AMPULEX DEMENTOR. FROM OHL ET AL 2014 PLOS ONE

Parasites may seem too gross or too wicked to be worth saving from extinction. Or they may just seem so skilled in their sinister arts that we don’t have to worry about them, since they’ll always find a new victim.

In fact, parasites warrant our concern, right along with their hosts. That’s not to say that we’d better off if smallpox or rinderpest were still running wild. But letting parasites hurtle into oblivion due to our ecological recklessness is a bad idea. Continue reading “Save the Zombie-Makers!”

When you spend six years watching kangaroos, you start to see some strange things. From 2008 to 2013, Wendy King, a doctoral student at the University of Queensland, and her colleagues studied wild grey kangaroos in a national park in Victoria, Australia. All told, King and her colleagues studied 615 animals–194 adult females, and 326 juveniles, known as joeys. The first time King and her colleagues captured each kangaroo, they took a number of measurements and then marked it so they could recognize it later. From time to time, they’d find a juvenile kangaroo in the pouch of a different mother. Sometimes it would climb out, but then it would climb back into the new pouch, getting milk and protection from the adult female for months, until it was ready to live on its own.

PHYLLOSTACHYS BAMBUSOIDES, A SPECIES OF BAMBOO WITH A 120-YEAR FLOWERING CYCLE. PHOTO BY EMMANUEL LATTES, ALAMY

In the late 1960s, a species of bamboo called Phyllostachys bambusoides–commonly known as the Chinese Mainland Bamboo or Japanese Timber Bamboo–burst into flower. The species originated in China, was introduced to Japan, and later into the United States and other countries. And when I say it flowered, I mean it flowered everywhere. Forests of the plant burst into bloom in synchrony, despite being separated by thousands of miles. If, like me, you missed it, you will probably not live to see it happen again. The flowers released pollen into the wind, and the fertilized plants then produced seeds that fell to the ground. The magnificent bamboo plants, which can grow 72 feet tall, then all promptly died. Their seeds later sprouted and sent up new plants. The new generation is now close to fifty years old and has yet to grow a single flower. They won’t flower till about 2090.

Continue reading “Bamboo Mathematicians”

PHOTO BY THOMAS HAWK VIA CREATIVE COMMONS

We know they evolved from dinosaurs about 150 million years ago, but it remains to be discovered precisely how the DNA of ground-running dinosaurs changed–a transformation that turned arms into wings, produced aerodynamic feathers, and created a beak. It’s possible that some clues to those genetic changes can be found in living birds themselves. By blocking some of the recently evolved steps in the development of bird embryos, we might be able to get birds to grow some dinosaur anatomy.

Continue reading “Can Scientists Turn Birds Back Into Dinosaur Ancestors?”

 

This morning I went on the NPR show “On Point” to talk about using CRISPR to edit embryos. I’ve embedded it below, and you can also listen to it at this link.

 

It was fascinating to listen to my fellow guests. Nobel-prize winner Craig Mello basically said that if we can make it safe, then let’s go for it.  Marcy Danovsky of the Center for Genetics and Society argued that the world needed to put rules in place to ban human germline engineering.

Towards the end of the show, I went on a bit of an anti-GATTACA rant. GATTACA, in case you haven’t seen it, is a movie that puts a biotech twist on Brave New World. Danovsky and other critics frequently warn that embryo editing could lead to a world like the movie–in other words, rich people would create a genetically altered population of super-smart, super-healthy people, leaving the have-nots in the dust.

Continue reading “Talking About Editing Human Embryos on the Radio”