Science Caturday: Pluto-monium!

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Among casual sky-watchers, Pluto is  best known for having its status downgraded from planet to dwarf planet in 2006. That has changed over the past few weeks, as NASA’s New Horizons Probe prepares to fly within 8,000 miles of Pluto on Tuesday, July 14.

New Horizons is already sending back loads of fascinating images of Pluto and more are sure to come. You can get all the latest updates by following @NASANewHorizons on twitter.

For more background about the discovery of Pluto and what scientists know so far about the “contentious little planet,” I recommend Nadia Drake’s excellent “Pluto At Last” at National Geographic.

It may no longer be called a planet, but this week, Pluto is the star.

 

Science Caturday: Distractingly Sexy Kitteh

toosexylabDo I even have to mention this week’s top story in science? Nah.

Science Caturday: New to You

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Researchers have discovered seven new species of miniature frog – all from the genus Brachycephalus – living in the Atlantic Rainforest of Brazil. In a fascinating case of geography influencing evolution, each species lives on a separate mountaintop and has evolved a different skin color and texture. Rachel Feltman’s article in The Washington Post has much more detail about the tiny (less than 1 cm long!) frogs and the paper that introduced them to the world.

The frogs are not, of course, actually new. I’m sure they’ve been living peacefully on their mountaintops, minding their own business, for many years until a bunch of scientists came along to discover them. Sorry, little guys. If the tourists start bothering you, band together and use your toxins.

Science Caturday: The Latest from the LHC

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Big news in tiny particles: the Large Hadron Collider has set a new energy record ahead of its scheduled full restart in June.  Scientists at CERN reported that on May 20, the LHC succeeded in smashing together protons with an energy of 13 trillion electron volts (TeV). That’s close to the 14 TeV maximum that the LHC is designed to achieve.

The record was reached during tests to prepare for a second run of experiments starting next month. The collider underwent a $150 million upgrade after its first run, which produced results that helped confirm the existence of the Higgs boson.

Our physics kitties tend to have substantially lower energy levels than that, but the Large Hairball Collider (pictured above) looks likely to yield important data on particles found under the sofa. The red dot, the so-called “holy grail” of kitty physics, remains elusive. Reached for comment, the head of the LHBC said:

mu

Science Caturday: Introducing KittyBiome

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Scientists have made huge strides in understanding the human microbiome, and now they’re ready to move on to more advanced creatures – cats. A crack team* of microbiologists headed by Jonathan Eisen, Jennifer Gardy, Holly Ganz and Jack Gilbert** just launched KittyBiome, a citizen science project that aims to understand “how microbiomes differ among cats, whether those differences reveal insights into cat behavior and biology, and how the kitty microbiome depends on and may shape the health of your cat.”

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Among the questions they plan to address are:

  • How do grumpy cats compare to happy cats?
  • How do athletic cats compare to couch potato cats?
  • Does it matter if you feed your cat a paleo-mouse diet?
  • How do indoor and outdoor cats compare?

They reckon the answers are in the poop.  For a $99 donation to the KittyBiome Kickstarter, any cat owner can send in a fecal sample and answer a few questions about his or her cat’s health and diet. The researchers then sequence the DNA of the bacteria in the sample and, after a few weeks, share the type and concentration of the bacteria online. Participants (or their hoomins) can even compare their microbiomes to those of other cats, including some “celebrity kitties.”

Don’t have a cat of your own? For just a $25 donation, the researchers will sequence the microbiome of a shelter kitty. KittyBiome plans to expand beyond housecats, too – a pledge of $149 or more allows donors to see the microbiome profile of a wild cheetah, leopard, puma, or lion.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the other awesome perks the KittyBiome team is offering – they include a cool illustrated book about bacteria by Jennifer Gardy and an exclusive Kitty Microbe scarf, designed by me.

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*Extra points for refraining from using the word “buttcrack”

**Noted dog person

For more information and microbiology-related lolcats, you can follow @KittyBiome on Twitter