White squirrels

July 30, 2009

I’ve spent the past week visiting some colleagues at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, so to commemorate the occasion I thought I’d post these photos of a white squirrel that I snapped during a previous visit. 


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Tuatara: one species or two?

July 23, 2009
ResearchBlogging.org New Zealand’s most iconic reptile, the tuatara, is currently regarded as two separate species – Sphenodon guntheri, which is found naturally only on North Brother Island in Cook Strait, and Sphenodon punctatus, which are found on other islands in Cook Strait and off the north-east coast of the North Island.  However research just published online in Conservation Genetics shows that Sphenodon guntheri is not as genetically distinctive as first thought, and suggests tuatara should be regarded as one species.  Read the rest of this entry »

(Over)simplifying science

July 19, 2009

I think this captures the interaction between science and the media all too well…


Swine flu origins part 2

July 12, 2009

ResearchBlogging.org A few weeks ago I wrote about a paper detailing the evolutionary origins of swine flu. Now a second paper has been published on this topic (this one out this week in Science).  This study comes from a different group of researchers (a long list of mostly US-based researchers, led by Rebecca Garten and Todd Davis of the Center for Disease Control of Prevention in Atlanta, GA), and differs slightly from the previous study in that the researchers have sequenced more isolates of the pandemic strain, which they refer to as 2009 A(H1N1), so have been able to look in more depth at genetic variation within the strain.  They also report on the antigenic characteristics of the virus – that is, how it reacts against antibodies. 

Garten and colleagues sequenced a total of 76 isolates of 2009 A(H1N1) – 17 from Mexico and 59 from the US, and compared them to other influenza viruses.  Not surprisingly, they came to the same conclusions as the previous study regarding the evolutionary origin of the component parts of the virus – that it is a triple reassortment virus, and that its closest relatives have been circulating undetected in swine populations for about 10 years. As with previous study, there was no evidence of mutations that are likely to result in increased virulence of the virus, or molecular markers that are associated with adaptation to human host.  

The isolates they sequenced were 99.9% identical, with only 5 minor genetic variants among them.  This low level of genetic variation within humans suggests that its introduction into humans probably involved either a single transmission event, or multiple transmissions of very similar viruses. As viruses evolve extremely quickly the small amount of genetic variation they did find may have arisen since its transmission to humans. 

The antigenic properties of 2009 A(H1N1) were tested by raising antibodies against the HA protein of this strain in ferrets, and testing how well these antibodies react against other isolates of the pandemic strain.  The HA protein is the critical one for flu virulence and the target of flu vaccines, as humans have little or no immunity to this protein.  Garten and colleagues found that antigenically, the pandemic viruses are homogeneous, in fact they exhibit less variation than seen with typical seasonal influenza.  This is good news for vaccine production, as one vaccine will be able to target all the current variation existing within the virus.  However, antibodies against seasonal flu didn’t react with swine flu, indicating that being vaccinated against seasonal flu is unlikely to help you resist swine flu. 

Garten, R., Davis, C., Russell, C., Shu, B., Lindstrom, S., Balish, A., Sessions, W., Xu, X., Skepner, E., Deyde, V., Okomo-Adhiambo, M., Gubareva, L., Barnes, J., Smith, C., Emery, S., Hillman, M., Rivailler, P., Smagala, J., de Graaf, M., Burke, D., Fouchier, R., Pappas, C., Alpuche-Aranda, C., Lopez-Gatell, H., Olivera, H., Lopez, I., Myers, C., Faix, D., Blair, P., Yu, C., Keene, K., Dotson, P., Boxrud, D., Sambol, A., Abid, S., St. George, K., Bannerman, T., Moore, A., Stringer, D., Blevins, P., Demmler-Harrison, G., Ginsberg, M., Kriner, P., Waterman, S., Smole, S., Guevara, H., Belongia, E., Clark, P., Beatrice, S., Donis, R., Katz, J., Finelli, L., Bridges, C., Shaw, M., Jernigan, D., Uyeki, T., Smith, D., Klimov, A., & Cox, N. (2009). Antigenic and Genetic Characteristics of Swine-Origin 2009 A(H1N1) Influenza Viruses Circulating in Humans Science, 325 (5937), 197-201 DOI: 10.1126/science.1176225

Conferences, and why I won’t be blogging from mine.

July 9, 2009

The North American conference season is upon us and my colleagues are leaving left right and centre for their favourite excuse for escaping the NZ winter.  My excuse this year is the Gordon Conference for Ecological and Evolutionary Genomics, a small meeting held in the woods of New Hampshire. 

There’s been a bit of talk around lately about people using blogs and twitter to report from conferences, initiated mostly a small furore surrounding Daniel MacArthur of Genetic Future blogging from the Cold Spring Harbour Biology of Genomes meeting (read his take on it here).   The issue here was that mainstream science reporters attending the meeting had to obtain permission from the speaker before writing about their work, but for scientist-bloggers like MacArthur there was no such requirement.  Nature then weighed in with an article discussing the pros and cons of allowing details of conference presentations (which often include preliminary, and almost always non peer-reviewed results) to be disseminated far and wide through the social media.   

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Photo of the month – July

July 7, 2009

This month’s photo is of one of my favourite birds –  the South Island robin, Petroica australis.  This one was snapped in the Dart Valley, Mt Aspiring National Park, as he came to investigate what I was having for lunch.

South Island robin

Geckos are great

July 5, 2009

Earlier this year Keller Autumn from Lewis and Clark University gave a fantastic talk at Victoria University about the amazing properties of gecko’s feet, and how new adhesives are being developed based on these properties.  Well, it turns out geckos do pretty neat things with their tails as well – check out this presentation by one of Autumn’s collaborators, Robert Full from UC Berkeley.