Recent Interesting Science Articles (March 2017)

I haven’t updated my blog in a few days due to travel but I’m back just in time for this monthly feature. Just four of them this month and they’re all about biology.

  • First up, here’s this bit about the first known use of gene therapy to cure a patient of sickle cell anemia. The doctors harvested stem cells from the patient’s bone marrow, altered the DNA so that they would produce normal hemoglobin, used chemotherapy to kill off the remaining stem cells and then inserted the new ones. This makes it a case of genetic engineering on a human patient in vivo, instead of altering an embryo so that it would develop differently.
  • This next article is also about DNA engineering. In this case, scientists have created wholly artificial chromosomes for yeast cells. The chromosomes are not only synthetic but edited to remove what is believed to be rubbish code in the original DNA and to alter the code’s punctuation to eliminate one letter from the usual stop code. The hope is that the yeast cells can still live normally after these modifications and the freed letters can open up more space for more extensive changes in the future.
  • Dinosaur aficionados were up in arms earlier this month as a new paper proposes a radical redrawing of the family tree. Historically, dinosaurs have been classified according to whether they are “bird-hipped” or “reptile-hipped”. But as more data has been gathered, this classification system has become ridden with inconsistencies so a new paper now proposes that it be thrown away entirely. It may not seem like much to many people but it does matter to children who grew up memorizing names of their favorite dinosaurs and some of them may no longer be properly recognized as being dinosaurs at all!
  • Finally here’s a cool bit about a couple of researchers who tried to put hard numbers on how many spiders there are around the world and how much they eat. They conclude that there are around 25 million tonnes of spiders on Earth, a number that is hard to put in context. But a more comprehensible figure is the 400 million tonnes of other animals that they consume a year because that is also the approximate mass of the total number of human beings living on the planet.

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