Category Archives: Biology

Educational Kids Gift: The Human Body by Smithsonian

There is a new series of educational kits called Exploration Station, coming out in a few day. You can pre-order them. I’ll post about three of them, starting with Exploration Station: The Human Body.

Nicely packaged, the box itself will be useful even after the stuff inside is long gone.

The kids are designed for learning by kids six years and above, but I think they are ideal for third or fourth graders. All the kids follow a similar theme. There is one item that will end up on a bedroom shelf along with other toys like items. In this case, a make it yourself human skeleton one foot tall. There is a book on the subject, in this case, the human body. There is a large sheet of heavy duty laminated material and a set of stickers to stick on to it. In this case, it is a 13 by 18 inch poster with a depiction of the human body. In addition, this kit includes a set of flash cards about various aspects of the human body or physiology.

The back of the box. Note that this is for kids 6 and older. Eight or nine is an ideal age.

The science is good, the book is engaging, lots of words but also lots of pictures. The manipulable materials are fun and educational.

Comes with a great book at about 3rd or 4th grade reading level.

I think the kits were originally designated to be about $22, but the pre-order price is closer to $15 . I think they are worth the larger price, but the lower price is very nice.

Includes flash cards, a set of stickers, and a large body picture (not shown) to put the stickers on, and a small skeleton you can build yourself.

This is an ideal holiday gift for a kid in the right age range. It is not going to fill your space with a pile of useless crap, and it is not going to make a mess, or any noise. The educational value is high, and the quality is right in the range for an item of this price range. The only down side is that it is a little hard to wrap round things, but you’ll mange.

I recommend the Exploration Station: The Human Body for the kid in your life.

People have big heads, but children have giant heads.

A human is born with more neurons than they will have as adults. This is one of the main reasons that the size of the head of a child is not going to increase much as it grows. (Also, it is simply hard to make heads get bigger for various reasons, so it isn’t just humans that have large heads relative to body size when they are young.)

A person’s mass (weight) which roughly relates to volume goes up about 900% during growth. A person’s head circumference goes up about 35%. Big difference, even if you factor in the dimensional effect.

Try this: Find a small child. Preferably, your own, or if not, get permission. Show the child how you can touch your ear with the contralateral hand, by arching your arm over your head. Then, ask the child to try it. LOL.

This phenomenon, of head growth vs. body growth, comes up every time I teach about brain development, which I just did. And, it happens that right after doing that, I came across an interesting photograph. The photo is from a set of comparisons, putting an old family photo of one or more people when they were kids, to now, matching setting, clothing, props, body position, and facial expression.

When you do that, you see the head size thing really clearly in many photos. This one in particular shows it dramatically:

If you use the person’s right shoulder to help define her coronal plane, and visually project that onto the bricks, you can see that her head is close to three bricks tall in both photographs.

(I think the setting is not the same in both photos, by the way. Different bricks, different almost everything. But the person is the same, and that is what counts.)

Whitey Bulger Dead, and the Trivers Willard Hypothesis

The original version of this post was called “Whitey Bulger Caught, and the Trivers Willard Hypothesis.” A while after that, I wrote a post called “Whitey Bulger Convicted, and the Trivers Willard Hypothesis.” Today, it was announced that Whitey Bulger, Boston crime boss, is dead at 89. Thus, the new title.

Thumbnail image for 0470656662.jpgMost of you won’t know who Whitey Bulger is. He was for a while on the FBI’s ten most wanted list. He spent a lot of time overseas running from the Feds, but they eventually caught up with him, convicted him, and tossed him in jail.

Whitey was top dog in Boston’s Winter Hill gang. His brother was a Senator for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and served as Senate President for several years.

It is said that Whitey was an FBI informant, and that his handler, FBI Special Agent John Connolly, tipped Whitey off that he was about to be indicted on racketeering charges. No problem. Whitey had left stashes of cash in safe deposit boxes all around the world, in preparation for the day he had to go on the lam. So he took off in 1995. Special Agent Connolly spent several years on vacation in the stir.

I remember when Whitey disappeared, and ever since then, I’ve used him almost annually in lecture material describing the Trivers-Willard hypothesis. It goes like this:

Thumbnail image for 0470656662.jpgThe Trivers-Willard model (I prefer to call it a “model” rather than a “hypothesis” because it is not specific enough to really be a hypothesis … it’s a model that generates lots of hypotheses) states that selection should favor the ability to differentially bias investment in offspring by sex if the two sexes have differential variances in reproductive success, and if there is any way to predict offspring rank. That’s a bit thick, so it requires some examples and further explanation. Maybe a story about a mobster would help..

OK, so an example: Red deer (also known as Elk) give birth to one offspring (max) per year. Males compete for access to or to be chosen by females. So, only a small percentage of male red deer mate in a given year, a significant percentage may never mate at all, and a very small percentage sire many many little red deer. Male red deer have a high variance in reproductive success. If you tried to predict how many offspring a given randomly chosen male would have, knowing nothing at all, your best guess would be the average number of offspring red deer have in an average lifetime. But you would be wrong almost every time because the actual number is highly variable. Male red deer have high variance in RS.

Females, on the other hand, have a pretty standard number of offspring. There is not much competition among them, they can always find a male to mate with, etc. If you needed to guess how many offspring a particular randomly chosen female red deer would have in a life time, you could guess the average, and you would be right on or very close. Female red deer have low variance in RS.

So, male and female red deer have differential variance in RS. Males high, females low.

If a female red deer could somehow “predict” the likelihood of her offspring getting to mate, i.e., if she could tell if any offspring she had in the present year (male or female) would be average vs. high ranking, then selection should favor the evolution of a mechanism to actually give birth to the appropriate sex offspring (thus biasing investment in one sex or the other). It turns out that she can. A female red deer that is herself average or lower-quality (thin, ill, injured) is likely to give birth to an offspring that will be either low ranking or average. But if the mother-to-be red deer is high ranking, she is likely to give birth to an individual who will grow up to be high ranking.

Under these conditions, she should have a female offspring if she’s average or low ranking, but a male if she’s high ranking. And that, it turns out, is what red deer actually do.

That should be clear. But in case it isn’t, let’s take it down do real life, and bring in the gangsters.

You check the mail this afternoon, and there is a letter from a law firm you have never heard of. It says that your Great Aunt Tillie (whom you’ve also never heard of) just died, and left you with $1,000 in her will. The check is enclosed.

Thumbnail image for 0470656662.jpgThis may or may not be a recent photograph of a male red deer. Holy crap. Found money! What are you going to do with it? So you and your close advisors (your roommates, your cat, etc.) discuss it and you narrow it down to two choices. Choice A and Choice B.

Choice A is to go to your broker and buy $1000 worth of a nice, relatively safe mutual fund. The fund will buy and sell reliable blue chip stocks, thus spreading the risk over several companies, and over time you can expect to get a return of 50 bucks a years, easy.

Choice B is to buy 1000 one dollar lottery tickets. Your chances of winning are slim, but if you do, you will win 87 million dollars.

So, what do you do? The obvious sane choice is to buy the mutual fund.

But what if your cousin is Whitey Bulger? Whitey Bulger, as head of the Winter Hill Gang, is said to have owned the director of the Commonwealth Lottery agency.The connection between Whitey Bulger and the Lottery has never been proven. They don’t have a shred of evidence. He was, however, indicted for 21 counts of RICO-Murder. It is said that one of the things that tipped off authorities about this is that some of his relatives were winning the lottery a little more often than they should have. So, say your cousin is Whitey Bulger, and last time you saw him (at a family wedding) he told you … “hey, if you ever want to take a “chance” on the lottery, let me know … I can make that work for you…”

So now, you have two choices.

Choice A: Invest in a mutual fund and gain a return of 50 bucks a year (that’s dollars, not elk); and

Choice B: Buy 1000 PowerBall tickets and have a great deal of certainty of winning 87 million dollars.

What would you do?

In case it isn’t already clear. the baby male elk is a lottery ticket, the baby female elk is a mutual fund, but the female can guess pretty accurately if the lotter ticket (male offspring) will pay off. Because the elk’s cousin is Whitey Bulger. See?

Amazing Book On Amazing Arachnids

I am strongly recommending Amazing Arachnids by Jillian Cowles.

This book is in line to win the Greg Laden’s Blog Science Book of the Year.

Sample text, to give a taste of the science
It looks like a high quality, almost coffee table like, book on the arachnids, things like mites and spiders and such. But that is only what it appears to be on the surface. Just below the surface, it is a compendium of evolutionary amazingness, a detailed description of the photogenic history, behavioral biology, and co-evolution of plants and animals, with almost all the protagonists in the numerous loosely connected stories being one sort or another of amazing arachnid.

Geographically, the book focuses on the arid American Southwest. This allows the author to be quasi-comprehensive in coverage of species (about 300 from among 11 orders). It also allows the author to tell the story of these critters as a story, with interconnected features of evolution and ecology. This is literary hard core science, with great illustrations (about 750 color photos, and other illustrations).

Because of the US SW focus, it might be a better purchase for people living in just that area. But as is the case with a handful of other nature-oriented books, like the The New Neotropical Companion, the science content and overall interest of the book transcends geography. You’re not really going to want to get that close to these arachnids anyway….

This is a very good book. You will learn things, even if you already know a lot about arachnids.

The author is a clinical microbiologists and photographer.

The Origin of Life and Life on Other Planets

The Origin of Life and Life on Other Planets

Several parallel discussions inspire me to write this post partly in the hope that you will chime in.

The chance of life elsewhere in the universe just went to near zero. Or did it?

Continue reading The Origin of Life and Life on Other Planets

How To Reconcile the Insanity of Cladism with the Order and Beauty of the Linnaean System

Knowledge is knowing that a bird is a dinosaur. Wisdom is not charging people extra to see your reconstituted Jurassic Park style dinosaur zoo when all you’ve got is a barn full of chickens.

To really understand the meaning of this, please read my brand new essay at 10,000 birds, here:

If Birds are Dinosaurs than I’m a Monkey’s Uncle

… which is part of the Come At Me series of fantastic posts on that site.

Yet Another South American Alien Turns Out To Be Human

But a very interesting human. A human being six inches tall (if standing), with only 12 sets of ribs, about 7 years old at the time of death. Did I mention six inches tall? New research on the so called “Atacama humanoid” (not an alien, just a human) shows a wide range of interesting genetic differences, according to a just published paper. Continue reading Yet Another South American Alien Turns Out To Be Human

Sexual Selection Up To Date: A Taste for the Beautiful

A Taste for the Beautiful: The Evolution of Attraction is a popular science book written by an actual expert on the field, addressing the ways in which the world of animals is shaped by sexual selection.

One of Darwin’s major contributions to the panoply of theoretical and observational work we call “evolution” was to recognize, describe, and model sexual selection. Continue reading Sexual Selection Up To Date: A Taste for the Beautiful

Darwin Quotes, Assembled

From Janet Browne, the author of Charles Darwin: A Biography, Vol. 1 – Voyaging and other works about Charles Dawin, The Quotable Darwin.

Quotes by Charles Darwin are not just the stuff of memes. Even the fake quotes. They can be the center of long arguments, or at least, they can significantly augment the arguments. For example, did you know that while Darwin never used the term “missing link” he did talk about missing links quite a bit, missing links are central to his thinking about evolution, and all those writers of today who claim that we must never speak of missing links are misguided? Continue reading Darwin Quotes, Assembled

Is There Evidence of Life On Mars?

At present, the evidence suggests that life may have existed in the past on Mars, or not. However, the scientific consensus is that we assume life never arose on Mars, and will continue to do so until evidence pops out and bites us in the mass spectrometer.

There is no evidence of life on Mars right now. Continue reading Is There Evidence of Life On Mars?

A Possible Problem with CRISPR

Viruses use the DNA of their hosts to help themselves reproduce. Bacteria have counter-attacked viruses by grabbing some of the DNA from viruses and using this to identify them and kill them back. That as an oversimplified description of an eons old arms race between viruses and bacteria.

Among the DNA sequences co-opted by bacteria is the famous gene-frag-family known as CRISPR. You’ve heard of it, and you probably know what it does. Briefly, genetic scientists can use the innate power of CRISPR to manipulate other DNA to “repair” or modify in situ DNA sequences in living organisms. Got a genetic disease? No problem. We get the good genetic sequence, and then use the CRISPR based technology to replace all your bad DNA with the good DNA.

Now, of course, that doesn’t really work this way, and CRISPR technology has had fairly limited success so far. But there have been successes, and CRISPR is generally regarded as the Next Great Hope in the future of genetic therapy.

But now there may be a problem. Among the bacteria that use a CRISPER sort of sequence are two that are fairly nasty and common human pathogens. These are Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus pyogenes. In fact, the specific CRISPER sequences that genetic scientists use to do the CRISPR thing, come from these specific bacteria.

So, think about this for a moment. If CRISPER is used by bacteria to do any of their dirty work, and the bacteria are common human pathogens, is it possible that some humans have built up an immunity to the CRISPER sequences, perhaps putting them off limits for future CRISPR therapy? Continue reading A Possible Problem with CRISPR

Garden Insects of North America: Ultimate Guide to Backyard Bugs, New Edition

BOOK NOTE: I interrupt this book review to note that Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman is currently available, again, as a Kindle book, for two bucks. And now returning to our regularly scheduled review.

Garden Insects of North America: The Ultimate Guide to Backyard Bugs is not a pocket field guide. How could it be? There are over a million species of insects and probably a lot more (huge numbers certainly remain to be discovered) and of them, some 100,000 exist in North America. I’m actually not sure how many are represented in this book, but several thousand distributed among some 3,000 illustrations, mostly color photographs. Continue reading Garden Insects of North America: Ultimate Guide to Backyard Bugs, New Edition

Starting from scratch, creating a complete pox virus

People talk about resurrecting the Mammoth, the Dodo, the Quagga, or the Tasmanian devil, or any number of extinct (or mostly extinct) creatures. I’m all for that. I suggest removing cattle farming in Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana and adjoining areas of Canada, and repopulating the region with extinct megafauna. That would just be cool.

There are difficulties with this, including figuring out exactly how to piece together the genome for the extinct animal, how to get a good level of genetic diversity in the neo-founding population, and how to raise the critter up from a zygote. For all these reasons, I’ve always thought we should start by resurrecting something that already exists. We normally do this sort of dry run or practice run with things we do. In baseball, golf, and other ball sports, athletes take pre-swings. We went “to” the moon a couple of times before landing “on” the moon. Etc. So, let’s start by resurrecting a fruit fly, them maybe a chicken, then a dog. That sort of thing.

A potentially important public health concern is the re-emergence, one way or another, of small pox or something like small pox. In order to manage that, we would like to see more research involving vaccines. An ideal way to carry out vaccine research without risking the release of full blown small pox (which may or may not be frozen somewhere) on the population is to create a small pox virus (small pox is a virus) from scratch, using a known genetic code. In so doing, the parts of the virus that allow it to spread could be denatured, and the parts of the virus that allow research for vaccines or cures could be left in place.

In essence, creating such a Frankensteinian life form is like resurrecting an extinct species. And, some Canadian scientists stole my idea and went ahead and resurrected a non-extinct species in order to test out the plausibility of the method. The research is not published and likely won’t be, because it would be too easily misused by nefarious actors. But, the results were discussed at a meeting several months ago, and now there is something new about it in Science:

Eradicating smallpox, one of the deadliest diseases in history, took humanity decades and cost billions of dollars. Bringing the scourge back would probably take a small scientific team with little specialized knowledge half a year and cost about $100,000.

That’s one conclusion from an unusual and as-yet unpublished experiment performed last year by Canadian researchers. A group led by virologist David Evans of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, says it has synthesized the horsepox virus, a relative of smallpox, from genetic pieces ordered in the mail. …

The story is also covered by the Washington Post.

And, here is a previously released press release:

Tonix Pharmaceuticals Announces Demonstrated Vaccine Activity in First-Ever Synthesized Chimeric Horsepox Virus

Pre-Clinical Smallpox-Preventing Vaccine Candidate TNX-801 May Qualify for Priority Review Voucher if FDA-Approved Under Provisions in the 21st Century Cures Act

NEW YORK, March 02, 2017 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) — Tonix Pharmaceuticals Holding Corp. (Nasdaq:TNXP) (Tonix), a company that is developing innovative pharmaceutical products to address public health challenges, working with researchers from the University of Alberta, a leading Canadian research university, today announced the successful synthesis of a potential smallpox-preventing vaccine. This vaccine candidate, TNX-801, is a live form of horsepox virus (HPXV) that has been demonstrated to have protective vaccine activity in mice.

“Presently, the safety concern of existing smallpox-preventing vaccines outweigh the potential benefit to provide immunization of first responders or the general public. By developing TNX-801 as a horsepox vaccine to prevent smallpox infection, we hope to have a safer vaccine to protect against smallpox than is currently available,” stated Seth Lederman, M.D., president and chief executive officer of Tonix. “Vaccines are a critical component of the infrastructure of global public health. Vaccination protects those who are vaccinated and also those who are not vaccinated, by decreasing the risk of contagion.”

“Our goal is to improve on current methods that protect the public from possible viral outbreaks,” said Professor David Evans, Ph.D., FCAHS, Professor and Vice-Dean (Research), Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and principal investigator of the TNX-801 research project.

HPXV was synthesized by Professor Evans and Research Associate Ryan Noyce, Ph.D., at the University of Alberta, with Dr. Lederman as co-investigator of the research and co-inventor of the TNX-801 patent. Under their research and development agreement, Tonix wholly owns the synthesized HPXV virus stock and related sequences. Professor Evans and Dr. Noyce also demonstrated that HPXV has protective vaccine activity in mice, using a model of lethal vaccinia infection. Vaccine manufacturing activities have been initiated by Tonix to support further nonclinical testing of TNX-801.

Dr. Lederman stated, “Our research collaboration is dedicated to creating tools and innovative products that better protect public health.”

About Horsepox (HPXV) and Smallpox

Horsepox, an equine disease caused by a virus and characterized by eruptions in the mouth and on the skin, is believed to be eradicated. No true HPXV outbreaks have been reported since 1976, at which time the United States Department of Agriculture obtained the viral sample used for the sequence published in 2006 that allowed the synthesis of TNX-801. In 1798, Dr. Edward Jenner, English physician and scientist, speculated that smallpox is a human version of pox diseases in animals. Jenner had a strong suspicion that his vaccine began as a pox disease in horses and went on to show that it could be used to vaccinate against smallpox. Smallpox was eradicated as a result, and no cases of naturally occurring smallpox have been reported since 1977. Jenner’s vaccine appears to have evolved considerably in the vaccinia stocks maintained in different countries around the world, since vaccinia was mostly selected for growth and production. Being able to provide safe and effective smallpox-preventing vaccines remains important and necessary for addressing and protecting public health.

About the Material Threat Medical Countermeasures Provisions in the 21st Century Cures Act

In 2016, the 21st Century Cures Act (Act) was signed into law to support ongoing biomedical innovation. One part of the Act, Section 3086, is aimed at “Encouraging Treatments for Agents that Present a National Security Threat.” This section of the Act created a new priority review voucher program for “material threat medical countermeasures.” The Act defines such countermeasures as drugs or vaccines intended to treat biological, chemical, radiological, or nuclear agents that present a national security threat, or to treat harm from a condition that may be caused by administering a drug or biological product against such an agent. The priority review vouchers are awarded at the time of FDA approval and are fully transferrable and may be sold to other companies to be used for priority review of any New Drug Application (NDA) or Biologic Licensing Application (BLA).

About Tonix Pharmaceuticals Holding Corp.

Tonix is developing innovative pharmaceutical products to address public health challenges, with TNX-102 SL in Phase 3 development for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). TNX-102 SL is designed for bedtime use and is believed to improve overall PTSD symptoms by improving sleep quality in PTSD patients. PTSD is a serious condition characterized by chronic disability, inadequate treatment options especially for military-related PTSD and overall high utilization of healthcare services creating significant economic burden. TNX-102 SL was recently granted Breakthrough Therapy designation by the FDA for the treatment of PTSD. Other development efforts include TNX-601, a clinical candidate at Pre-IND (Investigational New Drug) application stage, designed for daytime use for the treatment of PTSD, and TNX-801, a potential smallpox-preventing vaccine.

*TNX-102 SL (cyclobenzaprine HCl sublingual tablets) is an investigational new drug and has not been approved for any indication.

This press release and further information about Tonix can be found at www.tonixpharma.com.

Forward Looking Statements

Certain statements in this press release are forward-looking within the meaning of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995. These statements may be identified by the use of forward-looking words such as “anticipate,” “believe,” “forecast,” “estimate,” “expect,” and “intend,” among others. These forward-looking statements are based on Tonix’s current expectations and actual results could differ materially. There are a number of factors that could cause actual events to differ materially from those indicated by such forward-looking statements. These factors include, but are not limited to, substantial competition; our need for additional financing; uncertainties of patent protection and litigation; uncertainties of government or third party payor reimbursement; limited research and development efforts and dependence upon third parties; and risks related to failure to obtain FDA clearances or approvals and noncompliance with FDA regulations. As with any pharmaceutical under development, there are significant risks in the development, regulatory approval and commercialization of new products. Tonix does not undertake an obligation to update or revise any forward-looking statement. Investors should read the risk factors set forth in the Annual Report on Form 10-K for the year ended December 31, 2015, as filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission (the “SEC”) on March 3, 2016, and future periodic reports filed with the SEC on or after the date hereof. All of Tonix’s forward-looking statements are expressly qualified by all such risk factors and other cautionary statements. The information set forth herein speaks only as of the date hereof.