Saturday, February 27, 2010

Drinking and Flying

High tolerance, whether innate or a product of hard drinking, is a good idea for an animal, particularly if you're the 'prey' part of a predator-prey relationship. You won't make it very long if the slightest whiff of fermenting fruit sends you wobbling into the waiting jaws of a snake or owl. Fruit bats are one such creature that will eat fermented fruit and nectar.

The natural question is how much booze can a bat consume before drunkenness affects it's behaviour. Luckily, a recent paper in PLoS ONE has done the homework, as Ars Technica reports:
To test the fruit bat's alcohol tolerance, researchers from Canada gave two groups of bats, from a variety of different species, a sugar water drink. One of the group's drinks was spiked with 1.5 percent alcohol, and both groups were made to drink the same amount per gram of body weight. After waiting a short time, the bats were then released, whereupon they flew through an obstacle course. The researchers measured the time it took to get through the course and how often the bats collided with obstacles. In addition, the echolocation calls were recorded to see if those varied.
According to the research, a large portion had blood alcohol concentrations of 110mg per 100mL or greater, yet still maneuvered the course quickly, and without obstacle collision.

No word on how their performance was affected in other areas.


Thursday, February 25, 2010


It's been said that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, but it can actually be quite complex. Most people have been in a situation where a sarcastic remark is misinterpreted - a situation exacerbated when dealing with the written word stripped of tone and other cues. Over at The Frontal Cortex, Jonah Lehrer talks a bit about how the brain deals with it and processes reality:
Given the mental difficulties involved in deciphering sarcasm, it's interesting to note that the right hemisphere has been repeatedly implicated as an essential component of sarcastic processing. For instance, a 2005 study of patients with lesions to the ventromedial area of the right prefrontal cortex found that they exhibited severe deficits in understanding sarcastic speech, at least when compared to people with left PFC lesions. And then there's this 2008 study, which showed that people hear sarcasm better when it's presented to their left ear.
For some early examples of sarcasm, you need look no further than the bible, where the prophet Elijah taunts Baal worshipers to provide proof of their god (1 Kings 18:27):
At noon Elijah started making fun of them: "Pray louder! He is a god! Maybe he is day-dreaming or relieving himself, or perhaps he's gone off on a trip! Or maybe he's sleeping, and you've got to wake him up!"
There's a splash of irony there too.


Depressing Numbers for Grad Students

This has come up occasionally on the blog, but here are some sobering figures from an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education published last year (subscription required):
Studies have found that graduate school is not a particularly healthy place. At the University of California at Berkeley, 67 percent of graduate students said they had felt hopeless at least once in the last year; 54 percent felt so depressed they had a hard time functioning; and nearly 10 percent said they had considered suicide, a 2004 survey found. By comparison, an estimated 9.5 percent of American adults suffer from depressive disorders in a given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Meanwhile, nearly a quarter of the graduate students surveyed were not aware of mental-health services on the campus. And another Berkeley study recently found that graduate students were becoming increasingly disillusioned with careers in academe and did not view large research institutions as family-friendly workplaces.
It goes on to state that of those who considered suicide, 47% didn't tell anybody and 52% did not seek professional help. That a quarter aren't aware of campus mental-health services certainly doesn't help.


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Bear Fight!

Yesterday's Globe and Mail reports on research indicating that grizzly populations are starting to migrate into polar bear territory. This crossing has occurred in the past, as evidenced by the 2006 discovery of a polar-grizzly hybrid, but is becoming more frequent. This, of course, has re-ignited the age-old debate over which would win in a fight. From the article:
Dr. Rockwell, dedicated academic that he is, has pondered such a tilt at length. He believes the two bears would most likely come into contact around the peat banks that make the only decent denning ground within Wapusk National Park. Because polar bears only den when they're giving birth, the most possible scenario would see a weakened female take on a grizzly of either sex.

“If it's a fight between a 1,200-pound male polar bear and a 600-pound grizzly, I think we know who would win,” Dr. Rockwell said. “But in this likeliest of cases, it's debatable. There are actually reports in the literature where grizzlies have killed denning polar bear females.”
Naturally, non-experts are weighing in as well:
“Polar bears are used to eating seals which are easy prey, while grizzlys [sic] hunt lions,” wrote one dubiously informed member of a Yahoo message board.

At, members have devoted 19 pages worth of comments to the prospective fight.
Bear baiting may not be dead after all.


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Local Science: Caspase Activation and Differentiation

This seems to be all over the news this morning, but in case it was missed: researchers at the OHRI, led by Lynn Megeney, have found that caspase-3 induced DNA damage is required for differentiation into muscle fibre. As usual, Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science has a great summary of the PNAS paper and analysis.
But Larsen has found that stem cells deliberately break their own DNA by recruiting caspase-3 and CAD. This act of self-harm switches on important genes that are needed for differentiation; without it, the generalist cells can't specialise. This is an entirely new way of activating genes and it appears to be both important and widespread. [...] The myoblasts need these breaks to produce muscle fibres and to create the breaks, they rely on caspase-3 and its ability to activate CAD. Larsen managed to block the development of muscle fibres by dousing myoblasts with chemicals that neutralise caspase-3. The same thing happened if he used cells with mutant versions of CAD, which couldn't be activated. In both cases, the cells failed to show any signs of broken DNA.


Monday, February 15, 2010

NASA Announces New Mission


Thursday, February 11, 2010

Smoking Rolling and Cancer

Another recent stimulating conversation raised the following question: Do people whose livelihoods depend on hand rolling cigars have higher rates of cancer in their fingers or hands? Or, in other words, does handling tobacco affect your risk of certain cancers?

Unfortunately, there isn't much information out there on the subject. But here at the Bayblab we don't take "I don't know" for an answer, so rather than disappoint our reader here's what the literature has to say:

First off, most of the relevant research out there deals with cigarettes not cigars, but they seem a reasonable proxy to answer the original question. Secondly, there is very little dealing with rolling and not smoking.

Some background on roll-your-own (RYO) cigarettes - Compared to factory made cigarettes, smokers of RYO are exposed to similar carcinogen levels as measured by post-smoke metabolic markers. This is true both unadjusted and adjusted for variable such as puff duration, BMI and age. However in Canada, where 17% of smokers use RYO cigarettes, those smokers are less likely to quit, more addicted to nicotine and heavier smokers.

Smoking is known to have cutaneous effects such as poor wound healing, premature skin aging and of course oral cancers. Association with melanoma is inconclusive. However, in studies of melanomas on the palms and soles, there is actually in inverse correlation with smoking.

Again, this all has to do with smoking an not rolling. Presumably smokers have more skin contact with tobacco and tobacco smoke than non-smokers - think of the telltale yellow fingertips - yet have reduced incidence of melanomas in this area. This suggests that dermal contact with tobacco, while contributing to several other conditions, doesn't increase the risk of cancer in the finger or hand. Taking this, and despite the dearth of data on rolling alone, I will tentatively say that the people hand rolling your cigars on your next trip to Cuba are not at considerable increased risk of 'finger cancer'. But I will await the definitive study.

To read more about cancer and cancer research, check out the latest edition of the Cancer Research Blog Carnival that went up at Health and Life on Friday.


Sunday, February 07, 2010


I worked with a Japanese postdoc on the human genome project in Toronto in 2000. He would constantly be twirling his pen in his hand absent mindedly while he talked to me. I asked him about how he did it and he told me that I should not bother and that he thought of it as a bad habit. A few months later I could do some basic penspinning and it did indeed become a bad habit. In fact my thumb aches while I do it, but still I do it while thinking.
Check these guys out:
World Pen spinning championships from Hong Kong.

H/T Boingboing.


Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Newsflash: scientific publishing is controlled by cliques

14 leading stem cell scientists have written an open letter criticizing the undue influence of small groups of scientists on what gets published in journals. Of course this is not news to anyone in the field, and a pervasive problem in science.

Here are some excerpts and opinions of the letter:

" Stem cell experts say they believe a small group of scientists is effectively vetoing high quality science from publication in journals.In some cases they say it might be done to deliberately stifle research that is in competition with their own. "

" The journal editor decides to publish the research paper usually when the majority of reviewers are satisfied. But professors Lovell-Badge and Smith believe that increasingly some reviewers are sending back negative comments or asking for unnecessary experiments to be carried out for spurious reasons. In some cases they say it is being done simply to delay or stop the publication of the research so that the reviewers or their close colleagues can be the first to have their own research published. "

" "Editors should be able to see when reviewers are asking for unnecessary experiments to be carried out and if it's the difference between an opinion of the referee and a factual problem. But what tends to happen is that the editor takes the opinion of an editor rather than the factual substance," he said. One of the main reasons for this, according to Professor Smith, is that journals are in competition. Editors have become dependent on favoured experts who both review other people's stem cell research and submit their own papers to the journal. If the editor offends these experts, they may lose future papers to a rival. This is leading to the journals publishing mediocre science, according to Professor Lovell-Badge. "