Of butterfly wings and caterpillar brains. Duke Today, August 8, 2016. To most people, the spectacular diversity of butterfly wing patterns is a chaotic riot of color, dots and squiggles. But to biologist Fred Nijhout, they’re variations on the same basic theme
Breakneck bite. 1,100 words, Aug. 1, 2016. The jaws of trap-jaw ants can generate forces hundreds of times their body weight and snap shut at speeds reaching 145 miles per hour — over 2,000 times faster than the blink of an eye. Duke biologists are using 3-D X-ray imaging to peer inside the insects’ heads and study the internal structures that power their impressive mandibles.
Of heartbeats, bones and brushstrokes. Duke Today, Aug. 1, 2016. It takes a well-trained eye to spot an irregular heartbeat in the peaks and valleys of an electrocardiogram. The same goes for identifying an extinct ape from a single fossilized tooth, or telling an original van Gogh from a fake. But in recent years, applied mathematician Ingrid Daubechies has been training computers to churn through ECG tracings, high-resolution scans of fossils, paintings and other complex digital data and work things out automatically.
Lemur DNA paints a picture of Madagascar’s forested past. Duke Today, July 18, 2016. While there’s no question that human activities such as logging and slash-and-burn agriculture have dramatically altered Madagascar’s forests since the first settlers arrived about 2000 years ago, just how much of the island was forested before people got there remains a matter of debate. Now, a DNA study of tree-dwelling mouse lemurs suggests that humans did not arrive to find the island as blanketed by forests as frequently assumed. Picked up by the Daily Mail, the Christian Science Monitor and the Washington Post.
Disentangling the plant microbiome. Duke Today, July 12, 2016. With the human population expected to climb from 7.4 billion to more than 11 billion people by 2100, some scientists hope that manipulating the microbial communities in, on and around plants, the plant microbiome, could open up new ways to meet the growing demand for food. But breeding a better microbiome may be easier in some plant tissues and growing conditions than others, finds a study led by researchers at Duke University.
Taking math beyond the blackboard. Duke Research blog, July 6, 2016. Mix together 80 or so scientists and engineers from industry and academia with bottomless coffee, and stir for a week. That was the recipe for the 32nd annual Mathematical Problems in Industry Workshop held this summer at Duke.
Video privacy software lets you select what others can see. Duke Today, June 28, 2016. Camera-equipped smartphones, laptops and other devices make it possible to share ideas and images with anyone, anywhere, often in real-time. But in our cameras-everywhere culture, the risks of accidentally leaking sensitive information are growing. Computer scientists at Duke University have developed software that helps prevent inadvertent disclosure of trade secrets and other restricted information within a camera’s field of view by letting users specify what others can see. Picked up by the Daily Mail and NPR affiliate WFDD radio.
Moving beyond race-based drugs. Duke Today, May 26, 2016. Prescribing certain medications on the basis of a patient’s race has long come under fire from those uneasy with using race as a surrogate for biology when treating disease. But there are multiple challenges to overcome before we can move beyond race-based treatment decisions, experts say.
Hijacked cell division helped fuel rise of fungi. Duke Today, May 10, 2016. The more than 90,000 known species of fungi may owe their abilities to spread and even cause disease to an ancient virus that hijacked their cell division machinery, researchers report. Over a billion years ago, a viral protein invaded the fungal genome, generating a family of proteins that now play key roles in fungal growth. The research could point to new antifungals that inhibit cell division in fungi but not in their plant or animal hosts.
Duke claims another top 10 finish in North America’s most prestigious math competition. Duke Research Blog, April 25, 2016. The Blue Devils may have lost in the Sweet 16 during March Madness 2016, but a Duke team crushed more than 500 other schools in the NCAA tournament of the math world, known by mathletes as the Putnam, claiming a top ten finish for the 22nd time since 1990.
Lemurs mix smelly secretions to make richer, longer-lasting scents. Duke Today, April 19, 2016. Humans aren’t alone in their ability to mix perfumes and colognes. Lemurs, too, get more out of their smelly secretions by combining fragrances from different scent glands to create richer, longer-lasting scents, finds a study led by Duke University. Picked up by Mental Floss, Scientific American, Scientific American’s 60-Second Science, and the Daily Mail.
Rough childhoods have ripple effects for wild baboons. Duke Today, April 19, 2016. Numerous studies show that childhood trauma can have far-reaching effects on adult health; new research finds the same is true for wild baboons. Baboons that experience multiple misfortunes in early life grow up to live shorter adult lives, researchers report. The results show that early adversity can have long-term negative effects even in the absence of factors commonly evoked to explain similar patterns in humans, such as smoking, drinking or medical care. Picked up by New York Magazine, Pacific Standard, Washington Post, CBC Radio’s Quirks and Quarks, and Smithsonian Magazine.
Why bearcats smell like buttered popcorn. Duke Today, April 13, 2016. The bearcat. The binturong. Whatever you call this shy, shaggy-haired creature from Southeast Asia, many people who have met one notice the same thing: it smells like a movie theater snack bar. Most describe it as hot buttered popcorn. And for good reason — the chemical compound that gives freshly made popcorn its mouthwatering smell is also the major aroma emitted by binturong pee, finds a new study. Picked up by Huffington Post, Scientific American, Discovery News, National Geographic, NPR in Boston, New York Magazine, the Daily Mail, Science News and Popular Science.
Why testing lemur color vision is harder than it looks. Duke Research Blog, March 18, 2016. Elphaba the aye-aye is not an early riser. A nocturnal primate with oversized ears, bulging eyes and long, bony fingers, she looks like the bushy-tailed love child of a bat and an opossum. Elphaba is one of 14 aye-ayes at the Duke Lemur Center in Durham, North Carolina, where researchers have been trying to figure out if these rare lemurs can tell certain colors apart, particularly at night when aye-ayes are most active. But as their experiments show, testing an aye-aye’s eyesight is easier said than done.
Fossil expert and primate conservationist Elwyn Simons dies at 85. Duke Today, March 9, 2016. Duke scientist-explorer Elwyn Simons, who studied living and extinct primates for more than 50 years, died in his sleep on Sunday, March 6, in Peoria, Arizona. He was 85. Widely regarded as the founder of modern primate paleontology, Simons was an expert on the history of primates leading up to humans. Simons’ fossil-hunting expeditions and primate conservation work took him all over the globe, from the badlands of Wyoming to the Egyptian desert and the rainforests of Madagascar. From 1961 to 2012, he led more than 90 field expeditions and wrote or coauthored more than 300 books and research articles. Picked up by The New York Times.
Black widows are color-coded to deter predators without tipping off prey. Duke Today, Feb. 29, 2016. Secret codes and hidden messages aren’t just for computer security experts or kids passing notes in class — animals use them too. The telltale red hourglass of the black widow spider appears brighter and more contrasting to birds than to insects, finds a new study. The red-and-black color combination sends a “beware!” signal to predators without scaring off their prey. Picked up by Forbes, Smithsonian Magazine, Discovery News and the Daily Mail.
Free site lets you download and 3-D print your own fossils. Duke Today, Feb. 17, 2016. Duke assistant professor Doug Boyer’s office is more than 8,000 miles away from the vault at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, where the fossil remains of a newly discovered human ancestor, Homo naledi, rest under lock and key. But with a few clicks of his computer’s mouse, he can have models of any one of hundreds of Homo naledi bone fragments delivered to his desk in a matter of minutes, thanks to a free online database of digital fossil scans that anyone can download and print in 3-D. Picked up by Discovery, the Raleigh News & Observer, Science News, CBS news and CBS North Carolina.
Same switches program taste and smell in fruit flies. Duke Today, Feb. 3, 2016. A Duke study helps explain how fruit flies get their keen sense of smell. Researchers have identified a set of genetic control switches that interact early in a fly’s development to generate dozens of types of specialized nerve cells for smell. The findings could reveal how the nervous systems of other animals — including humans, whose brains have billions of neurons — produce a dazzling array of cell types from just a few genes.
New way to detect human-animal diseases tested in lemurs. Duke Today, Jan. 27, 2016. RNA sequencing is uncovering emerging diseases in wildlife that other diagnostic tests cannot detect. Researchers used a technique called transcriptome sequencing to screen for blood-borne diseases in Madagascar’s lemurs, distant primate cousins to humans. The animals were found to be carrying several previously unknown parasites similar to those that cause Lyme disease in humans. The approach could pave the way for earlier, more accurate detection of disease outbreaks that move between animals and people.
Togetherness relieves stress in prairie voles. Duke Today, Jan. 19, 2016. Many people feel anxious in crowds. But not so for prairie voles. When these mouse-like creatures live in close quarters, they are less stressed out, researchers report. The study is part of a larger field of research on how social stresses such as crowding and isolation affect brain chemistry and behavior.
Gregarious chimps harbor richer gut microbiomes. Duke Today, Jan. 15, 2016. Spending time in close contact with others means risking catching germs and getting sick. But being sociable may also help transmit “good” microbes, finds a new study. Researchers monitored changes in the gut microbiomes and social behavior of chimpanzees over eight years in Tanzania. The number of bacterial species in a chimp’s GI tract increased when the chimps were more gregarious. The results help scientists understand the factors that maintain a healthy gut microbiome. Picked up by Quartz, Pacific Standard, Smithsonian, The Atlantic, Scientific American, Futurity, The Scientist, Daily Mail, PBS News Hour and Popular Science.
Humans evolved to get better sleep in less time. Duke Today, Dec. 14, 2015. Insomniacs take heart: Humans get by on significantly less sleep than our closest animal relatives. The secret, according to a new study of slumber patterns across 21 species of primates, is that our sleep is more efficient. Picked up by The New York Times, The Washington Post, TIME, the Daily Mail, BBC, Huffington Post, WPTV, News & Observer, Futurity, U.S. News & World Report and Voice of America.
Biomechanics pioneer Steven Vogel dies. Duke Today, Nov. 30, 2015. Duke biologist Steven Vogel, whose eclectic research interests ranged from flying insects and fluttering leaves to swimming squid and nectar-slurping hummingbirds, died on Nov. 24 at Croasdaile Village in Durham. He was 75. Also featured in The Scientist, The New York Times and the Boston Globe.
Predicting cancer’s growth when clues are hard to come by. Duke Today, Nov. 2, 2015. Duke mathematicians are developing ways to help doctors predict how different cancers are likely to progress when measurements of tumor growth are hard to come by. In a new study, they describe a way to compare common models of tumor growth, using only two time-point measurements of tumor size — often the maximum available before patients begin treatment. Determining which models work best for different cancers is key to designing optimum treatment strategies.