Saturday, August 26, 2006

Miscellaneous links, 8/24/06

We start off with some sites which have great collections of information in their respective subject areas.

Comparative Mammalian Brain Collections
As it describes itself, "This web site provides browsers with images and information from one of the world's largest collection of well-preserved, sectioned and stained brains of mammals. Viewers can see and download photographs of brains of over 100 different species of mammals (including humans) representing over 20 Mammalian Orders." Building upon this extensive visual information, there are also overviews of topics like brain evolution, brain development, brain architecture, and brain function.

One staple of much science fiction writing is the idea of Brain-Computer Interfacing (BCI) -- connecting living brains with computers and other electronic or mechanical devices. There are obvious mundane applications, such as brain diagnostics and control of prosthetic devices like artificial retinas and artificial limbs. Then there are more speculative applications like brain augmentation by connection to specialized computers, interfaces to large databases, teaching machines, and perhaps even storage and retrieval of individual memories. Put some sort of communications capability in the loop and you have electronic telepathy. But this isn't just science fiction. BCI research is actively going on. That's what this site is about: "BCI-info is an open international platform for Brain-Computer Interface research intended to provide information for scientists, patients, students, the media, and people from the general public interested in BCI technology."

Introduction to Linguistics
Would you like a quick, easy introduction to linguistics so you could get a grasp of what's common to most human languages and understand some of the issues that people like Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker write about? Try the course put together by Sophia A. Malamud at the University of Pennsylvania. See the class schedule to access the course lectures.

The Virtual Embryo
Embryology and developmental biology are two of the most active areas in the life sciences. You need to understand the basics in order to appreciate hot topics like stem cells and evolutionary developmental biology ("evo-devo"). This site provides a great resource for learning about them. Topics covered include gametogenesis, embryonic development, the genetic regulation of development, organization of multicellular embryos, and cell differentiation. There are plenty of links to relevant external resources as well as a tutorial on devlopmental biology.

And here are some shorter articles about interesting recent research.

DNA or RNA? Versatile Player Takes a Leading Role in Molecular Research
RNA is chemically very similar to DNA, except that its backbone is made of a slightly different sugar molecule, one of its four bases is different from the analogous base in DNA, and RNA molecules are usually single-stranded, in contrast to double-stranded DNA. RNA was first understood in the form known as messenger RNA, which transcribes the information in a gene in order to construct a protein. However, there is another type of RNA that is chemically the same but has a different function. This is sometimes known as regulatory or "silencing" RNA. It is produced in the same way as messenger RNA, as a transcription of a special type of DNA gene. But its function is to regulate the production of proteins from messenger RNA. Silencing RNA is usually only about 20 base units long, but it performs its regulatory function by attaching to a complementary segment of messenger RNA, thereby inhibiting the construction of a protein.

Monster Tumors Show Scientific Potential in War Against Cancer
A teratoma is a cancer-like growth, consisting of a mass of partially differentiated cells. Teratomas can be quite large, and sometimes include mature tissues such as teeth and hair. Some teratomas originate from egg cells which begin to develop as if they had been fertilized, but without the developmental programming to progress like a normal embryo. They can be useful in stem cell research because they may be a good source of such undifferentiated cells. Since they also contain a variety of differentiated cell types, they can be used in cancer research as a test bed for new drugs.

Diving deep for answers
Sea anemones are primitive animals of the phylum Cnidaria. Other cnidarians include corals (belonging to the same class as anemones) and jellyfish. They seem to be the most primitive animals that have distinct types of tissue, such as mouths and tentacles and stinging cells. Cnidarians originated at least 600 million years ago, even before the Cambrian explosion. The study of sea anemones should help understand the evolutionary process which allows more complex animals with multiple tissue types to develop.

And the Evolutionary Beat Goes On . . .
Evolution is often thought of as a process that goes on only over long periods of time, like hundreds of thousands of years. But smaller changes can occur much more quickly, as in the coloration of insects in order to better hide from predators. Some recent research has demonstrated simlar rapid changes in humans that have occurred in the last 10,000 years. Such changes include responses to variation in diet. Others have to do with skin color, disease resistance, fertility, and reproduction. In each case, scientists have identified corresponding changes in human DNA that can be dated to recent times.


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