Smarter than the new Apple mouse

Paul Raven @ 21-10-2009

ratSteve Jobs and company may have radically re-engineered the mouse, but a team of researchers from the States and China have been busy re-engineering the rat, culminating in the quaintly-named Hobbie-J, a rodent who owes her preternatural smarts to the over-expression of a particular gene associated with brain-cell communication speed. [image by stark23x]

Scientists found that Hobbie-J consistently outperformed the normal Long Evans rat even in more complex situations that require association, such as working their way through a water maze after most of the designated directional cues and the landing point were removed. “It’s like taking Michael Jordan and making him a super Michael Jordan,” Deheng Wang, MCG graduate student and the paper’s first author, says of the large black and white rats already recognized for their superior intellect.

That’s one of the best quotes I’ve read in a science article in ages; it’s like something Don King would say. And if you’re now worrying about hordes of intellectual rodents escaping their cages and taking over the world, relax – Hobbie-J isn’t going to be inventing a death-ray any time soon.

… even a super rat has its limits. For example with one test, the rats had to learn to alternate between right and left paths to get a chocolate reward. Both did well when they only had to wait a minute to repeat the task, after three minutes only Hobbie-J could remember and after five minutes, they both forgot. “We can never turn it into a mathematician. They are rats, after all,” Dr. Tsien says, noting that when it comes to truly complex thinking and memory, the size of the brain really does matter.

More interestingly, though, this sort of meddling is a proof-of-concept. What might similar tweaking achieve in animals whose cognitive ability already approaches that of our own? Perhaps a radical group of animal rights activists might boost the brain-power of some primate tribes in order to justify parity in their treatment under law. In other words, maybe animal uplift isn’t as ridiculous an idea as it might initially appear…

Sifting through the genes that make humans unique

Tom Marcinko @ 01-09-2009

AnimaBiologists used to think that new genes “could only evolve from duplicated or rearranged versions of preexisting genes.” Now, though:

Scientists have made a crucial discovery of genes that have evolved in humans after branching off from other primates, opening new possibilities for understanding what makes us uniquely human….

Researchers have found genes that arose from non-coding DNA in flies, , and primates. No such genes had been found to be unique to humans until now, and the discovery raises fascinating questions about how these genes might make us different from other primates….

The authors [David Knowles and Aoife McLysaght of the Smurfit Institute of Genetics at Trinity College Dublin] also note that because of the strict set of filters employed, only about 20% of human genes were amenable to analysis. Therefore they estimate there may be approximately 18 human-specific genes that have arisen from non-coding DNA during human evolution.

This discovery of novel protein-coding genes in humans is a significant finding, but raises a bigger question: What are the proteins encoded by these genes doing? “They are unlike any other human genes and have the potential to have a profound impact,” McLysaght noted. While these genes have not been characterized yet and their functions remain unknown, McLysaght added that it is tempting to speculate that human-specific genes are important for human-specific traits.

[Image: Dollar Bin]

Biological cells as cloud computing networks

Tom James @ 13-08-2009

webIn an interesting confluence of ideas, and of the unintentional biomimicry at work in cloud computing, researchers identify parallels between biological cells and computer networks:

Gene regulatory networks in cell nuclei are similar to cloud computing networks, such as Google or Yahoo!, researchers report today in the online journal Molecular Systems Biology. The similarity is that each system keeps working despite the failure of individual components, whether they are master genes or computer processors.

“It’s extremely rare in nature that a cell would lose both a master gene and its backup, so for the most part cells are very robust machines,” said Anthony Gitter, a graduate student in Carnegie Mellon’s Computer Science Department and lead author of the Nature MSB article. “We now have reason to think of cells as robust computational devices, employing redundancy in the same way that enables large computing systems, such as Amazon, to keep operating despite the fact that servers routinely fail.”

It is fascinating how natural selection has already discovered many of the same processes used by human engineers.

[via Technut News, from ScienceDaily][image from Jus’ fi on flickr]

Stephen Colbert’s DNA to back up the human race

Tom James @ 10-09-2008

geneUm. I can’t really add much to the title, churnalism be damned, this is good stuff:

Comedy Central announced Monday that the host of The Colbert Report will have his DNA digitized and sent to the International Space Station (ISS). According to the Associated Press, Stephen Colbert’s gene package will be carried there by famed video game designer Richard Garriott, who will travel to the station in October.

All in all, a great day for humanity. Also I wonder what a gene package looks like?

[story via KurzweilAI][image from Joe Madon flickr]