Viruses make their living by breaking into cells and using the machinery and energy in the cell to reproduce. Once inside, some viruses immediately hijack the cell and make copies of themselves which burst out into the world to infect new cells. Other viruses take a staid approach, though. Instead of taking over the cell, they quietly slip a copy of their genes into its DNA. When the cell divides, it copies the newly acquired viral genes along with the rest of its genome. It’s a better deal for the virus, since all of the cell’s descendants will be carrying viral genes which can eventually come out of hiding to commandeer the cell and replicate. A really lucky virus is one that finds itself inside an egg cell. Getting into the DNA of a single cell means getting copied into all of its daughter cells, but getting into the DNA of an egg cell means getting copied into every cell in the organism that grows from the egg…and from there into all of the organism’s offspring. Lucky viruses that succeed in pulling off that trick can still break out and cause trouble, but they can also become integrated into their host’s genome; instead of struggling to reproduce, they can then just kick back and enjoy the ride while we lumber along, making copies of them whenever we make new cells or have children. Continue reading
Last year, I wrote about how some ants can find their way home after finding food. They have the remarkable ability to account for all the twists and turns they made while foraging and calculate a direct path leading straight back to their nest. A reader emailed to ask if I thought humans would ever be able to do something similar or to achieve the level of co-ordination shown by ants. This post is based on my reply, where I pointed out several things that humans are amazingly good at doing — in fact, we do them so well and with such ease that you might be surprised by how difficult they actually are! I’ve spent a lot of time on Inspiring Science talking about behaviours and abilities which show that other animals aren’t just simple automata because I think it’s important to make the point that although humans are unique, we aren’t special; we’re just another species with our own particular tricks for surviving in this world. I’ll take a different tack in this post and talk about some of the ways we stand out! Continue reading
A study from the University of Edinburgh claims to have found the basis of our intelligence in thousands of genes scattered throughout our genome. Although the discovery was made possible by a new statistical method and modern sequencing technology, how the results are interpreted hinges upon a century-old debate about what intelligence is and how we measure it. Will we ever be able to measure something so indefinable or discover the genes behind it? Continue reading
In a pair of studies published last year, researchers across Europe used computer simulations to make major advances in our understanding of HIV. Taking advantage of distributed computing networks, they simulated key processes and molecular interactions in the life cycle of the virus, identifying new targets for drug therapy. Continue reading
“I’m sorry about what happened yesterday. I…I wasn’t myself.” Those words, or something like them, have been offered countless times as an explanation for (mis)behaviour, but what do they actually mean? People seem to have a sense of an intrinsic self, a personality they identify with, and many people are concerned about how outside factors might (like birth control pills) influence this personality or change the way they behave. In this post, I’d like to explore how we construct and define our sense of self, but rather than writing an essay on the subject, I’m hoping to start a discussion about it. Continue reading
While popular imagination may be fascinated by when our ancestors first began to walk upright, scientific debate has focused on whether these early humans were still skilled climbers. A group of researchers in New Hampshire addressed the issue in a paper recently published in PNAS, gleaning new data from modern humans who climb regularly.