Category Archive: Biology

Why Beethoven could not have been a reptile (or why you can’t swallow a cantaloupe for breakfast)

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This is the story of three little bones.They’re called the ossicles (literally little bones in Latin), and they’re in your ear. Unless, that is, you happen to be a reptile reading this, in which case you’ll only have one in each ear with the other two (or rather four) distributed symmetrically in your jaw. It’s a curious bit of evolutionary history, and nicely illustrates an aspect of evolution which called exaptation, the re-purposing of an existing structure. The presence of the ossicles in the reptilian jaw is one of the factors which allows some reptiles (particularly snakes) to swallow things significantly bigger than their own heads (think of a python swallowing a deer, and you’ll get the idea).In mammals on the other hand, these ossicles migrated the short distance from the tip where the jaw meets the skull into the zone known as the middle ear, where they joined the single bone of the reptilian ear which connects the ear-drum …

When do You stop being You?

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Canadian scientists have created a functioning virtual brain able to do many complex tasks humans take for granted – from remembering lists to recognising number. It can even do some basic components of IQ tests. The Semantic Pointer Architecture Unified Network – or SPAUN for short – was created by Chris Eliasmith and his team at the University of Waterloo. With its 2.5 million simulated neurons SPAUN is way ahead of the curve in terms of ability.  It can see with a virtual “eye” and has a virtual “arm” that it uses to draw.  This is all achieved by simulating what tasks the brain can carry out, rather than simulating the exact functioning of the brain. Other projects, such as The Blue Brain Project (TBBP), are taking a slightly more reductionist approach by attempting to simulate every single neuron in action. In 2005, TBBP had created its first simulated nerve cell. By 2008, it was running an artificial neocortical column consisting of 10,000 …

Climate change making a mocha-ry of wild coffee populations

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If you’re planning on having a cup of coffee in 68 years time, then you might want to think again. Research published in Plos One suggests that by 2080, wild populations of the world’s most popular coffee species, Arabica coffee (Coffea arabica), could be extinct due to climate change. Wild populations of Arabica coffee are important to coffee producers because of their genetic diversity and could be used to develop new strains of coffee in the future. Wild Arabica populations show a range of disease, pest and drought tolerance, all of which have potential advantages in a changing climate. If the wild population of Arabica coffee were to go extinct, coffee producers would struggle to breed coffee that could survive in new conditions. Scientists from the UK and Ethiopia used current data on wild Arabica populations and the climate in those locations to model how the climate might affect the distribution of Arabica suitable sites in the future. Once the …

The biology of Harry Potter

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I recently wrote an article outlining how biological concepts are communicated through the Pokémon games and it got me thinking: what other popular franchises might do a similar thing? Now, they don’t come much more popular than JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series (there are probably lichens living under polar rocks that have heard of polyjuice potion and blast-ended skrewts) and I think it’s possible the books may just have transmitted the odd biological principle to a few unsuspecting readers. Perhaps because of the cover art, it’s likely the first images the words ‘biology’ and ‘Harry Potter’ conjure up are ones of magical creatures; hippogriffs, dragons or basilisks for example. Of course, whilst often based on genuine animals, it’s widely accepted such creatures don’t exist and anyone who does go off searching the real world for them is known politely as a cryptozoologist. Interestingly, Rowling includes a nod to the pseudoscience of cryptozoology in the form of the Lovegood family who, unlike …

The biology of Pokémon

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Those were the days: training up a super-squad of Pokémon on your Game Boy Classic, draining enough AA’s to power a minor principality in the process. Of course, in the sixteen years since Pokémon was first released, numerous generations of players have discovered the charm of Nintendo’s monster franchise (there’s been a staggering twenty-one games excluding spin-offs since its inception). And so, with Pokémon’s ability to influence so massive, I thought a discussion on how biological concepts are communicated through the games was in order. As anyone still reading will probably know, all the Pokémon games follow the same basic storyline; a central character (controlled by the player) travels through a fantasy world capturing and battling Pokémon in order to level-up and achieve master ranking. Now, the influence of the real outdoors throughout this fantasy region is vast: it’s split into numerous virtual habitats (deserts, forests, icy-mountains etc) and the game’s developers have designed these habitats to accurately reflect the tapestry of …

World Aids Day

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For World Aids Day, we thought we would feature this visualisation of the HIV virus, created by a team of scientists, designers and animators known as VisualScience. It is based on dozens of recent scientific publications – from fields such as virology, X-ray analysis and NMR spectroscopy – in order to produce this beautiful portrait of a pathogen that produces such an ugly disease. The HIV virus is roughly 120nm across (one thousand times smaller than the thickness of a piece of paper) and covered in a viral envelope made of cell membranes and projecting glycoproteins which allow the virus to attach to and invade cells). Once inside, it forces the cell’s own machinery to create more copies of itself. Internally, there are layers of structural protein, which cover the capsid – a conical structure containing the virus’s DNA. Mouseover the image to see the capsid shown in pale orange. FYI You can donate to World Aids Day by visiting …

Did penicillin change our view of sex?

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Penicillin is arguably one of the greatest achievements of modern times. Discovering that infections were not just something we must live with and potentially die from, but something that could be actively fought, revolutionised the field of medicine. Since its discovery, countless lives have been saved in the operating theatre, the maternity ward and on the battlefield. Penicillin has the power to sustain life, but we haven’t stopped to think what such a powerful force is having on the lives that are being saved. Specifically, did penicillin pave the way for the sexual revolution of the 1960’s and the modern view of sex? It took 13 years from the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming in a sample of mould in 1928 before the first clinical trials took place showing penicillin was an effective cure for syphilis. Prior to this, syphilis had a number of nasty symptoms making sex quite a dangerous option for many people. Syphilis usually starts with open …

New Dinosaur identified in Canada

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A team of Palaeontologists have named a new four-horned dinosaur, Xenoceratops, from an assortment of fossilised bone fragments first collected in Canada in the 1950’s. Upon re-examination of the previously undescribed fossils, the palaeontologists realised the bones belonged to at least three individuals of a new type of plant-eating dinosaur. Once the fossils had been analysed more closely, it became apparent the dinosaurs (relatives of the famous Triceratops) would each have weighed an impressive two tonnes and grown to a colossal 20ft in length. The palaeontologists named the new dinosaur Xenoceratops which means ‘alien horned-face’ – a reference to the odd pattern of horns on the dinosaurs head, as well as the relative scarcity of horned dinosaur specimens from this period of the fossil record. Xenoceratops is believed it to have lived in the Late Cretaceous period (100-65 million years ago) at the same time as other dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus-Rex and Stegosaurus. The four horned giant is the latest in a series of new discoveries being made as part …

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