Searching For Your Inner Chimp
Natural History, December 2002 - January 2003
In the past decade, as molecular biologists have learned to read DNA sequences rapidly, the chimpanzee has clearly emerged as humanity's closest living relative. Our DNA is astonishingly similar. You can see for yourself by visiting the "Silver Project" Web site of Japan's National Institute of Genetics (sayer.lab.nig.ac.jp/~silver/), which is home to a growing database of chimpanzee DNA. With a couple of clicks you can compare the sequence of DNA nucleotides for a particular chimpanzee gene -- molecular fragments whose identity is given by one of the four "letters" in the DNA "alphabet" -- with the sequence in the corresponding human gene.
In the basement of the Valley Life Sciences Building at the University of California, Berkeley, biologist Michael Dickinson walks down a cinderblock hallway to an anonymous steel door. Beyond it lies a small, windowless room crammed with high-speed video cameras and lasers and computer cables draped as thick as cobwebs. In the center of the room is a glass tank big enough to hold a vending machine. This is Robofly.
The Once and Future Male
Natural History, September 2002
What does it mean to be a man? Part of the answer depends on where you ask the question. In some places, being a man may include spending Sundays watching football. In others, it may include completion of a rite of passage, such as getting buried up to your chin in an ant nest on your thirteenth birthday. Of course, there's some biology involved, too, and crucial to that biology is a peculiar chromosome called the Y.
Is This Chip Educable?
The New York Times Book Review,
March 10, 2002Link
Review of Digital Biology: How Nature Is Transforming Our Technology and Our Lives, by Peter J. Bentley.
(Simon & Schuster, 2002)
Biologists tolerate a level of mystery in their work that would drive your average engineer or computer programmer crazy. They've put together a complete rough draft of the human genome but they have little understanding of how those 40,000 or so genes work together to make a human. They've mapped every muscle and nerve in a fly's wings, yet still struggle to explain how it keeps from crashing into a wall. No engineer would build a DVD player without knowing what every circuit was for; no programmer would let a computer write its own code. Or at least that's how things used to be. As Peter J. Bentley demonstrates in ''Digital Biology,'' the cool, rational temple of technology is becoming infested with biology's weedy enigmas.
The Rise And Fall Of The Nasal Empire
Natural History, June 2002
Smell, above all other senses, is our link with history. It takes just a sniff of certain odors-the ozone tang of rain falling on blacktop or the crisp sting of frying onions-to instantly hurl us back decades. And our sense of smell has a history of its own, reaching back more than 500 million years. Until recently, however, scientists have had relatively little evidence on which to base a reconstruction of its evolution. They've only been able to compare the olfactory senses of living vertebrates or turn up the occasional fossil nose. But now historians of smell have been delivered a trove of new evidence, thanks to progress in deciphering the human genome and the genomes of other animals. The genes that enable us to smell reveal an epic story-the rise of an extraordinarily sophisticated sense organ and its subsequent decline in power.
Natural History, April 2002
“The eye to this day gives me a cold shudder,” Charles Darwin once wrote to a friend. If his theory of evolution was everything he thought it was, a complex organ such as the eye could not lie beyond its reach. And no one appreciated the beautiful construction of the eye more than Darwin-from the way the lens was perfectly positioned to focus light onto the retina to the way the iris adjusted the amount of light that could enter the eye. In the Origin of Species, he wrote that the idea of natural selection producing the eye “seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree.”
Darwin's Avian Muses Continue To Evolve
April 26, 2002Link
Charles Darwin spent just over a month on the Gal.pagos Islands in 1835. The peculiar finches he collected there, each species with a distinctive beak shape, helped inspire his theory of evolution by natural selection.