Eating human brains protected a tribe from brain disease

The Fore people, a once-isolated tribe in eastern Papua New Guinea, had a long-standing tradition of mortuary feasts — eating the dead from their own community at funerals. Men consumed the flesh of their deceased relatives, while women and children ate the brain. It was an expression of respect for the lost loved ones, but the practice wreaked havoc on the communities they left behind. That’s because a deadly molecule that lives in brains was spreading to the women who ate them, causing a horrible degenerative illness called “kuru” that at one point killed 2 percent of the population each year.

The practice was outlawed in the 1950s, and the kuru epidemic began to recede. But in its wake it left a curious and irreversible mark on the Fore, one that has implications far beyond Papua New Guinea: After years of eating brains, some Fore have developed a genetic resistance to the molecule that causes several fatal brain diseases, including kuru, mad cow disease and some cases of dementia.

The single, protective gene is identified in a study published…in the journal Nature. Researchers say the finding is a huge step toward understanding these diseases and other degenerative brain problems, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

The gene works by protecting people against prions, a strange and sometimes deadly kind of protein. Though prions are naturally manufactured in all mammals, they can be deformed in a way that makes them turn on the body that made them, acting like a virus and attacking tissue. The deformed prion is even capable of infecting the prions that surround it, reshaping them to mimic its structure and its malicious ways…

The study by Collinge and his colleagues offers a critical insight into ways that humans might be protected from the still-little-understood prions. They found it by examining the genetic code of those families at the center of the Fore’s kuru epidemic, people who they knew had been exposed to the disease at multiple feasts, who seemed to have escaped unscathed.

When the researchers looked at the part of the genome that encodes prion-manufacturing proteins, they found something completely unprecedented. Where humans and every other vertebrate animal in the world have an amino acid called glycine, the resistant Fore had a different amino acid, valine…

When the scientists re-created the genetic types observed in humans — giving the mice both the normal protein and the variant in roughly equal amounts — the mice were completely resistant to kuru and to CJD. But when they looked at a second group of mice that had been genetically modified to produce only the variant protein, giving them even stronger protection, the mice were resistant to every prion strain they tested — 18 in all.

“This is a striking example of Darwinian evolution in humans, the epidemic of prion disease selecting a single genetic change that provided complete protection against an invariably fatal dementia,” Collinge told Reuters…

Unintended consequences – one of the best reasons in science for basic research.

Fortunately, for our economy, beaucoup CEOs recognize the importance of that process. Unfortunately, for our economy, damned few of the hacks holding elected office recognize the importance of that process.

Population benefits of sexual selection confirm that males are useful

content.php

Biologists have long puzzled about how evolutionary selection, known for its ruthless requirement for efficiency, allows the existence of males — when in so many species their only contribution to reproduction are spermatozoa.

But research published…in Nature shows that sexual selection — when males compete and females choose over reproduction — improves population health and protects against extinction, even in the face of genetic stress from high levels of inbreeding.

The findings help explain why sex persists as a dominant mechanism for reproducing offspring.

Lead researcher Prof Matt Gage, from UEA’s School of Biological Sciences, said: “Sexual selection was Darwin’s second great idea, explaining the evolution of a fascinating array of sights, sounds and smells that help in the struggle to reproduce — sometimes at the expense of survival.

“Sexual selection operates when males compete for reproduction and females choose, and the existence of two different sexes encourages these processes. It ultimately dictates who gets to reproduce their genes into the next generation — so it’s a widespread and very powerful evolutionary force.

“Almost all multicellular species on earth reproduce using sex, but its existence isn’t easy to explain because sex carries big burdens, the most obvious of which is that only half of your offspring — daughters — will actually produce offspring. Why should any species waste all that effort on sons?

“We wanted to understand how Darwinian selection can allow this widespread and seemingly wasteful reproductive system to persist, when a system where all individuals produce offspring without sex — as in all-female asexual populations — would be a far more effective route to reproduce greater numbers of offspring.

“Our research shows that competition among males for reproduction provides a really important benefit, because it improves the genetic health of populations. Sexual selection achieves this by acting as a filter to remove harmful genetic mutations, helping populations to flourish and avoid extinction in the long-term.”

Phew! Had me worried for a while. 🙂

RTFA for details of the analysis.

Latest gun nut / Darwin Award story

A 9-year-old girl at a shooting range outside Las Vegas accidentally killed an instructor on Monday morning when she lost control of the Uzi he was showing her how to use.

A partial video of the incident — which does not show the instructor being shot — shows a slender young girl in a ponytail and pink shorts beside a man clad in camouflage pants, a black T-shirt and sunglasses. “Allriiight!” he says, congratulating her after she fires the gun in single-shot mode. “All right, full auto!” he says. Then comes a spray of bullets and a child’s scream before the video cuts off.

The girl, whose name wasn’t released, visited the outdoor shooting range while vacationing with her parents. She’d fired the 9mm weapon, designed for use by the Israeli defense forces in the 1940s, several times in single-shot mode. But when it was set to fully automatic, the weapon recoiled and she lost control.

“The guy just dropped,” Mohave County Sheriff Jim McCabe told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

The instructor, Charles Vacca, 39, of Lake Havasu City, suffered at least one gunshot wound to the head. He was airlifted to a Las Vegas hospital where he died Monday night…

Sorry, folks – but, the only victim that concerns me in this episode of stupidity is the little girl. The incident will burn in her memory for the rest of her life.

The stupidity rests with her parents and especially with the instructor who thought arm muscle, reflexes, hand and eye coordination in a 9-year-old girl were adequate for a first-time experience firing a full automatic firearm.

The range owner, other instructors, all the NRA-types will take refuge in laws and regulations. Written and enforced by idjits.

Thanks, Mike

Kentucky Khristian joins the ranks of Darwin Award contenders

snake-handling fool

A Kentucky snake-handling preacher who appeared in a television show about the religious practice has died of a snakebite after refusing medical treatment…

Jamie Coots was found dead about 10pm local time on Saturday at his house in Middlesboro, Kentucky, according to Middlesboro police chief Jeff Sharpe.

Emergency personnel had gone to his home about 90 minutes earlier after getting a call, police said. They found Coots suffering from a snakebite wound to his right hand, Sharpe said in a statement.

“After examination and discussion of possible dangers if the wound was not treated, treatment and transport to the hospital was refused,” the statement said.

The emergency responders left after failing to persuade Coots to get help but returned less than an hour later, the statement said.

They “discovered Mr Coots had passed away, apparently due to a venomous snakebite”, it said.

Coots appeared in a National Geographic television show titled Snake Salvation about Pentecostal preachers who defy the law to use serpents as part of their religious services.

Snake-handling, which is illegal in most places, is practised as a test of faith and guided by the theory that true believers will not be harmed.

It is particularly popular in parts of Appalachia. Middlesboro lies near the junction of Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee and is about 60 miles (100 km) north of Knoxville, Tennessee…

Easy resolution to the question of which ruled this man’s life: ignorance or stupidity?

Celebrate science and reason — it’s Darwin Day

darwin

Darwin Day, according to the International Darwin Day Foundation, is “a global celebration of science and reason held on or around Feb. 12, the birthday anniversary of evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin”. The idea of the celebration arose in 1993 as part of the activities of the Stanford Humanist Community, then headed by biologist Robert Stephens. And in the intervening 21 years, it has proliferated, with hundreds of events listed in cities around the world…

As an evolutionary biologist, and a scientist who finds great joy and meaning in communicating with the public, I am thrilled that there is a day around which so many events and seminars can be organised. That these activities celebrate evolutionary biology, science, and reason is particularly special.

I laud the work of the Darwin Day Foundation and all the organisations and people who make Darwin Day a highlight for curious, open and intellectually alive citizens. The Evolution & Ecology Research Centre, which I direct at UNSW, has been running a veritable fiesta of the Darwinian, with a conference and public lectures last week, and a seminar by eminent evolutionary psychologist Martin Daly on Tuesday 11th.

But it bears reflecting on the importance and modern relevance of Darwin himself.

Continue reading

I wouldn’t care to be the guy setting a record for the biggest insect removed from inside a human ear

Hendrik Helmer has taken out the unofficial title of having the largest cockroach removed from a human ear in Darwin.

He says dislodging the 2cm giant at Royal Darwin Hospital caused him agonising pain.

The cockroach took about 10 minutes to die after it was removed from his ear.

Mr Helmer, from the Darwin suburb of Karama, said his ordeal began early on Wednesday morning when he was woken up at about 2:30am by a sharp pain in his right ear.

He immediately thought some type of insect may have crawled into it while he slept…He said the pain was intense and despite a few bouts of relief began to get worse.

“I was hoping it was not a poisonous spider … I was hoping it didn’t bite me,” he said.

After trying to suck the insect out with a vacuum cleaner, he tried squirting water from a tap into his ear to flush it out…

“Whatever was in my ear didn’t like it at all,” he said.

As his pain increased, Mr Helmer, who works as a supervisor at a warehouse, roused his flatmate to take him to Royal Darwin Hospital, where he was quickly seen by a doctor.

Mr Helmer said the doctor put oil down the ear canal, which forced the still-unidentified insect to crawl in deeper but eventually it began to die.

“Near the 10 minute mark … somewhere about there, he started to stop burrowing but he was still in the throes of death twitching,” he said.

At that point the doctor put forceps into his ear and pulled out the cockroach…

“She said they had never pulled an insect this large out of someone’s ear,” Mr Helmer said.

Helmer says he’s not changing anything in his lifestyle – or sleepstyle; but, when some of his friends were asked for an opinion, they said they’ve started sleeping with headphones on or earbuds in their ears.

Eeoouugh!

Non-genetic inheritance, changing environments and adaptation

In the last two decades climate change emerged as a momentous threat to ecosystems and species, calling for — politics aside — a greater interest in the adaptation abilities of the world’s creatures. Understanding and predicting how populations will respond to climate fluctuations has been attracting a wealth of research into evolutionary biology and the molecular components of evolution; with some vital questions motivating these studies: namely, how organisms will handle their new circumstances, or how populations will be able to cope with climate change in order to survive and avoid extinction. With the far-reaching impacts of climate change being felt globally, it is no wonder that scientists are desperate to understand evolution and its implications for adaptation abilities.

Until recently, biological information was thought to be transmitted across generations by DNA sequencing alone. Furthermore, adaptation to the environment was thought to only occur with Darwin’s mechanism of rare mutations of the DNA that are selected for the reproductive advantage that they provide. However, scientists are now paying increased attention to non-DNA factors that are inherited and can actually help offspring adapt to their environment.

An article published last week in Non-Genetic Inheritance — an open access journal by Versita, brings attention to this new mode of inheritance. The authors refer to a process called Transgenerational plasticity (TGP). Plasticity is a term used to describe how an organism changes its phenotype (e.g. morphology, physiology or behaviour) to adapt to its environment. For example, some animals become more hairy when bred in cold conditions. Transgenerational plasticity refers to offspring developing the adaptations, when the parents experience the environment…

Dr. Santiago Salinas and his colleagues put forward a convincing argument that not only could non-genetic fast-acting mechanisms of adaptation be widespread in nature (complimenting the slower DNA-mutation based methods of adaptation) but that they could also be of increasing importance as rapid climate change continues. In an extensive catalogue of examples they suggest that non-genetic inheritance mechanisms are being used in a wide variety of life forms.

Salinas surveyed 80 empirical studies from 63 species to argue that the new adaptive method is sufficiently established both theoretically and empirically to merit inclusion as a coping tactic against rapid environmental changes. Moreover, modulation of the system could be used in agriculture to ensure that crop species are fully adapted to their environments.

A fascinating approach to questions hindered and hampered outside the realm of science and research by political hacks and seat-of-the-pants pundits. Nonetheless interesting and thought-provoking.

Here’s a link to the article – which is not available free to the general public, yet. Worth keeping an eye out for it, though. Should be a fun read and lead to beaucoup learning and discussion. Some of us should live long enough to see if the hypotheses prove to be correct. 🙂

Florida’s contender for Darwin Award


Click on photo if you really need to see Archbold in action

A 32-year-old man downed dozens of roaches and worms to win a python at a Florida reptile store, then collapsed and died outside minutes later.

Edward Archbold was among 20 to 30 contestants participating in Friday night’s “Midnight Madness” event at Ben Siegel Reptiles in Deerfield Beach, authorities said.

The participants’ goal: consume as many insects and worms as they could to take home a $850 python.

Archbold swallowed roach after roach, worm after worm. While the store didn’t say exactly how many Archbold consumed, the owner told CNN affiliate WPLG that he was “the life of the party…”

Soon after the contest was over, Archbold fell ill and began to vomit, the Broward County Sheriff’s Office said Monday.

A friend called for medical help. Then, Archbold himself dialed 911…

Eventually, he fell to the ground outside the store, the sheriff’s office said. An ambulance took him to North Broward Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.

Life of the Party, eh?

Australian finally compensated after Oz customs coppers thought his shampoo was ecstasy


Neil Parry fought in court for 17 months for justice

An Australian man has been paid thousands of dollars in compensation after being wrongly accused of smuggling ecstasy in shampoo bottles.

Neil Parry of Darwin spent three days in jail after being arrested at the city’s airport last year. But his bottles were found to contain shampoo and conditioner, not 1.6kg of liquid ecstasy as alleged.

Mr Parry said the AUS$100,000 payout from customs “was not worth it”.

He told ABC radio he had spent 17 months in a legal battle with the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service, and that most of the compensation would go towards his legal costs.

In a statement, the customs service said “mistakes were made during the presumptive testing of Mr Parry’s goods” and additional drug-testing procedures had been introduced.

Mr Parry’s boat and the homes of two friends were searched during the customs investigation.

I know we all tire of asking these questions. Why does it take 17 months for governments to admit they’ve screwed up? It’s bad enough they’ve messed with the life of an innocent citizen – but, they care so much about protecting their pimply-ass bureaucratic turf that someone like Mr. Parry has to hire a lawyer and sue to get any compensation for being locked-up and his home, his friends, being tossed by the coppers. They are the criminals.

The funny thing is I went through exactly the same hassle decades ago landing in Scotland. A dillweed customs copper thought the Woolite cold water soap powder in a plastic bag in my backpack was heroin or coke or whatever. He snorted a tiny bit on the spot to prove I was a drug smuggler – and his mates rolled on the floor while he ran for water to flush through his sinuses while bubbles popped out of his nose.

They let me go; but, required I had to exit the UK within 30 days. They had to apply some sort of sanction to cover their stupidity.

Tales from the Royal Society

The world’s oldest scientific academy, the Royal Society, has made its historical journal, which includes over 8000 scientific papers, permanently free to access online.

The plague, the Great Fire of London and even the imprisonment of its editor – just a few of the early setbacks that hit the Royal Society’s early editions of the Philosophical Transactions. But against the odds the publication, which first appeared in 1665, survived. Its archives offer a fascinating window on the history of scientific progress over the last few centuries.

Nestling amongst illustrious papers by Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin are some undiscovered gems from the dawn of the scientific revolution, including gruesome tales of students being struck by lightning and experimental blood transfusions.

RTFA – more important, visit the site. Enjoy wandering through the history of many minds in the quest for knowledge.