Dolphin epizootic

Researchers have detected morbillivirus in the bodies of dolphins that died off the Atlantic shores of the U.S. They conclude that there’s an epizootic affecting the younger dolphins that have never been exposed to that virus.

Here’s more about the epizootic and other dolphin die-offs from previous years.

Morbillivirus is in the same viral genus as the viruses for measles and rinderpest.


“Only a theory” debunked

There are some arguments based on misunderstanding of how words are used in science, or deliberate mis-use by creationists. Just as Microsoft Windows is different from house windows, so in science “theory” means well-tested explanation, not a notion. Hypothesis means explanation that can be tested, not wild-assed guess. Here are seven science words that we need to learn, or perhaps that scientists should simply stop using. I’m in favour of replacing “theory of evolution” with “explanation of the mechanics of evolution” to start with:

“Just a theory”: Seven mis-used science words

Penicillin breeding experiments!

Scientists used their understanding of the MAT (mating) genes to induce penicillin mold to reproduce sexually, producing spores with new gene combinations. They hope to breed new strains that will kill antibiotic-resistant disease germs. And now that they have induced penicillin to breed, instead of merely producing identical spores, for the first time in a hundred years, they’ll try the same with other important fungi, such as those that produce other antibiotics.

Giant viruses join as another ancestral superkingdom

Mimivirus in amoeba. Credit: Professor Didier Raoult, Rickettsia Laboratory, La Timone, Marseille, France

A study of the proteins of giant viruses adds them to the list of primitive life forms that have existed since the dawn of life.  They seem to constitute a fourth superkingdom. Professor Gustavo Caetano-Anollés led the analysis.

Scientists found ancient structural patterns in the folds of the virus proteins, which are virtually molecular fossils. Folds that are common to all organisms studied are the oldest. Less common folds are, literally, new wrinkles.

The researchers looked at archaea, bacteria, eukaryotes, and both kinds of viruses. The giant viruses have  biochemistry for making proteins, which small viruses have lost.

Modern viruses have lost much of their biochemical machinery and become obligate parasites of an extreme kind.

Giant Viruses Coexisted With the Cellular Ancestors and Represent a Distinct Supergroup Along With Superkingdoms Archaea, Bacteria and Eukarya

Breakthrough in cancer tests

Jack Andraka (BBC image)


Jack Andraka, a high school student in Maryland has invented a new test for cancer of the liver, breast, or pancreas while they are still in early stage. It’s a blood test that takes seconds. It takes 1/168 of the time, is 400 times more sensitives, and it costs 1/26,000 as much. It costs 3¢ and takes five minutes.

The test uses single-walled carbon nanotubes to detect mesothelin, a protein that is overproduced by certain cancers, including mesothelioma and ovarian and pancreatic adenocarcinoma. Jack sent 200 e-mails about his proposed experimental procedure and collected 199 rejections. He found one lab where he test his idea.

Jack credits the Internet for online journals–he was reading in biology class about nanotubes as biosensors–and search engines that let him learn enough to do this.

Research to follow: Oakley Evolution Lab

Todd Oakley at the University of California is unravelling the mysteries of convergent and parallel evolution in a variety of organisms, aided by post-doctoral students on several projects.

“My research involves comparisons of independent evolutionary transitions such as convergence, parallelism, duplication, and homoplasy. Such transitions provide an element of replicability within the singular history of life, and can yield insight into the most general evolutionary questions. For example, when and why do the same molecular or developmental changes underlie similar – though independent – evolutionary changes? What are the fates of duplicated genes, and what causes them to diversify or retain old functions? How can we even determine what is an independent evolutionary event?”

One of his students has discovered that chitons have eye lenses made of aragonite, which is the material used by trilobites.

Aphids can make carotenoids to capture solar energy



Aphids can make their own carotenoids and may be able to capture chemical energy directly from the sun. Green or orange individuals contain more carotenoids and more ATP than white ones. The secret of plant growth is that they capture photons and use them to create high-energy atomic bonds that can be used elsewhere to run chemical reactions that build plant material.

Unlike other organisms, they are not ingesting or otherwise harbouring photosynthetic symbionts such as bacteria or algae. They are making their own photosynthetic chemicals. They may not be able to do full photosynthesis as plants do, but among animals they are unique.

It will be interesting to find out how they evolved this unique (for animals) biochemical machinery.

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