Tuesday, November 28, 2006
What sets humans apart from other animals is mainly our brains. Our myelinated neurons make transmission faster, and help us perform all that hard thinking we think we're so good at. On the downside, it seems that easily disrupted myelin sheaths may be what makes us so vulnerable to neuropsychiatric disorders like Alzheimer's.
We also have spindle cells, long 'express route' neurons linking senses to visceral processing centers to reaction centers in the brain, which help us react quickly to emotional situations and stimuli. Spindle cells were long thought unique to humans and our closest great ape relatives, helping to define what makes us 'special.' Now it seems that larger cetaceans have spindle cells too - and have had them 15 million years longer than primates. A beautiful case of convergent evolution, this finding also calls further in to question the ethics of whale hunting, and could change the way we think about our interaction with whales overall.
Over the years, we've used our myelinated brains and spindle cells to change all sorts of things about our world - including years of selectively breeding crops to suit our needs. It seems, however, that our wheat breeding may have been doing more harm than good: domesticated wheat have had silenced a gene - GPC-B1 - that seems to make wheat grow faster and have better nutritional content. Researchers are working to reverse this by cross-breeding domestic and wild wheats, hoping that the result will be a much more nutritive crop, which could help alleviate hunger.
Finally, researchers looking for a new anti-inflammatory drug to replace the disgraced likes of Vioxx have turned to a rare African plant, Aframomum melegueta, used by traditional African medics, and even gorillas(!) for millennia. The plant also seems to have pretty potent anti-microbial activity, including against MRSA. The downside? It's already extremely rare, and I can't see major commercial interests being especially good for species survival.