Friday, October 26, 2007

Sharks, sheep and viruses

Three recent conservation biology-type papers worth a look:

Do shark declines creat fear-released systems?
A model sugesting that if you take pacific sleeper sharks out of the ocean, seals swim deeper, and eat more pollock - which live deep - and fewer herring.

Are cattle, sheep, and goats endangered species?
The "rise of the breed" 200 years ago, followed by more recent selection for increased productivity has led to a dangerous drop in the genetic diversity of domestic animals. "Many industrial breeds now suffer from inbreeding, with effective population sizes falling below 50... It is therefore important to take measures that promote a sustainable management of these genetic resources; first, by in situ preservation of endangered breeds; second, by using selection programmes to restore the genetic diversity of industrial breeds; and finally, by protecting the wild relatives that might provide useful genetic resources."

(Andrew Marr says that whenever you see a newspaper headline ending in a question mark (Is this the most evil man in Britain?; Are working mothers poisoning their children? and so on) you should answer 'no'. I'm not sure if the same applies for the scientific literature.)

Barley yellow dwarf viruses (BYDVs) preserved in herbarium specimens illuminate historical disease ecology of invasive and native grasses
Invasive species are often thought to thrive because they escape all the diseases and predators that keep them in check back home. But this study suggests that the diseases that invaders bring with them are just as important as the ones they leave behind.

In California, over the past two centuries European grasses have almost completely displaced the native prairie. Carolyn Malmstrom and her colleagues think that one factor in their success was the viruses they brought with them. For example, they have previously shown that native grasses growing alongside exotics have higher levels of cereal yellow dwarf viruses.

But this doesn't put the viruses at the scene of the crime. Now they've taken a step towards that (although how you ever prove such an idea, I don't know). Using herbarium specimens from 1917, they have recovered some of the oldest plant viral sequences so far and, by comparing them with European relatives, show that the disease probably showed up along with the plants — and also hopped from California to Australia in the late nineteenth century — and may have been a useful ally in the invaders battle against the natives.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Galaxy 2 Galaxy

One of museum directors' great worries is how to get more good-looking people to visit their collections. They employ world-class architects to create buildings filled with beautiful and enlightening objects, and then the spotty, balding, punters in their unsightly leisure wear come along and spoil it all.

Of course, I would never dream of visiting a museum without stopping off at Trumper's, taking a freshly pressed tweed suit out of the wardrobe, and selecting an appropriate cravat and handkerchief, but not everyone is so public spirited. But I think the American Museum of Natural History could have solved the problem.

In a neat piece of mountain/Mohammed reasoning, the museum has figured out that, although nightclub patrons might not be all that into science, they are, on average, relatively easy on the eye. So the museum has started booking DJs. Not some no-hoper playing 'Superstition' at an unobtrusive volume to be ignored by drink-sipping-late-night-opening types. No, proper DJs what beat-match, and twiddle the knobs on the mixer, and whose names you might have heard of, and who play their records at conversation-negating volume, and everything.

Last Friday they had Josh Wink and Axsel 'Superpitcher' Schaufler (whose haircut, wardrobe and moves come straight from a English synthpop band circa 1981, not that there's anything wrong with that), playing several hours of techy beats in the Rose Center for Earth and Space. And the trendy twentysomethings came in their droves.

(One thing, though: why did the VJs deploy the usual bog-standard psychedelia? When you're surrounded by the most amazing sights in the Universe, you need to up your game a bit. Next time, get off to the NASA site and download some nebulae shots.)

This is more appropriate than it might at first appear; techno and space go back a ways. Several of the early Detroit acts had a futuristic, sci-fi aesthetic. Specifically Drexciya, and Underground Resistance, whose 1992 album "X-102 Discovers the Rings of Saturn" has tracks called Titan, Enceladus, and so on. (I believe that on the original vinyl, the tracks are each in their own groove, so that they don't play continuously, but you have to lift the needle and move from track to track. This is cool, but I couldn't tell you why.)

This worldview seems a little bit quaint now; at the club night, it struck me how there's nothing more retro than the future. Today's dance-music subgenres tend to emphasize the dirty, grimy and nasty (hell, one of them's even called grime). Which seems more fitting to today's world. Whereas dancing to techno under the giant white sphere of the Hayden Planetarium feels more like a party out of Barbarella.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Why Al Gore deserved the Nobel peace prize

When AG won the NPP last week I was pleased, but I suspected that the academy had given it to him mainly because his campaign was A Good Thing rather than because of any direct link with world peace.

But this piece in Slate makes the good point that addressing climate change might be a matter of stopping wars before they start, rather than cleaning them up once they get going. And that really does deserve a peace prize.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The pygmy possum: a tribute

What's better, sleeping or being awake? Exactly. As Jeremy Hardy once said, "Saying 'I'll sleep when I'm dead' is like saying 'I'll bathe when I'm drowning'."

So, as a devotee of shut-eye, El Gentraso salutes the marsupial pygmy-possum Cercartetus nanus, "an opportunistic nonseasonal hibernator with a capacity for substantial fattening" (hey, before you get all judgemental, maybe it had just been through a difficult break-up, and was comforting eating, yeah?) according to Fritz Geiser of the confusingly named University of New England, in Australia.

Geiser's newly published study found that possums hibernate for an average of 310 days, with the champion snoozer clocking up 367 days. That, according to my calculations, is more than a year. I have only seen the paper's abstract, so I don't know how or why he discovered this. Do they just naturally kip this long, or did he regulate environmental conditions to induce maximum snooziness?

Either way, it's a heroic effort, both on the part of the possums, and of Geiser, for giving up a year to watch them sleep. I imagine his lab notes read: "Day 238. Possums still hibernating. Day 239..." and so on.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Talking about D'Arcy

Earlier this year, I gave a talk about D'Arcy Thompson as part of a Royal Institution lecture series on polymaths.

I notice belatedly that the Royal College of Surgeons (where the talk took place, cos the RI is being lotterified) has put audio of the talk online.

I think that link should take you straight to the sounds. If not, go here, where you can also hear Andrew Robinson talking about Thomas Young and him, me and Oliver Morton talking about poymathy in general, and whither it. Plus lots of other stuff.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Perhaps the least original thought I've ever had

With each passing press release, it's looking more and more like Craig Venter has missed his true calling as a Bond villain.

The Guardian can reveal that a team of 20 top scientists assembled by Mr Venter, led by the Nobel laureate Hamilton Smith, has already constructed a synthetic chromosome, a feat of virtuoso bio-engineering never previously achieved.

Any fule kno that 'assembled' is journalistic shorthand for 'kidnapped and forced to work in a hollow volcano'. Still, Hamilton Smith sounds like the sort of chap who ought to be able to fashion a glider out of latex gloves and pipette tips and escape to alert Her Majesty's Secret Service.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Scientific meetings - a lot of hot air

Earlier this year, I heard evolutionary biologist Hervé Philippe speak at the Royal Society's Linnaeus 300 meeting. Before he mentioned anything phylogenomic, however, he spoke about the carbon footprint of his research.

With labs, computers and travel to meetings this added up to a whopping 40+ tons. Philippe's suggestion to help get this down was to make all annual scientific meeting biennial, thus halving the massive emmissions of flying scientists.

It struck me as an excellent idea (and one that he should publicize - I can see no obvious mention of it anywhere online). As well as cutting down emissions, it would send a powerful signal if the scientific community en masse could institute such a change. And it came back to me when I read the piece Greening the meeting in today's Science.

Regarding the discplines that El Gentraso is mostly interested in, it's good to see that many attendees at the Society for Conservation Biology and Ecological Society of America meetings offset their flights - although given the uncertainty about offsetting, you might be better off giving the money to a group that campaigns against climate change.

But it was disappointing to see that the SCB couldn't agree to cut down on the frequency of meetings: "some members considered the meeting's exchange of ideas too important to forgo".

Get over yourselves. I know that e-mail, message boards, the phone, video-conferencing, Second Life and so on aren't as immediate, or necessarily as productive as face-to-face, but isn't that a price that a bunch of conservation biologists, for crying out loud, ought to be willing to pay once every other year? It seems like a major failure of imagination (or maybe junket lust). If people really threw themselves into finding alternatives, they'd find better ways to use the technology and to structure meetings to get the most out of it.

The ESA, meanwhile has "slimmed down the program book, began using soy-based inks, and now distributes its advertiser kit only electronically. The society also arranges with hotels to change linen less frequently and has removed Styrofoam from the meeting entirely. Some of the changes make more of a difference than others, but "every little bit helps," says Michelle Horton, a meeting organizer at ESA."

The words 'burns' and 'fiddling' spring to mind.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Woo hoo!

In news of marginal interest: I submitted my PhD thesis just over ten years ago. But thanks to the diligence of others, data from it continue to leak out.

Most recently, BMC Evolutionary Biologist has just accepted Ecological correlates of sociality in Pemphigus aphids, with a partial phylogeny of the genus. I did the phylogeny ('partial' being the operative word). Thanks to Nathan for getting these data into the public realm.

At my count, that makes three peer-reviewed publications with my name on. For any completists out there, the other two are:

Behavior and morphology of monomorphic soldiers from the aphid genus Pseudoregma (Cerataphidini, Hormaphididae): implications for the evolution of morphological castes in social aphids Insectes Sociaux 44, 379-392 (1997).

Clonal mixing in the soldier-producing aphid Pemphigus spyrothecae (Hemiptera: Aphididae) Molecular Ecology 11, 1525–1531 (2002).

Snappy titles, I think you'll agree.