They existed 3.5 billion years before humans evolved on Earth. They’re neither dead nor alive. Their genetic material is embedded in our own DNA, constituting close to 10% of the human genome. They can attack most forms of life on our planet, from bacteria to plants to animals. And yet, if it wasn’t for them, humans might never have existed.
No, that’s not the blurb for a new Hollywood blockbuster, although recent developments have proven, once again, that truth is decidedly more bizarre than fiction. Now that “coronavirus” has become a household word, the level of interest in all things virus-related is growing at an unprecedented rate. At the time of writing, coronavirus and COVID-19 topics dominated search traffic on Google, as well as trends on social media. A recent FAQ on this blog addresses many of the questions we hear on these topics.
We spend a lot of time looking at history and imagining—”what was it like when…?” As a biologist, I find myself most drawn to stories about the evolution of life. Why does this plant have purplish leaves? How did this species end up in a symbiotic relationship with this other species? How did this animal get to this tiny island 20 miles off the Southern coast of Iceland?
That last one was too specific to be rhetorical, wasn’t it? The volcanic island of Surtsey broke the ocean surface on November 14, 1963, and continued to erupt until June 5, 1967, reaching its maximum size of 2.7 km2 (about the size of Central Park in New York City). At this size, it was large enough to be a good site for biocolonization. Only a few scientists are allowed to visit the island, ensuring that colonization of the island can occur without human interference. Continue reading “Science Visitors Only: Watching Life Grow on a New Island”
Science touches our lives every day, yet far too often, scientific concepts become misrepresented in the media. This problem is not an innocent one; swaying public opinion on policies about climate change and vaccination has a large impact on public health. It is the responsibility of every person to achieve a basic level of scientific literacy. More important than being able to recall a library of scientific facts is the decision making process we go through; a mindset that is asking questions and addressing uncertainty can serve as a barrier against deception. Understanding the words common among scientific studies should help non scientists navigate through the sea of information they encounter online.
This article covers nine common misconceptions about scientific terms. We recognize that there are hundreds of words that are misused, so we encourage your contributions below.
When discussing human evolution, many people think of bones uncovered in Africa like the skeleton named Lucy or mention that Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans coexisted in Europe. However, our evolution has not ceased in recent years even if the evolutionary changes are not as physically obvious as the difference between Homo erectus and Homo sapiens’ skulls. Any changes in our environment influence the complement of genes we pass on to our children and grandchildren and even if those genes are passed on to the next generation. When it comes to diseases, some deadly infections can have a tremendous influence on the immune genes passed on to descendants, especially by those individuals that survived the disease and had children. However, determining whether any genetic changes are due to disease can be difficult. There is not always a control population for a particular disease where one group was infected and the other not, to identify changes. Luckily for the study published in PNAS, researchers had access to two populations that had experienced similar disease pressure (e.g., the Black Death) and one genetically related population that had not. Continue reading “The Role of the Black Death in Human Evolution”
I have a confession. Please don’t tell my husband, but I have a crush. I am head-over-heels in love with…words and language. Boy, that feels good to get off my chest. What, did you think I was going to confess I was dating George Clooney or something? I already tried that, but he was just so clingy.
This luscious lexical love affair has gone on since I was probably two, and I’m still smitten. I’ve always been the “word girl.” No joke, they tested me in kindergarten and I apparently had a fifth grade reading level and seventh grade vocabulary. My parents and teacher sat me down and asked me how I’d feel about skipping the first grade and I stopped brushing my Barbie’s hair and said, “That’s a fascinating proposition, let me ruminate on it and I’ll get back to you.” Continue reading “Fascinating evolutions and a juicy confession”