Dissected, what's been going on this month

 

Are we slaves to our genes?:Sit back, relax, and let your genes take control. Your genes make you tall or short, fat or skinny, intelligent or not – and there’s nothing to be done but accept that with dignity (unless of course your genes also make you grumpy). That’s just how it is, right?

Well, no, actually. Genes get a bit of an unfair deal. Every time there’s a report on the topic, the perception that we are slaves to our genes grows.

That’s not entirely true, however. Most of the genes “for” particular characteristics are actually just tendencies. They establish our nature – our propensity for all kinds of physical and behavioural traits –­ which we can either defy or cultivate through nurture – the way we live our lives, the food we eat, the choices we make and the experiences we encounter.

You might be genetically predisposed to have perfect pitch – the ability to recognise and reproduce musical notes by ear – but you may never realise that potential if you don’t have music lessons in your early life.

There might be a tendency in your family towards Type II diabetes, but that doesn’t mean you are a powerless victim of your genes. In fact, one could even consider that information empowering. Once you know that you have a higher risk than average, maybe you will be that bit more motivated to watch your diet and take some exercise in order to avoid the disease.

There are a few notorious exceptions, however. Individuals with the variant of the Huntington’s gene that leads to the disease will all suffer physical and mental decline and, ultimately, death. There is no cure.

Rather than being slaves to our genes, we are increasingly becoming their masters. Not only can we take the genetic information and adapt our lifestyles accordingly, we are also on the cusp of genetic technology that may allow us to defy our genes completely.

At least in some circumstances, we can develop gene therapies that will replace faulty genes, switch off runaway genes and rectify a genetic lesion. These are akin to organ transplants for your genes. Though no such treatment is routinely available yet, several gene therapies to correct debilitating diseases, including forms of hereditary blindness and even potentially cystic fibrosis, are in various stages of development, with the principal obstacle being the safe delivery of the genes into tissues and cells of the patient’s body. It is an interesting paradox that the greater our understanding of how our genes add up together and combine with our lifestyle to make us what we are, the more capable we are of diverting from the path laid out by our genetic make-up. Genes are not our masters, but they are a kind of bossy sibling.

– Aoife McLysaght, geneticist, Trinity College Dublin

QUIET PLEASE, OCTOPUS LIVING HERE

New findings indicate that cephalopods, including squid, octopus and cuttlefish, can be damaged by low-frequency noise. The study exposed 87 cephalopods to short sweeps of the sounds and looked at the effects they had.

What the experiment showed was that animals exposed to low-frequency sounds showed changes in the sensory hair cells of statocysts, which are the structures responsible for their sense of balance and position.

“These results indicate a need for further environmental regulation of human activities that introduce high-intensity, low-frequency sounds in the world’s oceans,” write the researchers in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

PREDICT A TATTOO’S FUTURE – WITH MATHS

David and Victoria Beckham, Angelina Jolie and Colin Farrell are all partial to getting tattoos. And while they might look good now, how will they appear in 15 or 20 years? A researcher in University College London has come up with a model to predict how ink particles will move in the skin over time, and so get an idea of how that body art is going to age.

“Broadly speaking, what my paper shows is that the small details in a tattoo are lost first, with thicker lines being less affected,” said Ian Eames. “Although finely detailed tattoos might look good when they are first done, they tend to lose their definition after 15 years — depending on how fine the lines are.”

MIDNIGHT MUNCHIES FOR DINOS

Some dinosaurs and early flying reptiles seem to have been night hunters, according to a study of their fossils.

Scientists worked this out by looking at the remains of structures called scleral rings around the animals’ eyes. Their sizes and shapes suggest that some dinosaurs and pterosaurs may have been fond of midnight snacking.

“The findings defy the common wisdom that ancient mammals skulked about unbothered by predators presumed to have been active only in the daytime,” according to the ScienceShot blog in Science, the journal where the study was published.

SENSATIONAL SOLAR FLARE

You would have been unaware of it flashing its way towards the Earth, but in the early hours of February 15th we were hit by a solar flare that was the strongest for five years. In fact, it was classified as a Class X2.2, which makes it pretty powerful. What caused it? Rotating sunspots. “Sunspots are features where the magnetic field generated in the sun’s interior pushes through the surface and into the atmosphere,” says Daniel Brown, of the University of Central Lancashire in England. “Twisting the sun’s magnetic field is like twisting an elastic band. At first you store energy in the elastic, but if you twist too much the elastic band snaps, releasing the stored energy. Similarly, rotating sunspots store energy in the sun’s atmospheric magnetic field. If they twist too much, the magnetic field breaks, releasing energy in a flash of light and heat which makes up the solar flare.”