Where did hobbits come from? Not the hobbits in the Shire, but Homo floresiensis, a diminutive hominid that lived on an Indonesian island 20,000 years ago. PBS has an essay on evolution and why island creatures sometimes get very big or very small. (h/t to John Hawks.)
Can you program a computer game with DNA? Check out Scientific American's piece on a DNA tic-tac-toe game. To be honest, I won't be impressed until you can program DNA to play chess.
Networks, Kevin Bacon, and Cancer: Scientists who think a lot about networks, including Steve Strogatz, Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, and Marc Vidal talk about some of their ideas in this documentary.
There's a little too much made-for-TV drama in it, and no, neither Vidal nor Kevin Bacon has cured cancer. If you can get past that, there is some interesting stuff.
Skeptic Paul Gross argues that intelligent design advocate David Berlinski is a modern-day Don Quixote, tilting at windmills in his recent attack on atheism. Although Berlinski thinks he's landing some good ones on the "various smarmy insects shuffling along the tenure track at Harvard or Stanford," Gross contends that he's really just attacking "science, as used by atheists who write best-selling books."
I shouldn't need to say this, but we all know that real science is not done by writing best-selling books, right?
What does a gene mean anymore? Philosopher Evelyn Fox Keller tackled that one a few years back, and Carl Zimmer discusses the meaning of the gene in light of the latest research in genomics. The money quote:
'The way biology works is different from mathematics' said Mark Gerstein, a bioinformatician at Yale. 'If you find one counterexample in mathematics, you go back and rethink the definitions. Biology is not like that. One or two counterexamples — people are willing to deal with that.'
Biologist Michael Eisen has some disagreements, which Zimmer answers.
This discussion brings to mind Princeton's Leonid Kruglyak's comment in Nature last week (subscription required):
You have this clear, tangible phenomenon in which children resemble their parents. Despite what students get told in elementary-school science, we just don't know how that works.
On the technical side:
It used to take four transcription factors to turn a fibroblast into a stem cell. Now a group at Harvard has done it with two (subscription required):
Here we report that valproic acid (VPA), a histone deacetylase inhibitor, enables reprogramming of primary human fibroblasts with only two factors, Oct4 and Sox2, without the need for the oncogenes c-Myc or Klf4.
The potential for induced stem cells to turn oncogenic is a serious barrier to stem cell treatments. Techniques like this, if they pan out in the long run, take us one step closer to viable stem cell treatments.
Tune in next Wednesday for more coffee break browsing.