Amazon’s $23-million book

When I see an ordinary book advertised for thousands of dollars, I assume it’s some kind of data error. It never occurred to me that it could be a result of runaway competitive pricing algorithms. But take a look….

Traces of evolution

I’m reading Animals without Backbones, Volume 2, and every so often I read something that reminds me of our long, long chain of common descent. It’s an old book, about 60 years old, but that means it’s simple and readable. Sure, every so often I mark something to look up in a newer book. But it’s great casual reading.

For example, roundworms, such as earthworms, have developed hemoglobin to help them carry oxygen around their bodies. It’s just floating in their blood: they haven’t developed blood cells. But it’s there. Six hundred million years separate us, but we have hemoglobin, too, slightly different but recognizably a related molecule doing the same job, with random changes in the non-functional parts. Isn’t knowledge wonderful?

You can read more about roundworms here. Or you can read about out last common ancestor (European Molecular Biology Laboratory (2010, February 1). Last ancestor humans shared with worms had sophisticated brain, microRNAs show. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 21, 2012, from­ /releases/2010/02/100201101905.htm).

Toronto eyes new mandatory vaccinations

It has been 22 years since the city of Toronto specified which vaccinations students must have to attend school. Parents can opt out by getting a notarized statement of conscience or religion and presenting it to the school; but 98% of parents allow their children to get the free immunizations. As a result, polio and diphtheria are things of the past; we are relatively free of the measles and mumps outbreaks seen elsewhere; childhood deafness is almost unknown; congenital defects have dropped; and children don’t die of lockjaw from a scratch with a rusty nail.

However, science has been marching on, and the province now offers free vaccines against chickenpox, meningitis, whooping cough, rotavirus, invasive pneumococcal disease, hepatitis B, and human papilloma virus for girls. Yet none of these health benefits are not included in the list of vaccinations needed for school. The city’s medical office of health is asking for an evaluation and recommendations based on facts about disease prevention and dangers.

Is it time for Toronto to provide the push that protects children against those diseases? Any of them can be fatal. I say that they should at least be considered and at least some of them added to the mandatory list.

What a difference exercise makes!

Holy smokes! Athlete muscles – old man muscles – old athlete muscles. “The incredible unaging triathlete.”

Galapagos tortoise species rediscovered?

Skeleton of Floreana island tortoise

The Galapagos Islands are a group famous for having different species on each island due to evolutionary processes, including several species of Galapagos tortoise. Four of the fifteen (or ten or eleven) known species (or subspecies) have gone extinct.

The  species native to the island of Floreana was believed to be extinct for 160 years, since the early 1840s. Now, scientists have found evidence that a remnant population may have survived in an isolated part of the larger island of Isabela. The tortoise native to Floreana was Chelonoidis elophantopus,* recognized by the saddleback shape of its shell. The tortoise of Isabela is Chelonoidis becki, with a dome-shaped shell.

Three years ago, a team from Yale University found tortoises around the Wolf Volcano on Isabela that appeared to be hybrids, giving them the hope that they could breed back to a tortoise that looked like the extinct species (Extinct tortoise ‘could live again’). However, further exploration has turned up more than eighty that seem to have a C. elophantopus as one of their parents—and some of them are only fifteen years old. That suggests that a few purebred elophantopus tortoises survive. The scientists’ calculations suggest that there are about 38 of them, including both males and females. See “‘Extinct’ Galapagos tortoise may still exist.”

The tortoises may have been moved by whaling ships that picked up the tortoises on Floreana, then stopped at the north end of Isabela and lost a few tortoises in their stopover. It’s hard to see the tortoises in the brush growing over the rugged and arid country. The group took samples of 1,600 tortoises to find their 84 hybrids–half of one percent of the population. They will now discuss with the government whether to keep on surveying and whether they can set up a breeding program to recreate the tortoise of Floreana.

What’s the difference between a turtle and a tortoise? Ha! What I grew up calling a “turtle” is more properly called a “terrapin.” And Galapagos is spelled “Galápagos.”

*Now renamed Chelonoidis nigra nigra

Remembering Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens in Central Park

Remembering Christopher Hitchens, who died of complications from esophageal cancer:

  • The New Yorker. “Postscript: Christopher Hitchens, 1949 – 2011″ by Christopher Buckley.
    When we made a date for a meal over the phone, he’d say, “It will be a feast of reason and a flow of soul.” I never doubted that this rococo phraseology was an original coinage, until I chanced on it, one day, in the pages of P. G. Wodehouse, the writer Christopher perhaps esteemed above all others. Wodehouse was the Master. When we met for another lunch, one that lasted only five hours, he was all a-grin with pride as he handed me a newly minted paperback reissue of Wodehouse with “Introduction by Christopher Hitchens.” “Doesn’t get much better than that,” he said, and who could not agree?
    …Christopher’s inner circle, Martin [Amis], Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, James Fenton, Julian Barnes, comprise more or less the greatest writers in the English language. That’s some posse.
  • “Christopher Hitchens and the protocol for public figure deaths,” by Glenn Greenwald.
    Hitchens was obviously more urbane and well-written than the average neocon faux-warrior, but he was also often more vindictive and barbaric about his war cheerleading. One of the only writers with the courage to provide the full picture of Hitchens upon his death was Gawker‘s John Cook, who — in an extremely well-written and poignant obituary – detailed Hitchens’ vehement, unapologetic passion for the attack on Iraq and his dismissive indifference to the mass human suffering it caused, accompanied by petty contempt for those who objected (he denounced the Dixie Chicks as being “sluts” and “fucking fat slags” for the crime of mildly disparaging the Commander-in-Chief). As Cook put it: “it must not be forgotten in mourning him that he got the single most consequential decision in his life horrifically, petulantly wrong”; indeed: “People make mistakes. What’s horrible about Hitchens’ ardor for the invasion of Iraq is that he clung to it long after it became clear that a grotesque error had been made.” …Subordinating his brave and intellectually rigorous defense of atheism, Hitchens’ glee over violence, bloodshed, and perpetual war dominated the last decade of his life. …There seems to be this sense that his excellent facility with prose excuses his sins. Part of that is the by-product of America’s refusal to come to terms with just how heinous and destructive was the attack on Iraq. That act of aggression is still viewed as a mere run-of-the-mill “mistake” — hey, we all make them, so we shouldn’t hold it against Hitch – rather than what it is: the generation’s worst political crime, one for which he remained fully unrepentant and even proud.
    The blood on his hands — and on the hands of those who played an even greater, more direct role in all of this totally unjustified killing of innocents — is supposed to be ignored because he was an accomplished member in good standing of our media and political class. It’s a way the political and media class protects and celebrates itself: our elite members are to be heralded and their victims forgotten.
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Evolution of complexity in molecular “machines”

V-ATPase proton pump and evolutionary pathway

A proton pump is a ring of proteins embedded in a cell wall, which moves molecules, atoms, or ions through the wall in a preferred direction. Research into the V-ATPase proton pump in eukaryotes has a ring of  six linked protein molecules in the membrane wall and a ring of eight inside the cell. As its name implies, it moves hydrogen ions (protons), through the cell wall. Research into its history shows that greater complexity can evolve without a change in function. The “V” indicates a plant vacuolar pump. They are found not in the external cell wall but in the walls of vacuoles, or liquid-filled spaces, within the cell.

…the complexity of an essential molecular machine—the hexameric transmembrane ring of the eukaryotic V-ATPase proton pump—increased hundreds of millions of years ago. We show that the ring of Fungi, which is composed of three paralogous proteins, evolved from a more ancient two-paralogue complex because of a gene duplication that was followed by loss in each daughter copy of specific interfaces by which it interacts with other ring proteins. These losses were complementary, so both copies became obligate components with restricted spatial roles in the complex. Reintroducing a single historical mutation from each paralogue lineage into the resurrected ancestral proteins is sufficient to recapitulate their asymmetric degeneration and trigger the requirement for the more elaborate three-component ring. Our experiments show that increased complexity in an essential molecular machine evolved because of simple, high-probability evolutionary processes, without the apparent evolution of novel functions. They point to a plausible mechanism for the evolution of complexity in other multi-paralogue protein complexes.

“Evolution of increased complexity in a molecular machine,” Gregory C. Finnigan, Victor Hanson-Smith, Tom H. Stevens & Joseph W. Thornton. Nature (2012). doi:10.1038/nature10724.

I won’t be able to give a detailed explanation until the description comes out from behind a paywall. There’s an explanation at Nature blog and one at  Kurzweil.

Look here for a diagram of V-ATPase. This diagram shows the ancestral molecule, in green, and its more specialized descendents, which need their increased complexity to properly assemble and function. The ancestor is on the left.

Evolution of V-ATPase protein chains


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