29 November 2011

“The mouse model”, which I prefer to call “mice”

Daniel Engber has a mammoth set of articles on Slate on the astonishing amount of research done on mice, and the creation of the predominant model organism for all biomedical research, possibly for all of biology.

It’s a epic trilogy on the creation of the model organism, and just how far you can take that research if your goal is to cure human diseases.

  • The mouse trap: “The modern lab mouse is one of the most glorious products of industrial biomedicine. Yet this powerful tool might have reached the limit of its utility. What if it's taught us all it can?”
  • The trouble with Black-6: “In truth, the armadillos, prairie voles, and the other exotic models live only at the margins of biomedicine.”
  • The anti-mouse: “Still, slow science may have rich rewards, and the decisions we make today—on whether to invest in new model organisms or build out the ones we already have—are sure to have profound effects on the (human) generations to come.”

And a bonus coda:

Lengthy, but widely-praised – and rightfully so. Excellent investigative science journalism.

24 November 2011

The #SciFund team-up!

One of the things I love about being in the #SciFund challenge?


The advantage of #SciFund is that nobody is going it alone. We have been able to share ideas and bounce ideas around between each other, and have stronger projects and more visibility than if any one of us was trying this on our own.

In that spirit, let me introduce fellow #SciFund challenger, Marisa Tellez!

P.S.—I’m stupidly happy with how this came out.

23 November 2011

The #SciFund challenge: Half-way

Three weeks down; three weeks to go.

We’re at the halfway point in the #SciFund challenge, and my project is 51% funded. I’m on target to meet my funding goal, so I’m cautiously optimistic.

What has it all been like so far?

I’m a raging inferno of emotions here.

The moments when you see the Rocketbut email coming in announcing, “Your project has been fueled!” are great big highs – the amount does not matter. It’s just knowing that someone cared enough to help, and that you’re moving towards the goal, that make each one of those emails sweet.

But when the days go by with no emails... it’s pretty damn depressing.

Even when I know that most of the action is going to happen in the first and last weeks, and I know that it’s going to be hard to maintain momentum in the middle of the campaign (that is to say, right now), that intellectual knowledge doesn’t stop me from moping a bit when a day goes without the needle on the gauge budging.

And the media coverage is also encouraging. There’s been so much that I just haven’t been able to keep track of it all (but fortunately, there’s a compilation here). But it’s almost as encouraging to read something like this in Forbes as it is to see a donation:

My son and I watched the Indiana Jones-like video from scientist, Zen Faulkes, and thought, “we should ‘fuel’ this project.”

Why, yes. Yes, you should. ;)

I was also interviewed by Jennifer Welsh for her LiveScience article, which has been reprinted and reproduced on several other sites.

My project also gets an mention in the Daily Mail article on SciFund. I’m a bit... miffed, I suppose, that they are characterising all the #SciFund projects as “wacky,” when we are all bona fide scientists with serious projects.

Also, I wanted to point out a discussion that happened on Google Plus about trusting the #SciFund participants with your donations, and how you know those dollars make a difference.

The highs are higher, and the lows are lower, than I ever expected. I just cannot maintain the same detached, “We’ll see how it goes” attitude that I take with normal grant submissions. There, I submit the manuscript, but have more more contact with the thing for months. Here, there’s almost daily contact, even when it’s not necessarily donations.

P.S.—I’m working on a few new things related to my project that I hope you will see before the end of the week!

Photo by ♥KatB Photography♥ on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

22 November 2011

The curious case of crustacean colours

From time to time, you will see news of a lobster being caught with some unusual colour, like orange, blue, or calico. Some even become celebrities, of sorts. And within the pet trade, brightly coloured variations of crayfish (typically bright blue) are widely prized.

ResearchBlogging.orgWhat determines colour in crustaceans generally? It’s a complicated mix.

The most dramatic colour variants are caused by genetics. In crayfish, several colour morphs are due to simple recessive genes (Black and Huner 1980), of the sort you learned about in high school biology.

Marmorkrebs are genetically identical, but they are not physically identical, and this extends to their colour. The article about them in Tropical Fish Hobbyist mentions the variation that you can get in the colour. Since these differences cannot be genetic, they must be environmental.

Bowman investigated this in crayfish decades ago by placing crayfish in normal tanks, tanks painted black, and tanks painted white. Crayfish placed in black tanks had more red colouration, and those in the white tanks, more white colouration. Bowman also noted that animals that had become adapted to the bright white tanks did not darken up again after being placed into black surroundings. There are limits to how flexible the colour changes are.

Similar changes in colour have been seen with hippid sand crabs (Bauchau and Passelecq-Gérìn 1987; Wenner 1972). These crabs are diggers, and those that live in dark beaches of volcanic sand tend to have darker carapace colours, while those living in white beaches of coral sand are lighter. If they are switched to different colours of sand, they can slowly change their carapace colour for a better match.

Why might there be variation in colours from Marmorkrebs in the same tank? Even within the same tank, small crayfish are unlikely to have the same light and food. Crayfish do fight and establish dominance, so some individuals may be consistently getting the prime locations in the tank and first crack at food.


Bauchau AG, Passelecq-Gérìn E. 1987. Morphological color changes in anomuran decapods of the genus Hippa. Indo-Malayan Zoology 4(1): 135-144.

Black JB, Huner JV. 1980. Genetics of the red swamp crawfish, Procambarus clarkii (Girard): state-of-the-art. Proceedings of the World Mariculture Society 11(1-4): 535-543. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-7345.1980.tb00147.x

Bowman TE. 1942. Morphological color change in the crayfish. The American Naturalist 76(764): 332-336. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2457208

Wenner AM. 1972. Incremental color change in an anomuran decapod Hippa pacifica Dana. Pacific Science 26: 346-353.

Additional: See this post on why colours change when a crustacean is cooked.

21 November 2011

Selling invaders

Myrmecos has a post looking at the online sale of exotic, and invasive, ant species. His take is simple:

This store needs to be shut down NOW.

I don’t know why anyone would have an ant as a “pet,” but regardless... Regardless of what you consider a pet, be responsible.

01 November 2011

The #SciFund Challenge launches!

The wait is over.

The final version of Doctor Zen and the Amazon Crayfish Civilization is now ready for viewing at RocketHub! If you have three minutes, you have more than enough time to learn about my project in the #SciFund Challenge!

Why can’t you watch the video here? Because I want you to go to RocketHub, and not only watch mine, but look at the other insanely cool projects that have come in from around the world. If you don’t want to support me, please consider supporting someone else.

The #SciFund Challenge is an experiment in funding science. Over the next six weeks, I will be asking for your help in raising money for a research project. I’ll be talking more about the whys and wherefores in the next few days.

Want to learn more? Or perhaps even... donate?

You should go to RocketHub right now!