Sunday roundup

Or Saturday roundup, belated. Some interesting stories I didn’t have time to cover:

The HPV vaccine, aimed at reducing the incidence of cervical cancer, has moved a step closer to approval.

The Institute of Medicine calls for more research into and oversight of vitamin supplements.

Continuing debate over “The Hobbit.”

New research might eventually bring breathalyzers to your doctor’s office. Not necessarily for alcohol.

An interesting study of experimental evolution: selecting for heat-tolerant bacteria over 1500 generations.

Yet another use for bacteriophage: diagnosis of infectious bacteria.

Evolution of “altruism” in bacteria.

An interesting article on methane and the origin of life.

More on evolution + medicine

Yesterday’s Science had a letter to the editor regarding an editorial I mentioned previously (and that was touched on in the comments here as well):

Medicine might benefit most from embracing evolution theory’s recognition of individual variation within populations of organisms, a property that Ernst Mayr has called “the cornerstone of Darwin’s theory of natural selection”. This “population thinking,” as Mayr calls it, helped to undo typological thinking in biology, and it can help to dismantle typological notions of disease by highlighting individual differences in disease susceptibility and expression, as well as variations in response to treatment.

The inextricable relationship between evolution and genetics is evident in current genomic-based efforts such as the HapMap project, which catalogs DNA variants associated with disease, and in the recently announced Genes and Environment Initiative at NIH, which will investigate the interaction of genetic and environmental variations in common diseases. A major challenge for medical education is to incorporate genetics and evolution into education systems where neither receives the attention necessary to make it a routine part of medical thinking or clinical practice.

Getting it wrong

So, archaea are apparently the topic of the week. While I wrote here about the pathogenic potential of some species of these organisms, a new essay in Nature and a new review in Science focus more on their evolution (and the evolution of the other two domains of life) than any health application.

In the essay mentioned, Norman Pace discusses the eukaryote/prokaryote dichotomy. Currently the archaea are classified as prokaryotes since they, like bacteria, lack a true nucleus. However, molecular sequence analysis has shown that the archaea and eukaryotes are actually more closely related to each other than either group is to bacteria (see figure, from Pace’s Nature essay). As such, nomenclature that places the bacteria and archaea together into a group is misleading.
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Invasive Species Weblog in Science

Another blog I read has been highlighted in Science Magazine’s Netwatch:

WEB LOG: Invasion Chronicles

An outbreak of pine shoot beetles (Tomicus piniperda) has prompted the U.S. Department of Agriculture to restrict the export of bark chips and other forest products from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. Meanwhile, farmers in southwestern Puerto Rico are angry because the government has failed to control hungry mobs of Asian and African monkeys, descendants of escapees from a medical lab, that are pillaging their fields. For more news about wayward organisms and efforts to control them, check the Invasive Species Weblog from ecologist Jennifer Forman Orth of the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Orth gleans the postings from media stories, government and university announcements, reports by professional societies, and other sources from around the world.


Project Exploration

Via coturnix, I found Project Exploration, a non-profit organization “founded in 1999 by University of Chicago paleontologist Dr. Paul Sereno and educator Gabrielle Lyon, to make science accessible to the public-with a special focus on city kids and girls.” coturnix has more of the background on Serento and the organization in his post, so I’ll highlight some facts ‘n’ figures:

Students participating in our field programs are graduating high school at an 18% higher rate than their peers.

Students are pursuing science in college–25% of all students and 34% of our girls declare science as their major.

The girls in our programs are pursuing science in college at five times the national average.

As a non-profit, obviously they rely on the generosity of others. If you want to help out, check out this page–they need a number of items in addition to cash, and more information on their financials can be found here.

Brain tumor cluster in Melbourne

5 Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology staff report brain tumors since mid-April

A Melbourne university has emptied the top floors of one of its buildings after a spate of brain-tumour cases were reported during the past month. Most affected staff worked on the top floor, raising fears that cell-phone masts on top of the building are responsible. But experts say it is far more likely to be an unfortunate coincidence.

2 additional cases have been reported since 1999; 2 malignant, and 5 benign. 6 of the 7 cases have worked in the building for over a decade, mainly on the top floor, and there are mobile-phone-transmitter towers atop the building.

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Animalcules 1.8

Welcome to the new edition of Animalcules!

First, a few housekeeping notes. If you note the schedule, I’ve not yet extended it beyond June 1st. I think that, at least for the summer months, Animalcules will be a once-monthly carnival, rather than every other week. If things pick up after that, I’ll change it back to the current set-up, but that will be dependent not only on entries but also on additional hosts. So, if you’d like to host in July, August, or September, drop me a line (aetiology AT gmail DOT com) an I’ll get you on the schedule.

Okay…on to the entries!
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Bloggers break another story

Blogger reveals China’s migratory goose farms near site of flu outbreak

The hypothesis that migratory birds are responsible for spreading avian flu over long distances has taken another knock. Last year, an outbreak of the deadly H5N1 strain in thousands of migratory birds at Qinghai Lake in western China provided what seemed the first firm evidence for the idea. Because the lake is so remote, experts assumed infected birds had flown up from southern China.

But it has now emerged that, since 2003, one of the key migratory species affected, the bar-headed goose, has been artificially reared near the lake. The breeding farms — part of an experimental programme to both domesticate the birds and release them to repopulate wild stocks — raise the possibility that farmed birds were the source of the outbreak.


Here’s the blogger portion:
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Archaea as human pathogens?

When I was in school, I was taught about the 5 kingdoms of life: Monera (all bacteria), and the eukaryotes: Protista, Fungi, Plantae, and Animalia. Since that time, there’s been a bit of a change in the organization. This is largely due to investigation of the Archaea (sometimes still referred to as “archaebacteria”). It was recognized that these organisms were so unlike bacteria (and of course, unlike the eukaryotes) that they deserved their own grouping. Therefore, the most common strategy currently employs 3 domains of cellular life at a level above the kingdom: Bacteria, Eukaryotes, and Archaea.

The archaea have received a lot of attention as “extremophiles:” the microbes that live in environments that have high salinity, very high or low temperatures, or other extremes that make the processes of life daunting. However, they also are residents of more benign locations, such as the human gut, mouth, and vagina. Despite this known association with humans, no species of archaea had ever been identified as a pathogen–until now.
Continue reading “Archaea as human pathogens?”