science tech breeding food potato artificial_selection evolution food_supply farming agriculture
Young & Adventurous? There’s A Potato Being Made Just For You

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by Michael Keller

Things have been rough for the potato over the last decade or so. American consumers have been turning a cold shoulder toward the humble tuber, with each of us eating 22 pounds of potatoes less in 2012 compared to what we put down in 2000, the National Potato Council reports.

The slide has been steady, and both potato growers and agricultural scientists have taken note. If you’re young and have some expendable income, they’d like to sell you a potato with a little more pizzaz than the one your grandma overcooked.

"What we are doing now is developing unique varieties that have a tendency to appeal to the younger set with high income who are willing to try something different,” said Creighton Miller, a Texas A&M University horticultural scientist who turns out new breeds of potato and legume. “This has contributed somewhat to an increase in consumption of these types over the russets, which are still the standard.” 

Breeding programs are constantly trying to improve potatoes to make them more disease and pest resistant, and to make them better suited to industrial processing like making chips and frozen french fries. But scientists are also combing through natural variations in potatoes to find characteristics that might make the fresh tubers more appealing to people.

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science biology structural_analysis architecture fang claw evolution spider arachnid physics

Spider Fang Study Reveals Architecture of Perfect Puncture
The picture above is a model of the mechanical load a spider’s fang must endure. Scientists in Germany and Austria have been busy studying the wandering spider’s natural syringe to better understand how similar sharp structures like stingers, claws and teeth are built.
They were interested in the fang because it must last for more than a year of the arachnid’s life and through multiple attacks on prey. While hunting, it must pierce through the tough exoskeletal cuticle of its victim to inject a potent neurotoxic venom. 
Their research looking at different structural scales to understand the fang’s mechanical properties concluded that “both the anatomical shape of the naturally evolved fang and its material-level architecture result in highly adapted effective structural stiffness and damage resilience.”[[MORE]]
At the microscopic scale, a fang’s stiffness and resilience comes from a composite of tough nanofibrils made of the polysaccharide chitin and a more pliable matrix of proteins. The tip, where load forces are at the extreme (as seen in the model above), is hardened by metal ions that are woven into the matrix.
"According to our results, the fang architecture is well adapted with a close-to-optimal mechanical stiffness, as defined by the simplified fang-like model and refined damage resilience," the authors write. "On the macroscopic scale, the curved fang structure enables the spider to attack from different directions and to hold its prey like a claw.

(A female wandering spider, the species whose fang was studied in this research. Photo courtesy of Bastian Rast. CC)
Thanks to the architecture and composition, they say that localized damage would only be expected to occur at the fang’s tip.
The research was conducted by scientists at the University of Vienna and the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces. It was published online today in the journal Nature Communications. 
Top Image: Finite-element simulation results of the natural spider fang, based on µCT reconstruction, indicating of a tip-localization stress distribution. Courtesy Bar-On et al.

Spider Fang Study Reveals Architecture of Perfect Puncture

The picture above is a model of the mechanical load a spider’s fang must endure. Scientists in Germany and Austria have been busy studying the wandering spider’s natural syringe to better understand how similar sharp structures like stingers, claws and teeth are built.

They were interested in the fang because it must last for more than a year of the arachnid’s life and through multiple attacks on prey. While hunting, it must pierce through the tough exoskeletal cuticle of its victim to inject a potent neurotoxic venom. 

Their research looking at different structural scales to understand the fang’s mechanical properties concluded that “both the anatomical shape of the naturally evolved fang and its material-level architecture result in highly adapted effective structural stiffness and damage resilience.”

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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 history computer_modeling evolutionary_biology war society culture evolution
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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