The Search for Genes Leads to Unexpected Places

From The New York Times:

Edward M. Marcotte is looking for drugs that can kill tumors by stopping blood vessel growth, and he and his colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin recently found some good targets — five human genes that are essential for that growth. Now they’re hunting for drugs that can stop those genes from working. Strangely, though, Dr. Marcotte did not discover the new genes in the human genome, nor in lab mice or even fruit flies. He and his colleagues found the genes in yeast.

“On the face of it, it’s just crazy,” Dr. Marcotte said. After all, these single-cell fungi don’t make blood vessels. They don’t even make blood. In yeast, it turns out, these five genes work together on a completely unrelated task: fixing cell walls.

Crazier still, Dr. Marcotte and his colleagues have discovered hundreds of other genes involved in human disorders by looking at distantly related species. They have found genes associated with deafness in plants, for example, and genes associated with breast cancer in nematode worms. The researchers reported their results recently in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The scientists took advantage of a peculiar feature of our evolutionary history. In our distant, amoeba-like ancestors, clusters of genes were already forming to work together on building cell walls and on other very basic tasks essential to life. Many of those genes still work together in those same clusters, over a billion years later, but on different tasks in different organisms.

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Why Athletes Are Geniuses

From Discover:

The qualities that set a great athlete apart from the rest of us lie not just in the muscles and the lungs but also between the ears. That’s because athletes need to make complicated decisions in a flash. One of the most spectacular examples of the athletic brain operating at top speed came in 2001, when the Yankees were in an American League playoff game with the Oakland Athletics. Shortstop Derek Jeter managed to grab an errant throw coming in from right field and then gently tossed the ball to catcher Jorge Posada, who tagged the base runner at home plate. Jeter’s quick decision saved the game—and the series—for the Yankees. To make the play, Jeter had to master both conscious decisions, such as whether to intercept the throw, and unconscious ones. These are the kinds of unthinking thoughts he must make in every second of every game: how much weight to put on a foot, how fast to rotate his wrist as he releases a ball, and so on.

In recent years neuroscientists have begun to catalog some fascinating differences between average brains and the brains of great athletes. By understanding what goes on in athletic heads, researchers hope to understand more about the workings of all brains—those of sports legends and couch potatoes alike.

As Jeter’s example shows, an athlete’s actions are much more than a set of automatic responses; they are part of a dynamic strategy to deal with an ever-changing mix of intricate challenges. Even a sport as seemingly straightforward as pistol shooting is surprisingly complex. A marksman just points his weapon and fires, and yet each shot calls for many rapid decisions, such as how much to bend the elbow and how tightly to contract the shoulder muscles. Since the shooter doesn’t have perfect control over his body, a slight wobble in one part of the arm may require many quick adjustments in other parts. Each time he raises his gun, he has to make a new calculation of what movements are required for an accurate shot, combining previous experience with whatever variations he is experiencing at the moment.

To explain how brains make these on-the-fly decisions, Reza Shadmehr of Johns Hopkins University and John Krakauer of Columbia University two years ago reviewed studies in which the brains of healthy people and of brain-damaged patients who have trouble controlling their movements were scanned. They found that several regions of the brain collaborate to make the computations needed for detailed motor actions. The brain begins by setting a goal—pick up the fork, say, or deliver the tennis serve—and calculates the best course of action to reach it. As the brain starts issuing commands, it also begins to make predictions about what sort of sensations should come back from the body if it achieves the goal. If those predictions don’t match the actual sensations, the brain then revises its plan to reduce error. Shadmehr and Krakauer’s work demonstrates that the brain does not merely issue rigid commands; it also continually updates its solution to the problem of how to move the body. Athletes may perform better than the rest of us because their brains can find better solutions than ours do.

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Forget Avatar, the real 3D revolution is coming to your front room

From The Guardian:

Enjoy eating goulash? Fed up with needing three pieces of cutlery? It could be that I have a solution for you – and not just for you but for picnickers who like a bit of bread with their soup, too. Or indeed for anyone who has dreamed of seeing the spoon and the knife incorporated into one, easy to use, albeit potentially dangerous instrument. Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to introduce you to the Knoon.

The Knoon came to me in a dream – I had a vision of a soup spoon with a knife stuck to its top, blade pointing upwards. Given the potential for lacerating your mouth on the Knoon’s sharp edge, maybe my dream should have stayed just that. But thanks to a technological leap that is revolutionising manufacturing and, some hope, may even change the nature of our consumer society, I now have a Knoon sitting right in front of me. I had the idea, I drew it up and then I printed my cutlery out.

3D is this year’s buzzword in Hollywood. From Avatar to Clash of the Titans, it’s a new take on an old fad that’s coming to save the movie industry. But with less glitz and a degree less fanfare, 3D printing is changing our vision of the world too, and ultimately its effects might prove a degree more special.

Thinglab is a company that specialises in 3D printing. Based in a nondescript office building in east London, its team works mainly with commercial clients to print models that would previously have been assembled by hand. Architects design their buildings in 3D software packages and pass them to Thinglab to print scale models. When mobile phone companies come up with a new handset, they print prototypes first in order to test size, shape and feel. Jewellers not only make prototypes, they use them as a basis for moulds. Sculptors can scan in their original works, adjust the dimensions and rattle off a series of duplicates (signatures can be added later).

All this work is done in the Thinglab basement, a kind of temple to 3D where motion capture suits hang from the wall and a series of next generation TV screens (no need for 3D glasses) sit in the corner. In the middle of the room lurk two hulking 3D printers. Their facades give them the faces of miserable robots.

“We had David Hockney in here recently and he was gobsmacked,” says Robin Thomas, one of Thinglab’s directors, reeling a list of intrigued celebrities who have made a pilgrimage to his basement. “Boy George came in and we took a scan of his face.” Above the printers sit a collection of the models they’ve produced: everything from a car’s suspension system to a rendering of John Cleese’s head. “If a creative person wakes up in the morning with an idea,” says Thomas, “they could have a model by the end of the day. People who would have spent days, weeks months on these type of models can now do it with a printer. If they can think of it, we can make it.”

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