A small planet hidden in plain sight, and a must-read book

Random squeey post!

Squee number one: Dumusque et al. (2012) found a probably earth-sized planet literally next door to the solar system. The newly announced rockball orbits α Centauri B, one of the three(?)* stars making up the star system closest to the sun. Alas, it’s unlikely to harbour life of any kind given its very close orbit – it goes around a star not much cooler than our sun in slightly over 3 days. However, the authors point out that small planets are most likely to be found in multiplanet systems, and given the difficulty of finding this one, the star may well have even harder to detect, more distant companions. I think this is a nice reminder of how much more we need to learn about other solar systems – this little guy has been circling there, a mere four point something light years from us, and we only found it now. Keep it up, planet hunters, you’re doing amazing stuff!

Reference: Dumusque X et al. (2012) An Earth-mass planet orbiting α Centauri B. Nature advance online publication available online 17/10/2012, doi: 10.1038/nature11572

*I’ll let the real astronomers argue whether Proxima Centauri is part of the α Centauri system…


Squee number two: I totally must read this book. It’s the ultimate evo-devo book: it’s about fossilised development, basically. It seems overwhelmingly vertebrate-centred based on the review in Developmental Dynamics, but hey, there is an invertebrate chapter and I take what I can get 😀

And wow, it’s not even that expensive as far as university-published hardcover sciencey books go! Hmm. Shall we give in to temptation right now or save it for a Christmas present?


So… much… STUFF!

Gods, this is what I’m faced with all the time. Someone needs to tell me how proper science bloggers pick articles to discuss, because I just get my RSS alerts, start squeeing, and end up not writing about anything because damn, I WANT TO WRITE ABOUT EVERYTHING!

I give up. I’ll just dump all the cool stuff that’s accumulated on my desktop and bookmark bar here and return to lengthy meandering whenever I don’t feel like I’ve been caught in a bloody tornado 😉

So, here is some Cool Stuff…

(1) A group measured the rate of DNA decay in 158 moa bones of known age from three sites. Really cool stuff, to go out and directly measure how ancient DNA disappears from dead things under more or less identical conditions. The unsurprising result is that DNA decays exponentially, a bit like radioactive material. This suggests that the main cause of the decay is random breaking of the strands. The surprising bit is that this happens much more slowly than previously estimated, suggesting that in ideal (read: frozen) conditions, it might be worth looking for preserved DNA in samples as old as a million years.

(On a side note, if you ever get a chance to see a talk by Eske Willerslev, one of the authors and a leading expert on ancient DNA, don’t miss it. The man is absolutely hilarious.)

– Allentoft ME et al. (2012) The half-life of DNA in bone: measuring decay kinetics in 158 dated fossils. Proceedings of the Royal Society B FirstCite article, available online 10/10/2012, doi: 10.1098/rspb.2012.1745

(2) The beaks of the finches, or mixing and matching developmental recipes. This study examines the genetic basis of beak shape in three little birds closely related to Darwin’s famous finches. The three finches, just like Darwin’s, share the same basic beak shape, only bigger or smaller. However, there seem to be two distinct developmental programs at work, using different genes and parts of the skeleton to orchestrate beak development. One of the three newly investigated species (the one most closely related to Darwin’s finches) apparently uses the same developmental program as its more famous relatives, even though its beak is shaped more like the other two birds studied here. I told you – genetics, development and homology are complicated 😉

– Mallarino R et al. (2012) Closely related bird species demonstrate flexibility between beak morphology and underlying developmental programs. PNAS 109:16222–16227

(3) Armoured fossil links worm-like molluscs to chitons. There’s a little-known group (or groups) of molluscs called aplacophorans that have only a coat of tiny spicules instead of shells and look more like worms than “proper” molluscs. Exactly where they fit into our picture of mollusc evolution has been controversial to say the least – they could represent an old lineage separate from other molluscs, they could be related to cephalopods, they could be related to chitons, they could be one group or they could be two lineages in completely different places on the tree… Well, a new fossil named Kulindroplax seems to argue for the chiton connection: the animal has the characteristic armour plates of a chiton on an aplacophoran-like body. Similar creatures have been discovered before, but this guy with its detailed 3D preservation provides the clearest evidence of the link so far.

– Sutton MD et al. (2012) A Silurian armoured aplacophoran and implications for molluscan phylogeny. Nature 490:94-97

(4) More cool fossils – this time straight from my beloved Cambrian. Nereocaris, a newly described Burgess Shale arthropod, suggests to its discoverers that the earliest arthropods weren’t predators prowling the seafloor, but swimmers who might have been filter feeders and certainly weren’t predators. The animal has a bivalved shell around its front end, similar to many other Cambrian swimming arthropods, and a long abdomen with paddles at the end. It bears the arthropod hallmark of a hardened and jointed exoskeleton, but it lacks specialised limbs such as antennae or mouthparts. In a cladistic analysis of arthropods and their nearest relatives, the new species comes out on the first branch within true arthropods, and the next few branches as we move towards living arthropods all contain similar shelled, swimming creatures. Since the non-arthropods closest to the real thing (i.e. anomalocaridids) were also fin-tailed swimmers, this arrangement makes the transition between them and true arthropods smoother than previously thought. It also suggests that the hard exoskeleton so characteristic of arthropods originally functioned in swimming – perhaps as an anchor for swimming muscles.

– Legg DA et al. (2012) Cambrian bivalved arthropod reveals origin of arthrodization. Proceedings of the Royal Society B FirstCite article, available online 10/10/2012, doi: 10.1098/rspb.2012.1958


And … there was also

… but it’s almost bedtime, and if I wanted to summarise every one of those, I’d be here all weekend 😦

See, this is why being a science nerd today is both amazing and frustrating. There’s just so. Much. Stuff.


Back when Star Wars was new – and even when the new trilogy was new -, a planet orbiting more than one star was nothing more than speculation. (Though back when SW was new, even a planet orbiting another star was little more than speculation.)

I’m excited to see that the Kepler team are busy turning it into solid reality. They now have not one, not even two, but three planets that they found around binary stars (the first was described a few months back [Doyle et al., 2011]; the other two are just online [Welsh et al., 2012]). None of them are particularly Tatooine-like, alas, since all are gas giants, but given how hard small planets are to find, we can be fairly confident that we’ve just overlooked them so far.

All three planets orbit in the same plane in which their stars orbit each other, indicating that  the whole system formed from the same rotating disc of space debris. Based on the number of star pairs they’ve looked at so far and the chance of observing planetary transits in binary systems like Kepler-16, 34 and 35, Welsh et al. estimate that millions of similar systems could be hiding in the Milky Way alone.

To top it off, another new Nature paper (Cassan et al., 2012) reports that in fact, most sun-like stars in the galaxy are likely to have planets.

A truly astronomical number of strange new worlds are out there. How many of them could  harbour life?

(Can you hear my inner geek squealing with joy? :D)



Cassan A et al. (2012) One or more bound planet per Milky Way star from microlensing observations. Nature 481:167-169

Doyle LR et al. (2011) Kepler-16: A transiting circumbinary planet. Science 333:1602-1606

Welsh WF et al. (2012) Transiting circumbinary planets Kepler-34 b and Kepler-35 b. Nature advance online publication, 11 January 2012, doi:10.1038/nature10768


Goin’ a-hunting

It’s a little-known fact that before/in between wanting to be a biologist, I almost got sucked into astronomy. The cosmos still fascinates me, from the menagerie of space rocks and gas balls that fill our own solar system to the mysteries at the edge of the known universe. To the evolutionist in me, the possibility of life on other worlds is an especially tantalising idea. And now we are finding other worlds at a breakneck pace. I don’t think we will ever know what life is like on any of them, though detecting its existence may once become possible.

Did I mention planet hunting is awesome?

I am talking about the citizen science project Planet Hunters, of course. This is only one of the amazing projects you can participate in at the Zooniverse (which gets its name from Galaxy Zoo, the project that started it all). The main mission of Planet Hunters is, of course, to find planets orbiting other stars. You, the user have to look at a month’s worth of brightness measurements from a star, and search for the tell-tale dips that betray an extra-solar eclipse. Like this:

Most of the more spectacular ones have already been found by this point – either by your fellow hunters, or by the team operating the Kepler space telescope, which provides all the data. However, there are so many other gems to discover among those messy light curves that it almost doesn’t matter if your planet-hunting thunder is perpetually stolen.

Sometimes, you find pure beauty. One of the most common types of Interesting Stuff that the Kepler data offer is eclipsing binaries. These are pairs of stars orbiting each other in a way that we see their orbits edge on. Like the planets, these binaries eclipse their companion stars. Since stars are bigger and brighter than planets, the eclipses are much bigger compared to the noise in the data, so an EB has neat, clean dips in its light curve, occurring with clockwork regularity.

Some of them are so close together and orbit so fast that at Kepler’s resolution, a month of their light looks more like lace than a pattern of ups and downs.

And then there are all the others; dwarfs and giants, variable stars regular and haphazard, huge flares, weird things like cataclysmic variables. Even if you are in it for the planets, you can’t help but learn a lot about the stars. After a while, they become like family. You look at a light curve and you can immediately guess whether it’s a dwarf or a giant, whether it’s cool or hot, whether it’s a binary or a loner, or even if its’s one of the rarer breeds of stars you might come across. It’s a bit like birdwatching. If you’ve ever got disproportionately excited from recognising a rare bird (or flower, or insect, or sports car), you know what I mean. (If you haven’t, what are you waiting for? ;))

I’m grateful to the people who make these adventures possible. It’s great that I can play at astronomy, see all that neat stuff, contribute to a field I have absolutely no expertise in, and learn from the knowledgeable folks that hang around the forums. The Zooniverse deserves every one of its hundreds of thousands of users and millions of clicks, is all I’m saying 🙂