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Nobel Prize, Ancient humans and the Autism debate

Hi everyone! I meant to post this last Sunday, but as you can see, I’ve been running a little behind schedule. Nevertheless, it’s time for a short review of what has been happening in the world of science, and last week has been an interesting week as far as that goes. Let’s start with the big news.

Announcement of the 2015 Nobel Prizes

Earlier last week, the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet, and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced the names of the recipients of the 2015 Nobel Prizes in Physiology and Medicine, Physics and Chemistry. Here’re the announcements from the official website

Tu Youyou 1951
Tu Youyou in 1951

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2015 was divided, one half jointly to William C. Campbell and Satoshi Ōmura “for their discoveries concerning a novel therapy against infections caused by roundworm parasites” and the other half to Youyou Tu “for her discoveries concerning a novel therapy against Malaria“.

The Nobel Prize in Physics 2015 was awarded jointly to Takaaki Kajita and Arthur B. McDonald “for the discovery of neutrino oscillations, which shows that neutrinos have mass

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2015 was awarded jointly to Tomas Lindahl, Paul Modrich and Aziz Sancar “for mechanistic studies of DNA repair“.

We’ll be exploring each of these awards in more detail in the coming week, along with a brief look at the life and career of each of the eight awardees.

Hands and Feet of ancient humans

homo naledi photo
Photo by GovernmentZA

In late 2013, a pair of explorers entering a cave in the Rising Star system in South Africa stumbled upon a narrow chamber filled with what looked like human bones. It soon became clear that the bones belonged to a human species that no one had ever seen before. Over several weeks of excavation and digging, more than 1500 bone fragments were found, belonging to at least 15 different individuals. The new species was named Homo naledi (a nod to the cave of origin, ‘naledi’ means ‘star’ in the Sotho language). Homo naledi had features both primitive and modern – diminutive in size, small- brained, but with a bone structure eerily similar to modern humans. This week, researchers published their analysis of the hand of Homo naledi, as assessed from bone fragments found in the Rising Star cave.

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francok35 / Pixabay

New planets, 1000 genomes and tricky parasites

Hi everyone! It has been an exciting week in science, and since it is Sunday evening, I thought I’d give you a brief overview of what has been happening in the scientific world this week.

Discovery of a new Jupiter-like planet

PeteLinforth / Pixabay
Jupiter, whom the new planet closely resembles

Scientists have discovered a new exoplanet that closely resembles our solar system’s Jupiter, using the Gemini Planet Imager. The Gemini Planet imager, a high-contrast imaging instrument, went live in 2013 and allows direct imaging of distant planets (as opposed to using indirect observations, like small wobbles in star orbits, to deduce their existence). The new planet, named 51 ERI B is located around a star called 51 Eridani, located a little less than 100 lightyears away from earth. This discovery is particularly interesting because 51 Eridani is a really young star, only about 20 million years old (the sun and the solar system are estimated to be around 4.5 billion years old, by comparison), and studying it can give us vital clues about the origin of Jupiter and other gas giants. The new planet is about twice the size of Jupiter, has a surface temperature of 600 – 750 Kelvin, and has large amounts of methane and water vapor.

Completion of the 1000 Genomes Project

<a href="https://pixabay.com/users/PublicDomainPictures/">PublicDomainPictures</a> / PixabayThis week also marks the completion of the 1000 genomes project. This project, started in January, 2008, mapped the genomes of 2504 participants, spread over 26 populations, and coming from a multitude of ethnicities. Five of the six inhabited continents were represented (Australia being the exception). The project aimed to identify all variations that occurred at a frequency of least 1% in the population (i.e. existed in at least 1 out of 100 individuals). The project identified over 88 million DNA sequence variants, and have published their results in the current issue of Nature. The data they collected is freely available on their website. On a similar note, the UK10K project, which plans to sequence the genomes of 10000 individuals in the UK from diseased as well as healthy backgrounds to identify potential disease-causing or biomedically relevant variants, also published their results in the same issue.

How the HIV proteins outsmart their host

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Demystifying the Brain – the Brains of our Ancestors

Author’s note – This is the second post in a series titled ‘Demystifying the Brain‘. In this series, I will discuss some fundamental neuroscience concepts, and try to explain what scientists have been able to discover so far about how our brains work. You can find previous posts in the series here. If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, do leave a comment below. 

Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.
–Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900-1975)

australopithecus lucy photo
Photo by Tim Evanson

Remember last week, when we discussed what the brain is, what it does, and how it goes about doing its job? We learned that the brain is a specialized part of the nervous system – the system which helps control and coordinate our actions. The brain controls the body by sending electrical signals through long bundles of connecting fibers called nerves. The nervous system is also responsible for receiving information from our senses (sight, hearing etc.) and building our worldview using that information. We talked about the energetic costs of maintaining the brain, and why some species may have chosen to maintain a small brain size in exchange for conserving more energy.

Today, however, we are going to take a slightly different approach, and go on a brief tour through the history of our species. And while doing this, we are going to try to answer a basic question – how could a structure as complex as the human brain ever have evolved?

As is the problem with any question of this nature, the answer must come through indirect means. Since we cannot invent a time machine (yet) and open a window into the past to observe evolution in action, our only recourse is to figure out what happened using two lines of evidence. The first set of evidence comes from the fossilized remains of animals, plants or other artifacts that have been preserved naturally; in these, we can look for missing links, or lost stages in evolution. The second method is to look at all the different groups of organisms living today and use their similarities and differences to estimate how far back in evolution they diverged from each other – i.e. when did their last common ancestor live and walk the earth?

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‘Sonogenetics’ – Using sound waves to activate brain cells

Scientists at the Salk Institute, USA have discovered a way to control brain cells using ultrasonic sound waves. Their method, which they call ‘sonogenetics’, has been applied to the tiny worm Caenorhabditis elegans, and can pave the way for advanced research into brain function by letting researchers target individual neurons in the brain.

<a href="https://pixabay.com/users/geralt/">geralt</a> / Pixabay

This is a welcome addition to the burgeoning field of neuroscience research that uses various strategies to specifically target single neurons or neuronal subpopulations in the brain. A whole field of evidence has confirmed that neurons in the brain are surprisingly heterogenous, and even neurons situated next to each other can be performing quite different functions. Teasing out the functions of whole circuits requires specialized techniques for perturbing the activities of small groups of neurons. Being able to activate and inactivate neurons in a controlled manner is of critical importance not only for understanding how the brain works, but also for figuring out what goes wrong in case of neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s disease or bipolar disorder.

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Demystifying the brain – What the brain does and does not do

Author’s note – This is the first post in a series of articles titled ‘Demystifying the Brain’. In this series, I will discuss some fundamental neuroscience concepts, and try to explain what scientists have been able to discover so far about how our brains work. I hope you find the series fun and instructive, and look forward to hearing from you in the comments. 

Ask anyone what makes us human, and you will probably receive the answer that it is our brains – our oversized, convoluted, magnificent brains with their 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections – that have gifted us our unique position in the animal world. The human brain is considered by many to be the pinnacle of evolutionary design, being a highly efficient, immensely flexible and mind-bogglingly quick computing machine. Unravelling the workings of this machine is a daunting challenge that many bright minds have nevertheless accepted over the years, and we now have a basic, if incomplete, understanding of the basic principles along which the brain functions.

What exactly is the brain?

The brain is, anatomically speaking, a mass of concentrated nervous tissue.

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Why do some birds mimic human speech?

African grey parrots are talented ‘talkers’ (tpsdave / Pixabay)

Einstein is an African Grey parrot who can imitate a spaceship, a laser, and a chimp at will, besides uttering sage words of wisdom upon receiving a cue (and a peanut) from her trainer, Stephanie White. Einstein has a working vocabulary of over 200 words, an impressive number, but nowhere near the upper limit of the range of language that birds have been shown to learn and use.

Three classes of birds – parrots, songbirds and hummingbirds have been shown to have the ability to mimic human speech. Since birds lack vocal cords, the sounds we hear are produced by vibrations of their throat muscles and membranes – you could call it a form of whistling. Vocal mimicry requires significant learning and cognitive capacities in these birds, and involves advanced and specialized brain regions. So, why do they do it?

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A stink bug is the first animal known to actively control egg color

spined soldier bug photo
Podisus maculiventris, the spined soldier bug (Photo by Sam Fraser-Smith)

The spined soldier bug, despite having a really cool name, is rather unimpressive in appearance. About the size of a fingernail and a muddy, mottled brown in color, this little bug does not look like it might be hiding any deep secrets. Also called the stink bug, it is often introduced in agricultural fields as a biological pest-control system, since it feeds on the larva of various moths and beetles that destroy crops. About a month ago, researchers over at the University of Montreal, Canada, discovered and published a remarkable fact – the female spined soldier bug is the first animal ever shown to actively control the color of the eggs that it lays.

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Let’s talk about Science

Science definition

‘Science’ means different things for different people.

Scientists may scoff at this statement – asserting that ‘science’ can be defined precisely and correctly, the most common definition being ‘systematic study of the world using observation and experimentation’. What does that mean in plain English? Simply that science tries to answer questions by proposing solutions that can be verified by carrying out experiments. You want to find out why your milk is smelling weird? You first come up with an answer to this question by thinking about it (maybe it smells weird because it was left outside all night?). Then you conduct an experiment to find out if this is true (you could take another glass of milk, and leave it outside for one night), and from the results of that experiment (the second glass of milk smells/does not smell weird) you conclude whether your proposed answer was correct or not. If it was true, voilà, you’ve solved the problem! If not, you go back to the drawing board, and propose another solution (maybe an assassin hired by your ex-wife sneaked in and added something to the milk?) In doing so, you have followed the scientific method, and what you have done is essentially ‘science’.

But this is not the picture the average person gets when he/she hears the word ‘science’. Science means space and atoms, bacteria and earthworms, test tubes and microscopes, acids and fumes and lab coats. Science is what is used to justify differences and settle debates when a new drug enters the market or when politicians argue about climate change. Science is a small section of the daily newspaper, a periodical your neighbor subscribes to, your child’s colorful textbook. Science is something you hear about, science is not a part of your daily life.

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