First Gradually, Then Suddenly
Around 50 million years ago, whales had four legs, lived on land and were closely related to the ancestors of hippos and deer. Just when and how they lost their hind legs and moved into the water has been a biological mystery. But by analyzing modern dolphin genes against the fossil record, an international group of scientists believes they have charted the story of how whales slimmed down from shaggy dog-like animals to sleek swimmers. Soon after they first entered the water, about 50 million years ago, whales began growing smaller and smaller hind limbs, without losing them entirely. About 15 million years ago, the gene that activates limb development abruptly shut off, causing the dragging impediments to disappear entirely. Unfortunately, this finding does nothing to explain why whales never evolved goggles or water wings.
(source: University of Florida)
Forget Flowers, Give her Broccoli
This year’s Chelsea Flower Show in London will bring together the world’s top gardeners to show off their most colorful flowers, exotic ferns and fecund fruit trees. Oh, and did we mention there’s also going to be a booth devoted to broccoli? Despite the plant’s lack of sex appeal, horticulturists at the University of Warwick will promote the little green vegetable by trumpeting a breed of “21st century super-broccoli.” The scientists created their improved strain by cross-breeding the plants with other species from the same family, creating a broccoli that’s more resistant to pests, lasts longer on the shelf and contains more antioxidants. No word yet on whether these advances will do anything to improve your next Chinese take-out meal.
Good News For All the Blind People Reading This
It’s hard being a blind chicken: You can’t see your food, your chicken buddies or the farmer approaching with an axe. But there’s new hope for these unfortunate fowl, as researchers at the University of Florida have developed a gene therapy that can restore vision in chickens born with a genetic disorder that renders them sightless. The scientists created a virus that targeted the birds’ faulty photoreceptors, then used it to deliver a normal copy of the gene to chickens still developing in their shells. “I will always remember the first animal that we successfully treated,” said one member of the research team. “I did this simple little test, drawing little dots on a piece of paper. The chick, which was standing on the table, came over to the paper and started pecking at all of them. It was so exciting.” The treatment will hopefully help restore sight in people who suffer from a similar disorder.
(source: University of Florida)
Breaking News: Natives Are Being Screwed Over
The UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which are intended to raise the standard of living for the world’s poorest people, may be ignoring indigenous populations around the globe. That’s according to a paper from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, which argues that the MDGs overlook the 6% of the world’s population who are classified as indigenous, focusing instead on the more concentrated populations of urban poor. Indigenous peoples the world over face heightened risk of disease, substance abuse and suicide, as well as the threat of political marginalization and expulsion from their land.
(source: The Lancet)
Dredging for Drugs
Even before Sean Connery found that cure for cancer in the rainforest back in the 90s, scientists were traveling around the world in search of new medicines. Soon, a team from the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution will do The Medicine Man one better by scanning the bottom of the ocean for marine organisms that could produce valuable chemical compounds with applications in treating cancer and Alzheimer’s. The intrepid researchers will go down in a deep-sea sub to explore a newly discovered reef off the coast of Florida. By charting the reef’s biodiversity, they hope future expeditions could uncover the next big pharmaceutical breakthrough.
(source: Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution)
Bush Avoids Another Inconvenient Truth
When asked by reporters if he was likely to see Al Gore’s new global warming documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” President Bush shrugged off the question with a casual, “Doubt it.” Gore responded by offering to come to the White House and either screen the film for him personally or present the environmental slideshow on which the movie is based. “The entire global scientific community has a consensus on the question that human beings are responsible for global warming and he has today again expressed personal doubt that that is true,” Gore said from the Cannes Film Festival in France. But really, what was Gore expecting from a man whose cinematic taste runs more towards “Austin Powers” than “The Thin Blue Line”?
Originally published May 30, 2006