Weekend News Nuggets
Here are a dozen notable news reports from the past week bearing on evolution, design and amazing discoveries.
- Red rover, rat rover: Live Science posted a cool video about research lab at Northwestern University that is imitating rats’ whiskers to improve robot sensing. Rat whiskers are very sensitive. Neurons in the base of the follicle convey a great deal of information to the brain, even in the dark. The researchers envision this tactile technology on Mars rovers someday.
- Spiderman glue: We’ve heard about efforts to duplicate spider silk, that ideal substance stronger than steel, but what about the glue that coats the silk strands? PhysOrg and Science Daily reported that scientists in Wyoming are trying to imitate that, too. Why? They could help technology “advance toward a new generation of biobased adhesives and glues – ‘green’ glues that replace existing petroleum-based products for a range of uses.” Spider web glue “is among the world’s strongest biological glues,” the article said. That’s impressive considering the strength of barnacle adhesion.
Speaking of spiders, the largest orb-weaving spider was discovered in Madagascar, reported Science Daily. The picture shows a 1.5-inch big momma with legs 5 inches long sitting in her web over a meter across. Images of Shelob in Lord of the Rings come to mind. Another discovery reported by all the science news outlets including Science Daily and National Geographic News was a “surreal” critter that is the first known spider to feed primarily on plant material instead of animal tissue. This new species that New Scientist called the “Gandhi” of spiders is “the only known vegetarian out of some 40,000 spider species.” Evolutionists attributed the origin of this herbivorous spider to “co-evolution” and “social evolution.”
- The Sting for health: Imagine skin cream loaded with stinging cells from jellyfish. Ouch! It sounds like torture, but actually, it wouldn’t hurt a bit – and could actually heal. New Scientist reported that a company in Israel is harvesting stinging cells from the marine creatures (like sea anemones and jellyfish) to use as microscopic hypodermic needles. These natural harpoons, called nematocysts, have more force than the pressure needed to create diamonds inside the earth. They can penetrate fish scales as well as human skin.
The NanoCyte company in Israel has patented a way to control the firing of the cells by putting them in a cream. They replace the toxins in the cells with drugs that can deliver healing medicines to diabetics and others afflicted with disease. Contact with skin activates the cells and delivers the payload. Some applications are in Phase II trials. Some day, your dentist may apply gum numbing medicine to your mouth with a cream instead of a surgical needle, and you may apply anti-itch creams with technologies derived from jellyfish. The article said, “One square centimetre of cream-coated skin can contain as many as a million tiny needles.” They promise the process is painless.
- Now ear this: You have two sets of neurons in your inner ear, reported Science Daily. Type II neurons in the hair cells of the cochlea apparently come into play when the normal neurons are exposed to ear-piercing decibels. That being the case, they “may play a role in such reflexive withdrawals from potential trauma.”
- Hearing on the wing: A remarkable auditory sense has been found on butterfly wings. PhysOrg reported that a “remarkable structure” on the wing of the blue morpho butterfly acts like a tympanic membrane – an eardrum. “The unusual structure and properties of the membrane mean that this butterfly ear may be able to distinguish between low and high pitch sounds,” perhaps to detect and avoid predatory birds. “The team suggest [sic] that sensitivity to lower pitch sounds may detect the beating of birds’ wings, while higher pitches may tune into birdsong.”
- Lotus contemplation: The water-repellant properties of the lotus leaf (see 09/23/2009) are still being examined for secrets. PhysOrg posted a 5-second video showing a bead of water bouncing right off a lotus leaf. Duke University engineers are imitating the lotus “to improve the efficiency of modern engineering systems, such as power plants or electronic equipment, which must be cooled by removing heat through water evaporation and condensation.”
- Ida known better: Ida’s fame may be short-lived (see 05/19/2009). The monkey fossil that was hailed in a book and TV special as an evolutionary missing link is now being charged by another team as irrelevant and uninformative to human evolution, reported the BBC News. Of course, the discoverers of Darwinius a.k.a. Ida are not ready to concede. The new paper claims “this is an extinct side branch of the group leading to lemurs that is not in any way related to apes and monkeys.” How, then, do they explain the traits in Ida that are monkey-like? The answer, according to New Scientist: “convergent evolution”
- Ardi on grass? PhysOrg resurrected the theory that human evolution began when apes came down to walk in the African savannah, but did not comment on the claim this month that Ardipithecus showed our ancestors still lived in the forest trees (see 10/02/2009). New Scientist mentioned Ardi but couched the conflict in a forest of possibilities. Our ancestors in that time frame “lived either in dense forest or in a mosaic of woodland, shrub and grasses.” Now every side can win.
- Got genes? Scientists in the Netherlands are wondering how some people get by without 2000 chunks of DNA – about 0.12 percent of the human genome. New Scientist asked what these means in evolutionary terms. “Team leader Joris Veltman suggests that the regions his team flagged up may once have been essential but aren’t any more, either because we now need different abilities to survive, or genes have evolved elsewhere in the genome to do the same job, perhaps better.” That leaves many storytelling possibilities, but it doesn’t explain why evolution left the non-essential genes around in some people.
- Tinysaur and other extinct reptiles: The world’s smallest dinosaur was reported by PhysOrg – a 2-pound midget just 28 inches long.
Science Daily reported a pterosaur that was named “Darwinopterus” because it is alleged to fill a gap between two groups of pterosaurs (see also National Geographic News that announced “‘Darwin’s Wing’ Fills Evolution Gap” and BBC News that called it a “missing link.”) That positivist interpretation is not without problems. Science Daily quoted a team member: “We had always expected a gap-filler with typically intermediate features such as a moderately elongate tail � neither long nor short � but the strange thing about Darwinopterus is that it has a head and neck just like that of advanced pterosaurs, while the rest of the skeleton, including a very long tail, is identical to that of primitive forms” They invoked a modification of evolutionary theory called “modular evolution” to explain this. According to this interpretation, “natural selection was acting on and changing entire modules and not, as would normally be expected, just on single features such as the shape of the snout, or the form of a tooth.” This “controversial idea” requires more study, but might be applied to “many other cases among animals and plants where we know that rapid large scale evolution must have taken place.” See Live Science for more on this idea that is newly being applied to macroevolution.
Another strange-looking pterosaur seems to be supporting intelligent design rather than evolution. At least, PhysOrg reported that Sankar Chatterjee at Texas Tech admires it enough to imitate it. “At first glance, the 115-million-year-old pterosaur looks like a Cretaceous design disaster,” the article began – “With a tail rudder on its head and a spindly, bat-like body, Tapejara wellnhoferi may appear fit for nothing but extinction.” A second glance was in order, though: a team of scientists from three universities now says that “the animal’s strange body actually made it a masterpiece of nature�s drawing boards. Not only could it walk and fly, but also it could sail across the sea.” The article includes a video of Chatterjee working with models of Tapejara to invent a new spy plane.
- Mummy trees: “Sensational” was how one researcher described mummified trees in Norway that died in the middle ages but have not decayed for 500 years. Science Daily said it was found in a moist region where decomposition should occur quickly. Somehow the tree resin prevented decay by bacteria, insects and the wood’s own natural decomposition.
- Stem cell bonanza: New techniques for creating better stem cells from adult tissue were reported by Science Daily, the BBC News and PhysOrg. “The new technique, which uses three small drug-like chemicals, is 200 times more efficient and twice as fast as conventional methods for transforming adult human cells into stem cells” known as induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS). Shing Deng and a team at Scripps sought to imitate “a naturally occurring process in cells” when they hit pay dirt. The new method is “Efficient, Fast, Safe.”
These are just a taste of fascinating stories coming from science labs around the world.
CEH strongly supports scientific research into things that provide understanding (not just promise it) and lead to inventions that can improve our lives. The evolutionary storytelling tacked on here and there is useless and dumb. Science is making great leaps in biomimetics, biochemistry, biophysics, systems biology and genetics – fields that presuppose information and intelligent design.