Category Archives: Biology

Destroying the disposers of death: will India rescue its few remaining vultures?

Indians today can hardly recall the last time that they saw a vulture. In the 1990s, these majestic birds were a common sight in the subcontinent, and would show up wherever there was exposed carrion. As a child, I remember marveling at vultures circling at impressive heights, probably looking back down at me with their incredible eyesight, their wings outstretched as they effortlessly hovered on columns of warm air.

But since the nineties, their numbers have been falling dramatically in India, Pakistan and Nepal. The scale is astonishing – for every thousand white-rumped vultures in 1990, only one is alive today. A similarly sad story holds for the Indian vulture and the slender-billed vulture. Together, all three Asian vultures are now listed as being critically endangered.

The White rumped vulture, Gyps bengalensis

So what’s going on? It’s not that they are being hunted. For one thing, the killing of all wild animals in banned in India. But also, vultures have always provided a much valued ecological service. Most villagers dispose of dead animals by dumping the carrion. And they rely on the vultures to clean up.

Vultures have an undeservedly bad reputation. Because we associate carrion with disease, people believed that vultures spread diseases. But in fact, we now know that the opposite is true. Their powerfully corrosive stomach acids allow them to safely digest carrion that would be lethal to other scavengers, wiping out bacteria that can cause diseases like botulism and anthrax. They are the purgers of death and disease.

In their absence, populations of feral dogs have exploded, bringing with them the threat of rabies and human attacks. And if rats follow suit, India would face a new public health nightmare as it tries to control the spread of rodent-borne diseases like bubonic plague [1].

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Filed under Biology, Environment

Blind fish in dark caves shed light on the evolution of sleep

An eyeless Mexican cavefish. If you think it looks sleepy, read on.

Out of the approximately 3 billion letters of DNA that make up your genome, there are about a 100 letters that neither of your parents possess. These are your own personal mutations. The machinery that copies DNA into new cells is very reliable, but it is not perfect. It makes errors at a rate equivalent to making a single typo for every 100 books filled with text. The sperm and egg cells that fused to form you carried a few such mutations, and therefore so do you.

Every child who grew up watching cartoons like X-men or the ninja turtles associates mutations with superpowers. But the sad reality is that, somewhat like a double edged sword, mutations are more likely to hurt you than do any good. Imagine if you were to change a few letters at random in a book. Chances are, you are not improving the story. A typo doesn’t usually do much. It’s easy to overlook and doesn’t change the essential meaning of a sentence. This is the idea of the neutral theory of evolution, that most mutations have little or no effect on the organism. While this may be the case, the rare events pack quite a punch. Beneficial mutations are rare, but they are the only road through which organisms become better adapted to their environments.*

Changes to DNA are more likely to be disruptive than beneficial, simply because it is easier for changes to mess things up than to improve them. This mutational burden is something that all life forms have to bear. In the long run, individuals that carry harmful mutations will, on average, produce fewer offspring than their peers. Over many generations, this means that the mutation will dwindle in frequency. This is how natural selection is constantly ‘weeding out’ disruptive mutations from our genomes.

There is a flip side to this argument, and it is the story of the blind cave fish. If a mutation disrupts a gene that is not being used, natural selection will have no restoring effect. This is why fish that adapt to a lifestyle of darkness in a cave tend to lose their eyes. There is no longer any advantage to having eyes, and so the deleterious mutations that creep in are no longer being weeded out. Think of it as the ‘use it or lose it’ school of evolution.**

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When it hurts so bad, why does my brain light up?

If you’ve ever been rejected by a loved one, you knows that it hurts. Think of the language that we use to describe the feeling – hurt, pain, broken hearts, heartache, and so on. Across cultures, many of the same words are used to describe social rejection and bodily pain. Is this all just metaphor, or are people who have been dumped genuinely feeling physical pain? A recent study by Ethan Kross and colleagues set out to address this question by putting volunteers who had recently experienced such intense rejection into brain imaging machines.

The principle behind brain imaging is straightforward. As you start taxing your brain, different neural circuits are called into action. These brain regions need to consume more oxygen, which is provided through the blood supply. Oxygen travels in your blood by binding to the iron that is present. This changes its magnetic properties in a way that an MRI machine can detect. The machine tracks where all the oxygen-carrying blood is going, and the places that ‘light up’ with oxygen are the brain regions being used the most.

The researchers recruited people who felt intensely rejected as a result of being dumped (an “unwanted romantic relationship break-up”) sometime in the last 6 months. The subjects were asked to perform two sets of tasks while in the brain scanner.

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Hollaback to the male humpback whale

There’s something irresistible about pop music. Every few months, a song is born that transcends cultural differences and plants itself into our minds. Many of us manage to resist the allure of pop through indifference or stubborn determination. Among the humpback whales, however, keeping up with the latest musical fads is a matter of survival.

Humpback whales use their immense bodies as resonating cavities to produce a truly impressive vocal range. A single male has a range wider than any human choir. They can sing from two octaves lower than a bass singer, to three octaves higher than a soprano. This whale choir broadcasts across the ocean, their songs travelling along for thousands of kilometers. Only the males sing, and they do so only during breeding seasons, suggesting that it plays an important role in attracting a mate.

And just like the songs that we listen to, the songs of the humpback have a precise musical structure. They can be broken into separate themes, each of which contain a number of phrases. Each phrase in turn contains a series of notes, ranging from chirps, bleeps and squeaks that sounds like something from a science fiction movie, to more gravelly grunts and a kind of deep, majestic roar. (Audio samples below)
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Using flies to sniff out a new theory of smell

Our sense of smell is really quite incredible. Every time we take in a breath or taste food, countless molecules swarm into our nasal passages. As they move up the nasal tract, these visitors arrive at a patch of cells on which there are over 10,000 different kinds of docking stations. These cells are odor receptors, and each of them can register a different odor. Together they make up a chemical detector that is much more sensitive and versatile that anything we can come close to building.

In a paper published in the journal PNAS in February, the authors demonstrate through a series of ingenious experiments that smell can be sensitive enough to pick up on tiny differences in atomic vibrations.

The conventional theory of smell works somewhat like a lock and a key. The molecules are the key, and they ‘lock in’ to receptors that fit their exact shape and size. This is the shape theory of smell, and the basic idea had been suggested in the 1st century BCE by the Epicurean philosopher Lucretius. The idea has since garnered substantial evidence with the discovery of odor receptors, leading to the 2004 Nobel Prize in Medicine for working out the overall picture of how smell works.

An alternative hypothesis is the vibration theory. This proposes that smell works not by detecting the shape of molecules, but by measuring how the atoms in a molecule are vibrating.

Molecules are groups of atoms that are held together by chemical bonds. These bonds are somewhat elastic, causing the atoms in the molecules to constantly jiggle about. This is analogous to what would happen if you were to connect balls together with springs (something that physicists love to do). But the analogy breaks down at this microscopic scale, and one needs to resort to the laws of quantum mechanics to understand what is happening. It turns out that, similar to the balls and springs, molecules have certain ways in which they prefer to jiggle. They can stretch, rock, wag and twist around.

So, which is it? Does smell work via shape or vibration? The authors set out to address this question with flies.

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Filed under Biology, Chemistry, Physics