How much wood would a termite chuck…if it was missing its microbial symbionts

Termites get a pretty bad rap, probably because we think of our houses disintegrating when they move in. Ironically, we have a lot to learn from these critters, and their mounds have served as an inspiration for modern architecture. Either way… maybe, just maybe, after learning more about them, you will appreciate how interesting they are.

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Friday Action Item: Visit a natural history museum

The great hall of the Field Museum, in Chicago. (Flickr: jby)

On Fridays while the current administration is in office we’re posting small, concrete things you can do to help make things better. Got a suggestion for an Action Item? E-mail us!

This weekend, take a break from the news, if you can, and get out of the house. In a lot of the U.S., it’s still not a time of the year when the best way to get out of the house is just to go outdoors. Let me suggest, instead, that you visit the nearest natural history museum.

I don’t think I have to convince our readers of the scientific value of natural history collections — see here and here for some examples — but they’re also, of course, incredibly important local institutions of public science. Natural history museums remain highly trusted by the public, even as other institutions have lost standing, and they can provide both “big-picture” overviews of the diversity of life and windows into ongoing research. Some, like the Field Museum in Chicago, include “fishbowl” laboratories where museum scientists work in public view, and many others have exhibits drawn from the current work of affiliated researchers. Most curate exhibits out of collections of specimens assembled for research purposes; the Beatty Biodiversity Museum at UBC, my current institutional affiliation, takes that idea to its limit with collections cabinets that double as display cases.

So mosey over to the campus museum after work today, or spend a weekend afternoon touring a city landmark. Leave your phone in your pocket. Except maybe if you want to take pictures.

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What’s left of the black rhino’s genetic diversity?

With the current poaching epidemic we might lose rhinos before we even have time to get to know them. Luckily, the day has come and thanks to Yoshan Moodley, Mike Bruford and their team we know have a pretty good idea about the genetic diversity of one rhino species, the black rhinoceros.

In ”the largest and most geographically representative sample of black rhinoceroses ever assembled” (as they boldly but appropriately state in the abstract) Moodley et al. compared 19th and 20th century museum specimens with modern samples from universities, zoos, private hunters, and faecal samples collected in the field. Their dataset stretched in time, between 1775 and 2008, as well as in space, covering 20 countries of the black rhino’s historical range. Just so that you know, now we are down to 5 countries.

Probably the most striking result of the study is the 69% loss of mitochondrial diversity, as only 20 out of 64 historical haplotypes were found in present populations.

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Population genomics in the “melting pot”

(Flickr: Amanda)

North America is full of new arrivals. Europeans colonized the continent starting half a millennium ago, displaced and eradicated native populations, and brought enslaved workers from Africa with them — and further immigrants have followed ever since. This mass movement of people is a huge complication for studies of human population genetics, but it’s also an opportunity to study how that movement is reflected in the diversity of the people who now live in North America. One study of people in the Caribbean, for instance, found the effects of colonization and the slave trade, but also evidence of migration across the region that pre-dated both.

An important tool for studying the complex human history of North America is emerging from a consumer trend you’ve probably heard about on a couple thousand podcast sponsorship messages — personalized genetic analysis. Services like 23andMe and offer genome-wide genotyping and comparison to geographically-specific samples to identify your ancestors’ origins, and both companies ask customers to volunteer their data for research. Data collected by 23andMe allowed comparison of genetic ancestry to racial and ethnic identity that reveals how slippery the relationship between race and biology really can be. Now, a study of AncestryDNA customers helps link the history of colonization and migration across North America to individual Americans’ family histories.

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Friday Action Item: Remind your Senators to vote against Scott Pruitt

“‘Teepee’ burner incinerates lumber mill’s waste, 05/1972.” — a photo taken by Boyd Norton as part of an early EPA project to document the country, before modern environmental regulations took effect, highlighted by the Discover EPA Twitter feed. (Flickr: US National Archives)

On Fridays while the current administration is in office we’re posting small, concrete things you can do to help make things better. Got a suggestion for an Action Item? E-mail us!

It’s been almost a full month since the inauguration (good heavens) and it’s hard to keep track of the scandals and outrages, more or less as expected. But if you’ve got it in you to make one call to Congress this week (and we hope you do), let us suggest you spend it on reinforcing the resistance to the nominee for head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Scott Pruitt has built a political career working against the very concept of evidence-based regulation — not just rules to reduce carbon emissions, but regulation of mercury and particulate pollution as well. The Senate is scheduled to vote on his confirmation today, even as Democrats have been requesting a delay while Pruitt’s office complies with a court order to release e-mails that could illuminate his ties to the fossil fuel industry, and EPA employees themselves are, extraordinarily, lobbying the Senate against a prospective boss who opposes the very mission of the agency.

So: Call your Senators. Tell them to vote against Pruitt.

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Music to an amniote’s ears, an “accordion” model of genome size evolution

How did we get where we are? Genetically speaking, that is. A few posts ago, that whole genotype-phenotype question was discussed, how do genomes make plants and animals (and don’t forget the microbes!) look and act how they do. Another broader question linked to this topic involves trying to understand how genomes have evolved over time, clearly no small task.

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Posted in adaptation, bioinformatics, evolution, genomics | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Friday Action Item: Time for another round of Donors Choosing

(Flickr: Paul Gorbould)

On Fridays while the current administration is in office we’re posting small, concrete things you can do to help make things better. Got a suggestion for an Action Item? E-mail us!

This week the U.S. Senate approved Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, on a one-vote margin and over unprecedented opposition. DeVos is a billionaire heiress with no direct experience of public education, and was unable to answer basic questions about Federal education policy in her confirmation hearing, but she has spent millions lobbying for efforts to transfer public funding to for-profit charter schools and religious education.

So this seems like a good week to return to Donors Choose. The last time I proposed this as an Action Item, I pointed out that the U.S. K-12 education system has been horrifically unequal long before the arrival of Betsy DeVos, because most of our school funding comes from local property taxes. As Terry McGlynn noted this week on Twitter, it’s so routine for public school teachers to buy classroom supplies out of their own pocket that it’s a standard deduction item on income tax forms:

Donors Choose lets us help teachers save their none-too-generous paychecks by pitching in money for individual projects or classroom resources. You can easily search for biology-specific requests, or for schools in your own neighborhood, but here’s a few good options to get you started:

For bonus #resistance points, maybe add a memo to dedicate your donation to the new Secretary of Education.

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