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Science

Scientists Discover Common Ancestor of Monkeys, Apes, and Humans 391

reporter writes "According to a report by the Wall Street Journal, scientists have discovered the common ancestor of monkeys, apes, and Slashdotters. The 47 million year old fossils were discovered in Germany. The ancestor physically resembles today's lemur. Quoting: 'The skeleton will be unveiled at New York City's American Museum of Natural History next Tuesday by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and an international team involved in the discovery. According to Prof. Gingerich, the fossilized remains are of a young female adapid. The skeleton was unearthed by collectors about two years ago and has been kept tightly under wraps since then, in an unusual feat of scientific secrecy. Prof. Gingerich said he had twice examined the adapid skeleton, which was "a complete, spectacular fossil." The completeness of the preserved skeleton is crucial, because most previously found fossils of ancient primates were small finds, such as teeth and jawbones.'"
Biotech

Scientists Create RNA From Primordial Soup 369

Kristina at Science News writes "The RNA world hypothesis proposed 40 years ago suggested that life on Earth started not with DNA but with RNA. Now a team of scientists bolsters this hypothesis, having assembled RNA in the lab from a mixture that resembles what was likely the primordial soup. 'Until now,' Science News reports, 'scientists couldn't figure out the chemical reactions that created the earliest RNA molecules.' The new work started the RNA assembly chemistry from a different angle than what earlier work had tried."

Researchers One Step Closer To Creating Life 292

An anonymous reader writes "Researchers at the Scripps Research Institute are potentially one step closer to creating life. In an experiment they recently created enzymes that can replicate and evolve. 'It kind of blew me away,' said team member Tracey Lincoln of the Scripps Research Institute, who is working on her Ph.D. 'What we have is non-living, but we've been able to show that it has some life-like properties, and that was extremely interesting.'"
Earth

Evolution of Intelligence More Complex Than Once Thought 453

palegray.net writes "According to a new article published in Scientific American, the nature of and evolutionary development of animal intelligence is significantly more complicated than many have assumed. In opposition to the widely held view that intelligence is largely linear in nature, in many cases intelligent traits have developed along independent paths. From the article: 'Over the past 30 years, however, research in comparative neuroanatomy clearly has shown that complex brains — and sophisticated cognition — have evolved from simpler brains multiple times independently in separate lineages ...'"
Biotech

Convergent Evolution Upends Honeyeaters' Taxonomy 186

grrlscientist writes in with a beautiful piece of science, beautifully explicated. The poignant bit is that the birds in question are all extinct. "Every once in awhile, I will read a scientific paper that astonishes and delights me so much that I can hardly wait to tell you all about it. Such is the situation with a newly published paper about the Hawai'ian Honeyeaters. In short, due to the remarkable power of convergent evolution, Hawai'ian Honeyeaters have thoroughly deceived taxonomists and ornithologists as to their true origin and identity for more than 200 years."
Space

Excluding Intelligent Design Principles From the Search For Alien Life 308

KIdPanda writes "Prompted by pictures of man-made structures in the Utah desert, a SETI astronomer explains the sometimes-ambiguous difference between seeing the hand of God, alien intelligence, or nature. 'In my photographs, Shostak's SETI-trained eye — standing in for a pattern-crunching computer program — searched for an unexpected increase in visual order (or, in thermodynamic terms, a decrease in entropy caused by the rebellion of life against universal decay). A road or a tended field is mathematically simpler than a mountainous jumble or naturally varied vegetation. ... But there's an obvious problem: nothing is simpler than a sweep of blue sky, or the inky blackness of space. If simplicity is the benchmark, space itself is evidence of design."
Earth

Research Finds Carbon Dating Flawed 625

eldavojohn writes "New research funded by the National Science Foundation at the University of Miami is showing that carbon dating (the 13C/12C ratio used to infer age) in the ocean can only be trusted up to 150 million years ago. From the primary researcher, 'This study is a major step in terms of rethinking how geologists interpret variations in the 13C/12C ratio throughout Earth's history. If the approach does not work over the past 10 million years, then why would it work during older time periods? As a consequence of our findings, changes in 13C/12C records need to be reevaluated, conclusions regarding changes in the reservoirs of carbon will have to be reassessed, and some of the widely-held ideas regarding the elevation of CO2 during specific periods of the Earth's geological history will have to be adjusted.' While this research doesn't necessarily throw carbon dating out the window, it should cause people to rethink so many theories about early life that revolved around ages of sediment in the oceans."
Biotech

Biologist (Almost) Creates Artificial Life 539

Aditya Malik writes "Wired has an interesting story up about how a lab led by Jack Szostak, a molecular biologist at Harvard Medical School, is building 'protocells' from artificial molecules which are very close to satisfying the conditions for being 'alive.' 'Szostak's protocells are built from fatty molecules that can trap bits of nucleic acids that contain the source code for replication. Combined with a process that harnesses external energy from the sun or chemical reactions, they could form a self-replicating, evolving system that satisfies the conditions of life, but isn't anything like life on earth now, but might represent life as it began or could exist elsewhere in the universe.' This obviously raises some questions about creationism, not to mention some scary bio-research-gone-wild scenarios."
Medicine

Prions Observed Jumping Species Barrier 214

palegray.net writes "Nature is reporting on new findings that prions jump species barriers. Believed to be responsible for ailments such as Creutzfeld-Jakob disease and 'mad cow' disease, prions are thought to disrupt biological processes by causing normal proteins to fold abnormally. Researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston have observed infectious prions from hamsters causing abnormal protein development in mice, along with a range of other observations on prion actions in test tube environments. From the article: '... they also found that when a prion jumps species, it produces a new kind of prion. "This is very worrisome," says Claudio Soto, who led the research, published in Cell. "The universe of possible prions could be much larger than we thought."' Sounds like another good reason to donate your spare CPU cycles to projects like Folding@home."
Biotech

Opposable Thumbs and Upright Walking Caused By "Junk DNA" 215

quinnlynn writes "A group of research scientists at Yale discovered that the evolution of opposable thumbs and upright walking in humans is due to changes in the genome in the areas still classified as "junk DNA." Quoting: 'Results from a comparative analysis of the human, chimpanzee, rhesus macaque and other genomes reported in the journal Science suggest our evolution may have been driven not only by sequence changes in genes, but by changes in areas of the genome once thought of as "junk DNA." ... Researchers have long suspected changes in gene expression contributed to human evolution, but this had been difficult to study until recently because most of the sequences that control genes had not been identified. In the last several years, scientists have discovered that non-coding regions of the genome, far from being junk, contain thousands of regulatory elements that act as genetic "switches" to turn genes on or off.'" Yale has also recently completed sequencing the Trichoplax genome. Trichoplax has the simplest known animal genome, and it shares 80 percent of its genes (comprised of 98 million base pairs) with humanity. Professor Stephen Dellaporta was quoted saying, "We are [excited] to find that Trichoplax contains shared pathways and defined regulatory sequences that link these most primitive ancestors to higher animal species. The Trichoplax genome will serve as a type of 'Rosetta Stone' for understanding the origins of animal-specific pathways."
Science

New Evidence Debunks "Stupid" Neanderthal 505

ThinkComp writes "In what could possibly be a major blow to a scientific consensus that has held for decades, recent research suggests that the traditional conception of Neanderthals being "stupider" than Homo sapiens may in fact be misleading. As articles about the research findings state, 'early stone tool technologies developed by our species, Homo sapiens, were no more efficient than those used by Neanderthals.' The data used in the study is available on-line along with a visual description of the process used."
Biotech

Cooking Stimulated Big Leap In Human Cognition 473

Hugh Pickens writes "For a long time, humans were pretty dumb, doing little but make 'the same very boring stone tools for almost 2 million years,' says Philipp Khaitovich of the Partner Institute for Computational Biology in Shanghai. Then, 150,000 years ago, our big brains suddenly got smart. We started innovating. We tried different materials. We started creating art and maybe even religion. To understand what caused the cognitive spurt, researchers examined chemical brain processes known to have changed in the past 200,000 years. Comparing apes and humans, they found the most robust differences were for processes involved in energy metabolism. The finding suggests that increased access to calories spurred our cognitive advances, although definitive claims of causation are premature. In most animals, the gut needs a lot of energy to grind out nourishment from food sources. But cooking, by breaking down fibers and making nutrients more readily available, is a way of processing food outside the body. Eating (mostly) cooked meals would have lessened the energy needs of our digestion systems, thereby freeing up calories for our brains. Today, humans have relatively small digestive systems and allocate around 20% of their total energy to the brain, compared to approximately 13% for non-human primates and 2-8% for other vertebrates. While other theories for the brain's cognitive spurt have not been ruled out, the finding sheds light on what made us, as Khaitovich put it, 'so strange compared to other animals.'"
Biotech

Bacteria Make Major Evolutionary Shift In the Lab 1185

Auxbuss sends us to New Scientist for news sure to perplex and confound creationists: scientists have watched a new, complex evolutionary trait develop in the lab. "A major evolutionary innovation has unfurled right in front of researchers' eyes. It's the first time evolution has been caught in the act of making such a rare and complex new trait. And because the species in question is a bacterium, scientists have been able to replay history to show how this evolutionary novelty grew from the accumulation of unpredictable, chance events."
Education

Ben Stein's 'Expelled' - Evolution, Academia and Conformity 1766

eldavojohn writes "Painting the current scientific community as just as bad as the Spanish Inquisition, an extended trailer of Ben Stein's "Expelled" has a lot of people (at least that I know) talking. It looks like his movie plans to encourage people to speak out if they believe intelligent design or creationism to be correct. In the trailer he even warns you that if you are a scientist you may lose your job by watching 'Expelled.' Backlash to the movie has started popping up and this may force the creationism/evolutionist debate to a whole new level across the big screen and the internet." adholden points out a site called Expelled Exposed, which asserts that 'Expelled' "is simply an anti-science propaganda film aimed at creating controversy where none exists, while promoting poor science education that can and will severely handicap American students."
Space

Meteorites May Have Delivered Seeds of Life On Earth 277

esocid writes "At the national meeting of the American Chemical Society, scientists presented evidence today that desert heat, a little water, and meteorite impacts may have been enough to cook up one of the first prerequisites for life. The result of that brew could be the dominance of "left-handed" amino acids, the building blocks of life on this planet. Chains of amino acids make up the protein found in people, plants, and all other forms of life on Earth. There are two orientations of amino acids, left and right, which mirror each other in the same way your hands do. These amino acids "seeds" formed in interstellar space, possibly on asteroids as they careened through space. At the outset, they have equal amounts of left and right-handed amino acids. But as these rocks soar past neutron stars, their light rays trigger the selective destruction of one form of amino acid."

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