Novel Biodiversity

The are several categories relating to the Tree of Life which I consider important.

The first category includes all extant creatures. By adolescence, we are familiar with thousands of animals. Scientists estimate there are somewhere between 5 and 100 million species altogether. Most are probably insects and arachnids, including over a million species of both mite and beetle.

The second category includes all species that have ever lived. This number is somewhere between 10 and 100 times greater than the number of extant creatures, therefore somewhere between 50 million and 10 billion. To me, making sense of the first category requires understanding the second. I am fascinated by the second category because most people don’t know too much about it, and it’s like visiting an alien world — there are so many unusual and fascinating creatures in the fossil record.

The third category includes all species that could ever theoretically exist. We can really blow this up to huge proportions, including species based on something besides DNA, including non-carbon-based life forms, if they …

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Bacterial Apocalypse?

A challenge in making people care about techno-apocalypse is that most of the proposed technologies which could cause it exist in the future, not the present.

There’s all-out thermonuclear war, sure. If the Bush administration is dumb enough to attack Iran before he leaves office, then we could have serious problems with Russia (the country my family left when the Communists took over), whose minister of defense has cautioned the US not to lay a hand on Iran. If Putin’s successor is as gangster as he is, then Cold War part II (or Hot War part I) can’t be ruled out.

But would this kill everyone? Not too likely. Although burning cities do create black clouds which can initiate widespread crop failure, this effect is temporary. The world is a big place, and you can’t nuke it all.

So, in examining possible sources of human extinction risk, we have to look to the future. In a way this is reassuring, because we have time to prepare, but in another way it’s not, because some of the scenarios are too futuristic …

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Synthetic Biology – Best Not to Ignore the Risks

Today’s edition of Newsweek has an article on synthetic life, a topic of significant interest and concern. To use Alan Goldstein’s classification scheme for various types of synthetic life, the kind being discussed here is Type 3, “synthetic biological”, life forms with DNA/RNA programming, utilizing traditional biological building blocks such as proteins, with a genome synthesized from scratch in a laboratory. This is distinct from Type 2, “genetically-engineered biological” life forms, which are based on tweaks to preexisting genomes, and Type 4 life forms, “synthetic nonbiological”, where DNA/RNA and traditional biological building blocks are not used and all functionality is engineered from scratch, like any machine.

The article reports that Craig Venter, famous for leading one of the first teams to sequence the human genome, has founded a new startup, Synthetic Genomics, which plans to make artificial organisms for converting sunlight into biofuel. Also interesting is that, apparently, some religious skeptics don’t even believe that synthetic life can be produced. It’s difficult to determine why. There are …

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Biodiversity and Time


Why are there so many more species of insects? Because insects have been here longer

J. B. S. Haldane once famously quipped that “God is inordinately fond of beetles.” Results of a study by Mark A. McPeek of Dartmouth College and Jonathan M. Brown of Grinnell College suggest that this fondness was expressed not by making so many, but rather by allowing them to persist for so long. In a study appearing in the April issue of the American Naturalist, McPeek and Brown show that many insect groups like beetles and butterflies have fantastic numbers of species because these groups are so old. In contrast, less diverse groups, like mammals and birds, are evolutionarily younger. This is a surprisingly simple answer to a fundamental biological puzzle. They accumulated data from molecular phylogenies (which date the evolutionary relationships among species using genetic information) and from the fossil record to ask whether groups with more species today had accumulated species at faster rates. Animals as diverse as mollusks, insects, spiders, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and …

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Immediate Virus Detection Technology!

From Eurekalert:

Silver bullet: UGA researchers use laser, nanotechnology to rapidly detect viruses

Athens, Ga. — Waiting a day or more to get lab results back from the doctor’s office soon could become a thing of a past. Using nanotechnology, a team of University of Georgia researchers has developed a diagnostic test that can detect viruses as diverse as influenza, HIV and RSV in 60 seconds or less.

In addition to saving time, the technique — which is detailed in the November issue of the journal Nano Letters– could save lives by rapidly detecting a naturally occurring disease outbreak or bioterrorism attack.

“It saves days to weeks,” said lead author Ralph Tripp, Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar in Vaccine Development at the UGA College of Veterinary Medicine. “You could actually apply it to a person walking off a plane and know if they’re infected.”

The technique, called surface enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS), works by measuring the change in frequency of a near-infrared laser as it scatters off viral DNA or RNA. This change in frequency, named the Raman shift for …

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Five Important Things from the Last Week

There’s so much relevant news from the past week, I can’t just focus on any one thing… so here are five of the most significant things to hit my radar in past week: In ascending order of importance. 5. On Marginal Revolution: What are some unknown but incredibly important inventors? Why can’t we get rid of the penny? And what is the moral basis of capitalism?

4. Lawrence Berkeley lab and Oxford University researchers developed a particle accelerator that takes electron beams and powers them up to a billion electron volts (1 GeV) in only 3.3 centimeters using a technology called laser wakefield acceleration. If these particle accelerators become popular and start to edge out conventional accelerators, then we’ll both learn a lot more about …

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A List of Human Problems

What follows is an abridged list of human maladies. May they all be destroyed before the century is out.

abscesses, acne, addictions, adenitis, adenoids, AIDS, albinism, allergies, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), Alzheimer’s disease, amnesia, anemia, aneurysms, angina, anorexia nervosa, anthrax, anxiety attacks, aphasia, appendicitis, apoplexy, arteriosclerosis, arthritis, asphyxia, asthma, astigmatism, athlete’s foot, attention deficit disorder (ADD), back aches, bedsores, Bell’s palsy, beriberi, bipolar disorder (manic-depression), birth defects, blackouts, bladder infections, blemishes, blindness, blisters, bloating, boils, bone cancer, bone spurs, botulism, bowlegs, breast cancer, brain cancer, breech presentations, Bright’s disease, brittle bone disease, broken bones, bronchitis, bruises, bulimia, bunions, bursitis, calcinosis, canker sores, cardiac dysrhythmia, cardiomyopathy, carpal tunnel syndrome, cataracts, cellulitis, cerebral palsy, cervical cancer, cervicitis, chapped lips, chickenpox, chlamydia, choking, cholera, cleft lips and palates, clubfoot (talipes), cold sores, colic, colitis, colon cancer, color blindness, comas, common cold, concussions, congestion, congestive heart failure, conjunctivitis, constipation, convulsions, coronary occlusions, coughs, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, cystic fibrosis, cystitis, cysts, dandruff, dangerous plants and animals, deafness, deformities, dehydration, delirium, delirium tremens, delusions, dementia, dental problems, depression, dermatitis, detached retinas, deviated septums, diabetes, diaper rash, diarrhea, …

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Alan H. Goldstein on Bionanotechnology

The most exciting article to come out this week is definitely, “I, Nanobot”, by Alan H. Goldstein, over at (small ad detour required for viewing). Goldstein discusses existential risk and the danger of nanotechnologies with lifelike characteristics, something called bionanotechnology, or synthetic biology, or artificial life. The tagline is “Scientists are on the verge of breaking the carbon barrier — creating artificial life and changing forever what it means to be human. And we’re not ready.”

I was fortunate enough to briefly meet Goldstein in the flesh at last year’s Foresight Vision Weekend. He debated the merits and risks of human enhancement with Ronald Bailey of Reason magazine, a leading transhumanist who published Liberation Biology last year. Although, in the context of a highly transhumanistic audience, Bailey seemed loosely billed as the “good guy” and Goldstein as the “bad guy”, I agreed highly with Goldstein’s cautious approach and disagreed with what I thought was Bailey’s reckless enthusiasm. Goldstein points out that never …

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What is SENS?

SENS stands for Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence, a detailed plan for reversing human aging. It is an engineering approach that seeks to slow and then halt aging processes that are the side effects of our body’s metabolic cycles. The proposal originates with Dr. Aubrey de Grey, a Cambridge biogerontologist who has appeared in CNN, the New York Times, New Scientist, Popular Science, MIT’s Technology Review, Fortune magazine, BBC News, etc. De Grey’s Methuselah Institute has raised $3M in donation committments towards the Methuselah Mouse Prize, which rewards researchers who achieve breakthroughs in substantially extending the lifespan of middle-aged laboratory mice. After reliable life extension …

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