Cheaters usually don’t prosper

Check out this heartwarming tale of a Republican staffer who tried to retroactively get his GPA adjusted by hackers—he got caught, his pathetic attempts to cheat publicly aired, and now he has been fired.

The really sad thing is that GPAs aren’t that big a deal. They make a difference if you are trying to get into a post-bac academic program, but seriously…we all know you can be a dithering incompetent at school and get into business and government.

Oh, and the university this bozo wanted to hack? Texas Christian. Icing on the cake.

Doushantuo embryos dethroned?

Almost ten years ago, there was a spectacular fossil discovery in China: microfossils, tiny organisms preserved by phosphatization, that revealed amazing levels of fine detail. These specimens were identified as early animal embryos on the basis of a number of properties.

  • The cells were dimpled and shaped by adjoining cells, suggesting a flexible membrane—not a cell wall. This rules out algae, fungi, and plants.
  • The number of cells within each specimen was usually a power of 2. This is something we typically see in cleaving embryos, the sequence from 1 to 2 to 4 to 8 to 16 cells.
  • They were big. Typical somatic cells in animals are 5-10 µm in diameter, but ova can be a millimeter or more in diameter, and individual blastomeres (the cells in the cleavage stage embryo) can be several hundred µm across. These cells and the whole assemblage were in that size range.
  • The individual cells were uniform in size, as seen in many cleavage stage embryos, and contained organelles arranged in a consistent pattern.
  • They were often found encapsulated in a thin membrane, similar to the protective membrane around embryos.

There are some concerns about the interpretation, though. One troubling aspect of their distribution is that they are all only in the cleavage stage: we don’t see any gastrulas, the stage at which embryonic cells undergo shape changes and begin to move in a specific, directed manner. Studies of taphonomy (analyses of the processes that lead to fossilization) have shown that these later stages are particularly difficult to preserve, which potentially explains why we’re seeing a biased sample. Another unusual bias in the sample is that all of the embryos exhibit that regularity of division that produces equal-sized blastomeres—yet many invertebrate embryos have early asymmetric cleavages that produce recognizable, stereotyped distributions of cells. That asymmetry could be a feature that evolved late, but at the same time, some of the fossils were described as resembling molluscan trefoil embryos. Why aren’t the examples of early asymmetry translated into a later asymmetry?

Now there’s another reason to question the identity of the Doushantuo microfossils: they may be bacterial.

[Read more…]

Happy Morning After Cephalopodmas, everyone!

Are you all as exhausted from the festivities as I am? I partook a little too heavily of the traditional Driving-Long-Distances-In-The-Snow-To-Pick-Up-Returning-Progeny-Whose-Bus-Was-Over-An-Hour-Late part of the celebration, which means my brain is turning over a little slowly this morning. I’m going to sit and sip coffee for a while, and read some Science…expect something on the phosphatized embryos later!

This one is for the bearded mo-bio types out there

The rest of you might be totally lost. Here’s a soon-to-be-classic paper on the characterization of the Hoho2 gene (292K pdf)—the Santa phenotype seems to represent an optimization for an arctic niche. They suggest the allele might have had an origin in Neandertal populations, but then they also show its effect in reindeer and E. coli (yes, they have beardy bacteria). It’s a very confused paper.

In this paper we unequivocally identify and characterize the genetic determinant of the famous white beard of Santa Claus to be the ortholog of human KRT6B. The newly discovered gene is named Hoho2 for Human ortholog for hair ougmentation 2. The Santa gene Hoho2 is synthesized and codon optimized for codon expression. Successful heterologous protein expression is shown in three separate systems; E. coli, reindeer, and human. We further show that the bearded phenotype is tissue specific in mammalians, but not in prokaryotes. A Hoho2 specific RNAi knockout was constructed and shown to specifically disrupt the facial beard phenotype. Trans-complementation of the gene could be achieved using a synthetic RNAi resistant variant, indicating that the phenotype is truly a direct consequence of the Hoho2 gene and not due to indirect or off-target-effects on the phenotypic display.

The profile photo of that Wilkins guy looks like he might be a carrier—I just know he’ll gag over Figure 4, though.

P.S. I’ve categorized this one as “Molecular biology” and “Humor”. Do you know how rarely those two come together?

P.P.S. Everyone who reads the paper is probably going to come back and tell me why they don’t go together very often.

Claes S, Reindeer R, Nicolas S, Tomte NE, Sridhar D, Elf J (2006) Heterologous expression and functional characterization of the Santa Hoho2 gene. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. Northpole 12:25-31.

Justice in America

This country is thoroughly screwed up. Compare these two stories.

A man was found guilty of a $2 robbery, released on parole, then sentenced to life in prison after he tested positive for marijuana. It was in Texas, and the sentence has been commuted (after he’d served 16 years for smoking pot), but still, that’s insane.

ExxonMobil was fined $5 billion for their negligence in the Exxon Valdez tanker accident, which they haven’t paid and probably plan on never paying. They just got a friendly judge to cut the penalty in half.

Both sentences occurred at about the same time. Tyrone Brown got to sit in jail for half his life for a petty crime. Lee Raymond got to grow fat and obscenely rich after poisoning the environment, and his company lawyers get to play games with the law.

That’s America.