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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Even Leaf Fossils Contain Original Remains After Sitting for Supposedly 50 Million Years!

Posted by jlwile on April 16, 2014

This fossil leaf is supposed to be 49 million years old.  Leaf fossils of similar supposed age have been shown to contain original leaf material.  (click for credit)

This fossil leaf is supposed to be 49 million years old. Leaf fossils of similar supposed age have been shown to contain original leaf material. (click for credit)

One of the many recent scientific discoveries that is best understood in a young-earth creationist framework is the preservation of original tissue in fossils thought to be millions of years old (see here, here, here, and here, for example). So far, all of the examples of such tissue come from animals, but recently, a study was published in the journal Metallomics that indicates at least some plant fossils also have remarkably well-preserved original remains in them!

The research team, which includes palaeontologists, physicists, and geochemists, used the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource and the UK’s Diamond Light Source to examine fossil leaves which are believed to be 50 million years old. These two facilities use fast-moving electrons to produce radiation that is very intense and very high energy. This radiation can be used to study various aspects of an object that are not possible to study using visible light. In particular, the research team used the radiation from the facilities to examine the distribution of chemicals found in the leaf fossils.

Why did they want to do this? Well, essentially the same team of scientists used a series of tests (including ones conducted at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource) on a reptile fossil that was also supposed to be 50 million years old. They found the chemicals you would expect to find in reptile tissue, and they found them in exactly the places you would expect to find them in living reptiles.1 As a result, they concluded that there was a remarkable level of chemical preservation in a reptile fossil that is supposed to be 50 million years old. They wanted to see if the same thing existed in plant fossils.

They found that it did!

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Really Generous Bacteria!

Posted by jlwile on April 8, 2014

This is an electron microscope image of a bacterium from genus Prochlorococcus.  The colors were added artificially. (click for credit)

This is an electron microscope image of a bacterium from genus Prochlorococcus.
The colors were added artificially. (click for credit)

The image you see above is of a tiny bacterium from genus Prochlorococcus. It is part of a phylum of bacteria called Cyanobacteria, and the members of this phylum are an incredibly important part of the world’s ecosystems. They live in water, converting sunlight and carbon dioxide into sugar and oxygen via photosynthesis. Estimates indicate that cyanobacteria are responsible for producing about 20 to 30 percent of the earth’s oxygen supply.

Prochlorococcus are particularly important cyanobacteria. They are thought to be the most abundant photosynthetic organism on earth, with an estimated worldwide population of an octillion (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000).1 More importantly, they tend to live in parts of the ocean that are nutrient-poor. Their photosynthesis helps to alleviate this problem, of course, making them a food source for other organisms that might try to live there.

Dr. Sallie Chisholm at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) first described the organisms in 1988 and has continued to study them over the years. She and her colleagues were recently looking at them under an electron microscope and noticed what she described as, “these pimples – we call them ‘blebs’ – on the surface.”2 Dr. Steven J. Biller, a microbiologist who is also at MIT, recognized the blebs as vesicles, which are tiny “sacs” made by nearly every cell in nature. Since the vesicles were found on the surface of the cell, the scientists decided the bacteria were using them to get rid of whatever was inside the vesicles.

They studied the water from their laboratory samples and found that it was, indeed, rich with vesicles that had been released by the Prochlorococcus, and they were surprised by what they found inside.

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It Did Sound Too Good to be True…

Posted by jlwile on April 2, 2014

These are stem cells taken from the embryo of a mouse.  The color is the result of a stain used to make them easier to see.  The embryo had to be killed to get the cells, but they can develop into almost any kind of mouse cell (skin, nerve, muscle, etc.).  (image in the public domain)

These are stem cells taken from the embryo of a mouse. The color is the result of a stain used to make them easier to see. The embryo had to be killed to get the cells, but they can develop into almost any kind of mouse cell (skin, nerve, muscle, etc.).
(image in the public domain)

Every once in a while, I run across a story in the scientific literature that seems just too good to be true. Such was the case when I was reading the February 22nd issue of Science News. In a story entitled “A little acid can make a cell stemlike,”1 the author reported on some amazing results that were published in the journal Nature. In the published studies, scientists from the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, Japan claimed that they could take cells from various parts of a mouse (like the brain, skin, and liver) and transform them into stem cells by simply treating them with acid or other external stimuli!

This would be an amazing feat, because stem cells are able to develop into many different kinds of cells. Consider, for example, what happens when two mice successfully mate. The sperm from the male fertilizes the egg from the female, and the result is a single cell that will eventually develop into a new mouse. In order for that to happen, the cell begins making copies of itself. As more and more copies are made, the individual copies begin to start “specializing” so they can do specific tasks. Some develop into skin cells, others develop into nerve cells, others develop into blood cells, etc. This process of cells specializing into different types of cells is called differentiation.

Of course, the cells in the developing mouse don’t start differentiating right away. There has to be a group of cells that have the ability to produce all the different kinds of cells the mouse needs, and these cells are generally called embryonic stem cells. Examples of mouse embryonic stem cells are shown in the image above. They may look unassuming, but they are truly amazing, because they can produce any kind of cell that the mouse needs. Of course, in order to produce that image, the mouse embryo from which the cells came had to be destroyed. In other words, to get mouse embryonic stem cells, you have to kill the mouse whose cells you want. If you want human embryonic stem cells, you have to kill the developing baby whose cells you want.

This, of course, presents a problem. Embryonic stem cells have great potential when it comes to solving many medical issues. Suppose, for example, you have a heart attack. As a result, some of the cells that make up your heart muscle died. In most cases, the body can’t completely replace the cells that are killed, so you will probably have a weaker heart for the rest of your life. If stem cells could be used, perhaps they could differentiate into heart muscle cells and completely repair the damage to your heart.

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The More We Learn About Bone, The More Amazing It Is!

Posted by jlwile on March 31, 2014

This is the latest view of the microscopic structure of bone.  (click for credit)

This is the latest view of the microscopic structure of bone. (click for credit)

The bones that make up the skeletons of animals and people are a marvel of engineering. As one materials scientist put it:1

…bone properties are a list of apparent contradictions, strong but not brittle, rigid but flexible, light-weight but solid enough to support tissues, mechanically strong but porous, stable but capable of remodeling, etc.

More than three years ago, I posted an article about research that helps to explain why bones are so strong. The calcium mineral that makes up a significant fraction of the bone, hydroxyapatite, is arranged in crystals that are only about three billionths of a meter long. If the crystals were much longer than that, the strength of the resulting bone tissue would be significantly lower. What restricts the size of the crystals? According to the previous research, the tiny crystals are surrounded by molecules of citrate. It was thought that the citrate latches onto the outside of the crystal, stopping it from growing.

Some very interesting new research from the University of Cambridge and the University College London indicates that this is, indeed, what happens. However, it also indicates that citrate does much more than simply restrict the size of the crystals. It also helps to produce a cushion that allows bones to flex rather than break when they are under stress.

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Fascinating: Your Brain Gets Heavier When You Think!

Posted by jlwile on March 13, 2014

This is a drawing of Angelo Mosso's circulation balance from the 1880s.

This is a drawing of Angelo Mosso’s circulation balance from the 1880s.

In the 1880s, an Italian scientist named Angelo Mosso built a balance that tried to measure the net flow of blood in the body. A man was put on the balance and asked to clear his mind. The balance was then set so that it stayed horizontal. The man was then asked to read something, and invariably, the balance tilted towards the head, indicating that his brain got heavier. According to Mosso, when the man read a newspaper, the balance would tilt a bit, but when he read a page from a mathematics manual, the balance would tilt more. One man was asked to read a letter from an angry creditor, and it tipped the balance more than anything else!

These results led Mosso to conclude that when the brain is actively working, it gets more blood from the circulatory system. The more it has to work (to process difficult information or strong emotions), the more blood it gets. When I originally read about Mosso’s work years ago, it reminded me of Dr. Duncan MacDougall’s experiments in which he tried to weigh the soul. If you have never heard of Dr. MacDougall’s work, he tried to measure the weight of six terminally-ill patients at the moment they died. He then did the same procedure on dogs. He claimed that while the people lost weight when they died, the dogs did not. As a result, he claimed to have demonstrated that the human soul has weight.

Of course, there are all sorts of problems with Dr. MacDougall’s work, and when I read about Mosso’s work, I rashly put it in the same category. While I am more than willing to believe that the brain needs more nutrients when it is hard at work, I have a hard time believing that its blood flow patterns would be changed dramatically enough to be measured by a balance. Fortunately, other scientists weren’t so rash. Dr. David T. Field and Laura A. Inman decided to replicate Mosso’s experiments, and the results surprised me.

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Salmon Seem to Inherit a Map for Their Migration

Posted by jlwile on March 5, 2014

This is a Chinook salmon in its parr stage.  (click for credit)

This is a Chinook salmon in its parr stage. (click for credit)

Pacific salmon are fascinating to study, because their lifecycle is so interesting. They hatch in freshwater streams, at which point they are called alevin. Although they have hatched, they still have a yolk sac upon which they feed. Once they have absorbed the yolk sac, they are called fry, and they begin feeding on the plankton in the stream. They eventually mature into parr, which are also called fingerlings. After about 12-18 months in freshwater, they move to the brackish waters of estuaries, ecosystems where freshwater rivers meet the ocean. At this point, they are usually called smolts. After a few months, they venture out into the ocean, where they will spend several years growing.

The amazing part, of course, is that after spending several years in the ocean, they return to the same freshwater stream where they hatched to spawn another generation. From a scientific point of view, one of the most important questions you can ask about this lifecyle is, “After spending years in the ocean, how do the salmon know the way back to the freshwater stream in which they hatched?” It makes sense that while they are fry and parr, they get a good sense of the mix of chemicals that make up their “home stream,” but they obviously can’t follow that trail of chemicals from the ocean! So how do they get from the ocean to the correct estuary so that they can get back to the stream in which they hatched?

About a year ago, I discussed a study that gave a partial answer to that question. It showed that sockeye salmon use the earth’s magnetic field as a “map” that leads them to the proper estuary. The study suggested the salmon had other means of navigation at their disposal, but the magnetic field was a very important tool in the fish’s repertoire. How do the salmon acquire this map? In the previous study, it was suggested that the map is imprinted in the salmon’s brain as it is traveling from the estuary to the open ocean.

Well, the same research team has done a follow-up study, and they have decided that this suggestion is probably not correct. Instead, the real story is more complex and much more interesting!

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More Evidence That Antibiotic Resistance Existed LONG BEFORE Antibiotics Were Developed

Posted by jlwile on March 3, 2014

This is a drawing of a bacteriophage, a virus that attacks bacteria.  (click for credit)

This is a drawing of a bacteriophage, a virus that attacks bacteria. (click for credit)

Many people know that bacteria have developed resistance to popular antibiotics. Indeed, it is a big problem in medicine, and it has caused many health-care providers to call for doctors to prescribe antibiotics only when they are necessary. The Centers for Disease Control calls this “antibiotic stewardship” and thinks it will improve medical care throughout the country.1 I have written about antibiotic resistance before (see here and here), because some evolutionists try to cite it in support of the idea that novel, useful genes can be produced by evolutionary processes. Of course, the more we have studied the phenomenon, the more we have seen that this is just not the case.

There are essentially two ways that a bacterium develops resistance to an antibiotic. One way is to have a mutation that confers the resistance. For example, a bacterium can become resistant to streptomycin if a mutation causes a defect in the bacterium’s protein-making factory, which is called the ribosome. That defect keeps streptomycin from binding to the ribosome, which makes streptomycin ineffective against the bacterium. However, it also makes the ribosome significantly less efficient at its job.2 So in the end, rather than producing something novel (like a new gene that fights the antibiotic), the mutation just deteriorates a gene that already existed. While this is good for a bacterium in streptomycin, it doesn’t provide any evidence that novel, useful genes can be produced by evolutionary processes.

There is, however, a second way that a bacterium can develop resistance to an antibiotic: It can get genes that fight the antibiotic from another bacterium. Bacteria hold many genes on tiny, circular portions of their DNA called plasmids. Two bacteria can come together in a process called conjugation and exchange those plasmids, which allows bacteria to “swap” DNA. If a bacterium has a gene (or a set of genes) that allows it to resist an antibiotic, it can pass those genes to others in the population, ensuring their survival.

Of course, the natural question one must ask is, “Where did those antibiotic-resistance genes come from in the first place?” Many evolutionists want you to believe that evolution produced those genes in response to the development of antibiotics. After all, antibiotics didn’t exist until 1941, when penicillin was tested in animals and then people. Why would antibiotic-resistance genes exist before the antibiotics?

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Bacteria Put Out “Welcome Mats” for Tubeworms

Posted by jlwile on February 28, 2014

On the left, you see a tubeworm with its feathery feeding appendages extended.  On the right, the tubeworm has retracted those appendages, and you see only the opening of its tube.

On the left, you see a tubeworm with its feathery feeding appendages extended. On the right, the tubeworm has retracted those appendages, and you see only the opening of its tube.

When I scuba dive, I love finding tubeworms like the one pictured above. As adults, these worms build tubes made out of calcium carbonate to house their delicate bodies. They feed by extending feathery appendages called radioles, which catch nutrients that are floating in the water. On the left side of the picture above, you see a tubeworm with its radioles extended. However, if you scare a tubeworm (I do so by flicking my fingers at it), the worm will pull its radioles back into its tube for protection. At that point, you see only the opening of the tube, which is shown on the right side of the picture above.

An adult tubeworm spends its life attached to a hard surface, such as a piece of coral, a rock, or even the hull of a ship. However, when a tubeworm egg hatches, the larva that emerges is free-swiming and looks nothing like the adult. In order to mature, it must find a surface to which it can attach itself. It has long been known that tubeworm larvae tend to attach themselves to surfaces that contain specific bacteria, but no one understood how the larvae know where the bacteria are.

Nicholas J. Shikuma and his colleagues have done a study that helps us understand this amazing process. They concentrated on a specific species of tubeworm, Hydroides elegans, which is a common nuisance because it tends to stick to the hulls of ships (that’s not the species pictured above). They already knew that these tubeworms tend to settle where a specific bacterium, Pseudoalteromonas luteoviolacea, is found. As a result, they studied the bacterium in detail, and they found something rather incredible.

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Bill Nye and the Fossil Record

Posted by jlwile on February 12, 2014

On February 4th at the Creation Museum in Kentucky, Ken Ham and Bill Nye debated the question, Is creation a viable model of origins?

On February 4th at the Creation Museum in Kentucky, Ken Ham and Bill Nye debated the question, Is creation a viable model of origins?

I already gave you my general thoughts on the debate that took place between Ken Ham and Bill Nye last week. However, I would like to address a few of the particular subjects that Bill Nye raised, because I don’t think Ken Ham did a great job of answering them. Of course, due to the debate structure, neither of the men had much time to address the other’s issues. Nevertheless, I do think they each could have done more than they actually did.

In this post, I want to concentrate on Nye’s contention that the fossil record neatly supports evolution. For example, in his presentation he described the geological column, claiming that the “higher” animals are found in more recent rock layers, while the “lower” animals are found in the older rock layers. Starting at 1:04:15 in the online video, he then says:

You never, ever find a higher animal mixed in with a lower one. You never find a lower one trying to swim its way to the higher one…Anyone here, really, if you can find one example of that – one example of that anywhere in the world – the scientists of the world challenge you – they would embrace you. You would be a hero. You would change the world if you could find one example of that anywhere.

Nye repeated a variation of this claim later in the debate, so it was clearly meaningful to him.

Of course, the fact is that you do find higher animals in rock layers with lower animals. Evolutionists have many ways of dealing with the problem, but none of them involve making the discoverer into a hero.

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For Some Diseases, It Was Vaccination, Not Sanitation

Posted by jlwile on February 3, 2014

This is the logo of Project Tycho.  It depicts Tycho Brahe with his unique view of the universe. (click for credit)

This is the logo of Project Tycho. It depicts Tycho Brahe with his unique view of the universe.
(click for credit)

Dr. Wilbert van Panhuis and his colleagues have started an exciting initiative called Project TychoTM. In it, they are taking public health data that have been collected over the years and putting them into an easy-to-access digital system that is open to everyone. They describe the goal of their project in this way:

We aim to advance the use of public health data for the improvement of public health. Oftentimes, restricted access to public health data limits opportunities for scientific discovery and technological innovation in disease control programs. A free flow of data and information maximizes opportunities for more efficient and effective public health programs leading to higher impact and better health. Our activities are focused on accelerating the availability and use of public health data…

They named the project after Tycho Brahe, one of the more colorful 16th-century astronomers. Not only did he live an interesting life, he had a very interesting view of the universe. He made an enormous number of astronomical observations that he meticulously documented, and those observations convinced him that the planets must orbit the sun, not the earth. However, he couldn’t give up the idea of the earth being at the center of everything, so he produced what is probably the most interesting view of the universe ever. As shown in the logo above, he put the earth at the center of the universe, and he had the sun and moon orbiting the earth. The rest of the planets were then assumed to orbit the sun, as it moved in its orbit around the earth. While this view of the universe is clearly unworkable, it was incredibly original!

Why would a project involving public health data be named after this colorful character? Because his main contribution to science was the data he collected. While he couldn’t make heads or tails of his data, another astronomer, Johannes Kepler (who was once employed by Brahe) did. Kepler was able to use Brahe’s data to develop three laws of planetary motion that demonstrated all the planets, including the earth, orbit the sun. Sir Isaac Newton was then able to use Kepler’s Laws to develop his Law of Universal Gravitation, which describes how gravity works both here on earth and throughout the universe. Brahe’s data, then, were the foundation of some of the greatest advancements in the field of astronomy in the 16th and 17th centuries.

In Dr. van Panhuis’s view, the data he is collecting could end up being like Brahe’s data. It might be used by other scientists to better understand diseases and how to deal with them as they spread through populations. While I can’t say whether or not that will ever happen, I can say that these data make it easy for me to address a popular myth about vaccination.

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