the back of our eyeballs, each able to distinguish 100 shades. All we need to do is open our eyes, and the three types of cone automatically work together to form combinations of shades, deliver these messages to the brain via the optic nerve, and we see colours.

One million is an incredible amount of colours that the eyes can distinguish, purely by shade-detecting cells converting scattered light into electromagnetic impulses. However, neuroscientists at Newcastle University believe that there may be women living amonst us who naturally have “super-human” vision, able to see a hundred times more colours than men.

Why should this be? Well, colour blindness is a consequence of mutations in genes that determine cone cells. Since many of these genes occur in the X chromosome, it means that colour blindness is much more common among males than females. However, a side-effect of this could be that a small percentage of women may actually be born with four colour cones instead of three. This would give their eyes the potential to see one hundred million colours instead of just one millon.

Full story: IO9 Science

Test-tube hamburgers: coming soon to a restaurant near you?

Scientists have perfected the art of growing meat in the laboratory using stem cells and believe they will be able to replicate a real burger. If all goes to plan, the first ever “test-tube hamburger” will be sold in October this year.

The gloabl demand for meat is expected to double in the next 40 years, so the mass production of  beef, pork, chicken and lamb in test tubes may prove to be the ideal solution, as well as being able to dramatically reduce the environmental damage of farming.

Only one person has tried the lab-grown meat so far: a Russian journalist who snatched a sample of pork during a visit to the lab Maastricht University where it was being grown. He declared himself unimpressed.

Full story: Daily Telegraph

Man gets nail stuck in brain without noticing

34-year-old Dante Autullo accidently shot himself in the head with a nail gun in his Chicago workshop when the device recoiled unexpectedly. 

However, he carried on as normal and didn’t notice anything was wrong until the next day, when he began feeling nauseous. It turns out the 3.25 inch nail had penetrated his skull and embedded itself in his brain.  

It took surgeons two hours to remove the nail. Mr. Autullo took the opportunity to post his x-ray photograph to Facebook (pictured above) while in the ambulance. 

The reason why anyone can take a nail to the brain and suspect nothing is because the brain does not contain any pain-sensitive nerves, which means the brain is an organ that feels no pain. … But don’t try this at home to prove it to yourself. 

Full story: BBC News

Scientists develop artificial skin made of transparent nanotubes

Scientists at Stanford Universityhave developed the prototype of synthetic skin that is stretchy, transparent, and highly sensitive. It is made from spray-on carbon nanotubes, suspended in liquid, applied to a layer of silicon. The nanotubes act as springs and are able to measure the force being applied to them.

The “skin” could be fitted to robots to mimic the sensation of feeling and sensitivity. However, its inventors have broader, more human ambitions for its application.

“The ultimate dream of this type of research is to restore functionality to lost skin, or amputees, or injured soldiers or burn victims,” said Stanford’s Darren Lipomi, author of the paper describing the new sensor.

Full story: POPSCI

Radio station slammed for its “win a baby” competition

It’s normally tickets or vouchers or cash for that one lucky listener who can provide the correct answer. Radio phone-in competitions don’t tend to make the news but a Canadian radio station has done so, after taking its prize much further. However, in the eyes of fertility campaigners, it is way too far. 

Ottawa’s Hot 89.9 FM advertised its competition last month with posters of babies all across the city carrying slogans such as “Are you my mommy?”  and “She could be yours!”. The rules were simple. The most convincing candidate who could produce 100 words to a panel of judges on why they most deserve a baby would win three rounds of fertility treatment worth $35,000.

Fertility campaigners are appalled at the contest, angrily branding it “tacky” and “distasteful”. Jan Silverman, Toronto fertility counsellor, said she objected to “commodification of babies, turning babies into products”. However, she felt the contest had one silver lining, as it raised awareness about fertility issues and the cost of the treatment, which is faced by one in six Ottawa couples.

Full story: Guardian

Irish pensioner dies of “spontaneous combustion”

A pensioner found dead at his home in Galway has been ruled by a coroner to have died of spontaneous human combustion. The cremated remains of Michael Faherty were discovered near his fireplace in December last year, but post-mortem examinations revealed a blaze from the fire was not the cause of death.  

Instead, it has been ruled that Mr. Faherty died of spontaneous combustion – the first ever case of its kind in Ireland. Spontaneous human combustion consists of a living person’s body becoming ablaze without an external source of ignition.

There are many theories that attempt to explain the phenomenon. For instance, it has been claimed that abnormal concentrations of gas inside the body can cause ignition without a spark. There is also the “wick effect” – a hypothesis suggesting that a small external flame source chars the victim’s clothing, splits their skin, and releases fat from underneath the surface of the skin. This in turn is absorbed into the burned clothing, acting as a wick while the poor soul literally becomes a human candle. 

However, spontaneous combustion remains largely misunderstood.  

Full story: UTV

Eating lots of chocolate cuts risk of heart disease, research suggests

Good news for chocoholics everywhere: eating high amounts of chocolate could reduce the risk of suffering coronary heart disease and stroke, and may even be good for the brain. That’s according to scientists at the University of Cambridge, who have analysed data from over 100,000 patients and found levels of chocolate consumption seem to be associated with a reduction in the risk of cardiometabolic disorders.

But before we all start to binge on chocolate and expect perfect health, the researchers have warned that high chocolate consumption can lead to other problems, such as Type 2 diabetes and – perhaps unsurprisingly – weight gain. They have also pointed out that further research is needed to confirm the beneficial effects of chocolate.

The research suggests that a couple of bars of chocolate a day will help reduce blood pressure. However, The British Heart Foundation have made it clear there are better ways to achieve this. Victoria Taylor, the Foundation’s senior heart health dietician, advises: “We can’t start advising people to eat lots of chocolate based on this research.”

Full story: BBC News

Study reveals polar bears have Irish maternal ancestors

Where do Polar Bears come from? The obvious answer is, of course, the North Pole. However, if we go far back enough generations, the real answer is theRepublic of Ireland. The furry white giants are in fact descended from now-extinct Irish brown bears that lived during the last Ice Age.

This surprising finding is the result of a study of ancient brown bear teeth and skeletons found in various cave sites across Ireland. Scientists from the UK, Ireland and the US analysed the brown bears’ mitochondrial DNA – which is passed from mother to child – and it turns out they share a distinct DNA sequence with all of today’s polar bears.

Oxford University’s Dr Ceiridwen Edwards, the research paper’s lead author said: “Hybridization between ancient Irish brown bears and polar bears has led to the complete replacement of the original polar bear mitochondria. This maternal lineage is now present in all modern polar bears … It’s amazing to think that Irish brown bears are the ancestors of the modern maternal polar bear lineage.”

It was a changing climate that caused their paths to cross. Just before – or during – the last Ice Age, the two species came together and polar bears mated with female Irish brown bears. “The hybridisation between the two species occurred at a time when their home ranges overlapped, most likely during environmental stress”, explained Dr. Edwards. 

Full story: BelfastTelegraph

If cows had digestive systems of kangaroos, Global Warming could be prevented

Cows are bad news for the environment. They emit enormous amounts of methane gas, and this contributes massively to the Greenhouse Effect. If only they could take a leaf out of the kangaroo’s book…

Grazing animals such as kangaroos or wallabies have very similar digestive systems to cows: they all process food in multiple stomach pouches, let microbes in one pouch do most of the work, and the fermentation of the food produces methane.

But there is a significant difference: kangaroos and wallabies are far more efficient with their emissions. In fact, the average wallaby will emit 80% less methane than the average cow from the same amount of plant matter. Scientists have recently found why this happens. They have isolated a type of bacteria, called WG-1, that grows in the guts of Tammar Wallabies, and believe this is the key to low methane production. Upon analysing the way it broke down plant matter, they found it produced a substance called succinate, which isn’t found in high-methane-producing ruminant animal guts – i.e. animals such as cows.

So, if scientists were able to turn a cow’s digestive system into a kangaroo’s digetsive system, a major cause of Climate Change would be significantly reduced. Or maybe humans should just start eating kangaroos instead of cows.  

Full story: IO9 Science