Ken Catania studies the brains of some of the strangest-looking mammals alive: the star-nosed mole and the naked mole rat.
"I used to be a little defensive about studying such weird-looking animals," the assistant professor of biological sciences acknowledges. "But then I realized that what makes these animals so strange is their extreme specialization and, for that very reason, there is a great deal that we can learn from studying them.
"This research strategy appears to be paying off. Catania has just been awarded one of only 15 fellowships given annually by the Searle Foundation, a highly competitive honor that will provide him with $240,000 to use on his research for the next three years. In addition, his latest paper appeared as the cover article in this month's issue of the journal Nature Neuroscience.
It was Catania's interest in the sense of touch that led him initially to the community of moles. In their underground world there is little light, so vision is not very important. Also, sounds are attenuated and hearing is not that valuable either. That leaves the senses of touch and smell pre-eminent. His first research subject was the star-nosed mole-an animal that looks very much like an ordinary mole except that has a peculiar star of fleshy appendages ringing its nose. More recently he has begun studying the naked mole rat, an animal famous in animal behavior circles because it lives in insect-like colonies organized around single breeding females, or queens.
Catania got acquainted with the star-nosed mole when he was an undergraduate at the University of Maryland. He worked at the National Zoo, where his job was to collect small mammals, including star-nosed moles. "I learned where to find star-nosed moles and how to collect them, which is a skill not many people have," he explains. Although they range from Canada, down through the Eastern United States as far as Georgia, people rarely see these unusual-looking creatures because they are the only mole that lives in marshes and wetlands.
As its name implies, the star-nosed mole has a very unusual snout, ringed with 11 pairs of pink appendages that form a fleshy star. There have been a lot of different ideas about the function of this distinctive feature. Some have proposed that it is a super-sensitive olfactory organ that helps the nearly blind moles to sniff there way around underground. Others have suggested that serves as an extra "hand" for grasping prey or other objects. Still others have argued that it serves as an antenna that detects electric fields as the moles swim through muddy marsh water.
It was not until Catania studied this structure in detail as part of his doctoral thesis at the University of California, San Diego that the star's true function came to light. Working with noted neuroscientist Glenn Northcutt, he showed that these appendages serve as an extraordinary touch organ, covered with more than 25,000 microscopic sensory receptors, called Eimer's organs, that allow the hamster-sized mole to literally feel its way around its subterranean environment.
"I just showed some pictures of the nose around the lab and everybody got very excited," he recalls.
Catania was able to generate equally high levels of interest in this unusual creature when he came to Vanderbilt as a post-doctoral fellow in the lab of Centennial Professor of Psychology Jon Kaas. He and Kaas determined that more than 100,000 nerve fibers run from the moles star nose to its brain, more than six times the number that connect the human hand and brain.
"Given this structure, it is possible that the mole can feel distinctive differences in the textures of different materials at a microscopic level," Catania speculates.
He and Kaas also discovered that the mole's fleshy nose rays develop in a way unlike any other animal appendage. The basic strategy employed to make everything from human fingers, insect legs, fish fins, and porcupine quills is to start as an outgrowth of the body wall and grow directly outward. By contrast, the rays develop first as fleshy ridges along the side of the nose. Then they become little cylinders that separate from the body beginning at the ends farthest from the nostrils. These ends move forward to become the tips of the freed appendages.
Next, Catania took a closer look at the how the nerve connections between the star-nosed mole's brain and appendages develop. The region connected to each of the appendages is clearly marked on the mole's cortex, which makes it very easy to study, Catania says. The mole's star is made up of two different kinds of appendages. The central, lowermost pair is much shorter than the other ten and contains a much higher number of nerve fibers per touch receptor than do the longer pairs. The area of the cortex that is connected to this pair is also much bigger than that devoted to the others, the neuroscientist has found.
"This organization has surprising parallels to that of the human visual system," Catania observes.
Humans, like most animals that rely primarily on sight, continually shift their eyes. When an interesting or important image enters their peripheral vision, a person instinctually shifts his or her eyes to move the image into the central part of the retina, called the fovea. The fovea has a much higher concentration of nerve fibers than the periphery of the retina, which allows it to provide the brain with a more highly defined image.
Similarly, active star-nosed moles continually wave their nose appendages around. When one detects something of potential interest, such as an unfortunate earthworm, then the mole moves its nose quickly to bring one of the central rays into contact, giving it a superior tactile image of the object so it can determine whether it is something good to eat. For small prey the entire process from first touch to complete ingestion takes about a fifth of a second.
In the April issue of Nature Neuroscience, Catania set out to determine whether the central appendages gain control of larger regions of the cortex because they have been genetically programmed to do so or because they are used more intensively. By looking at the development of the mole's nose and brain, he was able to determine that the central appendages get a head start in the development process. Largely because they get their major growth earlier in development than do the peripheral appendages, the central rays establish a larger number of nerve connections and interconnect with a larger area of the cortex than its fellow appendages, he reports.
In his application to the Searle Foundation, Catania emphasized his desire to study the organization of the brains of highly specialized animals like the star-nosed mole. "When you stop and think about it, most scientific research is concentrated on just a handful of species, so I got the idea of looking at other, non-traditional species," he says.
In pursuit of this goal, he recently arranged to obtain a colony of naked mole rats. The mole rats have a much different tactile system than do the star-nosed moles. Instead of putting the vast majority of their touch-sensors in one organ, the mole rat has sensory hairs spread all over its body, including its tail.
"The mole rats are known for their ability to travel rapidly backward through tunnels. The sensory hair on their tails probably allow them to do this," Catania says.
Mole rats also have an exceptional set of front teeth. They have four incisors that are located entirely outside of their mouth so they can close their mouth tightly when they are using their teeth for digging. The moles also have the ability to move each front tooth independently. For example, they can spread them apart or move them together. An indication of just how important these teeth are to the animal is the fact that fully 30 percent of its cortex is devoted to processing information from the region where the teeth are located, Catania says.
"Are these just super-sensitive chop sticks, or do they have other functions as well?" Catania asks. That is just one of a number of questions that he hopes further study of these unusual animals will help answer.
Thursday, May 29, 2008
Saturday, May 24, 2008
The Pinta Island tortoise (Geochelone elephantopus abingdoni), one of the few species of Giant Galapagos tortoises, is indisputably the rarest animal in the world - because there is only one left alive.
Ravaged by whalers, buccaneers and finally feral animals, the wretched Pinta Island Tortoise was thought extinct until 1971, when a lone, forlorn example was located by rangers. Christened “Lonesome George” by his discoverers, he was evacuated to the sanctuary of the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS) on the neighbouring island of Santa Cruz.
For over thirty years, a search has been under way for a female Pinta tortoise. Believing one may still exist in captivity somewhere, the CDRS even posted a US$10,000 reward. Additionally, wardens still scour the dense vegetation of Pinta Island in the hope of locating any fugitive females.
Named after the famous British naturalist, Charles Darwin (1809-82) who spent five weeks on the islands in 1835, the research station runs a successful captive breeding program the has restored many of the previously threatened populations. But not the Pinto Island variety as “Lonesome George” will not mate with any of the “foreign” species. The CDRS also welcomes visitors and “Lonesome George” is the highlight of many tours.
Thursday, May 22, 2008
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
Here is a sad new i read from Yahoo News:
SYDNEY (AFP) - Australia's Tasmanian devil will be listed as an endangered species this week as a result of a deadly and disfiguring cancer outbreak, the state government said Monday.
The disease, a fast-growing head tumour which spreads over the marsupial's face and mouth and prevents it from eating, often killing it within months, has cut the island's devil population in the wild by as much as 60 percent.
A spokeswoman for Tasmania's Primary Industries Minister David Llewellyn said the small, black-haired animal would be listed as an endangered species by state officials on Wednesday.
The minister told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that the animal would be upgraded from a vulnerable to an endangered species so that the "appropriate resources and effort" can be poured into protecting it.
The government has also backed a plan to build an "insurance population" of healthy Tasmanian devils at wildlife reserves, zoos and other protected areas.
"If required, these animals could be utilised to help re-establish Tasmanian devil numbers in the wild," Llewellyn said.
The facial tumour is extremely unusual in that it is a contagious cancer, spread from devil to devil by biting.
The devil is the world's largest marsupial carnivore and now only lives in Australia's southern island state.
Early European settlers named the feisty marsupial the devil for its spine-chilling screeches, dark appearance and reputed bad temper which, along with its steeltrap jaw, made it appear incredibly fierce.
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Sunday, May 18, 2008
How believable is this?
>>The Liger is the result of breeding a female Tiger to a male Lion.
>>The Tigon is the result of breeding a male Tiger to a female Lion.
>>The Leopon is the result of breeding a male Leopard to a female Lion.
>>The Jaglion is the result of breeding a male Jaguar with a female Lion.
>>The Pumapard is the result of breeding a male Puma to a female Leopard.
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Friday, May 16, 2008
ACE-031, the lead product in Acceleron’s muscle program, is being developed to treat diseases involving the loss of muscle mass, strength and function in diseases including muscular dystrophy, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and cancer-related muscle loss. ACE-031 works by inhibiting myostatin and other negative regulators of muscle mass thereby freeing the body to rebuild muscle tissue.
Myostatin Limits the Production of Muscle
There are natural checks and balances in many processes in the human body, including the process that controls formation of muscle mass. Myostatin, also known as Growth Differentiation Factor-8 (GDF-8), works as a negative regulator of muscle mass, essentially limiting the body’s ability to add muscle. Over-expression of myostatin has been shown to cause a loss in muscle mass and strength, whereas inhibition of myostatin results in the selective increase in skeletal muscle mass and strength.
There are several examples in animals with genetic mutations that lead to low levels of myostatin, resulting in huge increases in muscle mass. For instance, the photo above shows the myostatin-deficient Belgian Blue breed of cattle, which despite being otherwise normal, have tremendously increased muscle mass.
ACE -031: A Decoy Myostatin Receptor
ACE-031 was specifically developed to inhibit myostatin and other negative regulators of muscle mass and strength. The reduction of myostatin would enable the body to add muscle mass to muscles weakened by disease. ACE-031 is a biotherapeutic based on the activin receptor type IIB (ActRIIB), which is the natural receptor for myostatin and other negative regulators of muscle mass. Acceleron scientists have engineered the product to combine the portion of ActRIIB that binds tightly to myostatin with a component of an antibody molecule that allows ACE-031 to circulate freely throughout the body.
Inhibiting the Inhibitor: Using ACE-031 to Grow New Muscle
ACE-031 acts as a decoy receptor and binds myostatin before it is able to bind with ActRIIB on the surface of muscle cells. Binding prevents myostatin signaling, thereby allowing normal muscle formation processes to occur, resulting in increased muscle mass and strength.
Recent studies with ACE-031 suggest that targeting myostatin may be a powerful way to increase muscle mass and improve physical function. In a range of animal models of muscle disease, including models of muscular dystrophy, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, glucocorticoid-induced muscle loss and age-related muscle loss (sarcopenia), ACE-031 increased muscle mass, strength and physical function.
ACE-031 Clinical Development Program
Acceleron is developing ACE-031 to treat muscle-loss caused by:
* Muscular Dystrophy (MD)
* Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)
* Cancer-Related Muscle Loss
By restoring skeletal muscle mass, strength and function, ACE-031 may offer hope to patients with these diseases. Acceleron expects to enter clinical trials with ACE-031 in early 2008.
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Tuesday, May 13, 2008
played important roles in developing the groundbreaking special In the Womb: Animals, which premiered on the National Geographic Channel (NGC) on Sunday, December 10, 2006 and will be shown again at 9:00 p.m. E.T. on December 14. For the first time, viewers were able to visualize the prenatal development of three mammals - elephant, dolphin and dog - and witness their early similarities followed by different paths to birth.
Dr. Donald Schlafer, Professor of Comparative Obstetrical and Gynecological Pathology, Dr. Drew Noden, Professor of Embryology and Animal Development, and Dr. Howard Evans, Professor Emeritus of Anatomy, acted as consultants for the special. They provided numerous photographs of canine uteruses, fetuses and placentas and critiqued the models that were made to portray stages of fetal development. The professors also reviewed prerelease versions of the video production to ensure accuracy of the accompanying narrative. While at Oxford in the spring, Dr. Schlafer traveled to London to view the models in person and witness filming for the special.
According to the NGC, the program features state-of-the art visual effects, computer graphics and real-time, moving 4-D ultrasound imagery to take viewers inside the unique world of animal fetal development. The special, geared toward a lay audience, uses comparative reproductive biology to view animal pregnancy from mating, through fetal development, delivery and neo-natal growth, according to Dr. Schlafer. "The special includes fascinating comparative embryology and very realistic simulations of fetal development," said Dr. Noden.
More information on the program can be found at NGC's website: http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/channel/inthewomb/?fs=www3.nationa
Monday, May 12, 2008
They call 55-million-year-old Diatryma gigantean a terror bird. And the evidence is compelling.
This flightless species stood some seven feet (two meters) tall and was armed with a strong beak and powerful clawed feet. In North America and western Europe, scientists say, Diatryma likely took over as top predators once the dinosaurs had died off—possibly even hunting ancestors of today's horses.
Extinct ancestor of today's hogs, this Archaeotherium—"ancient beast"—lived some 23 to 34 million years ago in what is now South Dakota. Strong neck muscles suggest that the roughly 4-foot-long (120-centimeter-long) animal was well suited to digging up roots and tubers with its snout.
So new to science that it hasn't even been named yet, this African pterosaur lived alongside dinosaurs about 110 million years ago in the Cretaceous period.
Nail-like teeth and a 16-foot (5-meter) wingspan likely helped the flyer catch—and hold onto—fish from African rivers, according to University of Chicago paleontologist Paul Sereno, whose team discovered the species in the Sahara of Niger.
"This find puts African pterosaurs on the map," said Sereno, who is also an explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society.
A coil of teeth caps the lower jaw of a sculpture of a 13-foot (4-meter) whorl-tooth shark, or Helicoprion, a fish genus that lived about 250 million years ago.
Artist Gary Staab depicts the animal's jaw as something of a spiral conveyor belt, in which new teeth would advance to replace old ones (concealed here by skin). But the true arrangement and purpose of the teeth remains a mystery. Some scientists suggest that it may have operated like a spiked whip, possibly curled underneath the lower jaw like a weaponized elephant trunk.
The shark adds bite to "Bizarre Beasts, Past and Present," a new exhibition of Staab's sculptures at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C. (through February 2, 2007). The animals depicted are, or were, all real—testaments to the twists, turns, and blind alleys of evolution.
No, this is not a result of some mutation. Some just photoshopped this for fun. But who know in the near future, a mutation of sort will occur?
I fancy myself mutating into a human with wings and fly like an eagle. For now, maybe i will look for the technology that can prolong my life for a couple of centuries or eons.
Saturday, May 10, 2008
What’s in the water that we are seeing so many living examples of mutated animals? Remember to cyclopse one eyed cat? Well now there is a two headed pig.
2007 is the Chinese Year of the Pig. What does that mean exactly? I don’t know, but if you’re a pig born with two faces, it means you’re a superstar. Some might say this little pig is a genetic freakshow but to the Chinese this is one lucky pig. People are flocking to see the little pork chop, but I can’t help but wonder if they should be drinking the water over there?
Liu Shuping, a farmer specializing in raising pigs, presents a newly-born piglet with one head, two mouths, two noses and three eyes, for photographers in Xi'an, northwest China on March 6, 2007. (smh.au)
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Thursday, May 8, 2008
It is a world in which the goldfish are never lonely, the dogs are always obedient and the guinea-pigs are never tormented by children.
Under a new Swiss law enshrining rights for animals, dog owners will require a qualification, anglers will take lessons in compassion and horses will go only in twos.
From guinea-pigs to budgerigars, any animal classified as a “social species” will be a victim of abuse if it does not cohabit, or at least have contact, with others of its own kind.
The new regulation stipulates that aquariums for pet fish should not be transparent on all sides and that owners must make sure that the natural cycle of day and night is maintained in terms of light. Goldfish are considered social animals, or Gruppentiere in German.
Know more HERE.
The world’s first cloned horse, Prometea, has had a foal
Pegaso, her son, is the first offspring of an equine clone confirms, once again, that cloned animals can grow and reproduce normally, giving rise to healthy offspring.
The name Prometea, a Haflinger mare, is a reference to Prometeo (Prometheus), who was punished for stealing fire from Olympus for the benefit of mankind.
She entered the history books in 2003 when she was unveiled as the world’s first horse clone, one that offered a way to preserve the genetic heritage of many exceptional horses whose genes are presently lost because champion geldings are castrated.
Know more about horses and clones HERE.
Hello world. This is my first entry to this blog (obviously). And as I don't want to focus on the negative side of what is happening to our world today, I simply cant ignore the harsh reality that is so in-your-face.
I want to talk about environment issues such as global warming, climate change and wide spread poverty as effect of such issues. But more than that, I want to showcase some of the mutations happening, mutations in more ways than one. The picture above is one I got while scouring the internet today:
Please see my animal and pets site here: