Posts tagged: Biology

The science of quality sleep: how not to stay awake


Sleep has been dominating the news this week, in particular the topic of sleep quality. A good night’s sleep is often tough to achieve, and a bad night’s sleep can become truly damaging to our mental health if it happens repeatedly. But what exactly causes unsatisfactory sleep?

Sleep is a vital part of our lives, although we spend most of it unconscious. It’s the time to repair and recover after the day’s events, so it’s no wonder that sleep contributes to our mental health and wellbeing. Insomnia is not only frustrating but is linked to depression, irritability, and increased risk of heart disease. If you are managing to drift off to sleep, however, you still need to consider …

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Walking, but not flying, with moas

owen and moa

Ever since seeing this amazing computer reconstruction of moas on David Attenborough’s Life of Birds, I’ve been slightly obsessed by them.  These giant birds seem to have died out in around 1400, hunted to extinction by the Maori who arrived on the island about a century before. There have been the odd unsubstantiated report of sightings, but I do suspect if there were six foot tall carnivorous birds running around New Zealand, we’d probably know about it. Attenborough’s computer reconstruction seems to be the nearest we’re likely to get to get to seeing these creatures.

But that hasn’t stopped scientists from finding out as much as they can, from the few moa bones we have. A new study in …

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How do geckos climb?


What do insects and geckos have in common? The answer, from the recent Royal Society conference on cell adhesion, is that their climbing mechanism depends on van der Waals forces (as well as friction and shear stress). However, at a structural and molecular level, the way they attach to surfaces is different. This was the focus of the conference – to understand the forces involved in cell adhesion, how geometry is important, and what we understand about adhesion at a molecular level.

Kevin Kendall (the main conference organiser) introduced the meeting by reminding everyone that it was 100 years since Ross Granville Harrison demonstrated that embryonic cells could be grown in culture outside of an organism – and …

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The diverse ecology of the Brazilian Amazon – spare a thought for the viruses


In February 1541, Spanish conquistador Francisco de Orellana led a force from modern-day Ecuador into the South American interior to discover the fabled land of cinnamon. Constantly threatened by the native Omaguas tribe, they reached the Rio Negro and became the first Europeans to witness the mighty Amazon. Over 450 years later, scientists are still adding to our understanding of the world’s greatest rain forest, the most ecologically rich region on the planet, including the discovery of a new giant virus in the Rio Negro.

Home to one in ten known species in the world, the Amazon is a rich region for discovering new life. Along with the many species of insects, mammals and birds, a recent expedition identified …

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How to model a cat – and how not


Writing in 1945 on the role of models in biology, Arturo Rosenblueth and Norbert Wiener (founders of cybernetics, arguably a precursor of today’s systems biology) said, “The best material model for a cat is another, or preferably the same cat”. In a review in BMC Biology, Jeremy Gunawardena revisits the topic and confronts again the thorny issue of how to marry the elegance and precision of mathematical modeling to the messy reality of biology.


Gunawardena, who is a mathematician by training, provides a highly readable historical and personal perspective on how to approach models of biological systems for biologists. Currently, forward or reverse modeling are the two strategies described in the literature.

It is forward modeling that is the …

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Genome regulation: it’s the geometry, stupid!

Transcription factories (from Cope et al.)

The emerging realization that cells modify the three dimensional arrangement of DNA in order to regulate the genome is changing the way that scientists think about how and when genes are expressed. A new study in Genome Biology goes so far as to show that information about the shape of the genome is sufficient on its own to accurately classify cells according to leukemia subtype.

Traditional genomics studies have examined the genome as a linear DNA sequence. According to this viewpoint, each gene is surrounded by adjacent sequence – in particular the region of the genome immediately upstream – that regulates its expression: when the gene is turned off and on, and to what degree.

It has long been known that …

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Eggs are for science, not just for Easter


Eggs are a staple part of our diet. But is there more to them than being tasty and full of protein? We take a look at their potential uses, and the recent findings researchers are frying up. No eggs were harmed during the writing of this blog.

Easter approaches, and with Easter we usually find eggs. You won’t be hearing about eggs of the chocolate variety, however. Just regular old shelled eggs. Boring? Not exactly. We crack open our journals and dish out recent egg-based research that bring new insights into the potential uses of eggs.

Cracking down on allergies

Could eggs hold the key to gaining control over allergic reactions? Research findings are suggesting there’s some potential here.


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Genetics link found in search for sweet strawberries

Holding strawberries

This post by Madeleine Martiniello looks at findings from two new papers on strawberries published in BMC Genomics today, and is republished with kind permission from The Conversation.

If you’ve ever bitten into a strawberry and wondered why it doesn’t taste as sweet or as good as others in the punnet, you could blame the fruit’s genetics.

Two studies, published today in BMC Genomics, found that the distinct flavour of strawberry has been linked to a specific gene, present in some varieties of the fruit – but not in others.

The gene FaFAD1 controls a key flavour volatile compound in strawberries called gamma-decalactone, which is described as “fruity”, “sweet” or “peachy” and …

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Weapons of low-mass destruction: small ORFs in the uncharted parasite genome

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bmc biol

In our genomes, there is a whole host of genes hiding in plain sight. These genes are not included in major genome annotation efforts and are widely ignored in the literature, even though in some cases they have been conserved for as long as 550 million years.

So how have these genes remained hidden? There is a short answer to this. Literally so: the genes are short.

Scientists and computer algorithms that hunt for genes expect their prey to take the form of long sequences of hundreds of nucleotides, and quite simply ignore or discard candidates that do not meet this criterion.

But they are perhaps unwise to do so, suggest a number of recent reports, including an article in BMC

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Farm animals are more intelligent than they seem

Credit to Brian Squibb (35)

Following on from our post last month about research into the intelligence of goats, we asked one of the authors of the article, Elodie Briefer, to tell us more about why she studies goats and what is was like to carry out the research. Here’s what she had to say…

My main research interests are vocal communication and cognition. I carried out my PhD in the Bioacoustics team of Paris South University, on the song of skylarks. After my PhD, I moved to Queen Mary University of London to work with Alan McElligott on mother-offspring vocal recognition and vocal ontogeny in goats, and later on, on goat personality and emotions.

Expanding the breadth of research on cognition

After a few …

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