Category Archives: Great Discoveries?

Interview: Dr. Joseph Parker talks beetles

I recently had the chance to sit down for a talk with a great friend of mine, Dr. Joseph Parker. He’s a classically trained Drosophila geneticist and self-taught field entomologist, which are really just fancy names for insect guru. In this interview, Dr. Parker and I discuss his most recent publication, Jubogaster towai, a new Neotropical genus and species of Trogastrini (Coleoptera: Staphylinidae: Pselaphinae) exhibiting myrmecophily and extreme body enlargementwhere he classifies a new species of beetle. This beetle is especially interesting because it can mimic ants and lives amongst them, which is no small feat. What’s even better is that the ants end up taking care of all of the beetles needs…well, just watch the video.

There are three flavors of the interview; a highly edited video (3:00) for those of you into brevity that just want the facts about this new species, a slightly longer video (6:30) with some tidbits on Joe’s crowd funding efforts and the full, 22 minute interview in audio form where Joe gives us the little details and I give him a little shit, plus we discuss the sexual dangers of walking into a large ant colony. If you have the time, it’s well worth it.

3 Minute Version:

6:30 Minute Version:

Dr. Joseph Parker Full Interview:

Right click here to download the audio

After watching the video while editing it I’ve realized my interview style is REALLY un-animated. Jesus! I apologize and promise to work on that. Also, I think Joe’s cat is a bit of a myrmecophile itself, or at least it managed to slink around fairly unnoticed while we were shooting this. I’ll try to enforce a ‘no pets on set’ rule from here on out.

Dark Matter a Matter of Fact?

Well looky here. Just the other day, I found myself wondering why scientists weren’t collecting space dust in hopes of sweeping up something interesting. Turns out it’s been their plan for the last 18 years.

While not exactly space dust, scientists have been collecting high-energy particles and cosmic rays using a big-ass magnet aboard the International Space Station. The magnet/detector is known as the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) and went online in 2011. With a price tag coming in over $2 billion, you can bet many were skeptical about whether the AMS could put its money where its magnet was (Enter cane. Jerked off stage by neck). However, after collecting a staggering 18 billion cosmic ray events per year or so, new data suggests that the AMS may soon tell the skeptics to cram it in their pie hole.

This new data points to the existence of dark matter, which has been hypothesized for decades. Dark matter accounts for most of the matter in the universe and scientist’s predict it exists because of the gravitational effects it has on regular matter. Scientist’s believe that when dark matter particles collide in space, electrons and positrons (anti-matter counterparts) are produced. The AMS detects electrons and positrons produced from these collisions, or annihilation events; hence the AMS alias, Space LHC, referring to the Large Hadron Collider here on earth, which also detects particles created when atoms are smashed to bits. In fact, the LHC is also involved in the search for dark matter and when it goes back online in 2015 at full power, hopefully it will help to smash this question to bits (Someone. Please stop me).

Data to date point to a positron excess across the energy spectrum, which lie in line with theories concerning the existence of dark matter, yet considerable data collection lies ahead. Scientists are looking for specific and abrupt changes in energy, resulting from the electron/positron ratio, which define dark matter and rule out positrons coming from pulsars.

I’m going to go ahead and dismiss prudence here to chalk another win up for big-budget science experiments.  However, if my NCAA bracket is any indication of track record, you may want to hold off on placing any large bets on the eventual outcome of this one.

Planck Satellite map of primordial universe better than Apple map of lower Manhattan

Scientists have really been knocking out some projects with absurdly expensive equipment lately. And I say, why not? If the soulless yuppies that push around imaginary currency and wreck lives for a living are entitled to multi-million dollar bonuses, we should be able to test wildly theoretical ideas in diamond-encrusted test tubes.

And scientists are batting 1000 at this point (or at least that’s what’s been reported). A European coalition recently proved the existence of the Higgs Boson at CERN using the Large Hadron Collider and now the European Space Agency has flexed its cartography skills by mapping the ancient universe at the highest resolution ever using the $750 million Planck satellite. By the way, are you asking the same question I am at this point? Exactly. Where the hell is the U.S. in all this business? Last time I checked, we were never ones to back away from a little global fan-fare. Maybe this is why Obama is pushing the Brain Map initiative, which deserves a few comments of its own, but that will have to wait.

I’m pretty sure the resolution of the brain map sits about here:

brain resolution

Back to the ancient universe though:
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Neanderthals had great view of their own stupid extinction

steeleA recent study suggests that Neanderthals may have become extinct because their eyes were too big. According to researchers at Oxford University, Neanderthal eye sockets measured 6mm larger than those of modern humans, on average. Eiluned Pearce, one of three scientists that made the discovery, claims that larger eyes were necessary in Neanderthals that migrated out of sunny Africa up into dismally overcast Europe. Actually, it’s not the eyes that got them in the end, it’s the secondary consequence of brain organization; larger eyes require more brain dedication to visual processing leaving less for higher intelligence. Pearce suggests that the sacrificed intelligence prevented Neanderthals from living and working in communities, which confers a huge advantage to survival. Coupled with an ice age that occurred about 28,000 years ago, Neanderthals’ thinking problem may have led to their elimination.

Considering Neanderthals survived just fine for about 225,000 years preceding the ice age, my guess is that they would have lasted much longer if it hadn’t been for that really bad winter. If history allows me to predict anything though, it’s that if that winter hadn’t gotten them, the winter of man’s discontent with them would have. Adding huge eyes, cuboidal heads and matted body hair a la George the Animal Steele to slightly different skin color? I’m sure they would have been widely accepted as our equals.

Pearce stresses that Neanderthals, while intelligently inferior were not stupid, but I’m guessing that bit was added to the manuscript so as not to completely come off as that bitchy popular kid in school.

‘Big eyes and stupid? Like, why don’t you just kill yourself now? Or just wait for all of that snow that’s on its way, I’m sure you won’t have any problems, like, seeing it coming, will you? Do they even make glasses big enough for you? Your contact lenses must be, like, the size of quarters. I like your body hair though.’

Since we have been on the subject of evolution a bit lately, I thought I would expand on this study and predict where evolution may be taking us humans in the future…backwards! Darkness made Neanderthals dumb and prevented life-saving social activity. Now we choose to sit in dark rooms by ourselves ‘socializing’ with computers, engorging our eyes with coffee and Red Bull. Who will save us during the next ice age? McDonalds and Old Navy, no doubt, but Christ, I’m writing this article in an ill-lit room by myself right now…and it’s snowing outside! We’re doomed!

Speaking of the migration out of Africa, this guy is repeating it, all the way to the tip of South America. 21,000 miles. On foot. It might get a little tricky around the Bering Straits considering that land bridge went the way of the Neanderthals quite some time ago. But kudos. I wish I had the resources and time for that.

Why is Disease Evolving Faster than Humans?

diseaseThere’s a recent letter to the journal Nature, which explores the age of single point mutations in the human genome. This data comes as part of a large DNA sequencing project, funded by the National Institutes of Health Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, which focuses on exons within the human genome.

Exons are kind of like the business end of the genome, meaning they make up the genetic code for proteins that play a major role in the development and everyday control of your body. That is not to say, however, that these are the only necessary or even the most important parts of the genome. As research progresses, biologists are learning that more and more of the DNA between these exons dictate where, when and how much of a protein will be made – regulation critical to life. But I digress.

The study, headed by the Akey group at the University of Washington, Seattle, examined the exomes (the part of the genome formed by exons) of 6,515 individuals from European and African decent. What’s the reason for looking at all of these exons? To compare the occurrence and position of small mutations across the genome. In doing so, the researchers were able to build a tree for the age, and therefore evolution, of mutations in our genome – specifically deleterious ones. And since deleterious mutations are sometimes correlated with disease, they were able to track, in a sense, the evolution of certain diseases.

In a nutshell, the study finds that most deleterious mutations are younger than 5,000 years old and that this can most likely be attributed to an explosion in the human population around that time. After all, the more genomes you make, the more you increase the chances for new mutations. The study also found that the surge of new mutations included among others, those responsible for premature ovarian failure, Alzheimer’s disease, coronary artery atherosclerosis and hereditary spastic paraplegia.

Read On to Find Out What This Means

Food Science Friday

IMG_1415_sm_6Making a great beer isn’t a guessing game.

Science is a huge part of everything we do and interact with everyday, sometimes unbeknownst to (or unappreciated by) a large majority of people. One area that depends heavily upon science behind the scenes is in the mass production of food stuffs and more specifically, in maintaining consistency in product taste and look across millions of units, globally. This holds true in the production of beer.

You might be interested to know that making a good light beer is technically harder than brewing something with more body and a stronger taste. Once you realize that adding a stronger taste makes it easier to mask the other chemicals necessary for the brew, it seems obvious in retrospect. The other challenge, as alluded to above, is one of maintaining consistency. Brew Masters at each of Budweiser’s breweries sample each ingredient at every step of the brewing process and make on-the-fly adjustments to get the taste just right. Check out the full article from Mental Floss Here.

On the subject of creating a great tasting light beer (no one ever said this blog couldn’t lend itself to crude humor):

Splitting the Oreo.

Here’s a crude engineering feat designed to achieve one of childhoods most precise and necessitated acts.

Though, I don’t remember too many kids that were trying to dispose of the oreo cream. I thought food science had apexed at the release of the double-stuffed oreo.  As far as I’m concerned, this gentleman is trying to destroy progress.