The Frog of War

tumblr n0g6msvHfy1rjatglo3 r1 500 The Frog of War

When biologist Tyrone Hayes discovered that a top-selling herbicide messes with sex hormones, its manufacturer went into battle mode:

In 2001, seven years after joining the biology faculty of the University of California, Berkeley, Tyrone Hayes stopped talking about his research with people he didn’t trust. He instructed the students in his lab, where he was raising three thousand frogs, to hang up the phone if they heard a click, a signal that a third party might be on the line. Other scientists seemed to remember events differently, he noticed, so he started carrying an audio recorder to meetings. “The secret to a happy, successful life of paranoia,” he liked to say, “is to keep careful track of your persecutors.”

Three years earlier, Syngenta, one of the largest agribusinesses in the world, had asked Hayes to conduct experiments on the herbicide atrazine, which is applied to more than half the corn in the United States. Hayes was thirty-one, and he had already published twenty papers on the endocrinology of amphibians. David Wake, a professor in Hayes’s department, said that Hayes “may have had the greatest potential of anyone in the field.” But, when Hayes discovered that atrazine might impede the sexual development of frogs, his dealings with Syngenta became strained, and, in November, 2000, he ended his relationship with the company.

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Herding cells…with electricity!

tumblr n304a88TAn1t5fphqo1 500 Herding cells...with electricity!
tumblr n304a88TAn1t5fphqo3 500 Herding cells...with electricity!

Researchers at UC Berkeley have managed to use an electric field to herd a flock of cells.

At the moment, It’s still a very blunt tool, but the scientists hope it can be refined and used to help wounds heal. This is an exciting step in the direction of “smart bandages” — using an electrical stimulation to help heal wounds. (The researchers used the epithelial cells, the same cells that bind together to form skin, kidneys and other organs.)

Electricity has been used before to direct individual cells (the technical term for this is galvanotaxis), but how it influences the collective motion of cells was still unclear.

“The ability to govern the movement of a mass of cells has great utility as a scientific tool in tissue engineering,” said study senior author Michel Maharbiz, UC Berkeley associate professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences. “Instead of manipulating one cell at a time, we could develop a few simple design rules that would provide a global cue to control a collection of cells.”

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The riddle of zebras’ stripes

tumblr n3h1h3HqkZ1rjatglo1 500 The riddle of zebras’ stripes

Why zebras have black and white stripes is a question that has intrigued scientists and spectators for centuries. A research team led by UC Davis, has now examined this riddle (in a very systematic way).

Many hypotheses for zebra stripes have been proposed since Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin debated the problem 120 years ago. These include:

  • A form of camouflage
  • Disrupting predatory attack by visually confusing carnivores
  • A mechanism of heat management
  • Having a social function
  • Avoiding ectoparasite attack, such as from biting flies

After analyzing the five hypotheses, the scientists ruled out all but one: avoiding blood-sucking flies. The scientists found that biting flies (such as horseflies and tsetse flies) are the evolutionary driver for zebra stripes.

Why would zebras evolve to have stripes whereas other hooved mammals did not? The study found that, unlike other African hooved mammals living in the same areas as zebras, zebra hair is shorter than the mouthpart length of biting flies, so zebras may be particularly susceptible to annoyance by biting flies.

Yet in science, one solved riddle begets another: Why do biting flies avoid striped surfaces?

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Building robots to land on Saturn’s moons

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Landing an unmanned robot on another planet can be quite a feat and can end up being quite a complex process.  Scientists want to make this process easier but also allow us to explore worlds that are currently too difficult to land on.

UC Berkeley professor Alice Agogino is working with doctoral students to build what are known as tensegrity robots.  Essentially, these are robots built with a series of rods and tension wires that protect the delicate scientific instruments in the middle.

The structure allows for both flexibility and strength while navigating a rugged environment — for example, landing on a planet’s rocky surface. These robots can explore places that are currently inaccessible to wheeled rovers such as rocky cliffs, which are rich in geological data due to the exposed rock.

Currently, NASA researchers are working on a prototype to one day land on places such as Titan – one of Saturn’s moons.  Scientists are interested in this moon because it has a thick atmosphere with flowing liquids on the surface and is often referred to being the most earthlike world in our solar system.

Read more about this technology 

She loves you, she loves you not

Whether in fiction or history, women have often gotten a bad rap for being fickle. But it may just be evolution. A landmark meta-analysis suggests that ovulating women have evolved to prefer mates who display ‘sexy traits’ (think muscular build, dominant behavior, symmetrical facial features). UCLA psychologist Martie Haselton, who is one of a handful of pioneers in research on behavioral changes at ovulation, explains that sexy traits are not typically desired in long-term mates.

“Women who were partnered with men, who at one point in the study they rated them as very satisfying long-term partners, but not the sexiest guys around –  those women experienced increases in attraction to men other than their partner on fertile days of the cycle. So, it’s as if women on fertile days place a premium on male partners’ sexiness and if their male partner isn’t sexy, then women start to notice other men.”

While these findings may seem depressing, Haselton argues that just understanding this can help couples improve their relationships when in conflict.

“Once you understand how your mind works, what the mechanisms are that might otherwise be passing under the radar of conscious awareness, you can ‘mind hack’ and do things to achieve whatever your goals are – so, to maintain a happy relationship with your partner, or maybe it’s to have a wild sex life, but whatever it is, if women understand that there are these patterned changes across the cycle, then they can probably make better sexual decisions.”

The mere notion that a woman’s mate preferences could shift at high fertility has been a source of debate since the late 1990s, when the first studies that hinted at such a change began to appear. Since then, several papers failed to replicate the early studies’ results, casting doubt on the hypothesis.

“Until the past decade, we all accepted this notion that human female sexuality was radically different from sexuality in all of these other animal species – that, unlike other species, human female sexuality was somehow walled off from reproductive hormones. Then a set of studies challenged conventional wisdom.”

One hypothesis for why this mate preference shift occurs is that it may be an evolutionary adaptation that served our ancestors’ reproductive interests long before modern medicine, nutrition and sanitation greatly reduced infant and child mortality rates.

A Powerful Eye into Deep Space

tmt sunset m A Powerful Eye into Deep Space

The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) —which has been spearheaded by UC and the California Institute of Technology since 2003— will be built and run by a consortium of universities and scientific organizations from around the world.

Special adaptive optics will correct for the blurring of Earth’s atmosphere, enabling the TMT to study the universe as clearly as if the telescope were in space (In fact, it has 12 times the resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope).

Once finished, the new telescope will allow astronomers to see faint objects clearer than ever before:

It will be able to focus on and identify extremely distant structures that currently appear as blurry smudges in the Hubble Deep Field. As yet, no one knows what these objects are.

This new resolution will provide insights into the both dark matter and dark energy. And it will widen the search for planets orbiting stars outside our solar system. For the first time, we will be able to routinely image direct light from these exoplanets, garnering information on their atmospheric chemistry and dynamics.

The new TMT will also be able to see further back in time than any previous telescope, all the way back to the formation of the first stars and galaxies that followed the universe’s “Dark Ages.”

Read more about the project at universityofcalifornia.edu →

Trilobites can tell us how animals evolved

tumblr n231bxmkYi1rjatglo1 r2 500 Trilobites can tell us how animals evolved

The trilobitewhich became extinct millions of years ago, is commonly known as one of the first complex forms of life on earth.  Their fossils can be found in many parts of the world and are often collected for their interesting shapes and varieties. (There’s even a vacuum cleaner designed after this creature…)

In fact there are actually 20,000 known varieties of this arthropod. They even ranged in sizes from ones that could fit inside your pocket to being as large as your sofa (!!!?!).

UC Riverside’s Dr. Nigel Hughes explains:

“They can have scoops or shovels, be fantastically spiny or beautifully streamlined and diverged to really explore their evolutionary space, but they still maintain that common body plan.”

Scientists study trilobite fossils to understand how today’s animals have evolved to the present.  This can be everything from how mating habits developed to how a species can protect itself from predators.

Dr. Hughes not only studies the trilobite, but even sings about them.