Science News: Demoting Termites, Monitoring Blood Pressure with Your Smartphone and Finding Amelia Earhart’s Bones

A few science news items caught my eye this week.

Macro image of a termite (Isoptera) found under a rock. Image by Sanjay Acharay via Wikimedia Commons.

Wood-Shattering Revelation: Termites have been recategorized based on genetic and other evidence. Turns out, they are just social cockroaches and thus, have become part of the cockroach order Blattodea rather than remaining in a separate order. This decision was not made lightly, but based on years of debate amongst American entomologists. The insects will still retain termite in their name, but they gain a reputation for surviving apocalyptic events. Read about the update to the insect name master list by the Entomological Society of America.

Sphygmomanometer with cuff, used to measure blood pressure via Wikimedia Commons.

Blood Pressure Measurements at the Tip of Your Finger: A blood pressure cuff is bulky, annoying but accurate for monitoring the effort needed for pushing blood around your body. While this device is a fairly simple one, in the developing world it is not that common. However, mobile phones are available to many more globally so why not find a way to put the two together? Turns out that smartphones are equipped with hardware that can be used to measure blood pressure. By adding a device that attaches to the back of a smartphone and with the press of a finger, you can monitor your blood pressure. While not currently as accurate as a blood pressure cuff, the people that tried the mobile blood pressure device were able to quickly adapt to using it, making it easy to take several readings for continuous monitoring. A pocket-sized blood pressure monitor without the nasty squeeze of your arm sounds like a great medical advancement for treating high blood pressure. See a video of the device.

Photo of Amelia Earhart and Dr. Edward C. Elliott, president of Purdue University with the Lockheed Electra she later disappeared in. Purdue University paid for the plane as Earhart was then a consultant on aeronautics there. Photo taken 20 August 1936.

For a Forensic ID, All You Needed Was a Picture, Old Clothing and Some Numbers: The quest to find where Amelia Earhart may have landed in the Pacific Ocean has been investigated and speculated about since she and her navigator disappeared July 2, 1937. In fact, skeletal remains had been found on a remote island in the South Pacific in 1940 along with other artifacts–a woman’s shoe, an American sextant box, but the bones were identified as a man by a physician at the time. Unfortunately, these remains have subsequently been lost. Recently, an anthropologist decided to take the measurements made in 1940, and using a modern-day techniques including a program that estimates stature, sex and ancestry, and he found that the bone measurements were more consistent with Earhart than with 99% of the reference sample used. In addition, using a photograph of the American pilot that had scale generated bone lengths of her humerus and radius and measuring her clothing from a collection gave a number for her tibia. All these numbers strongly suggest the skeletal remains were Earhart’s. Read the press release.

Sequencing Ancient DNA: A Mammoth on the Tip of the Iceberg?

Sitting on my kitchen counter, atop a pile of junk mail I have yet to throw away, is the current issue (May 2009) of the National Geographic. Emblazoned in red letters are the words “Ice Baby: Secrets of a Frozen Mammoth” under the picture of an incredibly well preserved wooly mammoth baby. The feature article tells the story of “Baby Lyuba” a baby mammoth discovered in 2007 on the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia. A companion article focuses on the possibility of bringing extinct animals—like the mammoth— back to life.

Sequencing the mammoth genome could just be the beginning.

Sequencing the mammoth genome could just be the beginning.

This article heralds the sequencing of a large portion of the nuclear genome of the mammoth by a team from Pennsylvania State University led by Webb Miller and Stephan C. Schuster (1). A happy coincidence because I was working on a blog about this same subject. The idea of sequencing the genome of an animal that last walked this earth tens of thousands of years ago captures my imagination. Continue reading

Machu Picchu, Lost Civilizations, and the Resolving Power of DNA Analysis

450px-peru_machu_picchu_sunrise“We are on our way to Machu Picchu”. These were the words to which I awoke on a warm July morning in 1984 as I struggled to make sense of where I was and regain my memory of the previous week. My family and I had come to Peru on a mission to learn more about the Incas, a civilization that I knew little about. We had spent two days in the coast-hugging capital city of Lima, seen much of the colonial architecture and even experienced the full force of a midnight earthquake (which because of sheer exhaustion I had slept right through). We had taken a plane down the coast in the hope of visiting the smaller city of Arequipa, but cloud cover had forced us to fly several hundred miles further south to a town called Tacna and take an overnight taxi ride to Arequipa through the Peruvian desert. Continue reading