Thursday, October 19, 2006

Darwin online

Heard it on the radio this morning while listening to the BBC: the University of Cambridge has digitised the text and images of thousands of pages from the publications of Charles Darwin. The website can be found here:

Included in the collection are works on other members of the Darwin family (such as the almost-as-famous-as-his-grandson Erasmus Darwin) as well as mp3 audio books for those who would like something more intellectual to entertain their daily jog or gym workout.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Evolution and cancer news

Every morning I check a couple of sites in order to get an overview of what is going on in the world. Today I found a couple of curious things:

On the more serious (and cancer related) front, A group of researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia have found a way to find out the spread of skin cancer cells through the blood. The technique relies on the fact that the vibrations produced by a laser into a melanoma cell is different from that of other cells like red blood cells and plasma.

More information can be obtained here (for those with a subscription to the journal of optics letters).
A different kind of research has been noticed by the bigger media (BBC, Telegraph) and it seems to illustrate how not to use the theory of evolution. Researchers at the Darwin centre at the London School of Economics have seen the future and came back to tell us: Mankind will split into two separate species: the clever and beautiful and the dim-witted goblin-like. I have already heard people labelling these groups as the Macs and the PCs.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Turning on genes again

I confess to read The Economist newspaper more than occasionally and I find the Science and Technology section readable but rigorous.In this week's issue there is an article about a new class of drugs that has recently gained approval in the US.

One of the things I have learned reading this article is about how mutations might occur that could lead to tumour formation. Up to now, as far as I was concerned, a mutation is a mutation is a mutation, that is, something that just happens and, ooops, one more ticket for the lottery of cancer. Well, it seems that a curious way to turn off large parts of the DNA is by increasing the packing density of the DNA so it becomes effectively unreadable. It seems that cancer cells can use this mechanism to avoid expressing genes so they can proliferate faster as well as avoid apoptosis and senescence. Given that the drug that has just been granted regulatory approval works best with leukemia it seems that the mechanisms employed by tumour cells to deactivate certain cell mechanisms varies from cancer to cancer. Still, having cancer cells with the capability of turning off significant parts of the DNA is such an evolutionary advantage that it should not be surprising if equivalent mechanisms are found in other types of cancer.