A genetic atlas of human history

Two papers caught my eye recently that have taken advantage of the proliferation of whole genome sequencing techniques in recent years. With prices of sequencing whole genomes coming down and down, biologists are having access to vast amounts of data. The 1000 Genomes Project was one of the first to collect the vast amounts of human genome data into a story that told of human population origins. The two papers that I saw recently extend this story. One provides data from nearly 1500 people throughout the entire world to trace the genetic legacies of Ghengis Khan and Alexander the Great. The other delves deeper into the dawn of homo sapiens in Africa, over 300 whole genomes and nearly 1500 genotypes – the African Genome Project.

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#ScienceAfrica Unconference 2014 – reaching the whole spectrum of society

It was with great pleasure that I ‘virtually’ attended the second Planet Earth Institute #ScienceAfrica Unconference on the 18th November. From following on Twitter it seemed like an excellent day with good discussions and presentations. Since last year’s Unconference I have moved to Mozambique. In 9 months I have seen extreme rural areas and big cities and experienced the lives of Mozambicans that live there. It is with this experience that I came to the second Unconference – with thoughts on some of the unique challenges that a campaign like #ScienceAfrica faces.
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Plants, polyploidy and producing new species

Modern wheat. A product of polyploidy.
CC Wheat field / Weizenfeld II | Christian Schnettelker

When I talk about my career and my interest in evolutionary biology, I often get asked, “How do you actually get new species?”. It’s not a stupid question; for people without a background in biology it really is very hard to imagine how the diversity of life we see today has formed from the types of ancient creatures we find in the fossil record. I normally look to my favourite fish, the Mexican blind cavefish, or point out the variety that can be produced in the single species of dog, or mention horizontal gene transfer to confer antibacterial resistance in bacteria, to show how even small changes can result in quite big differences in a species. Add to that vast amounts of time and it becomes a little easier to imagine the “hedge” of life taking shape.

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Predicting your academic career

Publication metrics and success on the academic job market
David van Dijk, Ohad Manor, Lucas B. Carey
Current Biology 2014 Vol 24 No 11 R516

I caught this paper in a TOC email from Current Biology. “Predict who becomes a PI” they say. “Hmm,” I think, “This should be interesting.”

The abstract sets out the problem simply: “so far there has been no quantitative analysis of who becomes a principal investigator (PI). We here use a machine-learning approach to predict who becomes a PI, based on data from over 25,000 scientists in PubMed. We show that success in academia is predictable.”
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The physics of human walking and considering the wider picture

Gorilla walking like a man. CC talkrational.org
A gorilla walking like a man. Photo by talkrational.org is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Impulsive ankle push-off powers leg swing in human walking
Susanne W. Lipfert, Michael Günther, Daniel Renjewski, and Andre Seyfarth
J Exp Biol 2014 217:1218-1228.

I love papers like this. The extreme level of detail people go to in the quest to discover is fascinating. The question that always comes to my mind is “What made them decide to research this in the first place?” Was it through trying to understand more about where humans come from or was it purely a mathematical and physical curiosity about how we walk? The beauty of science is that it is allowed to be curiosity driven – just like those papers and pieces of research which made it into the IgNobel Awards and have ended up being pivotal in their respective fields.

“Impulsive ankle push-off powers leg swing in human walking” is a rather complicated paper, full of mathematical terminology and notation, but if you can get through the equations you’ll discover a story that shows how human walking has been fine-tuned, linking this physical paper to fundamental questions of human origins. Continue reading “The physics of human walking and considering the wider picture”