Of Schemes and Memes Blog

Best of Nature Network, nature.com blogs and Scitable: 7 – 13 July


Jennifer Carpenter reports in the News Blog that US and Canadian researchers have evolved a population of fruitflies that can count:

The result, presented on 9 July at the First Joint Congress on Evolutionary Biology in Ottawa, Canada, supports the notion that the neural mechanisms underlying basic arithmetic skills first emerged hundreds of millions of years ago. It could also eventually offer a key to understanding why some people have problems with numbers.

Few doubt that our closest animal relatives have some capacity to count. A variety of clever studies have also revealed the numerical skills of more distant species, including salamandersfish and bees. But until now, no one has ever tried to genetically enhance an animal’s counting ability.

If you want to hear more about these numerically savvy insects, then continue to Jennifer’s post.


Kathleen Raven announces in the Spoonful of Medicine Blog, the burgeoning field of do-it-yourself biomedical research got a major endorsement this week when the genetic testing heavyweight 23andMe announced that it had bought the community health site CureTogether for an undisclosed sum:

With CureTogether, a social networking site that enables users to conduct their own research studies by sharing and aggregating health information, California-based 23andMe appears to be getting serious about expanding its efforts in the Web-based, participant-driven research arena.

Already, peer-reviewed studies involving 23andMe’s 150,000 customers have yielded novel genetic insights into Parkinson’s diseasehypothyroidism and common traits such as freckling. CureTogether’s infrastructure and user base—which span some 500 medical conditions—should only make such patient-driven research easier.

What does the future hold for 23andMe? Find out in Kathleen’s post.

There is no “normal”

In a similar vein, this week’s Soapbox Science post is by Dr. Chris Gunter. She explains that, “There is no ‘normal’ ” and has a frank and stimulating discussion about personal genomics:

My own experience with my genomic data has been quite positive. I am a single mother. I was about to turn 40. I was trying to decide how much life insurance to buy before I crossed that cost milestone. We all deal with “Big Life Decisions” in our own way; I need as much information as possible. (e.g. How can people not find out the sex of the baby in advance? I can’t even begin to imagine that!) I thus thought, why not get so-called direct-to-consumer genomic testing and find out what I could?

Feel free to join in the conversation.

2011 Weather Extremes

Climate changes do increased the odds for many — but not all — extreme weather events in 2011, explains Quirin Schiermeier in the News Blog. However, an analysis of the atmospheric and hydrological conditions that favoured the devastating monsoon floods last summer in Thailand found no fingerprint of climate change in that event.
These are the main findings reported today by the the group for Attribution of Climate-related Events (ACE) — a loose coalition formed last year of climate researchers in the United States, Canada and Britain. The group is working towards an international fast-analysis system for assessing the impact of climate change on weird weather on an annual basis. The results of its first attribution exercise — which also includes the 2011 drought in Eastern Africa and the exceptionally cold 2010–11 winter in the United Kingdom — appear in the July issue of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.
More research is discussed in Quirin’s post

Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting

This year’s meeting of Nobel Laureates was dedicated to Physics, as more than 25 Nobel Laureates gathered on the picturesque island of Lindau, ready to respond to the eager questions from early career scientists. Set on Lake Constance and running from 1st -6th July, the meeting provided a rare chance for selected young scientists to meet with Nobel Laureates for a gathering of plenary discussions and informal conversations. The extra bonus for this year’s attendees was that CERN announced the discovery of the Higgs Boson on Wednesday, allowing everyone to see first-hand the reaction of the physics Nobel laureates. Read our summary of the conference, including videos and links to blog posts, here.
Asteroids delivered water to Earth
Eric Hand, reporting in the News Blog,  links out to a new study published today in Science, that explains asteroids delivered water to Earth:

How did the Earth get its oceans? The primordial Earth was a seething ball of magma, so the water that it began with would have evaporated into space. As a result, planetary scientists have long debated which of two types of objects, comets or asteroids, were more responsible for delivering Earth’s water.A new study, published today in Science, says that asteroids were the source. The authors, led by Conel Alexander of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, in Washington DC, analysed the isotopic abundances of nitrogen and hydrogen in 86 primitive meteorites, and found that they coordinate with Earth’s.

Find out more in Eric’s post.


Science of Swamps

Paige Brown reveals in her latest post, a trip into the Atchafalaya Basin in Bayou Sorrel, Louisiana is a surreal experience. Check out her photo coverage of the swamp in her blog post:

But these beautiful swamps deserve a look beneath the surface. Beyond their beauty, the Louisiana wetlands play important roles in ecosystem services and protection of the state’s coastline. These wetlands and the cypress trees that populate them, as shown here, act to naturally protect the coastline from erosion and hurricane damage, to store and convey floodwaters, and to absorb sediments and contaminants. Swamps and wetlands are some of the largest natural carbon sinks in the world, sequestering excess carbon dioxide that would otherwise drive further climatic warming.  

Mighty Cypress Tree.

Continue to her post for more science and pictures.

HPV Vaccine for boys

Daniel Cressey discloses in the News Blog, boys in Australia are to be offered a vaccine against human papillomavirus (HPV):

The Gardasil HPV vaccine, which was developed in Australia, will be funded for 12 and 13 year-old boys from next year as part of the country’s National Immunisation Program, the ministry of health announced today. Women and girls began being vaccinated in the country in 2007, and a significant drop in cervical cancer was seen shortly after [Lancet, 377, 2085-92 (2011)].

“Already the HPV vaccine has had an impact,” said Tanya Plibersek, Australia’s minister for health in astatement today. It is estimated that a quarter of new infections will be avoided by extending the vaccine to boys.”

Learn more about this in Daniel’s report.

Death of the Mouse

Scitable’s blogger,  Khalil A. Cassimally explains in his latest post, the manner in which we interact with our computers is outdated:

We still slide a pointing device on a flat surface or our index finger on a touchscreen. We are speaking to our computers through 2D motion and buttons (left, right, up, down and left click, right click) when we live in a 3D world. But our interaction with computers is about to jump a notch with the introduction of Leap Motion, a small device which allows you to control your computer by gesturing your hands and fingers in mid-air. It’s quite awesome and the potential uses of this technology are only now being tapped into.

The Globe

Viktor Poór‘s cartoon this week is inspired by the phenomenon that due to the curvature of the globe, distant objects are hidden in the ocean:



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