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Tag Archive | "biology"

Lab Letters Issue #12: Soft Robots, Super Rice, and a Wet Towel in Space

It’s that time again – the time for your weekly science updates. This is Lab Letters. Let’s go!


Hello doggie! An example of an evolved soft robot, showing natural-looking body structure and gait. The red and green blocks represent muscle-like materials. (Not shown: dark blue blocks represent bone, light blue blocks represent soft support/tissue) (source: Cheney, MacCurdy, Clune, & Lipson, Cornell/University of Wyoming)

Robot Evolution

Studying the evolution of a species can get tricky. There’s a lot of observing, measuring, cataloguing, sample collecting, testing, and waiting – especially for organisms that take a long time to mature. So a team of engineers at Cornell University in New York presumably just said, “Y’know what, evolutionary biology? We’ll just build our own organisms! With cubes and stuff!” That’s exactly what they did. Using a compositional pattern-producing network (CPPN), they built up block shaped robots consisting of 4 types of materials: bone, tissue, and two types of muscles. Then they laid down one rule: faster robots have more offspring. Then they let the simulation run. Here’s what happened:

So far, I’ve been able to make out a galloping sofa and a drunk goat. What do you see?



It’s alive! (1) Orysza sativa variety IR56 grown on normal soil (2) IR56 grown on salty soil (3) Oryza coarctata grown on salty soil (4) IR56 and O. coarctata’s first and second generation offspring, grown on salty soil. IRRI scientists hope to make this supercrop available to farmers in 4 to 5 years. (source: Jena/

IRRI breeds super crop

Don’t you just hate it when the Assyrian army marches into your city, burns your houses, kills your babies, enslaves you and your buddies, and then, just to make sure you’re completely screwed over, salts your land so that nothing can ever grow again? Well! Those Assyrians shouldn’t be so smug! The International Rice Research Institute in Los Baños has announced the successful production of a rice strain that can tolerate high amounts of salt in the soil. This new strain capable of tolerating twice as much salt as its predecessor was made by crossing two very genetically different rice species. The exotic wild rice O. coarctata can tolerate salt levels comparable to seawater, but isn’t edible. Meanwhile, O. sativa variety IR56 is a cultivated and edible species. Sounds easy? Out of 34,000 crosses, only three embryos were rescued, and only one embryo actually started growing.


The most massively useful thing an astronaut can have

Commander Chris Hadfield of the International Space Station has been busy showing us Earth-bound humans how astronauts live (eat, exercise, sleep, cry, pee) in space. In this video, he performs a simple experiment: what happens when you wring a wet towel in space?

Magic happens.

The experiment was actually conceptualized by two grade 10 students in Nova Scotia, Canada, using items that are readily available in the ship.


And finally…

Happy Earth Day! Here’s a picture showing the Earth, as seen from outer space. That there is the reusable Dragon spacecraft docked to the International Space Station.


Tweeted by SpaceX


That’s it for today, see you next time here on FF Lab Letters!


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When does life begin?

Secondary oocyte during in vitro fertilization Credit: Spike Walker. Wellcome Images 2002 Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc-nd 2.0 UK

At the risk of disagreeing with FF UP Diliman Senior Faculty Adviser Dr. Sylvia Estrada-Claudio, I do think that the issue of when life begins is not only answerable by science, it has already been answered.

Microbe-like fossil records show that the oldest organisms appeared on earth about 3.5 billion years ago1. One of the most compelling theories on the origin of life is that the first things that could be called “lifeforms” were RNA molecules2. They are like DNA, except that they are single stranded and that their molecular constituents are slightly different. These RNA molecules were composed of sequences of the letters A, U, C, and G in chemical alphabet. These patterns of letters could make copies of themselves and the pattern that was most able to produce “offspring” dominated the primordial soup.

Throughout the eons, there has been an uninterrupted passing of genetic code from our microscopic antecedents to our piscine forebears to our simian ancestors. Each step of this chain of life from microbial cell to ape embryo involved something alive and this fact implicates the sperms and the eggs, which must also be alive in order to be viable for fertilization.

The claim that life begins at fertilization is not only provably false, it cheapens the breathtaking reality of nature. Without exception, we are all from lineages of winners—entirely composed of successful parents, none of whom died young. They all were able to copulate and produce offspring who themselves became successful parents. Whatever the first replicating unit was, we know that 3.5 billion years ago was the beginning of life… and life hasn’t stopped since.

I must admit at this point that I wasn’t really disagreeing with Dr. Claudio. But what I really wanted to show was that this whole debate about when life begins is a shameless distraction set up by social conservatives to derail any real productive argument about policies.

So, are embryos alive? Yes. But so are sperm cells and egg cells. Are we going to prosecute masturbators for genocide now? The point is, this distinction of life/non-life is useless. What the anti-choice advocates seem to mean when they say that “life begins at fertilization” is that our moral duty to them also begins there. But what they try to sweep under the rug is that moral concern is not based on “life” but on the capacity of brains for consciousness and cognition (which, incidentally, concerns also non-human animals). Even the Church itself allows for the harvesting of the organs of brain dead people3. If the Church really cared about being consistent with its moral prescriptions, they should either reserve their concerns for organisms that possess functioning brains that are able to suffer or deny that consciousness and brains have any factor in the moral calculus of actions.

This “life begins at fertilization” argument is arbitrary and based on no science whatsoever. There’s not even a single moment of fertilization. From the chemical transformation of the egg coat upon sperm contact to the fusion of chromosomal payloads, fertilization is a complex interplay of molecules that involves a series of chemical interactions4, none of which can simply be declared as the beginning of life or personhood. Neither does the possession of 46 chromosomes mean that one is a person since human genetic diseases such as Down and Turner syndromes involve additional or missing chromosomes. And even if fertilization were instantaneous, what about chimeras, which are two (or more) fertilized embryos that have fused? Was there a loss of life? Or, once the chimeric child is born, is he actually two individual living beings in one body? The fact of the matter is, personhood, organismal development, and molecular biology, are complex bodies of knowledge that have never been improved by dogma or religion.

Conservative Catholics need a cut and dry beginning of personhood because they have to insert the soul at some convenient and poetic point (the Church has changed its position on this throughout history, see: Ensoulment), preferably one that prevents others from enjoying themselves. Lacking the facts to back their claims up, they are left with nothing but to resort to claims about spirits, gods, and the speciesist superiority of human beings, and they do, as they invariably fall back to their dubious “moral” arguments.


1 Schopf, J. W., Kudryavtsev, A. B., Agresti, D. G., Wdowiak, T. J. & Czaja, A. D. Laser–Raman imagery of Earth’s earliest fossils. Nature 416, 73-76 (2002).

2 Dawkins, R. The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution.  (Free Press, 2009).

3 Wojtyła, K. J. Address of the Holy Father John Paul II to the 18th International Congress of the Transplantation Society, <> (2000).

4 Gilbert, S. F. Developmental Biology.  (Sinauer Associates, 2000).

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