Friday, January 26, 2007

Science and Politics (or Sex)

With the significant changes to the political landscape this month, it's now finally possible to see what is in store for science in general with the Democrats at the rudder.

As noted here, the Science and Technology committee was heading in a very different direction under the previous Republican oversight. Some of the claims the Executive administration used distorted the scientific findings in some rather grievous manners, most notably the suppression of contradictory data, a fundamental transgression of what science holds dear, a dogged and unbiased search for natural truths.

Gah, that's too depressing. Here, have some much more fun eye candy about the invisible world of spider sex. Don't say I never did anything for you.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Sperm Followup

The NYT has a neat interview with a sperm scientist.

From the article:

Q. What are some of the underappreciated attributes of sperm?

A. I’m fascinated by how determined they are. Sperm — each one seems an individual in the way they move. When they change from one motion to another, it’s fascinating.

Moreover, they have the ability to do much more than most other human cells: they crawl long distances in a short period of time, they can sense their surroundings. In fact, they have molecules that are much the same as olfactory receptors in our noses.

As you watch them under a microscope, you get the sense that they are going somewhere, or at least “think” they are. They surround an egg and vigorously try to fuse with it. They don’t give up until they run out of energy.

This is true. Sperm might not be more than a human cell converted into a living micro-rocket with a genetic payload, but they require a ton of specialized abilities in order to complete their biological imperative. They must be mobile, be able to detect a very small target in a huge environment, be able to deliver the package to a receptive ova and be a champion survivor in a very hostile theater of operations. Not bad for one of the smallest cells in the body, eh?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

I'm easy like a Sunday Morning

When I was younger my brother had a Faith No More B-sides album that we played a lot. It only contained four songs, but between a cover of The Commodores 'Easy' and the disturbingly quirky 'Das Schutzenfest', it got a lot of play time between the two of us.

I was immediately reminded of such a great disc when I read about a glorious rhino birth.

Artificial insemination is nothing new, but the fact that the Father's name was Easy Boy was all too coincidental.

In much more disturbing sperm news, there this bit about a couple who have won the right in court to use their dead son's sperm to sire a grandchild in the name of continuing their genetic legacy. I mean, I know grandparents tend to get fixated on the prosperity of their kids' kids, but this is ridiculous.

And every once and a while, someone doesn't even bother with sperm and goes the virgin route.

Speaking of virgins, apparently Mary has shown up as a popsicle.

Same Science-Time, Same Science-Channel

I'll be accepting the Science Challenge from the folks over at Just Science, which should send stunning shockwaves through the readership. I'll be attempting to bring some focused relevance to some of the work I'm currently involved in, but I also thought I'd solicit ideas from you, gentle reader. I'd be interested in fielding any general question about the Life Sciences or specific questions in the fields of chemical biology, molecular biology or developmental biology. If such a question tickles your fancy, email me at

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Double your pleasure: Two-headed Reptile found.

Scientists find two-headed fossil.

While a reptile, Hyphalosaurus was not a dinosaur. Instead, it belonged to a diverse group of primitive aquatic and semi-aquatic creatures called choristoderes. Some choristoderes looked like lizards or crocodiles, while others resembled miniature versions of plesiosaurs, ancient marine reptiles with barrel-shaped bodies, short tails, paddle-like limbs and, in some cases, long serpentine necks — somewhat like the mythical Loch Ness monster.

I swear, I totally made this thing up when I was eight years old.

Being a sea creature, these fossils have been found all over the place. Two-headedness, as the article shows, usually results from early injury to the developing embryo. A German embryologist named William Roux first showed this in 1888 by stabbing a 2-cell stage frog embryo with a hot needle, effectively destroying that totipotent cell. The resulting embryos mostly just died. Other experiments with defects introduced in later divisions showed marvelous effort to field a functioning animal, but resulted in some disturbingly crippled creatures somewhere between functional and lethal. A successive series of defect, recombination and isolation experiments after Roux's work laid the bedrock for what is modern developmental biology.

Keep in mind, most of these ideas and experiments were done without the re-discovery of Mendel's groundbreaking work, and Darwin's grasp of cellular mechanics in Origin of Species was nowhere near even this sophistication. This is causal science at its best.

Being a reptile, the poor guy (guys?) probably had a heck of a time deciding which way to go.

Image credit: Jianjun Li And Eric Buffetaut

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Ripsaw Robots #1

Ripsaw Robots will be a new feature that focuses on robotics in a very broad scope. From the useless to the revolutionary to the just plain giant and fantasy, Lish will bring you all the robot fix he can find.

The last couple days has been abuzz with China's new test of an anti-satellite weapon, which threatens to turn our atmosphere from a realm of commerce and research into an active new frontline of diplomacy and militarization. That being the case, news on NASA's new THEMIS project, set to launch next month was largely buried. The five mini-satellite's mission is to probe the elusive magenetosphere and the geomagnetic substorms that bolster the Northern Lights, a system that is poorly understood at the present date. Hopefully the Chinese don't get too triggerhappy with their new toys.

Speaking of toys, have a look at this thing, called an unicycle tank. First described in a 1933 Popular Science magazine, the monowheel device originally was designed for military use, but modern tinkerers have hit upon some more appealing uses. The monowheel rides with what appears to be simple ease, but I doubt folks are going to be trading in their Harleys anytime soon, it just doesn't have the majesty and menace of a motorcycle.

Finally, Disney has up and done it, adding robotic elements to their classic Disney heads. The end result in the context of song and stage is astonishingly realistic, you might catch yourself thinking you're watching some animation.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Trojans of Science

Condoms themselves appear to have quite a rich and awesome history.

But here at the Ripsaw we're always cutting towards the future, and even in the realm of prophylactics, there's new science to be found.

First off is this 'molecular condom' research coming out of Utah. It's a rather clever piece of biomedical engineering, using hydrogel polymers that can switch from liquid (for application) to a solid (for while being unused in the vagina) and back to a liquid (when in contact with semen). Hydrogel polymers can absorb an amazing amount of proteins and liposomes. We use similar material in our lab to stamp glass slides with lipid bilayers, which in execution isn't too far off from how an ejaculation might ink this stamp.

South of the border, they seem to have hit upon a similar idea using algae as a starting substrate.

Could be creepier, I suppose. The alternative is perhaps a later model of the Sperm Cube.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Robot Parade: Robots obey what the children say

Control robots with your mind.

I'm not sure I need to say anything else. That's awesome.

Runner-up - From Omni Brain: The Robot Fish.

Tangled Bank #71

The newest edition of the blog carnival, Tangled Bank is up. Head on over to The Voltage Gate for a delightful dose of science, history and hilariously out of fashion powdered wigs.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Stem Cells, Shmem Shmells.

Thought I'd toss a few thoughts up here regarding the latest news on stem cells, as there's been a bunch.

I'm sure most have seen the big splash in the Washington Post about amniotic stem cells. This is because adult stem cells are fairly limited in what they offer for research and embryonic stem cells have all sorts of political issues surrounding their fair use in science. Prior to that report came this one from South Korea where there is work on producing cloned embryonic stem cells. The moral outrage on this procedure has yet to be accurately gauged, but I suspect it won't pass the litmus test, the C-word tends to upset people for somewhat curious reasons.

Of course, there appear to be tremendous results just around the corner. Parkinson's is one of those home run targets that will likely get a lot of attention in the mainstream press. President Bush has only vetoed one bill in his time in office, and of course, that was stem cell funding from last year. Congress is going to take another run at this legislation, but don't expect any surprises, it will likely meet a similar fate.

What this all means is the science is making big strides both in the forward and lateral motion. Amniotic stem cells are a big deal, but it does not eliminate any need for embryonic stem cells for research. If anything, it intesifies the need for them in the short term. Science, as always, is a cumulative, endless task. Waiting excitedly for the end would be a lot like waiting for Godot.

Thursday, January 04, 2007


Check it: Scientists use nanoparticles to combat tumors.

This truly is akin to aiming a ray gun at a patients and torching the tumors with these mightily manufactured particles. There appear to be a number of folks in the patent race, so this therapeutic may come to life sooner rather than later. Fingers crossed! Particles too!

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Tripoli Six Update

As mentioned in this space earlier, the ongoing trial in Libya of five Bulgarian nurses and one Palestinian doctor has worsened. Death sentences were handed out late last year, some excerpts of the best editorial available can be found here.

This kind of gross distortion of those who would practice medicine shows how very far science and democracy have to go in parts of the world.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Getting the pure stuff

Happy New Year!

Enjoy a quick and fun article on the science of saffron. A most expensive spice, despite how much you pay for cardamom at the supermarket. Apparently one can cut one's stash with turmeric, most likely to turn a little extra profit. If you have some coffee filters and bleach, though, you can out these charlatans!

On a quick aside, I rarely see such wonderfully water soluble molecules in my line of work. Most prosecuted small molecules these days are terribly hydrophobic.