Biology and Biotech

There is nothing like a good ole scientific debate about microbes to make my day. The one happening at the moment is as good as they get for one reason - good science is being done on both sides of the issue.

The hot topic of where a baby gets its bacteria (or microbiome) is scientific discourse at its best - and it's only going to get better as each side fills in their gaps and pushes the questions further. 

The debate will be presented in two articles - one for each side. Here, we present the landmark paper that established the original paradigm seven years ago. This work suggests that the route of delivery of a baby (vaginal vs. cesarean) determines which bacteria will colonize their bodies. The establishment of the microbiota dictates the amount, type and variety of...

Inserting a camera into the human body, to look around for trouble, used to be the thing of science fiction. But as well all know full well, today millions of Americans visit doctor's offices annually to have a colonoscopy performed. It's become routine, and the cancer-spotting procedure saves lives.

Now instead of envisioning a camera that fits inside a colon, imagine one that can slide and peer through a blood vessel.

While you're imagining that, researchers in Michigan are currently experimenting with this new technology that may someday be able to predict a stroke or heart attack before it occurs.

A team of doctors at Michigan Medicine, the medical school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, are using an incredibly small camera – it's called a scanning...

Although they don't generally make headlines, Vibrio cholerae infections wreak havoc in areas of the world with poor sanitation, causing millions of cases of cholera and over 100,000 deaths each year.

A cholera infection can range from mild to a severe diarrheal disease with profuse watery diarrhea and vomiting, rapid loss of fluids, dehydration, shock and death within a few hours. 

When these outbreaks occur, there is a rapid increase in the number of cases, and transmission is frequently seen among people sharing a household. Therefore, a drug that could quickly and easily be administered to people living in close proximity to a cholera outbreak, to contain the spread of the bacteria, would be incredibly useful in the fight against cholera. 

A team at...

Special bacteria-killing surfaces constitute a highly active area of research and development.

Strategies to construct them vary widely. One group has infused a slippery surface with molecules that disrupt bacterial communication. Others have shown that silver nanoparticle coatings can destroy bacteria. Yet another group used black silicon to create a surface that resembled a tiny "bed of nails" (nanopillars), which physically rip bacteria apart.

That latter example, which ...

The controversy over Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) lives on, despite the scientific community's best efforts to quell the scaremongering.    

In fact, GMOs are the scientific issue with the widest gap in understanding between scientists and the public, with 88% of scientists reporting that GMOs are safe to eat, as compared to just 37% of the public. One of the reasons for that gap is that scientists understand the biology behind how GMOs are created and why they are not harmful. But, lacking that understanding leaves a lot of space for fear and uncertainty.  

Even worse, as GMOs become even more complicated, the gap in understanding is bound to get larger.


Humans have a much longer and wider penis than the other great apes. Even the largest of gorillas, more than twice as heavy as a human, will have a penis just two and half inches long when erect.

However our testicles are rather small. A chimpanzee’s testes weigh more than a third of its brain while ours weigh in at less than 3%. The relative size of our penis and testes is all down to our mating strategies, and can provide some surprising insights into early human culture.

Primates exhibit all sorts of mating behaviour, including monogamous, polygynous – where males have multiple mates – and multimale-multifemale. One indicator of which behaviour occurs in a species is the size difference between males and females. The greater this...

Wouldn't it be simple if science fiction remained fictional and scientific discoveries were made at a pace that we were comfortable with?

But, certain scientific discoveries, like human genome editing, challenge our thinking on many different levels. There are a lot of voices getting into the mix of the debate on human genome editing, taking on the unenviable task of "playing God." One of these voices is the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics (ACMG.) 

The ACMG recently published a statement in their own journal Genetics in Medicine entitled "...

Even birds know when they are paired up with a mate that is "out of their league." New research from the journal Biology Letters demonstrates that unattractive, male, red-backed fairy-wrens spend more time guarding their female mates – while their sexy competitors spend more time seeking "extramarital" affairs.

Red-backed fairy-wrens are Australian duetting songbirds, romantically chiriping back and forth like in a Disney cartoon. The birds are socially monogamous, which means one male and one female live and raise young together, but they do not necessarily mate exclusively. For this species, about 54% of hatchlings are the result of extra-pair paternity because the males...

In the segment of the scientific community that studies animal behavior, a question asked repeatedly is whether rational thought exists in species other than human, and how prevalent it is. Not choices made based on ingrained survival instincts, but thought that drives decision making.

That intriguing concept has been found to exist. But a new paper just released focusing on continuation and evolution of species states that a team of University of Washington researchers, in describing their work, "is among the first to see if rationality extends to mate choice."

They did this by studying the practices and habits of fruit flies.

Led by Daniel Promislow, the senior author of the study titled, "Mate choice in fruit flies is rational and adaptive," the team found...

In evaluating the health of living things – whether they be humans, plants or animals – when advanced age or decay sets in we can observe the physical changes as they happen with our own eyes. 

The same, however, cannot be said when studying trees. That's because when they're stricken by old age or disease, they rot, invisibly, from the inside out. And not knowing their true health misleads foresters and scientists around the globe who track climatic shifts and other natural occurrences. 

As a result, foresters, arborists and researchers obtain their tree health data employing an alternative method: sound waves. However, while that method – called sonic tomography – is fascinating and revealing, it has its limitations since previously it could only be deployed on trees...