Another species added to the library of sequenced genomes: the zebra finch. Published in Nature and explained in the New York Times, the finchonome could provide answers about the development of language and – most intriguingly – the epigenetic influence of language upon gene expression. Previous studies have shown that gene expression changes in finches that are singing or listening to birdsong, and the Nature study discovers that those expressed proteins, in turn, have effects upon other genes. This cascade effect is very large – the act of singing alone changes the expression of more than 800 genes! Our very own Daniel Margoliash studies birdsong learning in zebra finches, and is no doubt excited to have the entire genome to play with in his research.
Earlier this week, scientists in Russia and the US plugged a hole in the periodic table with the discovery of element 117, a super-heavy element which flashed into existence for a total of 78 milliseconds. The element currently bears the placeholder name of ununseptium – fancy Latin for element #117 – so the fun part now comes in naming the particle. Recent element naming has gotten creative, with names like Copernicium, Promethium, and the rather presumptuous Nobelium, so everyone’s got an idea for #117: see the naming suggestions on twitter for a funny read. My personal submission evokes the element’s super-heaviness: Sabbathium.
Daniel Levitin reviews Nature editor Philip Ball’s new book, The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can’t Do Without It, and nails a succinct answer for the question in the title:
The secret to composing a likeable song is to balance predictability and surprise. Because most music has a beat and is based on repetition, we know when the next musical event is likely to happen, but we don’t always know what it will be. Our brains are working to predict what will come next. The skillful composer rewards our expectations often enough to keep us interested, but violates those expectations the rest of the time in interesting ways.
Cool news from the other side of campus: the University of Chicago Oriental Institute has uncovered an 8,000-year-old city in Syria, one of the oldest civilizations ever discovered. Called Tell Zeidan, the site is expected to yield decades of data about what life was like in the 5,000s and 4,000s BC – Oriental Institute director Gil Stein told the New York Times, “I figure I’m going to be working there till I retire.” It’s enough to make a biologist jealous.
I am pro-stem cell research, of course, but am still slightly creeped out by the anthropomorphic stem cells in this children’s book, Super Stemmys: Doris and the Super Cells, which has drawn mixed reviews from scientists according to, er, The Scientist.
More cool things happening at Argonne that I barely understand: a green way for making the decidedly un-green-sounding chemical propylene oxide (money quote: “This is basically a holy grail reaction.”) and a venus fly-trap for radioactive waste, gamely tackled by Ted Gregory of the Chicago Tribune.