Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Penguins Evolving Faster Than Thought

Posted: 17 Nov 2009 12:15 PM PST


The evolutionary march of the penguins happened in double time, according to new genetic calculations.

sciencenewsA study of DNA from ancient and modern Adélie penguins suggests that scientists may have miscalculated the rates at which genetic clocks tick off evolutionary time in other species as well. A team of researchers collected mitochondrial DNA from penguins currently living in rookeries in Antarctica and from bones of penguins that had lived in the same spot as long as 44,000 years ago. Analysis of the DNA reveals that the penguins are evolving on a molecular scale two to six times faster than standard calculations indicated, the team reports in the November Trends in Genetics.

Mitochondria are small structures that generate power inside cells. The organelles were once free-living bacteria and have kept their own circle of DNA, which encodes many of the proteins needed for power production. The function of mitochondria is so crucial to the cell that any changes to mitochondrial genes are likely to throw a wrench into a cell's energy-generating capabilities. As a result, the mitochondrial DNA has evolved slowly. Scientists can use the number of changes in mitochondrial DNA between different species to calculate a molecular rate of evolution and estimate how long ago the species shared a common ancestor.

One of the most basic assumptions is that the rate of evolution is the same in all species, says Stephan Schuster, a genomicist at Pennsylvania State University in State College. But some scientists have begun questioning that assumption. Now, the new study provides evidence that, at least for Adélie penguins, evolution is happening faster than previously thought.

adelie_penguin_noaa"This is a beautiful study," says Schuster, who was not involved in the work. "Some people have been saying this for a long time, but no one has shown this in such a systematic way."

Most calculations of the rate of evolution are based upon changes in a part of the mitochondrial DNA called the hypervariable region, where change happens at a relatively fast pace. The new study decoded the entire mitochondrial genome, not just the hypervariable region, and compared the rate of change among penguin generations for all parts of the DNA circle.

Usually, ancient DNA is badly degraded, but because Antarctica is so cold, specimens were well preserved. The team was able to extract DNA from several penguin generations, including 12 modern penguins and eight ancient penguins that ranged from 250 to 44,000 years old.

Using the ancient DNA allowed the researchers to track all of the changes in the mitochondrial genome, a process that is normally invisible when scientists compare DNA between two modern species, says Dee Denver, an evolutionary geneticist at Oregon State University in Corvallis and a coauthor of the study. Each difference in the DNA between two species is calculated as a single change when, in fact, multiple changes might have happened. The team was able to see all of these steps by comparing the modern birds to several generations of their ancestors.

Overall, the whole mitochondrial genome was experiencing more changes per unit time than previous methods had predicted. But each part of the circular mitochondrial genome evolves at different rates, the team found. Protein-coding genes change more slowly than the hypervariable region, and genes that encode transfer RNAs and ribosomal RNAs change even more slowly than protein coding regions. These data indicate that scientists should calculate evolutionary rates on the basis of the entire mitochondrial genome, not just a small part, Denver says.

Using only the hypervariable region might also throw off estimates of human migrations as well as broader evolutionary time scales, he says. And each species may have its own rate that can't be generalized to other species, even if closely related. "When you're extrapolating these rates to another group, there's a very good chance it's an underestimate," Denver says.

Images: 1) CIA. 2) NOAA

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New Site Tracks How Stimulus Dollars Flow to Science

Posted: 17 Nov 2009 11:33 AM PST


More than $20 billion in stimulus money has poured into the nation's universities, according to a new collection of data gathered by a trio of research consortia.

California's institutions were the big winners, snagging 1,602 grants worth almost $1.2 billion, but the money was spread across the country. Alaska received the most per capita at $248, more than three times the next state, Tennessee, on that metric.

"This is the largest investment in science and research probably since Sputnik," said Bill Andresen, a vice president at the University of Pennsylvania in charge of Federal affairs and president of The Science Coalition. "We think it's really important to tell this story in a thoughtful, useful way so that the public and policymakers can understand how it's being spent."

The Science Coalition teamed with the Association of American Universities and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities to gather data from most of the major research institutions across the country.

The information is posted to a new website,, which was unveiled today at a press conference in Washington, D.C. Wired Science assembled the state-by-state data into a Google document that includes the total number of grants and money.

The new bottom-up data collection effort is a good addition to the information on the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act spending being published by the Federal government at


See Also:

WiSci 2.0: Alexis Madrigal's Twitter, Google Reader feed, and green tech history research site; Wired Science on Twitter and Facebook.

Ancient Goat Lived Like a Lizard

Posted: 17 Nov 2009 10:33 AM PST


Scientists have long wondered how an extinct goat that once lived on barren Mediterranean islands could survive in such a harsh environment. Now they know: In a first-of-its-kind trick for the mammal kingdom, this goat lived like a lizard.

Myotragus balearicus skeletons were made from lamellar-zonal bone, which is textured like the growth rings of trees, according to a fossil analysis published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. It's found only in creatures that can't regulate their body temperature internally, such as amphibians and reptiles.

myotragusbonesThese animals slow their metabolism when food is scarce or temperatures are cold, and speed up during times of plenty. The presence of this pattern in Myotragus suggests that the goat "grew unlike any other mammal but similar to crocodiles at slow and flexible rates," wrote the study's authors.

The odd goat's on-the-fly metabolic adjustment was probably an evolutionary leftover from when mammals first split from dinosaurs, and hadn't yet developed the relatively steady, fast-paced metabolic rates they now possess.

Myotragus also had an extremely tiny, energy-efficient brain. For most of the last 6 million years, these adaptations made it well-suited for existence on the arid, nutrient-starved islands of Majorca and Minorca, where it had no predators. But they were also the downfall: When humans arrived on the islands 5,000 years ago, they had no trouble hunting the sluggish goat to extinction.

Images: 1) A Myotragus reconstruction/Wikipedia. 2) Myotragus' lamellar-zonal tissue structure/PNAS.

See Also:

Citation: "Physiological and life history strategies of a fossil large mammal in a resource-limited environment." By Meike Kohler and Salvador Moya. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 106, No. 46, Nov. 16, 2009.

Brandon Keim's Twitter stream and reportorial outtakes; Wired Science on Twitter. Brandon is currently working on a book about ecosystem and planetary tipping points.