Snippets From Science

• Biologists have long thought that sponges (or their ancestors) might represent intermediate forms of life between single cell and multicellular animals. If true, this would mean our ancestors evolved from such humble beginnings. A recently completed gene analysis of the sponge Amphimedon queenslandia, found that cells of the sponge contain about 18,000 individual genes. To their surprise, many of these appear to be precursors to genes that code for nerve, muscle, and other cell types found in more complex multicellular organisms, like us. They even discovered genes that can suppress cells that begin to divide in an uncontrolled manner, like cancer cells. The geological record indicates that multicellular life began to rapidly evolve around 150 – 200 million years ago, and these new findings suggest that lowly sponges could have been at the forefront of this evolutionary change. (Sristava, et al, Nature, Aug. 2010)

• Pantagonian toothfish, “slimeheads,” and even grouper, were once considered “trash” fish. Perhaps fun to catch, but not to eat. How things change. Toothfish are now listed on menus as “Chilean Sea Bass” and “slimeheads” are called “Orange Roughy.” The name grouper remains the same. As we continue to overharvest marine fish populations, it’s very likely that in the foreseeable future, a fish designated “Silverfin” will appear on restaurant menus. These fish are prolific reproducers, have voracious appetites, and are plentiful in freshwater lakes. Many chefs are experimenting with new ways to prepare them. John Rogner, of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, said, “I think they’re great smoked, and I’ve had them fried.” He found them quite tasty. Considering the looming shortage of seafood, within five years it’s likely you will find Cyprinus carpio on the menu of many seafood restaurants. And we will have to accept a renaming of carp to Silverfin. (Audubon, Sept.-Oct. 2010)

• ALS, an acronym for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, is a rare and incurable disease of the brain and spinal cord, where certain neurons involved in muscle movement die. This disease is often referred to as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease,” but there is now some doubt that Gehrig died of the disease named for him. There is another brain disease (chronic traumatic encephalomyopathy) that mimics ALS and is found in boxers, football players, and other individuals with a history of concussions. Gehrig apparently had multiple concussions as a baseball player and as a running back in football in high school and college. Since he was cremated, we’ll never know whether Gehrig really died of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, but recent evidence suggests that it’s just as likely he died of chronic traumatic encephalomyopathy. (The Week, Sept. 3-10, 2010)

• Memories are first formed in the hippocampus regions of our brain, but what happens when hippocampus memory neurons become “saturated” with old memories? Over time many memories formed in the hippocampus are channeled to other parts of the brain for long-term storage. Another mechanism to “clear” the hippocampus is to discard older, memory-saturated neurons. Recent evidence suggests that this happens. Fortunately, the hippocampus is one of only two brain regions where new neurons are formed. These two pathways may ensure that the hippocampus retains its memory storage capacity. (Science News, Dec. 5, 2009)

• In Fairbanks, Alaska, carbon dioxide levels in wintertime exceed those recorded in Los Angeles. Reason: Fairbanks has about 50,000 vehicles, and when engines at low temperature are started and allowed to warm up, they produce large amounts of carbon dioxide. (N. Davis, Alaska Science Nuggets, 2008, University of Alaska Press)