Biology and Biotech

In evaluating the health of living things – whether they be humans, plants or animals – when advanced age or decay sets in we can observe the physical changes as they happen with our own eyes. 

The same, however, cannot be said when studying trees. That's because when they're stricken by old age or disease, they rot, invisibly, from the inside out. And not knowing their true health misleads foresters and scientists around the globe who track climatic shifts and other natural occurrences. 

As a result, foresters, arborists and researchers obtain their tree health data employing an alternative method: sound waves. However, while that method – called sonic tomography – is fascinating and revealing, it has its limitations since previously it could only be deployed on trees...

Perhaps the strangest medical phenomenon discovered in recent years is a link between the lone star tick and an allergy to red meat.

The bite of a lone star tick exposes a person to a small carbohydrate called alpha-gal. In a handful of people, this exposure elicits an abnormal immune response that produces a type of antibody called IgE, which causes allergies. Because red meat also contains alpha-gal, people who have been sensitized to the carbohydrate from a tick bite can develop life-threatening anaphylaxis if they consume pork or beef. 

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It is common knowledge that the information that makes us unique is held in our DNA. But, how does our DNA make our eyes brown - how does it make us who we are?

In order to understand that, we have to walk through the journey of how the information held in DNA becomes protein. The process is called the 'central dogma' and it was first described by Francis Crick at an annual meeting of the Society of Experimental Biology in 1957 - and published one year later. It is a tenet of not only molecular biology, but all biology, and is central to all life. 

The central dogma is both simple and, at the same time, incredibly complex. There are many different players driving different complicated processes.  In its simplest form, it starts with DNA - a nucleic acid. But, DNA does...

The UN Convention on Biodiversity meeting - typically dominated by environmental activists lobbying bloated quasi-world-government committees - recently met in Cancún and when we weren't talking about their enjoyment of catered dinners and $600 a night rooms in a resort town completely lacking in biodiversity, we were talking about the other hypocrisy in the environmental movement; claiming they care about science when they really want to ban all of it.

In this case — synthetic biology. Right now, activists have limited themselves to seeking bans on Genetically Modified Organisms - GMOs - but those are a precise legal term for one...

As amphibians, toads prefer a wet environment. Those that live in arid regions hide during dry spells underground, where the soil is moist, and they emerge from their shelter when the rain returns. But given that the subterranean soil they inhabit is already damp, how do the toads know when it's raining?

An international team of researchers figured the toads can sense low-frequency vibrations. To test their hypothesis, the scientists visited the sand dunes on the southern coast of Spain. They captured toads of two different species and built enclosures for them on the dunes. Then, using pre-recorded rain vibrations combined with a sound transducer buried 10 centimeters underground, they were able to play back the vibrations and monitor the emergence of the toads.

As shown...

As if the starfish itself wasn't beautiful enough, now we have new research revealing the beauty and wonderous efficiency of how this fascinating, five-pointed creature survives and grows in the sea.

Driven by the curiosity surrounding its very early stages of life, a team of researchers from Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, California decided to study why the starfish's larvae look the way they do, as well as how they're able to survive and grow into adulthood. Among its research, the team "studied the organisms in a systematic way, feeding the larvae nutrient algae and observing their movements with video-enabled microscopes," according to a release this week from the Stanford School of Engineering.

What the team discovered was pretty fascinating....

Pandas are picky creatures.

They insist on eating bamboo, even though it is not particularly nutritious since their gut flora is not well adapted to it. In captivity, they are choosy with whom they will mate, sometimes preferring not to mate at all. And in the wild, they live largely (though not exclusively) solitary lives. 

Now, it appears that pandas have yet another quirk: minimum area requirements. A new study published in Scientific Reports shows...

Lost in all the talk about toxicity, endocrine disruption, and the like, is one fundamental property of chemicals, drugs, enzymes, and receptors, that people do not fully appreciate: Binding affinity— the tightness that ligands (chemicals, drugs) stick to their targets (enzymes, receptors).

Perhaps the best example of this property is carbon monoxide (CO). The reason that the colorless, odorless gas is so dangerous is that its binding affinity to hemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen in the blood throughout the body, is so strong (about 1,000-times that of oxygen) that it easily displaces oxygen from hemoglobin, which causes asphyxiation very quickly.  In other words, oxygen doesn't have a chance when CO is around.

(For a more detailed look at how this works, see:...

The proliferation of coffee shops and energy drinks bears testimony to the fact that caffeine is in high demand. The stimulant is even added to some medicine, like Excedrin Migraine. However, because only a handful of plants produce it, there has been some interest in creating caffeine synthetically. One approach would be to genetically engineer microbes capable of producing the molecule.

The trouble with this method is that caffeine is toxic to many microorganisms. (Caffeine is also a natural insecticide.) So, if microbes are to be used as tiny caffeine factories, they will first need to be made resistant to its noxious effects. A team of molecular biologists based mostly in China has accomplished just that using baker's yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae.

The...

Vervet monkeys can be testy. Squabbling between social groups is common, particularly when food is at stake. Females of the species, which tend to remain in the same location and social group, have a much greater incentive to guard and fight over food sources than males, which change social groups several times in their lives. Therefore, when intergroup territorial conflict arises, males don't always feel obliged to participate.

Woe be unto the males who make this grave mistake. New research in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B reveals that males who choose to sit out during such scuffles may be subjected later to domestic abuse.

The team observed the interactions of four groups of vervet monkeys in South Africa. Conflicts, which lasted anywhere from a few...