Adaptation can be tricky. Extreme weather is challenging the survival of certain penguins and butterflies, yet DNA from Neanderthals lives on in modern humans 30,000 years after they went extinct. It’s enough to turn a cave man’s eyes blue.
Climate: Rain and Heat Batter Penguins
Intense storms and warmer temperatures are making life harder for Argentina’s Magellanic penguins, which didn’t have it easy in the first place. A new study showed that temperature changes and more heavy rains in Punta Tombo, home to about 200,000 breeding pairs of the animals, were killing nearly as many chicks as predators and starvation. The study, published in the journal PLoS One, was praised as one of the first to show how climate change affects animals directly rather than through their food supply or habitat.
Biotechnology: A New Recipe for Stem Cells
Have scientists discovered a cheap and easy way to make stem cells? Two papers in the journal Nature described a technique, so far used only with mice, for turning cells from the body into stem cells by bathing them for half an hour in a mildly acidic solution. There is widespread hope among researchers that stem cells could one day be used to repair damaged cells and organs in the body.
Some scientists called the technique a potential paradigm changer, but others urged caution. “It’s too early to say this is better, safer or more practical” than existing methods for creating stem cells, said Sheng Ding, a scientist at the University of California, San Francisco, and the affiliated Gladstone Institutes.
Biology: A Shrinking Home for Butterflies
The annual winter migration of monarch butterflies from Canada and the United States to Mexico has been called one of the world’s great natural spectacles. But the number of butterflies making the journey has become so small — about 35 million, experts guess — that it may never rebound to levels seen even five years ago.
The cause? Extreme weather and a dwindling habitat, said the Mexican government and the World Wildlife Fund at a news conference. In December the span of forest inhabited by the monarchs in winter had shrunk to a bare 1.65 acres, they said, just 56 percent of last year’s total, itself a record low.
Genetics: Neanderthal Genes Hang Around
The genetic portrait that was established from a Neanderthal toe bone late last year continues to yield insights. By comparing that genome with those of 1,004 living people, an international team of scientists was able to identify specific segments of Neanderthal DNA in each person’s genome. Published in the journal Nature, the study showed that humans do not have a lot of Neanderthal DNA, but some Neanderthal genes proved useful enough, evolutionarily speaking, to have become very common. In particular, non-African people have a lot of Neanderthal genes involved in their skin and hair. A second study using different methods came to similar conclusions.
A Blue-Eyed Cave Man
The remains of a man who lived in Spain about 7,000 years ago are challenging what scientists thought about the evolution of some human traits, The Guardian reported. By decoding the man’s genome using DNA extracted from a wisdom tooth, researchers in Barcelona concluded that he had blue eyes, dark skin and brown or black hair. That was a surprise, because the mutation for blue eyes was thought to have arisen more recently than the mutations that cause lighter skin. The study, published in Nature, suggests that blue eyes appeared in Europe before lighter skin.
Space: A Global Picture of Precipitation
NASA will launch a satellite from Japan this month that should provide a near-global picture of precipitation on Earth, Scientific American reported. The Global Precipitation Measurement Core Observatory will use its own dual-frequency radar instruments, as well as those of other satellites, to measure rainfall and snow around the world. Though many developed countries already have ground-based instruments for detecting precipitation, gaps persist over oceans and less-developed countries. “It’s kind of like a black hole for precipitation,” said one atmospheric scientist.
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