science venom chemistry biochemistry toxins evolution biology medicine health life_and_nature
Venom’s Pharmacy: Toxins’ Upside Means Advanced Medicines

by Michael Keller

Could it be that venom is just what we need to heal what ails us?

With the still unfolding news of 1,600 injuries and 42 deaths inflicted so far in China by the Asian giant hornet’s sting, it might seem ridiculous to suggest that there’s an upside to the dangerous cocktail of toxins injected by thousands of creatures around the world.

Yet just when the bad news about the hornets’ deadly collision with humanity broke, another announcement emerged from the scientific community. Chinese and Australian researchers reported in the journal Nature that they had found a compound in the Chinese red-headed centipede’s venom that is a more potent painkiller than morphine and carries no addiction risk. 

Such a discovery might appear to be an anomaly, an accidental kindness from the debilitating and sometimes lethal world of animal poisons. But those engaged in the burgeoning field of venom-based therapeutics development called venomics say that it’s no accident. 

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Science Predicts History: Model Shows Evolution Of Ancient Societies

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by Ysabel Yates

War was the main driving force in the evolution of ancient societies, a controversial new study finds.

The study used a computer model to predict the time and place of ancient empires’ origins. Researchers found that incorporating the spread of military technologies resulted in a model that was 65 percent accurate in explaining how these societies evolved and spread. An alternative model that omitted such technologies was only 16 percent accurate.

"Before we went through this exercise we did not know whether competition between societies, taking the form of warfare, was really an important driver in the evolution of large complex societies," says Peter Turchin, lead author of the study. "Now we know that it is the main factor, with the presence of agriculture as a necessary condition, and various environmental effects also playing a role."

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X-Rays of Iconic Fossil’s Feathers Reveal Color Patterns

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by Michael Keller

Scientists have discovered amazing details about a very old fossil using a very modern tool. 

Firing an X-ray beam from the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL), a team of paleontologists and physicists have scanned the fossilized feathers of extinct Late Jurassic animals that represent the earliest divergence of birds from reptiles.

They found traces of pigment in the 150 million-year-old feathers that prove the creatures, called Archaeopteryx lithographica, sported light feathers with dark edges and tips. Their work backs up previous research on Archaeopteyx feather pigmentation and patterning, which leads scientists to believe that the color compounds strengthened them against the wear and tear of flight.

Click through for a video on the research using the SSRL.

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A Cure for Colorblindness?

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by Sam McNerney

Why do humans see colors? For years the leading hypothesis was that color vision evolved to help us spot nutritious fruits and vegetation in the forest. But in 2006, evolutionary neurobiologist Mark Changizi and colleagues proposed that color vision evolved to perceive oxygenation and hemoglobin variations in skin in order to detect social cues, emotions and the states of our friends or enemies. Just think about the reddening and whitening of the face called blushing and blanching. They elicit distinct physiological reactions that would be impossible without color vision.

A few years ago Changizi left Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute where he was professor to co-found 2AI Labs with Dr. Tim Barber. Their Boise, Idaho-based research institute, funded via technology spin-offs coming out of their work, aimed at solving foundational problems in cognitive science and artificial intelligence. The move allowed Changizi to continue to conduct academic work with more intellectual freedom and less of a reliance on grants.

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