New gene editing technologies have revolutionised genetic science, but social insects like ants have proved difficult to genetically modify because of their complex lifecycle and social structure. Now, two separate labs have succeeded in using the CRISPR-CAS9 system to genetically modify two unusual ant species, switching off genes and disrupting their social behaviour in the […]


The five colours we don’t learn

Colour exists on a continuum, and yet human language is surprisingly consistent in how it categorises colours.

Previous studies have found that infants at the age of four months old can distinguish the basic colour categories common to many languages (e.g. blue, red, yellow), suggesting there is a biological basis to our color categories. However, these studies have focussed on just a few color categories that are important in English.

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My #230 Papers Challenge

You might have heard of the #360papers challenge – to read one journal article a day for a whole year – you might be less familiar with the related #230 papers challenge. This makes the more realistic goal of reading one journal article each working day of the year, which is apparently 230 days in total (I haven’t checked their maths). This is a record of my feeble attempt to reach this lofty goal – I will update every ten articles or so and try to give a one sentence summary (or link to an article or a longer blog).

Last updated: 30.05.17

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Sedentary hunter-gatherers domesticated mice

House mice outcompeted their wild relatives to become domesticated as soon as long-term human settlements appeared, some 5000 years before agriculture took hold.

The advent of farming marks a huge change in human populations – a change in diet, social structure and a switch to a more sedentary lifestyle. Agriculture also had a profound impact on wild animals, and is thought to have led to the domestication of many species, from wolves to cattle and chickens. But other species became domesticated accidentally – as humans started storing grain for lengthy periods of time, the house mouse adapted to thrive in this new ecosystem. Now, a new study shows that it was our sedentary lifestyle, not agriculture, that domesticated one of our most prolific pests.

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Tibetans evolved to cope with UV

Study identifies seven new loci associated with high-altitude living.

Tibetan populations have evolved at least nine specific genetic variants to help them survive the extreme conditions of the Tibetan Plateau. Living permanently at over 4,000 m above sea level, these populations have been coping for millennia with 40% less oxygen and 30% stronger UV radiation, as well as exposure and limited food.

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Geological uplift creates mountain biodiversity hotspots

Mountains tend to have more species than valleys, and new research provides support for the theory that mountain formation itself might be responsible.

Yaowu Ying and Richard Ree from The Field Museum in Chicago compared regional rates of plant colonisation and speciation in the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau, a high-altitude biodiversity hotspot. Within the QTP, the Hengduan mountain region is the most biodiverse, harbouring an astonishing 12,000 species in just 500,000 km2. The authors used published datasets to compare the spread of over 4,500 plant species across Hengduan, the Central Asian Mountains and the Himalayas.

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The first skeletons evolved repeatedly in chalky seas

The first skeletons evolved multiple times independently because of unusually chalky seas, later becoming essential for survival even when chalk became scarce.

Calcium-based skeletons appeared suddenly in the fossil record around 550 million years ago, fundamentally changing the global carbon cycle and introducing a wealth of new predatory strategies to the sea.

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Trading Aliens:
How Politics Helps and Hinders Invasive Species

The spread of non-native species across the globe is a major concern – species out of their natural range can cause millions of pounds of damage, spread diseases to humans and livestock and threaten native wildlife. They are a huge financial burden to control, but almost impossible to eradicate. New invasive species reach foreign lands by hitching a ride on our trade routes, so changes to global trade could have serious implications for our economies and our ecosystems.
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Cholesterol and fats prime immune cells to clog arteries

A fatty diet could change your genetic make-up, priming the immune system and causing clogged arteries.

Epigenetic changes – which often involve adding methyl to particular DNA sequences in a process known as DNA Methylation – can alter gene expression in response to environmental stimuli. The field of epigenetics has excited biologists because it allows animals to adapt their genetics to fit the environment, while also passing some of that experience on to the next generation.

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How much land on Earth is inhabited?

Question: How much of the land on Earth is covered by humans?

Answer: Approximately 10%.

This question is an interesting one because, when my friend asked me the other day, I could tell her confidently that not only did science know the answer, science had multiple different ways to quantify that answer, but that I had absolutely no idea what it was.

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