Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Biological bits and bites

Biology never ceases to amaze -- or, at least, to amaze me. How so? Life is hardier and more innovative than it's often given credit for. We humans included.

Time-traveling moss
To take one recent example, "Frozen 1,500-Year-Old Antarctic Moss Revived." Moss, as lowly as it might seem, is still multi-cellular. Its ability to withstand long-term freezing is a Big Deal.

Who knows? That wacky moss may offer clues how to freeze and revive people (outside of Futurama, that is). Some form of cold sleep is one way humanity might someday colonize the stars.

This moss can  claim credit for persistence -- but persistence is a quite different concept than eco-friendly. As an instance of persistent, eco-unfriendly life, consider that a "Methane-spewing microbe blamed in Earth's worst mass extinction." It is at least plausible that:

A microbe that spewed humongous amounts of methane into Earth's atmosphere triggered a global catastrophe 252 million years ago that wiped out upwards of 90 percent of marine species and 70 percent of land vertebrates.

(For those of you keeping score at home, this was the Permian / Cretaceous Extinction Event. By comparison, the Cretaceous / Tertiary Extinction Event that did in the dinosaurs about 66 million years ago was benign.)

Fine feathered fiends?
And speaking of dinosaurs, "Siberian Discovery Suggests Almost All Dinosaurs Were Feathered: Jurassic fossils may mean that feathers were all in the family."

Not only extinction events shaped the biodiversity we see all around us. More than one evolutionary path sometimes exists (or, at the least, once existed) to key biological functions. From " 'Aliens of sea' provide new insight into evolution," a case in point:

A comb jelly
Now in an in-depth look at the genes of 10 comb jelly species, researchers report that these mysterious creatures evolved a unique nervous system in a completely different way than the rest of the animal kingdom.

Comb jellies, it turns out, are a very early form of animal life. Before sponges first appeared -- sans neurons -- comb jellies had a nervous system.

And speaking of the nervous system (with an excursion into physics, a major interest of mine), "Nanoparticles open a new window into the brain."

Researchers at Stanford University in the US have developed the first non-invasive imaging technique that can detect micron-sized structures within blood vessels in the brains of mice. The method involves detecting near-infrared fluorescent light from single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWCNTs) that are injected into the mice. The ability to monitor the structure of blood vessels – and the blood flow within them – is extremely important for treating conditions such as strokes, dementia and brain tumours. 

Did you catch non-invasive in that quote? At such time as anyone has a reason to peer inside my brain, high on my list of questions is "Will it be non-invasive?" (Here's hoping that reason is the shiny new computer/brain interface I've long wanted and recently wrote about.)

In order to persist, this biological entity requires sustenance. Till next time ...

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