Category Archives: Uncategorized

Science Caturday: Bring Your Own Bacteria


Big cool microbiologist Jack Gilbert (and a bunch of his smartest colleagues) just published a paper in Science which reveals that, like Pigpen, every human lives in a unique cloud of germs that we carry with us wherever we go.

This microbial profile, or “germ fingerprint”, is transferred to your living space remarkably quickly.  “No matter what you do to clean a hotel room,” Gilbert said, “your microbial signal has wiped out basically every trace of the previous resident within hours.”

The study, part of the Home Microbiome Project, sampled seven families, including 18 people, three dogs and a cat. Three of the families moved during the study, so the researchers tested two houses plus hotel rooms for each of them. The volunteers swabbed their hands, noses and feet, as well as floors, counters and other surfaces in their homes.

As nifty as this research is, we strongly disagree with one of Gilbert’s recommendations: he encourages people to get a dog. He told the Washington Post: “We saw dogs acting as a super-charged conduit,” he said, “transferring bacteria between one human and another, and bringing in outdoor bacteria. They just run around distributing microbes all willy-nilly.” Well, of course they do, as they slobber and shed. Science Caturday says:


 You deserve better. Get a cat.

Getting grumpy about PMS paper

On 11 August 2014, Michael R. Gillings published a paper in Evolutionary Applications entitled “Were there evolutionary advantages to premenstrual syndrome?” There is a strain of thinking that is common in the general public, but is also frequently found among academic researchers that I call adaptionism. This line of thinking assumes that, if a biological phenomenon exists, it must be there as the result of natural selection – i.e., be adaptive. This makes things like PMS seem like a great, evolutionary mystery to be “solved”.

Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) affects up to 80% of women, often leading to significant personal, social and economic costs. When apparently maladaptive states are widespread, they sometimes confer a hidden advantage, or did so in our evolutionary past. -from the abstract, Matthew R. Gillings (DOI: 10.1111/eva.12190)

I could spend pages on the problems with this approach to such a question. Fortunately for you and I, Kathryn Clancy, who is far more knowledgable on the relevant evolutionary anthropology than you and I, gutted this paper for The Daily Beast earlier this week:

…the fact that PMS is heritable and variable tells us nothing about whether women with PMS have more children than those who don’t, and this is the true test for adaptation. This crucial point—the third and most crucial condition for natural selection—is absent from the paper.
-Kathryn Clancy



The Art of Science: Summer of SciArt

from Modular Systems (2012) by Laura Splan, on display at SciArt Center

from Modular Systems (2012) by Laura Splan, on display at SciArt Center

As art inspired by science gains in popularity, new spaces are springing up to showcase it. Europe had a head start, with London’s GV Art and Dublin’s Science Gallery, but now the US is catching up, with the opening of the Art.Science.Gallery in Austin, Texas, last year and SciArt Center in New York City this week.

For its inaugural exhibition, opening on Friday, June 20, SciArt Center has chosen the theme “What Lies Beneath,” as interpreted by artists Daniel Hill, Steve Miller, Jonathon Wells, Laura Splan, Jim Toia, and Jonathan Feldschuh. The exhibition runs through July 5 at the new gallery space on the Lower East Side.

Art.Science.Gallery currently has a group show called “Year of the Salamander” on display through June 21, featuring salamander-inspired artwork by a number of artists including Ele Willoughby, featured here before.  Upcoming events include the Tesla Project on July 5, a day-long celebration of everyone’s favorite eccentric genius.

In Washington, DC, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) plays host to “Gedankenexperiment”, a show by 24 members of the Washington Sculptors Group.  The work in the show, which runs from June 16 through August 22, is inspired by scientific and mathematical theories, hypotheses, and principles from Archimedes, I Ching, geology, geometry, architecture, and others.  An opening reception and artist talk will be held on Friday, June 20, from 6-9 pm.



Science Caturday: Say Ohai to Nanuqsaurus


It’s always exciting when scientists discover a new dinosaur, especially if it’s a cute little one.  As Brian Switek reported in National Geographic’s Phenomena this week, paleontologists Anthony Fiorillo and Ronald Tykoski have named a smallish tyrannosaur that once lived in the Arctic.

The scientists gave the dino the name Nanuqsaurus hoglundi –combining the Iñupiaq word for polar bear and a philanthropist named Forrest Hoglund.  The incomplete skeleton unearthed in northern Alaska indicates that, although Nanuqsaurus was likely fairly closely related to Tyrannosaurus rex, it was much smaller, around 25 feet in length compared to 40 for a T. rex.

Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of the recent discovery: photographic evidence (above) indicates that some traits of Nanuqsaurus may have somehow veered from their branch of the phylogenetic tree and taken up residence in cats, rather than birds. We await further study.


Liek Dinos? Brian Switek’s ossim book, My Beloved Brontosaurus, is just out in paperback. You can haz.

The Art of Science: A Machine that Vends DNA Samples Like Candy Bars


Gabe Baria-Colombo, DNA Vending Machine, 2013

Gabe Barcia-Colombo’ s DNA Vending Machine is an art installation blending the utterly mundane (a fairly primitive machine dispensing mostly crappy snack food) with the cutting-edge (DIY human genetics) to intriguing effect.

Barcia-Colombo, a 2012 TED fellow, collected DNA samples from a bunch of his friends using a basic swish-and-spit method. With the help of Oliver Medvedik of GenSpace, a community biotech lab in New York, he synthesized the samples in a liquid base.  Barcia-Colombo then created a pack-of-cards sized case for the vials and loaded them into a vending machine.

As the picture above indicates, the only labeling on the vials is a number.  Barcia-Colombo compares this to the concept of “blind box” collectible toys – sealed limited edition collectible figurines packaged randomly with many variations. As with human genetics, people have limited information on which to base their choices, and much depends on luck.

Each sample comes packaged with a collectable portrait of the human specimen as well as a unique link to a custom DNA extraction video. The DNA Vending Machine treats human DNA as a collectible material, exploring the question of who owns our DNA.  Can the person who bought a stranger’s DNA from a vending machine get it sequenced or potentially use it in other ways?

The DNA Vending Machine has been shown in several galleries, and the artist reports that many people have indeed bought the DNA samples. No word on what they’ve done with them – yet.

hat tip: DesignBoom