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Sunday, 11 October 2009

Animal intelligence, September 2009

First a cool video:

The fun is actually in the last 30sec but it's awesome. This is real sex pictured on MRI. I can't even imagine how they filmed it, because the couple did it in the machine. Just notice how the internal organs of the woman are being pressed. It's amazing that something looking so painful, could actually bring you pleasure!

  1. Necessity is the mother of invention for clever birds (w/Videos)
  2. Sweet tooth drives tool use in chimpanzees
  3. Mice With a Human Language Gene Have Altered Squeaks and Brain Structure
  4. Biomedical engineers teach bacteria to count
Short stories:
  1. World first: Japanese scientists create transgenic monkeys
  2. Stem cell breakthrough gets closer to the clinic
  3. Biodegradable synthetic resin replaces vital body parts
  4. Speeding up brain networks might boost IQ

Necessity is the mother of invention for clever birds (w/Videos)

May 25th, 2009

Researchers at the Universities of Cambridge and Queen Mary, University of London have found that rooks, a member of the crow family, are capable of using and making tools, modifying them to make them work and using two tools in a sequence.

"This finding is remarkable because rooks do not appear to use tools in the wild, yet they rival habitual tools users such as and New Caledonian crows when tested in captivity," said Chris Bird, the lead author of the study.

In a series of experiments, the rooks quickly learnt to drop a stone to collapse a platform and acquire a piece of food, and subsequently showed the ability to choose the right size and shape of stone without any training.

Not only could they use stones to solve the task, but they were flexible in their tool choice, using and modifying sticks to achieve the same goal. When the correct tool was out of reach, they used another tool to get it, demonstrating the ability to use tools sequentially. In further tests, the rooks were able to use a hook tool to get food out of a different tube and even creatively bent a straight piece of wire to make the hook to reach the food.

"We suggest that this is the first unambiguous evidence of animal insight because the rooks made a hook tool on their first trial and we know that they had no previous experience of making hook tools from wire because the were all hand-raised," said Dr Nathan Emery, Queen Mary University of London, in whose lab these experiments were performed.

These findings suggest that rooks' ability to use tools and represent the tools' useful properties may be a by-product of a sophisticated form of physical intelligence, rather than tool use having evolved as an adaptive specialisation, such as has been proposed for the tool using abilities of New Caledonian crows. source

My comment: (watch the videos in the site-they are quite spooky). I think this article is amazing. People really think themselves for the top of the ice cream - the ultimate product of evolution, intelligent and skilled. While we're obviously intelligent and skilled, we're little bit too arrogant. Because obviously, there's much more to animals than we know. I think every pet owner can testify how intelligent pets can be. Now, we see that it's not only dogs that co-evolved with humans for that long, it's birds and even fishes! This is absolutely amazing! If animals can also skilled and intelligent, then, what actually makes us unique? True, they cannot understand quantum physics, but so do little children and most people that don't like physics. And of course, how do we know if they don't know it because they CANNOT or because we have no way to motivate them to understand it! My point is not so much how intelligent animals actually are, though that is interesting too. The question is if we meet an alien, another civilization, how would we measure their intelligence. How could we know how smart they actually are and how could we appreciate their intelligence, if we don't have a real way to communicate with them. Hmmm.

Sweet tooth drives tool use in chimpanzees

IF YOU'RE impressed that chimps can use tools to hunt or crack nuts, wait till you hear what they do when foraging for honey. Not only do they construct several different tools for the purpose, but they use them sequentially - an achievement approaching the abilities of early Stone Age humans.

A team led by Christophe Boesch of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, studied chimps living in Loango National Park in Gabon. They found that the chimps built and used five different types of tools to help them find beehives and extract honey: thin, straight sticks to probe the ground for buried nests; thick, blunt-ended pounders to break open beehive entrances; thinner lever-like enlargers to break down walls within the hive; collectors with frayed ends to dip honey from the opened hive and bark spoons to scoop it out. Various tools were often found near the same hive, suggesting that the chimps employ them in sequence (Journal of Human Evolution, DOI: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2009.04.001).

A few tools even appeared to have two uses, with enlargers at one end and collectors at the other. This is the first example of a non-human species constructing multipurpose tools.

A few tools had two uses: the first example of a non-human species making multipurpose tools.

Some of the tools would require several steps to make, so making and using the entire toolkit implies an impressive ability to plan ahead, compared with, say, cracking a nut with a stone.

Probing for underground hives also requires the chimps to conceive of the existence of unseen objects. The mental skills needed for this and the tasks that follow rival those displayed by humans in the early Stone Age, says Boesch. Indeed, he believes the desire to successfully obtain honey could have been one of the pressures that favoured increased intelligence as humans evolved. source

My comment: Another evidence of animal intelligence, though this one poses kind of different questions. It's obvious chimps have intelligence, that we just start to discover. The question for me is why humans and neanderthals continued their evolution in one direction, while the chimps and all the other animals chose another direction. I won't say why we became smarter, because I question this expression - if animals, with their small brains, can create and/or use tools, then we're not exactly VERY intelligent. We just evolved different skills required by our more complicated society and differentiation of labor. But what made us different, that's the question for me.

Mice With a Human Language Gene Have Altered Squeaks and Brain Structure

Researchers have endowed lab mice with the human version of a gene involved in language, and while the mice didn’t exactly sit up and start reciting poetry about cheese, they did show some intriguing differences in both their vocal patterns and brain structure.

Mice have their own form of the gene, called FOXP2, but they and all other animals lack key changes found only in humans and our evolutionary cousins, Neanderthals. Some researchers speculate that these differences may help explain why humans are the only animal able to communicate with complex languages, and not simple grunts, barks or songs [New Scientist]. By tweaking the gene in mice and changing it to the human form, researchers hoped to get a clue as to how our early hominid ancestors were changed by the new form of the gene.

Researchers stress that FOXP2 shouldn’t be thought of as a single gene responsible for language; instead, its protein product turns on a cascade of other genes that play an important role in many parts of an embryo’s development.

So what happened to the lab mice that were given the human version of the gene? In the study, published in the journal Cell, researchers report that the mice still emitted ultrasonic whistles to attract their mothers attention like normal mice, but the whistles of the transgenic mice had a lower pitch. They demonstrated other behavioral changes, including less willingness to explore their surroundings. But most interestingly, the altered mice had altered brain structures. In a region of the brain called the basal ganglia, known in people to be involved in language, the humanized mice grew nerve cells that had a more complex structure [The New York Times].

As humans evolved, the changed FOXP2 gene may have “contributed to an increased fine-tuning of motor control necessary for articulation,” the researchers wrote, which is “the unique human capacity to learn and coordinate the muscle movements in lungs, larynx, tongue and lips that are necessary for speech.” The FOXP2 gene affects the development of many organs, including the brain, lungs and esophagus, the researchers said [Bloomberg]. source

My comment: Another amazing article. Just a single gene and so much changes. I wonder if the appearance of this gene wasn't the key moment in our evolution. Because obviously our way of communication has shaped our society and thus our skills. But note how easy scientists were able to change mice in a way similar to our idea of progress. I wonder if they were left to live with the changes for generation, what other differences would appear in the behavior of mice. So interesting!

Biomedical engineers teach bacteria to count

May 28th, 2009

Biomedical engineers at Boston University have taught bacteria how to count. Professor James J. Collins and colleagues have wired a new sequence of genes that allow the microbes to count discrete events, opening the door for a host of potential applications, which could include drug delivery and sensing environmental hazards.

The young but burgeoning field of synthetic biology addresses biological research questions with an engineering approach. Researchers design and build networks of genes, splicing them into bacterial genomes to run specific tasks or manufacture desired molecules - a process akin to installing biological computer software. Though the field is rapidly advancing, the gene-based tools available to synthetic biologists remain limited.

Gene networks that give bacteria the ability to count could become powerful devices in the synthetic biology toolkit because they can be coupled to almost any other bacterial function or environmental cue that bacteria can sense, such as presence of a toxin or sunlight. In the future, bacteria might be set to self-destruct after a certain number of cell divisions or after a specified period of time.

"The fundamental application is as a safety mechanism," said Collins. "If you've engineered an organism to be released into the environment as a biosensor, or you've engineered an organism to go into your body to deliver a therapeutic, in many cases you want to ensure after a certain period of time that the organism is no longer in the environment or your body."

Collins' team designed two separate synthetic gene networks not found naturally in E. coli bacteria. Each uses a different method to make the bacteria count.

The first, the Riboregulated Transcriptional Cascade (RTC) synthetic gene network, counts by starting and stopping transcription and translation - the process by which a gene's instructions are executed - of a series of genes every time an event occurs. The researchers programmed the system so that after the third interruption, the network translates and transcribes the gene for a fluorescing protein, which is visible to researchers.

The second network, called DNA Invertase Cascade (DIC), works in an entirely different way. At the first event, such as the presence of a chemical, the first gene manufactures a protein that cannibalistically snips its own gene out of the network, flips it over and sticks it back in. Once the gene is backwards, it can no longer be transcribed - but an extra snippet of DNA the researchers attached to its tail acts as a bookmark, showing protein-making machinery where to resume work. Each successive flip-over counts another event, and the fluorescing protein is activated after the third one.

In both methods, researchers can move the genetic parts in these counters around to fit their needs. The network might be extended to count to higher numbers, or additional genes for fluorescing proteins might be added, for example, to glow red when the bacteria have counted to two, and green at three. The network's counting can be linked to any periodic signal from the outside world the bacteria can detect, or to an internal event, such as a protein only expressed at one point during each cell division.


My comment: Yep, that sounds absolutely cool too. It really sounds simple and basic but in reality, with just little bit effort of thought, you can see these little guys being the perfect (and cheapest) sensors. I love bio-materials doing stuff. They are so cool and well, natural!

World first: Japanese scientists create transgenic monkeys

May 27th, 2009 by Richard Ingham
In a controversial achievement, Japanese scientists announced on Wednesday they had created the world's first transgenic primates, breeding monkeys with a gene that made the animals' skin glow a fluorescent green.

The exploit opens up exciting prospects for medical researchers, they said.

It could eventually lead to lab monkeys that replicate some of humanity's most devastating diseases, providing a new model for exploring how these disorders are caused and how they may be cured.

But other voices warned of a potential ethics storm, brewed by fears that technology used on our closest animal relatives could be turned to create genetically-engineered humans.

In a study published in the British , a team led by Erika Sasaki of the Central Institute for Experimental Animals at Keio University reported on experiments on common marmosets (Callithrix jacchus), a small monkey native to Brazil.

They introduced a foreign gene, tucked inside a virus, into marmoset embryos that were then nurtured in a bath of sucrose.

The gene codes for (GFP), a substance that was originally isolated from a jellyfish and is now commonly used as a biotech marker. An animal tagged with GFP glows green when exposed to ultraviolet light, proving that a key has been switched on.

The transgenic embryos were then implanted in the uterus of seven surrogate mother marmosets.

Three of recipients miscarried. The other four gave birth to five offspring, all of which carried the GFP gene.

In two of these five, the GFP gene had been incorporated into the reproductive cells. A second generation of marmosets was then derived from one of the two.

The work is important, because medical researchers have hankered for an that is closer to the human anatomy than rodents.

Many disorders, especially neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, are so complex that they cannot be reproduced meaningfully in rodents because their biology is different.

The latest exploit thus opens up hopes of eventually breeding colonies of transgenic primates with inherited traits that closely replicate human disease. source

My comment: I think there is something arrogant in the use of fluorescent genes in animals. Sure, it's easy to see if the gene is on or off, but there's something bad about glowing skin. Ok, not bad, if one day, it's possible and cheap, I might want to have skin glowing in the dark. But this is my choice. When you do it on someone without a choice, it's arrogance. Or something like that. But of course, this is a great success for the medicine, because, it would ease a great deal the medical tests in some cases. But I think this work should be very severely regulated - we know how close to us the primates are, if we have no other choice but to use them - ok, but let's do it only on a real need basis. Not just for the fun and just because we can.

Short stories:

Stem cell breakthrough gets closer to the clinic

May 28th, 2009 by Mira Oberman
The technology for versatile, grow-in-a-dish transplant tissue took a step toward clinical use Thursday when researchers announced they have found a safe way to turn skin cells into stem cells.

Researchers say the method is so promising they hope to apply for approval to begin clinic trials by the middle of next year.

The research builds on an award-winning breakthrough in 2007 by Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University.

Yamanaka and his team introduced four genes into skin cells, reprogramming them so that they became indistinguishable from embryonic stem cells. The downside of the technique for creating these so-called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) is that the genes are delivered by a "Trojan horse" virus. Reprogramming cells using a virus modifies their DNA in such a way that they cannot be given to patients without boosting the risk of cancer and genetic mutation.

Lanza and the team led by Kwang Soo Kim of Harvard University succeeded in delivering the genes by fusing them with a cell penetrating peptide which does not pose the risk of genetic mutation.

While this method took twice as long to generate pluripotent stem cells, Lanza said he believes his team can increase the efficiency of the transmission by purifying the protein.


Biodegradable synthetic resin replaces vital body parts

June 9th, 2009
Researchers at the University of Twente (UT) have developed a new type of resin that can be broken down by the body. This new resin makes it possible to replicate important body parts exactly and make them fit precisely.

The resin can be given different properties depending on where in the body it is to be used. Cells can be sown and cultured on these models, so that the tissues grown are, in fact, produced by the body itself. The new resin has been developed by Ferry Melchels and Prof. Dirk Grijpma of the UT’s Polymer Chemistry and Biomaterials research group.

Stereolithography is a technology with which three-dimensional objects can be made from a digital design. It is also possible to scan an object using a CT scanner (or micro-CT scanner) to obtain a digital image. The object in question can subsequently be copied extremely accurately with a stereolithograph. A stereolithograph is therefore a 3D replicating machine with a very high resolution. The way it works is based on the local hardening of a liquid resin with computer-driven light. The resins available for stereolithography so far harden into chemical networks that cannot be broken down.

For the first time, researchers from the UT have developed a biodegradable resin that can be used for this replicating machine. They have made the resin in such a way that it can be broken down by the body. Making objects from this resin may have great advantages for a many medical applications. If, for example, a child has a heart valve disorder, a 3D digital image of the heart valve can be created using a CT scanner. The model in the stereolithograph can be copied exactly with the new resin. If the structure is made porous, the child’s own cells can be placed on it. This porosity also gives nutrients access to the cells. Ultimately, after the carrier structure has broken down, only the natural tissue remains. source

Speeding up brain networks might boost IQ

For decades scientists have tried, mostly in vain, to explain where intelligence resides in our brains. The answer, a new study suggests, is everywhere.

After analysing the brain as an incredibly dense network of interconnected points, a team of Dutch scientists has found that the most efficiently wired brains tend to belong to the most intelligent people.

Van den Heuvel's team mapped the communications between tiny slivers of brain measured by a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. Rather than scan the brains of subjects performing mental tasks, as most fMRI studies do, researchers took 8-minute-long snapshots of the brains of 19 volunteers, as they did nothing in particular.

The subjects' brains, of course, didn't go completely quiet, and the researchers reasoned that any brain activity they measured represented underlying connectivity between brain regions, near and far.

This allowed van den Heuvel's team to build connectivity networks for each volunteer, and to measure the efficiency of each network. "It more or less reflects how many steps a [brain] region has to take to send information from one region to another," he says.

This measure proved a decent predictor of each person's IQ, explaining about 30 per cent of the differences between subjects, van den Heuvel says.

Intriguingly, the researchers found no link between the total number of connections in a subject's brain network and their IQ. "We show that more intelligent people don't have more connections, but they have more efficiently placed connections," he says.


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