Discovery

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Archive for the ‘Evolution’ Category

But wait…does this mean we’re smarter on Google?

Readers of the recent not-off-the-presses, Internet-only edition of  Washington State Magazine will know that yours truly recently spent some time wringing his neurons over the fate of magazines, reading, and thinking in the digital age. Much like this whole Internet revolution of the past 15 or so years, it’s a fun and wild ride.

The piece at one point alludes to Nicholas Carr’s new book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, which contends we cease to think deeply if we power-browse and skim. Editor Tim Steury also did a drive-by of Carr’s thinking in his piece on how libraries are changing in the age of Google and pulled this Google-eyed viewfrom the book:

“The more pieces of information we ‘access’ and the faster we can extract their gist, the more productive we become as thinkers.”

So which is it? When our noses are pressed up against the screen, are we thinking better or worse?

One intriguing piece of the answer came in an interview with Jaak Panksepp, a WSU neuroscientist, who explains in the video above how an Internet search activates the ancient, general purpose part of the brain involved in seeking things. A classic evolutionary analogy would say this system was used for hunting down prey, but Panksepp explains it’s also involved in  looking for water, sex, companionship, and, in the case of us information-age types, knowledge. You need not have hunted to know what this actually feels like. Think of chasing down a must-have item of clothing in a mall, or strolling in search of a good restaurant. It’s exciting stuff, and you can practically feel your medial forebrain bundle tingling.

Now comes more exciting research in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. Using brain scans of web searchers, researchers found that the brain activity of novice Googlers was similar to someone simply reading, while veteran searchers used more than twice as many neural circuits and brain regions involved in complex thinking and decision making.

I’m no neuroscientist, but it sounds like Google is making them smarter.

More brain food can be found in the summer issue of Washington State Magazine.

Even Extremophiles Know When to Back Off

A few years ago, I was working on a story involving a somewhat personal fact of life for women. It was the sort of think most would feel uncomfortable about discussing for the Sunday front page of Washington’s largest newspaper. I wanted to talk about this fact of life with a high-profile and female captain of industry, so I called the assistant of a Seattle bank president. The response was quick but polite: ixnay on the intervieway.

When I mentioned this outcome to a fellow reporter, she said, “People don’t get to a position like that by taking a lot of chances.”

Malcolm Gladwell had a similar thesis in a New Yorker piece earlier this year, asserting that entrepreneurs–seeming swashbucklers of the capitalist set–actually prefer to take the cautious if not sure route to wealth. (You can read the top here.)

It turns out that one of  the most crazy seeming animals is a pretty risk-averse creature as well.

The extremophile sulfide worm lives on the edge, but not too on the edge.

This character is known to science as Paralvinella sulfincola. It’s an extremophile–one of several recently discovered microbes and animals capable of living in environments of seemingly unbearable heat, pressure and acidity.

In a paper just out in the journal Nature Communications, a Washington State University biologist and New Zealand collaborator ask just how harsh the sulfide worm might like things. It turns out, not too much.

Raymond Lee, an associate professor in the WSU School of Biological Sciences, and lead author Amanda Bates of New Zealand’s University of Otago tested inch-long sulfide worms found on thermal vents a mile below the ocean surface on the Juan de Fuca ridge off British Columbia. They placed the worms in aquariums with hot and not-so-hot sections and found that the worms made a point of going to the cooler areas, even if they could handle temperatures of up to 55 degrees C, or 131 degrees F.

“The surprising finding is they are very conservative,” said Lee, who explored the vents using the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution research submarine Alvin on a National Science Foundation grant. “They have a high thermal tolerance, but they don’t prefer to be near that high thermal tolerance. That tolerance is more a safety mechanism.”

The finding rebuts speculation that surfaced in the mid 1990s that these types of worms live between 60 and 80 degrees C., or 140 to 176 degrees F. In separate experiments, Lee and Bates found none of the worms could survive above 60 degrees C.

Lee said the work gives some insight into how animals work and the more limited environmental extremes that multicellular organisms can handle.

It’s a lesson we can all take to heart. It may look like deep-ocean bugs, acid loving worms, and captains of industry love heat and pressure. But over the course of a lifetime or the run of a species, it makes sense to take it easy out there.

Read more about Lee’s work in the Winter 2006 Washington State Magazine.

Where Darwin Watched Beaks, WSU Looks At Antibodies

Charles Darwin saw a product of evolution in the beaks of finches. Researchers from Washington State University are now looking at the same birds’ immune systems to see evolution in action.

Jeb Owen, an assistant professor of entomology, and Marisa King, a zoology doctoral candidate, developed a test to see if the species of finches that Darwin studied more than 150 years ago are developing immunities to two exotic parasites, a virus and a nest fly. The test is the first to detect the antibodies that a wild bird marshals against specific parasites and has implications for the study of immunology, evolution and conservation.

The work, published this week in the online journal PLoS ONE, is also one of the most advanced looks yet at Galapagos Island finches. The iconic birds descended from a common ancestor and developed different beaks and other features that fueled Darwin’s thinking about how species evolve. Their value to science continues to this day, in part because humans settled the Ecuadoran islands later than most other remote places, delaying the introduction of foreign parasites and diseases.

But the birds are now being infected by two introduced parasites –a pox virus, which creates lesions on the birds’ unfeathered parts, and a nest fly, which can slow the growth of nestlings and even kill them.

Such scenarios—invasive pathogens attacking animals with no known defenses—have become commonplace around the planet as virtually every locale has become accessible to humans and exotic, pestilent hitchhikers. They have stimulated the field of ecological immunology, which investigates the tradeoffs in an organism’s response to a pathogen.

In a way, ecological immunologists are testing in the natural world Friedrich Nietzsche’s observation, “What does not destroy me, makes me stronger,” with a more nuanced view. Under the commonly held Nietzche view, a pathogen will kill a human or other animal unless it develops an immune response like antibodies, which in effect make it stronger. But immunologists understand that an immune reaction, like asthma, can in itself be deadly. The devil is in the details, many of which fell to Owen and King.

Researchers from the University of Utah

Blood samples drawn from Darwin finches were tested at WSU for antibodies/Photo courtesy of Sarah Huber, University of Utah

captured finches at two locations in the Galapagos, examined them for signs of the pox or flies, and drew teardrop-sized blood samples for analysis by Owen and King. The WSU researchers developed a way to place a diluted blood sample in a dish coated with proteins from the parasites and measure how well antibodies in the blood reacted.

Until now, researchers have only tested a wild bird’s immune response to a lab-designed stimulant. Typically they’ve used proteins called PHA, which are perhaps best known for making raw beans poisonous to humans. But such tests, said Owen, give only a vague idea of an animal’s immune response.

Researchers have also tested more specific pathogens on domestic birds like chickens, poor proxies for wild birds in their natural environment.

“The real usefulness of this,” said Owen, “is that now, instead of assessing this vague concept of what the immune system is doing, we are assessing directly this relationship between immune function and the parasite that is challenging the fitness of that animal.”

Such specificity has already given researchers new insights, he said.

Before this research, said Owen, it was thought the flies only impacted the nestlings. The larvae would only be in the nest and the nestling would have lesions.

“When we went and did our tests, we found that mothers are also developing an immune response,” he said. That will help researchers assess what price the mothers are paying in energy and resources, particularly when they’re already stressed by the rigors of rearing young. And to know a pathogen’s impact, researchers need to know who is paying and at what price.

Over time, researchers should be able to measure immune-system variations in different populations of birds and see how they affect their survival—a fundamental component of evolutionary selection. Researchers can also look for birds that are more resistant to pathogens. Owen said these might then be bred or transplanted as part of a conservation strategy.